erik lundegaard

Saturday June 28, 2008

Rome/Me

From Robert Graves' I, Claudius, page 467. As a writer, I laughed out loud at Claudius' thoughts when he suddenly became Emperor of Rome:

“So, I'm Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I'll be able to make people read my books now. Public recitals to large audiences. And good books too, thirty-five years' hard work in them. It won't be unfair... My History of Carthage is full of amusing anecdotes. I'm sure they'll enjoy it.”

My current interest in ancient Rome, about which I know nothing, began with a Sunday afternoon at the Seattle Art Museum's exhibition “Roman Art from the Louvre,” after which, in the museum gift shop, I picked up Graves' book, read the first sentence and bought it. From there we began watching the '70s BBC miniseries, “I, Claudius,” starring Derek Jacobi (nine episodes in now), and from there we watched Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar (1953), which was much better than I thought it would be. The three leads are great. Brando stuns. He certainly stunned Patricia, who forgot how good-looking and sexy he was as a young man. I was surprised, not having read the play, and particularly after watching HBO's “Rome,” that Brutus turned out to be the least calculating and most honorable of all the characters in the play. Shakespeare himself makes the argument:

All the conspirators, save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought,
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the word, This was a man!

I knew the speech but didn't know it was for Brutus.

A curious thing about I, Claudius: Claudius is one of those Romans who wishes to restore the Republic, and the actions of the Emperors, particularly Tiberius and Caligula, certainly strengthen his argument. But the Senate is so weak, bends so willingly to those in power, that one wonders what good a restored Republic would be. 

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Posted at 08:45 AM on Jun 28, 2008 in category General
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Friday June 27, 2008

Dancing with the universe

UPDATE: My friend Jim Walsh, who's also together and uninhibited, has written about the “Where the hell is Matt? 2008” video, and the people behind it, for MinnPost. It's great. Read it here.

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Posted at 10:18 AM on Jun 27, 2008 in category General
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Thursday June 26, 2008

The best movie of 2008

This thing is so beautiful it made me cry. It made me want to travel and dance. Check it out.

The first time I watched it, smiling at the goofy dance but more at the joyful way Matt does it, I thought about my own world travels, particularly when I was younger. But as the locales in the video piled up (Australia, Zanzibar, the Netherlands, Mexico), I wondered, first, “Wow, where’d he get the money for all this travel?” and, second, “So did he always just dance alone? Did no one join him? Didn’t he want anyone to join him?” Almost on cue, there’s that mad rush of people into the camera, culminating, as the music soars, with that ecstatic pile-up in Madrid. Tears began to well in my eyes at this point. Traveling isn’t just about seeing new places, it’s about making connections. At a time when most of us haven't been, here's someone who has. Life can be this way: big and together and uninhibited. If it's wish fulfillment, it still beats any wish-fulfillment fantasy coming out of Hollywood. But I don't think it is wish fulfillment. He made it happen, so can you. So can I. 

The music is gorgeous, too.

Favorite moments: The shift in colors from the deserts of Australia to the red tulip fields of Lisse, the Netherlands; the barking dog in Kuwait City; dancing in front of all of those guys in Turkey; the kids in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines and Mali; the DMZ; the girl in the red skirt in Warsaw; how absolutely HAPPY Matt looks in Papua, New Guinea; the wave in Tonga (of course); and Nellis Airspace, Nevada. But my absolute favorite moment is in Gurgoan, India. That's so wonderful. So much fun.

What about you? Favorite moments?

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Posted at 05:01 PM on Jun 26, 2008 in category Music
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Tuesday June 24, 2008

The NY Times box office report card: C minus

That article again? Yeah, that article again.

On May 15th, The New York Times published an article about a movie industry worried over how summer would go without the usual glut of sequels. The article bothered me in so many ways I had trouble articulating a response, but back then I wrote, “How is this news? It’s prognostication. It’s a kind of vague economic hand-wringing over something that hasn’t occurred.”

Now that some of it has occurred, how are their worries looking? Like they should’ve been worried about something else:
  1. As hot as “Iron Man” is, with domestic ticket sales of about $180 million in its first week and a half, it still trails last year’s summer season kick-off movie, “Spider Man 3,” by about 25 percent in the same time. One of the many facile comparisons in the piece. They’re comparing a hit movie with a movie that shattered the weekend box office record. If they’d dug deeper they would’ve realized that Spider-Man 3, which wasn’t a very good movie, dropped off precipitously in its subsequent weeks, while Iron Man, which is a good summer movie (93% on Rotten Tomatoes), has legs. In a head-to-head match-up, Shell-Head beats Web-Head every week but the first two and now trails by only 8 1/2 percent: $304M to $332M (out of a final $336M). In the end, the race between the two — if it is a race between the two — will be closer than anyone thought.
  2. But even with the help of ticket price inflation “Indiana Jones” is the only one that appears a relatively safe gamble to hit the $300 million mark. Iron Man just passed it. 
  3. “Sex and the City”... could become a hit on the order, of, say, “The Devil Wears Prada,” which took in $125 million when it was released in June of 2006. But that would still fall short of “Knocked Up”... Knocked Up made $149 million. After four weeks, Sex is already at $132 million. It should pass it within the next month.
  4. “Kung Fu Panda,” from DreamWorks Animation, could do as well as “Madagascar,” the company’s best-performing movie to date outside the “Shrek” series, with $193 million in ticket sales, and barely edge out last summer’s “The Simpsons Movie,” which took in $183 million. After three weeks (or weekends), Kung Fu Panda is at $155 million. Madagascar didn’t reach that point until its fifth weekend.
I don’t mean to suggest I could’ve predicted any of this (I couldn’t). My point has always been that it’s not the business of The New York Times to engage in this kind of facile prognostication. Coulda woulda shoulda. Tell me news. That means: Stuff that’s happened.

OR if you’re going to write about box office, dig deeper. Because ultimately, last summer, record-setting or not, was a disappointment at the box office. Every one of those blockbusters sequels — Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and Pirates 3 — underperformed, and they underperformed because they weren’t that good. They made less money than their immediate predecessors, and the winner of the three, Spider-Man 3, the no. 1 movie of the year, is, when you adjust for inflation, only 92nd all time. That may seem a cheap comparison — it may even seem like an accomplishment — but every year this decade, save 2000, has a film above it on the list. These films include both Spider-Man movies, both Pirates movies, two Star Wars movies, all three Lord of the Rings movies, Shrek 2, Finding Nemo and The Passion of the Christ.

This summer, instead of a sure thing like Spider-Man, Hollywood has had to rely on original movies, pretty well-made, that got good word-of-mouth. And people have come out. Imagine that.
No tagsPosted at 08:46 AM on Jun 24, 2008 in category Movies
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Monday June 23, 2008

Fall of the American Empire Quote of the Day - II

"The informers about this time began to accuse wealthy men of charging more than the legal interest on loans—one and a half per cent was all that they were allowed to charge. The statute about it had long fallen in abeyance and hardly a single senator was innocent of infringing it. But Tiberius upheld its validity. A deputation went to him and pleaded that everyone should be allowed a year and a half to adjust his private finances to conform with the letter of the law, and Tiberius as a great favour granted the request. The result was that all debts were at once called in, and this caused a great shortage of current coin. Tiberius' great idle hoards of gold and silver in the Treasury had been responsible for forcing up the rate of interest in the first place, and now there was a financial panic and land-values fell to nothing."

— Robert Graves' I, Claudius, page 368-69

No tagsPosted at 02:23 PM on Jun 23, 2008 in category Quote of the Day
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Saturday June 21, 2008

Movie Review: The Batman (1943)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The chief problem with this 15-episode serial, the second live-action version of a modern superhero, isn’t the low-budget effects (Columbia serials were notoriously cheap), nor its racism (the chief villain is a Japanese spy during WWII), but the form itself, the serial form, which requires cliffhanger endings for its heroes. Since the lives of Batman and Robin (Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft) hang by a thread at the end of every episode, and since the serial wasn’t budgeted for a lot of extras, “America’s greatest crimefighter,” as Batman is called in the narrative intro, isn’t that great a crime fighter. Among the cliffhangers:

  • Two crooks throw Batman, arms and legs thrashing, off a roof.
  • Three crooks toss Batman. arms and legs thrashing, down an elevator shaft.
  • A crook throws a stick at Batman’s head, knocking him unconscious.
  • A gangplank is dropped on him.
  • He drives a car off a bridge.
  • He gets trapped by a fire he sets.

We keep seeing Batman getting outpunched by one or two criminals. I’m talking ordinary guys in suits and fedoras. What’s the point of putting on cape and cowl if you can’t take one guy?

Everything but the kitchen sink
Batman (1943)The serial begins well enough. The credits play over the famous bat logo (human head on bat body), while the ominous theme music (Wagner’s Rienzi Overture?) prefigures Danny Elfman’s from the 1989 version. Even the first shot of the Bat’s Cave, as it’s called here (it was, in fact, introduced here), is cool. Batman sits brooding behind a desk of finely engraved oak while shadows of bats play against the wall.

Then the cheapness. Once the background narration ends, and the story proper begins, we see a plain black Cadillac pull up to a police phone, and out pop...Batman and Robin! So no Batmobile. Batman phones Capt. Arnold (no Comm. Gordon) and tells him, in a vaguely British tone, “I have a nice little package for you. You’ll find it at the corner of First and Maple.” He leaves the crooks handcuffed to a light pole with bat stickers on their foreheads — his version of Zorro’s “Z” — and then he and Robin drive off, Robin behind the wheel, and the two take off their masks and smile.

The plot? Dr. Tito Daka, a Japanese spy whose headquarters lie through a secret panel in the Japanese Cave of Horrors in deserted Little Tokyo, wants to secure enough radium for an “atom-smasher gun” that will bring America to its knees. In this regard he employs disgraced scientists and various hoodlums to carry out his orders. If they balk (“No amount of torture, conceived by your twisted Oriental brain, can change my mind!” says one scientist), he simply turns them into super-strong zombies. It’s part of the “everything but the kitchen sink” quality that, you imagine, everyone hoped would appeal to 10-year-old boys in 1943. Hey, kids! Not just Batman and Robin but spies and zombies and alligators and invisible messages from Washington, D.C.

The writers, poor bastards, do manage to display some postmodern wit by commenting upon the very low quality of their product. Two American mechanics, encountering Daka in the Japanese Cave of Horrors, think he’s part of the program. “Pretty good, Saki,” one says. “Your accent’s a bit off but your makeup’s perfect.”

Better, they slip in a comment about the repetitive nature of the genre itself. Daka’s minions keep trying to steal the necessary radium for the atom-smasher gun and Batman and Robin keep foiling them. So the focus becomes less on acquiring radium and more on getting rid of Batman. Because of the cliffhangers, they assume they do at the end of every episode, which leads to conversations like this at the beginning of every episode: “We didn’t do the job, boss, Batman stopped us.” “Batman? He’s still alive?” “Yeah, but we killed him this time for sure!”

Eventually Daka decides that Batman can’t keep escaping death this way; that there must be many Batmen, “all members of the same organization,” he says. It’s not a bad bit. 

A wise government
But these days Batman '43 is most compelling as historical document — particularly on the subject of race. In one episode, Bruce Wayne says of a friend, “Why, I haven’t seen Ken in a coon’s age!” In another, we get an Indian full of “Him say...” “Me say...” dialogue.

Daka is played by a Caucasian actor, J. Carrol Naish, nominated for an Academy Award that very year for playing the Italian, Giuseppe, in the Humphrey Bogart vehicle Sahara, and who would, during his career, play every conceivable ethnicity — from Sitting Bull in Sitting Bull (1954) to Charlie Chan in the 1950s TV series “The New Adventures of Charlie Chan” — but he’s hardly brilliant here. Those American mechanics were right about the accent. He sounds like Peter Lorre by way of Brooklyn.

Of course given Pearl Harbor, and Hollywood’s track record with stereotypes before Pearl Harbor, one expects the giggling sadism and the unapologetic “So sorry” comments from Daka. One isn’t particularly surprised when a crook, turning against Daka, tells him, “That’s the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin!” One even laughs when Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, Linda Page (Shirley Patterson), encounters Daka and yelps, “A Jap!”

The eye-opener is what bookends the serial. In the first episode, when we first visit Little Tokyo, the narrator informs us:

This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America, and known as Little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs it’s become virtually a ghost street...

In the last episode, Batman, pinned in Daka’s lair by his zombies, mentions, out of the blue, “I know who you are. We’ve been searching for you ever since you killed those two agents assigned to your deportation!” Thus the entire serial is painted with the wisdom of deportation and internment camps. See what happens when you don’t round up the shifty-eyed Japs? Decades later, the internment of Japanese-Americans became a source of national shame but at its point of origin it was triumphant enough to include in serials for children.

The original VHS release excised these slurs but they’ve been restored for the DVD version. Good. It's important to know where we've been. Otherwise how can we see how far we've come?

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Posted at 09:21 AM on Jun 21, 2008 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s
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Friday June 20, 2008

John.he.is

This made me laugh out loud. A take-off of the will.i.am video for Obama...but using the inspiring words of John McCain instead:

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Posted at 02:12 PM on Jun 20, 2008 in category Politics
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Over-RAY-ted!

People who know me also know I hate me some Derek Jeter, or at least wish him season-ending injury (“hate” is such a strong word), which is why my friend Adam forwarded this article about a Sports Illustrated survey of 495 Major League Baseball players who basically agree with me. In the survey, Jeter got 10% of the votes for “Most Overrated.” He wins again. Cue FOX Sports shot of Jeter jumping up and down as he runs for the hogpile on the pitcher's mound — but this time alone.

But then I read the rest of the survey and just shook my head. Barry Zito was second at 9%. Overrated? The dude's barely rated. He might have gotten a lot of press and money in the past, but these days he's hanging onto the game by his fingernails. Worse was one of the players tied for third: Alex Rodriguez. Now I don't agree with Jason Giambi who thinks that when Alex retires he'll be known as the greatest player ever to play the game, but he'll certainly be ONE of the greatest players ever to play the game. The guy's about to turn 33. He already has:  532 homeruns, 411 doubles, 2316 hits. He's got 1540 runs scored, 1544 runs driven in. Lifetime AVG/OBP/SLG: .307/.390/.580. Not quite part of Bill James' exclusive .300/.400/.500 club, but nearly. Overrated? I've had my nasty run-ins with A-Rod in the past, but that doesn't make the dude overrated.

BTW: My irrational hatred of Derek Jeter, and my daily prayer that he suffers a season-ending injury, or better, strikes out with the bases loaded (again and again and again... and again and again and again), doesn't mean I don't recognize his value. He's a good, possibly great ballplayer: .316/.387/.460. A candidate for 3,000 hits. He's just not as good/great as everyone thinks. Don't even get me started on his defense.

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Posted at 12:47 PM on Jun 20, 2008 in category Baseball
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The Fall of the American Empire Quote of the Day

"The pay was certainly insufficient: the soliders had to arm and equip themselves out of it and prices had risen. And certainly the exhaustion of military reserves had kept thousands of soliders with the Colours who should have been discharged years before, and veterans were recalled to the Colours who who were quite unfit for service..."

— Robert Graves' I, Claudius, page 199, on a mutiny that broke out among Roman soldiers along the Rhine.

No tagsPosted at 12:03 PM on Jun 20, 2008 in category Quote of the Day
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Thursday June 19, 2008

R.I.P., Cyd Charisse

A few months ago Patricia and I were watching All That Jazz and when that great “Everything old is new again” dance number came on, with Ann Reinking and little Erzsebet Foldi performing for Roy Scheider, I was stunned all over again by the effortless, long-legged grace of Ms. Reinking, who, unfortunately, came of age at a time when the movies were no longer interested in effortless, long-legged grace. “She could’ve been another Cyd Charisse,” I thought.

Cyd Charisse barely had the chance to be Cyd Charisse. Looking at her IMDb.com credits after news of her death two days ago, I was surprised by the few films she made or starred in. After the great “Broadway Melody” number in Singin’ in the Rain, she co-starred with Astaire in The Band Wagon and with Kelly in Brigadoon and It’s Always Fair Weather and with Astaire again in Silk Stockings. That was in 1957 and that appears to be her last Hollywood musical. By the mid-sixties she was an extra in Matt Helm movies and when she resurfaced after a ten-year hiatus it was to guest star in episodes of “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” — and eventually, where all older Hollywood stars wind up, “Murder, She Wrote.”

A couple of nice tributes in The New York Times today: one from Manohla Dargis and a surprising one on the Op-Ed page from Verlyn Klinkenborg. Both women get off good lines (Klinkenborg: “It was Cyd Charisse’s remarkable gift to move through the hall of mirrors that is the American movie musical and never be caught glancing at herself”), and both, of course, admire her legs (who doesn't?). Both have their favorite numbers and both are from The Band Wagon. Dargis goes with “The Girl Hunt Ballet” while Klinkenborg opts for the more universally acclaimed “Dancing in the Dark.” I’m with Ms. Klinkenborg here — few things are more beautiful onscreen than that flowing white skirt — but it’s like Charisse’s own comment about whether Kelly or Astaire was the better dance partner. “It's like comparing apples and oranges. They're both delicious.”

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Posted at 12:20 PM on Jun 19, 2008 in category Movies
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Wednesday June 18, 2008

Jackie Chan's Top 10 Stunts

Everyone who knows me knows I love me some Jackie Chan and this guy on YouTube does a nice job with his personal take on Jackie's Top 10 Stunts. I've never written a top 10 list without someone, somewhere (and usually many people, in many places) telling me what I missed, or, in the parlance, “forgot”, as in, “You forgot The Banana Splits!” So I feel a little abashed admitting I didn't think much of his No. 1, which always seemed like a crazy, rather than cool, stunt. I probably would've put the helicopter ride around Kuala Lumpur higher, too. Would that be my No. 1? Maybe. But it's a fun video. Nice commentary, too. Check it out.

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Posted at 06:55 PM on Jun 18, 2008 in category Movies - Lists
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Monday June 16, 2008

The Pretty Good Hulk

I’m usually more an Anthony Lane man than a David Denby man but Denby’s been getting off some good lines lately. Earlier this month he wrote about how Sean Connery “had relaxed beautifully into middle age,” when, at 59, he played Indiana Jones’ father in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Then he compares him with the star of the current Indiana Jones:
[Harrison] Ford, now sixty-five, is still playing Indy, but he can’t be described as a man relaxing into middle age. He’s in great shape physically, but he doesn’t seem happy. He’s tense and glaring, and he speaks his lines with more emphasis than is necessary, like a drunk who wants to appear sober.

I also liked his recent review of The Incredible Hulk. Three criticisms stood out: 1) that King Kong and Frankenstein’s monster are Byron and Keats in comparison with the Hulk, who’s a dull, soulless beast, 2) That “Thunderbolt” Ross’s attempt to make soldiers out of the Hulk serum is idiotic, since the goal is always to control soldiers and you can’t control the Hulk, and 3) that the film misses the make-my-day thrill of turning into the most powerful creature in the world.

Now that I’ve seen the film I feel that 1) this Hulk is very King Kong-like in both his anger, his sadness and his protection of his girl, 2) Ross wants to contain Banner the way he would an advanced-weapons system that got loose, while the super-soldier forumula alluded to is something else entirely (i.e., Captain America fans, awake), and 3) the make-my-day thrill is still there, for the audience anyway, since Banner only turns into the Hulk when he’s being bullied. That Banner gets no thrill from this also makes sense. Who knows what he’ll do as the Hulk? Who knows whom he’ll kill?

So after all the hand-wringing and all the unncessary articles, The Incredible Hulk turned out to be a pretty good popcorn movie. Its rating on Rotten Tomatoes (64%) is only slightly higher than the rating Ang Lee’s version got five years ago (61%); but if you look at only top critics, the numbers shift from 53% to 67%. Even here, I feel, RT’s critics are probably lowballing Hulk, influenced, no doubt, by all the hand-wringing and unnecessary articles. No wonder Hulk mad. No wonder Hulk smash.

The movie picks up where The Hulk left off. It gives us the origin during the credit sequence, in case we need it, then takes us to Brazil for sweeping shots of the teeming slums of Rochina Favela in Rio. Bruce Banner is now working at a soda-bottle factory there, studying Portugese via “Sesame Street” and corresponding via IM with a scientist named “Mr. Blue” on a possible cure for his monster problem. He’s also studying martial arts, less for the self-defense (which he’s got in spades) than for the discipline. “The best way to control your anger,” his teacher tells him, “is to control your body.” Then he slaps him hard across the face. Twice.

The script by Zak Penn is frequently smart and fun. Homages are prevalent. Flipping channels in Brazil, Banner comes across an episode of “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” starring Bill Bixby (the ‘70s Banner), and a security guard in Virginia is played by Lou Ferrigno (the ‘70s Hulk), and taking on some Brazillian bullies, Banner says that show’s most famous line but messes up the Portugese translation: “Don’t make me...hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m...hungry.”

In the end, even Rio isn’t far enough away. The U.S. Army finds him and there’s a good chase — complicated by the bullies and the fact that Banner can’t let his pulse race. But of course it does. Boom. And there go the bullies and the fully loaded army men, including Tim Roth as a former Russian, raised in Britain, who’s entranced by all that power and will eventually become the Abomination. Many critics have been as unimpressed by this CGI-Hulk as they were five years ago but I think the technology has come a long way — not least in giving the Hulk weight. This time around he feels part of the action rather than some video-game blip that bounces around a lot. When Banner wakes he’s laying by a picturesque waterfall. Holding up his pants and flagging down a driver, his newly-learned Portugese gets him nowhere since he’s now in Guatemala. The problem of being the Hulk. At least he was nice enough to choose the waterfall.

Everyone’s got their agenda here. Banner wants to return to normal while Ross wants Banner for study while “Mr. Blue” (Tim Blake Nelson) is after...what exactly? Our final shots of him indicate he might be back as...The Leader? Modok? The Rhino? The movie leaves it open-ended. The movie leaves a lot open-ended — including to what extent Banner can control his body and his problem.

The Incredible Hulk is only the second movie, after Iron Man, produced by Marvel Studios, and they seem to be forging a new paradigm for superhero movies that recalls their Silver Age of comics in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most modern superhero movies are self-contained — all plot points are resolved, while Batman doesn’t appear (or even exist) in Superman movies  — but Iron Man included a cameo by Nick Fury and Hulk includes a cameo by Tony Stark, who tells Ross, “What if I told you we were putting a team together?” So we know it’s building toward that Avengers movie and beyond. As Jack Kirby’s characters couldn’t be contained by the arbitrary limits of the comic panel, so Marvel’s superheroes, under their direction, can’t be contained by the arbitary limits of a single movie. They're spilling out. Makes me think that, if you're going to keep making superhero movies, this is the way to do it.

No tagsPosted at 08:00 AM on Jun 16, 2008 in category Movies
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Wednesday June 11, 2008

Another day, another glitch

Tweaked my back a few weeks ago and so this morning went to my doctor — my GP as they're called now. Waited over two hours. (I read: I, Claudius.) He thought it was a strained muscle or ligament more than a disc problem — thank God — and recommended some physical therapy sessions. In fact, he recommended a physical therapist in an adjacent building, which is only a block from where I live. Nice. At their counter, though, the receptionist told me they didn't take my insurance carrier (IC from here on out), but recommended another place downtown that did take my IC. Except, upon making an appointment, I discovered that, while they did take my IC, the physical therapist on staff was somehow still "out of network." So no good. So I contacted my IC, who gave me some recommendations and an appointment was made at another downtown location. Hopefully I won't get billed for the entire thing but I wouldn't be surprised. It's happened in the past.

Then, on Orbitz, I made a reservation two round-trip tickets to Minneapolis later this month. The price stunk, and went up mid-reservation, and I had to update some other info, but finally the reservation was made. Got an e-mail confirmation 15 minutes later. But while my seat was listed properly (8C and 20C), Patricia's was not (08 and 20 instead of 8B and 20B). Logging on, I found her seats filled but not by her. So either someone took them just before I did or (more likely) there was some kind of glitch. But who do you call at Orbitz? Is there anyone even there at Orbitz? So I called the airline, who confirmed what I suspected (P had no seats), and, after about 10 minutes, they rebooked us with crappier seats. And suddenly it was 3:30.

I want to emphasize I don't find the above exceptionally annoying. I find it typical — something you and I go through every day — and that's what I find annoying.

No tagsPosted at 03:28 PM on Jun 11, 2008 in category Culture
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Tuesday June 10, 2008

No. 600

So he’s finally done it.

“Finally,” I suppose, is a measure of exasperation that a feat like hitting 600 homeruns doesn’t deserve. Only five players in baseball history have ever done it (Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Sosa) — and only three if you remove the players tainted by steroids (leaving Aaron, Ruth and Mays) — so the fact that it was done at all should be applauded rather than recounted with an impatient sigh. And I am applauding it. As a Ken Griffey, Jr., fan, who saw him hit his eighth homerun in eight consecutive games in ’93, who saw him break his wrist in ’95 and bounce back to homer five times in the ’95 ALDS against the New York Yankees, who saw him homer 25-30 times in person at the Kingdome, I’m excited. I’m also a little bummed.

When he left Seattle he had 398 homeruns. At the time, he was hitting 50+ per year (in his previous four years, actually averaging 52+ per year), and he’d only just turned 30. Even with the usual slowdown of age, one assumed he might reach 600 in five years. Six at the top. Which would leave him a few more years to go after Mays and Ruth and Aaron. He’d pissed us off, certainly, the way he left, but he’d given us too many good memories for us to wish him anything but the best.

Instead, over 8 seasons, he’s averaged 24 homeruns. Injuries upon injuries. Too much weight. Not enough training. In the beginning of his career he might have been too much of a natural to take seriously the training necessary to prosper at the end of his career.

He won a Gold Glove every year in the American League; not once in the National. He was an All-Star every year in the American League; only three times in the National. He was good, or good enough, in the National League, but he’d once been the best: the only active player to make the All-Century Team in 1999.

And yet, please, another round of applause for Junior as he rounds the bases. It’s too late for him to catch Ruth and Aaron, and probably Mays, but Sammy Sosa’s only 8 homeruns away. Let’s get him out of the way this year, Junior. Then, of the top five career homerun hitters, only one will be tainted.

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Posted at 01:45 PM on Jun 10, 2008 in category Baseball
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It's Tuesday and I love Bill Moyers

For those who haven't seen Porter Barry, producer for FOX's "The O'Reilly Factor," rudely ambush Bill Moyers at the National Conference for Media Reform in St. Paul, Minn., and then basically get schooled by charm — real, classy, legitimate charm — you can check it out here. My friend Jake calls Moyers "hilariously coolheaded." Consider it a clash between what's right with journalism and what's wrong. It's nice to see right win out for a change. Maybe it's a trend?
No tagsPosted at 07:06 AM on Jun 10, 2008 in category Media
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Wednesday June 04, 2008

The top 100 opening weekends

Much talk lately about Sex and the City’s $55 million opening weekend. Most ever for a movie starring a woman! So where does it rank on the opening-weekend list? Fifty-first. Meaning the top 50 opening weekends all starred men. Or ogres or mutants or robots or lost fish. So the very thing women are bragging about shows how tangential they’ve become in Hollywood. But Sex and the City gives hope that maybe someday they’ll be as important as ogres.

What else does the top 100 opening-weekend chart show us? Nearly half of the movies (46) are sequels. In fact, nine of the top 10 openers are sequels. (Only Spider-Man, at no. 4, still holds its spot.) And all but 11 of the top 100 were released this decade.

That’s right: As if we needed further evidence, this decade is all about opening. The oldest movie on the list is Batman Returns, at no. 92, which was released way back in June 1992 and made $45 million opening weekend. By the end of our current decade (if not by the end of our current year) it should be pushed off the top 100 to make room for its descendant, The Dark Knight, as well as Hancock and who knows what else. By the end of the decade 93-95 will be from the decade.

What’s intriguing about the older films is how much they didn’t rely on their opening weekends. The big movie from 1993, Jurassic Park, took in $47 million, or only 13 percent of its final domestic gross, opening weekend. Compare that with last year’s big film, Spider-Man 3, which took in $151 million, or 45% of its final domestic gross, opening weekend. So even 16 years ago, word-of-mouth still mattered. Now the idea is to make a killing opening weekend, when the studio's take is higher, and don’t fret what follows. Including moviegoers going, “Well, that was a waste of two hours.”

Equally intriguing is what films aren't on the list: Titanic, Star Wars... The biggees.

The following is a list of the top 10 opening weekends: Two Spider-Mans, two Pirates, two Shreks. Plus a Star Wars, an Indy, a Harry and an X-Men. It's a list that could use some women. Or something that doesn't remind me of the cinematic equivalent of a Big Mac.

 RankMovie Studio Opening % of Total 
 1 Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Sony 151,116,516  44.90%
 2 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)
 BV135,634,554 32.00%
 3 Shrek the Third (2007)
 Par/DW121,629,270  37.70%
 4 Spider-Man (2002)
 Sony114,844,116
 28.40%
 5 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)
 BV114,732,820
 37,10%
 6 Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
 Fox108,435,841  28.50%
 7 Shrek 2 (2004)
 DW108,037,878 24.50%
 8 X-Men: The Last Stand (2005)
 Fox102,750,665
 43.80%
 9 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
 WB102,685,961  35.40%
 10 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
 Par100,137,835
 n/a
No tagsPosted at 03:32 PM on Jun 04, 2008 in category Movies - Box Office
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Monday June 02, 2008

Audience test scores and “The Office”

I’m not the first guy to not get fashion magazines. You take the world’s best-looking people, give them the world’s best make-up artists and hairstylists and photographers, airbrush out what imperfections remain...and half the time they still look like heroin addicts. But Patricia subscribes to a few of these things and sometimes they’re worthwhile. The W magazine with Charlize Theron on the cover includes an article on Ricky Gervais of The Office fame, horribly titled “Tricky Ricky,” in which we get the following:

Before The Office premiered on the BBC in 2001, Gervais recalls, the show received the lowest audience test scores in the network’s history, but he defended every word in the script. It was a similar story with the American version: Gervais remembers getting an e-mail from producer Greg Daniels saying the series had scored abysmally. “I sent back a message: ‘Brilliant, so did we,’” he says. Now, he points out, The Office is NBC’s highest-rated sitcom. “All the things I’ve ever loved, I hated at first,” Gervais adds. “the best things are an acquired taste.”

For the writer, Paul Quinn, the point of this story is that Gervais’ apparent self-assurance, “rooted in defensive smugness or genuine confidence,” helped save his greatest creation. Here’s the lesson to me: Audience testing sucks. Seriously. It was the same story for Seinfeld, which became one of the most successful sitcoms in TV history. But the initial test scores reflected an audience distaste. People didn’t like it because they didn’t get it. It wasn’t familiar.

One wonders if testers are attempting to fix this obvious problem with innovative shows and movies. Forget aesthetics for a moment. Just think of the money. These things are cash cows. Cash cows with long fucking lives. And the money people, whose job it is to find such cash cows, when confronted with them, actually try to turn them into something else.

If you don’t recognize Seinfeld and The Office and The Office for what they are, or what they might be, what good are you? How many other Seinfelds are you turning into something ordinary and short-lived? How much money are the money-people blowing?

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Posted at 08:28 AM on Jun 02, 2008 in category Market Research
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Sunday June 01, 2008

Stuck between two women at the SEX AND THE CITY premiere

After a spectacular Friday, in which it was estimated that it grossed over $26 million, it looks like Sex and the City has calmed down a bit. The overall weekend estimate is now only about twice its Friday total: $55 million. Still, not bad for a chick flick. In fact, a record.

I was part of that Friday crowd, by the way, sitting between my girlfriend Patricia and her friend Paige in a theater in downtown Seattle crowded with women, most of whom, like their heroines onscreen, came accessorized with fashion and friends. Patricia’s lament when she saw the other women there was like the lament of the Star Wars geek seeing all the light sabers and Darth Vader masks at the Star Wars premiere: “I should’ve dressed up.”

The movie? Not good. Five episodes strung together. Five high-strung episodes. Carrie and Big are about to be married, but he gets momentary cold feet at the altar for which she can’t forgive him. The rest is recovery, licking wounds, gaining the wisdom to forgive again.

What’s the appeal of Sex and the City for women? I assume it’s the two accessories: fashion and friends. The two constant F’s in life when that third F is more inconsistent. It’s another gender's wish fulfillment. When your dream wedding goes kaput and you’re catatonic, your friends care enough to drop everything, and are powerful enough to manipulate everything, to whisk you away to Mexico for a vacation for four. You don’t even need to thank or acknowledge them. What are friends for?

Of course you’re only in this predicament because of one of your friends. One wonders about Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) in this movie. She was always a bit of a bitch, and not in a good way, but here she’s just awful. She avoids sex with her husband for six months, then boots him out when he tearfully confesses (a la Michael Murphy in An Unmarried Woman) to sleeping with another woman. She pressures Carrie into marrying Big (because he owns their penthouse apartment and what does Carrie own?) and then, during the rehearsal dinner, tells Big that he and Carrie are crazy for getting married (because look what happened to her and Steve!). This leads to Big’s cold feet. She doesn’t tell Carrie this for five months and then, when she does, she doesn’t give Carrie the space to forgive her on her own. But friendship is what the movie is about so she’s there for the happy ending.

Ask women with which Sex character they identify and most will respond: “Carrie.” She’s the main character and the least stereotyped of the four. The others: sex-hungry cougar; naive sweetie; workaholic. It’s still not a flattering comparison. In their own ways, both Samantha (Kim Catrall) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) are much more caring than Carrie. Carrie is as solipsistic in her happiness as she is in her sadness. It’s all about her. She’s also, to be honest, a pretty lousy writer with fairly pedestrian thoughts. In the movie she needs to hire a personal assistant, but, beyond getting a black face in the crowd (Jennifer Hudson's), one wonders why. Carrie’s not writing. And if she’s not writing, what is she doing? Can’t she put her own damn clothes away?

The true accessory in the movie — more than in the show, even — is men. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film where men are so central in theory yet so peripheral in practice. All the boyfriends and husbands are lucky to get in a good line of dialogue. Well, line of dialogue, since most of the dialogue isn’t good, although Candice Bergen as the editor of Vogue gets off a great one about any bride over 40 having trouble avoiding “that unfortunate Diane Arbus subtext.”

I'll admit it was fascinating going to the movie, particularly opening day, but it's a little odd hanging out in the wish-fulifillment fantasies of the other gender for two hours and 20 minutes. Afterwards, I desperately needed a beer and “Baseball Tonight." But I did win a $5 bet with Paige. She thought Sex would do as well as Iron Man's opening weekend. Girls. 

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Posted at 11:21 AM on Jun 01, 2008 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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