erik lundegaard

Saturday November 30, 2019

Ms. Lithwick Warns

Some dire warnings about Donald Trump in a must-read Slate piece by Dahlia Lithwick:

  • It's not just that this president benefited from Russian interference in the 2016 election (and in fact solicited it publicly, recall “Russia, if you‘re listening”). It’s not just that he denies—in the face of the incontrovertible conclusions of his own intelligence agencies and the Senate Intelligence Committee—that Russia played any part in his 2016 electoral victory. It's that he still believes a demonstrable fraud about illegal voting, and Ukrainian election interference, and deep state plots to oust him, and has demanded his Cabinet officers repeat it. Moreover, he has demanded that his attorney general investigate it. His insistence that everyone around him participate in his version of reality allows him to repeat the material falsehood that he won by a landslide in 2016, and that there will be more attempts to suppress his victory in 2020.
  • The president has also taken the legal position that he cannot be indicted while in office...
  • Happily, an impeachment process has begun, which is, in its way, something to be thankful for. And yet the Trump White House refuses to participate, insisting that the entire process is unconstitutional. Not only does the president claim that the investigation is impermissible, but he has also issued a blanket refusal for anyone in his administration, or who has ever been in his administration, to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry. 
  • The growing hysteria about imaginary past Ukranian election interference, a ludicrous impeachment defense, will be used to deflect from the emphatically certain future Russian election interference (as well as interference from other nations that reasonably want in on the fun). The Mitch McConnell–dominated Senate has declined to do anything to protect against that certainty and instead is building a judiciary that will permit it.
  • Trump does not necessarily intend to leave office even if he loses the 2020 presidential election. He jokes about it constantly. ... And just as we soothed ourselves that the military would be the keystone to his removal if it came right down to that, the president has redefined the U.S. military as an appendage of his own desires. At his Florida rally on Tuesday night, Trump dismissed any resistance to his actions in pardoning service members accused of war crimes as emanating from “the deep state.” He reportedly wants these new military heroes he is elevating to join him on the campaign trail.
  • Don McGahn thinks someone else is responsible for taking care of all this, as, evidently, does John Bolton. Robert Mueller made the same mistake in the spring, when he decided it was Congress' responsibility to act on what he had found. ... Everyone seems to assume vast quantities of courage in other people that they cannot seem to find in themselves.

The legit press needs to stop pretending that anything about Trump, or the GOP for that matter, is normal. 

Posted at 08:58 AM on Saturday November 30, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Friday November 29, 2019

The Most Unbreakable Record in Baseball History

A few years back, one of the great baseball writer-thinkers (Bill James or Rob Neyer, I forget) posted on Twitter his thoughts on what he thought was the most unbreakable record in baseball history: Rickey Henderson's 1406 career stolen bases. Second place, after all, was Lou Brock with 938—essentially 2/3 of the way there. No baseball record holder, he suggested, was so far ahead of the second-place finisher.

True, but that's not the answer to me. Players are still stealing bases. Not at the rate they once did, but enough. If you take the top 5 active players in stolen bases, for example, their total (1689) surpasses Rickey by a good deal. Last season, there were 2,280 total stolen bases in the Majors. It's something that's still happening. It could catch fire again. 

Triples, I think, are a better answer for most unbreakable baseball record. The career leader is “Wahoo” Sam Crawford with 309. And whlie the second-place finisher is within 5% of him (Ty Cobb, 295), no post-WWII player is close. Stan Musial is closest at 177, then Robert Clemente at 166. They‘re even farther back than Lou Brock was to Rickey.

That said, if you take the top 5 active players in triples and total their numbers, you get 353—way past Wahoo. And last season there were 785 triples in the Majors. It’s something that's still happening.

I‘ll cut to the chase. The most unbreakable record in baseball history is Cy Young’s 749 complete games. It's not even close. 

Sure, someone (19th-century pitcher Pud Galvin) managed to get within 100 of him (646), while one post-WWII pitcher managed to get within half of him (Warren Spahn, 382), but it's all irrevelant. Complete games have all but dried up. If you take the top 5 active players in complete games and total their numbers you get ... 136. Not even close. And that's with C.C. Sabathia, who's pretty much retired, leading the way with 38. So how about the top 10 total? 208. Top 25? 402. I‘ll cut to the chase again. If you take every active pitcher with at least 2 complete games you wind up with 108 pitchers and 662 complete games—about 90 shy of Cy.

Let’s do the other one now. If you total every complete game in the Majors in 2019, you get ... 43. You‘re about 1/17 of the way to Cy. How about every complete game in the last five years? That nets you ... 331. Still not even halfway there yet. You have to go back more than eight years, into the 2011 season, and total every complete game thrown by every pitch in the Majors, to equal Cy Young’s career record 749. It's just something that isn't happening anymore. 

Anyway, that's my answer to the most unbreakable record in baseball. Willing to listen to other arguments.

Posted at 02:09 PM on Friday November 29, 2019 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Wednesday November 27, 2019

Quote of the Day

“Only willful resistance to fact can obscure the reality that Trump, with the help of his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and various others, tried to extort a vulnerable ally in order to gain an advantage in the 2020 election campaign.”

— David Remnick, “The Sober Clarity of the Impeachment Witnesses,” The New Yorker. Sadly, “willful resistance to fact” is what Republicans are best at now. 

Posted at 02:35 PM on Wednesday November 27, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Wednesday November 27, 2019

Movie Review: Parasite (2019)

WARNING: SPOILERS

About halfway into “Parasite,” which won the Palme d’or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, and which has a red-hot 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes—with, I believe, only Armond White, the nutjob film reviewer now with The National Review, giving it a thumbs down—I suddenly had this thought: “Oh, right. I’m not a huge fan of Bong Joon-ho’s movies.”

I don’t dislike them, I just never see what the big deal is. “The Host”? Fine, but... “Snowpiercer,” the same. Never saw “Mother.” My favorite may be “Okja,” even though it made my wife, who’s hypoglycemic, a vegetarian again, so we’re forever searching for other sources of protein for her. But I still liked it. Enough.

I liked this enough, but it didn’t resonate enough for me. I kept having questions about the film’s logic. When the family pulls off their scam: “Why they couldn’t do this before? They seem expert at it.” When the maid returns in the rain. “Why are they letting her in? Why not ask what she left behind and get it for her?” When the rich mother reveals the source of her son’s first-grade trauma: “Why are we seeing this flashback after the bunker reveal? Wouldn’t it have had more power before then?” Meanwhile, I waited to care about anybody.

I suppose I did—in the way movies force us to empathize with main characters, no matter how awful they are. Here, I worried our grifters would be caught. But it annoyed me that I felt this way. My brain kept going, “No, let them get caught” even as my stomach urged them: Be careful. The rich family will be home any minute! 

Stink bug I
At first, I thought they were simply squatters in their dingy little basement apartment, but my wife thinks they were legit renters; they just scammed everything else: wi-fi, fumigation. They’re folding pizza boxes for a local restaurant when the government is spraying the street for bugs. So ... close the windows? No, says the father, Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), it’ll kill the stink bugs. 

(Soon, Ki-taek will be the stink bug.)

The plot kicks in when a friend of the son brings over a large ceremonial rock, a sign of good fortune, then asks the son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), to take over teaching English to a rich, female private student while he’s studying abroad. Ki-woo wonders why he doesn’t just get a fellow university student to do this; a college education would seem to be a requirement and Ki-woo doesn't have it. Turns out the friend likes the private student, who’s basically a 10th grader, and doesn’t trust his fratboy colleagues, but does trust Ki-woo. More than that. He doesn’t consider him a threat. It’s one of many not-so-veiled class insults in the film.

So with the help of his sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), Ki-woo creates a fake diploma; and when he shows up for the job interview, he’s suddenly collegiate-looking. The dopey haircut is gone. He not only gets the gig, he gets the girl, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the student, who develops a quick crush on him. Meanwhile, the mother, Park Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong), seems to trust him implicitly; and when she mentions the need for an art tutor for her younger son, Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun), he brings Ki-jung into the scam.

This keeps happening. The sister manipulates things to get the chauffer fired and her father, Ki-taek, hired. That just leaves the efficient housekeeper. They use a peach allergy to convince the richies she has TB. Bye bye, Moon-gwan (Lee Jeong-eun). Hello, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), their own mother. Now they rule the roost. Surreptitiously.

A lot of the movie is about the gullibility of the very rich, who, according to the Kim father, don’t have wrinkles; they have money to smooth everything out. He says this when the four are drinking the Park’s expensive whiskey while the family is away on a camping trip. They don’t even get that it’s pouring rain outside and the family may soon return. But the big shocker that evening is the return of the efficient housekeeper, who says she left something behind. Turns out: Her fugitive husband, Geun-se (Park Myeong-hoon), who’s been hiding in an old basement bunker for years. The two have-not groups clash; and when Moon-gwan takes video of the Kims bumbling down the stairs together and calling each other by family names (Dad, etc.), she gets the upper hand. Then it becomes a battle for primacy—for who gets to service the richies. 

Stink bug II
The basement-bunker reveal intrigued me. Was it metaphor—like the black man in the basement in E.L. Doctorow’s “The Book of Daniel”? Or a reminder that no matter how hard up you may be, there’s always someone who has it worse? You’re not the bottom, they are.

I think Joon lets it get away from him a bit. He goes big. The torrential rain floods the city, including the Kim’s place, and they wind up in a shelter with the rest of the masses. But calls still come; they still have to service the Parks. Ki-taek becomes increasingly resentful and angry, particularly as he overhears the Parks’ conversations about how badly he smells. (He’s the stink bug.) The son seems increasingly doubtful, while the sister becomes more amused.

In the battle for basement primacy, the old housekeeper is accidentally killed, while her convict husband emerges during a lawn party for the Park boy and unleashes havoc. The rich father calls for Ki-taek’s help but instead Ki-taek stabs him. Afterwards, we get a voiceover from Ki-woo. We learn his sister was killed and his father went on the lam. The cops never found him but Ki-woo suspects where he is. His father is now the man in the basement. 

Even as I write that, the movie begins to resonate a little more for me. Particularly since there’s a kind of dream narrative, where the son imagines himself becoming rich, and buying the house, and freeing his father from its basement. That’s the dream. But one imagines eventually—or metaphorically—the son will simply take his place. He’ll wind up in the basement of the rich man’s house, feeding on scraps. While the rich? The rich won’t even know he’s there.

Posted at 09:52 AM on Wednesday November 27, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  

Tuesday November 26, 2019

Trump Is Such an Idiot That...

Idiot.

Yesterday, in a Rose Garden ceremony, Donald Trump, president of the United States, attempted to award a medal to a dog. It should‘ve been a pretty easy event to get through without effing it up. But no.

Trump: We were going to put a muzzle on the dog, and I thought that was a good idea, but then it gets even more violent...

Yesterday, in an Oval Office ceremony, Trump, surrounded by powerful women (and a model with a beauty pageant sash), signed into law the Woman’s Suffrage Centennial Coin Act. Another no-brainer, right? Except he has no brain.

Trump: I'm curious why wasn't it done a long time ago? And also, I guess the answer to that is because now I'm president, we get things done.

He's such an idiot I have trouble parsing where his idiocy lies. What's the “it” he's talking about in the above? “I'm curious why wasn't it done a long time ago.” The Centennial Coin Act? Does he not know what “centennial” means? Or is he talking about women's suffrage itself? But then why take credit for it when it took place a quarter-century before he was born? Why take credit at all, since it's an event honoring women. And why the beauty pageant winner at all? 

Everything this guy touches ...

Posted at 01:06 PM on Tuesday November 26, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Tuesday November 26, 2019

Lancelot Links

 Chabon: “I love Mr. Spock because he reminds me of you, I said.”

  • Dan Kois and Laura Miller of Slate pick the top 50 nonfiction books from the last 25 years. For the last 15 I‘ve mostly read nonfiction. So how many of these have I read? Four. Yikes. Get busy reading or get busy dying. Particularly vis a vis the Kolbert.
  • That said, no Michael Lewis, Adam Hochschild, Jill Lepore or Jane Mayer? How about Yu Hua? Or Bill Bryson?
  • The New York Times, meanwhile, has put out its list of the top 10 books of 2019, as well as 100 notables. There, I’m 0-10 and 0-100. But I am interested in the impeachment book.
  • Joe Henry's new album is out, “The Gospel According to Water,” a title I love. My most-played song so far? “Orson Welles,” with its beautiful refrain: “You provide the terms of my surrender, and I‘ll provide the war.” (Cf., “Citizen Kane.”) It’s available here, along with testimonials from Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Jason Isbell, and John Prine. But you should really just buy it. Support your local artist. 
  • Parade magazine has posted a slideshow of its baseball-related covers through the years. We get about five Stan Musials, three Mickey Mantles, a few Tom Seavers, a few Yogi Berras. What's missing? Besides any Minnesota Twin? Well, on the April 11, 1954 cover, Roy Campanella is displayed as one of six sluggers in the Majors. He's the only African-American baseball player on the Parade cover until the 1978 Cleveland Indians/Bible study cover, in which none of them are named. And that's it. That's it, by the way, even to this day. Just two. Yes, a few pretty good players kinda passed over there, Chief. Cf., the history of Who's Who in Baseball.
  • Everyone who cares about this world, not to mention good writing, should subscribe to The New Yorker. Print edition, if you still do that thing. Earlier this month, we got a personal essay from Michael Chabon about his dying father and “Star Trek.” I was reading it, went “Damn, this is good writing,” then checked the byline. Right, Chabon. Amazing what you can make art out of. “I'm with the Horta on this one.”
  • How many of the SCOTUS justices can you name? On a good day I get all nine but it's kinda part of my day job. One that gets overlooked (not Breyer- or Alito-overlooked but still overlooked) is Elena Kagan, who's the subject of a good Magaret Talbot profile in The New Yorker. Talbot paints her as the stolid liberal justice even conservatives dig. Bonus points for Jewish/dry sense of humor. 
  • But the must-read New Yorker piece—for the year, really—is by Alec MacGillis, who wrote that scathing bio of Mitch McConnell I'm forever quoting. Here, he dives into how the Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes have affected one family. They lost a daughter in the second crash, flying out of Addis Ababa, five months after the first crash. She was 24, lovely, smart, driven. Her father ran “Coalition for a More Prosperous America,” a lobbying organization for small farmers and manufacturers, and on whose board sat a former Boeing engineer who had been warning for years that Boeing had shifted from an engineering culture to a business/bottom-line culture, and the inherent dangers there. Her mother, meanwhile, was the niece of Ralph Nader, the author of “Unsafe at Any Speed,” and the most famous consumer-safety advocate in my lifetime. You can't make this stuff up. If no one is contacting MacGillis to turn this story into a movie, Hollywood is truly dead.
  • I should mention that those three great New Yorker stories were all from the same issue: Nov. 18, 2019. The one with the beautiful “Dressing for Fall” cover by Birgit Schossow. See what I mean? 
Posted at 08:18 AM on Tuesday November 26, 2019 in category Lancelot Links   |   Permalink  

Monday November 25, 2019

Movie Review: Joker (2019)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Joaquin Phoenix should get an Academy Award nomination for the laugh alone.

Early on, we learn that Arthur Fleck has a condition that produces involuntary laughter, often to situations that don’t warrant it. Something depressing or tragic happens, and the laugh comes. And it’s not welcome. Arthur chokes on it and gasps for air afterwards. He’s pained. It’s reminiscent of the way most of us throw up. This Joker isn’t laughing like an insane criminal mastermind; he’s vomiting laughter.

Phoenix should get an Academy Award nomination for the run alone. We see him running a lot in this movie—toward violence, away from violence—and it’s often desperate, gangly, comic. It’s a chin-high, knees-high gait. Even when he’s wearing normal shoes, he runs like he’s got clown’s feet.

Phoenix’s Joker is small, scrawny, timid. We wonder how he’ll become big enough to inspire fear. Then he does. Then he is.

It’s a “worm turns” movie. Is that a problem? We tend to root for the worm in those, and the worm here is a killer—Bernie Goetz in clown makeup. Bigger question: If they do a sequel, and it’s far enough along in the storyline that Bruce Wayne has become Batman, will we root for Batman? Or will our allegiances still be with this guy?

Some people get their kicks
At the start, Arthur just wants to bring joy into the world. Unfortunately, he lives in Gotham City circa 1981, which is like New York City circa 1981, which basically means murder, assault, porn, general lawlessness.

Arthur experiences it daily. He works for the oddest temp agency in the world—a cramped, second-story walk-up that farms out men dressed as clowns to hospitals, kids parties, etc.—and one day he’s spinning an “Everything Must Go” sign outside of a decrepit business when some punks knock him down and steal his sign. When he chases them into an alleyway, they beat the shit out of him. Later, the boss asks him why he left his post, and where’s the sign, and well I guess he’ll have to take it out of his paycheck then. Arthur accepts it all with a laugh. That’s life.

It’s certainly his life. He tries to make a kid smile on the bus; the boy’s mother berates him. He tries to talk to his therapist/parole officer, but she’s just going through the motions—her life sucks, too—and eventually he tells her “You don’t listen, do you?” We’ve all seen the Joker’s masterful dance down the stairs in the trailer and on the poster, but what makes it brilliant is the prologue: trudging up those same stairs at the end of another sad, hopeless day. At the top is a sad, cramped apartment he shares with his shut-in mother, Penny (Frances Conroy of “Six Feet Under”), and together they heat up meals and watch a low-rent talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who’s neither funny nor accessible but is somehow beloved, and whose theme music is “That’s Life.” Arthur loves him. He’s who he wants to be.  

Cringingly, Arthur tries his hand at stand-up and doesn’t seem to understand what a disaster he is. Nor does the audience. Does it applaud? WTF? He also begins seeing a single-mom neighbor (Zazie Beets), but this seems off, too. She’s way above his pay grade, and when he acts oddly she simply smiles her beautiful smile. Eventually we realize the applause and the relationship are all in his head. He’s delusional. His stand-up routine is so bad, in fact, it becomes a running gag on Murray Franklin’s show. Murray, his hero, mocks him, and as he watches, behind Arthur’s eyes you see steel go up, with a flame behind it.  

Arthur’s delusions are like his mom’s, who keeps insisting that her former employer, billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), will save them. Because? Because he’s a good man, she says, and he cares about them. Arthur discovers the true reason in a letter: He’s Thomas Wayne’s illegitimate son. Batman and Joker half brothers? Nice twist, I thought, and it leads to a supercreepy scene at Wayne Manor. Arthur, standing outside the gate, talks to like a six-year-old Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson) and urges him closer. Between the bars, he lifts Bruce’s mouth into a gum-heavy smile. An unnamed Alfred (Douglas Hodge) swoops down and breaks it up, but that’s a helluva first meeting between superhero and villain. Particularly since there are still sympathetic elements to Arthur. It’s sad to watch him on the outside—the unwanted, outcast son.

Except it’s a lie—or another delusion. At Arkham Asylum, Arthur gets the records on his mom and discovers: 1) he was adopted, and 2) she used to beat him so severely he became developmentally disabled. So he’s not the son of American royalty; he’s the fucked-up kid of a fucked-up mom.

Is he too sympathetic? His worm-turns moment is like Bernard Goetz but without the racism. After the alleyway beating, Arthur is given a gun by a colleague, Randall (Glenn Fleshler, the serial killer in the first season of “True Detective”), and during a hospital gig it clatters to the floor. He’s fired. Returning home in clown gear on a near-deserted subway, he witnesses three drunk Wall Street types harassing a woman and the vomit-laughter starts. Now they pick on him. Now they’re beating him—it’s the alleyway all over again—but out of nowhere, a gunshot, and blood splattering, and one of the Wall Street assholes goes down. Then two. Then—chasing him through several cars and out onto the platform—all three. Afterwards Arthur runs his gangly run away from the crime scene and into a dingy men’s room. He’s breathless. Is he worried? No. Slowly he begins to dance. He’s becoming who he was meant to be. 

You know what he’s not becoming? Whatever version of the Joker we’ve seen before. The Joker has sometimes been scarred, sometimes not, but he’s always been an insane criminal mastermind. Here, he can’t even spell. Here, he only achieves power because he becomes an underground celebrity after the subway killings. His followers, who begin to dress like him, act out,  and protest, think his subway killing was class-related. It’s not. He was just mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore. He was just tired of trying to do good in a no-good world. 

Once he gets a taste, though, he doesn’t stop. He smothers his mom with a pillow, kills Randall—twice his size—with a knife, and shoots Murray Franklin in the head on live TV. What do his victims have in common? They all “deserved” it. Heavy quotes around “deserved.”

Stompin’ on a dream
This is the part of the film that has some critics worried—and, I have to admit, it does leave a bit of a bad taste. It’s not just that the villain is the hero, and the father of the hero—usually a saintly figure himself—is an asshole here: a rich loudmouth who begins a tone-deaf run for mayor at a time of vast wealth inequality. It’s that the screenwriters and director Todd Phillips (“Road Trip,” “Old School,” the “Hangover”s) stack the decks in Arthur’s favor. He kills Randall but not Gary (Leigh Gill), who never harmed anyone. Is that the next step? First you do it in self-defense (subway assholes); then you get those who deserve it (Mom, Murray, etc.); then it’s just anyone. We just don’t witness the final step.

I assumed he would kill Thomas Wayne, too, but Bruce’s parents get it during the Joker riots. They leave a movie theater, see the chaos going down, and Thomas, like an idiot, directs them into a dark alleyway, where a clown-masked rioter calls out his name, he turns, boom. Then Martha gets it—pearls flying—and young Bruce stands stoic over their bodies, and ... you know the rest.

(A nice touch: the movies on the marquee are Brian DePalma’s “Blow Out” and the George Hamilton satire “Zorro, the Gay Blade,” which places the scene squarely in 1981 while reminding us of Batman’s superhero progenitor. Zorro inspired the creation of our Batman; leaving “Zorro” inspired the creation of this Batman.)

Anyway, yes, the movie is problematic, but for me there’s enough humanity here to save it. Most everyone in this world feels real: his social worker, the woman on the bus, the two detectives pursuing him (Shea Whigham and Bill Camp). One of my favorite scenes is with the Arkham asylum aide (Bryan Tyree Henry of “Atlanta”), who is simply trying to be helpful and slowly realizes Arthur can’t be helped, then tries to put the brakes on. It’s a great, understated scene.

The character who feels least real? Murray Hamilton, ironically. De Niro starred in the movies that inspired this one, including “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” and once seemed more real than movies allowed. Now that’s Joaquin Phoenix. The torch has been passed.

Posted at 06:37 AM on Monday November 25, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  

Sunday November 24, 2019

Box Office: ‘Joker’ Has Grossed More Abroad than Any ‘Batman’ Movie

You either die a hero or you live long enough to see the villain surpass you. 

Last weekend, “Joker” became the first R-rated movie to gross north of $1 billion worldwide. It’s currently at $1.035 billion. But what’s truly astonishing to me is less the $327 million it’s earned in the U.S. than the $700+ million it’s earned abroad.

You know how much that is? That’s 30th all-time. Only 29 movies have earned more in international markets than “Joker.”

Exactly. “Joker.” 

Most of the movies ahead of it are what you’d expect: Marvel movies (7), Animateds (5), plus the Tokiens, Transformers, Jurassics, Fast/Furiouses, Star Warses, and the Camerons (2 each). The one-offs include a Potter, a Bond, a Pirates. All of this is basically wish-fulfillment fantasy and Hollywood endings.

“Joker,” meanwhile, is a gritty reboot of Batman’s No. 1 nemesis that owes more to the oeuvre of Martin Scorsese than DC Comics.

It's actually doing better abroad than any DC Movie save “Aquaman.” Yep, it’s already grossed more in foreign markets than any of the “Batman” movies. Apparently people would rather see the villain than the hero: 

Movie Foreign Gross Foreign % Domestic Gross Domestic % Year
Joker $708,800,000 68.4% $326,931,813 31.6% 2019
The Dark Knight Rises $632,902,188 58.6% $448,139,099 41.4% 2012
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice $543,274,725 62.2% $330,360,194 37.8% 2015
The Dark Knight $469,700,000 46.7% $535,234,033 53.3% 2008
Justice League $428,900,000 65.2% $229,024,295 34.8% 2017

The kicker? “Joker” hasn’t even opened in China—and probably won’t. So it’s doing all this without the most lucrative market abroad—a market where “Batman v. Superman” grossed $95 million, “Justice League” $106 millon, and “Aquaman” $292 million. 

Any thoughts on the how and why of this? Is it because it's good? 

Here’s a deeper question: Is “Joker” the most grown-up movie to gross $1 billion worldwide? A good argument can be made. 

Posted at 05:13 PM on Sunday November 24, 2019 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  

Saturday November 23, 2019

Movie Review: The Masked Marvel (1943)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In many of the ur-superhero movie serials of the 1930s and ’40s, specifically “The Spider’s Web,” “The Shadow” and “The Green Hornet,” the true identity of the masked villain is unknown, and the likely suspects, a group of nondescript business leaders meeting regularly around a table, keep dropping like flies until we get the Big Reveal in the final chapter. Ah. Him. Sure.

“The Masked Marvel” reverses this conceit. It was 1943 so we knew who the villain was: Japan, here in the form of Mura Sakima (Johnny Arthur in yellowface), who, according to a helpful radio announcer in the first chapter, is “formerly Tokyo representative of the Worldwide Insurance Company, and secretly head of the Japanese espionage service...”

(Wait: Secretly? It’s on the radio. How secret can it be?)

What we don’t know is who the hero is. We’re told the Masked Marvel is one of four “ace investigators” for the same insurance company, all of whom are about the same size, with the same wide-shouldered gray suits, gray fedoras and gray personalities. But only one of them periodically puts on a black rubber face mask to fight crime as the Masked Marvel. But which one?

Here’s the burden of the home entertainment age: I actually tried to figure it out—pausing and rewinding, comparing and contrasting. I thought: “Well, that one’s got personality ... but is that to throw us off the track? Besides, his face isn’t lean enough. How about the one with the Southern accent? Or the stiff one with the Brooklyn accent? He’s the least likely, so ... maybe the most likely?”

Anyway, in the final chapter, we find out it’s the one with personality, Bob Barton (David Bacon). Ah. Him. Sure.

Except, in truth, the Masked Marvel was none of the above. He’d always been stuntman Tom Steele, nee Thomas Skeoch, born in Scotland in 1909, who was such a staple at Republic Pictures that some serial stars were chosen because of their resemblance to him, the stunt man, rather than vice versa. IMDb lists 440 stunt credits for him: from the Zane Grey-based “Lone Star Ranger” in 1930 to “The Blues Brothers,” “Scarface” and “Tough Guys” in the 1980s. Helluva career. He also has 219 acting credits, bit parts mostly. You might know him as the man who falls off the chair when Sheriff Black Bart rides into town in “Blazing Saddles.” Yeah, that’s the Masked Marvel. Tell your friends. 

Except Steele was only the body of the Masked Marvel. His stentorian voice actually belonged to Gayne Whitman, nee Alfred Vosburgh, born in Chicago in 1890, who started out in silent movies, often fourth-billed, went on to minor, uncredited roles in ’30s talkies, then became a longtime radio announcer—voicing Chandu the Magician among others. I find this fascinating. Think about it: He had success in the silents, where he was seen but not heard; and on the radio, where he was heard but not seen; but less success in the talkies when you put the two together. He died in 1958. His New York Times obit is a paragraph long. 

So we begin the serial trying to figure out which of four men is the Masked Marvel, and it turns out, on the production side, he’s three men. And the third, Bob Barton/David Bacon, is the most fascinating of all. And the most tragic.

Maguffins and traitors
Thanks to that helpful radio announcer, we learn a lot in the first few minutes of the serial. He lets us know about Sakima; then he lets us know that the Masked Marvel, a Republic Pictures invention, is already a legendary figure “who smashed the greatest crime ring the world has ever seen.” 

Then he’s maybe a little too helpful.

He announces that the president of the Worldwide Insurance Company, Warren Hamilton (Howard Hickman), will deliver documents to the Masked Marvel with info that will lead to Sakima’s capture. Of course, Sakima is listening in. (Sakima is always listening in.) And Sakima sends his goons, including Killer Mace (Anthony Warde), to retrieve the documents. For good measure, they kill Hamilton in front of his daughter, Alice (Louise Currie), who cries out “Dad! Dad!” but seems to get over it pretty fast. In the aftermath, Martin Crane (William Forrest, top-billed), becomes the new president of the insurance company; the Masked Marvel shows up at the Hamilton place to keep “photostatic reproductions” from Mace; four same-sized investigators arrive to help protect Alice and the company; and the Masked Marvel returns to reveal his secret identity to Alice—but not to us. 

Crane, by the way, is really working for Sakima. Which means the top-billed guy is the villain. And a traitor to America.

That’s always bugged me about these World War II-era serials with Japanese villains and American henchmen. It’s not like they’re doing dirty work for the usual masked underworld figure. They’re helping their country’s enemy defeat their country. Are they that dumb? Greedy? Short-sighted? I know it’s asking a lot of slap-dash serials, but you’d think someone would raise the issue at some point—like in Chapter 3 when Mace says it’s impossible to ambush a bullet-proof car and Sakima replies, “Nothing is impossible for the Japanese!” Or in Chapter 4 when they steal diamonds and Sakima says, “How unfortunate we cannot get these to Japan. They would be so useful to my people.” No second glances, Mace? No epiphany? No “Hey, wait a minute...”

As usual with serials, each episode has a new maguffin added, necessitating the good guys and bad guys converge, clash and cliffhang. In one chapter, they fight over a newly designed periscope; in another, precision parts for U.S. bombers. They tussle at an airplane factory, a seaside café, the rooftop of the Super-X Products Co., and at the Ferndale train depot.

Meanwhile, our insurance investigators get winnowed down. At the end of Chapter 8, it looks like the Masked Marvel is pushed from a rooftop but it’s really Jim Arnold, who isn’t the Masked Marvel. In Chapter 10, Frank Jeffers discovers Crane is in league with Sakima but is shot trying to get away. My favorite bit is when he radios ahead to Alice:

“Alice, tell the others ... they’re planning to blow up the train ... with the bomber parts ... just outside ... Ferndale. The man behind all this is ... uhhh ...”

I can just see 10-year-old boys in matinees across the country slapping their foreheads over that one 

For completists, here are the cliffhangers:

No.  Chapter Title Cliffhanger Escape
1 The Masked Crusader MM is punched from a rooftop into a flaming truck, which blows up He wakes up and runs away before the explosion
2 Death Takes the Helm He fights a bad guy on a boat laden with explosives Jumps out in time
3 Dive to Doom Killer Mace punches MM down elevator shaft The elevator is 10 feet below
4 Suspense at Midnight Villain announces the identity of MM He's wrong
5 Murder Meter A bomb goes off in an aeroplane factory tunnel MM escapes
6 Exit to Eternity A truck, driving straight at MM, crashes through a wall MM sidesteps it
7 Doorway to Destruction Killer Mace shoots a rifle through a door and MM falls He's not hit
8 Destined to Die MM falls from a rooftop It was Jim Arnold
9 Danger Express MM is trapped in truck that goes over ravine Elaborate! MM ties a rope to the truck's door and then around a passing tree, so the door is ripped off, allowing him to escape
10 Suicide Sacrifice MM's car collides with train He'd already jumped out
11 The Fatal Mistake A live hand grenade drops on a boat with an unconscious Alice She wakes up and dives off
12 The Man Behind the Mask n/a n/a

The fight scenes aren’t bad. Amusingly, no one’s hat ever goes flying off—I guess that was a Tom Steele trademark. I particularly like the Frank Jeffers fight in the basement of Crane’s place in Chapter 10, although the double for Sakima is too big. I also like how Crane’s desk chair lowers into Sakima’s lair like a precursor to the Adam West batpole.

Feminists can take pride in the Chapter 3 cliffhanger. At first, it seems like the usual damsel-in-distress deal. Killer Mace and his goons have Alice tied up, crush a barrel beneath an elevator and say the same thing will happen to her if she doesn’t talk. She doesn’t. So she’s put in the elevator pit. “Bring it down ... slowly,” Mace says. Classic cliffhanger. Except that’s not the cliffhanger. The Masked Marvel shows up, stops the elevator, kills the guy operating it, and follows the bad guys to the 5th floor for yet another slugfest. In the meantime, Alice frees herself. The cliffhanger is when Mace punches the Masked Marvel into the elevator shaft. What saves him is ... Alice. She’s taking the elevator up to help him, so he only falls like 10 feet.

Another interesting sidenote. When the Masked Marvel finally catches up with Sakima in Chapter 12, he says this: “Alive or dead, you’re coming with me.” It’s almost word for word the catchphrase for 1987’s Robocop. Did they get it from here? It seems like it would be a common-enough action-hero phrase, yet I haven’t heard it anywhere else. 

The lonesome death of Gaspar Griswold Bacon, Jr.
That said, there’s not much here here. The top-billed guy is an American traitor, Louise Currie is not my favorite serial heroine, while our hero is split into the three aforementioned parts: actor, voice, stunt man. Plus he’s not someone we imagined first on the radio or in comic books. He’s not Batman or The Shadow or even Green Hornet; he’s someone Republic Pictures imagined to make a buck. He’s basically a guy who looks like the Spirit but without the Spirit’s cool name or cool extras. Did Will Eisner contemplate a lawsuit? Or were guys in suits, fedoras and facemasks too common back then?

Some background on David Bacon, nee Gaspar Griswold Bacon, Jr., who came from a prominent Boston Brahmins family. His grandfather, Robert Bacon, was a business lieutenant to J.P. Morgan, ambassador to France, and briefly U.S. Secretary of State under Teddy Roosevelt. His father, Gaspar Griswold, Sr., was the president of the Massachusetts Senate in the 1920s and lieutenant governor in the 1930s.

David was educated at Harvard but went into acting—one assumes against family wishes. He became part of a theater troupe that included Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. Two years after Harvard, he moved to LA, and a few years later he was signed to a contract by Howard Hughes, who was thinking of him for Billy the Kid in “The Outlaw.” Instead, David got bit parts before Hughes loaned him out for this. “The Masked Marvel” opened on Nov. 6, 1943, but David wasn’t there to promote it or see it. He’d been dead for two months. Murdered. Literally stabbed in the back.

His death was written up in the Sept. 14, 1943 New York Times under the headline: “D.G. BACON IS SLAIN AS IN MOVIE ROLES”:

Clad in blue denim shorts and returning from a swim, Mr. Bacon lost control of his small, English-built automobile. It bounced over the curb and stopped [in a bean field]. He climbed out and collapsed. He died of a stab wound in the back, gasping his plea to Wayne Powell, a passer-by.

Witnesses said that Mr. Bacon’s car wavered along Washington Boulevard before leaping the curb. One woman said that she saw a black-haired man in the vehicle beside the driver, while a service station attendant a half mile west of the bean field said that a man and a woman, besides the driver, were in the car when it passed his place. 

A few days later, the Times printed a UP story about how Bacon wrote a penciled will three months before his death, as if he were anticipating it. He left everything to his wife, Greta Keller, an Austrian concert singer 11 years his senior.

The bigger reveal came years later from his widow: He was gay, she was gay, theirs was a lavender marriage. There were other reveals, too. The cops found a camera in his car with one photo taken—David, on the beach, in the nude. Someone came forward saying David was being blackmailed. His widow thought Howard Hughes was involved. As with any Hollywood death, theories abound. It might make a good movie someday.

As for the Masked Marvel, this was it for him. One and done. Beyond the Green Hornet, masked men in suits and fedoras just didn’t survive into the true superhero age. One wonders if anyone still owns the rights to him. 


  • The title card before every episode. He looks a lot like the Spirit there. One wonders if Will Eisner contemplated a lawsuit.

  • Here's what he looks like. Remember, kids: Never mixed Nitrolene and lend-lease gasoline. 

  • In the serial's conceit, he's supposed to be one of these guys. (David Bacon is the right-most picture.)

  • In truth, he was always longtime Republic Pictures stuntman Tom Steele—even during non-stunt scenes. 

  • Our yellowface villain.

  • Killer Mace, his henchman, who gives no thought to betraying America in its time of need. 

  • Louise Currey as the damset in distress. But in one cliffhanger she‘ll save the day.

  • Ironically, tragically, two of the four actors who played tine the ace insurance investigators would be murdered within four years of the serial’s release.

  • The first and last insurance-investigator superhero.  *FIN*
Posted at 09:11 AM on Saturday November 23, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  

Friday November 22, 2019

Quote of the Day

“A lot of our guests want me to know that they feel flawed, too. ... Evolutionarily and culturally, we live in a manner that's so different from how we were designed to live. We used to live in groups of a hundred people, and the illusion of perfection couldn't possibly be maintained. You saw people shit on the side of the house; you heard your aunt and uncle having sex in the next hut over. Now we live in very private ways, and we all think that everyone else has this figured out.”

— Actor and podcaster Dax Shepard in a Talk of the Town piece written by Amanda Petrusich in The New Yorker

Posted at 04:34 PM on Friday November 22, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Wednesday November 20, 2019

Deep Breathing and Brett Butler

“This morning I woke in the dark and put on a bunch of layers and a balaclava and scarf and bright reflective coat and helmet and rode my bike four miles or so down Ashland through an icy wind to sit on a cushion for 40 minutes at the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate meditation hall. For many years I meditated sporadically and romanticized about someday attaining enlightenment, you know, bursting into painless admirable bliss forever, but now I just fucking meditate every day. The turning point in this increase in constancy was becoming a father and how that becoming and its accompanying stress prompted me to frequently assault myself with blows to the head. This was no way to live, I finally realized. I don't punch myself in the head much anymore. In fact I can't remember the last time I did it. I don't particularly want to wake up in the dark once a week and ride through the cold and sit on a cushion with my legs aching. I don't particularly want to sit on a cushion every night after my kids are in bed. But I do it. It keeps the head punches at bay, for one thing, but also the more I do it the more I clearly I see that I'm going to die, and that clarity brings panic and hopelessness and sadness. There's no way out alive. And so I sit every night plus one morning a week after a long bike ride and sometimes on that cushion I feel everything drop away altogether and for a few seconds there is just life right now, and I have no complaints, no questions, no thoughts at all, and a feeling of gratitude wells up in me for this singular vanishing, this gift of life.”

— Josh Wilker, “Brett Butler,” on the Cardboard Gods site

I haven't reached the meditation stage yet, certainly not on the level he's at, but for several months last year I did sit quietly and breathe deeply, in and out, in the morning and in the evening, to try to keep my anger level down. I was getting hair-trigger angry too often, once horribly so. (Verbal violence, not physical. Moments I‘ll carry the rest of my life.) The deep breathing helps. These days I do the deep breathing more often as it’s happening. Something stupid will be happening, I‘ll feel that adrenaline surge of anger—which, c’mon, is a fucking great feeling—but I'll be aware of the bad place it leads and just focus on the breathing.

Josh, whose book “Cardboard Gods” I recommend highly, ties all this to a Brett Butler baseball card. 

Posted at 06:44 PM on Wednesday November 20, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Wednesday November 20, 2019

The John Dean Moment

We used to have to wait a day for headlines like these—or at least until the afternoon newspaper, kids—but now it plays out in real time. Along with the denials and obfuscations and general muddying of waters. That's all the GOP has these days: mud to add to otherwise pretty clear water. It's becoming apparent to more and more people what should‘ve been obvious a long time ago: Donald Trump is a crook.

The Times’ subhed is just as important: Pence and Pompeo. Frick and Frack. Or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Nah, that's letting them off too easily. 

The Times has a piece on the five key things we learned from Gordon Sondland's testimony, some of them direct quotes:

  • “We followed the president's orders”: Meaning it was a Trump operation all the way.
  • “Everyone was in the loop,” including the aforementioned Pence and Pompeo. (This reminds me of Woodward's line in “All the President's Men”: “Everyone was involved.”)
  • Trump's goal was to get the Ukranians to announce the investigation (Is this a new thing? It was certainly between-the-lines in everything we already knew).
  • Good god, yes, to quid pro quo.
  • This was the only foreign policy vis a vis Ukraine. The backchannel was the channel. 

I‘ll keep reading. It’s a bad day for Fox News, Rush, the GOP, et al.; it's a good day for American democracy. To me, it's not even a partisan thing. There's joy today because some truth got out.

Posted at 12:11 PM on Wednesday November 20, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Tuesday November 19, 2019

Alan Moore on Our Superhero Fixation

What was the impact of popular heroes comic books in our culture? Why are people fascinated by alternative realities?
I think the impact of superheroes on popular culture is both tremendously embarrassing and not a little worrying. While these characters were originally perfectly suited to stimulating the imaginations of their twelve or thirteen year-old audience, today’s franchised übermenschen, aimed at a supposedly adult audience, seem to be serving some kind of different function, and fulfilling different needs. Primarily, mass-market superhero movies seem to be abetting an audience who do not wish to relinquish their grip on (a) their relatively reassuring childhoods, or (b) the relatively reassuring 20th century. The continuing popularity of these movies to me suggests some kind of deliberate, self-imposed state of emotional arrest, combined with an numbing condition of cultural stasis that can be witnessed in comics, movies, popular music and, indeed, right across the cultural spectrum. The superheroes themselves – largely written and drawn by creators who have never stood up for their own rights against the companies that employ them, much less the rights of a Jack Kirby or Jerry Siegel or Joe Schuster – would seem to be largely employed as cowardice compensators, perhaps a bit like the handgun on the nightstand. I would also remark that save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.

— interview between “Watchmen” creator Alan Moore and Brazilian writer/editor Raphael Sassaki, which took place in 2016, and was translated and published in January 2017. Full interview here.

Posted at 10:45 AM on Tuesday November 19, 2019 in category Superheroes   |   Permalink  

Monday November 18, 2019

Trump Outsources Foreign Policy to Russian Gangsters

“A week ago, CNN found Trump had at least ten interactions with [Lev] Parnas and [Igor] Fruman [who were arrested by federal agents on Oct. 10], straining his denials beyond all credibility. Friday night, CNN unearthed an even more dangerous piece of news. Parnas and Fruman, along with their partner, Rudy Giuliani, met with Trump in the White House during its annual Hanukkah party. Parnas told two people that Trump tasked them with pressuring Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.

”Trump's dishonesty is so comprehensive that the revelation he lied about knowing Parnas and Fruman—the sort of lie that would badly damage a normal president—barely registers. The fact that he allegedly commissioned Parnas's work directly might prove more damaging. Here Trump recruited a pair of sleazeballs with ties to the Russian mafia to communicate with the Ukrainian government on his behalf. ‘President outsources his foreign policy to gangsters’ is the sort of charge that ought to draw more attention than it has.“

— Jonathan Chait, ”Trump Personally Directed Mob-Linked Figure Tied to Ukraine Shakedown," New York magazine

Posted at 04:53 PM on Monday November 18, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Monday November 18, 2019

Movie Review: The Irishman (2019)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It goes pretty fast for a three-and-a-half hour movie. Surprising since the movie itself isn’t rushing through anything. It moves leisurely. It’s got an old man’s pace—befitting its storyteller.

No, not director Martin Scorsese, who just turned 77, and who can still make movies as clipped and zippy as his own much-imitated speaking style. I’m talking the title character. The movie opens with a single-shot pan down the hallway of a nursing home, which eventually turns a corner and settles on an aged Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), sitting in a wheelchair in an alcove and talking about his past. To whom? One might think it’s Charles Brandt, the former Delaware attorney general who, six months after Sheeran’s death in 2003, published the book on which the movie is based. Except that book, “I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran & The Inside Story of The Mafia, The Teamsters, & The Last Ride of Jimmy Hoffa,” has been pretty much debunked, and anyway we never see Brandt. We don’t see anyone. Sheeran is sitting by himself and talking to himself—or talking in his head. He’s all he’s got anymore.

Could his story have been shorter? My friend Jim felt that. He’s from Jersey, loves Scorsese, but near the end I caught him fidgeting. As soon as the movie he was over, bye, he was outta there. An hour later he shot me this email:

Loved seeing those actors, especially Pacino and De Niro, liked it, coulda got ’er done in 2 ½ hrs.

Jim wanted less of the last half hour—after the death of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Once that happened, he felt, the story was over. He’s right in a way. But Scorsese is interested in the other story, too, the effect of all this crime on the man. Plus, when introducing characters throughout the movie, Scorsese will often freeze-frame the shot and let us know when and how that character died. Usually it’s brutally. John Irving did the same thing in “The World According to Garp,” telling us the how and when each of his characters dies, leading to this last great sentence: “Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” That’s where I assumed Marty was leading us with the extended denouement: to the terminal case of Frank Sheeran.

And that’s the one he doesn’t give us. He shows Frank buying a coffin. He shows him estranged from his family—his four girls—one of whom tells him that growing up they could never come to him with a problem. If they did, he would overreact and hurt people. Scorsese shows us FBI guys visiting Frank, trying to get more details on the Hoffa case. But then this too goes away. Everything goes away. The nurse taking his blood pressure (Dascha Polanco) doesn’t know from Jimmy Hoffa. Frank is more and more irrelevant, more and more alone, until he asks the departing nurse to leave the door open to let a little light in. 

And that’s where Scorsese leaves him: an old man in a wheelchair, alone, with no connection to anyone or anything. He leaves him in purgatory.

Love that. As for the movie itself?

Not Irish enough
I had trouble getting past the CGI and (believe it or not) the casting. De Niro’s the reason the movie even got made—he’s been pushing to do it, with himself in the lead, since the book was published—but he’s wrong for the role. It’s not just that Sheeran was 6’4”, 250, and De Niro isn’t, and Sheeran was Irish while De Niro, while part Irish, is the most iconic Italian-American actor of his generation. It’s that Sheeran was Irish among the Italians. He was an enforcer for the Italian mob in Philly, so you really want to feel that ethnic difference: How he is one of them and not; how he’ll never be one of them; and how maybe he has more in common with Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, who was, after all, half Irish. But we don’t get this. It’s the “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” and “Casino” crew, but with one guy pretending—kinda—to be Irish-American.

What could someone like Liam Neeson have brought to the role? That’s what I kept wondering. Neeson is also 10 years younger than De Niro, who’s 76, so the CGI wouldn’t have had to work so hard. Here, it works way too hard. Things happen when you age that CGI can’t erase. Your lips get thinner; your mouth may curl inward; you lose any spryness in your step. We watch Frank, a 20-something WWII vet, moving like a 70-something worried about breaking a hip. It takes you out of the film. The farther back we went, the worse it got. At time, he looked like Robin Williams, other times Kevin Kline. At one point, so much of De Niro’s age and humanity had been erased that I flashed on Tom Hanks in “Polar Express.”

The production values, on the other hand, were amazing. Did our mob visit any business that’s still in existence? It was all Stuckey’s and Howard Johnson’s and Sunoco. It was famous mob-hit locations: Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy, where Crazy Joe Gallo (standup comic Sebastian Maniscalco) bought it; the Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, the last place Jimmy Hoffa was seen.

There’s a scene in 1975 where Frank is driving through Detroit neighborhoods to the house where Hoffa will get whacked. I came of age at that time, in Minneapolis, and goddamn if it didn’t feel like a Midwest neighborhood in 1975. But perfectly. The Coens were able to do the same with a 1960s lake in “A Serious Man.”

The early stuff—how, as a trucker, Frank met Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), delivered stolen, cut-rate meat to Felix DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), and got in good with those boys—was OK, even if the CGI was distracting, and even though we’ve kind of seen it before. But I like how characters came and went. They seem central until they’re not. Like when was the last time we saw mob boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel)? At the testimonial?

It’s once we’re introduced to Hoffa, and get into national politics with the Kennedy boys, or at least Bobby (Jack Huston, sounding just like him), that I became truly interested. Has Scorsese done this before? Brought us the national and international import of the mob? In the past, he’s stayed in the neighborhood.

Pacino’s still got energy, and he’s paired against up-and-comer Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham, Al Capone in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” and Graham goes head to head with Pacino like not many can. Their argument in prison was riveting. BTW: Is it an agreed-upon fact that Sam Giancana helped elect Kennedy in ’60 or is that still supposition? Feels like supposition, and the why of it here feels shaky. Giancana wants the mob back in Cuba, now run by Castro, so he needs the attempted coup that Kennedy launched in April 1961—the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation. Sure. Except that was planned in Ike’s term; Kennedy just came in at the tail end, then launched it without air cover. Are the theorists claiming Nixon wouldn’t have launched it against Castro? Tricky “Pink down to her underwear” Dick? President “Sure, let’s go into Cambodia” Nixon?

The movie has Frank running guns down to Florida for the operation, where he briefly meets David Ferrie (Louis Vanaria), weird eyebrows and all. First thought: Hey, Pesci’s character from “JFK”! Second thought: So is this their linkage between the mob and the assassination? When we get the assassination again, we get it the way most people got it in 1963—on television. Frank, Hoffa and others are at a diner when we hear the “flash out of Dallas” and Walter Cronkite’s heartbreakingly professional reporting. Everyone’s shocked and distraught except for Hoffa. He’s quiet. He seems to be ruminating. Did he know? Did he know who knew? Was he in the room where it happened?

Not ‘Goodfellas’ enough
I could’ve done without some of the daughter stuff. Leave in Frank busting the grocer’s hand in front of Peggy (Lucy Gallina, eventually Anna Paquin), but take out the stuff about her not liking Russell and liking Hoffa. Pesci’s cast against type here—he’s calm, wise and understanding—but his fixation on the kid is a little weird. You need to know why the Frank is estranged from his daughters and that’s it.

I also would’ve trimmed down some of Frank’s attempts to get a post-prison Hoffa to back off from trying to regain control of his union. These are interminable. Of course, since all of this is being filtered through Frank’s mind, maybe he’s constantly replaying those scenes to justify what he did—killing his friend the way he did—but it doesn’t mean they don’t get dull. And was anyone else confused by the slow-mo assassination of one of the union/mob guys by the nondescript black guy? It seems like we’re in the early-to-mid 1960s, then we get this, and everyone in the scene is dressed like early ’70s, and ... I don’t quite get what it connects to.

I’m glad I saw it. It’s not “Goodfellas” but it adds to the pantheon. Leaving the theater, I even thought what a double-bill it would make with “Goodfellas.” Same director, same stars, but an old man’s pace rather than the cocaine-fueled rush of “Goodfellas.” That said, tough to watch any three-and-a-half hour movie on a double bill. Particularly at my age.

Posted at 08:36 AM on Monday November 18, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  

Sunday November 17, 2019

Box Office: ‘Ford’ Vrooms, ‘Angels’ Die

The fourth reboot of a ‘70s jiggle show may be the last ... for a while.

Still not a fan of Box Office Mojo’s redesign. So much data is now hard to find on the site, or is now only available if you pay $100+ a year for  IMDb Pro. All this is Amazon, by the way. They didn't create either site, just bought them years ago, and are now mucking them up. No character searches any longer on IMDb; now all this crap. 

That said, there may be advantages to the new setup. The No. 1 movie for the weekend, and the highest-rated (92%) RottenTomates new release, is “Ford v Ferrari,” which grossed just over $31 million. Second was the second weekend of “Midway,” $8.7 million, third was the first weekend of “Charlie's Angels,” $8.6.

Wait, whoa. Third? Not even $10 mil? Shame. Elizabeth Banks directed, which probably means—despite her “Pitch Perfect 2” grossing $184 in 2015—she won't be getting many more chances. On the plus side, maybe this is a stake in the heart of this intellectual property. How many variations have there been? From 1970s jiggle TV show to 2000 hit movie to 2003 disappointing sequel to 2011 disappointing TV show to 2019 disappointing reboot. Three disappointments and you‘re out? Probably not. 

Anyway, I lost the thread. The advantage to the new cross-pollinated amazon setup may be this: I was curious what else “Ford v Ferrari” director James Mangold had done, and checked it out as part of my trial subscription to IMDb Pro. I was like: Oh right, the Wolverine stuff. Also “Walk the Line” and “3:10 to Yuma” and “Knight and Day” (underrated for that kind of film). 

But to get to that info you have to go through “Projects in Development,” one of which, for Mangold, was this:

“Untitled Joe Namath Project”

The story of American football star Joe Namath, who became one of the sport’s early media sensations as well as a Super Bowl champion.

For a second, I was excited. I would totally be there for this. Then I saw how many other “Projects in Development” Mangold has: 10, and with eight of them he's attached as director. No way that's going to happen. So we‘ll see. 

BTW: Elizabeth Banks has 30 projects in development right now, including five in which she’s attached as director, so I probably shouldn't worry too much about her. Or at all, given the state of the world. 

BTW II: Adam Driver as Broadway Joe? 

Posted at 02:27 PM on Sunday November 17, 2019 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  

Thursday November 14, 2019

Republican Sideshow

“Attempted murder? Now honestly, what is that? Do they give a Nobel Prize for attempted chemistry? Do they?”

— Sideshow Bob, “The Simpsons,” Season Six, Episode Five, 1994

“This rhetorical absurdity, originally intended as a joke on a TV cartoon, is now being trotted out in all seriousness by the GOP. What New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait has called the ”Sideshow Bob defense“ has become central to Republican efforts to shield President Trump from accusations of wrongdoing. ...

”House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), for instance, said: ‘Name me one thing that Ukraine did to release the money. Nothing.’ ...

“Nikki Haley reasoned: ‘... It’s hard for me to understand where the whole impeachment situation is coming from, because what everybody's up in arms about didn't happen.' ... 

”It's hard to believe that the Sideshow Bob defense of Trump will be long-lived, as it fails to stand up to even the slightest scrutiny. It is literally a joke. (Still, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) felt obliged to stamp out any confusion during the impeachment hearing Wednesday. ‘Is attempted murder a crime?’ he asked Ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. Laughing, Taylor responded: ‘Yes, attempted murder is a crime.’)“

— Bill Oakley, writer for ”The Simpsons,“ in the Washington Post Op-Ed, ”One of the defenses of Trump is — literally — a TV-cartoon joke"

Posted at 11:08 AM on Thursday November 14, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Tuesday November 12, 2019

Quote of the Day

“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

― Ronald Wright, “A Short History of Progress,” 2004

Posted at 08:58 PM on Tuesday November 12, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Monday November 11, 2019

Movie Review: Yesterday (2019)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Has any pop music act represented its times as much as the Beatles and yet remained as timeless as the Beatles? They were the biggest act of the 1960s; they defined it and altered it. They altered us—the way we dressed, wore our hair, what we smoked and thought; what we thought of this thing called rock ‘n’ roll. They helped change the name; they took out the roll and left the rock.

At the same time: “Yesterday,” “Let It Be” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” all feel fresh 50 years later.  

I was born in January 1963, and when I was about 5 years old I was staying with family friends in Michigan. One day the mother was working in the kitchen and overheard me and her son, B.G., in the bedroom arguing. “Mine’s longer,” I said. “No, mine’s longer,” B.G. said. We kept going back and forth in this manner, and she kept growing increasingly worried, until one of us declared, “Well, if I pull mine, mine’s longer.” That’s when she decided enough was enough, and she stormed into the bedroom ... to find B.G. and me kneeling in front of the mirror and pulling our hair down toward our eyes. The Beatles brought that. Long hair stayed the cool thing for decades after they brought it over.

At the same time: “Help!,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “The Long and Winding Road“ all feel fresh 50 years later. 

A shadow hanging over me
“Yesterday,” a magic-realism movie written by Richard Curtis (“Love, Actually”) and directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), is better than I thought it would be. Some of the relationships feel real enough. It’s got enough Boyle to make up for the Curtis.

Jack Malick (Himesh Patel) is a struggling musician playing nowhere gigs around Lowestoft in Suffolk County, England. He's managed by longtime friend Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who is obviously in love with him. He just as obviously doesn’t seem to notice. Or maybe he thinks shagging his manager is too #MeToo. Or maybe he’s just got his eyes on the prize—singing his songs and playing his music. Trouble? His songs aren't that good. “Summer Song,” his standby, is good enough to make you pause for a second but then it just dissipates around you. It’s actually the perfect song for his status. You get why it’s his standby and you get why he’s going nowhere.

Indeed, he’s about to give up—just declared so to Ellie—when there’s a worldwide power outage. It’s like the world is rebooting, and in the sudden dark, biking home, Jack is hit by a bus and flies through the air. I assume it’s the flying through the air that saves him, or unalters him, because when he wakes up in the hospital, sans two front teeth, the world is altered. Slightly. I like the slightly. So British. A Hollywood movie would have him waking up in a world in which the NAZIS won World War II, but here it’s just little things. Well, not really “little.” It’s that life is the same, but there’s no cigarettes, Coca-Cola, or the Beatles.

The Beatles thing he realizes first. In the hospital, he makes a lame “When I’m 64” joke but Ellie doesn’t get it. Why 64? she asks. He doesn’t get why she doesn’t get it. Later, with their friends, she presents him with a new guitar—his got smashed in the bike accident—and while his joshing friends request “Summer Song,” he decides that a beautiful guitar deserves a beautiful song and plays “Yesterday.” Ellie tears up. Where did THAT come from? she asks. He’s confused all over again. He tells them—Paul McCartney, Beatles—but they don’t know it or them. In fact, they think he’s bragging about the song he wrote:

Carol: Well, it’s not Coldplay. It’s not “Fix You.”
Jack: It’s not bloody “Fix You,” Carol, it’s a great, great work of art.
Carol: Wow, somebody suddenly got very cocky.

The movie’s tag line is about how Jack is the only one who remembers the Beatles but it’s more than that; they never existed. His Beatle albums are all gone—Bowie’s there, but not them—and there’s nothing on Google, just the bug with the double e. Poof. Did they just play some gigs in Liverpool and Hamburg and that was it? Did they never get to Hamburg? Did John and Paul never meet? We don’t know. Just that. Poof. Gone.

All this creates what Jack calls “a dilemma.” Should he pretend he wrote all these songs, or ... Or nothing, it turns out. The “or” is never explored. Instead, he writes down as many of their songs as he can remember and begins playing them and taking credit for them.

I love the indulgence of family and friends here, who think they’re getting the next “Summer Song.” My favorite scene may be when he tries to play “Let It Be” for his parents and keeps getting interrupted—friends come over, phones ring—and they keep messing up the title: “Leave it Be”; “Let Him Be.” He’s trying to get them to hear greatness and they’re not hearing it.

That’s actually one of the unspokens in the film: How most people don’t recognize greatness. It’s not just family and friends. An Ipswich TV host is mostly amused by Jack, who works in a warehouse; and so even as Jack plays “In My Life,” beautifully, the host doesn’t hear the beauty and keeps joking about the day job. It’s up to the few who hear, and know, to push Jack up and out: first, a local producer, Gavin (Alexander Arnold, who could play Stephen Merchant’s handsomer son); then Ed Sheeran, who taps Jack to open for him on a worldwide concert tour. They go to Russia, where Jack plays—seemingly out of nowhere—“Back in the U.S.S.R.,” which goes viral, and which nobody really questions. There’s a toss-off about the anachronistic use of “U.S.S.R.” but nothing further. Like: Is it an anti-Putin message? Suggesting Russia under Putin is the same as the old Soviet regime? That might’ve been fun to go there. But the movie doesn’t.

Instead, Jack winds up under the wing of Sheeran’s nefarious manager, the too-aptly named Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), who wants him to put out a double album. Despite being the talent, Jack is led along, stunned. His output is finite, after all—not even the entire Beatles’ oeuvre, just the stuff he remembers—so he should parcel it out, a few songs a year, rather than all at once. But he’s passive. He even lets Ed Sheeran change “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.” Admittedly a funny scene, but c’mon. Stand up for Paul here. Or Jules.

The further Jack rises, the more guilt-ridden he becomes. He also loses Ellie. Because he’s shagging women all over the world? Nah. She just kinda drifts away. She feels like she’s not needed and winds up with someone who needs/wants her: Gavin. Meanwhile, we see two people—a man in Russia and a woman in Liverpool—who keep eyeing Jack suspiciously, as if they know where this music came from. They do. And together they visit Jack backstage—they present a yellow submarine as a calling card—and confront him about it. (How do these two find each other, by the way? The movie never answers that.) What I like is they’re not villains. They’re not even angry; they’re grateful that he’s brought the Beatles music back. They missed it so. They also present him with a scrap of paper with an address on it. I knew immediately what it was. It’s shocking Jack hadn’t pursued it.

It’s John Lennon’s address. John (Robert Carlyle), 78 now, lives by the ocean and does his artwork and seems completely cool with how his life turned out. There was no Mark David Chapman shooting, of course, because there were no Beatles. It’s quite poignant. This John is less rebel John, not to mention hoodlum John, than peacenik John. He’s wise. He doesn’t know who Jack is but he gives him life advice:

You want a good life? It's not complicated. Tell the girl you love that you love her. And tell the truth to everyone whenever you can.

Great advice ... which just happens to speak to the movie’s immediate dilemmas: Jack’s been lying to the world while never telling the girl he loves that he loves her. So he does both at the 11th hour. Before a huge concert crowd, he admits he didn’t write the songs he’s been singing—that four guys named John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr wrote them. Everyone boos. (You know crowds.) But then he says he’s going to upload his album to the internet so everyone can listen to it for free. Everyone cheers. (You know crowds.) And in front of this huge crowd, with her beautiful face up on the big screen, he tells Ellie that he loves her. Everyone cheers again. Even Gavin. Sap. 

But what dreck. Does it have to be before a huge crowd? Does love not matter unless millions see it? Besides, does he really love her? We do—it’s Lily James, she’s fuckingn adorable—but he’s been blinkered throughout. I don’t really trust his 11th-hour conversation.

That said, Patel is great as Jack. He sings beautifully and seems lost, humorously lost, for much of the movie. Lily James is lovely as ever but given little to do. I liked Joel Fry as Rocky, Jack’s ne’er-do-well friend who becomes his roadie. Sheeran was both good and a good sport. McKinnon was over the top.

Looks as though they’re here to stay
So it's not bad but it's not enough. It's better than ”Summer Song“ but not nearly ”Let It Be.“

Example: When Jack owns up and mentions the four Beatles by name, I'm curious what happens next. Does the media descend upon John, Paul, George and Ringo? Are they all alive? If so, what do they say? What could they say? “He’s a bit daft, really. John was me mate 60 years ago, and we palled about in a skiffle group and wrote some thingees, but that’s it. I’m a retired teacher now. Never even heard of Ringo. Sounds like a cowboy.” The movie gives us John, but it doesn’t even ask about Paul, George or Ringo.

And shouldn't you tell the rest of the world that data went missing? Shouldn't you gather the historians? ”For some reason, you have Pepsi, but the original thing that’s based on, Coca-Cola, is gone. You have the Rolling Stones, but the original thing that’s based on, the Beatles, they’re gone.“ It’s like a knockoff world. Original content doesn’t seem to matter. It's like Google’s algorithm

Shit, I haven’t even gotten to causality yet. That's the part I figured would bug me most and it did. The Rolling Stones were a band from London who didn’t even think about writing their own songs until they saw John and Paul, already famous, go into the corner of a restaurant and knock out one in 30 minutes. That’s when they went “We can do that,” and did. So in this alt-universe, what caused the Stones to wake up? What caused them to wear their hair in the Beatles/Astrid fashion, or to make it in the U.S. when no British rock band had the temerity to do so? How are the Stones still the Stones? How is Bowie still Bowie? How do you have all the things that followed the Beatles without the Beatles?

You know the butterfly wings that cause the hurricane on the other side of the world? Losing the Beatles is losing the hurricane. The ramifications would be endless.

Oh, and the world never is righted again. The movie just leaves us with a few of their songs. It leaves us with Jack playing ”Obla-di Obla-da" before a group of kids, who sing along. That's our happy ending. Life goes on, bra.

Posted at 08:39 AM on Monday November 11, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  

Sunday November 10, 2019

Box Office Mojo's Revamped Site: Design > Data

I haven't done much on box office lately. It's in the usual autumn lull, for one, so there's not much to report. For another, Box Office Mojo recently revamped its site and I'm still trying to work my way around it.

Overall, I'm not a fan. Or maybe I'm just not used to the difference yet.

Nah. it's the first. Amazon screwed the pooch.

Example: The default for annual box office is for “Calendar Grosses” rather than “In-Year Releases,” which means that the biggest movie of 1997 is “Men in Black” (rather than “Titanic”), and the biggest movie of 2009 is “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (rather than “Avatar”), and the biggest movie of 2015 is “Jurassic World” (rather than “Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens”), and none of these things are really true for anyone who talks about box office. 

That's just to start. If they'd ask me a year ago what should be done with the site, I would‘ve said, “Hey, can we figure out what China was watching between, say, 2010 and 2014? Could you do that? You have 2009 so why not 2013?” They still haven’t done that. The redesign seems to have given us more design and less data. 

Anyway, the four biggest movies this weekend were all newbies:

  1. Midway: $17.5
  2. Doctor Sleep: $14.1
  3. Playing with Fire: $12.8
  4. Last Christmas: $11.6

None did great guns. Apparently “Midway” wasn't supposed to win but did. Apparently “Last Christmas” was supposed to do better but didn‘t. “Doctor Sleep” is the sequel to “The Shining” while “Playing with Fire” is a John Cena family comedy. Ish. Not much to report.

We’re reaching the end of the year, and so far the biggest domestic box office hits by genre are:

  1. Superhero
  2. Animation
  3. Animation
  4. Superhero
  5. Superhero
  6. Animation
  7. Superhero/horror
  8. Horror
  9. Horror
  10. Action-adventure

Just the two genres, cartoons and superheroes, trading it off until “Joker,” a mixed genre film, which includes elements of both superhero and horror, arrives at No. 7. It's like a bridge to horror. 

BTW: Anyone who's pushing back on what Martin Scorsese wrote/said about Marvel movies isn't really paying attention. Just look at that list. A culture that keeps voting for cartoons and superheroes is a culture that can vote for Donald Trump for president. It's a culture that can stand to the side, doing nothing, as constitutional, democratic and civil norms are violated daily.

Posted at 09:54 PM on Sunday November 10, 2019 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  

Saturday November 09, 2019

Lancelot Links

  • Peter Osnos (related to Evan?) writes about editing the first two Trump books: “The Art of the Deal” (w/Tony Schwartz), and “The Art of Survival” (w/Charles Leerhsen). The big reveal has less to do with Trump than with the publishing industry. It's all about fancy lunches in exotic places with rich guys pushing one of their own forward. The press, too, helped. See: a fawning 1976 profile in The New York Times calling him NYC's No. 1 real estate promoter who “looks ever so much like Robert Redford.” Ever so much? It was the original fake news. “The Art of the Deal” is one of the many fake books: a book by and about people who don't read. 
  • Yes, Evan Osnos is the son of Peter.
  • Bernard Slade died last week at age 89. He was a TV writer who helped create “The Flying Nun” and “The Partridge Family,” then transitioned back to his first love, theater, for which he wrote “Same Time, Next Year” and “Tribute,” among others. He also wrote the screenplays for each; he got nominated for “Same Time, Next Year.” Key quote from the Times' obit: “While in Canada I had written a television play called ‘The Big Coin Sound,’ which was about a vocal group. Then one night I happened to catch a family group called the Cowsills on ‘The Tonight Show.’ Since ‘The Sound of Music’ was enormously popular at the time, I thought the combination of original music and comedy could be very effective in a television series.”
  • News this week from The New York Times: “A state judge ordered President Trump to pay $2 million in damages to nonprofit groups on Thursday after the president admitted misusing money raised by the Donald J. Trump Foundation to promote his presidential bid, pay off business debts and purchase a portrait of himself for one of his hotels.” Right. So the president of the United States admits to bilking people for his own benefit ... and it hardly causes a stir. Those are the times we‘re in. 
  • Meanwhile, the latest GOP excuse for the Ukraine Scandal isn’t that it didn't happen, it's that there's no evidence in some of the charges against him. Gordon Sondland, for example, who gave $1 million to the Trump campaign and then became EU ambassador, has testifed before Congress that Trump basically directed him to shake down Ukraine—withholding favors until they conducted a very public investigation of Joseph Biden—but there's no direct evidence of this. Jonathan Chait has some fun with the absurdity of this. To me, it's like congressional Republicans in 1973 saying of Watergate: “It was a Don Segretti operation all the way.”
Posted at 08:36 AM on Saturday November 09, 2019 in category Lancelot Links   |   Permalink  

Thursday November 07, 2019

Where Have All the .350 Hitters Gone? Long Time Passing

The last man with a .370+ batting average, Ichiro hit over .350 four times.

Last year, midseason, I wrote a post called “It's 2018: Do You Know Where Your .350 Hitters Are?” and mentioned that, before this decade, in the history of baseball, the longest we'd gone without a .350 hitter was five seasons:

  • 5: 1962-1966*
  • 4: 1952-1955
  • 4: 1989-1992

(* Trivia question: Who is the only player to hit more than .350 in the “pitchers era” 1960s—between the seasons when they raised the strike zone (1962) and lowered the pitchers mound (1969)? Answer: Roberto Clemente, .357 in 1967.) 

Well, this decade has blown those numbers away.

In 2004, Ichiro hit .372 (he's the last to hit .370+) and in 2009 Joe Mauer hit .365 (he's the last to hit .360+), and the following year Josh Hamilton hit .359. He's the last guy to hit better than .350. Nobody else did it this decade. It's nine seasons in a row now—nearly double the length of the previous record.

And unlike the 1960s, this is hardly a pitchers decade. Homeruns are booming to an absurd degree. But between (I guess) uppercut swings and SABRmetric defensive shifts, we're seeing fewer and fewer hits.

These are the top batting averages since Hamilton:

  1. DJ LeMahieu, .348 (2016) 
  2. Miguel Cabrera, .347 (2013)
  3. Daniel Murphy, .346 (2016)
  4. Mookie Betts, .346 (2018)
  5. Jose Altuve, .345 (2017)
  6. Miguel Cabrera, .344 (2011)
  7. Jose Altuve, .341 (2014)

This year, the MLB leader was Tim Anderson of the ChiSox with a .335 average. He was the only guy to hit over .330. 

I assume this will change at some point. I assume MLB teams will put a premium on spray hitters that will render shifts useless, or someone like Ichiro will come along and just hit and hit and hit. 

Or maybe not.

Posted at 07:47 AM on Thursday November 07, 2019 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Wednesday November 06, 2019

Quote of the Day

“The Mariners' postseason drought is now a legal adult.”

— Sam Miller, ESPN.com, “The good, the bad ... and the Tigers: Ranking all 30 MLB teams based on their 2019 goals.” In his rankings, which are based on what success might look like for that franchise, No. 1 is the Nats (they won the World Series), No. 30 is the Tigers (they lost 114 games), while the Mariners, whose postseason drought reached its 18th year, are No. 26 on his list. 

I like the subheds he gives each team—like the titles of “Friends” episodes:

  • No. 2: Tampa Bay Rays: The year Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows turned the Chris Archer trade into a historically imbalanced snookering 
  • No. 4: Minnesota Twins: The year they hit 307 home runs
  • No. 6: New York Yankees: The year everybody got hurt but the Yankees somehow got better

I would‘ve put the Brewers (No. 10: The year they came back) higher, but maybe I forgot preseason expectations on them. M’s subhed is so-so: “The year Felix Hernandez and Ichiro Suzuki said goodbye.” I might've gone: “The year Jerry Dipoto traded everybody.” 

Posted at 12:26 PM on Wednesday November 06, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Tuesday November 05, 2019

Mr. Suzuki If You're Nasty

What was Kurt Suzuki best known for two days ago? I would‘ve had trouble placing him, to be honest. A journeyman catcher with four different clubs (Oakland, Minnesota, Atlanta, Washington), he was good enough on defense and put up OK-enough offensive numbers (.259/.315/.392) to keep playing. He’s fourth among active players in games caught; all-time he's 42nd(!), ahead of such catching stalwarts as Tim McCarver and Terry Steinbach. He made the All-Star team in 2014. For the Washington Nationals this season and postseason, he split time behind the plate with Yan Gomes, and led off the top of the 7th inning of Game 2 of the World Series with a homerun off Justin Verlander to put the Nats up 3-2. They wound up batting around that inning, scoring 6, and gave the Nats that early, seemingly insurmountable lead. Oddly, in the Series, he and Gomes didn't spell each other in an every-other-day kind of thing. Suzuki started the first three games, Gomes the final four. That's it. Suzuki's last appearance was the first game in D.C. Did he get injured or something?

Anyway, two days ago, I wouldn't have been able to tell you any of this stuff. Maybe I would‘ve remembered the homer against Verlander. Otherwise, I would’ve gone: “Um ... Oakland, right?” 

Well, I‘ll remember him now, poor bastard.

I actually feel bad for him. Yes, he showed up at the Trump White House and donned a red MAGA cap, with its stink of racism. But even with all that, he didn’t deserve this awkward hug from Donald Trump that looks like nothing so much as the famous Janet Jackson Rolling Stone cover photo. This is what Suzuki will be known for—now and forever. And as bad as it looks today, with every week, month and year of further revelations about Trump's corruption, it's going to look worse. It‘ll be his obit headline: Kurt Suzuki, 82, Catcher, Hugged from Behind by Trump at White House Ceremony.

Hell, I even feel bad for Trump. Can the dude do anything right? The World Series champions visit him, they’re from D.C., and one guy likes him enough to put on that stupid MAGA cap with its stink of racism. And he does this. It's a combo of pathetic cling (“Thank god, somebody likes me”) and copping a feel (“When you‘re a star, they let you do it”). 

Not everyone on the Nats went to the ceremony. Sean Doolittle stated his objection over the weekend in smart, measured terms, while two other regulars—third baseman Anthony Rendon and center fielder Victor Robles—bowed out as well. About half a dozen minor players refused, too.

Meanwhile, Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-standing National, the first draft pick once they moved from Montreal, gave Trump a Nats/45 jersey and thanked him for keeping America great. One wonders what the clubhouse must be like. One wonders what the players from Trump-termed “shithole countries” must feel like.

Throughout the World Series, I felt bad that I was rooting for the Astros rather than the underdog Nationals. I don’t feel that any more. 

Posted at 09:55 AM on Tuesday November 05, 2019 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Monday November 04, 2019

Nats Bring D.C. First Title in 95 Years

Too matchy matchy? Nats go gray on gray for victory celebration in Houston.

I‘ve been sick for the last few days so never got around to writing about the 2019 World Series and/or Game 7. Main thought about the latter: It turned on three 7th-inning bads for the Astros:

  • Bad pitch: by Zack Greinke to Anthony Rendon with one out in the top of the 7th; found too much of the plate, and he smashed it into the left-field seats to put the Nats on the board
  • Bad call: on the fourth pitch to Juan Soto; it was clearly a strike, the ump called it a ball, and the count went to 3-1 rather than 2-2; Greinke walked him on the next pitch, which lead to...
  • Bad move: by manager A.J. Hinch, who pulled Greinke after that pitch—only his 80th

We’ll never know what would‘ve happened if the ump had made the right call and/or Hinch had shown more faith in Greinke. We do know what happened when Hinch brought in set-up man Will Harris, who’d had a great year (60 IP, 1.50 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 60-14 K/BB), but who'd faced the Nats four times already, and who, the day before, had given up a 2-run homer to Rendon—turning a slight 3-2 Astros deficit into a more problematic 5-2 hole. This time, he turned a 2-1 Astros lead into a 3-2 lead for the Nats when Howie Kendrick opposite-fielded his second pitch, an outside cutter, and the ball banged off the foul pole for a 2-run homer. Harris then gave up a single to Asdrubal Cabrera and was done for the night, the series, the season. Cameras caught him, head down, pained, in the dugout as the Nats built their lead out with a run in the 8th and two more in the 9th—but all that can be on Hinch, too. He'd had Gerrit Cole, one of the best starters in baseball, warming up but he never went to him. Later, he said he was saving him for a closer role that never came. That's about one of the dumbest things a manager can do in a regular season game, let alone Game 7 of the World Series. When there's no tomorrow, you save nothing. 

Nats didn't even have to go to their sometime closer, Sean Doolittle, opting instead for starter Patrick Corbin in the 6th (he got the win) and Daniel Hudson in the 9th, and the vaunted Astros, who won 107 games this season, went gently into that good night. As they saw their deficit grow from one run in the 7th, to two in the 8th, to four in the 9th, they stopped hitting. Their last baserunner was Yuri Gurriel's two-out single in the 7th. After that, they didn't even get the ball out of the infield: 1-3, K, 6-3, K, 5, K, K. The last three were their top-of-the-order guys: Springer, Altuve, Brantley. 

If I sound less than enthusiastic about all this it's because I was oddly rooting for the Astros. I know. I should‘ve been rooting for the Nationals, who had never been to the Series, let alone won, while the Astros had been twice before and won it all just two years ago. Nats were the underdogs, the miracle team who had come back late against the Brewers in the Wild Card matchup, and then the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLDS, and who kept coming back against the ’Stros. They were the story of the postseason, and their victory meant spreading the wealth, and I'm a MLB socialist: spread those rings around. But for some reason, ‘Stros. Maybe because I like Altuve, Springer, et al. Maybe I’m just an AL booster. Maybe it's because the Astros knocked out the Yankees, and whoever beats the Yankees, God bless. For whatever reason, I found myself rooting on the doomed team. 

An unsung hero of Game 7, by the way, was Max Scherzer, who was scratched from a Game 5 start due to back and neck spasms that made it difficult to dress himself, let alone throw 90-100 pitches to professional baseball players. That set up Game 7, where he wasn't his usual dominating self: 5 IP, 7 H, 4 BB, 3 K. But all that led to only 2 runs. He gritted and gutted his way through. The Astros kept threatening and he kept holding back the tide. In his five innings of work, they stranded seven.

Series MVP went rightly to Stephen Strasburg, who was 2-0 against the ‘Stros and 5-0 overall in the postseason: 36.1 IP, with a 1.98 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP, and a phenomenal 47-4 K/BB. I watched Game 5 with my friend Jeff and predicted it would go to seven. “No one’s going to beat Strasburg right now,” I said. After the Nats Game 6 victory, he texted: “You called it on Strasburg.” Me: “Not exactly Nostradamus.” Strasburg's now a free agent, as is Rendon, which should be worrisome for Nats fans hoping for a repeat. But they got this moment—the first championship in franchise history (b. 1969), and the first championship in Washington, D.C. since 1924.

For the curious, the only teams who have never hold aloft a World Series trophy are: Rangers (b. 1961), Padres (1969), Brewers (1969), Mariners (1977), Rockies (1993) and Rays (1998). Of those, only the Mariners have never gone.

See you next year.

Posted at 06:09 AM on Monday November 04, 2019 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Sunday November 03, 2019

Quote of the Day

“The reason a movie can't be interesting about an artist is because most of our process is so deadly dull.”

— singer-songwriter Dan Wilson to Jim Walsh on the MinnPost site. What's the most interesting movie about an artist? “Amadeus,” maybe? It helped that Mozart was a genius. Salieri: “These were first and only drafts of music, but they showed no corrections of any kind. He had simply written down music already finished in his head!”

Posted at 08:07 AM on Sunday November 03, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Saturday November 02, 2019

The Wonderful World of Sean Doolittle

“There's a lot of things, policies that I disagree with, but at the end of the day, it has more to do with the divisive rhetoric and the enabling of conspiracy theories and widening the divide in this country. My wife and I stand for inclusion and acceptance, and we‘ve done work with refugees, people that come from, you know, the ’shithole countries.' ... At the end of the day, as much as I wanted to be there with my teammates and share that experience with my teammates, I can't do it. I just can't do it.

”People say you should go because it's about respecting the office of the president. And I think over the course of his time in office he's done a lot of things that maybe don't respect the office."

- Sean Doolittle, closer for the World Series-winning Washington Nationals, on turning down an invitation to visit Pres. Trump at The White House on Monday. Good for him. Hell, I might have to go out (or go online) and buy me a Sean Doolittle jersey.

Posted at 09:43 AM on Saturday November 02, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  
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