erik lundegaard

Thursday September 30, 2010

R.I.P. Tony Curtis (1925-2010)

Tony Curtis, born Bernard Schwartz of the Bronx, died last night of a cardiac arrest at the age of 85. There's an excellent obituary from Dave Kehr of The New York Times here.

A few years ago, to coincide with the release of the Kevin Costner film “Mr. Brooks” (remember that one?), I wrote a piece for MSNBC.com called “When Leading Men Go Bad,” and counted down the top 8 villainous turns of Hollywood heroes. Tony Curtis's Boston Strangler came in at no. 5.

Godspeed, Josephine. Nobody's perfect, but your Cary Grant imitation came close.

5. Tony Curtis in “The Boston Strangler”

For an actor with a lousy rep —nominated by Michael Medved as the worst actor of all time in “The Golden Turkey Awards” — Tony Curtis has given us some great performances. He played a racist con chained to Sidney Poitier in “The Defiant Ones,” a servile PR flak chained to Burt Lancaster’s gossip columnist in “Sweet Smell of Success” and a Roman slave chained to Laurence Olivier in “Spartacus.” Not to mention his comic turn as Joe/Josephine/Cary Grant in “Some Like It Hot.”

But for most of the 1960s he played glib roles in frothy sex comedies like “Sex and the Single Girl” and “The Great Race.”

The first shock in “The Boston Strangler” is that Curtis, as Albert DeSalvo, isn’t there for the first hour of the film. We see only his boots and gloved hands, and the results of his crimes. When he does show up, well, he ain’t pretty no more. He’s broken-nosed and fleshier of face. We see him commit one crime, then two. In a way this is more than he sees.

Once he’s apprehended (on a breaking-and-entering charge), we find out he’s a split personality — he doesn’t know what he does — so Henry Fonda, as head of the commission tracking him, tries to break through to the other side. Curtis scrunches in his chair like a chastened schoolboy. He twitches. He has flashes of memory in which Fonda, his interrogator, appears. The film was made at a time when Hollywood was still trying to cinematically recreate inner as well as outer journeys, and “Strangler” exhibits this best when DeSalvo feels his wife has betrayed him: He sees her, suddenly, as if from a long distance away. Later, confused and blinking, he says the idea of strangling her popped into his head, but “How did she know?” He doesn’t yet realize he did try to strangle her. He doesn’t yet realize his “ideas” are the Strangler’s actions.

In his book “Bambi vs. Godzilla,” David Mamet calls Curtis’ performance here, “Some of the greatest moments of film acting.”

Which leads to the inevitable question: Is Michael Medved right about anything?

Posted at 07:50 AM on Sep 30, 2010 in category Movies
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Wednesday September 29, 2010

Top of the 10th

So that's our narrative: The rise and fall of Barry Bonds.

Bummer.

As soon as I heard about “The Tenth Inning,” Ken Burns' extra-inning look at what's transpired in major league baseball since his “Baseball” documentary premiered on PBS in September 1994, I wondered how Burns was going to do it. How do you handle this last 18 years of baseball history? Last night, in part one, we got part of our answer.

Barry Bonds will be viewed as a tragic figure. Talking heads will make excuses for him. He did what he did because his dad played in the South and was called names, or because young Barry overheard his godfather Willie Mays telling his father Bobby to look out for no. 1, or because “he didn't play the hero game,” or because too much attention was lavished on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in that crazy summer of '98 and so Barry, who knew he was better than these two guys, had to go out and get himself a swelled head. He had to go out and besmirch his bad name. And that's the tragedy of our baseball time.

Here's Allen Barra writing for The Daily Beast:

Bonds' trajectory in the National League is juxtaposed with that of Ken Griffey, Jr., the best player in the American League at this time, about whom there has never been a whisper of scandal.

Indeed. In the first half hour of the doc, we get 10 minutes on Bonds and one minute on Junior. That's the juxtaposition. Junior gets the cover but not the content.

Admittedly I'm biased in the matter. Admittedly the steroids scandal is the big story of baseball for the last 18 years. But: a) this seems to be rewarding monstrously bad behavior, and b) it still isn't doing the steroids scandal right.

How much time is spent on the McGwire/Sosa homerun chase? Another 10 minutes? Fifteen? And for how much of this time does Burns treat the HR chase as if it's a legitimate thing? Wow, look at those homeruns flying out. Wow, he broke Maris' record and kept going. Such excitement! Sure, we get the sidebar on Steve Wilstein and andro, and how no one wanted to know (including me), but then it's back to the homerun chase and all of those balls flying out of the yard. This feels wrong. It's as if Burns had spent as much time on the Cincinnati Reds fantastic upset over the Chicago White Sox in the 1919 World Series, “one of the greatest upsets in World Series history,” as on the fact that the ChiSox threw the Series.

The story is the fix. It's not what resulted from the fix.

Worse, everyone's making excuses for these guys. Among the talking heads, only Bob Costas—who chastises the Major League Baseball Players Association for ignoring steroids for so long, to the detriment of its clean players—waggles a mild finger. The others shrug or joke or make grand pronouncements about our culture: “You'd do it,” “This is the time we live in,” etc. Steroids, in Burns' vision, is like the curve ball, the '51 Giants, Gaylord Perry, Albert Belle's corked bat. Everyone cheats.

Except everyone doesn't cheat. Some players presumably didn't down that Jose Canseco milkshake.

Burns keeps doing this. He gives us the narratives of the time, many of which I didn't agree with at the time, as if they are still the true narratives.

Remember all of that fan anger after the '95 strike? How fans said they weren't coming back? We know they came back. But their anger, which, to me, always felt prissy and spoiled and misdirected at the players, who didn't want a salary cap thrust upon them by ownership, is still seen as legitimate. Excuses are still made for it. Hell, it's almost celebrated.

And what brought these fans back? Who “saved” baseball? Again, Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive game streak in September '95 is trotted out without any statistical backup whatsoever. I guess it's just a feeling people had. I guess it just makes a good narrative.

And did the '98 homerun chase really distract us from the Monica Lewinsky scandal? I thought the Monica Lewinsky scandal was distracting us from other, more important matters. I thought that was its point. How many distractions does a mighty nation need anyway?

And, seriously, all that time on the '96 Yankees and not one shot of Jeffrey Maier?

Who are some of these talking heads anyway? Does Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton really deserve all of that air time? Should the doc really have begun with Keith Olbermann intoning, forever intoning? Where's Bill James, Rob Neyer, Joe Posnanski? Where are my guys?

Not to mention all of that “The X of Y from Z” thing: “The fifth child of an Italian immigrant...”; “The shy son of a dentist from southern California...” Burns is turning into a parody of himself.

Apologies for the rant. We're only through the top of the 10th. Maybe the home team can rally.

Posted at 07:57 AM on Sep 29, 2010 in category Baseball
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Tuesday September 28, 2010

Fun with Pandigital Photo Frames

Here's a story.

A few years ago, we received a Pandigital photo frame for Christmas, loaded it with photos and forgot about it. Saturday afternoon, getting ready for a dinner party, we looked at it, thought: "You know, we should really update these photos." So we hooked up the frame to my computer, an iMac, deleted the photos we didn't want, added about 50 more from the last two years—trips to Vietnam, Rehoboth Beach, etc.—and unhooked it.

And that's when the frustrations began. Count 'em off:

  1. Mac files include a kind of ghost file when viewed on a PC (techies: is it a "Mac resource fork file"?), and this photo frame, a Pandigital photo frame, was apparently made for PCs. It had downloaded all of these ghost files—the original file name preceded by an underscore, and seen as blank pictures with the words "Format Not Supported"—which aren't even visible on the iMac and thus can't be deleted via the iMac. They have to be deleted manually from the photo frame. A Pandigital photo frame.
  2. Oh, and the earlier photos I thought I'd deleted via the iMac? They were still there. These, too, had to be deleted manually via the photo frame. A Pandigital photo frame.
  3. There are five button options on the frame: ENTER, EXIT, left arrow, right arrow, SET-UP. None of these buttons are very responsive. One really has to press hard to get anywhere.
  4. There are two ways to delete a photo. Photos are viewable as thumbnails—six thumbnails per page—and one can navigate to the offending photo, press ENTER to select it, press SET-UP for options, then press the left or right arrows to navigate to the "Delete Photo" option. Press ENTER again. A question: "Are you sure?" Press ENTER again. Now it's gone. That's a lot of button pressing to get rid of one file. Particularly when one needs to delete about 50 such files.
  5. But that's not even the real problem. The real problem? Once you've deleted the photo, the frame automatically returns you to Page 1, Photo 1. Not a problem at the beginning when you're already on page 1. But by the time you're on page 4 or 5? A bitch. Let's say you wanted to delete photos #23, 25 and 27. To do so, you have to press 23 times to get to photo #23 and press a few more times to delete it; then you're automatically returned to the start and have to press 24 times (photo #25 minus the ghost file you've just deleted) to get back to where you were. And on and on.
  6. Ah, but there's another way to delete photos: from the thumbnail. Navigate to the offending thumbnail but don't hit ENTER. Instead, hit SET-UP and navigate to "Delete Photo." Of course the step skipped by not hitting ENTER at the thumbnail is added in the deletion process: you get two windows rather than one to confirm the deletion. So it's not an advantage.
  7. No, the greater advantage to this method is you can remain in SET-UP mode and can then navigate to the next ghost thumbnail to delete it. Or so you think. This is actually the biggest bug of all. Because while it looks like you're deleting, say, the fifth photo on page 3, you're actually deleting the second photo on page 1. Because, even when the viewscreen shows otherwise, it automatically returns you to Page 1, Photo 1. In this manner I managed to delete some of the photos we actually wanted to display.

And that's how I spent my Saturday afternoon.

Posted at 06:26 AM on Sep 28, 2010 in category Technology
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Monday September 27, 2010

Travels: Rehoboth Beach: Lessons in Capitalism

I fear I didn’t capture Rehoboth right here. I fear I didn’t capture our week in Rehoboth right. I missed so much. For example:

  • Rehoboth’s summertime workers used to be populated by Mid-Atlantic kids like my sister, from Timonium, Md., but now they’re more often from the former Soviet Union: Russia and Belarus and Ukraine. I brought this up with the owner of the house my sister was renting, who lived next door and popped in on us one evening, big-voiced and garrulous and fun, with the thickest of Delaware accents, as we were all drinking and talking on the screened-in front porch. He assumed I was referencing a prostitution ring that made headlines in the mid-1990s but I said I didn’t know from prostitution rings. It’s the geography of it. Why Russia? Why not, you know, Timonium? I forget his response. Were Russians cheaper? Were American kids no longer interested? He might have repeated the line I’d heard from others: that summer vacation in Eastern Europe tends to go on longer than ours, and so the Russian kids can stay past Labor Day and not leave businesses short-staffed for the final weeks of the season. That made sense to me. Until I spoke with a girl from Russia I met at the Internet Cafe on 1st Avenue, who, while answering a slew of questions from me (“Had she been to other cities?” Yes. “Favorite?” Miami. “How did she hear about the Rehoboth job?” There was a company in Russia, who worked with a company in America, who...), added, unbidden, that the tough part of the deal was getting back to Russia two weeks after school started. Summer vacations aren’t different. The difference between then and now is who bears the burden of the overlap. It used to be Americans businesses, who remained short-staffed while American kids returned to school. Now it’s the Russian kids, who remain in America while their Russian peers get a leg-up. Welcome to capitalism.
  • My nephew Ryan couldn’t get enough of Funland. Not the rides but the games. And not the games but the prizes from the games. He loves stuffed animals. As soon as he won one he wanted another, and as soon as he won a small one he wanted a bigger one. Funland allows you to trade up this way: three smalls equal a medium; three mediums equal a bigger medium. The big prize was a giant stuffed alligator. He was all id—want, want, want—and no army of stuffed animals sated his desire. We talked of having an intervention but we acted as enablers. Yes, Ryan, one more game. Sure, Ryan, I’ll play with you since it’s 11 in the morning and no one else is at Wac-a-Mole. At the end of the week, his mother, my sister Karen, showed up at lunch with the giant stuffed alligator under her arm. But she hadn’t won it. She’d run into the owner of Funland, for whom she worked back in the 1980s, and he gave it to her. Another lesson in capitalism: It’s who you know.
  • Ryan’s older brother, Jordy, didn’t want stuffed animals; he wanted stuff: electronics, mostly. He’s a gamer, with earlier versions of PlayStation and current versions of Wii at home, and one night, at the Surfside Arcade, he played the arcade version of “Guitar Hero,” which he has on the Wii, and did so well with Foghat’s “Slow Ride” (on “hard”) that he drew an audience, to whom, like a real rock star, he was oblivious. He wound up with the fifth-best score, just ahead of someone calling himself “Slash.”

  • Two of my favorite swims at Rehoboth were early-morning, solo swims after jogs along the boardwalk. There’s nothing like diving into the ocean still sweating and steaming from a run. There’s nothing like a swim before breakfast with only beachcombers and sand zambonis around. That’s living. That’s fun.
  • Mostly we ate in, lovely meals over at the Muschlers’ rental home, sitting in the backyard, drinking and talking, as the light died and the bugs came out. We went out for dinner twice: once to Obie’s By the Sea, just off Olive on the north end of the boardwalk, and once to Ed’s Chicken & Crab in Dewey, where my mother and sister, who ignore the chicken part of the equation, closed the joint.
  • But my favorite meal may have been the one we had before we arrived. My mother had picked up Patricia and I at 9:30 a.m. at Reagan National, and we sped over the Bay Bridge before 11:00, which for Patricia and I was 8:00, so we weren’t interested in the sea food restaurant just on the other side that my sister had recommended. But once it was after noon, where to eat? We drove along 404 toward Rehoboth, seeing a few spots, but momentum kept carrying us on until finally, at a county junction, Patricia yelled, “That place!” and I stopped the car and turned into the gravel parking lot. It was a Kiwanis Club barbecue chicken joint, open-aired but covered, where you ate at picnic tables and used a water pump to wash your hands afterward. A line of women were serving up the following: half a chicken, sweet pickles, a roll and bag of potato chips. That chicken turned out to be the best barbecue I’ve had in years: tangy and juicy. I also had a great encounter at the end of the line, where you paid, and where a tip jar stood for donations to the Bridgeville Center. I looked at the cashier, a man in his 70s, and pointed. “What’s the Bridgeville Center?” I asked. He seemed surprised, first, that a question had been asked, then leaned forward conspiratorially. “It’s just a buncha old farts,” he said. I gave him a dollar for the laugh.

And on and on. I could add more, but I don’t think I’ll be able to capture what I really want to capture about Rehoboth Beach. It may be as simple as the heat on the wood of the boardwalk; it may be as complex as the sense of fulfillment you have in the ocean, or the sense of longing you have out of it. Besides, I know I’m lingering. I know it’s Saturday morning. Time for one last walk to the boardwalk. Time for one last look at the ocean. Bye.

Posted at 07:28 AM on Sep 27, 2010 in category Travels
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Sunday September 26, 2010

Travels: Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Going Back from Whence We Came

  1. Introduction
  2. Old Pro Golf
  3. Tea Shirts
  4. Mourning in Rehoboth

In the end it’s all about the beach.

My father used to say there was nothing like that first dip in the ocean after the long, hot, sweaty haul to get there, but this never made sense to me. It was just another odd thing grown-ups said. Now I’m that grown-up.

Our long, sweaty haul started on a Friday at 9 p.m. in Seattle and lasted through a red-eye to Chicago, a 6 a.m. flight to D.C., a morning car trip over the Bay Bridge and through eastern Maryland and into Delaware, with a few wrong turns along the way, until we crawled, in the mid-afternoon heat, along Highway 1, with all of the other Saturday arrivals, before making that final, impatient, left-hand turn onto Rehoboth Avenue and into the offices of Jack Lingo Real Estate to collect the keys, and into the Lingo’s grocery store to collect the weekend necessities, and over to Mom’s place to drop off her stuff, and over to our place to drop off our stuff, and then the two-block trip back to Mom’s place to drop off her car—but not before being confronted by a cop who asked why I’d parked a quarter into someone’s driveway (there’d been a neighborly complaint), and I explained that it was temporary, that we were staying in that small cottage at the back of the driveway there, and this was my first time in Rehoboth in 25 years, and, hey, how old are you anyway?, which got him to smile and admit, “Twenty-one” and merely issue me, 26 years his senior, a warning—and after all that it was 5:00 and the sun was lowering in the sky, but I didn’t care and changed into swimsuit and flip-flops and grabbed a towel and walked the half block to the boardwalk and over the hot sand and through the departing crowds and dropped everything by the driest part of the high-tide mark and stepped into the cool, salty water, feeling the spray and hearing sizzle of the waves, and in past my calves and thighs and, oof, groin, until I dove into a wave and rose on the other side, and thought, as the ocean washed away the day of travel, the month of troubles, the year of work, “Dad was right.”

Why does it feel so good? Because it’s the water we emerged from? Because we ourselves are salt and water? It feels heavier than most water, cooler than most water, and the waves provide their own challenge. The ocean doesn’t automatically accept us, like other, more placid bodies of water. It’s trying to expel us even as it tries to pull us in further. It has mixed feelings. I floated on my back, watched my toes emerge, and felt lucky.

My sister, Karen, set up the vacation. Her husband, Eric, is a Muschler, and every year three of the Muschler boys and their families vacation somewhere for a week, which allows parents to get together and all of the various cousins to create havoc together, and this year Rehoboth was chosen because it’s where our family vacationed in the 1970s, and where Karen worked during high school and college summers in the 1980s. The Muschlers rented a big house on Stockley Avenue (pronounced Delawarean: “Stow-klee”), two and a half blocks from the beach; then she asked if Patricia and I wanted to come along. Normally we vacation in fairly exotic spots—Little Corn Island, Nicaragua; Hanoi, Vietnam—but I was in the mood for a less exotic spot. I wanted a place with cotton candy.

We rented our own cottage, also on Stockley Avenue, but a half block from the beach. The online photos were vague, which had me worried, but we found it charming enough: living room, small kitchen, separate bedroom, bath. There was even a back deck where we locked up the bikes that we rented for the week. The back deck was also where the Muschlers stored most of our beach gear—chairs and umbrellas—so they wouldn’t have to keep carting them the extra two blocks every morning. Or afternoon.

The Muschlers tend to be late risers—or, with so many kids, late goers—so we were rarely at the beach early. Sometimes we arrived around 11:00, which didn’t make much sense in the “danger danger danger” UV-ray world of 2010; other times we avoided the morning altogether and showed up around 2:00 and made an afternoon of it.

My nephew, Jordy, 9, took to the waves like a champ. Whenever he was at the beach, he was in the water: diving into the waves, riding the waves, wondering why the waves weren’t bigger. His brother, Ryan, 7, took to the sand like a champ. He wanted to bury and be buried. Who doesn’t want to be at the beach? One day, my mother, 80, put on a swimsuit and dipped her toes, too.

My favorite day was our last full day. On Thursday, Rehoboth was drenched with two big rainstorms: one in the early afternoon that cleared the boardwalk; one in the late evening as we sat, protected, at Ed’s Chicken & Crab joint in Dewey, and watched people run in breathless and soaked from the downpour and the flash-flooding in the streets. As a result, there was a freshness to everything Friday morning as Patricia and I took our coffee and went for an early-morning, barefoot stroll by the ocean. The waves were bigger than usual, but overall it seemed like a normal morning.

We’d decided on a bike ride that morning. Several days earlier, on a misty Monday morning, we’d scoped out the area north of Rehoboth—Henlopen Acres, where the rich folks lived, and Gordon Pond Wildlife Area, where the frogs lived—so Friday morning we headed south, past Silver Lake, but quickly got caught between small neighborhoods and Highway 1, as Delaware, a narrow state already, narrowed to a thin peninsula, and didn’t allow us much space. Eventually we doubled back. The bike rental place, Bike to Go, had given us a brochure that included, along with the oddest of quotes (“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” — President John F. Kennedy), the seven best rides in the area. We’d kind of done #s 1 and 2 already, and #4 was what we’d just avoided, but #5, the Junction & Breakwater Trail, had been recommended not only at the rental place but by our neighbor, a friendly, newbie lawyer from New England. He said the trail paralleled Hwy 1 but went through quiet woods and marshlands and neighborhoods and wound up in Lewes, the town north of Rehoboth.

Patricia before the crash.

Patricia and I have different paces, though—I bike all the time, she seldom—and four miles along on the wide trail, in the middle of sparse woods, I realized I was too far ahead and stopped and waited. And waited. Finally I doubled back to find Patricia standing sheepishly by her bike. She gestured impotently. I assumed a flat but it wasn’t a flat. She’d been biking along, close to a fence, then experienced that odd sensation of being pulled into the very thing she was trying to avoid. Crash. She scraped her arm, bent her back tire, and now the back tire wouldn’t turn. The best I could do was release the back brakes so the tire would at least turn and she and I could hobble back to Rehoboth. Initially I was bummed—all that way without Lewes—but it turned out for the best.

After refueling at a co-op on Delaware Alt 1, and returning our bikes to the bike rental shop (had I spent the $5 on insurance last Sunday...? I had! Ka-ching!), we walked over to Dolles on the boardwalk to buy salt water taffy for the folks back home.

And that’s when I noticed the waves.

They were huge. How huge? In our absence the waves had come up almost to the boardwalk, and there were warm, stagnant pools of water on the beach proper, where adults pulled small kids around on boogie boards. It felt like an event. I immediately called Karen.

Half an hour later, Eric Muschler, Jordy, and I, were all trying to find a way to navigate into the water. Foam slopped everywhere. Few people were in the water but the pull to be in the water was as strong as any undertow. This was where it was happening and I wanted to be in it as it was happening. But how? I’d get out knee deep and a wave that had broken 10 feet in front of me still rumbled with enough force that, even bending beneath it, it would still push me a few feet closer to shore. Then I’d trudge back out again. In this way we danced. One time the wave broke late, right in front of me, and, even diving beneath it didn’t help. I was yanked off my feet and pushed and somersaulted to shore, where an awestruck, soaked Jordy stood watching.

“Poseidon is angry today,” he said.

I needed 10 more feet of courage. Eric had it, and went out beyond the breaking waves and sometimes rode them in, like bucking broncos. But the ocean out there seemed so deep and roiling and chaotic that I didn’t have that extra 10 feet of courage.

Instead, for an hour, I stood in the midway point, in the worst place you could possibly stand, and engaged in a shoving match with the ocean that the ocean always won. It was glorious.

Eric Muschler, Jordy and I and the “No Swimming” warning flag on our last day at the beach.

Posted at 08:17 AM on Sep 26, 2010 in category Travels, Personal Pieces
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Thursday September 23, 2010

Travels: Mourning in Rehoboth

Read the intro here. Read Pts. II (mini-golf) and III (tea shirts) here and here.

 But the biggest change may not have been in Rehoboth; it may have been in me.

A few years ago, MSNBC-Movies asked me to write a piece about the 10 Sexiest Women, by which they meant actresses, and in the intro I explained what I did and didn’t mean by “sexy.” Mostly I didn’t mean young girls. I said women tend to get sexier as they age. I wrote:

Sexy is balance. Cool and hot at the same time. Interest and disinterest. It’s not passive but it’s not in a hurry either. It seems to arrive at that moment in a woman’s life when she’s still hot but can no longer rely on it completely. Or maybe it arrives when a woman decides to take charge. Or maybe I just like women taking charge.

All of which is still mostly true. Yet walking on the boardwalk, walking on the beach, passing by girls in their early 20s, or late teens, or, God help me, younger, wearing barely anything at all, well, I’ve never felt like such a dirty old man.

Another old man, a wiser old man, the one in Richard Linklater’s film “Slacker,” says, “When young, we mourn for one woman... as we grow old, for women in general,” and that was me when young, and that was me along the boardwalk last month. Maybe when young we mourn for one woman because she’s the one we can’t have, and as we age we can’t have any of them so we mourn for them all. Maybe 30 years ago the boardwalk at night was the place where I yearned for romance and didn’t find any, so I still carry that adolescent emotion within me as I near 50. Maybe the boardwalk at night is simply a place of yearning.

It’s also a place for sublimation. Here is all you can’t have, walking by in the other direction, so why not take out your frustrations on this video game? Why not let this Funland ride spin your frustrated body ’round and ’round? Why not stuff your face? That week I must have had five or six Kohr’s soft-serve ice cream cones and thought nothing of it, but, from a distance, the writer in me balks at the obvious symbolism. “Really, Erik. Ice cream? Could you be more obvious?”

This is part of the inherent contradiction of Rehoboth. Every empire carries within it the seeds of its own destruction, and while the empire of Rehoboth offers the hard bodies of young men and women parading along the boardwalk, it also offers, to these hard bodies, hot dogs and submarines and hamburgers and french fries and fried chicken and pizza and gyros and cheesesteaks and crabcakes and fudge and salt-water taffy and popcorn and ice cream. Something’s gotta give. In his essay, “The Art of Donald McGill,” George Orwell writes about the bad jokes in the twopenny postcards in the cheap stationers’ windows in 1940s London, and dissects a necessary component of these jokes:

Sex-appeal vanishes at about the age of twenty-five. Well-preserved and good-looking people beyond their first youth are never represented. The amorous honey-mooning couple reappear as the grim-visaged wife and shapeless, moustachioed, red-nosed husband, no intermediate stage being allowed for.

I kept thinking of these lines all week. Intermediate stages happen, of course—you see healthy people in their 40s and 50s and 60s—but Rehoboth is all about celebrating youth even as it offers every fat, greasy, sugary thing to destroy youth. In the end it’s a short step from being a young girl on the boardwalk parading by in her bikini, the world at her feet, to being the overweight mom on the bench, rocking the stroller, the world passing her by.

Maybe this is why, as we age, we mourn for women: less for our lost youth than for theirs.

Posted at 07:16 AM on Sep 23, 2010 in category Travels
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Wednesday September 22, 2010

Travels: Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Tea Shirts

Read Parts I and II here and here.

What else is gone? The movie theater along Rehoboth Avenue where I saw “Grease” six times during the summer of ’78, falling more in love with Olivia Newton John each time. I was 15.

And where’s the clown face that used to grace the front of Funland? For some reason it’s been relegated to the back. The new facade announces “Funland” mutely. It makes no promises.

But Skee Ball lives. As does “The T-Shirt Factory” on Rehoboth Avenue. As do most of the T-shirt shops along the boardwalk. These first became big for me in the summer of 1977, when “Star Wars” first became big for me, and when I bought, or finagled, T-shirts with iron-on transfers like “May the Force Be With You” or “Darth Vader Lives!” or just that original magic poster of Luke and Leia lit up in the foreground and Darth Vader and the Death Star dominating the background. I remember the pleasantly acrid smell of the melted print as it was steamed onto the cotton. I remember the sometimes sticky feel of the iron-on afterwards. Options went beyond “Star Wars” to include other pop icons: rock stars (the Rolling Stones), Tiger Beat stars (Shaun Cassidy), TV stars (Starsky & Hutch), superheroes (Captain America). The last one I bought was probably a Bruce Springsteen long-sleeved tee in the summer of 1983, and since then I’ve favored blank T-shirts—I advertise for no man, man—but I was still pleasantly surprised that so many Rehoboth T-shirt shops thrived.

   

Then I looked closer. I’m sure we had tacky and classless transfers back then...but this tacky and classless?

  • A silhouette of a curvy woman by a stripper pole: I Support Single Moms: One dollar at a time
  • A raised middle finger with a smiley face: Have a nice day
  • Six red words: I Put Ketchup on My Ketchup

Who thinks that’s witty? Probably the same people who think the following are smart political statements:

  • A caricature of Barack Obama in a baby bjorn: Worse than a HANGOVER
  • The faces of Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden superimposed over Larry, Curly and Moe: The REAL Stooges
  • A pic of a smiling, waving George W. Bush: MISS ME YET? How's that hopey changey thing working out for ya?
  • Angry: Why the Hell Should I have to Press #1 for ENGLISH?
  • Insane: If you can’t read this you’re probably illegal or the President!

I saw these in shops all over Rehoboth, and though I got weary at the smallness of it all, and angry at the idiocy of people who didn’t remember how bad things were in September 2008, I also realized I didn’t see anyone actually wearing such a T-shirt along the boardwalk. Everyone was too busy with their Phillies or Orioles tees, or their Seussian “Drunk Thing 1” or “Sexy Thing 2” T-shirts. It's still depressing, though. I’m no longer for slapping advertisements on my chest, but at least back in the day we put the things we loved on our chests.

Tomorrow: Mourning in Rehoboth

Stay classy, America.

Posted at 08:11 AM on Sep 22, 2010 in category Travels
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Tuesday September 21, 2010

Travels: Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Old Pro Golf

Part One of Rehoboth trip here.

Here’s a change. Back in the 1970s we put something called “sun tan lotion” on our bodies and then lay baking on a towel on the sand for hours. We compared tans like it was a competition. We had tan lines. Now, before we even step outside, we goop up with something called “sun screen” (30-75 SPF), and after dips in the ocean we reapply it beneath the umbrella. We read beneath the umbrella. We wear hats and SPF shirts and try to avoid the high-noon hours of 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. when there’s no place to hide.

Amazingly, with all of these precautions, I still got a tan. OK, a “tan.” OK, I got TFS: Tan for Seattle. More amazingly, there are regulars who still go for the deep, brown, unhealthy-looking George Hamilton tans. They’re so brown they probably would’ve stood out in 1977 but they’re especially noticeable in the SPF world of 2010. One wonders what compels them. I regret many moments in my life but few more than baking in the sun doing nothing but aging faster.

And what happened to my mini-golf courses? There used to be two along the boardwalk: the original, between Baltimore and Rehoboth Avenues, near the public restroom; and the “new one,” Old Pro Golf, on the roof of a T-shirt and gee-gaw shop next to Delaware Avenue, overlooking Funland. The original was clever enough, with a different level, five feet up and in the shade, as one made one’s way through the course.

Old Pro Golf was even more dazzling. It used a circus motif, with many moving parts, including, memorably, on the 19th hole, a ramp that narrowed to the width of a golf ball and that lead to the opening and closing mouth of a pneumatic hippo in a cage. To get a hole in one, and a free game, you had to hit it straight enough so it would stay on the ramp, hard enough so it would fly—like Evel Knievel—across the gap between ramp and hippo-mouth, and time it properly so the hippo’s mouth was open when the ball arrived. If you did all this, buzzers and lights would go off and you’d win a free game. As a kid this kind of coordination seemed impossible. One time my older brother, Chris, did everything right but the ball still bounced off the hippo’s tooth. Ohhhhhhhh. We talked about it for weeks afterward like it was Willie McCovey lining out to Bobby Richardson to end the 1962 World Series. Then one summer it suddenly became easy, and between the three of us, older brother and younger sister, we must’ve won five free games.

 

1970s Old Pro Golf: Showing off that first, sweet free-game pass outside the now-conquered hippo cage, and post-game with my sister Karen and our friend Dan, who's wearing a "Darth Vader Lives" T-shirt.

That course is still there, but called "Ryan's." It's without the hippo in a cage, the circus motif, moving parts, fun. Every hole involves small hills and dales and...that’s pretty much it. The free game on the 19th isn’t monumental, like a pneumatic hippo, but small. Hit the ball up a short, steep ramp, and into a small hole protected by a wire-mesh cage. Is the hole a clown’s nose? I forget. The whole contraption is tiny. It feels like you could pick it up and walk away with it. It feels like carry-on luggage.

The original course, meanwhile, is long gone, replaced by a Grotto’s Pizza.

Tomorrow: Tea shirts.

My nephews Ryan and Jordy eye the only mini-golf course left on the boardwalk. It's hardly a circus. On the plus side Jordy beat me by a stroke.

Posted at 08:41 AM on Sep 21, 2010 in category Travels
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Friday September 17, 2010

Travels: Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Intro

They say the days blend together but each is distinct.

Check-in times are generally at 2:00, so more than half the Saturday is gone by the time you emerge stiff and sweaty from your car, and anyway there’s work to be done—rentals to check into, groceries to buy—so you’re lucky if you get in a late-afternoon dip in the ocean and a walk on the boardwalk at night. But Sunday you take it all in. You go to the beach in the morning and afternoon, and, though half the ocean has gone up your nose, you stay past 5:00, past the lifeguards, until the sun, once blasting the top of your head, begins to lose its power; then it's dinner and Funland and the parade of people walking and preening along the boardwalk, and you've done so much this day that the next day, Monday, you step back and rest a bit. It is your vacation after all. It is only Monday after all. Even when you get back into it on Tuesday, you think, “Really? It's still only Tuesday?” It feels like you have all the time in the world. But Wednesday disappears, poof, and suddenly it’s Thursday and you know you're on the downside of things, and Friday, oh man, Friday you rush around and do all the things you should have done earlier but never got to, while Saturday morning is filled with melancholy. One last video game. One last walk on the boardwalk. One last look at the ocean. Bye.

I’ve been to many beaches since I was last at Rehoboth Beach, Del.—in Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Florida, Oregon and Washington—but Rehoboth, the beach I grew up with, the beach I went back to for the first time in 25 years last month, is still the one by which all the others are measured.

I expected it to be dirtier but it’s surprisingly clean. I expected it to be more crowded, and it must be—it swells on summer weekends from about 1,500 locals to include 100,000 tourists—but because the boardwalk has been extended further south, past Funland, it doesn’t feel more crowded. I expected the waves to feel puny, the water warm, the jellyfish rampant, but the waves were great, the water bracing, no jellyfish were sighted.

Planes still flew advertisements along the beach. One lone swimmer, in swim cap, still invariably plowed the waters 30 feet from shore. The Dolles sign still dominates the center of the boardwalk.

That doesn’t mean things haven’t changed.

Tomorrow: What's changed.

Posted at 08:23 AM on Sep 17, 2010 in category Travels
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Thursday September 16, 2010

Lancelot Links

  • My President! This is from a week ago but worth repeating. Pres. Obama on Muslim-Americans: “We do not differentiate between them and us. It's just us.” Awful that this most basic American principle needs repeating.
  • OK, Dems this is the way you fight back. And media, this is the way you report. Rep. Michele Bachman, Mn., 6th district, and notorious nutjob, aired campaign ads about a supporter of hers, “Jim, the Election Guy”—a step below even Joe the Plumber in idiotic hooks to hang your campaign on—but no one knew who “Jim, the Election Guy” actually was. So Bachman's opponent, Tarryl Clark, began airing ads starring “Jim, the Actual Voter.” Meanwhile, Derek Wallbank of MinnPost, a great news site created by former Star-Tribune reporters, uncovered Jim, the Election Guy.“ First, his name isn't Jim. It's Beau Peregino. Second, he's isn't from the 6th district. Third, he doesn't even live in Minnesota. He lives in Hollywood by way of Maryland. Full story here.
  • Meanwhile, we need more Sherry Devlins in the world.
  • Nice piece by Charles Pierce over at Esquire on the Tea Party victory of Christine O'Donnell in the Delaware primary: ”She is what politics produces when you divorce politics from government. She is what you get when you sell to the country that nothing government can do will help, and that the government is an alien thing, and that politics is nothing more than the active public display of impotent grievance.“ 
  • Andrew Sullivan sees this piece by David Weigel as a long overdue takedown of Dinesh D'Souza—he who gave us ”The End of Racism“ in '95, and now gives us ”The Roots of Obama's Rage,“ which D'Souza ties to anticolonialism in Africa (as opposed to, say, anticolonialism in the U.S or anywhere.). And it is a takedown of D'Souza. Mostly. It's also a takedown of liberals. Weigel makes the tired argument that D'Souza is only able to get published because he pisses off liberals. If liberals didn't fight back, he implies, he wouldn't be able to get his crap published. Basically Weigel is counseling the John Kerry route when Kerry was swift-boated in '04. Sssshh. If we be quiet, it'll go away. That worked out well, didn't it? As a liberal, or at least as a Democrat, I feel the problem, generally, isn't that Dems respond; it's the way they respond. For example, I would respond to the title of D'Souza's title with peals of laughter. Rage? Obama? He's the calmest man in the room. The rage is all on the other side.
  • He's not the best stage actor, his line-readings are sometimes off, but Lawrence Wright's ”My Trip to Al Qaeda,“ directed by Alex Gibney and available on HBO, is worth the time. His perspective on the U.S. is mine and hardly news (we are channeling the worst in us to take on the worst in them), but his perspective on the different societies of the Middle East, borne of decades of reporting, is always fascinating, not the least this tidbit: the Koran specifically cousels against suicide: ”O you who believe! ... do not kill your people; surely Allah is Merciful to you.“ Wright begins by talking about how the attacks of 9/11 seemed like a movie. He then reveals that he wrote that movie, ”The Siege,“ from 1998, which deals with a terror attack in New York City. Yet I wrote the exact opposite in 2005. In ”The Siege,“ the terrorists think small (buses, etc.) and the U.S. reaction is loud and public (rounding up people in stadiums), instead of what actually happened: the terrorists thinking big (WTC) and the U.S. reacting secretively (Guantanamo; Abu Ghraib). 9/11 reminded us of a movie, yes, but it was other, stupider movies. Our reaction then flowed from that—right down to the ”Get off my plane!“ U.S. President.
  • Wright also has a good piece in The New Yorker on Park51, those Danish cartoons, and the need of radicals (here and there) to inflate their own importance. ”Those stirring the pot in this debate are casting a spell that is far more dangerous than they may imagine,“ he writes. He means Geller, Gingrich, Ingraham, and the usual suspects over at FOX-News. What they are doing is dangerous and unpatriotic, and they are doing it to inflate their own importance.
  • Have you read The New Yorker piece on the Koch brothers, billioniares both, and their war on Obama? Why not?
  • Have your read Michael Lewis on the source of Greece's $1.2 trillion debt—or a quarter of a million dollars for every working adult? Wow.
  • I wrote for the alternative program, The Grand Salami, for years, from about 1997 to 2002, and I still pick it up when I go to an M's game. There was a nice Ichiro cover in August (right, from the guy who tends to this site), and a smart decision, given the current state of the M's, to go with a ”Future Stars“ cover (Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda) for September. But owner Jon Wells needs to get off the schnied and get online—or more online than this. Jon's never been shy about his opinions and for the last two months he's been smartly proselytizing (fomenting?) against M's President and COO Chuck Armstrong and M's Chairman and CEO Howard Lincoln, the men for whom winning isn't everything, it's the only thing they can't do. They're more about ”family friendly“ atmosphere and hydro races. Ideally, Jon would like to see them gone. Pragmatically, since they seem more entrenched than Castro, he wants M's fans to let them know that winning matters. In this regard, in his last ”Sounding Off“ column, he includes their postal address so you can let them know how you feel. Here it is: Seattle Mariners, P.O. Box 4100, Seattle, WA  98194-0100.
  • But it's his previous column, in August, in which Jon compares and contrasts Armstrong to recently deceased Yankees' boss George Steinbrenner and found him wanting, that's the real kicker. Apparently Armstrong didn't like Randy Johnson much. Apparently that's part of the reason RJ was gone midway through the '98 season. Then Jon includes a sidenote about the aftermath of one of the most depressing M's games ever—the final game of the 2001 season, when the M's, after winning 116 of 162, were unceremoniously shown the door by the Yankees in five games in the ALCS. I've written about it before. Here's what Jon has to say: ”After the M's lost Game 5, I saw Armstrong, with a wide-eyed smile unbefitting a team executive whose team had just seen their dream season end in bitter disappointment, chatting up a security guard in the bowels of Yankee Stadium. I waited until their conversation ended and then asked the guard what Armstrong had been so happy about. He replied, “He said to make sure and beat Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks in the World Series.” Holy crap. I can't even imagine. The Yankees are the M's were fierce rivals at the time. From '95 to '97 we kind of owned them, but from '98 on it was all them. They'd beaten us in the 2000 ALCS (in six games) and now in the 2001 ALCS (in five excruciating games). And this idiot, who actually runs our team, wished them well? Make sure you send your letters. “Dear Beanhead” is always a good beginning.
  • Bill James finally comes out on the steroids scandal. With a great deal of common sense, and taking into account the great American personality, he says: Babe Ruth would've done it, too. The Babe brokes the rules. That's who he was. You can prosecute Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens all you want but... is it really worth it? My favorite lines in the piece: “It is a very American thing, that we don't believe too much in obeying the rules. We are not a nation of Hall Monitors; we are a nation that tortures Hall Monitors.”
  • This is one of the lamest defenses of lameness I’ve ever read. Fred Fox, Jr., the writer of that “Happy Days” episode where Fonzie jumps the shark, claims the show didn’t “jump the shark” on his watch because…wait for it… it went on for six more seasons! And it was in the top 25 for five of them. So it didn't jump the shark because popular = good. Dude's been in the sun too long. Or L.A. Or both.
  • R.I.P., Kevin McCarthy. You'll always be Dr. Miles J. Bennell to me. (Or Victor Eugene Scrimshaw.)
  • R.I.P., Harold Gould. You'll always be Kid Twist to me. (Or Rhoda's debonair dad.)
  • R.E.P., Claude Chabrol. I need to see more of your movies. Or—yikes—one of them? Bad movie critic, bad movie critic.
  • R.I.P. Don Quixote? Eight years ago I reviewed the documentary, “Lost in La Mancha,” about Terry Gilliam's failed attempt to make a Don Quixote story, and about why his attempt to make a Don Quixote story failed—when directors such as Coppola and Herzog, beset by their own on-set disasters, succeeded. Well, apparently Gilliam's at it again. Not at making the movie; at failing to make the movie. Warning: not the best writing. The Independent should be better than that, shouldn't it?
  • Finally, what's wrong with the ad below—which I first saw on Rotten Tomatoes—besides the call-out to an “On-Set Cat Fight!” starring apparently Betty White? Yeah, names and faces. The faces have a kind of symmetry—mothers flanking daughters, with grandma caught in the middle—but since billing is set in stone (or contracts), I'd order the faces to match the billing. Because this just looks weird.

Posted at 07:12 AM on Sep 16, 2010 in category Lancelot Links
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Wednesday September 15, 2010

Review: “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010)

WARNING: BACK-TO-THE-FUTURE SPOILERS

The joke is in the title with a movie like “Hot Tub Time Machine.” You just cross your fingers that the jokes keep coming.

They don’t. Pretty quickly the necessity of the plot, such as it is, kicks in, and the jokes gradually disappear so we can move the story along towards its monumentally stupid resolution.

The beginning isn’t much better. We start with the usual schtick for cinematic down-on-their-luck schmoes:

  1. Nick (Craig Robinson of “The Office”) is recognized at his customer-service job by a douchebag who remembers him from his glory days—fronting a band called “Chocolate Kiss”—and he’s embarrassed by it.
  2. Adam (John Cusack) comes home to find his girlfriend has left him and taken half their shit.
  3. Adam’s nephew, Jacob (Clark Duke), a fat 20-year-old, lives in his basement playing video games.
  4. Lou (Rob Corddry), boozing it up, drives his sports car recklessly into his garage, plays air piano and air drums to bad ‘80s music, and, because he doesn’t turn off the car, nearly asphyxiates himself.

Everyone assumes it was a suicide attempt. That’s how these three friends (plus Jacob) reunite again. They were inseparable 20 years ago but they’ve since drifted apart, as friends drift apart, but to cheer up Lou they decide to go back to Kodiak Valley, a ski-resort town and one of the high points of their youth, where “Nobody gets carded and everybody gets laid.” In a way, this formula is similar to last year’s box-office hit, “The Hangover”: three friends plus a fat guy head to Nevada to party.

Unfortunately, K-Val is now run-down and full of “out of business” signs. Their room at the Silver Peaks Lodge smells like cats, their one-armed bellhop (Crispin Glover, the first—or, after Cusack, the second—’80 icon to appear), is surly, and the hot tub is empty and filled with an old, dead, smelly animal. “If Lou kills himself, can we go home?” Jacob asks plaintively, in one of the film’s better lines. Instead they sit around, play quarters, and bitch.

Until the hot tub comes magically to life. Why does it come magically to life? Who knows? Why does it become a time machine? Because a Russian soda drink, made with chemicals that are “probably fucking illegal in the United States,” spills on the control panel. Sure, why not? We know from the title that this is supposed to happen so it happens. And back to January 1986, and that glorious weekend in Kodiak Valley, they go.

Only gradually do they realize they’ve traveled back in time. They see legwarmers, big cellphones, geri curl, “Safety Dance,” “Miami Vice,” ALF, and Ronald Reagan making a speech. Reagan is saying, “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not,” which is from his arms-for-hostages mea culpa, which is from March 1987, not January 1986. It’s the first of many, many anachronisms in the movie. There are so many they almost seem purposeful: a celebration of a “fuck it” society.

I had two thoughts when I first heard of the film’s concept: 1) Funny title, and 2) Who the hell wants to go back to the ‘80s? The movie agrees:

Lou: It’s the fuckin’ 80s, guys. Let’s do what we wanna do. Free love!
Jacob: That’s the ‘60s, dipshit.
Adam: No, we had, like, Reagan and AIDS. Let’s get the fuck out of here.

To us, and to each other, they still look like John Cusack, Rob Corddry, etc., but to everyone else, and in the mirror, they look like their 1986 selves. Lou has long, heavy-metal hair, Nick has a Kid (from Kid n’ Play) ‘do, Cusack is youthful, Jacob keeps shimmering into non-existence like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future.”

And just like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future,” they realize their presence in the past could change the future, which is their present, so they decide to, in essence, walk in their own footsteps and do what they did 20 years ago. Which means Adam has to break up with his hot, bouncy girlfriend, Jenny (Lyndsy Fonseca), Lou has to get beat up by the ski patrol, Nick has to go onstage and sing.

Except Marty McFly had a reason for not changing the future: otherwise he might not exist. Ditto Jacob here. But Adam, Lou and Nick? Their lives suck in 2010. They have a chance to do what most of us would love to do: relive their young adulthood with an idea of what’s coming. Example: it’s January 1986? In two months, Microsoft goes public. I’ll take ten thousand shares, please.

Things have begun changing anyway. Jenny breaks up with Adam rather than vice-versa, Adam meets a quirky girl from Spin magazine and begins a very 1980s, very Cusack-esque relationship with her, and the Denver Broncos lose a big game it was supposed to win.

The film has moments. At one point, Nick, who is so whipped he can barely “cheat” on his wife in his 1986 incarnation, tells Adam why he clings to her so much: “I don’t have my music. I barely have friends. Without Cathy, I’m nothing.” This is a frank and deep (and adult) admission for a comedy but the movie doesn’t do much with it. Instead it pushes the usual envelopes (Lou loses a bet and has to give Nick a blowjob—but he passes out first) or gives us scenes cadged from other, better movies (Nick wows a crowd with a Black-Eyed Peas song the way Marty McFly wowed his crowd with a Chuck Berry song). There’s a fight, a chase, and a kind of mystical repairman (Chevy Chase) who helps them, in the end, get back to the future. Except Lou. “ I really was trying to kill myself” in that garage, Lou tells Adam. So he decides to relive his life and make it better.

This would be an interesting twist if it weren’t so icky—if Lou weren’t so icky. Earlier in the film, Nick says of Lou, “Like the friend who’s the asshole? He’s our asshole.” He’s basically the Biff Tannen of the movie, and, like Biff Tannen in the “Back to the Future” sequel, he uses his knowledge of the future to create a crummy empire. Nick, Adam and Jacob swirl back to 2010, where Lou is rich. He started “Lougle” before “Google” (apparently it doesn’t require coding or anything, just a name) and fronted Motley Lou rather than Motley Cru (apparently it doesn’t require talent or anything, just a voice). Did Lou do anything good in the meantime? Prevent 9/11? Encourage George W. Bush to become Commissioner of Baseball in the early 1990s? And if he did start mucking with global events (Kuwait, Iraq, al Qaeda, Clinton, Lewinsky, etc.), at what point did the year he was living through a second time no longer resemble the year he lived through the first time?

“Back to the Future” was a good popcorn movie, and hugely popular in the summer of 1985, but it did leave us with the uncomfortable thought of what happened to the other Marty. In 1955, Marty helps his future dad grow a pair and that changes everything, and thus, when he returns to 1985, his father’s richer, Biff works for his family rather than vice-versa, and his siblings aren’t losers. Marty grew up in Family A but this is now Family B, and...he doesn’t know them. He doesn’t know anything he and his family did for the first 18 years of his life. More, he, Marty A, has now replaced Marty B, the kid who did do all those things with his family. So what happened to Marty B? Replaced? Erased? Out of existence?

Same thing here. These guys go back to 2010 and Nick is a former rap star and current record executive. Adam, instead of coming home to a house without a wife, comes home to a mansion with a wife—the Spin magazine girl. This is Life B rather than Life A. But Nick and Adam have the memories of Life A. So what happened to Nick B and Adam B? Replaced? Erased? Out of existence?

It’s a happy ending but should it be? Shouldn’t someone speak up? “Dude, I don’t know my wife, I don’t know my job. My memories for the last 20 years are now false. You stole my life!” Shouldn’t they be counting their friends to see who’s missing? Shouldn’t they be counting their children to see if they have them? Or lost them?

I know. I’m overthinking a shitty little movie. Would that I could rewind my two hours and live them over again with a good book.

Cusack and Duke wonder how they wound up in 1986...or in “Hot Tub Time Machine.” 

Posted at 05:32 AM on Sep 15, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Tuesday September 14, 2010

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the “Just a Bunch of Guys” Theory of Al Qaeda

I've said it before: If you're going to pay for any magazine in this freebie-content world, particularly a general interest magazine, get The New Yorker. Their Sept. 13th issue is a case in point. Writer Terry McDermott give us a startlingly good, startlingly detailed profile of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the so-called mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, and the cause of much fear, in the U.S. press if not in the U.S., because of talk he would get his day in court in New York City. If McDermott's article isn't part of the conversation yet it's because it's not online, or it's only online in an abstract, which means it can't be copied and then disposed of. It also means you have to go get the magazine your own damn self.

The takeaway: We tend to think our enemies as united but they're not, any more than a Bush administration of Dick Cheney and Colin Powell was united, any more than the United States of America is united. We tend to think of Al Qaeda as an international terrorist organization when it may just be “a bunch of guys.” This, too: After nine years, we still don't know who our enemies are.

Excerpts:

Insofar as we know Mohammed, we see him as a brilliant behind-the-scenes tactician and a resolute idealogue. As it turns out, he is earthy, slick in a way, but naive, and seemingly motivated as much by pathology as ideology. [Al Jazeera reporter Yosri] Fouda describes Mohammed's Arabic as crude and colloquial and his knowledge of Islamic texts as almost nonexistent. A journalist who observed Mohammed's apparearance at one of the Guantanamo hearings likened his voluble performance to that of a Pakistani Jackie Mason. A college classmate said that he was an eager participant in impromptu skits and plays. A man who knew him from a mosque in Doha talked about his quick wit and chatty, glad-handing style. He was an operator...

Mohammed's parents moved to Kuwait from Pakistan in the 1950s....[where he] was born on April 14, 1965... He and his nephews attended Fahaheel Secondary School... [He] was a superior student... He was also rebellious; he told interrogators that he and his nephew Abdul Basit Abdul Karim (later internationally known as Ramzi Yousef, the man behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center) once tore down the Kuwaiti flag from atop their schoolhouse...

In January 1984, Mohammed, travelling on a Pakistani passport, arrived in tiny, remote Murfreesboro, North Carolina, to attend Chowan College, a two-year school that was advertised abroad by Baptist missionaries...  Arab students who were there at the time said they were the butt of jokes and harassment, in the anti Muslim era that followed the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, in 1979. The local boys called them Abbie Dhabies... They were required, along with all the other students, to attend a weekly Christian chapel service... Mohammed developed a dislike for the U.S. in his time here. He told investigators that he had little contact with Americans in college, but found them to be debauched and racist...

[In] 1986, both he and his nephew graduated with engineering degrees. Mohammed returned home to Kuwait... unable to find work...

[During the Afghanistan War against the Soviet Union], Mohammed and his brother Abed went to work for Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the leader of Ittihad e-Islami, one of the Afghan-refugee political parties headquartered in Peshawar [Pakistan]...

In 1991, [Mohammed's nephew] Basit got in touch with Abdul Hakim Murad, a fellow-Baluchi and a boyhood friend from Kuwait, who was then in the U.S., training as a pilot. Basit told him that he wanted to attack Israel, but thought it too difficult. He would attack America instead. He asked Murad to suggest potential Jewish targets in the United States... “I told him the World Trade Center,” Murad later told investigators...

In Karachi [Pakistan], Basit had introduced his pilot friend, Murad, to Mohammed... Mohammed interrogated Murad about flying. Murad, the licensed pilot, at one point suggested to Basit dive-bombing a plane into C.I.A. headquarters...

The National Security Council staff in the Clinton White House wanted to pursue Mohammed... The C.I.A. was noncommital. The Pentagon objected vigorously... Instead, the State Department tried to negotiate with the Qataris... By the time the team arrived, Mohammed was gone; someone had apparently warned him that the Americans were coming...

[Mohammed] didn't want to join Al Qaeda, he later told his interrogators, but merely sought resources to fund a spectacular attack against the United States....

Mohammed's initial proposal was to hijack a single airplane and crash it, as Abdul Murad had suggested, into C.I.A. headquarters. Bin Laden dismissed this target as inconsequential. So Mohammed proposed hijacking ten airlines in the United States, some on each coast. The plotters would crash nine of them, and Mohammed would triumphantly land the tenth, disembark, and give a speech explaining what he had done and why. Bin Laden thought that the plan was too complicated. It  was not until late 1999 that he approved a somewhat less ambitious proposal: the 9/11 plan....

A Pakistani Jackie Mason

Posted at 06:36 AM on Sep 14, 2010 in category Politics
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Monday September 13, 2010

Review: “Winter's Bone” (2010)

WARNING: HARDSCRABBLE SPOILERS

“Winter’s Bone,” written by Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik, and directed by Granik, from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, opens to an acapella version of “Missouri Waltz,” the state song of Missouri, where the film is set, and its spareness suits the environment. The trees are bare, the grass scabby, the sky overcast. The sun never shines and the rain never comes. Everything feels dead. There’s music in this place but this is a place without music.

The scary underside of the American dream that’s usually displayed on film is black inner-city life. Woodrell’s Missouri Ozarks is the negative version. Not black but white. Not inner-city but rural. Families rather than gangs. Meth rather than crack. At the center, though, the same: tough, scary people with their codes of silence.

The movie opens on what seems like an untenable existence. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17-year old girl taking care of her two younger siblings, Sonny and Ashlee (Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson), in a scabby house near some scabby woods. It’s all tied-up dogs and beat-up couches and flannel shirts and plastic cups—the refuse of the local Goodwill. It’s children caring for children. The mother lost it a while back and the father, Jessup, well, he ain’t around no more, but Ree does what she does. She wants to go into the Army but she’s got her responsibilities and she takes them seriously. On the way to school with the kids: Spell “house.” What’s 7+2? She washes and combs her mother’s hair, cooks potatoes in bacon fat, and teaches the kids the lessons that the Ozarks taught her: “Never ask for what oughta be offered.”

One day this untenable existence becomes a whole lot less tenable. The local sheriff pulls up looking for Ree’s father. He’s out on bail, but disappeared, and he put up the house as part of his bond. If he fails to show for his court date next week the bondsman will claim it. In a flash you see Ree’s toughness.

Ree: I’ll find him.
Sheriff: Girl, I been looking.
Ree: I’ll find him.

Her search is our introduction to this world. It’s not pretty.

First she goes to her friend Gail’s house, in a kind of exurbia, and asks to borrow the truck so she can do her search. Gail (Lauren Sweetser) is a new wife, new mom, and she asks her husband, who’s listening to some roaringly angry rock music. He says no. Ree can’t believe that her friend, whom she thought tough, would back down so quickly. “It’s different once you’re married,” Gail says. Indeed. This husband, in fact, turns out one of the better ones.

Subsequent visits are similar: once-handsome, now-haggard women greet her suspiciously, guarding the inner sanctums of their mostly silent men. First it’s Victoria (Cinnamon Schultz) keeping folks away from Teardrop (John Hawkes), Jessup’s brother, who eventually emerges from his back bedroom, and who deals with his niece’s questions by choking her for 10 seconds. Then there’s Megan (Casey MacLaren), who doesn’t know Ree, and who guards the junkyard fiefdom of Little Arthur (Kevin Breznahan), Jessup’s meth-head friend. Finally, it’s Merab (Dale Dickey), the matriarch of the Miltons, with whom the Dollys have apparently feuded, and whose patriarch, Thump (Ronnie Hall), she doesn’t even get in to see. Her descent into increasingly unfriendly territory is revealed in each woman’s greeting:

Victoria: “What brings you here? Is somebody dead?”
Megan: “What’s your business?”
Merab: “I expect you got the wrong place.”

This is a harsh, unsympathetic world and the solutions people offer are half solutions or no solutions. Her neighbors say they’ll take Sonny but not Ashlee. Teardrop suggests she sells the woods before the land is taken. The Army won’t allow her to join and take care of the kids.

Meanwhile, Ree keeps teaching her brother and sister. Here’s how you make deer-meat stew. Here’s how you shoot a rifle. Here’s how you pull squirrel apart to get the meat. It’s Rural 101.

But news about Jessup? Silence.

Eventually she tracks down Thump Milton at a livestock auction and pursues him back to the Milton place, where Merab greets her with a glass of water in the face and a punch in the stomach. She’s then dragged to the barn and beaten—by the Milton women. Thump stands over her and tells her to explain herself. One senses it’s a life-and-death matter. Explanations are defiantly given and stoically accepted. This is a land whose very culture of silence fosters misunderstanding, but before anything else can happen, Teardrop shows up to barter for her. “She does wrong you put it on me,” he says. “She’s now yours to answer for,” Thump responds. It’s as if we’re watching a foreign culture. We are, but it’s Missouri.

There’s a great moment, by the way, inside the barn when we first hear Teardrop’s truck pull up. The Milton men, who are many, flutter away from the door like birds. “Shit,” one says. Another says, “I ain’t gonna stand her naked with that motherfucker coming.” Teardrop is the guy who choked Ree earlier but he’s a slight man, so we don’t quite know what the deal is until he gets involved in the search. One scene in particular. He rousts Ree from bed, saying, “I’m tired of waiting for shit to calm down. Let’s poke ‘em and see what happens.” They visit a cemetery. No luck. Then the local sheriff pulls them over. He approaches the car and tells Teardrop to get out. He says, “I know you, I know your family.” He says, “It’s about your brother.” Teardrop doesn’t move. He just stares into the driver’s side mirror with the scariest, deadest eyes. Is there talk for John Hawkes for best supporting actor? I know Jennifer Lawrence’s name has been bandied about all year but haven’t heard thing-one about Hawkes. He deserves the talk and probably the nom. This scene alone. I don’t know how you get your eyes to look like that. In the end the sheriff backs down because he could see—and we could see—Teardrop wouldn’t.

By this point Ree knows her father is dead (“I’m a Dolly, bred and buttered, and that’s how I know,” she says), and even more so when she discovers her father, one of the many meth addicts in the Ozarks, turned snitch. He talked in a land where you don’t. But Ree’s talk in the Miltons’ barn—why she wants to know what happened to her father—along with Teardrop poking ‘em, finally breaks the Miltons’ silence. In the middle of the night the Milton women take Ree for a car ride, then on a rowboat ride out into the middle of a lake/swamp, and Merab nods downward. Ree reaches into the frigid waters and feels her father’s cold dead hands. In the audience I thought: “And? She promised not to tell anyone where the body is, and she certainly can’t pull it up, so what evidence is she going to bring back to the sheriff?” Which is when the chainsaw comes out. Yikes. Ree can’t do it, so Merab, rolling her eyes, chainsaws one of the hands loose and Ree, sobbing, lets go of the other. Which brings up this sad, sad line. “Why’d you let go?” Merab chastises. “You need both hands. You know that old trick.” That old trick: Sawing off one hand so the cops think you’re dead. This is a harsh fucking world.

“Winter’s Bone” tells a good story but it’s so grim, so unrelentingly gray and cold, that I can’t say I enjoyed myself much watching it. At the same time it’s expertly done. It tells of a foreign culture in the middle of the United States. It gives us a strong, upright, central character, who, at the end, is merely back in the middle of her untenable existence, stronger for the journey. That’s the happy end: the grim beginning. It’s the man with no shoes who almost lost his feet so now he’s happy he merely has no shoes. “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back,” Ree tells her siblings at the end, and it’s probably true. Everyone strays in this movie but she never veers from the path.

Posted at 06:21 AM on Sep 13, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Sunday September 12, 2010

Hollywood B.O.: On Sept. 11th Weekend, Americans Abandon “American,” Choose “Evil”

Well, that sucked.

We knew it would. The big opener, the only wide opener, was the fourth “Resident: Evil” movie, and none of these movies (the first, “Apocalypse,” “Exctinction” and now “Afterlife”) has ever garnered higher than a 17% rating among top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and none has grossed more than $55 million at the U.S. box office.

“Afterlife” opened better than the rest, $27.7m, unless you adjust for inflation, in which case it's still second-best. Expect a big drop next weekend, though. Every one of these things, even the first, dropped between 62% and 67% during the second weekend. There's a small but loyal audience for this crap so every three years ScreenGems trots out something during a weak weekend in September. 

How weak was this weekend? The weakest of the year: $77 million, shattering the previous low of $100 million set back during April when “The Back-Up Plan” and “The Losers” opened. Par for the course. The second weekend in September is often among the lowest earners of the year. It was second-worst in 2009, 2007, 2005, 2003, and worst in 2006. Fifteen weekends left this year. Place your bets.

“Takers,” a forgettable movie in its third week, finished second, with $6.1m. Last weekend's champ, “The American,” fell off 55 percent for $5.8 million and third place.

The sad totals here.

In other news: Two weekends ago, I wrote that “Twilight” is only $2 million from $300 million but down to 400+ theaters so it probably wouldn't make that milestone. Well, this weekend, at this late stage, Summit Entertainment added 791 theaters, so apparently they're gunning for it. The movie took in another $745K, which puts it less than $400K away.

“Inception” pulled in another $3 million for $282 million for the year. Worldwide it's at $701 million. That's 41st best ever. 18th best ever among non-sequels. Unadjusted.

Have you seen “Restrepo”? Do! It's playing in 37 theaters around the  U.S., has grossed $1.2 million, and is one of the best movies of the year.

Me, I took advantage of the crap weekend to see “Winter's Bone,” which has been out since June, but never in more than 141 theaters. It's now grossed $5.6 million. Not sure where it landed this weekend, since it isn't among the estimates, but to its $5.6 mil add my $9 times the six people in the Uptown Theater Friday evening. Review up tomorrow.

     

Alice keeps living here anymore.

Posted at 09:13 PM on Sep 12, 2010 in category Movies - Box Office, Restrepo
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Lancelot Links

  • Are the Democrats serious? Listen, this is why I back Pres. Obama and this is why the Dems piss me off. If you cannot sell taxing the richest 1% to the other 99%, then you cannot sell anything and better get out of the game.
  • After Jonathan Franzen landed on the cover of Time magazine a few weeks back, Craig Ferman did the hard work and figured out, decade by decade, how many other authors have been on Time's cover. The answer?
    • 1920s: 14, including Conrad, Shaw, Kipling, Sinclair Lewis and...Michael Arlen?
    • 1930s: 23, including Cather, Stein, Joyce, Mann, Dos Passos, Woolf, Hemingway, Malraux, Joyce again, Faulkner and...John Buchan?
    • 1940s: 7 (a war was on, kids), including Sinclair Lewis (again), and...Kenneth Roberts?
    • 1950s: 11, including T.S. Eliot, Frost, Thurber, Hemingway (again), Malraux (again), and...James Gould Cozzens?
    • 1960s: 10, including Salinger, Baldwin, Lowell, Updike, Solzhenitsyn, Nabakov and...Phyllis McGinley?
    • 1970s: 8, including Gunter Grass, Mailer, Vidal, Alex Haley, Solzhenitsyn (again), and... Richard Bach?
    • 1980s: 4: John Irving, Updike (again), Keillor and Stephen King.
    • 1990s: 4: Turow, Chrichton, Morrison and Thomas Wolfe.
    • 2000s: 1: King
    • 2010s: 1: Franzen
  • As we expected, more or less. Authors were initially central to our culture and then not. But who's missing? No F. Scott Fitzgerald? No John Steinbeck? No Capote, Doctorow, DeLillo, Kundera, Orwell, Roth, Vonnegut? BTW: Is this a new direction for Time? The magazine, which is now also peripheral to our culture, is putting on its cover other things that are periperhal to our culture. Since, it could be argued, the only things central to our culture these days aren't particularly substantial.
  • The second-richest man in America in 1986 is now dead. I mention it only because he founded Metromedia, and I used to watch one of those stations, Channel 11, in Minneapolis in the 1970s and '80s. In fact I still have its slogan in my head: A voice intoning: “Metro-Media-Television...” and then dreamily. “11...11...11...” It would be interesting to hear it... Wait a minute. Ah, YouTube. You rarely fail me.
  • A great Onion piece: God Angrily Clarifies “Don't Kill” Rule. Money quote from the Lord: “Somehow, people keep coming up with the idea that I want them to kill their neighbor. Well, I don't. And to be honest, I'm really getting sick and tired of it. Get it straight. Not only do I not want anybody to kill anyone, but I specifically commanded you not to, in really simple terms that anybody ought to be able to understand.”
  • I had a discussion earlier this week on the birth/death/resurrection cycle with some FB friends, and while we were talking politics and the middle class, you could use that same cycle for “At the Movies,” the show that Siskel and Ebert gave birth to, Disney helped kill, and Roger and Chaz Ebert have now resurrected. The announcement on Roger's blog feels more press release than Roger but the clip of the show feels fun and familiar. The main hosts will be the AP's Christy Lemire and NPR's Elvis Mitchell, with MSN's Kim Morgan adding occasional noir/old-film commentary, and Omar Moore, whom I don't know, and whose delivery is a bit stilted compared to the others (but whose thoughts on Alomodvar's “Broken Embraces” post-theatrical success are great), chatting about online film commentary. Will it work? Is it a format whose time has come and gone? Not sure. But who doesn't love a resurrection story?
  • Larry Stone, baseball columnist for The Seattle Times, apparently needed a fan at Safeco Field to tell him that the M's were last in almost every offensive category in the Majors. Reason no. 30 why Larry Stone shouldn't be a baseball columnist for The Seattle Times.
  • Friday morning I read a piece by Rob Neyer on why no one will break Pete Rose's record of 4,256 career hits. He thinks it's one of the unbreakable career records of baseball—the 7th least likely to be broken, in fact. (Incidentally, his no. 1 is my no. 1: Cy Young's complete games. No one's touching this.) As for why Rose's record is unbreakable? Neyer says you need a guy who 1) gets a ton of hits, 2) doesn't walk much, 3) doesn't get hurt, 4) leads off. Those guys don't come around much. He mentions Derek Jeter and no one else. I'm thinking: “Dude, Ichiro. He's exactly that guy. He just happened to play the first part of his career in Japan.” Thankfully, that evening, Neyer amended his post with this one, in which he basically smacks his head and offers a mea culpa, or the Japanese version, and says, “Yes, of course: Ichiro, Ichiro, Ichiro.”
  • Neyer, by the way, references this Rick Reilly piece on Rose, in which the disgraced Hit King makes some disgraceful comments about the Mariners' Hit King, arguing against infield hits and the legitimacy of Japanese baseball. I never liked Rose. He was a great player but a bully. Plus he had the worst haircut in baseball in the 1970s and that's saying a lot. Plus, you know, he bet on baseball. Interestingly, if Ichiro leads the league in hits this year, and he is at the moment, Ichiro will have led the league in hits the same number of times (7) in his 10 years in the Majors that Rose did in his 24 years in the Majors. How do you like them apples, Pete? But the worst line in the piece isn't from Rose but from Reilly, who, commenting upon the autographed “I bet on baseball” baseballs that Rose sells, asks, “Who else but Pete could turn shame into shekels?” Um... everyone, Rick. Go to any newsstand. It's practically the American way.
  • Finally, are you asking yourself, as I'm asking myself, what Marion Cotillard is up to this week? Why, talking to Pip Clements of This is London, that lucky bastard. Takeaway: If she could enter anyone's dreams, she'd choose a lion's; she grew up in Orleans, near Paris, to parents involved in the theater; her teenaged years were “troubled” but acting helped; she had trouble letting go of Edith Piaf after filming “La Vie en Rose”; she likes Chaplin and the Marx Bros.; she's working with Woody Allen and Matt Damon, and her latest French film, “Les Petit Mouchoirs,”  directed by boyfriend Guillaume Canet, comes out in France in October; and she's shy when photographed. Evidence:

Shy.

Posted at 07:31 AM on Sep 12, 2010 in category Lancelot Links
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Saturday September 11, 2010

Three Winston Churchill Quotes to Use Against Conservatives Who Quote Winston Churchill

From Adam Gopnik's excellent essay, "Finest Hours: The making of Winston Churchill," in the August 30th issue of The New Yorker:

  1.  The word ‘appeasement’ is not popular, but appeasement has its place in all policy, he said in 1950. “Make sure you put it in the right place. Appease the weak, defy the strong.” He argued that “appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble and might be the surest and perhaps the only path to world peace.”
  2. This faith in government as the essential caretaker led him later to support the creation of a national health service, “in order to ensure that everybody in the country, irrespective of means, age, sex, or occupation, shall have equal opportunities to benefit from the best and most up-to-date medical and allied services available.”  
  3. This habit of thinking about peoples and their fate in collective historical cycles, however archaic it might seem, gave him special insight into Hitler, who, in a Black Mass distortion, pictured the world in the same way. Both Churchill and Hitler were nineteenth-century Romantics, who believed in race and nation—in the Volksgeist, the folk spirit—as the guiding principle of history, filtered through the destinies of great men. ...Of course, Churchill and Hitler were, in the most vital respects, opposites. Churchill was, as Lukacs insists, a patriot, imbued with a love of place and people, while Hitler was a nationalist, infuriated by a hatred of aliens and imaginary enemies. But Churchill knew where Hitler was insecure and where he was strong, and knew how to goad him, too.
I like this distinction between patriots and nationalists. It's obvious our country, at the moment, doesn't have enough of the former and too, too much of the latter.

Maybe it's time to goad them.
Posted at 11:13 AM on Sep 11, 2010 in category Politics
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Friday September 10, 2010

Review: “The American” (2010)

WARNING: COOL, PROFESSIONAL SPOILERS

One imagines they called it “The American” only because “The Quiet American” was taken.

This is one quiet action film. It’s more of a suspense film. The suspense is often: What’s he doing? Who’s that guy? What the hell is going on? Apparently American moviegoers have complained. I’m not surprised. This is a Labor Day movie that requires work, and most Americans go to the movies to not work, to justify their preconceptions, to strengthen their worldview. “Give me a hero who’s handsome and knows everything and shoots second and wins, and let me eat my bucket of popcorn and slurp my soda and imagine I’m him.”

Well, we got handsome anyway.

Last January, Terrence Rafferty had a good piece on George Clooney in The New York Times, in which, of Clooney’s recent roles, he wrote: “He works the territory of 21st-century American normality, playing—now, at 48—middle-aged men who are good at what they do and getting by, for the moment, but are beginning to feel stirrings of doubt and dread.”

I’d go further. The longer Clooney’s been a star in Hollywood, the more he’s played the cool, distant professional in an unethical business who is thinking of escape, of saving what’s left of his soul. Think “Syrianna,” “Michael Clayton,” “Up in the Air” and now “The American.” I don’t want to be an assassin, a fixer, a man who fires people, an assassin. Do we add movie star to the list? Are these roles a cry for help? Maybe it’s George Clooney who is the cool, distant professional in an unethical business who wants to save what’s left of his soul.

As “The American” starts, Jack (Clooney) seems to be living it up: a cozy, snow-bound cabin, a glass of wine, a naked Swedish woman on the bed. Most men would be happy, but he seems distant. The camera shots aren’t lurid but quiet and serious. There’s already an air of dread.

The two bundle up and go for a walk out on the snow-bound frozen lake. It’s beautiful. Then we get a perspective as if from someone watching them in the nearby woods. A second later, Jack sees footprints in the snow. He’s suddenly on. He looks up, around, then pulls Ingrid (Irina Björklund) to the cover of a nearby rock just as, bewwww!, the first bullet hits the rock. Ingrid is startled and scared, and even more startled and scared when Jack pulls out a gun and shoots the assassin. “Jack?” she says. “Jack, is he dead?” He gives her orders. “Go to the cabin and call the police!” I’m thinking he’ll use this opportunity to get away. Nope. She takes two steps in the snow and he puts a bullet into the back of her head. Later he kills the second assassin, steals his car, travels to Rome, calls the home office. He and Pavel (Johan Leysen) use shorthand. “It’s Jack. I’m here.” They meet at a pasticceria and use more shorthand. “Who was the girl?” Pavel asks. “A friend... She had nothing to do with it.”

We suspected as much but it’s still a shock to hear him say it. He killed her then for what? To save himself? To save his agency? His cause? He seems like a man without agency or cause. He seems like a man full of dread and doubt who keeps doing what he’s doing because he’s on automatic. Pavel makes arrangements for Jack to disappear into a small Italian town, then gives one last piece of advice. “Don’t make any friends, Jack,” he says.

That’s our set-up. A quiet American, traveling through small Italian towns, suspecting everyone, not making friends. It’s a tough set-up. A man needs something to play off of. Drama needs a second actor on the stage. Clooney’s just got... what? His suspicions. He even suspects Pavel. The cell phone he’s given he throws into a river. He switches small Italian towns. You know those modern, high-tech secret agents who can track villains around the world using high-tech gadgets? While running furiously? Jack’s old school. He makes calls from rusty pay phones, reads The International Herald-Tribune in newspaper form, collects car parts to make his weapons. He’s off the grid. Safer there. The movie is based on a 1990 novel by British author Martin Booth called “A Very Private Gentleman,” and that’s what he is. Though more distant than private, more man than gentle.

But we’re social animals. We need. Jack begins to frequent a brothel. Same woman: Clara (Violante Placido). He keeps running into the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who asks questions in heavily accented Italian. He is curious about this man who is curious about nothing. He encapsulates Jack’s country, my country, in a sentence. “You are American,” he tells Jack. “You think you can escape history.”

Eventually the home office gives him another job. He doesn’t have to kill—apparently he doesn’t want to kill—he just has to make a weapon for another assassin, named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who’ll do the killing. She shows up, tests the weapon in some fields, requests refinements. She seems a female version of Jack: attractive, distant, highly professional. One senses Jack’s interest, particularly when, back in the brothel, Clara says he seems different. Is he thinking about something? “Or someone?” she asks with a smile. But the movie doesn’t go there. He spends more time with Clara, and she with him. Is she the luckiest hooker in the world? Not only does her john look like George Clooney but he goes down on her. He takes her out to dinner. They have this conversation:

She: Can I ask you something?
He: Sure.
She: Are you married?
He: No.
She: I was sure that was your secret.
He: Why do I have to have a secret?
She: You are a nice man, but...you have a secret.

He suspects her. He suspects Father Benedetto, too, but accepts a dinner invitation to his house, and gets spare parts from one of his wayward flock, Fabio (Filippo Timi), who, we find out later, is actually the Father’s son. We’re all sinners. We all have secrets.

Where can the story go? That’s the question. Where can Jack go? Toward humanity? Or do his suspicions get the better of him? In a later scene, reminiscent of the first, he nearly kills Clara during a picnic by a waterfall, then holds her close. Maybe this is when he begins to change. It helps that Clara is innocent. But then so was Ingrid.

So Jack moves toward humanity, toward love for Clara, and away from his dirty business. From another rusty pay phone he tells Pavel he’ll make the drop to Mathilde but then he’s out. Pause. “OK, Jack,” Pavel says. “You’re out.” We’ve seen enough of these movies to know the shorthand. Out = dead, doesn’t it? Or are we being paranoid? The drop is done at a roadside cafe. Two tough guys sit by a window. A waitress comes by, then Mathilde, who leaves to check the weapon in a bathroom. Then the two men leave. Then the waitress leaves. Jack is alone in middle of the cafe. Is he alarmed? We are. Get out of there! He does. He meets Mathilde outside the bathroom rather than inside the cafe. They say their goodbyes as a busload of middle-school futbol players pulls up and unloads.

Were we being paranoid? Nope. Pavel later chastises Mathilde for not killing Jack and she pleads a lack of opportunity. But she’ll use the weapon he made to kill him.

Question: Was Jack always constructing the means of his own death? Or did they only target him once he wanted out?

Follow-up question: Did he sabotage the weapon because he was tired of the killing, all killings, or because he knew they would target him? The home office always cleans up around its messes and he knows his mind is one messy place.

I think screenwriter Rowan Joffe and director Anton Corbijn make a mistake bringing Pavel to the small Italian town for the killing. Pavel seems a guy tied to his home office. He doesn’t go out into the field, and certainly not when a killing is underway. So once the weapon backfires and Mathilde dies we know his real purpose there. He’s the assassin now. Sure enough, after hearing Mathilde’s final words (“Who do you work for?” he asks. “Same...as you” she responds), Jack walks down a small Italian street, alone, senses something, turns and fires. Pavel drops, bullet holes in his stomach and forehead. But weren’t three shots fired? Was Jack hit? Corbijn keeps the camera close so we’re not sure, but Jack seems to be walking unsteadily, and, yes, in the car, he’s sweating too much. Yes, he’s been shot. Yes, he’s about to die. But he needs to see Clara one last time.

One of the criticisms of the film is that it’s too brooding, too gloomy, and maybe it is, but what does one expect from a director who photographed this famously gloomy album cover? Besides, the film was consistent in its tone. It reflected its protagonist’s mood.

There are small joys here: the conversations with the old priest, who’s got a great face, and the quiet, efficient way Jack works. Jack is passing himself off as a travel photographer, but the priest surmises, “You have the hands of a craftsman, not an artist,” and he’s right. That’s one of my takeaways from the film: the scenes of Jack expertly building this weapon. The doing of the thing to see if it can be done.

No, the problem isn’t the mood but the resolution: Pavel showing up and Jack getting shot and dying. How much more effective if Jack had gotten away? Because there is no away. He’d still spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. Worse, he’d have something (Clara) that he cared about. Worse, the two might have several things (kids) that they cared about. It wouldn’t get any better for Jack, it would only get worse. Some suggestion of this in the final shot would’ve been effective, I think.

I’ll take the end-end, though. Throughout the film, Clara and Mathilde call him “Mr. Butterfly” for the butterfly tattoo on his upper back; and in the final distant shot by the waterfall, Jack’s car rolled to a stop by a tree, Jack dying inside, we see a small white butterfly move up against the darkness of the tree. Is it too much? I liked it. It was subtle enough and implied a lot. After a lifetime of brutality, some small fragile thing was finally set free.

Posted at 07:28 AM on Sep 10, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Thursday September 09, 2010

MSNBC-Movies: Running on Empty

What's up with the MSNBC.com Movies page? For five years I freelanced for them, averaging about 20 pieces a year, but then they aggregated more and more unoriginal content (both senses) from AP and Newsweek, and eventually they ditched the freelance budget.

Aggregating is pretty much all they do now. Here's a screenshot from a few days ago...

The aggregated stories on the left-hand side are new but what's with the slideshows on the right? The bottom one, about "Doomsday Movies," is tied to the release of the film "2012," which came out last November, while the top trumpets such new December releases as "Avatar," "Up in the Air" and "Sherlock Holmes." I can hardly wait.

Seriously, does anyone from MSNBC even visit the site? Does anyone visit the site? One half expects an animated tumbleweed to come rolling across the screen.

Sad. It used to be a place to go to. Now it's this.

Well, I'm sure it's profitable anyway.

Posted at 06:44 AM on Sep 09, 2010 in category Movies
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Wednesday September 08, 2010

Review: “Harry Brown” (2009)

WARNING: MAKE-MY-DAY SPOILERS

Is “Harry Brown” screwing with us?

The movie came to the States last spring, a Brit “Gran Torino,” another “Death Wish” about men near death. Since there were rave reviews, since it garnered a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes, I thought it might be more character study than vigilante film, but it’s not. No one’s a character here. Everyone’s a type. Count them off:

  1. The vigilante
  2. The friend who dies
  3. The ineffectual, sympathetic cop
  4. The ineffectual, grandstanding police captain
  5. Those horrible hoodlums

Screenwriter Gary Young and director Daniel Barber simply move these pieces against various backdrops and let them play out. There’s patience in the pacing, some shots are effective, I liked a few lines, but don’t fool yourself into thinking this is more than a genre film.

Which is why the dialogue at the end comes as a bit of a shock.

It’s in the middle of the grand finale. Because hoodlums rather than single moms or pensioners are now being killed in this particular low-end estate (read: projects), the grandstanding police captain, S.I. Childs (Iain Glen), ignoring the preposterous theory from sympathetic but ineffectual D.I. Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) that the hoodlums are being killed by a pensioner named Harry Brown (Michael Caine), whose best friend, Len (David Bradley) was killed by the same hoodlums a week earlier, decides to storm the estate in grand, militaristic fashion. It sets off a conflagration. The hoodlums, numbering in the single digits for the first three-quarters of the film, swell to dozens, and beat back the cops with Molotov cocktails. Destruction is rampant. The streets are on fire.

Into this chaos arrive Frampton and her ineffectual but unsympathetic partner D.S. Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles). Attacked, left bleeding and injured, Frampton opens her eyes and through the haze sees...could it be?... Harry Brown running towards her. In his 70s (Caine was 76 when the movie was released), with emphysema, and recently self-released from the hospital from a gunshot wound, he somehow carries both cops into the local pub, run by the sympathetic Sid (Liam Cunningham), who, we later find out, is not-so-sympathetic. He’s the uncle of Noel (Ben Drew), one of the main gangbangers, and a nasty piece of work himself. Before the evening is out, he’ll betray Harry and viciously beat him. But he’ll get his.

Before that betrayal, though, Frampton and Harry have a conversation.

Harry is a former, much-decorated Marine, who was once stationed in northern Ireland, and Frampton, despite the chaos surrounding them, pleads in her usual ineffectual way for him to stop taking the law into his own hands:

Frampton: It’s not northern Ireland, Harry.
Harry: No, it’s not. Those people were fighting for something. For a cause. To them out there, this is just entertainment.

He means the gangbangers. But there’s no way the filmmakers didn’t hear the echo: how it could apply, even more so, to us out here, the audience, watching these horrors for fun. In the middle of a genre film, it’s an indictment of the entire genre. It’s the hero of the story telling the audience they’re like the villains.

Wow.

Caine, by the way, is as good as ever. There’s fear in his hooded eyes but also steadiness in his voice and hands. I wouldn’t pay to watch him read the phone book, as the old saying goes (even as phone books have gone), but I’d pay to watch him in a “My Dinner with Andre” type film: Caine, and another man, or woman, shooting the honest shit. Which is to say: I would’ve liked more of the pub conversations between Harry and Len. But they only gave them so much to say. The pieces needed to be moved about.

One camera shot stands out for me. After being informed that Len has been killed by the gangbangers, we cut to a funeral procession of many, many cars. The camera follows the cars for a bit, then allows them to continue on as it alights on Harry and a young priest before an open grave. That funeral procession was for someone else. Len, an old man, just has the one friend and a priest too young to know.

One line of dialogue stands out for me. Harry’s already killed one gangbanger, stabbing him, and now he’s after guns, which are hard to get in England. So he goes to the source, the gangbangers, specifically a house run by the perpetually high Kenny (Joseph Gilgun) and the spooky Stretch (Sean Harris), whose lean body is a cross hatch of scars and tats interrupted by nipple rings. The two take Harry through several hellish rooms, including a greenhouse of, one assumes, pot, and into the back room, where a video plays of Stretch screwing a strung-out girl. That girl is still strung-out on the couch—she seems barely alive—and when Stretch tries to entice Harry with the worst of his culture by offering the girl, Harry tries to entice Stretch with the best of his culture by suggesting they call an ambulance. But there’s no cultural exchange. Stretch gets pissed off by the mere suggestion of a kind act. So when Harry gets the guns he shoots Kenny and then chases Stretch back through the greenhouse, where he lays, with a gut wound, helpless. Earlier, Stretch had Harry in his sites; but he’d also been using his gun as a bong and it misfired, and now Harry has him. Calmly, almost sympathetically, Harry says, “You failed to maintain your weapon, son.”

I love that “son.” So much better than Eastwood’s clenched-teeth “punk.” I love the old-fashion lesson inherent in the line, too. Be ready. Use a thing for what it’s for. Maintain it.

But that’s mostly what I liked about “Harry Brown.” The rest is stupid—and gets stupider in order to maintain the tropes of the vigilante film.

Mortimer is useless. She was cast to be useless. Why else cast Emily Mortimer as a cop? She spends half the movie, mouth agape, unable to argue back against the idiocies of her captain or partner.

The captain is useless. He has a desultory scene just to show how he, and the system, are screwing up. To justify Harry’s actions.

The hoodlums are cackling idiots without a trace of the better angels of our nature. We want them shot. We get our wish. The movie shows us our fears and, one by one, eliminates them.

To do this, Harry almost becomes supernatural. One gangmember, Marky (Jack O’Connell), suddenly finds himself hooded and tied to a chair. How did Harry get him there? Marky then gives up video evidence of Len’s murder. Why doesn’t Harry take it to the police? Instead, Marky, feet and hands bound, but on a short leash (literally), is let loose 10 feet into the graffitied subway where the gangbangers hang out, and where two of the leaders are sloppily making out with young girls. They see Marky but don’t see who’s holding the leash. He’s still in the dark. They pull out their guns. Why doesn’t Harry shoot them first? Why does he toy with them?

To them out there, this is just entertainment.

Yep.

“See the way we're lit? This is a hellish environment, son. 'ellish.”

Posted at 07:21 AM on Sep 08, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Tuesday September 07, 2010

Why Can't the Times Write about Box Office?

It's been a while since I've ranted about Michael Cieply or Brooks Barnes over at The New York Times, but Barnes' latest, “Even Hits Like 'Kick-Ass' Can Seem Misses at Debut,” pissed me off all over again.

It's not the sentiment behind it: Too much attention is paid to opening weekends. I agree with that. I'd like more attention paid to movies with legs, too.

It's the numbers. They keep fudging the numbers.

Here's the lede:

LOS ANGELES — In early April, as Lionsgate prepared to release “Kick-Ass,” the movie capital buzzed that the film looked to be a smash hit. Lionsgate had acquired it for just $15 million, and surveys that track audience interest projected a $30 million opening weekend.

The movie, directed by Matthew Vaughn, instead opened with $19.8 million, and the chatter, fueled by the blogosphere, abruptly turned negative. Misfire! Bomb! Flop!

As it turns out, “Kick-Ass” is living up to its title. The picture, about a teenager who tries to become a superhero, went on to generate about $97 million in ticket sales and is on track to sell over two million copies on DVD and digital download services.

Nice Hollywood ending for “Kick-Ass.” But like most Hollywood endings, it's false. Or fudged.

The movie opened with $19.8 million domestically. It closed with $97 million worldwide. Its domestic close was $48 million—not even three times its opening weekend. It may be profitable, but that's hardly a movie with legs.

Barnes keeps doing this, too. Here's a graf later in the article:

There are other recent examples of movies that were quickly deemed misses but turned into hits. “Date Night,” the 20th Century Fox comedy starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey, was branded a disappointment when it opened to $25 million. Yet it finally captured over $152 million. “The Last Song” had a $16 million opening in March — lower than expected — but went on to sell $89 million at the global box office for Walt Disney Studios.

“Date Night” opened at $25 million domestically but grossed $152 million worldwide ($98 million domestically). “The Last Song” opened at $16 million domestically and grossed $89 million worldwide ($62.9 million domestically).

It's not just that Barnes isn't comparing the same things. He's not telling his readers that he's not comparing the same things.

And if you're going to do a piece like this, on the long legs of some modern movies, why not focus on the film that has the longest legs this year? “How to Train Your Dragon” opened at $43 million domestically and grossed $217 million domestically, or five times its opening, but that film only gets a graf midway through Barnes' article. Most of the article is about LionsGate's “Kick-Ass,” which didn't even gross three times its opening. Why?

Here are some past arguments I've had with Barnes/Cieply:

I guess the theme snaking through these arguments is that Barnes/Cieply cover the industry for the industry and not for moviegoers. Not sure why you would do that.

Posted at 08:31 AM on Sep 07, 2010 in category Movies - Box Office
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Hollywood BO: The Labors of Labor Day

Why does Hollywood treat Labor Day as the red-headed stepchild of four-day weekends? It’s stuck there at the end of summer, the kids are going back to school, but can’t a brother get a last gasp? Instead of looking back to fun and sun, Hollywood uses the holiday to look ahead to the horrors of October and the semi-seriousness of autumn—but not with their best stuff. Usually with lousy stuff. Moviegoers respond accordingly by not showing up.

Here are the biggest box-office openers for each four-day weekend:

  1. Memorial Day: "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End": $139,802,190
  2. Presidents Day: "Valentine's Day": $63,135,312
  3. MLK Day: "Cloverfield" $46,146,546
  4. Labor Day: "Halloween (2007)": $30,591,759

Not even close. Plus the films the studios trot out over Labor Day read like a marquee in hell: “Jeepers Creepers” (1 and 2), “Balls of Fury,” “All About Steve,” “The Wicker Man,” “Babylon A.D.” And those are the popular ones.

So consider ourselves lucky that we got “The American” this weekend and some of us (including Patricia and I—review up soon) actually went to see it. It topped the three-day weekend with $13 million and the four-day weekend with $16 million—just ahead of “Machete”’s $11 million and $14 million, and far ahead of “Going the Distance”’s $6.9 million and $8.6 million. The Justin Long-Drew Barrymore rom-com finished in fifth place. Barrymore has been with us forever but she’s still only 35, so, despite the soft open, expect more of these. Someone, by the way, should do a look at the history of the Barrymore rom-com: from Adam Sandler (9 years older) through Hugh Grant (15 years older) to Justin Long (3 years younger).

Last weeks’s 1 and 2, “Takers” and “The Last Exorcism,” finished 3 and 4, falling off, respectively, 46.9% and 63.6%. Normal falls for such films, but, given the holiday weekend, fairly steep falls.

“The Expendables,” in comparison, dropped only 30% and has now grossed $94 million; the $100 million mark is only a matter of time. “The Other Guys,” fell off only 15% to bring its cumulative take to $108 million and put “Robin Hood” ($105m) in its rearview mirror. In its headlights? “Valentine’s Day” ($110m).

In 8th place? “Eat, Pray, Love,” which fell off only 29% and has steadily climbed to a $70 million gross. No. 9, “Inception,” dropped just 7% and stands at $278m (and $696m worldwide). Somewhere in the last week, “Despicable Me” passed “Shrek Forever After.”

The totals.

Finally a request. Box Office Mojo? Your abs ads are beginning to creep me out. More reptile than man. Turn it down a notch, will ya?

Posted at 07:30 AM on Sep 07, 2010 in category Movies - Box Office
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Monday September 06, 2010

Review: “Mesrine: L'ennemi public n°1” (2008)

WARNING: SPOILERS, PART DEUX

No one has a chance against French gangster Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel).

Which is to say: no one in the audience has a chance to root for anyone else in the movie. He may kill and steal, he may be sadistic and egomaniacal, he may get fat and wear the most ridiculous hair and beard styles of the 1970s, but he’s still the main guy in the movie, the main force, the main man. His eyes are alight. He makes big French meals and gets beautiful French women—sometimes two at a time. He has fun. The cops, in comparison, are beady-eyed things, the journalists either left-wing dupes or right-wing liars, his fellow criminals dull company men. Everyone scrimps, whispers, scuttles. Mesrine booms.

Only once does he meet his match, and that’s when he kidnaps 82-year-old real estate mogul Henri Lelièvre (Georges Wilson). At the grand estate where Lelièvre lives, Mesrine and his mostly silent partner Francois Besse (Mathieu Amalric) pretend to be cops who need to question Lelièvre about some of his properties. Lelièvre is 82 and looks it. He moves slowly, seems fragile. One cringes at the thought of him in the hands of these brutes, and, sure enough, before we know it, he’s sitting on the edge of a cot in a small room, perplexed, wondering what they want with him. Mesrine gloats. They’ve kidnapped him! They’re demanding 10 million francs! Then the fun begins. Lelièvre says aloud, “10 million? I’m 82,” and shakes his head. The businessman in him is insulted at the price even though it’s his own neck on the line. Mesrine is taken aback. He bargains. Eight million? Seven million? In the end they agree to six million over three installments. Lelièvre may be 82 and helpless, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get ripped off.

The 1970s were an absurd time, both in the states and abroad, and “Mesrine: L'ennemi public n°1,” the second part of Jean-Francois Richet’s nearly four-hour staccato biopic, reflects that absurdity. Against a backdrop of organizations attempting to bring down the system—PLO, Baader-Meinhoff, Red Brigades—Mesrine, an uncommon criminal with a gift for gab, impersonation and escape, passes himself off as a man of the people. In reality he’s just a violent man who can’t bear the 9-to-5 life. We’re intrigued by the second part, repelled by the first, but in the end I still wondered, as I did at the end of part one, “What’s the point? Of all the lives to portray, why portray this life?”

Part two begins back in France, in 1973, with Mesrine (pronounced May-reen) incarcerated, bragging to the cops that he’ll break out in three months. It doesn’t even take that long. On the way to trial, he claims sickness, needs to use the bathroom. Even as the cops hold onto one end of his handcuffs behind the bathroom door, he, a la Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” reaches behind the toilet tank to retrieve a revolver his pal left there. He takes it into court and, boom boom, uses it, and a judge/hostage, to escape.

For the first half-hour we get various escapes, where the back window of Mesrine’s car is invariably shot out, and where spectacular car crashes invariably occur but Mesrine’s car invariably limps to safety. Bullets fly but everyone’s a pretty lousy shot. Occasionally one of the bad guys gets winged but that’s about it. Juxtapose these action scenes with a few family reunions. A disguised Mesrine reconciles with his dying father. An incarcerated Mesrine clumsily bonds with his teenaged daughter. Cassel is brilliant in all of this. His own father, actor Jean-Pierre Cassel, was dying of cancer at the time, and the deathbed scene with his on-screen father, who would’ve been played by his actual father if cancer hadn’t reared its ugly head, is particularly intense.

In September ’73 Mesrine is finally captured (again), and in prison he rails against, not the cops or the system, but the Chilean coup that stole his press. “Pinochet, Pinochet,” he complains, flicking his hand at a newspaper. Filling a gap, he demands a typewriter and writes his own memoirs, “L’instinct de mort,” which became the basis for the first part of the film. But it takes him five years to live up to his promise of another escape.

For the rest of the film he complains about maximum security facilities, but we don’t see much of this incarceration so don’t know what he’s complaining about. He meets Besse, a no-nonsense crook who does prison-yard pushups even as Mesrine’s body goes to pot, and they plot escape. But the five years, interminable for him, go like that for us. Plus the escape isn’t that cool. Besse is able to hide a can of mace inside a box of “Petit Beurre,” and when the guards’ metal detector goes off during a routine search they assume it’s the tinfoil packaging and don’t look inside. As for how Mesrine gets his guns? His lawyer brings them. Hardly Andy Dufresne at Shawshank. (Also untrue? According to Wikipedia, guards smuggled in the weapons.)

The larger-than-life Mesrine and the smaller-than-life Besse make a good team. Post-escape, they rob a casino and go on the lam. A stream they’re fording turns out to be much deeper than the optimistic Mesrine anticipated, so he attempts, optimistically again, to toss the loot onto the other side. It splashes in the water, floats downstream, sinks. “That’s your share!” Besse complains bitterly. Then the punchline. He spots a rowboat, 10 feet away, on their side of the river. The fording wasn’t necessary. As an army of men, arms linked, march across a field to capture them, they make their escape via dingy, half their loot unnecessarily, optimistically spent.

“Mesrine” part II contains parallels with part I—Mesrine hooks up with a girl (Ludivine Sagnier), he hooks up with different partners, he kidnaps an old, rich dude—but the most pungent parallel is the kidnapping and near-murder of French journalist Jacques Dallier (read: Tillier, played by Alain Fromager), which echoes, and provides an overall bookend with, the kidnapping and murder of Ahmed the Pimp in “L’instinct de mort.” In both, the victim goes on a car ride with Mesrine and another man. In both, he assumes he’s safe. In both, he’s toyed with in sadistic fashion, then stripped naked, beaten, shot or stabbed, and left for dead. Finally, in both, neither victim is particularly sympathetic. Ahmed is a pimp who beats women; Dallier is a right-wing, racist snitch. Each scene shows Mesrine at his worst.

We needed more such scenes. Not to be too Will Hays about this, but Mesrine was a nasty, opportunistic man, and Cassel is entirely too charismatic to play him so we don’t want to be him. He’s living large, getting babes, talking trash. Sure, he winds up in a pool of his own blood, at the hands of frightened policemen, but he’s our eyes and ears through this world, and he’s the only one having any kind of fun. He’s still the man. As for a larger point in the biopic? It escapes me.

Sidenote: Just as Mesrine’s ’73 capture coincided with the Chilean coup, which stole his press, so his death, on November 2, 1979, occurred two days before Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took hostages. One imagines him in the afterlife, complaining bitterly: “Khomeini, Khomeini.” One imagines him demanding a typewriter to set the record straight.

“OK, here's the deal. We escape together, but afterwards I get all the women, the best scenes, and, ultimately, the biopic. D'accord?”

Posted at 08:54 AM on Sep 06, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Sunday September 05, 2010

Lancelot Links

The formula is simple and foolproof (although those who deploy it so facilely seem to think we are all fools): If the bad act is committed by a member of a group you wish to demonize, attribute it to a community or a religion and not to the individual. But if the bad act is committed by someone whose profile, interests and agendas are uncomfortably close to your own, detach the malefactor from everything that is going on or is in the air (he came from nowhere) and characterize him as a one-off, non-generalizable, sui generis phenomenon.

In a rather curious and confused way, some white people are starting almost to think like a minority, even like a persecuted one. What does it take to believe that Christianity is an endangered religion in America or that the name of Jesus is insufficiently spoken or appreciated? Who wakes up believing that there is no appreciation for our veterans and our armed forces and that without a noisy speech from Sarah Palin, their sacrifice would be scorned? It's not unfair to say that such grievances are purely and simply imaginary, which in turn leads one to ask what the real ones can be. The clue, surely, is furnished by the remainder of the speeches, which deny racial feeling so monotonously and vehemently as to draw attention.

“No, Kenjiro. I refuse to go to Seattle until the Mariners get a decent no. 3 hitter.”

Posted at 06:49 PM on Sep 05, 2010 in category Lancelot Links
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Saturday September 04, 2010

Summer Box Office: Are We Predictable?

Researching predictions about how 2010 summer box office would turn out, I came across this April piece from Gregory Ellwood on Hitflix.com. I'm not a fan of prognostication but he does pretty well. Here's his numbers against the actual rankings:

He predicts three of the 10 exactly right. He also predicts which five movies will be in the top five. Flip a couple ("TS3" and "IM2") and he has seven of the 10. Add "The Other Guys," which has a chance to finish the summer ranked 10th and he has 8 of the 10. That's pretty stunning. Someone call Nate Silver.

The only two he gets wrong are "Sex and the City 2," which bombed because it stunk, and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," about which, in the "pro" section of that film, he writes, "If 'Persia' is a disappointment, Jerry Bruckheimer can't be wrong about two potential summer tentpoles can he?" Answer: Yes, he can. So "Sorcerer's" is really only there because he figured "Persia" wouldn't live up to the hype. Which it didn't.

To give you an idea what he was predicting against, here are some readers' comments at the end:

  • Seeing as how the 10th movie in this list is expected to gross $110 million, I find it kinda hard to understand why Prince of Persia wasn't included. Do you think it won't even cross 100mil Greg? (It didn't: it topped out at $90.6 million domestically.)
  • Not enough attn. paid to Prince of Persia here imo. (Shows what your o is worth, kid.)
  • Prince of Persia will also make close to $200 million just on the fact that it's similar to POTC. ("Prince of the City"? Oh, "Pirates of the Caribbean." Really? It is? Even the backdrop seems diametrically opposed: sand vs. water.)
  • Where's 'The A-Team' and 'Knight & Day'?? (Finishing 16th and 17th for the summer, respectively.)

On the other hand, there's this from a guy named Yun Xia. He actually gets the top 5 in the right order... but then screws up with "Sex and the City" and "Prince of Persia" and "The A-Team." Interestingly, he gets "Robin Hood"'s b.o. totals exactly right, $105 million, just not its place in the pantheon. It's higher up: 10th not 15th. Thus far. Even so: hen hao.

So did anyone screw up? Well, the folks at "Get the Big Picture" did think both "Iron Man" and "Shrek" would both beat "Toy Story," and they include both Bruckheimer films in the top 10. The also predict big for "Robin Hood." Bigger, I should say.

But, overall, most of the April 2010 predictors predicted the top 5 correctly. It's numbers 6-10 where people stumbled.

Glad to see we're not completely predictable. Yet.

Marion will haunt your dreams for thinking so highly of Bruckheimer.

Posted at 08:49 AM on Sep 04, 2010 in category Movies - Box Office
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Friday September 03, 2010

Democracy is Dead. Discuss.

“Charles Koch, [CEO of Koch Inustries and a big founder of the Tea Party Movement], in a newsletter sent to his seventy thousand employees, compared the Obama Administration to the regime of the Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. The Kochs’ sense of imperilment is somewhat puzzling. Income inequality in America is greater than it has been since the nineteen-twenties, and since the seventies the tax rates of the wealthiest have fallen more than those of the middle class. Yet the brothers’ message has evidently resonated with voters: a recent poll found that fifty-five per cent of Americans agreed that Obama is a socialist.

—from “Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama,” by Jane Mayer, in the August 30th issue of The New Yorker
Posted at 07:56 AM on Sep 03, 2010 in category Politics
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Thursday September 02, 2010

Review: “Un Prophete” (2009)

WARNING: DEER-IN-HEADLIGHTS SPOILERS

“The idea is to leave here a little smarter,” Reyeb (Hitchem Yacoubi) tells Malik (Tahar Rahim), as the two sit on the edge of his prison bunk and Reyeb stirs his coffee. Reyeb has just found out that Malik, his fellow Muslim, is illiterate, and he’s acting solicitous toward him—suggesting he can always learn to read, telling him he’ll give him some books—even as he’s anticipating a blow job. Instead he gets his throat slit. Guess the joke’s on him, right? Guess he left there a little smarter.

But he doesn’t leave. He remains in Malik’s life—a palpable, matter-of-fact symbol of guilt—and his words linger. And after six years Malik will leave there a whole lot smarter than when he entered. He will leave a prophet. It’s prison as a means to both worldly and spiritual redemption. Kids, don’t try this at home.

“Un Prophete,” which was nominated for 13 Cesars and won nine, including best picture, director (Jacque Audiard), actor (Rahim), supporting actor (Niels Arestrup), writing, editing, and cinematography, is both gritty and uplifting, full of lessons of realpolitik and the unknowability of dreams and life. It’s a movie for anyone who thought nothing more could be done with the prison drama or the gangster life. It’s a film we will still be watching in 50 years.

Malik’s life begins when he enters prison. He has nothing but the scars on his face and the 50-euro note he tries to hide in his shoe; it’s found and confiscated. He’s stripped, shaved, given a pillow and a metal tray and a new pair of tennis shoes. In the prison yard, alone, the shoes are big and white and seem to gleam, and a second later he’s attacked and his shoes are taken. He gives back—he attacks his attackers—but gets beaten down again. The odds aren’t good. He’s alone with six years to go.

He might not have made it if Reyeb hadn’t shown up. The prison is divided between Corsicans, who are few but control the guards, and Muslims, who are many but control nothing, and Reyeb, about to testify in a trial against a Corsican, is targeted by prison don Cesar Luciani (Arestrup), whose boss, Jacky, has given him 10 days to kill the snitch. Easier said. Cesar moves through the prison with relative ease but he doesn’t control the Muslim section. Then he hears that Reyeb asked this new kid to suck him off, and, in the prison yard, he makes Malik an offer he can’t refuse: Kill Reyeb or I kill you.

We later learn that Malik didn’t have much of an upbringing. When asked if he spoke French or Arabic with his parents, he responds, “I wasn’t with them.” When asked about school, he replies, “The juvenile center.” We have sympathy for him the way we would a stray dog. He’s scared and confused, but watchful, and back in his cell, after Cesar threatens him, he tells himself, “I can’t kill anyone.” He tries to contact the warden but the Corsicans hear and nearly suffocate him in a plastic bag, saying, “We run this place.” In the sewing shop he joins in a beat-down of a helpless prisoner, hoping to get tossed into solitary, but Cesar hears of this and beats him down. He’s trapped. He has to do this thing.

It’s the palpability of the act that gets you: less the Peckinpahesque spurting of blood from Reyeb’s neck than the goopy way blood and saliva mix as Malik pulls the razor blade from his mouth, where he’s involuntarily cut himself. It’s his careful extrication from the scene: stepping over the blood; placing the razor in Reyeb’s hand; scrubbing the blood from his shirt in the prison bathroom. It’s the disconnect one feels despite this precision. Malik hears someone screaming; he sees flames falling out of a prison cell. What is going on?

Prison life opens up for Malik afterwards. He receives cartons of cigarettes from Cesar (“You’re under his protection now”), and, taking Reyeb’s advice, he learns to read (“Canard: Ca-nard”), but he’s still isolated. The Muslims view him as a Corsican while the Corsicans disparage him as a dirty Arab. His main companion is the man he killed. In his dreams Malik wrestles with Reyeb, as if he were the Archangel Gabriel, and in the morning Reyeb is there, a physical presence. Reyeb is the one who sings “Happy Birthday” to Malik in Arabic on the one-year anniversary of his incarceration. He’s the one staring with him out his cell window as snow falls on the prisoners in the courtyard.

Life opens up even more when these Corsican gangsters, like naughty schoolboys, are separated by powers outside the prison. Perhaps feeling sorry for Cesar, Malik, eyes alight with his secret, reveals that he’s learned Corsican over the years and the conversations he’s been privy to. Cesar stares at him, then hits him. Because he senses the pity? Because he senses opportunism? Because his private conversations weren’t private and this dirty Arab is smarter than he realized? Regardless, he soon comes to rely on Malik more and more, but there is no corresponding sense of respect. He keeps treating Malik like a dirty Arab.

Bad move. Both inside the prison, and outside on work-leaves, Malik makes contacts and accrues power. He gets involved with Jordi, the Gypsy (Reda Kateb), who deals hashish. He becomes friends with Ryad (Adel Bencherif), who is the beginning of his entré into the suspicious Muslim prison community. He does his jobs, straddles both worlds, acts the professional. There’s an unaffected quality to him, an ingenuousness. “Why is an Arab working for the Corsicans?” he’s asked. “I work for who pays me,” he answers. One realizes after a while: He doesn’t lie. He’s polite, and professional, and doesn’t lie. The world he lives in expects lies and he disarms everyone with honesty.

His first work-leave is beautiful. After three years he’s finally out of prison, and as Ryad, who’s done his time, picks him up, Alexandre Desplat’s music, “La sortie,” wells up and overwhelms any attempt at conversation, as if the music were Malik’s emotions. He feels the wind on his face, the sun on his face; then he does a job for Cesar. He gets 5,000 euros to retrieve a Corsican gangster from a Muslim gang. Then he does a job for himself. He retrieves 25 kilos of hash stored by one of the Gypsy’s men. “Five thousand euros and 25 kilos of hash?” Ryad asks him, stunned, when they hook up at dusk. “All in one day?” You know that scene in “The Godfather” where Michael suggests killing the Turk? Where Michael essentially takes over? That’s this. Malik doesn’t respond to Ryad’s question. He simply tells Ryad what they’re going to do:

We get guys to stock and sell. We supply. We use convoys and buy at the source. The Gypsy has contacts. We need three big cars. Paris-Marbella in one night.

When Ryad objects, saying he’s never done this before, Malik responds, “What’s the big deal? Neither have I.”

What do we make of the prophet angle and Malik’s vision of the deer? To what extent do we compare Malik, the prophet, with the prophet Muhammad? Both are orphans. Both get involved in the merchant trade. Later in the film Malik will go into isolation, solitary, for 40 days and 40 nights, and emerge more powerful than ever. One can call him a Muhammadian figure the way one can call Luke in “Cool Hand Luke” a Christ figure. Elements of the ancient religious story are used to tell the tale of a modern prisoner.

Would things have turned out differently, less Oedipal, if Cesar had treated Malik with any kind of respect? Actor Niels Arestrup has a mane of white hair and fierce blue eyes, and initially one thinks of him as a Godfather type, a Don Corleone in prison; but as the movie progresses and one sees his prejudices, his betrayals, his smallness, one realizes he’s more like the Black Hand. He’s the classless oaf that needs to be overcome. It’s Malik who becomes the Godfather. At one point Cesar nearly puts Malik’s eye out, telling him, “People look at you and see me. Otherwise what would they see? Can you tell me?” The implication is that Malik is nothing without him, but the greater implication, which Cesar fears, or is perhaps too stupid to realize, is that Malik is becoming him. Returning to his cell, his eye damaged by Cesar, Malik promises himself “I’m gonna kill you,” just as, earlier, he’d promised himself, “I can’t kill anyone.” It’s the promises to himself that he breaks. He does kill, Reyeb and others, but he doesn’t kill Cesar. He does something worse. He renders him powerless. By the end their positions are reversed: Malik is the prison don, respected in his community, while Cesar is the weak, isolated man in the prison yard, beyond the circle of power. Beyond contempt.

The arc of its story is brilliant but it’s the details that stay with me—such as Malik’s first planetrip, sandwiched between two bored commuters, trying to get a glimpse of the sky out the window. He’s heading to Marseilles for a meeting, at Cesar’s behest, with Brahim Lattrache (Slimane Dazi—one of the many amazing faces in this movie), where, again, he’s the distrusted Arab courier, but where his vision of the deer saves his life. Afterwards the deer meat is washed in the Mediterranean, and Lattrache, eyeing him with new respect, is intrigued by this quiet, honest man who straddles cultures. “Let’s get sucked before you go,” he says, but Malik turns him down. “I’d like to stay on the beach,” he says. He wades out into the water. One senses he’s never seen the sea before. Back in the dark of his prison cell, he takes off his shoe, looks inside, upends it. Sand courses through his fingers.

I’ve seen this movie twice; I feel like seeing it again now.

Malik (Tahar Rahim), left, after earning a place on the bench of Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), in Jacque Audiard's brilliant prison drama “Un Prophete.”

Posted at 07:00 AM on Sep 02, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Wednesday September 01, 2010

At the Birth of "Machete"

Thirteen months ago I was in Los Angeles interviewing Schuyler Moore, a transactional/tax/entertainment lawyer at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, for Southern California Super Lawyers magazine. Moore turned out to be one of my more fascinating interviews. The final article, entitled "A Bit of a Rebel with a Bit of a Cause," included this line: "Is it worse breaking your neck or losing your spleen? Academic question to almost everyone but Moore, who’s done both." Read the whole thing here. I know I'm biased but it's fascinating stuff.

I bring all this up now because what Moore was working on that day, a simple term sheet, has now come to fruiton:

“There’s a film called 'Machete' by Robert Rodriguez,” Moore says, “and it’s a pretty high-profile project, and my client [Hyde Park] wants to close the deal today.” His simple term sheet is now 57 pages. “People started sending attachments and approval lists and waterfalls and sales agent agreements that we kept attaching. So it’s now grown into this beast overnight.” Moore has simplified the waterfall—how the profits, if there are profits, get allocated—from 10 pages down to a couple of sentences, and others are e-mailing and phoning to sign off on this change. “I’m a big believer in E=MC²,” he says. “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

Later in the interview I realized to what extent Moore, who works in the entertainment industry, and who is in fact the grand-nephew of Billie Burke, who played Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in "The Wizard of Oz," could care less about the product he helps create. That's part of what makes him fascinating:

“I don’t even know who Robert Rodriguez is,” he adds, referring to the "Machete" deal. “Everyone else seems to know who he is. He did 'Grindhouse' apparently?” He reads aloud the cast list attached to Rodriguez’s film: “Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez.” He pauses. “I know De Niro.”

"Machete" opens Friday. I haven't decided whether or not to see it, but I know that Moore, unless he's invited to the premiere, won't. He doesn't watch TV or see movies. I also know the movie won't be as interesting as he is. Probably a correlation there.

Posted at 10:04 AM on Sep 01, 2010 in category Movies
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