erik lundegaard

Tuesday June 30, 2009

Review: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (2009)

WARNING: PRIME SPOILERS

Watching “Transformers: The Revenge of the Fallen,” in which two sects of ancient machines—Autobots (good ones) and Decepticons (bad ones)—battle each other over the future of the human race, and realizing that this horrifying spectacle of nonsense made $60 million at the box office last Wednesday, breaking almost all one-day records and so forever dooming us to more of the same, I began to root for the Decepticons. I figured if we are dumb enough to give this thing primacy in our culture, better to end it. Finish us off now.

Did 46-year-olds back in 1977 think this way when they first saw “Star Wars”? I doubt it. “Star Wars” was not just futuristic whiz-bang stuff but a throwback. It recalled the excitement and cliffhangers of 1930s and ‘40s movie serials. “It even has a swing across a chasm!” a friend of my father’s said that summer, defending the film (from him). It was also populated with archetypes: the naive, dreamy hero; the bad-ass rebel; the tough princess; the wise father; the bad guy in black. Characters steeped in history and myth.

“Transformers” deals in stereotypes: characters steeped in our shitty, throwaway culture. There’s already controversy about Skids and Mudflap, the trash-talking, hip-hop (and, for whatever reason, ugly) Autobots used as comic relief throughout the movie, but they’re just the start. What about the small, ratty Decepticon, who seems voiced by Steve Buscemi but isn’t (Buscemi should sue), and who is last seen humping Megan Fox’s leg? What about the empirical British Decepticon-turned-Autobot who actually uses a cane to get around? What about Optimus Prime, whose voice is so grand and bland and devoid of personality he sounds less like a hero than a satire of a hero?

The humans in the movie are even more reductive. Army men are brave, smart and loyal; glasses-wearing bureaucrats are dumb and meddlesome. Most everyone is comic relief, particularly if they’re ethnic. Actually it’s interesting to consider who’s not comic relief. Sam (Shia LeBeouf) generally plays straight man. So does Major Lennox, the handsome white army dude. So does the white army general and Optimus Prime. Meanwhile, Sam’s college roommate, a Hispanic Web site operator and professional blowhard, acts cowardly, tasers himself with his pants around his ankles, and winds up inadvertently nestling with Agent Simmons (John Turturo). The Friday-afternoon crowd I saw this with thought all of it hilarious. They roared with laughter.

Plot? Do we go there?

Apparently Transformers need a substance called Energon to survive, and one way to get Energon is to destroy a sun. (And you thought we were wasteful.) Most Transformers refuse to destroy a universe with life in it but some don’t care. These two factions clashed on Earth in 17,000 B.C., and the Autobots, sacrificing themselves for primitive humans, hid the “matrix key” that works the “sun harvester machine” from the Decepticons. Transformers have been living here ever since. But what exactly does a Transformer transform into in, say, 5,000 B.C.? A spear? And why have we evolved during the last 19,000 years but Transformers stayed the same?

That’s backstory. The story proper begins when a “shard” from the previous film’s “cube” is loosened from Sam’s clothes, and all sorts of small, cackling Transformers are created, recalling “Gremlins.” They’re quickly stopped by Sam’s loyal Autobot, the Chevy Camaro, but the incident hardly slows Sam or the movie down. He’s about to leave for college and he’s dealing with a crying mother, a girlfriend above his paygrade, and a wish to lead a normal life. He can’t be bothered by creatures that nearly destroyed the world.

Once at college, he’s confronted with the aforementioned Hispanic roommate, a hot girl who keeps coming onto him but who is actually a Transformer (and a ripoff of “Species” and “Terminator 3”), and the fact that, in an already infamous quote, “Megatron wants what’s in my brain!”

Megatron, chief villain in the earlier film, begins this one dead on the sea floor but he’s soon resurrected by other Decepticons. So why does he, and his master, the Fallen, want what’s in Sam’s brain? Because apparently Sam has knowledge of where that matrix key is located. How did he get it? Who knows? Can he access it? No. Instead he spouts gibberish and draws ancient symbols on his dorm walls. Is Megatron making him do this or is it the knowledge itself? Again: Who knows? Never ask “why” in this thing.

The Fallen wants to return to Earth to get his revenge but Optimus is in the way. Apparently only a Prime can defeat the Fallen. (Why? Oh, right. Sorry.) So once Optimus, the last of the Primes, is killed protecting Sam, Earth is wide open and the Fallen returns. I believe he lands in Paris while Megatron alights on the Met Life Building in New York City, declaring, to no one in particular, “It’s time for the world to know of our presence! No disguises! No mercy!” Then Decepticons destroy New York.

Whoops, sorry, they don’t. In fact, by the time we return to New York, with Sam and Mikaela (Megan Fox) and the Hispanic dude, who are searching for someone to translate the symbols in Sam’s head, New Yorkers are hanging in a deli, calmly ordering food. Apparently Decepticons decided to show Poughkeepsie no mercy instead.

But wait... Decoding the symbols in Sam’s head? Won’t that lead to the matrix key and play into Megatron’s plan to destroy our universe? Well, yes. But Sam assumes the matrix key will also revive Optimus. At one point we get this exchange:

Sam: Everyone’s after me because of what I know. And I know this is going to work.
Mikaela: How do you know it’s going to work?
Sam: Because I believe it.

Characters who know something because they believe it are part of a long tradition in Hollywood movies, and not just Christmas movies, but not many are willing to risk the entire universe on the assumption. Not that anyone raises this point with Sam. Even after they find the key and it turns to dust, Sam still gathers the dust, runs through the desert with it—dodging Decepticon fire all the while (they’re lousy shots)—but is finally struck down. At that point he’s visited in his mind (or his soul?) by Autobot Elders, who reward him for his sacrifice to Optimus by reviving him. Then the key is revived. Then Optimus is revived. Then Decepticons steal the key anyway and try to turn off our sun.

This synopsis, by the way, doesn’t begin to reveal the soul-numbing stupidity of this thing. Transformers have the ability to regenerate themselves with parts of other, dead Transformers, and that’s how this movie was made—from plot points and storylines of other movies grafted onto this one without any sense of style or logic or genuine emotion. On the run, and knowing that the universe might end because of the knowledge in Sam’s head, what do Sam and Mikaela talk about? Whether Sam should kill himself to keep this knowledge from Megatron? No. They argue about which one of them is going to say “I love you” first. (See: “The Fifth Element.”) It’s as if they know they’re going to survive. Which they do. Michael Bay is almost postmodern in this respect. His characters aren’t characters but devices. The question is never “How would people in this situation react?” It’s always “How can people in this situation entertain the movie audience until we reach the conclusion we all know we’ll reach?”

OK, maybe this will give you an idea how bad “Transformers 2” is. During Optimus’ first death-battle with Decepticons, when he finally topples near the woods of the west coast, sacrificing himself for all of us but particularly for Sam, the music wells up majestically, tragically, because that’s what movies do at this point in the story. But it’s so obviously aping other movies, and so fantastically off, that it made me question the legitimacy of all movies. By substituting a gigantic, stentorian hunk of metal for a human being that we might actually care about, Michael Bay is revealing the absurdity of the medium itself. 

In a perfect world, this thing would be a b-movie, playing in drive-ins somewhere, and eventually mocked by MST3K for its absurdities. Instead, it made over $200 million during its first five days, ensuring its continuing status as a centerpiece of our culture.

With apologies to Allen Ginsberg: America, go fuck yourself with your “Transformers 2.”

Posted at 08:22 AM on Jun 30, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Monday June 29, 2009

Sunday Movie Night: “Jaws” (1975)

We have Sunday movie nights occasionally here on First Hill and last night the nine of us watched “Jaws.” Some of us hadn't seen it since it came out; some of us had never seen it. I've seen it, what, four, five times? As recently as a few years ago, as long ago as 1975 at the second-run Boulevard Theater in south Minneapolis (99 cents anytime), five blocks from where I grew up. Back then I shut my eyes through several scenes: the initial skinny-dipping attack; Hooper scuba-diving under the hull of Ben Gardner's boat. Basically anything that combined “shark” and “dark.” How much did this movie eff me up? I could barely take a shower for months afterwards. Rinsing, say, shampoo out, I'd think: “What if I open my eyes and I'm underwater and there's a shark coming towards me? WHAT THEN?” Stupid brain. Stupid Spielberg.

It was the movie that changed movies, that made the summer blockbuster possible, yadda yadda, but it's still smart, and it's still adult. It's got an early '70s vibe: the corruption of local government, personified by Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton, Mr. Robinson from “The Graduate”), who puts tourist dollars ahead of tourist lives; the class distinctions on the island, which Quint mocks; the use of locals as extras; the wonderful scene between Brody and his son at the dinner table, where the son keeps imitating the father; Quint's horrifying story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Hell, the entire introduction of Quint is great: the fingernails scraping the chalkboard, the frank discussion of the shark, the offer made with a glint of the eye. Add it to the list of great cinematic introductions: Pepe in “Pepe Le Moko,” Rick in “Casablanca,” Capt.Jack Sparrow in the first “Pirates.” Off the top of my head. Feel free to add more below.

Spielberg frames his shots beautifully. I particularly like Brody, Hooper and Vaughn arguing and walking, and then, without a cut, walking into this shot, which is just perfect:

“Jaws” was the no. 1 movie of the year in 1975, and, for a time, the no. 1 movie of all time. (Adjusted for inflation, it's still seventh.) It was also, lest we forget, nominated for best picture. Back then we could do that kind of thing.

So... Any recommendations for next movie night?

Posted at 08:37 PM on Jun 29, 2009 in category Movies
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Jackass of the Day: Rob Moore

“[Critics] forget what the goal of the movie ['Transformers 2'] was. The goal of the movie is to entertain and have fun. What the audience tells us is, ‘We couldn’t be more entertained and having more fun.’ They kind of roll their eyes at the critics and say, ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about.’”

—Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount, which is distributing ”Transformers 2 for DreamWorks, in an uncredited AP article.

Posted at 02:46 PM on Jun 29, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Movies - Box Office
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Sunday June 28, 2009

Quote of the Day

“People are always hurting each other but love keeps happening.”

—David, in Craig Wright's play “Orange Flower Water,” at ACT Theater in Seattle until July 20.

I could quote a dozen brilliant lines from this play. Some people are optimists, some are pessimists, but Craig, who is a friend, is both. Or he pulls his optimism from pessimism—as the above quote indicates. Both parts of the quote are true. Separate, they mean little. Combine them and you get a powerful statement of humanity. The genius is in combining them.

Posted at 12:28 PM on Jun 28, 2009 in category Culture
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Friday June 26, 2009

Why We're Getting 10 Best Picture Nominees

 The Annual Box Office Rankings for Best Picture Nominees, 1991-2008*

Year
BPN BO rank
BPN BO rank
BPN BO rank
BPN BO rank
BPN BO rank
2008
 1620
82 89
120
 2007 153650
55
66
 2006 15 5157
92
138
 2005 22 49
62
88
95
 2004 22 2437
40
61
 2003 1 1731
33
67
 2002 2 103556
80
 2001 21143
59
68
 2000 412
13
15
32
 1999 2 1213
41
69
 1998 1 18 3559
65
 1997 1  67
24
44
 1996 4 1941
67
108
 1995 3 18 2839
77
 1994 1 1021
51
56
 1993 3 9
38
61 66
 1992 511
19
20
48
 1991 3 4
16
17
25

* Best picture winner represented in red.

Want one more?

Year
BPN BO rank
BPN BO rank
BPN BO rank
BPN BO rank
BPN BO rank
1970
1
2
3
4
11

*ditto

The problem isn't the number of nominees. The problem is the disconnect between studios, distributors, audience and the Academy. We don't make best pictures anymore. And if we do make them we don't distribute them. And if we do distribute them we don't go see them. And if all three happen, but the movie happens to be a cartoon or a superhero film, the Academy can't be bothered.

I'll say it again. The Academy is fixing something that ain't broken (the tradition of five nominees) because of something that is hugely broken. All of the above.

BTW: I charted the above for the drastic change that took place in 2004, but I never noticed —until I created this graph — how the best picture winner is almost always (eventually) the no. 1 or 2 box office hit among the five nominees. That's good to know. Or at least it was in the era of five nominees. Now it's useless knowledge.

Posted at 11:08 PM on Jun 26, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office, Movies - The Oscars
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Wednesday June 24, 2009

And the nominees are...doubled

At least according to this Variety report. Beginning next year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will nominate 10 best picture candidates rather than the five they've been nominating since 1944.

Some may applaud the move. It certainly gives the "Dark Knight"s of the world a better chance to show up. But the Academy is messing with tradition, and for a seemingly short-term gain in ratings and relevance.

My immediate reaction? Feels desperate.

More here.

And here.

UPDATE: It's 10 minutes later and the whole thing smells. The major studios, which can't make best pictures anymore, want their pictures nominated "best" nonetheless. The Academy, which can't seem to nominate popular and critically acclaimed pictures like "Dark Knight" and "WALL-E," wants relevance and ratings. This is the compromise. But it's a bad one. I remember baseball player Keith Hernandez arguing once that you only mess with tradition if the new rules increase strategy. That's why he was in favor of the three-point play in basketball and against the DH in baseball. The former increased strategy, the latter decreased it. Here? It dilutes it. Ten nominees means there will be more flotsam ("Frost/Nixon") and jetsam ("The Reader") in the race; stuff to push aside to get at the real race.

Bottom line: they're fixing something that's not broken (the five nominee slots) because of something that is (the major studios don't make best pictures anymore). What a shame.

Posted at 11:48 AM on Jun 24, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Tuesday June 23, 2009

The $67 Million Advantage

By the way, and related to yesterday’s post: If you take all 243 films that were released superwide (into 3,000 or more theaters) from 2004 to 2008, and divide them by Rotten Tomatoes' ranking (“fresh” meaning 60 percent or better from top critics, “rotten” 59 percent or worse), and total and then average the box office for each category, this is what you get:

All Superwide Releases, 2004-2008

Type
No. of films
Total B.O.
B.O. Per Film
"Fresh" films
76
$12,064,252,567
$158,740,165
"Rotten" films
167
$15,321,793,613
$91,747,267

That's a $67 million advantage.

Are there extenuating circumstances? No doubt. "Fresh" superwide releases are more likely to open during the prime real-estate months of May, June, July, November and December—by a 66% to 47% ratio. Their marketing budgets may be bigger, too, but of course I have no data on that. (Does anyone?)

Most importantly, "fresh" films open, on average, in 231 more theaters than “rotten” films.

But even if you take away this advantage—by dividing the average box-office take by the average opening theater count—the “fresh” films are still much, much more lucrative:

All Superwide Releases, 2004-2008, by Theater Count

Type
No. of films
Avg. B.O. 
Avg. Thtrs.
Avg.
"Fresh" films
76
$158,740,165
 3,581  $44,331
"Rotten films
167
$91,747,267
 3,350 $27,385
 
It’s even more stark on the extremes—the superwide releases that garnered 90 percent or better from top critics vs. the superwide releases that garnered 9 percent or worse:
 
Best and Worst Superwide Releases, 2004-2008
 
RT Critic Rating
No. of films
Total B.O.
B.O. Per Film
 90-100%
 13 $2,996,670,616
  $230,513,124
 0-9% 25 $1,493,738,755
  $59,749,55

If you build it well, we will come.

Posted at 09:09 AM on Jun 23, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Monday June 22, 2009

Dumb like a Fox

Last week, John Lesher, the president of the Paramount Film Group, was fired and replaced by Adam Goodman, former head of production at Dreamworks SKG. Nikki Finke’s blog listed a number of offenses against Lesher, including drunkenness, while the L.A. Times said his biggest offense in his 18 months on the job wasn’t greenlighting enough pictures.

Maybe the two are related. I have no idea—I’m way the hell up in Seattle, and I don’t read much on internal studio dynamics—but the following, at least, demonstrates a problem Paramount has had for the last five years. It’s a table on how the big six studios (plus DreamWorks) fared with their superwide (3,000+ theater) releases from 2004 to 2008, ranked by average box office:

 Superwide Releases, 2004-2008, by Studio/Distributor

Studio
No. films
"Fresh" films*
% of "fresh" films
Avg. box office
DreamWorks/Paramount
12
7
58%
$153,894,953
Buena Vista
36
11
30%
$132,481,548
Warner Bros.
38
15
39%
$128,921,554
DreamWorks
10
5
50%
$125,634,867
Universal
19
7
37%
$119,575,789
Sony
30
8
26%
$113,209,160
Paramount
22
11
50%
$105,187,877
Fox
39
6
15%
$103,167,684
    * the number of films that garnered a 60% or better rating from the top critics in the country, and compiled on rottentomatoes.com.

If you’re a regular reader you know I’m someone who believes that, with similar movies, good generally beats bad. People are more likely to go see a good popcorn movie over a bad one, and an exciting arthouse movie over a dull one. To paraphrase a famous movie line: “If you build it well, they will come.”

Paramount, according to this chart, builds them better than most, but, on average, fewer people show up.

The bigger question the table raises, though, is this: What’s up with Fox? They have the lowest percentage of fresh films and the lowest average box office per film as well. If you’re wondering what Fox's 39 superwide releases over the last five years look like, here you go. As sorted by top-critics-ranking on Rotten Tomatoes:

Fox's Superwide Releases: 2004-2008

Film
Top Critics' Ranking (RT)
Dom. Box Office
Horton Hears a Who
 81%  $154m
The Simpsons Movie
 81%  $183m
Live Free or Die Hard
 78%  $134m
Robots
 69%  $128m
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
 69%  $380m
Ice Age: The Meltdown
 62%  $195m
Because of Winn-Dixie
 53%  $32m
Nim's Island
 52%  $48m
Fever Pitch
 51%  $42m
Marley & Me
 50%  $143m
X-Men: The Last Stand
 50%  $234m
I, Robot
 50%  $144m
Kingdom of Heaven
 50%  $47m
Mr. & Mrs. Smith
 43%  $186m
Transporter 2
 42%  $43m
The Day After Tomorrow
 41%  $186m
Night at the Museum
 39%  $250m
Meet Dave
 37%  $11m
Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
 37%  $32m
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
 31%  $131m
What Happens in Vegas
 30%  $80m
Fantastic Four
 27%  $154m
The X-Files: I Want to Believe
 25%  $20m
27 Dresses
 23%  $76m
Alvin and the Chipmunks
 22%  $217m
Taxi
 19%  $36m
Hide and Seek
 18%  $51m
Big Momma's House 2
 13%  $70m
Elektra
 13%  $24m
Cheaper by the Dozen 2
 12%  $82m
The Day the Earth Stood Still
 12%  $79m
Eragon
 11%  $75m
The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
 11%  $8m
Garfield: The Movie
 9%  $75m
Max Payne
 9%  $40m
Deck the Halls
 9%  $35m
Alien vs. Predator
 4%  $80m
Jumper
 3%  $80m
Babylon A.D. 
 0%  $22m

It’s not pretty. I liked, well enough, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “The Simpsons Movie” and “Marley and Me,” but there’s no standout film here, and most of their menu smells like the glop of McDonald’s. In fact, they’re the only major studio over the last five years not to release a film superwide that garnered a 90% or better rating from the top critics in the country. DreamWorks (“Wallace and Gromit”) Paramount (“Iron Man”) and Universal (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) each did it once; Sony did it twice (“Casino Royale”; “Spider-Man 2”); Warner Bros. three times (“The Dark Knight”; “The Departed”; “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”); and Buena Vista, with a big helping hand from Pixar, did it four times (“Ratatouille”; “WALL-E”; “The Incredibles” and “Enchanted”). Fox? Nothing. Not even close. As you can see.

Equally astonishing is the kinds of movies Fox decides to dump into 3,000+ theaters. “The Seeker”? “Meet Dave”? “Elektra”? The preeminent popular genre of the decade is the superhero film and what has Fox done with it? They’ve taken one franchise that started brilliantly (Bryan Singer’s “X-Men”) and run it into the ground, while taking one of the more famous superhero teams ever created (“The Fantastic Four”) and never got it off the ground. You could argue that Fox’s most successful superhero over the past five years isn’t Wolverine or Mr. Fantastic; it’s Spider-Pig.

In the 1930s studios had personalities. Warner Bros. was gritty gangster stuff, MGM went after glamour and sophistication, etc. Studios are corporate-run now—smaller entities within larger multinational conglomerates—so we no longer ascribe a personality to their output. Lucky for Fox.

Posted at 08:12 AM on Jun 22, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office, Movies - Studios
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Sunday June 21, 2009

Tossed

Bummer.

Hollywood Elsewhere, via Variety, reports that Sony chief Amy Pascal has pulled the plug on “Moneyball,” the Steven Soderbergh adaptation of Michael Lewis' book, which was to star Brad Pitt as Oakland A's GM Billy Beane, and which was to begin shooting Monday. Earlier this month, Patrick Goldstein, expressing enthusiasm for the project, wrote about how it would adhere closely to the book. Maybe that was the problem. Too cerebral? Too much about baseball? Neither of which (baseball, cerebral) plays well in international markets?

Jeffrey Wells, for one, is doubtful:

What this seems to mean is either that (a) Pascal doesn't believe that stars like Pitt mean all that much when it comes to opening a costly film — that the movie itself has to have the commercial goods or it's not worth doing, or that (b) she's half-persuaded that the 46 year-old Pitt — 50 in four and a half years! — isn't much of a star any more. Or a combination of both.

Who knows? Maybe Pascal knew she was taking a chance with Soderbergh, and, after the relative failures of two recent Sony offerings, “Pelham” and “Year One,” she wasn't in the chance-taking mood.

As I said: Bummer. With that talent, and that source material, I had high hopes the movie would be good. Certainly better than “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigilo,” “Stealth,” “Bewitched,” “Guess Who” or “RV,” all of which Sony/Columbia, and presumably Pascal, not only greenlit but opened in more than 3,000 theaters in recent years.

Posted at 07:48 PM on Jun 21, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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The One Lesson of Summer Box Office

Thursday night I took Patricia to see “Up” because I thought she’d love it—she did, particularly Dug—and because I wanted to see it without the 3D. I’m glad we went. Movies should be big and 3D seems to make them smaller. It’s as if, in creating the appearance of density, characters become heavy tiny objects rather than light big objects. The unfurling of the balloons and the house taking off—a great cinematic moment—is much more beautiful on the flat screen. Roger Ebert agrees.

“Up,” dismissed early and long for its elderly lead character, is already past the $200 million mark, the second-highest-grossing film of the year, and looks poised to pass “The Incredibles” ($261 million) to become the second-highest-grossing Pixar pic ever. Another example that quality—certainly brand-name quality—wins in the end.

Except Variety is now attributing the success of “Up” to...what? 3D, of course:

“Up’s” boffo run is the latest example of how 3-D runs can boost a film’s bottom line through higher ticket prices. The film’s 3-D runs make up only 40% of the total screen count, yet they contribute 60% of the gross.

So how much of that 20-percent difference is in higher ticket prices and how much is in higher attendance figures? And if the latter, how many moviegoers would’ve seen the film anyway? I mean, is anyone seriously going to see “Up” because of 3D? At least Variety tempers its enthusiasm with some later-graf common sense from Disney:

Chuck Viane, Disney’s prexy of domestic distribution, said 3-D has been a boon to “Up,” but he added that the foundation of any successful pic is a good story. “3-D enhances the storytelling, and thereby, the run,” Viane said.

For really misreading stats, though, there’s Variety’s Anne Thompson. I found the article—her six lessons of summer box office—in the usual roundabout Internet way: a link on Nathaniel R.’s site to a David Poland piece critiquing Anne Thompson’s original article. Now I add to the chain.

I like Nathaniel’s caveat: “I can’t say I ‘enjoy’ David Poland’s habitual attacks on other film journos but he definitely makes good points in this article.”

As someone who’s been attacked by Poland, I couldn’t agree more. Particularly since Poland, in his attack on me, got so much wrong.

I’d argue he goes overboard here, too. He attacks all of Thompson’s six lessons and... well, most of them are pretty bad. She draws big lessons from a small sample—always a mistake—when she could’ve crunched all six of her lessons into one. Quality sells. She implies as much with her adjective choices in nos. 3 & 6: “Smart R-rated dumb male comedies sell” and “Lackluster sequels sell--but don't break out big” (italics mine). She might’ve done the same with nos. 5, 4 & 2: bad Eddie Murphy movies don’t sell; unfocused family films don’t sell; and good origin myths (“Star Trek”) trump bad origin myths (“Wolverine”).

As for her no. 1 lesson? “Originals sell”? She writes:

The very thing that the majors are most afraid of is what makes Pixar King of the Mountain, every single time: originality. While everyone else looks for easy-sell labels, Pixar relies on a very old-fashioned idea: make it good and they will come. Up scored not via marketing prowess, but through great word-of-mouth. Gross to date: $191 million and going strong. Heck yeah!

Again, I’m happy about the performance of “Up,” not to mention “The Hangover,” which—amazingly!—looks poised to go over the $200 million mark as well. And I certainly wish this lesson were true. But is it? The highest grossing film thus far this year is “Star Trek,” which is a reboot of an old movie and TV franchise. Not original. And earlier in the article Thompson herself taps the films she thinks will be the summer’s big blockbusters: “Transformers: Revenge of the...” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood...” Both sequels.

Here, in fact, are the 10 highest-grossing movies from the last five years:

 
Title
Dom. B.O.
Type
1.
The Dark Knight (2008)
$533m
sequel
2.
Shrek 2 (2004)
$441m
sequel 
3
Pirates of the Caribbean 2 (2006)
$423m
sequel 
4. 
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
$380m
sequel 
5.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
$373m
sequel 
6.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
$370m
 
7.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
$336m
sequel 
8.
Shrek the Third (2007)
$322m
sequel 
9.
Transformers (2007)
$319m
reboot
10.
Iron Man (2008)
$318m
 

Eight of them are sequels or reboots. The only two that are not—”Passion” and “Iron Man”—are based on previously published material. Which is to say: none are originals. You won’t see an original story on this list until no. 17—Pixar’s “The Incredibles”—and original stories remain few and far between thereafter: “Night at the Museum” (no. 19), “Hancock” (no. 24), more Pixar (“Cars,” “Wall-E,” etc.).

I’m not saying this won’t change. People flocked to musicals until they didn’t. But for the moment we live in a sequel era. We want daddy to tell us that story again.

However, if Ms. Thompson had written “Originals can sell,” well, I wouldn’t have argued with that. That’s a good lesson to get out in Hollywood.

Posted at 10:40 AM on Jun 21, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday June 20, 2009

Review of “Food, Inc.” (2009)

WARNING: ORGANIC SPOILERS

My girlfriend, Patricia, who can barely tolerate meanness let alone cruelty to animals, saw the documentary “Food, Inc.” with me last night, and there were moments when she had a rough go of it. Caring boyfriend that I am, I wish she’d had it rougher. I wish she’d run screaming from the theater. I wish we all had. Maybe we would have if we’d been able to get a closer view of those big factory farms and slaughterhouses. It’s astonishing, when you think about it, that we can’t. This is a public interest issue, a public health issue. What have they got to hide? Special sauce? Secret recipe? One of the farmers, selling to Tyson, says his chickens never see the light of day. In a way, neither do we.

Yes, I’m already the converted—I’ve read Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation,” reviewed Greg Critser’s “Fat Land,” saw “Super Size Me”—but I still need to be preached at. You begin to forget if you don’t take communion. Just the other day I had two cheeseburgers at Dick’s. I thought: Why not? Then last night I watched an industry executive bragging about the ammonia they put in meat filler, which is in 70 percent of meat sold in this country. I thought: Oh, right.

“Food, Inc.” doesn’t take cheap shots but I wanted it to hit harder. Sometimes it goes for the soft, lefty emotional appeal. Here’s the mother of a 2 1/2 year-old boy who was killed by E coli in 2001 and who now lobbies Congress (fruitlessly) for greater regulations in the meat industry. Here’s an immigrant family that can only afford the fast food that is making them sicker. Both stories are sad. So are billions of others. Give me facts. Show me footage. Make me throw up.

Filmmaker Robert Kenner got my attention right away. He strolled us down the clean aisles of a modern supermarket in haunting, dreamy fashion—like something out of a David Lynch movie—while the narrator (Eric Schlosser) said the following:

The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000.

That’s scary enough. Then I realized I’m 46. My entire lifetime encompasses this warped timeframe.

They give us facts. In 1970 the top five beef producers produced 20 percent of the nation’s beef. Now the top four produce 80 percent of it.

A chicken in 1950 took 90 days to reach maturity. Now it takes 49 days. And they’re twice the size. Some have grown so large so quickly they can’t even walk. We see them stumbling. It feels like we’re messing with the plan—Nature’s or God’s, take your pick.

Our government subsidizes corn, which is put into almost everything we eat, and which is shipped around the country to feed cattle. An organic farmer points to his cows in a field and talks about the natural cycles. The cows eat the grass, then shit on the grass, which fertilizes the grass, allowing the grass to grow so they can eat it again. We’re messing with this plan—Nature’s or God’s, take your pick. Now we truck in tons of corn to feed tons of fenced-in cattle and truck out tons of manure. Industry claims this is an efficient system, but it’s not as efficient as God’s or Nature’s. It also leads to disease.

We get footage of the E coli breakouts. Remember Jack in the Box in 1993? That was a big deal. Then, in rapid fashion, and for diminishing attention spans, we get breakouts in ’98, ’01, ’02, ’06. Unless we’re directly involved, we've stopped paying attention. It used to be just meat. Now it’s spinach. Runoff from factory slaughterhouses is making even our vegetables deadly.

Kenner has trouble focusing because the subject, like the runoff, gets into everything. So NAFTA legislation allows a flood of cheap, government-subsidized corn into Mexico, which puts 1.5 million Mexican farmers out of work, which forces many north, here, to work in our factory farms and slaughterhouses. Until of course the illegal-alien thing becomes hot. Then they’re rounded up and shipped back, in careful intervals, so as not to disturb production. The labor issue is definitely a consequence of the bigger subject—why and what we’re eating—but it still feels peripheral. It still feels softy lefty.

Here’s the focus. Industries are now cloning animals but they’re not required by the FDA to label the product “cloned meat.” The California legislature passed a resolution requiring the labeling but Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed it. Hasta la vista, baby.

Here’s the focus. Monsanto created and, in the 1980s, successfully patented a genetically-altered soybean called Roundup Ready, which is resistant to their herbicide Roundup. They own the seed. In 1996, 20 percent of soybeans in the U.S. were Monsanto’s; by 2008, 90 percent were. They sue any farmer who keeps one of their seeds, or onto whose farm a genetically altered seed is blown by the wind. Other soybean seeds are now disappearing (forever?) in favor of Roundup Ready. Monsanto is putting God out of business.

Here’s the focus. In 13 states, the food industry can sue people—such as Oprah in ‘96—who make disparaging comments about their products. It’s called veggie libel laws. To fight you need Oprah’s money. Imagine if the film industry could sue a critic who disparaged its product. The mind reels.

Here’s the focus. For much of the last 20 years, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, industry regulators (heads of the FDA, etc.) have been of the industry. They have ties to the Monsantos of the world. Their interests are not our interests. Military-industrial complex? Pikers.

That’s the kind of thing I wanted more of. I wanted a concentrated, close-up look at what our food is and why.

At the same time, maybe it’s better that Kenner didn’t hit too hard. “You’ve got to hold something back for pressure,” Robert Frost said of poetry. Kenner does. He leaves it to us to provide the pressure.

Here’s mine. Here’s me letting off steam. If a company like Monsanto can patent a genetically altered soybean, then force them to call it something besides a soybean. In all of their packaging, in all of their marketing, the term “soybean” cannot be used. Because a soybean is God’s product, Nature’s product, not Monsanto’s product. Let them call it a crapbean. Let’s pass that legislation.

The scariest people in the doc tend to be industry people who speak their mind, who have no broad overview. “Everything we’ve done in modern agriculture is to grow it faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper,” one says. This is how business people think, and should think, but there should be balance from elsewhere and we’re not getting it. Why we’re imbalanced.

The business of business is to speed up the assembly line, to push things through the system at a faster and faster rate, and in doing so, they’ve created a product that is not the product. This is everywhere, in all business. So rather than wait for homeowners to pay off their mortgages, we’ve turned mortgages into mortgage securities, which banks sell to investment banks, who then sell them to investors, which frees up the banks to lend again. Ad infinitum. Until infinitum comes calling. So with our food. We’re pushing chickens and soybeans through the system at a faster and faster rate, but what we’re pushing through is no longer chickens and soybeans. It’s something else. Ad infinitum. Until infinitum comes calling.

The doc ends with a plea for individual responsibility. Everything you buy and eat is a vote. Be careful how you vote. I agree. But more needs doing. Government needs to be on the side of consumers rather than just business. At the least, we need to be able to know what’s in our food. “Food, Inc.” is a start for those who need a start. It’s communion for those who don’t. Check it out. The situation is worse than you think.

Posted at 01:29 PM on Jun 20, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Movies - Documentaries
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Friday June 19, 2009

Review: “Touchez pas au grisbi” (1954)

WARNING: THE WORLD’S COOLEST MOVIE SPOILERS

There is something measured and specific about Jacques Becker’s films. Nothing is hurried and nothing essential is left out. As viewers, we sometimes guess where things are going, but when they wind up there we still feel slightly shocked, certainly saddened. Some of Becker’s protagonists, too, know how things will play out but they never jump ahead. They may assume the worst in their fellow man but they don’t act on that assumption. To do so would be dishonorable.

Touchez pas au grisbi, with Jean GabinThe honorable man in Becker’s “Touchez pas au Grisbi” (1954) is Max, an aging gangster, played by aging movie star Jean Gabin, who was, at the time of the production, 15 years removed from his heyday. “Grisbi” gave him a second life. He made 50 more movies.

Today Gabin is a legend. In 1999 he was voted “the actor of the century” in a French poll, and one of the few English language books about him (as well as a blog) is entitled “The World’s Coolest Movie Star.” Here, Gabin straddles the line between cool and weary, but his weariness isn’t a result of the world overwhelming him. The opposite. It underwhelms. It’s entirely predictable.

We first see Max at the restaurant of his choice, Madame Bouche’s, a gangster hangout in Montmartre (but classy), where those at his table, including his partner, Riton (Rene Dary), hang onto his every reluctant word. After dinner they pile into a car and head to a strip club (but classy), where Max, with shrugging matter-of-factness, brokers a deal between the owner, “Fats” Pierrot (Paul Frankeur) and Angelo, a rival gangster (Lino Ventura), then discovers Angelo backstage lip-locked with Riton’s girl, Josy (a young Jeanne Moreau). Roger Ebert, in his 2004 review, is excellent on the next scene:

This would come as particularly bad news to Riton, who fancies himself a ladies' man and thinks Josy belongs to him, but look how elegantly Becker resolves the situation. Instead of telling his pal that he's a cuckold, Max advises Riton to give up Josy. He points out aging playboys steering hookers around the dance floor, calls attention to the bags under Riton's eyes and suggests they go home early. Riton suggests he stay for one more drink. No, says Max, with that flat, calm Gabin delivery; he knows what one more drink will lead to: A bottle of champagne with Angelo, and then having to take the girls out for onion soup, and then having to have sex ... it's easier just to leave now.

Riton doesn’t but Max does, and he’s followed home by a couple of Angelo’s mugs, whom he handles with dispatch, then calls to warn Riton. We don’t know it yet but Max has already figured it all out. All the evidence is there for us, too, buried in the details of the film. That $50 million gold heist from Orly Airport Max was reading about at the beginning? Max and Riton pulled it off. So of course Riton had to brag about it to Josie. And of course Josie spilled the beans to her lover, Angelo, who of course wants the gold.

Jean Gabin, the aging gangster with a touch of charm, in "Touchez pas au grisbi" (1954)

Ah, to be an aging, world-weary French gangster

Max explains all of this—slightly fed-up—to Riton in Max’s safe house. It’s a scene unprecedented in gangster movies and it’s Becker at his measured and specific best. After Max explains to Riton that their $50 million heist was his last job and he doesn’t want Riton to eff it up, the two sit, drink wine, and eat biscuits and pate. They put on pajamas and brush their teeth. They go to bed. But within the quotidian details is the difference between the two. Max knows and accepts what he is. Riton checks out the bags under his eyes and is saddened by what he sees. The next morning he fights it. He goes to see Josie but is captured by Angelo. He’s held hostage for the gold.

Ebert raises the following question:

Does Max love Riton? Max seems to be the current or former lover of almost every woman in the movie, and yet, yes, Riton is who he loves.

Sure, he loves him. But loves loves? I’d give that a Gabin-esque shrug. There’s another great scene where Max, in voice-over, thinks about what a screw-up Riton has been, and whether he should leave him to his fate. It’s the only moment where we get a voice-over in the movie and it’s the only moment where we get this side of Max. That’s why the voice-over. Saying it aloud isn’t Max. But the thoughts are there.

One wonders why Max carries him, though. Is it just the honor of the thing? His need to remain loyal to his friends? Psychologists might call Max an enabler, and maybe there’s something there. He’s assured of his superiority by hanging with screw-ups.

Yet, if anything, Max’s cool results less from a sense of superiority and more from remaining a reluctant participant in the continuing charade. He wants his restaurant, he wants his girls, he wants as little danger as possible. But—in the overused phrase—they keep pulling him back in, and he goes with a shrug. He knows how it’ll play out—not well—but he goes anyway. You want to play this? I’ll play it. Since he has no illusions he sees things clearly and remains a step ahead.

I’m wondering about the end. There’s that scene, after Max learns that Riton has been kidnapped but before the deal has played out, where he visits his mistress, and, post-coital, holds up her hand and looks at the jewels on her wrist. Becker loves his details—his details are clues—and after it’s all over the mistress is no longer an afternoon visit for Max. He’s out with her at Madame Bouche’s. Because of the jewels and what they represent? Max’s payday, the gold, has been lost and he doesn’t want to go back in, so is this his compromise? Give up some independence for some money? Or is it all merely temporary until things quiet down and he can once again sketch out a plan that will allow him that final chance to retire on his own terms? Either way, we could all use such a fallback position.

Jean Gabin, the aging gangster with a touch of charm, in "Touchez pas au grisbi" (1954)

 The fallback position

The French during this period were great with aging gangster movies—see “Bob le Flembeur” and “Rififi”—but I’m wondering where the great aging American gangster movies are. Do we have them? Do we count “The Godfather”? Or “The Godfather—part III”? Or are all aspects of American society a young man’s game, including its underworld?

P.S. Not to be too Netflix about this but: If you liked “Grisbi” you have to check out Jacques Becker’s last film, “Le Trou”—literally “The Hole,” and slang for “The Jail”—about a jailbreak among honorable men. It may include the best last line in movie history, and one that suggests, in two words, Becker’s entire oeuvre. It suggests an entire way to live.

Posted at 08:20 AM on Jun 19, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s, Movies - Foreign, Jean Gabin
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Tuesday June 16, 2009

Breaking the Laws of Probability

“Until the spring of 1978, when Salomon Brothers formed Wall Street’s first mortgage security department, the term borrower referred to large corporations and to federal, state, and local governments. It did not include homeowners. A Salomon Brothers partner named Robert Dall thought this strange...

”The problem [with the inability to see big business in home mortgages] was more fundamental than a disdain for Middle America. Mortgages were not tradable pieces of paper; they were not bonds. They were loans made by savings banks that were never supposed to leave the saving banks. A single home mortgage was a messy investment for Wall Street, which was used to dealing in bigger numbers. No trader or investor wanted to poke around suburbs to find out whether the homeowner to whom he had just lent money was creditworthy. For the home mortgage to become a bond, it had to be depersonalized.

“At the very least, a mortgage had to be pooled with other mortgages of other homeowners. Traders and investors would trust statistics and buy into a pool of several thousand mortgage loans made by a savings and loan, of which, by the laws of probability, only a small fraction should default...”

— from Michael Lewis’ “Liar’s Poker,” pp. 83-85

Posted at 07:47 PM on Jun 16, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Business
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Imagine Better

Here’s a question from last month’s box office quiz: Which film, among all 52 films that opened superwide (in 3,000 or more theaters) in 2008, grossed the least? The answer? Eddie Murphy’s (and Fox's) “Meet Dave,” which made only $11 million domestically.

This past weekend, Paramount distributed Murphy’s next film, “Imagine That,” into 3,000+ theaters again, with similar results. It finished sixth for the week, making $5.5 million, or $1,830 per theater. That’s pretty awful. Box office mojo uses the term “super-saturated” rather than “superwide,” and “Imagine That” has the fourth-worst opening weekend ever among super-saturated films—behind only “Hoot” (New Line), “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising” (Fox) and “Meet Dave” (Fox).

Murphy’s pattern feels familiar. The comedian who confronts the absurdities of society in blisteringly stand-up in his early days becomes, in his latter days, the actor who comforts and condones those same absurdities in limp, family-friendly comedies. That’s why I’m not interested in his films. But why is Hollywood still interested? Particularly if he keeps opening movies this way?

I guess they’re hoping for a “Norbit.” Let me repeat that. I guess they’re hoping for a “Norbit.” A film that didn’t cost much and made nearly $100 million.

Maybe they’re hoping for a “Doctor Dolittle,” which grossed nearly $300 million worldwide in 1998. They’re surely not holding out for a “Beverly Hills Cop,” which grossed $234 million domestically way back in 1984—the highest-grossing film of that year. Although maybe they are. “Beverly Hills Cop IV” is supposedly in development. As is “Fantasy Island.” As is “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” Both with Murphy attached.

Here’s a thought for the studios. Murphy might not be for summer anymore. Or he might not be for a superwide opening anymore. Or he might not be for movies anymore.

To funnier times.
Posted at 09:15 AM on Jun 16, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Monday June 15, 2009

Now That's Good Writin': Kehr on Lemmon

"In a career that spanned almost 50 years Jack Lemmon was seldom a soothing presence. Sweaty, stammering and hyperactive, Lemmon seemed to embody the countertype of the monumental, granite-jawed leading men of the 1950s — stars like John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck.

"Where Peck, for example, seemed to embody the World War II squadron leader slipping into middle age and forced to operate on the unfamiliar corporate battlefields of Madison Avenue (“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”), Lemmon was the junior officer eagerly polishing the brass of his superiors (in his Oscar-winning supporting performance in “Mister Roberts”), a tactic he queasily carried with him into the business world (“The Apartment”). Lemmon’s recurring predicament is that of the desperate conformist who ultimately discovers that conformity comes at too high a price."

—Dave Kehr in his NY Times article, "Everyman, Tempted" about a new Jack Lemmon DVD collection

Posted at 10:33 AM on Jun 15, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Movies
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Review: “L'emmerdeur” (2008)

WARNING: AS MANY SPOILERS AS FRANCOIS PIGNONS

As you watch “L’emmerdeur” (“A Pain in the Ass”), the latest comedy from Francis Veber, and as you’re enjoying the typical Veberian patterns—the comedic clash between an emotional, obtuse man (the feminine), and a tough, professional and slightly dangerous man (the masculine)—you realize, after about 45 minutes, that most of the action is taking place in two adjoining hotel rooms. And you think, “Hell, this could’ve been a play. How odd that Veber wrote such a play-like film so late in his career.”

At least that’s what you think if, like me, you really don’t know Veber. Afterwards I learned that “L’emmerdeur” is a remake of a 1973 film of the same name, which was based upon Veber’s 1969 play, “Le contrat,” which was also the basis for Billy Wilder’s last film, “Buddy Buddy,” in 1981. It's been told a lot, in other words. Is it worth revisiting?

The set-up still works. A hitman, Jean Milan (Richard Berry), attempting to kill a high-level witness, takes an adjoining hotel room with a man, Francois Pignon (Patrick Tims), trying to kill himself. And the incompetence of the latter disrupts the super-competence of the former.

Pignon’s wife has left him for her shrink and he’s a puddle. He calls her, declares his suicidal intentions, then tries hanging himself from the bathroom shower. It breaks, alerting the hotel clerk in Milan’s room, who wants to call the police. Since the last thing Milan needs is cops flying around while he’s trying to assassinate someone in the plaza below, he takes responsibility and shoos the clerk away. But now he’s responsible. The cops would’ve been easy in comparison.

Tims is the 8th actor to play Pignon, the nom de choix for the feminine half of Veber’s buddy comedies. Others include Gad Elmelah in “La doublure” (2006), Daniel Auteuil in “Le placard” (2001) and Jacques Villeret in “Le diner de cons” (1998). But the most famous and probably the best to take on Pignon was Pierre Richard in two Veber comedies with Gerard Depardieu in the 1980s: “Les comperes” (remade as “Father’s Day” in the U.S., with Robin Williams in the Pignon role) and “Les fugitifs” (remade as “Three Fugitives” in the U.S., with Martin Short in the Pignon role). You could add “Le chevre” (1981) to the mix, too. Veber wrote and directed it, Depardieu starred as the tough guy, and Richard played the hapless half named Francois...Perrin. Basically the same deal.

Not to be mean but Tims made me long for Richard. Pignon is such a bothersome character that one invariably roots for the other guy, even if, as here, the other guy’s a professional killer. Because at least he’s professional. But Richard had a dreamy quality that made his Pignon palatable. There was something crisp and determined about his dreaminess, too. He may have been wrong, but he was only wrong because the world is wrong. You need Depardieu’s headbutting ways to get by, and Richard’s Pignon only half-understood this. In a way he seemed determined not to understand this. He preferred his brand of idiocy to the world’s.

The Pignon of “Le diner de cons” worked in a different way. In that film, which was the highest-grossing film in France in 1998, the set-up was so horrible—a group of successful, professional men inviting the biggest idiot they could find to a dinner, at which a champion idiot would be crowned, with Pierre Brochant, of course, choosing Pignon—that we had no sympathy at all for Brochant, and in fact cheered on Pignon as his genial idiocy slowly ruined Brochant’s life. Brochant asked for what he got. He invited it in.

Tims’ Pignon is not dreamy and he’s not genial, and the hitman Jean Milan never invited him in. Plus the notion that this schlumpy Pignon was ever the husband of the gazelle-like Louise (Virginie Ledoyen, 16 years Tims’ junior) seems too absurd even for comedy. I could see her marrying Richard and his brand of dreaminess. But what does Tims bring? What’s his redeeming factor? Does he have one? That’s one of the main problems with the film.

A side-note. Could the Veberian dynamic (the masculine-feminine “buddy” film) work with an actual female in the Pignon role? I doubt it. It would disrupt the comedic dilemma. I.e.: What does a professional tough guy do when forced into partnership with an emotional puddle who is not a woman? You turn the character into a woman and you sacrifice comedy for romance.

There’s a phrase I use a lot as an editor, and I first thought of it while watching the final scene of Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby”: a soft landing. It’s a shot that brings us back to earth with nary a bump and yet is so resonant that it glides us along even as the credits roll. It’s a beautiful thing when done right and Veber’s the master. Even his disappointing films, such as “Le chevre,” give us soft landings, and “L’emmerdeur” is no different. The cops, finally alerted to trouble, shoot a tear-gas canister into Milan’s room. On the bed, Pignon, stronger now, taking charge now, puts his arm around the undone professional killer and assures him that, even in prison, he will always stick by him and never abandon him. He says this as clouds of puffy gas fill the room, slowly enveloping the two. And in that shot we finally get the dreaminess we needed all along.

Posted at 09:42 AM on Jun 15, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Movies - Foreign
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Saturday June 13, 2009

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose

"But a few of the old hands within Salomon Brothers suffered a more complicated response to their money [in the 1980s]. Not that they ever doubted they were worth every penny they got. But they were uneasy with the explosion of debt in America. (In general, the better they recalled the Great Depression, the more suspicious they were of the leveraging of America.) The head of our bond research at Salomon, Henry Kaufman, was, when I arrived, our most accute case of cognitive dissonance. ... As he wrote in the Institutional Investor of July 1987:

One of the most remarkable things that happened in the 1980s was [the] sharp explosion of debt, way beyond any historical benchmark. It was way beyond anything you would have expected relative to GNP, relative to monetary expansion that was taking place. But it came about, I think, as a result of freeing the financial system, putting into being financial entrepreneurship and not putting into being adequate disciplines and safeguards. So that's where we are.

That is where we are: wild, reckless, and deeply in hock.

— from Michael Lewis' "Liar's Poker," pg. 60

Posted at 08:10 AM on Jun 13, 2009 in category Culture
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Friday June 12, 2009

On Nick Paumgarten's "The Death of Kings"

As I was reading Nick Paumgarten’s New Yorker article “The Death of Kings” last week (late to the party again: it’s from the May 18th issue), I kept wondering why it wasn’t a topic of conversation everywhere. Besides the obvious reasons: It’s long, about finance, in the New Yorker. On the other hand: It’s well-written, deep, scary. Maybe those are the same hand. A Google search on the terms “The Death of Kings” and “Nick Paumgarten” brought up less than a thousand hits. I don’t expect viral, I don’t expect Adam Lambert saying he’s gay or what’s painted on Sarah Palin’s toes, but can’t it at least be a little communicable?

Compounding the problem: It’s only online as a small excerpt on the New Yorker’s site. For subscribers like myself, yes, you can read the whole thing, but in .pdf form, making it difficult to copy and share. I understand the rationale—buy the magazine already—but it does limit its impact in our lazy, online world.

Shame. It’s an article that should be read. It’s about Paumgarten’s search for a wise man in the global financial meltdown. Someone who knew early and who might know early again where we’re heading. It’s a gloomy ride. It begins with unnamed insiders recounting when they knew the jig was up (watching a commercial for a subprime lender, studying debt vs. GNP graphs, learning that their cleaning woman in New York bought a house in Virginia to flip), and then wonders, from the center of the storm, how big the storm is and how much damage it will cause:

This doesn’t look like anything yet. The cities aren’t crumbling; the Plains aren’t turning to dust; your four grandparents are not sharing a bed...

What’s our original sin? How many years are we paying for? Since W.? Since Reagan? Since FDR? Since McKinley? Reading, you almost get a sense that our entire economic system has been funded on an illusion that kept us afloat, as surely as Wile E. Coyote’s illusion that he’s on land keeps him running on air. When realization sinks in, hold up a sign: Bye-bye.

One of his wise men is Colin Negrych, a private market philosopher/trader, who was in that 1985 Salomon Brothers’ training session portrayed in Michael Lewis’ “Liar’s Poker,” and who, among his aphorisms, quotes singer Robbie Fulks: “It’s a full-blown chore overlookin’ what’s plain to see.” What have we been overlooking? Debt. “Debt is the story,” he says. Later he adds: “What constituency is there for pessimism? People believe optimism is necessary, an American right. The presumption of optimism is the problem. That’s what creates the debt we have now.”

He’s full of pithy advice. “This whole culture has been set up to see stocks and homes as annual riskless investments. They most assuredly are not.” So that “whole culture” is, what, 10 years old? More? But not pre-1970s. Homes used to be places to live, jobs places to work. Both were stable.

“What has also run aground,” Paumgarten writes, “is a revolution in financing dating back to the nineteen-seventies.” He’s talking about all the stuff I don’t get, or am only beginning to vaguely get: the end of Glass-Steagall, which separated commercial from investment banks; the creation of interest-rate swaps; new ways to securitize debt:

They pooled assets that yielded a regular flow of payments (mortgages, car loans, credit-card receivables, etc.) and then divided the pool into tranches, ranked according to the order of repayment. Pieces of each tranche are sold to investors as securities—a claim on a portion of the payments. The senior tranches get paid back first but yield less. The equity branches, last in line, get paid more to take on the higher risk of not being paid at all. The idea is to spread and therefore mitigate the risk of lending, and in turn lower the cost of borrowing.

OK, I still don’t get it. Once money goes abstract I’m lost. But I remember the horror I felt watching that “60 Minutes” episode last fall in which Steve Kroft described how there were basically bets on all those failing subprime mortgages and no money to cover the bets. I imagined bankers rolling dice in a backroom. I still do. I kept thinking: Is this legal? Should it be?

Paumgarten writes the piece with short, terse sentences,  as if he’s holding his breath, as if he’s waiting for something else to collapse. How fragile is the entire system now? How much are we overleveraged? Wasn’t it 20-1? Is it still?

We get stories from the front lines about unnamed bankers and traders. The jobs lost. The lessons learned. The walls closing in. There’s a search for a villain, too, a face to embody the whole horrible mess. Even as Paumgarten fails in this task—dismissing Madoff as too small, Lehman and Bear as mere portions, and Greenspan as not pernicious enough—I wonder over its efficacy. Paumgarten feels a villain is necessary but I don’t. The very point of the system was its abstractness. What’s happened to my loan? Who’s playing craps with it where? It deserves an abstract villain.

Now It’s our very culture that’s abstract, diffuse, difficult to pinpoint. We’re all over the place. Which is why “The Death of Kings” isn’t a topic of conversation everywhere. But it should be. Libraries probably have the piece if you want to check it out. If they're still open.

Posted at 08:54 AM on Jun 12, 2009 in category Business
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Thursday June 11, 2009

Review: "Wind Blows in the Meadow" (2009)

WARNING: WINDY SPOILERS

You get the feeling something has been lost in translation in the Iranian film “Wind Blows in the Meadow.” The meadow, for example. “Wind Blows Through the Woods” would be a more accurate title but the subtitles screw even this up, calling a patch of snow- and ice-covered trees near a northern Iranian mountain village a “jungle.” Too bad. The wind that blows in the woods is one of the film’s key symbols. It loudly and ominously loosens ice and snow onto the people below. It portends disaster.

The movie begins simply. A man goes into the woods and cuts down a tree with a chainsaw. He’s cutting off its branches when he suddenly screams. It’s rolled over onto him.

A young woman with beautiful dark eyes buys supplies at the local store, then says “Put it on my account,” and gets a nasty look from the proprietor. Outside a young man with Down syndrome tries to give the girl some jewelry, but she regards it, and him, with something between horror and hatred. What’s going on?

Everything falls into place in the next scene. The woodsman, Taleb, is bedridden and in debt, and so he’s promised the hand of his daughter, the dark-eyed Shouka, to Shokrollah, the boy with Down syndrome. No, wait, she’s been promised to his father, the old but tough Nasir. No, she has been promised to Shokrollah, who is horribly smitten and wants to kiss her, while she can only regard him with disgust.

OK, so not everything falls into place.

I have to admit, after the family patriarchs finalize the upcoming marriage, and after Shouka’s mother (mother-in-law? aunt?) chastises the girl for refusing to come when called, and then Shouka does, standing there beautiful and defiant, I kind of rolled my eyes. I thought: OK, this is one of those Lifetime-Channel movies for the indie filmgoer. They go pretending to embrace the foreignness of the film but truly embrace its western aspects: in this case, the defiance of a beautiful woman in a backwards, patriarchal (and horribly, horribly foreign) setting. Plus aren’t her scarves gorgeous?

I also knew, from the synopsis, that the plot concerns a Romeo and Juliet type relationship, and so, like women everywhere, I sat back and waited for Romeo to show up.  

The film is better than that. It’s more foreign than that. At a tea house, a tailor, Rafie, agrees to do the wedding up fine—suit for the groom, dress for the bride—and one assumes his assistant, Jalil, a vaguely handsome young man with dark hair and high cheekbones, will play Romeo, as he does. But he’s not much smarter than Shokrollah, and he’s slow to realize his role in the story. He’s also not that handsome, or interesting, or courageous. You think: She could still do better.

Once Jalil overhears Shouka’s complaints, though, and then sees her in her wedding dress, he concocts a scheme to delay the wedding long enough for Shouka to talk to her aunt, who talks to Taleb, who calls off the wedding. But it turns out the old man, Nasir, and Yahya, his brother (eldest son?), are not to be trifled with. Hell, Jalil barely looks at Shouka before Yahya is threatening him with a knife. Things get fairly lawless, and one wonder if this is a lawless society or if Nasir and Yahya are like the Iranian-village version of the Mafia. That would make Rafie the tailor a kind of Enzo the Baker who performs a favor for the local don...that goes horribly awry.

I like the fact that I don’t know. I don’t know Iranian society, let alone Iranian mountain-village society, so I miss all the cultural signifiers. I’m dropped in the middle of this story, which, sans a chainsaw and truck, could’ve taken place 500 or 1,000 years ago, and am forced to feel my way around.

It’s its very foreignness, in other words, that intrigues. At the same time, what kicks the story into high gear are two of the more ancient and universal lessons we know: beautiful women are coveted; and men are brutal.
Posted at 07:52 AM on Jun 11, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Movies - Foreign
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Tuesday June 09, 2009

A Monday Hangover

Of the blogs reporting on Hollywood, the one I tend to go to first is Patrick Goldstein’s “Big Picture” blog. Many of the others are slightly myopic—tomorrow is today, and yesterday doesn’t exist—and a little frantic; Goldstein is measured in comparison. Sometimes too measured. His recent explication of the “Drag Me to Hell” poster made even me seem worldly. Could they be using...SEX...to sell this film? My goodness. Such a thought.

But he had a very good recent post on “The Hangover” killing and “Land of the Lost” dying:
We'll have more to say about this later, but one thing once again seems obvious: If you have a really good movie with a strong concept and no movie stars going up against a really bad movie with a weak concept and a big movie star -- the good movie wins every time. The public can no longer be hypnotized into seeing a bad movie just by the presence of a A-list star.
Hell, I’d take out the star stuff, it only confuses. If you have a good movie with a good concept vs. a bad movie with a weak concept, the good movie wins.

As for the specifics last weekend? You have Will Ferrell starring in a non-Will Ferrell movie that’s supposed to be bad vs. a bunch of dudes starring in a Will Ferrell-like movie that’s supposed to be really good. Which do you go see?

Goldstein also has this interesting graf about the marketing chief for Warner Bros. (and thus "Hangover"), Sue Kroll:
Kroll knew she hit pay dirt when she went to the hair salon on Saturday. She listened with delight as a pair of women relived the uproarious time they'd had seeing the film with friends the night before. "One of them said, 'I loved that guy who was missing a tooth -- he reminded me of my ex-boyfriend.' " Kroll recalled. "And then she said, 'Everyone loves that movie. My mother's going to see it now too.' "

That is what is called major league buzz -- when even grandmothers are going to see a movie whose target audience is 19-year-old boys.

It seems to be panning out. On Monday, “Hangover”’s box office fell off by only 41.9%. Most films, from Sunday to Monday, drop off in the 60s. In fact, so far this year, for a non-holiday weekend, "Hangover"'s is the second-smallest Monday dropoff for any weekend box office champion—after “Taken”’s 39% at the end of January.

Some may attribute this to school getting out and kids running amuck (and to the theater) but that 41.9% trumps the Monday fall-off for any weekend box office champ in June 2008, too.

Posted at 06:07 PM on Jun 09, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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"Free, White and 21"

James Allen: Must you go home?
Helen: There are no musts in my life. I'm free, white and 21."

—from "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" (1932). The Worldwide Dubya isn't much help with the phrase. One assumes it was a semi-common, possibly regional (i.e., southern) comment back in the day, but I don't see any specific reference to it before this film—which, I should add, includes a lot of black actors in roles that, while mostly non-speaking, aren't too embarrassing for the time. The line subsequently wound up in a few other films from the era: "Dames" (1935) and "Kitty Foyle" (1940). It also became the title of indie movie from 1963 about an African American on trial for the rape of a white woman.

Posted at 09:15 AM on Jun 09, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Movies
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Now That's Good Writing: Denby on “Up”

“Up,” which begins in the nineteen-thirties, is steeped in the style of that period, with its gee-whiz appreciation of exotic adventure and its worship of heroes who have journeyed to strange, distant places. A little boy, Carl, watches newsreels at a theatre, and sees an explorer, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), first celebrated then humiliated: no one believes the skeleton of a large flightless bird that Muntz has brought back from South America is authentic. When Carl leaves the theatre, he imagines the newsreel narrator describing his walk home, turning his stepping over a crack in the sidewalk into a vault over a canyon. It’s a gracious moment: the co-directors, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, who also wrote the screenplay, pay affectionate tribute to daydreaming as a noble and necessary human activity. In dreams begin responsibilities, and in dreams begin movies, too.

David Denby on “Up” in the June 8th New Yorker. Read on and discover why Denby feels Pixar at its best is better than Disney at its best.

Posted at 08:54 AM on Jun 09, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Movie Reviews - 2009
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Monday June 08, 2009

Review: “The Hangover” (2009)

WARNING: OUTRAGEOUS SPOILERS

“The Hangover” isn’t the funniest movie I’ve seen this year—“Up” is—but it’s got some laughs and a smart structure. Instead of showing us four guys partying wildly in Vegas for a night, it shows us three guys trying to figure out what happened—and where the fourth guy is—the morning after partying wildly in Vegas for a night. It has a purpose, in other words. It gives these guys a goal. It also makes them sympathetic. We see them confused and regretful (and concerned about their friend) rather than rowdy and asinine (and concerned about nothing).

The four friends are types. Stu (Ed Helms) is a henpecked dentist with a shrewish, girlfriend who cheats on him. Phil (Bradley Cooper) is a public school teacher still trying to get by on looks and charm, and still giving off whiffs of asshole. Doug (Justin Bartha) is the bland nice guy who goes missing, and who’s supposed to be married the next day in L.A., making it necessary to find him within a certain timeframe. These guys have been friends for a while, and, though they’re obviously different, they seem like they’ve been friends for a while. There’s a camaraderie there. The conversation and shit-giving during the car ride to Vegas feels comfortable and familiar.

The fourth guy is Alan, Doug’s future brother-in-law, played by comedian Zach Galifianakis, and he’s one of the reasons “Hangover” has such great buzz. He’s not a type. When we first see him—trying on tuxes with Doug—he seems a schlemiel. Then Doug asks him to come along to Vegas with his friends, and he slowly wraps Doug in a long, creepy hug...wearing no pants. He professes discomfort waiting in the car outside Phil’s workplace, because, he says, “I’m not supposed to be within 200 feet of a school.” At a gas station an old man admires his car. Alan tells him not to touch it. Then not to look at it. Then to walk away. Then he calls him out.

So who’s Alan? He’s the guy who does whatever’s necessary to make each situation more uncomfortable. He’s the envelope-pusher. Meaning he’s a lot like the actor playing him. From a profile on Galifianakis in the New York Times last week:

A typical hourlong set might meander from carefully composed, conceptual one-liners à la Steven Wright to profanity-drenched tirades against members of the audience to slapstick to solemnly tacky musical interludes (Galifianakis is an able pianist) to Andy Kaufman-esque attacks on the genre that seem less concerned with eliciting laughs from the crowd than with confounding its notions of what comedy or, for that matter, entertainment ought to be.

Some of the more memorable lines in the film are not only his but truly his. On the ride to Vegas, for example, he talks up card-counting, and, when told it’s illegal, he counters that it’s more frowned-upon than illegal. “Like masturbating on a plane,” he says. The others exchange glances and agree you can’t do that on a plane post-9/11. Alan pauses. “Thanks a lot, bin Laden,” he says.

That’s great, and, according to Bradley Cooper, it wasn’t in the script. It was all Galifianakis. So is: “I didn’t know they gave out rings at the Holocaust.” So is jerking off the baby. So is the blowjob shots at the end.

More and more comedies, particularly comedies about and for guys, rely on this brand of outrageousness. They’re designed to get buzz. You won’t believe what they did!, etc. Think of the naked scene in “Sarah Marshall,” the blackface and “Simple Jack” storylines in “Tropic Thunder,” almost anything Will Ferrell or Sacha Baron Cohen does. But it means Alan is less character than comedian. He doesn’t make sense.

So on the roof at Caesar’s Palace the four friends toast each other with jagermeister. “To a night the four of us will never forget,” they say. Then they forget. It’s morning, they’re lying on the floor of their suite, while the detritus of the evening’s debauchery is slowly revealed to them and us: a clucking chicken, a smoking chair, a tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet. They remember nothing. Stu, the dentist, is missing a tooth. Doug himself is missing.

Sorting it all out, things just get worse. When the valet brings their car it’s a police car. When clues lead them to a Vegas chapel they discover Stu married a stripper named Jade (Heather Graham). When they get their own car back and hear a rumbling in the trunk, they open it expecting Doug; instead they’re attacked by a naked Chinese man (Ken Jeong).

This is where a lot of the humor comes from. We’re watching fairly normal guys reacting to evidence of the outrageousness they, without remembering it, caused.

Unfortunately the filmmakers double down on outrageousness. Visiting a doctor, his patient is an old man with wrinkled, formless skin, and the punchline is his wrinkled, formless ass. Outrageous! The naked Chinese man turns out to be not just a gangster, and not just gay, but flaming. Outrageous! The wedding singer sings inappropriate songs with raunchy lyrics. Outrageous!

But not. Each of these moments stopped the movie cold for me. Maybe it’s necessary to have one designated envelope-pusher per film. Galifianakis here. Everyone else should underplay.

Adventure stories have often been about returning home, and so is this one. Our guys get to the wedding in the nick of time, changed men, their more pungent qualities tempered. Stu is no longer a doormat and Phil seems ready to embrace the role of father and husband. The wedding—the singer notwithstanding—is a sweet scene, as they sit back and reflect on their wild two days. Even if they don’t remember most of it.

Posted at 08:20 AM on Jun 08, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Sunday June 07, 2009

Federer, tout simplement magnifique

From Le Monde:

On pensait que l’histoire sportive de l’année serait le retour de l’Américain Lance Armstrong sur le Tour de France. Il n’en est rien. L’histoire sportive de l’année, elle s’est jouée en trois actes, en trois sets (6-1 7-6 6-4), sur le central de Roland-Garros, dimanche. L’histoire sportive de l’année, c’est d’avoir vu Roger Federer soulever pour la première fois la magnifique Coupe des Mousquetaires. De l’avoir vu se laisser emporter par l’émotion et verser de chaudes larmes en écoutant l’hymne national de son pays.

Or in my hastily translated English:

We think the sports story of the year will be the return of the American Lance Armstrong to the Tour de France. That's nothing. The sports story of the year played itself out in three acts, or three sets (6-1 7-6 6-4), at center court, Roland-Garros, Sunday.The sports story of the year was seeing Roger Federer raise for the first time the magnificent Coupe des Mousquetaires. It was seeing emotions get the better of him and the warm tears come, listening to the national anthem of his country.

Corrections are welcome.

Posted at 05:04 PM on Jun 07, 2009 in category General
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Saturday June 06, 2009

Theme from a Summer Place

Instead of the same-old same-old flickering to your left, I thought I’d get seasonal for a change with some summer movie posters.

Here’s the problem: If you want summer movies that feel like summer (“Jaws”), more than movies that were simply released in summer (“The Dark Knight,”), you’re going to run into a whole host of crap movies. Summer means beaches ... and bikinis ... and now you’re into exploitation territory.

So here’s what I came up with. It includes not only movies that feel like summer but movies whose posters feel like summer. Feel free to tell me what I missed:

Suddenly Last Summer (1959): Release date: December 22, 1959: I haven’t seen this but, despite its high IMDb rating (7.7), I’ve heard it’s awful. Amazing considering the talent: screenwriter Gore Vidal and director Joseph Mankiewicz adapting a Tennessee Williams play that stars Taylor, Hepburn and Clift. What’s the horrible, horrible secret that Catherine saw last summer that drove her insane, and for which her wealthy aunt wants her lobotomized? Something that’s no longer a horrible, horrible secret.

The Endless Summer (1966): Release date: June 15, 1966: The first great surfing documentary. With an even greater poster. Again, haven’t seen it. Don’t worry: everything else on the list I have.

American Graffiti (1973): Release date: August 1, 1973: Quintessential last-day-of-summer movie. It’s not really my time (’62 or ’73) or my movie. That scene wasn’t my scene, and that girl—Suzanne Sommers—wasn’t the girl I would’ve spent all evening chasing. It was actually Lucas’ next movie, released in May of ’77, that has colored all of our summers ever after.

Jaws (1975): Release date: June 20, 1975: The best and scariest of the bunch. I first saw it at a second-run theater, the Boulevard, five blocks from my childhood home (and now a Hollywood Video) in south Minneapolis, and it made me forever scared of the ocean. I can no longer swim over my head without hearing John Williams’ theme music. Seeing it again in the late ‘90s I was struck by how much the movie still has one foot firmly in the “Decade of Influence” ‘70s. It used locals as extras and had that post-Watergate feel of governmental corruption and/or incompetence—i.e., tourist dollars trump tourist lives—with the morally bankrupt mayor played by Murray Hamilton, one of the more famous cuckolds in movie history. It may also have been the first movie for which I’d already read the novel. I remember being surprised, legitimately surprised, when the storyline deviated from Benchley’s text. Wait a minute, Matt Hooper is supposed to be tall and handsome, and have an affair with Brody’s wife, and die in the shark cage. So what the hell’s all this? The movie’s better.

The Deep (1977): Release date: June 17, 1977: The big, post-“Jaws” movie, by the same author, Peter Benchley. The main objections to the film at the time were for its supposed sexism (Jackie Bisset’s wet t-shirt) and racism (all those menacing black guys) but my father, reviewing it for the Minneapolis Tribune, mostly objected to the ending. Robert Shaw’s character is presented with a choice: save, I believe, Nolte’s character, or retrieve, I believe, an amulet, which will provide proof that the other jewels they’ve excavated are in fact ancient jewels, and worth a fortune, before the ship blows up. Shaw’s character (Romer Treece? Ecch) saves Nolte, but then goes back for the amulet. Cue explosion. In the book he dies. In the movie, after several seconds of suspenseful silence, he emerges from the water, undamaged, amulet in hand, and tosses it in slow-motion triumph to his partners. Dad felt this was a cheat. How could he know the era of hard choices in movies, particularly summer movies, was coming to an end? From now on, it was win-win.

Grease (1978): Release date: June 16, 1978: It only has a few summer scenes—which evoke, campily, ‘50s and early ‘60s summer films—but it’s on this list because I saw it seven times during a family summer vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Del., propelled, mostly, by a huge, adolescent crush on Olivia Newton-John. (I would’ve searched for her all night.) That same summer, Olivia, Minn., honored Ms. Newton-John with an old-fashioned, small-town parade, and my old man covered it for the paper, and he took me and my brother Chris, 17, along for the ride. Dad got to speak with her briefly as she rode a horse in the town parade, and he got the quote he needed, but I was shy and held back. (I would’ve shyly searched for her all night.) I did wave to her in the purposefully cute way that Sandy waves in “Grease.” Imagine a muppet nodding its head; now take away the muppet. She waved back with that great smile. Zing. It was all so pleasantly, uncomfortably heart-achey. It must’ve been, to make me watch “Grease” seven times.

Breaking Away (1979): Release date: July 13, 1979: One of my favorite films—then and now. The aimlessness of four locals, townies, cutters, in a college town, the summer after high school. No college awaits them so now what? It’s a wholly American film, directed by a Brit, and written by a man who came to the states from Yugoslavia when he was 14. It invokes the American capacity for self-invention, and deals with American class issues better than almost any film I’ve seen—particularly in that speech by Paul Dooley, who walks his son around the university campus and talks about his youthful days helping create it:

Dad: And the buildings went up. When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. It just felt...uncomfortable, that's all. [pause] You guys still go swimmin' in the quarries?
Dave: Sure.
Dad: So, the only thing you got to show for my 20 years of work is the holes we left behind.
Dave: I don’t mind.
Dad: I do.

It’s got cycling, romance, Robyn Douglass in shorts and Barbara Barrie’s quintessential mom. It was the first time I saw Dennis Quaid (and his abs) and Daniel J. Stern (and his goofy persona) and one of the last times I saw Jackie Earle Haley until he resurfaced recently. And of course it nearly killed me.

“Do the Right Thing” (1989): Release date: June 30, 1989: How odd that they chose cooling blue for the poster background when Spike went to all the trouble of painting the walls around Bed-Stuy fire-engine red to better evoke the heat of summer. Despite “Tawana told the truth,” this film is still powerful 20 years later; and it’s still, unfortunately, Spike’s best film. Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! I think we have a little. So has he.

“My Father’s Glory” (1991): U.S. release date: June 14, 1991:  A great evocation of aimless childhood exploration and impromptu friendships when the world—and the century—were new. Includes that moment when you realize your father is not just your father—he’s one of many adults. And many of those adults seem him differently than you do. Not sure what place Marcel Pagnol still holds in French culture but his 1930s “Fanny” trilogy, set in Marseilles, is still fun to watch and feels remarkably contemporary.

“Swimming Pool” (2003): U.S. release date: July 2, 2003: I saw this in the theater and don’t remember much about it. But it sure looks like summer.

“Step Into Liquid” (2003): Release date: August 8, 2003: Dana Brown helped with the script to his father’s sequel, “Endless Summer 2,” in 1994. Nine years later he directed his own surfing doc. In some ways I prefer the massiveness of Stacy Peralta’s “Riding Giants” but this poster is better. And it’s still a great doc. Hell, I own it on Blu-Ray. Nothing looks better on HD than water. Well, maybe some things.

“L’Heure d’ete” (2008): It means “Summer Hours,” and, again, it doesn’t have much to do with summer. More the winter of our discontented inheritance. But it’s a movie everyone should see, and think about, and talk about. Because you’ll go through it, too. Both ways.

So which movies that feel like summer—and/or whose posters feel like summer—have I missed? Let me know below.

Posted at 12:49 PM on Jun 06, 2009 in category Movies
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Friday June 05, 2009

300

I arrived in Seattle in May 1991 after spending most of the 1980s pursuing a degree and a girl—I got the degree and lost the girl—and after having spent a significant amount of time abroad in baseball-less Taiwan. Hell, even in Minneapolis, where I lived most of the 1980s, baseball didn't feel the same as when I was growing up. My childhood stadium, Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. (now the Mall of America), saw its last professional baseball game played on September 30, 1981 (I was there), and it was replaced, the spring of my freshman year of college, with a domed stadium downtown. Grass became turf, the sky became roof, the distinctive “TC” on the caps of the players became a fat, generic “M” (because, literalists proclaimed, it was the Minnesota Twins, not the Twin Cities’ Twins), and I drifted elsewhere. Yes, this kid Hrbek was better than most in a long line of “next Harmon Killebrews,” and, yes, this kid Puckett coming up in ’84 was fun to watch, but overall I stopped going. I lost track. Hell, when the Twins finally won it all in 1987 I was on the other side of the world. I still considered myself a fan but I was, at best, fair-weather.

In Seattle in ’91 and ’92 I went to a few games in the Kingdome—which was, impossibly, even uglier than the Metrodome—and things improved in ’92 when I  got glasses and could finally follow the ball again, but I didn’t become a true fan until ’93, when two friends from University Book Store, Tim and Mike, and I, would often, spur of the moment, take in a game. “Who’s pitching? Randy? Let’s go.”

Here’s an entry in my diary, from when I wrote a diary, from April 21, 1993:

I got rained on three times today: biking to work in the morning; as Parker and I were waiting for the bus to take us to the Mariners game; and finally returning from the Mariners game. The game, by the way, went well: Mariners: 5  Red Sox: 0. Randy Johnson with a 4-hit complete game shutout; Ken Griffey Jr. with two homeruns. This is his second two-homerun game in the last three days.

The next night Chris Bosio pitched a no-hitter and I wasn’t there, and I always lamented the fact that I went to the first two games in that series with Boston and it was the third game that was a no-hitter. But this second game wasn’t bad, either. It was career victory no. 51 for Randy (no. 51). That’s 249 victories ago. And counting.

God, he was fun to watch. He’s fun to watch now, but then? In his prime? For your team? Unbelievable. That year I saw him strike out 15 Kansas City Royals—twice. I watched him give John Kruk a heart attack at the All-Star game. Jerry Crasnick has a list of the top 9 Randy Johnson moments and I was only at the park for one of them—no. 9, the McGwire homerun—but, possibly because it’s too similar to his no. 4, Crasnick left out the most indelible moment for most Mariners’ fans, and I was there for that.

In 1998, along with Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner and Jamie Moyer, the M’s had three superstars on the team—RJ, Junior and A-Rod—and thus three huge contracts to fill in the near future, and in attempting to juggle this dilemma they wound up losing all three. RJ went first, mid-season 1998, and I covered his return to Seattle, and to new Safeco Field, on July 20, 1999 for The Grand Salami, an alternative program sold at the stadium. His return, by the way, wasn't the most indelible RJ moment for most Mariners' fans. That came three years earlier. Here's the piece. I called it "Unitless in Seattle":

M’s fans have grown bitter these past few seasons, witnessing, at they have, so many late-inning losses, so many bewildering trades, so much opportunity and talent gone for naught. Worse, RJ’s departure was acrimonious. He pitched poorly with the M’s in the first half of ’98, and then cut a swath through the National League in the second half, so some feel he tanked it here.

“I listen to sport radio quite a bit,” Artie Kelly, 41, of Seattle, said outside Safeco, “and (fan reaction) is pretty mixed.”

Kelly, known as “Ironworker Artie,” bears a slight resemblance to the Unit—tall, lanky, and long-haired. He wore a t-shirt with Johnson’s name and number on the back, and stuck posters on the outside of Safeco, which he helped build. “Gone But Not Forgotten,” read one. “The House That Randy Built,” read another. “I’m out here to enlighten fans who are being brainwashed by M’s management,” he said. “You don’t lead the league in strikeouts by tanking it.”

Indeed, Johnson’s 329 strikeouts last year, a number lost in the hubbub over the McGwire-Sosa homerun parade, were the seventh-most in modern major league history.

“The question back then was whether Randy deserved Maddux money,” Kelly continued. “Well, now the question is whether Maddux deserves Johnson money."

Inside Safeco it became apparent that the anti-Randy talk on sports radio was mostly a vocal minority.

“I like Randy, he didn’t do nothing wrong,” said Ed Claxton, 34, of Bothell.

Cheer?” asked Brian Conrad, 31, of Kenmore, who basked in the sun along the first base line. “Hell yeah. He’s responsible for us having this stadium.”

When asked about favorite RJ moments, the response was surprisingly widespread. Some mentioned the no-hitter against Detroit in 1990, and the one-game playoff against California that gave Seattle its first division title in 1995. What came to Darren Arends’ mind was the 1993 All-Star game when Randy sailed a pitch over the head of the Phillies’ John Kruk. Kruk stepped out, an amazed, dazed smile on his face, fluttered a hand near his heart, then promptly struck out on three pitches—his last swing hardly catching homeplate he was so far back in the bucket.

But by far the favorite Randy moment—in this admittedly unscientific survey—was Randy striding in from the bullpen to the strains of “Welcome to the Jungle,” in Game 5 of the 1995 Division Series against the Yankees.

“The best sports moment of my life,” said Brian Conrad.

“That was a pretty imposing sight,” remembered Sean Linville, 28, of Bellingham.

And I was there. Six years later—during which the national sports press, forgetting '95, kept implying that Randy "choked" in the postseason—I watched on TV as Randy, now with the Diamondbacks, did the same against the Yankees in the 7th game of the 2001 World Series. He was the true Yankees killer—though both games required comebacks from his teammates.

Getting that comeback, getting that team support, was kind of a rarity for Randy—at least in his Seattle days. That’s what I kept thinking during this long, drawn-out pursuit for 300. If it wasn’t for that lousy, mid-1990s M’s bullpen, how much sooner would he have gotten there? I recall tons of blown ballgames—the worst, the most laughable, coming in April 1998, when RJ dominated the Red Sox (again) through 8 innings at Fenway, and left with a five-run lead. The M’s bullpen—horrible in ’97, disastrous in ‘98—promptly gave it all back, and more, as Mo Vaughn ended the game with a walk-off grand slam. The four or five pitchers Lou trotted out that inning didn’t even record an out.

So make no mistake. Randy deserves that 300. He’s the best, most dominating pitcher I’ve ever seen. And—with Junior, Edgar, Omar and Jay, as well as Mike and Tim—he helped bring me back to baseball.

Posted at 09:26 AM on Jun 05, 2009 in category Baseball, Seattle, Seattle Mariners
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Thursday June 04, 2009

Herman Roth Gets Mugged

Yesterday's reference to Philip Roth’s “Patrimony” reminded me of one of my favorite anecdotes ever. It’s on pages 125-26 of the Simon & Schuster paperback edition. Philip, dutiful, distant son, is having a late-night talk with his friend Joanna, originally from Poland, now a recovering alcoholic living in Princeton, about his 86-year-old father, who is beginning to physically break down:

“Did I ever tell you what happened when he was mugged a couple of years ago? He could have got himself killed.”

“No. Tell me.”

“A black kid about fourteen approached him with a gun on a side street leading to their little temple. It was the middle of the afternoon. My father had been at the temple office helping them with mailing or something and he was coming home. The black kids prey on the elderly Jews in his neighborhood even in broad daylight. They bicycle in from Newark, he tells me, take their money, laugh, and go home. ‘Get in the bushes,’ he tells my father. ‘I’m not getting in any bushes,’ my father says. ‘You can have whatever you want, and you don’t need that piece to get it. You can put that piece away.’ The kid lowers the gun and my father gives him his wallet. ‘Take all the money,’ my father says, ‘ but if the wallet’s of no value to you, I wouldn’t mind it back.’ The kid takes the money, gives back the wallet, and he runs. And you know what my father does? He calls across the street. ‘How much did you get?’ And the kid is obedient—he counts it for him. ‘Twenty-three dollars,’ the kid says. ‘Good,’ my father tells him—‘now don’t go out and spend it on crap.’”

Posted at 07:48 AM on Jun 04, 2009 in category Books, Quote of the Day
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Wednesday June 03, 2009

The Right-Wing Pisses on You—Literally

I now “get” that Pup’s greatness was a piece with the way he conducted himself at sea. Great men always have too much canvas up. Great men take risks. It’s the timorous souls—like myself—who err on the side of caution; who take in sail when they see a storm approaching and look for snug harbor. Not my old man. Or as Mum used to put it, “Bill, why are you trying to kill us?”

—Christopher Buckley, “Losing Mum and Pup,” pg. 122

I’m a similar timorous soul, a worst-case scenario man, and so I inevitably feel some admiration for men who are tougher and braver, who venture out in worst-case scenarios rather than imagining them, as I do, during best-case situations.

Even so.

Not sure where one crosses the line from “adventurer” into “asshole” but William F. Buckley seems to cross it. He constantly plows his boat into docks; he risks lives—including his only son’s—to venture forth in storms; he steals lobsters from the traps of fishermen (but leaves behind bottles of Johnnie Walker as payment); he switches channels and movies and party locations without consultation. Consultation? What’s that? Hell, in his later days he often opened the front door of his car while it was moving to pee. Sometimes he did this in traffic. Onto other cars.

It would be easy to see this as a metaphor for the right-wing in this country but it’s probably a better metaphor for our ruling classes—regardless of political persuasion. Buckley, it turns out, was friends with not just Henry Kissinger but George McGovern and Ted Kennedy. One almost gets the feeling that the whole thing is a game to them and we’re the pieces. A less chilling comparison is to professional sports. Yankees and Red Sox fans may hate each other but it doesn’t mean David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez have to. They’re just two men playing the same game. They have more in common with each other than with the fans in the stands.

In the end no metaphors are truly needed to fathom the conservative mind. Merely go to the footnote on pg 117:

The book [on Goldwater] ends with an anecdote in which I, age twelve at the time, figure. Pup had gotten the details a bit wrong, and I had e-mailed him from Zermatt the correct version. He declined it, saying “I like my version better.” I thought to say, “Pup, it’s not a question of liking your version better, but of using the accurate version,” but then thought, Never mind.

That’s part of the reason why we’re in this mess. They always liked their version better.

As for C. Buckley’s book? It’s breezy and funny—although the humor is occasionally too rim-shot. The book jacket compares Buckley’s effort to Joan Didion’s memoir about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” but that book was devastating while this one is...kinda fun. Meanwhile, the best book I’ve read in the genre, if you want to call it a genre—“the death of loved ones by famous authors”—is Philip Roth’s “Patrimony,” in which the sickness and eventual death of his father is grounded and specific, and no messy detail is ignored. Put it this way: Christopher may have put up with his father’s shit but Philip cleaned up his father’s.

So we begin with piss and end with shit. The way of the world.

Posted at 08:34 AM on Jun 03, 2009 in category Books, Quote of the Day
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Tuesday June 02, 2009

Words I Learned While Reading Christopher Buckley’s “Losing Mum and Pup”

In 1980, while a junior at Washburn High School in south Minneapolis (before it was sexy), I took two courses of “Word Study” with Mr. Beck, an autocratic teacher who, according to student rumor, had been a POW during WWII, and who often excused himself mid-class to get a nicotine fix in the hallway. I remember his white beard was stained yellow around the mouth.

This was an era of increasing and unfocused student rambunctiousness, but everyone knew you didn’t mess with Mr. Beck. Pejorative version: Once in the middle of class I was smiling because of something a friend said, and Mr. Beck looked at me and asked, sharply, “What are you laughing at, Smiley?” (It was traumatic then; it sounds funny now.) Positive version: I learned a lot. Every period we’d read Newsweek magazine and Mr. Beck would expound on the words we didn’t know. I remember him talking about gaffe, for example, in relation to first mom Lillian Carter’s allusion to the possible assassination of Ted Kennedy, who was then politicking to get the Democratic nomination away from her son. (She said something like: “I hope nothing happens to him. I really do.”) I also remember the word fugacious, which means “fleeting or transitory,” but which my friend Nathan Kaatrud, who became Nash Kato of Urge Overkill, used, in our junior year, for just about everything. “That’s so fugacious.” “Hey, don’t get all fugacious with me.” Etc.

Mr. Beck began “Word Study” in 1962 but retired (and, with him, it) during my junior year. It’s in his spirit that I present the words I learned while reading Christopher Buckley’s short, humorous memoir “Losing Mum and Pup.” All I can say is: Thank god I'm taking beginning French or there would've been a lot more.

froideur (n.): coldness (French). “At length a certain froideur encroached as the thought formed, So, you’re an orphan now.”

minatory (adj.): having a menacing quality; threatening. “A moving vehicle was now, in his hands, a potential weapon of mass destruction far more minatory than anything in the arsenal of Saddam Hussein.”

edematous (adj.): describing a watery swelling of plant organs. “I drew up a chair and held what I could of her hand, which was cold and bony and edematous with fluid.”

amanuenses (n.): those employed to write from dictation or copy manuscripts. “Generations of WFB amanuenses had to learn this cuneiform in order to edit his manuscripts and articles.”

blancmange (n.): a sweetened and flavored dessert made from gelatinous or starchy ingredients and milk. “I was impressed, yet again, by the superiority of the Book of Common Prayer to the pasteurized blancmange of the modern Catholic liturgy.”

adipose (adj.): of or relating to animal fat. “...afternoons I hauled my adipose carcass up and down various mountainsides...”

contra naturam (???) against nature; against the natural order of things. “It is contra naturam (to use a WFB term) to say no to someone who has raised you, clothed you, fed you from day one—well, even if, in Pup’s case, these actual duties were elaborately subcontracted.”

avoirdupois (n.): heaviness; weight, particularly personal weight: “Pup, superbly slender figured all his life, had in recent years added some avoirdupois—as indeed had I...”

consanguinity (n.): the quality or state of being of the same blood origin. “Embarrassing One’s Young is in some ways the entire point of having children. I discovered the joy myself when Cat was perhaps three years old and I did something (a public burp) that caused her to turn crimson with shame and to renounce all consanguinity with me.”

Posted at 03:08 PM on Jun 02, 2009 in category Word Study, Personal Pieces
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Monday June 01, 2009

What's Brooks Barnes Got Against Pixar?

I imagine this isn’t a great morning to be Richard Greenfield. He’s the market analyst at Pali Research who earlier this year downgraded Disney stock because he felt Pixar’s latest movie, “Up,” had a poor outlook. Brooks Barnes quoted him in the New York Times last April:

“We doubt younger boys will be that excited by the main character,” he wrote, adding a complaint about the lack of a female lead.

I wrote about this back then—slamming not only Greenfield but Barnes and the Times for getting their facts wrong by ignoring international markets—but after two months Greenfield’s quote looks even daffier.

It contains two complaints.

The first is about Carl, the lead character in “Up,” an old man in a medium designed for kids. He’s a legitimate market concern. That’s Greenfield’s territory.

The second complaint is about the lack of a female lead, which is a PC rather than a market concern. In fact, it’s the opposite of a market concern. Most movies don’t have female leads because most market analysts feel there’s no audience to support them.

Worse, “Up” has a prominent female character: Ellie, who’s the engine for the entire story. It’s such an odd comment from a market analyst. Maybe that’s why Barnes presented it without quotes.

Greenfield, I’m sure, is waiting to see how “Up” does in its second weekend, as well as internationally, before he issues his mea culpa—if in fact market analysts issue mea culpas. I doubt they do. Otherwise we’d be drowning in them. But for the record, in its opening weekend, “Up” made over $68 million, which is the second-best opening for a Pixar film, after “The Incredibles.”

Barnes’ mea culpa, such as it is, comes in his usual post-weekend box-office article in today’s Times, in which he uses the word “marketing” six times, including in the first graf:

Rapturous reviews and a colossal marketing campaign sent “Up” into the box office stratosphere over the weekend.

And then this in the fifth graf:

Strong opening weekends can be bought with big marketing campaigns, of course, so the coming weeks for “Up” and its performance overseas — where recent Pixar titles have made the bulk of their revenue — will be important in the evaluation of the film’s financial success.

Both of his statements are true—particularly the fact that strong opening weekends can be bought—but why mention all of this, and so stridently (six times), in connection with “Up”?

Was “Up”’s campaign particularly intensive? We don’t know. Barnes has no figures, just the say-so of other studios, along with some anecdotal information.

So is this the usual m.o. for Barnes? Does he often talk up the marketing campaigns of successful weekend films? Yes and no. Mostly no. In his post-“Star Trek” article, he attributed its success, in part, to a “megawatt marketing campaign”— but only once, and in the second graf. Meanwhile, he makes no mention of marketing for the opening-weekend success of such films as “Hannah Montana”, “Fast and Furious” and “Monsters vs. Aliens” earlier this year.

Does this mean those films didn’t rely on marketing to succeed? Or the relied less on marketing than "Up"? No one knows. Because no one has the figures.

Barnes’ “Up” piece, in other words, feels a little like ass-covering. He focuses on marketing to explain why a film he thought wouldn’t do well did.

Me, I would love it if every Monday Barnes gave us the marketing budgets for, say, the top five films. To compare and contrast. That would be fascinating reading. But they're not available and so all he has is adjectives (“megawatt”; “colossal”) and a seemingly scattershot approach to writing about marketing.

Here’s something, for example, Barnes doesn’t mention as a reason for the success of “Up,” but which, if I were writing that piece, might be my lead: It’s a Pixar movie. And Pixar means something to millions of moviegoers around the world. It means quality.

Posted at 09:56 AM on Jun 01, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office, Pixar
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