Seven Questions Jon Stewart Should Have Asked Jennifer Lawrence Last Week on 'The Daily Show'
Jon Stewart got teased by Jennifer Lawrence, and then the usual online sources, for his lack of preparation during his interview with her last week. She was promoting “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” which apparently didn't need much promoting (fourth-best opening weekend ever), but he barely asked any questions about the movie or her character, Katniss Everdeen, or about any future movies she might be in. (Gary Ross is remaking “East of Eden”????) He just showed a picture of a young Helen Mirren and said, “Doesn't that look like you?” Her response? “You are so weird.”
Maybe he didn't think you could ask interesting questions about “The Hunger Games.” But you can. Among them:
- In the movie, Katniss and Peeta are forced to “go on tour” to promote “The Hunger Games.” How much does what you're doing now feel like that?
- The tour in the movie is labeled a distraction by Haymitch, Woody Harrelson's character, so “people forget what the real problems are.” Could you say the same about “The Hunger Games”?
- Who, in “The Hunger Games,” is being targeted for distraction? The people in the Capitol, who don't seem to need distraction? Or the people in the districts, who never seem distracted?
- How did Katniss, such a strong character in the first movie, become a pawn in everyone's game in the second?
- In the movie, Gale says to her, “People are looking to you, Katniss. You've given them an opportunity. They just have to be brave enough to take it.” But doesn't the movie show us that they are brave enough to take it? And that it's your character, Katniss, the supposedly strong one, who is dragging her feet?
- Seriously, don't you look like a young Helen Mirren?
“You need to smile ... You need to be grateful ...”
Quote of the Day
“Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. ... Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
”Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. ...
“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
-- Pope Francis in his first apostolic exhortation. You can read more here. Or almost anywhere.
Idiots on the right have criticized Pope Francis and imply someone has “gotten to him.” (“Yeah, Jesus,” came one reply on Twitter.) Idiots on the left say, "Hey, Pope, what about ...? then mention their pet cause.
Me, I'm just happy to have God on my side for a change.
Movie Review: Populaire (2012)
Let him be gay. That’s what I kept thinking.
“Populaire,” a 2012 French romantic comedy that made the rounds in the “Mad Men”-crazy states this year, is an homage to those Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies of the late ’50s and early ‘60s, where she’s plucky, he’s unavailable, but in the end ... *smooch*.
Or so I’m told. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Doris Day movie. Via “The Celluloid Closet” I did see scenes where Hudson’s character pretends to be gay to throw her off the scent. So you have a gay man pretending to be a straight actor pretending to be a straight character who is pretending to be gay. There’s enough subtext there to crush us all.
In “Populaire,” Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François of “L’Enfant” and “Les tribulations d‘une caissière”) is a plucky girl, who, to escape her small village in Normandy in 1958, tries to get a secretary job in Lisieux at the insurance agency of the handsome Louis Échard (Romain Duris of “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” and “L’anacoeur”). Immediately she’s made to feel second-rate by all the would-be secretaries in the waiting room with their cat’s-eye glasses and catty attitudes. Louis is ready to show her the door himself when she spins the typewriter around and begins two-fingered typing at a superfast rate. By the end, she’s flushed, her hair is down, and her bra strap is showing. It’s typing as sex. She gets the job.
Turns out she’s an awful secretary (but plucky!), while he has something else on his mind. Something extracurricular.
No, not that. He wants to enter her in the regional speed-typing competition. He even sets her up in a room in his stately mansion so she can practice more. She assumes he’ll make a play for her—doesn’t speed-typing equal sex?—but he never does. He never even seems to think it. He’s all about the competition. Of course, the less interested he seems the more interested she becomes, and, in this manner, she pouts and frets her way to the regional championship.
Let him be gay
And all the while I kept thinking that thought at the top: Let him be gay. Do something meaningful with the crushingly sad subtext of those Rock Hudson movies instead of giving in, yet again, to the wish-fulfillment fantasies of the love-hungry women in the audience. As you did back then.
Nope. The filmmakers, including writer-director Régis Roinsard, do nothing with that crushingly sad subtext. Rose and Louis even have sex before the national finals a Paris, which she wins. Then, as she becomes a celebrity, he’s squeezed out of the picture, or allows himself to be squeezed out of the picture, by the Japy Typewriter people, who are pushing their new typewriter, Populaire. Oh, and there’s the world championships in New York City against the reigning American champ, who is superior and wears cat’s-eye glasses.
So why is Louis so intent on winning these meaningless typewriter competitions? He was competitive in school, we find out. Plus during World War II he commanded a platoon of resistance fighters, all of whom died, while he ran away. It’s a story that has entirely too much weight for this lightweight thing while never answering the main question: Why is he so competitive? About typing?
As for her talent? She’s just a natural. She’s clumsy everywhere but here. Clumsiness—and the cattiness of other women—is the easy way moviemakers make female movie stars sympathetic. But Rose’s clumsiness never feels real. It always feels like movie clumsiness.
There are subplots. Louis was always in love with Marie (Bérénice Bejo, and you can’t blame him), but the war screwed up their relationship, and anyway a handsome American, Bob Taylor (Shaun Benson, Ontario), landed on her father’s barn on D-Day, and that was that. Rose’s father is taciturn and against her going to Lisieux and blah blah blah. Louis once gave away a Van Gogh, or allowed its owners to sell it and reap the fortune, for which his father blames him and blah blah blah.
But mostly it’s about them. The question for all romantic-comedies is “How do you keep the lovers apart?” So it would’ve been brilliant if the answer here was, “Well, it’s because he’s gay.” Instead, it’s because he’s just too focused on the competition, the speed-typing competition, to have sex with her.
Let me speak for all straight men here: I’ve never known a man that focused.
He totally should've been gay
I liked the montage with the multicolored fingernails, and the hands typing out of the wall. I liked the title graphics: very of-the-period. I hated that Louis showed up in New York, with his best pal Bob, right before the final round of the world championships, but I liked how, backstage, he told her that he loved her (“Je t’aime”), and how this was translated into all the different ways to say “I love you” by the international crew of speed-typists backstage, all looking dreamy-eyed and swoony. That was cute.
Otherwise, “Populaire” is painful to watch. Patricia and I kept going, “There’s another hour of this?” “There’s another 40 minutes of this?” Time slowed down like it was the last class on the last day before summer vacation, and we just wanted to be free.
Plus he totally should’ve been gay.
Modern Ballplayer Reactions to Joe DiMaggio's 56-Game Hitting Streak
A few thoughts from modern ballplayers on Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941, culled from Kostya Kennedy's book, “56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports,” pp. 187-88, which I've been enjoying during lunch:
“How big of a deal is DiMaggio's streak? Ryan Zimmerman got halfway there and it was on the front page of every sports section and led every sports highlight show. He was halfway. Halfway! Think about that.”
-- David Wright
“Get a hit for two straight months? It's hard to get a hit for two straight days.”
-- Derek Jeter
“That's one of those Bugs Bunny numbers. People do that in cartoons, not in real life.”
-- Ken Griffey, Jr.
“I'm not someone who follows that. Now someone who follows that, they would know [what the hitting streak record is]. But anyway, what is the hitting streak record? [Long pause after being told.] Man, that is a frickin' long hitting streak.”
-- Gary Sheffield
Movie Review: The Internship (2013)
Here’s a conversation between Patricia and I during the last five minutes of “The Internship,” starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson:
Me: Why is everyone else cheering? They just lost. They won’t get jobs now.
Patricia: And what’s the stripper doing there?
That pretty much sums up the movie. The few choice jobs in the digital age are gone ... and what’s the stripper doing there?
Has there been a worse year for comedies? Hollywood keeps trying to make us laugh from situations that cause massive social anxiety: identity theft, college admission, Burt Wonderstone. In “The Internship,” it’s obsolescence in the digital age. Wucka wucka.
I get it. Our heroes dream and persevere. They overcome and work as a team and win. But the anxiety is too real while the victory too fake. The filmmakers (director Shawn Levy; screenwriters Jared Stern and Vince Vaughn) have taken the American nightmare, shoved it through the Hollywood dream factory, and this is what came out the other end.
Selling watches in 2012
Billy McMahon (Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Wilson) are mid-40s watch salesmen who don’t know what time it is. They don’t even know their company has folded. It takes a former customer to tell them that.
Immediate thought. Sales? That’s a transferable skill. They should do well. Hell, if they can sell watches in 2012, they can sell anything.
Except for the movie to work, they can’t get jobs; and because they can’t get jobs, they’re forced to roll the dice as interns at Google, where they join a team of misfits and compete, for a job, against a bunch of other teams, including a team led by a true douchebag, Graham Hautrey (Max Minghella), who has it in for our team of sad-sack misfits. And while our team starts poorly, eventually, in the Hollywood tradition of misfit teams, they come together and begin to win and have a chance. Ah, but team leader Billy lets them down and gives up and walks away. But then he’s called back! At the last second! And they finally win! And there’s the stripper!
So it’s like “Monsters University” but more cartoony. And with a stripper.
Who are these other misfits? There’s the ostensible leader, Lyle (Josh Brener), a nerd who uses hip-hop slang and has the hots for the part-time Google dance instructor Marielena (Jessica Szohr); Stuart (Dylan O’Brien), who can’t bother to look up from his smartphone; Neha (Tia Sircar), a supercute girl who likes nerdy things (cosplay, etc.) but somehow still can’t get a date; and Yo-Yo (Tobit Raphael), the home-schooled son of a Tiger Mother, who pulls at his eyebrow when he feels like he’s done something bad.
I liked Yo-Yo. He felt new.
How do they come together as a team? Do I have to say? Actually, see if you can pick out the most absurd element on their road to victory.
They go partying. Yep. They wind up in a Chinatown restaurant, where Billy orders their meal in Mandarin, and then at a high-end strip club, where they do shots, and get lap dances, and where Neha takes a shower with her clothes on and Lyle hooks up with Marielena, who, oops (she’s so embarrassed!), is a high-end stripper and lap dancer as well as being the part-time Google dance instructor. So if Google paid her more, would she not have to strip? No one raises that point. But of course she’s interested in Lyle! What high-end lap-dancer doesn’t want a serious relationship with Dilton Doiley? Then there’s a fight (over Marielena), and afterwards, as dawn breaks beautifully over the Golden Gate Bridge, our team, recounting its crazy night, comes up with an app that wins the next event.
So: What’s the most absurd element from this crazy night? The Lyle/Marielena relationship? The fight? The fact that Neha was totally cool being in a high-end strip club where women walked around in lingerie sucking on men’s fingers?
For me it’s the Mandarin. It means that Billy is in sales, and he speaks Mandarin, and somehow he still can’t get a job.
Does Hollywood know what year it is?
Cheering for losing
There are cameos by Will Ferrell and Rob Riggle, both playing major assholes, and Nick winds up romancing a beautiful Google executive, Dana (Rose Byrne), who just never had time for a relationship but now suddenly does with a half-hearted Owen Wilson. I could barely watch their scenes together. They were so awful, I just wanted to crawl away.
Sales turns out to be the final event, which is perfect for our team. And at the last minute they nail the sale, the douche is shown up, and everyone at Google, including the other intern teams who have just lost, and thus lost the chance at their dream job, stand and cheer for our team, because that’s what always happens in the real world. Then everything else falls into place. Nick winds up with Dana, Stuart with Neha, and Yo-Yo tells off his tiger mom, who looks proud that he does so. Oh, and Lyle winds up with the stripper. Because that’s what she’s doing there. Because that relationship has no chance of not failing.
Google “shitty movie.”
Quote of the Day
“Saladin Chamcha in The Satanic Verses had been another attempt to create an anti- or opposite-self, and it was puzzling that in both cases these characters whom he had written to be other than himself were read by many people as simple self-portraits. But Stephen Dedalus was not Joyce, and Herzog was not Bellow, and Zuckerman was not Roth, and Marcel was not Proust; writers had always worked close to the bull, like matadors, had played complex games with autobiography, and yet their creations were more interesting than themselves. Surely this was known.”
-- Salman Rushdie in his memoir “Joseph Anton,” pg. 596
Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
It’s a rigged game.
I don’t mean the Hunger Games. I mean “The Hunger Games.”
The film’s creators, or possibly author Suzanne Collins (I’m not sure which since I haven’t cracked a spine in the series), rig the first game, “The Hunger Games,” by ensuring that Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) never loses favor with us by never actually killing anyone in cold blood in this kill-or-be-killed world. She triumphs without real blood on her hands.
Now, in the sequel, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the game really is rigged—this time by the other characters, particularly the game’s creator, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He’s using it, and Katniss, as a means to foment rebellion. As a result, once again she doesn’t have to kill in cold blood. Once again, when given the choice between murder and mercy, she goes with mercy. Once again, this never backfires on her.
But there’s a bigger reason why “The Hunger Games” is a rigged game: for a dictatorship, the Capitol comes pretty weak and dumb.
Dictatorship and distraction
Early on, for example, Plutarch gives Pres. Snow (Donald Sutherland) a way out:
Snow: She has become a beacon of hope for them. She has to be eliminated.
Plutarch: I agree she should die but in the right way. At the right time. ... Katniss Everdeen is a symbol. We don't have to destroy her, just her image. Show them that she's one of us now. Let them rally behind that.
The districts are already beginning to rebel. So he suggests a crackdown with public whippings and executions, then show these on television interspersed with shots of Katniss, the supposed rebel hero, shopping, trying on make-up, trying on a wedding dress. “They're gonna hate her so much,” he says, “they just might kill her for you.”
Great idea. So what happens to it?
Barely anything. The troops crack down on District 12, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsowrth, Thor’s brother) tackles Commander Thread (Patrick St. Espirit), and gets a public whipping for it. But guess who comes to the rescue? Katniss. And guess who comes to her rescue? Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). And guess who comes to his rescue? Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). And that’s that. She’s a heroine all over again because everyone saw enough of her bravery on television. So now Pres. Snow wants a new plan, even though it never looks like the first plan went into effect. And that’s when Plutarch reveals that all the previous winners, including Katniss, compete for the 75th Hunger Games. Which is why we get Katniss is another Hunger Games.
That’s one major problem. Here’s another. Early on, Gale says this to Katniss:
People are looking to you, Katniss. You've given them an opportunity. They just have to be brave enough to take it.
Here’s the thing, though. They are brave enough to take it. They are rebelling. The one who isn’t brave enough is Katniss. She keeps pulling back. Sure, Pres. Snow has threatened her mother and sister and hunky hunk Gale, but so what? She has a chance to change an awful, awful world. She just doesn’t grab it. Instead she encourages folks forward, like the old black man, who gives her the third-fingered salute and four-note whistle, and he gets executed before her distraught eyes.
Instead of trying to do something, Katniss plays along with the ruse: that she and Peeta are in love and about to get married and yadda yadda. Why does she do this again? I’ve actually forgotten. At one point, Haymitch tells her this:
From now on, your job is to be a distraction so people forget what the real problems are.
But a distraction to which people? Those in the districts or in the Capitol? Or both? It seems like it should be in the districts but they never seem distracted. They never seem fooled. They never forget who the true enemy is.
I’m sorry, but the more I think about this movie the dumber it gets. If you have dictatorial powers, as Snow does, and control over the media, as this government does, then how can you not besmirch a name? It’s called propaganda. Do we need FOX-News to show him how it’s done?
In 1985 Neil Postman published a book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death, “ in which he argued that of the two great dystopian novels from the first half of the 20th century—Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984”—it was actually the former, whose weapon of governmental control was distraction, rather than the latter, whose weapon was dictatorship, that was the more prescient and more deadly. The point is this: the Capitol has both dicatorship and distraction—and a rebel hero uninterested in rebellion—and they still can’t control her.
Talk about a rigged game.
The most successful formula in movie history
Anyway there goes Katniss into another Hunger Games. Here are the bad dudes from District 1. Here’s a bit of practice. Here are possible allies. Here are the interviews conducted by cloyingly sentimental host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, channeling Jiminy Glick). And off they go.
The acting talent here is amazing for this type of movie. Along with the previously mentioned names, Elizabeth Banks is choice as the gloriously frivilous Effie Trinket; and both Amanda Plummer and Jeffrey Wright are perfect as a half-cerebral, half-crazy Hunger Games team.
So what is it about this movie, this series, that makes it so popular? People talk about what a positive role model Katniss is, blah blah, but I think it boils down to the oldest, most successful formula in movie history: a strong woman having to choose between two men against a backdrop of tragedy. That’s “Gone with the Wind,” “Sound of Music,” “Titanic,” the “Twilight” series, and now “Hunger Games.” And like the “Twilight” series, the final “Hunger Games” is split into two parts: one for 2014, one for 2015.
I hope that distracts you enough that you forget what the real problems are.
Box Office: 'Catching Fire' Does, Oscar Films Could Use a Light
In March 2012, “The Hunger Games” had the third-biggest opening weekend ever at $152.5 million, behind only the final chapter of “Harry Potter” ($169m) and “The Dark Knight” ($158m).
A year and a half later, its sequel, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” has opened $10 million bigger—$161 million—giving it ... the fourth-best opening weekend ever, behind “The Avengers” ($207m), “Iron Man 3” ($174m), and the final “Harry Potter.”
So it goes in the battle for opening weekends. You do better and fall behind. A metaphor for our age.
Even so, impressive. Girls rule, etc. Hollywood, take note.
Right. It has. Wrongly, probably.
“Delivery Man,” the poorly reviewed remake of the charming French-Canadian comedy “Starbuck,” was the only other film to open wide this weekend, and it grossed just $8.2 million in 3,036 theaters. Katniss made that in the time it took me to write this paragraph.
Most everything else fell off: “Thor” by 61% (for $14m and second place), “The Best Man Holiday” by 58% (for $12m and third place), “Free Birds” by 34% (for $5.3m and fifth place).
The few quality films huddle together further down:
8. “Gravity”: $3.3m
9. “12 Years a Slave”: $2.8m
10. “Dallas Buyers Club”: $2.7m
16. “The Book Thief”: $605K
17. “All is Lost”: $390K
18. “Nebraska”: $350K
21. “Blue is the Warmest Color”: $193K
Of these, “Gravity” has made big bucks ($245m and counting domestic), “12 Years” isn’t doing poorly ($29m and counting), and none of the rest have grossed more than $5 million.
So we know what’s still not catching fire.
Heil, I mean hail the conquering hero.
Quote of the Day
“She was capable of saying things of such majestic narcissism that he didn't know whether to bury his head in his hands or applaud.”
— Salman Rushdie, in his memoir “Joseph Anton,” about model/actress/chef Padma Lakshmi, whom he eventually married and divorced.
Quote of the Day
“I will freely admit joining in the mockery of Ronald Reagan for his naps and gaffes, and of George W. Bush for his struggle, as someone memorably put it, 'to wrap his lips around the English language.' But such mockery is nothing like the malice that rose against Jack Kennedy in his time and rises today against Barack Obama, for reasons that start with resentment of his race, and his grace, and just roll on from there, looking for presentable rationalizations.”
-- Ron Meador in his MinnPost piece, “Ugly political malice isn't as new, or as marginal, as we might like to think,” as he recalls cheers that arose from his sixth-grade classmates in Indiana when the teacher announced the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy. See also: “Heading into Nut Country: from Dealey Plaza to the Tea Party.”
Is This Plagiarism? REVEALED
Last week I asked readers to weigh in on a matter of plagiarism.
This was the original sentence, written by Michael Lewis for his book, “Moneyball.” During the 2001-02 off-season, the New York Yankees, the Goliath of Major League Baseball, had signed Jason Giambi, the All-Star first baseman with Oakland A’s, the David of Major League Baseball. Lewis writes:
Goliath, dissatisfied with his size advantage, has bought David’s sling.
And here is the passage of concern by another writer. In his book, Lewis revealed the small-market “moneyball” strategies of A’s GM Billy Beane that had allowed him to compete with big-market teams like the Yankees. When the book was released, the Yankees began using those strategies:
[Lewis’] best-seller stabilized the market inefficiencies Billy Beane had been exploiting. It was as if Lewis had shown David's playbook to Goliath. When the two returned to the field, Goliath had a slingshot of his own.
I said I came across this passage recently in a 10th-anniversary review of the book. That was a lie. I wrote it myself in Sept. 2011 for a post entitled “Moneyball Revisited.”
Back then, a friend had quoted my passage and added in the comments field, “Damn fine sportswriting there.” Earlier this month, someone named Jason agreed. “Damn fine, indeed,” he wrote, then added the Lewis quote above, with page number.
After a beat, I thought: Is he accusing me of plagiarism?
After another beat: Is it plagiarism?
Some part of me didn’t think so. The David-and-Goliath metaphor is the most obvious metaphor when talking money matters in MLB. And if Goliath takes something of David’s? A strategy, for example? A way of waging war? How else do you extend the metaphor?
On the other hand, I had read the book, twice, and while I didn’t remember Lewis’ line above it could have lodged in my unconscious and come out when I was writing about it later.
So I went back to check my copy of the book. I’m an underliner of books. I read with pencil in hand. And in Lewis’ “Moneyball,” yes, I’d underlined a line on pg. 143, but not that one. I'd liked this one: “There was something indecent about hurling abuse at Oakland A’s fielders.” I’d also underlined sentences on pages 142 and 147, but the above line hadn’t impressed me enough to underline it.
But that was me. I knew me. How might others feel? Particularly others who didn’t know me?
That’s why I wrote the post, “Is This Plagiarism?,” without indicating it was my words that might be plagiaristic. I was curious what others thought. Was this plagiarism?
A friend on Facebook: “No. Biblical references, like Shakespeare, are fair game and cannot be ‘exclusive’ to anyone's writing.”
A longtime reader: “I am someone who takes plagiarism seriously and who has sent his share of students to the Dean because of it, but this isn't plagiarism.”
As I suspected.
Then he added, “It’s just lazy and bad writing.”
Win some, lose some.
“It's a metaphor.”
“I know it's a metaphor.”
Quote of the Day
From The Presidential Papers of Norman Mailer, special preface, written after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, for whom the book was ostensibly written:
Still, John F. Kennedy was a remarkable man. A modern democracy is a tyranny whose borders are undefined; one discovers how far one can go only by traveling in a straight line until one is stopped. Kennedy was not in a hurry to stop us. I would not be surprised if he believed that the health of America (which is to say our vitality) depended in part on the inventiveness and passion of its outlaws.
Do we give too little credit for the rhetoric of our politicians? To the ways they attempt to appeal to us? For the ways they think we are? They think we are enough like this that it will help them win the election. And in thinking that, and in winning, do they make us more like that?
In my lifetime, it's always felt like the GOP has been the party of the past, and of smallness, selfishness and exclusiveness, while the Democrats have been the party of the future, and of inclusiveness. It has the larger spirit. I think JFK reflected this in his rhetoric. I think Pres. Obama does so now.
'From Dallas, Texas, the Flash Apparently Official ...'
Fifty years ago today, my mother (of two children then) met my father, a young reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune, for a Friday lunch at a downtown restaurant. Apparently they heard the news from their waiter, but I don't know if the news they heard was “shot” or “dead.” My father didn't even know what the waiter was talking about. The president? The president of the restaurant? What president? “President Kennedy,” he was told. Thus they knew before everyone else in the restaurant. For the rest, it was still an ordinary Friday lunch, and there was talk and laughter and clinking of glasses and silverware. In the tellings since, this always feels like the worst part. Tragedy has already enveloped my mother and father, yet all around them is chatter and laughter.
Eventually, someone came out and made an official announcement and my father rushed back to the Tribune to see if he could be of use. He helped put together a photo essay on Pres. Kennedy. He remembers tears welling up in his eyes when he came across the famous White House photo of John-John playing beneath the presidential desk.
ADDENDUM: Comments from my father: You nailed it — the surreal horror of knowing of tragedy before anyone else in the room. No one made an announcement, though. What happened was that the background music was suddenly interrupted by the voice of Walter Cronkite as the people around us gradually understood what had happened.
The waiter told us as he brought my beef stroganoff. I didn't eat beef stroganoff again for a dozen years.
Technology Killed the Video Store: Remembering Minneapolis' Last Blockbuster
The last video store in Minneapolis, a Blockbuster in the Uptown area, is closing. My friend Jim Walsh wrote a good article about it for MinnPost.
It's hard to get nostalgic about a Blockbuster but I went to this store a lot when I lived in Minneapolis from 2005 to 2007. It was only about six blocks from my apartment. It's where I rented some of the old Superman movies that allowed me to write this Op-Ed for The New York Times. If they hadn't had them, I wouldn't have had it.
But I only went there because Minneapolis didn't have any good video stores. I arrived searching for something approximating Scarecrow Video in Seattle, and friends steered me to a place called Discount Video a few blocks south on Hennepin, which, every year, invariably won “Best Video Store” in the local alt weekly.
The place was smaller than I'd imagined. Outside there was a sign trumpeting its 15,000 titles, a fraction of Scarecrow's, and inside it was cramped. At the time, I was writing an article about political thrillers, so I searched through their thrillers section but couldn't fathom a method. I turned to a clerk, a tall man in his 50s, who may have been one of the owners.
“Are these in alphabetical order or ... ?” I asked.
“We can’t do that.”
“You can’t ... ?”
My eyebrows shot up.
“Look, here’s what happens. Someone comes along and they’re thinking about renting a video and, oh no, they decide not to get it, so they put it back—in the wrong place. Now it’s out of order. We’ve got 15,000 titles. It would be impossible to alphabetize them all.”
I nodded and thought: Except everyone else does it. Scarecrow, with its 70,000 titles. Libraries, with their hundreds of thousands of titles. Volume, in fact, would seem to indicate a greater need for alphabetizing rather than a lesser need. But I just went back to my search.
That's when I noticed something else. Not many DVDs; mostly VHS.
“Is there a special section for DVDs?” I asked.
Oops. Another sore spot. I later learned Minneapolis hadn't adopted the DVD readily; many people, particularly video-store owners it seemed, nostaligized VHS cassettes as if they were LPs. As a result, even though it was 2005, this store was still mostly VHS. The clerk explained all this to me in a slightly impatient tone. Then he complained about the upcoming high-def format. New technologies kept swamping old ones, he said. In such a world, what was the point of keeping up?
At this point I just decided to ask outright. I was looking for ”The Kremlin Letter,“ a 1970 movie directed by John Huston. One problem: I couldn't remember the name of the movie. Second problem: it had never actually been released in any video format. But I didn't know that at the time.
“I’m looking for a political thriller,” I began.
“We’ve got those,” he said.
“It's from 1970 and directed by John Huston.”
“Uh ... I think that came out in 1974.”
“Well, that’s close to 1970.”
“Right. But Huston didn’t direct it.”
“Yes he did.”
My eyes shot up for the third time. What I was about to do, for movie buffs, was akin to correcting someone on the name of the president of the United States. “I think Roman Polanski directed 'Chinatown,'“ I said.
“Well, John Huston was in it.”
“True. He was in it.”
But I'd had enough, thanked the man, and fled. I never went back. I went to the Blockbuster instead.
Unsurprisingly, Discount Video went under in 2006. Now it's Blockbuster's turn. Eventually, it'll be Scarecrow Video in Seattle with its 70,000 titles. New technologies keep swamping old ones.
In his piece about Blockbuster, Jim writes:
When it’s all gone, something else will be in its cavernous place, and a couple generations’ ritual of going to the video store to physically pick and choose and congregate with other customers or employees will go with it.
I have no love for the ritual of the video store—even when the clerk I'm talking to knows who directed ”Chinatown." But here's to congregation in all its forms.
Quote of the Day
Q: What’s stronger: the competitive instinct or the advocacy instinct?
A: I think as you get older, the competitive maybe gets a little less and the advocacy gets a little more. When you’re younger, you’re going to take on the world. As you get a little older, you realize the world will win.
-- from my Q&A with real estate attorney Benjamin S. Stern, “Life, Death and the Green Bay Packers,” in the 2013 issue of Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine.
Movie Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
There's your best actor. Maybe supporting, too.
That’s what I kept thinking watching “Dallas Buyers Club,” directed by Jean-Marc Valée (“The Young Victoria”) and written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. For a time I was even thinking best picture, maybe, possibly, a candidate anyway, but then the movie lost something in its final third. Was it the battle between Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) and the various government agencies (IRS, FDA and DEA)? Was that too obvious? Was it the absence of Rayon (Jared Leto) after her death? Was it the presence of Jennifer Garner as Dr. Eve Saks? Garner was out of her element here. She came onscreen and the energy just drained away.
But McConaughey? Hoo boy.
Gotta die somehow
He plays a good ol’ boy: a Texas electrician, part-time rodeo rider, and full-time racounteur. The first images we see are of a bucking bull from behind the fence. Since we also hear snorting, we think we’re getting the bull’s perspective, but it’s actually Woodruff banging a girl in the bull’s pen. He looks a bit thin and tired and has a persistent cough. Bad sign. A cough in the first act is like the gun in the first act.
AIDS comes into the conversation quickly via headlines about Rock Hudson. Woodruff is hardly sympathetic:
Woodruff: You hear Rock Hudson was a cocksucker?
Friend: Where’d you hear that?
Woodruff: It’s called a newspaper.
He’s more immediately concerned about a rodeo bet he made that went awry. He’s running from the men he owes money to—nearly a dozen cowboys, from the looks—when he runs into a friend, a cop, Tucker (Steve Zahn), who’s had to deal with this before and won’t protect him now. So Woodruff gets inventive. He decks Tucker. On the ride home, Tucker tries to give him some sound advice about his reckless nature and how it’ll likely get him killed. “Gotta die somehow,” Woodruff says in that smooth McConaughey voice. He says it like he’ll live forever.
A few days later, there’s an accident at work and he’s taken to the hospital, where he’s told by two doctors wearing surgical masks that he has both HIV and full-blown AIDS. His reaction is interesting. “You’re fucking kidding me,” he says. When Dr. Savard (Denis O’Hare) recounts the ways people contract HIV, beginning with homosexual sex, his reaction gets more interesting. “I ain’t no faggot, motherfucker!” The doctor remains calm and gives him 30 days to live but Woodruff is still on the first two stages of the five stages of grief: denial and anger. “There ain’t nothing out there that can kill Ron Woodruff in 30 days!” he shouts.
Over the next 30 days, he’ll go through the next two stages: bargaining and depression. At the library, he researches the disease, realizes how he contracted it (sex with an IV drug user, I believe, but it’s a bit murky), and searches for a cure that doesn’t exist. AZT is the drug bandied about, and trials are being done, but there’s a chance you’re in the control group—the sugar pill group—and he’s not willing to take that chance. So he gets inventive again. At a strip club he sees an orderly from the hospital and bribes him to get him AZT drugs, which he washes down with whiskey and cocaine.
During this period, friends abandon him. There’s a great scene where he goes to his usual bar, orders his usual drink, heads to his usual table of friends. But they’re no longer his friends. They call him faggot. He’s immediately ready to fight them all, and they want to kick his ass, but an interesting dynamic occurs. No one wants to touch him. No one wants to get within 10 feet of him. He’s a like-poled magnet: He takes a step forward and they a step back. He spits on them and curses the place as he leaves. He’ll do this a lot during the movie. I lost track of the number of times he left a room shouting, “Fuck all y’all!”
By the end of the 30-day period he’s left with nothing: no friends, no home (he finds his trailer home padlocked, with FAGGOT BLOOD spraypainted on the side), and the AZT is only making him worse. Plus it runs out. But the orderly gives him an address in Mexico, outside the realm of the FDA, so that’s where he heads. Because Ron Woodruff may be a lying homophobic asshole, but in this movie he never winds up on the fifth stage of grief: acceptance. He thrives at stages 2 and 3: anger and bargaining.
FDA, DEA, etc.
It’s in Mexico that the story really begins. I didn’t know this going in. All of this came as a pleasant surprise for me.
Near death, he’s saved, for the time being, by Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne, in a great cameo), who lost his license in the states, and who counsels against AZT, which destroys all cells, both good and bad. Instead, Ron should concentrate on building up his immune system with vitamins, zinc, and aloe. He also recommends DDC, a less-toxic anti-viral, and Peptide T, a non-toxic protein, neither of which are approved by the FDA. He thinks about all the AIDS sufferers in Dallas and says, “You could make a fortune off this stuff,” and a light goes off. CUT TO: filling his trunk with drugs for the trip back. There he starts the Dallas Buyers Club, modeled after similar clubs in New York. Since it’s illegal to sell non-FDA-approved drugs, he sells memberships into a club, which dispenses the drugs.
He partners with a transexual, Rayon, and soon has lines forming outside the motel room they’ve set up. He also attracts the attention of the usual government agencies: FDA, DEA, etc. A battle is enjoined and lessons are learned. He becomes more tolerant of gay people, for example. He keeps using the epithet “Cocksucker” but now it’s for FDA officials. That’s the journey he takes: from anti-gay to anti-government.
Some have complained, or celebrated, that this makes the movie too Tea Party, but for me it’s just too simplistic. It’s the brash homophobe protecting the poor gay folks who can’t protect themselves. The government gets blamed but not the infamously homophobic Reagan administration. Some of the casting doesn’t help. When I first saw Denis O’Hare as Dr. Sevard, I thought, “Oh, it’s the guy who usually plays a corporate asshole. Nice that he gets to play a ... No, he’s a corporate asshole here, too.” Kevin Rankin, the white-trash dirtbag of “White House Down” and “Breaking Bad,” plays a white-trash dirtbag. Michael O’Neill, who usually plays a bureaucratic douche, plays the main FDA douche. Etc.
But Jared Leto is a revelation and McConaughey is uncompromising in his portrayal. He’s corralled his charm and energy into the service of full-dimensional characters in good movies.
I did like the scene at the end before the district court in San Francisco. Woodruff has sued to use and sell non-FDA approved drugs but loses. It’s the language of the judge that I appreicated—the difference between law and justice:
Mr. Woodroof, there is not a person in this courtroom who is not moved to compassion by your plight. What is lacking here is the legal authority to intervene. I’m sorry.
What do you call that? A liberal judge not legislating from the bench.
I also like the final images: Woodruff riding a bull at a rodeo. You wonder if it’s current, if he’s gotten well enough to do that again, but it’s both flashback and metaphor. This is what he’s been doing the entire movie, and he finally gets thrown on September 12, 1992. He was given 30 days and took more than 2,000.
But then we get another title that dampens the effect of much of the movie: we’re informed that lower doses of AZT, the devil drug in the movie, wound up leading to the cure we currently have. So it was hardly a devil drug; it was just dispensed improperly. It confuses the movie’s clean formulaic lines, suggesting that maybe they shouldn’t have been so clean and formulaic.
But “Dallas Buyers Club” is still a movie worth seeing—for its performances, its energy, the fact that there’s comedy and adventure in a movie about AIDS. It’s also a good reminder of what AIDS and homophobia felt like 30 years ago.
Quote of the Day
“If you sit by the river long enough, the body of your enemy will float by.”
-- a Chinese proverb, attributed to Confucius, which I came across in Salman Rushdie's memoir, “Joseph Anton,” pg. 532
A Few Thoughts on Yankee Dominance and Failure
From 1921 to 1964, the longest drought the New York Yankees and its fans suffered without a World Series title was three seasons. It happened three times: 1928 to 1932, 1932 to 1936, and 1943 to 1947.
In many ways their most dominant years weren’t the ones everyone talks about, from 1949 to 1964, when they went to every World Series but two. That’s amazing, yes, but of those 14 World Series they lost five of them. I guess that's also amazing—9-5 in the World Series—until you see what they did from 1936 to 1953. In this slightly longer period, they went to 13 of 18 World Seriesbut won 12 of them.
The Yankees’ last title in the 1960s was in ’62: the “Why couldn't McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher!" series. They wouldn’t get another for 15 years: the “Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!” series of ’77. After another title in ’78, it took another 18 years for them to win again. So for a period of 33 years, from 1963 to 1996, the Yankees had only two titles to show for it. Good times.
The good times ended from ’96 to ’00, when Jeter, Rivera, et al., won four titles in five years. But since then things have looked up again. The Yanks have appeared in three Series but won just once: 2009.
One title in 12 years. Most fans would be happy. But that’s massive failure in Yankee land.
Of course now we have twice as many teams, and three times as many rounds of playoffs. Even so, that's massive failure in Yankee land.
Here’s to more good times.
The last Yankees postseason at-bat: down 3 games to zero, down 8-1 in Game 4, two out and nobody on in the top of the ninth.
Movie Review: Parkland (2013)
The saddest American day of my lifetime occurred when I was 10 months old. We keep telling it again and again. We keep probing the wound. Sometimes I think we like it. It makes us feel something even if that feeling is overwhelming sadness and horror for all that was lost. In this way the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas, is, for Americans, what the Onion Cellar in Gunter Grass’ novel “The Tin Drum” is for Germans: a place to go to cry.
But since we keep telling it, how do you tell it anew?
Writer and first-time director Peter Landesman does just that in “Parkland,” a 90-minute film based on Vincent Bugliosi’s book “Four Days in November.” Landesman doesn’t tell the story from the perspective of the principal characters; he tells it from the perspective of the people whose lives that day were peripherally if monumentally affected: Abraham Zapruder, who shot the 8mm footage of the assassination; James Hosty, from the Dallas FBI office, who had been tracking Oswald, and who, in the aftermath, was blamed and even fingered by conspiracy theorists; Robert Oswald, brother of Lee, whose family name was forever besmirched; and the various doctors and nurses at Parkland Memorial Hospital, who tried to save both Pres. Kennedy that Friday and his assassin two days later.
History’s supporting players
It’s a movie about history’s supporting players starring great supporting actors:
- Marcia Gay Harden, who won the supporting actress Oscar in 2000 for “Pollock," plays Doris Nelson, the supervising nurse at Parkland.
- Paul Giamatti, nominated in 2005 for “Cinderella Man,” plays Zapruder, a man of enthusiasms, an immigrant who loved America and then unknowingly but unflinchingly filmed one of its great horrors.
- Billy Bob Thornton (supporting nom for “A Simple Plan” in 1998) is Forrest Sorrels, head of the local FBI office.
- Jackie Earle Haley (“Little Children” in 2006) plays the priest who administers last rites.
- Jacki Weaver (“Animal Kingdom” in 2010 and “Silver Linings Playbook” in 2012) is spooky as the Oswald matriarch, Marguerite, who insists that her son was an American agent who had done a great deed, and that her family would “never be ordinary again.”
Add in James Badge Dale as Bob Oswald, Ron Livington as Hosty, Colin Hanks as Dr. Malcolm Perry, the attending physician, and a couple of former teen heartthrobs—Zac Efron as the resident doctor who first began working on Pres. Kennedy, and Tom Welling as Roy Kellerman, the secret service agent who rode in the presidential limousine—and you’ve got quite a cast. Everyone’s good. A few (Harden, Weaver) are outstanding.
The details make the movie. Zapruder knew immediately. Everyone else is rushing around but he knew. I like the way Dr. Perry, in a board meeting, says “Five minutes” when told he’s needed in O.R. Nothing was ready. Secret service agents had to demand a stretcher and then rush through the narrow hallways to the small operating room. Blood was everywhere and on everyone. Zapruder is horrified by the “undignified end for a very dignified man” but he doesn’t know the half of it. Kennedy’s clothes are cut away during the futile attempt to revive him. Jackie continues to clutch portions of her husband’s skull and brain, as if they will be needed to put him back together. There is a shouting and shoving match in the operating room between Kellerman, who insists on bringing the body back to Washington, D.C., and Earl Rose (Rory Cochrane), the Dallas coroner, who insists on performing the autopsy there, as required by law.
The body, in a casket, is then rushed to Love Field and a dozen men shakily, almost frantically carry it onto Air Force One. Chairs have been removed in anticipation (“We’re not carrying it below like a piece of luggage!” one man says), but a partition still has to be ripped out by Kellerman to make the turn. There’s such a rushed, frantic quality to all of this, it’s as if they’re making a getaway. It’s as if they’re trying to escape a nightmare.
We also get moments of dignity and solemnity. The last rites, for example; and the crucifix retrieved by Doris Nelson from her locker.
In Landesman’s account, the doctors and nurses come off well, Rose less so, and the local FBI office, where records of a visit by Oswald two weeks earlier were destroyed, not at all. At the same time, one member, Sorrels, in browline eyeglasses and compact fedora, never loses his cool, nor his sense of the enormity of the situation, as he guides Zapruder in the development of his 8mm footage, commiserates with Bob Oswald (“I feel sorry for you”), and gives us one of the film’s few funny lines, as he stands in the operating room while the same doctors and nurses that worked on JFK work on Lee Harvey Oswald:
Sorrels: We need a confession.
Nelson: What if he dies?
Sorrels: We need a confession first.
The two funerals are juxtaposed: the stately funeral for Pres. Kennedy, attended by all, mourned over by all, while Bob Oswald, with his crazy mother, attempts to bury his brother, whose body no church cemetery will take, who has no pallbearers, and who is hand-buried by Bob and two black gravediggers. It’s a pauper’s funeral on a cold, gray Texas day for the most despised man in the world.
“Parkland,” distributed by Exclusive Media, seems to have gotten a similar pauper’s burial. It was barely in theaters. Unlike Oswald it didn’t deserve this rush job, nor its 47% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a good movie that focuses on the small within the historic. It gives us all the sad details.
Quote of the Day
“Time will say nothing but I told you so
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.”
-- W.H. Auden, in his villanelle, “If I Could Tell You,” which the father of a friend quoted on his daughter's Facebook page for her birthday. Pays to have smart friends.
Second Weekend of 'Thor' Beats Thoroughly Mortal Competition
In its second weekend, “Thor: The Dark World” topped the box office with $38.4 million, but its competition was thoroughly mortal. The big opener was “The Best Man Holiday,” a sequel to “The Best Man” 15 years ago. It did surprisingly well, $30.5 million, to take second place.
I’m sort of intrigued (I think I’m the only one) by the performances of both “Ender’s Game” and “Last Vegas,” both of which debuted two weekends ago. Back then, “Ender’s,” the sci-fi kids action flick, finished first with $27 while “Vegas,” the oldster comedy, was third with $16.3. But “Ender’s” keeps dropping and “Vegas” doesn’t. This weekend, “Ender’s” finished seventh ($6.2) while “Vegas” is still in third place ($8.8). A tortoise and hare thing.
Meanwhile, “Gravity” earned another $6.2 million to move from seventh to fifth for the year: $240 million.
Among other Oscar contenders, “12 Years a Slave” finished in eighth place ($4.7 for a total of $24.9), “Captain Phillips” finished in ninth ($4.5 for $97.6), “Dallas Buyers Club” 12th ($1.7 for $3), and “All is Lost” 13th ($.9 for $4.2). Of those, only “Captain Phillips” had a wide release greater than 3,000 theaters. “12 Years” is at 1,411, “All is Lost” is at 483, and “Dallas” at 184.
And that noise you hear off in the distance? That’s the “Hunger Games” sequel, opening next Friday.
Don't worry, Thor. Competition arrives next weekend.
Rebuttal of the Day
Tyler Kepner in his Sunday Times column, “Mets and Yankees Must Swing for the Fences,” urges both NY teams to spend, spend, spend their way to success:
The Mets and the Yankees had terrible luck with health last season, but no one wants to hear that anymore.
Actually most baseball fans want to hear exactly that.
Is This Plagiarism?
I know. Thanks to Rand Paul, plagiarism is the talk of the town these days.
But I came across a recent book review of Michael Lewis' “Moneyball” on the 10th anniversary of its publication, in which the reviewer wrote the following about the effect “Moneyball” had on the money aspect of Major League Baseball:
[Lewis’] best-seller stabilized the market inefficiencies Billy Beane had been exploiting. It was as if Lewis had shown David's playbook to Goliath. When the two returned to the field, Goliath had a slingshot of his own.
Compare with pg. 143 of Lewis' own book, in which he's talking about A's first baseman Jason Giambi signing with the Yankees:
Goliath, dissatisfied with his size advantage, has bought David's sling.
Would you consider this plagiarism?
Suggested Titles for Derek Jeter's New Book Imprint
Derek Jeter, nearing the final act of a storied athletic career, is ready to talk about his life after baseball. He wants to be a book publisher.
On Thursday, Jeter, the Yankees’ shortstop and captain, announced that he would start a publishing imprint, Jeter Publishing, a partnership with Simon & Schuster. Saying he had thought a lot about his future while recovering from injuries last season, he portrayed the move as a way to explore a project that combines his interests in business and in books, film and TV.
Here are a few titles that I, a poor writer, humbly submit to the future Hall-of-Famer:
- “1,001 Reasons Why the Yankees Suck”
- “Advanced Sabermetrics and the Most Overrated Fielders in Baseball History”
- “Four Days in October: The unprecedented comeback of the 2004 Red Sox”
- “The Curse of Big Papi: Why the Yankee are doomed for a generation”
- “A Short Bloop Over the Shortstop's Head, and Other Great Comebacks in World Series History”
- “They're Not Just Singles, They're Leadership: Derek Jeter's Home-to-First Legacy”
- “Glory Days and Desperate Measures: What professional athletes stoop to after the cheering stops”
“You never know where this may go,” Jeter said. “You look at all the opportunities that come with content in general; I mean, there might be a compelling story that someone has that turns into a film or a TV show.”
Who is the Team of the Century?
I was thinking about this during the postseason, which didn't include the New York Yankees, and which included a World Series between two teams with two titles so far this century: the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. I thought whoever won this year would be our team of the century. So far.
Then I thought I'd crunch the numbers first.
This is what you get in terms of post-season appearances, LCSes, pennants, and World Series titles. It's organized by post-season appearances. Caveat: I didn't include the loser of the new one-game wild card playoffs, which, technically, is the post-season, but doesn't fit readily into this format. I also included the year 2000. Arguments on that issue can take place elsewhere, please:
|New York Yankees||12||7||4||2|
|St. Louis Cardinals||10||8||4||2|
|Boston Red Sox||7||5||3||3|
|Los Angeles Angels||6||3||1||1|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||5||3|
|San Francisco Giants||5||3||3||2|
|Tampa Bay Rays||4||1||1|
|Chicago White Sox||3||1||1||1|
|New York Mets||2||2||1|
|San Diego Padres||2|
|Kansas City Royals|
|Toronto Blue Jays|
The Yankees have appeared in the most post-seasons, 12 of the 14, and are tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the most pennants: four.
The Cardinals, though, have been in the most LCSes: 8. That was a surprise for me. I forgot how many times they kept showing up.
But if it's all about rings—and what Yankees fan worth his salt wouldn't say it's all about rings?—then the century thus far belongs to the Boston Red Sox, who began the century as famous, operatic losers until their glorious comeback in the 2004 ALCS jumpstarted a new tradition.
A follow-up: So who is the biggest loser of the 21st century? Both Toronto and KC haven't even been to the postseason—Toronto tough division, KC idiot management—while a few others have made it only once. One of those, the then-Florida Marlins, actually went all the way in 2003, but they're an outlier.
The team with the most post-season appearances and no LCS? Tied between the Reds and the Padres with two each.
How about the team with the most LCS appearances but no pennant? That would be the Dodgers with 3. The Mariners are second with 2.
But look at the Braves up there: Eight postseasons, just one LCS and no pennant. They have the most post-season appearances without a pennant. Yet this organization is now planning on moving its home ballpark from downtown Atlanta (55% white) to Cobb County (66% white) for the start of the 2017 season. “We’ve played in our current facility for quite some time," said John Schuerholz, the Braves’ president. By which he means since 1997. So 20 years is apparently the shelf-life of baseball stadiums today. I'm sure the Mariners organization is taking note.
So are the Braves the biggest losers of the 21st century? Certainly in the post-season. Plus now they're being dicks. But at least it's a smart organization. If I added regular-season futitlity to this chart, I'm sure the prize of worst team of the century would go to Kansas City. But watch out, Royals! The Mariners are right on your back.
For Yankees fans, the 21st century has been about the Curse of Big Papi.
Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)
If “12 Years a Slave” is the greatest film ever made about the American slave experience it’s partially because it doesn’t have much competition.
What comes to mind? “Amistad”? Meh. “Roots”? TV. “Mandingo”? Please. The very dearth makes one question what so-called liberal Hollywood has been up to for the last 100 years. The Holocaust ended 80 years after slavery but already has its masterpieces: “The Pianist,” “Schindler’s List,” “Nuit et Brouillard,” “Shoah.” American slavery has “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind.” Insert rebel yell here.
Is it telling that “12 Years” was directed by a Brit (Steve McQueen), and stars mostly Brits (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch)? Is the story of slavery, in other words, still too close to us even after 150 years? It’s our shame and who wants to broadcast their shame? Plus there are practical questions. How will it sell in the South, for one.
Maybe it’s as simple as this: Slavery is long gone but we’re still working through its consequences. We all agree, give or take, that slavery was wrong, but white Americans still disagree vehemently on racial matters. Black Americans, too. It’s the dialogue we either never really have or never stop having. Both.
All of that is partially why “12 Years” is the greatest film ever made about the American slave experience. It also happens to be a very powerful film. Its power lies in understatement, and stillness, and holding onto the horror rather than flinching away from it or turning it into melodrama—as recent films have done with the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanjing. McQueen shows you a man half-lynched, and holds on it and holds on it. Comedians have a phrase for this—commitment to the bit—but McQueen isn’t demonstrating its tragic side. His camera almost feels non-judgmental. It’s a cold camera, the way Stanley Kubrick’s was a cold camera. The heat, the horror, are up to us to provide.
The worst master
The movie is based upon a true story. Or upon an 1853 book that was based upon a true story.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor ) was a free-born African-American living with his wife and family in Saratoga, N.Y., who, in 1841, was traduced, drugged and sold into slavery in Louisiana. There, he had masters both benevolent (Cumberbatch as Ford) and sadistic (Fassbender as Edwin Epps), and the question, going in, and given the title, is how he gets back after 12 years.
Despite the dearth mentioned above, the horrors of slavery in the antebellum South aren’t exactly unfamiliar to us: whippings, lynchings, general inhumanity. But McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley (“Red Tails”; “Three Kings”) still give us unexpected details and subtleties. The slave auction takes place, not outside on the docks, but inside a well-appointed New Orleans home. Half the slaves are naked, and inspected, but there’s little that’s malicious or lascivious about this; they’re inspected the way you would inspect a piece of furniture. They’re commodity. That’s the horror. Not in maliciousness—the sneering and leering lesser filmmakers bring—but in how ordinary it all is.
There’s a surprising freedom within slavery. Solomon, renamed Platt, and passed off as a runaway from Georgia, is allowed to walk to the general store to pick up supplies. He’s allowed to suggest and prove to Ford a means of transporting goods via river raft. He’s allowed to do carpentry work. Then he misunderstands his situation. He talks back to one of the overseers, Tibeats (Paul Dano), and winds up fighting and even whipping Tibeats, who returns with two friends to lynch him. They nearly succeed but for the other overseer, Chapin (J.D. Evermore), who stops them but does nothing to stop Solomon’s pain. He leaves him, half-choking on the rope, and on his toes for hours until Ford arrives and cuts him down.
An argument can be made that the benevolent master, Ford, is actually worse than the sadistic master, Epps, since there is no doubt in Epps’ mind, none at all, that his slaves are anything but his property. So why shouldn’t he treat his property the way he wants? Ford’s different. He knows slavery isn’t right. But he still buys into it. He still purchases Solomon and separates a mother from her children. He may save Solomon from a lynching but when Solomon tells him he’s a free man, illegally brought to the South, he doesn’t help him; he sells him. He has debt, and Platt still has value. That’s what you do in capitalism. You buy low, sell high, and sometimes you cut your losses. He cut Platt.
Solomon makes a few feints at escape. On the first trip to the general store, he ducks into the woods only to come across a lynching. On a subsequent trip, he steals a piece of parchment, uses berry juice as ink, writes a letter to send home. But the man he trusts betrays him and he burns the letter, and, with it, most of his hope.
His demeanor and Latinate vocabulary changes. He avoids eye contact, suffers, ages. One slave, Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), a source of tension between Epps and his wife (Sarah Paulson) because of Epps’ desire for her, asks Solomon to kill her. He refuses on religious grounds. Later, because she dares get a bar of soap, she is whipped—not by Epps (at least initially) but by Platt. Epps forces him and he has no other choice. This is the key to the movie—the shift from the many options of a free man to the one of a slave—and is brought home immediately in the shabby building on the outskirts of D.C. when Northup awakes in chains for the first time. He stands and tells his enslavers his name is Solomon Northup and he is a free-born man. The men nod and crank the chains down until he is on all fours. Then they whip him. Then they whip him again. Then they take his torn and blood-splattered shirt and give him a slave shirt.
If there’s a fault in the film, a void, it may be Solomon’s isolation within the slave community. I don’t know if this is historically accurate—a result of the fact that Solomon is an educated free man living among uneducated slaves—or if it’s because director Steve McQueen tends deal in isolation. In “Hunger,” Bobby Sands (Fassbender) is physically isolated in a British prison; in “Shame,” Brandon (Fassbender again) is psychologically isolated by his sexual addiction. Now we get Solomon in the South.
With whom does he bond? Initially with two other free-born men sold into slavery: Clemens (Chris Chalk) and Robert (Michael K. Williams). The three plot and discuss their options. But on the voyage to New Orleans, Robert develops smallpox, dies, and is tossed overboard; and at port, Clemens’ white benefactor shows up to free him, and Clemens ignores, or can do nothing about, Solomon’s cries for help. No help is forthcoming. He’s alone.
On the Ford plantation, Solomon bonds mostly with Ford. On the Epps’ plantation, he bonds a bit with Patsy but shares the stage mostly with Epps. The other slaves aren’t even flat characters; they’re stick figures in the background. He and Patsy meet Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) at another plantation, who, in classic American fashion, has raised herself up from field slave to domestic servant to someone who is now served; but there’s no bond there, either. It’s a one-off. It’s a lesson. During a cottonwood infestation, he’s loaned to Judge Turner (Bryan Batt), where he harvests sugar cane during the day and engages in silent nighttime sex with (Ashley Dyke), but we don’t hear a word from her. During the funeral of a slave, lost in despair, Solomon begins to sing the blues with everyone else. He joins their song. But he doesn’t bond.
Again, I don’t know if this makes the story more historically accurate. It might even make the story better. But it is a void.
Even so, go. Please. “12 Years a Slave” is one of the best movies of the year about the great American tragedy. The movie’s power lies in its restraint. It holds something back for pressure, as Robert Frost said about good poetry. You can feel this restraint, this pressure, in McQueen’s direction, Ejiofor’s performance, and the soundtrack music by Hans Zimmer. You want release and they don’t give it.
In some respects, the standout performance is Fassbender’s. He’s ferocious not just in his sadism but in his righteousness. There’s no doubt in his eyes. These people are his. When the local sheriff, and Solomon’s white benefactor from the North, show up on the plantation to finally free Solomon after 12 long years, we get no cheap thrills, no sense of vindication from a beaten Epps. The opposite. His righteousness grows. Some government functionary is repossessing his property? Even though he paid for it? He’ll see about this. And off he rides to seek restitution. He’s ready to start a civil war over it.
There are no cheap thrills at the end, either. It’s a happy ending but it’s not a Hollywood ending. Solomon greets his family, including his new son-in-law, after 12 years away, with tears of genuine sorrow. “I apologize for my appearance,” he says. “But I have had a difficult time these past several years.”
Producer Bill Pohlad has said of the film, “We felt there's never been a film about slavery that dealt with it in such an unflinching way.”
Now we have one.
Happy Armistice Day, When the Songs That We Sing Will Be Sad
Our holidays morph, don't they? FOX-News is right about that but it's not a war and it's not specific to Christmas. It's just change, which FOX-News, absolutists all, can't comprehend. Washington's Birthday becomes Presidents Day (here's to Warren Harding! Herbert Hoover! George W. Bush!), while today, the day Word War I ended, Armistice Day, becomes, in the states anyway, Veterans Day. It's not much of a holiday in that most of us still go to work. If it were a true holiday, if it made sense as a holiday, then veterans would get it off. Why not? Why should I get a holiday for their service? And why shouldn't they for theirs?
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Nov. 11 became a legal holiday, Armistice Day, in 1938, three years before Paul Simon was born, and in 1954, when Simon was 13, it became Veterans Day, a day to honor the veterans of all of our many wars. So Simon certainly remembers when it was Armistice Day. That phrase may even be tinged with nostalgia for him. It may be why he wrote the song “Armistice Day” in 1968:
On Armistice Day
The Philharmonic will play
But the songs that we sing
Will be sad
There's also these words that never go out of style:
Oh, I’m weary from waiting
In Washington, D.C.
I’m coming to see my congressman
But he’s avoiding me
Weary from waiting down in Washington, D.C.
Anyway, here's to the war to end all wars.
Movie Review: Thor: The Dark World (2013)
For all its battle scenes, for all its moments of light comedy, “Thor: The Dark World” begins abysmally. These are the first words we hear, spoken in voiceover by Anthony Hopkins in full Shakespearean:
Long before the birth of light, there was darkness.
No duh, Odin.
Then we get a battle 5,000 years ago, with, on one side, Malekith and the Dark Elves (which should totally be a band name), and, on the other, the army of Asgard, led by Thor’s grandfather Bor. Yes: Bor. Takes a lot of balls to name a character that.
In this battle, Malekith plans to use “the Aether” to return the nine realms of the universe into darkness, but he’s defeated. But the Aether can’t be destroyed. So what to do? “Bury it deep,” one Asgardian, possibly Bor, says, “where no one will ever find it.”
It’s found. Guess by whom?
Vanaheim, Svartalfheim, London
I’ve never really been a fan of this stuff. Know that going in. Even when I was a teenager in the 1970s and collected Marvel Comics and worshipped at the feet of Stan Lee and Steve Englehart, I never collected “Thor” or “Dr. Strange” or any comic that was too otherworldly or cross-dimensional. Radioactive spider, sure. Gamma bomb and cosmic rays, of course. But Asgard? Verily, it maketh me stiff with boredom.
This is what I missed. There are apparently nine realms to the universe. Asgard is one, Midgard (us) is another. One of the funniest moments in the movie for me, unintentional, occurs early. Titles tell us which realm we’re in: Asgard, Vanaheim, Svartalfheim. Then: London.
So every 5,000 years there’s a convergence in which the nine realms are perfectly aligned, and where travel between realms becomes easier. It’s like wormholes open up or something. This is also the perfect time, if you’re so inclined, to return the universe to darkness. Which is the plan of the reawakened Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). In Biblical terms, he wants to go back to the time before the third verse of Genesis. He wants to return us to the moment before “Let there be light.”
It takes a while for the principles to figure this out. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is too busy quelling disturbances in the nine realms, and Odin is too busy making grand pronouncements and being an ass. Seriously, is that guy ever right about anything? At one point he shouts, “The Dark Elves are dead!” When does he shout it? Right before the Dark Elves attack.
Odin, though, may be right about one thing. Early on, he counsels Thor against getting too involved with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), since humans, at best, live 1/50 of the time Asgardians live. It’s an interesting point. Jane, for example, is upset that Thor has been gone for two years but for him it’s like two weeks. I’m curious how the romance is viewed on Asgard. How often are there interrealm romances? Are there laws against it? Is this a Loving v. Virginia thing? Or a King Edward VIII/Wallis Simpson moment? The movie’s perspective of the romance, though, is decidedly Midgardian: He’s hot, she’s hot, why not?
Thor only actually shows up then because Jane stumbles upon one of those inter-realm portals, pops through it, and, in some starry, rocky land that seems like a bad dream, finds, between two rocks, the Aether, which bonds with her body. That’s why Thor takes her to Asgard. And that’s why she’s in Asgard when the Dark Elves attack.
It’s very “Star Wars”-y, this attack, and even though I recognized it was done well I was bored. Plus I kept thinking: Wait, weren’t the Dark Elves in stasis all this time? So how did they develop the technology to take down Asgard? Did they always have it? Is Asgardian tech stagnating? Are they like Microsoft in this way?
One ship manages to get through Asgardian defenses, the one, coincidentally, carrying both Malekith and his chief warrior, Algrim/Kurse (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who frees the many prisoners of Asgard, which leads to another rousing battle. Rah. Malekith, after bigger prey (Jane and the Aether), is stopped, and scarred, by Frigga (Rene Russo), Thor’s mom, who has powers of her own. Alas, not enough. She’s killed. And even with Asgard totally defenseless, even with the very fabric of reality hanging in the balance, Asgard takes the time for a good old-fashioned Viking funeral: boat, flaming arrow, waterfalls, pomp and circumstance.
Does Odin have a plan to deal with the Dark Elves? I forget. Thor has one, though, involving his friends, Sif, Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun and Heimdall, who are always underused in these movies, as well as his half-brother and chief nemesis Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who was a bit petulant in the first movie, became Hulk’s rag doll in “The Avengers,” and seems to be having a blast here. Thor’s plan is treasonous, requiring escape from Asgard. The big issue is trust: Can Loki be trusted? But that’s actually part of the plan. Thor, Loki and Jane make it into the dark realm for a faceoff with Malekith and Kurse, but Loki betrays him, cutting off Thor’s hammer-wielding right hand, rendering him powerless. Ah, but it’s a Lokian illusion! As Malekith is drawing the Aether from Jane’s levitating body, Thor cries, “Loki—now!” and retrieves his hammer and smashes the Aether into nothingness.
Except ... it then reassembles itself and enters Malekith, who becomes more powerful than ever, and just a step away now from returning the universe into darkness forever. So, yeah, bad plan, Thor.
The final battle takes place in London, Greenwich mean time.
As close to gay porn as mainstream movies get
It’s no surprise that in this epic battle between the forces of dark and light, Thor takes the side of light. What’s surprising is how much the movie embraces the light.
Since “The Dark Knight,” which made a mint in 2008, the trend in superhero movies has been toward the dark, gloomy and tortured. “Thor 2” bucks the trend by going light and comedic. At times it’s almost camp. Its tone is reminiscent of the first “Superman” movie with Christopher Reeve. The hero, tall, handsome and strong, plays it straight, while almost everyone around him, even the chief villain (Luthor, Loki), makes with the jokes. It’s a shame the jokes aren’t better.
They’re not bad. It’s just all a bit broad. I love me some Kat Dennings, playing Darcy, Jane’s cynical, down-to-Earth friend, but she’s on a sitcom now, “2 Broke Girls,” and there’s a sitcomy feel to some of her lines and line readings. Hiddleston plays it better but even his lines aren’t particularly good. Hemsworth as Thor is better than ever—my friend Ward calls “Thor” as close to gay porn as mainstream movies get, and an early torso-washing scene bears this out—but they’re having him do silly stuff. He enters a London apartment and hangs Mjöllnir, his hammer, on the coat rack. It’s amusing for a second. Then you go, “Wouldn’t that bring the wall down? Or the apartment building?” Later, Thor is battling Malekith and gets clobbered into a tube station. The doors to the subway open and there stands a pretty blonde, agog. “How do you get to Greenwich?” he asks. “Takes this train three stops,” she answers. Which he does, while she flirts. Oops, didn’t mean to lean into your broad chest but the train just started, tee hee. All of this while the very fabric of reality hangs in the balance. Shouldn’t he have just called Mjöllnir and gotten on with it? Shouldn’t the writers?
A lot happens in “Thor: The Dark World.” Loki dies but no he doesn’t. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) does the Walter White thing in his tightie-whities. (Or is that the Will Farrell thing?) The universe is saved but for how long? And where’s Odin at the end? Do we care?
I do appreciate the attempt, by director Alan Taylor (“Game of Thrones”), and screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, to go light rather than dark with this material, despite the title. They give us some great CGI battle sequences—particularly between Thor and Kurse, and Thor and Malekith. They try to have fun. But in the end the fun bits rarely feel organic to Thor’s story, just to ours, watching. In the end, it still ain’t Joss Whedon.
‘Thor’ Hammers Competition for $86 Million Open
“Thor: The Dark World” opened in 100 fewer theaters than “Thor” but it grossed $20 million more at the domestic box office: $86.1 million to $65.7 million. That’s the 12th-best opening for a superhero film, after the three Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” movies; the three “Iron Man” movies; the two “Dark Knight” movies; “Man of Steel,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” and, of course, “The Avengers,” which assembled $207 mil during its opening weekend in May 2012, and which is still probably helping the God of Thunder along.
Where will “Thor 2” wind up? Depends on word of mouth. Reviews were mixed: an RT score of 66% but just 38% from top critics. (My review up tomorrow.)
Of the other superhero films that opened in the 80s, “Spider-Man 2” wound up at $373 (“Thor 2” won’t do that well), “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” wound up at $179 (it won’t do that poorly) and “X2: X-Men United” wound up at $214.9 (it could beat that). But it’s November, not May, and “Hunger Games 2” opens next weekend. We’ll see.
The November thing is interesting. All the other superhero movies I’ve mentioned so far opened in May, June or July. The only November superhero competition “Thor” has—ever—is cartoons (“The Incredibles”; “Megamind”), “Unbreakable” in November 2000, and “Supergirl” in November 1984. (If you’re curious: “Supergirl” won its weekend, too, with $5.7 million but grossed only about twice that total: $14.2. And it didn’t even deserve that.)
“Ender’s Game,” meanwhile, is pretty much over—maybe as a franchise, too. It dropped 62% from its weak open to finish fifth for the weekend at $10.2, behind “Bad Grandpa” ($11.3), “Free Birds” ($11.1) and “Last Vegas ($11.1). After two weekends, “Ender’s” has now grossed just $44 million.
Among October releases with Oscar buzz, “Gravity” finished sixth (and has now grossed $231 million), “12 Years a Slave” finished seventh (and has now grossed $17 million), and “Capt. Phillips” finished eighth (and has now grossed ($90.9 million).
The weekend numbers here.
Movie Review: After Earth (2013)
When the Academy Award nominations roll out in January, you’ll probably hear about Matthew McConaughey in this and Robert Redford in that and Chiwtel Ejiofor in the other, but nary a word about Will Smith in “After Earth.” Shame. It’s truly an astonishing performance. For 20 years, Smith has exuded effortless charm and fun onscreen and here he strips himself of both. He gives us nothing. He’s a lump. Kudos to director M. Night Shyamalan for culling such a leaden performance from such a charismatic actor.
“After Earth” is, in a word, awful. It’s a MST3K-type movie. You watch it with friends and toss jokes at the screen. It’s the only way to survive its 100-minute length.
It’s also a little creepy. It feels vaguely Scientology-y. Story by Will Smith, by the way.
Apparently in the near future we will make Earth uninhabitable (global warming, etc.), so will leave, travel light years, and settle on a new planet, which we will name Nova Prime.
All together now: Nova Prime? That’s the name we came up with? Did we get to vote on it? Were there other options? I’m sorry, but nothing indicates B-grade science fiction to me more than “Nova Prime.” I see a 1950s paperback with a drawing of a handsome man and woman grappling in the foreground, and a rocket ship in the background: 35 cents.
A thousand years later an alien race wants to take over Nova Prime (to rename it?), so they sic Ursas on us, huge, multi-limbed creatures which can’t see us until we exude pheromones; until we show fear. Which, since they’re scary, we do. But one man figures out how to defeat them: Just don’t show fear, yo. That man—and again with the names—is Cypher Raige of the United Ranger Corps (Will Smith). His heroism will eventually make him a general. It will also make him a leaden lump. No fear, but not much of anything else, either. Every bit of humanity is drained from his personality.
It’s a father-son story. Cypher’s teenage son, Kitai (Smith’s son Jaden), is attempting to live up to the old man (as is Jaden), so joins Ranger Corps boot camp. He’s good. He can run faster, jump higher, than the other cadets, but in the field he’s a mess. Basically he’s afraid. When he was 10 he watched as his older sister was slaughtered by an Ursa, and the memory always drags him back to fear. It’s a source of tension between father and son, Stoney and Weepy, because the son was there and didn’t help; and because the father wasn’t there.
Eventually these two will be the only survivors of a crash landing back on Earth, where, as the injured Cypher tells his son ominously, “Everything has evolved to kill humans.”
Cool! Except, it turns out not everything has evolved to kill humans. That flock of birds just kind of swirls in the air, the gibbons don’t attack until Kitai throws a rock at them, and the bird of prey, yes, captures Kitai but eventually saves his life. Plus evolved jungle cats are more interested in the eggs in the nest than Kitai. But the leeches? They have totally evolved to kill humans.
Besides, the main concern isn’t the animals on Earth but the Ursa that was in a cage in the tail section of the ship, which landed 100 kilometers away. That’s also where the distress signal is located. Since Cypher is injured, he can’t retrieve it. It’s up to the son. It’s a journey in which he will keep doing the wrong thing (despite communication with and counsel from his father) until he does the right thing (without communication from his father). In the end he will live up to his father’s name. In battle with the Ursa, he will reach the still place of the soul and show no fear; because, as the father told him, and as the tagline reminds us, “Danger is very real, but fear is a choice.”
This is seen as a positive, by the way: showing no fear. But if it leads to becoming a leaden lump, what’s the point?
More, how do you show no fear? Here’s Cypher’s counsel:
Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity, Kitai.
Right. As in “Oh my god, that lion might eat me in one second!” People get so hung up on unreal future thoughts like that.
Domestically, the movie bombed this summer. Since “Independence Day” in 1996, Will Smith has starred in 16 movies. Twelve of them have grossed more than $100 million in the U.S. “After Earth”? $60 million. Because movies are real but going to see them is a choice.
Quote of the Day
“It is the biggest payout for assaulting people's eyes since 'Transformers 3.'”
-- Stephen Colbert on the $38K that former UC Davis campus police officer John Pike received in worker's comp. He claimed psychiatric damages (anxiety and depression) after footage of him pepper-spraying seated “Occupy” protesters in the eyes in Oct. 2011 became a viral hit.
Movie Review: Now You See Me (2013)
Is this the moment when movies finally moved too fast for their own good?
“Now You See Me,” directed by Louis Letierrer (“Clash of the Titans”; “The Incredible Hulk”), zips and swirls and spins around its characters so fast that it leaves them behind. It gives us awful dialogue and predictable situations. It goes “Abracadabra!” but no magic happens.
The Four Horsemen
There’s promise at the beginning. Four magicians with different talents are recruited by a mysterious man in a hoodie and reappear a year later as a great Vegas magic act—a one-off but we don’t know it at the time. Amid their various swirls and spins they take a man from the audience (he’s French), ask him for his bank (it’s in Paris), transport him into its vaults, and then transport back, with the money, which is then showered onto the audience. This brings in both the FBI, in the guise of Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), and Interpol, in the much hotter guise of Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent).
The movie becomes theirs. Rhodes, cocky, annoyed, is ready to take down the Four Horsemen, as the act is known, at their next show in New Orleans, but he winds up being taken down on stage, literally, by audience members, who have been hypnotized to tackle whoever says the word “Freeze!” (Anyone who didn’t see this coming wasn’t paying attention.) Meanwhile the Horsemen’s benefactor/manager, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), winds up being bankrupted by his own act. That’s the big trick this time. They take the millions from Tressler’s bank account and disperse it among the audience, all of whom have lost money during the global financial meltdown. It’s Robin Hood with a puff of smoke. After a chase through New Orleans, in which Rhodes is made to look the fool again, the magicians disappear.
The final act takes place in New York, by which time our Horsemen, now famous, the talk of whatever mass media is left, are merely on the edges of the story.
Subplots include a magic-act debunker, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who makes multimillion dollar videos, and who hounds and embarasses Rhodes; the story of Lionel Shrike, a magician who, years ago, attempted to escape from a safe in the bottom of the East River but who was never seen again; and a mysterious organization called “The Eye,” which is like Freemasons Hall of Fame for magicians.
The actors playing the Horsemen play versions of other roles they’ve played better elsewhere. Jesse Eisenberg’s J. Daniel Atlas is supersmart and talks superfast in the manner of Mark Zuckerberg. (One wonders if Eisenberg will ever be allowed to play dumb again.) Woody Harrelson’s Merritt McKinney is a washed-up rapscallion in the manner of Woody Harrelson. Isla Fisher is the girl who used to be with Atlas and now receives the halfhearted, amused attentions of McKinney, while Dave Franco’s Jack Wilder, a pickpocket, is just happy to be there. They’re not bad together, but they disappear—poof!—for most of the movie. Because we need less talk and more swirls and swoops.
I like the “corked” conversation between Harrelson and Fisher. That was fun. Plus we get some not-bad dialogue about magic:
Thaddeus: When a magician waves his hand and says, “This is where the magic is happening,” the real trick is happening somewhere else.
But the focus on the FBI is dull, and the romance between Rhodes and Dray is so forced it almost feels like rape. Laurent is given almost nothing to do. At one point, because Interpol has no jurisdiction in a situation, she’s told to wait in the car. When Rhodes returns she yells at him, “Don't you EVER tell me to stay in the car, EVER!” Right. Sure. OK. But ... why did you wait in the car?
The Fifth Horseman
There’s a lot of chest thumping, arguments over who’s a step ahead of whom, and it all leads up to what’s it all about, Alfie. Turns out the mastermind of it all, the man in the hoodie, is the son of Lionel Shrike. It’s an elaborate revenge plot taken against the safe company that made the defective safe that killed him, the bank in France that I forget what, and Arthur Tressler who did somethingorother.
So who’s the man in the hoodie? The one you least suspect: FBI agent Dylan Rhodes. And at the end, he frames Thaddeus Bradley as the Fifth Horseman, inducts the Four Horsemen into “The Eye,” and goes to France to continue his bad romance with Dray.
“Now You See Me” is an empty, flashy movie, but it’s not all bad. Here’s my favorite part: a bit of dialogue on an airplane. It carries an implicit criticism of the entire movie industry:
Rhodes: What I hate is people who exploit other people.
Dray: Exploit them how?
Rhodes: By taking advantage of their weaknesses. Their need to believe in something that’s unexplainable in order to make their lives more bearable.
Of course “Now You See Me” didn’t exactly make my life more bearable. L’opposite.
How to Win Political Arguments in Your Sleep
Stupid political arguments have invaded my unconscious.
Last night I dreamed I was at work, but not my work, where me and a colleague were schmoozing a couple of loudmouths from the South. They were big, brash types who acted as if they knew it all; as if they had secret information we weren’t privy to. At one point I asked them where they were from. “Texas,” said the more heavyset man. Where in Texas? I asked. “You know Texas?” he asked. “Florida, Texas. Near Dallas.”
My dream self thought the place sounded familiar but I couldn’t quite place it.
“Did they make a movie set there or something?” I asked.
The heavyset man cocked his head knowingly. “Movie? No, not a movie. History. You watch the news? You pay attention to what’s going on in the world?”
He began to go on about in Texas this and in Texas that, and I was nodding politely; then he launched into an anti-Obama argument. He claimed Obama was an illegitimate leader, a usurper, etc. etc., and my colleague was stunned but silent, so I looked over at the man and laid my cards on the table.
“Yeah, I know about Obama. I volunteered for his campaign in 2012. I donated $3,000 to his campaign.”
The dude came back with in Texas this and in Texas that, and the conversation quickly devolved, and the main thing I remember was being on top of the dude, my finger in his face, and saying the following:
“You may be from Texas, and they may do things a certain way there, but now you’re in Seattle. And in Seattle? I’m the conservative.”
When I woke up I thought it wasn’t a bad line for a dream, if a bit cheesey. I’m sure I’ve heard it in a similar context before.
Interpretations welcome. Particularly “Florida, Texas.”
Quote of the Day
“Dear God ... A distinguished novelist once told me that she had stopped writing fiction for a time because she didn't like her fans. I wonder if You can sympathize with her position.”
-- Salman Rushdie, in a letter to God, from pg. 283 of “Joseph Anton,” Rushdie's memoir of the post-fatwa years.
Movie Review: Ender's Game (2013)
No 15-year-old should be forced to act distraught and say the line, “I’ve killed an entire species!” but that’s the task given Asa Butterfield at the end of “Ender’s Game,” written and directed by Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), and adapted from the 1985 sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card.
Butterfield (“Hugo”) does his best. He’s good throughout but that’s just an absurd line. Plus we don’t feel the genocide. It’s all simulation. Or simulationy.
What to make of “Ender’s Game”? Earlier this year, there was buzz from the usual sci-fi geek corners but sci-fi geeks are beginning to weary me. Their stories are both futuristic and same-old. You watch “Ender’s Game” and go, “Oh, so he’s ‘The One.’ Oh, so he makes friends and enemies like in ‘Harry Potter,’ and they play a game like Quidditch. Oh, and here’s the instinct argument like in ‘Star Wars.” And here’s Harrison Ford like in ‘Star Wars.’”
Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi. You are my pain in the ass.
Bedtime for Bonzo
Story: Fifty years earlier, the Earth was attacked by an alien race, the Yadda-Yaddas, but we defeated them because of one man, Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), who shot his airship straight up their caboose. We’ve been waiting and preparing for the second attack ever since.
Well, “preparing.” As of now, it’s down to Col. Graff (Ford) as the gruff mentor/manipulator, Maj. Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) as the empathetic counselor, and a bunch of kids with good hand-eye coordination. Ender, of course, is the best of the bunch. “He’s The One,” Col. Graff says. Major Anderson isn’t so sure. Plus she sees the boy as a boy and not just a soldier. Why does it have to be boys and girls again, rather than, you know, young men and women? Something about teens being more intuitive and fearless. Not to mention the key Hollywood demographic.
By this time, apparently, Earth is so overpopulated that couples are restricted to two kids. Ender’s parents are the exception. They ask for a dispensation and wind up with him. Their first child, Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak), is too violent. Their second child, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), is too empathetic. Ender, the third, is just right.
Games need to be won; he wins them. Tests need to be passed; he does. A boy bullies him so he beats him and beats him and beat him. Because he’s violent like his brother? No, because it was a tactic to end future conflicts. That’s the answer Col. Graff is waiting for. And off Ender goes into military training.
He’s a skinny kid, too smart for his own good, but he wins over the usual group of multi-cultural geeks away from the fat British kid; then he wins over the fat British kid. He has to deal with a big, tough drill sergeant, Dap (Nonso Anozie) and a bullying platoon leader, Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias). The question with each is: Do their hard outer shells contain a gooey center? Dap, yes. Bonzo, no.
Ender gathers his Hermione (Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit”) and his various Ron Weasleys (Bean and Alai). The Quidditch here is a zero-gravity shooting game where the goal is to neutralize all of your opponents or make it end-to-end and win. Ender employs the apparently unheard-of tactic of flying across en masse, so the outer portions of the team are neutralized, frozen, but not the inner portions, who make it end-to-end and win. His reward? Bonzo picks a fight with him in the shower. Bonzo winds up in the hospital. This so disturbs Ender he wants out. Or at least he wants to email his sister Valentine.
Me in the audience: Email? We’re still doing that?
Bedtime for 'Ender’s'
There’s boring stuff throughout. Viola Davis is given nothing to do, and she and Harrison Ford have mother-father conversations. “What about his feelings?” she says. “I want him to toughen up,” he says.
When Ender bolts, sorta, Valentine and Graff have this conversation:
Valentine: You just want him to re-enlist.
Graff: I want him to save lives.
Valentine: What about his life?
His life? Aren’t we still worried about the fate of the planet?
More, what about the story? The worst conversations in movies are always the ones urging the principles away from the story. They’re actually kind of an insult to us in the audience. “Excuse me, but I paid to see this story. Could we just continue, please?”
Of course Ender reenlists and commands his teen squad and he meets up with and is trained by Mazer Rackham, who ain’t dead, and who has Maori tattoos on his face. There are battle simulations. In the second-to-last one, he loses. In the last one, he wins and wipes out the enemy’s planet. Yay! Guess what? ’Tweren’t no sim. He really did it. And we get the line I quoted at the beginning of this review.
So how does a boy who feels awful sending a douchebag like Bonzo to the hospital deal with wiping out an entire species? Particularly when he realizes that maybe they weren’t the bad guys after all? That maybe we were the bad guys? He deals with it pretty well, considering. But we’ll find out more in the next movies. If there are more movies. This one isn’t doing particularly boffo at the box office. More like Bonzo.
“Ender’s Game” is the first in a series of novels by Orson Scott Card, who apparently worked where I used to work, University Book Store in Seattle, but who is more famous, or infamous, for his opposition to same-sex marriage. (He has written that homosexuals suffer from “tragic genetic mixups,” among other things.) He lost a “Superman” scripting job because of these views and they may be impacting “Ender’s” box office. Maybe that’s what happens when a man’s stories are set in the future but his mind is set in the past.
I detect no homophobia in “Ender’s,” though. Just same-old same-old.