Tuesday December 31, 2019
To a Kidney Stone of a Decade
This will be my last post of the 2010s. My first post of the 2010s, on Jan. 1 2010, 8:44 AM, was short:
Bushed: The word I'd use to sum up the decade. I'm bushed, you‘re bushed, we’ve all been Bushed—the country and the world. We need a new starting line. Hey, here comes one now.
Everyone is trying to fathom what the hell we just went through. Yesterday, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich tweeted, “I don't know about you, but I'm ready to put this anti-democracy decade to rest. It began January 21, 2010 with Citizens United and ends with Donald Trump in the White House.” Over the weekend, Michiko Kakutani wrote an Op-Ed in the Times, “The 2010s Were the End of Normal,” in which she quotes others quoting Yeats (“The centre cannot hold”) and Auden (“Waves of anger and fear...”).
I, too, have been thinking Auden and “September 1, 1939,” but I‘ve been focusing on the “low, dishonest decade” part. That’s where we are. The propagandists won; they got away with it. Meanwhile, the legit press still offers both sides even if one side is a known lie. Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov, who lived under Soviet lies, is trying to school us on this: “Stop giving equal times to lies,” he said last week on CNN. He said the legit press' “outdated sense of fairness is killing our democracy.” He's not wrong.
What a decade. Who knew a social media platform would help upend democracy—and its CEO wouldn't care? Who knew we'd elect, as president of the United States(!), a fatuous, Mussolini-ish real estate moron, who appears to have survived bankruptcy with loans floated from Russian oligarchs, and who, as president, has enraged allies, embraced dictators, taunted the powerless with third-grade insults, paid for the silence of porn stars, obstructed justice, obstructed Congress, ignored the rule of law, lied every day and in every way, and has repeatedly asked foreign governments, either vocally (Russia, China), or secretly (Ukraine), to interfere in American elections? And yet he's never fallen below a 35% approval rating? Who knew Nazis would ever be a thing again? And on American soil?
More than Yeats, though, more than Auden, I think of Trudeau. As a kid we owned “The Doonesbury Chronicles,” the big history of the “Doonesbury” daily comic strip through the 1970s; and on Dec. 7, 1979, he published the strip below. I think I read it before I knew what a kidney stone was:
Who helped in the 2010s? Beyond the personal? A few names: Lin-Manuel Miranda, John Mulaney, Joe Posnanski, Jane Mayer, John Stewart, Jill Lepore, Rick Perlstein, Kumail Nanjiani, Jacques Audiard, Martin Scorsese, Marion Cotillard, Zhou Xun, and the 2014-15 Kansas City Royals. Also the New York Yankees—for being the first New York Yankees team in 100 years to not win a pennant in a calendar decade. Bless you, boys.
Mike Doonesbury was right about disco, so maybe the same will be true for a few of this decade's villains: they, too, shall pass. One can hope. Toot toot, beep beep.
Sunday December 22, 2019
Box Office: ‘Skywalker’ Doesn't Exactly Rise
How does J.J. Abrams have so much power? What is he considered good at?
He directed the worst of the “Mission: Impossible” movies—the third. He rebooted “Star Trek” by destroying Vulcan and then directed the worst of the reboots—“Into Darkness.” He made his own Spielberg-homage film, “Super 8,” but it was less than super, then took over the “Star Wars” franchise and promptly killed off Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. Now he's directed one of the worst of the “Star Wars” movies. I guess he's more producer (69 credits) than director (15)? Maybe he should stick to that.
Anyway, the third of the new “Star Wars” movies, or No. IX overall, “The Rise of Skywalker,” opened this weekend to pretty good box office for anything other than a “Star Wars” movie:
- “The Force Awakens”: Dec. 18-20, 2015: $247 million
- “The Last Jedi”: Dec. 15-17, 2017: $220 million
- “The Rise of Skywalker”: Dec. 20-22: $175.5 million
This is the latest in terms of calendar date it's opened—i.e., closest to Christmas, a very busy time for everyone, so it may recover. But “Force” opened with a new weekend box office record, while “Jedi” was still second all-time to “Force.” “Skywalker”? It's 12th. The “Star Wars” opener has fallen off by $75 million.
The other opener this weekend, the much-panned “Cats,” did as poorly as you'd think: $6.5 million in 3,380 theaters. One wonders how many attendees went out of morbid curiosity.
Interesting to see that “Parasite,” the critics' darling from Korea, has already grossed $21 million. That's got to be top tier for foreign-language films at the domestic box office, but I don't know if Box Office Mojo still lists such a thing, and if they did, where I might find it.
Sunday December 22, 2019
Star Wars: The Much-Discovered Country
“The success of ‘Star Wars’ has obviated a lot of its original virtues. Much of the fun of watching the film for the first time, now forever inaccessible to us, was in the slow unveiling of its universe: Swords made of lasers! A Bigfoot who co-pilots a spaceship! A swing band of ‘50s U.F.O. aliens! Lucas refuses to explain anything, keeping the viewer as off-balance as a jet-lagged tourist in Benares or Times Square. We don’t see the film's hero until 17 minutes in; we‘re kept watching not by plot but by novelty, curiosity.
”Subsequent sequels, tie-in novels, interstitial TV shows, video games and fan fiction have lovingly ground this charm out of existence with exhaustive, literal-minded explication ...
“We literally can’t see ‘Star Wars’ anymore: Its control-freakish creator won't allow the original version of the film to be seen and has stubbornly maculated his own masterpiece, second-guessing correct editing decisions, restoring wisely deleted scenes and replacing his breakthrough special effects — historic artifacts in their own right — with ‘90s vintage C.G.I., already more dated than the film’s original effects.”
Tim Kreider, “We Can't See ‘Star Wars’ Anymore,” in The New York Times. The ninth movie in the series, and supposedly the last of the Skywalker stories, opened last week to the worst reviews the movies have received since “Phantom Menace.” In 1977, “Star Wars” was refreshing—particularly for a 14-year old who didn't know its movie-serial antecedents. Now it's just weighted, obvious and corporate.
Friday December 20, 2019
Pretty, ain't it?
Not really, no. The mere fact of his presidency is a stain on American history and western democracy. Plus he's still in power. He's learned nothing. (He's incapable of learning.) And he's protected by a Republican-majority Senate led by a thoroughly corrupt, wholly partisan shitsquib from Kentucky, one-time NeverTrumpers turned Trump lackies like Lindsey Graham, and the usual right-wing white-noise machine at Fox News, et al.
But it's a start.
Special shout-out to NPR's Mara Liasson, who, in May 2017, after the Comey firing, said the following:
On the left, I think they are in the grip—many people, critics of him—are in the grip of this delusion that he's going to be impeached, or that we‘re in a full-fledged constitutional crisis. So this is a phenomenon of our very tribalized politics.
Here's to delusions.
Wednesday December 18, 2019
If I wanted to hear morally bankrupt cowards deny reality and praise the dear leader in identical talking points I’d have stayed in Russia. The GOP has sealed its fate as the party of Trump and Trumpism, and nothing else.— Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) December 19, 2019
Impeachment vote and “debate” is happening in the House today. All day. I was only able to listen to so much of the GOP talk, which tends to be adjective-laden and short on facts. Not to mention accountability, a one-time GOP watchword.
Wednesday December 18, 2019
Movie Review: Toy Story 4 (2019)
I didn’t think they’d pull it off again. They ended things so neatly in “Toy Story 3,” with Andy off to college, and Woody, Buzz, and the gang resurrected with Bonnie, making us believe, for a moment anyway, that we’ll all be needed and necessary forever.
Why go on from there?
Plus, in the interim, Pixar was bought by Disney and it’s not quite the same studio. Since “Inside Out” it's released:
- 2015: “The Good Dinosaur”—didn’t bother
- 2016: “Finding Dory”—disappointing
- 2017: “Cars 3”—didn’t bother
- 2017: “Coco”—pretty good
- 2018: “Incredibles 2”—potentially subversive but also disappointing
So I was against the idea of a “Toy Story 4” from the beginning. But they kinda pulled it off. It’s sweet, includes redemption of the villain, and, most important, it's funny.
A Toy and a Gentleman
This doesn’t mean there’s not a sameness to it all. Every “Toy Story” contains these two dilemmas:
- How are the toys in danger?
- Why is Woody (Tom Hanks) no longer useful?
The toys are in danger because of: 1) the creepy kid next door; 2) the creepy toy collector; 3) the creepy toys at the orphanage; and, here, 4) the creepy toys at the second-hand store.
And Woody is no longer useful because: 1) Andy prefers Buzz Lightyear (reflecting the historical moment when kids’ heroes stopped being movie/TV cowboys and became real-life astronauts); 2) his arm is torn off; 3) Andy goes to college; and 4) Bonnie prefers Jessie.
Here’s the thing about Woody, though. The less necessary he is, the more of a micromanager he becomes. So even though he’s been relegated to the closet, and his sheriff badge has been pinned on Jessie, he stows aboard Bonnie’s backpack for her orientation day of kindergarten in order to make sure she does OK. He becomes the invisible helpmate, the guiding hand. When another kid just up and takes the supplies Bonnie’s working with, at a table by herself, Woody, saddened and then determined, empties a nearby trashcan to replenish her supplies. From this, she creates a toy out of a plastic fork/spork, some googly eyes, and pipe cleaners for arms, and names him Forky (Tony Hale). This basically sets in motion the rest of the movie.
Forky becomes Bonnie’s new favorite. Except he doesn’t understand his raison d’etre. Or his raison d’etre is something else entirely, since he keeps trying to return to the trash. Only after much struggle from Woody does Forky stop trying to throw himself away.
By this point, Bonnie and her parents are in an RV traveling the country before school starts again; and in historic Grand Basin, which is in the midst of “Carnival Days,” Woody spies the lamp of his one-time flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts) in the window of Second Chance Antiques. “Toy Story 4” cold-opened with the moment she was given away, and how Woody almost left Andy for her, but couldn’t quite do it. But now? With Andy in college and Bonnie relegating him to also-ran status? This is his second chance.
Inside the store, though, he doesn’t find Bo. He finds Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a vintage 1960s-era doll with a busted voicebox, who runs the joint with her creepy muscle, the Benson dolls—basically bow-tied ventriloquist dummies with large, lolling heads and useless arms. Gabby Gabby has never been a child’s toy since she was born with a busted voicebox. She thinks if it’s fixed, or replaced, she’ll finally find a child who will love her. And Woody’s voicebox works just fine.
Ewww. It’s like a doll’s version of organ harvesting—with Woody the target.
He escapes, of course, but, in the manner of “Toy Story” movies (all tentpole movies, really), our principles are scattered to the wind:
- Woody is with Harmony, the granddaughter of the antique store owner, heading through Carnival Days
- Forky, in the clutches of the Bensons, is being used as bait
- Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is being offered as a prize at a carnival game
How do these small toys reunite in such a big, wide world? Woody meets up again with Bo Peep, who, porcelain aside, has remade herself as a shepherd-staff twirling martial arts action hero; Buzz teams up with two trash-talking fuzzy animals (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele); and all of them converge at Second Chance Antiques, along with the movie’s best new character, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian knockoff Evel Knievel, whose slogan is “Yes, I Can-ada!” and whose dreams of big jumps are forever undercut by the haunting memory of being rejected by his first child, Rejean. “Re-jeeeaaaannnnnn!”
Bo knows all about Gabby Gabby—she was stuck there before going out on her own—but her careful plans are undercut by Woody and his desperate need to retrieve Forky for Bonnie. This leads to his kind of “Officer and a Gentleman” moment, when, like Richard Gere in the rain, he admits he has nowhere else to go. “It’s all I have left to do!” he cries. “I don’t have anything else!”
Bo is actually less sympathetic to this admission than Louis Gossett, Jr. was with Richard Gere: “So the rest of us don’t count?” she asks. Right. Sorry. Next time I won’t pour my heart out to you.
How much is Woody willing to give up for Bonnie? Almost anything—even his voicebox. He submits to the surgery, Gabby Gabby gets it, and, though her chosen child, Harmony, discards her, she eventually finds a girl as desperate for a doll as she is for a girl. Villain redeemed. Happy ending. (Except for those creepy Bensons. What terrors will they unleash in Second Chance Antiques with Gabby Gabby gone?)
Even as Gabby finds a home, Woody loses his. Or he decides to stay with Bo. He becomes a lost toy. Or as Buzz wisely says at the end: “He’s not lost. Not anymore.”
It's a good ending. It's another ending that feels like an ending. But is it? “Toy Story 4” grossed more than $1 billion worldwide—more than any G-rated movie in history—so I’m assuming ... not. Plus it's not like there aren't questions to answer. Woody has always been about loyalty to the kid; so what will he be like without a kid to be loyal to? How will he recreate his own raison d'etre? Either way, they’ll be back. If a franchise keeps making $1 billion at the box office, it’ll keep going. To infinity and beyond.
Monday December 16, 2019
Movie Review: Hustlers (2019)
You know what this movie’s about? Sure, at bottom it’s about who gets screwed. It’s about the underdogs momentarily screwing over the overdogs—the Wall Street boys—who screwed us all during the global financial meltdown and beyond. “This city, this whole country, is a strip club,” Ramon says. “You‘ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.” She’s trying to make them do the dance for a change. At least that’s how the movie is being sold to critics and viewers.
But what does it hinge on?
This: Who’s J-Lo’s favorite? That’s it.
At first, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) inexplicably takes Destiny (Constance Wu), a nice Chinese-American girl, under her wing, and it leads to success and friendship; then, just as inexplicably, she takes Dawn (Madeline Brewer), a red-headed junkie, under her wing, and it leads to betrayal and incarceration. Both actions seem preordained but both are inexplicable. We don’t know why she cares about the lost child Destiny, or why she risks everything on a volatile piece of work like Dawn.
Most of the characters in the movie aren’t worth a damn, but that’s not the problem. Tons of great movies have been made about people who aren’t worth a damn. The problem is that they’re not particularly interesting, either. What do they do once they scam the bad guys? They go shopping. They‘re all about as deep as a puddle.
Let’s go shopping
The movie is based on a New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler, “The Hustlers at Scores: The Ex-Strippers Who Stole From (Mostly) Rich Men and Gave to, Well, Themselves,” and it’s framed with Destiny, in 2014, being interviewed by a journalist named Elizabeth (Julia Stiles).
Back in 2006/7, Destiny was eking out a living at a strip club named Moves; then she went under Ramona’s wing, who showed her all the right moves. Destiny became a pole dancer, and the money came rolling in. The high point, she says, is when Usher came in one night and partied with the girls. (Usher is played by Usher.)
Then the global financial meltdown hit and the party ended.
Did Destiny get married or just have a kid with a lousy boyfriend? Either way, she shows him the door. But now she’s caring for a daughter and a grandmother, so she goes back to Moves—but it’s different. Worse. Sex acts are common. Then she runs into Ramona again.
By now, Ramona and two other women, Mercedes and Annabelle (Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart), go after rich men in bars, get their credit card numbers, then run up that bill. Sometimes the men are drugged, but what are they gonna say, Ramon asks rhetorically: “I spent $5,000 at a strip club—send help”?
Not sure why this scheme falls apart, to be honest. Other girls at Moves steal Ramona’s idea, so she moves the scam elsewhere—to hotels and their own homes. Do Mercedes and Annabelle fall away? The main point is that Ramona, normally so clear-eyed, can’t see what bad news Dawn is. Then there’s the shopping. Since they‘re buying high-end junk, nothing is saved for the rainy day that inevitably comes. It’s also boring. It’s the blank stealing from the blank.
You know who's more interesting? Rosie (aka Destiny) in Pressler’s article:
In the beginning, after work, Rosie would pick fights with her boyfriend, accusing him of cheating. “It fucked me up in the head a little,” she said of the window her job gave her into the male psyche. “The girls develop a terrible contempt,” one former Scores manager told me. “They stop believing men are real. They think: They are there for me to manipulate and take money from.”
And when it came to that, they all preferred the assholes. There’s something extra-satisfying about persuading a man who thinks you’re trash to spend his time and money on you. Preferably so much that in the end, they hate themselves. It’s like, Who doesn’t have any self-respect now, motherfucker?
At least they were worthy opponents. Not like the sad-sack losers who came in just to talk. “Like,” Rosie said, “I want you to look at me like I’m not one of those scumbag perverts.” Those guys had their uses, since you could string them along forever and extract payments for “rent” or “school.” But their weakness was pathetic. “I had so many damsel-in-distress stories,” Rosie said with a sigh. “Don’t tell me you love me. That means I know I can milk you for everything, and then some.”
We needed that sad-sack loser in here. Something. But then I guess the women would seem less heroic.
From the trailer, and the talk, I thought we’d get more on the global financial meltdown, but that’s the part that’s skipped over. That's just another blank here.
J-Lo is fine, but an Oscar nom? Ehh. Somehow “Hustlers” got 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (“The Meddler”), and it feels like some critics are not only pulling for women directors to succeed but pushing it a bit, too. This one isn’t exploitative, it’s not even sexy, but it's not particularly smart, either. It's often just as shallow as the culture it purports to expose.
Sunday December 15, 2019
The Winner of The Year in Stupidity, Of Course
“In honorary first place comes, naturally, Donald J. Trump. The President has provided enough stellar material to populate several lists on his own.
”Last week, during a roundtable with small-business owners, Trump meandered off topic and claimed that the E.P.A. was hard at work on solving the dire problem presented by low-flow toilets, which need to be flushed ‘ten times, fifteen times, as opposed to once.’ (Consumer Reports told CBS News that the least efficient models take four or five flushes max.) In September, he falsely maintained that Alabama would be impacted by Hurricane Dorian; during a presentation at the White House, he doubled down by displaying an official National Hurricane Center map in which the state had been clumsily circled for inclusion in the storm's potential zone, apparently with a Sharpie. In October, after he pulled U.S. troops out of Syria, he wrote a thuggish and ineffective letter to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of Turkey, in which he tried to convince him not to launch a military strike against Kurdish-led forces, and added, ‘Don’t be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!' (Erdoğan reportedly threw the letter in the trash before proceeding to invade Syria and attack the Kurds.)
“What united all of these instances was Trump's bullheaded refusal to engage with anyone's reality but his own. This tendency was on full display in what might be the President's stupidest moment this year. In September, in a chyron, CNN apparently cited a tweet from Trump in which he referred to Representative Adam Schiff as ‘Liddle’ ‘—a form that the network transposed, sans apostrophe, as ’Liddle.' Turning once again to Twitter, the President claimed that CNN, as a representative of the ‘LameStream Media,’ ‘purposely took the hyphen out’ of the word he used in ‘discirbing’ Schiff. It is, he lamented, 'A small but never ending situation with CNN!' What makes this tweet the winner for me is its glorious display of the dense layers of mistakes and misapprehensions that the President labors under. ‘Describing’ is ‘discirbing,’ an apostrophe is a hyphen, and ‘li’l' is ‘liddle’,' but never ‘liddle.’ (What doesn't change, however, is Trump's paranoid sense of persecution.) To read this tweet is to become privy—hilariously, frighteningly—to the thinking process of a man whose head seems packed with cement. It's a place that even the thinnest rays of wisdom and discernment no longer reach, if they ever did.”
Naomi Fry, “The Year in Stupidity,” The New Yorker. Amazingly, with all of the above, it doesn't even get to the reason Trump is being impeached (asking/blackmailing a foreign government to investigate a domestic political rival), nor to his frequent declarations that he could bypass the 22nd Amendment and remain president for life—an idiotic assertion which several Republicans are now doubling down on. To piss off the left? Maybe. It might even be vaguely funny if Trump didn't love dictators, didn't dream of being a dictator, and hasn't spent most of presidency undercutting the Rule of Law.
Sunday December 15, 2019
Hollywood Hits Quadfecta at Worldwide Box Office
What's one more than a trifecta? A quadfecta? Is that a thing? Anyway, we hit it this year—or Hollywood did.
- G: “Toy Story 4,” $1.07 billion
- PG: “The Lion King,” $1.65 billion
- PG-13: “Avengers: Endgame,” $2.79 billion
- R: “Joker,” $1.05 billion
What do they have in common? Yes, they‘re all 2019 movies.
One might think that happens a lot—movie prices keep going up, China’s movie market keeps getting bigger, etc.—but I doubt it. It's been 10 years, for example, since the last time a new PG-13 king was crowned.
But let's check it out. Has any movie year hit the MPAA rating worldwide quadfecta before?
The last time it could‘ve happened was 2009, when “Avatar” (PG-13) set the worldwide box-office record; but that year, to hone in on just one of the other categories, the highest-grossing R-rated movie worldwide was the comedy hit “The Hangover,” which grossed $467k, far behind then-leader “The Matrix Reloaded” (2003), at $741k.
So what about 2003, then? “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” (PG-13) grossed more than $1 billion, after all. But that was still way shy of “Titanic”’s then-record PG-13 total of $1.8 billion.
So back to 1997, when “Titanic” was released? Nope. Biggest PG film worldwide that year was still “E.T.,” from 1982. And at that point, in 1982, PG-13 didn't even exist.
It's never happened before. Not even close.
Domestically, it didn't happen in 2019, either, since while “Toy Story 4” set the North American record for G-rated films, the others didn't break through. The record for PG films is still “The Incredibles 2” from last year (two Pixars!), PG-13 is still “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” from 2015, while R remains “Passion of the Christ” from 2004. It's only on the worldwide stage that this happened.
Keep in mind: All of these worldwide box-office kings are Hollywood movies. Hollywood. That's the city/industry the right-wing is constantly attacking as “liberal.” Because apprently nothing is more liberal, and angers conservatives more, than an American industry dominating a global market.
Saturday December 14, 2019
The State of Baseball, 2019
Manfred: How do we fix baseball— Thickie Don (@AstrosCounty) December 14, 2019
People: Make it more affordable to go to games, get rid of the blackouts
Manfred: You want a crazy ball?
People: Well, no. But you coul-
Manfred: PITCH CLOCKS
Manfred: You drive a hard bargain. Okay. We'll get rid of the minor leagues
Saturday December 14, 2019
Movie Review: Torrid Zone (1940)
In his 1974 autobiography, “Cagney By Cagney,” James Cagney dismisses “Torrid Zone” as “the same piece of yard-goods” and “really just a reworking of the Hecht-MacArthur play The Front Page.” He always thought of it as “Hildy Johnson Among the Bananas.”
He wasn’t wrong. It reteams the cast of “Angels with Dirty Faces,” stick them in (I guess) Central America, and divvies up the Hecht roles thus: Pat O’Brien, making his eighth and final movie with Cagney, and who played Hildy in the 1931 version of “Front Page,” has the Walter Burns role as hard-driving banana plantation owner Steve Case; Cagney’s Hildy is Nick Butler, the best manager of the plantation, who doesn’t want anything to do with it anymore, but keeps getting coaxed back; and Ann Sheridan, the Oomph Girl, making her second of three movies with Cagney, is Lee Donley, the cabaret-singing card shark. The man who escapes execution isn’t a railroaded innocent but a Latin American revolutionary, Rosario (George Tobias), while there’s fast-talking and double-dealing throughout. In the end, Case gets his man (Nick), Nick gets the girl (Lee), and Rosario gets away.
So he was right. He was also wrong:
I thought that just to effect some kind of change, I’d grow a mustache. It was really rather a silly-looking thing, but at least it was inoffensive.
Nah. It’s the worst thing in the movie.
We don’t see the star for the first 20 minutes or so—we just keep hearing about him. He’s left the banana plantation, is about to return to the states, and keeps sending taunting radiograms to Burns. Collect. Not a bad bit.
The first part of the movie is actually Sheridan’s. She shows up in Puerto Aguilar, where she sings Spanish-y songs in a sequin gown to comic, ogling Hispanics (played by Caucasian actors). “Fire her,” Case, the president of the Baldwin Fruit Co., tells the nightclub owner. He thinks American girls in the country cause trouble, and he’s probably not wrong, but he’s a petty tyrant. When Lee wins/cheats in cards, he has her arrested. He pressures the police chief into shooting the revolutionary, Rosario, a day early, but Rosario escapes. So does Lee, and she winds up with Nick Butler, cheats him at cards, and escapes once more. She winds up stowing away on the train to the banana plantation, unbeknownst to Nick, who’s back working for Case, and is riding on the train with his right-hand man, Wally Davis, played with the usual sing-songy distracted charm of Andy Devine.
The stowing away doesn’t make much sense. She’s on the lam from the law, and from Nick, so she ... follows Nick? Deeper into the jungle? With no baggage, just the clothes she’s wearing? It’s a white tropical suit—skirt, jacket, polka-dot blouse and white pumps—and doesn’t exactly scream ‘stowaway.“ Not smart. At Plantation No. 7, there she is, on the tracks, smirk on her face, but she’s got nothing to bargain with. Nick immediately asks for the card-money back, she feigns innocence, and he threatens to turn her upside-down and shake it out of her. Then he does just that.
Sheridan mostly pulls it off, though. She’s got a tough brassiness that works wells with Cagney’s. And she’s immediately at odds with Mrs. Anderson (Helen Vinson), who’s cuckolding her husband with Nick. That husband, by the way, the ineffectual manager in Nick’s absence, is played by Jerome Cowan, who, a year later, as Miles Archer in “The Maltese Falcon,” will be cuckolded by Bogart. One wonders how often Cowan got cuckolded in the movies. It’s a living, I guess.
Though Mrs. A is sleeping with two men, she’s kind of held in contempt by both—and us. “He was always begging me to marry him,” she says of Anderson. “Finally, he landed this job. So I did.” Now she’s clinging to Nick to take her back to Chicago. But it’s Lee who tells her off. At one point, she plants one on Nick, he drops his smoldering cigarette on the mat floor, where Lee picks it up and warns them about starting another Chicago fire.
Mrs. A: The Chicago fire was started by a cow.
Lee: History repeats itself.
Nick’s job, besides avoiding Mrs. A—or being caught in flagrante by Mr. A (the Hays Code seems surprisingly cool with all this)—is to get the bananas to port on time, but he’s continually sabotaged by Rosario, so he has to go into the mountains after him.
Here’s the thing: Though Rosario is an ostensible villain, and he’s played by a Caucasian actor—the longtime character actor, George Tobias, who would eventually play Agnes Kravitz’s put-upon husband on “Bewitched”—he’s probably the most likeable character on screen. He looks a bit like a spaghetti-western Eli Wallach, except not pinched by greed. He’s got a large, c’est-la-vie spirit. The second time in jail, he makes a play for Lee, learns she likes Nick, shrugs. “ There is an old native proverb: ‘Beautiful horses always love mules.’”
In the mountains, with his men, he lays out his plans:
This is what we do. We make things so bad, they can’t move a banana off the plantation. Then maybe perhaps they get tired. And they move away. Then we get our land back again, huh?
He’s not wrong.
”Torrid Zone" was directed by William Keighley (his fourth movie with Cagney), written by Richard Macauley (“The Roaring Twenties,” “Across the Pacific”) and Jerry Wald (who became a big-time producer, and may have been part inspiration for Sammy Glick, Budd Schulberg’s ruthless, backstabbing go-getter in the novel “What Makes Sammy Run?”), but its best-known filmmaker is probably the cinematographer, James Wong Howe. You can see his hand in some of the beautiful deep-focus shots in the nightclub at the beginning.
George Reeves, the future Superman, too, has a small role as a Rosario spy who winds up getting decked by Cagney with one punch. The politics in it are mostly distant. The idea that the U.S. banana company is there, and exploiting the country and its people, is mostly passed off as a fait accompli, or a joke at the expense of the inept locals in charge. But Rosario has his say.
Do we get a couple of anti-FDR references? That would be odd, given Warners and Cagney’s support at the time. Nevertheless, early on, Andy Devine’s character says “Nick’s silly, going back to the States. I hear it’s so tough, you gotta support yourself and the government on one income.” And when Case tells the local police chief, Rodriguez (Frank Puglia), that the people will throw him out in the next election, Rodriguez pronounces grandly, “Mr. Case, I do not believe in a third term.”
Yard-goods or not, “Torrid Zone” isn’t bad. The worst thing about it is the thing Cagney brought—that mustache.
Friday December 13, 2019
Talkin' New TV Motion-Smoothing Blues
We just bought a new TV—our first since ... 2008? The previous one, a Sony, we got just before smart TVs became a thing. It was one of the last of the dumb TVs. To access the menu most TVs now have (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, etc.) we had to go through our Blu-Ray player. I guess that was getting old. No, that wasn't it. The streaming was touch-and-go. It worked fine for a month and then not. It would get chunky, or blurry, sometimes on Prime, more often on Netflix, most often on HBO (via Prime). That's what was getting old. And it just seemed time.
So we went from a 40“ Sony to a 65” Samsung. Good god, right? It was so big it wouldn't fit in our car so we had it delivered. Think about that: Our TV is too big for our car. Anyway, it finally arrived yesterday—from Sacramento rather than Sodo Seattle.
I will say this: They made it easy. The directions for the most part were simple and user-friendly. It was easy to take this behemoth out of the box, to screw on the stand, to set up. The toughest thing, oddly, was removing the back of the remote to put in the batteries. Patricia and I worked on that for like a half hour. This video is what helped us finally solve the problem. Thanks, man.
We were excited. New TV! Great, right? Then we began to watch.
The first thing we watched was the second episode of the third season of David Simon's “The Deuce.” It included the filming of a few porn scenes, which were fairly explicit, and now beaming in 65“ super-crisp format into our neighbors' windows. Sllightly abashed, we closed the blinds. But that wasn't the real problem.
The real problem was that while it looked good, it looked ... odd. Cheap. Like a 1980s video. Like a soap opera.
”Ech,“ I said.
”Maybe it's just this show,“ Patricia said. ”You know, because it's ‘80 porno and all.“
”Maybe,“ I said.
So we tried a Blu-Ray we’ve watched often: ”The Insider.“ Same fucking thing. It was distracting. All that work, all that money, for something that looks this cheap?
This morning, when I googled it, I found out that cheapness is something called ”the soap opera effect." It's motion smoothing. Here's an article on it. Basically the tech has moved beyond what we‘re used to, or what has been (24 frames per second), and so to ensure old software keeps up with the new hardware they’ve added this feature. For them, it's a feature. That's why the default is auto rather than off. The nice thing is you can turn it off. Which I did. Immediately. Not all new tech is good tech, boys. If tech is progressing to the point where it makes our products look cheap, maybe it shouldn't be the default.
I'm curious what internal discussions were like at Sony, Samsung, et al., over making motion smoothing the default. Or did they just go along with it because everyone in the industry was going along with it?
Yes, it's a first-world problem. And yes, at least we can turn it off. For now. But I fear the next iteration. It's Fear #1,682 on the list.
ADDENDUM: I just spoke with a colleague, Ross, and he's glad I'm on his side against motion smoothing. As are, he told me, most directors, who can't stand what TV/tech companies are doing to their art form. At the same time, he let me know this issue has been around for six years. So, yes, a bit late to the battle, but ready for the fight. Because god. Ech.
Thursday December 12, 2019
It's December, the country is in the hands of a baby tyrant and a propaganda-spewing cabbal of right-wing idiots, but at least the photo below makes me smile.
When I was a kid in the late 1960s, we did paper drives for school—meaning we pulled our wagons from home to home in our south Minnneapolis neighborhood, asking for old newspapers, then brought them back to the garage to bundle in twine—and I was OK at the asking, but in the twining I was forever distracted by the photos of Twins players like Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Cesar Tovar. I wanted to cut them out of the papers and pin them to my wall. They didnt have to be stars. Rich Reese was good enough. It just made me feel good, seeing the photos.
This is like that. Decades later, at nearly 57, I pin it to my wall.
Some Harmon Killebrew stats:
- He hit more homeruns in the 1960s than anyone in baseball (393). That's right: More even than Hank Aaron (375) and Willie Mays (350). It was a Decade of the Pitcher and yet Harmon's homerun total is the fifth-most for any decade—after Babe Ruth in the 1920s (467), Alex Rodriguez in the 2000s (435), Jimmie Foxx in the 1930s (415) and Mark McGwire in the 1990s (405). These days, homeruns are flying out at a crazy pace, but the most homeruns anyone hit in the 2010s is 347 by Nellie Cruz. That's great, but it's still a superlative season away from Harmon's total. Again, Harmon did this in the Decade of the Pitcher.
- He was the first player elected to the All-Star game at three differen positions: 3B (first time in 1959), LF (in 1964), and 1B (first time in 1965). The LF entry is the one that throws me. Killer played left field? But yeah: From 1962 through the 1964 season, he was almost exclusively a left fielder. Barely a glimmer of it before (six games total through the ‘61 seasaon), and barely a glimmer after (20 games from 1965 until retirement after ’75). To me, he was always 3B-1B. Then just 1B. Then DH. Then a KC Royal. Then retired. Then a Hall of Famer. Eventually.
- When he retired he had the fifth-most homeruns in baseball history—after Aaron, Ruth, Mays, and Frank Robinson. Even after the homer-happy juiced-ball, juiced-players era we‘re in, he’s still 12th all-time, and four of the guys ahead of him (McGwire, Sosa, A-Rod and Bonds) are a little suspect.
- He was supposedly scouted by a U.S. Senator, Herman Welker (R-ID), who told Senators owner Calvin Griffith about this Idaho kid hitting over .800 in semi-pro. Griffith sent someone to check him out, then signed him for $50k. Others in the running? Boston Red Sox.
- Is this the one good thing Welker did? He was a staunch defender of Sen. Joe McCarthy to the end, and was one of just 22 Republicans who voted against censuring McCarthy for his “red scare”/“lavender scare” tactics. Welker also allegedly threatened to “out” the son of Sen. Lester C. Hunt (D-WY) as a homosexual unless Hunt agreed to retire or refused to run for office again. On June 19, 1954, Hunt killed himself.
- Crap, back to this bullshit. It never goes away, does it? I guess it's always there. It's a forever battle.
- Let's end on an upbeat note: It seemed a rare game I went to at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota, where Harmon Killebrew did not hit two homeruns. He did that 45 times in his career, but how many could I have seen? I should crunch the numbers on that sometime. On another day when I need it.
Wednesday December 11, 2019
Movie Review: Mike Wallace Is Here (2019)
The opening really pissed me off. I think it’s supposed to.
It’s 2004, and Mike Wallace—about 86 years old, two years from retirement—is interviewing a smug, top-of-his-game Bill O’Reilly. It’s Bill before the fall. Mike wonders why Fox News is increasingly popular and O’Reilly says it’s because they give people “straight talk.” Mike then shows footage of O’Reilly berating and insulting people on his show, telling them to shut up, etc. “That’s not an interview,” he says. “That’s a lecture.”
Mike: You say you’re a journalist.
O’Reilly: That’s right.
Mike: I say you’re an Op-Ed columnist, which is different.
O’Reilly: No, it’s not. You’re a dinosaur. You have to engage now. You have to challenge. You have to be so provocative. This is going to embarrass you, Wallace ... Playboy magazine wrote that Bill O’Reilly is the most feared interviewer since Mike Wallace. You’re the driving force behind my career, and I always tell everybody, “You got a problem with me? He’s responsible. If you don’t like me, go to Wallace.”
First, an Op-Ed columnist is not a journalist. Anyone can do an Op-Ed column: I have. All it takes is an opinion and a modicum of writing ability. True journalism—working a beat, working sources—is a profession. You have to be objective. You have to tell both sides of the story—often to a fault. The mere fact that O’Reilly says a journalist and an Op-Ed columnist are the same proves what a journalist he isn’t.
As for O’Reilly being Wallace 2.0? Give me a fucking break. O’Reilly was and remains a wholly political animal. I don’t know even where Mike Wallace stood politically. According to this doc, he almost became Nixon’s press secretary. That astonished me. He was also good friends with the Reagans. Yes, like O’Reilly, he thrived on being provocative and asking tough questions, but the goal was to extract information; it wasn’t to browbeat or get people to shut up. Just think about that. You’re interviewing someone and you tell them to shut up? To not give you information? O’Reilly’s shtick was to invite someone on with whom he disagreed politically and win. That remains the Fox News shtick. They’re like a little Hollywood studio: older craggy heroes, younger leggy blondes, villains, victory.
But we don’t hear any such objections here. Mike seems at a loss for words, O’Reilly seems triumphant, while the doc, produced and directed by Avi Belkin, holds on the moment and says nothing. Maybe the rest of it is some kind of answer.
Mike Wallace started out as a kid named Myron with bad acne who went on the radio because even in his twenties he thought of himself as a kid named Myron with bad acne.
He worked on his voice. Radio was the dominant form, TV the opportunity. He did it all: news, commercials, game shows. In the radio drama, “The Crime Files of Flamond” (1946-48), he played Flamond. He pitched Golden Fluffo shortening.
He didn’t start out as a journalist. Maybe that’s why he tried so hard. He was always trying to prove himself. He played reporters: in an episode of “You Are There” (“The Conquest of Mexico”); in the film “A Face in the Crowd.” Neither is mentioned here.
In the early days, we see him with an ever-present cigarette—which led to a regular gig as pitchman for Parliament cigarettes—but I assume the cigarette was emulating Edward R. Murrow. I assume he wanted to be Edward R. Murrow, who was the dominant newsman of the day. But Murrow only comes up here ... once? Is that right? As an example of the puff-piece interviewing style of the day that Mike Wallace, first with “Night Beat” (1955-57) and then “The Mike Wallace Interview” (1958-59), cut through? Really? Puff piece? It’s like “See It Now” never existed.
If you’d asked me what a documentary on Mike Wallace might contain besides “60 Minutes,” I would’ve said:
- The Hate that Hate Produced”: a 1959 CBS report on the Nation of Islam
- The Westmoreland debacle
- “The Insider”
They don’t mention 1) at all. We get tons on 2). As for 3), we get the original “60 Minutes” report on Jeffrey Wigand/Brown & Williamson but nothing on Michael Mann’s Oscar-nominated movie—one of the best movies of the past 20 years—in which Mike Wallace doesn’t come off well.
The big reveal for me was how, when he went to CBS News in the 1960s, he was dismissed as an entertainer; he was not taken seriously by other reporters. But Don Hewitt took him seriously. “60 Minutes” was initially conceived as black hat/white hat reporting—Wallace was black, Harry Reasoner was white. (The doc doesn’t mention this.) For years, it floundered at the bottom of the ratings. What goosed it up until it became the most popular show on television? According to Belkin, Watergate. Everyone was tuning in, and because Mike had covered the Nixon campaign he knew most of the players and got access to them. We see a great interview with a perpetually sweating John Erlichman.
How true is that, though, that Watergate was the ratings breakthrough? “60 Minutes” doesn’t appear among the top 30 Nielsen shows until the 1976-77 season, several years after Watergate, when it’s tied for 18th with “Hawaii Five-O.” Then:
Why the 1979-80 season? Iranian hostage crisis? Either way, it remained in the Top 10 throughout the ’80s and was No. 1 again from 1991 to 1994. It’s still regularly in the top 20—an astonishing run—even if its ratings (as with all top network shows) is a fraction of what they used to be.
Why not talk about the cultural impact of the show? The proliferation of news-magazine shows, none of which were ever as good as “60 Minutes.” The parodies and satires and homages—particularly the brilliant 1984 SNL parody about the dangers of knockoff Chinese novelty-gag items, in which Harry Shearer, doing a brilliant Mike Wallace, confronts the corrupt, sweating, smoking attorney Nathan Thurm (Martin Short). Back then, if you were a shady business, it was a toss-up who you didn't want knocking on your door: the FBI or “60 Minutes.”
What Belkin does really well? Telling Mike’s story through the responses he gets from the people he interviews.
So in the ’80s he interviews Barbra Streisand, who says “Fear is the energy behind doing your best work,” and it might have been true for him. So in the ’50s he interviews “Twilight Zone” producer Rod Serling, who admits spending all the time he does on his show, 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week, means giving “fewer hours to family,” and so it was for Mike, who was mostly an absentee father. So in the’80s he interviews “Queen of Mean” hotelier Leona Helmsley, who cries when he asks about the son she lost, and it leads to a section on the death of Mike’s son, Peter, age 19, while mountain climbing in Greece in 1962.
He interviewed everybody. The list is a Who’s Who of the second half of the 20th century, along with some legends from the first half (Eleanor Roosevelt, Bette Davis, Mickey Cohen), and some from the first half of this century (Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin). He did all the major events of the second half of the 20th century: JFK assassination, My Lai massacre, Watergate, Iran hostage crisis. Back in the ’50s, he gave us a warning for our time: “Take a look at the history of any nation which has lost its freedoms, and you’ll find that the men who grabbed the power also had to crush the free press.”
I’m curious how much research went into this doc. A lot of the interviews were part of the 2012 tribute “60 Minutes” did upon Mike's passing. Maybe too many? It's like you could just watch that instead.
I miss that we don’t have him around. Is that the point of the title? Mike Wallace is no longer here, and the charlatans are proliferating and getting more powerful. And when they need a safe place to spread their lies, they go on Bill O‘Reilly’s Fox News. Where no one is telling them to shut up.
Monday December 09, 2019
Movie Review: Knives Out (2019)
“Knives Out” got great notices from critics out of the Toronto International Film Festival in September, as well as upon its release last month (RT: 97%), and it may be because it’s something we haven’t seen in a while: a smart, funny whodunit with an all-star cast. Its antecedents include the now-cult film “Clue” from 1984 and two mostly forgotten movies from the ’70s: “The Cheap Detective” (1978), starring Peter Falk, and “Murder By Death” (1976), starring everyone. I need to watch those again but I’m pretty sure this one’s better. Its mystery is better, the solution is better, and the whole thing is a kind of beautiful “fuck you” to the fears of the Trump base: Yes, illegal Latin Americans are taking over; and they will take over even though they’re nice and kind, and we’re devious and murderous. We’re the bad guys. They win.
The movie opens on a shot of the coffee mug of acclaimed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), which reads:
And it ends on the same coffee mug, now in the hands of his nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), whose family is here illegally from Ecuador ... or Brazil? ... or Peru? Each member of the Thrombey family assumes a different country, and she, and the movie, never correct them. It’s a great bit. The Thrombeys—at their best—are people who imagine themselves solicitous but are not, caring but are not. They just have money. Or Harlan does.
It’s the morning after Harlan’s 85th birthday party, held at his large, gothic mansion, and in an attic room, rather than his own master bedroom, his housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson), finds him dead, his throat cut. Suicide is assumed. The police arrive—Lakeith Stanfield, playing nondescript, even bored, and Noah Segan as unabashed Harlan Thrombey fan—and they question each family member.
It’s a whodunit, so of course everyone has a reason to be the who:
- Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson, welcome back), husband to Harlan’s eldest, no-nonsense daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), was having an affair, and Harlan called him on it
- Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette, brilliant), Harlan’s daughter-in-law to a deceased son, was double-dipping Harlan’s payments for daughter Meg’s college, and Harland was cutting her off completely
- Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon), youngest son, who ran his father’s publishing house, was being relieved of his position
But who’s that sitting in the chair behind the detectives—laying back in the chair, really—and occasionally plinking a single note on the piano there? Why, it’s Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the famous Cajun detective, who was written up in The New Yorker. (In a flashback we see the issue, with its very New Yorker-esque illustration of Blanc. Kudos, production team.) Apparently he was hired by an anonymous person, with an envelope of cash, to look into the suicide. Which he assumes isn’t a suicide.
Soon, he’s wandering the grounds with the nurse, Marta, whom he anoints his Watson, and who seems nervous and distraught. She is, for two reasons: 1) if she lies she throws up—literally; and 2) she killed Harlan. Or she thinks she did.
Post-party, she and Harlan were in the attic room playing the board game Go, when the board got upended. In the confusion, her medical bag is mixed-up and the shot she gives Harland isn’t his meds but morphine to dull the pain: But 100 mg instead of 3—a lethal dosage. She tells Harlan. The master mystery writer reacts both oddly and typically: He begins to plot again. He says: Leave by the front door so everyone can see you, drive away, return on foot, climb the trellis into the attic, put on my robe, head down the creaky stairs and make sure people see the robe, return, leave by the trellis, etc. It will mean she’ll be safely away at the time of his death. Then he slits his own throat.
For a whodunit, I didn’t spend much time wondering who because I kept wondering how Marta didn’t do it. (I was also distracted by de Armas’ beautiful lips.) What new evidence would come to light? She looks even more guilty when the will is read and she gets everything. But everything. The family, solicitous to this point, telling her she’ll always be taken care of, is furious, and all but hound her from the house that’s now hers.
But we still assume she’s innocent. It’s not just that she apparently can’t lie; she seems like a good person. And she is—even better than she knows.
Ready? Again: spoiler alert.
The solution has to do with Harlan’s favorite grandson, the ne’er-do-well Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), who couldn’t even be bothered to make the funeral. But he’s there for the reading of the will, smirking throughout, and seems the one family member who doesn’t have metaphoric knives out for Marta. He drives her to a diner, they talk, etc. Is he trying to help her? No. The opposite. Because he did it.
Party night, Harlan told him he was cut from the will and Marta would get everything. Ransom, though, knew something about the law—or at least slayer statutes. If the benefactor was found guilty of killing the deceased, even involuntarily, they would get nothing. So Ransom switched labels on the bottles and then anonymously hired Blanc to investigate. Here’s the thing: Marta wound up grabbing the right bottle, because she knew the viscosity of the medicine inside, even though Ransom had mislabeled it. So Harlan wasn’t doomed. She was innocent even of the screw-up.
From Bond to Zod
My interest in the movie kind of waxed and waned with my perception of Blanc. Initially, with his piano-plinking ways, he seems formidable and I was intrigued. Halfway through, he seems an overrated dullard—missing the blood on Marta’s shoe; listening to music as chaos and cops erupt behind him—and I got a little bored. Then he wraps it all up in a beautiful package.
All the actors seemed to have a gas playing against type. James Bond gets to be the Southern detective with an accent as thick as molasses, Captain America is the spoiled SOB who plots murder, while Gen. Zod is the cringing, browbeaten, talentless youngest son.
That’s part of the appeal of the movie, too. You know that Lloyd Dobler speech from “Say Anything”: “I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed”? That’s kinda this. It’s not a movie based on a comic book, or video game, or novel, or another movie. It’s not a reboot or a sequel. It hasn't been processed to death. Writer-director Rian Johnson (“Brothers Bloom,” “Looper,” “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi”) simply thought it up and made it run.
And that ending: Marta, on the second-floor balcony of the Thrombey estate, “My Rules” coffee mug in hand, and looking down, not angrily but curiously, at the spoiled Thrombey clan below, who are slowly realizing that the tables have turned on them. Forever. Most movies out of so-called liberal Hollywood aren’t exactly liberal; they’re “a good man with a gun kills many bad guys with guns.” This one is liberal. Gloriously so.
Sunday December 08, 2019
LA Critics Pick ‘Parasite’
I like that the LA Film Critics includes runner-ups. It's like a built-in discussion. Hell, I'd be cool with top 3. The Oscars is a zero-sum game in comparison.
Anyway, this is that body's choices for 2019, along with a few thoughts from me:
I‘ve seen both; I’m hoping there's better. I already think there's better, but I get the appeal of these.
- Director: Bong Joon Ho (Parasite)
- Runner-up: Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)
Same same. Neither is a bad pick.
- Actor: Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory)
- Runner-up: Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
Haven't seen “Pain and Glory” but Adam Driver is among my front-runners, along with Joaquin Phoenix and Leo DiCaprio—neither of whom seem to be getting much critic love at this point in the season.
- Actress: Mary Kay Place (Diane)
- Runner-up: Lupita Nyong'o (Us)
Apparently MKP is great in “Diane,” a way under-the-radar movie I‘ll have to check out. Lupita is my frontrunner.
- Supporting Actor: Song Kang Ho (Parasite)
- Runner-up: Joe Pesci (The Irishman)
The Toronto critics went with Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time...” That’s my choice.
- Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers)
- Runner-up: Zhao Shuzhen (The Farewell)
Need to see “Hustlers.” So far, Zhao, the grandmother in “The Farewell, is my choice.
- Screenplay: Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)
- Runner-up: Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Won (Parasite)
- Documentary: American Factory
- Runner-up: Apollo 11
I need to see ”Apollo 11" soon. Shame I didn't on the big screen.
Friday December 06, 2019
Gang of Putin
“Of all the changes that have occurred in our politics since the rise of Donald Trump, the most gut-wrenching for me personally is to see the Republican Party transformed into the Kremlin's ‘useful idiots.’ As a young refugee from the Soviet Union growing up in Southern California in the 1980s, I was attracted to the GOP because it was the party of moral clarity—the party willing to stand up to the ‘evil empire.’ How far we have come—in the wrong direction.
”Today, we have a Republican president who, while reluctantly acceding to sanctions against Russia, incessantly praises its dictator, Vladimir Putin ('a terrific person‘); tries to bring Putin back to the Group of Seven; conceals the details of their meetings; undermines Ukraine, a victim of Russian aggression, by harping on its corruption while ignoring Russia’s own kleptocracy; allows the Russians to take possession of U.S. bases in Syria; and propagates Russian propaganda blaming Ukraine for 2016 election interference. Trump is joined in spreading Russian disinformation by his secretary of state and other supporters, such as Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), even though the U.S. intelligence community has exposed claims of Ukrainian election interference as a ‘fictional narrative.’“
Max Boot, ”The Republicans have become the party of Russia. This makes me sick," in The Washington Post. Read the whole thing. I highlight the U.S. bases in Syria because it deserves more play, as does our unforgivable betrayal of the Kurds there. That's a hammering topic in 2020.
Thursday December 05, 2019
‘Everything You Need to Know’
Manu Raju, Senior Congressional Correspondent, CNN: I asked Kevin McCarthy if it's ever OK for a president to ask a foreign power to investigate a political rival, and he dodged the question. Instead, he focused on the 2016 probe and later said: “The answer to your question: They‘ve always wanted to impeach the President.”
George Conway, NY attorney, member of the Federalist Society: That they’ve never been willing to answer this question straightforwardly tells you everything you need to know.
Wednesday December 04, 2019
Yesterday on NPR's Morning Edition, in anticipation of the 2019 NATO Summit in London, Noel King interviewed former U.S. Senator (R-TX) and current NATO Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison, who talked up:
- the necessity of US leadership in NATO
- the importance of the Kurds/YPG as allies
- the continuing danger of Russian aggression
while also extolling:
- Donald Trump's “forceful,” straight-talking leadership
with hardly any pushback from Noel King.
This is the way democracy dies: not with a bang but with hardly a whimper from NPR.
Tuesday December 03, 2019
National Board of Review Plugs ‘The Irishman’
FLASH! The National Board of Review announces its best movie of the year! And its top 10! Which doesn't include the best movie of the year! So top 2-11!
It's always fun when NBR makes its annual announcements, because it's the critics org that goes first; and it's always not fun because their choices are often headscratching or dull. Or both. The NBR is like the New Hampshire primary if no one gave a shit who won the New Hampshire primary. They‘re your grandfather’s critics group.
And like your grandfather, they love themselves some Clint Eastwood. Quick question: Why is “Jersey Boys” significant in NBR's recent awards history? Because it's the first movie since 2003 that Clint Eastwood directed that didn't at least make NBR's top 10. Or 11.
Million Dollar Baby
Letters from Iwo Jima
Flags of our Fathers
The 15:17 to Paris
That's nine movies in a row, including such forgettable fare as “Changeling,” “Invictus,” “Hereafter” and “J. Edgar.” Then he got two more, followed by two 2018 passes. (For a good review of “The Mule,” please consult John Mulaney.) Now he's back in their good graces with “Richard Jewell,” about the security guard who saved lives during a 1996 bombing ... and was then accused of having planted it. He was pilloried in the press. So Eastwood pillories the press—along with, it looks like from the trailer, the FBI. One nice thing about that story? He won't have to lie to make his small-government case the way he did with “Sully.”
(Oh yeah, and what about that odd “Come back when you‘re black” line to Frank Valli by a 1959 A&R man in “Jersey Boys”? At a time when a white singer sounding like a black man is what every A&R man dreamed of? Is Eastwood implying that somehow black people had it easier? In 1959? I need to do a bigger piece on Eastwood some day.)
So here’s NBR's 2-11 for 2019:
- “Dolemite is My Name”
- “Ford v Ferrari”
- “Jojo Rabbit”
- “Knives Out”
- “Marriage Story”
- “Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood”
- “Richard Jewell”
- “Uncut Gems”
I haven't seen most of these yet, but I can't believe “The Farewell” didn't make the cut—just NBR's top 10 indies, along with “Judy” (which looks horrendous). Meanwhile, “Judy”'s Rene Zellwegger garnered the actress award, while Adam Sandler (!) won the actor. No snarky comment there—he looks great in the trailer. (That said: Leo? Joaquin?)
They gave director to Quentin Tarantino, his first since he won for “Pulp Fiction” back in 1994. NBR's director history is interesting. Name the three NBR directing awards Martin Scorsese has won. Ready? “The Age of Innocence,” “The Departed” and “Hugo.” The ones you immediately think of when you think Scorsese. How about the one time Spielberg won? “Empire of the Sun.” Again. And for all their Eastwood love, he's won director only twice: “American Sniper” and ... “Invictus.” Yes. “Invictus.” They loved “Invictus.” Freeman won Best Actor for it, too.
This year, NBR's best movie was Scorsese's “The Irishman.” Which ... sure.
Monday December 02, 2019
Movie Review: Blood on the Sun (1945)
A tough American man (with a hint of the gangster) and a beautiful woman (foreign, exotic) are trapped in an Axis country before America’s entry into World War II. The bad guys are closing in but our heroes are about to get away. Then at the last minute he tells her to go on without him. As she objects, he looks deeply into her eyes and says the following:
We’ve got jobs to do. Nobody gave them to us but they’ve got to be done. You’re my girl, aren’t you? All right then, you’re gonna do what I want you to do. I know it’s tough. Tougher to go than it is to stay. But you can’t hold ’em and I think I can.
Yeah, not exactly Bogart to Bergman in “Casablanca.”
Instead, it’s James Cagney to Sylvia Sidney in “Blood on the Sun,” a movie filmed in 1944 for Cagney’s nascent production company, but not released, via United Artists, until April 26, 1945—four days before Adolf Hitler killed himself. “Blood” is a movie set before the war but released just as the war was ending. (It still did well at the box office.)
Cagney, of course, was never Bogart in the romance department. The brilliance of Bogart was he was the toughest guy in the room but a woman could still break his heart. The brilliance of Cagney was he was the toughest guy in the room but a woman could ... shaddap.
Some of my best friends
Cagney plays Nick Condon, crusading managing editor of The Tokyo Chronicle, which, as the movie opens, prints a story about one of Japan’s leaders:
TANAKA PLANS ATTACK ON UNITED STATES
Apparently this was a real thing—or a real hoax. News stories about the “Tanaka Memorial”—plans to take over the world after attacking China and the U.S.—were first published in the late 1920s, got an English translation in the early ’30s, and treated by the U.S. government throughout World War II as the Japanese version of Mein Kampf, but most scholars today think it never existed. Even in the movie, Condon isn’t sure—a bit odd, given his headline—so he spends the rest of the movie chasing down leads to a story he’s already written. Not exactly Journalism 101.
Indeed, one of the movie’s villains, Joe Cassell (Rhys Williams), an American reporter in league with the Japanese, turns out to be more correct than our hero. He and Condon are introduced at an expat bar and discuss Condon’s story:
Cassell: Of course there’s not a grain of truth in it. You know that.
Condon: I don’t know anything. Do you?
Cassell: Quite a bit. Our Chinese cousins are trying desperately to shape public opinion against Japan.
Apparently he was right. Not bad for the bad guy. But here's the dialogue that made me do a double take:
Cassell: Not that I haven’t a tremendous admiration for the Chinese people.
Condon: I see. [Smiles] Some of my best friends are Chinese, huh?
Wow. So how long has that line been around? Not just people using the line, but using it ironically.
The New York Times archive isn’t that helpful. Its first “Some of my best friends are...” reference came in 1944, when this movie was being filmed, but it was in a review of a homefront novel playing off that phrase: “Some of My Best Friends are Soldiers.” It wasn’t until Russell Baker used it in a 1964 humorous op-ed about a Triborough bridge protest that we got the first ironic usage in the paper. Speaking in the voice of a commuter, Baker writes, “Some of my best friends are city dwellers but I don’t want to have them living across my fastest right-of-way.” By 1970, the Times will have eight such references, a year later it’s the title of a movie about a Greenwich Village gay bar, and we’re off to the races.
Thanks to Rick Santorum, though, we know it started much earlier than that. In the 2011 presidential election, CNN’s Don Lemon asked him if he had any gay friends, Santorum used a vague version of the line, and Bradford Plumer, in The New Republic, did a deep dive into the term. According to Plumer, it was used without irony in the first few decades of the 20th century by, among others:
- Democratic VP nominee John Worth Kern in 1908 (“...Republicans”)
- Baptist preacher John Roach Straton, objecting to Al Smith’s 1928 presidential run (“...Catholics)
- Hugo Black, 1937 nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, on his KKK past (“...Jews”)
Such forthright usage among the powerful (and racist) surely led to its ironic usage among the marginalized. Robert Gessner’s 1936 history of anti-Semitism was called “Some of My Best Friends are Jews,” for example. Either way, “Blood” seems ahead of its time here.
The movie is also ahead of its time in its treatment of martials arts. For the film, Cagney, a one-time boxer, trained under a judo master and kept going with the sport long after filming was over. He treated it seriously, and so does the film.
Anyway, shortly after Condon’s tete-a-tete with Cassell, one of Condon’s reporters, Ollie Miller (Wallace Ford), shows up at the bar flashing cash. He pays off old debts, buys new rounds, says sayonara to his colleagues. Where did he get the dough? He refuses to say. So does his wife, Edith (Rosemary DeCamp), whom Condon visits; she’s just happy they’re finally leaving Japan. Ever the friend, Condon shows up at the ship with a bottle of champagne but finds her dead, seemingly strangled, and him missing.
Later, Miller shows up at Condon’s place, shot, dying, with the Tanaka plan in his hand and the Japanese on his tail. Condon has to move fast—but where to hide it? Here, that Golden-Age Hollywood conceit that people keep framed photos of world figures on the wall comes in handy. (It was just a conceit, wasn’t it?) Condon is so international, it seems, he not only has a photo of Pres. Hoover in his bedroom but Emperor Hirohito, and he hides the Tanaka plan behind the latter, assuming the Japanese won’t disturb it. They don’t. They bow to it.
After a short judo battle, Condon is jailed (Cagney gets his usual down-and-out scruff), traduced (accused of drunken partying: “Find Nicholas Condon with two girls,” says Police Chief Yamada, tsking), but the Tanaka plan behind Hirohito’s picture has gone missing. Next thing we know, Condon is being forced to leave the country. Then he’s introduced, by Cassell, to Iris Hilliard (Sylvia Sidney), a half-Chinese woman who seems to be doing the bidding of the Japanese, and who may have been involved in the murder of the Millers.
Up to this point, the movie isn’t a bad espionage thriller. But the romance really doesn’t work. Are Cagney and Sidney too old for it? He’s still light on his feet but has that growing heaviness in his face and gut. She’s just returning from a four-year film hiatus, during which she had a child. It begins well enough. She's interested, he's suspicious of that interest—like Michael Caine in “Funeral in Berlin”:
Iris: Perhaps I like your looks.
Condon: Uh-uh. [Circles his face] Not with this.
Iris: There are maybe things about that I like.
Condon: Yeah? What?
Iris: I’ve always liked red hair.
Condon: Well, I grew it for you.
Iris: And the ears.
Condon: Two of those.
Iris: Isn’t that good?
Condon: More would be vulgar.
But our boy quickly gets dull. He drops doubt for randy come-ons and lame double entendres:
Iris: You know what this chase has done for me? Developed a ravenous appetite.
Condon [gives her the once over]: I’ve developed a few myself.
Iris [after saying she’s there to help Japanese women]: Why not? I’m a woman.
Condon [once over]: I’ve been aware of that for some time.
Oddly, once they become a couple—and it’s revealed that, yes, she was working with the Japanese, but as a kind of double agent, evidenced by the fact that she stole the Tanaka plan—Condon immediately seems past any love, or lust, and treats her with a kind of brisk paternalism: forehead kisses and cheek pats. There’s no heat whatsoever.
The scroll of the poet
The screenplay was written by Lester Cole (one of his last), with additional scenes by Nathaniel Curtis (his first), and again we get some not-bad moments. There’s a good back-and-forth, for example, between Prince Tatsugi (Frank Puglia), who is counseling a more peaceful path, and Premier Tanaka (John Emery), who isn’t. “I’m the scroll of the poet behind which samurai swords are being sharpened,” Tatsugi says. Good line.
If the Japanese aren’t all bad—interesting in itself in a WWII movie—none of them are Japanese. It's the usual Caucasian actors in yellowface. Besides Emery and Puglia, Robert Armstrong of “King Kong” fame plays Col. Tojo; John Halloran, an LA cop and judo expert, plays Condon’s nemesis Capt. Oshima; while Marvin Miller is the super-annoying, tsking Capt. Yamada. Miller is good at it. Cf., Kwon in “Peking Express.”
“Blood on the Sun” tries for the big finish. After his “Casablanca”ish goodbye to Sylvia Sidney, Condon battles Oshima (a judo challenge issued in the first act will go off in the third), wins, is chased down the wharf, and makes his way to the U.S. embassy. Then he’s shot. Dead? Nah. U.S. diplomat Johnny Clarke (a young Hugh Beaumont) takes him past the entreaties of Yamada, and Cagney delivers the film’s final line for an audience still at war: “Sure, forgive your enemies. But first, get even.” Pan back, welling music, THE END.
Doesn’t resonate. Wasn't the beginning of a beautiful friendship.