How Wrong is Joe Posnanski About Superman Movies?
Damn. I was enjoying the column, too.
In it, Joe Posnanski, my man Joe, my regular lunchtime reading, wrote about why walks are down in Major League Baseball, and why attendance is down in the American League, and he makes a joke about all the charts he's throwing up, about how “this is the chartiest post I've ever done.” So he finishes it with a flourish. He adds a line graph on his ratings for the Superman movies:
A few things I don't get:
- The rise from “Superman: The Movie” to “Superman II.” Is he suggesting “Superman II” was better? Richard Lester's “Superman II”?
- I get the steep drop for “Superman III” but why does it rise again for “Superman IV”? Shouldn't it plummet? I mean off the charts?
I like that he likes “Superman Returns”—that movie is way too maligned. As for his feelings about “Man of Steel”? Whatever. It's not the worst of the Superman movies—that's almost impossible. I originally had it second-best but I might drop it a bit now. Maybe below “Superman Returns”? Maybe below the Donner cut of “Superman II”? Nah. It's still #2 or #3 in my book. Or blog.
But I don't mind that Posnanski dislikes “Man of Steel” so much. That's fine. But to think the series got better with “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”? Now that's just crazy talk.
Superman's blue eyebeams miraculously repair the Great Wall of China in “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.” What—you didn't know about the blue eyebeams? I think they first made an appearance in Action Comics #389: “The Shrinking Budget of Golan and Globus.”
Miss Me Yet? Part IV
“Christine Todd Whitman, the E.P.A. administrator, was one of several people in the Cabinet, along with Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who strongly supported a proactive position on climate change. And she was, I think, in Europe telling European governments that the U.S. position was to regulate carbon dioxide. And when she got back home, she had an interaction with the president in which she was very brusquely told that that was off the table. The turning point, essentially, was that Cheney grabbed hold of this issue and took down the whole notion of regulating CO2.”
-- Rick Piltz, senior associate, U.S. Climate Change Science Program, from Vanity Fair's ”An Oral History of the Bush Administration"
Where Ann Hornaday is Right About Elliot Rodger and Hollywood
First, Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday is right: movies matter, and we are influenced by them in incalculable ways, and the violence and sexism that is threaded throughout Hollywood history can’t be doing us much good.
At the same time, laying the crimes of Elliot Rodger at poor Judd Apatow’s feet is itself a kind of crime.
Second, Ann Hornaday is still right: the movie industry is sexist, in that it’s dominated by men who are interested in greenlighting stories about men, which leaves 50% of the population leading only 15% of our stories. That creates imbalance. That’s creates marginalization. That creates a sense of privilege.
At the same time, even if half the execs in Hollywood were women, greenlighting stories starring women, these stories would most likely be wish-fulfillment fantasy. Maybe less violent but still wish-fulfillment fantasy: a spirited woman, say, choosing between two handsome men against a backdrop of historic tragedy. With bows and arrows. Or witchcraft. Or cooking. Or …
Because what’s missing in Hornaday’s column about the movie culture Hollywood creates is the true culprit, the man behind the curtain: us, the moviegoers.
Hollywood is a business, a very risk-averse business, and it spends most of its time trying to create what they think we will like. And they do this by looking at what we’ve liked in the recent past. Then they re-do that. Hey, here it is again. This thing you liked. Happy happy.
Which is why we get this story again: a lone man using violence to achieve justice. And why we get this story again: I love you and you love me … but not for 70 minutes yet. And this story: a spirited woman (or girl) choosing between two men (or a vampire and werewolf) against a backdrop of historic tragedy (or high school on the Olympic peninsula).
That’s worth mentioning. The fault lies less with our stars than in ourselves.
New Yorker staff writer John Cassidy is right, too: Blame the gun laws for all the people who died because of Elliot Rodger's crime.
You could actually combine Cassidy’s and Hornaday’s columns and get something worth positing as a question: to what extent can we blame our gun laws on Hollywood’s 100-year glorification of the gun?
A discussion like that might even make my day.
Go ahead ...
The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations for Right-Wing Pundits
“The problem with our media ecology is—just as the question from my editor friend suggests—that conservatives are protected from any consequence for their intellectual failings. ...
”Which returns us to the problem I have with my friend’s question to me in the first place: why is it that liberals and moderates and editorial non- and anti-ideologues of (too) good faith insist on making like the Greek philosopher Diogenes, scouring the horizon for the last honest conservative, instead of accepting the fact that there are virtually none to be found? ...
“Some smart speechwriter for George W. Bush once came up with a rather brilliant phrase to describe what conservatives see as the moral failing of affirmative action: that it imposes a 'soft bigotry of low expectations.' By patting under-qualified minority candidates patronizingly on the head and giving them jobs and educations for which they are not prepared, the argument goes, liberals supposedly do the objects of their tender concern more harm than good—and the greater public good a grievous harm as well. Time to stop the soft bigotry of low expectations toward the right. No more affirmative action for conservatives. It does no good for a right-wing literati that would be better served by a swift kick in the ass.”
-- Rick Perlstein, “There Are No More Honest Conservatives, So Stop Looking For One,” in The Nation.
A.O. Scott Doesn't Like Adam Sandler
“Most of 'Blended' has the look and pacing of a three-camera sitcom filmed by a bunch of eighth graders and conceived by their less bright classmates. Shots don’t match. Jokes misfire. Gags that are visible from a mile away fail to deliver. Two rhinos are seen copulating by the side of a swimming pool, and someone has the wit to say, 'That’s not something you see in New Jersey.' Not funny on so many levels.
”There are comedians who mine their own insecurities for material. Mr. Sandler, in his recent films, compensates for his by building monuments to his own ego. In 'Blended,' he once again proclaims himself both über-doofus and ultimate mensch, disguising his tireless bullying in childish voices and the ironclad alibis of fatherhood and grief.“
--A.O. Scott in his review of Adam Sandler's ”Blended," in The New York Times, May 22, 2014.
Not funny on so many levels.
Movie Review: I Origins (2014)
Let’s imagine a few things:
- That reincarnation is real
- That the eyes are truly the windows to the soul
- That our eye signature—as unique as our fingerprints—follows us from life to life
What would you do with this set of circumstances? What story could you make out if it?
Writer-director Mike Cahill (“Another Earth”) envisioned a movie set in the near future when people would know who they had been in past lives. They would know the mistakes they had made, the crimes they had committed, who they had loved and what they had lost. It might explain why they acted the way they did. And from that, a story. He planned to call it “I.”
He also envisioned a movie set in the present, or near-present, when we finally had scientific proof that reincarnation was real. He thought of it as a prequel to the other movie.
Unfortunately, he made the prequel first.
$11.11 on 11/11
“I Origins” isn’t a bad movie but it is disappointing. Michael Pitt plays Ian Gray, a floppy-haired, hipster scientist with a habit of taking pictures of people’s eyes. Does he do this with animals, too? I think just people.
At a costume party early in the 21st century, he meets a mask-wearing free spirit, whose eyes he photographs, and who then kisses him, takes him to the bathroom for sex, and then abandons him there. He’s stricken, stunned, but he doesn’t know who she is. The next day at the university lab, where he’s a star grad student, he meets his new first-year lab assistant. Her name is Karen (Brit Marling of “Another Earth”), and, unlike the others, she gets what he’s up to. He wants to show the evolution of the human eye, in all its complexity—its irreducible complexity, according to Intelligent Designers. Here’s the trouble: on a scale of 1 to 14, with 14 being the complex human eye, he needs a zero point: a creature without eyes but with some aspect of our eye signature. Karen begins researching an answer.
And no, thank God, she’s not mask-wearing free spirit. He doesn’t find the girl that easily.
He finds the girl this easily. He’s in a convenience store, a 7/11, buying smokes, etc., and the price comes to $11.11. And the date is 11/11. And he goes outside and the windows on the building across the street all look like 11s. Then the No. 11 bus pulls up. He gets on, as if in a trance, then gets off, in a daze. And he sees the mask-wearing girl’s eyes again. They’re on a billboard for Devonne of Paris. She’s a fashion model.
I never did get this “11” thing. Why 11? Because it looks like two “I”s? Or eyes? Because of “Spinal Tap”?
Anyway, we now get two stories: the love story with the free spirit, Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and the work story with Karen. In the latter, he’s trying to disprove the Intelligent Design community; according to Sofi, he’s trying to disprove God. But she wants to turn him on to a life beyond science and data; to a world of coincidence and spirituality, and, yes, God. She talks about him being in a closed room, and there’s a door with light on the other side; and she urges him to walk through this door.
Sadly, I found all three characters annoying. Karen was too serious and severe, Sofi was too impetuous, Ian never seemed like a scientist to me. A true scientist isn’t interested in disproving X or proving Y. He’s interested in what the data shows. Sofi, as beautiful as she is, didn’t seem like a model, either. How come she never has to go anywhere? A fashion show? A fashion shoot? Of the three, only Karen fits her profession. But she hides, and not well, a secret love for Ian.
I’ll cut to the chase: On the day Ian and Sofi attempt to wed, Karen finds an applicable zero-point creature, so they all wind up in the lab together. Sofi is not a fan of the lab. “You torture worms?” she asks in her childlike French accent. During a clumsy moment, Ian gets a chemical solution in his eyes and can’t see for 24 hours; then he and Sofi get stuck in an old freight elevator at her apartment. It begins to creak. He forces open the doors to the hallway above and urges her up. She won’t. Him first, she says. Eventually he goes, and he’s in the act of pulling her up when the cable snaps and the elevator crashes down. He cradles her and she seems to sigh. But he can’t see properly. So he can’t see she was cut in half. That’s the end of Act I.
In Act II, it’s seven years later, he and Karen are now married, and they’ve published a book about their findings. (Stubbornly, God still lives). They have a baby.
At the hospital, an odd thing. They’re doing the eye signature thing on the baby when a different name, Paul Edgar Dairy, a sixty-ish black man, pops up. A glitch, they’re told. But later they get a call from Dr. Jane Simmons (Cara Seymour), who tells them their baby has early signs of autism. Could they come in for a test? Stricken again, they watch an odd test being conducted—the baby’s reactions to a series of images—and after some research Ian winds up in Boise, Idaho, and the Dairy farm, which is not a milking farm at all but a farm owned by the Dairys, whose patriarch, Paul Edgar, died a few years earlier. And look: there’s the dog whose photo in the lab made the baby smile; and look, there’s the wife whose photo made the baby eventually cry. Dr. Simmons isn’t testing for autism. She’s testing for reincarnation.
(She’s also causing undue stress for parents like Ian and Karen by using the autism angle. Enough to get her license revoked? The movie glosses this over. It goes off into other things. I know, only so much screentime, but it still bugged me.)
Anyway, Karen, Ian and their friend Kenny (Steven Yeun, a standout in a small role), do their own research testing eye signatures and get one from Sofi’s: in New Delhi, India, three months earlier. Off Ian goes. Now he’s out to prove, if not God, at least reincarnation. He’s out to prove the eternal nature of the soul.
Eyeless in Gaza
“I Origins” is certainly smarter than the average movie, but given the vastness of its subject it also feels reductive. The pretty love interest who died young is reincarnated as a pretty, shoeless girl in India (of course), rather than, say, an ugly girl in Alabama, or a firefly in Pennsylvania, or an eyeless worm in Gaza. Are people only reincarnated as people? Never other animals? Is there a hierarchy to reincarnation? Was Sofi’s a demotion? The movie wants to wake Ian and us up to possibilities, to the open door, but it feels like a closed room. It feels tied up in a bow.
The trailer didn’t help. Ninety percent of the plot is in the trailer. It takes us all the way from the love affair, through the death, to Ian seeing the girl in New Delhi. That’s about 15 minutes from the end. So there were few surprises for me. Shame on the people who make these things. They’re trying to get people to see it—I get that—but they’re ruining it for the people who do.
There is a moment I thought profound. Ian and Sofi are in the lab and Sofi is talking about spirituality and the soul, which Ian dismisses, so she points to his test subjects. She asks if these worms, which have no eyes, know anything about light. He says no. Even though light is all around them? Yes, even though that. So maybe, she says, human beings are like these worms. Maybe God is all around us but we don’t have the proper sense with which to see Him.
I liked that bit.
And I’m still looking forward to “I.” I’m curious to see what else Mike Cahill might do with this concept.
Quote of the Day
“When Gore Vidal declared in an old television debate with William F. Buckley Jr. that 5 percent of Americans had 20 percent of the income and the bottom 20 percent had 5 percent, he was raising an alarm. That observation may be the most shocking moment in 'Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,' Nicholas Wrathall’s admiring documentary portrait of Vidal, who died in 2012 at 86. ... By the standards of today, when income inequality has widened exponentially and the middle class is shrinking, statistics that infuriated Vidal sound like the answer to a socialist’s prayer.”
-- Stepehen Holden in his review of “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” in The New York Times, May 22, 2014
Movie Review: Ekstra (The Bit Player) (2013)
Loida (Vilma Santos), the working class, single mother of a college-age daughter, has a dream. She’s a bit player or “ekstra” on the cheesy, night-time soap operas of the Philippines, but she wants more. She wants a speaking part. She wants to break through. She wants to be a star.
So like everyone, more or less.
“The Bit Player” (“Ekstra” in the Philippines) is essentially a cinema-vérité-like day in the life of Loida. It begins at 2 a.m. with tea, breakfast, and a washcloth shower, and ends at 4 a.m. the next day with the stink of failure.
Among the extras
There’s an early morning round-up of the extras, who travel by van to the location shoot. A few are discharged en route: a young boy, for example, who’s supposed to be the younger version of the male lead in the soap (Piolo Pascual, playing himself), but who, according to the talent scout, doesn’t look enough like Piolo. Out he and his father go, onto the side of the road.
At the shoot, the extras find no place for themselves—this area is for the stars, this area is for the caterers—so they wind up sitting in a field. Among them:
- Loida, our sympathetic mother figure, whose daughter keeps texting with money demands from the university.
- Venus (Rita Rosario G. Carlos), the brassy friend of, and quiet competition to, Loida.
- Olga (Hazel Dela Cruz), the girl too pretty for peasant scenes. She’s too pretty for the name “Olga,” too.
- Madonna (Antonette Garcia), who makes a buck on the side selling food and drinks to the other extras.
The soap is like most soaps: the loves and schemes of awful rich folks. Belinda (Marian Rivera), the wealthy daughter, is in love with Brando (Piolo), the peasant stud, but ordered to marry Sir Richard (Richard Yap) for the sake of the family. The extras toil in the fields wearing conical hats or bring product-placement drinks in maid’s uniforms. They’re background. As the casting director tells them, “You’re called ‘talent’ but you lack talent.”
The production team has its own conflicts. The director has to deliver quickly, while the producer is interested in cutting costs. He wants it good, she wants it fast and cheap, but it often winds up out of control. The stars act like stars—leaving and arriving on a whim. One time, Loida has to double for a star who’s gone missing. It’s a kidnap scene. Filmed from behind and tied to a chair, it’s supposed to be a speaking part (extra money), but, no, Loida doesn’t sound like the star. So the director has her gagged. But too much of her face is still visible so he has her hooded as well. After that, she’s slapped, kicked, burned with a cigarette. One of the production people tells her of her dress, “Take care of this: It’s more valuable than you.”
Eventually it all pays off. Late into the night and the early morning, a call goes up for an extra who can speak English reasonably well to play a lawyer. This one is no good, that one, eh ... but Loida? A shrug from the assistant director. She’ll do. The rehearsal goes well, or well enough for a night-time soap opera filming 24 hours from air time. The first take goes less well: Loida walks too far forward and blocks the star from the camera. She’s given a mark to hit but on the next take looks down to find it. The third take she messes up her lines. Finally the director loses it and she’s cast aside: back to the background. She’s not cut out for it. Maybe she never was.
Streep and Schwarzenegger
For most of “Ekstra,” I was only vaguely interested in what was happening. A lot of work, a lot of arguments, a lot of ego, went into the creation of something that was not only valueless to the culture but detrimental. Product placement is the least of it; soap operas, like most movies, sell wish fulfillment. They sell the dream of wealth, beauty, and glamor. At the same time, they sell schadenfreude, as the wealthy, beautiful and glamorous feel the heartache implicit in soap opera storylines.
I also objected when Loida began to stumble during her big scene. It felt way too cruel to me. It felt sadistic and/or bathetic. But ultimately Santos has a restraint that makes it work. You sense Loida’s world has crumbled but she doesn’t know what to do. There’s doubt and pain in her eyes now.
Interestingly, Santos, who looks like the part she plays—someone passed over by life—is in reality a hugely successful actress and politician. She was the Mayor of Lipa City and the Governor of Batangas, a province in the Philippines. There are four major film awards in the Philippines and only 17 times has someone won all four in the same year. It’s called the Philippines Movie Grand Slam, and Santos was the first to do it in 1982. She’s since done it three more times. No one else in Philippines has done it more than twice. She’s basically the Meryl Streep and the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the Philippines.
“The Bit Player,” at 111 minutes, could’ve been 20 minutes shorter. We could’ve used fewer on-set shenanigans and more on Loida’s background. How did she get on this path that’s apparently so wrong for her? And what happens next? Forget a dream deferred—what happens to a dream dashed on the rocks? What do you do when you realize you’re no good at what you’ve struggled for your entire life? We never find out.
Soap operas may be about wish-fulfillment fantasy, but “The Bit Player” is about identification, and never more so than when Loida is surrounded by the stink of failure. Most of us know that smell. Well.
Ward Bond: Friend of McCarthy, Traitor to Orson Welles
This is a continuation of a recent post, “Ward Bond: Oaf, Loadmouth, Anti-Semite,” which focuses on Bond's role as self-proclaimed judge, jury and executioner for the Motion Picture Alliance, the right-wing, Hollywood organization working hand-in-hand with the FBI and HUAC to create the blacklist of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Turns out Bond was also a friend of Joe McCarthy:
When John Ford was making The Long Gray Line in West Point, Ward Bond would head over to a bar across the street from the location and watch the Army-McCarthy hearings. Bond knew McCarthy, and, according to Mahin, Wayne had Bond pass a message from him to the senator: “You’re going to have to name names because you’re just throwing out accusations and innuendo and not producing any facts, and you’re making everybody look bad.”
Plus he screwed over Orson Welles ... not to mention John Ford:
[John]Ford had made a tentative deal with Orson Welles to play the part of Frank Skeffington in The Last Hurrah, and as soon as the trade papers announced it, Harry Cohn at Columbia received a packet supposedly documenting Welles’s “communistic or subversive activities (alleged). . . . These were sent by an actor who had said all over town that he was to play the part—a Ward Bond. . . .“
Welles wound up not getting the part. Neither did Ward Bond. It went to Spencer Tracy.
All of this is from Scott Eyman's ”John Wayne: The Life and Legend.“
The year ”The Last Hurrah" was filmed, by the way, was 1957: three years after the supposed demise of McCarthyism.
More, I'm sure, later.
Ward Bond: self-appointed cop for the far right in Hollywood.
Movie Review: Leninland (2013)
If people in an absurd situation realize they’re in an absurd situation, are they no longer absurd? Does the situation become tragic instead?
Moot point here, since no one in “Leninland,” a 53-minute documentary from Askold Kurov, thinks they’re in an absurd situation. They take it all very, very seriously.
In Gorki, Russia, where Vladimir Ilyich Lenin died, a museum to honor his legacy—as if he needed another one in the Soviet era—opened to the public in 1987. For the first three years, according to Natalya, a history teacher, it drew 3,000 visitors a week. Visitors fell off a bit in 1990. A year later, the U.S.S.R. was swallowed up by history. The museum still exists but now it draws 20 visitors a week—mostly Chinese tourists or field trips of Russian schoolchildren, who, when asked who Lenin was, guess the following:
- A leader
- A Russian
- A human
It’s a bit of a comedown from the days when Lenin was, in the Russian consciousness, a combination of Jesus Christ, Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse.
Lifeless in the death-mask room
On the plus side (for Lenin), he’s got Natalya and Evgenia, the bickering caretakers of the museum.
Evgenia is religious and sees Lenin in this light. He’s her opiate. Not her only one, either. She loves Jesus and Communism, too. You read that right: Jesus and communism. “The truth of the Lord was with the Bolsheviks,” she says at one point. “Great men do not die: they go to Heaven and keep working,” she says at another point. She says she’s at the museum as part of her spiritual journey. She could be from Portland or Seattle.
Natalya? She’s still a true believer: in Lenin, communism, and her way or the highway. You don’t mess. She overwhelms all of her opponents with words. We see her instructing a would-be tour guide at the museum not only on what he should say but on the proper way to point with his pen. When the town council talks up changing the museum from its Lenin-centric focus so that it might draw more tourists, she reminds everyone that Lenin is why the town is known. A beautiful red carpet used to adorn the Lenin “death mask” room, but it was taken for another, more important museum, and she laments its absence. “Now it’s just so lifeless in here,” she says of the death-mask room. You half expect her to say the rug really tied the room together.
Eventually she and Evgenia argue about spirituality versus matter/basic necessities. Their voices are calm but tense, as each strives to get in the last word and get her point-of-view understood. To be fair, as workplace arguments go, it beats Ginger vs. Mary Ann.
Throughout, I kept flashing back to that great line from George S. Patton in the George C. Scott movie: “Americans love a winner ... and will not tolerate a loser.” So with the Russians here. Lenin was the leader of a team that lost. He’s in the dustbin of history. He put Russia there. Why be reminded of that?
Or maybe it’s just franchise fatigue.
“Leninland” is a good doc: short, absurd, indicative of how far the country has come. In the end, a new museum director is appointed, and he’s got plans for the museum—Chinese stage shows, we learn, to bring in more Chinese tourists—but Natalya disputes them in front of everyone. Not smart. But he doesn’t go after her. Instead he points at Kurov and tells him to stop filming. The camera is dutifully lowered but continues recording. Then we hear the director telling him to delete the footage. “Stop and delete,” he says repeatedly. Obviously, Kurov doesn’t do this. He also says the following with the new director still nearby: “I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.”
Quote of the Day
“Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the N.R.A. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness; we don’t have to live like this?’ Too many have died. We should say to ourselves: not one more.”
-- Richard Martinez, father of Christopher Michael-Martinez, one of six people killed at UC Santa Barbara during a shooting spree on Friday. Adam Gopnik commends the speech in a post, “Christopher Michael-Martinez's father gets it right,” which is much recommended as well.
Weekend Box Office: Welcome Back, Bryan Singer; Go Away, Adam Sandler
Singer eyes the No. 1 spot.
I’m curious how often this happens.
The Rotten Tomatoes score of “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was 91% and it wound up grossing almost that number, $90 million, to win the weekend.
The Rotten Tomatoes score of the new Adam Sandler comedy, “Blended,” was 15% and it wound up grossing almost that, $14 million, to finish a distant third for the weekend.
Would be nice if this kind of correlation happened more often. Hollywood would strive to make better movies. But I know it’s a fluke.
Welcome back, Bryan Singer. That opening for “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is the second-best opening ever for an X-Men movie—surpassed only Brett Ratner’s abyssmal “X-Men: The Last Stand” in 2006, which grossed $102 million riding the good vibes of Bryan Singer’s previous X-Men movies. Ratner killed those vibes.
Go away, Adam Sandler. “Blended”’s opening is among Sandler’s worst. You sort out his high-brow work (“Spanglish,” “Reign Over Me,” “Punch-Drunk Love”), and ignore his first comedies back in the mid-90s when tickets cost so much less, and it’s actually his second-lowest opener after “That’s My Boy” in 2012. “Boy” went on to gross $36 million, which is about what “Blended” will do. If it’s lucky.
Meanwhile, “Godzilla,” which roared mightily opening weekend, fell mightily this one. It grossed $31.4 million for second place, a fall-off of 66.3%. That’s the second-worst second-weekend fall-off of the year—after “About Last Night,” which fell off 70% after its Valentine’s Day debut.
And in its fourth weekend, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” fell off by another 53% to gross $7 million. It will surely be the lowest-grossing Spider-Man movie ever:
- Spider-Man (2002): $403 million
- Spider-Man 2 (2004): $373.5 million
- Spider-Man 3 (2007): $336.5 million
- The Amazing Spider-Man (2012): $268 million
- The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014): $184 million and counting
That's unadjusted, too. It’s called franchise fatigue, Sony. Give it up. Let Spidey join the Merry Marvel Marching Society already.
Oh, right. Worldwide box office for “TAS2” is currently at $673 million. Thanks for nothing, China and Brazil.
The box office numbers.
Movie Review: Klumpfisken (The Sunfish) (2014)
The most macho thing I expect to see in the movies all year happened in “Klumpfisken” (“The Sunfish”), a slice-of-life Danish film from first-time writer-director Søren Ball.
Kesse (Henrik Birch), a third-generation fisherman from Hirthals, a provincial town in northern Jutland, is moving around on his boat at night too quickly, and falls and cuts his hand. Badly. Later he gets 20-25 stitches in it but now he doesn’t have the time. So what does he do?
He duct-tapes it. Take that, John Wayne.
Kesse, by the way, is moving around on his boat at night too quickly because he’s been illegally fishing over his quotas and selling the rest on the black market. Not because he’s shady but because he’s upstanding. He’s a decent man being squeezed by forces beyond his control: international economics, government regulations, and big fisheries.
A dying way of life
The movie opens on a typical day. Here’s Kesse on his boat on the ocean. Here he is telling first-mate Lars (Lars Torpp Thomsen) to watch the lines. Here’s the catch, the transfer, the inspection, the clean-up. He gets a meal, the same meal, goes home, watches TV, goes to bed, starts over. He’s a hard man to know. He also owes 100,000-150,000 krone. Because he’s a gambler? An alcoholic? Nope. It’s just what we’ve seen. He doesn’t make enough money to support the making of it.
Kesse’s real problem, besides being squeezed by all of the above, is Lars. He can’t afford to have him on but he can’t let him go, either. Lars’ father had been Kesse’s first mate, and he’d died in the nets, right in front of Lars when the kid was 13. There’s a sense that more than 150,000 krone is owed.
Kesse, in fact, doesn’t just not fire Lars; he takes on another hand, Gerd (Susanne Storm), a biologist from a university in Copenhagen doing a study on fishing populations. The government pays Kesse to have her on board. Even so, he initially views her as the enemy—someone who cares more about fishing populations than fishermen—but he warms to her, and she to him, and eventually a romance develops. He’s got charm but he’s truly provincial—rarely having traveled 15 km from Hirthals. They go for walks (where he misses all her signals), go to an aquarium, and scuba dive there. They watch the ccean sunfish or klumpfisken, a huge, ghastly-looking creature, swim by.
But the money he gets by having her temporarily on board won’t save him, so he succumbs to the inevitable: He lets Lars go. The precariousness of their situation apparently comes as news to Lars, who curses him, gets drunk, curses him some more. Lars is truly a waste of space; he’s there to make Kesse look good. Then Kesse makes a bad choice. Does he agree to take Lars back because he’s fishing over the quotas or is he fishing over the quotas in order to take Lars back? I assume the latter. He’s going to save his friend, or “friend,” and his business, by embracing illegality. The downfall of every good man.
This works well once, twice. The third time, his contact doesn’t show, and he’s forced to move the extra fish to his home, where Gerd awaits. “I thought you were better than this,” she says, leaving. So did he, he realizes, and lets Lars go again. With the illegal fish still in his garage? Bad move. That night, instead of his contact, it’s the inspectors who arrive, tipped off by Lars. Kesse is fined and temporarily loses his license. But he can’t afford temporarily so he loses it all.
These are the circumstances that finally propel him out of Hirthals and onto the train to Copenhagen. To be with Gerd? Will she take him? Who knows? The point for writer-director Søren Ball is to get him out of town. Fin. No pun intended.
The klumpfisken is apparently the biggest, heaviest bony fish in the world, but ... is it also supposed to be Kesse? Something that shouldn’t exist anymore? Something almost prehistoric? Early on, Kesse’s friend calls him a dinosaur. So maybe that’s it. Even so, as a metaphor, it hardly resonates.
“Klumpfisken” is a quiet, matter-of-fact film that’s altogether too quiet and matter-of-fact. It’s interesting only in a “National Geographic” kind of way. For me, there’s just not enough story there. The better story—what does a man who has lost everything, including the only home he’s ever known, do?—begins exactly at the moment we leave.
Miss Me Yet? Part III
“We had a couple of meetings with [Pres. George W. Bush], and there were detailed discussions and briefings on cyber-security and often terrorism, and on a classified program. With the cyber-security meeting, he seemed—I was disturbed because he seemed to be trying to impress us, the people who were briefing him. It was as though he wanted these experts, these White House staff guys who had been around for a long time before he got there—[he] didn’t want them buying the rumor that he wasn’t too bright. He was trying—sort of overly trying—to show that he could ask good questions, and kind of yukking it up with Cheney.
”The contrast with having briefed his father and Clinton and Gore was so marked. And to be told, frankly, early in the administration, by Condi Rice and [her deputy] Steve Hadley, you know, 'Don’t give the president a lot of long memos, he’s not a big reader.' Well, shit. I mean, the president of the United States is not a big reader?“
-- Richard Clarke, chief White House counterterrorism adviser, from Vanity Fair's ”An Oral History of the Bush Administration"
Quote of the Day
“I felt like it was crushing the soul out of me. But it's still not as bad as 'Grown-Ups 2.'”
The Best Thing I've Seen So Far at SIFF
Before the screening of “Leninland” at SIFF Uptown today they showed a short film. I had no idea they were going to do this, so for the first part of the short I assumed we were watching “Leninland,” about a museum dedicated to Vladimir Lenin in Gorky, Russia, which opened in 1987. More on that later.
This obviously wasn’t that. The camera focused on an older couple in a car. Klára (Judit Pogány) is overweight and in the passenger seat. Her first words warn about the speed limit. At one point she tells her husband, Vilmos (Zsolt Kovács) to turn left, then adds, “Be careful—cars are coming from the opposition direction,” as if he’s never turned left before. She doesn’t do this nastily. She just does it. And she keeps doing it.
Vilmos is a bit intense behind the wheel. At times he gets angry. Early on, he says he’s going to record her one day so she can hear what she sounds like, and eventually he does this. He takes out the small recorder and places it triumphantly on the dashboard. She’s taken aback, stares at the thing, then sits in uncomfortable silence for 15, maybe 30 seconds, chomping at the bit. Finally she just starts talking again in the usual manner: watch out for this, the speed limit is that, what’s this road called again? He gives a small cry. It could be a cry of triumph or frustration. Maybe some combination.
I don’t want to give it away, but if you have a chance to see this Hungarian short, called “Újratervezés” (“My Guide”), do. It’s subtle, sweet, funny, poignant.
Other SIFF 2014 reports:
- How do you solve a problem like SIFF?
- SIFF's Opening Night: Red carpet and Freudian slips
- Nine Thoughts a Week into SIFF
Movie Review: Muse of Fire (2013)
If this doesn’t kill documentaries starring the documentarian, nothing will.
The subject is a great one. Shakespeare: Why does he resonate? Why are we scared of him? Does he still matter? How is he taught and how is that a problem? What the hell is iambic pentameter anyway?
Most of the talking heads are great ones, too: Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Derek Jacobi, Brian Cox, John Hurt, Tom Hiddleston, Jude Law, Ewan McGregor. On and on. The missing link is Sir Kenneth Branagh, the finest Shakespeare interpreter I’ve heard.
And our guides for all of this? Dan Poole and Giles Terera, two out-of-work, late thirties British actors, children of “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” who, four years ago, for reasons that remain vague, decided to make this documentary. They spend much of it telling us how difficult it was to make it. Dan, in particular, does this. He almost seems to resent us for watching. Other times he’s giddy and goofy. Does he think their bits together are good? Pissing in this field? Taking the piss out of each other? Eating fast food? When he was on screen, I kept flashing to that scene in “Annie Hall” when Alvy is forced to watch an unfunny stand-up comedy routine: “Look at him mincing around. Thinks he’s real cute, you want to throw up ...”
Their holy grail keeps changing. Oh, if only they could interview Sir Ian McKellen. Hey, they get him! Oh, Jude Law’s playing “Hamlet” in London but they can’t get tickets. Bugger. But wait, there’s a special show at Elsinore Castle in Denmark! And they get to interview him there! Hey, you know how both of us only got into Shakespeare, really understood him, when Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” was released in 1996? So imagine interviewing Baz, the Wizard of Baz, all the way in Hollywood, right? Guess what?
“We couldn’t believe it!”
That’s a line we keep hearing, as the thing they want to happen happens. Did they try to get other things to happen? Interview Leonardo DiCaprio about playing Romeo or Claire Danes on Juliet? Did they try to get Branagh? Why only talk up the successes? More, why were they successes? How did these two blokes, without even the dignity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, get to interview these famous folk? Did one lead to another lead to another? “Oh, you got Sir Derek? OK, then.”
Reading Shakespeare like Vonnegut
On the plus side, I kept thinking of my own experiences with Shakespeare.
We first read him in ninth grade, “Romeo and Juliet,” and then watched the Franco Zeffirelli version of the movie, during which all the boys fell in love with Olivia Hussey and all the girls fell in love with Michael York. I didn’t get that one. Weren’t they supposed to fall for Romeo? Tybalt’s an asshole; he’s the cause of much of the tragedy. I had so much to learn.
Shakespeare didn’t really take for me until college. We were reading “Othello,” Act 1, Scene 1, going through the motions of this passage:
Zounds, sir, you’re robbed! For shame, put on your gown.
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.
Then the professor took over and read the passage with verve and left no doubt the meaning of tupping. “Ohhh,” I thought. By the time I arrived in Seattle in 1991 I was reading Shakespeare regularly. I remember turning pages of “King Lear” on lunch breaks as if it were as easy to read as Kurt Vonnegut. Later, when I worked in the warehouse at the University Book Store, and I got tired of listening to music on my walkman, I switched to BBC productions of Shakespeare: “Hamlet” starring Branagh and “King Lear” starring John Gielgud. That last was the one for me. Branagh was in this one, too, as Edmund, and I kept listening to his soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2: the “Why bastard? Wherefore base?” speech. He made it sound contemporary. He brought it to life.
That’s the key. Make it resonate. I believe it’s Steven Berkoff in the doc who says you should always put the actors in modern clothes. Update the setting to bring out the universal in the words.
Most of the American actors says Brits do Shakespeare better, but some Brits say Shakespeare and his contemporaries probably sounded more American. They also say that some of the best interpreters have been American: Brando in “Julius Caesar,” for example. Me, I thought of Dustin Hoffman as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” on Broadway, which my friend Dean and I were lucky enough to see in 1989.
At some point I expected clips—Brando, Leo, Ian McKellen’s great opening of “Richard III”—but I suppose they cost too much. You can watch them for free on YouTube but they cost too much for these guys to put in the doc. That’s a shame. But surely some Shakespeare movies are in the public domain? According to IMDb.com, more than 1200 versions of Shakespeare’s plays have been filmed in some manner, starting in 1898 with a short version of “Macbeth.” Couldn’t they have given us some of that history? Instead of another shot of Dan pissing in a field?
A few of their road trips are worth it. A British man, with great enthusiasm, teaches Shakespeare in prison, where lines such as Lady Macbeth’s “What’s done cannot be undone,” have a particular resonance. They go to Madrid to see a Spanish production of “Henry VIII,” where one of the actors professes amazement that Shakespeare could so perfectly delineate not just the modern woman but the modern Spanish woman.
Why Shakespeare? Judi Dench recites some lines, then, nodding her head, says, “Now if you’d written that, you’d be up all night looking at yourself in the mirror.”
“I don’t know any actor at the end of their career saying, 'What a waste of time all of that Shakespeare was,'” adds Ian McKellen.
Maybe Tom Hiddleston sums it up best: “He speaks to every man and every woman in every age in every time.”
I couldn’t agree more. I just wanted better guides.
9 Thoughts a Week into SIFF 2014
The Seattle International Film Festival is a week old tonight. A few thoughts:
- The bearded guy in the SIFF membership ad? I like him—particularly the bit with the champagne. But before every SIFF screening?
- Same with the “Cinescape” ad. Clever and fun, but it goes too fast to get the feel for all the movies they’re experiencing. And before every SIFF screening?
- That said, my favorite bit in the above is the woman seeing herself in the lineup of “The Usual Suspects.” That dopey, sexy Benicio looks she gives us. That’s dead on.
- The opening night party needed a little more food and a little less chocolate. Even Patricia thought that. Actually, she thought it first.
- The Egyptian screwed up the subtitles for the first five minutes of the Norwegian film, “In Order of Disappearance,” so they were out of sync with the action. The last time I experienced this? At the Egyptian for a SIFF movie.
- Even so, I’m glad the Egyptian’s back. Thanks, SIFF.
- The theater for Wednesday night’s screening of the 218-minute-long Holocaust documentary, “The Last of the Unjust,” was ridiculously hot and stuffy. Tough enough sitting that long for a Holocaust doc; you’ve got to lose the air conditioning? It was like a cattle car in there.
- I asked the woman in charge at SIFF Uptown to turn up the air conditioning, twice, but she said there was no more she could do. It was as high as it could go. “It’s an old building,” she said. “Well, there’s a lot of old people in there,” I said. And I wasn’t even referring to me.
- In the end, that, plus some health matters, plus the length and breadth of the movie, made me walk out of “Unjust” after about 140 minutes. This morning I felt like a wimp.
So excluding “Unjust,” here are my favorites so far:
- “In Order of Disappearance,” Norway
- “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” USA
- “Dior and I,” France
- “The Bit Player,” Philippines
- “Chinese Puzzle,” France
- “Muse By Fire,” UK
Dead on: Benicio's dopey, sexy look.
Trailer: Life Itself (2014), a Documentary on Roger Ebert
The trailer looks so-so, to be honest, but I've heard good things. Fingers crossed.
A Born Liar, Now Convicted
“The idea that the [Obama] administration would be in any way 'rattled' by D’Souza’s documentary is highly unlikely. '2016' spins a cockamamie theory that President Obama is using his power to diminish America’s standing in the world in order to fulfill the aspirations of the father he never knew. It’s a derp-fest for the high-brow anti-Obama zealot who believes the president is a “Third World anti-colonial” and also demands slick production values.”
-- Simon Malloy, “The Right's Favorite Criminal: Inside the hopeless obsession with Dinesh D'Souza,” on Salon.com.
I particularly like “derp-fest.” But not as much as I like the schadenfreude of D'Souza's troubles.
What Billy Martin said of both Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner can now be said of just D'Souza: a born liar, now convicted.
Ward Bond: Oaf, Loudmouth, Anti-Semite
Ward Bond doesn't come off too well in Scott Eyman's biography “John Wayne: The Life and Legend.” He was a member of the Ford-Wayne alchoholic Irishmen club, but I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about his association with the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance and the Hollywood blacklist. Eyman writes:
Ward Bond was extremely busy; always in demand as a character actor, he now began to function as a self-appointed Inspector Javert, checking out the anticommunist bona fides of various actors, writers and directors.
In 1947, Anthony Quinn came hat-in-hand to Bond. Film parts were falling through for him because he was a member of the Actor's Lab, which the MPA considered a communist organization. “You a commie, Tony, a red?” Bond asked as he sat on the toilet. Right: the toilet. Prefiguring LBJ. Quinn denied it. He said he was true blue. Bond gave him a pass.
Nunnally Johnson, the screenwriter for John Ford's “The Grapes of Wrath,” referred to the MPA as “that Duke Wayne-Ward Bond outfit,” adding:
So many outrageous things went on that made me ashamed of the whole industry ... think of John Huston having to go and debase himself to an oaf like Ward Bond ...
Actor James Lydon piles on:
Duke was just a private citizen and he kept his beliefs private. Now, Ward Bond was a thickheaded loudmouth ... He was the one screaming all sorts of things that nobody else cared about.
It gets worse. John Ford owned eight acres in Receda, which became a rehabiliation center for both veterans of Ford's movie and veterans of U.S. wars. Syd Kronenthal was the supervisor—he was also hired to help Marlon Brando play a paraplegic in his first film role—and he remembers the Ford team getting drunk all the time:
They were all very right-wing, and when they got loaded they'd start spewing anti-Semitic remarks. The worst of them was Victor McLaglen, and Ward Bond was anti-Semitic as hell. They either didn't know I was Jewish or they forgot.
And I'm only up to page 200.
Ward Bond as Bert the cop in “It's a Wonderful Life,” a movie the Motion Picture Alliance would condemn for its negative portrayal of bankers and businessmen.
Movie Review: Dior and I (2014)
Frédéric Tcheng’s documentary “Dior and I,” whose title is a play on Dior’s own memoir, “Christian Dior and I,” concerns the first haute couture collection from Belgian fashion designer and new Christian Dior S.A. creative director Raf Simons in the summer of 2012. It’s a behind-the-scenes look, a “How things get done” documentary, that misses, or glosses over, or assumes we know, the high drama surrounding it all. But we don’t. At least I didn’t. I had to look it up. I had to keep asking Patricia.
It’s rare when anything in our culture does this, by the way: ignores the gossipy drama for the quotidian detail. I feel like I should applaud.
Will the couture be haute enough?
Here’s the drama: In February 2011, Dior creative director John Galliano was recorded spouting anti-Semitic remarks to a Jewish woman, including “I love Hitler,” and “People like you would be dead today.” Two days later, the House of Dior suspended him. A week later, he was fired. Bill Gaytten was hired as head designer interim but his first show (for Fall-Winter 2011) was poorly received, and into this mess Raf Simons was hired to save the fashion house. He had eight weeks in which to create his premiere fashion line.
Most of this backstory is glossed over. One wonders if there was a quid pro quo. Sure, kid, you’ll get access to the House of Dior ... just don’t mention Galliano.
The drama in the doc is much less scandalous. Raf (he’s always Raf) is hired away from Jil Sander, which makes ready-made rather than custom-designed clothing, so there’s some concern that his couture won’t be haute enough. He likes simpler designs than the more flamboyant Galliano. He’s also a bit distant, with doubt and concern in his eyes. He reminds me of some combination of a shorter Daniel Day Lewis and a minor James Bond villain. Plus he’s Belgian but doesn’t speak French? You don’t quite know what to make of the guy.
His right-hand man, on the other hand, Pieter Mulier, has big, wide-set eyes, and a quiet, friendly manner, and you find yourself warming to him even before the various Dior ateliers reveal their love of Pieter and their own doubts about Raf. For a time, I wondered if the Raf/Pieter dynamic would be like the Anna Wintour/Grace Coddington dynamic in R.J. Cutler’s excellent 2009 documentary “The September Issue”: the assistant who makes things work for the haughty boss. Nope. No one ever warms to Anna Wintour—it’s not encouraged by her nature or name—but by the end of this doc we warm considerably to Raf. Even before he breaks down. Even before he reveals his heart.
We get bits of the fashion-house history—Dior’s post-World War II “New Look” that took the world by storm—but nothing on when Dior died (1957), or how many creative directors the House of Dior has had (Raf is the seventh), or what premiere fashion shows generally look like. But this tendency to film the present rather than regurgitate the past reflects Raf’s own philosophy. “The past is not romantic to me,” he says at one point. “The future is romantic to me.”
Spray paint and duct tape
Shouldn’t it be “Dior and Us”? Early on, Raf says fashion is about dialogue, it’s a collaboration, and we get a long-running exchange between Raf, Pieter and the various ateliers who make it all work. (A direct translation of atelier, by the way, would be seamstress, but that’s a more loaded word in America, conjuring up immigrant drudgery rather than couture artistry.)
Dior has two head ateliers, both of whom manage large staffs and take care of not only the demands of Dior’s creative director but its many wealthy clients. At one point, for example, days before his premiere, Raf can’t find one of his head ateliers. Turns out she’s in New York. A client, who spends €350,000 a year at Dior, wants a personal fitting and gets one. That’s a fascinating dynamic. Which client do you serve: the wealthy patron or the creative director? Raf, at this point, feels short-changed.
There are other frustrations for him. Parisian engravers can’t give him the fabric he wants when he wants it. He recreates Dior’s classic Bar jacket in white but days before the show he wants to see it in black. Can’t be done, he’s told. So they improvise: they spray-paint it black. It may be high fashion in Paris, but we’re only a step or two above duct tape here. One of his more outlandish requests is a wall of flowers in the beautiful old French building where the premiere will take place. It seems absurd in theory but magical in practice. Maybe that’s what fashion is all about.
So? Is Raf’s premiere show a hit? It is, but I can’t tell you why, anymore than someone from, say, Togo, can tell you why the Seattle Mariners won last night. The skinny models are dressed up in Raf’s designs, they walk up the stairs and past the walls of flowers and the various studious celebrities in attendance; then there’s applause. And that’s it. Success! The new New Look.
Je n'adore pas “Dior and I” but I appreciate it. It’s about people who work. It’s an unglamorous look at the creation of the glamorous life.
Movie Review: Jimi: All Is By My Side (2014)
John Ridley’s “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” a biopic of Jimi Hendrix starring André (3000) Benjamin, is a bit like touring with a rock band: You get flashes of electricity and excitement amid long stretches of tedium.
The movie gives us the life and times of Jimi Hendrix in the year before he broke at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. That alone got me interested. A biopic that’s not the whole life? That’s not this reductive childhood scene, and that reductive teenage scene, and then the long slow rise leading to the burst of fame and recognition? Ah, but then the problems. Drugs? Exhaustion? Family strife? All of the above? The fall from grace. But then the speech! The resurrection! The return! And the final concert scene. And the star ascendant in his or her glory.
Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave,” has created a movie that is of its time in form as well as content. He uses the cinematic tricks of the New Wave, ascendant in ’66, to tell Jimi’s story: quick cuts and overlapping dialogue and silent flashbacks creeping bit by bit into a character’s consciousness. It gets in the way, to be honest. I became overly conscious of it. Ridley kept jolting me out of the story to tell me he was telling me a story.
And what is the story anyway?
In 1966, Jimi Hendrix, with Ike Turner bangs, is backing King Curtis at the Cheetah Club in New York when Keith Richards’ model girlfriend Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) sees him and is stunned. Backstage, they talk and listen to music: Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan. She talks anyway, he barely says a thing. When he does, it’s about Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde.” Not the music but the album cover. “I dig his hair,” he says. So he lets his own go. He develops that Jimi frizz.
Is he talented? The Rolling Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham (Robbie Jarvis) is unimpressed. “He’s nothing,” he tells Linda. “He’s rubbish.” But Chas Chandler, bassist for the Animals, sees Jimi and his jaw drops. Is this because Chas knows something Andrew doesn’t? Or because Jimi is a volatile artist who is dull one night and brilliant the next? I assumed the latter. After he blows it with Oldham, for example, Keith chastises him like a mother: “I am asking you to go up there and take the stage like you actually want to amount to something!” But Jimi doesn’t seem to get it.
Does he? Most of the movie takes place in Swingin’ London in ’66 and ’67, as a band is put together and Jimi trades one white groupie for another—Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), a volatile redhead—but throughout he’s a man more acted upon than acting. White people see things in him and push him on stage even as he seems comfortable within his own cloudy thoughts. It’s less “Are you experienced?” than “Are you driven?” He has drive, of course, it’s just understated. He wants to meet Clapton, then he wants to play with Clapton, then he blows a condescending Clapton off the stage. For a show at the Saville Theater, with Paul McCartney and George Harrison in attendance, he opens with the just released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and kills it. He’s telling the best of British rock: I’m here. Make room or get out of the way.
These scenes, and the confrontation with British Nation of Islam leader Michael X that dissolves amid Jimi’s good vibes, are the best part of the movie. But if you want to hear Hendrix’s music you’ve got to wait until you get home. His estate refused to license it without script approval, which Ridley refused to give. So there’s no “Foxy Lady,” “Fire,” or “Purple Haze.” We never make it to Monterey, either, just back to the San Francisco airport. To be honest, the movie ends well for ending suddenly; for ending not on a high note but a grace note. “You have an annoying way of being quite simply profound,” Etchingham tells him.
Haze, purple or otherwise
Benjamin, by the way, is stunning in the lead. He’s got it all down: the languid, sexy charm onstage, the amused, mumbled voice offstage; the gum-chewing cool that John Lennon appropriated for the “All You Need is Love” video. There’s also a shattering moment when he beats up Etchingham with a phone. It’s one of the better portrayals of a rock star I’ve seen.
But the movie suffers from the same problem as Hendrix: a lack of drive. It’s cinéma vérité stuff: this, then this, then this. Most of the conversations aren’t profound, simply or otherwise, and far too much screentime is devoted to his relationship with Etchingham, which is dull business. Ridley seems to want to explore the enigma that is Jimi Hendrix but Hendrix keeps eluding him with a smile.
Weekend Box Office: Oh No, You Say You’ve Got to Go, Go See ‘Godzilla’
Say its name.
How big is Godzilla? A little bigger than Spider-Man but not quite as big as Captain America.
The new “Godzilla” movie had the biggest opening-day gross of the year—$38.5 million, or about $1.5 million more than “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”—but its opening weekend fell short of Cap even as it bested “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”:
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier: $95 million
- Godzilla: $93.2 million
- The Amazing Spider-Man 2: $91.6 million
The tentpoles can’t seem to break the $100 million mark this year, can they? It’s 2001 all over again. Should studios be worried? Should cinephiles be gladdened? Are moviegoers in general just tired of all the noise, noise, noise? Or has a new stupid take on an old stupid story just not arrived yet?
I assume this last. I assume most moviegoers still just want to watch the cinematic world burn. Even as the real world is melting glaciers.
The other opener, “Million Dollar Arm” starring Jon Hamm, grossed only 10 times its title in 3,000+ theaters. No surprise. Even I, a fan of both baseball and “Mad Men,” wasn’t taken by its trailers.
“Neighbors,” the Seth Rogen-Zac Efront comedy, fell off 47% for second place and $25 million. It’s currently at $91 million. In its third weekend, Spidey fell of 52% for $16 million and third place. It’s now at $172 million, and seems unlikely to best the $272 million its predecessor grossed two years ago, which is the lowest gross of any Spider-Man movie. Domestic, that is. Worldwide, “TAS2” is already at $633 million. But that’s also the lowest worldwide gross of any Spider-Man movie.
I didn’t make it to “Godzilla” since I’ve been distracted by another monster, the Seattle International Film Festival. Thursday night was opening night, John Ridley's “Jimi: All Is By My Side,“ about Jimi Hendrix in '66 and '67; Friday I saw “Chinese Puzzle.” Last night, P and I took in the documentary “Dior and I” and today it's the Swedish thriller “In Order of Disappearance,” starring Stellan Skarsgård.
Updates and reviews to come.
Movie Review: Chinese Puzzle (2013)
“I have a problem with the ending,” the French publisher of French novelist Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris), now living in New York, tells him at the end of “Chinese Puzzle.” “It’s a horrendously happy ending.”
So it is. The middle is a problem, too.
The French publisher, by the way, knows we all want to be happy in life but we want drama and tragedy in fiction. Maybe. What he should have said is that we want drama and tragedy when we read but we want happy, Hollywood endings when we watch. That feels true but is it true? And if so, why? One assumes readers are more intelligent than watchers. But many of us are both—readers and watchers—so do we want different things depending on the medium? I probably find myself pulling for that happy ending more often in movies, even though, intellectually, I know it would be wrong; even though I know it would make the movie less resonant.
But I wasn’t rooting for the happy ending here. I was with the French publisher. The two of us should’ve grabbed a drink afterwards and bitched about the film.
La vie, c’est compliqué
A Chinese puzzle tends to be a complicated and intriguing thing—how do the pieces fit together?—but “Chinese Puzzle” leaves out the intriguing. It tends toward the superficial and downright silly.
Remember that old joke playing off the Army’s slogan, “See the world, meet interesting people—and kill them”? I feel something similar about writer-director Cédric Klapisch’s Xavier trilogy (L’Auberge Espagnol,” “Russian Dolls,” this). Except it’s “See the world, meet beautiful people, and fuck them.”
A year ago, as the film starts, Xavier was happy and content and living with his British wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly) and their two kids, Lucas and Jade (Amin Djakliou and Clara Abbasi), in Paris. But then they drift apart. Xavier’s best friend, Isabelle (Cécille de France), a lesbian, wants a child with her Chinese-American lover Ju (Sandrine Holt), and asks Xavier to provide the sperm. He does. Wendy doesn’t like it. Or something. And anyway she meets an American during a business trip to New York. Then she moves there with the kids. So he moves there to be near the kids. But now he’s out of his element. It’s like Barcelona again except he’s 40.
In a way the problem with the movie is that it is constructed like a Chinese puzzle: here’s this piece, and this piece, and this piece. Here’s this problem, and this problem, and this problem. They all build out but don’t construct much.
Once he moves to New York, he needs a place to live. Ju helps with that, but then he needs a job on a tourist visa. A fellow divorced dad helps with that (bike messenger), and we see him on that bike. Once. Then it’s forgotten. We also see him bartend. Once. Is that how he’s making a living? Isn’t he selling books in Paris? He’s a semi-successful novelist there, isn’t he? Or does he merely have the “small but loyal following” of a T.S. Garp?
For custody and immigration issues, he needs a lawyer, and gets a schlubby Jewish guy (Jason Kravitz), who suggests marrying an American. Guess what? Because he saves his Chinese cab driver from a pummeling, the driver’s nice-looking niece agrees to help. Mazel tov! But the INS ain’t buying it, and spends more man-hours questioning him and her than the CIA did in tracking bin Laden. Then there’s Isabelle. Yes, the baby is born, and that leads to the babysitter, a pretty young Belgian thing (Flore Bonaventura), which leads to an affair. It’s like Garp again but without the guilt. Is this when I began to lose interest? When I saw more beautiful French lesbians naked on the screen? The French are really stuck on that. So to speak. They don’t resolve it, either. Everyone works to shield Ju from Isabelle’s infidelity even as the severe INS officers arrive in the cramped third-floor walkup above the Chinese laundry to double-check on Xavier’s marriage. Life is so crazy!
The movie had promise, too. Early on, Xavier contemplates the difficulty of life going wrong, and mentions that, for an atheist like himself, this means falling back on the German philosophers. So they show up periodically—like Humphrey Bogart in “Play It Again, Sam.” There’s Schopenhauer on his bed dispensing advice. Later, in America, he imagines Hegel telling him, “All nothingness is the nothing of something,” which both Xavier and I liked. And then? Rien. C’est tout. Bummer. I was hoping to learn something. But like everything else in “Chinese Puzzle,” it starts and stops. It begins and goes nowhere.
C’est la vie
Life is messy—that’s the point of the movie—but this is a pretty neat version of messy. You get to be a trim, handsome Frenchman, your New York is both gritty and safe, and your fallback position is Martine (Audrey Tautou). Who’s near 40 now so apparently no one wants her anymore. C’est la vie.
“C’est la vie” used to mean, “Well, life kinda sucks; get used to it.” Here, la vie, c’est compliqué, mais extraordinaire. C’est hereux.
How happy is the ending? How Hollywood is it? Klapisch actually has Xavier run through the streets of New York to stop the girl from leaving. So they can all stay together and be happy together. And in the end they walk in one of New York’s many parades, and Xavier, with Martine by his side, exchanges greetings with the older Chinese dancer he sees every day in the park, whose own story means nothing; and whose appearance here is just another superficial, meaningless piece of the puzzle.
SIFF's Opening Night: Freudian Slips, the Resurrection of the Egyptian, and Sloppy Seconds on the Red Carpet
Three directors and an actress: The director and co-star of “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” John Ridley and Hayley Atwell, stand with SIFF's managing direcgor Mary Bacarella and artistic director Carl Spence, during the “red carpet experience” last night at the opening of the 40th Seattle International Film Festival. I went, but I wasn't experienced.
Last night, Patricia and I went to SIFF’s Opening Night festivities at McCaw Hall. We have gala passes this year, which means Opening Night (“Jimi: All Is By My Side,” a biopic of Jimi Hendrix), Closing Night (“The One I Love”), Centerpiece (Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”), the Saturday night screenings and parties, early seating, and, best of all, open bar. But it doesn’t include the “red carpet experience,” whatever that is. We did walk on the red carpet to get into McCaw Hall but maybe the experience was over by then. We were sloppy seconds on the red carpet. Are you experienced? We weren't.
It wasn’t a bad evening—getting dressed up to go to the movies—but it wasn’t exactly our crowd. What crowd was it? It felt like patrons. It felt like people better plugged in than we are. The movie, too, was a good try, but almost felt like touring with a rock band: you'd get flashes of brilliance amid long stretches of tedium. (Review up later.) McCaw Hall is also an interesting venue for a movie. You know how when you see people watching a movie within a movie? How there’s that echo effect in the theater? Like that.
Director John Ridley and star Hayley Atwell were there, but no André Benjamin, unfortunately (the best part of the movie). We also got a brief speech from Mayor Ed Murray, who told us that his favorite movie in high school was “Funny Girl,” which he went to see nine times. “By the ninth time,” he added, “my parents really should’ve known that I was gay.”
The good news is the expansion of SIFF: they’re buying SIFF Uptown in lower Queen Anne and reopening the Egyptian theater on Capitol Hill.
The Freudian slip of the night belonged to SIFF’s managing director Mary Bacarella, who thanked SIFF’s board of directors for their hard work “all year wrong.” So with many boards.
The party afterwards, across the way from McCaw, amid strobe lights, was a search to find something that wasn’t chocolate.
Quote of the Day
”He threw his . . . body around like a lightweight gymnast. His acting was honest, which is a good deal better than clever; he lived life with gusto; and he was already beginning to think of himself as some kind of political pundit, but we all make mistakes.”
-- Director Edward Dmytryk on John Wayne, his leading man in the film “Back to Bataan” (1945), one of the many war movies John Wayne made during the war years, as quoted in Scott Eyman's biography, “John Wayne: The Life and Legend.” Apparently Wayne was also proto-anti-feminist, even when it came to Wacs and Waves serving overseas. Dmytryk would go on to direct “Crossfire” (1947) and “The Caine Mutiny” (1954).
John Wayne leading the charge ... on screen.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like SIFF?
“Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter,” about a “Fargo”-obsessed Japanese girl who travels to Minnesota, is one of the films I'll be seeing at SIFF this year.
How do you solve a problem like the Seattle International Film Festival? Two-hundred and seventy-six movies from around the world and you've heard of maybe five of them. And you have four weeks. Go.
My friend Vinny simply figures out which country he doesn't know well and/or wants to know more about, and simply goes to see its movies. This year's theme for him is apparently Eastern Europe. He's going to see “Quod Erat Demonstrandum” from Romania, “The Japanese Dog” from Romania, “Tangerines” from Estonia, “Clownwise” from the Czech Republic, and “40 Days of Silence” from Uzbekistan. Not a bad strategy. Unless you wind up with dogs and clowns and Latin. But if you go to any of these movies, say hi. Vinny's nothing if not friendly.
Me, I tend to look through the SIFF guide, pick out what's interesting, and then check out its IMDb rating before buying anything.
Yeah, this can be problematic, too. “The Case Against 8,” for example, a documentary about the Prop 8 battle in California and the fight for marriage equality, is on the docket, but its IMDb rating is 5.2 Why? Homophobes and right-wing nuts. So you parse out that lot. Basically you look for something in the 7s. About 7.5 is nice. Above 8? You grow suspicious. That's a bit too high. Is it a TV show? Yes, it is. Below 6.5 and you grow wary again. Too low. Anything in the 5s, unless it's “The Case Against 8” this year or the Wikileaks doc last year, you avoid. Or I do.
Easy movies, too, get high IMDb ratings. Crowd pleasers. Difficult movies, like Terrence Malick's movies, less so. You just need to figure out which difficult movies are your kind of difficult movies. I guess that's the battle.
I wound up not going to “8” this year because it'll be on HBO soon enough (sorry) and because I already interviewed its principles in January. I also didn't get tickets for movies I really want to see—“The Congress,” “Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above,” “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger”—because schedules conflicted. So it goes.
These were what I wound up with, sorted by IMDb rating:
|The Trip to Italy||UK||8.2|
|Muse of Fire||UK||8.1|
|In Order of Disappearance||Norway||7.8|
|The Bit Player||Philippines||7.6|
|The Last of the Unjust||France/Austria||7.4|
|Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter||Japan||7.4|
|The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared||Sweden||7.1|
|The Better Angels||USA||6.8|
|Our Sunhi||South Korea||6.8|
|Charlie Chaplin shorts||USA||n/a|
To be honest, some of my choices simply related to proximity. “Chinese Puzzle,” for example, will be showing in a place and time that's easy for me. So why not?
But it's all a crapshoot and SIFF doesn't make it any easier. Why not, on its website, give us a sortable table of every movie in the program with relevant data? Right? So you can at least sort by title and country and genre? Wouldn't that help?
With the schedule this year, they included top picks from its half dozen programmers, which is interesting, but it's only helpful if we know what that programmer liked in the past. If, for example, the programmer says their favorite recent SIFF movies have included “The First Grader” and “Frances Ha,” well, they're not for me. If, on the other hand, they liked “Restrepo,” “A Hijacking” and “The Act of Killing,” then I'm theirs. So wouldn't that make sense? To include that? SIFF?
Last year I lucked out. The year before, less so. This year? Who knows? Crapshoot.
Oh, I also have the gala pass. So that includes, among others, the Jimi Hendrix biopic (at the opening, tonight, open bar), and Richard Linklater's “Boyhood.”
Fuck, I'm going to be busy.
What about you? How do you solve a problem like SIFF?
SIFF also needs help with their posters.
Quote of the Day
“I have a lifelong aversion to people who don’t know things acting like not knowing is the default position. In high school, I once had someone make me feel really dumb because I had read Moby Dick (it was a fluke, I admit; I had not read any other classics as a kid) … and it affected me. It really did. It made me think it was uncool to know things. It made me embarrassed to raise my hand and say something because not knowing was cooler. That sort of downward pressure drives me nuts.”
-- Joe Posnanski, “Knowing Arky,” on a post about a trivia question during a Royals game. And no, Arky isn't the answer to the trivia question. But in the midst of it all, this gem of a paragraph. The first sentence in particular. I'm with him 100%. It's the worst part of this country. It's the worst part of cool.
Wait'll They Get a Load of Me: Ben Affleck as Batman
So the internet went apeshit yesterday over the photo director Zack Snyder tweeted of Ben Affleck in costume on the set of the new “Batman vs. Superman” movie:
I like how Snyder used hashtags after the photo: #Batman #Batmobile #Gotham. As if the news wouldn't have gotten out otherwise.
I have qualms about all of this, of course. One, Batman vs. Superman is always a stupid concept, since Batman can barely hold his own against the Joker and Riddler, and Superman is, you know, Superman: superstrong, invulnerable, heat vision, flight, etc. Two, it's still Synder, and Snyder's never directed anything decent. The opposite, usually.
And three, Affleck, for all of his talents, doesn't project the intensity Batman is supposed to have. Here's something I wrote in 2008:
Christian Bale is the perfect choice for the caped crusader. He’s tall, dark, good-looking, and even before Batman, and certainly after, he tends to play intense, off-kilter guys, and that’s what you want for Bruce Wayne. This is a man, after all, who can do anything he wants with his wealth and chooses to put on cape and cowl and prowl the night in search of crime. He’s got to have a big chunk of himself missing. He’s got to be lost within his own passion. So why not use an actor lost within his own passion?
Has Affleck projected this in any role? He feels sleepy to me. The best acting I've seen him do was as George Reeves, TV's Superman in the 1950s, which was about the absurdity of a grown-up playing a strong man in tights. Now that's the norm. Now that's the goal. Which is the biggest qualm of all.
Oh well. As the saying goes: “Be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then be Batman.”
This is me in about ... 1967? During the Adam West Batman craze, no doubt. The cape is Batman's, the mask is Robin's, the belly is all mine.
Movie Review: Fading Gigolo (2014)
In an eighth-season episode of “M*A*S*H,” a beautiful war correspondent (Susan St. James) ignores the advances of Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) because she’s completely smitten by, and keeps making passes at, B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell). The episode was written and directed by Farrell. Nice work if you can get it.
I flashed back to that long-forgotten episode while watching “Fading Gigolo,” a light comedy written and directed by John Turturro. In it, Turturro plays Fioravante, a part-time florist/bookseller in Brooklyn, who, at the behest of his friend and mentor Murray (Woody Allen), becomes a gigolo, and winds up being paid to have sex with, among others, Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara.
Nice work if you can get it.
Should we worry about the ego it takes to create this kind of story? “I will write and direct a character, whom I will play, who is unassuming but considered sexy by everyone around him; and who will have sex with many sexy women and fall in love with one beautiful woman.” Or should we just consider whether it’s worth our time?
It’s not really worth our time.
Woody on trial
The best thing about “Fading Gigolo” is Woody Allen. He’s funnier than he’s been in years.
At one point, for example, members of the Shomrim, a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood watch group, take Woody/Murray into custody, and he tells them, in his hapless, stammering manner, “I think you’ve got the wrong guy—I’ve already been circumcised.” I burst out laughing. Later, as they lead him into a basement tenement, he says, “Why are you taking me here? What holiday is this?” Are these Turturro’s lines? Did Woody improvise? Whatever, it worked.
To be honest, this should’ve been the movie, or at least the framework for the movie. Murray is being put on trial for crimes against … the neighborhood? His faith? His lack of? What power does this Hasidic court have? Woody’s lawyer, Sol (Bob Balaban in baseball cap), seems to take it seriously. But it would’ve made a great framing device: Woody on trial, and flashbacks to how he got there: the crimes real and imagined and non-existent.
Instead, in the movie, he starts out simply as a guy losing his business: M. Schwartz & Sons: Rare and Used Books. “These days,” he laments to his assistant, Fioravante, “only rare people buy rare books.” In nearly the same breath, he mentions that his dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Stone), wants her and her friend, Selima (Vergara), to engage in a ménage a trois with someone, but they can’t find that someone. So Murray tells Fioravante that he suggested him. And thus the world’s oldest partnership begins.
I didn’t buy it. Turturro as gigolo, yeah, whatever. But women like Stone and Vergara can’t find a man to engage in a ménage? Honey, open a phone book.
But I particularly didn’t buy the rest of it. Murray winds up in a Hasidic neighborhood, where he visits Avigal (a stunning Vanessa Paradis), the wife of a deceased rabbi, who’s still in mourning, and who exudes loneliness. So Murray hooks her up with Fioravante.
Does he mean for sex? Paid sex? This woman who can’t show her hair to another man and must wear a kerchief or wig all the time? Does he communicate this to Fioravante? Does Turturro as writer-director communicate it to us? It was both unbelievable and obvious: unbelievable the way it’s set up and obvious the way it turns out. I immediately assumed Fioravante would help open up Avigal, and they would fall in love, and he would give up the gigolo business.
And that’s pretty much what happens.
A sop to Spike
Dovi (Liev Schrieber), a member of the Shomrim, is the wild card. He’s in love with Avigal, and he follows her to make sure nothing bad happens to her. And she leads him to Fioravante, who leads him to Murray, which leads us to the trial. Another sex-crime trial for Woody Allen.
Ultimately, Avigal helps exonerate Murray, and near the end, Dovi drives Avigal to Fioravante’s place, where, instead of embracing Fioravante, she says her good-byes. Because she’s to be with Dovi. Does she love Dovi the way he loves her? We never got a sense of it before. But it wraps things up neatly. Like stays with like. The Mediterranean is again used to open up, sexually and spiritually, the repressed northerner.
There are other oddities throughout. For some reason—a humorous sop to Spike Lee?—Woody, who is 78, is married to, or living with, a middle-aged black woman, Othella (Tonya Pinkins), and they have … five kids? Are they his? How old is Murray supposed to be anyway? During the gigolo montage—women being pleasured, money changing hands—Fioravante has an encounter outside a hotel with a beautiful prostitute (model Eugenia Kuzmina), who is trying to solicit him, and he turns her down. Not nicely, either. At the end, in the neighborhood diner, they meet another beautiful, unattached woman (supermodel Loan Chabanol), who is the Autumn to the Summer of Avigal; she’s the future fish in the sea for Fioravante. Because that’s how filmmakers like to end these types of movies: with the unattached supermodel just waiting for the unremarkable guy to say a few unremarkable words. As in life.
“Fading Gigolo” has a certain soporific charm, and it does well by its mostly Brooklyn locations, and it has a nice soundtrack of not-bad, soporific standards. But … yeah. I found myself nodding off halfway through. I wanted to tell Turturro, who was working so hard, “Wake me up when you’re done.”
Quote of the Day
“Wayne was slinking around Fox, embarrassed about the failure of The Big Trail, utterly demoralized by Girls Demand Excitement, when he ran into Will Rogers, the biggest star on the lot. Rogers saw that Wayne was down and asked what the trouble was. Wayne explained his situation, and the sensible Rogers told him, ‘You’re working, aren’t you? Just keep working.’”
— from Scott Eyman’s “John Wayne: The Life and Legend.” Wayne considered it the best advice he ever got, and it is great advice. I'm only 7% of the way through the book (Kindle gives percentages rather than pages numbers, which is really, really annoying), but so far the book is excellent: well-written and well-researched.
Weekend Box Office: 'Neighbors' Shocks
I don’t get it.
Apparently neither does Box Office Mojo. Even after “Neighbors” earned $2.56 million during Thursday midnight showings—meaning it might do near $50 million over the weekend—BOM’s updated forecast still predicted something closer to $35 million.
Instead, weekend estimates have it at $51 million.
Is it Seth Rogen? Doubtful. His best non-animated opening was “The Green Hornet” in January 2011: $33 million. His best live-action comedy opening was “Knocked Up” in 2007: $30 million. He’s not hugely popular and he’s got a laugh like a slushee.
Is it Zac Efron? Doubtful. His previous best non-animated opener was “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” which grossed $42 million in 2008. His most recent movie, “That Awkward Moment,” opened in January against no competition whatsoever, and grossed just $8.7 million.
Is it the concept? The combination of John Belushi comedies? Instead of the obnoxious guy moving next door it’s the obnoxious frat.
Is it the abs? In the ads?
Is it the love of all things fraternity?
Whatever it is, it’s the 11th-best R-rated opener ever, and the third-biggest R-rated comedy opener ever—after “The Hangover Part II” and “Ted.”
American moviegoers, you fffffascinate me.
Elsehwere, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” fell of 59% to gross $37 million for second place. In 10 days, it’s now made less ($147 million) than “Spider-Man 3” did in three days ($151). But it’s killing overseas: $403 million in foreign rentals.
“The Other Woman” hangs in there ($9.2 million for $61 total), as does “Heaven is for Real” ($7 million, $75 total). “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” earned another $5.6 million for $244 million. It’s about $10 million away from eclipsing “The LEGO Movie” as the year’s biggest movie. Until summer movies come along. Or late spring movies.
Good news of a less-perplexing nature? “The Grand Budapest Hotel” made another $1.4 million (11th place), and is now the highest-grossing Wes Anderson movie.
Shorter Sorkin: Michael Lewis Focuses on Problem I Never Bothered to Write About
Last month I read Michael Lewis' “Flash Boys: a Wall Street Revolt,” in which the author of “Liar's Poker,” “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side” argues that high-frequency trading has created a rigged game on Wall Street, in which high-frequency traders can utilize faster speeds to figure out what we're doing before we do it, then act as middlemen in the transaction: buying what we were about to buy and selling it back to us at a higher price. Basically they're front-running trades. Legally.
But there's been pushback against the book by, among others, Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times. I meant to check out his critique after reading the book. I finally did this week.
Sorkin basically agrees with Lewis that there is a problem and the game is rigged, or “rigged”: “(There remain a host of other problems that still make it 'rigged'),” he writes. He just feels Lewis is blaming the wrong people:
He points mostly to the hedge funds and investment banks engaged in high-frequency trading. But Mr. Lewis seemingly glosses over the real black hats: the big stock exchanges, which are enabling — and profiting handsomely — from the extra-fast access they are providing to certain investors.
Of course Lewis does write about the exchanges, particularly Bats. In fact, the whole narrative of the book is built around the creation of a new exchange, IEX, one designed to be more fair—to offer, in a sense, exchange neutrality.
Even so, it's interesting that Sorkin agreed there was a problem. So I assumed he'd written about high-frequency trading before.
He has. A search on the Times website (for “high frequency trading” and “By Andrew Ross Sorkin”) yielded, when you parsed out the Dealbook/Times duplicates, three results.
The first, “A Lack of Transparency In S.E.C. Disclosure Rule” from November 2010, is about the troubling way the SEC allows corporations to release their earnings reports: on their website rather than as a press release issued simultaenously to hundreds of news services. The HFT reference? About halfway through:
In an age of high-frequency trading when every millisecond counts — even in after-hours trading — the move toward companies’ distributing earnings and other market-moving information via their Web sites rather than through wider distribution channels raises some serious questions about transparency.
It's the super-fast age we live in. But there's no critique of it.
The second column, “Volatility, Thy Name is E.T.F.” from October 2011, deals with the new volatility of the stock market, including the flash crash of May 2010. The HFT reference? That it wasn't the problem.
The third column is his critique of Lewis and “Flash Boys.” He calls the book important. He writes this:
Mr. Lewis’s well-crafted narrative highlights a perverse system on Wall Street that has allowed certain professional investors to pay hundreds of millions of dollars a year to locate their computer servers close to stock exchanges so they can make trades milliseconds ahead of everyone else.
In some cases, the superfast investors are able to glean crucial information from the stream of trading data flowing into their systems that allows them to see what stocks other investors are about to buy before they are able to complete their orders.
Then we get the line about the wrong villains: the exchanges, not the bankers.
Sorkin, in other words, isn't saying there isn't a problem. He just implies that Lewis is clever, hyperbolic, and demonizing the wrong group of people about this problem ... which he, Sorkin, has never bothered to write about.
Sign of the times.
Movie Review: Jodorowsky's Dune (2014)
It starred Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, David Carradine, Mick Jagger, and the director’s 12-year-old son in the lead role. The director, Mexican, had directed the cult avant-garde western “El Topo,” while the producer, French, would produce “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Burnt by the Sun.” Others on the crew would help make “Alien” and “Total Recall.” The movie itself would influence everything from “Star Wars” to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “The Matrix.”
It was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune” and according to several talking heads in this documentary, it was the greatest movie never made.
It has competition, of course. Would it have been better than Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” or Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “L’Enfer”? Or the thousands of really good ideas brought by talented people that not only never got made but never got made into documentaries about movies that never got made? Tough call. We don’t agree on movies that exist; imagine the arguments for this.
Gilliam’s “Don Quixote” died because its star, Jean Rochefort, got sick, and Gilliam refused to compromise with anyone else. Clouzot? He suffered from too much money, too much ambition, and a heart attack after his leading man walked out.
Jodorowsky was certainly ambitious—he wanted to make the greatest movie of all time—but “Dune” died for the opposite reason of Clouzot’s film: Hollywood’s money men weren’t interested.
Not in the subject. In him.
We’re the opposite. We’re fascinated by Jodorowsky because he’s endlessly fascinating. At 84, he’s enthusiastic and boisterous and still has a gleam in his eye about this project. He’s a great storyteller. He’s politically incorrect—joyfully so. He talks about the liberties he took with Frank Herbert’s acclaimed novel by comparing the situation to a husband with a new bride. You can’t respect or idolize her too much. You need to get in there. He mimics tearing open a dress. You need to rape her, he says. He needed to rape Frank Herbert, he says. He says it all with the most joyous smile.
You know those movies where the protagonist assembles a team of professionals to pull off the perfect crime? That’s “Jodorowsky’s Dune.” The doc, directed by Frank Pavich, is about the assembling of a great team.
We get a bit of Jodorowsky’s background. Too little, to be honest. He was an avant-garde theater director in Mexico in the early 1960s but how he got there, and interested in that, we haven’t a clue. But from there he went into film. He directed “Fando and Lis” (1968) which caused near riots at screenings; then “El Topo” (1970), which became the original cult midnight movie; then “The Holy Mountain” (1973). His reputation grew. Producer Michel Seydoux, the grand uncle of Lea, gave him carte blanche. He told him he could make any movie he wanted to make. Jodorowsky said he wanted to make “Dune.” But first he had to read it.
He spent two years assembling his team of “spiritual warriors.” To be on Jodorowsky’s team, you needed more than talent; you needed vision and soul. He wasn’t messing around. Everyone told him he needed Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects guru behind “2001: A Space Odyssey” (and later “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Blade Runner”), but during a meeting Trumbull kept answering his phone and Jodorowsky walked out. Instead he hired French comic-book artist Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius, and British sci-fi cover artist Chris Foss and American artist-writer Dan O’Bannon (“Dark Star,” “Alien,” “Heavy Metal”). He wooed Orson Welles with food, Salvador Dali with wit. Dali recommended a German artist named H.R. Giger, who had never worked in film before.
Serendipity, to hear Jodorowsky tell it, also played a role. He wanted Mick Jagger and suddenly there he was at a party. For the music, he hired Pink Floyd for one planet, X for another. They assembled one of the most extensive storyboards ever into a big book and brought it to Hollywood.
And it didn’t sell.
The studios were interested in most of it; they just weren’t interested in him. They liked the package but not the packager. He was too avant-garde. He was too avant-garde for 1975, which is saying something. So the project died.
Why? I’m curious about that. Did it have to be Hollywood? Couldn’t it have been France? Couldn’t it have been independently financed? No one had $15 million to risk in 1975? And if so, didn’t Jodorowsky and company realize at some point in the process that they needed someone to sell Hollywood on the project? Couldn’t Jodorowsky have found that person, too, the way he found Jagger and Dali and Giger? But of course that person wouldn’t have had the proper spirit. They wouldn’t have been spiritual warriors. Jodorowsky would have dismissed them.
“Dune is a deadly trip,” a character in the movie says. Indeed.
Becoming part of everything
Another question: Would it have been good? Jodorowsky’s version? His vision?
It sounds intriguing. There are elements of a god complex here, and not just in the script. In “El Topo” Jodorowsky plays the title character who says the line, “Soy Dios”: I am God. Here, he talks about the two years he had his son, Brontis, training with a martial arts master to play Paul Atreides. “Why I did that?” he asks now. “Sacrifice my son?” He sacrifices his son in the movie, too. Unlike the novel, Paul dies; but in dying he becomes part of everything. “I am Paul,” the other characters repeat over and over. It’s like a spiritual Spartacus moment. It’s a Jesus moment. It’s Obi wan Kenobi. Being struck down, he becomes more powerful than you can imagine.
Brontis, the son, who must be about my age (51), makes the connection between Paul and the stillborn “Dune.” In dying, in being struck down, it became part of everything. Giger’s work wound up in “Alien,” storyboard shots wound up in “Blade Runner,” the great long opening Jodorowsky envisioned wound up as the great long opening shot of “Contact.” What he envisioned wound up influencing the culture anyway.
Is this a good thing, by the way? Some of the film-critic talking heads in this thing say that if it weren’t for Jodorowsky there wouldn’t have been ... name it. “Blade Runner,” “Masters of the Universe,” “The Matrix.” But would this have been a bad thing? Are those movies really worth our time? Others suggest that if Jodorowsky’s “Dune” had gotten made and released before “Star Wars,” then it, with its more auteuristic vision, would have influenced movies and the culture instead of Lucas’ film. We might not have gone the way of the popcorn blockbuster. Director-driven movies might not have died. Our culture might not have gotten so dumb.
I doubt it. Jodorowsky, for all his influence, never made a popular movie. But we’ll never know for sure.
Ten years later, “Dune” wound up being made anyway, and with the one director Jodorowsky could see making a masterpiece of it: David Lynch. Initially he refused to see it. But his son dragged him to the theater, where he sat, he says, with eyes closed as it began. Gradually, though, he began to watch more of it. And more of it. And he became so happy. Because it was so awful. It was a disaster. It’s an awful feeling, he admits, wanting someone else to fail. But: “It’s a human reaction, no?”
I love him for that, and for the attempt. He’s 84, he tells us from his study, surrounded by his books and memorabilia—including all the trinkets left over from the doomed “Dune” project—but he has the ambition to live to be 300. Why not? “Have the greatest ambition possible,” he tells us. “Do it. ... If you fail, it is not important. You need to try.”
The Worst Op-Ed?
I know. So many options.
But this one comes from The Economist, which is usually smarter, and it's the lead-in to their cover story: WHAT WOULD AMERICA FIGHT FOR? THE QUESTION HAUNTING ITS ALLIES.
My immediate thought upon seeing the cover line was: What wouldn't America fight for? Well, I guess genocide in Rwanda. But aluminum tubes? Send in the Marines.
The Op-Ed is worse. Bottom of the second graf:
But when America’s president speaks of due caution, the world hears reluctance—especially when it comes to the most basic issue for any superpower, its willingness to fight.
Immediate thought: How the fuck do you know what the world hears?
We get more of these vague lines: “Doubt has spread quickly ...” “Doubt feeds on itself ...” “For every leader deploring Mr. Putin's tactics, another is studying how to copy them.”
Evidence? Anything? Bueller? McFly?
Then we get this line more than halfway through:
The critics who pin all the blame on Mr Obama are wrong. ... the president has often made the right call: nobody thinks he should have sent troops to Crimea, despite the breaking of the 1994 agreement.
(TE: Doesn't this graf contradict the entire premise of the piece? Curious. — EL)
The art for the article, by the way, shows a grinning fox eyeing a lolling Uncle Sam, his shephard's staff on the ground beside him, while keeping a paw on a very, very scared sheep. The sheep's fur is dotted with the continents of the world.
The article also has a sidebar, titled “Unrivalled, for now,” in which the authors expound on the insane advantage the U.S. has in terms of military budget compared to everyone else. Key line: “China and Russia combined spend less than half what America does ...” And The Economist is worried why? Oh right, because it knows what the world hears.
Quote of the Day
“It is the elephant in the room as we approach 2016. Not that the issues of dynasties and oligarchies are not being aired. They are, relentlessly. But have we truly absorbed the sheer national embarrassment that out of a country of more than 300 million people, the two likeliest presidential nominees for the two major parties will be the wife of a former president and the brother and son of two former presidents? It’s impossible to think of any developed Western democracy that could even begin to match this pathetic, incestuous indictment of a democratic system.”
-- Andrew Sullivan, “America's Game of Thrones”
Song of the Day: 'Runaway' by The National
I've been on a The National kick lately. It's nice to be on a kick:
“We don't bleed/ When we don't fight” should be required hearing in Congress. And at GOP conventions. And maybe on the Op-Ed pages of The Wall Street Journal and The Economist.
The Issue that Should Be at the Center of Every Political Debate
“A true attack on inequality would require that the country move the issue to the center of every political debate: how we tax wealth, how we tax the income of the middle class and poor (often stealthily through the payroll tax), how we finance schools and measure their results, how we tolerate income-sapping waste in health care, how we build roads, transit systems and broadband networks. These are precisely the sort of policies pursued by countries with better recent middle-class income growth than the United States.”
-- David Leonhardt, “All for The 1%, 1% For All,” in the New York Times Magazine, May 4. In the piece, Leonhardt also talks with Thomas Piketty, French economist and author of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Anyone read it?
Song of the Day: Bloodbuzz Ohio
I've been listening to this song a lot this year:
“I still owe money to the money/ To the money I owe” should be our national anthem.
Music suggestions welcome.
Ol' Man Jeter
Ol' Man Jeter (to the tune of 'Ol' Man River')
Ol' man Jeter
That ol' man Jeter
He must see something
But he don't hit nothing
He just keeps whiffin'
He keeps on whiffin' along
He don't hit triples
And he don't hit homers
And most of his games now
End in oh-fers
And ol' man Jeter,
He keeps on whiffin' along
He gets weary
And misplays grounders
And all around him
The Yankees flounder
But ol' man Jeter
He just keeps whiffin' along
With apologies to Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern, not to mention Derek Jeter, who deserves a better end—as we all do. He's currently hitting .250 with a .290 slugging percentage. (Lifetime: .312/.445; although he did go 2-4 yesterday with a double in another Yankees loss.) The Yankees are 11-14 when he plays, 5-1 when he doesn't. Joe Girardi's thoughts here. If Jeter's history is indicative, he'll turn it around. If the last years of great ballplayers are indicative, he won't.
He don't hit triples/ And he don't hit homers ...
Ranking the 5 Spider-Man Movies
The first Batman movie came out in 1943 and we got the fifth one in 1992—49 years later.
The first Superman movie came out in 1948 and we got the fifth one in 1981—33 years later.
The first Spider-Man movie was released in 2002 and here we are with the fifth film—a mere 12 years later. Time keeps speeding up. Are we getting tired yet? Do we have franchise fatigue? A little. Speaking for myself anyway.
Worst (5) and best (1) are easy. But there’s a good debate to be had in the middle.
5. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
One of the worst ideas in any superhero movie is the “evil” version of the main character, and “Spider-Man 3,” following the lead of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, goes that exact route. It also creates a pretty tepid version of evil. Superman in “Superman III,” you’ll remember, rights the Leaning Tower of Pisa, gets drunk in a bar, and sleeps with a blonde. That’s about it. Peter Parker? Kinda the same. He struts down the street like Travolta, styles his hair like Hitler, and makes an ass of himself at a bar. He also has the Russian girl across the hallway make him cookies. With milk. But that’s not nearly the worst part of this awful, awful movie. Spider-Man’s psychological motivation to fight crime—and it’s one of the best in comicdom—is based upon the fact that he let go the man who later killed his Uncle Ben; that if he’d cared enough to stop the dude in the first place, Uncle Ben would be alive. What does “3” do with that? It actually makes someone else responsible for the death of Uncle Ben. I can’t begin to state how incredibly wrong that is. It’s as if Bruce Wayne found out that all this time his parents have been alive and hanging out in the Bahamas.
4. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
The point of most of our stories is this: What does the guy want and how does he get it? So what does Marc Webb’s Peter Parker want? In the beginning, he wants to find out about his parents but never does. Then he wants to bring Uncle Ben’s killer to justice but doesn’t do that, either. Then he wants a girl, particulary Gwen Stacy, and gets her, but she has to do most of the heavy lifting. Plus he promises a dying Capt. Stacy to stay away from her. Which he doesn’t do. But he does act like James Dean from time to time. As if that’s a thing.
3. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
It’s not as bad as everyone is making it out to be, but it’s not quite good, either. It’s got great fight scenes and great smart-ass patter out of Spidey, but it’s overlong and unnecessarily convoluted. It’s as convoluted as the number of screenwriters it has: four. Was this movie fixable? Maybe. Lose the Richard Parker storyline, give us less Hamlet-like dithering on the Peter-Gwen romance, emphasize Harry more. Maybe lose Electro. Not only does his story not resonate, it pushes Green Goblin to the side. Which is like putting Baby in the corner.
2. Spider-Man (2002)
It’s a pretty faithful adaptation—one of the first. Tobey Maguire is your Steve Ditko-era Peter Parker, though a little sweeter, and with the ability to shoot webs out of his wrists rather than out of homemade web shooters. He calls the Green Goblin “Gobby” and M.J. calls him “Tiger.” Our hero is happy as Spider-Man and unhappy as Peter Parker, and that’s pretty much how it works. Hell, they even improve upon the origin. In Amazing Fantasy #15, when the petty thief runs past Spider-Man, we recognize that Spider-Man’s refusal to help is the act of a selfish jerk. Peter’s not us here; he’s other. In the movie, the petty thief rips off the wrestling promoter who has just ripped off Peter Parker. “I missed the part where that’s my problem,” the promoter tells Peter when Peter complains. This allows Peter, 30 seconds later, to throw the words back at him. “You coulda stopped that guy easy,” the promoter complains. “I missed the part where that’s my problem,” Peter tells him. Here’s how good that is: When I first saw “Spider-Man” in 2002, some moviegoers, who obviously didn’t know where the story was going, actually laughed. They’d been trained to expect put-down quips from their action heroes, and this was a better quip than most. The laughter is indicative. Peter’s not other here; he’s us. Thus when the horrible lesson is imparted, it’s imparted to us, too. With great power comes great responsibility. It’s a lesson our culture doesn’t deliver much.
1. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
It’s based upon one of the classics of the Silver Age of Comics, Spider-Man #50, “Spider-Man No More!,” written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Romita and published in July 1967, in which our hero, tired of losing as Peter Parker as often as he wins as Spider-Man, dumps the Spidey costume in a back alley and gets on with his life. The filmmakers internalize this dilemma—he doesn’t reject his powers, he’s losing them—but it’s all in his head, and it’s all because he’s denying the love he feels for Mary Jane Watson. So it goes. The movie’s battles up and down the skyscrapers of Manhattan are still thrilling 10 years later, the superhero pieta inside the elevated train is still touching, and we get one of the great reveals in superhero movies. From the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro to Superman to Spider-Man, there’s been a girl. The girl loves the hero but dislikes, or is disappointed in, or doesn’t even acknowledge, the hero in his secret form. It’s the classic love triangle of superherodom and a solace for unrequited lovers everywhere. I.e., she rejects the nerdy me (Clark) because she doesn’t see the real me (Superman). She rejects me because she fails to see what’s super in me. The superhero love triangle plays upon our deepest, saddest fantasies. And here, in one scene, the girl finally gets it. The disconnect is connected. The two men become one.
What about you? How would you rank them?
Weekend Box Office: How Amazing was the Opening for 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2'?
Spidey ties up the competition, but not like he used to.
No, not “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”’s open of $92 million, which is $22 million less than the opening weekend gross for the first Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” 12 years ago. That’s unadjusted, by the way. Adjust and it’s $65 million less. So not good.
Sure, “Amazing 2” opened better than its predecessor did two years ago ($62 million in July 2012 ), but that’s because “The Amazing Spider-Man” actually opened on a Tuesday, and had already grossed $75 million by the time the weekend rolled around. So its first weekend totals were really sloppy seconds.
So what is amazing? That “The Other Woman,” last weekend’s winner, fell off by only 42% to land in a distant second place. Seriously, who are the women giving this movie good word of mouth? It’s awful. It deserves a quick, painless fall. I thought women had better taste than this. Or are boys going for Whatsherface.
The news doesn't get any better, since “Heaven Is For Real” wound up in third place. Damn. Do I have to see this thing now? I’ve already sat through “God’s Not Dead.” Isn’t that punishment enough? “Heaven,” with another $8.7, is now up to $65, while “God’s,” with another $1.7 and ninth place, is up to $55 million. On miniscule budgets. The Christian right says this means they have buying power and Hollywood should pay attention. But if Hollywood pays attention they’ll disown the movie as not being Christian enough. See: “Noah.”
OK, here's better news about a better movie: “The Grand Budapest Hotel” pulled in another $1.7 million (10th place) and is now less than a million from becoming the highest-grossing Wes Anderson movie, surpassing “The Royal Tenenbaums” ($52.3 million in 2001).
Movie Review: Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Is “Spider-Man 2” the greatest superhero movie ever made? I’ve stated so in the past, but we’ll see how I feel at the end of this review.
The movie is based upon one of the classics of the Silver Age of Comics, Spider-Man #50, “Spider-Man No More!,” written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Romita and published in July 1967, in which our hero, tired of losing as Peter Parker as often as he wins as Spider-Man, dumps the Spidey costume in a back alley and gets on with his life. It’s all going fine until he spies an old security guard being roughed up by hoods and comes to his rescue. Why does he save him? Because the old man reminds him ... of course! … of Uncle Ben! How could he forget? Indeed. How could Peter forget the man who raised him but lost his life because Peter was too busy making money as Spider-Man to stop a simple thief? That’s like Adam and Eve forgetting the snake. And that’s the main problem with Spider-Man #50.
Director Sam Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent, working off a story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and famed novelist Michael Chabon, go a slightly different route. Just as their first movie, “Spider-Man,” internalized Spidey’s webs, making them part of his physiology rather than a weekend Peter Parker science project (thwip!), so “Spider-Man 2” internalizes the “No more!” part. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) gives up being Spider-Man because he actually loses his powers. He never forgets his Uncle Ben.
Forget him? Shit. He’s haunted by him.
Worst. Party. Ever.
This is the superhero movie, by the way, that most reminds me of the period when I was collecting comic books: roughly 1973 to 1977. It’s Gerry Conway’s Spider-Man. No Spider-Mobile, thank god, but Pete’s got the tenement walk-up, the rent is due, and he’s failing his classes. Everything that can go wrong, does. In the movie, he’s fired as a pizza delivery guy, then forced to take J.J.J.’s crap pay so J.J.J. (J.K. Simmons) can turn the city against him. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is losing her house, Harry Osborn (James Franco) is obsessed with revenge, and M.J. (Kirsten Dunst) is dating a handsome astronaut, who just happens to be J.J.J.’s son, John (Daniel Gillies). You wonder when Pete’s going to break.
He does in bits. He’s web-slinging through the city and suddenly ... no web. He looks over a tall building and feels vertigo. But he still turns into Spidey to save: 1) the city from Otto Octavius’ botched fusion reaction experiment; and 2) Aunt May from a bank-robbing Doc Ock. But the third time? Bupkis. No web, no grip, no nothing. “Why is this happening to me?” he says. His doctor, tapping his noggin, tells him the problem is “up here.”
Later, up there, Pete debates a ghostly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson):
Uncle Ben: You’ve been given a gift, Peter. With great power comes great responsibility.
Peter: No, Uncle Ben. I’m just Peter Parker. I’m Spider-Man no more.
Cut to: a goofy montage of everything going Pete’s way, backed by Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
But to get back to his earlier question: Why is this happening to him?
Back in 2004, I assumed it was the weight of all of it: Harry, Aunt May, J.J.J., M.J., Aasif Mandvi. But it’s not. It’s just M.J.
The clue comes early, during a kitchen table conversation with Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). “If you keep something as complicated as love stored up,” Octavius tells him, holding hands with his wife, “it can make you sick.” And so it does.
The final straw is a brutal one. J.J.J. hires Pete to photograph a big event for his son. Harry’s there, drinking, being an asshole, and obsessing over “your friend, the bug.” M.J., now a successful model and actress, is there, too, on the balcony, cold and distant, and Pete, at the 11th hour, and against all logic, tries to save the day with 19th-century British poetry. For some reason it doesn’t work. “I don’t know you,” M.J. says. She tells him that John has seen her play five times, Harry twice, Aunt May once. Him? Never. “After all these years,” she says, “he’s nothing to me but an empty seat.” This is followed by, in short order, 1) a drunk, belligerent Harry accuses Pete of stealing his father’s love and letting him die, then 2) slaps him repeatedly (where are those Spidey reflexes when Pete needs them?), before 3) John Jameson announces his engagement to M.J. as everyone cheers. And even that’s not the low point. The low point is when J.J.J. shouts, “Parker, wake up! Shoot the picture!” and a stunned, heartbroken Peter, with the sting of his best friend’s slaps still on his cheeks, is forced to photograph the engagement announcement of the woman he loves to another man.
After a day like that, you’d lose your powers, too.
Nobel prize, Otto
Even so, how stupid is Peter Parker? He only goes after M.J. once she’s gone. And with poetry? My god, that’s dumb. Pete’s dumb, J.J.J. is oblivious, and everyone else is brutal. Seriously. The problem with Peter Parker isn’t the weight of being Spider-Man; it’s that he chooses lousy friends.
Even as just Peter Parker, life’s still screwed up. When he tells Aunt May he’s the one responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, she simply walks away from him without a word. When he saves a kid from a burning building, a fireman deflects his heroics by saying, “Some poor soul got trapped on the fourth floor.” When the skinny daughter of his Russian landlord brings him milk and cake, their time together is awkward and cringeworthy.
So how does Spidey get his groove back? It begins with Aunt May. She can’t afford the mortgage anymore so she’s moving into an apartment. (BTW: Shouldn’t Uncle Ben have paid off this mortgage, like, years earlier? What was he spending his money on? Booze? Broads? Gambling? Forget Pete’s parents; that’s the retcon story I’d like to see.) As Pete’s helping with the move, or at least standing around like a goober, Aunt May gives this speech about the missing Spider-Man. It’s basically a Gipper speech:
I believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride—even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.
Hey! Every emotion Pete’s trying to sort through in this movie! What a coincidence.
By the way: Does Aunt May know? That he’s Spider-Man? You almost get a glimmer of recognition earlier when he yells “Hang on!” as she’s clinging to the side of the building while he’s battling Doc Ock.
More than terrified: A look that says, “Wait a minute, I know that voice ...”
It’s like she recognizes the voice beneath the mask. You get a glimmer during her Gipper speech, too. I mean, why say all this to Peter Parker, mousy NYU science student? Because of his cowardice at the bank? Is she trying to make him a hero? With this speech? “Peter, be a hero because it sucks.” Either she knows he’s Spider-Man or she's kind of an asshole.
Then we get more “I’m ready, you’re not”/ “No, you’re ready and I’m not” from M.J. and Peter. Seriously, these two. Seriously, M.J. It’s not just going hot and cold with Pete. It’s not just calling Peter “a great big jerk” and not inviting him to the wedding. It’s the idiocy with the kiss. In the first movie, Spider-Man kissed M.J. upside-down in the rain (you remember), so M.J. is trying to figure out who Spider-Man is by kissing guys. Or at least two guys. First, it’s John, her fiancé, and that makes tons of sense. He’s only the son of the man who has made a career making a villain out of Spider-Man. Is she even thinking? Then she tries to kiss Peter at the coffeeshop. Because Spidey and Peter are connected by the photographs? Because Peter “changed” just as Spidey “retired”? Who knows? Who knows what goes on inside that woman’s head?
But that’s the moment we begin the rest of the movie: As M.J. is puckering up, the car comes crashing through the coffeeshop window, Doc Ock appears and takes M.J., saying, “I’ll peel the flesh off her bones,” snap snap. Then Pete loses his myopia, turns back into Spidey, battles Doc Ock on an elevated train, battles him by the river, and M.J. sees who Spider-Man really is. Wedding with John? Nope. She’s a runaway bride. “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” The End.
Can I complain before we get into the end? How much of an idiot Doc Ock is, too? At the coffeeshop, he needs Peter to contact Spider-Man. Yet if not for Pete’s Spidey powers, which Ock doesn’t know about, he would’ve killed him. Twice. Once when he sent the car through the window and the second time when he slammed him into the wall and it fell on top of him. Smart, Otto. Nobel prize, Otto.
And look, I get Sam Raimi’s background as a horror director, and it led to that great scene in the hospital room where Octavius’ arms take out the surgery team. But, dude, what’s up with all the screaming women? It’s half the movie.
SLIDESHOW: The Terrified Women of Spider-Man 2
Ock's wife is our first terror victim.
Then the nurses at the hospital get into the act.
Ah, the old fingernails stand-by.
Ock terrifies the secretary pool ... or excites them. Is it a supervillain outside or the Beatles?
Hey, this one can act! Hire her.
And what’s with all of the gratuitous shots of pretty women? Who does a girl have to fuck to not be in this movie?
But we still get a great ending.
The great ending
The battle sequences throughout the movie stand up 10 years later. It’s a comic book brought to life.
But the elevated train sequence elevates things a notch.
Spidey keeps getting knocked off the “el” and slinging his way back on. Doc Ock grabs two passengers and throws them to the winds but Spidey saves them. You almost hear Ock’s “Bah!,” his great unspoken “Bah!,” as, fed up with nickel and diming it, he destroys the train’s controls and leaves it shooting like a bullet through Manhattan. Maskless at this point, Spidey can only save the passengers by exhausting himself, at which point we get our greatest version of the superhero pieta: Spidey, supine, passed over the heads of the passengers and into the safety of the train compartment. “He’s ... just a kid,” a man in a Mets cap says, and that says it all. If Peter Parker’s secret is that he’s truly powerful, Spider-Man’s secret is that he’s truly vulnerable. He is just a kid. Back in 2007, when I wrote a “Top 10 Superhero Movie Scenes” list for MSNBC, that scene landed at No. 3.
But it gets better.
At the river’s edge, Ock is using the tritium he got from Harry to recreate the botched fusion reaction experiment. He thinks it’ll work this time but it doesn’t. Same deal: small sun, huge gravitational pull. What to do? Spider-Man tries to appeal to the humanity inside Doc Ock by revealing his own: He takes off his mask. For a moment, it works. “Peter Parker,” Ock says, smiling. Then he remembers an earlier line and relays it again with amusement: “Brilliant but lazy.”
Can I pause to compliment the casting here? We get the best J.J.J. and the best Aunt May we’ll ever get. Molina is not only our best Spider-Man villain, but, I’d argue, one of the best superhero villains of all time. And that’s tough competition: Heath Ledger’s Joker, Ian McKellen’s Magneto, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Sam Jackson’s Mr. Glass. But I’d put Molina top 5. He not only terrorizes the city and us, he wins back his humanity. The way he says, “You’re right,” to Peter after Peter repeats Aunt May’s self-sacrificing words to him. It’s lovely to watch an actor think on screen. Molina helps make the movie.
But what really makes the movie is The Shot. It’s the culmination of 100 years of superhero-making.
From the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro to Superman to Spider-Man, there’s been a girl. The girl loves the hero but dislikes, or is disappointed in, or doesn’t even acknowledge, the hero in his secret form. It’s the classic love triangle of superherodom and a solace for unrequited lovers everywhere. I.e., she rejects the nerdy me (Clark) because she doesn’t see the real me (Superman). She rejects me because she fails to see what’s super in me. The superhero love triangle plays upon our deepest, saddest fantasies. And here, in one scene, the girl finally gets it. The disconnect is connected. The two men become one.
Kirsten Dunst, bless her heart, pulls it off. A shocked intake of breath, a camera close-up as myriad emotions cross her face, ending in a small, grateful smile. It all makes sense now.
That scene, by the way, was No. 1 on my list of the “Top 10 Superhero Movie Scenes.”
M.J. in the window
So: Is “Spider-Man 2” the greatest superhero movie ever made?
All superhero movies have faults. They have to. They’re absurd. Spider bites don’t turn us into spider-men, gamma radiation doesn’t turn us into hulks, men from other planets don’t develop god-like powers because of Earth’s sun. Plus the movies make their own mistakes. The Joker’s machinations are impossibly complex, Hulk has daddy issues, Superman joins the anti-nuke movement.
The faults of “Spider-Man 2” are more numerous than I remembered: Peter is stupid with poetry, M.J. and Harry are both bitter, and who doesn’t find out Peter is Spider-Man? Probably just Aasif Mondvi. But everything else works.
We even get an ending as ambiguous as “The Graduate.” Remember it? Yes, M.J. is a runaway bride, and yes, she shows up at Peter’s tenement walk-up, and yes, they finally, finally kiss. Then she lets Spidey be Spidey. He hears a siren, he knows what he has to do, and she says, a la '60s M.J., “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” So off he goes, web-slinging through the canyons of Manhattan. But instead of ending right there, Raimi cuts back to M.J. in the window, worried and filled with doubt. This is the burden she carries now. Because the man she loves risks his life every day.
Or maybe she’s simply anticipating the disaster of “Spider-Man 3.”
Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
I’d begun hearing bad things about two weeks ago as critics leaked their negative thoughts onto their Twitter feeds. I also knew before the lights went down that the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score (54%/37%) was even lower than the RT score of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 3” (63%/44%), which is one of the worst superhero movies ever made. That was my frame of reference when the movie started.
And it’s not awful. It’s certainly better than “Spider-Man 3.” I think it’s even a step up from “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which critics mostly praised (73%/78%).
People keep comparing it with “3” (“too many supervillains”) but it actually has more in common with “2,” which is the best of the Spider-Man movies. Sadly, its commonality is with the lesser aspects of that movie.
Just as Tobey’s Peter was haunted by Uncle Ben (with great power comes blah blah), this Peter (Andrew Garfield) is haunted by Capt. Stacy (Keep your sticky hands off my daughter!). Which means just as Tobey’s Peter ran hot and cold with Mary Jane Watson—one moment standing stock still when she touches his face, the next reciting British poetry to try to win her over—so Andrew’s Peter is all hot and cold with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). He loves her, sure, totally, but he made that promise to her father, whose frowning visage he sees everywhere. What to do? Shouldn’t he try to keep her safe? By keeping away from her? His dilemma is, in a sense, the dilemma of any of us who have a trace of self-loathing, which is most of us (or most of us at 18): those I love would just be better off without me.
At their high school graduation ceremony, which Pete arrives to late and wearing rolled up pants beneath cap and gown (you hipster, you), he gives Gwen, the class valedictorian, a big smooch in front of the crowd. Later that night they break up outside a dim sum restaurant. For a month they stay apart. Then ... you know. Love love love. But with tragic consequences.
I’m not kidding about the spoilers thing. If you don’t know Spider-Man #121, you might want to jump off now.
The second great tragedy in the life of Peter Parker
Want an example of bad timing? I bought my first Marvel comic in the summer of 1973 when I was 10. It was Spider-Man #123 and it opened with J. Jonah Jameson declaring Spider-Man a murderer (what the --?), while the first time we see Peter Parker he’s attending a funeral.* Talk about arriving in medias res! It took me many, many months to piece it together. The dead dude in the first panel was Norman Osborne, a.k.a. The Green Goblin, while the funeral was for Gwen Stacy, Peter’s girlfriend, whom the Goblin killed. It’s the second great tragedy in the life of Peter Parker, after the original sin of allowing Uncle Ben to be killed by the Burglar.
(* see pg. 5, last panel. – Erudite Erik)
Hollywood has done a lot with that original sin—from improving upon it in “Spider-Man” in 2002 to screwing it up completely in “Spider-Man 3” in 2007—but they haven’t given us the second great tragedy. They’ve alluded to it, certainly: Goblin dropping M.J. by the Queensboro bridge in the first movie. But they have Spidey save both her and the people on the Roosevelt Island Tramway. It was 2002. We couldn’t let the terrorists win.
That’s what I wondered about this movie: Would the studio have the guts to kill off Gwendy?
Before we get to that point, they have some fun. They also get distracted.
The fun is the thrill of web-slinging. We get a great opening scene of Russian mobster Aleksei Sysevich (Paul Giamatti) hijacking radioactive material and careening around town in his tank of a truck before Spider-Man comes to the rescue. The two have a great exchange at the driver’s side window. In the comics, Spidey was always known for being a smart-ass and the reboots emphasize this. That’s the great dichotomy of the series, really: between the insouciant lightness of being Spider-Man and the unbearable heaviness of being Peter Parker.
At one point, he also saves a nerdy scientist toiling for Oscorp named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx). More later.
After his dim sum break-up with Gwen, we get a nice montage of more web-slinging, in which, among other escapades, Spidey saves a kid with a science project from bullies and then walks him home. But there’s concern around town. Is it vigilantism? Who is he to take the law into his own hands? The Daily Bugle, the FOX-News of the Marvel Comics world, gets involved: SPIDER MENACE? its front page trumpets. Pete’s sending photos to the Bugle via email but we never see J. Jonah Jameson. A testament to how much J.K. Simmons owned the role.
During this period, Pete also reconnects with childhood friend Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), whom he hasn’t seen in 10 years, and who now runs Oscorp after the death of his father, Norman (Chris Cooper), of retroviral hypoplasia. Harry’s got it, too. He’ll die soon if he doesn’t get help.
I gotta admit: The Spidey hatred from the supervillains doesn’t work for me. It’s facile. Harry thinks Spidey’s blood will cure him (it won’t: it will kill him), so when it’s denied, his need turns to hate and fixation. Max, meanwhile, starts out fixated. He has a kind of Mark David Chapman complex: he admires Spidey being admired. But when a late-night accident in the bowels of Oscorp turns him into Electro*, and Spidey saves the city from his powers-gone-amuck, he wants revenge on his former idol rather than on, say, his smarmy boss, Alistair Smythe (B.J. Novak, doomed to play smarmy), who always gave him shit details and took credit for his work. I thought for sure I’d see Novak fried in this thing. Is it a deleted scene? Are they saving him for the Ultimate Spider-Slayer?
(* And what’s with the aquarium of electric eels next to the computer banks? Isn’t that dangerous? And isn’t that how Oscorp powers the city? Do they have a squirrel running on a treadmill in another room? Will we get Squirrel Man next movie? – Erudite Erik)
DeHaan (channeling Brad Pitt’s voice?) is great, by the way, but wasted, as his Green Goblin is wasted. Basically Spider-Man’s greatest villain shows up at the 11th hour to replay Spider-Man #121. We needed more between him and Peter but their few scenes together are awkward. You don’t sense the friendship so the enmity makes no sense.
If only they’d spent more time on this rather than on the backstory on Peter’s parents. That’s the distraction to me. That’s the subplot too far.
I know. Fox Studios, desperate not to lose the property back to Marvel, had to do something new with the story; but the tale of Peter’s parents, or at least his father, Richard (Campbell Scott, wasted), which was retconned onto Spidey’s storyline in, I believe, the 1990s, adds nothing and detracts awfully. So the super spiders that made a Spider-Man out of Peter Parker were mixed with Richard’s DNA, which is why only Peter can be Spider-Man. Whatever. Uncle Ben, the true father, is lost in all of this. Pete has all of these other fathers to deal with. He’s haunted by Capt. Stacy while he searches for DNA dad. And where does he find him? In a video in a science lab that emerges from a dusty abandoned subway platform—like something out of “Get Smart.” Don’t get me started.
So what works besides the web-slinging? Emma Stone. Not only does she win a fellowship to Oxford (about which Pete is ambivalent, because he doesn’t want her to go ... even though he knows she should ... because he still wants ... and yet ...), but she figures out how to stop Electro when he absorbs the city’s power grid and creates a 1977-era blackout. No looting with this one, by the way. We’re post-9/11, so it’s all about the two planes that might collide. (They don’t.)
Anyway, she’s good: Emma. Fun and open. The way she shouts “Peter!” after he webs her hand to a car then clamps her free hand over her mouth? That.
He’s a little too self-conscious, though, isn’t he? Garfield? Aw shucks, the world is looking at me? He’s basically James Dean on a skateboard (nice “Dogtown and Z-Boys” poster, btw), but I find the attitude, and the stocking caps, grating. He’s a spoiled shit. There’s a scene where Aunt May, trying to keep (ultimately false) information from him, mentions, as part of a long, rambling speech, that she has two jobs to keep him in college, and he doesn’t pick up on it. Dude. Your Aunt May is nearly 70. Help the fuck out!
But he’s good for the Spider-Man #121 scene.
Harry as the unnamed Green Goblin shows up after Gwen and Spidey restore the city’s power supply and defeat Electro, and Harry quickly figures out the following: 1) Spidey is Pete; and 2) nothing would hurt Pete more than killing Gwen. So we get a battle. And finally Gwen falls. Spidey dives after her and catches her with his web, but maybe a second too late. A kind of startled cry went up in the audience where I saw the movie* when she half-bounced off the ground—apparently from people who had never read Spider-Man #121—but as in the comic he thinks he’s saved her. He hasn’t. Me, I kept waiting for Hollywood to give us the Hollywood ending and wake her up. It doesn’t. It gives us her funeral.
(* Pacific Place, downtown Seattle, natch. – Product Placement Erik)
That leaves a question, though: How do you end this thing?
The kid in the Spider-Man costume
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” isn’t as bad as everyone is making it out to be, but it’s not quite good, either. It’s overlong and unnecessarily convoluted. It’s as convoluted as the number of screenwriters it has, four, including Alex Kurtman and Robert Orci, who have a spotty history writing together: they gave us the first two “Transformers” movies, the first two “Star Trek” reboots, and “Cowboys & Aliens.” To this, add Jeff Pinkner, who has mostly done TV (“Alias,” “Lost,” “Fringe”). And, of course, director Marc Webb (thwip!).
Was the movie fixable? Maybe. Lose the Richard Parker storyline, give us less Hamlet-like dithering on the Peter-Gwen romance, emphasize Harry more. Maybe lose Electro. Or at least emphasize him less. Not only does his story not resonate, it pushes Green Goblin to the side. Which is like putting Baby in the corner.
But the movie does the ending well.
How do you end it? As Peter stands before Gwen’s grave, one shot leads to another. Seasons change, months go by, but he remains by her side. Meanwhile, Spider-Man has disappeared. This is something else “Amazing 2” has in common with “2”: the Spider-Man-No-More phenomenon. There, Spidey got his groove back because of a Gipper speech by Aunt May (“I believe there’s a hero in all of us”) and ... same here. Except Gwen gives it. Pete has her commencement address—which he missed the first time—on a zip drive, and he finally listens to it. And just as Aunt May’s Gipper speech was of its time, emphasizing heroism post-9/11, so Gwen’s commencement address is of its time, emphasizing hope in the Obama era. “My wish is for you to have hope,” she says to the Class of 2014. “And even if you fail, what better way is there to lose?” That works. And he puts on the mask. And he goes out to battle Aleksei Sysevich, whom Oscorp has transformed into the Rhino.* The movie ends mid-battle. Nice touch.
(* Every super-powered being in this movie series, btw, is the result of Oscorp. Maybe time for less hope and more business regulation? – Liberal Lundy)
Was the kid too much? Maybe. The kid with the science project shows up wearing a Spider-Man costume as the Rhino fulminates in midtown Manhattan, and he sneaks past police lines to go out and, like the brave protester at Tiananmen Square, face the man inside the tank. It’s absurd, really. The cops hold the crying mother back but do nothing to try to retrieve the kid. They leave that to Spidey. Who shows up, talks to the kid, and then ...
I know. But I still choked up a bit.
Spider-Man is Here: Obey
Last week, in anticipation of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” I rewatched the second installment of Sam Raimi's “Spider-Man” trilogy (review up soon), and during the opening credits, as they panned in and out of actors' names, this flashed on the screen as a portion of lead actor Tobey Maguire's name:
Good thing I'm not a conspiracy theorist.
That 'Frozen'/'Wicked' Connection: Is Idina Menzel the Voice of a Generation?
Think of the connective tissue between these stories:
- Both are revisionist fairy tales in which the villain, a powerful woman (Snow Queen, Wicked Witch), has been recast as the heroine (Elsa/Elphaba).
- The standout song in each production is the moment when this character defiantly reveals her powers to the world (“Let It Go”/“Defying Gravity”).
- Idina Menzel. She voiced Elsa in the movie and originated Elphaba on Broadway.
According to IMDb.com, they're thinking Lea Michelle for the movie Elphaba. Not bad (more connective tissue: Menzel played her mother on “Glee”), but that's still too bad. Think how much Menzel's voice has already influenced kids, particularly girls. We're talking voice of a generation here.
But who would you cast as Galinda?