erik lundegaard

Wednesday July 31, 2013

Say Kids, What Time Is It?

Howdy Doody was the sub-basement of a Shirley Temple movie. It was about a marionette—and not a very good one ... if you wanted to be kind about it, you'd say it would be amateur hour, but why be kind about it? It was something that couldn't get into a Shirley Temple movie, but its advantage was that it was in an advertising medium, and you didn't have to be so good because you weren't asking people to leave their houses and go and buy a ticket; you were simply there, you were a delivery system for advertising, and you were operating in perfect harmony with a generation that was appalled by its lack of access to the real power vectors in the world; and I'll just repeat that because one day soon, everyone's going to want to know the history of the war babies and the baby boomers, and why most of us acted in a culturally dysfunctional way, and the answer is that as children we felt we were marionettes and we were appalled by our lack of access to the real power vectors of the world. The H-bomb of it, the Winston Churchill of it, the coal miner of it, and, through no action of our own, but just mysteriously and magically we got sat in front of these boxes, which spoke to us to perfection. Here you are, a little Howdy Doody marionette.”

-- George W.S. Trow, ”My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998,“ pp. 133-34

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Posted at 05:33 PM on Jul 31, 2013 in category TV
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Movie Review: 20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Over the title credits of “20 Feet from Stardom,” a documentary by Morgan Neville about background singers, we hear Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Why? Because the colored girls go: Da doo, da doo, da doo, doo da doo doo, da doo, da doo …

How do we describe background singers? What’s their connection to the lead singer? What’s the metaphor?

The most obvious metaphor, or at least the most proper, is the call-and-response of the church, particularly the black church. It’s the minister and his choir. He delivers the sermon and they say “Amen” and “Hallelujah.” He says “Hunhhh” and they say “Hunhhh.” He says “Ho” and they say “Ho.” He says “Hunhhh hunhhh, ho ho,” and they sing “Baby, it’s alright.” This is brought home in the doc by the number of background singers who actually came out of the church; the number who tell Neville, “My father was a minister.”

The other metaphor, equally obvious but less proper, is the pimp and his whores. They dress the way he says. They move the way he says. They follow his lead. “If you wanna be a Raelette,” it’s been said, “you gotta let Ray.”

Sex and talent
I grew up in the heyday of background singers in the early 1970s. Variety shows were big then. The call and response was big. 20 Feet from StardomRay Charles had the Raelettes and Ike Turner the Ikettes and Gladys Knight had her Pips. (Neville, practicing his own brand of gender discrimination, doesn’t mention them. It’s all about the women.)

When did I first see them? On “Ed Sullivan”? “Flip Wilson”? They always looked like they were having more fun than the lead singer. He was often sweating, pained, bearing a burden, while in the background they smiled, slid, shimmied, and made gorgeous noise. They were sexy. Is this where ménage a trois fantasies begin? Ménage a quatre? I remember recently seeing the “Superstar” number from “Jesus Christ Superstar” again, and, yeah, Carl Douglas as Judas is great, but my main thought went something like, “Holy hell, who are those background singers?”

You can’t ignore the sex. “I didn’t set out to be the sex symbol,” says Claudia Lennear, who backed Joe Cocker and the Rolling Stones, and who may have been the inspiration for the Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” “But you posed for Playboy,” Neville responds. Lennear looks thoughtful for a moment, a response on her lips. then just collapses in abashed laughter.

You can’t ignore the talent, either. It’s stupefying. “20 Feet” isn’t really about the history of background singers, it’s about a chosen few who either tried for stardom and fell back or never really tried. “It’s a bit of a walk,” Bruce Springsteen tells Neville. “That walk to the front is … complicated.”

Why doesn’t it work for these women? Different reasons for different singers. Darlene Love got screwed over by Phil Spector, who kept her in the background for decades and put other girls’ names (“The Crystals”) on her recordings. Maybe Merry Clayton, who originally recorded “Gimme Shelter” with the Stones, didn’t make it because Aretha was already there, and maybe Claudia didn’t make it because Donna Summer was already there, and maybe Judith Hill isn’t making it because Beyoncé is already there. And because Hill dresses like she’s in a 1980s MTV video.

But Lisa Fischer? Who backed Luthor Vandross and Teddy Pendergrass and Chaka Khan in the 1980s, and who has toured with the Stones since 1989? What the hell? You’re often dumbfounded by the talent on display here, but for me there was one moment when the singing was so out there, so surreal, if felt like a wave crashing over my head. That was Fischer singing her Grammy-winning song, “How Can I Ease the Pain?” in Japan in 1992. (Video below; stick around to 3:30.) They were obviously trying to market her as another Whitney. Maybe that was the problem. Because Lisa Fischer not making it? That’s a condemnation of the entire culture. It’s like James Joyce getting rejected by publishers (which happened) and Fred Astaire being dismissed as a bald guy who can dance a little (which happened). But somehow Joyce and Astaire broke through. They got breaks. They had perseverance. Something. Whatever it was.

Love and Justice
That “whatever it was” discussion in “20 Feet” is pretty fascinating. Tata Vega heard she was too old, too fat, not right. Fischer talks about her inability to self-promote. “Who can I call to introduce me to such and such?” she says, then wrinkles her nose. “Something about that just feels strange to me.” People who succeed don’t think twice about making that call. We live in a sales culture, not a talent culture. It ain’t a meritocracy, kids.

But we do get some justice. By the mid-1980s, Darlene Love, who backed everyone from Buck Owens to James Brown, was cleaning homes rather than working for Phil Spector. But she returned to music, and about the time Spector was going to prison for murder she was being inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and singing on stage with Springsteen.

What don’t we get? A look at the history before television. We don’t get the ‘40s and ‘30s. We don’t get the Crickets or the Pips or any of the men. We don’t get enough of the ones who became stars. Sheryl Crow? Why her? And does anyone mention Margie Hendricks, the most famous Raelette, who sang foreground in “(Night Time Is) The Right Time,” and who died an early, drug-related death?

Even so, go. “20 Feet from Stardom” is a joy. Because the colored girls go: Doo da doo, da doo, da doo, doo da doo doo, da doo, da doo …

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Posted at 07:39 AM on Jul 31, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Tuesday July 30, 2013

Quote of the Day

“[An FBI] file of only thirty-five pages: that must have disappointed Vidal when he saw his file. A file that contained no secrets—that, he would have said, was disheartening. And only half a dozen letters complaining about him. With a twinkle in his eye, he would have called that fact a crushing blow.”

-- Jon Weiner, The Nation, in his article, “The Gore Vidal FBI File,” about the 35 pages of nothing, and the lame right-wing attacks, that the FBI accumulated about Gore Vidal during the 1960s. At the same time, I think Vidal would have liked the notion that members of the FBI were forced to sit through “The Best Man,” taking notes. Like critics.

Gore Vidal and the Disappointing FBI File

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Posted at 03:26 PM on Jul 30, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Angry and Irony, Live Together without much Harmony

“... these tiny television listings [from 1950] ... were the seed out of which our national culture of irony and anger was to grow.”

-- George W.S. Trow, ”My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998,“ pg. 73

That's it, isn't it? Anger and Irony. Anger tends to be exhibited by the doofus right (Tea Party and FOX News) while irony tends to be exhibited by the vaguely educated left (”The Daily Show“ and ”The Colbert Report"). Both sides, all members of the diminishing middle and working class, contribute to the problem. The left laughs, the right fulminates. But the real battle is elsewhere.

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Posted at 01:26 PM on Jul 30, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Reza Aslan and FOX-News' Projection Problem

This viral video has been making the rounds for a couple of days. I saw a truncated version earlier but it's worth it to watch the full monty:

Here's what's happening and it's startling in its obviousness: projection. FOX-News and its anchor are projecting onto the interviewee, religious scholar Reza Aslan, their own narrow tendencies. They can't believe that someone, anyone, and particularly someone on the other side (of the religious question), couldn't be partisan, because they themselves are so partisan. 

These are the questions the FOX-News anchor asks Aslan. The beauty is in his responses, so watch for that, but just look at the questions:

  • You're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about Christianity?
  • Why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?
  • How are your findings different from what Islam actually believes about Jesus? <-- This is a real follow-up question.
  • What do you say to [this criticism from Dr. William Lane Craig]?
  • What are your conclusions about Jesus? <-- This is where an unbiased interview would have started.
  • What do you say to [the comparison that your book is like a Democrat writing about Reagan]?
  • But why would a Democrat want to promote democracy by writing about a Republican?

After that last fumbled question, she merely makes statements. Most are attacks. “To say that your information is different from theirs is really not being honest here” is one. “I believe you've been on several programs and have never disclosed you're a Muslim” is another. Both of her statements are incorrect.

Aslan (and how beautiful is it that he shares the name of C.S. Lewis' lion?) nails it in the end:

I think that the fundamental problem here is that you're assuming that I have some sort of faith-based bias in this work that I write ... My job as a scholar of religions, with a Ph.D. in the subject, is to write about religions, and one of the religions that I write about is one that was launched by Jesus. ...

I think it's unfair to simply assume that because of my faith background that there is some agenda on this book ...

But they assume that because they know their own mind. It's what they do. They have bias; they have an agenda. It not only permeate the network, it's the point of the network.

The truly awful thing? Apparently there's a discussion to be had about this book, and it would've fit right into FOX-News' actual political agenda, since Aslan is basically calling Jesus a revolutionary for the poor and oppressed. That's hardly a new thought but it's not FOX-News' interpretation. Put another way: That interpretation of Jesus doesn't work for FOX-News or the GOP. So that's the discussion they could've had. Instead we got this. Because the network couldn't get past “Muslim.”

In the end, I actually learned something here. I learned that those weren't thieves being crucified alongside Jesus. At least according to this one scholar with a Ph.D. in religions.

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Posted at 08:42 AM on Jul 30, 2013 in category Religion
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Ben-Hur: the Travis Bickle of His Day

Ben-Hur encounters Jesus

A man looking to wash this land clean.

I watched “Ben-Hur” over the weekend. I'd never seen it beginning to end.

It was fun—the epic sprawl, the overture, the intermission, the pace—but most fascinating was how much I didn't identify with its hero, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston). In fact, I kept agreeing with everyone but Ben-Hur. That includes Pontius Pilate. Yeah: Pontius Pilate.

When Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) first arrives on the galley ship, for example, and demands that the exhausted slaves row faster and faster, then at attack speed, then at ramming speed, what do we make of him? Is he a sadist? Is he testing Ben-Hur, whom he notices early and often? Does he just want to see him sweat and glisten? I assumed he was a villain. Then he says this to Ben-Hur, who, at this point in the story, because of an earlier face-to-face encounter with Jesus, is a believer:

The God I pray to will not save me. The God you pray to will not save you.

That pretty much sums up my thoughts on religion, but Ben-Hur argues the point:

Ben-Hur: I can't believe God would let me live these three years to die chained to an oar.
Quintus Arrias: It's a strange, stubborn faith you keep—to believe that existence has a purpose.

Again, I'm with Arrius.

But Ben-Hur winds up saving Arrius (of course), who adopts him as a son, and Ben-Hur triumphs over his enemy, Messala (Stephen Boyd), in the famous chariot race. Except it doesn't end there. Despite all of the good that has come since his encounter with Jesus, Ben-Hur actually loses his faith again when he discovers that in his long absence his mother and sister have become lepers. He refuses even to hear the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, he goes to Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring), who warns him thus:

Perfect freedom has no existence. A grown man knows the world he lives in. And for the present, the world is Rome's.

You might not agree with that thought, you might fight it, but you'd be a fool to ignore it. Ben-Hur is a fool here. Think of it: He actually had a face-to-face encounter with God and he still lacks faith. Makes the rest of us, who get no such face-time, seem positively pious.

Indeed, for the last hour of the movie, before he gets all Christianed up again, Judah Ben-Hur reminds me of a movie protagonist who would come along 17 years later. This is Ben-Hur talking with Esther (Haya Harareet):

I tell you every man in Judea is unclean ... No other life is possible except to wash this land clean.

And here's Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” in 1976:

Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.

What's truly fascinating about “Ben-Hur” is the assumption by the filmmakers of the audience's shared Christian background. They assumed we all believed in the same God, and if we didn't, if there were Jews around (and apparently there were), well, it was OK since our God was a Jew. Jews got a pass, but only them. Donuts or bagels—no other options.

Yet we were only seven short years from the year TIME magazine would ask on its cover “Is God Dead?” What a leap. Our shared assumptions were gone by then; the fragmentation of the culture had begun. When today's conservatives complain about how Hollywood doesn't make old-fashioned movies anymore, this is what they're complaining about. They want Charlton Heston again and an all-star cast but wind up with Kirk Cameron on a miniscule budget.

“Ben-Hur” was the No. 1 movie of 1959 and remains in the top 15 all-time if you adjust for inflation. But its world, the 1950s world in which it was made, was ending. A rain came.

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Posted at 07:09 AM on Jul 30, 2013 in category Movies
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Monday July 29, 2013

Reading the Newspaper with George W.S. Trow - V

“Television will not allow you to follow a story. Each broadcast is self-contained; television newspeople are embarrassed if they have to remind you that the story existed yesterday as well. They value and love the episodic possibilities within the news. The only exception is Big Human Interest. If it has the quality of a soap opera--O.J. Simpson, or the plane that exploded mysteriously--then they trust it as a story that will have had the dramatic elements necessary for their formula. (That is, they know the story will not let them down. O.J. Simpson will be a celebrity the whole time of his trial; he wil be pronounced guilty, and that will be dramatic; or he will be pronounced innocent, and that will be even more dramatic. In other words, from their television news point of view, the story has already happened; it's reliable. It can be trusted not to let them down. Television hates stories that turn out to be--you know, disappointing. No cum shot.)”

-- George W.S. Trow, “My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998,” pg. 44

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Posted at 04:00 PM on Jul 29, 2013 in category Media
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Reading the Newspaper with George W.S. Trow - IV

“Do yourself a favor. Just wait to see if Al Gore is nominated. Wake up the day after the next Democratic Convention and ask a friend, 'Did Gore make it?' My guess is that he will have made it.

”Take the fifty-thousand-word investment you were prepared to make on Gore's election prospects and follow another story--Zaire, par example.“

-- George W.S. Trow, ”My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998," pg. 44

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Posted at 03:54 PM on Jul 29, 2013 in category Media
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Reading the Newspaper with George W.S. Trow - III

“If you have a personal reason to take an interest in a Baby Bell reaching out to form yet another media conglomerate, sure, read it; but be aware that the deal will ravel, unravel, happen, not happen, be consummated or not consummated, be important or not important, and you will have read ten thousand words. Also notice that the news is written in such a way that all of these 'dramatic' ravelings and unravelings are reported in detail (because they have human interest), but should the thing finally come together, the news will stop. Just when you want to know what's going to happen (the president has won the election; what's he going to do?) the news stops.”

-- George W.S. Trow, “My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998,” pg. 43

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Posted at 03:50 PM on Jul 29, 2013 in category Media
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Reading the Newspaper with George W.S. Trow - II

“I read every word in the paper about Algeria, Ukraine, and Belarus; these are the Underreported Zones. You should get a feel in the paper for what is underreported and what is overreported. Overreported is Newt Gingrich. One-tenth of one percent  of what has been written about Newt will do you just fine. About Algeria, Ukraine, Belarus, you need to read every word; also Shanghai, Chinese billionaires, and the Russian mafia. Also currency trading.”

-- George W.S. Trow, “My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998,” pg. 43

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Posted at 03:44 PM on Jul 29, 2013 in category Media
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Reading the Newspaper with George W.S. Trow - I

“There isn't much real news, you know.

”Most news is in relation to what a government (or a unit of government) is willing to let you know about what it is saying or doing in relation to another government or unit of government. You could spend your whole life reading abou the Middle East. You don't want to do that.“

-- George W.S. Trow, ”My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998," pg. 42

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Posted at 03:40 PM on Jul 29, 2013 in category Media
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Movie Review: The Wolverine (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The unsurprising thing about “The Wolverine” is that for much of the movie our title character (Hugh Jackman) loses his recuperative powers. It’s unsurprising because that’s the way of superhero sequels. See: “Superman II,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Ghost Rider 2,” and “Iron Man 3.”

The surprising thing about “The Wolverine” is that it’s not a stupid movie, a la “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and the two “Fantastic Four” movies, which are all Fox properties, and Fox is infamous for its loutish, lowest-common-denominator tendencies. See: “I don’t have to explain myself—least of all to you” and any minute of “Fox & Friends.”

Indeed, given the limits of the genre, and the baggage of the character, “The Wolverine” isn’t bad. It has quiet moments of power. It doesn’t rely quite so heavily on the roller-coaster ride. There’s a scene late in the movie when Logan/Wolverine is trying to save a girl (of course), and runs into a band of ninjas. By this point he has his recuperative powers back and initially delivers this hero-ready line: “Is that all the men you brought?” But more ninjas appear on the rooftops, The Wolverine postermembers of the Black Clan, silent and slippery, and they shoot arrows trailing wire at Wolverine, including one dipped in poison, and bring him down. I suppose it’s a “How much can our hero withstand?” moment, a pieta almost, and the poison-tipped arrow recalls an earlier scene in the Yukon with a grizzly bear; but there’s a poignancy to it, as Logan goes down on his knees, struggling against all that’s attached to him and holding him back. It’s a ready metaphor. It’s how life feels sometimes. Really? Another arrow? Aren’t these others enough?

This is the movie that finally takes a step beyond Brett Ratner’s abysmal “X-Men: The Last Stand,” released seven years ago, which cut such a swath through the lucrative franchise—killing off Prof. X, Jean Gray and Cyclops, and taking away Magneto’s powers—that we’ve only had prequels since: “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in 2009, “X-Men: First Class” in 2011, and the oddly titled, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” for next year. No small task getting past all that Ratner screwed up.

Not that “The Wolverine” isn’t without problems.

Japanese melodrama
It opens, as “Iron Man 3” did, with our superhero a king of infinite space were it not that he has bad dreams.

It’s August 1945 and Logan is a POW in a Japanese concentration camp in Nagasaki (one wonders how they captured him) when the U.S. drops the big one. Once the planes are sighted, the Japanese soldiers, renowned for their kindness, set about freeing their prisoners so they have a chance to survive. Seriously, they do that. I’m sure Fox was looking out for its lucrative Japanese box office, but for a corrective read “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. Or any history book. Or see this.

Another kind Japanese officer, Yashida (Ken Yamamura), releases Logan from his iron bunker, then joins other officers about to commit ritual hari-kari. But he’s distracted by the A-bomb blast (nice use of CGI), then saved by Logan, who is burned to a crisp and recovers before Yashida’s amazed eyes. At this point, Logan wakes with a start. He’s in bed with Jean Gray (Famke Jannsen), who died in Ratner’s movie. She’s alluring, he’s confused. Only when he gives in to the allure does he realize that this, too, is a nightmare, and he awakes with a start. Now he’s bearded and scraggly-haired and living in a cave in the Yukon wilderness with a grizzly bear as his only friend, and guilty feelings trailing after him like arrows shot in his back. He killed Jean, the woman he loved, to save the world—or something—so that’s why he’s become a hermit in the Yukon. The movie doesn’t really question this but I do. Dude’s nearly two centuries old and that’s his solution? Hiding? That’s as wise as he’s gotten?

Before we get too comfortable camping with Wolverine, he comes out of the wilderness to deal with a doofus hunter in town, where he is confronted by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a girl with a Valentine-shaped face and a lethal samurai sword, who handles the tavern face-off, then tells Logan to get in her car. He does. She tells him she’s a representative of Yashida, the Japanese officer he saved, who wants to repay him before he dies. To do this, Logan must go to Japan. He does. Some Wolverine. He’s docile here. He’s domesticated. He even gets a shave and a haircut when told.

So how does Yashida (now Hal Yamanouchi), who’s now a powerful CEO of Yashida, the Toshiba of this world, repay Logan, who saved his life so long ago? By offering to end Logan’s life. “You’re a soldier,” he tells him. “You seek what all soldiers do—an honorable death; an end to your pain.”

Does he ever consider this offer? Is it what he truly wants? We never find out. Because unfortunately he’s landed in the middle of a Japanese melodrama. Yashida favors his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto, making her screen debut), over his CEO-wannabe son, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has promised Mariko to Minister of Justice Noburo (Brian Tee) despite her love for the handsome ninja and archer, Harada (Will Yun Lee).

That night, Mariko tries to kill herself but Logan stops her. Then Yashida dies, which Yukio, who can foresee death, didn’t see coming. Then Logan stays for the funeral (why?), which is interrupted by Yakuza, who try to kidnap or kill Mariko, but Logan again saves her and the two go on the run—she reluctantly, seeming to not want his help, he with bullet wounds in his stomach that don’t heal. His recuperative powers! Gone! Like Yashida said! How?

Long story short: Yashida has willed his entire company to Mariko, not Shingen, which is why Shingen employs the Yakuza to get her. Later in the movie, there’s a moment when Wolverine can kill Shingen but walks away. “You tried to kill your daughter,” he says. “Live with that.” Good stuff. Then of course Shingen attacks again and blah blah blah.

Meanwhile, Harada, the romantic archer, is working with Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a mutant who absorbs and spreads toxins, and who was last seen as a doctor working for Yashida. Who’s pulling their strings? Yashida, of course. The death was a fake, which is why Yukio didn’t foresee it, and in the last act he dons the adamantium Silver Samurai suit to take on Wolverine, chop off his claws, and absorb his recuperative powers. “You thought a life without end has no meaning,” he says to Wolverine. “But it’s the only life that has meaning.”

In the end, Wolverine loses his adamantium claws (tough to watch), regrows his skeletal ones (which never seemed as cool), and wins the day (big surprise). The experience has somehow helped him purge his guilt over killing Jean. He’s also started a relationship with Mariko, now a CEO, but leaves Japan anyway, with Yukio, in a kind of “Casablanca” moment without the resonance. “I’m a soldier,” he says, “and I’ve been hiding too long.” He’s Rick, Yukio is Louis, and the private plane they walk into is the Casablanca fog. Not nearly as cool.

As for all the problems I’ve addressed? There are more.

Logan melodrama
If Yashida’s plan was to absorb Logan’s life-force, his longevity, why not do it that first night? Viper implants the bug that messes with his recuperative powers, so why not, at that moment, trap Logan and attempt to do what you did in the final act? Why wait?

And does Logan really live forever? He’s obviously aged. He used to be a baby, then a boy, and now he looks like Hugh Jackman at 44. He probably just ages more slowly than us, but he will die someday. So his life isn’t a life without end. He should know that.

At the same time, I do like how the movie gives lie to Wolverine’s central conceit and complaint, which he says early to Yashida: “Trust me, Bub. You don’t want what I’ve got.” Really? Instant recuperation from any injury? Long life? No, I think I’d like to have that. The problem has never been Logan’s power but what he does with it. He’s relies upon it like a crutch. It’s astonishing the number of ninjas who lay hands on him. They’ve trained for, what, a decade or two, he for centuries, yet they’re actually better fighters than he is. He just recuperates faster. His super power has actually made him weaker.

And can he learn a second language? Alive nearly two centuries and he can’t speak a lick of Japanese.

And what’s Canadian about him? He seems wholly, gruffly American. Because he is. He’s Ben Grimm recast.

And why just dream of Jean? What happened to the girl from the ‘70s? Already forgotten? And was there no girl from the ‘50s? The ‘20s? The Gay ‘90s? The 1860s? No, he keeps dreaming of Jean, who, like Jamie King in the godawful “Spirit” movie, and Jessica Lange in “All That Jazz,” represents death. Apparently death is always a beautiful woman. At least for men with limited imaginations.

X-Men melodrama
But somehow the movie still works. Not sure who to credit. Screenwriter Scott Frank has a tendency to work on movies that are better and smarter than they should be: “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” “Minority Report” and “Marley & Me,” among others. Screenwriter Mark Bomback is associated with more loutish films (“Live Free or Die Hard,” the “Total Recall” reboot, the “Race to Witch Mountain” reboot), while director James Mangold has made some not-bad serious films: “Walk the Line,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Girl, Interrupted.” Jackman is superb as always.

Fanboys will probably be talking up the mid-credit sequence, two years after the events in this movie, when both Magneto (Ian McKellen, with powers) and Professor X (Patrick Stewart, alive again), appear to Logan asking for his help against a new, powerful enemy. Wooooo! Yeah, but not for me. That was cool in “Iron Man” in 2008 but now it’s just a ploy to build toward another “Avengers”-like killing at the box office. It’s sloppy sevenths.

No, the better part of “The Wolverine” is the part the fanboys won’t like—that it’s the least superhero-y of the recent superhero movies. It also feels like some vaguely intelligent people were behind it, and they didn’t mind crediting their audience with some vague intelligence, either. In today’s culture, with today’s summer movies, that’s a welcome change, bub.

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Posted at 07:19 AM on Jul 29, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Sunday July 28, 2013

Weekend Box Office: 'The Wolverine' Isn't the Best At What It Does

Among the things that happened at the weekend box office:

  • “The Wolverine,” starring Hugh Jackman, opened at $55 million domestic, which is the worst superhero opening since “Ghost Rider 2”  grossed $22 million last Feburary. Basically it's on par with “X-Men: First Class,” which opened at $55.1 million in June 2011. It's the 25th-best superhero opening overall but adjust for inflation and it drops to 36th. “Wolverine,” without the definite article, opened at $85 million in 2009, but to bad notices, and topped out at $179. Will be interesting to see if this Wolverine, which has gotten better reviews (mine up tomorrow), has any kind of legs.
  • Last weekend's No. 1, “The Conjuring,” fell off by only 47%, astonishingly good in a horror film, and looks poised to break the $100 million barrier.
  • No. 3, “Despicable Me,” grossed another $16 million and surpasses “Man of Steel” to become the second-highest-grossing movie of the year, after “Iron Man 3.”
  • “Grown Ups 2” fell off by only 42% and passed the $100 million mark. As I tweeted earlier today: Fuck you, America. 
  • “The Heat,” the Bullock/McCarthy cop comedy, fell off by only 26% and landed in eighth place. It's now at $141.2 million, which is McCarthy's second-best total after “Bridesmaids” ($169 million).
  • “Red 2” is dead: $35 million after two weekends.
  • “R.I.P.D.” is dead: $24 million after two weekends.
  • Have you seen “Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain” yet? Under the radar, it's grossed $31 million, which is the fourth highest-grossing stand-up comedy film of all-time, after Murphy, the Kings of Comedy, and Pryor.
  • Woody Allen's latest, “Blue Jasmine,” trailing positive reviews from the likes of David Thomson, opened in six theaters and wound up with the highest per-theater average of the year: $102K per for $613K overall.

The totals.

MONDAY UPDATE: Turns out “The Wolverine” didn't even open that well: It earned $53.1 million, which is 27th-best, and below “Green Lantern.” Ouch.

It's still a better movie.

Hugh Jackman as The Wolverine

“The Wolverine”: a weak opening despite the muscles.

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Posted at 08:47 PM on Jul 28, 2013 in category Movies - Box Office
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HISHE: How 'Man of Steel' Should Have Ended

This one's pretty good:

I particularly like:

  • “You mean a randsom priest?”
  • “Oh my gosh. Thousands of people might have died!”
  • “Oh well, what're you gonna do about it? Snap my neck?”

In the above, Kal-El uses his brains rather than his brawn but then the movie's over in an hour. The dramatic problem is almost always how to lengthen the problem (believably) rather than solve it.

Here's my review of “Man of Steel.”

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Posted at 03:33 PM on Jul 28, 2013 in category Superman
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Quote of the Day

“My argument with so much psychoanalysis is the preconception that suffering is a mistake, or a sign of weakness, or a sign even of illness, when in fact possibly the greatest truths we know have come out of people suffering. That the problem is not to undo suffering, or wipe it off the face of the earth, but to make it inform our lives.”

Arthur Miller in Adam Curtis' documentary “The Century of The Self” (2001)

Arthur Miller, American playwright

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Posted at 02:42 PM on Jul 28, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Saturday July 27, 2013

Seattle Mariners: 30th No More

Going to the M's game today with Tim, and it's not just the sunny weather that's got me in a good mood.

Here are the M's OBP/SLG/OPS splits, along with their OPS MLB rank (1-30), since 2010:

  • 2010: .298/ .339/ .637 (30th)
  • 2011: .292/ .348/ .640 (30th)
  • 2012: .296/ .369/ .665 (30th)
  • 2013: .310/ .401/ .711 (18th)

That sound you hear in Seattle isn't just Macklemore recording on top of Dick's; it's runs being scored. It's an exhale. It's climbing out of a deep, deep hole.

UPDATE: Oops. The M's scattered six hits over nine innings and lost 4-0. When the opposition went ahead 2-0, the game seemed lost forever. Two runs? How could anyone ever manage that? Kendrys Morales hit a rocket double to the right-field corner with nobody out in the bottom of the 2nd but only managed to get to third because of a wild pitch. After that, five singles: one in the 3rd, one in the 7th, two in the eighth and one in the ninth. Just like old times.

Kyle Seagar, Raul Ibanez, lead M's charge

Kyle Seager leads the M's with a .292 average and .356 OBP; Raul Ibanez leads with 24 homeruns.

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Posted at 11:30 AM on Jul 27, 2013 in category Seattle Mariners
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Ranking Every Freakin' Superhero Movie Ever Made with David Murphy

David's Comments

Really difficult. Most of the older serials I'm remembering from seeing 30 years ago. Having “X3” last is a symbolic statement, since they managed to ruin the X-men's best two storylines *and* made a crappy movie at the same time.

“Avengers” starts off a bit too ponderously, and isn't as visually interesting as “Superman,” which overcomes everything to be the best superhero film ever by elevating it to art. “The Incredibles” is a fantastic film, and does the same. “Super” is highly underrated and is everything a vigilante superhero movie should be, with real emotional connections and some sensational set pieces and performances. My love for the 1980 “Flash Gordon” remains overwhelming, but I'm not sure it can count as a superhero movie.

One film I wish was on here was the 1974 TV-movie of “Mark of Zorro,” with Frank Langella in the title role, and which was still a blast when I re-watched it on YouTube a few years ago. Banderas is a fantastic Zorro, but the 1998 “Mask of Zorro” gets far, far too serious towards the end. “Meteor Man” is a film I wish would get remade by a better director. It has a strong message that Townsend just can't get across with his limited talents.

I could go on for weeks, but having actually seen both the 1994 “FF” and the 1990 “Captain America” and noting how terrible they are, “Catwoman” is worse.

David's List

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Incredibles (2004)
3. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
4. Super (2011)
5. The Dark Knight (2008)
6. Unbreakable (2000)
7. Darkman (1990)
8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
9. Chronicle (2012)
10. Spider-Man 2 (2004)

11. Superman II: The Donner Cut (2006)
12. Batman Begins (2005)
13. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
14. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
15. Hellboy (2004)
16. The Rocketeer (1991)
17. X-Men: First Class (2011)
18. Superman II (1981)
19. X2: X-Men United (2003)
20. Iron Man (2008)

21. Blade II (2002)
22. Sky High (2005)
23. Watchmen (2009)
24. Kick-Ass (2010)
25. Spider-Man (2002)
26. Thor (2011)
27. The Mask of Zorro (1998)
28. Batman Returns (1992)
29. X-Men (2000)
30. Flash Gordon (1980)

31. The Meteor Man (1993)
32. The Phantom (1996)
33. Batman (1966)
34. Batman (1989)
35. Superman Returns (2006)
36. Batman Forever (1995)
37. Mystery Men (1999)
38. Blade (1998)
39. Superman and the Mole Men (1951)
40. Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)

41. Hulk (2003)
42. The Shadow (1940)
43. Superman (1948)
44. Iron Man 2 (2010)
45. The Shadow (1994)
46. Captain America (1944)
47. Hero at Large (1980)
48. Batman (1943)
49. Daredevil (2003)
50. Blankman (1994)

51. Hancock (2008)
52. Adventures of Captian Marvel (1941)
53. Spawn (1997)
54. Batman and Robin (1997)
55. Fantastic Four (2005)
56. The Mark of Zorro (1940)
57. The Mark of Zorro (1920)
58. Supergirl (1984)
59. Superman III (1983)
60. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

61. Blade: Trinity (2004)
62. Steel (1997)
63. Elektra (2005)
64. The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981)
65. The Fantastic Four (1994)
66. Captain America (1990)
67. Catwoman (2004)
68. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

My Comments

Hey! Someone who's seen more superhero movies than I have. Now that's just sad, David.

I have fond memories of Langella's “Zorro.” For years, that's how I thought of Langella. He'd show up as Dracula, or Skeletor, or in “Dave,” and I'd think, “Look, it's Zorro!” He also had one of the better moves with that Zorro staple, the swipe at the candle. The villainous captain, pre-battle or in the midst of battle, lops off a candle to show off his talents with the sword, and Zorro does the same but nothing happens. The villain laughs. Then Zorro shows he'd cut the candle without moving it. How does he show this? In one, he picks up the candle, laughs, and blows it out. In another, with a candlabra, he stomps his foot and the thing crumbles. Langella? He silently pushes it off with the tip of his blade. When I was 11, that was the epitome of cool. (3:30 here.)

Your thoughts on “X3” are my thoughts on “Spider-Man 3.” And mine didn't even need to switch directors to eff it up. Great “Catwoman” commentary, which I haven't seen. I'll be sure to check out “Super” first.

Your Turn

Rank the Superhero movies

Christopher Reeve, Superman

Still soars.

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Posted at 07:19 AM on Jul 27, 2013 in category Movies - Lists
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Friday July 26, 2013

The Worst Tweet Ever, or Sympathy for C.C. Sabathia

Tonight I noticed the Tampa Bay Rays scored six runs off in the top of the second off C.C. Sabathia, who, until recently, was the Yankees was most dominant pitcher, and a good part of the reason they won their 27th championship in 2009. So I had a little fun. I tweeted the following:

C.C. see ya, goodbye
C.C. see ya, don't cry
The ringing doubles that take you
Away from us no words can tell how glad it makes us

I thought I was kind of clever. (Well, lame third and fourth lines, but I have a day job.) I thought I really stuck it to the guy. But I'm a piker compared to some Yankees fans.

On Twitter, that selfsame Twitter, I noticed C.C. was trending and checked out what people were saying. Here's what one Yankees fan was saying:

Yankees fan tweet about C.C. Sabathia

Notice that he's sending that not only to C.C. but to C.C.'s wife, too. If you dig deeper you'll find out he's tweeted 500+ times and has eight followers.

Stay classy, Bronx.

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Posted at 06:40 PM on Jul 26, 2013 in category Yankees Suck
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Quote of the Day

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

—Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and father of PR, in his book “Propaganda” (1928). As seen in Adam Curtis' documentary “The Century of the Self.”

The question for all of us, I suppose, is: What constitutes our invisible government, and thus our true ruling power, today?

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Posted at 12:50 PM on Jul 26, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Four Inches Longer

Woman shopping for car: It seems so much longer than last year!

Salesman: It is! Nearly four inches longer in some models.

Woman (sitting behind the wheel): Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

-- from Adam Curtis' documentary, “Century of Self,” about the 20th-century attempt, by government and business, to control or manipulate the irrational impulses in human beings that Sigmund Freud discovered and/or emphasized in his work.

1950s car ad from Adam Curtis' doc, "The Century of The Self" (2002)

The 1951 Plymouth Orgasmatron.

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Posted at 06:45 AM on Jul 26, 2013 in category Advertisements
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Thursday July 25, 2013

Quote of the Day

“If you want to talk about long-term growth, you have to talk about policies that are familiar. ... Obama’s speech was, in a sense, the equivalent of saying that if you want to lose weight, you need to eat better and exercise more. And demanding that he offer up some “big, bold, and new” idea (as [Dana] Milbank, for instance, did) is like asking for a fad diet—lose thirty pounds in thirty days while eating only muffins!”

-- James Surowiecki, “Obama's Economic Speech: Boring is Not Bad,” on the New Yorker site

See also: Alex Pareene, “Beltway hacks Cilizza and Milbank solve the economy!” on Salon.com.

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Posted at 04:38 PM on Jul 25, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Ranking Every Freakin' Superhero Movie Ever Made with Daniel

Superhero movies strip

Daniel's Comments

I found myself uninterested in Raimi's “Spider-Man.” The only reason why “Spider-Man 2” is ranked so highly is that I found the Doctor Octopus arc interesting. “X-Men: The Last Stand” would probably be dead last even if I had seen every other superhero movie because it is one of the few movies that I wish I could unsee (like “Phantom Menace”).

Daniel's List

1. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
2. X2: X-Men United (2003)
3. Iron Man (2008)
4. Superman (1978)
5. Batman (1989)
6. Unbreakable (2000)
7. The Incredibles (2004)
8. X-Men (2000)
9. Batman Returns (1992)
10. Iron Man 3 (2013)
11. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
12. The Dark Knight (2008)
13. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
14. The Wolverine (2013)
15. Iron Man 2 (2010)
16. Batman Begins (2005)
17. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
18. Thor (2011)
19. Blade (1998)
20. Man of Steel (2013)
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
22. X-Men: First Class (2011)
23. The Green Hornet (2011)
24. Superman Returns (2006)
25. Hellboy (2004)
26. Darkman (1990)
27. Spider-Man (2002)
28. Hulk (2003)
29. Superman II (1981)
30. Superman III (1983)
31. My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)
32. Batman Forever (1995)
33. Daredevil (2003)
34. Fantastic Four (2005)
35. Batman and Robin (1997)
36. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
37. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

My Comments

I like the “movie you wish you could unsee” thought. Mine would probably be “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” because that movie really fucked me up. But there are a few superhero movies I wish I could unmake.

Your Turn

Rank the Superhero movies

Avengers Assembled

A supersoldier, a superpowered war machine, the mightiest, angriest creature on Earth, a God ... plus a guy who shoots arrows and a hot chick who knows martial arts.

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Posted at 07:36 AM on Jul 25, 2013 in category Movies - Lists
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Wednesday July 24, 2013

Quote of the Day

“If you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs in the 21st century.”

-- Pres. Barack Obama today in Galesburg, Ill., pushing a new economic policy designed to promote middle-class growth. The full transcript here.

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Posted at 03:24 PM on Jul 24, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Ranking Every Freakin' Superhero Movie Ever Made with Andrew Reed

Superhero movies

Reed's Comments

Had to really think back for some of these. Consider the ranking shaky at best. Yes, Supergirl beat out a lot of even lousier movies. ... Mine are very much aligned with yours. The only exceptions being the disdain I had for “Superman Returns” and the Spider-Man Reboot. Also, I am the only person I know (the only person alive) who liked “X-Men: the Last Stand.” Must've been in a good mood that day.

Reed's List

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. Iron Man (2008)
4. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
5. Watchmen (2009)
6. Kick-Ass (2010)
7. X2: X-Men United (2003)
8. The Green Hornet (2011)
9. Spider-Man (2002)
10. Unbreakable (2000)
11. Superman II (1981)
12. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
13. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
14. The Incredibles (2004)
15. Batman (1989)
16. Iron Man 2 (2010)
17. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
18. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
19. Hulk (2003)
20. Megamind (2010)
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
22. Batman Begins (2005)
23. Batman Returns (1992)
24. X-Men (2000)
25. Darkman (1990)
26. Batman Forever (1995)
27. Supergirl (1984)
28. Blankman (1994)
29. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
30. Superman Returns (2006)
31. Flash Gordon (1980)
32. Captain America (1990)
33. Green Lantern (2011)
34. Batman and Robin (1997)

My Comments

“The Green Hornet” makes the Top 10! I feel I should rewatch “Watchmen.” I saw it, and reviewed it (negatively), when I was just beginning all this. Back when I thought I knew something about this subject. Before I knew how much I didn't know.

Love that you saw the 1990 “Captain America.” But the headscratcher is the middling ranking of “The Avengers,” which I put way up there for one scene in particular.

Your Turn

Rank the Superhero movies

Superman smiles at the camera

No. 1 with a (faster than a speeding) bullet.

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Posted at 07:05 AM on Jul 24, 2013 in category Movies - Lists
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Tuesday July 23, 2013

Quote of the Day

“Today, whites support gun rights over gun control by a margin of nine points. By contrast, African-Americans support gun control over gun rights by a 44-point margin. [N.R.A. president David] Keene cites the traumatic memories of Jim Crow violence as reason to support gun rights; African-Americans cite the ongoing bloodletting in American cities as reason not to. ...

”Then there’s the thorny reality that not all self-defense is created equal. A study by the Urban Institute shows that just one per cent of cases in which a black person shoots a white person is ruled justifiable. When the races are reversed, in states without Stand Your Ground laws, that number climbs to 9.5 percent; in states with such laws, it reaches almost 17 percent.

“The N.R.A. has done little to ease the disparity. In May, 2012, Marissa Alexander, an African-American from Jacksonville, Florida, attempted to employ a Stand Your Ground defense after firing a “warning shot” during a dispute with her estranged husband, who had a history of domestic violence. (He was not harmed.) The claim was rejected and she was sentenced to twenty years in prison. The Alexander case appears to be precisely the kind of defense that the N.R.A. would support, especially as it strongly advocates guns as a form of self-protection for women, but the group has remained uninvolved.”

-- Jelani Cobb, “Perceived Threats: The Folly of Stand Your Ground,” on the New Yorker site

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Posted at 01:59 PM on Jul 23, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Ranking Every Freakin' Superhero Movie Ever Made with Uncle Vinny

Superhero Movies

Uncle Vinny's Comments

I've surely seen more than these 18 superhero movies, but these are the ones I'm certain I've seen and that made enough of an impression to get a ranking. I'm not especially passionate about my ranking except the top half is better than the bottom half, and “Unbreakable” is a piece of shit. For a fantastic movie with a similar theme, see Peter Weir's “Fearless.”

Uncle Vinny's List

1. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
2. Iron Man (2008)
3. The Dark Knight (2008)
4. Superman (1978)
5. The Incredibles (2004)
6. Iron Man 2 (2010)
7. Hancock (2008)
8. Thor (2011)
9. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
10. Mystery Men (1999)
11. Superman II (1981)
12. Batman (1989)
13. Superman III (1983)
14. Spider-Man (2002)
15. Batman Begins (2005)
16. Darkman (1990)
17. Batman and Robin (1997)
18. Unbreakable (2000)

My Comments

I've reached the age where I can see most points of view, particularly when it comes to film. But “Spider-Man” behind “Superman III”? And “Unbreakable” behind “Batman and Robin”? WTF? Admittedly, the first time I saw “Unbreakable,” I could only watch about 20 minutes before losing patience. But a friend encouraged me to check it out again.

Your Turn

Rank the Superhero movies

The Avengers assembled

The Avengers assembled.

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Posted at 07:43 AM on Jul 23, 2013 in category Movies - Lists
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Why It Took Forever to Make Good Superhero Movies

Here's why “Superman: The Movie” and “Batman” were the only decent superhero movies until the year 2000. The scene takes place in 1986:

But once again, [Stan Lee] would learn, Marvel's fate lay in the hands of people who knew nothing about comic books. Out in Los Angeles, as soon as the sale was made, [New World Pictures' Robert] Rehme had summoned his vice president of marketing and proudly told him, “We just bought Superman!”

The vice president was perplexed. Warner Bros. was selling DC Comics?

“No, no, no—we bought Marvel!” said Rehme.

“No, Bob,” the vice president corrected him. “We bought Spider-Man.”

Rehme raced out of his office. “Holy shit,” he said. “We gotta stop this. Cannon has the Spider-Man movie!”

-- from Sean Howe's book, “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” pg. 295.

I suppose we should be grateful that Cannon Films, which produced “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” and the 1992 “Captain America” movie, as well as “Death Wish II,” “III” and “IV” and “Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo,” never did make that Spider-Man movie. Although, per below, they were obviously doing more than thinking about it.

On the other hand, just imagine what a disaster it could have been. Such a gloriously awful disaster.

The Spider-Man movie that was never made, produced by Cannon Film

Disaster averted. Photo courtesy of Original Vid Junkie blogspot.

Don't forget to rank your favorite (and least-favorite) superhero movies.

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Posted at 06:19 AM on Jul 23, 2013 in category Superheroes
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Monday July 22, 2013

Quote of the Day

“If I was a big-studio production chief whose survival depended on greenlighting as many dumb-ass, CG-driven superhero-franchise-comicbook bullshit jizz-whiz movies (Batman Meets Superman, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Edge of Tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor 2, Captain America 2, Suck My Dick 3) as possible, I would need to get a colonic every weekend just to get rid of the poisons in my system. To say I would be seething with contempt for the tens of millions of fanboys who pay for my lifestyle … that would be putting it mildly. Ahab’s last words would have nothing on me.”

-- Jeffrey Wells, “Jean Luc Godard's Contempt,” on his Hollywood Elsewhere blog.

Ten-to-one someone's working on “Suck My Dick 3” right now.

Ang Lee's Hulk

Why Jeff mad? Make Hulk scared.

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Posted at 02:10 PM on Jul 22, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Ranking Every Freakin' Superhero Movie Ever Made with Erik Lundegaard

Ranking superhero movies

Intro

As we did with best pictures, as we did with baseball movies, we're now doing with superhero movies. Ranking them. All 96 of them and counting. 

It ain't easy to do. Sure, after a minute or two or 10 you've got your top movies. But those middling ones? The half OK, half awful ones? Brutal. How do you parse all of that disappointment? We're living in the superhero-movie age, yet there haven't been many great superhero movies, have there? Maybe there can't be. Maybe it's ultimately too juvenile a genre.

Caveat: I'm a Silver Age Marvel guy. What Frank Miller did with the genre is more Mickey Spillane than Stan Lee to me. Stan was about inner turmoil surrounded an outer toughness; Miller is about an outer toughness surrounding an inner cruelty. The Inhumans, created by Jack Kirby, are more human than Miller's humans. This point-of-view is reflected in my list.

But enough. Up up and away, semi-true believers! Or thwip! Or snikt! Or ... Yeah. Onward.

Erudite Erik's Superhero Movie Rankings

1. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
2. Superman: The Movie (1978)
3. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
4. X2: X-Men United (2003)
5. Iron Man (2008)
6. The Incredibles (2004)
7. Unbreakable (2000)
8. Spider-Man (2002)
9. X-Men (2000)
10. The Dark Knight (2008)

For me, “Spidey 2” wins it not only for adhering so well to the Silver-Age Marvel comic (“Spider-Man No More!”), but for giving us epic battles followed by poignant moments (elevated train, pieta; final battle, revelation). Christopher Reeve's original “Superman” is still the model on which most superhero movies are based. Plus it makes me feel 15 again. Joss Whedon gave us the epic Kirbyesque battle that the Fantastic Four/Galactus movie should have been (and didn't come close to being), while “X2” would probably be even higher on my list if its ending battle wasn't so ... meh. Obviously fanboys will be disappointed that “The Dark Knight” isn't ranked higher but it only made my top 10 because of Heath Ledger. But if it makes you feel better, Batfans, here's the IMDb rankings, where the entire “Dark Knight” trilogy is a little higher.

11. The Mark of Zorro (1940)
12. Mystery Men (1999)
13. Man of Steel (2013)
14. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
15. Batman (1966)
16. Iron Man 2 (2010)
17. The Mask of Zorro (1998)
18. Batman Begins (2005)
19. X-Men: First Class (2011)
20. Batman (1989)

Someday I should post on the Zorro movies the way I did with Superman movies. Or is that a groan I hear? And is it from me? “Mystery Men” is the best of the superhero comedies, followed closely by the Adam West “Batman.” Note: already the disappointment begins. “Man of Steel” gave us too much Krypton in the first half and too much destruction in the second. Ed Norton's “Hulk” worked best in Latin America, worst in Harlem. “Batman Begins” suffers from missed opportunities.

21. Superman Returns (2006)
22. Hancock (2008)
23. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
24. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
25. The Mark of Zorro (1920)
26. Superman II: The Donner Cut (2006)
27. Hellboy (2004)
28. Iron Man 3 (2013)
29. Batman (1943)
30. Thor (2011)

I'm a bigger fan of “Superman Returns” than most. “Hancock” was onto something but lost it. “Captain America” felt too anodyne, while “Amazing Spider-Man” rebooted too soon, tried too hard to be “Dark Knight,” and its hero was overall too distracted. (Hello? The Burglar?) Watch “the Donner cut” of Supes II for the first scene, which is great. I need to see “Hellboy” again. “Iron Man 3” makes it this high for the middle portion, Iron Man unironed, and for Robert Downey, Jr., who never loses his sense of irony. “Thor”? Verily, he never did much for me. By this point, not even halfway through the list, we're already beginning to get into the dregs.

31. Superman (1948)
32. Sky High (2005)
33. Kick-Ass (2010)
34. Blade (1998)
35. Chronicle (2012)
36. Hero at Large (1980)
37. Superman II (1981)
38. Watchmen (2009)
39. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
40. Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)

I can be persuaded to switch my vote on a lot of these. “Kick Ass” is better than “Sky High”? Sure. I just remember being charmed by the latter, pissed off by the former. “Blade” is better than “Thor”? Could be. At this point, I'm shrugging my shoulders.

41. Fantastic Four (2005)
42. Hulk (2003)
43. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
44. Batman Forever (1995)
45. Blade: Trinity (2004)
46. The Green Hornet (2011)
47. Superhero Movie (2008)
48. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
49. Batman Returns (1992)
50. The Shadow (1994)

It's getting painful now, isn't it? All those hours wasted: Mine, yours and the filmmakers'. All those dollars down the drain. All that talent that could've been working on better things.

51. Batman and Robin (1949)
52. Superman III (1983)
53. Daredevil (2003)
54. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
55. Superman and the Mole Men (1951)
56. Ghost Rider (2007)
57. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)
58. Elektra (2005)
59. Green Lantern (2011)
60. The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981)

For a while I thought “Daredevil” was the worst superhero movie ever made. Those were the days.

61. Supergirl (1984)
62. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
63. Batman and Robin (1997)
64. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
65. The Spirit (2008)

Can a superhero movie be worse than Frank Miller's “The Spirit”? Possibly. I haven't seen the 1994 version of “Fantastic Four,” for example. But “The Spirit” is at the bottom here because while “Supergirl” is awful, and “Spider-Man 3” destroys the legacy of the first two movies (while destroying Spider-Man's entire raison d'etre), and “Batman and Robin” is a chesse factory, and “Superman IV” ruins what good feelings we had left over from the Chris Reeve/Superman franchise, at least it had good intentions. Frank Miller had stars, budget, studio backing. He had power and he created this CGI crapfest. We never get outside of his imagination and his imagination is small and dirty. It’s appropriate that our first set piece is the swampland outside Central City, because that’s what Miller’s imagination feels like to me. There, the Octopus clangs a toilet over The Spirit’s head and laughs, and when The Spirit doesn’t join in, when none of us join in, he declares, in full Sam Jackson bore, “Come on! Toilets are always funny!” To quote from the film: “Pardon me, but is there a point to this? I’m getting old just listening to you.”

Not Yet Seen

Don Q: Son of Zorro (1925)
Zorro Rides Again (1937)
Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939)
The Shadow (1940)
Adventures of Captian Marvel (1941)
The Phantom (1943)
Captain America (1944)
Flash Gordon (1980)
The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)
Darkman (1990)
Captain America (1990)
The Rocketeer (1991)
The Meteor Man (1993)
The Fantastic Four (1994)
Blankman (1994)
The Phantom (1996)
Steel (1997)
Spawn (1997)
The Specials (2000)
Blade II (2002)
The Punisher (2004)
Catwoman (2004)
The Legend of Zorro (2005)
Zoom (2006)
My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Megamind (2010)
Super (2011)

Your Turn

Rank the Superhero movies

Christopher Reeve, Superman

Go on; you know you want to rank 'em.

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Posted at 09:38 AM on Jul 22, 2013 in category Movies - Lists
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Sunday July 21, 2013

Movie Review: Superhero Movie (2008)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Surprise! There are actually a few funny moments in “Superhero Movie.”

At one point, for example, after he’s bitten by a genetically created dragonfly that gives him the proportionate strength of a dragonfly (although such nerdlinger lines are sadly never tossed around), Rick Riker, this movie’s Peter Parker (Drake Bell), has a nail from a nailgun accidently fired at him by his Uncle Albert (Leslie Nielsen). He catches it. “How did you do that?” Uncle Albert asks. Trying to maintain his secret identity, Rick says, “It’s … easier than it looks.” At which point, Uncle Albert shoots a nail at the leg of Rick’s friend, Trey (Kevin Hart), who screams in pain and crumples to the ground. “No, I don’t think so,” Albert says.

Mostly, though, “Superhero Movie” is filled with jokes about farts, humping animals, pubic hair, blow jobs, and whatever stupid people were glomming onto in 2008: MySpace, Tom Cruise’s YouTube rants, etc.

Shame. Is there a movie genre begging to be spoofed more than the superhero movie? poster for Superhero MovieThe western got “Blazing Saddles,” the disaster pic “Airplane!” and the cop drama “The Naked Gun.” Mike Myers spoofed ‘60s spy thrillers with “Austin Powers” and “Star Trek” was sent up with “Galaxy Quest.”

But the superhero genre that’s been dominating the box office for most of the 21st century? Crap. Not even “Not Brand Ecch!”

The timing of “Superhero Movie” was off, too. It was released in March 2008, when 2002’s “Spider-Man” was the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time, and so, with brief forays into “Batman Begins” (to explain Rick’s orphaned status) and the X-Men series (a Prof. X figure nonsensically tries to recruit Rick), it mostly just spoofs “Spider-Man.” Nerdy kid gets stung by dragonfly, develops super strength. There’s a Flash Thompson character, Lance Landers (Ryan Hansen), a Norman Osborne character, Lou Landers (Christopher McDonald), who becomes the villainous Hourglass, who often uses time-related puns in his threats to the city. Instead of M.J. next door, it’s J.J., Jill Johnson (Sara Paxton), who wants to be a dancer instead of an actress. Uncle Albert gets shot by a crook; Aunt Lucille (Marion Ross) is there with ponderous advice; and with great power comes  …

Rick: Great responsibility?
Albert: I was gonna say bitches, but if you want to be a virgin all your life.

The movie is best when it’s spoofing the tropes of the genre. Dragonfly and the Hourglass get dizzy midfight when the camera keeps spinning around them. Rick, in love, watches J.J. in slow-motion … until Lance pushes him: “Watch where you’re going in slow-mo, dipshit!” All of the names are alliterative in the Mighty Marvel Manner, while the Dragonfly gets into a shoving match with a Human Torch figure over who gets to stare broodingly over the city from a specific gargoyle perch. But that’s more Batman/Daredevil. That’s Frank Miller stuff. Should’ve been raining, too.

Leslie Nielsen, two years before his death, still has that great deadpan delivery. Brent Spiner helps as Dr. Landers’ craven assistant.

But most of the humor is lowest-common denominator stuff. Dr. Stephen Hawking (Robert Joy) complains about his lack of sex, makes an “ass…stronomy” joke, and gets pushed into a hive of bees. Aunt Lucille makes jokes about pubic hair and blowjobs, then becomes the butt of the longest fart joke I’ve seen on film. The longest. Apparently they were going for the record. Even the Farrelly Brothers were grossed out. They said, “Take it down a notch already.”

“Superhero Movie” was written and directed by Craig Mazin, who previously wrote “Scary Movie 3” and “4,” and went on to write “The Hangover II” and “III,” as well as the abysmal “Identity Thief.” One gets the feeling this is his A game.

On the plus side? The great modern superhero movie parody is still waiting to be made. Opportunity, kids.

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Posted at 03:22 PM on Jul 21, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Box Office: 'The Conjuring' Howls to First as 'Turbo' Sputters, 'Red 2' Redcarded and 'R.I.P.D.' Arrives D.O.A.

“The Conjuring,” an original, throwback horror movie with good reviews (85% on Rotten Tomatoes), won the weekend with a $41 million haul.

It's the second-best opening for a horror movie ever, after “Paranormal Activity 3,” which opened with $52 million in October 2011. It's also the 12th-best opening this year, and it did it in fewer than 3,000 theaters (2,903). Among the big-budget movies that had worse opening weekends?

“The Conjuring” also opened better than “Red 2,” “Turbo” and “R.I.P.D.,” all of which opened this weekend, none of which came close to “The Conjuring.”

“Turbo,” a Fox Studios cartoon with a 66% RT rating, actually opened Wednesday. But even if its five-day total is $31 mil, which doesn't come close.

“Red 2,” the sequel to “Red,” with a 40% RT score, opened at $18.5, which is less than the original, which is a bad sign for a sequel.

“R.I.P.D.,” with Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges as ghost-busters, dead men attempting to police the dead the way that the Men in Black policed aliens, got ripped by the critics (11%) and ignored at the box office ($12.7). Not a good weekend for Reynolds, who was also the lead voice in “Turbo.”

These new movies were 1, 3, 5 and 7 respectively on the charts. The even numbers between them were taken up by “Despicable Me 2” ($25 mil, fell off 43%), “Grown Ups 2” ($20 mil, fell off 52%), and “Pacific Rim” ($16, fell off 57%, despite Uncle Vinny's entreaties). Bummer. Means Adam Sandler still has a career, even as Bruce Willis' and Ryan Reynolds' gets shakier.

The weekend numbers here.

The Conjuring, No. 1 at the weekend box office

Lili Taylor can now afford a flashlight.

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Posted at 10:51 AM on Jul 21, 2013 in category Movies - Box Office
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The 'Stand Your Ground' Law, Starring Yellowbelly

Opponents of Florida's “Stand Your Ground” law are attacking the wrong aspect of the law.

Here's an Op-Ed in the New York Times:

Police officers are trained to de-escalate highly charged encounters with aggressive people, using deadly force as a last resort. Citizens, on the other hand, may act from emotion and perceived threats. But “stand your ground” gives citizens the right to use force in public if they feel threatened.

Proponents named it well. “Stand Your Ground” plays upon Western lore and Hollywood mythmaking. It recalls John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, tough men who stood their ground and won the day. This is how the laws' proponents want to see themselves. You get nowhere attacking that.

You should attack the “feel threatened” part. I mean, who doesn't feel threatened? We all do. I do every day. What does that mean? If I were in Florida, could I shoot whoever threatened me? Who I perceived as a threat? Is Yellowbelly, a John Candy character from SCTV, the ultimate proponent of “Stand Your Ground” laws?

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Posted at 07:58 AM on Jul 21, 2013 in category Law
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Saturday July 20, 2013

Zack Snyder Announces 'Man of Steel 2' Will Include Batman

At the San Diego Comic-Con today, Zack Snyder, director of “Man of Steel,” “Sucker Punch,” “Watchmen,” and “300,” announced that the sequel to “Man of Steel,” which I thought might be up in the air (no pun intended), given that, after its opening weekend, it hasn't exactly set the world on fire, will include the Batman. (Actor playing Batman to be determined.)

Initial thought: Cool! Lead-up to a Justice League of America movie, right?

Second thought: Smart! It'll get more people to see a Superman movie.

Third thought: Wait, how are they going to do this? Won't it be like ... this?

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Posted at 03:32 PM on Jul 20, 2013 in category Superheroes
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Movie Review: Only God Forgives (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” is the type of movie critics like to call “Lynchian” but I get the feeling that if David Lynch ever saw it he’d go, “What the fuck was that about?” It’s the type of movie only God could forgive. Well, God and Todd Gilchrist, who gave it a positive review.

It’s all atmosphere. Ponderous atmosphere. Plus eviscerations.

The plot is simple. A scummy American drug dealer in Bangkok, Billy (Tom Burke), with a predilection for young girls, rapes and kills a 16-year-old and remains behind as evidence. A local cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), then makes the father of the girl kill Billy. Then Chang chops off one of the father’s hands for making prostitutes out of his daughters in the first place. Only God Forgives posterWhen Billy’s mother, the family matriarch Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, looking like Madonna by way of New Jersey), roars into town for revenge, she has the father killed and pays two goons to get Chang. Bad move. Chang is not only a cop but a master of Muay Thai and swordfighting; he’s Thai cousin to Kyuzo, the master swordsman of “Seven Samurai,” and he survives the assault, then goes after the bad guys. He kills the killers, kills Crystal, and chops off the hands of Julian (Ryan Gosling), Crystal’s other son, the ostensible star of the movie, who has almost nothing to do here. He sings a maudlin karaoke song to his fellow cops in a very David-Lynch-like bar and the movie ends.

Right. What the fuck was that about?

I like that there are no real good guys and bad guys here; Chang is the closest we have to a good guy. He’s our real protagonist. I like that Julian, our ostensible protagonist, who is even more incomprehensible than his character in Refn’s “Drive,” offers to fight Chang and loses badly. It basically goes like this:

Cop: You know who he is?
[Julian nods.]
[Julian walks up to Chang.]
[Chang turns around]
Julian: Wanna fight?
[Chang sizes up Julian. After 10-15 seconds, nods.]

Then we get the fight. And Julian doesn’t lay a hand on him. He winds up looking worse than Rocky Balboa after the 15th round.

Much of the movie feels like a dream, a—yes—Lynchian dream, complete with red walls and raised red lanterns, but if it is a dreamscape it’s not much different than the supposed reality of the land. Everyone is stoic. Everyone takes 10 to 15 seconds to respond to a question. Do we get 300 words in this movie? 250? Was Refn going for the record?

It’s as if he took everything I liked about “Drive,” one of my favorite movies of 2011, and threw it away, and took everything I disliked about “Drive” and made this movie out of it. It’s not just style over substance; it’s ponderous style over almost no substance at all.

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Posted at 07:31 AM on Jul 20, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Friday July 19, 2013

They Keep Making Sequels to Movies I Pan

I know: the critic's lament.

“Red 2,” starring Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Mary Louise Parker and Morgan Freeman, opens today at theaters across the country.

Don't remember the original, “Red”? I do. I remember going to it on a dark day in October 2010 and leaving the theater in a darker mood. Here's part of my review:

How far have we fallen as a country in the last 30 years?

Our movies about the CIA used to be like this: The CIA is trying to assassinate the president of the United States! Oh my god!

Now they’re this: The CIA is trying to assassinate the vice-president of the United States! Yay!

Our fear used to be Frankensteinian in nature. The monster we created, the national security agency, had turned on its creator, the U.S. government, and through a rogue agent (“In the Line of Fire”), or with the help of the entire agency (“JFK”), was trying to remove the democratically elected president of the United States. The CIA, created to protect the people, but unaccountable to the people, was subverting democracy.

Now? In “Red”? The agency still sucks because it’s a bureaucracy and bureaucracies suck. But democracy sucks, too. The vice-president needs to be assassinated not only because he’s immoral but because he’s running for president—he has the money and the organization—and we have no faith that we the people won’t see through the money and organization, and we’ll elect him anyway. We are, in a certain sense, the movie’s unnamed villains. Democracy, a good idea in its day, doesn’t work with people as stupid as us.

“Red” grossed an unexpected $98 million domestic, $108 international. It's got a 7.0 on IMDb and a 72% favorability rating from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes. So here we are again. The sequel looks even worse.

Further reading on the history of the CIA in cinema.

“Red 2” is hardly the beginning and hardly the end. The next few weeks will bring us sequels to “Wolverine” and “Kick Ass,” neither of which I liked. Well, barely anyone liked “Wolverine.” Even though everyone likes Wolverine.

Mary Louise Parker, Bruce Willis and John Malkovich in "Red 2"

Our krazy krew: bragging about toppling governments.

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Posted at 02:50 PM on Jul 19, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Quote of the Day

“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. ...

”I think it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away. There are very few African Americans in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. “That happens to me--at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”

-- Pres. Barack Obama at a White House press briefing, commenting on the Trayvon Martin case, the George Zimmerman verdict, and “Stand Your Ground” laws.

Full transcript and video here.

Related: In 2003, when Obama was mistaken for a waiter.

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Posted at 11:14 AM on Jul 19, 2013 in category Law
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Movie Review: Hero At Large (1980)

WARNING: SPOILERS

They should remake this movie. We could use its message again.

An out-of work actor named Steve Nichols (John Ritter) takes a gig appearing as Captain Avenger at local cinemas to help promote the apparently dying superhero movie of the same name. He’s a generous personality, a gee-whiz Midwestern guy who helps fellow actors get jobs, and he likes the superhero gig. He’s kind of thrilled by it. One night after an appearance, wearing an overcoat over his red suit, he’s at a mom-and-pop grocery store in his Lower East Side neighborhood when it’s robbed. It takes a moment, but eventually he springs into action. Poster for "Hero At Large" starring John Ritter and Anne ArcherHe stands arms akimbo, annunciating like the character, and scatters the hoodlums—one of whom flees outright, the other after a 15-second fist fight—then turns to mom and pop, amazed at what he’s done, what he’s gotten away with, what acting he did.

The rest of the movie follows from this one act of daring and kindness. He appears four more times as Captain Avenger:

  1. His life and career failing elsewhere, he attempts to remake the magic of the first incident but winds up with a bullet in the arm and a determination to hang up the cape and tights.
  2. When Walter Reeves (Bert Convy), the PR firm representing Captain Avenger—as well as the Mayor in a tough reelection campaign—figures out who he is, they cajole him into an orchestrated elevated-train-robbery to make people feel good about the city again. It works, but Steve feels like crap afterwards. He knows it’s phony, he feels like a phony, and he’s determined to hang up the cape and tights.
  3. Still, as agreed, he shows up at a rally for the Mayor, accepting a key to the city, then, apparently on his own, gives a “It’s not me, it’s you” speech to the cheering crowd. He talks about how there are heroes everywhere; he says we just have to pull together and care more about each other. It’s at this point, though, that an enterprising reporter, Gloria Preston (Jane Hallaren), exposes incident #2 as a fraud, which means Steve’s a fraud. The mob turns on him quickly. Fights break out. People don’t care again.
  4. Ashamed, about to leave the city for good, he comes across a tenement-building fire (of course), with a kid trapped inside (of course), and the Fire Chief determined not to let any of his men risk their necks (of course). So he springs into action again as Captain Avenger. After he saving the boy, though, he needs saving. Which is what happens. Two burly local guys, one black and one white, along with the Fire Chief, run into the burning building to get him, thus proving the message in his speech. We are all heroes.

After that, he gets the girl, J. Marsh (Anne Archer), along with a happy ending, and the two walk along the streets of New York as the camera pans up and back. Fade out

We could use this message again.

Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
No, not the “We’re all heroes” message. Ick.

I’m talking about the movie’s tangential discussion on hero worship: our overwhelming, insatiable, juvenile need for heroes. You could really do something with that in this day and age. You could attempt to upend the genre with that.

“Hero At Large” was made at a time when the genre didn’t even exist. It opened on February 8, 1980, when only one superhero movie, as we now understand them, had been made: “Superman,” starring Christopher Reeve. Before that, you had a few TV superheroes (Hulk, Shazam, 1950s Superman), a mess of Saturday morning cartoons, and the movie serials of the 1940s.

More, popular cinema was just beginning to switch from an era of gritty antiheroes, disappearing frontiers and depressing endings to the over-the-top heroics and ultimate triumphs of … take your pick. Luke Skywalker. Rocky Balboa. Indiana Jones. Maverick. John McClane. Superman. Batman. Spider-Man. Iron Man. The motherfucking Avengers. In its own way, despite its gritty New York locations and everyman message, “Hero” is trying to push us toward that future. It wants us to want heroes. It wants us to feel good again.

At one point, as New York City is going Captain Avenger crazy, a local TV host (William Bogert) talks up the phenomenon, then lets his two female panelists, journalist Gloria Preston and Dr. Joyce Brothers (playing herself), debate the matter:

Brothers: Who’s to say it’s unhealthy to admire a heroic figure?
Preston: Oh, I will. The next we’ll be doing is, uh, looking for genies in bottles or having our fairy godmothers take us to the ball.

The host then asks if the public response to Captain Avenger doesn’t indicate that people would like to have a hero. Brothers: “Of course they would.” Preston: “What happens when they find out it’s a joke?”

Preston’s assumption is incorrect at this moment. Steve hasn’t faked anything. He’s a legitimate nice guy and one-time hero. No, the better response is: “Of course people want a hero. Then what?” I.e., What happens when you buy into it as much as we buy into it? When you see it every weekend at the movie theaters? When you see it every night on TV? Do you begin to think we’re the heroes, that our powers are limitless, that happy endings are de rigueur? Do you transfer the tropes of the genre off the screen and into, say, the political realm? Do you see our country as the hero, stalking and routing villains, and then wonder where the happy ending went? Why it got so complicated? Do you have trouble dealing with complexity and relativity of the world? Do you have trouble seeing the world as it is? Do you assume absolutes? Do you yearn for a simpler time?

“We need our hopes, just as we need our fantasies,” Dr. Brothers says on the talk show, then turns toward the camera and speaks directly to Steve. “We need you, Captain Avenger, dream and reality. Keep it up!”

He does. We have.

Come and knock on her door
The rest of the movie is lukewarm romance: Steve inveigling his way into J.’s apartment and her life. It’s got a “Three’s Company” vibe—he’s often shirtless, or in a towel, and there’s sexual innuendo. J. isn’t interested in him until she is. Then she isn’t again. Then she is. It’s love.

Archer is both annoying and sexy, while Ritter is too emphatic, too pungent, in both his niceness and his pushiness. He seems to gulp things in. The acting from both actors feels like acting.

Steve is basically Clark Kent—Midwestern nice guy that nobody in the city believes can be that nice—while the back-and-forth with J. borrows heavily from “Superman”:

J.: Why do you do it?
Steve: Because of what happened. All of those people who called in and wrote letters. How often do you get to do something that’s really special?
J.: You really mean that, don’t you? You’re for real.

Later, when it all falls apart and he’s ready to leave city, still wearing his red suit and striped underwear, she gives him a pep talk:

J.: If you run away, the bad guys win.
Steve: They win anyway. They’ve got the numbers. … Nobody listens.
J. (quietly): I did.

So did Hollywood.

Captain Avenger at the mom-and-pop store

Captain Avenger to the rescue!

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Posted at 07:55 AM on Jul 19, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s
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Thursday July 18, 2013

Trailer: Dear Mr. Watterson

A lot of the movies I'm most interested in seeing this fall are docs: “Salinger” in September, and this one, “Dear Mr. Watterson,” about the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, which opens on November 15:

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Posted at 03:26 PM on Jul 18, 2013 in category Trailers
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Movie Review: Muscle Shoals (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Having grown up hearing how white performers made a mint off of, or stole outright, black music, it’s fascinating to see, in Greg Camalier’s excellent documentary “Muscle Shoals,” just who was backing some of the great black performers of the 1960s. Wilson Pickett on “Mustang Sally”? White dudes. Percy Sledge on “When a Man Loves a Woman”? White dudes. Aretha on “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”? The same white dudes, a group of guys from or near Muscle Shoals, Ala., called the Swampers. In this doc, they’re variously called “funky,” “groovy,” and, courtesy of Aretha, “greasy” with a z, but the best description comes from a man who never played with them. Bono, U2’s frontman, calls them “a bunch of white guys who looked like they worked at the supermarket around the corner.”

So how did they get together? And why did some of the greatest singers in the world begin to make a pilgrimage to Muscle Shoals, Ala., in order to make music?

It starts with tragedy.

Greasy with a Z
Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios, a rinky-dink place in Muscle Shoals, was raised in Franklin County, Ala., after his mother left both he and his father to become a prostitute. Early poster for the documentary "Muscle Shoals" (2013)Wait, it gets better. He married young but his wife died in a car accident when he was behind the wheel. Wait, still better. Once he made some money, he bought his father a tractor and the tractor eventually killed him.

Like Dilsey, Rick Hall endured. His father instilled in him a drive to make it, to be somebody, as Hall says in the doc. So after his wife’s death, along with several others, he started FAME Studios—Florence Alabama Music Enterprises—and in a few years produced Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” which became a Top 40 hit in 1962 and was covered by the Rolling Stones two years later. He found Percy Sledge working as a hospital orderly and produced his song “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which has become one of the great R&B classics. He came to the attention of Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, who sent him Wilson Pickett. Among others, “Mustang Sally” resulted.

Aretha showed up. She’d been misused by her previous record label, Columbia, so Wexler sent her to Muscle Shoals where they recorded “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You),” which went to No. 1 on the R&B chart. But a contretemps occurred between her husband and a backing musician, Hall made it worse, and Aretha cut out for New York to record, with the Swampers, the rest of the album. Yes, including “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

That was just the beginning. Etta James showed up. The Staples Singers. Duane Allman, Jimmy Cliff, the Rolling Stones. Hell, even the Osmonds.

Some of the best documentaries connect things we didn’t know were connected, and that’s what “Muscle Shoals” does. I didn’t know so much music, so much great and long-lasting music, came out of one small Southern town. Attempts to explain this fact sometimes verge on the mystical. “At different points in time, on this planet, there are certain places where there is a field of energy,” Jimmy Cliff says. I like Bono’s explanation better. Of various musical traditions, he says, “It always seems to come out of the river.” Of the Muscle Shoals sound, he adds, “We felt the blood in that. We felt the pulse of it. And we wanted some.”

Without a pulse
The tragedy of Rick Hall, who’s known so much tragedy, is that eventually everyone leaves Rick Hall. His first backing band split to create their own recording studio in Nashville so he promptly created another, made up of Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood and Roger Hawkins, who became the Swampers, made music history, and eventually broke from Hall, too, at the end of the 1960s.

What is it about the end of the ‘60s that led to so many breakups? Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, my parents, your parents.

Like the breakup of the Beatles, the breakup of Hall and the Swampers created disparate sounds, a few good songs, but less magic. Hall produced the Osmonds and Paul Anka, and he wrote, and convinced Clarence Carter to perform, “Patches,” a treacly story-song, which, in an era of treacly story-songs, went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1973. The Swampers recorded the Rolling Stones (“Sticky Fingers”), backed Paul Simon (“Kodachrome”), refused to cut down Lynryd Skynyrd’s rambling “Free Bird” and thus lost the band.

Hall won awards during this period—nominated for a Grammy in 1970, Billboard’s Producer of the Year in 1971—but the doc doesn’t acknowledge that this later music, while popular, was tinny, maudlin and forgettable. It didn’t have a pulse. The subsequent decades are glossed over because not much worthwhile happened. One wonders why. Do even the most talented, the most driven, get only a moment? The river is still there, after all. It keeps rolling. Does Hall not hear it anymore? Or is it something else? All of us only have so much to say and only a moment in which we have the opportunity to say it. Maybe this was their moment.

If so: damn.

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Posted at 07:36 AM on Jul 18, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Wednesday July 17, 2013

Quote of the Day

“The facts matter, and trials are all about facts. Every time there is a high-profile trial, observers rush to draw conclusions about the American legal system—or even about American society—based on the results. But the idiosyncrasies of the trial process generally make such judgments unwise. A dog walker, a security camera, a clearer audio on a 911 tape—and we’d be having a very different conversation about the Zimmerman trial.”

-- Jeffrey Toobin, “The Facts in the Zimmerman Trial,” on the New Yorker site.

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Posted at 02:51 PM on Jul 17, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Ranking Filibusters: More Reasons Why the GOP Sucks

Hendrik Hertzberg on the New Yorker site breaks down the three types of filibusters used to stall executive action and the legislative process, and ranks them from most defensible to least defensible:

Senate filibusters allow a minority of the Senate, against the wishes of the majority, to do three things. Torpedoing a President’s nominee for a post in his Administration is the most indefensible of them. The President is separately (and more or less democratically) elected. He has a presumptive right to staff his Administration with like-minded officials. Also, an executive nomination is like a law that has a sunset provision: the appointment expires automatically when the Presidency changes hands. Filibusters of ordinary legislation are slightly less indefensible, because a law can always be repealed by a future Congress. (Of course, repealing a law is as subject to filibuster sabotage as passing one.) Filibusters of judicial nominees, especially of Supreme Court Justices, are actually the least indefensible of the three. The judiciary is the joint creation of the Presidency and the Senate (“advise and consent”). And judicial appointments are for life. They don’t expire every four years like Cabinet and other executive-branch appointees. They can’t be repealed. Once judges or Justices are on the bench, they’re there for good. (Or for ill.) The only way they leave office is if they die, retire voluntary, or are impeached—and the last impeachment of a Supreme Court Justice was two hundred and eight years ago. With judicial appointments, the stakes are higher. So it almost makes sense, arguably, for the barrier to be higher, too.

How easy would it be to employ the so-called nuclear option and get ride of filibusters altogether? Pretty damn easy:

On the floor, a Democratic senator would have raised a point of order. He or she would have asked the presiding officer (Vice-President Biden would want to be in the chair for this one) to rule that requiring a sixty-vote “cloture” before a nominee for an executive position can be confirmed or rejected by a simple majority is unconstitutional and, therefore, is out of order. The presiding officer would have so ruled. A Republican would have appealed the ruling. The ruling would have been upheld—by a simple majority. Presto chango.

Hertzberg is for employing the nuclear option, by the way. But he thought Harry Reid's compromise wasn't bad.

Now play ball.

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Posted at 02:41 PM on Jul 17, 2013 in category Politics
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Quote Quiz: Fill in the Blank with the Movie Title

“The film shrewdly touches contemporary nerves. Our society is pervaded by a conviction of powerlessness. ___________ makes it possible for all of us, in the darkness of the movie house, to become powerful. It plays upon our inner fantasies, not only on the criminal inside each of us but on our secret admiration for men who get what they want, whose propositions no one dares turn down.”

-- Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

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Posted at 07:18 AM on Jul 17, 2013 in category Movies - Quotes
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Tuesday July 16, 2013

My Most-Quoted Movie Lines: 'Most Certainly'

For a while I kept screwing it up; I kept saying “Most definitely.” Then I watched “The Insider” again and realized it was “Most Certainly.” That's how “Play It Again, Sam”s are born, I guess. Particularly in the age before VHS and DVD and Blu-Ray and streaming, and all of the options you and I have. 

The line comes at 2:25. The whole scene is great. That everyone involved, from director Michael Mann on down, could make what is essentially the taping of a “60 Minutes” segment so fascinating, making it into one of the best movies of the 1990s, says a lot about the talent involved.

Extra credit: Jeff Wigand, on Charlie Rose, talking about the exemplary job Russell Crowe did in portraying him. He calls it “surreal” and “eerie.” Most certainly.

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Posted at 05:27 AM on Jul 16, 2013 in category Movies - Quotes
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Monday July 15, 2013

Quote of the Day

“Last spring, I watched as hundreds of people, almost all wearing hooded sweatshirts, gathered in Union Square for an impromptu 'Million Hoodie March' in solidarity with the parents of Trayvon Martin. A current of outrage, undoubtedly, circulated within that throng. But Martin’s mother and father, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, were models of grace and fortitude, making consistent appeals for peace; they were not wild-eyed demagogues whose vision of justice was located somewhere between the Second Amendment and the Old Testament. I could barely hear them when they spoke to the gathering, but, even so, the calm dignity of their words and their gratitude for the outpouring of support were obvious. What I remember most is the sight of them making their way through the protesters to a waiting car, as if they were drifting on a tide of grief. There was anger in the crowd, but the sentiment that predominated—as it has in the immediate aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict—was simply sadness.”

-- Jelani Cobb, who's done some great work on the Zimmerman trial, in the piece “After the Verdict: the Zimmerman Non-Riots,” on The New Yorker site. First graph includes the latest awful thing Newt Gringrich has said.

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Posted at 03:09 PM on Jul 15, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: The Way, Way Back (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“The Way, Way Back,” a sweet, coming-of-age movie, is just a little too.

Duncan, (Liam James), a 14-year-old forced to spend the summer at his mom’s boyfriend’s beach house, is just a little too silent and slouched. Trent (Steve Carell), the boyfriend, is too much of a macho asshole, while the girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), is way too pretty and caring. She’s there to notice what’s happening in Duncan’s life and bring him out of his shell. Apparently she has no life of her own. She’s just there to serve the geeky boy’s story. As all pretty girls do.

As a result, the movie is just a little too simple. What exactly does Duncan learn here? Others learn. They learn the world is almost exactly as Duncan sees it.

1 to 10
The movie opens with one of the oddest conversations I’ve heard between an adult and a teenager The Way, Way Back (2013)in the movies.

Trent is driving up to his summer place with his new girlfriend, Pam (Toni Collette), asleep in the passenger seat; his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), asleep in the backseat; and Pam’s silent, awkward son Duncan, awake in the way, way back of Trent’s classic, wood-paneled station wagon. Duncan wants to be alone with his thoughts but Trent more or less bullies him into conversation. He asks if he’s asleep. He wonders how Duncan sees himself. Then he tries to ascribe a number to it. On a scale of 1 to 10, what are you?

Trent: You don’t have any opinion?
Trent: I’m just asking.
Trent: Pick a number.
Duncan: A six.
Trent: A what?
Duncan: A six.
Trent: I think you’re a three …

He tells him he’s too passive and misses opportunities. “Plenty of opportunities at my beach house this summer,” he says. “One day we could become a family,” he says. “So what do you say? Let’s try to get that score up, huh?”

You think: Either this guy is clumsily attempting to get Duncan out of his shell or he’s a massive asshole, belittling the belittled as a way to mark territory that no one is remotely threatening. You hope for the former. You hope for nuance.

Nope. The dude’s a dick. And he becomes more of a dick the more we see him. He continues to bully and belittle Duncan—making him wear a life vest on a boat where everyone else is free of them. He’s petty about board games and vindictive when threatened. He winds up cheating on Pam with Joan (Amanda Peet), and when this becomes known in a too-public argument, he tells Duncan, who repeats that he just wants to spend the summer with his father, that he isn’t doing that because his father doesn’t want him. Nobody wants him. It’s reminiscent of that great scene in Ron Howard’s “Parenthood” when Gary (a young Joaquin Phoenix) calls his father to live with him only to get rebuffed—except it’s not nearly as poignant.

Trent’s daughter, Steph, is an awful person, too, and she doesn’t want to hang with Duncan, who’s quiet and geeky and wears jeans to the beach. At times he seems like a Michael Shannon in training. It takes half the summer before someone suggests he puts on a swimsuit. Duncan’s mom? She’s too busy with Trent and the other adults. Susanna calls their beachside town “spring break for adults” and it is. The grown-ups drink too much, go out on boats; drink too much, sit around a campfire; drink too much, stumble around in the dark. They don’t act like parents. They act like people grasping at some sad, last bit of happiness before they begin the downhill slide. It’s autumn break.

The ultimate big brother
Duncan, 14, with his whole life ahead of him, tools around town on the only transportation available: a pink bike with tassels on the handlebars. He meets Owen (Sam Rockwell) at a pizza joint playing Pac-Man, and again at a water park, Water Wizz, where Owen lives, and where he deals with his own stunted life by being larger than life and joshing with everyone. “You’re going to have to leave,” he tells Duncan, a sad sack sitting by himself. “You’re having way too much fun and people are complaining.” After he gets Duncan a job at Water Wizz, he asks him to break up a couple of kids breakdancing poolside. “Worse-case scenario,” Owen tells him, “they beat you up and you’re horribly disfigured.”

If Pac-Man, break-dancing and station wagons—and with them, the very concept of “the way, way back,” which would be lost on today’s SUV-riding kids—seem more 1980s than 2010s, just wait. We also hear “New Sensation” by INXS. Owen talks through the lyrics to Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero,” then recounts the entire plot of “Footloose” to an uncomprehending teen crowd. One gets the feeling that writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who also play Wizz employees Roddy and Lewis) originally wrote this as a period piece but were forced to update. Maybe they had it in a drawer since the ‘90s.  Maybe it finally got greenlit after the success of “The Descendants,” which they co-wrote with Alexander Payne. But it feels set in the past. No one’s texting anyone. Duncan’s mom doesn’t give her smartphone to Duncan so he’ll keep in touch. She can’t, because it’s really the 1980s.

I like how the actors are cast against type. Carell has never played annoying in the macho American tradition, and he’s good at it, but Rockwell steals the movie. The actor who usually plays schitzy and scuzzy is here the ultimate mentor/big brother, setting the shy kid on his own path, building him up and bringing him out. Of course Duncan idolizes him. So did I, and I’m 50.

In a smaller role, Allison Janney shines as Susanna’s mom, Betty, who always has hair askew, a drink in one hand, and an awkward, often embarrassing revelation to proclaim to the world. She’s brassy. But as Susanna’s mom? At the end, from Duncan’s perspective, we see them hug, and Janney, with her big features, towers over Robb, with her delicate features. She’s envelopes her. She makes Robb seem like a delicate French hors d’oeuvre she’s about to devour.

Liam James is good in the lead, too, although he ultimately seems more silent than sullen. He seems too mature. Near the end, his mother finally visits Water Wizz and sees his photo decorating the “Employee of the Month” board. He’s grinning awkwardly, eagerly, as if Owen had just made him laugh. There’s something gloriously geeky about it. It’s probably the first time she’s seen him smile in months. That photo broke my heart in a way the rest of the movie didn’t.  

14 Up
“The Way, Way Back” obviously recalls “Adventureland,” the 2009 coming-of-age comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg: amusement park, summer, pretty girl. It also less-obviously recalls “Mud,” a coming-of-age story set in Arkansas along the White River: kid with family troubles, gloms onto charismatic rebel, helps him with his business.

In “Mud,” though, Ellis discovers the world isn’t full of absolutes; it’s full of shades of gray. Duncan doesn’t learn that here. He doesn’t begin to see the world from an adult perspective; the adult, his mom, begins to see it from his. In the end, she climbs into the way, way back with him. They’re a team again because Trent is such an asshole. But that’s not much of an answer. Earlier, Owen tells Duncan not to let Trent define him, but that’s what the movie does. It constructs its ending, its resolution, in opposition to the awfulness of Trent.

Did Duncan need to learn nothing? A lot of trouble could’ve been avoided, for example, if he’d simply told his mom where he was going every day. “Hey Mom. I got a job at this place called Water Wizz. Pretty fun. See ya!”

I know: Being 14 is rough. I think of Michael Apted’s “Up” series. The kids at 7 are outgoing and lively, then at 14, boom, they all retreat inward, as if shocked and stupefied by adolescence. I was the same. In 1978, when I was 15, our family visited Rehoboth Beach, Del., our summer retreat. On the drive out, Shaun Cassidy’s “Da Doo Ron Ron” kept playing on the radio, and I thought how cool it would be to meet a girl named Jill, like in the song. When it didn’t happen, when I didn’t meet any girls (because I was too skinny and silent and brooding like Duncan), I invented her. I pretended to friends back home, or a friend back home, that I’d had a girlfriend at the beach. Yeah, I was that guy. I look back now and shake my head. Will Duncan, in middle age, look back at this summer and shake his head at anything he did? In the end, it turned out pretty well for him. He made friends, came out of his shell, kissed a pretty girl. Plus his mom realized what a jerk that Trent was. Why, it was almost like a movie.

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Posted at 09:20 AM on Jul 15, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Sunday July 14, 2013

Quote of the Day

“I hold other views, too, that would surely not be congenial to the right. In particular, I am perfectly willing to attack racial prejudice in arenas where the right evidently prefers to keep silent: for example, in the stark fact that capital juries, charged with meting out the death penalty, tend to value the lives of white murder victims far higher than the lives of black ones. (How many white people, in the 45 violent years after World War II, were executed for murdering black people? Answer: none. Yes, that's right: none...)”

-- Stephen L. Carter, “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby,” 1991, pg. 148

A few things about this quote vis a vis the Trayvon Martin verdict:

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Posted at 06:20 PM on Jul 14, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Despicable Audience: “Grown Ups 2” Grosses $42 mil at Weekend Box Office

Adam Sandler's “Grown Ups 2” earned an abyssmal 7% rating from the movie critics on Rotten Tomatoes, an abyssmal 4.85 rating from the moviegoers on IMDb, and still managed to gross $42 million at the weekend box office—enough to finish just behind the second weekend of “Despicable Me 2” ($44.7 million), and just ahead of the sci-fi blockbuster “Pacific Rim” ($38.3 million), which earned ratings of 71% and 8.0, respectively.

What does this mean? Apparently not everybody's online and voting yet. Or reading. Or caring.

I was bummed to hear that “GU2” grossed $16 mil on Friday. I wanted Sandler to be over and done with. I wanted a fork in him. Here are the total domestic grosses for his last four comedies:

  • Grown Ups: $162 m
  • Just Go With It: $103 m
  • Jack and Jill: $74 m
  • That's My Boy: $36.9 m

Going down, down, down.

Then this.

It's like something is pissing in our face.

Grown Ups 2 deer-pissing scene

“Grown Ups 2”: It's funny cuz it's true.

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Posted at 10:52 AM on Jul 14, 2013 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday July 13, 2013

#AllThatDavidCopperfieldKindOfCrap

“I nominate J. D. Salinger as the least likely tweeter in literary history. A tweet is, by definition, a violation of one’s privacy—in the sense of making public thoughts that would otherwise be private—and Salinger was, for much of his life, fiercely private and seemed to want only the kind of applause that is made by one hand clapping. This wasn’t due to bashfulness—when he was young he went out to parties and to the dance clubs of his day. But for him the creative act of writing was deeply entwined with the nourishing condition of privacy, even secrecy. This privacy, in turn, not only surrounded his work but was embedded in it. His writing seems to be to be spoken in confidence directly to the reader, singular. That is why so many Salinger fans feel that their relationship with his books, especially to 'Catcher in the Rye,' is like an intimacy shared.

”Salinger’s defense of his privacy eventually came to seem as absurd as the attacks on it, but at the root of this defense wasn’t some terrible secret he had to hide but rather an idea of writing as a private ceremony.“

-- Thomas Beller, ”The Ongoing Story: Twitter and Writing," posted on The New Yorker site.

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Posted at 01:00 PM on Jul 13, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Calvin and Hobbes Explains FOX-News 10 Years Before FOX-News

I remember seeing this particular strip when it was first published back in the 1980s. It's only gotten more relevant.

Calvin and Hobbes: neo-cubism and FOX-News

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Posted at 07:40 AM on Jul 13, 2013 in category Culture
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Friday July 12, 2013

Movie Review: Identity Thief (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

A friend of mine once said of the old “I Love Lucy” show, “It never made me laugh, it just made me anxious.”

“Identity Thief,” the 2013 comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman, is that anxiety times 100.

What an awful, awful movie. Awful. You know how sometimes you use movies to lift yourself out of a bad mood? I had the opposite experience here. I sat down in pretty good spirits and got up nearly two excruciating hours later pissed at the world. I remained in a foul mood for 24 hours. That such a thing could be made. Identity Thief, starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthyThat it would gross nearly $175 million worldwide. That the aptly-named Tom Charity of CNN.com and the more aptly-named Scott Bowles of USA Today would both give it positive reviews. That both critics are considered “top critics” on RottenTomatoes.com.

Here: The very premise of the movie provokes anxiety. Most of us don’t work because we like the job; we work to survive, support a family, etc. We are giving up huge swaths of irretrievable time in order to accumulate a little bit of dough. And the notion that a stranger could then come in, pretend to be us, and drain away the one worthwhile thing we’ve accumulated at jobs that drain away our lives …. Well, it’s not a very funny proposition.

So how do you make comedy out of it? “Identity Thief”’s answer is to double down and push the envelope. They make the victim super nice, the thief an embodiment of everything that’s awful in America, and throughout the victim gets further victimized while the thief gets away with almost everything. Ha! Get it?

Nice guy Sandy Patterson (Bateman), an even-tempered accountant in Denver, Col., with a pretty wife (Amanda Peet, wasted), two cute kids and another on the way, has his identity stolen by an overweight, binge-buying, heavy-drinking woman who lives in Florida and goes by the name of Diana (McCarthy). She spends the money to fill the void within her. So she buys $2,000-worth of free drinks for strangers at a bar so she can feel like she has friends. (Awww.) At the beauty parlor, pretty girls and gay men snicker at her obvious lies about a husband and a family. (Awww.) Then she buys fast food and stupid pink shit to fill the void again. Sandy’s doing the family budget on an Excel spreadsheet (they saved $14.03 last month), she’s buying Fiats with his dough, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for her. Because she’s awful, fat and friendless.

She’s also involved with … a drug dealer? Who sics the two best-looking gangsters ever (T.I. and Genesis Rodriguez) on Diana? Plus a bounty hunter (Robert Patrick, always in pursuit)?

By this point, Sandy, needing to clear his name to keep his new job, and getting no help at all from the Denver police, goes to Florida himself to extradite Diana. One thing leads to another and they wind up on the lam together. It’s “Due Date” but even more annoying and less funny. Yes, less funny.

How does Diana not have friends? Everyone within the film seems to find Diana sympathetic and Sandy a jerk when we know Sandy’s a nice guy and Diana is the worst person in the world. She schnookers everybody. She gets a waitress to give her free baby-back ribs and entices a recent widower back to her hotel room, where Sandy is further victimized. The joke is always on him, and he’s representative of us, so it’s never really funny. Or do the filmmakers think we identify with Melissa McCarthy’s Diana? That we’re fat and mean and lazy and feel sorry for ourselves and expect the world to feel sorry for us?

I mean … what the fuck?

Is Seth Gordon the worst director of comedies in Hollywood? He made the 2007 documentary “The King of Kong,” which was great. Since then, he’s directed three comedies: “Four Christmases,” with Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, “Horrible Bosses,” with Jason Bateman and Jason Sudeikis, and this thing.

Should Craig Mazin stop writing altogether? He helped with “The Hangover Part II” and “Part III” (but not the first, better one), wrote and directed “Superhero Movie,” which couldn’t successfully satirize a movie genre begging to be satirized, and this thing. He’s a millionaire for writing this stuff.

Sometimes I think the people in Hollywood look at us and see this:

Identity Thief: Is this the face of a SUCKER?

“Identity Thief” grossed $134 million in the U.S. They’re right.

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Posted at 06:55 AM on Jul 12, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Thursday July 11, 2013

AFI's Top 10 Movies of the 1980s, Give or Take

After posting my list of the top 10 films of the 1980s, as well as IMDb's, I wondered how the '80s looked to the American Film Institute, that august body of ... whoever.

It released its top 100 movies in 1998, then again 10 years later. The first list, which was put together when the '80s weren't yet 10 years past, included only six movies from that decade, and most of these were from the earlier, '70s-influenced part of the decade:

  • 24. Raging Bull (1980)
  • 25. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  • 53. Amadeus (1984)
  • 60. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  • 62. Tootsie (1982)
  • 83. Platoon (1986)

By 2008 and the second list, “Raging Bull” had roared up from 24th to 4th place, while “E.T.” had roared up ... one place, to 24th. Everything else fell back: “Raiders” six places, “Tootsie” seven, “Platoon” three. Three other movies were added, but only one (“Do the Right Thing”) from the latter part of the decade. One movie, “Amadeus,” inexplicable fell off the list entirely:

  • 4. Raging Bull (1980)
  • 24. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  • 66. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  • 69. Tootsie (1982)
  • 86. Platoon (1986)
  • 91. Sophie's Choice (1982)
  • 96. Do the Right Thing (1989)
  • 97. Blade Runner (1982)

So how do the '80s look to AFI? Here's a graph of the films on their second list, separated by decade:

AFI's top 100 movies by decade

A bit of a dropoff there. Except for the first decades of the 20th century (the silent era), and the first decade of the 21st century (the yahoo era), the 1980s are considered the worst decade for Hollywood movies by Hollywood people.

Will this change as the '80s recede from view and we begin to see what made the decade unique? Doubtful. What made the decade unique wasn't very artistic and it's art that lasts.

Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, the most honored movie of the 1980s

“Raging Bull,” the most honored movie of the 1980s, has at least one foot in the 1970s.

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Posted at 07:58 AM on Jul 11, 2013 in category Movies - Lists
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IMDb's Top 10 Movies of the 1980s

Yesterday I posted my top 10 movies of the 1980s. Here's IMDb's version, followed by rating and ranking:

  1. Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back (1980): 8.8; 11th place
  2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): 8.6; 27th place
  3. Back to the Future (1985): 8.5; 44th place
  4. The Shining (1980): 8.5 46th place
  5. Aliens (1986): 8.4; 57th place
  6. Das Boot (1981): 8.4; 72nd place
  7. Cinema Paradiso (1988): 8.4; 73rd place
  8. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983): 8.3; 78th place
  9. Once Upon a Time in America (1984): 8.3; 79th place
  10. Full Metal Jacket (1987): 8.3; 81st place

“Return of the Jedi” still makes the cut. Funny.

Funnier? The movie between “Back to the Future” and “The Shining” is something called “Citizen Kane.”

Oedipal issues in "Back to the Future"

Charles Foster Kane had mother issues, too.

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Posted at 06:32 AM on Jul 11, 2013 in category Movies - Lists
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Wednesday July 10, 2013

The Zimmerman Trial: 'Is An Unarmed Black Teenager Ever Entitled to Stand His Ground?'

Jelani Cobb has a very good piece on the New Yorker site, “The Zimmerman Trial, Day 10: Stand Whose Ground?,”  about the set of assumptions in the trial and in the "Stand Your Ground law. They're assumptions they have in Florida and assumptions we have in the U.S. They're global assumptions, really.

An excerpt:

Amid their frustratingly uneven presentation, Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda and the rest of the prosecution have pegged their second-degree murder charges largely on the idea that [Trayvon] Martin was losing the fight on February 26th of last year, that he shouted for help, and that Zimmerman, a vigilante would-be cop, shot and killed him anyway. In plotting their route to conviction, they necessarily bypass another set of questions. What if he wasn’t losing the fight? What if Zimmerman is the one who called for help? What if Martin did swing first? And, most crucially, is an unarmed black teen-ager ever entitled to stand his ground?

The answers to these questions have bearing that is more social than legal, but they’re inescapable in understanding how we got here in the first place and what this trial ultimately means. George Zimmerman got out of his car that night as an amateur deputy and protector of the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community. Trayvon Martin was a visitor to that community. Nowhere in Zimmerman’s initial emergency call does he broach the idea that Martin might belong there, that he might actually be someone who warranted protection, too. Instead, there is the snap judgment that the teen-ager is one of the “fucking punks” who “always get away”—a judgment that Zimmerman’s supporters and the Sanford Police Department either co-signed or deemed reasonable enough to absolve him of responsibility for what ensued.

What remains frustratingly marginal in this discussion is the point Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel raised in her testimony—that Martin himself was afraid, that a black person might assess a man following him in a car and on foot as a threat, never mind that he might have seen Zimmerman’s weapon and suspected his life was in danger. The defense paid a great deal of attention to the implications of Martin referring to Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker,” but, to the extent that we think about the epithet, we’re concerned with the wrong C-word. Imagine George Zimmerman being followed at night, in the rain, by an armed, unknown black man and you have an encounter that far exceeds the minimal definition of “creepy.” Indeed, you have a circumstance in which anyone would reasonably fear for his life. Add a twist in which that black man fires a shot that ends a person’s life, and it’s hard to imagine him going home after a brief police interview, as Zimmerman did.

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Posted at 01:29 PM on Jul 10, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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And Then Came ... Electro!

I'm a bit superheroed out these days (it feels like “The Amazing Spider-Man,” starring Andrew Garfield, was released last week rather than last year) but admit that this photo from the sequel to the reboot, with Spidey getting a less gossamer-like suit, and Jamie Foxx elecrtified as the villain Electro, looks pretty good.

Entertainment Weekly: Spider-Man and Electro, Andrew Garfield and Jamie Foxx

Although what's with the dog collar? Is Electro a fetishist?

Scheduled release date: May 2, 2014. I believe it's a Friday.

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Posted at 11:04 AM on Jul 10, 2013 in category Superheroes
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Quote of the Day

“It’s easy to criticize Obama for sending mixed signals, and in Egypt that included the embarrassing spectacle of the White House’s Hamlet-like vacillation as both the Mubarak and Morsi regimes crumbled.

”But the administration can only be faulted for 'inaction' if you have a clear definition of what 'action' might be. This morning in the Times, for instance, Tom Friedman proposed that Egypt find a 'moderate path' to save itself — rather the same prescription he offered for America in its last election cycle — and while that is without doubt the perfect solution, it’s a wish, not an action plan. John McCain, the last active foreign-policy voice in the Republican Party, has called for America to suspend our $1.5 billion aid to Egypt, a pointless gesture that would only diminish whatever tiny leverage we have there. (Our aid package is dwarfed by the billions Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are now pouring into the post-Morsi order, or chaos.)

“Whatever lessons President Obama has learned or not from the Bush administration, the country took away at least a couple, possibly for a generation: (1) Don’t trust the entire bipartisan political-foreign policy-intelligence-punditry Establishment that pushed the war in Iraq; and (2) don't put American boots on the ground to build democracy in the Middle East.”

-- Frank Rich, “Frank Rich on the National Circus: Obama Looks Lost in Egypt for a Reason,” New York magazine

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Posted at 10:39 AM on Jul 10, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Since Nobody Asked, My Top 10 Movies of the 1980s

Movie Mezzanine recently asked a bunch of critics for their top 10 movies of the '80s and printed, or least uploaded, the results. Since no one asked, I thought I'd join the party.

Man, what a sucky decade for film. And politics. And culture in general. It's the decade when we began to turn right, tune out and dumb down. Director-driven movies died and studio-produced sequels thrived. Woody Allen stumbled out of the gate but found himself and created some of his most inventive work. Martin Scorsese started with a bang and ended with a bang but lost himself in the middle. Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Hal Ashby, Orson Welles, and John Huston died. Francis Ford Coppola made “One from the Heart.”

Here's my list. Feel free to add yours below.

  1. Amadeus (1984)
  2. Tootsie (1982)
  3. Raging Bull (1980)
  4. The Right Stuff (1983)
  5. Matewan (1987)
  6. Raising Arizona (1987)
  7. 28 Up (1984)
  8. My Life as a Dog (1985)
  9. Do The Right Thing (1989)
  10. This is Spinal Tap (1984)

Tough to leave off: Blue Velvet (1986), Bull Durham (1988), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Coup de Torchon (1982), Die Hard (1988), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Hannah and her Sisters (1986), Jean de Florette (1986), The Princess Bride (1987). 

Top 10 movies of the 1980s: Do the Right Thing, Amadeus, Tootsie, Matewan

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Posted at 06:24 AM on Jul 10, 2013 in category Movies - Lists
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Tuesday July 09, 2013

Quote of the Day

“I have had many talented people ask me how to get into the comic book business. If they were talented enough the first answer I would give them is, 'Why would you want to get into the comic book business?' Because even if you succeed, even if you reach what might be considered the pinnacle of success in comics, you will be less successful, less secure and less effective than if you are just an average practitioner of your art in television, radio, movies or what have you. It is a business in which the creator ... owns nothing of his creation. The publisher owns it.”

-- Stan Lee, co-creator of The Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Thor, etc., at an industry gathering at Lamb's Club, New York on Jan. 20, 1971. It was printed in National Cartoonist Society Professional Report, and reprinted on pg. 113 of Sean Howe's “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.”

Cf. this line from the movie “Iron Man,” starring Robert Downey, Jr.:

Obadiah Stane to Tony Stark as he takes the arc reactor from his chest: You think just because you have an idea it belongs to you?

Not nearly 'nuff said.

Stan Lee, burning money

Stan Lee, pretending.

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Posted at 06:39 PM on Jul 09, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Ricky Gervais Finds God

The God of Thunder (second from left, behind the hot chick), hanging with his buds.

The Avengers, and Thor, Ricky Gervais' new God

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Posted at 02:58 PM on Jul 09, 2013 in category Religion
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Movie Review: Mud (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Mud,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter”), is ostensibly an adventure story about two teenage boys who stumble upon a charismatic outlaw on an island in Dewitt, Ark., but it’s also a very specific type of coming-of-age story. It’s about how life, if you pay attention, keeps pushing you away from childhood absolutes and toward complexity and relativism.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan), 14, lives along the White River with his taciturn father, Senior (Ray McKinnon, the priest of “Deadwood”), and his mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson, “Deadwood”), who wants a divorce. She wants to move away from the river, which is how Senior makes his living. It’s also all that Ellis has known. Neither man is happy about it but Senior accepts it; Ellis refuses. Or he deals with this coming instability by searching for stability.

He finds it in the unlikeliest of places: in a boat in the trees.

A helluva thing
The movie opens with Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) hopping a scuffed outboard motorboat and heading down the White River so Neckbone can show Ellis what he’s found. They jump onto an island beach, head into the woods, walk over a pond full of snakes, and … there it is. Poster for Jeff Nichols' "Mud" starring Matthew McConaugheyNeckbone says that his uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon, in a small role), thinks the boat wound up there during the last flood, which sounds Biblical but is probably just a Southern thing. Then Ellis finds bootprints with a cross in the heel, which also sounds Biblical but is probably just a Southern thing. Then the bootprints disappear in the sand. Draw your own conclusions.

Immediately, next to their motor boat, they see Mud (Matthew McConaughey, in a nomination-worthy performance), a scraggly haired, unwashed, dangerous-looking man smoking a cigarette, fishing, and philosophizing about evil spirits, snakes, and that boat in the trees. “It’s a helluva thing, ain’t it?” he says. Then he argues with them about who owns it.

It feels lucky when they get away but they keep returning, spurred more by Ellis, who’s curious and idealistic, than Neckbone, who’s knowing and practical. When Mud tells them, for example, that he’s waiting on his girlfriend, Neckbone asks if she’s hot. “She’s like a dream you don’t want to wake up from,” Mud says, to which Neckbone coughs out a “bullshit.” Not Ellis. He may be blunt and straightforward but he wants to believe in the very thing that’s disappearing from his life: a love that’s firm and absolute rather than flimsy and disposable.

Wisdom comes slowly. Turns out Mud is wanted by the police. “I shot a man,” Mud says later. “Kilt him. Sorry I didn’t tell you boys sooner.” The man he killed was beating the girl he loved, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), so Ellis is less deterred than spurred by this revelation. Even as Mud’s enemies gather, including the brother and father of the murdered man, along with their many bounty hunters, Ellis acts as go-between for the star-crossed lovers.

When Ellis talks to Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), however, the closest thing Mud has to a father, he hears a less romantic version of the story. According to Tom, Juniper didn’t love Mud. She used him. She’s the reason he’s stuck on that island with nowhere to go. She’s bad news. Ellis listens but doesn’t hear. Then he does. On the day the lovers are supposed to meet, Ellis, keeping an eye out for the bounty hunters, knocks on Juniper’s motel-room door. Nothing. He peers in the window. Nothing. He asks the hotel clerk, who points him down the highway to a bar, where she’s getting cozy playing pool with another guy. Their eyes meet in the dark. He acts as if he’s the one she’s betraying. He is.

“This river brings a lot of trash down it,” says Uncle Galen, who makes his living scavenging the bottom. “You gotta know what’s worth keeping and what’s worth letting go.”

That’s the lesson of the movie, and there’s no easy answer. There’s more with Juniper, for example, and the ultimate truth about her lies somewhere between Mud’s and Tom’s versions. Nothing's absolute. It's all muddy.

And a river runs through it
“Mud,” like the White River itself, has a slow, steady pace that’s almost hypnotic, while its performances are among the best of the year. Everyone seems authentically Southern because the actors are Southern: McConaughey (Texas), Witherspoon (Louisiana), McKinnon (Georgia), the kids. Shepard is a stand-out. At one point, Tom hears that Mud called him an assassin—something about past CIA activity—and he laughs for a second; then, for about five seconds of screentime, which is an eternity, we get nothing but him lost in thought. It’s nice.

Some of the story threads, particularly at the end, could’ve used trimming. Did we need so much with May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), Ellis’ would-be girlfriend? Did Ellis, like Mud before him, need to get snake-bit, too, and did Mud and Juniper need to see each other one last time? Did we need one more shoot-out in the final reel?

The final camera shots recall Terrence Malick, particularly “The Thin Red Line,” but they also recall the movie’s beginning. Instead of two boys in a boat, it’s two men: Mud and Tom. In the beginning, Neckbone and Ellis gazed with happiness at something before Nichols allowed us to see it: the island, where they would have their adventures. He does the same for Mud and Tom. It’s the open sea, and it’s a helluva thing.

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Posted at 07:44 AM on Jul 09, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Monday July 08, 2013

Quote of the Day

“In the depth of her despair, she began to question Providence. Maybe her sons had failed not for lack of merit but because they were unable to overcome the disadvantage of an unsteadiness inherited from their father. Maybe her daughters and grandchildren had died because they were poor, and lived lives of squalor. Maybe not Providence but men in power—politics—determined the course of human events.”

-- Jill LePore, writing about Ben Franklin's sister, Jane, in “The Prodigal Daughter,” in the July 8 & 15 New Yorker. LePore's book, “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin,” will be out in October.

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Posted at 04:56 PM on Jul 08, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Did Superman Resurrect Patriotism? On Truth, Innocence, and the American Way

Did Superman resurrect patriotism? On truth, innocence, and the American way

Was “Superman” the first patriotic movie I saw in a theater? I guess I’m asking myself more than you.

I was born in 1963 and grew up in the age of the cinematic anti-hero—“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Billy Jack,” “Evel Knievel”—when patriotism was almost always seen as the last refuge of scoundrels. On TV’s “M*A*S*H” it was used by Frank Burns and Col. Flagg as an excuse for spying and incorrigible behavior. In the movies, rich men justified corrupt business practices by wrapping themselves in the flag. Sure, Apollo Creed came into the boxing ring in “Rocky” dressed as Uncle Sam, and wearing stars-and-stripes boxing trunks, but it felt ironic. The flag meant Nixon back then. It meant Vietnam. People who waved it were squares and fools and con artists.

Then Superman embraced it. “I’m here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way,” he told Lois. Moviegoers in December 1978 laughed out loud at that line. So corny! Their laughter drowned out Lois’ response, which was was theirs:

Lois (snorting): You’re gonna end up fighting every elected official in the country!

By the second movie, Superman, the superpatriot, literally carries the American flag to the White House. A year after that, Rocky wears Apollo’s stars-and-stripes trunks himself, inironically, in “Rocky III,” and again in “Rocky IV,” where he also drapes himself in the American flag. Suddenly everyone was draping themselves in the flag: Stallone, Olympic athletes, politicians. Suddenly it became problematic not to wear the American flag. Anyone who didn’t was suspect.

Obviously a lot of factors went into this profound cultural and political shift. In 1979, with long gas lines and Americans held hostage (or America Held Hostage, as ABC News put it), it felt like the world was spitting in our face. Working-class jobs were disappearing and people felt powerless. The U.S. Olympic hockey team, college kids and massive underdogs, upset the mighty Soviet machine in February 1980 before a home crowd, chanting “USA! USA!,” and it felt good to chant that. Apparently it felt good to vote for Ronald Reagan, too. A majority of voters did that. Twice.

But did some part of it begin with Superman saying he was going to fight for truth, justice and the American way?

Here’s director Richard Donner in the 1980 TV documentary, “The Making of Superman: The Movie,” talking about the impact the character had on him:

He’s a lot of what America once was a long time ago. I’m a very liberal human being in my philosophies and my politics. And I find myself, in an odd sort of way, looking and respecting the conservative attitude of what Superman stands for now. Because I think I see a lot of my philosphies in application now and I’m not very happy with them. And I almost wish I could go back to what once was, and what America once was.

I almost wish I could go back to what once was, and what America once was. That line may be the single best description of post-1980 political theater that I’ve read.

According to Christopher Reeve in the same documentary, this fact, this going back to what America once was, was the most difficult part of creating “Superman”:

We all know Superman can leap over tall buildings but the question is could he leap over the generation gap since those early Siegel and Schuster days. We wanted to know if a man from the innocent ‘30s could survive in the post-Waterage ‘70s.

It’s instructive to see how they did this. How did Superman, as a character, go back to what America once was? In a way, he never left it.

He was raised in Smallville, Kansas, in the 1950s, then disppeared for 12 years of education under Jor-El, before turning up in Metropolis in 1978. This means—and this is no small cultural feat—he leaped over the 1960s in a single bound. He avoided our internal conflicts over the Vietnam War, black power, Watergate. He avoided the assassinations of MLK and RFK. He didn’t see the American myth die, or at least reassemble itself into multicultural pieces. He didn’t recognize the limits of American power because he himself had none.

Eventually the movies themselves went back to what American once was. During the Easy Rider/Raging Bull decade, roughly 1967 to 1977, our most popular movies were disaster-ridden (a ship overturned, a tower burned) and dark (the devil was in a Sicilian family, or a little girl, or a great white shark). Our heroes and anti-heroes didn’t end well. Bonnie and Clyde died. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid died. Wyatt and Billy died. Ratso Rizzo died. Jenny died. Randle Patrick McMurphy had a lobotomy and then died.

Then Rocky Balboa went the distance. “Rocky” was called a sleeper hit because the lead was unknown and no one expected it to be a success, but movie audiences loved it. Critics at the time wrote that it reminded them of a Frank Capra movie. It began in the gritty ‘70s, with poverty, gangsters and the down and out, but leaped back to the Capraesque ‘40s for its happy ending. It won best picture and was the No. 1 box-office hit of 1976.

Then George Lucas leaped back even further. Not to “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far way,” but to the movie serials of the ‘30s. “Star Wars” was a better version of these heroic cliffhanger fables of good and evil, and it was the No. 1 box-office hit of 1977. “Raiders of the Lost Ark, an even more obvious update, was the No. 1 box-office hit of 1981. Then we were off to the races.

It’s kind of a shock to rewatch all of the Christopher Reeve/Superman movies, as I did recently, because you see this cultural and cinematic shift take place. “Superman: The Movie” is set in the gritty world of the 1970s, where journalism matters; “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” is set in the business-oriented, hostile-takeover world of the 1980s, in which journalism is reduced to a Page-Six joke. In the first movie, it felt innovative that the star of the film actually lifted weights to become its central character. By the fourth movie, we were all lifting weights. We were all going to the gym. Our bodies got hard while our minds got soft.

One always wonders how much the cultural affects the political, and to what extent our cinematic wish-fulfillment fantasies creep into politics. The modern GOP certainly feels like a Hollywood studio of yore, offering up the great American myth in the manner of Louis B. Mayer. It’s morning in America of a kindler gentler nation in which no child gets left behind and we put country first and our enemies are wanted dead or alive. Mitt Romney’s campaign slogan, “Believe in America,” actually comes close to the first line of “The Godfather,” “I believe in America,” which the Italian barber tells Don Corleone. The barber meant it when he said it but the movie didn’t. Back in 1972, we knew there was an underside to the American myth. To get ahead, sometimes you had to get your hands dirty. Or bloody.

We ignore that underside now. We have a forced innocence now. Here’s Reeve again in that 1980 TV documentary explaining Superman:

He’s got all these powers, but he’s got the kind of maturity—or he’s got the innocence, really, to look at the world very, very simply. And that’s what makes him so different. When he says, “I’m here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way,” everyone goes [coughs into hand behind a sly, knowing smile]. You know? But he’s not kidding.

Innocence is the key word here. It’s positive in Reeve’s explanation but it reminds me of this line from James Baldwin’s essay, “Stranger in the Village”:

Anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.

Baldwin wrote that line in the late 1950s, I first read it in the late 1980s, but for most of my adult life it’s not only felt like the truth; it’s felt like the American way.

Ronald Reagan, the flag, and the forced innocence of the American way

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Posted at 06:59 AM on Jul 08, 2013 in category Superman
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Sunday July 07, 2013

Weekend Box Office: 'Lone Ranger' Disappears in a Cloud of Dust Without Much Silver

We've know this since Wednesday, really, when the first numbers started coming in, but “The Lone Ranger,” starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, and directed by Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”), is going to be riding off into the sunset sooner than anticipated.

It grossed $29.4 million over the weekend, compared with $82 million for “Despicable Me 2” and $25 million for the second weekend of “The Heat,” starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.

Its five-day gross, including Tuesday midnight shows, is $48 million. For a Woody Allen movie, that would be dynamite. For a Gore Verbinski/Johnny Depp movie? Well, that doesn't even equal the one-day total of their second “Pirates” movie, which grossed $55 million on its opening day. And it's about 1/3 of the five-day total of “Despicable Me 2,” which has grossed $142 million.

On the plus side, it's the highest-grossing “Lone Ranger” movie ever.

“Monsters U” fell off by 57% for another $19 million and $216 total. “World War Z” earned $18 for $158 total. “White House Down” another $13.5 for $50 and “Man of Steel” another $11 for $271. But without a push, Superman looks to fall shy of $300 million—not a good sign after a $120 million open.

The hearty hi-yo numbers here.

Johnny Depp as Tonto in the box-office disappointment "The Lone Ranger"

Oops.

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Posted at 04:12 PM on Jul 07, 2013 in category Movies - Box Office
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Quote of the Day

“My mother married my father in 1956. She was 28 and he was 31. She loved him with a fierce steadiness borne of loyalty, determination, and an unyielding dignity. On their honeymoon, in a cabin in Maine, for their first breakfast together, she made him blueberry pancakes. Pushing back his plate, he told her he didn't like blueberries. In 55 years of marriage, she never again cooked him breakfast.”

-- Jill LePore, “The Prodigal Daughter,” about herself and her mother, and Ben Franklin and his sister, in the July 8 & 15 New Yorker

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Posted at 06:43 AM on Jul 07, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Saturday July 06, 2013

Quote of the Day

“But ultimately the Supreme Court will have to step in to complete the nation’s journey on marriage equality, just as it did in Loving v. Virginia, from 1967, when the Justices rejected the last remaining bans on interracial marriage. Kennedy’s opinion in Windsor makes plain that that day is drawing ever nearer. Scalia, as it happens, saw this more clearly than anyone. 'The real rationale of today’s opinion,' he wrote in his dissent, 'is that DOMA is motivated by a ”bare . . . desire to harm“ couples in same-sex marriages.' And he added, 'How easy it is, indeed how inevitable, to reach the same conclusion with regard to state laws denying same-sex couples marital status.' Scalia’s declaration was meant as a threat. We should consider it a promise.”

-- Jeffrey Toobin, “Adieu, DOMA!” in the Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker, July 8 & 15, 2013

New Yorker cover, Bert and Ernie

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Posted at 03:30 PM on Jul 06, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Gangster Squad (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Gangster Squad” isn’t a bad movie but given the talent involved, and the story told, you can imagine better—a movie, say, shot in the manner of “Zodiac.” Something that feels true. Or even possible.

Instead, directed by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”), and written by Will Beall from the book by Paul Lieberman, “Gangster Squad” is quick-paced and broadly drawn and almost cartoonish. Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen, who goes to prison for murder in 1949 rather than for tax evasion in 1951 and 1961, is so encased in makeup and over-the-top mannerisms as to seem like a Dick Tracy villain. Josh Brolin’s Sgt. John O’Mara, the man who brings him to justice, is so cool and calm and expressionless as to seem like Dick Tracy.

The movie opens under the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, with Penn doing Cohen doing Bela Lugosi: “The children of the night. What beautiful music they make.” Gangster SquadIs this a commentary on how the movies warp us? How, even in 1949, even gangsters were aping movie roles?

A gangster from Chicago is visiting and Cohen, a former middleweight boxer and current Jewish crime lord, greets him by tying him between two cars and ordering the drivers in opposite directions. Splat. “Welcome to Los Angeles,” he says, rhyming it with sleaze.

Meanwhile, his opposite, O’Mara, with a reluctant partner in tow, rescues a pretty blonde who wants to be the next Lana Turner (movie star, discovered) from the clutches of Cohen’s men. “Don’t you know whose place this is?” he’s asked, numerous times. He doesn’t care. But by the time he brings them to the station they’re already free. The town is bought. The town is dirty. Lawyers, judges, cops.

Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) knows this and likes the cut of O’Mara’s jib. So he asks him to create his own elite, unsullied unit to work behind the scenes to bring down Cohen. He calls them … the Untouchables.

Sorry, no. They’re called the Gangster Squad. But it’s L.A.’s version of the Untouchables. You’ve got the expert shot in Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), the intellectual in Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), the ladies man in Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) and the black guy in Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie). They’re all tough guys. They all fought in the war. They don’t see the point in fighting for freedom abroad only to run from Cohen in LA.

It’s a nice set-up and we get some nice lines. Wooters, before he’s aboard, warns off O’Mara:

Sarge, the whole town’s underwater. You're grabbing a bucket when you should be grabbing a bathing suit.

But given the chance, the movie goes for the broad rather than fine stroke. It falls too easily into the grooves of its genre. Here’s the montage of the good guys ruining the bad guy’s operations. Here’s the bad guy fulminating. Here’s the good guys celebrating too early. Here’s the serious conversation before the good guys are set-up and one of them dies. (As in “Untouchables,” it’s the intellectual.) Here’s the bad guy triumphant and the good guys at a loss. But wait! Here’s the final chance! Here’s the showdown! Here’s the guns blazing! Here’s our main hero and our main villain going toe-to-toe!

And here’s the final comeuppance: Cohen in prison for murder and dying by lead pipe in 1949.

Except it’s a lie. Cohen went to prison for tax evasion twice, became a national celebrity, and died of stomach cancer in 1976.

Hooray for Hollywood.

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Posted at 07:33 AM on Jul 06, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s
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Friday July 05, 2013

New York Yankees' Beat Writer Envies Free-Spending Ways of Boston Red Sox

My father alerted me to these lines from Tyler Kepner that appeared in an article in today's New York Times entitled “Red Sox Are a Monster Again”:

With a chance to reset, the Red Sox invested $100 million in seven free agents without guaranteeing $40 million to any of them. Teams like the Padres can only dream of such spending, but big-market bullies like the Red Sox are rarely so disciplined.

Kepner normally covers the New York Yankees.

For the uninitiated, here's a New York Times graph of team spending from 2001 to 2011. The Red Sox, those undisciplined big-market bullies, were the second spendiest team during this period. But they weren't the spendiest. Not even close.

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Posted at 04:05 PM on Jul 05, 2013 in category Yankees Suck
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Movie Review: The Lone Ranger (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Come back, Klinton Spilsbury. All is forgiven.

Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger” isn’t quite as bad as 1981’s “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” starring Spilsbury—that would take real effort—but the latter had excuses. It was made in an era before over-the-top heroism once again became the default at movies, and the filmmakers didn’t seem to know what to do with their legendary character—a former Texas Ranger who wears a mask and has an Indian companion and shoots guns, pow pow. So they made him a lawyer, not a ranger, who uses silver bullets because he can’t shoot straight. To be honest, he should’ve been called “The Lone Lawyer.” “The Lone Ranger” feels like false advertising.

Now it’s 30 years later, when we like our heroes any way we can get them. Give us our wish-fulfillment fantasy already. Tell us that story again, Daddy.

So what do director Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”), screenwriters Ted Elliott (“Pirates”), Terry Rossio (“Pirates”) and Justin Haythe (“Revolutionary Road”), give us?

You don’t want to know.

The Tone-Deaf Ranger
The Lone Ranger, John Reid (Armie Hammer, trying), is a lawyer again. He’s a city boy, a tenderfoot, a dude. He grew up in Colby, Texas, but went away to law school, and apparently became a dim bulb and a naïve priss there. The Lone Ranger posterThroughout most of the movie, he assumes that right makes might; he assumes that businessmen represent civilization; he assumes—and this in Texas in 1869, mind you—that power comes out of a law book rather than the barrel of a gun.

He’s a fool.

Guns? “I don’t believe in ‘em,” he tells his older brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), a captain of the Texas Rangers. “You know that.”

Everyone prefers Dan. John’s one-time girl, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), marries Dan and has a kid (Bryant Prince) by him. Even Tonto (Johnny Depp) recognizes Dan as the true warrior. “I would have preferred someone else,” Tonto tells John after he’s stuck with him. “But who am I to question the Great Father?”

In the first act, John Reid allows Butch Cavendish (William Fichter) to go free. Tonto is about to kill Cavendish but John stops him and Cavendish escapes and this sets up everything else. It sets up the ambush at Bryant’s Gap and the massacre of the Texas Rangers. Because John falls off his horse, Dan has to return for him and gets shot as he reaches for him. John, barely alive, then sees Cavendish cutting out his brother’s heart. Literally.

But that should toughen up our hero, right? That should set him right about the ways of the world and put him on the path to revenge.

Nope. John remains a fool until the last 20 minutes of the movie. His head is dragged on the ground, then over horseshit, then Tonto tells him to wear a mask. “Comes a time, Kemosabe,” Tonto says, “when even good men must wear mask.” The mask becomes a running gag. “What’s with the mask?” everyone asks. When he tells Tonto’s fellow Comanches who suggested it, they bust out laughing. Because they know Tonto is screwed up in the head. He’s a fool, too. For most of the movie, our hero is the fool of a fool.

As for why Tonto is a little crazy? Years ago, as a child, he inadvertently caused the death of his people at the hands of two men: Cole (Tom Wilkinson), now a businessman and railroad representative, and Cavendish, his disreputable flunky. He traded them a watch for information, and that led to a massacre.

Both the Lone Ranger and Tonto, in other words, are created out of massacres they inadvertently caused. They are tragic figures yet the movie treats them as comic relief. “The Lone Ranger” is one of the most tone-deaf movies I’ve ever seen.

Everything and the kitchen sink
What’s special about this Lone Ranger? Silver, the spirit horse, recognizes him as a spirit walker, a man who can’t die, but it’s Silver who’s special. He can ride off rooftops and over trains. The Lone Ranger is buried up to his neck by the Comanche, and covered in scorpions, and Silver licks off the scorpions and pulls him out. Silver is the true hero here. The Lone Ranger is part laughing stock, part chosen one. He only survives because he can’t be killed. Nice trick.

Plot? Cole, giving pretty speeches before the populace, wants to unite the nation via railroad, because whoever controls the rail controls the country. For this to happen, though, the rail has to go through Comanche land, so Cavendish’s gang raids settlements dressed as Comanches, which revokes the treaty, which puts their land up for grabs. Dan Reid, a friend of the Comanche, figured this out. That’s why the Bryant Gap ambush. The Comanches themselves are later massacred—ripped to shreds—by an early Gatling gun while the Lone Ranger and Tonto, nearby, are avoiding a runaway train via handcar—that little railroad see-saw thingee most of us first saw in a cartoon. Once again, the tragic is juxtaposed with the comic to perplexing effect.

Meanwhile, Rebecca, who has lost a husband, is attacked by the Cavendish-Comanches and witnesses her black help being murdered. With her son, she’s taken before Butch himself. Eventually she makes it back to Cole, who has always desired her. But this is a dull subplot and Wilson does nothing with the role.

Meanwhile, Barry Pepper plays a George Custer-like cavalryman, who is supposed to come to the rescue but merely contributes to the slaughter of innocents. Then he doubles down on that slaughter so he doesn’t have to face the first fact.

Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter plays Red Harrington, a western madam with a fake ivory leg that masks a gun—like an early version of Rose McGowan in “Planet Terror.” She’s the kitchen sink of the movie.

Meanwhile, all of this is being told, believe it or not, by an aged Tonto in San Francisco in 1933. When the movie began, and I first saw these words on the screen, “San Francisco, 1933,” I had a glimmer of hope. “Oh!” I thought. “Good idea. Wonder what the Lone Ranger is doing in the 20th century?” Except we never find out. Instead we visit an amusement park, where a kid, wearing a mask and a cowboy hat, visits a Wild West exhibit. There’s the mighty buffalo, there’s a grizzly bear, and there, according to the plaque, is “THE NOBLE SAVAGE: In his natural habitat.” The kid peers closer and the Indian comes to life. “Kemosabe?” a wizened Tonto asks. Then, with a few interruptions along the way, he tells the kid the story. It’s like “The Princess Bride” but without any of the charm. It’s kind of creepy.

More, it means that no matter what happens in Colby, Texas, in 1869, Tonto winds up as a sideshow exhibit in San Francisco in 1933.

If you’d given me a week, I couldn’t have come up with a sadder end for Tonto than that.

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Posted at 07:26 AM on Jul 05, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Thursday July 04, 2013

My American Movie

It should come as no surprise to long-time readers that the question I posed yesterday on Facebook and today on this site, “What's the great All-American movie?” is answered, by me, with “Breaking Away.”

I grew up in Minneapolis, Minn. rather than Bloomington, Ind., with a middle class rather than working class background, but that movie, from Mike's cutoffs to Moocher's hair to the aimless “What do we do now?” ethic, feels like the America I grew up in. My identification has only gotten stronger the further we've gotten from that time and the more cutters our global economy has created.

As I said when I wrote my review a few years ago, the tone of the film is light but serious issues lie beneath it: issues of identity and class, both of which, here, feel specifically American. It's not just a bike-racing movie. Among its themes:

  • This country was built by people who are not welcome here.
  • The epithet we're called is the job we can't get.

Not to mention:

  • Owning your epithet is the best revenge.

But there's also this:

When screenwriter Steve Tesich arrived in this country in the late 1950s, he learned English through television, through sitcoms, and you can argue the film has a sitcom quality to it—particularly its ending. On campus Dave meets a pretty French girl and soon he’s using Frenchisms as he once used Italianisms. When he sees his father, he shouts out, “Bon jour, papa!” and the father looks back, startled, horrified, and the camera freezes. At that point, we begin to hear the Indiana University fight song, and the freeze-frame fades into a shot of the Monroe County Court House, and a graphic informs us: FILMED ENTIRELY IN BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA. No shit. The film is steeped in the place. But nothing says “Indiana” like this ending, which refuses to take itself too seriously. There’s something very Midwestern, very American, about that.

Breaking Away, quarry scene

The quarry is where working-class jobs were. The A&P is where working-class jobs have gone. But it’s a shit job and that’s why these guys are aimless.

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Posted at 01:22 PM on Jul 04, 2013 in category Movies
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What's the Great All-American Movie?

I asked that question yesterday on Facebook and got more than 50 responses. These were the movies with more than three votes.

Movie  Votes
Citizen Kane 7
The Godfather 6
The Grapes of Wrath 5
Idiocracy (!) 5
The Best Years of Our Lives 4
The Right Stuff 4

I kept categorizing all the different suggestions in my mind:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses:

  • The Godfather
  • Scarface (1982)

We're better than our PR:

  • The Right Stuff
  • Singin' in the Rain

Truth, justice and the American way

Something is disappearing (Tony Soprano's lament):

  • American Graffiti
  • Breaking Away
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  • High Noon

Something's wrong here, not sure what it is:

  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Being There
  • Five Easy Pieces
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Parallax View
  • Poltergeist (“It's all in the subtext”)
  • Rebel without a Cause

We venture out to go home:

  • Apocalypse Now
  • Apollo 13
  • Citizen Kane
  • Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
  • Sullivan's Travels
  • The Wizard of Oz

We're fucked:

  • Idiocracy

I also got many complaints that it was an impossible question. “You have to be more specific,” one said. “There's no such thing as an All-American movie,” another said.

But that's the point, isn't it? Since America isn't more specific.

But this was my favorite response, via Twitter:

Happy 4th.

The Godfather Part II: Statue of Liberty scene

We came.

The Right Stuff, Sam Shephard

We soared.

Being There: Watching TV

We watched TV.

No tagsPosted at 08:29 AM on Jul 04, 2013 in category Movies
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Song of the Day

Do you remember your President Nixon?
Do you remember the bills you have to pay?
Or even yesterday?

-- David Bowie, “Young Americans,” 1975

See also: “American Car,” “American Idiot,” “American Tune,” “American without Tears.”

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Posted at 06:56 AM on Jul 04, 2013 in category Music
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Wednesday July 03, 2013

Movie Review: The Heat (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Joe Friday and Bill Gannon. Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh. Sarah Ashburn and Shannon Mullins.

That’s one small step for two women, one giant leap for Hollywood.

Seriously. Go to the Wiki page on buddy cop movies and search for “female.” You’ll get three movies out of more than 100. One is foreign (Michelle Yeoh in “Police Story 3: Supercop”), one is incorrect (Sondra Locke plays a convict, not a cop, in “The Gauntlet”), and Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in this one. So congratulations are in order. Or “about fucking time” is in order. For all its purported liberalism, Hollywood tends to be behind the curve on so many progressive issues. Like women telling dick jokes.

“The Heat” isn’t quiet about its feminism, either. One wonders whether that, or the comedy, is the best part of the movie. Then one realizes one is talking about both feminism and funny and it’s not remarkable. Suddenly we’re all past that.

Although, honestly, it could’ve been funnier.

The one with the Oscar is Felix
Remember in the mid-1990s when Sandra Bullock played the girl everybody liked? “Speed” and “Demolition Man” and “While You Were Sleeping” and “The Net”? Suddenly she’s playing the middle-aged career woman nobody likes. The Heat (2013), starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthyShe played bitchy in “The Proposal” and starchy here. She’s Felix to McCarthy’s Oscar.

Sarah Ashburn is a career-oriented, Ivy-League-educated FBI agent who’s smarter than her contemporaries, mostly men, but she has trouble working well with others. Hell, she has trouble working with dogs. That’s why her boss, Hale (Mexican actor Demian Bichir, who does a lot with a little), isn’t considering her for a promotion. But he will give her an assignment. Nail this Boston drug dealer/killer, Julian, whom nobody has seen, and he’ll think about the promotion.

Unfortunately for her, fortunately for us, she’s teamed with Mullins, a Boston cop who’s her opposite in every way: streetwise rather than schooled; balls-out rather than reticent; cussing a blue streak rather than prissily settling on neutered swear words. This is classic buddy-cop stuff. The point is to take two extreme characters and put them together to round out their rough edges. Each becomes a little more like the other.

Well, kinda sorta. Ashburn learns to work with a partner. She learns to swear and drink and use her sexuality to catch a perp. She learns, after she performs an emergency tracheotomy on a man choking on a pancake, that she’s not always right, either. She might even be wrong about her big case—catching a big-named serial killer. Mullins thinks so anyway. By the end, Ashburn agrees. She thinks she put the wrong man in jail. Based on …? Nothing, really. She just decides it. I think it’s supposed to show that she’s learned humility but it also meant she put an innocent man in the federal pen for a year. She ruined his life. Oh well. Civil lawsuit to follow.

Meanwhile, Mullins learns … what exactly? To be nicer? Kinda sorta?

This is almost always the way in these types of movies. The uptight one loosens up but the loose one doesn’t exactly tighten up. For two reasons. One, the looser, louder one is already more like us, or more like what the average Hollywood exec thinks we’re like, so they don’t have to change much, right? Aren’t they already great? And two, they’re where the comedy generally lies. And you don’t mess with the comedy.

Here’s an example of how delicate comedy is. Ashburn is trying to prove to Mullins that she has friends:

Ashburn: I was actually married for six, seven years.
Mullins: Was he a hearing man?

Not: Could he hear? Not: Was he blind? Neither would be funny. But: “Was he a hearing man?”? That made me laugh out loud.

McCarthy gets off most of the good lines. “Tattle tits.” “Keep your finger out of my areola.” “You’ve got to vent that furnace.” These are lines that wouldn’t work in a traditonal male buddy-cop picture. Well, maybe “tattle tits.”

But that’s what’s good about it. Much of the humor is specific to women. Much of it is also feminist. Some guy disparages Ashburn’s looks and Mullins reams him. “Are you giving beauty tips? Do you own a fucking mirror?” A would-be john (Tony Hale) complains that his wife’s lady parts are a mess after their fifth child and Mullins reams him for it. That’s the point of McCarthy, of course, to ream people. But it shouldn’t be lost on us that in a soliciation case, it’s the john and the pimp who get busted; the prostitute goes free.

Whatever happened to the 90-minute comedy?
“The Heat” is written by Katie Dippold (“Parks and Recreation”) and directed by Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”), but it isn’t up to “Bridesmaids”’ standards. It’s about a half-hour too long, and a lot of the movie is McCarthy going off, most likely improvising, while supporting players are forced to react. The two issues, I’m sure, are not unrelated. Pushing the envelope of comedy means pushing the runtime of movies. “World War Z,” the summer action blockbuster, is actually shorter than this. 

That said, “The Heat” isn’t a bad comedy. It feels new because in many ways it is new. It also means that Hollywood has released at least one movie this year that passes the Bechdel Test.

It just could’ve been funnier.

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Posted at 07:40 AM on Jul 03, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Tuesday July 02, 2013

Movie Review: World War Z (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“No time to explain!”

“World War Z” is often a smart, tense, summer action movie, but this is the moment when it loses me. To be honest, it started to lose me earlier, with its focus on the family.

Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) was once an investigator for the U.N. (HBO: dibs on creating that series), but now he’s a stay-at-home dad with two girls, Constance and Rachel, and a working (I guess) wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and they’re all playing 20 questions in the midst of a traffic jam in downtown Philadelphia when the shit hits. And it hits hard and fast. People are dying, a huge truck is cutting a swath through traffic, but Gerry, using his head, using instincts he’s honed getting into and out of dangerous places, follows the truck out of the jam. I like that. Then he doesn’t use his head. His little girl is scared in the backseat, so, even though he’s zipping through traffic, he turns around to comfort her. Because his wife can’t do it herself? Is she that useless? So he takes his eyes off the road, and bam! Now they’re not moving. “Movement is life,” Gerry says later in the movie, yet here he risks that movement. He risks the lives of both daughters, his wife and himself in order to provide an unnecessary comfort to one daughter for a few seconds.

Focus on the family
He keeps doing this. He’s in contact with his former boss at the U.N., Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena), and knows something swift, global and apocalyptic is happening. (Psst: it’s zombies.) Yet he still stops off at a Newark drug store to get albuterol for one asthmatic daughter. World War Z posterListen, I’m asthmatic. I use albuterol. But I wouldn’t exactly risk my life for it.

Worst of all? With the world crumbling around them, and people dying, or being turned into zombies, in the billions, Thierry sends a military helicopter to pick up Gerry and his family off a Newark high-rise, then transports them to the U.S.S. Argus, 200 miles off the coast of New York. It’s a post-apocalyptic way station where the remnants of humanity are trying to figure out how to keep the human species going. That’s why Thierry picked up Gerry. He was his best investigator and he needs him to investigate this. They’ve received word that the zombie virus may have started in South Korea, and he wants to send him there, with a Harvard scientist and a Navy Seal team. To find out what they can find out.

“I’m not your guy,” Gerry says. “I need to protect my family,” he says.

Is he shitting us?

I’ve written before about the thankless-wife role. We’re there to see X (the plot of the movie), the man needs to do X, but the wife urges him away from it. She urges him away from the story we’re all there to see. So boring. So thankless. But this is the first time I’ve seen the hero himself reject the plot of the movie he’s in.

And for what? Protecting his family? Doesn’t he get it? Without that international support structure around them, there is no family to protect. The entire U.S. just fell in a day and he wants to protect his family?Do the filmmakers realize how awful and insular Gerry seems at this moment? How selfish? Hell, it’s us out there turning into zombies. How about lending a hand, asshole?

Thankfully, a naval commander (David Andrews) tells him the obvious: that the U.S.S. Argus doesn’t have room for non-essential personnel. And if he doesn’t help save humanity? Well, both he and his family are non-essential.

I have one more family-related idiocy to complain about. By the time Gerry is leaving South Korea for Israel, where they’ve somehow held off the zombie plague, he already knows noise attracts zombies. So guess who calls as he and some Navy Seals are tiptoeing across the airfield to the plane? Right. The Missus. And guess who wakes up and attacks? Right again. Of the many men, only Gerry makes it onto the plane safely. At which point the Missus calls back, worried, to ask why he didn’t pick up. Now pretend you’re Gerry for a moment. What would you say to her? Tell her not to call anymore? “Honey, I should never have given you that phone.” “Honey, that last call you made resulted in the death of six men, and maybe in the last best hope of humanity.” Nope. Gerry just kinda smiles about it, as if the Missus had interrupted an important meeting, and talks about other matters. Because, you know, family.

Smarter than Superman
The movie admittedly does some smart things. First, it takes a dull horror-movie trope, zombies, and asks: Why are they dull? Well, they shuffle along, super slow, arms out. So the filmmakers do the opposite. Instead of super slow, they make them super fast, and as angry as rabid dogs. You watch them spread like a virus. They’re the living embodiment of a virus. So how do you defeat them?

That’s another smart thing WWZ does: It makes smarts matter. Gerry keeps noticing things. In Philly, he notices it takes about 12 seconds for an infected human to become a zombie. In South Korea, he notices one of the Navy Seals, who didn’t become infected, has a long-standing limp. In Israel he sees the same phenomena twice: zombies ignoring, first an old man, and second a bald-headed kid. The kid probably has cancer. So he comes to the conclusion that the zombies’ weakness is weakness. They don’t attack, or even recognize, people who have life-threatening illnesses. “It’s not a cure,” he later tells World Health Organization doctors. “It’s camouflage.”

But they need a test case. Unfortunately, at the W.H.O. research facility in Cardiff, Wales, where he’s crash-landed after the mishap in Israel, all of the life-threatening viruses are kept in B-wing, which just so happens to be Zombie Central. Meaning our heroes—Gerry, Israeli soldier Segen (Daniella Kertesz), and an Italian W.H.O. doctor (Pierfrancesco Favino)—have to sneak over there. We’ve seen this before, right? They tiptoe, inadvertently make noise, run. The latter two make it back safely while Gerry winds up with the deadly viruses in a sealed-off room guarded by a growling, teeth-chattering zombie. There’s no way out. There’s no way to communicate with the other doctors in A-wing, who can see him on closed-circuit TV. So he gambles. After writing a note for the security camera, “TELL MY FAMILY I LOVE THEM” (we know, they know), he injects himself with one of the vials. Then he waits. Then he takes a deep breath and punches open the security door. The zombie sniffs the air, chatters his teeth, but doesn’t recognize him as something to be attacked. He doesn’t see him. Gerry is able to walk right past him and enjoy a Pepsi in the vending area (surely the greatest product placement in years) before he lets all the Pepsi cans clatter on the floor, bringing the zombies running. But they run right past Gerry, who’s walking, almost sauntering, in the opposite direction. Because they don’t know he’s there.

That’s a great moment. Gerry doesn’t win by being stronger (“Man of Steel”), or having more tech gizmos (“Iron Man 3”), or inventing a cure for death (“Star Trek Into Darkness”); he wins by being smart. How rare is that in a summer action movie?

Unfortunately, by this point, director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”; “Machine Gun Preacher”), and his four screenwriters (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof and J. Michael Straczynski), have already blown it.

They blew it with “No time to explain.”

Time to explain
OK, so Gerry has this theory about how to beat back the zombies. He’s seen it in action. Apparently no one else has. No one else has figured out why cancer wards escaped attack, for example. Only Gerry. Because he’s an observer. Stupid, but we’ll let that go.

And there’s really no reason, other than final-act heebie-jeebies, for the W.H.O. scientists to test his theory in B-wing. They could’ve just phoned or radioed another facility, maybe one in Nova Scotia, that might do the same. But at the least they should let someone else know, right, that they have this theory that might save humanity? In case, you know, the zombies get them first? Wouldn’t that be the smart thing to do? But we’ll let that go, too.

But I can’t let go Gerry’s conversation with Thierry aboard Belarus airlines.

At this point, Gerry’s made it into and out of Korea, and into and out of Israel. For some reason, which the movie doesn’t explain, or maybe explains too quickly, he had to go to Israel to find out why it was the one country prepared for the zombie invasion. He couldn’t just phone.

(BTW: Israel was prepared for it? I know we get the 10th-man theory in the movie, but doesn’t this smack of various anti-Semitic “No Jews died in the twin towers” conspiracy theories making the rounds after 9/11?)

But it’s in Israel, of course, that Gerry observes the old man and the bald kid, and when Segen is attacked he cuts off her hand to save her. It’s a gut reaction, and it works, and on the airplane out of Israel, Gerry anesthetizes her and cleans the wound with little bottles of vodka, but Segen is still distraught. She’s a soldier without a hand. “Now I’m just a liability,” she says. And that’s when it all comes together in Gerry’s mind. Liability! Of course! He now has the answer that might save all of humanity.

And what does he do with it? He phones Thierry, so the people on the U.S.S. Argus can begin to combat this plague. So they can begin to save humanity.

No, that would make too much sense. Instead, he tells Thierry the words that made me roll my eyes and give up on the movie:

“No time to explain.”

Right. No time to say these words: “The zombies don’t attack weakness. They don’t attack the terminally ill. They don’t see the terminally ill. That’s their weakness. Exploit it.”

And why doesn’t he have the time to say this? Because it has to be one guy, with one chance, in one place. It’s the only way we know how to tell our stories.

That’s our weakness. And Hollywood keeps exploiting it.

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Posted at 08:15 AM on Jul 02, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Monday July 01, 2013

Quote of the Day

“In Michigan a few years ago I spent 2 years trying to find a job teaching math - or doing anything whatsoever to earn an income. A Republican friend kept giving me job-finding tips, and telling me how my efforts were obviously ineffective, since I wasn't able to find employment. I could not get him to understand how hurtful his approach was. I kept telling him that if 10 people are applying for one opening, 9 will remain unemployed, no matter what they do. And since I was in my late 50's, I was always among those 9. I could not get across to him the depth of frustration & despair I was feeling.

”Thankfully, I finally landed a teaching position - in Cairo, Egypt. I'm one of the rare, fortunate ones. Meanwhile, my heart goes out to those who continue to struggle. I hope they stop voting for Republicans.“

-- Thomas Mischler, in the comments section under Paul Krugman's Op-Ed, ”War on the Unemployed."

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Posted at 03:07 PM on Jul 01, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Weekend Box Office: ‘The Heat’ Hot, ‘White House’ Down

Two people from opposite worlds—one Ivy-League-educated and respected, the other streetwise and impulsive—meet, argue, then come together in order to defeat various enemies intent on killing them. They bond, triumph and wind up working together permanently.  

This generic plot synopsis describes two movies that opened this weekend. Both starred a former Oscar winner in the Ivy-League-educated role and an up-and-comer in the scrappy role. The first had a budget of $150 million, the second a budget of $40 million. The first was directed by a man whose movies have grossed $3 billion worldwide, the second by a director whose movies have grossed a tenth of that. The first was an action movie laced with comedy, the second a comedy laced with action. The first starred men, the second women.

And when the weekend was over, the first, “White House Down,” starring Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum, opened in fourth place with $25 million; the second, “The Heat,” starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, opened in second place with $40 million.

Apparently women can open movies. Not that Hollywood studios will take much notice.

Neither movie is particularly good, by the way. But at least “Heat” is better at what it’s trying to do (make us laugh) than “Down” is at what it’s trying to do (thrill us).

Elsewhere, Pixar’s “Monsters University” dropped 44% but repeated as box-office champ for a second weekend with $46 million. “World War Z” dropped 55% for third place and $29 million. “Man of Steel” added another $20 million for fifth place and a domestic total of $248 million, which is second-best on the year, after “Iron Man 3.”

The weekend numbers.

Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy in "The Heat"

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Posted at 10:17 AM on Jul 01, 2013 in category Movies - Box Office
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