Wednesday July 31, 2019
Movie Review: The Farewell (2019)
The Chinese title is more direct (《别告诉他》or “Don’t Tell Her”), which is a little ironic since the point of the movie is a particularly Chinese lack of directness; of keeping an unpleasant truth from a beloved family member.
I’ve encountered this before, by the way. Not just in Taiwan when I lived there (1988-90) but in film. There’s a 1989 Jackie Chan movie called “Mr. Canton and Lady Rose,” in which several friendly gangsters get involved in an elaborate scheme to pass off a poor flower lady as a rich Cantonese woman for the benefit of her daughter's rich, prospective in-laws. I kept waiting for the in-laws to find out, and for everyone to find out how it didn’t matter since we’re all the same, blah blah blah, as it would be in a Hollywood movie. Except the in-laws never find out; the subterfuge is never revealed. Because in China, Face is more important than Truth.
The attempt to keep the truth hidden in Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” is more personal.
Early on, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), the grandmother of a large, extended brood, is talking on the phone to her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina), who lives in New York, while Nai Nai is visiting her doctor in Changchun in northern China. She’s having tests to see if the spots on her lungs are what the doctors fear. And they are: She has cancer. But the doctors don’t tell her; they tell her younger sister, (Lu Hong), who tells everyone else in the family. That’s the Chinese way. They keep it hidden; they don’t want Nai Nai to know she only has months to live.
Instead, the family moves up the wedding of grandson Haohao (Chen Han) to his Japanese girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), so they all have an excuse to descend on Changchun and say their last goodbyes without actually saying goodbye.
What I love? In that moment before the CAT scan, both Billi and Nai Nai are doing exactly what the family will do for the rest of the movie. Nai Nai pretends she’s at home rather than the hospital, since, one assumes, she doesn’t want to worry Billi. At the same time, she tells Billi to wear a cap in New York (because it’s cold) and no earrings (because they’ll steal them right off you, necessitating surgery), and Billi says she’s wearing a cap (when he isn’t), and isn’t wearing earrings (when she is).
Oh, and the Guggenheim that Billi, a would-be writer, is up for? She doesn’t get it but pretends it’s still pending.
The tension for most of the movie is whether Billi, who’s lived in New York since she was 6 and is more Westernized than the rest of the family, will be the one to drop the bomb. Her parents are so worried about this they don’t invite her along. She shows up on her own—as the family is sitting down to dinner.
Much of the movie revolves around food and conversation and cultural differences. Billi’s mom, Jian (Diana Lin), gets into it with a Chinese in-law, who, though she’s sending her son to America to study, brags about how easy it is to become a millionaire in China. The family visits Nai Nai’s husband’s grave, bringing him food, and participating in the ritual burning of paper items in the shape of, for example, smart phones and TV sets, which he will then get to use in the afterlife. (I used to see such burnings all the time in Taipei.) Nai Nai argues over whether lobster or crab will be served at the wedding. She argues that three months is too short a courtship for Haohao and Aiko, and might start tongues wagging. Why don’t they tell everyone six months? How about a year?
Awkwafina is the big name here, as well as Tzi Ma who plays her father (he’s been in everything from “Rush Hour” to “The Arrival” to “VEEP”), but it’s first-timer Zhao as Nai Nai who steals the show. She’s feisty (doing her morning taichi exercises with loud hais to dispel evil spirits) and a little mean (calling Aoki stupid because the girl doesn’t speak Chinese) but she never seems mean. She just seems set in her ways and protective of her clan. Something about her feels so authentic.
Probably because she is. “The Farewell” is based on a true story, or, as the movie tells us, “an actual lie.” Writer-director LuLu Wang went through the same experience with her own Nai Nai a few years ago. The twist, which we find out in the end, is that her real Nai Nai is still alive. It’s six years later, and we get footage of her doing tai chi. Even better, she never found out about the cancer. She still doesn’t know. One wonders if the Chinese don’t have something with this “not knowing you’re going to die” thing. It’s like Wile E. Coyote staying in midair as along as he doesn’t know he’s in midair; it’s the knowledge that makes him fall.
Thoughts on the birds? A bird lands in Billi’s apartment in New York, and then in her hotel room in Changchun; she stares in silence at both. Then at the end, weighed down with the knowledge of Nai Nai’s impending death—Awkwafina is slouched like a teenager for half the movie—she suddenly takes up Nai Nai’s spirit-dispensing shout on the streets of New York and the birds goes flying into the air.
So are the birds the evil spirits? Or are they the trapped thing inside Billi? For that matter, does the fictional Nai Nai live simply because the real one did/does? One assumes, but we never really find out.
Bigger point: go. 去看看巴。This is a small gem of a movie that is funny, heartfelt, poignant. The cultural absurdities are specifically Chinese but the family absurdities are wholly universal. I love the final scene in China: Billi in the cab with her parents being taken to the airport, and watching her Nai Nai through the rear window waving and getting smaller and smaller. That’s all of us, eventually.
Monday July 29, 2019
Movie Review: The Fighting 69th (1940)
I think that I shall never see/ An odder role for James Cagney.
The movie is certainly unsatisfying if you like your Cagney courageous. It’s 90 minutes long and for 80 of it he’s both loudmouth and coward. This last takes us by surprise. He talks big before the war, and he’s certainly good with his fists, but once he’s in the trenches he panics, lights a flair, and causes the death of comrades. The death of them. “Damn,” I thought, “How does he show his face around the regiment after that?” How? With a smirk, that’s how. He still doesn’t care. And Father Duffy (Pat O’Brien, of course) still thinks there’s good in him and goes above and beyond to prevent him being transferred. He tells the 69th’s commanding officer, Major “Wild Bill” Donovan (George Brent)—yes, the founder of the OSS—that Jerry Plunkett (Cagney) might be that one in a thousand soldier that becomes a better man because of war.
Nope. During a sneak attack, Plunkett panics again. He starts shouting, which alerts the enemy to their position, and even more men are killed—including Donovan’s adjunct Joyce Kilmer (Jeffrey Lynn). Yes, the “A poem as lovely as a tree” guy. That’s all true, by the way. Kilmer died, July 1918, fighting the Second Battle of the Marne under the command of “Wild Bill” Donovan, with Father Francis P. Duffy—whose statue to this day towers over Times Square—attached to the regiment.
You’d think that would be enough for a movie. These three guys. But they had to make a fictional, cowardly Cagney responsible for the death of Joyce Kilmer.
The rainbow connection
So what finally turns Plunkett? Because at some point he’s going to turn brave, right? This is a Hollywood movie, after all.
Well, after the second panic, he’s court-martialed and awaiting execution when the Germans shell the church where he’s being held, which is also a makeshift hospital. Father Duffy sets him free with two options: flee to safety or help his regiment. He’s about to flee to safety when another shell hits and Duffy is trapped beneath a large beam. Plunkett still considers fleeing but goes back to help the Father. Then he watches as Duffy enters the makeshift hospital and bucks up the lads with the Lord’s Prayer. On “Forgive us our trespasses...” Plunkett joins in, while on “But deliver us from evil...” Duffy pauses and looks meaningfully at Plunkett. So that’s Plunkett does. He delivers them from evil. He finally turns brave.
At the front lines, Plunkett slides into a foxhole with his nemesis, Sgt. “Big Mike” Wynn (Alan Hale), and starts loading mortar after mortar into the Stokes tube and really giving it to Jerry. “Here’s one for the Yonkers and the Bronx!” he shouts. Etc. He makes it look so easy we wonder why it’s supposed to be hard. Then when a grenade is tossed into their foxhole, he smothers it to save Sgt. Wynn. He dies later in a hospital from the wounds. Father Duffy performs last rites. Donovan says, “I once thought this man a coward,” to which Wynn, who lost a kid brother during one of Plunkett’s panic attacks, declares, “A coward, sir? From now on every time I hear the name of Plunkett, I’ll snap to attention and salute.”
It's that kinda crap.
Except the movie keeps going, because it isn’t really about the fictional Plunkett but the real-life Father Duffy. That’s the thing: Cagney isn’t the story; he actually gets in the way of the story. So why have him at all? It’s not like O’Brien couldn’t carry a movie. That same year, he carried “Knute Rockne All American.” It’s just that Cagney carried a movie better. Warners wanted the box office.
At least they come up with a rationale for why the focus on Plunkett: Matthew 18:12-13. Duffy says it once or twice in the film:
If a man have 100 sheep, and one of them goeth astray, doth he not leave the 99, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?
And if it so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more for that than of the 99 that did not go astray.
Is then when Warners movies began to turn? They’re still about the Irish, but the grit and chicanery, and celebration of same, have been replaced by God, patriotism and sacrifice. The brogues are thick, the blarney full, and the men can’t march without simultaneously breaking into “Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” I watch and miss the winking Warners of “Picture Snatcher.”
At least Cagney gets to use his Yiddish again. There’s a very Jewish-looking recruit improbably named Mike Murphy, who finally fesses up that he changed it to join the Irish 69th. He dies, of course. Father Duffy is there, and Murphy asks for a prayer. “Wouldn’t ye be wanting one in your own faith?” Duffy asks. “No time,” Murphy whispers. So the Father starts blessing him in the Catholic faith. At the end of it, after a reference to Israel, and about the Lord God being one, Murphy starts praying in Hebrew but can’t go on. So Duffy finishes for him. In Hebrew. Nice scene.
The 69th was part of the 42nd Infantry Division, which was—and is—known as the Rainbow Division. “Every color in the spectrum,” Donovan says, even though he basically means white people. Diversity back then meant different white Christians from different states. Plus a Jew. At one point, Donovan ralllies the troops thus:
Every day more and more are joining us, outfits from all over the country. But they’re not coming here as Easterners or Southerners, or Alaskans or New Englanders. Those men are coming here as Americans—to form an organization that represents every part and section of our country: the Rainbow Division. But there’s no room in this rainbow for sectional feuds. Because we’re all one nation now, one team.
It is nice to know that this was always the American argument: diverse elements uniting. The disagreement is always over which diverse elements to include. Father Duffy actually prefigures one such argument:
Duffy: What if you give Captain Mangan an OK to provide buses to take the Jewish boys to Napier.
Donovan: Sure. I’ll take care of that.
Duffy: You know, it’s a good thing there’s no Mohammedans in the regiment. I’d have no time for the war.
Consider Father Duffy in 1918 more inclusive than the GOP today.
One good inning
“The Fighting 69th” has some not-bad battles, a nice Christmastime scene at a church, and a few good lines, usually spoken by Alan Hale:
Soldier: [referring to Plunkett] Gee, that guy hates himself.
Sgt. Wynn: Well, that makes it unanimous.
But it doesn’t let Cagney be Cagney, Brent as “Wild Bill” is dull, and there's a lot of cornball crap that makes war seem noble or a game. “Don’t worry, boys,” an officer says. “We’ll all get a crack at ’em. I wish I wasn’t CO, I’d like one good inning myself.” The movie is about a soldier realizing how horrible war is; but the movie is like that soldier before the realization.
Father Duffy's statue, erected in the 1930s, when sequels to World Wars weren't anticipated.
Sunday July 28, 2019
Box Office: ‘Lion King’ Roars, So Does QT
Once upon a time and a very bad time it was....
My wife and I are going to see “Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood” later today, but of course Box Office Mojo and the like already know this since they‘ve got the weekend totals all ready for us—and they’re usually not far off.
Disney's “Lion King” won the weekend with $75 mil, a 60% drop from its record-setting animated opening of $191, which is what you expect with record-setting openings. At the same time, it's not what you expect from animated movies. Kids' movies, like women's movies, tend to have longer legs. It's movies made for men and boys that tend to blow it all opening weekend.
Among other animated movies that opened big, for example, “Incredibles 2” (No. 2) dropped 56%, “Finding Dory” (3) dropped 46%, “Shrek the Third” (4) dropped 56% and “Toy Story 4” (5) dropped 50%. That said, only “Incredibles 2” grossed bigger. A big drop for “LK,” sure, but it's still the 11th-biggest second weekend ever, unadjusted, after having the eighth-biggest opener ever. The year/decade/century of Disney continues.
Anyone see it, btw?
Tarantino came in second with $40 million. That's his biggest opener, beating “Django” by $2 mil. “Django” is also his biggest all-time domestic grosser at $162—or about $30 mil less than “Lion King” grossed last weekend. So it goes. His cachet is elsewhere.
For the record, it's Leo's fourth-biggest opener (after “Inception,” “Gatsby” and “Shutter Island”) and Brad's fourth-biggest (“World War Z,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Troy”). Their cachet is elsewhere, too.
Spidey still clings to the top, finishing third with $12 mil for a domestic gross of $344 and worldwide past $1 billion. Domestically, that's the third-biggest Spider-Man (after the first two Tobeys); worldwide, it's the biggest by far.
These are the biggest movies worldwide this year, and their all-time ranking in parentheses:
- “Avengers: Endgame”: $2.79 billion (1)
- “Captain Marvel”: $1.12 billion (22)
- “Spider-Man: Far From Home”: #1.03 billion (32)
- “Aladdin”: $1.009 billion (40)
- “Lion King”: $962 million (47)
- “Toy Story 4”: $917 million (57)
All are Disney save Spidey, which is Sony/Columbia, but owes much to Disney's MCU.
Saturday July 27, 2019
Mitch McConnell Makes America Weak
These are the bills recently blocked by Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell:
- A bipartisan bill requiring Facebook, Google and other Internet companies to disclose purchasers of political ads, to identify foreign influence.
- A bipartisan bill to ease cooperation between state election officials and federal intelligence agencies.
- A bipartisan bill imposing sanctions on any entity that attacks a U.S. election.
- A bipartisan bill with severe new sanctions on Russia for its cybercrimes.
Astonishing. Even in the age of Trump, it's astonishing. And worrying. Legitimately worrying. It's from Dana Milbank's piece, “Mitch McConnell is a Russian Asset,” in The Washington Post. Milbank argues even if McConnell isn't a spy he might as well be; he's doing so much dirty work for Putin. He's doing what he can to leave American elections open to foreign influence.
And his stated rationale? For a fifth bill that would earmark $600 mil to the states to provide paper ballot backups? “It's just a highly partisan bill from the same folks who spent two years hyping up a conspiracy theory about President Trump and Russia.”
I assume the real rationale is this: He doesn't think Trump and the Republicans can win without foreign influence. So he's inviting it. To keep power.
Add it to the list. The GOP already can't win without any the following:
- Dark money
- Election suppression
- Right-wing propaganda (FOX, Rush, Sinclair, Breitbart, et al.)
- Foreign, enemy influence
McConnell has fought for all of the above. He's put party above country. I have no words for what an un-American scumbag he is. I would need David Simon's lexicon to nail it properly.
But look at that list. Look at that undemocratic list.
We need to get rid of both of these fuckers in 2020. For the sake of the country.
Saturday July 27, 2019
HUAC: ‘All We Are After...’
Rewatched this doc on the original Hollywood moguls the other night. Their lives should be a miniseries. Or you could make a good feature film out of it, maybe focusing on one mogul, maybe Louis B. Mayer, but keeping the same theme: fleeing pogroms in Europe for America, rising to fame and fortune in the nascent movie industry, creating stories that reflect that—full of American ideals and “the American dream”—while subsuming your entire Jewish background, only to face the pogrom again in the form of HUAC, which was led by a virulent anti-Semite and bigot, Rep. John E. Rankin of Mississippi. Then knuckling under. Then the sad final years. Mayer even thought about converting to Catholicism in the end. Did he lose himself? That's the question. Or a question.
We hear the following, by the way, as HUAC begins its investigation into communist infiltration of Hollywood:
The Committee has determined that the hearings shall be fair and impartial. We have subpoenaed witnesses representing both sides of the question. All we are after are the facts.
Not so much, it turns out.
Saturday July 27, 2019
You’re President of the United States of America. You’re granted power & resources to do good in ways only imaginable to most humans. And you choose to be a shit head. Imagine how fucked in the mind & spirit you must be.— Jeffrey Wright (@jfreewright) July 27, 2019
I believe this was in response to Trump attacking Elijah Cummings' district as a place no one wanted to live, and demanding an investigation into where the federal money goes, but I could be wrong. It could be almost anything Trump did or said.
Friday July 26, 2019
Movie Review: Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)
This is it. The breakthrough.
Yes, we’d had John Carter, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. We’d seen Tarzan swinging, Zorro dueling, and Robin Hood splitting arrows. The Shadow laughed, The Lone Ranger rode, The Spider swooped, and The Green Hornet ... did whatever The Green Hornet does. We’d come close but “Adventures of Captain Marvel” is the first true live-action superhero movie ever made.
And for its time, it ain’t bad.
Captain Marvel’s flying is actually decades ahead of its time. The flying here looks better than the flying in any of the live-action Superman serials or TV shows of the ’40s and ’50s, or even the “Shazam!” TV series in the mid-1970s, all of which relied on animation, window jumps, or early green-screen effects to simulate human flight.
“Captain Marvel” uses a bit of this, but its more common technique is to send a mannequin zipping along an invisible wire. If that sounds lame, it isn’t.
Bolts of lightning
The plot borrows from ur-superhero serials but improves upon it. A half-dozen civic leaders sitting around a table are periodically menaced by a cloaked figure named for an animal—the Scorpion here rather than the Octopus (“The Spider’s Web”) or the Black Tiger (“The Shadow”)—and whose secret identity is in fact one of the men sitting around the table. But which one? Show up next week at your neighborhood theater!
So where’s the improvement? The Scorpion actually has a specific reason—rather than general greed/evil—to eliminate everyone. All the men, plus, of course, Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan, Jr.), were part of an archeological expedition in Siam, which ... Here. I’ll just quote the opening title:
In a remote section of Siam, near the Burmese border, lies a desolate volcanic land which for centuries has been taboo to white men—the Valley of the Tombs! To this realm of mystery, jealously guarded by native tribes unconquered since the dawn of time, has come the Malcolm Archelogloical expedition to find the lost secret of the Scorpion Dynasty.
I love the assumptions in “taboo” and “jealously guarded”—not to mention “unconquered.” Those tribes just haven’t learned their place yet.
In the tomb, the archeologists find a golden scorpion idol, with adjustable legs, like some Mattel toy from the 1960s. And once the lenses in the claws are properly aligned, all hell breaks loose. It can cause earthquakes or turn any base metal into gold. Later in the serial, the Scorpion will bring up its “atom smashing” ability, by which point the whole gold-making thing will be sadly forgotten.
But it’s the making of gold in Chapter 1 that causes the leader of the expedition, John Malcolm (Robert Strange), to suggest divvying up the lenses so the device can never be used except for the good of all. Which is why each civic leader has a lens. And why the Scorpion is after them. He wants gold. Gold.
Now that I think about it, isn’t this a bit like Thanos with the infinity stones? Did this influence that? Or is placing half a dozen smaller objects into a bigger object to achieve ultimate power a more common plot device than I realize?
I’m also surprised I never made the Captain Marvel/Thor connection before. For each:
- a civilian stumbles upon something (a word, a stick) that transforms him into a superpowered being
- this superpowered being is a god (Thor) or has the power of the gods (Solomon, Hercules, et al.)
- this superpowered being is basically a completely different person
For a moment I also thought both were disabled, but in the Captain Marvel universe that's Freddie Freeman/Captain Marvel Jr., not Billy Batson, who walks fine and sells newspapers on the streets. Here, Billy isn’t a teenage newsboy but a twentysomething radio news operator. Why is he on the Malcolm expedition? For the news? Whatever the reason, once the golden scorpion causes an earthquake in the Valley of Tombs, a secret tomb is revealed and Billy is greeted by an old man with a long beard who trills his Rs in the fashion of turn-of-the-century ham actors. In this case, it’s Nigel De Brulier, who began acting in the silents in 1914 and tended to play regal types, including Cardinal Richelieu four times. He tells young Billy about the powers of Captain Marvel (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, Mercury), how to call upon them (acronym), but adds this warning: “You must never call upon this power except in the service of rrrright. To do so, would bring the Scorpion’s curse upon your own head.”
You know what’s odd? Besides all of it? How quickly the Scorpion appears. Think of it. The Scorpion is one of the men on the archeology team, and the very night after the Golden Scorpion’s power is revealed he shows up in camp, robed and cloaked, with an image of a scorpion on his hood, chest and back. Was that the plan all along? If not, where did he get the costume? Who brought along the sewing kit?
Initially I was worried we’d be stuck in the jungle for all 12 chapters, but thankfully by the second chapter we’re back in the city. Then I remembered, “Right, that can be dullsville, too.“
This is the first time movie serials had to deal with a truly superpowered being as protagonist. It’s not an ordinary dude in a mask; it’s a god. And how can gods be imperiled enough to have cliffhangers? Answer: The cliffhangers are mostly about imperiled civilians: chiefly, John Malcolm’s secretary, Betty (Louise Currie), or Billy when he's unconscious or gagged. That said, they do knock out Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler) several times via electrocution. That's right. They decided that a being who is transformed into a god by a bolt of lightning can be electrocuted.
For the scholarly types, here are the cliffhangers:
- A bridge collapses with Betty’s car on it
- Captain Marvel is electrocuted and knocked unconscious on a conveyor belt heading toward a guillotine (classic!)
- Billy is flying a plane with a bomb aboard
- Betty is unconscious in a runaway car
- Captain Marvel is trapped by molten lava
- Captain Marvel is electrocuted (again)
- Betty and Billy (gagged) are in a shack about to be bombed
- Billy is unconscious in a car with a bomb in it
- Billy and Betty, trying to open a safe, are in the sites of a machine gun
- Billy and Betty are on a sinking ship off the coast of Siam
Is this the first time we’ve seen a movie character whom bullets bounce off of? They display that power quite a bit—it’s probably the cheapest to film—and always in the same fashion. Bad guys shoot, bullet ping off his chest, and Captain Marvel, maybe after looking down, smiles and slowly walks forward. It would become a staple/cliché of the early superhero genre (bullets pinging, slow walk forward) and I’m curious if this is where it began. Anyone?
But the problem with a superhero battling non-superheroes is that he can’t be too smart or it’s over like that. So Captain Marvel is always turning back into Billy at the wrong time. In chapter 2, for example, Betty has to deliver a lens as ransom and Billy agrees to follow her—but he takes his friend, Whitey (William Benedict), too? Why? So he can’t say “Shazam”?
My favorite script idiocy is in Chapter 9, “Dead Man’s Trap.” The Scorpion has taken Dr. Lang (George Pembroke) hostage but Captain Marvel shows up and frees him. The Scorpion escapes through a sliding bookcase in his den and into a series of tunnels and caves below. There, somehow, he manages to elude a superpowered being and returns to the den—where Lang is making a phone call to Betty. By this point, the Scorpion is unmasked, so Dr. Lang sees who he is. (We don‘t.) And what does he say with Betty on the other line? A name, maybe? Of course not.
Lang: You’re the Scorpion?
When Captain Marvel finally makes it back to the den, however, Lang is still alive. And with his dying breath, he tells Captain Marvel the true identity of the Scorpion. Kidding. He talks about his safe, and the “death trap” (a machine gun) there, but not the name that would end the whole thing. Of course not. We’re still in Chapter 9.
At times, this stupidity seems to extend to the production staff:
Freedom, equality and justice
This Captain Marvel definitely has his dark side. In the first chapter, he scatters natives machine-gunning the archeologists and then trains the machine gun back on them; he slaughters them, basically. Then there’s Chapter 5, where he just picks up a dude and throws him off a roof.
”Captain Marvel" does hold our interest more than most serials of its day. During Chapter 11, I noted the following about our list of potential suspects:
- Chai Tochali
I’d long suspected Malcolm, the expedition leader, who divvied up the lenses in the first place. Chai Tochali is the native loyal to the expedition but often filmed in shifty-eyed menacing angles. Given both, I figured the Scorpion had to be the nondescript Bentley, who, in Chapter 6, had his lens stolen but survived. A bit of a giveaway, when you think about it. Everyone else whose lens was stolen died during the robbery.
For the final chapters we return to Siam, where, beneath Mount Scorpio, all the lenses are brought together and the golden scorpion’s atom-smashing ability is demonstrated on a native, who is incinerated. Next up: Betty. Except now it’s the Scorpion’s turn to get stupid. He suspects a connection between Billy Batson and Captain Marvel and wants to know the secret. So he removes Billy's gag, Billy shouts SHAZAM!, and ... Etc. As Billy is revealed to be Captain Marvel, so the Scorpion is revealed to be Bentley—a false prophet. His right-hand man, Rahman Bar (Reed Hadley), thus atomizes him with the golden scorpion.
In the real world (or a sequel-crazy one), Rahman Bar would then try to use the golden scorpion to bring power and wealth to his unconquered peoples, but here he just gives it back while Captain Marvel makes a speech:
This scorpion is a symbol of power that could’ve helped to build a world beyond man’s greatest hopes: a world of freedom, equality and justice for all men. But in the greedy hands of men like Bentley, it would’ve become a symbol of death and destruction. Then until such time when there’s a better understanding among men, may the fiery lava of [Mount] Scorpio burn the memory of this from their minds.
Then he tosses it into the lava. Off-stage, we hear a voice (not Billy’s) say “Shazam!” and Captain Marvel is gone. He’s no longer needed in a world without a golden scorpion. Just men like Bentley. Not to mention Hitler.
I’m curious if Republic Pictures ever thought about a sequel. They made four Dick Tracy serials, four Zorros, two Lone Rangers, but just one Captain Marvel. Because it was so expensive? Because the good Captain was tied up in IP litigation with DC Comics for most of the ’40s? Because Frank Coghlan, Jr. joined the miltary and left show biz for 20 years? I don’t know. But 30 years later, “Shazam!” became the first live-action series I would watch regularly—Saturday mornings. No throwing guys off roofs by then; instead, long hair, moral lessons and winnebagos. In one episode, Frank Coghlan, Jr. guest-starred as a guard. It’s his last acting credit.
Thursday July 25, 2019
Movie Review: Where East Is East (1929)
It’s a love story, and our young lovers, Toyo Haynes and Bobby Bailey (Lupe Velez and Lloyd Hughes), are together at the start. Meaning something will drive a wedge between them during the course of the movie. But what?
Initially, it’s the girl’s father, Tiger Haynes (Lon Chaney), a man who makes a living, and a good one, trapping wild animals in Indo-China for circuses, zoos, etc. He has the scars to prove it—not to mention the nickname. He objects to the union because he wants his daughter to be happy—that’s all he’s lived for—and he’s not sure Bobby is the man for the job. “I’m not trustin’ your happiness to any young whipper-snapper like that!” he tells Toyo via intertitles. Dropped g’s and all.
Then a tiger gets loose and Bobby protects Toyo. The father does most of the work restoring order but he appreciates Bobby’s bravery and the two men shake hands. Problem solved.
Except we’re 10 minutes in. So what comes between the lovers for the rest of the movie?
The girl's mother.
Ah. Same reason?
No. She wants Bobby for herself.
Was this a regular thing back then? A wanton Chinese woman hypnotically seducing innocent western men? It's directed by Tod Browning, and parts reminded me of von Sternberg’s “Blue Angel”: the man reduced and in torment because of the awful woman and her wiles. She’s the nightmare from which he can’t wake up.
Something tells me Bobby would’ve been in trouble anyway. Shortly after the tiger attack, a pudgy Chinese woman flirts with him, until Toyo, who I suppose is supposed to be half Chinese (Velez herself is Mexican), tells her off via Chinese intertitles:
Was this a regular thing back then? UntranslatedChinese intertitles? Was it an early attempt to get into the Chinese market or just an attempt at verisimilitude—letting us know that these two people were saying things that Bobby, for example, didn't understand? If so, why not translate for the mostly western audience?
Here's my attempt anyway: For the above, I knew the first four characters (“You women are...”) but not the last two. Turns out it’s mo-gui: “devils.”
Bobby is passive during all this and it gets worse on a trip he takes with Tiger to deliver animals to Bobby’s father. On board the ship, a lounging woman in slinky outfit, known as Mme. de Sylva (Estelle Taylor), spies him, pushes a ball his way. He picks it up, sees the small boy to whom it belongs, comes over. But then he trips over the boy. Sign of stumbles to come.
At this point, via two more Chinese intertitles, we get this dialogue between the mother of the boy and Mme. de Sylva:
For these, I needed some help from my Chinese teacher. I didn’t know 隻 was the traditional form of the measure word for animals, for example. And in the reply, I didn’t know 莫 is a colloquial form of 别, meaning “don’t,” while 出聲, chu sheng, is “to utter sounds.” Basically the above is this:
Mother: This stupid child is like a pig.
Mme. de Sylva: You, don’t say anything.
That took me half a day. You‘re welcome.
Afterwards, Bobby spends more time with Mme. de Sylva, then introduces her to Tiger, who scowls angrily while she eyes him coolly. They obviously know each other, but when Tiger stomps off Bobby doesn’t go after him to find out how; he simply apologizes for Tiger’s behavior. Then we get more bad dialogue as the boat sails quietly on into the sleepy evening.
He: This is all like a poem of Kipling’s.
She: [Sidelong glance] My East will by our East. You will love it ... I promise.
Then they kiss. Now he’s hooked. Tiger has to literally knock him out and take him ashore to explain what he should have explained immediately: that Mme. de Sylva is ... Toyo’s mother. That wakes Bobby up. Both men agree to return home to Vien-Tiane, Laos, and never speak of it again.
Except guess who’s waiting for them? And even though Mom left her when she was young, Toyo’s super happy and literally hopping all over the place at the prospect. So what can Dad do? As for Bobby, he’s still hooked. Almost hypnotized. You know those Dragon Ladies.
We continue in this fashion: Mom seductive, Bobby tormented, Tiger angry, Toyo oblivious. A caged gorilla—who hates Mme. de Sylva because she used to torture him—is introduced in the second act, and it doesn’t take Chekhov to figure out what will happen in the third. That’s how Mom finally gets it. Cue close-up and silent scream. Tiger, who released the gorilla, is injured, perhaps fatally, in the assault, but he’s there in a makeshift wheelchair for the wedding, after which Toyo and Bobby limp off into what can only be a marriage of mutual recriminations or long sad silences.
Bobby: How could you have let your mother stay?
Toyo: How could you have wanted to fuck her!?!
In the end, Dad was right: He shouldn’t have trusted Toyo’s happiness to that whipper-snapper.
Chaney is great here. He exudes power and emotion while reigning it in. One understands why he was such a respected silent film actor. It’s a shame he only had another year to live before dying of throat cancer at age 47. This is his third-to-last film.
Lloyd Hughes? He made the transition to sound well enough, but stopped making movies in 1939. Not sure why.
The actresses, famous in their time, might be better known today for the men in their lives. Estelle Taylor married thrice, the second time to Jack Dempsey when he was still heavyweight champion of the world. Valdez married just once—to Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller—but was linked to such a Who’s Who of masculinity as to make Taylor look like a piker: Tom Mix, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (a Texan character actor who looked like a bigger, stronger George W. Bush), Erich Maria Remarque, and boxers Jack Johnson and, hey, Jack Dempsey again. Why not? If she had a type, it wasn’t exactly Bobby Bailey. She was also apparently volatile and abusive. Cooper supposedly lost 45 pounds in nervous exhaustion during their relationship. She supposedly fired a pistol at him when he was trying to leave. Interestingly, Taylor was one of the last people to see Velez alive. In 1944, amid another volatile relationship, she committed suicide.
Of course, what none of these actors are, in this tale of Chinese seduction, is Chinese. That's truly where Hollywood is Hollywood.
Wednesday July 24, 2019
Has Donald Trump Ruined America Forever?
“For the past two and a half years of Donald Trump’s Presidency, I have consoled myself with the argument that, despite all the chaos and narcissism and racial incitement and norm-shattering, the American system of government is holding itself together. When Trump attempted to introduce a ban on Muslims entering the country and sought to add a citizenship question to the census, the courts restrained him. When he railed at nato and loyal allies like Germany’s Angela Merkel, other members of his Administration issued quiet reassurances that it was just bluster. When the American people had the chance to issue a verdict on Trump’s first two years in office, they turned the House of Representatives over to the opposition party.
”All of this was reassuring. But, while watching what happened on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, when Robert Mueller, the former special counsel, testified before two House committees, I struggled to contain a rising sense of dread about where the country is heading. With Republicans united behind the President, Democrats uncertain about how to proceed, and Mueller reluctant to the last to come straight out and say that the President committed impeachable offenses, it looks like Trump's blitzkrieg tactics of demonizing anyone who challenges him, terrorizing potential dissidents on his own side, and relentlessly spouting propaganda over social media may have worked. If so, he will have recorded a historic victory over the bedrock American principles of congressional oversight and equality before the law.“
John Cassidy, ”Why the Mueller Hearings Were So Alarming,“ The New Yorker
Can't agree more. I listened to the hearings this morning as I was making coffee and unloading the dishwasher (I'm on the west coast), and the Republicans kept attacking and spinning, the Democrats didn't attack at all, and Mueller remained as tight-lipped as possible.
I go back to Ben Bradlee via William Goldman: ”Goddamnit, when is someone going to go on the record on fucking story!?!"
Or, in the case of anyone in the GOP, wake the fuck up and try to save what's left of this country.
Tuesday July 23, 2019
Best. Photo. Ever.
.@McConnellPress walks past Jon Stewart at the Ohio Clock Corridor in the Capitol. The Senate will be voting later today on HR 1327: Never Forget the Heroes: Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act. pic.twitter.com/bZ0FaOhTSl— Bill Clark (@billclarkphotos) July 23, 2019
Tuesday July 23, 2019
Yesterday I read Jane Mayer's most recent feature for The New Yorker, “The Case of Al Franken,” and it was like revisiting those turbulent days in late 2017 but with context added. With fact-checking. Imagine. It's the quiet after the storm and we‘re looking around to see what got damaged. What we damaged.
To me, what happened to Sen. Al Franken still looks like a right-wing political hit job, but it was the left—both the mob and the establishment—that, like idiots, pulled the trigger.
LeeAnn Tweeden was the first woman to level charges. (She was also the object of Franken’s mock breast-grab photo.) Turns out, some of her charges aren't charges: Franken didn't write the “kissing sketch” for her—he'd performed it on several USO tours with different actresses; and he didn't send the breast-grab photo to just her, as a final taunt, as alleged; it was part of the CD from the photographer that everyone got. In both instances, she made it about her but it wasn't about her. Her ties to right-wing radio and right-wing personalities like Sean Hannity were known at the time but ignored by the mob. Everything else in the accusation is he said/she said. It's “I found him gross” vs. “I thought we were pals.”
The other charges are almost all of the “He was coming to kiss me” or “At the photo op, his hand got too close to my ass” variety. Apparently Franken was a social mouth kisser. His staff warned him about it in 2007 and he supposedly backed off. Nevertheless, that, and the photo, ended his political career—one that was helping many, many people. Just not the Sean Hannitys of the world.
Some of the most tone-deaf lines in the piece come from his accusers:
Not long ago, I asked the woman if she thought that Franken had been making a sexual advance or a clumsy thank-you gesture.
“Is there a difference?” she replied.
Then there's this from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the first of his Senate colleagues to call for his resignation ahead of an actual investigation:
She acknowledged that the accusations against Franken “were different” from the kind of rape or molestation charges made against many other #MeToo targets. “But the women who came forward felt it was sexual harassment,” she said. “So it was.”
There's no difference. They felt it so it was. Good god. The #MeToo movement is doomed if these are the people holding its standard. If you‘re leading a moral movement, you can’t be less than moral yourself. Otherwise, why should anyone listen to you? And this is the opposite of that. Do they know how awful they sound? How tone-deaf?
You know what I want? I want the Al Franken of the SNL days, of the “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot” days, to wake up and start skewering people. Nobody was better at it. And what does he have to lose? At this point, nothing.
Monday July 22, 2019
Cagney in “Hard to Handle” playing innocent.
“I use the words ‘Cagney’ and ‘Jim’ somewhat interchangeably, but usually the former refers to the performer in action and the latter to the man. ‘Jim’ was the name he always used in personal reference. He did not care for ‘Jimmy,’ a Warner Brothers locution.”
John McCabe, in his biography “Cagney.” McCabe was also ghost writer on Cagney's autobiography, “Cagney on Cagney.”
Sunday July 21, 2019
The etching is slightly off. It kind of looks like he has a moustache when he doesn‘t—even though he did—and his eyebrows are too pronounced or noticeable. I never noticed Edgar’s eyebrows. And maybe the jaw is too square? But it's not bad.
Better? Whoever wrote the words. Good work. That really nails it.
And now we have two.
Saturday July 20, 2019
Perfekto: Mike Leake Just Misses Baseball Immortality
Last week, one of the members of our Seattle Mariners season ticket group, Grant, sent out an email saying he and his son were going to Cooperstown this weekend for the enshrinement of beloved son Edgar Martinez, so he couldn't use the tickets he had for the Friday, July 19 game. Anyone want them? Some demurrals before Tim said, “Sure, I‘ll take them.”
Didn’t exactly look promising. It was against the Angels, again, and they raked us last weekend. Hell, they no-hit us on the first game back after the All-Star break. Our pitcher, Mike Leake, lasted 2/3 of an inning, possibly his worst outing ever, while their two pitchers, Taylor Cole and Felix Pena, no-hit our ass. In this game, last night, who was going for us again? Oh, right. Mike Leake. But Tim's a trooper and a fan, and he runs the Grand Salami website, so he went.
Here's his inning-by-inning account.
He almost saw baseball history. For eight innings, Leake was perfect: 24 up, 24 down. I saw some of Tim's tweets about it in which he didn't jinx anything by saying the magic words. He just showed his scorecard with a number: 21. 24. At this point, TV-less, I rushed over to the local watering hole, the Quarter Lounge, got a beer and settled in. I did that in lower Queen Anne in August 2012 during Felix's perfecto—the last one thrown in the Majors. Here, sadly, the suspense ended quickly. On the third pitch of the inning, Luis Rengifo, a second baseman, ground a seeing-eye single to the right side, and there went that. But it's a beautiful thing about baseball. Every day, maybe every play, the average player has a chance at immortality. What do Pat Seerey, Mark Whiten and Scooter Gennett have in common? They all hit four homers in one game. Only 18 guys have done that, and none of them are named Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron or Willie Mays or Ken Griffey Jr. Sometimes lightning strikes.
Only 23 pitchers, and just 21 in the modern era, have ever thrown a perfect game. Mike Leake nearly added his name. Instead, he‘ll add his name to the nearly list. Also to the list of guys who have pitched shutouts this year: 19 right now. He’s tied for the league lead with 1.
Here's the perfect game breakdown by decade:
|1900s||2||Cy Young (1904), Addie Joss (1908)|
|1920s||1||Charlie Robertson (1922)|
|1950s||1||Don Larsen (1956, WS)|
|1960s||3||Jim Bunning (1964), Sandy Koufax (1965), Catfish Hunter (1968)|
|1980s||3||Len Barker (1981), Mike Witt (1984), Tom Browning (1988)|
|1990s||4||Dennis Martinez (1991), Kenny Rogers (1994), David Wells (1998), David Cone (1999)|
|2000s||2||Randy Johnson (2004), Mark Buehrle (2009)|
|2010s||5||Dallas Braden (2010), Roy Halladay (2010), Philip Humber (2012), Matt Cain (2012), Felix Hernandez (2012)|
You see how rare it is. Or was. First 50 years of the 20th century, it happened just three times. Then Don Larsen did it in the World Series against a good Brooklyn team and with an ump with a rather wide strike zone. Three in the ‘60s can be attributed to the raising of the mound; it was a pitcher’s decade. I became baseball cognizant in the ‘70s, when it looked like there would never be another one. But then Len Barker broke through; then they became more frequent.
I’m curious, though. We‘ve had five this decade, all in the first three years, and nothing since? Scoring is up, sure, but league batting averages and OBPs are about the same: .255/.319 in 2012 vs. .253/.323 this year. But I guess league averages don’t matter so much as team averages/OBPs. You‘re just pitching against one team, after all. In 2012, for example, the team with the fourth-worst batting average (Tampa) was the victim of Felix’s perfecto, the team with the second-worst average (Houston) was victimized by Cain, and the team with the absolute worst average/OBP in MLB, the Seattle Mariners (.234/.296), got it from Humber—who, after his perfecto, went 4-5 with a 7.39 ERA in 2012, then 0-8 with a 7.90 with Houstin in 2013; then he was out of baseball. Go know.
Again, though, there are still teams that can't hit. Detroit's #s are .234/.293. So I don't quite get it. We‘ve had no perfectos for a longer time now (6, nearly 7 years) than at any time since Barker. I guess it’s more than stats; I guess the stars have to align; and hitters have to not lean into pitches.
I'm sorry Leake missed out. I'm sorry Tim missed out, but I'm happy for Grant. If I'd given up tix to a game where even a no-hitter was pitched, I'd never stop kicking myself.
Saturday July 20, 2019
‘Don’t Be Stupid, Be a Smarty'
“Historians have a word for Germans who joined the Nazi party, not because they hated Jews, but because out of a hope for restored patriotism, or a sense of economic anxiety, or a hope to preserve their religious values, or dislike of their opponents, or raw political opportunism, or convenience, or ignorance, or greed.
”That word is ‘Nazi.’ Nobody cares about their motives anymore.
“They joined what they joined. They lent their support and their moral approval. And, in so doing, they bound themselves to everything that came after. Who cares any more what particular knot they used in the binding?”
— author A.R. Moxon, who goes by Julius Goat on social media, and whose Twitter avatar is the original Julius, Groucho, who also had a thing or two to say about the Nazis. The above is getting a lot of traction on social media. It should.
Friday July 19, 2019
Cagney on Bert Williams
Williams and Odessa Warren Grey in “Lime Kiln Club Field Day” in 1913.
Excerpt from “Cagney” by John McCabe. Asked who he considered the greatest performer he'd ever seen, Cagney said Bert Williams.
Not an actor in the usual sense, yet he was a great actor—who “just” sang funny songs. A quiet genius, and talk about control! He never made an unnecessary move or uttered a needless syllable. He was the greatest performer as far as Frank McHugh and I were concerned. Bert died an early death in 1922, and what a tragic loss. I saw him in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 on a pass, and I‘ll never forget it to my dying day. The stage lights dim, the great red plush curtains draw in, and the theater goes completely black. Then, almost like a shot—but it was totally silent—a white, white spot suddenly hits the curtain stage center. Four seconds of waiting, just enough to build up the proper suspense, and then out strolls Bert from behind the curtain, quiet, imperturbable. He looks at us with a gentle, quiet smile, bows to the orchestra leader, and says, “Professor, if you please.” Then he sings his great songs, truly comic songs that make you howl with laughter and tear your heart out at the same time: “Nobody” and “I’m a Jonah Man” and “I'd Rather Have Nothin' All of the Time Than Somethin' for a Little While.” Very funny and deeply sad underneath. For, as I‘ve said, Bert Williams was a great actor, and that tragicomic mix I’ve never seen anyone do half so well.
Also, once I saw him I was made aware for the very first time of the black man's plight in this country.
Control—“not doing anything but what was needed”—was big with Cagney. Apparently he learned it watching Frank Fay on stage.
Thursday July 18, 2019
Movie Review: Stuber (2019)
Chekhov was right: A guy talking about jumping in front of a bullet in the first act will jump in front of a bullet in the third.
And he’ll do this even if, in that first act, the mere idea of it is dismissed by a veteran cop. “You know how fast a bullet travels?” Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) asks his Uber driver, Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), who’s broached the subject out of nowhere. “I guess I didn’t really think that through,” Stu replies in that halting, “Gee, I guess I’m not that smart after all” tone Nanjiani has perfected. Great scene. I laughed.
Then they have to get all Chekhov on us. Stu jumps in front of a bullet to save Vic’s superhot daughter, Nicole (Natalie Morales), and ... we can see where this is going. You see, Stu is also coming to realize that the woman he’s had a crush on for years, Becca (Betty Gilpin of “GLOW”), isn't worth it. And a man breaking up with the wrong girl in the first act will find the right girl in the third. That's a Hollywood rather than a Chekhovian principle.
Everyone’s a douche
I laughed a lot during “Stuber” and don’t recommend it. The idea is fine—a cop who’d just had lasik eye surgery relying on his Uber driver to get him from place to place in LA to take down the bad guys—and the casting is fantastic. Nanjiani is my man, while Bautista, who plays Drax in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, is that rare musclebound WWE guy with good comic timing.
Despite this, the movie keeps failing. And flailing. I’d watch scenes and think, “Yeesh, this is not working at all.” They’d go on too long, the timing would be off, the dialogue or language or violence would be too over-the-top. Sometimes over-the-top works, sometimes it just feels desperate. Here, it mostly felt desperate.
With a plot this contrived, you really need to make it make sense. Why does Stu stick around besides passivity and politeness? Why does Vic keep putting Stu and others in danger besides blind dedication to the job? The filmmakers make it too complicated—something we have to revisit every 10 minutes. Stu says he’s finally leaving (to go schtup the wrong girl); Vic says no, or makes a threat. Often the threat involves giving Stu a one-star rating. This works until it doesn’t. And of course, in the third act, when he’s finally allowed to go, he spots the clue that necessitates a return to save the day.
All the clichés are here:
- The diabolical and seemingly indestructible villain (Iko Uwais)
- The sympathetic police chief who’s really a diabolical mole for the bad guys (Mira Sorvino)
- The dad who doesn’t have time for his daughter
Everyone’s a douche. Stu works days at a sporting goods store managed by the douchebag son of the owner (Jimmy Tatro), and he’s the one who gives Stu his nickname and the movie its title: Stu + Uber = Stuber. Ha ha, yeah no. He’s stupid, it’s stupid, and yet they made it the title of the movie. The movie’s a douche, too.
Who do we blame for this hot mess? It was written by Tripper Clancy, whose credits are few and unreleased (“Four Against the Bank," “Hot Dog”), and it was directed by Michael Dowse, who’s mostly done Canada-related comedies: “Fubar,” “Goon,” “Fubar: Balls to the Wall.” Not a winning combo.
The editing didn’t help. Afterwards, I assumed it was two hours and told my wife, “They really should’ve edited it down to like 90 minutes.” It’s 93 minutes.
Kumail, choose better next time. One star.
Wednesday July 17, 2019
Your Best Chance to Get Edgar Martinez Out
If you wanted to get Edgar Martinez out during his long, storied, and now Hall of Fame career, here’s what you needed to do.
He’s a rightie, of course, but calling for a right-handed pitcher didn’t help much. He hit better against lefties but it wasn’t overwhelming: .322 to .308. Still, you need every advantage so you'd take it.
Away games? The difference between home and away for him was miniscule and actually favored away: .312 vs. .311 at home. Late in the season? He actually hit better in the second half: .309/.314. In fact, you’d probably want to face him in April. Every other month he hit over .300; in April he hit just .297. And get him either in the 1st or 8th inning, where he hit .298. Every over inning he's over .300.
But whatever you do, don’t get behind in the count. On 1-0 pitches, he hit .406, and on 2-0 counts, he hit .441 with a .888 slugging percentage. On 3-0, his OBP was .963.
Come to think of it, getting ahead in the count didn’t always help, either: On 0-1 pitches, he hit .337. No, what you'd want was to get a little deeper into the count, with maybe Edgar behind. That’s when his numbers begin to drift below .300. Edgar’s line on 2-2, for example, was not great: .252/.256/.396.
Got all that? Basically, what you’d want, if you wanted the best chance to get Edgar out, is a right-hander pitching to him, at home, say in the 8th inning, with maybe a 2-2 count on him.
Which turns out to be the exact circumstances here:
Thus endeth the lesson.
Enjoy the Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Sunday, Edgar. Everyone in Seattle will be celebrating with you.
Tuesday July 16, 2019
Movie Review: Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
Marvel Studios isn’t wasting time, is it? Two months ago, “Avengers: Endgame” ended the saga that began with “Iron Man” in 2008, and now they’re already positioning the new Iron Man, the spectacular Spider-Man, (Tom Holland), while suggesting the beginning of a new saga. Time is money, after all, and poor Marvel/Disney only has all of it.
Not only is much of “Spider-Man: Far from Home” about the dilemma of replacing Tony Stark on the world or cinematic stage, but the mid-credits sequence is a callback to the ending of the original “Iron Man,” with its shocking rock ‘n’ roll line: “I am Iron Man.” This one ends with, whoa!, the return of J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, now bald, and broadcasting to the world that “Spider-Man is .... [static] ... [more static] .... Peter Parker!”
Yes, a little different. Instead of tooting his own horn, which is the Tony Stark way, Peter is shamefully outed, which is the Peter Parker way. But the effect on us is the same. Just as we’re winding down, the movie gooses us. Wow! What happens NEXT? We suddenly anticipate the sequel. We may even watch this one again to sate ourselves in the meantime. Which is entirely the point.
As for the end-credits sequence? Not a fan.
Overall, I liked “Far from Home” well enough. Not as much as “Homecoming” but enough.
OK, it could’ve been better.
It’s the opposite of “Homecoming.” There, Peter did everything he could to prove himself worthy of being an Avenger. Here, he runs from the role. There, he wanted to be Spider-Man; here, he just wants to be Peter. I guess being dead five years might do that to a soul.
Hey, I just realized it’s also a little similar to Tobey’s second Spidey. Pete runs from being Spider-Man in order to enjoy life as Peter Parker with friends and MJ (Zendaya); then he has to return to being Spider-Man in order to protect his friends and MJ; then MJ discovers who he is. The details are different; but if you pull back, it’s similar.
JJJ aside, the world probably would’ve found out sooner or later that Pete was Spidey simply because he’s not doing a very good job of hiding it. I get “face time” for actors but good god he’s unmasked a lot here: on the rooftops of Venice, in a tavern in Prague, on a bridge in London—which all eyes and cameras in the world are on because of the destruction Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) has caused. Not to mention at the beginning of the film, backstage at a fundraising gig hosted by ... who? Oh, right, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Really, Pete? No distance there? Plus right before the JJJ reveal, he takes MJ for a spin around NYC as Spidey. What happened to keeping loved ones at a distance because Spidey will always have enemies? Not smart.
That’s actually a question the movie unintentionally raises: Is Peter Parker ... not smart? Constantly unmasking is just part of it. He also trusts Mysterio with the most powerful weapon mankind has created—Tony Stark’s glasses—which Tony, RIP, entrusted to him. First, yeah, stupid move, Tony. Second, Pete, buddy, I get that you want to give MJ the dahlia pendant on the top of the Eiffel Tower, and don’t have time to save the world, which includes you, MJ, the dahlia pendant and the Eiffel Tower. But to just give it up to a guy you met like the day before? Give it to Happy (Jon Favreau). Give it to Nick (Samuel L. Jackson). It’s even more infuriating for Spidey fans because we know Mysterio is the villain. And yet there you are, like a doofus, unmasked in front of him and all customers in this pub in Prague, and handing him the one thing your mentor and idol left you after he saved half the universe.
That pub scene may have bugged me the most. After Mysterio and Spidey (as Night Monkey, but obviously Spidey) “defeat” the fire monster, they have a drink together in a Prague tavern—sans masks. And no one stops to congratulate them? Slap them on the back? Buy them a beer?
Pete: I’m 16, I’m not allowed to drink.
Prague dude: Maybe in America. But here all 16-year-olds drink, particularly ones who save our city!
Plus there’s a dude in like lederhoesen or some shit? I thought that whole scene seemed off before it was revealed to be a Mysterio illusion. And Spidey senses none of it? Not even with his Spidey sense? For something he finally uses to defeat Mysterio—and jokingly referred to as the “Peter tingle” here—it’s on vacation for most of the movie. It’s always a little frustrating dealing with a superhero who doesn’t want to be a superhero until it’s almost too late. Cf., “Superman II,” “Spider-Man 2,” Superman in “Batman v. Superman.” It’s a theme of second movies. Look for Spidey to “turn evil” in the next one.
Mysterio is handled well. I don’t remember the raison d’etre of the original, or if he had one, but here, the 2.0 version, he’s a Stark underling who felt he never got the credit he deserved; so he uses some combo of tech and drones to create elemental disasters he “saves” people from. Essentially Marvel Studios turns him into a kind of Silicon Valley CEO, barking orders at tech underlings to keep the illusion going. By the end, you despise him. You also understand his power. Illusion is a tough thing to overcome. Just look at all the fools listening to JJJ/FOX News.
In the end, Spidey gets it all back—glasses, respect, etc.. He also gets MJ, who knows Pete is Spidey but likes him for being Pete. Awww. That said, I don’t sense much chemistry between the two actors—Zendaya and Holland—who supposedly like each other in non-camera life. Maybe it’s a generational thing. This MJ has too hard a shell for me. Love is about vulnerability, and between the two Pete has 95% of it.
Gyllenhaal is excellent—at first, charming, then super annoying—while Martin Starr (“Silicon Valley”) has fun as a hapless teacher buffetted by events.
But the end-credits reveal left me cold. Both Nick Fury and Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) are Skrulls? Let me ask the Ira Gershwin question: How long has this been going on? We see him hanging on a simulated beach on a Skrull spaceship, then reluctantly going back to work. One theory has Fury being played by a Skrull before even “Avengers: Infinity War,” which means he was dipping toes while Thanos snapped out half the universe? Nice work ethic, asshole. And, hey, where’s the real Maria Hill anyway? We just see the real Nick. If we’re talking face time, good god, give me Smulders.
Anyway, not a fan of all that, but I am excited for the return of JJJ and his fake news. The MCU could make it a great commentary on Fox and Rush and Sinclair and all that bullshit. With its billions, Disney certainly has the power to do it. It probably won’t, which is a shame. I read somewhere that with great power comes great responsibility; but that was written a long time ago, in a Marvel far, far away.
Monday July 15, 2019
The ‘Go Back’ Tweet
It's tough to keep track of all the POTUS norms—let alone civic and civil norms—that Donald Trump is upending. Hope someone not me has a spreadsheet on all of it.
Sunday we got another egregious example. He tweeted about four women in Congress: “Why don't they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Three were born in the U.S.; the fourth was born in Somalia but raised here. All are women of color.
Here's a good, quick response from Charles Pierce of Esquire that nails it:
The president* of the United States is the kind of racist you find in a neighborhood saloon in which everybody moves to the other end of the bar.— Charles P. Pierce (@CharlesPPierce) July 14, 2019
Then the lies about the tweet—of the “You didn't read what you just read” variety—began:
Anyone who says the president told members of Congress to go back to where they came from is lying.— Matt Wolking (@MattWolking) July 14, 2019
He told them to “Then come back and show us how it is done.” pic.twitter.com/7pmb0DNz1c
The legit media have been their usual tepid selves, saying the tweet was “denounced as” racist rather than was racist—as if reality were a partisan issue. Longtime Fox idiot Brit Hume chimed in, saying while the tweet was xenophobic, et al., it wasn't racist, but he was quickly schooled by U.S. Rep Ted Lieu:
Dear @brithume: When people tell me to “go back” to China or Japan, that is racist because they are treating me differently based on race. Like you Brit Hume, my home is America. I don't have a different home because my skin color happens to be different from your skin color. https://t.co/8D0DAfipLm— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) July 15, 2019
And so it goes. Ad naseum. Hope someone's keeping track of it all.
Sunday July 14, 2019
Census and Sensibility
A good rundown by Charles Bethea on the past few week's between the courts, the DOJ and mostly our idiot president on whether to include a citizenship question on the 2020 cenus. But read the whole piece. It's about longtime GOP gerrymanderer Thomas Hofeller and his estranged daughter, Stephanie, who has real problems of her own, but who's fought her father much of her life. And the info she found on four of Hofeller's external harddrives and 18 of his thumb drives after his death helped the U.S. Supreme Court, or at least Chief Justice John Roberts, side with justice.
In late June, the Supreme Court ruled, in Rucho v. Common Cause, that the federal judiciary did not have the authority to stop legislators from drawing district maps in order to maximize partisan advantage. It was a 5–4 decision, split along ideological lines, with the conservative Justices all in support. Later that day, the Court issued its ruling on the census case. It was another 5–4 decision, but, this time, Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion for both of the cases, sided with the liberal wing of the court, concluding that the Commerce Department's stated reason for adding a citizenship question—that it would help the department enforce the Voting Rights Act—“seems to have been contrived.” ...
It appears likely that Roberts's deciding vote was influenced by the evidence that Hofeller brought to light. “Chief Justice Roberts is somebody who is very concerned with the institutional reputation of the Court, and the Hofeller documents—which the Court was clearly aware of—cast so much doubt about the government's stated reasons for wanting a citizenship question,” Michael Li, the election-law specialist, told me. “It just smelled and felt like something was wrong.”
Then Bethea gets into what happened in the last week or so. Basics:
- The Commerce Department issued a statement that census forms would be printed without a citizenship question
- Hours later, Trump tweeted that reports mentioning this fact were “incorrect or, to state it differently, fake! We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question”
- The DOJ then tried to replace its entire team of lawyers on the case
- Tuesday, a federal judge said no, saying the department's stated reasoning for the wholesale switch was “patently deficient.”
Which leads us to our finale:
Finally, on Thursday afternoon, in a press conference at the Rose Garden, Trump said that his Administration would no longer seek to add a citizenship question, and that he was issuing an executive order that called on the Commerce Department to comb through “all legally accessible records” related to citizenship. (The order appears to demand something that was already taking place.) Trump also said, when speaking of the need for citizenship data, “Some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts, based upon the voter eligible population.” The comment reinforced the impression that adding the citizenship question was always an effort to strengthen the Republican Party's advantage in future redistricting by amplifying the representation of, as Thomas Hofeller put it, non-Hispanic Whites.
Here's to finding more external and zip drives.
Saturday July 13, 2019
Jim Bouton (1939-2019)
I was surprised that he was 80. He always seemed so young to me. He was young at heart—the perennial rebel.
Even so, he was hardly the iconoclast everyone made him out to be. If you read “Ball Four”—and you really should—you‘ll see that half the time he’s just a guy trying to fit in. “I don't like people to think terrible thoughts about me,” he writes early on. “Despite my efforts to be one of the boys,” he writes after his roommate Gary Bell is traded midseason, “the fact that I was Gary's roommate is what helped most.”
That's what makes the book so good. It's that tension. Bouton wants to fit in but he can't because 1) he is different from most ballplayers (he reads, he writes) and 2) he has a low tolerance for stupidity. And within the 1969 Seattle Pilots organization he kept finding it.
Coaches question players for taking baseballs out of the ballbag: “What are you using them for?” they ask. The Yankee clubhouse manager refuses to stock orange juice because “If I get it, you guys just drink it up.” Bouton is interested in a new sports drink called Gatorade, and buys several cases for the team, but the Pilots’ GM not only won’t compensate him he launches an investigation into this so-called “Gatorade.”
My favorite example of managerial ineptitude is during a late April game against the Minnesota Twins when pitching coach Sal Maglie yells at pitcher Darrel Brandon not to worry about Rod Carew leading off third. “For crissakes, get the hitter,” he yells. “The runner isn’t going anywhere.” So of course Carew steals home. And of course there's no mea culpa from Maglie. “You know you’ve got to pitch in the stretch from that situation,” he tells Brandon.*
(*Should we forgive Maglie somewhat since, though Carew tied a Major League record that year by stealing home seven times, it is early in the season? Sure, somewhat. Except Carew had already stolen home twice. This was his third. He was off and running. And not just him. In this game, the Twins had four stolen bases—including one by Harmon Killebrew, who wasn't exactly Lou Brock. That was all Billy Martin, by the way. Up to this season, Killebrew had 7 career SBs with 8 CS. Under Martin? In 1969? Eight SBs and 2 CS.)
The Pilots were a bad team and management made them worse. During the course of the year, Seattle sends to the minors one of the best relief pitchers of the 1970s (Mike Marshall), and they trade the future 1969 Rookie of the Year to Kansas City (Lou Piniella). “Lou wasn't their style,” Bouton says simply. Exactly. He wanted to win.
That's also part of the beauty of “Ball Four”: Bouton held a job most of us only dream about, yet his story is also ours: My boss is an idiot. Who can’t relate?
On Facebook, on the day Bouton died, I wrote this:
Rest in peace, Jim Bouton, lover of baseball and books and Mount Rainier. You were less iconoclast than a man with a low tolerance for stupidity; but that marked you in Major League Baseball. Hell, it‘ll mark you almost anywhere. The last line of BALL FOUR is as good as any last line of any book ever published: “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
This is the Rainier reference. In “Ball Four,” it’s from the July 26 chapter—a few days before he's traded to Houston. He writes:
It's still hard to get used to playing baseball again after the All-Star break. Three days off reminds you how much tension you live under playing baseball every day. During the break Harmon Killebrew can't get you. Reggie Jackson can't get you. It's peaceful. Like looking up at Mt. Rainier. That's the great thing about our ballpark. When a home run hit off you disappears over the fence your eeys catches a glimpse of the majesty of Mt. Rainier and some of that bad feeling goes away.
Godspeed, Jim. Keep giving them the ol' Rufus Goofus.
Saturday July 13, 2019
Good-Bye To All That
“Choosing a single day that epitomizes Donald J. Trump's presidency — amid the endless tangle of jaw-dropping, reality-bending, norm-shattering days — is a fool's errand. But for a White House correspondent departing the beat after eight years, Thursday came awfully close.
”From Mr. Trump's morning Twitter rant (asking how anyone could vote for a Democrat over “what you have now, so great looking and smart, a true Stable Genius!”) to his social media summit (in which he praised a room of right-wing agitators for “the crap you think of”), to a news conference that ended with his merry band of provocateurs almost coming to blows with reporters, the White House finally surrendered itself to being a stage set for Mr. Trump's greatest reality show."
Mark Landler saying goodbye to all that in his farewell New York Times column covering the White House (he's becoming London bureau chief). Read the whole thing. It's brutal. And sad. For our country.
Thursday July 11, 2019
Arliss on Cagney
In 1931, Warner Bros. biggest star, George Arliss, who had played Disraeli in “Disraeli” (twice: silent and talkie), and who would soon resurrect his stage role as Alexander Hamilton in “Alexander Hamilton,” was casting his new comedy, “The Millionaire,” in which he, of course, played the title role. The following is from his autobiography:
There was a small but important part in The Millionaire, the part of an insurance agent. The scene was entirely with me and was the turning point in the story. I knew it depended largely on the actor of this small part whether my change of mental attitudes would appear convincing. I saw several promising young men without being much impressed one way or another, but there was one more waiting to be seen. He was a lithe, smallish man. I knew at once he was right. As I talked to him I was sure he could give me everything I wanted. He wasn't acting to me now. He wasn't trying to impress me. He was just being natural, and I thought, a trifle independent for a bit actor. There was a suggestion of here-I-am-take-me-or-leave-me, and hurry up. As I came to my decision, I remember saying, “Let him come just as he is. Those clothes and no makeup stuff. Just as he is.” The man was James Cagney. I was lucky.
Also unlucky. Arliss had had a nice run, but Cagney's naturalistic acting helped put an end to his more theatrical version. Within a year, it was Cagney who was Warner Bros.' big star—even if he wasn't treated as such by Jack Warner. He's been the longer-lasting, too. Arliss kept going, playing Voltaire in “Voltaire,” and Cardinal Richelieu in “Cardinal Richelieu,” but increasingly America wanted to see less of these guys and more of Tom Powers and Rocky Sullivan.
Wednesday July 10, 2019
‘Tucker Carlson Has Failed to Assimilate’
“While I favor granting citizenship automatically to children born in the United States, I was reminded of birthright citizenship's biggest downside Tuesday while listening to Tucker Carlson on his Fox News show.
”Unlike immigrants, natural-born citizens such as Carlson are neither screened nor forced to pass a citizenship test nor made to swear an oath. And when they stray from the American way, no one thinks to tell them that they‘re failing to assimilate.
“But isn’t ‘failure to assimilate’ an accurate way to characterize Carlson's angry identitarianism? Carlson, who broadcasts to millions of viewers on national television, keeps fueling xenophobia and needless social strife by singling out people who weren't born in America for special ire, then attributing negative qualities to whole groups. He just can't get with the program of the American experiment.”
Conor Friedersdorf, “Tucker Carlson Has Failed to Assimilate,” on The Atlantic site
Wednesday July 10, 2019
Movie Review: Hard to Handle (1933)
It’s a movie of its time. We see dance marathons and holes in dress shoes. We hear about Walter Winchell, Clark Gable and Hoover collars. There are even references to long-forgotten ad slogans, such as “Four out of five have it,” which, it turns out—I had to look it up—was a 1920s campaign to warn against gum disease while promoting Forhan’s Toothpaste. According to a 2007 New York Times article, it was “one of the decade’s most popular advertising slogans.”
It’s also a movie ahead of its time. Is “Lefty” Merrill (James Cagney) the first publicist-hero in Hollywood movies? Publicists, PR and propaganda were relatively new concepts back then—with Edward Bernays publishing “Propaganda” just five years earlier. And, hey, is Lefty also the last publicist-hero in Hollywood movies? It’s kind of giving away the game, isn’t it? If you show a man manipulating the public to buy a product, the audience might wonder whether they were manipulated to buy this product.
“Hard to Handle,” written by Robert Lord (“Black Legion”) and Wilson Mizner (“One Way Passage”), and directed by Mervyn LeRoy (whom Cagney couldn’t stand), has no compunction about letting the public in on the scam. It lays it all out for the yaps/saps to see.
Early on, Lefty has this conversation with his partner Mac (John Sheehan):
Lefty: Listen, Mac ... where did all this money come from?
Mac: A lot of yaps.
Lefty: Sure, yaps, suckers, chumps, anything you want to call them—the public. And how do you get ’em? Publicity. Listen, Mac, here’s the idea: You take the bankroll, open a publicity agency. Exploitation, advertising, ballyhoo, bull, hot air—the greatest force in modern-day civilization. ... Look at the guy who added halitosis to the national vocabulary—and a million bucks to his own payroll. Look at Ivy League, Rockefeller’s press agent. Look at the guy who coined the expression “four out of five have it.” Made more out of that than Shakespeare made out of “Hamlet.”
Mac: Ah, it’s a lot of hooey!
Lefty: Sure, it’s hooey. The most profitable hooey in the world. I’m telling you, Mac, the public is like a cow bellowing, bellowing to be milked.
Again, this is the movie's hero.
Fall and rise
It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve finally realized the formula for these early Cagney flicks:
- Working class job, often on the shady side
- Blonde girl
Here, he’s a publicist, the blonde is Mary Brian (who has a Christina Applegate thing about her), and he’s got two catchphrases. The main one is: “You stick with me and I’ll put a gold spoon right in your kisser.” And whenever he kisses his girl, Ruth Waters (Brian), invariably she pulls back and says, “That hurts.” To which he responds: “That’s love.”
“Handle” opens with a dance marathon that’s treated with mirth more than concern. We’re told that after 1,412 hours (which would be 58 straight days), there are two couples left, both of whom have had one fall. They’re only allowed one more. One of the couples is led by Sterling Holloway, soon to be the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh. The other is a short squat guy and a stunning blonde—Ruth. Her mother, Lil (Ruth Donnelly), is introduced as well: “A widow, folks! A widow!” says the radio announcer, played by Cagney pal Allen Jenkins, who gets third-billing for this slim role.
When the other couple finally falls, Lefty goes back to the office to bring Ruth and her partner their winnings ($1,000). Except Mac has absconded with all the dough. Bravely Lefty returns to the stage, says he’s concerned they might get robbed, says he’ll give them the dough tomorrow. At which point, Lil storms the stage—and the movie. She gets all the good lines:
Lefty: But Mrs. Waters, there’s a crime wave!
Lil: Yeah, and it looks like you’re it.
Lefty: Now, now, do I look like a thief?
Lil: You look like you’d steal two left shoes.
She works the mob against Lefty and he barely escapes with his life. Turns out Lefty is Ruth’s guy, though Lil is against it. She also says she’s tired of being on the receiving end: “I’m going to do something to somebody.” That somebody is the very Jewish Mr. Goldstein (William H. Strauss*), to whom she sells the furniture in her apartment. Except it’s not her apartment nor her furniture. By the time Goldstein figures it out, she and Ruth have scrammed back to New York. You could do that back then.
(*Strauss acted in movies from 1920 to 1939, starting out with several starring roles, but mostly cast as a supporting Jewish character. He played five different bergs (Gins, Gold, Silver, Fein, Tim), three tailors and three pawnbrokers. A study of his career would be fascinating.)
Lefty, meanwhile, has another scheme in mind. He sells the owner of “Sea Breeze” amusement parks on a treasure hunt: Hide $5,000 on the premises and let the public try to find it. Problem? The owner hides only $10 and the public tears the park apart trying to find the rest. So Lefty, too, scrams for New York.
He’s down to his last 30 cents when Ruth complains that her “Velvet Bar Milk Cream” won’t rub in, and—snap!—he’s got it. He sells the Velvet company on the idea of pushing their crappy product as a “reducing cream” and winds up with a check for $3500.
Lefty: I always knew the public was dumb but they panned out even dumber than I thought.
Again, that’s our hero.
In this way, his fortunes rise. He convinces society dame Mrs. Weston Parks (Louise Mackintosh, who died later that year at 68) to promote the product, it becomes an even bigger hit, and suddenly he’s a big shot with a team of receptionists. Problem? Ruth doesn’t know if she wants to marry him now that he’s a big shot. Cue her mother’s exasperation.
Donnelly is one of the joys of the movie: grasping for money, gasping at her daughter, shifting 180 degrees depending on the shifting fortunes of Ruth’s pursuers. Initially, she talks up nice-guy photographer John Hayden (Gavin Gordon) and his $25,000-a-year business. But when Lefty comes into his own, Hayden suddenly becomes a “cheap, $25,000 a year man.” She constantly uses the first-person plural for herself and her daughter. After the dance marathon: “Ruth, we won it!” After Lefty comes into his own: “We don’t love that mug. We love you.” Halfway through the movie, and without comment, mother and daughter begin wearing the same outfits. It’s a glorious performance.
Fall and rise, part II
The drama for the second half is all about whether Ruth will come around, and whether Lefty’s publicity schemes will pan out. He’s able to raise $1 million for Bedford College by turning their “hot, skip and jump champ” into a movie star, and by talking up the college’s beautiful co-eds—one of whom is Marlene Reeves (Claire Dodd), who has pre-code eyes for Lefty. She introduces him to her father, Charles, who runs grapefruit farms, and Lefty agrees to handle the advertising.
Bad move. Arlene’s attentions land him in hot water with Ruth, while the ad campaign’s outlandish promises land him in hot water with the feds. The solution comes in jail, when Lefty meets up again with his old crony Mac, who’s lost weight. How? Grapefruit. So Lefty conjures up the 18-day grapefruit diet: “American women will beg, borrow, steal, torture herself, for one thing: a slender figure,” he says. Soon grapefruit prices skyrocket, Lefty’s outlandish promises are no longer outlandish, and the fraud charges are dropped. And with ma’s help, he gets the girl and puts a gold spoon right in her kisser.
Question: Did he sleep with Marlene? I think he did. But the movie makes him seem somehow traduced. Ditto with Grapefruit Farms. It was his ad campaign that concocted the fraud; yet the movie blames Reeves, who skedaddles to Rio.
I like the in-joke about the grapefruit, given its association with Cagney. Particularly when Lefty proclaims to the feds, “What do I know about grapefruit! I never even saw a grapefruit!”
Cagney, with his rat-a-tat delivery, makes a great pitch man, and it’s interesting that Warners thought a man suckering the masses would appeal to the masses. Maybe, to them, it seemed a harmless step up from Cagney’s grifter role in “Blonde Crazy.” It isn’t. Grifters make suckers out of those guys; propagandists make suckers out of us all. Or worse—as Josef Goebbels was beginning to demonstrate.
The full line is: “I'm telling you, Mac, the public is like a cow, bellowing, bellowing to be milked.” Plus ça change. We‘re still a bunch of yaps.
Cagney, wary of the mother; Brian, with a touch of Christina Applegate about her.
“There is no Depression”: I think the Republicans tried that one, too.
What happens when you include only $10 in a $5,000 treasure hunt; they might tear down your place looking for the rest.
If the product doesn’t work? Rebrand. This movie could still be shown in business classes.
Lefty with honorary degree in hand about to go into the grapefruit business.
Claire Dodd displaying pre-code interest in Lefty.
Did he or didn't he? Mother and daughter are standouts, never more so than when wearing the same thing.
The movie's great inside gag.
“You stick with me and I'll put a gold spoon right in your—” “Kiss her!” *FIN*
Tuesday July 09, 2019
Movie Review: Rocketman (2019)
When I first became aware of the radio, of rock ‘n’ roll as a current thing, it was about 1973, I was 10, and Elton John reigned supreme. He was what the cool older kids of maybe 14 or 16 listened to. They had his albums with the odd titles: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” Except ... I’ve already screwed up the chronology, haven’t I? “Captain Fantastic” wasn’t released until 1975, which is when I became a regular radio listener, every Sunday night writing down the top 40 songs in the nation along with Casey Kasum like it mattered. I did that for about a year.
So no, I guess I never really learned Elton’s discography or history—not like with the Beatles. I was a completist with the Beatles but as a kid I owned just one Elton album: “Elton John’s Greatest Hits.” I wanted to be the Beatles—or Paul—but never Elton. Feather boas and glitter and those crazy glasses? Who wears glasses? Nerds. Who wants to be a nerd?
It’s astonishing that he was ever a rock star, really. Rock stars were lithe, sexual beasts with long hair who went crazy on guitars and microphones and drums. Elton was a vaguely pudgy, balding dude in glasses and feather boa tinkling on piano keys. But there he was. Everywhere. Even—it was rumored—wearing 10-foot-tall platform shoes in the movie “Tommy.” (Bigger kids saw “Tommy.”)
There were rumors about Elton but not necessarily those rumors. It was more: “Bennie and the Jets” is about drugs, doofus, don’t you know anything? I also misheard the lyrics: “She’s got electric boobs/Her ma has, too.” Homosexuality just wasn’t talked about much back then. It was just a playground insult, or something you might see on an episode of “Barney Miller.” Besides, how could Elton be gay? He was obsessed with electric boobs.
The way he broke in the U.S. also had its own weird path. He didn’t get big in Britain and then ride that wave across the Atlantic. He didn’t keep playing bigger and bigger venues until he wowed us all on American TV. Instead, it was some club in LA. He started there.
Interesting thing about not knowing Elton’s chronology: “Rocketman” doesn’t know it, either. Or it doesn’t care about it. In fact, it doesn’t care more than I don’t know.
The movie is essentially a jukebox musical, a biopic told via music videos, so it uses what it wants when it wants. The first song he sings at The Troubadour, for example, is “Crocodile Rock,” which is like three years early. Worse, after that show, he meets superhunky John Reid (Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones”), there’ a flurry of headlines about Elton’s success, then he’s back in a London studio recording “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” with Kiki Dee. Reid shows up there, and they become lovers, and Reid becomes his manager, setting himself up to be the villain of the piece. But to me it was like: Wait, the Troubadour in 1970 was the beginning, and “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” in 1977 was near the end—Elton’s last big hit before the MTV-era comeback—so what about the rest? When he reigned supreme? I get jukebox musical; I get truncate as you need; but if you lose too much chronology, you lose the thread and the story.
I also don’t get why music biopics don’t ride the crest of the wave longer. That’s the fascinating part, but here it’s just dealt with in a flurry of headlines. He wows at the Troubadour and then he’s selling 4% of songs worldwide. Give me the steps in between. I’m sure tons of performers wowed at the Troubadour and were never heard from again.
And what do writer Lee Hall (“Billy Elliott,” “War Horse”) and director Dexter Fletcher (“Eddie the Eagle,” “Bohemian Rhapsody”) focus on instead? The dullest story there is: addiction. Booze, drugs, sex—anything to fill the void where love should be. (Cue: “I Want Love.”) The void is interesting, the addiction isn’t. It’s always a long slow fall, and the only question is if there’s a bottom.
Maybe all post-rock ‘n’ roll success is dull. Here’s what biopics tend to give us:
- Band tensions/breakups
“Rocketman” has all of it. Elton is addicted to drugs and booze, he’s overworked by John Reid, at one point he’s slapped by John Reid (which supposedly didn’t happen), and he and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) suffer tensions and break up. Success never looked so sucky.
You know the real disconnect? The movie is about Elton’s life as represented by his songs ... yet it’s Bernie who writes the lyrics. We see Bernie writing the lyrics. So how do Bernie’s lyrics correlate to Elton’s life? I guess I’m asking. Because sometimes they do. Look at “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” Lyrics by Bernie but they describe a moment in 1968 when Elton tried to commit suicide because he felt trapped by his engagement to Linda Woodrow, whom he didn’t love, and by society’s expectations of who he was supposed to be. So he tried to asphyxiate himself in a gas oven. The “someone” who saved him is bandmate Long John Baldry, from whom Elton took his rock surname—the John Lennon bit in the movie is fiction. Meanwhile, the relationship with Woodrow in the movie is treated comically—clothes chucked out from a second-floor window as if he were a 1950s husband. You wouldn’t suspect he nearly killed himself because of her.
According to the movie, their songrwiting partnership went like this: Bernie wrote the lyrics independently, and Elton read them at the piano and, bam, came up with music on the spot. C’mon. Let’s dig into it. Who’s Daniel? Who was the young man in the 22nd row? Whose farm metaphor keeps popping up in every other song? Is “Rocket Man” a takeoff on Bowie’s “Space Oddity” or is it how Elton felt skyrocketing to fame, with the line “I’m not the man they think I am at home” an obvious allusion to his homosexuality? If so, how was this communicated to Bernie? I wanted more of that in the movie.
And do they really suggest the line is “I miss the earth so much/I miss my life?” To be PC? Watching, I felt a little like Alvy Singer. “You heard, right? It’s wife. I’m not crazy here.”
That said ...
I thought Taron Egerton fucking nailed it. New respect. “Robin Hood” is now forgiven. It’s a shame last year’s Oscar went to an actor playing a ’70s Brit pop star managed by John Reid and directed by Fletcher because there’s no way they’re going to go there two years in a row, yet Egerton is the more deserving. He sings, for one, and his transformation is more spot on. At times I wondered if they were showing us clips of the real Elton. Just look at that LA concert when he comes out in the glitter Dodger uniform—the way Egerton stands, poses, etc. Perfect.
You know who else I liked? Kit Connor, the preteen Elton who winds up at the Royal Academy of Music and then plays early rock ‘n’ roll at honky tonks with his swept-up red-haired pompadour. He was the first one to get to me. Maybe because he reminded me a bit of my nephew at that age. Or maybe that’s the age when true vulnerability shows.
New respect for Bryce Dallas Howard, too, playing his mom, Sheila. “Jurassic World: Forbidden Kingdom” is now forgiven. (Kidding. Nothing forgives it.) I couldn’t figure out who the actress was for the longest time. I assumed British; she’s that good. Howard should play disdainful more, too.
I’d still recommend the movie. If I was on “Sneak Previews,” my thumb would be a titch above 90 degrees. But I keep thinking of all they missed. The Beatles conquering America in 1964—meaning rock ‘n’ roll could travel westward, too: What impact did that have on a 16-year-old Elton? How about AIDS and the work he did there? Singing at Lady Di’s funeral and rewriting “Candle in the Wind” and turning it into the biggest single ever? The movie pretends that in the early 1980s Elton pushed away the baggage (addiction, Reid) and stormed back with “I’m Still Standing”; but rehab was in the early ’90s, Reid managed him until ’98, and “I’m Still Standing” only reached No. 12 on the U.S. charts. There’s a better story here.
Monday July 08, 2019
Like a lot of people today, I‘ve been reading up on the arrest of billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein on sex-trafficking charges and what it might mean for others—particularly, of course, Trump and members of his cabinet.
Even in the relatively sterile language of the legal system, the accusations against Mr. Epstein are nauseating. From “at least in or about” 2002 through 2005, the defendant “sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls,” some as young as 14 and many “particularly vulnerable to exploitation.” The girls were “enticed and recruited” to visit Mr. Epstein’s various homes “to engage in sex acts with him, after which he would give the victims hundreds of dollars.” To “maintain and increase his supply of victims,” he paid some of the girls “to recruit additional girls to be similarly abused,” thus creating “a vast network of underage victims.”
The detail that really stunned me was not that the plea deal that got Epstein a light sentence back in 2008—about a year in prison, most of which he spent in his own office, continuing to work—has been negotiated by Trump's current secretary of labor, Alex Acosta; I knew that. It's that when Epstein was 20, and a two-time college dropout, he somehow managed to get a job teaching math at the presitgious Dalton School. The man who hired him? The father of Trump's current attorney general, William Barr.
Small world. Both senses.
Sunday July 07, 2019
Talk about a grapefruit in the face! In 1931, in one of the most seminal moments in movies, Mae Clarke got a grapefruit planted in her kisser by James Cagney in “Public Enemy,” but this is what she's “known for,” according to IMDb's algorithms:
Saturday July 06, 2019
Movie Review: Smart Money (1931)
When I saw this on IMDb I was like, “Whoa. Cagney and Robinson? I didn’t know they made a movie together.”
They didn’t, really. They’re both in it but it’s Robinson’s movie. For reasons of release dates:
- January 25, 1931: “Little Caesar”
- May 15, 1931: “The Public Enemy”
- July 11, 1931: “Smart Money”
By the time they began filming this, Robinson was a big star, Cagney wasn‘t, so Cagney plays second banana. Meanwhile, Boris Karloff has a bit part, since he wouldn’t become a star until the release of “Frankenstein" on November 21, 1931. Yes, all of this in the same calendar year. Anyone who tells you things didn’t move fast in the past is lying.
Fool me twice
The movie is basically “Little Caesar” Lite. A dude from the sticks becomes big in the Big City, then suffers a fall because of a dame, a pal, and law enforcement. Except here the pal is loyal, the dame is his own fault, and law enforcement is corrupt.
Robinson plays Nick “The Barber” Venizelos—Greek rather than Italian, and a gambler rather than a gangster—but in one way Nick is more Al Capone than Rico. He regales and charms the press as Capone did. Reporters sit on his every word, and laugh along with him: “Have a cigar, boys; fella in Havana makes them up for me.” Nick, like Capone, also doesn’t die in a hail of bullets.
As the movie opens, he’s already a success. He runs a barber shop in Irontown but doesn’t seem to do much hair cutting. He’s a gambler, with a long lucky streak, and when he hears about a big game in the big city, run by Hickory Short, he gets his cronies to bankroll him for $10k. Except in the big city he’s played for a sap by a blonde in a hotel lobby. Marie (Noel Francis) says she can get him in the big game with Hickory but he winds up playing against a con artist named Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde), who bilks him for the full 10k. When he figures this out, he’s enraged, attacks them, but is beaten up. He vows revenge.
He goes back to barbering and small-time gambling, and slowly builds his rep and his bankroll; then, with his Irontown right-hand man Jack (Cagney), he takes on Sleepy Sam again. It’s a good bit. Knowing Sam will send out to the hotel lobby gift store for fresh cards, he “returns” four decks there that are marked and cleans up. When Sam and his cronies try to get rough again, Jack and another pal (Donald Cook, Cagney’s older brother in “Public Enemy”) show up with guns drawn.
Now it’s just rise and rise. The big game against Hickory Short (Ben Taggart), is a blip. Nick wins. He’s getting so big, with so much attention, the DA (Morgan Wallace) worries he’ll screw up his re-election chances, and chats with Sleepy Sam about him:
DA: If you were the district attorney, how would you tackle him?
Sam: I’d shoot him some night when he was trying to escape from the law.
DA: Don’t be silly. That isn’t done.
Right. Instead, they go after his soft spot: blondes. An undercover police woman charms him in his office and Nick seems like a sucker again; then he says “...and tell the District Attorney I’ll see him on Tuesday,” and literally kicks her out of his office.
His downfall begins with a magnanimous act. One night, the cops stop his car because they’ve fished a woman, Irene (Evelyn Knapp), out of the river and need to take her to the hospital. (Are there no ambulances?) She winds up at Nick’s place. Jack is immediately suspicious, thinking she’s a plant, but she isn’t. Yet. She’s just on the lam for blackmail. She doesn’t become the plant until the DA hauls her in and essentially blackmails her to help them catch Nick. “All we want to do is give Nick a good scare,” he lies. So she plants a racing form on him, Jack figures it out, tries to warn Nick, Nick gets angry and socks him. Jack hits a metal bolt on the floor and dies. Now it’s manslaughter.
This should be a tragedy, right? Nick inadvertently kills his best friend because he was the loyal one. Except the movie ends on an oddly upbeat note: At the train station taking him to prison, Nick is greeted by friends and the press; and to the latter he proclaims jauntily: “10 years? I’ll bet you two to one I’m out in five!” It’s the movie’s last line.
But Cagney’s still dead.
A few cultural notes about the movie—one minor, one big.
At one point, Nick does that thing you did as a kid: He blows on his fingernails and rubs them against his chest to show how cool he thinks he is. One wonders where this started and whether it was always parody.
The bigger cultural note is how unbelievably racist the movie is. Yeah, I know: 1931. But I’ve seen tons of movies from this era and there’s rarely this many cringeworthy moments. I doubt it was director Alfred E. Green (“The Jolson Story”), or any of the movie’s four credited screenwriters: Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, both of whom wrote “The Public Enemy,” or Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Jackson, both of whom are best known for writing this.
No, I assume it’s the subject matter: gambling. It's about what was assumed back then to bring good luck. On a train, Nick rubs the back of a dwarf (John George), who turns and gives him a dirty look. He keeps rubbing the heads of black men who are more accommodating. On the same train, he tears up a dollar and gives it to an old black porter:
Nick: You’ll get the other half at the other end of the line—if you’re a good boy ... C’mere, gimme luck.” [Rubs his head]
Porter: Yassuh, you sho have luck now.
Sleepy Sam has a black servant named “Suntan” (Spencer Bell) who’s similarly abused—as is Nick’s Irontown stalwart, Snake Eyes (John Larkin), who becomes his servant. In the end, Snake Eyes meets him at the train taking him to prison. To gloat? Of course not.
Snake Eyes: Take this rabbit’s foot, boss.
Nick: Not a chance. You gave me one of those once before.
Snake Eyes: I didn’t mean no harm. Cuz I loves you, Mr. Nick.
Nick: Here’s the way to give me luck. [Rubs his head] So long, Snake Eyes.
Larkin would die five years later, age 58. Bell would die four years later, age 47. His best-known role was playing the Cowardly Lion in a 1925 version of “The Wizard of Oz,” which seems forward-thinking until one considers “cowardly”; as well as the character’s other name: “Snowball.”
Friday July 05, 2019
Movie Review: What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2018)
Rob Garver’s “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” is a mostly laudatory documentary, with many of Kael’s fans and friends and relatives among the talking heads. So why did I like and respect her a little less afterwards?
I didn’t know about the Paulettes, for example. I mean I knew there were young critics she championed, and who emulated her idea about what makes a critic great; but I didn’t know she actually tried to rally them toward her opinion of a film. That’s some bullshit. That’s PR and propaganda. But of course she thought a true critic was a propagandist, and anyone who didn’t act accordingly wasn’t a true critic. Good god. Imagine. There’s way too much fucking propaganda in the world already. Just say what’s true and get off the stage.
Taking stuffing out of Straw
Then there’s the auteur controversy. In 1963, Kael helped make a national name for herself by tackling Andrew Sarris’ article on, and love of, the French auteur theory, disparaging the notion, the academic stuffiness of it all, and Sarris himself. I should read the piece someday—the back and forth of it. According to Richard Brody—with whom, I have to add, I rarely agree—she got a lot wrong. For one, she thought most directors labeled auteurs came out of tough-guy genres like film noir. She wrote:
Can we conclude that, in England and the United States, the auteur theory is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence—that period when masculinity looked so great and important but art was something talked about by poseurs and phonies and sensitive-feminine types?
Not only is this factually wrong (Minnelli, Sirk and Ophüls were also labeled auteurs early on), but it just feels wrong. She’s basically saying men are trying to prove their manhood by championing the word auteur.
More, as the documentary delineates, she disparaged auteurism even as she spent a career touting auteurs: Peckinpah, Scorsese, Altman, Godard, De Palma. Most of these guys were macho, too. Her above description on teenaged masculinity could fit every Sam Peckinpah movie.
What the doc misses is that she didn’t exactly champion everything by a favorite director. She was no auteur whore. I’ve always loved this opening from her 1972 review of Altman’s “Images”:
Robert Altman is almost frighteningly nonrepeititve. He goes out in a new direction each time, and he scores an astonishing fifty percent—one on, one off. M*A*S*H was followed by Brewster McCloud, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller has now been followed by Images. I can hardly wait for his next movie.
The doc treats her as an absolutist, full of hyperbole, and misses the balance in her reviews. That’s the toughest thing for a critic to do, really. It’s easy to love or disparage a thing (particularly disparage a thing), but to delve into it and sort the bad from the good takes work. Look at her take on Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs.” I loathe it, she likes it, but she’s not blind to its faults. She actually nails Peckinpah better than the people who loathe him:
It’s a work of integrity, but it’s not a work of major intelligence. ... [Machismo] has been the obsession behind most of Peckinpah’s other films; now that it’s out in the open, his strengths and follies are clearly visible. His intuitions as a director are infinitely superior to his thinking.
Was she mean? God, yeah. She attacked director David Lean in person and made him think about giving up movies—because she disliked, of all films, “Lawrence of Arabia.” (She thought there was too much of T.E.’s masochism and not enough on the British scholar.) She never had a kind word to say about George Roy Hill or Robert Redford. She never held back. You know the punch Ali never threw against Foreman? Kael threw it all the time. She wanted bodies on the canvas and blood on the walls.
Was she an opportunist? Apparently she sometimes waited on a review, sussing out the critical norm before blasting in from an unexpected angle. At the same time, we’re told, she reviewed and lauded “Last Tango in Paris” before it had any critic’s screenings; she paid for her ticket and saw it with the New York film fest crowd. Her review helped make the movie.
At this point, given “Last Tango”’s revisionist problems, I expected to get into sexual politics, the #MeToo of it all, but the doc doesn’t go there. It mentions she liked movies with sexual violence—where men are strong and women are subjugated—but it doesn’t go further. One of the talking heads even suggests she would’ve thrived in the modern age, with her bon mots transformed into tweets. Seriously? Her reviews were essays. She liked to go on and on. She wanted room and modern print doesn’t give you room—let alone Twitter.
I think she would’ve hated social media. It was her voice that mattered. All those others clawing at her? She would’ve been horrified. Plus, I gather, the #MeToo folks would’ve seen her as the enemy, and vice-versa. The doc treats her as a feminist icon—the lone woman in the room where it happens—but she never seemed much for movements. Let alone hashtags.
For all the problems I had with “What She Said,” I’d see it again—if only to immerse myself in a period when writing and film mattered; when there were adults in the room, arguing about adult things.
Thursday July 04, 2019
Trump's tweet from last February. In case you were holding the date:
HOLD THE DATE! We will be having one of the biggest gatherings in the history of Washington, D.C., on July 4th. It will be called “A Salute To America” and will be held at the Lincoln Memorial. Major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2019
What a fucking embarrassment that is. “...your favorite President, me!” Who talks like that? Who needs to talk like that? What a small sad soul it reveals.
As if we needed that revelation. Trump is the anti-Midas: Everything he touches turns to shit. Now he's doing it to the 4th of July. The Washington Post has a good piece on all the work to mangle our national holiday to please this idiot.
The transformation of the Lincoln Memorial's grounds into a made-for-TV setting, complete with a VIP seating section for donors and other political supporters, represents the culmination of a four-month-long effort to produce the military celebration the president has envisioned for nearly two years.
For a public gathering that is ostensibly targeting an audience of hundreds of millions of Americans, the display of weaponry, aircraft and pyrotechnics has been scripted primarily to satisfy an audience of one. By having Trump speak to a select audience, flanked by armored tactical vehicles, organizers hope he will avoid the prospect of facing a smaller crowd of the sort that gathered on the Mall for his swearing-in.
It goes on to remind us of the lengths Trump went, and still goes, to prove the lie that his inaugural crowd was bigger than Obama's. Who does that? Who needs to do that? And what horrible person/people/news network/FOX News Network cheers him on to do that? Who knows what he is and applauds the baby anyway.
What a fucking embarrassment. Happy 4th.
Thursday July 04, 2019
Quote of the Day
“If the worst thing you can think of to say about the President is that he is imprecise with language, then I don't think I can reason with you. That's like saying that if Godzilla took a couple breath mints, he'd be a pleasant dinner guest.”
Chad Long, on Facebook
Wednesday July 03, 2019
King Donald's Ghost
While on vacation in Belgium, I read Adam Hochschild's excellent “King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” which is a little like reading “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” while seeing the sights and drinking beer in Germany.
The book is all about how the Belgian king, Leopold II, realizing he needed a colony or colonies to accrue the riches he desired, and without an army to do so, stealthily carved out a huge chunk of Africa from under the noses of his European counterparts and made it his own. In the process, he destroyed civilizations, cultures, lives. An estimated 10 million people were killed during his reign of terror. While being held up as a paragon of liberal virtues, he was actually reintroducing the slave trade to Africa. And even when others began to condemn him, including such international names as Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle, it took years before his grip on the continent was loosened.
The book, published in 1998, is much-recommended, and there's a lot to quote from it, but probably nothing as relevant to my country and my time as the following.
Background: Whenever the voices of Leopold's critics grew louder and louder, the King would bankroll, or have cronies bankroll, a sham “investigation” into the charges, which would inevitably clear him. He did so in the 1890s and again in the first decade of the 20th century. But the latter investigation backfired.
... one of the judges, while listening to a succession of witnesses with atrocity stories, had broken down and wept. It was now obvious to the king that the process had backfired: to his horror what was intended to be a sham investigation had slipped out of his control and become a real one.
So what did Leopold do? This. It will seem very similar to anyone who's been paying attention to American politics in the Trump era:
With his modern sense of public relations, the king understood brilliantly that what matters, often, is less the substance of a political event than how the public perceives it. If you control the perception, you control the event. He also knew that journalists dread having to digest a long official report when writing against a tight deadline—all the more so when the material is in a foreign language.
On November 3, 1905, the day before the Commission of Inquiry report was scheduled for release, every major paper in England received a document with a cover letter explaining that it was a “complete and authentic résumé of the report.” This timely and helpful summary came from the West African Missionary Association, which surely sounded reliable. Missionaries, after all, had been among the Congo state's most consistent critics. Most conveniently of all, the summary was in English. Delighted, nearly all the British newspapers published the summary, thinking they were getting a one-day jump on the big news of the week. The Associated Press transmitted the summary to the United States, where it was also picked up by major newspapers. Only during the next few days, as reporters and editors had time to read the full text of the report in French, did they realize that the so-called summary had little to do with the report. Again and again it took major points in the report and “summarized” them beyond recognition.
Right. Leopold is Trump, the West African Missionary Association is Attorney General William Barr, and the press hasn't changed.
When I got home I checked to see if Hochschild had written on this sad historical similarity but couldn't find anything. BTW: I assume Trump doesn't know this history. He didn't look at Leopold and said, “Let's do that.” He just has a similar sense of marketing and morality.
Tuesday July 02, 2019
Movie Review: A Family Tour (2018)
It should be a wonderful moment.
At a hotel in Taichung, Taiwan, Yang Shu (Gong Zhe), a film director who’s been exiled from Mainland China and now lives in Hong Kong, is seeing her mother—traveling with a tour group—after five long years apart. The meeting is outside a hotel and includes her husband and 4-year-old son. It should be heartfelt. It isn’t. It’s stilted and slightly awkward, and then it’s interrupted by the tour director, who leads the mother away. The mother is walking with a cane, but the tour director still rushes her through the hotel lobby. The sense of violation is immediate—maybe particularly for me, since my own mother suffered a stroke three years ago and we’ve been dealing with issues of mobility ever since. At that moment, I was really hating on the tour director.
Turns out she isn’t that bad. In fact, she allowed this meeting, and others, to happen, despite risk to herself. What we’re witnessing is the long arm of authoritarian rule. Even in another country—ostensibly the same country—it can come between a parent and child.
“A Family Tour” (Chinese title: 自由行 or zi you xing, or, basically, “Travel Without a Tour Group”) generally isn’t my kind of movie. We get a lot of long, still takes of stilted conversation and parsimonious information. It can get dull. Several times I had to slap my cheeks to stay awake. But the stuff beneath the surface is powerful. I left the theater moved and saddened.
The intersection of history and governments helps—that whole dynamic between Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and what belongs to whom and by how much.
It’s also autobiographical with an interesting gender reversal. Just as Yang Shu has been exiled from Mainland China for her work, so the film’s director, Shanghai-born Ying Liang was exiled after the 2012 premiere of his film, “When Night Falls,” which was based on a real-life incident: a man was arrested and beaten for riding a bicycle without a license and responded by killing six police officers. Authorities took offense. He now lives in Hong Kong.
It’s also about a film festival (in Taichung) that I saw at a film festival (in Seattle). That’s ostensibly why Yang is there: to be honored at the fest. But she brings along husband and son for the secretive meetings with the mother. They can’t travel with the tour group but they can meet up at where the group is going. The tour guide warns against seeming too friendly, or familial, with each other; but others on the tour assume they’re family anyway. It’s in the way they talk to each other and in the way they don’t.
Mom shows Yang Shu a tape of the authorities questioning her and her husband after Shu fled. They’ve been Skyping with each other, sure, but this is new info. But why did she bring it? Just because? Because she blames her daughter? Her husband is now dead, and his graved is being moved. Development. Oh, and their house is being torn down, too. Development, we’re told. Is it? Or is it punishment for the traitorous daughter? Does mother know and isn’t saying? Does she not know and assumes? We certainly don’t and neither does Shu.
Who knows what and assumes what is part of the mystery. The daughter is often prickly, often ready to start a fight, maybe because she feels she’s done nothing wrong; the mother is often distant, and polite, and mostly interested in her grandson. Maybe because she feels her daughter did do something wrong? Or is it because she’s at the end—she’s dying—and doesn’t have much fight left?
The authoritarian government looms over every meeting but it’s the people at the meeting, filled with human foibles and buried resentments, who can’t make it work. It would’ve been easy for Ying Liang to make this a heroic film. He chose a better path.
Monday July 01, 2019
Things I Learned On Vacation in Belgium and France
Our Lady stands.
- Motorized scooters are big in Paris even though nothing seems less Parisian
- Segways are big with tourists everywhere even though nothing seems less human
- From the traditional vantage point looking east, Notre Dame looks the same. We know it's not, but at least the exterior holds up
- There is actually a bigger and—dare I say it?—more beautiful Notre Dame in France: the one in Strasbourg, which was built between the 12th and 15th centuries. I thought I was done with European cathedrals from the Middle Ages until I saw that one; then my mouth just fell open.
- Spider-Man #3, with the introduction of Doc Ock, which cost 12 cents in the U.S., cost 9p in Britain. A comic shop south of Montemarte was selling this Brit pub, along with Tin Tin and a collection of Silver Age Marvel comics. I think the proprietor thought my French was better than it was, because he tore off on a story that was probably fascinating but with which I couldn't keep up. The gist: he bought the Marvel comics in NYC in the 1970s and ‘80s, when bookshops were everywhere, and man weren’t those the days? He was asking either 300€ for the Spidey (what was writen on the back of the plastic covering) or 1,000€ (what my shitty French thought he said). I was tempted
- The French version of “The Catcher in the Rye” is called “L‘attrape-coeur” (literally: “The Heart Catcher”), and the phrase “...and all that David Copperfield kind of crap” is translated as “...et toutes ces conneries a la David Copperfield.” One of those newstands/shops along the Seine was selling it, as well as Salilnger’s “Nine Stories” (“Nouvelles”). These I bought, but they were cheaper: 7€ for the deuce
- I could spend a lot of €s at those newstands/shops along the Seine; they have my stuff. I still regret passing on those Tour de France posters
- The only time I ever want to smoke is when I'm sitting alone at a small table at a Paris cafe watching the world go by. A cigarette feels de rigueur
- They‘ll use anything to sell anything: In this case, a photo of communist leader Che Guevara with a stogie to promote Father’s Day specials at a cigar and spirits shop in Brussels. I'd say Che is rolling over in his grave but, given the T-shirts and everything else, he's probably rolled out by now
- The train station in Antwerp should be declared an international treasure
- Is it a new fashion trend in Belgium for young women to wear men's dress shirts as dresses? I saw it a few times. Let me speak for all men in the world: We approve
- “Ghent” in Ghent is spelled “Gent.” Muscles from Brussels, Gent from Ghent. What does Antwerp get? Twerp? Seems unfair. Someone work on that
- Someone should publish a book about all the memorials in all the small towns throughout Europe to their WWI dead; I would be your first customer. They are heartbreaking
- Belgian breakfast cereals include Choco Clams and Honey Bubbles and Miel Pops Loops and Choco Cookies and “Cereal Flakes Met Pure Chocolade Au Chocolat Noir.” Really anything with chocolate
- It's hard to find pannekoeken in Ghent, which is a crime
- It's hard to find mussles in Ghent, which ditto
- Apparently the most stolen painting in the world is “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” 1432, by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, and one of its panels, taken in 1934, is still missing. The painting was a key component of the George Clooney movie “The Monuments Men,” which almost makes me want to watch it again, even though I found it pretty disappointing upon its release in 2014
- Is adoring a mystic lamb far removed from idolizing a golden calf? Just tossing out
- Artists in the Middle Ages couldn't paint babies for shit
- Museums are best when they intermingle centuries-old art with modern art, as at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent
- If you bike outside the cities in Belgium you‘re going to see lots of cows and horses
- If you’re biking to an artists colony outside Ghent, chances are you‘ll find exactly zero artists and lots of rich people. It’s really a rich people's colony
- Not many groups of humans are known as “colonies.” I can think of three: leper, nudist, artist. The first two, in a way, contain elements of the third
- Cheese, chocolate and bread from a convenience store and eaten on a park bench is a way better lunch for the bike-ride-weary than anything you might get in, say, an expensive restaurant in a rich people's colony
- Remember to take video as well as photos. Coming across that classic car parade in Eke, for example, would‘ve been a good moment for video, Erik
- Get off the beaten path in Bruges; go to the danker places with the locals
- If you’re biking east of Bruges, the restaurant to go to is Siphon, which is a few miles east of Damme (pronounced DAH-me). It's a fourth-generation family-run restaurant that is closed on weekends but was packed on a Monday afternoon around 1:30 with older folks dressed to the nines. Oh, and get the steak. I didn‘t, but I saw it arrive for someone else and goddamn
- Getting zero laughs when you pronounce your team “Damme (pronounced DAH-me) bums” doesn’t necessarily mean they didn't hear you
- Go left at Siphon, rather than right, if you want to make Sluis, Holland. We went right. Which was wrong. We never made Holland
- Asking directions when you‘re lost is better than relying on maps or GPS
- I have a good sense of direction on a grid but add diagonals and curved streets and I’m hopeless
- European sports fans watch the Super Bowl! I had no idea. When we mentioned we were from Seattle to some Germans in Ghent for the weekend, the first thing they said was: “Seahawks!” Then they talked up the Super Bowl, which they said they watch every year. Because sports
- But they don't watch baseball. Because boring. To them
- Europeans are still wearing Yankees caps. Someone needs to tell them that they‘re wearing the cap of the favorite team of Donald Trump. OK, I will
- Trump has replaced Pinnochio as the international symbol for lying. A Dutch magazine we saw in a Ghent laundromat used this cover line: “Iedereen liegt: De Trump in elk van ons,” which translates to “Everyone lies: The Trump in all of us”
- A clothes store window in Ghent displays not only dresses and outfits but tiny versions of same on dolls. Fun!
- My name can pass as Flemish
- Expect to be admonished by wait staff if you don’t finish your charcuterie in Strasbourg
- Expect to get a “Bien sur” shrug by wait staff when asked if the charcuterie and cheese plates come with bread: “Oui, c‘est France”
- No Michelin guides for France were made between 1940 and 1944, for obvious reasons
- In museums, sometimes the story is the crowds around the artwork rather than the artwork
- Henri Matisse visited Harlem in 1930 and became a fan of jazz
- A lot of people in the 21st century trust their lives to that grinding gears of 19th century technology that is the Eiffel Tower. I am among them
- In France, the Waldo of “Where’s Waldo” is called Charlie: “Ou Est Charlie?” He looks the same
- There are those who maintain and those who let things get run down. The Hotel Chopin in Paris is among the former, and is recommended; the Midnight Hotel in Paris is among the latter, and isn't
- No number of yellow-vest protesters is so worrisome as to prevent a line of 3-4 cops from turning to check out a stunning blonde walking by
- Vive le France et Belgique