erik lundegaard

Sunday May 31, 2015

'San Andreas' Doesn't Exactly Shake Up Box Office

“Give the people what they want... old-fashioned apocalyptic porn.”
--Birdman in “Birdman”

“San Andreas,” the new-fashioned apocalyptic porn starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a helicopter pilot sent to save all the pretty girls during a massive earthquake in California, didn’t exactly shake up the box office this weekend: It grossed $53 million, which is the seventh-best opening of the year: $2 million behind the opening weekend for “SpongeBob,” and $16 million behind the opening for “Pitch Perfect 2.” Apparently the people want college girls singing more than The Rock flexing. Or maybe we’re just tired of apocalyptic porn. (We are until we aren’t.)

The other opener, Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha,” which has garnered protests from groups upset that it focuses on white people (Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams) in a mostly non-white state (Hawaii), not to mention protests from critics who think it’s just not very good (17% on RT, Crowe’s lowest-rated film), grossed only $10 mil and finished in sixth place.

In between those two?

  • “Pitch Perfect 2” grossed another $14 mil for second place, a domestic total of $147, and a worldwide total of  $228.
  • “Tomorrowland” dropped 58% in its second weekend (not good) and is at $63 domestic/ $133 worldwide.
  • “Mad Max: Fury Road” added $13.6 to a $115 domestic/ $248 worldwide total.
  • “Avengers/Ultron” added $10 mil to $427 domestic, $1.32 billion worldwide. “Ultron” is now the sixth-highest-grossing film of all time worldwide. Its domestic total is 10th, and the highest since “Dark Knight Rises” grossed $448 in 2012.

Anyone see “San Andreas”? I’ve been busy with SIFF. (Among the recommended movies there: “Theeb,” “Meeting Dr. Sun,” “The End of the Tour,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “The Connection,” “Being Evel.”)

San Andreas

Have helicopter, will save.

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Posted at 09:46 AM on May 31, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office
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In 1996, David Foster Wallace Already Knew the Dangers of the Internet

“As the Internet grows, and as our ability to be linked up [grows] ... at a certain point, we're gonna have to build some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology is just gonna get better and better and better and better. And it's gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right. In low doses, right? But if that's the basic main staple of your diet, you're gonna die. In a meaningful way, you're going to die.”

-- David Foster Wallace talking to David Lipsky in 1996, as recounted in Lipsky's book, “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.” 

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Posted at 07:26 AM on May 31, 2015 in category Quote of the Day
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Saturday May 30, 2015

Quote of the Day: 'If I understand the history correctly...'

“If I understand the history correctly, in the late 1990s, the President was impeached for lying about a sexual affair by a House of Representatives led by a man who was also then hiding a sexual affair, who was supposed to be replaced by another Congressman who stepped down when forced to reveal that he too was having a sexual affair, which led to the election of a new Speaker of the House who now has been indicted for lying about payments covering up his sexual contact with a boy.

”Yikes."

-- Prof. Orin Kerr of the George Washington University Law School in The Washington Post.

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Posted at 10:35 AM on May 30, 2015 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Slow West (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

We don’t quite get Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smith-McPhee) when we first meet him. He’s a thin, doe-eyed boy searching for his Scottish love in the American West of 1870. At night, he stares up at the stars and names the constellations. He’s polite, speaks French, and says things like “I come in peace” when no one would doubt it. The question isn’t whether he’s peaceful, it’s how someone so innocent survived for so long. In voiceover, Silas Selleck calls him “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves.”

We don’t quite get Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) when we first meet him, either. He’s tough-looking, dirty, and clenches a cheroot in his teeth like the son of Clint Eastwood. He shows up at a crucial point to kill the man who’s about to kill Jay, and somehow he knows all about Jay’s mission and strikes a bargain. He’ll protect him during the journey: $50 now, $50 then. But how did he find Jay, and how does he know about the girl, and why does he care enough to do this?

Answers come by and by. Most answers anyway. 

Sprinkle my salt on wounded gut
Slow WestIt turns out that Jay’s Scottish love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), along with her father, John (Rory McCann, who played “The Hound” in “Game of Thrones”) is wanted for murder. Dead or alive. Question: Is this for crimes in the states or for the crime they committed accidentally in Scotland—the death of Jay’s father, a Scottish lord? More, don’t they know they’re wanted for murder? And if they do know, why are they building a home? Wouldn’t you want to keep moving?

That’s the early big reveal anyway: Silas is after the reward money ($2,000), and he’s using Jay to get to Rose.

The bigger reveal is that Rose doesn’t love Jay. He’s just a hopeless romantic, with the emphasis on hopeless. Writer-director John Maclean (of The Beta Band) is rather cruel to him in this regard. 

Example: After various adventures, mostly attempts to shake Silas’ old gang, led by the fur-coat-wearing and silently menacing Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), Jay and Silas come upon the Ross homestead: a picturesque cabin surrounded by a field of corn. But the place soon becomes a shooting gallery as Silas, Payne and his gang, and yet another bounty hunter, all converge at the same time to try to claim the reward. Still thinking himself the hero, Jay rushes into the cabin to rescue Rose. Instead, not realizing who he is, she shoots him in the gut.

More: As he lays there, bleeding to death, he can only watch as the woman he loves, still unaware of his presence, kisses her lover, a tall, strong Native American warrior. The house shakes from the gunfire, causing the salt on the shelf above him to fall and spill over his wounds. I burst out laughing when it happened. At the same time I wondered: Is it overkill? Of course it is. It's cruel and unusual. But having been a hopeless romantic in my youth, I don’t have much tolerance for the species. 

Besides, Maclean allows Jay a moment of grace. He does it with all of his victims, now that I think about it. He doesn't forget them. He allows them one last moment. 

A long time ago
“Slow West” got a lot of buzz coming out of Sundance, where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, and it’s mostly well-made. Fassbender is particularly good. His performance reveals what’s missing with all of those Clint Eastwood westerns. Silas actually has mixed feelings about Jay. He  takes delight in him at times. He takes delight. Eastwood’s characters never do—or not in a way that seems delightful. I miss that when it's not there. I love it when it's on screen. (See: Morgan Freeman watching Rita Hayworth in “Shawshank.”)

At the same time, “Slow West” is so jokey, or inside-jokey, it’s meta—from the salt in the wound to the anthropologist studying disappearing Indian cultures who disappears with most of Jay’s stuff. “In a short time,” he says, “this will be a long time ago.” He's telling this to Jay but it's Maclean winking toward us.  

The most jokey element, certainly the most incongruous, is Jay himself. In my review of “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” I wrote that the central joke is how the main character (Seth MacFarlane’s Albert) is really a 21st-century man stuck in the 19th century West. Here, too. Jay is too soft to exist when and where he is. He just isn't in on the joke.

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Posted at 06:53 AM on May 30, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Friday May 29, 2015

The Annotated Kyle Smith: What the NY Post Critic Gets Wrong About George Clooney, and Why

The following appeared in yesterday's New York Post under the headline “Face It, George Clooney Sucks.” The Post is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who is famously conservative, while the actor George Clooney is famously liberal. The piece is written by Kyle Smith (conservative, semi-famous), while the comments in bold are mine (liberal, not famous):

It's time for Hollywood to face facts: George Clooney is not a star. Because...?

If you matched them up head-to-head, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson would crush him — and I don't just mean literally. Ah, this is about box office. I've written about George Clooney's lack of box-office clout, too, a year and a half ago. I was just less of a douche about it. 

Clooney's latest is the gargantuan flop “Tomorrowland” — a $190 million bomb (not including $100 million or so in worldwide marketing costs) that looks like it's going to gross a little more than half of that at the North American box office. It'll be interesting to see how it does internationally, but, yes, it's not a hit in the U.S.

It's delicately being referred to as an underperformer because no one in Hollywood wants to hurt the fragile petals of Clooney's feelings. Isn't that the usual Hollywood euphemism: “underperformer”? I'm asking not telling. BTW: “fragile petals”? That's an example of the douchiness.

The failure of this supposed tentpole release is yet another sign that Clooney, who has been headlining movies for 19 years, just doesn't sell tickets. If his movies took in a dollar's profit for every magazine cover and breathless infotainment tidbit on him, they'd earn more money than they actually do at the box office. Clooney is on the cover of magazines because he sells magazines. It's called the free market. And if he doesn't open movies it's because not many actors open movies anymore. Characters open movies: Iron Man, Captain America, Katniss. (You could add “The Rock”; he's more character than actor.) Also because Clooney tends to make serious movies that open small. He's an adult in a kiddie culture. 

Stars like Johnson get fans excited enough to actually go to the movies. Clooney doesn't. That's a stretch, too. I like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson but he hardly opens movies. His three biggest hits are the three latest “Fast/Furious” films, where he's a supporting player. When he's the star, the movies do so-so: “Hercules” ($72m), “Pain and Gain” ($49.8), “Tooth Fairy” ($60).“ Don't even get me started on ”Doom“ ($28). Maybe things will change for him with ”San Andreas,“ but even there what's opening the film will be the spectacle: the apocalyptic porn, to quote ”Birdman.“

One role for which he was perfect — Danny Ocean — has created a lot of value for movie studios. Apart from the three ”Ocean's“ movies, the only other time he ever toplined a major hit was ”The Perfect Storm“ in 2000 — a movie whose star was a wave. Clooney wasn't pictured on the poster of that one and barely featured in the ads. Except in (sic) those four films, audience interest has been sparse. And ”Gravity.“ If you count the ”Fast/Furious“ films for Johnson, you have to count ”Gravity“ for Clooney.

From ”One Fine Day“ (1996) to ”Batman & Robin“ (1997) to ”Solaris“ (2002) to ”Intolerable Cruelty“ (2003) to ”The Good German“ (2006) to ”Leatherheads“ (2008) to ”The Men Who Stare at Goats“ (2009) to ”The Ides of March“ (2011) to ”The Monuments Men“ (2014), if Clooney was the main attraction, the movie was somewhere between a disappointment and a flop. Agreed. And most of those films were not only box office disappointments but critical disappointments. ... 

Of his 25 starring movies, four made a significant amount of money — that's a .160 batting average. That ain't cleanup hitter. That isn't even big-league. If Clooney were a shortstop, his only prayer of staying on the team would be if he were the owner's son. First rule of Hollywood: Most movies lose money. So the baseball analogy doesn't quite work. Or to make it work, you need to give us other batting averages.

It's not like Hollywood lacks for stars, defined as ”people who actually sell tickets.“ Again, look at Johnson: His notorious flop ”Hercules,“ from last year, still managed to gross $73 million in North America, $243 worldwide. Johnson is an odd choice to make this case. In the early 2000s, he was all but annointed the next Arnold Schwarzenegger and it never happened. He had muscles and personality, but the box office didn't arrive until he was attached to established vehicles, notably ”Fast/Furious.“ 

That's better than any of Clooney's movies has done since ”Ocean's Thirteen“ eight years ago. Except for ”Gravity,“ which grossed $716 million worldwide. 

Johnson's ”Journey 2: The Mysterious Island“ didn't land him on the cover of GQ — but so what? It banked $335 million worldwide. Clooney has only starred in two movies that did better than that in his entire career (the first two ”Ocean's“ films). And ”Gravity.“ And Johnson landed on the cover of GQ in Oct. 2003 for ”The Rundown.“ Which underperformed at $47.7 million.

By contrast, Johnson's three ”Fast and Furious“ films are by far the three highest-grossing entries in that seven-film series. True, I think his addition helped that series financially. Plus I prefer him to Vin Diesel. But if you give The Rock ”Fast/Furious,“ you gotta give Clooney ”Gravity.“ Which you're not doing. (See: douchiness.)

Hell, even Johnson's dumb ”Tooth Fairy“ movie did better than most of Clooney's. ”Tooth Fairy“ grossed $60 million U.S., $112 worldwide. Eleven of Clooney's films have done better domestically; 11 have done better worldwide. 

If the success of ”Gravity,“ which grossed more than Clooney's five preceding live-action star vehicles combined, is any indication, any producer hiring the actor for his movie would be best advised to kill him off in the first 20 minutes. (Sandra Bullock, on the other hand, has top-lined four hugely profitable films in just the past six years.) True. But she was box office ”meh“ (basically 1996-2009) until she wasn't. Now that would make an interesting article: the box-office turnaround of Sandy Bullock. 

Clooney isn't ”America's Leading Man“ (Vanity Fair, in 2006, breathlessly promoting his flop ”The Good German“) or ”The Last Movie Star“ (Time magazine, 2008, breathlessly promoting his flop ”Michael Clayton“). ”Breathlessly.“ Beware of writers lugging adverbs.

Clooney isn't even a movie star. He's just a guy who keeps getting highly paid to make movies nobody wants to see. The overall point is correct: Clooney's box office is less than one would expect from his status in the culture. But (one more time) it's mostly a consequence of the types of movies he chooses to make, who his audience is, and who goes to movies and why. You know this, Kyle. Or should. Or maybe you have blind spots to those who enrage your corporate masters—as you did in your review of Steve Coogan in ”Philomena." 

I'm sure I'll see more of you soon. 

George Clooney, Up in the Air

George Clooney waits patiently while Kyle Smith pleases his corporate masters.

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Posted at 07:55 AM on May 29, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office
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Movie Review: Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

We know going in that Kurmanjan Datka (played by the lovely Elina Abai Kyzy for two-thirds of the movie) will unite the 40 tribes of modern-day Kyrgyzstan and become legendary. But as the movie begins, our heroine is just a small, unwanted girl in a 19th-century, mountainous, patriarchal society who doesn’t even get to choose her own husband. So how does she do it? How does she attain power?

Turns out the way Corazon Aquino and Isabel Peron attained power: through the death of their husbands.

Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the MountainsSecond question: What does she do that’s so legendary? According to the film:

  • When she’s a little girl, and her father wants a male heir, it’s prophesied that 1) he won’t get it, and 2) his daughter is worth 100 boys. “Our country will need her tomorrow,” the cave-dwelling seer says. And outside a tiger growls in the high grass.
  • As a young woman, she brings water to a wife falsely accused of adultery when no man in the village will help.
  • In a massive breach of cultural mores, she leaves her first husband, who is rich and weak. And in the river she crosses, a tiger swims.
  • When her second husband is assassinated, and she is targeted by his enemies, she rides her horse off of a cliff and into the river below. Both she and the horse survive. Yes, there’s a tiger there, too.
  • When tribesmen are ready to abandon the notion of unity that her husband had been fighting for, she gives the speech that inspires the tribal leaders to fight for their land. And they win.
  • When Russian soldiers arrive from the North, she gives the speech that inspires the tribal leaders not to fight for their land. And they’re annexed by Russia.
  • When one of her sons is captured for killing Russian soldiers, she attends the hanging and does nothing to prevent it.
  • At the beginning of the 20th century, she gets her picture taken by Russian officer Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who later became leader of Finland.

That’s about it. According to the film. 

Hold ‘em, fold ‘em
I mostly went to see “Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains,” which played at the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival, because I knew so little about the country. 

Kyrgyzstan is, to put it mildly, interestingly situated. Its people look like Asians, dress like Mongols, practice Islam, and are forever menaced by Russia. According to title cards at the beginning of the film, the country was united in the 9th century but slowly broke apart. It took Kurmanjan to unite it again. I think.

There’s still a lot of things I don’t quite get. Her arranged marriage turns out to be with a weakling, who .... can’t seal the deal on honeymoon night? Is that the implication? And does he send Fatty to take over or does Fatty do this on his own accord when hubby can’t break a stick by the fire? And does Fatty rape her, or is he stopped when she throws water in his face?

The real Kurmanjan fled to China, initially, but in the movie she simply returns to her family, who are ostracized for her impertinence; tribal chiefs are summoned to pass judgment. The local feudal lord, Alymbek Datka (Aziz Muradillayev), also arrives, and he passes judgment: He likes this feisty woman; he takes her for his wife.

But everyone’s got a boss. Apparently the Datka reported to the Kokand khanate, which was made up of the modern-day stans: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and southern Kazakhstan. When Alymbek tries to unite some of the Kyrgyz tribes, he’s assassinated. Then Kurmanjan rallies the troops and they win independence. Then the Russians arrive and they lose independence.

That’s pretty much the movie, and from an outsider perspective it doesn’t quite gel. Kurmanjan is legendary because she allowed Russia to annex their land? But it makes sense in this way, and please forgive the puny analogy, but it’s all I’ve got. For me, whenever I’ve been promoted in a corporate environment, it often feels like I have less power. I should feel the opposite but don’t. The higher I go, the weaker I feel. Maybe here, too. She rose to a level where the opposition was Russia, and to fight Russia was to invite extermination. So she didn’t. She knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.

How a country portrays itself
“Kurmanjan Datka” is not a very good movie but you admire the effort it took to make it. (The Guardian has a good article on why “Queen of the Mountains” was made and the controversies surrounding its production.) And its two leads do have a movie-star presence. Elina Abai Kyzy is beautiful, while Aziz Muradillayev has something of Chow Yun Fat in his calm manner and amused eyes.

Plus it’s always interesting to see how a country portrays itself—particularly one that has had little opportunity to do so.

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Posted at 05:47 AM on May 29, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Thursday May 28, 2015

Bob on Bob: My Father's Memories of Bob Feller

Apparently I've gotten my father to not only read Joe Posnanski but add comments. For Memorial Day, Joe, who is not exactly known for being pithy (and we're all the better for it), wrote a simple paragraph on Bob Feller and his WWII service, to which my father added, in the comments field, a pertinent trivia question: In 1941, the year Ted Williams hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio had his famous 56-game hitting streak, who led the league in hits? Obviously not either of those two.

I'll let him give the answer:

The answer is Cecil Travis, Washington Senators shortstop, and, at 28, a nine-year veteran. His lifetime average at that point was .327, which tied him with Honus Wagner for the highest among shortstops.

Now the sad part: He spent four years in the Army in World War II, froze his feet in the Battle of the Bulge and had three mediocre part-seasons when he returned home, still ending at .314, the highest among AL shortstops.

Unlike Feller, he didn't say what the war cost his baseball legacy. He was modest to a fault, claiming that he was a good player but not good enough for the Hall. Some people disagreed, among them Feller and Ted Williams, but he never received a single vote for the Hall of Fame!

(BTW: On Poz's site, check out the guy below my father's post who crunches the numbers and surmises that Travis probably would've made the Hall if not for the interruption.) 

Believe it or not, all of the above is throat-clearing. What I really wanted to post was what my father emailed me yesterday morning:

Two connections I had with Bob Feller: I was at Shibe Park in Philly on the night that, according to his autobiog, “Strikeout Story,” was the game in which he had his best stuff ever. If memory serves he had 13 or 14 strikeouts after five innings, set to break his record of 18, but he slipped coming off the mound and had to leave the game. The only player he didn't strike out was an outfielder named Barney McCosky, who was a hitter in the Cecil Travis vein.

Secondly, he cost me my job as an usher at Griffith Stadium in Washington. As usual, when he pitched there were more than the usual number of fans in attendance, and because of the crowd size I was assigned to sit along the left field foul line, on the field, to collect any foul balls. A fan behind me complained that he couldn't see over my cap, so I jokingly gave it to him to wear. Apparently Clark Griffith noticed the usher out of uniform and ordered that he be cashiered.

Anyone who thinks my father should write more about his baseball memories, raise your hand. Mine's already up.

Cecil Travis, Washington Senators

Cecil Travis

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Posted at 02:21 PM on May 28, 2015 in category Baseball
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Well, At Least One Person Agrees with Me about 'Meh Max'

From longtime reader Daniel, whose criticism of “Mad Max” gets closer to the problem than my review did:

Thank you for the critical review of Mad Max! I saw it Thursday, and I already knew of its acclaim which might have primed me for a letdown; but if I had to pick one word to describe this movie, that word would be “dull.”

I agree with your praise of the movie, and would add that the visuals of it are impressive and both Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy have terrific charisma and are mesmerizing to watch even when they are looking out a window. That said, I don’t think I found it dull just because I don’t like chase movies. I think it’s dull because we are given no reason to care about any of the characters.

Honestly, do you feel as though you have a sense of a full human being with any of them? Our eponymous character is closest, but how would you describe him? He’s tough and taciturn and plagued by nightmarish images of his past. That’s the best I can do. That’s the starting point for a character not its end point. By the way, the loved ones he didn’t save – did he make a choice of some kind to save himself rather than them? Or, were their deaths inevitable given the dire situations in which they found themselves? It’s ambiguous, but nothing is done with that ambiguity.

Mad Max: Fury RoadFuriosa? She is tough and taciturn. She wants redemption. But, wait, redemption usually means righting a past wrong. Is that what it means for her? Did she do something particularly wrong for which she feels guilty? Or, does she just want to do away with the maniacal patriarchy? It’s ambiguous, but nothing is done with that ambiguity either. What was her goal anyway? If she managed to bring the breeders to the green place, why wouldn’t that just lead to numerous raiding parties from Immortan Joe to that green place probably destroying it if it had not been destroyed already. Is Immortan Joe unaware of the (formerly) green place a day’s ride away? That seems unlikely, doesn’t it? I’m confused.

What about Nicholas Hoult’s character? He is maniacally loyal to Immortan Joe and full of competitive machismo – until he isn’t because … um … he’s convinced that Immortan Joe would never forgive me for letting his favorite die. Why does he think that exactly? He’s an underling. Why wouldn’t he immediately think that Joe would want revenge and would reward him for killing those who killed his favorite? Isn’t Immortan Joe the angry vengeful sort?

As for that favorite, what can we say about her? She’s attractive. She starts acting heroically before she dies. But we aren’t given a sense that any of the others think of her as special outside of the fact that she is described as Joe’s favorite, a description that isn’t prefigured in any way. And once she’s dead, she won’t be mentioned again.

Zoe Kravitz’s character? She’s feistier than the others. Actually, she’s legitimately feisty. That’s a character trait, so good for her.

The brunette? She despairs at one point. But that despair isn’t prefigured in any way and once the one minute scene is over, it won’t be mentioned again either. And despairing at one point is not a character trait. All of these moments that aren’t pre-figured in any way and have no broader connection to the “story” are what I like to call “Bad Writing 101.”

The red-head? She is affectionate around Nicholas Hoult’s character and seems attracted to him. That isn’t a character trait. She seems vaguely more motherly than the others, but three of the others (the favorite, the brunette and the blond) are such non-entities that being a bit more motherly than they are isn’t saying much.

The blond? She mentions that she’s pregnant. It’s a comment that isn’t prefigured and will not be brought up again at any point. Obviously, being pregnant isn’t a character trait, but what else can you say about her?

As for the bad guys, Immortan Joe and his brothers are so grotesque as to be cartoonish. In fact, it has to be said that Ultron is less cartoonish than they are. He has actual goals. Their goals – wait, what are their goals? Does he just want his models, I mean, breeders back? Does he just want to demonstrate that no one can escape his authority? I guess that makes sense, but his society doesn’t seem susceptible to those kinds of worries – although it’s shown to be fragile at the end of the movie – which wasn’t prefigured in any way, sigh. I think he is just supposed to be angry and maniacal and patriarchal, and he’s giving chase with an army because: angry, maniacal, patriarchal. These aren’t actually goals in any real sense of the word. Outside of Nicholas Hoult, the big guy and the guy with the flaming guitar, the chalky underlings are less distinguishable than Despicable Me’s minions. They die randomly, and it doesn’t seem to matter to anyone at all. I realize that it isn’t supposed to matter, but with no real characters at all, it would help if the “villains” were interesting – well interesting other than visually.

I also have to say, I like that so little was done with CGI, but the stunts gave scenes visual heft but not emotional heft. Emotional heft is what matters, it is what gives a chase scene (or a chase movie) tension and drama. This movie is loud and frenetic, but it isn’t dramatic – which is why I found it so dull. Sometimes I will say about a movie that it’s very good but has some noticeable flaws. This movie is the inverse; it’s terrible, but it has some noticeable good points.

I did not intend to write this much. I think I’ve felt more exasperated by this movie than most because I do not understand the critical acclaim for it. Fairly often, if a movie is broadly critically acclaimed, and I did not enjoy it, I seriously wonder what I might have missed as you seem to have done by asking about your “major malfunction.” I haven’t felt that way with this movie. This movie strikes me as objectively awful, and, yes, I believe there is such a thing. Your criticism of it gave me something to which I could respond, and I hope you don’t mind my sending what I’ve written your way. Thank you for continuing to think and write. I appreciate it.

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Posted at 05:48 AM on May 28, 2015 in category Movie Reviews
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Wednesday May 27, 2015

Recommended: Theeb

I saw “Theeb” last night at the Harvard Exit and it's the best movie I've seen so far at SIFF 2015. Unfortunately, that was its last showing at the festival, but be on the lookout for it. Maybe it'll get a limited release in this country. Maybe. If we're smart. Otherwise, the usual suspects: Netflix, Fandor, et al. 

Here's the trailer:

My review will be up soon. 

It's a rare beast: an arthouse film that is also a great adventure story.

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Posted at 08:58 AM on May 27, 2015 in category Trailers
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Movie Review: Meeting Dr. Sun (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

When I lived in Taiwan in 1987-88 I became a little obsessed with statues. You’d see them everywhere. Mostly they were of Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang dictator who died in 1975, and whose more benevolent son, Chiang Ching-kuo, died shortly after I arrived. (Black armbands suddenly appeared on everyone.) But nearly as often the statues were of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the 20th century revolutionary leader and first president of the Republic of China, whose 1923 speech on the “Three Principles of the People” was adapted into the Taiwanese national anthem, and who is so revered that both capitalist Taiwan and communist China claim him. Back then, I always wanted to do a photo essay on all of the Chiang and Sun statues in Taiwan. At the least, I wanted a headcount.

I mention all of this because the key artifact in “Meeting Dr. Sun,” the wholly original, humorously deadpan, imperfect-crime caper from Taiwanese writer-director Yee Chih-yen, is, of course, a statue of Sun Yat-sen. This one doesn’t stand in a school courtyard, or on a busy street, or in the middle of Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, but is relegated to a storeroom. And it soon becomes as desired, and as fought over, as the real Dr. Sun.

Yo meiyo
“You have to pay your class dues this month.”  

Meeting Dr. SunThese are the first words we hear in the movie, and we hear them over and over again. It becomes a theme. Not the words but repetition. Repeating phrases is a key element in the film’s deadpan comedy.

The one who’s being hounded with this phrase is nicknamed Lefty (Zhan Huai-Yun)—“as in ‘the left side,’” he says over and over—who is a gangly, slow-moving high school student in Taipei. One day, staring into a storeroom off the school’s gymnasium, he gets an idea and his face breaks into a smile; then he shares this idea—stealing and hocking the statue of Dr. Sun to pay for classes—with three fellow students who also owe money. He tells them this on the streets of Taipei while continually moving them away from potential eavesdroppers: flight attendants leaving a hotel, for example, and an elderly man with a walker; people, in other words, who have absolutely zero interest in what they’re doing. That’s when I first began to laugh.

Lefty is careful about every detail. He knows his team needs masks, so he buys the cheapest ones: plastic versions of a wide-eyed, blue-haired and red-bowed anime girl, whose mouth is stuck in a small “o” of surprise. Then he and his team practice and pantomime the heist. His face lights up with pride as he confirms they need to complete the caper in under an hour—before the one guard on duty stops watching TV and makes his rounds. Then, a complication: Lefty finds a notebook on the campus grounds and realizes that someone else is planning to steal and hock the statue of Dr. Sun.

That someone is nicknamed Sky (Wei Han-Ting), who’s smaller, tougher but not as smart as Lefty—a low bar he doesn’t quite reach. He’s also more conniving. Invited to join Lefty’s gang, he instead steals the equipment so he and his gang can pull off the heist first. Incensed, Lefty’s gang joins them, all eight wearing the same absurd anime masks, all of them needed to move the heavy statue of Dr. Sun. It’s not until they actually get the thing on the truck that they suddenly realize both gangs are present. Confusion and sloppy fighting ensues.

Two China policy
“Meeting Dr. Sun” is rarely laugh-out-loud funny; its humor is more on a constant, delightful simmer. It’s also charming and surprisingly gentle. And metaphoric? Are the gangs fighting over Dr. Sun representative of the two Chinas fighting over his legacy? Is the movie a class argument—what the poor have to do to get a proper education?

Such meaning peeks through. Near the end, there’s a big, two-minute fight scene between Lefty and Sky on the deserted, nighttime streets of Taipei, which is, again, funny, long, exasperating, and surprisingly gentle. As the boys roll around on the greasy ground, punching and kicking and flailing, the statue of Dr. Sun, stuck in the middle of the street, looks down on them as if with a mixture of bemusement and admonishment; and maybe a little shame that it’s come to this. 

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Posted at 07:01 AM on May 27, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday May 26, 2015

Movie Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The first time the lie was told I believed it and was relieved; the second time the lie was told I didn’t believe it and was even more relieved. But it needs to be there; and it needs to be a lie. 

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” from first-time director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”), and based upon the young adult novel by first-time novelist Jesse Andrews, won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and will draw comparisons to “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Both are coming-of-age stories set in Pittsburgh that make great use of the city and its bridges. Both feature nerdy guys as narrators fixated on adorable girls.

Both are bittersweet.

The thing we don’t want to happen
Me and Earl and the Dying GirlThe nerdy guy here is Greg (the imposingly named Thomas Mann), who begins the story by telling us he has no idea how to tell us the story. “Bad start,” I thought. Then he tells us he made a film so bad it literally killed someone. “That’s better,” I thought.

A senior in high school, Greg has figured out how to maneuver through the various cliques by having “low-key good times” with everyone but being friends with no one. He only truly clicks with Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he make short movies: parodies of classic world cinema, including:

  • The Rad Shoes
  • My Dinner with Andre the Giant
  • Breathe Less
  • Pooping Tom
  • Death in Tennis
  • A Box of Lips Now

So that’s me and Earl. The dying girl is Greg’s classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke, quite good), who has been diagnosed with stage-4 leukemia. Greg’s mom urges him to visit her. She pesters him until he does. That’s a good scene.

He and Rachel hit it off, of course. He jokes around in his goofy, adolescent way, and she appreciates the effort. She doesn’t want the deep conversation, the air heavy with import, the insulting palliative that “God has a plan.” She likes what Greg, and then Earl, have to offer. And she becomes the first regular viewer of their Criterion homages.

I related in a lot of ways to Greg—and not just for his love of movies. To write his college essay, he adopts the nihilistic tone of Werner Herzog narrating a documentary, and I actually did something similar. In these essays, you’re supposed to speak about yourself in superlative terms and I couldn’t do it (Minnesotan/Scandinavian), so like Greg I resorted to satire. I made myself ABC News’ “Person of the Week.” (I didn’t get in.)

A few things in the film don’t quite work. Rachel’s mom is played by Molly Shannon, and she goes over-the-top in that Molly Shannon way. Her comic creepiness doesn’t mesh with the film’s deeper, quieter sensibility. I also don’t get how Greg’s relationship with Rachel dooms his veil of invisibility at school. Yes, he makes enemies, but just Ill Phil and Scott Mayhew, and both dudes are already ostracized. To most everyone else, he’s still invisible.

Greg gets off some good lines (To his mom about prom: “Have you seen me in a tux? It’s like when they make a dog wear human clothes”), but a lot of his humor is, well, adolescent. Plus he can be a pill. When Rachel gives up on chemotherapy, they argue, they fight, he leaves. Then he fights Earl. Then he fights with his mom. He isolates himself from everyone because he can’t deal with what’s happening to Rachel.

It’s also why he lies to us. “She gets better,” he tells us twice. “I promise." 

The first time he says it I was relieved, because we like Rachel. A second later, I realized the movie would suffer as a result. This is true of almost every movie: The thing we don’t want to happen is what ultimately makes the movie a better movie. But for most of its history, Hollywood has given us what we want, which is why we keep getting lesser movies.

“Me and Earl” isn’t that. Its last 15 minutes are almost silent.

Death lessons
I saw the film at the Seattle International Film Festival with Gomez-Rejon in attendance, and he said that in the end, originally, as in the book, Greg gave a big speech about Rachel before the high school. It was the moment when he decided to become visible. It was, in fact, the speech that everyone who auditioned for Greg had to recite. And it was a great scene. But Gomez-Rejon felt it disturbed the mood and rhythm of the ending. It disturbed the silences, the processing, and so it had to be cut.

Question: Even though “Me and Earl” gives us what the movie needs rather than what we want, is its lesson about death still wish fulfillment?

The lesson is first relayed by Greg’s cool history teacher (Jon Bernthal), who tells him that when his father died he kept learning about him—from family and friends—so it was as if he continued on. “Life can keep unfolding itself to you as long just as you pay attention to it,” he says. Initially, Greg dismisses the lesson, as he dismisses most things; but then he experiences it.

After Rachel’s death, he returns to her room, where he discovers, on the wallpaper, little squirrels she’d drawn hopping from tree to tree. He’d noticed the tree wallpaper before but not the squirrels, and it recalls something Rachel told him about how she and her father used to take walks and count squirrels. (Greg had dismissed that story, too, with a one-liner.) Greg also discovers, in the books in her room, little dioramas she’d created out of their pages. He keeps finding out things about Rachel. She keeps unfolding, even in death.

I liked that thought when the lights went up. An hour later, I realized it was almost the exact opposite of the lessons I’ve taken from death.

For me, the death of a loved one, particularly a contemporary, forces you to deal with a heartbreaking, absolute finality. You will never see this person again. Whatever you go through in life, you will never be able to share it with them. Life may keep unfolding but they don’t. Their story ends. The movie’s lesson is nicer; I just wish it felt truer. 

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Posted at 05:09 AM on May 26, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Monday May 25, 2015

Box Office: 'Tomorrowland' Wins a Ho-Hum Memorial Day Weekend

Let's see ... 

“Tomorrowland” with George Clooney opened to $32 mil (kind of meh) and finished first, “Pitch Perfect 2” fell 55% in its second weekend (not great, not bad) to finish second, and both “Mad Max 2” (in its second weekend) and “The Avengers 2” (in its fourth) fell about 45% (not bad). The reboot of “Poltergeist” opened poorly ($22.6 mil, fourth place).  

As usual, the movies I most want to see are farther down the list: “Far from the Madding Crowd” (8th, $2.2), “Ex Machina” (11th, $1.4), and “Clouds of Sils Maria” (24th, $84K). Interestingly, the Apu trilogy, which I did see this weekend (yesterday at Pacific Place as part of SIFF) also made the cut, bringing in $16K. Glad to be part of that anyway. 

The Box Office Mojo numbers here

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Posted at 01:13 PM on May 25, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office
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Cannes Winners, 2015

The fact that the Seattle International Film Festival (or SIFF) happens concurrently with the Cannes Film Festival (or Cannes) assuages some of the disappointment with not being in the south of France at this time of year. Instead I rely on the usual suspects (Jeff Wells, Sasha Stone) for their reports. Not to mention the final awards, which were announced today. They are:

  • Palme d'Or: “Dheepan,” directed by Jacques Audiard, who has twice won “best film” at the Erik International Film Festeival (a.k.a. my annual Top 10 list) so I'm excited by this; I think Audiard is one of the best directors in the world right now. At the same time, the win is being called one of the great upsets in the history of Cannes. Further thoughts here. The movie below was supposed to win ...
  • Grand Prix: “Son of Saul,” directed by Laszlo Nemes. Another Holocaust film that seems particularly resonant. 
  • Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien, “The Assassin.” I've never been a big Hou fan, but ... open mind. At least 3/4 open.
  • Actor: Vincent Lindon, “The Measure of a Man.” I mostly know Lindon from the film adaptation of “The Moustache.”
  • Actress (tie): Emmanuelle Bercot, “Mon Roi”; Rooney Mara, “Carol.” Both Wells and Stone raved about “Carol,” which also stars Cate Blanchett.

The jury presidents were Joel and Ethan Coen, while the jury included actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Sophie Marceau, Sienna Miller and Rossy de Palma; directors Guillermo del Toro and Xavier Dolan; and composer Rolia Traoré.

Do these awards mean anything? Ca depend. Past winners of the Palme d'Or have included great films (“Pulp Fiction,” “The Pianist,” “The Class,” “The Tree of Life,” “Blue is the Warmest Color”) and some awful/arty films (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”). But I love Audiard so I'm hopeful this year.  

Dheepan, Jacques Audiard

In “Dheepan,” a Sri Lankan Tamil warrior uses his skills to survive as an immigrant in Paris.

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Posted at 12:52 PM on May 25, 2015 in category Movies - Awards
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Is Every Line in 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' the Title of a Baseball Book?

Nearly. Follow the bouncing ball, kids:

Yes, some lyrics are fudged (“to” instead of “with”; “we” instead of “I”), and the Hubbard book is really “Strike 3, You're Out,” but thought I'd go with it.

Anyone know others?

Take Me Out to the Ball Game in books 

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Posted at 07:59 AM on May 25, 2015 in category Books
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Sunday May 24, 2015

Lancelot Links

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Posted at 07:44 PM on May 24, 2015 in category Lancelot Links
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David Letterman: Puncturing the Culture Rather than Propping It Up

I think The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum describes his revolutionary appeal to my generation better than anyone:

For more than thirty years, David Letterman has been the guy working the talk-show host. But he's never hidden how tricky it is to move those levers, which has been his appeal to fans: in a job made for smoothies, he's kept showing us his flaws, those spikes of anger and anxiety, almost despite himself. Now that Letterman's a flinty codger, an establishment figure, it's become difficult to recall just how revolutionary his style of meta-comedy once felt. But back when I was sixteen, trapped in the snoozy early eighties and desperate for something rude and wild, Letterman seemed like an anarchist. His manner suggested that TV could puncture the culture rather than prop it up. My friends, particularly the guys, became his acolytes, quoting his catchphrases (“They pelted us with rocks and garbage”) and copying his deadpan affect.

The whole piece, “Good Night: David Letterman's last weeks,” can be found in the latest New Yorker. Or here

David Letterman's first show

I missed that first show, but not much from that first year. 

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Posted at 06:52 AM on May 24, 2015 in category TV
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Saturday May 23, 2015

Equality > Privacy

Jill Lepore has another much-recommended article in The New Yorker, “To Have and to Hold,” this one on the history of both reproductive rights for women and marriage-equality rights for gays and lesbians. Lepore's conclusion: 

There is a lesson in the past fifty years of litigation. When the fight for equal rights for women narrowed to a fight for reproductive rights, defended on the ground of privacy, it weakened. But when the fight for gay rights became a fight for same-sex marriage, asserted on the ground of equality, it got stronger and stronger.

Basically: Equality is greater than privacy, particularly in the digital when there is very little of the latter. 

Related: Way to go, Ireland!

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Posted at 01:50 PM on May 23, 2015 in category Law
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You, Robot

I've been asking this question of friend and strangers for a while now: Which jobs do you think won't get digitized away in 10, 20, 30 years? 

According to Barbara Ehrenreich in her review of two books, “Rise of the Robots” by Martin Ford and “Shadow Work” by Craig Lambert, the answer is: Not many. She skips over the ones we've already lost (printer, photographer) to concentrate on the ones we're beginning to lose (secretaries, travel agents, customer service in general). She quotes an expert predicting that in 10 years, “90 percent of articles will be computer generated.” She writes about college grads floundering and the longterm unemployed giving up, and why that is:

All of this has happened by choice, though not the choice of the average citizen and worker. In the wake of the recession, Ford writes, many companies decided that “ever-advancing information technology” allows them to operate successfully without rehiring the people they had laid off. And there should be no doubt that technology is advancing in the direction of full unemployment. Ford quotes the co-founder of a start-up dedicated to the automation of gourmet hamburger production: “Our device isn't meant to make employees more efficient. It's meant to completely obviate them.”

Near the end of the piece, Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dimed,” gets apocalyptic:

If middle-class jobs keep disappearing as wealth piles up at the top, Martin Ford predicts, economic mobility will 'become nonexistent': 'The plutocracy would shut itself away in gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones.' We have seen this movie; in fact, in one form or another — from 'Elysium' to 'The Hunger Games' — we've been seeing it again and again.

As I wrote five years ago, in a review of a different movie, we're all cutters now. We just don't seem to know it. Or how bad it'll get. 

I, Robot

Step away from the job or the girl gets it. 

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Posted at 11:15 AM on May 23, 2015 in category Technology
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Trailer: Black Mass (2015)

Welcome back, Johnny Depp. Your third go-round as a gangster looks like a winner:

 

Further Reading:

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Posted at 09:40 AM on May 23, 2015 in category Trailers
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Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Currently, “Mad Max: Fury Road” has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 98%. Critics love it. It’s one of the best-reviewed movies of the year. But I was underwhelmed. To me, it’s “Meh Max.”

What didn’t I like? What’s my major malfunction?

Well, it’s a two-hour chase movie. It’s expertly done, with powerful photography and great imagination. It’s over-the-top the way operas are over-the-top, an aria to chase in a post-apocalyptic world. But it’s a two-hour chase movie. And I could give a shit.

Mad Max Fury RoadWhy do I think critics love it? A few reasons, beyond the superlatives mentioned above:

  • It’s directed by George Miller, who directed the original movies with Mel Gibson (“Mad Max,” “The Road Warrior,” “Beyond Thunderdome”), as well as small indies (“Lorenzo’s Oil”) and feel-good biggies (“Happy Feet”). So the auteur whores are on board.
  • Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is a kick-ass character who is the equal, or better, of Tom Hardy’s Max. So people in favor of strong female characters are on board.
  • It relies on stunts rather than CGI. We get real people up there on the screen. So the folks who are tired of CGI and want some semblance of authenticity from their absurd action movies are on board.
  • Its dystopia is saturated with color and gorgeously photographed; it’s not the gray, rainy dystopias of “The Dark Knight,” “Hunger Games,” et al. So the cinematographias are on board.

Plus some people like a two-hour chase movie. I’m just not one of them.   

In this post-apocalyptic world, in which the lone and level sands stretch far away, Max is haunted by the past and the present. The past is made up of loved ones he couldn’t save (wife, children). In the present, he’s simply hunted. The bad guys want him for his car, his hair, his blood. They get it all.

We’ve been reduced to a barbaric caste society: peasants (most of us, begging for food and water), the warrior class (chalky-skinned and in need of blood transfusions), and the ruling class, led by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Bryne, Toecutter in the original “Mad Max”). He’s got massive sores on his back and a harem of Victoria’s Secret models with whom he’s hoping to breed the future of the human race. Or something.

Why does civilization end? We get snippets and crackles of news early on. Something about running out of oil, then water. Why do we run out of water? Is it global warming?

Pipe down, Brainiac, the chase is on.

The plot is propelled by Furiosa, who steals Immortan’s harem with the hope of taking them to “the green place,” the Edenic land on the other side of the desert where she grew up, and where life is good. Or reasonably so. At the moment Furiosa’s treachery is revealed, a captured Max is providing an upside-down blood transfusion to the warrior Nux (an unrecognizable Nicholas Hoult), and Nux insists on joining the chase, so he does it with Max strapped to the front of his car.

After much flipping of cars and riding into sandstorms, and after much mutual suspicion, Max and Furiosa join forces. Which makes sense. The heroes are all good-looking (Hardy, Theron, the harem), while the villains are mostly grotesques (sporting boils and gout; swimming in corpulence).

I do find it amusing that in a world of scarcity we still waste shit. We drive gas-guzzling monster trucks and spill water everywhere. No one’s careful about anything. We haven’t learned a thing.

A few moments I liked:

  • When Max turns the corner and sees the supermodels washing off. It’s so absurd, such a soft-core image in such a gritty wasteland, I laughed out loud.
  • The near death of The Splendid Angharad (supermodel Rose Huntington-Whitely), pregnant with Immortan’s child, since it’s followed by her actual death a second later. We go from “whew” to “oops” in a second. It’s Miller shouting, “Psych!”
  • How “the green place” is no longer green, and that the answer to their problem is the place where their problems began. The chase is full circle.
  • The third-act attack via poles bending over moving vehicles and dropping warriors onto our heroes.

But “Mad Max” is all about that chase, bout that chase, and I’m not. It’s an Aussie exploitation film with “A” production values. It’s what we fiddle with while the world burns. “What did you do before the apocalypse, Daddy?” “I watched post-apocalyptic movies, son.”

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Posted at 06:07 AM on May 23, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Friday May 22, 2015

Quote of the Day

Bush, State of the Union, 2003

“We will bring to the Iraqi people: food, and medicines, and supplies ... and freedom.” [APPLAUSE]

“[The 2003 Iraq war] was, in short, a war the White House wanted, and all of the supposed mistakes that, as Jeb puts it, 'were made' by someone unnamed actually flowed from this underlying desire. Did the intelligence agencies wrongly conclude that Iraq had chemical weapons and a nuclear program? That's because they were under intense pressure to justify the war. Did prewar assessments vastly understate the difficulty and cost of occupation? That's because the war party didn't want to hear anything that might raise doubts about the rush to invade. Indeed, the Army's chief of staff was effectively fired for questioning claims that the occupation phase would be cheap and easy.”

-- Paul Krugman, “Errors & Lies,” The New York Times

FURTHER READING:

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Posted at 12:53 PM on May 22, 2015 in category Quote of the Day
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Happy Anniversary to Me

I arrived in Seattle 24 years ago today. I'd been bouncing around from place to place since graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1987—Taipei, Minnesota, New Jersey, Minnesota, Taipei—and wanted something new. I wanted the states but not Minnesota (too familiar), nor the east coast (too rushed), nor the South or Southwest (too racist/hot, respectively). Plus my sister was here. Our stays overlapped by a day but she gave me connections; she set me up with her friends. 

The nice thing about moving to a new place is how all your senses come alive. Everything is new and thus memorable. I remember my first few weeks well: the long walks in search of a place to live, and a job, and a thing to write on. I remember being surprised by how early Seattle shut down. Taipei was a 24/7 city while Seattle turned off at 9 PM. I was amazed by the lush gardens and landscaping and fresh air but was surprised by how long it took for the city to warm up. It was mid-June and still in the 50s and raining? The fuck? I would get used to Seattle's seasons soon enough. Other aspects of Seattle never warmed up. 

A few months after I arrived, I published my first piece in Seattle Weekly, called “All I Want is a Room Somewhere,” about the travails of the Seattle housing search: run-down rooms and shared-housing interviews. But I quickly began to make, if not enemies, at least unfriends. I thought honesty and insight (or “insight”) was a good way to impress, which shows how young I was. I also didn't know how much of an insular town Seattle was; how incestuous. 

But I found a place to live, then another, then another. Seattle allowed me time to heal, even as it opened new wounds. There were plenty of opportunities in Seattle in the '90s but I missed most of them. I wrote about that, too, after many of them went away.  

It's been 24 years but my view of Seattle hasn't changed much. I still find it a naturally beautiful place that we haven't done much to improve. But it's home. For now. I guess I still feel that, too. “For now.”

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Posted at 09:36 AM on May 22, 2015 in category Personal Pieces
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Thursday May 21, 2015

They're Not Crying; They're Saying 'Daaaaaaave'

I haven't written much about the retirement of David Letterman, which officially began today, mostly because I haven't really watched his show for the last 20 years or so. But in the 1980s, when he was on after Johnny Carson and I was just starting college, he was our guy. He was the first one to mock the thing he was on. Applause seemed something to endure impatiently rather than bask in. He said “Ladies and Gentlemen” with bite. He did riffs on sports phrases: “For those of you scoring at home.” Or my personal favorite: “They're not booing; they're saving Daaaaaaave.”

Here's The New Yorker's look at that final show

I still remember an early bit, The Museum of the Hard to Believe, which included “the guy who refused to see 'E.T.' no matter what his friends said.” The dude just stood there with arms folded, shaking his head quietly. That was my intro to Chris Elliott, who would become a Letterman staple. 

I'd forgotten the bit below until reminded by my friend Kevin Featherly. It's basically Dave doing Michael Moore three years before Michael Moore. The balls that guy had:

The last month has been a parade of stars getting visibly verklempt before Dave: Norm Macdonald (great standup routine, too); Adam Sandler; Chris Elliott; Jimmy Kimmel; Ray Romano. It's been quite touching. But they're not crying, ladies and gentlemen; they're saying “Daaaaaave.”

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Posted at 03:33 PM on May 21, 2015 in category TV
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Adam on Kimmel on Letterman

“I think it's been decided. The guy who loves Dave the most? Kimmel. My, what a tribute. I just remember that everyone who was cool in high school stayed up to 12:30 on weeknights to watch him. I wasn't cool. But I started to log those late nights myself, and it made me feel part of something. Kimmel explains it.”

-- Adam Wahlberg, who has been sadly counting down to the last “Last Night with David Letterman” show, which happened last night. 

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Posted at 12:41 PM on May 21, 2015 in category Quote of the Day
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Wednesday May 20, 2015

Which A.L. Team Suffered Most from Mid-Century Yankees Dominance?

I just finished Bill Pennington's excellent bio, “Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius,” and, as often happens when I read about Yankees history, particularly mid-century Yankees dominance, I wonder about the teams that finished second in the A.L. all those years. Who stayed home as the Yankees went to another effin' World Series?

Here's who. These are the second-place finishers in the American League the years the Yankees won the pennant. I've limited the scope to the years before divisions were created (1969), when the team with the best record in either league immediately went to the World Series:

Year Second-place Team GB
1921 Cleveland Indians 4.5
1922 St. Louis Browns 1
1923 Detroit Tigers 16
1926 Cleveland Indians 3
1927 Philadelphia Athletics 19
1928 Philadelphia Athletics 2.5
1932 Philadelphia Athletics 13
1936 Detroit Tigers 19.5
1937 Detroit Tigers 13
1938 Boston Red Sox 9.5
1939 Boston Red Sox 17
1941 Boston Red Sox 17
1942 Boston Red Sox 9
1943 Washington Senators 13.5
1947 Detroit Tigers 12
1949 Boston Red Sox 1
1950 Detroit Tigers 3
1951 Cleveland Indians 5
1952 Cleveland Indians 2
1953 Cleveland Indians 8.5
1955 Cleveland Indians 3
1956 Cleveland Indians 9
1957 Chicago White Sox 8
1958 Chicago White Sox 10
1960 Baltimore Orioles 8
1961 Detroit Tigers 8
1962 Minnesota Twins 5
1963 Chicago White Sox 10.5
1964 Chicago White Sox 1

It's a mixed bag. Different teams threaten the Yankees at different times. The Philadelphia A's got the scroogie in the late '20s, but then gave back good in '29, '30 and '31. The Tigers won the pennant in '34 and '35 but then sat home because of the DiMaggio-resurgent Yankees of the late '30s. The Red Sox, sadly, never gave as good as they got. That '30s/'40s team hadn't won a pennant since 1918, and spent four out of five years finishing second to the team whose league dominance they (or Harry Frazee) started with the Babe Ruth, et al., trades. Ouch. 

But it's Indians fans who have real reason to hate the Yanks. They finished second in '51, '52, '53, '55 and '56, and only threw off the Yankee yoke in '54 by winning 111 games. (The Yankees won 103.) During this run—this is awful—the Indians won 93, 93, 92, 111, 93 and 88 games, and all they have to show for it in historical terms is Willie Mays' catch against them in the '54 Series. Ouch again.  

Anyway, that's the answer. If the New York Yankees had been the New York Suckees and everything else stayed more or less the same, the Cleveland Indians would've benefitted the most with seven additional pennants. Tigers would've had six, Red Sox five:

Team Regifted pennants Current pennants New total
Indians 7 5 12
Tigers 6 11 17
Red Sox 5 13 18
White Sox 4 6 10
Athletics 3 15 18
Browns/Orioles 2 7 9
Senators/Twins 2 6 8
Yankees  -29 40 11

Overall, the greatest A.L. team in terms of pennants wouldn't be the Yankees with 40 but the Red Sox and the A's tied with 18. The Tigers would be right behind them with 17. The National League leader is the St. Louis Cardinals with 19. 

The saddest bit of data? If you do this, if you take away all of the Yankees pennants from 1921 to 1964, all 29 of them, and assume that 1976 was the first year the Yankees won the pennant, they still would have more pennants than the White Sox, Browns/O's and Senators/Twins. Ouch for a third time, and out. 

Cleveland Indians 1954 button

Indians' fans would've seen more buttons like this in the '50s if not for the Bronx Bombers.

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Posted at 05:33 AM on May 20, 2015 in category Yankees Suck
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Tuesday May 19, 2015

Simon Pegg: Childish Movies Create a Childish Culture

“Before 'Star Wars,' the films that were box-office hits were 'The Godfather,' 'Taxi Driver,' 'Bonnie and Clyde' and 'The French Connection'—gritty, amoral art movies. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed. I don't know if that is a good thing. Obviously I'm very much a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we've been infantilised by our own taste. Now we're essentially all consuming very childish things: comic books, superheroes ... Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!

”It is a kind of dumbing down in a way. Because it's taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about... whatever. Now we're walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything—other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.“

-- Simon Pegg (Scotty of the ”Star Trek“ movies), this week to Radio Times magazine. Couldn't agree more. Although to nitpick, not sure how big of a hit ”Taxi Driver“ was. Better sub in ”One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,“ which was a bigger hit than all of them. 

BTW, there's a poll after the article, asking ”Do you agree with Simon Pegg? Vote now." Please do. The votes against Pegg for stating the obvious are ahead 51.3% to 48.7%. The bastards keep winning. 

UPDATE: A day later, it's 52% to 48% in favor of Pegg. A bit of sanity. 

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Posted at 03:52 PM on May 19, 2015 in category Quote of the Day
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Was 'Zero Dark Thirty' CIA Propaganda?

It's on Frontline tonight:

A couple of things from this preview: “Zero Dark Thirty” was never “bound to be a blockbuster” nor was it supposed to be; it was a small, prestige picture. And all critics didn't rave; there was sharp controversy back then. My own review of “Zero Dark Thirty” is full of mixed feelings and failed attempts to parse it all out. 

Anyway, I plan to check this out. 

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Posted at 06:57 AM on May 19, 2015 in category TV
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Movie Review: Spy (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I like the running gag anyway.

Most genre spoofs occur when Hollywood takes someone who looks and acts like us (a schlub) and places them in an exciting genre movie (western, action-adventure, spy thriller). The laughs come when the schlub tries to live up to the genre and falls flat, while the catharsis comes when the schlub becoming the wish-fulfillment fantasy figure in the end. The genre may be mocked but it ultimately wins. Wish-fulfillment fantasy wins. We want us on the screen but no we don’t. See, among recent movies, “The Other Guys,” “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “The World’s End,” “The LEGO Movie,” and “21/22 Jump Street.”

Paul Feig’s “Spy,” starring Melissa McCarthy, is another spoof—this time, obviously, of James Bond-type spy thrillers—but with a feminist twist.

Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is an assistant to superspy and superhunk Bradley Fine (Jude Law), of whom she’s enamored, quietly and painfully, even as she expertly guides him—via earpiece, cameras and high-tech CIA equipment—through missions. Then she watches him die at the hands of Raina Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who has a wayward nuke she’s willing to sell to the highest bidder. Or willing to sell to the person who will sell to the highest bidder. Or something.

Spy Melissa McCarthyAnyway, with Fine dead, Susan finally gets the gumption to ask her boss, Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney), for a field assignment to gather intel on Boyanov and get revenge for Fine. She travels to all the exotic locales, Paris, Rome, and Budapest, trailed, or preceded, by Rick Ford (Jason Statham), a CIA agent who went rogue after he didn’t get the assignment. Since he looks and acts like Jason Statham, we assume he’s super-competent, but he’s not. He’s a loud, tough-talking doofus. It’s Susan who’s super-competent. She’s smarter, tougher, quicker-minded and a better fighter than almost everyone around her. She just never got to display it because, you know, women in the workplace.

Susan, in other words, merely looks like us, but acts, almost from the beginning, like the hero. So where’s the spoof? In the way she tries to live up to the genre.

Spies are glamorous. They are given cool clothes and cool cars and cool devices with which to take out the bad guys. Susan is obviously not glamorous, but she thinks the assignment will help. Except she’s given dowdy clothes and dowdier identities (cat lady, etc.), while her Q-like weapons are hidden, not in cigarettes or sports cars, but stool softener packages, foot fungal sprays and rape whistles. Her disappointment each time is palpable. It’s a good running gag.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed—not least because “Spy” opened the Seattle International Film Festival, a spot usually reserved for small prestige pictures—but I was surprised by a couple of things.

I was taken aback that a wayward nuke that may get into the hands of al Qaeda was at the centerpiece of a comedy. That felt risky. Every time it was brought up, I didn’t exactly feel like laughing.

The other thing that surprised me was how uncomfortable I felt in the end. Bradley Fine, it turns out, isn’t dead but playing the double-agent game to get the nuke to save the world. And while Susan is busy saving the world, he overhears how much he means to her. In the end, he confronts her with this. He seems to soften, to become interested in her, and you think the movie is going to go in that direction. It doesn’t. She dismisses his overtures and ends the movie walking off with her friend, and the woman in her earpiece, the gangly Nancy (a very funny Miranda Hart). Cue credits.

But in that moment when there was just a chance that Jude Law and Melissa McCarthy would wind up together? I felt horribly uncomfortable.

Why?

Obviously because of the way she looks. And because in our society, women who look like her don’t wind up with men who look like him. The reverse is sometimes true, particularly on TV sitcoms (see Jim Belushi/Courtney Thorne-Smith), or if the schlubby man in question is rich or famous or both (Paul Allen/Laura Harring). But rarely do we get the hot man/dumpy woman dynamic. Men are just too shallow when it comes to looks, while women are too shallow when it comes to works.

But—to drill down a bit—was I uncomfortable with this potential romance because it felt false or because I found it unappetizing?

Sadly, I think more toward the latter. And the more I thought about it, the more I kept flashing on Dustin Hoffman’s great epiphany during the making of “Tootsie”: how he wanted his character, Dorothy Michaels, to be better-looking, and how it wasn’t going to happen. He realized that he (Dorothy) was the type of woman that he (Dustin) would never talk to at a party. Because she didn’t fit his notion of female beauty. And what a loss that was.

Is this more of that? I think it is. An odd, deep revelation to carry with me from a spy spoof.

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Posted at 05:22 AM on May 19, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Monday May 18, 2015

Movie Review: Love & Mercy (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s not a great movie but it is a sad fucking story.

Most music biopics follow a familiar pattern: hardscrabble beginnings, slow rise, white-hot stardom; then something gets in the way of the success: drugs, sex, overwork, marital and/or bandmate discord, maybe all of the above. After that mess, we get recovery, resurrection, final concert footage.

Here’s the problem: I almost never have sympathy for the artist once they become famous. You did too many drugs? You fooled around on your wife too much? My heart bleeds.

But with Brian Wilson? Yeah, there’s sympathy. God, yeah.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
Love & Mercy“Love & Mercy” is only the second movie directed by Bill Pohlad—son of Carl, the former owner of the Minnesota Twins—but he’s been producer on some of the greatest movies of the 21st century: “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Tree of Life,” “12 Years a Slave.” He’s also, from my understanding, a big music fan. In the Twin Cities, the Twins and the local music scene are intertwined in a way I haven’t seen in many other cities. One assumes this was Bill’s pet project.

The movie—like Brian himself, you could say—is split into two parts, with two actors playing him.

In 1965, a young Brian (Paul Dano), the chief singer-songwriter of the Beach Boys, is haunted by anxieties and discord, so he gives up touring with the band in order to work on what would become his great achievement: “Pet Sounds.” He retreats into the studio before the Beatles did, but he did it alone, without the camaraderie and competition that Lennon and McCartney had with each other. One wonders what might have been if Mike Love (Jake Abel) had been an equal partner in the process. Or was Brian, a solitary figure, doomed from the start?

The other half of the film is set in the late ’80s, and it’s from the perspective of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a beautiful blonde saleswoman at a Cadillac dealership. One day she sees a pair of shoes outside a display car and finds a man (John Cusack) inside. Or man-child? He has a childlike way of talking that recalls Tom Hanks in “Big” and she doesn’t quite know what to make of him. When he asks her to sit in the car with him and then locks the doors, it’s a little creepy. But he just wants to sit there. He just wants to be calm. There are men watching him, bodyguards, he says, adding, “That’s a funny word—bodyguard.” A minute later, he says, “My brother died.” A minute later, she finds out from his handler, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who he is.

The first part of the movie is about the triumph of an artistic rise intercut with the anxiety of a personal downfall. The second part of the movie is about the triumph of a love story intercut with anxious revelations about how bad things are for one of the lovers. Brian may be a rock legend but he’s also a virtual prisoner of Dr. Landy, a martinet with an explosive temper, who has control over Brian’s finances, diet, drugs, life, and who lives in Brian’s bigger house up the coast. Landy tries to control Melinda, too.

Was Brian always a prisoner of something? Or someone? His father, Murry (Bill Camp), was a martinet who boxed his ears as a child, damaging them and him. In the’60s, we see Murry: 1) disparage Brian’s new direction; 2) manage a Beach Boys-like band to replace his sons; and 3) sell the Beach Boys catalogue of songs since he thinks their wave of success is over. There’s not one good thing about him. Same with Landy. Both are monsters, while Brian is generally a victim. He’s like some jelly creature who’s washed up on shore without a shell, defenseless against kids poking him with sticks.

In the ’60s, Brian handles his defenselessness by retreating into his bed for years, but the second half of the movie demonstrates that retreat is not an option. Particularly if you’re wealthy and talented, people will find you and use you. And the sticks will get sharper.

In the kind of world where we belong
Dano as young Brian is perfect, while Cusack is good as the 50-year-old version. The scenes where he’s trapped by Landry, and by his own mental illness, are tough to watch. I’m thinking in particular of the hamburger scene, and that quick, wrecked image by the piano.

It’s tough to make mental illness and drug abuse interesting and “Love & Mercy” doesn’t quite succeed in doing it. Maybe because it focuses too much on the illness (where Brian's a victim) and hardly at all on the drug abuse (where he’s more accountable)? We don't get a great sense of the other Beach Boys, and we don’t quite understand why Melinda falls for Brian beyond the fact that he’s Brian Wilson.

But you do feel for the man. After the movie, you keep exhaling. You go home and you listen to “Pet Sounds” again. 

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Posted at 07:13 AM on May 18, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Sunday May 17, 2015

Quote of the Day

“I've been watching politics since Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and Obama is my favorite, favorite president. I am just thankful for every day that he's in office. I am so proud that he represents my country and I think he represents me — I think he represents the America that I know.”

-- singer-songwriter James Taylor to the Associated Press earlier this week.

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Posted at 10:12 AM on May 17, 2015 in category Quote of the Day
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Box Office: What a Lovely Day ... for 'Pitch Perfect 2'

Pitch Perfect 2

Perfect studio pitch.

“The Avengers” sequel fell 50 percent in its third weekend  to $38.8 million (about right), “Mad Max: Fury Road” debuted at $44.4 million domestically (a bit low considering the great reviews), but the big story this weekend is “Pitch Perfect 2” and its $70 million debut.

What the hell?

The first “Pitch Perfect,” which was released three years ago September, debuted at $5 million in 335 theaters and grossed a total of $65 million. This one has already slammed past that. $70 million? That's “Star Trek” territory. What are these things about again? Girls singing and quipping and being empowered? Or something? Well, Universal knew what it was doing with this one. It got decent enough reviews, 69% on Rotten Tomatoes, but that’s not close to “Mad Max”’s 98%. Yet look who killed at the b.o. Maybe “Max”’s good reviews scared off the action-adventure crowd.

I found this interesting: “PP2” is the directorial debut of Elizabeth Banks, whom I just saw in the Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy” (recommended), and who always kills as Effie Trinket in the “Hunger Games” movies. Good for her and for female directors in general. Get those stories out there. Even if I have zero interest in seeing them. 

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Posted at 08:59 AM on May 17, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday May 16, 2015

SIFF 2015 Glitches

After SIFF 2015 opening night, my first movie of the fest was “Accused,” the Dutch candidate for last year's best foreign-language film Oscar, which was playing at SIFF Egyptian at 4 PM Friday. It never started. We waited and waited. After 15 minutes, a woman with a beautiful French accent came out and haltingly told us there would be a delay. She tried a second time and then seemed to flee mid-sentence. The third time she came out, 45 minutes after the film was supposed to have begun, she said the film was canceled but couldn't say why. But vouchers could be picked up on the way outside. 

A few things:

  • Girl with the French accent: Speak up. You can get away with almost anything in this country with that accent. We'll buy whatever you have to say. Just have the confidence to say it. 
  • SIFF: Give the poor girl details before you push her out like that. Talk about rude. 

I probably wouldn't have thought much about all this but for an email from a friend today. He'd had a similar experience:

Today I was supposed to see “The Red Shoes” at the Egyptian. I'll leave out the minor glitches, and just focus on the fact that 20 minutes into the film, the projector died. After a five minute pause, things got going again. 20 minutes later, it died again, and the host apologized, saying that the projectionists had determined that the showing wouldn't continue. Both projectors had the same problem when switching reels.

He added these general complaints about SIFF:

Every year that website is dreadful, every year the will-call experience is at least a little screwy, and this year everyone is talking about the nonsensical choice for the premiere.

Yep, I guess, and yep.

If anyone at SIFF is reading this, I'd start with the website. That thing's a bitch. 

SIFF BE WATCHING

SIFF's slogan this year is “Be Watching.” We're trying, we're trying. 

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Posted at 03:30 PM on May 16, 2015 in category Seattle
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Lancelot Links

Southdale, Edina, Mn.

“Mom! Let's park in the Alligator parking lot!” Yes, we said that. 

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Posted at 10:41 AM on May 16, 2015 in category Lancelot Links
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When Billy and Reggie Met

From “Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius,” by Bill Pennington:

When the A's came to Minnesota for the first time [in 1969], Billy was irked when Oakland's twenty-three-year-old slugger Reggie Jackson slammed two home runs as the A's built a 7–0 lead. When Reggie came to the plate late in the game, two pitches whizzed by his head. Jackson charged the Twins pitcher, Dick Woodson. The benches cleared.

“That's the kind of manager Billy Martin is,” Reggie said after the game. “If someone is beating his club, he's going to put a little fear in that team's heart. I don't blame Woodson. He was following orders. I blame the manager.”

Billy denied he was throwing at Jackson and said that as the two teams were being separated on the field, Jackson threatened him. “He yelled at me that he was going to get me,” said Billy, not looking overly worried. “I want somebody to write that so that if we ever get in a fight, he won't be able to sue me and say I started it.”

Billy Martin, Cesar Tovar, 1969 

Billy Martin with leadoff hitter Cesar Tovar on Camera Day in 1969. Despite improving the team by 18 games and taking them to the first ALCS, he would be dismissed at the end of the season for 1) getting into bar brawls, and 2) pissing off the owner. Twins fans were pissed off by the dismissal for years. 

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Posted at 07:23 AM on May 16, 2015 in category Baseball
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Friday May 15, 2015

SIFF 2015 Opening Night

SIFF 2015 opening night

Photo courtesy of Arlene Kim.

At least the opening night movie gave me an opening line.

The Seattle International Film Festival began last night at McCaw Hall with red carpet, booze, beautiful people in beautiful clothes, and an odd choice for opening night movie: Paul Feig's “Spy,” a comedy spoof starring Melissa McCarthy, which is opening nationwide June 5. In three weeks, we'll be able to see it almost anywhere. As I wrote last week, it's the most commercial movie to open SIFF. So as P and I walked around the ground-floor lobby of McCaw Hall last night before the show, it gave me a way to break the ice. 

Most of the people I talked with were flummoxed by the choice. Yes, it seems odd, they said. Yeah, I don't get it. Yeah, I'm not happy with it. Only one dude disputed my use of the word “commercial,” thinking that previous years had movies with bigger stars. Which is true, a bit, but those movies weren't opening in three weeks in 3,000 theaters. Sometimes it helps to be a nerd and crunch the numbers beforehand.

So were there elements in “Spy” that the trailer ignored and that made it seem opening-night worthy? Not really. Basically, it's a genre spoof that still buys into the genre. (See: “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “The Other Guys,” most every genre spoof ever made.) We laugh at our doppelganger, our schlub, struggling to make it in wish-fulfillment territory, but in the end we want them to succeed. And they do. They still look and act like us but become them. Hoorah.

It's most interesting in gender terms. The film is not only womencentric but feminist. McCarthy's character starts out as an assistant to Jude Law's character but becomes the better spy. McCarthy's assistant is female (Miranda Hart, funny) and their boss is female (Allison Janney, ditto), while the men are either testosterone-filled incompetents (Jason Statham), pretty-boy incompetents (Jude Law) or horny incompetents (Peter Serafinowicz). Its womencentric take is really the only reason it's playing in film festivals and opening ours.

This is the 41st SIFF, and 41 often seems a letdown after 40. The opening night movie wasn't as intriguing (last year: “Jimi: All Is By My Side”), and the opening-night speeches weren't quite as good. In 2014, Mayor Murray talked about seeing Barbra Streisand's “Funny Girl” nine times as a kid, adding, “By the ninth time, my parents really should've known I was gay.” This year he mostly complained about the oil rig in Elliott Bay. I forget SIFF's slogan last year but this year it's “Be Watching,” which fits laid-back, overly passive Seattle, but also has a creepy vibe to it. Particularly with the binoculars.

Even so, last night was fun. I loved running into Teresa and Erik, Kelly of Lark, Erin, and the longtime festival passholders who thought we didn't know much about movies. I liked the energy at McCaw Hall and afterwards at the Phelps Center. It's one of the few times that people in Seattle actually dress up, and it's fun to do the same. Beatles question: how does it feel to be one of the beautiful people? Tiring, actually. I'll be happy to see the rest of the fest in my street clothes.

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Posted at 08:15 AM on May 15, 2015 in category Seattle
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Thursday May 14, 2015

Your Go-To Stat In Case Any Asshole Complains About How Much Teachers Make

Here:

[Pres. Obama] pointed out that the top 25 hedge-fund managers made more money last year than all the kindergarten teachers in the country.

It's from Paul Ellie's New Yorker post, “The President and Poverty,” which misses an obvious cultural point. It's all about how important issues back in the day (early 1960s) were put into books, read by presidents, and things got done. Now they're put into books, read by presidents, and things don't get done. 

What happened? 

Elie finds fault here:

... because an obstinate Congress holds the President and the poor in equal contempt, rendering the world's most-powerful man something like an armchair public-policy analyst rather than a policy maker.

But I blame us, too. We're not, in Gore Vidal's phrase, a serious people. We don't follow the news (unless it's tragedy or gossip or both), we don't read serious books, we don't have serious conversations. We're children: We keep asking Hollywood to tell us the same story over and over again, and that story stars superheroes.

Oh, and those hedge-fund managers? They pay only 15 percent in taxes. Less than you, most likely. 

5/15 ADDENDUM: The Washington Post crunches the numbers on the stat. It's worse than I thought. What does it say about a country that the pay of 25 hedge-fund managers > the pay of 158,000 kindergarten teachers? And what does it say that the pay of teachers is a GOP/FOX News talking point? That we debate that rather than the pay of hedge-fund managers? And don't debate that those 25 hedge-fund managers pay less in taxes than those 158,000 kindergarten teachers? 

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Posted at 01:04 PM on May 14, 2015 in category Politics
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What I'm Seeing at SIFF 2015

Here's a note I got this morning from John Hartl, Seattle's émenince grise of movie reviewing, after I asked him what might be good at the Seattle International Film Festival this year:

I've seen plenty of good stuff, including “Flowers,” “Love & Mercy,” “The Boss, Anatomy of a Crime” and “The Golden Hill.” And some bad stuff too, like “Sleeping With Other People” and “Summer in Provence” and “Seoul Searching.” Take care, and don't watch too much.

I'd already gotten my tickets, of course, and, yes, I'll be watching too much. Here's what I wound up going for, sorted by country, and with superhelpful links to the SIFF site for more info—even if the SIFF site isn't exactly superhelpful (it's slow and not exactly user-friendly):

Movie Country Reason why
Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll Cambodia doc on rock history + U.S. Southeast Asia politics
Cave of the Spider Women/ Cave of the Silken Web China The first is a 1927 Chinese film — before Hollywood united all our tastes and predilections
The Connection France Jean Dujardin as Gene Hackman
Vincent  France Alt take on superhero mythology
The Apu trilogy India Because I've never seen it (I hang my head in shame)
Theeb Jordan Great reviews + I know nothing of Jordan
Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains Kyrgyzstan Looks beautiful + I know nothing of Kyrgyzstan
Love, Theft & Other Entanglements Palestine Dark comedy about Middle East + I know nothing of the Middle East
Accused Netherlands Miscarriage of Dutch justice
Meeting Dr. Sun Taiwan Looks funny + Taiwan (my old stomping grounds)
Mr. Holmes UK Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes in retirement? Indubitably!
Love & Mercy USA On Brian Wilson; someone bring the Barenaked Ladies
Slow West USA Great buzz from Sundance
Being Evel USA He's Evel Knievel, damnit!

You?

 2015 SIFF movies

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Posted at 12:35 PM on May 14, 2015 in category Movies
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'Mad Max' is 'One of the Finest Action Films Ever Made'

From Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere:

I've more or less said it already: George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros., 5.15) is one of the finest action films ever made — phenomenal, triple-A, pulse-pounding, perfectly performed by a live-wire cast topped by Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, occasionally hilarious and superbly cut, timed, captured and choreographed...a grand slam if there ever was one for this type of thing. And what would that be? Call it an apocalyptic chase thriller with heart and humanity (underneath the rubber and fire and flying bodies it's about wounded characters rediscovering their compassion and trust). And it's extra special, I feel, because of the respect and allegiance it shows for women as leaders, fighters, nurturers, survivors. Without taking anything away from Hardy, who brings the legendary Max Rockatansky to life just as winningly as young Mel Gibson did 30-plus years ago, Fury Road is very much a woman's action film, and all the richer for that.

Despite being a big Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron fan, I wasn't too excited for this. I'm not a fan of either Aussie exploitation flicks or postapocalyptic yadda yaddas. But Wells' enthusiasm has me intrigued. 

Certainly looks pretty

In his post, Wells also gets some good digs in at “Furious 7.”

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Posted at 08:56 AM on May 14, 2015 in category Movie Reviews
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Wednesday May 13, 2015

The 5 Best Quotes from Chris Rock's Recent Guardian Interview

On movie comedies: “Most comedies aren’t really movies – they’re just vehicles for the funny person that’s starring in them. No one cares where the story’s going, and if it doesn’t work, they’ll just throw in another set piece. But with 2 Days, the jokes come out of the drama. Woody doesn’t make comedies – he makes sad dramas with jokes.”

On Scott Rudin, Rock's “Top Five” producer, whose Sony-hack emails included jokes about Pres. Obama's watching typically black films such as “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave”: “He had my back the whole time so I was able to go into a bubble and write the movie I wanted without dealing with anyone else. Scott Rudin's not racist. Scott Rudin hates EVERYBODY.” 

On Bill Cosby: “I haven't talked to him in a long time. The whole thing is just sad. What can you say? I'm not gonna defend him and I'm not go Judd [Apatow] on him. You do still have to wait, he hasn't been convicted. But it's sad.”

On being black while driving: “I've always been stopped by the cops. Cops stop black guys who drive nice cars.”

On Pres. Obama: “Oh yeah, he's been good. Great, even. He wasn't going to solve America, but the country was off the rails and he was like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, you know? He really sorted shit out.”

-- from Chris Rock's interview with Hadley Freeman in The Guardian.

Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Top Five

Really just another excuse to upload another photo of Rosario Dawson. 

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Posted at 07:26 AM on May 13, 2015 in category Culture
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Tuesday May 12, 2015

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Short age, long movie.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is a good comic book movie with interesting themes, smart dialogue, kick-ass action sequences and a few overlong and dull romantic subplots. Writer-director Joss Whedon throws it all in there. The Avengers big battle is less with Ultron than with the kitchen sink.

So why do I feel unthrilled? Is it because I don’t quite get how Ultron was created and/or defeated? Is it because the sound and fury between these two acts signifies nothing? Is it because I’m 52?

Avengers: Age of UltronI think it’s because I’m 52 and I’ve seen this movie before. Battle, pause; battle, pause; battle, lead-up to final battle, final battle, epilogue. Credits. Next villain introduced: Hello, Thanos! (Dibs on title.)

It’s ironic that puppets on strings are a theme here, since you sense the corporate hand in moving the Avengers about the globe for international box-office advantage: first Eastern Europe, then Africa, then South Korea. To Marvel’s credit, two of the battlegrounds are fictional, Sokovia and Wakanda, where, no matter how good the movie, the box office will be zero.

Although maybe I’m just being cynical. Maybe the Avengers are moved about the globe to live up to the “Earth” part of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”

Mac vs. PC
There’s a line from Victoria Williams’  “Crazy Mary” I’ve always loved:

What you fear the most
Could meet you halfway

That’s this. The movie is about the Avengers dealing with the aftermath of the battle of New York, which is like the U.S. dealing with the aftermath of  9/11. And how the things we do to protect ourselves may actually make us less safe.

The movie begins in medias res, with the Avengers in Sokovia attacking a castle and bantering amongst themselves. It’s a bit confusing. There’s some guy named Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), who’s been experimenting on people? And in the process has created two new super-powered beings: Pietro/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen)? Even though these two are mutants in the Marvel universe? At least we get a good Whedonesque line. Strucker: Can we hold them? Flunky (hands in the air): They’re the Avengers.

After the castle’s defenses are breached, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) comes across some doohickeys in a basement lab, where Wanda puts a spell on him, making him see what he fears the most. In his case, it’s the Earth attacked, the Avengers dead, himself guilty. Back at Avengers headquarters in midtown Manhattan, this fear propels him to create Ultron, which he foresees as “a suit of armor around the world.” Except he and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) can’t make it work after, like, a couple days. So while they’re at a swanky party on the top floor of Avengers headquarters—nice cameo from Stan “The Man” Lee as a drunk WWII vet—Ultron (voice of James Spader) creates himself, then defeats Jarvis, Stark’s mainframe computer program, in a battle of the computer programs. It’s like Mac vs. PC. (Ultron, evil and full of bugs, is obviously the PC.)

Eventually, our heroes track Ultron to Wakanda, Africa, which has a rich source of vibranium, and which was used to create Captain America’s shield. Ultron wants it for ... himself? I guess? Anyway, there’s another all-out battle, and Scarlet Witch gets into the heads of most of the rest of the Avengers, and they have bad visions. Thor is stuck at an Asgaardian party, for example, while Captain America is stuck at a World War II-era party. So not exactly the worst visions in the world. Then an annoyed Hulk and a supersized Iron Man battle each other and destroy a small city.

Third battle’s in Seoul, where Ultron is trying to create a humanoid figure for himself, with skin and everything. Although since his goal is to destroy the human race, why would he want to appear more human? Either way, the Avengers steal the in-utero project, and use it to recreate Jarvis, who is renamed the Vision (Paul Bettany). Then the final battle, in which Ultron lifts a huge chunk of Sokovia into the sky in order to drop it and recreate the global dust cloud that killed the dinosaurs. This time for us.

Psst. The Avengers stop him in the nick of time.

Grace in our failings
I liked the oddness of Ultron. He’s buggy. At one point, in a big speech, he even seems to forget the word children.

Everyone creates the thing they fear. Men of peace create engines of war. Avengers create invaders. Parents create ... smaller people? Um. Children. [Chuckles] Lost the word there.

But I don’t think Whedon does enough with this. Most of Ultron’s schtick is generically malevolent: “Your extinction,” etc.

I also like how Ultron and Vision are the best and worst aspects of Tony Stark, but again Whedon doesn’t do much with this. Sure, in Wakanda, Ulysses Klau notices Ultron’s Starkian similarities and gets his arm ripped off for the effort. And Ultron does have a slower, more methodical version of Stark’s laser-sharp wit—as when he considers what humanity has done with vibranium. “The most versatile substance on the planet,” he says, “and they used it to make a frisbee.”

This bit of dialogue between Vision and Ultron is probably the best in the movie:

Vision: I suppose we’re both disappointments.
Ultron [chuckles]: I suppose we are.
Vision: Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.
Ultron: They’re doomed
Vision: Yes... but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.
Ultron: You're unbearably naive.
Vision: Well... I was born yesterday.

It’s also the key to why I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the movie. “There is grace in their failings” is a great line, but for the Avengers here, as for most heroes in most roller-coaster movies, failure is not an option, while most of the main characters are forced to stay alive for the sequel. Where’s the surprise? Nowhere. We exult in the ride, but there’s not exactly grace in it.

I have to hand it to Whedon, though. He gives us the kitchen sink yet somehow leaves us wanting more. One word more, to be precise.

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Posted at 07:04 AM on May 12, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Monday May 11, 2015

Why Do We Remember What We Remember? Oct. 4, 1970

It's a vague memory.

My parents were at Pearl Park on a Sunday afternoon playing volleyball but my brother Chris and I didn't go. Had I been sick? (I was a sickly child.) Was I faking it to get out of going to Pearl Park? (I didn't like Pearl Park much.) Or was it because the Twins were on TV?

That afternoon, they were playing the Orioles in the American League Championship Series, but for some reason my father thought they didn't have a chance. And he was right. He also probably wanted us to get out and exercise in the fresh air rather than watch our professional athletes lose to their professional athletes on the boob tube. He was right about that, too. But Chris and I stayed behind.

1970 ALCS game 2Here's what I remember. At one point in the game, the Twins two best players, Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva, hit back-to-back homers, and Chris and I went a little crazy, throwing throw pillows around and generally mucking up the living room. I remember it being a kind of futile celebration because the Twins didn't win. (They didn't win any of those ALCSes against the O's.) We also didn't clean up after the celebration, so when my parents returned home from volleyball, the living room was still a mess and we got chewed out for it. I remember thinking the chewing out was somehow unjust. “But Killebrew and Oliva went back-to-back!” I said, or something like it. No good. We were punished in some way. The Twins were punished in another. 

Here's what I wonder: Why do I remember this?

  • Because Killebrew and Oliva went back-to-back?
  • Because we were admonished?
  • Because it was the first time we were allowed to be in the house by ourselves? (Chris was 9, I was 7.)
  • Because I knew we should've cleaned up the mess in the living room but still felt betrayed that we were admonished since Killebrew and Oliva went back-to-back, which is surely a cause for a messy celebration?

Here's what I love about the Internet: I can find out the exact day that happened.  

Even pre-Interent it would've been fairly easy with the right book. It was obviously one of six games—the two best-of-five series the Twins played with the O's in 1969 and 1970, in which they never won a game. Just get the box scores. Find out when did Killebrew and Oliva both hit homeruns. See if it was in the same inning.

But with the Internet, and BaseballReference.com, it's so much easier. Bing, boom.

It was Oct. 4, 1970, Game 2 of the ALCS (the Twins had lost the first one 10-6), bottom of the 4th inning, Twins down 4-0. Leo Cardenas walked and Killebrew followed with a homer. Then Oliva hit a homer. Suddenly it was 4-3. We were back in it. Time to whoop it up. Time to throw throw pillows.

Looking over the game, the 5th innning is when it gets interesting. First, the O's loaded the bases with nobody out when Stan Williams was summoned to replace Bill Zepp. He got: foul out, fly out, strike out. Nobody scored. Nice! Then it was the Twins turn for futility. With one out, Stan Williams (again) walked, Cesar Tovar singled, and Leo Cardenas singled. Except for some reason Williams was sent home on a single to left and was thrown out at the plate. So instead of the bases loaded with one out for Harmon Killebrew, it was two men on with two out, and Harmon popped up. We had a chance to chase O's starting pitcher Dave McNally. Instead, McNally went the distance, and even hit a double in the top of the ninth to start a seven-run rally that really drove the nail into the Twins' coffin. Final: 11-3.

By this point, though, I was probably getting reamed for the messed-up living room.

Photo: Early Topps attempt for live-action baseball cards led to some less-than-spectacular results.

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Posted at 09:28 AM on May 11, 2015 in category Baseball
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Sunday May 10, 2015

Box Office: Second 'Avengers' has Second-Best Second Weekend of All Time

Avengers Age of Ultron

Avengers smash.

It's usually never good for a movie to drop nearly 60% off its first weekend box office total; but when that movie debuted at $191 million, well, then it's not so bad. 

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” won the weekend again with an estimated $77.2 million haul. If that number holds, it will be the second-best second weekend of all time, after, of course, “The Avengers,” which grossed $103 million in its second weekend. There are six other movies whose second weekends landed in the 70s: from “Avatar” and “The Dark Knight” (both $75 mil), through “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “Iron Man 3” and “Shrek 2,” to the original “Spider-Man” ($71). There are only four movies with second weekends in the 60s, so this is rarefied territory.

Meanwhile, “Hot Pursuit,” the road-trip comedy starring Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara, wasn't exactly in hot pursuit of “Ultron,” as it debuted at $13 mil. That was good for second place. The rest is piddly stuff: $5 mil and below. It's all about “Ultron” right now. It's “Ultron” being “Ultron.”

Except at the worldwide box office, where there's still intrigue whether “Furious 7,” which is in fourth place all-time with $1.46 billion, can catch the original “The Avengers” at $1.51 billion. It might seem easy, a mere $50 million away; but “Furious 7” is winding down, grossing, for example, $5 mil at the domestic box office this weekend. That said, and despite it being a muscle-head muscle-car movie, “7” is getting its real juice from non-Americans. It's ony the third movie in history to gross more than $1 billion abroad. The others are Cameron films, “Titanic” and “Avatar,” which are in leagues by themselves.

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Posted at 11:45 AM on May 10, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office
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'In the Republican Party, Crazy is a Constituency'

Bill Maher mocks the tea-party crazies who think Pres. Obama and the U.S. military, via “Jade Helm 15,” are planning to invade Texas and impose martial law:

Money rant:

You rural white people who say “Don't mess with Texas”? Let me tell you something: You are among the most left-alone, least messed-with people on the planet. You can carry an assault rifle into Chili's, what more do you want? The right to do it shirtless? You're practically your own independent country now. You've outlawed abortion, you've gutted government regulations, you're armed to the teeth, you're the white Somalia. Stop worrying about getting sucked into the New World Order, you're barely in the current world order.

I would add a rant about the commentators on the left, who tend to offer, “Yes, but ...” reactions to the conspiracy theory. Yes, it's a bit crazy, but it's rooted in the militarization of our police force. Except it really isn't. The conspiracy theorists love their military, they love their guns, they just don't love their current president. Imagine if Pres. Bush were still in office. Would this conspiracy theory have legs? No. If this were 2006, “Jade Helm 15” military exercises wouldn't be a source for conspiracy theories but an excuse for another barbecue. Shirtless.

ADDENDUM: Amy Davidson of The New Yorker clarifies matters without false equivalencies. 

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Posted at 06:41 AM on May 10, 2015 in category Politics
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Saturday May 09, 2015

A Quick Look at SIFF's 2015 Gala & Party Movies

P and I have the Gala & Party passes for SIFF again, and that'll get us into the following:

Of these, I'm most looking forward to “Me and Earl” and “Excuse My French.” Not a Greenaway fan. “Scrappy transgender prostitutes” sends off alarm bells. Opening and closing seem particularly middle-of-the-road. Fingers crossed on “End of the Tour.”

Anyway that's already eight movies—if I go to them all. But what else looks good?

Here's how I handled it last year, with mixed results. 

 Maybe I just like coming-of-age stories. 

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Posted at 10:12 AM on May 09, 2015 in category Movies
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Lancelot Links

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Posted at 06:27 AM on May 09, 2015 in category Lancelot Links
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Friday May 08, 2015

Quotes of the Day

If it feels like you've been getting ripped off all your life, you have:

The salient basic numbers are these. Since 1979, compensation for the top 1 percent has grown 138 percent, while median wages have increased just 6.1 percent. Worker productivity has grown 63.5 percent in this time, and if wages had kept pace with productivity, the annual median wage today, instead of being around $35,300, would be $54,400.

That's from Michael Tomasky's piece, “2016: The Republicans Write,” in which, in The New York Review of Books, he reviews the various books by Messrs. Rubio, Santorum, Ryan, Carson, Huckabee, Walker, and comes away unimpressed about their views on the most pressing economic issue of our time. Another key quote:

Here's the difference between Clinton and the Republicans. She, like virtually all Democrats, accepts the basic fact that wages for median workers have been more or less stagnant since 1979. She probably accepts the idea that this stagnation, alongside rising inequality, is the greatest economic challenge we face. She probably accepts the standard set of reasons that economists offer about why this has happened—globalization, technological change, immigration patterns, a decrease in workers' bargaining power, the rise in high-end compensation, and various federal tax and wage policies. And finally, she probably accepts that the solutions to the problem are chiefly economic solutions—changing tax policy, giving workers greater “voice,” taking steps to ameliorate the negative effects of globalization, and so on.

The extent to which Republicans accept any of this is far from clear.

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Posted at 08:04 AM on May 08, 2015 in category Quote of the Day
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Thursday May 07, 2015

Jim Palmer ... Minnesota Twin?

The following is from Bill Pennington's extensive bio, “Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius,” which is fun to read. As a Twins fan, however, this passage was not:

[As a scout, Billy Martin] begged the Twins to sign a young high school pitcher from Scottsdale, Arizona, he had scouted even though the pitcher, James Alvin Palmer, wanted the princely sum of $50,000 as a bonus. Billy himself had negotiated the deal and the Twins would have first dibs. Billy insisted it would be worth it. But [Twins owner Calvin] Griffith balked.

Jim Palmer ... Minnesota Twin?Your mind immediately clicks into “What if?” territory.

So if the Twins had signed Palmer ... could he have helped them win the 1965 World Series? Probably not. Palmer was a 5-4 rookie, and pitching wasn't really the Twins problem against the Dodgers. Or their pitching wasn't the problem. Sandy Koufax's was. 

What about '67? The Dream Season for the BoSox, who won the four-way tie for the AL crown. Surely Palmer would've helped the Twins win two or three more games, and thus the title. Well, maybe. But that was the year he got injured for a season and a half.

1969 is when it gets interesting. Palmer returned, went 16-4 with a 2.34 ERA for the Orioles, who won 109 games and swept the Billy Martin-led Twins in the newly devised American League Championship Series. But put Palmer on the Twins instead of the O's? Does the balance shift? Do the Twins go the World Series against the Mets? And do we keep Billy Martin as manager as a result? And is it the Twins pitching staff that suddenly becomes acclaimed? Three Jims and a Dave: Palmer, Perry, Kaat and Boswell. I might've grown up cheering on a championship team. I might've grown up feeling like a winner.

Instead, poor Palmer had to settle for a 268-152 Hall-of-Fame career, in which he won three Cy Young awards and the hearts (or something) of women everywhere with his '70s underwear ads. During his reign, the O's won six pennants and three World Series Championships. The Twins during the same period won bupkis. They would have to wait until three years after Palmer retired before they won their first championship. All because of a $50,000 bonus. 

There's a reason Charlie Brown is from Minnesota. Rats.

 Photoshop courtesy of pb branding & design.

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Posted at 06:13 AM on May 07, 2015 in category Baseball
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Wednesday May 06, 2015

Quote of the Day

“In very significant respects, we are deeper into the woods than we've ever been. The U.S. Supreme Court, in my judgment, is more conservative now than it has been since the Roger Taney court—the Dred Scott case in 1857. I think a majority of the justices—one whose skin color is like mine leading the fray—look for ways to overturn precedents set by the Warren court. Section 1983 and the 14th Amendment have been, in my view, turned on their heads so that they are now used to prevent blacks and minorities from enjoying the fruits of American citizenship.

”There are always exceptions, but if these justices were on the court in 1968 I would have found something else to do.“

-- Retired judge U.W. Clemon, who, as an attorney, filed key civil rights lawsuits early in his career, including one against Bear Bryant in 1969 to desegregate the University of Alabama football team, in the oral history, ”We've Come a Rather Remarkable Way," in the 2015 issue of Alabama Super Lawyers magazine. On newsstands now. 

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Posted at 08:50 PM on May 06, 2015 in category Quote of the Day
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Is this SIFF's Most Commercial Opening Night Ever?

The film that opens the Seattle International Film Festival is often full of the intrigue of the unknown: an African film, a local favorite, a black-and-white updated Shakespeare, a serious portrait of a local rock legend.

Not this year. This year on opening night, May 14, we've got Paul Feig's broad comedy, “Spy,” starring Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Jason Statham, Bobby Canavale and Morena Baccarin. At least the trailer seems funny:

“Spy” is getting a wide release June 5th, so one wonders what's the point of showing it here. That we get to see it three weeks early? It's not even premiering here. South by Southwest got it March 15th and the Louisiana International Film Festival (LIFF) has it May 7th. We're thankless thirds.

Larger question: Is “Spy” the most commercial film to open the Seattle International Film Festival? Here's that history, along with each film's widest domestic theatrical release, its domestic box office (unadjusted), and its current IMDb rating:

Year SIFF's Opening Night Movie Widest Release Domestic Box Office IMDb Rating
1991 The Miracle
41 $835,519 6.8
1992 Le Bal des casse-pieds 
n/a n/a 5.5
1993 Much Ado About Nothing  204 $22,549,338 7.4
1994 Little Buddha  139 $4,858,139 6.0
1995 Braveheart  2,037 $75,609,945 8.4
1996 The Whole Wide World  20 $375,757 7.3
1997 Addicted to Love  2,021 $34,673,095 6.1
1998 Firelight  39 $785,482 7.3
1999 The Dinner Game
67 $4,071,548 7.7
2000 Love's Labour's Lost  14 $299,792 6.1
2001 The Anniversary Party 120 $4,047,329 6.4
2002 Igby Goes Down
156 $4,777,465 7.0
2003 Valentin 15 $275,968 7.7
2004 The Notebook 2,323 $81,001,787 7.9
2005 Me and You and Everyone We Know  160 $3,885,134 7.4
2006 The Illusionist 1,438 $39,868,642 7.6
2007 Son of Rambow  155 $1,785,505 7.0
2008 Battle in Seattle  40 $224,169 6.7
2009 In the Loop  92 $2,388,804 7.5
2010 The Extra Man  33 $453,377 5.9
2011 The First Grader  36 $332,306 7.4
2012 Your Sister's Sister  101 $1,636,190 6.7
2013 Much Ado About Nothing  222 $4,328,849 7.3
2014 Jimi: All Is By My Side  75 $340,911 5.6
2015 Spy
? ? ?

SIFF mostly premeries movies that don't get much of a shot elsewhere, which is what film festivals should do. But if “Spy” follows the pattern of recent films starring McCarthy, it'll open in 3,000+ theaters. Which, yes, would be the widest release for a SIFF opening-nighter.

On the other hand, the above list is hardly full of greatness, is it? We've got two brilliant comedies (“The Dinner Game,” “In the Loop”), one Oscar winner (“Braveheart”) and two Much Ado About Nothings (Branaugh's and Whedon's). There are also several films with Seattle connectons: “Jimi: All Is By My Side”; “Your Sister's Sister”; “Battle in Seattle.” I like all that. But there's also a lot of depressive, dull fare. Out of 25 movies, how many of these would you watch again? Or once?

So maybe it's time to go another way.

Even so, opening with “Spy” feels like a bit of a cop out. Anyone know the story behind it?

SIFF 2015

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Posted at 06:41 AM on May 06, 2015 in category Seattle
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Tuesday May 05, 2015

Dig If You Will the Picture: A Few Thoughts on Seeing 'Purple Rain' 31 Years Later

Prince Purple Rain

Nobody digs his music but himself? 

Last Thursday, P and I went to see a showing of Prince's “Purple Rain” at Central Cinema, a fun, dine-in movie theater in Seattle's Central district. It was part of the “Movies in Black & White” series that my friend Jason Lamb hosts in Portland and Seattle. And yes, “Purple Rain” is not in black and white (it's in purple), but that's not the point of the series. The point of the series is to screen movies that lead to racial discussions. Tough thing to do. There's always a lot of posturing in racial discussions. No one these days wants to be Bull Connor. Or even Laurie Pritchett. 

Anyway, I didn't really talk much during the post-screening discussion, which turned less on racial matters than gender matters. A lot of misogyny in the film: girls tossed in trash bins, hit, stripped, ignored, etc. This attitude, in fact, is the thing that needs to be overcome in the film. At least that's what the Kid needs to overcome in order to become a success. He's one of four acts at First Avenue in Minneapolis (the club I went to growing up), and he may be on his on his way out. As the club owner, a fat black dude wearing an ugly Detroit Tigers cap, tells him, “Nobody digs ye music but yeself.” But then the Kid opens himself up to collaboration with bandmates Wendy and Lisa, and he sings “Purple Rain,” which they wrote, and that brings the house down. And he finally becomes successful. 

Here are the two objections I have with that story arc:

  • It's bullshit. The notion that becoming less selfish and more inclusive leads to success is a tired Hollywood trope that is rarely if ever borne out in reality.  
  • The first song we hear the Kid play is “Let's Go Crazy,” which is one of the greatest rock songs ever written. It's also the music nobody digs but himself. Which is ... crazy. 

It's really the second objection that I could never wrap my mind around. Just how dumb is that club owner? How dense are the flat-footed kids of First Ave not to recognize one hellbent, balls-out, rock-n-roll song? 

Other thoughts on the film 31 years later:

  • The First Ave in the film was a lot more racially diverse than the First Ave I went to in '83 and '84.
  • A lot of early-MTV sexism. At the same time, Apollonia. Good god, girl.
  • The only real actor in the film was Clarence Williams III, Link from “Mod Squad,” who played the Kid's father. He has a stillness to him. Everyone else was a B actor at best. But Morris Day was fun.

I do think it's funny seeing Prince all duded up—hair a tower of curls, shirt ruffled, suit as purple as the Joker's—tooling around the scabby Minnesota countryside on his motorcycle as if it's the most ordinary thing in the world. Naw. Minneapolis has a touch of the Amish in it. We look askance at anyone calling attention to themselves. We're Bud Grant on the sidelines, Garrison Keillor on the radio, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale coming in second and smiling in presidential races. Prince's outlandishness was probably in reaction to all that. No wonder he wanted to go crazy. 

Overall, the music still rocks but the movie hasn't aged well. It's kind of astonishing to remember that not only was it a huge box office hit—knocking “Ghostbusters” out of the No. 1 slot at the end of July 1984, and grossing a total of $68 million, or $165 million adjusted—but it was a huge critical hit, too. Both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel included it in their top 10 movies of 1984.  

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Posted at 06:47 AM on May 05, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s
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Monday May 04, 2015

The Game Behind the Game: Just How Smart was Billy Martin?

The following is a passage from Bill Pennington's book, “Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius,” which I'm thoroughly enjoying. It's indicative of just how much we don't see during a baseball game; and how much some people do see:

The Dodgers manager was Billy's mentor from the 1949 Oakland Oaks, Charlie Dressen, who had taught Billy many of his sign-stealing secrets. In the top of the fifth inning [of Game 4 of the 1952 World Series], with the Yankees ahead 1–0, the Dodgers had runners at second and third with one out and pitcher Joe Black at the plate.

Dressen, as he had been in Oakland, was also the Dodgers' third-base coach. From his position at second base, Billy watched closely as Dressen flashed a flurry of signals at Black. Dressen's tempo and movements in the coach's box quickened, which Dressen—watching opposing managers—had always said was a tip-off that some kind of play was on. Sizing up the situation, Billy suspected a suicide squeeze and got Yogi Berra's attention behind the plate. He made a fist, turned his hand upside down, and waved it slightly—the sign for a pitchout. Berra crouched and made the same signal to Yankees pitcher Allie Reynolds.

The pitch was appropriately wide of the plate, and Black could not reach it with his bat as he attempted to bunt. Berra then easily tagged out the Dodgers' Andy Pafko, who had dashed toward home plate on the pitch. The suicide squeeze had failed. The Dodgers never scored in the game, losing 2–0.

“Tell me another player who would have seen that?” Stengel asked reporters afterward. “That's why he's my winner.”

Casey Stengel, Billy Martin and the 1950s Yankees

Stengel and his winner, with a couple of schmoes in the background. 

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Posted at 05:44 PM on May 04, 2015 in category Books
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Movie Review: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In 1994, I was living with three other people in a house on 77th and Sunnyside in Seattle, writing in my spare time, and schlepping at a bookstore warehouse. One day that spring, I was biking home from work when I turned onto Woodlawn Avenue near Gregg’s Green Lake Cycles and ran into a cloud of exhaust. I quickly saw the cause: a riderless motorcycle putt-putt-putting by the curb next to a café. I’m sure my face screwed up into a kind of “What kind of asshole would leave his bike...?” when in rapid succession: 1) I noticed the tall lanky dude in leathers sitting at the café’s outside table; 2) recognized him as Krist Novoselic of Nirvana; 3) saw how bereft he looked; and 4) knew why. Just a few days earlier, Kurt Cobain had taken his life. That’s about when Novoselic noticed me noticing him. My face must’ve still looked annoyed because his face took on a combative look. It challenged mine to say or do something. I simply nodded and kept biking. Anything else, even a kind word, would’ve felt intrusive.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of HeckIn Brett Morgen’s powerful documentary, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” Novoselic, older and balder, still looks bereft. It’s 25 years later, and he’s still wondering what the hell happened. In a sense, that’s what the doc is about.

There aren’t many talking heads here. Per the title, it’s mostly montages and mash-ups from family photos and 8-milimeter film, plus audio of Kurt’s younger days set to animation, along with illustrations out of Cobain’s numerous notebooks. This last might be the most interesting gateway into his mind. All the things he writes. The things he writes again and again. Sometimes it’s breakthrough stuff, such as the word NIRVANA appearing as he’s listening to punk rock in Aberdeen. Sometimes it’s sadly prophetic. “I don’t mind if I don’t have a mind,” for example. Or more explicitly: “The joke’s on you so kill yourself.”

In Bloom
The doc’s title comes from one of Cobain’s audiotape mashups, made in Aberdeen in the 1980s, and when you think about—and I really hadn’t—you realize that almost everything he did was montage. His lyrics are snippets. Sometimes they’re epigrams (“I’m worse at what I do best”); other times, incomprehensible (“Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet”). Even the chorus to his most famous song, the song that sprung us all from the awful ‘80s, is a montage of thoughts that only form cohesiveness through the drive, energy and anger of the music:

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto
An albino
A mosquito
My libido
Yeah

I knew the basics of Cobain: Aberdeen, punk scene, reluctant rock star, stomach troubles, heroin, Courtney Love, boom. “Montage” fills in the blanks.

He was born four years later than I, enjoyed a happy childhood as I did; then his parents divorced as mine did. It’s shocking seeing some of these similarities. We shared pop culture. As a kid he drew H.R. Pufnstuf and as a teen recorded the Brady Bunch singing “Sunshine Day.” This last was surely ironic. At the same time, there is a sense that, having lost his idyllic childhood, he wanted it back. He wanted normalcy.  

Instead, after the divorce, he was shunted from parent to parent to grandparent, but nobody could take him for more than a few weeks. There is some suggestion of hyperactivity. There is some suggestion of some form of Ritalin that didn’t take.

I tend to think of angry guys as tough guys, but Cobain was hyper-sensitive. He hated and feared humiliation and couldn’t stand negative reviews or being psychoanalyzed. In high school, he wasn’t just not popular; he was reviled and isolated. There’s a tale told in animation—narrated by him?—of his doofus friends visiting a low-IQ fat woman who lived alone, and mocking her and distracting her while they swiped liquor from her basement. When Cobain realizes what’s happening we expect (thanks in part to Hollywood) that he’ll break free of these idiots, or somehow come to the woman’s aid; instead he returns by himself to have sex with her—his first sexual experience. When word gets out, he’s mocked in school as the “retard fucker.” It’s a small, sad story that leaves a bad taste, but it’s redeemed by its brutal honesty.

Most of the talking heads are members of Kurt’s family—mom, sister, dad, stepmom—and they navigate us through his childhood; but once he’s living with (and off of) his girlfriend, we delve into his mind with the audio/animation and the notebooks springing to life. It’s an effective treatment. We don’t get Novoselic saying, “I met Kurt when ...” or “We decided on the name when ...” It’s Kurt’s thoughts and stories and homemade audio leading to Sub-POP and rock posters and the beautiful burst of Nirvana’s cover of “Molly’s Lips.” The way Morgen tells the story is a little like Nirvana’s music (quiet verse leading to angry chorus), but it also gives us a sense of what it’s like to go from nowhere to everywhere, as Cobain did. One moment Nirvana is doing a promo show at a record store on the Ave, the next they’re playing stadium concerts. The huge crowds, shot from the stage, have never seemed more monstrous.

About a Girl
Cobain’s rise is fascinating—as rises tend to be—but then it becomes the Kurt and Courtney show and gets dull fast. To me, there’s not many people less interesting than 1)  happy loving couples, and 2) junkies. I would’ve cut some of this. But the rest is powerful and inventive.

We’re left with questions. The stomach troubles that led to the heroin use—surely he saw a doctor about this once he became rich. Or was he too far gone on heroin by then? Morgen seems to imply that he finally took his life because of hyper-sensitivity over Courtney Love merely thinking about cheating on him—we end with Cobain playing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on MTV Unplugged—but is this a reach, given everything else? The fame, the stomach troubles, the heroin—a word, by the way, he never learned to spell, adding a Quayle-esque “e” to the end every time. Left unmentioned, but jarring to me as I watched, is how much his mom looks like what Courtney Love might look like in 20 years.

There’s a lot that’s disturbing in the doc but a beautiful honesty, too. It’s about as up-close a look as you’ll get of a major cultural figure. It’s almost claustrophobic.

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Posted at 08:10 AM on May 04, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Sunday May 03, 2015

The Avengers '78

This is pretty good although the “'78” is a bit of a misnomer. I'll give them the Hulk but the Thor episodes came about in, I believe, 1988, while the Captain America movie was from 1979. I know that one for sure because I suffered through it last year.

Anyone know the “Black Widow” or “Iron Man” or “Tony Stark” characters? I love the Hawkeye takeoff. But my favorite joke is probably “Paul Lynde as Loki.” You had to live through the '70s to truly appreciate that one. 

Good theme music, too. Yes, we were lame. 

Now these characters, who barely made it onto TV in the '70s in this watered-down form, gross $1.5 billion worldwide from one movie alone.

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Posted at 06:04 PM on May 03, 2015 in category Superheroes
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Quote of the Day

“I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't think of a really good lie.”

-- David Letterman, explaining why he was so candid with the public during his 2009 sex scandal, in a Q&A with Dave Itzkoff in today's New York Times.

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Posted at 02:45 PM on May 03, 2015 in category Quote of the Day
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Avengers Can't Beat Themselves as 'Ultron' Grosses a Mere $187 Million at U.S. Box Office

Losers.

The box office of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” couldn’t live up to the domestic opening of “The Avengers,” grossing a mere $187 million instead of the $207 million its predecessor grossed in May 2012.

Of course, that $187 is the second-highest-grossing opening ever. “Iron Man 3” at $174 is third. Avengers assemble.

Avengers symbol“Ultron,” which opened a week earlier abroad, is already at $626 million worldwide.

All of this box office slowed the furious ascent of “Furious 7,” particularly domestically (it wound up in third place with $6 mil), but worldwide the muscle-car movie is now fourth all-time at $1.42 billion. Will it catch the first “Avengers” at $1.51 for third place? And will “Ultron” then catch it? Questions for the months ahead. 

The only other movies opening this weekend were women-centric: the well-named “Far from the Madding Crowd,” which opened in only 10 theaters and grossed $172K; and the darkish Kristen Wiig comedy “Welcome to Me,” which opened in two theaters and grossed $38K. Both look interesting.

I was also far from the madding crowd this weekend, seeing, instead of “Ultron,” the Kurt Cobain doc “Montage of Heck,” which is ending its run in Seattle today and premiering on HBO tomorrow. 

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Posted at 10:54 AM on May 03, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday May 02, 2015

Hawkeye's Lament

The Hollywood Reporter lists eight highlights from the 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' press tour, from “Family Feud” on Jimmy Kimmel to Chris Evans spooking Scarlett Johansson on “Ellen,” to, of course, Robert Downey Jr. walking away from a British journalist's questions about his druggie past. But my favorite was their eighth pick. I'll call it “Hawkeye's Lament”:

Nice pipes, Jeremy. Martini glass makes the scene.

The movie, btw, supposedly pulled in $84 million in the U.S. box office yesterday, which, if it holds, is the second-highest-grossing single day total ever. Last “Harry Potter” holds that record at $91 mil. 

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Posted at 10:26 AM on May 02, 2015 in category TV
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Friday May 01, 2015

Lancelot Links

  • Now that Obamacare is a success, some Republicans are saying they never said the bad things they said about it. Paul Krugman responds and calls for (that once-upon-a-time GOP watchphrase) a little accountability.
  • Joe Posnanski on why his hero Sandy Koufax isn't one of the four, or five, or seven greatest living baseball players
  • Posnanski also unintentionally belittles one of my childhood heroes, Cesar Tovar, in this piece of Carl Yastrzemski, his 36th-greatest baseball player of all time. You're forgiven, Joe. Mostly.
  • Amy Schumer is getting out there: Here, it's a boy band telling its girl (Amy) she doesn't need to wear makeup. Or wait.
  • Our of our SL editors got to interview Stephen Colbert's former Super PAC lawyer Trevor Potter for our DC issue. The result is magic.
  • Also from us: An oral history of Alabama's African-American bar on the 60th anniversary of Montgomery. Included? Rosa Parks' attorney, Fred Gray, who is still practicing at 84. Most astonishing revelation for me? That until the late 1960s, the state of Alabama used to pay for African-American students to study law in another state with the hope that: 1) they wouldn't sue the University of Alabama, which was segregated; and 2) they would stay wherever they went. But many, including Gray, returned.
  • This was the week the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether there is a federal constituational right to same sex marriage. Adam Liptak reports it looks like another 5-4 nailbiter. But which way?
  • “Never before has a bona fide American smash hit exceeded its own domestic gross in a foreign territory.” So which smash hit in which foreign territory? If you read this blog more often, you'd know
  • Long read of the week: Ariel Levy, “The Price of a Life,” in The New Yorker. Basically, what happens after the Innocence Project gets an innocent person out of prison after decades behind bars?
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Posted at 05:44 AM on May 01, 2015 in category Lancelot Links
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