erik lundegaard

Friday October 30, 2009

Which Host with What Most?

I agree with the Hollywood talent agent in this Patrick Goldstein post: Having Ricky Gervais host the Golden Globes is the Globes' gain and the Academy's loss. He's one of the funniest men on the planet, and, being British, he's at least somewhat international, although I doubt his shows carry far into Europe, let alone Asia or Latin America. His movies certainly don't. 

So what's the Academy looking for in a host? What's their goal—to increase U.S. ratings or international ratings? "Both," I'm sure someone would say. But if they had to choose, wouldn't they want the latter rather than the former? And what are the international ratings of the Academy Awards? I remember how common it once was to talk about "a billion people watching" but they haven't trotted that one out in a while, and a quick Google search gives us, at best, vague reports, like this one from Variety: "Some suggest that as many as 800 million people watch the Oscarcast worldwide." I like that. Some don't even "say" it; some merely "suggest" it. Some gossip that... Some spread rumors that... It's called news.

The U.S. numbers, meanwhile, are no mere suggestions, and they are definitely dropping. No year in the '90s dipped below 40 million—with the high point being the 57 million who watched "Titanic" win—while no year in the last five years has risen above 40 million. These ratings drops correlate with the drop in the box-office numbers of the best-picture candidates, so one wonders how much a host can counter this trend. Isn't that what the idiotic expansion of the best-picture candidates is for?

Even so, who would you pick as your Oscar host? Another funny TV star—like Johnny Carson, David Letterman or Jon Stewart? Another funny movie star—like Bob Hope, Billy Crystal or Steve Martin? A song-and-dance man like Hugh Jackman? Apparently the show's new producers, Bill Mechanic and Adam Shankman, are seeking co-hosts, rather than one host, to appeal to the different demographics in our increasingly fragmented country in our increasingly international world. So who could that be? Brad and Angelina? Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts? Justin Timberlake and Beyonce? Who matters in the movie world anymore?

This last question actually clarifies. If movie stars no longer matter, as the box-office numbers indicate, you go with what does. Thus: Welcome! To the 82nd Annual Academy Awards! With presenters: Harry Potter! The Dark Knight! Optimus Prime! Captain Jack! Spider-Man! Iron Man! And Darth Vader! And now, here's your hosts, Shrek and Donkey!

Posted at 07:45 AM on Oct 30, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Wednesday October 28, 2009

The Series Freezes, Neyer Nitpicks

From Rob Neyer's Wednesday Wangdoodles:

OK, so Scioscia doesn't like the postseason schedule. Calls it "ridiculous," and I'm basically on his side. I would like the postseason to perfectly reflect the regular season, where you need four starters and sometimes even five. I have to mention, though, that since the modern World Series was invented in 1903, many managers have gotten by with three starters. In 1905, Christy Mathewson or Joe McGinnity started all five games for the Giants. Sixty years later, Mudcat Grant and Jim Kaat combined for six starts in the Twins' seven-game Series loss against the Dodgers. Scioscia's right: there are too many off days. But managers have always been able to lean heavily on their best starters in October.

OK, so Neyer thinks this one point doesn't apply to the whole of baseball history. Says "I have to mention, though." Brings up 1905 and 1965. Brings up Big Six and Kitty Kaat. And he's right: managers have leaned on their best starters in October. It doesn't change the fact that SCIOSCIA'S RIGHT and HE'S THE ONLY GUY IN BASEBALL SAYING THIS STUFF about THE GREAT TRAVESTY THAT IS BASEBALL'S POST-SEASON SCHEDULE. Save your nitpicking, Neyer, for who's the tenth-best second baseman of the 1930s. This is time to get on board, use what power you have, and fix what needs fixing.

"Basically on his side"? Damn, Neyer.

Oh, and happy first game of the World Series! We're finally here. October 28th. Predicted game-time temps? Below 50. Probability of precipitation? 100 percent.

Fun.

Posted at 08:49 AM on Oct 28, 2009 in category Baseball
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Tuesday October 27, 2009

Lancelot Links

MOVIES

  • This is pretty exciting: The screening of "The Cove" at the Tokyo International Film Festival and the mostly positive and/or startled and/or embarrassed Japanese reaction. This part, though, is sadly indicative: "Taiji’s mayor, Kazutaka Sangen, has advised fishermen to carve up whales and dolphins in indoor facilities so as not to provoke activists further, according to the newspaper Yomiuri." Nice. My review of "The Cove" here.
  • The cover story in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine asks: "Is America ready for a movie about an obese Harlem girl raped and impregnated by her abusive father?" But it's the wrong question. The correct question is: "Is Lionsgate ready to distribute such a film?" OK, it's both questions. But America can't be ready for "Precious" if Lionsgate (of the "Saw" franchise) isn't willing to distribute it beyond NY, LA and your Seattles and Chicagos and Minneapolises. And I doubt they are. Unless, of course, Tyler Perry, whose films are also distributed by Lionsgate, and is an executive producer on "Precious," can strongarm them in some fashion.
  • The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's film critic Colin Covert has a nice Q&A with Chris Rock about his doc "Bad Hair," which I now have to see. Rock remarks that "Bad Hair" is the funniest movie he's ever made, which initially sounds impressive until you consider the options. "Down to Earth"? "Head of State"? "I Think I Love My Wife"? Rock is frequently hilarious in his stand-up (less so in his most recent, "Kill the Messenger"), but for whatever reason that hilarity has never transferred to movies. 
  • Via Patrick Goldstein, who got it from Danielle Berrin's "Hollywood Jew" blog, here's a fascinating 2001 Index Magazine interview with Rachel Weisz and some pretty blunt talk about the Jewishness of Hollywood, as well as the sterile sexuality of Hollywood, as well as the sexiness of comedians. Quote from Weisz on the difficulty of Jewish women having success in Hollywood: "In some way acting is prostitution, and Hollywood Jews don't want their own women to participate. Also, there's an element of Portnoy's Complaint — they all fancy Aryan blondes."
  • Francois Truffaut is my favorite director of the French New Wave, and Richard Brody, blogging on the New Yorker's site, acknowledges the 25th anniversary of Truffaut's death at age 52 with some choice quotes.
  • Nathaniel over at Film Experience Blog gives us the history of who's presented the best picture Oscar. I hadn't really thought about this before. Best Actor gets the previous year's Best Actress, and vice-versa, and same ol' switcheroo for supporting awards, and directors tend to get directors, yes? The other categories get someone who will hopefully keep people watching. But for Best Pic? It's usually a big-name actor. Nathaniel's complaint? It's usually the same big-name actor—and rarely a big-name actress. He makes suggestions. His first one is so obvious only the Academy wouldn't have thought of it by now.

POLITICS

  • I've always thought FOX-News was as close to a government-run news agency as the U.S. has had during my lifetime. James Fallows, who spent the last three years in China, says the same thing.
  • We need smarter from the New Yorker. Most MSM columnists now agree that FOX News is a biased network, as does Louis Menand here, but it goes deeper, doesn't it? Via his Facebook account, Minnesota journalist Robb Mitchell quotes Jason Bartlett, a new media columnist (and not the shortstop for the Tampa Bay Rays), thus: "Bias is not the issue for the controversy with FOX and media access, it is their continual intentional manipulation of facts for the sake of propoganda. To say what FOX does is okay because now MSNBC 'does it now too' misses the point of their intentional deception to the American public."

BASEBALL

  • I appreciated this piece from William Rhoden on how losing two games to the Angels exposes what nervous nellies Yankees fans really are.
  • This past week, Tyler Kepner is writing about all the right things. First he gave us those dream quotes from Mike Scioscia before Game 6 of the ALCS on the ridiculousness of all the off-days in October. Then he followed it up in yesterday's paper with a piece about where all of those off-days lead: to a November World Series. Kepner ticks off what can't be done to prevent this in the future but the question looms: What can be done? I'd start by examining the smartness of Wednesday-night starts, which the networks and MLB feel draws higher ratings than, say, a Saturday-night start. Really? So why have World Series ratings dropped like a rock over the last 25 years while the Super Bowl recorded its greatest ratings just last year? Is MLB overstaying its welcome in October and November? Could a tighter schedule mean a tighter storyline? Do fair-weather fans not want to watch the game played in foul weather? COULD THE PEOPLE IN CHARGE HAVE NO MOTHERHUMPING CLUE WHAT THEY'RE DOING?!?! Not that I'm espousing any opinion one way or another, mind you. At least Kepner's asking the right questions and getting the right quotes from the right baesball people. Here's Scioscia again: "You can’t control the weather to a certain extent, but the earlier you can schedule these to get them in, the better chance you have of finishing this in weather that is, I think, conducive to the outstanding level of play that is going to be on any playoff baseball field." Exactamundo, Cunningham!

JIM WALSH

Posted at 07:34 AM on Oct 27, 2009 in category Lancelot Links, Movies
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Monday October 26, 2009

Review: “Coco Before Chanel” (2009)

WARNING: SIMPLE, ELEGANT SPOILERS

A story has a dramatic arc, a life doesn’t. That’s always been the problem with biopics. So you understand why filmmakers such Anne Fontaine, who directed and co-wrote “Coco Avant Chanel,” decide to dramatize a portion of the life rather than the whole, long, messy thing. You also understand why Fontaine chose this portion of Chanel’s life: the portion—for those whose French is worse than mine—before she became a fashion icon. People like watching people rise. Audiences are made up of folks with unfulfilled dreams who enjoy sitting in the dark watching someone with whom they can identify fulfill theirs.

So why doesn’t the movie work? Does the title character remain too unknowable? Is her love affair with Arthur “Boy” Capel too uninteresting? Are the clues to how she will eventually transform the fashion world, and thus the world—having women dress for women, and for comfort, rather than in the confining corsets and plumy hats and long heavy dresses of the period—too facile? Does the movie not care enough about why she matters (fashion and proto-feminism) in favor of why she doesn’t (love love love)?

Is it all of the above?

The movie begins when Gabrielle Chanel, age 10, all big dark eyes, is deposited at a Catholic orphanage and casts a final, bewildered glance at the carriage driver, seen in quarter-view, who, one assumes, and assumes correctly, is her father. Historically, this orphanage was where Gabrielle learned to be a seamstress, and where, one suspects, the austerity and simplicity of the nuns’ habits made an impression on her fashion sense, but we only get glimpses of this. We mostly take away a sense of powerlessness and loneliness in echoing hallways.

Cut to: A music hall during the belle époque, where Gabrielle (now Audrey Tautou) and her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain), perform the song “Qui Qu’a Vu Coco,” before rowdy crowds, then mingle with the guests, mostly upper-crust military officers and barons. Gabrielle, quickly dubbed “Coco” after the song, is a lousy mingler, but she pares (and pairs) nicely with Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who is rich, cynical, out for a good time, and amused by Coco’s bluntness. Coco’s sister becomes the mistress, possible wife, of one Baron, but Balsan leaves for his estate in Compiegne, near Paris, without proffering an invitation to Coco. So she simply shows up.

The belle époque was la belle époque (the beautiful time) for aristocrats like Balsan, not poorhouse candidates like Coco, and she bristles under the strictures of their unequal relationship. So do we. It’s pretty icky. At first he keeps her hidden. When she comes out anyway, he wants her to perform. She disapproves of the waste and frivolity of the upper classes, and wants work, but wonders what she can do. Sing and dance? Become an actress like Balsan’s frequent guest, and former lover, Emilienne d'Alençon (Emmanuelle Devos)? All the while Coco becomes known for her simple, more freeing, more boyish fashion sense. Emilienne keeps asking about her hats. Can you make me one? Here’s my rich friend. Can you make her one?

The story is obviously moving in this direction but the title character doesn’t seem to realize it. Is this good? An example of life happening while you’re busy making other plans? Or is it bad: The filmmaker’s assumption (film-in-general’s assumption) that audiences are only interested in what Gore Vidal famously called love love love?

Yes, Coco falls in love, with British coal magnate “Boy” Capel, and off they go for a weekend by the sea, where she gets the inspiration for the striped sailor’s shirt and the little black dress. Nice weekend! There’s a good scene in the tailor shop where she lays out her black-dress specifications, resisting, all the while, the tailor’s polite push toward the conventional. Him: It should be peach tones. It should have a corset. It should have a belt. Her: Non, non, non. Her stubborn insistence reminds me of many women I’ve known. They like it how they like it. Of course most women I’ve known aren’t inventing the little black dress.

Coco’s happy with Capel but he’s got a secret—he’s marrying British money—and Balsan spills the beans, partly from jealousy, partly because he cares about Coco and doesn’t want her hurt. Balsan’s role throughout is reminiscent of the role of Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) in “Out of Africa”: the disreputable man the heroine is stuck with but uninterested in, even though he’s the most interesting character onscreen. Neither man is particularly attractive, either, but both have a laissez faire bluntness that’s fun to be around and vaguely sexy. Balsan even proposes to her.

Instead she starts a hat shop in Paris. Finally! one thinks. Ten seconds later, a woman says, “Look, a gentleman.” Oh no! one thinks. Yeah, it's “Boy” Capel. More love-making. More promise-making. They’ll have two months by the sea. Then he dies in a car accident. She sees the wreck. She cries. Then she makes dresses, puts on a fashion show, and everyone applauds. FIN.

Really? That’s it? I know the title is the title, but... The movie is based on a book by a woman, written and directed by a woman, yet it almost feels sexist in how much it ignores why Chanel’s relevant.

Maybe fans already know too much about her career and wanted the gossip. Maybe people always want the gossip. Me, I knew little about her going in so it was all news, but the movie left me wondering to what extent she was part of a trend and to what extent she was way ahead of the trend. Did she single-handedly put women in pants? In this fact alone you see the redefinition of beauty in the 20th century. Voluptuous women tend to look better in dresses, thinner women in pants. Thus, with women in pants, western society’s definition of beauty shifted from the voluptuousness of the belle époque toward the straighter lines of Twiggy and Kate Moss. Coco was not considered beautiful, then helped redefine beauty closer to how she looked. Not bad! This shift also led to anorexia. There are corsets in the mind no fashion designer can remove.

In the end, “Coco Avant Chanel” has some of the realism of French films (she prostituted herself to get ahead) but more often the glossy, hazy, dishonest feel of Hollywood films. Coco apres Chanel once said, “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” This one isn’t, and it's disposable.

Posted at 07:15 AM on Oct 26, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Movies - Foreign
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Sunday October 25, 2009

Scioscia on October Days Off: "Ridiculous"

My man Tyler Kepner! Here's an excerpt from his column in today's New York Times about all those freakin' days off in October:

Partly because they each swept their division series, the Yankees and the Angels have played just eight games in 20 days since the end of the regular season. In a session with Los Angeles-area writers on Saturday, Angels Manager Mike Scioscia made his feelings clear.

“Ridiculous,” Scioscia said. “I don’t know. Can I say it any clearer than that? We should have never had a day off last Wednesday. We should never have three days off after the season. You shouldn’t even have two days off after the season.

“It just takes an advantage away for a deep team, which everybody feels very strongly is an asset. It takes that advantage away and I think that’s something that Major League Baseball hopefully will consider looking at.”

Mark Teixeira has played so little he says he has newfound respect for utility players. And why so many days off?

The reason for the elongated schedule is the recent change in the start of the World Series. From 1985 through 2006, the World Series was scheduled to start on a Saturday. Then baseball and the networks concluded that Saturday was a dead night for ratings. They built a few extra days into the schedule, which pushed Game 1 to a Wednesday.

I wrote about this back then. I've been bitching about it all month. Here and here and here, too. It's time for Major League Baseball to get smart. It's time to stop being ridiculous. Bud Selig and the networks are ruining the most important baseball games of the year, and for what? It's not even helping ratings. They're ruining baseball for nothing. Does Bud want that to be his legacy?

Baseball is supposed to be played every day in fair weather. Its most important games are now played every other day in horrendous weather. And that's not baseball.

Posted at 09:49 AM on Oct 25, 2009 in category Baseball
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Saturday October 24, 2009

Why Blogging Isn't Writing—I

The other night my friend Tommy and I were talking about a game we both play. When the latest New Yorker arrives in the mail we turn to the “Talk of the Town” section, read the first graph of the first piece, and try to guess whether it’s Hendrik Hertzberg. Usually we can tell. His writing tends to be clearer, more insightful, more playful than the other writers—often very good writers—who also appear regularly in that space.

But I admit I play that game less often now. That first section of the “Talk of the Town,” which once seemed so essential, increasingly feels like old news. Which it is. I think: “They’re still writing about that?” (Something that happened last week.) “I want to read about this.” (Something that happened yesterday or today or an hour ago.) In this way the Internet has made children of us all.

To be sure, The New Yorker has blogs on its Web site from most of its regular writers—Hertzberg included. I link to it. It’s good. But it’s not Hertzberg. Or it’s not as good as Hertzberg can be.

And that’s because blogging isn’t writing. Writing is rewriting, and usually rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, and hardly anybody spends much time rewriting a blog post. “To get it wrong so many times,” laments E.I. Lonoff, Philip Roth’s fictional writer, of the many drafts he goes through before he gets a novel or a short story or a sentence just so. His line could describe our online world, which is about immediacy rather than getting it right. It could be the epitaph for our age. We get it wrong so many times.

Me, too. I’m the first to admit that after two years I haven’t figured out what this thing is for yet. In the best blogs—such as Andrew Sullivan’s—the internal process, the thinking process, how one arrives at the thoughts one arrives at, is presented externally. That’s fascinating. But it’s not writing. It’s something else. Milan Kundera has written essays about sweeping up around the final product (the essay, the story, the novel) so that the process is not visible to the reader, so that the product stands alone, like Stonehenge, leaving readers to wonder, “Wow. How did this thing get here anyway?” That’s 20th century thinking. We’re process now rather than product. Even if there is a product, we use the process to sell it. DVD extras and cut scenes. Alternative tracks to popular songs. Here’s what we deemed uncecessary. Here’s where we got it wrong so many times.

This post, too, is process. It's not leading anywhere. It's not really suggesting anything. It's just pointing out mixed feelings.

Posted at 09:10 AM on Oct 24, 2009 in category Personal Pieces, Culture
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Friday October 23, 2009

Review: “More Than a Game” (2008)

WARNING: DRAINING 3-POINT SPOILERS FROM THE LINE

“More Than a Game,” Kristopher Belman’s documentary about five friends, including a hanger-on named LeBron James, who become high school basketball stars at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio in the early 2000s, should appeal to fans not only of basketbal and LeBron, and not only to coaches everywhere, but to anyone who has to create a Superman story. The dramatic problem with Superman has always been his invincibility. Who can possibly stop him? The dramatic problem halfway through this documentary, as St. V’s Fightin' Irish regularly demolish teams by 40 or 50 points, is the same. Who can possibly stop them?

This question is answered twice. The first answer is indicative of human nature. The second answer is indicative of a sadder, tawdrier aspect of American culture.

They were the “Fab Four” of Akron basketball—LeBron, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee and Dru James III—who first came to national attention in 1997 when, in junior high, they played at the AAU “Shooting Stars” Boys Basketball Tournament in Florida. “We were a team from Akron nobody’d ever heard of,” LeBron remembers. They wound up in the finals but lost, 68-66, to the previous year’s champs from southern California, when LeBron’s half-court shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim. He’s interviewed about it in the doc. He still looks pissed.

By this time LeBron was already distinguishing himself from the others, and everyone assumed he would play for John R. Buchtel High School, a mostly black public school with a powerhouse basketball program; but he didn’t even decide. Dru did. Entering ninth grade, Dru was still under five feet tall and Buchtel wouldn’t have him so he wouldn’t have them, and his friends, loyal to a fault, followed him to St. Vincent, a mostly white, Catholic school without much of a basketball program. With the help of Coach Keith Dambrot and assistant coach Dru James, Little Dru’s father, who had coached the boys in “Shooting Stars,” they gave it one.

That’s what this doc is about, really: loyalty; teamwork. One may rise above, he may even get on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior, but he can’t win a team sport without a team.

It’s also about disloyalty, or perceived disloyalty. After the “fab four“—and, with the addition of Romeo Travis, the “fab five”—win state titles in their freshman and sophomore years, going 23-1 and 27-0 respectively, Coach Dambrot, forgetting promises made to the boys, puts his career or family first, and takes a job with the University of Akron. “I never even talked to him again,” LeBron says. Coach Dru became their head coach.

The doc, too, is no one-man show. It draws out the others. Willie is the quiet, mature one; Sian the funny, fat one. Romeo doesn’t really fit in at first. He’s selfish and angry, but I like his admission that, “I never thought basketball would be my future. I just wanted to play because it’d get you girls.” My guy, no surprise, is Little Dru, all 4’ 11” freshman year, but determined to overcome what he couldn’t control, sinking threes the way other guys sink layups. His dad was also the coach, and tougher on him for that reason, which led to issues of its own—despite the fact that the dad only became coach for the son. Coach Dru was actually a football guy. He had to learn basketball.

So halfway through the doc, St. V becomes a Divsion II school, and Coach Dru puts the boys on a national traveling schedule. Keep in mind: These are five guys from the same neighborhood competing against high school powerhouses that draw talent from all over the nation. And they’re winning games 100-50. One reporter calls them the greatest team in high school history.

So what can possibly stop them? Hubris. That’s our first answer. They don’t practice as hard. (Why should they? They're not going to lose.) They don’t listen to Coach Dru as much. (What does he know that they don't?) Their games are so popular they have to play at the local university arena, and the games are still sold out, and tickets are scalped. They’re like a rock band: Groupies follow them and parties anticipate them. And in the finals of the state championship their junior year, they lose, stunningly, 66-63. Everyone blames the first-year coach, who couldn’t win a state championship with juniors who won it as freshman. It’s unfair but in a way he agrees. “I got caught up in the winning and losing,” Coach Dru says. “My job wasn’t about basketball. It was about helping them become men.”

The next year he does. Plus LeBron, who can’t stand losing, is now more determined than ever. Can you imagine? A team that routinely wins 100-50 is now more determined? The amazing thing, truly, given the media attention, the girls and the talent, isn’t that hubris stopped them once; it’s that it didn’t keep stopping them. It’s that they, and particularly LeBron, didn’t let their good fortune lead to bad. He kept a level head. The doc makes it clear that this happened, in part, because of his early bad fortune. He was born to a teenage mom and never knew his dad. “We probably moved 12 times,” he says. “The hardest thing for me was meeting new friends, [and] I wanted to have some brothers I could be loyal to.” He found them. He kept his friends close and his enemies at bay.

Of course enemies always gather. We build up to tear down in this country—buildings and people—and after the build-up of LeBron came the tear-down. Wait, why was this high school kid driving around in an $80K Hummer? Turns out his mom bought it for him via bank loan based upon her son’s future earnings. That’s icky but legal. But wait! LeBron accepted two retro jerseys (Wes Unseld and Gale Sayers) for appearing on the wall of a sporting goods store? We can’t have that. And with only a handful of games left in the season, and the team climbing the national rankings—from 23 to 19 to 16 to 11 to 9—the Ohio High School Athletic Assocation stripped LeBron of his eligibility.

That’s the second answer to what can stop them. File it under the smallness of people. At the same time the doc needed this dilemma to give its story drama. Every hero needs a villain, and sometimes the villains don’t show until the hero does. Wasn’t that what “The Dark Knight” was all about?

St. Vincent did play one game without LeBron. They still won, 63-62. Then LeBron went to court (the other kind) and the judge reinstated him. And that’s the last thing that stopped them.

Comparisons will inevitably be made to “Hoop Dreams,” the 1994 documentary about two inner-city high school basketball players, William Gates and Arthur Agee, and how injuries and circumstances kept them from their dreams; but the two docs couldn't be more different. Should I trot out Roger Kahn again? You may glory in a team triumphant (“More Than a Game”) but you fall in love with a team in defeat (“Hoop Dreams”). What stopped William Gates in “Hoop Dreams”—injuries—isn’t even an issue in “More Than a Game“—any more than a knee injury would be an issue to Superman. We glory in LeBron but he came from another planet. We also know how he ends (well), so we watch knowing the ultimate end, as we watch most Hollywood blockbusters knowing the ultimate end. “Hoop Dreams,” in comparison, is a small, indy character study. Gates and Agee? We don’t even know if they live.

”More Than a Game" skirts issues that might have proven interesting—including questions of race and religion at St. Vincent. Were any of the “fab four” Catholic in ninth grade? Were any in 12th grade? It also tries to exalt Coach Dru, who seems like a decent man, but whose halftime pep talks are hardly out of “Knute Rockne: All American.”

But it’s fun and it ends right. For 90 minutes we’ve watched these kids grow from not-bad “shooting stars” to incredibly talented, between-the-leg-dunking, on-the-verge-of-the-NBA superstars. At the very end, though, we see Dru coaching a new batch of kids. Sixth graders? Younger? They’re doing lay-up drills, and missing, and they’re small and clumsy, and that basketball is so big in their hands. And it begins again.

Posted at 08:09 AM on Oct 23, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Movies - Documentaries
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Thursday October 22, 2009

Live-Blogging Game 5 of the ALCS

5:12: The Yankees begin the game with two hits and Joe Buck begins the game by saying, ominously, "And here comes New York!" And then there went New York. Out out out. Question: Is Mark Teixeira going to be the new Alex Rodriguez? The guy the press says folds in the clutch on a small sample size? A-Rod was the new Randy Johnson (remember before 2001?) who was the new... Willie Mays? Ted Williams? Take your pick. It's a tired storyline. I'm actually glad A-Rod's doing well this post-season so I don't have to hear that crap anymore. By the way: Nice to see sun. But what's with the empty seats down the right-field line before gametime? C'mon southern Cal: Represent!

5:17:  Walk and double and now my man Torii Hunter comes through for two! Off his bat I thought Jeter had it, but I guess Jeter had him played wrong. Wow, and now Vlad with a double in the gap! 3-0. Was Torii limping around the bases? Did I see that? Hope not. This is fun! Yanks get the first two guys on and 10 minutes later, it's 3-0, Angels.

5:18:  4-0, Angels. One wonders when New York is going to warm somebody up.

5:25: The Spanish for "liner" is ligne? Thanks, Tim McCarver. And the Angels have been waiting for an inning like this, Joe Buck? I've been waiting for an inning like this. Doesn't matter, though. The Angels could be up 10-0 and I'd still be worried. The Yankees are Freddy Kreuger to me. They're Michael Myers. Just when you think they're dead, they rise up. They're their own horror movie.

5: 35: Cano not doing well in the post-season. Swisher. Teixeira. One wonders how the Yankees have won anything. And now they're giving us the John Hancock question of the day: Who are the only three LCS MVPs to come from losing teams? Wasn't one of them George Brett back in the '70s? And doesn't this go against the usual nomenclatural argument against the regular-season MVP? That you can't be "valuable" on a team that doesn't win? Surprised McCarver doesn't mention that. I never buy that argument, by the way. You can be valuable, even most valuable, on a team that doesn't go to the post-season. Three definitions of valuable: 1) Having considerable monetary or material value for use or exchange; 2) Of great importance, use, or service; 3) Having admirable or esteemed qualities or characteristics. Nothing in there about winning.

5:47: Uck, that tomato alfredo in the Olive Garden commercial looks awful. And what's with the Chris Farley Direct-TV ad? Isn't that a little creepy? He's been dead for 12 years now and they're trotting him out to... What? Are they saying you should get Direct TV so you don't have to watch Chris Farley? That would be pretty gross. On the other hand, at least it's not that damn Viagra ad with the guy talking to himself or the Black Eyed Peas commercial where the girl is remaking "A Midsummer Night's Dream" while the dude is walking on the moon with a camel.

6:00: Torii Hunter's stolen base in the bottom of the third was pretty funny. Don't know if I've ever seen that before—where a baserunner was halfway down to second before the pitcher even threw the ball to homeplate. And now he's at third with only one down. Ah, but then nabbed in a rundown. McCarver: "That's why you bring the infield in." No shit, Sherlock. You could almost see Torii calculating, to see how long he could run back-and-forth before Vlad got to second base. And he almost got back to third anyway. But the Angels gotta get some more runs here. Freddy Krueger ain't gonna play dead forever. Those eyes are gonna pop open.

6:19: Here's the answer to that John Hancock question: Fred Lynn in '83, Mike Scott in '86 (of course!) and Jeff Leonard n '87. All within a five-year period. Wonder why? Also: John Hancock signs his name big and over 230 years later we're asking trivia questions in his name. Cue Yakov Smirnoff.

6:27: Melky Cabrera gets on base with one out in the top of the 5th. There goes Molina back in the dugout and here comes Posada out of the dugout...and he goes down on strikes. Does this mean A.J. Burnett is gone, too, since Molina catches Burnett? Angels need runs. They haven't scored since the 1st. BTW: I like how Mathis, the Angels catcher, pounces after that ball when he's behind the plate. He really moves. C'mon, Lackey, strike Jeter out already. Yes! Made him look ba-yad, too.

6:37:  "That's outside!" Gotta love an ump you can hear. I also like this guy's strike zone so far. Seems on. A solid base-knock from Torii. Let's see if he tries to steal again. And yet another throw over to first base. You embarass me and I will bore everyone to make sure you don't embarass me again. Joe Buck: "Hunter's getting worn out over there." CUT TO: Hunter, smiling.

6:48: Two-out double from A-Rod. Did he think it was a homerun? It took him awhile to get to second, but then Torii played it well off the wall, too. Again, I'm happy for A-Rod as long as it doesn't lead to any runs here. And...? A walk. Joe Buck: "And with Cano coming up, with one swing of the bat he could change the complexion of the game." Oh, shut up! Nope, force at second. Yanks have 9 outs left.

7:00: Some doofus dunks himelf in the fake pond in centerfield and for some reason FOX shows it. For a long while, too. I thought the networks weren't supposed to show this crap, so they don't encourage the doofuses of the world. Then again, FOX is used to broadcasting, and encouraging, the doofuses of the world.

7:17: It's a good feeling when a ball, that might be trouble, is hit to a guy, and you're not even worried. That's how I feel when a ball is hit to Torii Hunter. But overall I still don't like this. It's top of the 7th and the Angels are just sitting on this lead. And now a third strike to Posada is called a ball? Joe Buck: "What will that lead to?" Oh, shut up. And now Jeter walks to load the bases. The tying run, Johnny Damon, comes to the plate for the Yankees. Joe Buck: "Damon has homered in two straight games... One memorable Damon grand slam in LCS play..." Oh, shut up! But Damon flies out. So... two outs. But the tying run is still at the plate: Mark Teixeira. And there goes Lackey with 7 outs still to go. And here comes Darren Oliver. And there goes the mothercreepingfreakingflugging ball! CRAP! One pitch from Oliver, three runs score. How big is that missed called third strike by the ump? The Yankees always seem to capitalize on bad calls. Now a Matsui basehit. Tie game. This is not a good feeling.

7:20: Is there a more obnoxious commercial than that Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" ad? It's the Yankees of ads. It also feels slightly racist. "Don't worry, Punjab, I'm here."

7:25: 6-4, Yankees. I hate life. But the inning finally ends, thanks to Nick Swisher. The Angels still have nine outs, but if this is the end of their season, if we're done with the LCS, the Yankees and Phillies have to wait a whole freakin' week while the earth moves further and further away from the warmth of the sun. Nice schedule, Bud. Of course, if there's one team that deserves to play in the cold and awful of November, it's the Yankees.

7:32: McCarver's talking as if the pitching change (Oliver for Lackey) happened when there was one out. There were two outs. There, he corrects himself.

Seventh inning, Angels! This is your inning! The eighth means the only pitcher with VETO power in the Majors, Mariano Rivera, can come in, and we don't want that. Jesus, I just realized the Yankees got their half-dozen runs without a homerun. In fact, no one's hit a homerun in this game. 10 runs, no homeruns. A walk to Eybar, the man with cheekbones you can cut yourself on, and there goes Burnett. And here comes the top of the Angels order. Time for a homerun, Angels! But Chone Figgins...drops a bunt? I don't know. I'm not a fan of the sacrifice. You just gave up one of the nine outs you have left in the season.

McCarver calls Yankees reliever Damaso Marte the most "volatile" of the Yankee relievers. In terms of temperament? In terms of performance? What does he mean? Ground-out from Abreu scores a run. 6-5, Yankees. And here comes a new reliever. Phil Hughes vs. Torii Hunter. 1-0 count. Tying run at third. 2-0. Hitter's pitch. 3-0. Do you greenlight him? Why not? See if he can send it deep and put the Angels ahead. He walks anyway, so it's time for Big Bad Vlad.

Wow, after that second strike I was ready to give up on Vlad, but thankfully Jeter can't go to his left, and it's a basehit and a tie game! Now 12 runs without a homerun. Time for a homer, Kendry! 3-1 count. And the ball's ripped into right field! "And here comes Torii Hunter! And the Angels are back on top!" Izturis is up but McCarver's still questioning the 1-2 fastball to Vlad.

7:58: Top of the 8th, 7-6, Angels, and Jared Weaver's knocking 'em down. If he keeps doing it, they should let him stay in. Love the Angels' fans booing Jeter every time he comes up. Yanks got four outs left. Yes! Fastball down the pike and Jeter coudn't catch up! Three outs left. LEAVE WEAVER IN!

8:09: So nice to see Joba the Hutt. And it's a lead-off double! Hope the Yanks don't bring in VETO power. Might not matter since the Angels continue to bunt away outs. If they can get the bunts down. And now Eric Eybar sends one up the middle but Cano gets to it. Can't get Eybar at first but it prevents a run from scoring. And, uh-oh, VETO power is up and throwing. So the Yankees stall...and stall... and stall... and then bring him in. The last no. 42 in Major League Baseball. Let's see if the Angels can at least get that one big run in.

8:14: "10 earned runs in 125 1/3 innings pitched in the post-season." If Rivera isn't the real reason for the Yankees' success these past 13 years... OK, Rivera and $$$$$$$$. Hey, good move by Eybar, stealing second with the infield in. And McCarver just mentioned what I just thought: Luis Gonzalez in '01 hitting that bloop single off Rivera to win the World Series with the infield in. McCarver called it correctly then, hope he's called it correctly here. Nope, fly ball...and the guy on third doesn't even score! Crap. That was about as solid a hit as you can get off of Rivera. Pop fly ends the inning. So now it's 10 earned runs in 126 innings pitched in the post-season. And here comes Fuentes. He's going to have to face A-Rod again, isn't he?

8:34: "Johnny Damon...how I hate him.. now that he's with New York..." A rocket to first but out. And an easy fly out from Teixeira. Two gone. And now... A-Rod. Do you walk him? No. Pitch to him! But they don't. They intentionally walk him. I know it worked before but that's a little too much respect for a guy who makes an out 2 every 3 times. Poor A-Rod. First they walk him, now they pinch-run for him. Won't anyone let him play?

And now it's 3-1 to Matsui. And now it's 3-2 to Matsui. And now Matsui walks. Runners at first and second, and two out, and Robinson Cano at the plate. And Fuentes hits him. Bases juiced. Joe Buck: "And Nick Swisher, who does not have an RBI this entire series, will be the hitter." Shut up! But a quick 0-2 to Swisher. Now 1-2. Now foul. Now 2-2. Joe Buck: "It's a situation like this that makes this game great." Sure, but only if the Angels win. Otherwise it's like Goliath beating David and that's hardly news. Now it's 3-2. With the bases juiced and a one-run lead. But Swisher swings and it's a high popup!...And Eybar's got it!... And we're going to New York for Game Six.

Whew.

Interesting experiment but doubt I'll repeat it anytime soon. Too difficult to say anything interesting in the time-span allowed. It's vaguely interesting, because you get to see what you thought an inning or two or three earlier, but overall... It's typing, not writing, as Truman Capote once said of Kerouac.

Look Bronxward, Angels.

ADDENDUM: Turns out that after his 3-RBI double in the seventh, Mark Teixeira isn't the next A-Rod; Nick Swisher is. Rob Neyer sensibly asks everyone to shut up already about this crap.

Posted at 04:52 PM on Oct 22, 2009 in category Baseball, Yankees Suck
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The More Republicans Change: Anger, Paranoia, and Visions of Apocalypse at the 1976 Republican Convention

When my girlfriend, Patricia, moved to New York in 1975, she worked as an editorial assistant at New Times, a short-lived but impressive feature news magazine that included Richard Corliss, Frank Rich, Robert Sam Anson and Bob Shrum among its writers. She still has some bound copies. I was leafing through these the other day when I came across a piece by Nora Sayre on the 1976 Republican convention. It's startling how familiar the language is. In the wake of Watergate, in the face of an almost-certain Jimmy Carter victory, these Republicans offer nothing but complaints, paranoia, conspiracy theories and visions of apocalypse. Some samples:

That entire shower of joy—the celebration of a happy and healthy America [at the '72 Republican convention]—was a spectral memory in Kansas City in 1976. Never has our social fabric seemed so fragile; today, imperiled by demonic forces that may shatter it from outside or from within, the mere "survival of the nation" is at stake—along with its safety...

Ford himself seemed to have forgotten that he had actually been in office, while Goldwater talked as though Carter had been elected eight years ago...

[This female delegate's] sense of an America in shreds was echoed by both Ford and Reagan delegates, and reinforced by the speakers, who emphasized that we're in a race with the clock. Goldwater warned that we must "save the last stronghold of freedom on earth," since this "may be the last time" that we'll be able to "defend ourselves against our suicidal slide toward socialism"...

A Texan screamed at the nearby New York delegation, "If we fought the Civil War today, we'd win!" His friends broke into a Rebel Yell...

On the final night, Reagan caught the mood of his party to perfection when he mused on the letter that he'd been asked to compose for a time capsule that will be unsealed in Los Angeles a hundred years hence. He wondered if "the erosion of freedom that has taken place under Democrat rule" would have prevailed by the Tricentennial, and if "horrible missiles of destruction" would have eliminated "the civilized world we live in." His readers of the next century "might not even get to to read the letter at all" if the Republicans should fail to preserve the liberties that their enemies yearn to demolish. Ecstasy greeted his bleak message, and his followers cheered on having their fears confirmed...

Glenn Beck's shit is old...

Posted at 07:18 AM on Oct 22, 2009 in category Politics
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Wednesday October 21, 2009

Lancelot Links

MOVIES

  • Tablet has a nice, short piece on the history of Hasidim on film—from Molly Picon in “East and West” (1923) to (convert me, baby!) Natalie Portman in “New York, I Love You” (2009).
  • Also from Tablet: Ben Birnbaum, two years ago, explaining much of what goes unexplained about Gertrude Berg in Aviva Kempner's documentary “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.”
  • Have you read Tad Friend's New Yorker piece on Nikki Finke yet? Finke is good at what she does but I don't quite get what she does. She has a lot of inside information on the Hollywood industry, and, with her blog, Deadline Hollywood, scoops rivals at Variety and The Los Angeles Times. But most of her scoops, at least according to Friend's article, are stories that would come out anyway: next week, tomorrow, in an hour. So-and-So is replacing Such-and-Such at Yadda-yadda. Thingamajig is making Whatever with Whomever. Dick Cook is getting fired. She's scooping press releases. I understand why it leads to a kind of power, I just don't get why she would want to do it—other than the power. Is this what she's here for? Isn't there a better use for her inside information?
  • Also from the New Yorker, Dana Goodyear's piece on Titanic director, and enfant terrible, James Cameron. Great first graf:

The director James Cameron is six feet two and fair, with paper-white hair and turbid blue-green eyes. He is a screamer—righteous, withering, aggrieved. “Do you want Paul Verhoeven to finish this motherfucker?” he shouted, an inch from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face, after the actor went AWOL from the set of “True Lies,” a James Bond spoof that Cameron was shooting in Washington, D.C. (Schwarzenegger had been giving the other actors a tour of the Capitol.) Cameron has mastered every job on set, and has even been known to grab a brush out of a makeup artist’s hand. “I always do makeup touch-ups myself, especially for blood, wounds, and dirt,” he says. “It saves so much time.” His evaluations of others’ abilities are colorful riddles. “Hiring you is like firing two good men,” he says, or “Watching him light is like watching two monkeys fuck a football.” A small, loyal band of cast and crew works with him repeatedly; they call the dark side of his personality Mij—Jim backward.

BASEBALL

  • A friend of mine, a big Phillies fan, mentioned a line that's gaining currency among Phillies fans: The Bigger, Redder Machine. (She actually told me, “Bigger. Redder. More Machine,” but same idea.) It's cute. But even if the Phils do repeat this year, as the original Big Red Machine, the Cincinnati Reds, did in 1975 and '76, they're hardly, you know, bigger and redder. Put it this way. Six times in 8 years (1970-77) a Cincinnati Red won the NL MVP: Bench in '70 and '72, Rose in '73, Morgan in '75 and '76, and Foster in '77. The Reds had perennial gold glovers at catcher (Bench), second (Morgan), short (Concepcion) and outfield (Geronimo). Their record in '75 was 108-54, which was 18 games better than the second-best team in the league. Their record in '76 was 102-60, which was only one game better than the second-best team in the NL, the Phillies, whom they swept anyway in the NLCS before sweeping the Yankees in the World Series. In two years they only lost three games in the post-season—all to the Red Sox in that epic '75 Series, which, of course, the Reds won anyway. The current Phillies (92-70 last year, 93-69 this year) are good and all. But the original Big Red Machine? They were GOOD.
  • Nice piece on Torii Hunter from ESPN.com before the start of the ALCS with the Yankees. I was living in Minnesota at the time the Twins gave him up and thought it a mistake—although my reasons were of the heart more than the head. Torii was getting old and slowing down in center field, but he was so positive, so outspokenly positive in a sport that needed heroes, that I thought it worthwhile to keep him on those grounds alone. Turns out he's actually improved as a player. So now he's the guy you want in the clubhouse and at the plate. Imagine if the Twins had kept him and Johan Santana, Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza. How quickly would they have crushed the Yankees in the ALDS? This is why Major League Baseball feels like a joke. The other teams are essentially farm systems for the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and Mets. Everyone says nothing can be done but... something needs to be done.
  • Meanwhile Buzz Bissinger misses the point completely in this New Republic article on Michael Lewis' Moneyball. He says Moneyball is dead. He says it's particularly dead this season, with the higher-payroll teams (Yankees, Red Sox) making it once again to the post-season, while lower-payroll teams such as Billy Beane's A's, the subject of Lewis' book, finishing last in their division. But Moneyball didn't deny that higher-payroll teams had an advantage. That, in fact, is the whole point of the book. How can lower-payroll teams even compete? Lewis found an answer with the A's and sabermetrics in the early 2000s, in which, through his inevitable Wall Street prism, the A's took what was undervalued (on-base percentage) and bought it, and took what was overvalued (closers) and sold it. Not a bad strategy. An inevitable strategy, given the uneven financial playing field of MLB, but it led to this problem: the other MLB teams, particularly the Yankees and Red Sox, now value what was undervalued. Beane no longer has that advantage. This season doesn't disprove Moneyball, as Bissinger argues; it proves it. Bissinger himself proves it. He writes: “Market inefficiences are harder and harder to find, one of the ironies of Beane's brief but successful reliance on on-base percentage from 2000 to 2002 is that it has made players with such skill far too expensive for his pocketbook.” Exactly. That's why Moneyball isn't dead but more alive than ever. As for Bissinger's argument about the importance of closers, I'd say Mariano Rivera is the freakish exception that proves the rule. The rule is Joe Nathan and Brian Fuentes, Brad Lidge and Jonathan Broxton. Four of the best closers in baseball over the last two years. Match them up with your favorite, late-inning, post-season, season-altering gopher ball.

POLITICS

  • Andrew Sullivan has long been arguing that Obama's opponents underestimate him. They think short-term (news cycles); he thinks long-term (public policy). They think his passiveness is weakness; Sullivan sees it as cunning. The latest argument in the Times online. Hope he's right.
  • Sully again—on how it's time to stop the stoner jokes about medical marijuana. I couldn't agree more. On this issue, for most of my adult life, I've been caught between two forms of stupidity: people on the right who criminalize what is medicine, and necessary, for people in pain, for people who are dying; and people on the left, the partying crowd, who laugh and go “Ow!” whenever MEDICAL marijuana (wink-wink) is mentioned. Overall I'm in favor of legalizing marijuana itself but the medical marijuana issue is, in my opinion, and with no pun intended, a no-brainer. Don't even get me started on the fact that it's been deemed a schedule 1 drug (harmful, addictive, with no medical benefits) by cops rather than doctors, when all the medical evidence points to the fact that it isn't addictive and has medical benefits. More from Glenn Greenwald at Salon here. Review of Dan Baum's history of the war on drugs, “Smoke & Mirrors,” here.
  • Also via Sully, this graph. Nice to be part of the the growing, hopefully vocal minority:

Posted at 07:58 AM on Oct 21, 2009 in category Lancelot Links
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Tuesday October 20, 2009

"The Exorcist" and the Devilish Dilemma

For Sunday Movie Night, befitting the month, we watched William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" (1973), which I'd never seen before, but which, because of documentaries, film books, old "Carol Burnett" skits, I still "remembered" more of than almost everyone else there—most of whom had seen the movie just once, either 35 years ago, on television, or more recently on DVD. We all liked the fact that Friedkin took his own sweet time giving us Satan—comparing the pace favorably to the quick-cut, roller-coaster rides of today's movies. And we all loved ourselves some Max von Sydow. Of course, the inevitable questions:

  • What's the connection between the northern Iraq burial dig and Georgetown?
  • Why this family and this girl? (Is it: Why not this family and this girl?)
  • Once the Devil shows himself, why does the mother (Ellen Burnstyn) take the roundabout way of getting help? Why ask, cry, explain? Why not: Come see THIS! These quiet, conversational scenes between the scary devil-in-the-girl-in-the-bed scenes don't feel quite real, given the unreal circumstances.

"The Exorcist" was the no. 1 box office hit of 1973, and, adjusted for inflation, it's the 9th-biggest domestic film of all time, grossing, in 2009 dollars, $793 million. Since it was released in 1973, only four films have—in adjusted dollars—grossed more: "Jaws," "Star Wars," "E.T.," and "Titanic." It was also nominated for a best picture Oscar—as was every no. 1 box office hit between 1967 and 1977.

Here's what I took away from the film: the Devil, as we tend to portray him, ain't that smart. If his goal is to turn people away from God, then he should do one thing: Nothing. The story of Job got it backwards. Nothing brings people closer to God than evil or misfortune; than a hint of the Devil. There are no atheists in foxholes, etc. In "The Exorcist" a priest is losing faith...until the Devil shows up. Thus he helps save Father Karras (from doubt), who helps save Regan (from the Devil). He's his own worst enemy. Maybe that should be (and maybe it is) the great Devilish dilemma. Satan knows the best way to win is to do nothing, but, man, he just can't help himself. It's just so much fun messing with people.

Posted at 08:11 AM on Oct 20, 2009 in category Movies
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Monday October 19, 2009

Review: “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” (2009)

YOO HOO! SPOILERS!

I’m a big fan of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” documentarian Aviva Kempner’s unabashed love letter to the 1930s Detroit Tigers’ slugger, so I thought “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” Ms. Kempner’s unabashed love letter to radio and television pioneer Gertrude Berg, “the Oprah of the 1930s,” would be right up my alley.

I left wondering if maybe Kempner wasn’t too close to a subject I knew too little about.

“The Goldbergs,” a daily radio show created by Berg (nee Tilly Edelstein) from old skits she performed at her father’s Catskills Mountain resort in Fleischmanns, NY, debuted on NBC radio the week after the October 1929 stock market crash. It concerned the comings and goings of a Jewish family—mother Molly (Berg), father Jake, children Sammy and Rosalie, and Uncle David—in a Lower East Side tenement, as they tried to both assimilate in America and not lose old world values.

Verisimilitude was big with Berg. She often visited the Lower East Side for ideas and dialogue, and out of this came Molly’s habit of calling up the airshafts to her neighbor: “Yoo hoo, Mrs. Bloo-oo-oom!” If Molly cooked eggs in her kitchen, Berg cooked eggs in the studio. During the Seder after Kristalnacht, a rock was thrown through the Goldbergs’ window. During World War II, families often referenced boys off fighting or relatives left behind in Nazi-occupied Europe.

It was a hit. The show became the second-most-popular show on the radio, after “Amos n’ Andy,” while Berg was voted the second-most-respected woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt. At the same time, the doc reminds us of the anti-Semitic touchstones of the period: Kristalnacht, Father Coughlin, bund rallies in Madison Square Garden.

This shouldn’t be a disconnect—Rush Limbaugh has the most popular radio show in an America that still elected Barack Obama—but it’s enough of one to raise questions. “The Goldbergs” was the second-most-popular show...in all of America? Including the South? What year or years? And what year or years was Berg voted the second-most-respected woman in America, and by whom?

Basically Kempner shows us this square peg but doesn’t tell us how it fit into the round hole of 1930s America. She posits “The Goldbergs” as unique—the first family sitcom; the only ethnic show where creative control was held by that ethnicity—but doesn’t tell us what it was unique against. I’m sorry but I'm blank on 1930s radio. The talking heads, mostly Jewish, mostly female, give a ton of love but not much perspective. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, for example, says everyone she knew growing up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn listened to “The Goldbergs,” but that hardly feels like news. How did it do in Wisconsin? That’s what I want to know.

Eventually, the show was cancelled, in 1945, but was reborn in the new medium, television, on January 17, 1949. Was it the first TV sitcom? The first domestic TV sitcom? Did Berg introduce the nosy neighbor? That’s what people who love the show imply. Do we believe them? Ehh. By surrounding us with fans of the show, Kempner is actually shortchanging the show.

The episodes themselves, which ran live, are fascinating to see. Each began with Molly (Berg again) talking directly to the camera as to a neighbor, welcoming us in. “Greetings from our family to your family,” she says. She pitches corporate sponsor Sanka, and, via window-conversation with her neighbors, introduces the episode’s conflict. Then we go indoors and watch it all unfold.

But a conflict about the show—about America, really—turned out to be more compelling than any conflict on the show.

Broadway actor and union activist Philip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband, Jake, was one of the 151 entertainers listed in “Red Channels,” the 1950 anti-communist tract about supposed communist influence in the industry, and in Sept. 1950, General Foods, which sponsored “The Goldbergs,” told Berg, “You have two days to get rid of Philip Loeb.” Berg resisted, and the doc makes much of this resistance. But a few months later CBS cancelled “The Goldbergs.” When it returned, a year and a half later and on a different network, there was a new actor playing Jake. When he didn’t work out, a third actor replaced him. Three years, later, as “The Goldbergs” wound up its run, being filmed now rather than performed live, and with the family assimilated in the Connecticut suburbs rather than struggling on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Loeb took his own life in a New York hotel room. Twenty years later, he became the inspiration for Zero Mostel’s Hecky Brown in “The Front.”

These revelations are so stunning—to me anyway, a longtime fan of “The Front”—that they almost upend the documentary. One wonders: Should this have been the focus of the doc? Should “Red Channels”?

It doesn’t help that Berg, so innovative in the industry, hardly seems present in her own story. What do we learn about her? She dressed nice. Her father disapproved of her work and her mother wound up in a mental institution. She was a workaholic. But how she felt about Loeb? How she felt about anything? Who knows? There doesn’t seem to be much there there.

In terms of tone and structure, “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is similar to “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," but it shouldn’t be. There was no Philip Loeb to sour Greenberg’s story. And if Greenberg’s personality wasn’t exactly dazzling, well, he was a ballplayer. He wasn't supposed to have personality. Besides, you still walked away from the doc with a sense you knew him. Not so with Berg.

Most important, Hank Greenberg is forever—people who know baseball will always know his name—but Gertrude Berg is not. That, in fact, is the doc’s raison d’etre: “The Most Famous Woman in America You've Never Heard Of,” reads the tagline. So why did Berg fade while contemporaries, such as Jack Benny and George Burns, did not? Were they funnier? More talented? More male? Less Jewish? It should be the doc’s main question yet it’s hardly asked at all.

Love letters are well and fine; but this one could’ve used a little more letter, a little less love.

Posted at 07:46 AM on Oct 19, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Movies - Documentaries
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Sunday October 18, 2009

Who's the Epitome of 1950s American Cool? Jean Gabin in 1939

Here's a few screenshots of Jean Gabin in Marcel Carne's “Le Jour Se Leve” from 1939. Remind you of anyone? Brando maybe? In 1954 maybe? Fifteen years later?

I can't help but think of all of the cool Americans who have unknowingly been imitating a Frenchman for more than 70 years, and thinking the look was their own.

Jean Gabin in "Le jour se leve" (1939)

Jean Gabin in "Le jour se leve" (1939)

Anyone know how this look in general and leather jackets in particular became popular? Aviators, certainly, wore leather bomber jackets in the '30s; motorcyclists,too. Gabin is neither in “Le Jour Se Leve.” But look at him. He's even got the sideburns.

Posted at 09:12 AM on Oct 18, 2009 in category Jean Gabin
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Saturday October 17, 2009

Why We Watch "Mad Men"

Adam Cohen has a peculiarly limp piece on "Mad Men" in The New York Times today. Or yesterday. Who the hell knows anymore?

Cohen argues that the AMC show is popular in our troubled times because it offers a view of earlier troubled times—times we don't even think of as troubled. It's Sept. 1963 and things are bad all around: Don Drapper is getting pissier, Betty Draper is getting colder, Salvatore Romano has been fired because a client made a pass at him, and little girls are getting blown up in Birmingham churches. Cohen writes:

To a generation beaten down by skyrocketing unemployment, plunging retirement savings and mounting home foreclosures, “Mad Men” offers the schadenfreude-filled message that their predecessors were equally unhappy — and that the bleakness meter in American life has always been set on high.

First, I'm not sure which generation is receiving "Mad Men"'s message, since it's not a particularly watched program. Has any episode garnered a rating above 3 million? Does it do better than "Monk" or "Army Wives" or "The O'Reilly Factor"? Doesn't look like it.

Second, Cohen ignores the genius of "Mad Men." It markets itself as nostalgia—remember those finger-snappin', Kennedyesque times when drinks were drinks, dames were dames, and fun was fun?—but presents a reality that can horrify. The women are generally so mistreated, and in such an obtuse, smug way, you can't wait for the Betty Friedans and Gloria Steinems of the world to come along and right things.

Third, do we watch this thing from schadenfreude? To be honest, the show probably hooked me with good reviews, good looks, and the promise of easy sex, and now hooks me for the following reason: I know what's going to happen (in the world) and they don't. And I don't know what's going to happen (to them) and want to find out.

It's Sept. 1963. I know in two months John F. Kennedy will be assassinated. I know in five months the Beatles will arrive. I know the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will all pass, and I know "We Shall Overcome" will become "Hey ho, Whitey's gotta go!," and I know SNCC will give way to SDS which will gave way to the Weather Underground, and I know short hair will gave way to Beatles hair which will gave way to long hair, and I know pot will give way to LSD, and free love will gave way to assassination. I know we'll land on the moon in 1969.

The ad business is a young man's game and I know it will become a younger man's game, and eventually a younger person's game, and I wonder how Don Draper, so cool and comfortable in 1960, will handle that. How old will he be in 1970? What will he look like? Balding? With muttonchop sideburns and big flowery collars? Trying desperately to fit in? Say it ain't so!

He's already missing the boat. His daughter's teacher wants to hear a replay of MLK's "I have a dream" speech, which surprises him. The big moments are happening and he doesn't see them. Those pot-smoking kids who drugged him, beat him, and took his money are like a visit from later in the decade. The times they are a changin'.

Where will Salvatore be in 1969? How will Joan and her curves handle the Twiggy era? Will Peggy become Don's boss? How will he handle that? How will she?

That's the continued appeal of "Mad Men" to me, and I wouldn't exactly call it schadenfreude. We live in uncertain times (particularly economically) and I don't know what's coming. They're about to live through uncertain times (particularly socially) and I know what's coming. There's a sense of superiority in that knowledge but also a sense of solicitude. You want to warn them because you can't warn yourself.

Posted at 12:41 PM on Oct 17, 2009 in category TV
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Countdown to the World Series-III

We're still 11 days away from the start of the 2009 World Series—and y'all know how I feel about that—but today, Oct. 17, is particularly significant as a demarcation point between how we did things then and how we do things now. Except for the anomalous years of 1910 and '11, every World Series from 1903 to 1971 was finished by this date. Every one. Since the advent of the division series in 1995? Only one World Series had even begun by this date, and that one, in 1998, began on this date. Here's your chart. The gray vertical lines are the first and last days of October; the light-green vertical line is October 17:

How's the weather where you are? It turned pretty crappy here in Seattle a couple of days ago. Yesterday it dumped. Today it's damp, drizzly, gray. But at least it's not as cold as it is in New York.

The solution to this problem, as I've said, is to play through, play through, play through. No dayoffs during the playoffs. Maybe no days off during the World Series, either. This is hardly unprecedented. For your reading pleasure, a list of the 22 World Series that were played through without even one stinkin' day off or postponed game:

  • 1906: Chicago White Sox 4, Chicago Cubs 2 (Oct. 9-14)
  • 1907: Chicago Cubs 4, Detroit Tigers 0, Tie 1 (Oct. 8-12)
  • 1908: Chicago Cubs 4, Detroit Tigers 1 (Oct. 10-14)
  • 1913: Philadelphia Athletics 4, New York Giants 1 (Oct. 7-11)
  • 1922: New York Giants 4, New York Yankees 0, tie 1 (Oct. 4-8)
  • 1923: New York Yankees 4, New York Giants 2 (Oct. 10-15)
  • 1924: Washington Senators 4, New York Giants 3 (Oct. 4-10)
  • 1927: New York Yankees 4, Pittsburgh Pirates 9 (Oct. 5-8)
  • 1933: New York Giants 4, Washington Senators 1 (Oct. 3-7)
  • 1934: St. Louis Cardinals 4, Detroit Tigers 3 (Oct. 3-9)
  • 1935: Detroit Tigers 4, Chicago Cubs 2 (Oct.  2-7)
  • 1937: New York Yankees 4, New York Giants 1 (Oct. 6-10)
  • 1940: Cincinnati Reds 4, Detroit Tigers 3 (Oct. 2-8)
  • 1944: St. Louis Cardinals 4, St. Louis Browns 2 (Oct. 4-9)
  • 1947: New York Yankees 4, Brooklyn Dodgers 3 (Sept. 30-Oct. 6)
  • 1948: Cleveland Indians 4, Boston Braves 2 (Oct 6-11)
  • 1949: New York Yankees 4, Brooklyn Dodgers 1 (Oct. 5-9)
  • 1950: New York Yankees 4, Philadelphia Phillies 0 (Oct. 4-7)
  • 1952: New York Yankees 4, Brooklyn Dodgers 3 (Oct. 1-7)
  • 1953: New York Yankees 4, Brooklyn Dodgers 2 (Sept. 30-Oct.5)
  • 1954: New York Giants 4, Cleveland Indians 0 (Sept. 29-Oct. 2)
  • 1955: Brooklyn Dodgers 4, New York Yankees 3 (Sept. 18-Oct. 4)

I figure if they didn't have off-days for travel between Chicago and Detroit in 1907, players don't need them now, a century later.

Playing every day, as baseball was meant to be played, is the only way we're going to get back to some semblance of good, World Series weather. Jimmy Rollins will thank you, Robinson Cano will thank you, and I'll thank you.

Posted at 10:39 AM on Oct 17, 2009 in category Baseball
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Friday October 16, 2009

Lancelot Links—Idi i Smotri

  • That shot of Eli Roth (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS) emptying his machine gun into Hitler's face at the end of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Bastards" reminded me, in a way, of the ending of "Idi i Smotri" ("Come and See") (1985), a Soviet-era World War II drama about a kid caught in the Russian countryside during the Nazi invasion, which I'd seen numerous times while volunteering for Ben Milgrom's University Film Society at the University of Minnesota in the mid-1980s. I assumed I was the only one to make this connection. Of course not.
  • "Idi i Smotri" is, according to Time Out London, the best movie ever made about World War II. Their whole list is worth checking out. Start with 50-41 ("Stalingrad," "The Last Metro," "Empire of the Sun"), continue to 40-31 ("The Pianist," "Letters from Iwo Jima," "Downfall"), then 30-21 ("The Great Escape," "Mephisto," "Night and Fog," "Casablanca," Schindler's List"), 20-11 ("Saving Private Ryan," "Bridge on the River Kwai," "Army of Shadows," "The Dirty Dozen") and 10-2 ("Rome, Open City," "Cross of Iron," "The Thin Red Line"). The point isn't to find out where you invevitably disagree with Time Out London, but to find movies, particularly British movies, worth watching. I don't think I've seen half the movies here.
  • I came across Time Out London's list via the Scarecrow video site, which has its own list of movies that possibly influenced "Inglourious Bastards." Everyone in Seattle knows Scarecrow as the place to get the video no one else has.
  • And I showed up on the Scarecrow site in the first place looking for the documentary "From Hollywood to Hanoi" (which, oops, they don't have), and which my friend Andy Engelson got to see in Hanoi at the Hanoi Cinematheque. Read about his experience here.
  • And that's how we careen the pinball.
Posted at 07:54 AM on Oct 16, 2009 in category Movies
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Thursday October 15, 2009

How to Fix the World Series—In a Good Way

The graph below charts on which days (and nights) in October (and September and November) the World Series played—from 1903 to 2009. Orange represents game days, yellow represents off-days. The gray vertical lines represent the first and last days of October:

I was surprised that many of the first World Series games were played in mid-October. In two years, in fact—1910 and 1911, those orange lines sticking out at the top of the chart—they didn't begin until mid-October, and, because of a weeklong rain delay in Philadelphia, the 1911 Series didn't end until October 27th. But they learned their lesson. Not that one shouldn't play the World Series in Philadelphia (although...), but you need to start earlier to hopefully hit the good October weather. So they started earlier. After 1911, October 10th (1923) was the latest Series start until 1969. That's a good time to play the most important games of the year. Indian summer, we used to call it. World Series weather, Billy Crystal used to call it.

Four events have pushed the most important games of the year deeper into the darkest, coldest part of October: the introduction of the 162-game schedule in 1961; the introduction of the best-of-five playoffs in 1969; the shift to a best-of-seven playoffs in 1985; and the introduction of the best-of-five division series in 1995.

Overall, as many as 20 games (162-154+5+7), and at least 15 games (162-154+3+4), have been added to the post-season schedule.

For a while, MLB accommodated these extra games by pushing up the start of the baseball season into early April and sometimes into late March. But eventually MLB began running out of room here, too, and the long push into late October began. Al Qaeda prompted the first November Series in 2001; and now Commissioner Bud Selig, with a nod to the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in March and a yes-man attitude toward the networks, has adopted al Qaeda's schedule for 2009. Game Four is set for Nov. 1st. Game Seven, if we get there, is scheduled for Nov. 5th.

Can anything—short of reverting back to the 154-game schedule or eliminating a tier of playoffs—be done to reverse this trend?

Of course. Eliminate most of the off-days in October. I've written about this before.

This year the regular season ended on Sunday, October 4th. Assuming each playoff series goes the maximum, there are, for each team, 11 off-days before the World Series even begins. In other words, half the days in October are off-days.

So why not have the players play through? That's what they do during the regular season. With this method, we could've had the following 2009 post-season schedule:

  • Division series: Begin Tuesday, Oct. 6 (game 1) and play through, if necessary, to Saturday, Oct. 10 (game 5). Day off Sunday, or for postponed games.
  • Championship series: Begin Monday, Oct. 12 (game 1) and play through, if necessary, to Sunday, Oct. 18 (game 7). Day off Monday, or for postponed games.
  • World Series: Begin Tuesday, October 20.

We save a week, we don't go into November, and teams have to play the kind of games they played to get to the post-season: notably, using fifth starters and more of their bullpen. Teams dance with those that brung them. Hell, with this method, in a non-WBC year, we could start the World Series as early as mid-October. Maybe as early as Oct. 12. And we haven't done that since 1984.

Arguments against?

  • Wait! That means four games per day are played during the division series! How can I watch them all? Don't you have TiVo? Or DVR? Or the Internet? I might also suggest not watching them all and, you know, getting a semblance of a life.
  • Who wants to watch fifth starters when you could watch C.C. Sabathia? Nothing would please most baseball fans more than watching the Yankees fumble with their fifth starter.
  • Is the weather really that important, Uncle Erik? Not sure if anyone would actually raise this objection but here's the evidence: the average monthly temperatures for the following cities, according to weatherbase.com, which suggests it makes sense to lean toward September rather than play into November:
City Sept. Oct. Nov.
New York 68 58 48
Philadelphia 68 57 47
Chicago 65
53
40
Minneapolis 61 50 33
  • Dude! The networks won't allow it. And the networks rule! I admit I have no idea what kind of negotiations go on with your FOXes and ESPNs and TBSs, or why the networks would want off-days in the first place, since off-days cause fans and casual observers to lose the thread of the storyline. "What day is it on again?"  Etc. But it feels like MLB could push this if they wanted. They could push this because they have their own network now. Hell, if they got the MLB network on basic cable—and, again, I'm not sure what you'd have to do to get a network on basic cable—they could elminate your FOXes and ESPNs and TBSs completely. Maybe that's their strategy. I hope it is.
  • Why mess with a good thing? Because it's not a good thing. And not just aesthetically or historically; it doesn't make market sense, either. The trend in television ratings, and thus ad revenue, has been down since the early '80s. Look here. Or here. The ratings for the first game of the 1986 World Series? 24.2. The ratings for the first game of the 2008 World Series? 9.2. In fact, last year, for the first time ever, every game of the World Series had a rating below 10—while the third game had a rating of 6.1. Ouch. I don't know if what I suggest would reverse the ratings trend; I just know that what they're doing now isn't turning people, and television sets, on.

Baseball has a problem but it has an easy solution. Eliminate off-days. Maintain the thread of the storyline. Dance with the guys that brung ya. It's win-win-win-win. 

Baseball is supposed to be played every day in fair weather. We're now playing the most important games every other day in horrendous weather. And that's not baseball.

Posted at 09:11 AM on Oct 15, 2009 in category Baseball
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Wednesday October 14, 2009

Line of the Day—Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir of Salon has a good piece on "Chinatown" and the Polanski problem. First really good line:

Towne's original script, he tells us in an accompanying featurette [of the DVD], included no scene actually set in L.A.'s Chinatown; it was Polanski who insisted that the movie's racially tinged guiding metaphor had to be made explicit. After Nicholson's Jake and Dunaway's Evelyn Mulwray finally go to bed (for the one and only time), he tells her that he used to be a cop in Chinatown, where "you never really know what's going on." He once tried to protect a woman there, and only ended up making sure she got hurt. "Dead?" Evelyn asks him, and then the phone rings. It's the end of the movie calling.

Second really good line:

I am certainly not speaking out in defense of Roman Polanski, who apparently did something that was both heinous and illegal, and should long ago have faced the consequences. I guess I'm saying that it's hypothetically possible to learn something from a movie, and totally impossible to learn anything from the sordid private lives of celebrities.

Entire thing.

Posted at 04:52 PM on Oct 14, 2009 in category Movies
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What the World Series Needs

Must be tough being a columnist, coming up with an angle everyday, but can't say much for William C. Rhoden's angle in The New York Times two days ago:

Still, what Major League Baseball needs is a great World Series, a Series for the ages. And with all due respect to those two other potential matchups, it’s a Yankees-Dodgers World Series that could take the game back to its roots at a time when baseball desperately needs to recover a portion of the trust, if not the innocence, that it has lost in the steroid era.

First, I think there are three other potential matchups: Yankees vs. Phillies; Angels vs. Phillies; Angels vs. Dodgers.

Second, I don't think this is what Major League Basebal needs.

I understand the impulse. It's a classic match-up: the two teams that have met the most—11 times—in the fall (now almost-winter) classic. You have the Torre angle, the Manny angle, east coast and west coast. You have coast-to-coast and in living color.

But this is what the World Series needs more than that match-up:

  • 7 games
  • World Series weather
  • Day games
  • Games that end before midnight on the east coast
  • No games in November
  • No games on Halloween
  • No games, really, the last week in October

What the Series doesn't need is another appearance by the Yankees, who have been 39 times, more than twice as often as the second-most successful team (the Dodgers: 18 times), and who have a payroll twice as high as most other teams in the Majors, including the Dodgers ($208 million to $100 million), to ensure that they keep on coming.

There have been a lot of problems with the World Series in recent years but the Yankees not being there has always been a pleasure. Hell, it should be the Series' official motto:

The World Series
Yankee-Free Since 2003

Posted at 06:14 AM on Oct 14, 2009 in category Baseball
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Tuesday October 13, 2009

Review: “A Serious Man” (2009)

WARNING: FARMISHT SPOILERS

For most of my adult life I’ve suspected myself of being fairly Jewish for a gentile kid from Minnesota. I blame the usual suspects: Roth, Doctorow, Mailer, Bellow, the Marx Bros., Woody Allen, Seinfeld. I’ve been made an honorary Jew by Jewish friends, been told by gentile friends that I’m the most Jewish gentile they know.

Friday night, halfway through the Coen brothers new film, “A Serious Man,” I had the following epiphany: I have no fucking clue.

First they get all Hebrew on my ass. A gett? Hashem? Haftorah? Shabbos? Then they go Old Testament. “Actions have consequences,” Prof. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stahlbarg) tells Clive (David Kang), a Korean foreign-exchange student attempting to bribe him to get a better grade. “Yes, often,” Clive quickly agrees. “Always,” Gopnik tells him.

Don’t even get me started on the prologue with the dybbuk.

It’s 1967 and Gopnik is a professor of physics who teaches the uncertainty principle and then lives it when his wife asks for a divorce, a ritual Jewish divorce, or gett, so she can remarry within her faith. To Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed). “Sy Abelman?” Larry asks incredulously. He seems more perplexed for her reasons than her actions. So are we when we finally meet Sy. He’s bald and bearded, hardly Gregory Peck, but he’s controlling in a moist, maternal way—he’s forever hugging Larry—rather than being controlled by, as Larry often is.

Gopnik is the kind of man who timidly obsesses over small details—such as the property line with the Brandts, his stoic, hunting-happy Minnesota neighbors—and misses the big picture. Not only is his wife leaving him but his kids have left him. His son, Danny, is a mess of sixties contradictions: he has that classic Beatles haircut (redhaired version), smokes pot, listens to Jefferson Airplane, but only cares to talk with his father when the reception for “F Troop,” the lamest of ‘60s sitcoms, comes in fuzzy. His daughter, Sarah, only talks to her father to complain about Uncle Arthur, Larry’s brother, hogging the bathroom to drain the cyst in his neck. When Larry gets banished from the marital bed, Arthur is the reason he doesn’t even get the couch in his own home—Arthur’s already there—he gets a cot next to the couch. Everyone wants something from Larry but never Larry. “We should wait,” he says at the dinner table when Uncle Arthur hasn’t arrived yet. “Are you kidding?” Danny responds and everyone starts in. Soon Larry is the one they don’t wait for. He and Arthur have been banished to The Jolly Roger, a nearby moto-lodge.

That’s at home. At work he’s being considered for tenure but letters arrive denigrating him. Dick Dutton from the Columbia Record Club, that great ‘60s scam, keeps calling abut money he owes. Then Clive’s father shows up accusing Larry of 1) defamation, because Larry accused his son of a bribe, and then pleading 2) cultural differences, because Larry didn’t accept the bribe.

Larry’s helpless before this kind of illogic. He can’t extricate himself from it. Life has the quality of a nightmare: Everything’s repetitive—Sy keeps hugging him, the Brandts keep playing catch, Arthur keeps draining his cyst—and everything’s unknowable. Dream sequences in other films are usually easy-to-spot but in the Coens’ films they blend almost seamlessly with life, so we in the audience are in the position of the dreamer: We don’t know what’s dream until it’s over. And even then. By the pool last night—did that happen?

Once Larry establishes that nothing is established—that everything he thought was one way is another—the film can be divided into three parts, or three solutions to this dilemma, based upon the three rabbis he visits at his temple, the “well of tradition” he tries to draw from.

The first, and youngest rabbi, is Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), who counsels seeing everything—everything—as an expression of God’s will. To see it all anew. This is the closest of the three to a Christian vision of life. “Look at the parking lot, Larry!” Rabbi Scott announces proudly, peeking through his horizontal blinds at the asphalt outside. Larry tries to carry this Pollyannaish mood to the office of his divorce lawyer (Adam Arkin), who looks at him as if he’s crazy. Then during the meeting he gets an emergency phone call from his son. What’s wrong, Danny? That pipsqueak voice: “F-Troop” is fuzzy again, Dad. How can we look at life anew when it’s so repetitive? This section ends when Larry gets into a fender-bender after cursing out Clive on his bicycle, while, at the same time, Sy, trying to make a left turn into a goyisher country club, dies in a car accident. Actions have consequences. Always.

The second, middle-aged rabbi, is Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), who tells Larry stories that at least seem headed toward the direction of eternal questions. He tells about the goy’s teeth, for example, a story about a dentist, Dr. Sussman, who, after making a mould for Russell Kraus, finds the phrase, ‘Help me, Save me,’ in Hebrew on the back of his incisors. He searches other people’s mouths for messages and gets nothing. He translates the letters into numbers and gets nowhere. And the Rabbi sits back, pleased with his story. Gopnik’s confused. “What did you tell Sussman?” Gopnik asks. “Sussman?” the rabbi answers. “Is it relevant?” “What happened to the goy?” Gopnik asks. “The goy?” the rabbi answers. “Who cares?” Told that you can’t know everything, Gopnik finally loses it. “Sounds like you don’t know anything,” he says, voice rising.

At this stage, more of life becomes unknowable. Detectives come looking for Uncle Arthur, for gambling. Cops bring home Uncle Arthur, charged with sodomy. Gopnik suspects his wife of draining their bank account. He gets high with his sexy neighbor, whom he’d seen nude-sunbathing from his roof. An old lawyer, about to reveal the secret to the Brandts’ property line, suddenly drops dead of a heart attack. “I am not an evil man!” he tells a colleague. “I’ve tried to be a serious man,” he tells the world. And there’s our title. We first heard it used to describe Sy Abelman at his funeral. A serious man. An able man. As opposed to a Gopnik? What is Larry’s crime? Not to God but to the Coens—who are, admittedly, the gods of this universe. Is it the foolishness of the assumption that good fortune follows good deeds, and thus bad fortune must follow bad deeds, and yet—he keeps asking himself—what bad deeds? Is it the foolishness of the “Why me?” question, when the universe, if it could answer, would simply answer, “Why not you?”

The final rabbi, the eldest and wisest and most difficult to see, is Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), and Gopnik isn’t allowed to see him. He’s as silent to Gopnik as God is. But we get to see him. After his bar mitzvah, Danny, still stoned, visits Marshak, who, slowly, Yiddishly, delivers this pearl of wisdom:

When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies

The boy smiles, recognizing the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” which the rabbi first heard after Danny’s transistor radio was taken from him at the beginning of the film. “Be a good boy,” the rabbi finally says. Is this doddering wisdom or ultimate wisdom?

Who knows? There’s a scene early in the movie where Larry ascends the roof of his ranch-style house to fix the antenna so Danny can watch “F-Troop,” and he checks out the view over the other, ranch-style homes in this flat Minnesota neighborhood. It’s the shot on the poster, in which Larry looks decisive. He’s less so in the movie: all dress shoes and highwaters on a slanted roof, and the view isn’t exactly revelatory. Until he sees his neighbor, nude-sunbathing, and forgets everything else. That antenna on his roof only picks up so much—now this channel but not that channel—and all of us are pretty much the same: We only receive so much, and usually we go for “F-Troop” or get distracted by the nude sunbather. There’s an old proverb—“Man thinks, God laughs”—and much of the Coens’ work feels built upon this proverb. Their characters are helpless trying to fathom it all.

Give the Coens this: They get the details right. I was born in Minnesota in 1963 and seeing this film gave me flashbacks. I got as dizzy as Gopnik got on his roof looking at his nude neighbor. Mr. Brandt, the detective, the cop: they all have these classic, bland, Harmon Killebrew-type Minnesota faces from the period. The burnt orange Larry’s sexy neighbor wears is the exact right burnt orange for the coming age of Aquarius. The iced-tea glass she gives Gopnik is the exact right iced-tea glass. There’s a scene at a lake, Uncle Arthur at a neighborhood lake, and Gopnik on the shore complaining to a friend that he doesn’t deserve the miseries that are being visited upon him, and even that lake, somehow, feels exactly like a lake in 1967. I don’t know how they did that. The iced-tea glasses I can see; they can be manufactured or bought at a Value Village. But where does one get a lake from 1967? Is it the clothes and the bathing suits people are wearing, the landscaping that was done, the angle of the light in which the DP chose to film it—like the light of a slightly faded photograph? Is it all of the above? Nothing the Coens do is frivolous and yet little of it makes sense.

The ending of “A Serious Man,” which is a film about unknowability, and which is written and directed by the brothers who gave us the uncertain end of “No Country for Old Men,” shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, although it will, I’m sure, lead to debate. It’s already led to the internal kind.

Gopnik, assured of tenure, seemingly back with his wife, and the father of a son who’s now a man, gets the bill for his brother’s criminal defense attorney, Ron Meshbesher—who is, in reality, one of the more famous criminal defense attorneys in Minnesota—and it’s exorbitant. And he thinks about the envelope full of Korean bribe-money still in his desk drawer and eyes Cliff’s grade in his gradebook. The weather’s turning. In Hebrew school, Danny and others are being led outside because of one of Minnesota’s numerous tornado warnings, but the rabbi has trouble unlocking the door to the shelter. And as Gopnik in his office changes Cliff’s grade from an F to a C-, Danny sees the dark tornado funnel heading their way. THE END.

My first reaction: Aw, crap.

My second reaction: OK, unknowability, uncertainty. Way to emphasize the point, boys.

Third reaction: Or maybe it’s the opposite. Actions have consequences—always—and this disaster is what Gopnik’s slight indiscretion has wrought. By accepting the bribe, changing the grade, he loses his son—and anyone else in the tornado’s path. It’s Old Testament, baby. It’s Malamadic. The problem with Gopnik isn’t that he assumes that good fortune follows good deeds; it’s that he doesn’t assume it enough. He doesn’t live his life by it.

Fourth reaction: Or is the tornado metaphoric? Gopnik is feeling settled again in his life in suburban Minnesota in 1967 but there’s a tornado coming his way and our way: the rest of the sixties. A tornado that will upend everything.

Final reaction: I think, the Coens laugh.

Posted at 08:59 AM on Oct 13, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Monday October 12, 2009

Baseball Scenes in Non-Baseball Movies

I have a piece up on MSNBC today on the top 5 baseball scenes in non-baseball movies. The idea came to me after reading that Koufax biography over Labor Day weekend and thinking about how thoroughly dominated the Yankees were during the ’63 World Series. Yet in my no. 1 scene, the “Cuckoo’s Nest” scene, the Yankees dominate Koufax. Amusing. And that’s not in Ken Kesey’s book. That scene isn’t even in Kesey’s book. So who came up with the pro-Yankees play-by-play? My guess is Jack. Jack, the Yankees fan, recreating the ’63 Series to the Yankees’ advantage. You gotta love the jutzpah, but let’s face it: Anyone who thinks that Koufax in '63 could be hit that easily deserves to be in the cuckoo’s nest.

Here are a few other scenes that didn’t make the cut.

Seeing about a girl in “Good Will Hunting” (1997)
This was the second scene—after “Cuckoo’s Nest”—I thought of: a South Boston genius with issues, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), is seeing a South Boston therapist with issues, Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), who breaks through when he hits Will in his vulnerable spot: Will lacks experience in everything that matters—particularly love. Maguire has been there and back, and eventually Will begins asking questions. When did he meet his (now dead) wife? Turns out: Oct. 21 1975. The day of Game Six of the ’75 World Series, the Carlton Fisk homerun, “biggest game in Red Sox history,” says Maguire in those post-Babe Ruth, pre-David Ortiz days. Then he begins to explain the game. But who’s he explaining it to? Will knows. So he’s explaining it to us. That feels false right there. Then we find out Maguire wasn’t even at the game. He had tickets but told his friends “I gotta see about a girl”—his future wife—whom he saw in a bar beforehand. I.e., rather than get her number, go to the game, and call her afterwards, he gives up the ticket immediately. Immediately. It’s supposed to be romantic, and maybe it is, but it’s Hollywood romantic. It rings false. Hell, rather than the grand romantic gesture it’s supposed to be, it could be a negative symbol of domesticity: "You can get the girl you want; but no more Game Sixes for you, chief."

A bush-league pitcher comes close to creating a third (Fascist) party in “Meet John Doe” (1941)
Has any movie been so schitzophrenic about populism? The people are good, although easily manipulated, and watch out or they’ll turn into a mob quickly. Hell, they’ll go from loving you to hating you in 30 seconds. The mob follows the mob. The overall story is about a media creation, John Doe (Gary Cooper), who, even as a creation is a bit schitzophrenic. First he’s angry. I Protest! Then he offers hope, and small-towners, aw-shucks folks, flock to him. They love him, because he’s an aw-shucks kind of guy himself. But he’s really a ballplayer with a bad wing who just needs money to survive, and who acts a bit cutesy for a guy who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. The main baseball scene is a pantomime in a hotel suite, and it, too, is overly cutesy. It adds nothing, detracts a lot. Parts of “John Doe” feel amazingly contemporary—a placard reading “The Bulletin: a free press means a free people” is chiseled off its building and old experienced reporters are subsequently fired—and oil man and media baron D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) is genuinely, powerfully scary. But the movie can’t overcome its schitzophrenia.

No lucky hats or bats for “Max Dugan Returns” (1983)
One of my favorite childhood books was Leonard Kessler's Here Comes the Strikeout, and it contains the following lesson, much repeated in the book and much repeated by both my father and I ever since: “Lucky hats won’t do it. Lucky bats won’t do it. Only hard work and practice will do it.” When it comes to little league, Hollywood generally relies on lucky hats and bats. One time the kid strike outs, the next time he gets a game-winning hit. “Max Dugan” is one of the few films that prescribes hard work and practice. OK, it’s a mostly forgettable movie. Marsha Mason plays Nora, an early ‘80s widow whose refrigerator is breaking down, whose car is stolen, whose life is breaking down and feels stolen. Then her absentee father, Max Dugan (Jason Robards), returns, on the lam and loaded for bear ($680,000), and ready to solve all her problems. New fridge, new car, and, for her son (Matthew Broderick, adorable in his first role), who can’t buy a hit in little league, batting lessons from former Royals batting coach Charlie Lau. We get free lessons, too. Where’s the weight on your feet? Relax the grip. Head down. Wiggle the butt. Basically: concentrate but stay loose. It leads to another Hollywood ending but this time it’s not lucky hats or bats that do it. That one was for you, Wittgenstein!

Dads and baseball in “City Slickers” (1991)
Billy Crystal, the little Yankee-loving schmuck, knows his baseball: in the Ken Burns doc, in “61*,” which he directed, and in the baseball dialogue in “City Slickers,” which I’m sure he helped write. Mets cap aside, we know his loyalties, and they’re present in the “best day” discussion. For Mitch Robbins (Crystal), the best day of his life was when he was 7 and his father took him to Yankee Stadium: “Sat the whole game next to my dad. Taught me how to keep score. Mickey hit one out. I still have the program.” Earlier (or is it later?), there’s the Clemente vs. Aaron argument, which, I have to side with Ed Furillo (Bruno Kirby), is no argument. 755 homeruns, end of discussion. But the best line is this explanation to Helen Slater about the deeper meaning of baseball: “When I was about 18 and my dad and I couldn't communicate about anything at all, we could still talk about baseball. Now that—that was real.” And that’s such a good line it almost elevates “City Slickers” into the top 5.

What about you? Favorite baseball scenes in non-baseball movies?

Posted at 09:15 AM on Oct 12, 2009 in category Movies, Baseball
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Sunday October 11, 2009

Breaking Away Lesson of the Day

Impress a pretty girl.

Posted at 09:00 AM on Oct 11, 2009 in category Movies
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Saturday October 10, 2009

Countown to the World Series—II

Fun fact! By this day, October 10, every World Series in the 1930s had ended:

  • 1930: Oct 1-Oct 8 (six games)
  • 1931: Oct 1-Oct 10 (seven games)
  • 1932: Sept 28-Oct 2 (four games)
  • 1933: Oct 3-Oct 7 (five games) *
  • 1934: Oct 3-Oct 9 (seven games) *
  • 1935: Oct 2-Oct 7 (six games) *
  • 1936: Sept 30-Oct 6 (six games)
  • 1937: Oct 6-Oct 10 (five games) *
  • 1938: Oct 5-Oct 9 (four games)
  • 1939: Oct 4-Oct 8 (four games)

What are the asterisks for? Mathematicians? Anybody?

Those are the years when there were no off-days (or even rain-outs) during the World Series. That's right. Despite traveling between New York and D.C. (in '33), St. Louis and Detroit (in '34), Detroit and Chicago (in '35) and, well, the Bronx and Coogan's Bluff (in '37), and travel being limited to 1930s-type travel, they played straight through. I don't know why we can't do this 70-80 years later. It's pretty awful scheduling the brunt of the World Series in November when the LCS's are allowing three days off per series—including in the middle of homestands. I mean, WTF? The fewer days off, the more teams will have to dance with those that brung them, including especially fourth and fifth starters. The more it'll be like the rest of the season. The better weather it'll be played in.

Countdown to the start of the 2009 World Series: 18 days. Every team has, at most, 10 games to play to get there. 10 games in 18 days.

Is baseball being run or run into the ground?

Posted at 03:14 PM on Oct 10, 2009 in category Baseball
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Lancelot Links

  • Here's a good piece by my friend Jessica Thompson, who's lived in India for a year now, on the sexual harassment—called "Eve teasing"—there: "Eve teasing is to sexual harassment what Delhi Belly is to projectile vomiting and diarrhea: both are really ugly things hidden behind a cute name."
  • Jeff Wells begins the end-of-decade ceremonies with his top 37 (37?) films of 2000-2009. It's a fun list—particularly his no. 1 choice. Have only vaguely thought about my top list, but it would include "The Pianist" (his no. 9) and "United 93" (his no. 5). What else would I have? "Yi Yi"? "Spider-Man 2"? "Munich"? "Brokeback Mountain," definitely. That movie just gets better with age. What about you? What movies in this decade stand out in your mind?
  • Is "web" really the proper metaphor for this thing? It works, although not with the verb. You crawl a web while we claim to surf this one—and surfing is much cooler than what we do here. The metaphor that comes to my mind is pinball. I bounce from spot to spot. I careen the Pinball. The other day I visited Jeff Wells again, and he bounced me to this James Rocchi piece on MSN about press junkets in general and "Couples Retreat"'s in particular, and after reading one sentence I sought more of Rocchi and bounced all over the place. Found this MSN review on "Transformers 2," which definitely echoes my feelings about that abomination: "Where the first film was desperate, this one is desperate and sad. Where the first film sent mixed messages about ethnic and racial groups and women, this one is overtly racist and sexist. Where the first 'Transformers' was clumsy, 'Revenge of the Fallen' is paralyzed with its own stupidity." Rocchi's own site is here.
  • Some good lines from Anthony Lane on "The Invention of Lying": "...as for the soundtrack, it’s like being haunted by the ghost of Easy Listening Past. Supertramp and the Electric Light Orchestra are one thing, but Donovan: there’s no excuse. And what really galls is not the songs themselves but the greasy way in which they are wrapped around crucial passages of action, to muffle any awkward transitions; thus, once Mark has armed himself with white lies, he strolls off to reassure all the other miserable folk we have encountered so far—old-timers, bums on the street, a bickering couple—with a smile and a word in their ears. But what word? We can’t tell, because Elvis Costello is busy belting out “Sitting” by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens."
  • The New York Times' business column is becoming more of a must-read every day, particularly David Carr's on Monday and David Leonhardt's on Wednesday. This week, Carr wrote a sober, infuriating piece on the $66 million in bonuses delivered to Tribune Co. managers who mostly axed reporters to increase profits...which mostly went to them. Funny how that works. Leonhardt, on Wednesday, wrote of the excesses of left and right economic thinking, and who on the right (Bruce Bartlett) is finally going beyond "cut taxes" as a means to economic stimulus. We'll see how it plays. A smart voice on the right would be a nice change.
  • Not all these links are worth clicking on, by the way. This is one. I'm sure you heard about it: The First Lady has white, slave-owning ancestors. That's the big story. A bigger story for me is that Mrs. Obama's great-great-grandfather, Dolphus T. Shields, the first child born to Melvina Shields, who was born into slavery, co-founded the First Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which was pivotal in the civil rights movement. It's amazing, on the one hand, how carefully the Times tells its story, and, on the other, how carelessly. "While [Melvina] was still a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son under circumstances lost in the passage of time." That's in the second graf. I would definitely lose "under circumstances lost in the passage of time," which is, given the circumstances, so romantic a phrase as to be close cousin to "under circumstances now...gone with the wind!" Plus the quotes from Edward Ball, "a historian who discovered that he had black relatives, the descendants of his white slave-owning ancestors," are embarrassing: "We are not separate tribes," he says. "We've all mingled, and we've done so for generations." Nice verb: mingled
  • Finally a must-read by another friend, Jim Walsh, in Southwest Journal in Minneapolis, on the funeral of the father of a friend. Jim's the real deal. Not just as a writer.
Posted at 08:28 AM on Oct 10, 2009 in category Lancelot Links, Movies, Politics
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Friday October 09, 2009

Countdown to the World Series

Welcome to October 9, the day they played the final game of the World Series in the following years: 1966 (Orioles 4, Dodgers 0), 1961 (Yankees 4, Reds 1), 1958 (Yankees 4, Braves 3), 1949 (Yankees 4, Dodgers 1), 1944 (Cardinals 4, Browns 2), 1938 (Yankees 4, Cubs 0), 1934 (Cardinals 4, Tigers 3), 1929 (Athletics 4, Cubs 1), and, most infamously, 1919 (Reds 5, White Sox 3).

By this day, 29 World Series had already ended. Some quick facts:

  • Earliest final game of the World Series: Sept. 11, 1918, to accommodate World War I (Red Sox 4, Cubs 2).
  • Earliest final game of the World Series in a non-war year: October 2, in 1932 (Babe Ruth's called shot) and 1954 (Willie Mays' catch).
  • Earliest final game of the World Series after the 162-game schedule was instituted in 1961: October 6, 1963, when the Dodgers swept the Yankees in four games: Koufax, Podres, Drysdale, Koufax.
  • Earliest final game fo the World Series after the best-of-five playoffs were instituted in 1969: October 14, 1984: Tigers 4, Padres 1.
  • Earliest final game of the World Series after the best-of-seven playoffs were instituted in 1985: October 20, in 1988 (Dodgers 4, Athletics 1) and 1990 (Reds 4, Athletics 0).
  • Earliest final game of the World Series after the wild-card round was added in 1995: October 21, 1998 (Yankees 4, Padres 0).
  • Earliest final game of the World Series this decade: October 25, 2003 (Marlins 4, Yankees 2)

Countdown to the first game of the 2009 World Series? 19 days. The Series starts October 28, 2009. Only two World Series have lasted longer than this year's start date: Last year's, which ended on October 29, and the Sept. 11, 2001-interrupted season, which didn't end until November 4.

Nice planning.

Posted at 09:44 AM on Oct 09, 2009 in category Baseball
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Thursday October 08, 2009

Review of “Bright Star” (2009)

WARNING: ODE TO SPOILERS

The Uptown Theater in Seattle’s lower Queen Anne neighborhood unintentionally helped its audience empathize with John Keats (Ben Whishaw), the doomed protagonist in Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” during its first show the other afternoon. As Keats coughed from tuberculosis, shivered in the rain and fled to the warmer weather of Naples and Rome, we in the audience sat for two hours in the cold, seemingly unheated theater. By the time Keats succumbed, we were chilled to the bone. Right there with ya, bro.

“Bright Star” is a lovely film about doomed love told at a leisurely pace, which raises—at least in me—the following questions: Does love need lethargy to bloom? Does it inspire lethargy? If you’re deeply in love, what else do you want or need besides your love? What do you pursue? The world is too much reduced. Maybe in this sense all young loves are doomed. We either lose the love or lose the world.

The key to “Bright Star,” though, as with all love stories, is less the love than the forces that keep the lovers apart.

Initially young Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), expert seamstress, and John Keats, failed poet, roundly savaged by the critics of his day, are strangers in Hamstead Village, London, 1818. They meet, talk of wit, talk of fashion, become intrigued. His brother dies, she sympathizes. She’s headstrong, as are all cinematic heroines during this period, and she buys and reads his book of poems, Endymion, which begins:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Nice thought! She doesn’t quite know what to make of it. “Are you frightened to speak truthfully?” he asks. “Never,” she replies, headstrong. Then she confesses she doesn’t really know poetry. He confesses he doesn’t really know women. They solve their mutual dilemma by having him teach her poetry.

The main aesthetic principle attributed to Keats is negative capability, “when man,“ he once wrote, ”is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  Shakespeare was the master, he felt, and in the film he describes the principle to Fanny via metaphor. Why do you dive into a lake? To swim to the other side? No. It’s for the experience of being surrounded by water. And that’s what poetry is.

These lessons take place over the protestations of his housemate and contemporary, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), who, either from pettiness, jealousy, or genuine worry that Fanny will distract the great man, is one of the forces trying to keep them apart. He has the equally thankless role of playing Salieri to Keats’ Amadeus: the contemporary who recognizes the unrecognized genius and knows he’ll never measure up. Plus he chases after dull maids and knocks them up. Dude's a piece of work.

But there's a greater force keeping them apart: He’s a poet whose books don’t sell. He has no means of support.

Still, despite the mores of the time, they fall in love. Her family—mother, gawky silent younger brother, cute button of a red-haired baby sister—move into the duplex Keats and Brown share, where Fanny and Keats now have nothing but a wall separating them. Sometimes, rarely at the same time, they press their faces against this wall. It's the physical representation of all those forces keeping them apart.

These forces are no match for Spring. The weather warms, the bees flit around the flowers, and Mrs. Brawne says, “Mr. Keats is being a bee.” Indeed. He and Fanny go for a walk, and he tells her of a dream and talks of lips. “Whose lips?” she asks teasingly. “Were they my lips?” They kiss. The kiss comes as a shock. We get that? They get that? The film, quiet anyway, drops to murmurs. The music overwhelms. Is it Mozart? Baby sister fetches them and they play a game on the way back, freezing in their tracks when she turns around. Fanny lays on her bed, the breeze billowing the curtains. Life is suspended and buzzing. It’s opened up—all senses—but reduced to the next walk, hand hold, glance. Campion is close to brilliant here. Her film isn’t just about first love; it feels like first love.

But being in love is never the story. So Keats travels to the Isle of Wight to write, to try to make a living, and Fanny is left behind. Ah, but the letters. He writes, says he wishes they could be butterflies, living three perfect summer days and expiring, and she and her siblings collect butterflies and fill her room. “When I don’t hear from him,” she confesses to her mother, “it’s as if I’d die.” One can't help but remember one's own first love. Mine took place in the late 1980s, and, though 170 years had passed, the means of communication, give or take a telephone, were more or less the same. Twenty years later, they're not. Do young lovers today still send letters? How does one clutch an e-mail to one’s chest? There is no more daily waiting for the postman. Now the wait is 24/7. Has she written? Has she written? Has she written? I think I’d go crazy. Or crazier.

When the Isle of Wight doesn’t change his fortunes, Keats seeks them in London, and the dead butterflies are swept up. But he keeps returning in all kinds of weather. Does anyone go to “Bright Star” not knowing Keats’ end? Watching, I kept thinking of that Seymour Glass poem from J.D. Salinger’s “Seymour: An Introduction”:

John Keats
John Keats
John
Please put your scarf on

When Brown says, “Mr. Keats has gone to London with no coat,” I knew this was it. But even death is drawn out in the 19th century.

My disappointment with the film is in its end, dealing, as it does, with the pain of those left behind and not with the mystery of the final barrier. Does Keats have his face pressed to that wall or is he dissolved like the butterflies? The film should’ve dove into those mysteries, surrounded us with them. What happened to him and her and their love? Did it pass into nothingness or is it a joy forever? Or am I irritably clutching after?

“Bright Star” is a wholly evocative film. See it not to find out what happens. See it for the sensation of surrounding yourself with it.

Posted at 08:25 AM on Oct 08, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Wednesday October 07, 2009

The Invention of Bad Posters

Take a gander at the U.S. poster for “The Invention of Lying” below.

The Invention of Lying poster - US

Who came up with this concept? Gervais is an airbrushed afterthought in it—and after the likes of Rob Lowe and Jennifer Garner—while the overall design reminds me of, I don't know, semi-serious romantic-comedies with multiple actors involved. I can't quite place it. It's not “The Holiday,” it's not “Spanglish” but it's like something, and something not very good.

Plus only one of the three quotes they throw in there is actually in the film—the “baby rat” line. The other two are not only marketing inventions but not funny. Plus the light blue is all wrong. Plus it's too busy. Plus plus plus.

Now here's the version of the poster for Great Britain (below), where they don't have to worry about who knows Ricky Gervais because everyone does. Regardless of what I actually think of the film, this would make me want to see it. I crack up just looking at it:

The Invention of Lying poster - UK

Posted at 09:19 AM on Oct 07, 2009 in category Movies - Posters
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Tuesday October 06, 2009

My Top 5 Metrodome Moments

the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome

The Metrodome knows how to go out with a bang, doesn't it? No meaningless final baseball game there.

On September 30, 1981, I was at the Twins final game at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn., and it was about as meaningless as they come. A cold drizzly day, a loss to Kansas City, a speech by Calvin Griffith. It was the last home game of a godawful baseball season split in two because of a June/July work stoppage. The Twins were abyssmal in the first half (17-39) and merely lousy in the second (24-29), and overall finished in last place in the seven-team A.L. West. Yes, behind even Seattle. Attendance in that final game reflected their record, and the gametime temperatures (in the 50s), and the day of the week (Wed. afternoon). Only 15,900 bothered to show up to say good-bye.

In the middle of Calvin's speech, one of those 15,000, a lanky fan with long hair, jumped onto the field and loped from first base to home, where he did a bellyflop onto the plate; then he stood, arms raised, like he'd accomplished something. Since no security guard stopped him, others jumped onto the field, too. They ran the bases, gathered infield dirt, tore up the grass. They tore up seats and signs. My friend Brian McCann and I dropped onto the field, too, ran the bases, gathered nothing. Former cross-country runners, we'd brought socks to keep our hands warm, and we walked out to left-center field and took turns tossing the balled-up socks to one another, as if the balled-up socks were a ball, as if were making a great catch against the wall. It was fun but melancholy. We were 18 and already nostalgic. We were all moving indoors.

The final regular-season game at the Metrodome was supposed to be Sunday but the Twins went on a tear, winning 16 of their last 20, and caught first-place Detroit on Saturday, stayed even with them Sunday—both teams won—and beat them in a 12-inning, back-and-forth, incredible 163rd game this afternoon. No hippies rushed the field. No seats were torn up. It was a party, not a wake, and now the party's moving outdoors.

Everyone and their brother is counting down their favorite Metrodome Memories—Hrbek's grand slam in '87; Puckett's catch and game-winning homerun in '91; Gaetti and Brunansky and Morris and Knoblauch and Hunter and Santana and Mauer and Morneau. Here's mine. It's limited to the games I went to, which wasn't many. I was living in Taiwan during the '87 Series, Seattle during the '91 Series. The only post-season game I attended at the Metrodome was Game 1 of the 2006 ALDS, Oakland vs. Minnesota. My boss had a luxury suite and me and my friend Dave P. got in on the action. Except there wasn't much action. We had Johan Santana going, the surest thing in baseball, but freakin' Frank Thomas hit two homeruns, and the Twins lost, 3-2, on their way to being swept by the freakin' A's, who would then lose to the freakin' Tigers in the ALCS, who would then lose to the freakin' St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, in what was, give or take a Yankee trouncing, a pretty lame post-season.

Here are my moments. I'd love to hear yours:

  • 5. Murderball at the Dome. In May 2006 I invited family and friends to the company suite for a Twins/Mariners matchup. Around the seventh inning, the son of my friend Jim Walsh, leaning out of the box, pointed out someone on the walkway below and Jim began to chat him up. I assumed an old friend. But it was Mark Zupan, the poster boy for the 2005 documentary “Murderball,” a scene from which had topped my MSNBC list of the top 10 scenes of 2005. A bunch of us went down, talked to the dude, and had a great time.

Jim Walsh and Mark Zupan at the Metrodome, 2006

  • 4. Caffeinating Jordy. My sister, Karen, found it funny that I was nervous about being solely responsible for my nephew, Jordy, 5, for an August 2006 weekday afternoon game, but I was. I imagined, in the huge crowds, taking my eye off him for a second, turning around, not seeing him. Jordy? Jordy? That panic. Nothing like it happened, of course. We had box seats along the first-base side for Francisco Liriano's comeback game, but Liriano, injured worse than they thought, lasted, I believe, three innings. Jordy lasted five. At first I tried to get his attention away from the puzzles in his program and onto the field by talking up numbers: on the players' backs, and on the radar gun that measured the speed of each pitch. He liked this last part—even if it was the fact of the number, rather than what the number represented, that impressed him. “Wow: 93 miles per hour!” he said. “Wow: 72 miles per hour!” he said. Then I made a rookie mistake. Buying him a slice of pizza, I asked what he'd liked to drink with it. Lemonade? Coke? Oh, Coke? You want Coke? I think I bought the medium, 20 ounces, for a kid who'd never had caffeine before. By the time I gave him back to his mother at the nearby Star-Tribune, he was climbing the walls. Literally. The two rode the elevator to the third floor and Jordy tried to scale those walls. No need to thank me. It's what uncles are for.
  • 3. Precursor to the '87 magic. In September 1987, a month before I left for Taipei, Taiwan, I went to a game—my first game at the Dome in a long while—with my friends Dave P. and Terri, who had recently moved (for Terri), or moved back (for Dave), to Minneapolis. The Twins were in the thick of a division race but attendance was slim. We got bleacher seats and kept moving about: Now in left, now in center, now in right. Which is where we were sitting when Kirby Puckett won the game in extra innings with a homerun. Exciting! People cheered a bit, then went home. They expected little because Minnesota never won big. Minnesota comes in second: the '65 Series, four Super Bowls, the presidential elections in 1968 and 1984. That's how we roll. So imagine my suprise, a month later in Taipei, hearing about the huge roar of the crowds at the Dome, and the frenzied fans waving...what? Homer whatsis? When did that start? I got the final skinny listening to the radio in the Chens' living room in the middle of a flood: “The Minnesota Twins, behind the pitching of Frank Viola and the decibels of the Dome, beat...” Half a world away, I made my own noise.
  • 2. Kent Hrbek is trying to kill me! In April/May 1991, a month before I moved to Seattle, Dave P. and I bought some scalped tickets, then moved closer and closer and closer. This was the year after the year the Twins finished in last place, so it was a sparse crowd again and easy to move down. By the middle of the game we were maybe 10 rows back on the homeplate/third-base side of the field, but closer to homeplate. Kent Hrbek, a lefty, was up. Here's what Dave remembers: ducking, as the foul ball rocketed towards his head but curved towards mine. Here's what I remember: my hand stinging, and the ball about 10 rows behind me. “If you had worse reflexes, you could've wound up in the hospital!” friends told me. “If I'd had a glove, I could've caught it,” I responded.
  • 1. A one-hop strike to third. In August 2006, our publisher got an invite for a post-afternoon-game fundraiser at the Dome. You'd go on the field, meet Tony Oliva, play a softball game. Sounded fun. The publisher couldn't make it but asked me if I wanted to go, and I brought along my sis and her family, and the old man, who even in his 70s plays softball three times a week. Meeting Tony-O again was fun. He was one of my favorite players growing up, and the recipient, on a long-ago Camera Day at Met Stadium, of the butt-hug visible on the bio page. Everyone else gave him fundraiser-provided baseballs to sign but I brought along that picture. “Who's this handsome fellow?” he said, looking at it. One of the organizers took a Polaroid of me and him, along with the picture, 35 years after the original. The greater fun that evening, though, was shagging flies in left field. I'd been playing softball in a tavern league for about 10 years, and was a serviceable fielder with a pretty accurate arm. With someone hitting fungoes from third base—baseballs not softball—I tracked them against that teflon roof and caught them in that Major League stadium. One ball I caught near the warning track, and a bit of the kid got ahold of me. I threw the ball hard against the wall, speared it on a hop, turned and threw a one-hop strike to third base. Just like the big boys. OK, just like the young kids.

R.I.P., ya big marshmallow. You were the only Major League stadium I ever played in.

Posted at 11:05 AM on Oct 06, 2009 in category Baseball
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Monday October 05, 2009

Review: “The Invention of Lying” (2009)

WARNING: JUST-THE-FACTS SPOILERS

The big problem with Ricky Gervais’ comedy “The Invention of Lying” is this: Lying isn’t funny. The truth is funny. Uncomfortable truths. Blunt truths. It’s funny—in this universe where people haven’t yet developed the gene to lie—when Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner) greets Mark Bellison (Gervais) at the door by admitting she’d just been masturbating and he responds, helplessly, “That makes me think of your vagina.” It’s funny when she tells her mother, who phones during their date, and within earshot of Mark, “No, I won’t be sleeping with him.” It’s particularly funny, because it’s particularly uncomfortable, when the old folks’ home is named: “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.”

But saying to a bank teller that you’ve got $800 in your account when you have $300, or telling a cop that your friend isn’t drunk when he is, or even telling your scared, dying mother that there’s a beautiful place we go when we die—all of which happens after Mark develops the gene for lying—none of that is particularly funny. It’s sometimes poignant, and certainly ballsy, but it isn’t funny. Thus the movement of the film is from funny to less funny. By the end, there’s hardly any laughs at all.

“The Invention of Lying” is basically a magic realism film like “Liar, Liar,” and “What Women Want,” where an extraordinary thing happens to an ordinary man. Here the extraordinary thing—being able to lie—makes Mark more like us rather than less. He’s also a nicer guy than the main characters of those two films. The extraordinary thing happens to Jim Carrey and Mel Gibson so each will become a better man. It’s the “Christmas Carol” pattern: 1) jerk; 2) extraordinary thing; 3) OK dude.

Not here. Mark is actually a decent sort. Sure, he lies his way to riches, and, yes, initially he almost lies his way into bed with a beautiful woman, but at the last instant, because he’s a decent sort, he backs out. (Every guy in the audience is going, “Nooooooooo!”) Then he immediately does good deeds. He doesn’t wait for the third act. He steals money for a homeless man. He helps a bickering couple. He stops a neighbor from killing himself. And, yes, as his mother trembles at the prospect of dying, of not existing, he invents...heaven. So she can die happy. If anything, he’s trying to make the rest of the world as decent as he is.

There’s audacity in this. In a world without lying, there isn’t religion, there isn’t God. It’s up to Mark, pressed into service after word of “heaven” spreads, to invent these things. So he invents the Man in the Sky, and the Good and the Bad Place, and he tells everyone that if the Man in the Sky sends them to the Good Place they will get a mansion. Since people can’t even fathom the concept of lying, everyone takes everything he says as fact. One wonders why it doesn’t lead to a rash of suicides. We don’t have them because we have doubt, and, for true believers, suicide is against God’s will. But what’s to stop these folks? The undiscovered country is not only discovered, it’s mapped.

This element of the film, yes, is audacious, but everything else feels small and predictable. Why are magic realism films always like this? Mel Gibson can read women’s thoughts and he uses the power...to create a better ad campaign? Ricky Gervais can lie in a world where no one else can and he uses the power...to get his old job back? He’s a screenwriter for Lecture Films, which is exactly what it says it is. Films in this world consist of professorial lecturers sitting in armchairs and reading history to the camera. Mark has been stuck with the 13th century, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to exciting storytelling. But with his newfound power he creates a screenplay about aliens and adventures that everyone takes—must take—as fact, and reduces people to tears. It’s called “The Black Plague” and it’s a big hit and wins awards, but, beyond the insider-Hollywood stuff, what’s the point? He’s the most powerful man in the world! Whatever he says is fact because there’s no concept of non-fact. “I’m your husband.” “That’s my house.” “I’m the president of the United States.” Rob Lowe plays his nemesis? Mark could reduce him to nothing. “He’s been fired.” “He’s been evicted.” “He wants his head shaved.” Instead Mark suffers his presence throughout the film.

Worse, the film becomes about the most conventional of conventional tropes: getting-the-girl.

Anna (Garner) eventually comes to love Mark for his unconventionality but can’t bear the thought of having kids with him because they might look like him: i.e., fat, with snub noses. She wants a better genetic partner. Everyone does. Everyone is shallow in this world. Everyone goes out of their way to say the meanest things. Admittedly we are a rude, shallow species but is that all we are? I’m running through my day, thinking about what I’d say not only if I couldn’t lie, but, as here, and as in “Liar, Liar,” if I felt compelled to say every truthful thing that came into my head. So, yes, there’d be “Man, you’re annoying,” “God, you talk a lot,” “My, I’d like to sleep with you.” But there'd also be: “Man, you’re smart,” “God, you’re fun to be with,” “My, I’d like to sleep with you.” I don’t think we’re as bad as Gervais implies.

Critics are already setting up in knee-jerk camps. Kyle Smith of The New York Post says the film takes “outspoken atheism” and “dump[s] it all over an unsuspecting audience,” while hipster critics dig its attack on organized religion. But its greater attack is on human nature. In the world according to Gervais, the truth doesn’t set us free; it makes us jerks. Meanwhile, lies—including religion—make us better people. The film might as well be called “The Invention of Decency.”

There are some impressive cameos here: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ed Norton, Jason Bateman. (We also had Jeff Bezos in the audience at the Regal Meridian in downtown Seattle.) But the film is too conventional for its unconventional premise, while its unconventional premise goes against the grain of what's funny. The truth may not set us free, but it does make us laugh.

Posted at 08:06 AM on Oct 05, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Sunday October 04, 2009

Straight Line to the Hall of Fame

It's the last day of the regular season, and possibly the last day we'll see Ken Griffey, Jr. playing Major League baseball, but just check out this photo, taken, I believe, Tuesday night, when Junior, who's 39, and an old 39, hit his 17th homerun of the season and 628th of his career:

It would be hard to draw a straighter line than the one you get following the angle of his head to his arms to his bat. It's beautiful.

Junior's put up amazing stats in his career—particularly if, as seems likely, he's one of the few guys who didn't take steroids all this time. Steroids help you heal faster and Junior's been nothing but injured this decade. Even so, he has 630 career homeruns, fifth all-time, after Mays, Ruth, Aaron and Bonds*, so really fourth all-time. He's 16th in RBIs (14th). He's got 10 Gold Gloves—all with Seattle. But it's more than the numbers. Junior is just beautiful to watch. As an old man I'm gonna be the guy going, “Yeah yeah yeah. But you should've seen him play.”

EXTRA: Via MLB's site, here's the 630th, and possibly last, homerun of his career.

Posted at 08:52 AM on Oct 04, 2009 in category Baseball
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Saturday October 03, 2009

Anatomy of a Scene: Leo and Freddie have coffee in Force of Evil (1948)

From Force of Evil (1948), written and directed by Abraham Polonsky, who was soon to be blacklisted. I like the repetitions in the dialogue, and the way simple language conveys the most profound thoughts. Thomas Gomez plays Leo Morse. This scene alone makes me want to hold a Thomas Gomez film festival.

Leo: I'm glad you called me, Freddie. I'm glad you thought it over to listen to me. To calm down and listen to me so I can help you. [To waiter] Coffee. [To Freddie] I know how bad you feel, Freddie. It was a wicked, foolish thing to do to put a gun in my brother's hand. For him to kill you. That's what you wanted to do. That's what it was. I know how it feels to try to find someone to kill you—to finish you off—to take the crimes of your life on his head, in his hands.

Freddie: Please, Mr. Morse, all I want is to quit. That's all, nothing else. They won't let me quit and I want to quit. I'll die if I don't quit. 

Leo: I'm a man with heart trouble, I die almost every day myself. That's the way I live. Silly habit. You know, sometimes you feel as though you're dying here [rubs palm]...and here [back of hand]...here [below his heart]. You're dying while you're breathing.

[Car pulls up; Freddie looks panicked; Leo looks over his shoulder and quickly realizes he's been betrayed.]

Leo: Freddie! What have you done? Freddie! What have you done to me!


Posted at 08:46 AM on Oct 03, 2009 in category Movies
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Friday October 02, 2009

Lancelot Links, with Mike Blowers

Sober political pieces:

  • Hendrik Hertzberg has been writing too many obituaries lately, as we all have, but here's a good one on former Carter press secretary Jody Powell.
  • A smart take on the “is it racism or isn't it?” question regarding the vociferousness of the response to Pres. Obama's policies, via an unnamed reader on Andrew Sullivan's site. Money quote: “Of course they are screaming 'socialism.' They've been doing that since the 1950s at least. They're not talking about economic redistribution of wealth—they never have been. They've been talking about redistribution of privilege this whole time.”
  • “Turkeys of the Year” from Minnesota Law & Politics, which is the first, parent magazine of the company that employs me. The difficulty isn't finding the turkeys anymore, it's choosing among them. There's a section here, “Quick! Cancel My Membership to the ACLU,” that is so full of the idiocies being spouted in public and political life that it might make the founding fathers rethink the First Amendment. Michele Bachmann rightly (no pun intended) gets her own section—including her frequent attacks on and insinuations about the U.S. Census Bureau. Glad that worked out. Then there's last year's gem from John McCain on why his pick, Sarah Palin, is qualified to be VP: “She knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America,” he said. How awful that reads today. What a sad thing they were trying to sell. What a sad thing they're still trying to sell.

Drunk movie pieces:

Partying baseball pieces:

  • Ichiro is ejected from a game for the first time in his Major League career. Must've learned how to finally say “c***sucker.”
  • Finally, here's an upper: In the pregame show before a late-September game between two teams going nowhere (Seattle at Toronto), color commenator and former third baseman Mike Blowers, known for the way he didn't crowd the plate during his playing days, made an insane prediction. He said Mariners rookie third baseman and Bellevue native Matt Tuiasosopo, who had all of 59 career at-bats going into the game, would hit his first career homerun that day. Not only that day but in his second at-bat. Not only in his second at-bat but on a 3-1 fastball and into the second deck in left field. Make sure you listen to what happens. I swear, Dave Niehaus has gotten such joy out of such lousy material—the short sad history of the Seattle Mariners—that he qualifies as the Patron Saint of the Pacific Northwest. And here, with great material, he's downright giddy. “I see the light! I believe you, Mike!” Way to go, Mike. Way to go, Dave. Touch 'em all, Tui. (UPDATE: Damn, even Rachel Maddow is on this story. Here she is, via Patrick Goldstein, who is also on this story. Hopefully more get on the story. It's a story worth telling.) (UPDATE: Here's the full play-by-play of the Tui homerun. It's worth listening to the entire thing.)
Posted at 07:39 AM on Oct 02, 2009 in category Lancelot Links, Movies, Baseball, Seattle Mariners
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Thursday October 01, 2009

Ooo, Kids, Scary Stuff!

We've got the pumpkins out (thanks to Patricia), the trick-or-treaters are hanging on the steps (below), and the scary movie posters are up (to the left, to the left). Looks like Halloween!

The posters are a mix of classic horror (Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man) and movies that actually scared me over the years: The Haunting, The Changeling, The Shining, The Others, The Orphanage. The key to scaring me, apparently, is a restrained take on the sad, supernatural dead. A horror that echoes past death and troubles the living, who are more or less confined to a specific place, and who can't get away from the horrified dead. Apparently I'm also a fan of blunt titles: definite article + noun.

I've included, as well, Tarantula, a 1950s atomic-explosion b-picture about a giant tarantula that scared the bejesus out of me when I saw it as a kid on some weekend afternoon in the '70s, and which led, or at least contributed, to a lifetime of arachnophobia. I'm sure if I revisited the film it would be hokey as hell but it still might scare the bejesus out of me. Which might not be bad. I have too much bejesus as it is. (Etymology of “bejesus”? Anyone?)

Other treats:

  • As a kid, this lead-in to the late-night “Horror Incorporated” show on KSTP in Minneapolis was generally scarier than the movies—often b-pics—that followed. The hand coming out of the coffin and that final scream in particular. Sometimes I purposefully avoided the intro so I wouldn't be too scared to watch the movie.
  • These local “Horror Incorporated”-type shows were parodied brilliantly by SCTV in their Monster Chiller Horror Theater with Count Floyd (the incredibly funny Joe Flaherty), to whom we owe our blog-post headline. Couldn't find my favorite bit online, when the programmers, who always screwed up, booked “The Odd Couple,” and poor Count Floyd had to make it sound scary, kids. “It's about a neat guy and a messy guy who...drinks blood! Awooooooooooooooooo!” But this one does in a pinch. R.I.P., John Candy.
  • Of course Brenda would kill me if I didn't include Jerry Seinfeld's Halloween monologue, which has the funniest line ever about good vs. bad Halloween candy: “Hold it, lady, wait a second, what is this, the orange marshmallow shaped like a big peanut? Do me a favor, you keep that one. Yeah, we have all the doorstops we need already, thank you.”
  • Finally, here's an article I wrote over 15 years ago on trick-or-treating and the hierarchy of Halloween candy.

What about you? What films scared you? What trick-or-treat memories do you have?

Posted at 07:53 AM on Oct 01, 2009 in category Movies
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