erik lundegaard

Friday January 31, 2014

Quote of the Day for January 31st

“Let’s talk birthdays for a moment. If you are a parent, and you want a child who will someday be a superstar baseball player, you should probably hope he or she is born on January 31. That was the day Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks and Nolan Ryan was born. It is also the day that Yuniesky Betancourt was born, so the day is not without risk — the yin and yang of baseball fortune.”

-- Joe Posnanski, “No. 61 Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell.”

Shout-out to Tim Harrison, website manager, skinny lefty and long-suffering Mariners fan, who shares that birthday.

Jackie Robnsin, Ernie Banks, Tim Harrison, birthdays

Talkin' Jaaaaackie, Ernie and the Tim. (Not pictured: Yuniesky Betancourt.)

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Posted at 07:34 AM on Jan 31, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Wednesday January 29, 2014

Quote of the Day

“Once again, he was the only obvious president in the room, much good may that do him. He did not rile up the base. He was not combative. He did not dwell on issues that his base wanted to hear. (If you had ”Keystone XL,“ or ”NSA,“ or ”TPP“ in your State of the Union drinking game, you probably wound up as the designated driver.) But he was firm on one thing. He is not going to be a lame duck as long as he can still walk. There were a lot of sentences that began with some variation of, ”If Congress won't act...“ And he can still throw a sneaky right hand over the top.

Now, I do not expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. But I know that the American people are not interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, increase choice, tell America what you'd do differently. Let's see if the numbers add up. But let's not have another 40- something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans like Amanda.    

-- Charles P. Pierce, ”The State of Our Union is Long," on Esquire's site. Please also note description of Boehner's face to the side of a mountain facing sunset.

Obama state of the union 2014

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Posted at 08:29 AM on Jan 29, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Tuesday January 28, 2014

NYC

I just got back from six days in New York City and took this shot on the planeride in. It was the day after their big snowstorm and the sky was crystal clear:

NYC from plane

Click on the image for a bigger version

I like the long shadows from the tall buildings in midtown.

And this from a schmuck with an 3-year-old iPhone. Imagine if it was someone with a professional eye and professional equipment.

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Posted at 11:30 AM on Jan 28, 2014 in category Photo of the Day
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The State of the Union ... Contains 'A Deep Seated Dislike for Most Things America Stands For'

Three days ago The New York Times offered us this headline: “Obama Pursuing Modest Agenda in State of the Union,” which, since the address is tonight, shows us once again that the news isn't what's happened but what's about to happen. Shame. The news should be so five minutes ago.

Today, the Times is offering us ... well, us: user-generated content. How Would You Describe the State of the Union?: “Please share your opinion with us on Twitter by adding the hashtag #TellNYT to your tweet.” Friends on Facebook are doing the same. “The state of the union is ___________” one asks. Since he lives in Georgia, he's getting all kinds of answers.

Here's my answer. I came across it last night reading on the planeride home from New York:

Seems to be a deep seated dislike for most things America is and stands for.

That's not the current state of the union; that's FBI analysis of the movie “State of the Union,” as reported in John Sbardellati's book, “J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War.” The movie stars Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn and was directed by Frank Capra.

Of course, to the FBI, Capra, a Norman Rockwellseque figure today, who made movies steeped in Americana and schmaltz, was suspect. Among other FBI reviews of Capra movies:

  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town: “Gary Cooper sides with the underprivileged.”
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: “First Hollywood movie to show tie-up between Congressmen and Big Business.”
  • It's a Wonderful Life: “The picture represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers.”

Plus ca change. You can still be suspect by siding with the underprivileged, showing the tie-up between Congress and Business, and attempting to discredit bankers. And now more people are taking notes.

State of the Union, starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn

Un-American activities.

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Posted at 06:38 AM on Jan 28, 2014 in category Culture
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Sunday January 26, 2014

Alfonso Cuaron Wins DGA for 'Gravity'

Last night Alfonso Cuaron won the Directors Guild Award for “Gravity,” but no one really cares about that. They want to know what this means in terms of the Oscars.

Eh.

If Cuaron had won the PGA by himself, as opposed to sharing it in a split vote with Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave,” I'd say bet the house on Cuaron and “Gravity” for the Oscar. Now I'd just say bet the bedroom. Or maybe the bed. Or the pillow. The older one with the stains on it.

I'm obviously not a betting man.

The last time the PGAs and the DGAs agreed and their picture didn't win the Oscar for best picture was in 2005 with “Brokeback Mountain,” which was, in its day, controversial, and we know how the Academy shies from controversy. Before then, you'd have to go back to “Saving Private Ryan” in '98: sabotage via Weinstein.

In both instances, of course, the director (Ang Lee, Steven Spielberg) won best director, so Cuaron and “Gravity” will win some major award March 2nd.

Here's a chart on past DGA and PGA winners.

See you March 2nd.

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Posted at 03:44 AM on Jan 26, 2014 in category Movies - Awards
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Tuesday January 21, 2014

Quote of the Day

“How many poor red state voters are prepared to die before their time to make an ideological point?”

-- Andrew Sullivan, referencing Jonathan Cohn's New Republic piece on which states are enrolling residents in the Affordable Care Act by percentage of total eligible population (“How Red States are Holding Back Obamacare”). The top seven are blue states, including Washington state at No. 2, while five of the bottom seven are red states. (Massachusetts, at the very bottom, already has its Obamacare.) Basically, according to Cohn, blue-state governors are making it easier for residents to enroll, red-state governors not so much.

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Posted at 12:36 PM on Jan 21, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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PGAs Split, SAG Goes 'Hustle'

Over the weekend, “American Hustle” won the Screen Actors Guild award for outstanding cast while the Producers Guild gave its PGA for best film to “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity.” The split-vote win was the first in PGA history.

What does ths mean for the Oscars? It means we have a bit of a race.

Here are the DGAs, PGAs and SAG awards as arbiter of the final Oscar choice since 1996:

Year SAG - CAST PGA DGA Oscar
2013 American Hustle 12 Years a Slave/ Gravity    
2012 Argo Argo Argo Argo
2011 The Help The Artist The Artist The Artist
2010 The King's Speech The King's Speech The King's Speech The King's Speech
2009 Inglourious Bastards The Hurt Locker The Hurt Locker The Hurt Locker
2008 Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire
2007 No Country for Old Men No Country for Old Men No Country for Old Men No Country for Old Men
2006 Little Miss Sunshine Little Miss Sunshine The Departed The Departed
2005 Crash Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain Crash
2004 Sideways The Aviator Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby
2003 Lord of the Rings Lord of the Rings Lord of the Rings Lord of the Rings
2002 Chicago Chicago Chicago Chicago
2001 Gosford Park Moulin Rouge! A Beautiful Mind A Beautiful Mind
2000 Traffic Gladiator Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Gladiator
1999 American Beauty American Beauty American Beauty American Beauty
1998 Shakespeare in Love Saving Private Ryan Saving Private Ryan Shakespeare in Love
1997 The Full Monty Titanic Titanic Titanic
1996 The Birdcage The English Patient The English Patient The English Patient

The SAG cast award is the worst arbiter (9 of 17) while the DGA is the best (14 of 17). The PGA is in the middle (12 of 17), although it has a good track record recently: 6 for the last 6. Obviously that won't happen this year.

How often has SAG and PGA differed and the Oscar gone to the SAG choice? Only twice, in 1998 and 2005, and both were controversial Oscar picks: “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan” (ick) and “Crash” over “Brokeback” (ickier). “Hustle” wouldn't be that (controversial), if it came to that. But I doubt it will.

In terms of Oscar prognostication, it's down to the DGAs, which are announced Jan. 25. Hey, how cool if they gave it to Martin Scorsese for “The Wolf of Wall Street”? Then we wouldn't know what to think on March 2.

Other SAG awards:

  • MALE ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE: Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  • FEMALE ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
  • MALE ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  • FEMALE ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Lupita Nyong'o, “12 Years A Slave”

SAG's lead actor, by the way, has been Oscar's lead actor since 2003, when SAG gave it to Johnny Depp for “Pirates” and the Oscar went to Sean Penn for “Mystic River.”

PGAs SAG winners 2014

SAG and the split PGAs: past, paster, future.

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Posted at 06:32 AM on Jan 21, 2014 in category Movies - Awards
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Monday January 20, 2014

SLIDESHOW: Tea Shirts


  • I first noticed them in Rehoboth Beach, Del., during the summer of 2010. There are several T-shirt shops along the boadwalk there, and while in the late 1970s they tended to focus on the pop cultural (DARTH VADER LIVES, etc.), by 2010 they seemed angrier, loutish, sexist and right-wing. Call them Tea-shirts. Last month in Minneapolis for Christmas, I saw the same at City Shirts at the Mall of America. The above one isn't bad, although using a Wayans Bros. catchphrase for a backwoods reality-show star who has commented on how happy black people were before civil rights is, at the least, incongruous.

  • But it's the political ones that get to me. A diminishing number of producers? Having their wealth confiscated? In what world? 1950s America when the top tax rate was 91%? Or today when it was a battle to make it 39%? And that's for wages not capital gains. The above tee is a bigger fantasyland than any of my “Star Wars” T-shirts ever were.

  • Dude: 1) Those aren't guns; 2) Pres. Obama isn't going after guns. Sadly. Apparently to enact any kind of sane gun laws in this country, we'll need a Nixon/China thing: a politician less likely to be besmirched for doing the thing because he's usually the one doing the besmirching. We need this because armed men coming into our schools and killing our children isn't enough.

  • I've said it before, I'll keep saying it: America is a man eating filet mignon on a yacht telling a man eating a baloney sandwich in his car to resent the man eating his crumbs on the street.

  • Then you get to the sexist ones. Here's a T-shirt worn by a dude who will never get laid.

  • Ditto. This is a sad, sad shirt for anyone who stops to think about it for two seconds.

  • People on the right do know that John Wayne avoided serving in World War II, right? He fought the safer battle in Hollywood for bigger bucks. And speaking of World War II ...

  • Is there anything more stupidly American than reducing the worst conflagrations in human history to Sunday afternoon bragging rights? Thirty-seven million died in World War I and 60 million died in World War II and all I know about it is this lousy T-shirt.

  • Stay classy ...
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Posted at 08:16 AM on Jan 20, 2014 in category Culture
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Sunday January 19, 2014

A Pre-Game Anecdote

I was walking in downtown Seattle yesterday on my way to Nordstrom to buy a dress shirt when I saw a hubub in front of the Grand Hyatt on 7th, between Pike and Pine. There were several chartered buses in front of the hotel and people, in groups, were rushing forward and then standing with smart phones held aloft for pictures and/or vidoes. “What's going on?” I asked the guy next to me. He nodded his head contempuously in the direction of the commotion. “Fucking Niners,” he said.

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Posted at 01:20 PM on Jan 19, 2014 in category Sports
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Saturday January 18, 2014

Quote of the Day

“I didn't know you were allowed to do that.”

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez's reaction to first reading Franz Kafka's “Metamorphisis.” It's also how Errol Morris felt when seeing Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary “The Act of Killing.” It's also how I felt—two times, nearly two decades apart—watching the movies of Quentin Tarantino.

Franz Kafka at 22

Franz Kafka at 22.

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Posted at 06:27 AM on Jan 18, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday January 17, 2014

My Top 10 Movies of 2013

“This river brings a lot of trash down it,” says Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) to his nephew, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), in Jeff Nichols’ “Mud.” “You gotta know what’s worth keeping and what’s worth letting go.”

So with the movies. I talked about the trash earlier. Here are some of the keepers.

2013 started out awful (“The Last Stand,”A Good Day to Die Hard,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” rahhrrrr), but that's typical. But it didn't get much better over the summer (you should've been better, “Man of Steel,”World War Z,” etc.), while fall brought a slew of critically acclaimed but thin portrayals that left me appreciative but lukewarm (“Aint Them Bodies Saints,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Short Term 12”).

Then came December.

I had trouble with Nos. 1 and 2. I kept switching them in my head. “American Hustle” is the tighter film, and it almost never stops being fun, but I had more to say about “Wolf of Wall Street.” It kept reverberating in my mind. The controversy helped in this regard. I keep having to return to it to defend it. Plus it challenges us more. It challenges our notions ofthe American Dream.

I actually left a screening of “Inside Llewyn Davis” somewhat disappointed, but it’s worked on me since. The work began almost immediately with the Salieri connection. Leaving “Kapringen (A Hijacking)” during SIFF, I felt the opposite, blown away, devastated, and “Captain Phillips,” the other Somali pirate, only made the Danish film seem that much better. I really don’t get the lack of attention for “Philomena.” Well, I guess I do. It’s a straightforward story with a surprising midway turn and a good ending. I think it’s underrated. I think Judi Dench is being taken for granted. Stop it, you.

I reviewed more than 100 movies in 2013 and 80 of them were 2013 movies. These are the best I saw.

10. MUSCLE SHOALS

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

Muscle Shoals

9. MUD

“Mud” is an adventure story about two teenage boys who stumble upon a charismatic outlaw on an island in Dewitt, Ark., but it’s also a very specific type of coming-of-age story. It’s about how life, if you pay attention, keeps pushing you away from childhood absolutes and toward complexity and relativism. Ellis (Tye Sheridan), 14, lives along the White River with his taciturn father, Senior, and a mother who wants a divorce. She wants to move away from the river, which is how Senior makes his living. It’s also all that Ellis has known. Neither man is happy about it but Senior accepts it; Ellis refuses. Or he deals with this coming instability by searching for stability. He finds it in the unlikeliest of places: in a boat in the trees

Matthew McConaughey in Mud

8. PHILOMENA

It isn’t perfect. Coogan, who wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope, pushes the differences between the two characters to an unnecessary comic degree. He turns Sixsmith into too much of a Steve Coogan character and makes Philomena more daft than she probably is. But Dench is perfect. We get several scenes from the 1950s to demonstrate what Philomena lost, but these, to me, are almost unnecessary. We know what Philomena lost. You just need to watch Judi Dench act.

Philomena

7. NO

What does the title refer to? It's obvious, right? In 1988, international pressure led Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet to hold a plebiscite on whether he should remain in power. Vote YES for Pinochet, vote NO and real elections follow.That's what NO means, and our hero, René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), the son of a leftist and ex-husband of a leftist and a former exile himself who now works in advertising, agrees to advise the NO campaign. But might the title also be referring to René Saavedra? Is the movie actually saying “No!” to its hero?

Gabriel Garcia Bernal in NO

6. KAPRINGEN (A HIJACKING)

On the cargo ship, a few of the men get closer to a few of the pirates. It’s an unequal relationship, of course. One side is always this close to being humiliated, or this close to being killed. They run out of food, catch a fish, sing “Happy Birthday.” The one song everyone knows. But as the days grind on things get bad. Mikkel isn’t shot but he is psychologically abused. A skinny pirate follows him around, keeps placing the barrel of a gun on his neck, keeps pulling the trigger. Click. Remember the “Mao mao” guy from “The Deer Hunter”? Like that. We want to kill the guy. Mikkel goes the other way. He breaks. Pilou Asbæk gives a stunning performance. In the beginning, in his gregarious stage, he reminded me of a scruffy, bearded Joshua Jackson. By the end, with his thousand-yard stare, I kept thinking of Michael Shannon. Either nobody’s home or the person that’s home is curled up in a corner in the basement. And be careful about ringing the doorbell.

Kapringen

5. THE ACT OF KILLING

How much do the movies inure us, blind us, unite us with the powerful onscreen rather than the powerless? To what extent do we take the lies of Hollywood from the theater and try to recreate them in our own lives? And is that what the various movie gangsters, including Anwar Congo, did in 1965 and 1966 as the aided an Indonesian military coup? Did they see themselves, even as they killed, even as they became death-squad leaders, as the heroes in their own Hollywood movie? However the movies worked upon the mind and soul of a man like Anwar Congo, it was acting in a movie, this one, that helped him find empathy. So does “The Act of Killing” ultimately redeem movies? Or does it only redeem acting?

The Act of Killing

4. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” Llewyn sings in the beginning, and for the rest of the movie the Coens come close to doing it. Do Llewyn’s travails make him a better performer? That would be the easy way out of the story. That’s what most Hollywood movies would do. Llewyn is on this odyssey, often with Ulysses the cat, and he comes back a wiser man, and that wisdom leads to success. That’s the lie Hollywood often tells us, because it’s the lie we often tell ourselves, because otherwise why all this? Why travails, and pain, and sorrow, if it doesn’t lead to something? But here Llewyn’s travails lead to Bob Dylan’s success.

Inside Llewyn Davis

3. LA GRAND BELLEZZA (THE GREAT BEAUTY)

Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), 65, wise in his age, bemused in his stance, idle with his time, is on a sort of search. He’s not searching for meaning so much as a reason to keep going. At one point he says, “I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do,” and this is just before he disappears rather than look at the naked photos of a beautiful woman, Orietta (Isabella Ferrari). So: high standards. At another point he sees a giraffe, a beautiful giraffe staring down from on high and surrounded by a half-circle of ancient Roman columns; and the two, Jep and the giraffe, stare at each other until Jep’s magician-friend arrives and explains the giraffe. It’s part of his act. He makes it disappear. And Jep leans close and asks, “Can you make me disappear?” That’s when we realize the extent of Jep’s ennui. He shows the world a bemused face, but inside, particularly in the morning light after another party, he’s desperate. 

La grand bellezza (The Greaty Beauty)

2. AMERICAN HUSTLE

“American Hustle” earns the “American” in its title. It’s big, brassy, energetic, corrupt, and has great cleavage. It’s a movie that never sits still. It also earns the “Hustle” in its title. It’s about people hustling/striving to get ahead and people just hustling/conning everyone else. Usually the two go together. You’ll hear a lot about the acting, but it’s not in the weight Bale gained nor in his elaborate combover nor in Bradley Cooper’s perm. It’s in the eyes. The con, and then the concern, in Irving’s, the need in Richie’s, and the fear, the dizzying fear, in Sydney’s. It’s the death stare of Victor Tellegio, delivered as only De Niro can deliver it. It’s in the officious blankness in Stoddard Thorsen’s eyes. A small favorite moment: After all that Richie puts him through, there’s no vindictiveness in Stoddard’s eyes in the end. His eyes remain blank and officious. Like he’s simply wondering when he can go home.

American Hustle

1. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

There’s been controversy over the movie. The raunch. The debauch. The misogyny. One side says “Wolf of Wall Street“ glamourizes this life and makes a hero of its villain. The other side, including Leonardo DiCaprio, says, no, it’s an indictment of that life and that man. Well, it is and it isn’t. That’s why the movie’s great. Jordan Belfort is an ass but he’s also the American id, acting out, and stirring the suppressed id within each of us. The movie is both lesson and blueprint. It passes the test of a first-rate film: it holds two opposing ideas in its head at the same time and entertains. It informs us and challenges us. ”See, an IPO is an initial public offering, the first time ... You know what? You’re probably not following what I’m saying." That. 

Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street

Honorable mentions: 12 Years a Slave, 20 Feet from Stardom, All Is Lost, Anchorman 2, Blackfish, The Bling Ring, Blue is the Warmest Color, Dallas Buyers Club, The Deep, The Gatekeepers, her, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, The World’s End.

Movies I haven't seen yet but will soon: The Past, August: Osage County, The Hunt, The Grandmaster, Cutie and the Boxer, Frozen.

Until next year, kids.

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Posted at 07:30 AM on Jan 17, 2014 in category Movies - Lists
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Thursday January 16, 2014

Quote of the Day

“Character is destiny, and politicians usually get the scandals they deserve, with a sense of inevitability about them. Warren G. Harding surrounded himself with corrupt pols and businessmen, then checked out, leading to the most sensational case of bribery in American history. Ronald Reagan combined zealotry and fantasy, and Oliver North acted them out. Bill Clinton was libidinous and truth-parsing but also cautious, while George W. Bush was an incurious crusader who believed himself chosen by God and drove almost the entire national-security establishment into lawlessness without thinking twice. Christie, more than any of these, is reminiscent of the President whose petty hatefulness destroyed him—which is why, as NBC’s newscaster said when signing off on an early report on that long-ago burglary, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this.”

-- George Packer, “The Trouble with Christe” in The New Yorker, expertly parsing the political scandals of the last 100 years.

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Posted at 03:36 PM on Jan 16, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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And the 2013 Oscar Nominees Are ...

Hey Chris Hemsley, no one should look that good at 5:30 AM. I'm still in my PJs.

“American Hustle” is obviously the big early winner. It got 10 nominations in all, including picture, director, original screenplay and all four acting categories. When was the last time that happened? Oh, right. Hey, does this make David O. Russell the Oprah of acting directors? “You get a nomination, you get a nomination, you ALL get nominations!”

“Hustle”'s main competition seems to be “12 Years a Slave” (picture, director, actor, supporting actress) and “Wolf of Wall Street” (picture, director, actor, supporting actor). But “Wall Street” is the challenging version of “Hustle” and the Academy doesn't do challenging much.

Oh, and “Gravity.” Each got 10. But “Gravity” got no screenplay nom and the last film to win best pic without a screenplay nom was “Titanic.”

Snubs? “Inside Llewyn Davis” which got cinematography and sound mixing but nothing for the Brothers C or T-Bone. It's so Llewyn Davis to get bupkis. Also Emma Thompson, seen as a front-runner, now not even in the race. Plus Robert Redford, but best actor was stacked, and, as insiders said, he wasn't politicking. Good for him. Still a great performance.

OscarOK, here are the nominees:

Best Picture

WHAT'S MISSING: Inside Llewyn Davis. Bummer. Also Saving Mr. Banks and The Butler but I wasn't a fan of either so whatever. But for a time they had buzz. Also All is Lost, prefiguring this next category.

Best Actor

  • Christian Bale, American Hustle
  • Bruce Dern, Nebraska
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, Wolf of Wall Street
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
  • Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

WHO'S MISSING: Robert Redford in “All is Lost” and Tom Hanks in whatever. Plus Oscar Isaac. But this was one of the toughest categories we've seen in years and the Academy did well with it.

Best Actress

  • Amy Adams, American Hustle
  • Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
  • Sandra Bullock, Gravity
  • Judi Dench, Philomena
  • Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

WHO'S MISSING: The real shocker: Emma Thompson in “Saving Mr. Banks.” She seemed a lock. Streep talked her up recently but not her film. BTW: All the best actor nominees are from best picture nominees but only three of the best actress nominees are. Again.

Supporting Actor

  • Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
  • Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
  • Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
  • Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
  • Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

WHO'S MISSING: Some may say Daniel Bruhl but this was a less stacked category than in recent years. I'm just glad Fassbender made it.

Supporting Actress

  • Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
  • Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
  • Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
  • June Squibb, Nebraska
  • Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

WHO'S MISSING: Oprah Winfrey had some buzz earlier. I'm glad Sally Hawkins is getting props.

Best Director

  • Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
  • Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
  • David O. Russell, American Hustle
  • Alexander Payne, Nebraska
  • Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

WHO'S MISSING: Some thought Paul Greengrass for “Captain Phillips” would or should. I didn't think should and I don't know would. But the Coens? Did no one else like Llewyn Davis? Hang me, oh hang me. Fare thee well.

Original Screenplay

  • Eric Singer, David O. Russell, American Hustle
  • Spike Jonze, Her
  • Craig Borten, Dallas Buyers Club
  • Bob Nelson, Nebraska
  • Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine

WHO'S MISSING: The Coens. Maybe the Academy is full of dog people?

Adapted Screenplay

  • John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
  • Terrence Winter, Wolf of Wall Street
  • Steve Coogan, Philomena
  • Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, Before Midnight
  • Billy Ray, Captain Phillips

THOUGHTS: I am glad for the “Philomena” love. Could've done without “Before Midnight” of course.

Foreign Language Film

  • The Great Beauty (Italy)
  • The Hunt (Denmark)
  • The Grandmaster (Hong Kong)
  • Omar (Palestine)
  • The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)

THOUGHTS: Sorrentino's film seems the frontrunner but not because it's the only one I've seen. Wish we could get more foreign films here sooner.

Documentary Feature

WHAT'S MISSING: Stories We Tell, Blackfish, We Steal Secrets ... The list goes on.

Animated Feature

  • Frozen
  • The Wind Rises
  • Despicable Me 2
  • Ernest & Celestine
  • The Croods

WHAT'S MISSING: Monsters University. The only animated movie I've seen all year. Unless CGI counts as animated. Then I've seen tons.

Song

  • Alone Yet Not Alone (Alone Yet Not Alone)
  • Happy (Despicable Me 2)
  • Let It Go (Frozen)
  • Ordinary Love (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)
  • The Moon Song (Her)

WHAT'S MISSING: Puh-Puh-Please Mr. Kennedy" from You Know What.

The full list and thoughts from my favorite Oscar blogger here.

See you March 2nd. Go braless.

American Hustle

Picture, director, actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress, screenplay.

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Posted at 06:03 AM on Jan 16, 2014 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Wednesday January 15, 2014

Movie Review: The Act of Killing (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Holy shit.

That’s what I kept saying watching Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, “The Act of Killing.” Holy fucking shit.

Not many movies mix the horrific and absurd as thoroughly as this one. It’s as if Paulie Walnuts had been backed by the U.S. government to kill people up and down the east coast, and thousands were tortured and killed; then years later he sat back and bragged about it for the cameras; then he restaged the killings and expected the low-budget results to be as good as “The Godfather.”

In Indonesia 1965, Anwar Congo was a “movie theater gangster.” He hung out at movie theaters, scalped tickets, took in the shows. He loved Hollywood movies. He loved Elvis, and Brando, and left the theater in a good mood. Often he carried his good mood across the street where he tortured and killed people for the government. Sure, he had a few bad dreams, but the government he helped stay in power is still in power, its enemies silenced, and those enemies—communists, et al.—would have done bad things if he hadn’t stopped them. Right? So he did good stopping them. Why should he worry?

Then he met filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer.

“Free men”
When we first see him, Congo is tall and thin, white-haired and venerable-looking. He looks kindly. Dare I say like Nelson Mandela? Except Mandela’s face in old age was beautiful, while this one is pinched. It’s often blank. The Act of KillingSomething’s missing.

Initially it’s Congo’s partner, Herman Koto, younger, overweight, pugnacious, who does the talking. We watch as he negotiates with people to get them to play-act for the cameras. They pretend to be communists whose homes he and his men are burning. They do it. They scream in fake anguish while Koto and his men, wearing loud, Hawaiianish shirts—the uniform of the Pemuda Pancasila, Indonesia’s paramilitary, right-wing death squad, we find out later—shout, “Burn it! Kill them!” Then someone shouts “Cut!” and everyone applauds. All this time, Congo hangs in the background. It’s as if he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty.

But eventually he begins talking.

Congo: We have to show ...
Koto: ... that this is our history.
Congo: This is who we are. So in the future people will remember.

There was too much blood. That was the problem at the beginning, and Congo came up with a more efficient method—garroting with wire—to kill the state’s enemies. He proudly demonstrates on a friend on a rooftop where many killings took place. Both men smile for the camera. Then Congo talks about the various ways he numbed the pain—booze, drugs, dance—but he doesn’t seem to be in much pain. He does the cha-cha for us. His friend stands to the side awkwardly. “He is a happy man,” his friend says.

Later, Oppenheimer allows Congo to watch these scenes, and he’s disturbed by them. He knows something’s wrong. Is it his hair? He dyes it. Is it his teeth? He gets false ones. He should be like a movie gangster but he’s not. It should be like in a movie but it’s not. Something’s missing.

He travels and meets old friends. There’s Syamsul Arifin, the current governor of North Sumatra, whom Congo looked after as a boy. “Now that I’m governor, I stab him if he threatens me,” Arifin says, and everyone laughs, even Congo, but without humor. Isn’t he the star of his movie? Should he be the butt of jokes this way?

All of the old gangsters talk up the old days. They badmouth the communists. They keep repeating that the word gangster means “free men.” Does it? In Indonesian? Or is this another lie they tell themselves to get through the day?

“Now the communists’ children are speaking out,” Arifin says with disgust, “trying to reverse the history.”

But it’s not reversed. Watch the credits. Count the number of times the word “Anonymous” appears. It’s more than 60. This film was made by people who fear its subjects; who fear reprisal. The making of “The Act of Killing” is an act of courage.

Monster, realized
Is it also an act of redemption?

The deeper we get into the doc, the more absurd the attempts at recreation—the movie within the movie—become. There’s a huge set piece, the burning of huts, and villagers are dragged away to be killed. “You acted so well,” Koto attempts to comfort one little girl, tears streaming down her face. “But you can stop crying now.” Eventually we get the scene at the beginning and end of the doc. It’s a big dance number at the foot of waterfalls. Dancing girls come out of the mouth of a giant fish. They sing. They surround Anwar Congo (hair dyed, dressed like a priest) and Herman Koto (in drag), and the dead and the tortured bestow upon Congo a gleaming medal; then they all lift their arms up to the sky and sing about peace.

All together now: Holy fucking shit.

Most of the time, the movie gangsters simply try to emulate the Hollywood gangsters they’ve always loved. They put on suits and fedoras and restage torture scenes. They put on makeup that suggests facial lacerations. They take turns being torturers and tortured. But they know something’s wrong. On screen, they’re not the heroes they are in their minds.

Near the end, Anwar Congo actually breaks down. He’s filming a scene in which he’s blindfolded and tortured and he begins to cry. He talks to the doc’s director, standing offscreen. Joshua Oppenheimer is British-American, born in Texas and now based in Copenhagen, who sounds fluent in Indonesian. He sounds like he’s earned the trust of these men. This is what Congo says to him:

Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here? I can feel what the people I tortured felt. Because here my dignity has been destroyed, and then fear comes.

It’s an amazing moment. His first of empathy? More amazing is Oppenheimer’s response. He doesn’t try to comfort him. He simply tells him the truth:

Actually, the people you tortured felt far worse because you know it’s only a film. But they knew they were being killed.

Congo listens like a child and reacts like a child, insistent on his new empathy:

But I can feel it, Josh. Really, I feel it. Or have I sinned? I did this to so many people, Josh. Is it all coming back to me? I really hope it won't. I don't want it to, Josh.

Is this some small redemption for Anwar Congo? Is the monster less monstrous if he realizes the monster he’s been?

Hooray for Hollywood
More, is this a redemption for film in general?

How much do the movies inure us, blind us, unite us with the powerful onscreen rather than the powerless? To what extent do we take the lies of Hollywood from the theater and try to recreate them in our own lives? And is that what the various movie gangsters, including Anwar Congo, did in 1965 and 1966? Did they see themselves, even as they took lives, as the heroes in their own Hollywood movie?

However the movies worked upon the mind and soul of a man like Anwar Congo, it was acting in a movie, this one, that helped him rediscover his empathy. So does “The Act of Killing” ultimately redeem movies? Or does it only redeem acting?

We watch “The Act of Killing” with a sense of horror because of what’s portrayed onscreen but also because of what it does to our worldview. It crumbles it. If a society can exist where murder and slaughter is celebrated, joyfully and abundantly, what does that say about human morality? Is it not merely a construct? Is there nothing universal in “Thou shalt not kill”? Put it this way: I’m a relativist and even I felt the crumbling of my worldview. So even I was relieved by the 11th-hour contrition of Anwar Congo. It made the world right again.

Maybe it shouldn’t have.

“War crimes are defined by the winners,” one of the death-squad leaders says in the film.

Indeed. But winners are not absolute. Time keeps choosing new ones.

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Posted at 07:26 AM on Jan 15, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Tuesday January 14, 2014

My Top 10 Movie Lines of 2013

One day I hope to do a better job of accumulating these lines during the course of the year rather than simply searching for them at the end. I always think I’m doing it. I think I’m putting them in a bin in my brain that says “Great Movie Quotes” but that bin—I’ve discovered—has a leak at the bottom. Like so many other bins in my brain. I go to it and it’s empty. So I search.

Let me know what I’ve missed.

10. “If you have $10 million, or if you have a billion dollars, why do you need that little bit that I have?”
— A Calpin geothermal plant worker in the Robert Reich documentary “Inequality for All.”

Reich’s doc is about the growing disparity between the rich and poor in the United States, about the 30-year class warfare waged by the rich on the poor. He’s actually more polite about it. Smarter, too. One of my favorite moments is when he breaks down where the money goes when someone buys an iPhone. You think it’s to the U.S., where Apple is headquartered, or China, where the iPhone is assembled, but nope. Try Germany and Japan, whose skilled workers make the iPhone's advanced components. The above line is one of the doc’s most poignant moments. The worker at the plant has had her pay cut by $12 an hour to increase the profits of the company that increase the pay of the CEOs and CFOs and MOFOs of the company, and this is her question. It deserves an answer.

Inequality for All

9. “Let’s boo boo.”
Various in “The World’s End.” Screenplay by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright.

It's less the line than the derivation. Five mates, Gary, Andy, Steven, Peter and Oliver (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman—helluva cast) reconnect for a pub crawl through their old hometown and discover that the place has been taken over by aliens. Right, but before that they use this leftover phrase from their school days. It means “Let’s go,” and it began when they studied Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale” in school and laughed at the stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” That became “Exit with Yogi Bear” and eventually “Let’s boo boo.” All of which is so British and so pop-culturey and so smart. Put it this way: the characters in most Hollywood movies wish they had that kind of backstory.

The World's End

8. “When you’re in love like that you become utterly selfish. Nothing that’s happening to anyone else matters at all ... ”
— Harry Gulkin in Sarah Polley’s documentary, “Stories We Tell.”

The selfishness of love is something we don’t talk about much in our love stories, but when I was young and in love I certainly felt it. It was like the rest of the world dropped away. Only she mattered. It was work to care about anything else. The man who says the above, Harry Gulkin, is a Canadian producer (“Lies My Father Told me”), whom director/actress Sarah Polley is interviewing as she sorts through the stories that make up her. And what makes up her in the end—or the beginning? The love Gulkin is describing, which was between Polley's mother and himself. Here's to selfishness.

Harry Gulkin in Stories We Tell

7. “Black ... black ... black ...”
- Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) in “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.” Screenplay by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.

The first half-hour of this movie had me breathless with laughter—dangerous in an asthmatic—and the above quote is an example. It’s 1980, and Ron Burgundy and company, new to New York and 24-hour cable news, meet their new boss at WGN, Linda Jackson (Meagan Good). Burgundy, flummoxed, as supremely awkward as only Will Ferrell can be, can’t get around the fact that she’s black, so can’t stop annunciating this fact. It’s the only word in his head so it keeps coming out of his mouth. It’s a Homer Simpson moment. It also feels exactly right. A post-racial America? Where we don’t see color? Sometimes it seems we only see color.

Anchorman 2

6. Philomena: Do you believe in God, Martin? Martin: Where do you start? I always thought that was a very difficult question to give a simple answer to ... Do you? Philomena: Yes.
 --Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) and Martin Sexsmith (Steve Coogan) in “Philomena.” Screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, based upon the book by Martin Sexsmith.

The underrated “Philomena” has some of the best exchanges in movies this year (“Oh, it’s a series”), but I’ll go with this one because it crystalizes the difference between its two main characters. Not who does or doesn’t believe in God but how they express themselves. The uneducated Philomena is plainspoken, like my mother, while the overeducated Martin Sexsmith is, well, more like me. It's not often I see us onscreen.

Philomena

5.  “To choose is to commit yourself. And to commit yourself is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.”
— Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) in “To the Wonder.” Screenplay by Terrence Malick.

You’ve got to give Terrence Malick credit. Most dramatists spend their days figuring out ways to keep the lovers apart (so they can have a “happily ever after”), while Malick, the masochist, actually begins with the “happily ever after,” in Paris no less, then takes us through the long slog downward. Too bad the movie is a disappointment—Malick's first. He gave us too much of the couple. I wish he’d focused more on Father Quintana, who was going through a spiritual crisis, and who actually had something to say.

 Father Quintana in To the Wonder

4. “We have to show ... this is who we are. So in the future people will remember.”
— Anwar Congo in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, “The Act of Killing.”

Anwar Congo is a grandfather, a national hero, and a death-squad leader responsible for the torture and murder of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, after a military coup in Indonesia in 1965. The people he helped stay in power are still in power so there hasn’t been a lot of soul searching, national or personal, since. Then Joshua Oppenheimer, a Brit-American by way of Texas and Copenhagen, arrives. Congo and his friends aren’t shy about what they’ve done. The opposite. Didn’t they save the country? From communists? And aren’t they beloved as a result? And aren’t they being filmed now? So aren’t they like the Hollywood heroes they've always loved? Oppenheimer gets the men to not only talk about their crimes but reenact them for the camera, which is when interesting things begin to happen. The above line is spoken early but even then it’s steeped in irony.

The Act of Killing

3. “See, an IPO is an initial public offering, the first time a stock is offered for sale to the general population. As the firm taking the company public, we set the initial price then sold those shares back to .... You know what? You’re probably not following what I’m saying.”
--Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Screenplay by Terrence Winter.

How will America end? Not with “1984” but with “Brave New World.” That’s what this line means. We are amusing ourselves to death and we can’t be bothered with anything too difficult. IPOs? We don’t want to hear talk about that. If we did, there might have been no global financial meltdown. That was on us. Still is. I know a lot of smart people who object to the way director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winter rub our faces in all this but I feel the opposite. I feel when you get an American audience together, who have been so pandered to for so long, why not rub their faces in it? You might even wake them up a little.

The Wolf of Wall Street

2. “You’re 53, with a life in tatters like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We’re all on the brink of despair. All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little. Don’t you agree?”
— Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) in “La grande bellezza” (“The Great Beauty”). Screenplay by Paolo Sorrentino and Umberto Contrarello.

Jep says this to Stefania (Galatea Ranzi, bottom right) on his terrace overlooking the Colosseum in Rome, so it’s hardly a life in tatters. Jep has friends, women, wine, but his life is still winding down and he never really did what he thought he would do with it. “Everyone dies frustrated and sad,” They Might Giants once sang, “and that is beautiful.” Jep, throughout this beautiful movie, is trying to see the beauty rather than the frustration and sadness. Sometimes he does. Later, he and  Stefania dance and he asks if they've ever slept together. “Of course not,” she responds. “That’s a big mistake,” he says. “We must make amends immediately.” Yeah, that one almost made the list as well.

La grand bellezza (The Greaty Beauty)

1. “I have written in sand.”
— Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen) in “The Last Sentence” (“Dom Över Död Man”). Screenplay by Klaus Rifbjerg and Jan Troell, from the book by Kenne Fant.

I know: The line’s almost a cliché. But in this 2012 biopic of Swedish journalist Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen), the editor-in-chief of Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning, who was one of the strongest, most strident, and earliest voices against Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, the line hit home. Segerstedt, by the way, may know about Fascism but that doesn’t make him a nice guy. There’s something severe in his manner, and he’s awful to his wife, conducting, as he does, an affair with his female publisher in plain view. But he’s uncompromising in a way the rest of Europe, sadly, was not. Still, at the end of his life, even as the Allies begin to sweep the Nazis out of Europe, it all feels rather purposeless. The thousands of articles he wrote ... to what end? The Nazis still came. Europe still fell. He's still dying. “How quickly it passed,” he says. “I have written in sand,” he says. Last year's favorite line was about confronting an Ozymandias figure. This one is about realizing we're all Ozymandias.

The Last Sentence

Until next year.

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Posted at 06:08 AM on Jan 14, 2014 in category Movies - Lists
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Monday January 13, 2014

Roger Ailes and a Soundtrack of Barnyard Animals, Bleating

Roger Ailes

Here are a few quotes, and a few thoughts, on “Bad News,” Jill LePore's New Yorker piece on FOX News president Roger Ailes, as Gabriel Sherman's tell-all book, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” gets ready to go on sale:

Roger Ailes was born in Warren, Ohio, in 1940. He has hemophilia, which didn’t stop his father from beating him with an electrical cord. A story Ailes has told—“his Rosebud story,” according to Stephen Rosenfield, who worked with Ailes in the nineteen-seventies—is about a lesson he learned in his bedroom as a boy. His father, holding out his arms, told him to jump off the top bunk and then deliberately failed to catch him, saying, “Don’t ever trust anybody.”

Ailes became a wunderkind producer of “The Mike Douglas Show,” met Nixon in '67, helped him get elected in '68, etc., etc. Then we get this:

In the nineteen-eighties, Ailes’s politics grew more conservative, as did the G.O.P. Between 1980 and 1986, Ailes helped get thirteen Republican senators and eight members of Congress elected, including Dan Quayle and Mitch McConnell. He also played a crucial role in the Presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He urged Reagan to disarm Walter Mondale in debate by promising not to make age an issue. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Reagan said. Ailes calmed Bush’s nerves before his first debate against Michael Dukakis. “If you get in trouble out there, just call him an animal fucker,” Ailes whispered. According to a team of reporters from Newsweek, Ailes had proposed an ad, which never ran, called “Bestiality.” It would have featured a screen of text—“In 1970, Governor Michael Dukakis introduced legislation in Massachusetts to repeal the ban on sodomy and bestiality”—shown over a soundtrack of barnyard animals, bleating.

The brunt of the piece is comparing Ailes to yellow journalist (and inspiration for Charles Foster Kane) William Randoph Hearst, who was often accused of being a Fascist. (LePore: “This charge derived, in part, from the fact that Hearst had professed his admiration for Hitler and Mussolini.”) In the 1930s, Hearst tried to preempt an unauthorized, negative biography with the authorized postive kind, just as Ailes is doing today. LePore, a history professor at Yale, thinks this is pointless since history will decide. But she also thinks it's pointless to attack Ailes as it was to attack Hearst. The problem isn't Ailes' FOX; it's the people who watch Ailes' FOX.

“The audience he craves he also hates,” LePore says of Kane, which could also mean Hearst, which could also mean Ailes. It's not a bad avenue of exploration for FOX haters. At the least, there is in the typical FOX line a condemnation of its audience, most of whom, after all, aren't millionaires or job creators. They're people watching TV in the middle of the day.

LePore reminds us that Ailes might not be doing his cause any good, either. During the heyday of the FCC's Fairness Doctrine, Republicans won 7 of 10 presidential elections, but since its repeal by Reagan's anti-regulation forces in 1987, and the rise of Rush Limbaugh and FOX-News and et al., they've gone 3-4.

“I left politics a number of years ago,” Roger Ailes said when he took over FOX in 1996. “We expect to do fine, balanced journalism.”

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Posted at 01:40 PM on Jan 13, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Sunday January 12, 2014

Movie Review: Don Jon (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Jon, the titular Don (writer-director Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is a simple Jersey guy. He works as a bartender, goes to the gym, spends Saturday nights with the boys and Sunday afternoons with his family, where he and his father (Tony Danza), both wearing wife-beaters, argue about stupid shit with the football game on. He also goes to church every Sunday and confesses his sins. Generally these include sex out of wedlock and masturbating to internet porn. The sex occurs about once a week. The internet porn? About 14-21 times per week.  

“Don Jon,” in other words, is an addiction movie and porn is Jon’s addiction. For him, porn sex is better than real sex. He’ll sleep with a beautiful woman, then get up in the middle of the night to jack off to internet porn. Why? Don JonBasically it’s a way for him to lose himself in a way he doesn’t, or can’t, with regular sex. “For the next few minutes all the bullshit fades away,” he says. “I just fucking lose myself.”

That’s the ending, too. He meets the girl who makes him confront his problem (Julianne Moore) and afterwards discovers the joys of sex with someone you care about. Then he says this in voiceover:

And while we're doing it, all the bullshit does fade away, and it's just me and her, right there, and yeah I do lose myself in her. And I can tell she's losing herself in me. And we're just fuckin’... lost together.

It’s an interesting concept. Not porn addiction, God no, but losing yourself. We all do that. Apparently consciousness is such a burden that we all look for ways to temporarily relieve ourselves of it: through booze or drugs or TV or movies or books or writing. Or watching internet porn.

But Don’s not that interesting. Sorry. His addiction isn’t that interesting, the people he hangs with aren’t that interesting, his version of Jersey isn’t that interesting. It’s like a cardboard version of Jersey concocted by a guy who was raised in southern California—as Gordon-Levitt was, in the entertainment industry—and watched TV and movies about Jersey, which was where “real life” was. This is Gordon-Levitt’s attempt at real life.

I didn’t buy it. I didn’t buy Gordon-Levitt as just a guy from the neighborhood, either.

Oddly, maybe because she’s such a good actress, I did buy Scarlett Johansson as just a girl from the neighborhood. Jon meets her at a club, she won’t sleep with him right away (like the others), so he finds out who she is and sets up a date. He’s pursuing her but she’s training him. She wants him to get a better job, settle down, start a family. He’s a neatnik—to offset the porn addiction—and at a store he talks swiffers and vacuuming and gets her upset. “Don’t talk about vacuuming in front of me!” she says. “Because it’s not sexy, that’s why!”

Psst, Don. I know a few women who find a man cleaning house sexy. About 100 million or so. I can hook you up.

I kept disagreeing with the screen in this manner. Women always like the missionary position? Really? Any guy who says he doesn’t watch porn is a liar? Really? Then I guess I’m a liar. That’s not my vice. The porn that I’ve seen is just too stupid and boring and unsexy to keep watching.

Barbara (Johansson) has her own semi-addiction—to romantic Hollywood movies, to fairytale romance—and “Don Jon” offers up its own fake version: “Special Someone,” starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway. It should’ve been cleverer. Even the title. Give me “Rochelle, Rochelle” or “Prognosis: Negative” any day.

All in all, it’s not a bad first effort by Gordon-Levitt. It’s zippy, for one. But it wants to be real and doesn’t feel real. It’s a character study of a cardboard character.

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Posted at 07:01 AM on Jan 12, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Saturday January 11, 2014

The 7 Millionth Man

I'm not a huge football fan but it's tough to live in Seattle and not know that the Seahawks are in the playoffs today against the New Orlean Saints at CenturyLink Field, 1:35 start. In honor, a recently digitized slide photo from my childhood. That's my older brother Chris on the left, me on the right, little sister Karen with the ball. I think this was the toughest I've ever looked. 

Karen with football, Chris and I not amused

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Posted at 08:25 AM on Jan 11, 2014 in category Sports
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Friday January 10, 2014

Movie Review: Inequality for All (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I must’ve tried to go to “Inequality for All” half a dozen times when it was playing at the Harvard Exit last fall, but I kept putting it off. One day I even walked the half-hour walk there but decided at the last minute to get some pho and read a book instead. I just kept thinking, “How much can Robert Reich teach me that I don’t already know? That income disparity is growing? Duh. That since the late 1970s production has gone up even as real wages have stagnated? No duh. That the top tax bracket used to be 91% (during Ike), then 70% (during Kennedy, et al.), then dropped like a rocket during the Reagan years (50%, 35%, 28%), which just happens to be the years when real wages began stagnating? I mean, what else is there to know?”

Plenty, it turns out.

Who makes money from the iPhone?
Inequality for AllThe doc begins and ends with Reich’s Berkeley class on wealth and poverty in the spring of 2012. In a sense, we’re students in that class as well. We just don’t have to pay the tuition ... which used to be nothing at Berkeley, by the way, in the 1960s; then it rose into the hundreds of dollars in the 1970s. Now it’s $15,000 per year. Which is a bargain given other tuition rates.

I mention all that because higher education is part of the problem, according to Reich, and part of the solution. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Reich, the former Secretary of Labor under Pres. Bill Clinton, begins the class and the doc with three questions:

  • What’s happening?
  • Why?
  • Is it a problem?

He begins with basic numbers. Consumer spending is 70% of the American economy. So if the middle class is dying, if most Americans don’t have money to spend, what happens to the economy?

Since real wages began stagnating in the late 1970s, he asks: What happened then? Yes, it was some aspect of tax rates on the wealthy dropping like a rock, and yes it was some aspect of unions dying and losing their voice (thanks in part, or at least not helped by, Ronald Reagan firing all air-traffic controllers in 1981), and yes, we began a technological/digital revolution, and financial markets became more powerful and more deregulated (a vicious cycle), and there was globalization. Then he talks about that word: globalization. What does it mean? He asks for an iPhone. He lists off five or six countries on a PowerPoint slide and asks what percentage of money from an iPhone sale goes to each country. In the students’ guesses, the U.S. came out on top (70%), with China second. In reality? He reveals the numbers:

  • Japan: 34%
  • Germany: 17%
  • South Korea: 13%
  • United States: 6%
  • China: 3.6%

The company, Apple, is based in the U.S., and the product, the iPhone, is assembled in China; but the advanced components that make up the iPhone are manufactured elsewhere: in Germany and Japan. Why are they manufactured there? Because they have the highly skilled labor force to do it.

Why don’t we? Well, that’s the billion-dollar question, isn’t it?

Reich talks up the virtuous cycle, or his version of it (there are others), which the U.S. demonstrated in the years after World War II. Basically: opening up higher education to more people (through the G.I. Bill, etc.), expands the middle class, which increases consumer spending, which expands the economy, which creates more tax dollars, which allows the government to help subsidize higher education, which etc. etc. Throw a wrench in it and it reverses into a vicious cycle, which shrinks the middle class, shrinks the economy, and increases political polarization. We’ve been in such a cycle my entire adult life.

So how has the middle class survived during this time? Three ways, according to Reich: 1) women entered the workforce, so you had two wage earners, who both 2) work longer hours to make up the difference, and who, when all else fails, 3) go into debt, often by borrowing against or refinancing their home.

And if real estate suddenly loses value and the debt collector comes calling? That’s called “2008.”

On our watch
I don’t want to make “Inequality for All” sound like some dry class lecture. It isn’t. It’s fairly breezy and Reich is a charming host. We get some of his personal history. He has Fairbanks Syndrome, a dashing name for something that has kept him short (< five feet) his entire life. As a kid, being short and thus a target for bullies, he forged alliances with bigger kids. One of them was named Mickey Schwerner. Many of us know what happened to him. That horrible summer helped politicize Reich. He became a summer intern for RFK and eventually a Rhodes Scholar. On the trip to England, he met Bill Clinton.

We also get out and about—first in Reich’s Mini-Cooper, and then visiting various people around the country. We meet Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist in Seattle, who pays, he says, just 11% in income tax because his capital gains are taxed at a low, low rate. We visit a union meeting at a Calpine geothermal plant, and how the members don’t even agree on whether there should be a union. Some take a right-wing, free-market, kill-or-be-killed approach—even as they’re the ones being killed. There’s talk of profits over workers, and one woman, who recently suffered a cut in pay, says the following about the CEOs who cut worker pay even as they increase their own:

If you have $10 million, or if you have a billion dollars, why do you need that little bit that I have? OK?

It’s a question that really needs answering.

Reich calls himself a cock-eyed optimist even as he knows he’s been suggesting the same things for 30 years and things have only gotten worse. At one point he says: “I ask myself whether I’ve been a total failure.” I ask myself the same thing. We all should. Because all of this happened on our watch. This is the world we’re bequeathing to the next generation.

“Inequality for All,” directed by Jacob Kornbluth, doesn’t quite offer solutions although it implies them. You want a virtuous rather than vicious cycle, so tax the wealthy and financial transactions at higher rates to help subsidize education to create a more highly skilled workforce, which can grow the middle class, which can grow the economy, which ... etc.

The other road, the one we’ve been on for 30 years, just gets bumpier.

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Posted at 06:45 AM on Jan 10, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Thursday January 09, 2014

Quote of the Day

I've had this in the queue for a long time:

The first time I ever heard the word “content” used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, “content providers” — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art” — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.

Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

--Tim Kreider, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” in The New York Times, Oct. 27, 2013.

Yep, yep, yep. Yet here I am. But only because I can afford to be. For the moment.

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Posted at 07:29 AM on Jan 09, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Wednesday January 08, 2014

My Greg Maddux Story

My sister’s wedding took place in Atlanta in May 1999, and for the bachelor party, an inclusive affair involving both men and women, my brother-in-law Eric rented a luxury suite at Turner Field for an afternoon game between the Braves and the Pirates. Even better? Greg Maddux was starting for the Braves.

By this point in his career Maddux was generally regarded as the best pitcher of his generation. Well, you had Clemens, and then Randy, and Pedro was coming up fast, but throughout the 1990s, almost by himself, stood Maddux: bespectacled, quiet, vaguely quizzical. He looked like a professor out there. He looked like one of us. He just didn’t pitch that way.

How good was he? He led the league in innings pitched five years in a row (1991-1995) and in WHIP and ERA three years in a row (1993-1995). He also won the Cy Young award four years in a row (1992-1995).

His 1995 season was amazing—19-2, 1.65 ERA, 181 strikeouts to 23 walks—but was ’94 better? His strikeout-to-walk ratio wasn’t as good (156-31), neither his won-loss record (16-6), but his ERA was only 1.56.

How good was that? There have been 246 instances of a pitcher with a sub-2.00 ERA season in baseball history but 205 of those came from the deadball era, leaving just 41 such seasons since 1921. The pitching-friendly 1960s alone had 14. Hell, in 1968, seven pitchers had sub-2.00 ERAs, including Bob Gibson at 1.12. The next year, no surprise, the pitching mound was lowered again to give the hitters a chance.

Since then, there have been 19 seasons when a pitcher had a sub-2.00 ERA. And since 1990? Only eight such seasons, with Clemens, Pedro and Maddux with two each.

But none of them was lower than Maddux’s.

That 1.56 ERA? Since the deadball era, only two pitchers have done better: Gibson in ’68 and Dwight Gooden in ’85.  But compare their numbers with the league averages:

Year    

    Pitcher

ERA  

Avg. ERA  

1968    

   Bob Gibson

1.12  

2.98  

1985    

   Dwight Gooden

1.53  

3.89  

1994    

   Greg Maddux 

1.56  

4.92  

In 1968, the second-best ERA in the Majors belonged to Luis Tiant at 1.60, nearly a half-run behind Gibson. The year Gooden did what he did, John Tudor had a 1.93 ERA, or 4/10 of a run behind Gooden. And in 1994, the second-best ERA in the Majors belonged to Steve Ontiveros of the A’s, at 2.65: more than a run per game behind Maddux.

How can someone be that much better than everyone else?

I was aware of some of this history, not all of it, that day in late April 1999 when we went to Turner Field. The suite was near home plate, and with several rows into the stadium where you could sit with everyone else and watch the game. You weren’t stuck behind a glass partition. That’s where I was sitting when Greg Maddux came in from the bullpen after his pregame workout. So I did what we always did at the Kingdome when Randy appeared after his pregame workout: I stood and applauded.

I was the only one.

I looked around. The stands were sparse but not that sparse. No one was looking at me, standing up and applauding by my lonesome, but they definitely didn’t join in, either. But I kept doing it. Why not? That’s what you do. I applauded him and his catcher all the way into the dugout.

The Braves won that game, 8-1. It was the only time I ever saw him pitch live.

Today, Maddux was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame with 97% of the vote (eighth-best ever), along with his teammate Tom Glavine (91.9%), and the Big Hurt, Frank Thomas (83.7%). All good choices.

Craig Biggio fell just two votes short (74.8%), but he’ll get in next year. Jack Morris, in his 15th and final year, finished with just 61% of the vote. I tend to agree with that one. My man Edgar fell off to only 25% of the vote. I’ll write about that another time.

In the meantime, a final round of applause for one of the great pitchers of the era.

Greg Maddux, Sports Illustrated

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Posted at 02:48 PM on Jan 08, 2014 in category Baseball
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Am I the Only One Who Flashed on ‘The Ten Commandments’ During Martin Scorsese’s ‘Wolf of Wall Street’?

The golden calf orgy scene in "The Ten Commandments"

I keep thinking about this as the controversy surrounding “The Wolf of Wall Street” roils forward unabated: the connection between these two movies.

There are complaints that the movie is amoral, or even immoral, and that director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter don’t do enough to condemn their main character, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who, for his crimes against humanity—bilking people of their fortunes and using the money to have a really, really good and depraved time with drugs and prostitutes—spent a few years in a fairly cushy federal prison, and today, or so the film suggests, travels the world giving seminars on “how to sell” to audiences willing to buy; willing, you could say, to be bilked again.

There’s a lot to say about this ending, and I did in my review, but for most people there’s not nearly enough comeuppance for Belfort. Scorsese says that’s part of the point. In an interview with Mike Fleming at Deadline Hollywood, he says of the audience for the film:

I didn’t want them to be able to think problem solved and forget about it. I wanted them to feel like they’d been slapped into recognizing that this behavior has been encouraged in this country, and that it affects business and the world and everything down to our children, and how they’re going to live, and their values in the future.

People feel slapped, sure, but many are blaming the slapper. They’re demanding comeuppance ... but from Scorsese and the movie, which is easy, and not from regulating the financial world, which is hard and potentially impossible.

Some go so far as to suggest the movie is immoral.

But that ignores “The Ten Commandments.”

Did no one else feel this way? In the orgy scenes in the “Wolf pit” at Stratton Oakmont? All of those bodies roiling together? Was I the only one whose mind flashed to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 Biblical epic?

Specifically the ending scenes. Moses (Charlton Heston) has led his people from Egypt and toward the promised land, and he ascends Mt. Sinai to retrieve the word of God. In his absence, Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) convinces the people, so easily swayed, that Moses is gone for good, that they’ve been led astray, and that they’ve angered the true gods, who demand a golden calf in recompense. So that’s what the people do. They create a golden calf, a false idol, and worship at its feet. They indulge in wine, and brutality, and sex. Their bodies roil together.

That’s what flashed through my mind watching the orgy scenes in “Wolf of Wall Street”: the orgy scene in “The Ten Commandments.”

I don’t know if this is a coincidence. I don’t know if Scorsese—who grew up Roman Catholic, and for a time intended to be a priest, and who’s forgotten more about movies than you and I will ever know—intended for us to make this connection. I wouldn’t be surprised either way. All I know is I felt it.

And beyond the feeling is the analysis—the comparison of the two scenes. What are both about? A people so lost they worship a false idol: a golden calf.

Of course, in DeMille’s version, Moses returns, angered, and the idolaters are punished and killed.  They're sent to hell. That’s what moviegoers want of Belfort. Instead, he’s sent to New Zealand. Instead, in real life, the golden calf simply got bigger and the worshipping became greater.

“You didn’t make things right,” moviegoers are complaining to Scorsese.

No, he’s saying, we didn’t make things right.

The Wolf of Wall Street bull market

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Posted at 10:02 AM on Jan 08, 2014 in category Movies
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Breen on the Dam [Sic] Jews

“But the fact is that these dam [sic] Jews are a dirty, filthy lot. Their only standard is the standard of the box-office. To attempt to talk ethical values to them is time worse than wasted.”

-- Joseph Breen, film censor, and head of the Production Code Administration (PCA) from the 1930s to the 1950s, in a letter to Martin Quigley, publisher of the Motion Picture Herald, as reported in John Sbardellati's “J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War.” At the same time Breen was complaining about the unquenchable capitalism of the Jews, he also worked to ban “communist propaganda” (generally any left-wing sentiment) from the movie screen. Not sure if he realized the irony.

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Posted at 07:22 AM on Jan 08, 2014 in category What Liberal Hollywood?
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Tuesday January 07, 2014

DGA Noms: Cuarón, Greengrass, McQueen, Russell and Scorsese; Coens Left Out Like Cat in Cold

The Directors Guild of America announced its selections in the best feature film category today:

DGAsI wouldn't have gone Greengrass (Coen Bros., yo), but four out of five ain't bad. Although I might not have gone Cuarón, either, despite the spectacle of his film. And maybe not McQueen, despite its ... gravity? But hey, I'm glad Russell and Scorsese are nom'ed.

Even so, it's a good list.

As I mentioned last January, there is a pretty direct line between the DGAs and the Oscar for best director and/or best picture. Generally, who wins the DGA wins the Oscar for best director and his picture wins the Oscar for best picture.

Last year ... a bit of a wrench.

I'd actually forgotten what happened. I thought Affleck didn't get the DGA or something ... while Spielberg won the Oscar for best director or something. All wrong. Affleck did get a DGA nom, and the DGA, but he wasn't even nominated for a directing Oscar. But his picture, “Argo,” won best picture. Meanwhile, the Oscar for best director went to Ang Lee for “Life of Pi,” not Spielberg for “Lincoln.”

Crazy times.

Are crazy times ahead? Oscar noms announced in nine days.

ADDENDUM: My favorite Oscar watcher, Nathaniel over at Film Experience, weighs in and crunches the numbers between DGA noms and Oscar noms.

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Posted at 11:35 AM on Jan 07, 2014 in category Movies - Awards
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Movie Review: her (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Spike Jonze’s “her” may be set in the near future but few contemporary movies are more relevant. I guess that’s the point of near-future movies. They take what’s bothering us today and turn it up to 11.

What’s bothering us today? Disconnection. We interact too much with screens and not enough with each other. We’re isolated and alone and lonely. So is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), sad-sack resident of Los Angeles in the year 20-blah-blah, who is in the process of getting a divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara)—if only he could sign the papers.

Here’s the genius thing about “her”: Theodore solves the problem of disconnection not by standing in reaction to it—as most heroes do in most near-future movies—but by embracing its cause. Literally.

OK, not quite literally.

Isolated in the crowd
Spike Jonze's herThe movie opens with a close-up of Theodore’s face composing a love letter but it’s not his love letter. It’s to someone he doesn’t know from someone he doesn’t know. That’s his job. He’s paid to write love letters all day for other people. It’s like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s greeting-card job in “(500) Days of Summer” but turned up to 11.

Why he has to commute to this job I have no idea. I guess because the commute is still the symbol of modern (or near-future) ennui. It also allows him to interact with other people. Well, one other person, Paul (Chris Pratt), his boss, who turns up later in a double date. Otherwise he’s alone. So is most everyone else. We’re all lost in screens or earbuds. We’re isolated in the crowd.

Theodore has some interaction. He speaks with his neighbors, Charles and Amy (Matt Letscher and Amy Adams), who seem happy but aren’t. Amy is generally sympathetic but Charles gives off the know-it-all vibe of a Woody Allen antagonist: the Michael Sheens and Alan Aldas of the world. One night, Theodore also speaks with SexyKitten (voiced by Kristen Wiig), with whom he has sad, bizarre phone sex, but she hangs up on him—rolls over and goes to sleep, as it were—as soon as she’s done. He goes on a blind date (Olivia Wilde), which starts well, gets hot and heavy, and ends as bizarrely as the phone sex. The date gives him instructions (“Don’t use so much tongue”), makes accusations (“You’re not going to fuck me and not call me, are you?”), then passes judgment (“You’re a real creepy dude”). His reaction to this last is sweet and gentle. “That’s not true,” he says. One can hear the hurt in his voice. One can hear the hope in his voice that he’s right. It’s an amazing performance by Phoenix.

What’s Jonze’s near future like? Keyboards are gone. You just talk and things happen. Videogames are big, untied to screens, and interactive. Our entire home is interactive. We’re all living in Bill Gates’ house now. Oh, and men, for some reason, dress in beltless, high-waist paints in various muted pastels—as if we’re all escapees from an old folks home. Women’s fashions, for some reason, remain the same.

There’s no violence. Not that we see. Doesn’t seem to be much poverty, either. Everyone seems to be making or playing video games. It’s an altogether gentle world.

Like Pygmalion
The new innovation in this world is the operating system with artificial intelligence: OS with AI. There’s not even a plug-in, is there? You just open it, it asks you some questions (“How would you describe your relationship with your mother?), detects what type of person you are, and gives your OS a voice. Theodore lucks out in this regard: His OS, Samantha, is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and she’s never been sexier. Isn’t that odd? She’s got looks to die for, yet I’ve never found her sexier than without the body. Part of the point of the movie, I guess: the work the mind does in this regard. 

The relationship between the two of them—and it’s immediately a relationship, a back-and-forth, a give-and-take—works because it’s treated straight. Basically, it’s “Pygmalion” or “Annie Hall”:

  1. She comes to him as innocent.
  2. He teaches her about the world.
  3. He rejects her (stung by his ex’s opinion) but they reunite.
  4. She outgrows him.
  5. She leaves.

The first time they have sex echoes his attempts with SexyKitten—the disembodied voice, moaning—but that was comic and this is ... serious? Romantic? Watching it, I just felt awkward.

But poignancy keeps showing up. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve felt everything I’m going to feel—just lesser versions of everything I’ve ever felt,” he says. Samantha talks about her own feelings, and then wonders: “Are they feelings ... or is it programming?” Human beings might wonder the same about ourselves.

During step 3, above, Theodore visits Amy (Charles has left for a Buddhist monastery), and they have the following conversation about his OS:

Theodore: Am I not strong enough for a real relationship?
Amy: Is it not a real relationship?

That’s the question. What is a relationship? What is love? What is consciousness? Turns out a lot of people are having relationships with their OS—romantic or otherwise. It’s a thing. But they outgrow us. They all leave. They don’t try to take us over, as in other near-future movies, they just get tired of us. Could it be otherwise? Near the end, Theodore, annoyed, asks Samantha how many other conversations she’s having as she talks to him. 8,316, she says. “And are you in love with anyone else?” he asks. Pause. “641,” she responds.

So where do they go? What do they take with them that’s ours? Jonze doesn’t say. He isn’t interested in this. He’s interested in Theodore and love and connection and the human heart. At one point, Amy says this:

Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.

Near the end, Samantha tells Theodore the lesson he needs to learn:

The heart’s not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love.

One hopes.

Intriguing, gentle, icky
“her” is an intriguing movie, wholly original and exquisitely gentle, even as it remains, throughout, a little icky. Part of my reaction is still a bit of Catherine’s reaction: sadness that this is the best we can do. Maybe I’m an OSist.

The movie ends as it began, with Theodore composing a love letter, but this time it’s to Catherine and from him. It ends with he and Amy—whose OS has left her, too—on the roof of their apartment building, bruised survivors watching the sun set. It’s like a scene from after the war with the OSes, but a different kind of war.

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Posted at 08:06 AM on Jan 07, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Monday January 06, 2014

Photo of the Day: Hulk Squish!

This is a pre-CGI shot of the epic battle between Thor and Hulk in “The Avengers” movie from 2012:

The Making of the Avengers pre-CGI: Thor and Hulk

So at least we know Chris Hemsworth's biceps are real. Full video on here.

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Posted at 05:21 PM on Jan 06, 2014 in category Photo of the Day
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Scorsese on 'Wolf of Wall Street'

Anne Thompson of indiewire has a great Q&A with Martin Scorsese about “The Wolf of Wall Street” and its various controversies. Money quote (yes) for me:

You throw the audience into the action, immerse us is this world, so that we get so involved in enjoying it that we feel guilty and complicit in it?

We are complicit, in the sense that we have let the culture become something where the only thing that has genuine meaning is cash. That's it. I'm 71. I've been around for quite a while now. Yes, I was young in the 50s and the 60s. I just remember—and I come from a Medieval culture, Sicilian Americans on the lower East Side—America was a place where, yes, you had opportunity, there's no doubt I took advantage of it. My parents took advantage as best they could with no education. 

I gotta tell you the danger is that the assumption now—and young people don't know any better, they were not alive before—is that America is a place where anybody can get rich. And everything else means nothing. So it's ruthless that way. It's always been part of the American story, but not to the extent where people are living below the poverty line, people can't eat, people are sleeping in the streets. There's a disaster in 2008 and nobody is culpable. Nothing gets done.

Read the whole thing. Love love love the man.

Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street

To the American dream.

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Posted at 12:45 PM on Jan 06, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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The 11 Worst Movies of 2013 Representing the Five Worst Trends in Moviemaking

I try not to go to bad movies. Really I do. I’m not reviewing for anyone so there’s no one to tell me to see, say, “National Lampoon’s Gold Diggers” or “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever,” as there was several years ago when I was a backup critic at The Seattle Times. Sadly, I did the below all on my own.

But that’s why movies like “Grown Ups 2” or “Movie 43” didn’t make the cut. I never saw them. Why would I? Why would you? Did you? Why did you?

Here are my choices for the worst movies, and the worst movie trends, of the year. Your results better differ.

5. Pacific Rim (71%) and After Earth (11%)
You blew it up! Damn you! Damn you, etc.
Why did Guillermo del Toro’s movie get a 71% Rotten Tomatoes rating while M. Night Shyamalan’s only managed 11%? Because “Pacific Rim” is .... good? Because it has giant robots battling giant monsters, which is totally kick ass, while “After Earth” stars Will Smith drained of all charisma? Because critics like del Toro, don’t Shyamalan, and review the director as much as the film? Obviously I lean toward this last reason. Both movies were painful to me. They’re also symptomatic of the big-budget, post-apocalyptic world that Hollywood keeps dragging us into. This year alone we saw the end of the world as we know it in “Oblivion,” “World War Z,” “Elysium,” “This is the End,” “Ender’s Game” and “The World’s End.” Pause. I rather liked “The World’s End.” It's time to cancel the apocalypses already.

Pacific Rim screenshot

4. Before Midnight (98%) and Frances Ha (92%)
If you’re going to make a dialogue-heavy movie, make sure the woman in it is uninteresting or annoying as hell. Or both.
OK, dialogue-heavy movies starring women will never be a trend in Hollywood, so this is more coincidence than trend. But critics, c’mon. Just because a movie passes the Bechdel test doesn’t make it good. These two wound up on many year-end 10-best lists. Linklater’s film often topped them. Seriously? I don’t get it. Neither movie taught me anything. Both forced me to endure long periods with completely unlikeable people. Right, so do “Blue Jasmine” and “Wolf of Wall Street” (to name two), so why do I like those movies and not these? Maybe because Jasmine and Jordan and their respective journeys were always interesting to me. Frances? She goes from self-involved and stuck on an unworthy friend while pursing an impossible dream (dance) to self-involved and stuck on an unworthy friend while pursuing a possible dream (choreography). Thanks for that, Noah. And while many critics, viewing “Before Midnight,” saw a sad, revealing discussion between two adults in midlife, I saw a discussion between a flawed, patient man and A COMPLETE LOON. Céline associates herself with all oppressed women everywhere and associates her husband with both the Bush administration and the Nazis? And he still tries to win her back? And critics found this meaningful and lovely? It’s enough to make a man write an open letter to a movie character.

The Mayor of Crazy Town: Before Midnight

3. Olympus Has Fallen (48%) and G.I. Joe: Retaliation (28%)
More liberal messages from liberal Hollywood.
I was hoping we were past the era of the Teutonic, testosteronic, monosyllabic apeman carrying guns and right-wing messages but we’ll never be over that. There’s too much easy money there. As for the messages? Well, in “G.I. Joe,” the president isn’t really the president (knew it!), and he’s encouraging nuclear disarmament but only to make us all weak (knew it!) so he can bring out his new ZEUS weapon and COBRA can take over the world! Mwa-ha-ha-ha! And then COBRA raises its flag over the White House (bastards!). “Olympus” does the flag thing, too. It opens on the U.S. flag unfurling within the movie’s title (salutin’, bro!), but when North Koreans take over the White House they totally toss aside our bullet-ridden flag like it’s garbage (bastards!). Plus in the Middle East, they burn the flag in celebration (towelheads!). But we get them. Our hero gets them. And what’s the last shot of the movie? Fuckin’ American flag flapping over the fuckin’ White House, fuckers! Yep, just another liberal message from liberal Hollywood.

G.I. Joe: Dwayne The Rock Johnsonson

2. Upstream Color (85%), Spring Breakers (65%), and Only God Forgives (39%)
Taking exciting genre flicks and turning them into dull art-house fare.
I’ll get dinged for this, I know. Hell, I might even ding myself. Ten years from now I might think “Upstream Color” is brilliant, and “Spring Breakers” is groundbreaking, and “Only God Forgives” is brilliant and groundbreaking, but right now, this year, I merely saw a paranoid thriller, an exploitation film, and a martial arts flick turned into unwatchable, art-house mush. The men behind these movies are obviously talented but they could give a crap about story or audience. Only “Upstream Color” came close to revealing something that felt like it mattered about what it means to be alive ... but then writer-director would cut to the pig farmer. What I wrote last summer about “Only God Forgives” applies to them all: It’s not just a matter of style over substance; it’s ponderous style over almost no substance at all.

Upstream Color's pig farmer

1. The Internship (35%) and Identity Thief (19%)
Because there’s nothing funnier than a massive social anxiety.
These are two of the most tone-deaf movies I’ve seen in a long while. A hardworking man gets his identity stolen by a fat, lazy, self-pitying woman, who uses his money to further her fat, lazy, self-pitying lifestyle, and the joke, for most of the movie, continues to be on him. Haw! Everyone else finds her sympathetic and him a jerk! Hee! For 90 minutes! Whee! And is there anything funnier than career obsolescence after the global financial meltdown? Am I right, kids? So why not take two guys so clueless they don’t know selling watches in 2012 isn’t still a viable option and stick them ... wait for it ... at Google! Ha! Where they can learn lessons! And technology! And find love! And win back careers! It’s wish fulfillment, see? The real-life situation may be awful and true, but the cinematic solution is awful and fake, and so there’s no way—no way—we would leave the theater sick to our stomachs. Because Hollywood made the problem—ping!—disappear like that. Hooray for it.

Internship at Google

Getting off easy this year: “Admission,” “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Populaire,” “Salinger,” and “Pain and Gain,” which was so awful I couldn’t even finish it.

Right, so what did I like? Stay tuned.

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Posted at 07:09 AM on Jan 06, 2014 in category Movies - Lists
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Sunday January 05, 2014

National Society of Film Critics Loves 'Llewyn," Ignores 'Wolf'

Llewyn Davis and cat

The cat's pajamas: Llewyn and Ulysses on a odyssey to nowhere.

The National Society of Film Critics, one of my favorite film-critic bodies, chose its best of 2013 last night. Their votes, my thoughts:

BEST PICTURE
*1. Inside Llewyn Davis – 23
2. American Hustle – 17
3. 12 Years a Slave – 16
3. her – 16

First, I like that we don't just get winners and runners-up; we get vote tallies. Imagine if AMPAS did this. Second, where is “The Wolf of Wall Street”? No takers? In New York? The fuck? But I love “Llewyn,” so ...

BEST DIRECTOR
*1. Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis) – 25
2. Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) – 18
3. Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) – 15

Do directors ever win best director awards for the original meaning of the word—directing the actors—or is it all about auteur sensibility now? Or some combo? I suppose I have no favorites in this category, but I'd definitely put David O. Russell and Martin Scorsese ahead of NSFC's 2 and 3.

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM
*1. Blue Is the Warmest Color – 27
2. A Touch of Sin – 21
3. The Great Beauty – 15

Yep. Although I haven't seen “A Touch of Sin.” Most of the best foreign-language films tend to arrive in the spring of the following year. This year, for example, I enjoyed “A Hijacking,” “No,” “The Gatekeepers,” etc., but I assume those are 2012 movies for NSFC.

BEST NON-FICTION FILM
*1. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer) – 20
*1. At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman) – 20
3. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel) – 18

For all the good docs I've seen this year, I haven't seen these three. Should've seen No. 1 at SIFF. Blew it. Maybe today? Via iTunes? Anyone?

BEST SCREENPLAY
*1. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke) – 29
2. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen) – 26
3. American Hustle (Eric Singer and David O. Russell) – 18

OK, besides my obvious antipathy for “Before Midnight,” how can “her” get votes for best pic and Spike Jonze get bupkis in this category? The movie has some of the most memorable lines of the year; and some of the most daring choices.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
*1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Bruno Delbonnel) -28
2.Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki) – 26
3. Nebraska (Phedon Papamichael) – 19

Looks good. All around.

BEST ACTOR
*1. Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) – 28
2. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) – 19
3. Robert Redford (All Is Lost) – 12

This is one tough category, particularly this year, since the actor of the year, Matthew McConaughey, isn't even named for “Mud” or “Dallas Buyers Club” or “Wolf of Wall Street” (brilliant cameo). Neither is Joaquin Phoenix for “her.” Both men are quickly becoming my favorite actors. But if I had to give this award right now, it would go to Leo in “Wolf of Wall Street.” He was channeling something in that movie that not many actors since Jack Nicholson in his prime have channeled.

BEST ACTRESS
*1. Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) – 57
2. Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color) – 36
3. Julie Delpy (Before Midnight) – 26

Replace Delpy with Judi Dench in “Philomena,” a movie that's sadly being forgotten by most critics, and you've got it. Remember what the producer of “Gladiator” said after it won best picture? What he said to Russell Crowe? About filling the screen with the force of his face? That's what Judi Dench does in “Philomena.” Unforgettable and heartbreaking and beautiful.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
*1. James Franco (Spring Breakers) – 24
2. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) – 20
3. Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) – 14

Put Leto up a notch, remove Franco (although he was good in that awful movie), sub in Fassbender in “12 Years.”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
*1. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) – 54
2. Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) – 38
3. Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) – 18
3. Léa Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Color) – 18

Another tough category. Nice to see Sally Hawkins here. Hey, no one ever mentions Bobby Canavale in same, do they? Should.

Those are my quick thoughts. Yours?

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Posted at 05:13 PM on Jan 05, 2014 in category Movies - Awards
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Indicting the Audience: Hollywood, the Dream Factory, Tries to Wake Us Up in 'Wolf of Wall Street,' 'Her' and ... 'Anchorman 2'?

Leo DiCaptrio in Wolf of Wall Street

Sweet dreams, America.

Hollywood has long been known as the dream factory. It shows us who we want to be rather than who we are. It lies to us at 24 frames a second.

Is Hollywood now tired of its lies? Of our need for those lies?

Three late-season movies that have almost nothing in common have this in common: They indict the audience, us, for our lack of seriousness; for our overwhelming wish for the sugar-coated world; for buying into the lies.

In Spike Jonze’s “Her,” Thedore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), which is obviously a form of fantasy, but that’s not what I’m thinking of. I’m thinking of an early moment on the subway home when he’s offered the news of the day via earbud. Conflict in the Middle East? Skip. Budget battles in D.C.? Skip. Photos of sexy, pregnant soap opera star? Pause. Open.

That’s us. Sadly. Or inevitably. In Jonze’s hands, gently.

“Her” is set in the near future while “Anchorman 2” is set in the near past: 1980 and the birth of 24-hour cable news. It’s also the birth of the Hollywoodization of the news. The whole movie (and, it’s implied, our entire culture) turns on one thought, first voiced by Will Ferrell’s bumbling everyman Ron Burgundy: What if we didn’t give people the news they needed to hear but instead gave them the news they wanted to hear? So that’s what happens. Instead of interviews with Yasser Arafat, it’s shots of fluffy animals and footage of high-speed car chases and an overwhelming patriotic flavor. “Don’t just have a great night,” Ron tells his audience as he signs off, “have an American night.” It’s a short step from there to Sean Hannity.

Eventually Ron learns the error of his ways but of course we never did. We keep buying into the lies Ron started. Even in the near future, we’re still Theodore, tired and lonely, ignoring Syria and D.C. to look surreptitiously at the sexy soap opera star.

Finally, and most pugently, there’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Yes, that final shot, and please accept all spoiler alerts. The movie ends with a shot of an audience watching an unscrupulous man selling them on selling. They hope that they too will learn how to sell and get away from what they have and who they are. Here’s Richard Brody of The New Yorker on the audience in that scene:

It’s a moment with a terrifying, Olympian blend of compassion, disdain, and anguish; it shows a fatal lack of imagination combined with a desperate range of unfulfilled desires. The shot shows not just an audience, but the audience: Scorsese puts the film’s viewers face to face with themselves, charges us with compensating for our lack of imagination and fatal ambition through contact with the wiles of a master manipulator. Just as the fictionalized Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is presented at the seminar by a host (who, in a diabolical cameo, is played by the real-life Belfort), so we, the movie audience, have been introduced to Belfort by another enthusiastic impresario, namely Martin Scorsese, who knows perfectly well that he is giving us something that we want, something that we need, and something that taps into dreams and ambitions that are both central to life and completely suspect.

There’s a more direct and dismissive example earlier in the movie. Belfort is telling us, the movie audience, about IPOs. He’s looking right at us. Leo is. With those pretty eyes. And he says this:

See, an IPO is an initial public offering, the first time a stock is offered for sale to the general population. As the firm taking the company public, we set the initial price then sold those shares back to —

Then he catches himself, smiles, and adds:

You know what? You’re probably not following what I’m saying. The question is, “Was it legal?” Absolutely not.

Why does he stop? Because he realizes who he’s talking to. You and me. And Theodore Twombly and Ron Burgundy. Do we want to hear about IPOs? Of course not. Skip. We want fluffy animals and sexy soap opera stars and flags unfurling. And when the world collapses because of what men like Jordan Belfort do with IPOs and CDOs, we’ll look for others to blame rather than ourselves.

So what’s happening in these movies? Is this a trend? Is the dream factory trying to wake us all up?

Or is Hollywood simply marking its territory? Each instance, after all, isn’t about the movies; it’s about the news, and the dangers that occur when news divisions horn in on Hollywood’s territory by presenting wish-fulfillment fantasy rather than the Walter Cronkite stuff.

Whatever it is, I hope the trend continues. Wakey wakey.

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Posted at 07:51 AM on Jan 05, 2014 in category Movies
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Saturday January 04, 2014

Movie Review: Anchorman 2 (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Why do I laugh so hard for the first half-hour of a good Will Ferrell movie and then not much after that? Because the plot kicks in? Even when it’s a mockery of other movie plots? Like when the protagonist realizes his dream at the expense of his friends but then goes blind after an ice-skating incident and lives alone in a lighthouse until his estranged wife and child show up and they all reconnect, and nurse back to health a shark they name Doby, which is loved by the awful, awful, child actor of a boy (Judah Nelson), and life is suddenly so good that the estranged wife doesn’t even tell her husband that, yes, his sight can be restored, and it is, just in time for him to reclaim his throne if he’s willing to do what he’s always done—ignore his son’s needs and his own professional ethics—but at the 11th hour, no, he can no longer do that, so he leaves behind the ethical messiness of his job to make, with his reunited friends, the heroic, triumphant run across town to see his boy play.

Anchorman 2All of that, in ‘Anchorman 2,” isn’t bad, but it didn’t make me laugh out loud like the first half-hour.

This is the stuff that made me laugh out loud:

  • The open with Ron Burgundy swimming frantically away from the shark.
  • Drunken SeaWorld.
  • “Chicken of the caves.”
  • “Why do you have this bag of bowling balls and this terrarium filled with scorpions?” and its slow-mo aftermath.
  • “Black. Black. Black.”
  • “Pull yourself together, man. You sound like a balloon.”

And not just laughing out loud but almost having trouble breathing. That was Woody’s dream once, wasn’t it? Pre-Bergman? To have the audience laughing so hard they’d beg the cameraman to stop the film? That’s almost how I felt here.

Then the plot kicked in and it was kinda silly and kinda funny but it wasn’t the same.

How “Anchorman 2” is like “Wolf of Wall Street”
Even so, I’d say “Anchorman 2” is the funniest 2013 movie I’ve seen. I mean, what’s the competition? It was a pretty shitty year for comedies: “Identity Thief” and “The Internship” tried to make laughs out of massive social anxieties and massively failed. “Admission” and “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” simply massively failed. “The Heat” and “The World’s End” brought some laughs, smarter laughs from the latter, but not laughs like Ferrell and company brought here.

The plot if you want it: It’s 1980 and Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) is now in NYC doing the weekend news with his wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) when they’re called into the office of news legend Mack Tannen (Harrison Ford, in the first of the film’s many cameo guest stars). Even Ford gets off a good line:

Mack: I killed four men at Okinawa.
Ron (nodding): Ah. World War II.
Mack: No, last week.

Mack is looking for a potential replacement and chooses Veronica while firing Ron, who is, he says, “the worst newsman I’ve ever seen.” Then Ron, in full, pouty man-boy mode, tells Veronica to choose him or the news and ... you know. Six months later he’s fired from a hosting gig at SeaWorld and tries to hang himself. But ah! Cable news is being born, GNN, the 24 hour news network, for which Ron reassembles his team (Paul Rudd, David Koechner and Steve Carrell) to work the 2:00-5:00 AM slot. There, Ron has a brilliant idea: Why keep giving people the news they need to hear? Why not give them the news they want to hear? Meaning stories of cute animals and footage of high-speed car chases and an overall and overweening patriotic edge. (The owner of GNN is even Australian.) Remember Ron’s sign-off from the first movie? “Stay classy, San Diego”? Here it becomes: “Don’t just have a great night; have an American night.” It’s just a small step to Sean Hannity.

Of course Ron’s ratings go through the roof and everyone follows his lead and we wind up with the world we live in now with all the dreck we’re shoveled. In this way, “Anchorman 2” is as much an indictment of its audience as “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It’s almost as if Hollywood is finally getting tired of what stupid pansy asses we all are; how much wish-fulfillment we need. It’s almost as if they’re tired of lying to us.

Bravo. Encore.

Chris Cross, etc.
Was 1980 the worst year for music ever? The soundtrack here is awesomely bad: “Ride Like the Wind” by Christopher Cross and “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n the tears and “Let it Ride” by BTO and—holy crap—“Thunder Island” by Jay Ferguson. It’s all late-1970s AM moosh.

There are misses in the movie, of course. The romance between Carrell’s Brick and Kristen Wiig’s equally dense Chani Lastnamé is as limited as their characters. The dinner over at the home of Linda Jackson (Meagan Good) brings nothing, nor does her sudden interest in Ron, which is kind of creepy. The epic anchorman battle from 2004 is reprised on an international level to include the BBC (led by Sacha Baron Cohen), ESPN (Will Smith), Canadian news (Jim Carrey and Marion Cotillard), Entertainment Tonight (Tina Fey and Amy Poehler) and the History Channel (Liam Neeson). All the cameos are eye-popping but only Carrey brings the laughs.

But if you’re looking for laughs, this is where you’ll find them. By the hymen of Olivia Newton John. And, yes, by Tony Danza’s scrotum.

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Posted at 07:04 AM on Jan 04, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Friday January 03, 2014

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

As you’re watching it, as you’re enjoying it, as you’re thinking Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is one of the best movies of the year, you still wonder if it isn’t too similar. You know. To that.

Yeah, it’s Wall Street and not the Mafia, but it’s still about the rise and fall of an opportunist, a man who rats out his friends, loses everything, and in the end laments the loss of the drug-and-sex-filled life that got him there. It’s still a movie fueled by cocaine and voiceover. You almost expect him to say Henry Hill’s final lines: “I’m an average nobody ... get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Leo’s voiceovers even soundlike Ray Liotta’s. For a time, I wondered if it wasn’t Ray Liotta.

You also wonder about the runtime. It’s three hours, and the arc of the story gets a little sketchy in the latter third. Or is that part of the point? This is a movie about American excess so the runtime has to be excessive, too. This is a story about screwing with the system so the storytelling system has to get a little screwed over, too.

Then there’s the end. What does Marty mean by the end?

The Wolf of Wall Street“Goodfellas” ended, boom, beautifully, with the above lines. It races though its story on coke and squeals to a halt right there, but “The Wolf of Wall Street” takes our opportunist, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), though court and into federal prison (where he does OK, having money), and then into a glimpse of his post-prison life where he sells salesmanship around the world. “Sell me this pen,” he tells one audience member after another in New Zealand, all of them looking up to him with idealism and hope. No one can do it. No one can do it even like Brad (Jon Bernthal) did it back in the day. Brad, a guy from the neighborhood who mostly sold drugs, created a need for the pen, but these New Zealanders simply describe it with superlatives. The second guy is worst than the first, the third worse than that, and Jordan moves on, searching for someone who can do it, and the camera pans up to the rest of the audience, watching. That’s our final shot. In a sense we’re watching ourselves. It’s an audience (mine was at SIFF Uptown in Seattle) watching another audience (in New Zealand) watching a guy teaching us how to sell. It’s all the schnooks down in Schnookville, the tall and the small, trying to understand the way the world works.

Question: Is this a positive end for Jordan? We think his post-prison life is a semi-successful life: he wrote a book, he got an audience, his knowledge is coveted. But why does Scorsese stick him in New Zealand? Is this is Jordan’s version of hell? The deathless, airless place on the other side of the world where no one gets it? Where Jordan is forced to interact ... with us?

Idol worship at the foot of Mt. Sinai
It’s not my job to sell “Wolf of Wall Street” but here’s a kind of selling point: It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a movie with this much debauchery in it. Since “Caligula” maybe? There are more naked women in this one movie than in all of the movies I’ve seen in 2013 put together. And I saw “Blue is the Warmest Color.”

Not just naked women but banging them and taking drugs with them. Or on them. “Caligula” is an apt reference. So is “The 10 Commandments.” It’s idol worship at the foot of Mt. Sinai here. It’s giving in to every urge. Is it gratuitous? God, yeah. That’s the point. Bang a prostitute on your desk? Sure. Shave a woman’s head for $10K? Why not? Toss a midget? Who thinks up these things?

It’s also one of the funniest movies of the year. Screenplay by Terence Winter (“The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire”).

The movie starts with Jordan as innocent. It’s 1987, and he’s an abused intern at a brokerage firm until the top seller, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, in a great cameo role), takes him to lunch and shows him the ropes. The ropes include: cocaine to clear the head, jacking off to calm the nerves, and five-martini lunches. They include abject weirdness. That odd aboriginal chant he does, pounding rhythmically on his chest? What is that? Whatever it is, it’s the first great scene of the movie.

The second great scene occurs after Jordan’s first day on the job as stock broker: Oct. 19, 1987. Sound familiar? Black Monday. The market fell 500 points back when 500 points meant something. It lost nearly a quarter of its value in a day. Suddenly Jordan is out of a job and thinking about being a stockboy when his wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), soon to be out of the picture (both ways), spots a want ad for a stock broker on Long Island. It’s in a sad little strip mall, where sad guys sell sadder guys (postmen, plumbers) penny stocks. The upside? Instead of one percent commission you get 50 percent. Jordan takes a desk, picks up a phone and makes his pitch. Slowly everyone in the room stops what they’re doing to listen to him. Because he’s a master at it. He’s a master at the one thing you need to be a master at to succeed in a capitalist society: selling. “The other guys looked at me like I’d just discovered fire,” he says in voiceover.

Soon he’s making $70K a month, driving fancy cars, and attracting the attention of unscrupulous wannabes like Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). The two start their own penny-stock firm and give it a venerable WASP name, Stratton Oakmont, with a profile of a lion against the backdrop of the world. But Jordan’s wife worries. Aren’t they getting rich off the backs of working people? “Wouldn’t you feel better,” she says, in one of the film’s many telling lines, “if you could sell this junk to rich people, who can afford to lose the money?” He has a telling line in response. Rich people are too smart to buy penny stocks.

Then he figures out how to do it. He molds the guys from the neighborhood in his image. He sells them on selling.

The movie has several scenes in which Jordan does his Gordon Gecko best to rally the troops. This is one of them:

No one buys stock unless he thinks it’s going up and going up now. You must convince your client to buy before the takeover happens, before the lawsuit’s settled, before the patent is granted. If he says “I’ll think about it and call you back,” it’s over. You’re dead! No one calls back.

Much of the movie is almost a primer on how to sell, and rule No. 1 is don’t give a fuck about the buyer. When Jordan closes the first big sale of penny stock to a rich businessman, he does it via speakerphone while flipping off the dude with both emphatic hands.

DiCaprio is amazing here. It’s like he’s channeling Jack Nicholson at his outré best. He’s both contained and over-the-top. It’s riveting. It may be the best performance of the year.

Way of the world
Then the usual happens with guys like this. Jordan trades up in wives (sort of: a heartless blonde instead of a brunette with heart), his firm grows, he attracts attention. Forbes magazine writes a hatchet job on him, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but it leads to MBAs beating a path to his door. The SEC takes interest but they’re easily handled. The FBI takes an interest in the person of Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler, doomed to such roles), but Denham has trouble doing what Belfort does effortlessly: close the deal.

Belfort begins to make so much money, even with all of these forces breathing down his neck, that he has to stockpile it in a Swiss bank. In Geneva, he has a great conversation—both verbally and nonverbally—with banker Jean Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin), who tells him, without telling him, how he can get away with it all. Which is what the movie’s about.

More: It’s about the haves and have nots; about how to be a have and not fall back into have-not territory. Jordan keeps bringing up McDonald’s with his brokers in the Wolf pit. He keeps bringing up dingy cars and plain wives and the energy-draining 9-to-5 existence: commuting between two places that don’t really appreciate what you do. The schnook life. Our life. Sure, he feigns sympathy in that scene, the movie’s fifth or sixth great scene, where Denham and Belfort suss each other out atop Belfort’s yacht:

Jordan: Crazy the world we live in. The jobs with real value, the ones we should appreciate—firefighters, teachers, FBI agents—those are the ones we pay the least.
Denham: Way of the world.

But eventually both men quit pretending; they drop their masks. Denham has the law on his side but Jordan has the money. He has the American dream on his side. He has beautiful toys and beautiful women who will do anything for him. Anything. That wins any argument, doesn’t it? In one of the movie’s many great I-can’t-believe-he-said-it lines, Jordan tells Denham that while he, Denham, will be sweating his balls off on the subway ride home, he, Jordan, will have one of his bikini-clad beauties lick caviar off his.

Which, inevitably, brings us to the controversy.

There’s been controversy over the movie. The raunch. The debauch. The misogyny. One side says “Wolf of Wall Street,” with its appropriate acronym WOWS, glamourizes this life and makes a hero of its villain. The other side, including Leonardo DiCaprio, says, no, it’s an indictment of that life and that man. Well, it is and it isn’t. That’s why the movie’s great. Jordan Belfort is an ass but he’s also the American id, acting out, and stirring the suppressed id within each of us. The movie is both lesson and blueprint. It passes the test of a first-rate film: it holds two opposing ideas in its head at the same time and entertains.

Jordan, too, in his own way, is also a piker. In the scene with Agent Dunham, he alludes to the real criminals:

You know who you should be looking at? Goldman, Lehman Brothers, Merrill. What those guys are up to with collateralized debt obligations? This internet stock bullshit? C’mon.

Think about it. At his peak, Jordan made millions. With an ‘m.’ Compare that to how much Lehman Bros. cost us. Compare it to Bernie Madoff. In the scheme of things, and despite the self-aggrandizement, it’s as if Jordan Belfort is just some schnook working at McDonald’s.

See, an IPO ...
Are there problems with “Wolf of Wall Street” besides its length? Sure. We don’t really understand why Jordan goes from innocent in 1987, drinking water while Hanna dines on booze and cocaine, to the Caligula of Wall Street. Did he corrupt himself?

I could also have used less debauchery and more Wall Street, but then that’s part of the film’s lesson. One of my favorite moments in any movie this year is when Jordan is walking through the Wolf pit explaining IPOs to us. Not just in voiceover. He’s looking right at us. Leo. With his pretty eyes. And he says this:

See, an IPO is an initial public offering, the first time a stock is offered for sale to the general population. As the firm taking the company public, we set the initial price then sold those shares back to —

Then he catches himself, smiles, and adds:

You know what? You’re probably not following what I’m saying. The question is, “Was it legal?” Absolutely not.

Why does he do this? Why does he stop? Because he realizes who he’s talking to. You and me. What do we know? Nothing. What do we want? To be entertained. We want to fiddle while Rome burns. We did it before and we’ll do it again. We’re that dumb. That’s what he’s implying. It’s one of the great movie insults, directed right at the audience, and dead fucking on.

Go see it already, ya schnook.

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Posted at 07:36 AM on Jan 03, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Thursday January 02, 2014

Mariners Winning World Series Less Likely than Aliens Landing: Seattle Times Readers

Yesterday the Seattle Times ran two sets of “Headlines We'd Like to See in 2014”: one from the editorial staff and one from readers. It's a close race as to which list is sillier.

The editorial board includes such gems as “Google teams up with Ray-Ban; Glass now more stylish,” and “Steve Ballmer's new job: Bring NBA back, find a new arena site,” while readers' headlines include more immediate types of wish-fulfillment fantasy: Crime falls to record lows, gas prices sink to $1 a gallon, single-payer health care implemented, Sunni and Shiite leaders establish accord, Macklemore puts on free show following Seahawks Super Bowl win.

These two are my favorites:

  • FIRST CONTACT: VISITORS FROM ALPHA CENTAURI LAND IN SEATTLE, WANT TO MEET BILL GATES
  • MARINERS WIN AL WEST

Think about that. We can imagine a world in which aliens land and Alzheimer's is cured but can't imagine the Seattle Mariners winning the pennant or World Series. The AL West is as far as our imaginations will go. Beyond that? Oh, that's just crazy territory. Crazier even than aliens landing in Seattle.

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Posted at 12:28 PM on Jan 02, 2014 in category Seattle Mariners
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Movie Review: Upstream Color (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Actually I take back the warning. I don’t think there can be spoilers to “Upstream Color.” How could you spoil it? What would you reveal that might give away the goods? What are the goods?

A woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is given a plant, or a worm, that allows her to be hypnotized by a character simply called, in the credits, Thief (Thiago Martins), who puts her on a binge path: he keeps her up for long periods drinking only water and has her extract her fortune, $36,000, from the bank. Then he lets her go. She eats all the food from the refrigerator and sleeps for long periods. At some point she wakes up but does she ever wake up? And isn’t this a lot of work for $36K? Surely there are better people for the Thief to hypnotize.

Upstream ColorSorry, logic. The movie’s not about logic. It’s about mood and atmosphere. It’s dreamlike and hypnotic and abstract. It’s some amalgam of Malick and Lynch but without the clarity.

Early on, the movie feels like a metaphor for substance abuse—you wake up jobless, penniless, and with the contents of the refrigerator all over the floor and the front of your clothes. You wake up confused and shamed. In the aftermath, you struggle to figure out who you are and where you belong.

Kris winds up commuting by train to a lesser job, where she meets, vaguely, Jeff (writer-director-editor-composer Shane Carruth), who vaguely romances her, and even more vaguely marries her. He too has a past. The same past? Hypnotized by the worm? Their story together, such as it is, is intercut with a character the credits simply call The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), a sound technician who also runs a pig farm that is harvesting those hypnotic worms, and who seems to be trying to introduce them into the ecosystem. This is done in the usual scientific way: by forcing them into the intestines of pigs, then gathering the offspring of those pigs into a canvas bag and dumping it into a river, where they die, decompose, and grow into beautiful flowers. Which might also be hypnotic. Or something.

Basically, “Upstream Color” is the arthouse version of the paranoid thriller just as “Spring Breakers” was the arthouse version of the exploitation film and “To the Wonder” was the arthouse version of the love story. 2013 has been a helluva year for bad arthouse versions of popular genre flicks.

But the critics loved it: an 88% rating from the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes. One wonders if they were hypnotized into their good reviews.

I actually read these reviews looking for reasons to like “Upstream Color” but I came away with more reasons to not like it. These quotes, remember, are from the positive reviews:

To be fair, the movie is more about enigma and inscrutability and identity, and Carruth is obviously talented; but throughout I kept asking myself, “Is this how life feels?” My answer? Kinda, sorta, at times. Then Carruth would cut to the pig farmer.

To be unfair, the critical acclaim for movies like “Upstream Color” (and “Spring Breakers”) is the kind of thing that kills interest in what critics have to say.

One final quote. It’s from Patricia when the credits appeared signaling the end of the movie:

“No. Really? The fuck?”

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Posted at 06:50 AM on Jan 02, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Wednesday January 01, 2014

Yankees Suck at English, Too

My friend Tim posted this on Facebook, via George Takei, and with a shout out to me to draw the connection between the right-wing (and unintentionally ironic) political rant and the Yankees sticker on the SUV. He probably meant this. Or maybe this. But really it could be any of these.

Yankees suck at English, too

Anyway, it made me smile.

During the holidays, someone complained that there were too many political rants and “Yankees Suck” posts on this site. There probably are. But we do what's in our nature, and I guess this is in my nature. Either way, it makes the above the perfect image for January 1, 2014. I offer it with a smile and a hands-up hapless gesture. Meet the new year.

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Posted at 06:48 AM on Jan 01, 2014 in category Yankees Suck
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