erik lundegaard

Monday August 30, 2010

Review: “Mesrine: L’instinct de mort” (2008)

WARNING: SPOILERS, PART UN

“Mesrine: L’instinct de mort,” the first part of a two-part movie on notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine, which, in February 2009, garnered Vincent Cassel the Cesar for best actor and Jean-Francois Richet the Cesar for best director (but lost best picture to “Seraphine”), and which only now is being shown in U.S. theaters, is a zippy biopic about a brutal man who crammed a whole lot of activity into a short span of time.

At one point, for example, we see him, after an attempted bank robbery, walking into prison. The graphics inform us: Evreux Prison, 1962. His wife and daughter visit him there; he’s overjoyed to see both. He serves his time. When he gets out he goes straight. He gets a job at an architectural design company, working for a man named Tabacoff, has another kid, then a third. But times are tough, Tabacoff has to lay him off, and when he does Mesrine returns to a life of crime. His wife objects. In one scene she threatens to call the cops and he smacks her, then forces a gun into her mouth and tells her, “Between you and my friends, I choose them. Every time.” His young son is watching on the landing above. “Mama?” he says. “Take care of your kid!” Mesrine sneers, and goes out into the world. But his boss, Guido (Gerard Depardieu), tells him times are changing, Pres. de Gaulle is cracking down on their syndicate, so Mesrine has to get inventive. In the next scene he walks into a bar, and the graphics inform us: Paris, 1966.

You’re kidding. Four years for all that? How long does it take to serve time for armed robbery in France? How long does it take to have kids in France?

Initially I feared the film would justify this man’s brutality, and initially it does. In the army in 1959 we see Mesrine shoot and kill a helpless Algerian rebel—but only because his commanding officer ordered him to shoot and kill the rebel’s helpless sister, and this seems the better option. Mesrine berates his henpecked father—who was also a collaborator with the Germans during World War II. Mesrine kills another Arab, a pimp named Ahmed (Abdelhafid Metalsi), but only after Ahmed brutalizes Mesrine’s favorite prostitute. Mesrine’s a defender of women! Until, of course, he goes off on his own wife. But, of course, she threatened to call the cops on him.

At least the brutality throughout isn’t sugarcoated. When Guido and Mesrine take Ahmed for a ride, after promises of safety have been made, they slowly, sadistically, go from polite to insulting. “What do you say to an Arab in a suit?” Mesrine asks. “Defendant, please rise!” he answers, and Guido cracks up, then apologizes, then tells his own Arab joke. Ahmed’s eyes begin to falter as the ride continues. When it ends, in a desolate spot, they brutalize him. They beat him and strip him before an empty grave. Then Mesrine stabs him in his lower back and cuts up. We see the blade go into his skin, we hear Ahmed scream. It’s tough to watch. Finally, they roll him, still twitching, still alive, into the shallow grave and shovel dirt on top. These are not nice men.

At the same time, neither was Ahmed. That’s why we need the kidnapping of millionaire Georges Deslauriers (Gilbert Sicotte). In ’68, Mesrine and his Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque girlfriend, Jeanne (Cecile De France), flee France for Montreal, and she finds them a gig as housekeeper and chauffer to Deslauriers. First we see the beautiful mansion. Then we see the kind, wheelchair-bound Deslauriers. I almost flinched the first time Mesrine pushed Deslauriers toward a pair of French windows, recalling Richard Widmark and a flight of stairs, but for months he simply does his job. Then Jeanne gets into a fight with the gardener, and Deslauriers, taking the side of someone he’s known for 20 years over someone he’s known for three months, dismisses the two. That’s when Mesrine gets angry. In the next scene, he and Jeanne are watching television in a non-descript, high-rise apartment, and slowly we become aware of noises from another room. So does Mesrine. He stands up, pissed off, goes into the next room, and browbeats Deslauriers, who’s tied to a chair, confused and helpless. That’s when I really turned on Mesrine. That’s when I wanted bad things to happen to him. They do.

“Mesrine” is a biopic so it’s inevitably as cluttered as life, but director Richet and writer Abdel Raouf Dafri (who also wrote “Un Prophete”) are remarkably quick and clever with their transitions. My favorite may be early on, when two men discuss an “easy bank job” with Mesrine, who looks doubtful but says, “I’m in.” Cut to: that walk into Evreux prison.

The post-kidnapping transition works well, too. When Jeanne and Mesrine go for the ransom, Deslauriers crawls through the apartment, breaks a window, gets help. The two gangsters return to see cops all over the place. Cut to: the Arizona desert, 1969, as six state patrol cars race after Mesrine and Jeanne in a convertible.

Extradited back to Canada, the two are proclaimed a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde by the counter-culture press, and Mesrine revels in the role. But not for long. In prison, he’s beaten, stripped, firehoused. He suffers sleep deprivation and hunger. I had two thoughts: “Really? Canada?”; and “OK, let’s not make him sympathetic now.” I wanted to hold up a sign: Remember Deslauriers!

Sympathy for Mesrine, or at least transference, is inevitable, though. We see this world through Mesrine’s eyes, he’s played by Cassel, who’s charming and handsome, and he’s doing what most of us sitting in the audience with our bucket of popcorn don’t begin to do: He acts out every impulse. Sure, he winds up in prison. But he also gets money and beautiful women and fame. “I go wherever I want,” he tells Jeanne when they meet. In prison, in fact, they don’t break him, he breaks out, using only his guile and a pair of wirecutters. Then, fulfilling a promise to a fellow inmate, he actually tries to break in. He returns in a Ford pickup truck and shoots it out with the guards. “Crazy Frenchman,” the inmate says, shaking his head with admiration. Mesrine is admired. His life is full. Hell, we’re watching a movie about him, aren’t we? How cool is that?

And yet: Remember Deslauriers!

“Mesrine” is a good film, or half of a good film, but so far it’s not a great film. For one, it’s hard to make biopics great. One also wonders: Why film this life of all lives? Because it’s exciting and absurd? Because audiences are always interested in gangsters, in men who do what they want, because most of us lead lives of quiet desperation? Because this is the way we can get a safe glimpse of what terrifies us—like at the zoo? Are we trying to understand him or be him?

Perhaps we’ll find out in “Mesrine: L'ennemi public n°1,” which, unless Music Box Films is a sadistic distributor, should be available in the U.S. in September.

The real Jacques Mesrine wasn't quite as handsome (or, one imagines, as charming), as Vincent Cassel.

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Posted at 07:35 AM on Aug 30, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Sunday August 29, 2010

Hollywood B.O.: Summer Ends with a Whimper

“The Last Exorcism” won the weekend with $21.3 million but big deal. It made $9.4 million on Friday then kept dropping as the first-night horror crowd went elsewhere and no word-of-mouth bucked it up. Finishing second, or possibly first if these estimates are off, is “Takers,” a third-rate heist film with a sixth-rate title, currently at $21 milliion. Both movies will be gone and forgotten in two weeks. They are the dregs of summer—the last gasp before the studios begin to get semi-serious in September.

This weekend's overall take, $113 million, was also the lowest of the summer. Only the last two weekends in April did worse business for the year.

Of the other new films, none are new films. “Avatar: Special Edition,” playing in 812 theaters, grossed another $4 million, while the movie I saw this weekend, “Mesrine: L'instinct de mort,” a 2008 French film starring Vincent Cassel, grossed $150K in 28 theaters. Review up tomorrow.

Of the returning films still in wide release (2,000+ theaters), the one that held up best was, again, “Inception,” losing 331 theaters and dropping only 34.9%. The biggest drop among wide releases? “Piranha 3D,” 57.4%, followed closely by “Vampires Suck” at 56.6%.

Milestones? “Toy Story 3” became the seventh film, and the first animated film, to gross more than $1 billion worldwide—although it's still no. 2 for the year, $12 million behind “Alice in Wonderland,” which topped out at $1.024 billion this spring. Both are Buena Vista.

As summer dies, “Inception” keeps firing away.

UPDATE: RE: The estimates being off? Yes.

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Posted at 08:02 PM on Aug 29, 2010 in category Movies - Box Office
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Lancelot Links

  • Must-read of the week: Jane Mayer's New Yorker piece on the billionaire, libertarian Koch brothers, Charles and David, out of Wichita, Kan., who are helping fund the anti-Obama and Tea Party movements. Listen to this rhetoric: Socialists will “infiltrate the highest offices of government in the U.S. until the President is a Socialist, unknown to the rest of us.” Except that's not their rhetoric. Replace “Socialist” with “Communist” and it's from a speech their father gave in 1963, a year in which he also warned of the colored man's use in this plot. Fred Koch was one of the original members of the John Birch Society, or Birchers, and now his kids are helping fund those who question Pres. Obama's birth certificate, or Birthers. That's the progress the extreme right has made in this country in the last 50 years: one letter.
  • You know what's really awful about the Koch brothers' rhetoric? It's working.
  • “America is better than Glenn Beck. For all of his celebrity, Mr. Beck is an ignorant, divisive, pathetic figure.” Bob Herbert takes the gloves off. 
  • Tim Egan takes off the gloves, too, on the Know Nothings of the Right.
  • Dan Savage makes the best point I've ever heard when arguing same-sex marriage with fundamentalists. “It's almost as if they don't trust God to persecute us after we die. Have a little faith, people!” Whole thing here
  • Must-view of the week: FOX-News wonders where the money for the so-called Ground-Zero Mosque is coming from. Jon Stewart answers: It's coming from FOX-News. Then he asks his own questions: So did the folks at FOX legitimately not know this...or did they not mention the name of the contributor because it didn't fit into their preconceived storyline? Are they evil or stupid?
  • Is the Web dead? Robb Mitchell on FB alerted me to this Wired article, which he poo-pooed for going for the iconic look of TIME magazine's 1966 “Is God Dead?” cover (see: “Rosemary's Baby,” doctor's waiting room), and which I initially poo-pooed because it seemed absurd. The Web not only doesn't seem dead, it seems as omnipresent as God. But Wired, of course, is talking web-Web, browsers and all, not Internet. The article is all about apps circumventing browsers. It's an interesting thought. Hey, one day, maybe writers will get paid again!
  • The profits of the have-nots in Major League Baseball, like the Pirates and the Marlins, are revealed. Turns out they have.
  • Best last line of a movie review this year (thus far) goes to A.O. Scott's review of “Piranha 3D.”
  • Nathaniel over at Film Experience rightly accuses the Academy of playing “Logan's Run” by hiding the old folks (your Francis Coppolas) in favor of baby-faced nothings like Miley Cyrus, but his greater point comes later: Why has it been 20 years since a woman presented Best Picture all by her lonesome? He then provides a list of those who haven't done this, including Meryl Streep, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jodie Foster, and Julia Roberts. The Academy should blush if the Academy could blush.
  • Finally, there's that rumor that Marion Cotillard, late of “Inception,” is being considered, or has been offered, or has turned down, the role of Catwoman in the next “Batman” movie. Why do I care about a mere rumor? I don't, really. I just wanted to post another picture of Marion Cotillard. You're welcome.

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Posted at 07:14 AM on Aug 29, 2010 in category Lancelot Links
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Saturday August 28, 2010

John Paul Stevens Quote: Rasul, Hamdan, and Bouemediene

“Still, the summit of Stevens’s achievements on the bench came during the Bush Administration, in the series of decisions about the detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, and he kept for himself the most important of these opinions. In the 2004 case of Rasul v. Bush, among the first major cases to arise from Bush’s war on terror—and the first time that a President ever lost a major civil-liberties case in the Supreme Court during wartime—Stevens wrote for a six-to-three majority that the detainees did have the right to challenge their incarceration in American courts. In his opinion, which was written in an especially understated tone, in notable contrast to the bombastic rhetoric that accompanied the war on terror, he cited Rutledge’s dissent in the Ahrens case—which he himself had helped write, fifty-six years earlier...

”Two years after Rasul, Stevens wrote the opinion for the Court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in which a five-to-three majority rejected the Bush Administration’s plans for military tribunals at Guantánamo, on the ground that they would violate both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva conventions...

“Stevens’s repudiation of the Bush Administration’s legal approach to the war on terror was total. First, in Rasul, he opened the door to American courtrooms for the detainees; then, in Hamdan, he rejected the procedures that the Bush Administration had drawn up in response to Rasul; finally, in 2008, in Boumediene v. Bush, Stevens assigned Kennedy to write the opinion vetoing the system that Congress had devised in response to Hamdan.

”After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration conducted its war on terror with almost no formal resistance from other parts of the government, until Stevens’s opinions. He was among the first voices, and certainly the most important one, to announce, as he wrote in Hamdan, that 'the Executive is bound to comply with the Rule of Law.'“

--from Jeffrey Toobin's article ”After Stevens" in the March 22nd issue of The New Yorker

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Posted at 03:06 PM on Aug 28, 2010 in category Law
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Friday August 27, 2010

John Paul Stevens Quote: Where Have All the Flag Burners Gone?

“Veterans of the Second World War dominated American public life for decades, but Stevens is practically the last one still holding a position of prominence. He is the only veteran of any kind on the Court. (Kennedy served briefly in the National Guard; Thomas received a student deferment and later failed a medical test during Vietnam.) 'Somebody was saying that there ought to be at least one person on the Court who had military experience,' Stevens told me. 'I sort of feel that it is important. I have to confess that.' The war helped shape his jurisprudence, and even today shapes his frame of reference. In his dissent in Citizens United, he questioned the majority’s insistence that the United States government could never discriminate on the basis of the identity of a speaker by saying,'Such an assumption would have accorded the propaganda broadcasts to our troops by ”Tokyo Rose“ during World War II the same protection as speech by Allied commanders.' Since Tokyo Rose is not exactly a contemporary reference, Stevens told me, 'my clerks didn’t particularly like that.'

Stevens’s Second World War experience also played a part in perhaps his most anomalous opinion as a Justice. In 1989, he dissented from the decision that protected the right to burn the American flag as a form of protest. 'The ideas of liberty and equality have been an irresistible force in motivating leaders like Patrick Henry, Susan B. Anthony, and Abraham Lincoln, schoolteachers like Nathan Hale and Booker T. Washington, the Philippine Scouts who fought at Bataan, and the soldiers who scaled the bluff at Omaha Beach,' he wrote in an unusually lyrical dissent. 'If those ideas are worth fighting for—and our history demonstrates that they are—it cannot be true that the flag that uniquely symbolizes their power is not itself worthy of protection.'

”'The funny thing about that case is, the only consequence of it—nobody burns flags anymore,' Stevens told me. 'It was an important symbolic form of protest at the time. But nobody does it anymore. As long as it’s legal, it’s not a big deal. You just don’t have flag burning.'”

--from Jeffrey Toobin's article “After Stevens” in the March 22nd issue of The New Yorker

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Posted at 06:12 AM on Aug 27, 2010 in category Law
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Wednesday August 25, 2010

The Rise and Fall of the 1990s Seattle Mariners:
A Ticket-Stub History: Where Are They Now?

This project started out small and grew. Read the intro and '93 season here. Continue with 1994 (collapsed dome, collapsed season), 1995 (Refuse to Lose), 1996 (how could we lose?), 1997 (HERE'S how we could lose), 1998 (this is EPiC losing), and 1999 (Good-bye to all that). This is the final entry.

If the 1990s Seattle Mariners brought out the kid in me, it may be because they reminded me of the team I watched and loved as a kid: the 1960s Minnesota Twins. Both teams were offensive machines. Both teams featured great homerun hitters (Harmon Killebrew/Ken Griffey, Jr.), oft-injured batting champions (Tony Oliva/Edgar Martinez) and great role players (Cesar Tovar/Joey Cora). And both teams could never beat the Baltimore Orioles when it counted. Even the sad aftermath of each team is similar. After the Twins' heyday, in which they lost twice to the Orioles in the playoffs in '69 and '70, they spent a decade in the wilderness, with only a singles-hitting batting champion to cheer on: Rod Carew. The M's, after their heyday, in which they ran into the Orioles and Indians, had a resurgence in 2000 and 2001, then spent a decade in the wilderness with only a singles-hitting batting champion to cheer on: Ichiro. If the parallel holds, M's fans might finally get to the World Series in, say, 2017.

 

When they retired, each was fifth on the all-time HR list.

At least the Twins went to the World Series in '65. The M's were a better team but they never made it at all. Their team, their '95-'97 team, had a chance to be a dynasty. They had three of the greatest players ever to play the game: Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson. They had one of the few lifetime .300/.400/.500 hitters in Edgar Martinez. They had Jay Buhner, who hit at least 40 HRs every one of those years and wound up with more than 300 career HRs. They had a pitcher who was in midst of perhaps the greatest mid-career turnaround in baseball history (Jamie Moyer). They had a pretty good backstop, a decent second baseman, some fine role players. In the end it amounted to bupkis.

An actor-friend of mine has a saying: “When inspiration knocks, answer it. Otherwise it goes over to Jack Nicholson’s house.” There's a baseball equivalent that the Seattle Mariners' front office ignored: “When opportunity knocks, answer it. Otherwise the Yankees wave it over to their house with a fistful of cash.”

So what happened to these guys anyway?

1993

  • Dave Magadan, a good player with the Mets in the early 1990s, was acquired by the M's, from Florida, in June 1993, for Henry Cotto and Jeff Darwin. Six months later the M's traded him back to Florida for Jeff Darwin and cash. One wonders what Henry Cotto thought. Magadan would play with various teams until 2001. He would retire with 4,159 lifetime at-bats, a .288 batting average and a .390 OBP. Better than I knew. Meanwhile, the guy we traded him for, and then trade him back for, Jeff Darwin, pitched four innings for the M's in '94 and that was it. Magadan is now the hitting coach for the Boston Red Sox. (Theo Epstein knows his OBPs.) He was also recently inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame.
  • Greg ”English“ Litton played one season for the M's and hit .299 in 200 plate appearances. The next year he hit .095 for Boston and was out of baseball. Now he's a gemologist (gems, gemstones) in Florida.
  • Erik Hanson, along with Bret Boone, was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in November 1993 for Dan Wilson and Bobby Ayala. He was an All-Star for Boston in '95 and signed with Toronto in December '95. They released him  in June '98. He signed on with a few more clubs but never made it back to the Majors. Lifetime: 89-84, 4.15 ERA. According to this 2007 article from the Seattle P.I., Hanson's career as a pitcher was a fluke and he walked away with no regrets. He's now an amateur golfer.

Coach Magadan seeming to dwarf Big Papi.

1995

  • Mike Blowers, who never crowded the plate, was granted free agency in 1999 and that was that. He retired with .257/.329/.416 numbers in 2300 at-bats. He's now an announcer with the Seattle Mariners. Last year, during the dregs of September, he made one of the greatest pre-game predictions in baseball history. What makes it work even better, of course, is Dave Niehaus' call. ”I see the light! I believe you, Mike!“
  • Vince Coleman came to the M's damaged goods. The 1985 NL rookie of the year, he stole over 100 bases in each of his first three seasons but got bogged down in controversy in the early 1990s with the NY Mets when he 1) was named but not charged in a sexual assault case in Flordia, 2) injured Dwight Gooden goofing around with a golf club, and 3) threw a firecracker into a group of fans waiting for autographs at a Dodgers game. His August-to-October stint with the M's is remembered fondly as a kind of revival. But his M's numbers weren't much different than his numbers with the Royals earlier in the year, while his post-season numbers were less than that: .217/.285/.435 against the Yankees; .100/.182/.100 against the Indians. He was the type of player Lou always wanted in the leadoff spot, and would get again, disastrously, with Brian Hunter a few years later. Coleman lasted two more years in the bigs, then became a minor-league instructor with the Cubs organization. This post seems to imply that's no longer the case.
  •  Arquimedes Pozo, whose name we chanted one happy September, had one at-bat with the Mariners, a ground out, then played two years with the Red Sox, where he hit a grand slam in his third apperance. It was his only career homerun. Total: 26, games, 80 plate appearances: .189/.215/.311. Spent last year in the Majors in '97, when he was 23. Spent '98 in the minors, then signed with the Yokohama Bay Stars of the Japanese Central League.Dōmo arigatō, Arquimedes.
  • Felix Fermin, the main part of the infamous Omar Vizquel trade, hit .317 (with a .718 OPS) in '94, and .195 (with a .457 OPS) in '95. Who else but the Cubs would pick him up for '96? That was his last year in the bigs. According to The Seattle Times, by 2005 Fermin was a hitting coach with the Indians' AAA team in Buffalo. More recently, according to baseballreference.com, he's a manager in the Mexican leagues. In 2007, he led Sultanes de Monterrey (the Monterrey Sultans) to the championship. Fan video of the final out here. According to this article, Fermin, who's apparently put on weight (right), but hasn't lost the moustache, has won five championships with the Aguilas Cibaeñas but is leaving the club. To coach in the Majors? The Mariners? Come back, Felix! All is forgiven!
  • Steve Frey was released by the M's in July 1995 and picked up by the Phillies for two more seasons. Lifetime: 18-15, with a 3.76 ERA. Owned and operated a baseball academy for a number of years and is now the varsity pitching coach at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla.
  • Tim Belcher pitched one season with the M's, 1995, and it wasn't quite a love affair. He began as a starter and wound up a mop-up man in the post-season. In Game 2 against the Yankees in New York, the M's had the lead in the bottom of the 12th when, with one out, Jeff Nelson walked Wade Boggs. Lou went to Belcher, who walked Bernie Williams, got O'Neill to fly out, but gave up a double to Rueben Sierra in the left-field corner that scored Posada (pinch-running for Boggs) but nailed Williams at the plate. Two innings later, with one out, Belcher gave up the walkoff homerun to Jim Leyritz, then punched a cameraman in the hallway to the dugout afterwards. In the ALCS, he got the start in Game 2 against the Indians, but left after 5 2/3, down 4-0. His last season was 2000. Lifetime: 146-140, 4.16 ERA. In November 2009, after 8 years with the organization, he was named the Cleveland Indians' pitching coach for 2010. Is it mean to point out they have the third-worst ERA in the A.L. right now?
  • The first great mid-season acquisition the M's ever got, Andy Benes, a former no. 1 draft pick, didn't exactly live up to the billing. The previous year he led the league in strikeouts (and losses) while posting a 3.86 ERA. Before the Padres traded him, his ERA was up to 4.17. With us? 5.86. And he still went 7-2! Post-season wasn't great, either. Two starts against the Yankees, no decisions, 5.40 ERA. One start against the Indians, one loss, 6 earned runs in 2 1/3 innings. Maybe Lou handled him poorly? Either way, after that, he fled the A.L. and remained in the N.L. until he retired in 2002. Lifetime: 155-139, 3.97 ERA, exactly 2,000 strikeouts (vs. 909 walks). For a time he was a commentator for Fox Sports Northwest-Midwest. Recently had his number (30) retired by the University of Evansville. According to the same article, he now spends his time ”golfing, working for the Cardinals, doing charitable work and, all this time later, finishing his degree at St. Louis University.“ Want to feel old? His son, Drew, was drafted this June by the Cardinals in the 35th round of the MLB draft.
  • Jeff Nelson. I didn't like him at first, with that doughy face and whispy moustache that made you itch just looking at it, and his 4.35 ERA in '94 (he was certainly no Bobby Ayala, we could all agree), but he was my guy after that game against Detroit in July '95, when he struck out 7 in 3 innings, and he was so my guy in Game 4 against the Yankees, when he relieved Bosio and allowed us to come back and win the thing on an Edgar grand slam. He saved our season! A great season for him, too: 7-3 with a 2.17 ERA. So, of course, in the off-season, we trade him to the Yankees, where he makes tons of money and wins four World Series rings. He came back to the M's twice, but retired after 2006. 798 career games. 3.41 career ERA. Shows up on Seattle's sports radio station KJR now and again. Still has that damned moustache.

Andy Benes, fastballer and father, having his number retired.

1996

  • Luis Sojo, the man with one of the most famous hits in Mariners' history, was selected off waivers by the New York Yankees in August 1996, where he stayed through the '99 season, winning 3 World Series rings. The Pirates signed him in 2000 but in August he was traded back to the Yankees, for Chris Spurling, and got his fourth ring that October. He last played in 2003. Career numbers weren't great (.261/.297/.352) but he always seemed to get a hit when it mattered—either in the one-game playoff with the Angels in '95, or with the Yankees in the '96 World Series, where he went 3-5. He was the Yankees third base coach in 2004 and 2005, then served as manager for the Class A Tampa Yankees from 2006–2009, but was let go on Feb. 2, 2010. Also managed the Venezuelan national baseball team in both the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classic. For a time managed the Cardenales de Lara, the M's Venezuelan winter ball team. Was his number retired by this team, too? Spanish speakers? Recently threw out the first pitch in a turn-back-the-clock night on June 5, 2010 at Safeco Field.
  • Alex Diaz, no. 1, retired in 1999 with a lifetime .239/.271/.324 line. He had only 8 career homeruns but I saw the most memorable: against Oakland on Fan Appreciation Night, 1995. That was probably his best year, too. It was the year he played the most, certainly. But the man couldn't draw a walk to save his life, which may have been his undoing. In '98 with the Giants he had 62 plate appearances. Walks? Zero. According to this 2005 report, he still plays winter ball in Puerto Rico, where he is a Pentecostal minister.
  • Doug Strange, who hit one of the more famous homeruns in M's regular season history, and drew one of our most famous walks in post-season history, played with the M's until '96, and in MLB until '98. Career: .233/.295/.338. Never had a hit in 10 plate appearances in the post-season, but had one big RBI—on a pitch in the dirt. Thanks, David Cone. Became an area scout for the Marlins in 2000. Joined the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in 2002, where he is now special assistant to the general manager
  • Darren Bragg, the man Tim and I thought never should've been traded for a has-been like Jamie Moyer (we even brought a sign to the Kingdome: Bring Back Bragg), wound up .255/.340/.381 after 11 seasons in the Majors, including stops in Boston, St. Louis, Colorado, New York (Mets), New York (Yankees),  Atlanta, San Diego and Cincinnati. He retired in 2004. In 2007, he was the hitting coach for the A-ball affilliate of the Cincinnati Reds. As of 2009, he was the outfield and baserunning coordinator for the Reds. He also runs a baseball instructional business called ”The Hit Club“ in Thomaston, CT. At their Web site you can see Braggsy, with Boston, hitting a grand slam off Randy Johnson (when Randy was recovering from back problems in '96) and making a helluva catch against the Twins.
  • We always felt the M's were the only organizaton stupid enough to actually trade for Jeff Manto. Everyone else just grabbed him off waivers. We traded Arquimedes Pozo to get him from the Boston Red Sox on July 23, 1996, and the Red Sox grabbed him off waivers from us a month later, on August 29, after he hit .185 in an M's uniform. In '98, the Tigers selected him off waivers (from the Indiians). In '99, the Yankees selected him off waivers (again from the Indians). Manto hit .800 in his final season, in 2000, but in only 5 at-bats. Lifetime: .230/.329/.415. The second two numbers aren't bad considering the first. Hitting coach for the Pirates in 2006-2007. Now in the White Sox organization. Had his number (30) retired by the Buffalo Bisons in 2001. Considered the greatest of Bisons' players.
  • On August 14, the M's traded Roger Blanco to the Braves for Mark ”Hittin'“ Whiten. We were his third team that year. For the others he'd been so-so. For us? In 40 games and 163 plate appearances, he hit 12 homers and drove in 33. Final tally: .300/.399/.607. Wow. The next year he was with the Yankees. By 2001 he was out of baseball. He wound up with 105 career homeruns (4 in one game, back in '93) and a .259/.341/.415 line. Apparently he lives in Pensocola, Fla. Apparently this is his MySpace page. At this year's Old-Timers' Classic in Cooperstown, NY, Whiten, still just 43, hit two homeruns and was named the game's MVP. I still remember during that Yankees-Mariners brawl in '96 when Griffey and A-Rod were mingling among the Yankees and Whiten appeared, grabbed them both as if by the scruff of the neck, and escorted them back to the M's side.
  • You know that line from Terry Cashman's song ”Talkin' Baseball“: ”...and Bobby Bonds plays for everyone“? I always thought Roberto Kelly was the mid-1990s version of this Bonds. In May '94, the Reds traded him to the Braves (for Deion Sanders). In April '95, the Braves traded him to the Expos (for Marquis Grissom). A month later, the Expos traded him to the Dodgers. In January '96 he signed with the Twins but in August '97 they traded him to the Mariners for Joe Mays. Odd fate for a a career .290 hitter. Kelly, replacing the already-traded Jose Cruz, Jr., did well for us for a month and a half (.298/.328/.529), and just as good in the post-season (.308/.308/.538), but three seasons later he was out of baseball. In 2006 he was the South Atlantic League Manager of the Year Award after leading the August Greenjackets to a 92-47 record. He's now first-base coach for the San Francisco Giants.
  • I pined for Mike Jackson in '97 and '98. In '96, he was the M's best man out of the 'pen (3.63 ERA) but the one we didn't keep. That led to our '97 and '98, and our ultimate downfall. Jackson, meanwhile, went on to get better with Cleveland in '97 (3.24 ERA), and while we were forever blowing ballgames in '98, he was forever saving them as the Indians' closer: 40 saves, 1.55 ERA. Actually finished 21st in the MVP balloting that year. Retired after 2004 with a career 3.42 ERA in more than 1,000 IP.
  • Chris Bosio, who came to the M's after going 16-6 with the Brewers in '92, and pitched the second no-hitter in Mariners history in only his fourth start, wound up, over four seasons, 27-31 with the M's, with a 4.43 ERA. Injuries plagued him. I remember his gutsy performance in the '95 ALCS, on a cold night in Cleveland, when he took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the 6th before surrendering a monster 2-run homerun to Jim Thome into the upper deck in right field that seemed to sink the M's season. After retiring from baseball, he became a pitching coach with the M's organization in '98, then joined the Devil Rays when Lou Piniella did, then left for Appleton, Wis. for family reasons. In 2008, joined the Reds organization; in 2009, the Brewers organization as their AAA coach, and then, in August, as the Brewers' pitching coach. Now an advanced scout for the Brew Crew. No pun intended.

No rest for Sojo: Former utilityman isn't the retiring type.

1997

  • In two seasons with the M's, Paul Sorrento hit 54 homers and drove in 173 runs. He posted an .869 OPS. Then he played two seasons with the D-Rays and that's all she wrote. Eleven seasons, 166 homeruns. In the FSU Seminoles Hall of Fame with...Woody Woodward.
  • I never really got the point of Andy Sheets. Was he supposed to be the next Luis Sojo? He showed up in '96 and hit .191. He showed up in '97 and hit .247. Picked by Tampa Bay in the expansion draft, he played until 2002 and posted .216/.271/.321 career numbers. Sayonara? Nope. He wound up in Japan, where, in 2007, as part of the Hanshin Tigers, he was so good he had a song written about him. You can hear a short version of it here. Lyrics include: Andy! Andy!/ Let’s start a contact-hitting revolution! / Hero for a new generation, Andy Sheets! So maybe that's the point of him.
  • John Marzano played in the Majors from '87 to '98, posted .241/.289/.341 numbers, and died, much too early, at the age of 45. He fulfilled a different kind of wish fulfillment of baseball fans everywhere. Instead of hitting a game-winning homerun, he got to punch Paul O'Neill in the face. R.I.P., big guy.
  • Bob Wolcott, who won his Major League debut in '95 (against a mighty Boston Red Sox lineup), and his post-season debut in '95 (against a mightier Cleveland Indians lineup), became a classic example of diminishing returns. In five years in the Majors, the first three with Seattle, his ERA went: 4.42, 5.73, 6.03, 7.09, 8.10. And that's all she wrote. Afterwards he returned to Oregon to get his degree in mechanical engineering. Now lives in Beaverton, Ore.
  • NORM! We originally said it with ”Cheers“-like joie de vivre but by the end we said it with anger and desperation. Norm Charlton was the second in our bullpen to blow up, after Bobby Ayala, but he did well in '95, just when we needed him, so he's generally forgiven. A bit. He's not the punchline that Bobby Ayala is. Norm's ERAs from '95 to '97 with the M's: 1.51, 4.04, 7.27. I never did understand why the O's, a division winner in '97, signed him in '98. Didn't they remember the Chris Hoiles grand slam from '96? Didn't they know how numbers worked? Norm bounced around after that, even back with the M's in 2001, but that was his last year in the bigs. He was most recently a bullpen coach for us in 2007 but his contract wasn't renewed in 2008. Every sheriff retires eventually. Current bullpen coach is John Wetteland. I suppose it's the least we could do after all the homeruns Junior and Edgar hit off him.

1998

  • Rich Amaral, the best M's player off the bench during this period, signed with the Orioles in December '98 and retired after the 2000 season with career .276/.344/.351 numbers. During his career, he played 40+ games at every position but pitcher and catcher. He now runs a winter and summer baseball camp in Huntington Beach, Cal.
  • Why did we sign Tony Fossas again? I never got that. In the three previous seasons, for the St. Louis Cardinals, his ERA went 1.47, 2.68, 3.83. Wrong direction. The M's said: ”Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan? LOSERS! We can handle pitching.“ Tony pitched 11.1 innings for us. He gave up 11 runs. A 2.206 WHIP. Released June 10. Who else but the Cubs would pick him up? Pitched 4 innings for them; gave up 4 runs. Released August 4. Picked up by the Texas Rangers, where he pitched 7 innings and gave up zero runs. Success! He retired after '99 and became a pitching coach with the Florida Atlantic Owls in 2005. Connect with him via Facebook. Relive old times.
  • I thought Greg McCarthy was one of our few bullpen stalwarts in '97 but his numbers were actually pretty bad: 5.46 ERA in 29 IP. The following year? 5.01 ERA in 23 IP. The following year? Out of the Majors. He only pitched 62.2 innings, career. Info from Wikipedia: ”In 2003, McCarthy pitched for the independent Macon Peaches of the Southeastern League. In 2004, he pitched for the independent Atlantic City Surf of the Atlantic League and independent New Haven County Cutters of the Northeast League. Since his playing career ended, McCarthy has coached in the Netherlands and in baseball clinics and academies. On February 17, 2009, he was hired to be the head coach of the Mosquito Athletics Attnang-Puchheim in the Austrian Baseball League.“ More power to him.
  • Yakima's own Bob Wells, who was voted the Mariners' pitcher of the year by Seattle sportswriters in '96 despite posting a 5.30 ERA, and who looked a bit too much (and probably pitched a bit too much) like Bobby Ayala, lasted with the M's until '98, and in baseball until 2002. Finals: 40-28, 5.03 ERA. 
  • Paul Spoljaric came to the M's with a 3.19 ERA in 37 IP, then, for the M's, went 4.76 in '97, 6.48 in '98. His ERA in '99, with two other teams, was 6.26, and for the Royals in 2000: 6.52. And that's all she wrote. So did the Blue Jays know something? Or did Lou and the M's and us screw him up forever? I was beginning to feel sorry for Paul, that he'd never really been welcome in Seattle, but then I saw this. Is he creating a Web-based show starring his family? Seems like it. Tonight's special guest star: Heathcliff Slocumb!
  • Speaking of... Heathcliff Slocumb has the dubious distinction of being at the wrong end of one of the most lopsided trades in Mariners history. We got him and his 0-5 record and 5.79 ERA. The Boston Red Sox got Derek Lowe and Jason Veritek. Fun! For us, in '97, Slocumb went 0-4 with a 4.13 ERA, which apparently wasn't bad enough, so Woody Woodward doubled down on his mistake in '98. Slocumb delivered, going 2-5 with a 5.32 ERA. Two years and three teams later, he was out of baseball. Lifetime: 28-37, 98 saves, 4.08 ERA. For us he was 2-9 with a 4.97 ERA. Where is he now? Not sure. It's tough seeing through all of the WORST TRADES EVER articles that Slocumb's name brings up on Google.
  • Do I owe Mike Timlin an apology? Not only did he prosper away from the Mariners, notably with two championship-winning BoSox teams at the end of his career, to go with the two championship-winning Blue Jays teams at the beginning of his career, but, for the M's, particularly compared to the rest of the rabble, he pitched well: a 3.86 ERA in '97 and a 2.95 ERA in '98. He finished his career with Boston in 2008 and even had a ”Mike Timlin Day“ at Fenway in April 2009. He finished 75-73 with a 3.63 ERA and 141 saves. He appeared in 1058 games. That's 7th all-time among pitchers. Of course Jose Mesa's tied for 9th and I don't owe him shit. But it's the 2.95 ERA in '98 that really gets to me. No one in the M's bullpen had anything near that good. So, yes, I do owe Mike Timlin an apology. Forgive me, Mike. I know not whom I booed.
  • Bobby Ayala. Bobby Frickin' Ayala. Bobby Effin' Ayala. You know what? He, too, wasn't as bad as we remember. At least in '97. He had the best ERA out of our bullpen, 3.82, and went 10-5. He was really only bad, and I mean Mac Suzuki bad, in '98, when he went 1-10 with a 7.29 ERA. Otherwise he was mostly just not very good. ERAs with the M's starting in '94: 2.86, 4.44, 5.88, 3.82, 7.29. Then we traded him to Montreal. Remember this? We actually paid for his entire salary that year. We paid to get rid of him. And guess what? He didn't do poorly, going 3.51 with both Montreal and the Cubs. Tried to stick around with the Twins and Dodgers in 2000 but kept getting released. For his career he saved 59 games. He blew 33 saves. Where is he now? Reports are Arizona. But his legend lives on.

The Spoljaric Sprouts? Brady Bunch for the Internet Age.

1999 and beyond

  • I guess I mostly remember Jeff Fassero's '97 season when he went 16-9 with a 3.61 ERA, because I remember him as a good pitcher. The next season he went 13-12 with a 3.97 ERA. Then blooie!: 4-14, 7.20 ERA. After the M's released him in '99, he played for the Rangers, Red Sox, Cubs, Cards, Rockies, Diamondbacks and Giants before retiring in 2006 with a 121-124, 4.11 mark. He's now pitching coach, under Jody Davis, for the Boise Hawks, a Class A team of the Chicago Cubs.
  • Mac Suzuki wishes he had that career. He began as a highly touted prospect with Seattle and posted ERAs of 20.25, 7.18, and 9.43. Yikes. He lasted in the Majors until 2002 and wound up 16-31 with a 5.72 career ERA. Then he went back to Japan, where, according to baseballreference.com, he did worse: ”Picked by the Orix BlueWave in the second round of the draft, Mac got toasted, going 4-9 with one save and a 7.06 ERA. On a last-place team whose pitching staff allowed over 200 more runs than any other team, Suzuki was still clearly the worst hurler. A year later, still not yet 30 years old, Mac burned his bridges in a second country with a 1-6, 8.53 season in which he got pounded for 70 hits, 10 of them homers, in just 48 1/3 innings. He spent the entire 2005 season with Orix's minor league (ni-gun) team. He was shellacked just as badly in the Japanese minors.“ That's a long way from the promise in this Bob Sherwin article from '93. ”I wish I had 10 more just like him,“ said M's pitching coach Sammy Ellis. Be careful what you wish for, Sammy. You kind of got it.
  • The M's carried 24 pitchers in '97 and Ken Cloude was one of them. Another example of diminishing returns, his ERA, from '97 to '99 went: 5.12, 6.37, 7.96. M's tried him again in 2000 and 2001, and the Rays tried him in 2003, but he never pitched in the bigs again.
  • I should remember Paul Abbott better than I do. Yes, he came aboard during the disastrous '98 campaign, but he stuck around until 2002, and in 2001 he went—is this right????—17-4 with us. Wow. Three years later he was out of baseball. Assistant coach at Cal State Fullerton. Pitching coach for Orange County Flyers  of the Golden Baseball League. Now manager of the Orange County Flyers. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy I barely remember.

My starting line-up for the 1990s Seattle Mariners, the best team to never win the pennant:

  • Joey Cora (2B). We got him as a free agent in '95 and in 544 games he went .293/.355/.406. He laid down bunts when it mattered. He cried on the bench when we wanted to cry. We traded him in '98 for Mr. Happy, David Bell, and Joey was out of baseball by 2000. As a player. As a coach, he's been with the White Sox organization since 2004. Now he's their bench coach. I could think of worse things to do than sit all day and listen to Ozzie Guillen.
  • Alex Rodriguez (3B). As of this writing: .303/.387/.571. As of this writing: 604 career homeruns. Considered one of the greatest players of all time. Admitted steroid use while with Texas. World Series ring with the Yankees in 2009. Yeah, I'd still bat him second.
  • Ken Griffey, Jr. (CF) Fifth on the all-time homerun list with 630. Twelfth on the all-time total bases list with 5271. Fourteenth on the all-time RBIs list with 1836. Tied for the third-most Gold Gloves of all time, with 10, and behind only Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays. Announced retirement June 2, 2010. I was at the game that night. The M's played a video. They drew a 24 in the infield dirt near 2nd base. Currently in Florida. Finally closer to his family. Will be the first Seattle Mariner in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
  • Edgar Martinez (DH). Papi. Gar. Senor Octobre. Lifetime .312/.418/.515. It's a short list of lifetime .300/.400/.500 guys, and every one is either in the Hall (Ted Williams, Stan Musial), is bound there (Frank Thomas), or played for Colorado (Todd Helton). But the M's brought Edgar up late, at age 27, so he doesn't have the raw totals, and he was a DH for much of his career, so he doesn't have the defensive argument. Even so, he's the most beloved of all Mariners, with the most famous hit in Mariners history. A double, apparently, that was, in some game or other, lined down the left field line for a base hit. A guy named Joey scored. A guy named Junior went to third. They waved him in. Apparently it just continued... Where is Edgar now? Running his own business, thank you. As quietly and unassumingly as ever.
  • Tino Martinez (1B). Don Mattingly was retiring and if the Yankees were going to get anywhere they needed a new first baseman. Thankfully, the Mariners' front office was there to help. They had this arbitration-eligible first baseman, who had played over his head in '95, posting .293/.369/.561 numbers. So they made the trade, December 7th, 1995, a date which will live in infamy. The next season Tino went .292/.364/.466, the season after .296/.371/.577. Tino collected four rings with the Yankees and retired in 2005. He's now a color commentator for the Yankees' YES Network. He still has that intensity.
  • Jay Buhner (RF), from 1995 to 1997, averaged, averaged, 41 HRs, 23 doubles, and 123 RBIs a season. He slugged .542 with an OPS of .908. Plus an average of 5,000 Seattle-area men and women were shaved bald for free admittance to Jay Buhner Buzzcut Night. He was also responsible for some of the great baseball-related ”Seinfeld" bits during this time. He was the first Mariner to hit for the cycle, in '93, and the straw that stirred the drink in September '95. He still lives in the area. He's still quoted every other week in The Seattle Times. He has a MySpace page. He's got a private Facebook page. He likes fly fishing.
  • Jose Cruz, Jr. (LF), who finished second in the rookie-of-the-year balloting in '97, to some schmoe named Nomar Garciaparra, was traded on July 31, 1997, and it felt like we were trading the future. Turns out we were only trading a not-bad player. For his career Cruz, Jr.  played for nine teams, went .247/.337/.445, and hit 204 homeruns. Not bad, as I said, just not the second coming of Junior. He's now an analyst for mlb.com.
  • Dan Wilson (C). From 1995 to '97, Dan hit 42 homeruns and averaged .278/.330/.428. He was a good catcher, a stand-up guy. He looked a bit like Crash Davis and nailed baserunners at a pretty good pace. Retired in 2005, he's still looking for that eluvsive second career, according to a live chat in The Seattle Times this June. Received his undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota a month earlier. The two of us were on the same flight back to Seattle from Minneapolis. I sat in coach.
  • Omar Vizquel (SS) won one Gold Glove with Seattle, in '93. He would win 10 more, with both Cleveland and San Francisco, after the M's traded him for Felix Fermin and cash. He's still playing—this year with the Chicago White Sox—and has 2,774 career hits. Last month I saw him get two of them at Safeco Field. He's playing third base now. He looks good. Somewhere, a grandmother has his glove.
  • Randy Johnson (P). Ten-time All Star, five-time Cy Young Award winner, one-time World Series (co) MVP. Professional Yankees killer. Retired after last season. Went out with a 303-166 record, 3.29 ERA, 4,875 strikeouts, and a superpass to the Hall of Fame—as a Diamondback. Threw out the first pitch during the Seattle Mariners 2010 home opener. M's lost 4-0. It just continues.

And there's my team. Three, maybe four (Edgar), maybe five (Omar) Hall of Famers. It would've been the scariest line-up in baseball. Hell, for a time, it was.

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Posted at 08:36 AM on Aug 25, 2010 in category Seattle Mariners
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Tuesday August 24, 2010

John Paul Stevens Quote: Ruth's Called Shot

“On a wall in Stevens’s chambers that is mostly covered with autographed photographs of Chicago sports heroes, from Ernie Banks to Michael Jordan, there is a box score from Game Three of the 1932 World Series, between the Yankees and the Cubs. When Babe Ruth came to bat in the fifth inning, at Wrigley Field, according to a much disputed baseball legend, he pointed to the center-field stands and then proceeded to hit a home run right to that spot. The event is known as 'the called shot.'

“'My dad took me to see the World Series, and we were sitting behind third base, not too far back,' Stevens, who was twelve years old at the time, told me. He recalled that the Cubs players had been hassling Ruth from the dugout earlier in the game. 'Ruth did point to the center-field scoreboard,' Stevens said. 'And he did hit the ball out of the park after he pointed with his bat. So it really happened.'

”Stevens has a reverence for facts. He mentioned that he vividly recalled Ruth’s shot flying over the center-field scoreboard. But, at a recent conference, a man in the audience said that Ruth’s homer had landed right next to his grandfather, who was sitting far away from the scoreboard. 'That makes me warn you that you should be careful about trusting the memory of elderly witnesses,' Stevens said. The box score was a gift from a friend; Stevens noticed that it listed the wrong pitchers for the game, so he crossed them out with a red pen, and wrote in the right names.

—from Jeffrey Toobin's article “After Stevens” in the March 22nd issue of The New Yorker


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Posted at 06:55 AM on Aug 24, 2010 in category Law
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Monday August 23, 2010

Review: “The Other Guys” (2010)

WARNING: SPOILERS THAT ARE PERKY, FIRM AND YOURS

I had the two biggest laughs of the year while watching “The Other Guys” and neither involved Will Ferrell, who I think is one of the funniest men around. There was a backlash against him last year with “Land of the Lost,” and a bit the year before with “Semi-Pro,” but I liked “Semi-Pro” (more than “Step Brothers,” which did a lot better at the box office: $100 million vs. $33 million), and while “Land of the Lost” was an obvious stumble I figured he’d be back making me laugh again. He is. I’ve been waiting for this movie since the trailer hit the Internet last February.

It’s a great concept for a comedy, and it’s right there in the trailer’s low, gravelly voiceover: In the toughest city in the world, nobody fights crime like these guys... Cue squealing tires, impossible stunts, and nonchalant quips by action stars Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson.

Cut to: Det. Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) typing happily at his desk, humming “The Theme from ‘S.W.A.T.,’” and infuriating his partner, Det. Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg).

And then there are the other guys...

The other guys are, in other words, the ordinary guys, the misfits, the fuck-ups, forever found wanting in comparison with star cops like Highsmith (Jackson) and Danson (Johnson). They’re us, sitting in the movie theater with our bucket of popcorn, and forever found wanting in comparison with the stars on the screen.

Which brings me to the first of the big laughs.

Highsmith and Danson are on the trail of professional jewel thieves but lose them via zipline on top of a 20-story building. As they stare at the bad guys getting away on the street below, they have this typical action-star exchange:

Highsmith: You thinking what I’m thinking?
Danson: Aim for the bushes.

Then they leap off the roof in slow motion, arms and legs pinwheeling, and the camera follows them down. In the audience I kept wondering why bushes or anything that might break their fall didn’t come into view. And then: SPLAT! Right on the sidewalk. Cut to: A funeral.

Man, did I laugh. I laughed so hard I missed a lot of what followed, and what I caught—Hoitz and Gamble whispering to each other about “What were they thinking anyway?” and “There wasn’t even an awning nearby”—made me laugh all the more. It’s always dangerous dissecting humor, but I think this scene is funny because it’s both unexpected and it lays bare the lie of 100 years of Hollywood action movies. They really can’t really do what they do.

The laughs keep coming. After the funeral, during the quiet dignity of the wake, the cops, particularly Martin and Fosse (Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans, Jr.), now jockeying for the high position Highsmith and Danson held, whisper insults to Gamble and Hoitz, and Martin and Hoitz get into a whisper-quiet, rolling-on-the floor fight, screened and surrounded by a phalanx of cops, who whisper rather than shout the usual testeronic encouragements. Even when Capt. Gene Mauch (Michael Keaton, using the name of the old Phillies/Twins/Angels manager) comes over and orders them to knock it off, he does it via whisper.

By this point, half an hour in, I’m thinking “The Other Guys” is the funniest movie I’ve seen in 10 years. Then the law of averages kick in.

Most comedies are uneven, possibly because most are spoofs, and spoofs invariably give in to, or buy into, the tropes of the very genre they’re spoofing. Happens here, too. The first part of the movie shows us the absurdity of action-hero cops, but the rest of the movie is about how the other guys, the guys like us, become the action-hero cops they always wanted to be. Hoitz gets into an epic, slow-mo gun battle in which he slides down a conference table on his back with both guns blazing, while Gamble, in his Prius, is great at high-speed chases. “Where did you learn to drive like that?” Hoitz asks. “’Grand Theft Auto!’” Gamble replies. The audience’s identification with these budding heroes is complete. They are us and heroes. Shame. Would that they had just stayed us.

Other tropes include Gamble and Hoitz 1) stumbling upon the true criminals, who are 2) high-powered investment types surrounded by men with guns, and then pursuing these bad guys despite 3) no support, and even interference, from gray-haired higher-ups in the police department. Not to mention the whole “opposites as partners” motif.

Wahlberg, whom I slammed 10 years ago, but who’s impressed in many movies since, plays a pretty good straight man. He even gets off a great line impugning another’s manhood: “The sound of your piss hitting the toilet sounds feminine!” he tells Gamble. Ferrell is hilarious as always.

There’s a lot of nice bits throughout: Gamble’s Little River Band (LRB) fixation; Captain Gene constantly, unknowingly, quoting TLC lyrics; the whole “Capt. Gene” thing, which Mauch says makes him sound like the creepy host of a kid’s show; Mauch’s open, friendly, unembarrassed face when they find him moonlighting at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Keaton brings something good here. He plays it low-key but funny. You see his early comedy chops on display again. Welcome back.

Has anyone written about the brilliant end-credits? A peripheral theme of the movie is ponzi schemes, and with early ’60-s-style animation we’re informed, while the credits roll, what they are, and how Bernie Madoff’s in 2008 makes the original in the 1920s seem like that of a piker. We’re shown just how much the $700 billion TARP bailout from 2008 was, and how the tax rate for the wealthiest has gone down over the last 30 years while the take-home pay of the wealthiest has skyrocketed. It’s fascinating, populist stuff that everyone should stay for. Bonus: post credits, there’s a final scene between Wahlberg and Ferrell.

When Patricia and I left the theater, we were preceded by two girls who were still laughing, uproariously, bodies bent over, about the closing-credits song, “Pimps Don’t Cry.” It’s a reference to Gamble’s back story: why he is who he is; why he’s a police accountant working a desk. Back in college, when the tuition went up, he basically became the pimp for a number of co-eds. He called himself “Gator” and acted the role. His dark side came out. That’s why he’s so timid in the present day; he doesn’t want to “set Gator loose.” To me, it was one of the weaker jokes of the film, but these two girls obviously disagreed.

For me, the funnier backstory is Hoitz’s. That, in fact, is the second of the two huge laughs I had during the movie. Hoitz is attending a group therapy session for officers who have discharged their weapons, and while the others relay their stories, bragging and high-fiving rather than tearily revealing tragic results, Hoitz sits quietly in a corner. The therapist then tries to get him to reveal his story but the others moan and bitch and don’t want to hear it. We soon find out why.

It was before Game 7 of the World Series and Hoitz was working security. He was in the long hallway before the locker room when a silhouetted figure approached. He told him to stop. The man didn’t. He repeated himself. He drew his weapon. He warned one more time. The man kept coming. So he fired and the figure fell out of the shadows and into the light: Derek Jeter wearing an iPod, now clutching his leg. “He shot Jeter!” one of the cops in the therapy session yells. “We lost the championship!” another shouts. Me, I laughed and laughed. Talk about wish fulfillment. I'm not proud of it, but I might have to buy “The Other Guys” for the sheer pleasure of watching, in slow-mo, Derek Jeter getting shot in the leg, again and again.

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Posted at 06:28 AM on Aug 23, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Sunday August 22, 2010

Hollywood B.O.: How Can 6.2 Million Movie Fans Be Wrong? This Way

This was a good weekend to catch up on better movies that opened earlier in the summer—Patricia and I did this with Will Ferrell's “The Other Guys,” which is pretty damned funny (review up tomorrow)—and while it can be argued that most of us did do this, since the five new releases finished second, fourth, and six through eight, still, this weekend, nearly $50 million was spent on them, with the best-reviewed of the lot, “Nanny McPhee Returns,” doing worst, and the worst-reviewed of the lot, “Vampires Suck,” a parody of the “Twilight” movies, doing best: $12.2 million, good enough for second place. Sad. That $50 million works out to about 6.2 million people who couldn't figure out better ways to spend their money and time. BTW: There's always an uproar when some critic doesn't like a popular movie and ruins its 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating (see: Armond White and “Toy Story 3”), but what about when a critic likes a crap movie and ruins its 0% rating? Michael Ordona, I'm looking at you and “Vampires Suck.”

Everyone will say that “The Expendables” rocked this weekend (or “muscled out the competition,” or “pumped itself up to no. 1”), but its numbers still fell off by 52.6%, which is the biggest fall-off of any movie that didn't lose theaters this weekend. “Scott Pilgrim,” meanwhile, gained two theaters but still fell off 52.6%. Girly man.

The wide-release movie that fell off the least? “Inception,” which dropped 719 screens yet dropped only 32%. It has now grossed $261m domestic, $315m abroad.

Complete weekend box office estimates here.

There are still good movies to see, people. “Restrepo” is still playing in 44 theaters, and two new docs, “The Tillman Story” and “A Film Unfinished,” just opened in NY and LA. One hopes they go wider.

Meanwhile, spurred by Uncle Vinny's post, I went to see “Two in the Wave” (“Deux de la vague”), a French doc about Truffaut and Godard, which is playing at Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill in Seattle. It doesn't go as deeply into their films as I would like, but it does go into their history: their initial friendship and rivalry, and what broke them up in 1973: Of all things, Truffaut's “Day for Night,” which I love and Godard couldn't stand. But then I can't stomach Godard after '65. Seattlities, it's playing all week. Go see it some American night.

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Posted at 06:19 PM on Aug 22, 2010 in category Movies - Box Office
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Lancelot Links

  • How did the building of a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero go from “More power to ya” (on FOX-News in December) to “AAUUGGHHHHHHH!”? Two words: Pamela Geller. Salon has the full history here.
  • Nicholas Kristof, meanwhile, says those who object to the mosque are basically taking the Osama bin Laden position. Money quote: “It is mind-boggling that so many Republicans are prepared to bolster the Al Qaeda narrative, and undermine the brave forces within Islam pushing for moderation.”
  • So how dangerous is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf? FOX-News plays the guilt-by-association game and says “dangerous.” Jon Stewart plays that same game and answers: less dangerous than Rupert Murdoch, owner of FOX-News. 
  • Finally (on this subject), Noah Millman says what I've been saying all along: “Any debate should be about who we are, not about who they are or what we want them to think of us.” Exactly. Which path brings us closer to the American ideal? To First Amendment rights? Then you move on to more important matters. As I thought we did last December.
  • Here's a more important matter: Who counts as rich? James Surowiecki asks the question everyone, particularly everyone on Capitol Hill, should be asking. If the top tax rate is for the richest one percent, and the richest one percent include anyone making more than $250,000 a year, then it's time to parse this one percent. Tax those making $1 million at a higher rate, and tax those making $10 million at a higher rate, and those making $100 million at a higher rate. And on and on, world without end. Then let Republicans claim that upping the tax rate on the top .1% is hurting “small business owners.”
  • Speaking of. How insane has the right become? The black helicopters for Colorado's Republican gubenatorial candidate aren't black helicopters. They're bicycles.
  • This is fun. Illustrator Christopher Nieman in the New York Times on taking a red-eye from New York to Berlin.
  • And this is laugh-out-loud funny: Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) makes a recuitment video for the NYPD.
  • I can't believe I haven't linked to this yet. Masato Akamatsu of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp makes one of the great catches of the year, maybe of the decade, maybe further. I love the way he tries to nonchalant it but his emotions get the better of him and he breaks into a smile as he throws the ball in. I love the emotions of the announcers. I love the way Akamatsu seems to go “Wow” at the end. They call it a “Spider-Man” catch but that's Griffey territory to me. This is almost a parkour catch.
  • Finally, R.I.P, Bobby Thomson. The opening of Don DeLillo's novel, “Underworld,” was originally published as a novella in, I believe, Harper's, and it's all about Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round the World on October 3rd, 1951 that gave the New York Giants the pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers. DeLillo called it “Pafko at the Wall,” which is a great title. Russ Hodges, the Giants' announcer, never used that phrased. He used others. Touch 'em all, Bobby.

October 3, 1951

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Posted at 07:58 AM on Aug 22, 2010 in category Lancelot Links
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Saturday August 21, 2010

Nothing v. All

“There's gotta be some kind of rebellion between the people that have nothing and the people that got it all. I don't understand. There's no in-between no more. There's the peple that got it all and the people that have nothing.”

—Peoria, Ill., man, in 2009, about to be put out of his home, in Michael Moore's “Capitalism: A Love Story.”

I have some sympathy for this guy but I still wonder about his voting patterns. Did he vote, for example, for Ronald Reagan for president? Once? Twice? When Reagan came into office in 1981, the tax rate for the wealthiest one percent of the country was 69%. When he left office? 28%. The rich got richer under Reagan and the unions got screwed. And that's just the beginning. Moore's doc is best in that short segment on the Reagan years but in the end he winds up flailing all over the place, and pulling the usual stunts about not getting into places he'd never get into. Most egregiously, he makes the initial bailout, the TARP bailout in September 2008, seem like a Bush plot when it was actually a repudiation of everything Bush believed in and stood for. It was a caving in. It was a mea culpa without the mea culpa.

But the Peoria man's question is the right question. How did we lose our middle class? For me, the answer starts with Reagan and those tax rates.

So the question for today isn't whether or not to roll back the Bush tax cuts from 35% to 39%. The question is why stop there? And why stop at the “top one percent,” which supposedly includes families making $250,000 a year? Why not divide this group further? The top .5 percent. The top .1 percent. Tax those making $1 million at a higher rate, and tax those making $10 million at a higher rate, and those making $100 million at a higher rate, etc., etc., until maybe we have something like a middle class again.

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Posted at 07:57 AM on Aug 21, 2010 in category Politics
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Friday August 20, 2010

John Paul Stevens Quote: Citizens United

On September 9th last year, Stevens engaged in a classic version of advocacy-by-interrogation during the argument of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission...

The Court had first heard arguments in the case in March, 2009, and the questions raised then were mostly narrow ones... But, in June, the Court issued an unsigned order asking for the case to be reargued on new terms. Such an order, which requires a majority, had never been issued since Roberts became Chief Justice, in 2005, and only rarely in earlier years. The Court now told the lawyers to address much broader issues about the relationship of corporations to the First Amendment..l.

For a century, Congress and the Supreme Court had been restricting the participation of corporations, and individuals, in elections, mostly through limits on campaign contributions. The Court had come to see campaign spending as a form of speech, but one that clearly could be regulated, especially if the speaker was a business. The notion that corporations did not have the same free-speech rights as human beings had been practically a given of constitutional law for decades, and the 1990 and 2003 decisions (both joined by Stevens) reflected that consensus. Now the Court seemed open to what had been radical notions—that corporations had essentially the same rights as individuals, and could spend potentially unlimited amounts of money in elections.

Stevens never uses his questions to filibuster, and his first query was simple. “Does the First Amendment permit any distinction between corporate speakers and individual speakers?” he asked Theodore B. Olson, the lawyer for Citizens United and a Solicitor General in the second Bush Administration.

Olson hedged, saying, “I am not—I’m not aware of a case that just—”

“I am not asking you that,” Stevens persisted. “I meant in your view does it permit that distinction?”

Finally, Olson said, “I would not rule that out, Justice Stevens. I mean, there may be.”...

His strategizing was for naught. In a decision announced on January 21st, Kennedy, joined by the four conservatives, wrote a breathtakingly broad opinion, overturning the 1990 decision and much of the 2003 decision, and establishing, for the first time, that corporations have rights to free speech comparable to those of individuals...

Stevens’s ninety-page dissenting opinion in Citizens United (the longest of his career) was joined in full by Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, and was a slashing attack on the majority, laden with sarcastic asides. “Under the majority’s view, I suppose it may be a First Amendment problem that corporations are not permitted to vote, given that voting is, among other things, a form of speech,” he wrote...

Stevens charged that the way the majority had handled the case was even worse than the legal outcome. “There were principled, narrower paths that a Court that was serious about judicial restraint could have taken,” he wrote. “Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.” He added, referring to the Court, “The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.”

—from Jeffrey Toobin's article “After Stevens” in the March 22nd issue of The New Yorker

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Posted at 06:36 AM on Aug 20, 2010 in category Law
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Thursday August 19, 2010

Jordy's Reviews! New Super Mario Bros. (Wii)

The following is a review, by my nephew, Jordan, age 9, of the New Super Marios Bros. Wii game. Nintendo, listen up!

NSMBW is a great game. It’s easily one of the best Wii games out there. It’s classic Mario, and it’s a great game for any Mario fan. But it’s stupid of Nintendo to make a game like this when they could be making another Super Mario Galaxy. It feels like it’s copying the DS game. NSMBW is still a 2-D Mario game, but — even though Mario was probably better in 2-D then 3-D — 2-D was long ago! Now it’s time for 3-D, not 2-D!

Anyway, you are presented with the same story as ever. Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser again, and it’s up to Mario to save her. Why can’t Nintendo make another Mario story? In every Mario game it’s the same story! What the heck? It’s stupid. The graphics are okay, I mean, they’re good, the level designs are good, but I feel like the graphics are going to be the same for every Mario game that comes out. Make some new graphics, Nintendo!

The sound is fantastic, even though some soundtracks were inherited. The dialogue, however, sometimes says something stupid, like, if someone died, they come back in a bubble, and then they say “Help me”! I know I should help you!

The gameplay is masterful, though. Gameplay has always been the focus of Mario, and this game is no different. This is some of the best gameplay on Wii. It’s also fun to come back, find all the star coins (big coins that have stars on them) in the levels. The controls are great, except the part where you shake the Wii remote. If you get really excited, you might shake the Wii remote while you’re jumping over pits, and shaking it then will make you die, and that really sucks. The other controls work perfectly, though. The lasting appeal is great, because the gameplay is really fun, so you will come back a lot of times to find star coins, secret exits, and more.

The characters are Mario, Luigi, and two toads. That’s real creative, Nintendo. Another thing they should do is let you record your own videos. At Princess Peach’s castle, you can watch videos of Mario just making levels look easy, getting lots of 1-Ups in a level, or getting to the secret exit. It would be cool if you could record your own video to show your friends what you did. There’s also a coin battle mode, which should be online play because that’s what almost every good video game has online! Why can’t this one? There’s also a mode called Free-For-All. Basically you just pick a level, beat it, then, after I beat it, it shows me my score. What the heck? I mean, I can unlock every level. I don’t have to be cheap by playing a level that I haven’t unlocked yet. I can check my score before I run into the castle waiting for me at the end of each level! Face it. Free-For-All is stupid. Don’t play it.

Even if it does have some problems, New Super Mario Bros. Wii is one of the best games on Wii. It even has the Koopalings from Super Mario Bros. 3. NSMBW is most recognized for its multiplayer, which makes it really fun. I’m sorry for sounding like I didn’t like the game much, but all the problems I had with it are minor. I actually really liked the game for the gameplay. Try to focus on the gameplay only and you will fall in love with this game. Overall, it’s a good game. Buy it.

Story: 6.5
Graphics: 8.0
Sound: 9.0
Gameplay: 10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5
Overall Score: 9.0

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Posted at 07:18 AM on Aug 19, 2010 in category Jordy's Reviews
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Wednesday August 18, 2010

Correction: R.I.P. CounterBalance on Roy

Back in June I wrote the following about the closing of the bike shop, CounterBalance, on Roy, in lower Queen Anne:

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.

My friend Vinny, a stickler, argued that he'd seen a study on Publicola (“Seattle's News Elixir”) showing walking and biking rates were up, not down, both nationally and in Seattle; then he sent me a link to the study. I glanced at it, poo-pooed it. Walking was certainly up, bicycling just a tidge. And it didn't explain CounterBalance. “What about CounterBalance?” I asked. “Why did that close?” Vinny had no answer.

Now I do. I ran into someone who used to work at the CounterBalance on Roy and he told me the shop had been financially solvent. There had, in fact, been two shops, one on Roy and one in University Village close to the Burke-Gilman trail, as well as two owners. The original owner opened the shop on Roy. And when the original owner decided to call it quits and move (back?) to New Zealand, the second owner closed the shop on Roy. It was, according to this guy, a wholly unnecessary move.

In the end, though, that's a double shame to me. It's a shame someone closed a bike shop that apparently didn't need closing. And it's a shame, given the general unhealthiness of 1) Americans, 2) the environment, and 3) our dependence on foreign oil, that more people don't walk and bike. A tidge ain't gonna do it, people.

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Posted at 06:59 AM on Aug 18, 2010 in category Biking
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Tuesday August 17, 2010

Review: “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)

WARNING: SPOILERS AND STUFF

Have I ever felt so old watching a movie?

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” does what it does well. It’s hip and irreverent and sometimes funny. It skewers Bollywood, sitcoms and video games. OK, so it’s more of an homage to video games. OK, so it is a video game. Video games allow dweeby guys to compete—and prosper—in rock ‘em, sock ‘em matches that involve levels and “health” and “life,” and “Scott Pilgrim” allows Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a dweeby guy in Toronto, to compete and prosper in rock ‘em, sock ‘em battles to the death with the seven evil exes of his new maybe girlfriend, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Each evil ex is a different level and each level involves more points: 1,000 for taking out the first evil ex, 3,000 for the third, etc. And what happens when he reaches the final level? Epiphany. Of a sort.

The movie starts with all of Scott’s friends giving him shit for dating Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a 17-year-old Chinese girl. (He’s 22.) Trouble is, Wong looks about the same age as Cera, and she’s twice as attractive, so it seems a step up. Thankfully, they have her act young so you can see their point. And it leads to this good bit of dialogue with Scott’s sister, Stacey (Anna Kendrick)

Stacey: A 17-year old Chinese schoolgirl? You’re serious?
Scott (abashed): It’s a Catholic girls school, too.

How to escape this dilemma? Scott dreams of another girl, Ramona, with dyed pink hair, then sees her the next day. She’s literally the girl of his dreams. The movie keeps doing this. A rock band literally blows the roof off the place, Scott literally gets a life. Is there a point to this or is it just a laugh?

Scott’s pursuit of Ramona is clumsy, as such pursuits often are, but they work, as they often do in the movies. Then the trouble starts.

Scott plays bass for a garage punk band, Sex Bob-Omb, and in the middle of a battle of the bands, the first evil ex, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), shows up, dressed in bizarre Bollywood crap, and they duke it out in comic-book, aerial, martial arts fashion. That Scott can do this causes no one to blink. Massive battles take place, enemies are literally pulverized, but there are no real consequences for the hero. Nothing is felt, you just get to the next level.

Most of the evil exes feel specific to this generation. We get a lesbian (from when Ramona was bi-curious), silent Japanese twins (male version), a skateboarder-turned-movie star, and a vegan/bassist. These last two are played by actors who have actually played superheroes: Chris Evans (the Human Torch/Captain America), and Brandon Routh (Superman).

The final evil ex, at level 7, is a more universal type: Gideon Gordon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), a slick record-company exec, who holds some kind of power over Ramona, and who actually defeats and kills Scott. Ah, but there’s that “life” he got at the previous level, which allows him to redo the fight with greater knowledge and understanding. It allows him to fight Gordon not for LOVE (which is apparently weak), but SELF-RESPECT (which is apparently strong).

Is that the great lesson of this generation? Before I saw the film I hoped that once Scott was victorious, as we knew he would be (the film can’t skewer that trope), he would decide that Ramona wasn’t worth it; that once he battled not only the ex-boyfriends but his fears he would be able to move on. The movie beat me to the punch but in a weak way, using a weak word like “self-respect.” Scott can’t move beyond fear because he never really has it. This is a gamer’s universe so there’s no fear because there are no consequences. There’s just embarrassment (with girls) and victory (in simulated battle).

I worked in games—four years at Xbox in the early 2000s—and I’m not much of a fan of that universe, which is without consequences and generally without sympathy. Look at the other characters here. They veer between the shrugging doofus (Comeau, who keeps showing up at parties) and the self-amused instigator (Scott’s gay roommate, Wallace, Kieran Culkin channeling Robert Downey, Jr.), without much in-between these two uncaring extremes.

Scott racks up the points. GOOD! COMBO! PERFECT! He wins. He gets the girl. But the victory is without consequences. And the girl remains unknowable.

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Posted at 06:20 AM on Aug 17, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Friday August 06, 2010

Movie Review: Breaking Away (1979)

In June 1979, when I was 16, my father, the movie critic for The Minneapolis Tribune, picked me up from the DMV in south Minneapolis where I’d been filling out paperwork to get my first driver’s license, and asked if I wanted to go with him to a critics’ screening that night. I forget if he handed me a movie pass or a presskit but I remember the image on it: a diploma in a garbage can. I also remember the name of the movie: Breaking Away.

We saw it in one of the small critics’ screening rooms above the now-defunct Skyway Theater in downtown Minneapolis with about a half-dozen other critics in attendance. When you go to movies you generally go knowing first-act plot points (it’s about a down-on-his-luck boxer...), and, increasingly, second- and third-act plot points (...who fights for the heavyweight championship and goes the distance), but I went into this thing knowing nothing but the diploma in the garbage can. As a result, the movie unfolded for me in a way few movies have before or since.

Afterwards my father asked me what I thought and I responded warily. My father was not only a professional movie critic but my father—the man I’d been losing arguments to all of my life—but I told him I thought it was a pretty good movie. He tilted his head and sucked in a discontented breath. “Yeah,” he said. “But it begins like a character study and ends like the Rocky of bike-racing movies.” During the car ride home I turned this sentence over in my head. Why was this bad? Because it meant the film wasn’t consistent? Because Rocky itself was bad? Couldn’t you say that Rocky begins like a character study and ends like the Rocky of boxing movies?

A month later, Breaking Away became the “sleeper” hit of the summer. Six months later, it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture and director, and it won best original screenplay for Steve Tesich, but today the movie is mostly seen the way my father saw it. It’s a liked movie. It’s sweet. It’s always in the mix whenever anyone talks about great sports movies. When the American Film Institute counted down its 100 greatest movies in both 1998 and 2008, it didn’t make the cut, but when the organization counted down its most inspiring movies, there it was at no. 8—four behind Rocky.

I think it’s more than that; I think it’s one of the greatest American movies ever made.

**

The film unfolds almost lazily. We see a quarry, then the woods around a quarry, then we hear someone singing with a country twang about the local A&P. Finally the singer and his three buddies, aimless 19 year-olds, wander into camera frame.

We don’t know it yet but the film’s major themes have just been introduced. The quarry is where working-class jobs were. The A&P is where working-class jobs have gone. But it’s a shit job and that’s why these four guys are aimless.

A year out of high school and they’ve already lost their identities. The tallest of the four, Cyril (Daniel J. Stern), all adenoidal voice, big, clumsy feet and pop-cultural references, once played basketball, hoped for a scholarship, and had a girlfriend named Delores. He didn’t get the scholarship, gave up the basketball, lost the girlfriend. Cyril tends to deal with pain through humor, so, by the quarry, he takes up a mock detective stance. “It was somewhere right along here that I lost all interest in life,” he says. “Ah ha! It was right here.” That’s where he saw Delores making out with a guy named Fat Marvin. Then he shouts into the void, mocking his own heartbreak: “Why, Delores, WHY!?!” His words echo but it’s the shortest of the four, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), who answers. “They’re married now,” he says quietly. Their peers are moving on. Life, for which Cyril has no professed interest, is already passing these guys by.

The unacknowledged leader of the group, Mike (Dennis Quaid), a star quarterback in high school, knows this and talks about getting out. He suggests road trips to Terre Haute and permanent trips to Wyoming. He knows life is bigger than their hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, but he’s too scared to go it alone. He’s like a Springsteen character without the guts. That’s why he told Cyril about his girlfriend Delores. And that’s why he gives Moocher shit about his girlfriend Nancy. Girls represent domesticity and Mike needs these guys free to help him get out. He knows the dead-end that awaits him if he stays. He articulates this as they watch the university football team practice:

You know what really gets me, though? I mean here I am, I gotta live in this stinkin’ town, and I gotta read in the newspapers about some hot-shot kid, new star of the college team. Every year it’s gonna be a new one. And every year it’s never gonna be me. I’m just gonna be Mike. Twenty-year-old Mike. Thirty-year-old Mike. Ol’ mean ol’ man Mike! These college kids out here are never gonna get old, or out of shape, cause new ones come along every year. They’re gonna keep calling us “cutters.” To them it’s just a dirty word. To me it’s just something else I never got a chance to be.

At this point we’ve heard the term “cutter” once, from one of the college kids, but it’s only later that we find out its meaning: townie. Specifically: the post-World War II generation that cut the stones that built, among other things, the university. Those jobs have dried up, but the term has become ubiquitous for anyone in town; anyone who’s not getting out.

What do you do if you’re a working-class kid in a university town that has no need for the working class? You wind up in the service sector. You work at the A&P, or—and this is the great fear—you directly service the university. You sell cars to the college kids, or you wash the cars of the college kids, or you police the squabbles between the townies and the college kids. Cutters are basically the niggers of Bloomington. These are the people who do our dirty work, and as a result we fear them, and reduce them to this epithet. Our guys know this. But it’s the fourth guy, Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), who discovers an ingenious way out.

**

We watch movies, in part, to get away from ourselves, to hear about someone else for a change. And if the story is good enough, or wish-fulfillment enough, we want to be that person. That’s the exchange implicit in most movies. You give us your money and we’ll let you sit in the dark and pretend to be someone else for two hours.

Dave is both our own and his own wish fulfillment. He’s ours because he’s really good at something we’d like to be good at: bike racing. He’s his own, and humorously so rather than tragically so (cf. Billy Liar), because he’s pretending to be something he’s not: Italian. One imagines, as he got good at bike racing, as he became a fan of Team Cinzano, he adopted the rudiments of the Italian language and culture. Bravo! Bellissima! One also imagines a weight being lifted off him as a result: the weight of being himself. He’s the happiest person for most of the movie because he’s not Dave Stoller; he’s not a cutter. For centuries, Europeans escaped to America and forged new identities, but Dave is part of that generation for whom the American dream contracted and dried up. So he escapes to Europe—in his mind anyway—an idealized Europe. The situation is played for laughs but serious issues lie beneath it.

Breaking Away doesn’t have much of a plot (“I'm not a plot writer,” Tesich told The New York Times in 1982); instead it has tensions between individuals and groups. The most obvious of these are the tensions between the cutters, represented by our four guys, particularly Mike, and the college kids.

But the cutters have their own internal tensions. They may quit the A&P in solidarity with Mike, and they may follow him onto campus and into fights, but they’re already breaking away from him. Moocher gets closer to Nancy: at first denying she’s his girlfriend, then standing up for her, then quietly marrying her at the Monroe County Court House. Dave, in his head, is already gone, while Cyril is never quite there. Mike constantly tries to rally the troops but he resents having troops that need rallying, while they resent being rallied.

Then there are generational tensions. Cyril’s dad “understands” his son’s failures, while Moocher’s parents flee Bloomington for the promise of jobs in Chicago, leaving their son to sell the house by himself. But we only hear about these parents. The only parents we actually see are Dave’s.

Dave’s dad, Raymond (Paul Dooley), is a former stone-cutter who owns a used-car lot that services the college kids—he gives the cars cheesy, collegiate names like “Magna Cum Laude”—and after work he brags about how he schnookered this one or that one; how these college kids ain’t that smart after all. Of course he can’t abide his son’s Italian’s fixation but that’s not the real source of tension between the two of them. Hell, the real source of tension isn’t even between the two of them; it’s within the one. Raymond has internalized Bloomington’s class issues—us vs. them—but he knows that for his son to succeed he needs to become them. The situation is, again, played for laughs, but serious issues lie beneath it. Here he argues with his wife, Evelyn (Barbara Barrie):

Raymond: He used to be a smart kid. I thought he was going to go to college.
Evelyn: I thought you didn’t want him to go to college.
Raymond: Well why should he go to college? When I was 19, I was working at the quarry 10 hours a day.
Evelyn: Most of the quarries are closed.
Raymond: Yeah, well, let him find another job.
Evelyn: Jobs are not that easy to find.

Almost everyone in the film has a monologue. Dialogues, like the above, may be comedic but monologues are serious. Mike’s “Mean ol’ man Mike” speech best represents the younger-generation dilemma—the epithet we’re called is the job we can’t even get—but it’s Raymond’s monologue, representing the original cutters, that is the speech of the movie. No one looks at countries and cultures with fresher eyes than foreigners: de Tocqueville on America, Hemingway and Baldwin on France, and, yes, I would argue, Steve Tesich, born in Yugoslavia and an immigrant to the U.S. at the age of 14, on the America of Bloomington, Indiana. Here, father and son go for a stroll through the university campus:

I cut the stone for this building. I was one fine stone cutter. Mike’s dad, Moocher’s, Cyril’s. All of us. Well, Cyril’s dad, never mind.

Thing of it was, I loved it. I was young and slim and strong. I was damn proud of my work. And the buildings went up! When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings was too good for us. Nobody told us that. Just felt uncomfortable that’s all. Even now I’d like to be able to stroll through the campus and look at the limestone... I just feel out of place.

Yes, Breaking Away is sweet. Dave romances a pretty co-ed named Katherine (Robyn Douglass), whom he calls “Katerina,” and serenades her beneath her sorority window with “M’appari Tutt Amor,” from the Italian opera “Martha.” Yes, Breaking Away is inspirational. Dave’s heroes, Team Cinzano, come to Indiana, and he trains for the race on the freeway, memorably drafting behind a truck at 60 miles an hour. Yes, his dreams come crashing down when a member of Team Cinzano, unable to abide this American upstart with the bad Italian accent, sticks a bike pump between his spokes and he loses the race (“I guess you’re a cutter again,” Mike tells him afterwards); but the movie ends with the Little 500 bike race, where the underdogs, the cutters, take on the college boys, and, against all odds, win.

Inspiring. At the same time, I can’t recall a more profound admission about the American class system in a Hollywood movie than the one Dave’s dad makes above. This country was built by people who aren’t welcome here.

**

Each time I watch Breaking Away I fear I’ll see the movie through my father’s eyes, but each time it only gets better. Each time, too, I fall in love with a new scene. This summer it was the scene after Dave meets Katherine. He’s biking through the woods, and light is shining through the trees, and we hear the instrumental strains of the song, “M’appari Tutt Amor,” with which he’ll serenade her later in the movie. It’s an aimless scene but you get the sense of things beginning. Dave is young and slim and strong, and he’s good at what he does, and he’s in love. And he spreads his arms wide to take in the world.

In the most basic sense my father was right. Breaking Away begins like a character study, and it ends like the Rocky of bike-racing movies, because Steve Tesich’s script was originally two scripts: one about cutters, the other about the Little 500 race. He couldn’t sell either script. So he combined them. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Strawberry Fields Forever” began as two songs and that turned out pretty well.

The movie never really answers its fundamental question. What does the working class in a post-industrial society do? In the aftermath of their Little 500 victory, the cutters simply do what the downtrodden have always done. They lay claim to their epithet. Dave’s dad changes the name of his used-car lot from “Campus Cars” to “Cutter Cars,” while Dave, who embraced one false identity (Italian) to overcome another (cutter), winds up where he was meant to be: at college. But we never see Mike or Moocher or Cyril again. We can only guess what happens to them.

When Tesich arrived in this country in the late 1950s, he learned English through television, through sitcoms, and you can argue the film has a sitcom quality to it—particularly its ending. On campus Dave meets a pretty French girl and soon they’re biking, talking the Tour de France, and he’s using Frenchisms as he once used Italianisms. When he sees his father, he shouts out, happily, “Bon jour, papa!” and the father looks back, startled, horrified, and the camera freezes. Cue rimshot. At that point, though, we begin to hear the Indiana University fight song, and the freeze-frame fades into a shot of the Monroe County Court House, and a graphic informs us: FILMED ENTIRELY IN BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA. No shit. The film is steeped in the place. It also uses obvious locals for bit parts—the postman, the stone cutters hanging at the plant, the old woman on her porch—but nothing says “Indiana” like this ending, which refuses to take itself too seriously. There’s something very Midwestern, very American, about that.

Breaking Away was released more than 30 years ago but it’s never felt more relevant. Moocher can’t sell his parent’s house, jobs aren’t easy to find, there’s trouble in the Middle East. One can argue that jobs are never easy to find and there’s always trouble in the Middle East. But it’s more. I spent the summer of 2010 looking for a car, and many of the car salesmen I met hadn’t been salesmen long. This one had been an event planner but jobs dried up. That one had been a professional photographer but in the digital age he was rendered irrelevant. Then there’s me.

I first saw Breaking Away with my father, the movie critic for The Minneapolis Tribune, in the summer of 1979, a time when journalism and movie criticism seemed like stable occupations. No longer. Newspapers everywhere are folding. Movie critics are being let go. We thought Breaking Away was about them but it’s really about us. We’re all cutters now.


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Posted at 08:01 AM on Aug 06, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 1970s
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Wednesday August 04, 2010

Review: “The Kids Are All Right” (2010)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The kids may be alright but the adults sure are screwed up.

One gets that feeling five minutes into the movie. The teenage boy, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), may hang out with a jerky friend, and the teenaged girl, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), may be too timid to move beyond Scrabble with the boy she likes, but at least there’s something open-ended and possible about their personalities. At least they don’t have 20 years of a relationship grinding and truncating each personality into a parody of itself. At least they didn’t name one of their kids ‘Laser.’

The couple in question is a lesbian couple but it may as well not be. Nic (Annette Bening) is the dominant, male figure who returns home from an important job (she’s a doctor), tosses off an exasperated line about the difficulty and importance of that job (“17 thyroids today”), then minimizes wifey’s contributions. She dotes on her baby girl, now 18. She acknowledges the girl is 18 but continues with the baby talk. She wears sleeveless T-shirts. She drinks too much.

Jules (Julianne Moore) is the passive-aggressive, female figure who allows herself to be minimized, then resents that minimization. She wants to do something, start a landscaping business, but doesn’t know where to begin. To be honest, she’s afraid to start. Plus she gets no support in the matter. She’s a bit loopy in a west-coast way, and knows it, and resents it. During sex, she goes down on the dominant figure.

Is this an inevitability in relationships—that we grind each other into parodies of ourselves? I don’t know, but the beginning of the movie felt false to me in the way that first episodes of TV shows, where the characters are more broadly drawn than what they become, feel false. I would’ve appreciated a finer touch here.

Each of the two women gave birth to one child—Nic to Joni, Jules to Laser—and now that Joni’s 18, and at the urging of Laser, who is probably craving a male figure in his life, they search out the sperm donor, from back in ’92 or ’95, who was anonymous. Considering all of the messy possibilities they hit the jackpot. Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is a not-bad-looking, scruffy, laid-back dude who runs a restaurant using organic, locally-produced food. He rides a motorcycle. He exudes interest and passive sexuality.

The initial meeting between kids and donor is clumsy, as it should be, and Laser comes out of it disappointed, but Joni is jazzed and wants to see where it leads. Nic and Jules, of course, are horrified. Nic, the dominant figure in the household, is particularly upset that another bull is sniffing around outside, but she lets him in to diminish him. “Let’s just kill him with kindness and put it to bed,” she says. Except she’s the one who gets diminished. She can’t hold her wine and comes off as small and combative, while he comes off as mellow and reasonable. He gives Jules both encouragement for her landscaping business and her first job: fixing up his backyard. There, they bond over the word “fecund,” while she apologizes for all the double-takes because “I keep seeing my kids’ expressions in your face”—a fascinating area of inquiry that is all but forgotten when the two, more alike than not, fall into bed together.

At first it seems a one-shot. Then it happens again and again. Meanwhile, Paul is also bonding with both Joni, who gets to ride on the back of his motorcycle from the organic farm, and Laser, to whom he gives good advice about his jerky friend. Nic? Nic is working. She’s being nudged out of the picture.

The movie lost me when Paul gets serious about Jules. Yes, an argument can be made that while Paul’s personality is essentially unserious the kids have made him more serious, so now he’s ready to get serious. But I still didn’t buy it. I didn’t buy it particularly because at that point he was also sleeping with the most beautiful woman in the world, Tanya (Yaya DeCosta), the hostess of his place. DeCosta is a fine actress but it was tough believing that someone that beautiful even exists, let alone that she’s schtupping Mark Ruffalo, let alone that he then throws her over for Julianne Moore. (No offense to Julianne Moore.) For me, it was one “let alone” too many.

Tanya, by the way, gets off the best line in the movie, which is an early candidate for best line of the year. When Brooke (Rebecca Lawrence), the organic farmer, flirting with Paul with a basket of fruit, says “I thought you should have first taste,” Tanya, after Brooke leaves, mimics her, “I thought you should have first taste...” and then, in her own voice and under her breath, “...of my pussy.” I roared.

There’s been a lot of buzz this year from the filmfest circuit on “The Kids Are All Right,” and I liked it well enough but wasn’t blown away. It’s partly that broadly-drawn beginning. It’s partly the sense of privilege that permeates these characters in their busy, eating-outdoors lives. Back in the early 1990s, Steve Martin’s “L.A. Story” tried to be a kind of L.A. version of Woody Allen’s New York, but “Kids,” from writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (“Laurel Canyon”), pulls it off better than “Story” ever did—and that’s not wholly a compliment. Again, it’s the sense of privilege. These are people who have the time to be neurotic.

That said, Bening is a wonder and deserves another Oscar nomination, and possibly, finally, the statuette itself. Hutcherson sure has grown up fast (was “Bridge to Terabithia” really three and a half years ago?), while Wasikowska has something like true beauty about her.

The movie has buzz because of its unconventionality—a lesbian couple! looking their age!—but that unconventionality is wrapped in a conventional story and lesson. Family is hard but sacrosanct, and woe to he who violates that sanctity. Is the usual sanctity-of-marriage crowd objecting to this movie? Ironic if they are. It’s such a pro-family movie. In its quiet, forgiving end, in which the family is fortified against outsiders like Paul, I, identifying with Paul, the childless fortysomething, experienced regret at not knowing that feeling; at not having started my own family.

The kids are alright; the adults still need work.

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Posted at 08:34 AM on Aug 04, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Tuesday August 03, 2010

How I'm Like Dick Cheney

This morning I had an epiphany: I realized I was like Dick Cheney. Not a pleasant thing for a lifelong Democrat and fervent Obama supporter to realize. But helpful nonetheless.

I realized I was like Dick Cheney when I was making a sandwich before work. Patricia has been sick for four days now, and I’m a bit of a germaphobe, and so for four days I’ve been extra careful about touching things around the house, and washing my hands after I touch things around the house, particularly if I’m going to make something that goes in my mouth—like a sandwich before work. But it’s been four days now, and Patricia is feeling better, and I’m hoping that the cold germs have passed through our home like a bad wind.

Even so, as I was making that sandwich, I thought, vis a vis the cold germs that might be lingering: They only need to succeed once.

And that’s when I realized I was like Dick Cheney. Because that was his attitude after 9/11. Terrorists were germs, they only needed to succeed once, and once they infiltrated our body they would make us sick.

It helped me better understand Cheney. Yes, “understand,” a word that the extreme right likes to sneer at, because they feel they already understand it all, and anyway understanding often leads to sympathy and they want none of that. To them, sympathy and understanding make us weak. And in a way they do. My epiphany this morning about Dick Cheney, for example, weakened some of my hatred for Dick Cheney. I saw him in a new light. “Oh. So Dick Cheney’s like me when Patricia’s sick.”

Here’s the key. I don’t like myself when Patricia’s sick. I don’t like being super paranoid about everything I touch. It’s no way to live. I’ve said this often. I try to change. Paranoia gets in the way of living my life. It upends my life. My fear of getting sick actually sickens me—not physically so much as mentally and spiritually. We’re scared enough already, but to be that scared? That’s really no way to live.

And that’s Dick Cheney. The left sees him as a monster, and in a way he is, but at the same time it must be awful to be Dick Cheney. To be so fearful and paranoid all the time. It must warp your mind and sicken your soul. Cold germs, after all, pass.

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Posted at 10:52 AM on Aug 03, 2010 in category Personal Pieces
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Monday August 02, 2010

Hollywood B.O.: Worst Movie Year Ever?

I was wondering whether "Toy Story 3" might reach $400 million domestic (it's at $389 right now, and last week fell off by only 27% for another $14 million, so if it falls off by something similar this week, hey, that's about $10 million right there, nearly the $11 million it needs, BUT its weekend numbers are already off by 43%, SO...) when I saw its worldwide take stood at $826 million. Immediately the more interesting question became whether the movie might crack the $1 billion mark. Only six movies have ever done that. (TRIVIA: Can you name them? They'll be in the comments field at the end of this post.)

It could happen. Pixar movies tend to do better abroad than in the states, generating between 58-60% of their total from foreign sales. Right now "Toy Story 3"'s foreign component is at 52.8%. Is it lagging? Probably not. It only recently opened in France (Bastille Day, actually), Hong Kong (July 15) Spain (July 22) and the U.K. (July 23), and it doesn't open in Germany until August 5th, so the foreign money's still flowing in rather than trickling in. Put it this way: If it doesn't break a billion it'll be close.

For the weekend, yes, "Inception" fell off by only 35% and came out ahead of newcomer "Dinner with Schmucks": $27m to $23m. It's the first movie since "Alice in Wonderland" to be no. 1 at the box office three weekends in a row. Keep in mind, too: "Alice" did it in March, an easier month to stay on top, since the competition is so weak.

On the other hand, "Inception"'s competition has hardly been strong. None of the new films managed even a "fresh" rating from top critics at Rotten Tomatoes. Paramount's "Schmucks" came closest at 47%, and made $23 million in 2,922 theaters. Warner Bros.'s "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore," which I'd barely heard of (thanks niche marketing), got a 35% rating of shrugs and managed only $12 million in 3,700 theaters. That's bad. Finally, Universal's Zac Effron vehicle, "Charlie St. Cloud" (19%), grossed $12 million in 2,700 theaters. The three newbies finished second, fifth and sixth, respectively.

The totals here.

Has this been a bad summer? Last week in the Wall Street Journal, Joe Queenan had a blistering, funny, open letter to Hollywood, which included this advice:

Stop making movies like "Grown Ups," "Sex and the City 2," "Prince of Persia" and anything that positions Jennifer Aniston or John C. Reilly at the top of the marquee. Stop trying to pass off Shia LaBeouf—who looks a bit like the young George W. Bush—as the second coming of Tom Cruise. Stop casting Gerard Butler in roles where he is called upon to emote. And if "Legion" and "Edge of Darkness" and "The Back-up Plan" and "Hot Tub Time Machine" are the best you can do, stop making movies, period. Humanity will thank you for it.

I agree with almost everything he says in the piece—the Vin Diesel riff had me laughing out loud—except for the way it was marketed by WSJ: WORST YEAR EVER?

No. Not even close. At least not to me. It hurts me more when Hollywood serves us crap and we eat it all up with a smile. Remember last summer? "Transformers 2"? How's that taste now? Or the summer of 2007? "Spider-Man 3," "Shrek the Third," and all the other crappy 3s? Or the summer of 2006 when the second "Pirates of the Caribbean" ruled the seas? These were each summer's most popular movies. This summer, our most popular movie is a good movie, "Toy Story 3," while a new film, which is creative and dark and forces even adults to tax their minds as they're watching it, is now no. 1 for three weekends in a row. It'll probably wind up in the top 10 for the year. That's not a bad summer to me.

But then, I wasn't forced to watch "Grown Ups."

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Posted at 08:11 AM on Aug 02, 2010 in category Movies - Box Office
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Sunday August 01, 2010

Say-Hey Quote of the Day

“[Mays] was already revered by black Americans. When New York Yankee rookie pitcher Al Downing visited the Red Rooster in Harlem in 1963, the owner handed him a book to sign. It included autographs from Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines, Bill (”Bojangles“) Robinson, and Sugar Ray Robinson. 'The pages were so crowded with such celebrated names,' wrote David Halberstam, 'that it took Downing a long while to find a page with only one name, and he prepared to sign his name there. ”No! No! No!“ said the owner. ”That's Willie Mays's page! No one else signs that page!“'”

—from James S. Hirsch's Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, which I finished last week, and which is just a joy to read. One of the great takeaways is how much support Willie needed from coaches and managers to do what he did. One assumes he would've done it anyway but you never know. He needed people believing in him because he was so hard on himself. There's a Management 101 course in this book. Pinch the responsibilities and salaries and personalities of employees and you wind up with pinched employees. Nurture them, support them, compliment them, and you might wind up with Willie Mays.

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Posted at 08:34 AM on Aug 01, 2010 in category Baseball
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