erik lundegaard

Friday April 30, 2021

'Any American'

“If this can happen to the former president's lawyer, this can happen to any American.”

-- Andrew Giuliani, Rudy's son, after an FBI raid on his father's home earlier this week. He seems to think the above line is documenting an abuse of power when it's the opposite. It's documenting how rule of law is supposed to work.

Posted at 06:32 PM on Friday April 30, 2021 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Wednesday April 28, 2021

Bruce Willis vs. Kong

I meant to mention this in my review of “Godzilla vs. Kong” but there's a moment early on, in their first big battle, when Kong senses Godzilla is ready to let loose his fire breath and cut in half the aircraft carrier Kong is standing on, so he leaps off it. And the leap reminded me but exactly of Bruce Willis in “Die Hard.”

The above doesn't even do it justice. It's same slow-mo, same arms in the air, and Kong's leg even goes up like Willis'. I'm sure someone will compare and contrast on video shortly. I posted to Twitter and got nothing ... until like a week ago. Someone else had seen the film, thought of “Die Hard” during this scene, and searched Twitter to see if anyone else noticed.

So: homage or ripoff or coincidence? I'm going homage. But too bad the movie wasn't as good as “Die Hard.” 

Posted at 06:33 PM on Wednesday April 28, 2021 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Tuesday April 27, 2021

Oscar's Great Depression

My wife and I watched the Oscars Sunday night and we were in the minority. According to the Nielsen company, the previous ratings low for an Oscars telecast was last year, right before the pandemic, when only 23.6 million Americans tuned in to see “Parasite” win best picture. This year, with “Nomadland” winning, it was less than half that: 9.85 million. We're basically at Game 3 of the World Series territory. Which I also watch. I'm becoming like William H. Macy's character in “The Cooler”: whatever I gravitate toward, it's on the way out. 

Not that I don't get it. We just went through a mostly movie theater-less year when we were all sheltering in place. And while we wound up watching a lot, it wasn't the movies that were nominated. To be honest, I was kind of with the mass on that one. My wife saw each of the nominated films but I kept begging off. I know: me. I'd see part of a movie (“Sound of Metal”) and think “Nah. Not now. Can't deal with this now.” In a year of great loss, it was a tough sell to get people to watch someone lose their hearing, or their home, or their mind. In the midst of the Great Depression, the movies gave us Cagney, Gable, Harlow, Astaire: rat-a-tat, romance, top hat and tails. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the movies gave us a great depression.

I did wind up seeing five of the eight (I still need “Promising Young Woman,” “Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Sound of Metal” to complete the set) and I'm glad “Nomadland” won. It's a beautiful film about a tough subject, and Frances McDormand rocks. I would've also been happy with “Judas and the Black Messiah,” which, of all the nominees, seems the most accessible. It's got punch, and it drives its story forward, and Daniel Kaluuya rocks. “Minari” is a slice-of-life about a Korean family in Reagan's America making a go of it in the Deep South. It's a gentle film, kinder than I thought it would be, although you're still waiting for disaster to happen, and it does, but the disaster isn't a disaster. It's a binding force. Nice thought for these times. “Mank” was a disappointment, while “The Father,” brutal to watch, intrigued with its unreliable narrator. And Anthony Hopkins rocks.

Whoever made the decision to put best actor last, perhaps anticipating a win for the late, great Chadwick Boseman, well, that was a bad call. Never make that kind of call on an unsure outcome. Boseman didn't win, Hopkins did, and the usual noise machine went at it on Twitter. Mark Harris gave the tweet of the night with this one: 

Xoxo.

Hopkins is the oldest Oscar winner ever, at 83, and wasn't present, so the presenter, last year's winner Joaquin Phoenix, said the Academy accepted it in his absence and g'night. That also rubbed people the wrong way—the quick exit—but I didn't mind. I have a friend, Jim, who tends to end phone calls: “Are we done? We're done.” Rip that Band-Aid off. Be like Hitchcock, not Spielberg. But best picture should always go last. I don't care if the second coming of Jesus is up for best actor, put picture last. 

McDormand is now a three-time best actress winner, second only to the late great Kate Hepburn, and it's all so deserved. She is no bullshit, as John Mulaney said a few years back. Youn Yuh-jung is the second Asian woman to win an acting award, and her great, crazy riffs from the podium made everyone's night. (For more on Oscar trivia, see Nathaniel, the master on the topic.)

I wasn't a fan of the in-house trivia contest—which songs by Black artists were or weren't nominated for Oscars, and finishing up with Glenn Close doing “Da Butt” from the old Spike Lee joint “School Daze”—and overall I miss hosts. I miss comedians. I missed someone looking at the camera. Steven Soderbergh produced the Oscars this year and most presenters presented to the room, like we weren't there, and it was a little weird. As with most things in the world now, too many cooks are stirring the Oscar pot, saying it needs to be X, Y and Z, and you can't please everyone, and you wind up pleasing no one and getting less than half of the lowest rating ever, but a lot of it isn't the Academy's fault. In the past, there was a kind of popular, human-centered, middle-ground film that could get nominated, like “Jerry Maguire” or “Apollo 13” or “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and now that middle ground barely exists. Now it's either the Marvel Noise Machine or someone losing their hearing, or their home, or their mind. Even when a middle-ground movie gets made, like “Ford v. Ferrari” in 2019, and it gets nominated, well, it's not really part of the discussion, is it? For Oscar or box office. It had Batman, Bourne and cars, but people didn't flock to it the way they would to any of the “Fast & Furious” films. It wasn't dumb enough. It was too rooted in reality.

Is there a way out? Nominate something like “Avengers: Endgame” for best picture? Produce more story-driven indie films? Even that might not work. Hollywood keeps getting kicked every which way for crimes real or imagined. When the Star-Tribune tweeted about the bad Oscar ratings, commentators real or bottish blamed Hollywood for its longtime treatment of Blacks, gays, et al., and for not caring about “regular people.” No matter what Hollywood does, it's hated.

Well, not everywhere. I'm glad we watched. It was a nice evening. After a year away, it was nice seeing everyone again.

Posted at 09:10 AM on Tuesday April 27, 2021 in category Movies - The Oscars   |   Permalink  

Sunday April 25, 2021

Photos from Near the End of the Pandemic

I took these shots last weekend. The Mt. Rainier one is from last Friday afternoon when I went for a walk down to Lake Washington on a surprisingly warm, sunny day. 

This has been a frequent walk for me during the pandemic. I live on First Hill, and I know most Capitol Hill and downtown and ID neighborhoods (north, west and south of where I live), but not much of the neighborhoods to my east, which is the way to Lake Washington. And since north, west and east weren't any great shakes during the pandemic lockdown, I tended to walk east while listening to podcasts. You go through Seattle U, past small houses and bigger houses, and through a small woods at the edge of the lake. On clear days you get the Cascades and Mt. Rainier. I always feel better after doing this walk. 

The second shot was the following day, another warm, sky-blue day that felt like an opening up after a year of lockdown. Because of last week's Mariners digital ticket fiasco, I biked down to the stadium to get my tickets in person but arrived a half hour before the ticket window opened. So I kept biking around. Saw this beauty about 6-8 blocks south of the stadium on the back of a nondescript warehouse on Occidental Ave, and I had to stop and take a picture.

It's Dave Niehaus' greatest hits, circa 1995. A few of them are from Game 5. One of them inspired the Mariners alt magazine that I spent years writing for, and which is now run online by my friend Tim. 

Posted at 08:53 AM on Sunday April 25, 2021 in category Seattle   |   Permalink  

Saturday April 24, 2021

Walter Mondale (1928-2021)

Carter and Mondale and the spirit of '76.

Here's my Walter Mondale story. I believe I've told it before. 

In the summer of 2004, I was given an assignment for a new legal pubication. I was to write features on two Texas attorneys/politicos: one a Republican in Houston, the other a Democrat in Dallas. For the Republican attorney, besides the principle, I interviewed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Karl Rove; for the Dem, former vice president Walter Mondale. It was a heady week. I interviewed some of the most connected, most powerful people on the planet and then on Friday I went down to the unemployment office to explain why I hadn't found a job yet. Such is the life of a freelancer. Oddly, or not, the work I was doing the week I wasn't getting a job wound up becoming my job. The magazine expanded, I was hired as a senior editor, and in early 2005 I moved back to Minneapolis, where I'd been born and raised. I'm now the magazine's editor in chief.

That's not my Walter Mondale story, of course. That's just background. Here's the story.

The week after I moved back to Minneapolis, my then-girlfriend/now wife Patricia came from Seattle to visit and we went to see the movie “Downfall” at the Uptown Theater. That was my old arthouse theater; I saw a lot of classic movies there growing up. While she went to the bathroom, I found us seats, and a moment later another couple came in and laid their stuff in the row in front of us, then departed. When Patricia came back, my eyes were sparkling. 

“Guess who's sitting in front of us?”

She gave me a quizzical look. “Adam?”

“No. It's no one we know.”

“Then how can I guess?”

“It's a famous person. Think of the most Minnesota person ever.”

She perked up. “Prince?”

“No, not ... that kind of famous. Think politics.”

“Just tell me.”

I just told her: Walter and Joan Mondale. After the movie was over, I trailed after Monday as he made his way down the aisle and then introduced myself as the journalist who had interviewed him the previous summer about his former advance man Boe Martin. He was gracious, we talked for a bit—Joan had already gone out into the lobby—and I was probably rushing to keep the conversation going when he reached past me to shake Patricia's hand and introduce himself. I'd just been standing there like a doofus, not introducing the woman behind me, but he had better manners. Then we all talked a bit about the movie. It was about the best welcome back to Minnesota I could imagine. 

I thought of this again when hearing the news that Walter Mondale died on Monday, age 93

Most of the obits said the same thing: he was a decent man who suffered a “crushing defeat” when he ran for president against Ronald Reagan in 1984. Few try to parse those two points, but it was one of the great lessons of my young life: decency loses, lies win. In her remembrance, Jane Mayer writes that “He was the last Presidential nominee of either party to respect the American public enough to tell it the hard truth about economic realities.” And you see where it got you. Or where it got us. She remembers Mondale deflating a raucous college campus crowd by talking about the services they'd need when they got old; she remembers him at the 1984 Democratic convention telling the electorate he would have to raise their taxes to ensure those services and a more just society. America half-listened, said “nah,” and went with the guy with the Hollywood career and the slick “Morning in America” campaign commercials. America went with the lies. And the lies only got worse.

He was the son of a Lutheran minister from a small Southern Minnesota town, Ceylon, who became mentee to Minnesota's great rising son, Hubert H. Humphrey. He got out the vote for him in '48, did the same for Orville Freeman in the 1950s, and was appointed state attorney general in 1960. In '62 he was elected to the post. In '64, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill the Humphrey vacancy and in '66 he was elected to the post. He was re-elected in a landslide during the year Nixon was re-elected in a landslide. He transformed the vice presidency into something more substantial and wonky, into a working partnership with the president. After '84, he returned to Minnesota and a law practice in downtown Minneapolis at Dorsey & Whitney. He helped Minnesota business thrive. He was U.S. ambassador to Japan, and following the sudden death of U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone a few weeks before the 2002 election, he was drafted into the campaign. He lost to another liar, Norm Coleman, during a Republican year. I have trouble forgiving Minnesota for that one.

His death wasn't unexpected but I was surprised by how much it hurt. After I heard the news, I kept pressing my palms against my chest. I, with no rights in this matter.

He left a lovely final note to staff members: “Well, my time has come,” he wrote. “I am eager to rejoin Joan and Eleanor. Before I go I wanted to let you know how much you mean to me. Never has a public servant had a better group of people working at their side! Together we have accomplished so much, and I know you will keep up the good fight.”

Posted at 09:35 AM on Saturday April 24, 2021 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Monday April 19, 2021

NY Times Buries Lede on OAN

The New York Times ran a good article yesterday about OAN, the right-wing network run by Robert Herring, but under a lousy hed/sub:

One America News Network Stays True to Trump
A recent OAN segment said there were “serious doubts about who's actually president,” and another blamed “anti-Trump extremists” for the Capitol attack.

Why is that lousy? This is the fourth graf:

Some of OAN's coverage has not had the full support of the staff. In interviews with 18 current and former OAN newsroom employees, 16 said the channel had broadcast reports that they considered misleading, inaccurate or untrue.

First: Not the full support of staff? I guess that's right. I guess 12% isn't full. Second: The 88% who disagreed with their own news coverage didn't do so lightly. It was vehement. Some even hoped that Dominion Voting Systems, which has sued Fox News for defamation, will do the same to OAN, since “maybe if they sue us, we'll stop putting stories like this out.” Which gets to the larger point: It feels like the Times buried the lede, while its headline missed it entirely. OAN staying true to Trump isn't exactly news. But OAN staff disagreeing with OAN coverage? And hoping it'll get sued? That's news. I don't know why you wouldn't highlight that. I don't know why the Times keeps softening its coverage of how off-the-rails the right-wing has become.

Actually I do know why. Goes back to Agnew. They're scared of being labeled “liberal news.”

This was the JFC moment in the piece for me:

Assignments that the elder Mr. Herring takes a special interest in are known among OAN staff as “H stories,” several current and former employees said. The day after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, Mr. Herring instructed OAN employees in an email, which The New York Times reviewed, to “report all the things Antifa did yesterday.”

Herring is another rich old codger holding America hostage with his delusions. Great.

Here's another word missing entirely from the Times story: propaganda. It's like when they couldn't bring themselves to call Trump's lies lies. C'mon, guys. Plant your feet and tell the truth. Do your job. Don't pretend you don't know what you know.

Posted at 08:16 AM on Monday April 19, 2021 in category Media   |   Permalink  

Sunday April 18, 2021

Bette Davis' First Days in Hollywood

An excerpt from “The Lonely Life: An Autobiography,” by Bette Davis, published in 1962. The book began slowly but I skipped ahead to the NY theater years and it's been interesting ever since. The voice is definitely hers. This is from her first days at Universal Studio lot. 

On Monday I drove to the studio. I was whisked through the gates. Word had spread that the “Davis girl” had arrived and one by one studio executives found reasons for wandering in and out of the reception room to get a glimpse of the “find.” I waited and waited and, at last, Mr. Laemmle opened his door and I was ushered into his office. I was wearing no makeup except lipstick. I had never plucked an eyebrow. I had never even seen the inside of a beauty parlor. My hair was worn simply, with a knot in back. Mr. Laemmle's face was a study. He was immediately convinced that I was not right for Strictly Dishonorable. That was apparent to me. Mr. Laemmle later said, “She has as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville!” ...

After a tour of the lot, I was photographed in the still gallery, introduced to officials and one actress, Genevieve Tobin, and saw a few others I recognized. I was told the studio would call me tomorrow and arrange for some tests. It was rumored on the lot that Bette Davis was “a little brown wren.” I think Mr. Werner [the man who signed her] was sent to Siberia. The rest of the week was spent making what they called photographic tests. They supposedly found out your good angles and your bad angles. All I wanted to do was act!

The following week I was sent for and told I was being tested for a part in a picture. I was not given a script for the test, which I thought odd. I was simply asked to lie on a couch. Vague doubts assailed me as one male after another bent over me whispering, “You gorgeous, divine darling. I adore you. I worship you. I must possess you.” He would then make ardent love to me and end lying on top of me. “O.K. Cut!” I would hear the director say. “Fine. Who's next? Who's next?”

WHO'S NEXT!

The most compulsively dedicated harlot never had a morning like mine. No less than fifteen men—all of them well-known names—repeated the scene. Only Gilbert Roland had the sensitivity to see how shocked I was. Before he started that awful monologue, he whispered, “Don't be upset. This is the picture business. We've all gone through it. Just relax!”

I didn't understand. Was it like going across the equator the first time? Was it an initiation? Relax? My ancestors were revolving in their graves.

And thus began the career of the woman who wound up with more best actress nominations than anyone not named Meryl or Kathrarine. At this point, she and Humphrey Bogart are at Universal, so i'm curious how they wound up with Warners. And can you imagine signing both Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart and losing them? That's worse than Ernie Broglio for Lou Brock. It's the Sox selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees. 

Posted at 07:57 AM on Sunday April 18, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Saturday April 17, 2021

Mariners Fancare: That's a Problem

I'm part of a season ticket group for Seattle Mariners games at Mariners Field (formerly Safeco, currently TMP, should be Griffey Park), and because of You Know What I haven't seen a game there since Sept. 2019 (M's over Reds, 4-3); but last month, the man who runs our group, Stephen, told the group there would be a season-ticket presale for socially distanced games in April. Anyone in? Some were. I considered it but decided not. I'd been vaccinated but I tend not to go for April games anyway. It's a time of high hopes but low temps. This year's beautiful April notwithstanding.

May, I went for it. My favorite games are weekday getaways, and we had one on May 5 against the Orioles. I wanted to see the Angels, too, with their triumverate of great stars: Trout, Ohtani, Pujols. Anthony Rendon would be a star in most cities but seems an afterthought in Anaheim. Last night Stephen came through: an email from Mariners Fancare: “Stephen Just Sent You 2 Mariners Tickets.” Yes!

And here my troubles began.

To get the tix I had to create a Mariners account. OK, sure, there you go. Which is when the website told me: “Your phone is your ticket” and “Add your ticket to your digital wallet.”

I've had iPhones forever but I never use the digital wallet. So I opened the app and tried to figure out what was what. What app did I need anyway? A Mariners app? No, a TicketMaster app. Crap. TicketMaster. OK, whatever. Yes, and here's my Apple ID password to download the app. Nope, that's not it. The password field shook its head at me. Double-checked the password. It was the right password. Did I input it wrong? I did. This time no headshaking.

But not yet: “You need iOS 13 or later to use this app.” Navigated to Settings —> General —> Updates. I was all updated. At 12.5. Went online and learned that iOS 13 is for iPhone 6S-Plus or later. I was on iPhone 6. I couldn't get iOS 13, which meant I couldn't get the TicketMaster app, which meant I couldn't get the Mariners tickets I'd just bought. Fun. Way too much fun for a Friday night.

The original email did come with a Mariners Fancare phone number at the bottom, so I tried that. I pressed what I needed to press for digital tickets, and after much ringing a voice message: If you know your party's extension, etc., otherwise press 0 to return to reception. There, I got an actual person, began talking about digital tickets, and she said, “You want digital tickets,” and transferred me back to the first line again. Repeat. When I got back to her again, I quickly explained the Sisyphean loop I was in, and she said, like Edgar in the famous commercial, “Yes, that's a problem.” Her solution was to get the tickets in person at the M's box office, which I might do. I'll also try the phone line again later today.

All of this has taught me an important lesson about being frugal and using my iPhone as long as I can. That's not the American way, gramps. 

Hope to see you at the ballpark someday.

Posted at 10:49 AM on Saturday April 17, 2021 in category Seattle Mariners   |   Permalink  

Wednesday April 14, 2021

Bette Davis by Bette Davis, the Early Years

From her autobiography, “The Lonely Life, which I was reading last night. Middle of the night, actually. Insomnia. You know.

The first passage is about one of Davis' breakthrough performance in Vergel Geddes' ”The Earth Between“ at the Pronvinctown Playhouse in Greenwich Village in March 1929. After opening night, she and her mother, Ruthie, are reading the reviews, including one by St. John Ervine of the World:

He loathed the whole evening with a passion but interrupted his brilliant invective to remark that our other play was ”remarkably acted especially by Miss Bette Davis.“ Ruthie screamed. I started skipping the texts and looking for my name—unabashedly. After all, that's what mattered. One after the other—the News, the Graphic, the Sun, Telegram, Mirror Journal, Brooklyn Eagle—all of them were excessive in their praise. It had come to pass and Mother was crying. We had saved the Times for last and now Ruthie hysterically quoted Mr. Atkinson. ”Miss Bette Davis who is making her first appearance is an entrancing creature who plays in a soft, unassertive style.“ I fell back on the pillow in relief.

Then this passage, about the curtain calls after she played Hedvig in Ibsen's ”The Wild Duck,“ which starred stage icon Blanche Yurka, a few months later:

Then up went the curtain again, and the whole cast once more joined the star. The audience is certainly extremely responsive this evening. There was a certain persistence in its ardor—an ungratified passion. The audience seemed insatiable. Suddenly Miss Yurka took my hand and led me to the footlights and the curtain fell behind us. This was a tremendous honor and most gracious of her. But then she let go of my hand, smiled that secretive smile of hers and walked off the stage—leaving me alone. The theatre now shook with applause and bravos. People actually stood on their seats and cheered—for me. It was really just for me. Wave after wave of love flooded the stage and washed over me. I felt my face crumble and I started to cry. The weight that was Charlie [her fiance, who had broken off the enagement] was lifted like a miracle. ”Bravo! Bravo!“ I was alone—onstage and everywhere; and that's the way it was obviously meant to be. ”Bravo!“ My first stardust. It is impossible to describe the sweetness of such a moment. You are at once the indulged beloved and the humble lover. Alone! All those marvelous people. My heart almost burst. This was the true beginning of the one, great, durable romance of my life.

I love how she doesn't hold back. Me me me me me me me me. ”After all, that's what mattered.“ ”The one great, durable romance of my life." Refreshing.

Can't wait until she sinks her teeth into Jack Warner. 

Posted at 05:48 PM on Wednesday April 14, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Tuesday April 13, 2021

Oh Right. The Oscars. II.

So the DGAs and the PGAs recently made their choices, and both went with “Nomadland” as the best picture of our shut-in, theaterless, pandemic year. The DGAs has been around since the late '40s, the PGAs since 1989, which means there have been 31 Oscar seasons before this one in which both have given their opinions. Of those, how often have these two guild bodies agreed? A lot: 22 times or 71%. And of those agreements, how often did the Oscar for best picture go to a different movie? Five times: 77%. So I'd still put money on “Nomadland.”

Have to say, the early years when Oscar went a different path doesn't speak well for Oscar. It feels like the Academy was overly influenced by something tawdry: Weinstein PR pushes (“Shakesepare in Love”), homophobia (“Crash”) and whatever the hell happened in '95 to elevate Mel Gibson and “Braveheart.” More recent years have been better. Feels like the Academy is rewarding artistry. That bodes well for “Nomadland,” too.  Although if Oscar had been rewarding diversity, going with “Moonlight” and “Parasite” over “La La Land” and “1917,” then we could get an upset: “Judas and the Black Priest,” for example.

April 25, FWIW.

When the DGAs and PGAs Agree

YEAR DGA PGA OSCAR
2020 Nomadland Nomadland ???
2019 1917 1917 Parasite
2017 The Shape of Water The Shape of Water The Shape of Water
2016 La La Land La La Land Moonlight
2014 Birdman Birdman Birdman
2012 Argo Argo Argo
2011 The Artist The Artist The Artist
2010 The King's Speech The King's Speech The King's Speech
2009 The Hurt Locker The Hurt Locker The Hurt Locker
2008 Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire
2007 No Country for Old Men No Country for Old Men No Country for Old Men
2005 Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain Crash
2003 Lord of the Rings Lord of the Rings Lord of the Rings
2002 Chicago Chicago Chicago
1999 American Beauty American Beauty American Beauty
1998 Saving Private Ryan Saving Private Ryan Shakespeare in Love
1997 Titanic Titanic Titanic
1996 The English Patient The English Patient The English Patient
1995 Apollo 13 Apollo 13 Braveheart
1994 Forrest Gump Forrest Gump Forrest Gump
1993 Schindler's List Schindler's List Schindler's List
1991 Silence of the Lambs The Silence of the Lambs The Silence of the Lambs
1990 Dances with Wolves Dances with Wolves Dances with Wolves
Posted at 06:29 AM on Tuesday April 13, 2021 in category Movies - The Oscars   |   Permalink  

Monday April 12, 2021

Movie Review: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Kong before Kong, when he was just Erik. 

WARNING: SPOILERS

I’m probably the only person in the world who watched this early Universal horror film because of Arlene Francis.

Francis was a frequent game show participant in the 1950s and ’60s, sharp and sardonic, and she played the same as James Cagney’s wife in Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three,” and did it fabulously. So I was curious what other movies she made. Sadly, not many: 19 actress credits, of which only seven are feature films. This was the first. She plays a bit part: “Woman of the Streets.” Yes, Arlene Francis. That’s what led me here.

Cerveau humain
The movie is one hour and one minute long, and it’s not much. Based on an Edgar Allen Poe short story, it’s got Bela Lugosi hamming it up a year after “Dracula,” and Leon Ames as the boyfriend-hero a decade before he played the stuffy father in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

Ames is Pierre Dupin, a medical student and amateur detective, who, while investigating the recent, mysterious deaths of young women, takes his fiancée Camille (Sidney Fox) and their friends to a carnival, where they visit the sideshow of Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi) and his caged ape. During the show, the ape grabs Camille’s bonnet and tries to strangle Pierre. Mirakle tries to make it up by offering to replace the bonnet and creepily asks for Camille’s address. They pass. But he has them followed.

Everything is related of course. In his investigations, Pierre discovers the same foreign substance in the blood of all the victims, and it’s something Mirakle injects into the victims to see if they’d make a good mate for the ape. I think. As for why Mirakle is looking for a human mate for his ape, the movie is silent. He just is. Cuz mad scientist.

A couple things stand out for me. One is personal:





Apparently Erik with a k was big for creepy villains in the 1920s and '30s: that Phantom, this ape. Now it’s big in the Marvel universe for villains whose dastardly schemes make sense: Magneto, Killmonger. I'll take the upgrade.

The police don’t come off well. Mirakle sends Erik to abduct Camille, Pierre hears her screams, bursts in and finds empty room. So the police arrest Pierre. Then we get the second thing that stands out for me: the most digressive bit of ethnic-based comedy I’ve seen in a horror movie. Three witnesses tell the gendarmes they heard screams and someone speaking in a foreign language, but each disagrees on the language: the German says it was Italian, the Italian says it was Danish, the Dane says it was German. The bit goes on for minutes until someone discovers Camille’s mother stuffed up the chimney, dead, with what looks like ape fur clutched in her fist. That, as they say, puts an end to the comedy routine. 

By now Mirakle has discovered Camille will make a perfect mate for Erik. But then he’s surrounded by the cops, Pierre’s pounding on the door, and Erik does the monster-movie thing of killing his maker. That leads us to the third standout moment: Erik the ape grabs Camille and carries her over the rooftops of Paris as he’s pursued by the police. It’s like a mini-version of “King Kong” a year before “King Kong.” In the end, of course, Pierre shoots Erik, Erik falls into the Seine, the lovers are reunited.

Outer limits
“Rue Morgue” was directed by Paris-born Robert Florey, whose career began with a 1920 silent short named “Isidore a la deveine,” continued with the Marx Bros.’ first feature, “The Cocoanuts,” and whose last credit is an episode of “The Outer Limits” from 1964. Think of that span and the technological changes within it. Somehow he navigated it all. 

Sidney Fox’s career was a great deal shorter. She was discovered by Universal in several Broadway comedies, was named a “Wampas Baby Star” of 1931, but never quite caught on. Her marriage to writer Charles Beahan was tabloid fodder, she tried Europe for a bit, but by 1934 her movie career was over. She killed herself with sleeping pills in 1942.

Overall, in these early films, it’s the oddities I like. The ruts of Hollywood storytelling hadn’t been dug deep yet. They were still throwing things on the wall to see what stuck. This didn't. Moments did.  

Posted at 06:39 AM on Monday April 12, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Sunday April 11, 2021

Replacing Tucker Carlson

I keep thinking I've posted this passage from the beginning of chapter three of “Ragtime,” written in 1975 by E.L. Doctorow about turn-of-the-century America. Lord knows it's been relevant in 21st-century America. But each time a new xenophobic idiocy arises and I think to post it, and look at it again, I always go, “Nah. Too subtle for this doltish age.” But fuck it, here we go.

Most of the immigrants came from Italy and Eastern Europe. They were taken in launches to Ellis Island. There, in a curiously ornate human warehouse of red brick and gray stone, they were tagged, given showers and arranged on benches in waiting pens. They were immediately sensitive to the enormous power of immigration officials. These officials changed names they couldn't pronounce and tore people from their families, consigning to a return voyage old folks, people with bad eyes, riffraff and also those who looked insolent. Such power was dazzling. The immigrants were reminded of home. They went into the streets and were somehow absorbed in the tenements. They were despised by New Yorkers. They were filthy and illiterate. They stank of fish and garlic. They had running sores. They had no honor and worked for next to nothing. They stole. They drank. They raped their own daughters. They killed each other casually. Among those who despised them the most were the second-generation Irish, whose fathers had been guilty of the same crimes.

The latest xenophobic idiocy comes from the immigrant-founded Fox News, of course, spoken by Tucker Carlson, of course, this time about how the far-right “white replacement theory” is, to Carlson, a voting rights question. Immigrants come in, Carlson says, and dilute his voting power. Sure. And new babies are born that eventually do the same. Does Tucker want blanket, enforced abortions to protect himself? Does Tucker know he's going to die someday? And be buried and eaten by worms? There's your utlimate replacement theory. I like that the Anti-Defamation League is now calling for his repacement, on Fox News, sooner rather than later. Nice potential irony. But what a sad world that we have to parry all day long with such idiocies.

Anyway, read more Doctorow.

Posted at 07:03 AM on Sunday April 11, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Friday April 09, 2021

'Al Pacino's Jewish?!'

Another excerpt from Mark Harris' bio of Mike Nichols, this time about the casting of the HBO film “Angels in America,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Harris' husband Tony Kushner. The anecdote reflects something I've long been curious about:

[Al] Pacino had agreed to portray Roy Cohn, the play's vicious, droll, and profane embodiment of ruthlessness and self-deception. “I wanted Mike to cast Dustin Hoffman,” says Kushner. “I love Al Pacino, and of course I ended up thrilled with his Roy. My only initial worry was that when he was young, he was gorgeous. He was Michael Corleone—someone born into power. What I wanted for Roy was someone who'd had to struggle all his life for every bit of power he had. The day after Pacino was announced, I was at a party and I felt someone kind of hit me from behind. I turned around and it was Dustin Hoffman, and he said, 'Al Pacino's Jewish?! Fuck you, and fuck Mike, too!'”

I've always been curious if it bugs Jewish actors when Italians in particular are cast as Jewish characters. Apparently it does. Or at least this one Jewish actor. One wonders if Dusty did the same to Martin Scorsese after he cast the Jewish “Casino” gangsters with his usual Italian crew. “Robert De Niro's Jewish?! Fuck you!”

And it raises a couple of interesting points. Whenever people talk about inappropriate racial casting, they bring up almost every overlooked group but Jews, and probably for this reason: Jewish people are generally not absent from positions of power in Hollywood. Which means when most people talk about racial miscasting/appropriation, they're really talking about something else. They're talking about power. Ten white people deciding a white actress should play an Asian character is one thing; two Jews deciding a gentile should play a Jewish character is another. 

Which leads to the second interesting point—a pattern I've noticed in the way Nichols cast roles. “The Graduate” called for a blonde WASP and Nichols cast Dustin Hoffman. “Carnal Knowledge” called for a Jew and he cast Jack Nicholson. “Heartburn” called for a Jew and he cast Mandy Patimkin, then fired him and cast Jack Nicholson again. Then Pacino for Roy Cohn. Nichols' WASP antihero becomes Jewish while his Jewish villains become gentiles. Don't know if there's a there there, but it's intriguing.

Posted at 07:38 AM on Friday April 09, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Thursday April 08, 2021

Movie Review: The Last Gangster (1937)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

Did Al Capone get a story credit on this? Or a cut of the dough? Because the first half of the movie is basically his story.

Joe Krozac (Edward G. Robinson) is a Prohibition-era gangster who is as charming with the press as he is ruthless with his rivals. When the cops can’t tie him to a Saint Valentine’s Day-like massacre of the three Kyle brothers, they bring in the feds to bust him on tax evasion charges. Capone got 11 years for that, Krozac 10. Capone was sent to Atlanta U.S. Penitentiary and then Alcatraz shortly after it opened in 1934; Krozac is sent straight to Alcatraz (anachronistically: it wasn’t open in 1927). In prison, Capone was bullied(!) and wound up being protected by a former associate; Krozac is bullied (by John Carradine, good in a small role), and protected by a former associate. Capone suffered cocaine withdrawal and cognitive difficulties from neurosyphilis; Krozac suffers because his wife, Tayla (Rose Stradner), takes their newborn son and leaves him.

After that, “The Last Gangster” diverges from Capone’s story simply because Capone was still in prison when the movie was made in 1937. Screenwriters had to make up the rest. They had to work for a living.

Jimmy Stewart, ass
This is MGM, by the way, not Warner Bros., and I’m curious if the moralists there wanted to play up the “crime don’t pay” angle; because they make Krozac suffer. Like really, really suffer. After he does time, he’s met by his right-hand man Curly (Lionel Stander), who convinces him to get back in the rackets before going after his wife and kid. Except it’s a trap. At the hideout, the gang wants to know where he stashed the extra loot from back in the day. First they disrespect him, then they beat him, then they torture him. They make him walk back and forth in a small room for 10 hours. They dangle a glass of water before him and then drop it. They take out rubber truncheons. None of this works. So they kidnap his now 10-year-old son, Junior (Douglas Scott), and threaten to torture him. And that’s what finally does it.

Here’s the thing: if they were trying to show that “crime doesn’t pay,” and “Hey, don’t be like this guy,” it kind of backfired. At the least, it makes us sympathize with Krozac. He becomes our guy.

Plus the upstanding citizens are the usual dull assholes. 

The wife is OK. She’s from the same Eastern European city Krozac is, doesn’t speak much English, doesn’t know he’s a gangster until too late. She’s an innocent. But the second lead? Paul North, a reporter, played by MGM’s then-rising star Jimmy Stewart? What an asshole. When Tayla and her baby are hounded by the press outside Alcatraz, North is the worst of them: He places a toy gun on top of the swaddled baby for a tabloid photo-op accompanied by the headline PUBLIC ENEMY JR. And when she goes to the newspaper to complain, his editor continues to condemn her and the child—"sins of the father” stuff—while North gleefully takes down her words. It’s only when she begins to cry that he gets that Jimmy Stewart look of guilt and solicitousness and becomes the Jimmy Stewart we all know and love. Then he quits his job, takes her away, marries her and raises the kid as his own. He becomes an editor himself and grows one of those William Powell moustaches. But for me he never recovers from the original sin of being an asshole.

Krozac’s post-prison plan was to kill his ex and take the boy. But after the kidnapping, on their long trek back in the rain and the cold, the boy demonstrates such scouting skills and toughness, learned from the step-dad, that Krozac decides the kid’s better off with them. So delivers the kid and walks away. His reward? The fourth Kyle brother, Frankie (Alan Baxter), who’s shown up periodically promising revenge, shows up outside the North house, leads him into a back alley, and shoots him dead. And sure, Krozac manages to get the gun and kill Frankie before dying himself, and meanwhile the old Krozac gang get theirs off-stage in a shootout with the cops, so all the crooks are taken care of. But that’s still some cold-blooded shit to play on our guy, MGM.

How sad that a studio makes a movie basically about Al Capone and they come off as the villains.

Mother of mercy
The woman who plays Krozac’s wife, Rose Stradner, is a sad story. Born in Austria, she was signed by MGM to be another of their exotic beauties like Hedy Lamarr, but she wasn’t that beautiful, her career didn’t take off, and then she married Joseph Mankiewicz, younger brother of “Mank,” and writer-director of such great films as “All About Eve.” While he rose, she stayed home, became depressed, drank. In 1958, she killed herself. She was 45.

The best MGM touch is the title credits. This is a ‘ripped from the headlines” story so that’s what the credits are: newspaper headlines. They look good. The movie was directed by Edward Ludwig, whom I only know from John Wayne’s HUAC-friendly “Big Jim McLain.” I’m sure he’s done better. (He has. His highest-rated via IMDb is “Let’s Be Ritzy” from 1934. This one is his fifth-best, supposedly; “Big Jim” is near the bottom.)

Robinson became a star a few months before James Cagney, both with Warner Bros. gangster flicks, but Robinson kept returning to the genre way more than Cagney. Because he didn’t object to it the way Cagney did? He wasn’t hard to handle like Cagney? Robinson did all the iterations. He played the gangster as Greek gambler (“Smart Money”), as Chinese assassin (“Hatchet Man”), as condemned man (“Two Seconds”), as intellectual (“The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse”) and as monk (“Brother Orchid”). He played a dual role: meek accountant and murderer (“The Whole Town’s Talking”). Twice he played a ’20s gangster comically adapting to the post-Prohibition era (“The Little Giant” and “A Slight Case of Murder”). That’s just up to 1940. They call this one “The Last Gangster” but we know that's a lie. As long as gangsters sell tickets, it’ll never be the end of Rico.

Posted at 07:07 AM on Thursday April 08, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday April 07, 2021

Mike Nichols as Director

“'It was glorious,' says [Audra] McDonald. 'He became a dad to all of us, and even though it was such dark material [the HBO adaptation of the play ”Wit“], we had a ball. What was so unique was that you didn't feel the direction. He did it so subtly that it felt like he was just lightly touching a ball that was already rolling down a hill. When it was great, he just said, ”Oh, man.“ And when it wasn't, he would say, ”I'll tell you what . . .“ and then he'd go into a story or he'd have a discussion with you, as if he wanted to figure out the moment with you.'

”'What I remember him saying is “This moment is like this,” says [young actor Jonathan] Woodward. 'Everything was a story or a metaphor or an analogy. If I was pushing too hard, he would say, “Why are you trying to give a prostitute an orgasm?”'“

-- from Mark Harris' ”Mike Nichols: A Life," recommended

Posted at 05:54 PM on Wednesday April 07, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Tuesday April 06, 2021

Movie Review: Underworld (1927)

Brook looking Jean Gabin-ish, Semon in the staircase, Bancroft and Brent. They're about to see that the city is theirs.

WARNING: SPOILERS

First, the firsts.

“Underworld” is one of the first films directed by Josef von Sternberg as well as one of the first great gangster pictures. It’s the first credit for legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht as well as the first film to win an Academy Award for best original story. Both films vying for the award that year—this and “The Last Command”—were directed by Sternberg, who received zero nominations, and got bupkis from the Academy for his career.

All of which gets into the tricky Hollywood problem of credit. In his book, “Who the Devil Made It,” Peter Bogdanovich recounts a university screening of “Underworld” and “The Last Command,” with Sternberg present, and the man wasn’t exactly quiet on the topic: 

During the credits of both movies he called out that several people listed on the screen—especially the writers—had nothing whatever to do with the film; their names were there only because the studio paid them regularly and had to put their names somewhere.

Let’s get into the gangster stuff.

Bank notes
“Underworld” feels like the movie that subsequent gangster movies either riffed off of or ripped off. It’s about a boisterous, childlike gangster, “Bull” Weed (George Bancroft), who, early on, gazes at an advertisement from A.B.C. Investment Co. that feels like a secret message to him: “The City is Yours.” Five years later, Howard Hughes’ “Scarface,” also written by Hecht, features a boisterous, childlike gangster, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), who, early on, gazes at an advertisement from Cook's Tours that feels like a secret message to him: “The World Is Yours.”

Near the end of the film, on death row, Bull commits as grand a sacrifice as any man can make, giving up what’s most important to him to benefit others. Eleven years later, in “Angels with Dirty Faces,” Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney), on death row, commits as grand a sacrifice as any man can make, giving up what’s most important to him to benefit others. (“Angels” also features Bancroft in a smaller role.)

In the real world, “Underworld” prefigured the difficulties gangster flicks would run into with censors. The British Board of Film Censors rejected the movie twice until extensive cuts were made to limit the lead character’s likeability and the film was retitled to something more properly scolding: “Paying the Penalty.” Overall, “Underworld” prefigures all gangster movies by portraying gangsterism as a world unto itself, where the real trouble is less the law than rival gangsters.

It opens with a literal (albeit silent) bang. As a drunk is weaving along in the night, an explosion goes off at a nearby bank and a second later “Bull” Weed emerges with the dough. Since the drunk recognizes him, Weed knocks him out and takes him along. I like the way, back at the hideout, almost in one swift movement, Bancroft is able to toss the man onto a bed while kicking the door closed with his foot. That’s some big-man grace. Even better is this exchange, after Bull realizes the man is an alcoholic and knocks the booze out of his hands:

Bull: That’s what makes bums and squealers!
Man [standing shakily but with dignity]: I may be a bum but I am no squealer. I might say, sir, that I am a Rolls Royce for silence.

So Bull not only gets him a job at the Dreamland Café but a nickname: Rolls Royce. He’s played by Clive Brook, who’s got a bit of a Jean Gabin thing going, particularly when he’s down and out, with a cig clenched in his mouth. 

The oddity of Bull is he has no crew: just a moll, Feathers (Evelyn Brent), and an associate, Slippy Lewis (silent comedian Larry Semon), who’s more comic relief than tough guy. At Dreamland, he spins his hat in the air like a frisbee and it returns to him like a boomerang; then he puts 5¢ into a kind of vending machine that dispenses flower water for his handkerchief. (Did anyone else know these things existed?) Meanwhile, across the café, rival tough guy “Buck” Mulligan, neither stately nor plump, has about five guys hanging on his every word. Unlike Bull, he’s a nasty, cramped man who sees slights everywhere. Feathers doesn’t acknowledge him so he tries to impress her by humiliating Rolls Royce. He tosses a $10 bill into a filthy spittoon and says go fetch. When Rolls retains his dignity, Buck knocks him down. When Bull intervenes, their rivalry begins.

That basically sets up the rest of our movie. As Bull and Buck try to outmaneuver each other, a cleaned-up Rolls and Feathers fall for each other; but neither wants to betray Bull, the man who rescued them both. The centerpiece of the film is an annual gangsters ball, “The underworld’s armistice—when, until dawn, rival gangsters bury the hatchet and park the machine-gun.“ There’s a “moll of the ball” contest, where votes are bought, proudly and in the open, and which Feathers wins. Rolls is initially reluctant to go, feeling too attracted to Feathers, but Bull tells him, with his usual bonhomie, “Everybody with a police record will be there!” But it’s at the ball that he first gets an inkling of their attraction for one another, and he turns angry and jealous; then he gets drunk and passes out, giving Buck, amid the mounds of leftover ticker-tape, the opportunity to attack Feathers in a back room. I assumed it would be up to Rolls to save the day but I assumed wrong. Instead, Buck’s moll rouses Bull, who not only saves Feathers but follows Buck back to his flower shop and guns him down in front of the “Rest in Peace” floral arrangement Buck was saving for Bull. Nice touch.

I also assumed Rolls, who had once been a lawyer, would now come to Bull’s rescue in the courtroom. Wrong again. Instead, not only is Bull found guilty of killing Buck but he’s sentenced to die for it. I’m like “Really? A gangster tried to rape his girl and he killed him in self-defense—and no one could lessen the sentence?” It’s moments like that when you get what the British censors objected to. Justice system doesn't look too justice-y.

Like Cagney in “Angels,” Bull is taking his death sentence with a “Them’s the breaks” shrug until everyone starts talking up what an item Feathers and Rolls have become. They’re not, or at least they take every step forward reluctantly and suffused with guilt. They also try to spring Bull. The plot is convoluted and fails quickly, but Bull assumes it was never put into action, and he becomes so enraged at the betrayal that he breaks free. At his hideout, he confronts Feathers, who denies all; then he fends off the police, who—in another touch the British censors probably didn’t like—turn the apartment building into a shooting gallery. Alerted late, Rolls risks his life to get through the police line to give Bull the keys to a secret passageway that could lead to safety. (Wait, secret passage? In an apartment building? This would only work if they were in the basement, which, based on where the police guns are aimed, they’re not.) Seeing the sacrifice Rolls made for him, Bull makes one for them. He lets them use the secret passageway and then gives himself up. A cop mentions he went through a lot for just another hour. “There was something I had to find out,” Bull responds. “And that hour was worth more to me than my whole life.”

Grace notes
Silent movies can be a slog, and there were moments when this one dragged—the mopiness of the couple, gazing into the middle distance—but mostly I was mesmerized. It’s beautifully framed and photographed, and makes great use of shadows. Sternberg made his name with the early arthouse film “The Salvation Hunters,” and the artistry is there in this commercial project. There’s a great sequence at the hideout after Bull has escaped prison. Alone, he hears someone in the hall outside, and Sternberg shows us the shadow of an official-looking man skulking along. Bull listens at the door, peers through the keyhole, then throws it open to see ... nobody. Just a bottle of fresh milk left by the milkman, along with a small, interested kitten. He brings both inside while he sits in a chair and thinks. Becoming aware of the kitten again, he absent-mindedly sticks his thick finger into the bottle and lets the kitten lick off the milk.

There are so many grace notes like that, nice, unnecessary touches, like Feathers’ feather slowly floating down into the Dreamland Café and to the attention of Rolls Royce. (Sternberg to Bogdanovich: “I even had feathers sewn into her underwear.”) I also love the reminders—like with the milkman—of the disappeared life we used to live. Did we really use so much ticker-tape? I still can’t get over that flower-water vending machine. Was that really a thing? When did it come in and when did it go out?

Like so much that’s innovative and artistic, the suits didn’t know what to make of “Underworld,” and Paramount was initially reluctant to release it, then just put it in one theater in New York, where they assumed it would get no notice and drop from sight. Instead, it became a huge hit, helped make the careers of everyone involved, and helped make the gangster genre.

Posted at 06:43 AM on Tuesday April 06, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Monday April 05, 2021

Movie Review: Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I know it’s stupid to talk about what’s unrealistic in a movie in which a giant ape battles a giant fire-breathing lizard, and then the two team up to battle a giant fire-breathing lizard robot, but here I go.

Early on, Godzilla attacks the Apex Corporation and CNN turns on him, intoning, “The massive titan, once thought to be a hero to humanity, made landfall in Pensacola, Florida...” First, that “made landfall” thing is just dumb. More, it’s the quick narrative turnabout. It’s reminiscent of an idiot moment in the first Godzilla film, when shortly after Godzilla’s war with the MUTOs we see this news chyron: “King of the Monsters: Savoir of Our City?” Right. A giant, fire-breathing lizard shows up out of nowhere and they’re already promoting a good-guy narrative. And now the opposite. If I felt all of this was a critique of the news media and its WWE-esque face/heel tendencies, I might dig it; but I think it’s just lazy filmmaking.

Anyway, that’s not the unrealistic thing I’m talking about.

One person not buying into CNN’s demonization of Godzilla is paranoid podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry of “Atlanta”), who has a low-level job within Apex in order to expose it. His most avid listener is Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), the kid hero from the second film, who argues thus with her uptight dad (Kyle Chandler): 

Dad: Right now Godzilla’s out there and he’s hurting people, and we don’t know why. …
Kid: Godzilla attacks when provoked—that’s the pattern. Pensacola is the only coastal Apex hub with an advanced robotics lab—that’s the variable. And you add it up and your answer is that Apex is at the heart of the problem.

Dad spent that second movie 1) seething and 2) getting everything wrong, and it’s pretty much the same here. On the plus side, he’s barely in this one. But no, this isn’t the unrealistic thing I’m talking about, either.

Eventually, Madison and her comic-relief, Kiwi friend Josh (Julian Dennison of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) hook up with Bernie and together they all decide to break into Apex. How do they do it?

They just walk in.

That’s the unrealistic thing I’m talking about.

Apex is in ruins, but nothing’s been cordoned off—not by the cops, the FBI, the NSA, the EPA or Apex’s own security patrol. The kids just wander through the rubble. Then they take an elevator to Sublevel 33 where Bernie knows some top-secret shit is going on. And it is! They’re in a room with incubated skull crawlers … except it’s not a room, it’s a ship, and they’re locked in (by accident) and then transported (by tunnel?) to Hong Kong. There, they wander out into a vast warehouse-like area where the evil CEO, Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir), bourbon in hand, watches the beta-testing of his MechaGodzilla from the control room. The kids are actually in the test area when a skull crawler is released and comes within feet of killing them before Mecha pulls it away and tears it in half. And though one assumes tons of eyes and/or censors are on this beta test, not one person says, “Hey, are those kids supposed to be down there?” The idiocy is overwhelming. It’s like the kids are invisible. They’re even able to wander away from the test area, where, in another room, they discover the evil CEO’s evil right-hand man, Ren (Shun Oguri), sitting inside one of the skulls of Monster Zero and controlling MechaGodzilla via whatever AI tech they’re using. They immediately and correctly surmise that Monster Zero’s DNA was used to create MechaGodzilla as a means of battling real Godzilla. And it’s only after all this, after Madison pops her head into, I believe, the CEO’s control room, and Bernie follows, that a female exec finally sees them and goes, “Huh, meddling kids. Guess we better call the guards.”

I'll take a giant lizard. But this bullshit? Just stop.

You know what the worst part is? We don’t need these kids in the movie at all. They’re absolutely irrelevant to moving the plot forward.

Hollow Earth
Wait, who do we need in this movie? 

Our male lead is Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), a professor whose discredited book, “Hollow Earth,” argues that the center of the earth isn’t “a moon-size ball of iron floating within an ocean of molten metal,” per National Geographic, but a Jurassic Park-like wonderland crackling with energy. It’s where the titans come from. It’s where Kong’s Skull Island comes from. That’s his theory. And the only one who believes him is the evil CEO, who wants that crackling energy source to power MechaGodzilla. So he contracts Prof. Lind to find an entryway to that world.

At first glance, then, Lind seems necessary. Except the Antarctic entryway has already been excavated. And once both men latch onto the idea of a titan guide—i.e., Kong— to get them the rest of the way, well, what use is Lind? None. At the 11th hour, sure, he’s the one who suggests using those dual-gravitational whizzy things (HEAVs) to jumpstart Kong’s heart but that could’ve been anybody. Our male lead isn’t necessary at all.

Our female lead is even worse. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) runs the Kong Containment facility on Skull Island, and she’s called the “Kong Whisperer” in science magazine cover features, so she seems necessary. Nope. She doesn’t even know that the deaf girl in her charge, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), the last of the Iwi tribe that once populated Skull Island, has taught Kong sign language. That’s right, Kong can speak! This revelation, as Kong is taken in chains on an aircraft carrier to the Antarctic entryway, is a good scene—one of the few in the movie—but it does point out how useless Ilene is. It’s all Jia.

So Jia we need. And the villains who set everything in motion. And our titans. And that’s about it. But the movie keeps piling on useless characters. We get one scene of expository dialogue between Ilene and a guy, Ben (Chris Chalk of HBO’s “Perry Mason”), and that’s it for Ben. Lance Riddick from “The Wire” has a scene. Forget what. Hakeem Kae-Kazim, ditto. All these nothing roles feature Black actors. Make of it what you will. 

Anyway, that’s the gist. Apex Corp. is creating a mechanized Godzilla to attack the real Godzilla so humans can become the apex species again. That’s why Godzilla attacks Pensacola. And Godzilla and Kong have an old, ancient rivalry, which is why Kong is being contained—so GZ doesn’t sense he’s there. But when he’s moved, GZ attacks. God, that’s another dumb idea, isn’t it? They need Kong as guide, but let’s make sure this battle happens where Kong will be at a distinct disadvantage: in the middle of the ocean.

Accompanying Lind, Ilene and Jia on their journey to the center of the earth is the evil CEO’s bitchy, superhot daughter, Maya (Eiza Gonzalez, call me), who comes off like a Mexican Ivanka Trump. Her job is to make sure they get that crackling energy source for Mecha. Love Dad sending daughter on this super-dangerous mission. Did she insist? Is it the bourbon? Is he sick of her, too? After the giant bats attack in the cave, she’s about to escape in the HEAV when Kong grabs it, sniffs it, crushes it. Bye, Mexican Ivanka. 

Daddy gets it, too. The Hollow Earth energy source not only powers MechaGodzilla but gives it sentience. So evil right-hand man’s brain gets fried within the skull, while evil CEO is fried by Mecha’s fire breath. Hope Apex Corp. has a good succession plan.

The final big battle takes place in Hong Kong—for the Chinese box office. Godzilla defeats Kong, is losing to Mecha, Kong is revived and the two team up to defeat the AI gone awry. Then they roar at each other and each retreats to its domain: Godzilla beneath the sea, Kong on his throne in Hollow Earth.

Hollow is right.

Regular idiocy
I’ll give it this: “Godzilla vs. Kong” is better than the two previous Godzilla movies as well as that other hugely anticipated fantasy matchup: “Batman v. Superman.” OK, low bar: “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” was my worst movie of 2019 and “BvS” was my worst movie of 2016. This one, at least, has moments. And while they continue to make Godzilla a tubby waddler, whose face is hard to see amid the scales, the CGI Kong is pretty amazing.

The studio publicity machine is playing up the Team Godzilla/Team Kong angle, and most people are playing along. Here’s my take. Fair fight, Godzilla kicks ass: tougher skin, fire breath. Plus Godzilla can sense almost anything happening anywhere in the world (Pensacola, Hong Kong), while Kong, that dumb ape, can stand right at the portal to the prehistoric Hollow Earth where he once ruled and have no inkling. He’s got to be told. But I root for Kong. He’s both underdog and us. He’s got a face. In a cinematic sense, the only thing better about Godzilla is his theme music.

One more complaint before I’m out of here. It’s when the three kids—or the two kids and Bernie—first meet. They’re sitting in a cafeteria and have this conversation:

Bernie: Before we go any farther, I got one question: Tap or no tap?
Madison: No tap.
Josh: Excuse me, what is tap?
Bernie: Water. They put fluoride in it. Learned it from the Nazis.
Madison: Theory is it makes you docile, easy to manipulate.
Josh: Oh. I drink tap water.
Bernie: Yeah, I kinda figured that.

In a world in which dipshit conspiracy theories are coming close to overthrowing American democracy, why engage in this kind of idiocy, Hollywood? C’mon. Just stick to your regular idiocy. That’s what you’re good at.

Posted at 07:58 AM on Monday April 05, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 2021   |   Permalink  

Saturday April 03, 2021

Republicans Take Firm Stand Against Baseball, Coca-Cola and Voting Rights

I like this tweet I saw the other day:

Basics:

  • On March 25, the GOP-led Georgia legislature passed, and GOP Gov. Brian Kemp signed, a law limiting voting in the state.
  • The New York Times calls the legislation “a breathtaking assertion of partisan power in elections, making absentee voting harder and creating restrictions and complications.” You have less time to request an absentee ballot, stricter ID laws, fewer drop boxes, no voting centers, vote-counting changes that slow the process, and, infamously, a misdemeanor to give water to someone waiting in line to vote. Oh, and if questions arise, the GOP-led legislature has more power to decide matters.
  • When Georgia-based Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola criticized the new law, Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere criticized them.
  • Yesterday, Major League Baseball pulled its lucrative All-Star Game out of Georgia in response to the partisan law.

One wonders how isolated the GOP has to become before it gives up on the craziness and rejoins the American community. I mean, they're now attacking baseball and Coca-Cola. Is apple pie next?

I assume it continues. As long as Republicans have Fox and right-wing talk radio to air their lies, it continues. It's Fox, after all, that's driving the GOP talking points, not the other way around, as Paul Waldman wrote yesterday.

Posted at 09:13 AM on Saturday April 03, 2021 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Friday April 02, 2021

Three Things I'd Change About Baseball

The great joy of Miggy vs. the sour idiocy of Manfred. 

The 2021 baseball season started yesterday, and from Miggy's homerun in the snow to the Mariners' eighth-inning comeback against the Giants (which our closer gave back on four pitches in the ninth), there was much joy in Mudville, particularly after last year's pandemic-shortened, fan-free season. But a few things could still use fixing. I'll start with the easy one first. 

3. Opening Day should never be April 1. C'mon. April Fools Day? You look like clowns.

2. Help a brother see his local team. Being cable-less forever, I bought the MLB.TV package yesterday and watched some of Blue Jays vs. Yankees, Minnesota at Milwaukee, Atlanta-Philly, Arizona-San Diego, etc., etc., and onto the west-coast games of ChiSox-Angels and Astros-A's. After the 'Stros put away Oakland 8-1, there was still one game going but I didn't watch it. I couldn't watch it. It was my team, the Mariners, playing the Giants at the park two miles from my home. But of course your local team is blacked out in your MLB package so you don't get to see them. I guess I'll have to investigate Xfinity-free ways to watch the M's. Or maybe I'll just root for the Angels. Either way, MLB needs to work on this.

1. Kill the “ghost-runner on second in extra innings” rule right now, bury it deep and salt the earth around it. I've been watching baseball since about 1969, more than 50 years now, and I can't think of a more idiotic, infantilizing rule change. The DH is genius in comparison. The ghost-runner rule takes a problem that isn't a problem—extra innings—and tries to speed up the result, because ... because that's all baseball commissioner and nonfan Rob Manfred can think of doing with the game. He wants to make sure baseball appeals to non-baseball fans. As for baseball fans? Apparently he doesn't give a shit. Does any other professional sport do this? “Hey, they keep tying, how do we end this fast?” In football, basketball, hockey, you keep playing overtimes like men until someone wins. Yes, there's soccer, and the idiocy of penalty kicks, but one shouldn't follow soccer's idiotic example here. And remember, soccer is long, low-scoring and the most popular sport in the world. Long and low-scoring doesn't have to mean unpopular, Rob. Stop trying to fix the thing you think is the problem that isn't the problem. Imagine if in the Borg vs. McEnroe tie-breaker that just kept going and going and going, the USTA decided, “Oh, we can't have that, this hugely popular thing that's got everyone talking about and watching our sport. Now: How would we solve this if it was first-graders involved?” Yesterday, four games were decided with the ghost-runner rule and to me they already have asterisks. And it mostly went my way! The Yankees lost because of the ghost-runner, the Mariners won. But I stopped watching the Yankees game when it went into extras and I refused to pay attention to how the M's game—which I couldn't watch because 2)—turned out. The great joy of the day turned sour. I was stunned when I realized this was still a thing; that this temporary, pandemic-season innovation was going to be permanent. I felt like Don Corleone gazing at the corpse of Santino. Look what they're doing to my boy.

Worse, they're not done.

OK, make that four things I'd change about baseball: #FireRobManfred.

Posted at 09:38 AM on Friday April 02, 2021 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Thursday April 01, 2021

Opening Day 2021: Your Active Leaders


  • SLIDESHOW: Didn't we just do this like six months ago? To be honest, I didn't think they'd be able to pull off the 2020 season, but nice work, everyone. Having October baseball gave some sense of normalcy, and was very, very appreciated. That said, as a result of the truncated season, I expect little movement on our Active Leaders chart. But let's take a spin anyway. Early warning: You're going to see a lot of Angels. 

  • BATTING AVERAGE: A year ago, Miggy was ahead of Jose Altuve by the barest of margins, .3146 to .3145, then hit just .250. But he's still on top? Right. Because Altuve hit just .219. Currently, only nine active players have BAs over .300 and most of them, like Miggy and Jose, seem to be heading south. Three years ago, Joey Votto was hitting .313; now it's .304. Two years ago, Buster Posey was at .308; now .302. One of the guys on the rise is DJ LeMahieu, which is odd in itself. When he left the hitters' paradise of Coors, he was at .298; after two years in the Bronx, he's suddenly at .305. BTW: Miggy's .313 is the lowest by an active leader since ... ever.

  • ON-BASE PERCENTAGE: Joey Votto's .419 is 18th all-time but he's been dropping fast the past few years, while No. 2 Mike Trout (.417) has been rising—though even he, last season, had an OBP below .400 for only the third time in his career. Expect these two to change positions soon. Third place isn't close: Paul Goldschmidt at .392. Active players with career OBPs above .360? Just 20. It's a small club. 

  • SLUGGING PERCENTAGE: Here's a smaller club: Only 16 active players have career slugging percentages above .500, but only one of those, Mike Trout, is above .550—and he's way up there at .582. He'll get some competition, one imagines, when players like Aaron Judge (.558) and Juan Soto (.557) get their qualifying 3,000 plate appearances. Until then, it's his and no one's close.

  • OPS: Same deal. Seven active players have an OPS above .900, and only Trout is above .940—and he's at .9996! That's eighth all-time, behind only the gods: Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Bonds, Foxx, Greenberg and Hornsby. (OK, the gods and a couple of assholes.) Among actives, the distant second-place finisher is Joey Votto at .936. 

  • GAMES: Only eight players in baseball history have ever played 3,000 career games (Rose, Yaz, Hank, Rickey, Ty, Stan, Eddie M., Cal), but Uncle Albert needs just 138 to join them. Could he do it if this is his final year? Maybe. He played in 131 games in 2019, the last full MLB season. The active runner-up is Miggy at 2,457.

  • HITS: Four active players have more than 2,000: Albert (3,236), Miggy (2,866), Cano (2,624) and just barely making the cut, Yadier Molina, with the Stanley Kubrick-ready 2,001. (Apologies to Arthur C. Clarke.) Can't imagine Miggy won't make the magic 3k threshold but here's an indication of how hard it is to get there: Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball for 10 years ... and he's at 1,380.

  • DOUBLES: Last July I wrote: “Pujols is seventh all-time with 661, and just 8 more would put him past Brett and Biggio into fifth place.” So guess how many doubles he hit in 2020? Yep: 8. He's now fifth all-time, with no real chance at fourth (Ty Cobb: 724). But applause, please. How many players in baseball history are top 5 all-time in doubles and homeruns? Doublechecking ... doublechecking ... Yep, just Albert.

  • TRIPLES: The second-saddest thing about the active leaders in triples is that there's rarely any movement. By the time you become an active leader, you're old enough that you tend not to hit many more triples. Actives leader Dexter Fowler, with 82. hit zero last year, one in 2019, zero in 2018. No. 2 Brett Gardner (69) hit one last year, no. 3 Dee Gordon (54) hit zero. Among the four-car pileup at No. 4 (Andrus, Blackmon, McCutchen, Trout, all with 48), Trout had the most: 2. So what's the saddest thing about the active leaders in triples? Fowler's 82 is the lowest for an active leader since 1883, when a dude named Tom York had 80. The most exciting play in baseball is getting rarer all the time. 

  • HOMERUNS: We should get the 28th member of the 500 HR Club this season. Miggy is sitting on 487 and hit 10 last year in a third of a season, so a full season, God willing, will put him over. He'll be the first since David Ortiz in 2015. After him, though, it's cloudy. Edwin Encarnacion has 424 but as of this writing no one's signed him. Nelson Cruz has 417, still hits a ton, but he's going to be 41 in July. Does he have 83 more in him? I could definitely see Giancarlo (312, age 30) and Trout (302, age 28) making a run later this decade. BTW: Albert passed Willie Mays last year. He's at 662.  

  • RBIs: Along with passing Willie Mays' 660 last season, Albert drove in another 25 to pass Cap Anson (2,075) and A-Rod (2,086) for the third-most RBIs in baseball history (2,100). He needs another 115 to pass Babe for second place and 83 beyond that to pass Hammerin' Hank (RIP) for No. 1. There are only three active players who have half the RBIs he has: Miggy (1729), Cano (1302) and Nellie Cruz (1152). What did MC Hammer sing? Can't touch this. 

  • RUNS: Albert's less godlike on runs scored with 1,843 or 16th all-time. Two more and he passes Biggio; 15 beyond that, Mel Ott; 23 beyond that, Tris Speaker. Among actives, it's the usual suspects—Miggy (1,457), Cano (1,257) Votto (1,041)—and then we get an unusual one. Any guesses as to the active player with the fifth-most runs scored? Wouldja believe him?

  • BASES ON BALLS: Albert's way less godlike here. He's got six years on Joey Votto and only a 114 walk lead: 1331 to 1217. When Albert goes, it'll be Joey's. I used to think Albert had a greating batting eye, because his OBP was so high, but I think pitchers were just scared of him. Now they‘re not. In St. Louis he averaged 89 walks per season; with the Angels, 40. His IBBs in St. Louis: 23 per season. With the Angels: 7. That said, career, he's still walked more than he's struck out: 1331 to 1304. That's rare. 

  • STRIKEOUTS: Chris Davis has 1,852 career Ks, 15th all-time, but Justin Upton is right on his tail (1,841) and he's getting more plate appearances: 200+ more over the last three seasons. There was a time when the active leader in K’s was a sure HOFer: Mantle, Killebrew, Stargell, Jackson, Schmidt. Now it's just as likely to be a Chris Davis or Justin Upton.

  • STOLEN BASES: I miss stolen bases. I also miss Dee Gordon. As I write this, he's not technically “active” since the Reds cut him the other day, but I assume he'll be picked up by someone. If it's not Dee and his 333 steals, then it's Billy Hamilton and Elvis Andrus with 305, followed by Brett Gardner with 270. Roman Quinn is supposedly the fastest man in baseball but he doesn't steal much—even though he hasn't been caught stealing since 2018. KC's Adalberto Mondesi led the Majors last year, and by a lot, with 24, which would be about 65 over a full season. Last player to steal 70 in a season? Jacoby Ellsbury, 2009. 

  • GROUNDED INTO DOUBLE PLAYS: Albert's next GDP will be his 400th career, which is the all-time record by far. Cal Ripken is second with 350. Will Miggy pass Cal, too? He's currently sixth all-time with 321. Cano is currently 16th all-time with 284. It's one of the few stats where active players thrive. 

  • DEFENSIVE WAR: Officially, Andrelton Simmons had a 0.0 dWAR last season but his career number still went down: from 26.7 to 26.6. His dWAR over the last three seasons (5.1), as he's struggled with ankle injuries, is basically what he did in 2017 (5.0), but for perspective Baseball Reference ranks his 2017 as the third-greatest defensive season in baseball history—after Terry Turner in 1906 and Art Fletcher in 1917. Second to Andrelton on the actives list is Yadier with 25.4. They‘re also the only actives > 20. Then it goes Kevin Kiermaier (16.0), Lorenzo Cain (15.5) and Brandon Crawford (14.9).

  • WAR FOR POSITION PLAYERS: Which of these guys is going into the Hall? No. 1 Albert (100.8) is a no-brainer, as is No. 2 Mike Trout (74.5). Yes to No. 3 Miggy (69.6), no to Robinson Cano, sadly (69.1) for his PED problems, and I assume yes to Joey Votto (62.0), but not on the first ballot. Evan Longoria (56.7) could get over 60.0 but way doubtful he'll get in the Hall: never top 5 in MVP voting, never led the league in any hitting category. I was surprised at the next one: After only seven seasons, Mookie Betts (45.4) has the seventh-most bWAR for an active position player. He's on his way. Also surprised at No. 10: Brett Gardner (43.0). What a grinder. 

  • WINS: Last July I wondered if Justin Verlander, at 225 career wins, could make 250, writing: “He led the Majors last year with 21, and another year like that and he's a cinch. But he's 37 and the cliff can come fast.” Not sure if this is the cliff or cliff, but he started one game, won it, then was gone. Elbow injury. Then Tommy John surgery. We won't see him again until 2022. Second among actives is Zack Greinke (208), then Jon Lester (193). This is how hard it is to win 250 nowadays: After 13 years of sustained excellence, both Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw are still 75 away (175). They'd need another six years at the same level to do it. 

  • ERA: Clayton Kershaw's 2.43 is tied for 35th all-time, and the only post-WWII pitcher ahead of him is a non-starter: Mariano Rivera (2.21). Jacob deGrom's 2.61 is 57th all-time and the only post-WWII pitchers ahead of him are Mo, Kershaw and Hoyt Wilhelm. That's the rarefied air they're in. The rest of the top 5 actives are: Chris Sale (3.03), Kyle Hendricks (3.12) and Corey Kluber (3.16). 

  • STRIKEOUTS: Verlander has 3,013 Ks against only 851 walks. Back in the day, the only pitcher with > 3,000 Ks and < 1,000 BBs was Fergie Jenkins. In the last two decades, he's been joined by Maddux, Shilling, and Pedro. Could JV make it an even five? Then it goes Scherzer (2,784), Greinke (2,689), and Kershaw (2,526). Their BBs for the interested: 641, 676 and 585, so they could all join, too. Then look at deGrom: 1,359 Ks/284 walks. That's not 3:1; that's nearly 5:1.

  • BASES ON BALLS: JV's 851, followed by Jon Lester's 837, followed by Francisco Liriano's 816. The last time the active leader had fewer than 851 BBs? When Walter Johnson had 845 in 1920.

  • INNINGS PITCHED: At the start of last season, Verlander needed just 18 IP to become the 137th pitcher to reach 3,000. He got six of them before the elbow. Zack Greinke is only 49 behind him at 2,939, which means Greinke seems likely to be the 137th. King Felix has 2,729 IPs but he just opted out of his O's contract and seems done. 

  • COMPLETE GAMES: Every year of the 20th century some pitcher threw double-digit CGs. Every year. Then the calendar flipped and the CGs just disappeared. It's like in John Updike's “Rabbit Is Rich” when the ‘70s turn into the ’80s and disco just goes POOF. In the 21st century, only two pitchers have thrown double-digit CGs: C.C. in 2008 (10) and James Shields in 2011 (11). Now it's barely a stat. Verlander is the active leader with 26, then Kershaw at 25. If you counted the top 100 active leaders they would have 478 CGs total, which is 271 behind Cy Young.  

  • SHUTOUTS: As recently as the ‘90s the active leader (Nolan Ryan) had 60+. As recently as the 2000s the active leader (Roger Clemens) had 40+. Now it’s Clayton Kershaw's 15, and he hasn't thrown one since 2016. Then it's Ervin Santana (11) and Adam Wainwright (10). Last season, 12 shutouts were thrown—two by Trevor Bauer. That's actually better than in 2018 when the league leader was a bunch of guys tied with one. 

  • SAVES: Craig Kimbrel is on top here (348), but he's gone from lights out to out of the closer role. Last season he didn't give up a run in his final eight appearances and he still wound up with a 5.28 ERA, so you can imagine what he had to claw back from. Kenley Jansen is second (312), while No. 3 Aroldis Chapman (276) seems in a similar position to Kimbrel: He lost the closer spot, too. But who knows, right? The Mets' Edwin Diaz lost the closer role in 2019 but got it back again last year, saved 6 and posted a 1.75 ERA. His 141 saves are eighth-best among actives. He just turned 27. 

  • WAR FOR PITCHERS: Which of these guys is going into the Hall? Yes to Verlander (72.3), maybe to Zack Greinke (67.1), hell yeah to Clayton Kershaw (67.0), while No. 4, Max Scherzer (60.4), is an interesting case. His bWAR says not yet but everything else is another hell yeah: black ink 51 (avg HOFer: 40), gray ink 181 (avg. HOFer 185), HOF Monitor of 154 against a likely HOFer of just 100. Dude started out slow and then BAM. No. 5, Felix Hernandez (50.4) will have to settle for the Mariners HOF. Long live the King. 

  • EXIT MUSIC (FOR A SLIDESHOW): And exit music for Albert? If so, next year's list will be a whole helluva lot different. Be safe, everybody. *FIN*
Posted at 07:34 AM on Thursday April 01, 2021 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard

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