erik lundegaard

Friday May 31, 2013

Superman Screenshot of the Day

Superman's junk in Superman III

Superman's junk, believe it or not, was a matter of a huge debate during the making of “Superman: The Movie.” Apparently the suit Christopher Reeve wore was a bit revealing, even with the outside undies, and the debate was whether to minimize (with whatever) or maximize (with a codpiece). Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind were definitely in favor of this latter approach. “Either he has a big one or he has nothing!” Ilya supposedly said.

They seemed to go both ways in the movie, didn't they? It's noticeable in some scenes, less so in others, but I haven't done extensive research. Volunteers?

The above shot, with codpiece, is from “Superman III.” Computer technician Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor), at the behest of the villainous businessman Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), has created a synthetic version of kryptonite, which acts upon the Man of Steel like red kryptonite. In this case, he turns evil, or at least mischievious, or at least horny. Webster's assistant, Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson), the booby blonde of this movie (replacing Valerie Perrine, to be replaced by Mariel Hemingway), then hangs out at the top of the Statue of Liberty to get Supes' attention. She gets it.

Question of the day: Would Richard Donner have approved of this shot? Would Geoffrey Unsworth? How about Jerry Siegel?

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Posted at 04:32 PM on May 31, 2013 in category Superman Screenshot of the Day
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Quote of the Day

“I don't know a single soul, and I've seen every fucking movie in town, and that includes the Steven Seagal movie. I'll never forgive you for this. [Exhales]”

-- American woman in Paris hotel room on the phone with her boyfriend, and, unbeknownst, being robbed by Irma Vep (Maggie Cheung), in Olivier Assayas' “Irma Vep” (1996)

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Posted at 12:51 PM on May 31, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: The Last Sentence (2012)

WARNING: SPÖILERS

In 1996, Swedish director Jan Troell (“The Emigrants”; “Everlasting Moments”) made “Hamsun,” a biopic of the latter years of famed Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun (Max von Sydow), who infamously sided with Nazi Germany during World War II. It’s a tragedy.

Last year, Troell made “The Last Sentence” (“Dom over dod man”), a biopic of the latter years of famed Swedish journalist Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen), the editor-in-chief of Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning (GHT), who was one of the strongest, most strident, and earliest voices against Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. It, too, is a tragedy.

The lesson? Apparently it’s tough to have a happy ending in Nazi-occupied Europe. Also being on the right side of history doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole.

Two opposing ideas
When I first saw Segerstedt watching newsreel footage of Hitler, I thought, “That’s our hero?” He has a shock of white hair, prominent cheekbones, and something severe and uncompromising in his face. He looks like a drag. He is. Poster for "The Last Sentence" (2012)Shortly afterwards, we see him at a dinner party giving an overlong toast about “the truth.” He does this while also conducting a public affair with the publisher of GHT, Maja Forssman (Pernilla August, Anakin Skywalker’s mom, y’all). “The sleeper does not sin,” he tells his wife, Puste (Ulla Skoog, in a great performance), before the party. “As you should know,” she replies. “You hardly sleep.”

For the first third of the film, in fact, Troell mostly ignores Hitler and history and focuses on Segerstedt’s infidelity. The cuckold, Segerstedt’s friend Axel Forssman (Björn Granath), handles it all with equanimity and a kind of sad Swedish acceptance, but Puste is less forgiving. She’s full of self-pity but receives little from others:

Puste: What does she have that I don’t?
Ingrid Segerstedt: A newspaper, mother.

And from us? We certainly feel sorry for her. How awful to take a back seat in your husband’s affairs—to not even be able to sit next to him at parties—to be usurped and forgotten in this manner. But any pity we have for her is laced with something else. There’s a quiet moment when Puste sits at Segerstedt’s desk. It’s her way of getting close to him. She doesn’t have him but she has his things. It’s a bit creepy but mostly sad. Then it just becomes creepy. She opens the desk drawer and finds a picture of a girl—“Maja, age 16,” it says on the back—and her face hardens and she tears it up. When she next visits Segerdtedt in his den, stepping over his dogs to bring him tea, and he’s brusque and distracted, she pours scalding water on the dogs.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still be able to function.” Troell manages this with his characters. Our thoughts, our feelings, are forever conflicted about them. Sure, Torgny should pay more attention to his wife … but she’s such a pain. Yes, he ignores her … but wouldn’t you?

Writing in sand
What’s amazing abut Segerstedt, why a biopic was made in the first place, is not just that he saw the dangers of Nazi Germany; it’s how early.

After the opening newsreel, he writes a screed-like editorial that ends with the line, “Herr Hitler is an insult.” Shortly thereafter, GHT receives an admonishing telegram from Hermann Göring himself, which they celebrate receiving, and which leads to another editorial. About 10 minutes of screentime later, we get news of a fire at the Reichstag building.

Me in the audience: Wait, Segerstedt wrote editorials against Hitler before Reichstag? Wow.

The second half of the movie, after Puste’s death, is more historically relevant but less emotionally resonant. The world closes in: Anschluss, annexation, appeasement, invasion of Poland, yadda yadda. At one point Segerstedt receives a phone call from a Swedish fascist who threatens his life. Segerstedt invites him over for tea. “After that, you can kill me,” he says. His maid, Pirjo (Maria Heiskanen), worries he’s being too flippant but he dismisses the threat. He feels anyone who threatens a man over the phone is a coward and won’t show his face. He’s right. But then one of his dogs is found dead on the grounds from strychine poisoning.

As both Denmark and Norway are invaded, Segerstedt’s voice against Hitler remains strident, and he’s cautioned by the authorities—including, eventually, the King—to tone it down. “You do danger to Sweden,” he’s told. “You are blinded by your hatred of the Germans.” “I don’t hate the Germans,” he responds calmly. “I hate the Nazis.” In a less calm moment, he slaps the face of the foreign minister.

There’s a kind of bitter joke here. Segerstedt warns early and often about Hitler but Sweden is one of the few countries that’s never engaged in World War II. It’s never invaded; it remains neutral. Instead, or maybe as a result, Segerstedt’s battles become internecine. The Swedish police raid the GHT offices and Segerstedt’s voice is muted. An odd banquet is held for him by leftists, in which he’s hailed as a truth-telling knight, and made to ride a horse and carry a lance, but he comes off more buffoon than hero. Finally, his battles become internal. Puste dies, but he hangs on. Maja dies, but he hangs on. He’s haunted by the women in his life: we see them black-veiled and vaguely amused, like Jessica Lange in “All That Jazz.” Then he’s haunted by the purposelessness of his life. He wrote thousands of articles—to what end? “How quickly it passed,” he says. “I have written in sand,” he says.

Outliving Hitler
In the end, he simply wants to outlive Hitler but doesn’t get to do this, either. Sick, bedridden, stubbornly hanging on, the great truth teller is lied to. “Hitler? Is he dead?” he asks. “Yes, he is gone,” he’s told. But it’s March 1945. Hitler has another month to go. Segerstedt does not.

The test of a first-rate movie is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still function. “The Last Sentence” does the former but it doesn’t quite function. Moments resonate (“I have written in sand”) but the whole just sits there. In the end, it’s a movie better in the reviewing than the viewing.

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Posted at 07:43 AM on May 31, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Thursday May 30, 2013

Superman Screenshot of the Day

Superman II: odd powers

Two questions:

  1. Who's missing?
  2. What's missing?

The first will answer the second, so let's start with the first.

The above is a shot from the climactic fight at the Fortress of Solitude in “Superman II,” in which we can see the three Kryptonian supervillains battling Superman, with Lois Lane watching. But where's Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor? That's who's missing.

Fans know this, most people don't, but 70-80 percent of “Superman II” was filmed alongside “Superman: The Movie”; and when the team reassembled to finish it in 1979, several of the most important elements were missing: cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth had died in the interim (the first movie was in fact dedicated to him); director Richard Donner never played well with the Salkinds, the father-son producer team who owned cinematic rights to the Man of Steel, and had been replaced by director Richard Lester (“A Hard Day's Night”); and Gene Hackman, a Donner supporter, had opted not to come back.

So when scenes were reshot, Lester relied on subterfuge to hide Hackman's absence: a body double or voiceover. Cheap stuff. Or he wasn't in the shot. As he's not here.

But how does Hackman's absence answer the second question?

You need to look at what they're doing. The three Kryptonian supervillains are training energy beams from their hands at Superman, who's stopping them with his own hand. 

Energy beams from the hands? Right. That's not a Kryptonian superpower. Lester didn't care. In an earlier scene, one of the supervillains lifts a dude in the air by pointing at him. At the Fortress of Solitude, Superman throws the “S” symbol (or family crest) and it shrinkwraps Non. None of this was ever in the comic books, and none of it would have been allowed with Donner as director. His watchword on the set of “Superman” was verisimilitude. He had it practically tattooed on everyone's forehead.

And that, of course, is what's missing from the shot: verisimilitude.

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Posted at 02:48 PM on May 30, 2013 in category Superman Screenshot of the Day
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Quote of the Day

“It seemed to him that he had been afraid all his life, but in recent years, or so it seemed, he had learned how to take a step into his fear, how to take the action which frightened him most (and so could free him the most). He did not do it always, who could?, but he had come to think that the secret to growth was to be brave a little more than one was cowardly, simple as that ... ”

-- Norman Mailer, writing about himself in the third person, in “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” pg. 185

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Posted at 09:14 AM on May 30, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Wednesday May 29, 2013

Superman Screenshot of the Day

Superman (Christopher Reeve) takes off for the first time in Metropolis in "Superman: The Movie" (1978)

In the March 2013 Empire Magazine, with new Superman Henry Cavill on the cover, Mark Dinning, in his Editor-in-Chief letter, writes about the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies in less-than-complimentary fashion:

I never did believe a man could fly. ... Even I, as an undiscerning kid, could see the fat black lines that clung to Christopher Reeve in flight against an obviously fake front projection. The trailer promised us the gift of flight. What a swizz! Who knew that trailers could tell you porkies?

Then he goes on to kiss the ass of the new movie.

Allow me a rebuttal.

First, I know what he's talking about. Some of the flying shots, yes, had a bit of a black line around Supes, and that line, sadly, got thicker as the movies progressed, until in the Golan and Globus version in 1987 it was like something out of1974's “Shazam!” or “Adventures of Superman” from the 1950s. It looked awful. A swizz. But in “Superman: The Movie” it wasn't bad.

More importantly, for many of the shots, he did fly. Christopher Reeve didn't just run and bounce through a window (George Reeves) or run and bounce over the camera (Kirk Alyn), to be replaced by the thick black line (Reeves) or an actual cartoon (Alyn). No, Christopher Reeve, via harness and crane, flew, as in the shot above, when he takes off for the first time in Metropolis to save Lois Lane hanging from a helicopter. That's no rear-screen projection there. Reeve is in New York, being pulled into the air, and seeming to fly.

Of course the new “Man of Steel” movie will make this look like child's play. But it's good to keep in mind that whatever Henry Cavill does is just green screen. It's CGI. In a way, we're back to the cartoon. A very sophisticated cartoon, yes, but a cartoon nonetheless. It's not real the way the above was real.

So if you want to see a man fly, you have one option. Everything else is porkies.

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Posted at 04:49 PM on May 29, 2013 in category Superman Screenshot of the Day
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Quote of the Day

“I have decided next year I will not seek a fifth Congressional term. This decision was not impacted in any way by the recent inquiries into the activities of my former presidential campaign or my former presidential staff."

-- Michele Bachmann in a video on her campaign website, as reported in The New York Times.

My favorite line in the story comes not from Bachmann but from Times staffer Gerry Mullany:

Mrs. Bachmann is known for her strong anti-abortion stance and adherence to Tea Party values but her presidential campaign was marked by frequent stumbles and her candidacy failed to catch fire in a crowded field of candidates that included Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Herman Cain, who all eventually lost to Mitt Romney.

Failing to catch fire among those candidates is like a movie failing to catch fire in a crowded field of Rob Schneider and Wayans brothers comedies.

I also like this from author Rick Perlstein, who posted a link to the Bachmann's video on Facebook:

Fifty bucks to anyone who can listen through the whole thing. No email checking, not texting—no cheating.

Michele Bachmann, leaving

She's leaving the House ... bye bye....

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Posted at 01:00 PM on May 29, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In “Superman: The Movie,” set in 1978, Superman (Christopher Reeve) brings a bit of old-fashioned conservatism (“I’m here to fight for truth, justice and the American way”) to a cynical, left-wing America presided over by Jimmy Carter. The result is charming.

In “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” set in 1987, Superman (same) brings a bit of left-wing idealism (“Effective immediately, I'm going to rid our planet of all nuclear weapons”) to a conservative, loutish America presided over by Ronald Reagan. The result is shit.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)Why? The fourth “Superman” movie, and the sad, last chapter in the Christopher Reeve series, reverts the old saying about failure being an orphan. This failure had nothing but fathers. Most of them deadbeats.

Bow down before Übermensch
Start with the concept, which started with Christopher Reeve.

In the DVD commentary to the Richard Donner cut of “Superman II,” creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz talks about Reeve coming to him with this idea about nuclear disarmament for “IV,” and while he loved Reeve, “the most wonderful guy in the world,” he says, “so altruistic in so many ways,” he laid down the law:

I can tell you as a writer: Stay out of things that Superman can fix by himself … Don’t get into famine. Superman can feed the world. Just stay inside the character.

I’m reminded of that strip Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster created for Look magazine in 1940, “How Superman would stop the war,” which was just two pages long. Superman blasts through German defenses, grabs Hitler, grabs Stalin, takes them before the League of Nations, where judgment is pronounced. Problem solved.

It’s similar here. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. are ramping things up, goosed by the yellow journalism of a Rupert Murdoch type, David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker), who now owns The Daily Planet. Then an annoying boy named Jeremy (Damian McLawhorn) writes a letter to Superman asking him to stop the arms race. He says all the kids are unhappy about it. “Superman can make sure we don’t blow ourselves up, quick and easy,” he writes, and Superman, or Clark, or Kal-El, treats this information like it’s news, like he’d never contemplated it before. It goes against everything he was ever taught, by both fathers, but he ignores their wisdom. Instead he goes to the U.N., where he gives this speech:

We can't live in fear, and I can't stand idly by and watch as we stumble into the madness of possible nuclear destruction. So I've come to a decision. I'm going to do what our governments have been unwilling or unable to do. Effective immediately, I'm going to rid our planet of all nuclear weapons.

Cheers go up and Superman goes on his way. There’s no debate. I’ve come to a decision and this is the way the world is going to be. It’s tyrannical but the movie doesn’t recognize its tyranny. What if Superman comes to other decisions? “Everyone must wear their underwear outside their pants like I do. Starting with you, Jimmy!” “No, Superman, no!”

Oddly, Superman only grabs the nuclear missiles once they’re launched. Do the U.S. and U.S.S.R. launch them as a favor to him? So he can round them up more easily? Or is he just stealing them? Either way, he collects them in a gigantic space net, then swirls this net around and around and into the sun. Problem solved. Now to get to work on that underwear-outside-the-pants thing.

Of course, in one of the missiles, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) has placed a hair of Superman, some protoplasm, a computer code, and some clothes, and all of this will lead to the creation of Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow, a Chippendales dancer), the villain of the movie. Which is such a dumb idea it makes the rest of the movie seem brilliant.

Superman at the UN in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace"

I've come to a decision...”

You won’t believe that you once believed that a man could fly
It doesn’t help that the special effects suck. You get that fakey drop shadow behind Superman in flight, and he keeps having to steady his arms, as if he’s not used to flying. It’s like we’re back in the days of “Shazam!” or something. Even the opening credits look like cartoon versions of what came before. They look like placeholder credits.

Remember when we lost Brando in “II” and were stuck with Susannah York? I’d kill for her here. Instead, in the Fortress of Solitude, Kal-El gets advice from generic Kryptonian elders, heads floating in space. They come off like the League of Grumpy Old Men.

Chalk up all of this cheapness to three words: Golan and Globus. These two Israeli filmmakers, Monahem and cousin Yoram respectively, bought Cannon Films in 1979 and proceeded to make it, and themselves, synonymous with the cheapest, crappiest movies of the 1980s. They were all about quantity over quality. In 1987 alone, the year “Superman IV” was released, they produced 26 other movies, including “Over the Top” (Sylvester Stallone arm wrestles) and “Death Wish IV” (Charles Bronson kills). And that isn’t even the worst of their oeuvre. Think “Bolero,” the 1990 “Captain America,” and the “Hercules” movies with Lou Ferigno. Think “The Wicked Lady,” or “Death Wish III,” or any movie in which Marina Sirtis gets her clothes torn off. Think the worst devils of our nature.

And these are the guys who temporarily owned Superman. Oy gevalt.

The DVD commentary by screenwriter Mark Rosenthal is more dismissive of the movie than the harshest review from the most dismissive critic. It’s not a mea culpa so much as an eorum culpa. These are his first words:

You can tell from the very first credit, which says “Warner Bros.,” that something is terribly wrong in Metropolis. … When we sat and looked at these credits, which are more like graffiti on a black screen than the wonderful, and startling for their time, credits of the Dick Donner Supermans, “Superman I” and “II,” it was heartbreaking for everyone involved, who had so wanted to make this a return to the high-quality of the first two Supermans.

He talks about how, because the budget was cut in preproduction, Canon lost all the great technicians and effects people who had done the first “Superman” movies. Big scenes became small scenes. The global became local. A grand vision was replaced by the rinky-dink. It looked fake fake fake. You won’t believe that you once believed that a man could fly.

The awful drop shadows behind Superman and Lois in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace"

You won’t believe that you once believed that a man could fly.

Lois Lane, Superman’s mother
Plus, people just got old.

Reeve still looks good as Superman (although is he wearing a wig now?), and Hackman can still play Lex Luthor. (He was a year away from another Academy Award nomination for “Mississippi Burning.”) Otherwise….

Perry White has shrunk. (Did Jackie Cooper have cancer?) Jimmy Olsen is going bald. And Lois Lane looks less like Superman’s girlfriend than Superman’s mother. Margot Kidder, bless her, didn’t age well. I assume drugs. She was 39 but looked 49.

Thus the addition of a younger love interest: Mariel Hemingway playing Lacy Warfield, daughter of David, who starts out echoing her father’s bottom line, until, influenced by Clark, on whom she has a crush, she becomes a better person. “Daddy?” she says near the end when her father is still talking circulation numbers and profits. “Stuff it!” We’re supposed to cheer.

She thinks Clark should do a regular “On the Town” feature, and takes him to aerobics class, where he fumbles about, and she takes him weight lifting, where he can’t lift anything, ha ha, and somehow she organizes a double-date for her and Clark and Lois and Superman, which Superman isn’t smart enough to get out of. “Sorry, Lois, there’s a typhoon in Taiwan.” Instead, he keeps changing from one to the other, to be with either Lacy or Lois. We’re supposed to chuckle.

Lois isn’t completely forgotten. She shows up at Clark’s place while he’s wondering what to do about nuclear disarmament, and he takes her by the hand and jumps off his terrace, which looks a lot like hers from the first film, and then, while she’s screaming, boom, he’s Superman, but with Clark’s glasses on. After that, they go flying around the country. I immediately assumed dream sequence. At one point he drops her, laughing, and she screams, but then he catches her, ha ha, before it’s too late. Surely a dream sequence. Nope. Afterward, he asks for her advice, then he kisses her to make her forget who he is again (see: “II,” Lester). How often does this happen anyway? How often does he reveal himself, fly around with her, make her fall and scream, then kiss her to make her forget it all? Brutal. No wonder she looks old.

Perry White and Lois Lane looking old in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace"

Old, old, worried.

Blue eyebeams
That’s probably the biggest problem with “Superman IV.” Misplaced idealism aside, crappy special effects aside, there’s too much stupid shit.

Is Clark going to sell the farm to developers? It’s introduced in the beginning and forgotten by the end. I assume it wound up on the cutting room floor.

Nuclear Man is made from the power of the sun, which is the source of Superman’s strength. So shouldn’t contact with him, I don’t know, make Superman stronger? Instead Nuclear Man scratches his neck and Superman develops a fever. The next time we see him, he’s gray and withered, having turned old overnight.  Except he’s in Smallville now. How did he get there from Metropolis? Bus? Plane? Look! In the sky! It’s … a really, really, really old and sick dude. But the green crystal at the family farm turns him back into Superman. As it always does. Me in 1987: “But didn’t he use up the last one in the last one? Or the second one?” Nope. It’s called the magic of movies.

When he returns to Metropolis, super again, he confronts Nuclear Man, who goes on a rampage. We watch 30 seconds of carnage: cars overturn, things blow up, etc. What’s Superman doing all this time? Just standing there. Because? Because the carnage. Which we have to watch. “But Superman—“ Sssh. “But he wouldn’t—”  Ssshhh. It’s OK.

They battle all over the world. Hey, the Great Wall of China! Hey, Nuclear Man knocks part of it down. And now Superman is putting it back together … via blue beams from his eyes? But he never—

Sssh.

When Superman figures out Nuclear Man’s vulnerability—absent the sun, he crumples like a puppet whose strings have been cut—what does he do? Lead him to the other side of the Earth, where it’s night? No, he traps him in an elevator. Which he then drags on the moon. Right! The dark side of the moon! Actually, no. In fact, a second later, the moon revolves, there’s the sun, and Nuclear Man wakes up and starts fighting again. He hammers Superman into the moon, then returns to Earth to get Lacy, for whom he has the hots. Why Lacy? Because he sees her picture in the newspaper. I mean, who’s he going to pick? Lois? She’s like 50.

Later, Superman moves the moon to cause an eclipse to cause the final death of  Nuclear Man. But wouldn’t such an action screw up the tides?

Sssh.

The blue eyebeams of Superman in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (1987)

How to repair the Great Wall of China, step one.

I hate the ’80s
It’s not all horrible. I like this exchange Clark has with Mr. Hornsby (Don Fellows), his real estate agent in Smallville:

Hornsby: You be careful when you get back to Metropolis, Clark. It’s a long, long way from where you were born.

Clark: Yes, sir. I never forget that, sir.

Those are nice lines and Reeve has a good line reading.

I also like the homage in the Daily Planet headline when Superman initially doesn’t respond to Jeremy:

SUPERMAN SAYS ‘DROP DEAD’ TO KID

But mostly “Superman IV” is a crime. Besides all of the above, it reminds me of everything I hated about the 1980s: aerobics, hostile takeovers, new-wave hairdos, Reaganomics. In the nukes debate, the warmongers wanted to spend trillions to increase the number of times we could destroy the planet, while the peaceniks thought getting rid of nukes meant getting rid of the knowledge of how to make nukes. If we just disarmed we’d be safe. But we’d never be safe.

Seeing the film reminds me of our cultural regression. The first movie was set among adults, in a gritty world in which journalism mattered; “IV” is set among adolescents, in a fantasy world in which only profits matter. In 1978, it felt innovative that the star lifted weights to become the central character. By ’87, we all lifted weights. There’s a body consciousness here that permeates everything. Our bodies got hard and our journalism got flabby.

I’d anticipated the first movie for months but “IV” was in theaters before I knew it was being made. I saw the first at a packed, opening-night screening in which everyone applauded, while I saw “IV” in a multiplex, the Skyway in downtown Minneapolis, which was small and nearly empty. When it was over, we shuffled out of the theater in a gloomy silence.

Mark Rosenthal:

The movie for everyone became an emblem of greed and chaos on the part of people who were in over their heads, and an unfortunate—and really almost unethical—betrayal of Chris Reeve ...

The bad guys won.

Clark Kent, aerobics, in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (1987)

I hate the '80s.

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Posted at 06:37 AM on May 29, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s
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Tuesday May 28, 2013

Latest New Yorker Cover by Marcellus Hall Celebrates NYC's New Bike-Sharing Program

Marcellus Hall was immensely talented even during high school. We both went to Washburn in south Minneapolis (he the class of '82, me '81) and ran cross-country together (he generally ahead). We also shared a love of the Beatles in the face of classmates who preferred bands like REO Speedwagon.

This is his latest New Yorker cover:

New Yorker cover: June 3, 2013, by Marcellus Hall

It celebrates New York's new bike-sharing program.

Monday’s riders were, by definition, an eager and forgiving cross section: founding members who registered for a yearly pass for $95, allowing them to ride between stations for as long as 45 minutes with no added charge.

Marc, pronounced with a soft-c, and the author of the new childrens' book, “Everyone Sleeps,” about a dog prowling at night, has been biking in New York for 15 years. The NYer profiles him here. Don't miss the slideshow. 

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Posted at 03:24 PM on May 28, 2013 in category Media
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Superman Screenshot of the Day

Superman and Sparkle Toothpaste

Early product placement? Nope. It's actually the lead-up to a prank.

In this episode of “The New Adventures of Superman” from 1966, the toothpaste in the billboard becomes three-dimensional and plops down on the Man of Steel--the result of the dastardly work of the Toy Man!

By the way, check out how muscle-bound Superman is here. Women talk up the unrealistic media depictions of women, but men don't always have it easy either. Dude's biceps are bigger than his head.

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Posted at 01:07 PM on May 28, 2013 in category Superman Screenshot of the Day
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Movie Review: Kon-Tiki (2012)

WARNING: SPÖILERS

When I was a kid in Minnesota in the 1970s, Thor was god. Thor Heyerdahl.

I read “The Ra Expeditions” when it was published in the early 1970s, and I might have seen the documentary, “Ra,” at the local movie theater. Both book and doc focused on Heyerdahl’s attempt to captain a boat made of papyrus from Morocco to the west to prove that ancient peoples could have done the same. The first boat, Ra (named after the Egyptian sun god), didn’t make it, but the second, “Ra II,” did, all the way to Barbados.

Poster for Kon-Tiki (2012)But eventually I got bored with it. The adventures were only so adventurous and the ethnography went over my head. I also didn’t get how it proved anything. If you showed that something could be done, how did it prove that it was done? Plus the notion of groups of people shifting continents thousands of years ago freaked me out. It made me feel small and meaningless, which I was, I just didn’t want to know it.

I knew about “Kon-Tiki,” of course, Heyerdahl’s attempt, in the late 1940s, to prove that Polynesia was populated not from the west, as was the prevailing theory, but from the east, specifically Peru. So I was excited when I heard last year that Norway, Heyerdahl’s country, where he’s still a god, had made a movie about this adventure. I was less excited to hear that they made two versions—in Norwegian for Norway, and in English for the rest of the world—but I was excited again when it was nominated for best foreign-language feature at the 2012-13 Academy Awards. It had to be good then, right?

Cookie cutter
It’s OK. It looks beautiful but it’s a fairly cookie-cutter biopic. We get the following:

  • The childhood scene indicating the man he’ll become: He takes risks on an ice floe, falls in icy waters, is saved by a friend, and refuses to tell his parents he’ll never take such risks again.
  • The early adventure that leads to the quest: In the 1930s, Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) lives in Polynesia with his wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), and comes to realize that the prevailing theories about how Polynesia was populated are wrong.
  • The Powers-that-Be getting in the way of the quest: Publishers won’t publish his book, the National Geographic Society won’t hear him out, he barely gets into the Explorers Club in New York, all of which indicate our hero’s underdog status.
  • The wife objecting to the quest: Surely the most tedious aspect of any of these stories. Someone please apologize to Ms. Kittelsen for the thankless role.
  • The quest itself: The bulk of the movie: sailing a raft, with the wind and the tides, 5,000 miles from Peru to Polynesia, with five other men.
  • A happy ending: Bien sur.

At some point, mid-ocean, I leaned over to Patricia and said, “It would be nice if they made one of these things about someone who was wrong.

Patricia actually liked the movie less than I did. That doesn’t happen often. And this one is mostly handsome, blonde men, half-naked on a raft, surrounded by beautiful blue water and various fish and mammals. Yet it wasn’t enough for her.

“Couldn’t they have had better conversations on the raft?” she asked as we walked away from the theater. “I know it’s supposed to be tedious, but good god.”

Admittedly, there were few conversations that stand out. Here’s one that does. At one point Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) falls into shark-infested waters and is being left behind by the Kon-Tiki, which can’t turn around, which is subject only to the wind and the tides, and one of the men (apologies: they’re not very distinguishable) jumps in with a rope to save him. The others throw chum in the water to move the sharks away and both men are saved in thrilling fashion: flailing legs leaving the water just as the sharks arrive. Afterwards,  this man talks about how many he killed during World War II and how it weighs on his conscience. Then he thanks Herman. “You saved my life,” Herman reminds him. “I know,” says the man. “Thank you.” That’s a nice moment. Good dialogue. But overall Patricia is right.

“And did they all have to be so stupid?” Patricia asked. “Heyerdahl can’t swim, the one guy puts tomato soup in the water thinking it’s shark repellent, the other guy [Herman] harpoons the whale. I mean, c’mon.”

This bothered me less. The idea that Heyerdahl embarked on this journey, 5,000 miles across the Pacific on a glorified raft, even though he couldn’t swim, indicates his mania to prove his theory. The other stuff is there to create tension, conflict. Or, as with the tomato soup, it’s comic relief. Of a kind.

“Plus they telegraphed everything,” Patricia said. “You knew exactly what was going to happen.”

One scene they don’t telegraph occurs right before Herman goes in the water. Throughout the journey, they’ve had a parrot named Lorita on board; but here she suddenly flies off and lands in the water and a shark gets her. (There was a parrot on the Kon-Tiki, by the way, but storms got her, not sharks.) The camera then focuses on Lorita’s caretaker as he moves with determination around the raft. I assumed he was becoming aware that they were surrounded by sharks, a sea of sharks, and the camera would pull back and reveal them churning in the water. Instead, at a key point, he reaches down and hooks the shark that ate Lorita and brings it on board, where it flails helplessly and is then killed. It’s a revenge scene of a kind I’ve never witnessed before.

But overall Patricia’s right. They did telegraph too much. I should have let her write this review.

The right stuff
The movie also overstates Heyerdahl’s role in bringing back the notion of “adventure” in the post-war world, crediting him with inspiring the test pilots that led to the space program. But these pilots were already doing what they were doing in the California desert long before Heyerdahl put together his raft.

Even so, I liked the movie well enough. Yes, there’s not enough complexity, and yes the men aren’t distinguishable enough. But it’s beautiful to look at, the adventure is a great adventure, and Heyerdahl is still a bit of a god to me. Plus the scene with the whale is just majestic. Its immensity. The way it dwarfs us.

I’m curious, though, what backlash, if any, awaited Heyerdahl when he finished the 5,000-mile journey and wrote his book. Did any other ethnographers and anthropologists react the way I reacted when I was young? Just because you showed something could be done doesn’t prove that it was done. Or did all the other evidence (pineapples, stone idols) seal the deal?

As for being nominated for best foreign language film at the 2012-13 Academy Awards? I would’ve gone with “The Deep” from Iceland.

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Posted at 08:17 AM on May 28, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Monday May 27, 2013

Superman Screenshot of the Day

Superman and gun control. Kirk Alyn in a shot from "Atom Man vs. Superman" (1950)

From “Atom Man vs. Superman” (1950), starring Kirk Alyn. Readers, feel free to use in your next gun control post.

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Posted at 01:04 PM on May 27, 2013 in category Superman Screenshot of the Day
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What's Up with the IMDb Rating of the WikiLeaks Documentary 'We Steal Secrets'?

I never rate movies on Netflix or IMDb or anywhere else. I think it's pointless—it's just a number—but more importantly I don't want to give away that shit for free. Instead I write about it in detail and give it away for free here. Which has the advantage of being here.

But last week on IMDb I rated Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.” Why? This is why. It’s a screenshot of the doc’s IMDb page from last week. What’s wrong with this picture?

WikiLeaks doc on IMDb.com: rating

The doc has a 4.3 rating. How bad is 4.3 in the IMDb universe? “Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance” has a 4.4 rating. 

Is “We Steal Secrets” that bad? Not nearly. In my movie-reviewing days at The Seattle Times, I would’ve given it four out of four stars. I keep recommending to people. I recommend it to you now. Here's my review.

So why the low rating? I assume WikiLeaks' supporters are voting early and often against the doc without having seen it. The doc has the temerity to take a nuanced approach to Julian Assange. It suggests that what began with a demand for openness has become a closed society. It tells a tragic tale. The IMDb rating may be part of that tragic tale. What better way to suppress information than to imply it's no good?

A few days ago, out of the blue, I received this odd tweet:

I checked out the links above but couldn't get past the defensiveness. One of the first complaints: “The premiere of 'We Steal Secrets' is opportunistically timed” — I.e., near the Bradley Manning trial. Right. Because distribution companies usually try to open their films unopportunistically. They never take advantage of, say, the holidays or summer vacation.

This line is worse: “The film portrays Manning’s alleged acts as failure of character rather than a triumph of conscience.” Not my read at all. If the doc has sympathy for any of its three main players—Manning, Assange, and Adrian Lamo—it's for Manning. From my review last week:

But it wasn’t until Pvt. Bradley Manning, a nice, fucked-up kid from Oklahoma, who was stationed in Iraq and wondered what to do about the confidential—and to him, immoral—information he had access to, that we all knew Assange’s name.

If WikiLeaks has serious complaints about Alex Gibney's doc, then it needs to focus on them. But focus has never been WikiLeaks' strong suit. They've always been about TMI.

This was the IMDb page of “We Steal Secrets” this morning:

IMDb rating of "We Steal Secrets": May 27, 2013

Don't believe the negative hype.

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Posted at 07:36 AM on May 27, 2013 in category Movies - Documentaries
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Sunday May 26, 2013

Winners at Cannes: 'Blue,' Bejo, Bruce

No, not that Bruce.

The Cannes 2013 jury, led by Steven Spielberg, announced its winners today:

  • Palme d'Or: “Blue is the Warmest Color”
  • Grand Prix: “Inside Llewyn Davis”
  • Actor: Bruce Dern, “Nebraska,” directed by Alexander Payne
  • Actress: Berenice Bejo, “The Past”
  • Director: Amat Escalante, “Heli”
  • Screenplay: Jia Zhangke, “Tian Zhu Ding” (“A Touch of Sin”)
  • Jury Prize: “Soshite Chichi Ni Naru” (“Like Father, Like Son”), directed by Kore-Eda Hirokazu

I also heard good things about James Gray's “The Immigrant,” starring Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix; J.C. Chandor's “All is Lost,” starring Robert Redford; James Toback's “Seduced and Abandoned,” about the difficulty of raising money for movies; and Steven Soderbergh's “Behind the Candelabra,” about Liberace, which P and I are about to watch on HBO.

Someday. Someday.

Zoe Saldana and Marion Cotillad and Cannes 2013

Zoe Saldana and Marion Cotillard standing together at Cannes and destabilizing the beauty balance in the world.

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Posted at 08:54 PM on May 26, 2013 in category Movies - Awards
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Quote of the Day

“Making information free is survivable so long as only limited numbers of people are disenfranchised. As much as it pains me to say so, we can survive if we only destroy the middle classes of musicians, journalists, and photographers. What is not survivable is the additional destruction of the middle classes in transportation, manufacturing, energy, office work, education, and health care. And all that destruction will come surely enough if the dominant idea of an information economy isn’t improved.”

-- Jaron Lanier, “Who Owns the Future?,” pg. 16

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Posted at 06:18 PM on May 26, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Superman Screenshot of the Day

Superman as troubled teen: Jeffrey Silver plays Clark Kent, age 12, in "The Adventures of Superman" (1952)

Who is this greasy, leather-jacketed punk? And what's he doing staring at the old lady peeling potaters?

Why, it's Clark Kent, age 12 (Jeffrey Silver), in the origin episode of the TV series, “The Adventures of Superman,” from 1952, having a heart-to-heart with Ma Kent (Frances Morris).

In this version, Ma is Sarah, Pa is Eben (Tom Fadden), but Pa is mostly comic relief, which is why the advice tends to come from Ma. It's she who has “the talk” with him:

Clark: Mom, why am I different from all the other boys? … Why can I do things that nobody else can do?

Ma: Why land sakes alive….

Clark: Today in school, for instance. We were playing baseball and the ball got lost. Nobody could find it. But all I had to do was look around and there it was behind a rock.

Ma: You’ve got good eyes is all.

Clark: No, ma, it’s more than just good eyes. I didn’t see the ball behind the rock. I saw it right through the rock. My eyes were an x-ray machine. Like the rock wasn’t even there.

Ma: Son, your pa and me have been meaning to have a talk with ya. … I’ll tell you why likely you’re different from other boys. And why you gotta be extra careful …

Just 12, Clark takes the news with suprising equanimity.

Narrator: The boy listened. And he understood.

Frances Morris was born in 1908, debuted in 1929's “Thunder,” starring Lon Chaney and last appeared in an episode of “The Virginian” in 1964. She lived until 2003.

Tom Fadden, who played Uncle Ira Lentz in the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and Ben Miller in mulitple episodes of “Petticoat Junction,” was born in 1895, and made his last movie, “Empire of the Ants,” in 1977. He died in 1980.

Jeffrey Silver's last role was in the 1961 Tony Curtis movie “The Outsider,” about Ira Hayes, the Native American who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima.

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Posted at 01:51 PM on May 26, 2013 in category Superman Screenshot of the Day
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Movie Review: Dirty Wars (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The problem with “Dirty Wars” is the adjective.

The documentary, directed by Rick Rowley, about and starring investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, is concerned with shattering two illusions of the War on Terror: the illusion of cleanliness and the illusion of safety. What the U.S. government is doing in other countries is immoral and thus unclean. And while we may eliminate some enemies we create others. We finish one kill list only to be handed a longer one, which was created going through the first kill list. In this manner we trade short-term safety for long-term insecurity and a war without end.

The doc focuses on the first of these illusions: the illusion of cleanliness. You could feel it in the Q&A after a screening of the doc during the Seattle International Film Festival with guest Jeremy Scahill. The concern of the people who stood up to ask questions was basically, “How do I feel clean again?” but that’s a concern of the privileged. The more widespread human concern, the entire point of civilization you might say, is for safety. The whole point of terrorism, certainly, is to make people feel unsafe, and the whole point of a War on Terror is to give people the illusion of safety. Dirty Wars, Jerremy ScahillThe doc is mainly telling its viewers, certainly its American viewers, that the policies of its government are immoral, and thus unclean, but this requires a level of empathy that most people, certainly in a time of war, don’t have. The doc should have more forcefully told its viewers the more alarming fact that every day they are becoming less safe. They are in a bubble of safety. And one day that bubble will surely burst.

It may burst no matter what we do.

The American Taliban
“Dirty Wars” begins as an investigation by Scahill, the national security correspondent for The Nation, and author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” into an early-morning raid in Gardez, a remote village in Afghanistan, in which U.S. forces killed five people. The forces aren’t traditional U.S. forces. They’re bearded. The people there call them “the American Taliban.” We’re shown, by the family of the deceased, the patched bullet holes in the wall. We’re told two pregnant women were killed along with a local police commander and a local prosecutor. The family doesn’t understand why it happened. They’re angry. One relative says he wants to wear “a suicide jacket and blow myself up among Americans.” He says, “I want jihad against the Americans.” Scahill, in voiceover, tells us, “I believed the family but that wasn’t enough—for me or anyone else.”

At this point in the narrative, the proposition is we said/they said. But it quickly becomes they said. The U.S. owns up to the atrocity. It tries to pay off the victim’s family. We see a picture of a U.S. military officer, McRaven, in Gardez, offering the family a goat. Scahill wonders who McRaven is. He wonders who “the American Taliban” are. He investigates further and discovers there were 1700 raids similar to the Gardez raid in the three previous months. He just doesn’t tell us what year we’re in. 2009, it turns out.

Scahill keeps pulling on the Gardez thread that reveals the wider, titular war. The “American Taliban” is Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, a special forces unit created in 1980 in the wake of Pres. Carter’s desert debacle, and now used indiscriminately at the behest of the president. Scahill interviews Matthew Hoh, a foreign service officer who resigns his commission in October 2009 over our failed policy in Afghanistan, and Cpt. Andrew Exum (Ret.), who talks about JSOC and the kill lists of Iraq. You’d start out with 50-200 guys on a list, he says. When you got through that list you’re handed a list of 3,000. How did that happen? Well, you created that second list by working through the first one.

Scahill, in voiceover, chastises himself for missing the JSOC story when he was embedded in Iraq. Then he wonders aloud, “What was I missing today?”

Cut to: footage of Pres. Obama, in black-and-white, slowed down, made grainy, and backed by ominous music.

And that’s where I rolled my eyes.

Everyone’s got their kill list
This is a tough movie to watch as a supporter of Pres. Obama, but this bit, making the ordinary ominous, does a disservice to the subject. It’s something you’d expect from Sean Hannity. It made me doubt the rest of what I was watching.

Not that there’s much to doubt. That’s another problem with the doc. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, Scahill is slowly uncovering what, in 2013, we already know, thanks in large part to Scahill’s reporting. Drone strikes in Yemen? Really? JSOC? You mean the guys who killed Osama bin Laden? The U.S. government targeting U.S. citizens? We’ve been talking about that for months.

Where the doc is helpful is in detailing the extent of it. We’re engaged in secret wars in 70 countries? Scahill focuses on drone strikes in Yemen. He also visits a U.S.-backed warlord in Somalia. “America knows war,” this warlord, Gen. Adde, says approvingly. “They are war masters. … They are teachers, great teachers.”

Even so, my doubts remained. Scahill wants to put a human face on the victims but it often feels like a partial face. He’s shocked, for example, when he sees Anwar al-Awlaki’s name on a kill list, since he knows al-Awlaki is a U.S. citizen, and he can’t imagine America killing its own. Yet Al-Awlaki is also a radical cleric who called for jihad against the U.S. In 2010, he called for a fatwa against a Seattle Weekly cartoonist for declaring May 20 “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day,” and she had to change her address, name, life. Everyone’s got their kill list. But that’s not in the doc. Instead we see al-Awlaki, post-9/11, touted as the moderate imam who can bridge the gap between the U.S. and the Muslim world. But then something happened. We targeted him and turned him into something else. He was clean, and now he’s dirty, and now he’s dead— killed in a drone strike in south Yemen in September 2011. But I doubt he was ever clean. Who is?

The doc is horrified by the mere existence of JSOC, and certainly by the way it’s being run today—as a private army of POTUS— but I flashed back to March 2003 and remembered my arguments against the Iraq War. Invading a country and taking out its leader is fighting the last war, I argued, not this war. Terror groups like al Qaeda are hidden within a country. How do you fight a group hidden with a country? Or many countries? JSOC is one answer. It may not be the answer, or even an effective answer, but it’s a better answer than the one we had in March 2003. A low bar, admittedly.

What do you do?
A day after the doc, I keep turning over its images and ideas in my head. I have nothing but sympathy for the family in Gardez, and nothing but questions about the raid that killed five innocent people there. I question the effectiveness of JSOC. I do believe, as I believed in March 2003, that our actions against terrorists are creating more terrorists. It’s a Hydra head. Cut off one, two more grow.

But I also have sympathy for the movie’s purported villain, Pres. Obama, because I asked the question the doc doesn’t. You’re elected president of the United States. You enter office in the middle of two conventional wars and countless shadow wars against an enemy, or a group of enemies, who may strike us anywhere at any time. What do you do?

Pres. Obama’s answer has been to wind down the conventional wars and ramp up the shadow wars, and the doc focuses on the horror, the immorality, of these shadow wars, and ends there. But this, to my mind, is where the discussion begins. If the shadow wars aren't working, what do you do? What do we do? It’s a question that has no clean answers, no matter how much we may want them.

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Posted at 09:39 AM on May 26, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Saturday May 25, 2013

The Short, Embarrassing History of Man (and Superman) Riding Rockets

When the subject of men riding rockets ever comes up (and when doesn't it?), most of us think of Slim Pickens at the end of “Dr. Stangelove,” whooping it up Texas-style as he and the world are about to end forever.

But Slim was sloppy seconds in the nuke-missle riding category by nearly 15 years. The Man of Steel beat him to it.

Superman (Kirk Alyn) riding a missle or rocket in "Atom Man vs. Superman" (1950)

Superman (Kirk Alyn) riding a missle or rocket in "Atom Man vs. Superman" (1950)

Superman (Kirky Alyn) riding a rocket or missile in "Atom Man vs. Superman" (1950)

The above screenshots are taken from the 1950 serial “Atom Man vs. Superman,” chapter 14. Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot) has just shot a missile at Metropolis, and Superman (Kirk Alyn) soars to the rescue and stradles it, then guides it out to sea, where it explodes harmlessly. Well, “harmlessly.” It was a nuke, after all.

Supes, by the way, is sloppy seconds to all of the superheroes below, who all rode rockets during World War II: When men were men, and rockets were made for riding:

Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr. and Uncle Sam riding rockets during WWII

Anyone know of other examples? 

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Posted at 12:24 PM on May 25, 2013 in category Superman Screenshot of the Day
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Quote of the Day

“We started to work [on 'The Producers' on Broadway] and it was shortly after that, sadly, that my husband [director Mike Okrent] became ill with leukemia ... and we lost him. [She begins to break down.] Sorry.

”He wanted me to go on as the director and choreographer. I didn't think I could do it just because how I was feeling. But Mel said, 'Stro, you will cry in the morning and you will cry in the evening. You'll cry before you see me and you'll cry after you leave. But you will laugh all during the day.'

“And it saved me. It really did.”

-- Susan Stroman, director and producer of the Broadway musical “The Producers,” talking about Mel Brooks for the PBS American Masters documentary, “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise,” which aired Monday night.

Mel Brooks, American Masters

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Posted at 07:30 AM on May 25, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday May 24, 2013

Superman Screenshot of the Day

Superman as cartoon flying in "Atom Man vs. Superman" (1950)

Third in a series. Collect them all.

What the hell is Superman doing here? Is he greeting us? Trying out the Vulcan salute? Taunting us about our inability to fly? Taking a cue from pigeons and shitting on humanity? And what the hell is this from anyway?

It's from “Atom Man vs. Superman,” a 1950 serial starring Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel. Two years earlier, in “Superman,” Alyn's was the first live-action cinematic portrayal of Superman, but Columbia couldn't (or couldn't be bothered) to recreate him flying. So in the first serial Alyn simply turns into a cartoon and takes to the air, then lands behind a rock and emerges as himself. In the second serial, “Atom Man,” we do get a few shots of Alyn navigating the air, looking downward with concern, but most of the heavy flying is still done with animation. And here? Superman is getting ready to land feet-first through a window, which accounts for the oddness of the pose.

Captions welcome.

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Posted at 01:19 PM on May 24, 2013 in category Superman Screenshot of the Day
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5th and Wall

I usually bike to work but I walked this morning. It's about a 45-minute walk through downtown Seattle, and I was heading north down 5th when I had to wait for the red at 5th and Wall. I'm no Seattleitie, by the way, I'll run that red on foot (or on bike), but there was a lot of traffic heading west on Wall, so there was no opportunity. Even though most of that traffic was turning left onto 5th.

In case you don't know: Seattle's famed monorail (cue: “The Simpsons”) bisects 5th, leaving two lanes on one side and one on the other, and I noticed a lot of the traffic was turning from the middle lane of Wall into the far, single lane of 5th. I wondered if they were allowed to do this. Then I saw the straight-or-left arrow painted on the street in the middle lane. So: yes. Still, it seemed slightly dangerous. What if the car in the left lane on Wall wanted that far lane of 5th? I imagined accidents happening.

Then I nearly saw one. Just before the light turned red (for them), an SUV in the middle lane on Wall turned left ... but into the near lane, cutting off a driver in the near lane on Wall who was about to turn into the near lane of 5th. Luckily that driver was observant. He put on the brakes, and the SUV kept driving.

That's capitalism to me. Being careful, observant, respectful helps you not at all. The dick move gets you ahead.

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Posted at 09:43 AM on May 24, 2013 in category Seattle
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Movie Review: The Deep (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I kept trying to place Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, the star of “The Deep,” the 2012 movie that was nominated for 16 Edda Awards, Iceland’s Oscars, and won 11 of them, including best picture, director, and actor. It was the second best actor in a row for Ólafsson, even though he’s hardly leading man material. He’s overweight, frumpy, and in Hollywood would be typecast as a villain or the best friend; but in Iceland he’s Tom Hanks. Except he was reminding me of someone else.

At first I thought of Clancy Brown, who played the sadistic guard in “The Shawshank Redemption. I sorted through other options, including Chuck McCann, whom I knew best from the Saturday morning live-action show, “Far Out Space Nuts, ” before it hit me: Vincent D’Onofrio. Both men are charismatic when they want, intense when they want, and both of these factors are important in playing Gulli, a national hero in Iceland, an ordinary man who, one horrible evening, defies the sea, human nature, and, ultimately, science.

Lone man
Gulli is a fisherman on Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands), an archipelago off the southern coast of Iceland best-known for a 1973 volcano eruption that forced a month-long evacuation of the entire island. Gulli was a teenager at the time—we see him in flashback—but now it’s 1984 and Gulli’s a young, aimless man. He’s part of a crew of six on a fishing boat, the Breki, but seems to lack the passion or focus of the others. The Deep (2012), IcelandOne is a family man, with a wife and two boys, another has an extensive LP collection and a dog, a third loses himself in drink, a fourth in women. Gulli? He’s just there. At the local bar on a dark frigid evening, he teases the new cook, then comes to his aid when a fight breaks out. His temper, we see, is fierce, but he’s a decent sort. There’s a girl, too, pretty, and a suggestion of a history, but Gulli doesn’t act on it. He still lives with his parents. He still drinks milk from the carton.

He also seems fairly impervious to cold. On a frigid December morning, when the crew of the Breki is going out despite a recent winter storm, and everything from cars to ropes creak with frost and cold, Gulli is hanging out hatless and gloveless, wearing an unzipped jacket with an open flannel shirt underneath. He’s just hanging.

Going in, we know the boat will capsize but we don’t know why. Is it the weather? Palli (Jóhann G. Jóhannsson), the family man, places a damp drawing his son made for him on a heater. Will that start a fire? We get bits from the crew: the alcoholic throwing up in the engine room; the cook unable to make a good cup of coffee for the captain; the watching of “Jaws” on Betamax and a discussion about thow they need to switch over to VHS.

Early in the day, the fishing nets get caught on something on the bottom of the ocean and the boat tilts precariously before extricating itself. So it’s not that. But it happens again in the evening, and the captain, not wanting to lose the nets, which are new, doesn’t order them cut loose. The boat tilts, and tilts, and finally goes over. The men go in. Most die quickly. Three cling to wreckage: Gulli, Palli, and the Captain. But the wreckage keeps getting swamped. The air temperature, we’re told, is 27 degrees, the water temperature 41, and they’re three miles out. “I’m so cold,” Palli says. “We can’t just die here!” the Captain says, panicking, “we have to start swimming.” He does, leaving the other two, but he doesn’t go far. Gulli spots a nearby boat, shouts and waves, but isn’t heard, and in that moment Palli dies, too. “If you make it … ” he begins to tell Gulli. Then nothing. Then his hand goes limp. Gulli, alone, begins to swim. At which point the camera pulls back and we see a lone man bobbing up against a vast, cold blackness.

On his painful journey, he talks to seagulls, tries to tell jokes (but can’t remember the punchlines), remembers the past, makes promises for the future. He gets angry. He prays. He promises that if he’s given just one more day this is what he’ll do. He won’t drink milk from a carton but from a glass—to please his mother. He’ll visit Palli’s wife and kids and tell them how he died—nobly, and thinking of them. He’ll visit his friend’s dog. He’ll pay off his motorcycle so he’ll have no debts. Then he’ll visit the girl from the bar, the one with whom he has a history. This time he won’t just walk past her house. This time he’ll go in. If he’s given just one more day.

And here his troubles began
One of the most horrifically ironic subtitles I’ve come across is from Art Spiegelman’s “Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale,” which, after the first volume of various Nazi horrors culminating in husband and wife taken to Auschwitz, is subtitled, “And Here My Troubles Began.”

I thought of this when Gulli makes it to shore. It’s still night, it’s still dark, and he’s been through hell. But shore, when he reaches it, is a horror of pounding waves and sharp rocks that lead to a cliff face that can’t be scaled. So he has to go back. He has to go out into the surf again. When he finally finds a cliff face he can scale, and reaches its top, he sees nothing but desolation. The ground is cooled lava and cuts his bare feet. He has to fashion socks out of the arms of his shirt. He keeps throwing up all the salt water he’s swallowed. When he reaches a town, a kid thinks he’s a drunk. When he’s finally taken to a hospital, his body temperature is below 93 degrees. He has no heartbeat. Yet he lives.

There’s confusion at first. He said the boat went down where? And he swam how long? That’s impossible. But they find the wreckage where he said it was. A Reykjavik scientist hears of the tale and is intrigued, since what’s being talked about is scientifically impossible. A man can’t survive that long in temperatures that cold. Studies are done. When they prove inconclusive, Gulli is taken to London where more studies are done. With monitors all over his body, he’s placed in a tub filled with ice with three chiseled members of the Special Forces. Their best lasts 19 minutes. He lasts hours. It’s survival of the unfittest. His body fat is like seal fat, we’re told, but even that doesn’t explain it. He still shouldn’t have lived.

In a way he’s not. His survival is not triumphant at all. He suffers survivor’s guilt, and seems halfway between the living and the dead. And the day he promised if God let him live? Where’s that?

Bring warm clothes
“The Deep,” written by Jón Atli Jónasson and Baltasar Kormákur, and directed by Kormákur, is a quiet, matter-of-fact film that’s as unpretentious as the people it portrays, and much recommended. It’s spare. No real answers are given for what happens, but at some point Gulli has had enough of the tests and he returns to Vestmannaeyjar; and he has that day he promised God. He visits his friend with the LPs and the old dog, who doesn’t respond to him until he puts on the music. Then the dog is his. He visits Palli’s widow and her kids and gives them a kind of closure. But he doesn’t find his. He still doesn’t visit the girl. That’s the part he can’t do. Instead he returns to fishing. He goes out to sea again with another crew. Does he go like Superman? Like someone the sea can’t kill? No. He goes like Gulli.

Did I want more from the end? Yes. But it works. “The Deep” is a movie about blunt facts: what the sea does to you; what the cold does to you. At the end you’ll feel chilled to the bone. Bring warm clothes.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, the star of “The Deep"

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, the Tom Hanks of Iceland, before the plunge.

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Posted at 07:12 AM on May 24, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Thursday May 23, 2013

Superman Screenshot of the Day

Clark Kent, with ascot and espresso, in Italy in 1966

This is from Filmation's 1966 Saturday morning cartoon, “The New Adventures of Superman,” which is probably my first encounter with the Man of Steel. In an episode entitled, “The Mermen of Emor” (written by Oscar Bensol), Clark and Jimmy are in Italy, for some reason, and they come upon a mystery: experienced scuba divers going missing off the coast. Turns out the title characters are responsible. The mermen capture the divers, bring them to some underground lair, and use them in gladiatorial-like contests. (That's why Italy.) At this point in the story, Jimmy's gone missing, while Clark, oblivious, is simply enjoying a nice espresso at an outdoor cafe. Love the expression on his face. “What, a man can't wear an ascot, and drink espresso in outdoor cafes in Italy, without people talking?” Nope, apparently not.

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Posted at 11:49 AM on May 23, 2013 in category Superman Screenshot of the Day
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Movie Review: Out of Print (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Out of Print” is a documentary about the shift from the printing press to this. It’s not a small shift. So many areas are involved—historical, cultural, sociological, economic, legal, neurophysiological—it would require a series of documentaries to do them right. “Out of Print” is 55 minutes long. It’s the CliffsNotes version of the topic.

Remember CliffsNotes? Dull synopses of great works of literature for students too lazy to read the book. Now students are too lazy to read CliffsNotes. Now they go to websites and cut-and-paste. Maybe they come here. Hey you. Stop that. Stop I said.

Cui bono?
From the birth of a written language, possibly in Mesopotamia, to scrolls in 3,000 BC, to codices around the time of Christ, to Gutenberg and mechanical movable type in the 15th century, to the creation of public libraries in the 17th century, to Alexander Carnegie’s gift of public libraries across the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, the flow of information through a visual representation of language has gotten easier and easier. Now we’ve gone digital. Now we’re all here. Welcome.

As a writer, I’m interested in the economics of this shift. If anyone can write, anyone does. If it’s all out there for free, how does anyone get paid? By singing his didn’t? By dancing his did? (Confused? Visit your local library. Kidding. Google: e.e. cummings.)

As the ground is shifting beneath us, a few are making a mint (Google, Bezos) while the majority are struggling to survive (writers, photographers, libraries, bookstores). This gets a big ho-hum from most. It’s the way of the world, they say. A new technology comes in and wipes out the old professions. We’re all cutters now.

Johnny can’t analyze
But beyond economics, beyond copyright issues and pirating, beyond the digitizing of libraries and the fear of Google and Bezos and where will our libraries and bookstores be in 10 or 20 years (if they be), the biggest issue the doc raises, for me, is this: What is it doing to us? If books are the foundation of civilization, if Gutenberg led to the Renaissance, what is this leading us to?

Kids average 7.5 hours a day in front of screens? What does that mean?

They don’t go to the library to look things up anymore? They just Google it? No duh. But what does that mean? And what is lost? And what—since you can’t Google everything, since everything isn’t under the umbrella of Google yet—are they missing? What are we all missing?

If everything’s easy to find, where’s the joy in finding it? Watching this doc, I flashed back to articles I wrote in the 1990s, and the research I did at the various libraries at the University of Washington, and the nuggets I pulled out. For an article on David Horsey, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winner for editorial cartooning, I found his early editorial cartoons for The Daily, the University of Washington school newspaper, and it led to this paragraph in the final piece:

Horsey was so successful at the UW Daily that by 1972 they were printing “The Best of Horsey” in their pages; they also interviewed him in the in-bred fashion of college newspapers. Photographs show Horsey bedecked in tight turtleneck, love beads, and, one imagines, hopeless idealism. In a comment that causes the adult Horsey to roar with laughter, for example, his younger self opined, “I can’t see myself spending my life in an office. ... I don’t want to be working for a bunch of fat old men in an office all day long.”

The concern isn’t that Johnny can’t read but can’t analyze. He just extracts data. They all do. The documentary includes a story about a 7th-grade class reading a website about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, and the different ways to save it, and everyone believed it. I was reminded of a recent incident in which a friend, in her 20s, told me that Justice Scalia was retiring. For a second, my hopes were raised. Then I went, “Wait, where did you get this? The New Yorker site? Andy Borowitz?” I shook my head.

On the other hand, I certainly know one kid who’s good with critical thinking. Is he an anomaly? Does it help that he reads big books all the way through?

Hunt and peck
That’s another of the pervasive fears in the doc. In the Internet age, we’re distracted and nibble at bits of information and move on. We visit Facebook and Twitter three times a day, five times, 10 times. We don’t meditate enough with one big, slow source of information: a book. We hunt and peck at the computer screen and come away hungrier than ever.

Unfortunately, that’s what “Out of Print” is like, too. It’s no slow meditation. It hunts and pecks after little bits of information and tosses them to us and we gobble them. But we come away hungry. Worse, it tries to end on a up-note (the children are our future), but, given everything that’s come before, it’s a false up-note. The director, Vivienne Roumani, is a former librarian who now does this. A testimonial might have been interesting.

Here’s my testimonial. For most of my adult life, whenever I found a writer I liked, I tried to read their entire oeuvre. I did this with many writers: Salinger, Irving, Vonnegut, Roth, Doctorow, Morrison, Tolstoy, Baldwin, Updike, Kundera, Mailer. I still think of myself as the kind of person who does this but my last such author was Tobias Wolff in 1997. Since then I’ve read fewer and fewer books, less and less fiction. Maybe I haven’t found the right author. Maybe they’re not publishing the right authors. Or maybe 1997 is the year I got my first dial-up account and went online.

Documentary: Out of Print

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Posted at 06:22 AM on May 23, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Wednesday May 22, 2013

Action Comics No. 1 Found in Wall in Elbow Lake, Minn. Home

How amazing is this story? It almost belongs in Amazing Stories.

A 34-year-old man in northern Minnesota, David Gonzalex, who works in construction and remodeling, buys a dilapidated house in nearby Elbow Lake, Minn., for $10,100, with the idea of remodeling it and selling it at a higher price. While tearing out the walls, he found old newspapers used to insulate the walls. And amid those newspapers? Action Comics No. 1.

Not Action Comics No. 8. Not Detective Comics No. 96. Not Archie No. 51 but Action Comics No. 1. The magazine that introduced Superman, and thus superheroes, to the world. The most high-priced comic book in the world.

Then how awful is this? Amid the excitement about the find, his wife's aunt grabbed the comic out of his hands, and when he grabbed it back, the back cover ripped. That downgraded the comic, according to collectors from a 3 to a 1.5 in quality. (10 is mint condition.)

In-laws.

But how great that he shrugs it off.

Gonzalez said he has no regrets about the argument that damaged his discovery. “I am a humble working guy ... Money won’t buy you happiness.”

To be honest, I think I'm angrier at his wife's aunt than he is.

Here's the full story from Curt Brown at The Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Action Comics No. 1 found in wall in Elbow Lake, Minn.

David Gonzalez (right) with the remodeling find of the year (left).

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Posted at 06:30 PM on May 22, 2013 in category Superman
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Superman Screenshot of the Day

Superman battling fire in "Atom Man vs. Superman" (1950)

I've been watching all of the old “Superman” movies in anticipation of “Man of Steel,” out next month, and the above is from the 15-chapter serial “Atom Man vs. Superman” (1950), starring Kirk Alyn (as Superman) and Lyle Talbot (as Lex Luthor). But I assume the above isn't Alyn. I assume it's a stuntman. I just like the look of the shot: the graininess, the hard-to-read label on the box (Explosive? Singular?), the sense of action. It feels like it's from a different time, which, of course, it is. It feels like original source material. It feels like ur-Superman. Out of our grainy past comes the Man of Tomorrow.

I'll probably do a few of these before the premiere of “Man of Steel” next month.

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Posted at 02:19 PM on May 22, 2013 in category Superman Screenshot of the Day
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Quote of the Day

“To recap: Don’s real name is Dick Whitman. His prostitute mother died in childbirth; his dad, her john, beat him. His fundamentalist stepmother called him a 'whore’s child.' Then his father got kicked in the head by a horse, and the stepmother moved in with her sister, herself a prostitute, living in a brothel. The stepmother, heavily pregnant with Don’s half brother, prostituted herself to her brother-in-law, as the teen-age Don knelt outside her door. He watched them, through the keyhole, have sex. C’mon, now. This is no longer the backstory of a serial adulterer; it’s the backstory of a serial killer.

”We haven’t even got to the part where Whitman goes to fight in Korea, accidentally blows up his superior officer, Don Draper, steals his identity, forms a secret relationship with his widow (she’s motherly, yet also somewhat prostitute-like, since he pays for her upkeep), becomes a greaser, and seduces a model who is also concerned primarily with appearances. Eventually, he gets into advertising, and when his half brother, Adam, finds him, Don rejects him, and Adam hangs himself. It’s not that none of this makes sense, or could make sense; it’s just too much, overdetermined. None of the other characters has this sort of reverse-engineered psychology, and for good reason: it’s a lazy way to impose meaning.“

-- Emily Nussbaum, in her New Yorker piece, ”Faking It: 'Mad Men''s Don Draper problem," an article that is particularly smart on Don's ad campaigns at the show's beginning and now: how he avoided death with cigarettes in 1960 and how he sees it on a Hawaiian beach in 1968.

Don Draper, Mad Men

What can I say? It's all true.

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Posted at 11:54 AM on May 22, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Stories from the Birth of Xbox

In another life I was an STE (Software Test Engineer) at MGS (Microsoft Games Studio) during the early years of Xbox, testing, specifically, sports games. With the launch, yesterday, of the third generation of Xbox, Xbox One, I thought I'd share a story or two about those times.

 


 

Microsoft always seems to run its various groups like little Mom-n-Pop operations, as if they had no connection to this monstrous entity called Microsoft with its $49 billion in cash reserves. At meetings for Microsoft Games Studio (MGS), which occurred monthly in the cafeteria, I was always perplexed by the rah-rah high school atmosphere that pervaded; the sense that this organization was somehow the underdog, and, in the next big game, we were finally, finally gonna kick some ass and show the big boys what-for. I always wanted to say, “But you’re Microsoft!” Probably half the people in the room wanted to say that. Three-quarters. Everybody.

But in 2000 and 2001, in the gaming world, Microsoft was the underdog. They’d arrived late to the game, when industry leaders had already been established in hardware (Sony’s Playstation platform) and software (EA Games), and mere bluster didn’t count for much, and imitation wasn’t the sincerest form of flattery. It was a cause for litigation.

When “NFL Fever” was launched in November 2001, for example, it was immediately compared to the industry leader in football console games: EA’s “Madden NFL.” “Fever”’s graphics were better, and the gameplay, at times, was better, but in the end it was simply too similar for gamers to abandon what they’d always known. Early PC buyers were willing to abandon the Macintosh OS for the similar-looking Windows because, with IBM-compatible hardware, Windows was cheaper. “Fever” wasn’t cheaper, it was just similar. This was the Microsoft mindset. Maybe it's the mindset of most corporations. I remember testing “NFL Fever” in the summer before it launched, and for a month butting heads with the UI developer over a particular issue. The Project Manager and Game Designer always came down on his side. Then another tester told me, “Check to see how ‘Madden’ does it.” I did. They did it my way. I added this to the bug. It was fixed the next day.

The Birth of Xbox: Bill Gates

In 2001, Bill Gates was just giving away Xboxes. Kidding. People waited all night to buy one for $299.

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Posted at 09:22 AM on May 22, 2013 in category Microsoft
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Tuesday May 21, 2013

Milestone: 400 Parts Per Million

“A lot of what’s known about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be traced back to a chemist named Charles David Keeling, who, in 1958, persuaded the U.S. Weather Bureau to install a set of monitoring devices at its Mauna Loa observatory, on the island of Hawaii. By the nineteen-fifties, it was well understood that, thanks to the burning of fossil fuels, humans were adding vast amounts of carbon to the air. But the prevailing view was that this wouldn’t much matter, since the oceans would suck most of it out again. Keeling thought that it would be prudent to find out if that was, in fact, the case. The setup on Mauna Loa soon showed that it was not.

”Carbon-dioxide levels have been monitored at the observatory ever since, and they’ve exhibited a pattern that started out as terrifying and may be now described as terrifyingly predictable. They have increased every year, and earlier this month they reached the milestone of four hundred parts per million. No one knows exactly when CO2 levels were last this high; the best guess is the mid-Pliocene, about three million years ago. At that point, summertime temperatures in the Arctic were fourteen degrees warmer than they are now and sea levels were some seventy-five feet higher.“

-- Elizabeth Kolbert, in her piece, ”Lines in the Sand," mostly about whether Pres. Obama will approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska. Her arguments against, including an explanation of what tar-sands oil is, start in the 7th paragraph.

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Posted at 09:23 AM on May 21, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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501(c)(4)

If I were the I.R.S., I would be investigating Tea Party claims, too. From Jeffrey Toobin's post, “The Real I.R.S. Scandal,” on the New Yorker site:

It’s important to review why the Tea Party groups were petitioning the I.R.S. anyway. They were seeking approval to operate under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. This would require them to be “social welfare,” not political, operations. There are significant advantages to being a 501(c)(4). These groups don’t pay taxes; they don’t have to disclose their donors—unlike traditional political organizations, such as political-action committees. In return for the tax advantage and the secrecy, the 501(c)(4) organizations must refrain from traditional partisan political activity, like endorsing candidates.

I don't get why this isn't the story.

On the other hand, this may be a boon: a call to visit your local Tea Party office if you're ever in need of social welfare. I'm sure, as a social welfare organization, they'd be willing to help.

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Posted at 06:37 AM on May 21, 2013 in category Politics
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Monday May 20, 2013

Quote of the Day

“I understand there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: 'Excuses are tools of the incompetent used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.' Well, we’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil — many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did — all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned. (Applause.)

”Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too."

-- Pres. Barack Obama in his commencement speech to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., yesterday.

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Posted at 02:47 PM on May 20, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Various thoughts while watching “Star Trek Into Darkness”:

  • What’s the U.S.S. Enterprise doing underwater? And that was the plan?
  • Crap, they still have alarm clocks with annoying beeps in the 23rd century.
  • Cars, too. Even with transporter devices? Why not just beam to the grocery store? Why not just beam your groceries to you? Why not replicate them?
  • Seriously, are there no homely admiral’s daughters?
  • You can use a communicator across the galaxy? From Earth to Qo’noS? That seems a bit of a cheat.
  • God, Benedict Cumberbatch is good. Is he doomed to play superior beings from now on? Indubitably.
  • Wait, did he say Khan … or Kai?
  • So if the goal was to start a war with the Klingons, why relieve Kirk of command? Isn’t that who you want in charge? The reckless, think-with-his-gut captain?
  • OK, so it’s like “Star Trek: Wrath of Khan” but reversed. Where Kirk does what Spock did and Spock does what Kirk did.
  • I wonder how many takes “KHAAAAAAAN!” took? That’s like redoing “Stella!”
  • Right, the tribble. Thank God. I don’t think I could’ve taken “Star Trek III: The Search for Kirk.”

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)But my main thought was of the roller coaster. Seriously, how many Spielbergian, breathless, everything-going-wrong-and-has-to-go-right-at-the-last-second moments are we going to have?

If the first J.J. Abrams-led “Star Trek” reboot reminded me of “Star Wars,” this one reminds me of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Even the cold open gives us our hero, Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), carrying a kind of idol while running from natives with spears. Meanwhile, Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is being lowered into a volcano to detonate a cold-fusion device, and winds up trapped there, as lava laps up all around him. Can Kirk and Spock be saved? Of course they can. Kirk gives up the idol (a kind of map?), which the natives bow before, and he and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) jump off a cliff and swim to the U.S.S. Enterprise, which is hiding underwater, in salt water, against the express wishes of its chief engineer, Scotty (Simon Pegg). At which point, violating the Prime Directive, the Enterprise arises, to the amazed eyes of the indigenous people, which allows Kirk and company to use the transporter to beam Spock, whose protective suit is smoking, back to the Enterprise just in time. All good!

Not really. Even before Kirk is temporarily relieved of command for violating the Prime Directive (by revealing the Enterprise), and Spock temporarily reassigned to the U.S.S. Bradbury for doing same (by preventing the volcano from exploding), we have our own questions:

  • Why is Kirk hanging, disguised, among the natives?
  • Why did he take what he took? Even he doesn’t know.
  • Why is McCoy down there? In case someone needs a doctor?
  • Do they have no Prime Directive class at Star Fleet Academy? Did Kirk and Spock skip it? Does Spock not see the logic in it?
  • Biggest: Why hide the U.S.S. Enterprise underwater?????

It’s always a bad sign when one of the characters in a movie annunciates the absurdity of what is going on in the movie—as Scotty does here. “Do you have any idea,” he tells Kirk, “how ridiculous it is to leave a starship on the bottom of the ocean?” Preach it, Montgomery.

And that’s just the first, breathless, Spielbergian moment. Others include: 1) the chase from, and capture by, the Klingons; 2) shooting Kirk and Khan from one starship to the next through a field of debris while Scotty is being held at phaser-point; 3) Kirk running and climbing and battling radioactivity to get the ship’s engines online before the Enterprise burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere; 4) Spock chasing Khan all over San Francisco.

All of these scenes are well-done but they’re pointless. The point of the roller coaster is to not think about anything but the roller coaster, which is what most moviegoers want, but it isn’t what “Star Trek” fans want. They want to think. They want it to make sense, and have meaning, and maybe even some poignancy. They want Kirk and Spock to be friends, sure, but not deep friends, not best buddies, before they’ve barely had an adventure together. Episodic TV allows you to build on friendship in a way that movies, even with their interminable sequels, do not.

Sure, Abrams and Paramount toss “Trek” fans some bones (no pun intended). Simon Pegg, who’s quite good, isn’t doing Scottish; he’s doing James Doohan doing Scottish. Anton Yelchin is doing Walter Koenig doing Russian. Similarly Urban and McCoy. We even get a “Damnit, I’m a doctor …” line. No Shatner imitations yet, though. And no Star Fleet sideburns. Shame. If they’re good enough for Neil Degrasse Tyson, they’re good enough for Chris Pine.

The movie, too, is basically a critique of the Bush administration after 9/11. Because we were attacked by one group (al Qaeda), we started a war with another (Iraq). Because Earth was attacked by one group (futuristic Romulans), Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) wants to start a war with another (the Klingons). It’s up to Kirk, giving a speech before Star Fleet at the end, to warn everyone, mostly us, about the dangers inherent in revenge.

But the rest? Uhura (Zoe Saldana), despite the Klingon language skills, is wasted, spending most of her time bitching about Spock acting like Spock. And do we get any rationale for why Spock is doing what he’s doing? Why the relationship with Uhura, and why the anger at Khan, and why does he need Uhura to stop him from killing Khan? Is his half-human side that strong in this alternative universe? And is it because the planet Vulcan is no more? And what of that? How many members of the Vulcan species are left? Wouldn’t this small fact alter his trajectory a bit, get him off the Enterprise maybe, doing something else? Wouldn’t it give him a different girlfriend? (No offense, Zoe.) Doesn’t it make sense for Spock to want to propagate his species now that they’re nearly extinct? Or at least consider doing so? Or at least talk about it with someone?

What was it like for Kirk to die as long as he died? Spock, mind-melding with a dying Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), said he felt, from Pike, four things: anger, confusion, loneliness and fear. No calm? No moving toward the light? Can Kirk confirm? Isn’t that the “Darkness” in the title? Can someone talk about any of this in a meaningful way?

Of course not. That would slow down the roller coaster ride and we can’t have that. “Star Trek” fans, who want to think, are few, and popcorn crunchers, who just want the roller-coaster ride, are many. And as Mr. Spock told us here and in the original “Star Trek II,” and as J.J. Abrams and Paramount executives and all of the numbers-crunchers in Hollywood surely believe, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

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Posted at 08:13 AM on May 20, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Sunday May 19, 2013

Reboot of 45-Year-Old TV Series Underperforms with $70 Million Opening Weekend

“Iron Man 3” fell off by more than 50% in its third weekend but still grossed half of what “Star Trek Into Darkness” grossed in its opening weekend ($35.1 million to $70.5 million) . Or do we count Wednesday and Thursday for “Trek”? Apparently there were shows then. For some people anyway. The movie grossed $2 million and $11.5 million on those days, meaning it kind of opened at $84 million rather than $70, but the official tally will still be $70m.

Not sure why you open a movie this way. Bit by bit, I mean. Doesn’t it lessen the impact of the opening weekend numbers? Instead of a headline like “‘Star Trek’ Warps to $84 million finish,” you get “‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ Can't Hit Warp Speed at Box Office.” $70 million. Chump change in Hollywood. Four years ago, the first J.J. Abrams-led “Trek,” opened at $75 million, and you never want to open lower than your predecessor.

Not that they’re not trying to spin it. Here’s what Paramount’s head of distribution Don Harris told The Wrap today:

The good news is, when you have a really good movie like this one, the word of mouth is going to bring the audience in over time. Expectations aside, big-picture we’re in a very good place, particularly when you consider how well it’s doing overseas.

How well is it doing overseas? $80 million thus far. That’s not bad, considering previous international numbers for “Trek” ($128 million for the first Abrams reboot), but chump change compared with, say, “Iron Man 3,” which, after this weekend, is at $736 million internationally, for a grand total of $1.07 billion worldwide. That’s ninth all-time. Another $50 million and it’ll be fifth. Another $250 million and it’ll be fourth. “The Avengers” is at $1.5 billion. After that it’s Cameron Country (> $2 billion), where even Iron Man can’t fly. Sorry, dude.

Meanwhile, “The Great Gatsby” fell off 53% for third place with $23.4 million. Everything else grossed less than $3.5 million. We’re putting more eggs into fewer baskets. Or fewer eggs into fewer baskets.

The final frontier numbers.

Star Trek: The Original Series

In the end, “Star Trek” didn't do poorly for a TV show canceled in 1969.

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Posted at 05:06 PM on May 19, 2013 in category Movies - Box Office
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Movie Review: Frances Ha (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Halfway through Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha,” Frances (Greta Gerwig) tells a room full of people what she wants in a relationship. She wants to be at a party and be able to lock eyes with that special person across the room and know what the other is feeling; and she and this other person will share that feeling across the room. That’s what she wants.

Near the end of “Frances Ha,” Frances does exactly this. She began the movie living with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), but then there were spats and accusations and anger. Sophie became engaged to Patch (Patrick Heusinger) and moved to Japan, while Frances, an aspiring dancer, Frances Hawith few friends, less money, and nowhere to live, had her dreams shot down. But by this point in the movie, Sophie has broken up with Patch and moved back to New York, while Frances is making a go with second-tier dreams. Her former dance company hires her for office work and she gets a gig choreographing young dancers on the side. This evening is her debut as a choreographer. It goes well. Unlike almost everything else in the movie for Frances, it goes well. At the reception afterwards, the director of her dance company, Colleen (Broadway star Charlotte d’Amboise), is in the midst of telling Frances how impressed she is with Frances’ original, inventive choreography. She sounds it, too. She means it. And Frances? She looks across the room … toward Sophie … and Sophie looks her way … and they’re sharing something … even though Frances is basically ignoring Colleen, whose voice gets more and more distant in Frances’ head. And in my head I’m screaming, “No! You idiot! This is your moment. Don’t give it over to Sophie!” But she does. Because that’s what Frances does. She cares too much about Sophie and too little about everyone else in the world.

Including you.

Bastard child
I don’t get the acclaim for this movie. People keep calling it the bastard child of Woody Allen and “Girls.”

If the movie is like “Girls” it’s because it’s about girls, in New York, today, and it has Adam Driver in it. He plays a kind of lothario here. His character is more interesting in “Girls.”

If the movie is like Woody Allen, it’s like Woody Allen after his movies became stilted and false. After they became pretentious.

If it’s like Woody Allen it’s because it uses bits from better Woody Allen movies. “Frances” opens with Frances and Sophie having a day in the city, including a play fight in the park. Later, after they’ve broken up, Frances becomes friends with Rachel (Grace Gummer), who’s a bit of a pain herself, humorless and without personality, and the two are walking and Frances tries to start a play fight with her as she always did with Sophie. It doesn’t go well. Rachel yelps and falls out of camera frame and Frances apologizes and they move on.

Lobster scene anyone?

So, yes, “Frances Ha” is a bit like the bastard child of Woody Allen and “Girls.” If Woody Allen weren’t funny and “Girls” didn’t feel painfully true.

Gerwig love
I don’t get the Gerwig love, either. Here, and in last year’s “Lola Versus,” she has a self-consciousness about her, a self-awareness that’s not good for a screen actor. Sure, she’s goofy, but …

If a main character is unlikeable I need them to have something else to maintain interest, and Frances doesn’t have it. She’s not that smart, not that talented, not that interested in other people. She’s clueless. Not to mention the worst dinner party guest ever. She can’t ask a question of the person sitting next to her without putting ironic quotes around it. Then she spews about her own life. Then she asks to borrow the Parisian apartment of a couple she just met. Then she leaves. Whew. I would’ve paid $100 for the camera to stay in the room. So I could hear them talk about Frances after she’d gone. It was probably similar to the conversation I was having in my head. Like … who invited her?

The woman she’s enamored of? Sophie? Even more annoying. If Frances is frenetically self-centered, Sophie is confidently so. The two deserve each other. How they got all of these men interested in them I have no idea.

The first boyfriend we see, Dan (Michael Esper), asks Frances to move in with him. But she can’t. Well, she can but she doesn’t want to. She likes living with Sophie. So she gives up Dan for Sophie. Then Sophie gives up her. Sophie finds a place she likes in Tribeca, which she needs to close on now, and does, and does it without Frances, who winds up living with two men: Lev (Adam Driver), who once made a play for her, and Benji (Michael Zegen), who would like to make a play for her. He never does. Dude.

Since “Squid and the Whale,” Noah Baumbach’s titular characters have become more unlikeable: “Margot at the Wedding,” “Greenberg,” now “Frances Ha.” But at least Greenberg interested me. Frances isn’t interesting because she’s not interested. She begins the movie interested in making a career as a dancer (kinda) and being friends with Sophie (totally). She ends it interested in making a career as a choreographer (kinda) and being friends with Sophie (totally). Somewhere this is called character development.

The story of you two
I get it to some extent. Most movies are loud, awful things about people who are prettier and braver than us. They’re wish-fulfillment fantasy. So along comes a movie that seems to be about real people in real-world situations, where there’s no plot, little story, and more character. So it seems like it should matter. But the myopia Frances suffered from at the beginning (Sophie love), she suffers from in the end. “Tell me the story of us,” she asks Sophie in the first five minutes. “Again?” Sophie responds. By the end, that’s my reaction. Again? Along the way Frances realizes this great lesson: “Sometimes it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.” But that’s only a lesson for spoiled children.

I know. I’m getting too old for this shit. The question is: Why isn’t Noah Baumbach?

The title for “Frances Ha” got two things right. It’s about a woman named Frances and it correctly recorded the numbers of times I laughed out loud.

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Posted at 09:02 AM on May 19, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Saturday May 18, 2013

Movie Review: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

One of the many ironies of Alex Gibney’s “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” is its title. The phrase isn’t said, as one would expect, by Julian Assange or anyone in the hactivist community; it’s said by former CIA and NSA head Michael Hayden. He’s talking about U.S. government agencies but he’s reacting to the Nov. 2010 release of top secret U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks:

Look, everyone has secrets. Some of the secret activities that nation-states conduct in order to keep their people safe and free need to be secret in order to be successful. If they are broadly known, you cannot accomplish your work. I want to be very candid. We steal secrets. We steal other nation’s secrets. One cannot do that above-board and be very successful for a very long period of time.

Thus the organization that steals secrets has its secrets stolen. And thus the organization that publishes those secrets, that is dedicated to revealing other people’s secrets, becomes, itself, secretive. WikiLeaks, a small nonprofit committed to the free flow of information, winds up demanding that its employees sign Non-Disclosure Agreements. Do we all become what we fight? Do we all stare into the abyss and become the monster? Do none of us get the irony?

Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”; “Taxi to the Dark Side”; “Catching Hell”) does.

The lost boys
This is a great documentary, by the way. Most docs are 90 minutes and drag; this thing is 130 and zips. It constructs the story most of us—or at least I—have been paying attention to only peripherally.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)When I became aware of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in the summer of 2010, I had the feeling he’d been on the world stage for a while, but that moment was basically his debut. He’d made a name for himself in his home country of Australia in the early 1990s, and again, among those paying attention, in Iceland in 2009 with the release of internal documents from Kaupthing Bank detailing suspicious loans to bank owners prior to default. But it wasn’t until Pvt. Bradley Manning, a nice, fucked-up kid from Oklahoma, who was stationed in Iraq and wondered what to do about the confidential—and to him, immoral—information he had access to, that we all knew Assange’s name.

More irony: Manning wouldn’t have had access to such documents without 9/11. Because relevant information was not shared between government agencies prior to 9/11, it became imperative to share it after 9/11. To make us safer. Which allowed Bradley Manning access to the information he uploaded to WikiLeaks. Which, according to some, including Hilary Clinton, made us less safe.

Will the irony never end? The first big Manning-related leak is a video of the killing of Reuters journalists by U.S. soldiers in an Apache Warship half a mile above them. They mistook a camera for an RPG, and the men for terrorists, and killed them along with several children as if it were a video game. It’s appalling what happens; the disconnect of the men doing the shooting makes it more appalling:

  • “Light ‘em all up.”
  • “Oh yeah, look at all those dead bastards.”
  • “It’s their fault for bringing their kids to a battle.”

Yet the man who published the video, Assange, is said to have had a similar kind of disconnect—of the digital variety. He grew up interacting with the world through a computer screen.

The three main players in this story are all lost boys: Assange, Manning and Adrian Lamo, a “gray hat” hacker with Asperger’s, who, prior, was most famous for hacking into the New York Times computer network in 2002. Manning contacted Lamo via encrypted email, and the two wound up chatting on, of all things, AOL instant messaging. When Lamo realized the veracity of Manning’s situation, and the gravity of it, he didn’t know what to do. Wasn’t this a national security breach? But how could he betray Manning’s trust? In the doc, he equates his dilemma to the Kobayashi Maru test from “Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan”: the unwinnable situation that tests how Star Fleet cadets deal with defeat. Ultimately he gave up Manning to the authorities, but he cries on camera for having done so. At the same time, he justifies the action with another quote from “Star Trek II”: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” Apparently he didn’t see “Star Trek III” for Kirk’s spin on the phrase.

Even so, the doc suggests that if Lamo hadn’t outed Manning, someone else would have. Manning wanted the world to know The Big Thing he’d done. One wonders, too, if he hadn’t had his own secrets that needed outing—the dawning realization that he wanted to be, or was, a woman—whether he would have outed the U.S. government’s.

Famous last words
In the aftermath of the WikiLeaks revelations, all three men were (more irony) hidden away or went into hiding. Lamo received death threats from those who idolized Manning and Assange. Manning was arrested by the military police and incarcerated in a small cell in Kuwait, then in solitary at the Mariner Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, where it’s alleged he was subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques such as sleep deprivation. When Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley, a former Air Force Colonel, criticized this treatment of Manning, calling it “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid,” he was forced to resign.

Assange, the main figure here, is probably the least sympathetic. Prior to going global, Assange gave access to Mark Davis, an Australian journalist and documentarian, and Davis lets Gibney use the footage. We see that WikiLeaks, an international, online, nonprofit, was basically two guys: Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German technology activist. We see Assange becoming international front-page news and how he reacts to becoming international front-page news. “I’m untouchable now in this country,” he says. A month later, in Sweden, he was charged with rape.

“Rape,” even in a worst-case scenario, is probably the wrong word. The sex, with two different women, seems to have been consensual; the use of the condom was not. That’s a crime in Sweden and in Britain, where Assange fled, and from which, for many months, the Swedish government attempted to extradict him. Why no condom? Assange has four children from four different women, so some suggest he has this need to propagate. Others call the women CIA plants or “honeypots,” a computer term for a trap set to “counteract attempts at unauthorized use of information systems.” These women, too, have received death threats. Maybe in the future we’ll all receive death threats.

While Assange’s supporters, with their Guy Fawkes masks, rallied around the world, Assange was imprisoned in Britain, released on bail to a posh estate in the English countryside, then took up residence, away from the authorities, in the Ecuadoran embassy. In this manner, like in a “Sex and the City” episode, the story becomes all about him. There is some indication that if Assange had merely agreed to an HIV test, which the women had requested before charges were brought, none of this would have happened. But he was a high-flying figure then, full of hubris, and he refused. Nick Davies, the great investigative journalist with The Guardian, talks about how Assange didn’t even see the point of redacting the names of Afghanis who had worked with coalition forces. “If an Afghani helps the U.S. military,” Davies says Assange said, “he deserves to die.” In 2010, we see Assange being interviewed by a TV reporter, who asks about the charges in Sweden. Assange cuts off the interview, stands up, removes his mike, and calmly delivers what’s supposed to be a cutting remark. It says more about him than her. “You blew it,” he says.

Bringing the nuance
Does Gibney let the story become too much about Assange and not enough about the ways information is gathered and revealed today? He certainly tries to strike a balance. He talks about how the U.S. government now records 60,000 emails and cellphone calls every second. The number is supposed to shock but I felt the opposite. I actually felt safety in the number.

Watching, in fact, I kept thinking of Neil Postman’s dichotomy again. I kept wondering if people like Assange, and Bradley Manning, and maybe even Alex Gibney, believe we’re living in a “1984” world, where the problem is the free flow of information, when we’re really living in a “Brave New World” world, where the problem is too much information, and where “the people,” for whom all of this is done, and who need to know the atrocities its troops commit abroad, and how the U.S. diplomatic corps really views the dictators with whom it conducts affairs, can’t even be bothered.

Be bothered enough to go see this doc. “There is no history without nuance,” Norman Mailer once wrote, and that’s part of the joy of “We Steal Secrets.” There are so many absolutist positions here: Guy Fawkes protests on one side, U.S. government press conferences on the other. And in the no man’s land between them, Alex Gibney arrives, bringing the nuance.

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Posted at 11:31 AM on May 18, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Friday May 17, 2013

On the Final Episode of 'The Office'

Over on the Atlantic site, Kevin Craft has a nice piece on the final episode of the NBC series “The Office”: why it was once great, why it couldn't remain so:

Set in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the sales office of a nearly obsolete paper company, the show's characters at first didn't develop as much as stagnate. Like their dead-end jobs and the dead-end lives that inevitably spring from such jobs, these people were just passing time, one prolonged meeting at a time. Just as reality television soothes a viewer's inner narcissist by telling stories of even more pronounced narcissists wreaking havoc on their surroundings, The Office made its audience feel better about their professional lives by showcasing a workplace with even drabber décor and more grating coworkers. ...

The original theme it explored—office work sucks—is only funny if the characters never grow. What made the early episodes so dryly funny and morbidly relatable was that the seasons and the names of the meetings changed, but the paper-pushing remained the same. Just-another-cog-in-the-wheel syndrome only engenders pathos if the wheel spins indefinitely and the cogs stay put. But writers can only use constructed bonding experiences, like an awkward sexual harassment training session or an impromptu “Office Olympics,” so many times to illustrate the lengths to which white-collar drones will go to survive another excruciating day. In television, things have to change.

“...the lengths to which white-collar drones will go to survive another excruciating day.” Nice.

Patricia and I watched the final episode last night but it was a bit too sweet for me. And it wasn't like the final episode of the British “Office,” in which Ricky Gervais gave you a cherry on top (Tim and Dawn finally getting together) of the shit sundae he'd been serving all that time (every other excruciatingly brilliant episode). No, this was just too sweet. A happy ending for everyone. Right? Doesn't everyone get what they want? Jim takes the dream job and gets out of Scranton (with his family, of course); Pam paints murals; Dwight gets to be office manager (and, in the only brilliant touch of the last season brilliant touch, he also becomes assistant to the assistant to the regional manager, or the direct report of his own direct report). Erin finds her parents, Andy finds fame (or infamy), Stanley gets to kick back away from everybody.

I'm with Kevin Craft here. I wanted more fourth-wall moments at the end. How did it feel once the cameras went away? How did it feel once they showed up in the first place? That's something “The Office” never really dealt with. Was it easier surviving another excruciating day because you were being filmed doing it? Did that make it seem relevant? Like you had an audience that most of us don't have? Did that change the behavior of the people there? Give me some Heisenberg principle, kids.

I know. Network TV. But we're not getting any younger. Or smarter.

Even so, farewell “Office.” You were my last network show.

The Office (U.S. version)

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Posted at 02:59 PM on May 17, 2013 in category TV
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Oops

Yesterday a reader commented on my April 16th post, “Theory: In 'Man of Steel,' Krypton Lives” with this link. Which leads to this:

Michael Shannon as Gen. Zod

Oops.

So from this May 3rd post, “Four Reasons Krypton Doesn't Blow Up in the new Superman Movie 'Man of Steel,'”  it looks like alternate theory 2:2 is the correct one (“Or he's got a spaceship that's roaming the cosmos”). It also means Entertainment Weekly was wrong in its summer movie guide description of “Man of Steel.” Or the above doo-dad is wrong. We'll find out soon enough.

If the above is right? The plot is taking shape. Kal-El searches for himself on Earth, hides his true nature because people here would freak, and doesn't truly emerge until this threat, Kryptonians taking over Earth, arrives. Cue: battle. But I guess we already knew this.

BTW: That's the best Shannon-as-Zod photo they could come up with? It looks like someone just told him his dog ran away.

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Posted at 11:43 AM on May 17, 2013 in category Superman
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If Ever a Character Could Put You Off Women for Life...

Interesting back-and-forth (at least as interesting as Twitter allows) between James Marsh and Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeffrey Wells on Monica Vitti's character in “L'Avventura.” Marsh began it this way:

Wells still finds her alluring, which is partly why he's watched the movie six or seven times. I'm with Wells here, despite having watched it only once.

But Marsh raises an interesting question. If ever a character in a movie could put you off women for life, which would it be?

For a long time, my answer was Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.” I got major creeps after watching that movie. I don't think I wanted to be with a woman for a week after that. Or a night anyway. (I was young.)

Then about 10 years ago I saw “The Blue Angel,” with Lola Lola ruining the distinguished life of Prof. Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings); reducing him to a clown, an ass, a rooster. I know it's Dietrich, and Dietrich is so sexy, but that makes it worse. You understand why the good professor winds up on the path he winds up on. The road to losing all dignity and self-worth. The road to cock-a-doodle-doo.

Yours? Feel free to shift the question as to gender and gender preference.

Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings in "The Blue Angel" (1930)

The good professor, before the cock-a-doodle-doo.

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Posted at 06:53 AM on May 17, 2013 in category Movies
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Thursday May 16, 2013

Whose Portrait Hangs in Lex Luthor's Office?

Throughout the Kirk Alyn Superman serials, in both 1948 and 1950, a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln hangs in the office of Daily Planet city editor Perry White (Pierre Watkin):

Abraham Lincoln hanging in Perry White's office in the 1948 SUPERMAN serial

Perry White (Pierre Watkin), Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond) and Lois Lane (Noeil Neill) react (and Lincoln doesn't) in 1948's “Superman.”

In the 1950 serial, “Atom Man vs. Superman,” Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot) pretends to go straight by investing in a television studio. At one point he even hires away Lois Lane from The Daily Planet for man-on-the-street interviews. (One of her questions: “Is city life more exciting than country life?”) Several times we visit him in his office:

Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot) in 1950s "Atom Man vs. Superman"

So who's the woman on the wall? Perry White has Abe Lincoln, Lex Luthor has ... ? She looks like a starlet. Is she producer Sam Katzman's girlfriend? Is she supposed to be Lex Luthor's wife? Did they just need to fill space?

Anyone know?

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Posted at 07:33 AM on May 16, 2013 in category Superman
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Wednesday May 15, 2013

'Negroes Oppose Film': A 1921 NAACP Protest of 'Birth of a Nation'

I love the stuff you find in The New York Times archive. It's our history written in stilted language.

I was recently looking into D.W. Griffith's “Birth of a Nation,” for example, and came across this from May 7, 1921:

New York Times article on a 1921 protest of "Birth of a Nation"

It's not just a world before the civil rights movement; it's a world before acronyms. (Five of the protesters were arrested, including three women and two ex-servicemen.)

The full article is available here. If you subscribe already. Which you totally should.

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Posted at 04:58 PM on May 15, 2013 in category Culture
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Movie Review: Superman III (1983)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I always thought the steady drop in quality of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies was akin to the steady drop in their box office (in millions: from $134 to $108 to $59 to $15) but “Superman III” has it over “II” in this respect: Superman (Christopher Reeve) does his job. In the first half hour, he 1) saves a man from drowning in midtown Metropolis; 2) extinguishes a fire at a chemical plant by freezing a lake and flying it over the fire; and 3) stops a thresher from chopping up a kid in the middle of a wheat field. Interestingly, all of these heroics are necessitated by accidents. There is no Luthor or Zod plotting the overthrow of everything. Shit just happens.

Superman IIICould you make an entire movie like that? Without a villain? What would our worldview be like if our wish-fulfillment fantasies involved accidents rather than machinations? Would we be less paranoid? Once the machinations begin here, for example, once billionaire industrialist Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) uses the computer programming skills of Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) to corner the market on oil by turning off wells and sending oil tankers to the middle of the Atlantic, and we get long gaslines as we did in 1979, a blue-collar guy at a diner says the following:

Someone’s behind this. You can’t tell me there’s not more oil. You can’t tell me someone’s not getting rich off this. Someone’s always getting rich. And you know who suffers? The small guy.

Our movies are starter kits for paranoids.

More tar, less unknown
But the epic feel of “Superman” is long gone. It’s all rather small now. It’s all rather Smallville.

We get gags. Director Richard Donner steered the movie away from camp in the first film but director Richard Lester steered it right back in “II” and lets loose with both barrels in “III.” During the title credits we get a Rube Goldberg gag reel, one mishap leading to another, involving, at different points, a busty blonde, a blind man, a mime, and zero laughs.

We get evil Superman. Gus’ computer program breaks down the chemical composition of kryptonite but can’t isolate one element: 0.57% unknown, it says. So Gus looks at his cigarette pack and substitutes “tar.” This creates a movie version of red kryptonite, which turns Superman evil. Or at least mischievous. Or horny. Or dirty. He stops shaving and bathing and doing laundry. He rights the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the consternation of comic Italians, blows out the Olympic torch just as the games are about to begin, and creates an oil spill at the request of another busty blonde, Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson), who is working for Webster, so he can sleep with her. Which he totally does. Hey, apparently Superman can sleep with women! So why did his mother tell him otherwise in “II”? And why he isn’t with Lois? Doesn’t he love her? Didn’t he turn back time for her? Eventually he splits in two and battles himself at a junkyard (always a junkyard), and the good side wins. “The Enemy Within” is Proust in comparison.

We get an early ‘80s version of what computer programming is like. “How did you do that?” a teacher asks Gus. “I don’t know,” Gus replies. “I just … did it.” It’s like magic. It’s the only magic in the movie.

Most of all we get Richard Pryor doing bits. Here he does drunk, here he does “Patton,” here he does the bland white-guy voice. He plays at Superman, with a tablecloth as his cape, then skis off a high-rise and walks away, looking, not astonished at surviving a 40-story fall, but simply embarrassed. He looks embarrassed throughout. He should. Nothing he does is remotely funny. In the beginning he’s on the dole, 36 weeks, until his unemployment benefits are cut off; then he gets the computer programming idea from a matchbook. What does he do after receiving his first paycheck? Complains about taxes. But didn’t that just pay for his unemployment benefits?

Our movies are starter kits for libertarians.

Evil Superman

Evil Superman: Doesn't shower, shave, do laundry or hide his brown roots.

Richard Pryor doing bits
The story? Clark returns to Smallville, ostensibly to write about how small towns are doing in the new economy (always the new economy), but mostly to romance former flame Lana (Annette O’Toole), who is a single mom. Lois Lane? She’s in Bermuda. Apparently Margot Kidder complained about working with Richard Lester so they cut her part to 12 lines. That’ll serve her for being right.

Elsewhere, a computer wizard is born. Gus hears of the rounding down of paychecks, the fractions of cents that don’t make it into our pockets, and he creates a program to gather these fractions for himself. His first supplementary check amounts to $85,000. I have to admit, I always remembered this part of the movie. I thought it was clever.

When Gus is caught, he’s put to work doing bad deeds, and comic routines, for Webster, and his nasty sister, Vera (Annie Ross), and Lorelei—who, in a bit that goes nowhere, is actually really, really smart. They’re like Luthor, Otis and Miss Tessmacher without the personality. In their employ, Gus destroys the Colombia coffee crop, corners the market on oil, creates fake kryptonite and designs a supercomputer, which, since computers are magic things we don’t trust, eventually comes to life and tries to destroy everybody. But at no point does he question what he’s doing. People are dying and all he wants is a raise.

In the battle with the supercomputer, there’s a good, scary moment when Vera is pulled in and Borgified but …. what happens to her? What happens to Webster and the blonde? We never find out. Superman blows up the computer, he and Gus exchange a soul-brother handshake in the rubble, then Gus is flown over trees and set down in a coalyard. He does another unfunny improv bit for the confused guys there, then walks away. He doesn’t even go to jail. Because he’s Richard Pryor, co-star.

Superman carrying Richard Pryor

Carrying Pryor throughout.

What part of ‘Superman’ do they not understand?
I was an usher at a second-run movie theater, the Boulevard I and II in south Minneapolis, where this thing played during the summer of ’83. I was still a Superman fan but I could barely watch it for all of the above reasons.

Things just bugged me. Minor details like logic. During the Rube Goldberg opening, Clark, still wearing a fedora, ducks into a street photobooth to change into Superman just as a kid (apparently the kid who played baby Kal-El in “Superman: The Movie”) plops in a quarter. The photobooth then captures Clark changing into Superman in four separate photos. Cute. But what’s the interval in photobooth pictures? A few seconds? How long does it take Clark to change into Superman? A tenth of a second? A hundredth of a second? Like that? Like you snap your fingers and you’re late? At best you’d get a blur in one photo and nothing in the rest. Don’t they know who their hero is? What part of “Superman” do they not understand?

The thresher scene is worse. Lana’s boy, Ricky, is unconscious next to a rock in high wheat. Threshers are bearing down on him. Clark sees all this, makes an excuse and changes into Superman.

  • Cut to: the boy, unconscious.
  • Cut to: the threshers, apparently, 50 yards away from the boy.
  • Cut to: the threshers threshing as the music becomes pulse-pounding.
  • Cut to: Superman flying toward the thresher.
  • Cut to: the threshers from Superman’s perspective. He’s nearly there.
  • Cut to: the thresher threshing.
  • Cut to: the boy again.
  • Cut to: the threshers again.
  • Cut to: Superman again, still not there.
  • Cut to …

It should take a second. You should snap your fingers and you’d be late. Instead, they lengthen it out to half a minute of screentime. Interminable.

Superman carrying Ricky after the thresher in Superman III

“It took 30 seconds, Ricky, but I finally flew that 100 yards to save you.”

Not campy like TV's “Batman”
“Superman III” is just depressing. They take away Lois, sub in B-grade villains, and give a fading star (Pryor) plenty of room for his unfunny improv. Think of everything they could’ve done with this movie and look at what they did. Look at what they did to my boy.

When the Salkinds began “Superman: The Movie,” director Richard Donner’s on-set catchphrase was “verisimilitude.” He strove for the epic and heroic. Everyone did. No one wanted to make it campy like TV’s “Batman.”

I’m not suggesting that under Richard Lester’s direction “Superman” became campy like TV's “Batman.” TV’s “Batman” had the virtue of being funny.

Richard Pryor doing bits in Superman III

Bits.

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Posted at 06:11 AM on May 15, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s
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Tuesday May 14, 2013

Quote of the Day

“When Mary Lucia played The Suburbs' 'Love Is The Law' just after 5 p.m. yesterday, historic yesterday, I was on the freeway driving home from the Minnesota State Capitol, ears still ringing from the cheers and cries of thousands of happy lovers, law-makers, and families. It was beyond poignant, and for me, one of the greatest moments ever heard on The Current; a perfect, yes, marriage of civic pride, music, roots, community, love. Over the last month or so, this is the (30-year-old) tune that's been running through my head — 'kewpie dolls and urine stalls will be laughed at the way you're laughed at now' — and today I'm proud to be from the state that gave us such a timeless anthem and message. Long may it play...

-- Minneapolis writer and singer Jim Walsh, author of ”The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting,“ on Minnesota becoming the 12th state to legalize same-sex marriage.

”Love is the Law" was the big song from my first, confused, awful steps away from high school and into college.

Marriage equality in Minnesota: May 13, 2013

Marriage equality passes the Minnesota Senate, 36-30, May 13, 2013. Gov. Mark Dayton will sign it into law today.

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Posted at 12:27 PM on May 14, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Trailer of the Day: 'The Congress' by Ari Folman

This looks amazing:

It's about actors being bought and digitalized away but it could be about any of us being bought and digitalized away. That's the movement in our society now. Is the movie about all that's lost in that grand bargain? This grand bargain? The one I keep making with you? And the fact that we can't go back from where we came?

The writer-director is Ari Folman, who made “Waltz with Bashir” a few years ago. The source material is the novel “The Futurological Congress” by Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006), who wrote “Solaris.”

It's going to be playing at Cannes, apparently, and released in France on July 3. And in the U.S.? Silence so far.

Via Hollywood Elsewhere.

“Now smile.”

Robin Wright in "The Congress": Now smile.

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Posted at 08:24 AM on May 14, 2013 in category Trailers
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What to See at SIFF?

Some people have asked me what looks good at the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival, which opens this week. It's a question everyone in Seattle asks about this time of year. How do you choose between the hundreds of movies offered? It's tough. You research. You look on IMDb. You ask those who know.

That's what I did anyway. The other day, I was lucky enough to run into Seattle Times' movie critic John Hartl outside SIFF Uptown, where he was busy seeing too-many movies in anticipation of the festival. He recommended two docs in particular: “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks,” Alex Gibney's latest; and “Dirty Wars,” Richard Rowley's documentary about Jeremey Scahill's investigation into America's covert wars:

After nominal research, I also bought tickets to the following with fingers crossed:

  • The Deep (Iceland): How an everyman became the sole survivor of an icy shipwreck. Based on a true story.
  • Frances Ha (US): Greta Gerwig in a Noah Bambach film. It's gotten good reviews, so I'll go despite last year's “Lola Versus.”
  • Out of Print (US doc): The shift from print to digitial. Jeff Bezos and company. This shift is called “an exciting journey” so I assume it's all positive. It'll be interesting to see what negative the doc talks about. If any.
  • The Last Sentence (Sweden): Jan Troell's look at an anti-Fascist writer in Sweden in the 1930s
  • A Hijacking (Denmark): Danish freighter, Somali pirates. Will be interesting to compare with “Captain Phillips” in a few months.
  • Muscle Shoals (US doc): A documentary on the small Alabama town that is the focal point of soul, R&B, and rock 'n' roll music.
  • Go Grandriders (Taiwan): Elderly dudes cruise the island where I lived in the late 1980s. A box-office smash in Taiwan.
  • The Trials of Muhammad Ali (US doc): Bill Siegel's doc on the heavyweight champion's refusal to serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.

So five docs, three Scandinavian movies, one each from Taiwan and the U.S. Other suggestions welcome.

If you're buying tickets on the SIFF site and know which movie you want, the search function is in the upper right. Barely visible. They don't make it easy. Plus after buying the tickets you have two options: CHECKOUT or CONTINUE SHOPPING. The latter choice will take you back to the home page, where you have to start all over again. They don't make it easy.

Fingers crossed.

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Posted at 06:57 AM on May 14, 2013 in category Seattle
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Monday May 13, 2013

Quote of the Day

“... the truth is I carry a 'faulty' gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman ...

”Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy. I started with the breasts, as my risk of breast cancer is higher than my risk of ovarian cancer, and the surgery is more complex ...

“But I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action.”

-- Angelina Jolie, “My Medical Choice,” in a New York Times Op-Ed, May 14, 2013.

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Posted at 10:12 PM on May 13, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father, the movie critic for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticising a movie,” he said, “have at.”

That would be a good opening for a scathing review of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” but this isn’t a scathing review. I actually liked the movie. For all the complaints I’ve heard about the director’s over-the-top, “Moulin Rouge” style, as well as the anachronism of hip-hop in the 1920s and the absurdity of jazz trumpeters on sweaty New York fire escapes, Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” is about as faithful a literary adaptation as you’re going to get. It brings to life one of the great American novels.

The love light in Leo’s eyes
For one, we get to hear, and sometimes see on the screen, F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s words. The movie’s conceit is that after all that’s happened Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is in a sanitarium, and he’s telling the doctor his story, and soon the doctor recommends that Nick, a once-budding writer, write it all down, as therapy, which accounts for the literary tone of the subsequent narration. The Great Gatsby (2013) posterOne can’t, after all, describe the valley of ashes, brooded over by the giant eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, oculist, without sounding written. Let alone “boats against the current.”

Casting helps, too. Neither Alan Ladd (1949) nor Robert Redford (1974) seemed like men who would sacrifice everything for love, but Leonardo DiCaprio has always had the love light in his eyes. He’s Jack Dawson and Romeo, baby. He’s also played charlatan (“Catch Me If You Can”) and obsessed rich man (Howard Hughes, “The Aviator”), and combine them all and you get Jay Gatsby. The one moment he falters is when he turns on Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) with an expression on his face “as if he had killed a man.” We’re supposed to see a hidden Gatsby revealed here. But Leo doesn’t have that in him. There’s anger in his eyes, not murder.

I always imagined Nick Carraway taller than Tobey Maguire but the actor does seem like someone inclined to reserve judgment, a genial type who is the victim of not a few veteran bores. Edgerton is good, too, but… Isn’t his face too working-class for Old Money? He needs to be sleeker. Apparently Ben Affleck and Bradley Cooper were considered for the role. I’d have gone Cooper.

But the casting move that leapt out at me when I first saw the trailer was Carey Mulligan. I always think of Daisy as spoiled and frivolous and kind of awful, yet there’s something inherently sweet about Mulligan. In the film, with her vulnerable eyes, she seems as deeply in love with Gatsby as Gatsby is with her. With this casting move, Luhrmann, the romanticist, turns “Gatsby” into a love story, which it is. But he turns it into a mutual love story, which … Well, we can have our arguments, and it’s been about 10 years since I last read the book cover-to-cover, but “The Great Gatsby” always felt like an unrequited love story to me. It felt like the story of a man who was deeply in love with a woman who was unworthy of that love. (See also: “The Sun Also Rises.”) It felt like the story of a man who takes 99 giant steps toward a woman and the woman who won’t take the one small necessary step toward him.

Gatsby’s great mistake
Or is that step more than small? Luhrmann makes clear that all of Gatsby’s great schemes unravel because, just as his love has demanded much of him, he demands much of his love. He demands from Daisy the absolute: the notion that she never loved Tom. And in that hot New York apartment, where Tom and Gatsby vie for Daisy, and Nick and Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) are forced to watch, she can’t give him the purity of the absolute. “I did love him once,” she tells Gatsby, in words straight from the novel, “but I loved you, too!”

“You loved me … too?”

DiCaprio gives this a great line-reading. You sense the awfulness of that last word. The deflation in him. The realization of how uncentral he was to her even as she was too central to him. She was the blinking green light at the end of his dock; the woman for whom he created and gave up everything.

That’s Gatsby’s great mistake—the need for the absolute—as it’s the mistake of many young men in love, as it was my mistake when I was young and in love. That love is a greedy kind of love. If Daisy had acquiesced to it here, it would have demanded more of her and eventually consumed them in some other way.

But does a more sympathetic Daisy create a problem with the story? When Nick tells Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together,” and when he tells us in voiceover, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and returned to their money…” it feels like he’s talking about a different Daisy than the one we’ve been watching for two hours. It feels like he’s blaming her for the one thing—the hit-and-run, which mostly occurs off-screen—when in the novel he’s blaming her for much more than that.

Tom, of course, is beyond sympathy. He’s the most unsympathetic cuckold in literature. He’s a racist and an adulterer and a meanspirited Old Money bastard fearful of losing his exalted place in the world. He cheats on Daisy with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), and, in another careless moment, breaks Myrtle’s nose. He doesn’t know or care what other people do, doesn’t know or care what’s going on in the world. When True Love threatens his marriage, he fights back, not because he necessarily loves Daisy, but simply for the fight. To not lose his exalted place in the world. To not lose to New Money.

Why ‘Great’?
I had questions watching the movie that I never had reading the novel. Jordan tells Nick, “He threw all those parties hoping she’d wander in one night.” So why doesn’t she? Isn’t that odd? That she’d never check out this Gatsby? I mean, is it the West Egg/East Egg thing? Old Money versus New? Robber barons versus bootleggers? Is she waiting for an invitation like Nick receives? Why doesn’t he send her one?

The story is as much about class (both kinds) as it is about love. It’s about the people who have to be careful versus the people who can afford to be careless. Tom carelessly has an affair with Myrtle, and Myrtle carelessly runs out into the middle of the road to flag him down, and Daisy carelessly runs over Myrtle and keeps driving, and all of this carelessness upends Gatsby’s carefully constructed dream. In the end, Gatsby waits for love and gets a bullet in the back. This is Tom’s carefully constructed moment. He implies to Myrtle’s husband, Wilson (Jason Clarke), that the man who ran down Myrtle was the man who had an affair with her, when it was he who had the affair with her and it was Daisy who ran down Myrtle. Gatsby pays for their crimes. He has his own crimes—his work with gangster/bootlegger Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan), as well as the overwhelming burden of his love—but he pays for theirs.  

I don’t buy the sanitarium bit in the movie (Nick seems too level-headed) and I wondered about the lost relationship between Nick and Jordan (although I didn’t miss it), but I liked the ending. Nick finishes his story, this story, and puts it in his briefcase. He looks at the title: GATSBY. Then, in pen, above, he adds a final touch: THE GREAT.

Why ‘Great’? Because Gatsby was worth the whole damn lot of them. Because he thought big, and grandly, about love—a worthy pursuit. The green light blinked on and off but his love was constant.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is great, Baz Luhrmann’s isn’t, but it’s not bad. It’s not bad at all, old sport.

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Posted at 07:21 AM on May 13, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Sunday May 12, 2013

Marvel Team-Up: Iron Man and Great Gatsby Blast Box Office!

“The Great Gatsby” had the third-highest opening weekend for a non-#1 movie with a $51.5 million take*, while “Iron Man 3” had the fourth-highest second weekend of all time with a $72.4 million take** and won the weekend. Everything else was in single digits. “Pain and Gain” finished third with $5 million, followed by the opening of “Peeples,” at $4.8. In its fifth week, “42” nearly equalled that total with $4.6 mil. The Jackie Robinson biopic has now grossed $84 million, making it the second-highest-grossing baseball film of all time (unadjusted), after “A League of Their Own.” (Adjust and it drops to 9th in the batting order.)

The “Gatsby” numbers are impressive for a romance/drama with middling-to-bad reviews. It is director Baz Luhrmann's best opening by far (previous: $14.8m for “Australia”) and nearly equals, already, his highest-grossing film: “Moulin Rouge” at $58 million.

But the “Iron Man 3” numbers are superheroic. In only its second weekend in the U.S. and third weekend internationally, the film is at $949 million worldwide, which is 21st best ever, with only three superhero movies ahead of it: “The Dark Knight” at $1 billion, “The Dark Knight Rises” at $1.08 billion, and “The Avengers” at $1.5 billion. Ahead of that, it's Cameron country.

Here is the top 10 via Box Office Mojo:

  Movie Wknd % Drop Thtrs Total Gross Week #
1 Iron Man 3 $72,472,000 -58.40% 4,253 $284,893,000 2
2 The Great Gatsby (2013) $51,115,000 - 3,535 $51,115,000 1
3 Pain and Gain $5,000,000 -33.40% 3,303 $41,608,000 3
4 Tyler Perry Presents Peeples $4,850,000 - 2,041 $4,850,000 1
5 42 $4,650,000 -23.20% 2,930 $84,732,000 5
6 Oblivion $3,864,000 -31.50% 2,770 $81,655,000 4
7 The Croods $3,600,000 -14.30% 2,650 $173,215,000 8
8 The Big Wedding $2,500,000 -35.60% 2,298 $18,288,000 3
9 Mud $2,343,000 8.40% 854 $8,363,000 3
10 Oz The Great and Powerful $802,000 -62.00% 774 $229,985,000 10

* The films with higher second-place grosses are “The Day After Tomorrow,” $68.7 million in 2004 (“Shrek 2”), and “Sherlock Holmes,” $62.3 million in 2009 (“Avatar”).

** The highest-grossing second weekends: “The Avengers” ($103m), “Avatar” ($75.6 million), and “The Dark Knight” ($75.1 million).

The Great Gatsby toast, with Leonardo DiCaprio

“Nice weekend, old Shellhead, old sport.”

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Posted at 02:28 PM on May 12, 2013 in category Movies - Box Office
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Quote of the Day

“A man's got to keep playing if he's fit. Don't quit until every base is uphill.”

-- Babe Ruth, recovering from cancer surgery, to Hank Greenberg, who was visiting him in his hospital room before reporting to spring training, Feb. 1946. As recounted in John Rosengren's book, “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes,” pg. 305.

Babe Ruth Day, 1947

Babe Ruth on Babe Ruth Day, 1947. It would be his last visit to Yankee Stadium.

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Posted at 01:35 PM on May 12, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Renoir (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Leave it to a great painter like Pierre-Auguste Renoir to make my father look good. Whatever ways my father embarrassed me when I was growing up, he never described my girlfriend’s tits in exquisite, loving detail the way that Pierre-Auguste (Michel Bouquet) does to his son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers), two-thirds of the way into Gilles Bourdos’ slow, painterly film, “Renoir.”

“Titian would have worshipped her,” Pierre-Auguste says. “Flesh! That’s all that matters! In art and in life!” And, weary in his old age, and suffering from decades of rheumatoid arthritis: “I’d give my right arm for her tits.”

Poster of "Renoir" (2012), French filmThe tits in question belong to Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret), model and muse to Auguste in art, and instigator and muse to Jean in his film career. Muse and instigator for writer-director Bourdos as well.

“I made the film for Andree Heuschling,” Bourdos told The Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “She is someone who was the link—the junction between the world of painting and the world of cinema, and between the world of Renoir the father and Renoir the son. I think by using her as a focal point, it enabled me to enter the world of these men.”

That’s a great idea, and the movie is beautiful to look at, and there are moments that resonate. But the movie itself doesn’t resonate.

Renoir’s wife
It opens in 1915 along the Cote d’Azur. It’s peaceful but, as Andrée bikes along a country road, there are signs of less-peaceful events taking place elsewhere. Up in the trees Andrée spots a Hun hung in effigy. As the movie progresses the war gets closer. We see injured soldiers by the side of the road. The Renoir estate will be turned into a boarding house for officers. And one soldier will return home.

Andrée, on this day, is simply biking to the Renoir estate to ask after a job as model to the famous painter. She claims Renoir’s wife sent her but a disgruntled angry boy, in a sleeveless shirt and carrying a stick as a weapon, informs her Renoir’s wife is dead. He calls her a liar and runs away. This is Coco (Thomas Doret, “The Kid with a  Bike”), Renoir’s third and last son, who will remain angry and disgruntled throughout the movie; but the source of his anger is never fully explained, nor, for that matter, much noticed by others. Is it too much, being the son of Renoir? (At one points, he tosses dark blue pigment over André’s naked body while she dozes on a chaise lounge.) Is it too much, as an adolescent boy, hanging around all of these beautiful naked women? (“Show me your tits,” he says, at another point, to Andrée. Is he still angry over the death of his mother, or the dismissal of his father’s previous muse/model, Gabrielle (Romane Bohringer)? Coco is intriguing but a secondary character.

Despite the lies about Renoir’s wife, if they are lies, Andrée gets the job but seems remarkably unimpressed by her surroundings. She’s upset Renoir is painting apples rather than her. She wants more money. Renoir is amused, enchanted. That night, sleeping, dreaming, he thanks his dead wife for sending him Andrée. “Her skin drinks in the light,” he says.

Andrée first approached the Renoir estate filmed from behind, as does Jean, on crutches, returning from the war. His return is cause for celebration, for both father and help, and for us, too, to further along the story, but the story doesn’t get much further. Renoir continues to paint, his son continues to help, Jean and Andrée eventually fall in love, or into mutually convenient lust, during which Andrée pushes the young man, who had considered a career painting ceramics, toward film, the medium with which he will become an artist himself (“La grand illusion,” “La règle du jeu,” “La bete humaine”).

But we only get suggestions of this later life. Here? Jean heals, and, against the wishes of both his father and Andrée, returns to war, this time in the Air Force. His father, wheelchair bound, stands to hug him goodbye. The movie, like Pierre-Auguste, doesn’t make it into the 1920s. The rest is afterword.

The complications
Moments stand out.

There’s a great shot of the artist dipping his brush in water while the paint swirls slowly down in an orange cloud. I also liked a picnic along the river, during which we see what Renoir is painting, in close-up, and then the camera pans left to what he is painting. It’s all blurry and shadows. The portrait of the artist as an old man with feeble eyesight. “All my life,” he tells Jean, “I got caught up in the complications. Today, I simplify matters.” When Jean suggests rest rather than more painting, his father objects. “I have progress to make!” When his doctor asks what he’ll do when he can no longer hold the paintbrush he responds, “I’ll paint with my dick.”

The old man is driven, as is the young woman, who talks of seizing every chance life offers. But is she too modern? Her body type is right for the period, and for Renoir (veering, as much as modern movies allow, toward the zaftig), but her sauciness, and her look, feel closer to this era. Bourdos may have made the movie for her but he also made her a pain. When Jean, in the beginning of their relationship, finds her flirting with another soldier, he sends her to the kitchen to remind her of her status, and there she struggles uselessly. She demands food, berates the staff, throws Renoir-etched dishes on the floor. When in the middle of their relationship, Jean informs her he’s re-enlisted, she abandons the estate and returns to prostitution. It’s up to Jean to retrieve her.

Would we have been better served seeing how the young Renoir entered the film industry with Andrée, his actress-wife, whom he wanted to make a star and didn’t? Why did he only become a true artist after his separation from her in 1931? Maybe she was his last connection to his father, and he needed to kill his father completely before becoming truly, artistically, himself?

Is that Andrée’s tragedy: serving only as muse to great men? Or is that enough? Most of us have done much, much less.

There’s a great story in here somewhere but it’s not here.

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Posted at 07:54 AM on May 12, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Saturday May 11, 2013

The Superhero Trilogy: Powers Revealed, Lost, Turned Evil

An observation about superhero sequels.

The first superhero movie of the modern era, the one that caused Hollywood to realize the money to be made from men in tights, was “Superman” in 1978. What happens to Supes in that Donner/Lester trilogy?

  • I: Superman's powers are revealed
  • II: Superman's powers are lost (so he can be with Lois)
  • III: Superman turns evil (via synthetic kryptonite)

It doesn't seem like much of a formula—the box office for each sequel kept dropping—but we haven't gotten far away from it. The Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” movies follow it exactly:

  • I: Spider-Man's powers are revealed
  • II: Spider-Man's powers are lost (psychologically)
  • III: Spider-Man turns evil (via intergalatic space goo)

There are subtler variations, certainly. At the end of “The Dark Knight,” Batman agrees to be perceived as evil, which, I've argued, is a smart move that prevents the series from descending into camp; and for the first half of “The Dark Knight Rises,” he's lost his powers through old age, injuries, and cynicism. He has to build his way back. Twice.

In “X2” the government has a secret program to turn mutants evil (Nightcrawler, etc.). In “X-Men 3: The Last Stand” it has a secret program to take away their powers (via Leech).

In “Iron Man 2,” Tony Stark doesn't turn evil, exactly, he just acts like an ass since he thinks he's dying; in “Iron Man 3,” the movie strands him in Tennessee, powerless, without a working suit.

Even fucking Ghost Rider lost his powers in “Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vegeance.”

Of course, what matters is less the formula than the variations within the formula. Losing powers worked in “Spider-Man 2” and “Iron Man 3” (the Tennessee portion was the best part of that movie) but not “Superman II” or “X-Men 3.” And while turning evil is a tired plot device, the ways Bryan Singer handled it in “X2” and Christopher Nolan in “The Dark Knight” were inspired.

Even so, can't we get a new story now and again?

Apparently not. This summer, “The Wolverine,” sequel to “Wolverine,” opens in July. The big line from the trailer? “I'm not healing.” Apparently Logan loses his powers. Never saw it coming.

The Superman superhero trilogy: powers revealed, lost, and turned evil

The classic superhero trilogy: powers revealed, lost, and turned to evil.

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Posted at 07:19 AM on May 11, 2013 in category Superheroes
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Friday May 10, 2013

Jeff Wells Goes 'Lincoln' on Bendedict Cumberbatch

Here's Jeff Wells on the Hollywood Elsewhere site today:

The only serious standout element in JJ Abrams‘ Star Trek Into Darkness, the only thing that makes you sit up and go “whoa, wait…this is good,” is the lead villain performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. The poor guy has a somewhat oddly shaped face and weird demon-cat eyes so he’ll never play the good guy, but he’s a serious world-class actor with a kind of young Richard Burton quality and an energy field that just grabs hold and lifts all boats.

Right. And apparently Clint Eastwood's adam's apple was too big and three guitar/one drum groups were on the way out. 

Did Wells not see him in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”? Cumberbatch was one of the few good guys in that film. Or the BBC's “Sherlock Holmes,” where he plays, you know, Sherlock Holmes? I.e., the greatest fictional detective ever? That's right, Batman. Take a back-bat-seat.

Plus, whether Wells wants to believe it or not, the chicks dig him.

Benedict Cumberbatch is Sherlock Holmes

The beauty of the Intenet. Even on a day when you have nothing to say, someone gives you something to say.

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Posted at 04:46 PM on May 10, 2013 in category TV
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Thursday May 09, 2013

Trailer of the Day: Captain Phillips (2013)

Thoughts on this:

  • Hanks looks pretty good. This seems like a good role for him: a grounded, true-life, life-or-death movie. The human-sized hero.
  • Paul Greengrass as director? I hope the movie is more “United 93” than, say, “Green Zone.”
  • I really need to see “Bloody Sunday,” Greengrass' first big movie, which was about the massacre of Irish protestors on Jan. 30, 1972; same as the U2 song.
  • Why oh why did Capt. Phillips have to be from Boston?

Opens October 11.

Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips

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Posted at 08:49 AM on May 09, 2013 in category Trailers
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Juxtaposing Screenshots: Freddie Quell and Superman

I like the juxtaposition of these shots of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Superman (Henry Cavill) turning their faces toward the sun in, respectively, Paul Thomas Anderson's “The Master” (2012) and Zack Snyder's upcoming “Man of Steel” (2013):

Joaquin Phoenix, turning his face toward the sun, in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master"

Superman (Henry Cavill) turning his face toward the sun

Almost the same image. Then you run through the differences:

  • Freddie is on a South Seas island at the end of World War II; Superman is in the Arctic, presumably at the beginning of his journey.
  • Superman gathers his strength from the sun; Freddie ... well, I'm not sure what his strength is.
  • Superman is wish-fulfillment fantasy, Freddie a sad PTSD reality.
  • The angle of Freddie's shot is skewed, as is he; the Superman shot is more conventional, and takes advantage of Cavill's handsome face.
  • “The Master” grossed $16 million domestic and $28 million worldwide; “Man of Steel” will gross that before we wake up on June 14.

There's this, too. Though he needs to belong, though he needs comfort, Freddie ultimately rejects the wish-fulfillment fantasies of Lancaster Dodd, while we surely will not reject the wish-fulfillment fantasies of “Man of Steel.” In this way, Freddie Quell, bent, childish, the anti-sexy-symbol of post-WWII America, is, in e.e. cummings' words, more brave than me, more blonde than you.

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Posted at 07:17 AM on May 09, 2013 in category Photo of the Day
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Wednesday May 08, 2013

Reagan, Before the Lightning Struck

“[A]s Ronald Reagan made his plea for unity, he spoke with a mildness, a lack of charisma, even a simplicity, which was reminiscent of a good middle-aged stock actor's simplicity—well, you know, fellows, the man I'm playing is an intellectual, and of course I have the kind of mind which eve gets confused by a finesse in bridge.

”They cheered him wildly, and he looked happy, as if something had gone his way ...

“Still, unlike Nixon, Reagan was altogether at ease with the Press. They had been good to him, they would be good again—he had the confidence of the elected governor of a big state, precisely what Nixon had always lacked; besides, Reagan had long ago incorporated the confidence of an actor who knows he is popular with interviewers. In fact, he had a public manner which was so natural that his discrepancies appeared only slightly surrealistic: at the age of fifty-seven, he had the presence of a man of thirty, the deferential enthusiasm, the bright but dependably unoriginal mind, of a sales manager promoted for his ability over men older than himself. ... Besides, darkening shades of the surreal, he had a second personality which was younger than the first, very young, boyish, maybe thirteen or fourteen, freckles, cowlick, I-tripped-on-my-sneaker-lace aw shucks variety of confusion. For back on Tuesday afternoon they had been firing questions at him on the order of how well he was doing at prying delegates loose from Nixon, and he could only say over and over, 'I don't know. I just don't know. I've been moving around so quickly talking to so many delegations in caucus that I haven't had time to read a paper.'

”'Well, what do the delegations say, Governor?'

“'Well, I don't know. They listen to me very pleasantly and politely, and then I leave and they discuss what I've said. But I can't tell you if we're gaining. I think we are, but I don't know, I don't know. I honestly don't know gentlemen,' and he broken into a grin, 'I just don't know,' exactly like a thirteen year old, as if indeed gentlemen he really didn't know, and the Press and the delegates listening laughed with him as if there were no harm in Ronald Reagan, unless the lightning struck.”

--Norman Mailer, “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” pp. 70-72.

Ronald Reagain 1966 1968 1970

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Posted at 11:55 AM on May 08, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Song of the Day: 'Tired of Being Alone' by Al Green

Patricia's brother Jack posted this on Facebook the other day. Two words: Holy shit.

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Posted at 07:37 AM on May 08, 2013 in category Music
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Tuesday May 07, 2013

Quote of the Day

From Amy Davidson's post, “What Charles Ramsey and Amanda Berry Knew,” on the New Yorker site, about the rescue of three women from a home in Cleveland. I have no words; these are good ones:

“So, you know, I figured it was a domestic-violence dispute,” Charles Ramsey told a reporter for the ABC affiliate in Cleveland, explaining what happened after, as he put it, he “heard screaming. I’m eating McDonald’s. I see this girl going nuts trying to get out of the house.” Ramsey, and others who gathered, helped her break open the door, kicking it from the bottom. She told them her name, Amanda Berry. She had been kidnapped at the age of seventeen, ten years ago. There were two other women in the house, Gina Dejesus, who is now twenty-three, and Michelle Knight, now thirty, who had also been held for a decade. There was at least one small child.

Ramsey’s 911 call is transfixing. “Yeah hey bro,” it begins, “you check this out.” His intensity, the McDonald’s shout-out, his undoubtedly loose paraphrase of Berry’s account (“This motherfucker done kidnapped me and my daughter”), and also his competence (he does a better job with the essentials like the address than the 911 operator) make him one of those instantly compelling figures who, in the middle of an American tragedy, just start talking—and then we can’t stop listening. (See Ruslan Tsarni, Ashley Smith.) But one phrase in particular, from the interview, is worth dwelling on: “I figured it was a domestic-violence dispute.” In many times and places, a line like that has been offered as an excuse for walking away, not for helping a woman break down your neighbor’s door. How many women have died as a result? They didn’t yesterday.

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Posted at 02:19 PM on May 07, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Ranking Baseball Movies with John Rosengren

John Rosengren may not have seen a lot of baseball movies but he's written enough baseball books. He's the author of “Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid: The Year that Changed Baseball Forever” (Sourcebooks, 2008), which is about 1973, my 10-year-old, Baseball-Digest-reading, Harmon Killebrew-loving sweetspot; and “Hank Greenberg:  The Hero of Heroes” (New American Library, 2013), which is incredibly well-researched and sorts out myth from fact about the first Hammerin' Hank. John is white-haired, mild in temperament, and lives by Lake Harriet in south Minneapolis. He's a member of the American Society of Journalists, Society for American Baseball Research, and Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. But he really needs to see “Catching Hell.” And apparently I really need to see “The Perfect Game.”

John's Baseball Movie Rankings

1. Moneyball (2011)
2. The Perfect Game (2009)
3. Ken Burns’ Baseball (1994)
4. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
5. Field of Dreams (1989)
6. Bull Durham (1988)
7. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998)
8. The Sandlot (1993)
9. Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story (2010)
10. Cobb (1994)
11. 42 (2013)
12. Bad News Bears (2005)
13. A League of Their Own (1992)
14. Angels in the Outfield (1994)
15. The Scout (1994)

John's Comment

Sorry. Haven't seen that many baseball movies, I guess.

Your turn

Rank the Baseball Movies.

Moneyball

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Posted at 07:11 AM on May 07, 2013 in category Baseball
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Monday May 06, 2013

Fargo: The Word Cloud

The Film Stage posted the following “Fargo in a Word Cloud” on Twitter the other day:

Fargo in a word cloud

Glad I made the cut. (Center, about sixth row from top.)

And don't forget where the Jerry Lundegaard name came from.

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Posted at 02:31 PM on May 06, 2013 in category Movies
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Movie Review: Superman II (1981)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I saw “Superman: The Movie” six times in the theater in the late 1970s. I saw “Superman II” once during the summer of 1981. It’s not just that the original came out when I was 15 and still reading comic books, and the sequel came out when I was 18 and heading toward college and something resembling adulthood. “Superman II” just isn’t very good.

The director of the first film, Richard Donner, clashed with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind over budget and scheduling, and, even though 80 percent of principal photography on “II” was done with “I,” he was replaced by Richard Lester (“A Hard Day’s Night”), who didn’t know from Poster for Superman IISuperman. He didn’t know from comic books. And he didn’t like the epic way Donner filmed the first movie—what he called “the David Lean thing,” which included the sweeping camera shots of cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (“2001: A Space Odyssey”). Lester insisted upon flat, static camera shots to evoke comic book panels. He got it. He wanted a less serious movie. He got that, too.

The Clementis of “Superman II”
The second movie begins with an eight-and-a-half-minute recap of the first movie. We see the three Kryptonian criminals, Zod, Ursa and Non (Terrence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran), steal into one of those non-rooms on Krypton, grab a red crystal and break it in two. Then the room goes black, they’re imprisoned by those hula hoop thingees and charged with treason. They’re all pronounced “guilty guilty guilty” and sent off to the Forbidden Zone, while Lara (Susannah York) takes the baby Kal-El and off he goes and… Jesus, they’re going to recap the whole thing? Smallville and Metropolis and helicopter rescue and San Andreas fault? Yes. Yes, they are. The whole thing has an “On the last episode of ‘Superman’…” vibe. It feels cheap.

It feels particularly cheap because Jor-El (Marlon Brando) has been excised. Brando was in litigation with the Salkinds, who were often in litigation over non-payment, and he’d been promised a percentage of the profits if he appeared in “Superman II.’ That’s why he didn’t. He’s gone, scrubbed, like Clementis disappearing in the beginning of Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” The signing of Marlon Brando for the first film announced its seriousness. His removal from the second film announced the opposite.

The movie proper begins when Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) strolls into the Daily Planet in the middle of the day while his colleagues are working. It’s supposed to be funny when everyone ignores him—as it was funny in “Superman: The Movie” when everyone ignored his “Good night” wishes—but it’s not. They’re doing their jobs and he’s not. Doesn’t he care? Is Kal-El that contemptuous of human affairs? Only after some back and forth with Perry White (Jackie Cooper) does he even realize that three terrorists (including a young Richard Griffiths) are holding the Eiffel Tower and Paris hostage with a hydrogen bomb, and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is already on the scene. So where was Clark/Superman this entire time? Doing good deeds in outer space? At the Fortress of Solitude? We never find out.

The whole “not doing your job” thing suffuses the entire movie, by the way. You could almost call it a theme.  

Supes finally shows up and saves Lois, who is trapped in a falling Eiffel Tower elevator with an H-bomb attached. “I believe this is your floor,” he says with a kind of James Bondian twinkle. Ha! Yeah, no. Then he sends the elevator, and the H-bomb, into outer space. This is the second nuclear device Supes has detonated in space in so many movies. Yet when Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) invades the Fortress of Solitude and accesses its Kryptonian learning program, the second lesson he learns is all about Zod, Ursa and Non, the Phantom Zone, and this warning from Lara, finally getting screentime:

The Phantom Zone might, might be cracked open by a nuclear explosion in space.

Two possibilities: Superman either forgot this lesson or he never learned it. Either way, he’s not doing his job.

Lara in Superman II

Lara, wife of Clementis.

This is not a job for Superman
That theme continues. As Zod, Ursa and Non terrorize and kill, first, astronauts on the moon, then a small Idaho town with a redneck Southern sheriff and a boy with an unmistakable British accent, Clark romances, sadly, pathetically, Lois, as the two investigate a Niagara Falls honeymoon scam. “Lois, look,” he says, full of need. “Everyone’s holding hands. Maybe we should hold hands, too.” One wonders what game he’s playing here. Why be pathetic as Clark? To better conceal his identity? Lois obviously loves him as Superman, when he’s at his strongest, so maybe he wants her to to love him at his weakest? Does he truly feel like a schlep? Or is Clark, as Quentin Tarantino has suggested, Kal-El’s rather cruel imitation of humanity? It’s how he sees us. What fools these mortals be.

Mortals certainly be in this movie. We get parents too busy to watch their kid hanging over the railing at Niagara Falls, and a kid too stupid to realize the danger he’s in. We get Lois jumping into the rapids to prove Clark is Superman. There’s the insinuating bellhop, and the redneck sheriff and his Barney Fife deputy, and the trigger-happy gendarmes willing to blow up Paris, and the lackadaisical NASA men at mission control in Houston (including Cliff from “Cheers”), and all of the fools, the many, many fools, treating the final battle between Superman and Zod on the streets of Metropolis as if it were a WWF cage match rather than a battle to determine if three Kryptonians rule the world or we do; whether we’re free or forever enslaved.

The movie also blows the great superhero reveal. From the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro to Superman, there’s been a girl. The girl loves the hero but dislikes, or is disappointed in, or doesn’t even acknowledge, the hero in his secret form. It’s the classic love triangle of superherodom and a solace for unrequited lovers everywhere. She rejects me (Clark) because she doesn’t see the real me (Superman). She fails to see what’s super in me. And here, finally, the disconnect is connected. The two men become one.

And it’s as boring as shit.

Lois, always feisty, becomes wide-eyed and starstruck. Superman, always polite and distant, becomes supersenstitive:

Superman: We have to talk.
Lois: I’m in love with you.
Superman: Then we really better talk …
Lois: Where do you want to … talk?
Superman: Let’s go to my place.

At the Fortress of Solitude, Lois belts out, “Wow! This is your home?!” after which Superman flies around the world to get flowers and groceries. Meanwhile, people are dying in Idaho. “Where’s Superman?” people plead. “Where is he? Why doesn’t he do something?” Sorry, but he’s pouring champagne for Lois. When she says, “I’m going to change into something more comfortable,” he uses the opportunity to speak with hologram Lara about what he needs to do to consummate the relationship. She delivers a stern warning:

You must become one of them. All your great powers on Earth will disappear forever. But consider: Once it is done there is no return.

There is no return. Until there is.

They sleep together in a silver satin hammock-bed that seems stolen from Andy Gibb’s 1970s pad. Meanwhile the President of the United States (E.G. Marshall in toupee) is kneeling before Zod.

Question: How can we not hate Superman at this moment? The movie is actually set up so we hate Superman. Because he isn’t doing his job. Then Clark loses a diner fight with an asshole named Rocky. Then he discovers that the Earth is at the mercy of Zod. Then he walks back alone to the Fortress, through the Arctic cold, without hat or gloves or anything, and begs hologram Lara for his powers back. “FATHERRRRRRRR!” he cries.

Sorry, Kal-El. Father is in litigation at the moment.

Superman and Lois and a bottle of champagne in the Fortress of Solitude

Superman and Lois in Andy Gibb's bed

After booze, Supes loses his powers and beds Lois at Andy Gibb's place.

Cheap cheap cheap, talk a lot, pick a little more
So how does he get his powers back? His picks up a green crystal and all of a sudden he’s streaking toward Metropolis and saying, “Care to step outside, General?” This thing is a joke. It gives Kryptonians the power to point at things and levitate them. It gives Superman the power to kiss away Lois’s memory. It gives the Salkinds the power to kiss away Jor-El. It’s a hot, holy mess, Batman.

They didn’t just excise Brando. They actually filmed without Hackman, Beatty or Perrine. For the Luthor scenes, they just used footage Donner shot. You know the difficulty of maintaining continuity over several days? Try three years. Watching, you can play a game: This was shot in ’77, this in ’80. Here Lois has split ends, here she doesn’t. Here she’s younger, here Margot Kidder’s drug addiction is beginning to show.

They use the cheapest cinematic glue—the distant shot overdub— to bind the story together. When Lex and Miss Tessmacher return from the Fortress of Solitude, someone, sounding like Hackman but not Hackman, says of Zod and company, “Wait, that explains the three alpha waves I’ve been getting on my black box! They’ll need a contact on earth! … South, Miss Tessmacher!” And off they go. We never see her again. Shame. Greater shame? We don’t even need this overdub. We get it when Luthor just shows up at the White House. It’s not difficult.

So much is cheap here. The flying looks worse, the lunar capsule looks like tinfoil, the supervillains shove humans around like they’re on an old episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man.” Sure, special effects are expensive. But how much does an American kid cost? Did no one tell the British filmmakers how British the Idaho kid sounded? Like he’s Oliver Twist asking for porridge: “Please, general. Please put me Daddy down.” And do we need a full minute of Zod using his superbreath to blow Metropolitans around? Like it’s a vaudeville routine? For the scene, according to IMDb.com, “Director Richard Lester improvised most of the jokes.” Jokes?

The pivotal moment of the movie doesn’t even make sense. When Superman first loses his powers in the crystal chamber, he grimaces in pain and emerges with blow-dried hair and jeans. When Superman reverses the crystal chamber so the supervillains lose their powers, they don’t even know it’s happening. How to account for this discrepancy? And why would Superman, emerging, kneel before Zod even momentarily before crushing his hand and killing him? Even at 18, I thought it was bullshit.

Lois Lane, shot by Richard Donner

This was shot by Richard Donner in 1977...

Lois Lane, shot by Richard Lester, in Superman II

... and this split-ends version by Richard Lester in 1980. Same scene, three years apart, different conditioner.

Flattening Superman
When the Salkinds began this project back in 1974 we were smack in the middle of the Easy Riders/Raging Bulls decade of great American filmmaking. By the time “Superman II” was released in June 1981, the era of the blockbuster and its neverending sequels had begun. The Salkinds helped in this regard. “Superman” was No. 2 at the box office in 1978 (after “Grease”) and “Superman II” was No. 3 at the box office in 1981 (after “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “On Golden Pond”). Adjust for inflation, and the first grossed $461 million in the U.S., the second $313 million. Yet somehow they couldn’t find a way to settle with Brando.

So much happened between ’78 and ’81. We went from the middle of Jimmy Carter’s presidency to the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s. Gas prices shot up. Hostages were taken. Chest thumping began. The movies got dumber.

What a shame. “Superman: The Movie,” directed by Richard Donner, was heroic, epic and funny. “Superman II,” directed by Richard Lester, was none of these things. Lester did what Zod, Ursa and Non couldn’t do. He flattened Superman.

Superman and the American flag in "Superman II"

Truth, justice, etc.: The beginning of the chest-thumping stupidity.

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Posted at 07:32 AM on May 06, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s
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Sunday May 05, 2013

First Hike of the Season: Lake 22

Beautiful weather today in Seattle—81 degrees right now, which is insane for this time of year—so Patricia and I took advantage by hiking up to Lake 22 off the Mountain Loop Highway. Well, not all the way to Lake 22. After 90 minutes or so, we ran into one patch of snow, then a second, then a lot. We stopped at a lot—I'm guessing about a half mile from the lake. Maybe those who hiked all the way know.

Nice hike, though. The mountain streams and waterfalls are flush with clear spring runoff. You'd get near one of those waterfalls and the temperature would drop 10 degrees.

Lake 22 hike on the Mountain Loop Hwy

Patricia on the long bridge.

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Posted at 05:52 PM on May 05, 2013 in category Hiking
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'Iron Man 3' Opens at No. 2 ... All Time

I've often argued that what matters in terms of opening-weekend box office, at least for a sequel, is less the sequel (whether it's good; its buzz; its Rotten Tomatoes score) than the previous film in the cycle. Positive feelings will lead to bigger box office, negative or “meh” feelings lesser box office.

If so, “Iron Man 3,” shouldn't have opened well since “Iron Man 2” is hardly beloved. Even though I liked it.

But I knew “Iron Man 3” would open well and it did: It grossed an estimated $175 million in the U.S., the second-highest opening weekend ever after “The Avengers” $207 million gross last May 4.

And I knew it would because, for most folks, the previous film in the cycle wasn't “Iron Man 2” but “The Avengers,” which also starred Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man. And that movie is beloved. And that got them pumped for this one.

Or it could simply be that it's the first weekend in May and people want to ride that roller coaster again. It could be that we're all well-trained and Pavlovian. First weekend in May? Superhero? Pant pant.

The U.S.'s salivary glands are hardly unique, by the way. Worldwide, “Iron Man 3” has already grossed $680 million, which is already the biggest international hit of the year. (Any guesses at No. 2? Answer in the comments field.) It's also the highest international gross of any “Iron Man” movie. That's right. “Iron Man” grossed $585m in 2008, and “2” grossed $624m in 2010. The majority of that money, for both movies, came from the U.S., but now the rest of the world is going to “Iron Man,” too. Now the rest of the world is as well-trained as we are.

In other non-news, “Pain and Gain” was No. 2 at the box office with $7.6 mil, and “42” was No. 3 with $6.2 mil. “Oblivion,” at No. 4, fell off 67% and appears to be living up to its name. It'll be outgrossed (at least in the U.S.) by “42,” a baseball movie, which I doubt many foresaw.

No other movie besides “Iron Man 3” opened wide this weekend. Studios aren't stupid.

The numbers.

Iron Man on the couch

America got off the couch this weekend.

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Posted at 03:32 PM on May 05, 2013 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday May 04, 2013

Movie Review: Iron Man 3 (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Well, it’s not as bad as “Spider-Man 3” or “X-Men 3,” but I wasn’t exactly happy leaving the theater.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) begins “Iron Man 3” in a confessional mood, recounting, before we even see anything on the screen, the evening of December 31, 1999, Y2K Day, when, in a grand hotel in Bern, Switzerland, he inadvertently makes enemies. “A famous man once said we create our own demons,” he tells us in the dark, and then we witness the demons in utero: Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a long-haired, bespectacled bundle of hero worship and nerves and spittle, whom Tony promises to meet on the rooftop of the hotel and then blows off; and Maya Hanson (Rebecca Hall), a cute, full-lipped botanist, the reason for the blow-off, who becomes one of Tony’s many, many one-night stands. Both harbor grudges as a result. Both become what they become. Question: Since Tony’s actions here are hardly reprehensible—he sleeps with a good-looking girl and uses subterfuge to avoid a crazy fan—how many other demons has he created over the years? Will we find out in “IV,” “V,” and “VI”? Please no.

Iron Man 3 posterTony ends “Iron Man 3” in a confessional mood, too. Post-credits, we discover he’s been telling this entire story, in Alexander Portnoy fashion, patient to psychiatrist, to his old “Avengers” pal, Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has a few confessions of his own. He tells Tony he’s not exactly a psychiatrist. He also admits he fell asleep two minutes into the story. Wucka wucka.

It’s supposed to be the final joke of the movie but is the final joke on us? We just shelled out $10 to $15 to watch something its creators admit puts people to sleep. How confident in your product do you have to be to do that? How obtuse? How cynical?

There’s a moviegoer born every minute.

An empty suit
In the modern world, it’s post-“Avengers,” and Tony Stark is having anxiety issues. He’s like Hamlet: He could count himself a king of infinite space were it not that he had bad dreams. Like Hamlet, he shuts himself off from the world. Unlike Hamlet, he tinkers with armor in his basement. He’s upping his tech in gee-whiz, CGI ways that probably dazzle the kids in the audience but do nothing for me. Instead of stepping into and out of his Iron Man suit—a bit I always liked—he’s now able to call the various parts of the suit to his body. This new technology is not without its bugs. Cue groin shot. Cue Mr. B saying, “But ‘Football in the Groin’ has a football in the groin.”

Tony’s also working on a virtual suit. Iron Man is walking around, or flying around, but Tony’s elsewhere doing the controlling. Iron Man is simply an empty suit. Hold that thought.

Tony’s other problem is Pepper Potts, and not just because she’s played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Pepper is now running Stark Industries but Tony isn’t paying enough attention to her. That trope. Plus, of course, there’s another suitor, Aldrich Killian, all spiffed up now, with doo-dads of his own. Balls even. He rolls them on a coffee table and suddenly the universe is lit up on the ceiling of Pepper’s office. He presses a button and now it’s a map of his brain. He guides Pepper, who’s starstruck, or brainstruck, the way lothario tennis pros guide the backhands of bored housewives. How confident does he have to be in his product to do that? How obtuse does she have to be not to realize what’s going on?

Elsewhere, a villain named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) keeps breaking into network television to broadcast his dire warnings to America. His nom de guerre is Asian, his appearance bin-Ladenesque, and thus Saudi Arabian, but his accent is the purest, slowest American. Or Amurican. “Yulllllllll never see me coming,” he annunciates. One wonders what Kingsley is up to here. One figures it out before the reveal.

Elsewhere, bombs are going off and people die. We see it happening in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, which is just called “Chinese theater” here because it’s no longer Grauman’s. We see, too, it’s not a bomb, it’s a dude who heats up and explodes. Another dude, Savin (James Badge Dale of “The Pacific”), is able to regenerate himself through heat. He’s like a molten version of T-2. Plus he slouches on the furniture and chews gum. Cad.

Because Happy Hogan (former “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau) gets hurt in the explosion, Tony issues a warning to the Mandarin, and then broadcasts his home address to the world. Then he prepares for an attack. No, he doesn’t. Why would he do that? In fact, when Pepper wants to leave, for, you know, safety reasons, he argues with her. In front of company: Maya Hanson, returned. Which is when the attack comes and Tony’s Malibu home is destroyed in glorious, slow-mo CGI. God, but we love destruction. The secret guilt at the heart of 9/11.

Everyone in the world assumes Tony, and Iron Man, are now dead, which is why we get that shot, the most unnecessary shot in movies this year, of Pepper walking to the edge of what was once their home, looking over the edge and into the Pacific, and shouting, “TONY!” Men scream up, women down. Mars/Venus. Me, I just screamed internally.

Worst presidential ticket ever
Of course Tony’s alive. He’d ridden out in a battered Iron Man suit to Rose Hill, Tennessee, site of another 3,000-degree-celcius explosion, which he’d planned to investigate. Now he does, sans armor, and wearing baseball caps and down vests to fit in with the locals.

In many ways this is the best part of the movie. In an isolated farmhouse he acquires a partner, a kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins), who starts out properly impressed and then quickly becomes bratty. But his back-and-forth with Stark, with Downey, really, is a reminder of how witty “Iron Man” used to be, and how witless the first half of the movie was. Harley, for example, tries to manipulate Tony into staying by evoking how his own father left him. Stark stares for a second, then says, “Dads leave. Don’t be a pussy about it.”

There’s also a good scene at the site of the Rose Hill explosion, now a memorial, with five human shadows flash-burned into the neighboring walls. Tony, the man of science, says that six people died in the explosion so where’s the sixth shadow? Harley gives him the town explanation, which is a religious explanation. The five victims went to heaven. The sixth, the bomber, went to hell. That’s why he casts no shadow. But Tony doesn’t buy it. By ignoring religion and sticking to science, he finds the answer. Lesson, kids.

We get more reveals. Both Savin and Maya are working for Aldrich, who is working for the Mandarin, whom he calls “The Master.” Once we see Aldrich setting up for another broadcast by the Mandarin, though, the obvious flashed through my mind: The Mandarin’s a front, a fake, and Aldrich holds the real power. As he does. This leads to another good bit, as both Stark and his pal, the vaguely useless Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), question the Mandarin, who’s just a drunk, two-bit British actor. Kingsley is choice in these moments.

What’s Aldrich’s motivation? Yes, he wants to get back at Tony Stark for the horrible, horrible insult of not taking that rooftop meeting, but why does he hate America so? Why does he attack Air Force One with Rhodes’ Iron Patriot outfit, kidnap the president (William Sadler), and string him up, in the Iron Patriot outfit, between two oil rigs for a public execution? To make everyone afraid? And since we’re now in the Marvel movie universe of continuity, where is, I don’t know, Captain America during all of this? The Hulk? Thor? Spider-Man? At the same time, I couldn’t help but think a country that elects William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer as president and vice-president gets what it deserves. That’s got to be the worst winning ticket ever. Did the electorate never see “Die Hard 2”? “Robocop”? Ferrer as the VEEP is also a traitor. That’s another reveal. As if we need another.

The finale throws everything and the kitchen sink at us, and the kitchen sink is the only armor Stark doesn’t wear. He’s a clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk. Pepper, in sports bra, becomes one of the fire people, which saves her when Tony can’t. Bummer: I was hoping she was done. Then she saves Tony. Then Tony, in a epilogue, saves her, and himself, by curing her and finally removing the shrapnel near his heart. Happy Hogan wakes up. Bruce Banner falls asleep. I shook my head.

The hero we deserve
“Iron Man 3” has its moments—the rescue of the 13 people blasted out of Air Force One is the best action sequence I’ve seen in a long time—and the screenplay by Drew Pearce and director Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) raises a few interesting issues. Tony Stark’s first line about creating our own demons isn’t just about Aldrich and Maya; it’s about The Mandarin, too, created by Aldrich, and by extension Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini and Manuel Noriega. Each of these men is demonic, certainly, but we make bigger demons of them. We make them threats to us. The U.S. needs its villain du jour as surely as any Hollywood action movie. Then we need our heroes to deal with them.

The hero of the first “Iron Man” is the hero we needed in 2008: a man motivated by both guilt and revenge. The hero of “Iron Man 3” is the hero we deserve today: remote-controlled and disposable; an empty suit.

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Posted at 11:26 AM on May 04, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Friday May 03, 2013

Sifting Through the SIFF Schedule

I was glancing through the schedule for 2013 SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival), trying to figure out how they'd organized everything. The booklet lists a few traditional categories (LOVE ... MAKE ME LAUGH...) and some odd ones (OPEN MY EYES ... PROVOKE ME!). Mostly I was trying to find the country by country. In particular I was interested in films from France—although “Les tribulations d'une caissière” kinda screwed me over last year—and finally found, in the back, on pg. 49, a topic index. No pics, no synopses, just movies by topics. I read down:

  • DOCUMENTARY
  • ENVIRONMENTAL
  • EXPERIMENTAL/AVANT-GARDE
  • FAMILY FRIENDLY
  • FOOD
  • GAY/LESBIAN
  • GERMAN LANGUAGE

Uh ... wait. Where was the French? I backtracked, looked again. Then again. I studied the other topics: ARABIC LANGUAGE ... ASIAN .... JAPANESE LANGUAGE ...RUSSIAN LANGUAGE... But no FRENCH LANGUAGE? Were they banning French movies or something? Did others complain about “Les tribulations d'une caissière,” too?

A few pages on, I found Country Index, where, yes, about 15 French movies were listed. Whew. Even so. Quel est le probleme, SIFF?

And what's with the logo below?

And has anyone heard what's worth seeing?

Starts May 16.

SIFF Seattle International Film Festival 2013

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Posted at 04:05 PM on May 03, 2013 in category Seattle
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Four Reasons Krypton Doesn't Blow Up in the new Superman Movie 'Man of Steel'

In “Superman,” the serial (1948), the first live-action cinematic creation of the Man of Steel, Jor-El (Nelson Leigh) is asked to provide facts for why he believes Krypton is doomed. He responds: “We must be guided by my knowledge, which this august body has always respected.” Dude, a pie chart might’ve helped.

As Erik-El, the blogger who believes Krypton isn't doomed in the upcoming blockbuster “Man of Steel,” I know no august body (no, not even yours) that always respects my knowledge, so here are the facts for why Krypton may live, as well as parenthetical alternate theories that may explain away these facts:

  1. “I’ll be honest with you, there’s no Kryptonite in the movie,” director Zack Snyder told Entertainment Weekly last month. Why no Kryptonite? Because Krypton doesn't blow up. (Alternate theory: Kryptonite is a drag of a plot device and best left alone.)
  2. “My name is General Zod,” Zod (Michael Shannon) says in this “Man of Steel” teaser. “For some time your world has sheltered one of my citizens. I request that you return this individual to my custody.” Return? Return to where? Where does Zod plan on taking Kal-El if not back to Krypton? (Alternate theories: Zod doesn't know Krypton has exploded. Or he's got a spaceship that's roaming the cosmos. Or the Phantom Zone ain't that bad a place to live and thinks Kal-El will enjoy it, too.) 
  3. ”That's what pits [Superman] against General Zod ... a Kryptonian tyrant who wants Clark to join him back on Krypton ...“ From Entertainment Weekly's Summer Movie Guide on. “Man of Steel.” This is the one that seems to give up the ghost but one of the alternate theories above holds (Zod STILL doesn't know Krypton has exploded).

I've mentioned all of these reasons in various posts over the last two weeks. Now I have a fourth reason. This evidence is actually older—an interview Michael Shannon did with Oliver Gettell of The Los Angeles Times in 2011—but I just came across it and it supports the above:

OG: What can you tell us about the scale of “Man of Steel”?

MS: It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done. It’s massive sets. It’s literally another world. It’s the first time I’ve acted on another planet.

OG: What is it like acting on a set like that?

MS: As much green screen as there is and I’m sure will be, they’re actually building a lot of the sets as well. I had thought it was just going to be green screens everywhere and we would just be pretending everything. There’s quite a bit of detail they’re building and putting into it. It’s very helpful. The less green screen, the better — I don’t think you’d be able to find an actor on Earth who wouldn’t have that sentiment.

Why build all of these expensive, detailed sets of Krypton if it's going to blow up in the first 10 minutes of the film? You build them because you're going to return to them. You build them because they will be part of the sequel and the franchise. You build them because Krypton doesn't blow up. (Alternate theory: the other world he's talking about isn't Krypton. Or Warner Bros. just likes spending money.)

The website i09 is apparently on top of the ”Krypton lives“ theory now. The site's tagline is the sci-fi standard ”We come from the future," but I can't help but think the future they come from is my two weeks ago. Either way, welcome, boys. Nice to see you finally arrived.

June 14.

Henry Cavill as Superman in "Man of Steel" (2013)

Last son of Krypton?

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Posted at 07:01 AM on May 03, 2013 in category Superman
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Thursday May 02, 2013

Ranking Baseball Movies with David Schoenfield

David Schoenfield has been with ESPN.com since 1995 and has served as baseball editor, Page 2 senior editor, interim soccer editor, and now SweetSpot blogger. He grew up in Seattle, rooting for the Mariners, and believes that Edgar Martinez should be in the Hall of Fame.

David's Baseball Movie Rankings

1. Bull Durham (1988)
2. The Bad News Bears (1976)
3. Field of Dreams (1989)
4. Moneyball (2011)
5. The Natural (1984)
6. Eight Men Out (1988)
7. Sugar (2008)
8. A League of Their Own (1992)
9. 61* (2001)
10. 42 (2013)
11. Ken Burns’ Baseball (1994)
12. Major League (1989)
13. Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976)
14. The Sandlot (1993)
15. Mr. Baseball (1992)
16. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998)
17. The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977)
18. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
19. The Rookie (2002)
20. Little Big League (1994)
21. The House of Steinbrenner (2010)
22. Fear Strikes Out (1957)
23. The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
24. Pastime (1990)
25. The Babe Ruth Story (1948)
26. Cobb (1994)
27. Talent for the Game (1991)
28. For Love of the Game (1999)
29. Mr. 3000 (2004)
30. The Scout (1994)
31. Rookie of the Year (1993)
32. It Happens Every Spring (1949)
33. Major League II (1994)
34. Major League III: Back to the Minors (1998)
35. Angels in the Outfield (1951)
36. The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978)
37. Damn Yankees! (1958)
38. The Babe (1992)
39. Long Gone (1987)

David's Comment

Fun list. It's been a lot of years since I've seen many of these movies so it was a test to remember how much I liked — or disliked — some of them. I give Bull Durham the edge even though Tim Robbins didn't exactly have a believable pitching delivery. Still, he was better than the father at the end of Field of Dreams (the guy had one line; they couldn't find an actor who could throw a baseball?) and Robert DeNiro impersonating a catcher in Bang the Drum Slowly. DeNiro's lack of baseball ability nearly ruins what is otherwise a decent movie. Two horrible movies not listed here: Chasing Dreams (1982), which I rented once because it billed Kevin Costner on the VHS tape cover. He had a cameo at the beginning but the movie was dreadful. I think that one may have been shot as a high school project with a budget of $18. So that makes The Slugger's Wife (1985) even worse because it had real actors in it — William O'Keefe and Rebecca De Mornay — and a real director (Hal Ashby). A friend of mine in college made me watch it because the slugger plays for the Braves and my friend was a Braves fan. Which means he watched this thing at least twice. Unwatchable.

Your turn

Rank the Baseball Movies.

Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner in "Bull Durham" (1988)

David's No. 1 movie ... even though, as a pitcher, Tim Robbins wasn't exactly No. 1 with a bullet.

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Posted at 06:53 AM on May 02, 2013 in category Baseball
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Wednesday May 01, 2013

KNEEL BEFORE ERIK-EL!

I know. I posted about this yesterday but you never let a good topic go.

Here was my prediction about the upcoming Superman movie, “Man of Steel,” two weeks ago:

...the new trailer reinforces the notion: In the new Superman movie, Krypton, Kal-El's homeworld, lives. It doesn't blow up.

I gave evidence from various sources, including the trailers, particularly the “Zod message” trailer, in which Zod (Michael Shannon) requests that the people of Earth “return [Superman] to my custody.” My thought was always: return to ... where? Where is Zod? Where does he expect to go with Kal-El? Where if not ... back to Krypton?

That was my assumption but no one bought into it. It was like I was Jor-El, but reversed. Jor-El warned the Kryptonian Science Council that Krypton was about to explode and they all laughed at him. I was Erik-El, telling the Earth Science-Fiction Council that Krypton was not about to explode, and no one could see the logic. Here's my friend Tim—now Timonian Elder #2:

Timonian Elder #2: ... it does make Superman remaining on Earth a question if/when he finds out there's still a planet back home. I think it'd be a bit much to leave that question at the end, but it's an interesting thought.

Here's Myriam, now Mynd-Ah:

Mynd-Ah: I can't wrap my brain around a concept that Krypton still exists. It's possible there was a battle taking place as the planet was dying from within. Because if Krypton still existed, why would Superman stay on Earth all the time? He'd want to go “home” to his people, right?

Superman fan Oliver Willis assumed a different end to Krypton but an end nonetheless:

Even the Superman Homepage shrugged:

And now? In Entertainment Weekly? The truth is revealed:

In this iteration, Clark Kent's heroic tendencies would rise to the surface only when the threat was great enough. It would have to be a global menace — one that might also trigger an internal conflict about whether he belongs on Earth even as he yearns to be among his own kind. That's what pits him against General Zod (Boardwalk Empire's Michael Shannon), a Kryptonian tyrant who wants Clark to join him back on Krypton, which would mean abandoning his post as defender of the weaklings of Earth.

I should add that there's one more possibility, which Timonian Elder #2 mentioned in the comments field yesterday.

That does change the Superman concept rather significantly. I wonder if it will make sense. I also wonder if my theory, that Zod simply doesn't know Krypton is dust, is still possible.

That would explain Zod's message. But it wouldn't explain why there's no Kryptonite.

There's also this possibility via Mr. Willis' theory above: Krypton was attacked by Brainiac, and most of the people died, and Zod is interested in gathering the remaining Kryptonians to restart the planet, which is now desolate but still exists.

June 14.

Jor-El in 1948

Four versions of Jor-El, the man of science who wasn't listened to: Nelson Leigh in “Superman” (1948)

Jor-El (Robert Rockwell) in 1952's "The Adventures of Superman"

Robert Rockwell in “The Adventures of Superman” (1952)

Jor-El (Marlon Brando) in 1978

Marlon Brando in “Superman: The Movie” (1978)

Jor-El (Russell Crowe) in "Man of Steel" (2013)

Russell Crowe in the upcoming “Man of Steel” (2013)

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Posted at 07:02 AM on May 01, 2013 in category Superman
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