Movie Review: Wrath of the Titans (2012)
Is there some cinematic law whereby the more lifelike the mythological creatures the less lifelike the human counterparts? The greater the special effects, the lesser the story? Let’s call it Michael Bay’s law.
There’s no Kraken that can be released in “Wrath of the Titans,” but we do get fire-breathing lion-dragons, giant cyclopses, and—finally!—the titular titans, which appear to be whirling devil dervishes that land as meteors and battle Greek forces with two or three bodies on one trunk. While whirling. It’s actually pretty cool.
The main villain, meanwhile, isn’t Ralph Fiennes as in the first movie, but his father, Kronos, who is portrayed as a giant lava man that growls. He’s CGI. And he erupts and he fulminates and he takes out dozens of lesser characters, but there’s no personality there. There’s no there there. What’s his goal? Revenge upon his sons, who imprisoned him? Then why does he take out dozens of Greek soldiers but miss Zeus and Hades? And why are they humanoid while he’s, you know, a giant lava man? Basically he serves the function of the Kraken in the first movie. We hear about him, and hear about him, and then he appears, giant and monstrous, and causes chaos for a minute or two; then Perseus (Sam Worthington) unleashes the necessary weapon—Medusa’s head in the first movie, the combined weapons of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades in this one—and takes him out in like 10 seconds. You blink and it’s over. Crisis averted. Except for the crisis in popular cinema.
Perseus, the demigod, last seen killing the Kraken, is living a simple life as a single father to a 10-year-old boy, Helius (John Bell), and as a humble fisherman, on the Greek coast. His wife, Io (Gemma Arterton), died between movies. We see him genuflecting by her tombstone. It reads: “I’m not doing the sequel. I can’t go into it. I’m just not.”
Then up pops biological Dad Zeus (Liam Neeson), who confesses that with people praying less, the gods are weakening. This means all of their work is being undone, including the underworld prison Tartarus, which holds both titans and Kronos. And if they escape? “The end of the world,” he intones.
Perseus shrugs and goes back to fishing and gazing with pride and love at his son. End of the world, schmend of the world. He doesn’t connect “end of the world” to his world until a two-headed dragon shows up and threatens his son. Then it’s off to battle.
Too late. Another disgruntled, jealous son of Zeus, Ares (Edgar Ramirez of “Carlos”), along with Hades (Ralph Fiennes), who has never forgiven his brother for condemning him to the underworld, have teamed up with Kronos, the giant lava man, and taken Zeus captive. He’s chained in the underworld now. His arms are slowly turning to lava while his hair is quickly turning white.
Thus when Perseus prays to the gods at the Mount of Idols, only Poseiden (Danny Huston) shows up, tells him what’s going on, and gives Perseus his task. Then he dies. Poor Danny Huston. He must’ve had five lines between the two movies.
The task? Gather all the demigods in the world for a frontal assault on Hades. Sorry, that’s not it. That would make sense. No, he’s instructed to gather just one demigod, the half-human son of Poseidon, Agenor (Toby Kebbell, who is our comic relief but isn’t funny), along with a more battle-ready Andromeda (Rosamund Pike taking over for Alexa Davalos), plus a few meaningless others, and, with this rag-tag team, travel to a distant island to battle giant cyclopses and get Hephaestus (Bill Nighy), the architect of Tartarus, to hand out blueprints. Unfortunately, at the last second, Ares arrives and kills all but Perseus, Andromeda and Agenor, who, together, stumble, for what seems like an eternity, toward hell.
Meantime, in hell, Hades and Zeus are bonding. I guess they just needed quality time together.
The big battle takes place on Earth. Kronos erupts, here come the Titans, and the Greek forces (HOO-ah!), along with Agenor and Andromeda, and eventually Zeus and Hades battling side by side, do their best to hold them back, while on the Mount of Idols, Perseus fights Ares to get the final weapon with which to destroy Kronos.
Early in the movie Zeus tells Perseus, “You will learn that being half human makes you stronger than a God.” Then he adds, “not weaker,” so we know what stronger means.
But it’s total bullshit. On the Mount of Idols, Ares, a full god, kicks Perseus’ ass. It’s not even close. He could break him in two. Why doesn’t he? It’s not in the story. Perseus has to become the underdog before he can win. He has to overcome great odds, and even greater pain, to become the demigod version of Rocky Balboa or John McClane. Because that’s what we want. We want the folks—like us, we imagine—who keep coming and coming despite the odds. Perseus isn’t a character. He’s a copy of a copy of a copy. We get faint outlines and actions but everything else about him is blurred. It’s the CGI that’s sharp and in focus.
On the IMDb boards, people are asking if this movie is better than “Clash of the Titans,” which has to be one of the saddest questions ever. Is it smarter than George W. Bush? Does it taste better than poop? Do I like it more than banging my head with a hammer? The sadder answer? “Clash of the Titans” was horrible but “Wrath” is worse. At least in the first we had Mads Mikkelsen and Liam Cunningham. They added something. This one gives us uncomic comic relief, a battle-ready Andromeda who can’t battle, and a Perseus who forgets his entire raison d’etre from the first movie. In that film, Hades killed his adopted parents and sister, and Perseus burns to take him out. He has the chance here. Zeus is dead, Hades is weak, Perseus eyes him. With revenge? Will he take him out now? Will he even reference his raison d’etre from the first movie? No. “All my power is spent,” Hades says. “Who knows? I might be stronger without it.” Then he walks away. Perseus watches him and smiles.
Oh, Hades, you old so and so. Nothing will keep you down, will it?
Then Perseus goes and kisses Andromeda. Because he’s supposed to. He’s a copy of a copy of a copy.
The era of the gods is ending, we’re told in “Wrath of the Titans,” but it’s also true of our movie gods. We have characters by committee and corporation now. They’re copies of copies of copies of copies. Pray for them.
Screenshot: Janet Leigh at the Mirador Motel
Two years before “Psycho,” most likely inspiring “Psycho,” Janet Leigh gets dropped off at the Mirador Motel, just across the border from Mexico, on what should've been her honeymoon morning, in Orson Welles' “Touch of Evil.” She doesn't look happy. She'll look unhappier.
Some girls have no luck with motels.
A Long Time Ago, In a Comic Book Far, Far Out...
“Upon learning that stone-faced Darkseid, ruler of the smoke-covered industrial planet Apokolips, wanted the Anti-Life Equation, Highfather called Orion for help. Born on Apokolips, but raised on New Genesis because of a baby-switching pact that kept the peace, Orion had no idea he was really Darkseid's son. Highfather led him to the Source, a fiery wall and vague cosmic essence that held their universe together, and both watched a disembodied hand write that Orion had to battle Darkseid's men on earth, then meet his father for a infal battle.”
--discussion of the characters of Jack Kirby's “New Gods” comic book, which appeared in 1971, from “Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the American Comic Book Revolution” by Ronin Ro.
I'm late to the party on this one—decades late. My comic-collecting days were shortlived, 1973 to 1978, and “Star Wars,” possibly, helped put an end to them. More likely it was girls. And, you know, better stories. “Star Trek” led to Aismov led to Vonnegut led to John Irving and Doctorow and Roth and Mailer and Hemingway and... out.
During my golden age of comics, which was post-Silver Age of Comics, basically, Jack Kirby, fed up with how he'd been treated at Marvel, jumped ship to DC, where he was treated worse. I didn't get much of his stuff. I didn't get much DC stuff in general, to be honest, just Superman, Batman, and Kirby's “Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth.” By the time I began to pay attention, “New Gods” had died, I believe. I remember my brother bought “Sandman #1” (Winter 1974), which I didn't understand at all. Sandman was back? But it was No. 1? And he entered your dreams? WTF? I was 11.
I read the above passage this month. Every influential piece of art or commerce has its own influences. Long ago I'd read that “Star Wars” was heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa's “The Hidden Fortress” (1958), and when I saw it, sure, I saw similarities. A princess. Two bumbling peasants. A general. That form of cinemantic transition where one scene sweeps across the screen and replaces another. But ... it's feudal Japan. Come on.
But this? This is right there. You don't need to be Roland Barthes to see it.
- The Source = The Force
- Darkseid = Darth Vader
- Orion = Luke Skywalker
- Highfather = Obi wan Kenobi
The Source, like the Force, is the source of power in this universe. Orion is really Darkseid's son, as Luke is really Darth Vader's son. Darkseid is the villain, as is Darth, who wields the dark side of the force.
That said, it ain't a story. I wouldn't be surprised if the story of “New Gods” is as awful as the names Kirby came up with. It certainly sounds bad from the Wikipedia description.
Comments welcome, my nerdier brethren.
Quote of the Day
“Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose.”
--Pauline Kael, from her 1969 essay, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” which I culled from this Jonathan Kirshner quadruple book review. I'm not sure if Kirshner's review had an obvious purpose, but he told me so much of what I already know, or what is already established, that I never bothered to finish it.
Movie Review: The Incredible Hulk (2008)
WARNING: PUNY SPOILERS
How do you live down a box-office bomb of gamma proportions? How do you reboot a movie without starting from scratch? “The Incredible Hulk”—the one with Ed Norton—does both. It starts out very, very smart, like Bruce Banner, and winds up kinda dumb, like the Hulk, but it’s still better than its predecessor. Its trajectory is its hero’s trajectory. That happen often?
The box-office bomb of gamma proportions was Ang Lee’s “Hulk” from 2003, and, no, don’t tell me these two movies basically grossed the same amount. They did, of course: domestically ($134m to $132m) and worldwide ($263m to $245m); and if you adjust for inflation, Ang Lee’s movie actually grossed more in the states: $171m to $147m. But the 2003 version came to us fresh. There was excitement about it. It had nothing to live down. The 2008 version came to us with a stink attached, Ang Lee’s stink, and a general used quality about it. Really? That story again? Didn’t we just do this thing?
More and more, that’s how we feel about the movies these days: Really? Didn’t we just do this thing?
Hanging out in Rochina Favela
First, “The Incredible Hulk” is definitely a reboot. None of the actors are the same. Ed Norton replaces Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, Liv Tyler replaces Jennifer Connelly as love interest Betty Ross, and William Hurt replaces Sam Elliott as nemesis Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross. No one replaces Nick Nolte as David Banner, Bruce’s batshit dad, because they jettison that storyline. No argument from me.
The origin of the Hulk is rebooted. Rather than, as in Ang Lee’s version, David Banner passing on his genetic modification to his son, who accidentally gets an insane dose of gamma radiation while running the same kinds of science experiments his father ran—even though he knows nothing of his father—this Bruce attempts to modify Prof. Reinstein’s WWII-era super soldier formula, which made Steve Rogers Captain America, for the military and under the watchful eye of Thunderbolt Ross. Then he experiments on himself. Oops.
The most fascinating aspect of the rebooted origin? They encapsulate it in the credit sequence. Consider it shorthand: experiment in lab, wink to Betty, oops, Hulking out, Betty bruised in the hospital, Gen. Ross injured and angry, Bruce on the lam and ... done.
This allows the movie proper to start in the same place the last one left off: with Bruce on the lam in Latin America. That’s smart.
Smarter? Our protagonist. He’s a scientist, and, for the first half of the movie, he never stops being a scientist. He’s stopped running in Rochina Favela, the largest shantytown of Rio de Janeiro, where he’s gotten a job at a bottling plant and is tackling his rather unique problem by pursuing both temporary solutions and permanent cures. The latter involves rare flowers and blood samples and microscope slides and never pan out (or we’d have to change the title of the movie). The former involves heart-rate monitors and yoga and martial arts lessons. “The best way to control your anger is to control your body,” his teacher tells him. Then he slaps him. We’ve just seen Bruce watching a TV re-run of “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” in which Bill Bixby, who played David Bruce Banner in the 1970s “Hulk” TV series, gets slapped, so that’s a nice echo. His teacher then tells him to drive his anger from his chest into his stomach. Days without incident? 158.
Unfortunately (OK, fortunately), the bottling plant has the usual volatile elements: an impossibly pretty girl, Marina (Débora Nascimento), who likes him, and a bully (Pedro Salvín), unnamed, who doesn’t. At one point, interceding for Marina, he tells the bully, in his fractured Portuguese, and in a hilarious homage to most famous line of the TV series, “Don’t make me ... hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m ... hungry.”
Gen. Ross is still looking for him, of course. “As far as I’m concerned,” he says with his usual Capt. Ahab tunnel-vision, “I consider that whole man’s body the property of the U.S. Army.” And when some of Bruce’s blood spills on a bottle that makes its way to Milwaukee, Wisc., where an elderly man—our Stan Lee cameo—drinks it and collapses, Gen. Ross is alerted to the whereabouts of Banner, and, per James Monroe’s doctrine, or at least Teddy Roosevelt’s corollary, he sends in the troops. Which leads to a great chase through the shantytown—a chase in which the pursued can’t let his heart-rate get above 200.
Director Louis Leterrier uses Rochina Favela well. In the beginning, we get a great panning shot over the shanties, which seem to stretch on forever. The chase sequence through the shanties is fun. But we’re 23 minutes into this thing. Time to Hulk out already.
Extra credit at Culver University
What’s the worst part of being Bruce Banner? Is it the Hulking out? Or is it that everyone watching—you and I—want you to Hulk out? Everything Bruce is trying to prevent is what we’re there to watch. He’s second billing to his alter ego. If he ever succeeded in curing himself we’d be pissed.
Unfortunately, the Hulk isn’t that interesting, either. He’s just rage in a 10-foot-tall, CGI-created, green monster. He smashes and leaves. We want him to smash, certainly. We want him to take out the bully. He’s the ultimate wish fulfillment for the weak, a Mr. Hyde for the superhero generation. But then what? Run, leap, wake up as Bruce Banner under a waterfall in Guatemala. Oh, the places Hulk takes you.
Holding up his pants, Bruce heads back to the states and Culver University, Virginia, where it all began. He’s been in contact with another scientist, a Mr. Blue (to his Mr. Green), who, to help him, needs more data, and that data is at Culver. So is Betty Ross.
Culver is also where we get our other, requisite Hulk cameos. Bruce’s old friend, Stanley (or ‘Stan Lee’), a pizza shop owner, is played by Paul Soles, who provided Bruce Banner’s voice in the 1966 cartoon; and, to retrieve his data, Bruce bribes a campus security guard, with a pizza. The guard is played by the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno.
But the data’s gone, expunged by Ross, and Bruce is about to go on the lam again when Betty sees him, intervenes, and they have a few scenes in the rain. The movie slows here, as mushy girl stuff usually does. It picks up again when the couple, betrayed, are set upon by the U.S. Army, including Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a Russian-born, British-educated soldier with a love of battle, who wants to take on the Hulk, who wants to be the Hulk, and who will become, with the help of Gen. Ross and Mr. Blue, the Abomination. But first, a good chase on campus. Bruce is trapped in a glass overpass, into which they shoot gas canisters, but ... too late.
While this CGI Hulk has more weight and personality than Ang Lee’s CGI Hulk, it’s still pretty boring. Hulk smashes, looks around, is attacked and smashes again. Ross almost incinerates Betty, his daughter, whom Hulk protects, and, after an angry glance, the two fly off to a safe location: a cave under a cliff during a lightning storm. I like Hulk roaring at the thunder. That’s good, impotent rage. I like Gen. Ross being told off by Betty’s now-ex, Leonard (Ty Burrell), and then muttering to himself, “Where does she meet these guys?” It’s a glimpse of the father we don’t see enough.
A rage in Harlem
The third act in New York should be better than it is. Bruce and Betty go there to meet Mr. Blue, Tim Blake Nelson, who gives an inspired, loopy performance as Samuel Sterns, the scientist who will become the villainous Leader. Eventually. In the sequel to this reboot. If there is one.
But Bruce, here, is more acted-upon than acting. The one time he does act, purposely falling from a U.S. Army helicopter to take on the Abomination in the streets of Harlem, it’s pretty dumb. He’s already told Betty he doesn’t remember much about being the Hulk; just fragments, images. So how does he know Hulk won’t cause more damage? How does he know Hulk won’t team up with Abomination to smash? But Hulk is hero. So Bruce drops. And we get our giant CGI battle, which, to me, is as interesting as watching two dudes play a video game. Which is to say: not at all.
I’ll say this for Ang Lee’s version: It gave us that moment when Bruce admits: “You know what scares me the most? When it comes over me, and I totally lose control... I like it.” We should have something like that here. Instead: CGI battle, Hulk wins, leaves. Is the Abomination still alive? What happens when he wakes? Has Gen. Ross learned his lesson? Shouldn’t we get a mea culpa from the son of a bitch?
The end implies that Bruce, via meditation, is learning to control the Hulking out, which sets up “The Avengers” movie but which goes against all Hulkian principles. His eyes open, green and knowing, and the movie ends. Not a bad end, I suppose. Unfortunately, it’s the last we’ll see of Ed Norton as Bruce Banner. They’ve replaced him with Mark Ruffalo, a good actor, who I’m sure will be fine. But some old, Marvel-style continuity would be nice now and again. Some sense that actors matter. Some sense that we’re not all the stuff of CGI.
Thomas Jefferson: the Original Non-Originalist
“I am certainly not an advocate for for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects.
”But I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.“
-- Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval on July 12, 1816. I first came across this while reading Gore Vidal's ”The Second American Revolution and other Essays (1976-1982).
Movie Review: John Carter (2012)
I’m surprised “John Carter” is as good as it is.
It really shouldn’t work. Writer, director and creative force Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E”) adapted a 100-year-old sci-fi/fantasy story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which was serialized in 1912, before world wars and the modern assembly line and women’s right to vote, and made a good 21st-century adventure yarn out of it. Sometimes that yarn is a bit threadbare, sure, but mostly it’s solid. Given the source material, it has no right to be.
Yet Disney is going to lose $200 million on it. It’s the biggest bomb of the year, the decade, the century. This. Not any of the “Transformers” movies, not any of the “Twilight” series, but this. That’s what I don’t get. It’s not that audiences decided to stay away from “John Carter”; it’s what they go to.
Battle of the HBO stars
I admit I cringed during the opening. We watch a mid-air battle, very swashbuckly, while a voiceover attempts to sort out who’s who on Mars. Zodanga? Barsoom? Helium? It made me long for a “Star Wars” crawl so I could read it all myself. It made me long for simple phrases like “Rebel” and ”Empire” so I’d know who to root for:
Mars. So you name it and think that you know it. The red planet, no air, no life. But you do not know Mars, for its true name is Barsoom. And it is not airless, nor is it dead, but it is dying. The city of Zodanga saw to that. Zodanga, the predator city. Moving, devouring, draining Barsoom of energy and life. Only the great city of Helium dared resist, stood strong, matched Zodanga airship for airship, holding fast for a thousand years. Until one day the rulers of Zodanga became cornered in a sand storm and everything changed.
Sab Than (Dominic West) seems set upon, and he’s played by that McNulty dude from “The Wire,” so I should root for him, right? Wrong. He’s from Zodanga, the predator city, and he’s cornered. But then Matai Shang (Mark Strong) appears, and gives him a crackly, veiny blue weapon from “the Goddess,” with which he routs the Heliumites. Because it’s Mark Strong, we know it can’t be good. Does that guy ever play someone who’s not totally evil? Can’t a brother get a romantic comedy now and again?
At this point we get title, JOHN CARTER, boom, and cut to Earth, New York City, 1881, and a “Sherlock Holmes” vibe. We see our title character (Taylor Kitsch) sending a telegram to his nephew, and introducing himself in James Bond fashion: “Carter. John Carter.” He’s also being followed. Then all of sudden he’s dead, and his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabra, who has a kind of Paul Dano vibe), is directed to read his journal. Which is how we get the rest of the story.
It begins, truly begins, in Arizona in 1868, when, instead of being a rich sonofagun, John Carter is a former Confederate cavalryman, and current gold prospecter, who simply wants more supplies. But he’s mocked at a supply outpost by two rowdies and a fight ensues. Then the U.S. Army shows up, tries to take him, and a fight ensues. Stanton uses humor and quick cuts to give us a sense of who John Carter is. He’s a fighter, humorless but hapless. His instinct, when threatened or trapped, is to punch and bolt. He’ll do this for much of the movie. It’s a good bit.
The Army, in the person of the equally hapless Col. Powell (Bryan Cranston), wants Carter to re-up, but John Carter is through with war. Civil War? Indian wars? He doesn’t care. But when several cavalrymen are set upon by a group of Indians, Carter returns to save Powell and we get this well-worn exchange. Powell: “I thought you didn’t care!” Carter: “I don’t!” Not a good bit.
They’re chased into a cave, the legendary Spider’s Cave, it turns out, which Carter has been searching for; and inside he finds what he was searching for: gold. He also finds a being with a crackly, veiny blue medallion, whom he kills. As it’s dying, he repeats its dying word: Barsoom. Poof! He’s transported to a different desert, a Martian desert, where the gravity is so light he has trouble walking. His tendency is to leap.
Freedom is short-lived. He’s quickly captured by Tharks: 10-feet-tall and green, with four arms, two tusks, and no noses. Their leader, Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), tries to communicate with the odd, jumping creature. He introduces himself, in the Thark language, then John Carter does the same in English: John Carter of Virginia. For much of the movie, he’ll be called “Virginia.” Another good bit.
Pretty soon we have our scoresheet filled out:
- The Zodanga is the bad city, led by Dominic West of HBO’s “The Wire,” but really led by the villainous Mark Strong of “Sherlock Holmes,” who is a a kind of shapeshifter. He, it turns out, is the leader of the Therns, who feed off the wars of other races—like that alien entity Capt. Kirk and Kang laughed at in “The Day of the Dove” episode of “Star Trek.” Maybe Jerome Bixby was an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan.
- Helium is the good city, peopled by tattooed folks who starred in HBO’s “Rome” (Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy). Ciaran, as Tardos Mors, is the leader, but he’s leading a losing war and is listening to offers, from Sab Than (“Wire” dude), for the hand of his daughter, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). She’s hot and smart and wants to keep fighting. She totally hates the “Wire” dude.
- The Tharks are a semi-brutal race who live in the desert. In the overall metaphor, they’re the Indians, the neutral observers in the civil war between the Martian city-states. They want the humanoids to destroy each other and leave them in peace.
Tharks have their own issues, of course. Thark babies appear to be born, or hatched, in an incubator in the desert. Those who don’t hatch on time are killed. “They are not our kind,” Tars Tarkas says of the slow hatchers. I love this detail. Most moviemakers would leave out such moral complexity but not Stanton. And Tars Tarkas, by the way, is the good one.
When the Martian civil war enters Thark territory, John Carter, using his super power, his amazing strength and jumping abilities, gets involved against his better judgment. He battles Sab Than, saves Dejah Thoris, discovers that he’s on Mars, gathers clues for how to get back to Earth. Then he and Dejah Thoris, and John Carter’s ostracized handler, Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton), along with a big lumbering animal that is akin to a dog, with a monstrous head and a big blue tongue, are exiled to the barren Barsoom landscape. It’s a motley, bickering crew. Fun.
Is it a “Wizard of Oz” crew? “Oz” metaphors are overdone (see: “Star Wars”) but it seems to work here. The dog is the Cowardly Lion, Sola is the Scarecrow, Dejah is the Tinwoodswoman—her heart is revealed in the end—while our Dorothy, John Carter, somehow wound up in this strange place, where the rules don’t apply, and just wants to go home.
The world’s first superhero
I had no clue where the story was going. I liked that. Sure, I knew that JC and Dejah Thoris would get together; and I assumed he would eventually choose a side in the Martian civil war, despite his earlier admonitions against such actions, and that the side would most likely be Dejah Thoris’; and he would defeat McNutty and somehow get back to Earth, since, you know, we saw him there. I also began to wonder if maybe his death on Earth in 1881 wasn’t really a death. Another teleportation to Mars maybe?
But in terms of the A, B, C of the story, the “this-then-this,” I had no clue. This world was as new to me as it was to John Carter. Something to be said for that. “Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty,” said Andrew Stanton in his TED talk earlier this year. That’s what he gives us.
Apprently Stanton pitched the movie as “Indiana Jones on Mars,” and it’s true: freeing himself from one trap, JC, like Indy before him, always winds up in another. Makes sense, too. Both “John Carter” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” are based upon serials, magazine or movie, which foster this tendency as a means to encourage return visits by customers. The 1966 “Batman” TV show satirized this formula; we were too smart for it then. A decade later, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg streamlined it and popularized it for a whole new generation and we were hooked. We haven’t escaped their trap yet. We’re still living in their world.
In a sense, we’re still living in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ world. Much of “John Carter” points to the past—the Civil War, the swashbuckling. the princesses—but it also points to the future of cinematic storytelling: interplanetary travel and superheroes. Was John Carter the world’s first superhero? An argument can be made. He’s a reverse Superman 25 years before Superman. His powers increase away from Earth. He leaps tall Martian buildings in a single bound.
And yet: biggest box-office bomb of the century. Moviegoers go for its descendants: “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars” and “Superman.” The original of what you want isn’t what you want. Someone should do a study.
That Sound You're Hearing is the Rich Getting Richer
Some cheery economic news from Steven Rattner, a longtime Wall Street executive, in a New York Times Op-Ed. His data comes from French economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, who worked from U.S. tax returns:
In 2010, as the nation continued to recover from the recession, a dizzying 93 percent of the additional income created in the country — $288 billion — went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers, those with at least $352,000 in income. That delivered an average single-year pay increase of 11.6 percent to each of these households...
The bottom 99 percent received a microscopic $80 increase in pay per person in 2010, after adjusting for inflation...
Government has ... played a role, particularly the George W. Bush tax cuts, which, among other things, gave the wealthy a 15 percent tax on capital gains and dividends. That’s the provision that caused Warren E. Buffett’s secretary to have a higher tax rate than he does.
As a result, the top 1 percent has done progressively better in each economic recovery of the past two decades. In the Clinton era expansion, 45 percent of the total income gains went to the top 1 percent; in the Bush recovery, the figure was 65 percent; now it is 93 percent...
The only way to redress the income imbalance is by implementing policies that are oriented toward reversing the forces that caused it. That means letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthy and adding money to some of the programs that House Republicans seek to cut. Allowing this disparity to continue is both bad economic policy and bad social policy. We owe those at the bottom a fairer shot at moving up.
Movie Review: The Hunger Games (2012)
WARNING: MAY THE SPOILERS BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOR
Why didn’t anyone tell me “The Hunger Games” was a sequel to “Winter’s Bone”?
Jennifer Lawrence is once again playing a tough girl acting as mother to a younger sibling in an Ozarks-like land of poverty and muted colors, where she has to risk everything, particularly herself, to ensure her younger sibling’s survival. It’s a dystopian future rather than our dystopian present, but otherwise it’s “Winter’s Bone” all over. J-Law has a right to wonder: Where the hell are the moms in my movies? Do I have to do fucking everything?
She plays Katniss Everdeen, elder sister to Primrose (Willow Shields), whom she comforts from nightmares, and to whom she sings lullabies, before sneaking into the woods to hunt for food. She’s a whiz with a bow-and-arrow and has a deer in her sights when guy-pal Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) shows up to commiserate, flirt, and above all scatter the deer. This is supposed to be a brutal world, kill or be killed, but the filmmakers want to keep Katniss as sympathetic as possible, and you don’t do that by shooting Bambi’s mom. Too bad. I was intrigued for a moment. Are they gonna...? No. They’re gonna fudge it.
Psst. They fudge it for most of the movie.
Katniss and Primrose live in the 12th of 12 districts surrounding a glitzy metropolis, where, every year, each district holds a lottery to choose two tributes, a boy and a girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, to battle to the death in the nationally televised “Hunger Games.” Twenty-four kids go into the woods, one comes out, and everyone watches on big-screen TVs in the public square. Apparently no one can afford their own TVs anymore. Apparently the authorities think it’s safer to gather the masses into a mass, where, you know, they might rebel.
Why “The Hunger Games” in the first place? We get an inkling in a conversation between President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the show’s producer Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley):
Snow: Seneca, why do you think we have a winner?
Seneca: What do you mean?
Snow: I mean, why do we have a winner?
Snow: Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.
Snow: So ... contain it.
The “it” that needs containing is, of course, Katniss.
This is the first year Primrose is eligible for the Games—thus the nightmares—and, oops, she’s chosen. Distraught, Katniss volunteers in her place. The second D-12 tribute isn’t Gale, thank God, but Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a local baker boy, whose name I assumed was “Peter” throughout; and off they go, by train, to the Capitol, where everyone dresses in bizarre Tim Burton/“Wizard of Oz” fashions: teeny hats and curlicue beards and excessive makeup. It drives home the phoniness and effeminacy of the Capitol’s inhabitants. They’re the Haves. Have Nots? Dance.
In the Capitol, mentors are assigned—including, for Peeta and Katniss, former District 12 winner, and current drunk, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). The tributes are then trained, primped for the crowds, and made to compete for “sponsorships” that might aid them in time of need.
All tributes aren’t created equal, by the way. Tributes from Districts 1 and 2, including Cato (Alexander Ludwig), Marvel (Jack Quaid) and Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), have trained for this since birth. They’re the Cold-War Eastern Europeans in the Olympics but they act like asshole rich kids in any high school movie. They’re Socs. They’re Cobra Kai: tall, white, good-looking, and deadly, and they develop alliances a la “Survivor”: banding together to take out the weak kids. What kind of strategy is that? Shouldn’t a strong tribute form alliances with weaker tributes to take out real potential rivals? Instead, Cato roams the woods, cocky and bullying, as if he can trust Marvel and Clove standing behind him with knives in their hands.
As for our heroine? Once the games begin, it’s the deer all over again. She kills only in self-defense, and only those who deserve killing. She bonds with an adorable 12-year-old girl, Rue (Amanda Stenberg), who has no chance, and who is killed with a spear by one of the Cobra Kai. She bonds with Peeta, who is injured, and nurses him back to health. Here’s how my 10-year-old nephew Jordy put it in his review:
You will care for the characters that the movie wants you to care about, and you will hate the characters that the movie wants you to hate.
That sentence describes almost everything Hollywood makes, but it’s particularly true, and particularly annoying, here. The characters don’t act as they should given the circumstances. They act for us, the audience, so we’ll either like them or hate them. They dance for us.
Watching awful people watching the story we’re watching
So what’s the meaning of all of this? Analogies abound.
There’s the reality-TV analogy, in which “The Hunger Games” is a deadlier version of “Survivor” or “Fear Factor,” and other people’s pain, or death, is aired for our entertainment. There’s the business analogy, in which, after training, 12-18 year-olds are set loose in the bigger world, where, as Bill Gates knows, there can be only one winner. There’s the 99% metaphor referenced above, in which the masses dance for the few. There’s even the Tea Party metaphor, in which the plain, honest folks of the country are controlled by the painted, effeminate fools of the city.
Of these, the reality-TV analogy is most obvious. It’s also the most problematic.
Before the Games, the tributes are interviewed by smarmy TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, dressed as an Oompha-Loompa), who tells their stories to his TV audience. It’s similar to the way Bob Costas tells us, during the Olympics, that this athlete’s father is dying of cancer, and that one cared for her dying mother. It gives the audience rooting interests. Katniss’ heart-tugging story is obvious: she volunteered in place of her sister. Awwww. Peeta’s? That he’s actually in love with Katniss. Oooooo!
The reduction of the individual to a rootable storyline is presented as a form of phony manipulation and pageantry when the movie does the exact same thing. What Caesar Flickerman feeds to his audience is just slightly more reductive than what writer-director Gary Ross feeds to us. Both audiences lap it up. We just take ours with a extra dollop of hypocrisy. We watch a story about awful people watching the story we’re watching. How awful those people are.
I should add that the gender reversal is pretty interesting. The boy is all mushy love, the girl is all “meh”; and in the end the villain uses the boy as a hostage to bargain with the obviously stronger girl, who has him in her sights, bow drawn. J-Law makes it believable, too. Katniss is another Lisbeth Salander. Our strong, silent types are now girls.
But the movie fudges too much. I say this as someone who hasn’t read the books. I say this as someone who didn’t even know, going in, that “THG” was a trilogy. All I knew, from the trailer, was the stuff leading up to the start of the Games. So I wanted to know what most people want to know with a story: What happens next? I wanted to know if they could make what happens meaningful.
Early in the Games, Katniss travels far afield and waits things out. She’s safe. So the production folks create a forest fire to drive her back to the battle. They know how to deal with this contingency. But they’re completely flummoxed by a contestant who refuses to kill in cold blood? They never ran into that contingency? I don’t buy it. As a result—in part, as a sop for the audience, who supposedly likes the “star-crossed lovers” storyline—they change the rules in the middle of the game: two contestants are allowed to live. This is not only a cheat in their reality but a cheat in ours. Author Suzanne Collins’ and director Gary Ross may blame the rule change on the two-faced nature of producer Seneca Crane, with his munchkin beard, but I blame them. They couldn’t come up with a better ending.
Odds Ever in 'Hunger Games's Favor: Grosses $155 Million Opening Weekend
“The Hunger Games,” which most analysts thought would do well this weekend, actually did better: It grossed more than $155 million for the third-highest-grossing opening weekend of all time—after only the last “Harry Potter” movie ($169m) and “The Dark Knight” ($158m).
Even adjusted for inflation, “THG” is in fifth place. It opened in 4,136 theaters.
“Hunger” also shattered the mark for an opening weekend in March and the opening weekend for a non-sequel, both of which had been held by Tim Burton's “Alice in the Wonderland,” which grossed $116 million in March 2010.
Its studio, “Lionsgate,” best known for Tyler Perry and “Saw” movies, as well as for foisting “Crash” on us all, has never had such a hit. Not even close. Its biggest hit prior to this was Michael Moore's “Fahrenheit 911,” which grossed $119 million during the summer of 2004.
“Hunger Games” killed the competition as well. Every returning movie showing in more than 1,000 theaters dropped more than 40% from the previous weekend. Disney's “John Carter” suffered the most, dropping 63.1%. Its three-weekend total is now at $62 million and doesn't look to get much higher.
Meanwhile, “21 Jump Street” dropped 41% to take in another $21 million. Its total gross is $71 million.
My reviews of “The Hunger Games” and “John Carter” up later this week.
The mocking totals here.
Katniss killing the competition.
Jordy's Reviews: The Hunger Games (2012)
Jordy, my 10-year-old nephew, has beaten me to the punch! Here's his review of the mega-hit “The Hunger Games.” Mine, limping along, goes up tomorrow, most likely...
This movie has got to be one of the most insanely hyped movies ever. About five kids at my school stayed up until 12:00 to watch the premiere, isn’t that insane?
Well, was it good? Yes, yes it was. The story is about a girl named Katniss whose sister is chosen to compete in a fight to the death on live TV, and she volunteers for her. Next is the acting. Jennifer Lawrence was good as Katniss, although there was one scene where I thought she overacted a bit. Josh Hutcherson was really good, too. Actually, the entire cast was great! This was not just a cast that said, “Give me the money. Screw the acting.”
Next is the movie’s rating. Some people thought it should’ve been rated R. I totally disagree. I mean, I was scared when I came in, but Gary Ross censored it well. There even was a scene where I got scared and went to the bathroom, mostly because I needed to go to the bathroom, but my friend, Finn, said “Oh, a tribute just died, no big deal.” Ross could have just done a Michael Bay and done, explosions, explosions, explosions, but no, he decided to censor it so young adults could see it and he could earn twice the money. Brilliant, Gary Ross!
The choreography was good, and did well to seem like people did train for a while to fight to the death on live TV. You will care for the characters that the movie wants you to care about, and you will hate the characters that the movie wants you to hate. In fact, my only real problem with the movie was the camera. No, not with the shaky camera effect for a realer movie, I’m talking about the action scenes. In most of them, they go for a closer effect, and go right up to the action, and I can’t tell what’s going on. Plus, they could have tried to make the ending less sequel-ish. You don’t get special exceptions cause almost everybody has read the book, you still have to act like you’re concluding it, not earning triple the money because you have 3 books and don’t want to fit them into one. (Unless they pull a Harry Potter 7 or Twilight Breaking Dawn.)
But this is a great movie that I recommend you go see before they run out of tickets.
93% Okay For 11+ ( Comment on what you want me to review next, and I’ll try to. Thanks!)
The Reviewing Games
E-mail exchange Thursday night with my 10-year-old nephew, Jordy:
Jordan: I have dibs on The Hunger Games and The Lorax for reviewing!
Erik: No dibs on my site, Jordo. But I'll give you the Lorax. The Hunger Games is too big.
Jordan: I guess whoever is first gets it, then.
Erik: Agreed. Whoever gets it first, gets it first. Whoever reviews it second, reviews it second.
Reviews up in the next few days...
Jordy, left, with brother Ryan, last summer.
Hungry for 'Hunger Games'
Holy crap! “The Hunger Games” grossed $68 million yesterday. That's the fifth-highest single-day gross ever, after the final “Harry Potter” and the three “Twilight” sequels. “The Dark Knight” is sixth. Apparently boys don't go to movies the way girls do.
I actually tried to go last night. “THG” is playing at Paul Allen's Cinerama, which would be a good theater to see it in, but I was running late. Its early show was too early and its late show was too late, so I decided to choose the lesser, closer theater, Meridian 16 in downtown Seattle, where it was playing every half hour. I was thinking 7:40. But when I arrived at 7:30 that one was sold out. 8:00 wasn't. One, please.
I looked at the ticket, Theater 9, went up two flights, past a long line for the 7:40 show on the second level, and stood in a small line on the third level for the 8:00 show. I hung there for a bit. My mind wandered. Occasionally I'd look down at the second level, see the line stretching there, look at the clock. “They're behind,” I thought. “Twenty minutes or so. That movie should've started already.” It was only near 8:00 that the second-level line moved and disappeared, and our line, the 8:00 line, began to fill up.
Around 8:15 I caught a snippet of a conversation in front of me. “Yes, this is the 8:30 line.” I was about to object when I rechecked my ticket. Theater 9? No, Theater 6, dummy! You were looking at it upside-down. You should've been in the line a floor below. The one that disappeared 15 minutes ago.
So I retreated to the first floor and tried buying a ticket for the show I'd been standing in line for. Nope. All sold out untl 9:30, which was too late for this bag of bones. I headed home in defeat. But I'll try to see it sometime this weekend.
God, the things girls make me do.
Between “Hunger Games” and Pixar's “Brave,” will this be our summer of girls with bows?
Why Democratic Veeps Run for President; Why Republican Veeps Don't
Apparently Joe Biden is thinking of running for president in 2016. He should. Yes, he'll be 74, and, no, I don't know if he'd make a good president. But it's the way of Democratic vice-presidents. As opposed to Republican ones.
Since 1972, when more open primary rules were first enacted, three Democrats have been elected president: Carter, Clinton and Obama. In the case of the first two, in the election after their last election, the nomination went to their vice president: Mondale in '84 and Gore in '00. Neither won.
This was true for Reagan's veep as well: George H.W. Bush ran and won in '88.
Since then? Bush's veep, Quayle, sputtered in '96 and never got out of the starting gate. He was considered a lightweight with no shot. Still is. W's veep, Cheney, never ran. He was considered a horrible heavyweight with no shot. Still is. Darth Cheney, who chose himself veep. The lightweight was the president.
There's always a lightweight on the Republican ticket, isn't there: a “folksy” someone, generally, who isn't that smart. Each election you think it can't get worse and then it does. It can't get worse than Reagan, you think, and then they choose Quayle. It can't get worse than Quayle, you think, and then they choose W. OK, W's gotta be the bottom, right? Hello, Sarah Palin.
Dems are always a little more serious about who might be a heartbeat away. Or who might be the heartbeat.
So I can see Biden in 2016, although I'm more intrigued by Hillary.
As for the Republicans in 2012? This certainly wouldn't break the trend:
Whew ... 'Neighborhood Watch' is F**ked!
“Whew... Vaughn Meader is fucked.”
--Lenny Bruce, onstage, November 22, 1963
I thought of JFK impersonator Vaughn Meader tonight. I was waiting in line at the movie theater and saw a poster for the upcoming comedy “Neighborhood Watch.” It's about a bunch of suburban dads—Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill (does that dude sleep?)—who band together and create a neighborhood watch group to get away from their families. Apparently, in the process, they uncover a plot to take over the Earth.
Here's the trailer:
In light of recent events in Florida, with the tragic death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of a neighborhood watch volunteer, at the least this trailer is gone. I'm shocked it's still on YouTube. It helps that they have a black guy in the car with them—or at least a Norwegian-Nigerian by way of Britain. But the whole vibe of the thing? And Jonah Hill making his finger like a gun? No go. It's Vaughn Meader all over again. It's Peter Bogdonavich's 1968 film “Targets,” about an assassin, slated for release just after the MLK and JFK assassinations. Neighborhood watches might've been funny last year. Not this year.
Although maybe it'll do well in the South.
* * *
UPDATE: Nearly a week later and the Fox studios are finally waking up to the problem. Apparently they've removed the first teaser poster and trailer but only from Florida, where Trayvon Martin was killed, and which passed the “Stand Your Ground” law that allowed George Zimmerman to walk. A Fox spokesperson released the following, carefully worded statement to The Hollywood Reporter:
“We are very sensitive to the Trayvon Martin case, but our film is a broad alien-invasion comedy and bears absolutely no relation to the tragic events in Florida. The movie, which is not scheduled for release for several months, was made and these initial marketing materials were released before this incident ever came to light. The teaser materials were part of an early phase of our marketing and were never planned for long-term use. Above all else, our thoughts go out to the families touched by this terrible event.”
Above all else.
Quote of the Day
“People who look ahead are very rare. Most people look to the past. We walk backwards, we back our way through life. We move forward but always while looking backwards. People who envision their future and move toward it, peering ahead, are incredibly rare.”
--Henri Langlois in the documentary “Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinematheque.”
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Quote of the Day
“Jack [Kirby] also watched the  Captain America movie. He attended the premier with Mike [Thibodeaux] by his side and thought the beginning--Cap fighting the war--wasn't that bad. Once the film moved to the present, however, showing the Red Skull on an island, he was appalled.
”'He fought to get his name on that thing,' Thibodeaux said. 'But when he came out of the theater, Jack was saying he wanted his name off the movie.'“
”Captain America" was created by ... Ah, forget it.
Where Have You Gone, Klinton Spilsbury?
While reviewing “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” I kept searching for information on what happened to its star, Klinton Spilsbury, who, like his character, did this thing and rode away and was never heard from again.
Oddly, in our overconnected age, there's not much out there, just mashed-over bits and rumors. Someone said they saw him waiting tables in New York in the '80s. Another said he was living on a ranch in the Southwest. Nothing's defnite.
The bit below is a little less mashed-over and a little more definite. It’s from Charles Grodin’s memoir “How I Got to be Whoever It Is I Am.” Grodin writes:
Shortly after [the movie came out, bombed, and the original Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore, was allowed to wear his mask again in publicity appearances], I was at a party and got into a conversation with a young actor who turned out to be Klinton Spilsbury, the new movie’s Lone Ranger. He told me that he was a serious actor from New York, had studied a lot, and was really doing very well moving up the ladder when this Lone Ranger opportunity came along. He said the movie was a mess. There were several scripts, and no one could agree on whether they were supposed to be funny or serious. He was having difficulty finding work because of his association with the movie and had moved back to New York to try to pick up the pieces of his career, which basically had ended.
If you know more, pass the word.
No, that's not Rick Springfield on the right; it's Klinton Spilsbury as John Reid, recovering from his wounds, and eyeing, for the first time, a fiery white horse.
Quote of the Day
“Write hard and clear about what hurts.”
I forget where I read this. I have an old Word doc with favorite quotes in it that I haven't looked at in a while and this was among them. It's also my 100th Quote of the Day, or the 100th Quote of the Day officially titled “Quote of the Day.” There are others with different titles. I chose this one for the 100th quote because ... well, that's it, isn't it? That's what we need to do. It's a quote that should be tattooed on the knuckles of my hands.
Jordy's Reviews: The Adventures of Tin Tin (2011)
My 10-year-old nephew Jordy reviews Steven Spielberg's “The Adventures of Tin Tin,” now out on Blu-Ray and DVD...
Tintin is a great book transferred into a good movie, and although the movie is good, it does not compare to the classic that is Tintin’s book series.
First off, the art style is amazing. Its detail is great and the characters look great for this type of art style. Also, you will care for the characters in this movie. Tintin, his dog, Snowy, and an alcoholic captain named Haddock, although Snowy does steal the show. I love how they carry on the clichés of a comic book or cartoon into the movie. It’s also got very good music, although because the guy that made it is John Williams.
The script was average: it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. My biggest problem with the movie, though, is its sequelish ending. It just shows,” oh, well, sorry, you have to have to pay more money. Ha-ha!” There’s really not much to the story, too. All it is is Tintin HAPPENS to get involved with a plot to find treasure under the sea on a ship called The Unicorn. Along the way, there’s some twists and character development from everyone EXCEPT Tintin and Snowy, which is disappointing. Also, the movie’s a little too dark in two ways. One, story dark, and two, well, dark, but despite some problems that it suffers from, The Adventures Of Tintin is still a great family movie I recommend you go see. Also, it is better than most of the animated movies of 2011.
78% Okay for 8+
Movie Review: The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981)
WARNING: HI-YO SPOILERS
According to the press kit, “Klinton Spilsbury comes to the role with no acting experience whatsoever.” And he leaves in the same pristine fashion.
--from Bob Lundegaard’s review of “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” Mpls. Star-Tribune, 1981
The above line, written by my father, is one of the greatest cuts I’ve ever read. But now that I’ve actually seen the movie, 31 years later, I wonder if everyone wasn’t a bit hard on Mr. Spilsbury.
Yes, he was awful. But he didn’t direct “The Legend of the Lone Ranger”: William Fraker, who would go on to direct many TV movies and TV series, did. Spilsbury didn’t photograph it, either, in the washed-out, grainy fashion of 1970s movies: László Kovács did that, and by the time of his death in 2007 he was a legendary, beloved cinematographer. Spilsbury didn’t write the horrible lines he says—credit four screenwriters, all of whom kept working—and he didn’t even say the horrible lines he says, since his voice was dubbed, replaced, with the flat line-readings of James Keach, Stacy’s brother, who would not only keep working in the industry but eventually marry actress Jane Seymour, she of the crooked, sexy smile, which is the type of fringe benefit only Hollywood can offer.
What about composer John Barry? There’s an early scene where recent law-school grad John Reid (Spilsbury) is on a stagecoach to Del Rio, Texas, with a few other stock characters, and the coach gets attacked by bandits. The driver tries to outrun them while his second, the shotgun messenger, exchanges gunfire with the bad guys. One of the stock characters, the grumpy one, cries with alarm, “He’s going to get us all killed!,” at which point we get a distant shot of the chase: beautiful sandstone buttes dominating the background, while in the foreground, careering down a dusty path, pursued, comes the stagecoach. And on the soundtrack? Something like the opening theme to “Big Valley” or “Bonanza.” It’s expansive, generic western music rather than, you know, chase music.
How about Merle Haggard? Or do we blame John Barry for this, too? Or William Fraker or one of the screenwriters or some doofus studio-head at Universal Pictures? Exactly who came up with the idea that throughout the movie we’d get the story-song of the Lone Ranger, sung and told, but mostly told, by Haggard, with lyrics from Dean Pitchford, who at this point was mostly known for writing the theme music to the weekly lip-synch fest “Solid Gold.” Who thought these words were good words?
The legend started simply
Just a boy without a home
Taken in by Indians
But still pretty much alone
He had to struggle with strange customs
And his own fears from within
He learned the wisdom of the forest
He learned the ways of the wind
On that last line, by the way, Haggard draws out the word “ways”: He learned the waaayyys of the wind. Yeah.
But Haggard prospered. And that year Pitchford won an Oscar for writing the song “Fame.” A few years later, he would be nominated for “Footloose,” and a few years after that for “After All” from the movie “Chances Are.” People still come to him for work.
Casting directors? Except Jane Feinberg and Mike Fenton also cast “Godfather Part II,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Breaking Away,” among other acclaimed movies, so they seemed to know what they were doing. Their credit right before “The Lone Ranger” is the TV miniseries “East of Eden,” with the aforementioned Ms. Seymour, and an up-and-comer, Hart Bochner, as Aron Trask. Bochner also played the dickish fratboy in “Breaking Away.” He was tall, dark and handsome, and athletic, and he had a firm jawline and was only 24 years old. Hello? Or did someone feel the Lone Ranger had to be a complete unknown—as Christopher Reeve had been in “Superman: The Movie”?
Jesus, how about Michael Horse? In the beginning of the film, a young Tonto is chased by bandits and saved by a young John Reid, whose parents are subsequently killed by the bandits, and who then spends several months among the Indians before his older brother, Dan (John Bennett Perry), arrives to send him to his aunt’s home in Detroit. (Detroit? The Lone Ranger was raised in Detroit?) As they part, Tonto calls him kemo sabe, trusted friend, and gives him an amulet necklace. Cut to: a few decades later when an adult Tonto, now Michael Horse, happens upon a massacre of Texas Rangers in Bryant’s Gap. He checks to see if any of these white men are still alive. Hey, one is. Hey, he seems familiar. Hey, here’s that amulet necklace I gave that kid who saved my life so long ago. My kemo sabe. And what look passes over Tonto’s face at this incredible moment? A small smile. No real concern. No real anything. It’s as if he’s looking through a photo album, rather than at the bloodied, barely alive face of his childhood friend.
This was Horse’s first role, as it was Spilsbury’s, but Horse now has 68 credits, including the TV series “Twin Peaks,” while Klinton Spilsbury has ... one. Just “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.” He appeared out of nowhere and disappeared into László Kovács’ washed-out, grainy sunset. He did this movie and took the blame and we never saw him again.
Who was that dubbed man?
The revenge of Clayton Moore
Success may have many authors while failure is an orphan, but the massive failure of “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” was given a single father, Spilsbury, who hardly acted alone. Or lone.
Was it the goofy name? Was he an ass on the set? I’ve read there was a fistfight or something. Was he gay? I’ve read that, too. There are rumors that his voice was too high and girlish—that’s why the dubbing—but he seems to deny it in this AP piece from 1981. “They wouldn’t have hired me if they hadn’t liked my voice,” he says. Some truth there. And surely his voice couldn’t have been much worse than the nothing line-readings of James Keach.
Was it the Clayton Moore controversy? Moore, a former stuntman, was the most famous Lone Ranger of them all, having played the character on radio and for most of the long-running 1950s TV series. And he didn’t stop. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, he made commercial appearances as the Lone Ranger. He dug it. But in 1975, the Wrather Corp., which owned the copyright on the masked man, was looking to create a movie, this movie, and didn’t want the public confusing the old and the new, so it sued Moore to get him to hang up his mask. He refused but lost at the trial-court level. The verdict pissed off everyone. A corporation has done what no villain could do: It made the Lone Ranger take off his mask! The mojo was awful, the vibes shitty, and all the fans never bothered to show up for the usurper. The reviews were rightly devastating. The movie was supposed to be big, “Superman” big, but it grossed only $12 million, the equivalent of $35 million today, and $122 million shy of “Superman”’s 1978 take.
El bombo. El stinko. Who to blame? Hey, pretty boy’s got a funny name. Plus he was so mean to that Clayton Moore. Remember?
Of silver bullets and kemo sabes
Let’s talk updates. The Lone Ranger was created in 1933 by Fran Striker and George W. Trendler, for WXYZ radio, Detroit (ah, that’s why Detroit), but you need to update this shit. A lot of cultural changes in those 50 years. In “Superman: The Movie,” for example, they made the “S” on Supes’ chest his Kryptonian family crest, which just happens to look like our “S,” and which allows Lois Lane, that giddy, cynical schoolgirl, to name him Superman. That’s smart. That’s a good update.
So what kind of updates do screenwriter Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, Michael Kane, and William Roberts give “The Legend of the Lone Ranger”? How about the silver bullet? Why did this guy start using silver bullets anyway?
Well, after Tonto rescues Reid from Bryant’s Gap and restores him to health, Reid—a lawyer in this version rather than a lawman—is attempting target practice. He misses and the Indian kids laugh at him. So Tonto hands him a silver bullet. “Silver is pure,” Tonto says. “It’s a symbol of justice and purity since the year of the sun.” And sure enough, boom, Reid hits the target dead center.
Which means the Lone Ranger uses silver bullets ... because he’s actually a lousy shot.
The mask? It doesn’t make much sense if Reid’s a lawyer instead of a Texas Ranger, does it? What’s he hiding? That Butch Cavendish didn’t kill him? Does Butch even know he was there? And why not “The Lone Lawyer?” “The Lone Ranger” feels like false advertising here. Dude wasn’t a Ranger.
My favorite update may be the Tonto update. It’s 1981 now, not 1933, and white America is a little less gung-ho about, you know, the slaughter of Native Americans and all that, not to mention having minorities in subservient roles. The Reagan years would assuage some of this collective guilt with a big “Screw you back again,” but in the meantime: How do you solve a problem like Tonto?
Well, first, they have a young Reid save a young Tonto. So he’s cool. Then they have a young Reid learn Indian ways. So he’s really cool. Then they have an adult Tonto save the adult Reid. So they’re even. Then they have Tonto bring Reid back to his camp, where the elders object to the presence of this white man, and where Tonto defends him. Sort of. This is what he says:
Nobody has reason to hate the white man more than I. He has taken from me my wife and my child. But the man I brought here is my brother. ... And if I am wrong, and he proves to be an enemy, then I, Tonto, will decorate my lance with his white man’s hair.
Playing cowboys and Indians
Here. Here’s an example of the tone-deafness of the movie. On the one hand, you’ve got this hard-edged, 1970s-era stab at racial verisimilitude; on the other, during the massacre at Bryant’s Gap, you have this 1950s-era TV-show dialogue. It’s like lines kids come up with when they’re playing cowboys and Indians:
SCENE: Many Texas Rangers and John Reid, the lawyer, are trapped in Bryant’s Gap, fighting for their lives. Bullets are flying everywhere.
TEXAS RANGER WHOM WE’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE (to John Reid): Hi, kid. How do you like being a Ranger? (bang bang)
J. REID: More than anything. (zing, zing)
TRWWNSB: Yeah, great life, ain’t it? (bang bang)
CUT TO: Another Ranger getting shot, falling off his horse, and getting dragged along by the horse.
TRWWNSB: I’ve been a Ranger longer than you’ve been alive. Been in San Anton with big Sam Houston. Fought alongside McCullough in the Mexican War. Rode with Kit Carson and John Coffee Hays. All those years, kid, I learned one thing. (bang, zing)
J. REID: What was that? (bang bang)
TRWWNSB shoots. CUT TO: member of Butch Cavendish gang, who grasps heart and falls into valley.
TRWWNSB: It ain’t the bullet that gets you. It’s the fall.
Do I need to add that, a second later, a bullet gets him?
There’s a girl, Amy Striker (Juanin Clay), named after Fran. John Reid saves her from lechery during the stagecoach robbery. Then her uncle, a newspaper publisher, is hung by the Cavendish gang for his news reporting. Then John Reid joins big bro and the Rangers to go after Cavendish, but before he leaves he and Amy share a good, sloppy kiss. Then... Actually, that’s it, isn’t it? Later, John Reid, or the Lone Ranger, pretends to be a priest to communicate information to her, or get it, I forget which, and he leaves behind a silver bullet, so she knows that... what exactly? At this point, the Lone Ranger hasn’t done shit. No one knows him. No one knows the meaning of the silver bullet. So why does she smile knowingly? She doesn’t know what it means, or who he is, or that he’s John Reid, or that John Reid is still alive. None of it makes sense.
Riding off into the sunset
So, yes, it's tough to wrap my mind around the beginning-to-end awfulness of “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.” Its lack of energy and excitement. Its overexposed graininess. How its tone veers wildly. How it marginalizes its hero, and makes his strengths (silver bullet) result from his weaknesses (bad shot), and how interspersed throughout we get yet another verse from Merle Haggard reading Dean Pitchford’s words that explain the awful thing we’re watching:
What is it that brings two friends together
Or sends the waves to the sand?
And what is it that drives a creature of nature
To reach out to the world of Man?
Just such a creature was this Great White Horse
As wise and as wild as a runaway
And the moment John first laid eyes on it
He swore he'd ride it someday
Just don't tell me you think this was all the work of little Klinton Spilsbury.
Quote of the Day
“There is nothing more debasing than the work of those who do well what is not worth doing at all.”
--Gore Vidal, in his essay, “Love Love Love,” which first appeared in the Partisan Review, Spring 1959. Vidal was a privileged man: most things in life are more debasing than this. But the description does fit most every job I've had in my adult life.
Screenshot: Anna Karina in 'Le Petit Soldat' (1963)
Ben Volunteers for Obama
My friend Ben recently moved to Seattle after eight years in Hanoi. I like introducing him as “the former AP bureau chief in Hanoi,” which he was. I don't know of a more romantic phrase in the English language than “AP bureau chief in Hanoi.”
Like most true journalists I know, Ben's an opinionated S.O.B. It probably goes with the territory. You spend 30 years objectively reporting the world until you want to grab the world by the lapels and shout in its face about what it doesn't get from your objective reporting.
Ben is now doing some shouting, about politics and volunteering for the Obama campaign, over at The Obamanator blog. Much, much recommended. Some samples:
- “...the Republicans made the mess and are campaigning to restore the very policies that created it... from ”Flying High at Boeing“
- ”We called someone who thought that Tiger Woods was the African-American running for president...“ from ”Another Phone Bank, Another Moron“
- Newt Gingrich is so full of baloney, he’s going to explode. Perhaps this accounts for his remarkable girth...” from “Excuse Me While I Rant for a Moment.”
I think my favorite is this juxtaposition: “I Used to Be an Objective Journalist” on March 16th, followed by “Only a Twisted, Deranged, Hard-Hearted Creep Would Try to Repeal the Affordable Care Act” a day later.
Stay tuned. I will.
The 400 Highest Earners in the U.S. Pay Only 18.1 Percent in Taxes
Do you subscribe to The New Yorker yet? Why not? Come on.
James B. Stewart has a must-read piece in the March 19th issue entitled “TAX ME IF YOU CAN: The things rich people do to avoid paying up.” Money (cough) quote:
The Internal Revenue Service discloses detailed statistics for the four hundred highest-earning taxpayers in the country. In 2008, the most recent year available, those taxpayers had an average adjusted gross income of two hundred and seventy million dollars each. Thirty of them paid less than ten per cent in federal taxes, and a hundred and one paid between ten and fifteen per cent. On average, the group paid 18.1 per cent.
President Obama has seized on that fact, making tax fairness a central issue in his reëlection bid. The President has called for comprehensive tax reform and for specific proposals for a “Buffett Rule,” which would raise tax rates on taxpayers earning more than a million dollars a year. Romney has called for a twenty-per-cent across-the-board tax cut, while limiting some deductions. ...
None of the proposals address the fact that rich people aren’t taxed on certain income, either because it is exempt, as with interest on municipal bonds, or because they claim to be living outside the jurisdiction that is levying the tax. Relatively scant media attention has been paid to residency requirements, even though enormous revenue is at stake.
So that's what Stewart does: he pays attention to the residency requirements and how the rich can afford to skirt them.
A thumbnail of the piece is available here. It's also on newsstands. You can also borrow my copy if you promise to bring it back. And subscribe.
Quote of the Day
“When I arrived in L.A. [in 1974, to receive an honorary Academy Award for his lifelong contribution to film and film preservation], I thought that the Oscar was like our Legion of Honor. But it's much more important than that because everyone and his brother gets one of those eventually. An Oscar is truly a serious matter. I didn't realize how much it meant. It's comparable to being chosen as a master craftsman by one's fellows in the time of the guilds.”
--Henri Langlois, in the documentary "Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque” (2004). Langlois, who is considered the father of film preservation, the auteur theory, and the Nouvelle Vague, took film more seriously than the Academy. He took the Academy more seriously than the Academy.
Movie Review: 21 Jump Street (2012)
“21 Jump Street” is the kind of movie that garners an 87% rating on RottenTomatoes.com because 87% of movie critics, most of whom are guys, think it’s pretty good. Hey, it’s kinda funny. It’s got funny bits here and there. I laughed. As did I. But nobody’s overwhelmed. Most everyone knows it’s a not-bad bromedy, another light comedy with tons of dick jokes, that doesn’t really go anywhere. The only one that sounds enthused, really, is that 87% rating on RottenTomatoes.com.
Its humor is scattershot. It’s best when it’s aping its genre—the same way that “The Other Guys” was best when it was aping its genre—but eventually it gives in to the genre’s demands. All mainstream satires do. It’s Hollywood eating its cake and having it, too. It’s the movie business spending 45 minutes telling us, “Oh, you’re too smart for this,” and then telling us, for another 45 minutes, “OK, you’re not.”
It’s right both times.
Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum, in his third movie this year) are recent Police Academy grads on bike patrol who long for something better. After a bust of a drug gang, the One Percenters, goes awry, they’re scuttled off to another unit. “Where do we report to?” Jenko asks. “Down on Jump Street,” Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) declares melodramatically from behind his desk. “37 Jump Street.” Pause. “Wait, that doesn’t sound right.”
Hardy gets in another good line. Since the squad is a revival of an undercover program from the 1980s, he adds, “All they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us not to notice.” A few people in the crowd at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle laughed knowingly at that one. For a few minutes, we hold out hope.
We get a few more of these in-jokes, these “You’re too smart for this” lines and moments. I suppose my favorite is when our boys are being chased on the LA freeway by a motorcycle gang, and, one by one, gang members crash into things like, you know, trucks full of gas canisters, or they slide, sparks flying, into a leaking oil and gas tanker, and Schmidt and Jenko tense, anticipating the ensuing explosion. But nothing happens. They’re constantly amazed that nothing blows up. Until the very end when almost everything does. That’s the “OK, you’re not” part.
(Why, by the way, do cinematic explosions appeal to the Big Jim McBobs and Billy Sol Huroks of the world? Does anyone know? I get nothing out of it.)
The “Jump Street” squad—for those unfamiliar with the ’80s TV series that propelled Johnny Depp to fame—uses baby-faced cops to infiltrate high schools where drugs are being sold and crimes committed. More in-jokes here, since Tatum, 32 in April, hardly seems credible as a high school student. Hill, 28, is a bit better. And it helps, of course, that the other high schoolers are also played by twentysomethings: Dave Franco, 26, plays Eric, the popular kid who’s dealing the drugs, while Brie Larson, 22, plays his kinda girlfriend, Molley Tracey, who winds up with the hots for Schmidt. Yes, Schmidt.
That’s another ongoing gag. Way back in 2005, both of these guys were seniors in high school, where Jenko was the stupid popular jock and Schmidt was the Eminem-loving, unpopular nerd, who was the sole member of the Juggling Society (“One man, three balls.”) Apparently times have changed. Today’s kids, besides texting instead of phoning, and putting up party invites on something called “Facebook,” appreciate the following: reading comic books; environmental awareness; being tolerant. They don’t like bullies. Schmidt prospers and hangs with the cool kids; Jenko is ostracized and hangs with the science geeks.
But shouldn’t the science geeks...?
I like a line of Schmidt’s early on, when he realizes his path away from high school has led him back to high school: “It was too fucking hard the first time,” he says, shaking his head. Most people can identify.
Part of the point of the film is that, no matter your age, no matter your maturity level, when you return to high school you become as childish as you were in high school. I like that concept ... but Schmidt and Jenko are never mature. They never stop being childish. They’re doing drugs as bike cops. They’re shooting guns in the air in city parks. It doesn’t take high school to turn them into adolescents, they’re already there. Would it have worked better if our heroes had been mature when they first arrived? Or would it have just cut back on the comedy.
Many of the original “21 Jump Street” stars get their cameos, including one hilarious shocker, and we get the usual hip comedy alums, such as Rob Riggle of “The Daily Show” and Ellie Kemper of “The Office” as a teacher with the hots for Jenko. The movie has its share of laughs. But that sound you hear throughout is the sound of cake eating itself.
Quote of the Day
“It's quite simple to kill off your public. A distant example: Moscow. 'Ivan the Terrible' is released in Moscow and audiences flee. They can't take it. But why not? Because the were no longer operating on the film's level of artistry. Why? They'd seen nothing but crap for ages. When you feed the people crap, they lose their taste buds.”
--Henri Langlois, in the documentary “Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque” (2004). Langlois is considered the father of film preservation, the father of the auteur theory, and the father of the Nouvelle Vague.
Movie-Review Quote of the Day: Ebert on Dick
“After an unpromising start as bicycle-riding cops on park patrol, they're exiled to an undercover unit investigating a dangerous new drug infiltrating a local high school. The captain in charge (Ice Cube) is the typical police veteran who can't believe the incompetence of these losers. I should mention that his name is Dickson — inevitable in a movie papered with dick jokes. The male member, having gone unmentioned during most of the cinema's first 110 years, now co-stars in many comedies.”
--Roger Ebert in his review of “21 Jump Street”
Jordy's Reviews: Hugo (2011)
My 10-year-old nephew Jordy, a fan of Hitchcock, takes on Scorsese...
Hugo is an amazing, spectacular film that is charming, dark, and quite amusing, at the same time. It’s a book of spectacular stories, amazing characters, and is a gift for the ages.
Hugo is the story of an orphan who lives in a clock at a train station. He steals many things and likes to tinker with many things and tries to fix the automaton that his father tried to fix before he was killed in a fire. His notes of the automaton are taken by a toy shop owner which Hugo has previously stolen from. He makes friends with the toy shop owner’s goddaughter, and they have an adventure beyond what you normally expect from an adventure. The movie's slow pacing will not bore the kids, and they will also not be bored by the absence of action, hopefully.
Most people will get immersed in the story of Hugo and find themselves leaving the theatre with a smile, the smile a reminder of the magic of Hugo. The music is magical, with the entire score impressing. The script is fantastic, with every sentence putting a charm on you. The acting of the entire ensemble cast was very impressive. The camera is great, with a perfect display of what’s happening. Oh, and for a movie that was made in 3D, it passes the test, for although you should not expect the 3D to pop out as if it was an action movie, because the 3D, instead of throwing it in randomly, like most 3D movies, it uses it only for being literal, which is fantastic.
You will find yourself caring about the characters, and get nervous for the characters in the rare action scenes to come. It’s a hard movie to get right, but the whole crew nailed it, and pulled off a masterpiece of filmmaking that is hard to beat. Oh, and if you’re reading this review and you still haven’t seen this movie, go see it! It’s one of the best of 2011, and I mean it.
Uncle Erik's review of “Hugo” here.
Movie Review: Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
WARNING: IF THIS BE SPOILERS...
SCENE: Upper floors of the Baxter Building, New York City.
TIME: Hours after the Silver Surfer has destroyed Galactus, destroyer of worlds, and saved the Earth.
ENTER: Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffodd), Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis). They’re weary and battered and three of the four slump into whatever furniture is available, while Reed Richards stands.
REED: Alright, I know we’re all tired. But now that Galactus and the Silver Surfer are gone, and the Earth is safe again, what are some of the lessons we learned from this latest adventure? Anyone?
[Pause. Everyone looks around.]
SUE: Well, I learned that with great power comes great responsibility!
BEN: Uh... Isn’t that Spider-Man’s thing?
SUE: OK, so not in those words. But ... you know. Like before I was worried that Reed’s and my fantabulous wedding would be too much of a media storm and would affect our lives, and our eventual kids, and we wouldn’t have normal lives? And I wanted Reed to settle down and be a professor and me a housewife somewhere far, far away? After we saved the world, I realized we couldn’t run away from all that!
JOHNNY: Actually, sis: First, you worried you wouldn’t get married. Remember? Only when you were about to get married did you worry about getting married.
SUE: Oh, right.
JOHNNY: That was kind of a drag, to be honest.
BEN: Plus we didn’t save the world, Susie. Surfer dude did.
SUE: I did my part! If it wasn’t for my big blue eyes and full lips, and the love Reed demonstrated for me, Norrin Radd wouldn’t have been reminded of his love for his own woman ... Shallow Bal?
REED: Shalla-Bal. But I don’t think he mentioned her name in this—
SUE: The point is ... Because of me, he was reminded of her, and so he decided to save us. Without me and her, that saving-us part wouldn’t have happened.
JOHNNY: Can I just say: Surfer? Surfboard? Hello! It’s not 1965, people.
BEN: People still surf.
JOHNNY: But it’s so dumb. Just because Jack Kirby read an article about surfer dudes back in 1965 and created this guy doesn’t mean we gotta keep going with it. I mean: surfing outer space? What the hell?
BEN: Me? I just didn’t like how he totally stole our thunder. We didn’t even need our super-powers to save the world. Just Susie’s big eyes.
JOHNNY: Which look totally fake, by the way.
SUE: They do not!
BEN: King Kirby and Stan the Man, back in issues 48 through 50, they let us stop Galactus. Here we’re like walk-ons in our own freakin’ movie.
REED: Plus, if the Silver Surfer could actually defeat Galactus, why didn’t he do it before? How many worlds has he helped destroy along the way?
BEN: I never understood what people see in that guy.
JOHNNY: I never understood why we kept switching powers.
BEN: That was weird, wasn’t it? And of course in the end—poof! Gone.
REED: I think the rationale behind the power-switching was three-fold: One, it allowed for comic relief and hijinks in the middle of the adventure...
BEN: Comic relief when the world is ending?
REED: ...Two, it gave Chiklis face time, which he needs.
BEN: True that.
REED: ...And three, it gave all the fanboys in the crowd a chance to see Sue naked.
JOHNNY: He’s right, sis.
BEN (laughing): Remember what you said, Susie?
JOHNNY (in high-pitched voice): “Why does this always happen to me?”
BEN (laughing): Why does this always happen to me? That’s a good one!
REED: Sorry, Sue. Fanboys want wish fulfillment, and that’s where Johnny and Ben come in—and me, to a certain extent—but...
BEN: But they also want to get their rocks off.
JOHNNY: And that’s where you come in.
JOHNNY: Yeah, like that. But deeper. More chesty.
REED: OK. Any other lessons learned?
JOHNNY: Well, I learned that, sure, being a shallow, hotshot celebrity with hot chicks and a cool superpower is all well and good. But at the end of the day, or the end of the world, whichever comes first, you really want that special someone to cuddle with.
REED: With whom to cuddle.
JOHNNY: Whatever. So anyway that’s why I’m going for the hot military chick.
REED: What’s her name again?
JOHNNY: You know... hot military chick. Captain Something.
BEN: True love.
REED: What do like about her?
JOHNNY: I don’t know.
REED: What do you have in common?
JOHNNY: I don’t know. She’s... She was there at a time when I realized that boffing girls isn’t, you know, fulfilling.
BEN: Poor you.
REED: Didn’t you also learn something about being part of a team, too?
JOHNNY: Yeah. That was weird. Kind of tacked on. And wasn’t that Sue’s lesson?
BEN: What about you, Big Brain? You learn anything?
REED: Well, I learned that some of the officers in the U.S. Armed Forces aren’t very nice.
JOHNNY: Totally! That dude was a major asshole.
BEN: General Asshole.
JOHNNY: He asks for our help and then insults us the whole time?
BEN: He got you so mad you had to brag about yourself. (Laughs.)
JOHNNY: Oh man, that was dumb. I was so embarrassed for you.
SUE: Right, right. The whole “I’m the quarterback and you’re the nerd.” “Well, I’m the nerd with the hot chick and you want my help.”
REED: I know, I know.
JOHNNY: Wait, what was that other line? The lamest line of them all?
SUE: “It’s 15 years later and now I’m one of the greatest minds of the 21st century!”
JOHNNY: That’s the one!
[Everyone but Reed laughs.]
REED: I know, I know. But I couldn’t stop myself. It was as if someone really, really stupid was inside my head making me say those words.
SUE: I know the feeling.
JOHNNY: Me, too.
REED: It’s odd. The whole thing. [He looks around.] It’s as if someone really stupid made us these narrow caricatures, then had us realize we shouldn’t be narrow caricatures. You know. Johnny’s shallow and flip so he has to get serious. I’m too serious, so I have to dance with models and brag about my brain. Sue wants to end the Fantastic Four because of what snarky girls say about her on TV, so...
JOHNNY: God, that was dumb.
REED: I mean, those are our lessons? While we save the world?
BEN: While we watch Surfer dude save the world.
JOHNNY: You’re right, Reed. And the sad thing is, at the beginning, it felt like it was supposed to be our greatest, most epic adventure. Yet it turned into our lamest adventure.
BEN: Probably our last one, too.
SUE: No, Ben. I learned my lesson. That we’re all in this together. Remember?
REED: I think he means something else, Sue.
JOHNNY: We’re getting the boot.
BEN: The re-boot.
REED: Eventually. When the taste of this one has finally left people’s mouths.
JOHNNY: Which should be in about ... 10 years.
BEN: What a revoltin’... shame.
SUE [mockingly]: “I’m one of the greatest minds of the 21st century.”
REED: I know, I know.
Start... Spreading... the News...
OK, here's your YANKEES SUCK post of the day.
I encourage all opposition baseball teams to play the slow, haunting version of “New York, New York,” from the film “Shame,” and performed by Carey Mulligan (whom I love), whenever the Yankees come to town and LOSE. Or at the very least during every Derek Jeter at-bat. There's more heartbreak in that city than triumph, after all. This version reflects that perfectly.
Full audio version here.
Searching for Ralph Ellison's Quote
You remember “Almost Live”? Good show. Nancy Guppy was a regular, and funny. Last year at opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival at McCaw Hall, I ran into her. I was with a group of mostly women, I believe, suited up and wearing sunglasses, so not my usual raggedy self, when I saw her by the front stairs and pointed her out. She noticed being pointed out, and I smiled, and she came up to me. I think she thought I was someone else. Her disappointment when it turned out to be just me was muted but palpable, but, as things go, she's now a friend ... on Facebook. Just that. She wouldn't know me from Adam Wahlberg.
The other day, on Facebook, she posted this:
“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.”
I immediately loved it. I asked her where it was from but she didn't know. So I searched it out in 2012 fashion.
The first Google search result is from an ad-heavy site called Brainy Quote, which sandwiches Ellison's thought between two similar thoughts from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anais Nin, but of course it attributes nothing. Such is the way these days. You can click on his name and find out that he's an AUTHOR, that he's AMERICAN, when he was BORN and when he DIED, but the quote is just there to be quoted, along with other Ralph Ellison quotes plucked from the obscurity of, what, a book, and made to live forever here. And now here's an ad from Google.
The second and third results are from Good Reads, which at least tells us the quote is from “Invisible Man” (rather than, say, “Shadow and Act”), but provides no context. We do find out, however, that 1,190 people “liked” it. Which is good enough for me.
Linguaspectrum.com, fourth, expands upon the quote. On its page, “92 Quotes About Defeat,” it gives us a slightly fuller version:
“America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It's winner take nothing that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many - This in not prophecy, but description.”
The fifth result, from the ad-heavy Bookrags.com, which uses those awful double-underlined pop-up ad-links to specific words, finally gives us context. Ralph Ellison's quote is from the epilogue to “Invisible Man,” pg. 577, which does no good for me since my Modern Library edition only goes to 439 pages. But at least we know where it's from now. It's no longer invisible, you could say.
But how about that line right before the plucked version?
It's winner take nothing that is the great truth of our country or of any country.
Tell that to Bill Gates' house on Lake Washington.
I finally found the quote in my edition of “Invisible Man,” by the way. It's at the bottom of pg. 435 of the Modern Library edition and part of an argument for diversity and against conformity. “Must I strive toward colorlessness?” he asks, among other things. I actually underlined (not doubly so) “winner take nothing” when I read this back in college, but for what reason I can't image. Because I thought it was profound? Because I disagreed? I hope I disagreed.
Originally I was going to tie Nancy Guppy's FB quote to Roger Kahn's quote about a team in defeat, one of my favorites, and then tie both to any team playing the New York Yankees, and have fun that way. This was going to be a YANKEES SUCK blog post, and giddy, and ha-ha fun, but the Google searches depressed me too much: All the crap out there that ranks so highly. I'm even more depressed that somehow, in the last month, Pres. Obama's approval rating has dropped from 50 % to 41%. What happened in the last month? Tell me. How is he now in a statistical dead heat with Mitt Freakin' Romney? All the crap out there that ranks so highly.
Seriously, bless those who play in the face of certain defeat. Me, sometimes I get so sick of it all I search for e.e. cummings' helluva good universe next door.
Ralph Ellison of brainyquote.com. Make sure to “like” him.
Movie Review: Bill Cunningham New York (2011)
WARNING: MARVELOUS, EXOTIC SPOILERS OF PARADISE
“He who seeks beauty will find it.”
Bill Cunningham, quotidian fashion photographer for The New York Times, says this near the end of Richard Press’ excellent, moving documentary, “Bill Cunningham New York,” while accepting an award from the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France; and it’s so true to him, so meaningful to him—and, really, to the documentary about him—that his voice begins to crack. He’s not just espousing something he read. He’s telling us his life philosophy. The point of what he does, he says, is “not the celebrity, and not the spectacle. It’s as true today as it ever was: He who seeks beauty will find it.” Then he thanks the French and leaves the stage.
Cunningham is an American original. He covers the tux-and-gown society scene for The New York Times on a Schwinn bicycle. He covers the haut couture fashion shows wearing the sturdy blue jackets of French street cleaners. He is one of the better known fashion photographers in the country even though he’s the first to admit he’s not really a fashion photographer. He has an overwhelming joie de vivre that covers an overwhelming personal sadness.
His “On the Street” column is an American original. Screw the models; screw high society; what are the people wearing?
“The best fashion show is definitely on the streets,” he tells us early in the doc. “Always has been and always will be.”
What trends are forming? What’s interesting? What’s fun? Who’s fun? What “marvelous, exotic bird of paradise,” as he calls them, might he spot today? His frequent subjects include: Iris Apfel, the nonagenarian teenager wearing her great, round glasses; Patrick McDonald, the carefully chapeaued and eyelined dandy; and Shail Upadhya, the former U.N. official from Nepal, whose loud, colorful, homemade suits are at humorous odds with his dour visage.
“You’ve just got to stay out there and see what it is,” says Cunningham. “You’ve got to stay on the street and let the street tell you what it is. There are no shortcuts, believe me.”
A gentleman in the age of snark
Cunningham is in his early 80s, and so, despite his pep—and he’s someone who actually deserves that word—there’s something inevitably old school about him. He still uses film in the digital age, for example. He’s also a gentleman in the age of snark.
“He’s incredibly kind,” says socialite Annette de la Renta. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a cruel picture done by Bill. And he’s certainly had the opportunity.”
Back in the day, and for a time, Cunningham wrote a millinery column for Women’s Wear Daily. Then he wrote a piece, similar to what he does now, on women in the street wearing the clothes of the models of the runway. It was a positive piece about style: how each woman made the fashion her own.
“And they changed his copy to make fun of the women,” says Annie Flanders, founding editor of Details magazine. “He didn’t think he’d ever get over it, because he was so embarrassed and upset. ... That was the end of his career at Women’s Wear Daily.”
Tellingly, Cunningham doesn’t say a word on the subject. He’s someone who focuses on the positive: the fashion he likes and the stories he likes.
Who’s that boy?
So who is he? Where does he live? Is he from an upper-class family? Is that why he fits in so well with socialites? Is he straight? Gay? Why is someone so passionately interested in fashion so disinterested in fashion for himself?
“People don’t get to know him very well, do they?” asks Iris Apfel. “I get the feeling he doesn’t sit down and talk to people very much.”
“I have no idea of his private life,” says Annette de la Renta. “I have no idea if he’s lonely.”
Answers come by and by. He lives at Carnegie Hall, of all New York places, in a room so cluttered, so full of file cabinets and old magazines, it could be used to torture claustrophobes. Part of the drama of the doc is that Cunningham, and the few remaining artists living there, are being evicted by the grandees of Carnegie Hall. By doc’s end, he’s in an apartment overlooking Central Park. We should all be so displaced.
His background is working class. That helps explain the blue jacket and the taped poncho, and the egg sandwich and coffee lunches, but Women’s Wear Daily also helps explain these things. If you spend less, you need less, and you need to work less with folks whose purpose is the opposite of yours. That torn poncho, looking almost like a garbage bag, which he happily fixes with electrician’s tape, is a kind of freedom.
So: a fascinating man. A good documentary. Then, in the last 10 minutes, it becomes a great documentary.
The patron saint of unspecified sorrows
Press, the documentarian, gets Cunningham to do what Iris Apfel suggested he doesn’t do. He sits him down and asks him questions. He says has two very personal questions for him, which Cunningham may or may not want to answer. He says it’s up to him.
First: Have you ever had a romantic relationship in your entire life?
Cunningham, elfin and buoyant as usual, laughs at the question and answers it with one of his own: “Now do you want to know if I’m gay?” Then he answers it—his own question—but elliptically, with a callback to his working-class family, and how they most likely discouraged him from entering the fashion world for that very reason. Because they suspected. Even if he didn’t. Not then.
When he gets back to the romantic relationship question, he answers in the negative. “There was no time,” he says, his smile now strained. “I was working night and day. In my family, things like that were never discussed.”
His answers simply bring up more questions. Was his work a means to ignore, or cover up, what he didn’t want to face? Early in the doc, Cunningham calls fashion “the armor to survive everyday life.” Is that what his camera, and his work, is for him? A means of staying on the sidelines and not getting in the game?
Press’ second personal question isn’t a question at all. It’s a pretty innocuous statement. But it releases the deluge.
“I know you go to church every Sunday,” Press says.
“Oh yeah,” Cunningham answers. Then he bows his head, and his shoulders begin to shake, and a second later one realizes he’s crying. He sobs for 10 to 15 seconds. Then he lifts his head and answers. He seems to be clarifying things for himself as much as for Press:
Yeah, I think it’s a good guidance in your life. Yeah, it’s something I need. Yeah, I guess maybe it’s part of your upbringing, I don’t know. Whatever it is. Everyone... You do whatever it is you do as best you... Yeah, I find it very important. For whatever reason. I don’t know. (Laughs) As a kid, when I went to church, all I did was look at women’s hats. (Serious again, nodding.) But later, when you mature, for different reasons.
In the very next scene, his colleagues at The New York Times celebrate his birthday by wearing Bill Cunningham masks (photos of his face attached to sticks), but it’s in this scene where his mask slips, and a huge pool of sorrow is revealed, and we’re not quite sure what to make of it. What is the sorrow? What are the different reasons he goes to church? It seems mixed up with the usual: love and family and sex and relationships and loneliness and work and faith, and the things we try to leave behind but which stay with us, and the things we hope will eventually catch up with us but never do.
We never find out. I think this makes the doc better. Up to this point, Cunningham is admirable. He’s a professional and an original and a gentleman: someone who set out to do what he wanted and is still doing it on his own terms. Once he breaks down, he becomes us. Because we all have our pools of sorrow. We all have questions that might release a deluge. It’s part of the reason why, like Bill Cunningham, patron saint of specific joys and unspecified sorrows, we go out, every day, and seek beauty.
It's 2012: Have You Seen Any Good Movies Lately?
We just updated the Movie Reviews page and I was feeling a little guilty for not reviewing more 2012 movies: it's nearly mid-March and I've just done one, “Chronicle,” which I didn't particularly like. But then I checked out boxofficemojo.com on this weekend of “John Carter”'s weak opening (a reported $30 million for a movie that cost $250 million to make), and was reminded, for the millionth time, oh right, nothing good comes out in the first two months of the year:
|Rank||Movie Title||Studio||Total Gross||Thtrs||RT%|
|1||Dr. Seuss' The Lorax||Uni.||$121,950,000||3,746||57%|
|4||Journey 2: The Mysterious Island||WB||$90,716,000||3,500||42%|
|8||Act of Valor||Rela.||$56,100,597||3,053||29%|
|9||The Devil Inside||Par.||$53,203,521||2,551||7%|
|10||The Woman in Black||CBS||$53,015,000||2,856||65%|
|13||Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance||Sony||$48,065,000||3,174||15%|
|14||This Means War||Fox||$46,889,000||3,189||26%|
|18||Tyler Perry's Good Deeds||LGF||$30,542,000||2,132||31%|
|19||One For the Money||LGF||$26,121,500||2,737||2%|
|22||Man on a Ledge||Sum.||$18,620,000||2,998||32%|
|26||A Thousand Words||P/DW||$6,350,000||1,890||0%|
|27||Friends with Kids||RAtt.||$2,169,000||374||60%|
Only four movies with a plus-70% rating on Rotten Tomatoes: The aforementioned “Chronicle,” at 84%; “Haywire,” that martial-arts action chick movie; “The Grey” with Liam Neeson in the cold; and “Big Miracle,” also in the cold, with Drew Barrymore and Jim from “The Office” freeing whales trapped by ice and bureaucracy.
The best we've got thus far. Wake me when it's April.
“The Vow” supposedly sucked HUGE but still garnered a 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes: better than seven 2012 movies: “This Means War” and “Project X” (26%), “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vegeance” (15%), “Gone” (11%), “The Devil Inside” (7%), Katherine Heigl in “One for the Money” (2%), and Eddie Murphy in “A Thousand Words” (0%).
Quote of the Day
“If you want your art to matter, stay in touch with the world. Keep in the human drama, take walks, go to baseball games, chase women, argue with waiters, ride motorcycles, hang out with children, play poker, visit Paris as often as possible and always keep in touch with the craggy old guy with the bad cough who runs the news stand.
”Kubrick apparently did very little of this. The more invested he became in his secretive, secluded, every-detail-controlled, nothing-left-to-chance lifestyle in England — which he began to construct when he left Hollywood and moved there in the early '60s — and the less familiar he became with the rude hustle-bustle of life on the outside, the more rigid and formalized and apart-from-life his films became.“
--Jeff Wells, from his 2000 review of Stanley Kubrick's ”Eyes Wide Shut,“ recently resurrected on his Hollywood Elsewhere site after rewatching the film on Blu-Ray. He also quotes from David Thomson's review: ”It is a shock to find that the film is only 159 minutes. Every frame feels like a prison."
The U.S. Right-Wing: Sharing Conspiracy Theories with the Middle East
John Lee Anderson's reporting, or “letter,” from Syria (in New Yorker parlance), entitled “The Implosion: On the front lines of a burgeoning civil war,” which is now a few weeks old, is one of those articles you really need to read if you're at all interested in fathoming what's going on in that country. To a degree, of course. If before I understood bupkis, I now understand bupkis +1. But it's an improvement. Check it out.
I'm nearly 50 now and not surprised by much these days, but this part just threw me:
Skepticism about the rebels was common among Assad’s supporters. One influential businessman, Nabil Toumeh, informed me that what was taking place in Syria was the result of a plan—dreamed up years before by Zbigniew Brzezinski, and supported by Israel—to help the Muslim Brotherhood take over the Middle East. “After fifty years of persecution, they are being given power, and this will bring the Arab world to a state of backwardness,” he said. Assad’s friend told me, “This is not the Arab Spring. It’s the awakening of the extremes of Islam.” The Brotherhood was trying to seize power in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, but it would not happen in Syria. “There is no reasoning with these people; with them, it is only God.”
But in Zabadani one of the protesters, a Sunni, told me, “There’s no Muslim Brotherhood here. The people are Muslims, yes. But the Brotherhood doesn’t have any real plan for them. What we want is freedom, to be able to protest in peace without being fired upon.”
We'll never get away from these insane conspiracy theories, will we? It's one thing, I suppose, that right-wing nutjobs in the U.S. have in common with some folks in the Middle East: they both think the Obama administration favors the Muslim Brotherhood.
The right-wing nutjobs think he favors the Brotherhood because he is Muslim. (Or because he's Obama and he's black and he's all foreign-y and they just don't like him.) The Syrian nutjobs think the Obama administration favors the Muslim Brotherhood—and before him the Bush and Clinton and Bush and Reagan administrations—in order to better foment radical Islam and keep Arab countries backward.
I.e., the very thing the U.S. doesn't want in the Middle East is the very thing some Middle Easterners think the U.S. has plotted for decades to unleash.
I throw up my hands.
Read the article.
Will that lake's name change anytime soon?
Boldly Going ... Here Again
They're filming the next “Star Trek” movie. The good news: The man with the greatest British name this side of a Charles Dickens character, Benedict Cumberbatch, is playing the main villain. BTW: Everyone should check out his modern-day Sherlock Holmes in the BBC Series “Sherlock,” with Martin Freeman (Tim from the British “Office”) as Dr. Watson. It's currently streaming on Netflix.
That's the good news. The better news? Below. Zoe Saldana in a “Star Trek” miniskirt and military boots. She brings out the randy, eight-year-old-boy in me.
Quote of the Day
“Apparently, he was not totally ignorant of one of life's great secrets: women don't look for handsome men, they look for men with beautiful women.”
-- Milan Kundera, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” pg. 12.
Movie Review: Fantastic Four (2005)
WARNING: EARTH’S MIGHTIEST SPOILERS
As you age, you begin to question the legend.
Legend has it that in the early 1960s, beginning with the utterly original Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby rescued the superhero genre from the cheesy, soporific clutches of DC Comics and made it anew. They gave it continuity: what happened last issue mattered this issue. The characters became human and relatable: they fought; they moped; eventually they separated and divorced. Superheroes had always been wish fulfillment but it was Stan Lee’s particular genius to wed the fantasy (this guy is superstrong and can climb walls...) with identification (...even though he’s a mopey teenager like me!).
That’s the legend and it’s more or less true. What you begin to question is the utter originality of the Fantastic Four. As conceptions go, its wasn’t so immaculate.
Plastic Man, Invisible Man, Human Torch and ROMMBU!
I’m not talking about how DC’s Jack Liebowitz supposedly bragged about the sales of its Justice League of America comic books to Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, who then demanded, of his editor-in-chief Stan Lee, a team of superheroes. I’m talking about the superpowers. Each is derivative of an earlier character. Mr. Fantastic can stretch like Plastic Man (created 1941), the Invisible Girl can turn invisible like the Invisible Man (created 1897), and the Thing is a rock creature like so many of the odd-named rock creations that kept Marvel afloat in their near superhero-less 1950s (Moomba and Krogarr and Rommbu and the like). The Human Torch, meanwhile, borrows both name and powers from the WWII-era creation of Carl Burgos. None of it is very original.
The Fantastic Four’s origin story, meanwhile, is inevitably trapped within the absurdities of its time. In Fantastic Four #1, published in November 1961, Ben Grimm is a test pilot (with a temper) and Reed Richards is a scientist (with a pipe), and they have to travel into outer space fast or else, in the words of Sue Storm, “the commies ... beat us to it!” Why does she tag along? Because she’s Reed’s fiancée, of course. Why does her younger brother, Johnny, tag along into outer space with the three of them? Because he’s the younger brother of the fiancée of the guy who, like, designed the whole rocket ship. Duh! And so all four sneak into the rocket ship at night and launch it, we’re told, “before the guard can stop them.” That’s guard, singular.
Despite the legend, in other words, some of it is pretty hokey stuff. So it’s not wholly the fault of director Tim Story (“Barbershop”; “Taxi”), and screenwriters Mark Frost (“Twin Peaks”) and Michael France (“Hulk”), that their 2005 movie, “Fantastic Four,” sucks.
R-E-S-P-E-C ... Aw, screw it
Story and company make attempts, feints, at updating and modernizing the story in a positive way. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) is now a brainiac scientist (without a pipe) who has gone broke, and who, with his pal Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), proposes to business tycoon and egomaniac Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), late of Latveria, that a cosmic storm may have been responsible for the evolutionary jump in humankind; and another cosmic storm, like the first one, is fast approaching and needs to be studied in space. Doom agrees, but demands a 75-25 split on any profits resulting from their scientific studies, then demands that his current girlfriend, and Richards’ old one, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), along with her hotshot younger brother, Johnny (Chris Evans), who used to be Ben Grimm’s underling, come along for the ride. And that’s how they all wind up in space together—with Doom this time—to encounter those cosmic rays.
Except ... aren’t the filmmakers cadging the evolutionary bit from the “X-Men” movies? And does it even make sense considering the results? The next step in evolution is... becoming super stretchy? Or invisible? Or a rock man?
There’s an attempt to explain this, too—to wed the power to the personality—but it’s pretty weak connective tissue. Johnny’s a hotshot, so... Sue feels invisible to Reed, so... Dr. Doom tells Reed at the beginning that he’s “always stretching, always reaching for the stars,” so...
But the casting’s not bad, right? In theory? Gruffudd is properly dull and brainy and Chiklis is properly gruff and working class and Evans is cocky and flip and gives us some good line readings. And Jessica Alba... She takes off her clothes a lot. Right?
Alright, screw it, the thing’s just dumb, monumentally dumb. The filmmakers give us a feint at “X-Men”-like respectability but then double-down on dumb. The movie felt lost to me forever when Doom introduced Richards and Grimm to “My director of genetic research...,” and we get a shot of the 23-year-old Jessica Alba sauntering sexily toward the camera. No wonder his company goes under.
Doubling down on dumb
Here. Another example. Let’s say you’re a sexy nurse (Maria Menounos). Let’s say you’re such a sexy nurse that you’re only known as “Sexy Nurse” in the closing credits. And let’s say you have a patient, Johnny Storm, recently returned from outer space, and you’re involved in the fairly simple task of taking his temperature. He flirts a bit, then declares he’s going snowboarding even as you’re read his temperature: 208 degrees! WTF? So what do you do?
- Alert the doctor.
- Take his temperature again.
- Shrug and go snowboarding with him. Totally.
Then on the downhill run, right before your eyes, he bursts into flame, begins to fly a bit, then crashes into a snowbank where the heat from his body creates its own little snowbunny hot tub, which is where he stands, half naked, and invites you in. What do you do?
- Alert the doctor.
- Alert the fire department.
- Shrug, and begin to take off your clothes to join him.
The whole movie is like this. The big early set piece, the introduction of the FF to New York and the world, occurs on the Brooklyn Bridge. Ben Grimm is brooding there because his fiancée, Debbie (Laurie Holden), whom we’ve never met before, races outside in a short nightie to greet him, but runs, stumbles away when she sees the orange, rock man he’s become. Poor Ben! So he’s feeling sorry for himself when a jumper shows up and contemplates the East River. Ben turns to him and growls, “You think you got problems, pal?” (Good line.) The jumper stumbles back in panic, but into traffic, and Ben has to save him, which causes a massive, dozen-car pile-up in the middle of the bridge, which causes a firetruck to crash through the bridge’s barrier and teeter (like the schoolbus in “Superman: The Movie”) over the edge. It takes all of the powers of the Fantastic Four to save the firemen. The reaction to this is two-fold. The NYPD draw guns on the four, particularly on the giant orange rock man; but the NYFD, now saved, burst into applause, and they’re joined by the populace on the walkways, who aren’t freaked by the orange rock-man, or the super-stretchy guy, or the hot invisible girl. Why would they be? They know heroes when they see them. Even if the Thing did create the disaster in the first place.
Then it gets worse.
At this moment, with the four basking in the applause, Debbie suddenly shows up in the middle of the bridge. Was she drawn by the network coverage? Did she just happen to be there anyway? Is she going to ask for forgiveness? Of course not. She’s not supposed to be with him. He’s supposed to be with Alicia Masters (Kerry Washington), who’s blind, see, and so doesn’t mind that he’s an orange rock man. She goes beyond sight, and touch, and senses the good man within the hideous monster. Debbie, that bitch, doesn’t (hence the short nightie on the city streets). So on the bridge, as her fiancé is being applauded by all of New York, she removes her engagement ring and drops it on the pavement and walks away. Poor Ben! He then tries to pick it up but can’t with his giant rock fingers. Poor Ben! He’s trapped in a world he never made!
We have no emotional investment in Debbie and Ben at this point. We barely have emotional investment in Ben. And why is he always shocked when everyone stumbles away from him in panic? Has he forgotten what he looks like? Does he think people are better than they are?
Schtupping Sue Storm
I could go on. The high, reedy voice Doom has even when he dons his mask. The fact that they make Reed Richards quiet and dull rather than talkative and dull. The idiotic dialogue:
Johnny: Sue stop, you're not mum. Don't talk to me like I'm a little boy, okay?
Sue: Maybe I would if you stopped acting like one. Do you even hear yourself? Who do you think you are?
Johnny: Why is everyone on my ass? If you guys are jealous, that's fine; I didn't expect it to come from you, though.
Sue: You really think those people out there care about you? You're just a fad to them, Johnny!
But the dumbest part of the movie has to be the love triangle between Reed, Sue and Victor.
Reed and Sue were a couple in college but apparently he didn’t pay enough attention to her—he thought too much and didn’t act enough—so she left him. And now she’s Director of Genetic Research for Doom, Inc., or whatever it’s called, while dating its CEO, Dr. Doom. All of this is treated semi-comically. It’s used to get Reed Richards’ goat. Hah! Dude, you totally lost the sexy girl cause you think too much! You shoulda nailed that shit. Like daily. Like hourly. Totally.
- She’s dating the CEO? Is that how she got the job?
- She’s dating the CEO even though she doesn’t care for him? Does she always do this? Use her looks to advance her position with powerful men? Should this have been a Sam Peckinpah movie?
- She’s schtupping the CEO? She must be, right, because he proposes. So why didn’t we get that scene? Sue Storm and Victor Von Doom doing the nasty. The whole thing wouldn’t seem so semi-comic then. She wouldn’t seem so sympathetic then.
Seriously, comic-book geeks have to stop with this love-triangle shit between hero, villain and girl if they want the girl to remain sympathetic at all. The only reason Sue Storm remains sympathetic here is because in her moments alone with Doom she obviously doesn’t care for Doom. So why is she with him? Is she playing him? Does she know her own heart? If Reed Richards hadn’t come along with his cosmic-ray proposal, would she have married Doom, this rich man, and become vice president of the company?
Between Debbie, Sue Storm, and Sexy Nurse, women don’t come off well in “Fantastic Four,” do they?
Straw Man vs. Superman
Even if you don’t know the FF, even if you don’t know Ben Grimm from Rommbu, it’s obvious Sue and Reed will get together in this movie. It’s obvious Doom is creepy and vain and fixated on Reed Richards in an unhealthy way. So the love triangle, such as it is, is basically a straw-man subplot: created for the illusion of drama; created only to be torn down. We know where everything is going and it winds up there without anything interesting happening along the way. I suppose that’s where acting comes in. I suppose that’s where good dialogue and plotting and pacing comes in. “FF” gives us none of these.
Let’s look at something that works. Let’s look at, say, “Superman: The Movie.” We know that Superman will save Lois Lane so the question is how he saves Lois Lane. Wait, he doesn’t? She dies? She’s buried alive in her car? Oh, then he reverses the earth’s rotation to bring her back to life? That’s kind of lame.
So why does it work?
Pacing. Acting. Feeling.
Margot Kidder and director Richard Donner actually give us a sense of what it’s like to be buried alive, and choke, and die. It’s pretty horrific. Christopher Reeve gives us a sense of what it’s like to lose someone you love. His later sense of relief, as she bitches about her car, is palpable. It’s touching and funny at the same time.
What does it feel like to burst into flame? To stretch? To turn invisible? We get none of that in “Fantastic Four.” What’s it like to be in love? To lose your love? Sorry, can’t stop now. We’re in too much of a hurry to get to the next uninteresting moment on our fixed path to the inevitable end.
What a revoltin’ development.
It's Early March: Do You Know Where Next Year's Best Picture Winners Are?
Two weeks after the 2011 Oscars, Jeff Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere already has a list of 10 potential best picture nominees for 2012. That's ahead of even the boys over at In Contention, which still lists the winners from, you know, two weeks ago. Whatever they were. Kidding. “The Artist,” etc.
Among Wells' guesses? Two presidential biopics (Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln” and Bill Murray as FDR in “Hyde Park on Hudson”); two remakes of classic literature (“Great Gatsby” and “Les Miserables”); and some of the usual directorial suspects (Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alfonso Cuaron).
Of course where was “The Artist” a year ago, or even last summer, when everyone was talking up Clint Eastwood's “J. Edgar” and Stephen Daldry's “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”? That's what interests me. Which of these movies will be the “J. Edgar” of 2012?
BTW: the FDR pic? Murray's “Rushmore” paramour, Olivia Williams, plays Eleanor to his Franklin, and it's set in 1939 during a weekend visit by (oh no, please, no) King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Because we haven't seen enough of them recently.
The presidential-election year of 2012 is seeing two presidential biopics. A rarity, as we know.
Quote of the Day
“It’s not intellectual. You’re mostly aware of what you don’t like. Henry Moore said something like that. You keep chipping away at what isn’t an elephant. And Miles Davis said: ‘Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there’ — I’ve put it on my wall. We think the conscious is the determining factor, and actually it’s the least reliable instrument. The knowing is the infringement.“
--Dustin Hoffman in ”The Tao of Hoffman" by Giles Foden in The New York Times Style Magazine, Sunday, March 4, 2012
Movie Review: Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011)
WARNING: INK-STAINED SPOILERS
I was talking about this documentary with Evan, the friend who recommended it, and admitted it made me realize why I never became a true journalist. It wasn’t because I wasn’t curious enough or a good-enough writer or a fast-enough writer when I needed to be. It’s because I wasn’t tough enough.
In the doc you watch David Carr, media columnist for The New York Times, take on various bombastic elements and shut them up. He stares them down, calls them on their bullshit, then moves on. Even when I’m able to do the first two things, I don’t move on. I allow the first two actions to linger and infect the surroundings. Carr, who looks like nothing much, Bilbo Baggins’ after a bad night, with a hoarse voice and a skinny neck and a wide middle and a face that seems permanently bent toward the ground—that seems to have trouble looking up—is able to cut so surgically through situations that there’s actually little bleeding. It’s like those scenes where Zorro takes a swipe at a candle and it doesn’t move, causing the villain to laugh at Zorro’s ineptitude and anticipate his demise. Which is when Zorro holds up the tip of the candle, or pushes the tip off with his sword, or stomps on the ground and the candle crumbles to bits.
That’s what Carr is like. The other guy laughs at his ineptitude and then David stomps on the ground and the dude’s argument crumbles to bits.
As both Evan and I admired this ability of Carr’s, and lamented our own ability to cry bullshit in social situations, he added, “You know what I could use? A David-Carr-in-the-box. So when I get in those situations, I can take out my David-Carr-in-the-box, and just, you know, pop. Let him loose.”
I agreed. We could all use a David-Carr-in-the-box. The New York Times should get on that. Talk about your revenue streams.
Who’s afraid of the big bad Wolff?
“Page One: Inside the New York Times” also reminded me, of course, of something I lamented daily about two years ago: the death of newspapers; the death of print. I’m in the business, an offshoot of journalism, a small, momentarily protected niche, but I haven’t worried about the death of investigative journalism much in the last year. I’m not sure why. The problem certainly hasn’t gone away.
It’s a seemingly insurmountable problem. Investigative journalism, done right, is expensive, and in the past was paid for by two revenue streams: ads and subscribers. The Internet, our new, more democratic printing press, has cut into, if not obliterated, both of these. Craig’s List killed classified ads, online ads pay a fraction of print ads, and online readers, those spoiled, spoiled children, have been conditioned to expect content for free.
There’s also the problem of audience. Investigative journalism is not only tough to do but tough to read. It takes work. How much better to go to an aggregate/opinion site/blog that boils it all down and also gives you pictures of celebrities in bikinis or with baby bumps or in the midst of divorces. How much easier to just be distracted. How much more fun.
One of the pivotal and most satisfying scenes in “Page One” occurs about halfway thorough, at a debate by a group called “Intelligence Squared,” which, for its topic of the night, raises a purposely provocative one: GOOD RIDDANCE TO THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA.
Carr, the schlub, gets to represent the mainstream. His opponent, at least as far as we see in the doc, is Michael Wolff, founder of newser.com, an aggregate site. Wolff looks a bit like Alvy Singer’s balding, viral man. He seems fit, and tough, and his bald head gleams like he’s from the future. And he brings us a message from the future:
What you’re going to hear tonight is that the media is necessary for the commonweal. An informed citizenry is what this nation is about. That is self-serving crap. The New York Times is a good newspaper—sometimes... But after that it’s off the cliff. It’s oblivion. The news business in this country is nothing to be proud of. The media is a technology business. That’s what it is. That’s what it has always been. Technology changes, the media changes.
Carr obliterates him. He begins politely by holding up a print copy of the home page of Wolff’s site. “Newser is a great-looking site,” he says, “you might want to check it out. It aggregates all manner of content. But I wonder if Michael’s really thought this through. Get rid of mainstream media content...” Then he holds up that index page without the aggregated mainstream articles. It’s mostly holes. It barely exists. He peeks through it at the audience, which is applauding, and says, “OK, go ahead.”
Great scene. It not only reveals Wolff’s hypocrisy—how he’s making money off the very thing he’s disparaging—but it reveals the hypocrisy of the Web. Much of the Web simply repurposes someone else’s work. The Web doesn’t care for originality or accountability; and it’s creating a society that doesn’t care for originality or accountability.
Is the Times necessary because it’s good?
At the same time ... OK, Carr makes a salient point. What happens when mainstream sites like the New York Times, which still drive much of the discussion on the Web, disappear? What replaces them? Don’t we need vegetables? Don’t we need meat? Or are we just going to keep popping the content equivalent of Milk Duds in our mouths?
But it doesn’t address all of Wolff’s points. From the above, two remain:
- The Times says it’s necessary because it’s good but Wolff says it’s not that good so it’s not that necessary. So: Is the Times good?
- Media means technology. Technology changes. You can gripe all you want but it’s going to change.
To the first point. The Times has its weaknesses. It’s a serious paper—it’s not sensationalistic like most of the mainstream media—but it has a love for, or at least a trust of, the institutional voice. The doc treats Judith Miller’s reporting on WMDs like it’s an anomaly but that was based upon institutional trust—upon getting access to the institutional voice and printing it—and the Times does this all of the time. Its coverage of Hollywood, say, is almost always from the studio perspective. Its coverage of business is almost always from the Wall Street perspective.
And in politics? It gets played. It assumes an opposition voice, no matter how marginalized, provides balance. It assumes that an institutional voice is legitimate even if it’s in the middle of a lie. It won’t call a lie a lie. Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane’s recent column, “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?,” is indicative of this attitude. Brisbane wrote:
[Some readers] fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.
Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?
That sound you heard was people around the country exclaiming, “WTF!?!”
The answer to Brisbane’s dilemma is obvious. If a public figure says something demonstrably false, you call him on it, and as high up in the article as possible. If a public figure says something harder to disprove (or prove), but without evidence, then that’s your story: X ACCUSES Y OF Z: PROVIDES NO EVIDENCE. It’s less choosing to correct one fact over another than printing what facts we have. And if an institutional voice proclaims factual what is not factual, that’s your story. Objectivity is not stupidity.
But the doc doesn’t own up to this or any weakness in the Times. It’s basically saying: we’re good so we’re necessary. So please don’t kill us. For your own good. It's saying, as Carr said to the Intelligence Squared audience, “OK, go ahead.”
The Times they are a changing
For the most part, I agree. But then we get into the second of Wolff’s unaddressed points: It doesn’t matter if the Times is good or not. Its model, the printing press, is now obsolete. Everyone has a printing press. Most everyone’s printing. Or posting. Or uploading. The Times used to have to compete against however many newspapers in New York City, and maybe two or three nationally, and another one or two internationally. Now the competition is everyone and everywhere. Even this little ol’ site is competition. You’re reading it, after all, instead of the Times. Wastrel.
“Page One” is a fine-enough doc, particularly when David Carr’s onscreen, but, in journalistic parlance, it misses the story. Can one support serious investigative journalism in the digital age and on a digital budget? If not, what replaces it? And what becomes of our misinformed and malinformed and don’t-want-to-be informed citizenry—and, by extension, our democracy—then?
Movie Questions that Bring You Here
I'm always fascinated by the questions that people type into Google or Bing or ... OK, mostly Google, and that bring them here. A sample, with answers.
- What is the name of Magneto’s blue female sidekick? Mystique.
- How did Eric get his powers in x men? He's a mutant. He was born with them.
- In the American why did he shoot Ingrid? She knew too much. His face, for one. That alone was too much. It's also what he does.
- Where is Marston Tyne military prison? England, one assumes. This site suggests Ashridge House, Berkhamsted, Herts, UK.
- Is there a real storm in Take Shelter? I assume so, but it's open to interpretation.
- Do they die in Take Shelter movie? I assume so, but it's open to interpretation.
- What is Hawaii Pacific Institute in The Descendants? The summer reform school Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) attends.
- Sarah's Key what is in the closet? Her brother.
- Why does andrew in chronicle go crazy? Power corrupts. And absolute power...
- Will meg ryan and billy crystal do another movie together? Doubt it. Besides, would any studio bankroll it?
- Melancholia movie made me feel sick. Me, too.
Is there a real storm at the end of “Take Shelter”? Is it the likes of which none of us have ever seen?
Movie Review: The Rum Diary (2011)
WARNING: 161 MINIATURE SPOILERS
“The Rum Diary” is a 2011 movie based upon a 1998 novel, which was actually written in the early 1960s, about misadventures in Puerto Rico in the late 1950s. It doesn’t have to be old news but it is.
It’s an odd version of old news. The lessons its protagonist learns are lessons its writer, Hunter S. Thompson, along with many others, communicated to the culture a long time ago. Druggies can be heroes and upstanding citizens can be villains. It’s us vs. the bastards, and the bastards are businessmen and bankers and land developers, shady and older and curiously sexless, while we, the heroes, or antiheroes, are young and aimless and vaguely anarchistic. We booze it up and experiment with drugs and lament the poor while trying to find ...something. Our artistic voice. Freedom. America. A girl.
If most movies present an absolutist vision from the right, with a taciturn hero taking on bad guys through direct violence and winning, the alternative version, the left-wing version popularized in the late 1960s, gives us an antihero, often glib, taking on dull but horrific institutional elements through subterfuge and losing. The very thing that Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) needs to learn in “Rum Diary,” in other words—bankers, etc., are bad—was communicated to the culture so long ago, by Kemp’s creator, that it became a genre unto itself: “Easy Rider” and “Animal House” and almost every B-movie from 1967 to 1982. So we wait for him to catch up. We wait for him to figure out what kind of movie he’s in.
It takes awhile.
Kemp may arrive in Puerto Rico in 1960 unformed in Hunter S. Thompson’s politics but we first see him in the classic Hunter S. Thompson pose: waking up, in a hotel room overlooking the beach in San Juan, dazed and hungover and horrified, unable to recollect who knows what godawful escapades from the night before. He’s there for a job, at the San Juan Star, because his two novels never caught on—either with publishers, or, in the end, with Kemp himself. Later in the movie he’ll talk about writers he admires. He’ll quote a line from Coleridge and talk about how the poet wrote it when he was only 25; he’ll talk about the difficulty of finding his own voice. The movie is the story of how Kemp, and by extension Thompson, finds his own voice.
He wants to write meaningful articles but his toupee-wearing editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), isn’t interested. He assigns him horoscopes, and pieces about the bowling alleys of San Juan, frequented by the dull and overweight middle class of middle America, and Kemp’s mind wanders. He finds a beautiful girl, Chenault (Amber Heard), but she’s engaged to a jerk, Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who wants Kemp, of all people, to write marketing copy for land development on a nearby uninhabited island. They plan to wreck paradise again. Kemp goes along for the ride, signing an NDA and everything, but mostly he’s sniffing after Chenault. He doesn’t reject Sanderson until Sanderson rejects him. He finds religion because he’s cast out of Eden.
Did we need narration in this thing? Once Kemp finds his voice, we get noteworthy lines, presumably culled from the novel, such as: “I discovered the connection between starving children scavenging for food and the shiny brass plates on the front doors of banks.” We could’ve used such language throughout. The movie would’ve benefited.
Depp is obviously a great actor. “How does anyone drink 161 miniatures?” Lotterman demands when he gets Kemp’s hotel bill. There’s a pause, a few blinks, a slight wobble. “Are they not complimentary?” he finally responds.
But he’s too old. Sorry. Kemp is supposed to be unformed and learning. He’s supposed to be 22. Depp is nearly 50. He should’ve been playing Lotterman.
I actually identified with Lotterman. The movie doesn’t. It hates him. He’s on the side of the establishment. He’s old and toupee-wearing and soul-crushing. He makes sure that nothing really noteworthy gets in his paper. Except, I kept thinking, it’s not his newspaper, is it? He’s just the editor. He’s a higher-up flunky. Maybe I’m projecting, maybe Richard Jenkins added a humanity at odds with his character (see: Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Patch Adams”), but I get the feeling Lotterman would’ve liked the San Juan Star to be more than articles about bowling alleys and horoscopes. He would’ve liked to have had hair. He would’ve liked to be as handsome as Johnny Depp. Who wouldn’t? But that wasn’t his world.
Instead, the movie has sympathy for the worthless and vaguely fascistic Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), who also works at the San Juan Star but who rarely contributes copy. He spends his days in a drug-addled stupor, stumbling from spot to spot, and occasionally putting on an LP of speeches by Adolf Hitler. Riotous, dude.
To be honest, “Rum Diary” reminded me of all I disliked about those cinematic, absolutist visions of the left: the celebration of drugs and anarchy. We get that damned quote of Oscar Wilde’s for the zillionth time: “Nowadays, people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” We get Depp as Kemp writing his credo:
“I want to make a promise to you, the reader. And I don't know if I can fulfill it tomorrow, or even the day after that. But I put the bastards of this world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart. I will try and speak for my reader. That is my promise. And it will be a voice made of ink and rage.”
It’s tiresome. Putting hallucinogens in your eyes isn’t a political act, it’s a stupid act. The left never got that. They conflated the two. Watching “Rum Diary,” I thought of the sadness of the political arc I’ve lived through. Kemp is working toward a credo, an ethos, a style, that dominated our culture for a time but ultimately led to Reagan and Bush and Bush. He puts the bastards on notice but the bastards only got stronger.
Quote of the Day
“Despite its soft environmentalist message 'The Lorax' is an example of what it pretends to oppose. Its relationship to Dr. Seuss’s book is precisely that of the synthetic trees that line the streets of Thneedville to the organic Truffulas they have displaced. The movie is a noisy, useless piece of junk, reverse-engineered into something resembling popular art in accordance with the reigning imperatives of marketing and brand extension.”
--A.O. Scott in his review “How the Grinch Stole the Lorax” in The New York Times
An SQL Error a Day
A few months back, attempting to post something, I ran into a massive SQL error that essentially blocked the blog from displaying properly. My guy, Tim, fixed it. He wrote, “Whatever the new post was, it had some glitch in it that acted as a road block; it tried and failed to load that and couldn't move any further.” He added the following about the new post:
It wasn't intelligible at all and had to go ...
Funny. I think that about almost every post.
David Ishii, Seattle Bookseller (1935-2012)
These days it seems I hear the news via Facebook more than any other source. The other day it was Jim Walsh's post (and then everybody's posts) about the death of Davy Jones. Yesterday it was Knute Berger with the sad news of the death of David Ishii, a long-time used bookseller in Pioneer Square, whom I interviewed for The Grand Salami, an alternative Mariners program, in the summer of 1998.
The interview is below.
Name: David Ishii
Birthdate: April 16, 1935 in Seattle, WA.
Evacuated: along with other Japanese-Americans to the Midwest during World War II. Although technically allowed to return in 1945, Ishii's mother kept the family in Milwaukee until the summer of 1948.
Owner: since 1972, of David Ishii Bookseller in Pioneer Square, where baseball memorabilia hangs from the walls and autographed baseballs sit on a shelf above the cash register.
* * *
What are your earliest baseball memories?
When I was in high school the Seattle Rainiers won the Pacific Coast League pennant. That was really fun. Every morning in the PI they'd have a drawing of a little man. If he was smiling, the Rainiers won; and if the Rainiers lost he was sad.
I learned how to score when the Pilots came to Seattle in 1969. I wrote in to KVI—they had two-sheet instructions on how to score—and that's when I got into the game. Because to score you have to pay attention. I went to about seventeen games that year and could hardly wait until the next year. But they left town. Even after, I would open up the paper to see how some of the ex-Pilot players, like Tommy Harper, had done.
What do you remember about the early years of the M's?
On days I did not have tickets, I would walk up to the ticket office, buy a ticket, and sit in the third deck, outfield, anyplace, just to see what the game was like from different parts of the Kingdome. That was fun. I remember they had Perry's Perch: Third deck behind homeplate. Very few people bought tickets there. Now it's impossible to get a ticket there. Impossible.
Do you have a favorite Mariner moment?
During the George Argyros days when the Yankees came to Seattle and Tom Paciorek hit two game-winning homeruns on Friday and Saturday night. For the Sunday afternoon game, this big limousine comes in from left field and out pops Paciorek's family. They did it as a surprise for him.
Griffey. I go to as many games as I can mainly to see him play. Because I know that maybe ten or fifteen years down the line, when I'm an old man, I'm going to say, “I saw that play, I saw that play, and I saw that other play he made.”
I saw it when he broke his hand; I saw almost all his basket catches. What a lot of people probably don't realize—in this last catch he made—is that as soon as he caught the ball he turned around and stopped the runner from advancing. That's what made the Willie Mays catch [in the 1954 World Series] so great. Mays was way out there; and as soon as he got the ball, he threw it in so the runner on second couldn't advance. That's what Griffey did.
It was fun to watch him go for eight homeruns in a row; but it's his fielding.
What about non-Mariners? I notice the autographed picture of Lenn Sakata.
[Laughs] He's the first Japanese-American to wear a World Series ring. I met him. A friend of mine, Frank Abe, worked for KIRO, and he called up Lenn Sakata and Sakata says, “Yeah, I've got some family here, come on down.” So we went to a hotel by the airport and met him. I was really surprised. Not a tall man, but, boy, he was strong. His legs, thighs: big.
Let's talk about some of the memorabilia in your store.
Well, this is a ceramic ball. The Lenn Sakata fans—of which there were three of us—we all signed a similar one and gave it to him.
A lot of these are autographed balls. Mac Suzuki. Lou Piniella. Johnny Bench. Griffey.
That's my high school first baseman's glove. When I went to Queen Anne High School, in ... I think it was 1952 when I bought this. After I delivered all the papers on my paper route, a bunch of us would go and play catch. This is a small (glove). See how small it is? I couldn't afford a big one. And it has plastic laces. So it's a cheap mitt. It's a Reach brand mitt.
A friend of mine, Phil Gallagher, he had a big mitt and I was envious of him. But I could still dig 'em out.
The Unjustly Neglect of Ross Douthat
Ross Douthat of The New York Times, and film critic for The National Review, posted the following on the Times' site yesterday:
Speaking of Noah Millman, reading his Oscar post reminds me that my own comments on the year in movies neglected to mention what was perhaps the most striking injustice of the Best Picture nominations: The lack of any love for “Margin Call,” which was, as Millman writes, “not only extremely well-written and well-acted … but an extremely rare effort to accurately depict the culture of Wall Street.” (Be sure to check out his perceptive take on the movie’s moral and professional dilemmas.)
So the “striking injustice” of the Academy was a movie that Douthat “neglected to mention” in his own year-end column? So when Douthat titles the post “The Unjustly Neglected 'Margin Call'” is he referring to the Academy's neglect or his own?