erik lundegaard

Tuesday April 30, 2019

‘Rocky II’ (1932)

One of the fun things about watching old movies is seeing the history in them; and which newer movies possibly ripped them off. OK, “borrowed” from them.

Case in point: This is an early scene from the Jimmy Cagney vehicle “Winner Take All,” which, despite able direction from Roy Del Ruth, isn't very good. Our hero's too stupid, really. Cagney plays a NYC boxer who, at this point, is resting in a New Mexican resort to get back his health; but a woman and child there are about to get kicked out for lack of funds, so he accepts a winner-take-all match in what they called “Tia Juana” back then, to get the dough so they could stay.

This is the end of that bout—about 20-25 minutes into the picture:

Is this where Stallone got the idea for the climactic ending of “Rocky II”? The double punch landing both men on the canvas, and only one manages to get to his feet before the 10 count? Or was it a semi-common trope in boxing pics? 

Posted at 08:33 AM on Tuesday April 30, 2019 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Monday April 29, 2019

‘Avengers: Endgame’: The Whole World is Watching

I really buried the lede yesterday, didn't I? I was so busy talking about how “Avengers: Endgame” had shattered the domestic box office record for opening weekends with a $350 million haul, surpassing the previous record holder, “Avengers: Infinity War,” by $92 million, a 26.7% increase, which was the biggest increase in weekend box-office record-holders since “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” passed “Batman Forever”'s mark by 26.8% in 1997, I say I was so busy all this that I didn't even notice it pulled in $1.2 billion worldwide. Think of that. In just three days, it became the 18th highest-grossing movie of all time. Unadjusted. It will have to stumble a lot not to reach No. 2 all time. It might even reach number one: “Avatar”'s $2.7 billion. Truly astonishing. The pollitical slogan of the ‘60s has become the entertainment slogan for Marvel’s tentpole franchise: The whole world is watching. 

Those numbers, by the way, were estimates. The actuals came out today ... and they‘re better.  

Globally, it did $1.226 billion, which is, again, the 18th-biggest movie of all time. The highest-grossing film of the DCEU is (believe it or not) “Aquaman,” at $1.147 billion. I’m sure DC was proud. Until it took “Endgame” all of three days to pass it up. 

And domestically? It grossed $357 million, which is $99 million better than the previous record-holder (again: “Avengers: Infinity War”) and a 27.8% improvement. Which is the biggest leap for a new record-holder since “Return of the Jedi” grossed $23 million on its opening weekend in 1983, surpassing “Star Trek: Wrath of Khan”'s record by 37.7%.

Here's that weekend box-office champ chart again, updated:

Release Movie Open Thtrs Total % Increase $$ Increase
6/20/80 The Empire Strikes Back $10.8 823 $209 NA NA
6/19/81 Superman II $14.1 1,397 $108 23.1% $3.2
6/4/82 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan $14.3 1,621 $78 1.7% $0.2
5/25/83 Return of the Jedi $23.0 1,002 $252 37.7% $8.6
5/23/84 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom $25.3 1,687 $179 9.1% $2.3
5/20/87 Beverly Hills Cop II $26.3 2,326 $153 3.8% $1.0
5/24/89 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade $29.3 2,327 $197 10.2% $3.0
6/16/89 Ghostbusters II $29.4 2,410 $112 0.4% $0.1
6/23/89 Batman $40.5 2,194 $251 27.2% $11.0
6/19/92 Batman Returns $45.6 2,644 $162 11.4% $5.1
6/11/93 Jurassic Park $47.0 2,404 $357 2.8% $1.3
6/16/95 Batman Forever $52.7 2,842 $184 10.9% $5.7
5/23/97 The Lost World: Jurassic Park $72.1 3,281 $229 26.8% $19.3
11/16/01 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone $90.2 3,672 $317 20.1% $18.1
5/3/02 Spider-Man $114.8 3,615 $403 21.4% $24.5
7/7/06 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest $135.6 4,133 $423 15.3% $20.7
5/4/07 Spider-Man 3 $151.1 4,252 $336 10.2% $15.4
7/18/08 The Dark Knight $158.4 4,366 $533 4.6% $7.2
7/15/11 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 $169.1 4,375 $381 6.4% $10.7
5/4/12 The Avengers $200.3 4,349 $623 15.5% $31.1
6/12/15 Jurassic World $208.8 4,274 $652 4.1% $8.5
12/18/15 Star Wars: The Force Awakens $247.9 4,134 $936 15.8% $39.1
4/27/18 Avengers: Infinity War $257.7 4,474 $678 3.8% $9.7
4/26/19 Avengers: Endgame $357.1 4,662 TBD 27.8% $99.4

We shall not see its like again. 

Posted at 05:10 PM on Monday April 29, 2019 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  

Monday April 29, 2019

Movie Review: Avengers: Endgame (2019)



First the good news: Spider-Man, Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Nick Fury, and most of the Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t dead.

Now the bad: Both Iron Man and Black Widow are. Captain America is an old man, Hulk is diminished, and Thor is fat. Marvel giveth, Marvel taketh and Marvel girtheth. And they did it with a snap of their CGI fingers.

We all knew the others weren’t dead, of course. The question after “Infinity War” was never “Will they come back?” but “How will they come back?” How will Marvel do this without making it seem like a cheat? Like, you know, an entire season of “Dallas” being a dream?

Everyone had theories. From my review of “Infinity War”:

One solution is for one of our heroes to steal the glove with all the infinity stones, then reverse everything—either through time, or, you know, just willing it. Poof. Everyone’s back. 

And that's what they do. After Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) rescues a CGI-emaciated Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) from his powerless spaceship, and he berates Captain America (Chris Evans) for no good reason, the Avengers fly to Planet Thanos, find him scarred and limping, and cut off his gloved hand with the infinity stones in it. Ha! Except there are no infinity stones in it. He’s destroyed them. He brags about fate—that he is inevitable. Which is when Thor cuts off his head.

We’re about 20 minutes into the three-hour movie.

I like what the writers (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) and the directors (Anthony and Joe Russo), do next. We get a shot of New York City and the beginning of a title graphic: It says “FIVE” and it just hangs on the left side of the screen and we wonder; Days? Months? They let it linger for a beat or two, and we’re thinking, no, not that.

Yes, that.  


I was immediately intrigued. Wow, what now? How do they fix this? How do they bring everyone back from the dead without making it seem like a cheat? Like, you know, Superman turning back time to bring Lois back from the dead?

Um yeah. About that.

The dispirited ‘20s
So what happens if you lose half of all living things in the universe? I imagine there’d be some job openings. Also the stock market would drop and companies wouldn’t make their quarterly earnings reports. I doubt Thanos took any of this into consideration.

But would the world turn into a kind of dispirited, global ghost town as the movie suggests? We get a camera pan over CitiField; it’s crumbling from disuse. Because? Right now there are about 7.5 billion in the world and if you halved that it would be 3.75 billion, which would take us to 1972 population levels. Kids might not believe this, but we had Major League Baseball in 1972.

(Hey, not for nothing, but did Derek Jeter crumble into ash? Or Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell? What if the Avengers had worked with Thanos rather than against him? “The first thousand names on the list are deal breakers, Thanos; those dudes have to go.” “OK.”)

As for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in dispirited 2023?

  • Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has taken over Nick Fury’s role and has various supers reporting in from policing the world—in this case, Mexico’s drug cartels (everything old is new again).
  • Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who lost his wife and three kids, poof, has become an assassin—killing bad guys for the revenge of it.
  • Steve Rogers/Cap is the opposite—a gentle guidance counselor for the bereft, urging people to look forward, using his recovery from 70 years in ice as an example.
  • Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has figured out a way to become both himself and Hulk: He’s now giant, green and cerebral.
  • Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the opposite—he’s gotten stupid. He’s drowning his pain in booze in an Asgardian village in Norway and has totally gone to pot: big beard, big gut. At one point Tony calls him “Lebowski.” He’s comic relief.
  • And Tony? He and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) have a kid—a girl. His scenes with her are charming, and make me want Robert Downey Jr. to take on more serious roles. No offense, true believers.

Life might’ve continued like that, without any “Spider-Man: Far from Home” or “Black Panther 2,” if not for a rat.

One business that has done well in the post-Thanos era is the storage business. Apparently everyone’s hoping everyone will come back. In one such storage locker in San Francisco, a rat steps onto a panel of the machine Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyke (Evangeline Lilly) used to make Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) “go quantum,” or whatever the hell it was, in the final scenes of “Ant-Man & The Wasp”—before they, too, were Thanosed out of existence, leaving him stuck there. The rat inadvertently sets him free. He returns to a world in which he’s among the missing—assumed to be dead. He finds his daughter. She’s now like 17. He looks the same, which is so Paul Rudd.

Indeed, because he was in the quantum realm, those five years to him were like five hours. And he thinks that’s the key to trying to reverse all this: bending/going back in time via “Pym particles.” The writers have fun pulling out the “time machine” pop-cultural references—from “Star Trek” to “Back to the Future” to “Hot Tub Time Machine”—but no one mentions “Superman: The Movie,” which is a shame. That’s basically what they’re doing but on a bigger scale, and with this caveat: They want to bring all six infinity stones to their time, put them in a Tony Stark-created glove, bring everyone back to life with a snap of the fingers, and then return the stones to their original spot so time can continue unimpeded to the moment when they in fact do this. Otherwise they won’t do this because the continuum will be disrupted.

This basically allows our MCU heroes to revisit MCU movies:

  • Cap, Iron Man and Hulk visit the end of “Marvel’s The Avengers,” where Cap battles Cap (shades of Captain Americas #153-156!) and Hulk battles The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) from “Doctor Strange”
  • Thor and Rocket (voice: Bradley Cooper) return to “Thor: The Dark World”
  • Black Widow and Hawkeye travel to the planet where you have to sacrifice something you love to get the stone. Like Thanos sacrificed Gamora in “Infinity War”; here, Black Widow sacrifices herself
  • War Machine and Nebula (Don Cheadle and Karen Gillan) go to the beginning of “Guardians of the Galaxy” with Starlord dancing to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love”

We get a smart reboot of the elevator scene from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (one of my fave MCU movies), and some fun stuff with 2012 Hulk and the elevator, but Cap and Iron Man lose one the stones to Loki; so they use their remaining Pym particles to get back to a 1970 army base, which is secretly S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, where they hope to steal: 1) the infinity stone they know is there, and 2) more Pym particles with which to return to 2023.

There, Tony runs into his dad (a CGI-youthenized John Slattery), which continues the movie’s theme: lineage; parentage. That’s throughout the time travel. Thor has a heart-to-heart with his mom (Rene Russo) on the day she dies, as Tony does with his dad on the day Tony is born, as does, I suppose, Nebula, whose 2014 incarnation can access the memories of her 2023 self—meaning Thanos is able to see his dreams realized, and plots to stop them being undone. So instead of 2023 Nebula returning with War Machine, it’s the 2014 version, who is still loyal to her father. And after Hulk puts on the Stark-created infinity gauntlet and brings everyone back to life (the ones Thanos thanosed out of existence), 2014 Nebula uses the time portal to transport 2014 Thanos, and his ship, and his army of slithering minions, into the present to fight the remaining Avengers—initially, Thor, Cap and Iron Man—Hulk being incapacitated from using the infinity gauntlet.

Cap was always a favorite of mine from 1970s comic-collecting days, and he gets some great moments here. At one point, he wields both his shield and Mjolnir. (How? A nearby nerd told me after the movie it was implied he was worthy in “Ultron” when he budges it a bit.) He gives Thanos his best battle, nearly finishing him, but instead winds up busted, bruised, bloodied and carrying a shattered shield. Which leads to his greatest moment: rising slowly, ready to continue the hopeless fight—which becomes less hopeless when Doctor Strange teleports the rest of the Avengers—alive!—to their location. Let the battle royale begin!

Or to use the ’70s Marvel comic-cover locution: Let begin the battle royale!

Except the true battle is for the infinity gauntlet, which becomes like a hot potato or fumbled football—forever kicked forward and back. Bad Nebula has it, then Ant-Man, then ... I lost track. Nobody puts it on. Maybe they saw what it did to Hulk? Besides, it had served its purpose. What else could it do?

It could finally end the battle with Thanos by ending Thanos. And who better to end it than the guy who began it all for us back in 2008? Iron Man, the superhero whose true power is being quicker and wittier than everyone around him. Remember “Avengers”?

Loki: I have an army.
Tony: We have a Hulk.

We get similar wordplay here. Thanos puts the gauntlet on, declares “I am ... inevitable” and snaps his fingers triumphantly. Except nothing. Because Tony reveals he’s got the gems on his gauntlet; and he declares—in a callback to the famous last line of “Iron Man”—“I am ... Iron Man,” and snaps his fingers. And there goes Thanos’ army and his subordinates—into dust. The last to go is Thanos himself. Inevitably.

How Marvel Studios is like Tony Stark
Then it’s a taste of ashes for us, too: It was all too much, and Tony dies. Back in April 2008, the month “Iron Man” premiered, I did a piece for MSNBC called “Top 5: Superhero Casting” and went with Christopher Reeve, Toby Maguire, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Douglas Fairbanks. Not bad. But another era. It’s a much tougher list to make now but even with all the extra competition Downey Jr. might top it. No one is quicker verbally. It’s why Tony gets away with so much. By the time you unpack everything he’s said he’s somewhere else. 

There’s a need for the MCU to move on, so I guess this is the right call. But some part of me feels we didn’t get enough Iron Man vs. Captain America. It’s not just the clash of personalities; they represent the two halves of America: its ideal (democracy/Cap) and its messy reality (capitalism/Iron Man). It felt like more could be said with this dichotomy—things that might help explain us to us.

We also lose Cap. He returns the infinity stones to their previous locations (to not disrupt the timeline), then stays in the past to be with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). To disrupt the timeline? Seems like a weird call. So instead of Steve Rogers returning via the “time machine” he does it the old-fashioned way—as an old man sitting on a nearby bench. He’s got his shield with him and gives it to Sam/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who will, one hopes, become the new Captain America in a new Captain America movie. Hopefully they have the balls to do it right. Don't ignore race and racism: reflect the outrage of a segment of the country that Captain America is now black. Should be easy. Just read all the alt-right vitriolic comments on the MCU’s various social media feeds. Turn those guys into the villains they are. 

More resolutions: Thor lets Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) become ruler of Asgard, Norway, then joins the Guardians of the Galaxy—or the Asgardians of the Galaxy, as he calls them. At Tony’s funeral, there’s a sweet scene with Tony's daughter, Morgan (Alexandra Rabe), and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, director of “Iron Man”), talking cheeseburgers, another call-back to “Iron Man.” Man, they do this stuff so well.

But did they pull it off? Here’s the thing: If you’d told me beforehand the resolution, involving time travel and sci-fi bullshit, I would’ve been disappointed. But Marvel Studios is like Tony Stark: They get away with a lot because they’re quick-witted, charming, and ultimately heartwarming. By the time you unpack everything they’re doing (wait, shouldn’t Cap, Iron Man and Thor be able to take down an ungloved Thanos?), they’re doing something else.

I was occasionally bored. Dividing the Avengers into teams meant there were teams I was inevitably less interested in. Black Widow and Hawkeye? Plus why send them to that far-off planet that always reminds me of the Bridgekeeper scene from “Monty Python & the Holy Grail”? How did they get stuck with that one? Wouldn’t one super/one skilled be a better model? Instead, three supers get NYC 2012 and two skilleds are sent to a far-off planet. Not smart. 

Other questions remain. Like: What year is it? 2023? If so, why are all of Spidey’s high school friends the same age they were in 2018? Did they all wind up being thanosed? And why didn’t Captain Marvel just put on the infinity glove? Isn’t she part infinity stone herself? And, hey, did we ever get 2023 Nebula back?

Overall, though, for three hours I was entertained and even moved. Afterwards, for much of the day, I felt a little sad, like I’d lost something. I don’t know if this means Tony, Steve and Natasha, or if it means this part of the MCU, which is forever done. I don’t know where they go from here; I just hope the continuity continues.

Posted at 06:53 AM on Monday April 29, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  

Sunday April 28, 2019

Game Over, Man: ‘Avengers: Endgame’ Shatters Box Office Record with $350 Million Opening Weekend

Since 1980, the title of “biggest opening weekend” has changed hands 24 times, which means it happens about once every 18 months. It happened nine times in the ‘80s, four times in the ’90s, five in the aughts, and six times this decade. It happened three times in 1989 alone, when then-champ “Beverly Hills Cop II” ($26 million) was unseated by “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” ($29.3), which lost its title three weeks later to “Ghostbusters II” ($29.4), which held onto the title exactly one week, when Tim Burton's “Batman” shattered the norms with a record $40.4 million weekend and made every exec in Hollywood realize the age of the superhero was here. 

Kidding. That wouldn't happen for another 10 years. 

Anyway, you see how it goes. Generally there's an incremental leap forward—like with “Ghosbusters II”: $117k, 0.4%. Rarer is the great leap forward, as with “Batman”: $11 million, 27.2%. 

This weekend, “Avengers: Endgame” made the greatest leap forward of all. It opened at $350 million. 

On one level, percentage-wise, this isn't the biggest. The biggest since ‘80 is “Return of the Jedi” at 37.7%. Then “Batman at 27.2%, followed by 1997’s ”The Lost World: Jurassic Park“ at 26.8%. Because it's easier to leap percentage-wise when the raw numbers are small. That's why no movie has touched a 20% increase since ”Spider-Man“ nearly 20 years ago. The numbers are just too big now.

Except ”Avengers: Endgame“ broke the record by 26.4%

And in terms of dollar amounts? Nothing's close. The previous best jump was ”Force Awakens,“ which increased the record by $39 million; second is the first ”Avengers“ movie in 2012, which did the same by $31 million. 

”Endgame“ bested the record, its own record, by $92 million. 

Here's another indicator of how much this is shattering norms. When the 2012 ”Avengers“ became the first film to break the $200 million mark, there were 20 previous movies that had already opened north of the previous benchmark, $100 million—including pirate movies and Pixar and Harry Potter. And ”Avengers“ just eked over that $200 million line. This time, ”Endgame“ is roaring past $300 million, halfway to $400, while there's only six movies that managed to break the previous benchmark, $200 million—and three of those were MCU movies. (The others are ”Star Wars“ and ”Jurassic World.“)

And, again, ”Endgame“ is doing it all with a three-hour runtime, meaning there are fewer shows and thus fewer opportunties for moviegoers to lay down their dough. 

Now that it's happened, or happening, I don't see any movie breaking this record for a long, long time. I know records are made to be broken—once every 18 months since 1980, for this. That said, the longest period without a new champ was four and a half years. In May ‘97, ”The Lost World: Jurassic Park“ took the mantle from ”Batman Forever“ with a $72 million weekend. That wasn’t beaten until the first Harry Potter movie grossed $90 million in November 2001. I think we‘re going to get that again; that kind of gap. Or longer. Because nothing’s close to it. You'd need to put Harry Potter in a ”Star Wars" movie with dinosaurs to maybe have a shot. Maybe. 

Here's the chart of weekend box-office champs over the years: 

Release Movie Open Thtrs Total % Increase $$ Increase
6/20/80 The Empire Strikes Back $10.8 823 $209 NA NA
6/19/81 Superman II $14.1 1,397 $108 23.1% $3.2
6/4/82 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan $14.3 1,621 $78 1.7% $0.2
5/25/83 Return of the Jedi $23.0 1,002 $252 37.7% $8.6
5/23/84 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom $25.3 1,687 $179 9.1% $2.3
5/20/87 Beverly Hills Cop II $26.3 2,326 $153 3.8% $1.0
5/24/89 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade $29.3 2,327 $197 10.2% $3.0
6/16/89 Ghostbusters II $29.4 2,410 $112 0.4% $0.1
6/23/89 Batman $40.5 2,194 $251 27.2% $11.0
6/19/92 Batman Returns $45.6 2,644 $162 11.4% $5.1
6/11/93 Jurassic Park $47.0 2,404 $357 2.8% $1.3
6/16/95 Batman Forever $52.7 2,842 $184 10.9% $5.7
5/23/97 The Lost World: Jurassic Park $72.1 3,281 $229 26.8% $19.3
11/16/01 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone $90.2 3,672 $317 20.1% $18.1
5/3/02 Spider-Man $114.8 3,615 $403 21.4% $24.5
7/7/06 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest $135.6 4,133 $423 15.3% $20.7
5/4/07 Spider-Man 3 $151.1 4,252 $336 10.2% $15.4
7/18/08 The Dark Knight $158.4 4,366 $533 4.6% $7.2
7/15/11 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 $169.1 4,375 $381 6.4% $10.7
5/4/12 The Avengers $200.3 4,349 $200 15.5% $31.1
6/12/15 Jurassic World $208.8 4,274 $652 4.1% $8.5
12/18/15 Star Wars: The Force Awakens $247.9 4,134 $936 15.8% $39.1
4/27/18 Avengers: Infinity War $257.7 4,474 $678 3.8% $9.7
4/26/19 Avengers: Endgame $350.0 4,662 TBD 26.4% $92.3

And I haven't even gotten to the global box office: $1.2 billion. Good god. In just three days, it's already the 18th-biggest movie of all time. Unadjusted. And it completely shattered that mark. Per Box Office Mojo:

  • Worldwide Opening Weekend: $1.2 billion
  • Previous Record: $640.5 million (Avengers: Infinity War)

It's uniting the world more than anything besides hatred of Donald Trump.

Review up tomorrow. 

Posted at 11:41 AM on Sunday April 28, 2019 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  

Saturday April 27, 2019

‘Avengers: Endgame’ Grosses $156 Million In One Day—With a Snap of Its Fingers

In one day, “Avengers: Endgame” became the fourth-highest-grossing movie of the year. With Thursday night's shows, and Friday's receipts, it grossed an estimated $156 million, shattering the single-day mark of $119 million set by “The Force Awakens” in 2015. That's a superpowered leap. 

There are only four movies that have ever grossed $100 million in a single day:

  • Avengers: Endgame (2019): $156.7 (est.)
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015): $119.2
  • Avengers: Infinity War (2018): $106
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017): $104.6

Back in your corner, “Star Wars.” Good luck. 

Of course they‘re all owned by the same studio now. Who’s the leader of the club that's made for you and me. 

I guess this is the way you do it. You make good movies and create a continuous universe. Over a decade. Then you give us the slambang two-part finale.

Where she stops, nobody knows. Box Office Mojo is assuming a $300 million opening weekend. Abroad, it's already grossed nearly half a billion. 

Posted at 02:06 PM on Saturday April 27, 2019 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  

Thursday April 25, 2019

Movie Review: The Irish In Us (1935)


This is one of the weaker of the mid-30s Cagney movies. It’s an ensemble piece about an Irish mother (Mary Gordon) and her three grown-up boys, all of whom live with her in a fairly spacious tenement apartment on—I imagine—the lower east side. It’s like an Irish version of Gertrude Berg’s radio series “The Goldbergs.” It even begins in the same fashion: calls across the tenement courtyard; sharing butter with neighbors.

The Irish In Us reviewFor the first half, one of the boys, Pat (Pat O’Brien), a cop, is courting the captain’s daughter, Lucille (Olivia de Havilland, making her film debut). Meanwhile, the ne’er-do-well but happy-go-lucky youngest, Danny (James Cagney), is involved in another get-rich-quick scheme: He becomes boxing manager to Carban Hammerschlog (perpetual Cagney foil Allen Jenkins), who, whenever he hears a bell, slugs the nearest person. Antics ensue. 

The third brother, Mike (Frank McHugh), a fireman, has a wry sense of humor and a fondness for gin. Danny steals Pat’s suit for Carban—I forget why—so Pat doesn’t have it the first time Lucille comes over to meet the family. Antics.

None of it is particularly funny.

For a time, I thought, “Well, it’s nice that Pat O’Brien gets the girl and Cagney doesn’t get into a fight.” Yeah, no. Lucille falls for Danny, causing rifts with Pat; and then Carban gets drunk before his big fight with the middleweight champ so Danny has to climb into the ring in his stead. He wins the fight and gets the girl.

So much for ensemble. Not with a star.  

One of 130 movies directed by Lloyd Bacon (none particularly famous) and one of 68 writing credits for Earl Baldwin (ditto). In his autobiography, Cagney only mentions the film in passing, as yet another of the “cuff operas” to which actors and director would ad-lib, trying to improve the script.

Posted at 01:12 PM on Thursday April 25, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday April 24, 2019

Leading the League in Doubles and Homers

The other day I wrote about the last MLB player to lead the league in doubles and triples in the same season (Cesar Tovar, 1970), along with all the guys who have lead the league in both since then, just not in the same year. (Rudi, Brett, Yount, Molitor, Van Slyke, Knoblauch, Garciaparra and Bobby Abreu.) 

Steve Krevisky's SABR page, which I came across in my research, also includes a list of guys who led the league in doubles and homers in the same season. Last on his list is Willie Stargell in 1973, so I knew Krevisky's list was created before 1995, since that's when Albert Belle did it. Question: Who was the last guy to do it? 

I assumed there would be more recent names. Doubles and triples hitters seem like different beasts; and while there are classic doubles hitter (Knoblauch, Edgar), you also got guys like David Ortiz and Albert Pujols who do both well. Ortiz retired 17th on the all-time HR list with 541 and 12th on the all-time doubles list with 632. Pujols is even better: 6th in dingers, 10th in doubles. So surely one of those guys led the league in both in the same season. 


Well, what about Miggy. Big with both. Or A-Rod?

Nope and nope. 

Junior? Never led the league in doubles. Jason Giambi? Never led the league in HRs. 

Short answer is that between Stargell ‘73 and today, it’s only been Albert Belle in ‘95.

As for the guys who did in separate seasons? Longer list, with a lot of the above names. 

No.  PLAYER 2Bs 2Bs HRs HRs HRs HRs HRs
1 Andres Galarraga  1988   1996        
2 Juan Gonzalez 1998   1992 1993      
3 Alex Rodriguez* 1996   2001 2002 2003 2005 2007
4 Albert Pujols 2003   2009 2010      
7 Adrian Beltre** 2010   2004        
5 David Ortiz 2016   2006        
6 Miguel Cabrera 2008 2012 2011 2014      
8 Nolan Arenado 2017   2015 2016 2018    

* A-Rod is the only guy who did this for three different teams: Doubles with M’s, league leader in HRs thrice for Texas and twice for NYY
** Beltre is the only guy who did it in both leagues

Look at the last two guys. Miggy just kept missing. And Arenado? Good god, could he have gotten any closer? 

BTW: If you‘ve been paying attention, you’ve noticed that the 2Bs/3Bs guys since 1970, and the 2Bs/HRs guys since 1970/73, don't include any of the same names. Meaning, since 1970, no one has led the league in all three categories (doubles, triples, homers) at some point in their career. 

Here's the question: Has anyone in baseball led the league in all three stats at some point in their career?

OK, that's not the question, since, yes, guys have done that—particularly in the deadball era when homers were often inside-the-parkers, and so it was kind of the same skill set: hit the ball were they ain't and run like hell.

Here's the last question: Who has done it since the deadball era? And who is the last guy to do it? 

That's next.

Posted at 03:15 PM on Wednesday April 24, 2019 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Tuesday April 23, 2019

Movie Review: Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936)


It’s got a great director (William Wellman), a strong if long-in-the-tooth leading man (Warner Baxter), fascinating source material (the life of Joaquin Murrieta, the likely inspiration for Zorro), and progressive attitudes about Mexicans and the discrimination they faced. For example:

Bill: Johnny and I can run into town to see a lawyer. Must be some laws around here that protects you Mexicans.


Juanita: You are not a bandit.
Joaquin: Against the Americanos, yes.
Juanita: Do not call that banditry, Joaquin. That is what they call it. I call it the only way to get back that which was ours. 

In 1936? From MGM—the most conservative of the big studios? Wow.

Shame the movie isn’t better.

10 writers
Robin Hood of El Dorado movie reviewIt’s based on a book by Walter Noble Burns, who grew up in Kentucky in the 19th century, became a journalist in Chicago in the early 20th, and wrote books about legends of the Old West after he retired from reporting : “The Saga of Billy the Kid” in 1926, “Tombstone” in 1927, and this one, “The Robin Hood of El Dorado,” in 1932, which is also the year he died.

What’s the problem with this one? Maybe all the newbie writers. Two of its three credited screenwriters never got credit for another screenplay: director Wellman (who got subsequent story credits but not screenplay credits); and actor Joseph Calleia (best known to me as Pete Menzies in “Touch of Evil“). The third credited screenwriter is Melvin Levy, a playwright who came to Hollywood, wrote B pictures, became a friendly witness during the blacklist (naming one name), then made a living off TV. His final credits were the shows I watched in the’70s: “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “Charlie’s Angels.” This is his first screenwriting credit.

But they had help. IMDb lists seven uncredited screenwriters: 

  • Rowland Brown (“Angels with Dirty Faces”)
  • Peter Kyne (westerns)
  • James Kevin McGuinness ( “A Night at the Opera”)
  • Howard Emmett Rogers (“Tarzan and his Mate”)
  • Lynn Starling (“Magnificent Obsession”)
  • C. Gardner Sullivan (“All Quiet on the Western Front”)
  • Dan Totheroh (“The Count of Monte Cristo”).

One assumes they were brought in to punch things up or straighten things out. Sadly, too much of the movie remains crooked and punchless.

In the newly ceded territory of California, Joaquin is boisterous and happy as he prepares to marry his love, Rosita. Per the Hollywood tradition, even though the male half of the romance is played by an Anglo, the female half can go native: here, one-named Mexican actress Margo. Per another Hollywood tradition, there’s a bit of an age gap. Gap? It’s a canyon. Baxter 47, Margo 19.

Several things happen at the wedding. An American rep shows up, someone throws a knife, Joaquin takes the blame, and so he’s banished by his rich father-in-law. Also gold is discovered at Seder’s Mill. Cue montage of everyone running toward gold.

Not Joaquin. He’s a happy farmer. But some nearby prospectors resent him—and covet his wife—and one night they show up like Trumpsters, demanding he leave.

Joaquin: Who are you to tell me this?
Prospector: We’re good American citizens, that’s who we are! And that’s who you ain’t!

He’s knocked out and comes to with the help of the two good Anglos in the movie, Bill and Johnnie (Bruce Cabot and Eric Linden), then finds his wife on the bed—dead. The real Rosita was supposed raped, and this is as close to that suggestion as the Hays Office would probably allow back then. I was surprised it allowed this much, to be honest.

His revenge against the men is quick, lethal but still honorable (with one, he makes it a fair draw), and he dismisses a grimy, admiring Mexican outlaw Three-Fingered Jack (J. Carrol Naish, Hollywood’s go-to white actor for non-white roles), although the outlaw remains admiring: “There goes a man,” he tells his compadres—a line right out of “The Right Stuff.”

I thought of another movie—just can’t figure out which—as his rise as an outlaw is seen via the price on his head: $500, $1,000, $3500. Tops out at $5k. It’s a good shorthand. His last go at a respectable life ends when he’s whipped and his brother killed by more asshole Anglos. He teams up with Three-Fingered Jack and they set up camps with happy-go-lucky Mexicans, who dance, sing, and perform horse stunts. It’s like Sherwood Forest in California.

Second half blues
Overall, though, there’s really not much Robin Hood in “Robin Hood of El Dorado.” At one point, he tries to rob from rich Mexicans, the hacendados, only to be told by another fiery woman, Juanita (Ann Loring), that they’ve all suffered. She becomes his love interest, joining the rebels, but there’s not much drama in the second half. There’s no Prince John-type villain, either. The main drama is that they accidentally kill the bride-to-be of Johnnie in a stagecoach robbery, turning the two good Anglos against Joaquin, whose men are trapped and slaughtered in Hidden Valley. Joaquin, wounded, manages to escape long enough to reach the grave of Rosita, where he repeats her final words:

I am cold. It’s growing dark. Put your arms around me.

That’s not a bad end but doesn’t make up for the lack of drama in the second half. Imagine a Robin Hood movie in which Will Scarlet’s bride is killed, he blames Robin, and leads a team of soldiers into Sherwood Forest to slaughter them all. That’s kinda this. 

But it cries to be remade. We deserve a good Joaquin Murrieta biopic. Or he does.


  • ”Robin Hood of El Dorado“ was written and adapted in a time of progressive populism. Maybe it should be remade now in a time of regressive and xenophobic populism? 

  • A sop for the mostly white audience. ”Not you guys; the bad ones.“

  • These guys. 19th-century Trumpsters demanding the Mexican get out of ”their“ country.  

  • During the whipping. 

  • Love this shorthand for the outlaws taking over California, including that little pueblo in the south. 

  • A hero to the people. Great shot, Wild Bill. 

  • Early rock concert. 

  • The good Anglo, Bruce Cabot of ”King Kong“ fame, looks, here, a bit like Edward Albert in the early ‘70s.

  • The second-half love interest. Ann Loring was good in her first screen role, with dazzling eyes, but only has five listed credits. Anyone know what happened? 

  • The slaughter. Imagine this in Sherwood Forest. 

  • Making it back to Rosita. ”It’s growing dark." And will grow darker. *FIN*
Posted at 07:43 AM on Tuesday April 23, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Monday April 22, 2019

Conspiracy Theorist in Chief

There's a good, sad article by The New Yorker‘s Elizabeth Kolbert about conspiracy theorists called (in print) “That’s What You Think” and (online) “What's New About Conspiracy Theories?”

(SEO has made dullards of us all.) 

Kolbert reviews four new books about conspiracy theories and theorists; about what's new and what isn‘t, and tries to lay it all out. 

One thing that’s new is this thing; where you‘re reading this. The like-minded find each other easier online, and if initially we thought this meant scrapbook makers and baseball card collectors, experience has shown it’s often the worst of the worst. There are certain subreddits you don't want to go down.

“This category of recent conspiracy theorists is really a global network of village idiots,” Pozner tells Merlan. “They would have never been able to find each other before, but now it's this synergistic effect of the combination of all of them from all over the world. There are haters from Australia and Europe and they can all make a YouTube video in fifteen seconds.”

YouTube is key, too, since it and other sites tend to push users toward more sensational versions of the material they‘re already watching. Their motives, says Kolbert, is commercial, not political, but the result is the same: extremism. 

Classic conspiracy theories, Kolbert writes, tend to try to make sense of something that shatters our worldview: JFK assassination, 9/11. There has to be a reason for this unreasonable thing. But one thing that sets theorists like QAnon apart, Kolbert writes, “is a lack of interest in explanation.” What’s the child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton out of the basement of a DC pizza place that doesn't really have a basement trying to make sense of?  “There is often nothing to explain,” Kolbert quotes one author. “The new conspiracism sometimes seems to arise out of thin air.”

And then there's Trump, the man who reps our loutish age:

Historically, Muirhead and Rosenblum maintain, it's been out-of-power groups that have been drawn to tales of secret plots. Today, it's those in power who insist the game is rigged, and no one more insistently than the so-called leader of the free world.

It's beyond his birtherism and “fake news” and “witchhunt.” Business Insider lists 19 examples of his conspiracy theories. I didn't know, for example, he'd floated rumors that Justice Scalia had been murdered rather than died of natural causes. 

Key graf:

Democracies depend on buy-in; citizens need to believe in certain basics, starting with the legitimacy of elections. Trump both runs the government and runs it down. The electoral system, he asserts, can't be trusted. Voter fraud is rampant. His contempt for institutions ranging from the courts (“slow and political”) to the Federal Communications Commission (“so sad and unfair”) to the F.B.I. (“What are they hiding?”) weakens those institutions, thereby justifying his contempt. As government agencies “lose competence and capacity, they will come to look more and more illegitimate to more and more people,” Muirhead and Rosenblum observe.

Those are the forces against us. 

Posted at 04:19 PM on Monday April 22, 2019 in category U.S. History   |   Permalink  

Monday April 22, 2019

Leading the League in Doubles and Triples

One recent night when I was having trouble sleeping, I spent time perusing Baseball Reference, came across Cesar Tovar's page, and saw that he'd led the league in both doubles and triples in 1970. I already knew this—I'd even written about it—but this time a light bulb went off. How common was that—to lead the league in both categories in the same year? Who was the last guy to do it? 

Turns out: Pretty uncommon. Tovar's the last guy to do it. 

Searching for the answer, I came across a SABR page by Steve Krevisky on various baseball feats, including leading the league in both doubles and triples in the same season. Here's Krevisky's list:

1 Honus Wagner 1900 1908    
2 Ty Cobb 1908 1911 1917  
3 Bobby Veach 1919      
4 Rogers Hornsby 1921      
5 Charlie Gehringer 1923      
6 Joe Vosmik 1935      
7 Stan Musial 1943 1946 1948 1949
8 Zoilo Versalles 1965      
9 Lou Brock 1968      
10 Cesar Tovar 1970      

Before going further, how about a hand for Stan the Man? Since the deadball era, this feat has only happened 10 times—and he has four of them. Career, he's 19th all-time in triples (and everyone ahead of him is pre-WWII), and third all-time in doubles (Speaker, Rose). Plus 475 HRs, which, when he retired in 1963, was sixth all-time, behind Ruth, Foxx, Williams, Ott and Gehrig. No wonder he was The Man.

That said, Krevisky's list, I could tell, was old. His list of guys who led the league in doubles and homers in the same year ends with Willie Stargell in 1973 when I knew Albert Belle did it in 1995. So, to make sure, I crunched all the doubles/triples numbers after 1970.

And I couldn't find anyone who'd done it after Tovar.

I did find a few guys who led the league in doubles and triples—just not in the same year:

NO. PLAYERS 2Bs 2Bs 3Bs 3Bs 3Bs
1 Joe Rudi 1974   1972    
2 George Brett 1978 1990 1975 1976 1979
3 Robin Yount 1980 1982 1983 1988  
4 Paul Molitor 1987   1991    
5 Andy Van Slyke 1992   1988    
6 Chuck Knoblauch 1994   1996    
7 Nomar Garciaparra 2002   1997    
8 Bobby Abreu 2002   1999    

Before going further, how about a hand for George Brett? Not just for being a five-time leader but for the 12-year gap in his doubles titles. And how the hell did he lead the league in triples three times with Willie Wilson on his team? Answer: Wilson didn't become a full-time player until 1979, then led the league in triples five times in the ‘80s.

BTW, anyone guessing Bobby Abreu for this list, go to the head of the class. 

Since I kept seeing players from the Kansas City Royals, I wondered how often someone on that team led the league in either category from 1970 to 1990. Answer: 16 times: Brett with 5, Wilson with 5 (triples), Hal McRae twice (doubles), Amos Otis twice (doubles), Lou Piniella (doubles) and Freddie Patek (triples). In the AL, the next closest team is the Milwaukee Brewers with eight: Yount, Molitor, Cooper, Pedro Garcia. Boston has seven, the Twins have five. In the NL, the Expos have eight league leaders, with Houston and Philly at seven each. No one’s close to the Royals.

Anyway, that's the answer to that late-night question: The last man to lead the league in both doubles and triples in the same season is Cesar “Pepe” Tovar in 1970. Nice coincidence: I just happen to have a picture with him that fateful year:

My brother Chris and I with Cesar Tovar in 1970. 

More soon.

Posted at 07:58 AM on Monday April 22, 2019 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Sunday April 21, 2019

Box Office: Calm Before the Avengers Storm

Probably because it hops around a lot—so far this century, showing up as early as March 23 (2008) and as late as April 23 (2000)—Hollywood doesn't seem to have much of an Easter weekend strategy the way it does with other holidays.

Here are the box office winners for movies opening on past Easter weekends. Detect the pattern:

  • 2009: Hannah Montana the Movie ($32.3)
  • 2010: Clash of the Titans ($61.2)
  • 2011: Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family ($25)
  • 2012: American Reunion ($21.5)
  • 2013: G.I. Joe: Retaliation ($40.5)
  • 2014: Heaven Is For Real ($22.5)
  • 2015: Furious 7 ($147.2)
  • 2016: Batman v. Superman ($166)
  • 2017: The Fate of the Furious ($98.7)
  • 2018: Ready Player One ($41.7)
  • 2019: The Curse of La Llorona ($26.5)

Yeah, there isn't one. It's gotten more blockbustery, but that's true for March and April, generally. They‘ve opened everything from concert films to gross-out comedies to muscle-car muscle-man movies to—this year—horror. Generally we celebrate the weekend Christ died and ascended by watching people beat each other up. As the Bible intended. 

This weekend, after “La Llorona,” a horror movie I hadn’t heard of until it opened, “Shazam!,” Warner Bros.' more tongue-and-cheek entry into the superhero world, finished second with another $17.3, to bring its domestic total to $121. It's not falling fast (just 29% this weekend) but seems assured of being the lowest-grossing entry in the DCEU—a title currently held by “Justice League” (of all movies) at $229. It also seems just as assured of catching the lowest-grossing entry in the MCU (“Incredible Hulk” at $134) but that's probably the only one it‘ll catch. The second-lowest-grossing MCU movie, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is at $176. 

Anyway, I liked “Shazam!” and hope they keep making movies like it. 

The religious entry for Easter weekend, “Breakthrough,” about a boy who falls through the ice and is saved by prayer, got surprisingly good reviews (67% on RT) considering how painfully bad the trailer always felt to me. But even with good reviews, it still just grossed $11 mil. This is why you can’t have nice movies, Christians; you don't go see them. Unless they‘re not nice and/or part of the culture wars. (Cf., “Passion of the Christ.”)

Fourth is the seventh weekend of “Captain Marvel”: another $9 to bring its total domestic gross to just over $400 million. That’s seventh-best in the MCU, and only needs another $9 mil to be fifth-best. Another $12 and it surpasses “Wonder Woman”—the highest-grossing DCEU film. 

All in all, a quiet weekend at the box office. It's next weekend that things get noisy. 

Posted at 05:47 PM on Sunday April 21, 2019 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  

Saturday April 20, 2019

Quote of the Day

“Any American but for the president of the United States would be indicted for these actions.”

—Ryan Goodman, NYU law professor, referring to the redacted Mueller Report, on NPR's Weekend Edition. Rebuttal, or pre-buttal, came from former Whitewater prosecutor under Ken Starr, Solomon Wisenberg, a man whose name leaves a lot to live up to, who states that only one incident detailed in the Mueller Report constitutes, to him, obstruction of justice. Shame we didn't get more into the why of it.

Posted at 07:31 AM on Saturday April 20, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Friday April 19, 2019

Mueller, Redacted

New York Times website, yesterday.

I celebrated when they arrested Michael Cohen last August. I went our for drinks with my friend David. We toasted. I thought walls were closing in on the sonuvabitch. 

I didn't celebrate yesterday when a redacted version of the Mueller Report was finally released by Attorney General William Barr (whose name goes down in infamy for how he's played this), even though on the whole the report is damning, embarassing, pathetic, shameless.

Mueller begins this way—first page, second graf:

The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.

I'm old enough to remember when Trump's team denied this. They‘re probably still doing so on some level when it suits them. 

Was the Russian government doing what it could to elect Donald Trump president of the United States? Obviously. Did the Trump campaign seek their help? Vocally. Did they then lie about their contacts with Russians and Wikileaks? Repeatedly. 

Was it a conspiracy? Apparently not. Again, from the first few pages of the report:

As set forth in detail in this report, the Special Counsel’s investigation established that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election principally through two operations. First, a Russian entity carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Second, a Russian intelligence service conducted computer-intrusion operations against entities, employees, and volunteers working on the Clinton Campaign and then released stolen documents. The investigation also identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign. Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

I expected this, though. I was hoping maybe for a smoking gun but assumed we wouldn't get it.

So onto the second part. Did Trump obstruct, impede and attempt to shut down the varous investigations (FBI, DOJ, Mueller) into potential collusion? Of course he did. He did it on national television. Beyond that, Mueller cites—is it 10 incidents?—in which Trump told subordinates to essentially engage in obstruction of justice. The subordinate didn't follow through, but that's still obstruction of justice. What finally brought down Nixon, George Conway reminds us in a Washington Post Op-Ed, was a recording of Nixon telling CIA director Richard Helms to urge the FBI away from the Watergate investigation. Helms didn't follow through, either, but it was still obstruction of justice. Back then, that was enough. 

Trump did this x 10 and he's still in the Oval Office. 

Here's NPR's political reporter Carrie Johnson on “Morning Edition” this morning

It's hard to imagine—according to a lot of former prosecutors with whom I‘ve spoken—that if this involved any other person, that it would not have resulted in some criminal charge.

That’s a big reason why I'm not celebrating. I was counting on the rule of law to come to our aid. And it didn‘t. It hasn’t. Maybe someday, but not today.  

I'm also not celebrating because the Trumpers will continue to lie about it. And Fox News will repeat their lies as truth and add their own; and so will Rush and Matt and Alex and Breitbart and Sinclair and the GOP. There are no honorable Republicans anymore because they don't have to be. They can lie and Fox will call it truth. They can be corrupt and dishonorable and Fox will call them honorable. They can be racist and Fox will say it's the other side that's racist. World without end. 

Many people are celebrating this line from the report. It's Trump's reaction when he learned that Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel back in May 2017—a week after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey:

This is the end of my presidency. I'm fucked.

I'm not celebrating that, either. He wasn't fucked. It wasn't the end of his presidency. That line just makes me sadder.  

You know who's celebrating? One of the report's more chilling lines is what one Russian texted another on Nov. 8, 2016:

Putin has won. 

That's who's celebrating: Putin. Putin and Fox News.

Posted at 03:53 PM on Friday April 19, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Wednesday April 17, 2019

Movie Review: Shazam! (2019)


A great idea doesn’t necessarily make a great movie. David S. Goyer realized that if someone with Superman’s powers suddenly showed up on earth, people would freak and governments and militaries would marshal their forces. Then Zack Snyder turned it into “Man of Steel,” and “Batman v. Superman.” Damn.

The great idea here is that when Billy Batson turns into Captain Marvel, he may change appearance, voice, powers, but he doesn’t change personality or knowledge; he stays who he is: a 14 year-old boy. So it’s like Superman + the Tom Hanks movie “Big.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how they pitched it. Best part? They didn’t blow it. They kept Zack Snyder away.

The “Big”/“Superman” thing was obvious from the first trailer, so I expected it, and expected to be entertained by it; and I was, mostly. It’s a little dumber than I thought, but it’s fun enough.

What I didn’t expect? The metaphor about the Democratic Party.

Worst job recruiter ever
Shazam! reviewInitially I was confused. We’re on a car ride to grandma’s house in 1974? With Lex Luthor’s dad (John Glover)? And the kid playing with a Magic 8 ball in the backseat being bullied by his father and older brother—is that supposed to be our Captain Marvel/Shazam? So is this thing set in ’74—around the same time as the Saturday morning live-action TV show—or is that our villain? Except with that timeline, Mark Strong would have to be my age—born in 1963—and ... oh, he is. Kudos, Mark. You look great for our age.

When the fortunes in the Magic 8 ball turn into squiggly symbols, the car crackles with energy, ice forms on the windows, and the kid, Thaddeus (Ethan Pugiotto), is transported alone to “the Rock of Eternity,” which is like an interdimensional cavern. There, an ancient wizard with a long white beard and staff (Djimon Hounsou) tells him he’s searching for a new superpowered champion to help the world. The champion must be “pure of heart.” A former champion, not pure of heart, went bad and released the seven deadly sins into the world. Oddly, those sins are still in the cavern, encased in whispering statues along the walls. So they’re both in the world and trapped in the Rock of Eternity? OK.  

Anyway, the kid fails the test (he reaches for an energy ball, which is a no-no or something), he’s transported back to Dad’s car, becomes histrionic and causes an accident which leaves asshole dad paralyzed for life. That’s our cold open. And we haven’t met our lead yet.

Billy Batson, a gosh-gee newsboy in the original comics, a twentysomething radio operator in the 1941 live-action serial, and a long-haired Tiger-Beat teen in the 1974 TV series, is, here, a young, pretty-eyed punk (Asher Angel of Disney channel’s “Andi Mack”). He suckers a pair of Philly cops so he can get into their patrol car and look up the address of the woman he thinks is his biological mom. He has a long list of possibilities in his notebook and she’s the only one not crossed out. Turns out she’s black. Then the cops arrive and bust his head open for suckering them. Kidding. It’s jokes and kid gloves. You know Philly cops. But he winds up in another foster home.

This one is about as nice as you can get—a big ramshackle house run by the Vazqueses: Victor (Cooper Andrews), portly, jovial, philosophical, and Rosa (Marta Milans), who looks like a harried Angelina Jolie. The kids include:

  • Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer of “Me, Myself and I”), a white, supertalkative, superhero-obsessed teen with a crutch
  • Faithe (Darla Dudley of “This Is Us”), a supertalkative and superneedy black girl who dispenses hugs like a priest dispenses wafers at the Eucharist
  • Eugene (Ian Chen of “Fresh Off the Boat”), a Chinese-American gamer/hacker
  • Pedro (Jovan Armand), portly and reticent
  • Mary (Grace Fulton), the eldest, getting ready for college

If I’d been thinking, I would’ve realized where this was going—particularly with Freddy and Mary—but I’m kind of glad I wasn’t. Once it arrived, it was a joy.

This foster family is large, loud and big-hearted but Billy keeps his distance. He’s got a foot out the door already. At school, Fawcett Central High—for Fawcett Comics, the publisher of Shazam in the 1940s—there are bullies, of course, and they pick on Freddy, of course, and so Billy has to stand up for him since he can’t for himself. Then the bullies give chase. Billy escapes to a subway, flips them off from behind closed doors, settles in; then the subway speeds up, the other passengers disappear, and the stops take on those squiggly symbols we’d seen in the Magic 8 ball. When the doors open, Billy’s in the “Rock of Eternity.” Good bit? He glances back at the subway map to check the stop.

Before all this, by the way, young Thaddeus (now a glowering Mark Strong), had set up a research institute investigating incidents like his from ’74—the hieroglyphics, the transportation, the wizard, the offer of power, the test, the failure—which has happened to dozens of people around the world. When the symbols are finally captured on video, Thaddeus figures out the pattern: the seven symbols that need to be repeated seven times to open the gateway. That’s what he does. He returns, pushes the old wizard aside, absorbs the seven deadly sins, and accumulates vast power to wreak havoc on the world. To be sure, we mostly see him wreaking havoc on his father’s company. He tosses the older brother out the window, unleashes the seven deadly sins to kill board members in horrible ways, and saves Greed to tear his father apart limb from limb. Oddly, he doesn’t stay to watch it. You’d think after nearly a half-century of hatred and resentment, he might.

So with the seven deadly sins gone from the Rock of Eternity, is that why Billy passes the test? Because there is no test? So why was he chosen then? He’s not exactly pure of heart. Why isn’t Faithe chosen? Or Mary? Or Victor Vasquez for god’s sake? Maybe there was an answer and I missed it.

This is the part where I got whiffs of the Democratic party. Old man Shazam has spent at least 45 years searching for a replacement, a champion, to take over; and he’s interviewed dozens, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands, and none of them passed his purity test. Meanwhile, evil gathered.

But forget the metaphor. How much of a fuck-up is this Shazam? He keeps picking people who can’t pass the test, and probably fucks them over for life; and one of them becomes so incensed, and obsessed, he becomes a supervillain. And he seemed like a decent kid at the start! That’s some shitty program.

Anyway, I assume that’s why Billy Batson, who isn’t exactly pure of heart, gets the gig. At this point, they needed to pick somebody. And he says “Shazam!” and turns into what would be called Captain Marvel (Zachary Levi in a padded suit) but for copyright issues with Marvel Inc. That actually leads to a good bit, as he and Freddy, but mostly Freddy, try to come up with different names for him: Captain Thunder, Captain Sparklefingers, Thundercrack, Mr. Philadelphia, Zaptain America, Sir Zaps-a-Lot.

I anticipated this being my favorite part of the movie and it was. Among the antics he and Freddy get into:

  • testing CM’s superpowers
  • buying beer
  • sipping beer and spitting it out
  • buying tons of candy instead
  • going to a “Gentleman’s Club”—CM at least

He stops crooks at a convenience store, then rescues an attractive woman from a purse-snatching. Except he pisses her off by calling her an “old lady” and she’s already maced the purse-snatcher. He wasn’t needed. Another good bit.

Along with “Big,” some of it reminded me of “Greatest American Hero,” the short-lived but often-funny superhero show of the early’80s, starring William Katt as a schoolteacher who is given a superhero suit but loses the instruction book: He’s forever flying into walls and things. He’s the George of the Jungle of the city. Similarly, Shazam doesn’t really know what he can do or how to do it. Takes him forever to figure out flying. But as they’re testing all he can (and can’t) do, Freddy video-records it and uploads onto YouTube, where it gets tons of hits. The true source of 21st-century power. Question, though: Couldn’t anyone with skillz trace the videos back to Freddy? And thus his family? Not exactly smart. 

Foster Family: the new FF
Eventually the fun ends when Thaddeus, now Dr. Sivana, the longtime Captain Marvel villain, shows up, envious that another champion was chosen. I’m curious what he’d been doing after the boardroom. Does he have a plan? World domination or anything? Does he and the 7 Deadlies just want to wreak havoc? It’s electing Trump, isn’t it? I bet it’s electing Trump.

Sivana makes quick work of Shazam, who is new to his powers, and just a kid, after all. I like this part. Superpowers don’t a superhero make. Just because you’re super doesn’t mean you’re brave. Billy/Shazam flees, and it takes his foster family being threatened before he begins to fight back against someone whose powers seem greater than this. Oh, and in the process, he finds his real biological mom, who’s an awful person. His real family is the foster family, and they turn into—of course—the Marvel family: Freddie becomes Captain Marvel Jr. (if he could be so named), Mary is Mary Marvel. Etc. Each has one of Shazam’s powers.

I liked that. I like the “family you create” motif, which is very Hollywood. Even so, that, along with the mid-credits sequence introducing Mister Mind, who is, after all, a fucking caterpillar, reminded me that C.C. Beck’s world was always kind of stupid. (Mouse over the poster for an example.) Tawny Tiger? Captain Marvel’s shortie cape and his Brezhnev eyebrows? Holy Moley? Superman gets “Man of Steel” and “Man of Tomorrow,” Batman gets “Caped Crusader,” and the best nickname Beck can come up with is “The Big Red Cheese”? Even as a kid I thought Shazam comics were dumb. They were dumb by the standards of Golden Age comics, let alone the Mighty Marvel Age I was living in.

So congratulations to screenwriter Henry Gayden (“Earth to Echo”), director David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”), and the cast and the casting director. DC is finally turning it around. Before, they had great source material and turned it into crap; now, they have crap source material (Wonder Woman, Shazam!), and are turning it into something, if not great, at least fun and palatable.

Don’t envy them Mister Mind, though. 

Posted at 09:48 AM on Wednesday April 17, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  

Tuesday April 16, 2019

Our Lady

I first visited Europe in 2002 when I was 39, and Paris was one of the first cities I visited, and Notre-Dame was the first landmark my friend Joan I went to. It was my intro to the city. I wrote about it back then, thinking I would write more about the trip but never did.

Here's what I remember: Even though it was April, the line to go up the tower was long, so Joan and I spelled each other by checking out the inside of the cathedral. At one point, I chatted up a woman in line, who was pretty, from Sweden, and had a boyfriend. Two out of three. Joan, a platonic friend, had a Flat Stanley she was carting around Europe for a daughter's friend. This was the rest:

The early April sun was hot enough that we were grateful when the line reached the shade of the Cathedral, and, after several more pauses, we finally began to climb the stairwell, which, to my delight, was circular and cramped, with stone steps worn smooth, and with a slight indent in the middle from all the feet pounding up it over the centuries. Even better was emerging onto a walkway outside, 46 meters above the ground, called the chimeras gallery because of the famous stone gargoyles there watching over (or dismissing) the city. While construction on the cathedral had begun in 1163 and wasn't completed until 1245, the gargoyles weren't added until the 19th century, when, in the wake of Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the cathedral had been renovated by architects Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc. The latter designed the chimeras. A wire fence separated us from them, but we managed to take a few pictures of ourselves, and Flat Stanley, with these guys, surely what Viollet-le-Duc had in mind all along. The stryga, a winged demon with hands on face, is perhaps the most famous, but I was drawn to one creature gnawing the head off a smaller one. What truly astonished, though, was the view to the east, over the remainder of the cathedral. The immensity and detail were both astounding, and couldn't be captured by my sad point-and-shoot camera. The zoom couldn't zoom in far enough to capture the detail, and I couldn't stand back far enough to include the tower's immensity.

A huge fire, its plumes of smoke reminiscent of the twin towers on 9/11, tore through Notre-Dame yesterday, destroying the wood ceiling and spire; the remainder is “structurally sound,” according to reports. I'm half a world away, with no rights in this matter, as Roethke wrote, but felt nothing but sadness all day. Today, too. And tomorrow. On social media, people are posting happy pictures in front of the cathedral, and on top of it, and reminiscing, as I'm doing here. There's not much else to do. 

Posted at 07:31 AM on Tuesday April 16, 2019 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Friday April 12, 2019

Tweet of the Day

Posted at 09:47 PM on Friday April 12, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Wednesday April 10, 2019

Bolsonaro and Trump: Who's Worse?

John Lee Anderson has a good piece in the April 1st New Yorker about Brazil's new authoritarian president, Jair Bolsonaro. It's smartly titled “Southern Strategy.” (This was before Whatserhface turned that phrase into an ignoramus' history lesson this week.)

Comparisons between Bolsonaro and Trump are easy to find for anyone who wants them:

  • Bolsonaro is on his third wife
  • His shitty kids are involved in his business
  • He insults people via Twitter
  • He insults people in person (“She's not worth raping”)
  • He likes the appearance of toughness (“A policeman who doesn't kill isn't a policeman”)
  • He verbally abuses the press
  • He's directly supported by Steve Bannon
  • He has the support of the religious right, the arms industry, anti-environmentalists and the xenophobic
  • His allies feign exasperration at his worst tendencies but constantly support him
  • Despite the above, in the last election, he won more than half the female vote

A good discussion can be had on which man is worse. Bolsonaro grew up working class and made a career in the military before the leap into politics, which seems more admirable than Trump taking over the family business. But he seems more vicious; and he's the head of a country with only a few decades of democratic rule.

That said, and no offense, but if Bolsonaro ruins Brazil, it will set back that country only decades and won't be felt much on the world stage. If Trump ruins the U.S., if he makes a mockery of rule of law, if he darkens the shining city on a hill, I don't know where the world will be.

Posted at 03:56 PM on Wednesday April 10, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Tuesday April 09, 2019

Best Thing About The Good Place is The Bad Place

What's hell? Bro-hams, Axe Body Spray and “Transformers.”

Last month, when Patricia and I were both sick with the crud, we watched the first two seasons of “The Good Place” on Netflix. First season was good; second season was better. But the third-to-last episode of the second season? Where they all try to sneak through The Bad Place? Brilliant. 

How do you torture humanity? It's already being done. We‘re being tortured daily with our own crap. 

You get that sense throughout the series, but it’s this episode where the show's creator Michael Schur and his writing staff really let it all hang out, with slams on IHOP, the “Pirates of the Carribean” movies, and Hawaiian pizza, as our heroes wind up in The Museum of Human Misery: Hall of Low-Grade Crappiness:

Jason: Is there a gift shop?
Michael: Jason, this is hell. Of course, there's a gift shop. 

There are animatronics of douches: the first person to floss in an open-plan office; the first white man with dreadlocks; and the first man to send an unsolicited picture of his genitals. 

But my favorite moment is when Michael (Ted Danson), nominal demon turned nominal good guy, arrives and consults with his superior, Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson): 

Shawn: (tossing a small canister of Axe Body Spray to Michael) “Welcome home. Axe up!”
Michael: (faux-excited) “Oh! New scent! ‘Transformers.’”
Shawn: “Yes. It makes you smell the way ‘Transformers’ movies make you feel.”

The kicker was when Michael later runs into the humans he's helping:

Eleanor: (making face) Ughhh! How do you smell loud and confusing?

Longtime readers will know I'm not exactly a fan. So despite the crud, I felt better after that. I felt less alone.

Posted at 08:06 AM on Tuesday April 09, 2019 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Monday April 08, 2019

Tweet of the Day

Posted at 05:21 PM on Monday April 08, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Monday April 08, 2019

Movie Review: The Mustang (2019)


The most searing part of the movie for me was the beginning, when wild mustangs in the western U.S., living their life, are rounded up by the feds as part of population control. Helicopters and jeeps drive them toward fences that funnel them into pens and eventually horse trailers. They buck, rear, cry out. At prisons, they’ll be broken and sold at auction—usually to the police. If they can’t be broken, or if no one buys them, they’ll be put to death.

First-time director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre gives us the mustangs’ perspective throughout: from freedom to inexplicably not; from a natural life to a process that’s mechanized. There’s an inexpressible horror to it. The proper reaction to it is the cries of animals.

Then it just becomes about us again.

Second second chance
The Mustang movie reviewGoing in, I assumed “The Mustang” took place in the Himalayan steppes. The poster screwed me up. That orange jumpsuit looked like red Tibetan robes to me, while Matthias Schoenaerts’ shaved head made him look monk-like. Plus I missed the blurred fence in front. Plus I’m too stupid to know mustangs are endemic to North America.

Schoenaerts’ character, Roman Coleman, is as solitary as a monk, he just exudes no sense of peace. The opposite. He moves through prison like he hasn’t taken a breath in 12 years. He’s the bomb waiting to go off. So not exactly what you’d expect from a horse trainer.

I also assumed he would find himself, and a gentler, more patient nature, with the horses. There’s some of that, but the movie’s conceit mostly goes another way. It’s in the tagline: “Untamed Souls. Kindred Spirits.” Both Roman and his horse, Marquis (mispronounced “Marcus”), are untamable, and I guess the horse recognizes a kindred spirit; so even after Roman, frustrated by other matters, punches the horse in the chest, the horse forgives him. Days later, he nuzzles him. I didn’t buy it.

There are three main settings/storylines:

  • Outside with the horse program, run by Myles (Bruce Dern)
  • Visits with Roman’s daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon)
  • Encounters with his cellmate, Dan (Josh Stewart)

The horse program is rehabilitation and purpose. The visits with the daughter, in conjunction with group therapy (led by Connie Britton), are about coming to terms with past crimes. They’re confession and the possibility of redemption. In the cramped cell with Dan lies the potential for future crimes.

Since Roman works outside with the horses, he has access to ketamine, an anesthetic which can be used to get high; and Dan blackmails Roman to get it by threatening Martha. He says he knows where she lives, he has people on the outside, etc. He must be connected since Roman goes along with it even though it looks like he could take Dan out with one punch. Roman has already spied his happy-go-lucky horse mentor, Henry (Jason Mitchell of “Mudbound”), coating extra T-shirts with ketamine and wearing them inside, and Roman does the same.

The problem with the movie is the disconnect between these storylines. After the blackmail threat, for example, Martha arrives for a visit. One assumes Roman’s going to warn her about Dan. No. He wants to finally open up about his crime—turning Martha’s mother into a vegetable. The confession is painful for him (he looks wrecked afterward) but there’s no redemption (Martha doesn’t forgive him), and, worse, the threat from Dan goes unmentioned. Shouldn’t that be his main concern? His daughter's safety? Rather than his own redemption?

Then Dan kills Henry—slitting his throat in the yard. Was Henry smuggling for a rival? Was it simple racism? We never find out. But in retaliation, in their cell, Roman chokes Dan. To death? Who knows? And if Dan is connected, are there repercussions from a gang? Got me. At the least, we assume there will be repercussions with the horse program. That privilege will be taken away from Roman, and he won’t be able to show Marquis at auction, and maybe Marquis will be put to death. That’s the trade-off.

But there’s no trade-off because there are no repercussions. Roman participates in the auction as planned. It’s the second second-chance he’s been given—the first was after he punched Marquis—and he still blows it. He keeps scanning the crowd to see if Martha shows up. He’s not focusing on the task, which is Marquis; he’s seeking redemption rather than responsibility. For a time, though, he gets away with it. The horse is spirited but falls into line; then a helicopter spooks Marquis, and Roman is thrown and dragged and winds up with a concussion. Because of that, the horse program is shut down and Marquis will be put down. So Roman sets Marquis free. He sends him back into the wild west. 

In the end, looking out through the small slot of his solitary window, Roman sees the horse on the other side of the barb wire fence. I assume this visitation is in his mind’s eye. Otherwise, it’s dumb. 

Oh, right. He also gets some forgiveness in a letter from Martha. Like we give a shit.

Best supporting actor
It’s a shame. There are good moments. I liked the group-therapy scene when the men talk about how much time lapsed between the thought and the crime. (For most, it’s barely a second.) I liked the horse-training team riding across the plains in their DOC jumpsuits. (It suggests a great western/prison break flick that might be made.) I liked the scene where Marquis keeps turning his backside to Roman—shunning him. (That horse is a helluva actor.)

But the movie, which was developed through Robert Redford’s Sundance labs, combines the gritty with the unrealistic—all the stuff above that I don’t buy—and it’s a bad mix. 

Worse, the longer the movie progressed, the less I liked our lead. Roman is on a path to redemption, which can be long and tortured, but he keeps lunging after forgiveness rather than owning up to responsibility. He becomes less of a man. That’s not any path to redemption I'd like to take.

Posted at 07:51 AM on Monday April 08, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  

Sunday April 07, 2019

Box Office: Shazam! Lightens DCEU

Remember, kids: Floss before you fight.

This weekend, we got the first “Shazam!” movie in 78 years, the first “Pet Sematary” since 1992, and the first “white man overcomes racism with the help of an unlikely black friend” period piece since “Green Book” opened six months ago. 

“Shazam!” wins. No surprise.

The surprise is that its $53.4 million opening is the worst of the DC Extended Universe by far. The second-worst is “Aquaman,” which opened the week before Christmas 2018, and that's always a busy time to see movies. Almost everything else in the DCEU debuted with more than $100 mil. 

You could argue “Shazam!” is hardly DCEU anyway. Or if it is, it indciates how schizophrenic that universe has become. It began dark, with Superman killing people, got darker, with Batman a nutjob and with the death of Superman, lightened its (and our) load with “Wonder Woman,” chuckled a bit with “Aquaman,” and is now it's an outright comedy. That's not a universe, with consistent laws, but an entire spectrum. But at least it's going in the right direction. I‘ll take laughs any day over the groans Zack Snyder’s crap causes.

“Pet Sematary” finished in second with $25 million. Unadjusted, that's the second-biggest opener for a movie based on a Stephen King story/novel. Adjust for inflation and things change only slightly:

1 It $124,785,300
2 The Green Mile $32,026,600
3 Pet Sematary $27,399,700
4 1408 $27,060,700
5 Secret Window $26,519,400

Except, oops, that “Pet Sematary” is the 1989 one with Fred Gwynn and Denise Crosby. When I wrote a Stephen King Top 5/Worst 5 list for MSN back in 2004, I tapped 1989's “Pet Sematary” as the third-worst of the bunch, behind only “Sleepwalkers” and “Maximum Overdrive.” But it opened well and did well at the box office. Here's SK's top 10 total box office, adjusted:

1 It $329,672,600
2 The Green Mile $235,822,400
3 The Shining $147,760,900
4 Carrie (1976) $143,293,000
5 Misery $131,089,100
6 Pet Sematary (1989) $130,717,700
7 Stand by Me $127,265,600
8 1408 $94,481,100
9 The Running Man $87,677,100
10 The Lawnmower Man $69,848,300

Where's the now-beloved “Shawshank Redemption”? In 15th place, with $60 million—just ahead of one of my favorites, “Dead Zone” with Christopher Walken. Where will this year's “Pet Sematary” wind up? Who knows, but it won't touch the 1989 version. At the same time, it's probably better. Can't get no worse, as John sang. 

The other opener, “The Best of Enemies,” this year's “Green Book,” didn't do so well out of the gate: sixth place, $4.5. Trivia that doesn't feel trivial: “Green Book” has grossed almost as much in China ($70 million) as in the U.S. ($84).

Posted at 12:56 PM on Sunday April 07, 2019 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  

Friday April 05, 2019

Cracking Wise

That's Joan Blondell in “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” which I watched the other day. She had quite a career, didn't she? A lot of the early Cagney co-stars lasted until the end of the ‘30s (Patricia Ellis) or maybe into the TV age if they were lucky (Madge Evans), but Blondell kept going, never stopped, and, a year before she died in 1979 she had a great bit part as Vi, the wise-cracking waitress at the local diner in “Grease.” It was one of three gigs she had that year. She have five in ’79. She kept going. Someone should do a documentary on her. 

It's interesting the role TV occupies in “Rock Hunter.” Also marketing. Seems to have a greater awareness than we do of the chinciness of it all. And am I the only one who notices the “Robocop” echoes? Tony Randall and Miguel Ferrer both successfully push products and get rewarded with corporate vice-presidencies and executive washroom keys. Ferrer's product is Robocop; Randall's is Jayne Mansfield. 

Here's to cracking wise.

Posted at 09:45 AM on Friday April 05, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Thursday April 04, 2019

On Deep Background, Mueller's Team Pushes Back

I'm glad some members of the Mueller team are apparently speaking up. This is from The New York Times yesterday:

Some of Robert S. Mueller III's investigators have told associates that Attorney General William P. Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated, according to government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations.

At stake in the dispute — the first evidence of tension between Mr. Barr and the special counsel's office — is who shapes the public's initial understanding of one of the most consequential government investigations in American history. Some members of Mr. Mueller's team are concerned that, because Mr. Barr created the first narrative of the special counsel's findings, Americans' views will have hardened before the investigation's conclusions become public.

Who's helping shape that early opinion? Why The New York Times. Looks at this headline from a week ago:

Not even a “Barr Claims” or “Barr Says” or simply: “Barr:” at the front. Then if you go to their “Today's Paper” section from that day, you see some of their other stories:

  • A Cloud Over Trump's Presidency is Lifted
  • Trump Declares Exoneration, and a War on His Enemies
  • Barr Goes Beyond Mueller in Clearing Trump on Obstruction, Drawing Scrutiny

One thing Sarah Palin got right: The mainstream media is the lamestream media—but for the opposite reason that she was claiming. If anything, they tend to lean right; they get played by conservative forces. All the time. 

So what are we hearing from Mueller's team now? It's still fairly opaque; still on deep background. Mueller's team did write multiple summaries of the report, none of which AG Barr used. And much concern from Mueller's team apparently relates to what the Times euphemistically calls “Mr. Trump’s efforts to thwart the investigation.” I.e., obstruction of justice. But the Times spends most of the article giving us Barr's perspective. Typical. And lame.

Posted at 10:42 AM on Thursday April 04, 2019 in category Media   |   Permalink  

Wednesday April 03, 2019

Movie Review: More Than Blue (2018)


In any love story, the real question for the writer is “How do you keep the lovers apart?” Because the lovers together are pretty boring. Answers have varied through the centuries: family, class, race, homophobia, early death.

The couple in “More Than Blue,” K (Jasper Liu) and Cream (Chen Yi-han), have elements of the last one—early death, his—but that’s not where the drama is. The drama is in withholding this information from her.

No, that’s not even it. The drama is in how he decides to make everything right for her once he’s gone. And the answer to that is a little fucked up. 

The 10 year itch
More than Blue reviewThey meet cute. In high school (played by Chih Tian-hsih and Pipi Yao), he’s sad and withdrawn, she’s bold and insouciant. One day, because he’s sad and withdrawn, he runs superhard around the school track, then lays down on a bench catching his breath. Rebellious and smoking a cigarette against school rules, she comes up to him and blows smoke in his face. He coughs, she laughs. She’s forward, he’s confused. Then a school official approaches, she hands him her cigarette and scrams. He gets in trouble. “Cute.”

She’s the active force in their relationship. She initiates the intro, the follow up, dates. She initiates the first kiss. When she finds out he lives alone (because his father recently died of cancer and his mother split), she suggests they live together (because she, too, is alone). And in this manner—through high school, college and music industry jobs—they live together and love together.

Wait, back up. They don’t really love together. At one point, 10 years in, she’s talking to a friend, Bonnie (Emma Wu), and admits that she and K have never had sex. Bonnie, a superannoying pop star who speaks in the third person, is horrified, and gives the usual shitty advice girls give each other: She tells Cream to find another man to make K jealous. She does. She finds a dentist, Yang You-xian (Zhang Shu-hao). Problem? He’s engaged.

Meanwhile, K’s cancer has worsened and the doc gives him a year to live. How does he spend that time? Living life to the fullest with the woman he loves? Nah. First, he hires some private detectives to look into Dr. Yang to see if he’s a right guy. They come back with a squeaky clean report except for the engagement. So K has them look into the fiancée, Cindy (Chen Tingni), too. Turns out she's cheating on him, they get photos, and K sends them to Dr. Yang. That’s right. He’s trying to break up a couple so the woman he loves can marry a man she was only using to make him jealous.

That’s some fucked-up shit.

But wait! There’s more. Eventually Dr. Yang proposes, Cream accepts, and K helps her pick a wedding dress. Then she makes him try on a groom’s outfit. Then she has their picture taken together—each obviously in love with the other, each saddened by the events they’ve set in motion. Then we see them walking down the aisle together. As bride and groom? Of course not. K is giving away the bride to Dr. Yang. The camera lingers on a sad close-up of him placing her hand into Yang’s; then he leaves the building, the story, this life.

That’s some fucked-up shit.  

But wait! There’s more. You see, K wasn’t the only one with secrets. We find out—via flashback—that Cream knew that K was dying. We also find out via another flashback that Dr. Yang knew that Cream really loved K, not him. So what’s the reason these two went along with the charade? What is Cream thinking? “The man I love—who obviously loves me—is dying, and wants me to marry a man I don’t love ... so I’ll do it? Because even though I initiated every step in our relationship I can’t initiate this last one—where we talk about loving each other?” And what’s Dr. Yang excuse? “Yes, my fiancée loves another man; but I must marry her anyway because...?”

But wait! There’s more.

Sadder than sadness
For a time, we think K just dies somewhere alone. Not true. Via another flashback, we see Cream going to the hospital and finally confronting him about everything. (He cries—because I guess his secret is out, or because she loves him so much, or who the fuck knows.) Then she brings him home. Their home. Yes, she leaves Dr. Yang. And she and K take a photo together on the couch. And as they wait for the timer, K’s head slowly, irrevocably slumps onto hers.

At this point I’m thinking it’s like a fucked-up version of “Gift of the Magi”:

  • I’m dying so I got you a husband
  • I left my husband because you’re dying

Except then I think she dies. Right? I think his gravestone includes her name as well. (It flashed by quickly, sorry.) And Dr. Yang looks at it and cries. He sobs ... for himself? The sadness of the world? The fact that he lost his hot cheating fiancée to this idiot scheme?

“More Than Blue” is based on a 2009 Korean film of the same name—both in English and in the original. The Korean version translates as “A Story Sadder than Sadness” as does the Chinese: 《比悲伤更悲伤的故事 》. This version opened last November in Taiwan and broke the opening weekend box-office record, then became the highest-grossing domestic film of the year. It’s now playing in Mainland China, where it’s grossed $120 million and counting.

None of this exactly shocks me. Thirty years ago in Taiwan, when I lived there, sappy/weepy was big: Air Supply (particularly “All Out of Love”), George Michael (particularly “Careless Whisper”), and the 1980 movie “Somewhere in Time, with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour as time-crossed lovers who are united in death. Or something. That whole “lives of quiet desperation” thing Thoreau warned us about? The Chinese find it glorious.

Posted at 10:21 AM on Wednesday April 03, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2018   |   Permalink  

Tuesday April 02, 2019

The Man Who Fell to Earth

The New Yorker has an article up on Bill Hader, comic genius and acting savant, which you can see here. It ends with this thought, which I find lovely and wish I could hold on to longer:

“The Russian writers were fascinated by people who kept moving toward being unhappy, despite their intentions. And I do feel like there's a huge balance thing going on in the universe. My happiness level has gone up, ‘Barry’ is a giant success, and I finally get to direct. But I get divorced.” He began to laugh. “I try to remember that all this ends, so just be happy. Del Close”—the father of modern improv—“would tell the story of the skydiver whose parachute didn't open after he jumped out of the plane, and he just kept dancing and doing flips and acrobatics and entertaining people as he fell to the earth. I was incredibly moved by that.” His eyes shone. “Because we‘re all falling to the earth, so what else are you going to do?”

He’s such a good actor it would be a shame if he did less of it, but that's the feeling you get from the piece. He wants to direct. After I read it, with all these actors praising his acting, I went back to my reviews. For “The Skeleton Twins” I wrote, “Hader's a revelation here. He's the real deal.”

With “Trainwreck” I asked “What works?” and answered this way:

Bill Hader, who might be the best actor to ever come off of “Saturday Night Live.” Yes. He was completely believable as the younger, gay brother in “The Skeleton Twins,” and he's completely believable here as a staid, well-meaning celebrity surgeon. He feels like a doctor. I would go to him if I had pain in my knee. I don't know how Hader does that.

May he keep doing it. 

Posted at 04:48 PM on Tuesday April 02, 2019 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Tuesday April 02, 2019

Pres. Biff

Yesterday, the New York magazine website published a good, short piece by Jonathan Chait called, “The President as Adolescent Bully,” which includes a shot of Biff Tanen from the “Back to the Future” movies. Some of the better lines:

He is especially fascinated with the appearance of toughness. Trump has praised “his” generals as looking like they come out of “central casting.” He has praised his ICE director, “He looks very nasty, he looks very mean ... that's what I'm looking for.” He has famously urged police officers to treat suspects in their custody with more brutality. Of course, abusing a person who's in handcuffs does not take courage.

Actual courage is a virtue Trump regards with indifference sometimes bordering on hostility. He has spent years mocking John McCain for having been captured in the Vietnam War, completely disregarding his perseverance under torture and refusal to give his captors a propaganda victory by accepting their offer to be sent home ahead of his order of capture. This is not simply Trump's habit of automatically flaying anybody who attacks him. “He was captured. Does being captured make you a hero? I don't know. I'm not sure,” Trump said in 1999, long before McCain had crossed him in any way. ...

What is so remarkable about Trump is that he has no interest or need to conceal his cruelty. Trump is a highly familiar social type: the leader of a gang, taunting his targets while his flunkies guffaw. Before he came along, it was never possible to imagine such a person occupying the Presidency of the United States.

The distinction about Trump loving the appearance of toughness but not actual courage is a good one. Dems should use it. All the time. 

Posted at 02:52 PM on Tuesday April 02, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Tuesday April 02, 2019

In the Eye of a Hurricane

Posted at 10:03 AM on Tuesday April 02, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Monday April 01, 2019

Movie Review: Us (2019)


As I stood outside the SIFF Egyptian theater after the Saturday matinee, waiting for my wife and blinking in the late afternoon sun, my immediate thoughts were:

  1. not as scary as “Get Out”
  2. not as cohesive

Rabbits? Hands Across America? So much left unanswered. Apparently I wasn’t the only one feeling this. I kept seeing moviegoers scrunching their faces and beginning conversations like: “So if...?” or “So then what...?” Would’ve made a nice tableau vivant. Title: “Us.”

That night I proved myself wrong on the first point. I woke up at 1 a.m. scared witless. I don’t know if it was retroactive horror, if I’d just had a bad nightmare, or some combination, but I was suddenly terrified of doppelgangers. I saw them everywhere. I didn’t even want to look in the mirror because there was another one. To make it to my office—since I couldn’t get back to sleep—I did that thing where you keep the light on at one end of a dark hallway until you can walk down and turn the light on at the other. Then you schlep back to turn off the first. I’m 56.

Earlier, online, I’d proved myself wrong on the second point, too. At the least, questions I thought unanswered were in fact answered in Jordan Peele’s film. But the answers only led to more questions.

So if...
Apparently the doppelgangers, “the tethered,” are clones from an abandoned government project. I’d missed that 11th-hour explanation. And the rabbits are what they ate—raw rabbit—while they mimicked the actions of the surface people above.

OK. So...

How long ago was the project abandoned? Five years? Because the kids are like, what, 10 or 12? So are they the last of the tethered or are there more? Or is the whole thing automated now? That would explain why tethered/surface dwellers seem the exact same age. Officials aren’t getting the DNA swipe in utero or waiting for the kids to be born to clone them; it’s all natural. Red and Abraham, underground, simply mimic the movements of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe (Winston Duke) above—including sex. They have kids the traditional way. But then would the kids be clones? And what to make of Adelaide’s above-ground kids, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex)? Since she’s “tethered,” what are they now, really?

More: Does everyone have a clone? Trump? Beyoncé? Lin-Manuel Miranda? And is it America or everywhere? If it’s a U.S. government project it’s just here, right? Which means immigrants don’t have clones. Is that why we’re so xenophobic? They are their own entities while we’re half-people—sharing sensations and movements and thoughts with creatures below us.

Is that why we feel so empty? Needy? Lost? Listless? Is that why Adelaide’s parents fight on the boardwalk in 1986 and her dad is drunk and needs to play another game of Wac-a-Mole rather than watching his girl, which is why she wanders down to the beach, and into the funhouse (“Find yourself”), where she does exactly that: She encounters Red, who (11th hour reveal), grabs her, chokes her, and takes her place in the sun.

That reveal is my favorite part of the movie, by the way. It not only turns the movie on its head but the audience, too. Because we’ve been rooting for the wrong person the entire time. The little girl lost? We actually wanted her to die. Jordan Peele must’ve chuckled to himself when he came up with that.

But of course this reveal leads to its own series of follow-ups. Did Adelaide always know she was original Red or had she repressed it? If she knew, why go back to Santa Cruz? And did Red know she was original Adelaide? If so, wouldn’t her conversation in the living room have been different? “I’m back,” etc. “Thought you could get away with it,” etc. Also, when she woke up in the underground and got unchained from the bed, why didn’t she just escape? Up the escalator and back to the funhouse? Speaking of: What lame-ass inspector is responsible for keeping that place up to code? “Yeah, sorry lady, I don’t see anything on this manifold about an escalator inside a tent.”

Another thought: Why are the tethered stronger and faster than the people above ground? Is raw rabbit meat that fulfilling? So kale is just bullshit?

Right now, most likely, some reader is growing increasingly frustrated with me: Dude, it’s a metaphor! For class issues! Don’t you get anything?

Right. But I want the metaphor to make sense outside the metaphor, too. And this thing is just ... impossible. The logistics alone boggle the mind. Makes the U.S. entry into WWII seem like a weekend camping trip.

Other favorite moments are the stuff that made me laugh. Like when Gabe, genially enough at first, confronts the silent family at the end of the driveway, then returns with a baseball bat and his “black voice.” That cracked me up. Especially when it didn’t work.

Also: “Call the police”/“Playing ‘Fuck The Police’ by NWA.” Perfect.

I still don’t get “Hands Across America.” I remember it, and I like that it was in the movie, but it doesn’t resonate. OK, so the tethered are replicating a big empty-gesture event about homelessness from 1986. And...?

What resonates is the main thing: The horror that there’s someone who looks like you, and who is crushed by life and forced to live underground and have nothing, and whom you don’t even know exists, and who wants your life. And yes, that’s a class metaphor. What's interesting is that it doesn’t exactly make you sympathetic for the literal lower classes. The opposite.

“Us” is a movie worth seeing and talking about. I liked it. But. For all those reasons above: but. And maybe too I'm just tired of another movie playing off of and exacerbating paranoia about the federal government. It’s been going on for decades and simply plays into the hands of people who proclaim the federal government “the problem," “the enemy” and “the swamp.” It leads to Reagan, the Bushes and Trump. Which is the real horror.

Posted at 09:33 AM on Monday April 01, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  

Twitter: @ErikLundegaard