erik lundegaard

Thursday January 31, 2013

Movie Review: The Hunting of the President (2004)

The extent to which Eric Alterman’s famous rejoinder “What Liberal Media?” is correct is indicated by how many leftists are flocking to the documentary form to get their message across. In the last few months we’ve seen leftist critiques of corporate pathology (“The Corporation”), McDonald’s (“Super Size Me”), the Bush Administration (“Fahrenheit 911”), and the Iraq War and the mainstream media (“Control Room”). Waiting in the wings are docs about FOX News (“Outfoxed”) and senior Bush advisor Karl Rove (“Bush’s Brain”). if the mainstream media were truly liberal, wouldn't folks just turn on their TV sets for this? Wouldn't we just wait for Katie Couric to report?

Now there’s “The Hunting of the President,” a documentary about what Hilary Clinton famously called “the vast right-wing conspiracy” against President Clinton. It was written and directed by Nickolas Perry, who helped edit several Clinton promo films (“A Place Called America”), and Harry Thomason, a Clinton confidante who directed several Clinton promo films (“Legacy”; “Hilary 2000”). Objectivity is no"The Hunting of the President" postert expected.

Were Clinton’s enemies at best unethical and at worst illegal? The film starts in Arkansas, where Larry Case and Larry Nichols were freelance operatives who provided lurid details to visiting big-city journalists. About L.A. Times reporter Bill Rempel, who helped break the “Troopergate” story, Case brags: “I pulled him in like a trophy trout.” The troopers themselves, according to the doc, had suspect motivations, ranging from money to revenge, while their unofficial stage-manager, Cliff Jackson, was an Arkansas lawyer and former Clinton classmate, who was supposedly motivated by envy.

In D.C., meanwhile, billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife funded “American Spectator” magazine and The Arkansas Project, both of which fanned the flames of rumor and innuendo long enough to attract the interest of the mainstream media. In this way, Troopergate led to Paula Jones. Then Vincent Foster died and a scandal was born. Then there was the whole Whitewater wrangle, which never went away despite the fact that journalists complained to their editors, “There’s no there there.”

It was Whitewater that caused Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint Special Counsel Robert Fiske, a moderate Republican lawyer, to investigate the matter. When Congress reauthorized the Independent Counsel Act six months later, Fiske was pushed out, replaced by Ken Starr, who was less moderate.

Indeed, in the doc, Starr’s team comes across as bullies, threatening and urging people to lie under oath.

Unfortunately, most of “Hunting” still amounts to “he said-she said.” What’s new here? Mea culpas from the press, and commentary from former “Spectator” star David Brock (“Blinded By the Right”), who gives insight into the inner-workings of Clinton’s enemies.

The last third of the film is devoted to its most important issue: How this right-wing mudslinging came to dominate the post-Watergate, post-cable TV media. The most damning talking head may be Dan Moldea, author of several books debunking conspiracy theories of both the left and  right, who calls the press coverage of the Vincent Foster case, “The most corrupt act of journalism I have ever seen.”

Poet W.H. Auden once referred to the 1930s as “a low dishonest decade,” and it’s not a bad epitaph for the nineties either. We were not a serious people. President Clinton had personal failings, many of his opponents were noisy buffoons, and the press listened to them and we all tuned in. Meanwhile, enemies gathered elsewhere.

-- Originally published in The Seattle Times, 2004.

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Posted at 06:19 PM on Jan 31, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Obama on the 'Us vs. Them' of Immgration Reform: 'A lot of folks forget that most of us used to be them'

Pres. Obama on immigration reform:

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Posted at 08:25 AM on Jan 31, 2013 in category Politics
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Wednesday January 30, 2013

Quote of the Day

“First off, there's probably not a damned thing the Yankees can do about A-Rod's contract. It was always a foolish deal, unless they had an unlimited budget and were willing to cut him when he stopped hitting. It seems that neither of those conditions apply. Not yet, anyway. Fortunately, the contract is good for Baseball, as it's ridiculous profligacy like this that keeps the haves from completely dominating the have-nots. So thank you, Steinbrothers, for paying your dreary third baseman a king's ransom. Now live with it.”

-- Rob Neyer, “Is it time for the 'A-Rod Rule'?” on mlb.sbnation.

Joe Posnanski, as always, has a nice, measured piece on the affair.

Alex Rodriguez's final at-bat of the 2012 season

Encore.

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Posted at 02:39 PM on Jan 30, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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My Five Worst Movies of 2012

Last year about this time I posted the following:

Writing about movies is in some sense like putting on corrective lenses. It clarifies my vision but it also also polarizes my feelings. The good become very, very good; the bad godawful. The muddy middle disappears.

A year later and my corrective-vision analogy stands corrected. This year felt like a lot of muddy middle. Nothing as good as “The Tree of Life” or “Un Prophete.” Nothing as bad as “Sucker Punch” or “Green Lantern.”

I thought about adding some high-profile films to my “worst of...” list, but in the end it didn't feel honest. I enjoyed “The Dark Knight Rises” enough in the theater, even as I was shaking my head away from it. “Cloud Atlas” collapsed on itself by the third act but there's talent there. I squirmed through the last third of “Silver Linings Playbook” but I liked a lot of what David O. Russell attempted.

So here we go. This is the fun one, kids: the Golden Globes of lists. Get a drink, sit back, and go, “Oh right. Ewww.”

5. Wrath of the Titans

Early on, Zeus tells Perseus, “You will learn that being half human makes you stronger than a God.” Then he adds, “not weaker,” so we know what stronger means. But it’s total bullshit. On the Mount of Idols, Ares, a full god, kicks Perseus’ ass. It’s not even close. He could break him in two. Why doesn’t he? It’s not in the story. Perseus has to overcome great odds, and even greater pain, to become the demigod version of Rocky Balboa or John McClane. He isn’t a character. He’s a copy of a copy of a copy. Everything about him is blurred. It’s the CGI that’s sharp and in focus.

“Wrath” gives us comic relief that's not funny, a battle-ready Andromeda who can’t battle, and a Perseus who forgets his entire raison d’etre from the first movie. In that film, Hades (Ralph Fiennes) killed his adopted parents and sister, and Perseus burns to take him out. He has the chance at the end of this movie. Zeus is dead, Hades is weak, Perseus eyes him. With revenge? Will he take him out now? Will he even reference his raison d’etre from the first movie? No. “All my power is spent,” Hades says. “Who knows? I might be stronger without it.” Then he walks away. Perseus watches him and ... smiles. Then he goes and kisses Andromeda. Because he’s supposed to. He’s a copy of a copy of a copy.

Snotmonster in "Wrath of the Titans" (2012)

Yay! Snot Monster may have snot, but at least he's in focus...

4. Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance

The Devil bestrides the Earth again in the guise of another actor (Ciarán Hinds, replacing Peter Fonda), and he wants his son Danny back from his mother, Nadya. In his way? The Ghost Rider, of course. Or “The Rider” as he's called here. Is “Ghost” too silly now? Did it not test well? Is the term too associated with a ridiculous 1970s-era Marvel Comics character with a flaming skull and a flaming motorcycle who sells his soul to the Devil, then fights the Devil, even as he eats souls ostensibly for the Devil?

At one point the Rider wakes up in a hospital and Nic Cage gets to do crazy Nic Cage shit: asking for morphine and pills and yadda yaddas. When he and Nadya hook up, Nic Cage gets to say a few crazy Nic Cage lines: “No, I get it. You’re the devil’s baby mama.” Nic Cage has built the second-half of his career around intentionally stupid shit, and some of it would’ve been preferable to the paint-by-numbers plot we get here. At a diner, for example, after he and Nadya rescue Danny, and after seeing a father and son bonding at the diner for a few seconds, Johnny decides he wants to bond with Danny, too. Sure! His need is so palpable that Danny tells him, “Dude. You’re way cooler than the guys she hangs out with.” This, sadly, pleases Johnny. Is there anything worse than an adult who need the approval of a child? Who want to be cool in the eyes of children?

But then Danny is more grown-up than the overacting adults around him. He actually raises the question we’re all wondering. Aren’t I the Devil’s son? Isn’t that bad? Why save him? To which Johnny replies:

The power we have comes from a dark place. But it doesn’t mean we’re bad. We can do good. We can help people.

I thought the Rider didn’t help people? Oh right, that's what he said a half-hour before.

Nic Cage, Hack for Hire in "Ghost Rider 2"

Nic Cage, Hack for Hire.

3. Dark Shadows

So Elizabeth wants the fact that Barnabus is a 200-year-old vampire kept secret from everyone, including the family, so she introduces him as Barnabus III. From England. Ha ha. 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? 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. Ha ha. 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. Ha ha.

Throughout, director Tim Burton lets his freak flag fly. He paints Johnny Depp chalky white 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.

Chloe Moretz in "Dark Shadows"

Totally, Chloe.

2. Les Tribulations d'une caissiere (A Checkout Girl's Big Adventure)

How bad is this thing?

Near the end, our title character, Solweig (Déborah François), a cashier at a Target-like store, is being followed into the women’s locker room by the creepy floor manager, Mercier (Jean-Luc Couchard), who has just found out—ah ha!—that the mysterious blogger, misscheckingout.com, who has gotten over a million hits expounding on customer-service matters, and whose posts have led to the beginning of a nationwide strike by checkout girls, is, in fact ... Solweig! She’s the one who’s making the lives of management miserable! So what does he do with this information? How does he handle Solweig, who, he now knows, has the ear of the nation? He sexually assaults her, of course.

But wait! At that moment, passing by, is a handsome man dressed in a Santa Claus suit. (It’s Christmastime.) He’s named Charles (Nicolas Giraud), and he has a thing for Solweig, and she for him, because one night when it was snowing as prettily as it snows in snowglobes, she, in the midst of breaking up with a boyfriend we’ve never seen, slips in the snow and Charles emerges from a limo to help her up. Like in a fairy tale! He also gives her his phone number, which is subsequently made illegible by her bratty 10-year-old brother, so of course she can’t call and make a date and continue along the path of young love. Fortunately, he finds out about her. But isn't she a tutor? Why is she working as a cashier? Rather than ask, he dresses up as Santa Claus so he can spy on her without revealing himself. But when Mercier attempts to rape her, he bursts in, head-butts Mercier, gapes at Solweig, and flees.

But wait! Our heroine, who is sweet, pretty and rather self-satisfied for someone with such a shitty job, has just been assaulted by her scummy boss, then saved by the man of her dreams. What does she do? She follows the man of her dreams into the parking lot to ... berate him for making her lose her job. Seriously. “I’ve lost everything because of you!” she wails. Because he saved her from rape? From her boss? She can get fired for that? Besides, doesn’t she get it? A million hits. Talked about on the nightly news. How can she not see the upside of all of this? Surely it means a book deal. Maybe even a best-seller. Perhaps called, as this film is called, Les tribulations d'une caissière. Because we can see it. We can see it a mile off.

Checkout Girl's Big Adventure

Apparently the French can make shitty movies, too. Vive le meme chose!

1. Trouble with the Curve

Remember all of those aging decrepit scouts in “Moneyball” who didn’t know shit compared with the sabermetric whiz kid with the computer (Jonah Hill)? Well, they’re back, baby, but this time they’re the heroes, with the lead scout played one of the most iconic figures in Hollywood history (Clint Eastwood), while the whiz kid with the computer is now played by the asshole who cuckolded George Clooney in “The Descendants” (Matthew Lillard). Consider it “Moneyball II: Revenge of the Decrepit Scouts.”

My early guess as to the film's resolution: The asshole sabermetrician will want the can't-miss prospect, named Bo, who's a tubby jerk, while the iconic scout will see some problem with the kid (maybe he has ... trouble with the curve?), and recommend against, but offer up Rigo, the modest, flame-throwing Hispanic kid, instead. All of this nearly comes to pass. Gus, with macular degeneration, hears that Bo has trouble with the curve, which is confirmed by his estranged daughter Mickey (Amy Adams). But the team GM assumes the asshole sabermetrician who cuckolded George Clooney knows what he’s talking about, and picks tubbo. Meanwhile, it's Mickey, in the midst of being passed up for a promotion at her sexist law firm, run by the Shawshank warden, who hears, then sees, then catches Rigo, and brings him to Turner Field to face Bo, who is hitting batting-practice pitches into the stands for the local press. It take Rigo all of five pitches (two fastballs, three curves) to dismantle the Braves’ No. 1 pick. I know. In the process, he is compared to: 1) Sandy Koufax, 2) Steve Carlton and 3) Randy Johnson. I know. Then Mickey becomes Rigo’s agent, Justin Timberlake returns for a kiss, and we get our Hollywood ending. I know.

It’s a long, slow trek to the painfully obvious. How painful? Like this:

Clint Eastwood in "Trouble with the Curve"

And on your list?

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Posted at 07:27 AM on Jan 30, 2013 in category Movies - Lists
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Tuesday January 29, 2013

Lancelot LInks

A-Rod's last at-bat in the Majors?

His last at-bat?

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Posted at 02:53 PM on Jan 29, 2013 in category Lancelot Links
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Daniel Day-Lewis at 13

Maybe it was when I was reviewing “Lincoln,” and looking up Daniel Day-Lewis' CV on IMDb. Maybe it was earlier. For “Nine”? “There Will Be Blood”?

Daniel Day-Lewis was one of my first “this is the guy that was in that?” actors. You couldn't believe the transformation. I'd seen him in “My Beautiful Launderette” at a small campus theater during my college days, and I was watching “A Room with a View” in an MTV (private movie screening room) in Taipei, Taiwan. I knew the gay tough in “Launderette” was in the film, and good, supposedly, but for the first part of the film I couldn't place him. He's not the blonde-haired dude screaming about beauty, is he? Didn't seem right. Then Cecil showed up and I went, “Oh, my, god.” That's the same dude? Holy crap. All the charm he had displayed in the former had vanished. Then we get that moment at the end when he ties his shoes. He's the wrong man in the story and in his every gesture we feel the weight of being the wrong man in the story. Most wrong men just leave. He tweaks our hearts first. 

I always thought “Launderette” was one of his first films, but his credits pre-“Launderette” seem to keep growing, and recently I noticed an even earlier one: “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from 1971. Really? Wouldn't he have been ... 13?

Jeff Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere has the clip. Here's a screenshot.

Daniel Day-Lewis at 13 in "Sunday Bloody Sunday"

Wells calls him unrecognizable but you can see something of the man he'll become. He also reminds me of my older brother, who, at this time, half a world away, while acting at the Children's Theater in Minneapolis, landed a small part in “The Crucible” at the Guthrie Theater as one of the Proctor children. Blair Brown played his mother. Daniel Day-Lewis, of course, would eventually play John Proctor in a movie version in 1996. Crossed paths.

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Posted at 07:30 AM on Jan 29, 2013 in category Movies
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Monday January 28, 2013

Movie Trailers: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The Coen Bros.' latest, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” starring Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan (troubled husband and wife in “Drive,” more troubled here), is apparently screening for L.A. insiders this week, according to this New York Times article by Michael Cieply. Cieply writes:

If the film has had a slight air of mystery in recent months, that is partly because the Coens, working with the producer Scott Rudin, their collaborator on both “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men,” made the film with backing from the French company Studio Canal but with no predetermined American distributor.

After shooting in New York City and elsewhere last year, Mr. Coen said, the brothers finished the movie at their own pace. They could have rushed it into the Oscar season but didn’t. Instead a public debut at the Cannes film festival in May is possible, he said. And by then, assuming that buyers like it as much as Mr. Wald did,“Inside Llewyn Davis” may have an American distributor, an army of publicists and a release date.

But it's the closing line that makes me smile:

“How good you are doesn’t always matter,” he added. “That’s what the movie is about.”

Here's the trailer that's making the rounds:

If that left you hanging, as it's designed to, you can hear Mr. Isaac singing live at Caffe Vivaldi here.

By the way: Would anyone but the Coens get away with “Llewyn” in the title?

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Posted at 05:55 PM on Jan 28, 2013 in category Trailers
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My Top 10 Movie Lines of 2012

I'm like Alice's Rabbit, late late late. But I have a day job, it's been a busy month, and the distributors, as usual, are slow to getting some of the more acclaimed movies to the outer reaches of the land, which is to say Seattle. Can't SIFF help with this? You'd think. At the same time, I'm earlier than last year's list. So there's that.

Someday I hope to do a piece on the ways movies in any given year complement and refute each other. I saw the big-budget musical “Les Miserables” a month after the doc “How to Survive a Plague,” and thought you could played Marius' survivor's-guilt lament, “Empty Tables and Empty Chairs,” from the former, over the closing credits of the latter. Meanwhile, the best counterargument to the overall torture storyline of “Zero Dark Thirty” isn't the folks, such as me, blah blah blahing about the inefficacy or immorality of torture; it's Ken Burns' doc, “The Central Park Five,” where we realize we don't need enhanced interrogation to break people; just interrogation. ZDT tells us everyone breaks; CPF tells us the innocent always break first.

So here we go. Here's to the screenwriters who write the words. Here's to the actors who say them.

10. “The story is in the ice somehow.”
-- Photographer James Balog in the documentary “Chasing Ice.”

The story James Balog winds up telling, or showing, is time-lapse photography of the destruction of beauty. We watch glaciers melt away in a matter of months. It's like watching La Sagrada Familia or the Louvre or Marion Cotillard melt away. The story he tells is a kind of horror story, and it's ours, and it's ongoing. See it. Or at least be aware of it.

Melting ice in "Chasing Ice"

9. “Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ”
-- Pi Patel, age 5, in Ang Lee's “Life of Pi.” Screenplay by David Magee. From the novel by Yann Martel.

“Life of Pi” seems to be about a boy and a tiger, as “Django Unchained” seems to be about an ex-slave bounty hunter; but both movies are ultimately about storytelling. This is the first of Pi's stories: young, curious and Hindu, and coming across Christianity and other religions. The story of Jesus confuses him at first. A story of self-sacrifice? By a god? But God? What's the point of that? In a way, young Pi is like most moviegoers. He wants wish-fulfillment fantasy. He wants the strong to be strong and smite the evil and foolish. Eventually he comes to understand Jesus on a deeper level.

Life of Pi - message

8. “I liked being watched. I liked turning them on. I liked getting them all worked up. But then I'd just get bored.”
--Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) in Jacques Audiard's “Rust and Bone.” Screenplay by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain. Based on a story by Craig Davidson.

Stephanie and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) don't exactly meet cute. She's on the floor of a disco with a bloody nose. He's the bouncer who bruises his knuckles taking the guy out. He looks at her legs driving her home. He ices his knuckles at her place. By the time of the above admission, she's lost her legs (that's why the past tense) and his knuckles have another rendezvous with ice. But it's the stark admission of it. The honesty of it. We don't get that in many movies. It's a good reminder to men, too. Your interest is assumed; what else have you got?

Marion Cotillard in "Rust and Bone" (2012)

7. Lori: I know I’m not a talking teddy bear but at least you didn’t have to make a wish to get me. John: How do you know?
-- Lori (Mila Kunis) and John (Mark Wahlberg) in Ted. Screenplay by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild.

I would've liked this movie a lot more if it hadn't steeped itself in the worst pop-cultural crap, but asking Seth MacFarlane not to do that is like asking Steven Spielberg to end a movie abruptly or Quentin Tarantino to tone down the gunplay. MacFarlane's humor will always be hit or miss to me. But the above line? A bouquet of roses in a junkyard.

Mila Kunis and Mark Wahlberg in "Ted"

6. “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.”
-- Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) in Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln.” Screenplay by Tony Kushner, based on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

For all the great dialogue in “Lincoln,” the revelatory moments, it's the insults, the eru-fucking-dite insults that stand out. We think we're bad motherfuckers in the 21st century when it comes to trash talk. We actually owe the 19th century an apology for how far we've slipped.

Tommy Lee Jones in "Lincoln"

5. “We accept the love we think we deserve.”
-- Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) to Charlie (Logan Lerman), and Charlie to Sam (Emma Watson) in Stephen Chbosky's “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Screenplay be Stephen Chbosky. Based on his novel.

Dr. Phil would go out of business if everyone tattooed this quote somewhere on their body or mind. That wouldn't be a bad thing. Either thing.

Emma Watson in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" (2012)

4. “Remember in the sixties when girls wore short skirts? Wasn’t that great?”
-- Paul Simon remembering a convesation with South African artist General M.D. Shirinda in the documentary “Under African Skies.”

Shiranda wrote the song that Simon would adapt into “I Know What I Know.” At this point in the story of the making of “Graceland,” and its subsequent controversy, Simon worries that the album isn't political enough; that it isn't evoking the reality of South Africaenough. So he asks Shiranda what his song is really about. This is his answer. Shiranda's right, too. It was great.

Paul Simon in "Under African Skies"

3. “It sort of felt like reaching the Wizard of Oz. It's like you’ve got to the center of the whole system and there’s just this schmuck behind a curtain.”
-- ACT-UP activist Mark Harrington in the documentary “How to Survive a Plague.”

I immediately flashed to “All the President's Men”: Deep Throat telling Bob Woodward of the Nixon White House, “These are not very bright guys ... and things got out of hand.” That's still one of my most-quoted movie lines. Harrington is talking about meeting up with the scientists and bureaucrats of government agencies that allow or don't allow the rest of us to use this or that drug. “Schmuck Behind a Curtain” could be the title of any number of books or movies. It explains the world.

Mark Harrington in "How to Survive a Plague" (2012)

2.  “I was a terrible father. [Pause] It's a bullshit business. It's like coal mining: You come home to your wife and kids, you can't wash it off.”
-- Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) in Ben Affleck's Argo. Screenplay by Chris Terrio. Based on an article by Joshuah Bearman and a book by Tony Mendez.

This is before the trip to Iran to rescue the hostages. Siegel and Mendez are just talking matter-of-factly on some steps in Los Angeles during magic hour. They've got fast food. They're opening up. Why not? Life is short. It's a great line reading by Arkin. There's disappointment in his voice but not much. It's a mea culpa without too much culpa. By this point in his life he recognizes the ways of the world, and of men, and of himself. He's past fooling. He's describing Hollywood but he could be describing any business. They're all like that. That's why it resonates. We all carry that bullshit home. It infects everything. None of us can wash it off.

Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck in "Argo"

1. Loki: You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel. German man (rising): Not to men like you. Loki: There are no men like me. German man: There are always men like you.
-- Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and German man (Kenneth Tigar) in The Avengers. Screenplay by Joss Whedon.

For all the CGI and Jack Kirbyesque action sequences, it's Whedon's words in “The Avengers” that won me over. “I have an army.”/“We have a Hulk.” But this is the most poignant point in the movie. I'd always liked the line of Loki's from the trailer about how human beings were made to be ruled. I wanted to see what they did with that. This is what they did. During the above exchange, Loki is amused because he knows himself to be a god, not a man, but the man reduces him with a few words. With a turn of a phrase, he suggests Loki isn't above men but below them, because there is no one so low as he who forces others to kneel. It's an Ozymandias moment, really. It's Ozymandias reduced by words rather than time.

Loki and the old German man in "The Avengers"

You?

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Posted at 07:11 AM on Jan 28, 2013 in category Movies - Quotes
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Sunday January 27, 2013

The SAG Quote of the Night

“It occurred to me — it was an actor that murdered Abraham Lincoln. And therefore, somehow, it is only so fitting that every now and then an actor tries to bring him back to life again.”

--Daniel Day-Lewis, upon accepting the SAG award for his performance in “Lincoln.”

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

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Posted at 08:55 PM on Jan 27, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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SAG Cast Award Goes to 'Argo'

Well, that's two of the three guild awards for “Argo.”

I don't agree, given the options (“Lincoln” is an acting tour de force), but the bigger question, or actually the smaller question, is what this means for its chances for the Oscar.

Over the last few weeks, “Argo” has won the Golden Globe, the Producers Guild Award, and now the Screen Actors Guild cast award. Has any movie won all three and not won the Oscar for best picture? Here's a chart (Eventual Oscar winner for best picture in bold):

Year
PGA SAG - CAST GG - DRAMA GG-COMEDY/MUSICAL
2012 Argo Argo Argo Les Miserables
2011 The Artist The Help The Descendants The Artist
2010 The King's Speech The King's Speech The Social Network The Kids Are Alright
2009 The Hurt Locker Inglourious Bastards Avatar The Hangover
2008 Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire Vicky Cristina Barcelona
2007 No Country for Old Men No Country for Old Men Atonement Sweeney Todd
2006 Little Miss Sunshine Little Miss Sunshine Babel Dreamgirls
2005 Brokeback Mountain Crash Brokeback Mountain Walk the Line
2004 The Aviator Sideways The Aviator Sideways
2003 Lord of the Rings Lord of the Rings Lord of the Rings Lost in Translation
2002 Chicago Chicago The Hours Chicago
2001 Moulin Rouge! Gosford Park A Beautiful Mind Moulin Rouge!
2000 Gladiator Traffic Gladiator Almost Famous
1999 American Beauty American Beauty American Beauty Toy Story 2
1998 Saving Private Ryan Shakespeare in Love Saving Private Ryan Shakespeare in Love
1997 Titanic The Full Monty Titanic As Good As It Gets
1996 The English Patient The Birdcage The English Patient Evita

Since SAG started giving out the cast award in 1996, there have only been four years in which the Golden Globe, the SAG and the PGA all went to the same movie. In 2008, they all fell for “Slumdog Millionaire”; in 2003, they all sought out “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”; in 2002, they lusted after “Chicago”; and in 1999, they dropped dead for “American Beauty.”

All three won the Oscar for best picture.

On the other hand, the director of each film was nominated for and won an Oscar. Ben Affleck, director of “Argo,” was not and will not. Not sure how this changes things.

In other news that ain't much news, and that seems to presage how the Academy will vote, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jennifer Lawrence, Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Hathaway each won individual acting honors.

The big daddy, the DGA, is next week. But right now it's looking good for Ben Affleck.

Ben Affleck in Iran in "Argo"

Ben Affleck: looking good.

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Posted at 07:50 PM on Jan 27, 2013 in category Movies - Awards
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Why the GOP Sucks: Your Stat of the Day

“There’s no perfect measure of how frequently filibusters occur. The closest thing we have to a count is the number of cloture votes the majority mounts. From 1917 to 1970, the majority sought cloture 58 times. Since the start of President Obama’s first term, it has sought cloture more than 250 times.”

-- Ezra Klein in his New Yorker article, “Let's Talk: The move to reform the filibuster.” The full article is only available to subscribers so get with it already, people.

Mitch McConnell

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, providing no peace, has actually filibustered himself.

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Posted at 10:16 AM on Jan 27, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Saturday January 26, 2013

'Argo' Wins PGA

Tonight the Producers Guild of America awarded its best picture to “Argo.”

What does this mean? These are the PGAs best picture winners since 1989 (disagreements with the eventual Academy winnner in blue):

Year
PGA best picture
2011 The Artist
2010 The King's Speech
2009 The Hurt Locker
2008 Slumdog Millionaire
2007 No Country for Old Men
2006 Little Miss Sunshine
2005 Brokeback Mountain
2004 The Aviator
2003 Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
2002 Chicago
2001 Moulin Rouge!
2000 Gladiator
1999 American Beauty
1998 Saving Private Ryan
1997 Titanic
1996 The English Patient
1995 Apollo 13
1994 Forrest Gump
1993 Schindler's List
1992 The Crying Game
1991 The Silence of the Lambs
1990 Dances with Wolves
1989 Driving Miss Daisy

So the PGA has agreed with the Academy every year for the last five years but disagreed with AMPAS the three years before that. (I like the PGA's choices better in those years, by the way. Particularly 2005).

Does the win tonight mean Oscar momentum for “Argo,” whose director, Ben Affleck, wasn't even nominated best director by the Academy?

Here's a question that's easier to answer: Has a film ever won the Golden Globe and the PGA and not won the Oscar for best picture? Yes. Four times since 1989:

PGA GG - DRAMA GG-COMEDY/MUSICAL
Argo Argo Les Miserables
The Artist The Descendants The Artist
The King's Speech The Social Network The Kids Are Alright
The Hurt Locker Avatar The Hangover
Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire Vicky Cristina Barcelona
No Country for Old Men Atonement Sweeney Todd
Little Miss Sunshine Babel Dreamgirls
Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain Walk the Line
The Aviator The Aviator Sideways
Lord of the Rings Lord of the Rings Lost in Translation
Chicago The Hours Chicago
Moulin Rouge! A Beautiful Mind Moulin Rouge!
Gladiator Gladiator Almost Famous
American Beauty American Beauty Toy Story 2
Saving Private Ryan Saving Private Ryan Shakespeare in Love
Titanic Titanic As Good As It Gets
The English Patient The English Patient Evita
Apollo 13 Sense and Sensibility Babe
Forrest Gump Forrest Gump The Lion King
Schindler's List Schindler's List Mrs. Doubtfire
The Crying Game Scent of a Woman The Player
The Silence of the Lambs Bugsy Beauty and the Beast
Dances with Wolves Dances with Wolves Green Card
Driving Miss Daisy Born on the 4th of July Driving Miss Daisy

Either way, it mixes things up a bit. “Argo” now feels like the frontrunner despite its lack of director nomination, supplanting “Lincoln.” In case you're wondering, the last time a picture won best picture without a nomination for its director was in 1989: “Driving Miss Daisy,” directed by Bruce Beresford.

In other news, “Searching for Sugar Man” won best documentary.

The SAG awards are tomorrow.

Stay dry, Jeff.

Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck in ARGO

“If I'm going to make a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit.” — Fake producer Lester Siegel, now honored by real producers.

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Posted at 10:26 PM on Jan 26, 2013 in category Movies - Awards
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Michael Moore's Defense of 'Zero Dark Thirty': Annotated

Today, Aaron Reid asked me if I found anything worthwhile in Michael Moore's defense of “Zero Dark Thirty.” Yep. In fact, Michael Moore defends the film better than anyone I've read—particularly director Kathryn Bigelow. He's particularly good at defending the film from the left. Nice irony. But overall his defense involves things that aren't in the movie. I wish they were.

The words below are Moore's. The annotations are mine.


There comes a point about two-thirds of the way through Zero Dark Thirty where it is clear something, or someone, on high has changed. The mood at the CIA has shifted, become subdued. It appears that the torture-approving guy who's been president for the past eight years seems to be, well, gone. And, just as a fish rots from the head down, the stench also seems to be gone. Word then comes down that — get this! — we can't torture any more! The CIA agents seem a bit disgruntled and dumbfounded. I mean, torture has worked soooo well these past eight years! Why can't we torture any more??? Interesting take. Except those CIA officials? Like Maya (Jessica Chastain)? We're behind them. We agree with them. Plus this is a cartoon version of what happens.    

The answer is provided on a TV screen in the background where you see a black man (who apparently is the new president) and he's saying, in plain English, that America's torturing days are over, done, finished. There's an “aw, shit” look on their faces and then some new boss comes into the meeting room, slams his fist on the table and says, essentially, you've had eight years to find bin Laden — and all you've got to show for it are a bunch of photos of naked Arab men peeing on themselves and wearing dog collars and black hoods. Well, he shouts, those days are over! There's no secret group up on the top floor looking for bin Laden, you're it, and goddammit do your job and find him. Is this how the scene played out in Michael Moore's mind? Because it's not how it played in the theater where I saw it. People laughed when Obama said “We don't torture.” He was the naive guy in the room. We were in a room with serious people, and this guy came along running for office and saying these pretty things, and they listened to him for a second and then went back to business. They went back to serious work. That's how I read the scene. And I never made the connection between the new guy (played by Mark Strong) and the Obama administration. Maybe it's there, way back somewhere, back back back, but it's not mentioned. Not even subtly. 

He is there to put the fear of God in them, probably because his boss, the new president, has (as we can presume) on his first day in office, ordered that bin Laden be found and killed. Key word is “probably.”

Unlike his frat boy predecessor who had little interest in finding bin Laden (even to the point of joking that “I really just don't spend that much time on him”), this new president was not an imbecile and all about business. Go find bin Laden — and don't use torture. Torture is morally wrong. Torture is the coward's way. C'mon — we're smart, we're the USA, and you're telling me we can't find a six-and-a-half-foot tall Saudi who's got a $25 million bounty on his head? Use your brains (like I do) and, goddammit, get to work! This is kinda how things played out in the real world. But it's not anywhere in the movie.

And then, as the movie shows, the CIA abruptly shifts from torture porn to — are you sitting down? — detective work. Actually, at this point, we get a long set piece on a disastrous attempt to turn one of the members of al Qaeda. Which was totally unnecessary. And insulting to women. Remember Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) baking a cake for the dude? And being all nervous like on a first date? And then getting blown up. Apparently this character is loosely based on Jennifer Matthews. Those who knew her, such as Nada Bakos, aren't pleased.  

Like cops do to find killers. Bin Laden was a killer — a mass killer — not a general of an army of soldiers, or the head of a country call Terrorstan. He was a crazed religious fanatic, a multi-millionaire, and a punk who was part of the anti-Soviet mujahideen whom we trained, armed and funded in Afghanistan back in the '80s. But he was a godsend and a very useful tool to the Dick Cheneys and Don Rumsfields of the world. They could hold him up to a frightened American public and scare the bejesus out of everyone — and everyone (well, most everyone) would then get behind the effort to declare war on, um ... well ... Who exactly do we declare war against? Oh, right — terrorism! The War on Terrorism! So skilled were the men from Halliburton, et al. that they convinced the Congress and the public to go to war against a noun. Terrorism. People fell for it, and these rich men and their friends made billions of dollars from “contracting” and armaments and a Burger King on every Iraqi base. Billions more were made creating a massive internal spying apparatus called “Homeland Security.” Business was very, very good, and as long as the bogeyman (Osama) was alive, the citizenry would not complain one bit. Moore's cartoon take on 2001-08. Again, I don't disagree. Again, not in the movie.  

I think you know what happens next. In the final third of Zero Dark Thirty, the agents switch from torture to detective work — and guess what happens? We find bin Laden! Eight years of torture — no bin Laden. Two years of detective work — boom! Bin Laden!

And that really should be the main takeaway from Zero Dark Thirty: That good detective work can bring fruitful results — and that torture is wrong. Except the shift isn't as abrupt as you make it. And the crucial bit of evidence, the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed, is attained through torture in the first third of the film. 

Much of the discussion and controversy around the film has centered on the belief that the movie shows, or is trying to say, that torture works. They torture a guy for years and finally, while having a friendly lunch with him one day, they ask him if he would tell them the name of bin Laden's courier. Either that, or go back and be tortured some more. He says he doesn't know the guy but he knows his fake name and he gives them that name. The name turns out to be correct. Torture works!

But then we learn a piece of news: The CIA has had the name of this guy all along! For ten years! And how did they get this name ten years ago? From “a tip.” A random tip! No torture involved. But, as was the rule during those years of incompetency and no desire to find bin Laden, the tip was filed away somewhere in some room — and not discovered until 2010. So, instead of torturing hundreds for eight years to find this important morsel of intelligence, they could have found it in their own CIA file cabinet in about eight minutes. Yeah, torture works. OK, this is Mr. Moore's VAST misreading of the movie. This bit of information was only brought to Maya's attention because she was already searching for Abu Ahmed. If she hadn't already been searching for Abu Ahmed, a name gained through two years of torture, the name in the file would've remained in the file. It never would have been brought to her attention.

And—hold on a second—wouldn't THIS have been the perfect moment to mention some of the negatives in the enhanced interrogation program? Maya mentions all the false intel buzzing around in the early years and implies it came from supposed friendlies, such as Pakistan, who weren't really that friendly. I'm sure we got a lot of false intel from interrogating the wrong people, too. Torture someone and they'll tell you what you want to hear. Even if what you want to hear is false.  

In the movie, after they have the name of the courier, they then believe if they find him, they find bin Laden. So how do they find him? They bribe a Kuwaiti informant with a new car. That's right, they find the number of the courier's family by giving the guy a Lamborghini. And what do they do when they find the courier's mother? Do they kidnap and torture her to find out where her son is? Nope, they just listen in on his weekly call home to Mom, and through that, they trace him to Pakistan and then hire a bunch of undercover Pakistani Joe Fridays to follow this guy's every move — which, then, leads them to the infamous compound in Abbottabad where the Saudi punk has holed up. Very true. Except, again, it begins, it all begins, with the evidence attained through torture. 

Nice police work, boys! Agreed. This is the best part of the movie. This detective work. 

Oh — and girl. 'Zero Dark Thirty — a movie made by a woman (Kathryn Bigelow), produced by a woman (Megan Ellison), distributed by a woman (Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures), and starring a woman (Jessica Chastain) is really about how an agency of mostly men are dismissive of a woman who is on the right path to finding bin Laden. Yes, guys, this is a movie about how we don't listen to women, how hard it is for them to have their voice heard even in these enlightened times. You could say this is a 21st century chick flick — and it would do you well to see it. Now you're boring me. Particularly since you ignore Jessica.

But back to the controversy and the torture. I guess where I part with most of my friends who are upset at this film is that they are allowing the wrong debate to take place. You should NEVER engage in a debate where the other side defines the terms of the debate — namely, in this case, to debate “whether torture works.” You should refuse to participate in that discussion because the real question should be, simply, “is torture wrong?” And, after watching the brutal behavior of CIA agents for the first 45 minutes of the film, I can't believe anyone of conscience would conclude anything other than that this is morally NOT right. You will be repulsed by these torture scenes because, make no mistake about it, this has been done in your name and mine and with our tax dollars. We funded this. “I can't believe anyone of conscience would...” And that's where you stumble. All the time. In your belief that no one else could think other than the way you do. 

If you allow the question to be “did torture work?” then you'll lose because yes, if you torture someone who actually has the information, they will eventually give it to you. The problem is, the other 99 who don't know anything will also tell you anything to get you to stop torturing - but their information is wrong. How do you know which one of the 100 is the man with the goods? You don't. You know this, I know this, I've been making this argument all along. So why didn't the movie SHOW this? Because Bigelow and Boal wanted to be subtle? Because they didn't want to ruffle feathers? Because they drank some bitter CIA Kool-Aid? With all due respect, Mr. Moore, the question you need to answer is: WHY ISN'T THIS IN THE FUCKING MOVIE?  

But let's grant the other side that maybe, occasionally, torture “works.” Here's what else will work: castrating pedophiles. Why don't we do that? Probably because we think it's morally wrong. The death penalty sure works. Put a murderer in a gas chamber and I can guarantee you he'll never murder again. But is it right? Do we accomplish the ends we seek by becoming the murderers ourselves? That should be our only question. Should. Isn't.

After I saw Zero Dark Thirty, a friend asked me, “During the torture scenes, who did you feel empathy for the most — the American torturer or the Arab suspect?” That was easy to answer. “Oh, God, the poor guy being waterboarded. The torturer was a sadist.” Dan? A sadist? I didn't get that at all. He was someone who got worn down by official policy. His scene with the monkeys in the cage? And the ice cream? That's our sadist? The guy who's doing what needs to be done to keep us safe? The guy who bribes the dude with the Lamborghini? Who gets THAT ball rolling? Does the movie see him as a sadist? Does Maya?

“Yes, that's the answer everyone gives me afterward. The movie actually makes you care for the tortured guys who may have, in fact, been part of 9/11. Like rooting for the Germans on the submarine to make it back to port in Das Boot, that's the sign of some great filmmaking when the writer and director are able to get you to empathize with the person you've been told everywhere else to hate.” Right movie, wrong analogy. We root for the Germans in DAS BOOT because they're the main characters. They're US. It's very difficult to create main characters in movies with whom the audience doesn't empathize. The lights go down, we disappear, we become them. That's the trade-off of movies. And in “Zero Dark Thirty”? The main character is Maya. We're on her side. Whatever she does, even torturing people, we're behind her. She's just trying to keep us safe. She's getting her hands dirty to keep us safe.   

Zero Dark Thirty is a disturbing, fantastically-made movie. It will make you hate torture. And it will make you happy you voted for a man who stopped all that barbarity — and who asked that the people over at Langley, like him, use their brains. Or you'll chuckle at his small, naive moment onscreen--as many have done.

And that's what worked.

P.S. One final thought. I've heard fellow lefties say that even if the filmmakers didn't intend to endorse torture (Bigelow called torture “reprehensible” on Colbert the other night), the average person watching the movie is going to take it the wrong way. I believe it is the responsibility of the filmmaker attempting to communicate something that they do so clearly and skillfully (and you can decide for yourself if Bigelow and Boal did so. For me, they did.). But I never blame the artist for failing to dumb down their work so that the lesser minds among us “get it.” Should Springsteen not have named his album Born in the USA because some took it to be as a salute to patriotism (Reagan wanted to use it in his 1984 reelection campaign but Bruce said no)? Dumbing down is one thing. But you have to be aware of what movies are, what movies do, the trade-off in the dark. I'm not asking for a dumbing down. I'm asking for 1/10 of what Moore sees in the movie to actually BE in the movie.

Maya (Jessica Chastain) in ZERO DARK THIRTY

Michael Moore defends “Zero Dark Thirty” by imagining a less murky movie than “Zero Dark Thirty.”

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Posted at 03:46 PM on Jan 26, 2013 in category Movies
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Lancelot Links

Stan the Man Musial at the plate

“We all disappointed someone from time to time,” the Hall of Famer Robin Roberts said when we talked about kids and autographs. “Well, all of us but one.” “Who was that?” I asked. “Musial,” he said in a voice that indicated I should have already known. — Joe Posnanski

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Posted at 08:36 AM on Jan 26, 2013 in category Lancelot Links
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Friday January 25, 2013

Quote of the Day

“The United States spends more on defense than all the other nations of the world combined.”

-- Jill Lepore in her article “The Force: How much military is enough?” about the history of the Department of Defense and its budgets. Must-read.

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Posted at 08:14 PM on Jan 25, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Comfort vs. Questions: Taking the Kubrick Test with This Year's Best Picture Nominees

My friend Vinny alerted me to this short clip of Terry Gilliam talking about Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, and why the latter is superior to the former:

The dynamic Gilliam is talking about, the massive success of Spielberg versus the “what the hell?” response to Kubrick, is our fault, of course. We want what we don't have: comfort and answers. We don't even want clever answers. We don't want to work. That's the point of the movies for most of us. We go to the movies after work so we don't have to work. Critics, for the most part, are atwork. Watching and writing about movies is their job, and everyone wants their job to have a little meaning. So that's what they search for.

Spielberg's “Lincoln,” as good as it is, gives us comfort and answers. The dilemma the president goes through is a tough one—freedom or peace?—but it's really not presented as much of a dilemma. We sense the right path, and we follow the film's protagonists onto that path, which is a path to victory. If you're in the mood, questions can be raised—chiefly: should Lincoln have just let the South go?—but you have to do the heavy lifting yourself. The movie doesn't help you in this regard.

The rest of the best picture nominees? Should we see how they do with the Kubrick test?

  • AMOUR: Opens in Seattle today. I assume it provides little comfort. It's Michael Haneke, for fuck's sake.
  • ARGO: Initially raises questions about U.S. and CIA involvement in Iran, but quickly becomes a thriller. The point is for the hero to get the scared people away from the scary people.
  • BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD: Questions are raised, chiefly “Is this post-Katrina? Global warming? What the hell is going on? And who would want to live here anyway?” But the ending is an answer: “Ah, that's what Wink was up to.” Preparing Hushpuppy for that. It's a great final image--Hushpuppy not being meat--but it's NPR wish-fulfillment fantasy. 
  • DJANGO UNCHAINED: No questions raised. QT is here to entertain us motherfuckers with guns guns guns.
  • LES MISERABLES: How hard do you have to work to make a movie about poverty and fomenting revolution and still provide comfort? You work this hard. Look down, look down.
  • LIFE OF PI: This is a movie that leaves us with a kind of O Henry question: Gérard Depardieu or the tiger? Which story do you prefer? Do you want the one where human beings are horrible, cannibalistic and isolated? Or do you want the story with the tiger? We want the story with the tiger, of course, which is the one we get. But even as it gives us this answer, this comfort, it reminds us that the whole of human history, certainly the entirety of religious history, is receiving just this comfort. We're part of the problem.
  • LINCOLN: Slavery is ended. Lincoln is martyred. His words ring on and on and on.
  • SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK: Smothered in comfort. As comfortable as watching a Sunday afternoon football game in sweats.
  • ZERO DARK THIRTY: It ends with a kind of question: What price, victory? Or: Who are we now, now that we've done this? But it could've raised the most important question of all and didn't. It suggests no one within the CIA questioned our enhanced interrogation program when many did. It dramatized the efficacy of that program when that's completely in dispute. It drank some bitter CIA Kool-Aid and spun it as heroics. This movie will never be nothing but a vast shame to me. Obviously it's a shameful period in our history, but it's also shameful for what this movie, created by very talented people, could have been. But it's not that. It's merely a murky Hollywood genre picture with a somber end.

So none of these movies (“Amour” pending) really pass the Kubrick test. You know a 2012 movie that does? “End of Watch.” But few bothered with it. Maybe for that reason.

Thanks for the clip, Vinny.

2012 best picture nominees: Academy Awards

Do any of these movies pass the Kubrick test?

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Posted at 08:19 AM on Jan 25, 2013 in category Movies - 2012 Oscars
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Wednesday January 23, 2013

Quote of the Day

“I'm hoping for a flurry of retractions. A Marine spokesperson said yesterday that she couldn't confirm or deny that Beyoncé wasn't lip-syncing, and pretty much every media outlet assumed that was an admission. ... It's bunk. That lady was singing live. ... I've done a bunch of lip-syncing, in music videos, and it's very easy to spot. Anyone who performs in, shoots, or edits music videos can see the tiny, observable latency endemic to lip-syncing. Beyoncé either sang live, or she's the most gifted lip-syncer in the history of humanity. ...

”For me, the most compelling evidence that Beyoncé was doing it for real is the HELL YES smile on Joe Biden's face. Now, that is, clearly, a dude standing two feet from an electrifying lady singing like a motherfucker.“

-- Musician Mike Doughty, ”Beyoncé Wasn’t Lip-Syncing: A professional musician goes deep on the inaugural non-scandal,“ on Slate. Read the whole thing. He makes it all fascinating and understandable. Even a music doofus like me gets it.

Beyonce sings the National Anthem, Joe Biden smiles

”Now, that is, clearly, a dude standing two feet from an electrifying lady singing like a motherfucker." — Mike Doughty

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Posted at 05:34 PM on Jan 23, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Lancelot Links

Lt. Uhura and Capt. Kirk

Hailing freakin' a.

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Posted at 06:29 AM on Jan 23, 2013 in category Lancelot Links
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Tuesday January 22, 2013

What My $3,000 Helped Buy

This:

Barack Obama being sworn in for the second time on Jan. 21, 2013: MLK Day

And this:

The Capitol, Inauguration Day, January 21, 2013

And this:

“We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we'll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”

And this:

“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.”

And this:

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.”

And this:

Barack Obama, January 21, 2013

Not to mention the freedom to roll your eyes.

The 2012 presidential election posts can be seen here. And click here for posts on Barack Obama.

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Posted at 04:36 PM on Jan 22, 2013 in category Politics
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Movie Review: The Last Stand (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

If “The Last Stand” had been set for a December rather than January release, it would’ve been delayed by Newtown.

A dangerous Mexican drug cartel leader, Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), escapes from the FBI, takes a pretty agent hostage (Genesis Rodriguez), and heads for the border in a car that can zip close to 200 miles an hour. The feds are arrogant and keep fucking up, the pretty fed agent is actually a traitor, and the only thing in the way of this damned Mexican and his army of thugs is a small-town sheriff, Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and his misfit deputies, including a former U.S. Marine, now town drunk, Frank (Rodrigo Santoro), and a local boob with a gun fixation, Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville). He’s got a virtual armory on his property. They need it, of course, to take on the paramilitary bad guys. And while they are all wounded except for the pretty deputy, Sarah (Jaimie Alexander), they kill the baddies thanks to these arms and their Second Amendment right to bear them. Even a Granny with a shotgun gets a kill.

The Last Stand starring Arnold SchwarzeneggerJust another liberal message from liberal Hollywood.

The good, the bad, the conventional
Question: How many facelifts can a person have before they can’t see out of their eyes? I get the feeling Schwarzenegger is close. His face used to be impassive in his action movies but now it looks pained. Everything’s so pulled back. What’s left of this man? What becomes an aged action hero most? He can barely walk, he’s no longer Mr. Universe, he’s just … a name. A brand. And judging from opening-weekend box-office numbers, not much of one.

“The Last Stand” got some early good Rotten Tomatoes numbers, I suspect, because its director is Jee-woon Kim (“The Good, The Bad, The Weird”), making his Hollywood debut, and a lot of critics are auteur whores. They’ll back the movie of any director they like.

But the movie is past conventional. There’s economy here, certainly. It all takes, what, two days at most? Most of Somerset, Arizona, is gone for a football game, Sheriff Ray is supposed to have a day off, but trouble’s a brewing. Ray suspects it immediately at the local diner, Irv’s, with its pretty waitress, Christie (Christiana Leucas), when he gives a casual glance around and his eyes, as squinty as Clint’s now, land on two strangers. He asks them some friendly-but-pointed questions and they vamoose. But something’s up. He feels they’re “off.” Since one of them, Burrell, is played by Peter Stormare, who put poor Steve Buscemi in a wood-chipper in “Fargo,” and who’s never played a good guy in his life, it’s not a bad call.

There’s an OK dynamic between Ray and his deputies. He’s a former L.A. narcotics cop, decorated, who lost too many friends and wants the quiet life in Somerset. They live the quiet life in Somerset and want action. They get it. Of course they’re not ready for it, and the most innocent of them all, Jerry (Zach Gilford), dies in a furious gun battle. The bad guys are installing a portable bridge across the Rio Grande for Cortez to zip across. Now they’re just waiting for Cortez to show up in his 200-mph zipmobile.

Kim keeps cutting back-and-forth between the escape in Vegas and the sleepy town, and we get some OK bits. The convoy transporting Cortez is stuck at a stoplight (I guess?) when a giant magnet comes down from a nearby rooftop and picks up the police van. That’s not the OK bit. That’s pretty stupid, actually. Then while all the federal agents rush to the rooftop, like all the cops in Gotham rushing into the tunnels, Cortez and his men take a zipline to another building. Then Cortez changes out of his orange prison jumpsuit and into a designer suit, while his team floods the area with a bunch of guys wearing orange jumpsuits. That’s the bit I liked. Of course they overdo it. They employ a dozen. Why not just one? Why not just the 4 a.m. jogger wearing the colors of the Dutch futbol team? A dozen and you know it’s a set-up; just one and it just may be a jogger.

Arizona cornfields
Off Cortez goes, pursued by a helicopter, with a pretty agent aboard (Kristen Rakes), but he and his men keep blasting through whatever obstacles are between him and Somerset. I guess we know that going in. I guess we watch to see how he breaks through. We wait for the showdown between the sheriff and the druggie. We get it.

It’s in high cornfields, cat and mouse, each in a roadster. It’s pretty cool. Then you think: “Wait. Cornfields? In Arizona?” The final final showdown is on the bridge. Of course. It’s the last stand.

Any bon mots to add to the Arnold lexicon? Not really. Imagine his strong Austrian accent:

  • “I’m the sheriff.”
  • “You make us immigrants look bad.”
  • “My honor is not for sale.”
  • “Game on.”

The misfits, along with grandma, do a fine job against the beefy paramilitary dudes, and two of them, the ex-Marine and the pretty one, fall back in love, while Johnny Knoxville, whooping it up like Johnny Knoxville, gets the pretty waitress. The pretty traitor-agent winds up in custody. The pretty agent in the helicopter? Still available, fellas.

Meanwhile, the feds, being the feds, show up late. It’s small-town ingenuity and a veritable private-citizen armory that handle this crisis. When Agent John Bannister (Forrest Whitaker) finally does set foot in Somerset, as the smoke of the finished battle dissipates, Frank says sarcastically, “Here comes the cavalry.” Fuckin’ feds.

In all of this, Arnold is superfluous. He’s even a drag on the proceedings. His main attraction, his body, is withered at 65, while all his deficits (accent, acting, movement) are more pronounced. At one point, in the middle of a gunfight, he stumbles through the glass at Irv’s, where we get this conversation:

Irv: How you feeling, Sheriff?
Ray: Old.
Irv: No. You got a few years left in you yet.

God, no.

all the pretty girls of "The Last Stand"

An FBI agent, a deputy sheriff, and a waitress, respectively.

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Posted at 10:22 AM on Jan 22, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Monday January 21, 2013

Stan 'The Man' Musial: 1920-2013

How underrated was Stan Musial? When Ken Burns broadcast his 18-hour documentary on the history of baseball on PBS in 1994, he didn't get to Stan Musial, who debuted in September 1941, until after he'd dealt with the following subjects: World War II, Jackie Robinson, the failure yet again of the Boston Red Sox to win the World Series in 1946, integration, the death of the Negro Leagues, the rise of Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, Bobby Thomson's shot heard 'round the world, the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, the movement of teams out west, the broken heart of Brooklyn, Maz's shot heard 'round the world (from a NY perspective), Roger Maris and 61*, and the rise, such as it was, of the New York Mets. Then it was 1963. Then he got to Musial.

I remember watching the doc back in Sept. 1994. When the words “The Man” flashed on the screen as we were in the early 1960s, I thought: “Wait a minute, we're just getting to him now? WTF?” Burns in his doc is like Alvy Singer in “Annie Hall”: He has trouble leaving New York. And Musial, with seven batting titles in the '40s and '50s, with more extra-base hits than anyone in baseball history upon retirement, is great, sure, but he plays in St. Louis. What's the story there? There's no story there. The story of baseball was always elsewhere in the mind of Ken Burns.

Then he gives him four short minutes. Short shrfit. At the least, we get George Will's great quote:

Baseball is rich in statistics but it's hard to find one more beautiful than Stan Musial's hitting record. Stan Musial got 3,630 hits: 1,815 at home, 1,815 on the road. He didn't care where he was. He just hit.

Where does Musial rank in various stats? Here:

  • Hits: 4th with 3,630
  • Extra-base hits: 3rd with 1,377
  • Runs: 9th with 1,949
  • Doubles: 3rd with 725
  • Triples: 19th with 177
  • Triples, post WWII: 1st
  • Runs Created, 3rd
  • WAR: 9th
  • Offensive WAR: 7th

I like his K-BB ratio. In his career, he struck out 696 times against 1599 walks. He's 6th in games played and 578th in strikeouts. Ted Williams had fewer plate appearances but struck out more. Ted Williams. 

Musial, easy-going, had a smile that reminded me of Gene Kelly.

Stan Musial and Gene Kelly: Separated at Birth?

He's the reason why Ken Griffey, Jr. is only the second-best player to come out of Donora, Pennsylvania. He will be missed.

Stan Musial at the plate

Stan Musial at the plate.

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Posted at 08:17 PM on Jan 21, 2013 in category Baseball
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The Way the Right-Wing Has Always Supported Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here are a few lines from Rick Perlstein's book, “Nixonland,” which I read yesterday, and which are particularly appropriate today—both MLK Day and the second inauguration of Barack Obama. They're constituent letters to U.S. Senator Paul Douglas (D-IL), during the battle for opening house in the summer of 1966; and they're reminders of how much, and how little, times have changed:

  • “It is my firm belief, and of all my neighbors, that King should be taken into custody ... Today, the insufferable arrogance of this character places him on a pedestal as a dark-skinned Hiter.”
  • “When greedy Mr. Hitler started taking over other countries, people at first thought 'give him a little more, then he will be satisfied' ... Give greedy Mr. King a little more freedom then he will stop. Isn't that what we are told today?”

These days everyone evokes Dr. King for their own cause—even, absurdly, the NRA. That's how things have changed. At the same time, every prominent black leader, particularly those known for non-violence and compromise, is still being compared to Hitler. That's how little things have changed.

Martin Luther King, Jr. marching for open housing in Chicago

Martin Luther King, Jr. after his march for open housing in Chicago was disrupted by violence. He said he'd never seen hatred—not in Alabama or Mississippi—like the hatred he saw in Chicago.

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Posted at 11:14 AM on Jan 21, 2013 in category Politics
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The 2012 Best Picture Nominees Ranked by IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes Scores

Here are the best picture nominees as ranked by their Rotten Tomatoes scores:

BP Nominee R. Tomatoes Top Crits Difference
Argo 96% 95% -1
Zero Dark Thirty 93% 90% -3
Amour 91% 97% 6
Lincoln 91% 95% 4
Silver Linings Playbook 91% 91% 0
Life of Pi 89% 88% -1
Django Unchained 88% 76% -12
Beasts of the Southern Wild 86% 77% -9
Les Miserables 70% 58% -22

I've included Top Critics rankings and the difference between the two. Top Crits obviously less enamored of “Les Miserables” and “Django Unchained.” The love “Amour.” They revere “Lincoln.” “Beasts” is interesting. I would've thought that would be a top-critic darling. 

Now here are the best picture nominees as ranked by IMDb readers:

BP Nominee IMDb
Django Unchained 8.7
Life of Pi 8.3
Silver Linings Playbook 8.2
Amour 8.1
Argo 8.1
Les Miserables 8
Lincoln 8
Zero Dark Thirty 7.7
Beasts of the Southern Wild 7.5

I did this last year when “The Artist” was on top and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” was at the bottom, but that's not necessarily good news for “Django.” I can't conceive of a “Django” victory. I can't conceived of a “Life of Pi” victory unless the other films cancel each other out. Jeff Wells is still imagining his “Silver Linings” victory. Maybe. “Crash” won once, too. You can never tell. I still assume “Lincoln” but I'm waiting for the DGAs.

Finally, here's where each film ranks on each list:

BP Nominee R. Tomatoes RT's Top Critics IMDb
Argo 1 2 4
Zero Dark Thirty 2 5 8
Amour 3 1 4
Lincoln 3 3 6
Silver Linings Playbook 3 4 3
Life of Pi 6 6 2
Django Unchained 7 8 1
Beasts of the Southern Wild 8 7 9
Les Miserables 9 9 6

The biggest difference between critics (as represented by Rotten Tomatoes) and moviegoers (as represented by IMDb score) is “Django”: near the bottom for the critics, particularly top critics, and at the top for moviegoers. IMDb's readers love themselves some QT. “Pulp Fiction” is at 9.0 (the fourth greatest movie of all time), “Reservoir Dogs” is at 8.4, “Inglourious Basterds” at 8.3, etc., etc. No QT-directed feature film is below 7.0. His lowest is “Death Proof” at 7.1. “Django” will drop, but probably not much. IMDb is his core audience at the moment.

There's also some vast discrepancies between “Life of Pi” (6, 6, 2) and “Zero Dark Thirty” (2, 5, 8). Everyone seems to agree on where to place “Silver Linings”: 3, 4, 3. Everyone except me. My rankings, without having seen “Amour” yet, would probably put “Lincoln” first, “Argo” second ...

Here:

BP Nominee R. Tomatoes Top Critics IMDb Me
Argo 1 2 4 2
Zero Dark Thirty 2 5 8 5
Amour 3 1 4 n/a
Lincoln 3 3 6 1
Silver Linings Playbook 3 4 3 8
Life of Pi 6 6 2 3
Django Unchained 7 8 1 6
Beasts of the Southern Wild 8 7 9 7
Les Miserables 9 9 6 4

But overall I don't have much enthusiasm for this year's picks. I'd put three of last year's best picture nominees (“The Tree of Life,” “Moneyball” and “The Descendants”) ahead of this year's favorite.

2012 best picture nominees

You have a favorite? Feb. 24 is closer than you think.

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Posted at 09:45 AM on Jan 21, 2013 in category Movies - 2012 Oscars
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Sunday January 20, 2013

Quote of the Day

Fifty? Good god, Lundegaard! Earl Weaver, Stan the man — and now this!

--Josh Karp in his Facebook birthday message this afternoon.

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Posted at 04:54 PM on Jan 20, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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50 Birthday Cards

My first thought was, “Hey, I got a birthday card!”

It was Thursday evening and there was a stack of mail on the dining room table when I got home from work. The top-most was in the red envelope of greeting cards, hand addressed, so I picked it up to see who it was from. Then I saw a similar card behind it. Then another. And another. “What the hell?” I thought. I'd been expecting one, maybe two cards for my birthday. It was my 50th but I know people tend not to send cards much anymore. Me, either. You get e-cards and emails and birthday wishes on Facebook. But here, on one day, three days before my birthday, I'd gotten ... how many? Five? Ten? And three from my brother? What the fuck? What was he on?

It was when I noticed the numbers on the backs of the envelopes—11, 12, 14. 32, 33, 34—that the other shoe dropped.

50 birthday envelopes

No,” I thought. “They're not sending me ... 50 cards ... for my 50th birthday ... are they?”

I immediately suspected my sister Karen and called her up. They were in the basement watching “The Big Bang Theory,” Jordy's new favorite show, but she denied culpability. She knew about it certainly, she'd participated in it certainly, but she didn't organize it. So who did? My sister, who is an editor at the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, has always been a good reporter, in part, I think, because she keeps digging at people until they give her answers. She just doesn't accept no. And she may be good at this because she knows the power of secrets and the overwhelming desire to spill them. Which is to say she gave up the name in seconds: my friend Kristin, who runs a Waldorf school in south Minneapolis, loves crafts projects, and is a sweetheart.

The next day, when I got 20 more cards, I phoned her.

Me: So how long have you been planning this?
She (feigning innocence very poorly): Why do you think it was me?

It was such a great idea, I was curious if, a) she'd thought of it, and b) had done it before. Yes and yes. She came up with it last year for her friend Chrissy's 60th birthday. Chrissy lives by herself in Boston, she has all these people who love her, so what was a good way to let her know that? Out of such dilemmas, great ideas are born.

I love the numbers on the envelopes. When I was putting them together on Friday, I felt like I was a kid again collecting baseball cards. Ok, I have 3, 4 and 5, but I still need 1 and 2. Plus 50. Don't have that one yet. And dude I'm totally missing most of the 20s! Saturday I got 1, 2 and 50. I still needed about 12 more to complete the set. I opened more than half yesterday and put them on my desk for my 50th birthday party. Saved some for today. Which I'll open soon.

It is such a lovely idea, feel free to steal it. It makes getting the mail actually a pleasure. Remember those days?

50 birthday cards

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Posted at 12:13 PM on Jan 20, 2013 in category Personal Pieces
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In the Shape I'm In

Among the 6400 items in my iTunes library are four birthday songs: The Beatles' song, first and foremost; “Happy Birthday, Lisa” from “The Simpsons” (and Michael Jackson); that Altered Images' song from the early 1980s, which I associate with a girl I had a crush on; and Loudon Wainwright's song “The Birthday Present,” from his album “The BBC Sessions.” The one I've listened to the most is the Loudon Wainwright song. No contest. I guess I'm the right age for it. I already wrote about it on this blog three years ago but it's worth repeating, particularly since today is the day. I've reached that ripe young age, that halfway point, when life surely begins. Here are some of the lyrics:

Piglet's birthday presentAnd I know that in nearly four years
I’ll be hitting 50
That ripe young age
That halfway point
When life really begins
But Saturday let’s celebrate
Neither the past nor future
But the present
Here I am
In the shape I’m in!

Love that last line.

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Posted at 11:07 AM on Jan 20, 2013 in category Personal Pieces
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Saturday January 19, 2013

Earl Weaver: 1930-2013

“On my tombstone just write, 'The sorest loser that ever lived.'”
-- Earl Weaver, manager, Baltimore Orioles, 1986

Did Earl Weaver, who died today at the age of 82, ever manage anyone but the Orioles? People talk of players no longer being with one club but what about managers? That's even rarer. Even before free agency, even with good managers, clubs let them go. Billy Martin managed the Twins, Tigers, Rangers and Yankees all before 1976. Joe Torre managed the Mets, Braves and Cardinals before his 12 years with the Yankees. Casey Stengel managed the Dodgers and the Boston Bees/Braves before taking over the Yankees in 1949.

Earl Weaver? Just the Orioles. Two stints: 1968-1982; and 1985-1986. He missed out on their last championship year, 1983, but according to him he wouldn't have had much to do with it anyway. Earl Weaver, Topps baseball card“A manager's job is simple,” he once said. “For 162 games you try not to screw up all that smart stuff your organization did last December.”

I hated him growing up. I was in Minnesota, home of the Twins, who were one of the best teams in baseball in the late 1960s and early '70s. They would've been the best but for Earl Weaver's Orioles. We faced them in the playoffs in 1969 and '70, when I was 6 and 7, and never won a game. Best of five. Three and out. They were too good. I remember one playoff game when Killebrew and Oliva hit back-to-back homers, and my brother and I, alone in the house, tore it up in celebration, then had some 'splaning to do when my parents returned from volleyball and a picnic at Pearl Park. But we were losing... Killebrew and Oliva... The Twins still lost that game and Chris and I were grounded. October magic. 

Weaver was famously short and famously short-tempered. He was Billy Martin before Billy Martin without being such an asshole about it. He believed in good pitching, good “d,” and the 3-run homer. He got it all. He was the manager of the only team in baseball history, the 1971 Orioles, to have four pitchers win 20 games (Pat Dobson completes the set). He was the manager of some of the best fielders at their position in baseball history: Paul Blair in center, Mark Belanger at short, Brooks Robinson at third. Plus he had the pop: Frank Robinson, who retired fourth on the all-time homerun list; Boog Powell, who was like Harmon Killebrew's taller, fatter, less talented cousin; plus everyone else. They could all hit. 

I remember a game we went to once in ... 1971? We took our grandmother, my mom's mom, who was visiting from Finksburg, Maryland. That's in Carroll County for those who care. Jim Kaat pitching for the Twins. First pitch? Don Buford hit a homerun. Final score? 8-0. “A manager should stay as far away as possible from his players,” Weaver once said. “I don't know if I said ten words to Frank Robinson while he played for me.”

He seemed ancient then, as did another gray-haired manager of the time, Sparky Anderson; but Weaver, for all the white hair, was only 40, while Anderson was in his 30s. Did the white hair help them get managerial jobs despite their age? One wonders. A guy who's 40 takes over a ballclub today and I think of him as a punk kid.

I wonder what he did in his retirement? Did he still care about the O's? Did he watch the Jeffrey Maier game in '96? I would've liked to have seen Earl Weaver jumping out of the dugout at that call.

Eminently quotable, he said said one of my favorite lines about baseball. “Don't worry, kid,” he assured a young writer, Tom Boswell, who was worried he's done something wrong during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner”; “we do this every day.”

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Posted at 10:34 AM on Jan 19, 2013 in category Baseball
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Reader Quote of the Day

“This could have been an interview with Condoleezza Rice. ... [Kathryn Bigelow's] basic argument: 'People tortured people. After that torture took place, we got Bin Laden. Please reach your own conclusion.' That's like if someone were to say, I dunno, 'Islamic terrorists perpetrated 9/11. In Iraq, the government is Islamic and has done some terrorist-like activities. 'Nuff said.'”

-- Andrew Reed, on yesterday's blog post, “The Annotated Kathryn Bigelow Editorial,” in which she defends, kind of, her film “Zero Dark Thirty.” Reed's synopsis of Bigelow's basic argument is the best I've read anywhere: New Yorker, Salon, Daily Dish.

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Posted at 08:03 AM on Jan 19, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday January 18, 2013

Countdown to 50

Two days.

Question: What's a good, smart answer to: “So how does it feel to be 50?” Since I'll most assuredly get asked that question. An answer that doesn't involve punching anyone. I usually miss.

ADDENDUM: Early front-runner: “A lot like 49. But rounder.”

Doug's birthday party circa ... 1970?

Your faithful blogger, far left, in tennis sweater, age...7 (?), behind his best friend Mark (in tie), at the birthday party of lifelong friend Doug (center, with flag). It's our version of “50 Up.” Doug was born the day before me: January 19, 1963. Our mothers used to have to consult so our birthday parties didn't conflict.

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Posted at 08:36 AM on Jan 18, 2013 in category Personal Pieces
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The Annotated Kathryn Bigelow Editorial

The following article by Kathryn Bigelow appeared in The Los Angeles Times the other day. The annotations, as always, are mine...

 


For a long time, measuring more years than I care to count, I thought the movie that became “Zero Dark Thirty” would never happen. The goal, to make a modern, rigorous film about counter-terrorism, centered on one of the most important and classified missions in American history, was exciting and worthy enough, or so it seemed. But there were too many obstacles, too many secrets, and politicians standing in the way of an easy path. Damn politicians. Aren't they always just standing in the way? They should be tortured.

Somehow, though, thanks to the great persistence of my filmmaking team and an enormous dose of luck, we got the movie made and found studio partners with the courage to release it. Wow, what a great story! Wait, it's not over? 

Then came the controversy. Oh right. 

Now that “Zero Dark Thirty” has appeared in cinemas nationwide, many people have asked me if I was surprised by the brouhaha that surrounded the film while it was still in limited release, when many thoughtful people were characterizing it in wildly contradictory ways.The Times asked me to elaborate on recent statements I've made in response to these issues.  I'm not sure I have anything new to add, but I can try to be concise and clear. Isn't “something new to add” the point of an article like this?

First of all: I support every American's 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment.  As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.Whoa, back off there, hippy...

 But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen. Yeah! Those stupid people who made torture such a necessary and effective part of our hunt for Osama bin Laden! Who, sure, had to torture people after 9/11, but at least they always had the right people. Who risked their souls to get the information we needed to defeat our enemies.

Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement.If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time. Does this mean Philip Roth doesn't endorse masturbation? I know, I'm dating myself. Which—alley oop—is the exact pathway to masturbation. 

This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation. It also chills any American artist's ability to glamorize dark deeds: who makes dark deeds the thing we have to do in order to achieve the goal of the story, which, in this case, is killing America's greatest enemy. BTW: Obfuscation. Good word.

Indeed, I'm very proud to be part of a Hollywood community that has made searing war films part of its cinematic tradition. “Rambo,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “300,” “Battleship,” “Red Dawn,” “Red Dawn,” “Pearl Harbor,” etc.

Clearly, none of those films would have been possible if directors from other eras had shied away from depicting the harsh realities of combat. “Tonight we dine in hell!”

On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices. Much better to make it the thing we have to do in order to achieve the goal of the story, which, in this case, is killing America's greatest enemy.

 

Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. Here we go! This is what I want. So how did the experts with whom you spoke disagree? How come you're not telling us this? How come you're withholding information from us? When you withhold information from us, Kathryn, we hurt you. When you lie to us, Kathryn, we hurt you...

As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. OK...

Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. OK...

That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. Was it a key? Was it the first key? As it is in “Zero Dark Thirty”? Don't make us get the rag, Kathryn.

It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore. War, obviously, isn't pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences. If war isn't pretty, what's Jessica Chastain doing there?

In that vein, we should never discount and never forget the thousands of innocent lives lost on 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks. We should never forget the brave work of those professionals in the military and intelligence communities who paid the ultimate price in the effort to combat a grave threat to this nation's safety and security. Sounds like someone's running for office.

Bin Laden wasn't defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America. ... Now get the rag.

Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow

“Zero Dark Thirty”'s screenwriter Mark Boal and its director Kathryn Bigelow. The former apparently didn't help the latter with the above.

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Posted at 07:20 AM on Jan 18, 2013 in category Movies
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Wednesday January 16, 2013

Quote of the Day

“[Kenny] Lofton is one of the better examples of what I have come to think of as the Tummy Delusion. There are plenty of people who have told me that Kenny Lofton is not a Hall of Famer, essentially, because HE IS NOT A HALL OF FAMER. Right? He just doesn't feel like a Hall of Famer. He never felt like a Hall of Famer. This idea of going back and breaking down his career and reevaluating his career is all well and good, but it doesn't replace that gut feeling ... Good player. Sure. Hall of Famer? No. OK. Move on. Places to go. People to see.

”I obviously feel differently about it. For one thing, I think the first gut is usually off. Edgar Martinez: Hall of Famer?Someone just emailed me to say that  if Steve Garvey is not a Hall of Famer, Edgar Martinez certainly cannot be a Hall of Famer. And that's fine except Edgar Martinez was a much, much, much, much better hitter than Steve Garvey. I keep hearing about Garvey as a Hall of Famer … the guy's career on-base percentage was .329. Edgar Martinez's was .418.

“I mean, I don't really think anything else needs to be said. What could Steve Garvey possibly do to make up for 90 points in on-base percentage? Garvey got 792 more plate appearances than Martinez — a bit more than a season's worth — but made 1,400 more outs. That Martinez hit with considerably more power as well doesn't even need to be said.”

-- Joe Posnanski, “The BBWAA Project: Center Field.” My thoughts on Edgar.

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Posted at 02:57 PM on Jan 16, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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That Tarantino Interview: 'This is a commercial for the movie—make no mistake.'

Before I watched it, I assumed the interviewer in the clip below just asked Quentin Tarantino the wrong question. Instead of “Does movie violence lead to real violence?” he should have asked, “How has movie violence affected you?” I.e., Why do you make these kinds of movies? What is it about spaghetti westerns that appeal and why? I assumed the interviewer was just ham-handed.

Instead, the interviewer, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, is the furthest thing from ham-handed. He does in fact ask the question I thought he should ask, and is polite and articulate in doing so. It's Tarantino who's ham-handed. He comes off as a major asshole here. He comes off as pompous and privileged in promoting “Django Unchained.”

Here it is:

In the beginning he says the pompous:

I'm responsible for people talking about slavery in a way they have not in 30 years. ... There is a dialogue going on about slavery that has not been happening at all. It's a subject people are afraid to talk about. And now because of this movie, people aren't afraid to talk about it.

I'm thinking: What dialogue are people having about slavery? They're having a dialogue about you; and it's the same fucking dialogue. Tarantino wants to be a black man. No, Tarantino hates black men. The N-word: Why say it so often? Why this gratuitous violence against black men? In other words, the criticism leveled at him during “Inglourious Basterds”—that QT turned the victims (Jews) into victimizers, and victimizers (Nazis) into victims, because he never shows the Jews as victims—here becomes its opposite. Keli Goff on HuffPo is the worst in this regard. She also complains about the lack of a strong female character. This after 15 years of Jackie Brown, the Bride, Shoshanna Dreyfus. The only ones who come off worse than QT in discussing his films is everyone else.

Then Guru-Murthy asks Tarantino about the relationship between movie violence and real violence and QT joins the crowd:

I refuse your question. I’m not your slave and you’re not my master. You can’t make me dance to your tune. I’m not a monkey.

No, you're a privileged asshole. Because the next thing you say, rather snidely, is this:

Because I’m here to sell my movie. This is a commercial for the movie—make no mistake.

So the dialogue about slavery the U.S. is having because of you? That was PR? Of course it was.

I could go on. Almost everything people think is wrong about Tarantino's movies (the N-word, racism) isn't. But almost everything people think is right about Tarantino's movies (how cool they are) isn't. In the end, he's not worth this much time. We should stop dancing to his tune.

Quentin Tarantinointerview: "I'm here to sell my movie."

“This is a commercial for the movie—make no mistake.”

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Posted at 07:18 AM on Jan 16, 2013 in category Movies
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Tuesday January 15, 2013

Quote of the Day

“I recently read that the co-creator/artist of Spider-Man, Steve Ditko, is a big-time Objectivist and Ayn Rand fan. How much must he hate it that his most famous creation's most famous quote is 'with great power comes great responsibility'?”

--friend and colleague Ross Pfund.

Amazing Fantasy #15 opening panel
The opening panel to “Amazing Fantasy #15.” It may be the first time I ever read the word “wallflower.” Even though I was one.

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Posted at 02:36 PM on Jan 15, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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How Grover Norquist is like Abbie Hoffman

I'm reading Rick Perlstein's “Nixonland,” the second volume of his three(?)-volume history on the rise and ascendancy of the far right in the United States and the unmaking of the American consensus. I'm at the summer of 1966. Chicago. Daley and King.

In its broadest sense, America fractured, and remains fractured, over the role of, and our faith in, government. But it's not an either/or proposition. Both sides have their contradictions. 

The left believes government can do well domestically (social safety net) but fucks up internationally (Vietnam, Iraq).

The right believes government can do well internationally (Cold War, nation building) but fucks up domestically (welfare state).

All of this is fairly obvious but I didn't really see it with any kind of clarity until this morning. I grew up in the '60s and '70s with the left distrustful of government and came of age with the right distrustful of government, and I thought it was the same thing. It's not. It's really about where you want to spend the money. It's also about which side gets extreme and when. In the 1960s, it was the left, and its embodiments included Abbie Hoffman. Today it's the right, and its emodiments include Grover Norquist.

Again, all fairly obvious. I apologize for even bringing it up.

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Posted at 06:52 AM on Jan 15, 2013 in category Politics
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Monday January 14, 2013

Quote of the Day

“Not teasing—flirting. Does anyone know the difference? A tease is a con. You press a spot because you know that it can be pressed, and while the sucker is feeling the pleasure or the pain resulting from the pressure, you take something from him. 'Do you have the money? Good. Good. She'll be right down. Wait here; she'll be right here.' And then nothing. A flirt doesn't do that. A flirt does a dance within the context of giving pleasure. Referring to this, referring to that. And suddenly, following the references, you find a little surprise. Nothing enormous. Nothing like 'Feed on me.' Nothing like that. Something small with a bow on it. It's a pleasure. A surprise, and a gift.”

-- George W.S. Trow, “Within the Context of No Context,” pp. 94-95

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Posted at 07:36 PM on Jan 14, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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The Evolution of Jeffrey Wells' Thinkin' on 'Lincoln'

Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere isn't much of a fan of Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln.” Here's how he got there.

He started out last March with a joke, kind of, that Daniel Day-Lewis was a shoo-in for the Oscar...

  • March 14: “Who's gonna take Lewis's Oscar away? Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby? Phillip Seymour Hoffman as The Master? Bill Murray as FDR? Hugh Jackman or Russell Crowe in Les Miserables? Nobody is going to beat Honest Abe-who-gets-shot. It's over. Forget it.” — “Same Result Anyway.”

He also wrote about the other Lincoln movie last year, the one about the vampire hunter. Thus begins Wells' obsession with Lincoln's voice...

  • May 28: “Listen to Benjamin Walker's Abraham Lincoln voice in this recently-released trailer for Timur Bekmambetov's Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter ... He almost sounds JFK-like, but Lincolnesque? Not if you buy the old story about the 16th President's son, Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926), having heard Raymond Massey perform on stage and being ”struck by the close similarity of Massey's speaking voice to that of his father.“ — ”Voice is Wrong.“

In July he starts counseling Disney on how to open the movie. First he suggests not showing it to anyone before it opens...

  • July 18: ”Do you want to hear a bold, bold, bold idea? Show Lincoln to absolutely no one until opening day. Make them scream and pant for it and say “nope...sorry, kids...too bad...this is a really good film, but first and foremost it's for the people...buy a ticket.” — Lincoln Is Sooner Than You Think”

Then he wonders why Disney isn't showing it at the New York Film Festival before it opens. Maybe it's bad?

  • July 29: “A little while back I floated a notion about Steven Spielberg's Lincoln being the closing-night attraction at the New York Film Festival on Sunday, 10.14. That would be only three and half weeks before the opening. The media-fed response would certainly get the word-of-mouth rolling if the film is any good. But since I wrote that certain...how to put this?...insect-antennae vibrations are suggesting that Disney might not be interested. ... If Disney and Spielberg have the goods then they have the goods --- it can't possibly be a harmful thing to let people know that Lincoln is (let's use our fertile imaginations) a very special, moving, possibly austere, high-calibre historical drama. Unless, of course, Lincoln is Amistad by way of War Horse — unless it's some kind of treacly, commercial, family-friendly, emotionally shameless ”Spielberg film“ in the worst sense of that term. — ”All Them Lincoln Conundrums“

Now comes the nitpicking. The hair is wrong. The voice is wrong. The music is wrong. The voice is really wrong. I wish I could smell what the White House smelled like back then. Have I mentioned how much I REALLY, REALLY HATE the voice yet? That high tenor? It should sound LEGENDARY. It should sound MANLY. Instead of like MATTHEW MODINE. (No offense, Matthew.) This is two months before the movie opens...

  • August 7: ”I've never seen any photos of Abraham Lincoln in which he looked quite this gray [as in the poster]. His hair is flecked with gray around the temples in those portraits he sat for in early 1865, but Daniel Day Lewis almost looks like a silver fox here. Plus his hair is too neatly combed.“ — ”The Grey“
  • August 8: ”This is what I want, partly, from Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. Not just toilet and bathtub information but various hints of the quality and texture of life in the 1860s. Imagine how amazing it would be if Spielberg had decided to present the film in Smellovision or Aroma-rama, then we'd have an idea of what the White House might have actually smelled like from time to time. Think of the transportation!“ — ”White House Plumbing“
  • September 13: ”I still don't like the sound of Daniel Day Lewis's Lincoln voice. I almost hate it, in a way. It's flat, undistinctive, unimpressive, Matthew Modine-ish. (And that's not a putdown of Modine.) It's hard to describe what I was looking to hear, but this isn't it. And I dearly love the voices that Lewis has given us over the years. The fault, of course, is Spielberg's — he didn't push Lewis hard enough, he let well enough alone.“ — ”Not Right“
  • September 15: ”It's not just Daniel Day Lewis's decision to channel Matthew Modine in his voicing of Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's forthcoming biopic. My insect antennae are also picking up hints of that old Spielbergian schmaltz, particularly among the strains of John Williams' music. I'm hoping for something deeper and grander but we all know who and what Spielberg is, and I smell trouble, real trouble.“ — That Sinking Lincoln Feeling (with Tweet from film critic Jimmy Fallon)
  • September 18: Steven Spielberg's Lincoln won't screen for critics until next week, but already there is a certain pushback in the form of concern about Daniel Day Lewis's Lincoln voice. It ain't right. ... A director-writer who knows people and gets around says he's heard that ”DDL's Lincoln voice tries to be consistent with what the actual man's sounded like, but aside from an impassioned, impressive performance the film is another Amistad with good intentions outweighing a good film.“-- Lincoln Snowball Gaining Size?“
  • October 3: ”I despise the wussy timbre of Daniel Day Lewis's Abraham Lincoln voice. Even more than I did before. It's chalk on blackboard.“ — ”With Every Fibre of My Being...“

After all that, he begins to wonder, ”Hey, how come Disney isn't inviting me to any of the premieres?“

  • October 4: ”Next Monday night's New York Film Festival debut of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is unexpected, for sure, and the bravest thing that Disney marketing has done on behalf of this Tony Kushner-scripted film. Before this moment Disney has been presenting a cautious if not timid face to the world, particularly in its decision to take the AFI Fest's closing-night slot, which is only hours before the 11.9 opening. ...  [But] it burns me that Glenn Kenny and Kris Tapley will be seeing Daniel Day Lewis's Honest Abe by way of Walter Brennan and Matthew Modine before me...“ — Lincoln's Big NYFF Debut“
  • October 5: ”As an accredited New York Film Festival press pass holder, I requested a ticket to Monday night's “secret” Lincoln screening at Alice Tully Hall, as everyone else with the same pass did. It took the NYFF all day to say “sorry, we can't help.” Uh-huh. I don't know but I strongly suspect there's a general coordinated strategy to keep me away from this puppy.“ — Blood Is Up

But in November, with the rest of us, he finally sees it, and delivers a ”Yes, but...“ review. Yes, it's good, but... Yes, it's serious, but... No, I'm cool with that, but...

  • November 8: ”I myself was never bored, mind — I love history and period realism — but I would argue that the story of the passing of the 13th Amendment is an interesting saga with some great dialogue (Tommy Lee Jones' anger moments might be the best thing about it), but it's not a riveting one. It's not really movie material, certainly by today's standards. It's Showtime or PBS or History Channel material writ large by the Spielberg brand and the soulful skills of Daniel Day Lewis. Anyone who cares about doing this kind of thing correctly will understand and respect what Spielberg has tried to do, and in many ways has succeeded at.“ --”Lincoln in Kaminskiville by Way of History Channel“

He also incorrectly predicts box-office disaster...

He searches for people who agree with him. Here's one: an unnamed producer! Who says he would've left early but AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN was sitting next to him, weeping, and to walk out would be unseemly. Leading JW to imagine this scene:

  • November 10: Weeping African-American Guy: ”Ohh-hoh-hoh...heeeeshh-hee-hee...hee-hee-heesh....weep...weep.“ Producer: ”Excuse me there, fella. Gotta get by.“ Weeping African-American Guy: ”I, uh....wait, you're leaving? I don't even know you but you're leaving? What are you made of? You're walking out on a movie about Abraham Lincoln? Did you vote for Romney? Producer: “It's a free country, pal...okay? You can weep and moan and make all the noise you want, but this is a slow turgid thing and it's not doing it for me. And I voted for Obama, if you want to know.” --Lincoln Reactions, Please

The New York Times agrees with him, too...

  • November 17: “The 11.16 N.Y. Times ”Sweet Spot“ (i.e., A.O. Scott and David Carr chit-chatting and sometimes interviewing Times staffers) is about guilty non-pleasures — art forms and entertainments that you're supposed to like but you just can't. And the most persistent non-pleasure of the Times newsroom? Lincoln.” — Not to Beat a Dead Horse

You know who else agrees with him? Everyone....

  • November 17: “I stood in an Arclight lobby the other night (i.e., just before the Anna Karenina premiere screening) as a crowd that had just seen Lincoln walked past me. They were a bit glummed out; their faces seemed a little somber and even haggard. No faint smiles; no looks of calm or serenity. Most seemed to be saying to themselves, 'All right, that's over...where can we eat? In fact, let's just get a drink.'”Homework and Trances

Then he focuses on the horse-race aspect of the best picture race and keeps veering wildly between narratives: either “Lincoln is losing air” or “Lincoln is a lock”...

  • November 14: “Lincoln is a Best Picture nominee, yes, but rarified, Kaminski-ized and all but entombed. Lincoln is inflated because it just opened and is flower-fresh in Guru minds and did well at the box-office...but there are little pin holes that people don't want to look at. Helium is escaping as we speak.” --Gurus of Delusion
  • December 5: “Some [Oscar voters] would like to give it to Lincoln or Les Miz but they're not feeing the current in the rapids and they can feel the ardor cooling down (certainly with Lincoln). ... They have two choices. They can go with the unassailable Zero Dark Thirty — the flinty, pruned-down CIA docudrama with Jessica Chastain's super-tough heroine, or with the jazzy, spazzy, warmly emotional and hyper-intelligent Silver Linings Playbook, the movie that restored respect to the seriously tarnished romantic comedy genre ...” — Boiled Down, Translated
  • December 11: “2012 is over and Lincoln is probably going to win Best Picture. I can't stand it. I don't want to think about it any more. I just want to focus on January and February releases and on the Sundance, Santa Barbara and Berlin film festivals.” — Move On

Finally, after dismissing “Lincoln” by disparaging Daniel Day-Lewis' voice, then Steven Spielberg's direction, he decides to dismiss it by attacking Abraham Lincoln himself. He imagines a movie called “Johnson,” about Lincoln's successor, and suggests it wouldn't get the best-picture attention “Lincoln” does because we don't care about Andrew Johnson...

  • December 18: “I'm just making a mild, even-handed point about Lincoln, which is that deep down much if not most of the acclaim for Spielberg's film is about our lifelong embrace of the legend of Abraham Lincoln. Is it a good film? Yes. Is it a very good film? You could argue this. But if Johnson was just as good as Lincoln and perhaps in some ways a little bit better (you can't beat that Senate vote on impeachment for a third-act climax), you know it wouldn't be the same thing. Be honest and ask yourself — how much of the Lincoln acclaim is really about the film itself and how much of it is about the worship of a great man and a great historical figure? You know what the answer is. You know it.” — Steven Spielberg's Johnson

And on and on. Wells posted about “Lincoln” again last night. Spielberg's movie, introduced by a former president (Clinton), lost the Golden Globe to “Argo” and Wells thinks that matters in the Oscar race even though the GGs, with two options (drama, musical/comedy), have predicted Oscar's best picture only twice in the last eight years. But no matter. He sees “Argo” as the front-runner again. He thinks it looks like, it feels like, a brand new day...

  • January 13, 2013: Argo winning Best Motion Picture, Drama and Ben Affleck winning for Best Director tonight came right on the heels of the BFCA Critics Choice awards deciding to give the same awards, and I think that tore it. I think everyone except for the Lincoln die-hards realized tonight that Lincoln doesn't have the horses to win the Best Picture Oscar, and Spielberg is probably out of the running also. And the reason for the latter, I think, is that he looked scared tonight. Playing the Clinton card was basically Spielberg saying to himself, ”How do we shake this race loose and tip it in our favor? Obviously we have support but possibly not enough. That fucking Critics Choice Argo win didn't help any. I know...I'll call up Bill Clinton and have him make a pitch for it!“ ... It's now Argo in the lead for Best Picture vs. Silver Linings Playbook with Lincoln in third place.” — The Clinton Card

Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" (2012)

“I despise the wussy timbre of Daniel Day Lewis's Abraham Lincoln voice. Even more than I did before. It's chalk on blackboard.” — Jeffrey Wells

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Posted at 07:54 AM on Jan 14, 2013 in category Movies
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Sunday January 13, 2013

Golden Globes Continue to Diverge from the Academy

The Golden Globes are always fun. Jodie Foster's speech wlll be dissected and celebrated for days to come. Daniel Day-Lewis' line to Tony Kushner was as eloquent as anything Kushner wrote in “Lincoln.” And “Argo.” Remember “Argo”? But what does it mean?

Nothing. At least it means nothing in terms of the Oscars.

Here are the Golden Globe winners for the last 20-odd years with matching Oscar winners in bold:

Year GG - DRAMA GG-COMEDY/MUSICAL
2012 Argo Les Miserables
2011 The Descendants The Artist
2010 The Social Network The Kids Are Alright
2009 Avatar The Hangover
2008 Slumdog Millionaire Vicky Cristina Barcelona
2007 Atonement Sweeney Todd
2006 Babel Dreamgirls
2005 Brokeback Mountain Walk the Line
2004 The Aviator Sideways
2003 Lord of the Rings Lost in Translation
2002 The Hours Chicago
2001 A Beautiful Mind Moulin Rouge
2000 Gladiator Almost Famous
1999 American Beauty Toy Story 2
1998 Saving Private Ryan Shakespeare in Love
1997 Titanic As Good As It Gets
1996 The English Patient Evita
1995 Sense and Sensibility Babe
1994 Forrest Gump The Lion King
1993 Schindler's List Mrs. Doubtfire
1992 Scent of a Woman The Player
1991 Bugsy Beauty and the Beast
1990 Dances with Wolves Green Card
1989 Born on the 4th of July Driving Miss Daisy

The Globes and the Academy used to agree more often: 12 out of 15 times from 1989 to 2003. Since 2004? Twice in 8 years: “Slumdog” in 2008 and “The Artist” last year. I think it'll be twice in 9 years since I don't see either “Argo” or “Les Miserables,” neither of whose directors were nominated by the Academy, winning the big one.

And yes to “Girls.” But “Boardwalk Empire” needs to get a little more love. Not to mention “Bored to Death.”

But please invite back Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Please. Their opening monologue here.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes

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Posted at 08:41 PM on Jan 13, 2013 in category Movies - Awards
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Hollywood B.O.: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Grosses More This Weekend than 'Hurt Locker' In Its Entire Run

Sorry about the word “gross.”

“Zero Dark Thirty,” the controversial film from Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, about the search for and the killing of Osama bin Laden, which opened in five theaters in NY and LA in December, went to 60 last weekend (inculding one here in Seattle), and went superwide (2,937 theaters) this weekend, was No. 1 at the box office with a $24 milion haul. That's $7 million more than “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow and Boal's previous film, made in its entire 2009 run.

Two 2013 films, meanwhile, “A Haunted House” (10% on Rotten Tomatoes) and “Gangster Squad” (34%), finished second and third, respectively, with $18 and $16 million.

The good news is that more than half the Oscar nominees for best picture continue to do well at the box office. Here are their total grosses:

Lincoln $152,579,000
Django Unchained $125,399,000
Les Miserables
$119,206,000
Argo $111,645,000
Life of Pi $94,781,000
Silver Linings Playbook $41,306,000
Zero Dark Thirty $29,481,000
Beasts of the Southern Wild $11,249,128
Amour $652,000

How does this compare with previous years? Last year, only one best picture nominee grossed more than $100 million: “The Help” at $169 million. 2010 had five, including good box office from movies that focused on self-destructive ballet dancers, drunk cowboys and stuttering kings, while the movie about the asshole techie topped out at $97 mil. 2009 also had five, including the biggee, “Avatar,” which grossed $749 million domestic, a record for any film.

What 2012 does not have is a best picture nominee in the top 10. “Lincoln” is currently at No. 16 for the year. To get in the top 10 it has to gross another $65 million. 2011 didn't have a top 10 film, either: “The Help” topped at No. 13.

So basically we we're back to where we were before the Academy rewrote its rules in 2009 and nominated more than five pictures. We're back to a time when we don't really see best picture nominees. At least at the theater.

The first two years with the rewritten rules, yes, we got popular fare nominated: top 10 pics like “Avatar,” “Up,” “The Blind Side,” “Toy Story 3” and “Inception.” But then the rules were rewritten again. I forget how they changed. Instead of the top 10 nominees you had to garner at least 5 percent of the vote. Something like that. With a limit of 10.

We've gotten nine films each with the new rules, including critically lauded and little-seen films such as “The Tree of Life” and “Amour.” But not top 10 stuff. The divergence continues.

Here are the weekend numbers.

Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty"

Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty”: the only thing worse than being talked about...

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Posted at 02:08 PM on Jan 13, 2013 in category Movies - Box Office
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The Original Gangster Squad

This weekend, as “Gangster Squad” was opening to poor reviews and poorer box office, I watched a documentary called “Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film.” I'd never heard of it but there it was on Netflix. For, like, free. Narrated by Alec Baldwin. You worry you're going to wind up with some AMC Biography crap but this thing was decent.

It is what it says it is. Its focus is on the 1930s Warner Bros. gangsters: Robinson and Cagney in the 1930s, then Bogart's work from the 1940s. It includes Martin Scorsese as talking head and some of his films. But it never mentions “The Godfather,” at least not so as I remembered, and pretty much ignores the 1950s on. It ends more or less with Cody Jarett. Top of the world, ma.

But the best part of the doc for me was the first 20 minutes when we got clips from silent gangster movies. Not just “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” (1913), which Scorsese talked up in “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American movies,” but a 1906 silent film called “The Black Hand.” Any “Godfather” fan immediately perks up. “The Black Hand” at the time of Vito Corleone's battle with the Black Hand? Sign me up.

The Black Hand (1906)

Turns out it's one of about a half-dozen silents with “black hand” in the title. We don't get the others. But we do get these:

Regeneration (1915) directed by Raoul Walsh

Outside the Law (1920) directed by Tod Browning

The Unholy Three (1925) directed by Tod Browning

Some of “Regeneration” was apparently filmed in Five Points, only 50 years removed from when Martin Scorses would set it in “Gangs of New York.” He watched it as preparation.

There's also a great, short appreciation for Lon Chaney, the man of a thousand faces, who projects powerful ones here. It makes me want to see more of his work.

Lon Chaney

Why did gangster movies prosper with talkies? Some say it was the sounds, such as machine guns, but you could get those in war movies, too. Others mention the patois, the accents, from the various neighborhoods in New York. Wise guy, see? There's Prohibition, during which most of us became criminals and criminals became powerful, and the Great Depression, when many Americans realized what a scam it all was, and a man making his rise by any means necessary, and in the face of the real criminals, the Wall Street types, was a comforting 90-minute wish-fulfillment fantasy for many Americans.

Underworld (1927)

The Lights of New York (1928)

The Doorway to Hell (1930)

Plus the movie stars who showed up: Cagney, Bogart, Edward G. Robinson:

Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar

By the way, and appropos of nothing, doesn't this actor in “Musketeers of Pig Alley” remind you of Mark Strong?

Musketeers of Pig Alley screenshot

History written with lightning has simply become history. The backgrounds alone in these early silents, filmed in various locations in New York in the 1910s, make them worth watching.

 

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Posted at 11:23 AM on Jan 13, 2013 in category Movies - Documentaries
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Saturday January 12, 2013

Reader of the Day

Erik

I really enjoyed your review of “Lincoln”—you brilliantly put words to the sentiments I felt about Daniel Day-Lewis' performance (and to what I felt about the 'Abe' of the movie generally).
 
I agree with your criticism of Downton Abbey, but I have to say that Maggie Smith doesn't even have to say anything to be worth watching. She has had some of the most classic facial expressions in that show—it's fantastic! It's too bad the show does not seem to want to be its better self. That said, I believe you misspelled the actress Michelle Dockery's name. You might wish to correct it.
 
Sincerely,
Daniel

Daniel isn't kidding. I left off the “D” in Dockery for a “C.” That's not a good mistake—since corrected. Thanks, Daniel, and the army of copy editors I have out there.

Maggie Smith in "Downton Abbey"

“He spelled it with a what?”

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Posted at 04:24 PM on Jan 12, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Does it or doesn’t it?

That’s what I wanted to know last month and I couldn’t get a straight answer from the myriad critics and commentators and clowns who had seen the film. They all disagreed. Detractors called it morally reprehensible. Advocates brought up the fact that the U.S. government under Pres. George W. Bush did in fact torture people, as if that were the controversy. But this was the controversy:

Does “Zero Dark Thirty” suggest that torture led to the intel that led to Osama bin Laden?

If so, I argued, then it disagreed with the facts as we knew them.

Zero Dark ThirtyI finally saw the film the other day, and I left the theater thinking it did something worse: it dramatized not just the efficacy of torture but its necessity. Yes, it makes torture look pretty awful, and the Americans who torture become depleted as well. But torture becomes the thing that needs to be done in order to achieve the film’s goal, which is getting Osama bin Laden. It’s how our heroes get their hands dirty, unlike those folks back in Washington, D.C., who sit behind desks. This is a conceit of many Hollywood action movies. The audience shares a knowing wink with the heroes on the screen. We’re all adults here; we know how the world works. Think of the way Pres. Lincoln bribed lame-duck congressmen to pass the 13th amendment in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” To do good, you need to do a little bad. Except this time it’s torturing people.

But I saw no direct link between that torture and the intel to get bin Laden.

Then I got home, read some of the commentary, particularly Glenn Greenwald’s in The Guardian, and realized I’d missed it. There is such a link. Suddenly I had sympathy for all of those critics who couldn’t give me a straight answer last month. An hour after seeing the movie, a movie in which I’d searched for this very thing, I couldn’t give myself a straight answer.

So I went to see the movie a second time.

This particular story
One wonders why screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow went with this particular story. They had so many options.

They could have made the movie about the U.S. Navy Seal team, Team Six, that actually went into Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed bin Laden. Instead they’re the tail-end of the film and we hardly get to know them. They’re virtually interchangeable. They’re scruffy and wear fatigues and—for much of their time onscreen—night goggles. They seem like insect creatures in an alien land. We don’t see their faces. Is that the Aussie dude from “Warrior”? Or is that the other bearded guy? Or that third bearded guy? The assault on the compound is fascinating for how dull it is. Bigelow doesn’t use quick cuts or pulse-pounding music. It is not triumphant. Far from it. It’s done with a whisper, professionally, almost in real time. Back in Afghanistan, there are congratulations, and shouts of joy, but also a 10-year-long exhale. The ending, with Maya (Jessica Chastain) on the military plane being asked where she wants to go, and stopping, and tears welling up, is like the ending of “The Graduate” or “The Candidate.” What do I do now? We don’t know who we are anymore.

The movie begins with a minute of blackscreen audio from Sept. 11, 2001. We hear screams. We hear conversation between someone in the towers and a 911 operator. “I’m gonna die.” “No, ma’am, stay calm.” “It’s so hot, I’m burning up.” Then just the operator: “Can anyone hear me?” Then it’s two years later and we’re at a black ops site where old-hand Dan (Jason Clarke) and newbie Maya are torturing Anmar (Reda Kateb) to get information about the next attack.

It’s a long movie, 157 minutes, and in each segment Maya partners with a different person, or group of people, in the intelligence/military community, to get bin Laden. Maya is the driving force, the laserlike focus, but mostly it’s the others who gather the intel. Dan gets Anmar, after two years, to give up the name “Abu Ahmed,” a nom de guerre, which Maya carries with her through the years, through rumors of his death and arguments with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle, Rosemary Harris’ daughter), who thinks bribery trumps ideology, until Debbie (Jessica Collins), a newbie in the Pakistani office, finds Abu Ahmed’s real name in an old file. Maya then convinces Dan, back at Langley, to get a Kuwaiti contact to find the family, whose phone is then tapped. She convinces Larry from Ground Branch (Édgar Ramirez of “Carlos” fame) to use his limited resources to search for the son who keeps calling from phone centers near Islamabad. It’s another analyst, Jack (Harold Perrineau), who brings the news that this son, surely Abu Ahmed, has bought a cellphone, and they’re able to track its signal; and in this manner, and despite the fact that this man always calls at odd hours and on the move, they manage to get a photo of him, which their Pakistani sources use to track his movements through the city. Which is how we wind up at the complex in Abbotabad.

But is bin Laden there? Now that debate begins, mostly in D.C. Maya’s there for it, of course. In a meeting with the CIA director (James Gandolfini), never named but obviously Leon Panetta, others, including Dan, offer weak probabilities, 60 percent maybe, that bin Laden is in the compound. Then Maya pipes up. She’s 100 percent certain. After a second she amends it to 95. Not because absolute certainty is impossible but because she knows it scares the shit out of her colleagues. The director smiles. He likes her toughness. We like it, too, or we’re supposed to, but Maya never annoyed me more than at this moment. There’s a scene in the second “Godfather” movie, the Hyman Roth birthday-cake celebration on a rooftop in Cuba, in which Michael correctly predicts the Cuban revolution. It’s a cheap device: having fictional characters get real history right with the 20/20 hindsight of screenwriters.

Eventually they follow Maya’s lead, we meet Seal Team Six, and … you know.

The facts as we know them
Did you miss the link between torture and bin Laden in that synopsis? I missed it the first time I saw the movie because I forgot how Abu Ahmed’s name was first introduced. I thought Maya came armed with it. Instead it emerged after two years of torture.

Last month I said such a link would dispute the facts as we know them. I said it would be a lie. In the movie, Dan keeps telling Anmar, “When you lie to me, I hurt you,” and I think critics and pundits are saying the same thing to Kathryn Bigelow. When you lie to us, we hurt you.

But is it a lie? Last week, Acting CIA director Michael Morell wrote an internal memo in which he talked up the film’s inaccuracies. In so doing, he actually muddied the waters. He said the film’s impression that enhanced interrogation techniques were key to finding UBL is false. Then he wrote:

As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.

In refuting the film’s falseness, he actually lays bare its truth.

In The Washington Post, meanwhile, Jose Rodriguez, Jr., a 31-year CIA veteran who headed up some of these programs, says that both the film and the film’s critics get it wrong. Enhanced interrogation did lead to intel that led to bin Laden. But it wasn’t the kind of interrogation shown onscreen. They waterboarded with small plastic water bottles, for example, not rusty buckets. He also objected to the Jessica subplot. Maya’s friend and rival, Jessica, thinks she has a mole in al Qaeda and agrees to meet him at a U.S. military outpost in Afghanistan. She’s portrayed as giddy, almost silly, baking a cake for his arrival. It’s as if it’s a date. She’s worried he won’t show. When he does, she’s worried that the guards at the gates will scare him off, so she gets them to stand down. Then she, and he, and several military officers are blown up. The character, says Rodriguez, is based on a real CIA officer. He writes: “The real person was an exceptionally talented officer who was responsible for some enormous intelligence successes, including playing a prominent role in the capture of al-Qaeda logistics expert Abu Zubaida in 2002. Her true story and memory deserve much better.” Not knowing this agent at all, I agree. The movie’s long as is, and this makes it longer, and it’s all telegraphed. Why make her seem like such a giddy girl on a date, for example? To make Maya look better? Does she need that? Doesn’t she have “100%”? Doesn’t she have “motherfucker”?

Yet the larger point remains. According to both of these CIA officers, enhanced interrogation, or torture, led to intel that led to bin Laden.

But is this right? Senate investigations are now being called to find out what Bigelow knew and when she knew it; what Bigelow was fed and how. At the moment, the truth isn’t out there.

But even though we don’t know the truth at the moment, is the movie still wrong?

The lesson of the Central Park Five
To me it’s wrong because of what we learn in “The Central Park Five.” That documentary, which was also released in select cities in 2012, is about five kids, ages 14 to 16, who confessed to the infamous assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park in 1989, but who were innocent of the crime. Why did they confess? They got tired. They got worn down. They wanted to go home. After 14 to 30 hours of interrogation, none of it enhanced, the police were able to get innocent people to confess to horrific crimes. They got misinformation and it led to tragedy. The real rapist continued to rape and kill for another few months before he was caught. These boys were put away for 5 to 10 years. Nobody won.

In “Zero Dark Thirty,” we never have the wrong people. We always have the right people. And they always break. The movie’s right about that. Everyone breaks. Innocent people probably break sooner.

Mark Boal recently defended his film at the New York Film Critics Awards ceremony. He said: “I think at the end of the day, we made a film that allows us to look back at the past in a way that gives usa more clear-sighted appraisal of the future.” What’s that appraisal? I would say it’s this: Torture works. It’s a little immoral and a lot effective, and it prevents great tragedies. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, we get our hands a little dirty. But in the end we got bin Laden and that’s what matters. Because we never torture the wrong people.

A few years ago, I wrote an article on a civil rights lawyer named Robert Rubin. One of his cases involved a man named Hady Omar, whose story goes like this:

On Sept. 11, 2001, Omar’s flight from Florida was grounded in Houston, but he made it back to Fort Smith, Ark., and his American wife, Candy, in time for the FBI to pick him up the next day. He was targeted for: a) being Egyptian, and b) buying his plane ticket from the same Kinko’s in Boca Raton that one of the hijackers used. The FBI had questions but Omar wasn’t worried. The next day he took a lie detector test, passed, but instead of going free, the INS took him, in shackles, across state lines, to an office in Oakdale, La., then to a prison in New Orleans, then to a federal penitentiary in Pollock, La. There, while someone videotaped him with a camcorder, he was ordered to strip. There was a body cavity search, and jokes were made, and guards, including female guards, laughed. Finally he was placed in shackles in a 10-foot by 10-foot cell. He told officials he didn’t eat pork so he was served pork twice a day. His hot water was turned off so he stopped bathing. Days turned into weeks turned into months. He lost 20 pounds. He had thoughts of suicide. Finally, after 73 days without charge, he was freed. By then he’d lost his job and many of his friends—the front page of the Fort Smith paper on Sept. 13 featured a four-column photograph of Omar being led away in handcuffs under the headline: “Terror Strikes Home.” He and Candy were forced to sell their car and furniture; they moved in with her father. That’s when Rubin got involved.  

Hady Omar got “lawyered up,” as they say in the movie.

Boal and Bigelow don’t show authorities incarcerating and interrogating men like Hady Omar, but it would’ve been easy to do so. There’s a perfect moment for it. When Debbie finds Abu Ahmed in a file folder, Maya wonders aloud why the information never got to her. There’s a discussion of all the misinformation flying around after 9/11. It’s implied that this misinformation came from other countries, probably Pakistan, who pretended to help but hurt. It would’ve been the perfect moment to bring up the innocent people who wound up in the detainee program. But for some reason Boal and Bigelow didn’t want to allude to that story.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…
So how was the movie?

“Zero Dark Thirty” can be a slog. We never get to know our main character because she has no personality besides getting bin Laden. Most of the others are background figures. The most intriguing is Dan, who does his job well, and who has something of a thousand-yard stare in his eyes. He goes back early. He says he’s seen too many naked guys. It’s gallows humor. Jason Clarke does a great, understated job with the role.

I’ll say this: “Zero Dark Thirty” goes for veracity and mostly achieves it. But it screws up in this most important area. It misrepresents the efficacy of torture. It does so, at the least, by withholding information from us. And when you withhold information from us, we hurt you.

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Posted at 08:15 AM on Jan 12, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Friday January 11, 2013

Edgar Martinez Dissed on HOF Dissed List

The Baseball Writers Association of America announced the results of its Hall-of-Fame balloting the other day and no one got in. It's indicative of an age that is clouded by big numbers and PED accusations and admissions.

Here are the results from BaseballReference.com:

PlayerVotes2013%2012%
Less than 75% of vote, but still on ballot.
Craig Biggio 388 68.2% 1st Yr
Jack Morris 385 67.7% 66.7%
Jeff Bagwell 339 59.6% 56.0%
Mike Piazza 329 57.8% 1st Yr
Tim Raines 297 52.2% 48.7%
Lee Smith 272 47.8% 50.6%
Curt Schilling 221 38.8% 1st Yr
Roger Clemens 214 37.6% 1st Yr
Barry Bonds 206 36.2% 1st Yr
Edgar Martinez 204 35.9% 36.5%
Alan Trammell 191 33.6% 36.8%
Larry Walker 123 21.6% 22.9%
Fred McGriff 118 20.7% 23.9%
Dale Murphy** 106 18.6% 14.5%
Mark McGwire 96 16.9% 19.5%
Don Mattingly 75 13.2% 17.8%
Sammy Sosa 71 12.5% 1st Yr
Rafael Palmeiro 50 8.8% 12.6%
Less than 5%, will not be on next year's ballot
Bernie Williams 19 3.3% 9.6%
Kenny Lofton 18 3.2% 1st Yr
Sandy Alomar 16 2.8% 1st Yr
Julio Franco 6 1.1% 1st Yr
David Wells 5 0.9% 1st Yr
Steve Finley 4 0.7% 1st Yr
Shawn Green 2 0.4% 1st Yr
Aaron Sele 1 0.2% 1st Yr
Reggie Sanders 0 0.0% 1st Yr
Jeff Cirillo 0 0.0% 1st Yr
Woody Williams 0 0.0% 1st Yr
Rondell White 0 0.0% 1st Yr
Ryan Klesko 0 0.0% 1st Yr
Roberto Hernandez 0 0.0% 1st Yr
Royce Clayton 0 0.0% 1st Yr
Jeff Conine 0 0.0% 1st Yr
Mike Stanton 0 0.0% 1st Yr
Jose Mesa 0 0.0% 1st Yr
Todd Walker 0 0.0% 1st Yr

Some Twitter jokes about Aaron Sele's one vote. On the plus side, Jose Mesa, the bain of the Mariners relief corps in the late 1990s, and I'm sure still unforgiven in Cleveland for 1997 Game 7, got bupkis. Same with Jeff Cirillo, brought to Safeco in 2002 after four straight NL seasons over .300. He promptly delivered the following line at Safeco for two years: .234/.295/.308. We kept waiting for him to follow through. In some ways, we're still waiting for whoever has replaced him to follow through. We've been waiting for more than 10 years. Or 35, depending.

Now it's the players who are waiting. Remove the taint of PEDs, based solely on the numbers, and you have eight sure-fire Hall of Famers on this list: Biggio, Bagwell, Piazza, Clemens, Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro. No brainers. But they were too little brain, too much brawn.

I guess some didn't see Biggio's numbers as first-ballot worthy. Maybe. But he would've gotten my vote. Bagwell and Piazza have the taint on them without any proof, which feels awkward. They're guilty until proven innocent. Are others? Is Greg Maddux next year? Frank Thomas? Junior in 2016? Bonds and Clemens would've gotten in before their suspected use began. Should they go in anyway?

I don't agree with those who say that steroids, HGH and other PEDs are the same as greenies (1960s) and cocaine (1980s). Those allowed you to play a little longer at your natural state. PEDs warped your natural state. You hulked out, and the record books hulked out with you. It's now misshapen beyond belief. There's a taint on it: 73 and 762, for example. .609 and 1.421, for example. And those are just the numbers of Barry Bonds, the man who became, at the retirement age of 39, the greatest hitter of all time, better than Babe Ruth in 1920. It makes us angry, thinking about it. And Barry won't like us when we're angry. But then he's never liked us. 

As for my man Edgar? He dropped a bit in the voting: 0.6%. He keeps hovering mid-30s. Will he ever get higher? People are making cases. Joe Posnanski, prognosticating on the site SportsOnEarth, writes, “I'm still hopeful that people will appreciate just how good a hitter Edgar was as his time on the ballot begins to run out.” Amusingly, the art accompanying the article includes pics of 11 players and none are Edgar. Not only is he not making the Hall of Fame, he's not even making the list of guys who aren't making the Hall of Fame. So it goes. So it's always been.

My take on Edgar's quiet, glorious career can be found here. The Jim Lefebvre quote still astonishes me.

No Edgar on Hall of Fame dissed list

Edgar Who?

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Posted at 09:49 AM on Jan 11, 2013 in category Baseball
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Thursday January 10, 2013

Jeff Wells: Alone Against an Army of Haters!

“I was expecting to feel really badly this morning. Now not so much. The nominations are what matter & what sells so hooray for David O. Russell's Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations for Silver Linings Playbook, and also Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver's noms — four for effing four. Eight nominations in all. That's industry emotion. I knew. And I stood alone, all alone, against an army of haters who are now silent and seething. Bitches!”

--Jeff Wells on his “Hollywood Elsewhere” site after the annoucement of the 2012 Oscar nominees.

Wells is often interesting to read but he's also a pompadoured chest-beater who seems to imagine himself the hero of his own action movie--even as he disparages most of the action movies coming out of Hollywood. “I stood alone! All alone! Against an army of haters!” Every person contains a paradox, a contradiction, which they live with everyday, but most people's paradoxes and contradictions aren't so immediately apparent. Jeff Wells' is right out there.

As for “Silver Linings Playbook”? Liked the beginning, got worried in the middle, hated the end. “Let's ignore everything thus far for a bet and a dance competition. And two attractive people, the stars of the movie, coming together in the end. To watch football.” For the Academy this meant eight nominations. Add it to the list of things they get wrong.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook"

“I know you're bi-polar, I know I'm nuts, I know your dad is OCD: But if we just have your Dad bet double-or-nothing on both the Eagles game and you and I in this dance competition, I bet we can win his money back and fall in love! Just in time for the ending!”

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Posted at 07:56 AM on Jan 10, 2013 in category Movies - 2012 Oscars
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Unprecedented Disagreement Between the Academy and the DGA

The Director Guild of America announced its nominees for best feature film directing on Tuesday. They were:

Today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced its nominees for best director in a feature film. They were:

Only two agreements: Lee and Spielberg. How common is that?

Last year there was one disagreement: DGA's went with David Fincher (“Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), the Academy with my man Terrence Malick (“The Tree of Life”).

In 2010, one disagreement: DGAs: Chris Nolan and “Inception”; Academy: the Coen Bros. and “True Grit.”

In 2009, no disagreements.

In 2008, DGAs once again went Nolan (“The Dark Knight”), Academy Stephen Daldry (“The Reader”).

In 2007, the disagreement was “Into the Wild” vs. “Juno”; in 2006, it was “Dreamgirls” and “Little Miss Sunshine” vs. “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “United 93”; in 2004, “Finding Neverland” vs. “Vera Drake.” There were no disagreements in 2005.

Generally, the two bodies agree. But when they disagree the DGA tends to be more populist, as in 2003, choosing Gary Ross for “Seabiscuit,” and the Academy more arty, going for Fernando Meirelles and “City of God.”

On rare occasion they disagree on two of the five choices. But have they ever disagreed on three?

No. Since 1970, when the DGAs began nominating five directors in the Academy tradition, the two bodies have never disagreed on more than two directing choices. This year's disagreement is unprecedented.

*  *  *

ADDENDUM: And Sasha Stone with the reason why:

Sasha Stone tweet on DGA

No tagsPosted at 07:18 AM on Jan 10, 2013 in category Movies - 2012 Oscars
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And the 2012 Nominees Are...

Immediate reaction: No Kathryn Bigelow or Ben Affleck for best director? No Marion Cotillard for best actress? No John Hawkes for best actor? No “Intouchables” for best foreign language film?

Interesting. But keeping Marion Cotillard away from the proceedings is not the best way to get me to watch.

Also: No best documentary feature announcements? Am I part of that small of a minority who cares? And we got eight best-picture nominees and none was “The Master”?

Host Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) and this year's hottie/serious actress Emma Stone, made the announcements, engaged in some banter, which seemed at odds with the hour. It was like it was too early for bad jokes. Maybe instead of 5:30 AM, they should do it at night, throw a party, and announce the nominees in semi-drunken fashion. A thought. More thoughts, and a complete list, later, but here's the immediate one: It's now “Lincoln.” The DGAs and the Oscars agree on only two directors, Spielberg and Lee, and “Life of Pi” won't win it. It's “Lincoln”

Here you go:

Best Picture

  • Amour
  • Argo
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Django Unchained
  • Les Miserables
  • Life of Pi
  • Lincoln
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • Zero Dark Thirty

Best Directing

  • Michael Haneke, Amour
  • Ang Lee, Life of Pi
  • David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
  • Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
  • Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Best Actor in a Leading Role

  • Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
  • Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
  • Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
  • Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
  • Denzel Washington, Flight

Best Actress in a Leading Role

  • Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
  • Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
  • Emanuelle Riva, Amour
  • Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

  • Alan Arkin, Argo
  • Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
  • Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
  • Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

  • Amy Adams, The Master
  • Sally Field, Lincoln
  • Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
  • Helen Hunt, The Sessions
  • Jackie Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

 

Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

  • Amour
  • Django Unchained
  • Flight
  • Moonrise Kingdom
  • Zero Dark Thirty

Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

  • Argo
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Life of Pi
  • Lincoln
  • Silver Linings Playbook

Best Animated Feature

  • Brave
  • Frankenweenie
  • Paranorman
  • The Pirates: Band of Misfits
  • Wreck-it Ralph

Best Foreign Language Film

  • Amour
  • Kon-Tiki
  • No
  • A Royal Affair
  • War Witch

ADDENDUM: the full list of nominees here.

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Posted at 06:06 AM on Jan 10, 2013 in category Movies - 2012 Oscars
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Wednesday January 09, 2013

My Oscar Picks! (Wishes Not Predictions)

Oh, what the hell. I said I wasn't going to do it this year since I didn't see some of the bigger movies, but here goes anyway.

Proviso: I have yet to see, because they have yet to arrive, or because I've been too busy or lazy or just have no interest, the following films: “Rust and Bone,” “On the Road,” “Amour,” “Arbitrage” “Magic Mike,” “Killer Joe.” Probably more. That thing with Liam Neeson in the snow that's getting late  and odd attention. “The Grey.” A slew of foreign films. Yet somehow I saw “Men in Black 3.” Skewed priorities.

Further proviso: These are wishes, not predictions. Fuck predictions. To quote George W.S. Trow: You say/Survey says...  You say/Survey says... For greater detail of why I want what I want, feel free to click on the review. Also feel free to go, “What the fuck, Erik?”

OscarHere goes:

Best Picture:

Best Actor

Best Actress

Best Supporting Actor

Best Supporting Actress

Best Director:

  • Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Master”
  • Wes Anderson, “Moonrise Kingdom”
  • David Ayer, “End of Watch”
  • Ang Lee, “Life of Pi”
  • Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln”

Original Screenplay:

Adapted Screenplay:

  • Stephen Chbosky, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”
  • Tony Kushner, “Lincoln”
  • David Magee, “Life of Pi”
  • Tom Stoppard, “Anna Karenina”
  • Chris Terrio, “Argo”

Documentary Feature:

A weak year for movies but not for acting or writing.

As for my choices from these choices? My final picks? I'd go: “Lincoln,” Day-Lewis, Wallis, Clarke, Hathaway (“Les Miz”), Paul Thomas Anderson, Penn and Whedon, Kushner, and “The Central Park Five.”

You?

"Lincoln" starring Daniel Day-Lewis

“Lincoln” would win three of my big awards: picture, actor, screenplay.

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Posted at 07:47 PM on Jan 09, 2013 in category Movies - 2012 Oscars
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Lancelot Links

Minneapolis in the 1930s: City of the Future

Minneapolis in the 1930s was called the city of the future. It was for me anyway.

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Posted at 03:55 AM on Jan 09, 2013 in category Lancelot Links
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Tuesday January 08, 2013

The DGAs Are In: Affleck, Bigelow, Hooper, Lee, Spielberg

Today, the Directors Guild of America announced its nominees for outstanding direction in a feature film in 2012. Its nominees:

As mentioned before, whoever wins the DGA almost always wins best director; and whoever wins best director, their movie almost always wins best picture.

Since 1990, the line from the DGA's best director to the Oscar's best picture has been broken only four times: in 1995, 2000, 2002 and 2005.

As for a best picture coming from a director who wasn't even nominated for a DGA? That's only happened once since 1969.

In other words, “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Django Unchained” and “The Master”? SOL, dudes.

I think we're actually down to two films: “Lincoln” and “Argo.” I think the torture issue is sinking “Zero Dark Thirty.” (When you lie to us, Kathryn, we hurt you.) I think “Les Miz” isn't respected enough. I think “Life of Pi” is mostly forgotten.

The Academy roars Thursday morning. I'll be blogging early with reaction.

2012 DGA nominees for best feature film: Ben Affleck, Ang Lee, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hooper and Kathryn Bigelow

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Posted at 07:08 PM on Jan 08, 2013 in category Movies - Awards
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Quote of the Day

Nate Silver, who kept me sane in October, answered questions on Reddit today. When he mentioned that politics is more delusional than sports, he was asked which of the two is more frustrating to analyze. His answer:

Politics. I don’t think it's close. Between the pundits and the partisans, you’re dealing with a lot of very delusional people. And sports provides for much more frequent reality checks. In politics, you can go on being delusional for years at a time.

That last line is killer.

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Posted at 02:53 PM on Jan 08, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Steven Spielberg on Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln

“The first time I watched Daniel [Day-Lewis], in the first shot on the first day of shooting, was the first shot of the movie. He comes into the room and his son is asleep by the fireplace, and he lays down next to his son. That was the first time he actually performed Lincoln, and I cried when I saw that. And on the last shot of the last day, with Lincoln on his death bed at the Petersen House — and only minutes later the film was done, we wrapped the company and all got together. And Daniel embraced me, and then he spoke to me for the first time in four months with his English accent, and made me cry even harder. And it made me cry because I wasn't ready to say goodbye to this warm and generous President who I had gotten to know better than all the history books I've ever read, and all the research I ever did. And perhaps the surprising financial success that our picture's enjoying right now is in no small measure due to the people not wanting to say goodbye to Lincoln either.”

-- Steven Spielberg at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, honoring his and their best actor. My take on Day-Lewis' performance was similar. Third paragraph. Currently, “Lincoln” has grossed $144 million at the box office, the 17th highest-grossing film of the year.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in "Lincoln" (2012)

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Posted at 12:47 PM on Jan 08, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Anna Karenina (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I was worried I’d be bored with it since I already knew the story: Russia, married woman, affair, train. But I became intrigued by the purposeful staginess and theatricality from director Joe Wright. Or was that in the screenplay by Tom Stoppard? Of course it was. That’s a Stoppard staple.

It begins in a theater, on stage, with the words “Anna Karenina” on the curtain. I expected such theatricality to fall away, as it tends to in movies, and it does, at times, and we’re “in the scene” rather than “in the scene of the scene.” But it takes awhile to do this and the theatricality almost always returns—sometimes at Anna Karenina (2012) by Joe Wright and Tom Stoppardunexpected moments, such as at the end when Anna (Keira Knightley) is trapped by love and jealousy and society and doesn’t know which way to turn until she sees a way out. It was unexpected at this point in the story because I’d already equated this theatricality with the airs, theatricality and stagecraft in 19th-century Russian high society, of which Anna, here, was no longer a part. So why remind us? Someone with more time on their hands can go scene-by-scene and suggest why this scene dropped the cinematic illusion and this scene maintained the illusion. I’m sure Wright and Stoppard had their reasons.

I got tired of the contrivance, to be honest. I’ve never been a fan of it. I suppose I think it’s the job of the storyteller to put me in the story and it’s my job, as listener or viewer, to take myself out of it. There’s a tyranny and pomposity to this kind of post-modernism as well as pointlessness. It’s weak tyranny. I will tell you when and where you will be taken out of the story, thereby weakening the story. I search for engagement with the story rather than removal from it. I object to the author’s strong hand on the back of my neck.

That said, there were times when the contrivance worked. I’m thinking of the moment Vronsky’s horse falls off the stage during the race—that was powerful—or when Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) gives up Moscow society for his country estate and leaves the suffocating artifice of the stage for the cold, harsh reality of the Russian winter. He turns, steps outside, and it’s as if we can breathe again. It’s as if we didn’t realize how much we were suffocating until that moment.

My Anna
It’s been decades since I’ve read “Anna Karenina”—final quarter of college, spring 1987—and I’d forgotten a lot of it. Levin, for example. Completely. Even though he’s half the story. He was my guy back then—in love, searching for meaning—but I found him harder to take here. I’m older, of course, and harsher. I watched his dull, youthful stabs at love and rolled my eyes. I almost felt like Levin’s Marxist brother, Nikolai (David Wilmot), who, dying, rails against the privileged classes, saying, “Romantic love will be the last illusion of the old order.” In 1987, that line would have pained me, as it no doubt pains Levin. Now I just shrug: “Maybe.” But I lack Nikolai’s conviction for what comes after. I saw the mess Nikolai’s brethren made of it.

At the same time, I was charmed by the flirtation, and the held-breath, of the game of blocks Levin has with his unrequited love, Kitty (the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, with whom I was also charmed), later in the movie. By this point he’s suffered, she’s suffered (she loved Vronsky), and they’ve both matured. He’s in her parlor, visiting, and there are blocks there, and they play a game, almost like “Wheel of Fortune,” in which one side asks a question or makes a statement using only the first letter of each word, and the other side tries to guess what it is. In this way, this safe way, they reveal their feelings. DNMN, for example, from Levin, means, “Did No Mean Never?” referring to his earlier marriage proposal. TIDNK, she says, meaning “Then I Did Not Know.” And now? he asks. She asks, via the blocks, for his forgiveness for the way she was. He responds with these letters: ILY. No translation needed. That’s a sweet moment, and recalls the various wordgames from Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

In Tolstoy’s novel, I remember having more sympathy for Anna and less for Karenin, who seemed a prig to me. But as the movie progressed, I found myself less and less sympathetic with Anna, who gives up her child, etc., for her one great love, Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of “Kick Ass” fame). But Vronsky is, for the most part, shallow and callow. It’s a game to him, until it’s not, and Anna seems a fool for falling in love with him as completely as she does. Meanwhile, her husband, Karenin (Jude Law), publicly cuckolded, seems a decent, moral man who mostly tries to do the right thing.

Kundera's Anna
Our sympathies here are no small matter. Milan Kundera, in the last pages of his book of essays, “The Art of the Novel,” writes the following:

When Tolstoy sketched the first draft of Anna Karenina, Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was entirely deserved and justified. The final version of the novel is very different, but I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would like to call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.

But what is that wisdom, what is the novel? There is a fine Jewish proverb: Man thinks, God laughs. … Because man thinks and the truth escapes him. Because the more men think, the more one man's thought diverges from another's. And finally, because man is never what he thinks he is.

Maybe the movie needed more drafts. By the end, Anna, never particularly likeable, is insufferable. She’s mad with love, mad with jealousy, mad with loneliness. She thinks she can go out into high society again, and pretends it doesn’t matter what people think. It’s a shock when it does. By this point, I began to feel sorry for, all of people, Vronsky, who has to put up with her histrionics. Finally she sees her way out. She met Count Vronsky on a train and ends her life beneath one. It’s this story in a newspaper account of the time—woman throws herself beneath train—that led Tolstoy to write “Anna Karenina” in the first place.

“Anna Karenina” looks beautiful, is filmed gorgeously, and I loved Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky. But the story’s dilemma is truly the dilemma of another time and place. Attempts to bring the story to our time should bring some of its wisdom with it.

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Posted at 07:06 AM on Jan 08, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Monday January 07, 2013

The Seven Words Women Long to Hear

“I do love you so terribly much.”

--Matthew Crawley (Dan Stephens) to Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) on last night's season 3 premiere of the BBC Series “Downton Abbey.” It's an awful show. Sorry. I watch it because Patricia likes it but it's a soap opera with high production values. But there are rewards. Chiefly:

  • Anything the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) says. God, she's good.
  • Anywhere Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil) stands. Yowsah.

Last night I liked the battle between O'Brien and Thomas. Hope it continues. I like the chumminess, as men marrying into this crazy family, between Matthew and the bomb-throwing chauffeur dude.

That's it. Get better, show. And somebody give me my mash-up between “Downton” and “Boardwalk Empire.”

Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary in BBC's "Downton Abbey"

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Posted at 10:00 PM on Jan 07, 2013 in category TV
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My Under-the-Radar Oscar Nominations

On Thursday, January 10, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announces its 2012 nominations. Normally this is the time I'd announce my nominations, just for fun, but now it's crunch time. That is, movieogers like me are now getting crunched between the studios, who release prestige pictures later and later, and the critics groups and the Academy, which announce nominees and winners earlier and earlier.

Not having seen everything (“Amour,” “Rust and Bone,” “The Gatekeepers”), I'll hold off for a bit. In the meantime, here are some less-talked-about performances I wouldn't mind seeing nominated but which probably won't be:

Best Picture

Best Actor

Best Supporting Actor

Best Supporting Actress

That's about it. As I've said before, and despite Roger Ebert's pronouncements, this has been a shitty year for movies.

What about you? Who would you like to see nominated?

"End of Watch" screenshot

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena in “End of Watch,” an underrated movie in an overrated movie year.

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Posted at 02:44 PM on Jan 07, 2013 in category Movies - 2012 Oscars
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Movie Review: The Central Park Five (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

If they’d made a feature film about the Central Park Five—the five teenagers who were convicted in the brutal assault and rape of an investment banker jogging in Central Park on the evening of April 19, 1989—Jack Klugman, who recently passed away, and who played Juror No. 5 in Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men,” would have been a good choice to play Juror No. 5, Ronald Gold, in the 1990 trial of three of the five. At the least, his casting would have highlighted the difference between the U.S. justice system in its ideal and its reality.

In “12 Angry Men,” Juror No. 5 is the second man to come over to Henry Fonda’s side on the movie’s ultimate path toward justice and a “Not guilty” verdict for the black man wrongfully accused of a crime. In the 1990 trial, Juror No. 5 was the lone holdout, the reason the jury deliberated as long as it did (10 days), on the court’s ultimate path toward injustice and a “Guilty” verdict for the five black kids wrongfully accused of a crime. The movies, even serious movies like “12 Angry Men,” are still so much wish-fulfillment fantasy. The real world is sadder. 

As for why did Juror No. 5 changed his mind and voted to convict? It’s the same reason, ironically, the Central Park Five confessed to the brutal rape in the first place.

14 and 15, mostly
I remember the Central Park Jogger case well. I remember hearing about it on Sunday morning talk shows, sitting in the living room of my father’s house in South Poster for "The Central Park Five" by Ken BurnsMinneapolis in April 1989. I’d just spent a year abroad in Taipei, Taiwan, and was preparing for grad school at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, but the thing I was doing most that spring? Dating a girl. A girl who liked to jog at night. As a result, the thought of random acts of violence, particularly gang rape by packs of kids, self-professed “wolf packs” engaged in the sport of “wilding,” terrified me. I never even thought to ask if it was true. It was on the Sunday morning talk shows, after all.

“The Central Park Five” by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, begins with an audiotape confession. “I’m the one that did this,” it says. It’s chilling. Questions immediately present themselves. If these five kids didn’t do it, how did they get accused in the first place? How was this injustice done?

In ordinary ways, it turns out. In ways that will feel familiar to any viewer of “The Wire.”

The five were in Central Park that night. Raymond Santana, Sr. remembers sending his son there. He told him there was too much trouble on the corner, that the park was safer. This parental concern ruined Raymond Jr.’s life. Raymond Sr. knows it. You can see it in his eyes. He lives with it every day.

I’d forgotten how young the kids were—if I ever knew. Korey Wise was the oldest at 16. Raymond Santana, Jr. and Kevin Richardson were the youngest at 14. Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam were both 15.

They each became part of a gang of kids, anywhere from 25 to 32 in number, who, that evening, messed with people on the north side of the park: throwing rocks at cars; knocking over cyclists; beating up a homeless person. Each of the five, in the doc, claims he wasn’t doing any of the messing; each professes a kind of shock that this behavior was even going on. But they stuck around and the cops came, and Kevin, Yusef and Raymond Santana, among others, were detained at the Central Park Precinct and questioned about the incidents. They were about to be released when a homicide detective working on a rape case across the park telephoned. “Hold onto those guys!” he said.

A homicide detective was working the case because the jogger was in coma; she’d lost three-quarters of her blood. They didn’t think she was going to make it. But at least they had suspects. They had 25 to 32 of them. Within a day, five had confessed.

Why the innocent plead guilty
There was an article in The New York Times the other day about a rape case in West Virginia in which DNA evidence now suggests that the man who had been convicted of the 11-year-old crime, the 19-year-old who had confessed to it back then, didn’t do it. Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project condemns the prosecution. An assistant prosecutor fights back. “Raping an 83-year-old lady is about as bad as it gets,” he says. “Why would someone plead guilty and say they were sorry several months later if they really had no participation in it?”

That’s what we want to know watching “The Central Park Five.” Why would these kids, if they didn’t do it, confess to this horrific crime? The answer we get sheds a little light on the world. It helps explain not only the Central Park case but the West Virginia case. It explains why Ronald Gold finally voted to convict. It explains why we went to war in Iraq.

The detectives interrogated the kids for 14 hours, 20 hours, 30 hours. They said they’d already been fingered by other kids in the gang. They said, “Hey, these other kids say you did it. Now we know you didn’t, but…” They offered them deals. They demonstrated anger and conviction. They didn’t let up.

“I just wanted it to stop,” one of the Central Park Five says.

“I just wanted to go home,” says another.

They were 14 and 15 years old and thought if they confessed to parts of the crime—the holding the woman down, say—they’d be able to go home. Instead they walked out of the police station and into a media maelstrom. Feelings were hot. Grandstanding took place. Donald Trump placed an ad in the local papers demanding the return of the death penalty. Members of the mainstream media called the boys “sociopaths” and “mutants.” Even many in the black community went along. “Many of us were frightened by our own children,” says Rev. Calvin O. Butts III.

All of this created a momentum for conviction. Yet without their videotaped confessions, which were quickly recanted, there was no evidence linking them to the crime. The New York Police Dept.’s own timeline placed the boys about a mile from the ravine at the time the rape took place. The trail of matted grass from the path to the ravine was only 18 inches wide, meaning they’d had to walk it single-file. Most telling of all, despite the ferocity of the attack, they’d left none of their DNA behind: not in the woods; not in the woman. The police had DNA, yes, but it was someone else’s. “I felt like I’ve been kicked in the stomach,” prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer told a colleague when she discovered this.

But the case continued; it had momentum. At the trial, on the stand, the police denied that they had coerced confessions; they denied making deals. And they had the confessions. “It was hard to imagine why someone would make up [a guilty plea when they were innocent],” Ronald Gold, Juror No. 5, says in the doc. He was the lone holdout for conviction. He says the other jurors even called him a rat for holding out. So, he says, “I went along with it in the end.” He says, “I was wiped out.” He voted guilty for the same reason the boys lied about being guilty. He got worn down. He just wanted to go home.

A modest nod
Most of the Central Park Five got 5 to 7 years. Korey, the eldest, was put away for 10 years. He was still there, at Riker’s Island, in 2001, when he crossed paths with Matias Reyes, who had been arrested in August 1989 and convicted shortly thereafter on multiple rape charges. He was known as the East Side Rapist. He did horrible things. He also raped and assaulted the jogger that night in Central Park. When he saw Korey still in prison for his crime, something in him stirred, and he confessed, the confession we hear at the beginning of the doc. When his DNA was compared with the DNA found at the scene, it was an exact match.

In December 2002, when the state of New York vacated the convictions of the five, I was working as a freelance writer in Seattle. I was probably working on a story for Washington Law & Politics. I was plugged in. But unlike April 1989, I don’t remember hearing about the case. “These were five kids who we tormented, we false accused, we pilloried in the press, we invented phrases for the imagines crimes” says historian Craig Steven Wilder. “And then we put them in jail. And when the evidence turned out that they were innocent, we gave a modest nod and walked away.”

“Central Park Five” is a straightforward, well-researched, powerful documentary, although I would’ve like a subtler ending. I also would’ve liked more on what led to the term “wilding,” which never existed until the police mentioned it in connection with this crime. How did it come about? David Dinkins mentions Emmett Till as historical reference point but no one brings up the Scottsboro Boys? That’s what I kept thinking. I kept thinking that for all the distance we’d traveled, we hadn’t gone that far.

But this is really less a story of race than coercion. It’s about the powerless, yes, but it’s a warning to the powerful. When you’re powerful, and committed, and you go searching for something, you’ll find it. You’ll find it because you’re powerful and committed. Even if the thing you’ve found is the wrong thing. Even if the thing you’ve found is the opposite of the thing you were searching for. Here, for example, we went searching for justice.

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Posted at 06:20 AM on Jan 07, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Sunday January 06, 2013

Reader Quote of the Day

“Another point is that the 'invaders' [in Peter Berg's 'Battleship'] only brought 5 ships, don't fire unless fired upon, go to extremes to avoid killing anyone (they don't even have guns) and when one of the aliens corners the scientist dude, does he kill him? No, he freaking tries to comfort and calm him down.

”There is a tragedy to be found in this movie and I would have loved to see the same events from the aliens' point of view...“

-- a reader named ”Mavado“ in the comments field under my scathing review of ”Battleship.“ I didn't think anyone could say anything that would make me want to watch ”Battleship“ again, but this comes close. Is ”Battleship“ like ”Starship Troopers“? Is it a send-up of alien invasion movies? Are we the villains in it, recognizably so by the movie's creators? Holy shit, if so.

Rihanna in "Battleship"

Do Rihanna, the USN, and paranoid world governments kill peace-loving aliens in ”Battleship"?

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Posted at 11:21 AM on Jan 06, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Quote of the Day

“He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.”

--Tobias Wolff on his former student, the novelist George Saunders, as quoted by Joel Lovell in his New York Times Magazine piece, “Stay Open, Forever, So Open It Hurts.” Online, the piece is known as, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” That book is called “Tenth of December,” in case you're interested.

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Posted at 07:03 AM on Jan 06, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Saturday January 05, 2013

Minimus

I got the following email message about a week after following Russell Crowe on Twitter:

Twitter message: Similar to Russell Crowe

Similar to Russell Crowe? Seth Green?

I guess they are both actors.

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Posted at 02:39 PM on Jan 05, 2013 in category Technology
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Why People Like Bad Movies

“People didn't like the [1964 World's] Fair. People tried to like it, though. They agreed to like it. The Fair was hard to like, but they agreed to like it. Not to like it was the same thing as to break the agreement that was all that stood between them and being alone.”

-- George W.S. Trow, “Within the Context of No Context,” pg. 113

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Posted at 01:38 PM on Jan 05, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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The 2011 Best Picture Nominees by IMDb Ranking: Revisited

Last February I posted the IMDb ratings for the nine best-picture nominees from the 2011 movie season, professed perplexity at “The Help”'s relatively high rating (8.0, or third-best among nominees), as well as “The Tree of Life”'s relatively low one (7.1, or second-to-last among nominees), and promised to revisit in a year or so to see how IMDb's raters, whoever they were, had sorted it out.

Longtime reader, and inveterate IMDb watcher, Reed, warned me, in the comments field, that “Tree of Life” would plummet. “It is not a movie that will be appreciated outside of a theater setting,” he wrote, adding parenthetically, “Yes, I know almost all movies' IMDb ratings decline over time because the demographics shift, but I imagine that casual viewers will be particularly unkind to 'Tree of Life'...”

He was right. But they were even more unkind to another of the best picture nominees:

2011 Best Picture Nominee 2012 IMDb 2013 IMDb Difference
The Artist 8.4 8.1 -3
Hugo 8.2 7.7 -5
The Help 8.0 8.0 0
Midnight in Paris 7.8 7.7 -1
Moneyball 7.7 7.6 -1
The Descendants 7.7 7.4 -3
War Horse 7.3 7.2 -1
The Tree of Life 7.1 6.8 -3
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close 6.4 6.8 4

2012 ratings taken during February 2012; 2013 ratings taken the morning of January 5, 2013

“Hugo”? Really, people?

Scorsese's kid drops 5, “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” and “The Tree of Life” all drop 3, “Midnight in Paris,” “Moneyball” and “War Horse” all drop 1, “The Help” stays the course, while “Extremely Loud,” lambasted by the critics a year ago, rises an astonishing 4 points.

The best movie of the bunch is now tied for last; one of the worst is now second and holding.

The way of the world. It's not cream that rises. Help.

The Help, Extremely Loud, Hugo

“The Help” doesn't change; “Extremely Loud” gets closer; “Hugo” barely hangs on.

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Posted at 07:59 AM on Jan 05, 2013 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Friday January 04, 2013

Bob Lundegaard's Reviews: Les Miserables (2012)

First I reviewed Tom Hooper's “Les Miserables,” then my 11-year-old nephew Jordy did; now my 80-year-old father, Bob Lundegaard, formerly of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and one-time inspiration for the Coen brothers, has a go ...


Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said that three generations of imbeciles is enough. Although there’s no truth to the widely held belief that he was referring to movie reviewers, one can’t be too careful in a family in which grandfather, father and son have all aspired to the craft.

I haven’t reviewed a movie in 30 years — I was once the film critic at the Minneapolis Tribune – but recently an opportunity arose that was too good to pass up. Our family went to the Christmas Day opening of “Les Miserables,” which meant that I sat right in back of my grandson, Jordy, who’s a frequent movie reviewer on Facebook.

We decided to have a friendly competition, dueling reviewers, with a third entrant, Jordy’s Uncle Erik, who lives in Seattle. Les Miserables: both film and play postersI’ve seen several stage productions of the musical, but Jordy had a distinct advantage over me: He’s been in it, so he knows all the songs, even though he’s only 11 years old. A local high school, renowned for its stagecraft, mounted a production two years ago, when he was in 3rd grade, and needed a chorus of street urchins for the revolutionary Paris scenes. And to our delight, one of the chosen gamins was Jordy!

I’ve always had mixed feelings about “Les Miz.” The rhymes usually are telegraphed way before you hear them. “Give” invariably rhymes with “live,” for instance. “Bring him joy” leads to “he is only a boy” Not exactly Ira Gershwin. And the sentimentality can get overwhelming.

Not to mention Victor Hugo’s coincidences, which can put Dickens to shame. Why does Inspector Javert always happen to show up wherever Jean Valjean is living? And when Valjean and his adopted daughter catapult into a religious sanctuary while on the lam from the evil Inspector Javert, who should be tending the garden but a man Valjean had rescued from death years ago in a village far from Paris?

Still, it’s a powerful story, and much of the music can make you feel like standing in your seat and joining the revolution, so I brought an extra Kleenex or two. Turns out I needed them. The story is even more overwhelming on film, spearheaded by an Oscar-worthy performance by Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, the ex-convict with a heart of gold and the strength of a Samson.

Director Tom Hooper has personalized the epic proportions of the story by unremitting use of close-ups, so close you can see the nose hairs on Javert. I also liked Hooper’s opening innovation: Thousands of convicts trying to tug a foundering ship onto land. The ubiquitous Javert is their overseer. When they can’t manage it, he orders Valjean to bring him a flag attached to an enormous, stubborn log. Valjean does more: he lifts the log as well and becomes emblazoned in Javert’s memory forever.

The stolid Russell Crowe as Javert was, I thought, the least effective of the leads, though admittedly it’s a difficult role to shine in. Anne Hathaway does shine in the tiny part of Fantine, though she does return (with almost everyone else) for Valjean’s insufferable deathbed scene.

All in all, a good day at the movies, if only because Hollywood is making MUSICALS again. As someone who grew up with “Oklahoma!” and “My Fair Lady” on Broadway, I really miss them.

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Posted at 07:11 AM on Jan 04, 2013 in category Movie Reviews
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Thursday January 03, 2013

Founding Dish Member

Founding Dish Member certificate: Andrew Sullivan

In case you haven't heard, Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish is creating his own business model.

What writing, in the digital age, is worth paying for? Sullivan's, I would argue, so I signed up. Even though I could still read most of his blog without paying a dime. There will be no paywall. But I figure I already owe him that much. $19.99 for a year? Please.

The New Yorker, too, is worth paying for, despite their new online love for Andy Borowitz, and I'm already paying for that. Ditto The New York Times. I'd pay for Joe Posnanski if he asked. Maybe I'll buy him a beer when he's in town. Let me know, Joe.

What about you?

Brave new world that has such blogs in it. You can sign up for Sully here.

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Posted at 04:50 PM on Jan 03, 2013 in category Media
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How's Your New Year Going?

Here's mine.

New Year's Day, morning, Patricia and I are moving a heavy mirror in the bedroom. She recently bought a new bed frame that we put together (with the help of our friend Vinny), but which necessitated moving the dresser, which necessitated moving the heavy mirror above the dresser. We were doing this when I slid my hand on the bottom of the mirror to get a better grip. And that's when I got the sliver. Deep sliver. It took about five minutes of wrangling with tweezers and pins and hydrogen peroxide to get it free and clear, and even then I thought we'd missed the brunt of it. Right near the wound I saw a thin blue line that looked like a sliver deep beneath the surface, and which reminded me of the sleek blue shadow of a shark beneath the surface of the water. I stared at it. I pressed on it. I compared it to veins in my hand. It looked like a vein. Surely it was just a vein. Or was it? (It was.) But I wasted half the day obsessing over it. That was my first day of the new year.

Yesterday afternoon, the second day of the New Year, I was returning to work with lunch, chicken coconut curry soup from Metropolitan Market in lower Queen Anne, when I felt something splat on top of my head. Things have landed on my head before, of course, but they invariably turn out to be water from a nearby air-conditioner, or some such, but this felt different. It felt wrong. I had napkins in my hand for the soup and I rubbed them on the back of my head ... and the napkins came away smeared with the yellow of bird shit. I spent the next 15 minutes cleaning up at work in the bathroom, then showered when I got home. The chicken curry soup for lunch didn't look or taste as good as it ought to. That was my second day of the new year.

A new year is an artificial construct, of course, which gives us the illusion of a new beginning. I enjoy that illusion—for a day or a week or two. Sometimes I look for signs in it. What will the new year bring? Will the first few days tell me what kind of year I will have?

Per the signs this year: I will be obsessed with the inconsequential; then I'll get shit on.

Today's the third day of the new year. Here I come, world.

Barney Gumble in a diaper: Here I come, world!

HOMER: Sitting here and complaining isn't going to do anything. You got to pull up your diaper and be the best damn Barney you can be.

BARNEY: HERE I COME WORLD!!! (Runs outside and into trash can.)

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Posted at 07:01 AM on Jan 03, 2013 in category Personal Pieces
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Wednesday January 02, 2013

The Inherent Loneliness of the Internet

“We’re craving the nondigital even more these days, the authentically human interaction. We need to see some schmuck sweat.”

-- Jerry Seinfeld on the necessity of live stand-up comedy in an age when almost everything can be seen online. From the article, “Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up,” in The New York Times Magazine, Dec. 20, 2012.

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Posted at 05:01 PM on Jan 02, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Django Unchained (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The slaughter of Native Americans? The rape of Nanjing? The near-genocides of Josef Stalin or Pol Pot? What is the next historic horror Quentin Tarantino will turn into a spaghetti-western-style revenge fantasy? In the 1990s, QT gave us three complex, pulpy crime stories (“Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Jackie Brown”), and in the aughts three female revenge fantasies (“Kill Bill” I and II and “Death Proof”), and now he’s given us two revenge fantasies of an historical nature: the rising up of the historically downtrodden. “Inglourious Basterds” showed us Jews killing Nazis, including Uncle Adolf, once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France. Now, in “Django Unchained,” a freed slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), kills slavemasters in the deep South—or more specifically, as it’s scrolled across the screen in big 1950s type, M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I—in 1858. “Two years before the Civil War,” QT adds helpfully.

It’s a great idea. History is nothing but groups of people being fucked over, while the movies are all about wish-fulfillment fantasy. So why not meld the two? The Bible is full of revenge fantasies as well. Maybe that’s the next direction? “Quentin Tarantino’s The Bible.” That’s a title he’d dig. He’d dig it the most, baby.

The more-or-less true story of the bounty hunter
Question: Who holds the power in a Quentin Tarantino story? More than the one with the weapon, it’s the one with the story. His movies are conversations punctuated by violence, and the one who holds the floor holds the power.

Poster for Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" (2012)This is apparent more than halfway through “Django Unchained” when Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) momentarily loses the conversational thread to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz actually looks confused at the dinner table. Someone is telling a story and it’s not him. He should know that when the talking is done a gun will be pointed at his head, since that’s how he usually ends his stories. It’s really this, getting one-upped in storytelling, more than the dogs tearing apart the runaway slave d’Artagnan (Ato Essandoh), that later bothers Schultz. That’s why he: a) insults Candie, and, b) shoots and kills him. He must know he’ll die as a result. But he has to do it. The man can’t abide getting one-upped in storytelling. I’m sure Tarantino, an inveterate storyteller, feels the same way.

The storytelling is what’s right with “Django.” It also indicates where Schultz, or QT, goes wrong.

The power of Schultz’s stories is that they’re more-or-less true. In the beginning, he really is interested in buying the slave, Django, from the slave traders who are moving Django and four others across Texas in 1858. He comes upon them in the middle of the night, driving his absurd little stagecoach with the large plaster tooth bobbing comically on top. The tooth is subterfuge, since he hasn’t worked dentistry in five years. But he is interested in buying Django for a fair price. He’s a bounty hunter, tracking the three Brittle brothers (great name), but he’s never seen them. Django has. That’s why he wants him. But the two white men, the slave traders, aren’t interested in his long-winded story, nor his fancy-pants European vocabulary, and they try to cut his story short, not to mention his bargaining, at the point of a gun. That’s our first shootout. Schultz kills one, leaves the other beneath his own horse, but still pays for Django. Because his story is true.

His next story is even better because every element of it, in the telling, seems crazy, but in the end it all pulls together.

Schultz rides into Daugherty, Texas, accompanied by, as everyone says, “a nigger on a horse.” That freaks them out right away. Then he actually brings Django into a saloon, which is closed for another hour. When the saloonkeeper flees, he pours himself and Django beers and tells him of his plans. He says he’s against slavery, but, for the moment, somewhat guiltily, he’ll use it, and Django, to get the Brittle brothers and the bounty on their heads. After that, he’ll set Django free. Deal? By this time the sheriff, Bill Sharp (Don Stroud), shows up, and Schultz, while explaining matters, shoots and kills him in the muddy Texas street. Now everyone’s freaking. But rather than attempt to escape, Schultz nonchalantly returns to the saloon, keeps telling his story to Django, and let’s opposition forces, led by the local Marshal (Tom Wopat), gather outside. When the Marshal demands he give himself up, he first exacts the concession that no one will shoot him on sight; that he’ll get a fair trial before being hanged by the neck. The Marshal reluctantly agrees. So he walks outside into the gauntlet of guns, unarmed but with a story. Their sheriff? Bill Sharp? He isn’t who they think he is. He’s a wanted man, with a bounty on his head, and Schultz is a court-appointed bounty hunter, and that’s why he killed him. He has the piece of paper in his pocket to prove it. “In other words, Marshal,” he adds, trumping everyone, “you owe me $2,000.”

Nice. And the main reason it works is because it’s true.

The mostly false story of the Mandingo slaver
In this manner, Dr. King Schultz and Django move through the Midwest and South telling stories, killing men, collecting bounties. Sometimes the stories aren’t enough, as when Django kills two of the Brittle brothers in the presence of Big Daddy (Don Johnson), who then gathers a posse, an early version of the Ku Klux Klan, to kill the nigger and the nigger-loving German. But King knows when his stories aren’t enough and he’s ready for them, with dynamite (patented in 1867, but whatever). The purpose  of the Kluxers is comic relief. Before they ride, they complain about the hoods with the eye slots. How they can’t see. How they can’t breathe. Can they just not wear them? It’s the funniest part of the movie.

King even tells Django a story around a campfire. It’s the story of Brynhildr. It resonates because Django’s wife, who was whipped by the Brittle brothers and resold into slavery, is named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She was raised by Germans, speaks some German. That’s an interesting coincidence, by the way. The slave that the native German bounty hunter needed to collect a bounty has a wife who speaks German. Here’s another: Schultz learns, by and by, that the slave he bought and freed also turns out to be the fastest gun in the South. Too many coincidences like these can get in the way of a good story. We begin to question the things we’re hearing or watching. Where was that chain gang of slaves going at the beginning of the movie anyway? How did Dr. King Schultz find them in the middle of the night in the middle of Texas? And how did he find them coming the other way? If he was pursuing Django, wouldn’t he be catching up to them? Too many coincidences make us wonder if the storyteller is a bad storyteller; or if he’s just lying to us.

The power of Schultz’s stories in the first half of the movie is that they’re true. He goes wrong—and you could say Tarantino goes wrong—when he begins to lie.

Schultz and Django, partners now, discover that Broomhilda has been sold to Calvin Candie, of Candieland (great name), in the deepest part of the South: M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. How to get her back?

Schultz gives a quick reason why they don’t rely on some version of the truth. I forget what it is. I also don’t understand why they don’t use the story he uses in the end: He’s German; he misses speaking German; might he, perchance, buy the slavegirl who speaks German? Calvin Candie isn’t an unreasonable sort. He’s also a bit of a slave to Southern hospitality. I’m sure he would’ve acquiesced to this request for a fair (or unfair) price. Using this scheme, Schultz wouldn’t even have had to bring Django with him to Candieland. And since the heat between Django and Broomhilda is what tips off the house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who alerts his master, leaving Django back in town, or up North, might have averted the bloodbath that follows.

But that’s the thing. Schultz, the storyteller, is interested in averting bloodbaths. Tarantino, the storyteller, is not. In fact, he needs the bloodbath or the movie isn’t a Tarantino movie. It’s just full of words. It’s not cool. A few years ago, in “Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!,” a documentary about Australian exploitation movies, Tarantino said the following about how the low-budget thriller, “Patrick,” nearly influenced “Kill Bill”:

I always remember that actor. I thought he was amazing-looking in that movie with his eyes just wide open and everything, and in the original script [for “Kill Bill”] I had it written like that. Then I showed it to Uma and she goes, “I'm not going to do that,” and I go, “Why?” and she goes, “You wouldn't have your eyes open like that if you were in a coma! That's not realistic.” I go, “Actually I never thought was it realistic or not, it's just Patrick did it, alright, and it looked really cool.”

That’s always been the problem with Tarantino. Given the choice between realistic and cool, he always goes for really cool.

The battle of the remaining storytellers
So Schultz concocts the false story, the made-up story, of wanting to purchase a Mandingo wrestler, while his companion, Django, a freed slave, is his advisor in the matter. Eventually they’re uncovered. The rest of the movie becomes, in a sense, a battle of the storytellers.

First, Calvin Candie, discovering the subterfuge of Schultz and Django, doesn’t just go into the dining room with guns cocked; he goes in there with a story. It’s a story meant to reassert white superiority over the Negro. It involves a hammer, and a skull, and dimples in an area of the skull, and it ends with the hammer coming down.

After Candie and Schultz have been killed, our next storyteller is Stephen. By this point, Django has killed many white folks, which, yeah, you don’t do in M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I, and the question becomes what to do with him. The white folks have the same old ideas: lynching, castration, dogs. But Stephen has a thought. Lynch Django and he becomes a legend for everything he’s already done. But force him to live out his days in subservient toil, for, say, the LeQuint Dickey Mining Co. of Australia, until he dies old and frail and useless, well, that will lessen his legend. It will change the trajectory of his story. That’s how he even puts it to Django. He imagines the day when Django finally keels over from overwork in the mines and tells him, “And that will be the story of you.”

And it might have been. But “Django Unchained” isn’t just a revenge fantasy. It is, to use the German, a bildungsroman, in which our protagonist, Django, mentored by Dr. King Schultz, moves from the darkness of slavery and into the light of absolute, fuck-you freedom. From Schultz, he learns about bounty hunting and guns. He learns how to dress and how to kill. And by the end, he’s learned how to tell a story, too. Sold to the Aussies, he uses this power. He tells them they’ve been lied to by the folks at Candieland, who claimed Django was a slave; he tells them that there is bounty-hunting wealth beyond imagination back at Candieland if they just want to go back and claim it. This story has the advantage of being mostly true, and the other slaves, too dim and scared to lie, corroborate it. So the Aussies, straight out of an Ozploitation movie, set Django free and die. And Django returns to rescue Broomhilda and put a final end to Stephen, the house nigger, and to Candieland itself. He blows it up, puts on his sunglasses, and rides off into the sunset with his girl.

And that, says Tarantino, is the story of him.

The story of the storyteller
So what’s the story of Tarantino? It’s changed over the years, hasn’t it?

First, it was the story of the videostore clerk who became a hot screenwriter and director. Then it became the story of the auteur who employs favorite or forgotten actors. He started with Travolta in “Pulp Fiction,” moved onto Pam Grier and Robert Forster in “Jackie Brown,” and never really stopped. “Django Unchained” gets its name from the great spaghetti western “Django,” starring Franco Nero, so we get Nero, of course. He’s the dude at the bar at the Cleopatra Club who asks Django how his name is spelled. “The ‘D’ is silent,” Django says. “I know,” Nero says with a proud smile. Another cool, false moment for QT.

Other forgotten actors in “Django” include the aforementioned Don Johnson, Tom Wopat and Don Stroud; Dennis Christopher of “Breaking Away” as the Cleopatra Club owner; Lee Horsley of TV’s “Matt Houston,” and Ted Neeley, Jesus Christ Superstar himself, as one of the trackers whose hounds tear apart the runaway slave d’Artagnan. Neeley hasn’t acted on screen since 1985.

More recently, though, the story of Tarantino for me is the story of the auteur who never really lived up to the promise of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”; who, when given the choice between realistic and cool, always goes with cool, no matter how false it may be. He needs to learn the lesson of Dr. King Schultz. When you tell your story, try to make it more-or-less true. Make it so true that you can end it, and trump your enemies, with a piece of paper rather than a gun. Because in the end that’s cooler.

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Posted at 07:39 AM on Jan 02, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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