erik lundegaard

Wednesday June 30, 2010

Memories of Junior

On June 2, 2010, Ken Griffey, Jr., “The Kid” when he came up, “The Natural” on his first Sports Illustrated cover, “Junior” very quickly and forever after that, retired from Major League Baseball. It wasn't exactly a Ted Williams-ish exit. Two days earlier, in the bottom of the 9th, with the Mariners down by a run and a man on first, Junior, pinching hitting for catcher Rob Johnson, one of the few players on the team with a worse batting average than his, grounded into a fielder's choice off of Twins' closer Jon Rauch. Then Michael Saunders, all of 2 years old when Junior broke into the bigs, pinch ran for him. And that was that.

I missed his beginnings. Junior signed with the Mariners about the time I graduated from college (June 1987), and he broke into the bigs when I was getting ready for grad school (April 1989), so I wasn't paying much attention. Plus I was in Minneapolis, or Taipei, or New Brunswick, and when I finally arrived in Seattle in May 1991 I maintained a Minnesota preference for Kirby Puckett. The first time I saw Junior at the Kingdome he went 0-4. “So much for that,” I thought.

Ken Griffey Jr., the Natural, on the cover of Sports IllustratedI think I fell in love about '93. He made spectacular catches routine and hit mooonshot homeruns into the upper deck. During the homerun derby in Baltimore, wearing his cap backwards, Junior became the first player to hit the B&O Warehouse beyond the right field stands on the fly; there's still a plaque there commemmorating the event. In July he tied a major league record by hitting 8 HRs in 8 straight games, and for the season he hit 45 homers and led the league in Total Bases with 359, but he finished fifth in the MVP vote behind no. 4 Juan Gonzalez (who led the league in HRs with 46), no. 3 John Olerud (who led the league in batting, OBP and OPS), no. 2 Paul Molitor (who led the league in hits), and the winner, Frank Thomas, who led the league in exactly nothing but whose team, the White Sox, won the West. Griffey was still stuck over in Seattle, which had great, budding players, and a famously irascible manager, Lou Piniella, and the team finished over .500 for the second time in its shabby history but still finished fourth in the AL West with a 82-80 record. You look at the '93 MVP numbers and it looks like a wash among the top 5, so why not give weight to the Gold Glove in center field rather tha the lump at first base? But the Baseball Writers Association of America preferred, as it always does, winning teams and semantics over “valuable” to defense. The writers probably figured: Junior's only 23. He'll get better.

He did. I was at the game June 24, 1994 when Junior hit  HR no. 32 and you couldn't help but add up the on-pace possibilities. 62? 70? Esquire magazine ran a short feature on him that summer called “Roger and Him,” all about The Man Who Would Break Roger Maris' Home Run Record, but Junior stopped at 40 along with the rest of the baseball season in August. When Newsweek ran a cover story on the baseball strike they put Junior on the cover with a broken bat. MVP SchmemVP, Junior represented the sport.

The sport returned in late April 1995 and so did he: a 3-run homer on Opening Day as the M's beat the Tigers 5-zip before a sparse crowd at the Kingdome. A month later he was gone again: shattering his wrist making an impossible catch against the right-centerfield wall. For three months we held our breath. Could he come back? Would he be the same? The wrist is so important. Think Hank Aaron and his early cross-handed batting stance, and how that mistake strengthened his wrists, and how he wound up hitting 755 homeruns. 1995 turned out to be a magic season for the M's, the “Refuse to Lose” season, and, though Junior helped spark it with a walk-off homerun against John Wetteland and the New York Yankees on August 24, other players dominated. Edgar won the batting title with a .356 average, Randy won the Cy Young award, going 18-2 with 294 strikeouts, and Jay Buhner ruled the September to Remember. Yes, Junior dominated the Yankees in the ALDS, with five homeruns in five games, but it was Edgar who killed them: 7 RBIs in Game 4 and the double down the left-field line that scored Junior from first in Game 5 and finally put the stake into their cold, cold Yankee hearts.

Junior missed another month in '96 (hamate bone) and still hit 49 homers, but in the new era that was only good enough for third place. In '97 he was finally injury free and finally won that MVP award but it already felt different. He wasn't even the Kid anymore, A-Rod was, and though he finally hit 56 homeruns, everyone, even Brady Anderson, was suddenly hitting 50 homeruns. Moreover, his team, the lowly Mariners, who stormed ahead in '95, and seemed, in '96 and early '97, on the verge of a dynasty, was already being undone by awful relief pitching and awfuler moves. Omar Vizquel for Felix Fermin. Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson for Sterling Hitchcock and Russ Davis. In July '97, with Norm Charlton and Bobby Ayala forever blowing ballgames, M's GM Woody Woodward went out and got three relief pitchers: Bad (Mike Timlin), Badder (Paul Spoljarec) and Baddest (Heathcliff Slocumb). To get them he gave up what felt like the future: another Jr. (Jose Cruz), catcher Jason Veritek and pitcher Derek Lowe. It didn't even work short-term. The M's got killed by Baltimore in the '97 ALDS, three games to one, and from the right-field stands I watched Junior flub a chance at a great play. The ball went off his glove. I'd never seen that before. I thought: “What is that? He normally gets that.” The next season was worse. We lost Randy Johnson in July, and while Junior was blasting homeruns it wasn't at the pace of the two testeronic monstrosities, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who ruled the summer. Junior was a diminished figure in the steroids era. The M's were a diminished team in the Yankees era.

In February 1999 I got to interview Woody Woodward for a local magazine. Afterwards the M's front office, who thought it would be a puff piece, called my editor to complain about “being ambushed,” but under the circumstances I thought I'd been polite. I hadn't sworn at him, for example. I hadn't threatened him, or yelled at him, or told him what he could do with his Healthcliff Slocumb. One of the Qs and As:

Is there a plan to keep Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez after the 2000 season? Is it even feasible given the huge contracts that are being signed today?
Right now I’m going after it like it is. But...we also need to be strong enough as a team that they will want to play in Seattle.

How Good is Griffey? Sports IllustratedThey didn't. It was rumored Griffey didn't much like the House that Griffey Built, which opened in July 1999, and after the season he demanded a trade to one of three teams, then one of one team, the Cincinnati Reds, and like that he was gone and the sourness lingered until early April 2000 when his replacement Mike Cameron scaled the wall in dead center field to take away a homerun from Derek “Effin'” Jeter, and Safeco Field went wild: giving Cameron a standing O as he trotted in, giving him a standing O as he batted the next inning, giving him a standing O as he walked back to the dugout after striking out on three pitches. We thought baseball wouldn't be fun without Junior but that night we realized it might. And it kinda was, in 2000 and 2001, but it still wasn't the same. That presence was gone. Those possibilities were gone. There was still too much What Might Have Been.

Junior in the NL was like the Beatles after the break-up: Not bad, but you wondered what happened to the magic. Junior dominated the 1990s. Every year he'd won a Gold Glove. Every year he'd been elected to the All-Star team—usually with the highest vote total. Nine of the 10 years he'd received MVP votes and five times he finished in the top 5. He was named Player of the Decade and named to the All-Century team and one wondered where he would stop. The answer? Right there. In the NL he never won a Gold Glove, played in only three All-Star games, received MVP votes just once, in 2005, his comeback year. He was always injured, limping, overweight. After a time, after the bitterness went away, you silently cheered him on. C'mon, Junior! Lose weight. get in shape, come back. Phillies great Richie Ashburn once said, of the strategies devised to keep playing ball, “I wish I learned early what I had to learn late,” but you got the feeling Junior didn't even learn this late. When he returned to Seattle last year, a nostalgic afterthought, and put 18 more homers between him and the black mark of Sammy Sosa, he was an old man of 39. The same age as Mariano Rivera, who helped the Yankees win their first World Championship since 2000. Junior helped the Mariners think they had a chance—for the last time.

I wasn't there at the beginning but I was there at the end. Not Junior's last game on Memorial Day, but the first Major League Baseball game without Junior on a roster. As he drove home to Florida, M's management played the tribute video they'd probably had in the can for 14 months and the grounds crew created a “24” in the dirt out by second base, and me and my friend Jim watched this team, once mighty, once a potential dynasty, now as weak and characterless as the day he arrived to save them, eke out a win in extra innings. But there was nothing electric about it. There was no future in it. The M's are still a backwards-looking franchise that doesn't even have a definitive victory to look back on. In the 1990s they had three of the greatest players ever to play on the same team, Junior, A-Rod and Randy, and they couldn't get past the ALCS. Two of those players now have rings from other franchises. The last will go down as the greatest player in baseball history never to be in a World Series.

Godspeed, Junior. You deserved better.

The day Ken Griffey Jr. retired

Posted at 07:40 AM on Jun 30, 2010 in category Baseball, Seattle, Seattle Mariners
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Monday June 28, 2010

Hollywood B.O.: How's “Prince of Persia” Doing in Egypt?

No real surprises this weekend. Of the newcomers: “Knight and Day,” which looked kinda fun to me, did a blah $20 million, while “Grown Ups,” which looked atrocious, grossed $41 million on the strength of urine, masturbation and Rob-Schneider-kissing-an-old-lady jokes. Yay, America! Apparently we still have money to waste.

BTW: Is Schneider's “old lady” an in-joke among the players? Writer Adam Sandler giving himself Salma Hayek as a wife and his pal Schneider an actress in her late 70s? If so, even the in-jokes in this thing suck.

The two returning b.o. champs with high Rotten Tomatoes scores continued to fare well. “Toy Story 3” and “Karate Kid” fell off by only 46 and 48 percent, respectively, and finished first and fourth respectively. After three weeks, “Karate Kid” has now grossed more than twice as much as “The A-Team” ($135m to $62m), while “Toy Story 3,” after two weeks, has grossed almost as much as “Shrek Forever After” has after six weeks: $226m to $229m. “3” will pass “Shrek” today.

Among the crap films: Fox pulled “Marmaduke” from 1,385 theaters and its take dropped 60%; Lions Gate pulled “Killers” from more than 350 theaters and its take dropped 60%. But the biggest drop was for “Jonah Hex,” which fell more than 70%, even though Warner Bros. didn't pull it from any of its 2,825 theaters, and even though there wasn't much to fall off 70% from. It's currently at $9.1m. Where will it end up? Double digits, probably, but I don't know if I'd bet on $12m.

Full weekend chart here.

Finally, which 2010 movies feel like bombs but aren't necessarily? Some possibilities:

  • “Prince of Persia,” which has grossed $86m in the U.S., but $220m overseas, for a total of $312m.
  • “Robin Hood,” which has grossed $103m in the U.S., but $198m overseas, for a total of $302m.
  • And “Sex and the City 2,” which has grossed $93m in the U.S., but $172m abroad, for a total of $265 m.

At the same time, the first “Sex and the City” grossed $262m overseas (wow!). It'll be interesting to see if “2” picks up this slack. It's currently the no. 1 movie in Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Slovakia, Sweden and the U.K. Inexplicably, it hasn't hit Australia yet, where it made $25m in 2008. Not so inexplicably, it hasn't hit several other countries that Box Office Mojo tracks, including Bahrain, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which are watching, respectively, “The Back-Up Plan,” “Nour 3iney,” “Shrek Forever After” and, believe it or not, “Prince of Persia.” So at least they don't have a problem with Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead.

Posted at 06:40 AM on Jun 28, 2010 in category Movies - Box Office
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Sunday June 27, 2010

How Market Research Almost Destroyed the Most Popular Shows in TV History

I'm late to the Maclolm Gladwell parade. I read his stuff in the New Yorker but didn't check out any of his books until I had to read "Outliers" for work—I interviewed M&A lawyer Joseph Flom, who is the subject of that book's fifth chapter, "The Three Lessons of Joe Flom"—and was particularly impressed, not only with the Flom chapter, but with the first chapter, in which Gladwell dissects the success of youth hockey players in Canada and the puzzle over the preponderence of early-month birthdates among them. Lots of January, February and March babies playing in the NHL. Why? January 1 is the cut-off date for youth hockey, so at an early age a January 1st kid will be competing against a December 31st kid and have a year advantage in growth and coordination. That January kid will play in more tournaments, and get more coaching and practice, and what began as an accident of birth will become a self-fulfilling prophecy: He'll be better. We're never the meritocracies we think we are.

"Blink" isn't quite as good but I did enjoy the chapter, "Kenna's Dilemma," for its confirmation of my own thoughts on audience test scores. Two years ago, when this blog was a baby, I wrote how "The Office" (both versions) got some of the lowest audience test scores in their respective networks' histories, as did "Seinfeld." I asked:

If you don’t recognize Seinfeld and The Office and The Office for what they are, or what they might be, what good are you? How many other Seinfelds are you turning into something ordinary and short-lived? How many millions are the money-people blowing?

Thanks to Gladwell, here are a few more names to add to the list:

In the late 1960s, the screenwriter Norman Ler produced a television sitcom pilot for a show called All in the Family. ... All in the Family scored in the low 40s [out of 100, in market research]. ABC said no. Lear took the show to CBS. They ran it through their own market research program... The results were unimpressive. The recommendation of the research department was that Archie Bunker be rewritten as a soft-spoken and nurturing father. CBS didn't even bother promoting All in the Family before its first season. What was the point? The only reason it made it to the air at all was that the president of the company, Robert Wood, and the head of programming, Fred Silverman, happened to like it...

That same year, CBS was also considering a new comedy show starring Mary Tyler Moore. ... The [market research] results were devastating. Mary was a "loser." Her neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern was "too abrasive"...

"Archie Bunker [should] be rewritten as a soft-spoken and nurturing father." That's one of my new favorites.

In case the lesson isn't obvious, Gladwell drives it home:

The problem with market research is that often it is simply too blunt an instrument to pick up this distinction between the bad and the merely different.

I wrote much the same a year ago January, regarding a Tad Friend New Yorker piece about audience testing, in which it was mentioned that "Pulp Fiction" received some of the lowest test scores in its studio's history and "Akeelah and the Bee" received some of the highest.

"Pulp Fiction," "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Seinfeld," "The Office," "The Office."

Others?

Posted at 09:00 AM on Jun 27, 2010 in category Market Research, Books, TV
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Saturday June 26, 2010

Why Jeff Wells is Wrong about “Restrepo”

Two documentaries about the war in Afghanistan played during the recent Seattle International Film Festival: “Restrepo” and “The Tillman Story.”

I thought “Restrepo” one of the best docs I've ever seen. I thought “The Tillman Story” OK but hardly news.

My reaction turns out to be the exact opposite of Jeff Wells' reaction over at Hollywood Elsewhere. What I loved about “Restrepo,” he hated. What I disliked about “The Tillman Story,” he loved.

Our disagreement doesn't have much to do with politics. We're both lefties.

Our disagreement has to do with aesthetics. What's the point of a documentary? What's the point of a war documentary? What's the point of art?

I'll leave the “Tillman” doc alone. Suffice it to say that people should see it. Particularly if they haven't read Jon Krakauer’s book “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman,“ or are part of the ”Miss Me Yet?“ crowd. Or if they're George Bush or Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld or... You get the idea.

As for ”Restrepo,“ Wells feels it fails because it fails to give us the big political picture. In a post he calls ”Afghanistan Bananistan,“ he writes:

I think I'm done with war documentaries that make a point of not offering any sort of opinion about anything — no history or context, no political point of view, just ”this is war, war is hell, taste it.“ Well, I'm sick of that shit after seeing Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's Restrepo, a bravely captured, technically first-rate documentary about a year under fire in Afghanistan's Korangal Valley, a.k.a., ”the valley of death.“

There's no question whatsover that this movie lies through omission about what's really going on in Afghanistan in the broader, bigger-picture sense. I found myself becoming more and more angry about this after catching Restrepo two nights ago at the Walter Reade theatre, and especially after doing some homework.

In my review of ”Restrepo,“ written three weeks before Wells posted the above, I wrote:

“Restrepo” is the best thing I’ve seen or read about our presence in Afghanistan, and it’s not really about our presence in Afghanistan. It’s about, as the tagline says, one platoon, in one valley, for one year. It goes deep into these soldiers’ lives without telling us much about their actual lives (where they’re from, why they signed up, etc.). It’s an emotional movie precisely because its emotions are restrained. It’s artistic without being artistic. It’s artistic in the Dedalean sense. It doesn’t inspire kinetic emotions but static emotions. The mind is arrested. In this sense maybe Afghanistan itself is artistic. Our mind has been arrested there for almost 10 years.

”Dedalean sense“ is a bit hifalutin but it refers to Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of James Joyce's ”A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.“ His definition of art is known to almost everyone—like myself—who wasted their college years as an English major:

The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion (I use the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.

Most movies are kinetic. Most documentaries are didactic, and you double-down on the didacticism if the doc is political. Wells, I would argue, wants ”Restrepo“ to be didatic. He wants it to say what he already knows—or what he finds out when he does his homework. That, I would argue, would be an OK doc but it wouldn't be ”Restrepo.“ ”Restrepo,“ I would argue, is better because it doesn't do this.

Another hifaultin quote about art, this one from Norman Mailer:

Art obviously depends upon incomplete communication. A work which is altogether explicit is not art, the audience cannot respond with their own creative act of the imagination, that small leap of the faculties which leaves one an increment more exceptional than when one began.

Part of the power of ”Restrepo“ lies in its restraint, in all that it holds back, in all that we feel as a result. It makes us care about these men and makes us wonder why they're there, and whether they should be there. We do this work, not the doc. We do this homework, if we haven't already. That's part of everything we bring to it. From A.O. Scott's review yesterday:

Like most movies of its kind, “Restrepo” avoids any explicit political discussion. The soldiers can’t wait to leave Korangal but are also determined to carry out their duties, and they don’t have the time or inclination to reflect on larger causes and contexts. But in their close observation of just how the war is being conducted, Mr. Junger and Mr. Hetherington provide plenty of grist for political argument. They also reveal one of the irreducible, grim absurdities of this war, which is the disjunction between its lofty strategic and ideological imperatives and the dusty, frustrating reality on the ground.

What are these guys doing there? It’s hard to watch this movie without asking that basic, hard question.

”Restrepo“ is a brilliant doc for other reasons as well. It sows confusion the way Afghanistan itself sows confusion. What is Restrepo? First it's a soldier. Then it's a dead soldier. Then it's an outpost, the furthest outpost in the Korangal Valley, named for this dead soldier. It's a name that hovers over everything.

The incident with the cow? First it's funny. Then it's happy (”That was a good day“). Then it's neither funny nor happy. It's yet another incident between the U.S. troops and the Afghan villagers that might be good but is probably bad. It's worrisome.

What about the enemy? It's an unseen enemy. We hear them fire on these men, and on the documentarians, but we never see them. Not once. That we know of. That, too, is worrisome.

Are we doing good there?

Is it worth it?

Should we leave?

What happens when we leave?

Hetherington and Junger trust us to come up with our own answers to these questions. They trust us to make that small leap of the faculties that leave us an increment more exceptional than when we began.

”Restrepo" opened yesterday in New York and L.A. It opens in Boston, Philly and Chicago on July 2; San Francisco, Houston and D.C. on July 9; and Dallas and Seattle on July 16.

Posted at 07:01 AM on Jun 26, 2010 in category Movies, Restrepo
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Friday June 25, 2010

Review: "Get Him to the Greek" (2010)

WARNING: SPOILERS, INIT?

The sadness that permeates the comedy “Get Him to the Greek” has less to do with the polite desperation of record flak Aaron Green (Jonah Hill), who has 72 hours to get notorious rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) from England to the eponymous theater in Los Angeles, nor with the ultimate emptiness of Snow’s dissolute, rock n’ roll life; it has to do with the state of rock n’ roll itself.

In each of the cities we visit in the movie, we get a quick spin through the musical landmarks—Whiskey A Go Go in L.A., Abbey Road in London, Roseland in N.Y.—and each feels less homage than memorial. Ah yes, I remember a time when music was central to our culture instead of whatever it is now: a sometimey, YouTube-y thing where real musicians fight for attention with your Mileys and Jonases, your “Britain’s Got Talent” and your “David After Dentist.” And lose. I remember when we listened, really listened to music, lying on the living room floor and reading the liner notes while the entire album played, instead of whatever it is we do now: downloading an MP3 file and playing it on shuffle in the background while we do busy work in the foreground. Oh, this is a good song. Love this song. Who is it by again?

At least “Greek” doesn’t pretend, the way “Be Cool” pretended, that the current music industry isn’t dying. It knows it’s dying. That’s why the president of Pinnacle Records in L.A., Sergio Roma (Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs), gathers his troops to hear their ideas. It’s also why they don’t have any. Some dude mentions a new discovery, the Next Big Thing, but this is a guy who always sees the Next Big Thing and his idea is dimissed with a flick of the wrist. That’s when Aaron Green pipes up about Aldous Snow. It’s the 10th anniversary of his show at the Greek Theater in L.A. Why not bring him back for an anniversary show—which can have all of these ancillary ways of making dough: PPVs and marketing tie-ins and what have you? Wouldn’t it be cool? It would. But Green, too, is dismissed. His idea is looking backward rather than forward.

Snow, whose character first appeared in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” is one of those thin-hipped, bad-boy, British rockers, and the movie opens in the late ’90s with him at his peak: shooting a video in Africa called “African Child,” with his girlfriend, model Jackie Q (Rose Byrne). But he’s an idiot and this is his moment of excess. He wants to be political, he wants to be relevant, and even mumbles something about the war in Darfour, and how “That isn’t right, is it?,” before singing an insane song about a white African Christ from space. Played by him. It’s “We are the World” meets David Bowie meets ick. The song bombs, his career is in shambles, while Jackie Q’s new music career takes off. She’s sexy and sings absurd, hilarious songs about sex (“Supertight”; “Ring ‘Round (My Rosie)”). She’s her own Pussycat Doll. She is what we have now instead of musicians: canned voices flouting sex.

Of course Roma comes around to the 10th anniversary concert and sends Green to England to bring back Snow. No small task. Green is polite, provincial, and in awe of the rock star. He’s a non-celebrity who has no leverage against a celebrity other than his honesty, which, initially, he refuses to use. Snow sizes him up and immediately finds him wanting.

Jonah Hill made his name as the street-smart half of duos—to Michael Cera’s fumbling geek in “Superbad” and Seth Rogen’s starstruck geek in “Funny People”—so this is really new ground for him. He’s drawing comedy not from telling us uncomfortable truths about ourselves but showing us an uncomfortable version of ourselves: the American abroad who doesn’t know foreign (even British) customs; the non-celebrity in the celebrity world. He’s good at it. His line-reading of “Europe,” after he kisses a Brit on both cheeks, French-style, still makes me smile.

Brand is in another orbit. He’s perfect. He plays Snow complex: both unaware and superaware; both dissolute and frightened. There’s something about Brit comedians, the lack of the wink, that’s almost scary, and Brand has that quality.

Given all this, the movie should be funnier. It’s funny, I laughed many times, and along with “African Child” we get great parodies of punk (“The Clap”), soaring rock ballads (“Bangers, Beans and Mash”) and gangster rap (“F**k Your S**t Up”), but I expected more. Maybe the film’s need to get warm and fuzzy tempered the humor. Maybe it got bogged down in Snow’s troubles with his father (Colm Meany). Maybe P Diddy’s suddenly psychotic record executive comes out of left field, or the menage a trois between Snow, Green, and Green’s girlfriend, Daphne (Elizabeth Moss of “Mad Men”), a resident doctor, pushes the envelope without pulling along the humor, or maybe Snow finally performing the Greek concert with a bone sticking out of his forearm is more unnecessary envelope-pushing that distracted from the proceedings.

Or maybe the movie just can’t overcome the sadness of its premise. A rock legend has to rush to get on the freakin’ “Today Show”? To do a lame 10th anniversary concert? It’s all look back. The dying music world still belongs to the Jackie Qs:

Ride Me
Inside Me
Super tight
Boom Boom
Shake A Room
Like It's Dynamite

That’s funny and it isn’t.

Posted at 06:41 AM on Jun 25, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Thursday June 24, 2010

SIFFles

The Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) ended a week ago Sunday after three packed weeks of movies. I saw eight of them. None of my films, not even “Restrepo,” wound up among the award winners (Golden Space Needle, etc.), which are listed on the SIFF site alphabetically. It's so like Seattle to list award winners alphabetically. We don't want to imply that one is better than another—even when we're saying that these are better than the others.

I'll say it, of course. Of the movies I saw, this is how I'd rank them:

  1. “Restrepo”
  2. “Au Revoir Taipei”
  3. “Garbo: The Spy”
  4. “L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot”
  5. “The City of Life and Death”
  6. “The Tillman Story”
  7. “The Actresses”
  8. “Zona Sur”

As for SIFF itself? It's a great film festival, a local treasure, the largest film festival in the country supposedly (in terms of attendance? length? films? all?), and just getting all of these films here so we can see them in a theater (as opposed to on DVD or not at all), and ahead of critics in N.Y. and L.A., makes one a bit abashed about any petty criticisms one may have.

But here I go being petty:

  • I saw “Restrepo” at the Harvard Exit, a group of us waiting outside in the semi-drizzle for nearly an hour on the off-chance of getting in. We got in. But just as we were buying tickets several people butted ahead of us to buy their tickets. But not to “Restrepo,” we found out. To “Les Secrets de sus Ojos.” Which was not part of the festival but was playing at the Harvard Exit nonetheless. I'm sure there was a reason a separate box office hadn't been set up for this non-festival movie, but I doubt the reason is worth the anxiety and bad feelings, for both “Restrepo” folks and “Ojos” folks, that the one line engendered.
  • The next day I saw “Zona Sur” at Pacific Place downtown. A separate box office had been set up there, but it was a separate box office with two lines: one to buy tickets, one to pick up tickets. I was in the pick-up tickets line. Unfortunately the pick-up tickets line was the outer line while the pick-up window was the near window, and this meant folks trying to pick up tickets had to cross through the line of folks trying to buy tickets. Once again: confusion and anxiety. Those of us in line talked about how the lines (or the windows) should be switched, and I did my complaining perhaps a trifly loudly (I'm a charmer that way), and when I got to the window, the SIFF volunteer at the other window complained to me about me. Basically he said I should zip it. When I said that all they needed to do was switch the lines and everything would be OK, he interrupted with, “Sir? Sir? Please don't feed the chaos!” A funny line, but in the end it solved nothing.

But all in all my experience this year was better than my experience last year, when the movie I most wanted to see, the “Mesrine” two-parter with Vincent Cassel, was canceled at the last minute. (I think our print wound up in my least-favorite state: Texas.) I still haven't seen that movie yet. On Netflix, its arrival date is “Unknown.” On the plus side, Scarecrow Video in Seattle says they have it for region 1 players.

As for SIFF's Award winners? I'll have to check them out. But I wouldn't be surprised if they were a little too arty for my taste. SIFF listed “Restrepo” as the fourth-best documentary of the festival, and, for the moment, I refuse to believe that three other documentaries could be that good.

Posted at 07:26 AM on Jun 24, 2010 in category Movies, Seattle, Restrepo
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Tuesday June 22, 2010

Jordy's Review: "Toy Story 3" (2010)

The following is a review of "Toy Story 3" by my nephew, Jordy, 8 going on 9. "Completely unedited" as his mother writes. Yes, with pride. 

Toy story has always been a good movie because it shows what true friends do for each other. Toy story 3 is no different. Some scenes will make you want to cry (especially for moms) some scenes will make you laugh, and in some  scenes you’ll want to make the movie shut up (like when this monkey with creepy eyes starts screeching like an idiot). But the point of the movie is the friendship between the toys, and I have to admit, this has a really good chance of winning animated movie of the year.

Toy story 3 starts off showing Andy playing with his toys in an imagination world. After that, it shows Andy growing up, and, before you know it, Andy is going to college. Woody and his friends must survive Andy’s decision on where they go, the toddlers later into the movie, and more. The story in TS3 makes sense, and it could happen (except the fact that toys don’t come alive, of course). The toys think that Andy has abandoned them and then they hop in a box that is in Andy’s car and the car takes them to Sunnyside daycare. (Watch the movie if you want to find out what happens, because I don’t spoil)!

The ending, in my opinion, is one of the best movie endings I’ve ever seen, and it is a great way to end a movie, because I cried when I saw it. There are lots of new, funny characters like Ken, who, in real life, is supposed to be made for Barbie girls, and it’s very funny to see the romance of them. TS3 is better than Toy story 2, but is it better then the first one? How about you go see the movie, and you decide which of the three is the best. Then vote for your favorite one at Erik Lundegaard’s website. Toy story 3 deserves it’s spot in the animated movie great’s, and it’s an experience that you’ll probably never forget. (It also has a great short called Night And Day. (Or you could call it Day And Night).

By Jordan Muschler

Posted at 06:23 AM on Jun 22, 2010 in category Jordy's Reviews, Pixar
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Monday June 21, 2010

Hollywood B.O.: Toys Find Homes; "Hex" Hexed

The original "Toy Story" was in many ways about that moment in our history when the astronaut or spaceman (Buzz Lightyear) eclipsed the cowboy or sheriff (Woody) as the hero in the imaginations of boys everywhere. Pin it somewhere in the early 1960s—about the time Tom Hanks was Andy's age.

It could also be about that cultural moment when science-fiction eclipsed the western as our pre-eminent genre. Even as boys imagined themselves as astronauts, for example, Gene Roddenberry still had to pitch the original "Star Trek" as a western: "'Wagon Train' to the stars," he called it. Now it'd be the opposite. And it wouldn't sell. "It's like 'Star Trek'...but on the dusty plains!" Yeah, have fun with that.

Well, sci-fi still soars and the western has still seen better days. Sheriff Woody rides off into the sunset as perhaps our last, great, popular western hero in "Toy Story 3," while the film's main competition this past weekend, "Jonah Hex," a western, got bucked. "Toy Story 3" won the weekend with an estimated $109 million take, while "Jonah Hex" finished eighth—eighth!—with $5 million. Not even a battle. It helped that "3" was a beloved sequel, universally acclaimed (98% RT rating) and in more than 4,000 theaters, while Jonah Hex was an original, universally panned (14% RT rating), and in 2,845 theaters.

But eighth? Behind the fourth weekend of "Prince of Persia" and the third weekend of "Killers"? Yeesh.

"Hex"'s per-theater-average ($1,800) was the second worst of the summer—behind only "MacGruber," which grossed "$4 million in 2,551 theaters for $1,585 per in May. Everything went wrong for "Hex," including its title, which now seems like bad foreshadowing. What's next? "Joe Box Office Bomb"?

In other news, and despite the competition from "3," "Karate Kid" did surprisingly well, falling off only 47% and taking second place with $29 million. It's already grossed more than $100 million. "The A-Team" fell off even less, 46%, but it had less to fall off from; it grossed $13 million. "Get Him to the Greek" lost over 100 theaters but dropped only 38%, while "Shrek" couldn't handle "3" and fell by 65%.

Here's a puzzler: With "Toy Story 3" opening, and with "Shrek" as nose-holding backup, people still plunked down $2.6 million of hard-earned, global-financial-meltdown money for "Marmaduke"? But that thing's almost gone, finishing 10th, and its total domestic gross ($27 million) is about 2/3 of what "Toy Story 3" grossed on Friday alone.

"Toy Story 3," by the way, was the best opening for a Pixar movie ever—beating out "Finding Nemo," which made $70 million in May 2003. This is true even when adjusted for inflation. ("Nemo" winds up with $92 million adjusted.)

Full chart here.

And don't forget to vote for your favorite "Toy Story" movie here.

Posted at 07:02 AM on Jun 21, 2010 in category Movies - Box Office, Pixar
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Sunday June 20, 2010

Poll Story 3

The poll below was recommended by my nephew Jordy. Vote early! Vote often!

Which of Pixar's "Toy Story" movies is your favorite?

Show poll results

Posted at 11:51 AM on Jun 20, 2010 in category Movies, Pixar
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Review: “Toy Story 3” (2010)

WARNING: A TOY CHEST FULL OF SPOILERS

“When I was a child I spake as a child,” 1 Corinthians 13:11 begins, “I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.” Sound advice. But what if you are the childish thing? That’s the dilemma of “Toy Story 3.”

Pixar’s “Toy Story” is essentially “The Godfather” of children’s movies—critically and popularly acclaimed, redefining the genre, with a lot of time between second and third installments—so one holds one’s breath with this third installment. No one wants another “Godfather III.”

We don’t get it. We get a fun and funny adventure movie with bittersweet moments, but also moments when the people at Pixar had to choose between the daring thing and the safe thing, and, despite their daring over the last few years with “WALL-E” and “Up," chose the safe thing. It’s hard to fault them. The daring thing is almost too daring for adults, let alone kids.

The movie opens in the insane world of a child’s imagination. A train robbery is being foiled by Sheriff Woody (voice: Tom Hanks) and his gal Jessie (Joan Cusack), but the train robbers, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), blow up the bridge, leaving the train full of screaming orphans (troll dolls) on a collision course with disaster! So Woody rides his horse next to the train, hops on, and applies the brakes. Too late! The train plummets into the chasm... only to be lifted up by, ta da!, Buzz Lightyear! (Tim Allen) The bad guys are about to be brought to justice but instead bring out their attack dog with force field. Ah, but the good guys have a dinosaur (Wallace Shawn) who eats force fields! Ha! But then the baddest guy of all, Hamm the Pig (John Ratzenberger), arrives in his giant pig spaceship and unleashes the monkeys, the barrels of monkeys, and the monkeys grab our heroes and hold them and stretch them every which way until... we’re out of Andy’s imagination and into his world, where his mom is filming his playtime adventures with a camcorder. It turns out, too, that this particular playtime was a long time ago. The toys are now sitting in the dark of the toy chest, where they haven’t been played with for a while, and Andy’s about to leave for college.

(A quick aside: I know this is a kid’s movie but you do have to wonder about Andy. Dude’s 18 and he still has a chest full of toys? In his room? And he’s taking Woody, his oldest, bestest toy, to college? That’s a guy who’s never getting laid. Or a guy who will eventually work at Pixar.)

His mom wants him to divide his things into one of four possible destinations—college, attic, daycare center, and trash—and she suggests the daycare center for the toys. Andy, affronted, unable to throw away what was once precious but is no longer relevant (we’ve all been there), sets Woody aside and puts everyone else into a trash bag for the attic. But it’s mistaken for trash-trash and taken to the curb. The toys affect a breathless escape, but, affronted by Andy’s treachery, and over the protestations of Woody, who saw all and remains loyal, happily get into the box destined for daycare. They want to be played with again.

I love that idea, by the way: Toys desperate to be played with. (We’ve all been there.)

The place is called the Sunnyside Daycare Center, with a sign outside featuring both sun and rainbow. Inside, our friends are greeted by friendly toys, including Lotso (Ned Beatty), a purple bear whose fur is worse for wear, and who walks with a cane, but who still smells like strawberries. He shows them the sights and takes them to another room, the Caterpillar Room, guarded by Big Baby, a plastic doll with one eye creepily half-closed. “Here’s where you folks will be staying!” Lotso says. But it’s a trap. They’ve been put in the toddler room and when the toddlers arrive, they do what toddlers do. They destroy. This is survival of the craftiest. Lotso and the others want to live as long as they can, and someone has to be sacrificed to the toddlers. For Buzz and the others, escape becomes necessary.

It’s a familiar scenario. Too familiar? It’s reminiscent of both “Toy Story 2” (the escape from the clutches of Al, the toy collector), and that great “Simpsons” episode where Maggie and the other babies in the daycare center devise a “Great Escape”-like plan to get their binkies back. But it works here because the director (Lee Unkrich), and the writers (Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Unkrich), get all of the details right. The initial escape attempt, through the inevitable slanted window above the doorway, is a veritable Rube Goldberg contraption, while the movie allusions—including the “night in the box” schtick from “Cool Hand Luke”—are subtle enough to not get in the way. Plus the dialogue is great. “Let's see how much we're going for on eBay,” a dejected Hamm says at one point.

But I particularly like the way they use familiar, sometimes generic toys for specific jobs. Thus the warning system for the bad guys, their eye-in-the-sky manning the security cameras, is one of those screaming monkeys with clanging cymbals. On the periphery you have a Fisher-Price chatter telephone, delivering cryptic warnings to Woody, or giving up the good guys at just the wrong moment. (Dude can’t stop chattering.) Lotso and company use the instruction manual for Buzz Lightyear to essentially reboot him back to his factory-model personality, while Ken (Michael Keaton), all ‘60s lingo and fashion, insists, in late-night poker games with the more manly toys, “I’m not a girl’s toy! I’m not! Why do you guys keep saying that?”

But the most brilliant use is Big Baby. Huge and lumbering, with a lazy eye like Forest Whitaker, Baby is the silent enforcer, a terrifying figure. Until she opens her mouth. Then out comes the gurgle or sigh of an infant. Big Baby really is just a baby.

The escape plan is a team effort, full of betrayals and counter-betrayals (is that a “Star Wars” homage with Lotso and Big Baby?), and our guys wind up riding the garbage truck with Lotso to the landfill, where they are put on a mechanized path to incineration but are saved at the last minute by the most unlikely of deus ex machinas.

It’s here, particularly here, with its echoes of “WALL-E,” that I wondered if “Toy Story 3” might not say something deep and meaningful about our consumerist society, our throwaway culture. Doesn’t happen. The lesson is there for anyone who wants it, but it remains in the background, while in the foreground we get more palatable lessons about loyalty and teamwork and going home.

Except what’s home for these guys? That’s the dilemma their adventures obfuscate for 90 minutes. In many stories, we start out in a safe place, we go off on a dangerous adventure, we get back to the safe place a little wiser. But these guys don’t have a safe place anymore. Or they don’t have a place where they are both safe and useful. They’re safe but no longer useful at Andy’s, and they’re useful but not nearly safe enough at Sunnyside. The toys go back home, in essence, so Andy can make the decision he should’ve made at the beginning: where their new home is going to be.

(One wonders what resolutions Pixar toyed with. Leaving our friends in the landfill? Incinerating them? Imagine Woody’s plastic face melting off like the Nazis at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” A moment of trauma for the kids in the audience but a lesson for a lifetime about what happens when we throw things away.)

Can we watch these movies and not think about our own toys? I used to have an army of stuffed animals to whom I gave names and personalities. Pooh Bear was the small but tough leader. Old Snoopy, the first stuffed Snoopy I owned, was big and dull—his parts couldn’t move well—and he tended to stay on the periphery, his tongue hanging out. New Snoopy, his replacement, was cute and playable—his parts moved, he could dance—but he eventually lost an ear or an arm (or an ear and an arm?) in a fight with a sibling. The most memorable, in his own way, was King Kong (Real name: Chester O’Chimp, 1964, Mattel), the stuffed monkey with the plastic face and the felt hands, who had a pull string and voice box, and said things like “Let’s go the zoo and see all of the wild people!” and “I’m just a little chimp! Duddly duddly dum.” He, too, eventually lost an arm. Whatever happened to them? What landfill did they wind up in? It’s sad just thinking about.

Can we watch these movies and not think about ourselves? What happens when we are no longer useful? What the toys go through in “3” is essentially what we will all go through. First we’re useful; then we’re not; then we’re taken to a home where we may be abused. We live in a throwaway culture where we’re the last thing thrown away.

“Toy Story 3” doesn’t want us to think about this too much, of course, so it gives us its bittersweet ending, where Andy finally, reluctantly, takes his childish things and gives them to Bonnie, shy Bonnie forever hiding behind her mother’s legs, where they will be both useful and safe. It takes a long time to get there. In Andy’s reluctance to let go, one sees the reluctance of Pixar itself, which began its empire with Woody and Buzz and Hamm and Rex (my personal favorite: always so excited; always so wrong), and finally has to put away its childish things.

This ending is both mature (in letting go of childish things), and not (the implication that the childish things, now with Bonnie, carry on to infinity and beyond). It’s a kind of a lie, but it’s a forgivable lie since it’s the same lie we tell ourselves every day. Yes, experience is fleeting. Yes, kids grow up and go out into the world. But we live forever.

Posted at 10:09 AM on Jun 20, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010, Pixar
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Friday June 18, 2010

Review: “Nanjing! Nanjing!” or “The City of Life and Death” (2010)

WARNING: 100,000-300,000 SPOILERS

Lu Chuan’s “Nanjing! Nanjing!” (international title: “City of Life and Death”) is to the Rape of Nanjing what Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” is to the Holocaust: a beautifully photographed, black-and-white epic about an unspeakable horror, with a leading, sympathetic role for a man on the side committing the atrocities.

Comparing a movie to “Schindler’s List” is generally a compliment but not here. Like “Schindler’s,” “Nanjing!” also reduces the unfathomable to the understandable. It allows itself melodrama. It tries to draw emotion out of us, all of us sitting in our safe theater seats, by showing us tragedy that can be comprehended (one baby tossed out a window) rather than horror that can’t (dozens of babies skewered on bayonets). It milks scenes for emotion when, given actual events, we should be drained of it.

When I lived in Taiwan 20 years ago I wondered why the Rape of Nanjing wasn’t better known in the West. Iris Chang, in her book, “The Rape of Nanking,” calls it “the forgotten holocaust of World War II,” and that seems accurate. It’s forgotten, or glossed over, by everyone but the Chinese, on whom it was perpetrated, and the Japanese, who were the perpetrators, and some of whom deny it happened. So it goes with unspeakable horrors.

The movie begins in December 1937 with the Japanese Army, which had already taken over Manchuria in 1931, and which invaded China proper in July, on the outskirts of the then-capital, Nanjing, a walled city. China had been a divided country since the revolution of 1911, and we see some of this division within Nanjing, as the majority of the Chinese Army, probably Kuomintang, attempt to flee, while a few hardy resisters, led by Lu Jianxiong (Ye Liu), engage in a kind of giant scrum to hold them back. They are unsuccessful. Most of the first hour of the movie deals with the heroic resistance of these last remnants, with a small child, Xiaodouzi (Bin Liu), constantly looking up to and emulating Jianxiong. Then, after surrender, all of these are systematically slaughtered.

The Mayor of Nanking fled on December 7 (always an infamous date), and the government, such as it was, switched into the hands of an international committee, led by German businessman and Nazi party member John Rabe (John Paisley), who established a “safety zone,” where the Japanese were nominally circumscribed as to who they could rape and kill.

What was it like? A foreign missionary, Rev. James M. McCallum, wrote the following in his diary:

I know not where to begin nor to end. Never I have heard or read such brutality. Rape! Rape! Rape! We estimate at least 1,000 cases a night, and many by day. In case of resistance or anything that seems like disapproval, there is a bayonet stab or a bullet ... People are hysterical ... Women are being carried off every morning, afternoon and evening. The whole Japanese army seems to be free to go and come as it pleases, and to do whatever it pleases.

How many Shanghai citizens were murdered? One hundred thousand? Three hundred thousand? How many women were raped? Twenty thousand? Eighty thousand? The numbers are staggering but they are only numbers, so Lu Chuan spotlights a few people to care about.

There’s Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), assistant to John Rabe, who, in the beginning, when his wife (Lan Qin) asks if Nanking is safe, replies, “I work for the Germans. We are safe.” One awaits for his rude awakening. One doesn’t wait long.

There’s Miss Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan), a pretty administrator, who also works inside the Safety Zone. Who is she? Who knows? She’s mostly pretty, and generically heroic, but of course both qualities work against her here.

Then there’s Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), the Japanese soldier who opens the film by waking up and shielding his eyes from the rising sun. Metaphor alert. His path, during the course of the film, will take him to a point where he can no longer shield his eyes from the Rising Sun and its atrocities.

Kadokawa is, like Oskar Schindler before him, both the enemy and the most finely drawn character of the bunch. There’s a not-bad, early scene with a Japanese “comfort woman,” with whom he has his first sexual encounter. He comes away thinking it means something, that she has feelings for him—even as another man takes his place—but a later scene reveals that she doesn’t even remember him. It would be slightly sad under normal circumstances but these are not normal circumstances. And yet it’s still sad. How does that work? I think, like Kadokawa, we want a touch of the humane amidst all this inhumanity. Like Kadokawa, we don’t get it.

I cared not a bit for Mr. Tang. Every move he makes is wrong. He rushes home to cut off the hair of his wife and daughter but it doesn’t help. He attempts to negotiate with the Japanese but they dismiss him. He attempts to bribe them with money and information, including the whereabouts of two Chinese soldiers in the Safe Zone, but he only gives the Japanese an excuse to enter the Safe Zone, where his wife/daughter are nearly raped, and where his baby is tossed out the window by a Japanese soldier. The camera holds on his stricken face for an eternity. I thought of “Sophie’s Choice"—that scene after the choice is made and the camera holds on Sophie's face, and she goes from horror to an even deeper horror, to a lifelong horror; and while I know it’s unfair to compare another actor with Meryl Streep (it’s like comparing another songwriter to Dylan or another novelist to Joyce), we get nothing close to that here. Tang starts out stricken and ends stricken. And the camera holding on him so long merely makes us aware that the camera is holding on him for so long.

Eventually a release is negotiated for Tang and his wife, along with a third man, and the three make their way to the exit gate, where John Rabe and a car wait on the other side of a 60-foot no-man’s land. But Ida (Ryu Kohata), the subtly sadistic Japanese commander, after a reference to Tang’s wife’s beauty, tosses in a wrinkle. Only two can leave. Ultimately the third man has to stay behind and Tang and his wife walk slowly across the no-man’s land. But halfway, Tang stops. His conscience won’t allow him to go on. He tells his wife this. She looks confused. He says he’s going back to look for May, her sister, who we know (and probably he knows) is dead, but he says this for his wife’s benefit. He knows he’s going back to an execution. Tang's gesture is supposed to be a grand gesture but it feels empty. His responsibility should be to his wife, and to the baby inside her, but instead it’s to...what? A sacrifice for this third man? A general sacrifice for the Chinese, whom Tang betrayed? Worse, when he makes his way back, his wife follows and pleads with him through the barb wire fence; and all the while, knowing Ida could change his mind on a whim, my mind screamed, “SOMEONE GET THAT UNRAPED WOMAN OUT OF HERE!!!” Then Tang is executed grandly—tied to a post, in ready-aim-fire fashion, with Ida, facing away, in the foreground—when a quick death, in which Tang is treated like the dog the Japanese saw him to be, would've been more effective. Not to mention more realistic.

The movie keeps doing this. Making grand what isn’t. Milking what has no milk. Making the naturally dramatic melodramatic.

Is there a smart Chinese character here? A heroic one after Lu Jianxiong? Near the end, the Japanese are loading men onto a truck to cart them off and kill them, but, for some reason, Ida allows each Safe Zone citizen to take one man off the truck to save them. Miss Jiang, still un-raped, still with her perfect hair, chooses Xiaodouzi, the boy who looked up to Lu Jianxiong in the beginning, and who survived the slaughter of the Chinese Army. But he survived with another man, a fat man, who begins to cry out for Miss Jiang to save him, too. He won’t shut up. He keeps saying her name, and drawing attention to himself, and to her, and in the audience I kept thinking, “Shut up. You’re a soldier, and a man, and you’re getting this woman into trouble to save your own fat ass.” Sure enough, she comes back for him. And sure enough, she’s targeted. Ida gives her the once over. He tells her Mr. Rabe can’t save her now. He says “Our people will be pleased.” Then she’s led away to become a comfort woman, to be, in essence, fucked to death. “Shoot me,” she says to a Japanese soldier. Luckily it’s our Japanese soldier, Kadokawa, and the camera cuts to his point-of-view. He’s just standing there. Then slowly he begins to move. Faster and faster. Up to the two soldiers leading Miss Jiang away. Will he or won't he? I suppose it’s something that writer/director Lu Chuan actually has us rooting for the death of a sympathetic character like Miss Jiang, but it still feels like the scene goes on too long.

As for Fatty? He and the boy get away. Kadokawa takes them outside the city to kill them but instead lets them go. “Life is more difficult than death,” he says, then chooses death for himself. Before the final credits, we find out what happened to all of the historical figures, how long they lived, etc., and for the child, Xiaodouzi, who may or may not be a historical figure, we’re told, “Xiaodouzi is still alive.” It’s a great moment, a “Fuck you” to the Japanese, but the earlier, getting-away scene doesn’t work. Kadokawa lets them go and he and Fatty smile before they even reach the woods. They smile too quickly given everything they’ve been through, how much they have to carry inside them, how cheap they now know life is. They smile as if they’re safe, when they should know, more than anyone, that there is no safe.

Posted at 06:59 AM on Jun 18, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Thursday June 17, 2010

Lancelot Links (Gets Covered in Oil)

  • With all of the people blah-blah-blahing about the BP oil spill, it's nice to read someone who knows a little history—like Elizabeth Kolbert over at The New Yorker. A few weeks back she had a smart “Talk of the Town” piece on what happened with the Union Oil Company spill off the coast of California in 1968, what we subsequently did (in part: Earth Day, the EPA), and what's gone horribly wrong since. Who's to blame? All of us in our SUVs, certainly. Plus a few others:

Members of the Drill, Baby, Drill Party have blocked efforts to raise the liability limits for oil spills, and have yet to muster a single sponsor for climate legislation. At the same time, they have sought to portray the spill as President Obama’s Katrina.

The President does, in fact, share in the blame. Obama inherited an Interior Department that he knew to be plagued by corruption, but he allowed the department’s particularly disreputable Minerals Management Service to party on. Last spring, in keeping with its usual custom, the M.M.S. granted BP all sorts of exemptions from environmental regulations. Ironically, one of these exemptions allowed the company to drill the Deepwater Horizon well without adhering to the standards set by NEPA.

If Joyce provided a tipping point toward baseball's embracing more technology, the irony is that baseball never seemed so human and empathetic as it did in the aftermath of his blunder.

  • Grace quote II:

Upon seeing a replay on the night of the blown call, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera said, “It happened to the best umpire we have in our game. The best. And a perfect gentleman. Obviously, it was a mistake. It's a shame for both of them, for the pitcher and the umpire. But I'm telling you, [Joyce] is the best baseball has, and a great guy. It's just a shame.”

This isn't BP's fault. This is rugby. And this is Gareth Thomas.

  • Smart talk from Andrew Sullivan and friends on members of the Tea Party: Part I here, Part II here. Why are they so angry? Why, if they care about deficits, did they not protest George W. Bush, whom most of them supported, as he raised our national debt from $5 trillion to more than $10 trillion? Why wait two months into the new guy's administration to take to the streets? Read on, read on, teenage queen...
  • He doesn't say it outright, but Jeffrey Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere was a pretty big “Greenberg” fan. He saw it four times and hopes it stays in the heads of critics long enough to make top 10 lists in December. He also rightly slams Universal Home Video for marketing the film as if it's a slightly nutty relationship comedy. They've changed the austere, almost black-and-white, word-ballon movie poster to something colorful and snuggly. From “What's life all about?” to “Will they or won't they?” Has anyone done a piece on the most egregious DVD cover art ever? I'm not talking discussion forums, and I'm not talking about straight-to-DVD, only-10-people-have-ever-seen-it-anyway movies. I'm talking about theatricial releases with decent or great poster art that was reduced, in the transition to home entertainment, to something generic and awful. I don't want to do that piece but I'd like to see someone (someone getting paid) do that piece.
  • The feds have approved box-office futures trading! I dibs James Cameron. I'd go short on this one
  • David Carr on “Restrepo,” the best movie I've seen this year.
  • Finally, a really nice piece by Geoff Young on Ken Griffey, Jr. 
Posted at 06:32 AM on Jun 17, 2010 in category Lancelot Links
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Tuesday June 15, 2010

R.I.P. CounterBalance

I think my friend Brenda, a competitive cyclist, told me about it first, and last week I saw it with my own eyes: the CounterBalance on Roy in lower Queen Anne is no more.

I've been going there since I moved back to Seattle in Sept. 2007. I work just two blocks away, so whenever I had a biking problem—flat tire, shitty brakes, odd sound, seasonal tune-up—there it was. Easy peasy. Guys were cool, work was fast. I'd bought my bike in August 2000 and ride every day, in all kinds of weather, from 5 degrees to 103, so problems always cropped up. It was the guys at CounterBalance, in fact, who told me last February that the frame on my bike had cracked. Gregg's confirmed it. I wound up buying a whole new bike. A new bike needs less work, of course, so I hadn't been back. First my bike goes, then the CounterBalance on Roy.

Shame. More than one million gallons of oil a day are spewing into the Gulf of Mexico and yet we keep driving and driving. We should be riding and riding. Places like CounterBalance should be opening shops rather than closing them down.

The farewell notice outside the former Counter Balance bike shop in lower Queen Anne, June 2010

Posted at 06:45 AM on Jun 15, 2010 in category Biking, Seattle
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Monday June 14, 2010

Hollywood B.O.: The B-Team

In the battle of the 1980s remakes, “The Karate Kid” kicked the butt of “The A-Team” at the U.S. box office last weekend: $56 million to $26 million. This is gratifying on several levels:

  • “Kid”'s Rotten Tomatoes rating is almost 20 points higher than “A-Team”'s, 70% to 53%, or among top critics 66% to 48%, and I've been a longtime proponent of the notion that quality matters.
  • Jackie Chan. I've been a fan since the days when the U.S. feared Japanese economic might rather than Chinese economic might, and I'm always happy when he does well at the U.S. box office.
  • “Kid” is a formulaic underdog story. “A-Team” is a formulaic overdog story. If you're going formula, I'll take the underdog.
  • “The A-Team” cost $110 million, stars three white guys and an angry black guy, and was futzed over by 11 screenwriters hired and fired by Fox, a studio which is infamous for dumbing down its product. “The Karate Kid” cost $40 million, stars a black kid and a Chinese guy, lists only one screenwriter, and its studio, Sony, was able to keep itself out of the conversation.

As for why it did well? I don't think any of the above really had much to do with it. I think it opened well for the following reasons:

  • It stars a kid who looks like a kid. Kids identify.
  • It's rated PG (rather than the more covetted PG-13) so kids can actually see it.
  • One line from the trailer: “I get it. You're Yoda and I'm like a Jedi.” 

What kid wouldn't want to go after hearing that line? It's a real-life Yoda-Luke thing!

As for the rest of the top 15? A steady if unremarkable decline for the crap May/June releases. It looks like “Sex and the City 2,” currently at $84.7 million, will peter out (sorry) before $100 million. It looks like “Robin Hood,” at $99.6 million, won't.

But the worst performer seems to be “Marmaduke.” After 10 days, in over 3,200 theaters, its domestic box office stands at a mere $22 million. Not good for a family comedy with a budget of $50 million. But this should be expected: its RT rating is only 11%. And its studio? Fox.

“I get it: You're Yoda and I'm like a Jedi.” The irony is that the old master, “Star Wars,” is a Fox film, but from its wiser, 20th Century days.

Posted at 08:49 AM on Jun 14, 2010 in category Movies - Box Office
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Sunday June 13, 2010

Open Letter to Patrick Goldstein

Dear Patrick:

Please stop writing about right-wing culture critics. Please. They're idiots. They think the product of Hollywood is liberal when it's blisteringly conservative. They study each film looking for some liberal thing that liberal Hollywood "snuck" into a film without asking themselves why liberal Hollywood would need to sneak some liberal thing into a film. You bend over backwards for these guys, you try to figure out where they're coming from, you think they can be appeased, but they can't be appeased. The first sentence of your post last Wednesday was about as laughable as any first sentence can be: "If we could wave a magic wand and do just one thing that would bring true happiness to the right-wing blogosphere, what would it be?" The answer? Nothing. There's nothing we can do. Right-wing culture critics are in a permanent state of dissatisfaction. That's their raison d'etre. That's their super power. They're like Mr. Furious from "Mystery Men." They have the power to get really, really angry... and that's it. Take away that power and they have nothing.

As for the space you're giving them? Please use it to cover the studios. Please. The day after your worthless post about the right-wing blogosphere, you wrote about Fox Studios and the way it handles its screenwriters—including 11 screenwriters for "The A-Team"—and that's exactly what the rest of us, who don't live in Los Angeles, and don't know from studio bosses, need.

We know a little about the studios. In one of the countless "Downfall" mashups last year, there was a line complaining about how Fox dumbs down its superhero movies, about how they'd give goddamn Wolverine webshooters and a bat cape if they could. So people know. Last year I wrote a post—"Dumb Like a Fox"—ranking each studios' super-saturated films over the last five years by their average box office. The studio with the lowest average box office? Fox. The studio with the fewest fresh films according to top critics at Rotten Tomatoes? Fox again. There's a correlation there that, for whatever reason, people keep missing. Particularly people at Fox.

So we know Fox sux; we just don't know why Fox sux. Your recent column helps. We even have a possible name to attach to all of these lousy films: Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman. Nikki Finke, in her column, absolves Rothman, but you imply that this is because he is her source, or someone close to him is her source. Either way, you make clear, his Finkeish absolution is a farce. You write:

As anyone who's ever worked at Fox can attest, the brilliant, hard-working and, well, often overbearing Rothman is at the center of every key decision -- and some not-so-key decisions -- made at the studio. When Brett Ratner was making "X-Men: The Last Stand" at the studio, he once complained that the studio couldn't even send out publicity material for the film until Rothman had approved the photo stills.

Then you write about the process at Fox:

At Fox, the real art form isn't the movie, but picking the right release date and creating the right poster and trailer. Fox is a packaging studio, where the most creative person isn't any of the screenwriters, but Tony Sella, the marketing wizard who has become something of a genius at crafting irresistible trailers, TV spots and poster art for less-than-irresistible movies.

So now we have a name and a process to back up the numbers. We're that much closer to accountability.

Please keep doing this. This is what you're good at. This is what makes your column worth reading. Find out for us what we can't find out. Let us know what we don't know. Right-wing culture critics? Not only can we find that out for ourselves, we already know what they're saying. And we know it's not worth knowing. 

Your sometime reader,
Erik

Posted at 08:20 AM on Jun 13, 2010 in category Movies - Studios, What Liberal Hollywood?
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Saturday June 12, 2010

Review: “Au Revoir Taipei” (2010)

WARNING: WO BU YAO GEI NIMEN SPOILERS

“Au Revoir Taipei” begins with a farewell scene next to a taxi on a wet Taipei street and ends with a farewell scene next to a taxi on a wet Taipei street, and much of the movie, which is charming and funny, is how the main character, Kai (Jack Yao), switches from being the guy left standing in the street to the guy riding away in the taxi. And whether he’s happier as a result.

Kai helps his parents with their noodle shop but he’s focused on his girlfriend, who, alas, is now in Paris. (She’s the one who left by taxi to start the film.) Kai wants to impress her so he spends his free time on the floor of a bookstore learning French; then he leaves her long-distance voicemails in stilted French reminiscent of the Colorado postal carrier in “Paris, je t’aime”—“Bon jour, Faye. Sans toi, Taipei est triste, tres triste”—before lapsing back into rapid-fire Mandarin. We see him leave several such voice mails. She never picks up. Not a good sign.

There’s another girl, of course, Susie (Amber Kuo), who works at the bookstore and teases him about his floor sitting. “This isn’t a library, you know,” she says. She quickly develops a crush on him, but, though she’s cute, he can't be bothered. He’s interested in the girl who isn’t there.

Meanwhile, Kai’s friend, Gao (Chiang Kang-Che), a sweet, supertall, mouth breather, has a crush on a fellow employee, Peach, at the convenience store where they both work.

Meanwhile, a full-of-himself cop, (Chang Hsiao-chuan), takes his girlfriend for granted until she leaves him.

Meanwhile, a neighborhood gangster, Bao Ge, near retirement, and fronting a legitimate real estate business, has fallen in love and agrees to one more score before he’s done.

Meanwhile, the gangster’s nephew, Hong (Ko Yu-Luen), wearing the orange pants and vest of a real estate agent, and about to inherit his uncle’s legitimate real estate business, wants a piece of the illegitimate action, and, with his ne’er-do-well buddies, all dressed in orange suits with big blue ties, plots to rob his uncle of his last, big score.

All of these elements collide one hilarious evening.

Writer-director Arvin Chen has a good visual shorthand. When Kai finally gets through to Faye, for example, we see him in his room, pacing and talking. Then he stops pacing. “Why?” he asks. Cut to: Kai in bed, crying.

Determined to fix their relationship, he asks his parents for the money for a plane ticket to Paris but they scold him for being impractical. So he goes to Bao Ge, who, amused by this neighborhood kid, and nostalgic about his own loves—first or otherwise—loans him the money. Then he asks a favor.

Kai is supposed to take a package with him to Paris, but the exchange is handled clumsily, and watched by both the cops and the nephew’s ne’er-do-well gang. Everyone gives chase. Kai and Bao bump into Susie, but, Gao, slow and intent on food, is subsequently separated from the others and kidnapped by the orange-suit gang—although these guys come off less as gangsters than confused high school kids on a caper. “What do we do with him?” one asks. Pause. Longer pause. Finally Gao, with a vague, uncertain lilt, speaks up: “Just drop me off anywhere around here,” he says. It's a great line reading.

Tied up in a hotel room, he shares restaurant information with the gang while they give him relationship advice, such as it is, about Peach. They play mah-jong and he trumps them. “I told you guys,” he says. “I have mad mah-jong skills.” He’s like a pleasant, less-icky version of Napoleon Dynamite.

Is too much of the film derivative? Along with “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Paris je’taime,” I caught whiffs of early Woody Allen in the whimsical soundtrack and Wes Anderson in the tone, camera placement, and the uniformity of clothes (here: orange suits) as a running visual gag. One joke comes directly from “Midnight Run” while the ending is reminiscent of the ending of “Slumdog Millionaire.” Everyone dances.

Even so, I had a great time watching “Au Revoir, Taipei.” The actors who play Gao and Hong are both hilarious, while the romantic leads are cute and sweet. One could call Amber Kuo’s Susie the quintessential Taipei girl: feisty, pouty, fragile. You fall in love with her and want to smack Kai for taking so long to fall in love with her.

It’s a world full of passivity and best-laid plans but mostly it’s a very safe world: broken hearts are easily mended, young gangsters and cops are easily distracted, and the gun introduced in the first act doesn’t go off in the third.

Posted at 07:40 AM on Jun 12, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010, Movies - Foreign
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Friday June 11, 2010

My Jackie Chan (成龍) Retrospective

The remake of “The Karate Kid” opens today, starring Will Smith's son. Second-billed is some guy named Jackie Chan, with whom I have something of a history. At least I keep writing about him:

How big of a fan was I? Not enough to like “The Medallion,” or “Around the World in 80 Days,” or “The Spy Next Door,” but in the mid-1990s I was actually a member of the Jackie Chan Fan Club—the only fan club (officially, Salma!) I've ever been a member of:

Hell, this is a dream I had back in 1994—back when I used to write down my dreams:

Jackie Chan and his entourage are on an old “Mike Douglas Show” from the 1970s. They are the main guests of the day. Jackie is so enthusiastic he comes across as clownish. He's depicted as “the wacky stuntman/actor from Hong Kong.” There's a musical number as well, with another actor (his co-star from “Armour of God”?) singing, then sprinting towards the camera, then over the camera; one imagines him sliding on his knees toward the audience. It's so cheesey I’m embarrassed. Jackie, meanwhile, is in the background, sometimes clowning, sometimes playing an instrument. Nobody gets the talent that’s there, but they’re not exactly demonstrating it, either.

1994 was the year I tried to get anyone in America to publish anything on Jackie Chan. No one was interested. “He's the biggest movie star in the world,” I'd say, “and we don't know who he is!” They preferred not knowing. They couldn't tie it to anything being sold so they felt there was no point. The one pub that actually published a piece of mine on Jackie was The Stranger, an alternative weekly here in Seattle, and they did it because something was being sold. The Varsity Theater in Seattle was holding a retrospective on Hong Kong cinema in general and Jackie's cinema in particular, so they gave me 1,000 words. It was called “Fightingest Man Alive” (not by me) and appeared in September 1994. Excerpts:

I'll cut to the chase. Jackie Chan is the greatest action star making movies today. He may be the greatest action star in the history of cinema...

What action stars do we admire? Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. What do they do? Not much. They look strong and hold guns and  enunciate (just barely) bad puns as they blow away bad guys. What does Jackie do? He fights, yes, but he also runs away. He is self-effacing. He clowns. ... His physique is the result of his training. For Stallone and Schwarzenegger, their physiques are the reason for their training. There's a difference and it shows...

Even a western star with a martial arts background like Jean-Claude Van Damme doesn't compare. In Project A (1983), Chan is fleeing his enemies, riding a bicycle through narrow alleyways, when a bad guy blocks his way. Unable to turn around, Chan puts his weight on the handlebars, plants his feet on the opposing walls, swings the bike like a weapon and knocks the guy down. A second later he continues his flight, not realizing his bike seat has fallen off. Cue grimace. This is the essence of Jackie Chan: the extraordinary followed by the farcical. Van Damme, in comparison, may use his legs to suspend himself between two walls, but the way the camera lingers on this talent is narcissitic, and, in the end, duller than spit. In the time it takes, Jackie could have fought past 10 henchmen and continued his lurching flight to safety.

Inaimate objects become animinated in his hands in a way that has not occurred in the movies since Fred Astaire danced with hat-trees. Give Arnold a wooden bench and what does he do with it? Probably hits someone over the head. (“Have a seat.”) Give Jackie a wooden bench and it becomes not just a weapon but a thing of beauty...

That was a long time ago. I'm glad he's still rolling. I'm glad I'm still rolling. I hope “Karate Kid” does well...for his sake. Hsie hsie ni, Cheng Long...

  

Posted at 07:12 AM on Jun 11, 2010 in category Movies - Foreign
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Tuesday June 08, 2010

Lancelot Links

  • It's worth noting that, for all of the U.S.'s problems, many people would still like to live here. According to a recent Gallup poll, focused mostly on Mexican immigration, 700 million people worldwide said they would like to live in a different country, and 165 million chose the United States. The Compass sees this as “the country's capacity to regenerate itself and stave off a decline in population. America's two major great power rivals - China and Russia - can boast of no such attraction.” I'd go further. I think immigration is the only thing that can save us from inevitable decline, because it fills the country with people with drive rather than with a sense of privilege.
  • Related: Who wants to work at the FoxConn plant in Shenzhen, China? It's a tragic situation, but, I have to admit, the dueling headlines at the New York Times yesterday made me laugh. In the morning: “After Suicides, Scrutiny of China's Grim Factories.” The story's all about the horrible conditions for these Chinese factory workers, 12 of whom attempted or committed suicide in the past year. In the afternoon: “Changes in China Could Raise Prices Worldwide.” It's all about how rising wages for these factory workers, including those at FoxConn (doubled to US$300 per month), will impact your wallet. It's our schizophrenia in one neat package. “Oh, how awful for these poor people!”/“Wait, I don't want to spend more money for a T-shirt, an iPhone, a slinky!” See also: “BP sucks!”/“I'm driving to the gym in my SUV!”
  • Is this part of our schizophrenia or just part of our assholedom? I'm talking the controversy surrounding the mural at Miller Valley Elementary School in Prescott, Arizona. Lord. Roger Ebert has a nice, personal essay on race in response, but Arizona's becoming a real embarassment. Remember “Mississippi, Goddam”? Try “Arizona, Goddamn.”
  • FYI, but I would read a Newsweek magazine redesigned by David Carr.
  • Movies! Matthew Belinkie at overthinkingit.com on “Jaws” and Chief Brody's heroic journey, complete with phallic and impotent images.“ It's a fun read that clarifies the film. I'm also warming up to his contention that ”the summer blockbuster is about a regular Joe becoming a real man" (i.e., Neo, Peter Parker, Harry Potter), and that Chief Brody was the first of these regular joes. Sorta kinda maybe. He was still a man, of course, just not a man's man. He had a real job and a real family. But what does this trend mean? Is it a positive (characters aren't thrust whole into the storyline but must develop) or a negative (wish fulfillment for all the half-men out there)?
  • Finally, there was a lot of puffed-up talk about Jim Joyce's blown call in Armando Galarraga's perfect game last Wednesday, but the best thing written about the entire affair was written within hours of the game. By my man Joe Posnanski. Read the whole thing. Please. Excerpt: 

Galarraga pitched a perfect game on Wednesday night in Detroit. I’ll always believe that. I think most baseball fans will always believe that. But, more than anything it seems that Galarraga will always believe it. The way he handled himself after the game, well, that was something better than perfection. Dallas Braden’s perfect game was thrilling. Roy Halladay’s perfect game was art. But Armando’s Galarraga’s perfect game was a lesson in grace.

Posted at 08:33 AM on Jun 08, 2010 in category Lancelot Links
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Monday June 07, 2010

Review: “The Tillman Story” (2010)

WARNING: REDACTED SPOILERS

As someone who just lived through the 2000s I can honestly say that W.H. Auden didn’t know from low dishonest decades.

Auden used the phrase in his poem, “September 1, 1939,” about the 1930s:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade...

His low dishonest decade ended with war, ours began with it. The dishonesty of his decade was the enemy’s, masterminded by Nazi Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebels, which played on our hopes for peace. The dishonesty of our decade was our own, the Bush administration’s, masterminded by Karl Rove, which played on our fears, as well as our corresponding need for heroes. The administration that couldn’t stop attacking Hollywood kept using the tropes of Hollywood to gather power and silence opposition.

Pat Tillman was a minor figure in all of this, a pawn in the Bush administration’s game, and “The Tillman Story,” a documentary written by Mark Monroe and directed by Amir Bar-Lev, is his family’s attempt to set the record straight.

Most of us are familiar with some part of the story. On Sept. 10, 2001, Pat Tillman was a an All-Pro safety with the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League, happily married and making millions of dollars. Eight months later he joined the U.S. Army Rangers. He served a tour in Iraq in 2003. In his second tour, in Afghanistan, on April 22, 2004, he was killed. He was posthumously promoted to corporal and awarded the Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest award for combat valor, because of “gallantry on the battlefield for leading his Army Rangers unit to the rescue of comrades caught in an ambush,” according to the New York Times. A memorial service was held in San Jose, Cal., and Tillman was eulogized by the Pentagon, by politicians, and throughout the media as a patriotic hero-soldier who died selflessly for his country and for his fellow soldiers.

Except it was a lie. During an ambush by enemy forces near the village of Sperah, close to the Pakistan border, yes, Tillman led several men to higher ground; but they were subsequently mistaken for the enemy and fired upon by their own troops. Tillman and a member of the Afghanistan Military Police were killed by friendly fire.

Everyone on the ground knew this. There was no mistaking it. But the lie got out quickly.

Reading the first, heroic press accounts, with details provided by the Pentagon, is to be steeped in Bush-era bullshit. From USA Today:

When the rear section of their convoy became pinned down in rough terrain, Tillman ordered his team out of its vehicles “to take the fight to the enemy forces” on the higher ground.

As Tillman and other soldiers neared the hill's crest, he directed his team into firing positions, the Army said. As he sprayed the enemy positions with fire from his automatic rifle, he was shot and killed. The Army said his actions helped the trapped soldiers maneuver to safety “without taking a single casualty”...

A month later, the truth seeped out, but it wasn’t well-covered. As the saying goes: the mistake is always on page 1, the retraction on page 14. From the May 30th New York Times:

Ex-Player's Death Reviewed
Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals football player, was probably killed by allied fire as he led his team of Army Rangers up a hill during a firefight in Afghanistan last month, the Army said.

Sometimes there’s no retraction at all. The following is every USA Today news headline about Tillman from 2004. Notice how they fed on him until they didn't:

  • Tillman killed in Afghanistan (April 23, 2004)
  • Moment of silence at NFL draft (April 24, 2004)
  • Tillman's legacy of virtue (April 25, 2004)
  • Body returns to U.S. (April 26, 2004)
  • Army promotes Tillman to corporal (April 29, 2004)
  • Tillman posthumously awarded Silver Star (April 30, 2004)
  • Items related to Tillman sold on E-bay (May 2, 2004)
  • Tillman mourned by hometown (May 2, 2004)
  • Tillman memorial service held in San Jose (May 3, 2004)
  • Arizona salutes Tillman (May 8, 2004)
  • Report details Tillman's last minutes (Dec. 5, 2004)

Not only did Tillman not die the way they said, he didn’t live the way they said, either. “He didn’t really fit into that box they would’ve liked,” Tillman’s mother, Mary, mentions in the doc.

He joined the Rangers to fight al Qaeda but wound up in Iraq and wasn’t happy. “This war is so fucking illegal,” one of his brothers quotes him saying. He had an open curious mind at odds with the incurious absolutism of the time. There’s hilarious footage of Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity refusing to believe that Tillman read linguist and conservative bete noire Noam Chomsky. (Because it didn’t fit into their notions of a football player? A soldier? A conservative hero? All of the above?) Fellow Ranger Bryan O’Neal, a Mormon, talks about coming across Tillman, a religious skeptic, possibly an atheist, reading “The Book of Mormon.” He wanted to see what was what.

He swore like a truck driver and loved risking his life. He jumped from high places and climbed to higher places. He was that rare tough guy who didn’t need to show how tough he was. He never hazed recruits. He didn’t yell and get into the face of men who screwed up—as is the Army way. O’Neal recounts how, when he screwed up, Tillman took him aside and told him how disappointed he was. That was it. According to O’Neal, that was enough.

This is straight out of his father’s vocabulary, by the way. In the doc, Patrick Tillman says he’s “disappointed” in Pfc. Russell Baer, Tillman’s fellow Ranger, who was the first to lie to the family about the incident. He tells the Army in 2005 that he’s “disappointed” in them, too. The mother is lauded in the doc but the father dominates it. Thinner than his son, with the same lantern jaw, he seethes with rage. Still. He wants the answer to a simple question: Who lied about his son’s death? Eventually he tells the Army, in writing, “fuck you,” and this—and a Washington Post editorial—got their attention. In August 2005, the Pentagon launched an internal investigation into the incorrect reports of Tillman’s death. In March 2007, the report pinned the blame on a lieutenant general who had already retired. They took away one of his stars. There were some congressional hearings, and joint chiefs and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied knowledge of blah blah blah, and had no recollection of yadda yadda. It all petered out.

“The Tillman Story” is a sad story but it’s not a great doc. It focuses too much attention on the Tillman family rather than on Tillman himself. Like the family, it can’t accept the military’s non-answer, and, panning up the command flowchart to Pres. George W. Bush, spends too much time insinuating who might’ve ordered the falsification of Tillman’s death. At the same time, it’s so vague in describing Tillman’s actual death that a friend, who saw the doc the same time I did, assumed Tillman had been “fragged” rather than killed by friendly fire.

For all the attempts to release Tillman from his box, too, its portrait isn’t as complete as in Jon Krakauer’s book “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.” In particular it ignores an incident during his senior year of high school, when Tillman, thinking he was defending a friend from an ass-whooping, put an innocent kid into the hospital. His life was nearly derailed by this—he served jail time and came close to losing his scholarship to Arizona State—but he came out of it, according to Krakauer, more contemplative and slower to temper. He came out closer to the man he would become. The doc would’ve benefited from this story.

But it’s a good reminder. Just six years ago we were all living through this: Jessica Lynch, WMDs, smoking gun/mushroom cloud, Video News Releases (VNRs), fake White House correspondents, the firing of U.S. attorneys, the outing of Valerie Plame, “greeted with flowers,” “Mission Accomplished,” “a few bad apples,” “last throes.” And Pat Tillman. What company to keep. If I were his family, I’d be enraged, too.

Posted at 07:49 AM on Jun 07, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010, Politics, Movies - Documentaries
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Sunday June 06, 2010

Hollywood B.O.: “Shrek” Holds off “Marmaduke” with One Hand

Dreamworks should send a thank-you note to Fox. This weekend, Fox's “Marmaduke” opened to bad reviews (12% among RT's top critics) and weak box office ($11 million in 3,200+ theaters, or sixth place), allowing Dreamworks' tired, overweight “Shrek” to huff atop the weekend charts for the third time.

Of course if Dreamworks begins its “thank you”s there, where do they stop? Thanks, Lions Gate, for putting so much money and effort into another Ashton Kutcher movie. Thanks, New Line, for trotting out Carrie and the girls (on camels!) one time too many. Thanks, Disney, for attempting to build a franchise around a video game even though only one video-game adaptation, “Lara Croft,” ever grossed over $100 million, while the streets are strewn with pieces of the rest: “Max Payne,” “Doom,” “BloodRayne,” “Street Fighter.” Thanks, everyone. 

Here's the weekend top 10. Reverse some positions and the top-10 grossing movies are also the top-10 movies in terms of availability. We're seeing what's out there. Which is why we're not seeing much:

* top critics only

A year ago “The Hangover” opened with an RT rating of 78% and grossed $44.9 million in its first three days. Pixar's “Up,” in its second week, with an RT rating of 95%, finished second with $44.1 million. “Land of the Lost” and “My Life in Ruins” both received scathing reviews and died out of the gate. They keep sending us movies to die out of the gate.

Here's the good news if you just want Shrek to go away: “Toy Story 3” arrives in two weeks.

Me, I've only been seeing SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) movies the past two weeks. Thus far? “Restrepo.” Repeat: “Restrepo.”

Posted at 12:45 PM on Jun 06, 2010 in category Movies - Box Office, Restrepo
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Saturday June 05, 2010

Review: “L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot” (2009)

WARNING: HELLISH SPOILERS

In an episode of “Dirty Sexy Money,” Craig Wright’s short-lived, slightly skewed take on the “Dynasty”s of the world, Nick George (Peter Krause), lawyer to the wealthy Darling family, finally gets around to donating some of his money to charity. That was the reason he took the job in the first place—so he’d be rich enough to help his favorite causes—but money and power have already begun to curdle things for him, and as one non-profit thanks him profusely for the check, saying, “You have no idea how much this will change things,” Nick smiles and responds, “I know. But I’m giving it to you anyway.”

I thought of this scene while watching “L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot,” Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s documentary on one of the great unmade films by one of the great French film directors.

L'enfer d'Henri-George ClouzotWhat sinks a film already in production? It’s rarely one thing. In “Lost in La Mancha,” a 2002 documentary on Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated attempt to make a modern Don Quixote, with Johnny Depp as his Sancho Panza, the problems are numerous: a tight schedule, crappy weather, and ill health (Gilliam’s aging Don Quixote, Jean Rochefort, had to return to France with an enlarged prostate). But what truly killed the production was an unwillingness to compromise. When Harvey Keitel suddenly seemed wrong for “Apocalypse Now,” Francis Ford Coppola replaced him with Martin Sheen and finished the film. When Jason Robards fell ill during “Fitzcarraldo,” Werner Herzog replaced him with Klaus Kinski and finished the film. But when Rochefort returned to France with his enlarged prostate, Gilliam waited. And waited. And waited. Rochefort was the Don Quixote he wanted and he refused to get another. And he never finished the film.

By 1964, when he began production on “L’enfer,” his tale of insane jealousy between a young married couple in a small, resort town in southern France, Henri-Georges Clouzot was already a legendary director, but a decade removed from his more famous films, “Le salaire de la peur” (“Wages of Fear”) and “Les diaboliques,” and two decades removed from my personal favorites, “Le corbeau” and “Quai des Orfevres.”

More, since his last film, “La vérité” with Brigitte Bardot, in 1960, the New Wave, French or otherwise, had taken hold of the imagination of world cinema; and while the young artistes certainly admired Clouzot, some felt his craftsmanship and storyboarding—everything planned beforehand so he could concentrate on the actors—were at odds with the New Wave’s love of the improvisational. They admired him but felt something about him was... passé.

Clouzot himself had become enamored of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2,” and its, to him, “new way of using images,” and one wonders if he didn’t feel the need to prove something—either to the upstarts or to himself.

“L’enfer” was being bankrolled by Columbia Pictures, and Hollywood executives arrived early in the process to screen the first shots. One anticipates their reaction. A European director who wants to use images “in a new way” versus American moneymen who are never interested in the new or artistic. They’ll give him dull notes. They’ll whittle him down. They’ll point him toward the obvious.

Instead they did something more disastrous. They gave him money.

They loved what they saw and Clouzot received “an unlimited budget.” Says one of the crew: Clouzot then “went off into a world of tests that were completely new to the camera.”

We see some of these tests—depicting husband Marcel’s descent into the madness of jealousy—and they’re startling and beautiful nearly 50 years later. Lights swirl around the face of star Romy Schneider, playing the wife, Odette, and in milliseconds she switches from dutiful to demonous and back again. Is she smiling at me or laughing at me? What secrets does she hold? Who IS she? I went through a bout of extreme jealousy 25 years ago and these shots brought it all back again.

Most of the movie was filmed in black-and-white, but for these delusional scenes—his “Oz,” as it were—Clouzot used color. He filmed Schneider waterskiing and turned the lake blood red. He filmed her with cold, blue lipstick. He became obsessed with Marcel’s obsession. The plan was for four weeks on location and 14 weeks in the studio, but Clouzot was falling behind schedule and the crew felt directionless. One of his leads, Serge Reggiani, who played Marcel, and for whom Clouzot fought to get on the film, didn’t like this lack of direction—for the movie or his own character—and walked off the set, never to return. Now Clouzot had to find a new lead and reshoot scenes before they drained the reservoir in a few days.

And that’s when he had a heart attack. The fact that it happened while he was filming two women, Schneider and co-star Dany Carrel, kissing on a boat, is amusing sidenote.

Clouzot lived another 13 years, and made one more film, “La Prisonniere” in 1968, but “L’enfer” was never finished.

What might it have been? Let me state outright that I’m not much of a fan of movies where form overtakes content—as in Clouzot’s delusional scenes—or where, as moviegoers, we see the lead’s problem at the outset (he’s a gambler, he’s an alcoholic, he’s consumed with jealousy), and then watch his slow, inevitable descent. All we’re left to wonder is, “Where’s bottom?” and I want more to wonder than that.

That said, what remains of “L’enfer” looks amazing. It’s the maestro showing the upstarts a few things.

Like Gilliam’s Don Quixote film, the problems with “L’enfer” begin with a tight schedule and end with ill health, but in the middle, rather than the bad weather Gilliam encountered, Clouzot found good fortune. One can imagine him smiling as Columbia executives announced his unlimited budget. One can imagine him saying, “You have no idea how this will change things.”

Posted at 08:39 AM on Jun 05, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010, Movies - Foreign
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Thursday June 03, 2010

SIFF Quote of the Day

“Grandmother, melancholy grips my heart when I think of your old violin.”

—Opening words of a trailer for a film playing at SIFF, the Seattle International Film Festival. I'm a SIFF fan but this is almost a parody of an overly precious SIFF film.

Posted at 06:36 AM on Jun 03, 2010 in category Trailers, Movies
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Wednesday June 02, 2010

Lancelot Links

  • The Texas State Board of Education wants to put Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy into their textbooks. Michael Lind of Texas says have at. (My first thought: They're not in textbooks? How do you teach the U.S. Civil War without those idiots?)
  • Michael Lewis writes a mocking, open memo to the CEOs of Wall Street, congratulates them for diverting attention from breaking up banks and banning CDOs, and then lays out the three remaining steps needed to waylay any meaningful financial reform. Reconsult in a month.
  • Andrew Sullivan slaps down Peggy Noonan. Good for him. She needs slapping down. I still remember that awful book she wrote about the Reagan/Bush years, “What I Saw at the Revolution,” and how she began a chapter on Pres. Reagan thus, “I first saw him as a shoe,” and how, in that first paragraph, she describes the shoe in detail, and confesses to wanting to cradle it and protect it from bad weather. My god. That anyone offers her any gigs after that...
  • From Jeff Wells' site, a great clip of Orson Welles on the old “Dinah Shore” show explaining why there are no true audiences left. Smart, smart, smart.
  • What's your earliest film memory? Nathaniel Rogers of Film Experience wants to know. He doesn't remember his but one of his earliest memories about a movie is the summer of '75 and “Jaws,” and how the poster, just the poster, made him scared of swimming in the backyard pool. Love the accompanying comic strip.
  • It's the 50th anniversary of Jean-Luc Goddard's “Breathless” and David Thomson isn't celebrating. So it's not just me.
  • Adam Liptak has a fun article on those crazy U.S. Supreme Court justices and baseball. They're fans.
Posted at 06:35 AM on Jun 02, 2010 in category Lancelot Links
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Tuesday June 01, 2010

Review: “Zona Sur” (“Southern District”) (2010)

WARNING: THE DECLINE AND FALL OF SPOILERS

“Zona Sur” (“Southern Disrict”) is Juan Carlos Valdivia’s film about the fall of a wealthy, decadent family in modern-day La Paz, Bolivia, and do you see how my words are running to the right, always to the right? How do you feel now that I’ve mentioned that my words are moving to the right, always to the right? Aren’t you paying more attention to the fact that my words are running to the right, always to the right, than to what I’m actually saying?

That’s what watching “Zona Sur” is like.

Zona SurThe movie opens in a lush garden outside a nice home in La Paz, where Andres (Nicolas Fernandez), the youngest son of family matriarch Carola (Ninon del Castillo), returns from shopping with Wilson (Pascual Loayza), the cook and butler; and as they talk with the family gardener/housekeeper, the camera keeps drifting to the right until it turns in a complete circle, 360 degrees, and winds up where it started. Then the next scene begins in the kitchen, with the camera continuing its rightward, circular drift. “Interesting,” I thought. “I wonder how long Valdivia can keep this up?”

Answer? The entire frickin’ movie.

Every once in a while, when young Andres is in his tree house, or on the terra-cotta roof of the house, where he talks to his imaginary friend, Spielberg (yes, that Spielberg), the camera pans up, but that’s about the only time we’re saved from this rightward drift. Otherwise it’s a slow, dizzying circle of a movie. The family’s drifting? They’re drifting down? Whatever. Just stop.

We never see the family flush. Carola is still wheeling and dealing with whatever relationships she has, but she’s running out of money. She hasn’t paid Wilson in six months, and her bratty kids, Patricio (Juan Pablo Koria), and Bernada (Mariana Vargas), are in college or about to start college. They remain oblivious to their circumstances, however, and obsessed with love (Bernada) and sex (Patricio). Patricio is so spoiled and insular that his mother buys him condoms for his frequent trysts with his girlfriend in his room. He talks of becoming a great constitutional lawyer, but the only time we even hear about him outside the house (because we never actually see him, or almost any of them, outside the house), he loses the family car in a poker game to Iraqis. He’s a dolt. And we know why. Even here he bends his mother to his will. Initially she's furious that he could be so careless, so foolish. Later, while she’s laying in bed, he gives her a foot massage, then kisses her foot. Her rubs her neck. “Do you forgive me?” she asks. “You’re such a ball buster,” he responds. Yes, their relationship is icky.

Meanwhile, Wilson, who hasn’t been paid in six months, is beginning to resent being taken advantage of, and is lax in responding to Carola’s demands. He uses her shower and lotions when she’s not there. As money diminishes, lines are blurred.

The family is virtually fatherless (she’s divorced), and different members often stand for long, somber shots looking out windows. They’re trapped there, you see. They’re insular. They don’t know how to live in the world. The only member who doesn’t do this, and who’s worth a damn, is Andres. He wants to learn how to cook, like Wilson, and he asks all the adults he meets what they wanted to be when they were kids. It’s as if he’s trying to figure out his place in a world where, yes, he’ll need a job.

But we know all of this 15 minutes in. The rest, 90 minutes, is downward drift of a beautifully photographed family that isn’t worth our time.

The spoiled kids of "Zona Sur" (2010)

The kids. She can't meet her lesbian lover outside zona sur; he can't buy his own condoms.

Posted at 06:56 AM on Jun 01, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010, Movies - Foreign
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