erik lundegaard

Saturday January 31, 2009

Mood Fight

I’m a little worried about David Carr

First there was that odd, Joker-mask video he did for his Carpetbagger blog. Then last week he clapped the Academy on the back for choosing quality (meaning: “The Reader”) over popularity (meaning: “The Dark Knight”).

But yesterday? He launched into one of my least-favorite journalistic devices: How the popularity of this or that film reflects the nation’s mood.

The Times is infamous for doing this. Just last year, on May 15th, Michael Cieply implied that the upcoming summer movies, including “The Dark Knight,” “Tropic Thunder” and “Pineapple Express,” were just too dark. “The mix,” he wrote, “may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive…”

Turns out “The Dark Knight” was just the refuge people were looking for. So Brooks Barnes took over, and on July 28th, wrote the following: “The brooding film, directed by Christopher Nolan, also fits the nation’s mood, Warner Brothers executives said.”

Problem solved. We weren’t repelled from the movie because it reflected our mood; we were drawn to it. Once it became clear we were drawn to it.

See what fun you can have with the nation’s mood?

Carr, whom I love, and who’s a better writer than both Cieply and Barnes, has actually done something worse. He begins his article, “Riveting Tales for Dark Days,” by once again lauding the Oscar nominees. They are, he says, an upbeat lot, particularly compared with the gloom of last year’s “No Country” and “There Will Be Blood.” They reflect our nation’s can-do spirit in troubled times. In one graph he dismisses what he’s doing and then keeps doing it:

Using the Oscars as a prism on national consciousness is a hoary, time-worn activity perpetrated by those of us who must find meaning in sometimes marginal work. But it does seem worth at least a mention this time around that both the Academy and audiences are showering love on such upbeat movies at a rough time in history.

Why is this worse? Let’s let “X” stand for “What people would do or are doing because of the nation’s mood.”

Cieply’s X wasn’t verifiable but predictive. It was two months down the road when only idiots like me would remember that he, or someone he had quoted, had made such a prediction.

Barnes’ X was verifiable and correct. People were in fact going to see “The Dark Knight.”

Carr’s X? Verifiable and incorrect. And not just incorrect in a small way. Incorrect in a way that refutes his entire premise.

He mixes two unstable elements. He writes that January box-office receipts are up by 10 percent (true) and that the Oscar nominees are more upbeat than last year (true-ish, though there’s nothing as purely pleasant as “Juno” in the mix). So he concludes people are drawn to these upbeat best picture nominees.

Problem? For whatever reason (and I blame the studios as much as anyone), we’re not drawn to these upbeat nominees. We’re drawn to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” which has made, as of today, $69.3 million. The nominees, save for “Button,” have all made less. Some a lot less: “Slumdog” ($59.5M), “Milk” ($21.9M), “Frost/Nixon” ($12.9M) and “The Reader” ($10.2M). In fact, as I mentioned yesterday, Brandon Gray, over at boxofficemojo.com, has written that these nominees are, at the time of the noms, the least-attended ever. (I’m still interested in his math on this, by the way.)

In Carr’s defense, and despite the “showering love” line above, he does say that the upbeat nominees “reflect an appetite on the part of the Academy, and by proxy, the public, for a nice, big chunk of uplift.”

That’s a nice one. Using the Academy as a stand-in for the public when the two have never been further apart.

So I’m a little worried about David Carr. He’s better than this.

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Posted at 10:23 AM on Jan 31, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Friday January 30, 2009

Ponzi and the Happy Days (Are Here Again) Gang

My friend Dave McLean, currently living in Presov, Slovakia, alerted me to this piece by Dan Roberts in the Guardian, which, with the aid of some cheery graphics, explains, in layman's terms (or as layman as he can get), the extent of the less-than-cheery global financial crisis, and why the infusion of hundreds of billions of dollars from the federal government isn't likely to stabilize the beast. Just how much is the world in debt? Or overvalued? Some stats: from small to large numbers:

  • $845 billion: The amount of gold reserves in central banks — held as a buffer against financial instability.
  • $3.9 trillion: All global notes and coins in circulation, plus reserves, in Oct. 2008.
  • $39 trillion: The assets (or loans due to be paid back) at the world's big financial banks.
  • $62 trillion: The peak amount of credit derivatives, which, from my limited understanding, is a financial instrument whose value is derived from the value of something else, such as an asset or index. All part of the shadow banking system, which I also don't understand.
  • $290 trillion: Peak of the total asset value of all developed economies. 

Roberts says that it resembles, if anything, a Ponzi scheme. I get it...but still don't understand it.

Meanwhile Wall Street bankers gave themselves $20 billion in bonuses for 2008. That, unfortunately, I understand.

No tagsPosted at 11:52 AM on Jan 30, 2009 in category Politics
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Who Sees the Oscar Nominees Anyway?

I didn’t see this until yesterday but Brandon Gray of boxofficemojo.com has a good piece on one of my favorite topics — box office and Oscar — and comes to the conclusion that this is not only a weak year in terms of attendance, it’s the worst year ever. I assume he’s parsing this the French way — asses in the seats, not inflationary dollars in the pockets — but that’s an astounding stat. Not surprising, though. It’s a week after the noms and where are our nominees in terms of 2008 box-office rankings? At 20 (“Button”), 53 (“Slumdog”), 109 “(“Milk”), 131 (“F/N”) and 143 (“The Reader”). Obviously this will change, and for the better, but, by way of comparison, only two films nominated for best picture since 1980 haven’t landed among the top 100 box-office films of the year: “Letters from Iwo Jima” in 2006 (138th) and “Secrets and Lies” in 1996 (108th). “The Dresser” in 1983 came close (100th).

Gray comes to this conclusion about Oscar and box office:
Slumdog Millionaire was a snowballing success prior to the Oscar nominations and Gran Torino, which received zero nominations for instance, was a hit, and neither picture's status fundamentally changed after the nominations were announced.
He also mentions in passing the b.o. difficulties of “Frost/Nixon” but no one seems to be taking Universal to task for this. When the movie had buzz in December, Universal kept it limited (205 theaters). After the noms, they opened it wider (1,000+ theaters), but by then it had been overshadowed by both “Button” and “Slumdog,” and word-of-mouth wasn’t great, and people stayed away. Maybe they would’ve anyway. Who knows? But Universal pushed it for the Oscars, and then relied on the Oscars to push it to the public. Didn’t work.

In better news, Focus Features, a Universal subsidiary on life-support, finally opened “Milk,” one of the best films of the year, wider. It plays in 882 theaters today. About effin’ time. Yet it's still the only best pic nominee not to play in at least 1,000 theaters.
No tagsPosted at 07:44 AM on Jan 30, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Thursday January 29, 2009

John Updike Quote of the Day

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

JOHN UPDIKE
No tagsPosted at 03:16 PM on Jan 29, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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Robert Downey Jr. Quote of the Day

"I'm not very popular for saying this, and the missus tells me to keep it on the QT, but lately for me, the biggest, most commercial projects that I've done are the most creatively satisfying, the most collaborative and the ones that the audiences respond to. And I jump off and do an indie, and they can't hit their ass with both hands, it's 50 monkeys f–––ing a football and then you have to go and pump your kidneys dry in Sundance."

— Robert Downey, Jr., during the annual Oscar roundtable discussion in Newsweek.

No tagsPosted at 02:05 PM on Jan 29, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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Barack Obama Quote of the Day

“Because of you, John. Barack Obama.”

—How Pres. Obama autographed a photo for U.S. Rep. (and civil rights legend) John Lewis after the inauguration on Jan. 20th. From David Remnick's must-read “Talk of the Town” piece in this week's New Yorker.

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Posted at 11:26 AM on Jan 29, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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Wednesday January 28, 2009

Milk Left Out

My father once said, about an article that didn’t get the response he thought it would, “It was like pitching a penny down a deep well," and once I began publishing I knew exactly what he meant. That was pre-Internet. Occasionally I long for that silence. These days, publishing (or posting) is like pitching a penny down a shallow well full of bees. You expect to get swarmed; you hope not to get stung.

But — that said — what a great group over at filmexperience! Nathaniel R. was nice enough to post the MSNBC quiz and dozens of his readers posted their results. I should immediately apologize for the Frank Langella question. Some actors in some roles make an early impression that never goes away, and, for me, Langella will always be Zorro. That’s how I first saw him. At age 11. Later when he became a star on Broadway as Dracula, I’d think, “Hey, it’s Zorro.” When he played the villainous chief of staff in “Dave” I went: “Dude: Zorro!” On and on. Nixon, too. Still, I should’ve made the answer easier. Because how can you not imagine him as Jack the Ripper?

No apologies to anyone who got no. 14 wrong. That was a gimme.

One reader, meanwhile, suggested no. 8 didn’t have much to do with the Oscars. For those who haven’t taken the quiz (and c’mon already), here it is:
At the time of the nominations (Thursday, Jan. 22), how many of the best picture nominees had been seen in more than 1,000 theaters in the U.S.?    
    A. All five    
    B. Four    
    C. Three    
    D. Two    
    E. One    
    F. None   

The answer is One, “Benjamin Button,” and for a second I agreed with the reader. A second later I thought: Actually this is the most relevant question in the quiz. It’s not some factoid only the most insane person would know (see: no. 2); it’s about how isolated our supposed best pictures have become. Again: read this.

I found it particularly instructive that many of Nathaniel’s readers thought “Milk” was one of the most-distributed nominees when, as of today, it’s the least. Its theater-high was 356. Hell, every best-picture candidate expanded the weekend after the Oscars except for “Milk,” which remains in its truncated state of 250. I’m no insider or businessman but... Does that make sense? Is there a plan here? Who’s running Focus Features anyway?

Only a handful of best-picture nominees this decade haven’t been distributed into at least 1,000 theaters: “Gosford Park” (918), “Lost in Translation” (882), “The Pianist” (842), and, the winner of the least-distributed best-pic nominee of the decade, “Letters from Iwo Jima” (781). If “Milk” doesn’t expand, it will more than halve that mark.

So what is Focus Features saying? That it can sell “Brokeback” but not this? That Americans are more willing to understand the people who bombed Pearl Harbor, speaking in Japanese, than the people who opposed Prop. 8, speaking in English?

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, and I’ll keep saying it until someone gives me a response I understand: How good can the studios be if they can’t sell quality?

No tagsPosted at 09:13 AM on Jan 28, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Tuesday January 27, 2009

Two-Minute Review: The Wrestler (2008)

I have little in common with Randy “the Ram” Robinson, the wrestler of “The Wrestler.” He likes what I don’t (‘80s hair metal), lives where I haven’t (trailer park) does what I could never do (wrestles). And yet I wholly identified with him. Maybe it’s because we’ve both reached a certain age. Maybe it’s that sense of hitting a dead end and being unable to see a way out or back. There’s a scene where, out of necessity, Randy moves from doing manual labor in the back of a grocery store to working with the public in the front. You know why he doesn’t want to do it. He was once a star, and now he’s here, and he doesn’t want people to know he’s here. I even identified with that. It reminded me of after high school, after college, the jobs you didn’t want, the things you didn’t want to have to wear when you had the jobs you didn’t want. It reminded me of this thought: Please don’t let anyone see me here. Most of the jobs our economy creates — when it was creating jobs — are those kinds of jobs. Please don’t let anyone see me here.

“The Wrestler” is a hard movie to watch, and, despite the above, and despite some pretty gruesome wrestling scenes, the toughest part, for me, was watching how needy Randy becomes once wrestling is taken away from him. “The Wrestler” is a perfectly titled movie because that’s who Randy is, and once he’s told he can’t be that he doesn’t know how to live. In life you struggle to find a thing you like and do well, and hope you get paid for it, and for a time Randy the Ram was paid well (in money, in fame, in everything that goes with it) for doing the thing he liked and did well. Then he wasn’t. Falls happen. We don’t know why his did, it just did.

Some have compared this movie with “Rocky” — both are about gentle giants, working class bruisers, who make their living in the ring — but the comparisons end there. “Rocky” is about a guy who never made it but is given a chance. “The Wrestler” is about a guy who did make it…and then has everything taken away. That’s what the movie is about. What do you do when everything is taken away? What do you do when you reach the dead end?

There’s an answer.

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Posted at 07:36 AM on Jan 27, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Monday January 26, 2009

The Quiz...and How Nathaniel R. Nudged Me Off the Fence

As promised, the Oscar quiz is up on MSNBC.com. Here.

I was going to add what's below to yesterday's post but decided not to spoil it for those brave few:

  • Everyone’s trumpeting Meryl Streep’s 15th nomination. Most add that she’s got two wins without specifying those wins. Here’s a reminder: She’s got a supporting (“Kramer vs. Kramer”) and a lead (“Sophie’s Choice”). Which means Hilary Swank, among others, has won more best actress Oscars than Meryl Streep. Hell, the last time Streep won, fellow nominee Anne Hathaway was six months old.
  • Not only has Stephen Daldry, director of “The Reader,” been nominated more times (3) than any of the other directing nominees, including Ron Howard and Gus Van Sant, but, astonishingly, he’s only made three feature-length films. Which means he’s been nominated for every film he’s ever made.  For the record, his three films are: “Billy Elliott,” “The Hours” and “The Reader.” I know, me neither.

Interestingly, I was on IMDb.com this morning, and one of the links on their daily “Hit List” was entitled: “Notes on the Oscar Nominations” from filmexperience.blogspot.com. I clicked, not exactly holding my breath. Most mainstream stuff is dull reportage that ignores fascinating but easy-to-find details (like Daltry, above), and most blogs are noisy little affairs that make me want to run away, take a shower, and not have an opinion for the rest of my life. This was neither. It was fun, charming, smart. As soon as I saw this graphic I knew I was in the right place:

Some of the stuff I knew nothing about (costume design?), some I knew all too well (“Harvey Weinstein is Back. God Help Us All.”), but all of it was fun to read.

Even better was host Nathaniel R's live-blogging of the SAG noms, and his disappointment that “Milk” didn't win the cast award. I wrote about the SAGs this morning, but dispassionately, as Oscar indicators. Nathaniel helped push me off my fence. Because he's right. Both “Milk” and “Slumdog” are very good movies, and I'll be fine if “Slumdog” wins best picture, but if we're talking about ensemble cast acting, “Milk,” with Penn, Franco, Hirsch, et al., has it all over “Slumdog,” which is a director's movie. Freida Pinto is stunning, lovely to look at, and her part works, but... It ain't the same league.

Anyway, if you haven't, take the quiz already. And remember the thing about Daltry.

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Posted at 07:13 PM on Jan 26, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Fiddling

Paul Krugman has a great piece today on — basically — arguments against Republican arguments against Obama's stimulus package. Among them:

  • First, there’s the bogus talking point that the Obama plan will cost $275,000 per job created. Why is it bogus? Because it involves taking the cost of a plan that will extend over several years, creating millions of jobs each year, and dividing it by the jobs created in just one of those years. It’s as if an opponent of the school lunch program were to take an estimate of the cost of that program over the next five years, then divide it by the number of lunches provided in just one of those years, and assert that the program was hugely wasteful, because it cost $13 per lunch. (The actual cost of a free school lunch, by the way, is $2.57.)
  • Next, write off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money. Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.
  • Finally, ignore anyone who tries to make something of the fact that the new administration’s chief economic adviser has in the past favored monetary policy over fiscal policy as a response to recessions.It’s true that the normal response to recessions is interest-rate cuts from the Fed, not government spending. And that might be the best option right now, if it were available. But it isn’t, because we’re in a situation not seen since the 1930s: the interest rates the Fed controls are already effectively at zero. That’s why we’re talking about large-scale fiscal stimulus: it’s what’s left in the policy arsenal now that the Fed has shot its bolt.

Rome is burning and the Republicans are fiddling, but it's nice to have a Nobel-Prize-winning economist on your side.

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Posted at 04:13 PM on Jan 26, 2009 in category Politics
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"Slumdog"? Final Answer

Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote that the Golden Globe win for “Slumdog Millionaire” wasn’t exactly a precursor to Oscar victory since the two bodies hadn’t agreed since the spring of 2004? (Back when Barack Obama was a state senator from Illinois.)

I was thinking similar thoughts when “Slumdog” won the Producers Guild Award over the weekend. Sure, the PGAs picked “No Country for Old Men” last year, which went on to win best picture, but the year before they went with “Little Miss Sunshine” (no), and the year before that, “Brokeback” (unfortunately, no), and the year before that, “The Aviator,” and in 2001, “Moulin Rouge!” Not exactly tea leaves.

I was ready to raise similar flags of caution when “Slumdog” won the cast award from the Screen Actors Guild, since that award predicts the Oscar-winner only 50 percent of the time. But then a different thought hit: “OK, how often has a movie won all three awards and not won the Oscar for best picture?”

Answer? In the 12 years since the SAG awards arrived on the scene, the GGs, PGAs and SAG cast award have agreed only three times: in 1999, with “American Beauty”; in 2002, with “Chicago”; and in 2003, with “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” All of those films went on to win the Oscar.

I’m still waiting on the DGAs, but more and more it looks like “Slumdog” is the final answer.
No tagsPosted at 09:49 AM on Jan 26, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Sunday January 25, 2009

Batman and Oscar: A History

I’m in the midst of writing an Oscar quiz for MSNBC.com — the fifth I’ve done in five years. It should be getting old but it’s not. Basically I look at the nominees, dig, find interesting facts, write the questions. I don’t know if this makes for good questions but it definitely makes for interesting answers.

The quiz will probably go up tomorrow or the next day but here’s a headstart on one aspect that I found fascinating.

Although “The Dark Knight” didn’t get any best picture respect, it did receive eight nominations overall — twice as many as any superhero film has ever garnered. The previous record-holder was “The Incredibles,” with four, but you can also make an argument for “Superman: The Movie,” which, in 1979, received three noms and one “Special Achievement” award for visual effects. I assumed this meant the Academy ignored visual effects until recently but they actually began nominating in that category in 1939 (“The Rains Came” over “The Wizard of Oz”), but for some reason stopped throughout most of the 1970s. Instead they just gave out these “Special Achievement” awards. If they’d actually done the nom’ing, “Superman: The Movie” would’ve had four noms as well.

Here’s a list of AA nominations for superhero movies, in chronological order, with wins in italics :

  • “The Mark of Zorro” (1940): Original Score
  • “Superman: The Movie” (1978): Editing; Original Score; Sound
  • “Batman” (1989): Art Direction-Set Decoration
  • “Batman Returns” (1992): Makeup; Visual Effects
  • “Batman Forever” (1995): Cinematography; Sound; Sound Effects Editing
  • “The Mask of Zorro” (1998): Sound; Sound Effects Editing
  • “Spider-Man” (2002): Sound; Visual Effects
  • “Spider-Man 2” (2004): Sound Mixing; Sound Editing; Visual Effects
  •  “The Incredibles” (2004): Animated Film;  Sound Mixing; Original Screenplay; Sound Editing
  • “Batman Begins” (2005): Cinematography
  • “Superman Returns” (2005): Visual Effects
  • “Iron Man” (2008): Sound Editing; Visual Effects
  • “The Dark Knight” (2008): Art Direction; Cinematography; Editing; Makeup; Sound; Sound Editing; Visual Effects; Supporting Actor

Yes, mostly in Sound and Visual Effects, and mostly for Batman, Superman and Zorro — characters created before 1940. No “X-Men,” for example, despite two good movies with tons of visual effects, and, I assume (not that I know), Sound.

The main point is this: Despite a seeming defeat, “The Dark Knight,” and Heath Ledger in particular, expanded Oscar's palette.

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Posted at 02:09 PM on Jan 25, 2009 in category Batman
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Friday January 23, 2009

Hail Cesars

The nominees for the Cesars are out, and “Public Enemy No. 1,” about French gangster Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), set a record with 10 nominations. It was also the third-highest grossing film in France last year. Respect and box office? Is the Academy listening? Are the studios?

Vincent Cassel in "Public Enemy #1"Here's the list of nominees for best picture:

  • Entre le murs (The Class)
  • Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (I've Loved You So Long)
  • L'Ennemi public no. 1 (Public Enemy Number One)
  • Paris
  • Le Premier jour du reste de ta vie (The First Day of the Rest of Your Life)
  • Seraphine
  • Un conte de Noel (Christmas Tale) 

The Cesars will take place on Feb. 27 in Paris.

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Posted at 12:04 PM on Jan 23, 2009 in category Movies - Foreign
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B.O. for Best Pics

Two summers ago, in the Montpellier train station in southern France, I saw a poster touting the popularity of “Shrek the Third.” It read:
“Plus de 4 millions de Shrektateurs”

That 4 millions isn’t euros; it’s people. It’s asses in the seats. That’s how movie popularity is tabulated in France. As opposed to in the U.S. where it’s all about the dollars, and where, if you’re paying any attention at all, you have to adjust for inflation to get the true measure of a movie’s popularity.

Feel free to let each measurement stand for each culture.

So it’s the Friday after the noms and the studios are busy things. Universal, unwilling to do the heavy lifting for “Frost/Nixon” in December, is finally expanding Ron Howard’s film from 153 theaters to more than 1,000. Other films that are expanding: “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Wrestler,” “Rachel Getting Married,” “Revolutionary Road.” There’s a pattern, and it follows the pattern of previous years, and it’s getting a little old.

That said, here’s how the best picture nominees look in terms of box office before the expansion:

Movie
Domestic $
Thtr High
2008 BO Rank
 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
 $104M 2988 22
 Slumdog Millionaire
 $44M 582 62
 Milk $20M 356 111
 Frost/Nixon $8M 205 145
 The Reader
 $8M 507 148

Kudos to the way Paramount handled “Benjamin Button.” It put it out there in December. It didn’t wait for the Academy to bestow what it would. More congrats to Fox Searchlight who pushed “Slumdog” in the right ways.

But — and I’ve said it before — what lazy bastards over at Universal. In some ways “Frost/Nixon” is the most accessible of these films and yet it is, until the noms, the least-available. 145th??? I’m almost hoping it bites it at the box office during the next few weeks. Just to show Universal. Of course they’d probably take the wrong lesson away from the experience and stop getting involved in films like "Frost/Nixon" altogether.

Meanwhile, their art-house division, Focus Features, rumored to be on life-support, appears to be doing nothing with “Milk.” Of the little-seen best picture nominees, it’s the one that’s not expanding, and it's the one, along with "Slumdog," that's most deserving of a big audience.

Feel free to let that irony stand for the culture.

No tagsPosted at 09:47 AM on Jan 23, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Thursday January 22, 2009

Note to the Academy: Why So Serious?

The Oscar nominations were finally announced this morning, and, as soon as Forest Whitaker said “Frost/Nixon,” alphabetically passing up “The Dark Knight,” I knew that, unless the Academy subscribed to Comcast’s idiotic system of alphabeticization, they had turned their backs on the Batman. Bummer. I was beginning to root for him.

So after all of the guesses, here and here and here, these are our (or their) best picture nominees:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Frost/Nixon
Milk
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

What does this mean? As I wrote last January, since the Academy finally settled on five best picture nominees in 1944, there have only been six years when there wasn’t a top 10 box office hit among the nominees: 1947, 1984...and the last four years in a row: 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. This year, unless “Benjamin Button” can make another $50 million without getting swamped in the process (it’s currently at $103 million), it’ll probably be five years in a row. Stunning.

In the past I didn’t quite know who to blame for this divide between supposed popularity and supposed quality. The Academy? The studios? Moviegoers? But not this year. “The Dark Knight” was a critically acclaimed, monster box office hit with tons of buzz. In terms of domestic, unadjusted dollars, it was the no. 2 movie of all time. Yes, it was about superheroes, and no superhero film has been nominated before; but before “Lord of the Rings” no fantasy film had been nominated, either. The rule sticks until something breaks it. This year? Didn’t break. And it was the year to break it. We’re not talking about crap like “Spider-Man 3.” We’re talking about a pretty good movie. One of the five best of the year? Maybe. I’d take it over “Frost/Nixon” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” anyway. Don’t know about “The Reader” yet. Haven’t seen it. (Psst. It’s about the Holocaust.)

Besides, in the past, the Academy has nominated some popular but fairly suspect films for best picture. “Love Story”? “The Towering Inferno”? “Three Coins in a Fountain”? “Ghost”? It’s hardly a body to hold its nose.

Given the chance, who would I have nom'ed? I don't know. Because of the studios' idiotic system of rolling the best films out in piecemeal fashion at the end of the year, I haven't seen, oh, “Doubt” or “The Reader” or “Revolutionary Road” yet. I'd definitely nom “Milk” and “Slumdog.” I'd think about “In Bruges” and the forgotten but expertly crafted and genre-busting (or genre-solildifying) “Appaloosa.”

And I'd think about “The Dark Knight.” More than the Academy seemed to anyway.

ADDITION: Yeah, should've known. Harvey Weinstein was the man behind the push for “The Reader,” just as he was the man who pushed “Shakespeare in Love” to the crown in '98. Shame. Much talk about the next Batman villain. I suggest “Weinstein.”

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Posted at 08:09 AM on Jan 22, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Wednesday January 21, 2009

“There's Work to be Done”

Here's a great site, via Andrew Sullivan, that collects the newspaper headlines of the day. Yesterday was the day for it. Interesting to see what different editors chose to highlight or headline. There's almost poetry in it:

“A New Era,” “A New Day,” “A New Beginning,” “A New Start,” “A New Hope.”
“Hope Over Fear,” “Hope Meets History,” “History Made Today,” “History in the Making,” “Remaking America.”
“Hello, Mr. President,” “Mr. President,” “The President,” “The 44th President,” “The 44th and the First.”
“President Obama,” “Obama Ovation,” “Obama's Promise,” “Let's GObama,” “The Obama Era Begins.”
“Change,” “Change Has Come,” “The Time Has Come.”
“Face of a Nation”? “Yes, He Is.”
“Mark This Day”: “We Are Ready to Lead.”

There was also this:

It struck a chord and it took me a minute before I remembered why. It's similar to a line in “TimeQuake,” Kurt Vonnegut's last novel. I reviewed it for The Seattle Times in 1997. Back then I wrote:

Just as Billy Pilgrim could get unstuck in time (in “Slaughterhouse-Five”) and gravity could become variable (“Slapstick”), so Kilgore Trout and the world discover in “Timequake” that the universe isn't always expanding. In the year 2001, the universe has second thoughts and contracts, or hiccups, sending everyone back to what they were doing 10 years before.

It's a perverse form of eternal recurrence. Everyone has knowledge of the next decade but is unable to alter it in any fashion. They essentially become prisoners within their own bodies.

Thus, when the universe gets going again, people are unprepared — asleep at the wheel, as it were — and disasters occur. They don't realize that once again they have to drive their cars or fly their airplanes or concentrate on walking straight. So cars crash, planes plummet, people wobble and fall over.

Trout, one of the first to realize what has happened, tries to wake people out of their stupor by shouting, “You have free will!” When this doesn't work, he tells them, “You were sick, but now you are well, and there's work to do!”

It's January 21, 2009. You were sick. But now you are well. And there's work to be done.

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Posted at 02:45 PM on Jan 21, 2009 in category Politics
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Sam Cooke Quote of the Day

There’ve been times that I thought
I couldn’t last for long
Now I think I’m able
To carry on

It’s been a long
A long time coming
But I know
Change gonna come
Oh, yes it will

— Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come.” Great use of this song, by the way, in Spike Lee's “Malcom X.”

ADDENDUM: The New York Times editorial on the inaugural speech.

Tags: ,
Posted at 08:35 AM on Jan 21, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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Tuesday January 20, 2009

1-20-09

Since last February I’ve seen bumper stickers, and sometimes signs and t-shirts, celebrating my upcoming birthday. “1-20-09,” they read. Sometimes they added: “End of an Error,” which I thought a bit much. The first 45 years of my life have had their share of bumps but I wouldn’t say they were an “error.” That’s a tough decision from the official scorer.

OK, jokes aside, you and I and the world have been waiting for this day. It’s not just because the most incompetent guy is leaving. It’s because the most competent guy is arriving. For the past year I’ve littered this blog with the overall thought that the wrong guy — the guy obsessed with numbers rather than people, with getting ahead rather than helping others get ahead — is invariably put in charge. That’s certainly the lesson of “The Wire.” It’s even the lesson of that recent article on Tim Palen and marketing. We’ve become a nation that sells the insubstantial so well we’ve convinced ourselves it’s substantial. Maybe that’s the error we’re tryng to end.

It’s been a helluva ride. I first heard him speak at the annual Minnesota Democratic-Farm-Labor dinner in downtown Minneapolis in the spring of '06 and he cut through my cynicism right away. “Jesus,” I thought, “this guy could do it.” He was my guy from the get-go, even as the press 1) dismissed him too soon, then 2) annointed him too soon, then 3) invariably missed the point. But I still had my doubts. Sure, the Democrats might vote for him. But the nation? When idiocies flared up, when Palen and that circus arrived, when community organizers were dismissed out-of-hand as somehow undeserving, he stayed calmer than I did. I went to him to get calm. He gave us this, and this, and this. We gave him this.

I’m 46 today and the most competent guy is arriving. It's the best birthday present I ever got.

Now let’s get this party started.

No tagsPosted at 08:39 AM on Jan 20, 2009 in category Politics
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Monday January 19, 2009

Quote of the Day

"It's funny that Paul Haggis says he was worried that Crash's trailer "was going to seem like overly significant claptrap," because that's how I felt about the entire movie. So I'd say the trailer was pretty accurate."

— Ross Pfund on The Man Who Sold "Crash" to the World

No tagsPosted at 10:52 AM on Jan 19, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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Sunday January 18, 2009

My Year of Watching French Cinema

A quick word on some of the new images cycling to our left.

Late last year I was getting sick of that first image you’d see every time you navigated to this site: me, in the summer of 2007, slouched over and writing in my notebook on a bridge in le Somail in southern France. It made sense — here’s my writing, so here’s me writing — but it was getting old. We needed something new.

The images now cycling through are hardly new — most are old movie posters — but they’re new to me. I watched most of them for the first time in 2008. Excluding movies I watched for research (the Batman films, the Tyler Perry films), and films seen in the theater, I rented and watched, according to Netflix, 84 films in 2008. It seems like a huge timesuck but most of them were worthwhile. I’ve divided them into categories below.

We all arrive in our culture in medias res and spend most of our lives trying to catch up, and this was the year I tried to catch up with French cinema. Infinitely more difficult than catching up with pre-1963 U.S. cinema. How many Bogart and Cagney references — from Woody Allen to Frank Gorshin — did I see before I saw a Bogart or Cagney film? Hundreds. I knew these guys before I knew them. But no one referenced Jean Gabin when I was growing up. It wasn’t until this year, at the embarrassing age of 45, while watching Max Ophuls’ Le Plaisir, that I went: “Hey, isn’t that the guy from Touchez Pas Au Grisbi? And Port of Shadows? And La Grande Illusion?” Which lead to Can Can and Pepe Le Moko and La Bete Humain and Les Bas-Fonds. For those unfamiliar: Imagine Spencer Tracy with Humphrey Bogart’s roles and Katherine Hepburn’s longevity. Voila.

Thoughts, for what they’re worth, crystallized. Love Max Ophuls and Henri-Georges Clouzot. Jean-Pierre Melville strikes me a little cold. The French New Wave is beginning to annoy. The humor in Les Visiteurs doesn’t travel well but the humor in Le Diner de Cons does. La Faute au Fidel!, about a girl growing up in Paris, feels like me growing up in Minnesota.

As for American films? Boy, Gone Baby Gone was good. God, Brando was powerful in Julius Caesar. Jesus, how come Red Belt didn’t get better reviews?

This was also the year “catching up” felt more and more like a losing proposition. The more you know, the less you know, and I definitely don't know much about world cinema. How do you catch up with entire cultures? But you keep at it. You begin to plan. How much time do I have left? What’s worth that time?

The movies in bold were worth my time.

FRENCH FILMS
Boudu Sauve des Eaux (1932)     
Les Miserables (1934)
Pepe le Moko (1936)

Le Quai de Brumes (1939)     
Le Corbeau (1943)
La Ronde (1950)
Casque d'Or (1952)
Le Plaisir (1952)
The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)    

French Cancan (1954)     
Les Diaboliques (1955)
Nuit et Brouillard (1955)

Bob Le Flambeur (1956)
Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1959)
Pickpocket (1959)    
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Le Vieil Homme et L’Enfant (1967)     
Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
La Souffle au coeur (1971)
Cet Obscur Objet du Desir (1977)
Coup de Torchon (1981)
Au Revoir Les Enfants (1988)

La Gloire de Ma Pere (1990)    
Le Chateau de Ma Mere (1990)
Les Visiteurs (1993)
Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993)
Trois Couleurs: Blanc (1994)
Trois Couleurs: Rouge (1994)
Le Diner de Cons (1997)
Henri Cartier-Bresson: Biogrpahie eines Blicks (2003)     
Le Placard (2001)
Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles (2004)    
La Faute au Fidel! (2006)
Avenue Montaigne (2006)
Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (2007)

OTHER FOREIGN FILMS
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)
Sansho Dayu (1954)
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Wild Strawberries (1957)

Sholay (1975)
Gegen die Wand (2004)    
Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005)
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)
Mongol (2007)

Om Shanti Om (2007)
El Orfanato (2007)
Lust, Caution (2007)

RECENT U.S. FILMS
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Grindhouse: Death Proof (2007)     
The Kingdom (2007)
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Gone Baby Gone (2007)            
The Savages (2007)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)     
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)     
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
The Bank Job (2008)
In Bruges (2008)
Redbelt (2008)

Harold and Kumar...Guantanamo Bay (2008)
Baby Mama (2008)
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
Get Smart (2008)
You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008)    

OLDER U.S. FILMS
Crossfire (1947)
Ace in the Hole (1950)
The Band Wagon (1953)    
Julius Caesar (1953)

The Longest Day (1961)
Becket (1964)
Silent Movie (1976)
All That Jazz (1979)

DOCUMENTARIES
I, Claudius: The Epic That Never Was (1965)    
Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001)
Imaginary Witness (2004)
Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)
In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (2007)

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (2007)
Nanking     (2007)
Helvetica (2007)
Surfwise     (2007)
Standard Operating Procedure (2008)
Encounters at the End of the World (2008)

A demain.

Tags: ,
Posted at 04:21 PM on Jan 18, 2009 in category Movies - Foreign
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Saturday January 17, 2009

An Ad For Something No One Needs

A friend once wrote a song called “Mr. Time,” which, in its overall sense of losing everything (inch by inch) while waiting for something, anything, to happen, I’ve always, unfortunately, identified. One stanza in particular hits home:

Tooth by tooth
You put on a smile
And stuff in a word for yourself
But every word on your own behalf
Is just an ad for something that no one needs

There’s doing and there’s selling. The great myth of America is that it’s all about doing (Horatio Alger, bootstraps, etc.), while the great reality of America is that it’s all about selling. I’m not a bad doer but I think I’m one of the worst sellers in the world. I can sell nothing, particularly myself, because of what’s articulated in “Mr. Time.” Every word on my own behalf does feel like an ad for something that no one needs.

This means, yes, I’m still thinking about Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece on Tim Palen and Hollywood marketers. Particularly these lines: “Publicity is selling what you have... Marketing, very often, is selling what you don’t have...” These are people so good at their craft they can sell what doesn’t exist. Remarkable. God, I hate them.

I do want to mention one area where I agree with marketers. It comes two-thirds of the way through the article and involves test audiences. Friend writes:

Yet testing is fraught: it rewards comedy, narrative, and familiar stars or plot elements, and often undervalues the new. Executives’ testing stories take divergent paths to the same punch line. Either they decided not to tamper with a “Pulp Fiction,” despite testing results invariably described as “the lowest scores in the studio’s history,” or they were confounded when an “Akeelah and the Bee” faltered commercially despite “the highest scores in the studio’s history.” In both scenarios, the numbers lied. “Testing is a sham,” one marketing consultant says. “All you’ve learned is what people thought of a movie they didn’t have to pay for. It does not mean they’re going to go pay for it.”

Ex-motherf---ing-actly. Particularly the line about undervaluing the new. It was the same for “Seinfeld” and the British “Office” and the American “Office”: low, low audience test scores. People didn’t get these shows. They didn’t get “Pulp Fiction.” I’ve never seen anything like this before so it can’t be any good. In this way, test audiences are actually like marketers, who, according to Friend’s article, have trouble selling the new because there’s no playbook for it. It takes a lot of luck for a “Seinfeld” to get through. One wonders how many “Seinfeld”s — and thus cash cows — get killed in the process.

So that’s the area where I agree with marketers. Here’s the area where I don’t get marketers. These are people who supposedly can sell anything — including something that doesn’t exist. They can sell crap and make us think it’s pudding. But they can’t sell quality.

The best films are sold on a limited basis, in select cities, and might, if carefully nurtured, make it into most big cities and most states. But that’s if it’s lucky and the zeitgeist is right. Otherwise, not.

I know marketers take their orders from someone else, as we all do, but some marketers, as Friend tells us, are now running the studios. Universal, run by a former marketer, is one of the worst culprits. Unless they know something I don’t, unless there’s a strategy here that I don’t see, they’re in the process of killing both “Frost/Nixon” and “Milk.”

There’s an assumption out there that people don’t want quality. There’s an assumption out there that people want (the same old) crap. I’m hardly a pollyanna but, more and more, I’m assuming the opposite.

That’s the unanswered question from Friend’s article. It’s the unasked question of marketers and admen everywhere: How good can you be if you can’t even sell quality?

No tagsPosted at 12:17 PM on Jan 17, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Friday January 16, 2009

The Man Who Sold "Crash" to the World

When Crash won the Oscar for best picture, I was half-drunk at a party in Seattle but sobered up quickly. I had to. I’d promised my editor at MSNBC that if the unthinkable did happen, if Crash won best picture that night over Brokeback Mountain, I’d write a piece about it. I finished it at 10 a.m. the next morning. It included diatribe, head-shaking and a quiz. It included everything but a culprit.

Now we have one. In the Jan. 19 issue of The New Yorker, regular contributor Tad Friend writes about Tim Palen, co-president of theatrical marketing at Lionsgate, the studio responsible for, on the one hand, Fahrenheit 9/11, 3:10 to Yuma, The Bank Job and Gods and Monsters, and, on the other, the Saw films, The Punisher (both recent versions), Good Luck Chuck and Witless Protection.

These two hands are obviously my hands, critical hands, hands that divide quality from crap. They would not be Palen’s.

Friend drops a bomb early:

Publicity is selling what you have: the film’s stars and sometimes its director. Marketing, very often, is selling what you don’t have; it’s the art of the tease.

That's great, insidery detail but it feels like it's missing the point. Yes, marketing, in this sad age, is selling what you don’t have. But how is that a tease? A tease is offering what you do have but not following through. Selling what you don’t have? The rest of us call that a lie. Sometimes we call it a felony.

In Hollywood, they brag about it.

“The most common comment you hear from filmmakers after we’ve done our work is ‘This is not my movie,’ ” Terry Press, a consultant who used to run marketing at Dreamworks SKG, says. “I’d always say, ‘You’re right—this is the movie America wants to see.’”

Nice. Apparently Hollywood isn’t dream factory enough. Apparently Hollywood filmmakers aren’t offering enough wish fulfillment. That’s where marketers come in. They lie to us about the lie. If the film is crap, they figure out ways to get us to eat it. Palen is one of the best at this. He entices us into the restaurant, gets us to sit down at the table, gets us to chew. By the time we realize what we're eating, he’s gone.

And, yes, he’s the one responsible for the bad taste in our mouths the morning of March 6, 2006:

Paul Haggis, the writer-director of the 2005 film “Crash,” says, “I came in thinking Tim was doing everything wrong. He made the poster Michael Peña screaming over his daughter, rather than selling Brendan Fraser or Matt Dillon or Sandra Bullock. I worried that the trailer, a mood piece about how people have to crash into each other to feel alive, was going to seem like overly significant claptrap. Then Tim and Sarah”—Sarah Greenberg, Palen’s co-president, who handles publicity—“came to me and said, ‘We’re going to go for an Academy campaign.’ I really, really thought they were crazy: this was a little six-million-dollar film.” For the cost of three full-page ads in the Times, about two hundred thousand dollars, Lionsgate sent more than a hundred thousand DVDs of the film to every member of the Screen Actors Guild—pioneering a now common saturation technique. In a huge upset, “Crash” beat “Brokeback Mountain” and “Munich” to win Best Picture.

Remember how polarizing that battle was? That’s Palen’s specialty. The article opens with the premiere of Oliver Stone’s W., a Lionsgate film Palen has to sell, even though, particularly for a Stone film, it’s actually, unfortunately, kind of fair. Palen can’t use that. “From the marketing perspective,” he says, “we needed some teeth.” Later, Friend writes: “Palen has always believed in being polarizing, always been willing to alienate much of the audience in order to motivate his core.” Dots aren’t connected, but one can’t help but be reminded of someone else who sold us a W.

It’s a sad article, a wag-the-dog article that is more effective for Friend’s restraint. Marketers now run the show: Oren Aviv at Disney; Marc Shmuger at Universal. “Marketing considerations shape not only the kind of films studios make,” Friend writes, “but who’s in them.” Why are stars disappearing? This is part of the reason. Why so many niche movies? This is part of the reason. Why do films no longer bind us together but keep us apart? This is part of the reason.

It's a must-read. Palen, whose mother was assistant to a cheese manufacturer, tends to use the word “cheese” to describe what he’s selling. “America likes cheese,” he says of Good Luck Chuck. “...straight out of the America-loves-cheese playbook,” he says of an upcoming Gerard Butler trailer. It’s a kind word for what he’s selling. Don't bite like the Academy did.

No tagsPosted at 07:29 AM on Jan 16, 2009 in category Movies
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Thursday January 15, 2009

Quote of the Effin' Year

"A gangly Illinois politician whom 'the base' would today label a RINO—a Republican in Name Only—once pointed out that you can fool some of the people all of the time. We now know how many 'some' is: twenty-seven per cent. That’s the proportion of Americans who, according to CNN, cling to the belief that George W. Bush has done a good job.

"The wonder is that this number is still in the double digits, given his comprehensively disastrous record. During the eight years of the second President Bush, the unemployment rate went from 4.2 per cent to 7.2 per cent and climbing; consumer confidence dropped to an all-time low; a budget surplus of two hundred billion dollars became a deficit of that plus a trillion; more than a million families fell into poverty; the ranks of those without health insurance rose by six million; and the fruits of the nation’s economic growth went almost entirely to the rich, while family incomes in the middle and below declined. What role the Bush Administration’s downgrading of terrorism as a foreign-policy priority played in the success of the 9/11 attacks cannot be known, but there is no doubting its responsibility for the launching and mismanagement of the unprovoked war in Iraq, with all its attendant suffering; for allowing the justified war in Afghanistan to slide to the edge of defeat; and for the vertiginous worldwide decline of America’s influence, prestige, power, and moral standing."

— Hendrik Hertzberg, "Talk of the Town," New Yorker, Jan. 19, 2009

No tagsPosted at 08:32 AM on Jan 15, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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Wednesday January 14, 2009

Now Playing: 678 Miles Away

Yesterday I mentioned the nine films currently in the running for the best foreign-language-film Oscar and then added, almost apologetically, that I hadn't seen any of them and had only heard of two: "Waltz with Bashir" and "The Class."

There's a reason. I tried to Netflix the films (on the off chance) but of course none are available yet, and they don't even know when they'll be available. That's of the films Netflix recognizes. Five of the nine.

So I looked them up on boxofficemojo on the off-chance they came through Seattle without my knowledge. Appears not. In fact, only one of the films ("Bashir," from Israel, which the National Society of Film Critics considered the best movie of 2008) is even playing in the U.S. If I got off my high-horse I could see it. In Vancouver B.C. The nearest showing in this country is at the Clay theater in San Francisco: 678 miles away.

I know, I know. Once these films get nom'ed, or when one wins, we'll have a better chance to see them, or it, but this is part of the problem. Increasingly, the industry relies on the Oscars to garner attention for good films ("Bashir," "Milk"), and thus hold off on distributing the good films until the Oscars are announced. Which means the Oscars are increasingly full of films moviegoers have never heard of. Which means we pay less attention to the the Oscars. And on and on.

If I were the Academy I'd tell studios and distributors to get the hell off my back already and lend a hand. Things'll go farther faster if the studios start pushing, too.

ADDENDUM: John Hartl, who should know, confirms that none of the nine have made it through the Puget Sound area. The good news: "Bashir" will be here Jan. 30; "The Class" soon after. 

No tagsPosted at 07:28 AM on Jan 14, 2009 in category Movies - Foreign
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Tuesday January 13, 2009

And Then There Were Nine...

According to Variety, the Academy Award's best foreign-lanuage film category is down to nine:

  • Austria, "Revanche," Gotz Spielmann, director
  • Canada, "The Necessities of Life," Benoit Pilon, director
  • France, "The Class," Laurent Cantet, director
  • Germany, "The Baader Meinhof Complex," Uli Edel, director
  • Israel, "Waltz with Bashir," Ari Folman, director
  • Japan, "Departures," Yojiro Takita, director
  • Mexico, "Tear This Heart Out," Roberto Sneider, director
  • Sweden, "Everlasting Moments," Jan Troell, director
  • Turkey, "3 Monkeys," Nuri Bilge Ceylan, director.
Hope some come this way. I've heard of two.
No tagsPosted at 03:30 PM on Jan 13, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Hall of Fame Links

A batch of fun articles on ESPN.com yesterday about Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by (lest we forget) the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). How great that the most prestigious awards in our national pastime — Hall of Fame, MVP, Cy Young — are doled out by observers rather than participants? Image, for example, the most prestigious film award being that scroll from the National Society of Film Critics.

How good was Rickey? He was, according to Tim Kurkjian’s article, “too good.” Kurkjian gives us the stats but this is the one I like: The career stolen-base gap between Henderson in first place (1,406) and Lou Brock in second (938) is 468 — which is more than the entire total for the active leader, Juan Pierre (429).

Great quotes from pitchers, too. Here’s Mike Flanagan:

“He was, by far, the most dynamic leadoff hitter I've ever seen. If you got 2-0 on him, you were fearful of throwing it down the middle because he could hit a home run. But if you threw ball three, he was going to walk, and then he's on second base. We had many, many long discussions on our pitching staff about how we could control this guy. He was irritating, infuriating and great.”
Tom Candiotti is less diplomatic:
“I hated Rickey. Really, I couldn't stand him. He never swung at my knuckleball, he never swung at my curveball. He never swung until he got two strikes. He had the strike zone the size of a coffee can.”
Rob Neyer returns to that career stolen-base record and argues why no one will ever break it. He keeps drilling down. Active leader Juan Pierre is 31 percent of the way to Rickey’s record but he’s also 31 years old. Next on the list is Omar Vizquel, who’s 41. Among young speedsters, Jose Reyes, is 25 with 290 steals. During the last four years he’s averaged 65 steals per season, and to catch Henderson, Neyer writes, “all Reyes has to do is continue stealing 65 bases per season … for another 17 seasons.” Last season Reyes stole 56 bases so he’s already off the mark. So Neyer creates a fictional speedster and tells us what he’ll have to do. He’ll have to arrive in the majors early, steal a lot early, last 20 seasons, and average 70 steals per season for those 20 seasons. The catch? “In the first nine seasons of this new century, only two players — Reyes and Scott Podsednik — have managed to steal 70 bases in even one season.”

Finally, it’s worthwhile to check out Neyer’s arguments against Jim Rice and for Tim Raines, not because I necessarily agree — I haven’t crunched the numbers — but as a reminder of how difficult it is to measure quality. Few industries are as meritocratic as baseball. Entire professions — scouts and coaches — have been created to judge and aid excellence in baseball. Then there are the numbers players leave behind. We know their quality by their quantity: 1,406; 755; 511; .366. And yet we still have these arguments. Most industries don’t nurture talent so systematically, and there are no numbers. We’re forced to rely on other means. These means. Imagine baseball with no scouts and no stats and you have some idea how the rest of the world is working.

Badly.

No tagsPosted at 08:42 AM on Jan 13, 2009 in category Baseball
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Monday January 12, 2009

A Universal Lack of Focus

After potential Oscar-nominee “Gran Torino” did so well at the box office, I checked out how the other Oscar contenders are faring:

Film
Studio Thtr High
Dom. B.O.
The Dark Knight
WB
4366
$531M
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Par.
2988$94M
Slumdog Millionaire
FoxS
614
$34M
Milk
Focus
356
$19M
Frost/NixonUni.
205$7M

The box office for “Dark Knight” is obviously no surprise. It’s a good film but it’s in the running because of its box office. If it had made, say, $19 million, like “Milk,” you’d be hearing crickets.

Kudos to Paramount. They put “Benjamin Button” out there and people are responding. Kudos to people.

The box office for “Slumdog Millionaire,” meanwhile, is a nice surprise but shouldn’t be. Fox Searchlight is the same studio that smartly promoted “Sideways” in 2004, “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2006, and “Juno” in 2007. Apparently they know what they’re doing. Apparently they can sell a good film with universal themes even though it’s set in a foreign country. How about that?

But WTF with Universal and its specialty division Focus Features? Two of the most talked-about films of the fall, “Milk” and “Frost/Nixon,” and moviegoers have barely had the chance to see them. Is the studio waiting for the Oscar noms before they push? What if the noms are disappointing? What if the attention goes elsewhere? What then?

Perhaps I should cut Focus Features some slack — they slipped “Brokeback Mountain” into a homophobic America in 2005 and made $83 million — and one assumes the strategy for “Milk” is similar. But then there’s this worrisome report from Patrick Goldstein.

More, Focus’ strategy with “Milk” isn’t looking at all like their strategy for “Brokeback.” Check out the theater totals for the first seven weekends of both “Brokeback” and “Milk”:

WK
BROKEBACK MILK
1.
 5 36
2.
 69 99
3.
 217 328
4.
 269 356
5.
 483 311
6.
 683 309
7.
 1,196 295

Meanwhile, I have no idea what Universal is doing with “Frost/Nixon.” Ron Howard has had a long-time relationship with the studio. He’s made 10 films for them, including five that made more than $100 million, including, from those five, two Oscar contenders (“Apollo 13”; “A Beautiful Mind”), and every one of those 10 films played on more than a thousand screens. One assumes they know what they’re doing with “F/N,” too. On the other hand, the studio’s last movie with Howard was “Cinderella Man,” which the studio opened wide and disastrously in June 2005. Maybe they’re gun shy. Or maybe, to stay with the Nixonian theme, it’s as Deep Throat says in “All the President’s Men”: “The truth is, these aren’t very smart guys, and things got out of hand."

No tagsPosted at 08:30 AM on Jan 12, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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"Slumdog" Has Its Day

It was nice to see "Slumdog Millionaire" win big at The Golden Globes.

OK, it was nice to hear that "Slumdog Millionaire" won big at the GGs because, while I watched some of it while straightening up, folding clothes, etc., I went to bed before the big guns came out. A couple things that struck me as they had my spotty attention:

1. Odd to see Kate Winslet tearing up for her award for best supporting actress for "The Reader." I thought: "Doesn't she know this is the Golden Globes, the Hollywood Foreign Press, and so doesn't matter much? It's not an industry award like the Oscars. It's not a critics award like the NSFC. It's just this." 

2. Glad "In Bruges" won some awards, including Colin Farrell as best actor in a comedy/musical. The film, though, should've won best comedy/musical over "Vicky Christina Barcelona." If you haven't seen it, see it.

3. Salma Hayek looks great in HD.

4. A commercial played for "Frost/Nixon" and, as usual, the VO said at the end: "Now playing." To which I responded, "Now barely playing." Expect an upcoming rant about this. At the moment, Universal has "F/N" in only 205 theaters around the country. As opposed to, say, Paramount which has "Benjamin Button" in 2988 theaters around the country. Not sure what Universal's strategy is here — particularly since they're shelling out dough for the ads.

5. Did I mention that Salma Hayek looks great in HD? For that matter, so do Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise.

So what does it mean that "Slumdog" won best drama? In terms of the Oscars, not much. The last GG/Drama winner that wound up winning the Academy Award for best picture was the third "Lord of the Rings" movie in 2003. Since then, the GGs have gone with "The Aviator," "Brokeback Mountain," "Babel" and "Atonement." None have picked up the Oscar. Some, obviously, should have, but that's a whole other can of whupass.

UPDATE: Nikki Finke live-blogged the GGs here. Good insider stuff: Who's buying what.

UPDATE: David Carr adds his thoughts — particularly on the vanishing and hobbled indie divisions of the studios.

No tagsPosted at 08:01 AM on Jan 12, 2009 in category Movies
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Sunday January 11, 2009

Less Than Grand 'Torino'

The weekend isn’t over yet but the weekend box office race is. They know us too well now and have already calculated how we’ll act the rest of the day.

The surprise winner is Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” which expanded from 80+ theaters on Thursday to over 2,800 Friday. Moviegoers, including Patricia and myself Friday night, responded.

Both of us were disappointed. The film works within Eastwood’s oeuvre — particularly: how his character responds to violence — but, by itself, it’s wanting. Eastwood’s famous one-take directing style works less well with non-actors like the Hmong than with actors at the top of their craft, like Gene Hackman or Morgan Freeman, or, here, John Carroll Lynch (Marge Gunderson’s husband in “Fargo” and Arthur Leigh Allen in “Zodiac”), who plays Martin, the Italian barber. Some nice scenes in that shop, even if, once the Jewish tailor and the Irish construction worker arrive in the film, it all feels too much like Eastwood’s departed vision of America. I’m still waiting on the Chinese launderer.

But the big problem is still: None of the Hmong are actor enough to stand with Eastwood. They seem cowed by his presence. They mumble. They strike false notes. Again and again. They could’ve used some more takes, or coaching, or something. Even the baby-faced priest isn't a powerful enough presence. They should've gotten someone who could stand toe-to-toe with Eastwood. They didn't.

Even so, I’m glad the film got out there and people responded, and it made me wonder how the potential Oscar nominees are doing thus far at the box office.

Tomorrow.

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Posted at 01:26 PM on Jan 11, 2009 in category Movies
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Saturday January 10, 2009

Death-of-Journalism Quote of the Day

"If you’re hearing few howls and seeing little rending of garments over the impending death of institutional, high-quality journalism, it’s because the public at large has been trained to undervalue journalists and journalism. The Internet has done much to encourage lazy news consumption, while virtually eradicating the meaningful distinctions among newspaper brands. The story from Beijing that pops up in my Google alert could have come from anywhere. As news resources are stretched and shared, it can often appear anywhere as well: a Los Angeles Times piece will show up in TheWashington Post, or vice versa."

— Michael Hirschorn, "End Times: Can America's paper of record survive the death of newsprint? Can journalism?" in The Atlantic

No tagsPosted at 10:37 AM on Jan 10, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday January 09, 2009

DGAs, PGAs, AAs, Blah Blahs,

The Directors Guild of America came out with their nominees for best picture yesterday and it's the same five as the PGAs, which is the same five as Entertainment Weekly went with last week, which is the same five that insider friend of Jeffrey Wells picked in early December:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frost/Nixon
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire

Does that mean we're down to it? Is this the list the Academy will wind up with? Perhaps.

The big question is: Have the PGAs and the DGAs ever agreed on all five nominations, and, if so, what was the Academy response?

Yes to the first part. Two years ago, both the PGAs and the DGAs agreed on all five picks: Babel, The Departed, Dreamgirls, Little Miss Sunshine and The Queen. But the Academy went with only four of the five, opting for Letters from Iwo Jima over Dreamgirls. That could happen again. Hell, it might even be a Clint Eastwood movie again.

The big question is still Dark Knight. A superhero film has never been nominated best picture. But, if reports are to be believed, some members of the Academy are tired of how marginalized best picture nominees have become and want a blockbuster in there. DK is certainly that.

And keep in mind: DGA and AA best pic nominees are more likely to agree than not. Of the 40 films both bodies have nominated this decade, they've agreed on 34. Four years in a row (2002-2005), there wasn't a difference between the two.

We'll find out for sure on January 22. 

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Posted at 08:35 AM on Jan 09, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Thursday January 08, 2009

My Year in a Meme

Following Tim's lead, here's a year-end meme. Feel free:

   1. What did you do in 2008 that you'd never done before? Started a blog. Still haven’t figure out what it’s for. Keep going back to that “Simpsons” scene in which a destitute Krusty holds up a sign: “Will drop pants for food.” Bart and Lisa ask how it’s going and he points to a crazy old man, pants around his ankles, and complains, “Not good. That guy’s giving it away for free!” I’m that crazy old man.
   2. Did you keep your new years' resolutions, and will you make more for next year? Might’ve done the usual “write an effin’ book” one, in which case: No. As for 2009, it’s a bit late.
   3. Did anyone close to you give birth? Yes.
   4. Did anyone close to you die? Yes.
   5. What foreign countries did you visit? Vancouver, B.C. It felt like home.
   6. What would you like to have in 2009 that you lacked in 2008? A greater sense of national and international stability. Plus less rain. Plus improved French. Should I go on?
   7. What date from 2008 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? November 4.
   8. What was your biggest achievement of the year? Enduring? I was kind of proud of the Slate and the Believer pieces. P and I also took care of a lot of kids without injuring any.
    9. What was your biggest failure? They were numerous and more-or-less equal.
  10. Did you suffer illness or injury? Healthy for 10 months, sick for six weeks. Plus the pulled back muscle. To quote J.T.: "You old."
  11. What was the best thing you bought? Probably the HDTV. You could also say “an Obama victory” since I contributed, but...the contribution was small compared to how much I contributed to the HDTV.
  12. Whose behavior merited celebration? Well, P put up with me, so that’s something. And Obama here and here. And Andy here. Too many to count, really.
  13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed? Steve Schmidt? Sarah Palin? John McCain? All those who sacrificed long-term possibilities for short-term profits.
  14. Where did most of your money go? Into the housing crisis.
  15. What did you get really, really, really excited about? Obama. The Wire.” Paz Vega. Jean Gabin. That hike Jim and I took near Mt. Baker on an impossible clear and warm Sunday in September.
  16. What song(s) will always remind you of 2008? “Oh What a World” by Rufus Wainwright; “F**k Was I” by Jenny Owens Young; “Supernatural Superserious” by R.E.M.; “Breathless” by Dan Wilson; “Ramshackle Day Parade” by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros; “Henrietta’s Hair” by Justin Roberts.
  17. Compared to this time last year, are you happier or sadder? More resigned. Also hopeful.
  18. Compared to this time last year, are you thinner or fatter? Same.
  19. Compared to this time last year, are you richer or poorer? About the same. If I were a stock, my shareholders would be pissed. Although I guess not this year.
  20. What do you wish you'd done more of? Travel, write, study French. Should I continue?
  21. What do you wish you'd done less of? Watched movies that, yes, everyone was right, weren’t that good. Surfed the net meaninglessly.
  22. How will you be spending Christmas? Spent it. Nursed burgeoning bronchitis while two boys went slowly crazy with presents.
  23. Did you fall in love in 2008? Every day. Or tried to.
  24. How many one-night stands? No singles bars, either.
  25. What was your favorite TV program? “The Wire.”
  26. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year? Well, I’m still pissed that John McCain dragged Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber onto the national stage and they haven’t left yet.
  27. What was the best book you read? “Dreams from my Father”? Really? I've got to read more.
  28. What was your greatest musical discovery? I rely on the discoveries of friends.
  29. What did you want and get? That HDTV.
  30. What did you want and not get? Oh, honey. Where does one start? Some were good not to get, too. 
  31. What was your favorite film of this year? “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
  32. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you? 45. I’ve forgotten.
  33. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? Coalescing my thoughts into something that felt substantial.
  34. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2008? Is this waterproof?
  35. What kept you sane? P. Obama. Andrew Sullivan. Craig. Jim. Jellybean. Music. Anyone doing the hard work to articulate the trouble and see the beauty.
  36. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? Paz and Penelope and Obama.
  37. What political issue stirred you the most? No one issue. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. The Republicans keep tossing up figures who aren’t that smart but whose minds are closed. Obama, meanwhile, is the smartest man in almost any room he walks into...and he still wants to hear what you have to say.
  38. Who do you miss the most? Sharon and Scott. Plus Jordy and Ryan everyday. Plus about a dozen people around the world I could talk to right now.
  39. Who was the best new person(s) you met? I’m sure I’m forgetting someone.
  40. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2008. I keep learning the same things on hopefully deeper levels.
  41. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year. Twofold.
“Too far out
Too far out
This is what they said would happen
We were warned
We were warned
We were too far out”
    — The Tropicals
and
“It’s alright
It’s alright
It’s alright
Honey, it’s alright
Long as I know that you love me, baby,
It’s alright”
    — Sam Cooke

No tagsPosted at 10:41 AM on Jan 08, 2009 in category Personal Pieces
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Wednesday January 07, 2009

PGAs: Four of Five

The PGAs, or Producers Guild of America nominees, which honors producers of both motion pictures and television, were announced a few days ago, and in the key category, motion picture of the year, the nominees were:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frost/Nixon
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire

First, it's nice the PGAs don't alphabetize the way Comcast does (yeah, I'm not letting go of that one), and, second, the list is the same list of best picture nominees EW predicted for the Oscars a few days earlier — not to mention the same list Jeff Wells (or an industry insider Friend Of Jeff Wells) mentioned in early December.

Which means?

As far as EW and FOJW? Who knows. As far as the PGAs, if recent history has any meaning, it means we're down to four of the five. Since 2004, the PGAs and the Oscars have agreed on every picture but one — with the PGA going for, in order, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” over “Atonement” (2007), “Dreamgirls” over “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006), “Walk the Line” over “Munich” (2005) and “The Incredibles” over “Ray” (2004). Before that, the PGA sometimes picked six nominees and it gets harder to calculate. 

In other words, we're down to Agatha Christie territory. The five nominees should be looking at each other, wondering which one is going to get the axe. If, again, recent history has any meaning.

One thing is for sure: The days of “Doubt” and “Australia” being among the mix are long gone. 

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Posted at 08:06 AM on Jan 07, 2009 in category Movies - Awards
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Tuesday January 06, 2009

Movie Review: Marley & Me (2008)

I went to Marley & Me because Patricia wanted to go, and because we were visiting family and it seemed the kind of film the nephews (Ryan, 5, and Jordy, 7) could see as well, but I expected little. I hadn’t read the best-seller on which it was based. Hadn’t friends told me it was sappy? Didn't it play upon our love of cute puppies? You could argue a yellow-lab  puppy on a movie poster isn’t much different than a bikini-clad girl on a movie poster: our covetedness of what’s on the poster is in inverse proportion to the movie’s probable worth.

Yet Marley & Me, shockingly, contains something like the messiness of life. It’s a good life, admittedly, and a life that doesn’t exist much anymore. The main characters, John and Jennifer Grogan (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston), recently married, try to find a place in an industry, newspapers, that’s still thriving in the early 1990s. They’re beautiful and blonde, and live in a sunny state (Florida), but they’re not all sunny. Choices are made but doubts remain. Opportunities are given (a lifestyle column) but original plans die hard.

John wants to be a crack investigative journalist like his friend Sebastian, and he envies the man’s swinging bachelor lifestyle. But Jennifer wants kids. Sebastian, hearing John’s dilemma, suggests a dog, and the couple winds up with the title character, a yellow-lab puppy, the world’s worst dog. Cue misadventures. It’s fun stuff. And who doesn’t love an umanageable dog that’s owned by someone else?

But the movie isn’t really about the dog. Or if it is, it’s about what the dog represents: messiness. Most films excise messiness; Marley & Me doesn’t because messiness is the point.

So John and Jennifer decide to have kids, but she has a miscarriage...on the way to having three kids. It would’ve been easy, as a screenwriter, as a director, to get rid of the miscarriage — it didn’t add greatly to the movie — but they kept it in.

So the neighborhood they live in is dicey — a neighbor is attacked and knifed by her car — and you think, “Ah, this is how Marley shows his worth. He gets the guy preying on the neighborhood.” No. John and Jennifer simply move. To a bigger house in a better neighborhood. Then to an even bigger house in another state. Life keeps happening.

Halfway through, there’s a montage, the “wrote a column about...” montage, that is one of the better examples of the device I’ve seen. Most modern montages borrow from Rocky as a quick way to show the title character improving, but Marley’s montage merely shows life happening and is thus infinitely relatable. Most of us don’t improve the way Rocky improves. (Sorry.) We just wind up in a place where we wonder: “How did I get a spouse and kids and this home and this job? How did I get fat and old? This wasn’t part of the plan.” Marley is like the movie version of that great John Lennon line: Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

There’s a nice scene near the end between Sebastian, now a star with The New York Times, and John, a reporter for a Philadelphia newspaper, meeting by happenstance in downtown Philly. They exchange greetings, John shows a photo of the family, and there it is: Something like envy in Sebastian’s look and voice. Each envies the other’s life but each is happy enough with his own life. There’s a kind of melancholy in this. It’s not that we make good or bad choices; it’s that everyday, by the choices we make, we kill off other ways we might be. There’s great sadness in this.

Am I making too much out of what is, after all, only a dog movie? I don’t think so. Screenwriter Scott Frank is responsible for writing Minority Report, Out of Sight, Get Shorty; director David Frankel not only directed The Devil Wears Prada (another nice surprise) but is the son of Max Frankel, longtime executive editor of The New York Times, and so knows his way around a newsroom. I’m not saying the movie’s brilliant. I’m just saying that in the battle between sappy and true, more often than not, they opted for true.

We had our own messiness just going to the film. The 5-year-old threw a tantrum and stayed home and a lot of the film was over the head of the 7-year-old. Jordy has his own Marley — Seymour, the world’s most underfoot dog — and we worried how he would take the death of Marley. At the least, he seemed to take it better than Patricia, who cried for the last 10 minutes, but we’re not sure. We talked about it on the way to the car, and in the car, but I was beginning to feel the affects of an attack of bronchitis and wasn’t sharp enough or attentive enough to gauge Jordy’s reaction. More messiness. Anyway Jordy was off in his own world. He was busy making other plans. Most likely about the adventures of Lego Indiana Jones on the Wii.

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Posted at 08:34 AM on Jan 06, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Monday January 05, 2009

The Tyranny of the Short Term

The best article I've read on the financial crisis was the second-most e-mailed article on the NY Times Web site yesterday. Today's it's the most e-mailed. It's by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn and it should be read by everybody. It explains the crisis in ways that even laypeople, of which I am hopelessly one, can understand. Some highlights:

Obviously the greater the market pressure to excel in the short term, the greater the need for pressure from outside the market to consider the longer term. But that’s the problem: there is no longer any serious pressure from outside the market. The tyranny of the short term has extended itself with frightening ease into the entities that were meant to, one way or another, discipline Wall Street, and force it to consider its enlightened self-interest...

Over the last 20 years American financial institutions have taken on more and more risk, with the blessing of regulators, with hardly a word from the rating agencies, which, incidentally, are paid by the issuers of the bonds they rate...

These oligopolies, which are actually sanctioned by the S.E.C., didn’t merely do their jobs badly. They didn’t simply miss a few calls here and there. In pursuit of their own short-term earnings, they did exactly the opposite of what they were meant to do: rather than expose financial risk they systematically disguised it...

The instinct to avoid short-term political heat is part of the problem; anything the S.E.C. does to roil the markets, or reduce the share price of any given company, also roils the careers of the people who run the S.E.C. Thus it seldom penalizes serious corporate and management malfeasance — out of some misguided notion that to do so would cause stock prices to fall, shareholders to suffer and confidence to be undermined. Preserving confidence, even when that confidence is false, has been near the top of the S.E.C.’s agenda...

Read the whole thing. You get a sense that the people who are running our world are not the people who should be running our world. "The tyranny of the short term" is a phrase that could be used to describe almost every aspect of American life.

Worse: The things we did to wind up in this hole are the very things we're now doing to get us out of this hole.  We're relying on the same people. We're relying on the same institutions. We're trying to preserve confidence even when the confidence is false. 

Read the whole thing.

No tagsPosted at 09:04 AM on Jan 05, 2009 in category Politics
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Sunday January 04, 2009

NSFC Picks “Bashir”; Carr Says STFU

My guys, the National Society of Film Critics, in their annual first-Saturday-night-in-January meeting, went with “Waltzing with Bashir” as the best movie of 2007, with both “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “WALL-E” coming in second.

“Bashir,” which I began to hear about only recently, isn't playing in Seattle yet, so I'll have to wait to see it. Not that there isn't a glut of good films out there to see. Too big a glut. Too many good films. David Carr takes this tendency apart in one of his latest columns for The New York Times. He also tells people to STFU while they're in movie theaters. Double bravo.

I've got a good STFU story myself. Remind me to tell it one of these days. But first here's the entirety of the NSFC's list:

Best Picture: “Waltzing with Bashir”
Best Actor: Sean Penn, “Milk”
Best Actress: Sally Hawkins, “Happy-Go-Lucky”
Best Director: Mike Leigh, “Happy-Go-Lucky”
Best Writer: Mike Leigh, “Happy-Go-Lucky”
Best Supporting Actor: Eddie Marsan, “Happy-Go-Lucky”
Best Supporting Actress: Hanna Schygulla, “The Edge of Heaven”


About the best picture winner, Variety writes:

“Bashir,” a Sony Classics pic in the mode of the distrib's 2007 release “Persepolis,” is Israeli writer-helmer Ari Folman's animated meditation on his own experience as a soldier in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. It is seen as a contender in both the animation and foreign-langauge Oscar categories but hasn't been a regular winner of major early-season kudos.

As for the “Happy-Go-Lucky” juggernaut, well, I do want to see it, but I think the NSFC likes Mike Leigh a little more than I do.

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Posted at 11:05 AM on Jan 04, 2009 in category Movies
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Saturday January 03, 2009

Interview with a Star

In the same issue of EW there's a nice interview with Dustin Hoffman, who's still a star to me but apparently not to the Hollywood establishment:

EW: For the last decade, you've taken supporting parts in films with young directors. Was that a conscious decision? 
DH: It was put on me. In this country, the leads are in their 20s, 30s, 40s. What happens in their 50s, their 60s? Unless you make your own project or you're an action star—people are more forgiving if you have a gun—you're supporting the lead. And I love working. I don't mind doing supporting parts. It has its rewards.
EW: Jack Nicholson once said that he started taking supporting roles earlier in his career because he knew that one day he wouldn't be able to play the lead, and he didn't want it to look like a defeat.
DH: I always knew he was smarter than me. 

A couple of goofs in their “First Look 2009” section. They call Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer a newcomer in “Angels & Demons” even though she played the wife of Eric Bana in “Munich.” Worse, as a sidebar to the Hoffman interview, they include five tips on aging gracefully in Hollywood. Here's no. 2:

Take small roles where you can do something unexpected. Gene Hackman's turn in The Royal Tenenbaums showcased a quirky new dimension to his acting.

First, Hackman's role in Tenenbaums wasn't small, it was the lead. Second, “quirky new dimension”? Jesus. Third, he stopped acting three films later to write books. He's hardly the example you want for sticking around in Hollywood.

Seriously: Quirky new dimension? My god.

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Posted at 10:17 PM on Jan 03, 2009 in category Movies
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Johnny Depp Quote of the Day

Johnny Depp: Out of nowhere this script arrived with a note: “Michael Mann would like to talk to you about playing Dillinger.”
Entertainment Weekly: What was your reaction to that?
JD: Well, certainly intrigued. Intrigued by both Dillinger and Michael Mann. It's always interesting to get in the ring with a director and explore their process and see what does it for them.
EW: And what does it for him?
JD: The details of the details of the details. [Laughs] They should invent a word to describe it, because it's not just details, it teeters on microscopic obsession with every molecule of the moment... You got to salute that.

—From the 1.09.09 issue of Entertainment Weekly about the summer film (July 1 opening) I'm most excited about.

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Posted at 12:02 PM on Jan 03, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday January 02, 2009

The Baseball Essays of Stephen Jay Gould

“Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville,” Stephen Jay Gould’s posthumous book of baseball essays, is a good hot-stove-league diversion, even if, as suits his career, Gould can be pedantic, and even though he is, or was, a lifelong Yankees fan.

In case you don’t know where I stand. During Ken Burns’ 1994 “Baseball” documentary, Gould, one of the doc’s many talking heads, pissed me off for all eternity by declaring that no one could ever mention in his presence Bill Mazeroski’s homerun that won the 1960 World Series for the Pirates (their third, and first since 1925), instead of handing the Yankees yet another title (their 19th, and first since 1958), because the memory was still too painful for him. To top it off, Burns didn’t even interview a Pirates fan, or even an anti-Yankees fan, about what was, after all, one of the greatest homeruns ever hit — the dream homerun of any baseball-loving kid across the country: Game 7, bottom of the ninth, one swing, season over. Instead we got glum Yankees fans like Gould and Billy Crystal kicking the dirt. Gould then one-ups himself by talking about a kind of cosmic balance being restored to the universe with the Yankees’ 1962 World Series victory over the Giants. As payback for 1960. As redemption for Ralph Terry. Cosmic balance? Tell it to a Royals or Rangers or Mariners fan. Tell it to a Pirates fan.

Anyway, that’s where I stand.

Gould, here, is at his best when he combines his profession with his avocation. Three essays are must-reads.

In “Why No One Hits .400 Anymore,” Gould argues that while .260 may be the mean batting average throughout most of baseball history, overall improvement in play — as a diversion became a profession — has shrunk highest and lowest batting averages against that mean. I.e., everyone’s better now so it’s that much harder to be exceptional.

In “The Streak of Streaks,” ostensibly a review of Michael Seidel’s book, “Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of ‘41,” Gould writes that his colleague, Ed Purcell, a Nobel laureate in physics, studied streaks and slumps in sports, particularly baseball, and concluded that, adjusting for talent, all streaks fall within the realm of coin-tossing probability except one: DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Other academics have disputed this, but at the least you have to admire the gap between first place (DiMaggio, 56) and second (Keeler and Rose, 44). Gould finishes the piece beautifully by writing about the odds, and about the gambler whose goal is to stick around as long as possible before going bust. Then he uses this gambler as a metaphor for all of us:

DiMaggio’s hitting streak is the finest of legitimate legends because it embodies the essence of the battle that truly defines our lives. DiMaggio activated the greatest and most unattainable dream of all of humanity, the hope and chimera of all sages and shamans: he cheated death, at least for a while.

Finally, the paleontologist in Gould is excellent in “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown,” which isn’t just about the humbug of Abner Doubleday but the purpose creation myths serve.

A few of the other essays are worthwhile, too, particularly for what they evoke. “Streetball from a New York City Boyhood,” with its talk of recess and stoopball and baseball cards in bicycle spokes, helped me recall a part of my childhood. Thirty years after Gould, and half a country away, I too played a version of stoopball, throwing and catching a usually soggy tennis ball against the front steps of our home on Emerson Avenue in Minneapolis. It was, in my mind, an early version of fantasy baseball, Twins vs. the Orioles probably, with the game rigged for the Twins. That is, I’d soft-toss for the O’s and hard-toss for the Twins. Frank Robinson up...and he lines out to Carew! Here’s Big Boog Powell — ground out! Bases loaded for Killebrew —grand slam! Hwwwaaaahhhwww!

That’s the crowd cheering.

A few of the essays made me long for movies about their subjects. In “The Amazing Dummy,” Gould writes about Dummy Hoy, an above-average ballplayer from the19th century who lived long enough to throw out the first pitch in the 1961 World Series. He was also, as his name indicates, both deaf and dumb, yet still played centerfield, the most vocal of all positions, and played it well. How can that not be a movie? And, sure, Jim Thorpe’s life has already been made into a movie, starring Burt Lancaster, but you know they didn’t do it justice back in 1951. Hell, they might even be able to cast a Native American in the lead now.

But here’s the movie I’d really like to see. Earlier this decade, Billy Crystal made one of the best baseball movies ever, “61*,” about Maris, Mantle and the ’61 season, for HBO, and in that spirit, and without even deviating from numerical titles about the New York Yankees, I would love to see what he could do with: “56.”

Gould died in 2002, so didn’t live long enough to see the ignominy of many of the players he celebrated in his shorter newspaper pieces: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds. Would’ve loved to hear his take on the steroids scandal. Would’ve loved to hear his reaction to his adopted team, the Red Sox, suddenly winning everything, while his favorite team, the Yankees, shot blanks.

There’s also this postcard I have of Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 World Series homerun just burning a hole in my pocket. Would’ve loved to send it to him. Just to say hi. Just to restore some balance, cosmic or not, to the universe.

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Posted at 08:09 PM on Jan 02, 2009 in category Books
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Dark Knight: Adventures in Alphabetizing

A couple of days ago Tim alerted me to this post by Max Barry about his problems viewing a “Dark Knight” DVD. I sympathized. Now I sympathize a little more.

Last night, still getting socked by bronchitis, I wasn’t in the mood to watch anything too highfalutin, and, of Comcast’s “On Demand” films, the one Patricia wanted to see the most was “The Dark Knight.”

Except it wasn’t available in HD. How could that be? It was listed in the “Just in” section, but not among the “HD” films.

I suggested we watch something else instead. But she really wanted to see “Dark Knight.” So...

It began with that awful, VHS-era line about the film being formatted to fit your TV. Bad enough, in other words, that we couldn’t get it in HD. Now we had to get the pan-and-scan version? Even though our TV has been formatted to fit any film? I couldn’t stand it. But we’d already paid for it.

For the first 20 minutes I made apologies. “This looks much better in HD,” I told Patricia. Even so, she was enjoying herself. She’s not much into comic-book movies, but with “DK” she kept saying “Cool” and “Fun.” She’s always liked Christian Bale. And she was blown away by Heath Ledger.

Two hours later, during the credits, I hit the “stop” button, which takes you back to the “On Demand” screen, where one of those fluff-jockeys prattles on about the latest films. This one talked up “Dark Knight,” which was, she said, “available in HD.”

WTF?

I went back to Comcast’s HD movies and scrolled to the D’s. Nothing. Then it hit me. I scrolled to the T’s. There it was. “The Dark Knight.” Listed under the T’s.

My god. How dumb can we get?

Thanks for the sour taste, Comcast. 

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Posted at 12:42 PM on Jan 02, 2009 in category Movies
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Thursday January 01, 2009

A Thought for the New Year

The prayer wants to believe in you
And does in spite of all you do
It sings itself just like a song
When hope is weak and pride is strong

— Joe Henry, from “Shut Me Up,” from the album Civilians

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Posted at 11:19 AM on Jan 01, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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