erik lundegaard

Monday October 31, 2011

Missing Tom Hanks

Casting Tom Hanks as the father who goes missing/dies on 9/11 in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is a great idea for two reasons: one obvious, one subtle.

The obvious reason is that everyone loves Tom Hanks and will feel his loss along with his movie wife and son (Sandra Bullock and Thomas Horn).

The subtle reason is that Tom Hanks himself kind of went missing after 9/11. At least the Tom Hanks we said we loved.

Hanks dominated the ‘90s like no actor dominated a decade. He got nom’ed best actor three times and won it twice. Three of his films were the No. 1 movie of the year (“Forrest Gump,” “Toy Story,” and “Saving Private Ryan”), while others finished third for the year (“Apollo 13”), fifth (“Sleepless in Seattle”), 10th (“A League of Their Own”), and 12th (“Philadelphia,” “The Green Mile”). In 2000, he was nom'ed again for “Castaway,” basically a one-man show on a desert island; and yet, since that one man was Tom Hanks, the movie was the second highest-grossing movie of the year.

Since 9/11? Oscar hasn't called. He hasn't even texted.

In 2002, Hanks appeared in two movies, “Road to Perdition,” which finished 19th for the year, and “Catch Me If You Can,” which finished 11th. Both movies, like every Tom Hanks vehicle since 1993, grossed over $100 million.

But this string of successes stopped in 2004. First, “The Ladykillers” bombed with both critics and audiences, grossing only $39 million. Then, inexpicably, “The Terminal,” a feel-good film directed by Steven Spielberg, and launched in the middle of summer, also failed to gross $100 million. As did “Charlie Wilson’s War” in 2007 and “Larry Crowne” this year. “Larry” didn't even gross what “Ladykillers” did back in '04.

Hanks’ recent animated films (“Polar Express”; “Toy Story 3”), as well as his “Da Vinci Code” movies, tend to do well at the box office. But with the exception of “Toy Story 3,” they’re not highly regarded by critics and audiences. No one thinks of them as great films.

Hanks' '90s movies were central to the culture and conversation. Since 2001? What’s worth talking about? What’s worth keeping? Yes to “Toy Story 3,” and maybe to “Catch Me If You Can.” Anything else?

Our culture just doesn’t do Tom Hanks movies anymore. We do tentpole flicks and superhero epics. We do movies about magic powers. We were attacked in the real world so in movie theaters we cower behind capes and wands and imagine we're strong.

Casting Tom Hanks as the father in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is a subtle reminder of all of this. It's a reminder of what was better about us before 9/11.

Tom Hanks in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (2011)

He was with us once. Remember?

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Posted at 07:06 AM on Oct 31, 2011 in category Movies
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Sunday October 30, 2011

The First Guest to Arrive

We had a very nice dinner party last night, with Val, Kim, Mark, Giorgio, and Devon. But one guest arrived early and expected to be fed immediately. You know the type. 

“When's eats?”

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Posted at 01:39 PM on Oct 30, 2011 in category Jellybean
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Movie Review: Cobb (1994)

I watched “Cobb” the other night because I mistakenly thought a friend suggested upgrading its standing in my list of the best and worst baseball movies ever made. He'd actually suggested downgrading “Cobb.” He was right.

WARNING: GODDAMN C**KSUCKING SPOILERS

A common conversation among movie buffs and egotists is naming the actor you’d like to play you in the movies. A less common conversation is who you wouldn’t want for the role. I’ll start that one. I wouldn’t want Robert Wuhl to play me.

Case in point: “Cobb,” written and directed by Ron Shelton of “Bull Durham” fame. It’s 1960, and Al Stump (Wuhl), a sportswriter on the rise, is hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of aged and dying baseball legend Ty Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones). Yes, he’s heard the rumors about what a bastard Cobb is. But it’s Ty Cobb. So he drives to Cobb’s home, near Lake Tahoe, buoyant and practically whistling a tune.

Poster for "Cobb" (1994), starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert WuhlTurns out the rumors were off. Cobb isn’t a bastard. He’s a pistol-shooting, morphine-shooting-up, racist, sexist, reckless, abusive and criminally prosecutable bastard.

Stump keeps realizing this for the first hour of the movie. Let me repeat that: He keeps realizing this. Cobb does crazy shit (shoots his gun at Stump) and Stump looks dumbfounded and says “He’s crazy!” Then Cobb does more crazy shit (drives Stump off a mountain road) and Stump looks dumbfounded and says “He’s crazy!” Here’s where a better actor than Wuhl might have helped, might have given us something more than dumbfounded, but that’s all Wuhl’s got. He traffics in dumbfounded.

Why doesn’t Al Stump just walk away? Does he need the gig that much? Not really. Does he need to be near greatness? Maybe. Could the movie have explored this need? Sure, but then it would’ve been a better movie. Instead: in this corner, Crazy, in that corner, Dumbfounded. Ding ding.

It gets worse. In Reno, on stage with Louis Prima, Cobb insults blacks, Jews, women and Louis Prima. Meanwhile, Stump has hooked up briefly, and, under the circumstances, tenderly, with cigarette girl/hard-luck case Ramona (Lolita Davidovich, Shelton’s wife), and the two are slow dancing in his hotel room when Cobb, like a vengeful fury, bursts into the room, decks Stump, and literally drags Ramona to his own hotel room, where he forces her to strip at gunpoint and attempts to rape her. “Now you take off them goddamned clothes,” he says. “Get on the bed,” he says. “Lay down and turn around,” he says.

Not exactly “Pride of the Yankees.”

So what do you do if the hero of your story is really a villain? That’s the dilemma for both Al Stump, writing Cobb’s autobiography, and Ron Shelton, writing and directing “Cobb.”

Stump’s solution is to write two books: 1) the hagiography he shows to Cobb but plans to throw away once Cobb dies; and 2) the real book about their experiences together that exposes Cobb for what he is. Question: Could this second book have even been published in1961? “Ball Four,” which blew the lid off of the pretty lies of Major League baseball, is nine years and a cultural tsunami away.

(For the record, the real Al Stump ultimately published two books: the ghostwritten autobiography, “My Life in Baseball: The True Record,” shortly after Cobb’s death in July 1961, and “Cobb: A Biography,” more than 30 years later, in 1994, in which he revealed the less heroic elements of the Georgia Peach. No indication, in the movie, on the 30-year delay.)

Stump’s solution isn’t great but Shelton’s is worse. First, he makes Cobb almost cartoonish in his villainy. In a flashback scene to his playing days, we see Cobb get into a fistfight at every base (at every base), while in present-day 1960 Jones cackles and grins like Mephisto. It makes his performance as Two Face in “Batman Forever” seem subtle.

Against this, Shelton attempts to evoke our sympathy. Ah, Cobb’s got cancer. Ah, Cobb can’t get it up. Ah, Cobb helps out destitute ballplayers like Mickey Cochrane, who later turn their backs on him. Those guys are mean.

Plus Cobb is always right—and Stump is always wrong—about almost everything. Cobb shoots at a deer with a shaky hand and claims to have hit it in the neck, which Stump denies ... until Stump comes across the dead door in the woods. Cobb says he has final say on his autobiography, which Stump denies ... until he phones his agent and discovers Cobb does have final say. Etc.

Most important, Cobb is honest. “By writing two versions I was becoming what Cobb was not,” Stump says in melancholy voiceover halfway through the film. “I was becoming a liar.” Cobb goes for what he wants—whether it’s that deer in the woods or Ramona in his hotel room—while Stump, poor bastard, poor everyman, equivocates and assumes the best in others. He’s accommodating. And the world shits on an accommodating man. That’s the lesson here. Stump thinks he and his wife, separated for a few months, are working things out, which Cobb laughs at; and sure enough, late in the film, in a cabin in the middle of the night, Stump is served divorce papers. Cobb was right again! So what does Stump do? He pistol-whips the poor bastard serving him. He uses Cobb’s accent and waves Cobb’s gun in the injured man’s face. It’s a worm-turns moment that the movie views positively—or at least comically. See? Accommodating Stump crazy; crazy Cobb counseling caution. Funny.

Awful.

The true insult in the film is the “Citizen Kane” analogy. The movie begins with a “New of the World” feature, like “Kane,” and it’s also, like “Kane,” a movie-length attempt at uncovering the childhood secret that explains the man. For Kane, it was “Rosebud,” his dying words, and the symbol of his innocent upbringing. For Cobb, it’s the death of his father, a great man, who is killed by this mother. The father apparently suspected the mother of infidelity and returned early from a business trip to spy on her. The mother apparently suspected the shadowy figure outside her bedroom to be a burglar, or worse, and shot him dead. That’s the story we get from Cobb halfway through “Cobb” but near the end he adds a wrinkle. The father was right. The mother was cheating. And it was her lover, her very naked lover, who shoots the father dead. “The last thing my father saw was the face of the man fucking his wife,” says Cobb in Tommy Lee Jones’ plaintive voice. “That what you want to know?”

The scene takes place at the Cobb mausoleum in a Georgia cemetery. And why are they at this cemetery? It just happens to be the place they’re driving by when Stump, after months of abusive behavior from Cobb, finally gets fed up, demands the car stop, and walks out on him. And what sets off Stump after months of abusive behavior from Cobb?  Well, Stump has just tried to broker a meeting between Cobb and his estranged daughter, who refuses to see him; then he lies to Cobb, telling him that the woman in the window wasn’t his daughter. Cobb gently calls him on this lie and this sets off Stump. This. Not being shot at. Not being run off the road. This.

A hagiography would’ve felt less like a lie than “Cobb.”

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Posted at 11:23 AM on Oct 30, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 1990s
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Saturday October 29, 2011

This Year's Best Picture Winner?

Last Sunday I was almost moved to tears by the trailer for the film “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” starring Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Thomas Horn, which will be released on Christmas Day 2011.

Today, I read this column by Jeff Wells, in which various best picture contenders are examined and dismissed (“The Descendants,” “Moneyball”), and which concludes with these paragraphs:

...when Gabe The Playlist begrudgingly said there “wasn't a dry eye in the house” toward the end of a recent NY screening of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, I felt a little button-push sensation in my chest. I thinking it might be the one....maybe. He said he's not a Stephen Daldry or a Sandra Bullock fan and that he didn't care for the Asperger's kid, but he still recognized or acknowledged that it delivers the emotional payoff that it set out to deliver. ... So it's looking like Extremely Loud might have an edge at this stage.

Then I looked at my review for last year's best picture winner, “The King's Speech.” It begins with this admission before I dismissed the film as a minor film:

When I first saw a trailer for “The King's Speech,“ I was almost moved to tears.

So it looks like ”Extremely Loud" is on the right track anyway. Its trailer nearly moved me to tears. Now let's see if the film is the right kind of sappy for the Academy.

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Posted at 03:49 PM on Oct 29, 2011 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Friday October 28, 2011

Quotes of the Day: World Series Edition

“Yes, a great game and never mind the early stuff. Tied five times, it produced six lead changes, and rehabilitated itself, from stinker to thriller, along the way. Stricken Cardinals fans at Busch Stadium stood in silence in the ninth inning and again in the tenth, with their mittened paws covering their faces up to the eyes, while their team teetered on the brink of elimination, one strike away from winter. In the ninth, with the Redbirds down by two runs, there was a brief shot of Cardinals ace pitcher Chris Carpenter and a couple of teammates laughing about something at the dugout rail, and I thought, What’s with these guys? Now we know...”

--Roger Angell in his New Yorker post “Cards Win”

*  *  *

“The Cardinals' next four hitters were Lance Berkman, Allen Craig, David Freese, and Yadier Molina. Holland throws left-handed. Berkman, a switch-hitter, is significantly better against righties than lefties, so letting Holland pitch to Berkman made sense. Indeed, Holland retired Berkman on a fly ball.

”After that, though? The Cardinals had three right-handed hitters coming up, and Washington had Mike Adams, one of baseball's best right-handed relief pitchers, warming up in the bullpen. It was the eighth inning. Mike Adams makes his living in the eighth inning. Against right-handed hitters, especially.

“Washington didn't leave the dugout, but Craig left the yard with a solo homer that trimmed the Rangers' lead by a run. Eventually, Adams did enter the game and killed an incipient St. Louis rally. One wonders, though ... Would Allen Craig have hit a home run against Mike Adams?

”Oddly, nobody's really talking about Adams' late entrance, perhaps because everybody still seems to think that Derek Holland walks on water. Hint: He doesn't. He's a good pitcher who pitched great in Game 4, and might be slightly more effective coming out of the bullpen than starting. But he's not Mike Adams.“

--Rob Neyer, ”2011 World Series, Game 6: Did Ron Washington Blow It?“

*  *  *

”Feliz looked uncomfortable on the mound, but I think he tends to look that way. Part of the magic of Mariano is the placid look, the slumped shoulders, as if this is all just a formality, as if he had already saved the game a few hours before and is only performing it once more for those people who missed it. Feliz, though, is a bit twitchy, he expresses disgust, his motion is violent and impassioned, and I thought after he walked Berkman he looked unsure.“

--Joe Posnanski, ”Game Six“

*  *  *

”Really and truly, this was an ugly game for about six or seven innings. But then it got beautiful right at the end.“

--Lance Berkman in Jayson Stark's piece, ”David Freese, St. Louis, Force Game 7"

David Freese, Game 6

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Posted at 01:52 PM on Oct 28, 2011 in category Quote of the Day
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Thursday October 27, 2011

The Seventh Game

One of the two dozen books I bought at Powell's Books this summer was written by Barry Levenson, a former assistant attorney general of Wisconsin, and called “The Seventh Game: The 35 World Series that Have Gone the Distance.” It was published almost a decade ago, in 2004, but it was still up-to-date because there had been no Game 7 since 2002.

That changes tomorrow.

Crazy, beautiful game tonight. Full of errors and bad managerial moves (why take out Feliz in the 10th?) but incredible comebacks. Twice. Or thrice. How many lead changes or ties? I count 10. Back and forth, back and forth. I'm beginning to believe in these Cardinals. From, what, 10 1/2 back, down against the Phillies, down against the Brewers, down against the Rangers. Down by two with two strikes in the bottom of the 9th. Down by one with two strikes in the bottom of the 10th. But as soon as Ron Washington pinch-hit for Scott Feldman, I knew it was over. That seemed like the wrongest of moves in a night of wrong moves for both managers. When it went to the bottom of the 11th, with former Mariner Mark Lowe on the mound for Texas, I said aloud, to Jim and Tim and Patricia, “It's over. Cards will win it here.” A few pitches later ... boom. 

This presents a dilemma for me. Wednesday morning I bought tickets to Susan Orlean presents RIN TIN TIN: THE LIFE AND THE LEGEND at the newly updated SIFF Uptown Theater on Friday night. I'd just finished Orlean's book on Rin Tin Tin so it seemed a natural. For a moment, though, I paused before buying the tickets. “What if,” I thought, “one of the World Series games is postponed and the Cardinals win Game 6? Then Friday night will be Game 7!” But I dismissed the thought. It seemed so unlikely that both things would happen.

How about that trivia question FOX asked during the game? “How many Game 6s have ended with a homer?” Jim and Tim and I got it in about 30 seconds: Fisk, Puckett, Carter. “Odd that they asked it, though,” I thought, then aloud: “Wouldn't it be weird if...?”

Fisk, Puckett, Carter ... Freese.

David Freese homers in the bottom of the 11th to send the World Series to a 7th game for the first time in 10 years.

David Freese homers in the bottom of the 11th inning to send the World Series to a 7th game for the first time since 2002.

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Posted at 10:21 PM on Oct 27, 2011 in category Baseball
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Who is the Most Filmed Character Ever?

I was writing a review of “Margin Call” the other day, a good film with a great cast, and considered for a moment Paul Bettany's name in the cast list. IMDb.com informs us that he's best known for “A Beautiful Mind,” “Master and Commander,” and “The Da Vinci Code.” I loved him in each of these and expected big things from him. But “A Beautiful Mind” was 10 years ago, “Da Vinci” five, and he kept appearing in movies I had no interest in seeing (“Priest,” “Legion,” “Inkheart”). Then IMDb reminded me he had recently played Charles Darwin in “Creation.” “Was this the one that was never distributed in the U.S.?” I wondered. “The one Christian fundamentalists had a problem with?”

So I clicked on the character link.

While the answer to my initial question was yes, probably, I soon forgot all about it when I realized the following:

Charles Darwin wasn't portrayed on film until 1972.

Immediately, the usual “What Liberal Hollywood?” hackles were raised in me. The man who changed our 20th and 21st century worldview was ignored for the first eight decades of film? Not even a walk-on in someone else's story? Not even a “Bewitched” episode? And he's only been portrayed a total of 21 times? And this from an industry that's condemned daily as “liberal”?

That rant led to this thought:OK, how many times has Jesus Christ been portrayed on film?

Answer? 350 times, starting in 1897 with “The Horwitz Passion Play,” which starred Jordan Willochko as the Son of God. But that answer immediately led to this question:

Hey, is Jesus the most portrayed character in movie history?

I tried to think of who might have been portrayed more often. Robin Hood? 122 times. Hamlet? 198. Abraham Lincoln? 263. Sherlock Holmes? 246. Dracula? 274. God? 340. Close.

Eventually I asked Patricia for her thoughts. In five seconds, she gave me this, but in the negative: “I don't think it's Santa Claus...” she began.

No, it is Santa Claus. 814 times.

Wouldn't it be nice, though, if IMDb had a sort function beyond what it currently offers—particularly if one could further sort by “movies,” “TV,” “Made-for-TV movies”? Instead, the site gives us user-created lists. We may never find out who the most filmed character in movie history is, but we do get to read blahXblahXblah's list of the 204 “Hottest Actresses”!

What do you think? Are Santa and Jesus it? Or has another character been portrayed more often?

Some of the most filmed characters in movie and TV history

Robin Hood is a piker compared to Jesus Christ and Santa Claus.

ADDENDUM: After all that, it turns out there is another....

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Posted at 06:34 AM on Oct 27, 2011 in category What Liberal Hollywood?
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Wednesday October 26, 2011

Quote of the Day

“I find they are pedestrian people. Their consensus is cliche. Something is good because they've seen it before.”

--Herbert B. Leonard (1922-2006), producer of “Naked City,” “Route 66,” and “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” and known as a writer's producer, as quoted in Susan Orlean's biography, “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend.” The “they” he is referring to are studio executives.

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Posted at 04:59 PM on Oct 26, 2011 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Jane Eyre (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS IN THE ATTIC

I first read “Jane Eyre” while living at the Florence Court Apartments during my days at the University of Minnesota in the mid-1980s. It was an assigned text for 19th Century British Literature. The copy I bought, at a used bookstore in Dinkytown, included black-and-white sketches, possibly by F.H. Townsend, which may or may not have spurred me to begin reading it early, but I did, before the class had even begun, one night while my roommate, Dean, was out partying or visiting family. I was alone, in other words, when I first read about the strange happenings at Thornfield Hall: the night-time fires, and the strange visitation of a ghost, or a vampyre, with its long straggly hair and discolored, savage face (“the lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed: the black eyebrows widely raised over the bloodshot eyes...”), and it created such a mood in me that I was actually spooked, in the frightened but thrilled way one gets from reading ghost stories alone in bed at night. I kept thinking that if I looked over at the window, which looked out over 10th Avenue, I would see a discolored, savage face there. I wanted Dean to come home.

Jane Eyre (2011)This is what’s missing from Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation—the 22nd—of Charlotte Bronte’s beloved novel “Jane Eyre.” The movie is beautifully photographed (by Adriano Goldman), it’s wonderfully acted (by Mia Wasikovska and Michael Fassbender and Judi Dench), and the romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester is palpable and thrilling. But it’s never particularly spooky. When the big reveal occurs, it’s rather matter-of-fact. Oh right. Madwoman in the attic and all. Sad. It’s as if Jane Eyre herself, with all of her common sense and forthrightness, is directing the thing.

The movie begins with Jane wandering the moors of England, alone and distraught, an event that I, for the first 10 minutes of movie time, misplaced. I assumed it was after Lowood but before Thornfield Hall, but it’s after Thornfield. Jane is fleeing Rochester after the revelation, on the day of their wedding, that he’s already married to the madwoman in the attic, the setter of fires.

Good way to begin. This is Jane’s metaphoric death, from which she remembers her life, and from which she’s resurrected by St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters.

The Rivers residence is the fourth place we’ve seen Jane live. You can chart them thus:

RESIDENCE

DOMINANT FIGURE

JANE’S STATUS

RESULT

Reed home

Mrs. Reed

Unwanted and unloved

Expelled (to Lowood)

Lowood

Miss Scratcherd/Mr. Brockelhurst

Unwanted and unloved

Graduated (and expelled)

Thornfield

Mr. Rochester

Wanted and loved

Flees

Rivers place

St. John Rivers

Wanted and loved

Flees

But look at it again. Her youth is dominated by women who do not care for her but whom she endures until she is forced to leave them. Her adulthood is dominated by men who care for her but whom she flees—because the first is married and the second is not the love of her life. The women tear her down and the men build her up. Somehow it’s a feminist story.

I know. It is. Jane, as girl and woman, takes the world only on her terms. She refuses to compromise—with the horrible worldview of Mrs. Reed, with the circumstances of Mr. Rochester, with her lack of feelings for St. John Rivers. In this manner she wins everything. She gets wealth (from a distance relative), the man she loves (Rochester, diminished and thus controllable), and even a kind of deathbed mea culpa from the horrible Mrs. Reed. No wonder women have loved this story for 150 years. “The Color Purple” is kind of a black, American version of “Jane Eyre,” isn’t it? Except Alice Walker’s novel is truly feminist: The men tear down Celie while the women build her back up.

It struck me, watching this version of “Jane Eyre,” how calm and logical Jane is when faced with disreputable behavior—the horrible lies of Mrs. Reed; the early, teasing truculence of Mr. Rochester; the demanding, bitter love of St. John Rivers—but this didn’t remind of life as we live it. It reminded me of the way people tell their own stories: How incredibly calm and logical they always are; how huffy and obstinate their opponents remain. “Jane Eyre” is, in fact, told in the first person—Jane is telling her own story—so how much should we believe? And has anyone written a revisionist take from, say, St. John Rivers’ perspective? Or John Reed’s? “As soon as my cousin, Jane Eyre, moved in with us, our world began to crumble.”

Cary Fukunaga’s film version is still recommended. It looks beautiful, it sounds smart, it feels 19th century. An example of the great dialogue:

Rochester: I offer you my hand, my heart. Jane, I ask you to pass through life at my side. You are my equal and my likeness. Will you marry me?
Jane Eyre: Are you mocking me?
Rochester: You doubt me.
Jane Eyre: Entirely.

Just don’t expect spooky.

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Posted at 08:12 AM on Oct 26, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Tuesday October 25, 2011

Quote of the Day

“Hitler cared deeply about animals and animal welfare. 'In the Third Reich,' he once announced, 'cruelty to animals should no longer exist.' Some of the earliest laws enacted by the Nazi Party pertained to animal protection, and violators could be sent to concentration camps. Vivisection, tail docking, and neutering were banned...

”What accounted for this concern for animals? Some of these laws, such as a ban on kosher butchering and on Jews having pets, were probably enacted because they furthered the goal of religious persecution; the restriction on vivisection might have been an effort to inhibit Jewish scientists. But the Nazi reverence for nature and natural order was more far-reaching and fundamental than a simple anti-Semitic attack. The pagan-like worship of nature as an immutable force was at the core of the Nazi belief system. Nature, with its invioable schematic and pitiless ranking of strong over weak, was held up as a model and a justification for the Nazis' worldview, and therefore nature and animals had to be honored and protected...

“Nazis also used their attention to animal well-being as a way to further humiliate their victims ... illustrated by the Angora Project, a rabbit-breeding program operated by the SS at the Auschwitz, Dachau, and Buchenwald concentration camps. Raised by inmates at the camps, the rabbits lived in gorgeous hutches and were fed lavish meals; their fur was trimmed and used as insulation in Luftwaffe pilots' winter jackets. But Henreich Himmler, the chief of the SS, who ran the project and kept a notebook documenting it, also wanted the rabbits for another purpose; he liked the starving prisoners to be reminded, as they prepared meals for the animals and cleaned their cages, that they had less value in the Nazi world order, deserved less dignity and fewer rights than the animals they cared for.”

--Susan Orlean, in one of the many interesting sidebars in her book, “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” pp. 145-46

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Posted at 03:36 PM on Oct 25, 2011 in category Quote of the Day
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Why Job Creators Is Such a Lie

Job creators.

We've been hearing that phrase a lot from the usual folks in the Republican party. They use it as a euphemism for the wealthiest people in the country, whom Republicans don't want to tax further, even though their current tax rate is half of what it was when I was growing up: 35% rather than 70%.

The right can't say “Don't tax the rich.” That won't play. So in a time of double-digit unemployment, someone dreamed up the term “Job creators.” The top 1% are wealthy, sure, but they're also the people who create jobs (Bill Gates, etc.), and taxing them at a higher level (at, say, 39%) will create such uncertainty that they won't expand their operations, and this will keep the economy from expanding as well. Taxing “job creators” is thus counterproductive to creating jobs.

It's a lie, of course.

The wealthiest people in this country (Bill Gates, etc.) are not job creators but profit creators. That's their job. If they have to add jobs in order to create profit, they'll do it. If they have to cut jobs in order to create profit, they'll do that, too. And if they can get you, their employee, to do more for less, they'll do that every day and twice on Sunday.

That's why the term “job creators” is such a lie. It ignores what a CEO does, what a corporation is. It ignores what capitalism is.

I've been feeling this all year. I've been waiting for someone in the mainstream media to say this all year. Nothing.

It's not the mainstream media, but recently, on his site, journalist Peter Lewis wrote about former Gannet CEO Craig Dubow, who resigned recently after six years at the helm. During his tenure, Gannett went from employing 52,000 to 32,000. Its stock went from $72 a share to $10 a share. Admittedly the last six years were particularly rough for newspapers, but—and here's the point—they weren't rough for Craig Dubow, whose salary was raised several million in 2010 to $7.9 million. Meanwhile, the pay of Bob Dickey, the head of Gannett’s U.S. newspapers division, was nearly doubled, from $1.9 million to $3.4 million, in 2010. This past summer he laid off 700 people. “While we have sought many ways to reduce costs,“ he told the workers, ”I regret to tell you that we will not be able to avoid layoffs.”

Job creators.

Dubow insists that his top priority as CEO was to serve the consumer: “We have always maintained an unwavering focus on the consumer,“ he wrote in his resignation letter. ”As a result, we have evolved into a digitally led media and marketing solutions company committed to delivering trusted news and information anywhere, anytime.”

Marjorie Magner, non-executive chairman of Gannett’s board of directors, echoed this thought. So did new CEO Gracia Martore.

Here's Peter Lewis:

These people are lying. The corporate goal is not to serve the consumer; it’s to maximize profits and pay packages for top executives. Can anyone argue that Gannett newspapers and journalism are better today, and that news consumers are better served?

How did Mr. Dubow and Gannett serve the consumer? They laid off journalists. They cut the pay of those who remained, while demanding that they work longer hours. They closed news bureaus. They slashed newsroom budgets. As revenue fell, and stock prices tanked, and product quality deteriorated, they rewarded themselves huge pay raises and bonuses.

Job creators.

Next time you hear someone use that term, feel free to punch them in the face.

John Boehner uses the term "job creators" to lie to the American people again.

One of the worst offenders.

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Posted at 06:19 AM on Oct 25, 2011 in category Business
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Monday October 24, 2011

The Best (and Worst) Baseball Movies of All Time: Ranked!

The other day I posted a 2004 MSN piece ranking baseball movies into four categories: 1) Hall of Fame, 2) Majors, 3) Minors, and 4) Not Fit to Carry Kevin Costner's Jockstrap. Made me wonder how I would actually rank these suckers. What's my favorite baseball movie? Least favorite? How do you factor in documentaries?

Only one way to find out...

  1. Bull Durham (1988): Still the smartest. Still the sexiest. Oh my.
  2. Ken Burns' Baseball (2004): It's nearly a day long (22+ hours) and I think I've watched it four or five times. That's nearly a week of my life. Burns includes too many New Yorkers, not enough Pittsburghers (see 1960), and Stan Musial gets short shrift while Harmon Killebrew isn't even mentioned. It's the official baseball history now, which makes these ommissions more glaring.
  3. The Life and Times of Hank GreenbergThe Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998): An unabashed paean and a joy to watch. Should be required viewing for all modern athletes who disregard their role-model status.
  4. 61* (2001): Isn't it time for Billy Crystal to make his great Mickey Mantle documentary?
  5. Moneyball (2011): I was turned off by the falsehoods but was won over by the poignancy. And if you want to read more, well, 3,500 words await.
  6. The Bad News Bears (1976): Should this movie have been in the Hall of Fame seven years ago? Should it be now? Haven't watched it in maybe five years but for some reason I have fond feelings for it.
  7. The Natural (1984): It's tough to transfer Bernard Malamud's Old Testament morality onto a Hollywood screen and give it a Hollywood ending, but Barry Levinson and Robert Redford (appearing in his first movie in four years) managed it in 1984. With caveats. Many caveats. Still, that homerun in the middle of the movie that stops time at Wrigley Field? Stops me every time.
  8. Eight Men Out (1988): “The written rules were rigid and righteous, while the real rules were often wide open and dirty.” That's from the book by Eliot Asinof on which the movie is based, and to which the movie pales. So is this: “America expected higher morals from ballplayers than they expected from businessmen.” Am I giving John Sayles and the movie too hard a time? Maybe I need to see it again. Maybe it's better than I remember.
  9. Sugar (2008): The Dominican players who saw this all said, “Yep. That's the way it is.” Always enlightening seeing our country through the eyes of others.
  10. "Catching Hell" by Alex GibneyCatching Hell (2011): Alex Gibney has directed docs on torture (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) and total failure (“Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room”), so it's only natural that he turns his attention to the Chicago Cubs--in the person of Steve Bartman, the unluckiest fan of the unluckiest franchise.
  11. Major League (1989): The bottom-of-the-ninth-inning bunt to win the championship has since been stolen by enough movies (“Mr. Baseball”; “Mr. 3000”) that it's become as much a cliche as the bottom-of-the-ninth-inning home run to win the championship. But all-around dopey fun.
  12. The Rookie (2002): In 1999, when I first read on ESPN.com about Jim Morris, a high school teacher in Texas who improbably made the bigs at the age of 35+, I said aloud to my Microsoft officemates, “Wonder how long before it's a movie?” But I assumed made-for-TV. Hollywood did better. Too much estranged father crap, of course, but otherwise a fairly straightforward narrative.
  13. Field of Dreams (1989): Speaking of estranged father crap... Most fans would put this top 10 or 5 or 3, but too much magic realism for me. In the original story, “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella, the author retrieved from New England and taken to Fenway Park is ... J.D. Salinger. That's one way the movie improved upon the source material.
  14. A League of their Own (1992): Geena Davis can't play. Rosie O'Donnell can.
  15. Pastime (1990): I saw this in the mid-1990s, liked it, and now remember nothing about it. Racial stuff, right?
  16. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973): The second appearance in the countdown by Michael Moriarty. He was also a talking head in “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” because his grandfather was a Major League umpire in the 1930s.
  17. Jews and Baseball: An American Love StoryJews and Baseball: An American Love Story (2010): Suffers in comparsion to “Greenberg.” But it means well.
  18. For Love of the Game (1999): A fading pitcher thinks about his imperfect life between innings of the last game of the year ... then gradually realizes he's pitching a perfect game. Overlong, but I think the reaction against it was a reaction against Costner, which I'm tired of.
  19. Fever Pitch (2005): How could Major League Baseball allow Drew and Jimmy on the field for the final out of the 2004 World Series?? How?????
  20. The Stratton Story (1948): I'm not sure why this made it into my “Majors” section in the MSN piece. When I think of it now, I think of it with slight distaste.
  21. Damn Yankees! (1958): Not much a baseball movie, more of a 1950s Broadway musical, but Ray Walston as the Devil livens things up. It's also the best titled baseball movie ever. Yankee haters everywhere unite!
  22. Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976): Oh, the movie this might have been. There’s incredible talent here (Billy Dee, James Earl Jones, Richard Pryor, Stan Shaw), there’s a budget, there’s direction from John Badham. But the tensions within the film are puerile. The evil is overwhelmingly evil; the good is happy-go-lucky. The story meanders and then tucks its tail between its legs and heads home. Shame. Great title, though.
  23. The Pride of the Yankees (1942): When I was a kid in the 1970s, this was regularly cited as the greatest baseball movie ever made. How far we've come. How far it's fallen.
  24. Game 6 (2005): The title game refers to the 1986 World Series. But there's no “going to see about a girl” for Michael Keaton.
  25. Angels in the Outfield (1951): When the remake was released in '94 I didn't even know there'd been an original--and with the Pirates of all teams. Not a bad baseball movie for the period.
  26. Cobb, starring Tommy Lee JonesTake Me Out to the Ballgame (1949): Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra sing and dance and pretend to play.
  27. Mr. Baseball (1992): Tom Selleck is an American asshole who must learn to be a team player in Japan. Doesn't suck.
  28. The Sandlot (1993): And you thought “The Wonder Years” was nostalgic. For people who like sugar. (Not “Sugar.”)
  29. Little Big League (1994): Kid becomes owner of the Minnesota Twins and makes the moves that put them in contention for the pennant. Ah, but the big, bad Seattle Mariners—with guest appearances by Ken Griffey, Jr. and Randy Johnson!—block their way...
  30. Major League II (1994): I don't remember much about this one (and I didn't see the third), but, hey, gang's getting back together. Except for Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hayes. He's doing too well so they pull a Darrin-from-Bewitched on him and replace him with Omar Epps. Would be lower if not for Bob Ueker.
  31. Fear Strikes Out (1957): I'll quote my father: “If Tony Perkins had handled a knife the way he handled a baseball bat, Janet Leigh would still be alive.”
  32. Rookie of the Year (1993): Magic arm, annoying kid.
  33. Mr. 3000 (2004): Bernie Mac, you are missed, but not for this.
  34. Angels in the Outfield (1994): A clear violation of the 25-man roster.
  35. The Jackie Robinson StoryCobb (1994): A hagiography would've felt like less of a lie.
  36. The Jackie Robinson Story (1950): Dreary baseball shots accompanied by heavy-handed pronouncements about equal opportunity. The movie reveals how far we've come by showing us the inanities that passed for racial enlightenment in 1950.
  37. The Babe (1992): At least Goodman has the charisma of the Babe.
  38. The Scout (1994): I don't think I even made it through this one.
  39. BASEketball (1998): Overwhelming juvenile. Whatever happened to these guys anyway?
  40. Major League III: Back to the Minors (1998): Is there a sadder title?
  41. The Babe Ruth Story (1948): The greatest player of all time in one of the worst movies of all time.
  42. Hard Ball (2001): This one's particularly egregious since the book on which it's based, “Hardball: A Season in the Projects,” written by Daniel Coyle, is fantastic.
  43. The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977): Josh Wilker has written an entire book out about this movie? Which he loves? Or something? Well, he made poetry out of Rudy Meoli popping up, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. I'll probably even buy it. 
  44. The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978): But Josh, don't push your luck.

Charlie's Angels and Bad News Bears

They starred in two of the worst baseball movies ever made but got to hang with the original Charlie's Angels. I'd make that trade.

ADDENDUM: Upon another viewing, “Cobb” has been downgraded from 24 to 35.

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Posted at 08:06 AM on Oct 24, 2011 in category Baseball
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Hollywood B.O.: “Paranormal Activity 3”? Really?

Yesterday, “Paranormal Activity 3” set the box office record for the biggest opening weekend in October with a $54 million haul. Did anyone see this coming? Here's Ray Stubers at Box Office Mojo last Friday:

[“Paranormal Activity 2”] wasn't as well received as the first installment, and horror movies generally haven't been performing over the last few months, so a slight decline for the third chapter in the series can be expected. At the same time, there was a slight uptick from “Saw II” to “Saw III,” so there is a chance “Paranormal Activity 3” exceeds its predecessor. Paramount is expecting a mid-$30 million opening followed by a better hold than “Paranormal Activity 2” ...

Of course, if you want to set a monthly box office record, October's not a bad month to do it in. Only January (“Cloverfield” at $40 million) and September (“Sweet Home Alabama” at $35 million) have lower opening-weekend records to break than October (previous: “Jackass 3-D” at $50 million).

Plus there's the company:

Rank Title Opening % of Total Total Gross Date
1 Paranormal Activity 3 $54,020,000 100% $54,020,000 10/21/11
2 Jackass 3-D $50,353,641 43% $117,229,692 10/15/10
3 Scary Movie 3 $48,113,770 44% $110,003,217 10/24/03
4 Shark Tale $47,604,606 30% $160,861,908 10/1/04
5 High School Musical 3 $42,030,184 46% $90,559,416 10/24/08
6 Paranormal Activity 2 $40,678,424 48% $84,752,907 10/22/10
7 The Grudge $39,128,715 36% $110,359,362 10/22/04
8 Red Dragon $36,540,945 39% $93,149,898 10/4/02
9 Couples Retreat $34,286,740 31% $109,204,945 10/9/09
10 Saw III $33,610,391 42% $80,238,724 10/27/06
11 Where the Wild Things Are $32,695,407 42% $77,233,467 10/16/09
12 Saw IV $31,756,764 50% $63,300,095 10/26/07
13 Saw II $31,725,652 36% $87,039,965 10/28/05
14 Saw V $30,053,954 53% $56,746,769 10/24/08
15 Beverly Hills Chihuahua $29,300,465 31% $94,514,402 10/3/08

“Where the Wild Things Are,” sure. “Red Dragon,” maybe. “Shark Tale,” meh. The rest is garbage. It's a film festival in hell. Do we all turn dumb in October or something?

“PA3”'s competition was also slight this weekend. “The Three Musketeers,” with its 0% top-critic rating (sample review: “Seriously: what the hell?” — Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune), pulled in just $8.8 mil in more than 3,000 theaters, while “Johnny English Reborn,” with a 40% top-critic rating, eked out less than half that ($3.8 mil) in fewer than half the theaters. These two finished 4th and 8th, respectively.

Something called “The Mighty Macs,” a 2009 girls basketball movie starring Carla Gugino, and only now released, bombed, grossing about $1 million in almost 1,000 theaters. To give you an idea how bad that is: The movie I saw, “Margin Call” (89% top-critic rating, and recommended), played in 1/20 the theaters (56) but grossed 1/2 the money ($586,000).

Should “Margin Call” have been more widely distributed? I would argue yes, but most assume the masses aren't interested in its subject matter. The movie's about the beginning of the Global Financial Meltdown and people want to see scary stuff.

The paranormal numbers here.

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Posted at 07:28 AM on Oct 24, 2011 in category Movies - Box Office
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Sunday October 23, 2011

Diane Baker's Neck

I posted my review of “Marnie” the other day, a movie which didn't impress me much. But I was impressed by one thing: the lovely neck of a young Diane Baker, who started out as a ballerina, and who is perhaps best known as the senator whose daughter goes missing in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Here's a screenshot from “Marnie.” Baker is on the left:

Diane Baker in "Marnie" (1964)

Who has the most celebrated neck in movie history? Audrey Hepburn? Looking at Diane Baker, above, I'm surprised, certainly saddened, that she never got cast as Audrey Hepburn's devilish younger sister. Imagine that movie. Instead she spent a few years on “Dr. Kildare,” then a few years on a few more shows. And then... and then... She kept working anyway. She got to do what she likes to do. She's now executive director of the acting school at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Quote from the site:

“Our perspective is simple. Work hard, learn your craft and build relationships.” ~ Director Diane Baker

Good advice in any field.

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Posted at 01:58 PM on Oct 23, 2011 in category Movies
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From the Archives: A Review of Muammar Qaddafi's “Escape to Hell and other stories”

In 1999 I reviewed several novels written by politicians, including Newt Gingrich's “1945” and Ed Koch's “Murder on Broadway” for a slightly humorous piece in Washington Law & Politics magazine. One of the other books was Muammar Qaddafi's “Escape to Hell and other stories.” The review is below. Take note, in bold, of the main character in the title story and his fear of the masses, and his obsession with Mussolini's fate...

Escape to Hell by Muammar QaddafiThe first section of Qaddafi's book, “Novels”, is essentially polemic intermingled with parable; the second section, “Essays”, is mostly polemic. Why the division? And why use the word “novels” when these things are, at best, essays?

I suppose ours is not to question the mind of Qaddafi. Yet here I go.

At one point he sounds like a New Age chick: “Truly, the earth is your mother; she gave birth to you from her insides. She is the one who nursed you and fed you. Do not be disobedient to your mother--and do not shear her hair, cut off her limbs, rip her flesh, or wound her body.” In another chapter, he's G. Gordon Liddy, extolling, he says, “the fact that a person's will can overcome death...”

Near the end of the book, he talks up the virtues of “the people” like a good politician should, but earlier, in the titular story, the masses are dreadful, inspiring an almost Kafka-esque paranoia. “People snap at me whenever they see me,” he writes. He chronicles the rise and fall of other leaders: “...the masses dragged Mussolini's corpse through the streets, and spat in Nixon's face as he departed the White House for good, having applauded his entrance years before.”

Spat in his face? When did this happen? And why wasn't I allowed my turn?

Muammar has his moments. He does up western culture pretty well, for example. “Entertainment,” he writes, “takes on the meaning of wasting time and being absorbed; culture becomes superficial, telling and exchanging jokes takes the place of good literary work and criticism.”

Overall, though, Escape to Hell is boring as hell.

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Posted at 09:43 AM on Oct 23, 2011 in category Politics
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Saturday October 22, 2011

How the Daily Beast Screws Up Its Articles

I saw this article the other day on The Daily Beast. I was there for Andrew Sullivan but saw this.

Daily Beast link: the media and girls and Paris Hilton

Didn't click on the link but questions were inevitably raised about the use of (I assume) Paris Hilton:

  1. Does she represent the media's depiction of girls?
  2. Does she represent girls?
  3. Is she there because she's hot, you'll notice, possibly click on the link, and help the bottom line of the Daily Beast?

I'm guessing a bit of 1) but mostly 3).

Seriously, it's dopey enough having a media site like the Daily Beast talk up the problems of “the media.” But for the Daily Beast to then offer up the very thing it's condemning is a sign either of schizophrenia or a vast, horrible unscrupulousness.

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Posted at 06:09 PM on Oct 22, 2011 in category Media
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The First Best Actor?

“That year [1927], Rin Tin Tin was designated the most popular performer in the United States, and his four films—A Dog of the Regiment, Jaws of Steel, Tracked by the Police and Hills of Kentucky—were box office hits as well as critical successes. The Academy Awards were presented for the first time, and Rinty received the most votes for Best Actor. But members of the Academy, anxious to establish the new awards as serious and important, decided that giving an Oscar to a dog did not serve that end, so the votes were recalculated and the award was diverted to Emil Jannings, for his performances in both The Way of the Flesh and The Last Command.”

--Susan Orlean, “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” pp. 88-89. Orlean will appear next Friday, October 28, at SIFF Uptown for a reading, a Q&A, and a showing of the Rin Tin Tin silent film “Clash of the Wolves.”

The original Rin Tin Tin in 1927

The original Rin Tin Tin in “Hills of Kentucky” (1927).

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Posted at 08:04 AM on Oct 22, 2011 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Friday October 21, 2011

Photos of the Day: Cat Traps

This was a photo making the rounds on Facebook the other day, which made me laugh out loud, and which, yes, I shared with friends:

Cat Traps

It's how we trapped Jellybean, after all. (Photo from Oct. 2010):

Jellybean in a Stella Artois box

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Posted at 07:10 AM on Oct 21, 2011 in category Jellybean
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Thursday October 20, 2011

Quote of the Day

“To rid the world of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and Moammar Qaddafi within six months: if Obama were a Republican, he'd be on Mount Rushmore by now.”

--Andrew Sullivan, “A Tale of Two Presidents”

Also worth reading: Sullivan's post, “The Untold Story of the Actual Obama Record.”

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Posted at 02:26 PM on Oct 20, 2011 in category Quote of the Day
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Photo of the Day

The SIFF-controlled Uptown Theater in lower Queen Anne

Apparently the rumors of its death were greatly exaggerated. By me, among others, last November, when its doors were shuttered. But now the Uptown Theater in lower Queen Anne, owned and controlled by SIFF, the Seattle International Film Festival, is getting ready for its close-up again.

Thank God. For much of this year the old, boarded-up theater has become a poor shelter for the homeless and a repository for everyone's garbage. There were times when I was this close to buying a broom just to sweep up in front of it. If I'd had the money (like: lots of money) I would've bought the place myself and kept it a theater. So thank you, SIFF, for doing so. Now give me good movies to go see.

P.S. Love the blue. Seattle, the grayest of cities, always needs more blue.

ADDENDUM: The old signage just keeps getting better. This shot is from opening night, tonight, Thursday, October 20. I didn't go, I was biking home to watch the World Series, but I plan on being there soon. Schedule here. Thanks, SIFF, for spiffing up the neighborhood.

SIFF Uptown Theater decked out for its grand reopening: Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011

SIFF Uptown Theater decked out for its grand reopening: Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011.

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Posted at 01:02 PM on Oct 20, 2011 in category Photo of the Day
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Movie Review: Marnie (1964)

WARNING: SPOILERS, MAMA. MAMA, SPOILERS

Tippi Hedren had just come off “The Birds,” Sean Connery had just come off the first two Bond films, and Alfred Hitchock had just come off the most successful string of movies in his illustrious career: “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” “Psycho” and “The Birds.”

So I guess they were due.

Poster for Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie" (1964)Why doesn’t it work? Why is “Marnie” laughable and cringeworthy? And why have the readers of IMDb.com given this very, very bad movie a 7.2 rating?

Don’t they understand that the film is almost anti-Hitchcockian?

Most Hitchcock thrillers are about uncovering your own problem for reasons of survival. “Marnie” is about uncovering someone else’s problem for reasons of love.

The threat in the best Hitchcock movies is external: birds or hotel managers or international spies or our own damned voyeuristic curiosity as we spy on our neighbors. Here the threat is internal: the repressed memories of Marnie Edgar (Hedren).

Hitchcock’s most memorable protagonists are innocent men, or not-so-innocent men, trapped in something they don’t understand, who spend the movie running and punching their way out—not only to set themselves free but to see just what trapped them in the first place. Mark Rutland (Connery) isn’t trapped in anything. He has more knowledge than anyone. He’s not within it but outside it. And what he’s trying to see, into the mind of Marnie, isn’t exactly cinematic.

Do his motivations change? I’m curious. Marnie uses her looks and secretarial skills to get jobs at companies, which she then robs. Then she dyes her hair, goes to a new town, and starts all over again. But when she shows up at Rutland’s publishing house, Mark recognizes her from her previous gig (where he was a client), and hires her anyway.

What does he want at this point? To trap her? To sleep with her?

During a Saturday work sesssion, Marnie is frightened, almost made catatonic, by a thunderstorm, and Mark comforts her, then kisses her. Do his motivations change here? Does he care for her now that he’s seen how vulnerable she is? How soft her lips are?

Eventually he spills the beans. He knows who she is and what she is. And guess what? He wants to marry her! Marnie’s reaction to the first revelation is to act like a trapped animal. Her reaction to the marriage proposal is to act like a trapped animal. She almost grrrs. But she’s got no claws.

What’s making her act like this? Why is she stealing compulsively? Why doesn’t she want Mark to touch her? Why does she wig out during thunderstorms and whenever she sees the color red?

Complex questions with the same easy answer: repressed memory.

I wasn’t a fan of repressed memory stories when they turned up in later episodes of “M*A*S*H.” in the 1970s. The world and human beings are complex; but somehow if you just unlock what’s locked up inside our minds we'll be well again. It’s all too logical. It reduces human nature to a mathematical equation. You just need to know the numbers to the combination to set yourself free.

Marnie’s repressed memory happened on the seedy docks of Baltimore when she was five years old. Her mother, Bernice Edgar (Louise Latham), whom we’ve met in an early scene, and who warns her grown-up daughter about men, was once, of course, a prostitute. She used to rouse little Marnie from their shared bed whenever the “men in white suits” (sailors) came calling. But one sailor, played by Bruce Dern, goes out into the hallway to comfort Marnie during a thunderstorm. (That’s why she’s scared of thunderstorms.) Then he begins molesting her. (That’s why she’s frigid.) The mother sees what he’s doing, fights him, but breaks her leg in the process. (That’s why she limps.) It’s up to little Marnie to grab a fire poker and bash the dude’s head in. (That’s why she’s scared of blood-red.) See? It all fits together. All because of one bad night long, long ago, which she then represeed. But with Mark’s help, and with a lot of overacting and baby girl voices, Marnie finally remembers it all, and reconciles with her mother, and Marnie and Mark leave to assume normal, rich lives in Philadelphia.

Awful. Remember that five-minute bit at the end of “Psycho” where the psychiatrist goes on and on bout what’s wrong with Norman Bates? Like that, but for an entire movie.

Hedren isn’t used well here, either—she’s best playing flirty and self-satisfied rather than trapped animal—while a subplot with Mark’s deceased wife’s younger sister, Lil (a gorgeous Diane Baker), goes nowhere.

But because Hitchock’s name is at the helm, the film is being “rediscovered” by modern, Hitchcock-loving cineastes who are finding all sorts of reasons to like it.

Final reason they shouldn’t: Reconciles with the mother? Hitchcock?

Marnie waits to rob Rutland's in Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie" (1964)

Marnie waits to rob Rutland's in Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie" (1964)

One of the better shots in the film: Marnie (Tippi Hedren) waits in the ladies room to rob the Rutland Publishing House in Alfred Hitchcock's “Marnie” (1964)

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Posted at 07:04 AM on Oct 20, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 1960s
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Wednesday October 19, 2011

Photos of the Day

Hanging out at the Seattle Center's International Fountain on a sunny day in October can do wonders for your soul. Music by Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

The International Fountain at Seattle Center, Oct. 2011

The International Fountain at Seattle Center, Oct. 2011

The International Fountain at Seattle Center, Oct. 2011

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Posted at 03:45 PM on Oct 19, 2011 in category Photo of the Day
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The Best (and Worst) Baseball Movies of All Time

I wrote this piece for MSN seven years ago, for the 2004 post-season (that glorious post-season), but it's no longer available in uncut form. The site used it for spring one year, fall the next, and eventually trimmed away the negative. It turned it into this. Below you'll find the pure uncut stuff. Just in time for the first game of the 2011 World Series.

Question: Where would you rank recent baseball movies, including “Moneyball,” “Sugar,” “The Perfect Game,” “The Bronx is Burning,” “The Benchwarmers,” “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” and “Fever Pitch”? In the Hall of Fame? In the Majors? Minors? Not fit to carry Costner's jockstrap? Feel free to add thoughts in the comments field.

Arguing with the umpire is encouraged.

This may be the best time ever for fans of baseball movies. Early versions of the genre tended to be black-and-white hagiographies where the actors weren’t athletic, the baseball wasn’t exciting, and kids with names like Jimmy or Timmy were forever stricken with crippling diseases that could only be cured by homeruns hit by big-name sluggers. After the publication of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four in 1970, baseball heroes were finally allowed to appear less heroic—and usually seemed moreso as a result.

But what makes a good baseball movie? After immersing myself in the genre, and seeing more than my share of called shots, key strikeouts, and bottom-of-the-ninth-inning-on-the-last-day-of-the-season homeruns, I’ve come up with the following guidelines:

  • It’s better to focus on a season than a career. Probably because the rhythm of a season is closer to a dramatic arc than the rhythm of a life.
  • Employ actors who look like they can play. Please.
  • Be passionate about your subject. Check out Billy Crystal’s 61* and Aviva Kempner’s The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg for an indication of what passion can do.
  • Yankees suck! (OK, not a guideline. Just fun to say.)

The movies below are divided into four categories of descending importance. Play ball!

Hall of Fame

Bull Durham (1988)
Written and directed by Ron Shelton.
The sexiest and wittiest baseball movie is also the most real. Nice triumvirate. It’s less concerned with how a team matures than how people mature. Millie gets married, Annie falls in love, and Nuke Laloosh, so hopeless he needs two teachers, becomes…a little less Bull Durham (1988)hopeless. The movie suffers when he leaves. I love Crash and Annie, but they’re both teachers, and when they get together the best parts of her character are subsumed by the dullest parts of his. (This could be every wife’s lament.) But this is just in the last five minutes of the movie. The first 103 are still brilliant.
Heroes: Sexy women and Walt Whitman.
Villains: That one extra hit per week (a flair, gork, a dying quail) that doesn’t fall or get through, and that keeps the .250 hitter from becoming a .300 hitter.
Verisimilitude: Costner’s swing is the prettiest of any actor in any baseball movie. (Redford and Tom Selleck come close.) Robbins’ motion ain’t in the same class but it’s workable. But no A-ball pitcher – I don’t care how good – leaps past Double-A and Triple-A for the majors. Just doesn’t happen.
Baseball cameos: Max Patkin, the clown prince of baseball.
Awards: Best screenplay from all the major film critic groups. The Academy gave the Oscar to Rain Man.
Quote: “Oh my.”

61* (2001)
Directed by Billy Crystal. Written by Hank Steinberg.
OK, so Billy Crystal is a spoiled little shit of a Yankees fan who, in Ken Burns’ “Baseball,” laments the Yankees’ 1960 World Series loss with 61* directed by Billy CrystalThe Whine Heard ‘Round the World: “I still hurt about it. I still feel bad about it.” Billy, you grew up watching the most dominating team in sports history – 14 pennants in 16 years – and you still feel bad about this one season? Shut up already! … And now his due. With a fantastic script from Hank Steinberg, the little S.O.B. has directed a great baseball movie. The verisimilitude is unparalleled, right down to those odd, fuzzy-looking batting helmets they wore in the sixties. His lead actors (Barry Pepper and Tom Jane) are uncanny, and can act. He doesn’t skimp on supporting cast either: Richard Masur; the always-fascinating Bruce McGill; and Billy’s daughter, the very sweet Jennifer Crystal. Best of all, there’s dramatic tension. It’s about an ordinary man under extraordinary pressure. It’s about a decent man who’s treated as a villain, and an often indecent man who’s treated as a hero. It’s about the friendship between the two. I hate the Yankees as much as Billy loves them, but man I love this movie.
Heroes: Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.
Villains: Ford Frick; sportswriters; punctuation.
Verisimilitude: You’d need a time machine to get a more exact rendition of the 1961 New York Yankees.
Awards: 12 Emmy nominations. Won two: casting and sound editing.
Quote: “We’re chasing a ghost, Rog. You go into that clubhouse, he’s there. At homeplate, he’s there. In the outfield, he’s there. The fat fuck, he’s everywhere! We’re playing in his house!”

The Natural (1984)
Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, based upon the novel by Bernard Malamud.
Author Bernard Malamud condemned his characters for the slightest breach of morality (Roy Hobbs, for example, strikes out at the end), The Natural (1984)and his novel was an amalgam of real myths and baseball myths, so its transfer to a 1980s movie screen with requisite happy ending feels forced at times. I mean: the whole good luck/bad luck thing? Pop is jinxed but Roy overcomes his jinx. Memo is bad luck but Roy can’t overcome her bad luck. Iris is good luck so she counteracts Memo. Why? And why the gambler if there’s no “Say is ain’t so, Roy”? And enough shots with the kids in the stands already. … So with all of these complaints, why is The Natural still in my Hall of Fame? Because every time I see the effin’ thing I start to cry. It’s our An Affair to Remember.
Heroes: Roy Hobbs; golden light from the setting sun.
Villains: Sexy women and the dark. Which is odd because this combination is usually a plus in my life.
Verisimilitude: Redford is completely believable as a baseball star but not as a teenager. It was the last time he played one.
Awards: Four Academy Award nominations. 0-4. Hardly Hobbsian.
Quote: “Some mistakes I guess we never stop paying for.”

Also inducted: Ken Burns’ Baseball (1994); The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (2000)

Major Leagues

The Bad News Bears (1976)
Directed by Michael Ritchie. Written by Bill Lancaster.
The Bad News Bears (1976)The script is unfair to minorities – blacks, Mexicans, Iowans – and the journey of Coach Buttermaker from thesis (doesn’t care about winning) to antithesis (cares too much about winning) to synthesis (cares about the kids) is a little extreme. But it’s still the movie for anyone who ever failed athletically. Which means most of us.
Heroes: Misfits and underdogs.
Villains: Businessmen and the North Valley League Yankees.
Verisimilitude: The Bears look like every kid who ever had trouble catching a pop fly; that’s its charm.
Awards: Matthau was nominated for a BAFTA.
Quote: “Hey Yankees, you can take your apology and your trophy and shove it straight up your ass!”

Major League (1989)
Written and directed by David S. Ward
Major League (1989)The quintessential Hollywood baseball story concerns a team of misfit underdogs who, through some galvanizing force (and with or without spinning newspaper headlines), rise from the cellar and contend for the pennant on the last day of the season. This conceit describes everything from Bang the Drum Slowly to Angels in the Outfield, but its purest example is Major League. The misfits here are all colorful and memorable, each is given equal time, and the subplots are kept to a minimum. Best of all? It’s funny.
Heroes: Misfits and underdogs.
Villains: Ex-showgirls and the New York Yankees.
Verisimilitude: Charlie Sheen’s pitching motion is the best I’ve seen from an actor. The others look pretty good, too.
Ballplayer cameos: Pete Vukovich and Steve Yeager.
Quote: “Juuuust a bit outside.”

The Stratton Story (1949)
Directed by Sam Wood. Written by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper
The Stratton StoryThis is a simple story simply told. It’s about a country boy who makes the bigs, suffers a horrible injury, and then begins to explore the limits of his new circumstances. What can he do now? How much of his former life can he reclaim? The film relies heavily upon the considerable charm of its star, Jimmy Stewart, and when his character turns bitter and quiet the movie flags. But this is only temporary. Worth watching for the shot of Stratton’s one year-old son learning to walk, with Stratton, beside him, doing the same.
Heroes: Monte Stratton.
Villains: Shotguns and the New York Yankees.
Verisimilitude: A good pitching motion is probably the only area of acting where Charlie Sheen could’ve given Jimmy Stewart pointers.
Ballplayer cameos: Bill Dickey.
Awards: Academy Award for Best Story.
Quote: “A man’s gotta know where he’s going.”

Also in the show: Bang the Drum Slowly (1973); Eight Men Out (1988); Field of Dreams (1989); Pastime (1991); A League of Their Own (1992); The Rookie (2002)

Minor Leagues

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)Directed by Sam Wood. Written by Jo Swerling, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Damon Runyon
I can hear the complaints already. For decades this biopic of Lou Gehrig was considered the best baseball movie ever made, but time hasn’t been kind. Gary Cooper’s cutesy-pie acting? The idiotic “Tanglefoot” business? Gehrig learning to hit with power from a nerd at the county fair? Slugging two homeruns in the World Series for a crippled kid who’d already been promised a homerun by Babe Ruth? MGM’s weird dance interlude with Veloz and Yolanda? How about this awful line from manager Miller Huggins after Gehrig plays the first of his 2130 consecutive games? “What do we have to do – kill you to get you out of the lineup?” No, not kind at all.
Hero: Lou Gehrig
Villain: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Verisimilitude: They both had shy smiles, but long, lean Gary Cooper had the wrong body to play the sturdy Iron Man of baseball. He couldn’t swing, either.
Ballplayer cameos: Babe Ruth and Bill Dickey.
Awards: Ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Writing, Actor and Actress. Won Film Editing.
Quote: “Today I consider myself the luckiest man (man man) on the face of the earth (earth earth).

Damn Yankees! (1958)
Damn Yankees! (1958)Directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen. Written by George Abbott, from the novel, “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” by Douglass Wallop.
There are two big baseball musicals and each lacks what the other has. Take Me Out to the Ball Game has personality (Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra), but the story’s no great shakes and the songs aren’t memorable. Damn Yankees! has a great story (Faust) and great songs (“You gotta have heart”; “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO”) but no personality. Ray Walston and Jean Stapleton are delightful, but Tab Hunter just doesn’t cut it. Gwen Verdon’s a fine dancer but not someone you’d sell your soul for. And the team? Well, they’ve got heart anyway.
Heroes: Faithful wives and faithful husbands.
Villains: The Devil and the New York Yankees. Not necessarily in that order.
Verisimilitude: My Sunday softball team could beat these guys.
Awards: Academy Award nomination for Best Musical Score.
Quote: “Wives! They give me more trouble than the Methodist Church!”

For Love of the Game (1999)
Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Dana Stevens, from the novel by Michael Shaara.
For Love of the Game (1999)With tighter editing this could’ve made the bigs. It’s got a cool lead character who thinks over his life as he pitches a meaningless game near the end of a meaningless season. And he’s got reasons to think over his life. He’s lost his woman and maybe his career. Halfway through he suddenly realizes he’s pitching a perfect game.
Hero: Billy Chapel
Villains: The past and the New York Yankees
Verisimilitude: John C. Reilly’s got the mug but not the chops to be a catcher. Apparently Costner can play any position.
Awards: The Razzies nominated Costner. It’s time they stopped riding his ass.
Quote: “How do you like to be kissed?”

Also grabbing pine: Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949); Fear Strikes Out (1958); Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976); Mr. Baseball (1992); The Sandlot (1993); Cobb (1994); Little Big League (1994); Major League II (1994)

Not Fit to Carry Kevin Costner’s Jockstrap

The Babe Ruth Story (1948)
Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Written by George Callahan and Bob Considine, from the book by Bob Considine and Babe Ruth.
The Babe (1992)
Directed by Arthur Hiller. Written by John Fusco.
The Babe Ruth Story (1948)The greatest baseball player of all time has been the subject of two of the worst baseball movies of all time. In the Bendix version he throws like a girl, hits infield pop flies that magically leave the park, and gets in dutch with his manager for taking a sick dog to the hospital. In the Goodman version, he throws like a girl, hits infield pop flies that magically leave the park, and is hugely fat from the start – when Babe was in pretty good shape for much of his career. At least the nineties version is honest about Babe’s drinking and womanizing, but then they try to make his excesses and tantrums the stuff of tragedy. Both movies have him hitting homeruns for sick kids in the hospital. Both have him calling his shot in the 1932 World Series. The Bendix version actually combines the two: Babe calls his shot for a sick kid in the hospital. I’d call it ruthless efficiency but there was too much Ruth in it.
Heroes: Babe Ruth, and the people who put up with him.
Villains: Hot dogs, booze, and Colonel Ruppert.
Verisimilitude: For the next movie about the Babe? Try hiring a lefty.
Baseball cameos: Mark Koenig played himself in the ’48 version.
Quote: “How can you manage a baseball team when you can’t even manage yourself?”

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
Directed by Alfred E. Green. Written by Arthur Mann and Lawrence Taylor.
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)Jackie Robinson plays himself in this low-budget film full of dull apple pie pronouncements and paternalistic back-patting. There’s odd comic relief from a character named “Shorty,” baseball is presented as Jackie’s best, favorite sport – when it wasn’t either – and at the end Jackie delivers a sudden, embarrassing anti-communist speech. And where’s his famous fire? Only visible for a second when Branch Rickey (Minor Watson) gives him an example of the kind of abuse he’ll face. In a way the movie confirms how far we’ve come by revealing what passed for racial enlightenment in 1950.
Heroes: Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.
Villains: Southern “lodge” members.
Verisimilitude: You’re not going to get a better ballplayer than Jackie Robinson, but you could get a better actor.
Quote: “We’re dealing with rights here. The right of any American to play baseball, the American game. You think he’s our boy, Clyde?”

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977)
Directed by Michael Pressman. Written by Paul Brickman.
The Bad News Bears Go To Japan (1978)
Directed by John Berry. Written by Bill Lancaster.
The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977)In the first sequel they lose Matthau and O’Neal, and in the second they lose Tanner (“Crud!”) Boyle. The first sequel insults Texas, the second Japan. The first sequel includes a Fonzie rip-off, the second goes for the cute black kid. Rudi Stein keeps getting taller. Kelly Leak keeps getting creepier. Yet the filmmakers insist that Kelly’s a cool kid who deserves his own subplots: estranged father in Breaking Training, romance with a Japanese girl in Japan. Apparently they’re re-making The Bad News Bears with Billy Bob Thornton in Matthau’s role. If it happens, I’d advise them to stop right there. These sequels are as unwatchable as movies get.
Heroes: Misfit underdogs.
Villains: Jocks and businessmen. And the New York Yankees. OK, I’m making that up.
Verisimilitude: Anyone who thinks Jackie Earle Haley is a stand-out player can clear out their locker right now.
Awards: The Razzies hadn’t been invented yet.
Quote: “You’re really just a second place team from the Van Nuys League.”

Also unfit for jockstrap-carrying duty: Rookie of the Year (1993); The Scout (1994), Angels in the Outfield (1994); BASEketball (1998); Major League III: Back to the Minors (1998); Hard Ball (2001)

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Posted at 07:58 AM on Oct 19, 2011 in category Baseball
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Tuesday October 18, 2011

Just How Memorable are World Series Losers?

I think David Schoenfield is doing a great job in Rob Neyer's spot on ESPN.com. I also like his latest column, “What to Watch in the World Series.” But its last line?

In the end, history will remember only which team wins that final game.

We'll be lucky if history remembers baseball, David, let alone the World Series, let alone its 2011 incarnation.

But if by “history” you mean “baseball fans,” well, then I think you're not giving us enough credit. Off the top of my head:

Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, Tampa Bay Rays, Colorado Rockies, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees, New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Braves, Oakland A's, San Francisco Giants, Oakland A's, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees, Kansas City Royals, Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Braves (I think), New York Yankees (I think), Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians ...

Then I get lost during those string of Yankee victories from '49 to '53. I think '52 and '53 were against the Dodgers, '51 obviously with the Giants, and '50 with the Phillies. Was '49 also the Dodgers? And who did the Indians beat in '48?

Feel free to correct my math, by the way.

None of this, of course, is any consolation for the Cards or the Rangers. Both want to win. But no matter who wins or loses, baseball fans will remember that they both played.

ADDENDUM: If the Rangers lose, they'll be the first team to lose consecutive World Series since the '91/'92 Braves, who were the first to do it since the '77/'78 Dodgers, who were the first to do it since the '63/'64 Yankees. It's not that common in the expansion era. Winning consecutive World Series is a little more common. It's happened six times during the expansion era. Can you name the teams?

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Posted at 05:30 PM on Oct 18, 2011 in category Baseball
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Why I'm Behind Occupy Wall Street 99%

In 2009 I interviewed Chicago labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan, who, that year, 1) argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court (he won); 2) ran for Rahm Emanuel's congressional seat in Chicago (he lost); and 3) wrote a cover story for Atlantic magazine (“Infinite Debt: How unlimited interest rates destroyed the economy”). May we all have such successful and far-ranging years.

At one point in our Q&A, we had the following exchange about the depressed state of labor and the rise of the Tea Party:

Does it surprise you that angry populism seems to exist on the right rather than the left?

I think the left is pretty beaten down in this country. The non-electoral checks that I think a republic needs—and here I’m thinking about labor movements, works councils, co-determination—they just don’t exist here. So you would think, given the unemployment, given the debt, given the poverty in this country, and how wealthy it is, you’d think people would be really angry. In fact, I think they are.

And so they are. And so angry populism is existing, in public, on the left again.

I'm truly grateful for the Occupy Wall Street crowd. I'm behind them 99 percent. My generation, born in the early-to-mid-sixties, and coming of age in the early years of the Reagan administration, dropped the ball completely. We helped create the world as it is. Hopefully these kids will help create the world as it should be. Or closer to that ideal.

It'll get messy. It'll be disorganized. What can I say? It's the left and it's human beings and many will talk over their heads and/or demand what they can't get or what the majority of protesters don't even want. Plus you'll get your anarchists and nutjobs, and the mainstream media will focus on them, as will the right, and they'll try to discredit the movement any way they can. They'll say: It's just spoiled college kids. They'll say: Get a job! Leave the poor Wall Street brokers alone! They'll talk up the individual responsibility of the protesters, as if the lives of others, and the lives of powerful others, have no bearing on our own. As if the Global Financial Meltdown just kinda—oops—happened.

Others will parse, and have parsed, that 99% number. Isn't it more like 90%? Or 75%? They'll shake their heads and think the kids have already blown it. But they don't know a good slogan when they hear one. “Shouldn't it be, We WILL overcome?”

Others will conflate, and have conflated, the Occupy Wall Street crowd with the Tea Party:

Occupy Wall Street/Tea Party demands

Andrew Sullivan keeps doing this. He loves this chart. He thinks it's meaningful. I don't. Look at the point of intersection between the two movements. It says: “Large corporations lobby for government to have more power, and in return the government enacts laws and regulations favorable to corporations.” Question: In this scenario, what is the government doing? It's enacting laws and regulations. Which is its job. The problem isn't what the government is doing; the problem is who the government is listening to (corporations/CEOs/lobbyists) and who it isn't listening to (the 99%). That's what we need to fix. That's why the Occupy Wall Street crowd makes sense and the Tea Party never did.

I admit it: I hated the Tea Party from the get-go. It was the wrong people marching about the wrong things at the wrong time. It was historical movement as farce. If Tea Partiers were truly worried about the national debt, as they said they were, where were they when the national debt doubled from $5 trillion to $10 trillion during the Bush years? Why wait for the first few months of the Obama administration before taking to the streets? And if they were worried about taxes, as they said they were, why protest at all? Aren't taxes at historic lows? And if they were worried about both, well, how to reconcile the two? Lowering taxes raises the debt. You can say you want lower taxes and a lower debt, but, as the saying goes, people in hell want ice water. That kind of wish fulfillment, which has been going on for more than 30 years now, is why we're in this mess in the first place. 

Others will conflate the movements in this manner:

Bigger version here.

Andrew Sullivan keeps doing this, too. He thinks this kind of thing is meaningful. I think it's ludicrous. The folks on the right want to cut taxes, or, absurdly, cut them to zero, when surrounded by all the necessities their taxes create. That's hypocrisy. The folks on the left may or may not think corporations are evil (none of their signs indicate that), but even if they did, the fact that they use the products of these corporations (and, again, the “razors by Gillette” indicators are mostly guesses) is not a sign of hypocrisy. It's evidence of just how pervasive corporations are in our lives. As consumers, we can't escape corporations. As employees, we may not be able to, either. So we better make sure they do the right thing. We better make sure that we, as both consumers and employees, are protected from the natural corporate drive to create profit at our expense.

Besides, this isn't what the movement is really about. What's it about? That 99% number is a clue. It's about the growing American oligarchy. It's about how the many have less, the few have most, and the government seems to be listening to the few with most rather than the many, the 99%, with less. Which isn't democracy as we were taught it.

Stay tuned.

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Posted at 06:52 AM on Oct 18, 2011 in category Politics
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Monday October 17, 2011

Photo of the Day: Marion Strout Plaque at the Betty Bowen Lookout

On nice days, and even some crappy ones, I like walking up Queen Anne hill to Kerry Park, the famous spot that overlooks the Space Needle, downtown Seattle, and Mt. Rainier, and which is a popular tourist destination.

But more and more, I keep walking west along Highland Avenue to the Betty Bowen lookout at Marshall Park, which faces Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains. It's less crowded, quiet and peaceful. It gives me a moment.

Took this photo last week. Could've been today. Both were beautiful, crisp, cloudless fall days.

Betty Bowen was an assistant director at the Seattle Art Museum, who died in 1977, and who was herself such a patron of the arts that an award was named in her honor and given annually to local artists. Seattle Times story on her and the award here.

Can't find much info on Marion Faith Strout. Could she be the Marion Strout quoted in this article?

Marion Faith Strout plaque at the Betty Bowen Lookout on Queen Anne hill in Seattle

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Posted at 07:26 PM on Oct 17, 2011 in category Photo of the Day
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Movie Reviews: The Ides of March (2011)

BEWARE: THE SPOILERS OF OCTOBER

“The Candidate,” the seminal political movie of the 1970s, is about the corruption of a true believer, the titular candidate, Bill McKay (Robert Redford), who goes from idealistic grassroots activist to U.S. Senator-elect mouthing the ominous words, “What do we do now?,” as if he no longer has a mind of his own.

Gosling/Clooney poster for "The Ides of March"Half an hour into “The Ides of March,” the seminal political movie of 2011, I thought writer-director George Clooney was turning this idea on its head. His presidential candidate, Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney), holds firm to his principles, refusing to accept a quid-pro-quo agreement with Sen. Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), whose leftover delegates from his own failed campaign would give Morris the nomination, even as his campaign managers, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) urge it.

“I said I wasn’t going to make those kinds of deals,” he says to his men.

But “Ides of March” is also about the corruption of a true believer. This time, though, the true believer is the idealistic campaign manager rather than the candidate.

Stephen Meyers, Gosling’s character, believes in Morris. “He’s the only one who’s actually going to make a difference in people’s lives,” he tells New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei).

Stephen is also smart. The opposition campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) sees his smarts, wants it for his guy, and invites Stephen to a sit-down. Flattered, Stephen shows up, but nothing comes of it. Except everything. Because Stephen tells Paul, Paul tells The New York Times (Ida) so that he can then fire Stephen for being disloyal enough to accept the sit-down in the first place. Tom Duffy knew this. He foresaw it all. He calls it a win-win. “The moment you sat down in that chair,” he tells him later, “I won.”

Worse, now Duffy doesn’t even want him. He’s damaged goods. Stephen was this close to the White House, with a candidate he believed in, and now it’s all gone.

Except there’s a competing storyline. A pretty intern (Evan Rachel Wood), 20, flirts with Stephen, 30. She talks campaign, always with a frisson of sex underneath, and teases him about his exalted status as assistant campaign manager versus hers as lowly intern. After handing out cellphones to the staff, for example, and after a bit of frisson, he asks for her phone number. She tells him it’s already programmed into his phone.

She (helpful): Under Mary.
He (assuring): I know your name is Mary.
She (laughing): My name is Molly.

Molly is a great character and Wood inhabits her. (Is anyone talking best supporting actress nom yet?) She’s smart, sexy and forward. Gosling’s Stephen is smart, sexy and reserved. Their scenes together pop.

On their second night together, his cellphone rings at 2:30 a.m. but the caller hangs up. Only then does he realize it was her cellphone. He thinks about it (“Who would be calling at 2:30 a.m.?”), then teases her about it (“What man does she have stashed somewhere?”). He’s not really jealous. He’s smiling and joking around, and, over her protests, calls the dude back. Then he freezes.

It’s Gov. Morris. Worse, she’s pregnant.

Initially I thought it a bad idea. “Really?” I thought. “The Democratic candidate is sleeping with the intern? Can’t we get past that story?

At the same time, it’s intriguing in this way: What will Stephen do with the information? His man is now tarnished. Will he, the true believer, abandon him? Go over to the other side? Nope. He plays the good soldier. He gets the money for the abortion, drives Molly to the clinic, then leaves her there for a pow-wow with Paul.

Who fires him for the sit-down with Tom Duffy.

Perfect. “OK,” I thought. “Now what will he do with the information?”

Step by step, the movie keeps getting more interesting. Morris, after all, isn’t the only too-good-to-be-believed character. Stephen is, too. He’s the guy who’s doing the thing for the right reasons. We assume that’s who he is. But that’s not who he is. He wants to believe in his guy but he also wants to be in the White House. He doesn’t want to go back to a consulting firm on K Street. So after driving around all day—and forgetting or not caring enough about Molly at the abortion clinic—he shows up at Sen. Pullman’s headquarters, where Duffy lets him know he’d been played and refuses to take him on.

Think about it. You're powerless and jobless, and yet you have access to the most powerful information in the world. So how do you turn that information into power and access?

We get a standoff. Stephen doesn’t want to reveal the info without the job, and Duffy doesn’t want to give him the job without the info. In the end, Duffy assumes he’s bluffing and walks away. He leaves on the table the very information that would’ve put his man in the White House.

Brilliant.

Then it happens. Stephen goes to Molly’s hotel room but the police are already there. Because she’s dead. Mixture of alcohol and drugs. Accident? Suicide? He sees her cellphone on the bed, with its record of phone calls from Gov. Morris. Does he take it?

In the audience, I immediately deflated. I thought, “Wrong move.” Maybe I was too enamored of Molly and Evan Rachel Wood to let her go. Maybe Molly Stearns didn’t seem like someone who would either purposefully or accidentally OD. She seemed stronger than that. Her death felt false and unnecessary. It felt too much.

But it sets up our end. Stephen blackmails Morris to get back on the campaign. He gets Paul fired, gets Paul’s job, gets the quid pro quo with Sen. Thompson, which will put Morris, his man, but a man he no longer believes in, in the White House.

But at what cost? Stephen, never particularly warm, is now cold. He’s Ryan-Gosling-in-“Drive” cold. He’s lost himself. Paul had told him, as he was firing him, that without loyalty, “You are nothing, you are no one,” and that’s what Stephen is now, nothing and no one, and at the end we get a close-up of him, about to go on a cable news show, listening to Morris talk about “honesty” and “integrity” and all the things the campaign no longer stands for. The corruption of the true believer is complete.

Well done. Smart. Just the one false note with Molly's death.

But deep? If I could talk to George Clooney I would ask him the following: Do you feel that to succeed in national politics one has to become as ruthless as Ryan Gosling becomes in your movie? Is this true in any business? Is this true in Hollywood? Do you feel, as you’ve risen in Hollywood, that you’ve become more ruthless and corrupt? Or are movies like “The Ides of March” mere palliatives for all of the folks in the audience who can console themselves that while they may not be successful like that at least they’re not corrupt like that? They still have their souls.

None of this, by the way, is new material for Clooney. From my review of “The American”:

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

Becoming corrupt to achieve success or fleeing corruption to save your soul. I appreciate that Clooney is using his status, his success, to make movies for adults; but surely there’s more to life, and storytelling, than these two options.

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Posted at 06:43 AM on Oct 17, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Sunday October 16, 2011

Fourth of Four: the 2011 World Series

At the start of the league championship series, with the 30 Major League teams down to four (Brewers, Cards, Rangers, Tigers), my ideal World Series would've looked like this:

1. Milwaukee Brewers vs. Detroit Tigers

Two Midwest cities, good baseball towns (particularly Milwaukee), who ain't won shit recently--and in the Brewers' case, never. My second choice:

2. Milwaukee Brewers vs. Texas Rangers

Both teams had never won a World Series. We would've been guaranteed a new winner. (At the same time, it's tough to root for Texas because, you know, they're Texas.) Third choice was admittedly a bit weak, a replay of the very, very boring 2006 World Series:

3. Detroit Tigers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

But at least it was better than the fourth option, where you could either root for a team that had won 17 pennants and 10 World Championships, more than any team besides the Yankees (who suck), or you could root for George W. Bush's team:

4. Texas Rangers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

Bummer.

                    

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Posted at 09:14 PM on Oct 16, 2011 in category Baseball
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Hollywood B.O.: “Real Steel” or “Reel Steal”?

The number one movie in America for the second weekend in a row is a futuristic boxing tale in which an underdog boxer, and an underdog robot, spurred on by the underdog boxer's underdog kid, fight for the championship against all underdog odds. “Real Steel” looked awful in the trailer. It probably is. It only garnered a 61% Rotten Tomatoes rating because of reviews like these:

“This year's biggest, dumbest blockbuster. Like a hamburger dripping in grease, there's no nutritional value, but it goes down easily.” — David Edwards, Daily Mirror

“Thanks to an admittedly corny script, some amazing fight scenes, and a terrific cast, ”Real Steel's“ actually a winner by split decision.” — Richard Roeper, RichardRoeper.com

“This is a ridiculous movie. And yet, I enjoyed the hell out it.” --MaryAnn Johanson, Flick Filosopher

There it is: No. 1 for two weeks in a row. We should rename it “Reel Steal.”

Two new movies that are remakes of two old movies, which didn't need or deserve remaking, finished second and third: “Footloose” (53%) and “The Thing” (32%). 

At no. 4 is the movie Patricia and I saw Friday night, “The Ides of March,” which is a smart, adult, political thriller. Review up tomorrow.

“Moneyball,” another smart, adult movie, is at no. 6.

None of these movies are making big bucks, of course. The most recent movie to gross more than $100 million is “The Help,” which was released on August 10, and is currently at $164 million. After that, it's the re-relase of “The Lion King” in 3-D ($90 million), followed by “Contagion” ($72 million), which is supposed to be good, but which I'm too germaphobic to see.

Clint: A man's gotta know his limitations.

Moviegoers in this country are revealing theirs.

The underdog totals.

Hugh Jackman, kid and robot in "Real Steel"

“Sure, mate, go see the movie. Just don't use this up here.”

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Posted at 12:54 PM on Oct 16, 2011 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday October 15, 2011

Movie Review: Winter in Wartime (2008)

WARNING: OORLOGSSPOILERS

Have we reached the point where we can only view World War II through the prism of melodrama? Or do only melodramatic foreign-language films about World War II get released in the U.S.? See recent entries: “City of Life and Death,” “John Rabe,” “Le Rafle.”

See also “Oorlogswinter,” or “Winter in Wartime,” which is about a young Dutch boy, Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier), living in a small town in Nazi-occupied Holland. The movie begins in January 1945 so we know, as he doesn’t, that only a few months are left in the war. The Allies are coming. Just hold on, lie low, and you and yours will be fine.

He doesn’t lie low.

Poster for "Oorlogswinter" or "Winter in Wartime" (2008)His father, Johan (Raymond Thiry, looking remarkably like Sam Neill), is the mayor of their small town—the “Burgermeister” in German (which unfortunately flashed me back to the old Rankin-Bass special “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” and its Burgermeister Meisterburger character). While the position has its privileges, it also has its responsibilities, which Johan takes seriously. He sees himself as a bridge between occupiers and occupied. He makes what friends he can with the occupiers in order to protect the occupied. Early in the film, Michiel, through binoculars, watches his father shake hands with German soldiers to protect neighbors. Michiel thinks him a weakling and a coward as a result.

Little shit.

Seriously, can someone live half their life in occupied territory and still be such a little shit? It’s obvious what his father is doing. It obviously takes courage to do what he does. So we wait for this realization to come over Michiel. It takes most of the movie.

There’s also an uncle, Ben, Oom Ben (Yorick van Wageningen), who returns, bigger and larger than life, to stay with them. He lets Michiel take his suitcase up to the attic, where the boy rifles through it, finding evidence that Ben is with the resistance. At one point, he hears his uncle and father arguing over the matter. Ben wants to start a resistance movement in town; Johan is resistant. He doesn’t want to draw Nazi ire. Michiel can barely abide his father at this point.

My immediate thought: Since the boy is wrong about his father, might he be wrong about the uncle? Surely the uncle isn’t a Nazi collaborator. Surely it’s not one of those kinds of movies.

It’s one of those kinds of movies.

Pity. There’s some good stuff here. Michiel finds a downed Allied pilot, Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), hiding out in the woods, and brings him food and information and eventually medical attention in the form of his good-looking older sister, Erica (Melody Klaver). Erica is infatuated but no less than Michiel. The film could be retitled “Winter of my British Soldier.”

Jack had killed a German soldier upon landing, or crash-landing, and when the German body is found the Germans take three prominent Dutch officials, including Johan, prisoner. The plan is to execute them unless the true culprit is found. Michiel, of course, knows the true culprit. But he’s been told by Ben that his father will go free; so even when Jack offers to give himself up, Michiel tells him, no, his uncle is handling it.

Except his uncle doesn’t handle it, and, at the last instant, Michiel bikes through the snow to stop the execution. Cue: people holding him back. Cue: Michiel running in slow motion. Cue the order given and the rifles blasting and the officials falling.

Oh, slow motion. How many movies have you ruined?

This should be what the movie's about. Michiel had the knowledge to save his father and didn’t. He even waived off Jack’s attempt to save his father. His father is dead now because of his actions. One wonders how he can ever tell his mother. One wonders how he can tell himself every day for the rest of his life. That’s a heavy weight for a kid to carry.

But we merely get a sense of that weight. Then the plot kicks in, Jack must be saved, Ben is brought in to help save Jack, etc. At one point, Oom Ben says something he couldn’t possibly know, unless ... Michiel rushes up to the attic, rifles through his suitcase again. Nothing. But wait: There’s a false bottom. His uncle is a Nazi collaborator. Cue another bike ride through the snow to try to save Jack and Erica from Ben’s inevitable betrayal.

“Oorlogswinter” is based upon a novel of World War II by Jan Terlouw, a Dutch scientist, politician and author, who would’ve been around Michiel’s age in 1945. He writes children’s books mostly, with various moral dilemmas, and “Oorlogswinter” is one of them. It was made into a mini-series for Dutch TV in 1975.

In most movies, people are what we think they are, but here they’re the opposite of what we think they are—or what Michiel thinks they are. Does anyone think this is a deep commentary on human nature? It’s the adolescent commentary on human nature. So Johan is really a hero, Ben is really a traitor, and the fat bike-shop owner, who has to sponge off the “Nazi” signs written on his shop, is really a loyal Netherlander. Some of the Germans are even nice. When Michiel falls through the ice, it’s a German soldier who pulls him out. When the wheel of a horse cart comes off, with Jack inside, it’s German soldiers who rush to fix it. The world is so complex that way.

Michiel keeps falling in the movie. He falls off his bike in the beginning and is captured by the Germans. He falls through the ice. The horse cart wheel comes off. And as he and Jack are escaping the Nazis on Caesar, Michiel’s horse, they fall in the woods, Caesar breaks his leg, and the horse must be put out of its misery. But Michiel can’t do it. Jack has to do it for him.

This sets up our end. Ben is exposed and tied to a tree. But while Jack is escaping, with Erica’s help, Ben sets himself free and walks off despite the gun in Michiel’s hand. Will Michiel use it? Will he kill his uncle? Oh, will he?

Cue: Slow motion.

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Posted at 07:45 AM on Oct 15, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Friday October 14, 2011

No No Nanette; Yes Yes Ken Burns

Did anyone watch Ken Burns' “Prohibiton” doc on PBS last week? It's good stuff. I like the overview of the types of movements we had, and have, in this country: what inspires them, what drives them, what ultimately causes them to succeed. You could argue that Prohibition succeeded, or at least was passed into law, for three reasons: 1) the creation of the U.S. income tax in the 1910s (meaning the U.S. government no longer needed to rely on taxes on the sale of liquor); 2) anti-German sentiment during and after WWI (since the big breweries were all German-American); and 3) the usual feelings about human perfectability. Plus misconceptions about what the Volstead Act entailed. Many didn't think prohibition would apply to beer, for example.

There's a good section on Seattle, too, which I never knew was a bootlegging hub. But it makes sense. There's proximity to Canada, with all its booze, and the islands and coves of Puget Sound, with all its places to hide.

There's good stuff on Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the most famous woman outside of Hollywood in the 1920s, and the rise and fall of George Remus, perhaps the biggest bootlegger in the country, who was done in by, of all things, a dame. Plus Al Capone.

But I was most amused by this shot. You could argue it's merely a generic shot of New York City in the 1920s. But there's no way that Ken Burns, official documentarian of Major League Baseball, doesn't know the true meaning of “No No Nanette.”

The play, "No No Nanette," featured prominently in a scene from Ken Burns' "Prohibition"

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Posted at 06:34 AM on Oct 14, 2011 in category TV
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Thursday October 13, 2011

Dreams: Don't Present at the Academy Awards with your Shirt Untucked

A dream last night. Freudians, start your engines.

I was in a conclave of tables off to the side at an awards ceremony—backstage yet onstage—and was about to announce one of the awards. Was Ben Stiller there somewhere? I wasn't thinking anything of the task, figured it would be a breeze, but when I stood up I had problems with the flap of my fly—it was turning out, exposing the metal teeth—and trying to fix it I wound up pulling out my tucked-in shirt, even as I was being pulled toward the stage. Introductory music was playing and I was walking with Patricia and my name was announced in grand fashion. It was the Academy Awards and I was walking onstage with my white dress shirt untucked and slightly wrinkled. Would that look cool? Wouldn't that look...disrespectful? Worse, I couldn't remember what award I was presenting. What was it again? And where were my glasses? I couldn't read the cue cards! I whispered all this to Patricia in a panic and she calmed me and said we would get through it, but the walk to the lectern seemed to take so long that  by the time we arrived we felt we were behind. The music stopped and everyone waited and I glanced hurriedly over the lectern, which was electronic, flashing different kinds of data, including something in the upper right corner about ... was that the award?

“And now, the award for ... ” I stumbled. “...sexiest...”

“... new male lead,” Patricia finished.

There was silence. It seemed wrong, what I'd said, but I clutched onto the hope that it was right. Then a film clip started, an older woman being interviewed about a tragic event, possibly the Holocaust, and it was over and we were backstage and I'd been wrong, and I was trying to both justify myself and sort through the enormity of just how wrong I'd been.

Anne Hathaway and James Franco at the 2011 Academy Awards

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Posted at 06:51 AM on Oct 13, 2011 in category Personal Pieces
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Wednesday October 12, 2011

Shitty But Not Illegal: Two Tales of Microsoft

This is a story about a missing $500.

It’s also a story filled with bureaucratic inefficiencies and general corporate horribleness. Meaning it’s a story for our time.

In the mid-2000s I wrote regularly for MSNBC-Movies—nearly 100 articles between 2004 and 2008—but that work was drying up by the summer of 2008 when the editor of MSN-Movies, Dave M., with whom I’d made tangential contact, invited me to the Microsoft campus for a big meeting with writers from around the country. MSN was revamping its movies site and he wanted me to be part of it.

A few days later, I pitched an idea to him called “The Smart Knight”: How the movie “The Dark Knight,” which I’d seen at an advanced screening, was avoiding the traditional traps of the Batman character (lawman; bat signal) and thus staving off the character’s inevitable decline into camp. Dave liked the pitch and gave the go-ahead; I wrote the piece and sent it to him the day before the film opened. It was posted to MSN.com the following Monday.

Now they had to pay me, $500, and since I was not yet in their system Dave began the work to make it so. He contacted Julie D., a human resources contractor, to help with a Statement of Work, or SOW, which all vendors need to sign. Julie then asked for my vendor number from MSNBC. I gave it to her. It didn’t work.

“It seems that you are set up as a vendor for MSNBC only under company code 8000,” she wrote. “I have contacted legal to see if I can just have that transferred to Microsoft’s company code of 1010.  If we can do that, then it should be an easy process—possibly a signature needed from you.  If not, then I have to go through the whole vendor set up process which can take awhile.”

It took a while. Two months later, in mid-September, I contacted Julie to see where we were in this process.

“Julie is gone,” Dave wrote back. “Adding Shirley.”

“Have you invoiced?” he asked Shirley H., the new HR contractor.

“Invoiced who and how and where?” Shirley answered.

It turned out, of course, that I would have to be set up as a vendor, but Dave promised it would be painless. Then he passed me on to a group called ProHelp, which, true to groups with the word “help” in their name, wasn’t much help.

Dave to ProHelp: I entered Erik into the Vendor tool three days ago. What is the hold up?

ProHelp to Dave: Please provide the NVJ number assigned when you entered them into the vendor tool.  We will then research further to determine the status of the request.

Days became weeks. I contacted Dave again about the delay.

“What’s your phone number?” he wrote back. “Need it and the SOW will be done and ready to process.”

Finally I was welcomed into the MSN family with this email:

  • New Vendor Request Number  NVJ1010109302 has been approved and has been sent to the  candidate vendor.
  • Sponsor/Requester,  please follow up with the vendor for completing the application.
  • Welcome: Erik Lundegaard

Attempting to input the NVJ number into the online form, however, led to this message: “The request number is invalid.”

“You need to fill out the application,” Dave told me. Meaning the two contracts they’d sent along: the SOW, which was shortish, and the general contract, which was more than 10 pages.

It was now October 3. I had already put more time into getting paid for the “Dark Knight” piece than I had in writing the “Dark Knight” piece. But at least we were nearly done.

Until I read the general contract. It included the following section. Feel free to skip. The basic gist is that in the future I couldn’t write anything about Microsoft that wasn’t already public knowledge:

Confidential Information.  Confidential Information includes without limitation the following in any form: (a) the terms and conditions of the Agreement and each SOW, (b) Microsoft products, services, and their marketing or promotion, (c) Microsoft business policies and practices, (d) Microsoft customer and supplier lists, (e) information received from third parties that Microsoft is obligated to treat as confidential, (f) personal identification information, (g) transactional or sales information, and (h) intellectual property created by or on behalf of Contractor in connection with performing Work. Confidential Information does not include information or items, however designated, that: (i) are or become publicly available without Contractor's breach of an obligation owed to Microsoft; or (ii) are known or become known to Contractor from a source other than Microsoft, other than by a breach of a confidentiality obligation owed to Microsoft.

“I can’t sign this,” I wrote to Dave. “I'm writing a piece for The Believer magazine about testing Xbox at Microsoft, and signing the contract, as written, would prevent me from doing so. Any way to make the contract specific to MSN rather than Microsoft?”

Dave turned the question over to Shirley, who turned it back to me: “Erik … do you have a vendor number with your work for Xbox?  If not, how are you doing work for them?”

I told her I’d done the work as a contractor from 1999 to 2003.

She seemed to understand: “Ahhh ok.”

Then she didn’t. “So Can you follow the steps on the previous e-mail I sent you?  You said you had filled it out once but doesn’t appear it was received by the vendor set up folks. Do you know if someone else is trying to set you up as a vendor?”

She thought it was another procedural problem. But we were past procedural and into contractual.

After that, silence. Microsoft does not write specific contracts for someone like me. Microsoft does not negotiate with someone like me.

In November Dave M. moved on, replaced by Dave S., and by January we were no further in the process. I assumed I would never write for MSN again. But could I at least get paid for the “Dark Knight” piece?

I contacted Dave S. It took a while to get him up-to-speed, at which point he wrote: “I’m not sure if it’s better to just start over or not.”

He added this mea culpa: “Sorry for the delay in getting you paid,” he wrote. “This is truly unacceptable.”

And that was the last I heard from anyone at Microsoft.

*  *  *

Since then, as things have only gotten worse for freelance writers and the economy, and as I’ve seen acquaintances from that MSN meeting in the summer of 2008 gain national attention, I’ve often wondered if I made the right decision in not signing that general contract. The choice was certainly stark: write for Microsoft but never about Microsoft; or occasionally write about Microsoft but never for Microsoft. I chose the latter, which was more freeing but less lucrative. And lucre comes in handy.

I’m writing all this now because my domestic partner, Patricia, after more than 10 years at Microsoft, was fired last month. She worked hard for that company. She left early in the morning and came home late at night. She lost weekends. In July, I visited family in Minnesota but she couldn’t come; she had too much work. In August, we went camping on San Juan Island and every day I had to drive her into Friday Harbor so she could plug in and move projects forward. The Sunday before she was fired, while I went hiking in the Cascades, she worked all day on yet another project.

The reason she was fired? “Not meeting minimum performance standards.”

We saw a lawyer, of course, but he told us there wasn’t a case. The whole thing boiled down to a she said/she said, a two-year conflict with her boss. For two years, this boss had been awful to her but there was nothing discriminatory about her awfulness. She’d been awful to other employees, too, over the years, employees who were fired or who quit, but none of it was specific to gender, or race, or age. She was just awful generally.

“It’s shitty,” the lawyer told us, “but it’s not illegal.”

The firing occurred during Patricia’s annual meeting, after which Patricia was escorted to the HR office and from the building. She was not allowed to go back to her office to collect her belongings. There was no severance package and she was warned against showing prospective employers the work she’d done at Microsoft for 10 years. The work was theirs, not hers, and couldn’t be shown as something she’d created even though she created it. She was warned not to contact anyone at Microsoft but the HR rep.

Colleagues and co-workers flooded her with emails. “I’m flabbergasted...” one said. “You are very, very special, with enormous talent and such a completely cool-to-be-around personality that it will be MSL’s loss and somebody else’s gain,” another said.

The day after seeing the lawyer, Patricia’s belongings arrived from the Microsoft campus in four boxes, and, with a heavy heart, she sat on the living room floor and went through them. One of the first things she removed was her 10-year anniversary gift from Microsoft. She’d received it la few months before but had yet to open it. She did so now, and held up a heavy, green, crystal obelisk. A thick card, green and white, with an embossed “10” on the front, went with it, and inside were these words:

On your tenth anniversary, we would like to thank you for your incredible commitment to Microsoft. As a company, we are only as great as the individuals who work here. Fortunately, we have some of the very best employees anywhere. People like you. Thanks for all of your efforts over the past ten years.

To your continued success,
Steve Ballmer

I’m glad I didn’t sign that general contract with Microsoft back in 2008. I didn’t get my $500. But now I can write whatever the fuck I want to about them.

10th anniversary card from Steve Ballmer and Microsoft

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Posted at 06:51 AM on Oct 12, 2011 in category Microsoft
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Tuesday October 11, 2011

Quotes of the Day: The Fall of the 2011 New York Yankees and the New Curse of the Bambino

I'm disappointed that we didn't get better articles about the Yankees' quick postseason exit from stalwarts Rob Neyer or Joe Posnanski. But the Internet's a big place and good comments could be found. My favorite is listed last. Enjoy.

“It hurts. It hurts for the Yankees to lose in the playoffs and for their season to end. I once knew a therapist who said that sports were a leading cause of depression among men – trailing behind events like losing a loved one or being fired from one’s job. I take these losses seriously. I also Official Yankees Suck jpgknow that the closer your team comes to winning it all, the harder it is to have them lose. I remember 2001. I know this might sound like self-entitled nonsense to fans of teams like the Cubs who haven’t sniffed a World Championship in eons. But every Yankee fan is also a fan of less successful teams. My California Golden Bears haven’t seen a Rose Bowl since Eisenhower was President, but it didn’t hurt that much when they gave up 29 unanswered points to Oregon last night.”

--ItsAboutTheMoney.Net, “A Rational Goodbye to the 2011 Season”

*  *  *

Dear Mr. Manners,
I'm really enjoying the fact that the Red Sox choked to miss the playoffs and that the Yankees lost in the first round. Is it poor manners to root against them and mock the teams and their fans?

-- United S. (of America)

Dear United Schadenfreude of America,
Normally it is poor manners to find joy in the failure of others, but rooting against the Yankees and Red Sox is as American as mom, apple pie and baseball teams trying to buy championships. I have no problem reveling in their defeat. However, I would encourage you to balance your ridicule with a positive comment to show that you are a person of refined manners.

Say: “Keep your chin up ... so you can see the scoreboard, which is the official record of you being a loser.”

Or: “Hey, no one wins them all. In fact, some teams only win one of them in 11 years, which is almost impossible if you think about it, considering they had the biggest payroll in every one of those years.”

--D.J. Gallo, “Mr. Manners' Etiquette for Sports World”

Sad Yankees fans, Game 5 of the ALDS, end of 8

Keep your chin up...

*  *  *

“Not enough fans understand that the baseball playoffs are a crapshoot. Since 1990, you know how many teams with the best regular-season record have won the World Series? Three — the '98 Yankees, '07 Red Sox and '09 Yankees. If you make the playoffs, you essentially have a 1-in-4 chance of reaching the World Series. If you get to the World Series, you have 1-in-2 chance of winning. So if you make the playoffs every season you should win a World Series once every eight years. In their past eight trips to the postseason, the Yankees have reached two World Series and won one. Exactly what the odds would predict.”

-- David Schoenfield, “The Day After: Yankees Postscript”

*  *  *

And my favorite...

To the Sports Editor:

The Yankees’ postseason failure over the last two years suggests the possibility of another Curse of the Bambino. Its predecessor never made sense: why would the Babe have been anything but thrilled to be sent from Boston to the greatest sports stage of the era? Overshadowing Ruth’s monument with the huge tribute plaque to George Steinbrenner? Well, that just might be cause for vengeance. So here is the new curse: the Yankees will never win another World Series until the plaque is moved to a more appropriate site.

-- Charles E. Knapp, Scarsdale, N.Y., “At a Loss in the Bronx”

The last ride of Derek Jeter

Magic, Maier, gone.

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Posted at 06:38 AM on Oct 11, 2011 in category Yankees Suck
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Monday October 10, 2011

Movie Review: Moneyball (2011)

WARNING: NO RUNS, NO HITS, LOTSA SPOILERS

I had trouble with the falsehoods but was won over by the poignancy.

The falsehoods begin immediately. The movie opens on Oct. 15, 2001, Game 5 of the American League Division Series between the Oakland A’s and the New York Yankees. A’s lose. But that’s not a falsehood.

A continent away, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the A’s, listens, then doesn’t; listens, then doesn’t. He’s at the park, alone. He’s in the cavernous underground of what was then called Network Associates Coliseum. Does he toss chairs? I forget. He’s a fairly mellow guy compared to the intense, dictatorial Billy Beane that Michael Lewis portrayed in his 2003 best-seller. Is it Pitt? Is it director Bennett Miller? Miller also directed “Capote,” and both are patient movies about cerebral men (Truman Capote; Billy Beane) dealing with vicious killers (Hickock and Smith; the New York Yankees). Call it a theme.

Poster for "Moneyball" (2011)But this change in Beane’s demeanor is not the falsehood I’m talking about.

Billy Beane’s A’s won 102 games in 2001, second-most in the American League, but they’re losing three top players to free agency: closer Jason Isringhausen (replaceable); center fielder Johnny Damon (replaceable); and first baseman Jason Giambi (irreplaceable). All three are signing with teams with more money. Most teams have more money than the A’s. Its 2001 payroll is $33 million, second-lowest in the Majors, while three teams, the Dodgers, the Red Sox (who nab Damon), and the Yankees (who grab Giambi), each spent more than $100 million. “It’s like we’re a farm system for the New York Yankees,” Beane says in the movie.

That’s definitely not a falsehood I’m talking about.

Beane says this as he sits down with his team of scouts, who are, for the most part, daft old men focusing on the inconsequential. This guy’s got a good face, that one’s got a good jaw, the other, nah, not him, he’s got an ugly girlfriend; means no confidence. Beane tries to focus them. “What’s the problem?” he keeps asking. He has to answer his own question. The problem is money. The problem is that the A’s are the runt of the litter. “We are the last dog at the bowl,” he says. “You know what happens to the last dog at the bowl? He dies.”

Good line. Do we credit screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) or screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”)? Feels like Sorkin.

So Beane tries to get more food in the bowl. He asks the A’s owner for more money. No dice. He asks the Cleveland Indians for this or that player. Fat chance. But he notices the dynamic in the Cleveland GM’s office. Another runt, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), whispers in one man’s ear, who whispers in the GM’s ear, who makes the decision we’ve already seen cross Brand’s face. Afterwards, Beane tracks Brand down. “Who are you?” he asks.

Brand, it turns out, is a guy who studied economics at Yale. He likes numbers. And he sees the important numbers, called sabermetrics, hidden by a more traditional reading of baseball statistics. These numbers give us a truer reading of the talent of players. The Oakland A’s don’t need to buy players, Brand tells Beane; they need to buy wins, which you do by buying runs, which you do by buying on-base percentage, which is a stat other teams aren’t paying attention to in 2001 and thus can be had for cheap. In essence, Brand tells him the lesson of “Moneyball,” which is the lesson of the stock market, which is where Michael Lewis began his career: Beane needs to buy what is undervalued and sell what is overvalued. In this way, a team with a $33 million payroll can compete with a team with a $110 million payroll.

So what’s the first thing Beane buys? Brand. He makes him assistant general manager. And off they go with their grand experiment.

Nice. But it means this: Billy Beane didn’t know about sabermetrics until the 2001-02 off-season.

That’s the falsehood I’m talking about. It skews everything.

In reality, Beane learned about sabermetrics from the previous A’s GM, Sandy Alderson, who learned about it from Bill James, a security guard out of Kansas who forever changed the way we look at baseball statistics. I became a Jamesian in ’93, late to the game, 15 years late, which is about the time Billy Beane became a Jamesian, too. And by the time he took over as general manager of the A’s, in 1998, he was ready. Within two years, his last-place team with no money was in the post-season. And by the 2001-02 off-season, Beane and his assistant, Paul DePodestra (read: Brand), were so deep into the numbers they could hardly see light. Or maybe they could see nothing but light. Either way, Beane knew.

So: “Moneyball,” the book, is about a guy who, over a decade, revolutionized the way Major League baseball teams are run.

“Moneyball,” the movie, is about a guy who listened to another, smarter guy, for one season, then gets all the credit for revolutionizing the way Major League baseball teams are run.

Doesn’t sit right.

At the same time, it has to be one season, doesn’t it? I wrote as much seven years ago in an MSN piece ranking baseball movies. “It’s better to focus on a season than a career,” I wrote. “Probably because the rhythm of a season is closer to a dramatic arc than the rhythm of a life.”

So Miller and his All-Star screenwriters, Zaillian and Sorkin, focus on the rhythm of a season. And to get everyone in the audience up-to-speed on sabermetrics, they reduce the protagonist, the sabermetrics expert, Billy Beane, to a blank slate regarding sabermetrics. As Beane learns, so do we.

All of which makes cinematic sense.

But if you know the story, it still doesn’t sit right. It’s like watching a movie about FDR in which, during his second term in office, an assistant gives him the bright idea of starting, say, a “New Deal,” to help get America out of the Great Depression. You can’t help but wonder what the cinematic FDR was he doing during his first term.

Scene from "Moneyball," the movie

*  *  *

But what’s done is done, right? Let’s go with it. Onward.

As Brand teaches Beane about sabermetrics (recreating Jason Giambi “in the aggregate”), Beane teaches Brand about the ballsier aspects of baseball and life: how to stand up to scouts and managers; how to ignore the press, which is to say conventional wisdom; how to fire people. Beane is comfortable in the macho world of baseball players because he was once a baseball player himself, which we see in flashbacks with an actor who doesn’t much look like a young Brad Pitt. Beane was a first-round draft choice back in 1980. He wanted to go to Stanford, he would’ve gotten a free ride to Stanford, but the scouts paid attention to him and waved money in front of him and so his life changed. For the worse. Because he wasn’t that good. He wasted 10 years of his life trying to become what they thought he should become. In this way Beane knows more than anyone how wrong scouts can be.

Much of the charm of the movie is in the back-and-forth between the wide-eyed Brand and the amused Beane. Hill is good, better than I thought he would be, but Pitt is a marvel. He’s loose. He’s charming. He seems to be improvising—not sure if he is—and continues the tradition, first noticed in the “Oceans” movies, of forever stuffing food in his face. He seems like he’s having the time of his life playing this role.

Critics, by the way, who thought “Moneyball” couldn’t be made into a movie either didn’t read “Moneyball” or know nothing about movies in general and baseball movies in particular. Yes, the book is about sabermetrics, which is a big word, but it’s also about the triumph of the underdog, which is what most movies are about. It’s about gathering a group of misfits—Scott Hatteberg, a catcher who could no longer throw, and Chad Bradford, a relief pitcher with a goofy, submarine motion—who coalesce into a winning team, which is what most baseball movies are about. (See: “Bad News Bears,” “Bull Durham,” “Major League.”)

And as with most baseball misfit movies, the A’s begin the season poorly—which is true, they sucked for the first two months of 2002—and the sports press, or at least sports talk radio, circles around Beane and his “experiment.” Manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) isn’t using the team properly, starting the wrong guys and bringing in the wrong relievers, but Beane gets the blame.

This is another thing the movie doesn’t get quite right: how polite and deferential Beane is to Howe. You don’t get that feeling in the book. The A’s in the book, the real A’s, talk about how the organization was unlike any other Major League organization in this respect: It was run by the GM on a day-to-day basis. It was Billy Beane’s show, they said. Everyone knew it. Even Art Howe knew it. Yet in the movie, Beane is polite and deferential to Howe, while Howe is disrespectful to Beane. He doesn’t listen.

So Beane makes him listen. He trades Jeremy Giambi, Jason’s ne’er-do-well brother, to Philadelphia for John Mabry (bad deal), then trades Howe’s favorite first baseman, Carlos Pena, who plays in place of Beane’s guy, Hatteberg (bad deal). So now Howe has to play Hatteberg at first.

In reality, these trades were made months apart. More, Howe didn’t bench Hatteberg. Hatteberg played consistently throughout the 2002 season. His plate appearances by month: 99, 92, 101, 89, 97, 90. Consistent.

But we’ll go with it. Onward.

So Beane makes his trades and the team begins to win: 10 in a row, 15 in a row. What’s the record? 19 in a row. They tie it. This team of misfits that no one thought would go anywhere has actually tied the Major League record for consecutive victories. Can they set the record? Can they win their 20th game in a row?

Let’s talk about that 20th game. I’ll describe the action as we see it in the movie and I want you to find the falsehoods. It’s instructive. We can learn a lot about Hollywood and baseball by figuring out what Hollywood felt it needed to add to increase the drama of baseball.

As the game begins, we see Billy Beane driving away from the park. He never watches the games—they make him too nervous—and besides he has things to do. But then he gets a call from his daughter, Casey (Kerris Dorsey), who is watching the game, and she tells him he needs to watch it, too. It’s amazing, she says. So he turns around, enters the park, and sees the A’s are up 11-0 in the third inning. And they’re playing one of the worst teams in baseball, the Kansas City Royals, a team without money, like the A’s, but without smarts, either. Plus the A’s have their best pitcher, Tim Hudson (15-9, 2.98 ERA), on the mound. Done deal.

But just as he arrives it all begins to unravel. The Royals score five runs in the top of the 4th to cut the lead in half and five more in the top of the 8th. It’s now 11-10 and Beane is no longer watching the game. He’s in the cavernous underground of Network Associates Coliseum, cursing. And in the top of the 9th? With two outs and a guy on second? Closer Billy Koch gives up a single that ties the game.

Awful.

But it’s still a tie game. There’s still a chance. And in the bottom of the 9th, Art Howe points to Scott Hatteberg, the converted catcher whom Billy Beane thought could Jason Giambi at first base, but who isn’t playing this game, and tells him to pinch hit. And he does. And with one out in the bottom of the 9th inning Hatteberg hits a homerun to win this incredible, improbable game, and the A’s, these misfit A’s, set the Major League record for consecutive victories with 20.

Wow.

So where’s the falsehood? The homerun in the bottom of the 9th inning? The fact that it was Hatteberg? That he pinch-hit? That the A’s lost an 11-0 lead to the worst team in baseball only to pull it out in the end?

Nope. The falsehood is Casey calling her father to tell him to watch the game. In reality, at least in the reality of Michael Lewis’s book, Beane was in Art Howe’s office, talking to Lewis, and Beanephoned her to tell her to watch the game, but she wasn’t interested. She was too busy watching “American Idol” to care about her father’s team.

How is this instructive? In this way. Baseball, with its come-from-behind chances and bottom-of-the-ninth-inning homeruns, will always be more dramatic, more improbable, than what the best minds in Hollywood can imagine. That’s why it’s a great game. Meanwhile, whatever the best minds in Hollywood can imagine is lost on most of us, because we’re too busy watching crap like “American Idol.” That’s why we’re a lost cause.

Scene from "Moneyball," the movie

*  *  *

As I’m watching “Moneyball,” as I’m seeing these few falsehoods mixed in with attention to detail and concern for veracity, I keep wondering: How are they going to handle the ending?

I knew the ending. The 2002 Oakland A’s, after losing Jason Giambi, et al., won one more game than the 2001 A’s but still lost in the first round of the playoffs—this time to the small-market Minnesota Twins. Which means the ending is like the beginning. We begin with Game 5 failure and end with Game 5 failure. All that work for the same result. It won’t resonate.

I also knew this: Nothing Billy Beane did during the next 10 years helped his team to the World Series. The A’s, a powerhouse in the early 2000s, haven’t even sniffed the post-season since 2006. They’ve fallen back with the also-rans.

So how do you make this dramatic? How do you make it resonate?

Bad baseball fan. I forgot the first, great rule of baseball drama, which was delineated by Roger Kahn in “The Boys of Summer,” his nostalgic memoir about covering the early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers. Kahn wrote:

You may glory in team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.

It’s the horsehide equivalent of Shelley:

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

So the A’s lose the 2002 ALDS—a mere, slow-mo blip on the movie screen—just as they lost the 2001 ALDS, and Billy Beane, who struggled so hard to make this work, is left alone with his thoughts. He’d already said that the sabermetrics experiment means nothing unless they win it all. They didn’t so it didn’t. And director Bennett Miller pauses and let’s it all sink in.

Bennett Miller is good at pausing and letting it all sink in.

Not everyone, of course, thinks the experiment means nothing. Sure, there are naysayers out there, people who forget how little Beane had to work with, and who blast the “Moneyball” experiment; but the Boston Red Sox, with money to burn, think Billy Beane is onto something. In fact, they invite him to Boston, give him a tour of historic Fenway Park, the oldest park in Major League Baseball, and offer him their GM position (which he ultimately turns down). They offer to pay him more than $12 million over several years. And Boston’s owner, John Henry (Arliss Howard), tells him the following: “You’re the first guy through the wall. You always get bloody.”

Nice line.

Then Paul Brand meets Beane at Network Associates Coliseum. He takes him to the video room to show him footage of a college player named Jeremy Brown. Both the video room and Jeremy Brown figured big in “Moneyball,” the book, but neither is much mentioned or seen in “Moneyball,” the movie, until this moment.

In the footage, Brown, a fat catcher out of Alabama, gets hold of a pitch and drives it and rounds first base. He’s thinking double or triple. But he’s overweight and not graceful—that’s why the scouts dismiss him, and part of the reason why Beane, who was slim and graceful as a young player, doesn’t—and Brown actually stumbles. He falls flat on his face. Then he struggles, like a drowning man, to get back to first base before he’s thrown out. Which is when the others on the field, holding back their laughter, tell him. The ball wasn’t a double or triple. It went over the wall. And he gets up, dusts himself off, and rounds the bases.

“He hit a homerun and didn’t even realize it,” Brand tells Beane.

Then he pauses, looking at Beane, and a beautiful thing happens. He adds, “It’s a metaphor,” and Beane, half-annoyed, says, “I know it’s a metaphor.”

How perfect is that? Our All-Star screenwriters, by using the personalities of their main characters— Brand, wide-eyed and endearing, but presuming to teach the teacher, Beane, who is savvy and impatient—manage to inform the less-savvy among us the point of the scene without insulting the rest of us. While charming the rest of us.

Afterwards, Beane gets into his car, drives home, and listens to a CD his daughter Casey made for him. Earlier in the movie, when they’re in a music store, she sings him this song. It’s called “The Show,” originally by Lenka, an Australian singer, but its lyrics, not to mention its tone, fit into this story as easily as a hand fits into a baseball glove.

Casey sings:

Slow it down
Make it stop--
Or else my heart is going to pop

Slowing it down is something Moneyball players do with the game. It’s what Scott Hatteberg does with the game. He slows it down. He takes his pitches. He makes the game come to him rather than trying to impose himself on the game.

Casey sings:

I am just a little girl lost in the moment
I'm so scared but I don't show it
I can't figure it out
It's bringing me down I know
I've got to let it go
And just enjoy the show

All the while the camera closes in on Beane—the man who’s lost in the moment, who’s scared and doesn’t show it. He’s the first man through the wall and he’s bloody. He’s hit a homerun and doesn’t know it. And now this simple advice from his daughter: Just enjoy the show. “The Show,” what players call the Major Leagues, and “the show,” what we call the movie, and what we sometimes call life. And the camera closes in on his profile, driving, looking straight ahead, caught in this moment of indecision and tension but possible epiphany and release. And I thought: Please end it here, at this everyman moment, this moment of simple advice possibly listened to for at least this day. And they do. That’s where they end it.

I came to “Moneyball” with a lot of baggage: a fan of the game, a fan of the book, a fan of the theory behind the book. Yes, I had trouble with some of the ways the filmmakers falsified the book. Yes, I felt the misfit theme could have been dramatized better. But Miller and Zaillian and Sorkin took the most difficult part, the inconclusive ending, and made it touching. They made it resonate. They gave us something beautiful to carry with us from the theater. Why can’t more movies do this? Why can’t movie people realize that we don’t want what we say we want. We want this. We want the exact feeling “Moneyball” leaves us with.

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Posted at 06:32 AM on Oct 10, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Sunday October 09, 2011

Quote of the Day

“But [Pauline] Kael had stumbled upon something that could be very disconcerting to the best film critic in the world, just as it appalled the man [Orson Welles] who was increasingly the idol of young directors: that the movies were not and never would be good enough, deep enough, to hold his interest. He had gone deep—no one yet had gone deeper. But it was not enough, not compared with literature, music, painting or just watching life go by. The movies, in other words,  are the art of a culture prepared to settle for the shallow. The artistic status of the filmmaker was not actually substantiated by the work. Citizen Kane was the first move to reveal that—and Welles, for a long time, was the lone man who noticed it.”

--David Thomson, “Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles,” pg. 398

Discuss.

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Posted at 06:59 AM on Oct 09, 2011 in category Quote of the Day
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Saturday October 08, 2011

Dialogue of the Day

“You're a Christian, right, Chad?

”Yeah.“

"Moneyball" by Michael Lewis”You believe in Jesus?“

”Yeah.“

”Have you ever seen him?“

”No, I've never seen him.“

”Ever seen yourself get hitters out?“

”Yeah.“

”So why the fuck do you have faith in Jesus when you never seen him, but you don't have faith in your ability to get hitters out when you get hitters out all the time?“

--2002 Oakland A's pitching coach Rick Peterson to 2002 Oakland A's reliever Chad Bradford in Michael Lewis's ”Moneyball," pg. 253.

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Posted at 07:32 AM on Oct 08, 2011 in category Books
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Friday October 07, 2011

The Steve Jobs Speech; the Kurt Vonnegut Lesson

Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement address at Stanford University spread pretty fast around the Internet yesterday—the day after his death. My friend Jim posted it to Facebook in the morning, I put it on this blog shortly thereafter, beating Andrew Sullivan to the punch by a few hours. Wil Wheaton blogged about the same portion of the speech I did. Other friends on Facebook posted their favorite moments. Good for them. It's a worthy speech.

Jobs talks about dropping out of college and following his dream. Among the things he says is this:

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.

He also says this:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Words of wisdom. At the same time, I felt slightly guilty hearing them. I certainly like doing what I'm doing—writing and editing what I write and edit—but it's not necessarily what I'd be doing if it were the last day of my life. So, listening to Jobs' speech yesterday morning, some part of me thought, “I wish I hadn't settled. I wish I'd been like Steve Jobs and followed my dream so that I could love what I did.”

It took a few hours before the other shoe dropped: “Wait a minute. I did follow my dream. I just failed at it.”

I wanted to be a writer of fiction. In the early 1990s I quit grad school and got a job at a Seattle bookstore, first as a cashier then in its warehouse, and did this for several years to support myself, while, with what free time I had, I wrote short stories, novellas, attempts at novels. None of it ever panned out. I could line the walls of my office with the rejection notices I received. Most were form rejections, but every once in a while I'd get an encouraging, personal rejection notice—once even from The New Yorker—saying that while the story I'd sent was good, it didn't fit in with their current plans, etc., etc., but please send something else. But the subsequent stories were never good enough, either. For a time, I even considered writing a story called “Something Else.” You wanted something else? Here it is.

So I failed. I think I failed for several reasons. One, my goals were high. Two, my talent was limited. And three, I was attempting to prosper in a dying industry.

By the early 1990s, few general interest magazines published short stories. There were certainly literary quarterlies everywhere, associated with universities, but the stuff I wrote was a bit too general, or silly, or straightfoward for this crowd. I wasn't doing anything new with language or form. I was just telling my stories with my minimal talent.

In 1999, several years after I stopped writing fiction (without really realizing it), I head the pleasure of interviewing Kurt Vonnegut for The Seattle Times. Vonnegut had just released “Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction,” his short stories from the late 1940s and '50s, and we talked about his early literary career. In a foreword to “Bagombo,” he writes about TV killing the short story culture that allowed him to flourish and become the novelist he became, and I asked whether he had foreseen this. This was his answer:

You saw TV coming in almost like a stormfront. Suddenly everyone was buying TVs, and the entertainment was on quite a high level, too. TV was a much better buy for advertisers than the magazines. The magazines had been very rich at one time, because they were the way to get ads inside a person's front door.

[But] what TV does, which we ink-and-paper people could never do, is give people artificial friends and relatives. Right inside the house. ... Peter Jennings really is a relative, and a charming one. Please come into my home any time, Peter.

The culture I needed to flourish, in other words, died before I was even born.

I mention all of this in case anyone else felt guilty listening to Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement address. Steve Jobs didn't settle. He did what he loved. Every morning in the mirror he asked himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And he usually answered “Yes.”

Steve Jobs was talented, and tough, and he took the road less traveled. But he was also very, very lucky. The thing he loved to do was just beginning.

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Posted at 07:40 AM on Oct 07, 2011 in category Personal Pieces
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Thursday October 06, 2011

The Fall of the 2011 New York Yankees

For the second year in a row, the season ended for the New York Yankees with a strikeout from Alex Rodriguez. I should be happy, since I think the Yankees are bad for baseball, and since A-Rod exemplifies this with his $252 million contract and subsequent demands to be traded to a contender like the Yankees, but I can't help feeling sorry for the guy.

Earlier today, a friend sent me a link to a Sporting News article on the most disliked player (by the fans) for each franchise. A-Rod was most disliked in Texas. For the Mariners it was Bobby Ayala and for the Yankees it was Carl Pavano, but you could make the argument that it's A-Rod on all three teams. He still gets booed here in Seattle. And no one was ever booed like A-Rod was booed when he returned in April 2001 with the Texas Rangers. Man, we let him have it. 

How sad is that? He's one of the best ever at what he does, a thing that almost every American boy would love to be able to do; he gets money, fame and women; and yet.. and yet... so disliked.

Posada had a helluva series, didn't he? Like he knew it was his last shot. Cano emerged as the scariest guy on the team. Granderson was unbelievable, Gardner kept getting basehits from the nine hole. Jeter ran out of magic.

Here's the honor roll:

  • 2001: Arizona
  • 2002: Anaheim
  • 2003: Florida
  • 2004: Boston
  • 2005: Anaheim
  • 2006: Detroit
  • 2007: Cleveland
  • 2008: UNNECESSARY
  • 2009: n/a
  • 2010: Texas
  • 2011: Detroit

Go Tigers. Keep going, Tigers.

ADDENDUM: Nice piece on Game 5 by ESPN's David Schoenfield.

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Posted at 09:32 PM on Oct 06, 2011 in category Yankees Suck
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Quote of the Day

“Your time is limited so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of someone else's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition; they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

--Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Address, 2005. Via Jim Walsh.

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Posted at 09:44 AM on Oct 06, 2011 in category Quote of the Day
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Amazon Recommends

This showed up in my in-box the other day:

Amazon.com: Our Picks for You

Don't quite get the repetition of “Unbroken” but at least it's correct. And late to the game. I read it earlier this year and recommend it. The others either don't appeal (audio Jackie Kennedy) or only appeal if I want to keep up with the conversations on Andrew Sullivan's blog (“The Rogue”).

But at least Amazon's first row of suggetions made more sense than its second row of suggestions:

“Harry Potter” I haven't seen. “Captain America” made my top 10 for the first eight months of the year (at no. 10). “Fast Five” I dismissed in April. And “Transformers”? I think of that franchise as so stupid and noisy as to be part of the general decline and fall of western civilization. 

Someone, in other words, needs to work on their algorithms. Or mine.

When I interviewed Jeff Bezos in October 1996, a lifetime ago, he talked about the things Amazon was working on:

Bezos: We want to set the store up so we can redecorate the store for each individual who walks in...

Me: What do you mean?

Bezos: The whole page would be personally designed for you. So if you said, “I really love literary fiction,” well, here’s a great science-ficton novel that we actually think you'd like based on your preferences in literary fiction. Stuff like that. In case you want to broaden out.

It would all be done automatically. It would have to be. The way it might work is you might come in and we present you with a list of 100 books that are in a particular genre, like literary fiction, let’s say, and you would rate the ones you liked the most and disliked the most, and based on what you liked and disliked the computer would be able to form a profile of your particular tastes, and it might try to match you up with people of similar tastes. You call that your affinity group. What are things you haven’t read that people in your affinity group love? And then it would recommend those things to you.

Still a few bugs in the system.

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Posted at 07:37 AM on Oct 06, 2011 in category Technology
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Wednesday October 05, 2011

Catch of the Day

Catch by Curtis Granderson in Game 4 of the ALDS

Facebook conversation last night:

Me: I hate the Yankees like I hate Republicans, but man that was a helluva catch by Granderson.

FB Friend 1 (Yankees fan, Democrat, affronted): Is there a bluer fan base in baseball than NY? Just sayin.

Me: Is there a richer 1% in baseball who fight to keep the system tilted in their favor? Just sayin.

FB Friend 2 (Mariners/Rockies/Cardinals fan, Democrat): I would venture a guess that the Bay Area is a bluer fan base. And Granderson had two great plays tonight, I really like that guy. Was a sad day when he was traded to the Yankees.

Yep. See the catch (or catches) here.

ADDENDUM: Nice piece by Grant Brisbee on Granderson's two catches, and the one Austin Jackson couldn't quite make.

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Posted at 07:46 AM on Oct 05, 2011 in category Baseball
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Tuesday October 04, 2011

Movie Review: 50/50 (2011)

WARNING: EVEN ODDS FOR SPOILERS

“50/50” is being promoted as a true-life comedy about cancer.

So far so good.

Will Reiser, a writer for “Da Ali G Show,” and a friend of actor Seth Rogen, contracted a rare form of cancer in his twenties, and in the aftermath realized his experience wasn’t one he’d seen depicted in the usual weepy Hollywood movies about cancer. He survived, for one. He never lost his sense of humor, for another. He never stopped trying to pick up girls, for a third. So why not make a movie out of that?

So far so good.

poster for 50/50In the final version, however, his true-life account became populated with unreal people whose sole purpose is to make our sympathetic hero even more sympathetic. The decks are stacked and the story dumbed down and a bit of misogyny tossed in for good measure.

Bummer.

Here’s an example. Reiser’s surrogate, symbolically name Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is a writer for Seattle Public Radio (SPR), who learns he has cancer in the following fashion: His doctor (Andrew Arlie) completely ignores Adam sitting in front of him and explains the situation into his tape recorder. Only when Adam begs his pardon and asks what’s going on does the doctor, rolling his eyes, deign to tell the patient what’s going on with the patient’s life. Now I’ve had some bad doctors in my day but never one this bad. The guy’s so uncaring he could be running for president on the GOP ticket.

Adam’s subsequent therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), is the opposite: overly caring. She’s 24 years old, working on her dissertation, unprofessional. Adam is only the third patient of her career, yet he first encounters her while she’s eating lunch in her office, completely oblivious to the fact that she has an appointment with him, the third patient of her career. (They meet cute.) During sessions, she touches him on the arm repeatedly. After sessions, she gives him her cellphone number, then a car ride home, then, eventually, herself. “I wish you were my girlfriend,” he says near the end of the picture, which is what she wishes, and what we wish, and what she becomes. How nice when people get their wishes!

This turn of events, such as it is, is necessary because Adam’s initial girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), is the worst girlfriend in the world. She’s a painter of Pollock-y abstractionist work and is often gone at art gallery openings. When she’s home their sex is intermittent and conventional. After he contracts cancer, she refuses to go into the hospital with him (all the negative energy, she says), and after one such treatment, and after he’s bragged about her to fellow cancer patients Mitch and Alan (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall—the best part of the movie), she’s hours late picking him up. We see him waiting by the curb in the dark. Finally, Adam’s mouthy best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), sees her at an art gallery with a pretentious artist out of central casting, whom she kisses. This is while Adam is home alone, sick and dying, on the couch.

Earlier this year, in Ron Howard’s “The Dilemma,” it takes an entire movie for a dude to tell his best friend that his girl is cheating on him. It takes Kyle about five seconds. (More power to him.) “I hate you,” he tells her in the big confrontation scene, “I’ve always hated you.” When she complains about how difficult it’s been, and why is it her responsibility anyway to care for Adam, Kyle lets loose a string of unpunctuated phrases that is better than any invective he could concoct: “Because you’re his girlfriend he’s got cancer you cheated on him you fucking lunatic!”

That’s pretty funny, actually. It’s also amusing, intentionally or not, that Rachael is played by the daughter of the director of “The Dilemma.” Unfortunately, we’re not done with Rachael yet.

For some reason, the filmmakers felt Rachael needed to return to get her things. For some reason, they needed to show us that she’s not only subjectively untalented but objectively untalented. So she returns, needy and vulnerable, and wishing to start up again with Adam, because she finally had her big art opening and no one bought anything. No one liked her stuff. But Adam still likes her, doesn’t he? Huh? In this manner, after all she’d done, she tries to insinuate herself back into his life. Which allows Adam to say, “Get the fuck off my porch.” Then he and Kyle, with Roy Orbison’s “Cryin’” playing on the soundtrack, attack her remaining painting with eggs, knives and fire.

Question: Was screenwriter Will Reiser’s real girlfriend during this period so awful? Or was Rachael created to add drama and sympathy to an already dramatic and sympathetic situation?

And couldn’t they have played the whole thing like “Curb Your Enthusiasm”? Made the protagonist “Will Reiser” who works on “’Da Ali G Show’” and contracts cancer, and various things happen to him and his friends, such as “Seth Rogen”? Made it funny and true rather than semi-funny and mostly false?

Even changing locales messes things up. Seattle ain’t LA, particularly when it’s Vancouver, B.C., and particularly when you’re talking about picking up pretty girls in bars. Is the dynamic in LA bars like the dynamic in any other bars around the world? I assume not. I assume pretty girls in LA bars want to be part of the entertainment industry; so if you’re a semi-successful guy in the entertainment industry, if you’re, say, a writer on “Da Ali G Show,” you’ve got an “in” with pretty girls that no other guy in no other bar has. One even wonders if this doesn’t account for the misogyny in many Hollywood projects. Pretty girls in most cities tend to ignore guys like us. Pretty girls in LA tend to use—or be used by—guys like us.

“50/50” gave me a couple of laugh-out loud moments along with a couple of existentially poignant moments. I loved Mitch and Alan around the chemotherapy IVs, as well as Angelica Huston as Adam’s needy, slightly off mother. But for a movie that was created because its story was unique, “50/50” turned out to be surprisingly formulaic.

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Posted at 06:36 AM on Oct 04, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Monday October 03, 2011

The Shot Heard 'Round the World ... Except in New York

Sixty years ago today, in the third game of a best-of-three playoff between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Giants, who had been 13 games out of first place in August but came storming back in September to tie the Giants on the last day of the season, were down 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth when Alvin Dark singled off starter Don Newcombe. Then Don Mueller singled. Monte Irvin fouled out but Whitey Lockman doubled to score Dark, send Mueller to third, and put the tying run, himself, in scoring position. A well-placed single would now tie the game. Which is when Brooklyn manager X called for reliever Ralph Branca to face Bobby Thomson, who was, by modern stats (OPS: .948), the best hitter for the Giants that year. Branca threw two pitches. The first was a strike on the inside corner. The second was the shot heard 'round the world:

That's Russ Hodges' voice. I have a clip of it, from the Ken Burns' “Baseball” soundtrack, and I used to include it at the end of mixed tapes I made for friends, even if they weren't baseball fans. There was just such joy in his voice. I wanted to share it.

I first remember hearing about the Thomson homerun when I was 10. It was the summer of 1973, and as part of our almost annual trip from Minneapolis to the east coast—to visit friends in New Jersey, dad's parents in Philadelphia, Mom's mom in Finksburg, Maryland, and Rehoboth Beach, Del., for fun—we spent a few days at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Was it a way for Dad to extend his vacation? Because it was work. He was writing a feature on Ken Smith, the director of the Hall of Fame, for the The Minneapolis Tribune. I believe we even stayed in Ken Smith's house.

From Ken Smith, my older brother Chris and I got a transcript of Abbott and Costello's “Who's on First?,” which we then memorized and performed (me as Abbott, he as Costello) for several years thereafter. I still remember most of the dialogue.

My father got a great anecdote, which went something like this. Ken Smith was at the Thomson game as a sports reporter, but he had to leave early to visit someone in the hospital. Was it his wife? Was she having a baby? As he rushed to get there, as he rushed inside, he asked passersby, New Yorkers all, about the game. And everyone had the same answer: The Dodgers won. None of the people he asked knew the true outcome of the game. Thus the so-called “shot heard 'round the world” wasn't even heard in the city where it took place.

That anecdote might be hard to believe; but it's a lot less hard to believe than Bobby Thomson's actual homerun. We'll give it a pass.

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Posted at 09:05 AM on Oct 03, 2011 in category Baseball
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Sunday October 02, 2011

When Writers of Code Write Copy

Not to tread on the territory of AKC, the Copy Curmudgeon, but I saw this the other day while browsing Netflix's site:

Netflix recommendations: based on your interest in...

It's less what they recommend than how they recommend it.

Based upon my interest in “Straight Time,” starring Dustin Hoffman, and “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” starring Richard Dreyfuss, Netflix automatically generates the following recommendation: Understated Movies based on a book from the 1970s.

By which it means: Understated 1970s movies based on books. (Only one of the above, “Straight Time,” was based on a book from the 1970s.)

Raise the rates, fire the writers, apparently.

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Posted at 08:35 AM on Oct 02, 2011 in category Technology
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Saturday October 01, 2011

What Brings You Here

Movie-related search-engine questions that brought (some very confused) people here ...

Scene from the Korean film, "The Housemaid" (2010)

“The Housemaid”: I call its end “a dreamy sequence right out of David Lynch.” No wonder folks are confused.

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Posted at 07:56 AM on Oct 01, 2011 in category What Brings You Here
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