Friday May 31, 2019
The Sad History of the Mariners First-Round Draft Picks This Century
Read ‘em and weep.
In honor of MLB draft day next Monday, a bit of trivia. This century, 28 of the 30 Major League teams have managed to draft a player in the first round who has gone on to become an All-Star at some point in their career—either for that team or another team.
Any guesses as to the two teams that haven’t done this? Yes, Mariners fans, one of them is our Seattle Mariners. The other is the San Diego Padres. No wonder we’re natural rivals.
The blame on our end can begin with Hall-of-Fame GM Pat Gillick, who, during his tenure, kept giving up first-round picks as compensation for signing high-quality free agents like John Olerud, Jeff Nelson and, OK, Greg Colbrunn. Indeed, in four of the first five years of the century, the Ms didn’t have a first-round pick. And the one year we did, we went with John Mayberry Jr. ... who didn’t sign with us.
That’s the first part of the M's story of first-round failure. The second part is more heart-wrenching, since there’s no compensation in the form of a John Olerud. It’s just a tale of incompetence.
First, you’ve got to admire the talent in the 2005 draft. All but one of the top seven picks became All-Stars—including Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki. The one pick who didn’t become an All-Star was, of course, ours: Jeff Clement, who went third overall. He retired in 2012 with a career .218/.277/.371 slash line and negative WAR.
Was 2006 worse? With the fifth overall pick, we went with Brandon Morrow, who, yes, is having a resurgent career in his 30s in the NL. Since 2015, he’s appeared in 103 games, tossed 123 innings, and has a 2.04 ERA with a 112-28 strikeout-walk ratio. He’s now the Cubs closer with 22 saves this season. He might even become an All-Star and relieve us of this ignominy. So how is this pick worse? Because of who was chosen immediately after him, meaning who the M's passed on: Clayton Kershaw (7th), Tim Lincecum (10th) and Max Scherzer (11th).
And the hits kept coming. In 2007, we chose Phillippe Aumont. In 2010, we traded him and in 2015 he retired with negative WAR. In 2008, we grabbed Josh Fields. In 2011, we traded him and from 2017-18 he pitched well for the Dodgers; after being cut by two teams this spring he’s currently with the Rangers triple-A club.
With the second overall pick in 2009, we went with Dustin Ackley. Twenty-three picks later, the Angels nabbed a guy named Mike Trout. Etc.
The third part of the story, what’s happened this decade, is a work in progress, since it takes a while to develop talent, then it takes a while for that talent to be recognized. But some teams have already managed to do this. Here's a comparison between the Houston Astros' first-round picks this decade and ours. All-Stars are highlighted—as if they needed to be:
|2010||D. DeShields Jr.||4.4||n/a *||0|
|2011||George Springer||21.1||Danny Hultzen||0|
|2012||Carlos Correa||20||Mike Zunino||7.8|
|2013||Mark Appel||0||D.J. Peterson||0|
|2014||Brady Aiken||0||Alex Jackson||-0.3|
|2015||Alex Bregman||15.3||n/a **||0|
* Lost first-round pick for signing Chone Figgins ***
** Lost first-round pick for signing Nelson Cruz
*** You heard me: Chone Figgins
None of our picks are in the Mariners organizaiton anymore, while Springer, Correa and Bregman are the heart of the World Champion Houston Astros. By ESPN’s recent rankings, they are the 37th, 27th, and sixth best players in baseball.
So which team has picked the most first-round All-Stars this century? That would be the Kansas City Royals, with six, including Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, all of whom helped that benighted franchise to a pennant in 2014 and a World Series title in 2015. Next up is the San Francisco Giants with five, including Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner, all of whom helped that franchise, which hadn't won a World Series since The “Say Hey” Kid was running down fly balls in the Polo Grounds, win three titles in five years.
My tabulation of first-round All-Stars, by the way, doesn’t include supplemental first-rounders—the guys beyond the first 30. If it did, yes, hallelujah, the Mariners would have picked an All-Star. Ready? Adam Jones in 2003. Who of course never played for us.
One hopes we’re doing better with Jerry DiPoto—rather than Bill Bavasi or Jack Zduriencik—as GM. Wasn’t he, after all, with the Angels when they drafted Mike Trout in 2009? Actually, no. He didn’t join that club until fall 2011, and, under his tenure, the team lost its first-round picks in both 2012 and 2013 by signing, respectively, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Then they went with Sean Newcomb in 2014 (3.7 WAR after 2+ years with the Braves) and Taylor Ward in 2015 (negative WAR after limited action with the Angels). Then DiPoto got the boot, and in September 2015 we got him. He's now in the process of rebuilding our team.
How have his first-rounders done so far? It’s early:
- 2016: OF Kyle Lewis is with AA Arkansas, where he’s hitting .211/.316/.325
- 2017: 1B Evan White is with AA Arkansas, where he’s hitting .234/.323/.324
- 2018: RHP Logan Gilbert was the opening day starter for West Virginia Power before being promoted to A+ Modest Nuts, where he’s 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA
For those interested, here are this century's first-round All-Stars and the teams that chose them:
|Royals||6||Zack Greinke, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Aaron Crow|
|Astros||5||Jason Castro, Mike Foltynewicz, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman|
|D-Backs||5||Carlos Quentin, Justin Upton, Max Scherzer, A.J. Pollock, Trevor Bauer|
|Giants||5||Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Joe Panik|
|Brewers||4||Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, Jeremy Jeffress|
|Nationals||4||Chad Cordero, Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper|
|Reds||4||Jay Bruce, Devin Mesoraco, Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal|
|Angels||3||Joe Saunders, Jered Weaver, Mike Trout|
|Athletics||3||Nick Swisher, Sonny Gray, Addison Russell|
|Cubs||3||Mark Prior, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant|
|Dodgers||3||Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager|
|Marlins||3||Adrian Gonzalez, Christian Yelich, Jose Fernandez|
|Mets||3||Scott Kazmir, Matt Harvey, Michael Conforto|
|Orioles||3||Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters, Manny Machado|
|Phillies||3||Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Aaron Nola|
|Pirates||3||Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Gerrit Cole|
|Blue Jays||2||Aaron Hill, Ricky Romero|
|Braves||2||Adam Wainwright, Jason Heyward|
|Cards||2||Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha|
|Indians||2||Drew Pomeranz, Francisco Lindor|
|Rangers||2||Mark Teixeira, Justin Smoak|
|Rays||2||Evan Longoria, David Price|
|Tigers||2||Justin Verlander, Andrew Miller|
|Twins||2||Joe Mauer, Glen Perkins,|
|Red Sox||1||Jacoby Ellsbury|
|White Sox||1||Chris Sale|
Monday, the Mariners get the 20th overall pick. In 2020, it’ll be much, much higher.
Wednesday May 29, 2019
Bill Buckner (1949-2019)
Everyone's doing their best to cull up other facts and stats. Like the 2,715 career hits (66th all-time) or the 10,037 plate appearances (84th all-time), or the fact that he never struck out more than 40 times in a season or three times in a game, and for his career he walked as often as he struck out (450-453). In 1980, he led the league in batting (.324) and in ‘81 and ’83 in doubles (35, 38). Everyone's mentioning all of this.
And when they do mention the play, they make pains to let everyone know—as if we did not—that it was Game 6, not 7, and the Red Sox weren't ahead, the score was tied. If he'd made the play, a routine grounder, Game 6 of the 1986 World Series would‘ve gone to the top of the 11th, tied 5-5. But he didn’t so it continued onto Game 7 the following night. The Red Sox led that one at one point, too.
The bottom half of the 10th was a clusterfuck so why did he get stuck with it? That's the question. Two outs, nobody on, a 2-run lead, and everyone in Boston all but tasting their first World Championship since 1918. Then:
- Gary Carter, single to left
- Kevin Mitchell, single to center
- Ray Knight, single to center
At which point, Sox manager John McNamara got off his ass and relieved Calvin Schiraldi, who'd already gone 2 2/3 innings, for Bob Stanley, their closer. Red Sox are still leading, mind you. It's first and third. You just need a strikeout, a groundout, a fly out, or a foul out. The key word is out. Instead:
- Wild pitch; Mitchell scores, Knight to 2B
That ties the score. So why does Bob Stanley get off scot-free? Why does Shiraldi, who let the Mets tie it up in the bottom of the 8th, and then couldn't close the deal in the bottom of the 10th? So much pain. Who's causing us this pain?
Back in ‘86, I was taking a break from Saturday night studying (I was that guy) and watching it all in the basement of Coffman Union on the University of Minnesota campus. I might’ve even had a bet on the game. I certainly had rooting interests. They develop fast in the postseason, and I'd liked the way that Red Sox had come back against the Angels in the ALCS, and I disliked almost everybody on that Mets team. They all seemed like assholes. (They all were assholes). Plus I wanted to see Red Sox fans celebrate for the first time since 1918 rather than Mets fans for the first time since 1969. Instead, the above, and it already felt lost by the time Stanley threw the wild pitch. How could they regroup?
They didn‘t. This is how it’s written up on Baseball Reference:
- Mookie Wison ... Reached on E3 (Ground Ball); Knight scores/unER
I think he got stuck with it because it looked like a play any of us could‘ve made. It was the cherry on top of the shit sundae. Nobody remembers the shit sundae, they just remember someone putting that cherry on top of it. His name didn’t help him either. Alliterative. There's a reason superhero secret identities are often alliterative. It's easier to remember Clark Kent and Peter Parker than Clark Richards and Peter Engelson.
Or Bill Buckner.
Anyway, everyone who is writing about his death at the age of 69 is trying not to focus on all that. No one wants the headline the New York Times gave poor Fred Snodgrass:
Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly
This is the headline the Times gave for this go-round:
Bill Buckner, All-Star Overshadowed by World Series Error, Dies at 69
Yes, it's a bit of a cheat. “Overshadowed” is how they get away with it. It's not us, it's you.
I'd recommend for any baseball fan Alex Gibney's doc “Catching Hell,” which is mostly about Steve Bartman, the Cubs fan who tried to catch a foul ball during Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, but there's a good section on Billy Buck on it. It's about scapegoating. It's about finding that person who caused us so much pain; even if there's so many others we could point the finger at.
I also recommend Joe Posnanski's column on Billy Buck. Joe's been talking a lot lately about how it's not your father's game of baseball anymore. Batting averages are down, triples are down, walks are down, homeruns are up, strikeouts are way up. It's all or nothing now. Buckner was different. I like this early on:
That was Billy Buck's superpower: He almost never struck out. He did not develop his powers through radioactive spiders or the strength of earth's yellow sun. He did it through sheer stubbornness. Nine times in his career, Bill Buckner finished first or second in the league for fewest strikeouts per at-bat. You might GET him out. You would not STRIKE him out.
In 1980, the year he led the league in batting, he came to the plate 615 times. He struck out 18 of them.
Bryce Harper has struck out 19 times in the last two weeks.
Joey Gallo struck out 207 times in 2018.
Bill Buckner struck out 205 times in the 1970s. The whole decade.
Attention must be paid, and Poz pays it:
Bill Buckner had become the broken-down man of the 1986 World Series BECAUSE of baseball. That's not mentioned enough. When you see Buckner on that replay, with Vin Scully's voice singing “BEHIND THE BAG,” you are seeing the product of a baseball life. Every scar, every limp, every hitch, those were earned on the diamond.
He was only 69. Complications related to dementia. Former commissioner Bart Giamatti once said that baseball is designed to break your heart, but other things are more so.
Tuesday May 28, 2019
Movie Review: Blinded By the Light (2019)
Bummer. I was rooting for this one.
It’s not like I didn’t enjoy the songs, or the enthusiasm, or the pride I felt that this 1980s Pakistani-British kid and his Sikh friend were bonkers for this very American icon and his very American songs. And it’s not like I didn’t flash back to my own period of Brucedom (1982-87), back when, really, all I wanted in life was to be able to make someone as happy as Bruce made me during, say, “Jersey Girl,” the B-side to “Cover Me.” Which I didn’t even know wasn’t a Springsteen song! It was Tom Waits! How did I not know that? I guess because the internet hadn’t been invented yet.
But I totally flashed back to all that—to waiting in line outside Dayton’s on a cold spring morning to get Springsteen concert tickets for the first leg of his “Born in the U.S.A.” tour, and seeing not one but two shows, including the filming of the “Dancing in the Dark” video with the then-unknown Courtney Cox. I thought of my friend Stu, who wanted to be Freehold, NJ in South Minneapolis, and Dave and Pete, senior year of high school, playing “Thunder Road” on the tapedeck in Dave’s car, and rolling down the windows in unison when Bruce sings “Roll down the windows and let the wind blow back your hair,” which I, in the back seat, thought looked so, so cool.
I flashed to all of this. But man is this a bad movie.
Madman drummers bummers
It begins with real issues (assimilation/first gen conflicts; racism and xenophobia in reactionary times) and gets saccharine and unbelievable fast. Half the movie feels like an exuberant music video, with words printed on the screen; the other half feels like something from the Lifetime channel.
Javed (Viveik Kaira) is a first-gen Pakistani kid growing up in the 1980s in Luton, England, with his mom, two sisters, a gregarious but strict dad, and not many friends. OK, so he’s still got childhood friend Matt, but Matt grows up to be a kind of spoiled, working class kid with poncy hair and make-up. He wants to be Duran Duran. Plus he’s played by Dean-Charles Chapman, who played the younger brother of Joffrey in “Game of Thrones.” I spent half the movie trying to figure out who he was and why he bugged me so.
As Javed begins senior year of high school, we see a series of problems he needs to deal with:
- National Front fucks in Thatcher’s England
The last is the most immediate. Coming home from school, he sees a skinhead spraypainting “PAKIS OUT,” or some such, on a neighbor’s garage. The skinhead stares him down, intimidates him, follows him back to the cul-de-sac where he lives. We expect more from this but it never arrives. We expect Javed to have to stand up to them, or one of them, but he doesn’t. That feels true anyway—it's easy to avoid fights: I know—but the issue isn’t really confronted. When NF fucks attack the father during the sister’s wedding, for example, Javed is off buying Springsteen concert tickets. So he feels guilty, right? Who knows? Because then Dad gets angry and tears up the concert tickets. Then Javed flies to America against his father’s wishes because he won an essay contest. He and his friend take pictures in all the Bruce spots. Wooooo! Then he returns, there’s a facile reconciliation with the father, but do we hear from the racists again? They just kind of fade away. Which, we've found out recently, racists never do.
Of the three dilemmas, girls turns out to be the easiest. Maybe because he’s a good writer or something, with a teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), forever pushing him to “find his own voice,” and who keeps entering his essays into contests that he keeps winning, and because of all of this, maybe, he wins over Eliza, the cute, feisty classmate he’s long had a crush on. (Eliza, by the way, is played by Nell Williams, who played the young Cersei in a throwback episode of “Game of Thrones.” Which means, in another world, his girlfriend gave birth to his best friend. Awkward.) But what do we know about Eliza? Anything? She’s just a prize.
Is it odd that in the U.K. in the fall of 1987 Springsteen is considered your dad’s rock ‘n’ roll? A bit. He was still charting and putting out platinum records in the U.K. Is it odd that Javed somehow got through junior high and high school in the 1980s without even hearing of him? Yes. Then he runs into a Sikh dude, Roops (Aaron Phagura), who lays some tapes on him, “The River” and “Darkness,” and who tells him, “Bruce is a direct line to all that’s true in this shitty world.” Javed is doubtful. He knows us? But once he plays him, Bruce takes over his life. He talks about him, writes about him, dresses like him, posters his walls with his posters, sings his songs, quotes his songs. It’s a bit much, to be honest.
I like that the lyrics are put on screen—that the words matter. I didn’t like how it became a music video; I didn’t like that the enthusiasm for the songs outstripped the movie’s logic. In one scene, Javed and Roops break into the school’s DJ station and put on “Born to Run,” to the consternation of the Pet Shop Boys-loving kid who runs it, and it blasts throughout the school. But their enthusiasm takes them outside the school, where ... they’re still singing the song? Are there speakers outside, too? Is this a Bollywood movie? Same at Saturday market. Javed is listening to a song (“Thunder Road”?), then he sees Eliza and begins singing it to her; then he’s joined by Matt’s dad (Rob Brydon in wig), and soon the whole Saturday market is singing it.
What’s the appeal of Springsteen anyway? In a broad sense, I think it’s twofold:
- The sense of being trapped
- The need to get out
That’s why he appeals to high schoolers. Springsteen mythologized the dissolute nothingness of high school and its aftermaths, paling around with Spanish Johnny, Hazy Davy and Bad Scooter, and going after girls like Rosy, Wendy, and of course Mary. Bruce mythologized breaking free: “It’s town full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win,” etc. He made this small life seem big and poetic. But getting out wasn’t an answer in itself, and eventually his working-class characters couldn’t even get the jobs they were running from. Springsteen’s songs began as poetry about youthful possibilities, and ended as prose about the dead ends of adulthood.
Above all there’s a yearning—generally for something that once existed or never will.
Indians in the summer
There’s some of this in the movie, but it’s a shame writer-director Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”) didn’t underline how Bruce’s songs help push Javed toward Eliza (for the romance of it) and away from his father (because he’s the reason Javed feels trapped).
The father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), may be the movie’s biggest problem. He’s over-the-top in a way that’s uninteresting. He snatches Javed’s wages, forbids him going to parties, discourages his writing, doesn’t want him to go to a distinguished university since it’ll be away from the family. Then he wonders why he isn’t happy. The reconciliation, for both, is that Javed moves forward, and away, but doesn’t forget his family. As if that were ever a thing.
I didn’t even get to the elderly white neighbor who shows up periodically to give Javed a thumbs up.
“Blinded By the Light” is based on a true story but never feels true. It always feels like feel-good fantasy. It’s exactly what Springsteen’s music wasn’t.
Monday May 27, 2019
Bart Starr (1934-2019)
I think of Dave Budge, one of my best friends in childhood, who lived across the street in South Minneapolis, and with whom I would throw a football around on Emerson Avenue in spring, fall and sometimes winter.
For some reason (relatives?), he rooted for the Green Bay Packers rather than the Minnesota Vikings, as was custom in our neighborhood. By this point, the the point I began to care about football, Super Bowls still numbered in single digits (or, I guess more appropriately, before “X”), and the glory days of the Packers were already over. But the team was already legendary. Back then, a lot of teams were 1-1 in the Super Bowl, seeming to lose their first shot only to win a later one:
- Chiefs lost I, won IV
- Colts lost III, won V
- Cowboys lost V, won VI
- Dolphins lost VI, won VII
It was nice—like teams were taking turns. (Until it was the Vikings' turn.) But at the top, both chronologically and in the SB standings, was Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, 2-0 in Super Bowls I and II, and led by #15, the MVP of both Super Bowls, the perfectly named Bart Starr.
Despite that name, he had an ordinary face and manner, and never acted the star. He was thoroughly Midwest in that regard, even though he was Alabama born and bred. He was also at the helm during the legendary “Ice Bowl” victory over the Cowboys in 13-below weather in Green Bay on Dec. 31, 1967. Apparently he was the one who called the QB sneak with the Packers on the Cowboys' goal line, down by 3, with less than 20 seconds left and no timeouts. If it didn't work, season over. But it worked. I remember reading about it and thinking, “I wouldn't have taken that risk.” That he did is why he was where he was.
Did we argue, Dave and I, over who was better, Fran Tarkenton or Bart Starr? Probably. Probably one of the many such arguments as we tossed a non-official football around the neighborhood.
Anyway, when I heard the news, I thought of Dave.
Sunday May 26, 2019
“By default, I was a Mets fan, because I knew being a Yankee fan was the wrong thing to do morally.” - John Oliver pic.twitter.com/nXPHFSRafa— Roger Cormier (@yayroger) May 26, 2019
Sunday May 26, 2019
Box Office: ‘Aladdin’ Solid But No ‘Beauty’
Disney's live-action “Aladdin,” with a couple of good-looking unknowns in the leads, and the hugely known Will Smith as the hugely mocked genie, opened OK over Memorial Day weekend, grossing $86.1 mil. Among Disney's live-action remakes, that ranks upper tier but not top tier. It's the highest-ranking live action Disney remake to not gross $100 million opening weekend:
|Movie||Gross||Thtrs||Open Wknd||Open %|
|1||Beauty and the Beast (2017)||$504,014,165||4,210||$174,750,616||34.67%|
|2||Alice in Wonderland (2010)||$334,191,110||3,739||$116,101,023||34.74%|
|3||The Jungle Book (2016)||$364,001,123||4,144||$103,261,464||28.37%|
|5||Oz The Great and Powerful||$234,911,825||3,912||$79,110,453||33.68%|
|9||101 Dalmatians (1996)||$136,189,294||2,901||$33,504,025||24.60%|
|10||Alice Through the Looking Glass||$77,041,381||3,763||$26,858,726||34.86%|
|11||Pete's Dragon (2016)||$76,233,151||3,702||$21,514,095||28.22%|
Reviews were mixed (57% on RT) but let's assume it does what most of these have done and gross 28-34% of its total on opening weekend. That means total domestic will be between $260 and $300. One assumes it‘ll do better abroad, where it’s already grossed $121, since all Disney live-actions general earn 60-70% of their worldwide total in other countries. If these percentages hold (28-34/60-70), “Aladdin” could gross anywhere from $650 million to $1 billion abroad.
Of the two other openers, “Brightburn” (scary Superboy) and “Booksmart” (“Superbad” w/girls), the latter received great reviews (98%), the former meh reviews (59%), and neither blew the lid off the box office. “Brightburn” finished in fifth place with $7.5 while the critics darling finished in sixth with $6.5. Way of the world. Doesn't pay to be booksmart. I could‘ve told you that.
Meanwhile, “John Wick 3” added another $24 for second place but first place among “Wick” movies; it squeaked over the $100 million domestic mark, which no “Wick” movie has ever done. In third place, “Avengers: Endgame” added another $16.8 for a $798 domestic total. Tomorrow, it will become just the second movie (after “The Force Awakens”) to pass $800 mil domestic, but it’ll have to settle for second place. It won't catch “Force” at $936. On the adjusted chart, it's in 21st place. On the worldwide chart, it's still more than $100 million away from No. 1 “Avatar”: $2.78 billion vs. 2.67 billion.
Sunday May 26, 2019
The Press Ain't Yellow, It's Chicken*
What gets me is news breaks that this woman is weighing committing a crime before Congress &it’s getting framed by the NYT as some Lifetime drama called “Hope’s Choice.”— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 26, 2019
This is a fmr admin official considering participating in a coverup led by the President.
Treat her equally. https://t.co/XcNbSuU4QB
* With apologies to Bob Dylan.
Thursday May 23, 2019
Movie Review: Monos (2019)
“Monos” (“Monkeys”) is a beautifully shot movie about human ugliness. It’s about the thin veneer.
I like that there are no politics in it. You have the government fighting the Organization—the rebels living in the mountains and jungle. What does the government stand for? Who knows. How about the Organization? Got me. Both are just fighting. World without end.
Which is why, I suppose, our team of eight young rebels winds up betraying the Organization. Put your team in the jungle without an overarching ideology and their ideology becomes the law of the jungle. It becomes about survival—not against the government, who can’t reach them, but against you, who can.
The kids start out blind, playing a blindfolded game of futbol in the mountains, in order to, one assumes, attune their senses as well as their sense of teamwork. One assumes a lot in this, by the way, since writer-director Alejandro Landes doesn’t give us much or any exposition. We never find out anything about the eight kids, for example, beyond their code names and personalities. Where are they from? Why did they get involved? Were they kidnapped? Do they have family?
Or take Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). We first see her with the girls, Lady (Karen Quintero) and Swede (Laura Castrillon), by a mountain lake, with Swede insisting on braiding her hair. Doctora is older, and Anglo, and slightly off, and after a time we assume she’s a hostage, but it’s only by and by that we know this with any certainty.
Was she always there? Even during the blindfolded futbol game? It certainly adds to the world without end quality. There’s always a government, always being defied by rebels, who always have a hostage.
What we do see introduced to the group is a cow. Messenger (Wilson Salazar), an indigenous dwarf who shows up periodically as the Organization’s voice, presents it to the group with this caveat: It’s borrowed from a sympathetic farmer and must be returned to him after hostilities are over; if it isn’t, they will pay.
They pay. The morning after celebrating the wedding of the team’s tall, handsome leader, Wolf (Julian Giraldo), to Lady, the boys wake up late and shoot off their machine guns. A stray bullet from Perro (Paul Cubides), kills the cow. Distraught, Wolf kills himself, and Bigfoot (Moises Arias) takes defacto and then sanctioned control of the team, rallying it and protecting it with this lie: It was Wolf who killed the cow. Why not? Wolf is already dead, Perro gets off, the team continues. But the lie is the snake in the garden; if it was ever a garden.
We knew Bigfoot was trouble from the get-go. His eyes burned with anger, there was a slyness in his manner, a jealousy and need in his soul. Watching, I was thinking, “He looks like a scarier version of that American actor who was in ‘Kings of Summer’ and ‘Ender’s Game’ a few years ago.” Turns out it’s him. One wonders how his Colombian accent was. Or are they even in Colombia? Either way, he is by far the most veteran actor among the kids. For the rest, save Swede/Castrillon, this is their debut.
The movie never stops being tense in the way that “Lord of the Flies” never stops being tense. We wonder how low everyone will sink.
It’s a bit that but it’s more an internal collapse—the team eating itself. Suspicions and jealousies mount. The smallest, Smurf (Deiby Rueda), isn’t paying attention and lets Doctora escape. By this time they’re in the jungle and she has a tough time of it, and anyway since the camera follows her we assume she’ll be recaptured. She is. Messenger shows up again, and during a group confessional, a kind of struggle session, secrets spill out. Some are petty (“Lady only sleeps with powerful men”), but they keep getting worse until it’s revealed that Perro killed the cow and Bigfoot orchestrated the cover-up. Taken by boat back to Organization HQ, Bigfoot shoots Messenger in the back and returns for revenge against his betrayers. In the chaos, Doctora kills Swede and escapes, as does Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), who looks a bit like a girl because he is. Was he supposed to be a girl? Or trans?
One of my favorite moments: Rambo holes up with a family living on the edge of the forest but with all the amenities—house, electricity, TV—and on television they’re watching a report/documentary about Beethoven. “Ah, civilization,” I thought. Then it quickly becomes about the mass production of gummy bears. “Right. Civilization,” I thought.
We get some gorgeous shots in “Monos,” but do we learn much about humanity that we don’t already know? The descent isn’t particularly interesting to me; it’s the natural way. The true interest, the true struggle, is in the ascent.
Wednesday May 22, 2019
Movie Review: Sword of Trust (2019)
Marc Maron is the best part of Lynn Shelton’s “Sword of Trust.” Maybe because his exasperation with people and the times mirrors mine. He’s past the point of caring but not quite. “The fuck is this?” he says at one point, unable to believe idiots believe in the things they do. He spoke for me.
The idiot things people believe in 2019 gets us back to the Philip Roth dilemma: How do you make credible American culture when the culture always outdoes the best efforts of our imaginations? When the culture itself is a satire? Roth complained that no novelist, for example could’ve dreamed up Richard Nixon, and he complained about this ... in 1962. Imagine if he could’ve seen ahead a dozen years. Imagine if he could’ve seen ahead to Reagan and Rush and W. and Alex Jones. And of course President Donald.
So how do you do it? How do you create an American reality that seems both absurd and credible?
Shelton and co-writer Michael Patrick O’Brien (SNL”) do it by saying there’s a fringe group that believes the South actually won the Civil War.
You think about that for a second and go, “Yeah, that feels about right.” It feels so right that when you get home you go online to check that it’s not actually a thing.
The story is pretty simple. Maron plays Mel, who runs a two-bit pawnshop in a lazy stretch of Birmingham, Ala., with a conspiracy-minded assistant, Nathaniel (Jon Bass of unfortunately “Baywatch”), helping, or mostly not, by his side.
Meanwhile, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) has just lost her father and assumes she’ll get his house, but, oops, the bank is taking that. The only thing for her is an old Civil War sword, which she and her partner, Mary (Michaela Watkins), try to sell at Mel’s pawnshop.
This particular sword plays heavy in the conspiracy theory that the South actually won the Civil War. The sword was there at the surrender of the North, or something, in 1881, and so suddenly there’s a bunch of loons descending on Mel’s pawnshop.
Just writing that makes me think the movie should’ve been funnier. Maybe with a bigger budget? As is, the loonish descent is just two lousy stickup men, and the guy who played “The Wiz” on that episode of “Seinfeld” (Toby Huss). Here, he’s Hog Jaws, repping an interested buyer.
The movie goes wrong in a couple of ways:
- How much was improv? Parts felt that way, and those parts weren’t funny. Nathaniel’s whole “Flat Earth” society bit was just ... nothing
- I didn’t buy that anyone in it lived in Alabama. Not Maron from Jersey, Not Bass from Texas, not Watkins from NY or Bell from Vegas. It was filmed in Birmingham but I didn’t feel Alabama at all. (Caveat: I’ve never been to Alabama.)
- Hog Jaws says his buyer won’t visit their pawn shop; they have to get in the back of a van, like an unmarked police van, and meet him at his estate. And they go.
One, it’s a horrible negotiating move: You travel all that way, you kinda want to make the deal. More important: He’s nuts. He believes the South won the Civil War. You could die. Who’s taking that risk? These people.
Anyway, it turns out that the buyer, Kingpin (Dan Bakkedahl of “VEEP”) doesn’t believe in alt South history anyway. Hog Jaws does, and when he overhears he pulls a gun on Kingpin. But others get the drop on him and he’s taken to the “Toy Room,” which is a supercreepy name straight out of “Pulp Fiction.” We never see it; thank god. Our heroes get out alive and with $40k.
There’s a subplot, too, about Mel being in love with an addict, played by Shelton. The movie ends on a grace note.
In the end, it feels too improv, too indie. But if you like Maron, go. He’s the show.
Tuesday May 21, 2019
Movie Review: Sink or Swim (2018)
In France they call it “Le Grand Bain,” or “The Big Bath,” and it’s basically “The Full Monty” meets that great 1985 SNL skit about men's synchronized swimming starring Martin Short, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. A a group of out-of-shape, middle-aged underdogs get involved in synch swimming because nothing else is going right with their lives. It’s got some French nuance, yes, but also nasty/snooty relatives out of central casting who get told off twice by our heroes—the second time to cheers from the Seattle Internatonal Film Fest crowd. Then it gets even more Hollywood. In an international competition in Norway, our heroes not only go the distance (see: “Rocky”), not only win (“Rocky II”), but win over the foreign crowd (“Rocky IV”).
Kind of disappointing.
Afterwards, my wife called it a pretty good feel-good movie, and she’s right, but even she was shocked when I told her it got nominated for 10 Cesars last year (including best director and best film), and won one (best supporting actor).
You get a story...and you get a story
It begins well, with a voiceover from our lead, Bertrand (Mathieu Amalric), a depressive, unemployed father of two, talking about the circles at the beginning of life (earth, sun, womb, etc.), and the squares at the end of it (casket, tombstone, etc.), before getting into the whole “can’t fit a square peg into a round hole” bit. Then our story begins. With him.
Today’s the day Bertrand is supposed to begin work again, or apply for a job, or something, after a year or two fighting depression. His kids don’t respect him, his wife, Claire (Marina Fois), is losing patience, and he’s got that hopeless faraway look in his eyes that Amalric can do standing on his head. Then he sees a flyer about a men’s synchronized swim team and tears off one of the phone-number stubs.
Why is this the answer to his ennui? He tries to explain it to the chain-smoking, alcoholic, but still quite lovely female instructor, Delphine (Virginie Efira), who was once a competitive synch swimmer herself, but he doesn’t have the words. Maybe the screenwriters don’t, either. They just need the thing to happen for the movie to move forward.
Delphine’s team is already full of men for whom life didn’t turn out as planned:
- Laurent (Guillaume Canet, the French Patrick Dempsey), who has a hair-trigger temper, a son who stutters (because of dad’s hair-trigger temper), and a mother suffering dementia
- Marcus (Benoit Poelvoorde) is an unethical scamp whose pool/hot tub business is about to go bankrupt
- Thierry (Philippe Katerine, our Cesar winner) is a quiet, good-natured sort whom everyone, particularly Marcus, takes advantage of
- Simon (Jean-Hugues Anglade), who has self-published 17 rock CDs without success, works in a lunchroom in the high school his superpretty daughter, Lola (Noée Abita), attends, and lives in an RV...but not down by the river
- Basil (comedian Alban Ivanov) has been denied a mortgage because he’s too old at 38. That’s pretty much all we know about him. He's kind of one-note
- Avanish (Balasingham Thamilchelvan) is also one-note: He doesn't speak French, but Basil responds to his comments as if everyone understands
I thought the movie's focus would be Bertrand but it is a true ensemble. We see Laurent’s wife and child leave him. We see him visiting his addled, abusive mother in a home, then bring her home to live with him—where she, in her dementia, continues to verbally abuse him. At least there’s that; at least she doesn’t get better because he puts in the effort. We don't get that lie.
We see Marcus struggle to keep his business afloat, going so far as to burn a company van to collect the insurance, but not realizing he’d stopped paying the insurance months earlier. Not a bad bit.
Simon plays a rock concert for geriatrics while Thierry is abused by jocks at the pool where he works. Oh, and Delphine isn’t just a chain-smoker who wound up in AA through the love a good man. No, she's actually stalking that man, a married man, who pleads angrily to leave him alone. An interesting turn. For a time, she’s replaced by Amanda (Leila Bekhti), a martinet in a wheelchair, who whips them in shape. Well, “shape.” They’re still fairly doughy at the end.
Is this too many storylines? Each gets a bit but none goes deep. Some are played for laughs, some for pathos. Bertrand goes to work for his asshole brother-in-law in a sad furniture shop, takes his abuse with an increasingly astonished look in his eyes, until we get a worm-turns moment when he tells him exactly what he thinks of him, his furniture and the shop. Then they take it outside. Cut to: A shot of the two of them, through the window, silently and ineptly grappling with one another. That was good; that made me laugh. It’s when Bertrand’s wife, who hasn’t exactly been supportive of her husband, tells off her snooty sister in a grocery store—to actual cheers from the SIFF crowd—that I began to shake my head. Make it funny or go home.
All of it leads to a male synch competition in Norway, which somehow they‘re able to enter as the French national team. The other teams are young, fit and well-financed, while our guys are not, not and not. They’re in a sweaty panic; but then they perform perfectly. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, to be honest. That they wouldn’t embarrass themselves mostly. But the movie has them win the whole thing. They come back to their small northern town with gold medals.
The sure thing
Apparently this French version, and a British version starring Rob Brydon that came out the same year, were both inspired by a 2010 documentary, “Men Who Swim,” which IMDb describes thus:
A humorous and poignant film about a group of middle-aged men who find unlikely success as members of Sweden's all-male synchronized swim team
A Hollywood version seems inevitable, but who to cast? In the French version, because the men are over-the-hill, their best days back in the 1980s, they cast actors who were stars in the ’80s. That would make sense for the Hollywood version, too, and there’s a host of options: John Cusack, Matthew Broderick, Ralph Macchio, Emilio Estevez, on and on. If you allowed Delphine to be older, Holly Hunter would be perfect.
I just hope Hollywood's version is less Hollywood than the French one.
Sunday May 19, 2019
And Then There Was One
“Staunch libertarian Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) on Saturday said — or rather, tweeted — what no other Republican member of Congress has yet had the nerve to utter: President Trump committed impeachable acts that Attorney General William P. Barr tried to downplay by misrepresenting the Mueller report, and Republicans are too partisan to do anything about it and too lazy to even read the report.”
Jennifer Rubin, in the lede to her Washington Post Op-Ed, “Why Justin Amash Stands Alone.” She breaks the GOP, who continue to support Trump despite impeachable offenses, into three groups: the cynics who want their judges and/or tax cuts; the scaredy cats who fear GOP ostracisism, not to mention being primaried; and the nuts who actually buy the extremism that Trump is selling. Rubin says this third group is unfortunately bigger than many Americans could ever have guessed.
Sunday May 19, 2019
Whoa! ‘Wick 3’ Debuts at $57 Million, Toppling ‘Avengers’
I haven't seen any of the John Wicks but they sure are getting popular. The first one opened to $14 mil in Oct. 2014, the second doubled that debut ($30), and the third has now doubled it again ($57, est.) and in the process unseated “Avengers: Endgame” for No. 1 domestic box office champ of the weekend. “Chapter Two” also doubled the total gross of the first ($43 —> $92), and if that pattern holds, well, now you‘re starting to talk real Hollywood money.
Whoa, as someone might say.
But the real real Hollywood money is still in the superhero genre—particularly the MCU. “Endgame” fell 53%, adding another $29.4, for a domestic total of $770, which is enough to push past “Avatar” ($760) for the second-biggest domestic movie (unadjusted) of all time. If you adjust, “Endgame” is 23rd all-time, ahead of the biggest movie of the 1940s, “Fantasia” ($748), and knocking on the door of Ben and Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” at No. 22 ($771).
Since it looks like Earth’s Mightiest Heroes won't catch “Force Awakens” at $936 on the unadjusted chart, the adjusted chart is more fun to contemplate. Where might it stop? It‘ll need another $35 mil to pass “The Sting” to get into the top 20; that seems likely. But another $100 mil to pass “Avatar”’s adjusted gross of $876 to get into the top 15? Probably not. For the curious, to get to No. 1, “Avengers: Endgame” will need another $1 billion domestic to pass “Gone with the Wind”'s adjusted take of $1.8 billion.
Worldwide, I'm not seeing much movement. Have the international numbers not come in yet? “Endgame” is at $2.564 billion, “Avatar” at $2.788.
Among the other supers in release, “Captain Marvel,” in 14th place, added another $727k for $425 domestic, which is sixth-best in the MCU—after four “Avengers” movies and “Black Panther.” In 15th place for the weekend, the DCEU's “Shazam!” added $680k for a domestic total of ... wait for it ... $137, which would be great for a “John Wick” movie but abyssmal for a modern superhero movie. Among the seven DCEU movies, it ranks last (previous low: “Justice League” at $229), and among the 22(!) MCU movies, it would rank 21st, ahead of only the Ed Norton “Incredible Hulk” from 2008, which grossed $134 domestic. That's why not another “Hulk” movie; and sadly, probably why not another “Shazam!,” which had the advantage of being funny.
Elsewhere, “Pikichu” picked up another $24 for a 10-day total of $94 and a worldwide total of $206; and a “A Dog's Journey,” sequel to “A Dog's Purpose,” opened at $8 mil, less than half of what its predecessor opened to in Jan. 2017. Maybe they should‘ve kept this franchise in January.
Dying in “Endgame”’s wake? Rom-coms and buddy/chick flicks, seemingly. After two weekends, “The Hustle” (Hathaway/Rebel Wilson) has grossed $23, and after three weekends “Long Shot” (Theron/Rogen) has grossed $25. Meanwhile, “The Sun Is Also a Star” (impossibly good-looking newbie actors/models on a 24-hour rendezvous with not being deported), eked out just $2.6 million in 2,000+ theaters in its debut. Are any worth seeing? Of the three, only “Long Shot” (81%) wasn't rotten; and its premise seemed so absurd to me (Theron running for president and potentially interested in Seth Rogen) that I never considered it. “Hustle” seemed more fun but it landed at 15% on RT. Ouch.
Saturday May 18, 2019
SIFF Opening Night 2019: Worth It?
Yesterday at a SIFF screening of the French film “Sink or Swim” (think: “Full Monty” meets the 1985 SNL skit about synchronized swimming), I asked a friend whether she'd gone to SIFF's opening night the night before. She said she hadn't and kind of made a face. I said, “Yeah, sometimes I wonder why we do it. Basically we‘re paying exorbitant prices to dress up in uncomfortable clothes and fight rush-hour traffic in order to watch a movie in a venue not made for movies. And the movies often suck.”
“But, it’s good, it's good,” to quote Shrevie.
Before this year's show, talking with another patron in the McCaw Hall lobby, I initmated Patricia and I had been doing Opening Night for about 10 years now. I just did the math and ... nope. We did 2011 (“The First Grader”), missed 2012 (Lynn Shelton's “Your Sister's Sister”), but have been ever since. So seven years running. What have we seen in those seven years?
- Joss Whedon's “Much Ado About Nothing”
- “Jimi: All By My Side”
- “Cafe Society”
- “The Big Sick”
- “The Bookshop”
Odd mix. I like it when they get all Seattle on us (Jimi Hendrix; Lynn Shelton), but of those six titles I'd probably only wholeheartedly recommend “The Big Sick.”
BTW: You know how long ago three years ago was? That was when SIFF opened with a Woody Allen movie. No way that's happening now. Not from an org that begins every festival with the morally self-congratulatory and ultimately meaningless declaration, “SIFF acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people.” BTW: You capitalize “Indingenous”? Is that right?
This year's opener was “Sword of Trust,” also by Lynn Shelton, and starring Marc Maron, which I hope to write about soon—if for no other reason than so I don't forget about it. Maron was good. Parts were funny. I would like to hear it in a smaller, less echo-y venue.
The opening night after-party was odd and a bit skimpy. Same venue but with much less food (one food truck outside rather than six), and a red carpet/VIP area that seems at odds with SIFF's supposedly moral stances. “SIFF acknowledges that we are partying on Indigenous land, away from the rest of you, and isn't it a blast.”
For the month-long fest, Patricia and I have a list of about 10 movies to see together (including: “X: The Exploited,” “Blinded by the Light,” “Putin's Witnesses,” “Cities of Last Things” and “Meeting Gorbachev”), and I have about five more solo projects (mostly Chinese films like “One Child Nation” and “A Family Tour”), but let me know if you hear anything good. Always interested in seeing something good.
Thursday May 16, 2019
Movie Review: The Whole Town's Talking (1935)
It’s got a great premise—particularly for early 1930s Warner Bros.
A mild-mannered clerk, Arthur Ferguson Jones (Edward G. Robinson), turns out to be a doppelganger for Public Enemy No. 1, Killer Mannion (also Edward G. Robinson), and antics ensue.
If Hollywood made it today, it would become a “worm turns” movie. That’s what I assumed this would be. Maybe Jones is mistaken for Mannion, or maybe Mannion threatens him and menaces his family and friends; and that’s when Jones finally develops courage and initiative and shows the world what he’s made of.
- Jones is mistaken for Mannion
- Mannion menaces his family and friends
- The worm never turns, he just lucks out
This is particularly odd given that the female lead, Miss Clark (Jean Arthur), the gum-crackin’, wise-talkin’ gal in the office, thinks he’s more than a mild-mannered clerk. Later in the movie, she’ll tell the others in her office, “I always told you that rabbit had something.” Except he doesn’t.
The police don’t come off well, either. A patron at a restaurant fingers Jones as Mannion, and cops show up and haul both him and Miss Clark away. They interrogate both. He’s nervous, she’s cracking wise. When they realize they’ve got the wrong man, and that they might keep getting the wrong man—i.e., others might finger Jones as Mannion—the D.A. (Arthur Byron) gives him a signed letter to show to any police officer, saying, in effect, “Don’t worry; this man isn’t Mannion.
(Fingerprinting? No mention of it. Even though it had been around for decades. See: “Pudd’nhead Wilson” by Mark Twain.)
Of course, Mannion gets wind of the exculpatory letter and shows up at Jones’ apartment and takes it. Now he can move around town at his leisure—and in broad daylight, too.
Jones has also been writing columns for the local newspaper about his experiences; but now Mannion is dictating them. He’s telling his story, see? He also uses the letter/resemblance to get into local prison and murder a rival, “Slugs” Martin (Edward Brophy), who was ready to squeal on him. Then when Miss Clark visits Jones and figures out it’s Mannion, they nab her. To where? Both she and Jones’ aunt are locked up in the gang’s basement hideout, but we don’t find that out until the final reel. She just disappears from the film. Our best character.
How does Jones win? Luck. He shows up at the gang’s hideout, they think he’s Mannion, and when the real Mannion comes through the door he orders the gang to plug him. They do. They kill Mannion thinking it’s Jones. Then cops, etc.
Arthur is good, of course, but it’s Robinson’s movie. He plays ineffectual fine but it’s when he shows up as Mannion, with those dead, killer eyes staring at his doppelganger, that you realize just how good he is.
Monday May 13, 2019
Movie Review: Winner Take All (1932)
It’s 66 minutes long, seems longer, and Cagney isn’t really Cagney in it. He’s dopier, his voice register lower. And his face? Ain’t pretty no more. That’s a key plot point, actually.
He plays Jimmy Kane, a middleweight boxer who begins the film on the outs. He’s been boozing and broading too much, so his manager, Pop Slavin (character actor Guy Kibbee, who made 18(!) movies that year, including five in which he played someone named “Pop”) sends him to recuperate at a ranch/hot springs in San Rosario, New Mexico. Kane doesn’t want to go. He’s a New York guy. But on the first night, he meets Peggy (Marian Nixon), a chirpy single mom, and her saccharine son, Dickie (Dickie Moore, a ’30s child star), and the three become inseparable.
Mother and son are there for Dickie’s health, or something, and they’re about to get the boot unless someone coughs up $600. So Kane, though ordered to rest, fights a contender in Tijuana (then called “Tia Juana”) in a winner-take-all match. He wins, gets the dough, gives it to Peggy, tries to deflect credit. At this point, the boozing-and broading guy is nowhere in sight; he’s a hero. So much so I was wondering if he was being played—if Peggy and Dickie were grifters who bilked good-hearted souls. That might’ve made a better movie.
Instead, the Tia Juana fight demonstrates he’s back in the game, Pop sets up more fights, and he’s a contender and back in New York again.
Got that? For the first 15 minutes, the drama is “Can he get back to boxing?” And he does. So what’s the drama for the rest of the movie?
Well, he falls for a society dame, Joan Gibson (Virginia Bruce).
And that’s it.
At first she’s flirty and then isn’t. One moment she’s interested and then not at all. Half the time she looks at him with disgust. She tells him he might be handsome if not for his busted nose and cauliflower ear, so he gets plastic surgery and winds up looking like how Jimmy Cagney usually looks. But she’s disappointed in this, too. It takes the edge off him, she says—all the more because he becomes a “powder puff” boxer who turns down title fights to dance around with lesser talents to protect his pretty face. Even though it gets him nowhere with the society dame:
Now he lost all the things that made him colorful and different. He’s just ordinary now, like any other man. And one thing I can’t stand is bad grammar spoken through a perfect, Grecian nose.
You know how early Cagney was always slapping around women or pushing a grapefruit in their face? This one deserves it. And she gets away. Well, nearly.
What happens? He finally takes the title fight, hears mid-fight she’s about to board a cruise ship, so he finishes the champ off quickly to get to the ship on time, finds her with another man, decks that guy, kicks her in the can, then runs off the boat laughing like a schoolboy. He runs all the way back into the arms of Peggy—with his new busted nose. “Look out for the schnozzle,” he says, repeating a line he said after the Tia Juana fight; “it’s full a firecrackers.”
Not good. Jimmy is stuck between two women, chirpy and bitchy, and too stupid to realize those are his only choices. There’s nobody to root for here. I don’t even know if I wanted him to win that final fight.
Virginia Bruce (born: Minneapolis, 1909) makes a great villain, though. You really do hate her.
Who do we root for? Pop maybe. Also the trainer, Rosebud, who is played by African-American actor Clarence Muse, and seems a real person rather than stereotype. My father interviewed him once in 1976, when Muse was 87 and visiting the Twin Cities. It’s a good read.
Hey, Kane and Rosebud. In the same movie. Coincidence?
For all that, we still get our racist moments. There’s a recurring bit where society folks are talking lofty world politics and Kane keeps bringing it back to the plebian. They express admiration for Russia’s five-year plan, for example, but Kane thinks they’re talking installment plans, which he thinks is a sucker’s game: “I pay cash for everything.” They also talk the rumblings of the second Sino-Japanese war, and when they mention how the Japanese are real fighters Kane takes umbrage. He calls them “brown babies” and says they have trouble with punches to the gut. “Can’t take it downstairs,” he says.
We get some good bits. Kane takes Joan dancing, she’s wearing a fancy, backless dress and he puts his hand on her upper, naked back—then looks confused. He moves it down. Still skin. Then further. Finally he looks around to see where the clothing starts again: “You had me worried for a minute.”
I also like Pop telling post-surgery Jimmy he’s getting the “high hat.” The Coens knew what they were doing in “Miller’s Crossing.”
But the movie that’s truly prefigured is “Rocky II.” In that Tia Juana fight, both boxers are going at it pretty good. Then they both land a blow and both go down, but it’s Jimmy who claws his way back up before the 10 count to win. Is this where Sylvester Stallone got the idea for the climactic ending of “Rocky II”?
The opening. Cagney's the lead but not by much. He's the main player among the players; he doesn't even get his own title card.
The “Tia Juana” fight, and the double blow that fells both boxers.
Our man wins. “Rocky II” anyone? See video here.
Kane/Cagney leaves for other fights, promising to write the girl and the boy; but he's got a short memory. Nice shot here by Roy Del Ruth.
High society. Despite all looks, it's the woman on the right that's the problem.
Or you could say Cagney is. He gets plastic surgey to please her, then worries about losing his looks.
As a result, pilloried in the press.
Another boo bird.
This series of shots is my favorite part of the movie.
“The high hat.” *FIN*
Thursday May 09, 2019
Movie Review: Shanghai (1935)
Loretta Young falls in love with a Chinese man! Wow. What a forward-looking movie by Paramount.
OK, so the Chinese man is half Chinese.
OK, so he’s played by French actor Charles Boyer, the great romantic lead of the time.
Who sounds French. And looks French.
And the Chinese themselves think their relationship is a bad idea. (So it’s not just us.)
OK, so “the Chinese,” in this instance, is Ambassador Lun Sing, who is played by Hollywood’s go-to Chinese star of the 1930s, Warner Oland, who is, of course, Swedish.
And though set in bustling Shanghai, we hardly meet anyone who's Chinese. Keye Luke and Willie Fung are given perfunctory scenes, but overall “Shanghai” is a drawing-room melodrama created by white writers (C. Graham Baker, Lynn Starling, and Gene Towne), a white director (James Flood) and a white producer (Walter Wanger), whose main message is that hopefully someday prejudice will die.
Sorry. Easy to poke fun 80 years later. The filmmakers were well-meaning people who were dealing with the prejudices of the day, and a production code that forbade “miscegenation,” while still trying to sell wish-fulfillment fantasy to the masses. So ... this.
New York socialite Barbara Howard (Loretta Young) travels by ship to Shanghai because her Aunt Jane (Alison Skipworth) is ill; but it’s all a ruse. Aunt Jane is worried Barbara is too much in the gossip rags and wants to save the family name; but Barbara is feisty and about to take the next steamer back when she meets Dimitri Koslov (Charles Boyer), a banker.
She’d met him once before. Or eyed him. When she first arrives, he’s among the rickshaw drivers crowding the gangplank begging for work. So how did he become a banker so quickly? Connections. 关系。Also, he’d been a banker. Then he starts his own financial advisory business. In a flash, he’s the talk of Shanghai. Plus he’s with Loretta Young. Not a bad deal.
Until Ambassador Lun Sing obliquely reminds him of his place.
Lun Sing: In Shanghai, one may defy all the conventions but one. It matters not how noble the strains, if they have been crossed—as yours have been—a man becomes an outcast. You are in grave danger, my son. Your features are those of your father. It would have been better for you had your saintly mother predominated. Even I must sometimes remind myself that you came from her. Many women of your father's race will love you. That you cannot prevent. But you can, you must, keep yourself from loving them. [Sips his tea] I often say, next to myself, no one in Shanghai serves such tea as Dimitri Koslov.
Koslov: Clever tea makers—we Chinese.
“Crossed strains”: Don’t hear that much anymore.
For a time, as his fortunes rise, Koslov heeds Lun Sing and avoids Barbara. She keeps phoning, generally lounging on a chaise, but he’s never available. Finally she just shows up. He’s distant, and she assumes he’s interested in power, since he’s not interested in her. But just before Lun Sing walks in, they kiss and she melts.
Now the question becomes: How will she take it once she finds out? Koslov has confidence; Lun Sing is not so sure. Also, how to tell her? Quietly? Privately? Just the two of them?
Of course not. Koslov throws a costume party and wears his rickshaw outfit. Barbara comes dressed in the same outfit that the Chinese princess wears in the giant painting on his wall. And before a large crowd of well-wishers, he thanks the two women to whom he owes his success: Barbara, and, indicating the painting, “my beloved mother.”
Everyone resists letting that other shoe drop.
Aunt: Your mother, Mr. Koslov? But she is a ...
Koslov: A Manchurian princess, who condescended to marry my distinguished father, who was only a Russian general.
Amid murmurs, people slowly drift away. Aunt Jane doesn’t murmur at all; she calls loudly for Barbara, who holds her drink and stares sadly at Koslov. She takes a sip and stares again. Then she sets down the drink and walks away.
Guess what? In 10 minutes, this will be the good family.
Apocalypse Now Predux
Koslov leaves Shanghai and Barbara decides to go look for him—she loves him even with the crossed strains. Her younger brother Tommy backs her. So does their black servant, Coretta (Libby Taylor), who is going along because she knows Mandarin. It’s the older generation that’s the problem. Except ... Aunt Jane gives Barbara her mink coat to keep her warm. She’s suddenly cool with it, too? Yep. And that’s how they become the good family. That’s how Hollywood pats itself (and us) on the back. We’re OK, they’re awful.
Chartering a boat up the river, Barbara witnesses backbreaking Chinese laborers with sad eyes in very expensive outfits. At one point they refuse to go further so she surrenders her mink. Eventually she reaches Koslov. She wants to make it work now, and this is her argument: “Should I hate the man I love because he falls ill or becomes a cripple or goes blind?” Imagine the metaphors if he’d been 100 percent Chinese.
Even so, they plan to get married ... until back in Shanghai, Lun Sing tells Koslov he’s financially ruined. He also tells Koslov the real lesson of his parents:
The world beat them down—humiliation, poverty, despair for them both. For your mother, death. ... She killed herself. Those who commit folly must someday pay for it.
Anyway that’s why they call it off, to not commit such folly, and it leads to our end: the intertwined lovers, cheeks pressed against each other, agreeing not to go on, because the world is just too awful.
What was the world’s reaction to “Shanghai”? I couldn’t find much. One wonders if it even played in the South. The New York Times praised Boyer for displaying “the twin virtues of restraint and understatement” but felt the film simply wandered to its conclusion, which the reviewer, like Lun Sing, felt was inevitably “a tragic one.”
To which our Chinese hero might add: Mais bien sur.
“Someday, darling, the world won't be as awful as I was when I first found out.”
Wednesday May 08, 2019
792 and Counting
Former federal prosecutors have a statement up on Medium.com saying that based on the evidence in the Mueller Report, if it were up to them, Donald J. Trump would be charged with multiple felonies for obstruction of justice:
Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.
They provide examples:
- The President's efforts to fire Mueller and to falsify evidence about that effort;
- The President's efforts to limit the scope of Mueller's investigation to exclude his conduct; and
- The President's efforts to prevent witnesses from cooperating with investigators probing him and his campaign.
There's no heat to the piece, it's just matter-of-fact, just the rule of law. Just. It includes federal prosecutors from left and right, from Republican and Democratic administrations. Check it out. Pass it around. Yesterday morning there were 600+ signatures. Now there are nearly 800. Where she stops...?
Wednesday May 08, 2019
The Biggest Loser
The big news yesterday was The New York Times story on Donald Trump's taxes and how he lost more than $1 billion between 1985 and 1994—the years for which they had info. It made yesterday evening more palatable. Even fun.
Mr. Trump was propelled to the presidency, in part, by a self-spun narrative of business success and of setbacks triumphantly overcome. He has attributed his first run of reversals and bankruptcies to the recession that took hold in 1990. But 10 years of tax information obtained by The New York Times paints a different, and far bleaker, picture of his deal-making abilities and financial condition.
The data — printouts from Mr. Trump's official Internal Revenue Service tax transcripts, with the figures from his federal tax form, the 1040, for the years 1985 to 1994 — represents the fullest and most detailed look to date at the president's taxes, information he has kept from public view. Though the information does not cover the tax years at the center of an escalating battle between the Trump administration and Congress, it traces the most tumultuous chapter in a long business career — an era of fevered acquisition and spectacular collapse.
The numbers show that in 1985, Mr. Trump reported losses of $46.1 million from his core businesses — largely casinos, hotels and retail space in apartment buildings. They continued to lose money every year, totaling $1.17 billion in losses for the decade.
In fact, year after year, Mr. Trump appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer...
First pushback I saw actually came from Dems on social media, who kept bringing up how Hillary already mentioned much of this in the 2016 debates. Yes, but this is a news source and it's got numbers. C‘mon, folks, take a victory lap for once. Good god.
Best response was from Alexandrai Ocasio-Cortez:
Wouldn’t you think someone who personally lost over a BILLION dollars (“more than nearly any other taxpayer in America”) be vulnerable to shady activity to get out of that hole?— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 8, 2019
If they became the most powerful public servant in America, wouldn’t you want to see their taxes? 🤔 https://t.co/h22XNU1bl4
Of course, as big as the story was, and is, it wasn’t NPR's lead story this morning. They knocked it down to third or fourth and played it from both sides: Times says this, Trump says this. And the numbers, NPR? What do the numbers say?
Even so. Walls are closing.
Tuesday May 07, 2019
Movie Review: Taxi (1932)
It begins great. No fanfare, just right to it. We got a shot of New York City in the early 1930s with an absolutely gorgeous Loews Theater in the background. Then we get the stars’ names:
It’s so New York. A Jewish man is trying to explain his dilemma in Yiddish to an Irish cop. Something about kinder and Ellis Island. I assume meeting kids at Ellis Island? The cop’s not understanding, scratching his head, so Matt Dolan (Cagney), a cabbie who’s been listening amused to the whole back-and-forth, speaks to the Jewish man in Yiddish. (Apparently Cagney was fluent.) Guy gets into the cab while the cop eyes Cagney’s driver’s license on the dashboard:
Cop: [Sarcastic] Nolan? What part of Ireland did your folks come from?
Nolan: [Yiddish accent] Delancey Street, denk you.
Then the plot. We’ve already seen a cab company, Consolidated, muscling out other independent and freelance cabbies. They try to do the same to Nolan, boxing him in so he can’t take the guy to Ellis Island. So he gets out of his cab, and with that dancer’s lightness Cagney always had, punches one mug, then the other. The Yiddish man cheers him on.
We think that’s the story: Cagney and the other indies vs. Consolidated. Indeed, one of the indies, nice guy Pop Riley (Guy Kibbee), who’s been servicing the same neighborhood for years, is threatened by Consolidated’s leader, Buck Gerard (David Landau). Pop is obviously frightened but stands his ground. Then one of Landau’s men (Nat Pendleton, who played Goliath the strong man in the Marx Bros.’ “At the Circus”), rams his truck into Pop’s cab, totaling it. In a scuffle, Pop shoots him dead. The judge is lenient, given the circumstance, but Pop still gets 10 years. He serves hardly any of it. He kills himself.
Since his daughter, Sue Riley, is played by the film’s other star, Loretta Young, we figure, “Yes, that’s the story: these two battle the Consolidated bad guys and win the day for the independents.” Hell, IMDb still thinks that’s the story:
Independent cab drivers struggling against a taxi company consortium find a leader in Matt Nolan.
But that’s not the story.
Dolan is giving a fiery speech to other indies when he has Sue step up to speak in Pop’s stead. And she ... counsels peace. She says enough blood has been shed. She says work out a deal with Consolidated.
And they do! Fifteen minutes into the picture, we get this headline:
Dolan isn’t having any of it. “Yeah?” he says to his fellow cabbies. “How long is that peace gonna last? Six months. And then they start getting tough again. ... We shoulda done the job right in the first place—drove their cabs right into the East River.”
Except he’s wrong: The peace lasts the entire movie. The cabbie war is never brought up again.
So if the movie isn’t about independent cabbies fighting against a corrupt behemoth, what’s it about?
It’s about how Cagney needs to control his temper. I’m not kidding.
Dolan is totally pissed at Sue for brokering the peace. The next night, when he meets her outside her stoop and they squabble, he says, “I’ll knock the ears off ya.” Instead, she slaps him, runs inside, while he tells his friends, “I wouldn’t go out with that dame if she was the last woman on earth—and I just got out of the Navy.”
But in the very next scene, with no real exposition on what changed, they’re cozy and on a double date with his friend Skeets (George E. Stone) and her friend Ruby (Leila Bennett—the Julie Kavner of the 1930s). There’s a rocky courtship, then they get engaged, then married, and on their wedding night, at “The Cotton-Pickin’ Club” in Harlem, they—and Skeets and Ruby—run into Buck Gerard. He’s drunk. His girl, Marie (Dorothy Burgess), talks Sue into getting Dolan out of the joint before things go south. Sue agrees. But things go south. Gerard makes a sloppy drunken comment about Sue, Dolan decks him, and Gerard comes at him with a knife ... just as Matt’s brother, Danny (Ray Cooke), comes between them. He dies.
And Sue still counsels peace. She actually helps Gerard. He’s on the lam, Marie asks for dough to get him out of the area, and Sue gives it to her. And it’s the money Matt had saved for Danny’s tombstone! Wow.
Matt finds out anyway, there’s a mad rush to Jersey where Gerard is holed up, and Cagney nearly utters the line that every impressionist/comedian/kid used for the next 50 years to do their Cagney:
Come out and take it, you dirty yella-bellied rat, or I’ll give it to ya through the door!
But the cops arrive and Sue gives up ... Matt. Her husband. Wow again. Except Matt still plugs the closet door. By then, though, Gerard had scrambled out the window and fell to his death. That's that. And in the final minutes of this 66-minute movie, Matt and Sue make up. They don’t change but they’re back together. World without end.
One of these days, Alice
Anyway, I loved all this stuff. I loved the meandering nature of the film. I loved that Donald Cook, Cagney’s co-star in “Public Enemy,” is the star of the fictional film they see on their double date, and that Dolan dismisses him with the movie studio comment, “His ears are too big.” I loved the George Raft cameo (Cagney got him the part because he could dance; he'd just arrived in Hollywood) and the Lil Dagover reference (I had to look her up).
I loved the pre-code naughtiness: Loretta Young stripping down to her slip to change into her waitress costume, while Leila Bennett drones on in front of an ALL EMPLOYEES MUST WASH THEIR HANDS sign—meaning those things have been around for at least 90 years. I loved Skeets watching Sue run up the steps of her stoop and saying, almost with a Groucho cadence, “Anyway, she’s got a nice pair of pins.”
Bennett has some of the movie’s best lines:
- I wish I could meet some big Spaniard with a lot of money.
- You know, I'm getting to the point where I ain’t as particular as I used to be. I’ll marry any guy that's got a collar and shirt, and if it comes to a pinch, marry him without the shirt.
- [to Skeets] C’mon, I feel like bein' bored, and you can do the job better than anyone I know.
Watching, I began thinking about the difference between Warner’s big stars of the ’30s and ‘40s: Cagney and Bogie.
Bogart was the toughest guy in the room but a woman could break his heart. Cagney was the toughest guy in the room but a woman could ... nothing. He mostly looked at them with lust; and once they were no longer of use, he’d just as soon mash a grapefruit in their face. The sensation that scene caused in “Public Enemy” meant it had to be repeated throughout his early films. Here, for example, he keeps threatening Loretta Young with a fist under the chin and the line, “If I thought you meant that...” It’s his catchphrase. It’s “One of these days, Alice” 20 years before Gleason. (ADDENDUM after reading “Cagney” by John McCabe: It's also the line his then-dead father used on his mother: “In a love scene with Sue, he repeats his father's trick of placing his left hand around the girl's neck and softly grazing her chin with the right fist, saying, ‘If I thought you meant that—’ Carrie Cagney, seeing the film in a Yorkville theater with her daughter, wept aloud when she saw the scene.”)
Directed by Roy Del Ruth, from “The Blind Spot,” a play by Kenyon Nicholson, “Taxi” is raw. They still don’t have this stuff down—they’re just throwing things up and seeing what sticks. I think that’s why I like it so much. It’s Hollywood, and the movies, becoming.
This is the open: Right into it. And look at that theater! According to cinematreasures.org, it was part of a blockwide amusement center in midtown Manhattan created by Oscar Hammerstein in 1895, then broken into parts. Marcus Loew bought two of them and that's this. New movies showed daily, or thrice-weekly, at 10-15 cents a pop, from 1915 to 1935; then it was torn down in favor of a newer theater, the Criterion. Now it's a Gap. That's both fact and metaphor.
Cagney talking Yiddish—half mensch, half gonif.
The girl. She loses a kindly father, gains a quick-tempered husband, counsels peace throughout.
She also loses her clothes periodically. This was before Hollywood had a code. Or before the code had teeth.
Bennett—the Julie Kavner of the 1930s.
The faux film. In a faux theater? Did the Winter Garden ever show movies? Randy?
Cagney loses the dance but wins the fight. “You dirty Raft...”
The ride home. Great shot. Tells its own story.
Getting the marriage license. “We‘re not saying marriage is a prison, but ...”
Wedding night: Enjoying the show at the “Cotton Pickin’ Club” in Harlem.
Was Loretta Young ever lovelier? She needed to play working class more often.
“If I thought you meant that...” It's Cagney's “to the moon, Alice!” Odd seeing today. Cf., Louis CK's riff on “wife beater” T-shirts.
But it all works out in the end.
Kinda. “Honey, I know he killed my father and your brother. But you've got to learn to control that temper!” *FIN*
Monday May 06, 2019
Has Anyone Ever Led the League in Doubles, Triples and Homers During Their Career?
The scarcity of guys who led the league in doubles and triples in the same season (last: Cesar Tovar, 1970), and doubles and homers in the same season (last: Albert Belle, 1995), led to the realization that only a handful of guys have done either at any point in their careers. And the eight guys since 1970 who led in doubles and triples during their career, and the eight guys who led in doubles and homers during their career, don't include any of the same names. Meaning no one has led the league in all three categories at any point in their career since at least 1970.
Which led to this question: Has anyone in baseball history ever led the league in doubles, triples and homers during their career? And if so, who was the last to do it?
The immediate thought: Willie Mays. He's one of five guys to lead the league in homers and triples in the same season—1955—so all he needed was to lead the league in doubles at one point in his magnificent 22-year career to get the trifecta.
Guess what? He retired with 523 career doubles, 16th-best all-time in 1973, but he never led the league. His career high was 43 in 1959 but that was only good enough for third in the NL—behind Vada Pinson (47) and Hank Aaron (46).
OK, what about Mickey Mantle then? He also lead the league in homers and triples in 1955. (BTW: How about that? Only five guys ever did a thing in baseball history and two of them did it in the same season.) Did he complete the trifecta?
Nope. Never a doubles guy. His career high was 37 in 1952 and his career total is 344, currently tied for 307th all-time.
Jim Rice? He's the last to do homers/triples in the same season. But nope. Never doubles.
Well, surely Stan the Man. He led the league in doubles and triples in the same season four times. And when he retired in ‘63, he was sixth all-time in homers—behind only Ruth, Foxx, Williams, Ott and Gehrig.
He came close. In 1948, his career-high 39 dingers placed him one behind league leaders Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize. That was as close as het got.
Aaron? Just doubles and homers.
Yastrzemski? Just doubles and homers.
DiMaggio? Just triples and homers.
Ruth? Just homers.
To give you an idea how hard it is to lead the league in any of these categories, here’s someone who's never done any of it: Mike Trout. The best player in the game today, and he never led the league in either doubles, triples or homers.
OK, so did anybody do it?
Yes. I‘ve found seven names. First, a few caveats. I only went back to 1901 when the American League was formed. So I only counted guys that did it from 1901 on. If someone did two categories in the 1890s and one in the 1900s, he’s not on this list. Just a warning.
Plus I'm one guy with a day job. I did due diligence but I might have missed some names.
And now here a hint: There are seven players but only on three teams. Yes, one of them is the Yankees, but it's not the dominant team. In fact, the Yanks just have one guy. The Tigers have two. The St. Louis Cardinals have four.
Here you go: The seven players who managed the trifecta and the year they completed it:
|Ty Cobb||1908, 911, 1917||1908, 1911, 1917, 1918||1909||1909|
|Sam Crawford||1909||1902, 1903, 1910, 1913, 1914, 1915||1901, 1908||1909|
|Rogers Hornsby||1920, 1921, 1922, 1924||1917, 1921||1922, 1925||1922|
|Jim Bottomley||1925, 1926||1928||1928||1928|
|Lou Gehrig||1927, 1928||1926||1931, 1934, 1936||1931|
|Joe Medwick||1936, 1937, 1938||1934||1937||1937|
|Johnny Mize||1941||1938||1939, 1940, 1947, 1948||1941|
You knew there would be deadball guys, since homers back then were often just extended triples. Hornsby also makes sense—a great hitter who began to hit homers after Ruth got the attention he did; and he did it in the NL, where he didn't have to beat Ruth to take the HR title. Ditto, Bottomley, who was good for a short period. Both are Cards. As is Medwick and Mize. Mize became a Giant and a Yankee, but his trifecta black ink is with the Cards.
Anyway, that's the answer. These seven. And the last to do it was Johnny Mize, in the season before we entered World War II.
Does anyone have a shot at it today? I'll get to that in the final post on the subject.
Seven Samurai: 4 Cards, 2 Tigers, 1 Yankee.
Sunday May 05, 2019
Down and Out in Beverly Hills II
From a few weeks ago. Brilliant.
One hopes NPR and The New York Times get the joke.
Sunday May 05, 2019
After 12 Days, ‘Avengers: Endgame’ is Second All-Time in Global Box Office
I took this screenshot yesterday after the Friday returns came in. I knew after today it would be all “Avengers: Endgame”:
“Force Awakens” blew everything away in Dec. 2015. I mean, we'd been waiting 33 years, though several generations, for the next step in the “Star Wars” saga and this was it, and everybody wanted to see it.
“Endgame” fans, in comparision, had been waiting only seven years, since the appearance of Thanos during the credits of “Marvel's The Avengers” in 2012, for this. And it's not like they‘ve been starved for superhero movies in the meantime. Even so, “Endgame” is blowing everything away. Its 8-day gross is bigger than “Force”’s 9-day gross, and nearly as much as its 10-day gross.
So what is “Endgame”'s 10-day gross? The estimate is $619.6 million. “Force” was the first movie with greater than $500 million domestic after 10 days. “Endgame” is now the only one north of $600 mil. Here are all the 10-day grossers greater than $400:
|2||Star Wars: The Force Awakens||$540,058,914||$936,662,225|
|3||Avengers: Infinity War||$453,107,350||$678,815,482|
Other records are falling as well, of course. “Endgame” is the first non-Chinese movie to gross more than US$500 million in China, and is currently third all-time there, behind “Wolf Warrior II” and “The Wandering Earth.”
And after 12 days of global release, it's at $2.188 billion worldwide, which is just a hair ahead of James Cameron's “Titanic,” for No. 2 all-time (and unadjusted). No. 1 is James Cameron's “Avatar” at $2.788 billion. If it surpasses that, and it seems likely to, “Endgame” will become the first non-Cameron movie to top that chart, our most lucrative and coveted chart, in 21 years.
Domestically, it's ninth all-time, and the only real question is if it will become second all-time (must pass: “Avatar,” $760.5) or first (“Force Awakens, $936.6). I guess there's a third question: Can it reach $1 billion domestic?
Are the folks at Marvel Studios/Disney basking in all this? Or are they thinking, ”What can we do to top it?“ My immediate thought: You can‘t. My immediate thought: Be like the Beatles after ”Sgt. Pepper“ and pare down to the basics a la ”The White Album.“ Maybe that’s what ”Spider-Man: Far from Home" is.
Anyway, we'll be sorting through this over the next few weeks and months. It is another reminder, to all the anti-Hollywood folks on the right, that few American industries dominate their market the way Hollywood does. Maybe none of them do.
Saturday May 04, 2019
A Grazie to and from Dave Stoller
Make sure you check out the photo that started all of this: Dennis Christopher and his screen dad, Paul “RE-fund?” Dooley, looking like “I'm not your ‘papa,’ I'm your goddmaned father!”
First Lin-Manuel Miranda, now this. I guess Twitter, even as it upends democracy and channels hatred, is good for something.
Saturday May 04, 2019
Movie Review: Oil for the Lamps of China (1935)
Remember Boxer, the strong, dedicated horse from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” who, despite all evidence, never loses faith in Comrade Napoleon and the other pig leaders, and who, after years of service, finally collapses, sick, and instead of being nursed he’s tossed away—sold to a horse slaughterer and glue boiler? That betrayal and off-screen death traumatized me as a kid; it haunts me to this day.
Well, imagine a movie in which a capitalist version of Boxer never loses faith in the company he works for—despite all evidence—until a final betrayal. Then, unbeknownst, his wife stands up for him, gets him the job he deserves, and restores his faith:
He: You see, honey? The company does take care of its own.
She (hugs him happily): Yes, dear.
Those are the last lines of “Oil for the Lamps of China,” a 1935 Warner Bros./Cosmopolitan production starring Pat O’Brien, which was based on a 1933 bestseller by Alice Tisdale Hobart.
Basically our hero is a Boxer for whom the scales never fall.
That’s pretty fucked up.
The movie, sadly, isn’t good. It’s a soap opera: melodramatic and episodic. I could imagine it being made into a miniseries in the 1980s starring Richard Chamberlain.
That said, you get a real sense of Hollywood’s respect for books and literature in the early days of sound. The transition between episodes is pages turning in a book—Hobart’s book—while the poster is not only dominated by Hobart’s novel but include Hobart’s name on the spine. The stars aren’t even mentioned.
If the movie feels like a warped, capitalist precursor to “Animal Farm,” it begins with a kind of warped, capitalist precursor to Chaplin’s dance with the globe in “Great Dictator.” Here, in town hall setting, around a giant globe, an oil company executive with a professorial pointer lectures his new recruits:
Gentlemen, these are the last words I will address to you. Attend them well and remember them long. The company is sending you out to China to dispel the darkness of centuries with the light of a new era. Oil for the lamps of China, gentlemen. American oil. Helping to build a great corporation, helping to expand the frontier of civilization, is a great ideal, gentlemen. The ideal of a man.
You will have hardships. You will encounter dangers. And you will be thwarted time and time again by foreign traditions and the logic of the Orient. But you have the youth, the vision and the courage to follow that ideal with the unfounded faith of Galahads going into a strange land. And believe me, gentlemen, you may work, believe, and live knowing the company always takes care of its own.
As it transitions, those words echo in the ear of idealistic engineer Stephen Chase (Pat O’Brien): ...the company always takes care of its own. So we know where this is going.
Chase is sent to Manchuria, windswept and dusty, where, along with his other work, he comes up with an idea for an oil lamp that will be longer lasting for the consumer and good for the company (it will use the company's oil). Then he goes to Japan to meet his bride, who’s arriving from the states via Honolulu. Instead, he gets a Dear John telegram. The first betrayal is a woman.
This leads to the oddest part of the movie. He meets Hester Adams (Josephine Hutchinson), thoughtful with a far-off look, and his earnestness and loneliness convinces her to go to dinner with him. She, too, has been abandoned—or something. Long story short: Because he’ll lose face if he doesn’t bring back a bride, she agrees to go with him as that bride. Why? Everyone has to have faith in something, she says: for men it’s a job and for women it’s a man. “I don’t need love because I’ve never had it,” she says, “I have faith in you because you have faith in something. What that something is doesn’t matter. I think I can be useful and happy with you.”
That's pretty fucked up.
At first they’re pretending to be in love; then they’re not; then she gets pregnant. Are they married? I’m kind of shocked the Hays Office allowed this.
We also get the first in a series of company betrayals. Ten thousand versions of the lamp Chase invented are being shipped to China. Yay! Except now they’re called the “Haley Lamp,” after the station chief in Shanghai, who took credit. Meanwhile, Steve’s kindly boss (Arthur Byron, the judge in “The Mayor of Hell”), who is two years from retirement, is being sent to “the tanks,” a demotion. Everyone is upset but he continues to defend the company ... right up until the point when he kills himself. A self-immolating Boxer.
That's pretty fucked up.
He’s replaced by an asshole, McCarger (Donald Crisp), who sends Stephen to the tanks. There, he’s given a kind of Sophie’s Choice: stay with his wife giving birth or drive to the tanks, which are on fire, to save the town and the oil and everything. He opts for the latter, the child dies (“I needed you,” the doc tells him plaintively), and the company chastises him for acting without orders. More, Hester is cold-eyed and unforgiving. “What kind of man are you?” she demands. Until, like a light switch, she returns to her old self. “My ambition, my emotions, mustn’t be mine—but yours,” she says.
That's ... Yeah, you get the idea.
Onto Chow Yang, where, as station chief, he goes through a series of crises.
- The former head man there, Don (John Eldredge), feels like he’s been passed over, so Steve has to mollify him
- Then he has to mollify the local bigwig, Ho (Tetus Komai), because Don was a jerk to him
- This makes Don mad, since he feels you should never stand up for the Chinese in front of a white man; but Don and Steve become friends
- Then there’s drought, and Don’s boy nearly dies of cholera
- Then local businessmen won’t work with the company unless Steve fires Don
- Then there’s a communist revolt, and ransom demands come from a communist officer (Keye Luke)
As chaos reigns (apparently based on the Nanking Incident of 1927), Steve manages to get company workers to safety even as he’s shot. He wakes up in a hospital, where, from the main office, Hartford (Henry O’Neill) greets him and promises him a promotion. Nope. His old pal Bill Kendall gets the job instead because, as he explains, “You think more like a Chinaman than a white man.” They demote him to clerk. They’re trying to force him out.
He’s trying to hang on when Hester leaps into action. She goes to Hartford, mentions her husband’s service, and the oil lamp he invented but never got credit for. Then she says Stephen still holds a patent on it. That gets the company’s attention. So Chase gets the job he deserves, and we get our cynical, happy ending: “You see, honey? The company does take care of its own.”
Taking care of its own
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy (“Quo Vadis,” “Mister Roberts,” “No Time for Sergeants”), “Oil Lamps” has a chance to be a good cynical movie about American multinationals in the first part of the 20th century; but it’s just too odd (the way he meets Hester) and melodramatic (the Sophie’s choices he’s given). More, since he remains a company man despite the countless company betrayals, we get frustrated with him. Bored with him, too. We want to slap sense into him.
If you’re curious about Hobart: She lived in China for 16 years with her husband, who worked for Standard Oil. They left after the 1927 Nanking Incident because they felt, as she said in a 1951 Times interview, “that it was only the beginning of the trouble.” In her lifetime, she sold 4 million books, which were translated into 12 languages, and died in Oakland in 1967, age 85.
Laird Doyle, the man who adapted her novel for the screen, had a quicker end. In three years, from 1934 to 1936, 15 of his screenplays for Warner Bros. were made into movies, and three more in ’37. He died in November 1936, age 29. I can’t find the causes. But I’m sure it wasn’t overwork. I’m sure the company took care of its own.
Someone in marketing didn't get the message. The movie may take place in China but its stars were white, not white actors in yellowface.
Pat O‘Brien plays the man who believes in that company; Josephine Hutchinson plays the woman who believes in the man.
Except the company keeps screwing over the man.
At least they got the Chinese correct. It’s right to left, and the last three characters are “oil company,” while the first is “an”: calm, peace. So maybe the first three characters are an attempt to sound out “Atlantis,” the name of the oil company? Anyone?
We gome nice period shots of Shanghai.
Along with what I assume is a Hollywood back lot.
Seattle's own Keye Luke, the first on-screen Kato, playing the communist officer shaking down our company man.
Still believing, against all facts and common sense.
“Yes, dear.” *FIN*
Friday May 03, 2019
A Vote for Clarence Muse
Kane and Rosebud, nine years before “Citizen Kane.”
I recently watched “Winner Take All,” a Roy Del Ruth-directed Jimmy Cagney vehicle from 1932, in which Cagney plays Jimmy Kane, a boxer; Guy Kibbee, in one of 18 movies he made that year, plays his manager, Pop; and Clarence Muse plays the trainer, Rosebud.
Yes, for those scoring at home, that's a Kane and a Rosebud in the same movie—nine years before “Citizen Kane.”
Rosebud as a character isn't a particular stand-out but he still stands out. Why? Muse is African-American but there's nothing stereotypical about the character. He's a man with common sense doing a job. He's allowed to just be himself.
My father interviewed Muse for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune in Nov. 1976, right before the election that sent Jimmy Carter to the White House. Muse was 87 and my father was a punk kid of 44, and this is the article that appeared on Nov. 3. Enjoy.
Actor not amused musing on blacks who don’t vote
Nov. 3 1976
If you didn’t vote Tuesday because the six blocks to your polling place were too far, or because you thought your vote wouldn’t make any difference, stay out of Clarence Muse’s way.
Muse, an 87-year-old black actor, flew the 2,000 miles to Los Angeles from Minneapolis early yesterday just so he could vote — the straight Democratic ticket, naturally, keeping intact his record of having voted in every presidential election since Woodrow Wilson’s in 1912.
“Any black who doesn’t vote,” he said in a rare burst of anger, “with the blood their grandparents shed to get the vote for us, ought to be shot.
“When I found out I was gonna be here on election day, I told ‘em to get hold of the main man (at Universal Studios) and tell ‘em I gotta be back in California tomorrow. I got control of 25,000 votes, you understand, and if I’m not there, they might get mixed up.”
He leaned back and laughed, resplendent in his black beret, flowered shirt and shocking-pink sweater.
Muse will return to Minneapolis today to continue his promotion tour for “Car Wash,” his 218th film. The first was “Hearts in Dixie,” made in 1928, and one of the earliest talking pictures.
Muse still remembers how he made the trip to Hollywood. “I was touring with an acting company in Columbus, Ohio, and William Fox (of Twentieth-Century Fox) called me and said he wanted me for this movie.
“Well, I’d just caught ‘The Jazz Singer’ and I thought, ‘Is this what all the fuss is about?’ I was sure it wouldn’t last. Besides, I had a good job and Chicago was as far West as I ever wanted to go. So to get rid of him, I told him I’d do it for $1,250 a week, 12 weeks guarante and three round-trip tickets on the train.
“The next day a telegram came confirming the terms. And I never worked for less than that again.
“I got all I need, ‘cause I was never careless with money. I got no sad stories to tell you, about how I walked in the cotton fields and they grabbed me and shoved peanuts in my mouth.
“You know, Stepin Fetchit made $1.5 million in one year in Hollywood. Now there’s an association called the National Assocation of Colored People, and of all the people in the entertainment world, the first thing they did was go after him and ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy.’
“They made a lotta progress. Now we got ‘Sanford and Son,’ about a junk dealer. And washing cars. Man, that’s worse’n pickin’ cotton.
“I’ll admit thoguh, that Step sometimes outdid the instructions when he created a character. Because of my training [10 years of study under a German theater director and cofounder of the Lafayette Players of Harlem] I was able to find a human touch in all the characters I played.
“I made five pictures for Frank Capra, and he never wrote a damn line for me. He told me, ‘It’s up to you. You’ll find a way.’
“But I don’t criticize those other guys. They had no way to learn the trade the way I did.”
After the tour, Muse and his Jamaican wife, Ena, will return to “Muse-a-while,” their 1,500-acre ranch near Perris, Calif. He won’t make any more films this year because “I don’t wanna get in the wrong bracket. I wanna work for Dr. Muse, not Uncle Sam.”
And next year? “I don’t know. My life never had a plan. I’m the most accidental character you ever met.”
Thursday May 02, 2019
The Potential of Government
“There is evil and injustice that can be caused by political power, but there is also great good. It seems to me sometimes that people have forgotten this.
”They‘ve forgotten, for example, what Franklin Roosevelt did: how he transformed people’s lives. How he gave hope to people. Now people talk in vague terms about government programs and infrastructure, but they‘ve forgotten the women of the Hill Country [where LBJ grew up] and how electricity [which LBJ brought once he became a congressman] changed their lives. They’ve forgotten that when Robert Moses got the Triborough Bridge built in New York, that was infrastructure. To provide enough concrete for its roadways and immense anchorages, cement factories that had been closed by the Depression had to be reopened in a dozen states; to make steel for its girders, fifty separate steel mills had to be fired up. And that one bridge created thousands of jobs: 31,000,000 man hours of work, done in twenty states, went into it.
“We certainly see how government can work to your detriment today, but people have forgotten what government can do for you. They‘ve forgotten the potential of government, the power of government, to transform people’s lives for the better.”
Robert Caro, “Working.” Cf., Michael Lewis. The good writers are showing us the way. This is the left finding its voice after 40 years.
Thursday May 02, 2019
He’s as worthless a witness as he is an attorney general. Subpoena his sorry ass, hold him in contempt when he’s a no-show, but don’t waste time over him. Call Mueller, McGahn, people who haven’t sold their souls and can help the nation get to the truth. https://t.co/Ke6TRqzrPa— Laurence Tribe (@tribelaw) May 1, 2019
I can't even with most of this.
Wednesday May 01, 2019
'A Casual Disdain and Contempt'
It was a bad day for America.
From Greg Sargent of the Wasington Post on Bill Barr's testimony today before Congress today:
Throughout, there was a kind of casual disdain and contempt not just for the congressional proceedings but also for the very notion that any of his conduct thus far raises any legitimate concerns — let alone that he should have to waste his time addressing them — that was deeply disconcerting.
To take just a few examples, at one point Barr was pressed on the fact that he previously told Congress he didn’t have any idea what was behind the Mueller team’s leaks of frustration over Barr’s summary — even though we now know that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III explicitly laid out his concerns in a letter well in advance of that.
Barr dissembled in almost comical fashion, making an utterly absurd distinction between what the Mueller team members had leaked and what Mueller himself told Barr in that letter. It’s like the fellow wasn’t even trying, or didn’t even think he needed to try.
Here's a question to ask Barr: Do you think you could get away with this without right-wing propaganda from Fox News, Rush, Drudge, Alex, Breitbart, Sinclair, et al.?
Either way, it's time the rest of us realized we‘re dealing with entities that don’t give a shit, because they don't have to. That's the battle.