erik lundegaard

Tuesday March 31, 2009

Book Quote of the Day

"I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin.... The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermillion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."

— "My Antonia" by Willa Cather

Posted at 08:30 AM on Mar 31, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Books
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Monday March 30, 2009

Review: “Duplicity” (2009)

Please accept the usual SPOILERS alert

“Duplicity” is a film with two gorgeous stars (Clive Owen, Julia Roberts) who have great chemistry. Their dialogue is smart, the film itself is sexy and lighthearted, and there’s a slow-mo scene between two feuding CEOs (Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson) that’s among the funnier things I’ve seen on a movie screen in a while. Critics like the film (66 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), A.O. Scott loved it (here), as did Patricia when we saw it Friday evening. So what the hell’s my problem?

Is it the name? The theme? The fact that the world’s a wreck now thanks to the duplicitous dealings of people like Bernard Madoff, and so distributing a sexy, light-hearted thriller using such people as heroes seems, at best, inopportune, and, at worst, a con game within a con game?

The writer/director is Tony Gilroy, the man who wrote the “Bourne” movies and wrote/directed “Michael Clayton,” which is also about people gaming each other, but which feels consequential. It seems like it matters. This doesn’t.

There’s a good article on Gilroy in the March 16th issue of The New Yorker, by D.T. Max, which references a conversation that Gilroy’s characters, Ray and Claire (Clive and Julia), have at a Lord & Taylor in midtown Manhattan. Five years earlier, when Ray was with MI-6 and Claire was with the C.I.A., she seduced him, drugged him and stole from him, and so when they meet at Lord & Taylor, both of them now in private industry, she the mole for one company whose contact in the other company is him, he’s got some shit to get off his chest. Moreso when she says she doesn’t know who he is. “I’m not great on names,” he tells her. “Where I’m solid? People I’ve slept with. That’s been a traditional area of strength for me.” It’s a great conversation and a great scene.

Then we hear it again, two years earlier in Rome, and again, and again. “The success of ‘Duplicity’ hinges,” Max writes, “on whether the audience will experience this sensation as pleasurable. Gilroy told me that he knew of no other movie where the same dialogue gets used five times for five reversals.”

Maybe that’s my problem. I enjoyed the dialogue so much the first time, it was a downer to hear it again this way. I felt cheated.

Also, let’s face it, once we hear it a second time, we know: 1) the Lord & Taylor scene is bogus, which means 2) the two are play-acting for someone, which means 3) they’re probably being bugged and are aware they’re being bugged. Thus the next time we hear the dialogue (played on a mini tape-recorder by Ray’s compatriots), it’s hardly a reversal. We already know the conversation was taped. The final time we hear it, as Ray and Claire practice the dialogue in her apartment before the first Lord & Taylor meeting — sounding less like secret agents than writers and directors arguing over word choices and line readings — yes, it’s another reversal, the biggest reversal of all. Because we discover, even if they don’t, that her place is bugged by Howard Tully (Wilkinson). Their scheme is really his scheme. Or, rather, his scheme trumps theirs.

Problem? Her apartment’s bugged? Kind of pedestrian, isn’t it? Isn’t she too smart, or tech-savvy, or paranoid for that?

You could argue that that’s the point. She thinks she’s too smart for that. He thinks he’s too smart for that. Thus their comeuppance. The New Yorker article makes it apparent that Gilroy believes in comeuppance. He thought he let Jason Bourne off too easily in the first film (he’s a professional assassin, after all) and so in the second film he’s forced to meet a girl he orphaned and deal. Same here. And that final scene, a slow pullback while they deal, is quite good.

Problem? You have four main players: Claire, Ray, Tully, and Richard Garsik (Giamatti). All are duplicitous. All deserve comeuppance. Yet Tully wins. Where’s his comeuppance?

You could extrapolate beyond the ending. You could argue that once Garsik is forced out as CEO for announcing a miracle product that doesn’t exist, he could, with nothing to lose, tell the truth. Say the whole thing was Tully’s scheme. Say Tully spent millions of his company’s money, and who knows how many man-hours, on a personal vendetta. Not to gain market advantage but out of petty revenge. And thus Tully could be forced out as well. Then nobody wins. You could extrapolate that. Maybe it’ll even be in the DVD extras. But it’s not here.

Besides, the main problem the film tries to resolve is whether Ray and Claire, two people who have made careers out of duplicity, can learn to trust one another enough to love one another. And despite the characters being well-written and well-acted within this framework... I guess I didn’t care. Maybe because I knew that even with non-agents, even with folks living the day to day, the answer to that problem is more fraught with reversals than anything Tony Gilroy could possibly imagine.

Posted at 08:51 AM on Mar 30, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Sunday March 29, 2009

“Mr. Wright's Masterly, Affectionate Vision...”

So if you're near the Two River Theater Company in Jersey in the next week, check out Craig Wright's play “Melissa Arctic,” a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's “Winter's Tale.” And if you're not, at least read Anita Gates' glowing review in The New York Times:

Mr. Wright’s lyrics are a little like Stephen Sondheim’s might be if Mr. Sondheim were stabbed by a ray of sunshine midthought. 

And if you're a theater director in Seattle, how about putting on some of Craig's plays already?

Posted at 01:53 PM on Mar 29, 2009 in category Culture
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My Most-Quoted Movie Lines - Exit

Intro. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...

My most-quoted movie lines keep changing, of course, and they’ll certainly change after this. Will they change because of this? It almost feels like writing them down makes them too... established. Can I hear myself saying Fredo’s line anymore? I’m 46. Isn’t it time to stop quoting Superman already?

Thankfully there’s always backup: 100 years of it. Quotes that explain some aspect of life :

  • “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.” — Gen. Patton in “Patton”
  • “When young, we mourn for one woman... as we grow old, for women in general.” — Old dude in “Slackers”
  • “My girlfriend’s a vegetarian, which pretty much means I’m a vegetarian. But I do love a good burger.” — Jules in “Pulp Fiction”

Most of the time, though, I simply find myself in a situation similar to a situation I’ve seen in a film...and the line’s waiting for me like an old friend.

Your wife/husband/friend is making plans for the two of you that seem far-off and/or pollyanna-ish? “You keep thinkin’, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.”

Everything about your day going wrong? Imitate Steve Martin’s impotent flailings at the fates in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”: “You’re messing with the wrong guy!”

Don’t know if that project you’re starting will lead anywhere? Jack Warden’s line in “All the President’s Men,” spoken just after the Watergate burglary, lays out the options: “Could be a story, could be crazy Cubans.”

Now that I think about it, even these quotes explain some aspect of life. Plans fail, the fates don’t care. But sometimes, if you’re in the right place at the right time, it’s not just crazy Cubans.

Posted at 11:54 AM on Mar 29, 2009 in category Movies
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Saturday March 28, 2009

My Most-Quoted Movie Lines (No. 1)

Intro. 5, 4, 3, 2...

1. “Welcome to the party, pal.”
John McClane in “Die Hard” (1988)
Screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza

Poor John McClane. He’s just a regular New York City cop visiting his estranged wife at the hoity-toity international corporation she works at in L.A., when the building is taken over by hoity-toity European terrorists. Fortunately, after this and that death struggle, he gets through to the L.A. police on an emergency reserve channel and tells them what’s going down. Unfortunately the woman at the other end merely chastises him for using the emergency reserve channel. Even after he’s shot at — even after she hears him being shot at — she sends only one black-and-white to investigate, and it’s driven by the proverbial fat, donut-eating cop who hasn’t used his gun in years. McClane, already bruised and bloody, watches from above. He sees the dude drive around and go in. Then he has to fight and kill another terrorist. Then he sees the cop about to leave, about to do nothing. So he gives him a present. He drops the terrorist’s body 30-plus stories onto the cop’s car. Which is when the terrorists inside — realizing the jig is up — begin shooting up the car like it’s a duck at a shooting gallery, and the cop is screaming for backup even as he backs his own car into a ditch to escape the gunfire. And above, John McClane looks down and says the line: “Welcome to the party, pal.”

It’s a real American line, isn’t it? Nothing hoity-toity about it. McClane’s been dealing with something for a long time, and now someone else is dealing with it, too. And he’s nothing if not a  gracious host.

I say it under similar circumstances — sans the blood and sweat and terrorists.

A car cut you off while you were biking? Welcome to the party, pal. You have asthma? Welcome to the party, pal. You’re 30 years old and have broken many hearts, and now, just now, your own heart has been broken for the first time? Welcome to the party, pal.

If something’s truly tragic, of course, I won’t say it. I’m not a complete dick. Otherwise...

Mostly I say it when the complaining person is too obtuse to realize I’ve been suffering under this “thing” (asthma; rosacea; losing baseball teams)  as long as I have. Like they’re bringing me news.

Also when their news is more or less universal. Broken hearts. Stupid bosses. Rain.

In a way, it isn’t even a “gotcha” line. Pull back far enough and it’s basically saying the human condition is messy and unpleasant. But let’s call it a party anyway. And let’s call you a pal. And welcome.

Posted at 08:59 AM on Mar 28, 2009 in category Movies
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Friday March 27, 2009

My Most-Quoted Movie Lines (No. 2)

Intro. Lines 5, 4 and 3. Would love to hear your most-quoted movie lines below.  

2. “The truth is these are not very bright guys...and things got out of hand.”
Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men” (1976)
Screenplay by William Goldman

Man, I’ve been quoting this a lot this past decade.

Scene: It’s the first underground-garage meeting between Bob Woodward and Deep Throat and Woodward is asking about the bits and pieces he and Bernstein have gathered, which they don’t know how to fit together. He talks about John Mitchell resigning to spend more time with his family. “Sounds like bullshit,” he says, in that less-cynical time, that pre-Watergate time. “We don’t quite believe that.” “No,” Deep Throat adds, “but it’s touching.” Deep Throat sees not only the larger issue with Watergate but the larger issue with Woodward. So he says the line, a line which, in its own way, explains everything. “Forget the myths the media has created about the White House,” he says. “The truth is these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

The problem isn’t just the people in charge; the problem is our myths about the people in charge. We believe we live in a meritocracy. We believe — we still believe! — people are where they are through talent and hard work. Yet what accounts for success? If I had to make a list, it might look like this:

1. Connections
2. Salesmanship
3. Persistence
4. Ruthlessness
5. Luck

Maybe intelligence should go on there. Maybe talent. But replacing what? Ruthlessness? Luck? I almost feel like I’m being charitable. I didn’t include lying, for example, or bullshit. Maybe that’s packaged under “salesmanship.”

Forget the myths...

I first began to think of the line not when I worked at the University Book Store in the mid-90s but during the five years I spent at Microsoft Games — first PC, then Xbox. The bookstore was what it was and I expected little from it. But wasn't Microsoft this mega-successful company? Shouldn’t it know better? Yet in some ways it was worse. The people in charge assumed their success meant they were smart, and that their smarts would ensure continued success. This was in the late 1990s. They were arrogant, and not very bright, and things got out of hand.

Now it seems I can’t go a month without saying the line. A friend will complain about something at work, something stupid his boss is doing, something idiotic and expensive the higher-ups are planning. “Why do they think this’ll work? How could they be so dumb?”

The truth is these are not very bright guys...

Don’t get me started on politics, on business. “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Mission Accomplished, “Bring ‘em on,” Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie,” the Terri Schiavo case, the U.S. attorney scandal, credit default swaps, Bear Stearns, Lehman Bros. “They were doing what with the prisoners?” “They were doing what with our money?” “They thought they could get away with what?

...and things got out of hand.

The line is like “The Wire” before “The Wire.” It explains everything. It’s not just for the Nixon administration anymore.

Posted at 08:48 AM on Mar 27, 2009 in category Movies
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Thursday March 26, 2009

My Most-Quoted Movie Lines (No. 3)

Intro here, No. 5 here, No. 4 here. Would love to hear your most-quoted movie lines below. 

3. “I’m smart! Not like everybody says — like dumb. I’m smart!
From “The Godfather – Part II” (1974)
Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo

It's a heart-breaking scene, isn't it? At the start of this saga, there are three sons: Sonny, Fredo, Michael. Sonny’s the volatile one, the future godfather. Mike’s the war hero, and, we soon find out, a rather cold bastard. And Fredo is, well, John Cazale. Not particularly attractive, not particularly adept at the family business. While his father’s being gunned down at a fruit stand in Little Italy, he’s doing a Woody Allen bit with his gun; then he slumps, crying, by his father’s bullet-riddled body. They don’t even bother to shoot him. In Vegas, he momentarily takes Moe Green’s side against the family, and in “II” he’s used as a pawn by Hyman Roth in Roth’s attempt to gun down Michael. Not smart.

John Cazale as Fredo Corleone in "The Godfather"In this scene, which takes place in the Corleones’ Nevada compound in the middle of winter, Michael is plotting strategy around the U.S. Senate investigation into his affairs, and, needing information, he leaves his office and consults with Fredo in a side room. This is the first scene between the two since Cuba, when Michael found out Fredo betrayed him, and Fredo is, understandably, offering mea culpas and excuses. He sits slumped in his chair, a puppet whose strings have been cut. Eventually, though, he lets loose. We find out how he feels about being stepped over (not good) and how he feels about being errand-boy for the family (ditto). Michael says, in his flat voice, “That’s the way pop wanted it” and Fredo screams, “That’s not the way I wanted it!” By this time his body is racked with almost palsied shaking — compare it with Michael’s half-lidded cool — and he says the line, a line which reveals its opposite (that Fredo isn’t smart) three times over.

First, it’s hardly Henry James. Grammatically, it’s a pretty dumb way to say you’re smart.

Second, anyone who has to say he’s smart, isn’t. Try to imagine Einstein saying the line. Try to imagine Michael saying it.

Third, haven’t you been paying attention to family lessons? Hold your friends close and your enemies closer. Never let anyone outside the family know what you’re thinking. By this point Fredo should be wary of Michael. He should view him as his enemy. And yet he still reveals everything to him. Michael probably would’ve had Fredo killed anyway, but this outburst let him know, as much as anything, how much resentment, and how little self-control, Fredo has. Thus Fredo's final boatride: Hail Mary, full of grace...

Me, I say this line (wrapped, yes, in a bad John Cazale imitation) whenever I realize I’ve just said or done something stupid. When I'm battling against my own stupidity. It’s my third-most-quoted line. You do the math.

Posted at 08:52 AM on Mar 26, 2009 in category Movies
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Wednesday March 25, 2009

Point: Obama

ED HENRY, CNN (asking a follow-up question): So on AIG, why did you wait — why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I --

ED HENRY: It seems like the action is coming out of New York in the attorney general's office. It took you days to come public with Secretary Geithner and say, look, we're outraged. Why did it take so long?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, it took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak.

**

There are also good takes on the press conference from Andrew Sullivan (love his line about the White House press corps' job being “polite assholes”) and Eric Alterman's Daily Beast piece, which posits the short-term thinking of those polite assholes versus Pres. Obama's long-term thinking.

Posted at 01:53 PM on Mar 25, 2009 in category Politics
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Meet the New Oscar-wining Three Stooges

This feels like an April Fools joke. From Variety:

MGM and the Farrelly brothers are closing in on their cast for “The Three Stooges.” Studio has set Sean Penn to play Larry, and negotiations are underway with Jim Carrey to play Curly, with the actor already making plans to gain 40 pounds to approximate the physical dimensions of Jerome “Curly” Howard. The studio is zeroing in on Benicio Del Toro to play Moe.

At first I thought, "Well, maybe the actors are playing the actors playing the Stooges. I.e., in their early days in Hollywood. Maybe it's a biopic." Nope. They're playing doofuses involved in madcap predicaments. Three Academy Awards between them, countless noms, and they're going to be poking fingers into each others' eyes and (no doubt) making more fart jokes than Ace Ventura. Low culture has never been so high. High has never been so low.

As long as it's funny. 

Posted at 12:23 PM on Mar 25, 2009 in category Movies
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My Most-Quoted Movie Lines (No. 4)

Read the introduction here and No. 5 here. I'd also love to hear other people's most-quoted movie lines below.

4. “I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world!”
— George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)
Screenplay by Fances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra. From a story by Philip Van Doren Stern

I misplaced this in the film. In my mind it was in the scene where we first see George Bailey as an adult, as Jimmy Stewart, and he’s checking out suitcases for travel abroad. Nope. He actually says it later that evening, to Mary, as they’re making their way home from Harry’s (and Mary’s) “Class of ‘28” graduation dance. Talking and flirting after their dunk in the pool, they spot the old Granville place, the home he and Mary will eventually live in, and, as per the custom, and over her objections, he makes a wish, throw a rock and breaks a window. His wish is the line. It’s what young men have wished for forever.

I love the word “crummy” in there. Poor George has been stuck in Bedford Falls for four years now while friends like Sam Wainwright — that hee-haw bastard — went off to college. At this point George is still a young man and he still thinks he controls his destiny. Before the line, he tells Mary what he’s going to be doing the next day and the day after, and none of it involves her (even as he’s falling for her), and so she makes her own wish and breaks her own window. Pretty awful, now that I think about it. Her wish — the wish we suspect she makes — is to trump his wish. Sure enough, by scene’s end, George’s father has a stroke, then dies, and George has to take over the Building & Loan. And there goes Italy and Greece and the Parthenon — let alone Samarqand. Nice effin’ wish, Mary.

Three years ago, I got into a good discussion with my brother-in-law, Eric, about this movie. We both thought it was inspirational but I argued it was inspirational only within the parameters of  “even if.” Even if you’re stuck in the same town your whole life, even if you don’t get what you most want out of life, yes, life can still be wonderful. Even if. He thought it was inspirational because of those parameters. We were both right, really, we were just in different places in our heads and hearts. Eric had done everything he could to return to his home state of Minnesota, to be near his parents and raise his kids, while I had returned to Minneapolis for a job and felt slightly uncomfortable being back. He wanted Bedford Falls and I didn’t. I still wanted to shake the dust of that crummy little town off my feet and see the world! God, I said the line a lot back then. Wrapped in the worst Jimmy Stewart imitation ever.

I say it less now but it still rings true. Every town is crummy when you’re stuck in it. The world’s a big place and worth seeing. Go. The Class of 1928 is nipping at our heels.

Posted at 08:03 AM on Mar 25, 2009 in category Movies
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Tuesday March 24, 2009

Dialogue of the Day: "Cesar" (1936)

A group of friends gather in the kitchen as a friend, Honore Panisse, dying upstairs, confesses to a priest.

Cesar: One thing worries me, though. What if our God isn’t the true god?
Felix: Good lord! What are you saying?
Cesar: I know Moslems, Hindus, Chinese, blacks. Their god isn’t the same as ours. What’s a sin for us isn’t necessarily a sin for them. They may not be right but suppose they are, Monsieur Brun.
Brun: That’s the question.
Cesar: Poor old Panisse is well-prepared for a meeting with Elzear’s God. But suppose that up there in the clouds, he finds a god he doesn’t know at all. A red, black or yellow one. Or one like you see in antique shops, wth a big belly and lots of arms. What could poor Panisee says to a god like that? How would they communicate? Put yourself in his place. Tired by your death and dizzy after your journey, trying to make yourelf understood to this god. You pray and he says, “What’s that? What are you saying?” All in Chinese.
Felix: That’s tragic. You give me the creeps.
Woman: So the Bible’s all a lie? Aren’t you ashamed to talk like that in front of an altar boy?
Woman 2: If you went to church more, you’d know there’s only one god – ours!

— from "Cesar" (1936), the third of Marcel Pagnol's "Fanny" trilogy

Posted at 07:01 PM on Mar 24, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Movies - Foreign
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My Most Quoted Movie Lines (No. 5)

Read the introduction here and feel free to post your own most-quoted movie lines below.

5. “I never lie, Lois.”
— Superman in “Superman: The Movie” (1978)
Screenplay by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton and Tom Mankiewicz

I know. It’s a misquote. But with a purpose.

It’s in the scene where Lois Lane interviews Superman on the veranda of her apartment the night after the night he saves her from the helicopter crash, and, in the process of getting her scoop, her professional demeanor keeps slipping. Superman tells her he likes pink, the color of her underwear (they got down to it quickly in the ‘70s), and she says, dreamily, “Why are you?” before amending it to the more professional “Why are you here?” “I’m here to fight for truth and justice and the American way,” he responds, to which she, a good, cynical reporter, declares, “You’re going to wind up fighting every elected official in this country!” Their back-and-forth is esentially a battle between ‘50s and ‘70s sensibilities. Supes is the square, the boy-scoutish butt of the joke for us cynical hipsters in the audience.

Superman: Surely you don’t mean that, Lois.
Lois: I don’t believe this.
Superman: Lois?
Lois: Hmm?
Superman: I never lie.

It’s almost a non sequitur, isn’t it? Christopher Reeve, bless him, delivers the line with such conviction, such uprightness and stalwartness, that he makes the square hip. He makes our cynicism irrelevant, almost tawdry, and gives us, and Lois, something to believe in.
 
This is when I say the line. I’m talking to a woman — generally Patricia — and for whatever reason (cynicism, stubbornness, common sense) she doubts what I’m saying. Here’s the important part: I am in fact telling the truth. Our positions, in other words, are the same as Superman’s and Lois’ in the film, and, after several back-and-forths, and out of boredom I suppose, I pretend to be not only a stalwart man but the stalwart man. Something like:

Me: Did you hear (Lehman Bros. collapsed, Obama got elected president, it's supposed to snow tonight)?
She: No!
Me: It’s true.
She: I can’t believe it.
Me: (shrug)
She: Are you sure?
Me: I never lie, Lois.

Putting “Lois” at the end acts as a kind of punchline, a way of defusing the impossibility of the first half of the line (“I never lie”). It also tends to break us free from our impasse. Maybe because, by now, she knows I’d never associate myself with the Man of Steel if I wasn’t telling the truth.

Mostly it’s just fun to say.

Look, I’ll never be 6’4” and blue-eyed and square-jawed, let alone the other stuff. But every now and again I can tell the truth. It’s the one area where any man can be Superman.

"Lois? I never lie," from "Superman: The Movie"

Posted at 08:08 AM on Mar 24, 2009 in category Movies
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Monday March 23, 2009

Weekly, Not Weakly

Leave it to David Carr. After reading about dailies folding left and right, and particularly after reading Clay Shirky's sharp essay last week, the question I kept asking myself and others was: What about alt-weeklies? How are they doing? Can they become like the dailies of the 21st century?

I was particularly interested in locally owned, locally produced alt-weeklies like The Stranger in Seattle — as opposed to those weeklies put out by Village Voice Media: City Pages, Seattle Weekly, SF Weekly, etc. National retread crap with only a few local voices.

So here comes Carr, with his Monday Media Equation column, answering, on a singular scale anyway, my very question. The Austin Chronicle, founder of South by Southwest, is doing very well thank you. Money quote:

“We don’t do gotcha journalism, our coverage is very policy-oriented, and always local, local, local,” [Chronicle founder Louis Black] said. “Even during the Bush years, which were a very big deal here, we never put anybody that wasn’t local on the cover. We don’t do out-of-towners."

The new model? 

Posted at 12:47 PM on Mar 23, 2009 in category Media
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Quote of the Day

"The days of Nicolas Cage’s sensitivity and risk-taking as an actor have been over for so long it’s hard to get worked up about a new lame performance. But I’ll try. He makes only the broadest of acting choices. He MOPES in capital letters. He DRINKS in capital letters. He SHOUTS whenever he can get away with it (the late film bad acting shouting duet with Rose Byrne is especially funny). When the movie needs him to cry he doesn’t cry so much as hunch his shoulders and jam his eyelids together as if he can force tears out physically. He’s like a Terminator mimicking emotions they’ve seen humans express that they don't quite grasp. Cage doesn’t just overact. He overacts and then underlines. Then he starts circling his emotions with a big fat red marker."

— Nathaniel Rogers, from his review of "Knowing," on Film Experience Blog

Posted at 12:08 PM on Mar 23, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Movies
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My Most-Quoted Movie Lines - Intro

In January 2005, I wrote a piece for MSNBC.com anticipating the American Film Institute’s June countdown of the 100 most memorable lines in movie history, and, in it, I included a prediction of their top 10. I wasn’t far off  (AFI’s rankings in parentheses):

1. “There’s no place like home.” (23)
2. “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” (2)
3. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (1)
4. “Plastics.” (42)
5. “Here’s looking at you, kid.” (5)
6. “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender…” (3)
7. “May the Force be with you.” (8)
8. “E.T. phone home.” (15)
9. “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” (19)
10. “You talkin’ to me?” (10)

The point of the piece, though, was less prognostication than analysis. Why did movie quotes matter? What kinds of movie quotes mattered? After the top 10 list, I wrote:

All famous lines, but how many do we really use? Telling a girl, “Here’s looking at you, kid”? Telling a friend, “May the force be with you”? Too corny. Too calcified. Of course this may be a generational thing, in which case these movie lines are like George Trow’s father’s fedora in his book, “Within the Context of No Context.” What the father wore with dignity the son could only wear with irony. The movie lines our parents repeated with sincerity we can only repeat with a smirk.

Let’s face it: Movie lines are only really fun when they’re not part of the national lexicon. Otherwise we risk coming off as the boob at the party saying “Do I make you horny, baby?” one too many times.

Not to get too onanistic here, but... dude’s right. Memorable schmemorable. A good movie-quote should be familiar but not too familiar. It should be like a password to a club. A few years back, I was with my friend Adam and his friend Chris (whom Adam calls “Doc” for absolutely no reason), eating and drinking at a restaurant/bar called The Little Wagon before a Twins game, when, with my attention elsewhere, Doc said, “Takin’ a fry here, boss,” and grabbed one of my french fries. I paused...as the tumblers fell into place.

“’Cool Hand Luke’?” I said.

Doc smiled.
 
Of course nobody on Luke’s chain gang actually says “Takin’ a fry here, boss.” The say: “Puttin’ ‘em on here, boss.” “Takin’ em off here, boss.” They’re letting the guards know every sudden movement so nobody gets jumpy. But the pattern of the line (“Xin’ here, boss”) is heard often enough that we remember it. At least Doc and I did. And that was our password.

Over the next few days I’ll count down my five most-quoted movie lines. These are lines that still feel alive to me. They haven’t been trampled to death by overuse. They still have function and utility. Feel free to post your own most-quoted movie lines below, or make guesses about mine.

Here are some hints. Mine are lines I say when people disbelieve me, or when I’m feeling stupid, or when people complain about their bosses, or CEOs, or Bush/Cheney. Four are from movies made during my lifetime. In two, I imitate (badly) the man saying the line. They’re throwaways — the tenth- or twentieth-most-popular lines in popular films. They’re not for AFI. They’re for me and Adam and Doc.

And you? Baby, you dig it the most.

Posted at 09:41 AM on Mar 23, 2009 in category Movies
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Saturday March 21, 2009

Slumdog Watch - I

Earlier this week I postulated whether "Slumdog Millionaire" could enter the top 10 box-office hits of 2008. Here's a quick update:

Current position: 16th
B.O. total: $135.3 million
Last week's total: $6.9 million
Distance from 15th place ("Chronicles of Narnia"): $6.3 million
Distance from 10th place ("Horton Hears a Who"): $19.2 million

The good news is it's doing better than my model. Based on last weekend, I postulated a 26 percent dropoff but it did better on weekdays, comparatively, and, for the week, fell by only 24 percent.

The bad news is it lost another 500 theaters on Friday, and estimates have it dropping off 41 percent from the previous Friday.

Outlook? Not good.

Posted at 09:50 AM on Mar 21, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office, Movies - The Oscars
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Friday March 20, 2009

Review: “Cadillac Records”

Has any film fudged rock n’ roll history as much as this one? How bad of a storyteller are you when, given the long history of white artists stealing from black artists, you gotta make shit up?

It’s not even subtle shit. “Cadillac Records“ is mostly about the relationship between Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) at Chess Records, and to a lesser extent the relationships between Muddy and Little Walter (Columbus Short), and Chess and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), but more than halfway through the film, rising star Chuck Berry (Mos Def), who is basically credited with inventing rock n’ roll here, is angry that the Beach Boys’ 1963 song “Surfin’ USA” is ripping off his “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

Cadillac Records, starring Adrien Brody and BeyonceFlags went up. “What happened to the rest of the ‘50s?” I asked Patricia. Then Berry gets busted for transporting a minor across state lines, and, as he’s being led away, he laments the fact that Jerry Lee Lewis gets away with marrying his 13-year-old cousin.

More flags. “Jesus, what year is this supposed to be?” I asked Patricia. “That happened in the ‘50s. And Jerry Lee Lewis didn’t get away with shit. Marrying his cousin ended his career, didn’t it?” Five years later we see Berry getting out of prison, and he sees images of Elvis Presley singing to girls and being declared the king of rock n’ roll on TV.

“Oh, please,” I said to Patricia, who, by now, was getting sick of my yakking. “Are they implying that Elvis became popular while Berry was in prison? That he became king then? I mean, what the hell?”

Some perspective. Berry and Presley, as record charters, were basically contemporaries. Presley’s “That’s All Right (Mama)” was on the air in the south in the summer of ’54, while Berry didn’t go to Chess Records to record “Maybellene” (and “invent rock n’ roll”) until May 1955. Meanwhile, tons of other artists, from Ray Charles to Bill Haley & His Comets, were doing their thing. Forces were at work, and they’d been at work for a long time; and if you wanted to call this thing “new,” and if you wanted to call it “rock n’ roll,” great, but don’t pretend one man invented it — whether that one man is Bill Haley, Elvis Presley or, here, Chuck Berry. I don't know much about music history but I know that much.

More perspective. Berry got busted under the Mann Act in 1959. So why show this after the Beach Boys’ 1963 recording? Why couldn’t the filmmakers show Berry getting busted and then, upon release, have him hear the Beach Boys ripping him off? That’s works just as well with the movie's themes and has the added advantage of being historically accurate.

What a sad movie. It takes a meaty subject — all the talent that congregated at Chess Records in the ‘50s and ‘60s — and makes weak broth out of it. Lord knows I love Jeffrey Wright, but there’s something minimalist in his approach, something that refrains from the spotlight, that makes him seem wrong to play one of the great singer/guitarists of our time. He gets eaten alive in the battle with Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker). He disappears as the movie progresses. Maybe that’s the point. But something feels missing. The performance works and then it doesn't.

But at least when it works, thanks to Wright, it really works. The same can't be said for the rest of the film. I don't get any sense of Leonard Chess: What makes him tick, what keeps him alive. Whether he was ripping off artists or aiding them. Or in what ways he was ripping off artists and in what ways he was aiding them. The portrait's nothing but smeary — as if both enemies and loved ones were involved in the creation of it.

Worse, once the movie starts fudging its history, you don't know what to believe. Chess hires Etta James as a prostitute, then hears her singing in the bathroom? Please. Chess dies of a heart attack two blocks from Chess Records after selling it in 1969? Pretty please.

Admittedly it’s a tough story to tell. So many lives, so many larger-than-life characters, all in one spot. So couldn’t the focus have been the messiness of those lives creating works of near-perfection? That tension? Told without the bullshit and easy answers and finger-pointing? Hell, why not just focus on the heyday? Chicago, 1950-54. Make drama out of that. End with the arrival of Chuck Berry and something “new.”

Wouldn’t that be enough?

Posted at 10:45 AM on Mar 20, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s, Music
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Thursday March 19, 2009

Quote of the Day

"One cannot but wonder at this constantly recurring phrase 'getting something for nothing,' as if it were the peculiar and perverse ambition of disturbers of society. Except for our animal outfit, practically all we have is handed to us gratis. Can the most complacent reactionary flatter himself that he invented the art of writing or the printing press, or discovered his religious, economic and moral convictions, or any of the devices which supply him with meat and raiment or any of the sources of such pleasure as may derive from literature or the fine arts? In short, civilization is little else than getting something for nothing."

— James Harvey Robinson
Posted at 09:59 AM on Mar 19, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Culture
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Wednesday March 18, 2009

You Say You Want a Revolution

Clay Shirky has an astonishly temperate, reasoned piece on the future of newspapers in the digital age. The money quote, for me:

It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

He focuses on newspapers and journalism but I'm wondering how much of his argument can apply to the book-publishing industry and authors. It's my assumption that authors can survive on an iTunes model, because, in theory anyway, they're selling something unique: their voice. It's not like, "If I have to pay for the Times' story in Iraq, I'll just read the Post's, which is free." If you want to read John Grisham, there's really only one place to go.

Anyway check out Shirky. Sober reading the day after The Seattle Post-Intelligencer killed its print edition

Posted at 12:57 PM on Mar 18, 2009 in category Media
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Tuesday March 17, 2009

Craig Wright on Malick's “The New World”

I came home last night feeling empty, watched Terrence Malick's “The New World,” and got up two-plus hours later mesmerized. This was my second viewing — the first was at the Lagoon Theater three years ago — and back then I wasn't overly impressed. But “The Thin Red Line” means so much to me I wanted to try it again, and for whatever reason this time it took.

It's almost a silent film, isn't it? There's very little dialogue and I'm a dialogue man. Just images, voiceovers, music, glory. Its beginning shares a lot with the beginning of “Thin Red Line,” and parts of it almost fit into the grooves dug by “Dances with Wolves,” which is why, I believe, so many people (and maybe me) had a problem with it. But it doesn't slip into those grooves. Capt. John Smith is tempted but doesn't go over — even as he wonders why he doesn't go over. It's a moment with which I thoroughly identified. Why stay here when my heart and happiness is somewhere else? The only answer, really, is momentum. And then suddenly it's too late.

Three years ago I had a breakfast conversation about “The New World” with my friend Craig Wright, a playwright, head writer for “Six Feet Under” and creator of “Dirty Sexy Money,” and I was so blown away by what he said I encouraged him to write it all down and I would get it in print. I forgot the first law of Lundegaard: I can't sell shit. After numerous attempts it went nowhere. It's been sitting on my desktop all this time. So here it is. It's nice to finally get it out in the world, new or not, world or not.

*  *

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, or GO SEE “THE NEW WORLD”

By Craig Wright

Near the end of “The New World,” there is a ravishing sequence in which the camera chases Pocahontas through a manicured garden somewhere in England.  Having met the King and Queen and then, far more importantly, having reconfirmed her affections with her husband John Rolfe after bidding a touchingly brief farewell to her handsome but faithless ex-paramour John Smith, she is found playing hide-and-seek in a garden with her and Rolfe’s young son, during the brief time that was supposed to directly precede the family’s return to America.  As she and the laughing boy race past the meticulously well-managed hedges, however, Rolfe (in voice-over) tells his son, in a letter meant to be read in years to come, how his mother died unexpectedly only weeks later, without ever returning to America.  As Rolfe commends his dead wife’s love and hopes to the grown son she’ll never know, the boy vanishes from the sequence and the accelerating camera chases Pocahontas alone past the carefully-tended topiary as the sweeping strains of the Overture from “Das  Rheingold” (a piece of music used only once before in the movie, when the two cultures, English and Powhatan, first glimpsed each other through the trees) rise and rise. 

The feeling one gets as all these meanings are so carefully gathered up and thrown at the sky is nothing short of ecstatic.  This brief glorious sequence of pursuit through greenery has a complicated provenance, however, that, once explicated, may make it even more appealing to viewers unwilling to be moved by mere majesty.

Near the end of Malick’s previous film, “The Thin Red Line,” there is an equally pivotal sequence of pursuit through a verdant world.  In that scene, Witt, the visionary pacifist caught in a world of bloody conflict (played by Jim Caviezel), is chased through the jungle by a group of Japanese soldiers whose attention he has diverted in order to buy his trapped compatriots time to escape.  Both of Malick’s two other films, “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” also ended with similar chase scenes.  In “Badlands,” Martin Sheen played “Kit,” an amoral serial killer who was ultimately pursued into the woods by the law, a law with whom we were able to sympathize due to the cold and chillingly random nature of Kit’s crimes.  In “Days of Heaven,” Richard Gere’s character “Bill” met his end in the heart of green nature as well, and again at the hands of law enforcement officials, but in that film the murder he’d committed was in self-defense, and our sympathies, as he was shot down by his thoroughly unpleasant-looking nemesis, were with him.  Malick’s protagonist had evolved from sadistic animal to confused Everyman.  He was one of us.

Witt, however, as he runs through the jungle at the end of “The Thin Red Line,” self-consciously sacrificing his own life to save the lives of others, isn’t one of us.  He’s better.  The setting is the same as ever – wild green nature – and the basic conflict is the same – it’s a scene of pursuit – but the moral content of the story Malick is telling has now risen considerably.  He’s no longer dispassionately watching and, in the case of “Badlands,” aestheticizing random violence, nor is he compassionately recounting the bloody outcome of a mythic misunderstanding, as he did in “Days of Heaven.”  In the closing moments of “The Thin Red Line” he’s saying, “This is how we should be.  Placed as we are, against our will, in a world of unavoidable violence, we should, when it becomes necessary, give ourselves up to death in place of others.  This is what it means to be a human being.  It is in the freedom and the will to choose our own annihilation for the sake of others that our humanity resides.”  In “The Thin Red Line,” Malick goes out on a limb and unapologetically advocates for a moral ideal, and in doing so, he – Terrence Malick, the filmmaker – becomes one of us. Even when we grant that human morality is only a fragile parenthesis within a much larger, amoral natural world, to see this moral development in Malick’s protagonists from one work to the next, to glimpse the vector of his deepest ethical concerns arcing upward through his oeuvre, is inspiring. 

So how does the sequence of pursuit through greenery with which Malick brings “The New World” to its stunning conclusion relate to these earlier scenes?  Unlike Kit and Bill, Pocahontas has committed no crime: she’s not being pursued by the law. Is she then, like Witt in “The Thin Red Line,” self-consciously giving herself up for the sake of others?  No way.  Are we really willing to assume that Terrence Malick would sell us, for ten bucks a pop, a vision of noble savagery, personified in a beautiful young woman, willingly sacrificed on the altar of Progress?  No. In the closing moments of “The New World,” Pocahontas is neither fleeing justice or creating it in some cinematic hieroglyph of an historical suicide mission. 

She is running for pleasure – pleasure and play – into a new world that is manicured and managed but still brilliantly, beautifully green.  She is chased into that world, in the name of love, by her son, who vanishes from the screen and is immediately replaced by us, the modern viewers whose deepest roots still run all the way back to her experience and beyond.  Malick and his camera chase his heroine into a new world beyond crime, beyond justice, beyond sacrifice and beyond the need for it, into a world of Life caught up in the adventure of coming to know and experience Itself in all its variety.  Critics who characterize “The New World” as a naive binary discourse between an innocent natural realm of noble savages and a hideous realm of acculturated conquerors with English accents miss the point.  The finely-tuned greenery into which Malick’s heroine finally rushes isn’t a natural world ruined by culture.  It is an obviously constructed environment where nature and culture coexist peacefully – not without effort, certainly, but without sadism and cruelty.  That carefully-crafted garden into which Pocahontas rushes, as real and artificial as the medium of film itself, is the true pattern of Malick’s “real” New World, a place where the pain and beauty of change find themselves in a peaceful if not completely painless balance.

As the leaping theme of “Das Rheingold” reminds us in those last few precious seconds, “The New World” was discovered by both the English and the Powhatans the moment they met, and is rediscovered every day, in all its messy, sometimes bloody complexity, by anyone willing to open their eyes to a world full of beauty and difference and see it. 
 
Robert Frost said, of poetry, “You have to hold something back, for pressure.”  So too, Malick ends his latest masterpiece with a similar sense of restraint.  The breathless, racing, heart-filling acceleration suddenly stops without warning and is replaced – like that! — by the almost-perfect stillness of ancient trees.  They are seen from the ground, far far below, from the humble human point of view that doesn’t know why it was born or why it has to die, that looks helplessly, wonder-fully up at the silent world that somehow, in its wordlessness, says everything.   With that in mind, I will resist the triumphalism my enthusiasm thinks it requires, and stop here: see “The New World.”

Posted at 08:05 AM on Mar 17, 2009 in category Movies
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Monday March 16, 2009

Slumdog Legs

The big story at the box office this weekend was “Watchmen”’s 67-percent fall-off from the previous weekend — meaning it's not going to do as well as either “Paul Blart” or “Taken” (who woulda thought?) — but what leapt out at me, as I perused the names and numbers, was this: “Slumdog Millionaire” is still in the top 10. It fell off only 26 percent from the previous weekend and raked in another $5 million to take sixth place. Its domestic total is now $132 million, or 18th best among 2008 releases. In terms of weekly box office? It hasn’t left the top 10 all year.

Amazing. Since it was released in early November, there have only been five weeks when its weekly box office dropped. This is mostly the result of the way Fox Searchlight rolled it out: nonexistently (10 theaters), slowly (600+ around Christmas), wide after the Oscar noms (1,411), and nearly superwide after the best-picture victory (2,943). But even with this roll-out, the audience had to be there and it was.

This is a type of film we haven’t seen in a while. A word-of-mouth film. A film with legs.

Put it this way: Its opening weekend, according to box office mojo, was the 2,297th-best since 1980. It’s 10th weekend? Second-best. Only Titanic had a better 10th weekend. Only Titanic!

But the question, for me, remains: Does “Slumdog” have the legs to break into the top 10 for all 2008 releases?

As you know, if you read this blog (I’m rather obsessed with it), there have only been seven years in Oscar history in which not one of the best picture nominees cracked the annual top 10 box office: 1947, 1984... and the last five years in a row. But that’s assuming “Slumdog” won’t crack the top 10 for 2008 releases. But might it?  

Let’s calculate. This weekend it fell off 26 percent from the previous. That ain’t bad, particularly since Fox Searchlight is slowly removing it from theaters. So let’s assume a 26-percent weekly dropoff for the rest of its run. What do we wind up with?

By June 11th, “Slumdog”’s weekly box office will be down to around 100K, while its total domestic box office will be up to around $153 million. This will place it 11th for the year, ahead of “Sex and the City” but $1.5 million behind “Horton Hears a Who” for 10th place.

So, give or take some percentage points, it could happen. If it did, it would be the first best picture nominee to crack the yearly top 10 since 2003. And even if it doesn’t? It simply confirms that word-of-mouth pictures, not to mention dramas set in foreign lands (and starring actual foreigners!), not to mention quality pictures, can still sell in America. If anyone in Hollywood is paying attention.
Posted at 07:29 AM on Mar 16, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office, Movies - The Oscars
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Sunday March 15, 2009

The-More-Things-Change Quote of the Day

"Why does the audience keep coming to this type of photoplay [Action Pictures] if neither lust, love, hate, nor hunger is adequately conveyed? Simply because such spectacles gratify the incipient or rampant speed-mania in every American."

— Vachel Lindsay, "The Art of the Moving Picture," 1915

Posted at 04:40 PM on Mar 15, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Movies
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Saturday March 14, 2009

So You Think You're Anal

Housecleaning has always reminded me of the way Leo Tolstoy wrote War and Peace. I know, sue me.

Supposedly Tolstoy meant to write about the revolutions of 1848 and researched its causes, then the causes of those causes, and then even further back, until eventually he threw up his hands and decided to write about where he was: the Napoleonic period. But he did incorporate this theme of causality and what it means for free will (i.e., do we have free will if one event inevitably follows from another?), into the novel.

Here's the correlation: I was going to vacuum my office today but decided to dust, too, and after I’d dusted my desk, my keyboard, in comparison, looked worse for wear. So I unplugged it and wiped it down, then shook it upside-down out the window to get the schmutz out. But there was a lot of schmutz — I’ve owned it for five years. It’s a Mac keyboard, clear plastic, and it looked like I could just snap the keyboard portion off and get the crud beneath. Trying this, I merely snapped off a couple of keys: shift + control. After a moment of panic, I figured I could just snap them back in place — no biggee — and then got the dustbuster, no, better, the vacuum cleaner, to vacuum up the aforementioned schmutz. Of course I vacuumed up the shift key by accident. Which meant I had to get down on my knees and take the vacuum apart to retrieve it, and by this time my original plan of a quick clean-up of my office seemed a long time past.

OK, so Tolstoy by way of Woody Allen.

Posted at 07:58 PM on Mar 14, 2009 in category Personal Pieces
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Friday March 13, 2009

Review: “Watchmen”

SPOILER ALERT

It’s almost unfilmable. If you stay true to Alan Moore’s original graphic novel, as director Zach Snyder did here, it’s almost unfilmable.

“Watchman,” the graphic novel, was created during the 1980s, when Europeans in particular were paranoid that between Reagan and Russia (which is where they were, literally), the world would end. Given human nature, and given the destructive power of these two countries, human beings were doomed. How to prevent it? Moore’s solution was to blow up New York, blame a third party (aliens in the graphic novel, Dr. Manhattan in the movie), and thus unite humanity against this third party. Sacrifice millions to save billions. Create an illusion of an Other to save ourselves from ourselves.

There’s logic in this. The problem? It’s 2009. No matter how nihilistic you may be, the doomsday scenario Moore and others feared didn’t happen. Which means sacrificing millions wasn’t necessary.

At least in our universe. Fans will argue — have argued — that the “Watchmen” universe is not our universe. Their America “wins” Vietnam. Nixon gets elected to a third, fourth, fifth term. So maybe in that universe, it’s argued, the sacrifice is still necessary.

Doesn’t matter. We’re stuck in this universe. And for moviegoers stuck in this universe, particularly those who have never read the graphic novel (which is most moviegoers), watching the machinations in “Watchmen” is like watching a contemporary action flick set in 1999 in which the hero —Will Smith, say — sacrifices the world financial order to save us all from Y2K. Audience reaction will generally be: “What the hell...?”

Fans, those pesky SOBs, will argue that the Watchmen are not Will Smith — that the whole point of the Watchmen is that they’re not Will Smith. They’re dark, complex, full of faults. Night Owl II is weak and ineffectual. Rorschach is like a short, masked Dirty Harry. Ozymandias is amoral, Dr. Manhattan disconnected. The Comedian is a murdering, raping fascist. “Complex.”

Yeah. For me, the lack of anyone between Rorschach’s paranoid activity and Night Owl’s shrugging passivity (or, in sexual terms, between the assaults of the Comedian and the impotence of Night Owl) means we’re in an adolescent realm where extremes rule and an unrelenting darkness is often confused with complexity. “It’s all a joke,” the Comedian says. It may well be, but he’s not in on it.

Why “The Comedian” anyway? That’s an odd name for a superhero who isn’t funny. Why “Ozymandias”? Why would the smartest man in the world, a powerful and pompous man, choose for his superhero name a figure representing the ultimate lesson in power and pomposity? To remind himself not to be pompous? Or maybe in this universe, Percy Shelley never wrote “Ozymandias,” and so its lessons were never imparted to the smartest man in the world, who took the name just because. This “other universe” thing is always a helluva argument.

OK, here’s why they chose those names. They didn’t. Alan Moore did. They come to represent those names (ironically), but there’s little in their characters that would make them choose them at the beginning. Well, maybe The Comedian; he’s got a sick sense of humor. But Ozymandias? That’s the author imposing his heavy (and symbolic) hand on the character. And Alan Moore’s got one heavy and symbolic hand.

Questions linger that we can debate forever. Why does Dr. Manhattan fight in Vietnam? Can’t he see where this will lead? And if, 14 years later, Manhattan is so disconnected from humanity he’s choosing non-life over life, wouldn’t he, by 1971, at least have divested himself of nationalism?

I like the rise of the costumed superheroes in the late ‘30s — which is when they first appeared for us in comic magazines. I like their ascendance during World War II, and how they began to get knocked off after the war — which is when superhero comics began to be replaced by westerns and romance and horror. The graphic novel, more than the movie, gives us a sense of both the Golden Age (Minutemen/Watchmen) and the Silver Age (Watchmen II) of comic books, while the movie fudges the Silver Age. We really only get the second generation (Silk Spectre II, Night Owl II, Rorschach) in their dotage. By the way: Can we imagine a less likely duo than Night Owl II and Rorschach?

Ultimately the biggest problem with the movie (and maybe the graphic novel) is this: After the opening scene, we are left with five superheroes: Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre II, Night Owl II, Rorschach and Ozymandias. What is the storyline for each? What is each of them seeking?

Manhattan is increasingly disengaged and building things we don’t understand. Ozymandias is a non-entity until his machinations are revealed — then he seems insane. Night Owl is a schlub. Silk Spectre wants, like Daisy Mae, a man. Only Rorschach is really after anything and it turns out he’s wrong.

This is why I never really got into this story. I need characters interested (in something) in order to find them interesting.

Posted at 09:11 AM on Mar 13, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Thursday March 12, 2009

Why a Film's Budget is Irrelevant

A few days ago, Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times blog, “The Big Picture,” credited both his own paper and The Wall Street Journal for getting the real story on the $56 million opening weekend box office of “Watchmen.” He then took Variety to task for same. What the L.A. Times and WSJ added, and Variety didn’t, was the budget of the picture, $150 million, and, as Goldstein states in his opening sentence, “A wise old Hollywood hand taught me ages ago that the only way you can even begin to figure out a film's profit potential on its opening weekend is by knowing how much it cost to make in the first place.”

Here’s the bigger question that Goldstein and that wise old Hollywood hand don’t address: Does anyone outside of L.A. care about a film’s profit potential?

Seriously. What’s the point of having box office numbers in most newspapers on Monday morning? Why does a CBS news anchor, giving a news brief during the Sunday night broadcast, always tell us the weekend’s box office champ and how much it “raked in”?

What does box office represent?

It represents popularity. The reason the figure is in most newspapers, the reason CBS news cares about it, is that box office gives us some indication of which movie, and thus what kind of story, our neighbors (near and far-flung) care most about. This weekend.

So does a film’s budget have anything to do with what box office represents? No.

In fact, if you were going to add other figures besides a film’s gross numbers to establish a film’s popularity, here’s what you would add before a film’s budget:
1. Its theater count
2. Its screen count
3. Its per-theater average
4. Its per-screen average
5. Its marketing budget
This last one is particularly relevant. In the old days, a film’s box office represented not only popularity but — because films didn’t advertise beyond trailers — some measure of its quality. Back then, pictures rose and fell on word-of-mouth. Now it’s marketing blitz, saturation, screens. Get into town, rake it in, vamoose before they know what hit them. Harold Hill stuff.

How much a picture cost isn’t relevant. But how much they spent to get our asses into the seats — versus how much it made — is. Hell, I’d love to see a ratio on this. Something like: box office minus marketing budget divided by screen count. But good luck getting the marketing budget from these guys.

I understand why Goldstein, and that old Hollywood hand, care about a film’s profitability. They’re industry people. The rest of us just want to know if the thing's any damn good.
Posted at 07:52 AM on Mar 12, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Monday March 09, 2009

Read It Read It Read It

The must-read of the week, for anyone who cares about viable newspapers in either print or Web form, is David Carr's column in The New York Times today. He argues in favor of collusion among newspapers in order to save newspapers. I agree. Whole-heartedly.

Yes, eliminate free content. Yes, no more free rides to aggregators like Google. Yes, no more free rides to me. I've paid for The New York Times online in the past and I'll pay for it again in the future, if it comes to that. I hope it does. I'll pay for a good, smart, local newspaper as well, whether in print or online form, whether daily or weekly. A weekly print version, with daily online updates, also makes sense. It just has to be worth my time.

Read Carr's piece all the way through. Times are tough, times are scary, but a world without investigative journalists would be much, much scarier.

Posted at 12:58 PM on Mar 09, 2009 in category Media
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Saturday March 07, 2009

Quote of the Day

"We all have the right to be free from the interference of petty, small-minded, single-track dirty sniffers who feel that they have to justify their official existence. The motion picture industry is often faced by pressures from narrow, ignorant individuals and groups. Some of them may have the best intentions in the world. But it’s a mistake to take that pressure lying down."

— Samuel Goldwyn on HUAC, from the documentary "Goldwyn: The Man and His Movies"

Posted at 03:22 PM on Mar 07, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Movies - The Oscars
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Friday March 06, 2009

Joe Henry Quote of the Day

“He'll cry
Through the best of times
Then he'll ask you
Where do all the good times go?”

— from “Some Champions” by Joe Henry

Posted at 08:51 AM on Mar 06, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Music
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Thursday March 05, 2009

Who Watches the Watchers of “Watchmen”?

“I am apparently in the lonely 1.4% of the public who is only somewhat interested in this movie. In other words I want to see it but I'm not salivating after that 15 minutes I saw. NY Post wonders if Zack Snyder is the new Stanley Kubrick. This is why I'm not salivating. Mass preemptive hyperbole just kills my will to live.”

— Nathaniel R. on Film Experience Blogspot.

Check out, too, Anthony Lane's review in The New Yorker in which he tears “Watchmen” (and “V for Vendetta,” not to mention leering 19-year-olds in general) a new one. 

Posted at 10:00 AM on Mar 05, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Movies, Superheroes
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Wednesday March 04, 2009

La Ville Du Vice

I’m writing a piece on Clive Owen for MSNBC.com, which won’t go up for a few weeks yet, and so last night I watched, for the second time, “Sin City.” It has its fans. It’s currently no. 91 on the IMDb.com list, ahead of too many great films to mention (OK, here’s a few: “On the Waterfront,” “Jaws,” “Yojimbo” and “Annie Hall,” which are all scattered between nos. 100-133), and it’s certainly the most comic-booky movie I’ve ever seen. Entire shots feel like panels on a page. What Warren Beatty wanted to do with “Dick Tracy,” Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller and “special guest director” Quentin Tarantino accomplish with “Sin City.”

Even so. Its antecedent is more Mickey Spillane (talk tough, act tough, be tough) than Stan Lee (be superstrong outside, feel superweak inside), and that’s not my bag. Basically it worships at the twin altars of cool and cruel. Its cool heroes are cruel to the ones who are cruel to the weak, which means the heroes, and by extension the viewers, get to be cruel and moral. Fun! But it's pretty disgusting stuff. There’s no feeling in any of it, just a wish to be tough, cool and cruel. And to fall in love with a hooker who looks like Rosario Dawson.

These days I often watch American films with French subtitles (improve your French as you’re entertained, etc.), but “Sin City”'s promised French subtitles were non-existent. There was a French audio track, though, and so that’s how I watched it: dubbed in French with English subtitles. The mere fact of this will discount, for its fans, anything I’ve said above — “Dude watched it in fucking French” — but for me it was the only thing worthwhile about the entire experience. I should also add that the guy who did the French voice for Bruce Willis was pretty damn good.

Posted at 01:03 PM on Mar 04, 2009 in category Movies
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Tuesday March 03, 2009

How W. is Dumber than a Fascist

Andre Harris: Bearing in mind what you learned in the last war, the results of National Socialism, which, as you explained, had a certain appeal or charm about it at one point in your life, bearing this in mind, would you change the choices you made at that time?
Christian de la Mazière: Yes, of course. I think only an idiot would refuse to change their opinion. 

— from "Le Chagrin et le pitie" (1971), Marcel Ophuls great documentary on the occupation of France during World War II. The original New York Times review can be read here. Among the many fascinating details — the equivocation of collaborationists, the straightforward account of an aristocrat like de la Maziere, the sad amusement (and heroics) of Pierre Mendes-France, who had to wait for two lovers to seal the deal, or at least the agreement, and leave, before he could climb down from a prison wall and escape an unjust sentence, along with the horrors of such propaganda films as "Le Juif Suss" — I was also intrigued to discover that, in French anyway, sorrow (chagrin) is masculine, while pity (pitie) is feminine. True? And does this expand our interpretation of "Annie Hall"? Feel free to discuss.

Posted at 12:00 PM on Mar 03, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Movies - Foreign
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Sunday March 01, 2009

Movie Attendance Up Thanks to...WTF?

Can Michael Cieply and Brookes Barnes, the two reporters covering the movie industry for The New York Times, write any article that doesn’t piss me off? Are they bad writers or do they merely have bad editors?

In today’s Times, they have a front-page, below-the-fold piece on how the movie industry is doing well in tough times. And it is. So far this year, ticket sales — not just box office, which is inflationary and thus easy to mask — but tickets sales are up 17.5 percent. Then Cieply and Barnes give us other, interesting stats. Ticket sales also increased by double digits in 1982, a time of unemployment and inflation (and “E.T.”), and in 1989, a time —although they don’t mention it — of rising inflation (and Michael Keaton’s “Batman”).

I even like their insider quote for a change. Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center for the study of entertainment and society (who knew?), says, of this year’s attendance jump, “It’s not rocket science. People want to forget their troubles, and they want to be with other people.”

All well and good. Then more than halfway through the piece, Barnes and Cieply forget that it’s not rocket science. They give us this graf:
The film industry appears to have had a hand in its recent good luck. Over the last year or two, studios have released movies that are happier, scarier or just less depressing than what came before. After poor results for a spate of serious dramas built around the Middle East (“The Kingdom,” “Lions for Lambs,” “Rendition”), Hollywood got back to comedies like “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” a review-proof lark about an overstuffed security guard.

What-the-effin’ eff, mother-effer!?!

OK, the big problems with this graf:

  1. Those serious dramas were released in the fall of 2007. “Paul Blart” was released in January 2009. Why compare these two items? Wouldn’t it make more sense to compare “Paul Blart” with what the studios released in January ’08 or ’07? Why go back to the fall of ’07 and those poor, over-commented-upon Middle East releases?
  2. The phrase “got back to.” Hollywood “got back to” comedies like “Paul Blart”? Sheeeeeeeyit. Hollywood never left comedies like “Paul Blart.” These things have always been around, particularly in the early months of the year. “Blart” is certainly doing better business than most ($123 million and counting) but I’d argue it doesn’t have much to do with “Paul Blart.” I’d argue it has to do with these tough economic times. In fact, isn't that what the whole article is about?

But of course the film industry wants to take credit, at least partial credit, for this uptake in attendance, and Cieply and Barnes are obliging them with this fatuous graf that compares apples and orangutans.

Dudes: Cover the industry. Don’t cover for the industry.

I’m also amused that we get the actual movie attendance numbers in a year when actual movie attendance is up. We don’t hear a whisper of it during years (i.e., most of the time) when it’s down. More good reporting.

Posted at 11:09 AM on Mar 01, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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