erik lundegaard

Friday October 31, 2014

A Man of Raging Optimism

“I've really had it with anti-this and anti-that. That silver cloud always has to loom. I want to be remembered as a man of raging optimism, who believes in the American dream. Right now, it's as if a big cavernous black hole has been burned into the entertainment section of the brain. It's filled with demons and paranoia and fear. Where are all the heroes? Even the cowboys today are perverts—they all sleep with horses. Let other people suffer and do all those pain things and put their demons up on the screen. I'm not going to.''

-- Sylvester Stallone in The New York Times, Nov. 1, 1976, after the suprise success of his film, ”Rocky,“ which would go on to win the Oscar for best picture, and which, as I've written elsewhere, begins like a gritty 1970s movie but gives us a Hollywood ending. Stallone, of course, would keep true to his word, even as the rest of Hollywood, and the rest of America, stopped doing anti-this and anti-that and flocked to various forms of manufactured heroes. Cf.: this piece on ”Superman: The Movie,“ as well as this entire book. I came across the quote while reading Dan Epstein's “Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ‘76,” 

Sylvester Stallone and Butkus in 1976 "Rocky"

Yo, Butkus! Stallone and his cinematic dog on the famous Philadelphia City Hall steps during the filming of ”Rocky“ in 1975. The success of the film, along with the mammoth success of ”Star Wars“ six months later, would return ”the Hollywood ending" to Hollywood, leaving almost any moviegoer interested in a grown-up film out in the cold. 

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Posted at 05:52 AM on Oct 31, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Thursday October 30, 2014

The 2014 San Francisco Giants Were Never the Story; They Just Got in the Way of the Story

The American League Champion Kansas City Royals, 2014

“You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.”

I might as well get this out of my system.

After the Kansas City Royals lost Game 7 of the World Series to the San Francisco Giants last night, I posted various tempered vitriol on the usual social media sites, such as:

Congratulations to the San Francisco Bumgarners, winners of the 2014 World Series!

And:

Well, at least I won’t have to listen to Joe Buck for another 11 months.

But it was the comment below that resulted in the most backlash:

Here's something the San Francisco Giants and its fans never understood: No matter what, they weren't the story. They could only get in the way of the story. So congratulations for getting in the way of the story.

Many were confused. People who should know better, to be honest. So for them I’ll add this: Think of all the baseball movies about an underdog team of ragtag losers who suddenly band together and eke out win after win on their way to the championship.

Now think of all the great baseball movies about the championship team that smoothly wins its third title in five years.

This year, the Kansas City Royals were a great story. A team that hadn’t tasted the postseason—even a wild-card spot—in 29 years winning one improbable game after another with speed, luck and a helluva great bullpen. They were a bunch of young guys who began to believe when no one else would. And they cut a swath through the postseason like Terrance Gore cutting a swath from first to second. In a way, it doesn’t matter that they came up 90 feet short. It doesn’t matter that they ran into the thick sweaty wall of Madison Bumgarner. It’s the Royals we’ll remember.

People are talking up a Giants dynasty now. Sure, why not. Three in five years. But dynasties are never a story. Remember that great Yankees team from 1950? Or was it ‘52? Hey, what about 1951? That was the year of the New York Giants great August/September comeback, punctuated by Bobby Thomson’s improbable three-run homerun in the bottom of the 9th in the Polo Grounds on October 3rd to give the Giants a 5-4 win and the National League pennant. The Yankees wound up winning the World Series that year but they were a footnote. They weren’t the story; they just got in the way of the story. See Don DeLillo and “Underworld.” See “Pafko at the Wall.” See Roger Kahn and this quote from: “The Boys of Summer”: “You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.”

So once more with feeling: Congratulations to the 2014 San Francisco Giants. May its fans glory in its triumph. But they weren’t the story; they just got in the way of the story. 

See you next year.

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Posted at 09:31 AM on Oct 30, 2014 in category Baseball
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#tbt for Halloween

I think these shots are from 1968 or '69. My older brother Chris is the wolf/bear/whatever creature, and I'm the devil, of  course. Years later, I noticed the “Daredevil” logo on the chest and belt, but that's not why I got it. I wasn't into superheroes then. I assume my mom got both costumes for us, although, who knows, maybe we were allowed to pick them out. But one wonders about the weird amalgamation of new Marvel superhero and oldest villain of western civilization. I guess this was BBM: Before Brand Managers. It's like Marvel was Krusty the Clown: lending out images of its superheroes to any crappy merchandise that came along.

Chris and I are with our grandfather, Bedstefar, who was born in Schleswig-Holstein in the late 19th century, went to military school in Denmark, became a ship's architect in Copenhagen, and then moved to the U.S. in the early 1920s. He was one of the more fun, charming men I've known in my life. He was great with adults and even better with kids. Which is good because he had a mountain of grandkids. 

Mouse over the photo to see us tamed. 

Halloween with Bedstefar

Whenever we showed slides, and the moused-over image came on, with Chris and I, wearing these frightening masks, sitting politely on the steps with our hands folded in our laps, my father would burst out laughing. 

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Posted at 06:52 AM on Oct 30, 2014 in category Photo of the Day
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Wednesday October 29, 2014

The 19th Game 7 of My Lifetime

There have been 37 World Series Game 7s, but most (20) came in that 36-year sweetspot between 1955 and 1991. During that time, more than half of World Series played (55%) went to Game 7.

Before 1955? There'd been 12 in 51 years, so less than a quarter (23%) went to Game 7.

Since 1991? Five in 23 years, or 22%.

I've been alive for 19 of them and have probably watched a dozen. I'll be watching tonight, rooting for the Royals. 

Certain odds are in their favor. The last time the visiting team lost Game 6 (which would've given them the title) and then won Game 7 (which did) was the Big Red Machine in '75—after Fisk's homerun at Fenway in Game 6. Devastating loss but the Machine didn't care. It kept on going, right into the next year, when it swept both a good Phillies team in the NLCS and a noisy, Billy Martin-led Yankees squad in the World Series.

Game 7s, in general, tend to be won by the home team, but this appears to be a recent phenomenon:

Year Home team Game 7 Winner
2011 St. Louis St. Louis
2002 Anaheim Anaheim
2001 Arizona Arizona
1997 Florida Florida
1991 Minnesota Minnesota
1987 Minnesota Minnesota
1986 New York (NL) New York (NL)
1985 Kansas City Kansas City
1982 St. Louis St. Louis
1979 Baltimore Pittsburgh
1975 Boston Cincinnati
1973 Oakland Oakland
1972 Cincinnati Oakland
1971 Baltimore Pittsburgh
1968 St. Louis Detroit

Anyway, I'm glad it's here. Nothing like a Game 7. But go Royals. 

Kansas City Royals AL pennant winners

More of this tonight? Recent history says yes, the San Francisco Giants and their fans say no. 

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Posted at 07:47 AM on Oct 29, 2014 in category Baseball
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Berenice Bejo in Seattle

This past week, the Seattle International Film Festival (a year-round organization) put on a mini-French film fest, and last night Berenice Bejo, my No. 2 French film crush (after You Know Who), arrived to introduce her film, “Le dernier diamant” (“The Last Diamond”).

The film? Eh. Her? Pow. Here she is before the show with SIFF's artistic director Carl Spence (who, for some reason, is blurry in all of my amateur shots):

Berenice Bejo at SIFF festival in Seattle

Berenice Bejo at SIFF in Seattle

Vive le difference!

No, not that one. This one: As I was thinking the usual idiot thoughts (Pretty ... but wearing oddly baggy clothes ...), Patricia leaned over and said, “I think she's pregnant.”

So far nothing in the media about it. Is this a scoop?

Berenice Bejo in Seattle

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Posted at 05:44 AM on Oct 29, 2014 in category Movies
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Tuesday October 28, 2014

Bill James Doesn't Like WAR

The baseball kind. A quote from Joe Posnanski's piece on the baseball stats guru (he hates that title) in winter, “Vanguard After the Revolution”:

Sometime in the last year I was doing some research that relied on these WAR systems, so I took a look at them, and … they’re not very impressive. They’re not well thought through; they haven’t made a convincing effort to address many of the inherent difficulties that the undertaking presents. They tend to get so far into the data, throw up their arms and make a wild guess. I don’t know if I’m going to get the time to do better of it, or if it will be left to others, but … we’re not at anything like an end point here. I assumed that these systems were a lot better than they actually are.

Will be interesting to see if this has an effect on WAR's sudden ubiquity. If it does, if James manages to diminish WAR, I say we send him to the Middle East.

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Posted at 02:04 PM on Oct 28, 2014 in category Baseball
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Monday October 27, 2014

Movie Review: Deux jours, une nuit (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Watching “Deux jours, une nuit,” the new film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“Le gamin au velo”), I kept flashing back to my days canvassing for Greenpeace. Also Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.”

Part of the problem with “Munich” was the counting game. Five Mossad agents are going after the 11 terrorists who killed Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics, and the first kill takes a while. So does the second. You think, “There are nine more of these?” There aren’t, not that way, but the anticipation of the count, how much more we have to go, weighs on you as you watch.

In “Deux jours,” Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a working girl recently suffering from depression. But she is back “en forme” as she says on the phone to a friend, only to learn that in her absence the boss decided he didn’t need all 17 workers, only 16, and so, apparently unable to fire her outright, offered his employees a Faustian bargain: Sandra could keep her job but they would all lose a €1,000 bonus. Their call. Fourteen of the 16 opt for the dough. But her friend, Juliette (Catherine Salée), claims the foreman unfairly influenced the election, and works to get another vote Monday morning. This gives Sandra the weekend to visit and talk with her coworkers; to get them on her side; to get them to give up €1,000 for her.

That’s the canvassing-for-Greenpeace thing: going door-to-door and asking for money.

It’s also the counting game: She has 14 people to visit—no, 13, she just won somebody on the phone—and you think, a la “Munich,” surely we won’t get each of these.

We do. But you know what’s interesting? It’s interesting.

Canvassing for Greenpeace
It helps that it’s Marion Cotillard doing the asking. The Dardennes try to make her look average, but ... Well, bon effort. Deux jours, une nuitI think their efforts backfire, to be honest. I think Cotillard looks better without much makeup, with less covering her face. At one point, Sandra is crying, telling her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), how she feels invisible, and he’s consoling her with the words husbands usually use, but all I could think was: “Plus you’re one of the most beautiful women in the world. So you’ve got that going for you.”

Cotillard acts the movie slightly hunched, as if Sandra is trying to hide from the world, which she is. She’s a fragile woman, with two kids, fighting for a blue-collar job, but she just wants to go to her room and go to sleep. Maybe forever? Plus she’s just too nice. She almost makes the case against herself during the visits: €1,000, c’mon, everyone needs that. And nothing comes of the first two.

If she doesn’t convince the third, either, it’s only because he’s already decided. His name is Timur (first-time actor Timur Magomedgadzhiev), and he’s on the futbol field, coaching, when she visits late Saturday morning and asks if he’ll vote with her. He stares at her intensely. “Of course I will,” he says. Then he breaks down crying. He remembers how she helped him out in the past. He’s felt so guilty since the day before. “I’m really glad you’re here,” he says. It’s a welcome moment—for her and for us. It’s such a release, I began to laugh. She’s now got four with nine to go.

That’s also why it’s interesting. It’s scorekeeping. It’s less, “God, we’ve still got five more to go,” and more, “Oh no, we’ve only got five more to go!”

Then there’s the variety of responses. Most are like her—seeing both sides—and some fall this way and some that. A few are vehemently for her, while a few think she’s stealing from them. One gets violent.

It’s this aspect, the variety of responses, that really reminded me of canvassing for Greenpeace. You never knew what was behind that door. Most were blasé. A few were totally glad to see you. Then there were the angry people. They made you feel like you didn’t want to go on.

Sandra feels this way most of the time. She’s the exact wrong person to be doing this: an introvert getting over depression. But off she goes. And her pitch improves. A bit. It’s not like she begins as herself, fumbling and hemming and hawing, and winds up like William Jennings Bryan; she just gets a little better.

“Little” is the optimum word here. “Deux jours, une nuit” is all small, straightforward moments. It’s this small window into these small lives. Even the big moment—the attempted suicide—happens so straightforwardly, with so little drama, that when it’s happening you hardly realize it, and when it’s revealed to others it’s not without humor.

Turning up the volume
In the end, Sandra doesn’t win. She gets eight of the 16, and that’s not a majority, so there goes her job. But the boss is impressed that she did as well as she did, so he offers her a Faustian bargain: In a few months, he’ll let go one of the contractors—a man who just voted with her—and she’ll get his job. Sandra turns him down. Because in a way she’s already won. Just the struggle to visit everyone, to do this thing, is a victory for her. “We put up a good fight,” she tells her husband on the phone. “I’m happy.” It’s a nice ending. I’m a fan of win-by-losing movies (ex.: “Casablanca”), and this is that.

Two additional things.

One—and not to be a drag—but every job is a kind of Faustian bargain. It’s competition: you vs. every other applicant for the position. That’s why people like Sandra, the empathetic ones, tend to get ground up. They don’t have the stomach for it.

The second thing is a little embarrassing. Because it’s gushy. About You-Know-Who.

There’s a moment in the movie where I felt like I fell in love all over again. Sandra and her husband are driving to visit another coworker. She’s tired, worn down, and on the radio the French version of “Needles and Pins” comes on, which Manu mutes slightly. Because? She thinks he’s worried too much about her state of mind, that he’s trying to protect her from the sad songs of the world, and she objects. And in defiance she turns up the volume. Then she smiles.

It’s not a pretty smile, necessarily. It’s not a smile to grace the cover of a magazine. But there’s a world in it. It’s self-amused. It says this: My bold defiance is silly, I know, but I’m still glad, maybe even slightly proud, that I did it. There’s such humanity there. You can see it here, in this trailer, at 58 seconds in. Just remember: I saw her first. 

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Posted at 07:09 AM on Oct 27, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Friday October 24, 2014

The Greatest Baseball Giveaway Promotion Ever

My favorite giveaway promotion at a ballpark was probably a bat night at Met Stadium in the early 1970s, back when they'd give away real bats, but reading Dan Epstein's “Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ‘76” (recommended), I came across another. It involved Bill Veeck, of course. 

Veeck (as in Wreck) was a low-rent baseball owner, frowned upon by his contemporaries, and always trying any stunt to get folks to come out to see his (usually lousy) teams. He hired the clown prince of baseball, Max Patkin, as a coach. Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ‘76He put Eddie Gaedel, a midget, onto the St. Louis Browns roster and in one game sent him up to pinch hit (he walked). In 1976, the year in question, he had his Chicago White Sox play in shorts for a few games and brought back fan favorite Minnie Monoso, who was 51 years old and had last played in 1964, for eight at-bats.

But there was more:

In addition to his endless procession of “Ethnic Night” celebrations, on-field beer-case-stacking contests, and giveaway promotions ... Veeck also installed a shower in Comiskey Park’s center field bleachers, and convinced boozed-up Sox broadcaster Harry Caray to lead the crowd in a sing-along of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch of every home game. The latter would become a time-honored Chicago tradition, while the former instantly entered Comiskey lore. “It had a utilitarian function,” Veeck would later say of the shower. “It gets hot out there and people like to cool off. But it also attracts a number of young girls in bathing suits, and a certain number of young men who like to look at girls in bathing suits."

All good. But that's not the promotion I'm talking about. I'm talking about the parenthetical hidden by the above ellipsis:

—like “Ragtime Night,” where he gave away 10,000 copies of E. L. Doctorow’s best-selling novel—

Is that the greatest thing ever? Giving away a book? A novel? A literary novel written by the left fielder in my starting nine of the literary world?

That makes me happy. It also makes me sad that I can't imagine anything remotely similar happening today.

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Posted at 06:29 AM on Oct 24, 2014 in category Baseball
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Thursday October 23, 2014

The Best Line in the 'Avengers 2' Trailer

“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the sequel to the highest-grossing, non-James Cameron movie of all time, finally relased its trailer and ... what's the phrase? We've seen this movie before. There's the big baddie, a demand for subservience, crowds crying, our heroes in turmoil. Some of the inflection in James Spader's voice even reminds me of Heath Ledger's Joker: “You're all puppets. Tangled in ... strings.” Cf. “To them, you're a freak. Like me.” 

But I liked one line. Here's the trailer:

And here's the line:

You want to protect the world, but you don't want it to change. 

I like it because it's the argument I wanted Bane to make in “The Dark Knight Rises”: Stupid Batman, maintaining the status quo for Wall Street bankers. Beating up the street-corner guys but letting the system remain the same. 

It's also a line that's true for most of us, I think. Most of us want something, something different, but we don't want things to change too much. Because who would we be in that new reality? 

The rest of it? Eh. Broken shield, fallen hammer. But it's Joss Whedon so I have hope. 

“Avengers 2” assembles on May 1, 2015.

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Posted at 03:44 AM on Oct 23, 2014 in category Trailers
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Wednesday October 22, 2014

Breaking Down the Walkoff, Series-Ending Home Runs of Baseball's Postseason

I should've posted this yesterday, before Game 1 of the World Series, but life intervenes, as the Kansas City Royals, losers of Game 1 to the San Francisco Giants 7-1, must certainly feel by now.

So Major League Baseball tweeted this pic the day after Ishikawa's homerun last Thursday that gave the Giants the pennant. It's a list of all the post-season, walkoff, series-ending home runs. But there's an error. Can you spot it?

Walkoff, series-ending homeruns

OK, there isn't an error. I simply thought there was. I thought it was Ortiz. I assumed they were talking ALCS, when his walkoff homer in Game 4 simply kept the Sox alive, as did his walkoff single in Game 5. But Ortiz hit the walkoff in the ALDS against the Angels. Why didn't I remember that? 

Probably because, as walkoff, series-ending homers go, it was fairly forgettable. He hit it in the bottom of the 10th in a 6-6 tie to give the Red Sox the series three games to zero. Even if he hadn't hit it, even if the Angels had somehow come back in that game, the Red Sox still had a good chance of winning it all.

Let's break down the rest of these, shall we? (I'll highlight in red what's wanted in each column to make the homerun more exciting):

YEAR BATTER SERIES GAME INNING SCORE OUTS MEN ON COUNT
1960 Mazerowski WS 7 of 7 9th 9-9 0 0 1-0
1976 Chambliss ALCS 5 of 5 9th 6-6 0 0 0-0
1993 Carter WS 6 of 7 9th 5-6 1 2 2-2
1999 Pratt NLDS 4 of 5 10th 3-3 1 0  1-0
2003 Boone ALCS 7 of 7 11th 5-5 0 0 0-0
2004 Ortiz ALDS 3 of 5 10th 6-6 2 1 0-0
2005 Burke NLDS 4 of 5 18th 6-6 1 0 2-0
2006 Ordonez NLCS 4 of 7 9th 3-3 2 2 1-0
2014 Ishikawa NLCS 5 of 7 9th 3-3 1 2 2-0

What do we notice?

First, all of the die-or-die games involved the Yankees. They won two ALCSes that way and lost the big one in '60. 

And isn't it amazing how many of these games were knotted up by divisibles of three? Three of them were 3-3, three were 6-6, one was 9-9. Only Carter's (5-6) and Boone's (5-5) weren't.

Carter's was the only one where his team was behind, too. For all the others, it was a tie game. He was also the only guy behind in the count: 2-2. Nobody else even had a strike on them.

But if Carter's homer is highlighted in red three times in the above chart—indicating a pretty high level of excitement—why don't I think of it that way? Why do I think of it as ... dull?

Here:

  1. It wasn't the final game of the Series; it was just Game 6 of 7.
  2. There was only one out. 
  3. The Blue Jays were going to win it all anyway.

This last one is an intangible, not much talked about by statsheads, but it's huge to me. I was watching that game in '93, and once Mitch Williams started walking guys and giving up hits you knew it was over. His only out that inning was a fly ball to deep left by Devon White. The Blue Jays, back then, were the bad boys of baseball. They'd won it all in '92 and the Phillies seemed monumentally overmatched against them in '93. It's a wonder they won two games.

Who's the underdog? That's the intangible. That's why Aaron Boone's homer in '03 was more annoying than exciting. Sure, his team came from behind in the bottom of the 8th against one of the best pitchers in baseball history to tie it; but his team was the New York Effin' Yankees. In the previous seven years, they'd been to the World Series five times, and won it all four times. They're the definition of the overdog. 

Chambliss' in '76? A little better since the Yankees hadn't been to the Series since '64 and hadn't won it all since '62. But that team was already annoying. They were Billy Martin's bulliles. No one outside of the Bronx liked them. Plus the Kansas City Royals had never even been. And there went their first shot. 

That's why, of the above, Mazeroski's is still the ultimate walkoff homerun. It was the do-or-die game for both teams, and his team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, was the massive underdog. And it was in the World Series, not the ALCS or the NLDS.

But how does Mazeroski's shot rank with Bobby Thomson's “Shot Heard 'Round the World”? And why isn't that one included in the above?

Because it wasn't officially the post-season. It was a best-of-three playoffs that was considered part of the regular season. Cf. Twins-Tigers in 2009, Mariners-Angels in 1995.

But if you did count it, it would look like this:

YEAR BATTER SERIES GAME INNING SCORE OUTS MEN ON COUNT
1951 Thomson n/a 3 of 3 9th 2-4 1 2  0-1

Do-or-die game, his team's behind (by 2!), he's behind in the count. Plus the Giants were underdogs. They'd been way behind in the standings all year, made a great run (with some telescopic help), and hadn't won the pennant in 14 years. Although, yes, just how much could the hapless Brooklyn Dodgers, Dem Bums, be “overdogs”? Not by much. Pennants in '47 and '49, but no titles. Ever. They were hardly the Yankees. And they'd integrated baseball.

It's close, though. Maz or Thomson? Who would you choose? My gut says Maz, since it was in the World Series and against the effin' Yankees. But that game was tied, while Thomson's team was two runs behind. Plus there's Russ Hodges' call—the greatest call of all time

What would the ultimate walkoff, series-ending homer look like? It should be for some hapless team, like the Mariners, against some powerhouse, like the Yankees or Cardinals. Extra innings would be great but not necessary. Maybe something like this:

YEAR BATTER SERIES GAME INNING SCORE OUTS MEN ON COUNT
2015 Busick WS 7 of 7 9th 1-4 2 3  3-2

Touch 'em all, Mr. B!

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Posted at 08:54 AM on Oct 22, 2014 in category Baseball
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Monday October 20, 2014

John Oliver Has Dogs Reenact U.S. Supreme Court Arguments

The Scalia dog is a no-brainer but I thought the Ginsburg was inspired.

Not only hilarious but a real public service in a country where two-thirds of its citizens can't number one member of the high court.

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Posted at 11:26 AM on Oct 20, 2014 in category Law
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Google Reviews ... the U.S. Supreme Court?

I came across this last week during a Google search on SCOTUS and did a double-take:

Google reviews the Supreme Court of the United States

Um ... 3.5 stars? Because? Well, because the justices have no idea about the Constitution! And they're a bunch of ring-wing religious nuts! No wait, it's because their [sic] not Christians!

America, sometimes you make me long for censorship. 

The bigger question is why Google users even have the option of reviewing the U.S. Supreme Court.

Well, it turns out, they're not reviewing the U.S. Supreme Court. They're reviewing the U.S. Supreme Court building. At least, that's what they're supposed to be reviewing.

It's via Google+/Local. You see some sight, post your thoughts. But among the Google+ review policies is this: “Reviews aren’t meant to be a forum for general political or social commentary or personal rants.” Which means no one's policing this thing. They're just placing it all prominently next to any Google search on the topic. No biggee.

Here are a few other famous sights, ranked, along with “reviews.” Basically if it's a political institution, people aren't refraining from political talk:

  • The Lincoln Memorial: 4.7 stars
  • The Empire State Building: 4.5: “Also WTF with making people climb 6 stories to reach the observation deck.”
  • The U.S. Capitol: 4.3: “Dear Congress. You suck. Re-elect NO ONE!”
  • The White House: 4.2: “I don't think I will go back since the current administration is balls.”
  • The Space Needle: 4.2
  • Experience Music Project (Seattle): 4.1
  • The Smith Tower (Seattle): 4.0
  • The Wells Fargo building (Minneapolis): 3.2

One of my favorite parts of this supreme waste of time? Finding Google's tips for writing great reviews. Apparently you're supposed to be “informative and insightful,” and you should “write with style” and “keep it real.” Sadly, nothing on “avoiding being obvious.”

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Posted at 09:49 AM on Oct 20, 2014 in category Technology
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Movie Review: Kill the Messenger (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Why is it flat? Why doesn’t it quite work?

“Kill the Messenger” was directed by Michael Cuesta (“L.I.E.”), and written by Peter Landesman (the underrated “Parkland”), and it tells the true story of Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a good investigative reporter for a small newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, who stumbles upon a huge international story: that during the 1980s, in the middle of the “Just Say No” decade, the CIA ...

OK, what was the accusation again? Maybe that’s part of the problem. Even after seeing the movie, it’s still a bit murky.

Let me try. So while the Reagan administration was trading arms for hostages in order to illegally fund the Nicaraguan Contras, the CIA ... turned a blind eye toward Latin American drug suppliers who were funding the Contras? Abetted Latin American drug suppliers who were funding the Contras? Funneled cocaine into the U.S. in order to fund the Contras? I was never quite sure the extent of CIA involvement.

But at the least, blind eyes were involved. Vast hypocrisy was involved.

Too true to tell
The movie starts out not bad. Webb is doing a piece on drug forfeiture law—how property can be confiscated by the government without anyone being charged with a crime—when he gets a call from Coral Baca (an impossibly hot Paz Vega), whose boyfriend, Rafael Cornejo, is being prosecuted on drug charges. Kill the MessengerHer charge? “He sold drugs for the government.” She shows Webb a redacted court transcript and points him to Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez), a former drug supplier/Contra supporter, now DEA informant. But when Webb mentions Blandon to federal prosecutor Russell Dodson (Barry Pepper), the charges against Cornejo are quickly dropped—as Baca knew they would be. Webb has been used. But now he senses a bigger story in Blandon.

He follows him to the trial of L.A. crack kingpin Ricky Ross (Michael Kenneth Williams, doomed to play such roles), and convinces Ross’ attorney, Alan Fenster (Tim Blake Nelson), to delve into Blandon’s background during cross-examination. On the stand, Blandon admits that the U.S. government, or at least the CIA, was aware that he smuggled tons of cocaine into the country. This testimony leads Webb to drug kingpin Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia) in prison in Nicaragua, who points him to Swiss banker Hansjorg Baier (Brett Rice), also in Nicaragua. Then Webb goes to D.C.

There, he gets the usual warnings away from the story from low-level bureaucrats and shadowy agents. The best exchange is probably this:

CIA official: We’d never threaten your children, Mr. Webb.
Webb [stunned pause]: What did you say?

That’s nice: the denial of the threat serving as the threat. But the big line of the movie comes from government official Fred Weil (Michael Sheen), who tells him the story won’t get out, adding, “Some stories are just too true to tell.”

So what happens? Webb returns to California, writes his story anyway, and it goes national. He’s slapped on the back by his contemporaries. Then his life falls apart.

All the Insider’s Men
A quarter of the way through the movie, I thought, “This would be so much better if it had been directed by Michael Mann.” Three quarters of the way through, I thought, “Oh, it was. It was just called ‘The Insider.’

In “The Insider,” “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), helps draw out a corporate vice-president, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), to go on the record about a Big Tobacco scandal. But then CBS Corporate gets cold feet, Wigand is besmirched, and the news story becomes petty shit about Wigand. Bergman has to betray friends and associates in order to not betray Wigand. The two men win a battle that is everywhere else being lost.

In “Kill the Messenger,” Webb is both Bergman and Wigand, reporter and besmirched. He becomes the story. Because the L.A. Times is jealous it got scooped? Because the Washington Post, the newspaper of Woodward and Bernstein, is too close to the CIA? Both accusations are implied here. Webb’s editor gets cold feet. Corporate is called in. Lawyers are called in—to protect the paper, not Webb. He’s shuttled off to a smaller newspaper. Does his wife leave him? Does he leave her? All of this is murky, too.

What isn’t murky enough is our faith in Webb. The Mercury News doublechecks the story after the accusations, and Meneses denies he spoke to Webb while Baier can’t be found. But we saw Webb talking to Meneses, and we see Baier being kidnapped, so we know everyone else is wrong. Maybe if we’d been kept in the dark, too, or a little, it might’ve made the movie more interesting. We would’ve had something to wonder. Instead, Webb comes off as blandly forthright and heroic. He drinks a bit, smokes a little pot, had an affair in the past. But he’s a decent husband, a decent father. To be honest, it’s not a great performance by Jeremy Renner. It’s one of the few times I’ve found him dull.

I did like his reaction after the story was first printed. He didn’t act triumphant; he almost acted guilty. Because his family had been threatened if he ran with the story, and he ran with it anyway? As if his family didn’t matter? Not sure. But it added a touch of mystery to what was generally obvious.

Or familiar. I kept getting flashes of not only “The Insider” but “All the President’s Men.” Maybe this was inevitable. Or maybe the filmmakers were too enamored of these movies to properly make their own. But the courtroom scene with the CIA revelation from Blandon, with Webb the only reporter present? That’s like the courtroom scene with the CIA revelation from McCord, with Woodward the only reporter present. Or when Webb feels like he’s being followed into the parking garage? Compare with Woodward’s paranoia after the parking garage, or the nighttime golf-range scene in “The Insider.” Here it’s: “We got a call from corporate this morning.” There it’s: “Corporate has some questions.”

Who wins?
Too bad. Its subjects are worth contemplating: the War on Drugs; the national-security state; the back-biting, sensationalistic nature of the national media, which seems to hinder more than it helps. Early in the movie, Webb is asked for the secret to his reporting, and he responds, “I don’t know ... Don’t let the assholes win?” Here, they win. And they haven’t really stopped winning.

At least “Kill the Messenger,” set almost 20 years ago, about crimes almost 30 years old, opened my eyes to a contemporary danger: the NSA spy program. All along, I’ve basically given the scandal a post-9/11 shrug: “You’re one in 300 million. There’s safety in numbers. They won’t focus on you unless you need to be focused on.” Or—the movie made me realize—unless you’re Joe Wilson. Or Jeffrey Wigand. Or Woodward and Bernstein. Or Gary Webb. 

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Posted at 05:51 AM on Oct 20, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Sunday October 19, 2014

Quote of the Day

“No. Because nobody has ever proved to me that the second guess would have worked.”

--Dick Howser, who managed the Kansas City Royals for six years, including their 1985 World Series champion year, before dying of brain cancer in 1987, when asked, in '85, if he ever second-guessed himself. As reported in Dave Anderson's New York Times column today. Anderson adds, “Has any major league manager, from Connie Mack and John McGraw to Casey Stengel and Joe Torre, ever dismissed the second-guessers’ criticism so simply and so sensibly?” I post this as someone who constantly second-guesses himself, as anyone who knows me knows. 

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Posted at 10:22 AM on Oct 19, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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The Second-Best Scene of David Ayer's 'Fury' is One of the Best Scenes of the Year

Here it is:

Bye-bye, John Wayne.

Patricia and I saw the movie last night. Review up soon. 

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Posted at 08:10 AM on Oct 19, 2014 in category Scene of the Day
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Saturday October 18, 2014

No Reasoning with Conservative SCOTUS

I love the lede to (if not the import of) Adam Liptak's story today:

The Supreme Court on Saturday allowed Texas to use its strict voter identification law in the November election. The court’s order, issued just after 5 a.m., was unsigned and contained no reasoning.

The dissent, at least, was signed by Justice Ginsburg, and condemned the Court's conservative branch, as well as Texas, for actions that risk “denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.” It's actually more like half a million, she says later in the dissent: 600,000, or 4.5 percent of all registered voters.

Texas' 2011 voter I.D. law went into effect after SCOTUS, in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), struck down Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of disenfranchisement to, as Liptak writes, ”obtain federal permission before changing voting procedure." Since then, the South has been all yee-ha about changing its voting procedures. But legitimately, you understand.

Their argument: voter fraud is so rampant (despite no evidence, and particularly not in-person at the polls) that voters should be required to show a photo I.D. at the polls. Sadly, 600,000 registered voters in Texas don't have a driver's license, gun license, passport or military I.D. But ... SOL. Most of these folks, of course, are minorities. 

But it sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Until you realize that, for example, no one in Washington state has to show a photo I.D. to vote, since we're entirely an absentee ballot state now. We must be crawling with fraud. 

To me, what Texas and many southern states are doing these days is Jim Crow dressed up. It's James Crow. Too bad the Court doesn't see it that way—or give a reason why they don't.

U.S. Supreme Court

Conservative court backs James Crow laws in Texas. No reason necessary. 

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Posted at 11:26 AM on Oct 18, 2014 in category Law
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Friday October 17, 2014

Quote of the Day

From my friend Chris Nelson, an RN getting his MPH and heading for the Ph.D., on the news today about Arizona and Wyoming:

When Massachusetts granted gay people equal marriage rights, I cried buckets. When Iowa did the same, I just gasped “Iowa?” When New York had four Republican state senators vote in favor of gay civil rights, I cried again. Then California got their rights back, and I cried. When Edith Windsor got to legally call herself “widowed,” I cried.

But then FIVE STATES at once were ordered to give equal marriage rights—including Utah and Oklahoma? I cheered. Nevada and Idaho? I was so happy to mock Butch Otter. Alaska??? Oh, yes, I laughed and cheered. And today, Arizona?

I ain't cryin' no more, I'm too thrilled!

And that, my friends, is what proves that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Sometimes the right thing to do is recognized as the right thing to do, bigots be damned.

P.S. Jan Brewer must actually have had her poor shrunken head explode ... and Sarah Palin must have flipped her wig! Fab. U. Lous.

Chris Nelson

Chris Nelson last year in Copenhagen.

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Posted at 01:42 PM on Oct 17, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

At first I thought: “Oh, they’re doing ‘Groundhog Day.” Then I thought: “Oh, it’s like a video game.” At the end I realized: “It’s like a movie. But not because it is a movie.”

More on that later.

First, why it’s like “Groundhog Dog” but not as good as “Groundhog Day.”

“Groundhog Day,” co-written and directed by Harold Ramis, took a shallow weatherman, Phil (Bill Murray), and forced him to live the same lousy day over and over until he became a decent person. It’s about the growth of the soul. It’s funny and inventive.

“Edge of Tomorrow,” directed by Doug Liman, takes a shallow PR exec, Cage (Tom Cruise), and forces him to live the same lousy day over and over—the day he dies, actually—until he becomes such an expert soldier that he saves not only himself but all of humanity from an alien attack. It’s often funny and inventive. But it’s less about the growth of the soul than about getting good enough at soldiering (leaping and dodging and shooting) to make it to the next level.

Which is why it’s like a video game. You play until you die and then you start over again.

For some people—gamers, hipsters, folks trying to monetize the popularity of video games into the movie business—this is a plus. Not me. I got bored. Tom Cruise is the avatar, Liman and company are making him jump and dodge and shoot, and I’m just sitting there. Hey, watch out for the ...! Right. GAME OVER. Reboot.

Sci-fi Normandy
As the movie starts, we get news reports of a meteor landing in Germany. It turns out to be an alien attack. Edge of TomorrowThese aliens are like sand worms mixed with the Tasmanian Devil, and they spread out from Germany, even as the United Defense Force, under the command of Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), readies a counterattack from Britain called “Operation Downfall.” So it’s basically a sci-fi version of World War II. It’s sci-fi Normandy. Because that’s cool? Because that’s the only way we can comprehend it? Because the filmmakers are lazy?

We first see Maj. Cage on cable news, promoting the “Angel of Verdun,” Rita (Emily Blunt), a super-soldier who stopped the alien attack in northern France. “We fight,” he tells the camera with authority. “That’s what we do.”

Well, he doesn’t. Gen. Brigham wants Cage to film “Operation Downfall” but Cage wants no part of it. “I’m not a soldier, really,” he says. “I can’t stand the sight of blood.” Brigham doesn’t take no for an answer. So Cage tries to blackmail him. For that he’s arrested, tased, and wakes up on some duffel bags at Heathrow airport. “On your feet, Maggot!” a sergeant yells at him. This will be the reboot point for the rest of the movie. The START OVER point. 

It’s a nightmare point for Cage. He’s been busted to private and assigned to combat in J Squad, none of whom like him particularly. Why should they? Suddenly they’re fighting next to a guy who can’t fight. Why would the general even do that? Doesn’t he like J Squad? And why doesn’t anyone recognize him from TV?

In an inspired bit of casting, the Master Sergeant for J Squad is Bill Paxton, the original “Game Over” dude, who gets off some good lines. Asked if he’s American, he replies, “No, sir, I’m from Kentucky.” Before the mission, he tells Cage, in words that echo, “Tomorrow, you will be baptized. Born again!”

The invasion, of course, is a trap, the soldiers are slaughtered, Cage dies. Ah, but because in his panic he kills an “Alpha,” an alien that can reset time, and its blood mixes with his, he develops this ability. For a while he doesn’t know it. For a while, he’s merely experiencing a massive sense of déjà vu. But eventually, in the third or fourth incarnation, the Angel of Verdun herself tells him what’s going on. She had that ability for a while. Thus Verdun. “An enemy that knows the future can’t lose,” she says. Now Cage has that ability. So what will he do with it?

(BTW: For a race that can know the future, they do an awful job of keeping this ability out of the hands—or the blood—of the enemy, don’t they? And isn’t that a fairly easy security breach? “We’ll be fine in this war as long as no one bleeds on anyone.”)

Here’s what Cage does with the ability to reset time. He trains and trains and trains. He goes from PR flak to supersoldier. Then he has to make it off the beach and into the countryside. Then he and Rita have to leave this farmhouse and attack this mountain. Then ...

Right. Different levels.

The end game is the Omega, the aliens’ “hive mind.” But the Omega isn’t in the equivalent of Berchtesgaden, as originally thought; that was a ruse. It’s under the Louvre, man. So that becomes the fight. Except in one iteration, Cage isn’t killed but merely wounded. And he’s given a blood transfusion. And there goes his power to reset time.

A quick aside. Years ago, I tested video games for Microsoft PCs and Xbox; and one night we were testing, I believe, “Midtown Madness,” a car racing game, and we went late, 2 or 3 a.m., after which I drove home. And it was odd. I had to remind myself, “Oh, this is real.” I’d been crashing and dying and rebooting without consequence for so long that I had to consciously remind myself that life had consequences.

It would’ve been nice if Cage, after losing his reboot abilities, had had a similar epiphany.

Instead, he and Rita and J Squad simply team up to attack the Omega, and they all die in the process. Including Cage. But then—because he killed the hive mind?—he’s reborn earlier than at his reboot point, before his encounter with Gen. Brigham, who informs him that the aliens have died off on their own. He did it, Cage did it, but no one knows. Except him. And us. Hoorah.

We've seen this hero before
So here’s why this movie is like a movie. And why it’s disappointing in that regard.

In the beginning, Cruise’s character, Cage, is somewhat shallow and cowardly. He doesn’t have special abilities. He’s like us entering the darkened theater with our tub of popcorn. Then as the movie progresses he becomes the wish-fulfillment fantasy, just as we, munching our popcorn in the dark, transfer ourselves into this heroic character on screen.

The process that Cage goes through in the movie is the process we all go through watching movies.

And that’s why I was ultimately disappointed. The shallow, fearful Cruise at the beginning? He was refreshing. The hero he became? We’ve seen that guy a thousand times. 

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Posted at 08:24 AM on Oct 17, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Wednesday October 15, 2014

Quote of the Day

“I don't like that word: 'Unbelievable.' Don't use that word. Nothing is unbelievable.”

-- Buck O'Neil (1911-2006), former Kansas City Monarch and all-around baseball saint, to Joe Posnanski, which Pos posted on his Facebook page this afternoon after his and Buck's team, the lowly Kansas City Royals, 29 years removed from the postseason, swept the Baltimore Orioles to win the AL pennant. The Royals have now played eight postseason games in 2014 and won them all. They make me believe that anything can happen. (Well, except that, Mr. B.)

The American League Champion Kansas City Royals, 2014

“Please don't interrupt, because you haven't heard this one in a while. Kansas City Royals, champions of the American League. Honest.” (With apologies to Shirley Povich.)

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Posted at 03:40 PM on Oct 15, 2014 in category Baseball
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Neil Patrick Harris to Host 2015 Oscars

Because he's not just for gays anymore.

Seriously, this is great news for the Oscars and for my Oscar party. Although I might actually want fewer people there so I can hear more.

A few days ago, I was watching the clip below for the umpteenth time and marveling at the talent. If he brings a fraction of this to the Oscar telecast, it'll only be a massive improvement.

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Posted at 01:48 PM on Oct 15, 2014 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Lancelot Links

Berenice Bejo is coming to Seattle

Berenice Bejo is coming to Seattle? Merci mille fois, SIFF!

  • Attention Seattle-area francophiles: SIFF Cinema is hosting a “French Cinema Now” minifest at SIFF Uptown, October 23-30. I'm excited! And not just because Berenice Bejo is making a personal appearance. Although that helps. Because it's Berenice Bejo. 
  • So is Marvel Comics discontinuing “Fantastic Four” in order to wrest it from the sweaty clutches of Fox Studios? And is Marvel mostly in the moviemaking business now? Consider it Stan Lee's dream fulfilled. 
  • More Hollywood Reporter Marvel news: Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man will be in “Captain America 3.” For a possible “Civil War” storyline? “This isn't freedom, it's fear.” Should work.
  • Not to be outdone, Warner Bros. has announced a whole slew of DC superhero movies for the next five years, including a Wonder Woman movie and a Flash movie. WW, I assume, will be played by Gal Gadot, as in the upcoming “Batman v. Superman” flick. And Barry Allen? Would you believe Ezra Miller from “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”? I didn't. Although the dude does talk fast. I think Warner Bros. is trying to get its own Downey, Jr.: someone to enliven a dull franchise.
  • Meanwhile, the U.S. Postal Service is debuting Batman stamps. Give me '40s Batman (big ears) or '70s Batman (bat signal). The others? Meh.
  • Director Guillermo del Toro lists his top 10 (really 21) favorite Criterion movies. The usual suspects: Kurosawa, Bergman, Kubrick, Sturges (the anti-Kubrick). But early David Lean gets a nod, too. My question (now and forever): When is Criterion going to come out with a version of “Breaking Away”?
  • What is the most common three-word phrase spoken in movies? Probably “I love you,” but “Let her go” might give it a run for its money. The video is HuffPo, so vaguely annoying for that, but it does serve as a stark reminder of just how derivative Hollywood is. And awful. I mean, how many times do we need to see the good guy save the pretty girl from the bad guy? It seems we never get enough of it.
  • My brother-in-law Eric Muschler, who works for the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis, and knows everything about urban planning and affordable housing, was recently interviewed by Architecture MN. Check it out.  
  • I've never been a big fan of Anonymous, which always seemed a little too powerful and adolescent to me. I mean ... Guy Fawkes masks? David Kushner's New Yorker piece, “The Masked Avengers,” doesn't change this perspective much. If anything, Anonymous reminds me of that superpowerful kid in the “Twilight Zone” episode/movie who gets what he wants ... or else. No, I mean, what I mean is, it's good that you outted the wrong people in Ferguson, Anonymous! David Kushner is a bad man for what he wrote. I'm only thinking good thoughts!
  • What does Rand Paul want? According to Ryan Lizza, and unlike his father, ca depend. Lizza's profile, “The Revenge of Rand Paul,” is fascinating stuff, much recommended. The dueling McCain quotes at the end had me laughing out loud.
  • Finally, didn't I already link to Jill LePore's piece on money, politics and the Constitution, “The Crooked and the Dead”? I didn't? Apologies. Here's the sad takeaway: If you have to break the law to infuse your political campaign with massive amounts of money, you're just not trying hard enough.
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Posted at 09:39 AM on Oct 15, 2014 in category Lancelot Links
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Tuesday October 14, 2014

Quote of the Day

“Politics is about more than mathematics. It is also a matter of will. Polite Georgetown insiders didn’t like to admit this. Sometimes they willfully ignored it—moderates could be as oblivious to evidence that didn’t confirm their biases as any conspiracy-mongering extremist. Rabid partisans beat moderates all the time, precisely by dint of the very passion that sometimes blinds them.”

-- Rick Perlstein in “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” writing about the 1976 Republican convention but with a message for any time. Certainly for the 2014 mid-terms. 

The Invisible Bridge

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Posted at 05:07 PM on Oct 14, 2014 in category Politics
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Movie Review: Gone Girl (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Sadly, I figured out the plot twist before I even saw it. The week it premiered, I came across a headline, “Is ‘Gone Girl’ Misogynistic?” and that’s pretty much all it took. I knew the movie was about a pretty blonde, Amy (Rosamund Pike), whose husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), becomes the chief suspect, and a cable news cad, after her disappearance. So our big question going in is: Does he or doesn’t he? But if the movie can be accused of misogyny, not only does it clear Nick but it implicates Amy. Maybe she just leaves? Maybe she manufactures the whole thing to get attention—or to turn the world against her husband? Which, yes, turns out to be the case.

So be more careful with your headlines, everybody.

I don’t even agree with the implication in the headline. At some point the one doesn’t represent the whole. Amy isn’t all women any more than Norman Bates is all men. Nor Nick, for that matter. Nick is lazy, adulterous, dull, cowardly. Most of the men in this movie are playthings for the women. Gone GirlThat moment when Amy and Det. Rhonda Boney (an excellent Kim Dickens) get into a subtle staredown after Amy’s reappearance, with a scrum of concerned FBI agents between them, I flashed on Margaret Atwood’s novel “Cat’s Eye,” and thought things were about to get good. But that was it. They had Det. Boney peel off from the story. Too bad. It was a nice scene anyway. With the dopey FBI men acting solicitous toward Amy (who was a murderer), and stern toward Det. Boney (who was simply doing her job), I began to laugh out loud.

That’s something I didn’t see coming. “Gone Girl,” based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, is a David Fincher crime story so in the tradition of gritty, gruesome stuff like “Se7en” and “Zodiac” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The last thing you expect are laughs. Yet they keep coming. The movie is an absurdist take on marriage and privilege and fame and infamy. It’s high camp. It’s the funniest movie David Fincher has made.

Sociopaths
When did I begin laughing? I think when the parents arrived in Missouri.

Amy goes missing on the afternoon of her fifth wedding anniversary. Nick comes home, she’s not there, the glass coffee table is upended and broken. So he calls the cops. He’s kind of dazed. Wooden. We find out later he’s been schtupping a writing student with the All-American name Andie Hardy (model Emily Ratajkowski, the “Blurred Lines” girl), and that morning he was ready to ask his wife for a divorce. So part of him is relieved by her disappearance. But he can’t show that. The casting of Ben Affleck—long accused of wooden acting—is itself a kind of joke. Later in the movie, for example, Nick is prepped by his top-flight attorney, Tanner Bolt (a surprisingly smooth Tyler Perry), before he goes on one of those awful Barbara Walters-like shows to confess his infidelity, and every time Nick acts wooden Bolt pelts him with a gummy bear. Directors from Michael Bay to Kevin Smith are probably going, “Now why didn’t I think of that?”

So on that first day, her parents, rich, privileged New Yorkers, Rand and Marybeth Elliott (a perfectly cast David Clennon and Lisa Banes), arrive in Missouri; and in the press conference in which Nick does everything wrong—acts wooden, mumbles a few words, smiles awkwardly next to his wife’s missing photo—they do everything right. They look grim and determined. They give out the 1-888 number they’ve already set up and the URL to the website they’ve already set up. They’re whirlwinds. It shouldn’t be funny—a woman is missing, after all—but it is. And it gets funnier as Nick drives around town and sees billboards displaying his missing wife’s face. How quickly his story becomes their story becomes everybody’s story. How quickly he becomes inconsequential.

Would it be less funny if we actually liked Nick and Amy? We get flashbacks to when they first meet, trading bon mots at a New York cocktail party, and it feels less “meet cute” than “meet awful.” They’re vaguely intellectual, fairly privileged, mostly shallow. He writes for a men’s health magazine, she writes ... where again? I forget. She’s more famous for being the inspiration for a series of children’s books, “Amazing Amy,” that her mother wrote. Plus she’s played by Rosamund Pike, who often projects a decided chill onto the screen.

“The hallmark of a sociopath is a lack of empathy,” says cable-news harpy Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle), implicating Nick in the disappearance of his wife, even if, ultimately, the description fits Amy more than Nick. And Ellen Abbott as much as Amy? She makes her living, and a good one, ruining lives with innuendo. Amy just accuses men of rape. Or “disappears” to get back at her dull husband and his infidelities. Or accuses them of rape, then murders them. That’s what she does with her longtime unrequited lover Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris), who protects her after her escape plans go awry. But he’s got the lack-of-empathy gene, too, doesn’t he? He loves her, he says, but when she comes to him in need, still in her dowdy, thickening camouflage, he immediately wants to turn her back into the golden girl she once was. It’s funny stuff. She’s still talking about Nick, whom she watches heartfeltly professing his (fake) love for her on national TV, while Desi, also professing his (real?) love, keeps implying she needs to work out more, eat less, dye her hair back to blonde. So many cross-currents of shallow agendas on display here. So little empathy behind so many professions of love.

Who does have empathy in this movie? How wide a brush should we use? And even when characters seem to have empathy—Amy’s parents, the dingbat neighbor Noelle (SNL alum Casey Wilson)—aren’t they just looking out for themselves? Or is this simply our ungenerous view of them? Or is the film being ungenerous?

The key line of the movie is the sociopath line above, the lack-of-empathy-gene, but it leads to this question: How do you lose empathy? Well, it helps if you demonize or reduce others, and the cable-news industry, in the movie and in real life, certainly does that. It demonizes Nick (into a callow murderer) even as it reduces Amy (into a pretty victim). But doesn’t the movie do the same thing? It gives us reductive characters like the dingbat neighbor and the shallow unrequited lover. I suppose that’s why it’s campy. That’s why it’s funny. It brings us laughs at the expense of lessons. But it also answers our question about how wide the sociopathic brush is. It’s so wide, “Gone Girl” paints itself with it. Giggling.

Silly chilly
It’s also why I got bored. I lacked empathy for these reductive characters. I cared a bit about Nick, particularly when he was getting railroaded, and a little about his sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), who seemed like a real person. I liked Tanner Bolt and Det. Boney, both of whom seemed smart. But anyone else?

The ending is particularly disappointing and unbelievable. The more interesting characters go away—Bolt, Boney—while Nick winds up back in his marriage, trapped there by public opinion, but now with a woman he knows is capable of murder. The outward projection is of love and perfection, the inner version is hell. It should be chilling but it’s too silly for that. What’s missing is anything human-sized.

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Posted at 06:46 AM on Oct 14, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Monday October 13, 2014

Quote of the Day

“We have an A-bomb [and] a whole series of Super bombs. What more do you want, mermaids?”

-- Nobel laureate and Manhattan Project veteran Isidor I. Rabi, in 1954, during secret hearings before the Atomic Energy Commission, which ultimately revoked the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the A bomb, for apparent Soviet sympathies. Rabi was defending Oppenheimer. Transcripts from the hearings were recently declassified and are making historians wonder: 1) why Oppenheimer had his security clearance revoked, since he's exonerated by the transcripts; and 2) why they were classified in the first place, since, to one historian, they include “zero classified data.” As reported by William J. Broad in yesterday's New York Times.

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Posted at 09:24 AM on Oct 13, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Weekend Box Office: ‘Gone Girl’ Returns at No. 1

Eleven movies opened this weekend, but the second weekend of David Fincher’s trashy, campy “Gone Girl” trumped them all, dropping only 28% and finishing first with $26.8 million. (Review up soon.)

Since the movie stars Ben Affleck, and since the pet project of Robert Downey, Jr., “The Judge,” finished fifth with only $13.3 million, is this a matter of new Batman beating the one and only Iron Man? Is it DC beating Marvel? Or is it DC beating DC, since the new Batman also beat the oldest Batman, “Dracula Untold,” the No. 2 movie with $23.4 million—which used, in its marketing, not-so-subtle bat imagery to conflate itself with the Dark Knight? Either way, people weren’t fooled by “Dracula.” Not enough anyway.

Meanwhile, Steve Carrell’s new kids movie, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” based on the 1972 kids book by Judith Viorst, opened in third place with $19.1 million.

And wait ... 11 movies, you ask? Yes, 11 movies. But many of them, the best of them, didn’t open at a theater near you. “Kill the Messenger,” Jeremy Renner’s true life, investigative reporter/CIA/cocaine movie, got buried by Focus Features, opening in only 374 theaters. “St. Vincent,” Bill Murray’s Wes Andersony “About a Boy” flick, is being treated, in A.O. Scott’s immortal words, “like a hothouse flower,” and only opened in four theaters. “Whiplash,” the jazz drummer movie starring Miles Teller that is garnering great reviews, did only slightly better: six theaters.

Hollywood is playing this story again. The movies you want to see are being parceled out like caviar in New York and LA, while the movies you don’t want to see are as readily available as McDonald’s franchises throughout the rest of the schlubby U.S.

Here, in fact, are the 11 movies that opened this weekend, sorted by theater count, with Rotten Tomatoes’ scores in the right-hand column:

Movie Theaters BO RT Rating
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Etc.  3,088 $19.10 66%
The Judge 3,003 $13.33 47%
Dracula Untold 2,885 $23.46 26%
Addicted 846 $7.60 11%
Kill the Messenger 374 $0.93 73%
Meet the Mormons 317 $2.70 0%
One Chance 43 $0.03 64%
Christian Mingle 15 $0.02 33%
Whiplash 6 $0.14 96%
St. Vincent 4 $0.12 66%
The Overnighters 1 $0.004 95%

It’s almost as if studios are embarrassed by anything that’s well-reviewed.

Dracula Untold poster: straight out of Batman Begins

'Noooo, we're not trying to remind you of a more successful bat-franchise. What gave you that idea?'

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Posted at 06:46 AM on Oct 13, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Friday October 10, 2014

Movie Review: The Drop (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The obvious comparison, and it’s a doozy, is with “On the Waterfront”—and not just because Tom Hardy has taken over the Marlon Brando mantle. OK, a little because of that.

Hardy plays Bob Saginowski, just another bum from the neighborhood. He tends bar at Cousin Marv’s in Brooklyn, buys drinks for the boys toasting a dead friend, lets the old woman on the corner stool run up a tab, and deals with the irascibility of Marv (the late, great James Gandolfini), who used to own the bar before Chechen gangsters took it over about 10 years earlier. He romances—kinda—Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a troubled neighbor girl, but mostly he minds his own business.

Both “Waterfront” and “Drop” have dark moods, a weight of the world, a sense of being trapped. The Drop, with Tom HardyThe cops are no help and the church just reminds you of all the bad you’ve done. Even the actors are similar. Hardy’s hair, and his jacket, match Terry Malloy’s, and of course he exudes that Brando-ness (sans, here, raw sexuality). Rapace, the original ass-kicking Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, doesn’t seem an immediate fit with the virginal Eva Marie Saint, but they actually have a similar high-cheekboned look. And if you’re going to update Rod Steiger, who better than Gandolfini?

More to the point, the key relationship for both Bob and Terry is the older relative—brother Charlie, cousin Marv—and each relationship has a dirty history. Years earlier, favors were asked. Lives, maybe, were ruined. Maybe the asker doesn’t know it yet. Maybe he doesn’t want to know.

These are some of the similarities.

Here’s a key difference: We understand Terry sooner. He’s a bit of a bully—I think of Brando’s great sneer in the back of the church as Father Barry tries to organize the workers—but he’s redeemed by love and courage and by his conscience. But Bob? For much of the movie we can’t figure him out. He seems kinda nice, kinda dumb. But just how nice, and how dumb? Because he really seems dumb. He doesn’t know how to care for a dog? Does he even know how to read? Is he a pushover? Is there something in him? We get flashes of it, don’t we? When Detective Torres (John Ortiz) asks why he never takes communion at St. Rocco’s Church, which they both attend regularly, he responds, “That’s my business,” and something hard comes down over his eyes. At key points throughout the movie we get that: something hard coming down over the innocence and the dumb in his eyes.

Above all, he’s calm. Even when crazy Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts of “Rust and Bone”) enters Bob’s home, and stands there, smirking, dangerous, and demands his dog back—the dog Deeds had beaten and left in a garbage can, which Bob nursed back to health—there’s a calm in Bob’s manner and in his eyes.

And the question we ask ourselves, the question that propels us through the movie, is this: Is he calm because he doesn’t know any better .... or because he does?

Contenders, somebodies
The calm is welcome, by the way. This is one tense movie.

Cousin Marv’s is a drop bar for the Chechen gang, one of many, and one night two punks rob the place. “Do you know what you’re doing?” Marv says. “Do you know who’s money you’re jacking?” Soon after, the Chechens show up with a van and a guy in the back with his foot nail-gunned to the floor. “You know this guy?” they ask. Bob and Marv shake their heads, nervous. Blood drips onto the street like an oil leak. Later, based on a tip Bob was dumb enough (or smart enough?) to tell the cops about the stopped watch on one of the robbers, a plastic bag is hung on the fence in the back alley: it contains the stolen $5,000 and the watch ... still attached to the forearm. Now Marv looks even more worried. He should. He planned the robbery. Not for the $5,000—that was a test-run—but for the biggest haul of the year on Super Bowl Sunday. That’s the day we build towards.

Why is Marv doing it? We get a conversation with his sister in which he worries over expenses for his sick, bedridden father, but I don’t think that’s it. He resents his lost status in the world. Near the end of the movie, in his Archie Bunker chair and in that Tony Soprano whine, he tells Bob about the good ol’ days. “When I walked into a place, people stood up straight! They noticed. I was respected. I was feared.” He talks about the corner stool that used to be his. “That meant something!” he cries. Bob responds, as calm as ever, but a little more insistent, a little more cutting: “But it didn’t. Ever. It was just a stool.” It’s a great scene.

This is another difference with “On the Waterfront”: Terry Malloy’s resentment about where he wound up isn’t in Bob; it’s in Marv. Terry tells Charlie,  “I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody,” while it’s Marv who tells Bob, “I was a contender, I was somebody.” Which is why he does what he does.

Bob? “I just tend the bar.” What about the Chechen gang? “I’m not this. And I’m not them.”

But he doesn’t just tend bar.

The original sin in “On the Waterfront” isn’t a murder, although we see enough of those; it’s the brotherly betrayal: Charlie telling his brother to take a dive against Wilson. It’s Cain going for the price against Abel. Terry’s life was never the same after that.

The original sin in “The Drop” also took place years earlier. But to discuss that properly, we have to go back to crazy Eric Deeds.

Not clean
First, Schoenaerts is amazing here. Is there best supporting actor talk? For him or for Galdolfini? Or Hardy for best actor? There should be. For all three. There should at least be talk.

At first, we assume Deeds is part of the Chechen gang, tagging after Bob, making his life miserable. But he’s just an awful person. He likes fucking with people. There’s a palpable menace to him, and the fact that Bob doesn’t buckle under it is the first time we sense Bob’s strength—or his stupidity. But Deeds is too stupid, or too crazy, to realize that Bob didn’t buckle. He keeps at him. He wants the dog and the girl back. Yeah. He used to go out with Nadia but she broke free from him. He probably put the dog in her trash can as a final fuck you; instead it brought together Bob and Nadia.

A lot of the tension in the movie revolves around this pit bull puppy. He’s cute and helpless and we think something bad is going to happen to him, because bad things tend to happen to the helpless in gangster movies. The rumor is that Deeds killed a guy 10 years ago—“Glory Days,” whom the guys at the bar were toasting at the beginning of the movie—and if he can do that, what won’t he do? So Bob is trying to deal with all of this at the same time he’s trying to deal with Marv. Then his problems merge. The Chechens kill the stopped-watch guy, Marv kills the other (running him over brutally), so he needs someone else for the heist. He chooses Deeds. That’s who winds up at the bar on Super Bowl Sunday.

And here, beautifully, the movie shifts slightly on its axis and everything falls into place. Background information from the first act suddenly has meaning in the third.

The old woman on the corner stool? The mother of “Glory Days,” who was killed, not by Deeds (although he took the street credit), but by Bob. For Marv. That’s the original sin. That’s why Bob goes to St. Rocco’s every day and why he can’t take communion, and why he buys drinks for the boys and lets the old woman run up a tab. And that’s why he’s calm in the face of Deeds’ antics. He knows his rep is just that.

Here’s one of the things I love about this movie: The resolution to Bob’s troubles is as we’d want it—a lone man using violence to achieve justice—but it’s not clean. In that moment of confrontation in the bar, something crazy is revealed in Bob’s eyes and in his manner, and he actually frightens Nadia away. He saves her only to lose her.  Most movies give us this moment as cleanly as possible. Most Hollywood movies anyway. Does it help that “The Drop” not only isn’t Hollywood but it isn’t really American? Sure, Galdofini, and sure, the screenwriter is Denis Lehane, who wrote “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone.” But Hardy’s British, Rapace Swedish, and Schoenaerts and director Michaël R. Roskam are Belgian. They’ve made a thoroughly American movie in the most American of locales with a European sensibility. It’s one of the best movies of the year.

Nah
At the end we get this great monologue from Bob. It’s his “contender” speech, but less self-pitying, more hopeless:

There are some sins that you can’t come back from, you know? No matter how hard you try. You just can’t, you know. It’s like the Devil is waiting for your body to give up because he knows … he knows that he already owns your soul. Then, I think maybe, you know, there is no Devil. You die, and God, he says, “Nah … Nah, you can’t come in. You have to leave now. You have to leave and go away, and you have to be alone. You have to be alone forever.”

The way Tom Hardy says “Nah” in this scene. I go to the movies for moments like that.

Did Lehane and Roskam ruin it at the end? The redemption they give Bob? His reprieve and reconciliation? I might not have done it, but it doesn’t ruin it. “The Drop” is too good to ruin.

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Posted at 06:24 AM on Oct 10, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Thursday October 09, 2014

Lancelot Links

  • Want to see someone steal a base? I mean, like, so ahead of the competition it's not even competition? Ladies and gentlemen, meet Terrance Gore of the Kansas City Royals
  • Why are the Royals on such a win streak? What could explain their turnaround? Would you believe a visit from a longtime, optimistic fan from South Korea? The piece is from August, via my friend Andy.
  • If that's not reason enough to root for the Royals, there's this: Did you see the female fan who held up the sign at the Royals-A's one-game playoff, with an arrow pointing to her boyfriend: IF WE WIN, *HE'S* BUYING ME A PUPPY! Well, they won. So this.
  • Joe Posnanski has been strangely silent since the Royals victory over the Angels in the ALDS earlier this week. Is he writing a book? Holding his breath? Saving it all for the ALCS? But at least in this post, his only post-ALDS post, he gave us a new word based on the KC manager: Yostify (v.): to explain an irrational decision with an even more irrational rationale
  • Here's video of a bunny in a bathtub. Because it's a bunny in a bathtub. 
  • Now to the serious stuff. Was the big bad U.S. government mean to poor li'l AIG and its shareholders when it bailed them out in September 2008 in an effort to prop up our entire financial system? Yes, that was the point. Was it a violation of the fifth amendment? I don't think so, but David Boies is making that argument for former AIG president Hank Greenberg. (Who, of course, is besmirching the name of the great Detroit Tigers slugger.) 
  • Kaleif Browder, 16, who lives in the Bronx, was arrested in May 2010 for assault and stealing a man's backpack, charges he denied. He was sent to the Robert N. Davoren Center for male adolescents, a violent place. He remained there, without a trial, until he was 20. Jennifer Gonnerman reports for The New Yorker
  • I'm fascinated by Nicholas Nixon's 40 years of photographing the New England Brown sisters. For whatever reason, my eye almost immediately goes to the shortest and, I assume, youngest one (Mimi, second from left) or Laurie on the far right. I hardly ever look at the other two. Not sure why. And I'm particularly fascinated by Mimi. Because she has the hardest stare? Because she reminds me of girls I've had crushes on? Text by Susan Minot. I like her comment about the increasing “united front” of the sisters. 
  • Paul Krugman in Rolling Stone? Yes. In defense of Obama. Yes again. 
  • Finally, sadly, I never met Shelly Fling, who died of cancer on Sept. 21 at the age of 49, but I communicated with her often while writing two essays for the University of Minnesota Alumni magagzine, which she edited for 15 years. One essay was about the Marx Brotherhood, a 1970s U of M monthly club, and the other was about address books after the death of friends. I'm fairly irascible as a writer, partly because I've had bad experiences with editors in the past, and partly because I think I'm always right; but she was always willing to do back-and-forth, give-and-take, on edits. She listened. She also knew what was good and what wasn't: accepting these pieces and rejecting lesser ones. I even wrote her once, after she apologized for rejecting a lesser essay, “Actually this is one of the finest rejection e-mails I've received.” We were forever talking about words. Now? No words. 
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Posted at 06:16 AM on Oct 09, 2014 in category Lancelot Links
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Wednesday October 08, 2014

Movie Review: Godzilla (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Here’s what I want to know: Which investigative reporter finally got to tell Ford Brody’s story? Seymour Hersh? George Packer? Because it’s kind of insane.

“So wait, your mom was killed by the male MUTO, or Mothra, back in ’99. Then your dad, who was obsessed with the disaster, was killed 15 years later when the thing came out of its pupae stage ... and you were there to witness it? Then you were on the train in Honolulu that it attacked, and on the train delivering the nuke to San Francisco that the female attacked? Then you skydived into Chinatown with the team that stole the nuke from the female, and you were the one who torched her eggs to save us from dozens, maybe hundreds, of these things, then faced off against her again on the boat with the nuke? And you were the one who sent the boat out to sea? Thus saving San Francisco from nuclear disaster?

Godzilla 2014“Um, I think I’m going to need some corroborating witnesses.”

Suggested title: “The Greatest American Hero.” Or “Mothra Magnet.”

Patricia and I saw “Godzilla” in Europe this summer, and I immediately dismissed it. Didn’t even plan on writing about it. But when I got back I kept hearing murmurs of praise from critics I respected. Was I wrong? Had I missed something? So I decided to watch it again.

I wasn’t wrong.

Mothra fukra
The trailer for “Godzilla” was good for a reason. Trailers are all about teasing the audience and “Godzilla” turns out to be one big long tease. It’s all delayed gratification. Maybe that’s why other critics like the movie. It recalls “Jaws”: not showing us, for a long time, the reason we came. We don’t see Godzilla until an hour in, when he finally squares off against Mothra (M) in Hawaii; and even then the movie cuts away and we only get a few grainy TV shots of a pitched battle. When Mothra (F) shows up in Vegas, same deal. Director Gareth Edwards keeps doing this. He keeps giving us stunning after-effects of monstrosity. Look how big the thing that WAS here ... is. Probably. And when he finally does give us the big battle between Godzilla and the Mothras, it’s filmed so dark you can hardly make out what’s going on.

I do love the opening credits: taking us from cave paintings of Godzilla, to medieval folio drawings of Godzilla, to early filmed footage of Godzilla’s scaled back submerging beneath the water. The credits keep getting redacted as if by the U.S. military, and all of this is followed by an atomic-bomb blast—an early attempt to kill the creature, we find out later—that turns the screen white. After which we get fallout dust, ghostly music from Alexandre Desplat, and the title: GODZILLA. Cool! It all goes by too fast, to be honest. Unlike the movie.

What’s the most annoying thing about this “Godzilla”? That Ken Watanabe is reduced to gazing, dazed, into the middle distance? That he carries around a stopped pocketwatch and tells Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) that it was his father’s, and that it stopped at 8:15 in the morning on August 6, 1945, and Stenz, after a long, long pause, nods and says “Hiroshima,” as if we wouldn’t know? Is it when we first meet Stenz on his ship and he’s giving some kind of Knute Rockne peptalk to almost no one? Or that he’s filmed from behind until the very end when we get the Big Reveal? Hey, it’s Edward R. Murrow! John Sayles’ friend! You know. The rich perv in “L.A. Confidential.”

Gareth Edwards is big on the Big Reveal. He keeps doing it with his monsters. See? No, you don’t. See? Psych!

During the Knute Rockne speech, Stenz informs his people, and us, that the creature about to attack Honolulu is called MUTO: Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, adding, almost apologetically, “It is, however, no longer terrestrial; it is airborne.” That made me laugh out loud. Maybe he should’ve added, “And no longer unidentified, either.” So ... MIAO then.

How about when Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), our hero, is riding the nuke train and his superior radios ahead: “Snake Eyes, this is Bravo to November. Is the bridge clear?” He gets static and sounds of shouts, screams, general panic. “Snake Eyes, I need to know if the bridge is secure or not. Over.” Again, shouts and screams. He tries a third time: the same question in the same tone. Another laugh-out-loud moment.

And what makes the San Francisco police stop all the cars and school buses on the Golden Gate bridge as both Godzilla and Mothra approach? Sure, the Army needs to set up shop. But doesn’t it leave all of those schoolkids, including, of course, Ford’s son, rather, um, vulnerable?

A contender for most annoying moment has to be our military strategy to fight the monsters. Even though we know they literally feed off radiation, the plan is to lure them to Alcatraz ... and nuke them. Which is a little like weakening Stone Cold Steve Austin by feeding him power bars. 

All of those are stupid, but the most unforgivable moment, at least to me, is when they kill Bryan Cranston 40 minutes in. What a waste. He only could’ve helped.

Savoir of Our City?
Ken Watanabe, who at least gives us a great rendition of “Gozira!” has a different plan than the military men. Being a man of science, he thinks, without evidence, that Godzilla is a force for good, or at least balance, and so Godzilla can solve our Mothra problem for us.

He’s right, of course. Godzilla spends the movie pursuing the Mothras as if he’s Javert. Oddly, despite being stomped to the ground by both Mothras, Godzilla waits until the 11th hour to deploy his signature move: fire breath. Even more oddly, it’s blue. Then he collapses, dead. No wait, he lives! And he fights and kills the second Mothra before collapsing dead again. No wait! He lives! And out he goes to sea, ready for the sequel.

This leads to the movie’s final, stupid moment. As Godzilla wades into San Francisco Bay, cable news trains its cameras on him, and we see the graphic: “King of the Monsters: Savoir of Our City?” Wow. That soon? No one’s still freaked by a giant lizard from the sea who breathes fire? We’re ready to embrace him already? Godzilla may be big, but I guess human beings are bigger than I thought. 

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Posted at 05:42 AM on Oct 08, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday October 07, 2014

The National League is Boring the Pants Off Me

At the start of the post-season, before any one-game Wild Card playoffs, I wrote a post about my rooting interests. I even provided visual representation. Here was the American League, from favorite (left) to least (right):

American League 2014 postseason

I'm mostly rooting for the underdogs, the starving fans. The Royals hadn't been in the post-season since 1985, the Orioles hadn't been to the World Series since 1983, so 1 and 2. Sure, the Tigers have had a good run in recent years but they hadn't won it all, and it's Detroit. If I'd been consistent, I probably would've gone A's before Tigers, but ... hobgoblins. No surprise that my bottom-rungers are AL West teams: the rivals of my Mariners.

In the NL, similar rationale:

National League 2014 postseason teams

Pirates hadn't been to the World Series since '79, Nationals had never been, and Dodgers, despite a good record this century, hadn't been since way back in '88 (the Kirk Gibson series). Giants? They went in 2010 and '12, winning both. Cards? They went in 2004, 2006, 2011 and last year. They won the middle ones. So no contest there. Of the 10 total teams, I was rooting for anyone but the Cards and the Giants. 

What happens? Here's the AL results:

American League Championship Series

Not bad! Good for me, good for baseball. There, we're guaranteed a team that hasn't won the pennant since at least '85. 

The National League was a different story:

The National League Championship Series

You just want to say, “Really? These guys? Again? Can't you do any better?” There, we're guaranteed a team that hasn't won the pennant since ... 2012. Yay.

The Cards are the worst. They've been to the postseason 11 times this century, and have now made the NLCS nine times. That's two more times than the despised New York Yankees have this century. And their closest NL rivals in LCS trips? The Giants, of course, with four. But that's a huge gap. The Cards keep beating the teams I'm rooting for: Dodgers this year, Dodgers last year, Nats in 2012, Brewers in 2011. They're the team that just keeps showing up. They're the team that won't go away.

Now what? Root for the Giants? Crap.

If this continues I might have to add a “Cardinals Suck” category to the blog.

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Posted at 08:53 PM on Oct 07, 2014 in category Baseball
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New Answer to an Old Riddle

From my brother-in-law Eric, via Facebook. Jordan is this Jordan; he's 13 now. Ryan (this Ryan) is 11:

Jordan started giving Ryan and I lateral puzzles he had been doing in school (like riddles) on the way to play rehearsal. I came back with the only one I remembered from my childhood. A father and son are in a car accident. The father is killed. The boy is rushed to the emergency room and the doctor says, “I can't operate on this child, it's my son!” The answer I remember is the doctor is the mother, which, at the time I learned it, exposed my own biases. Ryan, without skipping a beat, shouts from the back seat, “The fathers are gay!” Yep, worked for me.

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Posted at 03:54 PM on Oct 07, 2014 in category Culture
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The Meticulous Fall of the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies

I'm sure this has been talked about elsewhere, particularly in Philly, but I had to comment on it. Because I've never seen a team that went from the pinnacle (World Series champions) to the depths (last in their division) so meticulously; that hit every rung on the ladder on its way down. It's almost impossible to be this precise in such a chaotic world. 

It goes like this.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Philadelphia Phillies won the 2008 World Series in six games over the Tampa Bay Rays.They were champions of the world. OK, champions of Major League Baseball, but that's like being champions of the world, no matter what some say. 

Year by year, this is what they've done since:

  • 2009: Lost the World Series, 4-2
  • 2010: Lost the NLCS, 4-2
  • 2011: Lost the NLDS, 3-2
  • 2012: Finished 3rd in its five-team division, 81-81, 17 GB
  • 2013: Finished 4th in its five-team division, 73-89, 23 GB
  • 2014: Finished 5th in its five-team division, 73-89, 23 GB

The precision in their fall is amazing. It should actually be applauded. Fans should hold up signs: 9.6. It's the Greg Louganis of falls.  

The good news for its fans? The team can't fall any lower. Well, worst team in baseball, I guess. They'd have to lose a dozen or so more games. If that manage it, I'm changing my score from 9.6 to 10. That's perfection.

Has any other team ever done this? Does anyone know? 

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Posted at 05:58 AM on Oct 07, 2014 in category Baseball
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Monday October 06, 2014

Tom Hardy is the New Marlon Brando

Since I didn't see “Bronson” in 2008, the first time I had the chance to see Tom Hardy in a signifcant big-screen role was in “Inception”; and to me he just leapt. This is what I wrote then:

For his team, Cobb already has Arthur, his point man, and he quickly gathers the rest: Ariadne, who will design the dream, Yusef (Dileep Rao), who will administer the drugs, and Eames (Tom Hardy), the forger, who can impersonate important people from Fisher’s world in the dreamscape. It’s both a good team Cobb has assembled and a good team writer-director Christopher Nolan has assembled. Ellen Page is whip-smart. Cotillard is both dreamy-looking lost love and dangerous femme fatale. But I may have been most impressed with Hardy. He steals every scene. The scam is Cobb’s, the whole story is Cobb’s, and everyone seems to channel their energy into these, and his, obsessions; but Hardy suggests for Eames a life outside of this story. We don’t have much to wonder about with Cobb but we have everything to wonder about with Eames.

Is wondering about a character the key to our interest in the character? And when did I (and everyone) begin to think of the Brando comparison? With “Tinker Tailor”? Not with those blonde locks. “Warrior” maybe? Although the movie was a bit cartoonish, and “The Dark Knight Rises” even more so. Maybe in “Lawless”? He grounds a mediocre movie there. I guess it was his quiet more than anything. It was the suggested toughness. Yeah, it was also the lips and the hair. But in his latest, “The Drop,” the comparison gets ridiculous:

Tom Hardy is the new Marlon Brando

Brando in “On the Waterfront” checks out Hardy in “The Drop.”

He's not doing homage, by the way. There are a lot of similarities between Terry Malloy and Bob Saginowski, but the differences are key. Review up soon. Go see it, if you have the chance. 

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Posted at 07:37 AM on Oct 06, 2014 in category Movies
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Sunday October 05, 2014

Box Office: 'Gone Girl' is No. 1 with a Bullet; 'Left Behind' is Left Behind

“Gone Girl” has given director David Finch the biggest opening of his career (unadjusted): $38 million. It just barely nipped “Annabelle” ($37.2), the derivative prequel to the excellent horror film “The Conjuring,” to win the weekend.

For those interested, here’s a history of the opening weekends for Fincher’s films:

  Movie Opening Thtrs Total Gross
1 Gone Girl $38,000,000 3,014 $38,000,000
2 Panic Room $30,056,751 3,053 $96,397,334
3 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button $26,853,816 2,988 $127,509,326
4 The Social Network $22,445,653 2,771 $96,962,694
5 Alien 3 $19,449,867 2,227 $55,473,545
6 The Game $14,337,029 2,403 $48,323,648
7 Seven $13,949,807 2,441 $100,125,643
8 Zodiac $13,395,610 2,362 $33,080,084
9 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo $12,768,604 2,914 $102,515,793
10 Fight Club $11,035,485 1,963 $37,030,102

“The Equalizer,” last weekend’s No. 1, held up well, dropping 44% to come in third with $19 million. The second weekend of “The Boxtrolls” finished fourth ($12.4) and the third weekend of “The Maze Runner” finished fifth ($12).

In sixth place, with $6.8 million in 1,825 theaters, is something that seem like future MST3K fodder: “Left Behind,” based upon the Christian, ha ha, apocalypse-for-you-heaven-for-me novels by Jerry B. Jenkins. The star? Nic Cage. The movie is currently at 2% on Rotten Tomatoes. Who liked it? Diana Saenger, who operates her own syndicate, and belongs to the San Diego Film Critics Society. She also liked “Heaven is for Real” and “Son of God.” And “Jersey Boys,” for that matter.

I’d recommend reading RT’s page of blurbs on “Left Behind” for fun. Among my favorite lines:

the most boring version of the Rapture I could have ever imagined
--Kevin Carr, 7M Pictures

It believes people might buy a ticket to “Left Behind” and not know the twist, like someone sitting down to watch Godzilla and being shocked by the entrance of a giant lizard.
--Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly

I can't wait for Nic Cage to explain THIS one to God on Judgment Day.
--Martin Scribbs, Mixed Reviews

Score one for Satan.
--Linda Barnard, Toronto Star

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Posted at 11:14 AM on Oct 05, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday October 04, 2014

Talking Back at the Screen: The Equalizer

We get a lot of dumb lines masquerading as wisdom in “The Equalizer,” directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Olympus Has Fallen”) and written by Richard Wenk (“The Expendables 2”), which gives the movie an air of a bloody Bill Cosby action movie, if you can imagine such a beast. “You gotta be who you are in this world, no matter what,” spoken to a child prostitute, is one of those lines.

Here's another. It had me talking back at the screen. In my head, I mean. I don't talk out loud at movies. (Although I might groan occasionally.) 

Robert McCall (Denzel) is a former super-espionage agent trying to live out the rest of his life with a quiet warehouse job. It's a friendly place, and he's friendly there, and he tries to help an overweight Hispanic worker, Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), become the security guard he always wanted to be. So he keeps him on his diet and trains him on weekends. He has him pull tires at a local park. (This exercise will come in handy later in the movie.) But Ralphie keeps giving up on himself. 

Here's the line and here's what I answered back:

Denzel: Hey, don't doubt yourself. Doubt kills.
Me: So does certainty.

I was thinking specifically of the certainty, the hubris, of the Bush adminstration, and all of the people who died as a result. They were certain it made sense to demote Richard Clarke, terrorism czar, to a deputy position, and 9/11 happened. Then they were certain it made sense to invade Iraq and take out Saddam Hussein. They could nation-build in a matter of months—they were certain of that—and get out cleanly. And their certainy killed. It goes on killing, even after they've long left the scene.

Of course, we go to the movies for the very certainty someone like Denzel projects. That's part of the wish-fulfillment-fantasy bargain. We're fearful and doubtful. He's brave and certain, and in the end he'll save the day. It's great to see up on the screen. If only it stayed there. 

Denzel Washington in "The Equalizer"

Certainty, about to do some killing. 

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Posted at 11:59 AM on Oct 04, 2014 in category Movies - Quotes
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Lancelot Links

  • Why is the former head of A.I.G., Hank Greenberg, suing the Feds for bailing out A.I.G.? And why is the rest of the press treating it as a legitimate lawsuit? And why does he have my man David Boies on his side? Is it really about the Fifth Amendment or is it to get Tim Geithner on the stand? John Cassidy reports
  • That report might make you angry enough to flip tables. If so, feel free to watch this compendium of cinematic table flips: from “Jesus Christ Superstar” to “Moonstruck” to “Die Hard” to “Pulp Fiction.” It makes you realize what an odd thing it is. I mean, who does that? In real life? Besides Jesus, of course.
  • Jelani Cobb on the recent Secret Service scandals and Barack Obama's safety. What he doesn't mention, where he doesn't point fingers, is at the Hate Machine that's been pumping out vile since January 20, 2009. If something happens, how culpable would these people be? Can you shout “fire!” in a crowded theater? Can you shout “Kenyan Fascist Socialist Traitor!” at the Oval Office?
  • An editorial cartoon about the White House intruder backfires
  • Why am I adding Ben Affleck to my list of heroes? Not because he's playing Batman, and certainly not because he played Daredevil. No, it's because he refused to wear a Yankees cap for a scene in “Gone Girl.”
  • Are you watching the MLB playoffs? Particularly the American League playoffs? If not, you're missing greatness. But you can catch up on it by reading the greatness that is Joe Posnanski. Here he is on one of the craziest games I ever saw: that one-game Wild Card playoff between the Royals and A's. And here he is on Game 1 of the ALDS between the Angels and KC.  
  • Another school board with new conservative members (in Jefferson County, Col.), another fight. The board want kids to study “the postive aspects” of U.S. history while the protesters are accusing the board of censoring that history. Here's a debate I wouldn't mind having: What are the positive aspects of U.S. history? Because I get the feeling my positive aspects wouldn't jibe with the new board members'. Also this: Are there important aspects of American history that fall outside the board member's view of what's positive? If so, what's their rationale for not studying that? Broader: Do we learn from our mistakes? Or: What do you call a person who feels like they've never done anything wrong?
  • So who are these conservative school board members? Pam Mazanec is one. She believes in American exceptionalism. As an example, she writes, “Yes, we practiced slavery. But we also ended it voluntarily, at great sacrifice ...”  Extra credit: Debate the use of the term “voluntarily.”
  • At least it's all led to a great, saracastic Twitter hastag. Plus a Funny or Die post on the new, more patriotic, American history test. But we should be past this. People like Pam Mazanec are just wasting our time. 
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Posted at 07:48 AM on Oct 04, 2014 in category Lancelot Links
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Friday October 03, 2014

Quote of the Day

“I said, ‘David, I love you, I would do anything for you. But I will not wear a Yankees hat. I just can’t. I can’t wear it because it’s going to become a thing, David. I will never hear the end of it. I can’t do it.’ And I couldn’t put it on my head. ... It was an uprising; it was a coup, I rioted. It was a one-man riot against the Yankees.”

-- Boston Red Sox fan, and my new hero, Ben Affleck on why he refused to wear a Yankees cap during the filming of David Fincher's “Gone Girl,” as reported in The New York Times. Here's to one-man riots. 

Ben Affleck wearing Mets cap in "Gone Girl"

Affleck in Mets cap in a scene from “Gone Girl.” At this point in the trailer, the news anchor talks about “the hallmark of a sociopath,” so maybe a Yankees cap would've work after all?

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Posted at 08:24 AM on Oct 03, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Tusk (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In his last movie, “Red State,” writer-director Kevin Smith (“Clerks”) imagined three teenagers in a small Southern town searching for sex; instead they’re drugged and taken prisoner by a charismatic preacher (Michael Parks), and unspeakable things happen to them.

In his new movie, “Tusk,” Smith imagines a sensationalistic podcaster, Wallace Bryton (Justin Long sporting a Geraldo moustache), searching for a story in the backwoods of Manitoba; instead he’s drugged and taken prisoner by a charismatic storyteller (Parks again), and unspeakable things happen to him.

Failure of imagination? Yes and no. Because the things that happen to Wallace are much, much worse.

“Tusk,” based on one of Smith’s garrulous, comic podcasts, is in fact the most disgusting and pointless movie I’ve seen. Emphasis on pointless. I spent half the movie sick to my stomach.

Obviously if Smith weren’t talented, I wouldn’t feel this way. More’s the pity. He has talent and uses it for this.

Karma for the Kill Bill Kid?
It opens with laughter. It’s the laughter of Wallace’s podcast partner Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), who is cracking up over Wallace’s on-air riffing about the latest cultural flotsam: “Kill Bill Kid,” a hapless viral video sensation (a la “Star Wars Kid”), who lops off his leg with a samurai sword. And the video is still uploaded? And watched? And laughed about? Whatever.

Wallace, a jerk without a trace of empathy, plans on interviewing the Kid in Manitoba. TuskBad luck: he dies before the interview happens. Now what? Hey, in a men’s room Wallace finds a notice from a man promising great seafaring adventure stories! It’s only two hours away! And off he goes.

The mansion has all the trappings of a 1950s horror movie: wrought iron gate, tchotchkes, and an old man, Howard Howe (Parks), in a wheelchair. His stories are good: how he met Hemingway before Normandy; how he almost met his maker in the North Atlantic, but how he was saved by a walrus, an animal he considers “far more evolved than any man I've ever known.” Wallace listens, rapt, then with heavy eyelids; then he collapses, drugged, on the floor.

When he awakes? He’s in a wheelchair, and his left leg below the knee has been amputated. Karma for the Kill Bill Kid? No. Because that’s just the beginning of the decapitations and humiliations and mutilations.

Both Teddy and Wallace’s girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), who are having an affair, search for him, but their efforts lead to a comic-relief Quebec detective, Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp), who is neither comic nor relief. By this point, in fact, there is no relief. We’ve already witnessed things so horrific ... 

I’ll just say it. By the time Teddy and Ally even get to Canada, Howe, who isn’t wheelchair-bound at all, has amputated Wallace’s other leg, cut out his tongue, knocked out his teeth, and stitched his arms to his sides. He’s taken Wallace’s tibia bones and fashioned tusks out of them, and inserted them through Wallace’s cheeks. Then he’s stitched him inside a pale walrus skin and chained him next to a dank basement pool. Wallace can only waddle and bark. He’s forced to subsist on raw fish. Howe pulls him into the water to force him to learn to swim. He calls him, gently, “Mr. Tusk.”

Are we supposed to laugh at the absurdity of it all? At the critics screening last month, other critics did laugh—at scenes that turned my stomach. They were like Wallace at the beginning of the movie laughing at Kill Bill Kid. But eventually the laughter stopped. Is this what Smith wanted? Stifling the laughter? What if you didn’t laugh at the beginning? What if you had a trace of empathy then?

The introduction of Guy Lapointe, with his bulbous nose, cross eyes, and long, pointless stories, is even more infuriating. It’s as if instead of Jodie Foster tracking Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs,” you had a bumbling, unfunny Inspector Clouseau. It’s as if, in the middle of an Ed Gein movie, Gallagher interrupts to do stand up.

Goo goo ga joob
The ending is the stupidest part of all. Teddy, Ally and Lapointe arrive at the mansion just in time to see Wallace kill Howe with his tusks. Then Wallace barks at them. To kill him? Probably. And Lapointe levels his rifle.

But then it’s a year later, and Ally and Teddy are visiting some sort of animal sanctuary in Manitoba. They’re somberly bringing something wrapped in newspaper. It’s a fish, of course. For Wallace, of course. Who continues to live as a walrus next to a pool, of course. Because? Because Kevin Smith couldn’t come up with a better ending? Because it mirrors stupid ‘70s endings that he’s always laughed about? Is that the point of all of this? Giggles for Smith and his thousands of fans?

After the disaster of “Red State,” Smith said he’s reached the “I don’t give a fuck” portion of his career. It shows.

-- A shorter version of this review originally appeared in The Seattle Times.

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Posted at 08:06 AM on Oct 03, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Wednesday October 01, 2014

Quotes of the Day: Posnanski on KC Royals Victory

So I've been waiting all morning for Joe Posnanski's account of the Kansas City Royals' amazing, frustrating, inconceivable comeback in its one-game playoff with the Oakland A's last night. The man didn't disappoint. Among the quotables:

  • “The Royals really are the closest baseball thing to a Coen Brothers movie.”
  • “I don’t understand the impulses that would make a man think it a good idea to give a rookie pitcher a rare relief appearance on one day’s rest in the team’s first playoff game since Microsoft released its first version of Windows.”
  • Kansas City Royals“The radar gun is such a mesmerizing distraction. 'He threw that pitch 99 mph,' one of them said, and the others hummed their admiration. No one seemed too concerned that it was 99 mph and way above the strike zone, as was the second fastball. No one talked about how fast the third fastball was because Moss deposited it over the center-field wall for a three-run homer.”
  • “In the 12th inning, the Royals came back one last time – an Eric Hosmer triple, a Christian Colon Baltimore chop, another stolen base, a ground-ball single yanked down the line by catcher Salvador Perez, who for most of the game had looked so helpless, you weren’t sure if he was even holding the bat right side up.”

I watched half the game at the Quarter Lounge here in Seattle, arriving to a 2-0 score. Not many people were at the bar but the few there were rooting on the Royals. As was I. And they went ahead 3-2. Then the pitching move Posnanski mentions. Me: “A starting pitcher? Don't they have like a legendary bullpen or something? Why not use one of those guys? This kid can't seem to find the plate. What ...?” By which point it was 5-3 Oakland, then 6-3, then 7-3. And so, feeling the beginnings of what turned out to be a nasty cold (it woke me up at 1:30 AM), I walked home, through the autumn chill, and didn't bother to turn on the game at home. But I paid attention via ESPN.com. (BTW, ESPN.com: Please don't go to post-season stats in the first game of the post-season. It's so effin' stupid.) And online I saw the Royals begin to make their comeback. So I turned the game back on in the bottom of the 8th and reveled in the rest.

Welcome back, Royals. We never knew how much we missed you. 

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Posted at 11:01 AM on Oct 01, 2014 in category Baseball
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