erik lundegaard

Thursday June 30, 2011

Kim Ricketts

My friend Kim Ricketts, an event coordinator and book planner and the last of the big-time readers, died last month at the age of 53. She’s one of three friends who died this year and I haven’t written about any of them. I’ve written about the deaths of movie stars and baseball stars but not friends. Feels wrong. But of course the death of those we don’t know, even when their deaths aren’t easy to take, are so much easier to take.

Kim was full of energy. I worked at the University Book Store in the late 1990s, in the warehouse, and suddenly she was there. She would corral me in the hallway, grab my arm, ask me about this, tell me about that.

“Who are you again?” I asked.

“The events coordinator.”

“I thought that was Whatsherface.”

“I’m the new one.”

She arrived, bursting with energy and ideas, which is always the wrong way to enter certain rooms, particularly certain Seattle rooms, where the clothes are casual and the people are buttoned up. She didn’t care. That’s how she arrived.

She made enemies fast. She came up with a million dollar idea and shared it with the dull folks at the top who weren’t in it for the books, who were just in it to be in it. They didn’t get her idea. Or they thought it a threat. They probably thought she was a threat. They were right.

Here’s the idea: Instead of forcing people to come to see an author at, say, a bookstore, why not bring the author to the people? At, say, Microsoft, or Starbucks, or Boeing, or whatever big corporation is in your city. You can see why the bookstore honchos hated the idea. Looked at in a narrow way, it rendered them irrelevant. When they didn’t bite, she left to implement the idea herself. It became Kim Ricketts Book Events. Within a few years, she was being written up in The New York Times.

Here’s my favorite memory of Kim. I'd already left the bookstore, she was still there, and I stopped by one evening to buy something when I noticed an author reading across the room. For ... oops! David Shields and his new book “Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season,” which, the day before, in The Seattle Times, I'd panned. Badly. I immediately tried slinking away but Kim saw me and ran after me. When she caught up with me she kissed me on the lips. I nodded toward the event and half apologized for the review. She gave me that thick-as-thieves look. She said: “Honestly, somebody needed to say it.”

I saw her maybe a dozen times after that. She was always full of energy, always moving forward, always ready to introduce you to A, B or C (with “C” being Michael Lewis), always interested in what you were reading and doing and thinking—probably in that order. Whenever I left her, I’d think, “Now that’s the way to do it.”

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Posted at 07:29 AM on Jun 30, 2011 in category Personal Pieces   |   Permalink  
Wednesday June 29, 2011

Answering Your Search-Engine Questions

The following are search-engine questions that brought readers to my site but which my site didn't answer. I try to make up for that deficit:

  • “first alien invasion movie” led to my post on the history of alien invasion movies, but the answer isn't there. However, if you go to, do a keyword search of “alien invasion,” limit your answers to “movies,” and sort chronologically, you get ... “Mars Attacks the World” (1938), starring Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon. Apparently it was a re-edited serial. Caveat: It seems more outer space adventure than Earth space adventure. I wouldn't go Daily Double on it just yet.
  • “who played cyrils dad in breaking away” led our hapless visitor to my “Breaking Away” review, but I don't mention who played Cyril's dad. Because while the character is referenced several times—by both Cyril (Daniel J. Stern) and Dave's dad (Paul Dooley)—we never see him, just as we never see Mike's dad or Moocher's parents. The only parents we see in the movie are Dave's parents. Otherwise it's “Peanuts” territory. Wuh-wa, wuh-wa-wa-wa. In other words: No one played Cyril's dad.
  • “who was the secretary in the 1966 Batman movie?” I assume, from my own “Batman (1966)” review, the secretary to Admiral Fangschliester, with whom he is playing tiddlywinks? Immediate thought: Why not just look on Answer? It's not there. But the scene is on YouTube. And an answer is on the “Batman” wikia: Linda Beatty. Except then you get this discussion forum, which disputes the Linda Beatty claim. So I'm back where I started. Holy misinformation, Batman! Holy trivialities! Holy “C'mon guys, quit drooling, she's gotta be 65 now”...
  • “what is the most quoted movie” is frequently asked and frequently lands visitors on my article about my most quoted movie lines. Which of course is no help. But there is no help. You can guess all day long—“Casablanca” or “The Godfather” or “Star Wars” or “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery”—but there's no way to measure this.
  • “intercourse between two women”: Not really a question but a hope ... for which, again, I'm no help. Somehow that poor person wound up here. Not, I'm sure, what he (or she) was looking for.
  • “looking for a black man”: Same deal. Google needs help with its prepositions, doesn't it? Big difference between “looking for a black man,” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man.” If only there were some out-of-work English majors Google could hire...
  • “what is pork chop money?”always leads people to my review of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”  Here's the answer: It's money with which to buy pork chops. The bigger point: It's offensive.
  • “why the yankees suck”: Well, I guess I do answer that.

The twiddlywink-playing secetrary to Admiral Fangschliester in the 1966 movie "Batman"

Admiral's secretary, and mystery actress, from the 1966 “Batman.”

No tagsPosted at 06:17 AM on Jun 29, 2011 in category What Brings You Here   |   Permalink  
Tuesday June 28, 2011

Conversation of the Day (2006 Version)

THE BELIEVER: Rumor has it that you turned down the chance to direct Disney’s remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because you felt they weren’t interested in really exploring racism.

Harold Ramis in The BelieverHAROLD RAMIS: The way they wanted to do it didn’t have a lot to do with the colossal amount of pain and violence that swirls around racial injustice. It would’ve been like an episode of The Jeffersons. What’s the point? But who knows, maybe that’s as much as most people want. I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “When I go to the movies, I don’t want to think.”

THE BELIEVER: Does that offend you as a filmmaker?

HAROLD RAMIS: It offends me as a human being. Why wouldn’t you want to think? What does that mean? Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head?

Conversation between actor-writer-director-surgeon Harold Ramis and Eric Spitznagel, from the March 2006 issue of The Believer

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Posted at 04:54 PM on Jun 28, 2011 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  
Sunday June 26, 2011

Hollywood B.O.: What Will Be the Highest-Grossing Comic Book Adaptation of 2011? Not Green Lantern ...

A Box Office Mojo poll (now closed) from earlier in the year:

What will be the highest-grossing comic book adaptation of 2011?
39.2% Captain America: The First Avenger
18.3% X-Men: First Class
18.1% Green Lantern
13.2% Thor
10.7% Cowboys & Aliens
0.5% Priest

“Priest” is already done. It didn't even gross $30 million. “X-Men: First Class” is already done. It's at $132 million but it's not going to catch “Thor” at $177 million.

“Green Lantern” is also done. It didn't do super business opening weekend, $53 million, then dropped 65.5% during its second weekend, which is the 28th-worst drop, first-to-second weekend, for a super-wide release (3,000+ theaters). It's the same drop that “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” had back in 2007, but “FF2” opened a little better, at $58 million, had $97 million by the end of its second weekend, and still only wound up grossing $132 million. “GL”? Opened, as I said, at $53 million, and reportedly has $89 million by the end of its second weekend. So it won't even do $132 million? How about $120? Some tentpoles just can't hold nothing up. Sorry, Mark Strong: Looks like no “Green Lantern 2.” When is Hollywood going to realize that you can't necessarily follow the “Batman Begins/Dark Knight” track by holding back the franchise's main villain for the second film. It only works if the first film is any good.

As for the superhero clash, we'll have to wait until July to see if “Captain America” or “Cowboys and Aliens” can unseat “Thor.” Like most Box Office Mojo users, I bet on Steve Rogers. And the trailers look increasingly good.

Meanwhile, “Cars 2” did well, opening at $68 million and first place, “Bad Teachers” did surprisingly well, opening at $32 million and second place, and “Bridesmaids” continued to drop least despite shedding theaters. It lost only 24% of its business, grossed another $5 million, and now has a domestic total of $147 million. That's the sixth-highest gross of the year.

The weekend totals here.

"Never Again" with Green Lantern

Would that it were true...

No tagsPosted at 10:21 AM on Jun 26, 2011 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  
Saturday June 25, 2011

Game 6: How a Home Victory Equals a Loss

At least we saved ourselves a half inning.

In other words, yes, it was cool that because of a scheduling conflict with a U2 concert, the Florida Marlins had to abandon their own stadium and play their home series against the Seattle Mariners here, at Safeco Field, under National League rules—meaning the M's wore road grays, batted first, and pitchers hit. All of that was cool to see. But the best part of the game may have been that, for this Mariners loss, we got to leave a half inning early. If you're going to see a home loss, better to see one that lasts a mere 8 1/2 innings instead of the full 9.

My sixth game of the season was an altogether unthrilling affair. In the bottom of the first, the Marlins got their first three batters aboard on solid base hits and plated them all. The Mariners only scored two the entire game. That's pretty much it.

But for the first time in a long time, I did get to see the game with both Tim and Mike, with whom I shared a 20-game package back in '94, '95, '96, etc. It was throwback night for us and we trotted out some new Chris Bermanisms to go along with the old standards: Bobby “I Am Curious” Ayala; and Bob “With Six You Get” Ayrault. Mike came up with: Omar “Au Revior Les” Infante. I came up with: Dustin “Heart attack, ack, ack, ack, ack” Ackley.

OK, so we're rusty.

Final score was 4-2, Marlins, which is also my score this season. Not final.

Seattle Mariners logo   Florida Marlins logo

In the battle of the water-themed teams, the Mariners couldn't catch themselves some Marlins...

No tagsPosted at 10:37 PM on Jun 25, 2011 in category Seattle Mariners   |   Permalink  

Quote of the Day

“But the vote [on same-sex marriage before the New York legislature, which passed last night 33-29] and the lead-up to it showed us something else, too, something we ought to see often, but don’t: the spectacle of politicians changing their minds. That, in fact, has been one of the singular benefits of the same-sex marriage debate overall. On most issues, partisanship and the fear of being labelled a waffler effectively discourage politicians from publicly wrestling with conscience and contradiction. But same-sex marriage has been different. Public opinion on this issue has shifted fast in the direction of approval and party affiliation has turned out to matter somewhat less than other factors: generation, whether somebody has gay friends or relatives, gut feelings. President Obama can say that his views on whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry are 'evolving'—and in this context, as in few others, 'evolving' doesn’t by itself carry a political cost.”

--Margaret Talbot, in her post, “On Gay Marriage, It's OK to Waffle,” on the New Yorker website

Gay marriage in NY

Posted at 05:12 PM on Jun 25, 2011 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

World Series Game 7s Since 1903*: By Decade

* Does not include Game 7s of a Best-of-9 series.

1900s: 1 (1909)

1910s: 1 (1912)

1920s: 3 (1924, 1925, 1926)

1930s: 2 (1931, 1934)

1940s: 4 (1940, 1945, 1946, 1947)

1950s: 5 (1952, 1955 1956, 1957, 1958)

1960s: 6 (1960, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968)

1970s: 5 (1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1979)

1980s: 4 (1982, 1985, 1986, 1987)

1990s: 2 (1991, 1997)

2000s: 2 (2001, 2002)

It's almost perfectly balanced, isn't it? Does this mean we'll only get one Game 7 this decade, one the next, and then bye-bye World Series in about 2027?

I've been thinking about this a little more than ususal (I usually wait until October) because I picked up Barry Levenson's book, “The Seventh Game: The 35 World Series That Have Gone the Distance,” at Powell's Bookstore in Portland, earlier this month. Published in 2004, the book is still up-to-date since we haven't had a whiff of a Game 7 since. If you do the math, 35 Game 7s since 1903 give us an average of one every three years. Since 1924, the longest gap we've had between Game 7s has been six years (both 1934-40 and 1991-97). Except for now. We're now on 8 years and counting.

Where have you gone, Bob Gibson?

Roberto Clemente in the 1971 World Series

I didn't know I was growing up in a Golden Age ...

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Posted at 04:46 PM on Jun 25, 2011 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  
Friday June 24, 2011

Peter Falk (1927-2011)

I reference him every now and again. I'll be in email correspondence with a subject I'm writing about, asking maybe a follow-up question, and then I'll realize there's another. So I'll write back, and apologize by way of a 1970s TV reference: “Not to sound like Lt. Columbo here, but I have one more question...”

Do people under 30 get that? Under 40? It was an indelible character, one of the most indelible characters of the '70s, but I don't think it'll live on much longer. Do new fans go for it? Or are the production values of the show not high enough?

What of Peter Falk's long career will survive? According to he was in 127 movies and TV shows. After “Columbo” I immediately thought of “Wings of Desire” and then “The In-Laws.” There's the Cassavettes stuff, most of which, I'm ashamed to say, I haven't seen. I liked him in “Murder by Death.” But it was my colleague Evan who mentioned the obvious. “I loved him in 'Princess Bride,'” he said. “He made a great grandpa.”

The New York Times fills in the details I didn't know or forgot:

His death was announced in a statement from Larry Larson, a longtime friend and the lawyer for Mr. Falk’s wife, Shera. He had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease in recent years.

Mr. Falk had a wide-ranging career in comedy and drama, in the movies and onstage, before and during the three and a half decades in which he portrayed the unkempt but canny lead on “Columbo.” He was nominated for two Oscars; appeared in original stage productions of works by Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon and Arthur Miller; worked with the directors Frank Capra, John Cassavetes, Blake Edwards and Mike Nichols; and co-starred with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bette Davis and Jason Robards.

And now that I've looked at IMDb's list, maybe I was wrong about Columbo not lasting. Rarely watching TV anymore, particularly network TV, I didn't realize Falk kept playing the part: 24 times since the show was originally canceled in 1978; into the 21st century. It kept going and going. Just when you thought that was the end of it he'd turn around and tell the audience, “Just one more thing...”

Not a bad line to carry with you. Rest in peace, Lt.

Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo

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Posted at 08:18 PM on Jun 24, 2011 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Quote of the Day

“In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And [Michele] Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.”

--Matt Taibbi, “Michele Bachmann's Holy War,” in the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine

No tagsPosted at 06:29 AM on Jun 24, 2011 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  
Tuesday June 21, 2011

What's Been Posted on Roger Ebert's Facebook Page to Show Him How Insensitive He Is

Here's what Roger Ebert tweeted about “Jackass” star Ryan Dunn, who died in a car accident Sunday night following several drinks (6? More?) at a local bar:

  • Friends don't let Jackasses drink and drive.

Here's a small portion of what those who objected to Ebert's insenstive remarks posted on his Facebook page today:

  • Freak
  • douchebag
  • Show some respect... you know he has a family... you pinochio looking jerk wad
  • Enjoy ur cancer. I hope someone makes fun of you when you die.
  • Roger I hope you read all these posts on your wall so u can realize how much o an insensitive jerk you are. U are a terrible critic and u should go to hell.
  • How can you have a soul when you side with death over somebody's life. He put joy and laughter in the hearts of millions and millions of people since Jackass began.
  • All you insensitive pricks getting off on bashing somebody that tragically died will burn in hell. There is a special place in hell for you people.
  • I figured it out, Roger Ebert has no emotions because he is a robot. Robots have no emotions. Fear the robot dickwad revolution.
  • who is this roger guy? i read bams tweet about him! if bam catches him his gonna knock him out i say. ryan dunn was epic :D toy car & a condom need i say more.
  • it took such courage to shit all over the recently deceased. anyone could have said what you did. they just chose not to. you are not insightful but ignorant you smug prick
  • Roger Ebert is a dried up old has been. Siskel is not here to pack him anymore. The most pathetic thing, is that he is using Ryan Dunn's death like a defibrillator. He is using the death of someone popular to try and jumpstart his dead career.
  • I agree with Mr.Ebert. In addition, I believe Ebert should speak at Mr.Dunn's funeral to highlight the dangers of drunk driving....oh wait EBERT CAN'T SPEAK. Have fun with that cancer, fatty.
  • Dude u need to fuckin grow up u got fuckin probs making fun a ryan dying fuck u! u need to fucking grow up and stop making fun a peoples death! your fucking sick SO GROW UP AND GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF UR FUCKING ASS! U STUPID FUCK! POINT BLANK ENUFF SAID!

A small portion, as I said. Five minutes worth.

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Posted at 12:18 PM on Jun 21, 2011 in category Culture   |   Permalink  

A Short History of Alien Invasion Movies—The Fifth Wave: Post-9/11

Read the intro here, the first wave (red scare) here, the second wave (gods and lost children) here, the third wave (camp) here, the fourth wave (bad muthas) here ...

9/11 changed everything but the immediate reaction from Hollywood was muted. Invasions, when they came, came small and dark. In “Dreamcatcher,” the invasion is limited to the Maine woods, in “Alien vs. Predator,” the alien (and the predator) never get out of Antarctica. The all-out invasion in “Signs” is as surreptitious as a Bigfoot sighting. Are they there? Is that really them? Even when Steven Spielberg—of all directors—made his grainy remake of “The War of the Worlds,” it felt less than global. What a shock, at the end, to find Boston neighborhoods untouched.

Or did 9/11 change anything? The same battles rage as raged before. Do aliens have more to fear from us (“District 9”) or we from them (“Skyline”)? The camp component hasn’t died (“Cowboys vs. Aliens”). Lost children still arrive, though they’re hardly children anymore (“Super 8”). Metaphors abound: aliens as advanced weaponry (“Transformers”), as an oppressed minority (“District 9”), as the U.S. in Iraq (“Battle: Los Angeles”).

Alien invasion movies really turn on the most basic of human reactions: How do you greet a stranger? With a smile or a frown? With an open hand or a closed one? Whatever our response, it’s often a corollary to the Golden Rule: We expect others to treat us as we treat them. Which is why the scientists in these films tend to be curious while the military men are combative.

History, sadly, would seem to side with the military men. A technologically advanced race showing up one day and slowly wiping out the inhabitants? That’s the story of America. Even in our most paranoid moments—in the 1950s, in the 2000s—we are still what we fear.

Poster for "Signs" (2002)  Poster for "District 9" (2009)  Poster for "Super 8" (2011) 

--Erik Lundegaard is here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. But he’s got lots of bubblegum. He can be reached at

--This piece was originally published, in slightly different form, on

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Posted at 06:16 AM on Jun 21, 2011 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Monday June 20, 2011

Al Qaeda's New Leader

“In [Ayman al-]Zawahiri's hands, al-Jihad had splintered into angry and homeless gangs. ... His disillusioned followers often reflected on the pronouncement, made during the prison years by the man Zawahiri betrayed, Major Essam al-Qamari, that some vital quality was missing in Zawahiri. Qamari was the one who had told him, 'If you are the member of any group, you cannot be the leader.' that now sounded like a prophecy.”

Book cover for Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11"—from page 246 of Lawrence Wright's much-recommended book, “The Looming Tower,” on one of the low points for Ayman al-Zawahri, the former leader of al-Jihad, and current leader of al-Qaeda. The Christian Science Monitor agrees about his lack of charisma.

This Wright paragraph, by the way, follows a horrific story of Egyptian intelligence drugging and sodomizing the thirteen-year-old son of a senior member of al-Jihad, then blackmailing him to spy on his father, then recruiting another boy, a friend, for the same purpose. When the two boys were discovered, Zawahiri convened a Sharia court, forced the boys to strip to determine if they had attained puberty, and, since they had, and so were officially men, had them convicted of sodomy, treason and attempted murder. “Zawahiri had the boys shot,” Wright writes. “To make sure he got his point across, he videotaped their confessions and their executions, and distributed the tapes as an example to others who might betray the organization.”

No tagsPosted at 07:31 PM on Jun 20, 2011 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Movie Review: Super 8 (2011)


The problem with making a Spielbergian movie is that it gets compared to Steven Spielberg’s movies.

J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” is a total homage. It’s set in 1979, when Spielberg was at the height of his powers. The main character, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), is a sensitive boy who loses his mother as the movie begins, so the single-parent component is in place. He and his friends tool around on Huffy bikes, a la Elliott and his friends, and they encounter an extra-terrestrial that has crashlanded on earth, attacks humans as viciously as a shark, and just wants to go home. It’s “Close Encounters,” “Jaws,” and “E.T.,” all rolled into one.

Poster for "Super 8" (2011)But the magic isn’t there. We get magical components, but they’re just not connected properly.

No shit, Sherlock
Example. The movie is called “Super 8” because a bunch of kids in Lily, Ohio are making an amateur zombie flick with an 8 millimeter camera for a local filmmaking contest, and while they’re filming a scene at a train station, one of their teachers, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman, Mayor Royce on “The Wire”), drives his pick-up truck onto the tracks and into the way of a high-speed train. A massive train wreck results, the kids flee, but the camera, dropped on the platform, keeps filming.

What it films is the key to everything that happens from then on.

Cool! So when does this super 8 film come into play?

Oh, at the 11th hour, when the entire town’s already been evacuated, when we’ve already had a half-dozen glimpses of the alien that escaped the train wreck, and when Joe’s father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) has been imprisoned by the U.S. military for asking too many questions. And even then it only serves to convince one man, Deputy Lamb himself, that what he’s pursuing, what the Air Force is hiding, is an alien that escaped the train wreck. And it does this off camera.

Or take two scenes. Joe’s dog, Lucy, whom we’ve barely seen, goes missing, and Joe puts up a MISSING DOG sign on a community bulletin board. Then he steps back, the camera pulls back, and we see the entire bulletin board is filled with MISSING DOG signs. Spooky.

Later, Deputy Lamb is told by another police officer that Lucy has been found in another county. That’s true of all the dogs that have gone missing. He’s then handed a map with markers where all the missing dogs have turned up. Their town, in the center, is completely blank. Spooky.

The problem? Both of these scenes take place after we’ve seen one, possibly two attacks by the alien, which is a shadowy figure here, but which we know to be huge, powerful, fast, arachnid. (Super 8 legs, as it were.) We’ve seen a pack of dogs flee from its approach. We’ve seen it lift a cop car in the air and drag a gas station clerk from a mini-mart. Thus the community bulletin board scene, and the scene with the map, which should be spooky moments, are really “No shit, Sherlock” moments. We’re given circumstantial evidence when we’ve already witnessed first contact.

Why didn’t Abrams combine the two “missing dogs” scenes and place them before the attack on the Sheriff? Lucy goes missing, we see the bulletin board, and instead of Joe doing nothing with this information (as in the movie), he goes to his father, from whom he’s estranged, and tries to tell him. But Jackson’s distracted, and he knows his son to be foolish and frivolous, so he doesn’t pay attention. Which is when the other police officer brings him the map. And Jackson looks at his son with something like respect, beginning the bond that will adhere by the end of the film, then back at the map with increasing concern.

Then you can go gas station, Maybe. It still might be too early for the reveal. 

That’s one thing Steven Spielberg knew: When to hide the alien/monster and when to reveal it. I’m not sure Abrams has that talent.

The kids in the movie are alright: Cary (Ryan Lee), the buck-toothed, braces-wearing, pyro kid; Martin (Gabriel Basso), the dull, tall kid cast as the adult in the film because he’s the dull, tall kid; and the fat, bossy director, Charles (Riley Griffiths), who’s the best friend of Joe, and who convinces Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the pretty girl in class, to join his cast to add “an emotional element.” Joe lights up around her in a way that’s pretty adorable, and their conversations together, or, even better, their silences, are also pretty adorable: sweet scenes of first love. That’s what Abrams gets right. He takes you back to a time when that other person could make you tingly with her mere presence.

The movie opens with a great visual shorthand: the local plant, where “Safety is our primary goal,” switching its “Days since last accident” sign to “1”: Joe’s mother. She was filling in for Alice’s father, Louis Dainard, a long-haired hot-rodder, and alcoholic, who’s already had several run-ins with Deputy Lamb, and the fact that he can’t make it to work this day, and Joe’s mother fills in for him and dies, seals the deal. Each man reminds the other of the tragedy. Each can’t abide the other. So as Joe and Alice get close, both parents, like modern-day Montagues and Capulets, warn their kid about the other kid; both warn the other kid to stay away.

I’m fine with all this. But when Joe finally argues back against his father, did he have to be so ... adult about it? There’s a vast unfairness in his father’s demands that would send any normal teenager into paroxysms of whining, but Joe responds as firmly and articulately as Gore Vidal arguing with William Buckley on “Firing Line.” He’s more adult than I’ve been in any argument in my life.

Eventually, after Alice’s final falling out with her father, she’s taken by the alien, and Joe and friends outmaneuver the U.S. military to rescue her. Meanwhile, Deputy Lamb and Louis Dainard band together to find their kids.

Then Abrams does two things I hate.

Unburden away
In the cab of the car, as Lamb and Dainard search the evacuated town for their kids and the alien monster, the two men reconcile. Dainard owns up and apologizes for missing that day of work; then the camera closes in on Lamb, who tells him, “It was an accident,” a thought which, a second later, he repeats with greater conviction. “It was an accident.” Yeeeeesh. Just once in these types of movies, when one character tries to resolve a personal issue (a subplot) amidst a life-threatening, hugely momentous drama (the main plot), I’d like the other character to say, “Can you fucking concentrate? We’re trying to find our kids here! Before an alien monster kills them!”

That’s the first thing. Here’s the second thing.

The alien, it turns out, is subterranean, so Joe, smart lad, figures out he’s living underground, and finds a massive hole in the garage of a home near the cemetery where his mother is buried. He and Cary rappel down into it and find the alien working on alien technology, while its various kidnapped humans, including the Sheriff and Alice, hang upside-down like slabs of meat. Cary distracts the alien with an incendiary device, allowing Joe to scurry forth, release Alice, and breathlessly check to see if she’s alive. She is! She begins to breathe! Her eyelids flutter open! And she hugs him. (Awww.) And they have a heart-to-heart in the middle of the alien’s lair. (Huh?) With the alien seconds from returning, they unburden themselves emotionally, because surely this is the time and place to do it. Surely we would all do the same in their place. None of us would try to get ourselves and the others the hell out of there. It’s just the lair of an arachnid alien with superspeed and strength and intelligence who eats people. Unburden away.

To be honest I don’t remember much about the final 10 minutes of the movie. Joe and Alice begin to escape with the Sheriff and the others, but then the alien returns and picks up Joe and stares at him malevolently. And Joe, used to malevolent stares, calmly communicates with the alien. He uses his own tragedy, about losing his mother, to speak to the alien’s, about crashlanding on Earth and being incarcerated and experimented upon for 20 years. “We understand,” he says. The alien’s face, like a tiki god face, considers this and puts Joe down. With that issue finally resolved, the alien’s equipment begins to float away. The train wreck also released hundreds, maybe thousands of dimpled cubes, which twitch like Mexican jumping beans, and these cubes now gravitate toward the water tower where they assemble themselves into a spaceship, which the alien climbs into. The spaceship is supermagnetized and all metals are pulled towards it, including cars, and including the locket, with his mother’s picture in it, that Joe has clung to throughout the movie. Joe holds onto this locket for a beat, two, three, before deciding, no, and letting it go, a symbolic gesture for letting the past go. Even though we’ve never gotten the sense that the past is weighing him down, and even though his mother has been dead only, what, five months now, still, it’s the end of the movie, and we need this meaningless symbolic gesture. And Abrams gives it to us.

Which is odd, since he can’t even let go of his movie past.

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Posted at 07:00 AM on Jun 20, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011   |   Permalink  
Sunday June 19, 2011

Hollywood B.O.: Green Lantern Lacks Green

“Green Lantern” grossed $52 million over the weekend, the sixth-best opening weekend of the year, but the lowest of the summer superhero films. “Thor” opened at $65 million in early May and “X-Men: First Class” opened at $55 million in early June.

More worrisome for Warner Bros. is the dropoff from Friday to Saturday: -22%, compared to -8% for “Thor” and -7% for “XMFC.” It's the worst Friday-to-Saturday dropoff of the year (for wide-release films), and the 27th-worst of all time (or at least on box office mojo's charts). Green Lantern #5True, this kind of Friday-to-Saturday dropoff can occur with big-buzz movies (“The Dark Knight”: -29%), or with films that appeal to an intense but narrow demographic, such as horror (three of the “Saw” films are on this list), or the “Twilight” franchise (two of the “Twilight”s are near the top of the list). But it can also indicate bad word-of-mouth. Another film that dropped -22%? “Sex and the City 2.”

“Mr. Popper's Penguins” opened less well, at $18 million.

Among the returning wide releases, “Bridesmaids” again fell off at a fraction of the rate of the others: -25%. It's now grossed $136 million.

The shocker, for me anyway, is seeing how well Woody Allen's “Midnight in Paris” is doing. Its widest release is just over 1,000 theaters yet after another $5 million weekend its domestic total stands at $21.8 million. That's already sixth-best among unadjusted Woody Allen films, and less than $2 million away from passing both “Match Point” ($23.1) and “Vicki Cristina Barcelona” ($23.2) in the battle of Woody's Western European locales. The 3,2, 1 slots for the Woodman, for those intereested, are “Annie Hall” ($38m), “Manhattan” ($39m) and “Hannah and Her Sisters” ($40m). Adjust for inflation, and it's “Annie Hall” by a nose over “Manhattan”: $134m to $125m.

The not-so-green totals here.

No tagsPosted at 06:29 PM on Jun 19, 2011 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  

Sorry, Sports Fans: LeBron James Is Telling the Truth ... a Truth I Told 16 Years Ago

LeBron James wasn't wrong with his post-game comments about fans who rooted against him and the Miami Heat in their NBA Finals with the Dallas Mavericks. He may have been talking from a position of wealth and privilege, not to mention spite, but he wasn't wrong. Not nearly.

Here's what he said about all of those anti-Heat, anti-LeBron James fans:

They have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today ... They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal, but they have to get back to the real world at some point.

His words startled me when I read them. Not because they seemed spiteful but because they echoed, almost exactly, something I wrote 16 years ago

In May 1995 I was at the Kingdome when Ken Griffey, Jr., our young superstar, flew into the right-centerfield wall and fractured his wrist making a great catch against the Baltimore Orioles. He would be on the Disabled List for three months, maybe more. We were worried in Seattle. I was worried. So I wrote an Op-Ed for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer about Junior, which began with the following:

I returned to baseball four years ago with what I thought was an adult attitude about the game. No matter if my team won or lost I kept things in perspective. Randy Johnson strikes out fifteen guys, I'm still working the same job. Edgar Martinez injures his ankle, I've still got the same problems, the same goals, the same friends, the same enemies. Nothing about my life has changed except this or that vicarious victory or defeat.

James' comments, which echo my own, angered sports fans and columnists around the country. Jason Reid of The Washington Post wrote that “James put his foot in his mouth again ... essentially saying his approach wouldn’t change and all the people who rooted against him were stuck with their depressing little lives.” Abram Lufrano of Bleacher Reporter wrotes that James was essentially saying the following: “I am LeBron James and I have a better life than all of you losers.” James even had to walk back his comments from these interpretations. He had to say he wasn't talking from a position of superiority.

Who knows? But it doesn't surprise me that James' comments caused such a furor. He was not only telling the truth, he was digging past the cliches and the rhetoric and the lies to articulate the central truth of modern sports. The lie that covers up this truth, though—that it somehow matters to us if the Mavs win, or, to me, if the Yankees lose—is what allows him to live the way he does. In the end, I thought it rather brave of him to bring it up at all.

Lebron James, on court  Me, last May, at Safeco Field, giving the camera a fist-bump because the Mariners were leading

LeBron (left , a professional athlete) got in trouble for the same remarks that I (right, a sports fan) wrote 16 years ago.

Posted at 10:45 AM on Jun 19, 2011 in category Sports   |   Permalink  

A Short History of Alien Invasion Movies—The Fourth Wave: Bad Muthas, a Reaction to the Second Wave

Read the intro here, the first wave (Red Scare) here, the second wave (gods and lost children) here, the third wave (camp) here...

All this time, evil aliens never completely went away. We got good re-makes of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in 1978, and “The Thing” in 1981. On TV, “V” introduced the concept that malevolent aliens might not be monolithic; that within an invading army there might be an underground movement, a White Rose, trying to help humans. “Alien Nation” picked up on this possible complexity as well.

poster for "Independence Day" (1996)So what the hell happened in 1996? Was it the first WTC attack? The popularity of “X-Files”? Because suddenly that complexity disappeared and we got three all-out alien assaults on our planet: the aforementioned dark giddiness of “Mar Attacks!”; Charlie Sheen’s paranoid thriller, “The Arrival”; and the biggest and baddest of them all...

“Independence Day” was less a return to paranoid 1950s movies than a reactionary response to the Pollyanna vision of Spielberg. Those awe-struck people at Devil’s Tower playing their five-note song of greeting in “Close Encounters”? They’re the first to get fried in “I.D.” Even the plaque the Apollo 11 astronauts left on the moon, and signed by Pres. Richard Nixon, of all presidents, is called into question. It’s shown at the beginning of the film and reads: “Here men from the Planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.” Then the dark shadow of an invading alien army falls upon it. In peace. Saps! Hippies!

Look at the way one phrase is uttered. In “Starman,” Charles Martin Smith views the clean room where our government plans to dissect Jeff Bridges and shakes his head sadly. “Welcome to Earth,” he says. Bummer, dude. In “Independence Day,” Will Smith shoots down an evil alien ship, the first indication that we can take them down, runs over to it and cold-cocks the slimy thing inside. “Welcome to Earth,” he says, then sits down and lights a triumphant cigar. Wooooo! We rock!

That’s ultimately what “Independence Day” offered us: Less Bummer, dude and more We rock!

No tagsPosted at 06:30 AM on Jun 19, 2011 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Saturday June 18, 2011

A Short History of Alien Invasion Movies—The Third Wave: Camp, a Reaction to the First Wave

Read the intro here, the first wave (Red Scare) here, the second wave (gods and lost children) here...

Detente between the U.S. and Soviet Union may have ended with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, but “evil empire” rhetoric never really translated into paranoia on our screens. If anything, alien invasion movies became jokey and campy, mocking their 1950s predecessors with titles like “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” and “Earth Girls are Easy.” In John Carpenter’s “They Live,” the aliens are actually Reagan-era yuppies making money off of trickle-down economics. That’s why the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The rich are aliens; the poor are you.

The jokes continued throughout the 1990s but weren’t particularly funny or representative. “Mars Attacks!” was based upon 1960s trading cards and reflected, more than our odd times, Tim Burton’s odd sensibility. “What Planet Are You From?” is one-note: how men and women seem alien to each other. “Evolution”? A good idea—single-celled alien life-forms grow exponentially until they threaten all human life—but the tone is spectacularly off. Even before the 2001 anthrax scare, who thought experimenting on U.S. soldiers with anthrax was funny?

The best and most representative of these comedies is “Men in Black,” in which, yes, aliens are here and queer, but this time they’re celebrities. Movie aliens, after all, tend to represent what we fear and can’t explain. In the 1950s it was Nikita Khrushchev. In the 2000s, Michael Jackson.

"They Live" (1988)    "Mars Attacks" (1996)    "Men in Black" (1997)

No tagsPosted at 04:25 PM on Jun 18, 2011 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Movie Review: Green Lantern (2011)


I recently interviewed an attorney who talked about the seven-second rule: When meeting someone, we really only have seven seconds to make the right impression.

With that in mind, here is the opening narration for the new $200 million superhero film “Green Lantern”:

Billions of years ago, a group of immortals harnessed the most powerful force in existence: the emerald energy of willpower. These immortals, the guardians of the universe, built a world from where they could watch over all of existence: the planet Oa. A ring powered by the energy of will was sent to every sector of the universe to select or recruit. In order to be chosen by the ring, one had to be without fear. Together these recruits formed the intergalactic peacekeepers known as the Green Lantern Corps...

Let’s break that down, shall we?

  • Billions of years ago...: During “Thor,” a transitional cue (“Where did he come from?”) led to the caption: “A thousand years ago,” and I burst out laughing. Now it’s billions of years ago? Apparently a billion wasn’t enough and a trillion seemed too much...
  • ...a group of immortals harnessed the most powerful force in existence: the emerald energy of willpower: That sounds vaguely Third Reich-y. Or at least G. Gordon Liddy-y.
  • These immortals, the guardians of the universe, built a world from where they could watch over all of existence: the planet Oa: Why would immortal universe guardians need to create a world? Didn’t they have their own? Or did they need something more, I don’t know, in the center of existence to better watch over all of existence? And how did they come up with the name “Oa”? Noah without the nuh? Shoah without the shuh? A compromise between O and A?
  • A ring powered by the energy of will was sent to every sector of the universe to select or recruit: Does this mean sentient beings in every sector of the universe have fingers? Or can one use another part of the anatomy? Man, a porno version of this movie is just dying to be made.
  • In order to be chosen by the ring, one had to be without fear. Psychotics welcome.

And there went Warner Bros.’s seven seconds.

Movie poster for "Green Lantern" (2011)This is the summer of second- and third-tier superheroes: Thor, prequel X-Men, Rainn Wilson. Now this. I could never understand anyone’s excitement over the Green Lantern. Even when I was a kid, he was a marginal figure in my DC Universe: not as cool as the Green Arrow, who was essentially a ripoff of Robin Hood, nor even the Green Hornet, who at least had a cool hat, car, sidekick. Green Lantern had a cool oath (“In brightest day, in blackest night ...”), but I could never wrap my mind around his powers. They were both marginal, because they weren’t his (they were the ring’s), and all-encompassing, since the ring could create anything to defeat the bad guys. Unfortunately, the Green Lantern, creatively challenged, usually imagined giant green versions of the following: a hammer, a saw, a broom. He patrolled the universe but his mind couldn’t get out of his local hardware store.

So what do you do this character? This is what screenwriters Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg, director Martin Campbell, and all the good folks at Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment, did: They doubled-down on dumb.

I mean, as bad as this opening narrative is, it’s worse. Because it’s full of lies.

It turns out one doesn’t have to be without fear to be chosen by the ring. And there is a force more powerful than will: fear itself.

Long ago, one guardian decided to experiment with fear and all of its wonderful yellowness (our color metaphoriticians were right!) and got consumed by it. In the process he created the intergalactic cloud monster Parallax. Which a member of the Green Lantern Corps, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), defeated and imprisoned on a faraway planet. Which was eventually explored by alien space travelers, who woke up Parallax. And Parallex consumed their fear and made its way out into the universe again, intent on revenge. Before we know it, Abin Sur is dead and Parallax has consumed worlds.

And what are the guardians of the universe doing during this time? Just hanging.

OK, so what do the Green Lantern Corps do to stop Parallax?

They hold a rally on Oa presided over by the purple, moustached, fussbudgety Green Lantern, Sinestro (Mark Strong), who speaks of willpower, after which all the Green Lanterns cheer and shoot their green beams into space and then shoot off into space themselves to take down Parallax. Yay! But they’re quickly defeated. Awww. And doubt fills Sinestro’s eyes. Booo. What happened to his willpower? That dissipated pretty quickly. And how does he survive Parallax? Did he retreat? Did he...?

Right. Back to our Green Lantern: Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds).

When Abin Sur was defeated by Parallax, you see, he managed to escape to the nearest planet, Earth, and, dying, he tells his ring to find someone worthy. The ring chooses Hal Jordan, who sleeps around, is late and irresponsible, and has daddy issues and possibly a death wish. His father was a test pilot but young Hal saw him blow up before his eyes. Now he’s a test pilot. We first see him going up against some high-tech, pilotless planes, and, after abandoning his wingman, former f-buddy Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), he takes the planes where he and they can’t survive, more than 50,000 feet straight up. Sure enough, they short-circuit and drop. So does he. But he shoots them down. He wins. Unfortunately, as he’s trying to regain control of his plane, he keeps flashing back to Daddy Dearest (“You’re not scared, are ya, Dad?” “Let’s just say it’s my job not to be.”), and is forced to bail out.

Watching this, I assumed that Daddy flashbacks would play out during the climactic battle with Parallax. Nope. He never has another one.

I also assumed he was a test pilot with the U.S. Air Force. Nope again. That’s private industry, Ferris Industries, and young, hot Carol, hotshot testpilot, is about to become its new CEO, taking over from her Daddy Dearest. Seems there’s nothing that a twentysomething girl can’t do.

Meanwhile, there’s a third Daddy Dearest, U.S. Sen. Hammond (Tim Robbins), who shows up all artificial smiles and handshakes at the test run. Later, we see a balding nerdlinger, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), who is pulled from his late-night meal and online chess match by some FBI types, who take him to a lab, where, damn, there’s a purple alien just waiting to be dissected! “Why choose me?” he asks Dr. Amanda Waller (Angela Bassett), the ranking physician. Days later, the other shoe drops. Right. Dad. U.S. Senator. Forgot.

Question: Do Senate subcommittees really have that much pull? The most momentous scientific moment of a millennia and they’ll let just anyone muck around with it? During the dissection, of course, a bit of yellow gets on Hector and slowly turns him into a mini Parallax, with yellow eyes and a big throbbing head.

Meanwhile, Hal Jordan, now Green Lantern, travels to Oa for what amounts to basic training. He’s told, “Your will turns thought into reality.” He’s told, “The ring creates only what you can imagine.” Leaving one to wonder: So why doesn’t the ring choose someone with imagination?

GL is doing OK with his drill instructor, Kilowog (voice of Michael Clark Duncan), who, despite all the possibilities in the universe, talks and acts exactly like a PG-13 version of a Marine drill instructor, when Sinestro arrives. He says he will tolerate no weak links. He says Abin Sur was a great warrior and Hal Jordan insults his memory by wearing his ring. “You reek of fear, Hal Jordan,” he says. Then he leaves. Hal Jordan is a puddle by now. He returns to his apartment on Earth, takes off the ring, looks forlornly at his dad’s flight jacket. He couldn’t live up to his father’s memory. Now he has to live up to someone else’s?

Meanwhile, Hector grows more powerful and deformed; then he kills his father and moons after Carol Ferris.

Meanwhile the movie tries to glom off better DC products by revisiting the balcony scene from “Superman: The Movie,” and cadging a few soundtrack notes from same.

Meanwhile, during one GL/Hector battle, Parallax, in space, has its eyes opened (yes, it has a face), and veers toward Earth for the climactic battle with the drummed-out Green Lantern, who, in the interim, has figured out his strength is in admitting his fear, not pretending he doesn’t have any, and who finally defeats Parallax with a move similar to the move at the beginning: He flies close to the sun and Parallax is pulled in by its gravitation. GL would be, too, but there’s Sinestro and the other members of the Corps, finally, who create green bands to pull him to safety. For all the talk of the unity of the Corps, then, for all the bund rallies on Oa, it’s back to one dude who admits weakness, shows perseverance, and comes up with a daring maneuver. Our movies, like the ring’s creations, are limited only by our imaginations, which appear to be limited.

Let’s break this down for a second. The movie tells us that the Green Lantern Corps is made up of warriors without fear. Hal Jordan, a fairly fearless test pilot, is chosen to be a Green Lantern but is condemned for having too much fear. But somehow owning up to his fear makes him stronger and he defeats the fear-eating monster, which the fearless Green Lanterns couldn't defeat, by acting fearless.

A bit of a mixed message.

Worse, the movie gives us the billion-year-old Green Lantern Corps, the entire basis of the Green Lantern character, only to show us that it’s ... wrong. All that BS on Oa. Oa itself. Those worthless “guardians.” Not just boring. Wrong.

“Green Lantern” isn't exactly evil, but you should still let it escape your sight.

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Posted at 10:04 AM on Jun 18, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011   |   Permalink  
Friday June 17, 2011

A Short History of Alien Invasion Movies—The Second Wave: Gods and Lost Children

Read the intro here and the first wave (Red Scare) here...

Just as quickly as they appeared, alien invasion movies—poof!—vanished from our screens. Except for a few low-budget crapfests (“Santa Claus vs. the Martians”), we didn’t hear from them throughout the 1960s. A great sociological study could be made of this gap. Did we become less paranoid of outsiders? Did we become more fascinated with our own star treks (Mercury, Apollo, U.S.S. Enterprise) to be concerned with the treks of others here?

Moreover, when aliens did return to earth in the 1970s, during an era of U.S.-Soviet detente, they were almost entirely benevolent. It’s a jolt watching “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) after these paranoid ‘50s films, because at no point does anyone in Spielberg’s movie worry that the aliens might be less than kind. Sure, they kidnap our air-force pilots and small children. But look at the lights! Look at the pretty lights!

Original poster for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977)  Poster for "E.T." (1982)

Spielberg's two films, on gods and lost children, remade the alien invasion movie.

The benevolent aliens from this period can be divided into two groups: the crash-landers (“The Man Who Fell to Earth” ( 1976), “E.T.” (1982), and “Starman” (1984)), and the gods (“Close Encounters,” “Cocoon,” (1985), and “Contact” (1997)).

The crash-landers are essentially lost children who, like children everywhere, want to go home and watch TV. The man who fell to earth (David Bowie) winds up a kind of Howard Hughes/Elvis figure, so his bank of T.V. sets is pejorative, representing the cacophony of our culture, while E.T. and Starman, sublimating the tastes of their directors, wind up watching famous kissing scenes in old Hollywood films—“The Quiet Man” and “From Here to Eternity,” respectively—which teach each alien about love. Awwww. Thank God “A Clockwork Orange” wasn’t on.

So if the aliens are benevolent, who are the bad guys in these pictures? Generally, the U.S. military. Even when the government has a friendly face (Peter Coyote, Charles Martin Smith), the aliens are still hunted down. Captivity is imminent; dissection is implied. Go, E.T., go! Run, Starman, run!

Maybe this is the reason those other aliens, the gods, rarely land. They simply hover in their big, bright ships and grant the stars of the picture what they need: Richard Dreyfuss a purpose, Don Ameche youth, Jodie Foster a father. Awe accompanies their appearance. In their presence, we are the children, once lost, now found.

Movie poster for "Starman" (1984)  Movie poster for "Contact" (1997)

While the earlier movie posters drew you in with the unknown quality of the stars, these later posters draw you in with the known quality of movie stars. They also echo their predecessors. “Starman”'s tagline (“He is 100,000 years head of us”) echoes “E.T.”'s (“He is 3 million light years from home”), while the title of “Contact” is the final line of “Close Encounters”'s tagline.

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Posted at 07:50 AM on Jun 17, 2011 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Thursday June 16, 2011

Quote of the Day

“You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn't black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing.

”You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, fuck it, I don't care what you think. I'm trying to do the right thing.

“I'm tired of Republican-Democrat politics. They can take the job and shove it. I come from a blue-collar background. I'm trying to do the right thing, and that's where I'm going with this.”

--State Sen. Roy McDonald (R-Saratoga), in The New York Daily News, on why he'll vote to legalize gay marriage in New York.

Posted at 04:15 PM on Jun 16, 2011 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

A Short History of Alien Invasion Movies: The First Wave: Red Scare

Intro here.

Poster for "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951)The biggest wave of alien invasion movies occurred between the rise of Joe McCarthy in 1950 and the launching of Sputnik and the space race in 1957. Politically, things were paranoid and repressive; yet while these films certainly play upon our anti-communist paranoias they rarely buy into them. In “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) for example, Mrs. Barley (Frances Bavier—Aunt Bee from “The Andy Griffith Show”) looks the fool when she says the flying saucer that landed in President’s Park is Soviet-made.

Poster for "Invaders from Mars" (1953)The aliens, in fact, seem to worry more about us than we do about them. To Klaatu, the Christ-figure of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Earth is the Mideast of the galaxy: a trouble-spot that threatens to wreak havoc beyond its borders. In the surrealistic “Invaders from Mars” (1953) aliens are afraid what will happen when we take atomic energy into space. In “It Came from Outer Space” (1953) aliens crash-land, adopt human identities and try to buy hardware supplies to get the hell away again. “Why don’t they come out in the open?” a cop asks the film’s protagonist, John Putnam (John Carlson), a star-gazing writer. “Because what we don’t understand, we want to destroy,” Putnam responds in what amounts to the film’s lesson.

Poster for "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" (1956)Sure, most of these movies are dated. That’s part of the fun: the hokey rubber masks, the strange pronunciations (“MUTE-ants”), the convoluted nomenclature (“an indefinitely indexed memory bank” for “computer”), the fact that every other protagonist is a pipe-smoking scientist. But there are joys beyond the ironic. “The Thing from Another World” (1951) has smart dialogue (“We split the atom.” “Yeah, and that made the world happy, didn’t it?”), while Ray Harryhausen’s special effects in “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” (1956) are light years ahead of its time. Of course, Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) is a classic, in which the movie’s set-up, neighbors turning overnight into emotionless vegetables, can be seen as a metaphor for Soviet communism or U.S. conformity or the Hollywood blacklist.

Poster for "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956)Even the crappiest of these movies have moments that inform our own time. In “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,” when the pipe-smoking scientist wonders why the aliens, with their superior technology, don’t just take over, the alien responds:

“Despite our power, the few of us would be busy indefinitely trying to suppress a large, hostile population. In the end, we would be masters of a wrecked and hungry planet.”

Aliens are rarely just aliens.

No tagsPosted at 08:21 AM on Jun 16, 2011 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Wednesday June 15, 2011

A Short History of Alien Invasion Movies: Intro

I first wrote about this in 2007. In the wake of “Super 8,” it feels worth revisiting...

Most are humanoid and hairless, with oversized heads, nostrils for noses, and long thin necks—although one species has a single, three-colored eye and suction-tipped hands (1953’s “The War of the Worlds”), while another, poor thing, is forced to plod along with a space helmet atop a gorilla’s body (“Robot Monster”).

Most are here to take over—don’t kid yourselves—but some are benevolent voyeurs (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), while others simply need a place to hang (“Men in Black”).

Some are defeated by bacteria (“The War of the Worlds”), others are averse to cold or water (“The Arrival”; “Signs”), while one species, in a much-mocked incident, could travel the galaxy but couldn't deal with a simple computer virus (“Independence Day”).

They are aliens who come to earth, and the type we get tends to coincide with our current feelings about foreigners: benevolent aliens during times of peace, ferocious aliens during periods of xenophobia.

Just look at the granddaddy of alien invasion stories: H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” It was first published during the saber-rattling before World War I. A generation later, as the world braced for World War II, a radio adaptation by Orson Welles panicked east-coast listeners. The first film adaptation appeared during the panicky McCarthy years, the second during the paranoia following 9/11.

Consider the first paragraph of Wells’ novella. I’ve added a century and shifted the focus from “this world” to “this country.” Here’s what you get:

“No one would have believed in the last years of the 20th century that this country was being watched...With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this country about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter... Yet across the gulf, [other minds] regarded this country with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the 21st century came the great disillusionment.”

Aliens are rarely just aliens.

Tomorrow: The first wave: Red scare

poster for "War of the Worlds" (1953)

No tagsPosted at 09:20 AM on Jun 15, 2011 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Tuesday June 14, 2011

M's Game Report: Lesser Angels Still Win

There goes my perfect record.

The Mariners, 4-0 in my previous appearances at Safeco Field—against, chronlogically, the Blue Jays, Rangers, Twins and Yankees—lost last night to the Los Angeles Angels, 6-3. It was less the Angels winning than the odds winning. I didn't think I'd see four wins all year, let alone to start the season.

Mariners logoIt was also less the Angels winning than the Mariners losing. M's were up 2-1 in the 3rd, with two outs, when Vernon Wells stepped to the plate against Jason Vargas. “Scoiscia's got Wells batting clean-up?” I said to my friend, Jeff. “Dude's batting .180-something.” A second later Wells hit it out to tie the game. M's go up 3-2 but in the 7th, the Angels get a leadoff double and a ground out to move the runner, and Torii Hunter, who's batting second despite having the lowest batting average on the team (what's Scioscia doing? I wondered), grounds to Chone Figgins at third. The throw to the plate arrives in plenty of time to preserve our lead. Except--no!--there goes the white ball, squiggling loose between catcher Miguel Olivo's legs. Tie game. An out later, which, if Olivo had held on, should've ended the inning, Vernon Wells again steps to the plate. “I still say he shouldn't be hitting clean-up,” I tell Jeff. A second later, homerun no. 2. Angels add another run in the 9th on a two-out balk, two-out single off of Chris Ray and that's your ballgame.

On the other hand, when was the last time I saw anyone hit two homeruns in one game at Safeco? Years.

The attendance was recorded as 20,238, but it was half that, if that. The area around Safeco feels increasingly abandoned, sketchy, and desperate, as more people fight over less people.

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Posted at 08:29 AM on Jun 14, 2011 in category Seattle Mariners   |   Permalink  
Monday June 13, 2011

Facebook Dialogue of the Day

Yankees SuckRoss: Face it, every Derek Jeter hit from now until the end of his career will be a major production.
Me: I think it‘ll die down after 3,000. Besides, even NY can only get so excited about singles...
Ross: They’re not just singles, they‘re LEADERSHIP.

—Back and forth between me and fellow editor Ross Pfund after I posted a link to Roger Angell’s New Yorker article on Jeter and 3,000 hits. (Read all the way through for a great quote from Lou Brock...)

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Posted at 06:10 PM on Jun 13, 2011 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Hollywood B.O.: Bridesmaids Always a Bridesmaid But Manhandling Competition

“Bridesmaids” has always been a bridesmaid; it has never hit no. 1 on the weekend box office charts. But it is in the process of manhandling a bunch of the He-Men of Summer.

In its first weekend, May 13-15, the only other big opener was the apocalypse/vampire flick “Priest,” which finished with about half of “Bridesmaid”'s gross—$14 million to $26 million—while “Bridesmaids” finished second to the second weekend of “Thor”:

1. Thor $34m -47%
2. Bridesmaids 
3. Fast Five $20m -37%
4 Priest $14m NEW

The next weekend, “Thor” fell 55%, “Bridesmaids” only 20%, so Wiig and copmany were now ahead of the God of Thunder; but their movie still finished second, way second, to the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie: $20 million to $90 million. (Keep that $70 million difference in your back pocket for a moment.) “Priest” fell a whopping 68% for fifth place. It was soon out of the picture.

1. Pirates of the Caribbean 4 $90m NEW
2. Bridemaids $20m -20%
3. Thor $15m  -55%
4. Fast Five $10m  -48%

Memorial weekend? That was the “Hangover II” weekend, with a relatively weak open for “Kung Fu Panda 2” and a huge drop for “Pirates 4.” “Bridesmaids” dropped marginally: another 20%.

1. Hangover II $85m NEW
2. Kung Fu Panda 2 $47m NEW
3. Pirates of the Caribbean 4 $39m -55%
4. Bridesmaids $16m -20%
5. Thor   $9m -38%

First weekend in June? “X-Men: First Class” opened with $55 million and pushed “Bridesmaids” to fifth place. This was the biggest drop, percentage-wise, for the film, 27%, but it was still dropping at only half the rate of the men around it. Oh, and that $70 million “Pirates” advantage you kept in your back pocket? Take it out now. It's down to $5 million:

1. X-Men: First Class $55m NEW
2. The Hangover II $31m -63%
3. Kung Fu Panda 2 $23m -50%
4. Pirates of the Caribbean 4 $17m -55%
5. Bridesmaids $12m -27%
6. Thor   $4m -55%

Which brings us to this past weekend. “Bridesmaids” and “Pirates 4” are now neck-in-neck.

1. Super 8 $37m NEW
2. X-Men: First Class $25m -54%
3. Hangover II $18m -41%
4. Kung Fu Panda 2 $16m -30%
5. Pirates of the Caribbean 4 $10.7m -39%
6. Bridesmaids $10.1m -15%

“Bridesmaids”'s opening weekend was the 15th best opening of the year but the movie's domestic gross, $123 million, is now 7th best for the year. That's legs. That's word-of-mouth. The movie keeps on keeping on.

No tagsPosted at 06:21 AM on Jun 13, 2011 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  
Sunday June 12, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)


There’s a problem inherent in blockbuster prequels that “X-Men: First Class” doesn’t solve.

We all carry within us an assumption of human progress, the idea that, in endeavors such as athletics and technology, each subsequent generation eclipses the previous one. The 1855 record for the mile, for example, was 4: 28 by Charles Westhall of Britain. By 1914, it was 4:14 by the U.S.’s John Paul Jones. Britain’s Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954 with a time of 3:59.4, and the current record-holder is Hicham El Geurrouj of Morocco: 3:43.13. Progress.

Poster for "X- Men: First Class" (2011)In a prequel then, particularly a prequel about, oh, mutants developing powers, one would assume there would be regress. We’re at an earlier stage. Things are less developed. But the audience, and thus the marketplace, demands that each subsequent film, regardless of its chronological place in the storyline, contain ever more spectacular stunts and effects. So in the first “X-Men,” Magneto can, wow, flip over cop cars and turn dozens of rifles and guns against their users. Here? Forty years earlier? As he’s just learning his powers? He can lift submarines out of the water and turn hundreds of missiles against their users. It makes his cop-car trick look like paring fingernails. (See also: lightsabre battles between “A New Hope” and “Phantom Menace.”)

“First Class” begins in the same place—the exact same place—that “X-Men” began: Poland, 1944, young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner) and his parents and the buckling metal concentration-camp gate. It was a great open 11 years ago but it left a question: “Didn’t the Nazis do anything with this kid with amazing powers?” Here we get our answer.

A silhouetted man in a window, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), watches and brings Erik before him. He speaks perfect German but he’s no Nazi. In fact he mocks the Aryan ideal of blonde hair and blue eyes because he knows there’s something better, and he knows Erik is it. But how to get Erik to access his powers as he did with the gate? Stress? Fear? Anger? He asks him to move a coin but Erik can’t. So he brings Erik’s mother before him and tells him to move the coin or he shoots the mother. He still can’t. So Erik’s mother is shot and killed before his eyes. That does it. Erik’s powers, Magneto’s powers, are unleashed: on the room, on the Nazi guards, on everything and everyone but Shaw, the man who killed his mother. We later find out that Shaw himself is a mutant, one who can absorb someone else’s energy, but in this particular scene we get no indication that he’s in fact doing this. Instead it looks like Shaw is walking through a holocaust unscathed. It looks like Erik doesn’t know what he’s doing.

So the movie answers one question (“Didn’t the Nazis do anything with this kid?”) only to raise another. The next time we see Erik it’s 1962, Geneva. He’s a man now (and what a man: Michael Fassbender), and, with Nazi coin in hand, he decides to search for Shaw and kill him.

Really? It took him 18 years to figure this out?

Meanwhile, Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) is hanging in Oxford pubs and using mental telepathy to attempt to pick up “groovy” girls despite the presence of Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), whom he’d first found starving in his parents’ house, and who apparently has a crush on him. At one point, when he objects to her objections, she tells him he has no friends but her. Again: really? He seems so likeable. And how did he know “groovy” would be such a hip word three years later? Can he also see into the future? Is that why his hair is longish before the Beatles even recorded “Love Me Do”?

I know. It’s a blockbuster. It’s a superhero film. But I can’t leave this aspect alone.

1962 is not 1964 is not 1967 is not 1974 is not today, but the movie gloms them all together and we wind up with a cultural and historical hodgepodge. Shaw in 1962 looks like a 1974 swinger. Banshee has a moptop. Miniskirts are already popular. London is swinging even though it didn’t begin to swing until, what, 1965? The CIA is known to all when, culturally, the acronym hadn’t quite stuck yet. (Cf., “Charade” (1963): “Mrs. Lampert, do you know what the CIA is?” “I don’t suppose it’s an airline, is it?”)

Should we talk race? In 1962, the real 1962, Pres. Kennedy had to send in the National Guard just to let James Meredith go to school, but here Armando Munez/Darwin (Edi Gathegi) shows up with superpowers and no one blinks. Apparently all mutants, even the bad ones, are colorblind. Apparently the CIA contains no racists. And, really, what’s Munez doing driving a cab in New York? Shouldn’t he be integrating Woolworth counters or marching in Albany, Ga.? He’s got superpowers! How can he just stand on the sidelines? I mean, does he identify himself as mutant first and black (or Negro) second? How about a dialogue where we talk some of this shit up? Instead: silence. For a long time the X-Men saga has been seen as a metaphor for the civil rights movement, with Professor X, in the Dr. King role, counseling integration, and Magneto, a la Malcolm X, suggesting war “by any means necessary.” Dudes: You’re in 1962. Give us the origin of the metaphor. Show Xavier watching King. Give us Magneto watching Malcolm X. Hell, have the two of them watching that famous MLK/Malcolm X debate from the period. Instead they play chess on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Deep.

Should we talk Cuban Missile Crisis? The X-Men, Xavier and Magneto united, spend the movie chasing after Shaw and his band of baddies, who are trying to start World War III by 1) suggesting that Americans put missiles in Turkey, and 2) suggesting that Soviets put missiles in Cuba. Problem? The U.S. put missiles in Turkey in ’61, not ’62, and the Soviets already had missiles in Cuba by the time we confronted them; they weren’t in the process of bringing them to Cuba, as the movie suggests. This second historical inaccuracy seems particularly odd to me. Why fudge the history? Because a U.S. Navy blockade of the island would be too tough to explain? Kennedy choosing the middle ground between war and diplomacy? Where’s William Devane and Marty Sheen when you need them?

Anyway, that’s the story. Shaw wants to start World War III so mutants can take over in the rubble, Xavier is trying to stop him, Erik is intent on revenge, and, in a late, good scene, he gets it, with the old Nazi-coin-through-the-skull trick. The Bad Guy is dead (Shaw), long live the Bad Guy (Magneto). The U.S. and U.S.S.R., seeing the mutants isolated and battling on an island, decide to wipe them all out while they can, which is when we get the turning-around-the-missiles trick. In the ensuing battle, Charles is shot and paralyzed, Raven/Mystique goes over to Magneto’s side, Magneto gets the helmet. The prequel ends in a place that can conceivably lead to the first “modern day” scenes in “X-Men.” Except, of course, we’re still 40 years away. What was Magneto doing all this time? Building his idiot contraption to turn humans into mutants?

I do applaud the casting of the principles. McAvoy brings charm to the Xavier role, while Fassbender is perfect as an angry young Magneto. (Comparing his humorless take to Sir Ian McKellen’s, I thought of the old Elvis Costello lyric: “I used to be disgusted/Now I try to be amused.”) I liked Nicholas Hoult as a young Hank McCoy, Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee, Lucas Till as Havok. Kevin Bacon looks like he’s having the time of his life chewing the scenery as Shaw.

On the other hand: Jennifer Lawrence hardly seems a young Rebecca Romijn; and while January Jones is as pretty as they come, and she does have a frosty demeanor that would suit a character like Emma Frost, the timbre of her voice destroys all illusions that she’s superpowerful rather than simply a semi-whiny Midwest girl. Sorry, JJ.

“First Class” isn’t bad but it’s second class and leads nowhere. I don’t quite see the point of it.

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Posted at 07:42 AM on Jun 12, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011   |   Permalink  
Saturday June 11, 2011

Hollywood B.O.: X-Men: First Class Suffers Not for Lack of Wolverine But Presence of Wolverine

Just a few words on Hollywood box office during the week I was on vacation.

“X-Men: First Class” opened poorly, or poorly for an “X-Men” movie, grossing $55 million in 3,641 theaters, down from “Wolverine”“s $85 million, which was down from ”X-Men: Last Stand“'s $102 million, which was better than ”X2“'s $85 million, which was again better than ”X-Men“'s $54 million in 2000. So 11 years later, the last has tied the first. That's unadjusted, of course. Adjust for inflation and the original ”X-Men“ earned $79 million, blowing away the recent prequel.

Industry blah-blahers attribute this lack of interest to the lack of Wolverine, the most popular of Charles Xavier's mutants, but I attribute it to the presence of ”Wolverine,“ the prequel that preceded this prequel, which sucked (a 17% top critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

Industry analysts still don't get it. With sequels, opening weekends are all about the previous film, not the current one. ”X2“ opened well because ”X-Men“ was good. ”X-Men: The Last Stand“ opened gangbusters because ”X2“ rocked. ”Wolverine“ opened less well because ”X-Men: The Last Stand“ reeked. The opening weekend box office of ”First Class“ is thus a reflection on ”Wolverine“ and ”Last Stand,“ as well as Fox's superhero films in general. Don't real foxes suck eggs? So does this Fox. Again and again.

In better box office news, I'm overjoyed by the continued success of ”Bridesmaids," which, since it opened May 13th, has dropped, weekend to weekend, only marginally: -20.4%, -20.7%, and -27.3%. Each drop is the lowest of the weekend for wide-release films. It's called word of mouth, people. The movie has now grossed $113 million. My girls got legs.

The women of "Bridesmaids" (2011)

No tagsPosted at 06:37 AM on Jun 11, 2011 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  
Friday June 10, 2011

Photo of the Day

I think this is from the night before the night before we left on our trip:

Jellybean undercover

Question: Do cats know when they're being cute? They seem to. Or at least Jellybean (above) seems to. Maybe they're attuned to the positive reaction of humans or something.

Posted at 06:11 PM on Jun 10, 2011 in category Photo of the Day   |   Permalink  
Thursday June 09, 2011

Quote of the Day

“I don't believe you can trust a man who doesn't have a little twinkle in his eye.”

Wendy Burden, author of “Dead End Gene Pool,” and long-time friend of Patricia‘s, Tuesday night during dinner at Meriwether’s in Portland, Or.

Posted at 08:21 PM on Jun 09, 2011 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Searching for Birds in Bodega, Calif.

If it's been a quiet week on it's because Patricia and I drove from Seattle to Bodega, Calif., for our friend Ward's 50th birthday. Ward actually lives in Seattle but his friends, with Patricia at the forefront, told him he had to do something special for his 50th; he couldn't just have a party. Initial discussions, I found out this past weekend, actually centered on Lebanon, but others reined in that thought and offered the Oregon coast. Bodega Bay was the compromise between the Oregon coast and Lebanon. As it always is.

My reaction upon hearing the party's location was the film nerd's reaction: You mean the place where Hitchcock filmed “The Birds”? I suggested all blondes attending wear their hair in a chignon.

Tippi Hedren in a scene from "The Birds"

Tippi Hedren demonstrating the chignon, which, oddly, is a masculine word in French.

We actually stayed a few miles south of Bodega Bay, at Dillon Beach, renting several houses with spectacular views of the ocean. Saturday morning, after the initial, intense warm-up dinner, with too many courses and too much wine, Ward convinced the entire crew to attend a charity pancake breakfast, then a mid-afternoon wine-tasting, but I begged off, not hungry, a bit hungover, and a whole lot curious about Bodega. I drove into town searching for ... I don't know what. That diner. That schoolhouse. Tippi Hedren.

This and that looked familar but not familiar enough, so I pulled over to the side of the road and read the Bodega Bay (pop 1423) section of Lonely Planet's Coastal California book. Apparently the place is “the first pearl in a string of sleepy fishing towns” and “the setting of Alfred Hitchcock's terrying 1963 avian horror fllck, The Birds” (I like the helpful addition of “avian” there, not to mention “terrifying”), but as to what is where, the book wasn't much help. So I stopped in at the Terrapin Creek Cafe for a quick lunch and peppered the waitress with my “Birds” questions. She suggested the Visitor Center back on California 1, which runs through town, and which I'd passed on the way in. There, as soon as I mentioned “The Birds,” the woman behind the counter took out a single-sheet black-and-white map and a yellow highlighter, and in a tone somewhere between Selma Diamond and comatose, laid out the particulars:

  1. The Tides Wharf restaurant where everyone gathered during the attack
  2. The gas station that goes up in flames
  3. The house across the bay on Gaffney Point that never existed
  4. The Potter schoolhouse five miles south on California 1 in the town of Bodega; and
  5. The country store across the street that has the most extensive “Birds” collection anywhere in the world.

“I get the feeling you've done this before,” I said. This brought a smile. “Only about eight thousand times a year,” she replied. 

So I filled up my car at the gas station that blew up in “The Birds,” then drove across California 1 to the Tides Wharf Restaurant, where Tippi Hedren had watched in horror as the gas station blew up in “The Birds.” But the perspective still seemed off. The gas station was across California 1? On a hill? The Tides Wharf included a gift shop that barely mentioned “The Birds,” just—after a search—a few postcards, some lame T-shirts, a big picture book, and a smaller, almost mimeographed pamphlet called “The Birds by Hitchcock: Sonoma Coast Guide: Expanded Second Edition.” This last, I figured, you could only get there, so I got it there, then peppered the girls behind the counter with questions. The second was a fount of information. The Tides Wharf where we were? Not the original. The original burned down in 1965, along with the gas station, which, yes, had been on this side of California 1. But the schoolhouse, the Potter Schoolhouse, still existed. Five miles south on “The 1.”

And that's where I went. Here's the famous scene:

The Potter Schoolhouse under attack in Hitchcock's "The Birds"

The Potter Schoolhouse attack in Alfred Hitchcock's “The Birds.”

In the town of Bodega, I initially mistook St. Theresa's Church, made famous by Ansel Adams, for the Potter Schoolhouse, made famous by Alfred Hitchcock. But then I turned into a small road and there it was. It's privately owned now, and there's no bench in the backyard, let alone a playground or jungle gym; but I still got out and took a picture:

The Potter Schoolhouse in the town of Bodega; where Alfred Hitchcock filmed "The Birds"

The Potter Schoolhouse today.

Then to the country store. As quiet as the rest of the town is about “The Birds,” the country store is just that noisy. It's like a museum but with all of the pieces for sale.

The Bodega Country Store in Bodega, California, which includes "The Hitchcock Collection"

Apparently Tippi Hedren also sells wine now. Apparently she was in Bodega Bay the weekend before, at the Tides Wharf, signing autographs. I bought my share of swag—including a “What Would Hitchcock Do?” T-shirt—and acted the tourist. I just needed the Bermuda shorts and the camera hanging around my neck to complete the picture.

The next day, on the way out of town, Patricia and I returned to the schoolhouse to complete the picture:

Patricia running from the Potter Schoolhouse in the town of Bodega, California, where "The Birds" was filmed.

We'll photoshop the birds in later.

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Posted at 08:06 AM on Jun 09, 2011 in category Travels   |   Permalink  
Wednesday June 08, 2011

California 1

Take a long drive with me
On California 1, California 1...
--The Decemberists, “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade”

This past week, driving along California 1, the state route begun in 1934 that winds down the California coast, as Patricia and I traveled from Seattle to Bodega Bay for a friend's 50th birthday celebration, I kept thinking of baseball and pitching.

California 1I know. Apologies, and bear with me.

Most roads, certainly most highways, are like fastballs down the pike. They may have some bend in them but nothing you can't handle. California 1, in contrast, is like the craziest pitch thrown by the greatest pitcher ever. It twists and swoops and dips and soars and bends and keeps bending and keeps bending further until you're almost heading in the opposite direction—north when you want south, south when you want north—until, at last, it finally breaks the other way, your way, and the whole damn thing begins again.

And the speeds! A good freeway may vary its speeds a bit, like a good pitcher will vary his speeds between the 95-mph fastball, the 85-mph splitter and the 75-mph change-up. These differences are nothing on California 1. There, you'll be spotted 55 mph. Then with hardly a warning it'll cut back to 15 mph. Back up to 45. Down to 25. Then 15 again. Then back up to 55. All on these swooping, dipping, winding roads, with incredible views of sky and ocean, cliffs and haystack rocks, and you're so distracted by it all, by the beauty and the winding roads, you find yourself going 55 in the 15 zone, 15 in the 55 zone.

But worth it. We can't wait to go back.

No tagsPosted at 06:15 PM on Jun 08, 2011 in category Travels   |   Permalink  

Bumper Stickers Seen Driving From Seattle, Wa. to Bodega, Ca.

—Olympia, Wa.

—Chehalis, Wa.

—Salem, Wa.

—Portland, Or.

—Harrisburg, Or.

—Lorane, Or.

—Fortuna, Ca.

—Mendecino, Ca.

Patricia, Dairy Queen, and Hwy 101

Patricia, Dairy Queen, and Hwy 101 during a rare sunny moment on our trip.

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Posted at 11:28 AM on Jun 08, 2011 in category Travels   |   Permalink  
Thursday June 02, 2011

Movie Review: The Whistleblower (2011)


It’s hard to make a movie about sexual exploitation without getting a little exploitative, but “The Whistleblower,” based on a true story, and from first-time director Larysa Kondracki, manages to pull it off. The other danger is a tendency toward the preachy and obvious. Less luck there.

Early poster for "The Whistleblower" (2011)We begin in the wrong place—in Russia, with two girls, Raya and Irka, who wind up sexually trafficked in Bosnia—rather than where we should begin, in Lincoln, Nebraska, with our hero, Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), a cop who is trying to get transferred to Atlanta, where her ex-husband is moving with their now teenaged daughter. No dice. But her captain mentions how they’re looking for peacekeepers in Bosnia. Pay is good: 100 grand, tax free, for six months work. “Bosnia?” she says, surprised and intrigued. I wish her reaction had been more American. “Bosnia? Which one is that again?”

On the busride into Sarajevo she sees a cemetery, row after row of small white tombstones, a silent reminder of the war that’s just been; then she’s part of a group of recruits getting a pep talk from Bill Hynes (Liam Cunningham), the head of Democra, the security agency she’s working for. “You’ve been hired to represent the U.S. as a beacon of hope,” he says, but something in his severe manner and overly clipped American tone made me think, a) the actor wasn’t American (Yes: Cunningham is Irish), and, b) the character is unlikable and corrupt (Yes again).

Bolkovac’s early scenes are fish-out-of-water scenes, as she tries to get a handle on the culture and corruption. Confronted with a Muslim woman who’s been beaten by her husband, she has to deal with the racism of the local cops (“Woman is Muslim; she deserves it”) and the limits of U.S. power. “We aren’t here as investigators,” a colleague tells her. “We monitor. Sometimes stepping back is part of the job.”

But she doesn’t step back, and, zip-zip, she helps land the first conviction for domestic violence since the war. This brings her to the attention of Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), the Commissioner of IPTF, the International Police Task Force, an arm of the United Nations, who commends her and promotes her. Because she truly admires her? Or because she wants to keep an eye on her?

That’s the thing with these types of thrillers. There are three basic questions:

  1. What’s the corruption?
  2. Who can you trust?
  3. How high does it go?

The corruption, we know, is human trafficking. Basically we’ve been waiting all this time for Bolkovac’s path to cross the path of the Russian girls from the beginning. When it finally does, when Raya turns up beaten and abused at a station house and says something about “the Florida Bar,” Bolkovac doesn’t hesitate. She drives there at night. The bar is in the process of being raided and girls in skimpy outfits are being led out. Inside, Bolkovac finds, in a safe in the main, dark room, money and passports, and Polaroids of girls topless and tied up pinned to the walls. Some are being fondled, and worse, by men in UN T-shirts. In a dingy, concrete backroom, straight out of “Silence of the Lambs,” she finds stained mattresses, syringes, bras and heavy chains. At this point, if the main thought of the audience could be articulated, it would’ve sounded like the voice of a haunted house in most supernatural thrillers: GET OUT!

Bolkovac keeps investigating. The girls in the skimpy outfits were supposedly taken to a shelter but they never arrived. A suspect colleague, Fred Murray (David Hewlett), tells her the bar is legit and the girls are just waitresses, but she tells him there’s something fucked-up about that bar. “This is Bosnia,” he snaps back, “These people specialize in fucked-up.” The case she builds against Murray is strong—he’s in the Polaroids, he’s involved in bribes—but the response from Democra higher-ups is a shrug. “All international personnel have immunity,” she’s told.

But she can go after the local bar owner. And for that she’ll need testimony. From the girls.

“The Whistleblower” is about human trafficking, which is obviously bad, and the heroine is fighting not only the bad guys but two image-conscious corporations (Democra and the U.N.), so she’s obviously good, but there’s something needlessly muddy about the movie. We get too many scenes back in Russia with Raya’s mother. They should’ve been cut. We get a starchy official, Laura Levin (Monica Bellucci), who says, after one girl in her custody has been kidnapped, “We have a system that works here,” allowing Bolkovac to respond, “For who?” and walk away. Meanwhile, the two Russian girls try our patience. They flinch from and fight Bolkovac, who’s obviously tying to help them, and don’t walk away from the men exploiting them when they have the chance.

Ultimately the movie feels like a lesser “Serpico” on an international stage. How could it have been better? By focusing on the issue of loyalty.

It’s implied that Bolkovac is most loyal to her job—that that’s how she loses her daughter in a custody battle with the father. She even uses this fact to get the Russian girls to talk. “I have a daughter and she was taken away by force, and I can’t change that,” she says. “Maybe I can change what happens to you.” The girls, taciturn before this revelation, now have questions. Will they be safe? Does Bolkovac promise? Bolkovac says they’ll be safe. She promises.

Her loyalty is thus to the case more than to the girls. She gets the girls to go out on a limb, as she has done, to further the case. But at what risk to the girls?

The other side has its loyalties, too: colleagues who are loyal to corrupt colleagues; company men who are loyal to company image. I’m not suggesting a moral equivalency here; I’m suggesting that while the movie is about corruption—specifically: men profiting from the sexual drives of other men through the exploitation and virtual enslavement of women—once that’s unearthed, once it’s known, the question for everyone involved becomes a matter of loyalty. At that point, everything bad that happens happens because of loyalty, which is generally viewed positively. Done right, the audience, rather than simply thinking, “How awful,” might have questioned the loyalties in their own lives, and with their own companies.

Eventually Bolkovac gets the evidence she needs and gets word out. The irony is that, in the real world, the reaction was more or less like the reaction of Democra’s employees in the film: it shrugged. The greater irony is that Democra is not the name of the U.S. company supplying police officers to Bosnia and other parts of the world. Bolkovac is Bolkovac, Rees is Rees, but Democra is DynCorp, which was founded in 1946, has corporate headquarters in Falls Church, Va., and offices managed out of Fort Worth, Tex. Its 2008 revenue was $2.1 billion. It’s growing. So even here, in a movie about the battle to uncover the bad guys at this company, the company remains hidden.

As much as I like looking at Rachel Weisz, too, I wanted a bigger, tougher broad in the role. There’s a scene where she gets into a shoving match with one of the corrupt Democra men but I didn’t buy it. She came up to his chest. Here, for example is Weisz at the premiere with the real Kathryn Bolkovac:

Rachel Weisz and Kathryn Bolkovac at the premiere of "The Whistleblower"

The difference between the two, the constant demand for the woman on the left, is part of Hollywood’s corruption. And ours.

No tagsPosted at 05:37 AM on Jun 02, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011   |   Permalink  
Wednesday June 01, 2011

Lancelot Links

Talented friends edition.

  • My friend Adam Wahlberg has a nice piece in our alumni magazine about a panhandler, a statue, and a soul-searching moment. It's specific to Adam but universal. We've all been there on that curb. Somehow Adam also rates a Barry Blitt illustration? Not just that: he gets drawn by Barry Blitt? Was Blitt an alumnus? A Hubert Humphrey fan? Excerpt:

I stand on the curb a long moment, wondering when and how I became this guy. I shoot a glance across the rail line to Minneapolis City Hall. Hubert Humphrey is looking right at me. ...

I’m 41. Humphrey (B.S. ’39) was heading back to the U.S. Senate by the time I was born. Before that he was mayor of Minneapolis, a U.S. senator, vice president under Lyndon Johnson, and then the Democratic candidate for president. He died when I was in grade school. I never met him, voted for him, heard him speak, or experienced him in any firsthand way. But I’ve always been inspired by images of him. It’s the smiling thing. He’s always beaming in photos, especially when surrounded by throngs of people. The Happy Warrior. With how polarized the discourse has become, are people even allowed to be happy in politics these days? We have a comedian in the Senate right now who has barely cracked a smile in two years.

  • Minnesota's newly conservative legislature, at odds with any notions of Minnesota Nice, not to mention 20th century progress, are wasting everyone's time by attempting to ban gay marriage in the state. My friend Jim Walsh, in the pages of Southwest Journal, penned this take on his first birds-and-the-bees lesson, an adolescent run-in with (and run from) reactionary forces, a middle-aged f-u to those guys and that moment, and a parting kiss:

Which was somewhat comforting, a subtle reminder in these times of scarlet letters, sexual suspects, and same-sex lynchings: No matter what laws go on the books, no matter how hateful the ignorance, people will find good love and good sex with whomever or whatever they please.

Because it feels good.

For now, the obligation to safeguard the remote southern reaches of Logar province — an area of eastern Afghanistan that troops dub “the frontier” for its sand-swept landscape and sparse population — falls mostly to the Company D platoon, deployed here since October. They have taken fire on at least 60 occasions from insurgents who typically strike from no closer than a half-mile away, hiding amid the clefts and caves of the surrounding mountains. “We never see them,” said Pfc. Joseph Tichacek, a radio technician. “You see muzzle flashes, but that’s about it" ...

Even nine years into this conflict, Beck recalls that early in the deployment some villagers saw U.S. troops and thought the Russian army had returned. “Closer to Kabul, people have more of an understanding of the world,” Beck said. “Out here, they just want to be left alone. But the Taliban isn’t going to leave them alone.”

Statue of Humbert H. Humphrey

Smile while you can, love whom you can, keep your head low.

No tagsPosted at 07:03 PM on Jun 01, 2011 in category Lancelot Links   |   Permalink  


It's been a crazy month and I haven't made it to many Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) movies. Not like last year. Last year I felt tuned in. I saw eight movies, including what became my eventual no. 2 of the year, “Restrepo,” and I really only felt one of the eight (“Zona Sur”) was a waste of time.

This year I've only seen three, and, given my schedule, will probably only see one more before the whole thing shuts down in a week and a half. Of those three? One was a waste of time (“The First Grader”), one merely disappointed (“The Whistleblower”), and I'm still wrapping my mind around the third (“Black Venus”).

Each showing has suffered its technical difficulties, too.

  1. “The First Grader,” opening night at McCaw Hall, began 15 minutes late, and then we had to tack on another half-hour for all the corporate speeches. When the film finally began, it seemed underlit to me. Ten minutes in, the film abruptly stopped. When it came back on, we were five minutes earlier in the story and the film was, yes, now properly lit. Director in the house, too. Embarrassing.
  2. “The Whistleblower,” Sunday afternoon at the Egyptian, began 45 minutes late and seemed underlit.
  3. “Black Venus,” Sunday evening at the Egyptian, began more or less on time. But for some reason they couldn't show the digital film. Instead, in that big theater, we watched the DVD, which, particularly in far shots, was blurry, while for the entirety of the film the words PROPERTY OF MK2 PRODUCTIONS appeared in the upper right corner. Plus it seemed underlit.

I suppose we go through these kinds of technical problems every year. Doesn't make it any less bothersome. The opposite.

Banner for the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF)

Posted at 07:13 AM on Jun 01, 2011 in category Seattle   |   Permalink  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard