erik lundegaard

Wednesday December 31, 2014

Quote of the Day

“The New York Post on Tuesday reported, and city officials confirmed, that [NYPD] officers are essentially abandoning enforcement of low-level offenses. According to data The Post cited for the week starting Dec. 22 — two days after two officers were shot and killed on a Brooklyn street — traffic citations had fallen by 94 percent over the same period last year, summonses for offenses like public drinking and urination were down 94 percent, parking violations were down 92 percent, and drug arrests by the Organized Crime Control Bureau were down 84 percent.

”The data cover only a week, and the reasons for the plunge are not entirely clear. But it is so steep and sudden as to suggest a dangerous, deplorable escalation of the police confrontation with the de Blasio administration. Even considering the heightened tensions surrounding the officers’ deaths and pending labor negotiations — the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association has no contract, and its leader, Patrick Lynch, has been the most strident in attacking Mr. de Blasio, calling him a bloody accomplice to the officers’ murder — this action is repugnant and inexcusable. It amounts to a public act of extortion by the police.

“And for what?”

-- The Editorial Board of The New York Times in its Op-Ed, “When New York City Police Walk Off the Job.”  More from Andrew Sullivan and his readers, who feel all of this will backfire badly against Lynch and the NYPD. 

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Posted at 08:16 AM on Dec 31, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Richard Wright and Langston Hughes Go to the Movies

The Negro Soldier was received far more positively than Capra or its creators had anticipated. Richard Wright, whose novel Native Son had been published a few years earlier, attended the Harlem screening and told a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle that before the picture started, he had written down thirteen offensive black stereotypes on the back of his program—Excessive Singing, Indolence, and Crap Shooting among them—and intended to make a mark next to each one as it appeared onscreen. He didn't check off a single box and told the reporter that he found the movie ”a pleasant surprise.“ Langston Hughes called the picture ”distinctly and thrillingly worthwhile,“ and New York's black paper the Amsterdam News marveled, ”Who would have thought such a thing could be done so accurately . . . without sugar-coating and . . . jackass clowning?“

-- from Mark Harris' “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.”  ”The Negro Soldier“ was one of the films in the ”Why We Fight" series, orchestrated and produced by Frank Capra. 

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Posted at 04:39 AM on Dec 31, 2014 in category Books
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Commie Hollywood Propaganda ... Kinda

“The [Communist] Party itself had focused on Hollywood starting in 1936, when V. J. Jerome, a cultural commissar, and Stanley Lawrence, a CP organizer, journeyed out to the West Coast to set up a movie-industry branch of the Party. ... Naming Names by Victor S. NavaskyJohn Howard Lawson, who ran the Hollywood branch, quickly understood that the collective process of moviemaking precluded the screenwriter, low man on the creative totem pole, from influencing the content of movies. As the Party's national chairman, William Z. Foster told the faithful in a secret meeting at Dalton Trumbo's house in 1946, 'We can't expect to put any propaganda in the films, but we can try to keep anti-Soviet agitprop out.' Lawson and Ring Lardner did run a writer's clinic that tried to analyze scripts from the viewpoint of a Marxist aesthetic, but submission and compliance were mostly voluntary, and the project never got very far.”

-- from “Naming Names” by Victor S. Navasky. The Foster quote comes from the author's interview with Alvah Bessie, one of the Hollywood Ten.

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Posted at 04:31 AM on Dec 31, 2014 in category Books
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Tuesday December 30, 2014

Movie Review: The Imitation Game (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of,” we’re told in this movie (three times), “who do the things that no one can imagine.”

Unfortunately, it’s the studios no one imagines anything of, who make the movies with no imagination.

I suspected as much going in but you hold out hope. I love Benedict Cumberbatch. I thought the story of Alan Turing (Enigma code? And computers? And gay?) was ripe for a great movie. Plus I liked the opening. It’s Turing’s voice talking to an unspecified you, which, under the circumstances, might as well be us. In fact, it’s partly us, but it’s mostly someone else:

Are you paying attention? Good. If you’re not listening carefully, you will miss things. Important things.

I sat up straighter after that, ready to hear important things. Then deflated for the next two hours.

Did the trailer give too much away? Were the conflicts too facile? The Imitation Game with Bennedict CumberbatchWas everyone typecast? Were more interesting aspects of Turing’s life left out? All of the above? 

All of the above.

159 million million million Turing fans can’t be wrong
The movie is split into three time periods.

It begins in Cambridge, 1951, where Det. Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear) is investigating a burglary in the apartment of Prof. Alan Turing (Cumberbatch), who abruptly dismisses him like a lesser life form. Nock gets curious and investigates the man, hoping to find one of those Cambridge Soviet spies he’s been reading about. Instead he finds, in the words of a fellow officer, a poofter. It’s actually Det. Nock that Turing is addressing during the opening monologue. In the interrogation room, Turing, for some reason, suggests a kind of Turing test—man or machine?—with Nock as judge.

The brunt of the movie takes place during the World War II years, when Turing, a math genius who has already invented the universal machine—a forerunner to the store computer program—is summoned, along with other math/chess geniuses, to break the German’s supposedly unbreakable cipher machine, Enigma, which is reset every day, and which, every day, has 159 million-million-million (or 159,000,000,000,000,000,000) possible combinations.

For some reason, the others, including the dashing Hugh (Matthew Goode) and the diplomatic John Cairncross (Allen Leech, Tom of “Downton Abbey”), who should know the odds, actually try to break the code every day, and they actually get angry at Turing for spending all his time developing an infernal machine. They also get angry at him because he’s a bit of a machine himself. He’s uncommunicative and overly literal. Implications in human conversations are lost on him. He doesn’t realize, for example, that “Alan, we’re going to lunch,” is an invitation to come along.

Feeling pressure from colleagues and superiors, who object to costs, Alan writes Churchill, takes over from Hugh as head of the group, fires two men, hires two more. Well, one man and one woman. Enter Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke and the dullest of subplots. First, the men won’t let her test because she’s a woman. Then her parents won’t let her come because she’s a woman and would be surrounded by men. Then, even after she realizes the importance of the project, she’s about to return to them because she’s 25 and unmarried. So Turing proposes. He feigns love, which she believes.

Meanwhile, Turing makes enemies of Commander Denniston (Charles Dance of “Game of Thrones,” who could play the role in his sleep), makes an ally of MI6’s Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong, ditto), and more or less confesses his homosexuality out of the blue to John, who has his own agenda. (He’s a Soviet spy.) Meanwhile, Turing’s machine, nicknamed “Christopher,” sputters, works, but still can’t break the Enigma code. They’re a day from getting the plug pulled when he hits upon the obvious: Have it search for certain phrases, such as “Heil” and “Hitler.”

Bing!

Fake fake fake
So the initial drama was to get the team to work together; then it became to make the machine work. Now? Now it’s how to use the information so the Germans won’t get suspicious that Enigma has been broken.

The movie makes it seem this was Turing’s call—he allows the brother of a codebreaker to die, for example, and is called a monster for it, even though we know it’s all horrible but logical—and I didn’t buy any of it. Surely it was someone else’s call. Churchill’s, most likely. But Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (“Headhunters”), and newbie screenwriter Graham Moore (not much), keep it insular, uninteresting, and unbelievable.

They keep doing this. Throughout the World War II years, we get flashbacks to 1928 and a young Alan at prep school, being bullied, and meeting the love of his life, named, of course, Christopher, who dies of TB in 1930. That’s the big secret. Alan isn’t just trying to win the war; he’s trying to resurrect his lost love. It’s supposed to be his Rosebud, but it has nowhere near the Wellesian impact. It not only feels untrue, it is untrue. Via Slate:

Additionally, Turing did not call any of the early computers he worked on “Christopher”—that is a dramatic flourish invented by screenwriter Graham Moore.

All the things that feel untrue in the movie? Turing’s Sherlockian propensities? The battle for control among the scientists? The big blow-up with Clarke, where she calls him a monster? Invented dramas that feel invented.

Ditto the final scene between Turing and Det. Nock in the interrogation room. It’s supposed to play like the final scene between Salieri and the priest in “Amadeus” but, again, it’s flat. After telling his tale, Turing asks the Turing-test questions: Am I man? A machine? A hero? A criminal? Nock looks devastated, for reasons I can’t fathom, and croaks out, “I can’t judge you.” Because he’s realizes this poofter is a hero who shortened the war by two years? And saved millions of lives? And maybe all of Britain with its mountains green? So why not make Nock more homophobic at the outset? Or something? To give it meaning? Particularly if you’ve invented him in the first place?

It’s sad that “The Imitation Game” relies upon such weak-tea imitations as this. It’s sad that we feel the need to dumb down the stories of our most brilliant men. 

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Posted at 08:07 AM on Dec 30, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Monday December 29, 2014

Movie Review: Obvious Child (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In the first three minutes of the movie, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), doing standup, lists off several things that can go wrong with the vagina. The rest of the movie is something she doesn’t mention: pregnancy and abortion. From the start, Donna and writer-director Gillian Robespierre want you to know it’s not all rose petals down there.

When did I fall in love with this movie? I think after Donna is dumped in the club’s unisex bathroom by her boyfriend, Ryan, then consoled by her gay friends (one male, one female), until she winds up at the apartment of her father, Jacob (Richard Kind), who makes “pasghetti” and talks her through her troubles. Kind usually plays the doofus Jew, the one who doesn’t get what’s going on, but here he keeps giving advice I wish I’d heard when I was 27. Obvious Child “You know, creative energy sometimes comes from the lowest point in your life,” he says. “Negativity will either be your best friend or your worst enemy,” he says. Then he suggests Donna go see her mother, Nancy (Polly Draper, still hot), and Donna objects:

Donna: You guys need to know there are some children out there who don’t talk to their parents for months.
Jacob: Really? Not ... my ... child.

He leans in to say this line. He says it with firmness and warmth. The world plays that way? Well, we don’t.

My god, isn’t that lovely?

For a shegetz, he’s a mensch
“Obvious Child” is a kind of reverse-gender “Annie Hall.” It’s about a Jewish comedienne who winds up with a nice gentile boy—a shegetz. But there’s a big difference between this shegetz and that shiksa. Besides the obvious one.

Along with nighttime standup, Donna works at a bookstore, “Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books,” which turns out to be a real thing (I immediately thought  of Woody in “Annie” reducing Allison Porchnik to a cultural stereotype: New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West ... ) Since it’s 2014, the store is going out of business. So everything’s falling apart for Donna. Even her standup is unfunny in the wake of her break-up.

Thankfully, the movie’s not. At one point, Donna and lesbian friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffman of “Girls”) are sounding off on men in front of gay friend, and fellow standup, Joey (Gabe Liedman). “Everything you are saying is valid,” he says, “but you are scaring my dick off.” At another point, Donna visits her mother, a professor, who is as cold as her father is warm, and, closing the refrigerator door, she jumps seeing her mother, late 50s attractive, standing there. Hand over heart, she tells her mom, “You’re like an Eileen Fischer Ninja!”

What stops Donna’s downward cycle? A boy, of course: Max (Jake Lacy of the final seasons of “The Office”), who is polite, painfully WASPy, and who works in the gaming industry in a way that confuses and/or bores the comedians. That night, he and Donna get drunk, go back to his place, dance in their underwear, then sleep together. In the morning, she tiptoes out. Because she’s not ready for another relationship? Because he’s a computer programmer? Because he’s a shegetz? Because of the word shegetz?

But he keeps showing up—in ways either believable (at the comedy club) or not (at her mother’s place, since he’s her former student who’s returning a book he borrowed). Donna keeps pushing him away again. Partly because she’s confused. Mostly because she’s pregnant. She actually finds out too early, so she has to wait a few weeks until Valentine’s Day, of all days, for the abortion.

I assumed this would give her time to get together with Max and keep the baby and live happily ever after. I mean, for all the right-wing attacks on Hollywood, abortions aren’t the stuff of movies anymore. Certainly not rom-coms. But Robespierre is made of sterner stuff. Max comes through—for a shegetz, he’s a mensch—but Donna still goes through with the abortion. Jokes are even made before Donna goes onstage at the comedy club:

Nellie: You are going to kill it out there.
Donna: Actually, I have an appointment to do that tomorrow.

My god, that’s ballsy.

Even better is the heart-to-heart with mom, who reveals her own abortion, illegal, in the 1960s. A little history lesson for the younger crowd.

He’s also without personality
“Obvious Child,” whose title is based upon the Paul Simon song for reasons I can’t fathom, is a short, sweet movie, but it differs from “Annie Hall” in this: the gentile there, Annie, had personality. She seemed a real person. Max? He’s not ... anything. He floats along in a sea of niceness, accompanies Donna to Planned Parenthood, sits with her on the couch afterward, suggests a movie. He warms butter for her with his hands. He shows up when necessary and cuddles when necessary.

You know how women complain about one-dimensional female characters in male-driven rom-coms? Max is the male version of that. But he’s invaluable in that. He gives every guy a glimpse into the secret heart of women everywhere. It’s kind of scary. More, please.

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Posted at 10:26 AM on Dec 29, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Sunday December 28, 2014

Lancelot Links

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Posted at 04:21 PM on Dec 28, 2014 in category Lancelot Links
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Movie Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” is a great indictment of the American class system. It’s about the need we breed into the poor and dislocated, and how that need—that fury—can sometimes lead to excellence, and how that excellence can be bought by the idle rich. It’s a movie about the sadness of people with too few options, and the sadness of people with too many. It’s about these words, “No, Mark, stay,” which implies a dog you can control, and “No, John! Stop, John!” which implies a dog you can’t.

The dog you can’t control is the very rich, who are very different from you and me.

The pace of the film is slow and measured but with an angry intensity always ready to uncoil itself. It’s a movie that blasts you with quiet, and then—per George Stevens’ gunfire in “Shane”—blasts you with the final, sad, incomprehensible act. It ends with a lusty crowd chanting “USA! USA!,” which Miller cuts off mid-chant like a rebuke.

Buying friends and enemies
First off: Holy shit, Channing Tatum, where did that come from? The first third of the movie is his brooding intensity, his seething anger—not to mention his athleticism. He’s a big man who moves with sudden speed. Foxcatcher, with Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Steve CarellHe grabs, spins, you’re down. There’s beauty in it.

It’s March 1987. Mark Schultz is a freestyle wrestler who won gold at the 1984 Olympics but lives by himself in a dingy, second-floor walk-up. He gives stuttering talks to uncomprehending elementary school kids in half-filled auditoriums, then trains for the ’87 world championships and the ’88 Olympics with his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), at Wexler University.

They’re opposites. Mark understands little and forgives less, while Dave understands much and forgives more. Mark is bottled-up and resentful, Dave is outgoing and gentle. During their training session, Mark headbutts Dave in the nose, drawing blood. It seems intentional, his resentment getting the better of him; but Dave simply steps back, wipes the blood off, continues. No looks, no accusations. Dave has a wife and two kids, and he’s good with them; Mark is alone with his thoughts and ramen noodles.

Then the deus ex machina of Mark’s life arrives—a phone call from John Eleuthere Du Pont—and he’s spirited away, by helicopter, to the vast Du Pont estate, called Foxcatcher, outside Philadelphia. There, the heir to the Du Pont chemical fortune (Steve Carell) invites him to stay: to train for the Olympics as part of Team Foxcatcher. The Soviets have state-sponsored training, so why not, in the U.S., idle-rich-sponsored training?

Here, Mark’s eyes light up for the first time in the movie. He sees the wealth, the purpose, the call to patriotism, but he doesn’t see what we see: Du Pont’s slow-motion creepiness. With head slightly raised, Du Pont, who wants to be called “Eagle” or “Double Eagle,” speaks with interminable pauses, as if he’s still learning the language; or as if he’s used to people waiting on him. There’s a trophy room filled mostly with the medals and ribbons of his mother’s prize horses. Mark is warned to steer clear of Mrs. Du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave), and we expect her to be batty, or mean; but beyond the isolation of her class, and her view that wrestling is a “low sport,” she doesn’t seem too bad.

Does John go for the “low sport” to spite her? Because it’s macho? Homoerotic? All of the above? Is he interested in another trophy for the room? Is Mark that trophy? The questions mount and Miller doesn’t quite give us answers. We get why Du Pont comes between Dave and Mark—he wants greater control of, and greater credit for, the Olympic champion—but why offer Mark cocaine? Because he doesn’t understand what it takes to succeed? And why does Mark give up training? Why dye his hair blonde? Are he and John lovers? We also get why Du Pont finally brings in Dave to shape up Team Foxcatcher—they really need a trainer—but why does Dave accept? He was offered the gig before and turned it down.

Du Pont: How much does he want?
Mark: You can’t buy Dave.
Du Pont [long pause]: Huh.

There’s a moment in the movie when we actually feel for Du Pont. It’s when he tells Mark that he only had one friend growing up—the chauffer’s son—but later found out that his mother paid the boy to be his friend. And here Mark is unintentionally saying the same thing: You bought me, but you can’t buy Dave. But then Du Pont does buy Dave. Was the money better this time? Were the accommodations for his family? Was Dave worried about his brother? His country? USA, USA?

We all become our parents. As a child, Du Pont’s mother bought friends for him, and as an adult he does the same for himself. But he knows enough to not trust what he’s bought.

The relationship between John and Mark is awful and symbiotic. John needs to prove to his mother that he has value, and Mark needs to prove that he has value without his brother. Neither man succeeds. Mrs. Du Pont seems to see through her son’s charade—there’s a painful scene where, with his mother watching, he shows champion wrestlers basic moves—and Mark not only doesn’t succeed without Dave, he falls on his face. He loses his first match in the ’88 Olympic trials, and only makes the team because Dave nurtures him back to health. After that, Mark’s resentment shifts—from Dave, whom he felt overshadowed his success, to Du Pont, who undid it. He winds up leaving Foxcatcher; Dave stays.

We live here
It would be interesting to hear Bennett Miller talk about why he made the decisions he made in condensing the “Foxcatcher” story. In real life, Dave and Mark were never at Foxcatcher at the same time. In real life, more than seven years passed between Mark leaving and Du Pont killing Dave Schultz in cold blood, but Miller makes it seem a couple of months. Reports also indicate that Du Pont began to act crazier in the months preceding the shooting. In the movie, he starts out odd and doesn’t change much.

Indeed, for all of the film’s opaqueness, are the characters themselves too obvious? One-dimensional? Du Pont begins and ends odd, Mark begins and ends with an angry glower, Dave is thoughtful throughout. I got such a feeling of warmth around Dave. I don’t know how Ruffalo conveys that, but he does. Carell’s Du Pont? Icky. Even the gummy teeth was apparently real.

Was Miller warned away from Du Pont’s apparent homosexuality? Did he find it inconclusive? Irrelevant? I suppose I would’ve liked less ambiguity in terms of motivation and more ambiguity within the characters themselves.

Even so, what an indictment of our class system. Near the end, the Schultzes return from the’88 Games—which Mark apparently threw so Du Pont wouldn’t get credit—and they’re confronted at the gate by a suspicious security team, who ask them to state their business. “We ... live here?” Dave says. But he's no longer sure. Even if it wasn't an intentional message, a message was still sent. We are allowed this small space at the sufferance of our betters. We ... live here.

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Posted at 08:29 AM on Dec 28, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Saturday December 27, 2014

My Year in Reading: Holding Friends Close and Enemies Closer

Recommended 2014 books: The Invisible Bridge, Hack Attack, Flash Boys, Five Came Back, Loudest Voice

Shades of red were big on book covers this year.

I probably read more books in the last year than I have in any year since ... 1998? Since I hopped online for good? Hate to say it, but the Kindle helped. It's easier to buy books (2 a.m.? Sure!), easier to carry around, easier to hold in your hand. Your mileage may differ. 

Here are 10 recommendations from the past 365 days. All non-fiction. Most were published in 2014 or nearby. If you look closely, it's me trying to make sense of the world. I'm holding my friends close and my enemies closer. 

  • “The Invisible Bridge; The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan” by Rick Perlstein. A history of the years 1973 to 1976, when America had the chance to mature, to own up to the more unpalatable aspects of its history, and began to lean right, and toward wish-fulfillment fantasy, instead.
  • “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt” by Michael Lewis. The story of how Wall Street firms are using computers and fiber optic cable to do what would be illegal if human beings did it: they front-run trades; they use micro-seconds to get between the buyer and seller, buy it, and sell it to the seller at a higher price. The game is rigged. Surprised this didn't make more “Best of ...” lists this year.
  • “One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson. I got this at the end of 2013 and read it in a few days. It's how history should be written: straightforward but full of digressions: I need to tell you about X but first you need to know about Y and Z. Bryson covers aviation and Lindbergh, baseball and Babe Ruth, radio and Jack Dempsey. The 1920s were really the beginning of mass culture. It's the beginning of us. 
  • “Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch,” by Nick Davies. Imagine someone sitting on 6,000 graves and someone else coming along and accusing them of, oh, maybe a death or two, maybe just an assault; then imagine them attacking and maligning this accuser with vehemence and all of the power at their disposal for daring to suggest it in the first place. That's basically what you have with the News of the World hacking scandal. It's the worst people in the world getting comeuppace, despite protection from the right, the police, and themselves. 
  • “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War,” by Mark Harris. Harris has a thing for fives, doesn't he? First, the five best picture candidates of 1967—the divide between old, studio Hollywood, and new, Nouvelle-Vogue-inpsired Hollywood—and now this: directors William Wyler, Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston and George Stevens, and what they did during the war, daddy. Also what they did after the war. For example: “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “It's a Wonderful Life,” “My Darling Clementine,” “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” and “I Remember Mama.” The section of Stevens at Dachau is understated and powerful.
  • “John Wayne: The Life and Legend,” by Scott Eyman. We get the in-depth backstory, the itinerant childhood, then we're mostly in the movies. We get the failure of “The Big Trail” (1930), then Wayne relegated to B movies, then redemption at his friend and acccuser John Ford in “Stagecoach.” When war comes he doesn't go, just portrays its heroes on screen. Ford, who went, never quite forgave him. The moviegoing public did. More, actually. They forgot. 
  • “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution” by John Paul Stevens. The great liberal voice on the court, appointed by Pres. Ford, details six of the amendments that need amending, thanks to—and this goes largely unsaid—the activist intransigence of Stevens' former conservative comrades. It's short and not-quite-sweet. I should re-read it. 
  • “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News and Divided a Country,” by Gabriel Sherman. The rise and rise of a man ruining the country with ruthlessness, bombast and paranoia. 
  • “Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of 1976,” by Dan Epstein. The subtitle says it all. It's amazing that Epstein gets such mileage out of a season in which the Cincinnati Reds never lost a postseason game. All the drama was in the ALCS.
  • “The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball's Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption,” by John Rosengren. The focus is on an incident that occurred during August 1965, in which SF Giants pitcher Juan Marichal, at the plate, took his bat to the head of LA Dodgers catcher John Roseboro; but what really recommends the book is Rosengren's account of the rise of dark-skinned Latin American players after Jackie. 

Keep reading, everyone.

Recommended 2014 books: Six Amendments, Stars and Strikes, John Wayne, Fight of Their Lives, One Summer: America, 1927

Let's try to shorten those subs, authors.

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Posted at 06:46 AM on Dec 27, 2014 in category Books
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Friday December 26, 2014

Super Normal

I went to see the doctor today for chest pains. Basically, my heart felt constricted. Since Monday, it's kept me up at night, and felt painful whenever I coughed. So you worry a bit. 

Turned out to be nothing. Probably a virus, inflammation of the lungs, maybe some acid reflux, exacerbated by asthma. 

Since I made the appointment this morning, I went to see the GP on duty, and mentioned that I'd had a stress test a few years ago and did OK on it. She looked it up and said, “More than OK. You were super normal.”

“Super normal?”

“Above average for your age.”

I like that. Super normal. It almost sounds like I'm really, really normal. I'm so normal I'm super normal. 

It wouldn't make a bad modern superhero. Jason Lamb, maybe we should work on that. 

Forbush Man from Not Brand Echh

The original Super Normal. 

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Posted at 03:11 PM on Dec 26, 2014 in category Personal Pieces
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Movie Review: The Interview (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Thanks for making me watch this crap, North Korea.

I’d seen the trailer. A shallow talk-show host, Dave Skylark (James Franco), who is good at getting celebs make the big reveal (Rob Lowe removes his toupee, Eminem admits he’s gay), turns out to be a favorite of North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park of “VEEP”); so Skylark and producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) jump at the chance to interview him. Then the CIA, in the form of “honeypot” agent Lacy (Lizzy Caplan of “Masters of Sex”), asks the two doofuses to “take out” the dictator. Yes, kill him. It’s a comedy.

To be honest, I didn’t plan on seeing it. I mean, the trailer wasn’t bad (I liked Rogen’s line reading, “That is not an actual thing people say”), and the plot seemed pretty outré (actually assassinating a dictator?). But the scatological stuff? Doofus Hollywood? Rogen and Franco? I’d seen it before. I wasn’t a big fan of “This Is The End,” for example. Maybe eventually I’d watch it on Netflix, I thought. Maybe. Eventually.

The Interview, with Seth Rogen and James FrancoThen the Guardians of Peace hacked Sony, spilling its embarrassing emails into the world, then threatened any theater showing “The Interview.” This caused theater chains to pull out, which caused Sony to suspend release, which caused Pres. Obama to suggest Sony made a mistake in doing so, and ... Here we are. Instead of maybe eventually watching it on Netflix, Patricia and I watched it Christmas Day on YouTube. It almost felt like our patriotic duty to do so.

Thanks for nothing, North Korea. Assholes.

Banging the hot Korean general
Here’s the big question that the trailer doesn’t answer: What happens when Skylark and Rapaport get to North Korea?

Well, they prove surprisingly adept at the spy game and have plenty of opportunities for assassinating Kim Jong-un. But after several deep “My Dinner with Andre”-type conversations, they realize that what they prize about America is not its global-policemen capabilities but its adherence to democratic principle; and that they, as citizens of this democracy, have no right to assassinate the leader of another country, no matter how megalomaniacal. So they return home, chastened but wiser, determined to turn “Skylark Tonight” into a source of legitimate rather than celebrity news.

Kidding.

Instead, Skylark gets suckered into liking Kim, who lies to him about Korean prosperity but is truthful about his inner heart. (He likes Katy Perry’s music.) Meanwhile, Rapaport, after an encounter with a tiger, and forcing a CIA-delivered projectile up his anus, becomes involved with a hot Korean general, Sook (Diana Bang), who secretly hates Kim. The three resin strips the CIA provides to assassinate Kim? One is swallowed by a Kim lieutenant, who dies a horrible, convulsing death; a second is thrown on the ground by Skylark to protect his buddy Kim; a third winds up on Rapaport’s hand while he’s trying to make love to Sook.

The titular interview, being broadcast live around the world, hedges on whether Skylark has been taken in by Kim. (He hasn’t.) Then it hedges on whether Skylark can outdebate Kim. (He can’t.) “You have failed,” Kim tells him triumphantly. “You made a long journey just to show the world they were right about you: You are incapable of conducting a real interview. You are a joke.” Which is idiotic several times over. How is the whole thing suddenly about Skylark? Besides, doesn’t Kim want the world to think he’s outdebated a Mike Wallace rather than a Ryan Seacrest? So why would he ... ?

Anyway, at the 11th hour, while Rapaport and Sook fight technicians in a bloody, over-the-top battle in the broadcast booth (during which Rapaport has two fingers bitten off), Skylark asks Kim about his father, and about margaritas, then sings from Katy Perry’s “Firework,” all of which causes Kim to break down and cry on international television. Then Kim lets out a long fart. A shart. Which he denies and blames on a cameraman. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Skylark announces. “Kim Jong-un has just pooed in his pants.” Since he’s supposed to be a God with no bodily functions, this comes as news to the North Koreans.

After that, there’s a chase, Kim is killed by a missile, our heroes escape, and Sook leads a revolution toward a democratic North Korea.

Funny or die
Actually, there’s a bigger question that the trailer doesn’t answer: Is the movie funny?

Not enough. I had a few laugh-out-loud moments. I loved the cute Korean girl singing in the beginning about death to America. I liked Dave’s tone-deaf speech upon landing in Pyongyang, which he ends with “Konichiwa.” I liked this exchange between Dave and Kim as they look over a tank:

Kim: It was a gift to my grandfather from Stalin.
Skylark: In my country, it’s pronounced Stallone.

It’s just not funny enough. Patricia, who tends to like dopey comedies, was bored a third of the way in.

But “The Interview” is, in its way, prophetic. It’s a nothing comedy that actually made the real Kim Jong-un, a totalitarian dictator, shit his pants. That’s worth something. Right?

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Posted at 02:30 PM on Dec 26, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Quote of the Day

“Over the past year, a U.S. government subjected to constant bad-mouthing, constantly accused of being ineffectual or worse, has, in fact, managed to accomplish a lot. On multiple fronts, government wasn’t the problem; it was the solution. Nobody knows it, but 2014 was the year of 'Yes, we can.'”

-- Paul Krugman, “Tidings of Comfort,” in today's New York Times.

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Posted at 09:53 AM on Dec 26, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Thursday December 25, 2014

It's a Wonderful Quote - II

“[Director Frank] Capra stayed true to his desire to make a movie about 'the individual’s belief in himself,' but he connected it to the issue that was then troubling him the most—his intense need to be appreciated by others. In an earlier draft by Connolly, the 'alternate' life that George and the angel Clarence visit is one that includes a second George who is alive and well but lacks the real George’s good character. In the version that Capra chose to pursue, George instead watches what would happen in his world if he had never existed at all, and sees it quickly fall to ruin. For Capra, who was returning to an industry that he felt had recently erased him from its history, a what-if story about a man’s feelings of inconsequentiality and his dark fears of nonexistence felt autobiographical. It’s a Wonderful Life was a project driven by fears, desires, and wounds that he could no longer keep private.”

-- from Mark Harris' “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.” 

It's a Wonderful Life

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Posted at 06:55 PM on Dec 25, 2014 in category Books
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Christmas Morning, 1967

Make sure you watch with subtitles on. (If they don't show up, click the “cc” tab at the bottom of the video.)

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Posted at 08:04 AM on Dec 25, 2014 in category Personal Pieces
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Wednesday December 24, 2014

The Best Movies of their Lives?

“Five Came Back” by Mark Harris focuses on the activities of five Hollywood directors before, during and immediately after World War II. Basically what they did during the war, daddy. 

Here are the first movies each made after the war, and how many Oscars each was nominated for:

  • Frank Capra: “It's a Wonderful Life” (5)
  • John Ford: “My Darling Clementine” (0)
  • John Huston: “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” (4)
  • George Stevens: “I Remember Mama” (5)
  • William Wyler: “The Best Years of Our Lives” (8)

It would be tough to find five more beloved movies than those.

Of the five, only “I Remember Mama” isn't watched much anymore; or maybe it's just I who haven't watched it. Otherwise, you have: 1) the great postwar movie; 2) one of the great westerns; 3) one of the great tales of greed; and 4) the most popular Christmas story Hollywood has ever produced. Astonishing. Each man came home and told the tale he needed to tell. 

The Best Years of Our Lives

Returning from war in “The Best Years of Our Lives.”

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Posted at 10:00 AM on Dec 24, 2014 in category Movies
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Tuesday December 23, 2014

It's a Wonderful Quote - I

“When [director Frank Capra] pitched It’s a Wonderful Life to Jimmy Stewart, he told the story so poorly that the actor’s agent, Lew Wasserman, sat in the office 'dying' until Capra finally spluttered, 'This story doesn’t tell very well, does it?' 'Frank,' Stewart replied, 'if you want to do a movie about me committing suicide, with an angel with no wings named Clarence, I’m your boy.'

-- from Mark Harris' “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.” ”It's a Wonderful Life“ was the first movie Capra directed after spending years directing the ”Why We Fight" series for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. 

Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart on the set of "It's a Wonderful Life"

Capra and Stewart.

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Posted at 12:51 PM on Dec 23, 2014 in category Books
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The Laziest Likely to Succeed

“Lazy” is a word that Fox News likes to (lazily) toss around. They attach it to the unemployed, the poor, today's teensPres. Obama

Which is why, while doing background for my review of “Foxcatcher,” this graf in The Washington Post's obit of John E. Du Pont, the heir to the Du Pont fortune and the movie's ostensible villain, stopped me:

John Eleuthere du Pont, who was born in November 1938, was one of four children raised on the same Pennsylvania estate where he lived as an adult. He grew up mostly with his mother after his parents divorced when he was young. He was voted both “laziest” and “most likely to succeed” at the private Haverford School near Philadelphia.

Laziest and Most Likely to Succeed? For the rich, certainly. For the poor, they just get castigated on Fox News.

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Posted at 08:37 AM on Dec 23, 2014 in category Politics
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Monday December 22, 2014

Movie Review: Hercules (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Hercules Hercules Hercules!

We hear this chant several times in Brett Ratner’s “Hercules,” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and I laughed every time. Because Eddie Murphy. He’s completely ruined this word for me—for the better—as Steve Martin did with the word Oklahoma ... Oklahoma Oklahoma!

Or did “Hercules” come to us ruined?

He’s never exactly been an A-list character, has he? He gets played by musclemen who don’t have a wide range of talent: Steve Reeves, Lou Ferrigno, Kevin Sorbo. We like our 20th century updates of Hercules—Superman, Conan, Hulk—better than the ancient Greek myth, which, after all, is ancient, and Greek, and mythy.

Ratner’s version doesn’t begin badly because it takes apart the myth. “You think you know the truth about him?” a voiceover asks. Hercules 2014“You know nothing.” We think the voice is addressing us, but it’s actually the voice of Ioalus (Reece Ritchie), Herc’s nephew and chief storyteller, who is being held captive by some scummy pirate or something. And the story Ioalus tells? Of Hercules’ 12 labors? Of being a demi-God and the son of Zeus? It’s bullshit. The myth is the myth, and Ioalus is the first P.R. man in history. Sure, Herc is big and strong, and each of the 12 labors is based on something, but they’ve been greatly exaggerated to instill fear in tyrants.

Who is Hercules really? He’s a former orphan and a former general who’s now a mercenary—a man who leads a team of experts:

  • Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the right-hand man
  • Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), the seer
  • Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), the crazy mute
  • Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), the tough chick/archer

We see them in action once, and then in repose; and then they’re hired by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), daughter of the embattled Lord Cotys (John Hurt), whose kingdom is being threatened by the rebel demon Rhesus (Tobias Satelmann), who ravages villages and leaves a stream of refugees in his wake. Herc takes the gig. He trains Cotys’ men into a strong army. And off they go—too early, in Hercules’ mind—to fight.

In the first battle they’re ambushed by bald men, painted green, who come out of the ground and attack with fury. They’re like the zombies in “World War Z,” and Herc and everyone win in the end ... but just barely. So, more training. Who were these green men? The villagers themselves that they were supposed to save? Did Rhesus do something to them to make them bald? Or green? I never quite got it.

At this point, and even earlier, we have two options as to where the movie’s going to go:

  1. Herc and his team will lose badly to Rhesus, be forced to regroup, and come back and win in the last act.
  2. It’s a trap. Cotys is a tyrant, and Herc is training the men he will have to fight in the end.

I suspected No. 2. Mostly because Cotys’ right-hand man, Sitacles, is played by Peter Mullan, who’s played villains in “Red Riding” and “Top of the Lake” and pretty much everything. You’d have to be a fool to trust that guy.

Which turns out to be the case. In the second battle, against Rhesus himself, who is simply a tall, blond, handsome dude, the battle ends quickly in Herc’s favor. But in the aftermath at Cotys’ castle, it’s all quickly revealed: Cotys, Sitacles, they’re dicks. The refugees? Cotys’ fault. Ergenia? Forced to fool Herc because Cotys threatened the life of her son—the true king. But Cotys isn’t a fool. He offers Herc a generalship, and, when this is declined, he simply pays him and lets him leave. But Herc can’t. He has to do what’s right. And in doing so—after being captured, chained, yadda yadda, and after Autolycus does the Han Solo thing by abandoning him but returning for the decisive blow—Herc becomes more than a man. He becomes more than his P.R. He lives up to the whatever.

Ratner, in other words, takes apart the myth in order to redeliver the myth. We’re too smart for the wish-fulfillment fantasy but we’re too weak to not want it.

Even so, beats hell out of “300.”

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Posted at 05:56 AM on Dec 22, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Sunday December 21, 2014

Quote of the Day

“Our films should tell the truth and not pat us on the back. [Otherwise] isn’t there the slight chance that we might be revealing America as it is not? Would that be encouraging us in our own delusions about ourselves?”

-- director George Stevens in 1946 after returning from World War II as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and filming the libreration of both Paris and Dachau prison camp, as relayed in Mark Harris' “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.” Stevens was part of the push for truth-telling in cinema that led to the directors revolution of 1967 to 1977. Blockbusters like “Star Wars” helped put an end to that movement and we wound up in a worst place than where we started. But yes, Stevens is right. Most movies now, most media now, encourage America in its delusions about itself. See Fox News for one. See most action blockbusters for another. 

FURTHER READING:

Five Came Back by Mark Harris

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Posted at 08:14 PM on Dec 21, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Weekend Box Office: America Declines Thirds, 'Annie'

Annie 2014

It's a hard-knock life for “Annie.” But maybe the sun will come out tomorrow? 

The weekend before Xmas is usually not a big box-office winner. Everyone’s too busy to go to the movies. But even by those standards this weekend was problematic.

The top two movies are both final chapters in a trilogy, and both underperformed compared to their predecessors.

Well, you could argue “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.” It won the weekend with $56 million, down from last year’s “Desolation of Smaug” opening ($73 million) and 2012’s “Unexpected Journey” opening ($84 million), but this one, unlike those, opened on a Wednesday, so its weekend total was diluted. The five-day total is $90 million. That said, sequels, particularly final-chapter sequels, usually open bigger than the earlier chapters and that’s not happening here. Adjusted for inflation, “Five Armies” grossed in five days what “Unexpected Journey” did in three.

But it’s worse news for the “Night at the Museum” series:

Date Movie Open  Gross
Dec. 22, 2006 Night at the Museum $30.4 m $250 m
May 22, 2009 NATM: Battle of the Smithsonian $54.1 m $177 m
Dec. 19, 2014 NATM: Secret of the Tomb $17.3 m  ?

Side note: Is Ben Stiller done as a box-office attraction? “Walter Mitty” grossed $58 million last year, “The Watch” $35 million the year before—I know: complications with that one—“Tower Heist” $78 million in 2011. His last live-action movie to go over $100 mil was “Little Fockers” in 2010; but its $148 was down from the $279 million “Meet the Fockers” grossed in 2004.

Meanwhile, “Annie,” starring Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhane Wallis, debuted to bad reviews and $16.3 million for third place. Last weekend’s winner, Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” fell off by a Satanic 66.6% to gross only $8 million, while “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1” added another $7.7 million for fifth place. At $289 million domestic, it’s sputtering its way to $300 million when its predecessors both topped $400 million.

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Posted at 09:50 AM on Dec 21, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Best Foreign Language Film Down to Nine Nominees

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (The Oscars) has shortlisted its “best foreign language film” category to nine choices. They are:

  • Accused (The Netherlands)
  • Corn Island (Georgia)
  • Force Majeure (Sweden)
  • Ida (Poland) *
  • Leviathan (Russia)
  • The Liberator (Venezuela)
  • Tangerines (Estonia)
  • Timbuktu (Mauritania)
  • Wild Tales 

* currently streaming on Netflix

As you can see, I've only seen “Ida,” which I think is one of the best movies of the year. Missed “Force Majeure” at SIFF Uptown because it's December and time is crazy. Heard good things on “Leviathan.”

What's missing? “Deux jours, une nuit” from Belgium. I've heard “Winter Sleep” from Turkey is quite good. I assume “Kraftidioten” wasn't even offered up by Norway to the Academy.

Ida 

“Ida”: The best road movie of the year. 

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Posted at 07:54 AM on Dec 21, 2014 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Saturday December 20, 2014

The Things They Couldn't Carry

I'm nearly done with Mark Harris' excellent book, “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War,” about what Hollywood directors Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens and John Huston did during the war, daddy. The most moving stuff is probably Stevens filming the liberation of Paris, and then, a year later, the liberation of Dachau. He returned from the war silent, and played golf day after day. When he did talk of returning to work he wanted to make a war picture. But no studio, in the days after the war, wanted to make a war picture. Harris writes:

Those who knew him begged him to forget the idea of making a statement and to simply try doing what he did best. Katharine Hepburn, a good friend and one of his greatest champions, told him he needed to return to comedy, a genre in which she believed his talents were unrivaled by any other director in Hollywood. But Stevens would never, for the rest of his career, direct anything but drama. “After the war,” he said, “I don't think I was ever too hilarious again.”

“I hated to see him leave comedy for the other stuff that came later on, the more serious stuff,” said Capra. “None of us were the same after the war, but for him . . . The films that he took of Dachau, the ovens, and the big, big piles of bones that nobody could believe existed . . . He had seen too much.”

Five Came Back

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Posted at 04:16 PM on Dec 20, 2014 in category Books
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Quote of the Day

“Are Republicans really going to spend the first year of their new majority trying to undo everything the president has done — to roll back the clock? Will they defend isolation of Cuba against the wishes of most young Cuban-Americans? Will they restore a family-destroying deportation policy, when Obama's de-emphasis on sending illegal immigrants home has already given him a 15-point boost among Latinos? Will they take away health insurance from millions who never had it before? Will they insist that nothing can be done on climate change, while an agreement is on the table for the world's two biggest polluters, the United States and China, to do something significant?

”The President Obama of the last six weeks is willing to take that bet.“

-- Timothy Egan, ”Obama Unbound," in The New York Times. I agree with much of this but not the last sentence. Obama has already made his mark a thousand times over.

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Posted at 09:13 AM on Dec 20, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Film Critics Wrap 2014: Consensus at the Frye

Patricia and I went to the Frye Art Museum's “Critics Wrap 2014” (film version), hosted by critic Robert Horton for the 10th and apparently last time. He and his wife are moving to Scotland in February. 

For the brunt of the evening, before we all repaired to the alcove for champagne, toasts, and a tidbit of conversation, we watched the four on stage debate the best movies of the year. Except, per Seattle, there wasn't much debate. There was mostly agreement. Except from me in the audience. I kept disagreeing with what they were saying. 

Here are the top 5 movies from each critic (Andrew Wright wasn't in attendance):

Robert Horton

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  2. Deux jours, une nuit
  3. Only Lovers Left Alive
  4. Boyhood
  5. Under the Skin

Kathleen Murphy

  1. Under the Skin
  2. Only Lovers Left Alive
  3. The Homesman
  4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  5. Ida

Jim Emerson

  1. Under the Skin
  2. Only Lovers Left Alive
  3. Ida
  4. Calvary
  5. The Homesman

Andew Wright

  1. Snowpiercer
  2. Under the Skin
  3. The Babadook
  4. Only Lovers Left Alive
  5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The two movies at the top of each list are “Under the Skin” and “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and I wasn't a fan of either—although I predicted, in the first graf of my review back in April, that “Skin” would be a topic of critical conversation at the end of the year. I'm actually willing to revisit “Skin,” to be honest. You never know. One critic, Kathleen Murphy, says she didn't like the movie the first time she saw it, but after the second time it became her favorite movie of the year. Quite a leap. Woody Allen once talked about his first screening of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and how disappointed he was with it, and how after two more viewings over the years he realized what a sensational movie it was. So maybe that'll happen with me and “Skin.” 

But “Only Lovers Left Alive” has a big problem that none of the four people on stage mentioned. It's a very nostalgic film but its nostalgia is writer-director Jim Jarmusch's, not the characters'. The leads, Adam and Eve, are vampires who have lived for centuries, maybe millennia, and are well-versed in the arts and sciences; but their nostalgia is particular to, say, 60-year-old hipsters. They play 45s, read Shakespeare's Sonnet CXVI, lament the death of culture. The heroes on Adam's walls are the heroes of a college student in the late 1960s, not a vampire who was born in, say, 838 A.D. It's a good movie, but ... top 5? For everyone? That's a bit much. 

There was a bit much consensus on stage, too. No one really disagreed on a movie until a kid in the audience asked about “Gone Girl,” which Emerson liked and the others didn't. But that was after more than an hour of scenery chewing. 

Is this a danger? This consensus? Does it demonstrate that these are in fact “the best” or does it demonstrate that Horton and his friends, two of whom were his teachers, have similar backgrounds, tastes, experiences, predilections, conversations?

I'm looking forward to “The Homesman” anyway. And my own top 10 list. About which even I don't have much consensus.

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Posted at 08:45 AM on Dec 20, 2014 in category Movies - Lists
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Friday December 19, 2014

Quote of the Day

“Here's hoping North Korea pre-hates the next Expendables sequel.”

-- Jerry Grillo, Atlanta.

Along with everyone else, Deadline has craeted a timeline on the Sony hack attack, which, the FBI confirmed today, was in fact perpetrated by North Korea under the guise of the hacking group “Guardians of Peace.” It's good to remember that the movie chains started pulling out first, after threats to its theaters were made by GOP. Then Sony pulled the movie from the few theaters remaining. I don't get why they don't go Video-on-Demand, to be honest, but the criticism has been rampant: from George Clooney (who also faulted the media for publishing hacked salacious emails) to Pres. Obama, who sympathized but wished Sony had come to him before essentially bowing to terrorist demands. Is this the first time a country has cyber-threatened an international corporation? A brave new world. 

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Posted at 04:27 PM on Dec 19, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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The Genius Moment of 'Star Wars'

Here's Chris Taylor, author of “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, in a must-read interview with Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker

To my mind, one of the genius things about “Star Wars” is that it was one of the first movies to really say, “This is in no way, shape, or form connected to Earth.” It’s “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” Even with superheroes, as soon as you set it on Earth, you’ve limited it to one culture or another. But “Star Wars” is irredeemably distant. From that initial moment of genius sprung so much of what we love about “Star Wars.” 

To my mind, too. From my nearly 20-year-old review of ”Star Wars“:

Perhaps the most imaginative thing we see is the first thing we see: The words ”A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." This allows George Lucas to come up with anything his imagination desires. He does.

I still remember thinking, in 1977, at the age of 14, how visionary that was. Unlike almost every other attempt at sci-fi at the time, it wasn't the future and it wasn't Earth. It wasn't us. It was somewhere far away and at a time waaaay in the past. That seemed genius to me. Still does. 

Read the whole thing. Most interesting tidbit for me? That in Lucas' Vietnam-era mind, the Empire was the U.S. military, the Emperor was Nixon, and the Rebel force (Luke, Obi-wan, Wedge, etc.) was North Vietnam. Someone alert Rick Perlstein.

 Star Wars original poster

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Posted at 09:42 AM on Dec 19, 2014 in category Movies
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Movie Review: Please Teach Me English (2003)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Comedies don’t travel well, but since I taught English abroad—Taiwan, late 1980s—I thought Kim Sung-su’s South Korean comedy, “Please Teach Me English,” might work for me. And it does, for the most part, but I doubt I needed the ESL experience to appreciate it.

The comedy is pretty broad. At times it’s really broad. There are bells and whistles: thought balloons popping up on screen, cartoon versions of the lead character, a video game takeoff of ESL. It’s fun. But it goes on about a half hour too long. In the boy-meets-girl playbook, it plays like this:

  1. Girl meets boy
  2. Boy is a jerk
  3. Boy becomes less of a jerk
  4. Girl becomes more of a jerk
  5. Girl does something so awful I lost all interest in her
  6. Boy gets girl

If I were the filmmakers, I might have lost step 5.

A financial Sophie’s Choice
It begins well. Slow-motion panic enuses at a government office in Seoul when an American shows up to complain about his electricity bill. Please Teach Me EnglishEveryone ducks out of the way, unsure of their English ability, and afterwards at a restaurant/bar they all play spin the bottle to see who in the office will take English lessons to deal with foreigners in the future. The bottle lands on our heroine, Na Yeong-ju (Lee Na-yeong), who might be one of the few people in Asia who doesn’t want to learn English.

But off she goes, meets the cute boy, Park Moon-su (Jang Hyuk)—the smooth “playa” in her class whom the cute blonde teacher, Catherine (Angela Kelly), dubs “Elvis” for his sideburns. He eminates nothing but disinterest, not to mention a lazy kind of loutishness, but she’s smitten anyway. She does whatever she can to land him.

Since this is Asian cinema, there’s pathos amid the comedy. Years earlier, Moon-su’s mother faced a kind of financial Sophie’s Choice: She had two children, couldn’t afford both, so she gave up the daughter, Victoria. Now Victoria is a successful attorney in New York and coming to visit for the first time. That’s why Moon-su, a shoe salesman, is taking the ESL course—so they can talk between the tears.

Of course, just when our romantic couple is about to get together (step 3, above), Yeong-ju finds the photo of the pretty Korean girl in his wallet, assumes it’s Moon-su’s girlfriend rather than his long-lost sister, and retreats. He pursues. She retreats again. And again. Then she does step 5. Corralled into translating for mother and daughter, and still assuming Victoria is the girlfriend rather than the sister, Yoeng-ju tells Victoria that the mother and Moon-su both hate her and never want to see her again. It’s a pretty horrible moment. But then she goes the other way—flinging herself in front of Victoria’s cab to tell her the truth—before running away again, pursed by Moon-su, who, in a nice bit, if one that goes on too long, finally corners her on a subway and slips on her feet the red shoes she’s always wanted while professing his love for her. Applause from the people in the subway. Cinderella wins, even though she was a total jerk 10 minutes earlier.

War in somewhere
It’s not bad, not great, but what recommends the movie for me is its take on English and America: from the colorful and confusing corporate logos swirling around Yeong-ju as she rides the bus, to the Hollywood SWAT team that, in Yeong-ju’s nightmare, bursts in on their class and demands they answer a question in English at gunpoint: What is your favorite movie?

But my favorite moment was when Yeong-ju was watching CNN as a way to improve her English. A western correspondent in fatigues was reporting from abroad. The headline? WAR IN SOMEWHERE. Nothing says “America” more than that.

SLIDESHOW


  • START: What does Na Yeong-ju want? To live in a world where she won''t have to speak English. 

  • The world doesn''t cooperate. 

  • But at least in ESL class she meets a cute boy. 

  • Unfortunately, he''s a jerk. 

  • Fortunately, she's goofy. 

  • But there's all those damn western girls around. (Psst: They put out.)

  • Meanwhile, ESL is as scary as a video game. 

  • Or a SWAT team nightmare. 

  • But is anything as scary as U.S. foreign policy? *FIN*
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Posted at 07:41 AM on Dec 19, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Wednesday December 17, 2014

Quote of the Day

“There's no black male my age, who's a professional, who hasn't come out of a restaurant and is waiting for their car and somebody didn't hand them their car keys.

“[But] the small irritations or indignities that we experience are nothing compared to what a previous generation experienced. It's one thing for me to be mistaken for a waiter at a gala. It's another thing for my son to be mistaken for a robber and to be handcuffed, or worse, if he happens to be walking down the street and is dressed the way teenagers dress.“

-- President Barack Obama, in People magazine of all places, where he also said his favorite movie of the year was “Boyhood.”

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Posted at 06:55 PM on Dec 17, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Whiplash (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I thought “Whiplash” was about a sadistic teacher who makes life hell for an innocent kid who just wants to be a jazz drummer.

Instead, “Whiplash” is about a sadistic teacher who makes life hell for an arrogant bastard ... who just wants to be a jazz drummer.

So it’s much better than I thought.

At first, Andrew (Miles Teller) seems another fish-out-of-water kid. He’s at a prestigious school, Shaffer Conservatory of Music, seemingly without friends, and goes to the movies (“Rififi”), with his father, Jim (Paul Reiser), a put-upon teacher whose wife left soon after Andrew was born. At the theater, an unseen man bumps Jim’s head with a bucket of popcorn and it’s Jim who apologizes. He’s that kind of guy. Whiplash, with Miles Teller and J.K. SimmonsThe kind of guy, it turns out, that Andrew doesn’t want to be.

The movie opens with Andrew on the drum kit, playing away, when the school’s best teacher, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), arrives and listens. Andrew stops when he sees Fletcher. “Why did you stop playing?” Fletcher asks. So Andrew starts again. “Did I ask you to start playing again?” Fletcher says. “Show me your rudiments.” The kid is desperate for attention and Fletcher enjoys not giving it. He leaves without a word (to Andrew’s disappointment), then returns (to Andrew’s relief). But instead of encouragement, he says, “Oopsie-daisy, forgot my jacket.” Then gone again.

The “oopsie-daisy” is like a little knife in the side. The knives will get bigger.

Third division
Initially we think Andrew is like us—just more talented. But he’s not like us. And he doesn’t want to be.

This becomes painfully clear at an extended family dinner. His accomplishment—making Fletcher’s class—is run over by family talk, and when he returns to it no one seems to get it. They shouldn’t, really. Fletcher? Who’s Fletcher? Plus it’s jazz, not football. Now Uncle Frank’s boys, they’re on the football team. “Yeah,” Andrew says dismissively, “third division.” In the next minute, we get Andrew’s philosophy. It’s all about the work, the music. Friends? Family? They just get in the way. Charlie Parker is held up as the exemplar, to which Jim mentions his drug-addled death. Andrew’s response? “I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34, and have people at a dinner table talk about me, than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.”

In this sense he’s the perfect student for Fletcher.

Is that why Fletcher focuses on him so much? Because he senses this drive in him? The anecdote that’s constantly brought up is that moment in 1937 when drummer Joe Jones threw a cymbal at a teenage Charlie Parker. Parker was humiliated, but practiced for a year until he was, well, Bird. Then he blew everyone away. That’s what Fletcher says he hopes to do: be the Joe Jones who brings out the Bird in a new Charlie Parker.

Does he see that in Andrew? Or is it simply the sadist feeling out the masochist? Because—beyond an introductory lesson in humiliation in which Fletcher calls out a student for being out of tune (even though he wasn’t)—Fletcher focuses completely on the drum kit.

Andrew starts out as alternate, replaces 1st drummer Carl  (Nate Lang) when he misplaces Carl’s sheet music, then competes with both Carl and Ryan (Austin Stowell) for 1st chair, and Fletcher’s attention. Fletcher keeps them all off balance and yearning. With Andrew, he tells him he’s rushing or dragging. “Not my tempo,” he says over and over.

That’s among the nicer things he says. His talent for invective would give R. Lee Ermey a run for his money:

  • Parker, that is not your boyfriend’s dick: do not come early.
  • If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will fuck you like a pig.
  • Oh dear God, are you one of those single-tear people? You are a worthless pansy ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drumset like a 9-year-old girl!

Also this: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.”

Does the movie agree with this assessment? Is this a wake-up call for the audience, sitting in the dark, listless, munching on popcorn and wish fulfillment, about what it really takes to get ahead? The rest of us are the family at the dinner table, or Jim apologizing because someone else was rude, or Nicole (Melissa Benoit), whom Andrew dumps two scenes into their relationship because she’ll just get in the way. Andrew, willing to get blood, sweat and tears on the kit, is ruthless in his determination. That’s why he gets where he does.

I buy that argument to some extent. In my own life, I’ve made choices, and they’ve invariably been “Minnesota Nice” choices. What ruthlessness I’ve displayed is usually followed by pangs of guilt and self-abnegation. I think most of us feel trapped between these two unpalatable options: getting run over by life, like Jim, or being a massive asshole like Fletcher.

But there are other options.

Twenty-game winner
The counterbeat to all of this played in my head even as the story played out onscreen. It’s the story of Ferguson Jenkins. I don’t remember where I read it—I can’t find it online—but he was a pretty good player, a Major Leaguer, certainly, but he wasn’t great yet. Then a coach instilled confidence in him. The coach made him believe he could be what he became: one of the great pitchers of his era, a 20-game winner for six years in a row, and an eventual Hall-of-Famer. That coach built up; this one tears down.

“Whiplash” is written (sharply) and directed (beautifully) by first-timer/squeaker Damien Chazelle, and it progresses smartly. Andrew’s bus breaks down on the way to a concert, he has to rent a car to get to the hall—but he leaves his drumsticks behind. When he goes to retrieve them, there’s a car accident, a truck upending his rental (beautifully filmed), and Andrew crawls from the wreckage and runs to the show, where, despite being in shock, despite being bloodied unable to hold his sticks, he sits in. Does Fletcher appreciate this? Show concern? No. After Andrew flubs it, Fletcher dismisses him. Then Andrew attacks him and is expelled; then he becomes an unnamed part of a lawsuit against Fletcher for abuse. An earlier student, whom Fletcher had held up as an exemplar (and who died, he said, in a car accident), had actually hung himself—in part, the lawyers say, because of the years of psychological abuse Fletcher had inflicted on him.

When Andrew sees Fletcher again, he’s playing piano in a jazz club, and he asks Andrew to play drums with his band at the JVC Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall. Andrew hasn’t been practicing much since his expulsion, and he’s slightly worried as he sits at the kit. Someone doesn’t play well at JVC, they’ll probably never get another gig. That’s the idea. And that’s Fletcher’s idea. Because he knows it was Andrew who ratted, and he begins with a song that Andrew has never practiced, and for which he has no sheet music. He’s humiliated, leaves the stage and collapses into the arms of his father, who consoles him.

The end? No. He doesn’t join the Jims of the world. He goes back and fights the Fletchers.

Andrew returns to the kit, and without instruction begins playing; then he tells the band when to join in, and they do. (Why do they listen to him exactly? What’s the protocol on this?) It’s like he’s taking away Fletcher’s band from him. He’s the leader now. But that’s not it either, exactly. There’s no comeuppance for Fletcher. By the end, Fletcher and Andrew are working together. You can see Fletcher’s eyes light up in a way they haven’t yet. He’s wondering if this is the moment. He’s wondering if he’s finally getting his Charlie Parker.

It’s a triumphant ending. Two jerks create something beautiful. That's kind of ... beautiful. 

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Posted at 06:17 AM on Dec 17, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday December 16, 2014

Why 'Knight of Cups' Needs to Kill at Berlin Fest

Per Box Office Mojo, the widest release of Terrence Malick's films in the U.S.:

Pop.

The Tree of Life

 “To the Wonder” I can see, but only 237 for this?

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Posted at 09:32 AM on Dec 16, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Trailer: 'Knight of Cups' is Terrence Malick's '8 1/2' and 'La Dolce Vita'

Or has aspects of each anyway: the director who's lost his way, the journalist who's lost his soul.

“Knight of Cups” is apparently a Tarot card. From Wiki the wicked:

If the card is upright, it represents change and new excitements, particularly of a romantic nature. It can mean invitations, opportunities, and offers. The Knight of Cups is a person who is a bringer of ideas, opportunities and offers. He is constantly bored, and in constant need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. He represents a person who is amiable, intelligent, and full of high principles, but a dreamer who can be easily persuaded or discouraged.

Reversed, the card represents unreliability and recklessness. It indicates fraud, false promises and trickery. It represents a person who has trouble discerning when and where the truth ends and lies begin. 

One assumes the creative one is Malick, easily persuaded, easily made unreliable and reckless, by Hollywood in the ... '70s? “Let me tell you about you” means “I'll make you the you I think you are, while you lose you in the process.”

Of course, we all lose you in the process, don't we?

But thank God for the conflict. Otherwise it looks too much like “To the Wonder,” and that's Malick's weakest film. Bale is Affleck (Batman bros), and Portman, Poots and Blanchett are some combination of Kurylenko and McAdams.

Another concern: No script. It was all improvised. Malick is disappearing down the hole of his own creativity and he's either going to bring back something amazing, or drown.

Sheets again, too. They're replacing wheat. 

Christian Bale in Terrence Malick's "Knight of Cups"

“All of those years ... living the life of someone ... I didn't even know.” 

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Posted at 06:04 AM on Dec 16, 2014 in category Travels
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Monday December 15, 2014

The True Innovation of the Very Rich

“Those at the top have learned how to suck money from the rest in ways that the rest are hardly aware of. That is their true innovation.”

-- Joseph Stiglitz, Chair of the Council of Economist Advisors (1995-97) and chief economist at the World Bank (1997-2000), in “The Price of Inequality,” as quoted in Nick Davies' “Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch.” 

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Posted at 06:09 PM on Dec 15, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Top Five (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

There aren’t many movies that make me think, “Thank God Adam Sandler’s arrived.”

What a disappointment this thing is. I guess hoping for Chris Rock’s “Annie Hall” was too much, but maybe his “Radio Days”? Instead we get his “Celebrity.”

Remember “Celebrity”? Kenneth Branagh plays a Woody Allenish reporter named Lee doing a magazine profile on a Hollywood star (Melanie Griffiths), and they visit her childhood home, where, in the bedroom, he makes a pass. She turns him down  ... only to give him a blowjob. “There are many things to be said about this sequence,” Anthony Lane wrote back then for The New Yorker, “but you could not, with a clear conscience, call in cinema vérité.”

In “Top Five,” The New York Times sends reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) to interview former standup comic/movie star Andre Allen (Rock, homage alert), whose new serious film, “Uprize,” about a 19th-century Haitian slave rebellion, is opening that day, and who is getting married to reality-TV-star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) that weekend. Top Five Chris RockAllen is against the interview, since the Times movie critic, Dave Nielson, has always slammed his films, including the hugely popular “Hammy the Bear” series (a man in a bear suit with a machine gun); but eventually he goes along with it.

Too bad. Because she’s the worst reporter in the world.

The worst reporter in the world
First, she shows up unprepared—without her tape recorder. Then she insists on retrieving it at her home (rather than using her iPhone’s built-in recorder) because that’s her lucky one. Then she spends half the day talking about herself and her problems. We get to witness one of those problems—her boyfriend, Brad (Anders Holm), who turns out to be gay, or bi, and who’s cheating on her. At that point in the movie, upset and humiliated, she actually walks away from Allen. She walks away from her story. He’s an alcoholic, she’s an alcoholic, but she walks into a liquor store and contemplates drinking.

Oh, and guess what? It turns out she’s Dave Nielson; she just writes the reviews under an alias.

Think about that for a moment. The New York Times has a beautiful—and I mean drop-dead gorgeous—Latina movie critic, but they choose to hide her identity behind a stodgy white male persona, because ...? I’m at a loss. Is it 1952? 1919? Should we check to see if A.O. Scott really looks like Eva Mendes but the Times thinks “white, dumpy, male” sells better in the digital age? No offense intended, A.O.

And it’s not just reporters or the media that writer-director Rock doesn’t get. He doesn’t seem to know movie stars, either. He doesn’t know the movies. I assume “Hammy the Bear” is a takeoff on Rock’s successful “Madagascar” movies, but those don’t look like crap; “Hammy” does. There’s no way that thing’s making $600 million worldwide. And the interview takes place on the day “Uprize” is released? Isn’t that a bit late? And Allen thinks that “Uprize” will do well at the box office? Is he that clueless? Even “12 Years a Slave”—which isn’t about a slave who killed white folks—opened in only 19 theaters. Allen is lucky “Uprize” is opening anywhere. He should know that.

Throughout the first two-thirds of the movie, I kept thinking “Fake fake fake fake ...” like Elaine in that episode of “Seinfeld.” Then Jerry Seinfeld arrives and saves the final third.

Chris Rock’s problem
There are a few good lines throughout. I like this Bob Newhartish conversation, for example, as Allen is doing promo and explaining “Uprize” by phone to some radio station somewhere:

Allen: It’s about the greatest slave rebellion of all time.
Allen: Slave rebellion.
Allen: It’s when slaves rebelled.

Then the plot kicks in again. He and Chelsea argue, make out, nearly have sex in a bar bathroom; then he borrows her phone and discovers she’s his arch-nemesis Dave Nielson; then he discovers no one’s going to see “Uprize”; then he gets drunk in the aisle of a mom-and-pop market, winds up in jail, is sprung, heads to his bachelor party at a strip club.

That’s where he meets Seinfeld, Sandler and Whoopi Goldberg, who, all sunk into middle-aged senescence, give him straight shit on marriage. It’s funny. Seinfeld “makes it rain” at the strip club. He accuses a bikini-clad stripper of taking his wallet, and when she asks where she would put it, he says, in that classic Seinfeld manner, “Do I have to say it?”

After that, Allen goes through with the marriage to a reality-TV star and lives happily ever after.

Kidding. The movie is set up so he doesn’t. We know that going in. In fact, we know exactly how it’s going to end. Earlier in the movie, Chelsea talks up the Cinderella complex:

Chelsea: Cinderella did what girls do when they want to see a guy again.
Allen: Handjob?
Chelsea: She left something behind.

Make a note: She’ll leave something behind. And she does.

At the strip club, she reappears, takes Allen to a comedy club, where he gets up on stage for the first time in years—he’d avoided it because he’d never done it sober—and kills, with, one assumes, old material. Then they say their tearful goodbyes. Then in the backseat of the limo he’s going through the bachelor party gift bag and finds something she left behind: a Cinderella-ish shoe. And he tells his right-hand man, Silk (J.B. Smove, who, cameos aside, is the best thing in the movie), to ... Actually, I think he just says his name. We know what’s going to happen. So Rock just ends it. It’s a good end to a bad movie.

Here’s Chris Rock’s problem. Actually, he has two. The first is he’s not a very good actor. He’s just not. The second is the difference between what made him a star (stand-up), and where he’s currently placing his star (the movies).

The best stand-up, including Rock’s, is generally funny because it’s true. People get up on stage and say the shit that everyone’s thinking but no one’s saying. Or they reveal the absurdities/hypocrisies of race (Rock), modern culture (Louis C.K.), the Bible (Ricky Gervais), relationships (everyone), that most of us haven’t thought of. But the absurdities/hypocrisies have to be true or they’re not funny. Stand-up is a delivery device for truth-telling.

The movies are a delivery device for wish-fulfillment fantasy: good beats evil, boy gets girl, etc. On screen, we’re tougher, braver, sexier than we really are. Most movies lie, in other words. The best movies don’t. Think of Woody Allen’s best. He gives us “Most of us need the eggs,” and “You have to have a little faith in people” and “You’re God’s answer to Job.” Rock needs to revisit these movies if he’s seriously interested in taking over the mantle. Because Chris? We really do need the eggs.

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Posted at 05:32 AM on Dec 15, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Sunday December 14, 2014

Weekend Box Office: Thou Shalt Have No Moses Before Charlton Heston!

Thou shalt have no Moses before Charlton Heston, apparently.

Ridley Scott’s Biblical epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” starring Christian Bale as Moses, opened to bad reviews (28% RT) and weak box office ($24 million), but that was still good enough to win the weekend. “The Hunger Games” sequel (shorter version: “THGMP1”) was second with $13.2 million. We’re all out shopping.

Chris Rock’s “Top Five,” which did open to good reviews (89%), finished fourth, with $7.2 million, even though it only played in 979 theaters. Patricia and I saw it yesterday. My review will be up tomorrow. (Psst: I’m in the 11%.)

Is it a bad weekend to open a movie? It looks like it, unless you’re a Tolkien adaptation:

  • Dec. 13-15. 2013: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Samug: $73 million
  • Dec. 14-16, 2012: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: $84
  • Dec. 16-18, 2011: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows: $39
  • Dec. 10-12, 2010: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: $24

Or maybe we’re all just getting sick of lengthy subtitles.

What are the big winners of Fall 2014 so far? Below:

And will THGMP1 trump Guardians of the Galaxy to be the year’s biggest box office hit? Don’t touch that mouse!

Ridley Scott's Exodus

The sixth-biggest opening of Ridley Scott's career but a disappointment, considering.

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Posted at 10:12 AM on Dec 14, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Quote of the Day

ShortList.com: Christian Bale recently said he felt jealous to see Ben Affleck wearing the cape and cowl – do you ever get that?

Michael Keaton: No. Do you know why? Because I’m Batman. I’m very secure in that.

-- from ShortList's Q&A with current Birdman, and former Batman, Michael Keaton. Great line. But it would be nice to know who did the interview, ShortList. 

Michael Keaton: I'm Batman

Keaton in 1989: “I'm Batman.”

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Posted at 09:35 AM on Dec 14, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Lancelot Links

Werner Herzog inspirationals

One of the Werner Herzog inspirationals.

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Posted at 09:17 AM on Dec 14, 2014 in category Lancelot Links
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Saturday December 13, 2014

Quote of the Day

“Like some ideological vanguard, Rupert Murdoch and his lieutenants have used their news outlets to shift the centre of power—the centre of thinking—far over to the right; and they have used their political muscle to press these ideas on governments who sought their support. They have done this not only in the UK but also in the US and Australia, wherever their business has flourished. They have left us with a world that demonstrably is a worse place to live, unless you happen to belong to the power elite.”

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

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Posted at 07:28 PM on Dec 13, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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John Wayne, Saddled

A corrective the next time someone holds up John Wayne as an exemplar of American manhood and courage. From Mark Harris' “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War”

Since the war had started, [director John Ford] had watched with increasing contempt as John Wayne had made and broken one vague commitment after another to join up. Wayne’s star had risen since his breakthrough in Stagecoach and he was now in constant demand in Hollywood; he talked earnestly of going into the army or the navy, but always right after the next movie. In the spring, when Ford point-blank offered Wayne a spot in Field Photo, he had declined, and he declined again when the offer was reiterated in August. ... Wayne never would enter the war; he would fulfill his commitment to the armed services by doing a USO tour, getting no closer to combat than the starring role in Republic’s The Fighting Seabees. Ford found his behavior reprehensible.

Cf. this recollection from Gore Vidal, who also went to war. According to Scott Eyman in his biography “John Wayne: The Life and Legend," Wayne's lack of service haunted the man until the end. 

John Wayne Inspirational

One of the many John Wayne inspirationals floating around the Web. 

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Posted at 11:15 AM on Dec 13, 2014 in category Books
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When Lou Gehrig's Last Season > the Mariners Last Season

It's really wrong to write about this. I admit that up front. But onward.

While reviewing the movie “The Theory of Everything,” about physicist Stephen Hawking, I looked up the numbers of Lou Gehrig, the “Iron Horse” for the 1920s and '30s NY Yankees who set an MLB record for most consecutive games played and then became the first famous person to die of the moto-neuron disease that afflicts Hawking, and that, of course, bears Gehrig's name. Back in the 1960s, Hawking was given two years to live but he lives to this day. I thought that was astonishing, and I wanted to get my years right when I compared. Because didn't Gehrig stop playing in 1939? Yes, when he was diagnosed. And didn't he died in 1941? Yes, two years after diagnosis. The same timeframe Hawking was given. Yet Hawking lives.

Then I became distracted by baseball stats. 

Gehrig is one of the great hitters in baseball history. Being a member of the lifetime .300/.400/.500 club (average/OBP/SLG) is exemplary, but Gehrig was a member of the .300/.400/.600 club. Only six players in baseball history have slugging percentages over .600 but Gehrig's was way over, at .632. It's third all-time—behind only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.

So I traced the downward trajectory of this great hitter.

In 1936 he won the MVP award and led the league in OBP, SLG, OPS. In 1937 he led the league in OBP and OPS. In 1938 his numbers dropped precipitously. For the first time in a full season, he batted under .300 (.295), and for the first time since 1926 his OPS was under 1.000 (.932). In three years, his homerun totals had gone from 49 to 37 to 29. He only hit 3 in September 1938—his last off of Dutch Leonard on Sept. 27. It would be the last one he ever hit. 

Was he already feeling the effects of the ALS that would take his life? Was it age? Some combo? Because by spring 1939, he was definitely feeling it. Something was wrong. He knew it. And on May 2, 1939, after only four singles in 8 games, he famously took himself out of the lineup. His stats for the season: .143/.273/.143.

Then it hit me. A .273 OBP? Nobody wants that, particularly Gehrig, whose lifetime OBP is .443  (fifth all-time); but, under the circumstances ... that's not ...

I mean, didn't the Mariners have players last season who had lower ... ?

We did. We had eight guys with OBPs worse than Lou Gehrig's when he was afflicted with ALS:

  • Corey Hart: .271 (68 Games Played)
  • Austin Jackson: .267 (54 GPs)
  • Chris Denorfia: .256 (32)
  • Mike Zunino: .254 (131)
  • Abraham Almonte: .248 (27)
  • Jesus Montero: .235 (6)
  • Stefen Romero: .234 (72)
  • Jesus Sucre: .213 (21)

Two things to note about the above: backup catcher Jesus Sucre had 61 at-bats and drew zero walks. Zero. .213 batting average, .213 OBP. He shouldn't be on the team. 

And the second guy on the list, Austin Jackson, was actually our leadoff hitter after we acquired him midseason from the Tigers. Jackson leads off because he's speedy and old-school managers like speedy guys up front, but also perhaps because he's shown a talent for drawing a walk, and new-school managers know it's good to have a high-OBP guy up front. But a .267 OBP isn't it. We'll see if, at 28, he can bounce back. 

Anyway, I don't want this to be a thing. I don't want this to be an OBP version of the Mendoza line. Because it's remarkable that Lou Gehrig managed 4 hits and 5 walks in 8 games in 1939. But it is an indicator where the M's troubles lie. Only one of these guys, Zunino—who could at least catch well and crunch homeruns—was a regular. But added together, they played 411 games. Essentially 2.5 of the nine men in our lineup, or 27%, had OBPs lower than Lou Gehrig when he had ALS.

And not to put any added pressure on anyone, but you know how many times Gehrig struck out in his 33 plate appearances in 1939? Just once.

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Posted at 10:18 AM on Dec 13, 2014 in category Baseball
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Friday December 12, 2014

Quote of the Day III

“Writers and editors at magazines and newspapers live with a perpetual sense of foreboding, which leads to plummeting self-confidence in their own work and a tendency to overestimate the new digital enterprises, or the new digitally rich owners of the old enterprises. It’s easy to feel that the very task of reporting and writing in depth, at length, and in complex detail is somehow to blame for their problems. It isn’t—but, faced with a deeply uncertain future, they become, in a phrase from Robert Stone’s novel “A Flag for Sunrise,” the mouse so scared it went to the cat for love.”

--George Packer, “The Real Crisis in Journalism,” about Chris Hughes and the mass exodus at The New Republic last week. 

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Posted at 03:36 PM on Dec 12, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Quote of the Day II

“There was very little sense that The New Republic was something that could be saved. After months—literally months—of being lied to and bullied around and made to feel like shit, all the while being studiously jargoned at when we asked for specifics about T.N.R.’s future, most people had had enough. It wasn’t just about the way Frank was fired, though that was awful. And it wasn’t just about Gabe’s hiring, though some had misgivings. It was more about: How can we work for these people?”

-- another unnamed editor in Ryan Lizza's must-read New Yorker piece, “Inside the Collapse of The New Republic,” on last week's mass resignations, as well as on the troubling spot journalism/news/seriousness is in, and has been in for most of this century. “Being studiously jargoned at” is the phrase I'll take with me. Holy crap, is that good.

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Posted at 03:30 PM on Dec 12, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Quote of the Day

“The only compliment Chris or Guy ever said about a piece was that it ‘did well,’ or it ‘travelled well.’ If we had published Nietzsche’s ‘Birth of Tragedy,’ the only question would be, ‘Did it travel well?’ ‘Yes, Wagner tweeted it.’ ”

-- unnamed former staffer at The New Republic, talking about TNR publisher/owner Chris Hughes and CEO Guy Cidra, in Ryan Lizza's New Yorker piece, “Inside the Collapse of The New Republic,” which reflects upon last week's mass resignations. Apparently problems began in August. Prior to that, Hughes had been—from a journalist's perspective—a model owner. But the piece confirms that, soon after August, the writers/editors at TNR faced the usual sales-culture, digitadoo BS that most of us have heard for decades. Kudos to them for fighting the losing battle. 

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Posted at 01:48 PM on Dec 12, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” is a dreamy vampire movie for adults. If you could live for centuries, after all, would you hang out in high school per Edward in the “Twilight” series? Isn’t that a little creepy? Isn’t Edward a little Wooderson for doing that? With one change: “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I stay the same age and they stay the same age.”

Jarmusch’s vampires aren’t chasing after freshmen or sophomores but have steeped themselves in science, the arts, ennui. They can explain quantum physics, speak Latin, and play classical violin. They’ve hung out with Byron and Shelley. They were Shakespeare. One of them anyway. Only Lovers Left AliveThere’s a great exchange when Eve (Tilda Swinton), living in Algiers, actually suggests that her friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) finally drop that literary bomb on the world and let everyone know that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare:

Eve (eyes lighting up): It would cause such thrilling chaos.
Marlowe (weary): I think the world has enough chaos to keep it going for the minute.

These blood-suckers actually try to get along with us. They bribe hospital workers to get “good blood,” and take it home and drink it from heavy aperitif glasses, then float back as if in a heroin stupor. They don’t prowl the night in search of people to kill. Either the sport has gotten old or too dangerous. There’s all that “bad blood” out there. AIDS kills. Even vampires.

Christ, you know it ain’t easy
Eve’s husband, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), for reasons we don’t quite fathom, isn’t living with her in Algiers. He’s in Detroit, a half-dead city, where he’s gaining renown as an underground musician. By night he creates his music, and hands it off to his fan/gopher, Ian (Anton Yelchin), who’s signed an NDA, and who gets him things he asks for, such as a specially designed wooden bullet. A bullet introduced in the first act will surely go off in the third ... unless it’s a Jim Jarmusch movie. Then no. Adam wants to kill himself but never pulls the trigger. Instead, Eve, taking red-eyes all the way, comes to visit him. They entwine, like John and Yoko on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Since not much is happening at this point in the movie, we wonder what might happen:

  • Adam’s hospital connection, Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), betrays him, and there’s a battle.
  • Ian gets too garrulous—or more garrulous—and there’s a battle.
  • The rock ‘n’ roll kids, Adam’s groupies, break into his house, and there’s a battle.

Nope, nope, nope. Instead, Eve’s younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), shows up uninvited and wreaks a kind of quiet havoc. The three of them go out to a nightclub with Ian, come home with Ian, and Adam and Eve leave a thirsty, impulsive Ava alone with Ian. Not smart. They’re centuries old but they don’t see what’s coming? We do. Afterwards, they kick her out and dispose of Ian’s body, then flee the Motor City. They take red-eyes back to Algiers, where, thirsty, they discover Marlowe has drunk bad blood and is dying. Then he dies. And in the end, Adam and Eve, refuting the title, kill two lovers necking under a full moon.

That’s the story. It’s more of a mood piece. Specifically, it’s Jarmusch’s mood. Here’s a quote from him on IMDb:

I feel so lucky. During the late ’70s in New York, anything seemed possible. You could make a movie or a record and work part time, and you could find an apartment for 160 bucks a month. And the conversations were about ideas. No one was talking about money. It was pretty amazing. But looking back is dangerous. I don’t like nostalgia. But still, damn, it was fun. I’m glad I was there.

Adam and Eve are nostalgics but it’s Jarmusch’s nostalgia. They play 45s, listen to obscure R&B and rockabilly (“Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” “Can’t Hardly Stand It”), read great works of 20th-century literature. Adam’s wall is like the wall of the 1970s college student: Franz Kafka, William S. Burroughs, Oscar Wilde, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane. Eve reads aloud from Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXVI (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments ... ”), which is the most famous of the sonnets. My thought: She’s lived for centuries and she’s still reading that one? When was she born? Fourteenth century? Tenth century? Earlier? What could they tell us of human history instead of spinning those 45s?

Too late.

The way things are going
In this way, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” while beautifully art directed, is less a story of bored vampires isolated in a world of zombies (their term for us) than of a certain type of hipster artist isolated in a world that doesn’t know or care about art. We’re zombies to Adam and Eve because we’re literally the walking dead: we are creatures who die. We’re zombies to Jarmusch because we have no taste and no soul; we’re the culturally dead.

When Adam and Eve return to Algiers, for example, the nom de passports they use are Stephen Dedalus and Daisy Buchanan. You can read this two ways: 1) Adam and Eve, and Jarmusch, are a little precious with their literary references; or 2) Those are the safest names to use in a world full of the culturally dead.

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Posted at 07:40 AM on Dec 12, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Thursday December 11, 2014

Quote of the Day

“I had low self-esteem. I was, like, Mike is corny! I’m gonna be this Omar dude. It was like that was my Spider-Man suit. Peter Parker was the corny kid in glasses, but he put that Spider-Man suit on, it was on and poppin'.”

-- Michael K. Williams, who played Omar Little on HBO's “The Wire,” in the New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece, “A Way Out,” about his new role as ACLU ambassador. 

Omar Little in the Wire: Spider-Man?

Thwip!

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Posted at 06:57 PM on Dec 11, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Random Thoughts on the Golden Globe Nominations

Michael Keaton in Birdman

“Give the people what they want: some good old-fashioned apocalyptic porn!”

The Hollywood Foreign Press announced its Golden Globe nominations this morning. Some thoughts on the film side of things:

Best Motion Picture, Drama

Boyhood, yes. Looking forward to Foxcatcher, and The Imitation Game, and Selma (Jesus, Hollywood, spread this shit around, will ya?). A big NO for The Theory of Everything for these reasons

What's missing? For me, The Drop and Fury. But apparently that's just me. None of the other critics (the ones with megaphones and minibrains) are bitching. 

Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy

My first thought was ... Birdman? A comedy? In fact, I tweeted that yesterday morning. This was tweeted back within seconds:

At least it made me think for a second. “Yeah, why don't I think of 'Birdman' as a comedy while I have no problem with, say, 'Grand Budapest' as a comedy?” The answer? Birdman feels (ironically) heavier. Weightier. But point taken. Even though I could've done without the “um.”

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama

This is the toughest of categories, so you can't really fault the HFP, and I have yet to see, as I said, Foxcatcher and The Imitation Game and Selma, but I think I would've tried to make room for Tom Hardy in there. For either Locke or The Drop. Hey, maybe we can fit them in “Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy”!

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical

Love you, Ralph Fiennes. You, too, Michael Keaton. I would've nominated the kid from St. Vincent rather than Bill Murray. The others, haven't seen. Because it's mid-December and there's still ALL THIS TIME in which to release them. 

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama

Hey, why wasn't Gone Girl listed as a comedy? Check the review. Fourth graf. 

Who's missing? Marion Cotillard, of course. Does the Hollywood Foreign Press have something against foreigners? Who aren't British, I mean. I also would've given serious thought to Agata Trzebuchowska as Aunt Wanda in Ida. Or Berenice Bejo in Le Passe? Or is that considered last year? Even though it didn't arrive here until this year. 

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy

  • Amy Adams, Big Eyes
  • Emily Blunt, Into the Woods
  • Helen Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey
  • Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars
  • Quvenzhané Wallis, Annie

Yikes, I haven't seen any of these. And I've seen and written about more than 70 movies this year. Not a good sign, Hollywood. Not to mention Hollywood Foreign Press.

Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture

  • Robert Duvall, The Judge
  • Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
  • Edward Norton, Birdman
  • Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
  • J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Really, HFP? The most stacked category is when you finally forget about the drama/comedy divide? Who's missing? Everyone. But let's start with Shia LeBeouf in Fury and Matthias Schoenaerts in The Drop. Wait, is Lithgow supposed to be lead or supporting in Love is Strange? If so ... Aw, screw it. Too tough a category. 

Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture

  • Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
  • Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
  • Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
  • Emma Stone, Birdman
  • Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Please, let it be Patricia Arquette, please let it be Patricia Arquette, please let it be Patricia Arquette. Although I haven't seen A Most Violent Year yet.
Guess when it opens in Seattle? Dec. 31. 

Best Director

To me it's a battle between Linklater, who spent 12 years making an everyday opus, and Inarritu, whose film just pulses with beauty and meaning. Question: If Gone Girl isn't among the 10 best pictures, why is its director among the five best directors?

Best Screenplay, Motion Picture

Birdman should take this. An incredible script. I'll also accept Wes Anderson or Richard Linklater. 

What about all you Buellers out there? Any thoughts?

Golden Globes air on January 11. By which time maybe half these movies will have been seen in American cities other than NY and LA. 

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Posted at 06:19 PM on Dec 11, 2014 in category Movies - Awards
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The Best Thing I've Read in the Aftermath of the Senate Torture Report

It comes from Adam Gopnik on The New Yorker site. I'd recommend reading it all. It's not long.

Here's the first thing that struck me as very, very true, and very, very ignored by most commenters:

First, there is the truth that the C.I.A. interrogators were, for the most part, following orders and doing what they had been told they were authorized to do; to make them the prime villains is to clear the democratically elected politicians who allowed this to happen—and, more important, to clear the democracy that elected those politicians. We are all implicated, not just those who drowned and froze and tormented prisoners.

The second thing Gopnik wrote that struck me as both true and little said is below—in the second half of the excerpt: the “moral claim of exceptionalism”:

Second, and running directly from the general responsibility, there is the claim that if we hadn’t tortured people—hanging them upside down, raping them rectally, and all the horrible rest—some terrorist would have been able to kill more Americans, possibly with a radioactive bomb, or worse. This is an empirical claim, but without much of an empirical foundation. ... It is also a moral claim of exceptionalism: after all, every nation can argue that it needs to torture prisoners in order to protect its people. The North Vietnamese were under far more direct threat from American bombers than Americans have ever been from mostly remote Arab terrorists, yet no one would ever suggest that the Vietnamese were justified in torturing American pilots, even if they could have found out about, say, the targeting and timing of bombing raids, which might conceivably have saved Vietnamese lives. That was, we said, and would say again, no excuse. We have none, either.

Comments welcome.

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Posted at 09:59 AM on Dec 11, 2014 in category U.S. History
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Wednesday December 10, 2014

Trailer: The Walk

This thing, a Robert Zemeckis feature, based upon “Man on Wire”—about Philippe Petit's walk across the World Trade towers in 1974—made my legs turn to jelly. Not sure how I'll handle the movie. And in iMax no less? Oy. 

I'm a fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but as Petit I think I would've preferred someone a bit more ... French.

Out in October 2015.

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Posted at 02:46 PM on Dec 10, 2014 in category Trailers
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Sad for the Present

Came across this banner ad while doing the usual online surfing:

Hope for the Future Paul McCartney

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Posted at 11:42 AM on Dec 10, 2014 in category Advertisements
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Movie Review: Birdman (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Birdman” is one long unbroken shot after another. The camera swoops down hallways and past doors and through windows and up, up and away toward the sky. It’s a movie about an actor who once played a superhero, but in the movie the camera is the superhero.

“Birdman” is a movie about the making of a play, and each unbroken shot, you could say, is like a scene in that play. Scene i takes us through the falling stagelight and scene ii is “meeting journalists” and scene iii is the introduction of Mike. Even its backstage shenanigans feel theatrical. Is Laura pregnant? Will Mike and Lesley break up? Will Laura and Lesley leave Mike and Riggan for each other? Birdman starring Michael KeatonAt the same time, it’s astonishingly cinematic. The movie is full of seeming contradictions this way. It’s full of echoes.

Here’s one. “Birdman” features a Hollywood actor doing a play that reflects back upon his own life—even as the role reflects back upon the real-life Hollywood actor playing him.

Twenty-five years ago, Michael Keaton starred in “Batman,” 1989’s biggest box-office smash, and, along with Christopher Reeve’s “Superman,” the forerunner to the modern superhero movie. He returned to the cape and cowl three years later for “Batman Returns,” then abandoned it. He went for more serious roles (“My Life”), or funnier roles (“Speechless”), or supporting roles in movies by hot directors (“Jackie Brown”); then suddenly it was 2005, superheroes were everywhere, and he was second-billed to Lindsay Lohan in “Love Bug” reboots.

Twenty years ago, Riggan Thomson (Keaton) played Birdman, the hottest superhero property in Hollywood; but after three films he abandoned the role and the world abandoned him. Now he’s trying to make a comeback by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play based upon the short stories of Raymond Carver: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

He just has a few problems.

Feeling beloved on the earth
Start with the voice in his head. It’s deep and guttural, like Christian Bales’ Batman. “How did we end up here?” it asks. “This place is horrible. Smells like balls.” It’s the rebirth of Riggan’s Birdman. Or maybe he never went away. Maybe he’s been dogging the actor’s troubled mind since Riggan turned down “Birdman 4” all those years ago. Now Riggan is in a dingy, cramped dressing room while the TV blares news of Robert Downey Jr.’s latest multimillion-dollar deal for playing Iron Man. “We handed these poseurs the keys to the kingdom,” Birdman admonishes him.

Other voices in Riggan’s life are more ignored. Take the quote stuck in the bottom corner of his dressing-room mirror.

A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.

No one in the movie takes this advice to heart. Even the movie doesn’t take this advice to heart. The first thing we see—the film’s epigraph—basically upends it:

-- And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
— I did.
— And what did you want?
— To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.

In “Birdman,” written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel,” “Biutiful”), a thing isn’t a thing, it’s almost always what is said of that thing. Is the play any good? Depends what the New York Times critic writes tomorrow. Am I any good? “You’re beautiful, you’re talented, and I’m lucky to have you,” Riggan tells Lesley (Naomi Watts), one of his actresses, to calm her down and prop her up. It’s really only Mike (Ed Norton), the great stage actor, the wild card who may be superseding Riggan, who doesn’t have this overwhelming need to feel beloved. He wants truth, absolute truth, onstage, and throws fits when he doesn’t get it. When he plays “Truth or Dare” with Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), he always picks truth. No one is less beloved than the truth teller.

Riggan is torn. He recognizes talent, he wants truth, but he wants love even more. He once felt himself beloved on the earth in a way that was impossible until very recently, and the worst part of him, the Birdman voice, wants it back. At one point, he makes an awful confession. He tells his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), that he’d recently been on a flight going through severe turbulence. Passengers cried, prayed. George Clooney was on the flight, too, and all Riggan could think about was how headlines of the crash would be about Clooney, not him. It’s a devastating story, and Keaton tells it, finishes it, with a frozen half-smile that seems to realize how fucked-up it is, but with a relief that he got it out—that he told this awful truth inside him.

“I’m nothing. I’m not even here,” Riggan’s character says onstage as the love fades from his life. This is echoed in Riggan’s own life. “I’m fucking disappearing!” he shouts in his dressing room. “I’m the answer to a fucking Trivial Pursuit question!” His daughter admonishes him for not keeping up with the new power. “You hate bloggers, you don’t use Twitter, you don’t even have a Facebook page: You don’t exist.

So many echoes. What about the ironic echo of the superhero costume? Before the final preview, Riggan, in his robe, steps into the alleyway for a smoke and the door closes on him and catches his robe. He can’t open the door and he can’t pull himself free. This itself is ironic—he once played a superhero but he’s not strong enough to tear fabric—and maybe more so because he actually imagines he has those powers. We first see him in his dressing room wearing tightie-whities and sitting in the lotus position in mid-air. An actor isn’t working out? A stagelight falls on him. “I made it happen,” he admits to his lawyer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis). We see this again and again—Riggan moving objects with a wave of his hand, Riggan levitating, and then, gloriously, flying—even though, like most of us, he actually controls little. He’s a schmuck. His zipper’s down, he burns his finger on a joint, Mike is getting all the credit for his play. And he can’t tear the fabric of his robe to break free from the stage door.

So he leaves the robe behind, and walks through Times Square to the front entrance in his tightie-whities. It’s a glorious scene—again, one take—with everyone raising their cameras high to record and upload the video for the world to see. Riggan literally lives the nightmare we all have—I’m in a public place ... in my underwear!—but it’s more than that. What is a superhero but someone who appears powerfully to the world in his underwear? But Riggan appears to the world in his underwear because of his powerlessness.

(The irony continues with all of those uploaded videos, which garner 350,000 views in a matter of hours. “Like it or not,” Sam tells him, “this is power.”)

There’s also the ironic echo of the superhero mask. Losing his mind, Riggan shoots himself onstage with a real gun, not a prop, but misses and gets his nose. When we see him in the hospital he’s wearing gauze and tape over his face. It’s essentially a superhero mask, but, like the underwear, a symbol of weakness rather than strength. When he removes the mask, he’s got a new nose. Birdman has a new beak. The question is: Will he soar?

We all want to soar above the mass, not be of the mass. At one point we get this dialogue:

Riggan: I was a shitty father, wasn’t I?
Sam: No, you were just fine.
Riggan [dismissive]: “Just fine.”

He asks if he was below normal, she says he was normal, but he can’t stand being normal; he can’t stand being of the mass.

It’s as if this is the scale:

  1. Godlike
  2. Great
  3. Ordinary
  4. Shitty
  5. Nonexistence

Who wants 3) when you’ve been 1)? Riggan was godlike both onscreen (as a superhero) and in life (a celebrity, beloved on the earth), and, in a sense, Riggan confuses 3) with 5). “You’re scared like the rest of us that you don’t matter,” Sam tells him. “And you’re right: You don’t.” She means he’s ordinary, a 3), but he sees it as 5): nonexistence. And maybe it is, if you’ve been 1). Which is why, in his mind, he keeps returning to 1). The less power he has, the more he imagines he has.

So after the final preview, and after his conversation with the Times critic in the nearby bar—she says he’s going to destroy his play, because she hates him and everything he represents, that tawdry Hollywood crowd “handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography” (great fucking line)—he goes on a bender and ends up on a rooftop and jumps off. And flies. He soars and the soundtrack music, usually discordant drumming, wells majestically. He becomes Birdman again. “You are a God,” Birdman tells him. “This is where you belong—above them all.”

But what do we make of the ending?

Up, up and away
Initially I thought it should’ve ended with the gun on the stage and the blast, and the camera slowly moving toward the sky. But Iñárritu keeps it going. Thank God. He lets his hero live, and we descend into the hospital room, where Riggan’s lawyer, his ex, and his daughter, argue over what’s happened. The ex thinks it’s all awful, but the lawyer is thrilled with the superlative Times review (its headline is the movie’s unnecessary subtitle, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”), while Sam tells him she’s set up a Twitter account for him, and he’s got 60,000 followers already. He’s quiet throughout, the man in the gauze superhero mask, but when they all leave he shuffles into the bathroom and removes the mask. He admires his new beak. Birdman himself is sitting on the (closed) toilet all the while, and silent for a change. He has no words. Then Riggan walks back into the room, opens the window, and jumps.

End? No, thank God. Sam returns to an empty room. She calls for her father, sees the open window, rushes to it and looks down. Nothing. Or so her face says. We’re just seeing her, not what she’s seeing. Then slowly, almost as if she’s worried she’s going to hit her head, she looks up. And her eyes get happy. And she smiles. And, as the screen goes dark, we hear a laugh, almost a giggle, escape her mouth.

So what is she seeing?

Throughout the movie, we assume Riggan’s superpowers are in his head. He’s destroying his dressing room with a flick of his finger, but when Jake arrives we see him physically doing it. He descends from the sky in front of the theater, but then a taxicab driver follows him inside demanding his money.

But here? Here we get corroboration. Of something.

Is it magic realism? Iñárritu is Mexican, and you know those damn Mexicans and their magic realism. Is it metaphor? He’s soaring again. In the press, online, in the world, he matters. Is it the Hollywood ending? One of my favorite moments—and really I’d wish there’d been more of it—was when Birdman himself breaks the fourth wall. He talks about us, the moviegoers, to Riggan. And this is what he says, as, in Riggan’s mind, meteors pelt the city and helicopters go swirling down and away, and a giant flying bird threatens everyone:

Look at these people. Look at their eyes. They’re all sparkly. They love this shit. They love action. Not this talky depressing, philosophical bullshit. Give the people what they want: some good old-fashioned apocalyptic porn!

I admit it. As he said this, my eyes were all sparkly, but not because of what we were seeing but because of what he was saying. Because of the absurdity of what we want (over and over again): the awful, wish-fulfillment fantasy. 

So is the ending simply more of that? Another Hollywood ending?

We know this much anyway. The movie begins with a falling meteor, representative of the hero, and it ends with the hero somehow ascendant in his daughter's eyes; somehow going up, up and away.

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Posted at 07:27 AM on Dec 10, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday December 09, 2014

German Exceptionalism?

George Packer’s excellent profile on Angela Merkel, “The Quiet German,” begins with a dull speech at the Reichstag, whose history is anything but dull:

 ... the Reichstag was reconstructed [in the 1990s] in an earnestly debated, self-consciously symbolic manner that said as much about reunified Germany as its ruin had said about the totalitarian years. The magnificent dome, designed by Norman Foster, suggested transparency and openness. The famous words on the colonnaded entrance, “DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE” (“To the German People”)—fabricated out of melted-down French cannons from the Napoleonic Wars and affixed during the First World War—were preserved out of a sense of fidelity to history. But, after parliamentary argument, a German-American artist was commissioned to create a courtyard garden in which the more modest phrase “DER BEVÖLKERUNG”—“To the Populace,” without the nationalistic tone of the older motto—was laid out in white letters amid unruly plantings. During the Reichstag’s reconstruction, workers uncovered graffiti, in Cyrillic script, scrawled by Red Army soldiers on second-floor walls. After another debate, some of these were kept on display as historical reminders: soldiers’ names, “Moscow to Berlin 9/5/45,” even “I fuck Hitler in the ass.”

No other country memorializes its conquerors on the walls of its most important official building. Germany’s crimes were unique, and so is its way of reckoning with the history contained in the Reichstag. By integrating the slogans of victorious Russian soldiers into its parliament building, Germany shows that it has learned essential lessons from its past (ones that the Russians themselves missed). By confronting the twentieth century head on, Germans embrace a narrative of liberating themselves from the worst of their history. In Berlin, reminders are all around you. Get on the U-Bahn at Stadtmitte, between the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Topography of Terror Gestapo museum, and glance up at the train’s video news ticker: “80 years ago today PEN Club-Berlin forced into exile.” Like a dedicated analysand, Germany has brought its past to the surface, endlessly discussed it, and accepted it, and this work of many years has freed the patient to lead a successful new life.

This is particularly interesting to anyone who has read Rick Perlstein’s “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” since much of that book is about America’s inability to reckon with the worst aspects of its history after Vietnam, Watergate, et al. We bought into, in Perlstein's words, Ronald Reagan’s “cult of optimism,” which includes notions of American exceptionalism and applause lines about America being “the greatest nation in the history of the earth.” We're still buying into that cult. Anyone who deviates from it, in fact, is dismissed as part of the “blame America first” crowd. Thanks to its reckoning, Germany is freer now, while we, reckoning with nothing, are trapped by our optimistic account of everything we've ever done.

Will be interesting to see how the Senate Torture Report, released today, affects these trends. I assume not much.

No tagsPosted at 12:45 PM on Dec 09, 2014 in category U.S. History
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Monday December 08, 2014

Who Humiliated Kate Hepburn for Her Careerism? It was You and Me

The fault with the movies, dear reader, is not with the stars, or even with the studios, but with ourselves. From Mark Harris' “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War”:

The weekend of Pearl Harbor, [director George] Stevens was coming off a disappointing test screening of Woman of the Year. His producer at MGM, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, had told him that audiences had rejected the movie’s last scene, in which Hepburn and Tracy reconciled while covering a prizefight. They wanted to see Hepburn brought low, humiliated for her careerism. Reluctantly, he was preparing to shoot a new ending, in which Tess was to be shamed by her inability to find her way around a kitchen and cook a simple breakfast.

Hepburn supposedly hated the new ending, and from today's perspective it certainly seems odd. 

What else have test screenings and market research got wrong? A lot. (See “market research” tag below.) They forced a new ending on the otherwise beautiful “Magnificent Ambersons.” They were against Clint Eastwood teaming with an orangutan, as well as most everything about “Pulp Fiction.” They gave low ratings to, among other TV shows, “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Seinfeld” and both the UK and US versions of “The Office” Basically, if it was new they were agin it. Which is why, if you want to make a mark, you never listen to market research. You listen to your gut. And by “you” I mean “me.”

Katherine Hepburn makes breakfast in "Woman of the Year"

Brought low. Shamed. 

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Posted at 06:48 PM on Dec 08, 2014 in category Books
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Quote of the Day

“Did you ever see the Tom Cruise/Emily Blunt movie 'Edge of Tomorrow'? Two reasons I might recommend it: If you like strong, interesting female characters, and if you like to watch Tom Cruise die.”

-- Uncle Vinny, via email. My review of the movie isn't nearly as clever.

Edge of Tomorrow

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Posted at 02:30 PM on Dec 08, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Dear White People (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Let’s look at two lines spoken by two different characters in the movie.

The first comes from “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Paris, Dawn Chambers of “Mad Men”), a pretty black girl who, in the Ivy League setting of Winchester University, wears blue contact lenses, a straight-haired wig, and wants a “Gosling” not a “Denzel.” She’s being interviewed for a possible role on a reality TV series, which she wants desperately, and she’s putting on airs. She says she’s from Hyde Park in Chicago, and when the (black) producer asks where exactly, she says 78th Street. That’s South Side, he says. He tries to get her to own up but she backs away. “Hey, there is nothing ’hood about me,” she says. He winds up rejecting her for the show. (Showing what an idiot he is: she would be perfect.)

The second line is spoken by one of the doofus white fratboys, who wind up, in the movie’s final act, putting on a hip-hop party where white students dress in blackface. Dear White PeopleThis is before that. He’s simply talking to, I believe, Coco, and dropping hip-hop slang and gangsta talk to impress her. After she dryly asks him where he’s from—Ohio?—he drops the pose for a moment. “I’m actually from Vermont,” he says. Then, attempting to recover some cachet, “but the west side.”

That line actually made me laugh. Coco’s didn’t but his did. Why is that? They’re basically involved in the same act—denying where they’re from, trying to be what they’re not—but hers is tragedy and his is farce. Because she’s female and he’s male? Because she’s a fully realized character and he isn’t? Because girls pretending they come from wealth is the stuff of melodrama while guys pretending they’re tougher than they are is the stuff of Bob Hope?

Either way, it makes you wonder: In a country where the races want to be each other this much, shouldn’t we get along more?

Or is that why we don’t get along more?

School days
I wish “Dear White People” were better. It feels young. It’s provocative, like the title, but not particularly informative. Also derivative. See “School Daze.” Which was released, remember, 30 years ago.

Sam White (Tessa Thompson) a “Lisa Bonet-looking wannabe” according to Coco, is both film student and campus provocateur. She hosts a campus radio show, “Dear White People,” in which she dispenses advice to her title characters:

  • You now need two black friends to not be racist.
  • Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.
  • Quit touching our hair.

(I’ve heard this last complaint forever, but who does that exactly? In the movie, it’s just white girls, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in reality it’s just white girls. Or some white girls. Whoever’s doing it, stop it already.)

Sam, like everyone, has secrets. Her father’s white, she’s dating a white guy (her film studies T.A.), and she likes Taylor Swift. (“I was so careful,” she whispers under her breath when confronted—a good bit.) And is her heart really into the neo-black power shtick? How much is her and how much is Rovian right-hand man Reggie (Marque Richardson)?

Reggie, after all, is the one who pushes her to run for president of the black campus fraternity against the son of the dean, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), a studly, going-along-to-get-along dude who just wants to smoke pot now and again and write for the campus satirical magazine—even though he doesn’t have an ounce of humor in him.

Other characters include the rich white guy, Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), son of the university president, whose sister is dating Lionel, and who articulates the Fox News point of view: that the toughest thing to be in the American workplace these days is an educated white guy. Yawn.

The most interesting character, particularly early on, is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams, Chris of “Everybody Hates Chris”), the dude in the poster, who doesn’t have a group; he doesn’t even have a place to live. Beneath his massive ‘fro, he’s reserved, gay, apolitical. One imagines he’s like writer-director Justin Simien, who’s reserved, gay, but less apolitical. But then the journey Lionel takes is from apolitics to politics. He gets politics even as Sam loses hers. (Or, per Scorsese, she changes from iconoclast to smuggler.) It’s a little like Mookie in “Do the Right Thing,” except instead of tossing a garbage can through a window, he pulls down speakers at the black-face fraternity party.

Do we do the Spike Lee thing yet? Do we compare and contrast with “School Daze”? I actually think Simien’s debut effort is a better movie, with a better story and a better ending, but “School Daze” was like nothing else before it. It was a dirty bomb that exploded in a portion of the culture. It talked about things the culture didn’t talk about—the whole light skin/black skin, good hair/bad hair dynamic as revealed on a historically black Southern college during the days of Reagan and Apartheid protests.

Many of the characters in “Dear White People” would actually fit pretty easily on the Mission College campus. Sam and Reggie are some combination of Larry Fisburne’s Dap, Coco is one of the wannabes, Kurt (now white) is Dean Big Brother Almighty. They’re just less cartoonish here. At the same time, Lee includes a great scene that resonates beyond the decades: the confrontation between Dap and the locals in the parking lot of a fast-food joint. I’m white and northern, not black and southern, but I identified. Half my high school/college days seemed to involve unnecessary confrontations with jerks in parking lots.

Nothing like that in “Dear White People.” Do we even get off campus? Is the movie theater off campus? The black kids protest that the only black movies available are Tyler Perry movies. The vignette is a total Spike Lee ripoff—outrage played to comic effect—but all I could think was: Why are you telling this to the ticketseller? Poor, minimum-wage-earning schmuck.

Wakey wakey
But Simien does provide a wake-up call. Lee gave us literal ones that didn’t work, while Simien gives us a metaphoric one that does.

During the black-face, hip-hop party, which he filmed in nightmarish slow-mo, I kept thinking, “Right, didn’t this happen somewhere? Didn’t some white fraternity do this?” And during the end credits, we get the reveal via newspaper headlines: Dartmouth. Then Simien reveals another. And another. And another. He gives us half a dozen headlines from half a dozen universities on this very phenomenon. Revealing that if racism isn’t alive on college campuses, at least massive historical ignorance is.

The best part of the movie for me? The humor, as in the scene (1:50 in the trailer) where Sam argues with her secret white boyfriend, Gabe (Justin Dobies), even as Reggie and company are knocking on the door:

Gabe: I’m sick of your tragic mulatto bullshit.
Sam: You can’t say mulatto.
Gabe (angry): Mulatto! Mulatto! Mulatto!
Reggie (outside): Did somebody say mulatto?

I’d like to see more of this. Humor, after all, is often saying the thing what many are thinking but few are saying. It’s the ultimate smuggler. 

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Posted at 05:56 AM on Dec 08, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Sunday December 07, 2014

Quote of the Day

“I am an old-fashioned man in a new-fashioned world, which is reason enough to step aside, though, while doing so, to argue for the continuing value and pertinence of much that is old-fashioned, above all the carefully, scrupulously written word.”

 --Jonathan Yardley, a journalist for 50+ years, and a book reviewer for The Washington Post since 1981, in his retirement notice to Post readers. I remain grateful to Yardley for his review of David Shields' “Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season.” I had reviewed it for The Seattle Timesnegatively—and there was some sense that I had been too harsh on the man, who was, after all, a University of Washington professor. Then I read Yardley's review, which made mine seem like it was written by Shields' grandmother. I agree with almost everything he says in his retirement notice. It's a classy exit. 

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Posted at 05:52 PM on Dec 07, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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And the 2014 Best Picture Goes to ...

2014 best picture candidates

Rather than do individual posts for the best picture awards given out by critics' groups and/or industry groups for the 2014 season, I thought I'd just list them here and update periodically. 

The parenthetical number next to the group/review/circle/society/association is the number of times its best pic agreed with the Academy's best pic since 2000. In some ways, the less often they agree, the more I respect them, since the Academy has made some pretty blisteringly awful choices. 

Here they are, listed in more or less the order the award was announced.

Chicago has agreed with the Academy most often, by the way, because it also chose “Crash” as its best picture of 2005. For which I blame the late, great Roger Ebert

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Posted at 03:50 PM on Dec 07, 2014 in category Movies - Awards
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Lancelot Links

  • If you're like me, you've been wondering lo these many month, Hey, what's up with the Captain? You know, Mr. Movember? What exactly is Derek Jeter doing in retirement? Answer? He's created a website, The Players' Tribune, “that will present the unfiltered voices of professional athletes.” It will also put more sportswriters out of work. By happenstance or design? 
  • Bigger question: Is it any good? What do the unfiltered voices of professional athletes sound like? Charles P. Pierce over at Grantland has an amusing take—particularly regarding Tiger Woods' profound humorlessness.
  • Now for some “Jeopardy.” And the answer is? Didi Gregorius. DING. Bob? “Who is the Yankees' attempt to replace Derek Jeter at shortstop?” Correct, you now have control of the board. (Yankee fans, I assume, are not impressed.) 
  • Since it's December, that means it's awards/lists season. For everything. Sight & Sound out of Great Britain drops its top 20 of 2014, based on votes by 50 critics. I agree with their first but not their fifth. “Ida” barely squeaks into the top 10. And no mention at all of “The Drop” or “Fury”? 
  • Closer to home, the New York Film Critics Circle chose “Boyhood” for its best pic (can't complain), while the National Board of Review upended its usual twee-ness and went with J.C. Chandor's “A Most Violent Year” (haven't seen). Meanwhile the Boston Online Film Critics Assocation did the notion of online critics no favors by choosing “Snowpiercer” as its best. There'll be more to come.  
  • The New York Times lists its “100 Notable Books of 2014,” of which I've read approximately ... one. “The Invisible Bridge” by Rick Perlstein. Wait, no “Flash Boys”? No “Five Came Back”? No “John Wayne: The Life the Legend” or “Hack Attack”? Tough crowd. 
  • With its Hall of Fame votes, the Baseball Writers Association of America does two things: determines who gets in the Hall (>75% of the vote) and who will be on the ballot next year (>5% of the vote). Joe Posnanski would like to change the way they do both.
  • At 39, Torii Hunter has signed with the Minnesota Twins, his original team, and in his first press conference disparaged the notion of sabermetrics and advanced defensive metrics as a means of calculating his defensive prowess, which was once one of the best in all of baseball. Now he thinks he's still above average. Joe Posnanski sympathizes but doesn't exactly agree
  • The Harvard Exit, where I saw the first movie I saw in Seattle (way back in 1991), and which I go to at least once a month, is closing. The Landmark chain is apparently also closing the Varsity Theater in the U District. Just how many movie theaters can SIFF save?
  • Tim Egan's excellent piece on the lack of respect accorded Pres. Obama, and how could it not be based on race?
  • The rape scandal at the University of Virigina as reported in Rolling Stone magazine has become the Rolling Stone factcheck scandal. Richard Bradley, once suckered by Stephen Glass, was the first to raise dispassionate objections to the reporting.   
  • I shouldn't feel this way—so many lives have been upended, after all—but I do love the contretemps at The New Republic. Facebook founder buys it, promises no change. Two years later, hires digital-media yahoo to change it. Yahoo butts heads with editor, who resigns. A day later, almost everyone at the magazine resigns. It's hard out there for a journalist but they all still did it rather than take that crap anymore. A round of applause, please.  
  • Finally, your long read of the week: George Packer's excellent profile of German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “The Quiet German”: her rise, her reserve, her scientific mind and political ruthlessness, her ability to unman macho men, and how her very popularity may be a threat to a nascent German democracy.

Torii Hunter robs Casey Blake of home run in 2003

He actually makes this catch: Torii Hunter robs Casey Blake in 2003.

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Posted at 08:31 AM on Dec 07, 2014 in category Lancelot Links
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Saturday December 06, 2014

Quote of the Year

“We know President Obama wants a lasting deal on immigration, something to make taxes fairer, a little help from a caveman Congress on climate change. If he’s lucky, he might get some of the above. But one thing his worst opponents have never given him, and probably never will, is respect. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

”From the day he took office, his legitimacy has been challenged, his American birth has been suspect, and he’s been personally insulted, lectured, yelled at and disrespected in public, by public figures, in a way that few if any American presidents have ever faced.“

-- Timothy Egan, ”A Deficit of Dignity,“ in The New York Times. Further reading from The Atlanta Black Star: ”The 10 Most Disrespectful Moments for Michelle and Barack Obama."

No respect for Obama

Wilson, Brewer, Munro. 

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Posted at 07:15 AM on Dec 06, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday December 05, 2014

Quote of the Day

“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in [alleged rape victim] Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account.”

-- Will Dana, Managing Editor, Rolling Stone, in “A Note to Our Readers,” as the magazine retracted at least part of its story on a gang rape, and rape culture, on the University of Virginia campus. One of the first to suggest potential problems with the story was Richard Bradley, editor in chief of Worth magazine, who, when he was an editor at George magazine in the 1990s, worked with Stephen Glass on a number of his fabricated stories and was taken in. His original post from Nov. 24 drew angry criticism from many, who are now posting their own mea culpas.

No tagsPosted at 03:30 PM on Dec 05, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Mass Resignations at The New Republic: Journalists Attempt to Disrupt 'Disruptive Innovation' Yahoo

Shakeup at the New Republic

I first came across this story last night via Dylan Byer's piece, “Implosion of a Washington Institution,” on the Politico site. It was a trickle then. Aujourd'hui? Le deluge.

Background: In March 2012, Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook (played by Patrick Mapel in the movie), bought The New Republic, a venerable, left-leaning, DC-based, long-form magazine. His plans? From The New York Times back then:

Mr. Hughes said he was motivated by an interest in “the future of high-quality long-form journalism” and by an instinct that such journalism was a natural fit for tablets. He said he would “expand the amount of rigorous reporting and solid analysis” that the magazine produces.

This September he hired Guy Vidra, the general manager of Yahoo News, as his CEO, and Vidra didn't say those things. Even in TNR's press release that day, Vidra talked up the following: “new products,” “new categories,” “new approaches.”

He kept his word. From Byer:

In meetings with staff, he spoke of the magazine as though it were a Silicon Valley startup, sources said. He talked about 'disruption' and said he wanted to 'break shit.' He referred to himself as a 'wartime CEO.' At one point, he proposed giving every employee shares in the company, suggesting that he had plans to make it public.

Sources said that Vidra also showed little regard for [editor Franklin] Foer or his writers. In a meeting held in November, he made it clear to staff that he found the magazine boring and had stopped reading longform articles. Three weeks later, at the magazine’s 100-year anniversary gala — a star-studded, black-tie affair featuring speeches from former President Bill Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — Vidra mispronounced Foer’s name while introducing him to the audience. (He pronounced “Foer” as “Foyer.”)

Yesterday, it was announced that both Foer and longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier were leaving.

And today? Exodus of Biblical (or at least literary) proportions.

Also this, per Ryan Lizza.

Will be interesting to see where it all goes. I wouldn't mind it going further. I wouldn't mind it disrupting the disruptive innovators in more industries.

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Posted at 09:09 AM on Dec 05, 2014 in category Media
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Movie Review: St. Vincent (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Theodore Melfi’s debut feature, “St. Vincent,” is like the “Me and Julio” scene from “Royal Tenenbaums” for an entire movie. It’s a curmudgeon, Vincent (Bill Murray), teaching a polite kid, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher, a real find), how to, in Royal’s phrase, take it out and chop it up.

Vincent takes Oliver to the racetrack and a bar. He hangs out with a lady of the evening, Daka (Naomi Watts), who’s hot and Russian and pregnant. He teaches Oliver, who’s being picked on at school, how to fight. He feeds him sardines and calls it sushi, they tool around in Vincent’s 1983 wood-paneled Chrysler LeBaron convertible, and after they win the Trifecta at the racetrack they celebrate with ice cream cones, wearing matching gangster bandanas and listening in slow-mo to a song from Bronze Radio Return on the soundtrack.

Basically it’s an idealized portrait of a kid (who has a big heart and a curiosity for the world), and a dyspeptic portrait of an adult (who has a bitter heart and just wants to be left alone), but it works. St. VincentIt’s charming. I laughed a lot.

Make no mistake, though: it’s the kid who makes the movie. Murray’s been getting a lot of attention but it’s the kid, Jaeden Lieberher, who gets my laughs.

Thank you?
This exchange for example (1:11 in the trailer). It’s just before Vincent, with a cigarette in one hand and a stiff drink in the other, tries to teach the kid how to defend himself:

Oliver: I’m small, if you haven’t noticed.
Murray: So was Hitler.
Oliver: [pause, realization] That’s a horrible comparison. 

The Hitler line is absurd, so it’s Oliver’s genuine reaction to it that’s funny. See also: “She works at night” in the trailer. There’s a genuineness to Liberher acting that makes it work. He’s got to seem like a kid and he does.

He also gives us one of the best prayers I’ve ever heard.

Oliver and his mom, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, underplaying), arrive in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, after she finds her husband sleeping with everyone in town, and while she works days (and some nights) as a nurse at a hospital, he attends St. Patrick’s Elementary School. She wants him to get a quality education. But on the first day, the teacher, Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd, a standout in a small role), asks him to lead the class in prayer. Oliver, in a straightforward small voice: “I think I’m Jewish.” But this is 2014, the school is diverse—that one’s Muslim, she’s agnostic, he’s Hindu—and so Oliver has to do it anyway. He bows his head:

Dear God.
Thank you?
Amen.

That’s my new prayer.

Because Maggie’s busy—she’s also being sued by her ex for joint custody—she pays Vincent $12 an hour to watch the kid. “Watching” means the above—the taking it out and chopping it up. Also sitting in Vincent’s dirty, cramped house and watching old TV. I was depressed by Vincent’s shows—reminiscent of Schmidt watching awful late-1960s Bob Hope comedies in “About Schmidt”—but then Oliver starts giggling along to Abbott and Costello, and that redeemed it all. “Are they old?” he asks. “No, they’re dead,” Vincent answers. “That’s as old as you can be.”

Critics have accused Murray of playing cute here but Vincent is pretty much an asshole. Sure, he is going broke because he keeps his wife, suffering from dementia, in a high-end assisted living facility and does her laundry on weekends. But that’s his one redeeming quality. He owes the assisted care facility, he owes a bookie, he owes the bar, he owes Daka. When the assisted care facility demands its money, Vincent takes Oliver’s Trifecta winnings, $2700, and blows it on another Trifecta. He never pays it back. He’s never even referenced again.

But he has his luck. Or “luck.” When the bookie (a rumpled Terrence Howard) is about to hurt him, he has a stroke. As his wife is about to be moved to a worse facility, she dies.

Yes, thank you
So why the title? Because during Brother Geraghty’s discussion of saints, he gives the class an assignment to research and write about a modern-day person who may or may not qualify for sainthood. Oliver chooses Vincent, even though the “chopping it up,” photographed by a private dick, has led to joint custody with Oliver’s dad, David—who, in a nice touch, turns out to be a bland, bald, seemingly sympathetic dude (Scott Adsit). Oliver researches well. He finds info and photos. He tells the assembly that Vincent was born in Sheepshead Bay in 1946, grew up on its tough streets, went to Vietnam, saved the lives of many men. He cared for his wife in her senescence. He taught Oliver how to fight.

The lesson is really the lesson of “It’s a Wonderful Life”: that everyone’s life is remarkable when you look deeply enough. Also the lesson of “To Kill a Mockingbird”: You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around a little.

Even so, Vincent’s hardly a saint. The kid, though? Sure. The kid’s too good to be true. 

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Posted at 05:31 AM on Dec 05, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Thursday December 04, 2014

Quote of the Day

“The stilted conversations that have followed these tragedies [Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin] have largely focussed on the meaning and implications of the nonsensical phrase “racial profiling.” Nothing better illustrates the slick, manipulative power of euphemism than the fact that our dialogue takes seriously this non-term. There is no such thing as “racial profiling”—there is simply racism. What subsequent action, what logical end, does racial profiling produce that abject racism would not? The supposed definition of “racial profiling”—that the alleged behavior of any fragment of a population becomes the basis for categorizing it in its sum, that epidermal hues are a valid means of reflexively predicting character—is what we, in more honest moments in our past, simply referred to as racism.”

-- Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker, in his post “No Such Thing as Racial Profiling.” He also has a good breakdown of Pres. Obama's comments after each incident. 

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Posted at 05:52 PM on Dec 04, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Christoph Waltz is the New James Bond Villain. What Does He Have in Common with the Last One?

Christoph Waltz

Heeeeere's Blofeld! Another foreign actor goes from best supporting actor to Bond villain. 

Apparently we have a new James Bond villain for the 2015 Bond movie, “Spectre.” Apparently it's Christoph Waltz. Shocking casting.

This would be, what, the fourth Bond movie since the Daniel Craig reboot? So who have been the Bond villains and who have been the Bond girls during this period, and where have they come from? 

Glad you asked. 

Year Bond Movie Bond Girl Country Bond Villain Country
2006 Casino Royale Eva Green France Mads Mikkelson Denmark
2008 Quantum of Solace Olga Kurylenko Ukraine Mathieu Amalric France
2012 Skyfall Berenice Marlohe France Javier Bardem  Spain
2015 Spectre Lea Seydoux France Christoph Waltz Austria

Lesson? Both bad guys and sexy broads come from someplace else but sexy broads come mostly from France. Bad guys? They're from anywhere. Anywhere except the UK and the USA.

How does this compare with the previous Bond incarnation, by the way? The pre-9/11 Bond played by Pierce Brosnan?

Glad you asked.

Year Bond Movie Bond Girl Country Bond Villain Country
1995 GoldenEye Izabella Scorupco Poland Sean Bean UK
1997 Tomorrow Never Dies Michelle Yeoh Malyasian Jonathan Pryce UK
1999 The World is Not Enough Denise Richards USA Robert Carlyle UK
2002 Die Another Day Halle Berry USA Toby Stephens UK

A bit different. Pre-9/11.

For what it's worth, the last time an American played the Bond villain was in 1989's “Licence to Kill,” which, as Bond movies go, kinda tanked. Robert Davi was the actor. And the last Brit to be Bond girl? Maryam d'Abo in 1987's “The Living Daylights.” 

Even so, French girls and sinister foreigners (West European) isn't a bad model for the new Bonds. And even better if the sinister foreigners have recently won a best supporting actor Oscar, as the two most recent Bond villains have. 

So which other recent best supporting actor winners might make a good Bond villain? 

Glad you asked. Here are the recent winners:

  • Jared Leto
  • Christopher Plummer
  • Christian Bale
  • Alan Arkin
  • George Clooney
  • Morgan Freeman
  • Tim Robbins
  • Chris Cooper

Bale would be great. So would Freeman. Imagine him applying his twinkly smile and smooth baritone to the villain's role. But if you want the full Monty—best supporting actor and non-US and UK national—you have one choice in the 21st century, Benecio del Toro, who played a memorable but small-time punk in the last Timothy Dalton Bond movie. Before del Toro, you'd have to reach all the way back to 1984 and Haing S. Noir, who died by 1996 at the age of 55. Apparently non-USA and UK actors tend not to win best supporting actor. 

So I guess the ultimate lesson from this dip into Oscar and Bond history is that while foreign best supporting actors may make great Bond villains, they're few and far between. 

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Posted at 01:05 PM on Dec 04, 2014 in category Movies
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National Board of Review Picks J.C. Chandor's 'A Most Violent Year' as the Best Movie of 2014

A Most Violent Year

Oscar Isaac in “A Most Violent Year.”

A day after the New York Film Critics Circle annointed “Boyhood” the best movie of the year, it's the National Board of Review's turn. And that organization, in existence since 1909, went with a movie I've heard good things about even if I haven't heard a release date yet: “A Most Violent Year,” written and directed by J.C. Chandor (“All Is Lost,” “Margin Call”), and starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. I know Jeff Wells is high on it, for one. 

As is its wont, NBR also listed its top 10 films:

Wait. That's #s 2-11, isn't it? Because “A Most Violent Year” isn't on it. 

Here's the rest of their awards. See if you can't figure out what's odd about the list:

  • Best Film: A Most Violent Year
  • Best Director: Clint Eastwood – American Sniper
  • Best Actor (TIE): Oscar Isaac – A Most Violent Year; Michael Keaton – Birdman
  • Best Actress: Julianne Moore – Still Alice
  • Best Supporting Actor: Edward Norton – Birdman
  • Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year
  • Best Original Screenplay: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller – The Lego Movie
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson – Inherent Vice
  • Best Animated Feature: How to Train Your Dragon 2
  • Breakthrough Performance: Jack O’Connell – Starred Up & Unbroken
  • Best Directorial Debut: Gillian Robespierre – Obvious Child
  • Best Foreign Language Film: Wild Tales
  • Best Documentary: Life Itself
  • William K. Everson Film History Award: Scott Eyman
  • Best Ensemble: Fury
  • Spotlight Award: Chris Rock for writing, directing, and starring in – Top Five
  • NBR Freedom of Expression Award: Rosewater
  • NBR Freedom of Expression Award: Selma

Yeah, it goes on a bit long, but that's not what I'm talking about. Here's what I'm talking about: How can “How to Train Your Dragon 2” be the best animated feature when it didn't make the top 10 (or #s 2-11) and “The LEGO Movie” did?  

As for what this means for the Oscar race? Not much. In the 21st century, NBR has picked the same best picture as the Academy two times out of 14 tries. In reverse chronological order, NBR went: Her, Zero Dark Thirty, Hugo, The Social Network, Up in the Air, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, Letters from Iwo Jima, Good Night and Good Luck, Find Neverland, Mystic River, The Hours, Moulin Rouge, Quills.

To be honest, I always thought of it as a squishy organization: “Neverland” and “Good Night and Good Luck” and all that. Looks like it's taken a violent turn. Or it's got a thing for Jessica Chastain.

Oh, and the release date for “A Most Violent Year” is Dec. 31. Cutting it close, A24.

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Posted at 07:51 AM on Dec 04, 2014 in category Movies - Awards
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Wednesday December 03, 2014

Quote of the Day

“So to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, 'Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.' It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”

-- Chris Rock in his Q&A with Frank Rich in New York Magazine. Read the whole thing. It's the best Q&A I've read in years. Almost everything he says, on any subject, is poignant and spot-on. He's better here than he's been in his recent stand-up. I could pluck 20 QOTDs from this one Q&A—on Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, why “Lost in Translation” is a rich black guy's movie—but the above just seemed too perfect to pass up.

Chris Rock on Obama

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Posted at 01:14 PM on Dec 03, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: The Theory of Everything (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Ohhh. Based on the book by Jane Hawking.

I assumed “The Theory of Everything” was mostly about Dr. Stephen Hawking, his cosmic theories, and his battle with ALS—with a bit of romance and relationship tossed in. And that’s how it goes for, say, the first third of the movie, which is the most interesting part.

After that, it’s mostly about the relationship. Specifically, it’s about the deterioration of the relationship: how Jane (Felicity Jones) gets fed up with caring for the kids and Stephen; how she doesn’t have time for her own work—something to do with medieval Spanish poetry—and how he doesn’t even believe in God, even though she does, and so she returns to the church choir, where, look! My, what a handsome man! Hey, isn’t that the same dude who romanced Margaret away from Nucky in “Boardwalk Empire”? Is actor Charlie Cox doomed to play The Other Man? The one who lures women into affairs with a simple smile? (Yes.)

As for the point of Hawking? Our place in the cosmos? The meaning of time and space? Whatever, Brainiac. Read a book already.

In this way “The Theory of Everything” is the Carrie Bradshaw of movie biopics. They make it all about her.

Two years to live
At Cambridge in 1963, Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), sporting a Beatles haircut a year early, meets and romances Jane (Felicity Jones), stumbles and knocks things over, and is a genius. The Theory of EverythingThis last is dramatized with the usual cinematic shorthand. His professor, Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis), gives his Ph.D. students 10 increasingly difficult questions to answer, and Stephen, mooning over Jane, doesn’t get to them until the morning they’re due. Then he arrives late to class, where the professor is berating the students for their inability to make any headway. Stephen, apologizing, hands over his answers on the back of a train timetable. “I could only do nine,” he says. Everyone looks at him in astonishment.

See? Genius.

It’s kind of fun, actually. It’s like the revelation of a super power, but for awards season. Spring and summer are all about the superstrong and superfast, but in the fall we get the supersmart. As well as the achingly British.

From there, Prof. Sciama takes him to see an even more brilliant scientist, Roger Penrose (Christian McKay from “Me and Orson Welles”), who explains to everyone—mostly us—what black holes are. And from this discussion, Stephen extrapolates back to the origins of the universe and the big bang theory.

I like this part. I like the beginning of the romance, too. Their first discussion at a Cambridge mixer makes Hemingway seem verbose:

He: Sciences?
She: Arts.
He: English?
She: French and Spanish

He tries to explain to her—and us—what he does. He’s searching for a “single unified equation that explains everything in the universe.” (Obvious unasked follow-up: Why do you think it exists?)

Then the big fall on campus that leads to the discovery that he has a motor-neuron disease. Signals from his brain are no longer getting to his muscles; it’s as if the two stop talking. (A good metaphor that the film could use later but doesn’t.) We get another good scene with his lifelong friend, Brian (Harry Lloyd), who simply thinks Stephen’s had a bad fall.

Stephen: I have two years to live.
Brian: Sorry?
Stephen: It does sound odd when you say it aloud.

This actually reminded me of a moment in my own life. About 10 years ago, I showed up late for work because I was visiting a friend in the hospital. My manager, a good guy, came around and, as a prelude to getting to the business at hand, the stupid tasks we needed to complete before shipping a product, asked, with a smile, how my friend was—and he was met with my wrecked face and voice. My friend had had a stroke; he was in a coma; he wouldn’t recover. The movie captures that awkwardness when we’re met with that blunt reality of finality. When life doesn’t continue.

But here life continues.

Or more
That’s astonishing, isn’t it? Lou Gehrig, for whom the disease is named, played a full season in 1938 but managed only eight games in 1939 before being diagnosed with ALS. He died in June 1941. He was an exceptional athlete and one of the strongest men in the game—nicknamed “The Iron Horse”—but he only lasted two years after diagnosis. Hawking keeps on.

Isn’t this something to be celebrated? In the movie, to Jane, it’s simply annoying. I think she even implies that she only got on board because the marriage was supposed to be a two-year stint. “This will not be a fight, Jane,” Hawking’s father, Frank (Simon McBurney), says early in the movie. “This will be a very heavy defeat.” But it isn’t—at least not the way they anticipate. It’s a heavy defeat not in the exceptional but in the quotidian. Which is the thing that outdoes most of us.

Here’s the oddity: the film focuses way too much on her but it’s still unfair to her. Because we don’t see all the work that goes into caring for their two, then three kids, as well as Hawking. There he is in bed: happy, clean. But how did he get in bed? How did he get clean? How did he go to the bathroom? Who wiped him?

Instead, there’s Jane, angry, and Charlie Cox, and all that sexual tension. While she dallies in a tent, Hawking goes off to France for a conference, contracts pneumonia and is near death. The doctors recommend shutting off his life support, but Jane, spent, with another iron in the fire, still refuses. So: tracheotomy and slow recovery and the loss of his speech and the voicebox with the American accent. He also finally gets round-the-clock nursing care in the form of Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), who exudes sexuality. It’s like a wave—whoosh—and it washes away what’s left of Jane and Stephen’s relationship.

Redmayne’s performance is superb, by the way. “At times,” Hawking has said, “I thought he was me.” Director James Marsh also directed “Man on Wire” and an episode of “Red Riding,” while screenwriter Anthony McCarten wrote “Death of a Superhero,” about a 15-year-old boy with a life-threatening illness. So it should work, shouldn’t it?

It doesn’t. It doesn’t have enough curiosity about the things Hawking is curious about. After a time, it stops looking up at the stars. The movie isn’t a fight, it’s just a very sad defeat. 

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Posted at 05:29 AM on Dec 03, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday December 02, 2014

Academy Winnows Best Documentary Feature to 15, Including 'CitizenFour' and 'Life Itself'

Life Itself: Our Roger Wins Pulitizer

Our Roger wins best documentary feature?

I don't know if you know, but the Academy's documentary branch always sees fit to winnow the nonfiction possibilities down to 15 before arriving at the five documentary nominees, announced in January, from which they choose, of course, the one: best documentary feature.

Well, today they winnowed to 15:

  • “Art and Craft,” Purple Parrot Films
  • “The Case Against 8,” Day in Court
  • “Citizen Koch,” Elsewhere Films
  • “CitizenFour,” Praxis Films
  • “Finding Vivian Maier,” Ravine Pictures
  • “The Internet’s Own Boy,” Luminant Media
  • “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” City Film
  • “Keep on Keepin’ On,” Absolute Clay Productions
  • “The Kill Team,” f/8 filmworks
  • “Last Days in Vietnam,” Moxie Firecracker Films
  • “Life Itself,” Kartemquin Films and Film Rites
  • “The Overnighters,” Mile End Films West
  • “The Salt of the Earth,” Decia Films
  • “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” Lafayette Film
  • “Virunga,” Grain Media

I've seen five: the four that are linked to my reviews, and “The Case Against 8,” which, I suppose, could be linked to this interview I did in January—shortly after the doc premiered at Sundance. 

It's not a bad group. What's missing? “The Unknown Known,” Errol Morris' mixed but still powerful doc on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. 

Among the docs I've seen, I'd probably vote for “Life Itself.” Does it have a shot? Maybe. I don't believe in the make-up vote, but director Steve James was royally reamed when his doc “Hoop Dreams” wasn't even nominated in 1994—a travesty that Roger and Gene (among others) let the world know about. How delicious if Steve's doc on Roger made up for that?

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Posted at 06:05 PM on Dec 02, 2014 in category Movies - The Oscars
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'Invisible Bridge' Author Rick Perlstein on 'Rocky,' 'Roots,' and Whether Reaganism Needed Reagan

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

A few weeks ago I Skyped an interview with Rick Perlstein, author of a series of acclaimed books on the rise of the far right in America: “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and The Unmaking of the American Consensus,” “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America,” and now “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.” You can see video of the interview here. What follows is the transcript of that interview, edited and condensed. 

Q: Two threads seem to work their way through “The Invisible Bridge.“ One is how the various crises of the 1970s—Vietnam, Watergate, oil—give us the opportunity to reckon with the less palatable aspects of our history, and to mature, hopefully. The other is the rise of Ronald Reagan, who, for his entire life, did the opposite: reduced moral complexity to moral simplicity. So do we blame Reagan for blunting this opportunity for us as a country to mature?
Perlstein: Well, you know Erik, they make me put those Presidents on the cover of the books because they sell. The books are really about us, the electorate. I’m interested in why we choose these people. Why we rescue them from obscurity and turned them into our leaders. I’m really influenced by John MacGregor Burns, the late political scientist. He wrote this big book called “Leadership,” and it’s basically a whole book about how leaders emerge when these powerfully charismatic people match the unconscious longings of a national public.

So it’s not just Reagan. The book is about a confrontation between those two ways of thinking about America. Throughout, there’s this debate going on between the people who are saying, “Look, we need to change course and think about America’s role in the world in a different way,” and the people who are saying, “America’s the best country in the world, and always has been and always will be.” Even if Reagan had never been born, we still would’ve had, for example Gerald Ford a few months after the fall of Saigon, drumming up this “Remember the Maine” fake patriotic event of the Mayaguez—where he sends out a military mission to supposedly rescue these merchant seaman who didn’t need rescuing. He sends in B-52s and a Normandy-style invasion of some North Vietnamese island beach that ends up killing more American serviceman than the supposed merchant seaman they rescued. And he suddenly finds himself hailed as the new Caesar. Magazine covers are saying “America’s got its mojo back.”

It’s not just Reagan. It’s us.

Q: One reason I find this book particularly fascinating is that it mirrors in politics what I’ve observed in the movie industry. From about 1967 to 1977, our most popular movies were fairly morally complex. “The Godfather” was the No. 1 movie in 1972. “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the No. 2 movie of 1975. Adjust for inflation, and it grossed around $450 million.
Perlstein: I wish I had known that a few years ago, Erik.

Q: And it’s about a bunch of guys in a mental institution who rebel against...
Perlstein: Authority.

Q: Exactly. If it were made today it would get a limited release in New York, and LA.
Perlstein: Then comes “Jaws,” and then comes “Star Wars.”

Q: Well, “Rocky” was, I guess, the invisible bridge between those two. For awhile, we didn’t need the Hollywood ending in movies. “Rocky” began that change.
Perlstein: Right. It was all the sentiment that the public [at the time] could credibly stomach. He couldn’t win at the end—that was just too much. 

Q: So he went the distance. The first half almost looks like a 1970s movie. Very gritty. A down-and-out guy with mob connections; then it just turns into the feel-good story we all know.
Perlstein: Do you know Jefferson Cowie’s book “Staying Alive”? You’ll enjoy that a great deal. It’s a history of the working class in the ‘70s but brilliant stuff on “Rocky,” which was based on a real guy, Chuck Wepner. I didn’t write about it, but I will in the next book. The racial politics are fascinating because it was Don King basically saying, “Let’s give them a chance.” So he rescues this club fighter from Philadelphia, Chuck Wepner, from obscurity, sets him up as a sparring partner for Ali, and he goes the distance. Sylvester Stallone watched the Wepner fight on close-circuit TV, and in an amphetamine-fueled binge wrote the screenplay in like six straight hours. It was based on Wepner and the racial politics of the ‘70s—in which white guys were suddenly seeing themselves as objects of pity.

Rocky Balboa

The great (sshhh) white hope. 

Q: Eddie Murphy does great stuff on that in his comedy routines in the ‘80s.
Perlstein: Do you remember the jokes?

Q: Basically they're about the Italian guy at the movie theater who carries the “Rocky” fantasy out into the lobby.
Perlstein: For my next book I’ll have to figure out a way to work it in. I believe I recall reading somewhere that white guys hopped up on Rocky were committing hate crimes. And in the same way ... I remember sitting in the basement of the Renaissance bookstore in Milwaukee when I was 16 and reading Time magazine, and learning that when “Roots” came out, white kids were beating up black kids because they saw it as degraded slaves and black kids were beating up white kids because they saw them as sadistic masters. I’m fascinated by these kinds of divisions.

But the real story in “Roots”—that’s salient for my work—is you would think it would’ve inspired this great reckoning with America’s moral past. The same way Vietnam would inspire a reckoning with America being a policeman of the world and Watergate would inspire this reckoning with our reverence for our leaders. No. What it inspired was this genealogy fad in which white people wanted to do what Alex Haley did. There’s a whole book about it by this Harvard professor called “Roots, Too.” It’s like, “We have roots too!” It was in a way very reactionary. People tried to locate their own oppressed pasts, so they could claim the moral status as victims too. That’s a very Reagan movement.

Q: So I suppose the question isn’t why we returned to moral simplicity in the mid-’70s, but how we got interested in moral complexity in the first place.
Perlstein: That kind of goes unexamined in the book, but I think this was a product of the ‘60s generation. When I talk about the ‘60s generally, this gets into a paradox. We were the most prosperous society in history—you could burn down a building one day and show up in a suit for a job at IBM the next—because there was so much work and so much prosperity. So I think people had the confidence to be able to think about these kinds of difficult questions.

But the paradox is, by the ‘70s, even that prosperity dribbles away, and you just begin to see this very dark reckoning with broken institutions. It’s like here’s this very American pastime of driving your giant car as far as it’ll go and suddenly the price of fuel quadruples because of the inscrutable actions of oil sheiks 10,000 miles away. People didn’t even think of petroleum as a commodity. It was just there, like the air and the water.

Q: Right. And scary. If you’d told me back then that gas would still be available and relatively cheap in 2014, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Perlstein: Right. A lot of the success of Reaganism drafted on the exaggeration of the apocalyptic fears: we’re going to be eating leaves and grass and nuts and berries. One of the inanities of George Will as a climate change denier is that he’s able to go up on TV every week, on ABC, and say “Well in the ‘70s they were worried about global cooling.” Well, in the 70s they were worried about everything. You could write a book about any kind of apocalyptic theory and get a reasonable audience.

Apocalyptic books of the 1970s

'70s books: We've seen the future and it sucks.

Q: What’s your methodology in researching and writing these books? Do you just focus on a particular subject, like Patty Hearst, and read as much as you can about her?
Perlstein: It’s divided into two things. One is, yes, I know the big signposts and themes, like Patty Hearst, and research them in very specific ways: books, videos, films, whatever. But the other is very improvisational. I try to consume the kind of media that people in the time would consume. A lot of it is a stratified sample, right? It’s like I can’t read every newspaper every day. But, for example, doing my research now, I’ll do a search in a newspaper database for any time Ronald Reagan was mentioned in an article in 1977. When you do that you get a pretty good sample of all sorts of political articles. That helps fill in what the narrative is.

Of course, I do have to learn things that are completely unexpected.

In the case of articles about Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1977, of course there’s the issue of age. Is he going to run for President or is he too old? But he’s obviously making a bid for leadership of the Republican Party; and the first thing he has to do is deny that it’s his fault that Ford lost. It turns out that he basically boycotted campaigning for the Republican ticket in 1976. Whenever he gave a speech, he would almost never mention Ford, but he would mention the great Republican platform. Of course, the Republican platform was one that his followers forced on the party. So there are all sorts of fascinating politics around that.

Suddenly the storyline fills itself out. The first thing Reagan has to do is re-establish his credibility as a good Republican. That takes me in a direction. Suddenly I have the beginnings of an outline. History is about chronology—one thing follows another and there’s cause and effect—and tracing out those lines of causality, that’s how the content builds out to form, and the form is indicative of the content.

Q: As for consuming the media that we consumed at that time: Can you do that today and write the kinds of books you write, or are we too fragmented as a society? Back then we had national meeting places. We all visited with Walter Cronkite. Today? Not so much.
Perlstein: Well, it’s organized pretty nicely, right? It’s all automated. The proliferation of media can be very deceiving: Are there a million stories out there, or just there are a million versions of the same story? We had a pretty effective top-down propaganda campaign that got us into the war in Iraq. It didn’t seem like any of the powers-that-be had any trouble just instantiating into the mainstream of American thought a very specific narrative that they were able to get across as if they were doing it with just three networks and a few big newspapers. It’s not as if the kind of collective hive mind of America is going in truly different directions. There’s still some very solid common directions. There’s still patterns of commonality.

Q: And organizing forces.
Perlstein: Organizing forces, that’s right. So I’m not as dubious about that. I think that historians will have the creativity to turn this massive material into a shape, because it does have a shape. American society does have a direction and a valence. I look at the coral reef. I mean, yes it has a zillion different organisms on it, but obviously they’re not all heading in different directions. They’re creating a structure.

Q: How do you keep up with what’s going on in the world as you are writing about what’s happened in the past?
Perlstein: I’m not really a news junkie. I listen to NPR in the morning and I have a very few favorite blogs that I follow. I get The New Yorker, and they pile up in a corner like with everyone else; I get The New York Review of Books and they pile up in a corner. I listen to what people are saying. Henry James said a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost. So I just try and pay attention.

Q: Isn’t it odd how much this history, which goes back 50 years, includes the same arguments we’re having today?
Perlstein: Fifty years isn’t that long. If you think about the arguments people were having between 1870 and 1920, they were similar arguments: about how labor is going to work, and how machines are going to affect our lives.

Q: But it is interesting that in “The Invisible Bridge” you write about the textbook wars in West Virginia and now we’re having the same thing in Colorado. Except back then the conservative forces were outside protesting the liberal insiders. Now some of them ...
Perlstein: They managed to get a three-to-two majority on the board. Canal County had a five-person board and one conservative. The county in Colorado, Jefferson County, has a five-person board and they have three conservatives. That margin changes the politics. I guess, in a way, the history I’m telling you is how it turned from one conservative member and four liberal members to three conservative members and two liberal members.

Q: You’ve been attacked by the right for your portrayal of Ronald Reagan—you even got swift-boated, in a certain sense—but in a way you’re tougher on the Democrats.
Perlstein: I think that one of the big stories I’m telling is about how the Democrats have retreated from the New Deal tradition. That becomes very salient in the 1974 Watergate baby election, in which the most charismatic figure, Gary Hart, literally says that he’s opposed to the New Deal tradition. That’s a historical tragedy because this was just at the time in which 1920s-style inequality is beginning to ramp itself up. The one politician who seems to be talking about this and thinking about this, Hubert Humphrey, is seen as an embarrassment because he supported the Vietnam war, and he hangs out with all these unfashionable, blue-collar hard hat types.

Everyone remembers that in 1995 Bill Clinton gave us the “Age of big government is over” State of the Union address. People were talking about it like he was inventing something new, but Carter’s State of the Union address in 1978 was almost identical. The fact that Democrats are never going to get credit for moderation—they’ll always be the extremist, liberal party—is an important political lesson for us in the present. They might as well move left, because they’re going to get blamed for moving left whether they do or not.

Hubert Humphrey

HHH statue in downtown Minneapolis. The last of the hard-hat Democrats?

Q: So if Reagan had won the GOP nomination in ‘76, do you think he would have won the general election?
Perlstein: I think it was just a Democratic year. I think he probably would’ve lost the presidency and his political career might have been over. Then again, the Republicans have a history of nominating the next in line, and people get two bites of the apple. Certainly Richard Nixon did. So maybe things would’ve been exactly the same.

As I begin to look into the 1980 Republican nomination fight—this came as a surprise to me—basically all the candidates except for John Anderson were running as conservatives: George Bush, John Connally, Reagan. So I think Reaganism was a direction the country was going in whether Reagan was the guiding genius or not.

Q: How long do you keep doing this history? Are you going to end with Reagan’s victory in 1980?
Perlstein: His inauguration, because I find the period between his election and his inauguration really fascinating as people jockey for possession of Reagan’s mind. Then I’ll do something else. I don’t know what. Watch this space.

Ronald Reagan

”It's not just Reagan. It's us."

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Posted at 06:48 AM on Dec 02, 2014 in category Books
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Monday December 01, 2014

Quote of the Day

“Heroes can thrive only where ignorance reduces history to mythology. They cannot survive the coldly critical temper of modern thought when it is functioning normally, nor can they be worshipped by a generation which has every facility for determining their foibles and analyzing their limitations.”

-- Reinhold Niebuhr. Key phrase: “... when it is functioning normally.”

No tagsPosted at 05:13 PM on Dec 01, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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New York Film Critics Circle Announces 'Best of 2014' Awards: 'Boyhood,' 'Ida,' Cotillard

Richard Linklater's Boyood wins New York Film Critics Circle Award for best picture

The New York Film Critics Circle announced its 2014 awards today, and it's pretty much the movies that have been at the top of my best-to-worst rankings to the left for the past few months:

  • Best Picture – Boyhood
  • Best Director – Richard Linklater, Boyhood
  • Best First Film – Jennifer Kent, The Babadook
  • Best Actress – Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night.
  • Best Actor – Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
  • Best Cinematography – Darius Khondji, The Immigrant
  • Best Screenplay – The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Best Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
  • Best Supporting Actor – J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
  • Best Nonfiction Film – Citizenfour
  • Best Foreign Language Film – Ida
  • Best Animated Film – The Lego Movie

Haven't seen “The Babadook”—a horror film—nor “Mr. Turner” or “Whiplash,” but can't disagree with picture, actress, foreign language film and animated film. Love the nod to “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Citizenfour,” although I'm leaning toward “Life Itself” in the latter category. I'm also curious by the lack of talk surrounding Shia LeBeouf's great performance in “Fury.” And while I love Cotillard (now and always), “The Immigrant” is a disappointing film.

Overall, the NYFCC tends not to make bad choices. It's been around since 1935 and has awarded best pic in recent years to: American Hustle, Zero Dark Thirty, The Artist, The Social Network, The Hurt Locker, Milk, No Country for Old Men, United 93 and Brokeback Mountain.

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Posted at 11:03 AM on Dec 01, 2014 in category Movies - Awards
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Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“I know what you are,” the evil Pres. Snow (Donald Sutherland) tells our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), near the end of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1.” “I know you can’t see past your immediate concerns.”

Once again: He’s the awful villain here, she’s the great heroine. But for most of the movie, even for most of this franchise, he’s exactly right. Since the first “Hunger Games,” Katniss has been confronted with a tyrannical government that impoverishes the districts to reward the Capitol, and which manipulates and destroys lives, and through her reality-TV courage she’s inspired people to risk everything to fight back.

And how does she respond?

  • She has nightmares.
  • She worries over Peeta.
  • She needs nudging to hate the Capitol again.
  • She worries over Peeta.
  • Even after seeing the destruction of her district, with its mass graveyards, she needs to be tossed into battle to work up a proper fervor against the Capitol.
  • Quote: “Nobody hates the Capitol more than me. But if we win this war, what happens to Peeta?”

Pres. Snow was right. Hey, maybe we should be rooting for him.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1“Part 1” is a truly awful movie. Then again, it’s not really a movie. It’s Part 1. To paraphrase Churchill: Never has so much talent created so little for so many.

Just look at the talent here: Not only J-Law and D-Suth but Jeffrey Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks. And they’re all good. They all do what they’re supposed to do. Screenwriter Danny Strong also wrote HBO’s “Recount” and “Game Change,” as well as “The Butler” (well, “The Butler”), while screenwriter Peter Craig wrote “The Town.” And they’re all in the service of this adolescent crap whose final chapter Lionsgate has stretched out over two movies to rake in even more money. Because three-quarters of a billion dollars is never enough.

It’s a sad civil war when its two symbols are Katniss on one side and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on the other. Both are reluctant symbols, too. He has to be tortured to accept his role while she has to be nurtured. By everyone. Maybe the Churchillian quote should be: Never has so much been owed to so many by someone.

Who isn’t on her side? Plutarch (PSH, how I miss him) sticks up for Katniss to President Alma Coin (Julianne) and engineers a return visit to District 13. He rallies Effie (E Banks) to buck her up, while Gale (Thor’s brother) is a constant, stolid and dull presence. Beetee (J. Wright), the rebels’ Q, arms her, while Haymitch (Woody) returns to remind everyone what’s special about her.

And does Katniss feel like she owes any of these people anything? Instead, it’s all about Peeta, along with her useless mom and sis. She can’t see past these immediate concerns.

In the end, for all this handwringing, Peeta, brainwashed, tries to kill her. “It’s the things we love most,” Pres. Snow says with that delicious Donald Sutherland archness, “that destroy us.” He’s right about that, too. Seriously, I’m rethinking my allegiances here. At least Pres. Snow knows what he wants. It doesn’t take a dozen people to get him to the obvious place. 

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Posted at 07:00 AM on Dec 01, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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