All-Time Box Office for Musicals
This morning's post about “Les Miserables” got me thinking about the history of musicals at the box office. The following is a chart, in reverse chronlogical order, of all the major (and not so major) musicals released in the states since 1974:
|High School Musical 3: Senior Year||$90,559,416||3,626||10/24/08|
|Across the Universe||$24,343,673||964||9/14/07|
|The Phantom of the Opera||$51,268,815||1,515||12/22/04|
|Beyond the Sea||$6,318,709||383||12/17/04|
|Hedwig and the Angry Inch||$3,067,312||101||7/20/01|
|Dancer in the Dark||$4,184,036||126||9/22/00|
|Blues Brothers 2000||$14,051,384||2,516||2/6/98|
|Everyone Says I Love You||$9,759,200||276||12/6/96|
|Earth Girls Are Easy||$3,916,303||317||5/12/89|
|Little Shop of Horrors||$38,748,395||1,183||12/19/86|
|A Chorus Line||$14,202,899||680||12/13/85|
|The Pirate Movie||$7,983,086||757||8/6/82|
|The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas||$69,701,637||1,435||7/23/82|
|Pennies From Heaven||$9,171,289||-||12/11/81|
|The Blues Brothers||$57,229,890||-||6/20/80|
|All That Jazz||$37,823,676||-||12/20/79|
|Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band||$20,378,470||-||7/21/78|
|New York, New York||$16,400,000||-||6/22/77|
|That's Entertainment! II||$4,979,380||-||5/16/76|
|The Rocky Horror Picture Show||$112,892,319||-||9/26/75|
|At Long Last Love||$1,500,000||-||3/6/75|
You'll notice that no musical in the last 40 years has grossed as much as “Grease” did ... in 1978. Pretty astonishing. Adjusted for inflation, “Grease” is actually the 26th highest-grossing domestic film of all time. But it's not close to the highest-grossing musical. You need a little Julie Andrews for that.
Here are the top eight musicals, adjusted for inflation:
|1||The Sound of Music||$1,127,929,800||1965|
|4||The Bells of St. Mary's||$496,941,200||1945|
|5||My Fair Lady||$475,200,000||1964|
|6||West Side Story||$443,284,700||1961|
|7||The Rocky Horror Picture Show||$436,149,800||1975|
|8||A Star Is Born||$297,464,800||1976|
The hills were alive.
Travolta in “Grease” (1978), which was the No. 1 box-office hit of 1978. “Superman” was No. 2. No musical has done as well, even unadjusted, since.
Trailers: Les Miserables's Got Talent
The trailer for the new musical, “Les Miserables,” is silent but for the bare, stark voice of Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream,” which, of course, is the song Susan Boyle sang on “Britain's Got Talent” a few years back, which, of course, is one of the most watched and talked-about videos in the YouTube era.
You can view the trailer here. (For some reason, they're not letting us embed.)
The musical stars Hugh Jackman (as Jean Valjean) and Russell Crowe (as Javert), two men's men as well as women's men, real Aussies and real actors, so it'll be interesting to see how the movie does at the U.S. box office.
The rest of the world turned “Mamma Mia!” into an international hit a few years back but America., and in particular American men, mostly yawned. “MM” is among the top 100 global box office hits of all time (unadjusted), currently ranked 65th with a $609 million gross, but only $144 million of that, or 23.6%, came from the U.S. Only three movies in the global box office's top 100 managed to get on the list with a lower U.S. percentage. (For the curious, they are: “300,” “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”)
The U.S. just doesn't go to musicals anymore. We watch “American Idol” and “Glee” but can't be bothered to get into a car to hear folks sing.
The last time a live-action musical wound up in the top 10 in the annual U.S. box office was in 2002, with “Chicago,” which finished 10th for the year. The last time a live-action musical finished first in the annual U.S. box office was in 1978, with “Grease.” Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Phantom of the Opera” barely made a dent in 2004, grossing $51 million, and winding up 63rd for the year.
Can Wolverine save “Les Miserables”? Can General Maximus Decimus Meridius? Can Catwoman?
One thing's for sure: If Susan Boyle can't, no one can.
Quote of the Day
“I was just working as a mechanic and one day I got this call from the boss and he said, ‘Hey, Paul Simon is in town, you know, and he’s looking for some musicians.’ And I said, ‘Paul Simon, who is Paul Simon?’ I mean I had no idea. And then the guy tried to explain to me. He’s singing all the songs. You know, like the songs from Simon and Garfunkel. And I’m like, ‘It doesn’t ring a bell.’ And then I take my bass and I go to the studio and so I meet Paul and Roy Halee, the engineer, and they’re like ‘Hey, man, let’s, you know, let’s play some.’ We’d play a chord — Paul would smile ... and then he’ll stop and change it. We didn’t know why is he changing? But he needed another part there that we didn’t know. Then he’ll break and give us different chords, and then we learned different things, and it was like going back to music school.”
--Bass player Bakithi Kumalo on Paul Simon and the making of “Graceland,” from the documentary “Under African Skies.” The quote was included in Thomas Friedman's column today. Here's my review of the documentary from last week.
The Myth of Job Creators
Confession. I often imagine myself on cable news shows wrangling out the issues of the day. Probably because that's where we often see the issues of the day being wrangled out.
The dialogue I've had in my head for the past year goes something like this:
FOX News Blowhard: BLAH BLAH BLAH 1%. BLACK BLAH BLAH job creators.
Me: Excuse me? What did you just call them?
FNB: Job creators. That's what they--
Me: What's the goal of a CEO or corporation?
FNB: To create jobs.
Me: It's to create profit. You know that. So does everyone out there. That's what capitalism is all about. That's Business 101, isn't it? I ask because I've never taken Business 101.
FNB: Yes, but when you create profit, you create jobs. Pinhead.
Me: Not necessarily. If to create profit, a CEO has to elminate jobs, or ship them overseas, he'll do that. In a heartbeat. That's part of what's been going on for the last 30 years. So why do you call them job creators?
FNB: BLAH BLAH socialism BLAH BLAH Obama BLAH BLAH Jimmy Carter.
Me: You call them 'job creators' because it's politically expedient to do so in a time of high unemployment. But it's a lie. You know it's a lie. And so does everyone watching.
I know. For some reason in my fantasy appearance on FOX News I sound like Bob Dole.
It's sad that this is still a talking point for all the blowhards out there. It's such a talking point that when venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, Seattle's own, gave one of those TED talks on the myth of job creators, the people behind TED felt it too divisive, too immediately political, to actually post on their site. They didn't feel it was worthy of all of the other TED talks about BLAH BLAH BLAH. And in this manner they stumbled right into controversy.
Hanauer's talk has since been uploaded to YouTube. Here it is:
He takes the businessman's stance on the matter, which is deeper and infiinitely more knowledgable than mine. He argues that the way things are is the opposite of the way they've been presented.
They've been presented this way: If taxes on the wealthy go up, job creation goes down.
He argues that job creation actually stems from consumer demand; and consumer demand stems from a rising middle class; and for the past 30 years our middle class has been falling—in part because tax policies favor the wealthy and place a greater burden on what was once our proud middle class.
This may be the talk that TED didn't want, but it's the talk the US needs.
Movie Review: Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines (2012)
Why does feminism bore me so?
The documentary “Wonder Women!” is subtitled “The Untold Story of American Superheroines,” but I would’ve settled for a better-told story. Example: Wonder Woman’s creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston, is generally treated positively here. We get passing mention of the bondage fetishism inherent in 1940s “Wonder Woman” comic books without mention of the bondage fetish of Marston, or the fact that he lived with his wife, Elizabeth, and his mistress, Olive, a former student. He had two children by each. One of Elizabeth’s children was named Olive. Empowering? Feminist? Creepy?
The drift of post-World War II “Wonder Woman” comics into romance is dealt with in isolation rather than as part of an industry-wide phenomenon that swept up Batman, Superman and Captain America. Frederic Wertham’s anti-comics diatribe, “The Seduction of the Innocent,” is portrayed pejoratively even as we’re shown the misogyny inherent in many 1950s horror comics. Can Wertham get no love? Can no one say, “He was an idiot, but...”?
Worse: We’re about an hour into this 72-minute doc before the narrator tsk-tsks over the hypersexualized versions of super heroines ... and Wonder Woman gets a pass. To me, this is the point when you go back to talking-head Gloria Steinem, for whom Wonder Woman was a role model, and who put the Amazonian on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine, to talk about this hypersexuality. You get the women who grew up on Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, and maybe even Carter herself, to talk about her hypersexuality. What are the negatives of this? Are there any? Do girls, when they hit puberty, feel they don’t measure up? Did I? I read comic books, with all of its various strong-jawed, superstrong, male role models, yet, at 15, when I looked in the mirror, I saw a skinny, sunken-chested, weak-jawed kid. What effect did this have on me? Have I recovered?
Hey: What are the long-term consequences of a society awash in wish fulfillment fantasies? “Wonder Women!” wrings its hands over the dearth of female superheroes but might this not be a positive? The Republican party, for example, tends to play on wish-fulfillment fantasies more than the Democratic party, offering up wannabe cowboys as candidates, and mouthing catchphrases such as “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” and “Make my day” and “Read my lips,” and offering up fantasy economic policies (tax cuts + greater spending = balanced budget), and men more than women buy into it. They vote Republican. Women are more clear-eyed. They vote Democrat. Because they never saw themselves in Superman and Batman and can sense the bullshit in Reagan and Bush? The point beyond immediate politics: Aren’t the very role models the filmmakers would wish upon young girls in many ways deleterious?
Instead “Wonder Women!” gives us a fairly typical storyline. Strong female role models lead to strong girls and women. There is a dearth of these role models and anyway 97% of creators are men. So Reel Grrls, a Seattle filmmaking organization, among others, is empowering young women in cinematography, script-writing, blah blah blah.
I’m sorry but all of this bores me.
Is the doc about female superheroes or general female empowerment? The filmmakers make it about both. It starts with Women Woman, expands, in the ‘70s, to include Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, Lindsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman, and Charlie’s Angels (but no Mighty Isis), then gives us reductive visions of every subsequent decade. The ‘80s were testosterone-y and Reaganish. The ‘90s gave us riot grrls, co-opted into Spice Girls, but ... we’re talking rockers now? Should we double back and catch up with Aretha and Janis? And if the doc wants to cover all media images of women, why start with Wonder Woman? Why ignore the strong women of 1930s cinema? Why ignore Pam Grier then complain about the lack of strong black women in the media?
Here’s my favorite reductive moment: Apparently two of TV’s 1990s superheroines, Xena and Buffy, both died in 2001. I forget which talking head brings it up—Trina Robbins?—but she lays the blame squarely on ... wait for it ... George W. Bush. He’d just been elected president (kinda), that was the zeitgeist, and so strong women had to die. No one refutes this. The documentarians, director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and producer Kelcey Edwards, give her this forum. They have 72 minutes to make their case and they spend time on this.
One of the talking heads is Andy Mangels, a comic-book writer who has created the annual “Wonder Woman Day” in Portland, Oregon, to raise money for domestic violence programs. He’s also gay. So bring him into the hypersexualized conversation. Superman and Spiderman weren’t hypersexualized to me growing up. Were they to him? Then broaden the discussion. Women in our society are more often judged by their appearance than their actions; so can you ever have a female superhero who isn’t sexualized? Who’s ugly the way Hulk is ugly? Would an ugly Wonder Woman have influenced Gloria Steinem? What do you say, Gloria?
Perhaps the great irony of “Wonder Women!” is that it’s making its appeal for more super-heroines at a time when such an appeal has never been less necessary. Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdeen are both hugely popular heroines, brave and tough, who rescue good men and beat bad guys in completely convincing ways. To me, they’re game-changers. They’re super without being super. Compared to them, Wonder Woman and her magic lasso feel like relics out of a silly, fetishistic past.
Movie Review: Goodbye (2011)
The first word spoken by the protagonist of “Goodbye” is hello. Noora (Leyla Zareh) is an Iranian lawyer whose license has been suspended, and who, we learn by and and by, is pregnant and trying to leave the counry. The lawyer she’s hired has helped others escape, and he has a plan for her. She’ll give a talk abroad and then just walk away. So why do we feel the weight of her ambivalence? Why does she talk of abortion when her pregnancy, she’s told, will help her escape? Is she ambivalent about leaving Iran or being pregnant? Answers come by and by.
“By and by” is the key to “Goodbye.” Writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof is a fan of the long, static shot, with characters moving into and out of frame, and he directs Zareh as if she’s close cousin to Catherine Deneuve at her most aloof and unknowable. If Hollywood movies are avalanches of action and suspense, “Goodbye” is a slow drip of often unreliable information. Where is her husband? Is he working in the fields in the south? Is he a journalist working against the regime? Is he a former journalist the way she’s a former lawyer, and now he’s working in the fields in the south? Either way, it beats her current job. In her dingy, gray-blue apartment, she glues together pretty boxes that a man picks up once a week.
Most of the time, though, she’s waiting, and we’re waiting out her waiting. She goes to this office, that office. She feeds her pet turtle. She gives him water. She takes him from his atrium and puts him in a pan of shallow water from which he tries to escape. She puts up a flimsy barrier of newspaper around the pan—a kind of metaphor for media blackout?—and he escapes anyway. Shame. That turtle was the most dynamic part of “Goodbye.”
Background: In 2010, Rasoulof was arrested in the same raid that nabbed fellow Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who went on to make “This Is Not a Film,” with which “Goodbye” shares much. Panahi put himself at the center of his film but otherwise both movies are Kafkaesque explorations of authoritarian limbo. Both characters are accused and await sentence or escape. Panahi’s film, being real, ends more ambivalently.
Noora’s ambivalence, it turns out, is not about leaving Iran. She often goes to the rooftop of her apartment building for a cigarette, and in the background we see airplanes taking off. Despite the jet-engine noise, she doesn’t bat an eye. She doesn’t even look at them. She betrays nothing. But this is what she wants: escape; goodbye. Near the end of the film, she tells one of her husband’s colleagues, sitting on a small park bench, “If one feels a foreigner in one’s own country, it’s best to leave it and be a foreigner in a foreign land.” Great line.
No, the weight of her ambivalence is about her baby, who has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome. She’s not sure whether to keep it. Then she’s sure she wants to keep it. After that, everything else is machination. The timing must be right. To get the money to pay off the lawyer who has her passport, she needs the deposit on her apartment. To get the deposit on her apartment, she needs to vacate a few days early. To get a hotel room in Tehran, she needs a husband. She’s like the pet turtle in the shallow pan: barriers, large and small, continue to confront her.
The night before her flight, at the Shiraz Hotel (Rasoulof was born in Shiraz), she leaves word with the front desk for a wake-up call and taxi to the airport. A mistake? We watch her cut bread for the journey. She sleeps, and dreams of a Down Syndrome child, then wakes to a knock on the door. Earlier in the film we watched her apartment being methodically searched by plainclothesmen. This time we just hear them.
Man: Open the door.
She [pause]: Who is it?
Man [pause]: Open the door.
She fetches a more formal veil to wear from her suitcase; and as she walks away and opens the door, the camera stays on the suitcase even as we hear the sounds of men arresting her and taking her away. Unfamiliar hands paw through her belongings and remove evidence. The final sound we hear is the screech of an airplane taking off—the one that doesn’t incude Noora. I thought of a spin on a Bob Dylan song: It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a plane to cry. The suitcase stays.
“Goodbye” is, I admit, a movie more interesting to write about than to watch. I almost nodded off several times during the screening. It’s a slow drip of a movie, a kind of Iranian water torture, and I wanted it to give me more. But I’m a spoiled moviegoer and a spoiled man. When Noora first says her famous line, about feeling a foreigner in one’s own country, I felt that it applied to me, too. I certainly felt similar during most of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. But my discontent is mild, and with my fellow citizens who elect such leaders, while hers is overwhelming and with leaders who allow no opposition voices. It’s the difference between “1984” (her world) and “Brave New World” (mine).
I kept thinking of a line from E.L. Doctorow’s “The Book of Daniel”; something Daniel’s father, Paul Isaacson (read: Julius Rosenberg), tells his young son about all of the injustice in the world. “And it’s still going on, Danny,” Paul Isaacson says. “In today’s newspaper, it’s still going on. Right outside the door of this house it’s going on.” This is current events as art.
The movie begins with a hello and it ends with a goodbye, but it’s not the goodbye we wanted. Noora doesn’t escape from; she disappears into. And it’s still going on.
Hollywood B.O.: First Weekend of 'MIB III' Outgrosses Fourth Weekend of 'The Avengers'
For the first time this month, a movie other than “The Avengers” won the weekend. Three-day estimates have “MIB III,” or the third installment of the “Men in Black” series, which began when Clinton was president, in first place with $55 million. “The Avengers,” dropping just 33%, is in second place with $36.9 million. In third place, one-time tentpole “Battleship” fell nearly 60% to $10 million. Its overall 10-day gross is just $44 million. Sunk. Won't have to worry about those damned sequels.
“MIB”'s numbers aren't sunk but they're not great, either. Its opening weekend numbers have grown somewhat since its first release:
- Men in Black (1997): $51 million on its way to $250 million
- Men in Black II (2002): $52 million on its way to $190 million
- MIB III (2012): $55 million on its way to...?
That's unadjusted, of course. Adjust for inflation and you have this:
- Men in Black (1997): $88 million on its way to $432 million
- Men in Black II (2002): $71 million on its way to $259 million
- MIB III (2012): $55 million on its way to...?
I'm guessing less than $200 million. Ten years is a long time between second and third sequels, “Back in Time” tagline notwithstanding. Four years is a long time for a movie star to disappear—even one as popular as Will Smith. Redford did it once and stopped being Redford.
On the plus side, the reviews were OK: 68% on Rotten Tomatoes vs. 39% for “Men in Black II.”
When “Men in Black” premiered in 1997, Smith was in his late 20s; he went on to become the world's biggest movie star. He's in his 40s now, with two teenaged kids, yet he seems to be playing the same guy: the mouthy upstart. Is there another role we want to see him in? Soon? Fifty ain't far off. Unfortunately, according to IMDb, these are the movies on his plate: “I, Robot II,” “Hancock II,” “Bad Boys III.” No new ideas for W. Smith.
“The Avengers,” a semi-new idea, continues to amaze at the box office. Its domestic total is now at $513 million, so it should pass “The Dark Knight” ($533m) by Wednesday or Thursday for third place on the all-time domestic chart. Another $33 million and it'll pass the last “Harry Potter” for third place on the all-time worldwide chart, too. Then on both charts it'll just have James Cameron in front of it. But that's rarefied air. Movies tend to slow down there and begin to choke. We'll see how Marvel's superheroes do.
The flashy-thing numbers here.
Adjusted for inflation, these movies grossed the following on opening weekend: $88 million, $71 million, $55 million. A trend.
Review: Lola Versus (2012)
It’s not quite there, is it?
Lola (Greta Gerwig), the title character of “Lola Versus,” is cute and quirky and not quite there herself. She’s a Ph.D. student working on her dissertation on the use of silence in 19th century French literature but she doesn’t seem like a Ph.D. student working on a dissertation. She’s about to marry Luke (Joel Kinnaman), a painter, who doesn't seem like a painter, and I don’t get much chemistry from them, and I never get him, particularly when he backs out of the wedding at the 11th hour, then returns abjectly, then... whatever. The various ways they keep him in the picture. Lola has a neurotic, Jewish female friend, Alice (Zoe Lister Jones), and a mellow, Jewish, male friend, Henry (Hamish Linklater), who is destined to become The Love Interest, and she’s cute and relatable and ... who cares? That’s what I thought about an hour in. The movie wasn’t true enough to hold my interest. There weren’t enough honest moments. There was too much Fox and not enough Searchlight.
After the screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, writer-director Daryl Wein and his co-screenwriter (and domestic partner) Lister Jones, in town for the screening, talked about how they based their screenplay on the dating horror stories of their single, female friends in New York. There was a Q&A, which I didn’t participate in, but if I did I would’ve asked this: How many of those horror stories are embodied in the character of Nick (Ebon Moss-Bachrach)?
Nick is actually one of my favorite parts of the movie. He’s so creepy in such an off-kilter way. The way he stares a second too long and deeply. The way he pauses. His pretentiousness. His tighty-whities that aren’t even white and which seem more like girls panties than anything. He gives me the SHIVERS.
“I didn’t want to be a prison architect,” he says over dinner. “That just kind of happened.” He’ll be remembered by most moviegoers as the incubator baby—it’s why he’s so big, he says—but to me his creepiness exudes throughout the performance, and I wondered how much of it came from the script and how much came from Moss-Bachrach, who seems like the real deal: a good actor. But for the movie’s sake, I would've broken up Nick. I would've given Lola a montage of bad dates: 1) prison architect, 2) tighty-whities, 3) incubator baby. Instead they’re all merged into Nick. They make him too big not to fail.
The movie has a vague, indy spirit, and sometimes the comedy is witty and intellectual. A pretentious, avant-garde theater piece is called “Pogrom!” When Nick rollerblades away, saying, awfully, “Have a blessed day,” Henry, who’s been waiting at Lola’s stoop with scones, turns to her and they have this conversation:
Lola: If it’s any consolation, his dick was so big it hurt my back.
Henry: That’s a consolation? You should go into the greeting card business.
But the Hollywood formula is visible, like a coloring-book outline, and Wein and Lister Jones mostly stay within the lines. Lola has, Lola loses, Lola tries to recover, Lola comes to a realization about life and love. It’s actually a good realization for a change. Throughout, she’s relied too heavily on her friends, and takes them for granted, and objects too strongly when Alice winds up with Henry, but in the end she has her epiphany. She tells Alice she’s always been told that to love other people you have to learn to love yourself; but she’s found it’s the opposite. To love herself she has to learn to love other people. It’s a nice moment. It’s a push away from the solipsism of youth, and the inevitable solipsism of storytelling, and into something larger.
Then the movie shrinks it back again.
Should I talk about the end? Lola turns 30, bookending her 29th birthday party at the beginning, and throws a re-birthday party for herself at which Luke tries to win her back. But she’s fine without him now. She’s fine by herself. And we got a scene with her, later, wearing a nice outfit, and happily buying flowers from an outdoor flower shop. She’d already talked to her mom (Debra Winger) about how Cinderella messes girls up, and makes them obsessed with shoes, and she’s wearing an impressive pair here: white, with heels an inch or two tall, and as she walks away she stumbles on the sidewalk and crumples to the ground. Attempting to retain some dignity, she picks herself up and continues on her shaky, careful way.
That’s your ending.
But it doesn’t end there. They give us another scene where she returns to her apartment, puts the flowers in water, and looks around at her small, neat place with a small, neat smile. The End.
Too bad. It shouldn’t have been about the self-satisfied smile; it should have been about continuing after the stumble. Because that's what it's about.
Quote of the Day
“I'm the President of the United States not the President of the People Who Agree With Me. And by the way if the Left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.”
--Pres. Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, “West Wing.” I've often been defending Pres. Obama along these lines over the last three years. The clip:
Movie Review: Under African Skies (2012)
Early in Joe Berlinger’s “Under African Skies,” a documentary about the making of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and his return to South Africa 25 years later to perform a concert with the various South African musicians with whom he worked—including drummer Isaac Mtshali, guitarist Ray Phiri, and vocalist Joseph Shabalala of Lady Blacksmith Mambazo—music is compared to both religion and to the voice of God.
“It’s only 12 notes, man,” Quincy Jones says to Simon, both old men now, sitting on a couch in 2011. “That’s what music is—the voice of God. Don’t you think?” Simon pauses a moment before answering, sincerely, “Yes, I do.”
I don’t know about the voice of God but it makes me happy. Paul Simon’s music makes me happy. This documentary certainly made me happy. I left the theater with a stupid grin on my face, went home, and immediately downloaded a digital version of the album. I had it back when, as either LP or CD or cassette tape, but had neglected it during the crossover into MP3s.
Politics vs. girls in short skirts
Remember the controversy it caused? A different time. Nelson Mandela was in his 22nd year of 27 years of captivity, F.W. de Klerk was president, Apartheid was enforced by police truncheon and gun. In response, the African National Congress, or ANC, initiated an economic and cultural boycott of South Africa. Simon, by showing up for two weeks in 1985 to record his album, and by employing black South African musicians, broke that boycott. You don’t play Sun City and you don’t work with Lady Blacksmith Mambazo. Simon was condemned in South Africa, London, and at Howard University. During the “Graceland” world tour, there were protests outside concert halls and bomb-sniffing dogs inside concert halls. It was, says Dali Tambo, the son of then-ANC president Oliver Tambo, “an issue.”
To be honest, I never got it. An economic boycott of black musicians to protest the oppression of black people? Wouldn’t that be like boycotting Ray Charles in 1955 to protest Jim Crow laws? It feels like the wrong people were being punished. Or, as Ray Phiri says here, about his own reaction to the controversy, “How can you victimize a victim twice?”
The doc tries to sort through the controversy—then and now—while presenting, via archive footage and talking heads, the long process of how the album came together. Here’s how we got that accordion riff at the beginning of “The Boy in the Bubble.” Here’s how Ladysmith Black Mambazo came into the picture. At one point Simon wondered whether these songs shouldn’t be political, since he wasn’t blind to what was going on. He felt the tension in the country and in the room. Shouldn't the album reflect this tension? So he asked the South African artist, General M.D. Shirinda, about the song that became “I Know What I Know,” which was based on one of Shirinda’s songs. What were its original lyrics? Shirinda responded thus: “Remember in the sixties when girls wore short skirts? Wasn’t that great?” So much for politics.
The lyrics, interestingly, weren’t written until Simon returned to New York. He agonized over them. He came up with “There’s a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline,” but recognized its very New Yorkness. How did it fit with the African rhythms? He kept coming back to a riff, “I’m going to Graceland,” tried to shake it, couldn’t, then threw up his hands and decided he’d better go to Graceland. At one point he realized—as I never did in 1987—that Graceland didn’t have to mean Elvis; it could be a metaphor for a state of grace, a place where “we all will be received.”
In this way, the album came together. One gets a sense of the arbitrariness of it all. It could’ve easily have gone another way.
Greater good vs. greater music
Some of the more touching moments in the doc are about the opening of the world to these South African musicians, most of whom had been working odd jobs until Simon came along. They didn’t know who he was. For some, he was their first white friend, the first white man they hugged, a revelation. “Who’s this guy hiding himself in America?” Joseph Shabalala remembers thinking. “He’s my brother.” They were flown to New York to finish the recording and a limo with a white driver met them at the airport. They wanted to go to Central Park and asked “Where do we get a permit?” They wound up on “Saturday Night Live” singing “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and became a sensation. A world tour, plagued by the ANC controversy, followed.
Dali Tambo, now with an odd 19th-century-style moustache, happily provides the ANC’s perspective. He and Simon sit on another couch, this one in Tambo’s home in South Africa, for a discussion/argument on what happened. Basically: the ANC felt the greater good was served by subsuming the individual to the nation’s needs; Simon felt the nation’s needs were served by giving the world individual faces and voices. The oppression was no longer an abstraction; here were the people being oppressed.
Mostly, though, he just wanted to make good music.
“It’s the same event but everybody’s story is different,” Simon says at the outset, but of course the doc gives us his story rather than Tambo’s. Even the talking heads favor the artist since they’re artists themselves: Philip Glass and David Byrne and Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney. Oprah Winfrey talks about how she heard of the controversy and determined to avoid the album; then she heard the album. “It’s my favorite album of all time,” she says now. She became more deeply interested in South Africa because of “Graceland.” You could say Simon wins his argument with Tambo right there.
49 vs. 13
There are a few cloying moments—the close-up of Simon’s white hand in Tambo’s black hand—but mostly the movie is joyous: a celebration of music and artistry and creativity and brotherhood. It’s also a celebration of a time when music seemed to matter more than it does now. What gets big now isn’t necessarily worthy of big. Feel free to dismiss that as the perspective of a 49-year-old curmudgeon.
Of course, once upon a time, I was a 13-year-old curmudgeon, arguing with friends that Paul Simon’s music was better than the Bee Gees’ music. I don’t have such arguments anymore; they seem ridiculous to me. I like what I like and I know what I know. And who am I to blow against the wind?
Prince Something Something
Two days ago I stood in line in that alcove around the corner from the SIFF Uptown theater that serves as both shelter and bathroom for some of the area's homeless, waiting to get into “Under African Skies,” a documentary about Paul Simon's “Graceland” album. (Review up tomorrow.) The two people immediately behind me were young folks, 20s, and had a mess of recently purchased CDs with them. Is buying CDs in the MP3 age the hipster thing to do? I wondered.
One of the CDs was Prince's “Purple Rain,” and the two, male and female (like Prince himself), talked about him in halting fashion. They knew him, knew he was good, but that was about it. I got the feeling they were discovering him.
“You know Prince is his real name?” the boy said. “It's Prince Something Something.”
“Rogers Nelson,” I said, butting in. I thought of the old Bryant Junior High School yearbook photo of Prince on the basketball team. Basketball's loss, music's gain.
The girl had seen “Purple Rain” and talked about having gone to Lake Minnetonka, which, she said, factors in the movie. She tried to explain the scene: How Prince takes this girl on his motorcyle to Lake Minnetonka and she jumps in.
“He tells her she has to purify herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka,” I said, butting in again, “so she strips and jumps in. But as she's jumping in, he says, 'That's not ... (splash) ... Lake Minnetonka.' It's a good bit.” To both: “It's a good movie.”
I know. Pain in the ass. I should have offered spoiler alerts.
Then I began to backdate. “Purple Rain” was nearly 30 years old. “Purple Rain” was as distant to these kids as “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” was to me at their age.
Walking into the theater, the girl complimented me on my Prince knowledge. She thought it amazing to find someone who knew so much about him.
“I was 20 when 'Purple Rain' came out,” I said. “We all knew it.”
Quote of the Day
In “Under African Skies,” Joe Berlinger's documentary about the making of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and his return to South Africa 25 years later to perform a concert with the musicians with whom he worked, Simon recounts how back then he wondered whether the songs they were recording shouldn't be more political. He wasn't blind to what was going on in South Africa, after all; he felt the tension. Shouldn't the album reflect that tension?
So he asked the South African artist, General M.D. Shirinda, about the song that became “I Know What I Know.” What were its original South African lyrics? He assumed they would be political. This is what Shirinda responded:
“Remember in the sixties when girls wore short skirts? Wasn’t that great?”
Corporations United: A Summary of Jeffrey Toobin's Must-Read Citizens United Article
Jeffrey Toobin has a warning for you, me, all of us.
The staff writer for The New Yorker, and author of the book “The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court,” has written an article that encompasses not only the history of the Citizens United decision, but, as important, the intersection of money and politics and corporations in U.S. history. His conclusions are chilling but none more so than Justice Anthony Kennedy’s actual argument writing for the majority in Citizens United:
“The Government has muffled the voices that best represent the most significant segments of the economy. And the electorate has been deprived of information, knowledge and opinion vital to its function. By suppressing the speech of manifold corporations, both for-profit and nonprofit, the Government prevents their voices and viewpoints from reaching the public and advising voters on which persons or entities are hostile to their interests.”
The voices that best represent the most significant segments of the economy? Corporations. Because corporations don’t have enough of a voice in our society.
No, it’s because corporations are people, or have been viewed as such by the U.S. Supreme Court since 1886 and the Santa Clare County v. Southern Pacific Railroad case, when Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite handled the matter summarily: “The court does not want to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution . . . applies to these corporations,” he said. “We are all of opinion that it does.” Done and done.
Ah, but in 1907 Congress passed the Tillman Act, which barred corporations from contributing directly to federal campaigns. Toobin calls it, “a first step toward what Congress described as its goal: elections ‘free from the power of money.’”
A second step occurred with the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974, passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal, which created much of our familiar regulatory structure. Toobin: “The law imposed unprecedented limits on campaign contributions and spending; created the Federal Election Commission to enforce the act; established an optional system of public financing for Presidential elections; and required extensive disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures.”
The court’s decision in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), parsed this law, distinguishing between expenditures and contributions. It argued that you could not restrict expenditures, since money was like speech, and speech was protected under the First Amendment, but you could place limits on contributions. Thus Ross Perot or Michael Bloomberg could spend however much of their own money to get elected; but they could only contribute so much to help someone else get elected.
Citizens United upended all of this. It obliterated the McCain-Feingold law, which the Rehnquist court had upheld in 2003. And it didn’t have to. The Supreme Court, and Chief Justice John Roberts in particular, picked it to do just this.
Initially, Citizens was about a narrow matter within McCain-Feingold: whether an anti-Hilary Clinton documentary, “Hilary: The Movie,” created by a non-profit, political organization called Citizens United, an organization which was itself created by the man who helped produce the Willie Horton ad that helped elected George H.W. Bush president in 1988, could be shown on television in the month before a primary or election in order to influence that primary or election. Such a viewing, as interpreted by the FEC, was forbidden under McCain-Feingold. The people behind Citizens United sued, and hired former Solicitor General Ted Olson (Bush v. Gore) to argue their case before the court.
In March 2009, Olson argued the case “as applied” (i.e., dealing with the specifics of this case, and hoping for a narrow, favorable ruling) as opposed to “on its face” (dealing with the entire law). But the Roberts court had the majority to upend the entire law, so Roberts ordered the case re-argued in the fall. And it was. And it swept aside not only McCain-Feingold but the 100 years of protection of the Tillman Act.
Here’s Justice John Paul Stevens, a moderate Republican appointee, in his 90-page, angry dissent:
“We have held that speech can be regulated differentially on account of the speaker’s identity, when identity is understood in categorical or institutional terms. The Government routinely places special restrictions on the speech rights of students, prisoners, members of the Armed Forces, foreigners, and its own employees...
“At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”
Toobin writes: “It was an impressive dissent, but that was all it was. Anthony Kennedy, on the other hand, was reshaping American politics.”
Read the whole thing here. It’s necessary reading if we're ever going to become citizens united.
Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Roberts (right).
I know it's not “Sovereignty means it's sovereign; you're a — you've been given sovereignty,” but it'll do if you want some smart, straight, teleprompter-less talk.
Quote of the Day
“Forgive me, but if someone had told me two decades ago that by 2012, a black president would be endorsing gay marriage, I would have asked where he got that stuff he was smoking.”
--Andrew Sullivan, “The Greenwald Pounce,” on his blog “The Dish”
Hollywood B.O.: Universal Studio to U.S. Audiences: 'You Sunk My Battleship!'
Sometimes American audiences make you glow with pride. Or at least not shake your head with disgust.
Take this weekend. Universal's “Battleship,” brought to you by the toy company that brought you “Transformers,” opened to negative reviews (29% among top critics) and weak box office ($25.3 million). That was good enough for second place but it's less than half the $55 million grossed by the third weekend of “The Avengers,” which has now grossed $457 million domestically and $723 million abroad.
“The Avengers,” by the way, got an 86% rating from top critics. My review here.
How bad is a $25 million opening for a purported summer blockbuster? Let's limit our discussion to movies that opened in May. Unadjusted, “Battleship”'s $25 mil is only the 63rd-biggest opening weekend in May. It's $4 million less than “Dark Shadows” grossed the weekend before, $2 million less than the opening of Eddie Murphy's “Daddy Day Care” in May 2003, and around $50 K less than “Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom” grossed on its opening weekend ... in May 1984. Remember “Dinosaur”? Neither do I. But it grossed $38 million during its opening weekend in May 2000.
Oh well. Rihana has something to fall back on, doesn't she?
As for “The Avengers”? Unadjusted for inflation, it's currently ranked sixth all-time domestically (behind “Star Wars,” “Star Wars Episode I,” “The Dark Knight,” “Titanic” and “Avatar”) and fourth all-time worldwide (behind the last “Harry Potter,” “Titanic” and “Avatar”). It will probably wind up second and third, respectively.
Adjust for infation, and it's currently ranked 61st, domestically, having just passed, “The Sixth Sense,” “Superman,” “Tootsie” and “Smokey and the Bandit.”
The J-10 numbers here. The 1960s commercial I must've seen 100 times below:
The Novel for the 99%: Max Barry's 'Company'
Just spent a week on Kauai, Hawaii, a great vacation I'll write about it in the coming days.
But for now a book recommendation: Max Barry's “Company,” which I read during my first two days on Kauai. It's not only the novel for anyone who has suffered a dead-end, meaningless job with idiotic managers—which means 99% of us—it's also the novel most of us who suffered dead-end, meaningless jobs with idiotic managers wished we'd written. In the early nineties, I must have written five short stories/novellas on customer-service/bookstore work but they were all a little too bitter and not nearly clever enough. Barry's wit outweighs all. He pushes the bounds. He makes the absurdity funny. He also makes it both logical and, at the same time, more absurd.
Here's a sample. Sydney, an awful manager and a worse person, is in the act of firing her personal assistant, Megan:
“Second, you don't show any teamwork.”
“But I work alone! I'll work with people if you want! I'd love to work with people! I'm stuck by myself!”
Sydney folds her hands on her desk. “Well, there's no point in complaining now.”
“Then ... why are you telling me these things?”
“It's part of the feedback process. I'm showing you what you need to work on to improve.”
“So if I improve--”
“Not here. You can't improve here. You're being fired, Megan. This is just the process we go through. It's really for your benefit. A little gratitude wouldn't be out of place.”
Megan's mouth works. What finally comes out is: “Thank you.”
“You're welcome,” Sydney says. “Anyway, those two categories hurt your score. But the clincher was your failure to achieve any goals.”
“Well, you didn't have any.” Sydney picks up a silver pen and waggles it. Little daggers of reflected sunlight flash into Megan's eyes. “During your last evaluation, we were meant to agree on goals for you, but we never did. So where it says, 'Goals Accomplished,' I had to tick 'None.'”
“I would have accomplished goals if you'd set some!”
“Well, you might have. It's hard to say.”
“How can you sack me for not accomplishing goals I never had?”
“You don't want me to say you accomplished goals when you didn't, do you?”
Then there's this passage, spoken by the CEO of the company, Klausman, which surely resonates in this presidential year when Republicans are going on about “job creators”:
“You're probably too young to remember, Jones, but there was a time when a man filled your gas tank for you. A boy carried your groceries to your car. There was a time when you hardly ever stood in line, not outside of a government office. But labor is a source of cost, so companies externalized it. They, as you say, shat it out. And those costs landed exactly where they belonged: on their customers.”
“And on their remaining staff.”
“Quite so. Quite so. Hence: 'Doing more with less.'”
In a masterstroke, the novel is dedicated thus: “For Hewlett-Packard.”
Movie Review: The Dark Knight (2008)
WARNING: WHY SO SPOILEROUS?
I only saw “The Dark Knight” once in theaters, at a preview screening a few days before its July 2008 opening. Afterwards I wrote an MSN piece about it, “The Smart Knight,” which included the following lines:
There are better superhero movies out there... But “The Dark Knight,” directed by Christopher Nolan, is the smartest superhero movie ever made.
My point: Once Batman stops being a vigilante and becomes a glorified cop he becomes absurd—a cop in a bat suit—and descends into camp. “The Dark Knight” ensured this wouldn’t happen by reinforcing his vigilante status and taking an axe to the bat signal. Even so, fanboys jumped on me for implying that other superhero films might be better than “The Dark Knight.”
Now that I’ve actually seen the movie a second time, four years later on DVD, I’d like to apologize to those fanboys. I was wrong in the above quote. “The Dark Knight” isn’t the smartest superhero movie ever made. In fact, it’s pretty stupid.
Battle for the soul of Gotham
The battle between the Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger) is nothing less than a battle for the soul of Gotham City. Batman wants order, the Joker chaos. “Some men aren't looking for anything logical,” says Alfred (Michael Caine), in one of the movie’s most famous lines. “Some men only want to watch the world burn.”
How does the Joker do this? He commit acts of terrorism. He tries to get the citizens of Gotham to reveal that they’re as ugly inside as he is.
First, he announces he’ll kill one person every day until the Batman takes off his mask and turns himself in. What happens? When Gotham’s district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) holds a press conference saying we don’t give in to terrorist demands, the people lash back:
Reporter: You’d rather protect this outlaw vigilante than the lives of citizens?
Man 1: Things are worse than ever!
Cop: No more dead cops! [Other cops applaud.]
Man 2: He should turn himself in!
The Joker wins.
Then when a Wayne Enterprises employee, Reese (Josh Harto), is about to reveal Batman’s true identity on television, the Joker decides Batman’s too much fun. So he demands the death of Reese in an hour or he’ll blow up a hospital. What happens? All over Gotham, people start taking potshots at Reese. It’s up to the Batman, disguised as Bruce Wayne, to save him.
The Joker wins.
Finally, in the film’s climax, the Joker loads hundreds of barrels of explosives onto two ferry boats—one filled with criminals, one filled with civilians—and gives each boat the other’s detonator. At midnight, he says, he’ll blow up both ferries. If one boat blows up the other first, however, that one will be allowed to continue safely on its way. What happens? The ferry full of citizens votes to blow up the ferry full of criminals but no one can push the button. Meanwhile, one of the criminals (former wrestler Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister), 6’ 5” and glowering, demands the detonator, and tells the ship’s captain: “I’ll do what you shoulda did 10 minutes ago.” Then he tosses it overboard. Midnight passes, by which time the Joker’s been defeated, and everyone’s safe. Our best side has been revealed.
In other words, threatened indirectly in examples 1 and 2, everyone caved. Threatened directly, in example 3, and people behaved nobly.
“Give up the Batman or there’s a one-in-10-million chance you’ll die.” Let’s give up the Batman! “Kill Reese or I’ll blow up one of dozens of hospitals in Gotham.” Let’s kill Reese! “Kill those murderers and rapists or YOU will be killed!” Uh... let’s take a vote.
Worse, despite his experiences with examples 1 and 2, not to mention his whole raison d’etre, Batman, in example 3, is convinced that both the citizens and criminals of Gotham will do the right thing. At one point, he and Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) have this conversation:
Gordon: Every second we don’t [take down the Joker], those people on the ferry get closer to blowing each other—
Batman (low growl): That won’t happen.
As Batman wrestles with the Joker, we get this exchange:
Joker: I’ll miss the fireworks. [One of the boats blowing up.]
Batman (low growl): There won’t be any fireworks!
How does he know? Because he’s the hero? Because it’s the end of the movie? Because it’s time for him to win? The whole thing feels monumentally false.
Yes, you can drill down and say that in example No. 1 the people were asked to give up nothing of their own, just the Batman, so it was easier to cave. Yes, you can say that in example No. 2, the pool of potential assassins was larger than on the ferry boat, so you’re that much more likely to find one, two, or a dozen, willing to kill for a false sense of security. Yes, on the ferry boat they’re fighting for a real sense of security, a do-or-die situation, but it’s still a tough thing to press a button and extinguish hundreds of souls. Most of us don’t have it in us. But what about the other boat? Could no criminal, who might’ve already killed dozens, push that button?
Bottom line. Threatened indirectly, the people of Gotham got scared and flailed. Threatened directly, the people of Gotham got scared and sat calmly. Maybe that’s what happens when you and your children are threatened directly. But I doubt it.
The Museum of the Hard-to-Believe
There’s so much I don’t believe about this film.
I don’t believe the Joker is able to redirect or misdirect Harvey Dent’s anger. Dent has a gun to the forehead of the Joker—the man responsible for both the awful last minutes of Rachel Dawes’ life and Dent losing half his face—and he doesn’t pull the trigger? Instead he goes after the cops who betrayed him to the Joker. He goes after the family of Jim Gordon, the uncorrupt boss of those corrupt cops. He flails.
And what’s up with that whole ‘White Knight’ crap? If Dent is revealed as less than pure, the good citizens of Gotham—if there are any—would give up hope? How many even know who Harvey Dent is?
Don’t get me started on all the traps the Joker springs in this thing.
Oops. Too late.
Here are the various traps the Joker springs on the people and authorities of Gotham:
- He kidnaps and kills one of Gotham’s many Batman copycats, then he hangs the fat corpse outside the Mayor’s high-rise office so it bumps up against the window just as the Mayor is looking out. Nice timing.
- He sends a video of the killing to the TV networks, who broadcast it, along with his demand that Batman turn himself in.
- He gets the DNA of three prominent Gothamites (Judge, Commissioner, Harvey Dent) on a Joker card, kills two of them (bomb, poison), and goes after Dent personally at Bruce Wayne’s high-rise.
- When Dent, pretending to be Batman, is transported across town in a police van, Joker redirects the motorcade into an underpass and attacks it.
- After Batman stops the Joker by upending his truck, a stunt which should’ve killed him but merely left him a tad groggy, the Joker has his men kidnap both Dent and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and tie them to chairs next to explosives in secure locations equidistant from the Gotham jail. (Thank you, Google maps.)
- At the same time, or a previous time, he plants a man with a bomb in his stomach in the Gotham jail. Is this Plan B? For when the underpass thing didn’t work? Or was Gordon right and the Joker wanted to be captured? Gotta say, for someone who wanted to be captured, he was making a convincing case otherwise in that underpass.
- Plan B works perfectly, though. The jail bomb goes off, killing many but leaving the Joker unharmed, Rachel Dawes blows up, and, best of all, and completely unplanned, Dent loses half his face in the blast that nearly takes his life.
Whew. Breather? No, this is Chris Nolan. Onward.
- The Joker gets on a local news show and tells everyone to kill Reese or he’ll blow up a hospital. For some reason, not many policemen guard the hospital where Dent is recuperating. Apparently everyone’s forgotten that the Joker has tried to kill him three times now.
- After turning Harvey Dent into a bad guy, the Joker blows up the hospital.
- Immediately after, he begins his ferry boat threat. When did he load the explosives onto the ferries? Just how many men does he have? And does no one ever see him doing these things?
- And while all of that is going on, he holes up in a construction site, where he’s being watched by police who have been alerted to his location by Batman’s extra-legal surveillance. Except his men in clown masks? They’re really hostages! The hostages? They’re really his men! It’s another trap! Because he knew they’d be able to find him? Why would he think that? Batman had to break the law to find him. Just how many steps ahead is the Joker?
For a madman, the Joker has to be the greatest organizational planner ever. Even while messing with you in Plan B, he’s apparently thinking ahead to Plan Z. The intricacy of his plans make D-Day seem like a sailboat ride on a Sunday afternoon.
It’s tough out there for a Batman
This is a tough movie to be Batman. In the first, “Batman Begins,” he’s proactive, stalking crooks in the night. Here, he’s back on his heels. He’s reacting more than acting. He’s taking punches.
Is he slower in this one? He was such a ninja in the first movie that both criminals and moviegoers could barely see him. Maybe fanboys complained. That last fight with Ra’s al Ghul on the train was like a battle of shadows, but, ninja-wise, it made sense. Here, Batman’s not only not a ninja, he’s as stolid as Rocky Balboa in the 11th round.
Thank god he’s got so many good people around him. Alfred, for example. After Batman’s first encounter with the Joker, when Bruce Wayne says, “They crossed a line,” Alfred immediately responds, “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation.” After Batman saves Harvey Dent but loses Rachel and sits despondent over his role in all of this—in inspiring not good but madness—Alfred tells him, “You spat in the faces of Gotham's worst criminals. Didn’t you think there might be some casualties?” Spat in the faces...? Thanks for the buck-up, bro.
Well, at least Bruce has Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who, when shown Batman’s Patriot-Act-like surveillance methods, says, “This is too much power for one man to have,” and “Spying on 30 million people isn't part of my job description.” OK, so no Lucius. But at least Rachel loves him. Oh right, the letter.
Poor dude can’t have a conversation with anyone without it turning into some part of the film’s philosophical treatise. I love me some Michael Caine but almost everything Alfred says is in this vein. Harvey Dent, too. “You either die a hero,” he says during a casual dinner, “or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” When I first heard it, before I knew that Harvey would die a hero and Batman would endure as a villain, it felt false to me. It rang loudly and off key. It announced itself.
Movies are only as good as directors allow them to be
I like some of what Nolan does. I like the idea that Batman inspires people in unintended, dangerous ways. I like that someone nefarious rises to reach Batman’s level of madness. I like the idea of blackmailing Batman to give himself up. That’s smart. But it’s lost in the relentlessness of Nolan’s direction and the Joker’s innumerable plans and schemes.
Yes, Heath Ledger is brilliant. And, yes, this is great dialogue:
Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak. Like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t they’ll cast you out like a leper. You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
Ahead of the curve. Great line.
This sets up our ferry-boat ending that depicts how some people don’t drop their moral code at the first sign of trouble. The problem? The Joker’s actually right. Or he’s half right. Moral codes aren’t necessarily dropped at the first sign of trouble, but, generally, we are only as good as the world allows us to be. Batman knows that, too. He should’ve picked up on it. He should’ve said:
Of course people are only as good as the world allows them to be. That’s why I’m here. I’m allowing them that chance.
He should’ve mocked the Joker:
You think you’re telling us something we don’t know? You think you’re bringing us news?
It’s easy to bring the world low. It’s hard to lift it up. Why did you choose the easy way?
But all of that would’ve required a Batman who wasn’t on his heels. It would’ve required a Batman unafraid to take the spotlight from the Joker. And it would’ve required a different ending than our ferry boat/fairy tale ending.
But it would’ve made for a better movie. “Sometimes truth isn't good enough,” Batman says at the end of the movie. And most of the time it is.
Listen, I know I’m talking in the wind here. I know “The Dark Knight” grossed the money it grossed, and has the fans it has, and no argument will sway them from their point-of-view.
So feel free to say it’s just a movie, and fun, and you’re not supposed to think about it too much. I’ll understand. Because I know most people don’t go to the movies looking for anything logical. Most people go just to watch the world burn.
Endorsement of the Day
I posted the above this morning before work, and before I knew Pres. Obama would be speaking today about marriage equality, and before he came out in favor of same-sex marriage. Now it's even more true. Now it's a great day.
I've seen a lot of good messages, good comments, good thoughts out there in the social media landscape, but the one below is my favorite. From someone named Erin on Twitter:
My parents don't approve of the fact that I'm gay. It's sort of nice to know that my president does.
Lyrics of the Day
Out above the rooftops
The moon is holding sway
A narrow eye low in the sky
Knowing what I'm knowing
I have left the table now
And this is just to say
Every song I've ever sung
Has been a song for going
--Joe Henry, from the song “Room at Arles,” from the album “Reverie”
Vincent Van Gogh, “Bedroom at Arles,” 1888
The Avengers on Cloud Five/Nine
A few weeks ago my friend Tim, longtime illustrator, and ErikLundegaard.com webmaster (thwip!), started a new comic strip. “Cloud Five” is for all those folks who can't reach Cloud Nine, which is most of us. Probably 99% of us. Check it out.
The latest storyline is, well, timely (yes, that's a pun): Ted and friends checking out “The Avengers” premiere. Here's the first of that series:
Click on the strip, or here, for a bigger version of same.
I laughed out loud when I read that but Benny's malapropism, like the best malapropisms, turned out to be true: “The Avengers” have done nothing but accumulate the dough since being released overseas 11 days ago and in the U.S. four days ago. Somewhere, Disney and Marvel execs are on cloud nine.
Quote of the Day
“We all need genius. It's essential to know that Great Souls are out there, revealing the potential of the species, and we want to believe that true genius creates itself, and forces itself on the world. But we only know those geniuses who have broken through, and when we look at their stories, we often find that a random stroke of luck or a passionate believer made all the difference. If ever there was a movie genius, it was Charlie Chaplin. But anyone who works in movies will tell you that when it comes to pictures, nobody does anything alone.”
--Jon Boorstin, from the article “Who Invented Chaplin's Tramp?” in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Charlie Chaplin in “The Kid” (1921). But who helped him invent the Tramp?
From 'Empire Strikes Back' to 'The Avengers': A Short History of the Biggest Opening Weekends in Recent Movie History
Here's a list of whichever movie has held the opening-weekend box-office record since 1980:
|Release||Movie||Opening||% of Total||Theaters||Total Gross|
|6/20/1980||The Empire Strikes Back||$10,840,307||5%||823||$209,398,025|
|6/4/1982||Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan||$14,347,221||18%||1,621||$78,912,963|
|5/25/1983||Return of the Jedi||$23,019,618||9%||1,002||$252,583,617|
|5/23/1984||Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom||$25,337,110||14%||1,687||$179,870,271|
|5/20/1987||Beverly Hills Cop II||$26,348,555||17%||2,326||$153,665,036|
|5/24/1989||Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade||$29,355,021||15%||2,327||$197,171,806|
|5/23/1997||The Lost World: Jurassic Park||$72,132,785||32%||3,281||$229,086,679|
|11/16/2001||Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone||$90,294,621||28%||3,672||$317,575,550|
|7/7/2006||Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest||$135,634,554||32%||4,133||$423,315,812|
|7/18/2008||The Dark Knight||$158,411,483||30%||4,366||$533,345,358|
|7/15/2011||Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2||$169,189,427||44%||4,375||$381,011,219|
source: Box Office Mojo
A lot of lame sequels here: “Superman II,” “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “Ghostbusters II,” “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest,” and “Spider-Man 3.” They're sugary and contain no nutritional value. Think of them as the jujubes of movies.
The title for biggest opener flipped nine times in the 1980s, including three times within a month (May/June 1989) before “Batman” finally shredded the competition. Interesting seeing a few comedies in the mix. It's not just the Indiana Joneses and Luke Skywalkers battling it out; Murphy and Murray get in their punches, too.
Only two record-holders in the 1990s: Batman (three versions) and dinosaurs (two versions). The aughts began with Harry, swung over to Spidey, who got stumbled over by Capt. Jack Sparrow, who got thwipped by Spidey again, who got coldcocked by the Dark Knight. Then it was the boy wizard until Earth's Mightiest Heroes stormed onto the scene this past weekend.
That's a helluva jump, by the way: $169 million to $200 million. If it holds, it'll be the biggest jump for any new record-holder over the previous record-holder, besting Spidey's $24 million jump over Harry in 2001. That 18% advantage, though, while remarkable, isn't close to the best percentage leap, since “Jedi” bested “Khan” by 60% back in 1983. No one's going to do that anymore. Not even James Cameron.
Speaking of: the list is most interesting for what's not on it, namely “E.T.,” “Titanic” and “Avatar.” Our most popular movies.
OK, so they weren't all winners...
UPDATE: According to weekend actuals, “The Avengers” actually did better than projected: $207,438,708. Meaning it beat the last “Harry,” the previous record holder, by $38 million. Percentage-wise, that's a 22% jump, which is the biggest jump since “Spider-Man” bested “Jurassic Park II” by 27%. Since then, the record has been broken in the following incremental fashion: 18%, 11%, 4%, 6%. “Earth's Mightiest Heroes,” indeed.
Stat of the Day
“Today the United States economy is producing even more goods and services than it did when the recession officially began in December 2007, but with about five million fewer workers.”
--from “U.S. Added Only 115,000 Jobs in April; Rate Is 8.1%” by Catherine Rampell in The New York Times. Reheadlined “Why You May Be Exhausted” on Andrew Sullivan's site.
Compare to an interview I did two years ago with labor lawyer Thomas Geohegan. Quote:
It defies the laws of economic gravity. Under everything you understand about labor economics—if you take Economics 10 or Labor Economics 101—productivity goes up, wages go up. That’s the gold standard. That’s what raises the standard of living. Hasn’t happened here. Productivity has shot up a lot; the real median hourly wage has gone down.
So we're working more, producing more, getting less.
'I Don't Want Government in My Bank...'
Hollywood B.O.: 'The Avengers' SMASH Opening-Weekend Record with $200 Million
After seeing “The Avengers” on Friday, after seeing the long lines outside the Cinerama last night in downtown Seattle, I was wondering if “The Avengers” might do it. Not break the opening weekend box office record, set last July (with a $169-million three-day gross) by the last “Harry Potter” film. That seemed foregone. No, I was wondering if “The Avengers” might shoot past $200 million domestically. If it might break that barrier.
It seems it has. Early estimates indicate it has.
Over the weekend, I kept going back-and-forth in my mind on why it might do this:
- PRO: It has Iron Man and Captain America and Hulk and Thor. So it'll get all of these fans together at once.
- CON: All of these fans are the same. Thor fans are just a smaller subset of, say, Iron Man fans.
- PRO: People have been anticipating this movie for four years, since the teaser at the end of the first “Iron Man” movie in May 2008.
- CON: Isn't it the same people?
- PRO: The most recent trailers look amazing.
- CON: Will moviegoers assume the trailer contains all the film's good bits and not go?
- PRO: The reviews are positive: 93% on Rotten Tomatoes!
- CON: As a reviewer, I know: Few people read reviews. (Just in case: My review of “The Avengers” here.)
But the biggest PRO in this back-and-forth was the conversation I had waiting in line at the Pacific Center's IMAX theater on Friday. I talked to a couple standing behind me. They were in their late 50s or 60s. I think they asked a question about “The Avengers” and I guess I look like the kind of guy who might have the answer. (Read: NERD!!!)
Then we had the following conversation:
Me: What brings you out here?
Husband: It just seemed like the type of movie you see in a theater.
Wife: We rarely go to the movies.
Me: Rarely as in ... a couple of times a year?
Husband: Not even that.
Wife [backdating]: The last movie we went to see in a theater was ... the last “Star Wars” movie.
Me: In 2005?
Wife: Whenever it was.
Me: And that killed you from seeing movies in the theater.
Husband and wife: [Polite laughter]
Me: Do you know the story? The Avengers?
Husband: We've seen them on DVD.
Me: But this one...
Wife: It was big enough to bring us out.
It was apparently big enough to bring out a lot of folks.
Lesson to Hollywood: If you can bring out the people who haven't seen a movie in the theater in seven years, you're going to set some records.
$200 million? Or are the early estimates off?
Movie Review: The Avengers (2012)
WARNING: EARTH’S MIGHTIEST SPOILERS!
This is the one.
Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” is the superhero movie we’ve been waiting for. It’s imbued with the same spirit that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought to comic books in the early 1960s, saving, or at least altering, and certainly growing, the industry. Comics under Stan and Jack grew like Bruce Banner under gamma radiation. They grew not only in sales but stature. They grew up. There was a new seriousness—superheroes had problems, superhero teams fought each other like family members—but there was also that pizzazz, that lack of seriousness, that insouciance. Jack’s drawings brought the gravitas and Stan’s personality the lighter-than-air pizzazz. Stan had his tongue in cheek when he called it “the Marvel Age of Comics,” but soon that’s what it was. Face front, true believers! Make Mine Marvel! All for only 12 cents an issue.
Whedon’s “The Avengers” has that same spirit. It’s fast and fun and contains laugh-out-loud moments. It’s epic and smart and never gets bogged down. I saw it at an IMAX theater, in 3-D, and beforehand we were told by theater employees that the movie was two and a half hours long. I practically groaned. Two and a half hours? Really? Then it started and picked up and kept going, and at one point I looked at my watch and nearly two hours had passed. Foosh.
The Alfonso Cuaron of superhero directors
“The Dark Knight” doesn’t have this spirit. Comics became darker in the 1980s under Frank Miller and Alan Moore. They became almost Nietzschian: Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster. Our heroes were still heroes but they became heavy with monstrosity, and that’s the spirit of “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” and 2003’s “Daredevil,” and somewhere young men, in their teens and 20s and 30s, who should know better, still get off on this crap. They think it’s cool seeing a silent sentinel staring down at a corrupt city, cape flapping in the breeze. Me, I get bored. I wonder where the fun is. I wonder what Stan is up to.
Standing in line, I wondered if “The Avengers” had shot its wad in the trailers. Were all its best lines, its best scenes, used up? What could be better than Tony Stark saying to Loki “We have a Hulk”? But Whedon and company keep them coming.
- “I thought his first name was Agent.”
- “The last time I was in New York I kinda broke...Harlem.”
- “I am a God, you dull creature, and I will not be bullied by a—”
- “That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.”
- “And Hulk? Smash.”
This is the movie that finally saves the Hulk. It moves us away from the lonely wanderlust of the TV series and from Ang Lee’s humorless Freudian angst and brings the fun. What did Hulk have to smash before? Puny humans? Scene-chewing father figures? One abominable drag of an enemy? Here he gets to fight Thor, and a giant alien army, and Loki, bragging, above, to which Hulk’s reaction is just ... perfect. Lesson #1 from the Marvel Age of Comics: Don’t mess with Hulk.
How about the scene where all the aliens go after him? Twenty on one. How about that long, epic, tracking shot that shows us each Avenger in the midst of battle, like some two-page, single-panel extravaganza from Jack Kirby or John Romita or John Byrne? Christopher Nolan in his Batman movies uses quick cuts like he’s directing an MTV video for our distracted age. Whedon seems to be asking himself: How much epic battle can I contain in one tracking shot? He’s the Alfonso Cuaron of superhero directors.
Loki vs. mere mortals
Are there false notes? The way that, you know, Obadiah Stane is suddenly everywhere at the end of “Iron Man,” and the way the Joker is suddenly everywhere at the end of “The Dark Knight”? And every second of both “Fantastic Four” movies? Because I’m not recalling any such problems in “The Avengers.” Sure, the Hulk as part of a team, that’s always problematic. How do you point the Hulk in the right direction? How do you make sure he doesn’t go off in your face? (See: Thor.) Hulk knows no team, really, which is why he eventually left the comic-book “Avengers.” But at least they bring him on board because of Banner’s brains rather than Hulk’s brawn. S.H.I.E.L.D. needed his expertise in gamma radiation. We needed to see him flop Loki around like a rag doll.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is actually a weak villain, isn’t he? There’s great malevolence in him as he stares, captured, in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s cell, but his desires are puny. They’re large, in that he wants to take over the Earth, but they’re puny in that he wants subservience, and that’s the province of weak men. The two who inflict the most damage on Loki aren’t super; they’re mere mortals, and they do it with mere words. Loki escapes his cell, runs his blade through Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who, dying, tells him:
Coulson: You’re going to lose.
Coulson: It’s in your nature.
That gets to the heart of it. He keeps losing to Thor, his brother, and Odin, his father. He’s powerful but it’s not enough, it’s never enough, because losing is in his nature. He needs so much to make up for all that losing.
Earlier Loki gets some mucky-mucks at a black-tie affair in Stuttgart, Germany to bow down to him. An entire plaza full of people. He tells them, “You were made to be ruled,” which is a good line. He tells them that they don’t really want freedom, which is another good line. We don’t, sometimes. Having so many choices in life? It’s hard, sometimes. But then Loki goes too far, and one man, looking like a concentration-camp survivor (Kenneth Tigar), stands up, and refuses to take a knee. He talks about men like Loki and Loki laughs, knowing himself to be a god:
Loki: There are no men like me.
German man: There are always men like you.
That’s so fucking smart. Loki says his line because he’s not a man and the German says his line because there are always dictators borne of smallness: Pol Pot and Hitler and Napoleon and Ozymandias. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” they say, but the lone and level sand stretches far away. That’s what our German survivor knows. Loki knows it, too. The loser.
All the best battles take place in New York
Plot. What we used to call the cosmic cube, but is now apparently called “The Tesseract,” is being used by S.H.I.E.L.D. in a lab to create weapons of mass destruction. Then it starts operating independently. Loki arrives, takes out half a dozen agents, and makes several, including a bow-and-arrow assassin called the Hawk (Jeremy Renner), who used to be called Hawkeye, and the scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), do his bidding, literally glassy-eyed. Time for the Avengers initiative.
But what do they really have in the beginning? Iron Man and Captain America and Black Widow and the Hawk ... with the Hawk on the wrong side for much of the movie. The two strongest members of the Avengers are accidents. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) arrives because of Loki and Hulk arrives because of Bruce Banner’s big brain. Is this a false note? Or is the assembling of the Avengers team like what directors call the movies themselves? A series of happy accidents.
The Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) gets the best intro. Tied to a chair somewhere in Russia, being interrogated by three leering men, being watched by millions more. Except, of course, she’s doing the interrogating. She’s not giving, she’s extracting. This becomes apparent when she gets a call from Agent Coulson. She almost rolls her eyes, then takes down these guys 1, 2, 3. The twiddling-the-thumbs look Coulson has on the phone as he waits for her to take care of business evoked laughter. Clark Gregg will be missed.
S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t very smart with Captain America (Chris Evans), is it? The man’s frozen for 65 years and they have him working out with heavy bags rather than, you know, learning the last 65 years of history and technology. Puny Steve Rogers wasn’t a dim bulb, after all. He had smarts. But it sets up the most interesting of the potential sequels: Captain America, coming up to speed; trapped in a world he never made.
The intro of Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is peppy and witty, and contains a cameo from Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). It’s also relevant. Tony Stark, former weapons manufacturer, working now with clean energy, lights up the new Stark Industries building in midtown Manhattan with an arc reactor. “Like Christmas but with me,” he says of the STARK building. And that’s where Loki and Selvig, needing a strong energy source, will set up their Tesseract-created portal to allow an invading Chitauri army to enter our realm. Which is why the battle takes place in midtown Manhattan, which is where we want it. In the Marvel Age of Comics, all the best battles took place in New York.
Mark Ruffalo is the third man in a decade to play Bruce Banner, and I like what he brings. There’s a halting intelligence that meshes well with Robert Downey’s frenetic intelligence. He also knows he’s the biggest implied threat in the world. Mess with him and you mess with “the other guy,” as he calls the Hulk. He can’t be threatened.
Initially I assumed the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier was simply a cool transportation device but it’s really the setting where much of the action in the movie takes place. There, members of the Avengers bicker, and we get a few actual fistfights (Thor vs. Iron Man), but there’s also bonding (Stark, Banner). Much of the bickering is the result of Loki’s staff, no, which is stored in the lab, and is somehow bringing out the worst in everybody. At the same time, this kind of bickering/making up is not only classically Marvel but the movie’s theme. In times of peace, we bicker. In times of crises, we bond into a functioning team. You could say it’s the vision America has of itself. It may even be true.
Our imaginations onscreen
Let me add this about the battle royale finale: If someone had shown me these scenes in 1974, when I was 11 and collecting comic books, and relying on Saturday-morning fare like “Shazam!” and Electric Company’s “Spidey’s Super Stories,” I probably would’ve wet my pants. I might’ve had a heart attack. At 11. This is stuff that’s never been seen before except in our imaginations. “The Avengers” is our imaginations onscreen.
So I went into “The Avengers” shrugging and left after two and a half hours feeling giddy and high. The question with Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” isn’t whether it’s good; it’s whether it’s the best superhero movie ever made. Many will argue “Dark Knight” but I say, as I’ve always said, Make Mine Marvel.
Stan 'the Man' Lee, who made mine Marvel, at the premiere of “The Avengers” (2012).
The Mariano Rivera Posts
Tyler Kepner in The New York Times is right. We're not used to seeing Mariano Rivera near the warning track. We're not used to seeing him in Kansas City. We're used to seeing him on the mound, mowing them down (or maybe Mo-ing them down), en route to another goddamned Yankees victory in another goddamned post-season. Any time you could beat him it was a story. Any time you could beat him in the World Series, it was one of the greatest World Series games ever played.
But yesterday his knee buckled shagging flies in Kansas City. Torn ACL. Out for the year and possibly the career.
Everyone knows I hate the Yankees but I've usually written about Rivera with admiration. I've reminded baseball fans, and even writers at The New York Times, that he is even better than we realize. I was there for his 600th save, too, at Safeco Field, with Ichiro Babe-Ruthing the final out. I posted the video. Don't expect Spielberg.
Rivera has 608 career saves now. I expected about 30 more.
He wound up with 42 career post-season saves. He's the last man to wear #42. He's 42. Someone call Douglas Adams.
Here are my Mariano Rivera posts. We won't see his like again. If we do, may he be wearing a different uniform:
- Dave Anderson of The New York Times suggests Mariano Rivera is honored by holding the all-time saves record. I suggest the all-time saves record is honored because it now belongs to Mariano Rivera.
- That 600th careeer save, with video.
- If Rivera retires, we'll have new active leaders in the following pitching categories: Games, Saves, WHIP, ERA, Adjusted ERA. In Saves and Adjusted ERA, Rivera is first all-time. WHIP, he's second.
- Is it overkill, possibly downright cruel, to bring in Rivera to face a team with a 16-game losing streak?
- What modern-day pitcher has a career ERA close to Rivera's? None. Who is close to him? Just dead-ball pitchers and Walter Johnson.
- Why Rivera is always his team's World Series MVP.
- Which batter could hit Rivera like no one else? Hint: He's not in the Hall of Fame.
- The NYT offers up video of Mo's cutter.
- From 2009: “10 earned runs in 125 1/3 innings pitched in the post-season.”
- Is this the last legitimate #42 we see in Major League Baseball history?
The post-season numbers: 141 IP, 110 Ks, 21 BBs, 86 hits, 42 saves, 8-1 record, 0.70 ERA.
Movie Review: Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
“Monsieur Lazhar,” a nominee for best foreign-language film at the most recent Academy Awards, is such a gentle film, and so evocative of childhood, that I began to think it was set during my childhood. This evocation is particularly true of throwaway shots: the winter streets of Montreal at twilight; teenage boys play hockey at night under the lights. At the same time, I grew up 40 years ago. Is Canada still so innocent? Do the kids not need locks on their lockers? Do they get pint milk cartons after recess? Do they have recess? Do American kids?
The movie begins with a shock. At an elementary school in Montreal, Alice (Sophie Nélisse) reminds Simon (Émilien Néron) during recess, “Isn’t it your turn for the milk?” We don’t know what that is yet, “the milk,” but writer-director Philippe Falardeau is precise in his details: Simon, on his way, knocking the hat off a fat schoolmate, being chastised by another teacher but pleading “the milk” and allowed to continue; loading up a plastic milk crate with pint-sized containers from a small refrigerator and carrying the thing clumsily to his locker, where he removes hat, jacket, scarf, mittens, picks up the crate again, balances it with one arm as he tries to enter the classroom, and finds the door locked. He looks in, cupping his hand over his eye, then stumbles back in shock, dropping everything. In the classroom, his teacher, Martine Lachance (Héléna Laliberté), is hanging from a rope. Dead.
Other teachers scamper to herd the kids back outside before they glimpse what Simon glimpsed (one, Alice, gets through), which, it turns out, is what they do for much of the rest of the movie: attempt to hide the fact of death and suicide from the kids. One of the first administrative acts is indicative: they paint the walls of the classroom from dull yellow to dull gray. It’s a thin, unwelcome veneer.
Into the post-suicide chaos, the title character, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), arrives. He’s Algerian, taught in Algeria for 19 years, and brings a gentle but old-school spirit to the classroom. The desks are in a semicircle? He puts them in regimented rows. Dictation lessons? Here’s Balzac. He chastises Simon for taking his photo without permission, then slaps him upside the head for insulting another student. When informed that touching the students, let alone hitting them, isn’t allowed, he lies about hitting Simon.
Montreal le slush
Most teachers in these types of movies are human but heroic. Think Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society,” Morgan Freeman in “Lean On Me,” Meryl Streep and Michelle Pfeiffer and Edward James Olmos in their various films. Think confrontation scenes and uplifting, swelling music. Monsieur Lazhar is human but a fake. In Algeria, he was a civil servant and restaurateur, not a teacher. His wife taught. She also wrote a progressive book that was condemned by Islamic authorities and the family had to flee. Bachir preceded them to Canada. The night before his wife and kids were to join him, they died in a fire. Arson suspected.
Bachir isn’t even a citizen. He’s struggling to stay in the country as a political refugee, but the government has doubts about his story. It thinks Algeria is back to normal now. “Algeria is never completely normal,” Bachir responds, quiet and perplexed.
Lazhar may be a fake teacher but he’s genuine. He’s fussy and a little nervous. He’s scrupulous in manner. He wants the kids to learn. He has nightmares that, because he didn’t do his job correctly, they’ll become grown-ups but speak as children. That could describe our entire culture, by the way.
He plays favorites. Alice, adorable, looking a bit like Anna Chlumsky 20 years ago, is smart and curious. She looks up Algeria online and thinks it’s beautiful: all white and blue. He tells her it’s called Alger la blanche. She dismisses her city thus, Montreal le slush, but he tells how he was stunned by its greenness when he first arrived. When Alice’s mother, an airline pilot, shows up, he admits Alice is his favorite.
He also wishes to confront, rather than cover up, the tragedy that began the film. In this way he butts heads with worried administrators and reticent parents, but, again, this is not a Hollywood wish-fulfillment story. The administrators, led by Ms. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), as well as the other teachers, aren’t bad folks. They’re overworked, underpaid, understaffed. They’re like all of us, mixed bags, and our opinion on them keeps shifting. One of Lazhar’s fellow teachers, the enthusiastic and attractive Claire (Brigette Poupart), is actually kind of annoying, and thinks too highly of her African travels, while the macho gym teacher, who warns Lazhar that they live in a “woman-curacy,” and whom the students dismiss as someone who probably can’t even read, has some nice lines on the difficulty of teaching kids the pummel horse without touching them. “We now treat kids like they’re radioactive waste,” he says.
More to the point, Bachir doesn’t win. In the clash with a sensitive modern culture, it’s not even a contest. There are no “Captain, my captain” moments, no marches down to the jail cell, no final victories as the music swells. In his class, by chance, he gets the kids to open up about their former teacher’s death, which helps two of them: Simon, who blamed himself for the suicide, and Alice, who blamed Simon. “Don't try to find a meaning in Martine's death,” he tells the students. “There isn't one.”
The Tree and the Chrysalis
But for this act he’s investigated, his past is discovered, and he’s fired. He pleads to stay the rest of the day, to say good-bye to the kids. Oddly, we don’t see this good-bye. The class is studying fables, and they’re all supposed to write their own, including Bachir. We see him read his to the class. You could call it “The Tree and the Chrysalis.” Earlier in the year he taught them that word, “chrysalis,” whose metaphoric overtones for 11- and 12-year-old kids are obvious. “Commes vous,” he says of the stage between caterpillar and butterfly.
In his fable, things don’t go well. The tree tries to protect the chrysalis, but a storm and a fire damages it. The butterfly that emerges isn’t the same.
The movie ends well by ending quietly. While in voiceover we hear Bachir complete his fable, we watch Alice, on his last day, get her things from her locker, then return to the classroom. She’s obviously distraught, losing her favorite teacher, and displays a kind of abject vulnerability by dropping all her things. He hugs her. The fable he tells is sad, the various tragedies of life are sad, but the true sadness of the film is this. It’s in every step we take that leaves more behind. It’s in all of our good-byes. The film offers no uplift, no final victory. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau knows we don’t need swelling music to make our hearts swell.
Essential Freud by Badcock, and Other Stories
All of the textbook/author combos below are legitimate. They were culled from my days in the 1990s working in the textbook department at University Book Store in Seattle, Wash.
- Essential Freud by Christopher Badcock
- Organization Theory and Design by Robert Daft
- Basic Human Genetics by Mange and Mange
- Immigrant Voices by Thomas Dublin
- Introduction to Advertising and Promotion by Belch and Belch
- The Psychology of Blacks by Joseph L. White
- Microeconomics by Robert Pindyck
Apologies for all the dick jokes but Essential Freud would understand.
Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong, Accountable to No One (Or How the Seattle Mariners Became Soylent Green)
I've been reading Jon Wells' “Shipwrecked: A People's History of the Seattle Mariners” and having trouble not throwing the book across the room. It keeps reminding me of all the golden opportunities the M's front office have wasted over the years.
Has any team had more talent than that 1995-1997 Mariners yet never made it to the World Series? We had the best player in baseball (Ken Griffey, Jr.), the best power pitcher in baseball (Randy Johnson), one of the greatest shortstops of all time (Alex Rodriguez). Throw in a batting champion like Edgar Martinez, a 40-HR/120-RBI man like Jay Buhner, and your various Tino Martinezes, Dan Wilsons, Jeff Nelsons and Jamie Moyerses. The underachievement is stunning.
But it gets worse in the 2000s.
The following is a chart of average attendance at Mariners games at Safeco Field since 2001:
You'd think if you ran an organization that lost more than half of its customers in a 10-year span you'd lose your job. Certainly Mariners' managers and general managers have come and gone during this period. But the main guys, the guys who are really running the show, M's CEO Howard Lincoln and M's president Chuck Armstrong, keep on keeping on. They occasionally pepper the local news with their idiotic comments but they never lose their jobs.
How is that possible?
Well, as M's fans know, the majority owner of the Seattle Mariners baseball club, Nintendo's Hiroshi Yamauchi, is the ultimate absentee owner. Even when the Mariners traveled to Japan this spring for two regular season games against the Oakland A's, he couldn't be bothered to make it to the park. To this day, he's never seen his team play.
Yet you'd think he'd notice the drop in gate receipts. The drop in profit. The drop in value.
And there's the rub. During the 10-year span that M's attendance has been cut in half, from an average of 43,709 in 2002 to an average of 20,654 so far in 2012, the value of the ballclub, according to Forbes magazine, has almost doubled: from $373 million in 2001 to $585 million in 2011.
How is that possible?
For one, revenue has steadily climbed while operating income has remained in the black:
|Revenue (in millions)||166||167||169||173||179||182||194||189||191||204||210|
source: Forbes Magazine
Of course, there's some dispute with these numbers. A few years back, Deadspin published the financial documents of several ballclubs, including the Seattle Mariners, and the numbers didn't quites match Forbes' numbers. (It makes one wonder where Forbes gets its numbers.)
Even so, in terms of revenue and operating income, at least in the Forbes version, the M's look like they have a good business model.
But if you look at operating income rank among MLB teams, of which there are 30, the picture isn't so rosy:
|Op. Inc. MLB Rank||9||1||1||10||23||9||23||27||22||23||
source: Forbes Magazine
The Mariners used to turn the greatest profit in the game. Now we're near the bottom. It's like the attendance figures above.
At the same time, the M's value as a ballclub is never near the bottom among MLB teams. Even during these dog days—and man have they been dog days—the rank of the team's value has stayed fair to middling:
source: Forbes Magazine
In my research, I came across a good 2010 piece on Marinercentral.com, in which the unnamed author pulled together much of the same information I was pulling together, and he asked some of the same questions I was asking. His conclusion? The M's don't have competition. They run a monopoly in the Pacific Northwest. The geographic isolation of the Seattle Mariners has always been a pain to its players, who have to travel farther and more often just to get a game going, but it's a boon for guys like Lincoln and Armstrong who don't have to worry about a decent product on the field, since, for MLB fans in the Pacific Northwest, there's only one product: your Seattle Mariners. It's doesn't matter that lately the Mariners have become the baseball equivalent of soylent green—the only food available to futuristic denizens in the infamously bad 1973 sci-fi film of the same name. To Lincoln and Armstrong, it's still green.
Our MarinerCenteral writer writes, of towns in Idaho and Montana, Alaska and Oregon:
If we add those markets together in conjunction with the Seattle-Tacoma market, that gives us a total of 4,468,210 homes – which easily vaults the media market in to which the Mariners broadcast firmly into the top 3 or 4 in the country!!
Then he reminds us how well the M's, with Ichiro on board, do in Japan:
...in 2004 they also enjoyed revenues from a half-dozen Japanese firms who bought advertisement at Safeco with the idea of marketing to Japanese audiences watching Mariner games. That article in the Seattle Business Journal quoted Howard Lincoln as saying, “If there was no Ichiro, there would be no broadcast of games back to Japan, and none of these companies would be interested in Safeco Field.”
All of this goes a long way toward explaining why Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong still have jobs. Yes, they've taken a once promising franchise and turned it into a joke: a franchise first in attendance that is now second-to-last; a franchise first in operating income that is now near the bottom; a team that used to be feared but is now ... not. But that team is never in the red, the overall value of the club has gone up (as the value of all clubs have gone up), and its value-ranking among MLB teams is buoyed by its isolation in the Pacific Northwest.
Smarter baseball men running the show, and paying attention to the product on the field, might have widened the revenue streams rather than narrowed them by half, as Lincoln and Armstrong have done. But Hiroshi Yamauchi doesn't seem to care about this. He doesn't seem to care about the quality of the product. He doesn't seem to care that we, and he, have lost face in Major League Baseball.
At some point it's going to matter. At some point the loss of the local fanbase will be too great to be compensated by other revenue streams. At some point, Lincoln and Armstrong, and maybe even Yamauchi, will realize that soylent green isn't just green; it's people.
What Lincoln and Armstrong have wrought: the crowd at Safeco Field on April 15, 2012, five minutes before gametime. (Photo via Darren Rovell on Twitter.)
Quote of the Day
“The New York Yankees have their own cologne. It's made from the most expensive ingredients of all the competing colognes.”
Avengers Movies: Assembled!
Marvel Comics, under Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, was the first comic book company to include a sense of continuity between issues and titles. Its heroes all lived in the same universe, and often in the same city, New York City, which wasn't named Metropolis or Gotham but was named, you know, New York City. It was peopled by folks like you and me. Stan and Jack even made guest appearances.
Marvel Studios is now the first studio to include a sense of continuity between movies and franchises, and “The Avengers,” out in the U.S. on Friday, and already out in more than 39 countries abroad, is the culmination of this experiment. It's been hinted at for four years, since May 2008, when, after the credits of “Iron Man,” Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), showed up at Tony Stark's beachfront mansion to tell him, “We're putting together a team.” Nick, along with Phil Coulson, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Clark Gregg), made subsequent appearances in: “The Incredible Hulk” (2008), “Iron Man 2” (2010), “Thor” (2011), and “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011). Black Widow showed up in “Iron Man 2,” Hawkeye in “Thor.” Hulks, or Bruce Banners, have been swapped for a third time in a decade. We're good to go.
Caveat: Thus far, only one of the Avengers movies, “Iron Man,” has been a first-tier superhero film. “Captain America” is good but has a weak ending and nothing like Robert Downey Jr.'s driving force. It feels like careful prologue, which it is, to this. “The Incredible Hulk” is like its hero: starts smart and small, ends big and dumb. “Iron Man 2” suffers in comparison to the first but it's better than fanboys remember, while “Thor” is saddled with the dull lumps of Odin and Asgard.
Supposedly “The Avengers” rocks. It's certainly rocking the international box office. In the meantime—before Friday, that is—here are the individual Avengers movies, assembled and ranked:
- “Iron Man” (2008): In “Iron Man,” we learn that one man can make a difference. No, not Iron Man. I’m talking Robert Downey, Jr., who turns one of the most boring Marvel superheroes into one of its most engaging. That frenetic, super-intelligent quality Downey had way back in 1987’s “The Pick-Up Artist”—mouth unable to keep up with mind—has, by this film, been disciplined and tempered. He’s less wild-eyed. There’s a stillness to him as he talks to and over people. His lines are free of bullshit and niceties. “Give me a scotch,” he tells a bartender, “I’m starving.” Iron Man flies rings around people but it’s not nearly as fun as watching Tony Stark talk rings around people. “Iron Man” is a superhero movie, and thus wish fulfillment, but, for me, the wish fulfillment is less the power of Iron Man than the quick wit of Tony Stark. What I wouldn’t give.
- “Captain America” (2011) Who is Steve Rogers and why did they choose him for this all-important experiment? Why him? The question that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby didn’t care about in 1941 is the question that’s central to “Captain America.” Dr. Erskine is a German scientist, Jewish one assumes, who developed a prototype of the super-soldier serum back in Germany but was forced to use it on a bully, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who is turned into the Red Skull. Erskine realizes that the serum not only makes a man stronger but amplifies what’s inside him. A bully becomes a megalomaniac. A weak man like Steve Rogers? “A weak man,” he tells Steve,” knows the value of strength, the value of power.” I could raise an objection here, and did so, silently, in the theater. I thought of a line from college: “The worst taskmasters are former slaves.” I thought of myself, a skinny Steve Rogers-type most of my childhood, and of my many subsequent resentments. Did Steve have none? Was he that good? Let’s face it: the real reason Steve Rogers is a small, skinny kid is because that was the comic-book-buying demographic in 1941, and those kids wished to thrill—a la Shazam—at the magical transformation from meek to masterful.
- “Iron Man 2” (2010): Can I pause here to thank Darren Aronofsky? Without Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” Mickey Rourke’s career wouldn’t have been resurrected enough for studio execs to allow him to play an A-list role in an A-list movie, and he’s a perfect counterpoint to the star. Stark/Downey, Jr. is a babbler, whose mouth, working overtime, still can’t keep up with his mind. Rourke/Vanko is the opposite. Everything he does is slow. He walks slowly, talks slowly, shifts his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other slowly. He serves his revenge cold. If Stark’s pace is the result of frenetic intelligence—one thought pushing out another—Vanko’s leisurely pace almost feels like wisdom. When Stark visits Vanko in his Monte Carlo jail cell, he talks shop, “Pretty decent tech,” etc., but Vanko has the bigger picture in mind. “You come from a family of thieves and butchers,” he says, with that deliciously thick Russian accent. “And like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your history, to forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed.” This is exactly what you want in a villain. Not someone to boo and hiss, but somebody almost more admirable than the hero. Someone to make you consider switching sides.
- “The Incredible Hulk” (2008): Its trajectory is its hero’s trajectory. It starts out very, very smart, like Bruce Banner, and winds up kinda dumb, like the Hulk. The origin of the Hulk is rebooted in the credit sequence. 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. 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 before slapping him. We’ve just seen 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 nice echo. Days without incident? 158.
- “Thor” (2011): Thor, easily manipulated by the ear-whisperings of Loki, takes four friends to Yodenheim to battle the Frost Giants. Odin may counsel against war but it’s what we in the audience want. It’s actually a helluva battle, and the filmmakers make good imaginative 3-D use of Thor and his hammer, Mjöllnir, as the throws it, whirls it, creates shock waves around the planet with it. But the incident sets Odin off, and he strips his son of his powers and banishes him to Earth ... where he runs into Jane Foster, or she into him. (Side thoughts: Early on, Asgard is described as “a beacon of hope” ... but to whom? Themselves? And if they’re so enlightened, why rule by royalty? Are we doing it wrong here in America? Finally, how exactly does a father strip his son of powers? Is it an Asgardian thing? A Scandinavian thing? As a Lundegaard, should I be worried?)
To be honest, #s 2, 3 and 4 are pretty close, and if you made a good argument to move up one or the other I'd probably buy it. In fact, I'm leaning towards putting the two “Iron Man” movies at the top. “Thor” can't get past Asgard. (Plus we lose Natalie.) “Iron Man” is easily the best of the bunch: smart, surprising and energetic.
Here's hoping for smart, surprising and energetic on Friday. Excelsior.
It's 2012, they can create the Hulk out of thin air, but they still can't get Captain America's mask right.