erik lundegaard

Wednesday April 30, 2014

What Disney's 'Frozen' Has In Common with the Most Popular Movies of All Time — Part II

Frozen Elsa Let It Go

The Sound of Music

This post from the other day, in which I argued that Disney's “Frozen” has something in common with the most popular movies of all time—specifically a framework in which a girl has to choose between two boys against a backdrop of tragedy—sparked a not-bad discussion on Facebook. 

A mother of three commented this way:

My girls love it because it's not the traditional “the prince saves the day” movie. They love the princess factor, but are beyond sold on the higher sister solidarity factor. And of course the music. 

Her husband added:

For my kids (and me), the sister/sister relationship was far and away the most important aspect of the film. The music and humor were the next tier of goodness. The 'choice' part was not really that significant to them--and in fact my girls specifically said they liked that the boyfriend storyline in the movie didn't matter much--particularly because (spoiler alert) Kristof was 'brotherized' until the very end, when Hans abruptly revealed himself as a jerk.

No doubt. But the choice factor isn't really big in most of the movies I mentioned. We all know Scarlett should choose Rhett, Rose should choose Jack Dawson. We're more split on Edward and Jacob, Gale and Peeta. And we watch all of these movies for reasons other than the framework. For “The Sound of Music,” it's the music and Julie Andrews. For “Gone with the Wind,” it's the operatic tragedy and the machinations; the single raised eyebrow and the fiddle-dee-dee. For “Titanic,” the special effects, the love, and the final sacrifice. 

Yet the framework remains the same: a girl ... choosing between two guys ... against a backdrop of tragedy. 

Is it ever reversed, by the way? Is it ever a guy choosing between two girls against a backdrop of tragedy? 

Rarely among our most popular movies. In “Dr. Zhivago,” yes, Yuri has to choose between Lara (Julie Christie) and Tanya (Geraldine Chaplin) against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution; but more often, the girl, even when she's obviously the girl, is incidental to the story. It's either her or the adventure, and most heroes choose the adventure. Luke learns the Force, Moses ascends Mt. Sinai, Ben-Hur drives a chariot, Indiana finds the lost ark of the covenant. If they didn't, we'd want our money back. 

With male leads, the choice is to be with the girl (and be happy) or act upon the world (and get bloody). With female leads, the choice is which guy to be with as the world is acting upon you: Atlanta burning, Nazis invading, the Titanic sinking.

I suppose that what's changed within the framework. The tragedy used to be historical and now it's fictional. And the girl chooses to act upon the world rather than have the world act upon her. 

Other thoughts welcome.

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Posted at 05:45 AM on Apr 30, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Monday April 28, 2014

Trailer of the Day: Gone Girl

I saw this trailer before seeing “The Other Woman” on Friday, so it was obviously the best thing I saw that night. (Well, other than Stephen Colbert's masterful takedown of Sean Hannity in the Cliven Bundy fiasco. That's one of the best things that's EVER been on television.)

Warning: There's an ad after the trailer. There may be an ad before the trailer. But the trailer itself (which is an ad) is really well done. It presents the central dilemma of the film without giving away too much.

Do I have to read the book before the movie opens on Oct. 3rd? Is it worth it? And who produced the trailer? Anyone know? Because good work. 

The song, by the way, is Richard Butler singing Elvis Costello's “She.” The director, of course, is David Fincher, who never seems to make a bad movie: “Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “Zodiac,” “The Social Network,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Well, he did do “Benjamin Button,” which was a bit of a waste. His first Academy Award nomination. So it goes.  

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Posted at 05:48 AM on Apr 28, 2014 in category Trailers
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Sunday April 27, 2014

Weekend Box Office: ‘The Other Woman’ is On Top, But Does It Have Legs?

The Other Woman: Leslie Mann, Cameron Diaz, Kate Upton

Enjoy the moment. 

The headlines are all about the trio from “The Other Woman” taking down super-soldier Captain America, but that’s the usual misleading. It’s more like the first weekend of “The Other Woman” prevented “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” from remaining atop the box office for a fourth weekend in a row.

Here’s the top 5, according to Box Office Mojo:

  1. The Other Woman: $24.7 million
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier: $16 million
  3. Heaven is for Real: $13.8 million
  4. Rio 2: $13.6 million
  5. Brick Mansions: $9.6 million

“Woman”’s $24.7 million is similar to what “Bridesmaids” grossed when it opened in May 2011 ($26.2m), but don’t expect a repeat. “Bridesmaids” had legs because it was good; “The Other Woman” won’t because it’s not. Word will spread. Female moviegoers tend to have higher standards than their male counterparts; they don’t want to see shite. I don’t make many predictions but I’ll make that one: a steep fall-off for “The Other Woman” next weekend.

Overall, “Captain America” has now grossed $224.8 million domestically and $645 million worldwide. That’s the best of 2014 and 73rd all-time.

Will it soon be swamped by “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”? The sequel to the reboot opened overseas this weekend and grossed $132 million, which is almost twice what “Captain America” did the weekend before it opened in the U.S. ($75.2 million). We’ll see how Spidey slings it in the U.S. next weekend. (The reviews so far have been mixed.)

Back home, Johnny Depp’s “Transcendence” dropped 62% to finished sixth, and “God’s Not Dead” broke the $50 million mark with a $2.8 millon weekend and 11th place.

Until next weekend. (Thwip!)

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Posted at 12:27 PM on Apr 27, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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What's Your Favorite Conspiracy Theory from the Militia Members at the Bundy Ranch?

Cliven Bundy and American flag

Cliven Bundy believes in the American flag but not so much to the republic for which it stands.

Caty Enders of Esquire did the dirty work so we didn't have to: She hung out at the Bundy Ranch even as FOX News and Sean Hannity were skedaddling in the wake of the Cliven Bundy's racist comments last weekend. Read her piece, it's very, very unpleasant, particularly when Bundy starts talking about receiving word from God. Then take the poll below. Afterwards, we'll have a special screening of “Capricorn One.” Nah, we'll watch Stephen Colbert's masterful takedown on both Cliven Bundy and Sean Hannity, which is about the best thing I've seen on television in years. Also worthwhile: Slate's Amanda Marcotte on why Bundy is no welfare queen. No, he's much, much worse. 

[+6+]

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Posted at 10:55 AM on Apr 27, 2014 in category Politics
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Saturday April 26, 2014

A Quote that Has Nothing to Do with 'The Other Woman'

“Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).”

-- from Milan Kundera's “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” pg. 15.

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Posted at 03:07 PM on Apr 26, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: The Other Woman (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“The Other Woman” wants to be the cheating husband version of “9 to 5,” the 1980 comedy in which Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton take revenge on their sexist boss (Dabney Coleman).

It’s not. It’s mostly unfunny, often awkward, at times painfully bad. But don’t just trust me. Trust the several members of the movie’s key demographic (30-40something women) who left two-thirds of the way through the Friday evening show at Pacific Place theater in downtown Seattle. Was it during yet another make-up/break-up between the principle characters, Carly (Cameron Diaz) and Kate (Leslie Mann)? Was it the umpteenth time Kate was thinking of taking her awful husband back? Maybe it was when the movie, with the obviousness of movies, pushed Carly, tough, high-priced, mergers & acquisition attorney Carly, into the arms of Kate’s laid-back, bearded brother, Phil (Taylor Kinney), a so-sweet-he-doesn’t-register carpenter who is in the midst of building an extension to his home. On the beach. In the Hamptons. On a carpenter’s salary.

Sigh.

Man, I envied those women leaving. That’s the burden of the movie critic. You all are free to go but we’re doomed to stay until the credits roll.

Revenge served stupid
The movie begins with Carly and Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: Jaime Lannister of “Game of Thrones”) humping in a hotel room, then enjoying that idyllic glow of the early part of a good movie relationship in New York: snogging in front of MOMA, sailboats in Central Park, and high-rise, open air dinners, with Etta James’ “Sunday Kind of Love” on the soundtrack. The Other Woman with Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann and Kate UptonThen the alarm rings and the woman in bed with him isn’t Carly but Kate, his wife, sweet, ditzy Kate, who has no idea he’s sleeping around on her. Neither does Carly for that matter.

But the alarm clock is a good bit. It’s one of the last.

Eventually, Kate finds out about and confronts Carly, then cries on her shoulder, then gets drunk as Carly watches. Seems Kate has no one. All their friends are his friends, too. And she worries about being single again. The last time she was single, she says, she was 24, when you could date anybody. Now the possibilities have shrunk to “a shallow puddle of age-appropriate men.”

I liked that line. It was my first laugh-out loud line. It was one of the last.

The movie is about female friendship but I never bought any of it. There’s no chemistry between Diaz and Mann, and Kate is way too clingy and pathetic while Carly is way too icy and unencumbered. Yet the latter keeps coming to the aid of the former. Why? And when Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton turns up (in the Hamptons) as a ditzier, boobier, second mistress named Amber, and all three plot against Mark, well, I didn’t buy that, either. Upton is supposed to be the Dolly Parton character here, but Dolly had a spark. Upton tries, but there’s no there there. There’s only there there.

The revenge they want to serve is cold. Carly puts laxative in Mark’s scotch and he shits his pants at a high-end restaurant. Kate puts estrogen in his veggie shake and hair remover in his shampoo. Halfway through, his hair begins to fall out and he gets super-long, super-sensitive nipples. I assumed by the end he’d be bald and bloated. Nope. Neither. It’s all forgotten. Because? Who knows? Maybe because we needed another scene of Kate having second thoughts about breaking up with him.

Besides being a serial adulterer, Mark has a bit of Bernie Madoff in him. He takes money from investors and deposits it in the Bahamas in a dummy corporation under his wife’s name (so he’s not liable). But she finds out, and, with Carly’s help, and with Amber along for the bikini shots, she removes all the money and gives it back. Then the three gal pals confront Mark in a conference room at Carly’s high-rise law firm. When he discovers he’s broke, he turns furious in a way he never has in the movie. Then he does the following: 1) crashes into a glass wall, breaking his nose; 2) crashes through a glass wall, breaking who knows what; 3) watches his car getting towed; and finally, 4) he’s punched in the face by Carly’s dad (Don Johnson), who has a thing for younger women.

Revenge! Yay!

9 to 5 + 34 = ?
I actually wonder about Mark a little bit. At least, I wonder about him more than the movie does. Why, for example, did he stay with Kate all of those years? Was there something there he needed? Did he love her? Did he love something about her? Was it comfort or dummy corporations? But “The Other Woman,” written by Melissa Stack (her first), and directed by Nick Cassavetes (his unremarkable ninth), is only interested in Mark being awful, and getting his bloody comeuppance.

How odd, too, that Carly’s dad gets the final shot since he’s a womanizer himself. At least he dates women his daughter’s age. But that’s cool because it’s not cheating. He also frequents a “no hands” bar, where customers get backrubs from Asian beauties, and are fed their drinks, and, one assumes, their food, by same. One assumes a lot. But that’s cool cuz not cheating.

Sigh.

Nearly 34 years have passed since “9 to 5” debuted, and, for all its faults, at least it was about something: sisters doing it for themselves, etc.

Here? What’s the point? That this one man is awful? That people like to sleep around and handsome people are better at it? Or is it just about personality? Kate has to stand up for herself more and Carly has to open herself up more, so that happens. In a quick afterword, we’re told that Kate starts her own multimillion-dollar business as an idea-person for start-ups. Because she had that one. Meanwhile, Carly winds up married to and pregnant by Phil.

And Amber? Who may or may not have ever had a job? She winds up on a beautiful, deserted beach with, of course, Carly’s dad, Don Johnson. He’s 64 and she’s 22. But that cool cuz not cheating.

Sigh.

Come back to the 9 to 5, Dabney Coleman, Dabney Coleman. All is forgiven. 

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Posted at 07:43 AM on Apr 26, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Friday April 25, 2014

What Disney's 'Frozen' Has In Common with the Most Popular Movies of All Time

Frozen

Apparently everyone’s writing about why Disney’s “Frozen” is so popular: 19th all-time domestically in box office grosses ($399.96 million); sixth all-time worldwide ($1.129 billion).

Vox gives us three reasons: 1) Inflation (obvious, but not really an answer); 2) foreign earnings (ditto); and 3) “because people like it (duh)” (yes: duh).

Vulture gives us eight reasons, including: 1) It’s a throwback to classic Disney; 2) the wisecracking sidekick; 3) the songs; 4) girl power!; and 5) two Disney princesses (see: William Goldman).

Pop Matters? It’s just confused on the subject. It doesn’t get why “Frozen” is so popular. It doesn’t even like the movie.

Anyway, I can only read so many of these things because they so miss the point. If you’re doing a piece on the popularity of “Frozen,” surely you mention what the movie has in common with some of the most popular movies of all time. And that's this:

They're all about a woman choosing between two men against a backdrop of tragedy.

“Gone with the Wind,” the biggest all-time domestic hit (adjusted for inflation), is about Scarlett choosing between Rhett and Ashley against the backdrop of the U.S. Civil War.

“The Sound of Music,” the third-biggest all-time domestic hit (adjusted for inflation), is about Maria choosing between Capt. Von Trapp and God against the backdrop of Nazi invasion.

“Titanic,” the second-biggest all-time domestic and worldwide hit (unadjusted for inflation), is about Rose choosing between Jack and Cal as the Titanic sinks into the North Atlantic.

And now “Frozen.” Here, Anna has to choose between Kristoff and Hans against the backdrop of a perpetual winter.

To this formula you can add the “Twilight” series (Bella—Jacob and Edward—high school) and the “Hunger Games” series (Katniss—Gale and Peeta—dystopian inequality).

Yes, of course, other facets of these movies matter. “Let It Go” matters. Looking up to the beautiful, powerful older sister matters. Comedy relief matters. Quality matters. 

But if I were in Hollywood and wanted to make a lot of money? I would only try variations of this story. You do it right (“Frozen”) and you gross a billion dollars. You do it wrong (“Pearl Harbor”), and you only gross half a billion dollars.

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Posted at 06:51 AM on Apr 25, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Thursday April 24, 2014

Should Wayne LaPierre Clean Up After Mass Shootings? An Excerpt from Stephen King's 'Guns'

“One only wishes Wayne LaPierre and his NRA board of directors could be drafted to some of these scenes, where they would be required to put on booties and rubber gloves and help clean up the blood, the brains, and the chunks of intestine still containing the poor wads of half-digested food that were some innocent bystander’s last meal ...

”Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, carried a Glock 19 with a mag capacity of fifteen rounds. He had nineteen clips for it. In addition, he carried a Walther P22 with a ten-shot mag. In all, he was carrying four hundred rounds of ammo. He killed thirty-two students and wounded seventeen more before killing himself.

“Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, carried an Intratec DC9M machine-pistol, more commonly called a Tec-9. With an extended box-type magazine, the Tec-9 can fire up to fifty rounds without reloading. Harris and Klebold killed thirteen and wounded twenty-one.

”Like Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Loughner carried a Glock 19. He killed six, including a child of 9, and wounded fourteen. According to one witness to the event that seriously wounded Congressman Gabby Giffords, Loughner was able to fire so fast that the killing was over before many of the horrified onlookers realized what was happening and opened their mouths to scream.

“James Holmes, who killed twelve and wounded fifty-eight in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, was carrying an M-16 rifle (thirty-round capacity) and a .40 caliber Glock, with a clip that can hold up to seventeen rounds.

”In addition to the Glock 10 Adam Lanza used to kill himself, he carried a Bushmaster AR-15, a light, easily handled, pistol-gripped semiautomatic rifle that can fire thirty rounds in under a minute. In his war against the first grade, Lanza fired multiple thirty-round clips.

“As for the Glock: it was pried from his cold dead hands.”

-- from “Guns: A Kindle Single,” by Stephen King. It's a short read, and the first half is so-so (I don't buy his argument on how America doesn't have a violent culture), but the second half makes up for it. Plus it's only 99 cents anytime.

Guns, a Kindle Single, by Stephen King

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Posted at 02:50 PM on Apr 24, 2014 in category Books
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Wednesday April 23, 2014

Because Stone Cold Said So

“I don't give a shit if two guys, two gals, guy-gal, whatever it is, I believe that any human being in America, or any human being in the goddamn world, that wants to be married, and if it's same-sex, more power to 'em.

”What also chaps my ass, some of these churches, have the high horse that they get on and say 'we as a church do not believe in that.' Which one of these motherfuckers talked to God, and God said that same-sex marriage was a no-can-do?

“OK, so two cats can't get married if they want to get married, but then a guy can go murder 14 people, molest five kids, then go to fucking prison, and accept God and He's going to let him into heaven? After the fact that he did all that shit? See that's all horseshit to me, that don't jive with me.”

-- WWE wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin on his podcast a few months back.

Stone Cold Steve Austin on marriage equality, religion

And that's the bottom line ...

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Posted at 01:34 PM on Apr 23, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Tuesday April 22, 2014

Your Red Sox/Yankees Quote/Quiz of the Day

About which trade/signing was the following said by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner?

We understand that John Henry must be embarrassed, frustrated, and disappointed by his failure in this transaction. Unlike the Yankees, he chose not to go the extra distance for his fans in Boston.

Answer:

  • A) Roger Clemens
  • B) Johnny Damon
  • C) Jacoby Ellsbury
  • D) Alex Rodriguez

Answer in the Comments field.

Yankees vs. Red Sox

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Posted at 01:43 PM on Apr 22, 2014 in category Yankees Suck
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Movie Review: Under the Skin (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Walking to the Harvard Exit theater last Sunday my main thought was this: “Will ‘Under the Skin’ be my kind of arthouse film?” Based on the trailer I saw last month, I thought not. But I knew it would be a topic of conversation this spring. I knew it would turn up on top 10 lists at the end of the year. Critics would heap praise. And they have: 85% on Rotten Tomatoes.

What is my kind of arthouse film? Something with story. Something that’s not mostly mood or atmosphere. Something that resonates. In recent years, my kind of arthouse film includes “No,” “A Hijacking,” “Footnote,” and “Rust and Bone.” I go for “Drive,” not “Only God Forgives.” I loved “The Tree of Life” and was disappointed by “To the Wonder.”

“Under the Skin”? Not my kind of arthouse film.

It has moments of genuine human and extraterrestrial horror but it’s mostly mood and discordant soundtrack music and different shades of incomprehensibility.

The white dot
For a brief period in college, or maybe after college, I often saw human beings as if through alien eyes. What odd creatures, I’d think. These sticks to walk on, these sticks to grab with, that circular protuberance on top. It lasted, off and on, a few years. Under the SkinI think I thought I was being profound.

That’s the feeling throughout most of “Under the Skin”—viewing human beings through alien eyes—for the simple reason that we are viewing the world through alien eyes. Also because we’re in Scotland.

The movie begins in darkness. We get a few credits, then director Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”) lets the screen go dark. He holds it, and holds it, and holds it. Gradually we hear noise—traffic? static?—before we get a white dot in the center of the screen. The Earth? The sun? The iris of an eye? A 1960s-era TV turned off? All of the above? Then we get the title.

There’s a man on a motorcycle. He picks up the body of a woman in a ravine and deposits her in a white van. Then we’re in an all-white, bright room, like in a 1970s sci-fi movie, and one woman, naked, is removing the clothes of the woman from the ravine. Then she puts her clothes on. The first naked woman is Scarlett Johansson, the woman from the ravine is ... a dead prostitute? The previous alien on earth? I assumed the latter since I knew ScarJo was an alien in this thing. But I could be wrong. Or right. Or who knows.

In the novel by Michael Faber on which the movie is based, the alien woman is named Isserley but Glazer doesn’t bother to name her. So what should we call her? ScarJo? Alien? Species? Because that’s what this is: an arthouse version of “Species” (from what I understand of “Species”): a hot alien lures men to their doom. In the novel, it’s for their meat. They’re a delicacy. Here? Who knows?

It’s a fantastic scene, though. She takes them to a home on the outskirts of town, and then they’re in an all-black room, as opposed to the earlier all-white rom, and she’s walking ahead, slowly removing her clothes. They follow, doing the same. Then they begin to sink in the water. Are they at a lake? No. And there’s something wrong with the water: it’s viscous. And she’s not sinking. The first man we see—a man without family, a man who won’t be missed: that’s ScarJo’s m.o.—simply disappears beneath the smooth black surface and we don’t know what happens to him. We stay with the second man, and watch as he watches ScarJo walk back above him while he remains underwater. Is it underwater? Is it water? He looks around. He’s not panicking. Not yet. It’s like in a dream that hasn’t become a nightmare. Yet. He sees another man, the first man, naked but bloated, and slowly, with the painful, takes-forever-to-get-there movements of a dream, reaches out to the bloated man, even as the bloated man seems to pull back. Is he pulling back? His skin ripples. Then it’s like a popped balloon. There’s a fury of movement, and when it stops he’s just skin floating in the ether.

It’s a great, creepy scene, and it’s followed, from what I remember, by blood being channeled somewhere? Harvested? Sluiced? Like in a slaughterhouse? But we don’t know where or what it means.

There’s another great scene of genuine horror, but oddly it’s disconnected from ScarJo, or connected only in her imperviousness to its horror.

She’s walking along the beach, the cold, rocky coastline of Scotland, where a young man in a wetsuit emerges from the water. She talks to him, flirts with him in that dazed, extraterrestrial way she has. Nearby a couple with an infant is having a ... picnic? Their dog is in the water. Then panic, crisis. Now the woman is in the water—trying to rescue the dog?—and her husband follows her in, and the man in the wetsuit follows him to drag him out. To save him. Except he goes back, while the heroics have exhausted the man in the wetsuit. He lays prone on the beach. So ScarJo walked up to him, looks around, grabs a heavy rock, and bashes his head. Then she drags him away. Later she returns to retrieve a piece of clothing. By this time it’s evening, it’s growing cold and dark, and the infant, 18 months old, is alone and crying, even as high tide approaches. As the baby keeps crying, ScarJo walks up, picks up the clothing, and walks away. The baby remains. Soon it will be dead. It’s the helpless, abandoned.

Do these cries eventually get to ScarJo? Is it that, slowly, ScarJo is beginning to see human beings, her prey, as more than just meat? She encounters all kinds: the self-sacrificing swimmer; a pack of hooligans who threaten her in her van. There’s men who help, men who hurt. And men who are hurt.

The last man we see her pick up is disfigured. The actor who plays him, Adam Pearson, suffers from neurofibromatosis, which causes non-cancerous tumors to grow on the body. His tumors grow on his face, and his character is on his way to the grocery store—a lonely, disconnected man—when she pulls up beside him and talks to him. You can see, in his reaction, a disbelief. He’s waiting for the moment she’ll be horrified by his appearance but she never is. She probably can’t tell the difference. It’s probably all the same to her. So we get the scene again: in the house, disrobing, leading him on, as he sinks beneath the surface. Then she puts her clothes back on and gets ready to leave the house. Then he’s there again. And they both leave the house.

Did the system reject him for his disfigurement? Did she let him go? Because she’s beginning to feel for these creature? Us creatures? We watch as he’s being pursued by the man on the motorcycle, whom as I think of as the alien version of The Wolf, Harvey Keitel’s character in “Pulp Fiction.” He’s the cleanup crew. And he stuns the disfigured man, deposits him in a car trunk, drives off. Then he goes looking for ScarJo.

What is she doing? She’s trying a piece of cake. She looks at it, cuts off a piece of it with her fork, lifts the piece to her mouth and deposits it in there. Then she gags it out.

For most of the movie we know what she’s doing; for the rest, we don’t. She’s lost, I suppose. Like E.T. Has she failed in her mission? Has she gone over to the other side? Our side? She started out predator and now she’s prey. Maybe that’s all there is. She’s walking in the cold drizzle without a coat and a man urges her over to his bus stop. He takes her home. To take advantage? No, he makes her tea. Later, he attempts sex. Later still, she’s in the woods being pursued by a logger who wants to rape her. But in tearing her clothes, he tears her skin and sees what she is. So do we. She’s all shiny black beneath the ScarJo outfit. Then the logger returns, pours gasoline on her, and lights the match. She runs out of the woods on fire and falls to her knees. We watch the smoke rise. We watch the snow fall. We watch the credits roll.

Incomplete communication
Norman Mailer once said that art depends upon incomplete communication so the audience can respond “with their own creative act of the imagination, that small leap of the faculties which leaves one an increment more exceptional than when one began.” But there’s incomplete and there’s incomplete, and I suppose my incomplete isn’t necessarily yours. Some may have thought “The Tree of Life” incomplete. They might have wondered why go from Texas in the 1950s to the birth of time and the creation of life on earth and then the extinction of the dinosaurs, but that made sense to me. The main characters in the movie are questioning why God lets horrible things happen—this boy burned, this son killed—so writer-director Terrence Malick gives perspective. God let entire species go extinct and you’re asking Him about a fire? There was enough there for me to complete the communication.

Here, there’s not. “Under the Skin” is a moody piece about an alien cultivating humans in a borough of Scotland (for some purpose), who stops doing that (for some reason), and whose story plays out in this inconsequential way.

Other perpsectives are welcome.

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Posted at 07:18 AM on Apr 22, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Monday April 21, 2014

'Yankees Suck': A Message from Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man

With “Amazing Spider-Man 2” on the way, is it time to ask the question that the first “Spider-Man 2” suggests? Namely: Do the Yankees suck?

Here’s the guy who finds Spidey’s outfit in a garbage can and brings it to J.  Jonah Jameson. He winds up selling it for a measly $100:

Yankees fan who finds Spidey's outfit in garbage

And here’s the guy on the elevated train who helps carry Spidey back, in pieta fashion, after his epic battle with Doc Ock. He’s also the one who says, “He’s ... just a kid. No older than my son.”

Mets fan in Spider-Man 2

He’s also the last one to let go of Spidey when Doc Ock returns to finish him off.

Mets fan in Spider-Man 2

So is it better to be a Mets fan than a Yankees fan in the Spider-Man universe? Do the Yankees suck according to Spider-Man? In the series, Yankee fans can always point to this in their favor. But Peter Parker did grow up in Queens, which is where Shea Stadium was and Citi Field is. And he is an underdog. 

One wonders how the rest of the Spider-Man universe divides itself up. Norman Osborne probably had a suite at Yankee Stadium. He probably gladhanded with George Steinbrenner. Kingpin? Yankees, totally. Flash Thompson? Yankees again. J.J.J. should be rooting for the Mets (Daily Bugle/Daily News) but the Yankees sell newspapers, so he's probably going there. Robbie's probably a Mets fan, though, if not an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Maybe he's still loyal to the Dodgers. Quietly, though, the way he's loyal to Spider-Man. 

We'll see how the baseball caps line up, if they line up, in “Amazing Spider-Man 2” in a few weeks. 

UPDATE FROM A COMICS FAN: “Spidey is canonically a Mets fan in the comics. Glad to see that the movie got that right!”

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Posted at 06:52 AM on Apr 21, 2014 in category Superheroes
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Sunday April 20, 2014

Weekend Box Office: 'Captain America' Threepeats; Christian Movies Play Smallball

Last year, the first movie to reign atop the box office charts for three weekends in a row was “Gravity,” released in October.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” has just won its third weekend, and, though it’s only mid-April, it’s the third movie this year to threepeat—following “Ride Along” (Jan. 17-Feb. 2) and “The LEGO Movie” (Feb. 7-Feb. 23). Not sure what that means.

Well, it means this anyway: Not many people were interested in Johnny Depp’s “Transcendence,” which got weak reviews and finished a weaker fourth place with $11.1 million. Why weak reviews would matter in a world in which “Transformers” dominates I have no idea. Maybe it’s the type of weak review? Critics called “Transformers” loud and stupid and teenage boys went “Alright!” (Shots of Megan Fox bending over a car’s engine didn’t hurt, either—at least not that way.) Critics call “Transcendence” a “snooze-fest” and teenage boys went, “Yeah ... no. And it stars the Pirate of the Caribbean guy? What is he—like 60?”

“Heaven is for Real” is for real, though. So, apparently, are small-ball Christian movies. I.e., Don’t go for the big bucks of “Passion” or the big production values of “Noah”; just make something small and awful and very, very Christian, and gross in the $40-$60 million range.

So far this year, that’s been done with “Son of God,” patched together from a European TV movie with a superhot Portugese actor (Diogo Mrogado) in the role of Christ ($59.4 million); “God’s Not Dead,” in which an annoying and bland college freshman proves the title thesis to his atheistic and Mephistopholean philosophy professor ($48.3); and now “Heaven,” about a young boy who dies for a moment and then comes back with a certain knowledge of the after-life. It grossed $21 million this weekend for a five-day total of $28 million.

These three films, on Box Office Mojo’s Christian movies chart (1980-present), already rank fifth, sixth and tenth. Caveat: a movie like “Noah” isn’t considered a Christian movie. Because it mentions the Creator but not God? Because it’s Old Testament? Because it isn’t vengeful enough? Who knows?

The Breitbart site, no doubt, will trumpet all of this even though, in box office predictions, it overplayed its hand:

Deadline reports that this Easter weekend at the box office we have two openly Christian films perched in the top ten. Meanwhile, Darren Aronofsky's anti-God “Noah” sailed over a cliff, failing to even rank.

Yes and no. Both “Heaven” (No. 3) and “God’s Not Dead” (No. 10) made the top 10. But so did “Noah,” which shed 745 theaters but still grossed $5 million for ninth place.

So far, “Noah” has grossed $93 million domestic and $290 worldwide. Breitbart dismisses this against its production budget ($125 million according to B.O. Mojo), and calls the film “anti-God"; but imagine if they’d just embraced the movie rather than throwing it to the culture-war wolves. Then they could claim three Christian movies in the top 10. But to do that would require ... what’s the word again? ... charity.

Breitbart site: Christ, America Dominate Box Office

A Breitbart site screenshot this weekend. 

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Posted at 09:22 AM on Apr 20, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday April 19, 2014

The Only Goldman Sachs Employee Arrested by the FBI in the Aftermath of the Global Financial Meltdown

Most of Michael Lewis' book, “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt,” focuses on Brad Katsuyama, his team, and the revelation of how the game is rigged, the high-frequency trading game, and what Brad and his team try to do to fix it. But there's a chapter in the middle of the book about Sergey Aleynikov, a Russian programmer for Goldman Sachs, that may be even more depressing.

Initially I thought Serge would wind up on Brad's team. That's how Lewis handles most of these chapters. He'll introduce someone, give us their background—talents, smarts, disillusionments—and wind the story around to where they hook up with Brad.

Serge's story is different. He's a sought-after programmer that winds up at Goldman Sachs in the mid-2000s.

What does his story reveal? The kind of awful person who thrives in our society:

The programmer types were different from the trader types. The trader types were far more alive to the bigger picture, to their context. They knew their worth in the marketplace down to the last penny. They understood the connection between what they did and how much money was made, and they were good at exaggerating the importance of the link. Serge wasn’t like that. He was a little-picture person, a narrow problem solver. “I think he didn’t know his own value,” says the recruiter.

What else? How little companies and corporations look to the long-term; how all the goals are this year, this quarter, this month, this week, today:

After a few months working on the forty-second floor at One New York Plaza, Serge came to the conclusion that the best thing they could do with Goldman’s high-frequency trading platform was to scrap it and build a new one from scratch. His bosses weren’t interested. “The business model of Goldman Sachs was, if there is an opportunity to make money right away, let’s do that,” he says. “But if there was something long-term, they weren’t that interested.“

A few weeks ago at a nonprofit fundraiser, I heard a speech from a grassroots organizer in which he encouraged everyone in the audience to not think of the world as a zero-sum game. You don't have to fall if I rise; we can both rise. I nodded. Then I thought, ”Except there are people out there who will think of it as a zero-sum game. And you can't change them. And they will always have the advantage because of it."

Here's an example from Lewis' book. Open source coding is a great, utopian concept. You take, you improve, you return. We all rise. But some people just take:

For their patching material he and the other Goldman programmers resorted, every day, to open source software—software developed by collectives of programmers and made freely available on the Internet. The tools and components they used were not specifically designed for financial markets, but they could be adapted to repair Goldman’s plumbing. He discovered, to his surprise, that Goldman had a one-way relationship with open source. They took huge amounts of free software off the Web, but they did not return it after he had modified it, even when his modifications were very slight and of general, rather than financial, use. “Once I took some open source components, repackaged them to come up with a component that was not even used at Goldman Sachs,” he says. “It was basically a way to make two computers look like one, so if one went down the other could jump in and perform the task.” He’d created a neat way for one computer to behave as the stand-in for another. He described the pleasure of his innovation this way: “It created something out of chaos. When you create something out of chaos, essentially, you reduce the entropy in the world.” He went to his boss, a fellow named Adam Schlesinger, and asked if he could release it back into open source, as was his inclination. “He said it was now Goldman’s property,” recalls Serge. “He was quite tense.”

There's horror in this chapter. Serge gets tired of working at Goldman Sachs, of repairing old code rather than starting from scratch; so when he has the chance to start with another compamy, building their code from scratch, he takes it. The pay is less but he still takes it. He also emails himself some of the open source coding he improved upon at Goldman Sachs. This code would be useless in his new job, which was using a completely different programming language, but he wanted it anyway. Just in case.

You see what's coming, don't you? Just before he leaves he's arrested by the FBI for stealing Goldman Sachs' proprietary information. He's charged and put on trial. And convicted. And sentenced to eight years in federal prison.

All of this is bad enough. But Lewis saves the coup de grace, the final outrage, for near the end of the chapter:

Thus the only Goldman Sachs employee arrested by the FBI in the aftermath of a financial crisis Goldman had done so much to fuel was the employee Goldman asked the FBI to arrest. 

At least there's an appeals process, and, a year later, on the day his lawyer argues before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Serge is released. Only to be—believe it or not—re-arrested for the same crime. Just different code. So no double jeopardy.

I don't know if this story can take more irony but here it is. By the end of the book? As Brad and his team work to create a more equitable Wall Street? Goldman Sachs is one of the good guys. 

Wall Street bull

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Posted at 11:12 AM on Apr 19, 2014 in category Books
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Friday April 18, 2014

Quote of the Day

“Ranching is hard work. Drought and market swings make it a tough go in many years. That’s all the more reason to praise the 18,000 or so ranchers who pay their grazing fees on time and don’t go whining to Fox or summoning a herd of armed thugs when they renege on their contract. You can understand why the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association wants no part of Bundy.

”These kinds of showdowns are rare because most ranchers play by the rules, and quietly go about their business. They are heroes, in one sense, preserving a way of life that has an honorable place in American history. The good ones would never wave a gun in the face of a public servant, and likely never draw a camera from Fox.“

-- Timothy Egan, ”Deadbeat on the Range," The New York Times, April 18, 2014, about the recent Bundy ranch confrontation that has brought out the worst in the reactionary right.

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Posted at 10:04 AM on Apr 18, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Thursday April 17, 2014

God's Not Dead? Goody

The shot below is one of the IMDb.com pics of one of the stars of the godawful film “God's Not Dead”:

God's Not Dead? Goody

Apparently I wasn't the only one to have problems with the movie. The message boards at IMDb.com are full of complaints from Christians. “It's bad and I'm sorry,” reads one. Yet the Breitbarts of the world still push the film for political reasons. Shame. $42.8 million and counting. Although “Heaven Is For Real,” which opened yesterday, and also looks godawful, will probably cut into that. Well, you cannot serve both God and money. Someone said that once.

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Posted at 03:04 PM on Apr 17, 2014 in category Movies
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Movie Review: Finding Vivian Maier (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Finding Vivian Maier” is the “Searching for Sugar Man” of photography. It’s about the artist who is discovered after the career or the life. It’s about resurrection and redemption: finally coming into the light after years in the neglected dark.

Both movies are also mysteries.

The mystery of “Sugarman” is this: How did the singer/songwriter Rodriguez die in the early 1970s and why was he huge in South Africa and unknown in his native U.S.? The answers to these questions are intriguing. The mystery of “Vivian Maier” is this: Who was Vivian Maier, and why was she content to take tens of thousands of beautiful photographs and never show them to anyone?

The answers to these questions are less than satisfying.

Not a nice person
You know whose name I was surprised I didn’t hear during “Finding Vivian Maier”? Franz Kafka’s.

Kafka, private and reclusive, published only a few things in his lifetime but had written much, much more. On his deathbed, he instructed his friend Max Brod to burn the rest. Brod didn’t. Finding Vivian MaierHe published. The rest is literary history.

Vivian Maier, private and reclusive, was born in 1926 and began work as a nanny in the 1950s because it allowed her the freedom to pursue her art: photography. She took pictures all the time but showed them to no one. Sometimes she didn’t even bother to get the film developed. After she died in poverty in 2009, some of her things were bought at an auction by real estate agent John Maloof, who saw value in it. He developed some of her photos and posted them to flickr. They took off. The rest is photography history.

Here’s another connection: Kafka once wrote, “A writer is not a nice person.”

That was one of the questions we batted about after the movie: Can you be a nice person and a great artist? Or even a crappy artist? Doesn’t art demand both empathy (to understand someone else’s life) and its lack (to use it for your art)? For the street photographer, how close to these strangers can I get? How much of them can I steal without their knowledge or permission? There’s a scene in the early 1960s in Highland Park, Ill., where one of the neighborhood kids is hit by a car. Everyone rushes around trying to help. Vivian? She’s taking pictures with her Rolleiflex.

The Rolleiflex helps in this regard. She can set the shot and take the picture without appearing to take the picture. She can look people in the eye as she steals from them.

For what it’s worth, I love her work. I love black-and-white street photography from bygone eras anyway and hers seems of a high standard. She’s got a good eye and a quick finger. She captures moments and lives. We see a lot of the photographs. But the doc, directed by both Maloof and Charlie Siskel (“Tosh.0,” producer on “Bowling for Columbine”), is mostly about Maloof’s search for her.

Initially, he knows nothing. He just has trunks of negatives and prints and undeveloped film and 16mm movies. He buys more of her things and lays them out before the camera like in a Wes Anderson movie: campaign buttons, for example. She was a pack rat. Later we learn she was a hoarder. And worse.

He discovers she was a nanny and find her former charges, and their friends, and the parents of their friends, who may have been her friend.

They describe her similarly: tall, domineering, to-the-point, political. She wore odd, heavy clothes and hats—like she was living in the 1920s rather than the 1960s—and walked with long strides and stiff arms. She had an odd French accent. There’s some debate about whether it was real or not. One man says yes; a linguist says no. Even we debated it afterwards. I assumed it was fake since she was born in New York, but my friends said no, it was real, since she lived half of her childhood in France with her French mother. We visit France, her mother’s village, Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur in the French Alps, and meet people there, and some part of the mystery is solved. A letter she wrote to a French developer about how she wanted him to print her work. She had high standards and wanted those standards met. This is a great, necessary revelation for Maloof, since he’s a nice person and is plagued by the doubt that Vivian wouldn’t have wanted her work exhibited the way he was doing. But here was proof. He could continue.

That’s hardly a revelation for us, though. We’re watching the doc, so we know Maloof continued with it, so getting a kind of posthumous permission isn’t news. Besides: permission? Did Vivian get the permission to take half the photos she took?

No, greater revelations comes in the final third, while interviewing her charges from 1968 to 1974. Apparently she became worse, and cruel. She force-fed one girl and hit her. She swung her around, then let her go. She brought her to the stockyards to watch animals being slaughtered. Somehow she kept her job for six years.

We lose the thread of her story in the ’70s and don’t pick it up again until the late ’90s. By then she’s homeless, and alone, and lonely. Some former charges—whom she didn’t abuse, apparently—pony up for a small apartment, where she lives until she dies in 2009. A few years later she’s an internationally acclaimed street photographer with exhibitions all over the world. Luck? Happenstance? Was she the one preventing her own success? Once she was out of the way, it came rather quickly.

Some day my Maloof will come
Question: do we get the wrong gerund in the title? Given the power, I would switch it with “Sugar Man”’s, since they actually find him. They interview him. We get a sense of who he is and who he was and why he did what he did. But Vivian? Do we find her? Not really. Too much of her remains unknown and unknowable. We’re left with questions. Why would she print nothing? Why would she show no one? Buddy Glass has a line in “Seymour: An Introduction,” “I always want to publish,” and that’s me, so I don’t get the opposite urge. But I admire it. Sort of.

I admire it for this reason. Besides being redemption songs, “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Finding Vivian Maier” are both wish-fulfillment fantasies for every would-be artist out there toiling in obscurity. It’s the “some day” wish. Some day they’ll know. Some day they’ll see. Some day my Maloof will come and the world will open its arms wide and take me in. And it’s an awful, awful wish. 

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Posted at 06:12 AM on Apr 17, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Wednesday April 16, 2014

Quote of the Day

“'Liquidity' was one of those words Wall Street people threw around when they wanted the conversation to end, and for brains to go dead, and for all questioning to cease.”

-- Michael Lewis in “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt.” I immediately flashed to an interview I did with the king of Mergers & Acquistion law, Joseph Flom, before he died. I don't think Flom wanted my brain to go dead; it just did.

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Posted at 08:46 AM on Apr 16, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Tuesday April 15, 2014

Movie Review: The Unknown Known (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

One of the first things we hear him say in the doc is a riff on one of his more famous (or infamous) press conferences:

There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

What did former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld think he knew but did not? WMD come to mind. Al Qaeda. Tora Bora. Quagmires. Henny Penny. He thought he knew the sky wasn’t falling in postwar Iraq when that’s exactly what it was doing.

But the ultimate unknown known of the doc is Rumsfeld himself, who talks and talks about the thousands of memos he wrote during his public career but gets us nowhere. The Unknown KnownIn the title alone, one senses the frustration of filmmaker Errol Morris, who, in his Academy Award-winning documentary “The Fog of War,” had a more open subject, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the chief architects of our disastrous war in Vietnam. Indeed, Rumsfeld, with his nitpicky, overly semantic arguments and pleased-with-himself “aren’t I clever?” grins, makes McNamara, the numbers cruncher and company man, seem like the most soulful person who ever lived.

We and they
I’ve spent most of the 21st century despising Donald Rumsfeld and his policies so I didn’t even consider this question before I began watching; but I consider it now: Do I like Donald Rumsfeld by the end of the doc?

I’m frustrated with him, certainly. I get tired of the petty deflections and semantic arguments. We’re there to learn something and Rumsfeld seems forever blocking our attempt to learn something. In a way, Rumsfeld is to Morris as Osama bin Laden was to Rumsfeld and the Bush administration: forever escaping.

There’s this exchange, for example:

Morris: If the purpose of the war was to get rid of Saddam Hussein, why can’t we just assassinate him? Why do you have to invade his country?
Rumsfeld: Who’s ‘they’?
Morris: Us.
Rumsfeld: You said ‘they,’ you didn’t say ‘we.’

Well, he actually said “you.” But onward.

Morris: I’ll rephrase it. Why do we have to do that?
Rumsfeld: We don’t assassinate leaders of other countries.

At this point, I expected Morris to bring up, oh, I don’t know, the coups that the CIA, or “we,” have backed: Iran in ’53, Vietnam in ’63, Chile in ’73. But he doesn’t. He brings up Dora Farms.

Morris: Well, at Dora Farms we’re doing our best.
Rumsfeld: That was an act of war.

In case you’re unfamiliar (as I was), Dora Farms was where the U.S., on March 19, 2003, at the very beginning of the Iraq war, attempted to kill Saddam Hussein with a missile strike. It didn’t work. It might have been faulty intelligence. He might not have been there in the first place.

But it takes a second for the circular logic to filter down.

Wait: So Rumsfeld is arguing we had to go to war because we don’t assassinate foreign leaders—even though we do, or have. But once we’re in that war, all bets are off. Then we can assassinate him.  

No wonder he’s big on semantics.

In and out
We still learn things. He didn’t get along with George H.W. Bush and less with Condoleezza Rice. Morris details much of Rumsfeld’s early career: running for Congress in ’62, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity for Nixon, director of the Cost-of-Living Council for Nixon. Then run-ins with H.R. Haldeman that led to being banished to Brussels. This probably saved him, since, when Watergate blew up, he wasn’t near the explosion. He was one of the last Republicans standing. He became Pres. Ford’s Chief of Staff, then his Defense Secretary, where he argued against détente and for a stronger military. In 1980, probably because of this stance, he was among the top potential picks for Reagan’s vice president. “If that [VP] decision had gone another way, you could’ve been the vice president and future president of the United States,” Morris tells him. There’s a long pause. It’s not a thoughtful pause. It just leads to this: “That’s possible.”

Oh, Don.

In the 1980s, Rumsfeld became the CEO of a Midwest pharmaceutical company but was called back into public service after the bombing of the U.S. barracks in Beirut. Reagan sent him to the Mid-East as his special envoy, which led to the famous (or infamous) footage of Rumsfeld meeting and shaking hands with Saddam Hussein—an image the left made much of during the Iraq War. Not me. You need to meet the world to understand the world. And Rumsfeld did. He said this about the megalomania of dictators in general and Saddam specifically:

You know, if you see your picture everywhere, and you see enough statues, pretty soon you might even begin to believe that [you’re a great leader].

In November 1983, he also dictated this memo to himself. You wonder how the man who said it could have done what he (or we) did 20 years later:

I expect we ought to lighten our hand in the Middle East. We should move the framework away from the current situation, where everyone is telling us everything is our fault and angry with us, to a basis where they are seeking our help. In the future, we should never use U.S. troops as a peacekeeping force. We’re too big a target. Let the Fijians or New Zealanders do that. And keep reminding ourselves that it is easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.

He almost sounds like Pres. Obama here. Cue Danny Elfman’s ghostly (and obtrusive) soundtrack music.

Don and me
That’s part of what’s so frustrating with Rumsfeld. How can someone so serious and studious, who’s a student of history, who dictated thousands of memos to himself and others to clarify his worldview, who was in Congress when the Vietnam War began and in the White House when it ended so badly, who foresaw in the 1980s that it’s easier to get into the Middle East than it is to get out of it, how can such a person preside over our disastrous war in Iraq? And not even see it as a disaster?

Rumsfeld is a tragic figure who doesn’t realize he’s a tragic figure. That’s his tragedy. He’s too busy playing small ball with semantics to see the larger picture.

Maybe that’s why, surprisingly, shockingly, I wind up liking him a little bit by the end. I guess I feel sorry for him. I see his faults. Keeping Morris’ questions at bay doesn’t hide his nature but reveals it. He wins the arguments but loses the war. 

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Posted at 06:47 AM on Apr 15, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Monday April 14, 2014

Quote of the Day

“For the first time in six years, I have health insurance. As a response to Obama's election in '08, my coverage literally quadrupled. I made the wrenching decision to drop it because I simply couldn't afford it. That night, one of my right-wing friends very kindly included me in a forwarded email, purportedly a letter to the editor from an ER doctor, his face a rictus of anger, railing that all of the unwashed, sorry, shiftless, uninsured ”moochers“ and ”takers“ carried new iPhones and sported expensive tattoos and could easily afford insurance in the best country in the world if they would just prioritize their spending. Well, suck it, Mr. ER doctor — suck it long and hard. And thank you, Mr. President.”

-- Candice Dyer, Georgia freelance writer extraordinaire, in a Facebook post today.

The follow-up comments read like an ad ... or the bursting of a dam:

  • Up until Obamacare, I couldn't even get insurance. I had a very mild stroke at age 35. Nobody would even touch it.
  • I'm saving $175 a month ...
  • After being uninsured for over a year I signed up on ACA. And yeah... all the folks talking about moochers can kiss my ass. I've worked hard all my life and the Right wants us to die and be quiet.
  • The insurance we had went down 20%! Of course Blue Cross rewrote the policies but, even the co-pays went down! I love Obamacare, and I love my President.
  • Well, this post and the whole thread made my day.
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Posted at 02:28 PM on Apr 14, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Sunday April 13, 2014

Quote of the Day

“I expect we ought to lighten our hand in the Middle East. We should move the framework away from the current situation, where everyone is telling us everything is our fault and angry with us, to a basis where they are seeking our help. ... In the future, we should never use U.S. troops as a peacekeeping force. We are too big a target. Let the Fijiians or New Zealanders do that. And keep reminding ourselves that it is easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.”

-- then-U.S. Mid-East envoy Donald Rumsfeld in a November 1983 memo entitled “The Swamp,” as recounted in Errol Morris' much-recommended documentary, “The Unknown Known.”

Donald Rumsfeld, the Unknown Known

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Posted at 02:38 PM on Apr 13, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Box Office: Captain America's Legs are So-So, But He Still Wins Weekend

Captain America: elevator fight scene

Cap wins the fight, but not without effort.  

Captain America has a nice ass but how are his legs? Turns out ... so-so. So far.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” dropped 56.4% in its second weekend for a $41.3 million haul and first place. It held off new releases “Rio 2” ($39 million), Oculus ($12 million) and Kevin Costner’s “Draft Day” ($9.7 million), which finished second, third and way fourth, respectively.

What kind of drop is 56.4%? It’s not horrible, particularly for a much-anticipated movie that did well on its opening weekend, but it’s nothing to write home about, either, particularly for a criticially acclaimed movie that’s been getting great word-of-mouth. On Box Office Mojo’s chart of second-weekend drops for super-saturated movies (3,000+ theaters), Cap ranks 526th out of 701 listed. That’s closer to the bad end. But it’s still better than the second weekend drops of “Thor: The Dark World” (57.3%), “Captain America: The First Avenger” (60.7%), and “Man of Steel” (64.6%)—not to mention the mother of all second-weekend suphero drops, Ang Lee’s “Hulk” (69.7%).

“Divergent,” which will never be “Hunger Games,” shed 500 theaters and dropped 42% for $7.5 million and fifth place. “Noah,” which Christians are still railing against, shed nearly 300 theaters and dropped 56% for $7.4 million and sixth place. “God’s Not Dead,” which gained 100 theaters, dropped 42% for $4.4 million and seventh place.

(BTW: The headline on the Breitbart site for all this? BOX OFFICE: ANTI-GOD ‘NOAH’ DIVES, ‘GOD’S NOT DEAD’ SOARS. Astonishing.)

For the year, domestically, it goes “The LEGO Movie” ($251), “Captain America” ($159) and “Ride Along,” the Kevin Hart/Ice Cube comedy ($134). “Divergent” is fourth with $124.

Worldwide, it’s Cap ($476), “LEGO” ($411), “300: Rise of an Empire” ($325), then “Noah” ($246).

All-time worldwide, “Frozen” is now in eighth place ($1.11 billion), having surpassed “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Skyfall.” 

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Posted at 09:04 AM on Apr 13, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday April 12, 2014

Hank Aaron: Modern GOP = KKK

“A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There's not a whole lot that has changed.

”Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he's treated. We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts."

-- Henry Aaron, on the 40th anniversary of breaking Babe Ruth's homerun record, in USA Today.

Of course, the GOP yelped about this one. The usual stuff. But the basics are correct. The intransigence of the GOP during Obama's two terms in office, the way his moderate policies and moderate personality have been vilified during this time—a time, I should add, of national crisis brought on in part by GOP policies—is one of the great shames of the Grand Old Party.

Meanwhile, Joe Posnanski has a good post on why Henry Aaron isn't really the homerun king—that he's much more than that. Nate Silver over at 538.com takes Posnanski's thought and crunches the numbers: What if all of Hank Aaron's homeruns had been singles? Would he still be a Hall of Famer?

Hank Aaron homerun king baseball card

I owned this card when I was 11.

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Posted at 08:19 AM on Apr 12, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Trailer: Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

This is playing at the Seven Gables in Seattle. Might go see it this weekend if I get over to that side:

Hadn't even heard about it until this weekend. And you know me: I try to keep up.

No tagsPosted at 07:51 AM on Apr 12, 2014 in category Trailers
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Friday April 11, 2014

Why Breitbart’s Big Hollywood is Wrong About Almost Everything

Every other post on Breitbart’s “Big Hollywood” site is based upon the following assumptions:

  • Hollywood is full of liberals.
  • They try to inject their liberal ideals into movies.
  • These movies fail at the box office, because ...
  • ... you and I don’t like that shit.

Let’s look at these one by one.

  • Hollywood is full of liberals.

Sure, why not. Most cities are of the left, most artists are of the left, and Hollywood is a city full of artists. Plus businessmen. But we’ll let that go for now. Onward and downward.

  • They try to inject their liberal ideals into movies.

Sure, why not. Every once in a while anyway. I think of the framed portrait of Ronald Reagan that showed up whenever we dropped a defcon in 1983’s “War Games.”

But Breitbart’s second assumption comes dangerously close to the whole McCarthyite, HUAC-led and FBI-supported blacklist of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Back then, right-wing reactionaries searched for anything that might indicate leftist, un-American politics, and, in its fever dream, wound up condemning “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Among others.

This second assumption also ignores how conservative most Hollywood movies truly are. They are wish-fulfillment fantasies about men with guns who blow away objectively evil bad guys and save the day. They’re blueprints for any speech at any GOP or NRA convention.

We’ll take the last two assumptions together:

  • These movies fail at the box office, because ...
  • ... you and I don’t like that shit.

This is where Breitbart really performs a faceplant. I don’t even need a sentence to refute these two assumptions. I just need one word:

AVATAR

In the 21st century, there’s been no movie, particularly a big-budget movie, that contained more squishy leftist ideals (trees, etc.), and a greater attack on the right (war, etc.), than “Avatar.” It’s basically an attack on Bush, Cheney, the Iraq War, and the military industrial complex. As I stated in my review back in 2009:

Hell, it’s not even subversive. It states its apostasy out loud. “We will show the sky people they cannot take whatever they want!” Jake, the avatar, shouts before the final battle. “This is our land!”

Psst: We’re the sky people.

James Cameron’s “Avatar” is the classic Breitbart culprit: a Hollywood movie that sneaks its liberal, leftist agenda into a mainstream movie to poison us all.

And how did it do at the box office? You might have heard a little something-something about it. I think the first something was 2.7 and the second was billion. That’s what it grossed worldwide: $2.7 billion. No. 2 all-time also belongs to Cameron: “Titanic” at $2.1 billion. Third is “Marvel’s The Avengers” at $1.5 billion. Fourth, the last “Harry Potter,” is at $1.3 billion.

In other words, only two other movies are within half of what “Avatar,” with its awful, anti-GOP message, grossed.

I’m not saying “Avatar” did this well because it liked trees and disliked war, or because its heroic native peoples attacked a military-corporate complex hell-bent on exploiting natural resources for its own financial gain. I’m saying that whenever Breitbart’s Big Hollywood makes its four big assumptions at the top of this post, they need to solve a problem like “Avatar.” Or at least address it. And they never do. 

Avatar

Sooner or later, you always have to wake up.

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Posted at 06:17 AM on Apr 11, 2014 in category What Liberal Hollywood?
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Thursday April 10, 2014

What Would You Put on Captain America's To-Do List?

Here's a screenshot of the list of historical and cultural artifacts Captain America was going to check into after awakening from a 65-year deep freeze in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”:

Captain America's To-Do List

It gets a quick laugh, as it should. Sam Wilson, the man he kept lapping in D.C. Tidal Basin, and soon to be the Falcon, was the one recommending “Trouble Man” by Marvin Gaye. Can't imagine how Steve Rogers, whose head and heart are still in 1945, can wrap his mind around that. Let alone Nirvana.

Probably too much film in there, right? I like “Star Wars/Trek” but the “Rocky” reference is unncessary. I like the economical way they handle the Cold War, though, with the Berlin Wall reference (up/down). But my favorite is probably “Thai Food.”

Question: If you were on the filmmaking team, what would *you* have suggested? “9/11” would obviously ruin the moment. The Civil Rights Movement? Or too much of a reminder of our racist past, into which, remember, Steve Rogers was born. Women's lib? Iffy terrority for the same reason. How about the A bomb, the H bomb, the Neutron bomb? Which Presidents? Which assassinations? Nah. Too close to the plot, such as it was, of that crappy 1990 “Captain America” movie.

What was the biggest thing to happen to the world since 1945? And what little pop cultural artifact might get a laugh?

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Posted at 05:33 AM on Apr 10, 2014 in category Movies
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Wednesday April 09, 2014

Movie Review: God's Not Dead (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I don’t know about God but godawful is very much alive.

Haven’t heard of this movie? It’s already grossed $33 million against a budget of $2 million. Conservative Christians are out in force. Too bad. There are better movies for them to see. Pretty much anything, to be honest, but if they’re looking for something Christian-y, then “Noah” isn’t bad. If they want to be stunned by spirituality and artistry and beauty, then, you know, the usual recent suspects: “The Tree of Life,” “Rust and Bone,” “L’heure d’été.” But these are movies that raise questions rather than give self-satisfied answers. They embrace the mystery rather than have a college freshman solve the origins of the universe.

Philosophy 101
God's Not DeadOn the first day of college, freshman Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a tall, bland, nothing of a kid, greets his hot blonde Christian girlfriend as asexually as possible, then heads to Philosophy 101, where Prof. Radisson (conservative Christian, and former Hercules, Kevin Sorbo), he of the Mephistophelean goatee, shows the kids a list of famous philosophers, including Bertrand Russell and John Stuart Mill, and asks what they all have in common. Answer? They’re all atheists! So is Radisson! He’s such an atheist he demands that each student write on a piece of paper “God is dead,” and sign it, or they’ll get a failing grade. After some vague screwing up of his face, Josh politely refuses. He feels like it’s wrong. So he strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles. If he can convince a majority of the class, in three presentations over the next three weeks, that God is not dead, he’ll be allowed to continue the class. If he doesn’t, he’ll fail, and his dream of law school will go up in fire and brimstone.

This is the main, awful plot of “God’s Not Dead.” But don’t worry: there are other, awful subplots, too.

For example: A conservative Muslim father makes his super-pretty daughter, Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu), wear a hijab to school, which, when he’s out of view, she takes off and exhales like she’s just been given a new life. Which she has. A year ago, she accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. She lays in bed and listens to Corinthians on her smartphone. How to tell this to Dad? She doesn’t. Kid brother blabs. At which point, amid great histrionics and crying jags, Dad physically beats his daughter and throws her out of the house. Because you know Arabs. I mean the Muslim ones. Not the super-pretty ones who have already accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savoir.

There’s also a nerdy Chinese guy named Martin (Paul Kwo). He’s in the same class as Josh, or “Mr. Josh,” as he charmingly calls him in the manner of the backward Oriental. He, too, likes Jesus, despite, you know, growing up in communist China—represented here by his businessman father riding in the back of a limo. But eventually Martin tells his father about Jesus. He does so in Cantonese even though his father speaks Mandarin. I guess the Lord speaks in many tongues.

Let’s get the rest of this out of the way quickly, shall we? So Prof. Radisson’s put-upon girlfriend, Mina (Cory Oliver), his former student no less, is Christian, too, but her Mom’s in a home with dementia and her older brother, Mark (Christian conservative, and former Superman, Dean Cain), is too busy being an asshole of a lawyer to care. Plus he’s dating this ... entertainment blogger? I was never sure. Her name is Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache), and she’s, you know, rude and late in the manner of non-believers, and has bumper stickers on her car reading things like “Meat is Murder” and “American Humanist.” (Right? Because I see that “American Humanist” bumpersticker everywhere.) Plus she engages in ambush journalism like Bill O’Reilly but from the left. She tries it, for example, on Willie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame, who is just trying to worship at the local mall Worship Center. But Willie’s cool with her rudeness. He can take it. He’s also cool with Jesus Christ, the Lord, which she totally doesn’t get. Until, that is, she’s diagnosed with inoperable cancer. At which point her asshole boyfriend dumps her, she can’t write for crying, and, when she tries ambush journalism on the Christian rock group Newsboys, they pray for her and convert her backstage. Then they put on a show before Mina, Ayisha, Josh and Martin, and dedicate their song, “God’s Not Dead,” to Josh, “the defender of God,” while they encourage everyone to text “God’s not dead” to all of their friends, even as, across town, Prof. Radisson lays dying in the street after being hit by a car.

Hallelujah.

Josh vs. Aristotle, Darwin, Hawking
So ... a philosophy professor who makes his students write and sign “God is dead” pledges? Is this based on anything anywhere? Wikipedia calls it a popular urban legend, but I might dispute both “popular” and “urban.” To me, it feels like projection. Philosophy is generally about the search for truth, not shutting down that search. The shutdown comes from absolutists.

The final credits suggest the movie is based upon many legal cases supported by Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly: Alliance Defense Fund), most of which, apparently, it lost.

Josh, of course, doesn’t lose. He defeats his Mephistophelean professor. How? By taking on Aristotle, Darwin and Stephen Hawking single-handedly—like Daniel in the lion’s den. By offering the students, as God offered humanity, free will.

He also uses science to his advantage. Josh says the Big Bang is like “Let there be light” more than scientists will admit, while the creation of life on Earth is more like Genesis 1:21 than Darwin’s evolutionary theories. After that, it’s mostly gotcha moments. Sure, Hawking said what he said about religion, but he also said, “Philosophy is dead,” which totally burns the philosophy professor. The biggest gotcha, though, is personal. Why does Prof. Radisson feel how he feels about God? Because when he was 12, his mom, a believer, died of cancer, so he cursed God, and has kept on cursing God, and wants the world to curse God. Josh, in fact, gets his professor to admit, in front of everyone, that he hates God. Which leads to Josh’s final trump card:

How can you hate someone ... if they don’t exist?

That’s the final straw for the straw man. He folds. And that’s when the class, in a “Spartacus” moment, all stand and say the film’s triumphant title: “God’s not dead.” Then they all go to the Newsboys’ concert and party while, nearby, Prof. Radisson dies after being hit by a car. No, it’s not vindictive. At the last moment, Radisson is converted by Rev. Dave (Christian movie staple, and bad hair-dye model, David A.R. White). Radisson accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Because there may be atheists in college classrooms, but there are none on deathbeds.

Nice and comfy
What a sad thing this is. I’m agnostic but this will convert no one. It’s a tepid bath for true believers.

I did like one scene. Near the end, the asshole lawyer, Mark, finally visits his addled mother in the old folk’s home, and wonders aloud why he, who is the worst person he knows, has a great life, while she, the most devout, has been turned into a living vegetable. At which point she suddenly starts talking:

Sometimes the devil allows people to live a life free of trouble because he doesn't want them turning to God. Their sin is like a jail cell, except it is all nice and comfy and there doesn't seem to be any reason to leave. The door’s wide open. Till one day, time runs out, and the cell door slams shut, and suddenly it’s too late.

She says all of this staring straight ahead. When she’s done, she blinks a few times, then her dementia returns. “Who are you?” she asks her son.

But think about how her words relate to “God’s Not Dead." The movie is popular with Christian conservatives because it’s their wish-fulfillment fantasy. Within it, secularists are awful and tyrannical but are punished, while believers are victimized and humble but prosper. No wonder they're going in droves. It’s a nice, comfy vision from which there doesn’t seem to be any reason to leave.

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Posted at 06:40 AM on Apr 09, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday April 08, 2014

Song for the U.S. Supreme Court

In the wake of last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, in which the 5-4 majority struck down a cap on total donations that can be made to individuals during federal elections, here's a song by Leonard Cohen. Lyrics first:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Thanks, Justices Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas, for fixing the fight a little further. And for not knowing what everybody knows.

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Posted at 04:01 PM on Apr 08, 2014 in category Law
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Monday April 07, 2014

Reader Comment of the Day: Who Put the Conservatism in Christianity?

A reader named Kersy said the following following my review of “Noah”:

The co-option of Christianity in the culture by conservatives is the worst thing to happen to it since, what, the witch trials? The people who make noise about this movie for embellishment are the same ones who have never put real, deep thought into their faith and beliefs but who think and feel and see what they're told by a group of self-appointed arbiters of what is actually a wildly diverse religion. They don't want to be challenged or engaged; they only want comfort and affirmation.

“Noah” doesn't completely work, but it's a shallow faith that prefers “Son of God” and “God's Not Dead.” ...

And sorry for the rant! I'm just a Christian who is consistently insulted by the pandering crap I'm “supposed” to support because it “shares my values” even though it rarely does (unless we're getting pro-gay marriage, pro-choice Christian film? Anyone? Bueller?). I was thrilled to see “Noah”'s creation montage be all about evolution, and I'm not looking forward to the fresh hell that “Heaven Is For Real” appears to be. Ok, I'm done.

Unfortunately, I'm not. My review of “God's Not Dead” up tomorrow.

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Posted at 09:04 AM on Apr 07, 2014 in category Religion
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Sunday April 06, 2014

'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' Sets April Box Office Record

We all know Captain America has a nice ass but does he have legs? That’ll be the question for next weekend.

The second of the Captain America movies, “The Winter Soldier,” set an April box-office record with an estimated $96.2 million opening weekend, breaking “Fast Five”’s $86.2 million open in April 2011, but in a way it was a disappointment. It got great reviews (89% on Rotten Tomatoes), good audience feedback (95% on same), and its Thursday midnight haul of $9-$10 million indicated it might do $110-$120. But $96.2 million will have to do.

Again, that’s the best April opener, the third-best spring opener, and the 30th best all-time, but the key will be the comeback. How will it do in its second weekend? Does it have legs?

“Noah” doesn’t. It fell off 61.1% this weekend for $17 million and second place. “Divergent” neither. In its third weekend, it fell off by 49% to $13 million and a $114 million total. The would-be “next ‘Hunger Games’” probably won’t gross overall what “Hunger Games” grossed its opening weekend. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in particular, no longer has legs. His “Sabotage” opened abysmally at $5.2 million but still fell off 63.8% in its second weekend. Its total thus far? $8.7 million. Over and out.

What has legs? “God’s Not Dead,” a supposedly awful movie (20% RT score) about a plucky Christian freshman who engages his smug, atheist college professor (former “Hercules” Kevin Sorbo) in a debate about the existence of God. It fell off by only 12% to finish fourth with $7.7 million and a total gross of $32 million. So maybe this is the answer for Arnold. Maybe he needs to find religion. Or attack atheistic Hollywood. Or both.

A better movie that has legs is “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which finished fifth with $6.3 million for a total gross of $33 million. Unadjusted, that’s Wes Anderson’s third-biggest box office hit—after “Royal Tenenbaums” ($52 million in 2001) and “Moonrise Kingdom” ($45.5 million in 2012).

Milestones: “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” added another $5 mil to pass the $100 million mark, “The LEGO Movie” assed $250, and internationally “Frozen” passed “The Dark Knight Rises” to become the ninth-biggest worldwide box-office hit.

The weekend numbers here.

Tune in next week for a peek at Cap’s legs.

Chris Evans Scarlett Johansson in Captain America The Winter Soldier

Hmmm... legs ...

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Posted at 09:11 AM on Apr 06, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Flash Boys: Which of the Wall Street Banks Rushed to Engage in Shitty Practices?

Wall Street bull

Wall Street bull.

So I'm reading Michael Lewis' book, “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt,” about high-frequency trading on Wall Street and what it means. Much recommend, by the way.

Lewis is good at this kind of thing. Not just describing the complexities of Wall Street to financial doofuses like me; he good at telling the stories of people who figure out what the system is doing and/or missing, its market inefficiences, and what these people then do as a result. So Billy Beane exploited the truer, Jamesian numbers of Major League Baseball that other, old school GMs discounted. So Steve Eisman saw the disaster securitized subprime mortgages would become for Wall Street, and shorted them. So here, Brad Katsuyama, the most Canadian of Canadians, the polite, Royal Bank of Canada rep on Wall Street, figured out, with a crack team he assembled like in the best Hollywood heist movies (or in the first season of “The Wire”), how Wall Street, around 2007, became rigged because of high frequency trading. 

Essentially Wall Street firms are using computers and fiber optic cable to do what would be illegal if human beings did it. They front-run trades. It would be as if you wanted to buy something, X, and, as you were buying it, someone came between you and X, bought it, and then immediately sold it to you at a higher price. When you got your credit card receipt back, the price had jumped, and you didn't know why, and you never saw who came between you and the thing you wanted.

It should be illegal. It's not. But it's definitely shitty.

And which of the Wall Street banks rushed to engage in shitty behavior?

To Spread this seemed an obvious restriction: The [fiber-optic cable] line was more valuable the fewer people that had access to it. The whole point of the line was to create inside the public markets a private space, accessible only to those willing to pay the tens of millions of dollars in entry fees.

“Credit Suisse was outraged,” says a Spread employee who negotiated with the big Wall Street banks. “They said, ‘You’re enabling people to screw their customers.'" The employee tried to argue that this was not true—that it was more complicated than that—but in the end Credit Suisse refused to sign the contract. Morgan Stanley, on the other hand, came back to Spread and said, We need you to change the language. “We say, ‘But you’re okay with the restrictions?’ And they say, ‘Absolutely, this is totally about optics.’ We had to wordsmith it so they had plausible deniability.” Morgan Stanley wanted to be able to trade for itself in a way it could not trade for its customers; it just didn’t want to seem as if it wanted to.

Of all the big Wall Street banks, Goldman Sachs was the easiest to deal with. “Goldman had no problem signing it,” the Spread employee said.

Wall Street and financial folks are howling about the book, apparently. Here, Lewis answers back.

More soon.

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Posted at 08:01 AM on Apr 06, 2014 in category Books
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Saturday April 05, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The directors of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Joe and Anthony Russo, heretofore best known for directing failed comedies (“You, Me and Dupree”) and a critically acclaimed sitcom (“Community”), have a new line of work. Because they’ve just created one helluva superhero movie.

Last July, I ranked 65 of the 100 or so superhero movies that have been made, and I’d put this one in the top 10. It’s better than “The Dark Knight,” but I’m not much of a fan of “The Dark Knight.” It’s not as fun as “Iron Man” (not many movies are), but it does have its light comedic touches. (See: “Shall we play a game?” and “The path of the righteous man...”) More, it’s got gravitas. It tackles the issue of the 21st century, freedom vs. security, and all but uses Ben Franklin’s famous line as its epigraph:

Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

S.H.I.E.L.D., by the way, is the entity interested in safety; Captain America is the man interested in liberty.

Of course, the decks are stacked. The bad guys are double agents for a fascistic organization, Hydra, which is creating the circumstances that will allow it to take over. Too bad. Captain America: The Winter SoldierImagine if those circumstances, terrorism and the chaos of the world, were outside their control. Imagine if Hydra’s mouthpiece, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), was not a double agent but simply someone with a different worldview. Redford, thankfully, plays him that way. He plays him as someone so strong on defense that he goes on offense. He’s Dick Cheney. Ten years ago, in the debate between Pierce and Captain America, many Americans, maybe most Americans, would’ve agreed with Pierce.

Many still do.

This isn’t freedom
Captain America was born in 1941 as a superpatriot, but he was reborn in the 1960s to the left of the superpatriots. When he woke up, he woke up and questioned America. For a time, around the Watergate period, he was so disappointed in the U.S. he gave up being Captain America and became Nomad, Man Without a Country.

This Captain America is similar. Shown S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new high-tech helicarriers, which will be used to spy on the world and neutralize threats before they happen, he says, “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.” He says, “This isn’t freedom; this is fear.” This is Steve Engelhart’s Captain America. It’s my Captain America.

“Winter Soldier,” written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, from a story by Ed Brubaker, begins quietly and smartly.

Two guys are jogging around the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., and the second is running so fast he’s lapping the first. “On your left,” he says. “On your left,” he says again. The first is Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), recently returned from Iraq. The second is Captain America, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), recently returned from saving the world from Loki, et al., in “The Avengers.” They’re strangers, these two, but bond over their shared experience of being soldiers: how, after the hardness of life abroad, the beds at home are too soft to sleep in. Then Sam recommends music for the man who was famously on ice for 70 years. Typically, it’s someone well-known: Marvin Gaye. Atypically, it’s not “What’s Going On,” or “Let’s Get It On,” but the jazz-influenced album in between these two: “Trouble Man.” Dutifully, Steve writes down the title in his notepad next to other historical/cultural artifacts he needs to catch up on, including “Star Wars” and “spicy Thai food.” At which point, the Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) vrooms up in her sport car, mentions going to the Smithsonian to “pick up a fossil,” and she and Cap, and the movie, are off.

A ship has been hijacked in the Indian Ocean by Algerian pirates and 25 people are being held hostage, including S.H.I.E.L.D. strategist Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez, late of “The Americans”). So Cap, after some banter with Natasha about girls he might date (a recurring bit), jumps out of the plane and into the ocean, climbs aboard the ship, and, in one of the better action sequences in superhero movies, or any movies really, takes out half the terrorists. Remember those complaints about the fights in “Batman Begins”? How you could never tell what was going on? No longer. You get a real sense of Cap’s speed, stealth and strength here. In the big fight scene on the ship with the superpowered terrorist leader, Cap performs an over-the-top leg kick that got half the audience at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle Friday night to sound like Keanu Reeves: Whooaaaaaaaa!

But there’s a wrinkle. The ship was S.H.I.E.L.D.’s, it was trespassing, and the purpose of the mission seemed less to save hostages than gather intel. Cap confronts Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) about all of this and receives this bit of advice: trust no one. Then he’s introduced to Project Insight: three helicarriers that need never come down; they can hover forever in the skies above us, watching us. That’s when we get the freedom vs. security discussion above. Cap says Project Insight is like “holding a gun to everyone in the world and calling it protection.” Later, he visits Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in a hospital, now aged and suffering Alzheimer’s, and tells her he just wants to do right but doesn’t know what that is anymore. Interestingly, this echoes Robert Redford’s 1975 thriller, “Three Days of the Condor”: “You miss that kind of action, sir?” “No, I miss that kind of clarity.” 

I liked all this early stuff. I liked Steve visiting the Smithsonian and the Captain America exhibit, and going “Sssshhh” to the kid who recognizes him. I liked seeing where he lives. The thing with the neighbor, Kate (Emily VanCamp), doing her laundry, was a bit odd. Shouldn’t she be starstruck? But overall I liked the troubled calm before the storm.

I was just a bit disappointed when the storm actually hit.

Don’t trust anyone
Nick Fury gets it first, attacked in broad daylight in his souped-up van. Oddly, the attack takes place on an apparently deserted D.C. street but as soon as the car chase occurs they encounter tons of traffic. But we’ll let that go. The faceless minions attack first, since that’s the way, saving the ultimate assassin, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), for when Fury makes a wrong turn. We’ll let that go, too. Ultimately Fury is killed, or we see him die on an operating table, but he offers Cap these parting words: “Don’t trust anyone.”

But you gotta trust somebody, particularly when S.H.I.E.L.D., with all its high-tech weaponry, is trying to kill you, so Natasha is the one he goes to. Then they go on the run, to Wheaton, N.J., where Steve, the 4F, first trained, and where they discover in its dusty databanks the disembodied intelligence of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones). Of course, like all movie villains, Zola takes this moment to reveal his great scheme.

According to Zola, Hydra realized long ago that “Humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom.” Unfortunately, when they tried to take it away during World War II, humanity fought back. So Hydra further realized you couldn’t take the freedom by force; you had to get humanity to surrender it willingly. How? By creating a world “so chaotic people are willing to sacrifice freedom for security.” And that’s what Hydra has done.

It’s also infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and the U.S. government in the form of Sen. Stern (Gary Shandling, bloated beyond belief now). Project Insight? That’s Hydra, baby. Those helicarriers get in the air and Zola’s algorithms will take out 20 million of Hydra’s enemies in an instant. So it’s up to Cap, and Natasha, and Sam, who is, of course, the Falcon (and a cool-looking Falcon), to prevent the launch, save the 20 million, and keep Hydra from taking over the world.

They do this with the usual tri-part whiz-bang ending that I first saw with “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” and that has infected all of these big-budget extravaganzas. You know how it goes. Cap battles the Winter Soldier, who is really his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, atop a helicarrier. Cut to: Sam battling agents of S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra on the ground. Cut to: Natasha infiltrating the office of, and trading barbs with, Alexander Pierce. Then keep cutting between each.

Cap’s strategy is three-fold: 1) convince enough S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to battle the Hydra agents, which will allow him to, 2) upload an algorithm (created by whom?) to counteract Zola’s algorithm: instead of the helicarriers killing 20 million, they’ll train their guns on each other. Meanwhile, Natasha will 3) disseminate all S.H.I.E.L.D. intel to the world. Meaning S.H.I.E.L.D., which Cap destroys, is basically the NSA, and he and Natasha are basically Edward Snowden.

We live in interesting times.

Fifth columnists everywhere
I owe Chris Evans an apology, by the way. His Johnny Storm was the best thing in “The Fantastic Four”—which isn’t saying much—but I initially objected to his casting as Captain America. Wasn’t he too thin? Too brash? And shouldn’t actors just play one superhero at a time? But he’s been perfect. He’s the boy scout with gravitas, the perfect-bodied virgin, the confused soldier after the war. I like this early exchange with Peggy Carter (probably because it reminds me of me):

Peggy: What makes you happy?
Steve (long pause): I don’t know.

Some of the best parts of the movie, in fact, are not just him moving (as on the hijacked ship), but him thinking (as in the glass elevator, when he realizes he’s about to be attacked by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents). And he has good chemistry with both Johansson, who’s friendly/flirtatious with him (no woman tries to set you up unless she sees something in you in the first place), and Mackie, who’s steadfast but with a twinkle.

Evans’ greatest chemistry, though, may not be with a person but an object: his shield. Captain America fans have waited a long time for this. In the 1944 serial, Cap didn’t even have a shield; he carried a gun instead. In 1979, the shield was clear plastic, and doubled as his motorcycle windshield. It came into play more in the awful 1990 Cannon Films version, but with the usual low-budget quick cuts and over-the-top sound effects. But here? It’s like an appendage. It’s like his companion, his dog, his horse. I felt outrage whenever the Winter Soldier used the shield against him. It was like someone turning Silver against The Lone Ranger.

Sure, some of the chases go on a bit much, the big emotional battle with the Winter Soldier isn’t that emotional, and Natasha’s appearance before Congress is lame and unnecessary. I’m also a bit tired of the internal enemies trope. I think it fuels paranoia and Americans are paranoid enough. The greater enemy is almost always external but Hollywood almost always makes it internal. They should know better. (See: Red-baiters accusing Hollywood of being that internal enemy during the McCarthy era.)

Even so, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a smart, fun, thoughtful movie. I also appreciated its more nuanced approach to another Hollywood action-movie trope: the idea of never compromising. The people who compromise or negotiate in movies tend to be politicians, who are either quislings, spies, or just generally weak-willed, and whose negotiations (fools!) play right into the hands of the enemy. Then the uncompromising hero has to step in and save the day. Here, we begin with something similar. When the hostages are rescued, Stinson says, “Told you: S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t negotiate.” We get a story about an early Nick Fury saving lives in Bogota because he didn’t negotiate. But not negotiating turns out to be the strategy of Hydra. Not negotiating actually plays right into the hands of the enemy. So if not negotiating is the strategy of the enemy, should negotiation be our strategy?

Nuance in a superhero movie? Somewhere, surely, Steve Engelhart is smiling.

FURTHER READING:

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Posted at 12:02 PM on Apr 05, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Friday April 04, 2014

Current Yankees Batting Leaders

This is how the current Yankees batting leaders look on ESPN.com after three games:

Current Yankees Batting Leaders

I know, three games, but it cracked me up. Not sure how Brian Roberts gets the HR title with “0.” Alphabetical by first name? Why not Alfonso Soriano? He has zero, too! They all have zero!

Meanwhile, over at SB Nation, Grant Brisbee writes the following about the apparent loss of strength in the Yankees' shortstop and current RBI leader:

That's the same thing our own Steven Goldman saw all spring, as Jeter grounded into double plays at what would be a historic pace in the regular season.

And there's no way the Yankees are going to bench him. He's the kid in the Twilight Zone episode “It's a Good Life” with the god powers. Everyone's going to tell him nice things. Eventually someone's turning into a jack-in-the-box. Which would still have more range than Jeter.

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Posted at 12:28 PM on Apr 04, 2014 in category Yankees Suck
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Wednesday April 02, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America (1990)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Hey, this doesn’t seem so bad.”

That was my thought 10 minutes into Albert Pyun’s “Captain America,” which was supposed to be godawful. The movie was made in the summer of ’89 for release in the summer of ’90 but it didn’t get released. It just disappeared. It was like they’d come up with a plague germ and needed to keep it isolated in a lab. Two whole years went by before it finally saw light, or a kind of light: it went straight to video. It was so bad that Cap’s co-creator, Jack Kirby, who fought to get his name on the film, fought, after the premiere, to get his name off it. More than 7,000 IMDb users have collectively given the thing a 3.2 rating. That’s the second-lowest-rated superhero movie ever, after “Steel,” starring Shaquille O’Neil. Right: worse than “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” “Supergirl,” “Batman & Robin” and “Catwoman.”

Yet, initially, it didn’t seem so bad to me. It helped that I’d just watched the 1944 and 1979 versions of Captain America, and this Captain America, at least, looked like Captain America: same uniform, same shield, same boots. Captain America 1990The origin of the Red Skull in Italy in 1936 had some decent production values, and they did their best to make the pre-Cap Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger, son of J.D.) seem skinny and weak. Sure, the opening scene is melodramatic while the stuff on the homefront with the girl, Bernie (Kim Gillingham), is sappy to the point of silliness; plus the southern accents of the military officers (Michael Nouri, Bill Mumy) are like out of some high school production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” But 10 minutes in I wasn’t seeing godawful.

Then it kept going.

Shooting Captain America at the White House
Here’s the story. Remember: this is the story of Captain America.

It’s 1943. For his first mission, a month after being reborn, a nervous Cap parachutes into a castle in Nazi Germany, where the Red Skull awaits, kicks his ass, and ties him to a rocket ship aimed at the White House. And off it goes. But at the last minute, over Washington, D.C., Cap, still tied up, kicks at the missile and sends it to Alaska, where he’s buried in the snow and ice. The only witness to his heroics is a little boy with a camera, who, inspired, grows up to be the President of the United States!

Fast forward 50 years. In the 1990s, Cap is discovered by ...

OK, wait. Hold it right there.

So ... Captain America, the World War II fighting force, has only one mission during World War II? Which he fails miserably? Then he’s shot at the White House? And only averts complete disaster with some pathetic kicking? Which some boy witnesses from the ground? And considers heroic?

You could do this for the entire movie: reiterate its plot with disbelieving question marks.

After being unfrozen Cap wanders around the woods of northern Canada? And the only two people who find him are the fashion-model daughter of the Red Skull, Valentina de Santis (Francesca Neri), and Sam Kolawetz (Ned Beatty), the best friend of the president, now an enterprising reporter with assassination conspiracy theories? And they converge on Cap at the exact same moment? And Valentina shoots Cap but Sam saves him? Then Cap distrusts Sam and steals his truck and drives it to southern California? And he realizes he’s been frozen for 50 years only when he sees a thong bikini at the beach?

What the fuck?

Captain America is not only not a hero here, he’s not even known. Only two people know he exists: the Red Skull (Scott Paulin), who, from a castle in Italy, plots his nefarious schemes, including the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, and the scuttling of Pres. Tom Kimball’s environmental bill; and Pres. Tom Kimball (Ronny Cox), who, when his childhood hero is resurrected, sends no one in the government, no Army, etc., to find him. Just his pudgy childhood friend.

Eventually Cap teams with Bernie’s daughter, Sharon (also Kim Gillingham), whom he initially thinks is Bernie. This creeps her out so she decks him. It’s supposed to be meet-cute; but at this point Cap has done nothing except lose fights so it just adds to the embarrassment. Then the Red Skull’s minions, who look like mobsters in a Dolce & Gabana ad, figure out where he’s staying and kill both Bernie, now aged, and Sam Kolawetz, the president’s best friend. Cap shows up too late for that. He’s been watching videos about assassinations. When the bad guys track Steve Rogers to the diner, Roz’s Café, where Cap was born, a fight ensues that Steve actually wins.

I.e., after 50 years and an hour of screentime, Captain America finally wins his first fight.

What the fuck?

Then he and Sharon fly to Italy to confront the Red Skull in his castle, where, unbeknownst to Steve, although it’s worldwide news, the Red Skull has kidnapped and drugged (and somehow plans to replace) Pres. Kimball. But Cap saves POTUS and the two men, giving each other sappy thumbs ups, join forces in saving Sharon and stopping the Red Skull and ensuring the passage of a sweeping environmental bill. Then Sharon puts her head on Cap’s chest while Cap looks off majestically into the middle distance.

The End.

It’s like they hired a few professionals, readied some B- or C- or F-grade production values, then handed everyone a script written by a 9-year-old.

The question is: Who’s to blame?

Golan Depths
Is it screenwriter Stephen Tolin, who has 24 screenwriting credits, including “Masters of the Universe” (1987), “The Craigslist Killer” (2011), and a few episodes of the critically acclaimed series “Brothers and Sisters”? How about director Albert Pyun, who started directing schlock (“The Sword and the Sorcerer”), stayed in a different kind of schlock (Jean-Claude Van Damme movies) and reverted to various other brands of schlock (horror/revenge straight-to-video thrillers)?

Nah. It’s none of these guys. The blame goes to one man: Menahem Golan of Cannon Films. Oy.

Golan, along with cousin Yoram Globus, was responsible for some of the worst movies of the ’80s and ’90s. Apparently these guys had good intentions but a wide appetite. They wanted to make classy movies (“Barfly”), action-adventure (“Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”), and exploitation flicks (the “Death Wish” sequels), but were probably best at exploitation. Their eyes were always bigger than their stomachs. In two years alone, 1987 and 1988, Golan produced 44 movies. If one movie bombed, money disappeared for the others. And their movies were always bombing.

“It’s pretty difficult to make a film when there were times we actually had no money in the bank,” Pyun says.

The new Blu-Ray version of “Captain America” includes a sad featurette, “Looking Back at ‘Captain America,’” with Pyun and Matt Salinger. Both seem like decent guys. Salinger says the script’s best scenes were cut due to lack of funds. “Character stuff,” he calls it. “Nuance.” Pickups were supposed to be done in Alaska but they never went to Alaska. An over-the-top, melodramatic soundtrack was added to over-the-top, whooshing sound effects, which were set against some not-good actors working from a script that actually disparages the WWII legacy of Captain America. And that’s how we wound up with this.

“We did the best we could,” Salinger says, sounding the movie’s epitaph, “given the time we had and the money we had.”

The final insult? Near the end of the movie, with the Red Skull defeated, Cap looks briefly at the camera and smiles. What does it recall? What does it consciously remind us of? Why, Christopher Reeve, as Superman, smiling at the camera at the end of “Superman: The Movie.” That was one of the best superhero movies ever made. This one?

This one did the best it could given the time and money it had.

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Posted at 06:14 AM on Apr 02, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 1990s
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Tuesday April 01, 2014

Photo of the Day: Ortiz and Obama

Two of my favorite guys in the world:

David Ortiz and Barack Obama at the White House

One beats the GOP, the other beats the Yankees. Who could ask for anything more?

It was David Ortiz's selfie from earlier in the day, when POTUS honored the Boston Red Sox, winners of the 2013 World Series, at the White House.

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Posted at 01:22 PM on Apr 01, 2014 in category Photo of the Day
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From the 'Unmade Movies' File: Ronald Reagan, Commie

From J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War, by John Sbardellati:

Jack Warner, eager to erase the public memory of “Mission to Moscow,” announced to the committee and the press his studio’s plans for an anti-Communist feature tentatively titled “Up until Now.” His company’s press statement affirmed that “backslid Americans, as well as outside enemies of our free institutions, will be exposed in this story of a Boston family. Here at Warner Brothers we have no room for backslid Americans and wishy-washy concepts of Americanism.” The film was to star Claude Rains as the troubled father of a wayward son, played by Ronald Reagan, who would be lured into the Communist Party. Warner, however, dropped the project later in the year, believing that the public had had enough of Hollywood politics in the wake of HUAC’s fall hearings.

Not an April Fools' joke.

Ronald Reagan

“I have not, nor have ever been, a member of the Commu ... Well, except for that one picture. I remember it well. Jack Warner came to me and said, 'Ronnie, you look like the kind of son of a gun that would ...'”

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Posted at 06:08 AM on Apr 01, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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