erik lundegaard

Wednesday September 30, 2009

Before the Show at Regal Meridian No. 10

Movie: “Surrogates”
Theater: Regal Meridian
Location: Downtown Seattle
Seated: 4:40 for a 4:50 showing.

Ads (Slides):

Most of the slides before the show were some variation of self-advertising: "Make an appointment with a PRIVATE SCREENING"; "Corporate movie tickets"; "Regal Gift Cards." Plus the usual pleas to "ADVERTISE HERE." Subtext: "So we DON'T." There were also the usual movie-star quotes ("I gravitate toward gravitas" —Morgan Freeman) and trivia about just-opened, soon-to-be-forgotten movies (Question: "This actress was more than just a 'friend' in 'Love Happens'"). To top it off, they piped in music by bands like "Someone Say Something" and "Sugarland." By the time the lights dimmed, you wanted to kill yourself.

Ads (Commercials):

Then we got the real ads on the movie screen:

  • Morgan Freeman's voice telling us "VISA Debit is the safe, secure way to pay online." Gravitas!
  • Ford ("the thrust of a... the thirst of a..."). Someone's English major degree finally paid off.
  • The "Crash" TV show: "If you're not using someone then someone's using you." Jesus, right?
  • The new "Jay Leno" show. Idiots say the darnedest things.
  • Coke Zero w/NASCAR.
  • The blowing up Mt. Rushmore/Sprint/Turn off your cell ad. Ha ha, blowing up national monuments is funny again. So glad.

Previews:

  • "Old Dogs": From the director of "Wild Hogs." They changed three letters in the title and added Robin Williams. This Thanksgiving? Seriously? Walt Becker gets Thanksgiving while Martin Scorsese gets pushed back to February.
  • “Shutter Island”: Or does he? This thing is still being advertised as October. Mistake? BTW: Love Ben Kingsley's line reading here: "It's as if she vanished, straight through the walls." It's officious, clinical and creepy.
  • "Couples Retreat": This is the movie that feels like February or March instead of October. Maybe the counter-programming will work, though. It's a good cast (the Double-V, as my friend Adam says), and if reviews are halfway decent I might go. "Now we've got a party."
  • "A Christmas Carol": Disney, ImageMovers, and Walt Disney (again), and Robert Zemeckis, invite you to...waste your money. I think they mention Charles Dickens' name in their somewhere. Is it just me, or does the animation look stiff? The story feels slapsticky and comedic, too. The feeling the book gives you—that you're trapped by your circumstances, your personality, your history—is removed even before Scrooge's epiphany removes it. And the tagline? "What if you were given a second chance to get your life right?" Second chance? Every moment is a first chance. That's the whole point. Bah, humbug.
Posted at 08:39 AM on Sep 30, 2009 in category Movies - Theaters
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Tuesday September 29, 2009

The World's Worst Hiker: Rachel Lake

Within five minutes of hiking to Rachel Lake in the Snoqualmie Pass, I lost the trail. Wait, it was worse. Saturday morning, Patricia and I drove east on I-90, then for five miles next to Kachless Lake, then four miles over an uneven dirt road to the half-full parking lot, where a few campers and their dogs milled about. Geared up, we saw a sign, “Welcome to Rachel Lake Trail,” and headed down that road. “Down” should've given us a clue: It led to another parking lot. P: “I don't think this is the trail.” Backtracking, P shouted to two campers: “You guys know where you're going?” and laughed. Generally I'm not shy about asking directions, but at that moment I felt about a gonad short of a pack. I'd lost the trail before I'd found it.

Eventually, after signing in at the trailhead, we passed those dudes and their dog, and five minutes later I stepped over a group of branches in the middle of the trail. Some part of me was thinking, “It's as if someone put them there on purpose,” but the more insistent part of me kept going. About 150 feet later the trail diminished to nothing. More backtracking. Were we backpacking or backtracking? Oh right, the branches. As a warning. Now I get it.

Twice on one hike. Could I go for the hat trick?

Much of hiking, though, is pacing, and P and I are unfortunately ill-matched here. If I go at my pace, she gets left behind; if we go at hers, I get resentful, and even when I don't, even if I'm feeling magnanimous that day, she assumes I'm resentful and resents back. Or maybe she resents the magnanimity more. Who wouldn't? The loftiness of spirit to bear me calmly? Who the fuck do you think you are? We had that friction early in the Rachel Lake hike. Plus her threshhold of beauty is lower than mine. She's often stopping, arms akimbo, going, “My god, this is beautiful,” while, slightly ahead, I stop, look around, shrug. “Isn't this beautiful?” she insists. “Yeah, it's beautiful,” I say. I'm assuming she's stopping just to rest. She's pissed at me for going so fast as to miss all this beauty. Not to mention the trail. And that's how we hike.

Droopy DogBut at some point, generally during steep ascents, she lets me off-leash and I go bounding up. Rachel Lake is four miles one way: a mile of gradual ascent, a mile a half of relative flat next to a creek, and a final mile and a half that takes you up 1600 feet over big rocks and huge, twisting roots like out of Tolkien. P let me loose early in the ascent and I quickly passed a couple that had passed us on the flat. “We downshifted to granny gear,” the husband joked. I smiled and made a magnanimous remark about being less burdened with my half-full daypack, as opposed to their full backpacks, but it sounded overlong and hollow even as it left my mouth. (Lesson for the day: Magnanimity sucks.) A minute later, I was still ruminating on the idiocy of the line when I wondered: Is this the trail? I convinced myself, Yeah, it's the trail, but it kept narrowing and narrowing. I didn't want to backtrack because a) it still might be the trail, and b) if it wasn't, I'd be behind that couple again and I'd have to repass them, and I hated repassing people. Although in retrospect it might've been fun—like those old Tex Avery cartoons where Droopy Dog keeps turning up, impossibly, again and again and again, and, with a lugubrious “Hello,” makes his antagonist's eyes bulge out and his mouth drop to the floor.

Then I heard the couple ahead of me. Which meant I wasn't on the trail. Which meant I'd lost it again.

Hat trick!

But I kept going forward. I'm hard-wired for forward. Maybe, I thought, this trail hooks back up with the main trail. It was worth a shot. Until the trail disappeared completely.

At that point, 20 yards downhill, I saw Patricia's white shirt gleaming through the pine trees and yelled down to her. She looked up—but not at me. Ahead on the trail. Which is where she assumed I was. “Yeah?”

“Stay there!”

Even though it was a gross violation of hiking etiquette, I went off-trail—purposefully, this time—in order to get back on trail.

“Why am I waiting?” she yelled uptrail. A second later I came crashing through the trees to her right. “Oh,” she said.

After that, we stuck together.

As tired as she was, Patricia kept complimenting the hike and its views, but overall I wasn't enamored. I don't need to do this one again, I kept thinking. Until we got to Rachel Lake. 

I mean, c'mon.

Posted at 08:06 AM on Sep 29, 2009 in category Hiking, Seattle
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Monday September 28, 2009

Review: “'Surrogates” (2009)

WARNING: LUDDITE SPOILERS

At first glance “Surrogates” didn’t look like much, particularly when I saw those online ads of scantily clad, sexy women with exposed robot parts. Then I read some synopses and became intrigued by the premise. Then I went to see it.

Trust your first instincts.

The premise is from the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. In the near-future, near-perfect robots, attuned to individual brain patterns, are created initially so the handicapped and debilitated can move around more easily, and then in place of soldiers in time of war, and then, well, because it’s fun for everybody. You lay in a chair at home and feel whatever your better-looking, younger-looking, stronger surrogate is doing out in the world. You experience life virtually. All the fears you may have of the outside world—death, germs, stubbed toes—are gone. You’re safe. You’re out in the world but you’re not. You’re living but you’re not.

So it’s kind of like TV. It’s kind of like this thing. It’s kind of like video games and avatars and fill in the blank.

It’s relevant.

But it’s not. It’s just silly and ultimately hugely naive about human nature.

During the titles, we get the 14-year history of surrogates. How they were created by a wheelchair-bound man named Canter (James Crowell: uh oh!), and how the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of surrogates “in daily life” (making “with all deliberate speed” sound like the most precise language possible), and how the conglomerate VSI became the leading manufacturer of surrogates, but how seven years ago they had a falling out with Canter, and how three years ago an anti-surrogate movement began, led by a man named The Prophet (Ving Rhames in Rastafarian wig), and surrogate-free zones were created in major American cities like Boston.

The story proper begins in the back of a limousine, where an obvious surrogate, and more obviously the son of Canter, is on his way to the opera. Off the phone with dad, he heads instead to a club, meets a beautiful blonde, makes out with her in an alleyway. He’s also been followed by a sinister guy on a motorcycle—or a guy on a motorcycle who inspires sinister soundtrack music—and this guy promptly kills the two in the alleyway. Because the surrogate revolution has led to a 99 percent drop in crime, we know we’re watching an unprecedented homicide.

Surrogate FBI agents arrive: Greer (Bruce Willis, with blonde hair and a plastic, wrinkle-less face) and Peters (Radha Mitchell, looking as beautiful as she tends to look in movies), and they find out that the beautiful blonde was surrogate to a fat bald man—nice touch—who’s had his brains scrambled in his chair. Young Canter, too. It’s the first time such safety walls have been breached.

Then everyone clams up fast. The FBI chief, Stone (Boris Kodjoe), imposes a total media blackout, Canter is distraught and enigmatic, the folks at VMI are toeing the company line.

Greer plays good cop with Canter, bad cop with the lawyers at VSI. “I hate lawyers,” he says. But he’s friends with the agency tech geek, who, in yet another nice touch, doesn’t rely on a surrogate, but who, in a crushingly obvious plot device, has access, from his little room, to every surrogate/operator in the world. That’s basically the gun in the first act, isn’t it?

Through the tech geek, Canter learns the killer’s name (Strickland) and whereabouts. Surrogate cops go after him, surrogate cops drop—as do their operators. Greer almost gets it, too, but crashlands in a surrogate-free zone. Even as he pursues Strickland, he’s pursed by a hillbillyish mob, who, just as he’s about to get Strickland, get him. They crucify him—the surrogate—as a warning to all...surrogates.

Questions at this point in the story:

  • Why would surrogacy lead to a 99 percent drop in crime? If surrogacy is similar to going online, wouldn’t we be even less civil as surrogates, as we are online? Wouldn’t it be easier to fight and kill, because it’s all just a game now, as it’s easier to fight and kill on Xbox or PlayStation? And what happens when a surrogate, driving recklessly, say—as one does in a video game—kills a real person? Wouldn’t that happen a lot? The behavior the filmmakers foresee is the exact opposite of the behavior inherent in their metaphor.
  • If your surrogate doesn’t have to look like you—as seems to be the case—does this mean a million Angelina Jolie-ish girls are walking around—as in the poster? Wouldn’t this be confusing? How about a million Batmans walking around fighting non-existent crime? Don’t tell me Warner Bros., which owns the copyright to BM, wouldn’t jump on that profit-making venture.
  • Why are all of the luddites, the “dreads,” fat and ugly? Wouldn’t these be among the first people to embrace surrogacy?
  • The surrogates have a blanched, creepy look because the film is ultimately anti-surrogacy. It’s supposed to make surrogates less appealing to us in the audience, but it doesn’t answer the question of why surrogates are appealing to them in the movie. And surely there are kids in this future, ironic hipsters, who would want an old/fat/ugly surrogate? Just to thumb their noses at the rest of society?
  • Why do the posters of The Prophet, with LIVE printed below, remind me of the Obama HOPE poster? Is this another right-wing message from the right-wing folks in Hollywood—like Bruce Willis?
  • With all the looks in all of the world to choose from, how did surrogate Bruce Willis wind up with that hair?

There are many ways the movie could’ve been less conventional and more interesting, but the filmmakers always opted for more conventional and less interesting. Example: When the agents first question Canter, I thought, “Why aren’t they questioning the real Canter?” until I realized, duh!, everyone in the room is a surrogate. The real world is the virtual world. But my original thought arrived because, while surrogates for Willis and Mitchell look like Willis and Mitchell, Canter’s surrogate doesn’t look like James Cromwell. So wouldn’t it have been more interesting and off-putting—and increased our awareness of surrogacy—to have the surrogates not look like Willis and Mitchell? Wouldn’t it have been cheaper for the studio, too? “We'll pay you half-salary for half a film.”

In the wake of the mob crucifixion, the real Greer—bald, wrinkled, goateed—is momentarily surrogateless and taking baby steps in the world again, but there’s a half-heartedness to him. He’s father to a son who was killed (baseball glove and Red Sox posters fill his still-pristine room), and husband to a wife who relies on her surrogate to get through her day. In fact, he seems more interested in connecting with his wife than in connecting-the-dots of the case. He’s more interested in making the filmmakers’ case (surrogacy sucks!) than his own.

Maybe because the criminal case isn’t that interesting. Three villains to choose from: Canter, VSI, Stone. Who’s guilty? All of them. VSI invented the weapon that breached the safety wall but tried to hide it, Stone has been promised a cushy gig at VSI if he can bring it back, but it’s in the hands of Canter, who, sickened by what he’s created, wants to undo his Frankenstein monster by killing its billion operators. He’s even behind the whole “dreads” movement, whose Prophet is actually a surrogate, controlled by Canter. Question: Wouldn’t Canter himself have made a better prophet than his Prophet? Wouldn’t he have immediate authority in the matter?

In the end Canter kills Peters and controls her surrogate to breach the room where the tech geek has access to all surrogates and operators, so he can kill them all. “They were dead the day they plugged in,” he snarls. Greer tries to stop the countdown and we get the following exciting dialogue from the handcuffed tech-geek: “Hit enter! No, wait! Shift enter!” Is this what all of our action movies are going to sound like now? “Control-alt-delete, motherfucker! Oh shit, you’re on a Mac keyboard? Command-option-escape! No, the command key is the one with the apple on it! With the apple on iiiiiitt!

One of the saddest moments I’ve experienced at a movie this year came at the end of “Surrogates,” when Greer, given the option to reconnect or disconnect operators around the world, chooses disconnect, and a billion surrogates—and planes, trains, automobiles?—drop to the ground. In the theater someone actually applauded—so loudly and insistently I wondered if he wasn’t a plant from the studio/production company. If he wasn’t, more's the pity.

Why was he applauding? Because Greer defeated not only the bad guys but the concept of surrogacy. Operators—that is, us—came out of their homes, blinked, and looked around. It was a new day. But it wasn’t. If anything the scene reminded me of a power outage, when everyone suddenly leaves their homes and mingles with their neighbors...until the power is restored. Then they return to whatever surrogate life they were living: TV, Internet, video games. The same would’ve happened in the movie. Power outages do not change human nature. The filmmakers want the ending to be uplifting when they know it’s not.

Here’s the sadder part. Why was this guy really applauding? Because his surrogate for the last 90 minutes, the actor Bruce Willis, defeated the concept of surrogates in this movie he was watching. That’s the disconnect, isn’t it? That’s the lie the filmmakers are smoothing over as expertly as VSI smooths over its lies. That's why the best lines of the movie are the first lines of the movie: Ving Rhames' contemptuous voice against a dark screen: “Look at yourselves. Unplug from your chairs and get up and look at how God made you.” Not only you, the operators in the movie, but you, the audience watching the movie. Unplug yourselves.

No one did.

Posted at 07:34 AM on Sep 28, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Saturday September 26, 2009

Quote of the Day

“But, sadly, any time a racist criticizes the President, someone cries 'racism.'”

Stephen Colbert

Posted at 08:41 PM on Sep 26, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday September 25, 2009

On James Stewart's "Eight Days"

For the second time this year, The New Yorker has given us a must-read article that's only available online by subscription. Haven't read it? You should subscribe. You also might still find it on shelves. Hell, you can borrow my copy. It's from the Sept. 21st issue, and it's called "Eight Days" by James B. Stewart. All about those eight days last September when the world financial system teetered, creaked, raised dust, but didn't...quite...fall. A lot of good inside information. A lot of good reporting. Key sum-up graph for me, about halfway through (italics mine):

The Treasury official described the situation: "Lehman Brothers begat the Reserve collapse, which begat the money-market run, so the money-market funds wouldn't buy commercial paper. The commercial-paper market was on the brink of destruction. At this point, the banking system stops functioning. You're pulling four trillion out of the private sector"—money-market funds—"and giving it to the government in the form of T-bills. That was commercial paper funding GE, Citigroup, FedEx, all the commercial-paper issuers. This was system risk. Suddenly, you have a global bank holiday."

I'd recommend laissez-faire folks in particular read the piece. You still hear them from time to time—maybe more insisently now that last September is a memory and folks have pitchforks out for bankers and brokers. They should've let Bear collapse. They should've let A.I.G. collapse. Let the market be the market. But letting Lehman Bros. collapse was bad enough. If A.I.G. had collapsed, everything would have collapsed. Is this "bailing out Wall Street"? To an extent. Trouble is we're all connected to Wall Street. We're all connected to institutions we don't know about until they fail. Tim Geithner: "It's not Wall Street that suffers when you 'teach people a lesson.'"

We're definitely at an impasse. The momentum my entire life has been toward merging big companies into bigger companies into behemoths that can compete on a global scale. But then you wind up with a company too big to fail. Last September showed why we can't have that. So something's gotta give.

Posted at 09:03 AM on Sep 25, 2009 in category Business
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Thursday September 24, 2009

Lancelot Links

  • I have to admit I'm a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to the Internet—it wastes too much time, it doesn't make enough money, there's so, so much crap on it—but every once in a while it tosses up something beautiful. This week it's Danny MacAskill's “Inspired Bicycles” video, which is like parkour for bike riders. I love this kind of thing because I'm so not like this. Kids, don't try this at home.
  • Speaking of bikes and “crazy,” my friend Andy Engelson, who recently moved to Hanoi, finally got his bike out and rode around in Vietnamese traffic. Let Danny MacAskill try that!
  • Over at the Film Experience blog, Nathaniel Rogers crunched the foreign-language Oscar numbers and came up with: “France.” That's the country that has the most recent noms and the most noms all-time. I love this kind of thing. Scroll down and it's obviously a work in progress, too, so keep coming back. It also raises questions. Beyond borders, what does the Academy reward? Or ignore? I think this looking at France. In the last 20 years, the one French film that actually won best foreign-language film was...Indochine? Long and stately and self-important without making a lick of sense. But the Academy's gotten better in recent years. Haven't they?
  • Interesting column by David Leonhardt of the Times on med-mal practice and insurance rates. The money quote: “Here, then, is the brief version of the facts: The direct costs of malpractice lawsuits—jury awards, settlements and the like—are such a minuscule part of health spending that they barely merit discussion, economists say. But that doesn’t mean the malpractice system is working.”
  • Will Ferrell Answers Internet Questions. One of the best takes on the lack of civility around these parts.
  • I didn't watch the Emmys last Sunday (who does?) but I did check out Neil Patrick Harris' opening song, “Put Down the Remote,” which was a lot of fun and veered toward brilliance halfway through with this verse:

Straight from “Mad Men” there's Joan
Oh, the curves she's shown
They could make a blind man say “Damn”
She could turn a gay straight
Oh wait
Never mind, there's Jon Haaaaaaam!

And yes, I checked it out online for free. I'm part of the problem. But I'm trying to be civil. I'm trying real hard.

Posted at 09:55 AM on Sep 24, 2009 in category Lancelot Links, Movies - Foreign
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Wednesday September 23, 2009

Peter Gammons Isn't Serious

Peter Gammons isn't serious. Ten baseball playoff teams? Because the pennant races aren't exciting this year he suggests adding two more teams and beginning the season earlier and lengthening the post-season further. Even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) isn't this stupid. At least they waited five years through a disconnect between popular pictures and nominated pictures before deciding to ruin 60 years of tradition by expanding the nominated pictures to 10—with the hope of somehow capturing a popular picture along the way. Gammons and others are suffering through one September without a legit pennant race (c'mon Twins!) and they want to mess with the whole works.

Or do they? Gammons writes:

I agree with Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who says, "Most general managers don't want it watered down like the NHL or NBA. Not many are wild about the idea."

Oh. So what's the column about then? The answer comes a short paragraph later:

But why not think about having two wild-card teams per league? For instance, in what might be an aberrational season, the Giants, Marlins, Braves and Cubs would be within 2½ games of that NL spot right now.

"I agree with those who aren't wild about the idea...but why not think about the idea?" Nice.

The AMPAS analogy is apt. The Academy is fixing something that isn't broken (the five slots) because of something that is (disconnect between nominated and popular pictures). Gammons wants to exacerbate an exisiting problem (too many playoff teams for a 162-game season), because of, and while ignoring, its biggest problem: the disparity between the "have" teams (the Yankees), the "have some" teams (BoSox, Mets, Dodgers, Cubs) and all of those "have not" teams (most everyone else, especially the Pirates, A's, Twins, Marlins).

You want to fix baseball, you need to fix this.

You can't fix this? Here's a suggestion to make September easier to remember: Move the trade deadline up to Opening Day. The disparity between teams deepens as the season progresses because contending teams trade for while non-contending teams trade away. The good (and rich) get better; the bad (and poor) get worse. And there go the pennant races.

But would the downside for this be too much of a downside? Sometimes I like that late-July interplay between short-term gain (for the haves) and long-term gain (for the have-nots). Except, of course, the haves keep on having while the Pirates and Royals keep on notting. I'd give it a shot.

In the meantime, to honor Major League Baseball, would you please rise for the playing of our Leonard Cohen anthem:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight is fixed
The poor stay poor while the rich get rich
Thats how it goes
Everybody knows

Play ball.

Posted at 08:59 AM on Sep 23, 2009 in category Baseball
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Your Summer Movie Quiz — Answers

If you missed yesterday and want the questions, scroll down. Or go here.

1. Which two summer releases made the most money overseas?
The correct answer is D) “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” "Harry Potter" has grossed $625 million abroad—the 8th-most a film has made overseas—while "Ice Age 3," which grossed $195 million domestic, killed overseas, grossing $674 million, or the 3rd-most money any film has made abroad. "Ice Age 3"! Only "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" ($742 million) and, of course, "Titanic" ($1,242 million) have grossed more abroad.

The overseas numbers thus far:

2. According to the documentary “Food, Inc.,” what is added to almost everything we eat and drink?
The correct answer is A) Corn. Mark Whitacre mentions the same thing in "The Informant!"

3. In “Wolverine,” after Logan’s half-brother Victor tells him, “We can’t let you just walk away!” and Logan begins to walk away, what do the murderous team of mutants do to bring him back?
The correct answer is D) Nothing. They let him walk away.

4. Who’s Richard Greenfield?
The correct answer is C) The market analyst who downgraded Disney’s stock earlier this year because he predicted a bad outing for Pixar’s “Up," which is currently the third-highest-grossing movie in the U.S. Its overseas totals ($124 million) lag mostly because the film hasn't opened yet in Germany (late Sept.), the UK (October) and Japan (December).

5. In what way is the new “Star Trek” similar to the original “Star Wars”?
The correct answer is E) All of the above. J.J. Abrams knows you go with what works. 30 years ago.

6. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is currently ninth in terms of domestic gross, with over $401 million. But where does it place when you adjust for inflation?
The correct answer is C) 67th, just behind “Smokey and the Bandit.” But it did already pass "Twister" and "The Poseidon Adventure." So: Kudos.

7. Before Sam goes off the college in “Transformers,” what does he say to his loyal, automobile-transforming autobot Bumblebee, whom he’s leaving behind?
The correct answer is D) All of the above.

8. What is Summer’s biggest hang-up in her relationship with Tom in “(500) Days of Summer”?
The correct answer is C) She doesn’t believe in love. Or "lurve." Or "luff." Although it turns out she does. It's just that, as the saying goes, she's just not that into him.

9. In “District 9,” what is the name of the main alien protagonist?
The correct answer is C) Christopher Johnson.

10. What do the following films have in common: “In the Loop,” “The Cove,” “Paper Heart” and “Cold Souls”?
The correct answer, sadly, is C) None went wider than 100 theaters. Brother, can you spare a screen?

11. Which film opened in the most theaters without making at least $100 million?
The correct answer is D) "The Land of the Lost," which didn't even get halfway there: $49 million.

12. Of those films whose widest release was fewer than 3,000 theaters, which grossed the most?
The correct answer is C) "Julie & Julia," whose widest release was 2,528 theaters but has grossed $88 million and counting. Fifteen films that opened between May and September played in more theaters yet haven't made as much money, including "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3," "The Final Destination," "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," "Funny People," "Land of the Lost," "Year One," "Aliens in the Attic," "Shorts," and, of course, "Imagine That." All of those films opened in more than 3,000 theaters.

"J&J" also outdid the three other films mentioned in the multiple choice: "The Ugly Truth," "The Time Traveler's Wife" and "My Life in Ruins." Those films focus on women who have careers and search for love. "Julie & Julia" focus on women who have love and search for careers. It don't know if there's a lesson there, but it's a nice change.

Posted at 07:32 AM on Sep 23, 2009 in category Movies, Movies - Box Office
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Tuesday September 22, 2009

Your Summer Movie Quiz

Cloudy outside? Rainy? Chance of meatballs? Must mean it’s September. Since you’re stuck indoors why not try a quiz? Hey, why not try this one! Apologies for the format. One day I'll get up-to-speed on proper quizzes that provide instant answers and gratification. In the meantime here's the delayed kind.

1. Which two summer releases made the most money overseas?

  • a. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “Angels & Demons”
  • b. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “Up”
  • c. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “The Hangover”
  • d. “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”

2. According to the documentary “Food, Inc.,” what is added to almost everything we eat and drink?

  • a. Corn
  • b. Dolphin
  • c. Beer
  • d. Tranya

3. In “Wolverine,” after Logan’s half-brother Victor tells him, “We can’t let you just walk away!” and Logan begins to walk away, what do the murderous team of mutants do to bring him back?

  • a. They begin howling
  • b. They call him names
  • c. They cry
  • d. Nothing. They let him walk away

4. Who’s Richard Greenfield?

  • a. The groom who goes missing in “The Hangover”
  • b. The assistant played by Ryan Reynolds in “The Proposal”
  • c. The market analyst who downgraded Disney’s stock earlier this year because he predicted a bad outing for Pixar’s “Up”
  • d. The FBI agent who kills John Dillinger in "Public Enemies"

5. In what way is the new “Star Trek” similar to the original “Star Wars”?

  • a. The opening battle is between a small ship and a gigantic ship, and what escapes from the small ship is the key to the eventual destruction of the gigantic ship
  • b. A third of the way through the film, an entire planet and its billions of souls are destroyed
  • c. In a cave, a hooded wise man is found who teaches the young hero his proper destiny
  • d. The heroes are feted at a medal ceremony at the end
  • e. All of the above

6. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is currently ninth in terms of domestic gross, with over $401 million. But where does it place when you adjust for inflation?

  • a. 3rd, just behind “Star Wars”
  • b. 28th, just behind “The Dark Knight”
  • c. 67th, just behind “Smokey and the Bandit”
  • d. It’s mathematically impossible to adjust for inflation. Duh!

7. Before Sam goes off to college in “Transformers,” what does he say to his loyal, automobile-transforming autobot Bumblebee, whom he’s leaving behind?

  • a. “You know, freshmen aren't allowed to have cars.”
  • b. “Look, the guardian thing is done, okay? You did your job. It's over with.”
  • c. “I can't be the end-all deal in your life! I wanna be normal, I want to go to college. Everybody has this, and I should be able to experience this. And I can't do that with you.”
  • d. All of the above

8. What is Summer’s biggest hang-up in her relationship with Tom in “(500) Days of Summer”?

  • a. She doesn’t like “The Smiths”
  • b. She doesn’t like IKEA
  • c. She doesn’t believe in love
  • d. Her favorite Beatle is Stu Sutcliffe

9. In “District 9,” what is the name of the main alien protagonist?

  • a. Neill Blomkamp
  • b. Mzwandile Nqoba
  • c. Christopher Johnson
  • d. "You couldn't pronounce it"

10. What do the following films have in common: “In the Loop,” “The Cove,” “Paper Heart” and “Cold Souls”?

  • a. They’re all lame
  • b. They all include appearances by Michael Cera
  • c. None had a wider release than 100 theaters
  • d. They were the first films reviewed in the revamped “At the Movies,” with A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips

11. Which film opened in the most theaters without making at least $100 million?

  • a. "G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra"
  • b. "G-Force"
  • c. "Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific"
  • d. "Land of the Lost"

12. Of those films whose widest release was fewer than 3,000 theaters, which grossed the most?

  • a. "The Time Traveler's Wife"
  • b. "The Ugly Truth"
  • c. "Julie & Julia"
  • d. "My Life in Ruins"

Answers tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is... (OK, answers here.)

Posted at 07:57 AM on Sep 22, 2009 in category Movies
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Monday September 21, 2009

Review: “The Informant!” (2009)

WARNING: SPOILERS LACED WITH LYSINE AND GLUCONATE

“The Informant!” is a movie set in the 1990s but designed for the 2000s—with title graphics from the late 1960s and a soundtrack from...the 1950s? When were kazoos popular? It has, in other words, a real chance to be a cult hit. It’s probably too quirky to be popular. It’s too original.

Matt Damon, looking as horribly ordinary as movie stars are allowed to look, plays Mark Whitacre, a vice-president at Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), a conglomerate based in Decatur, Ill., and, if memory serves, a company that perennially supports PBS public affairs programming. But its main business is taking cereal grains and oilseeds and putting them into food and feed.

As the film opens, there’s a virus eating both the lysine in the ADM plants and the profits that the conglomerate demands, and Whitacre’s getting the blame from the son of the boss, Mick Andreas (Tom Papa), for not solving the problem. It’s amusing but unfair—in the way that sons-of-bosses always seem amusing but unfair. Then Whitacre gets a call from a Japanese colleague who says an ADM mole is responsible for the virus and he’ll reveal the name for $10 million. Rather than pay off, though, the higher-ups at ADM bring in the FBI, who tap Whitacre’s personal line to find out more. This bothers Whitacre—first a little, then a lot—and, with his wife’s prodding, he reveals to FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), that ADM and the Japanese are involved in price-fixing the international lysine market. Which is how Whitacre turns informant. “Mark, why are you doing this?" Shepard asks at one point. “Because things are going on that I don’t approve of,” he says. “They’re making me lie to people.”

Hold that thought.

Whitacre is obviously a bit of a joke. He's dumpy with an out-of-date moustache, yet “secret agent” music plays as he drives up to his house or to his office, as if that's how he sees himself. When he’s wired he provides a running commentary on his day, and greets everyone by full name and occupation: “Good morning Liz Taylor, secretary.” At one point he calls himself 0014 because “I’m twice as smart as James Bond.” He ain’t dumb—at one point, a Japanese businessman blocks the FBI’s hidden camera, and Whitacre deftly gets him to move, and then deftly gets everyone in the room, the price fixers, to say the magic word: “agree”—but there’s something off about him.

He’s our narrator, too, providing a running commentary on...what exactly? He gives us asides, trivia, tidbits of information. Initially these asides have something to do with the action—all the corn, for example, that ADM puts into its products, our products, and how they use corn and chemicals to bring chickens to maturity in a fraction of the time that nature intended—but soon he’s talking about Central American butterflies, and how he likes an indoor swimming pool for its “year-round usage,” and how he thinks his hands are his best feature. I could see the movie again just for these asides.

He also keeps shifting his position. After his initial confession to the FBI he avoids its agents, insisting that the virus is gone and the price-fixing is over and can't they just leave him alone? Then he has delusions about what will happen after the big reveal. “How can you possibly stay [at ADM] when you’ve just taken down the company?” his wife, faithful to a fault, asks. “Because they need me to run the company,” he insists. There’s a logic there that manages to ignore the entirety of human nature. It’s a void so large one doesn’t know what to make of it.

Throughout we think we’re in on it but we're not. That's the true beauty of the film. After the big reveal, we get a lot of little reveals, and Whitacre, who has kept his secrets for so long, can’t shut up. Everyone tells him not to say anything and he says everything. He tells other ADM employees about the FBI raid before it happens. Once it happens he talks to lawyer 1, lawyer 2, The Wall Street Journal. He’s been outed as a rat and merely says, “Did you see my stipple portrait? Pretty good.”

The second big reveal comes from an internal ADM investigation into Whitacre. While he’s been informing for the FBI he’s also been taking kickbacks—leaving his agents open-mouthed and the agency shifting its focus to him. First he denies everything. Then he blames the corporate culture. Then he says, “I only took a million and a half dollars.” This figure keeps rising. Seven million, nine million, eleven million. “But Mick knew about that!” he insists, as if that makes it OK. He blames a bipolar disorder—but doesn’t suffer from it. He takes refuge as an orphan—but isn’t one. He wears a toupee. Nothing about this guy is true. He may have been responsible for planting the lysine virus in the first place. And yet there’s no mea culpa. Even as he goes to prison, he’s still prevaricating. He’s still off. You get the feeling he doesn’t get what he's done wrong. He still sees himself the hero, the white hat, of his own movie, which is why he’s the perfect hero for this one.

Damon, by the way, is blissfully obtuse as Whitacre, and there’s a supporting cast to die for. At one point I wondered, “Is that the guy who played Biff Tanen in ‘Back to the Future’?” Later I realized, “No, it’s the guy who played the guard in ‘Shawshank.’” Later still I realized it was both actors, they’re both in it. Tom Smothers shows up as ADM’s CEO, Dick as a judge. Giants’ fan Patton Oswalt is in there, plus a Cusack sister, plus Candy Clark. Scott Bakula, as the main FBI agent on the case, is needy, dismissive, impressed and ultimately betrayed—the most ordinary FBI agent ever filmed.

Whitacre did his deeds in the nineties but he’s obviously a protagonist for our time. He lies and prevaricates and lies some more. One can’t even keep up with it all. One wonders, as with so many of our public figures, if he even knows who he is. There’s no there there. There’s not even there enough to care that there’s no there. It’s a tragedy, filmed as a comedy, and the tone is exactly right. Welcome back, Steven Soderbergh. Break out the kazoos.

Posted at 07:42 AM on Sep 21, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Sunday September 20, 2009

Breaking Away Lesson of the Day

Have a heart-to-heart with Dad.

Posted at 10:23 AM on Sep 20, 2009 in category Movies
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Friday September 18, 2009

Summer '09

We push in line at the picture show
For cool air and a chance to see
A vision of ourselves portrayed as
Younger and braver and humble and free

—Joe Henry, “Our Song”

Summer's over. We've got autumn movie posters rotating to the left and autumn movies arriving in our theaters: the semi-serious, the longshot Oscar contenders, the Halloween horror pics. Summer movie season starts the first weekend of May and ends the first weekend of September, so most postmortems have been done already. Mine is in the above quote from Joe Henry—you don't have this song? Get it—and in the overused line of Yeats' from “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” The best lack all distribution while the worst show up in 4,000 theaters opening weekend.

No, it wasn't all bad news. Four of the top five grossers are either good-enough films (“Star Trek”: $257m; “Harry Potter”: $299m), good films (“Hangover”: $273m), or great films (“Up”: $291m)—but that last, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” is big enough and dumb enough that it gets its stink on everything else. $401 million. Michael Bay wants what's in your wallet! He knows there's not much in your mind.

Glad “Basterds” ($105m) has legs—and not just Diane Kruger's. Glad “Julia” is still cookin' it up ($86m). Too bad about the docs: “Food, Inc.” ($4m) and “The Cove” (less than $1m) deserved bigger audiences, but barely trickled into theaters; par for the course for docs. “Funny People” ($51m) deserved a bigger audience, too. “Hurt Locker” ($12m), sure, but I wasn't as ga-ga over it like some, and I get why people didn't go. But “Funny People” was funny and raunchy and it died, relatively speaking. Adam Sandler's “Big Daddy” made $163 million in 1999 ($231 million, adjusted), so where were the Sandler fans? Where were you idiots? At “Transformers,” probably. Or maybe you're all big daddies now.

How about you? What did you see this summer that you recommend? What did you see that left you shaking your head? What are you going to remember? What do you wish you could forget?

Here's the image I like to carry away...

Posted at 09:41 AM on Sep 18, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Quote of the Day

“I got a note from a good friend yesterday expressing shock, and anger, about Drudge and Malkin's usage of that alleged racial beat-down on a school-bus. On some level, I wonder if something's wrong with me. I'm neither shocked, nor angry. This is exactly how I expected these fools to respond to a black president.

”If anything, I'm a little giddy. For black people, the clear benefit of Obama is that he is quietly exposing an ancient hatred that has simmered in this country for decades.  Rightly or wrongly, a lot of us grew tired of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, mostly because they presented easy foils for Limbaugh-land. ... Obama, bourgeois in every way that bourgeois is right and just, will not dance. He tells kids to study--and they seethe. He accepts an apology for an immature act of rudeness--and they go hysterical. He takes his wife out for a date--and their veins bulge. His humanity, his ordinary blackness, is killing them."

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Obama, race and the right-wing

Posted at 08:27 AM on Sep 18, 2009 in category Politics
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Thursday September 17, 2009

Sacrificial Mariners

As of last night, here's where the Seattle Mariners rank in the following batting categories among the 14 teams of the American League:

  • Hits: 11th
  • Doubles: 11th
  • Triples: 12th-T
  • Homeruns: 11th
  • Total Bases: 13th
  • Runs: Last
  • RBIs: Last
  • Batting Average: Last
  • OBP: Last
  • Slugging: 13th
  • OPS: Last

It's been a fun summer. But we are first in the league in Sacrifice Hits with 53. Nothing like sacrificing.

Posted at 07:15 AM on Sep 17, 2009 in category Baseball, Seattle, Seattle Mariners
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Wednesday September 16, 2009

Breaking Away Lesson of the Day

Have a heart-to-heart with Mom

Posted at 09:04 AM on Sep 16, 2009 in category Movies
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Tuesday September 15, 2009

The World's Worst Hiker: Granite Mountain

That would be me, by the way.

I live in Seattle, which is nestled between the Cascade mountains (to the east) the Olympic mountains (to the west). You can't not hike here.

I usually do day hikes, usually on Saturdays, usually with my friend Jim, who's been hiking these parts since he moved here from New Jersey in 1981. Jim's got a new girlfriend, though, who lives about an hour outside of Seattle, and they tend to spend weekends together. My girl, meanwhile, Patricia, was sore from volunteer work she did Friday. So Saturday morning I headed up the I-90 corridor by myself toward Granite Mountain.

Since Jim got me into hiking I've tended to follow his lead, and Jim's into the following: a 6-mile round-trip hike, with a 2,000-foot elevation gain, that begins in the forest, breaks through to meadows, and winds up on a mountaintop with great views. You eat lunch, you head back. Jim doesn't approve of hikes that end in lakes. Jim doesn't approve of hikes too close to Seattle, or to I-90, or to other people. He likes to get away.

This means that, though I've been hiking for 10 years, I haven't done some of the most accessible hikes in the area: Snoqualmie Pass hikes less than an hour from Seattle. That's Granite Mountain. Take exit 47, turn north for .2 miles, turn west for .4 miles, and, boom, you're at the trailhead. Beats 16 miles over a bumpy dirt road. Other cars can do that but we've got a '95 Honda Civic, low to the ground, and those dirt roads take their toll even if the U.S. Forest Service doesn't.

Saturday morning was beautiful—blue skies, warming Pacific Northwest air. I left before 8:00 and was on the trail before 9:00. To be honest, there are certain things I don't mind doing alone and hiking's one of them.

But here's why I'm the world's worst hiker. I learned about the Granite Mountain trail from 100 Classic Hikes in Washington by Ira Spring and Harvey Manning. It's a glossy Mountaineers guide, and Granite Mountain is hike no. 57, and it's called “Granite Mountain.” For people like me it should be called “Pratt Lake/Granite Mountain.” Or they should indicate, for people like me, in capital letters: “This BEGINS on the Pratt Lake trail; then you TURN OFF to get onto the Granite Mountain trail.” They say as much, but without the caps, and so some part of me, knowing this is hike no. 57, called “Granite Mountain,” assumes I'm already on the trail. I'm not. That's the first reason why I'm the world's worst hiker.

Here's the second reason, and it relates to the first: I'm a daydreamer. “You live the life of the mind,” a friend recently said. Which means I'm hiking along, thinking about this profile I have to write on a lawyer, and that piece I have to do for MSNBC-Movies, and what would be the next best step in that profile, and should I include this scene or that scene in the MSNBC piece, and, wait, what's that on my face? A cobweb? Puh! And another one? Damn, there's a lot of cobwebs on this trail. Or are they silkworm threads? Because I don't see any... Oh, there they are. Shit, that's a big spider. Yuck. Remember Tarantula? Remember The Fly? “Help me! Help me!” I joked about it last weekend so of course now would be the time... The ironic school of storytelling. The O Henry ending. Of course there are no giant spiders, Erik. Ah, but there are cougars. There've been a lot of sightings lately—even in Seattle. Who's to say? What are you supposed to do if you cross paths with a cougar again? Run? Pray? Punch it in the nose? Jesus, I should've been in Boy Scouts. I should've learned something. Does Patricia even know what trail I'm on? Well, the car's at the trailhead. At least they'll know where to look. Puh! More spiderwebs. Man, where is everybody? And what time is it? 9:35? Wait... wasn't the turnoff supposed to be after like a mile? Did I miss it? Am I even on the right trail? Did those people at the trailhead distract me from seeing the real trail, and now I'm on this wrong trail that everyone else knows you don't hike at this time of year because of all the damn spiders? Because of the giant spider? Puh!

Fifteen minutes later I finally saw someone: a thirtyish dude who must've camped overnight because his sleeping bag was still on the trail. I stepped over it...and at the last instant realized that someone was actually in the sleeping bag. Boy or girl? Not sure. Just hair sticking out the top of the bag.

“Forgive me for asking a really stupid question,” I began. “But what trail is this?”

He did a mild double-take. “The Pratt Lake Trail.”

“Damn. Missed the turnoff for Granite Mountain.”

“Yeah, that's like...about a mile back. It's right near this stream, you know? You were probably distracted by the stream.”

“Thanks!” I'd crossed a few mountain streams on the way there, so on the way back I look at each one carefully, searching for the trail up. Didn't see it. Until the fourth mountain stream. Then on the far side (the near side during my first pass) I saw a narrow trail. I remembered seeing it, too, and thinking it was just another scabby trail that would dissipate after 20 feet. That it was a dead end. I thought: “You know, that Mountaineers book should really emphasize that the turnoff isn't that prominent. That it's easy to mistake for a dead-end trail.” I was thinking this as the trail dead-ended after 20 feet at the mountain stream. It wasn't the Granite Mountain turnoff, after all.

I found the Granite Mountain turnoff five minutes later—or about 20 minutes from the trailhead. It's big and open, with a wood sign reading “Granite Mt.,” and an arrow pointing up. All that's missing are the flashing lights and the carnival barker directing you.

I sighed, paused, calculated. I'd already hiked three miles and still had three to go just to reach the summit. The original hike was arduous enough—8 miles roundtrip, 3800 feet elevation gain—and I was turning it into a 10-mile hike with a, what, 4300 feet elevation gain? 4500 feet? Plus the brunt of the hike has a southern exposure and they recommended making it there early on hot sunny days. My daydreaming had cost me a crucial hour. But I figured I didn't have to summit. I could just hike until I got tired, grab a spot with a view, eat lunch, come down. Easy.

I hiked with a sense of urgency—as if I were trying to catch up with someone—and passed all the hikers that should've been behind me in the first place. When I hit the sun I stopped to put on sunscreen and a Mariners cap. When I hit shade I stopped to drink water. Soon I began to run into descending hikers. One woman, after she passed me, said to her friends: “God, can you imagine trying to go up at this time of...” Thanks, lady. On and on. Up and up. The fall colors of the blueberry bushes were beautiful, and the trail began to diverge on rocky slopes until it was hard to tell where the trail exactly was. But I kept choosing the most obvious path up. As it neared noon, I kept thinking, “This looks like a good spot for lunch,” but kept going. At one point the rocks got huge and the trail leveled off and it finally felt like I was summiting. But I remembered from the book that there was something extra to do. What was it again? Then I turned a corner and saw the extra: an old fire lookout atop Granite Mt.: 400 feet almost straight above me. I stared at it, found shade, plopped down. I thought about lunch again. Then I thought the thought that always keeps you going: I've come this far...

In the end that extra 400 feet went quickly and I stumbled rubber-legged over the giant rocks in the shadow of the lookout and chose a spot facing south: a large flat rock worn smooth by the number of hikers who had chosen it before me. After the long hot summer the Cascades to the left and right looked strangely brown and denuded, but Mt. Rainier, straight ahead, was still gloriously capped with ice and snow. Then I looked below. Way way down, cutting through the woods, lay the thin ribbon of I-90, with cars moving east and west. Could I even hear them? After all this work? How annoying. Jim was right.

Then I laid back against the warm rock and closed my eyes. Even so.

The author, unable to find the turnoff. Unable to take an iPhoto.

Posted at 07:40 AM on Sep 15, 2009 in category Hiking, Seattle
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Monday September 14, 2009

Saving Capitalism

I've seen the trailer for Michael Moore's latest doc, Capitalism—about the global financial meltdown—about 10 times now, and it hasn't drawn me in. The initial shot of Moore with bullhorn saying he's going to perform a citizen's arrest on the board of AIG made me laugh, but it's followed by Moore running into the usual lobby-security-guard brick walls, plus a bad joke about his cameraman not speaking English. "Donde," Moore tells him, instead of, I suppose, "Vamanos." Then the street interview with the lowly U.S. Rep. How is this helping? How is this explaining anything? So no excitement on my part until I read Jeff Wells' blurb over at Hollywood Elsewhere this morning:

Capitalism is a bold-as-brass slam at the basic evils unleashed by unregulated capitalism, and a clean and irrefutable explanation about how the U.S. system has taken the basic unfairness of life and magnified it tenfold, especially since the ascension of Ronald Reagan.

"The basic unfairness of life and magnified it tenfold." That certainly describes how I feel about the U.S. system since Reagan. I'm on board again.

Posted at 08:00 AM on Sep 14, 2009 in category Movies
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Scheming Women

The other night Patricia and I watched Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, a 1945 film directed by Robert Bresson, and both of us were struck by how much the star, Maria Casares, looked like Chloe Sevigny. No?

There appears to be no relation, though. She is, however, the daughter of Santiago Casares Quiroga, who was prime minister of Spain when the fighting that led to the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936.

The ending of Les Dames is disappointing but otherwise it's a good entry into the "scheming woman/women" subgenre, with Macbeth, The Women, Gone with the Wind. What are the recent entries in this? Or do cinematic women just kick ass now, rather than scheme for power, or men, or revenge? The scheming seems left to the teenaged girls now.

Posted at 07:38 AM on Sep 14, 2009 in category Movies
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Sunday September 13, 2009

Flash: Rush Limbaugh Has No Genitalia!

Frank Rich has a piece in this morning's New York Times on Obama's squandered summer. It's a good piece. He talks up Obama's m.o.: Let everyone else rachet up the rhetoric until it becomes intolerable, and then come in, cool and calm, and direct things like an adult. He did it during the campaign—to both Hilary and McCain—and he's done it now with the health care debate.

Rich wonders if it's worth it. Couldn't he have made that speech in June? Why did he let the inmates take over the asylum all summer? Rich says that m.o. is good for winning elections but bad for making policy. It's a particularly bad method when your party dominates the executive and legislative branches of government. Get involved. Now. Don't stay above the fray. Be yourself but direct things daily, rather than seasonally.

I tend to agree. There's a stink from the idiocy of this summer that may never wash out. You elect a president, in part, because his is the voice you want to hear every day for the next four years, and I haven't heard enough from Pres. Obama. The voices that seep through tend to be the crazy conservatives, elected or not: Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Dick Cheney, the LaRouche-ites. Joe Wilson.

Here's a question for Frank Rich, though:

To what extent is the media responsible? To what extent are we responsible?

This isn't happening in a vaccum. Every day each news organization puts out its material. Every day each person picks up, or at, the material he wants.

What material are they picking? What material are we choosing?

I've used this example many times before but one more time won't hurt. Say I'm a nationally known media figure in the political realm. Say I've got my own show. And then I say the following:

Rush Limbaugh has no genitalia. Literally. He just has a ball of fluff between his legs.

Is that news?

Not in a serious country. But in this country?

Here's the beauty of the accusation: Not only is it sensationalistic, not only is it "sexy"—since it deals with sex, or the lack of it—but it can never be proven without Limbaugh demeaning himself greatly. So it stays out there. Does he or doesn't he? Well, his wife says he does but should we believe her? Can't we hear from an objective source? Is there an objective source? And is that why he smokes those big fat cigars—as compensation? Why can't we get a definitive answer on this! It's the shouted whisper campaign.

And it's no more absurd than half the stuff I've heard this summer.

Look at Tobin Harshaw's "Opinionator: A Gathering of Opinion from Around the Web" in Friday's Times. It's all about Joe Wilson shouting "You lie!" during the president's speech on Wednesday.

Harshaw begins by taking "The Hill," a Capitol Hill liberal newspaper, to task, for its weak response. Then he writes this:

So what’s the point, exactly? For conservatives, it’s that another reflexively liberal publication is trying to tarnish a new straight-talker.

Straight talker? Why is Harshaw allowing conservatives to frame the debate this way? He even quotes from FOX News:

Indeed, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service study found that the House health care bill does not restrict illegal immigrants from receiving health care coverage.

You know what else it doesn't restrict? Rush Limbaugh from getting a faux-penis to cover up his lack of genitalia.

Just because something isn't restricted doesn't mean it's allowed. Shouldn't Harshaw mention that? But he doesn't. He blabs on. He's got this important platform and he talks about everything that doesn't matter: the conseratives who condemn Wilson; the liberals who support him. Then he ends it with such a facile close I'd edit it out of one of my publications, which is a trade publication, and not The New York Times.

We used to live in an echo chamber. We now live in an outragegous chamber. The more outrageous the behavior the more likely it is to get covered. And the feces go flying.

I tend to agree with Frank Rich in his column today. It just seems bad form to complain that Pres. Obama—the custodian-in-chief—is cleaning things up seasonally, rather than daily, when most of Rich's colleagues are doing everything they can to keep the feces flying.

Posted at 08:58 AM on Sep 13, 2009 in category Politics
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Friday September 11, 2009

3 Pieces on 9/11

  • How Hollywood Portrayed Terrorism Before 9/11, from 2005: “Watching these movies, in fact, one wonders all over again about right-wing attacks on Hollywood. These movies encourage patriotism, faith in our leaders and an-eye-for-an-eye. They encourage a simple absolutist view of the world. There are good guys and bad guys and never the twain shall meet. The hero is always right, and the people who disagree with the hero are always wrong, and if the hero needs to — and he usually does — he can go it alone. Sometimes the hero is the President of the United States. Sometimes he wears a flight suit. Sometimes he says tough things like “Get off my plane!” I know: It’s all so anti-Republican.”
  • The history of the World Trade Center on film, from 2006: “We’ve been telling ourselves the story of the World Trade Center every day since 9/11. The versions we tell ourselves are often full of the conceits of Hollywood movies: action-hero catch-phrases (“Let’s roll”), bold and outsized personalities; and an anticipation of a happy ending. Hollywood is actually giving us a less Hollywood version of events. The films they’ve created are human-sized, the heroes ordinary men and women.”
  • United 93 for best picture, from 2006: “The passengers’ cobbled-together, whispered plan is inspiring. Everyone pitches in. This guy knows judo, this guy can fly single-engine airplanes, this guy was an air traffic controller for eight years. It's a team effort. If the plane hadn’t been flying so low when they stormed the cockpit, you get the feeling they would’ve survived. They would’ve brought the plane home.”
Posted at 11:33 AM on Sep 11, 2009 in category Movies
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Jeter's First HIt

I always thought I was at the game at the Kingdome (R.I.P.) when Derek Jeter made his major league debut. I thought I remembered some announcement or talk: The Yankees have this kid they just brought up... But then I read Jack Curry's piece on Jeter's debut—published on the day Jeter tied Lou Gehrig for most career hits by a Yankee—and this morning I checked the shoebox full of old ticket stubs I have from the '90s that I've never been able to throw away, and discovered I wasn't there for Jeter's first game.

I was there for Jeter's first hit. Tuesday, May 30, 1995. Aisle 313, row 1, seat 8. 7:05 PM. $8.00.

I used to write highlights on the back of the ticket stubs—that's part of why I kept them, I guess—and Jeter obviously wasn't on my mind in that May 30th game. The previous ticket stub, from May 27, simply says: “Balt 11, Seattle 4: First Griffey-less game.” The stub before that, May 26, reads: “Seattle 8, Balt 3; RJ 13 Ks; KGJr solo HR; Junior injures wrist, out for 3 months.” Yeah it was that game. That's what Mariners fans were thinking about when Jeter first showed up.

The May 30th ticket stub simply says: “Seattle 7, NY 3: 5-run 8th inning—all runs with two outs.” The beginning of “Refuse to Lose.”

There might have been talk about it when Jeter singled to lead off the top of the fifth—particularly when they retrieved the ball. “Hey, it's that kid's first hit.” Maybe that's why I remembered it. Or misremembered it.

Or maybe I remembered reading about it in The Seattle Times the next day (warning: clunky writing ahead):

The Mariners had jumped to a 2-0 first-inning lead off Yankee starter Melido Perez. But the Yankees led off five innings of starter Tim Belcher's seven innings with a hit.

They scored single runs in the fifth and seventh. Both rallies were started by rookie Derek Jeter.

Jeter opened the fifth with his first major-league hit, a single to left. He scored on Jim Leyritz's two-out double into the left-center gap. The Mariners nearly escaped without damage but second baseman Joey Cora mishandled a potential double-play ball.

Jeter started the seventh with a single to center. That would be Belcher's 92nd and final pitch.

The other night, the night Jeter tied Gehrig's mark with hit no. 2,721, there was a discussion among the talking heads on the MLB network about Jeter's placement among the all-time Yankees greats. In the background they showed the five players with the most hits in Yankees uniforms—Jeter, Gehrig, Ruth, Mantle and Bernie Williams—and Matt Vasgersian asked the others, Al Leiter and Dave Valle, if Jeter was as great, or greater, than these other guys. I expected laughter. But Al Leiter took the question seriously and said that, yes, Jeter was as great as these other guys. Dave Valle, bless him, looked at Leiter as if he were insane. Because outside of FOX-News, I can't imagine a more absurd conversation on television. Ruth is generally regarded as the greatest player in baseball history—and I wouldn't argue it—while Gehrig is usually ranked in the top 5 or 10. One of the best measures of a player's overall hitting performance is OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging), and Ruth and Gehrig are first and third on this list, respectively, with only Ted Williams coming between them. Jeter? He's 181st and dropping. (2014 update: now 263rd.) That's damn good for a shortstop, but still...

Look, Jeter's fine. He's good. He seems clean in a dirty era. But he led the league in runs once, and hits once, and that's it. He's overrated as a defensive shortstop. Bill James talks about .300/.400/.500 guys and Jeter's not that. He's a .300/.300/.400 guy. Both Gehrig and Ruth are .300/.400/.600 guys. It's not even a discussion.

If you're insulted by this, if you're a huge Derek Jeter fan who thinks I'm dissing the man by saying he's not as good as the best players in baseball history, let me say one thing: I have a ticket stub from the game when Jeter got his first hit. Bidding starts at $10,000.

Posted at 08:21 AM on Sep 11, 2009 in category Baseball
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Thursday September 10, 2009

Leavy's Koufax

About six years ago a friend gave me an uncorrected proof of Jane Leavy's "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy," which was getting a lot of attention at the time, and I finally got around to it this past weekend. Something about September makes me want to read baseball books, I guess. Temperatures are cooling down and pennant races are heating up. Post-season is just around the corner. Or maybe it's the fact that baseball is dying (for the year) and everyone appreciates things more when they're dying. Baseball books are almost always pubished in spring, which is the one time of year I get to take baseball for granted. It's also the season I'm least likely to be inside, reading.

I like the structure of Leavy's book—every other chapter is an inning in his perfect game against the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 9, 1965—while the subsequent chapters give us his life and career: How a wild, afterthought lefty, with an ERA hovering near 4.00, became, for five years, the best pitcher in baseball. Levy would say "the best pitcher in basebal history" and that's part of the problem. She's a little hagiographic. She's a little too close to her subject. So was Aviva Kempner in that "Hank Greenberg" doc, but for some reason I found Kempner's love letter charming, Leavy's less so. Maybe it's the medium. Maybe it's the messenger.

Some of the best stuff is in the intro, when Leavy interviewed the players, many of them Hall of Famers, who faced Koufax. It's been said that his fastball rose when it got to the plate, which, according to science, is impossible. Of course 19th century scientists claimed no ball could curve, either; that the so-called "curve ball" was merely an optical illusion. The players here collectively give science a Bronx cheer:

Stan Musial: "Rose up just before it got to the plate."
Willie Mays: "I don't know how much it rose, it just rose. Ain't got time to try and sit there and count how high it goes. You just know it went up—very quickly."
Hank Aaron: "It did something, you know?"
Carl Erskine: "It re-accelerated. It came again."
Dave Wallace: "Fifteen feet from home plate, where the grass ends and the dirt begins, it got an afterburner on its ass."

Love Hank Aaron's line.

Ken Burns' "Baseball" doc argued, in passing, that Koufax went from mediocre mop-up man (with great stuff) to the best pitcher in baseball when someone told him he didn't have to throw so hard, but Leavy argues that the Dodgers in general, and manager Walter Alston in particular, just didn't give him the chance to find his rhythm during the 1950s. Koufax was a "bonus baby." Because he signed for over $10,000 in 1954, MLB rules stipulated that he had to stay on the 25-man roster. So not only did his signing piss off the other, veteran players, most of whom weren't even earning what this kid had just been given, but it pissed off the manager, who was suddenly saddled with a player he couldn't get rid of. If the kid wasn't any good he couldn't send him down to the minors; he had to keep him in the bigs. Alston, Leavy implies, dealt with this fait accompli by not taking advantage of Koufax's god-given talent.

That's certainly the case during his first two years: Koufax pitched 41 innings in 1955, 58 in 1956. In 1957, though, he seemed to find his rhythm, or at least a rhythm: 5-4, 3.88 ERA, with, most importantly, a 122-51 strikeout-walk ratio in only 104 innings. You'd think a manager would take notice. Maybe Alston did. Because the next year Koufax started twice as many games. But he got wild again: a 131-105 strikeout-walk ratio in 158 innings. His WHIP soared. The following year, too. So maybe he just wasn't good enough yet. Or maybe, as Leavy implies, Alston never let him settle into a rhythm. Who knows? Koufax probably doesn't even know.

Leavy also gives us the Ken Burns scene. Scenes. "Stop throwing so hard." Everyone told him this. Don Newcombe told him this. In a bar the night before a spring training game in 1961, Kenny Myers, an old scout, supposedly told him to keep his head level, don't rear it back. And in that spring training game, Norm Sherry, his catcher, came to the mound after Koufax walked the first three batters and told him, according to Koufax's autobiography, to "take the grunt out of the ball." According to Sherry, via Leavy, what he actually said was "Let 'em hit it." Take something off and let them hit it. Koufax, pissed off, did just that, in part to show Sherry how wrong he was.

And he struck out the side.

Back in the dugout, Sherry told him: "Sandy, I'm not blowing smoke up your rear end. But you just now threw harder trying not to than you did when you were trying to."

Something zen in that. Something zen about Koufax. The book attempts to probe his inscrutability. It lauds both his quest for perfection and his dislike of fame and celebrity—positing both against our sorry times—but, to me, the key to his success, and thus his meaning, is in this spring training game. The key is in finding the balance. Between force and not-force, pressure and not-pressure. Between wanting it too much and not wanting it at all. Maybe that's true of all things.

Chapter 12 is my favorite. The '63 World Series. When Koufax entered the national stage and ushered the Yankees off it. By '63 the Yankees were as common an autumnal sight as yellow leaves. From 1949 to 1964, they were in the World Series every year but two—1954 (Indians) and 1959 (White Sox)—and they won most of them, including the two most-recent Series. And there they were again. And what does Koufax do? He strikes out the first five guys he faces: Kubek, Richardson, Tresh, Mantle and Maris. He sets a Series record (that lasted all of five years) by striking out 15, and the Yankees went down in four games. How often had this happened before? Never. Not to the Yankees. John McGraw's New York Giants had beaten them once 4-0-1 way back in 1922, and the Yankees themselves had swept their Series' opponents six times (1927, 1928, 1932, 1938, 1939 and 1950), but they themselves had never been swept. Until the '63 Dodgers. In that first, 15-strikeout game, the Yanks lost 5-2 and the remarkable thing is they never scored that much again, losing the next games: 4-1 (vs. Podres), 1-0 (vs. Drysdale) and 2-1 (vs. Koufax). Koufax's 1.50 ERA for the Series was actually the worst on the Dodgers' pitching staff. That's from me, not Leavy.

"Sandy Koufax" is a good book but not a great book. It's the Johnny Podres of books. You could say Leavy never finds the balance Koufax found. Between force and not-force, pressure and not-pressure. She commits the most forgivable of writerly sins: She wants it too much.

Posted at 08:51 AM on Sep 10, 2009 in category Baseball
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Wednesday September 09, 2009

My President

We are lucky lucky lucky lucky lucky lucky lucky to have Barack Obama as the president of the United States of America.

Here's Andrew Sullivan's live blogging of the president's speech before Congress on health care reform. I agree with almost everything Sullivan says. Pres. Obama, too.

Posted at 07:06 PM on Sep 09, 2009 in category Politics
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Jeter Sucks! (On the Yankees Anyway)

Quick baseball trivia question for you. Derek Jeter's name has been bandied about for the American League MVP award. But where does he place among qualifying Yankees in terms of OPS—On-Base Plus Slugging—which is generally regarded as one of the best indicators of a player's hitting prowess?

Seventh. As of this morning, he has the seventh-best OPS on the Yankees.

M.V.My ass.

What's more remarkable? Jeter is still 24th among the 74 American League players who have the requisite number of plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Meaning seven of the Yankees' nine hitters are among the top 24 hitters in the league. Ouch! Here they are:

AL pos. Player OPS
5. Mark Teixeira .928
8. Alex Rodriguez .919
17. Nick Swisher .884
19. Johnny Damon .874
20. Robinson Cano .868
22. Hideki Matsui .865
24. Derek Jeter .860

No other team is close. Among the top 24 players in OPS, the Rays have four (Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett, Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena), Boston has three (Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay, J.D. Drew), the Twins have three (Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel, Justin Morneau), Texas has two (Nelson Cruz, Michael Young), and the Tigers, Angels, Blue Jays, Mariners and Indians all settle for one a piece (Miguel Cabrera, Kendry Morales, Adam Lind, Russell Branyan and Shin-Soo Choo). White Sox, Royals, Orioles and A's get zilch. Especially the A's.

The Yankees, again, have seven. That's gotta be worrisome for anyone playing them in the post-season.

New Yankee Stadium—so nice you get to homer twice—has, I'm sure, helped the Yankees accrue the best team OPS in the Majors, .842, 40 points higher than second-place Boston (.802). At the same time, didn't it destroy their pitching staff? Their pitching OPS must suck.

Not really. Here's how the 30 teams in the Majors stand when you add their batting OPS ranking and their pitching OPS ranking. Current division and wild-card leaders in bold:

Rank Team OPS bat. rank OPS pit. rank Total
1 NY Yankees 1 7 8
2 Colorado 4 9 13
3 LA Dodgers 13 1 14
4 Tampa Bay 5 10 15
5 Boston 2 16 18
  Texas 7 11 18
  St. Louis 15 3 18
8 Philadelphia 6 18 24
  Florida 12 12 24
  Chicago White Sox 16 8 24
11 Atlanta 20 5 25
12 Chicago Cubs 21 6 27
13 LA Angels 3 26 29
  Minnesota 9 20 29
15 Seattle 26 4 30
16 San Francisco 29 2 31
17 Detroit 18 14 32
  Arizona 19 13 32
19 Cleveland 8 25 33
20 Toronto 11 23 34
21 Milwaukee 10 28 38
22 Washington 14 29 43
  NY Mets 22 21 43
  San Diego 28 15 43
25 Oakland 27 17 44
26 Baltimore 17 30 47
  Houston 23 24 47
  Kansas City 25 22 47
29 Cincinnati 30 19 49
30 Pittsburgh 24 27 51

What is this measurement worth? Not much. For one, teams have reconfigured for the season. The good and the rich are better, the mediocre and middle-class are worse. No way, for example, that the Marlins and White Sox are equal to the Phillies, who are my gut pick for NL champs. No way the Angels are that bad. Even so, I was surprised that the only other team in slngle digits in both categories—besides the Yankees—is the Colorado Rockies. Ninth in the majors in opposition OPS? Wow.

Yes, as an avowed Yankees hater, none of this is exactly good news, but stats are stats. Put it this way: the Yankees are overbudget, filled with lousy actors, get too much attention...but they're good. “Transformers 2” is all of those things and it sucked. That's how bad that movie was. It makes the Yankees look good.

Posted at 07:53 AM on Sep 09, 2009 in category Baseball, Yankees Suck
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Tuesday September 08, 2009

How Texas Executed an Innocent Man

In a 2006 case before the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld the death penalty, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that there has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

First, Justice Scalia seems to be employing horse-and-barn-door logic. In order to prevent this horrible thing from happening, we must first let it happen.

Second, guilt and innocence are tricky matters, requiring an entire court system to sort out. The assumption that the sorting has been done correctly, 100 percent of the time, for the entire life of our nation and maybe all nations, seems a trifle naive.

Third: Cameron Todd Willingham.

Does Scalia read The New Yorker—from which the above quote was taken? The Sept. 7 issue has a good long article (“Trial By Fire”) by David Grann on Cameron Todd Willingham, who, in Dec. 1991, watched in horror as his three children were burned to death in their home. A month later he was arrested for arson and manslaughter. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. In Feb. 2004 he was executed by the state of Texas.

Grann employs a Rashomon-style type of reporting. But rather than giving us different people’s perspectives of the same event, he gives us different “general perceptions” of the same event.

The event is the burning to the ground of a one-story wood-frame house, in Corsicana, Texas, on Dec. 23, 1991. Three children died.

The first “general perception” is the immediate one. The wife is away. The father is out front, and frantic, and has to be restrained from trying to re-enter the building, which is erupting in flames. The fire department arrives, too late, and the girls die. It’s a tragedy.

The second “general perception” is the one started by the fire investigator, whose maxims include “Fire does not destroy evidence—it creates it," and “The fire tells the story. I am just the interpreter.” The investigator finds the evidence and interprets the story, and in this interpretation Willingham is found wanting and monstrous. Based upon the evidence, he could not have done the said the things he did...unless he started the thing. As a result, neighbors and ministers begin to change their stories. Maybe Willingham wasn’t as distraught as he seemed. Maybe he didn’t try to get back in the house until there were people there to restrain him. Maybe he protested too much. This is the story of a monster who rightfully winds up on death row.

The third “general perception” begins in 1999 when a woman named Elizabeth Gilbert volunteers to become a pen pal to someone on death row, and winds up with Cameron Todd Willingham. She listens to his story and doesn’t believe him. Then she begins to research the case. She wonders why neighbors and ministers changed their tune. She questions the mental state of the cellmate who claimed Willingham confessed the crime to him. She doubts Willingham received a fair trial. The case against him is still based upon strong evidence from the fire investigator but it’s beginning to unravel. This is a story full of ambiguity and doubt, which is where most of us live most of the time. What happened again in that one-story wood-frame house? What was the event?

The fourth and final “general perception” occurs when Dr. Gerald Hurst, a national fire investigator, looks at the evidence in the case and disagrees vehemently with the local fire investigator, whose interpretations, he says, are all wrong. Fire, after all, is a foreign language. It’s as if the original fire investigator, interpreting Mandarin Chinese, says “Szi means ‘death,’ and that’s why he’s guilty,” and then another interpreter comes along and says, “Wait. Don’t you know szi also means ‘four’? It’s completely innocuous. He’s not guilty at all.” But even though the evidence is found in time, and backed by other, prominent fire investigators, and presented to the powers-that-be in Texas, including Gov. Perry, Willingham is still executed by lethal injection in Feb. 2004. Our story is back to being a tragedy, but now it’s a double tragedy. The girls are killed by fire; the father is killed by us.

Read it.

Cameron Todd Willingham, Justice Scalia. Cameron Todd Willingham.

Posted at 10:33 AM on Sep 08, 2009 in category Politics
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Saturday September 05, 2009

Review: “The Cove” (2009)

WARNING: WHISTLING, CLICKING AND SCREECHING SPOILERS

Movies aren’t known for their great first sentences the way books are—for obvious reasons— but “The Cove” gives us a great first sentence. I forget if anything’s on the screen, or if it’s black, but you hear director Louie Psihoyos in voiceover:

“I do want to say that we tried to do the story legally.”

That story is relatively simple. Every year in Taiji, Japan, fishermen drive thousands of dolphins toward shore and into a cove, where the best are chosen for “Sea World” type shows around the world, and the rest are driven to a secret cove, where they are secretly slaughtered.

The hero of the story is Ric O’Barry, whom we get piecemeal. Each piece is fascinating. He was supposed to be the featured speaker at a conference on dolphins that Psihoyos was attending but got pulled because the sponsor of the conference, SeaWorld, wanted nothing to do with him. O’Barry’s an activist. He frees dolphins, including SeaWorld dolphins, in captivity. “How many times have you been arrested?” Psihoyos asks him. “This year?” O’Barry answers.

Eyebrows go up—mine did anyway—when you find out that O’Barry’s not just any activist; he was the original trainer on “Flipper,” the 1960s TV series that’s responsible, in part, for the popularity of dolphin shows at places like SeaWorld. The family’s house on “Flipper” was his house, and he guest-starred in one episode. In fact, he captured the five female dolphins who played Flipper.

Near the end of the series, though, one of the dolphins playing Flipper, Cathy, swam into his arms and killed herself. She just stopped breathing. The next day O’Barry was arrested trying to free a dolphin. He hasn’t stopped since.

He says their acoustic sense is so well-developed that the finest sonar in the world is nothing in comparison. Thus loud noises and enclosed areas—like at a Sea World show—are stressful. They get ulcers. They die. We capture them because we love them, then we give them what kills them. “The dolphin smile is nature’s greatest deception,” he says. “It creates the illusion they’re always happy.”

After they meet, O’Barry takes Psihoyos to Taiji, where O’Barry’s as known—and as wanted—as he is at SeaWorld. Authorities stake him out, watch him, question him through the fog of a foreign language. The brunt of the story’s here. The goal of the two men is to film the killing that goes on in the secret cove—to let the world know that it goes on—but it’s not easy. Local authorities harass them. Local fishermen harass them, including a particularly annoying and bespectacled man whom they dub “Private Space,” because that’s what he’s always yelling. The cove is surrounded on all three sides by high, private cliffs. There is no public vantage point from which to film. And they are harassed.

Great movies have been made about the assembling of a team—think “Asphalt Jungle,” “Dirty Dozen,” the first season of “The Wire”—and “The Cove” simply gives us the real-life version. Friends at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic use their expertise to fashion faux-rocks around hidden cameras. Two of the world’s great freedivers join the team, along with a couple of dudes up for a good cause and an adrenaline rush. It's “Mission: Impossible.”

The question arises: Why are they killing the dolphins anyway? Not even the Japanese eat dolphin meat. Ah, but the Japanese are eating dolphin meat, unknowingly, because it’s often packaged as something else. The Taiji city council even proposes adding dolphin meat to the diet of all Japanese schoolchildren. This, too, is secret, but two councilmembers who have school-age children and know the dangers of eating such meat—with its high concentration of mercury—come forward and tell the tale. Most of the doc is like this. It’s about revealing what is secret and hidden. To do so, our heroes hide what reveals. At night, they trespass, swim into the cove at night, position the cameras (disguised as rocks) and leave. Then they wait for the killing to begin.

At its high point, in early August, “The Cove” played at 56 theaters in the U.S., but quickly fell off. It’s barely made over half a million dollars. Jeff Wells, a big proponent, suggests that part of the problem with this low turnout is that women who care about dolphins can’t bear to see a doc in which dolphins are slaughtered. That was exactly my experience. It opened in early August at the Egyptian, a mile from my home, but when I suggested it to Patricia—thinking she would leap at the chance—she turned it down cold. Said she couldn’t bear to see dolphins killed. Which is why I didn’t see it until a late weekday September afternoon, in a small theater at the Metro—about five miles from my home—with about four other people. Two days before it skipped town. It even skipped The Crest, the second-run theater in north Seattle that is currently showing the year’s big hit: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” At one point in “The Cove,” it's suggested that dolphins are not only smart, they’re actually smarter than us. Doesn’t seem that difficult.

A mammal that always smiles, with Ric O'Barry, who rarely does

So how bad is the killing? Most of it takes place underwater, so you don’t really see it. You hear the dolphins’ screeches—which, to my ears, doesn’t sound much different than their “happy” screeches—and you see the water turn red. And I’m not talking a little red. It’s like the scene in “The Ten Commandments” when Moses changes the Nile to blood. It’s Technicolor red.

Still, the most memorable scene to me, the one I took away, is footage of Mandy-Rae Cruikshank, the world class freediver, swimming with dolphins, and rubbing one on its belly, like it’s a dog or a cat, and the dolphin staying close, and luxuriating in the touch. In the wild. It’s remarkable.

Bottom line: “The Cove” is a good doc that’s doing good work. Apparently the dolphin killing in Taiji has stopped. At least for this year.

Posted at 10:52 AM on Sep 05, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Friday September 04, 2009

Fun with Definite Articles

In June 2001, “The Fast and The Furious” opened and wound up making $144 million domestic, $62 million international. It went through several sequels before returning this March with the original cast and the orginal name, sans definite articles (“Fast and Furious”), and wound up making, thus far, $155 million domestic and $187 million international.

In March 2000, “Final Destination” opened and wound up making $53 million domestic, $59 million foreign. It went through several sequels before returning last week with the original name, plus definite article (“The Final Desination”), and has wound up making, thus far, $33 million.

It’s still too early to tell whether movie audiences are completely turned off by the definite article. Adjust for inflation, for example, and “The Fast and the Furious” did better domestically than its article-less sequel.

I’m just saying what a boon to sequelmakers—which is pretty much everyone now. You no longer have to bother with cumbersome roman numerals (“Halloween II”), Arabic numerals (“The Pink Panther 2”) or subtitles (“Revenge of the Fallen”). You no longer have to wring your hands over adding “part” or “episode” or what have you. If only George Lucas had been this innovative! Instead of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” which is a mouthful in any language, we could’ve gone to see “The Star Wars.” Sure, it would’ve led to some confusing Abbott-and-Costello-like conversations:

“Have you seen ‘The Star Wars’?”
“You mean the ‘Star Wars’?”

But then it already did:

“What’s your favorite ‘Star Wars’?”
“Probably the first ‘Star Wars.’”
“You mean the first episode of ‘Star Wars’?”
“I mean the first one chronologically.”
“Chronologically in our time or their time?”
“The first fucking ‘Star Wars,’ alright?”

Me, I can’t wait for the following definite-article-less sequels:

  • “Gone with Wind”
  • “Raiders of Lost Ark”
  • “Passion of Christ”
  • “Lord of Rings: Return of King”

Or these:

  • “The Gone with the Wind”
  • “The Star Trek”
  • “The Angels and the Demons”
  • “The The Godfather”

It’s all so easy now.

Posted at 08:22 AM on Sep 04, 2009 in category Movies
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Thursday September 03, 2009

Facebook Meme

No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

Posted at 09:26 AM on Sep 03, 2009 in category Politics
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“Breaking Away” Lesson of the Day

Follow your dreams.

Posted at 08:17 AM on Sep 03, 2009 in category Movies
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Wednesday September 02, 2009

Town Hall

Last night P and I and Courtney and Eva checked out the town hall madness at Meany Hall on the UW campus. U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott hosted. He was a gracious host. Some in the audience were not gracious guests.

It didn’t get as bad as health care town halls I’ve seen on television. The naysayers, who mostly seemed of the Lyndon Larouche camp, simply tried to disrupt things. They shouted comments while Rep. McDermott was mid-sentence. Initially the rest of the folks in the audience turned toward the noise, curiously, but when it continued, when the guy in question wouldn’t shut up, they shouted him down. There was an adamance to this that was refreshing. The best shoutdown, a quiet but poignant shoutdown, came from Rep. McDermott himself. He was talking about a particular universal health-care-coverage proposal and then asked rhetorically, “Where did this idea come from?” One of the rabble-rousers yelled “Communists!” McDermott cocked his head, put his hands on the lectern, and enunciated distinctly: “Richard M. Nixon.” Laughter and applause.

There was a lot of applause last night. There were a lot of questions. A lot of people’s concerns were my concerns. This is Seattle so most in the audience wanted the public option if not a complete single-payer system like in Canada. They’re worried they won’t get the public option. They’re worried the Dems will fold. They asked: “What can we do to make sure the public option, or public choice, gets through?” McDermott mentioned showing up, as we were showing up, and letting our voices be heard. He said show up at the rally at Westlake Thursday evening. He said write your Senators. Let them know how you feel.

For Washington-ites, you can e-mail Sen. Patty Murray here.

You can e-mail Sen. Maria Cantwell here.

It’s Google time people. It’s easy to contact these folks.

Here are some other resources. T.R. Reid, a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, and the author of The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, hosted a Frontline special last summer, that you can watch here, at the end of this Q&A. (It’s worth it.)

Reid also has a good Op-Ed in The Washington Post: “Five Myths About Health Care Around the World."

It continues to startle me how xenophobic this country remains, and how much our xenophobia is used against our better interests. “Communist!” when someone isn’t, “Terrorist!” when they’re not. “Kenyan!” when someone’s American, “Socialist Medicine!” when it’s generally not. And even if it is a socialist system, like Great Britain’s, well, it’s socialist in the sense that our education system and police force and firefighters are socialist. What do these things have in common? They’re essential to our well-being. Isnt health care?

Other countries’ health care systems are always used to stifle debate in this country—it’s gotten to the point where merely mentioning it is disparaging it—but who’s happy with our system? We’re locked into our employer’s heath care package (and thus fear getting fired or changing jobs), we waste everyone’s time with “gatekeepers” (and thus have to go through general practitioners to get to specialists), and 20-22% of our heard-earned money goes toward administrative costs rather than, you know, actual medical costs. This compares with 6-10% in other countries. And the nutjobs say we have the best health care in the world? We may spend the most, in terms of GDP, but the World Health Organization ranks the U.S. system 37th.

Time to get better.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to write my Senators.

Posted at 09:38 AM on Sep 02, 2009 in category Politics, Seattle
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Tuesday September 01, 2009

Review: “Tyson” (2009)

WARNING: HEAVYWEIGHT SPOILERS

The most surprising admission in “Tyson,” James Toback’s documentary about former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, isn’t that Tyson was scared heading into the ring, nor that he wanted women to protect him—him, the baddest man on the planet. It’s this: When he was young, Mike Tyson was Woody Allen.

The revelation comes early in the doc, which consists almost exclusively of old fight footage and present-day Tyson interviews. Tyson, bald now, Maori warrior tattoo sweeping one side of his face, and dressed in a pressed, button-down shirt and slacks in a Hollywood mansion, tries to explain who he is by explaning where he came from: the Brownesville section of Brooklyn, where, he says, it was “kill or be killed.” He talks about getting picked on. He talks about getting money stolen from him—quarters and change—by neighborhood gangs. Then he talks about how someone once took his glasses and broke them. The image that comes to mind is Virgil Starkwell forever having his glasses stomped on by bullies in “Take the Money and Run.” Mike Tyson was Woody Allen? Who knew?

A second later you narrow your eyes. Wait a minute. Glasses? Did Tyson need them as a kid? Did he stop needing them as an adult? You believe Tyson when he says, of the man who lived with his mother: “He might have been my father... I believe he was my father... I was told he was my father”— a sequence that Toback splices together to great echoing effect. But the glasses thing?

Or was he talking about sunglasses?

That’s part of the challenge of “Tyson.” How much do you buy into what he’s saying? When is he bullshitting us? When is he bullshitting himself? And when is James Toback putting too personal a stamp on Tyson’s story? Half the film is rise and half is sad fall, and Toback ends the first part with Tyson saying, “Once I’m in the ring, I’m a god. No one can beat me.” Then we get a slow fade and a slow open on Robin Givens. The implication is that everything began to go wrong with her, but, truly everything began to go wrong with the “god” comment and the hubris it represents. Pride, as always, goeth.

Tyson was trained by Cus D’Amato—who deserves his own doc, and who died in November 1985, a year before Tyson knocked out Trevor Berbick in the second round to become heavyweight champion of the world. Then he was trained by Kevin Rooney, but Tyson fired him in late 1988. He was managed by Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton. But Jacobs died in March 1988 and Don King suddenly insinuated himself into the picture, fighting and apparently beating Cayton over Tyson’s contract. Why did Tyson go along with this? What part did racial politics play? And why doesn’t the doc focus on it more? Toback blames the lack of training, the partying, the women, but all of this is related to a larger issue: Tyson stopped dancing with those who brung him.

Tyson is surprisingly kind to Givens. He calls her “this young lady.” He says “everyone was in our business.” He says “We were just kids, just kids, just kids.” He doesn’t know why she lied to Barbara Walters on national television—Givens, with Tyson hanging over her shoulder, tells Barbara, and the country, that Mike, the heavyweight champion of the world, is a manic depressive, that their marriage has been pure hell, that “it’s been worse than anyone could imagine”—but in this doc he more or less gives her a bye.

Not so with others. “When I was falsely accused of raping that wretched swine of a woman, Desiree Washington, it was the most horrible moment in my life,” he says. He calls Don King “just a slimy, reptilian motherfucker” who would “kills his own mother for a dollar.”

He’s also hard on himself. He owns up to a lot. That he likes strong women whom he can sexually dominate. That when Cus D’Amato first takes him to his mansion, he’s thinking of robbing him: “I could rob this white guy,” he thinks.

He breaks down on camera talking about Cus. It seems the most important relationship in his life. At the same time he says, “I was like his dog. He broke me down. He broke me down and rebuilt me.” Cus also gave him speed, power, confidence. The doc is separated between those who built up Tyson’s confidence (D’Amato, mostly) and those who tore it down (Givens, Washington, King).

Remember how fierce he was? He had 15 fights in 1985 and won all of them by KO or TKO, 11 of them in the first round. He was built like a bullet and seemed just as unstoppable. He was so tough he inspired the toady in other men. Hell, I even felt it from afar, joking about his prowess in the ring, luxuriating in his power as if it were in any way related to my own (lack thereof). Or maybe I simply liked how much of a unifying concept he was in an increasingly fragmented world. He unified all the heavyweight belts that had been scattered to the four winds. For years no one argued over who the best boxer was. The only question was the question the announcer asked after Tyson destroyed Michael Spinks at 1:31 in the first round in a heavyweight bout in 1988: “Who in this world has any chance against this man?”

Himself. He was not a god. Gods don’t have to train, but he did, and he lost to Buster Douglas in 1990 in one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. We kept waiting for him to unify things again but he kept stumbling. First the rape charge, then the conviction. He lost three years. When he came out of prison, he was a Muslim. This too seemed sad, like it was part of someone else’s story, as it was. It was Malcolm’s and Muhammed Ali’s. Tyson was clinging to cliches.

I’d forgotten that he won the heavyweight championship again in the mid-1990s. I didn’t know, in the infamous ear-biting match with Evander Holyfied, that Tyson claimed Holyfield headbutted him first. I’m not a boxing fan so I didn’t know. But I knew so much else because Tyson seeped through to the general culture in a way no boxer has since. Who’s even the heavyweight champ now? I had to look it up. A Russian and two Ukranian brothers. Three Great White Hopes. Scattered to the four winds.

“Tyson” is an untraditional doc in that there are no other talking heads. Would it have been better with other voices? Maybe. Would it have been better without Tyson walking along a Malibu beach? Yes. That Hollywood home, it turns out, was rented by Toback. So where does Tyson live? Why didn’t they film there? Why this fake Hollywood backdrop?

It’s still effective. The former champ seems lost in the way of former champs. “Old too soon, smart too late,” he says. “”What I’ve done in the past is a history, what I’ll do in the future is a mystery,” he says. The final shot is a freezeframe on his battered, confused face. He once thought himself a god. Now he’s just another man who can’t make sense of his life.

Posted at 08:22 AM on Sep 01, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Movies - Documentaries
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