erik lundegaard

Monday December 31, 2012

2012

final sunset of 2012 from Evan's office

The final sunset of 2012 over Puget Sound, as viewed from Evan's office in lower Queen Anne. I'd say “Auf wiedersehen” to the year but I've just seen "Django Unchained' and know better.

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Posted at 10:39 PM on Dec 31, 2012 in category General
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The Top 50 Viral Videos of 2012 (Or: My Increasing Separation from My Culture)

This was posted earlier today on Andrew Sullivan's site:

Of these, I've seen:

  • #47: Fishing for Sharks
  • #45: Duck Run (should be higher)
  • #42: Man Has Conversation with 12-Year-Old Self
  • #25 Dad Catches Foul Ball While Holding Daughter
  • #17 Michelle Jenneke Warm-Up Dance 
  • #11 Isaac's Live Lip-Dub Proposal
  • #1 Gangam Style (of course)

About 1/7 of them. Appropriate that I've seen more in the 40s since that's me: 49. But seriously? Only one from 1-10? And what the hell is a Nicole Westbrook? 13 million views for that thing? And are these things ranked by views?

My favorite of the bunch is Isaac's Live Lip-Dub Proposal. By far. It's a beautiful thing. Here's the full monty:

Two things:

I couldn't believe this was from earlier this year. Seemed ages ago. I guess it was in Internet years, which are like dog years. Bang zoom.

Like everyone, I tear up watching this. All the work what went into it. The community atmosphere. The lady in red, who seems both lead dancer and choreographer. But mostly it's the joy and disbelief and love on the girl's face. Generally you see the work that went into something like this and think, “She better be worth it.” But here you see her reaction and you know: She is.

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Posted at 05:23 PM on Dec 31, 2012 in category Movies
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Which Baseball Player Does Jerry Seinfeld Relate To?

“This is the guy I relate to more than any athlete. His precision, incredible precision. Look at his body type — he’s made the most of what he has. He’s the hardest guy to get out. He’s fast. And he’s old.”

-- Jerry Seinfeld on Ichiro Suzuki in the article, “Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up,” in The New York Times Magazine, Dec. 20, 2012

Ichiro Suzuki tugs on this sleeve during an at-bat with the Seattle Mariners

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Posted at 01:35 PM on Dec 31, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Lt. Soledad O'Brien, Star Fleet Communications Officer

Like most anyone interested in hard news and tired of the false equivalencies of the mainstream media—the confusion of objectivity with stupidity—I enjoyed a few of Soledad O'Brien's interviews this past year. Ones with John Sununu and Rudy Giuliani, for example. Plus she's got a great name and she's not hard on the eyes. Maybe that should be her slogan: “Hard news. Not hard on the eyes.”

Anyway the other day I was finally looking through last week's New York Times Magazine, the one with Jerry Seinfeld on the cover, and out of the corner of my eye, on their short Q&A page, I caught a glimpse of ... was it a superhero? Someone in a Star Trek outfit?

It was Soledad. Wearing the day-to-day.

It's interesting comparing her outfit to a Star Trek outfit. Even a Star Trek Barbie outfit.

Lt. Soledad O'Brien, Star Fleet Communications Officer

Beam me up, Scottie.

Good Q&A, too. Been a long time since I've heard anyone use the word “mulatto,” tragic or otherwise.

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Posted at 06:54 AM on Dec 31, 2012 in category Photo of the Day
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Sunday December 30, 2012

Jordy's Reviews: Les Miserables (2012)

What have I done? Though I'm master of the house, and on my own, and reviewed “Les Misérables” a few days ago, my nephew Jordy, 11, with a heart full of love, keeps us talking about the movie for one day more...

“Les Miserables” (Les Mis) means so much to me. It was the first play I was in, and got me interested in theater. I came into this movie with very high expectations. If I didn’t like the movie, I would not only be sad, I would be mad at Tom Hooper, the director, for not doing Les Mis proper justice. So did I like it? I loved it. It’s my favorite movie of 2012.

Les Miserables: both film and play postersIt is a compelling story. The story is about a man named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who steals a loaf of bread to save his sister’s child from death, and suffers 19 years of punishment for it. After he gets out, he continues stealing, but a kind Bishop saves him. He decides to live by the law, and spends the rest of his life doing good deeds. The movie manages to tell it a little bit better than the play, with some things that confused me in the play being absent here.

When you go to this movie, bring Kleenex, because you’ll probably cry. I cried 6 times throughout the 157-minute movie, and the people that I came with all cried at least once. It is a very emotional movie, and mostly because of the amazing acting from the great cast. Everyone shines, although Anne Hathaway as Fantine does the most, even with her short role. Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried-- everyone. They’re all great. They are also great singers.

The movie has some great camerawork, too. You’ll see mountains, barricades, and streets. The movie is also different enough from the play in that it feels a little bit original, with some songs put in different places, and an original song, “Suddenly,” which is also great. Some of the best songs from the play aren’t as good here (Except for “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables,” which was just as good as the play and made me cry), but it’s not really a criticism of the movie, more that the songs didn’t work as well as they did in the play. However, the songs that were good in the play, but not amazing were better here, like “A Heart Full of Love,” the love song of Cosette and Marius, Fantine’s blockbuster, “I Dreamed a Dream,” and some others.

The Thenardiers  (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) deserve their own section. They have all the funny bits in the play, and are just as funny as they are in the play. The scene in which they sing and rob people of their money is hilarious. In a movie full of misery, they are the comic relief.

Overall, the movie is amazing. I didn’t have a single problem with it. Maybe that’s because I was already familiar with the play, but it probably is because of the fantastic acting, emotional story, and a whole lot of other things that make this movie perfect to me. This IS the best movie of 2012. Cheers, Tom Hooper. You’ve made a masterpiece.

100%

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Posted at 10:09 AM on Dec 30, 2012 in category Jordy's Reviews
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The Return of the Disagreeables: Disagreeable No More!

The New York Times "T"he Disagreeables are back, and this time they're more agreeable!

Three years ago, the three film critics for The New York Times—A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis and Stephen Holden—told the world, a few weeks before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did, what “the nominees should be...” There were 45 possible choices and all three agreed on just four. I think Congress does better than that. (Three of their four, all “Hurt Locker” related, would win Oscars.)

Two years ago, they were more agreeable, seven of the 45, and two would go on to win Oscars: Natalie Portman for best actress and Christian Bale for supporting actor.

They shrunk the best picture category from 10 to five last year and agreed on only 3.5 of the 40 possible nominees: adapated for “Moneyball”; and screenplay and director for “A Dangerous Method.” The half was for Brad Pitt, whom all three agreed on for different pics: “Moneyball” or “The Tree of Life,” depending. None of their 3.5 won squat. “A Dangerous Method” wasn't even nom'ed. 

I don't know if it's a good or bad sign for the movie year that our disagreeables are so agreeable this year. Of the 40, all three agree on a record 14 nominees:

  • Best Picture: “Amour” and “Zero Dark Thirty”
  • Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”) and Michael Haneke (“Amour”)
  • Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master”), Jean-Louis Trintignant (“Amour”) and Denzel Washington (“Flight”)
  • Best Actress: Emmanuelle Riva (“Amour”)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman (“The Master”) and Tommy Lee Jones (“Lincoln”)
  • Best Supporting Actress: Amy Adams (“The Master”)
  • Best Original Screenplay: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola (“Moonrise Kingdom”) and Michael Haneke (“Amour”)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”)

Most of the agreement this year stems from two movies, “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Amour,” neither of which has opened for anyone not in an abbreviated city: N.Y. or L.A. So it goes. The movies with critical buzz keep opening later and the Oscar nominations keep getting announced earlier. The official noms are now just 10 days away by Nathaniel's clock. One day the Academy will announce and we'll all go, “Huh?” Or *yawn*.

Manohla was the one who withheld most of the “Lincoln” love: no best picture nom, nothing for Kushner, and either Jack Black (“Bernie”) or Denis Lavant (“Holy Motors”) over Daniel Day-Lewis.  Yet somehow she found all this love for “Silver Linings Playbook.” I think some critics get caught up in auteur love—witnesss the agreement last year on the less-than-dangerous “A Dangerous Method”—and no amount of logic or argument will stand in the way.

Supporting tends to be where the good surprise nominees come in. I like A.O. Scott's nom of Charlize Theron for “Snow White and the Huntsman,” for example. But the most contrarian nomination has to go to Manohla (of course) for the voicework of Hugh Grant in “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.”

So all that agreement—good or bad? Probably because I feel this way already, I think it's a bad sign that the Disagreeables are so agreeable this year. It indicates that there's not many great 2012 movies from which to choose. They agreed, in the end, because that had nowhere else to go.

The Disagreeables: A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis, Stephen Holden

The Disagreeables: Scott, Holden, and the mysterious, unphotographable Dargis.

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Posted at 08:56 AM on Dec 30, 2012 in category Movies - 2012 Oscars
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Saturday December 29, 2012

Quote of the Day

“In a new bit, [Jerry] Seinfeld likens a man to a balloon. At the outset of a romantic relationship, the balloon is buoyant and beautiful and 'the woman holds on tight' for fear he’ll fly away. Flash forward, and the balloon’s doddering around, off in a corner somewhere, low to the floor, pathetically unable to 'even lift up its own string.'”

-- from Jonah Weiner's New York Times Magazine piece, “Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up,” from Dec. 20, 2012. I just got around to reading it. It's worth it. The above joke is a good harbinger of both the end of the year, which is upon us, and next month, during which I'll turn 50.

Jerry Seinfeld explains the Pop Tart joke

Jerry Seinfeld explains the Pop Tart joke on the New York Times site.

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Posted at 03:22 PM on Dec 29, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: This is 40 (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I laughed a lot during “This is 40,” Judd Apatow’s comedy of middle-aged angst, but he needs to rein in his performers. Or himself. Too many times it felt like people were doing bits, for which they had commitment, for which their commitment to the bit was the whole point, rather than simply being characters in a story that was moving forward. As a result, the story didn’t move forward. It stalled. The movie clocked in at 134 minutes. You could watch “Annie Hall” in that time and still have 40 minutes left over for pizza.

poster of Judd Apatow's "This is 40" (2012)Here. At one point, Pete and Debbie’s daughter, 13-year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow), has a dust-up on Facebook with classmate Joseph (Ryan Lee), which Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) become aware of. Debbie subsequently runs into Joseph at the school when she’s having a bad day and lets him have it. She calls him a little hairless wonder, compares him to Tom Petty, says his hair looks like a Justin Bieber wig on backwards. Then she adds:

So next time you think about writing something nasty on my daughter’s Facebook page, just remember me. Remember me. I will come down here, and I will fuck you up.

A few days later, when Pete is having a bad day, he runs into Joseph’s mom, Catherine (Melissa McCarthy), things escalate, and we wind up with this:

If he insults my daughter again, I’m going to hit him with my car. Got it? In fact, if you insult my wife again, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to show up at your house when you’re sleeping, and I’ll take your iPad and your iPod or your iMac and I’ll shove them up your fucking iCunt.

Eventually everyone is called into the principal’s office, where Pete and Debbie play dumb, or sweet, or innocent, or all three. Now it’s Catherine’s turn, or Melissa McCarthy’s, to push the envelope. She threatens Pete and Debbie:

I’d like to rear up and jackknife my legs and kick you both in the jaw with my foot bone.

She insults the principal:

Fuck you, Jill. You’re a horrible woman. This is why everybody hates you. This kind of shit. Ineffective. Bullshit hair. And I’m glad your husband died. Because you’re a fucking asshole. He probably killed himself.

As a result, Pete and Debbie get away with it, leave with smirks, and it momentarily draws them closer together. I like that idea, the awfulness of grown-ups, but none of it feels real. It feels like performers trying to outdo each other at a celebrity roast. It feels like comedians pushing the envelope.

During one of his denials, Pete says this: “That’s ridiculous. Who talks like that?”

People in Judd Apatow movies.

People like us
Let me add that it is a pleasure to see a movie about a couple who shares the same bathroom. They’re tired of each other. They know each other’s bad habits. She sneaks cigarettes, he cupcakes. She shaves off years, he hides bankruptcy woes. His father (Albert Brooks) keeps asking for money, her father (John Lithgow) is rich and distant.

It is a pleasure to see a movie where parents argue with their plugged-in children over screen time. Where they get rid of the Wi-Fi. Where they take away the iToys. Where Sadie, arguing with her father over her obsession with J.J. Abrams’ “Lost,” brings up his obsession with “Mad Men,” and how stupid that show is, which the father momentarily defends until he realizes how absurd the whole thing is and makes a frantic hand-washing gesture before ending the discussion.

A lot of it felt like life. But it felt like life as viewed through a privileged L.A. prism. Which it is.

Debbie is turning 40 and feels unattractive, but she’s only unattractive because she’s working next to Megan Fox, the real Megan Fox, who plays Desi, an employee in Debbie’s clothing boutique. That’s an L.A. problem. That’s a consequence of living in and working among stars in Hollywood. People like Fox don’t exist anywhere else. They may grow up in South Dakota or Minnesota or Tennessee but they all wind up in the movies and away from the rest of us. They turn two-dimensional. Anywhere outside of L.A., Leslie Mann at 40 is the hottest girl in town.

Every one of their complaints, in fact, their “real life” dilemmas, could be followed by a “fuck you” from the rest of us.

  • Debbie’s turning 40 and looks like Leslie Mann?
  • She’s stuck with a husband who looks like Paul Rudd? And who cheats on her with cupcakes?
  • They have financial woes but live in that house?
  • They have financial woes because he loaned $80,000 to his father?
  • They have financial woes because her boutique business, at which we rarely see her working, is only breaking even?
  • They have financial woes because in the middle of the global financial meltdown he left a well-paying job at Sony to start his own record label, at which he signed favorites from his youth, like Graham Parker, who never sell anymore, even though he knows that the entire music industry is going through the digital toilet? And we rarely see him even working at this place? Or breaking a sweat? Or going to clubs to check out new acts?

All together now: Fuck you.

Committed
Apatow calls this a sequel of sorts to “Knocked Up,” which grossed $148 million in 2007 ($171 million today), because Pete and Debbie showed up there as cautionary tale to Ben and Alison (Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl), and because a few other folks from that universe make it into this one. Not Alison and Ben. They’re referenced, but vaguely.

Instead we get the soft-talking Jason (Jason Segel), who is now a personal trainer, creating “Bodies by Jason,” and who soft-talks Megan Fox’s character into, we imagine, bed. There’s also Jodi (Charlyne Yi), who also works at the boutique, and who blames the missing $12K on Desi. Turns out she’s the thief. During the big reveal she gets to overcommit to her own bit. Another 30 seconds down the drain.

Despite these overcommitments, Apatow gets good performances from his actors. Both Mann and Rudd feel natural and effortless—although Rudd’s late-movie anger didn’t do it for me. Albert Brooks has most of the funny lines that feel like lines someone (someone funny) might actually say. Lena Dunham and Chris O’Dowd and Jason Segel do a lot with small moments. Even Megan Fox, now seemingly relegated to playing the hot, obtuse girl in middle-aged comedies (“Friends with Kids”), gets off some good line-readings. I was impressed.

I was also impressed with the acting of Apatow’s daughter, Maude, who totally seems like a semi-privileged, somewhat smart teenage girl here. This is her third movie. She played Sadie before in “Knocked Up” and Mable in “Funny People.” In each, her sister plays her sister, and her mother plays her mother, and all three are written and directed by her father, who always inserts a handsome dude into his role as husband and father: Rudd here, Eric Bana, whom the “Knocked Up” boys talk up as the great Jewish hero of “Munich,” in “Funny People.” It’s got to be a joke around the Apatow household. Who do we get next time, dear? Hell, it might make a good idea for a screenplay.

Again, I laughed out loud at “This is 40.” It’s a movie that tries to cut through the shit. But Apatow overindulges. He needs greater commitment to his characters and less to their bits.

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Posted at 10:17 AM on Dec 29, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Friday December 28, 2012

Quote of the Day

I don't agree with all of Nathaniel Rogers' annual lumps of coal in this post from a few days ago. He has five items listed on his “Most Overrated Anything” list, and I'd  argue that Amy Adams was hardly what was wrong with “The Master,” while “Life of Pi” was a more fascinating movie than he lets on. But yes to “Silver Linings Playbook.” At one point during that movie I did something I've never done at the theater before: I got out my iPhone and checked my email. Don't worry, I was in the last row! No one around me! Even so. Takes a lot for me to do that. Although my threshold keeps getting lower.

The quote of the day, though, is for No. 4 on Nat's list: film critics. We actually kind of disagree on this, too, since he thinks they're shirking their advocacy duties while I think the biggest way they fucked up was allowing others, namely pundits, to point out the main moral issues, or shortcomings, with “Zero Dark Thirty,” after a month of nothing but adulation from critics. That still pisses me off. If, in fact, the pundits are correct. I'll finally get to see the movie next week. 

But we agree here:

It's not helping, I don't think, that the online conversation is increasingly oroborus-insular and consensus-premature since movies are withheld from public view too long and by the time the conversation has opened up critics have tired of playing with them, like cats who've grown bored with their own tails or a dead mouse.

My real complaint, of course, is with the studios and distributors, who hold the best movies until the end of the year, then force-feed them to us at Christmastime.

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Posted at 04:11 PM on Dec 28, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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'Previously on The Hobbit...'

A friend of mine who usually writes of loftier matters has written a short review of “The Hobbit.” He's obviously a fan of Tolkien but not so much of Peter Jackson's new movie. Even so, this is the last line:

Let’s hope Jackson regains his footing in the next installment.

It made me think of this.

When we went to “Star Wars” in 1977, we went to see a movie. The movie began and it ended. It felt whole, and even gave us a symbol for wholeness: the Force.

When we went to “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980, we were given a movie that was to be continued. I was actually shocked when I saw it in the theater. That's it? “To be continued” on TV meant next week; “to be continued” in a galaxy far, far away meant three years. Whenever anyone says “The Empire Strikes Back” was the best of the “Star Wars” movies, I generally respond, when I care enough to respond, “So how did you like the ending?”

When we went to see “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” in 2001, we knew we were going to see the first of a trilogy, based on a trilogy of books. That may be part of why it never interested me. I knew it would be continued. But at least it was based on a “To be continued” book.

“The Hobbit”? Based on a single book. But three movies. Because there's money in fragmentation.

We're not going to see movies anymore. We're going to see fragments of movies, fragments of narratives, that fit our fragmented times. Maybe we prefer it this way. Wholeness is so exhausting. Endings are so tyrannical. Fragments let us imagine any kind of escape from the narrative ... but hopefully an escape that leads us right back here, telling the same story, with a few variations. We want comfort and familiarity, with merely a chance of escape. We want to hear that story over again, Daddy.

screenshot of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (2012)

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Posted at 07:45 AM on Dec 28, 2012 in category Movies
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Thursday December 27, 2012

Roger Ebert Says 2012 is the Best Movie Year ... This Decade

Rogert Ebert posted this on Facebook this morning:

Roger Ebert's 10 best movies of 2012

The best year for movies this decade? You mean in three years? Isn't that like being the best-looking of the three stooges?

But I don't even agree with that, seeing, as I did, great things in movies in 2010 (“Un Prophete,” “Restrepo,” “The Social Network,” “True Grit,” “A Film Unfinished”) and 2011 (“The Tree of Life,” “Des hommes at des dieux,” “Young Adult,” “Moneyball,” “The Descendants”), but not so much this year. I think this has been a pretty lame year for movies, actually. I keep waiting to get stunned and it hasn't happened. I guess I don't know if it's me or the movies. Maybe Roger's right and I'm wrong. It's happened before.

I love that Roger included “End of Watch” among his top 10. Everyone is forgetting that one. And I suppose it won't be too difficult to find a top 10, particularly if I include documentaries and foreign films from 2011 that didn't get a U.S. release until 2012. But I'm not getting stunned at the movies this year. There are no movies like “L'heure d'ete” or “Un Prophete” or “The Tree of Life” where I think, “Let somebody beat that.”

Some come close:

  • “Argo,” if it had focused more deeply on the characters and less on the difficult-to-believe thrill of the chase.
  • “Lincoln,” if it hadn't tried to mythologize fore and aft.
  • “The Avengers,” if it had held up on second viewing and wasn't about, you know, superstrong people and space invaders and Norse gods.
  • “Les Misérables,” if it was truly interested in les misérables rather than love love love.
  • “Life of Pi,” if its two stories could collapse into each other better.
  • “The Master,” if it had created any kind of story with any kind of resonance.

But no clear knock-out. I'm reserving judgment on “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Amour” until they fucking arrive already.

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Posted at 02:26 PM on Dec 27, 2012 in category Movies - Lists
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Movie Review: Les Misérables (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I cried during Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which director Tom Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen filmed beautifully in a single shot, uncut, like in musicals of old, with a close-up on her face, her distraught face, singing live. The story of Fantine may be the most miserable part of “Les Misérables,” and Anne Hathaway breaks your heart in the telling. It’s the pinnacle of the movie, really, and the most representative moment of its themes, and it comes too early. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is full of anger and intensity, then guilt and fear, and he’s certainly beaten down by life, particularly in the beginning; but he’s not beaten down the way Fantine is beaten down. She loses her job, her child, her place, her hair, her teeth, her virtue and finally her life. She is the true symbol of les misérables. When you have nothing, the world still keeps taking what’s left.

That’s the problem I had with all the talk of revolution and “the people” in the second half of the film. Sure, the authority figure, Javert (Russell Crowe), is an unsympathetic, bootstraps type, who expects, and maybe even hopes for, recidivism out of every convict, since it reaffirms his narrow worldview. But the worst things that happen to Fantine and Jean Valjean result from the actions of other people. No wonder they don’t rise up on cue. They’re too busy pulling teeth from the poor and deflowering the destitute. Do I hear the people sing? Yes, and it’s not pretty.

"Les Miserables" poster“Les Misérables” is full of such mixed messages. Jean Valjean, after spending 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child, can’t get on his feet, and, despite his massive strength, he’s beaten down and resorts to stealing again. He’s taken in by a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson), fed, kept warm, and he responds by stealing silver. Of course he’s caught and brought back. But the Bishop lies for him. He says he gave him the silver. The Monsignor adds that in his haste Jean Valjean forgot the silver candlestick holders. Please take them, he says, and make a new life.

Jean Valjean does. The next time we see him, nine years later, he’s successful, a man of the world, respected, a mayor of a small town even. But what is he really? He’s the owner of a sweat shop that employs a foreman who sexually abuses his female employees and allows poor Fantine to be tossed out into the street. Surely not what the Bishop, let alone God, had in mind.

Love love love, money money money
Victor Hugo’s story is a bit of a jumble this way. It’s 19th-century storytelling. It sprawls. It contains an eight-year jump and a nine-year jump. The first third of the story belongs to Jean Valjean (one of the great names in literature), and then increasingly to others: Fantine for a time, then her daughter, Cosette, who becomes ward of Jean Valjean, and then to the revolutionaries, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tvelt), particularly the former, who becomes Cosette’s lover and eventually her husband. It starts out about the poor, becomes a tale of would-be revolution and sacrifice, and turns into a story about love and marrying up. It gives the people, which is us, what we want: mixed messages.

I haven’t read Victor Hugo’s novel. I’ve seen two film versions of the novel, both French: the classic version from 1934 starring Harry Baur; and a 1995 version starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and set during the first half of the 20th century. I’ve only seen parts of the musical. My nephew Jordy, then 9, was in an award-winning version put on by Southwest High School in Minneapolis, and I saw parts of the DVD of that show.

In other words, I’m not as steeped in the source material as some and I’ll leave it to them to grade Tom Hooper more eruditely for his version. But overall I was impressed. Hooper kept the story moving, gave us sweeping shots, overhead shots, many close-ups. There’s criticism for the close-ups, but why? It’s the human face. As John Ford said, it’s the most interesting thing that can be photographed.

Best of all, Hooper had his performers singing live, rather than to a studio-recorded playback, and that, to me, has made all the difference. There’s power in these songs, and from these actors, that you don’t normally get from lip-synching to playback. You definitely feel it in Hathaway’s signature song. You feel it in Hugh Jackman’s early numbers, too, with his red eyes burning into you (“What Have I Done?), and in Redmayne’s great song of survivor’s guilt, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which is my second-favorite number in the movie.

There’s been criticism of Crowe’s singing but I thought he was a perfect Javert: stolid, thick, relentless. If his numbers were stiff, well, Javert is stiff. Crowe’s major failing, for me, was in the final number, the suicide number, where you want greater emotion. You want to feel the reason he jumps. You don’t.

Really, all the actors impressed. Aaron Tvelt feels like he could be a budding star. Ditto Samantha Banks, owner of the world’s tiniest waist, as Éponine, the poor girl who loves the rich boy, Marius, but loses him to the would-be rich girl, the cosseted Cosette. In a smaller role, just a few lines, George Blagden as Grantaire impressed.

Prisoner 24601
Meanwhile, post-Fantine, Jean Valjean keeps doing the right thing. Another man is being tried as Jean Valjean? He admits his subterfuge and saves the man. Fantine has a child? He cares for her, keeps her from harm, and away from Thénardier and his wife (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). When he learns of the love between Cosette and Marius, he storms the barricades to save Marius. There, he also saves his enemy, Javert, then pulls Marius through the muck of the sewers of Paris to safety, only to be faced with Javert again. But he refuses to bend. He walks away. Unable to kill, Javert is left to kill himself for his true crime: lack of sympathy.

Valjean keeps doing the right thing, in other words, he keeps putting others before himself, and for his trouble he dies aged and alone. No, wait! Cosette and Marius show up on their wedding day. They’ve found him, and greet him with tears and joy and gratitude, and he is able to bask in this warmth at the moment of his death, where, in the afterlife, he is greeted by Fantine, cleaned up and happy. And among the living, as the music rises, we return to the barricades, and the waving flags, and the red and the black, as if this, revolution, were the lesson of Jean Valjean’s life. But it’s not. It’s not even close.

The lesson of Jean Valjean’s life is the lesson of Jesus: do the right thing and get crucified. The rest (resurrection, basking in Cosette’s warmth) is just prettying up around this story.

Sorry to be a pain in the ass. “Les Misérables” is worth seeing. It has moments of incredible power. I enjoyed it for most of its 158-minute runtime. Musicals are worth making. Please star Anne Hathaway in the next one, please.

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Posted at 11:24 AM on Dec 27, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Wednesday December 26, 2012

Movie Review: Barbara (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Barbara” is so quiet and hushed it’s as if the movie is afraid someone is listening. It is. It’s set in East Germany, 1980, and we don’t know whom to trust, and we wait for information that never comes. Our title character, Barbara (Nina Hoss), a Berlin doctor, now lives and works in a provincial town near the Baltic Sea because of something that attracted the attention of the Stasi, the secret police. She probably tried to escape but we never find out for sure. She’s not revealing much—to us or to the other people in the town. She’s a bit distant, a bit Deneuve. One of her patients tries to kill himself by jumping out a three-story window and the fear is he’ll lose his memory; but his memory turns out just fine. It’s his emotions that are lost. He feels nothing. One assumes he’s a symbol for the country.

That Catherine Deneuve reference isn’t tossed off lightly, by the way. Hoss is stunning, distant, sexy. I could watch her neck for hours, which I get to do here. I also wondered to what extent the film’s accolades owe to Hoss’s looks. Would we care as much about Barbara’s story if she were fat and dumpy, with dark, straggly hair? And would we agree with the ending if the West German lover she decided to abandon was the handsome bearded man with amused eyes (Ronald Zehrfeld) and the East German doctor she returned to was the bland company man with the receding hairline (Mark Waschke)? Just how shallow are we?

Separate, unequal
The movie begins with Barbara being jostled (on the bus) and then being watched (from the second-story window of the hospital) by two men, one Stasi, the other Barbara (2012), starring Nina Hossbearded with amused eyes, who turns out to be André, the chief of pediatric surgery at the hospital. It’s her first day but she’s smoking a cigarette on a bench outside the hospital. “She won’t be one second too early,” the officer says. “If she were 6, you’d say she was sulking.”

André tries to inculcate her into the hospital life but she trusts no one. The others think she’s stuck-up, Berlinish. “You shouldn’t be so separated,” André warns her, driving her home one day. But he fails to ask for directions to her place, which she picks up on. “You’re groomed,” she tells him. “And here’s where I separate.”

No one trusts anyone. The Stasi keep showing up, led by the bland, bored Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock), to turn her room and search her body cavities. The apartment manager, Mrs. Bungert (Rosa Enskat), is abrupt and suspicious and domineering and put-upon. At night, imperious and annoyed, she leads Barbara into the basement storage facilities, where Barbara finds a bicycle tire, flat, which she fixes in her bathtub. The bike gives her a degree of independence. It allows her to stay separate.

Where is she going? We have no idea. At this point we’re just following. She takes the bike to a train, and then walks to a restaurant. She asks for the restroom and spies, on the way, all the waitresses on their backs with their legs elevated against the wall. It looks absurd but they’re just fighting varicose veins. One of the waitresses then gives her a thick package, money it turns out, which Barbara hides in a gravestone near her apartment. The Stasi soon return to toss the place.

In this manner we piece together her plan to escape to West Germany, but many things escape us—or at least me. We’re supposed to know that her lover, Jörg (Waschke), is already in West Germany, but I didn’t. The have a rendezvous in the woods, with an official standing by his Mercedes, fending off the interests of a local. How did this come about? How does a West German schedule a rendezvous in East Germany? Money, I suppose. Money greases all wheels. But initially I didn’t pick up on this, so I mistook the local’s interest for mere nosiness. Maybe it was. Maybe he was less interested in a whiff of the freedom and riches of West Germany than in wondering how a bit of West Germany wound up so near his home.

Helping the dying
During this waiting period, Barbara draws closer to André. She demonstrates her medical prowess by correcting him on a meningitis case; then she demonstrated her well-hidden warmth by caring for a girl, Stella (Jasna Fritz Bauer), and reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to her by her bedside. Is André smitten or spying? He shows up at Barbara’s apartment, laments the poorly tuned piano she was requisitioned, sends her a tuner to fix it. During a night shift he lets her sleep, then wakes her with coffee. He tells her how he wound up there. A woman covering his shift in Berlin misread the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales on an incubator for premature babies. Pressure built up, the babies’ retinas became detached, they were blinded for life. This was the deal he was offered. She questions him about the incubator: the make and model. “Was my story too long?” he asks, sensing her skepticism. “Is the story true?” she asks later. Neither answers the other. Everything hangs heavy in the silence between these shorts bits of conversation.

But his small acts of kindness wear her down. She begins to trust him. She becomes attracted to him. When she searches for him in town, she finds Schütz of the Stasi there. Turns out he’s caring for Schütz’s wife, who’s dying of cancer. We get this exchange:

Barbara: Is this usual for you?
André: Helping the dying?
Barbara: Helping assholes.
André: When they’re dying, yes.

Throughout Christian Petzold’s “Barbara” I was reminded of the Iranian film “Goodbye” (2011) by Mohammad Rasoulof. An attractive professional woman (lawyer in Iran, doctor here) is involved in the slow machinations of escape from an oppressive regime, and hearing, too often, those loud knocks on the door. It doesn’t work for the pregnant Noora. At the end of “Goodbye,” she’s caught and arrested. It could’ve worked for Barbara. But at the end, she sends Stella, pregnant, across the Baltic Sea in her place. She gives up what she’s been striving the entire movie for. To be with André? To help with the dying.

Nina Hoss in "Barbara" (2012): A bit distant, a bit Deneuve

Hoss: a bit distant, a bit Deneuve.

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Posted at 09:58 AM on Dec 26, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Tuesday December 25, 2012

A Very Jellybean Christmas

Jellybean Christmas Cat 2012

This will be our December pic for next year's calendar, “The 12 Months of Jellybean.”

So what'd you get for Christmas? I got “Nixonland” by Rick Perlstein and “11/22/63” by Stephen King and “The Big Screen” by David Thomson and an Ernest Hemingway/For Whom the Bell Tolls T-shirt and a coffee mug from Powell's Books in Portland and an Arc de Triomph pillholder and chocolate. No, but like tons of chocolate. Like so much chocolate you wouldn't believe. Like bars and everthing. Yeah, in the stocking. Plus clothes. So like clothes and books and chocolate. How about you?

Jellybean got a plane. I'm not kidding. But right now she's happy with the wrapping.

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Posted at 11:15 AM on Dec 25, 2012 in category Jellybean
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Lancelot Links (Merry Christmas Edition!)

We're home for the holidays this year, with presents still under the tree, stockings still stuffed, a roast beast waiting in the fridge. In the meantime, some links. Have a great day, everyone:

  • Danny Gallagher's “10 Things You Probably Didn't Know about ”A Charlie Brown Christmas.“ And I didn't. I particularly love 3, 5, 6 and 7. I don't know if they were doing market research back then, but it's another example of this. If you want to make something that lasts, listen to the artists, not the business people. The business people will only try to replicate what's been done and will give you nothing that will stick; the artists will try to create something new and original.
  • Speaking of: I love the ”Peanuts“ strip for the day, which a FB friend alerted me to. It has great resonance for today. But I miss the history of it. When was this strip created? What year? Moneymen want to remove chronology so the thing can be used again and again as if it were new. Historians know there's a this, then, this, then this. They want to know how the story goes.
  • Ghosts of Christmas Past I: What's a good update for ”humbug“? 
  • Kim Morgan loves herself some Nat 'King' Cole, and while ”Christmas Song“ is good for the time of year, her favorite is Nat's version of the Hoagy Carmichael/Mitchell Parish classic ”Stardust.“
  • Ghosts of Christmas Past II: Kids say the darndest things, circa 2008.
  • Empire magazine lists its 30 Greatest Christmas Movies, but no need to look. They're striving for contrarianism: ”Die Hard“ is No. 1, ”Elf“ No. 2, ”It's a Wonderful Life“ No. 3. ”Scrooged,“ the awful Bill Murray comedy, is at No. 5. As for ”A Christmas Story“? No. 11. Whatev, as the kids say. 
  • I did time on those lists, too: In 2004, for MSN, the top 10 Christmas scenes. No need to look at that, either. It's slow-to-load, for one. It looks awful, for another. Plus the original accompanying videos are gone. But it went:
    • 10) Bing singing ”White Christmas“ in ”Holiday Inn“
    • 9) Emma Thompson realizing her husband is cheating on her in ”Love, Actually“
    • 8) the intro of Santa's sister in ”Bad Santa“
    • 7) Kevin's church scene in ”Home Alone“
    • 6) Judy Garland singing ”Have Yourself a Merry Little Chrismtas“ in ”Meet Me in St. Louis.“ Saddest Christmas song ever.
    • 5) Alistar Sim as the early Scrooge telling us that man is an island, entire of itself—a message that sadly never goes out of style
    • 4) Buddy the Elf confronting a Santa faker who smells of beef and cheese
    • 3) Edmund Gwenn's Santa in ”Miracle of 34th Street“ talking Dutch to the poor little orphan girl and making Natalie Wood wonder
    • 2) Harry Bailey, 1911-1919
    • 1) Santa saying ”You'll shoot yer eye out, kid. Ho ho ho.“   
  • Ghosts of Christmas Past III: Nook-smart but Saul-Bellow-stupid at Barnes & Noble.
  • I'd recommend my favorite Christmas song, ”O Holy Night,“ but YouTube ain't helping in this regard. I like the Irish Tenors' version but it's not to be found. Instead, we get a host of singers who make it more about them than the song. Reminds me of writers who make it more about them than the subject. Bad form. But the Irish Tenors' version is available on iTunes. I'm listening to it right now. Merry Christmas.

"All it needs is a little love, Charlie Brown": A Charlie Brown Christmas

”All it needs is a little love, Charlie Brown." — Linus Van Pelt, philosopher

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Posted at 09:20 AM on Dec 25, 2012 in category Lancelot Links
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Monday December 24, 2012

The Annotated Jeffrey Wells: 'Torture Has Been Used For Centuries'

The following is a post on Jeffrey Wells' “Hollywood Elsewhere” site. The annotations in bold are mine...

Are you going to tell me that if your son or daughter has been kidnapped and is being held in some secret, all-but-impossible-to-discover location and might possibly be killed if you don't find him/her...are you going to tell me that if you've captured a close accomplice of the kidnappers who refuses to talk...are you going to tell me that all you're going to do is take this guy out to lunch and feed him hummus and tomatoes, and if that doesn't work you're going to take him out for drinks and then set him up with $5000-a-night prostitute in hopes that he'll reveal the location? The objection to “Zero Dark Thirty” isn't about the urge to torture in extreme situations to gain desired information; it's about the efficacy of that torture. It's about whether the person you're torturing is in fact a close accomplice of the kidnappers ... or me, since I'll say anything you want me to say, since you're torturing me to say it. That's always been the problem with torture. The torturer tends to gain the information he wants whether that information is true or not. More specifically, the objection with “Zero Dark Thirty” (which I, like most of the world, haven't seen yet), is whether Bigelow and Boal have misrepresented the efficacy of torture by drawing a line between post-9/11 enhanced interrogation techniques and the intel that led to Osama bin Laden. The information we have indicates there was no line. Do Boal and Bigelow have new information? Did they draw the line themselves? Should we torture them to find out?

If your answer is “yes” (and I'm talking to you, Hollywood liberals, and to you, Alex Gibney) then you are a liar. In fact, you have never been more of a liar than you are right now. And you, Jeff Wells, have never been more wrong than you are now. Except every time you write about Abraham Lincoln's voice, which reveals how much you actually buy into the myth-making tendencies of Hollywood that you pretend to abhor.

Zero Dark Thirty doesn't precisely say that torture was the thing that got the information about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden (Again, this is the key question; everything else is more-or-less irrelevant), although it has obviously been applied for several centuries, and presumably with some benefit to the torturers. (Why else would the practice continue over the millenia? Because people like to torture?) Irrelevant, but ... I assume we keep torturing because people in desperate situations do desperate things. And because sometimes it works. And because we don't have any new ideas. And because it's in our nature.

Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clarke) and their CIA colleagues do whatever they can to get their captors to talk. They try a little torture, they try little hummus. And by hook or crook, they finally get the info they want. Are you going to tell me that if they'd used only hummus, they would have discovered Bin Laden's Abbotobad address? Focus, Jeff. Does ZDT show that intel gathered via torture led to Osama bin Laden? If “yes,” do Bigelow and Boal know something Senators McCain, Levin and Feinstein don't? The other day, in warning about “Zero Dark Thirty,” CIA director Michael Morell actually backs it up. He wrote, “Some [of the Osama bin Laden intelligence] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.” If I were you, Jeff, this is the kind of thing I would focus on rather than the above.

Abu Ghraib torture pics

Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end.

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Posted at 10:03 AM on Dec 24, 2012 in category Movies
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Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It took me weeks to drag myself to this movie. It just didn’t appeal. Maybe it was the trailer: He’s off, she’s off, now it’s on. It’s like what Rocky says about his relationship with Adrian: I got holes, she’s got holes, together we fill holes. That was my thought even before I knew “Silver Linings Playbook” was set—pungently—in Philadelphia.

It starts out OK. Pat (Bradley Cooper) is in a psychiatric facility in Baltimore. He’s been there eight months and we see him involved in various activities: group therapy, where he enthusiastically talks up silver linings; pill taking, where he hides his medication under his tongue and spits it out later like Randle Patrick McMurphy in “Cuckoo’s Nest.” He exercises all the time. That’s good. He has the word “EXCELSIOR” taped to his wall. That’s his mantra. He tells us, in voiceover, “What, are you kidding me? I love Sundays.”

Right back where he started from
Then his mom (Jacki Weaver) shows up out of the blue and discharges him. At this point we get a bit of backstory. He was a substitute history teacher, bipolar Silver Linings Playbook posterapparently, overweight apparently, who came home early one day to find his wife and another history teacher (full-time) in the shower together. Beat the shit out of the dude. For a long time, his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), had wanted him to lose weight and get psychiatric help, and now he’s done both, kinda sorta, so after he leaves the institution he expects them to get back together. Despite the restraining order. Despite the fact that he’s not taking his meds. Despite the fact that he’s living in the very facility that created him and his problems in the first place. He’s living with his parents.

Mom has a tendency to lie to avoid confrontations. Dad, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), is basically a rung below the son. He’s OCD: about his envelopes, about the TV remotes, about his beloved Philadelphia Eagles. He bets on them, too. He used to work at Eagles Stadium but got into too many fights there. Now he’s banned from the place. Just as Pat is banned from Nikki.

That’s one of the things I liked about “Silver Linings Playbook”: You see why Pat is the way he is, and you see that others aren’t much better. His brother, Jake (Shea Whigham of “Boardwalk Empire,” destined to play brothers), is a bit of a dick: listing off how well his life is going compared to Pat’s. His pal Ronnie (John Ortiz) lives in fear of his wife, Veronica (Julia Stiles); at times, he says, he can hardly breathe. Veronica has a sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband recently died. Their sex life dried up so he was coming home with some lingerie from Victoria’s Secret when he stopped to help someone with car difficulties. He got hit by a car. Now she’s fucking everybody. To make up.

But meds are meds, and without them, things fall apart quickly for Pat. He tries to see Nikki, meets up with Tiffany, desperately searches for his wedding video in the middle of the night. As things escalate, he accidently elbows his mother in the face and punches his father in the face. In his shrink’s waiting room, his trigger song, “My Cheri Amour” by Stevie Wonder, is piped in. It’s a test. It was his wedding song. It was also the song playing when he found his wife in the shower with the history prof. Pat doesn’t pass the test.

To be honest? Pat’s the most interesting guy in the room … and he’s not that interesting. But Tiffany likes him—likes likes him—since after eight months in the stir he looks like Bradley Cooper. So she cons him into partnering with her for a dance contest at the Ben Franklin Hotel. She dangles the prospect of connection with Nikki and he jumps. We watch them practice, talk, argue, practice, yell at each other. It’s not bad.

Then it all falls apart.

Pat schmat
Patdoesn’t fall apart. He’s actually taking his meds now. It’s everyone around him. Particularly his immediates.  

Pat Sr. wants to start a restaurant—something about Philly cheese steaks—and he bets all the money he’s been saving on an Eagles-Giants game, to which, for good luck, he sends Pat. That’s why Pat and brother and friends are tailgating, having a good time, when a busload of Indian-Americans, including Pat’s shrink (a face painter), shows up, and the party grows. But some racist clowns can’t deal, a fight ensues, Pat gets involved, he’s banned from the place, the Eagles lose. Pat Sr. blows up. It’s one of those scenes where half the neighborhood is in the house, and everyone’s yapping about stupid shit, and I wanted to get out of the place. Can’t imagine what Pat felt. And we can’t. He’s suddenly the sanest man in the room. Then the movie doubles down on Pat Sr.’s disease. Tiffany encourages him to go double-or-nothing on Eagles-Cowboys plus Pat and Tiffany have to get a “5” in the dance competition. If both things happen, Pat Sr. gets his money back.

Right there I lost all interest. For most of the movie, the thrust is Pat and his problems, which the film acknowledges. For the last third, the focus becomes Pat Sr. and his problems, which the film doesn’t acknowledge. Plus, a “5” in the dance competition? You think you have to attach a number to dance to get us interested?

Long story short: Nikki shows up at the dance, Tiffany drinks, but they dance OK for them. The numbers come in: 4.8, 4.9, 4.9 … 5.4! For a grand total of 5! Pat Sr. gets his money back! (Which he’ll lose again next week?) Tiffany runs away when she sees Pat with Nikki! But, wait, he’s only whispering to Nikki! We know he loves you! And he does! And he runs after you to say so! And you kiss! And you kiss at the end of the movie, on a Sunday, football Sunday, which Pat tells us he loves! Like he said at the beginning! Full circle!

Earlier in the movie, after Pat read Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” and lamented the sudden sad ending and its lack of a silver lining to his parents, he said the following:

The world’s hard enough as it is. Can’t someone say, “Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”

Someone does say that. They say it all the fucking time.

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Posted at 07:51 AM on Dec 24, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Sunday December 23, 2012

I Would Rather Have You Beat the Yankees

I WOULD RATHER HAVE YOU
BEAT THE YANKEES THAN
ANY OTHER TEAM IN THE WORLD.
AND YOU CAN. AND YOU WILL.

--a  telegram (or prose poem) sent by former Pittsburgh Pirates (and St. Louis Cardinals, and Brooklyn Dodgers) general manager Branch Rickey to the 1960 team, which he helped construct, before the 1960 World Series against the New York Yankees. The Pirates taped the telegram to their clubhouse wall, then won it famously in the bottom of the 9th inning during Game 7 when Bill Mazeroski hit a homerun to break a 9-9 tie. Mazeroski is still the only player in MLB history who has ever done what every kid dreams of doing: win Game 7 of the World Series with a homerun. The telegram is mentioned in David Maraniss' book, “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero,” pg. 110, which is one of seven books I bought today at Powell's Books in Portland, Ore. Good thing we were only there 45 minutes. 

Bill Mazeroski's homerun in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, to beat the NY Yankees as requested by former GM Branch Rickey

As you wish.

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Posted at 06:18 PM on Dec 23, 2012 in category Yankees Suck
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Saturday December 22, 2012

Wait, What Exactly is Acting CIA Director MIchael Morell Saying About 'Zero Dark Thirty'?

Michael Morell, the acting director of the CIA, took the odd step of sending an internal memo to his agents externally, via the CIA's website, to talk about the inaccuracies in Kathryn Bigelow's film “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Some of the stuff he talks about is of the “Who gives a shit?” variety. Hundreds of agents are reduced to a dozen? That's always done. That's dramatic license. Because hundreds aren't a story; one is.

But Morell's key point is his second point:

Second, the film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin. That impression is false. As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.

Except he's not making much of a point, is he? He says it's false that enhanced interrogation techniques were part of the program that led to Bin Ladin. Then he says, “Some [of that intelligence] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.”

Wait, what? I'd heard no info that led to OBL came from tortured detainees.

I mean, how is Morell not contradicting himself in this graf? Is he saying that the intel gathered through enhanced interrogation came from a source other than the CIA? Because if that's the case, that, for me, falls within the realm of dramatic license, and “Zero Dark Thirty” is off the hook.

Again, the issue for me with this film is the misrepresentation of the efficacy of torture. Period. But if that efficacy is not misrepresented, if in fact some of our OBL intelligence came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques,  and if ZDT doesn't overplay its hand in this regard, then I'm interested again.

Morell, in attempting to edify, actually muddies the waters. Makes me think of a fictional CIA director from a 1970s movie: “You miss that kind of action, sir?” “I miss that kind of clarity.”

Torture and "Zero Dark Thirty"

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Posted at 09:19 AM on Dec 22, 2012 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Friday December 21, 2012

Idiot of the Day, Month, Year: Wayne La Pierre

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

--The NRA's Wayne La Pierre during a press conference, his first since Newtown, in which he suggested we prevent future school massacres by employing armed guards at every school in the country. A transcript, and a video of his talk, is available here.

Rebuttal from Andrew Sullivan's readers, including a reminder that Columbine had armed guards, not to mention the cost of what La Pierre is suggesting, is available here.

My thoughts? La Pierre is bad for the NRA, which is bad for America. So are all the fools ascribing cultural factors, such as violence in movies and violence in video games, to the various massacres in this country. Because aren't such movies and video games sold and watched and played all over the world? So why the problems here? Is it in our nature? Is America unexceptional? As for the supposed lack of God in our culture, isn't Europe more Godless? Isn't that what these same folks say? So why so much murder here? Why not there?

Let's face it: we have a bit of a gun problem. It's fucking obvious.

Do we blame the 2nd amendment? I was in a discussion about this on Facebook the other day, with people who supported the invidual rights interpretation of the amendment (“the right of the people to keep and bear arms”) rather than the collectivist rights interpretation (“A well regulated militia,” etc.).

Here's the version of the amendment as passed by Congress:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Here's the version as ratified by the States:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

We lost two commas and a capital “A,” but both versions contain 27 words. Thirteen of those tend to be ignored by Wayne La Pierre and the NRA. But why ignore them? Seriously. What is the above really saying? It's saying, “Because X, therefore Y.” But X is no longer true. We have a regular army and a National Guard. A well regulated militia is no longer necessary for the security of a free state. And if X is no longer true, Y is no longer therefore.

I know. The U.S. Supreme Court doesn't agree with me. But it used to. For most of its history.

As for La Pierre's quote above about good guys and bad guys with guns? It's the product of Hollywood stupidity. Stupid liberal Hollywood.

Wayne La Pierre of the NRA at a post-Newtown press conference

Wayne La Pierre of the NRA at a post-Newtown press conference

Wayne La Pierre of the NRA gave a post-Newtown press conference today (top), which was interrupted by a different message than the one he was bringing (bottom).

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Posted at 05:58 PM on Dec 21, 2012 in category Politics
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The Two Controversies of 'Zero Dark Thirty'

There are two controversies about “Zero Dark Thirty” but only one gets written about. That's the “does it or doesn't it?” controversy: Does the film suggest that the “enhanced interrogation methods” of the Bush administration, i.e., torture, led to the intel that led to Osama bin Laden? Many critics have said yes. Owen Gleiberman said yes, almost enthusiastically, on December 5:

Part of the power of Zero Dark Thirty is that it looks with disturbing clarity at the ''enhanced interrogation techniques'' that were used after 9/11, and it says, in no uncertain terms: They worked. This is a bin Laden thriller that Dick Cheney and Barack Obama could love. At the same time, the film spins its fearless — and potentially controversial — stance toward the issue of how the U.S. treats its prisoners into a heady international detective thriller.

David Edelstein said yes less enthusiastically on December 2:

It also borders on the politically and morally reprehensible. By showing these excellent results—and by silencing the cries of the innocents held at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other 'black sites'—it makes a case for the efficacy of torture.

Glenn Greenwald, safely on the other side of the Atlantic, compiles a list.

I first became aware of the controversy last week via Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker and was astounded.... by how long it took the controversy to come to light. That's the second controversy. By this point, “Zero Dark Thirty” had already won how many year-end awards? From how many organizations and critics groups? New York Film Critics Circle, Boston critics, D.C. critics, National Board of Review. And it took Dexter Filkins and Frank Bruni in The New York Times to bring the controversy to light?

What the fuck were the critics thinking?

Maybe they were thinking what I was thinking when I saw the trailer last month. It begins with hints of the torture to come, and some part of me thought, “Wait. The movie isn't suggesting we got good intel from this torture, is it?” But that thought, that blip, was ignored because the rest of the movie looked fucking good. It looked serious and important, and—I'll say it—2012 has been a lousy year for movies. We needed something good to come along, something serious and important to make us excited about the movies again and wash away the bad taste left by the dreck of summer: all those big and bombastic and flailing and flopping pictures. “Zero Dark Thirty” looked IT. It looked like THE ONE.

Now even Washington, D.C. is getting involved. Senators Diane Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin, after a screening of ZDT, sent a letter to Sony Pictures chairman Michael Lynton condemning the film:

We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden...

The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America’s values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience. We cannot afford to go back to these dark times, and with the release of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right.

The response from Bigelow and Boal thus far? Flailing and flopping. They talk about how the movie is not a documentary. They bring up the irrelevant fact that the U.S. government did torture people—as if that were the controversy. Here's Bigelow a few days ago:

The point was to immerse the audience in this landscape, not to pretend to debate policy. Was it difficult to shoot? Yes. Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes, but it was.

Here's Boal:

The movie has been, and probably will continue to be, put in political boxes. Before we even wrote it, it was (branded) an Obama campaign commercial, which was preposterous. And now it's pro-torture, which is preposterous... Everything we did has been misinterpreted, and continues to be...

I'm not saying the film is a documentary of everything that happened, but it's being misread... Look at it as a movie and not a potential launching pad for a political statement.

That's some weak tea.

How could they not know? That they were stepping into one of the most heated debates of our time? And how could Bigelow, who wishes that torture had not been part of our history, misrepresent the efficacy of that very torture?

Now the critics are splashing us with their own weak tea. Jeff Wells, over at Hollywood Elsewhere, who is insanely anti-“Lincoln” in the best-picture Oscar race, and thus insanely pro-“Zero Dark Thirty,” makes the following argument in the wake of the Senators' letter:

Obviously Al Qaeda allies were tortured during the Bush admistration so what's the problem? How do Diane Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain know for a fact that no good information resulted from torture? They believe this because they've been told this, but how do they really know?

His first sentence is again not the issue. The rest of his argument confuses things even more. His goal is obfuscation here. The tactic of lawyers and pundits when the facts aren't on their side. Because it really comes down to this:

  • Does “Zero Dark Thirty” show that intel gathered via torture led us to Osama bin Laden?

If the answer to that is “Yes,” they've misrepresented the facts as we know them. Their only possible saving grace is that they know other facts, more so than Senators McCain, Feinstein and Levin of the U.S. Armed Services Committee. If so, then they should own up. They should let us drink that strong tea. But if they drew the line themselves between torture and the intel that led to Osama bin Laden, a mea culpa of the most massive kind is in order.

Zero Dark Thirty torture controversy

Does she or doesn't she? Some say she still does.

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Posted at 08:53 AM on Dec 21, 2012 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Movie Review: How to Survive a Plague (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

At first you think it’s Dan Savage even though you know it can’t be Dan Savage. He’s too young for this time period and since when did Dan live in Greenwich Village? But there he is. That’s gotta be him, right? No. It’s not him. Dude turns out to be Peter Staley, who went from being a closeted Wall Street broker in 1987—with a homophobic mentor who tells him fags get what they deserve for taking it up the ass—to an AIDS activist and member of ACT-UP, who in 1988 argues with Pat Buchanan on CNN’s “Crossfire” about access to AIDS drugs. Pat Buchanan winds up agreeing with him.

Then there’s the other dude, Bob Rafsky, the PR exec with a young daughter, and an ex-wife he calls the greatest romance of his life, even though, you know, he’s gay, and out now. He came out at 40. We see him in the low-def video of the day, a T-shirt-wearing activist who seems more serious than the noisy folks around him. His every word, his every action, says: This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around. It’s as if his life depends upon the outcome.

Final poster for "How to Survive a Plague" (2012)How about that third dude, the snob, the one with the nose almost literally in the air, who can’t make an internal PSA without lighting a cigarette and taking a deep drag on it? Mark Harrington. Of whom Larry Kramer, a talking head in the doc, says, “Right away Mark digested [the scientific literature] as if by osmosis and within a few weeks he had come up with a glossary of AIDS treatment terms.”

Kramer, famously pugnacious and controversial, is one of the first talking heads we see in “How to Survive a Plague.” We also see a few scientists and doctors, and a few other activists. But slowly it dawns on us who we’re not seeing: Mark Harrington, Bob Rafsky, and Peter Staley.

That’s the tension for the viewer in David France’s documentary. In this way it’s as suspenseful as any war movie. We’re worried about the characters on the screen. We’re worried about who lives up to the film’s title. We’re worried about who lives.

And you behave like this
“How to Survive a Plague” is less about the AIDS crisis than it is about the gay community’s reaction to governmental indifference to the AIDS crisis. The Reagan and Bush administrations ignored and played down. The gay community acted up.

The doc reminded me of my own indifference to the direct actions of ACT-UP back then. I remember watching on the news (ABC World News Tonight, kids) one of ACT-UP’s protests outside of NIH or FDA headquarters, in some Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., and thinking, What are these people protesting? That cures don’t exist? I thought it was silly. I seem to remember conversations with smarter friends that went something like this:

She: No, they’re protesting that the FDA isn’t releasing AIDS drugs.
Me: Which don’t exist.
She: They exist. You can get them in Canada.
Me: Really? Canada has a cure for AIDS? I’m surprised we haven’t heard about that.
She: They have drugs that help some people slow down the disease. But the FDA won’t release them.
Me: I assume because they’re not safe.
She: Safe? When the alternative is dying?

That was the early struggle that “Plague” documents. How do you get the drugs? Why were drugs available in Canada but unavailable in the U.S.? Didn’t anyone care?

The U.S. government certainly didn’t. One wonders all over again what would’ve happened if the AIDS crisis had exploded during a more sympathetic time with a more sympathetic administration. “We are in the middle of a fucking plague!” Larry Kramer shouts during an internecine battle between ACT-UP and its offshoot organization, TAG (Treatment Action Group). “And you behave like this!” His words could just as easily have been directed at the Reagan and Bush administrations. At Jesse Helms. At me.

This schmuck behind a curtain
The doc starts in 1987, Year 6 of the crisis, and updates us annually on worldwide AIDS deaths: from 50,000 in 1987 to nearly 10 million in 1996. But they’re just numbers. We’re interested in the people.

There’s Staley getting arrested outside NIH headquarters. There he is giving a big speech in San Francisco to scientists and researchers. He’s putting a human face on the disease.

There’s Rafsky in 1992 confronting then-candidate Bill Clinton during the U.S. presidential campaign. He shouts, “What are you going to do about AIDS? We're dying!” Clinton strikes back. At the next ACT-UP meeting, hands in the air, Rafsky admits a kind of defeat. “Never get into an argument with a Rhodes scholar,” he says. But their exchange made headlines. It brought AIDS back into the headlines. For a day.

Their protests and their speeches bring movement. The scientists agree. A direct action in Bethesda gets the FDA panel to change its mind and approve the drug DHPG. Harrington is nonplussed. Off camera, he says something that reminds me of what Deep Throat said about the White House in “All the President’s Men”: these aren’t very bright guys, and things got out of hand:

It was really an amazing encounter, but it sort of felt like reaching the Wizard of Oz. Like you’ve got to the center of the whole system, and there’s just this schmuck behind a curtain.

It’s no surprise that things diverge. Direct actions only do so much. Too many voices invariably dilute the message. Not enough people of color on the FDA panel? Really? Who do you want on there and how smart are they? Because meanwhile people are dying.

The internecine battle between ACT-UP and TAG, unfortunately, takes place off-camera, and, save for Larry Kramer’s outburst, in sotto voce. It feels almost swept under the rug. Afterwards, we lose track of the TAG fellows and get a bit too much of Bob Rafsky. That’s awful to say. He dies in 1993, ’94. He has an extended monologue at the funeral of another AIDS activist that goes on too long. That’s awful to say, too.

Then TAG asks the FDA not to approve drugs too quickly? Isn’t that the opposite of their original message? There’s a sense of floundering. There’s a sense that every early victory was counterproductive. “1993 to ’95 were the worst years,” says David Barr, ACT-UP’s lawyer. “It was a really terrifying time. Then we got lucky.”

It happened in 1996. Oddly, I don’t remember the news. Maybe I was confused by it. Maybe I thought it was like AZT and simply delayed the inevitable. But the triple drug therapy that scientists came up with saved millions of lives. Including….

Life during wartime
It’s at this point that David France gives us, one after the other, silent at first, the rest of the talking heads: Staley and Harrington and Barr and Jim Eigo and others. They lived. It’s a glorious moment but there’s no real celebration in it. Staley, whose first words in the doc were, “I’m going to die from this,” now has survivor’s guilt. “Like in any war,” he says, “you wonder why you are here.”

Shouldn’t there be more of a celebration? Shouldn’t there be a party, a disco, some foolin’ around? At a Democracy NOW conference about the doc earlier this year, Staley said the following:

Triple drug therapy in 1996 saved my life. And those therapies came about because the government spent a billion dollars on research, starting in 1989, 1990. And that all came about because of pressure from advocacy. So I’m alive because of that activism. And I hope people will see this film. It’s about how when—it’s about people power being able to actually create change and to change things for the better. It’s not just an AIDS story. Anybody who’s involved in the Occupy movement should run to see this film. Anybody that wants to change the world should run to see this film.

That message is slightly undercut in the doc—if it was even David France’s intention. We don’t get enough about the unbroken line from activism to policy change to cure. That line feels broken here. “How to Survive a Plague” is winning year-end awards but it didn’t blow me away. Once again, as with many of the documentaries I’ve seen this year, I thought: great subject, OK film.

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Posted at 07:01 AM on Dec 21, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Wednesday December 19, 2012

Jordy's Reviews: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

My nephew Jordy, 11, reviews the Hobbit movie so I won't have to...

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is an OK movie. It has good acting, great camerawork, good action scenes, and a good story. (Although it is based off one of the most famous books of all time, so I guess that’s a given.) But for all it does well, it gets some things wrong.

“The Hobbit'’s story is basically a Hobbit (a small creature from the Shire) named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who goes on an adventure with 12 Dwarfs (small, mining and building creatures) and a wizard named Gandalf (Ian McKellen) through the dangerous Middle-Earth to take The Lonely Mountain back from Smoug The Dragon. The fire-breathing beast took over the Dwarf empire 60 years ago. Along the way, they encounter a lot of things — namely, monsters, monsters, and monsters. The adapted screenplay also contains some foreshadowing for the Lord of the Rings trilogy that I think is unnecessary. ”The Hobbit“ is fine as a stand-alone adventure just as well as LOTR is. However, the story starts really slow and keeps it that way for about an hour. Then we get action, action, and action. That is bad pacing.

Poster for Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (2012)The movie has what you’d expect from a high-budget film: good acting, some great camera shots (especially with the background), some comedic moments, stuff like that. However, what it’s missing that ”The Lord of the Rings“ had is some amazing special effects. A few of the things look fake in it. It’s just not nearly as good as LOTR was with the special effects, even though those movies were made a decade ago. Those movies had amazing special effects that few movies can match even now.

Also, a lot of the characters in ”The Hobbit“ represent a certain characteristic. The Dwarves are the tough, partying but lovable people, the Hobbits are the simple folk, Thorin is the serious one, and Gandalf is the calm one. It is done extremely well in this world of creatures we dreamed existed. (Except for Orcs. I hate those guys.)

For heroic people, they seem to do a lot of running away in the movie. Almost every time some creature comes, Gandalf says “Run!” and a rule of survival is that if an all-powerful wizard runs away, you should too. The epic music makes me not care too much about the running away, though.

They also overuse slow-motion. In almost every action scene, there’s a slow-motion shot that is completely unnecessary. This is what I call the Michael Bay effect. The movie is very good in HD and it will not be the same at home as it is in the theater. The humor also goes well with the movie, not too much so that it will feel like the movie is trying to make you laugh, but like real life, where every 2 hours or so something funny happens. My favorite scene was the game of riddles between Gollum and Bilbo. It was slow, dramatic, suspenseful.

Now for what I despise the most about the movie. I don’t like that there are three films. We don’t need three films to tell the story of The Hobbit! That’s just stupid! Each Lord of the Rings book got one movie, and that was it. The Hobbit, the shortest book of the four, mind you, has three movies going for it? That’s like Gandalf casting a magic spell tripling the money! What the heck! I also don’t like how hyped the movie got. It was by the same person, Peter Jackson, that made Lord Of The Rings, and all three LOTR were great, so it got extremely hyped. It’s an example of what hype does to a movie: raises our expectations too far.

Finally, the ending was bad. It’s hard to end a movie that will have a sequel picking up on it, but they had a perfect ending going for it (which I won’t spoil) but they went and ruined it by adding something else. You’ll probably know what I mean if you see the movie.

Overall, ”The Hobbit" is only OK. It has some good things going for it, but it disappoints in too many others for it to be great. I recommend you see it if you have seen LOTR, because you will find it entertaining even with all its problems.

67%

Okay For 10+ (There are some scary monsters throughout the movie, and it does have a lot of action involved.)

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Posted at 07:32 AM on Dec 19, 2012 in category Jordy's Reviews
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Tuesday December 18, 2012

Quote of the Day

“I will almost never like a movie about a road trip, about some sick or suffering family member or emotionally stressful family situation, about a boy/girl’s troubled relationship with his/her mother/father, about a childhood that’s unhappy, about self-discovery in high school, about mothers who are crazy, fathers who are unloving. These types of films, however, dominate American independent filmmaking and are the sole reason why, during the Seattle International Film Festival, I do everything in my power to avoid watching and reviewing movies made by unknown or emerging American directors. Give me French, Chinese, Mexican, Iranian—anything but indie American filmmakers and all of their road trips and family issues.”

--Charles Mudede, in the Northwest Film Forum article, “A Vivat Mudede Top 10 List,” compiled by Liz Sheppard. The above comes in at No. 6. I love it. And I disagree completely, vehemently, with No. 5.

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Posted at 02:40 PM on Dec 18, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday December 17, 2012

Oscar Predictions ... for 2014?

Most of us are busy enough trying to keep track of (and see) this year's Oscar contenders (only 23 days, 11 hours, 58 minutes as of this writing, according to the clock on the Film Experience site), but Jeff Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere is all “Been there, done that” with 2012 movies. He's moved onto 2013 movies and the 2014 Oscars, listing the top 16 likeliest picks: from John Wells' “August: Osage County” (No. 1) to Baz Luhrman's delayed “The Great Gatsby” (No. 16).

Based upon storyline and past performance, I'd put “12 Years a Slave” (“A man living in New York during the mid-1800s is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep south”) by Steve McQueen (“Shame,” “Hunger”) higher than #15. Ditto “Foxcatcher” by Bennett Miller (“Moneyball,” “Capote,” “The Cruise”) at #9.

BTW: The cast in these two movies alone? Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Michael Kenneth Williams, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Alfre Woodard. Sorry. That's just the cast for “12 Years a Slave.”

The past is always bleak. The future is always bright.

Scene in "12 Years a Slave" by Steve McQueen

Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave.” The past is bleak, the future is bright.

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Posted at 05:52 PM on Dec 17, 2012 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Movie Review: Lawless (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Whoever decided to make a movie out of Matt Bondurant’s “The Wettest County in the World: A Novel Based on a True Story,” a story of bootlegging brothers in Franklin County, Virginia circa 1931, probably thought they could turn it into a kind of backwoods “Godfather.”

Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), like Vito Corleone, is the family patriarch who refuses to join the safety of a collective and gets his throat slit halfway through … but lives. Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke) is the hotheaded, chick-banging brother a la Sonny. And Shia LeBeouf’s character Jack? Both coward and heir apparent. So both Michael and Fredo. If you can imagine Michael and Fredo as one man.

poster for John Hillcoat's "Lawless" (2012)Here’s the big problem with “Lawless.” It focuses on Jack rather than Forrest, and Jack is a pain in the ass. He’s a coward who thinks a tough-guy image can paper that over. He has two older brothers to emulate, boys who save his ass time and again, but he chooses to emulate big-city gangsters like Al Capone and Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). When he finally gets a big score, he flaunts it. He buys expensive cars and expensive suits and gets his photo taken on the running board of his automobile with guns in his hands. He drags his friend, Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan), who has a limp from childhood rickets, into the business and gets him killed. He drags a lovely girl, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), a preacher’s daughter, Mennonite, I assume, to his still across town, and nearly gets her killed. He is given the chance time and again to prove his mettle and doesn’t but never owns up to it. He never owns up to his culpability. He never offers us, or the universe, a mea culpa.

Fucker.

Shooting pigs
The movie opens with young Jack, the youngest of the three, unable to shoot a pig at the family farm, forcing Forrest to do it. Then we get the status quo in Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1931. The Bondurants distribute moonshine in mason jars all over the county. So do others. But everyone respects each other’s territory. Particularly the territory of the Bondurant boys. Howard is an ass-kicking miracle while Forrest is a slow-moving, barely talking monstrosity with brass knuckles. He’s Bane without the iron lung and with a slightly better haircut. Then there’s Jack. Never mind. You know kin.

Forrest has a theory that the Bondurants are indestructible. During the Great War and Prohibition, everyone around them died and they were left standing. He carries this sureness with him wherever he goes.

But into this status quo, shaking things up, comes Virginia Commonwealth Attorney Mason Wardell (Tim Tolin), a powerful fat man in the backseat of a car, who wants a cut of the profits. He’s got with him, from Chicago, Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), a bully dressed like a dandy: perfumed, a shaved part to his slicked-back hair, cufflinks and shiny shoes. Something’s gotta give.

It does. Rakes’ men cause a ruckus at Forrest’s place, a gas station/diner in the middle of nowhere, and get the brass knuckle treatment; but they remain behind and in the middle of the night slit Forrest’s throat. Oddly, at this point of vulnerability for the Bonderants, no one descends. Instead, Jack, on his own, sells moonshine at a greater profit to Floyd Banner, and he and Cricket Pate almost die for their trouble, standing in an unmarked grave. But when Banner finds out that Jack is a Bondurant, kin to that hothead Howard and his mule brother who walked 20 miles to a hospital with his throat sliced, he agrees to cut a deal. He even gives them the address of where Rakes’ men are staying. After Forrest and Howard descend, there’s not much left of the two, and they send Jack to deliver a package: the testicles of one of the men in a mason jar.

So at this point do we get all-out war? No. We get a montage of the Bondurants raking it in and whooping it up from their deal with Floyd Banner, along with a little unnecessary narration from Jack. I’m thinking: Really? Montage? It cuts the tension, for one. Besides, do both sides think the other is done? Do the Bondurants think Charley Rakes will go on home now? They’ve up the ante. Surely he about to up it back. Or at least call.

He does, just as Jack is showing off to Bertha. But thanks to Howard, Charley Rakes loses the upper hand, and Jack has the opportunity to kill him. He doesn’t. Did he just run out of time? Is it the pig all over again? Does he just not have it in him? Instead Rakes’ men find Bertha and Cricket Pate, return the former to her father, but allow Charley to walk off with the latter and kill him. No one in the county cottons to that, nor to Charley Rakes, who looks down on them all. And in the end, on a covered bridge, with his brother Howard backing him, and Forrest on the road with three or four bullets in him, Jack Bondurant is finally able to kill the pig.

Not with a bang but a whimper
“Lawless” was written by Nick Cave (yes, that one) and directed by John Hillcoat, the team who gave us the great Aussie western “The Proposition” in 2005. It’s beautifully art directed. It includes some of my favorite actors of recent years: the cooler-than-cool Tom Hardy, the stunning Jessica Chastain, the always lovely Mia Wasikowska. Dan DeHaan (“Chronicle”), a sickly-looking Leo DiCaprio, is an up-and-comer, either a future star or a perennial character actor. I’m always interested in what he’s doing on screen.

All for naught. I’m buying less and less the kind of cool Tom Hardy brings to the screen, but I’ll still buy it in the service of a good story. This isn’t that. There are too many characters for the time allotted. Chastain is wasted, as is Oldman.

Most of all: Fredo ain’t your lead. Actually Jack isn’t even Fredo. Fredo was self-aware and that made him interesting. Jack isn’t and isn’t. He’s as frenetic and shallow as Sam Witwicky. He’s a hollow man who thinks he’s full. I actually cringed as he courted Bertha. I cringed as he made his plans for wealth and fame. I cringed at the echo of “Goodfellas” in the end. Franklin County, Virginia deserves better.

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Posted at 07:30 AM on Dec 17, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Sunday December 16, 2012

Hollywood B.O.: Hobbit Takes Expected Journey

Peter Jackson's “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” opened at $84.7 million this weekend. That's the 37th-best opening weekend ever, the sixth-best this year, but the best December opening ever.

That surprised me. Really? No $100 million openings in December? Nope. Only the following months have seen $100-movie openings: March, May, June, July and November. And that leads us to our first trivia question:

1. Which of the following months has seen the most movies open at > $100 million?

 

  • A: May
  • B: June
  • C: July
  • D: November

 

“Rise of the Guardians” stayed strong, dropping only 28.7% for second place and $7.4 million, but “Lincoln” stayed even stronger, dropping a mere 18% for $7.2 million and third place. It's now grossed $107.8 million in six weeks. That's the highest-grossing film of Daniel Day-Lewis' career, but not, of course, of Steven Spielberg's career. It is, however, Spielberg's 15th film to gross more than $100 million. Trivia question No. 2:

2. Other than his pre-“Jaws” movies, what is the lowest-grossing film (unadjusted) of Steven Spielberg's career?

 

  • A: 1941
  • B: The Color Purple
  • C: Empire of the Sun
  • D: War Horse

Both “Skyfall” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2” dropped three places, from first and third, respectively, to fourth and sixth, respectively, and are virtually neck-and-neck (no pun) in domestic gross ($272m and $276m, respectively). They diverge greatly in terms of worldwide box office, however.

3. For 2012 movies, “The Avengers” grossed the most worldwide, at $1.4 billion (third-best ever), followed by “The Dark Knight Rises” at $1.08 billion (seventh-best ever). After these, which four films grossed the most worldwide in 2012?

 

  • A: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, Brave, The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman
  • B: Brave, The Hunger Games, Skyfall, MIB: 3
  • C: MIB: 3, John Carter, Battleship, 2012
  • D: Skyfall, Ice Age: Continental Drift, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, The Amazing Spider-Man

Finally:

4. Among Oscar contenders, “Life of Pi” came in fifth for the weekend with $5.4 million, “Silver Linings Playbook” finished 10th, “Flight” 11th, “Argo” 12th, “Hitchcock” 13th and “Anna Karenina” 15th. Which of the following films has grossed the least so far domestically?

  • Life of Pi
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • Hitchcock
  • Anna Karenina

Answers in the Comments field below. The precious weekend box-office totals here.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Yep. Lots of precious.

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Posted at 06:16 PM on Dec 16, 2012 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday December 15, 2012

Quote of the Day

“In his remarks, Senator Kennedy had much the better argument [than the NRA], which is not surprising since his case is irrefutable. He pointed out that in this decade the number of civilians killed by firearms at home is many times the number of soldiers killed in Vietnam. In 1965 alone, 5,600 murders, 36,000 assaults and most of the 68,000 armed robberies were committed with guns.

”It is easy to argue that these crimes could have been carried out by other means. But advocates of gun-control legislation are making an effort to reduce the toll of death and suffering; they are not offering a panacea. Because a gun is easily concealed, readily available, and achieves its purpose immediately, it is the favorite weapons of the jealous lover, the excitable adolescent and the demented crank. No other weapon can make that claim.“

-- New York Times editorial on a meeting between Senator Ted Kennedy and the NRA on April 5, 1967 vis a vis upcoming gun control legislation. The Times editorial advocated banning ”the sale of firearms through the mail“ and ”the registration of guns with the police.“ A year later, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed by Congress and signed into law by Lyndon Johnson. It mostly prohibited the interstate transfer of firearms except by licensed dealers, since this was the method Lee Harvey Oswald purchased the rifle that killed Pres. Kennedy in Nov. 1963. The Times editorial, quoted above and below, is the second mention of ”gun control" in the New York Times archives. The first occurred in 1965.

New York Times editorial on gun control: April 1967

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Posted at 02:14 PM on Dec 15, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Our Country, Our Song

In November 2004 my sister wrote a page-one story for The Wall Street Journal about a group of motorcyclists that lobbied state legislatures to turn back helmet laws. They wanted the wind in their hair when they rode, and they rode around the country, lobbying state legislatures, to make it so. Among other things, they argued that helmets were actually less safe in low-impact crashes, but their evidence on this was suspect and anecdotal. Scientific studies proved the opposite.

No matter. They were successful. By the time of the article, several legislatures had already rescinded their state's mandatory motorcycle helmet laws.

In the back-and-forth email exchange with my sister, I wrote the following:

I just like the unspoken critique of our system in your article: if one side lobbies and the other doesn't, then the first side wins. Even if they're lobbying about something that's kind of insane.

I first heard about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the same way I first heard about the massacre at the movie theater in Aurora, Col., last July: through a posting on Facebook. Same person, I think. Same story, really. I think her post on Aurora even referenced the sameness of it all. Oh crap, this again. Her post yesterday was more charged and horrified. Because it was children in an elementary school. Kids who would never get older than 5 or 6 or 8. Parents who were told their kids were never coming back from school that day.

In the middle of your workday, doing this thing that seems important but isn't, that doesn't matter in the long run—which describes the workday of almost everyone in the world except teachers—you try to touch some aspect of that horrible reality so you don't feel like such an uncaring asshole. It's hard, though. It's impossible, really. There are screens in the way. We're experiencing this through computer screens and TV screens, and some part of us can't get through these screens and some part of us doesn't want to. It's safer where we are, in unreality, sympathizing and empathizing, rather than where they are, where the awful thing has happened. This week's awful thing. So instead we simply feel stunned, numb, guilty, angry. Certainly angry. This is our country, this is our song. We're singing it again. Why?

That's what we eventually get to, after all the lit candles and consoling quotes and angry tweets. Why?

We know why. It's in the above. If one side lobbies and the other doesn't, then the first side wins. Even if they're lobbying about something that's kind of insane.

I'm complicit. I cared about gun control enough that in the 1990s I read Osha Gray Davidon's book “Under Fire: The Nra and the Battle for Gun Control,” which detailed the history of the NRA, and its dramatic shift from a gun-safety group (since the 19th century) to a gun-lobbying organization (beginning in 1978). I read Jill Lepore's article, “Battleground America,” in the New Yorker last year and recommended it to everybody. I saw Michael Moore's documentary. But politics is triage and gun control kept slipping down my list of important issues of the day. We first had to fight George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove and al Qaeda and Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers before we got to Wayne LaPierre. We've got to push back against the idiotic thing that Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly or Richard Mourdock or Todd Akin said that day—and if not them someone else. In the modern age, in the 24-hour news cycle, there's always an idiot flapping their gums and being filmed and broadcast and going viral. You could say that is the essence of the 24-hour news cycle. That's what keeps it going. And keeps us distracted.

This election cycle I actually said the following to a friend: “I don't really care much about gun control right now.” And I didn't. Not with everything else going on. Not if taking that stand prevented everything else that needed to happen from happening.

But if one side lobbies and the other doesn't, the first side wins.

That's all it comes down to. We need to have more people who care passionately about this issue, who are willing to put up money and time, than the other side. It's like same-sex marriage: you fight and you fight and you fight and then suddenly the wave crests with you, not against you. Maybe that will happen with gun control someday. Maybe that's beginning to happen now.

I like what Adam Gopnik wrote on the New Yorker site last night. The whole thing is good but this part in particular:

So let’s state the plain facts one more time, so that they can’t be mistaken: Gun massacres have happened many times in many countries, and in every other country, gun laws have been tightened to reflect the tragedy and the tragic knowledge of its citizens afterward. In every other country, gun massacres have subsequently become rare. In America alone, gun massacres, most often of children, happen with hideous regularity, and they happen with hideous regularity because guns are hideously and regularly available.

The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children. They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns—we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them—is more important than children’s lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that’s a moral choice, clearly made.

"I'm the NRA and I vote"

FURTHER READING. Feel free to suggest your own in the comments field. I'll add to it periodically:

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Posted at 09:34 AM on Dec 15, 2012 in category Politics
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Friday December 14, 2012

A Song for Today: Our Song

The news is bad from Newtown, Conn., as we all know. I don't have words. But here's a song: “Our Song” by Joe Henry. This is the chorus, written near the end of the George W. Bush years:

This was my country
This was my song
Somewhere in the middle there
Though it started badly and it's ending wrong

This was my country
This frightful and this angry land
But it's my right if the worst of it might still
Somehow make me a better man

A lot of commentary about the tragedy in the usual places. Good. There should be commentary. There should be anger. There should be yelling. One of the better things I read came from a reader on Andrew Sullivan's site, who wrote:

Guns don't kill people - people do. By the same token, planes don't kill people - people flying them into buildings do. And yet, I recall that we immediately and decisively worked to keep deranged people from gaining possession of planes when a handful of those people used them as tools of mass murder; indeed, we made it much more difficult for the overwhelming majority of peaceful, law-abiding citizens to board a plane.

Maybe I'm missing something, but this strikes me as a good metaphor to get both sides talking. We're not interested in outlawing guns any more than we are in outlawing planes. We just have to make sure they don't keep winding up in the hands of nutjobs. Are you with us or against us?

Gun control advocates (including me) may be past that point, though. There's a lot of anger out there now. This feels like it may be a turning point in the debate: a moment so awful that the need to fucking do something already overwhelmed the general desire to shrug and move on and let the NRA have its way.

Let's hope. Let's hope this stops being our song.

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Posted at 04:11 PM on Dec 14, 2012 in category Music
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Movie Review: Life of Pi (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Promises are made at the beginning of Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi”—or at least one big promise. An unnamed writer (Rafe Spall), who is about the become the listener of the story we are all there to see—about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean—has heard that this story will make him believe in God. Since he is by extension us, one assumes the story will make us believe in God, too. 

Good! I thought. Sitting in the theater, a fundamentalist agnostic in the middle of a long, tired week, I was ready to believe in something.

So did it work? Did I come out of the theater believing in God?

Of course not. In fact, the fantastic story we hear, which may or may not be an illusion, but is certainly an allusion, almost discounts this belief.

Pi keeps going
But before we get to that story we hear other stories about a young Pi Patel (Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon) growing up in India. We get his early flirtations with religion: growing up Hindu; being perplexed and then attracted to the self-sacrifice inherent in the story of Jesus (“Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ”); feeling calm when praying to Mohammed. Life of Pi poster - U.S.The boy collects religions the way I used to collect baseball cards.

But the best story is the story of his name.

The Writer assumes Pi’s father was a mathematician, but the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan), in the middle of making him lunch, says the story is a bit more complicated. As good stories often are.

Pi had an uncle, Mamaji (Elie Alouf), who was born with water in his head, and the doctor whipped him around and around to get rid of it. From this, he developed the thin legs and broad chest of a swimmer, and a subsequent fixation on swimming pools. Whenever he traveled he had to check out the swimming pools in the area. His favorite was in Paris: Piscine Molitor. And when Santosh (Adil Hussain) and Gita Patel (Tabu) had a second child, a boy, that’s what they named him: Piscine Molitor Patel.

Pi loved his beautiful French name until one day in middle school when it morphed, at the hands of schoolboy wits and bullies, into the vulgar English verb pissing. He suffered for a year under that nickname. Then he came up with a plan. At the start of the new session, when the teacher called out the roll before each class, young Piscine would walk to the front of the classroom and tell everyone the new foreshortening of his name: Pi, as in 3.14, etc. But the schoolboy wits and bullies weren’t having it, and insisted he would still be Pissing. Pi anticipated that reaction. So in his last class, the math class, he not only gave a rudimentary definition of pi; he not only wrote “3.14” on the board, but he kept going. He wrote out, from memory, dozens of numbers, hundreds of numbers, in the equation pi. And it caused such a sensation that he accomplished his goal: he became Pi.

Now that’s a story.

Pi’s family runs a zoo in the former French quarter of Pondicherry, India, and young Pi, now 11, is fascinated with a Bengal tiger there, who was originally named Thirsty by Richard Parker, a hunter, but due to a clerical error the names were reversed: Thirsty, the hunter, brought in Richard Parker, the tiger. At one point Pi tries to feed Richard Parker meat from his hand. “You think the tiger is your friend?” his father yells at him. “He is an animal, not a playmate.” Pi insists animals have souls; he’s seen it in their eyes. So the father gives Pi something else to see with his eyes. He ties a goat to the bars of Richard Parker’s cage and forces his son to watch what happens.

In college, Pi (now Suraj Sharma) reads literature, feels restless, falls in love. Then his family is forced to move. They have to sell the animals and for some reason ride with them on a Japanese steamer to their new home in Canada.

This gets us to the story we’re expecting to see: about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean.

The tiger under the tarp
But not immediately.

The big storm that sinks the boat and almost everyone and everything in it, washes up, onto Pi’s lifeboat, which is half-covered with a tarp, not a tiger but an injured zebra, a seasick orangutan named Orange Juice, and a hyena who keeps trying to finish off the zebra. Pi tries to maintain control of the situation but he’s a boy without a weapon. It’s Orange Juice who finally does it, by bonking the hyena on the head. For a second we’re relieved. We laugh. Then the hyena attacks Orange Juice. Pi screams. And from under the tarp, Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger, finally emerges and swiftly kills the hyena.

And just like that it’s the two of them: Richard Parker, patrolling the lifeboat, and Pi hanging onto a makeshift float of oars and lifejackets tied to the lifeboat. In this manner they drift and get hungry. At one point, the tiger, hungry, jumps into the ocean to get at the fish but then swims toward Pi, who, panicking, pulls himself up on the lifeboat. He’s about to kill the tiger, clinging to the side, but can’t, for he sees the soul in his eyes. Instead he creates a kind of ladder that the tiger ascends to safety.

The story becomes increasingly hallucinatory. The ocean turns luminescent just as a giant whale leaps into the air and thunders back again. They are suddenly inundated, pelted, with flying fish, who fill the boat with themselves. Half-starved, they bump into a floating island, teeming with meerkats and vegetation, which, Pi determines, is a living thing, and carnivorous, and would eventually eat them. So off they go again. Finally, after 227 days, they land on the shores of Mexico. Pi drags the boat onto the beach and collapses. Richard Parker leaps onto the beach and heads for the jungle, which is conveniently nearby. He pauses right before he enters it again. Pi, barely able to lift up his head, is hoping for a final look of farewell from this companion, this tiger whom he tamed and loved, but it doesn’t come. Instead Richard Parker simply vanishes into the woods.

That’s basically the story. Except no one believes it. Hyenas and tigers and zebras, oh my? A floating carnivorous island? A boy and a Bengal tiger? Is this Calvin and Hobbes?

No. But it may be “Fight Club.”

The tiger inside Pi
In Mexico, the Japanese steamer company sends two representatives to find out how their boat, with all its precious cargo, sunk. Other than “Storm,” Pi can’t really tell them why. He can only tell them the other things, about Richard Parker and the carnivorous island, which are not only fantastic but completely irrelevant to what they want to know. So he tells them another story. In this one, the animals are played by humans. The orangutan is Pi’s mother, the zebra is a sailor with a broken leg, and the hyena is the asshole cook we met on board (Gérard Depardieu). It’s a lie for those too grounded to believe the fantastic.

But then the Writer makes the connection between Pi and the tiger—that Pi was the tiger—and, as the Writer realizes it, so do we: This is the true story. Pi is the tiger who kills the hyena (the cook) who kills the orangutan (Pi’s mother). Transposing the story with animals is Pi’s way of dealing with the tragedy. In this manner, the tiger is both Pi’s Hobbes (his companion) and his Tyler Durden (himself). It’s also why it took so long for the tiger to show up on the lifeboat. He wasn’t emerging from under the tarp; he was emerging from within Pi.

Neither version, by itself, is satisfying. Each has holes. If it’s the version with the tiger, how does Richard Parker, a tiger, hide under a tarp, and why would a hyena hide there with him? And if it’s the version without the tiger, then it’s a version without the tiger. That’s no fun. Instead of a story about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, it’s a story about a boy on a lifeboat who slowly goes crazy with grief and isolation. But the two versions, each unsatisfying, each full of holes, complement each other.

As for the early promise about believing in God? At the end of this long tale, the mature Pi asks the Writer which story he prefers and he admits the one with the tiger. To which Pi responds: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

The Writer smiles at this but in the audience I was simply confused. Wait a minute, what did he say? Goes with God? What does that mean? And prefer? Preference isn’t belief. How does this make us believe in God? Is Pi, a man who collects religions the way I collected baseball cards, saying that humans prefer the story of God the way that we prefer the story of the tiger? Because it’s a nicer story? And because it keeps the other story, the story about the horror humans do, at bay?

This isn’t a story that makes us believe in God, in other words. This is a story about why we believe in God. Or why our belief in God is generally a lie.

The tiger or Gérard Depardieu?
A friend of mine refuses to see this movie. He saw the trailer and thought it looked like pap. A boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean? Puh-lease. My friend didn’t know he was already in the movie. He was a representative of the Japanese steamer company, there to file a report. And, in that report, even they, the reps, prefer the story about the tiger. Who doesn’t? It’s got a tiger in it.

“Life of Pi” is interesting in this way. It appears to be a tough-but-gentle wish-fulfillment fantasy about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. But the further I move away from it, the darker, and less gentle, it seems; and the more I see, not the tiger growling majestically, but Gérard Depardieu, the hyena, lording it over the injured people in the small lifeboat. Until he’s brought low.

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Posted at 07:34 AM on Dec 14, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Tuesday December 11, 2012

Quote of the Day

Who are your heroes in real life?
I really love Barack Obama. Sorry if that’s like “Ew. The president. That’s lame.” I love Barack Obama. What a great man. I’m so lucky to have voted for that guy.

--Louis C.K., in the Proust Questionnaire in the latest Vanity Fair. His answers are so good they put to shame almost everybody else's, including mine from a few years back, since most of us play along with VF and Proust. Louie doesn't.

Oh, and it's another connection, as if we need it, between Louis C.K. and Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust and Louis C.K.: together again

Together again. Proust, I'm sure, never envisioned some of Louie's answers.

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Posted at 05:03 PM on Dec 11, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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'Man of Steel' Trailer #2

I'm not a fan of Zack Snyder (“Sucker Punch,” etc.) so I'm a bit worried that he's at the helm of the first true cinematic reboot of Superman since 1978. But this trailer? Looks pretty damn good.

Start with young Clark saying, “The world's too big, Mom,” and her asking him to focus on just her. Perfect. Imagine if you could hear the entire world? How would you focus? I actually wrote a bit about this, about Superman's dilemma, in 2010:

We're interested in him because he's all-powerful but being all-powerful is dramatically uninteresting. So we need to either push toward or pull away from his power: weaken him to create a feasible drama, or keep him as is and make his all-powerfulness the drama. I'm inclined toward the latter.

The trailer indicates that Snyder has done the latter.

I also like Pa Kent's advice. How, maybe, he should let people die. How, no matter what, he shouldn't let people know what he can do. I think it's bad advice but no one ever said Pa Kent couldn't give bad advice. Fathers do it all the time.

All in all, Superman's dilemmas seem four-fold:

  1. How to handle his powers.
  2. What to do with his powers.
  3. The frightful reaction from humans.
  4. General Zod.

I'm there.

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Posted at 09:50 AM on Dec 11, 2012 in category Trailers
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AFI's Top 10 Movies of 2012

Yesterday the American Film Institute released its list of the top 10 movies of 2012. It's a bit pedestrian since the organization is obviously limited to American film.

Alphabetically:

American Film Institute logo (AFI)Of the five I've seen (linked above), only two will probably make my top 10. Feel free to guess.

The surprise, of course, is “The Dark Knight Rises,” which has all sorts of problems but did well at the box office. If it's box office they're after, why not “The Avengers,” a better movie, which did better box office? Why not “Skyfall”? (Oh right, Brit.) Why not “Ice Age 3: Continental Drift”? (OK, now you're getting silly.) Why not “Chasing Ice”? Yeah, why not? Or doesn't AFI do docs? How about a “Ice Age 3”/“Chasing Ice” double feature?

For some reason, the year-end lists this year are depressing hell out of me. Maybe because there's no “Tree of Life” or “Un Prophete” or “Up” to choose from.

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Posted at 06:51 AM on Dec 11, 2012 in category Movies - Awards
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Monday December 10, 2012

D.C., Boston, Choose ZERO DARK THIRTY for Best Film; LA Says AMOUR

More year-end critics awards were announced recently:

  Washington, D.C.  Boston Los Angeles
Film Zero Dark Thirty Zero Dark Thirty  Amour
Director Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Actress Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty Emmanuelle Riva, Amour Emmanuelle Riva, Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Supp. Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Supp. Actress Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables Sally Field, Lincoln Amy Adams, The Master
Screenplay Rian Johnson, Looper/ David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook Tony Kushner, Lincoln Chris Terrio, Argo
Documentary Bully How to Survive a Plague The Gatekeepers
Foreign Amour Amour Holy Motors
Animated ParaNorman Frankenweenie Frankenweenie
Cinematography Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi Mihai Malaimare Jr., The Master Roger Deakins, Skyfall

LA loves itself some “Master,” doesn't it?

Don't understand the “Looper” love. Wasn't a fan.

Missed out on “Amour” thus far — although it's Haneke, which isn't a good sign for me. Also missed out on most of the year's good documentaries. Did they come through town? If so, where was I?

Inspired choice: Ezra Miller for best supporting actor.

Meanwhile, controversy begins to haunt the frontrunner. Does “Zero Dark Thirty,” against all available evidence, suggest that waterboarding led to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden? Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal seem nonchalant about the matter in Dexter Filkins' New Yorker piece. A better defense, for them, is constructed by Spencer Ackerman in WIRED.

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.”

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Posted at 05:12 PM on Dec 10, 2012 in category Movies - Awards
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Movie Review: Dark Shadows (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“This thing is spectacularly off,” I said.

“I keep waiting for it to find a rhythm,” Ward responded, “and it never does.”

We were halfway into Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows,” surely one of the worst movies of the year. The cast was good, the trailer looked funny, the reviews were OK. In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis called it enjoyable; on Salon, Andrew O’Hehir trumpeted Michelle Pfeiffer’s return to the screen (after only a year away?), while on Slate, Dana Stevens wrote, “[Burton] and Depp, both avowed childhood fans of the original series, seem to be in their element and having a grand old time.” Turns out these positive reviews were in the minority. Among top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, “Dark Shadows” garnered a 37% rating, which, to me, is still 37 percentage points too high. It’s an abysmal movie.

Sleepy, Hollow
Dark Shadows (2012)It opens with 10 minutes of backstory. In the 18th century, the Collins family, including young Barnabus, leave Liverpool, England, for the wilds of Maine, where they start a fishing empire, create the town of Collinsport, and build the stately, gothic mansion known as Collinwood.

Barnabus, of age now, and played by Johnny Depp, is about to diddle the servant, Angelique (Eva Green), who asks if he loves her. He cannot tell a lie: he doesn’t. Hell hath no fury like a woman—or, in this case, witch—scorned, and she uses her powers to kill his parents by falling steeple. Distraught, he descends into the black arts, but manages, through the pain, to find his one true love: Josette (Bella Heathcote, this decade’s Heather Graham). Ever jealous, Angelique compels Josette to throw herself off Widow’s Hill, turns Barnabus into a vampire, then turns the town against him. A torch-wielding mob descends, chain him in a coffin, and bury him alive for 200 years. Cue credits.

It’s now 1972. A young woman on a train, who looks like Josette (same actress), is obviously hiding something (she changes her name, per a Victoria, B.C. travel poster, to Victoria Winters), and heading for a job as a governess at Collinwood, now decrepit. There, she and we meet the modern, dysfunctional Collins family: matriarch Elizabeth (Pfeiffer), who is starched and overly proper; her eye-rolling teenage daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Mortez); Elizabeth’s brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), a weak, shallow man who ignores the needs of his son, David (Gulliver McGrath), whose mother died at sea three years earlier. David claims he still sees his mother; he claims he still has conversations with her. That’s why Collinwood has an  in-house shrink, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, of course), who arrives at evening meals frequently plastered. There’s also a disgruntled butler/handyman, Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), who is frequently plastered, and whose every joke falls flat.

Barnabus Returns
Only after meeting all of them, as well as the ghost of Josette who plagues Victoria, do we get the resurrection of Barnabus by a night-time construction crew, each of whom screams, runs and crawls from this nightmare. Barnabus then goes to Collinwood and we meet the family all over again: Elizabeth, Carolyn, Roger, et al. Elizabeth wants to keep Barnabus’ secret—that he’s a 200-year-old vampire—from everyone, including the family, so she introduces him as Barnabus III. From England. All of these jokes fall flat. Then Barnabus meets the new governess, Victoria, who looks exactly like his long-lost true love, Josette, and discovers that his nemesis, Angelique, has survived all of these years and is now running the town.

What does he do? Get revenge on Angelique? Court Victoria, who looks like his one true love?

Neither. He sets about restoring the family name and reputation. We get a montage—backed by the Carpenters’ “Top of the World”—of workers sprucing up Collinwood and the Collins Canning Factory opening its doors again. When Barnabus finally meets Angelique, she makes a pass at him; the second time they have rough sex. He also sucks the blood out of a band of hippies in the woods. Then he kills Dr. Hoffman, who, under the pretense of curing him of vampirism, and wanting eternal youth, tries to turn herself into a vampire. Before this, she goes down on him. Later, Barnabus throws a ball headlined by Alice Cooper. “Balls are how the ruling class remain the ruling class,” he says.

His revenge? Forgotten. His one true love? Whatever. What should be driving the story forward isn’t, and what is driving the story forward isn’t funny.

Occasionally we get bits where Barnabus grapples, to humorous effect, with 1972 mores. He sees the golden-arched “M” of McDonald’s as a sign of Mephistopheles. He wonders over the sorcery of television and yells at Karen Carpenter, singing on a variety show of the day, “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!” In Dr. Hoffman’s office, he shakes his head and says, “This is a very silly play.” Cut to: an episode of “Scooby Doo.”

But most of the movie is scattered, pointless, painfully tin-eared.

Beetlejuiceless
All of it leads to a final confrontation between the Collins family and Angelique, where we find out, in a pointless third act reveal, that long ago Angelique turned Carolyn into a werewolf. We also find out that it was Angelique who killed David’s mother at sea. At this point David’s mother finally reveals herself, in all her howling fury, and destroys Angelique.

Why didn’t David’s mother do this sooner? Why didn’t Barnabus? Why do the Collinses consider Barnabus worthy of the portrait over the fireplace when it was Barnabus’ father who built up everything? And since when do witches turn men into vampires?

The fault isn’t Depp’s: his line readings; his reaction shots, are generally good. But nothing anyone else does is worth a damn. Tim Burton lets his freak flag fly. He paints Johnny Depp chalky white again, as in “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Willie Wonka,” and “Sweeney Todd.” He has the living and the dead raise a family again, as in “Beetlejuice.” But there’s no juice here. Burton’s always been a lousy storyteller, sacrificing plot and plausibility for imagery, but even the imagery here feels stale. Burton’s love of the dead finally feels dead.

My favorite moment? The end. And not because it’s the end but because of the Hollywood hubris it represents. As Barnabus and Victoria, both vampires now, kiss on the rocks beneath Widow’s Hill, the camera dives underwater and heads out to sea, where we come across the body of Dr. Hoffman in cement shoes. And her eyes suddenly open. Ping! The end. It’s a set-up for a sequel that will never be made. It’s an ending that assumed a success that never came.

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Posted at 07:45 AM on Dec 10, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Sunday December 09, 2012

Quote of the Day

“The only thing more beautiful than a baseball park full of screaming fans is an empty park with not a fan in sight. I mention this because it's a sentiment I feel every time I go to work.”

-- Bob Lundegaard in an email to his ne'er-do-well son, Erik, about the film “Moneyball.” His job, referenced above, is tour guide at Target Field in beautiful downtown Minneapolis. if you go, be sure to ask for him by name.

Moneyball: empty ballpark

An empty ballpark of the beautiful kind, not the Safeco Field kind.

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Posted at 12:59 PM on Dec 09, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Saturday December 08, 2012

15 Movies in 2012 That Were Worse than 'John Carter'

TIME magazine recently announced its 10 best and 10 worst list and had “John Carter” as the second-worst film of 2012, eclipsed only by “Cloud Atlas.” Jeff Wells, no fan of “Cloud Atlas,” objected. “Worse, even, than John Carter?”he writes. “That's saying something.”

I'll say it again: I liked “John Carter.” It's a good, original, heroic-epic story that got a bad rap from the get-go and then a worse rap because it died at the box office. It won't make my top 10 list but it will head my “Most Undeservedly Maligned Movies of 2012” list. If I put together such a beast.

In the meantime, to answer Wells' question, here's a list of 2012 movies I think are worse than “John Carter” (in alphabetical order):

At least with “John Carter” I was always interested in where the story was going. With most of the above, I knew exactly where it was going and rolled my eyes when it got there.

Hell, I might even add this one.

John Carter poster

Will make a lot of “10 worst” lists because it bombed at the box office not because it was bad.

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Posted at 05:36 PM on Dec 08, 2012 in category Movies - Lists
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Thursday December 06, 2012

Movie Review: Lincoln (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

You know the saying that laws are like sausages—you don’t want to see them being made? Tony Kushner says, “Grow up.” Steven Spielberg says, “We’ll loin ya.” Their movie, “Lincoln,” is not only the greatest story ever told about the passage of a law—in this case the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which formally, legally abolished slavery—it’s a joy for anyone who cares about great acting, writing, and drama. It’s what movies should be.

Poster of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" (2012)In 1915, Pres. Woodrow Wilson called “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s Confederate-friendly epic, “history written with lightning,” but I wouldn’t call this movie that. It’s history written as carefully as history should be. It’s well-researched and made dramatic and relevant. Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), the most saintly of all presidents, isn’t presented here as a saint but as a smart, moral, political man, who, under extraordinary pressure from all sides, does what he has to do in order to do the right thing. His machinations aren’t clean. It takes a little bit of bad to do good. Progress is never easy. There are always slippery-slope arguments against it. Sure, free the slaves. Then what? Give Negroes the vote? Allow them into the House of Representatives? Give women the vote? Allow intermarriage? The preposterousness of where the road might take us prevents us from taking the first step. Then and now.

Nobody does it better
I once said of Jeffrey Wright’s Martin Luther King, Jr., that no one would ever do it better; I now say the same of Day-Lewis’ Lincoln. He only has to talk about his dreams to his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), with his stockinged feet up on the furniture, a kind of languid ease in his long-limbed body, and I’m his. He only has to quote Shakespeare one moment (“I could count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams”), and, in the next, ask Mary, in a colloquialism of the day, “How’s your coconut?” and I’m his. I remember when I was young, 10 or so, and we were visiting my father’s sister, Alice, and her husband, Ben, and when we had to leave I began to cry. Because I didn’t want to leave Uncle Ben. I liked being near him. He had a calm and gentle spirit that I and my immediate family did not. It felt comfortable to be around. I got that same feeling from Daniel Day-Lewis here. How does he do that? How do you act a calm and gentle spirit?

His Lincoln exudes charm. During a flag-raising ceremony, he pulls a piece of paper from his top hat, says a few quick words, then looks up with a twinkle in his eye. “That’s my speech,” he says, and returns the paper to his top hat. He gives his cabinet, reluctant to spend political capital on another go at the 13th amendment, which the House failed to ratify 10 months earlier, a primer on the legal difficulties of the Emancipation Proclamation. If slaves are property, then… If the Confederacy is not a sovereign nation but wayward states, then… Finally he apologizes for his long-windedness: “As the preacher said, I would write shorter sermons but once I get going I’m too lazy to stop.” He says it with a twinkle in his eye. His stories are there for purposes of instruction and/or distraction. Maybe he does it to distract himself. In the war room late at night, waiting on word about the shelling of Wilmington, Va., a blanket around his shoulders and a cup of coffee in his hand, he launches into an anecdote about Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, and Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), loudly objects. “You're going to tell one of your stories! I can't stand to hear another one of your stories!” He leaves. Too bad. He missed a great story. Added bonus: You get to hear Day-Lewis, an Englishman, acting as Lincoln, an American, imitating an Englishman.

If this Lincoln is human-sized so is the presidency itself. Petitioners line up outside Lincoln’s office to ask for favors. His cabinet is full of men who think they should be president and aren’t reluctant to share their opinions. His wife has her complaints (their son, Willie, dead now three years), his son Robert has his (he wants to leave law school for the war), Negro soldiers have theirs (they’re getting paid $3 less per month than white soldiers). Both political extremes mock him. Abolitionists consider him cautious and timid, a lingerer and a buffoon, while the Northern Democrats malign him as a tyrant enthralled to the Negro. They thunder about him in Congress. “King Abraham Africanus!” they cry. A president considered too conciliatory by friends and an African tyrant by foes? Plus ca change.

Peace v. Freedom
Ultimately “Lincoln” is about the choice between peace (for all) and freedom (for a few). “It’s either this amendment or the Confederate peace,” Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), tells the president. “You cannot have both.”

Almost everyone pushes Lincoln toward peace even as he moves, in his methodical, searching manner, toward freedom. He gave himself the power during war to proclaim all slaves free, but what happens in peace? Won’t slavery still be legal in the South? Couldn’t the Civil War just happen all over again over the same issue?

The 13th amendment has already passed in the Senate and it’s just 20 votes shy in the House. So early in January 1865, even as he sends moderate Republican Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) to Virginia to set up a potential peace conference with secessionist delegates, Lincoln hires, or has Seward hire, three scallywags (read: lobbyists), gloriously headed up by James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, to more or less buy the votes of lame-duck Democrats, losers of the 1864 election, who have nothing to lose and gainful employment to gain.

That’s the true drama of the movie. Can Lincoln, in the midst of pulling back the South to the Union, hold together enough of the disparate elements that remain to abolish slavery at the federal level before the South returns and gums up the works again? We get a few key moments, several dramatic scenes. The Northern Democrats attempt to goad thundering abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, into proclaiming on the House floor that he believes in the equality of races (anathema at the time) and not just equality before the law.

You know all of those “100 Greatest Movie Insults” compilations on YouTube? They need an update. This is Stevens’ rejoinder:

How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentlemen from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their maker with dim wit impermeable to reason, with cold, pallid slime in their veins instead of hot, red blood. You are more reptile than man, George! So low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.

What fun. The language here is beautiful. I also like it when Lincoln calls his cabinet “pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters.” We need to bring that back: “pettifogging.” We need to bring back erudite insults.

But the key scene in the movie contains no thunder, and the key man who needs convincing isn’t a Democrat; it’s Lincoln himself.

Self-evidence
As with the Ethan Allen story, it takes place in the middle of the night in the basement of the White House. Lincoln is about to send a message in Morse code about the “secesh” delegates, and ruminates out loud with several officers. Up to this point he’s been pursuing two paths, one leading to peace but not passage, the other pointing to passage but not peace, and this is the point where the paths diverge and he has to choose which to walk on. He begins down the path of peace: bring the delegates to Washington. But before the message is sent, he engages the two men in conversation.

One of them, it turns out, is an engineer. Lincoln asks him if he knows Euclid’s axioms and common notions, and then regales them with the first: Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. “That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning,” he says. “It’s true because it works. Has done and always will be.” He seems to be talking out loud. But there’s a moment, an epiphanic “huh,” when Lincoln realizes the point he’s talking toward:

In his book, [huh] Euclid says this is self-evident. You see, there it is, even in that 2,000-year-old book of mechanical law: It is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other.

The beauty of the scene? Kushner and Spielberg draw no line to the Declaration of Independence. They assume we’re already drawing that line ourselves. They assume it’s self-evident. They just give us Daniel Day-Lewis saying “Huh.”

At which point he rescinds the order sending the peace delegates to Washington, and thereby changes history.

To the ages
“Lincoln” isn’t all glory. The screenplay by Tony Kushner attempts to demythologize history, the presidency and Lincoln, but Spielberg, fore and aft, can’t contain his myth-making tendencies.

In the beginning, sitting on a raised platform, Pres. Lincoln engages four soldiers, two black and two white, and seems halfway to Memorial already. Three of the four soldiers have the Gettysburg Address memorized already, as if they were 20th-century schoolkids (Dan Roach and myself in fifth grade) rather 19th-century soldiers. We hear tinkling music as if in a Ken Burns documentary. It’s all rather unnecessary. We could’ve begun with Lincoln’s bad dream and stockinged feet and gotten on with it.

Then there’s the ending. Spielberg has always had a problem with endings. From behind, with music swelling, we watch Lincoln leave the White House, on April 14, 1865, late for Ford’s Theater. “Not a bad end,” I thought. But it’s not the end. We go to the theater, but it’s a different theater, one his son Tad is attending, which suddenly closes its curtains to announce the awful and inevitable. Then there’s a deathbed scene: Mary wailing, the doctor declaring, blood on the pillow, someone saying, as someone maybe said or maybe didn’t, “Now he belongs to the ages.” The end? No. Spielberg has to include the second inaugural: “With malice toward none, with charity to all…” Meanwhile I sat in my seat, feeling not very charitable.

But those are my only complaints about “Lincoln.”

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Posted at 07:05 AM on Dec 06, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Wednesday December 05, 2012

National Board of Review Names ZERO DARK THIRTY Best Film of 2012

Monday it was the New York Film Critics Circle with their best of 2012 list. Today it was the National Board of Review. And both orgs chose the same film as best film:

Here's NBR's list:

  • Best Film:  ZERO DARK THIRTY
  • Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, ZERO DARK THIRTY
  • Best Actor: Bradley Cooper, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
  • Best Actress: Jessica Chastain, ZERO DARK THIRTY
  • Best Supporting Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, DJANGO UNCHAINED
  • Best Supporting Actress: Ann Dowd, COMPLIANCE
  • Best Original Screenplay: Rian Johnson, LOOPER
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: David O. Russell, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
  • Best Animated Feature: WRECK-IT RALPH
  • Special Achievement in Filmmaking: Ben Affleck, ARGO
  • Breakthrough Actor: Tom Holland, THE IMPOSSIBLE
  • Breakthrough Actress: Quvenzhané Wallis BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
  • Best Directorial Debut: Benh Zeitlin, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
  • Best Foreign Language Film:  AMOUR
  • Best Documentary: SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN
  • William K. Everson Film History Award: 50 YEARS OF BOND FILMS
  • Best Ensemble: LES MISÉRABLES
  • Spotlight Award: John Goodman (ARGO, FLIGHT, PARANORMAN, TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE)
  • NBR Freedom of Expression Award: CENTRAL PARK FIVE
  • NBR Freedom of Expression Award: PROMISED LAND

(BTW, NBR, that should be “Sugar Man,” not “Sugarman.” FYI.)

The National Board of Review is less prestigious than the New York Film Critics Circle but an even poorer predictor of the Oscar race. Since 2000, they've chosen the same best picture as the Academy only twice: “No Country for Old Men” in 2007 and “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2008. For the rest they went “Quills,” “Moulin Rouge!,” “The Hours,” “Mystic River,” “Finding Neverland,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Up in the Air,” “The Social Network,” “Hugo.” Some weak tea there.

As for when the NBR and the NYFCC agree on best picture? They rarely do: four times in the last 20 years. Well, five now. And it means nothing in terms of the Oscar race:

  • 2010: The Social Network (NO)
  • 2007: No Country for Old Men (YES)
  • 1997: L.A. Confidential: (NO)
  • 1993: Schindler's List: (YES)

“Lincoln,” interestingly, was shut out by the NBR. Even Danny Day-Lewis. That makes me smile, it's so absurd.

Among other absurd choices? “Looper” in their top 10, “Hello, I Must Be Going” among their top 10 indie, and “The Kid with a Bike” among their top 5 foreign.

Bradley Cooper in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

I'm sure he's fine. But he's no Danny Day-Lewis, despite the garbage bag.

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Posted at 07:22 PM on Dec 05, 2012 in category Movies - Awards
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Idiot of the Day: Dinesh D’Souza

“I want to thank the Academy for not nominating our film. By ignoring ’2016,’ the top-performing box-office hit of 2012, and pretending that films like ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ and  ‘This Is Not a Film’ are more deserving of an Oscar, our friends in Hollywood have removed any doubt average Americans may have had that liberal political ideology, not excellence, is the true standard of what receives awards.”

-- Dinesh D’Souza, writer and director, with John Sullivan, of the documentary “2016: Obama's America.”

Dinesh D'Souza: Idiot

A few pointers, Dinesh:

  • The Academy isn't about box office. Since 2000, how many No. 1 box-office hits have been nominated best picture? Three: “Return of the King” in 2003, “Avatar” in 2009, and “Toy Story 3” in 2010. How many won? One. “Return of the King.” This is true in the documentary-feature category as well. The No. 1 doc last year? Justin Bieber's concert film. Not nominated. In 2010? “Oceans.” Nada. In  2009 it was “Earth,” and in 2008 “Religulous.” Bupkis. The last No. 1 box-office doc to get nom'ed was Michael Moore's “Sicko” in 2007 but it lost the award to Alex Gibney's “Taxi to the Dark Side.” Which barely made any money at the box office. 
  • The Academy has never really been about excellence, either. Or to put another way: Excellence is in the eye of the beholder. In this list from Sasha Stone on the best pictures chosen by the Academy's and the New York Film Critics Circle, there aren't many years, when the two bodies disagree, when I wouldn't rather watch the NYFCC's choice. Those films are more excellent to me. Which doesn't mean that members of the Academy don't strive for excellence. It's just that other things get in the way.
  • But if you're looking for a way to quantify quality, or excellence, then the Rotten Tomatoes site isn't a bad place to go. And the top critics there gave “Searching for Sugar Man” a 97% rating, and “This is Not a Film” a 100% rating. Your film? 14%. “The film flutters to the ground like so much GOP convention confetti,” writes critic Roger Moore of McClatchy-Tribune News Service; “all assertions, few facts and little substance other than the conspiratorial right wing talking points that are D'Souza's bread and butter.”
  • Which is pretty much the consenus of your film. It sucks. The fact that you seem to have expected a nomination, and have attributed the lack of to liberal Hollywood bias, indicates how far gone you are. It's like expecting a documentary about 9/11 truthers to be short-listed for an Oscar.

The bigger travesty, as Sasha Stone points out, is all of the great docs that didn't make the cut, including “The Central Park Five,” “Samsara,” “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” and “West of Memphis.”

Here are the 15 docs that did make the Academy's short list:

  1. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” Never Sorry LLC
  2. “Bully,” The Bully Project LLC
  3. “Chasing Ice,” Exposure
  4. “Detropia,” Loki Films
  5. “Ethel,” Moxie Firecracker Films
  6. “5 Broken Cameras,” Guy DVD Films
  7. “The Gatekeepers,” Les Films du Poisson, Dror Moreh Productions, Cinephil
  8. “The House I Live In,” Charlotte Street Films, LLC
  9. “How to Survive a Plague,” How to Survive a Plague LLC
  10. “The Imposter,” Imposter Pictures Ltd.
  11. “The Invisible War,” Chain Camera Pictures
  12. “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” Jigsaw Productions in association with Wider Film Projects and Below the Radar Films
  13. “Searching for Sugar Man,” Red Box Films
  14. “This Is Not a Film,” Wide Management
  15. “The Waiting Room,” Open’hood, Inc.
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Posted at 05:10 PM on Dec 05, 2012 in category Movies - Documentaries
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Good Morning

“By the time I reached the coffee-shop door … my self-confidence had collapsed. Panic had taken its place. I believed I was the ugliest, dirtiest little old bum in Manhattan. If I went into the coffee shop, everybody would be nauseated. They would throw me out and tell me to go to the Bowery where I belonged.

“But I somehow found the courage to go in anyway—and imagine my surprise! It was as though I had died and gone to heaven! A waitress said to me, 'Honeybunch, you sit right down, and I’ll bring you your coffee right away.' I hadn’t said anything to her.

”So I sit down, and everywhere I looked I saw customers of every description being received with love. To the waitresses everybody was 'honeybunch' and 'darling' and 'dear.' It was like an emergency ward after a great catastrophe. It did not matter what race or class the victims belonged to. They were all given the same miracle drug, which was coffee. The catastrophe in this case, of course, was that the sun had come up again.“

--Walter F. Starbuck in Kurt Vonnegut's 1979 novel, ”Jailbird"; pp. 165-66

Morning coffee with Kurt Vonnegut

My morning. Book by Kurt Vonnegut, pottery by Ingrid Sundstrom, keyboard by Apple.

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Posted at 07:32 AM on Dec 05, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday December 03, 2012

Let the Awards Season Begin! NY Film Critics Circle Names ZERO DARK THIRTY Best Picture of 2012

Yes, the awards season has begun ... even though most of us haven't had the chance to see the movies yet. Or even hear of them. “The Deep Blue Sea” anyone?

None of that stopped the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) from, today, naming  its best of the best of 2012. The winners:

  • Picture: “Zero Dark Thirty”
  • Director: Kathryn Bigelow for “Zero Dark Thirty”
  • Screenplay: Tony Kushner for “Lincoln”
  • Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis for “Lincoln”
  • Actress: Rachel Weisz for “The Deep Blue Sea”
  • Supporting Actress: Sally Field for “Lincoln”
  • Supporting Actor: Matthew McConaughey for “Bernie” and “Magic Mike”
  • Cinematographer: Greig Fraser for “Zero Dark Thirty”
  • Animated Feature: “Frankenweenie”
  • Documentary Feature: “The Central Park Five”
  • Foreign Film: “Amour”
  • First Film: David France, “How to Survive a Plague”

Immediate reaction. I've seen “Lincoln” and that's it. Which is so typical of early December awards. But thus far I certainly agree with the NYFCC's actor and screenplay choices. Field, too, but less obviously. For some reason, apparently, some critics have disparaged her performance. Don't get that.

I'm glad for “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow's film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. As I said the other day, it looks fantastic. I have high hopes.

“Frankenweenie”? I think Jordy will object. I think he prefered “ParaNorman” and “Wreck-It Ralph.” I think this award was given to the more famous, more prestigious director, not the better animated movie. (Although I didn't think much of “Wreck-It Ralph.”)

“Amour” has been all over the place this year but I'm not much of a fan of Michael Haneke, either.

If you're curious how the NYFCC prefigures the Oscars, it's about a 50-50 proposition when it comes to best picture: 2011 yes, 2010 no (“Social Network” over “The King's Speech”), 2009 yes, 2008 no (“Milk” over “Slumdog Millionaire”), 2007 yes, 2006 no (“United 93” over “The Departed”). We're in an even year so it look like another disagreement with the Academy. When that happens, as with the aforementioned, I tend to agree with the New York Film Critics Circle.

Zero Dark Thirty horizontal poster

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Posted at 01:44 PM on Dec 03, 2012 in category Movies - Awards
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New 'Man of Steel' Poster Shows Superman in Handcuffs

Most movies ask, “Does he get the girl?” I keep asking, vis a vis Zack Snyder's “Man of Steel,” “Does he get the curl?” I.e., the famous spit curl in his hair that Superman has sported since at least the 1940s. According to this latest poster, the Man of Steel in handcuffs and in the custody of (I imagine) the U.S. Army, the answer is no. The curl is gone. Bummer.

Man of Steel poster: Superman in handcuffs

But it's a good poster. If offers intrigue. It suggests that when Superman shows up with his amazing powers and flies through the air to saves citizens falling from helicopters, most folks aren't going to just start applauding like they're watching a walk-off homerun in a pennant race in September. They're going to be freaked. And the U.S. government isn't going to have a non-response, as they did in “Superman: The Movie.” They'll have this response. (Psst, Republicans. He's also an illegal alien.)

I just hope the movie's smart. Snyder has given us some of the dumbest, darkest, most claustrophobic movies in recent years—“300,” “Watchmen” and the abyssmal “Sucker Punch”—and the legend of Superman deserves better.

June 14th.

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Posted at 12:02 PM on Dec 03, 2012 in category Movies - Posters
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Movie Review: Hitchcock (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Good evening.

It’s been quite a year for Alfred Hitchcock, hasn’t it? His film, “Vertigo,” a box-office bomb when it was released in 1958, was voted the greatest film of all time by the 846 critics, distributors and academics commissioned by Sight & Sound magazine, supplanting “Citizen Kane,” which had ruled atop that prestigious list for decades. Then HBO premiered its movie, “The Girl,” about Hitchcock’s obsession with Tippy Hedren, his star of “The Birds” and “Marnie.”

Now this.

Poster for Hitchcock (2012)If “The Girl” focuses on the girl and was a drag, “Hitchcock” focuses on Hitchcock and is fun. It begins and ends fun anyway. Near the end, Mrs. Hitchcock, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), tells her husband (Anthony Hopkins) that they’ve been “maudlin” with each other for too long. Indeed. That’s the problem with “Hitchcock.” It, like Hitchcock himself, has a maudlin middle.

Family plot
Why are they Mr. and Mrs. maudlin? Because after 30 years Alma is suddenly upset by her husband’s obsessions with his leading ladies, the so-called Hitchcock blondes, including Madeleine Carroll, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, and now, here, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). To get back at him, she succumbs to the attentions of hack-writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who adapted “Strangers on a Train” for Hitchcock (apparently poorly), and who is now working on a project called “Taxi to Dubrovnik,” which, in real life, was published as a novel in 1981. At a beach cottage, she agrees to collaborate on it with him. She likes the way he flirts with her. She likes the attention he pays to her. Attention must be paid. But her absence distracts the great man from his work, the film “Psycho,” for which they, the Hitchcocks, are mortgaging their house. It also distracts him from his obsessions, such as peeking through the blinds of his Paramount office at the would-be Hitchcock blondes walking by. Instead, Hitch becomes obsessed with Alma.

Even before Alma began disappearing up the coast, though, Hitch hardly seems obsessed with his leading lady. He doesn’t stare at her 8x10 glossy the way he does with Grace Kelly’s. He doesn’t spy on her in the dressing room through a peephole, as he does with Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), prefiguring, of course, Norman Bates’ own voyeurism in “Psycho.” He isn’t upset with her, disappointed in her, the way he was with Miles, whom he was going to make a star in “Vertigo,” until she betrayed on him, cheated on him you might say, by getting pregnant. He doesn’t maul her in the backseat of a limo as he does with Tippi Hedren in HBO’s “The Girl.” You know what he does? He shares candy corn with her in the front seat of her Volkswagen. Cute. So what’s Mrs. Hitchcock’s problem? That’s the real disconnect of the movie. It doesn’t answer one of the main questions of drama: Why now? If anything, everything points to it not being now. Everything they own is riding on “Psycho.” Shouldn’t Alma be riding with it? Instead of succumbing to the fatuous flirtations of Danny Huston?

The wrong man
Worse, Alma’s sad beachfront needs distract us from what may be a better movie. Because while Hitchcock is acting the perfect gentleman with Ms. Leigh, or the cuckolded husband with Alma, he is having imaginary conversations with none other than Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the Wisconsin mass murderer on whom Norman Bates is based. That’s pretty creepy. Ed Gein is to Hitchcock here as Humphrey Bogart is to Woody Allen in “Play It Again, Sam.” He gives him advice. He taunts him to action. Ed Gein. Yet Hitch remains toothless despite it. He remains a charming but naughty waddler of a man. It seems you should go one way or the other: deeper into the similarities and differences between Gein and Norman and Hitchcock (and us, by the way; they keep leaving out us, the movie audience, the true voyeurs, as Hitchcock never did); or maybe you replace Gein-as-counselor with Norman Bates, who, being fictional, would be lighter, and fit better into the overall tone of the movie.

Instead, it’s a movie of distraction. It’s a movie that keeps skimming surfaces.

In a way, it’s about how the French were wrong after all. Hitchcock wasn’t an auteur the way they said. He needed Alma, and he needed Bernard Hermann’s score (Wirt! Wirt! Wirt!), and he needed all the other talent around him, not least Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. But mostly he needed Alma. He owns up to this at the premiere of “Psycho.” Alma, who is used to staying a few paces behind the great man, is here called forward to share in the acclaim, and they have the following conversation that sums it all up rather neatly:

Alfred: I’ll never find a Hitchcock blonde as beautiful as you.
Alma: I’ve waited 30 years for you to say that.
Alfred: And that, my dear, is why they call me ‘The master of suspense.’

It’s a charming bit that I didn’t believe at all.

Sabotage
The movie begins and ends similarly, with Ed Gein murdering his brother with a shovel in 1941, and the camera panning over to, yep, Alfred Hitchcock, who, in “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…” fashion, speaks to us directly about Cain and Abel, and brotherly murders, and the connection between Gein and “Psycho,” and what we’re about to watch. It’s the macabre served with a wink. The movie ends happily, with Hitchcock in front of his southern California home, which, with the success of “Psycho,” he gets to keep, and wondering over his next project. He’s looking for inspiration. “I do hope something comes along,” he says. At which point a crow settles on his shoulder. “Good evening,” he says to us.

Now that’s fun. Hopkins is fun. He’s less one-note than two-note, but both are fun notes.

Mirren is good, too, but most of her notes—her various carping, her hope for an affair with Danny Huston—are not fun, and at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie.

It’s a shame because I liked almost everything else in “Hitchcock”: the battles with Paramount head Barney Ballaban (Richard Portnow); the battles with censor Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith); Hitchcock’s conversations with legendary agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who deserves a movie of his own. I liked all of this backset intrigue. I left the theater with a smile.

But the movie is a little like Alfred Hitchcock, the man, divided into thirds. We got a bit of the head (the dry wit), and a bit of the lower depths (the peeping voyeurism; the Scottie Ferguson dress-up games), but too much of that overweight, maudlin middle.

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Posted at 06:21 AM on Dec 03, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Sunday December 02, 2012

Hollywood B.O.: Threeway Threepeat for First Time in Three Years

For the third weekend in a row, the top three movies were the same three movies:

  1. “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2”
  2. “Skyfall”
  3. “Lincoln”

One, two, three. All three weeks. Boom.

When was the last time that happened? When three movies finished 1-2-3 at the box office three weeks in a row?

A long time. Hell, it's rare these days when one movie finishes No. 1 three weekends in a row, let alone the next two not changing slots with any other movie.

Here. These are movies that in recent years topped the charts for at least three weeks. (Longer reigns are in parentheses.):

2012:

2011:

2010:

2009:

You need a specific set of circumstances to make it work. The three movies have to have legs, and the new releases in weeks 2 and 3 have to be lame enough, or uninteresting enough, or nonexistent enough, not to unseat any of the three.

Last weekend, for example, these movies opened: “Rise of the Guardians,” Life of Pi,“ and ”Red Dawn.“ The first two came close to clipping ”Lincoln“ but not close enough. This weekend ”Killing Them Softly“ opened. Softly. It finished 7th. That's how ”Twilight,“ ”Skyfall“ and ”Lincoln“ have managed this.  

And the last time this kind of three-way/threepeat happened? At the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010, when ”Avatar“ reigned on top. For the last weekend of 2009, the Christmas weekend, both ”Sherlock Holmes“ and ”Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakel“ opened and finished 2nd and 3rd, respectively. The following weekend, the first of year, nothing new opened wide, as often happens with the first weekend of the year, and the top 3 stayed 1, 2, 3. The next weekend, ”Daybreakers,“ ”Leap Year,“ and ”Youth in Revolt“ opened wide, but finished 4th, 6th and 9th, respectively. The top three remained the same. That's three weekends.

It wasn't until the MLK Weekend when ”Book of Eli“ opened and ”Lovely Bones“ went wider that they displaced No.s 2 and 3. But ”Avatar“ remained on top for another four weekends—with shifting seconds and thirds below it. 

So it's been almost three years since this has happened.

The weekend's box-office numbers here.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2  Skyfall poster  Poster for Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln"

I can tell you one thing: ”BDP2“ ain't grossing $700 million worldwide because of that poster.

UPDATE: I knew I should've waited until the actuals came in. At the 11:30th hour, ”Rise of the Guardians“ eclipsed ”Lincoln“ for third place. ”Lincoln" fell to fourth. Meaning the last time three movies were 1, 2, 3 at the domestic box office for three weeks in a row was still three years ago.

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Posted at 05:42 PM on Dec 02, 2012 in category Movies - Box Office
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Jordy's Reviews: Rise of the Guardians (2012)

My nephew Jordy, 11, keeps at it...

“Rise Of The Guardians” sounded like it would be a good film. The trailers showed good animation, action, an all-star cast. I went into the movie theater expecting a fun hour and a half.

Boy was I disappointed. Despite some good things, it fails to make up for its bad story, terrible 3D, and meh script.

Rise of the Guardians (2012)The trailer did get some things right. For one thing, the animation is nice. It has these weird sand things flying everywhere, and there is a lot of detail. Also, the movie has action in a non-violent, young kind of way, which I respect. However, I have to question the cast a little bit.  The Easter Bunny is Australian? What? Even though the supporting cast is made up of stars, I would expect the main character to be a star, too, but no. Jack Frost is Chris Pine, and while he’s been in some movies, it’s not like everyone knows him.

The story is that Pitch Black (Jude Law) is coming back to bring fear and misery to children, and the guardians, who are Santa Claus, (Alec Baldwin), The Australian Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) The Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and The Sandman (who doesn’t speak) to save the world. However, they need a new guardian, Jack Frost, who is not seen by us puny mortals because we don’t believe in him yet. And the guardians go off to save the world. Personally, I think that this group is bad. If you can hire any person to be a guardian, why not just hire James Bond or Hulk Hogan, or worst of all, MR. ROGERS. The story also gets too complicated for its own good. But since I didn’t care much about the characters, I didn’t care.

The script also isn’t that good, with more bad lines and screenwriting clichés. It is a shame, since if I thought that the script was better I probably would have been more forgiving of the bad story. The script also does nothing to compel older audiences like teens to keep them interested except some comedic parts. However, the movie has a nice pace to it.

The 3-D is also pretty bad, never doing too much with it, so you should definitely watch this one the old-fashioned way.

My brother loved the movie, though. He thought it was great. (Leave a comment encouraging Ryan to write reviews and he just might do it!)

My dad thought the movie was good, but agreed with me that the movie got too complicated for its own good. Ryan would give it a 9/10, but my dad, Eric, would give it a 7/10.

It seems like younger audiences would like this more than teens and adults, based on what Ryan thought of this movie. I felt its bad story, iffy script, the lack of compelling things for more mature audiences, and bad 3-D make this a lame movie. It might be good for kids, but I think you should only see it if you have kids. Since this is MY review, my brother’s and dad’s thoughts will not be in the overall score.

Nice try, Dreamworks, but you need to try again.

39%

Okay For 7+ (There is some action, and there are some parts that could be considered frightening for younger people, like my brother.)

(Please leave a comment suggesting what to review next or what you thought of “Rise Of The Guardians.” Thanks!)

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Posted at 11:00 AM on Dec 02, 2012 in category Jordy's Reviews
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Quote of the Day

“No one is a bigger admirer of The Hurt Locker than myself (I was one of the first fans out of the gate,) but Zero Dark Thirty delivers on a more precise, exacting and muscular level — it's dry and fierce and austere and Day of the Jackal-ish (minus the sex) and much more exacting and verite than even I expected. And yet it builds and delivers like a great melodrama, or a great melodrama according to Biggy-Boal's new rules.”

--Jeffrey Wells in his post, “ZDT, Django Double Bill,” in which he lauds the former movie (Katherine Bigelow's “Zero Dark Thirty”) and disparages the latter (Quentin Tarantino's “Djano Unchained”). I'm looking forward to both, but mostly to “Zero Dark Thirty.” Every time I see the trailer (below) I lose interest in the movie I'm about to see.

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Posted at 10:27 AM on Dec 02, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Saturday December 01, 2012

Holy Garage Sale, Batman!

Got a spare $1 million? Or $5 million? Or 10? The original Batmobile, a 1955 Ford Futura customized by George Barris for the 1966 TV show, is being sold by Barris at an auction in January. I was shocked it still existed. I think I saw it once at an auto show in the Twin Cities, or I heard about it being at an auto show in the Twin Cities, but by this point in my childhood I was a bit cynical. (I was first called cynical in fifth grade, by a friend's dad. I had to look it up. I looked in the S's.) By this point I assumed there were many Batmobiles, like there were many Lassies, and this was just one of them. I didn't realize the economics of it all. It's cheap to get lots of Lassies; customizing a lot of Ford Futuras on the other hand, costs a bit more. Although this one cost the producers of “Batman” only one buck.

There will be a tidy profit. Hell, if I were a rich man I might bid on it. This was the “just right” Batmobile. In the 1943 and '49 serials, Batman drove a Cadillac and a Mercury convertible, respectively. In '89, it's like a batwinged Formula 1 racer. By 2005, he was driving glorified tanks. No, thanks.

What famous car do I covet more? Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? The '64 Aston Martin? The '81 DeLorean from “Back to the Future”? The '68 Mustang from “Bullitt”?

OK, the Mustang is close.

The original 1966 Batmobile

The stuff of which dreams are made.

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Posted at 11:08 AM on Dec 01, 2012 in category Batman
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