erik lundegaard

Sunday November 30, 2014

Quote of the Day

“The systems of control designed to manufacture consent among a largely ignorant public will still be there for me to worry about tomorrow. Today, I'm just going to kick back and enjoy some much-needed Noam Time.”

-- “Noam Chomsky” in The Onion's satirical piece “Exhausted Noam Chomsky Just Going To Try And Enjoy The Day For Once.”

Noam Chomsky kicks back

Brilliant. Both ways. For more, here's my 2003 review of the doc “Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times.”

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Posted at 02:23 PM on Nov 30, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Lancelot Links

Odell Beckham catch

The Catch. The grounded, penalized Cowboy is the frosting.

  • Grantland on Odell Beckham's incredible catch last Sunday. The call it “The Catch of the Century” but of course the century's still young. Even so. What fun. What grace.
  • And the photographer by the sidelines who looks too stunned to be taking pictures? He was taking pictures, Twitter
  • ESPN's David Schoenfield gives us 10 questions (or nine questions and one comment) on this year's Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. If I had a vote? Randy, Pedro, Biggio and Bagwell (Houston's getting scammed, man), Mike Piazza, Tim Raines and—of course—Edgar Martinez. I'd have a crowded ballot but there's a lot of talent in the room. BTW, I assume Randy goes in as a Diamondback, not a Mariner. Which means Junior will be our first. As always.
  • Amir over at Film Experience, who writes about the weekend box office, does us all a service by listing the top 20 movies of 2014 that aren't 1) franchise flicks; 2) DGI spectacles; 3) animated. I.e., What used to be called “Movies for adults.” Or just “movies.” No. 1? Hint: It came out in October. And stars Ben Affleck.
  • Comedian Marc Maron's top 10 Criterion films aren't bad—although I can't watch “Straw Dogs.” And I wouldn't include “Big Chill.” But definitely Numbers 1, 5, 6 and 7. I don't know. Should I give this a try?
  • I really should have something on the Ferguson decision here, but nothing I read this week stood out. Any recommendations?
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Posted at 12:41 PM on Nov 30, 2014 in category Lancelot Links
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Box Office: Moviegoers Fire ‘Horrible Bosses 2’; ‘Penguins’ Fly South

Horrible Bosses 2

It's not funny cuz it's not true. 

Some good news for Lionsgate: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1” opened to $31 million less than the original movie ($121 to $152 million) but is now only $23 million off the pace ($225 to $248 million). So it made up ground. But that’s just with the first one. It’s still way off the pace of the second, “Catching Fire,” which opened to $158 million and by the end of its second weekend had grossed $296 million.

This seems true of all sequels now. “Penguins of Madagascar” opened on Wednesday and kinda died at the box office. Even if you include the two extra days in its weekend total, it still fell way off the pace of its three predecessors, which opened to $47 million in 2005, $63 million in 2008, and $60 million in 2012. This one? $36 million. That’s the five-day total.

The same is true for “Horrible Bosses 2,” the sequel that nobody wanted. The first opened to $28 million in the summer of 2011. This one opened to $23 million (that’s five-day) or $15 million (that’s three-day), but either way it finished fifth for the weekend—behind Katniss, Penguins, “Big Hero 6” and “Interstellar.” The third weekend of “Dumb and Dumber To” was sixth with $8.2 million.

After that, it’s Oscar contenders, playing in anywhere from four theaters (“The Imitation Game”) to 1,256 (“St. Vincent”).

Are we getting weary of sequels now? One hopes. With apologies to Otis Redding:

Oh, we may be weary
Moviegoers do get weary
Seeing the same old crappy shit, yeah yeah

Totals.

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Posted at 12:09 PM on Nov 30, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday November 29, 2014

Movie Review: Jersey Boys (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

There are a lot of odd moments in “Jersey Boys” but none odder than when Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, reprising his original Broadway role) and Four Seasons singer and songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) are trying to sell a demo, and themselves (then called “The Four Lovers”), at the Brill Building in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. There’s a great establishing shot, straight up the brownstone, where, on each floor, we see country & western, pop and jazz acts perform through the windows; then at the top floor, nervous, the two young men go door-to-door. “Four Lovers, we sent you a demo?” Slam. Repeat. At the third door—because it’s always the third—we get the following conversation:

Frankie Valli: Four Lovers? We sent you a demo.
Bald A&R man: You’re the Four Lovers? No. The Four Lovers is a colored group.
Frankie Valli: No, that’s us! [Sings] I love you so-oh-oh ...
Bald A&R man: Not bad. Come back when you’re black.

Witness the dumbest A&R man who ever lived. At a time when everyone in the music business was searching for a white act that sounds black, he wants the black version that sounds black. Because Col. Tom Parker didn’t make billions with Elvis. Because America was so not racist in 1959.

Walk like a man
“Jersey Boys” is an odd beast. It’s a Broadway musical that director Clint Eastwood has turned into a fairly standard music biopic. It’s about the birth of the “streetlamp sound” that contains no streetlamp scenes. It doesn’t reference any of the following: a) the birth of rock ‘n’ roll; b) the arrival of the Beatles; or even c), what it feels like to become stars. It just happens. These guys struggle for years, then record “Sherry,” then they’re on “American Bandstand,” and suddenly they’ve had three No. 1 singles (“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man”). They will have one more (“Rag Doll” in 1964). OK, two more (“Oh, What a Night” in 1975).

Jersey BoysFor all that, they never get out of the nightclub. Not here anyway. They don’t play concerts or rock ‘n’ roll shows. Did they ever? In real life? It all feels very claustrophobic and solipsistic.

A good music biopic needs to answer this question, too: What’s the conflict after the success? For most, it’s drugs (“Ray,” “I Walk the Line”) or family strife (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”) or both (“Sid and Nancy”). “The Buddy Holly Story” gives us band strife and a plane crash. “La Bamba” gives us fraternal strife and then a plane crash. “Get On Up” gives us band strife and a car crash.

“Jersey Boys”? It’s both band strife and family strife. Frankie’s wife, Mary (first-timer Renée Marino), is volatile and angry at his touring schedule, and they break up. Vaguely. Plus Four Seasons founder Tommy DeVito (an exceptional Vincent Piazza of “Boardwalk Empire”) has gambling problems, or some such, and owes $150K to the mob. Plus he’s skimmed half a million from the band’s earnings. All of this requires a sitdown with Frankie’s godfather, Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken), at which Frankie, a good kid from the neighborhood, has the band bear the burden of the debt. But in doing so, he breaks apart the band.

Increasingly irrelevant, Valli keeps singing and recording. But then his daughter has drug problems and dies. Then he’s in a diner and sees a cockroach. Then Bob Gaudio writes “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” with its great bombastic middle eight (“I love you, baby! / And if it’s quite alright I need you, baby ...”), and Frankie records it and sings it in a nightclub and people love it. You can see the surprise and gratitude in his eyes. The movie makes it seem that this happened in, say, 1974, after a long period in the wilderness, but the song was actually released in 1967. 1974 was the year Frankie and the Four Seasons began a mid-70s resurgence with “My Eyes Adored You,” but Eastwood has already used that as background music for the father/daughter scenes. Which, when you listen to the words (“Though I never laid a hand on you ... ”), is kinda creepy.

Swearin’ to God
What works? As on Broadway, the bandmates telling the story of the Four Seasons directly to us, the audience. (Four Seasons breaking the fourth wall.) Piazza is particularly good at this. His DeVito is a liar, a charmer, a schemer. Young, the original, Tony-award-winning Frankie Valli on Broadway, definitely has the pipes, but—and I hate to say this, since I think Broadway performers should be used by Hollywood more—isn’t he a bit old for the role now? You look at video of him in 2006 when he was lean and hungry, and he seems perfect. But here, he’s nearly 40 and a bit doughy in the face. Plus he’s not that dynamic. But then I guess Valli wasn’t, either.

Why do the Four Seasons story in the first place? “It all started with a sound that started a sensation.” Right, until the Beatles arrived two years later. Then whatever. The Joe Pesci stuff is interesting—he’s the guy who introduced Gaudio to the rest of the band—but haven’t we seen the rest of this story before? More Italian-Americans from Jersey with vague mob connections and volatile friends and family. Hand to God, I’ve seen these buttagots a thousand times, maron. And while Walken nails several scenes—tearing up listening to Frankie sing, or the look he gives DeVito about his toilet habits—he’s often a distraction. “Frankie,” he says in his Walkenish way, “the world needs to hear that voice.” Cf.: “I’ve got a fever ... and the only prescription is more cowbell.”

During the end-credits, we finally get the streetlamp and a medley/dance number that gives us a better sense of what the stage production might’ve looked like. But for me it’s too little too late. Hand to God. 

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Posted at 07:32 AM on Nov 29, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Friday November 28, 2014

'Five Came Back' Trivia Question

According to Mark Harris' book, “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War,” which Hollywood movie did Joseph Goebbels call “an exemplary propaganda film for [the] German industry to copy”?

Answer in the comments section ...

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Posted at 04:43 PM on Nov 28, 2014 in category Movies
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Quote of the Day

“When you allow global corporations to roam global markets, you make them more powerful than nation states; when you ‘roll back the state’, you reduce the power of the people in each nation; when you ‘cut back regulation’, you allow the biggest corporations to dominate and exploit their territories; when you break trade unions and tear up employment laws, you allow those corporations to ride roughshod over those who work for them. The simple, beautiful idea that people should run their own societies disintegrates, allowing the few to rule and the many to follow.

”Over and again, you allow the hard logic of the market to usurp human choice and so you create a society with the morality of an anthill, where all human life is reduced to labour, all freedom flattened by the demand for efficient production, all weakness punished, all violence justified, where schools and hospitals are cut while crime and alienation flourish and millions are thrown into the deep pit of unemployment.“

-- Nick Davies, ”Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch." Much recommended.

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Posted at 02:09 PM on Nov 28, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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'The Nostalgia is Strong With This One': 10 Thoughts on the Teaser for 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

I'm sure you've already seen it by now, but here it is again:

Thoughts as I watched:

  • 00:13: Ah, the sands of Tatooine. But then, “Phantom Menace” began that way, too. (See: this poster.) Doesn't mean the movie will be any good. 
  • 00:15: That's not Morgan Freeman's voice, is it? Please, no. 
  • 00:22: Hey, aren't all stormtroopers clones of Jango Fett? And if this dude's a stormtrooper, and he's scared, well, isn't that good? Or is he a good guy undercover—like Luke and Han in the original?
  • 00:29: A bowling-ball droid. I like the 1970s-era markings. Orange and blue were my high school colors.  
  • 00:39 Cute girl. (Daisy Ridley, it turns out.) And, like Tatooine, playing on our “Star Wars” nostalgia: from what she's wearing, to what she's riding, to the camera movement in on her. It almost feels like a shot-for-shot remake of something in “Return of the Jedi.”
  • 00:44: This plays even more to our “Star Wars” nostalgia: the close-up static shot of the rebel in the X-wing fighter. Slightly different-colored uni but same orange eyeshade. Hey, is that Oscar Isaac? 
  • 00:59: The Dark Side ... has the light? Has delight? And while it looks cool to extend the crackly portion of the light sabre into the guard, creating a cross, does it make it more effective as a weapon? I mean, doesn't it defeat its own purpose? It's supposed to guard your hand, not cut it off.
  • 1:00: The return of the Millennium Falcon and that triumphant “Star Wars” score from John Williams. OK, J.J. Abrams, you just won me over. 
  • 1:20: December 2015? Since when were “Star Wars” movies released in December? (Answer: Never. They've always been released in May. Actually, in a nine-day period in mid-May: May 16-25. So this is the biggest break from tradition in the movie: its release date.)
  • 1:25: The Force Awakens? So ... was it asleep?

For all the corporate calculation in this, think how powerful the “Star Wars” myth is. Over a 40-year period, there have been six movies released in six-year clusters (1977-83 and 1999-2005), and yet only two of them have been good. In fact, we haven't seen a good “Star Wars” movie since 1980. Yet we're still all chomping at the bit to see this one. It's either the myth or the nostalgia, and the nostalgia's powerful with this one. 

Luke Skywalker in an X-wing fighter

Luke

Wedge in an X-wing fighter

Wedge

Oscar Isaac in an X-wing fighter

Llewyn Davis

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Posted at 10:10 AM on Nov 28, 2014 in category Trailers
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Thursday November 27, 2014

'His Patience Infuriates Me': Another MLK/Obama Comparison

MLK and Obama

Two patient men. Maybe the 2014 midterms were Obama's “Birmingham Jail” moment, when his patience finally wore out. 

While writing about the death of John Doar, I was looking through my copy of Taylor Branch's “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years,” and in the latter part of the book, just a few pages after Doar's memorable, hands-in-the-air calming of a potential riot in Jackson, Mississippi, I came across this passage about a behind-the-scenes battle for Medgar Evers' legacy. I'd forgotten about it. I'd forgotten that Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, hadn't been a big fan of Dr. King and the SCLC. I'd particularly forgotten the passage below, but it's reminiscent of something that's happened during the Obama presidency. 

The speaker for most of this is Stanley Levison, whom Pres. Kennedy warned MLK to disassociate himself from since Levison had ties (or once had ties, I'm not quite sure) with the American Communist Party:

Levison poured out a long tale of grievance against Wilkins. “Roy and every single member of his staff except John Morsell ... have carried on against Martin,” he said. For years they had conducted a “dirty campaign” of gossip against King—for instance, spreading the “hair-raising” rumor that King moved to Atlanta in 1960 only because the Negro insurance companies paid him $1 million a month to “hold the Negroes back.” Through it all, said Levison, King kept speaking at NAACP functions, opening NAACP branches, and praising the NAACP in speeches. He did not understand how King had been “so patient with the amount of garbage that's heaped on him.” In fact, Levison said, King's patience “infuriates me.”

Sound familiar? 

There's a phrase in British tabloid circles, “monstering,” or relentless smearing of a public figure to turn him/her into a monster, and that's what the GOP and Fox News have been trying to do to our president for the past six years. They've called him a socialist, a communist, a fascist. They compared him to Hitler for bringing health insurance to millions. They've not only called him un-American but many keep implying he's not American at all. Monstering, though, like a lot of far-right rhetoric, is mostly projection. We know who the real monsters are.

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Posted at 11:49 AM on Nov 27, 2014 in category Books
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Wednesday November 26, 2014

Candice Dyer's Handy Decoder for Whitespeak, Post-Ferguson

Freelance writer extraordinaire Candice Dyer of Georgia wrote the following today on Facebook about some of her post-Ferguson social media conversations. It seems pretty spot-on:

Having read the same arguments, ad nauseum, over the past couple of days ... here's a handy decoder-translator for whitespeak:

  • When you preface a sentence with “I'm not a racist, but ...” That means you're a racist.
  • When you say “This is not about race at all” ... That means it's exactly about race.
  • When you say “This is all about Sharpton and Jackson playing the race card” ... That means you are the one playing the race card ... as a racist.
  • When you say “We still have the best criminal justice system in the world even if it's flawed” ... That means that black people shouldn't complain about it, but you can, when it affects you or your child.
  • When you bring up O.J. in this context ... guess what?
  • Same goes for any talk of Obama “stirring the pot.”
  • Same goes for defaming the dead as a “thug.”

And so on. And so on.

I should add, in all honesty, that my own social media conversations have gone the other way. I came home Monday night to the Twitterverse excoriating Pres. Obama for the “split-screen shot”: he was urging calm while on the other side, smoke, fighting and rioting were going on in the streets of Ferguson. Some said, a bit quickly, that it “defined” his presidency, but I never understood what he should have said or how he should have acted. Should he have not been calm? Should he have urged violence? What he said, and how he acted, seemed proper to me. What he said the next day seemed proper to me, too. He'll get excoriated from the right for that. No winning for the middle in America.

Here's Bob Staake's New Yorker cover for next week:

New Yorker cover after Ferguson: by Bob Staake

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Posted at 11:42 AM on Nov 26, 2014 in category Politics
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Movie Review: Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

People who don’t know Gore Vidal should check this out. For the rest of us? Which I guess is about 100 now? (See: this.)

Sure, it was nice to finally check out footage of a 10-year-old Gore flying that airplane for his father and the newsreel cameras, which he’d written about in “Screening History.” I knew about Jimmie Trimble, of course (“Palimpsest,” “The Smithsonian Institution”), but I didn’t know much about Vidal’s longtime companion Howard Austen, so it was nice getting that. Vidal was closer to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward than I’d realized. I was also unaware of the Christopher Hitchens angle: How Hitchens was the heir apparent, in both is own mind and Vidal’s, and then 9/11 and Iraq happened. Hitchens pumped for war, Vidal blamed America. He wrote a book without a trace of wit in the title, “Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta.” The Bushies were so bluntly preposterous they stupefied us all—even Vidal.

But otherwise what was new here? We got his love for his grandfather, his hatred of his mother, his WWII service; then “Williwaw” and acclaim, and “City and the Pillar” and the New York Times homophobic reaction. Years in the wilderness. Gore Vidal: The United States of AmnesiaSo TV and teleplays, “The Best Man” and Hollywood. The friendships: Tennessee Williams, the Newmans, the Kennedys. The rivalries, on air and otherwise, in the ’60s and ’70s: Capote, Buckley, Mailer. The house on the Amalfi coast. Myra Breckenridge. The history books and the religious books and the declining health and the return to the states.  

It’s basically the Cliff’s Notes to Gore Vidal. But in this bluntly preposterous world, he’s still nice to come home to.

Add another quote and make it a gallon
Vidal, with Mailer and Baldwin, was the last of the great novelist-essayists of the 1950s; now they’re all gone and haven’t been replaced by newer models. Novelists don’t do long think pieces on history and culture anymore, and essayists don’t do fiction.

On the day Vidal died, I combed his books on my shelf and posted about 20 or so quotes that I liked. The doc also liberally sprinkles his quotes throughout. Interestingly, I don’t think we have any matches. That’s how much wit you had to choose from. Among the quotes here:

  • “Love is a fan club with only two fans.”
  • “In America, the race goes to the loud, the solemn, the hustler.”
  • “A writer must always tell the truth as he sees it, and a politician must never give the game away.”
  • “Since the property party controls every aspect of media, they have had decades to create a false reality for a citizenry largely uneducated by public schools that teach conformity with an occasional advanced degree in consumerism.” 

(Although they really shouldn’t have missed this one: “Put bluntly, who collects what money from whom in order to spend on what is all there is to politics, and in a serious country should be the central preoccupation of the media.” Or this one on Reagan. Or this on Kennedy/Clinton. Or...)

He often went far afield. He was a conspiracy theorist on FDR and Pearl Harbor, but not, thankfully, on Bush and 9/11, since he didn’t believe the Bush/Cheney team was actually smart enough to pull such a thing off. (My view.) Early on, he says of JFK, “He was really the most enjoyable company on Earth—terribly funny,” but later dismisses his presidency as one of the worst ever. But he said this in the 1970s before the great turnaround. He was brutal on Reagan. And on Bush, Jr.? “We’ve had bad presidents in the past, but we’ve never had a goddamned fool,” he says here.

He was the great class traitor. He grew up in D.C. amid power and wealth, was trained at St. Albans, saw himself as a man of the people although he never was. He wanted a new U.S. Constitution. The doc doesn’t go into that. He felt the great betrayal was codified in 1947 with the creation of the national security state. We gave up a Republic, he felt, for an Empire.

His grandfather, Thomas Gore, a blind U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, and one of only a handful of men who didn’t vote for our entry into World War I, told his constituents, “I will never rob your cradle to feed the dogs of war.” He was promptly voted out of office.

That’s the disconnect, isn’t it? The thing doesn’t work no matter what. A new U.S. Constitution, which would be the greatest roll of the dice ever, and we’ll still wind up with us, the propagandized masses. “We forget everything,” he says here—hence the title—but Vidal seems to forget this. Or he dismisses it for better game: the ruling classes; his people.

Someone to laugh at the squares with
At the end, you get the feeling everyone wanted one more bon mot. They waited on it like they waited on the toothless insult from an elderly Groucho. Vidal obliged. “The four most beautiful words in the English language,” he tells the camera at the end of this doc: “I told you so.”

Except he didn’t. He told them, but without the “so.” In his lifetime, most things—save racial matters, gender matters—got worse. How sad to hear him in the 1960s argue with William F. Buckley on the unfairness of a system, our system at the time, in which the top 5 percent owned 20 percent of the wealth. Would that we were still there. By 2007, the top 1 percent owned more than 34 percent of the wealth, and the top 10 percent owned 80 percent of it. And they continue to rob the cradle to feed the dogs of war. Because we let them.

I met him once, in 1999, during a book promotion for “The Smithsonian Institution.” I’d interviewed by fax and met him before the event at Seattle’s Town Hall. He was taller than I’d anticipated, but heavier, and with halitosis. I had trouble conversing with him because of that. Also because he was Gore Vidal and I was a too-polite kid from Minnesota. But even then he was in his elderly Groucho phase. Everyone was ready for the bon mot. Everyone was ready for some dry, acerbic culture. Why not? The alternative, what we normally get, the blunt stupidity of the Bushies, leaves you feeling hollowed out. Gore, he was someone to laugh at the squares with.  

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Posted at 10:18 AM on Nov 26, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Monday November 24, 2014

Movie Review: Citizenfour (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

As the world was learning about Edward Snowden, Edward Snowden was trying to fix his hair.

It’s early June 2013 and he’s in his Hong Kong hotel room, where he’s been holed up for days giving information to both Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian, who then slowly report that information to the world. The story has gone from the NSA getting metadata from Verizon, to the NSA getting metadata from ISPs, to, yeah, there must be a whistleblower out there. And here he is.

But while the world talks about Snowden, Snowden tries to fix his hair. First he puts too much gel in it. Then he wipes some of it off with a towel. Does he wipe off too much? Is he simply frustrated? Is he trying to distract himself from the fact that his life has irrevocably changed? He thought he knew what he was getting into, but now he’s in it, and it’s irreversible, and he’s having doubts.

Up to this point, he’s been pretty straightforward. He’s got chin stubble, an embarrassed, almost pained Seth Rogen smile, an air of an Andrew Garfield character—which it to say, a brave, sometimes failed attempt to stay within himself: to be doing the thing for the thing and not the perception of the thing. CitizenfourHe’s coming forward, he says, because it’s no longer the elected and the electorate in America; it’s the ruler and the ruled. We’re the latter, and the former is lying about what they’re doing. The U.S. Patriot Act lowered the threshold for domestic surveillance without court order, but a threshold existed; and the NSA, under both Bush and Obama, obliterated that threshold. They’re spying on all of us.

Snowden wants the story to be about the story (what the NSA is doing) and not about him (the whistleblower), but he knows the media, playing to our need for personality, will make it about him. At the same time, he doesn’t want to appear afraid to come forward. Fuck skulking, he basically says. He wants it out there. On June 9, they finally reveal his name. And the world goes crazy.

Once the world begins to close in, once The Wall Street Journal is metaphorically banging on his door, a look comes into his eyes. Not fear, exactly. More like dread. Documentarian Laura Poitras notices and asks how he feels. He shrugs. “What happens, happens,” he says. “If I get arrested, I get arrested.” Almost everything he says is repetitive in this manner. His language turns back on itself, as if trapped. The look of dread in his eyes doesn’t go away.

White Knight
When I remember “Citizenfour” I’ll remember the silence of it—the background almost thrums with silence—and the whiteness.

Snowden, who’s tech-geek white, and whose name itself implies whiteness, is first filmed wearing a white T-shirt and sitting on a bed with white sheets and leaning against a white cushiony headboard. Poitras says she initially hated all the white but now feels it works. George Packer compares Snowden here to “a figure in some obscure ritual, being readied for sacrifice.” Me, I was just hoping it wasn’t some precious arty thing: that he starts out wearing white and gradually gets dark. Which is kinda what happens.

The white T-shirt is his uniform for the first few days of interviews. Then, as stories break, we see him in a gray T-shirt, then a grayer dress shirt. By the time he leaves the hotel room, a hunted man, he’s wearing a black shirt and a black jacket.

Intentional? God, I hope not.

I know. Snowden didn’t want this to be about personality and here I am talking hair gel and T-shirts. I’m part of the problem.

I was part of the problem earlier, since I was somewhat dismissive of Snowden’s revelations. The NSA is gathering data on all of us? So safety in numbers, right? Right. Unless, of course, the federal government decides to target you and glean what info they can from that metadata. According to Glenn Greenwald, who has a new NSA whistleblower, 1.2 million (Americans or anyone?) are on the NSA’s watchlist.

For all the good this doc does, we’re still not getting the post-9/11 discussion we need. What I wrote at the end of my review of Jeremy Scahill’s “Dirty Wars” is still relevant. It’s freedom vs. safety, or, in the language here, privacy vs. security, and the post-9/11 argument is that we can’t have both. The deeper argument is: Are we giving up one (privacy) for only the illusion of the other (security)? Or this: Are we simply giving up someone else’s privacy (the 1.2 million) for the sake of our own security—real or imagined?

To me, the discussion begins here; I don’t know where it ends.

White Russian
Snowden, whose code name is “Citizenfour,” picked both Greenwald and Poitras as his contacts because both are on the watchlist. We get maybe 10 minutes leading up to the June 2013 interviews, and then nearly an hour in that claustrophobic hotel room. Then Greenwald drops away—shadowed everywhere by the media—and he’s replaced by an international human rights lawyer, who spirits Snowden away. Poitras films him leaving the room, and that’s it. Then he’s gone. Off to ... where was it again? Brazil? But stuck in Moscow.

There are a few missed opportunities here. I laughed out loud at footage of Piers Morgan grilling a federal official about the awfulness of intruding upon privacy—as if he’d never been an editor for News of the World. Who isn’t spying on us? If it’s not governments, it’s the media; if not the media, corporations. We’re being spied on by algorithms. Search for a book on one site and it’ll pop up as an ad on another. Maybe the notion of privacy itself will become an outmoded concept in the digital age.

Then there’s the ending. We visit Snowden briefly in Moscow, where he’s now living with his girlfriend. Glenn Greenwald brings him up to date on all he’s learned, but writes down, rather than speaks, the most relevant material, since they all assume he’s being bugged. By Moscow? By us? By Murdoch? But the questions I’d like to ask Edward Snowden aren’t asked. What’s it like being so plugged in—as he was at the NSA—and then being completely unplugged, as he is now? Did he think the reaction of the world was commensurate with the problem as he saw it? I’d ask “The Insider” questions: Was it worth it? If he could go back, would he still come forward? Would he still blow the whistle?

Are we worth it?

These are some of the thoughts I had as I left the theater. Also this: the terrorists won. 

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Posted at 06:58 AM on Nov 24, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Sunday November 23, 2014

'Hunger Games: Mockingjay' Opens at $123 Million, Disappoints

Katniss in "the Hunger Games: Mockingay—Part I"

Katniss returns, fewer people show up.

When is a $123 million weekend, the biggest opener of the year, a disappointment? When its predecessors opened at $152 million and $158 million, respectively.

That’s “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1.” And if Hollywood in general and Lionsgate specifically are wondering and worrying over that total, they might want to look to the movie’s tri-part title:

  1. The franchise name
  2. The chapter within that franchise
  3. OK, just the first part of that chapter within that franchise

I don’t know if we’re all getting franchise fatigue, if that’s what this year of downward box office has been about (and if so, good), but breaking up final chapters into two parts, as with “Twilight” and “Harry Potter,” or three parts as with “The Hobbit,” is just being greedy. Cut to the chase, Hollywood. Just tell us the fucking story.

The first two “Hunger Games” movies grossed over $400 million each domestically. “THGMP1” will need good word-of-mouth to do that. The more immediate question is whether it can unseat “Guardians of the Galaxy,” at $331 million, as the year’s biggest hit. Domestic. Worldwide, it’s that crummy “Transformers IV” movie, which grossed $1.08 billion despite massive deflation in the U.S.

Among the runner-ups this weekend, “Big Hero 6” finished second ($20m for the weekend, $135 domestic total), “Interstellar” third ($15 and $120) and “Dumb and Dumber To” fourth ($14 and $57). “DADT” gained 34 theaters in its second weekend but still feel nearly 62%. So we’re dumb but we’re not dumber.

“Gone Girl” is still in fifth place ($2.8 and $156), “Beyond the Lights” in sixth ($2.6 and $10), and then “St. Vincent,” which earned another $2.3 million (including $10 from me) and has now quietly grossed $36 mil, despite mediocre reviews.

After that, a flurry of potential Oscar candidates:

  • 8. “Fury” ($1.9, $79)
  • 9. “Birdman” ($1.8, $14)
  • 10. “The Theory of Everything” ($1.5 and $2)
  • 11. “Nightcrawler” ($1.2 and $27)

I’d recommend any of these last ones. Use your brains and all. 

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Posted at 12:08 PM on Nov 23, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Lancelot Links

  • #Pointergate update: Earlier this month, KSTP-TV ran a story that Mayor Betsy Hodges, as part of GOTV efforts, had a picture taken with a “known felon” flashing “gang signs.” The rest of the world pointed out that they were just pointing at each other. But despite the backlash, KSTP's Stanley Hubbard stands by the story. And according to him? Some of his best viewers are black. So there.
  • Anson “Potsie” Williams on how Robin Williams turned the worst “Happy Days” script into the best. Well, “best.” I mean, it was still about an alien (and his finger) battling Fonzie (and his thumb) for the soul of Richie Cunningham. Or something. But at least it was goofy. And no sharks were jumped. 
  • Rare, behind-the-scenes photos from the original “Star Wars”? Again? Yeah, but I didn't know about Lane Loneozner, Camie, and Biggs Darklighter
  • MLB.com has 10 finalists for its 2014 defensive play of the year. Always fun to watch. I was torn between Puig and Kiermaier, and went with Puig. 
  • Not fun to watch? Kirk Cameron's “Saving Christmas” movie. But it was fun to read Christy Lemire's review about why it was not fun to watch. 
  • The headline says it all: ESPN suspends Keith Law for defending evolution. At first you think, “OK, but what are the extenuating circumstances?” Here they are: Law was refuting anti-evolution tweets from ESPN's Curt Schilling, who's a bigger name and a bigger doofus. So Schilling fought the Law and the Law lost. World without end.
  • Yesterday morning, Nathaniel over at FilmExperience.net alerted me (well, all of his Twitter followers) to the live streaming of the 2014 Golden Horse Awards in Taipei, Taiwan. (Their Oscars.) I watched a bit of it, understood a few words, caught Chen Shiang-Chyi winning best actress for “Exit.” Interestingly, the other actresses in the audience, particularly Tang Wei, didn't quite have the brave face that Hollywood nominees put up during someone else's acceptance speech. They looked a trifle miffed. Best feature was“Blind Massage.” Wouldn't mind checking it out someday. Taiwan used to be my home. 
  • A Colorado rapper writes an open letter to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on the Keystone Pipeline. He also includes 10 Questions for Sen. Bennet. And for you and me. 
  • Finally, the long read of the week: Ben McGrath in The New Yorker tells us about the rise of the professional cyber athlete via the Korean-dominated real-time strategy game StarCraft II, and the Canadian girl (Scarlett) who challenged them all. It's amazing the miniworlds out there. It's amazing how nasty people can be in them, too. 

The 2014 Golden Horse Awards, Taipei, Taiwan

The 2014 Golden Horse Awards: I like the huge shot of the actress (Chen Shiang-Chyi) in character (in “Exit”).

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Posted at 07:51 AM on Nov 23, 2014 in category Lancelot Links
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Saturday November 22, 2014

Quote of the Day

“I’m slipping away. I’ve decided to make friends with it.”

-- Writer/director/comedian Mike Nichols during his last lunch with John Lahr in September, as recounted by Lahr in The New Yorker. One of my favorite Mike Nichols stories is here. Nichols died earlier this week.

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Posted at 10:46 AM on Nov 22, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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At the Birth of the 'Special Rights' Argument

After the death of John Doar, I was looking over my old copy of Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963,” and came across this story about James Meredith trying to register at the University of Mississippi in 1962, and being prevented from doing so by Gov. H. Ross Barnett. It’s a well-known story.

But it brought to mind the way modern conservatives and reactionaries and racists use the term “special rights.” And it sheds light on what the term means.

It’s 1962. Meredith is trying to become the first black man to register at Ole Miss. Gov. Barnett, looking for votes, prevents him from doing so. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals then threatens both the registrar and the university trustees with contempt, and secures a promise that they will in fact register Meredith. On Sept. 25, U.S. Marshall James McShane and civil rights attorney John Doar accompany Meredith to the Federal Building in downtown Jackson to register him. But no one’s there. Gov. Barnett has called them to the legislature to “testify” about the situation.

That evening, after various other machinations, the three men, with the help of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy in D.C.,  attempt to register Meredith on campus, but once again Barnett “interposes,” makes some jokes at Meredith’s expense, and denies the admission. “A Rebel yell went up from the crowds gathered ...” Branch writes. “They hooted the Meredith trio along its path of retreat ...”

Then a call to Barnet from RFK, and this conversation:

RFK: He is going to show up for classes tomorrow.
HRB: At Ole Miss? How can you do that without registering?
RFK: I think they arranged it. It’s all understood.
HRB: They’re going to give him special treatment?

I love that. Special treatment. Special rights.

What are Meredith’s special rights? Well, a racist state has done everything in its power to prevent an entire people from the normal course of events. Then, for a period, they focus on one man. The most powerful people in the state do everything they can to prevent this one individual from the normal course of events—the simple act of registering for college. And when the federal government says, “You can’t do that,” they cry “Special treatment! Special rights!”

Then they spend decades undermining the federal government. But that’s another story. 

H. Ross Barnett and Ole Miss

“They're going to give him special treatment???”

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Posted at 06:11 AM on Nov 22, 2014 in category U.S. History
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Friday November 21, 2014

Quote of the Day

“I want to reform our crazy legal system because as a nation we must sue each other less and care for each other more. It has gone too far when these crazy lawsuits keep people from coaching Little League, doctors from delivering babies, or whatever it is. We must put a cap on these outrageous lawsuits, and we've got to stand up to the special interests in Congress who are keeping us from doing just exactly that. Clean House!”

-- Pres. George H.W. Bush on the campaign trail in Oct. 1992. I reprint it, of course, because today the House GOP has filed a lawsuit against Pres. Obama for overstepping his executive authority with the Affordable Care Act. The kicker? The next line in Pres. Bush's above speech is this: “I want to use competition to cut the cost of health care and make it affordable for you and your families.” Read 'em and weep, America, at how crazy your country (or your GOP) has become. 

President George H.W. Bush in 1992

In favor of: affordable health care and fewer lawsuits. AKA RINO.

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Posted at 02:57 PM on Nov 21, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Trailer: The Age of Adaline

This looks awful:

Jeff Wells is right: “Twilight Zone” ran a similar episode in 1960, “Long Live Walter Jameson,” that dealt with the darker aspects of immortality—how we keep making the same mistakes over and over; how we never learn. Basically, those who live through history are doomed to repeat it.

Adaline, played by Blake Lively, doesn't have the centuries of Walter Jameson but she does have a century—a rather monumental century. Born in 1908, she's rendered immortal during a magic-realism car accident in 1935. She's been on the run ever since. Apparently she runs into the arms of men and then away from them again; away from her kids, too. Then into the arms of men again. Modern day, it's a lanky, bearded Brit. I lost all interest in the movie at 1:48 when she drives off in a taxi, he cries, “Wait,” and then, worried, “How do we get in touch?” And this look from our 106-year-old:

Blake Lively Age of Adaline

It's the look of a fucking schoolgirl, not someone who's lived 100 years. There should be wisdom in her eyes. Sadness. Something.

Favorite moment? The actor playing the young Harrison Ford delivering his crooked smile:

Young Harrison Ford

How about Adaline as metaphor for the country? She stays perpetually young and learns nothing. She could help the world but it's all about her. 

Hope she's not a Cubs fan. That would be cruel. 

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Posted at 12:56 PM on Nov 21, 2014 in category Trailers
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Movie Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The central joke in “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is how the main character, Albert (writer-director Seth MacFarlane), is really a 21st-century man stuck in the American West of the 1800s. It’s not a time travel movie. Albert just reacts to everything around him as if he were, you know, Seth MacFarlane, born in 1973, raised in relative safety and security, allowed to get soft on TV and pop culture. He can’t shoot a gun, doesn’t have much courage, mopes around a lot. He doesn’t hate where he is so much as when he is.

His vernacular is 21st century but his surroundings are 19th. A big block of ice crushes a man transporting it. “Oh, that went South so fast!” he shouts. When he gets a song stuck in his head (the inspired “Moutache Song”), his friend, Anna (Charlize Theron), tells him to think of another. “How?” he says. “There’s only like three songs. And they’re all by Stephen Foster.”

At one point he says, “I’m not the hero. I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt.” Which is true. Basically he’s the moviegoer or the TV watcher. He’s us, suddenly stuck in the movie.

That’s the central conceit, the central joke.

A Million Ways to Die in the WestWhy doesn’t it quite work?

I laughed out loud a lot, sure, but then we’d get some scatalogical bit that would just make me wince. Or the plot would pick up unnecessarily and transport us to the obvious place.

The story has a classic, dull structure:

  • Boy loses girl (Amanda Seyfried) by chickening out of a gunfight.
  • Boy is nursed back to health and some semblance of courage by hotter girl (Charlize) and Native American mysticism.
  • Boy gets girl (Charlize) by winning gunfight.

The movie, in other words, still buys into the wish-fulfillment fantasy, and blah for that. Did Woody Allen, in his early films, have his character, his schlemiel, become “brave”? Did Woody’s movies begin as parodies of the genre only to buy into the tropes of the genre? When is Hollywood going to stop doing this? You’d think MacFarlane at least would know better.

At the same time, I still thought the movie would be popular. The trailer was funny, MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) has his rabid following, his first feature, “Ted,” grossed $218 million two years earlier. Instead, “West” was one of the summer’s biggest box-office bombs: More than 3,000 theaters, a Memorial Day weekend release, but only $42 million total.

Because?

Because the West, I assume. Because we don’t know Westerns anymore. Because we don’t care for them. The title is about the million ways to die in the West but its box office showed us the million-and-first.

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Posted at 07:13 AM on Nov 21, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Thursday November 20, 2014

John Doar (1921-2014)

John Doar, Medal of Freedom, with Pres. Obama

John Doar being presented with the Medal of Freedom by Pres. Obama in 2012.

John Doar died on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. He was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force during World War II but history will remember him—or at least I do—for his service in another war: the war between the states, part II. Or X. Or XXIII. Called “the Civil Rights Movement.”

The New York Times has a good obit here, but the better tribute is Taylor Branch's civil rights tome, “Parting the Waters: American in the King Years: 1954-1963,” which I read in the spring of 1989. A lot of memorable characters in there: Bob Moses, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin ... and John Doar.

He was a kind of Gary Cooper-type hero. He didn't say much, he wasn't flashy, but he had courage and commitment. He called himself a Lincoln Republican. Branch introduced him on page 331 thus:

John Doar was lanky, taciturn, and plainspoken. In 1960, still building a general courthouse law pratice, he counted it as a small step of success that a client paid him to go all the way to California to work on a paternity suit. He was there when Harold Tyler, chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, tracked him down by telephone.

Attorney General William Rogers had hired Tyler for the express purpose of stepping up the enforcement of the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts. It was a sign of the times that not a single politically connected Republican, nor any friend of Tyler's, expressed interest in the high-ranking position of first assistant in the Civil Rights Division ... [So Doar got the nod.]

Doar arrived in Washington in July 1960 and plunged immediately into the two bureaucratic struggles that would mark his career. The first one pitted legal thinking against political calculations. ... [The second was] a sluggish FBI.

Throughout the early 1960s, Doar prosecuted voting rights cases in the deep South, was a witness to the brutal assault on the freedom riders, including John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, in Montgomery, Ala., in 1961, and was the escort to James Meredith as he tried to register at Ole Miss in 1962 but found his way barred by Gov. H. Ross Barnett. 

But the main reason I remember Doar is for an incident that occurred in Mississippi in the summer of 1963.

Medgar Evers was the field secretary there for the NAACP, and in the early morning of June 12, at the end of the Birmingham demonstrations and just hours after Pres. Kennedy's famous speech in favor of civil rights, Evers was shot and killed outside his home in Jackson. After the funeral, a small segment of the crowd, hundreds of mostly young people, began to take to the streets; they were met by policemen with shotguns. 

The temperature was 103 degrees. Some of the Negroes shouted, “We want the killer! We want the killer!” These were the young movement people ... Even on Flag Day, June 14, pairs of them had been arrested off the streets for carrying little American flags, as Jackson's white officials allowed Negroes no public display of any kind. The police ... brought up pumper trucks and dogs, and they charged when some of the young marchers began to throw rocks at them. They had clubbed several and arrested nearly 30 when, suddenly, the man who talked like Gary Cooper appeared in a showdown scene from one of his movies ...

Doar walked into the flashpoint of a riot, hands raised above his head “with bottles and bricks crashing around him.” Shouting his name, he told them this was not the way, and the very sight of him stilled the crowd so that he could be heard. ... “My name is John Doar!” he yelled. “D-O-A-R. I'm in the Justice Department in Washington. And anybody around here knows that I stand for what's right!” He walked forward, calling out the names of Dave Dennis and other movement leaders he knew and how many times they had been arrested, saying they too wanted the crowd to disperse. Miraculously, they did. 

Doar would go on to prosecute the federal case against the killers of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner in 1964, helped draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and was tangentially involved in the Selma march in 1965. He was also Chief Counsel for the United States House Committee on the Judiciary during the Watergate scandal. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Pres. Obama in 2012. 

John Doar, Jackson, Mississippi

Doar in Jackson, Miss., in the summer of 1963.

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Posted at 05:42 PM on Nov 20, 2014 in category U.S. History
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Wednesday November 19, 2014

What's Wrong with the Peanuts Movie Trailer?

It's the laughter.

First, everyone laughs because Snoopy plugs Woodstock into a socket? And he keeps getting lit up? As if electrocuted?

Then everyone laughs because Charlie Brown dumps a bucket of popcorn on his head? In “Peanuts” of old, yes, everything went wrong for good ol' Charlie Brown; but when the other kids laughed at him, we didn't think it was funny; we didn't identify with the other kids; we identified with Charlie Brown.

Plus the titles are too spread apart. “NEVER STOP” comes at 0:19, “DREAMING BIG” at 0:30. By which point we're wondering, “Wait, what about dreaming big again?”

Christmas 2015, apparently. Directed by Steve Martino, who directed “Horton Hears a Who.”

Really, this just makes me sad. They're obviously try to revive the series with the same sounds for Snoopy and Woodstock, and with the Sopwith Camel, but they miss out on the most essential element.

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Posted at 07:19 AM on Nov 19, 2014 in category Trailers
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Tuesday November 18, 2014

Weekend Box Office Numbers Recall Goebbels Quote

Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas

With a poster like this, how could moviegoers resist? Yet they did.

I think I’m the only one who thought about Josef Goebbels after seeing this weekend’s box office numbers. I hope so anyway.

It has a little something to do with this quote from Cinemas of the World by James Chapman:

Triumph des Willens represented the high point of Nazi propaganda: it enshrined the 'Hitler myth' so completely that no further films of the sort ever needed to be commissioned. Goebbels, for his part, was firmly of the opinion that feature films should provide escapist entertainment for the masses and that direct propaganda should be confined to the newsreels.

The reason this came to mind were the three movies battling it out for the top spot. No other movie came close to these three:

  1. “Dumb and Dumber To”: $36.1 million
  2. “Big Hero 6”: $34.6 million
  3. “Interstellar”: $28.3 million

Fourth place? “Beyond the Lights” with $6.2 million.

But so what, right? Escapist entertainment is almost always in the top slots. At least this weekend we went to see “Interstellar,” which, now and again, made you think about important matters such as global warming, textbook revisionism in Texas, and the downward trajectory of Anne Hathaway's career.

Except it’s really the two movies with the weakest per-theater-average for new movies that led me back to the Goebbels quote.

Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater” finally opened and ... didn’t do particularly well. At first I noticed its gross ($1.1 million), thought “Oops,” but then realized, “Well, it only played in 371 theaters.” But then I noticed its per-theater average: $3.1K. That’s not good for a new release. Not at all. (“Foxcatcher,” in comparison, opened in six theaters this weekend with a per-theater average of $45K.)

Anyway it made me wonder: This weekend, did any new release do worse, per theater, than Stewart’s film about a journalist held captive in Iran?

Yes. Kirk Cameron’s “Saving Christmas,” which opened in 410 theaters and grossed only $992K for a per-theater average of $2.2K.

I’m not calling either of these movies ‘propaganda,’ by the way. It’s just that Kirk Cameron is on one side of the cultural divide, Stewart’s on the other, and most moviegoers split the difference and went straight for the escapist entertainment. Because that’s who we is, Charlie.

Knowing little about “Saving Christmas,” I checked out its trailer (ick), then its IMDb page, where it’s currently enjoying a bottom-of-the-barrel 2.5 (out of 10) rating. Then I went a step further, to the Message Boards, where the nom-de-IMDb “comrade-newski” asks, “When can we get a good Christian Film?” and lambasts all the ones that have come out this year. One of the responses comes from someone named “johnsmithbattlenet,” who writes:

when jews evaporate from hollywood

So we begin with Goebbels and end with Goebbels. L’Chayim. 

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Posted at 06:14 PM on Nov 18, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Movie Review: Interstellar (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Here, in no order of importance, are some of the big questions we ponder while watching Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”:

  1. Will our heroes find a sustainable planet in time to save the human race?
  2. Will Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) make it back to Earth in time to see his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy)?
  3. Why is Brand (Anne Hathaway) such a bitch?
  4. Who’s the “they” that are leaving mysterious messages for us, as well as opening up wormholes?
  5. Did anyone in the audience trust Dr. Mann (Matt Damon)?
  6. What’s causing the dust storms that are making Earth uninhabitable in the first place?

Here are your answers: 1) Yes; 2) Yes, but she won’t be Mackenzie Foy; 3) Bad writing?; 4) Us; 5) No; 6) Global warming, one assumes, but Nolan never says.

“Interstellar” is an epic ride but a bloated disappointment. McConaughey is good but the others aren’t, particularly. I figured out way too early who the ghost was, and that Mann wasn’t trustworthy. The science and cosmology went way over my head while the plot points were way too telegraphed. I knew where the movie was going but not the reasons for our getting there.

Then that ending. “I don’t care much for this pretending we’re back where we started,” Cooper says, sitting on his porch with a beer. “I want to know where we’re going.” That’s why I think the daughter storyline was a mistake. It was the lifeline back to Earth we didn’t need. We just needed to go.

Plan A is to TOS as Plan B is to DS9
“Contact” did this, too, didn’t it? Jodie Foster traveled across the universe just to find Daddy again. Here, Cooper goes into space, through a wormhole into another galaxy, down onto several inhospitable planets, and into the heart of a black hole, only to find ... his daughter. Or himself. He’s the thing that sent him on the mission. He’s the ghost in Murphy’s bedroom. It’s like everyone in Hollywood has read too much e.e. cummings:

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) 
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

The movie opens with the Earth in a dustbowl, crops dying (there goes okra), and Major League Baseball surviving by barnstorming (I like the “World Famous” in front of  “New York Yankees”). During a parent-teacher conference, Cooper finds out Murph has gotten into fights for insisting that, per her daddy’s book, not to mention her daddy, we actually did land on the moon in the 20th century; it wasn’t a hoax as the official Texas textbooks insist. (Another favorite moment. Cf., this.)

Murphy, a sensitive child, is also teased for insisting there’s a ghost in her bedroom behind the bookcase. Christopher Nolan's InterstellarHer father, a man of science, insists that there’s not, but encourages her to accumulate the data. Later he says this: “Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.” Immediately you pick up on “ghost.” Shortly thereafter, the other shoe drops: “If he’s the ghost as a parent, then is he the ghost in the ... Right.”

A message left in the dust in binary code leads Cooper to coordinates which turn out to be the remnants of NASA, the outfit he worked for before it all went bad. Guess what? They’ve been sending scientists into space on the sly. Its mission?To seek out new planets for new civilizations; to quietly go where no man has gone before! And now they want to send Cooper. He’s perfect for the role—the last great astronaut. Although one wonders if he was so perfect, why they didn’t seek him out on their own. He was just down the road.

That’s Plan A, by the way: seeking out new planets for new civilizations (TOS’s storyline, basically). Plan B is a space station (DS9’s storyline). Except, well, the man who’s running the whole program, Prof. Brand (Michael Caine), later admits, on his deathbed, that he lied his way through the whole thing. He doesn’t have the data to make Plan B work. And Plan A? They’re never coming back. Combine Brand with Dr. Mann, the cowardly, sweaty schemer, and scientists don’t come off looking too good in this thing, do they?

Anyway, amid many tears, many promises to return, and many version of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently Into that Good Night,” the team—Cooper, Brand, Romilly (David Giassi), and Doyle (Wes Bentley from “American Beauty”)—go into space in a 1960s-style Apollo rocketship, dock with the spaceship Endurance, and spin their way into the wormhole on the other side of Saturn. And the grand adventure begins.

That’s the part I liked best—when I was reminded of a slower, grittier, less fantastic version of “Star Trek,” the original series, season one. That sense of going down to a planet and not know what you’d find. On this planet, time speeds up—an hour is seven years—and that mountain in the distance? That’s a wave. (Probably the coolest moment in the movie.) On that one, our great man, Dr. Mann, awaits in stasis. But is his data trustworthy? Is he? (Cue: creepy TOS music. Then cue battling TOS music.)

I probably wasn’t truly bored until Brand, female version, started talking about love love love. She’s been battling with Cooper from the get-go, she just caused the death of Doyle by moving too slowly in the face of a mountain-wave (not to mention the loss of an extra 15 years, Earth time), and with two planets left to check out, she insists on going to the one with Edmonds, who is her lover, rather than the one with Mann, the most respected of the scientists, who has sent back positive reports about his planet. “Love is not something we invented,” she says. “Love transcends dimensions of time and space.” Blah. Thankfully, she loses the argument, they go to Mann’s planet, but of course Mann (a symbolic name?) makes it all go bad.

So apparently we should follow our hearts. Or something.

Women troubles
To be honest, the daughter was such an unforgiving character, and Brand such an awful character, that I began to backdate Nolan movies. Does he have a problem with women? Are his female characters either haunting presences forever out of reach (“Memento,” “Inception”), or are they in-your-face and in love with someone else (Rachel Dawes)? Here, Murphy is the ghostly, disappointed presence, Brand the shrill one.

And what was the point of all that drama back in Texas? The fight between Murphy and her older brother (Casey Affleck)? That plot leads nowhere.

The movie begins to spin out of control about the time the Endurance does—into a black hole—and Cooper winds up floating in some vague physical representation of time, on the other side of his daughter’s bookcase, trying to get his message across. After that, he wakes up in Cooper Station, revolving around the late, great planet Earth. Plan B has worked, thanks to the data he sent his daughter via wristwatch, and outside the hospital they’re playing baseball again. He sees his daughter on her deathbed (cameo: Ellen Burstyn), and sees his home as museum piece. Then he has his moment with the beer on the porch. So off he goes to find Brand. But hopefully not to set up a sequel.

I had hopes for this one, but too bad. The lesson, one last time, Hollywood:

For wherever we go (into the blackness of space) 
Let’s find something more than our own stupid face

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Posted at 07:50 AM on Nov 18, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Monday November 17, 2014

Movie Review: Million Dollar Arm (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The story’s about what the movie is.

As sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) and Major League Baseball attempt to tap into an underutilized region of the world (India) in “Million Dollar Arm,” so with “Million Dollar Arm” Walt Disney Pictures attempts the same. Bernstein wants Indian pitchers, Major League Baseball wants Indian fans, Disney wants Indian moviegoers.

Or, to put it another way, they all want Indian dollars.

None of them succeeded particularly well. Just don’t tell the movie that.

Bucks for Bucs
It’s a feel-good movie, soft around the edges. Early on, Bernstein, down on his luck, is watching TV with his assistant Aash (Aasif Mandvi), and cricket comes on. Bernstein rattles off a few reasons why it’s not a real sport; Aash just stares and sputters. I wanted to hear why it was a good sport. A smarter movie would’ve given us those reasons in the same amount of time but “Million Dollar Arm,” despite being written by Tom McCarthy (“Station Agent,” “Win Win”), isn’t a smart movie. Million Dollar Arm with Jon HammIt’s a warm bath of a movie.

You see where things are going early on and the movie takes its time getting there. Bernstein loses the big client, the creditors are nipping at his heels, then switching back and forth between Susan Boyle on “Britain’s Got Talent” and a game cricket, he comes up with a scheme. “How fast do they pitch in cricket?” he asks Aash. “Fine. How fast do they bowl in cricket?”

Apparently it’s based upon a true story. In reality, it became a reality show in India: “The Million Dollar Arm.” In the movie, it’s more grassroots. Bernstein travels from Indian city to Indian city with a sleepy scout (Alan Arkin, who could do the role in his sleep), a shrugging, bureaucratic Indian assistant, Vivek (Darshan Jariwala), and an over-eager Indian assistant, Amit (Pitobash). They find two handsome kids who can throw in the low 80s, Rinku and Dinesh (Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal), and Bernstein brings them back to the states to train under Tom House (Bill Paxton). That’s the first half.

The second half is equally transparent. As the boys need to become better players, Bernstein needs to become a better person. In the manner of Hollywood movies, these coincide. I.e., the boys are only able to display their true talents once Bernstein cares enough to let them. Once he tells them to just “have fun,” once he allows Amit to give the inspirational speech, once the tryout becomes a real tryout (on a ballfield before a few scouts) and less sideshow (in a parking lot, before cable-TV cameras), then they flourish.

Well, “flourish.” They throw in the low 90s, are signed to minor league deals by the Pirates, and ... that’s the end. The movie would have you believe signing kids to minor league deals saves a sports agency. Nope. The kids don’t bring in the bucks until they make the Bucs.

And they didn’t. In real life, Dinesh Patel pitched a few games in the Gulf Coast league—the lowest rung of the minors—before returning to India. Rinku Singh stuck it out, made it to Class A ball for a few years, didn’t do poorly (overall: 10-6, 2.99 ERA), but was done by 2012. Not bad for a kid who never picked up a baseball until he was in his 20s, but he’s not saving anybody’s bacon.

This is just business
We get a few OK moments in the movie’s two-plus hours. Paxton is believable, Arkin—as I said—can do the role in his sleep, and Lake Bell, as Brenda, the doctor-in-training tenant next door, is refreshing. Her character seems like she has a life beyond the movie’s storyline. “She seems like a real person,” Patricia said as we watched.

I like a line of Vivek’s: “Don’t lose patience, J.B. You are going to need it in India.” I laughed out loud at a line from one of the scouts: “I’m sorry, but they’re not for the Mariners.”

Otherwise, it’s a squishy, sunset movie. It’s a multibillion-dollar business telling us that “This is just business” is a line bad people say ... after they take our money.

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Posted at 08:09 AM on Nov 17, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Sunday November 16, 2014

Lancelot Links

Buck O'Neil at the Hall of Fame

If I could read Joe Posnanski on Buck O'Neil every day, I'd be a happier man. And a better person.

  • Mother Jones has a good, short piece on the Democratic candidate who didn't run from his record, Pres. Obama, or progressive ideas, and won in a cake-walk in what was supposed to be a not-safe seat: Al Franken.
  • Related: Charles P. Pierce at Esquire begins the “Al Franken for President” talk, writing, “The fact that this would cause Bill O'Reilly's head to detonate in a gorgeous orange fireball is merely a bonus.”
  • Linda Greenhouse on why the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to intervene in King v. Burwell, about how the fineprint in the Affordable Care Act limits (or doesn't) tax subsidies only to those who buy insurance through the state-run exchanges (which only 14 states have), is worse than its interference in Bush v. Gore. “It’s a basic principle of administrative law that when a federal statute is ambiguous, courts defer to the agency’s interpretation—here, the I.R.S. regulation that makes the tax credits available without regard to whether the exchange is state or federal,” she writes.
  • Related, from Vanity Fair: “Is the GOP Ever Right About Anything?” A breakdown of 30 years of GOP political arguments and their consequences. 
  • Normally when Ted Cruz makes an assinine comment about Pres. Obama, his supporters just nod their heads, shout some yee-has, and maybe shoot off their guns. But this week Obama came out for net neutrality, Cruz lambasted him in the usual reductive manner, and Cruz's Facebook supporters exploded in anger. Against Cruz.
  • The GOP may love Vladimir Putin, but the G-20 leaders do not
  • In the battle for licensing revenue, which superhero leads the way with $1.3 billion worldwide? Superman? Batman?Here's a clue: thwip!
  • You know those newspaper pictograms opposite the comics page where you're supposed to spot the (very very minor) differences between the pictures? That, according to Joe Posnanski, was what it was like choosing between Seattle's Felix Hernandez and Cleveland's Corey Kluber for the AL Cy Young Award. Kluber won in a photo finish: 169 (17-11-2) to 159 (13-17-0). I'd argue that Felix probably lost the award on Sept. 23, when, with the M's fighting for their first playoff spot in 13 years, he had his worst outing of the season: giving up 8 runs (4 earned) in 4+ innings. Not a “big-game pitcher” move. At the same time, for all the stats everyone considers (WHIP, ERA+, WAR), shouldn't we also consider this: Kluber got to pitch against the Seattle Mariners (1 game, 9 innings, 0 runs, 3 hits, 1 W, 1 CG), an advantage that year after year is denied to King Felix.
  • I swear, if I could read Joe Posnanski writing about Buck O'Neil every day, I'd be a happier man. And a better person.
  • This week, the MLB All-Stars (kind of) went to Japan and got no-hit.
  • Even worse? This. But at least it's still November. Because we have $216 million left on that contract. 
  • What does Stephen Hawking think of Eddie Redmayne's performance of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”? “At times, I thought was me.” Looking forward to this.
  • Via Washington Trails Association: Meet Honey Bee, the blind hiking cat. Don't worry, Jellybean; after reading the article I've decided not to try it with you.
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Posted at 09:09 AM on Nov 16, 2014 in category Lancelot Links
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Saturday November 15, 2014

What Rupert Murdoch Thinks of the Gays

“This meeting [between up-and-comer David Cameron and News International CEO Rupert Murdoch] went better than Cameron's first encounter with Murdoch, in 2005, when Cameron is said to have trilled enthusiastically about the gay Western movie Brokeback Mountain without noticing the old man retching at the idea of anybody wanting ot watch two cowboys coupling.”

-- -- from Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch," by Nick Davies. I know. I'm shocked, shocked. 

Brokeback Mountain

Hey—you wanna make Rupert Murdoch throw up?

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Posted at 10:40 AM on Nov 15, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday November 14, 2014

The Pepsi Challenge in Syria

Two Sundays ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on and by Theo Padnos, an American who was captured in 2012 by Nusra Front, a Syrian al Qaeda organization, tortured for months and months, and eventually let go this fall. He's writing a book about the experience. There are interesting sections throughout the piece, and I recommend reading it all, because we rarely get such firsthand accounts from the War on Terror, but the section below stuck out for me in trying to parse the difference between the various groups in Syria, and for the humanity on display:

I was curious about the futures of the five people now responsible for looking after me. What if they retired from military life, I asked, went home and promised to obey the Islamic State in the future? Would the group still wish to kill them?

“Of course,” they said.

“Really?” I asked. “But why?”

“Because we are Jebhat al Nusra,” they replied.

I knew the answer to the next question but asked it anyway. “Your practice of Islam is exactly the same as ISIS — you admire the same scholars and interpret the Quran just as they do?”

“Yes,” they agreed. “All of this is true.”

“And it’s true,” I said, “that when you joined Al Qaeda, in the early goings of the revolution, ISIS did not exist?”

“Yes, this is so,” the fighters agreed.

“And now they’re hoping to kill you?” I asked.

They shrugged their shoulders. “Yes.”

“But the situation is absurd,” I said. “You’re like a guy on the street drinking a bottle of Pepsi. Along comes the Seven-Up salesman. ‘Wicked man!’ says the Seven-Up salesman. ‘How dare you drink Pepsi? You must die.’ Under the circumstances, it ought to be O.K. for you to reply: ‘I’m quite sorry, sir. But when I went into the store, there was only one brand of soft drink available. Pepsi. That’s what I bought. Where’s the problem?’ ” The foot soldiers, all in their 20s and early 30s, were regular cola drinkers and were happy I had put the matter in everyday commercial terms. Everyone laughed.

The real issue between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State was that their commanders, former friends from Iraq, were unable to agree on how to share the revenue from the oil fields in eastern Syria that the Nusra Front had conquered.

What lessons do we get reading this piece? Some of them: 1) People will find any way to justify any behavior; 2) we don't know how good we have it in the U.S.; and 3) everyone wants a Western girlfriend. Also this: 4) even when they say it's about religion, listen to Deep Throat: follow the money. 

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Posted at 02:05 PM on Nov 14, 2014 in category Religion
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Quote of the Day

“The fact that this would cause Bill O'Reilly's head to detonate in a gorgeous orange fireball is merely a bonus.”

--Charles P. Pierce of Esquire encouraging Al Franken to run for President in 2016.

Al Franken for President, 2016

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Posted at 12:39 PM on Nov 14, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Le dernier diamant (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Why doesn’t “Le dernier diamant” (“The Last Diamond”) work? Why is it boring?

It’s one of those “perfect crime” movies. Simon (Yvan Attal) and his friend Albert (Jean-François Stévenin) are partners in low-level scams, but Albert hooks them up with Scylla (Antoine Basler), a skinhead-looking type, to steal a great, cursed diamond on display in Antwerp. How cursed? The woman running the Antwerp exhibition has been found dead in her car; it’s her daughter, Julia (Bérénice Bejo), who is running the show now.

That’s one of their ins. The thieves get inside information from Julia because Simon successfully woos her as “the supersecret security consultant her mother never told her about.”

Maybe that’s my problem with the movie. I went to see it for Bérénice Bejo, yet she plays a sap in it. She’s a sap in the first half, overemotional in the second, and only gets to save face (by adopting another) in the final act, as everyone bands together to scam the scammers.

Generally in a perfect-crime caper (see: this), we root for the criminals. The leaders are decent men, painstaking professionals, but one thing goes wrong and they get caught. Here? Le dernier diamantThere’s Simon, who’s vaguely professional, and Albert, who’s sympathetic but a comic-relief screw-up. The others, Scylla et al., are vaguely threatening non-entities. There’s no one to root for. Other than Bérénice. Who’s play for a sap.

What do we have to believe to believe this movie?

  • That Scylla needs Albert and Simon as partners.
  • That Simon can successfully woo Julia.
  • That Julia looks like Bérénice Bejo but is somehow dateless.
  • That the thieves think the best way to get away with the diamond is for half of them to portray cops, who alert everyone to the attempted robbery, rather than simply vanishing in the night. (This is introduced to fool us, the audience, not Julia and the other folks at the exhibition.)
  • That Julia’s father, Pierre (Jacques Spiesser), will still act as inside man for the thieves even though: 1) they’ve killed his wife; and 2) are scamming his daughter.
  • That the woman they get to scam the scammers isn’t a policewoman but Julia wearing a rubber face mask and blonde wig; and that everyone thinks this is a good plan even though Julie has no experience in doing any of it ... and she’s wearing a rubber face mask and blonde wig.

The movie is derivative and half-hearted. Simon is kinda charming, but hardly George Clooney. Julia is ... Who is she? What’s her life like?

It’s tone-deaf, too. Because Albert screws up, an old woman with a tiny dog sits before her vanity mirror to see a giant hole in her hotel-room wall. It’s comic, but then, off-camera, she’s killed. The dog winds up with Albert. That’s comic, too—at least the audience kept laughing at the dog’s appearance—but to me he’s just a reminder that they’re all responsible for this old woman’s death. It’s as if home invaders killed Patricia and I but took Jellybean. And isn’t that sweet?

“Le derniet diamant” is supposed to be a love story, too, right? Simon winds up helping Julia retrieve the diamond, then—after some prison time—he and she live happily ever after. Or at least for an evening of banging. But would Simon have done this if Scylla hadn’t betrayed everyone by killing all but two of the thieves? And why did he leave talkative Albert alive? That’s not a thread to leave loose, exactly.

This is writer-director Eric Barbier’s fourth film but the first I’ve seen. I have no reason to see the others. 

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Posted at 06:25 AM on Nov 14, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Thursday November 13, 2014

Pointless: Jon Stewart Weighs In on #Pointergate

Finally, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show take on, and get the story behind, the idiocy of #Pointergate.

Here's my take from last week. In the comments field, you'll notice that Tim has anticipated Jon Stewart's reaction ... but with an even better photo.

Pointergate

Known Southside gangbangers Minnesota Nice and Vanilla Nice, flashing gang signs in 2010.

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Posted at 10:12 AM on Nov 13, 2014 in category Media
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Real Power, Murdoch Style

“The mogul, for the most part, does not have to make threats or issue instructions. He just has to show up. Not even that—he just has to exist, somewhere in the background. Everybody understands; the fact of power is enough. If there’s a bull in the field, everybody steps carefully. The fear gives him access; the access, gives him influence. Real power is passive.”

-- Nick Davies, on Rupert Murdoch, in his book, Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch."

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Posted at 06:59 AM on Nov 13, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Wednesday November 12, 2014

Monstering, Murdoch Style

“But above all, the fear is generated by the people he [Rupert Murdoch] hires to work for him. ‘He loves thugs,’ as one of his senior executives puts it. Roger Ailes at Fox TV; Kelvin MacKenzie at the Sun; Col Allan at the New York Post; Sam Chisholm at Sky TV: they all came out of the same box, marked ‘bully’. And when Murdoch’s men bully, their victims really feel it. All these members of the power elite have seen what Murdoch’s news outlets can do ...

”They all saw what happened to the former Labour minister Clare Short. Several times she criticised the Sun’s use of topless women to sell the paper and found herself denounced to millions as ‘killjoy Clare … fat … jealous … ugly … Short on looks … Short on brains’. At various points, the paper offered readers free car stickers (‘Stop Crazy Clare’); sent half-naked women to her home; and ran a beauty contest to ask their readers whether they would prefer to see her face or the back of a bus. Separately, the News of the World ran two bogus stories suggesting she was involved with pornography; tried to buy old photographs of her as a twenty-year-old in a nightdress; and published a smear story which attempted to link her to a West Indian gangster ...“

-- from Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch," by Nick Davies. This chapter on Rupert Murdoch is unsurprising but still awful. 

Monstering, Murdoch style

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Posted at 05:58 PM on Nov 12, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Nightcrawler (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

More than just local TV news, Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” is an indictment of modern American success. It’s about a man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and finds his niche and makes a name for himself and creates a business. He does it with the following qualities:

  • Hard work
  • Persistence
  • A complete lack of ethics and morals

You hear about the first two qualities a lot from folks who disparage those who don’t make it in America, but not much about the third. But that helps. In America, ethics just get in the way.

The right kind of blood
Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) starts the movie a petty thief, bug-eyed and alert, a small dog chained to a fence and looking for escape. He drives a clunker even as passes ATMs and dealerships with red sports cars: the easy reminder of all that he doesn’t have. But then the cops catch up to him. Actually, no. They just pass him on the way to the scene of an accident, where Louis watches Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a nighttime freelance cameraman for local TV news, or “nightcrawler,” doing his thing. Intrigued, he asks him for a job. Nightcrawler with Jake GyllenhaalHe gives the awful, Dale Carnegie schpiel we’ve already heard him give: a hard worker who sets high goals. No dice. So he goes into business for himself.

Turns out he’s perfect for the job. Filming people hurt? Dying? Entering the homes of shooting victims without permission? Moving bodies to get a better shot before the police arrive? All in the game, yo.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” Loder tells him early on, seemingly bored with the cliché, which, we quickly find out, isn’t even true. Blood is wanted but it’s got to be the right kind of blood. Black on black crime? Local news, in the person of graveyard-shift KWLA news director Nina Romino (Rene Russo), isn’t interested. She wants urban crime (read: colored) creeping into the suburbs (read: white). The racism presented here is behind-the-scenes but overt and accepted. “Think of our newscast,” she says, “as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”

Louis is persistent and methodical throughout. After his first forays and successes, we get a montage of the stories he files and labels on his home computer: “Carjacking”; “Toddler stabbed”; “DWI crash”; “Savage dog attack.” Eventually he’s able to buy that red sports car and more expensive cameras. He hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), a hemming and hawing kid he can verbally bully. And eventually Loder, tired of the competition, offers him a gig. But now Louis turns him down. Loder offers again. Same. Repeat. Finally, Louis tells him, matter-of-factly, “I feel like grabbing you by your ears and screaming in your face, ‘I’m not interested.’”

The next night, gearing up for sweeps, Loder scoops him and crows about it. So Louis fiddles with something under Loder’s van and the next time we see Loder, he’s the accident victim, being carried away on the stretcher while Louis hovers overhead, filming. Loder bleeds, so he leads. He who holds the camera holds the power.

“I will never ask you to do anything,” he tells his hires later in the movie, “that I wouldn’t do myself.” But that pretty much encompasses everything.

Gyllenhaal hardly blinks in the movie. He’s monstrously creepy—never more so than when he marshalls his facts and stats and Dale Carnegie schpiel to blackmail Nina into sleeping with him. You know when you leave a movie and momentarily imagine yourself as the hero? I left “Nightcrawler” feeling as super creepy as Louis. Talking with Patricia afterwards? Everything I said felt off. Smiling at a boy on the escalator? There was nothing good in it. I felt everyone could see the creep inside me.  

But then the movie—perhaps aspiring to the cynicism of “Network,” or the craziness of “The Stunt Man”—takes it a step too far.

Not the smart move
Patrolling, Louis and Rick hear of a home invasion in a ritzy neighborhood—the perfect story!—and arrive before the cops. Hell, they arrive before the criminals leave. There’s a big gate in front, with a long driveway to the mansion, and Louis runs down with his camera. When he gets to the house he hears gunshots, hides in the bushes and keeps filming. He films two men leaving; then he goes into the house and films the bodies he finds; then he rushes the footage to KWLA News.

Except he doesn’t tell them, or the cops, about filming the murderers leaving the home. Instead, he tracks them down himself, stakes out their place with Rick, and, when they drive to a local fast-food joint, calls 911. Cops arrive, there’s a shootout, then a car chase. Cars go flying like in an action movie. Louis is creating his own movie. He’s a movie director. For good measure, he makes sure that Rick, who’s begun to blackmail him, gets killed in the process.

The problem? Up to this point, for all of his ethical and moral and legal gaps, Louis has made the smart move. He’s done the thing that furthers his career. But here? Withholding evidence to set up a car chase? That’s the dumb move. The risk is huge, while the reward .... I would argue the reward would’ve been greater if Louis had simply done the right thing. Sure, film the bodies inside the house, but also reveal the getaway shots. He would’ve been the “hero cameraman.” The center of attention. A minor celebrity. Plus he still could’ve filmed the capture—it just wouldn’t have been as cinematic. Offer the cops a quid pro quo. I lead you to the bad guys, you tell me when you’re going to make the bust so I can film it. Isn’t that how it works? Instead, this. “Nightcrawler” is a fun, cynical movie, but this is a cynical bridge too far for me.

I’m curious, by the way, if this is how it works—if local TV news truly rely upon freelancers for most of their footage. I wouldn’t be surprised. More, I’m curious about a question the movie doesn’t raise—that it’s not its business to raise—but which is inevitable if you think for two seconds: What’s the appeal of “If it bleeds, it leads”? For viewers, I mean. Why do people want to see blood? And why do they want the particular kind of story that Nina breaks down—urban crime creeping into the suburbs? Most viewers, one assumes, are from the suburbs. Such stories, one assumes, make them afraid. So why do they want to feel afraid? It’s something I don’t understand. It’s something I’ve never understood.

The crowning touch? All of the local TV anchors in this indictment of local TV news are played by real-life LA anchors: Kent Shocknek and Pat Harvey and Sharon Tay and the like. Because they agree with Gilroy’s indictment of their industry? That would be nice. But one assumes it’s because it’s Hollywood. One assumes they just want to be part of the broadcast. 

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Posted at 07:19 AM on Nov 12, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday November 11, 2014

Save the Game, Pass OTS

Most of my father's reminiscences about the military tend to focus on other subjects—like how being stationed in San Francisco in the 1950s led him to meeting Pauline Kael and her husband at a movie theater. Then there's this, from a conversation we had last year about his early life:

I always thought it was kind of strange how softball influenced my career. Like when I was in the Navy. I'm at ROTC—the Officer Training Program in Newport, Rhode Island. I was about to flunk out because I didn't keep my shoes shined the way they wanted. You know, blah-blah-blah. I didn't get a spit shine. You're supposed to be able to see your face. I thought, “That's ridiculous.”

But anyway, here I am playing softball for the company team against another company team. I was in center field, and I made a diving catch with the bases loaded to save the game for our team. And the lieutenant who was in charge—I'm not even an ensign yet—he came running out and gave me a big hug. And the next thing I knew I was assigned to the admiral's staff.

True story. That's how I got through OTS. By making that great catch to save the game.

For a time, I believe he was thinking of re-upping in the Navy and focusing on foreign languages; but when they reassigned him to something else, ignoring what he was good at for what he wasn't, he didn't re-up. He went to J-school instead. 

 Bob Lundegaard, US Navy, Japan, 1950s

Bob Lundegaard, star centerfielder, in the U.S. Navy in the 1950s, tooling around Japan with a buddy who wasn't great with a camera.

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Posted at 08:03 AM on Nov 11, 2014 in category Personal Pieces
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Why We Can't Quit the Academy Quitting on 'Brokeback'

In a post on “Beckett,” which he calls “the most covert 'gay' movie ever released to mainstream America in the 20th Century,” Jeffrey Wells takes the Academy to task over ignoring the most overt gay love story Hollywood has produced:

At this exact time nine years ago “Brokeback Mountain” was building a head of Oscar steam like no other Best Picture contender. Or so it seemed to me and mine. It had premiered in Telluride, Venice and Toronto in September 2005 but wouldn’t open commercially until early December, but everyone knew. It was one of the saddest love stories ever made, one that might have been even more moving for being about closeted gay guys. Everybody knew the truth of what it was saying, which was more or less “If you’ve got something really good going with someone, don’t blow it…don’t hide your feelings, don’t be afraid. Man up.”

It was a love fest, a blossoming. Critical praise, critics awards, big box-office, etc. Around which the whole country, in a sense, seemed to be holding hands and coming together.

And then it all started to go wrong. Discussions I had during that period (late ’05 and early ’06) suggested that older Academy geezers were not emotionally comfortable with gay sheepherders, and that they had written it off early on. The late Tony Curtis became the poster boy for this sentiment, famously declaring that “Howard Hughes and John Wayne” wouldn’t like it.” And then Jack Nicholson opened the envelope … thud. I’ll never get over that. Never.

Agreed

Brokeback Mountain

The unforgivable moment. Not the love between Jack and Ennis but the lack of love from the Academy.

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Posted at 06:29 AM on Nov 11, 2014 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Monday November 10, 2014

Movie Review: Locke (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

For 90 minutes, “Locke” barely leaves the inside of a BMW X5 heading to London. Along the way, the driver, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), talks to various people on his computerized car phone but it’s basically a one-man show. Be forewarned. On the other hand, if you’re going to do a one-man show, Hardy ain’t a bad choice.

Why the drive? Ivan Locke is in the midst of abandoning his family and job for another woman. Let me rephrase that. Ivan Locke is in the midst of abandoning a family he loves, and a high-paying construction job for which he is immensely suited, and of which he is immensely proud, for a woman he doesn’t know and doesn’t particularly like. You almost wonder if the movie began as an exercise for writer-director Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things,” “Eastern Promises”). Can you show a man abandoning everything worthwhile and still retain empathy for him?

You can. We do. The bigger question is whether we buy it.

Fixing things
Locke is a precise, calm, super-responsible man. He’s a man who fixes things. “I’ll fix it,” he says, again and again. “It’ll all go back to normal.” Tom Hardy LockeBut the longer he drives, the more he’s breaking everything.

The other woman? She’s pregnant with his child. She’s about to give birth. And she has no one else. So he has to be with her. Despite the fact that he’s expected at home to watch a big football match with the kids and he’s expected at work early the next morning for the biggest concrete pour in European history. It will be the base for a 50-plus-story building.

Here’s who Locke mainly talks to as he drives:

  • His wife, Katrina (voice: Ruth Wilson), to whom he confesses his past indescretion.
  • The other woman, Bethan (voice: Olivia Colman), who is about to give birth.
  • His subordinate, Donal (voice: Andrew Scott, channeling Chris O’Dowd), who has to supervise the pour the next morning.

None are helpful. His wife collapses from the news, then rises up with vindictiveness; Bethan complains, whimpers, keeps asking if he loves her even when it’s apparent to all that he does not; and Donal begins to drink and fuck up on the job.

Locke tries to fix all of these things.

He also talks to a fourth person, but not on the phone. It’s his dead father, whose weakness and irresponsibility made Locke the super-responsible man he is. Locke is so responsible he can’t let a baby be born into the world alone. It’s a “good intentions” movie, and the highway to London is his path to hell.

Except I didn’t quite buy it. Choosing Bethan and the baby over everything else? There’s too much martyrdrom in that. The scales are too heavy on the other side.

That the movie stays interesting is a testament to Hardy and to the character he and Knight create. Years ago I did the Proust Questionnaire, and “calm” was my answer for the quality I most like in a man. Hardy gives us this. He also shows us the turmoil, the anger, raging within the calm.

Patricia and I argued over the accent. I assumed Russian immigrant—thus that extra-precise English pronunciation—but Patricia thought Irish. It also borders at times on Indian/British. The correct answer? It’s Welsh. Except that’s not the correct answer, either. Hardy thought he was basing it on a Welsh bloke but the guy later admitted he grew up in Surrey. So take your pick.

Fixing things, the next generation
Question: Does everyone around Locke have to be this much of a fuck-up? Or is Locke secretly attracted to fuck-ups? So he can fix their problems. So he can be the man his father never was.

Answer: There’s a grace moment at the end—the sound of a baby being born into the world—but the real release for me, and I believe for Locke, comes in a conversation with his son, Eddie (voice: Tom Holland), who, unaware of the emotional turmoil raging, has been talking to him excitedly about the football match that they were all supposed to watch together. Near the end, he calls again. This time, Locke doesn’t pick up, he just listens to the voice message.

By now Eddie knows. He knows things are broken—perhaps irrevocably. So he tells his dad about a goal that a player named Caldwell scored. Except he knows it’s still not right. Because his dad wasn’t there and his mother was crying. So he tries to fix it. He tries to fix it in the manner of his dad:

We recorded it for you, so you have to come home and watch it, okay? You have to come home, and I have an idea, okay? We'll pretend we don't know the score, and pretend it's happening then, it's live. And me and Sean will go mad all the same, and you can have your beer and Mum can make the sausages. So that's what we'll do.

“The Lockes were a long line of shit,” Locke says to his dead father, “but I straightened the name out.” Now Eddie is doing the straightening. He is trying, like his father, to make it all go back to normal. 

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Posted at 06:24 AM on Nov 10, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Sunday November 09, 2014

Lancelot Links

  • The first few grafs of this review from Corey S. Powell in Discover Magazine REALLY make me want to see “The Theory of Everything.” In a way that the trailer, with its reductive tendencies, never did.
  • Via brainpickings, Bruce Springsteen's favorite 28 books. I've read about 10 of them. He's big on Richard Ford but that makes sense. To be honest, it all makes sense.
  • Joe Posnanski compares and contrasts this year's Gold Glove and Fielding Bible award winners, and he has two main disagreements with the GG winners: Nick Markakis in right and (sorry, Seattle) Kyle Seager at third.
  • Over at Just a Bit Outside, M's fan Jeff Sullivan declares that the Seattle Mariners will be the best A.L. team in 2015. Whatever, right? Except he did it by crunching WAR numbers. It's based on head, not heart. Even so, I'm not holding my breath. 
  • Riddle me this, Readerman: Why has it taken so long for the William Dozier-created, 1960s “Batman” TV series, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, to make it to DVD and Blu-Ray? Was it copyright issues? Were people embarrassed by it? Did they think it belittled the “Dark Knight” legend? Either way, it's here now. For more on this incarnation of Batman, here's my review of the 1966 movie, along with my “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” entry from same. I think I might just get the Blu-Ray just for Julie Newmar. Rahr.
  • Have you seen the parody opening credits to the nonexistent 1980s sitcom “Too Many Cooks”? You should. Talk about commitment to the bit. Warning: It gets a little creepy and NSFW halfway through. 
  • Why do I care that Taylor Swift (an artist I don't listen to) pulled out of Spotify (a streaming service I don't use)? Because I think she's right
  • When my colleague Ross Pfund was 5 in 1989, he and his cousin watched Wrestlemania for the first time and taped themselves afterwards doing the moves. He recently visited his cousin again and recreated it all. Very cool. 
  • If you're in Minnesota you know all about “Pointergate.” If you're not, and haven't heard of it, get ready to slap your forehead like the young Alvy Singer. Brian Lambert reports
  • More fun in conservative news: the Breitbart site declares that “few are talking about” how Obama's nominee for U.S. attorney general, Loretta Lynch, represented the Clintons during the Whitewater investigation. Media Matters: Because that's a different Lynch. For a time, Wikipedia had it wrong, too, citing the Breitbart article. In the digital age, wrong news travels fast.
  • The most unsettling thing about Theo Padnos' first-person account of his capture and subsequent months-long torture and humiliation by Syrian terrorists, from 2012 to this year, is that the captors, the Nusra Front, were the guys that lost to the more barbaric ISIS. But you can't get a more front-line perspective on the war on terror than this. 

This is not the Clinton's Loretta Lynch

Obama's AG nominee (right) is not your Clinton's Loretta Lynch (left).

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Posted at 01:52 PM on Nov 09, 2014 in category Lancelot Links
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Breitbart Gets One Right! ‘Big Hero 6’ Opens at $56 Million, ‘Interstellar’ at $50

Here’s the Breitbart site last March:

Breitbart site 2014 box office predictions

Let’s run those down:

  • “A Million Ways to Die in the West” opened at $16.7 million in May and kept dying. Its $42 million domestic gross was one-fifth what writer-director Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” grossed two years earlier. It was perhaps the summer’s biggest box-office disappointment in a summer of box-office disappointments.
  • “Dolphin Tale 2” opened at $15 million in September and managed a $41 million haul before sinking out of sight. Not a bomb, really, but still a disappointment, since that total is about half of what “Dolphin Tale” grossed in 2011 ($73 million).
  • “Big Hero 6” opened this weekend to $56 million.

Way to go, Bretibart! One out of three! Ted Williams’ numbers!

Except ... that one hit? To be honest, it’s more bloop single than line-drive into the gap. “Big Hero 6” is a success but its opening weekend is hardly “surprisingly high.” Put it this way: It’s the 24th-best opening weekend for an animated movie (unadjusted), behind such cartoons as “The Lorax” ($70 million in March 2012) and “Monsters vs. Aliens” ($59 million in March 2009).

Hollywood’s other big opener this weekend, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” finished second with an estimated $50 million total.

Meanwhile, last weekend’s No. 1, “Nightcrawler,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a creepy freelance newsman, fell off 47% to finish in sixth place. Ahead of it? “Gone Girl,” which keeps drawing ($6 million, $145 total), “Ouija” (horror, who cares), and “St. Vincent,” starring Bill Murray, which lost only 97 theaters, dropped only 21%, and has quietly grossed $27 million.

Other movies you should see before they’re gone? “Fury,” which finished in 7th ($5.5 millino, $69 million total), and “Birdman,” which finished in 11th ($2.2 million, $8 million total).

So when was the last time two movies opened to more than $50 million each on the same weekend? You have to go all the way back to June 2013, when “Monsters University” opened with $82 million and “World War Z” opened with $66 million.

I haven’t seen either of the new movies yet. But no matter what they offer, I can’t imagine the entertainment value is as high as watching the Breitbart site fall on its face with its preditions.  

Here’s to next year.

Big Hero 6

After striking out badly with its first two predictions, Breitbart manages a bloop single to left with 'Big Hero 6.'

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Posted at 10:59 AM on Nov 09, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday November 08, 2014

My Pointergate Scandal

Daily Kos called it “may be the most racist news story of 2014.” Former mayor R.T. Rybak said on Facebook that he had to “reread this article three times before I could be convinced this wasn't a joke.”

What is it? It's called Pointergate or #Pointergate. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges was helping volunteers with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, a Get Out The Vote campaign in Minneapolis, and took a photo with a young volunteer. They were arm in arm but pointing fingers at each other. The mayor is white, the young man is black. Then local news reporter Jay Kolls of KSTP-TV filed a report that the Mayor was flashing gang signs with a gang member. 

From The Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Reporter Jay Kolls said in his story that “law enforcement agencies” told him it was a sign used by a north Minneapolis gang. ... “Is she going to support gangs in the city or cops?” John Delmonico, president of the city’s police union, said in an on-camera interview.

Here's the photo:

Mayor Betsy Hodges: pointergate

Here's another one, taken four years ago, which didn't make the news:

Pointergate

It's sort of a well-known gesture: You the man; no, you the man. It's something people do when posing for the zillionth photo. 

It's hardly worth talking about, to be honest. It's a distraction. Even if there's comeuppance for Kroll and Delmonico, they'll find a place. If KSTP fires Kroll he'll get hired by FOX-News. World without end. “Liberal media.” 

Onward. 

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Posted at 11:07 AM on Nov 08, 2014 in category Media
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Trailer: MLK Gets Ready for His Close-Up in 'Selma'

In an MSNBC piece on the actor Jeffrey Wright published nine years ago, I wrote the following about his performance of Dr. Martin Luther King in HBO's film “Boycott”:

When I finally saw the film what blew me away was not just the imitation — that he could do both versions (rousing and everyday) of the public Dr. King — but that he was able to articulate a private Dr. King that felt real. ... The theme of “Boycott” (a good film, if too flashily directed) is that history just doesn’t happen. History is a series of choices, and the filmmakers work hard to show you the choices that began the civil rights movement. To do this they need a human Dr. King who works things through — from simply asking for a more humane bus system to demanding the elimination of segregation itself. It’s not just a great performance; no one will ever do a better Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Let me repeat that: No one will ever do a better Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Now we'll see. Now, nine years later, it's David Oyelowo's turn:

Oyelowo impressed in a small part in “Lincoln” and had the thankless role as Forest Whitaker's son in “The Butler,” but he looks and sounds pretty good here. 

Other thoughts:

  • Tom Wilkinson as LBJ and Tim Roth as George Wallace? Are there no Southerners to play Southerners? Do we always have to go across the Atlantic? 
  • I love Wilkinson, but does his LBJ lack ... charm? LBJ oozed. He cajoled. Maybe he was different when dealing with King and Hoover but we need to see some of that. 
  • The march (or marches) in Selma is an interesting choice. Was it the last truly successful moment of the traditional civil rights movement? Before cries of “Black Power!” were heard, and the white middle class began to drift away? Before Chicago and the poor people's campaign and Memphis? Before Nixon's triumph? My immediate thought is: Why not Birmingham? Why not start with Greensboro and end up in Birmingham? 

But I'm glad this is being made. Because if it feels like we get Martin Luther King movies all the time, well, we don't. In fact, this is the first major theatrical film in which King is the central character. Did you get that? It's the first theatrical film in which King is the central character. Paul Winfield played him in a post-“Roots” TV miniseries in 1978, Wright in 2000 on HBO, but this is only the 43rd portayal of King ever, and most of those are bit parts in larger stories, usually on TV, about the Kennedys, or Hoover, or Hover vs. the Kennedys. Because liberal Hollywood. 

New Yorkers and Los Angelenos get “Selma” on Christmas Day. The rest of us, Jan. 9.

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Posted at 08:13 AM on Nov 08, 2014 in category Trailers
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Friday November 07, 2014

Movie Review: Jappeloup (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

More than halfway through “Jappeloup,” about a champion French show-jumping horse of the 1980s, Jappeloup’s farmgirl handler, Raphaëlle Dalio (Lou de Laage, looking impossibly pretty, like the kid sister of Adèle Exarchopoulos), takes to task Jappeloup’s owner and rider, Pierre Durand (Guillaume Canet, a cross between Patrick Dempsey and Albert Brooks).

Durand’s been sulking for most of the movie and particularly recently. During the 1984 Olympics, with millions watching, Jappeloup threw him (in slow motion), and, despite pep talks from his father, Serge (Daniel Auteuil), and his wife, Nadia (Marina Hands), in which both urge him not to sell the horse to a rich American (Donald Sutherland), Durand does it anyway, breaking everyone’s heart in the process. But after his father dies and his wife gives birth, and after stewing in his own juices long enough, he comes around. JappeloupA bad blood test causes the Americans to momentarily step back from the deal, allowing Durand to nix it completely. Then he searches for Raphaëlle. She’s hanging and smoking with friends at a French café, as pretty French farmgirls do. And she lays into him.

“In two years, you never spent two minutes in his stall!” she says. “You were champion of France but you know nothing of horses.” He’s an animal, she says, but you never even thought about him.

Sadly, the movie can be accused of the same. Its title character is secondary at best. It’s called “Jappeloup” but it might as well be called “Pierre Durand.”

Montage is a French word
The movie is based upon a book called “Crin Noir” by Karine Devilder, subtitled (or surtitled) “Pierre Durand et Jappeloup de Luze,” which was adapted by Canet, an actor who not only wrote the international French hits “Tell No One” and “Little White Lies,” but was raised by horse breeders and nearly became a professional horse rider himself.

Parfait, non?

No, unfortunately.

We begin with Durand as a kid who literally gets back on the horse after a fall; but as a young man he divides his time between being a lawyer and a horse rider, realizes he can’t do both, and gives up the horse riding. Meanwhile, Jappeloup, a small, feisty horse, is being trained at his father’s farm.

A lot of it is just the wait for the inevitable. Durand will come back to horse riding generally, and Jappeloup specifically, otherwise why are we watching this? And he does. But it takes a while. And it’s generally not worth the wait.

“Montage” is a French word but they overdo it here. They keep coming—one after the other. “Everyone’s talking about this horse!” an announcer proclaims at the 1982 French nationals, which caused me to do a double-take. Last we heard, Jappeloup was a screw-up and nobody could ride him. Now he’s a step away from being a national champion? And everyone’s talking about him?

The movie, directed by Christian Duguay, who mostly directs TV movies, keeps doing this. It focuses on Durand’s dithering, then gives us horse-training montages, then glosses over the victories to get to the defeats. It’s reductive like a Hollywood movie but in a peculiarly French way. But it all leads to a Hollywood ending. In the 1988 Olympics, Jappeloup makes that final jump (in slow motion).

Me, I was urging him to throw Durand one more time. For the surprise if nothing else. For the comedy of it all.

Ne le dis a personne
I saw the film with my friend Jim, a horse lover, and he was happy enough afterwards because it was about horses, but even he knew it was a mixed bag. We spend more than two hours watching this movie about Jappeloup but we never spend more than two minutes in his stall. “Jappeloup” was a semi-champion at the French box office but it knows nothing of horses. Or at least it’s not telling. 

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Posted at 06:51 AM on Nov 07, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Thursday November 06, 2014

Q&A: In Bed with Rick Perlstein

This morning I interviewed Rick Perlstein, author of “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” via Skype. He, you can see, is comfortably ensconsed in his bed in Chicago, while I am, per usual, slouched at my desk in Seattle. 

It was a wide-ranging discussion, taking in, among other topics, “Rocky,” “Roots,” media fragmentation, and whether Ronald Reagan would have won the general election had he upset, as he nearly did, Pres. Gerald Ford at the 1976 GOP Convention. 

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Posted at 08:51 AM on Nov 06, 2014 in category Books
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Wednesday November 05, 2014

Election 2014: Voters Tired of Obstructionists in Congress, Vote for More Obstructionists in Congress

Every day I get an email from the New York Times with its various headlines, along with extras. Often they have a quote of the day. This was today's:

QUOTATION OF THE DAY

“All they do is fight between each other and don't get anything done. So we - and I - need something different in there. Everything needs to change.”

-- JOHN MILLER, an independent in Iowa voting in the midterm election.

So it worked. The Republicans obstructed, and the voters, too stupid to realize who to blame, blaming instead the tired, all-encompassing scapegoat of “Washington,” gave us more obstructionists. Or the same ones. 

Mr. Miller's quote is from this article: “To Angry Voters, Washington Comes Out the Biggest Loser.” Many of the people interviewed say the same things. Washington just fights, things aren't going well, we need a change. Ergo yesterday.

Was in inevitable? The battleground states tended red, the Dems in office there were swept in in 2008 after eight years of Bush, and now they're being swept out after six year of FOX News propaganda and GOP obstructionism. Not to mention Dems not willing to stand up for what they believe in. 

The headline should begin, “To Angry and Stupid Voters ... ”

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Posted at 08:11 AM on Nov 05, 2014 in category Politics
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Tuesday November 04, 2014

Quote for the End of this Election Day

“Everything a lie. Everything you hear, everything you see. So much to spew out. They just keep coming, one after another. You're in a box. A moving box. They want you dead, or in their lie.”

-- First Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) in Terrence Malick's “The Thin Red Line.”

Sean Penn in "The Thin Red Line"

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Posted at 09:45 PM on Nov 04, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Quote of the Day

“Election day should be a national holiday. Vote by mail should be available everywhere, postage paid. Polls should be open for 24 hours. Ballot counting procedures should be open source and held to national standards. Max donations to any candidate should be $20, and only human beings can donate. Outside expenditures forbidden. ”Election season“ should last no more than 2 months. Any other suggestions?”

-- Vince Houmes, via Facebook. 

Jane Russell: Vote as you please, but please vote

Also: Jane Russell or modern equivalent should greet you at your polling place.

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Posted at 10:59 AM on Nov 04, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday November 03, 2014

Movie Review: Fury (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In “End of Watch,” written and directed by David Ayer, two cops shoot the shit inside their patrol car while trying to clean up the enemy territory of south central LA. It was one of the best movies of 2012.

In “Fury,” written and directed by David Ayer, five soldiers shoot the shit inside their tank, called “Fury,” while trying to clean up the enemy territory of Nazi Germany in April 1945. It’s one of the best movies of 2014.

It’s also as brutal as fuck. Bodies are run over by tanks, burned alive, blown to bits. We see a portion of a face inside a tank. We’re meat; we mix with mud. Prisoners are executed in cold blood. By us. We’re the good guys but we’re not good guys.

The movie begins with a man on a white horse, patrolling through the fog and the smoke of a recent battle, but he’s not a man on a white horse; he’s a German officer and he’s quickly killed by Sgt. “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), the leader of the Fury squad. It’s Ayer putting us on notice. No men on white horses here, kids. No John Waynes.

Fury, starring Brad PittYou know the leap in realism between John Wayne war movies and, say, HBO’s “Band of Brothers”? “Fury” almost feels like that leap again. It makes you long for the moral clarity of “Band of Brothers.”

You or him: Pick
Someday, maybe next year, dissertations will be written about the scene in the German apartment. There’s so much going on there. So many subtle and blunt things. So many strong, mixed emotions. Theirs and ours.

It’s April 1945, and the Fury tank squad reconnects with the U.S. Army in Germany. “Where’s the rest of 3rd platoon?” Sgt. Collier is asked by his new commander. “We’re it,” Collier says. A moment later, he kneels beside a tank, out of sight, and exhales. It’s his real face. We won’t see it much.

In that last battle, Collier lost one of his tank drivers, and when the fresh-faced replacement, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), shows up, we get this exchange:

Ellison: I’m your new assistant tank driver.
Sgt. Collier [after a once-over]: No, you are not.

He isn’t; he’s a clerk. He can type 60 words a minute. He’s never even seen the inside of a tank. But you know the Army: FUBAR. So now he’s an assistant tank driver.

He’s also our eyes and ears for the movie. He’s our introduction to the “Fury” team. They can’t be our eyes and ears, since they’ve seen too much and done too much. They all have thousand-yard stares, particularly Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf, in an incredible performance), who quotes scripture when necessary; who calls upon God’s grace and doesn’t expect it. The others are Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Ayer regular Michael Pena), who’s a sly jokester, and Grady “Coon Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), who’s a more loutish jokester. They’re all this close to losing it.

They’ve certainly lost humanity, and that’s what worries Collier about Norman; he has too much of it. He’s a danger to himself and to them. During his first patrol, his inaction causes the death of their commanding officer, who is burned alive in front of all of them. “That’s your fault, that’s your fucking fault!” Collier yells, hitting the kid about the head. He tells him how he made a promise to himself to keep the men alive. “You are getting in the way of that!” he shouts. Then we get a great, powerful scene. It’s one of the best scenes of the year and the second-best of this movie.

On the outskirts of some woods between German towns, an enemy soldier, looking decidedly un-Teutonic, looking vaguely Jewish, begs for his life. He shows a picture of his family but gets no mercy. Laughter instead. Collier orders Norman to kill him in cold blood, but Norman refuses. Collier hits him, taunts him, bullies him. He threatens his life. He starts out saying that it’s Norman’s job to kill the German just as it’s the German’s job to kill Ellison; then it devolves. “He kills you or you kill him,” he says, brandishing the revolver: “You or him: Pick!” Norman, surprisingly, picks himself. “Kill me!” he shouts. That, Collier knows, won’t help. So Collier makes the kid shoot him. He gets him in a headlock, forces the revolver into his hand, and, as Norman squirms and cries out in horror, raises his arm and pulls the trigger. You can watch the scene here.

Is this one of the more immoral acts we’ve seen an American hero perform in a Hollywood movie? Not just killing an unarmed man but forcing an innocent to do it? Yet it’s completely logical. It’s in the line when Collier first smothers Norman in an almost paternal headlock: “You here to get me killed? I need you to perform.”

If there are moral qualms in the above scene, an indication of a “psychically toxic kind of warfare,” as Ayer himself has said, they only deepen in the scene in the German apartment.

If you don’t take her into that bedroom, I will
You hear April 1945 and you think, “Well, war’s almost over. That’s nice.” But Hitler called for all-out war; he had women and children fighting in the end. The Germans who don’t fight? The S.S. strings them up with notes of warning around their necks. The great reveal in “Full Metal Jacket”—kids as soldiers—is a mere aside here.

In one town square, during mop-up, Collier sees a woman look out from her third-floor window and takes Norman to check it out. Or check her out? He suspects she’s hiding someone, as she is, but it’s another, younger relative. A girl Norman’s age. So they stay. What does Collier have in mind, initially? He asks the woman, Irma (Anamaria Marinca of “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”), for hot water. The girl, Emma (Alicia von Rittberg), is young and pretty and wears a summer dress—it’s as if they didn’t know enemy soldiers were coming—and it makes you wonder, as Ayer surely wants us to wonder: Is Brad Pitt going to rape that girl? Another thought: Does Norman alter the trajectory of events by sitting down at the piano and playing classical music? Emma walks over to him, smiles, sings along. She’s got a nice voice. Things are nice for a second. Then Collier tells Norman to take the girl into the bedroom before he does.

Is Norman (not to mention Collier) saved by having the girl take Norman’s hand rather than vice-versa? Or does that make it worse somehow? Meanwhile, Collier uses the hot water to wash up and shave, to become presentable again, and he gives the woman eggs to cook. What’s his gameplan? Does he have one? Does he just want to feel human for a few minutes? Sit down at the table to eggs and polite conversation with pretty women? Does he gravitate toward Norman not only to teach him to be savage but to be near his humanity? Is he trying to recover his own that way?

Whatever Collier is trying to build in the German apartment crumbles when the rest of his men burst in, loud and loutish. Where there was a gentleness in Norman’s interest in Emma, there is none from the others. Where Norman played classical music on the piano, “Coon Ass” plops his arms and ass on the keys. Collier doesn’t like it, Norman doesn’t like it, we don’t like it. It feels like a betrayal—like these men burst in and smashed something carefully and delicately built up. But the real betrayal, you can argue, is the thing carefully and delicately built up. You see it in the eyes of the men around the table, particularly from Boyd. That Collier would do this without them. That he would leave them behind? You see Collier attempting to be both head of the table and tank commander, and the two don’t mesh. The father at the head of the table isn’t made for war. That’s another guy.

Question: Is this scene so good that the rest of the movie feels ... anticlimactic? Simplistic?

As soon as they leave the apartment building, for example, the town gets shelled (by us?), and when the men look up the building they just left is rubble. Collier has to pull Norman away from Emma’s corpse. That felt unnecessary. On the plus side, it underlines Collier’s comment to Irma when the two kids went into the bedroom: “They’re young; and they’re alive.”

Wasn’t nothing
Four U.S. tanks continue on, but they quickly encounter a German Tiger tank, which was apparently superior to the ones we produced, and at the end of the battle, again, only our men are alive. Are they doomed to be alone? As they were at the beginning of the movie? Can no one keep up? Then they run over a mine and the tank loses its tracks. And over the hill come 300 Germans: S.S., fighting to the bitter end.

That bugged me when I first saw the trailer to “Fury.” How do you make American troops in Germany in April 1945 the underdogs? Well, you do this. You make it five against 300.

Why do they stay with their tank? Collier says he’s going to stay to fight, and Norman, not knowing any better, is the first to join him. So the others do, too. But they must know it’s a suicide mission. Collier must know. Why does he do it? Is it the Capt. Kirk/ Enterprise thing? He can’t leave his ship? Is it stubbornness? Pride? Did the scene in the German apartment make him realize that he wasn’t fit for civilization anymore, so why not end it here?

In the end, only Norman is alive. He’s called a hero but he knows he’s not. He knows he didn’t do what Collier told him to do (play dead; don’t surrender); he knows he’s only alive because he receives from one German soldier what the German soldier in the woods didn’t receive from us: mercy. But Ayer lets the word hang there in the air. Hero. It recalls the last line of “Band of Brothers.” But the word is complicated by everything we’ve already seen.

“Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” Collier tells Norman at one point. Supposedly it was an ad-lib by Brad Pitt. To be honest, I didn’t like the line. I thought it was too obvious. I liked an earlier line of Collier’s, after Norman kills some Germans:  “Wasn’t nothing, right?” Good use of the double negative.

“Fury” is a gut shot. You almost wonder if we would have fewer wars if every war movie looked like “Fury.” 

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Posted at 06:35 AM on Nov 03, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Sunday November 02, 2014

Quote of the Day

“The Jeb Bush Bat Signal has been triggered, first, by Republican alarm at the lack of a candidate that the G.O.P. establishment views as entirely respectable. Cruz or Rand Paul? Chris Christie keeps yelling at everyone. We are hearing about Jeb for the same reason that people mention Romney with a perfectly straight face: the alternatives. Sane people or those not raised for it don’t seem to want to be politicians anymore. The G.O.P. may not like what it’s seeing, but it’s a bad sign if a major party just stops looking for new voices. The same holds for the Democrats.”

-- Amy Davidson, “Jeb Bush, to the Bat Cave,” on the New Yorker site, Nov. 2, 2014.

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Posted at 03:20 PM on Nov 02, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Lancelot Links

  • They've found footage of the 1917 World Series. Via David Hirning. 
  • This year's World Series is over, of course, with the San Francisco Giants (or at least Madison Bumgardner) beating the Kansas City Royals in 7 games, but questions remain. Chief among them: Should the Royals third base coach have sent Alex Gordon on his single-misplayed-into-a-triple with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning? I assume not, but Joe Posnanski adds his thoughts.
  • BTW: That San Francisco Giants fan who caught Travis Ishikawa's pennant-winning homerun is a mensch. He didn't put it up on eBay. He gave it back. Got a signed bat in exchange. The Giants asked him what else he'd like and he said World Series tickets. They said that'd be tough but eventually (after bad press?) came through with Game 3 seats. He took his friend who's battling cancer. A mensch.
  • The world's richest man reads and analyzes our most famous book on income inequality.
  • Via Jim Romenesko, the 1,000 most commonly followed Twitter accounts by the New York Times staff. I like that David Carr is the most commony followed colleague and that our friend Motoko Rich has as many NYT followers as Barack Obama. Also that David Brooks didn't make the cut. Because why? Should be a clue to the elders that maybe it's time to pull the plug on ol' David. 
  • Things I learned reading “The Thirty-Three Hit Wonder,” Nick Paumgarten's New Yorker profile of Bill Joel: that Joel hasn't written any new songs, at least with lyrics, since 1993; that he still plays sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden every month; that he travels back and forth by helicopter; that Paumgarten was a fan growing up; that Paumgarten is younger than me. WARNING: Reading the piece will make old Billy Joel songs get stuck in your head. But it just might be the loooonatic you're looking for. 
  • The last great movie Rick Perlstein saw was “Life Itself,” the documentary on the life, career and last days of Roger Ebert. Interesting series here from The Dissolve. 
  • Remember the class-action lawsuit attorneys general around the country pursued and won against tobacco companies in the 1990s? These days, Big Tobacco would just offer them some smokes to make it all go away. Eric Lipton reports for The New York Times. Key graf: “ ... unlike the lobbying rules covering other elected officials, there are few revolving-door restrictions or disclosure requirements governing state attorneys general, who serve as 'the people’s lawyers' by protecting consumers and individual citizens.” Scary stuff, kids.
  • Scarier stuff: You've heard about that 1990s Tim Burton-Nicolas Cage Superman movie that never got made? Well, according to its screenwriter, David Gilroy, it would've begun with Superman in therapy. Hollywood Reporter writer Graeme McMillan thinks fanboys would've been turned off by the idea. I'm not so sure—you can make it work—but a combo of therapy, Burton and Nic Cage? That sounds really, really wrong.
  • Title says it all: Surfing @ 1000 Frames Per Second.
  • Wheel of Impressions with Kevin Spacey. I can't imagine a better guest for this. 
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Posted at 08:03 AM on Nov 02, 2014 in category Lancelot Links
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Saturday November 01, 2014

Quote of the Day

Re-reading some of Rick Perlstein's “The Invisible Bridge,” the Watergate stuff, I came across this great quote from Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC), who was chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee. It's early in the hearings, and he's questioning Maurice Stans, who chaired the Committee to Re-Elect the President (or CREEP), about $1.7 million in mostly corporate donations whose record was expunged after the Watergate break-in. Ervin keeps asking why. Finally Stans says it wasn't illegal to do so. Here's Ervin's response:

“Mr. Stans, do you not think that men who have been honored by the American people as you have ought to have their course of action guided by ethical principles which are superior to the minimum requirements of criminal law?”

Man, that's good. Pin that up on the wall somewhere. 

Sen Sam Ervin

Sen. Sam Ervin, with Sen. Howard Baker to his right, during the Watergate hearings. 

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Posted at 08:22 PM on Nov 01, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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