Books: Two Authors Rehabilitate the Reputations of Ty Cobb and Billy Martin
Billy Martin, with Cesar Tovar, at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. in 1969.
It's been a good year for well-researched biographies on quick-tempered baseball players with tarnished historical reputations.
First, we got Bill Pennington's bio on Billy Martin, the fiery skipper of the '69 Twins, '71-'73 Tigers, '73-'75 Rangers, '80-'82 A's, and of course various Yankees iterations from 1975 to 1988. Almost every team he managed had a losing record before he arrived and a winning record once he began to run things. He turned teams around. Every time.
His stint with the Oakland A's may have been the most amazing. By 1979, the once-powerful A's had been depleted by owner Chuck Finley in a rebuke of free agency and fandom, and the team went 54-108. Then Martin got them, recognized the talent (including future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson), and, without much change in roster, the team went 83-79.
Pennington, in fact, argues that Martin may have been the greatest baseball manager of all time, but he spends most of the book trying to rehabiliate him. Martin was known as a drunk, a brawler (see: “marshmallow salesman”), a manager who abused the young arms of his A's staff, and according to some, a racist. Pennington's defense: 1) Martin was alcoholic, so 2) he spent a lot of time in bars, and as a famous scrawny guy with a fighting rep, rarely started fights. He also suggests, 3) was greatly exaggerated, and 4) was just Reggie Jackson and he was full of shit. Both Rickey Henderson and Rod Carew dismiss the charge out of hand.
Charles Leerhsen, author of “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty,” has the tougher task. Cobb's negative rep has grown so much in my lifetime that he's almost seen as a monster. The main strikes against him: 1) he was a dirty ballplayer (sharpening spikes, etc.), who was also 2) a virulent racist. Oh, and he might have killed somebody, too.
Leerhsen dismisses the first charge with quotes from Cobb's contemporaries who basically say he fought hard but within the parameters of the game. As to the second charge, Leerhsen breaks down each incident. He sticks to the facts and uncovers others from primary sources. Basically he argues that Cobb had both a high level of propriety and a quick temper. He expected service people, whatever their race, to keep their places, and when they didn't he got angry. He was EOC: an Equal Opportunity Curmudgeon.
So why did Cobb's rep get so besmirched? Because he tried to correct it. He didn't like being known as a spike-sharpener and agreed to a late-life autobiography to set the record straight. His publisher then chose as his ghostwriter a freelancer named Al Stump, who spent some time with Cobb, and who then delivered an autobiography full of wild inaccuracies. Cobb despised it but there was little he could do. He died a few months after publication. A few months after that, Stump published an article in True magazine entitled, “Ty Cobb's Wild 10-Month Fight to Live,” which later became the basis for Ron Shelton's awful 1994 film. In it, Cobb is a pistol-packing, pistol-whipping, booze-and-pill-swilling maniac. It's a lurid, sensationalistic tale befitting the magazine in which it appeared. But it took on a life of its own. In the era of “Ball Four,” it began to be believed.
What awful irony. In trying to correct the record, the record became completely unrecognizable. Cobb began to be viewed as the opposite of the Southern gentleman he always imagined himself to be.
There's a different kind of irony in Pennington's book—one the author doesn't remark upon.
Martin was raised in the “gritty, crowded, downtrodden streets of West Berkeley,” according to Pennington. They were “homes without lawns” with “tattered backyard fences.” Nearby, Pennington says, the hills climbed upwards until you arrived at more stately mansions. The kids from West Berkeley called the rich kids “the Goats,” and there was resentment both ways. Some of Billy's resentment fueled his career. He wanted to prove he was just as good, or better, than the kids who had everything. And how did he do this? I would argue he lent his talents, first as a player and then as a manager, to the richest, most stately mansion in Major League Baseball: the New York Yankees. Billy Martin succeeded by becoming a goat.
Both biographies are highly recommended, by the way.
Ty Cobb, with Don Newcombe, in the 1950s.
Box Office: 'Compton' Wins Weakest Weekend of the Year
The third weekend of a hip-hop biopic narrowly beat the first weekend of an African-American family's tale of Christian redemption, which beat the fifth weekend of the traditional white hero adventure story, which beat the first weekend of a white family fleeing dark-skinned revolutionaries in South East Asia.
But overall box office was down. Way down.
“Straight Outta Compton” dropped 50% but won for the third weekend in a row, grossing $13 mil for an overall domestic total of $134. That's the highest gross (unadjusted) ever for a music biopic.
“War Room,” written and directed by pastor-turned-auteur Alex Kendrick (“Fireproof,” “Facing the Giants”), about an African-American family that finds the right path thanks to an older, wiser woman named Miss Clara, finished second with $11 mil. Would love to see the racial breakdown of its demographics. Did white Christians show up or was it just black Christians? Either way, Kendrick is apparently filling the void left by Tyler Perry, who's mostly on TV now.
Tom Cruise's fifth “Mission: Impossible” added another $8 mil (for $170 domestic, nearly $500 worldwide), while “No Escape,” directed by horror filmmaker John Erick Dowdle (“Quarantine,” “Devil”), about Owen Wilson, Lake Ball and their two girls trying to flee a coup in SE Asia, grossed only $8.2 in more than 3,000 theaters. It got lambasted by Jeff Wells in a great takedown review.
But mostly Americans stayed away from the movies this weekend. If the overall gross holds at $85 million, it will be the weakest weekend of the year, beating out March 6-8, which grossed $89 million, and which was highlighted by a battle between “Chappie” and “The Second Best Exotice Marigold Hotel.” Who could forget?
Letters from Corporations I
I have three letters from corporations sitting on my desk that I need to deal with in some fashion. They are from:
- Bank of America, informing me that my late payment fee is going up to $38 (from $35, but they don't say that), effective Nov. 14, 2015. “Thank you for your business.”
- CVS/Caremark, informing me that if I insist on getting a particular drug from the pharmacy I will have to pay full price. I can avoid this with a 90-day supply, rather than a 30-day supply, but I can only get the 90-day supply through CVS/Caremark. “Sincerely...”
- Anthem, informing me that “cyber attackers executed a sophisticated attack to gain unauthorized access to Anthem's IT system,” and that “You are receiving this letter now because Anthem made additional efforts to obtain a current mailing address for potentially impacted indviduals...” Anthem has also hired a company to protect my identity for two years at no cost to me. Additional tips are given.
Summer Box Office: Winners, Losers, Lessons
Some of the surprise winners: music, dinos, the life of the mind.
Channing Tatum and Seth MacFarlane need to send Fox Studios a thank-you note.
Their films (“Magic Mike XXL” and “Ted 2,” respectively) massively underperformed at the box office this summer, but as we're entering September nobody's talking about them in disparaging terms. Instead it's all about “Fantastic Four,” the Fox Studio reboot that was a massive critical and commercial bomb: 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, $50 million at the box office. That's one-third of what Tim Story's “FF” movies made back in the mid-2000s. You know that scene from the trailer (cut from the movie) where the Thing drops from a plane and lands like a bomb on the earth? Like that.
Here's what the two big predictors figured the summer box office would be:
|Rnk||EW Prediction||BO||HitFix Prediction||BO|
|1||Avengers: Age of Ultron||$555||Avengers: Age of Ultron||$550|
|3||Inside Out||$275||Jurassic World||$300|
|5||Mission Impossible–Rogue Nation||$195||Mission Impossible–Rogue Nation||$200|
|6||Ted 2||$190||Mad Max: Fury Road||$180|
|7||Mad Max: Fury Road||$180||Ant-Man||$175|
|8||Terminator Genisys||$170||Ted 2||$165|
|10||Fantastic Four||$160||Magic Mike XXL||$145|
|12||Magic Mike XXL||$155||Fantastic Four||$125|
|15||Pitch Perfect 2||$105||Pixels||$100|
And here's what it's been, as of Thursday, and including the top 20 to account for the underperformers:
|2||Avengers: Age of Ultron||$457|
|5||Pitch Perfect 2||$183|
|7||Mission Impossible–Rogue Nation||$161|
|9||Mad Max: Fury Road||$152|
|10||Straight Outta Compton||$119|
|17||Magic Mike XXL||$65|
|19||Insidious Chapter 3||$52|
Each of the predictors got the first four right, just not in the right order. Everyone assumed Avengers. Then a dinosaur roared.
EW did predict 13 of the 15, but without the messy variations in box office. They, and HitFix, played it safe, assuming most of the big movies in the $100-$300 million range, nothing below that, and nothing gargantuan. In fact, if you focus only on the rank of the prediction (1-15) vs. the actuality, you get this:
Basically we gorged on some movies and ignored others.
So what underperformed, based upon these industry predictions?
- Fantastic Four: EW figured $160, or about the Tim Story “FF” numbers adjusted for inflation. HitFix took the bold movie of assuming a disappointment at $125. But it was the Thing dropping from a plane.
- Ted 2: Against the original's $218, EW assumed $190, HitFix $165. So again, they were assuming a dropoff. They got a cliff: $81.
- Magic Mike XXL: $155/$145 vs. $65. The original grossed $113 and no doubt picked up adherents via home entertainment. But the chicks didn't flock.
- Terminator Genisys: $170/$120 vs. $89. I think we're done with this story. Oh, except it grossed $352 worldwide. Damn foreigners.
- Entourage: Off of everyone's charts, it wound up grossing $32 mil. Bye-bye, boys.
- Avengers: It's weird to say the eighth-highest-grossing film of all time (unadjusted) underperformed, but ... The original took in more than $600 mil, this one was predicted at a safe $550, and it delivered at $100 million below that: $457. It made nearly half (41%) of its gross opening weekend. Not good.
And what overperformed?
- Jurassic World: Did about twice the business everyone thought. Unadjusted, it's the third-highest-grossing film domestically and worldwide.
- Pitch Perfect 2: HitFix didn't even include this and EW had it down at $105. Instead, it grossed $183 for the fifth-biggest movie of the summer.
- Straight Outta Compton: Nobody had this. It's at $119. It's already the highest-grossing music biopic of all time (unadjusted), and the 10th-biggest movie of the summer.
- Inside Out: $275/$265 from the predicters; $342 in actuality. Unadjusted, that's the second-highest-grossing Pixar movie of all time (after “Toy Story 3”); adjusted, it's sixth-highest, behind only the three “Toy Story”s, “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.”
So: Lessons Hollywood might learn from this?
Well, the underperforming list is full of muscle-bound and/or loutish guys. The overperforming list includes movies that focus on women and African Americans.
There might be a lesson somewhere in there.
Boys behaving badly performed badly at the box office.
WAR's Catcher Problem, Cont.
I wrote about this a few months ago when I noticed that WAR ranked 3.5 years of Mike Trout higher than 12 years of Yadier Molina. I also noticed that the top WAR ranking for any catcher in baseball history (Johnny Bench, yo) was 48th. Seemed off.
I finally decided to run the numbers to see if WAR undervalued any other position. Here's Baseball Reference's tops at each. Excuse the lack of baseball diamond, but I couldn't find a good writable source online:
Initially, the corners are a bit undervalued but it's still mostly the backstop. In fact, before we get the best catcher in baseball history, we get the following:
- 7 first basemen
- 6 second basemen
- 7 shortstops
- 8 third basemen
- 19 outfielders
And if you add in pitchers?
- 27 pitchers
Meaning instead of the best catcher in baseball history being the 48th best player in baseball history, which is bad enough, he's actually the 75th. Every other position has at least six representatives before Johnny Bench is called onto the field. This, even though catcher is generally regarded as the toughest position in baseball.
FanGraphs' version of WAR, on their clunky site, isn't much better. It has Bench as the 42nd-best position player. I can't even calculate it with pitchers.
Thoughts, baseball fans?
Did Neocons, Gun Nuts, Watch Too Many Cartoons as Kids?
At least some Popeye anyway.
The following is from Michael Medved's 1992 book “Hollywood vs. America,” during the discussion (or monologue) on whether what we see is what we do. I.e., Do repeated viewings of violent images, thousands of them in a young life, lead us toward violence ourselves? Or, for some, toward fear and paranoia?
Here's the quote. Or quotes:
“Young viewers who watch a lot of TV are more likely to agree that it is almost always right to hit someone if you are mad at them for a good reason,” Dr. Gerbner reports. ...
Dr. Thomas Radecki, research director of the National Coalition on Television Violence, points out that the destructive impact of the popular culture is “not just a kids' issue. There is overwhelming evidence that adults as well as children are affected by the glamorization and promotion of violence. TV-watching adults are more likely to purchase handguns, support military solutions to world problems, and overestimate the amount of violence in the real world.”
The oddity of this book is that I agree with a lot of Medved's battles but he's constantly losing the war with me. I do think, for example, that there's too much violence on TV and movie screens. I also agree that movie and TV images are influential. Just like anything in life but moreso. They're viewed, after all, a million times around the world.
I just don't blame Hollywood; I blame us. Generally, if these movies didn't sell, Hollywood wouldn't make them. But they make them because we buy them; because we want them. Thus far, Medved only blames Hollywood.
If You Google 'Trump Mussolini'...
...on Google images, these are the first two photos you see:
And they're not together. These are separate images from separate sites. You don't even have to work to make the comparison. Hell, Trump looks more like Mussolini than Mussolini does.
I get the feeling that as the election season progresses, and if Trump's rhetoric stays at the same inflammatory level while his polls stay at the same high level—that he gets ahead by selling to us the worst in ourselves—you'll be seeing this comparison made more and more. Because #ItCantHappenHere.
- Jay Bookman in the AJC, telling the GOP, which doesn't want Trump as its candidate, that it's basically a case of the chickens coming home to roost.
- Evan Osnos with a great, great profile on Trump in The New Yorker, as well as a look at where some of his support is coming from. To quote Dylan: Wowee, pretty scary. I hope to write more on Osnos' piece later. Please give it a read.
Donald Trump: Making America grate again.
Movie Review: Copenhagen (2014)
Copenhagen deserves better.
British actor Gethin Anthony (Renley Baratheon of “Game of Thrones”) plays William, an American who travels to the titular city to: 1) deliver a letter from his now-dead father to his never-seen grandfather, and 2) screw hot girls.
He’s the kind of twentysomething who thinks it’s the height of hilarity to make blow-job motions next to a sleeping man on a train. He thinks it’s his right to keep dinging the bell on the hotel lobby desk even though the concierge is on the phone two feet away. He’s thoughtless, self-centered, and angry that his friend Jeremy (Sebastian Armesto) brought along his girlfriend Jennifer (Olivia Grant). He assumed this was “a guys trip”; he assumed it was all about him. Even with Jennifer, he assumes it’s all about him. “You wanted to fuck me first,” he says to her at the hotel bar. Classy.
The next day she and Jeremy leave. Would that we could. Then William meets a Danish girl, Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen), a waitress at the hotel who accidentally spills coffee on the letter he’s supposed to deliver. They argue. She sends him to the wrong place in town. They meet again and argue some more. Then she decides to help.
So we get it. It’s about an asshole who becomes a better person because of a good woman.
Except she’s not a woman. She’s 14 years old.
Once William finds this out—40 minutes into the 90-minute movie—he backs off, right? Yes and no. Mostly he just gets more petulant. Because he likes her.
But he still backs off, right? Sexually? Right?
Yes and no. They get topless and make out in his hotel room, but he stops there. Hansen was 19 or 20 during filming but I still had to cover my eyes during these scenes. The ick factor was strong. It doesn’t help that we like her but despise him.
Question: How do you make an asshole in a movie sympathetic? Or at least interesting? However you do it, writer-director Mark Raso doesn’t. Is it because Anthony is a Brit doing an American asshole? That he gives us the surface but nothing deeper? That Anthony's a Baratheon?
All I know is I had zero tolerance for this character. As a result, we’re kind of annoyed that Effy falls for him. And as a result, when William finds out that his grandfather had been a Nazi collaborator during the war, and that he went to prison for it, and that he’s still alive, well, it’s more amusing than dramatic. Serves you right, dickhead.
But of course that’s how William “grows” in the end. Throughout, he’s an angry young man because of daddy issues; after confronting his grandfather, the former Nazi—who should’ve been near 90 but seems like a fit 70-year-old—he realizes his own father’s daddy issues were much, much worse. So he develops a kind of empathy.
Sadly, by this point, we have none for him. Effie is so good she makes William better, but William is so annoying he makes us worse.
Why the Mariners Should Read 'The Grand Salami'
The view from Lookout Landing this afternoon.
Went to the M's game this afternoon not expecting much and it looked like I was going to get it. I'd barely settled in when Felix Hernandez, the King, with his sparse court wearing yellow in left field, threw the first pitch ... and Oakland A's centerfielder Billy Burns deposited into the stands. One pitch, 1-0, A's.
It might not have happened if Felix, or someone with the M's, read The Grand Salami, the alternative fan magazine. In the “snappy comments” section for the A's lineup in the August issue, it has this to say about Billy Burns:
M's pitchers would be wise to be careful throwing a first-pitch strike to Burns, who hit .475 and slugged .763 in the first half when putting the first pitch in play.
The next batter, Mark Canha, sent one to the warning track on an 0-2 pitch, and you had to wonder if something was wrong with Felix. Before the All-Star break, his ERA was 2.84. Since? 6.26. Did he injure himself? Is he tipping pitches? Both? I got ready for the worst.
It didn't come. Felix didn't give up another hit until Billy Butler (damned Billys) singled to lead off the 5th. Felix wound up going 8 innings, and gave up 2 runs on 3 hits. Meanwhile, the M's scored 4 runs in the bottom of the 1st and the A's never got close. We would've scored more but our backup catcher, Jesus Sucre, who recently attained half-Mendoza (hitting over. 100), kept coming up with runners in scoring position. Results:
- 1st inning: bases loaded, 1 out: popped to third.
- 3rd inning: first and second, 1 out: grounded into a double play to end inning.
- 5th inning: bases loaded, 2 out: grounded out to pitcher to end inning.
- 7th inning: first and third, 1 out: grounded out to shortstop—but a run scored!
Nine runners stranded in one game, and he never got the ball out of the infield. Poor bastard. Now he's down below .100 again. Heady times while it lasted.
Still, the M's won 8-2 on a warm, sunny afternoon in late August. Not many of those left.
The New Clod Worship Isn't New
I read this last night in Michael Medved's “Hollywood vs. America,” from 1992:
“Welcome to the new clod worship, a pop culture deification of the asinine,” writes Jan Stuart in a recent issue of FanFare. “Been to the movies or theater lately? The joint is jumpin' with blowhard anti-role models who combine Trump-size arrogance with the grace of Al Sharpton ... turning the ethos of the jerk inside out until jerkiness becomes a kind of heroism... By and large, that behavior takes as its ideal the iconoclasm and unformed moral code of adolescent boys.”
Meet the new clod worship; same as the old clod worship.
Here's Evan Osnos on Trump, the GOP frontrunner. (Great illustration, btw, by Christoph Niemann.)
'Erik Lundegaard's Reviews ONLY count...'
I'm not sure when Rotten Tomatoes added the following disclosure, but I noticed it for the first time yesterday:
So please keep this in mind as you're skimming the reviews here. Most of these are not Tomatometer-approved. The Tomatometer does not recognize them. The Tomatometer barely recognizes their reviewer. Understandable, given the author photo.
Box Office: 'Compton' Wins Sleepy Weekend
Does it feel like summer is winding down? It certainly does at the box office.
“Straight Outta Compton” dropped 55% but still retrained the top spot by a long shot. It grossed $26.7 million domestically against the fourth weekend of “M:I –Rogue Nation,” which finished second with $11.7 million. “Compton” has now grossed $111.4 million in only 10 days, which is the second highest total ever for a music biopic, and only $8 mil behind No. 1 “Walk the Line.” Obviously unadjusted. But it does mean we're likely to see more music biopics of hip-hop artists in the near future.
Did anyone predict these kind of numbers? Here: It might wind up with three times what “Fantastic Four” is grossing. This weekend, the beleaguered Fox/Marvel property earned another $3.6 mil for 10th place and an overall total of $49.6. How bad is that? Only four Marvel movies have done worse: two “Punisher” films ('04 and '08), “Elektra” and “Howard the Duck.” This FF still hasn't grossed what the 2005 Tim Story FFs grossed opening weekend. Again, I didn't think it was that bad. Or at least I thought there were redeeming qualities amid an obvious director-studio battle.
The movies opening this weekend didn't exactly take off, either. “Sinister 2” finished in third place with $10.6, “Hitman” finished in fourth with $8.2, and “American Ultra,” starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, which I reviewed for The Seattle Times, and which has its moments, only managed to scrape together $5.5 million for sixth place.
The best per-theater average went to Lily Tomlin's “Grandma,” which played in only four theaters nationwide and earned $30K per.
Nine days from September now.
How Long Has It Been Since Your MLB Team Made the Postseason?
Here's a chart detailing how long it's been since each Major League team has been to the postseason, along with (highlighted in green) who would go this year if the season ended today:
I'm rooting for the Jays, of course, and not only because I'm an inveterate Yankees hater. It's just good to see new teams in October.
Once that happens, of course, it means my Seattle Mariners would not only be one of two franchises to never get to the World Series (Expos/Nats), but we would have the longest postseason drought of any MLB team. M's fans knew hope at the beginning of this season, but it's been back to gallows humor ever since.
Yankees Retire 19th Number, 20th Player
ERRATA, August 23: Make that 20 numbers, 21 players, with Andy Pettitte's #46 being retired today. Don't know how I missed that. No date set yet for Jeter's #2.
Here are more numbers to fuel anti-Yankee Nation.
The New York Yankees have won twice as many pennants as the next-best team (40-20, over the Giants), and more than twice as many World Series titles as the next-best team (27-11, over the Cardinals). They spend more money than anyone, most years, and hog the spotlight. They're hogs—the Donald Trumps of Major League Baseball.
So it's no surprise that they've also retired more numbers than any other team, and today they added to their collection.
Jorge Posada, their regular catcher from 1998 to 2010, and, along with Jeter, Rivera and Pettitte, one of the “Core Four”—the four players that (mostly) stuck with the Yankees during the recent dynasty years, before the crumbling and fan-grumbling began—had his number (20) retired today at Yankee Stadium. It's the 19th number the Yankees have retired. And that doesn't include Derek Jeter's No. 2, which will soon go. And it's only counting the No. 8 once, when, for New York, it was so nice they retired it twice: for both Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra.
Here's the list, team by team (and updated, per above), and not including all the 42s for Jackie Robinson retired throughout MLB (except, of course, for the Dodgers):
|New York Yankees||20|
|St. Louis Cardinals||12|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||10|
|San Francisco Giants||9|
|Boston Red Sox||8|
|Chicago White Sox||6|
|Los Angeles Angels||5|
|San Diego Padres||5|
|Kansas City Royals||3|
|New York Mets||3|
|Tampa Bay Rays||1|
|Toronto Blue Jays||1|
A few teams, instead of going overboard, have actually gone underboard when retiring numbers. The worst culprit is my Seattle Mariners, who, despite such talent as Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez on the team, have yet to retire anything. I figure they'll get this ball rolling after Junior goes into the Hall of Fame next year. It'll probably go Junior, Edgar, Ichiro, eventually Felix. Maybe Buhner. Maybe Alvin Davis, maybe Jamie Moyer. Maybe.
The Mets also seem to under-retire: Just Tom Seaver and two managers: Stengel and Hodges. Shouldn't someone else be in the mix? Ed Kranepool? Tommy Agee? Dwight Gooden? Daryl Strawberry? Maybe not. But David Wright down the line.
Most teams, though, go overboard in this realm. Start with the Yanks' so-so picks. Billy? One title in '77. Maris? An apology for all the boos. Munson? Sorrow for dying young. Elston Howard? Oops, it sure took us a long time to integrate, didn't it. Reggie? Based on three homers.
The White Sox have retired some pretty medicore numbers, too, while the Indians retired “455” for the fans (a stupid gesture) and the Cards 12 retirees are a mixed bag. (August Busch? Plus three managers?)
The worst, though, has got to be the Houston Astros, which came into existence in 1962, has one pennant, and yet has somehow retired nine numbers. I'll give you Biggio and Bagwell, and maybe Mike Scott, particularly for '86. But I think that's about it. Nolan Ryan's best years were elsewhere, Jimmy Wynn was only a three-time All-Star, Jose Cruz and Larry Dierker were only two-time All-Stars, and the remaining two are guys who died young: Jim Umbricht and Don Wilson. That's sad but I don't know if it deserves being up on the wall.
So does Posada deserve having his number retired? I could make arguments for and against. He was a five-time All-Star with a higher lifetime OPS than Jeter (.848 to .817). But in the World Series, where it counts to Yankees fans, he hit only .219 in 29 games. The only thing he ever led the league in was grounded into double plays. Twice. I think he's mostly honored because of the Core Four thing.
- A little background on the Godard v. Truffaut contretemps. I'm firmly Truffaut in this. Godard went off the rails.
- For those who often wonder about my neverending hatred for the New York Yankees, here's another clue via Joe Posnanski: Since 2002, against a pretty good Minnesota Twins team, the Yankees are 80-29.
- The birthdate of Pirates' great Robert Clemente was just a few days ago, and Sports Illustrated celebrated with a slideshow. Question, outside of Hollywood, what industry draws the most handsome men? It's probably the idolizing kid in me, but I go baseball: Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Robert Clemente, Tony Oliva, among others.
- This brought back my Jackie Chan love: Tony Zhou on how Jackie does action comedy—and where Hollywood fails.
- Another Zhou: The four quadrants in Nicholas Refn's “Drive.” Great analysis. Also ends with one of the best cinematic kisses of the 21st century.
- Good book? Kay Hymowitz reviews Richard Beck's “We Believe the Children,” about the scandal surrounding the McMartin preschool abuse scandal, for The New York Times. Makes you realize there are all kinds of abuse.
- Headline from The Guardian: “White supremacist convicted in plot to kill Obama with 'death ray' device.” According to the article, it was called “Hiroshima on a light switch.” He should have pled guilty by reason of massive stupidity.
- Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi goes inside the GOP clown car in Iowa and watches in horror as the other candidates (or “contestants”) try to out-Trump Trump, but Trump trumps all. Taibbi writes, “America is ceasing to be a nation, and turning into a giant television show.” It made me think of The Onion's famous post-9/11 headline, “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.” The modern GOP has found a way to fuse the stupid bullshit with national politics. Will the last adult in the room please turn out the lights?
- If you read one of these pieces, read this one: Louis Menand on how Joan Didion went from a John Wayne-loving Goldwater supporter to someone who critiqued the great American self-deception.
From the Archives: Top 10 Music Biopics
I wrote the following for MSN back in 2004 in anticipation of “Ray.” Some of it still works. I'll add my new top 10 at the end.
You say you’re a musician and someday you want Hollywood to tell your story? Here’s what you need to do:
- Tell friends and family there’s something “inside you” that needs to get out.
- If you're male, get a drug habit.
- If you’re female, get an abusive husband.
- Die young. Preferably by plane crash.
We don’t know how many of these scenarios are in the two music biopics opening this fall—Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in “Ray,” and Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin in “Beyond The Sea”—but we wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a few. In the meantime enjoy this list of our 10 best music biopics.
Guidelines. No romans a clef, such as “The Rose” or “Eight Mile.” Also no TV movies: “The David Cassidy Story” or “The John Denver Story.” Life’s too short. No documentaries or mockumentaries, either. Finally, the movie has to be about people famous for their music, not musicians famous for their biopic. This eliminates two great films—“The Pianist” and “Shine”—but opens things up to more traditional examples of the genre.
Now let’s rock n’ roll. To the toppermost of the poppermost!
10. “Bird” (1988)
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Joel Oliansky.
Remember the “drug habit” scenario above? Here’s a caveat: If the drug habit is the focus of the film—like in “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Sid and Nancy,” and “The Doors”—it’ll probably kill the film. There's not much that's less dramatic than someone succumbing to addiction. So why is “Bird” on this list? Because Forest Whitaker’s tortured performance as Charlie Parker sticks. Some of the scenes, too, have a spark: traveling through the deep south with “Albino Red,” and in L.A. with Dizzy Gillespie. Too bad the rest of the film doesn’t. Too bad it’s 160 minutes.
Who plays?: Charlie Parker.
Obstacles to success: Cymbals flying through the air.
Problems with success: Drugs. Ulcers. Racism.
Memorable number: Buster Franklin being reintroduced to that kid who couldn’t play in Kansas City.
Academy Awards: Best Sound. Forest Whitaker won Best Actor at Cannes.
Quote: “Chan, comma. Help, period. Charlie Parker.”
9. “La Bamba” (1987)
Written and directed by Luis Valdez.
It’s a bit cartoony. A migrant labor camp never looked so idyllic, and the high school hallways are straight out of “Grease.” The adolescent romance between Ritchie Valens and Donna is, well, adolescent, and Lou Diamond Phillips doesn’t lip-synch particularly well. But the movie is what it sets out to be: a kind of Cain and Abel tale, with Cain carrying a bottle and Abel a guitar. Quick question: on that night in 1959 in Clear Lake, Iowa, three musicians went down in a chartered airplane, and two are on this list: Ritchie Valens (#9) and Buddy Holly (#6). So why is J.P. Richardson getting dissed? Where’s “Hello Baby: The Big Bopper Story”?
Genre: Rock n’ roll
Who sings: Los Lobos.
Obstacles to success: Not many. The kid was seventeen.
Problems with success: His brother. Airplanes.
Memorable number: Singing “Framed” at the American Legion Hall as Bob arrives drunk and ready to fight.
Music cameos: Los Lobos (in a Mexican brothel); Brian Setzer (as Eddie Cochrane); Marshall Crenshaw (as Buddy Holly).
Quote: “I’m gonna be a star. Because stars don’t fall out of the sky, do they?”
8. “Backbeat” (1994)
Directed by Iain Softley. Written by Iain Softley, Michael Thomas, Stephen Ward.
Search the world over and you won’t find anyone who can do a better John Lennon than Ian Hart. “Backbeat” was actually Hart’s second go at John—after the short film “The Hours at the Times”—and once more he’s amazing: looks, sounds, acts just like the former Beatle. Just doesn’t sing. The film focuses on John’s friendship with his art school mate Stuart Sutcliffe, who sold a painting, bought a bass guitar and joined the band. It’s about the Beatles’ Hamburg days, where they honed their talents, and about a love triangle: John, Stuart, and Astrid, the woman who gave the Beatles bangs. But who is John jealous of: Stuart or Astrid? John seems equally confused.
Genre: Rock n’ roll
Who sings: Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs), Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Don Fleming (Gumball), and Dave Grohl (Nirvana) play the music for the early '60s Beatles. Nice! But let’s face it: If Pete Best pounded the drums the way Grohl does, we never would’ve heard of Ringo Starr.
Obstacles to success: The picture makes it seem the Beatles’ path to success was greased when it wasn’t. Remember “Three-guitar and one-drum groups are on the way out”? You know, as wrong as you’ve ever been in your life, you’ve never been that wrong.
Problems with success: Takes place before the success.
Memorable number: “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Twenty Flight Rock,” “Long Tall Sally”: Take your pick.
Academy Awards: Nope. But Hart recognized as Most Promising Newcomer at the BAFTAs.
Quote: “It’s all dick.”
7. “The Benny Goodman Story” (1955)
Written and directed by Valentine Davies.
“I must say Benny does have his own strange kind of integrity,” future wife Alice Hammond says of Goodman in the middle of this biopic, and the picture’s the same way. It’s one of three Hollywood jazz stories made in the 1950s (along with “The Glenn Miller Story” and “The Gene Krupa Story”), but it works better than the other two, in part, because of this integrity. Goodman has a nerd’s courage when confronting mobsters and bland band leaders but none with Hammond, who must take the lead in their relationship. Allen is understated as the jazz clarinetist. Donna Reed is charming as the classical music enthusiast won over to jazz. And the music swings.
Who plays: Benny Goodman. Steve Allen was an accomplished musician/composer, however.
Obstacle to success: The usual unimaginative promoters and businessmen.
Problem with success: She’s gentile, he’s Jewish.
Memorable number: Blowing away the stuffy society folks at Carnegie Hall with “Sing Sing Sing (with a Swing).”
Music cameos: Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, Ben Pollack, Kid Ory, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Martha Tilton.
Quote: “So many things he wants to say. And no clarinet to say them.”
6. “The Buddy Holly Story” (1978)
Directed by Steve Rash. Written by Alan Swyer.
Rock n’ roll has a bit of a complex – it yearns for both street cred and art cred – and two scenes in “The Buddy Holly Story” exemplify this. At one point Holly and the Crickets show up at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and win over a startled black crowd who were expecting black performers. That’s the street cred. Later, a classical violinist compares Holly’s use of strings in “True Love Ways” to Beethoven. That’s the art cred. It helps, too, that Holly shakes his head over the violinist’s comments. You can’t be a true rock n’ roller if you’re seen vying for art cred. The film is a low-key account of rise and crash, with Gary Busey channeling his inner geek to earn an Oscar nom, and Don Stroud and Charles Martin Smith playing great back-up as the Crickets, the band that inspired the naming of the Beatles. Occasionally the 1970s seep through the seams of this period piece, but mostly it works the way Holly’s tunes work: without strain.
Genre: Rock n’ roll
Who sings: Gary Busey. Plays, too.
Obstacles to success: Sponsors and preachers who don’t dig rock n’ roll. Suits who won’t let him produce his own music, man.
Problems with success: The jealousy/homesickness of the Crickets.
Memorable number: Singing “Oh Boy” at the Apollo Theater.
Academy Awards: Best Music. Busey was nominated Best Actor.
Quote: “No white act has ever played the Apollo!”
5. “What’s Love Got to Do with It” (1993)
Directed by Brian Gibson. Written by Kate Lanier.
You watch this thing flinching from anticipated blows. When’s he going to strike? Here? Here? When the first punch lands you find out it’s not the first anyway, and then he rains them down and drags her through the house as friends stare in mute horror and the children scream. One boy holds his ears and cries – so heartbreakingly real you wonder what they did to the kid to get him to act that way. When the abuse continues, year after year, it almost drains your energy away. But when Tina finally fights back in the limousine, and she lands that first blow of her own? Oooh, that one feels good. Too much Buddhism at the end, and Ike keeps popping up like Jason in “Friday the 13th,” but still our most emotionally raw music biopic.
Genre: Rhythm and Blues.
Who sings: Tina Turner.
Obstacles to success: Not many. Well, race.
Problems with success: Ike.
Memorable number: Singing “I Wanna Be Made Over” as she is.
Music cameos: Tina shows up at the end.
Academy Awards: Both Bassett and Fishburne were nominated. Bassett’s so good we think she would’ve won if she’d been able to sing like Tina.
Quote: “Everything’s alright. Just me and your mama talking.”
4. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942)
Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Robert Bucker and Edmund Joseph.
Yes, cornball, overly patriotic, and the Four Cohans in blackface is embarrassing. But few actors have embodied energy on the screen as well as Cagney, who shed his gangster image (for a New York minute) by quick-talking, tap-dancing, and charming his way through this biopic of George M. Cohan, creator of American myths, and composer of such rousing American standards as “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Grand Old Flag,” and “Over There.” We’re a cynical lot, but the scene where he tap-dances down the White House steps still makes us misty.
Genre: Tin Pan Alley
Who sings: Cagney, see?
Obstacles to success: Dietz and Goff.
Problems with success: Critics. Teenagers in jalopies.
Memorable number: “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” What else?
Music cameos: Eddie Foy, Jr. plays Eddie Foy.
Academy Awards: Best Actor (Cagney), Music and Sound. Nominated for five others, including Picture, Director, Script, Editing, and Supporting Actor (Huston)
Quote: “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”
3. “Bound for Glory” (1976)
Directed by Hal Ashby. Written by Robert Getchell.
Ironic title, given it’s one of the few music biopics where the lead character doesn’t seem bound for glory. In fact the young Woody Guthrie seems like a lazy, impractical dreamer. He paints signs, plays fiddle, tells fortunes, fools around. The movie picks up when he picks up and encounters bullying railroad men and uncaring church men on his way to California, the promised land, where things only get worse. The film is like its subject. It has an unhurried, rambling nature. Look for Ronny Cox, the epitome of corporate villainy in films like “Robocop,” as Woody’s mentor, Ozark Bule, the anti-corporate union organizer.
Who sings: David Carradine. Actors sang in the seventies.
Obstacles to success: The dust bowl. The California border patrol.
Problems with success: Sponsors, marketers, and packagers.Memorable number: A sing-along led by Ozark Bule in a migrant labor camp.
Academy Awards: Best Music and Cinematography (Haskell Wexler). Nominated for Film Editing, Costume Design, Writing and Picture. 1976 was a tough year at the Oscars.
Quote: “You sure as hell don’t look like much. How do you sing?” “Makes me happy.”
2. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980)
Directed by Michael Apted. Written by Thomas Rickman.
For a film with abject poverty, a near-rape scene, and a whole lot of bickering and squallering, this movie is pure fun. It’s partly the writing and direction, of course, and it doesn’t hurt to have locals in speaking parts. (When did directors stop doing that?) But the movie really belongs to its two stars. Sissy Spacek plays Loretta Lynn from age 13 to, what, 40? She sings like Loretta. Hell, she should’ve gone to Nashville afterwards and cut herself some records. And with her in nearly every scene is one of the best actors in Hollywood. Tommy Lee Jones’ Doolittle Lynn is a flawed, fascinating man who literally drives his wife to stardom only to discover that by succeeding he’s failed. Her success – their success – has rendered him superfluous. How does he handle this? At first poorly; then like a man.
Who sings: Sissy Spacek. Perhaps the only thing more amazing than Spacek’s pitch-perfect Loretta Lynn is Beverly D’Angelo’s pitch-perfect Patsy Cline.
Obstacles to success: Poverty, obscurity, shyness.
Problems with success: Headaches. Doo.
Memorable number: Quieting a honky-tonk with “There He Goes.”
Music cameos: Ernest Tubb and Minnie Pearl. Levon Helm plays Loretta’s father.
Academy Awards: Best Actress for Spacek. The film was nominated for six others, including Picture, Writing, Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing and Sound. The fact that Tommy Lee Jones wasn’t even nominated discounts for all eternity every awards show everywhere. We’re serious.
Quote: “Stop making that noise! You sound like an old bear growling.”
1. “Amadeus” (1984)
Directed by Milos Foreman. Written by Peter Shaffer.
It’s more than a biopic; it’s a blueprint for how to deal with genius on screen. Simply view the extraordinary (Mozart) through the eyes of the ordinary (Salieri). There’s one glorious scene after another here: Salieri playing his and then Mozart’s music before the innocent priest; Mozart playing back the little march of welcome Salieri composed in his honor (“That doesn’t quite work, does it?”); Salieri looking through Mozart’s first – and only – drafts. And on and on, right up to the very end when Antonio Salieri, the Patron Saint of mediocrities, absolves us all. And the music? “Finished as no music is ever finished.”
Who plays: Neville Marriner
Obstacles to success: Too many notes.
Problems with success: Dead father. Carping wife. Jealous colleague. Not necessarily in that order.
Memorable number: Pick one.
Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Writer, Actor (Abraham), Art Direction, Costume Design, Make-up and Sound. Also nominated for Actor (Hulce), Cinematography, and Editing.
Quote: “I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes – at an absolute beauty.”
Not bad: “The Glenn Miller Story” (1953); “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972); “Sweet Dreams” (1985); “Sid & Nancy” (1986); “Immortal Beloved” (1994);
Not good: “The Gene Krupa Story” (1959); “Mahler” (1974); “Lisztomania (1976); “The Doors” (1991); “Selena” (1997)
Since then? The floodgates. We've gotten, among others, “Ray” (Ray Charles) “Beyond the Sea” (Bobby Darrin) “Walk the Line” (Johnny Cash) “La Vie en Rose” (Edit Piaf) “I'm Not There” (Bob Dylan) “Cadillac Records” (Chess Records) “Jersey Boys” (Frank Valli) “Get On Up” (James Brown) “Jimi: All Is By My Side” (Jimi Hendrix), “Love & Mercy” (Brian Wilson) and “Straight Outta Compton” (NWA).
Some I haven't seen yet. And with some of the top 10 above I'm like, really, Erik? “What's Love Got to Do With It?” at No. 5? I keep thinking that I gave “Bird” short shrift and movies like “La Bamba” too much shrift. I keep remembering being not overwhelmed by “Bound for Glory.” I remember exactly nothing about “The Benny Goodman Story.”
Given all that, here's my new Top 10. Your results will differ:
- Coal Miner's Daughter
- Yankee Doodle Dandy
- La Vie en Rose
- I'm Not There
- Love & Mercy
- Bound for Glory
- Jimi: All Is By My Side
- What's Love Got to Do With It?
- The Buddy Holly Story
Beyond the first two, it's really kind of a crapshoot.
Whose music biopic would you like to see on screen? Or maybe the better question, given the history of the genre, is: Whose story would you LEAST like to see Hollywood screw up?
Back in the Times: 'American Ultra' Review
I have a review of “American Ultra” in the Seattle Times today. Excerpt:
It's “Bourne Identity” meets “Pineapple Express.” Small-town stoner is in reality, and unbeknown to himself, a top CIA assassin. ...
Mike Lowell (Jesse Eisenberg) is the last remnant of a CIA program that turned three-time offenders into assassins, but which is now part of an internecine struggle between its creator, Victoria (Connie Britton), and middle-management douchebag Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), who has his own program, code-named “Tough Guy,” that turns psychopaths into assassins.
When threatened, Mike's pupils dilate and his inner assassin takes over; then he reverts back to vulnerable slacker. He kills two people with a spoon, for example, then needs a hug from his girlfriend. “I have a lot of anxiety about this,” he says, surveying the damage.
That's the sweet spot of the movie, and you do feel for Eisenberg, who's the best thing here. Kristen Stewart is also good. Most everyone else overacts, particularly Topher Grace and John Leguizamo, and not to comedic effect.
It made me think of what worked with the original 1978 “Superman” starring Christopher Reeve. Reeve played it straight, everyone else was a little over-the-top. The difference is that in “Supes” everyone else (Hackman, Perrine, Beatty) was funny and Reeve wasn't (he was heroic). Here, it's still Eisenberg who makes us laugh. The others don't.
Ultimately a missed opportunity.
Movie Review: '71 (2014)
“’71,” from first-time feature-film director Yann Demange and first-time feature film writer Gregory Burke, is intense and unrelenting. Twenty minutes in, our main character, British soldier Gary Hook of Derbyshire (Jack O’Connell), whom we’ve seen: 1) survive basic training, 2) pal around with his kid brother, and 3) share a cigarette with a corporal, gets lost behind enemy lines. Meaning he gets left behind in the western, Irish Catholic part of Belfast during “the Troubles.” He’s already seen his mate, Thommo (Jack Lowden), get his head blown off by the IRA, and in the shock afterwards, and it’s a shock for everybody, he’s on the run. Literally at first: dashing through alleys and over walls. It’s all that basic training paying off, and he finally finds sanctuary in a crummy outdoor toilet where he sweats and gasps and rests until nightfall, then steals some clothes and tries to make his way back to safety.
But his long night is just beginning.
Hook depends upon the kindness of strangers. A tough Protestant kid takes him to a friendly, Loyalist pub; but while he’s waiting to get picked up by members of the MRF, the British army’s counter-insurgency unit, Loyalists in the backroom, with a bomb for the IRA, screw up and blow themselves up along with the pub. There goes the tough kid. Hook, dazed, wounded, and distraught over the death of his young helper, wanders the streets before collapsing against a wall. There, he’s found by Eamon (Richard Dormer) and his daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy), who have this exchange:
Brigid: Leave him be.
That’s nice. Although it’s not until they get back home, in the Catholic section, that they realize Hook is a British soldier.
Burke and Demange create a complex, morally ambiguous world. You root against the IRA hotheads, who are trying to kill Hook, and for a more senior, diplomatic man, Boyle (David Wilmot), who orders them to stand down. Except Boyle is in collusion with the bastards of the MRF (including Sean Harris, the villain of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”), who also want Hook dead, since he may have seen them at the Loyalist pub and don’t want that fiasco traced back to them. It’s a world where good deeds go punished.
The movie is refreshingly anti-Army but pro-soldier. At one point, Eamon, who did his own stint, calls the Army, “Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts,” which will remind American viewers of the Vietnam-era line “the white man sending the black man to kill the yellow man.” Eamon also says, in words that Sean Penn’s great soliloquy at the end of “The Thin Red Line,” “It’s all a lie. They don’t care about you. You’re just a piece of meat to them.” As the movie will prove. The Army is just another corporation, with middle managers protecting their territory.
“’71” is a simple, straightforward story about a complex situation. It’s also about a simple situation that is sadly universal: we fight, we fight, we fight. The Army is simply the modern corporation that channels this human tendency. When Hook is recovering, and in conversation with Brigid, he tells her he’s from Derbyshire and she says she has cousins in Nottingham. He pauses, then this exchange:
Hook: It’s just that Derby and Nottingham don’t get along.
Brigid: Why not?
Hook: I don’t know really.
Do Editors Dream of Fixing Quotes About Sheep?
A lot of odd dreams last night including one in which I came across a quote carved into the sidewalk in, I believe, London. A public art kind of thing. My dream self had heard the quote before, and I'd attributed it to Bill Bryson, the author of “A Walk in the Woods,” but on the sidewalk it was attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien? Really? I thought. Tolkien?
It was a quote about a medieval period in England in which the rulers were hoping to better educate the public (so right away you know it's a dream), but they couldn't figure out how. The peasants and farmers weren't interested. But it was a somewhat prosperous period, or maybe there were fewer wars or a greater sense of rule of law, because the sheep farms began to grow. The farmers began to get more and more sheep. And as they accrued more and more sheep to their respective farms, they needed to be able to count them all, to keep tracked of what they owned. And that's when they became interested in education—or at least math.
The quote went something like:
They tried to teach them about sheep but they learned arithmetic.
That quote doesn't quite go with the story above, and in my dream I may have been turning it over to try to make it better. Yes, editing even in my dreams. When I woke up I checked to see if there was such a quote about sheep and arithmetic but couldn't find anything.
Movie Review: Fantastic Four (2015)
I don’t get it.
Not the movie but the critical/public reception to the movie. It’s at 8% on Rotten Tomatoes with an audience score of 22%. It’s at 3.9 on IMDb, which is worse than some of the worst superhero movies ever made: “Supergirl” (4.3), “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” (4.3), “Elektra” (4.8). It’s dying at the box office.
But for a superhero movie, it’s not bad. It updates the story in smart ways. The tone of the ending is at odds with the tone for most of the movie, but that doesn’t make it a bad movie any more than “The Magnificent Ambersons” is a bad movie. It just means the studio stuck its clumsy hand in. As studios do.
One of the movie’s themes, in fact, is how individuals attempt to do good without being exploited by corporations or governments. The irony is that the ending of the movie, in which our heroes throw off the shackles of the corporation/government, is the result of the real-life corporation, Fox Studios, imposing its will on the individual filmmaker.
Roll that one around for a while.
Beating the commies
The problem with making a decent Fantastic Four movie has always been the idiocy of its origin, and, to a lesser extent, the idiocy of its characters’ powers.
In the first issue, Nov. 1961, the four hijack a rocket so “the commies” (Sue’s words) won’t beat us into outer space. There, they are bombarded with “cosmic rays” that turn them into the Fantastic Four. Why four of them? Because Reed is the pipe-smoking scientist who runs the project, Ben is the ace test pilot, Sue is, um, Reed’s fiancée, and Johnny is, uh, Sue’s kid brother. Isn’t that how all astronaut programs work?
From a 21st-century perspective, their powers are kind of lame. They’re certainly derivative. Sue becomes like H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man, Johnny like the WWII-era Human Torch; Reed turns into Plastic Man (debut: 1941) and the Thing is a version of every misunderstood outer-space rock monster from 1950s comic books. Worse, none of these powers, save the Torch’s, are particularly cool in modern cinematic terms.
The movie's much-maligned director, Josh Trank, who co-wrote the script with Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg, ignores some of this by using as his starting point the updated “Ultimate Fantastic Four” series that began in 2004. Our heroes are now barely out of their teens rather than salt-and-pepper adults; and the goal is interdimensional travel rather than a Cold War space race. Reed (Miles Teller) is a child prodigy with the dumbest teachers in the world. (He's in grade school in 2007. Ouch.) Forever on the verge of cracking the interdimensional code, he's forever dismissed as a liar or charlatan. He has help, of a kind, from a shrugging friend, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), whose family runs a junkyard, and whose older brother threatens him with the phrase, “It’s clobberin’ time.” (A little odd: It means the Thing’s catchphrase began as a bully’s taunt.)
At a high school science exhibition, Reed is discovered by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey of “The Wire” and “House of Cards”), who runs the Baxter Institute, devoted to interdimensional travel, and who has two children of his own: the adopted Sue (Kate Mara, also of “House of Cards”), who’s also a prodigy and is big on pattern recognition, and the Fast-and-Furious hot-rodder Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, also of “The Wire” as well as Trank’s previous movie “Chronicle”), who’s really good at building things ... and is also a prodigy.
Together, with malcontent Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), they complete the project while Ben minds the junkyard back home. But after they send a chimpanzee to the other dimension and back, Baxter’s directors, in the person of Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson), take control. The kids all assume they’ll make the trip. Nope. It goes to NASA and the Army. So they do what kids do: They get drunk and hijack the thing. Not Sue, just the boys. Reed taps the forgotten Ben to go along, too. He brings an American flag to do the Neil Armstrong thing.
In this other dimension, which is like Earth a billion years ago, they encounter a conscious green energy just below the rocky surface, with veins like lava flowing everywhere. Are they wary at all? Scientific? All in all, even from our heroes, there’s not enough amazement that this other dimension exists, or concern that they might eff it up. Instead, Ben just sticks the U.S. flag in and everything shudders. That should’ve been warning enough, but Reed presses them on toward a vast pool of energy, where Victor sticks his hand in. And things go crazy. The ground shakes, pools of energy erupt, and Victor gets left behind. In trying to escape, Johnny catches fire, rocks cling to Ben, and Reed reaches out to save Ben. Back in the lab, the green energy spills on the forgotten Sue.
So that’s our new origin. That’s why the powers.
The horror, the horror
These powers aren’t cool, by the way. They’re horrifying. All four wind up in a lab in “Area 57,” and are drugged, poked, and prodded by government scientists, while the ineffectual Dr. Storm tries to secure their release. This is the best part of the movie. You understand the horror not only of your body stretching impossibly, or being perpetually aflame, but of being a lab rat. The best moment, really, is when Reed crawls in an air vent toward Ben’s voice and is horrified by what he sees. “Reed, what happened to me?” Ben cries. “Reed, don’t leave me!”
There’s always been betrayal and guilt in the FF, and this is that. Reed abandons Ben and the others in order to try to save Ben and the others. Was this the part Josh Trank originally focused on? The four slowly coming to terms with the horror of their transformation? Even as they begin to control and revel in the power inherent in that transformation? That would’ve been interesting. I was bummed when I saw “One Year Later” on the screen.
Yet even this leap is interesting, since our heroes still aren’t heroes. The three in government custody are stooges—Ben goes where the Army points, and the Torch, or “Subject #2,” is raring to be next—while the fourth has simply abandoned his friends. Right, “temporarily.” A year is a long time, bro.
The villain isn’t really a villain, either. When Reed is captured and forced to help rebuild the portal to the other dimension, they discover that Doom didn’t die; he became a crackling living embodiment of the other dimension's conscious green energy. And that energy isn’t particularly interested in being exploited, in being, you know, 1492. Meaning even as Doom is popping people like zits—including his old nemesis, Dr. Allen, and his old mentor Dr. Storm—he’s not exactly wrong.
Then he goes too far. He tries to destroy our world to save his. So our team suits up to stop him. Cue rest of movie.
The tone of the ending is all wrong, of course. It’s like it leapfrogs 50 issues to get to the established, joshier vibe of the later comic books—with Torch and Ben suddenly at cartoonish odds, and Reed talking about what their name should be: Something Four. Blah blah Four. The studio obviously wanted to send us out on a high note. They didn’t trust us to like the new and the somber.
But that's what I liked. The horror, the horror. That's fantastic.
Michael Medved on that 2012 Romney Landslide
I'm reading Michael Medved's “Hollywood vs. America” (don't ask) and it's a slog at times, particularly when he gets to television in the early 1990s. I'm reading it mostly for the movie stuff, for the “What Liberal Hollywood?” stuff, but his critique of TV is so dated. Half the shows he mentions I've never heard of, and about 40% (including his bete noir “Married with Children”) I never watched. Essentially he's complaining about all the stuff that deserved a quick and deep burial, but he gave them a longer life. They live through him now.
So I searched for a more recent critique from the man.
That's how I found the e-book “The Odds Against Obama,” which was published in August 2012. Here's an Amazon customer review from Sept. 2012 that 26 of 32 people found helpful:
If you are tired of hearing constantly from virtually every media source that it is an almost foregone conclusion that Obama takes the election in November, you need to read this ebook. Medved, one of the most fair-minded conservatives in the political arena, deconstructs that facade brick-by-brick until there is nothing left standing.
As Medved outlines, general sentiment, logic, and Obama's record of failure (which is outlined very well in the awesome quick read 2012 Election: The 106 BEST Reasons NOT to Vote for Obama) make his re-election a very dicey proposition. The author boils it down to a coin toss, with the result hinging on one question: Will enough people believe Obama CAN be beaten? Reading this book makes a Romney win seem not only possible, but likely, with the potential for a landslide of 300+ electoral votes. While many factors may be lined up against Mitt (the media and entertainment world portrayal of him, the general angst of certain parts of the populace aimed at “the rich”, etc), Obama faces even more hurdles. Economic data and projections are just part of the President's problem.
I found this review helpful, too. It made me feel good all over.
The Rise of Ty Cobb and the Fall of Ron Shelton
Can you rehabiliate the reputation of one man without tarnishing the rep of someone else? Here's an excerpt from Charles Leerhsen's bio, “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty”:
“It is well known that Ty Cobb may have killed as many as three people,” Ron Shelton, the director of the 1994 movie Cobb, told me in the course of an email conversation. Really? Who were his victims? What were his motives? When did these crimes happen? Shelton declined to say, beyond repeating “All this is well known.” He was more forthcoming, though, about a squirm-inducing scene in his film in which Tommy Lee Jones, playing the sickly old Cobb, attempts to rape a cigarette girl at a Nevada casino but fails because of impotence. “What was that based on?” I asked. “That actually was not in the original screenplay,” he said—proudly, I thought. “That is something that Al and I came up with during the shoot. It felt like the sort of thing that Cobb might do.” “Al” of course was Al Stump, upon whose True story the movie was based, and who served as a consultant during the shoot and even made a cameo appearance. His first and last movie role, it would turn out. He died a few months later.
Here's my review of “Cobb.” Back then, I thought it was a bad movie about a bad man. If Leerhsen is correct, and Stump made up most of the bad things he said Cobb did? And Shelton helped him along per the above? It just dropped down even further on my list.
Box Office With Attitude: 'Straight Outta Compton' Sets Record
If you adjust for inflation, the most popular music biopics since 1980 are as follows:
- Coal Miner's Daughter (1980): $202.7 million
- Walk the Line (2005): $150.5 million
- Amadeus (1984): $120.7 million
- La Bamba (1987): $112.5 million
Unadjusted, “Walk the Line” is top dog. It opened at $22.3 million in 2005 and grossed $119.5. Both are records for the genre.
“Straight Outta Compton,” F. Gary Gray's adaptation of the story of NWA, opened this weekend with a $56.1 million haul, killing the competition. The third weekend of “Mission: Impossible V” came in second at $17 mil, while “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” debuted to a disappointing $13.5 mil.
More impressive? “Compton” did all this in only 2,757 theaters, for a per-theater average of $20.3K. (No other wide-release movie did better than $5K per screen.) It's the sixth-best August opener ever, the 10th-best R-rated opener ever. All time, it's 136th-best, which doesn't sound like much until you realize that its theater tally is 1,087th-best.
Put it this way: 180 movies have opened with more than $50 million at the box office and only five debuted in fewer than 3,000 theaters. And only one of those—“8 Mile,” interestingly enough, starring Eminem—debuted in fewer theaters: It grossed $51 mil in 2,470 theaters. Meaning no movie that debuted in fewer theaters than “Compton” made more opening weekend.
Where will it stop? It will almost have to perform like a horror movie (big opener, then nothing), or like “8 Mile” (44% of its earnings on opening weekend) to not surpass “Walk the Line,” which, remember, had the advantage of AA nominations/wins to add wind to its sails.
“Compton” is another in a string of hits this summer for Universal Studios, which has already scored with “Jurassic World” (No. 1 for the year), “Furious 7” (No. 3), “Minions” (No. 5), and “Pitch Perfect 2” (No. 7).
On the other side of the spectrum is Fox's “Fantastic Four,” which opened abyssmally last weekend, then dropped abyssmally this weekend: 68.9% for fourth place and $8 mil. Despite its bad open, Fox expanded its theater count by 9, bringing it to 4,004 theaters, so it too might set a record. Only 66 movies have appeared in more than 4,000 theaters and the lowest previous box office for those films was “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2,” which grossed a total of $119.7 million. “FF” looks to shatter that. After 10 days, it's at $41.9 mil.
Patricia recreating a scene from “The Birds” outside the Potter Schoolhouse during a 2011 trip to Bodega, Cal.
On the day of Alfred Hitchcock's 116th birthday, two days ago, some top IndieWire critics, including Anne Thompson, Susan Wloszczyna and John Anderson, ranked their 25 favorite Hitchock films. Twenty-five! “Vertigo,” the new darling, was No. 2, while “Notorious” took the top slot. I saw the list via Jeff Wells, who had some mild disagreements, mostly with the highish ranking (13th) of “Marnie,” which both Wells and I think is the lamest of Hitchcock's work. But it's been revived by the New Yorker's Richard Brody. Too bad. But Wells agrees with IndieWire about the new No. 1.
My history of Hitchcock is sketchy, but of the ones I've seen I'd rank them in this order:
- The 39 Steps
- Rear Window
- The Birds
- North by Northwest
- The Lady Vanishes
- Dial M for Murder
- The Wrong Man
There's a great purity and economy in the storytelling of “The 39 Steps,” not to mention wit. It reminds me of what Fitzgerald and Salinger did with the best of their stories. It's also got one of the great steamy scenes of the 1930s.
I need to see more Hitchcock, obviously.
Quote of the Day
From “The 'Fantastic Four' Fallout: The Future of Comic-Book Franchises” by Mark Harris, on Grantland:
There is, I think, an increasing sense that every mark the comic-book genre is forced to hit — origin stories, Easter eggs, big-picture continuity, action beats, fan service, world-stakes battles, potential sequels, post-credit sequences — is obstructing them from being movies. It certainly seems to be keeping their makers (“architects” feels like a more accurate term than “creators”) from any sense of joy — directorial joy, cinematic joy, authorial joy, or even the obsessional joy that allowed Peter Jackson to commit himself to living in Middle-earth for 15 years or that has sent James Cameron off to whatever solar system in which he is currently purporting to make Avatar sequels. These comic-book movies are, first and foremost, assignments. Directors and writers try to get through them with their souls and spirits intact. They pat themselves down afterward, the way you do when you get off a roller coaster, to see if they’re still all there.
Movie Review: Welcome to Me (2015)
IMDb.com has the plot wrong:
When Alice Klieg wins the Mega-Millions lottery, she immediately quits her psychiatric meds and buys her own talk show.
Actually, Alice (Kristen Wiig) begins the movie off her meds. We see her waking up in the middle of the day in her sad one-room apartment, where she’s sleeping in a sleeping bag on the bed, the shelves are overflowing with ceramic swans and old VCR recordings of “Oprah,” and infomercials drone away on the TV, which is perpetually on. Outside, holding a parasol in the sun, she attempts to right one of those crazy-arm-wiggling balloon men outside a car dealership, before picking up her groceries and lottery ticket outside a Korean grocery. Then it’s back for more “Oprah.” Then she wins the California lottery of $86 million.
There are a few laugh-out loud moments but “Welcome to Me” isn’t a funny movie. It’s spooky. You cringe, watching it. It's scrotum-shrinking.
Alice is both dreamy and purposeful, both determined and “not there,” and Wiig plays her without the wink that might allow us to laugh. And that’s before she becomes rich. After she becomes rich, of course, she gets what she wants, which is, sadly, her own two-hour-long vanity TV show on a dying cable channel. There’s a good scene in a conference room where the embattled producers attempt to suss out what the show will be. Current events? No. Interviews with guests? No. So what does Alice want to talk about?
“Me,” she says blankly. Hence the title.
For the show, Alice arrives in a swan boat waving her hand in feeble imitation of the Queen; she makes recipes for high-protein foods then spends five minutes eating silently on camera; then she recreates traumatic (or “traumatic”) moments from her life, with beautiful actresses playing herself and ugly actresses playing her nemeses. She shouts out the lines from the sidelines. She shouts out her betrayal. She breaks down on camera. She uses her nemeses’ real names.
What did it remind me of? A bit like SNL’s Gilda Radner playing the little girl pretending to host a TV show in her bedroom: “The Judy Miller Show.” Except Judy had energy and personality, and was a child. Alice is just nuts. The show, and the movie, is like spelunking into the dark heart of fucked-up women everywhere. It’s not a date movie.
Where does it go? What's it all about? You wonder, for example, if Alice will become perversely popular in the way of Rupert Pupkin, and she does, but on a minor scale. You wonder how she can use real names without lawsuits and suddenly there are 31 eleventh-hour lawsuits. She insults her friends and isolates herself. She walks naked through the Vegas casino where she lives. That’s when she’s hospitalized again and receives medical attention. But by then she’s gone through most of her money.
Lesson to all of this? Point? Is it about our solipsistic selfie culture? Kinda sorta. Except everything about Alice is old school: VCRs and answering machines. It ends with her back in her one-room apartment, but with a dog now, and able to sleep on the bed rather than in the sleeping bag on the bed. She’s able to have a man over without having sex with him. She’s able to turn off the TV.
In a way the movie is like Alice: Instead of saying something big about our culture it says something small about her. Its lessons are obvious lessons. Be nice to those who are nice to you. Stay on your meds. Turn off the TV.
But there’s some value in the spelunking.
Washington Supreme Court Fines State $100K Per Day For Underfunding Education
Here's what the Washington state constitution reads:
“It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.”
Here's what King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick wrote in Feb. 2010 in the case of McCleary v. State of Washington, which held the state to that constitutional promise:
“State funding is not ample, it is not stable, and it is not dependable.”
Here's what the Washington state supreme court wrote in January 2012 upon affirming that ruling and maintaining jurisdiction over the case:
“This court cannot idly stand by as the Legislature makes unfulfilled promises for reform.”
Here's a prescient prediction from Thomas Ahearne, the winning attorney for McCleary, whom I interviewed for a feature, “Paramount Duty,” in the 2012 issue of Washington Super Lawyers magazine:
“Our Supreme Court has ordered our Legislature to do something that's hard, very hard, with their public schools, and we'll see if they do it promptly or if they drag their feet and stall. [Smiling] I have a good guess as to what they're going to do.”
And here's what the Washington state supreme court ordered today:
Effective today, the court imposes a $100,000 per day penalty on the State for each day it remains in violation of this court's order ...
Who said the law was dull?
Movie Review: How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Here’s how dumb I am: I kept waiting for the “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number. As the movie began (interminably, with an overture), I also wondered, “Wait, isn’t Jane Russell supposed to be in this?” Of course, I was thinking of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Marilyn Monroe’s other 1953 hit; but to my credit, “Diamonds” does fit better with this title.
And I did get “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”—just not as a song.
Halfway through the film, at a private fashion show, Pola (Monroe) is modeling a red swimsuit in front of Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell), a gas-pump-jockey-looking rich bastard who is really interested in Schatze Page (Lauren Bacall), and the woman hosting the show says, as Monroe poses, “You know, of course, that diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” Which has got to be one of the quickest pop-cultural-reference turnarounds in history. “Blondes” was released in August and “How to Marry a Millionaire” in November. Did the song get released first? Did screenwriter/producer Nunnally Johnson (“The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Dirty Dozen”) see an early clip and figure it would be an indelible cultural moment?
The movie is actually full of such sly winks. When Schatze is trying to convince aged Texas oil man J.D. Hanley (William Powell, the least-likely Texas oil man in movie history) that she likes older men, she references Bacall’s real-life husband: “Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at that old fella, what’s his name, in ‘The African Queen.’” Ditto Loco (Betty Grable), stuck in a picturesque Maine cabin and listening to big-band music on the radio.
Loco: Good old Harry James.
Waldo: Is it? How can you tell?
Loco: How I can tell is because it is Harry James.
James was Grable’s husband. The punchline is that the bandleader they’re listening to is really Ziggy Colombo. Are these girls ever right? Oh, girls.
No means yes
They don’t come off well, do they? Set aside the gold-digging aspect for a moment. Loco mistakes the “lodge” comment of Waldo Brewster (Fred Clark) for an elk’s lodge rather than a romantic tryst, then mistakes forest ranger Eben’s “my trees” comment for vast wealth rather than enthusiastic job responsibility. Schatze, the one who dreams up the scheme of three fashion models subleasing a swanky Upper East Side apartment in order to scam rich husbands, can’t even see the rich man beneath Brookman’s lack of necktie. She thinks he’s a gas-pump jockey like her ex. She doesn’t even question what he’s doing as the sole audience at a private fashion show. She also keeps verbally resisting him (“As soon as I finish this, I never want to see you again”) even as she keeps giving in to him. She’s a “no means yes” girl. Fun times.
Monroe’s Pola, who’s the dingiest of the trio, comes off best by being sweetest. Schatze keeps selling furniture to pay the rent, and dissing Brookman while leading on Hanley; Loco carps the entire time she’s surrounded by beauty; but Pola is nice to everyone. She’s that classic Monroe character: oblivious to her stunning impact. She finally falls for the man who owns the apartment, Freddie Denmark (David Wayne), because he tells her she looks great wearing glasses. (She does.) She’s also the best actor of the three.
It really was Monroe’s moment, wasn't it? Grable, 37, the biggest pinup of World War II, was about to end—she would only make two more movies, then a bit of TV, then nothing—and Bacall, still only 29, never did anything as long-lasting as her work with Bogart in the 1940s. But Monroe, 27, second-billed, became white hot afterwards and never cooled down.
The Greeks have a word for it
The movie is mostly interesting as cultural artifact. You get New York in the early 1950s, America before rock ‘n’ roll and Brown v. Board of Education, and the movie industry doing everything to compete with television. “Millionaire” was the first movie filmed in Cinemascope (but released second, after “The Robe”), and it’s saturated in Technicolor. So it’s wide, colorful ... and flat. And not just the characters. The first act takes place almost completely in that Sutton Place apartment, so you sensed right away that it was based upon a play—specifically “The Greeks Have a World for It” by Zoë Atkins, which debuted in 1930 and was made into a 1932 movie starring Joan Blondell, Madge Evans and Ina Claire, where it was retitled “Three Broadway Girls” to avoid Atkins’ innuendo. It also became a syndicated TV series in the late 1950s, starring Lori Nelson, Merry Anders and a pre-“Jeannie” Barbara Eden.
Could you make the film today? Doubtful. You’d need a different spin. The girls couldn’t be such gold-diggers, not to mention dumb. Not to mention girls.
I'll go see this. I hope it doesn't skirt the fact that Dalton Trumbo was a member of the American Communist Party from 1943 to 1948. I hope it deals with the nuances of the times and situations. Doesn't appear to. But it looks fun. Directed by Jay Roach, mostly known for comedies such as Austin Powers and Meet the Parents. Starring Bryan Cranston, of course, with Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, with cameos from John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg):
I still think a good movie, maybe a better movie, could be made about Edward G. Robinson, who was a solid liberal and anti-Nazi during the 1930s when most studios still weren't making anti-Nazi movies (it wasn't being fair to Hitler), and who paid the price in the 1950s by being blacklisted and then forced to beg for work again. It's may be less feel-good than Trumbo's story but more poignant. Robinson was a bigger star and had farther to fall.
In the meantime, I think I'll revisit Peter Askin's/Christopher Trumbo's 2007 documentary, also called “Trumbo,” which I remember being vaguely disappointing.
Iwakuma's No-No in SoDo
Missed it by that much!
In April 1993 I went to two of the three games in a series the M's played against the Boston Red Sox at the Kingdome; the third game was Chris Bosio's no-hitter. It was the second no-hitter in Mariners history after Randy Johnson's in 1990.
Last night, my friend Vinny and I went to Safeco Field for the second of a three-game series against the Baltimore Orioles. It was a nice night at the park and the M's won in 10, although Vinny and I left after 9. But from that moment to today, the Orioles never managed another hit. Last night, Fernando Rodney shut them down in the 10th, 1, 2, 3, and this afternoon Hisashi Iwakuma pitched a no-hitter, the fifth no-hitter in Mariners history. Interestingly, the last three American League no-nos were all pitched by Mariners at Safeco Field: the combined one in June 2012, Felix's perfecto in August 2012, and now Kuma.
One day, I wouldn't mind being at one of these, but for now I'm just happy.
Now if we could just get some hitting.
Roger Corman's 1994 Lancelot Links (Unreleased)
“It's clobberin' time!”
- A few months ago, Joe Posnanski wrote about how adding a countdown pitchers clock to baseball would ruin the timeless game. Well, he saw his first game with such a clock and changed his mind. 180 degrees.
- Another Joey P piece, “No Minor Matter,” about Mike Hessman, who recently broke the minor league record for homeruns with 433. How come he wasn't in the Majors? He was, for a bit, but probably wasn't good enough. Whose record did he break? That's an even better story, since that guy should've been in the Majors.
- This unreleased John Lennon song will “make us cry,” according to a Beatles fan page. Not quite. But it is interesting.
- Via Film Experience: George Taikei on the 1960s moment he asked Gene Roddenberry why there were no gay characters on the original “Star Trek.”
- Also via FE: Tim at Antagony & Ecstasy on the history of the 1994 unreleased Roger Corman Fantastic Four movie: how and why it was made, and why, after all these years, and despite its crummy budget, it's still the best FF movie out there. Someone is even trying to make a documentary about it.
- Speaking of: Someone has done a lot of work to pull off a great tongue-in-cheek hoax, pretending there was a 1963-64 “The Fantastic Four” TV series which was filmed but never aired. Starring: Russell Johnson as Reed Richards (nice), Elizabeth Montgomery as Sue Storm (perfect), Tim Considine as Johnny Storm (OK) and William Demarest as the Thing (um, misstep). I like the episode guide, too.
- Related: four nerds watching three bad superhero movies, including Corman's “Fantastic Four.” Their reaction to each was similar to mine. Viddy well, brothers.
- Still related: i09 gives us the 50 most cringe-worthy scenes in comic book/superhero movies. It's a good list but I put the evil Peter Parker scenes from “Spider-Man 3” higher, along with Superman's wall-building blue vision rays from “Superman IV.” So many, really. Might be worth a post of my own. My favorite superhero scenes tend to be about ther revelation of power; what do the shittiest scenes have in common?
- The Ninth Circuit has ruled that Netflix is not liable under the Video Privacy Protection Act (Robert Bork's law) if you share your log-in with family and friends and they subsequently discover embarrassing past history. “The lawfulness of this disclosure cannot depend on circumstances outside of Netflix's control,” Judge Raymond J. Dearie wrote. Except Netflix can control it; or they can allow you to control it, by deleting past history. But that's not an option.
- Gabriel Sherman, author of the Roger Ailes bio “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” writes about the Donald Trump/Megyn Kelly brouhaha, and Ailes' place in it, in “How Fox News Picked Trump Over Megyn Kelly.”
- Meanwhile, Media Matters gives us the long history of Roger Ailes' sexism.
- Meanwhile, Ted Nugent. Crazier and crazier.
- Let's go out on a high note: Not just Joe Henry on Adam Levy, but Adam Wahlberg on Joe Henry.
Movie Review: The Killing Fields (1984)
Who decided on the music? And how much did it harm the movie?
I’m not talking about the dissonant music we hear when the foreign journalists are in the clutches of the Khmer Rouge and fearing for their lives. That’s obtrusive but appropriate: time out of joint, life upended. I’m talking about the music we hear after Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who won the Oscar for best supporting) somehow secures their release, and they return to the city proper, with its increasing lawlessness and triumphant teenaged soldiers, and our guys are pushing along a small white truck but the camera lets them push it out of frame while it holds on the mass of Cambodians being herded out of Phnom Pehn—prefiguring mass relocation, reeducation, and, for many, death. That’s when we get something out of western opera: medieval chants and bombast. At first I thought it was from an opera, but it appears to have been created for the soundtrack by Mike Oldfield. He was going old school, but old western school, which hardly seems appropriate. It’s so over-the-top, silence would have been preferable.
Worse, of course, is the last song we hear, but I don’t know if we blame Oldfield since he obviously didn’t write it. (According to IMDb.com, we blame producer David Puttnam.)
So after years in the countryside, hoeing mud and being subjected to dissonant loudspeaker propaganda, not to mention a constant threat of torture and death; and after escaping one misery only to tromp through the titular killing fields and then land in another, as a kind of au pair for a benevolent KR leader; and after fleeing that situation with several others, two of whom die on a landmine, Pran finally makes it all the way to Thailand. He’s working at a Red Cross station there when he’s told someone has arrived to see him. Confused, he goes outside, and sees, half out of a car, his old boss/mentor/friend, and the film’s co-star, New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterson, nominated, lead), who has been looking for him all of these years, plagued by the guilt that he didn’t insist Pran leave when he had the chance.
And what’s the music we hear during this powerful moment? “Imagine” by John Lennon.
Even when I saw the film as a 21-year-old in 1984, I all but slapped my forehead in disbelief. And that’s the mood you take with you from the theater. It absolutely ruins the feeling it's spent two-plus hours cultivating.
They came from TV
I decided to watch “The Killing Fields” again after I saw the documentary, “The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor” at the Seattle International Film Festival this year. I thought it needed a rewatching. I remembered so little of it.
Mostly, I remembered that the movie was split into two parts: before the Khmer Rouge and after. A lot of waiting around in embassies in the first half, and the horror, the horror of the second. To be honest, in the rewatch, I fastforwarded through some of the second-half scenes of horror.
Is the first half more interesting because it’s ensemble? Because of its different tensions? Pran is almost in a servant role. He gets Schanberg into and out of places. Sometimes he wakes him up in the morning. Does he ever resent it? Is that what he and the driver talk about once they drop Schanberg off at his swanky hotel? And by the way: What happens to the driver? Does he make it out alive? Do we ever find out?
Back in’84, I liked the bored, soggy worldliness of the international journalists stationed in Phnom Pehn, and that feeling’s still there. John Malkovich is stellar as Al Rockoff, while Julian Sands is startling handsome (but not much of an actor) as Jon Swain. Spalding Grey is our U.S. consul, a government functionary trying to do the right thing, but, sadly, he’s not really that good, either. Is Craig T. Nelson as the stonewalling military attaché who keeps Schanberg from visiting Neak Luong, the site of an accidental U.S. bombing?
A lot of the principles came out of television. Director Roland Joffé had been directing British TV series when he got the gig, Waterson had been relegated to TV movies after the box office disaster of “Heaven’s Gate," Sands was in Brit TV.
Ngor, of course, came out of nowhere. The producers were looking for someone to play Pran and he was working at a medical clinic near L.A. and someone suggested him. He had the background (he’d escaped the Khmer Rouge himself) but zero acting experience. But he’s quite good. For some reason I thought Ngor didn’t really deserve his Oscar; back then, I’d been rooting for Adolph Cesar in “A Soldier’s Story.” But his performance anchors the movie.
The Nixon Doctrine
“The Killing Fields” is not a great film but it is a worthwhile film. The line of the movie belongs to Pres. Richard Nixon, whom Schanberg, back home, watches on a primitive VCR while “Nessun Dorma” (again with the opera) plays in the background. This is what Nixon says to the press, almost with a swagger, while explaining U.S. incursion into Cambodia:
Cambodia is the Nixon Doctrine in its purest form.
Truer words. Maybe a different John Lennon song should’ve ended the film: “How Do You Sleep?”
I'm going to miss this.
The day after Jon Stewart's final show on “The Daily Show,” we got rid of our Comcast cable box. We probably would've done that anyway, and sooner, but we held onto it for an extra two weeks or so just to watch Stewart's last shows.
I was late to that party, by the way. Not sure when I began to watch him regularly. For certain periods in the 2000s I didn't have cable, certainly 2005 to 2007, so maybe I caught up with him via the Web? I mean, I know I knew him in 2005 when Stephen Colbert broke off for his own show, because I—like the great prognosticator that I am—thought that wasn't such a good idea, that a half-hour-long spoof of Bill O'Reilly just couldn't last. (You're welcome.) I certainly knew Stewart by the time he hosted the disastrous “Crash” Oscar ceremony in March 2006 and by the time that Colbert took it to Pres. Bush and the D.C. establishment in the greatest White House correspondents dinner roast ever.
But I know I began to watch him regularly in the fall of 2007 when Patricia and I moved in together. He and Colbert were my guys in the last sad days of the Bush II administration and the awful leadup to the 2008 presidential election, followed by the even worse right-wing reaction to that election: the rise of the Tea Party and Glenn Beck and all that nastiness and stupidity. The bullshit, the bullshit.
Did you see the segment from Wednesday, “The Daily Show: Destroyer of Worlds,” where Stewart pretends to revel in in all of the hyperbolic headlines about how he and the show eviscerated or crushed or annhilated this or that enemy of the show (racism, Wall Street accountability, FOX News), only to discover, oops, that the enemy was stronger than ever? It leads Stewart to wonder what it was all about. “The world is demonstrably worse than when I started!” he cries. “Have I caused this?”
I actually think that this is what finally got to him and why he decided to leave. Not that he made things worse; but that he was purposeful and funny and true and on target ... and the bullshit didn't go away. In some cases, it got stronger.
Did you see the final episode? All the talent he helped create? The heartfelt praise he was forced to accept from Stephen Colbert? That's truly one of the loveliest, most heartfelt and educational moments I've seen on TV in recent years. And then his final words to us? Warning us about the bullshit, as he has all these years, with a take on the “If you see something, say something” civic vigilance campaign:
Bullshit is everywhere. ... Comes in three basic flavors.
One: Making bad things sound like good things. “Organic All Natural Cupcakes” because “Factory-made Sugar Oatmeal Balls” doesn't sell. “Patriot Act” because, “Are you scared enough to let me look at all your phone records Act” doesn't sell. So whenever something's been titled, Freedom, Family, Fairness, Health, America, take a good long sniff ...
Here's another one: simply put, banks shouldn't be able to bet your pension money on red. Bullshitly put it's, hey, this. Dodd-Frank. Hey, a handful of billionaires can't buy our elections, right? Of course not, they can only pour unlimited anonymous cash into a 501c4 if 50 percent is devoted to issue education, otherwise they'd have to 501c6 it or funnel it openly through a non-campaign coordinating Super Pac with a quarter... “I think they're asleep now, we can sneak out.”
And finally, it's the bullshit of infinite possibility. These bullshitters cover their unwillingness to act under the guise of unending inquiry. “We can't do anything because we don't yet know everything. We cannot take action on climate change until everyone in the world agrees gay marriage vaccines won't cause our children to marry goats who are going to come for our guns. Until then, I say teach the controversy.”
Now, the good news is this: bullshitters have gotten pretty lazy and their work is easily detected. Looking for it is kind of a pleasant way to pass the time. Like an “I Spy ...” of bullshit. So I say to you tonight, friends, the best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.
He's asking us to pick up the slack. I don't know if we're worthy.
It's only been a few days but it's still chaos on bullshit mountain. We got all the blah-blah of the GOP debates, and Trump's umbrage at Megyn Kelly, and then his Twitter and verbal attacks on Megyn Kelly, not to mention the idiots at #BlackLivesMatter, or some subset, disrupting a Bernie Sanders rally in downtown Seattle, and dooming, to my mind, his already quixotic campaign. (Future attack ad: “If he can't stand up to two girls in the middle of downtown Seattle, how can he stand up to ISIS in the middle of a war?”)
As I heard about all this stuff, I kept wondering what Stewart was thinking about it. Was he going, “Damn, I left too early” or “Phew, glad I'm outta there”? Either way, today, for the first time in 16 years, I won't be able to find out.
If This Be Doomsday! Parsing the Box-Office Disaster of 'Fantastic Four'
Here are a few of the superhero films that did better on opening weekend than Josh Trank's “Fantastic Four” did this weekend, when it grossed $26.2 million:
|Movie||Opening BO||Thtrs||Rel. Date||Domestic BO|
|Hellboy II: The Golden Army||$34,539,115||3,204||July 2008||$75,986,503|
|The Green Hornet||$33,526,876||3,584||Jan. 2011||$98,780,042|
|Blade II||$32,528,016||2,707||March 2002||$82,348,319|
That's unadjusted for inflation, by the way. Meaning the new FF didn't gross what “Unbreakable” grossed 15 years ago. It didn't even do half the business that the old (and super-crappy) Fantastic Four movies did 10 years ago, when the original debuted with $56 mil in 2005 and the sequel $58 in 2007. And remember, this one was supposed to wash the bad taste of those from our mouths. But judging from the Rotten Tomatoes reviews (9% and dropping), it looks like Trank's version left its own worse taste behind.
In the end, “Fantastic Four” didn't even win the weekend, coming in second to the second weekend of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” which dropped only 47% to gross $29.4. It's now grossed $108 domestically, $206 worldwide.
How long has it been since a superhero movie based on Marvel Comics characters debuted in something less than first place? Working backwards chronologically: Not Ant-Man, Avengers 2, Guardians, X-Men/Future Past, Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America 2, Thor 2, Wolverine, Iron Man 2, Amazing Spider-Man, or the Avengers. No, you've got to go to Feb. 2012 and the shitty sequel to the shitty 2007 Ghost Rider movie, which debuted in third place with $22 million. And if you remove the odd Satanic/Death Wish titles like Ghost Rider and Punisher? It hasn't happened since “Elektra” in January 2005. And if you focus on just top tier superhero characters? It's never happened.
It'll be interesting to see who or what gets the blame for this. Trank, trying to deflect blame on Friday, merely had more fingers pointing back at him. But fans know that Fox has a horrible track record with superhero movie titles.
So is this poor performance a sign of: 1) superhero fatigue; 2) Fantastic Four fatigue; 3) Fox Studios fatigue; or 4) that the age of the superhero movie is ending? I think it's a combination, but I also thinking 3) is stronger than people suspect. The fan boys are still out there but they know how Fox screwed them in the past, so they're content to see this one on DVD and wait for the next Marvel Studios movie.
- Joe Posnanski counts down the 10 most lopsided MLB trades (by WAR). Shockingly, no Mariners trade made the list. But it sucks to be a BoSox fan.
- Jim Walsh's dog poops three times on a two-bag walk. What happens next is what the column is all about.
- Tim Egan talks guns and the two Americas: those with kinda sorta sensible gun laws and those without.
- As of this year, Oregonians don't have to register to vote; they only have to register to opt out of voting. Otherwise, they are automatically registered. “Instead of asking voters, 'Do you want to register to vote?' they ask voters, 'Do you not want to vote?'” Great effin' idea. Right, Texas?
- You know how you go into work on a hot summer day and freeze because the air-conditioning is on too high? Two scientists claim that's the case because office buildings set temps based on decades-old formula that uses the metabolic rates of men, not women. In some cases, in fact, it's based upon “a 40-year-old man weighing about 154 pounds.” Which is exactly me (give or take a dozen years). So—follow-up question—why am *I* cold?
- Seattle is supposedly one of the rattiest cities in the country. I know I've seen my share. A few weekends ago, LoLo's dog Scout flushed one from the bushes at Seattle University.
- L.E.J., three cute French girls singing mostly a capella, give us a medley of the summer's big hits, and it's quite charming.
- Manohla Dargis breaks down a USC Communications/Journalism report on how little diversity there is on American movies screens. From 2007-14, according to the report, men made up 69.8% of all speaking or named characters, white people 73.1%. We get hardly any gay, lesbian, trans characters, while women characters disappear the older they get. Shocked, shocked. This is obviously disadvantageous to all of the women and non-white artists in the world, but, I would argue, it's also disadvantageous to white men like me, who don't get to see other people's stories.
- I'm surprised Kelefa Sanneh's New Yorker piece on the shifting landscape of free-speech advocacy isn't called “Blurred Lines,” after the controversial Robin Thicke song that begins the piece. Instead it's called “The Hell You Say,” which isn't bad. The shifting landscape, of course, is because of political correctness. It's also about sensitivity and safety. In the 1960s, conservatives were sensitive to bad language, and wanted women and children to be safe from such words, and liberals said, “Fuck that.” Now, liberals are sensitive to racist and misogynistic language, and want women and minorities to be safe from such an environment, and conservatives are saying, “Shut up, whores.” The piece also dives deeper into the issue, parsing whether, for example, hate speech is speech that expresses hatred or is likely to inspire it.
- Jerry Grillo's daughter Samantha has a nice piece on an early job mentor and what she learned from him. I wonder if she learned how to write well from Jerry? Apple/tree.
Why Megyn Kelly Won the First GOP Debate
Why was Kelly the winner? Because she asked the tough questions:
- “Mr. Trump ... Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women's looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who will likely be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?”
- “Governor Walker, you've consistently said that you want to make abortion illegal even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. ... Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion?”
- “Senator Rubio, you favor a rape and incest exception to abortion bans. ... If you believe that life begins at conception, as you say you do, how do you justify ending a life just because it begins violently, through no fault of the baby?”
- “Governor Bush ... To the families of those who died in that war who say they liberated and deposed a ruthless dictator, how do you look at them now and say that your brothers war was a mistake?”
- “The subject of gay marriage and religious liberty. Governor Kasich, if you had a son or daughter who was gay or lesbian, how would you explain to them your opposition to same-sex marriage?”
- “Mr. Trump ... When did you actually become a Republican?”
Afterwards I believe only Trump complained about the tough questions. Then he took to Twitter to bitch about it. Like a loser. I like people who who don't have to tweet misogynistic things when a woman holds them accountable.
To me, there's an obvious reason she did all this. She, and I assume Roger Ailes, are trying to prevent “Republican math” from hurting the party in 2016 as it did in 2012. She and Ailes are trying to toughen everybody up for the battle ahead. It's a warning shot across all those Republican bows: We will not be drinking our own Kool-Aid while deciding which king to make. The FOX narrative is fun, they're saying, but you have to do well outside our studios, too. And it's cold out there.
This is also a warning to Dems, by the way, whether they see it or not. Most are not. Most are joking.
Here's Amy Davidson's take on the debate. Here's an interesting sidenote: How a portion of Bush's answer disappeared from the official FOX-News transcript.
Four-hundred and 58 days until election day.
ADDENDUM: Make that 457 but the last one was a doozy for Trump. He doubled-down on stupidity with his “blood” comment about Kelly. Singlehandedly, he's making Kelly the most popular woman in America.
From the Studio that Brought You Elektra, Daredevil, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, X-Men: The Last Stand, and the First Two Shitty Fantastic Four Movies...
How bad is the new “Fantastic Four”? Its director, Josh Trank, who directed the well-received “Chronicle” a few years ago, is already making excuses, blaming the movie studio in all but name in a tweet that was posted yesterday and then quickly removed, but not before it was archived.
Which movie studio? Fox, of course. The studio that would give goddamned webshooters and a bat cape to Wolverine.
Here's the list of superhero movies they've released since their own “X-Men” reinvented the genre back in 2000, along with Rotten Tomatoes ratings and IMDb ratings:
|2003||X2: X-Men United||Bryan Singer||86%||7.5|
|2003||Daredevil||Mark Steven Johnson||44%||5.3|
|2003||The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen||Stephen Norrington||17%||5.8|
|2005||Fantastic Four||Tim Story||27%||5.7|
|2006||X-Men: The Last Stand||Brett Ratner||58%||6.8|
|2006||My Super Ex-Girlfriend||Ivan Reitman||40%||5.1|
|2007||Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer||Tim Story||37%||5.6|
|2009||X-Men Origins: Wolverine||Gavin Hood||38%||6.7|
|2011||X-Men: First Class||Matthew Vaughn||87%||7.8|
|2013||The Wolverine||James Mangold||70%||6.7|
|2014||X-Men: Days of Future Past||Bryan Singer||91%||8.1|
|2015||Fantastic Four||Josh Trank||9%||4.1|
Essentially Bryan Singer started them off with two good “X-Men” movies, then they screwed up for the next decade with crappy, mind-numbing movies until they revived the “X-Men” series in a positive-ish way. Plus Josh Trank's “Chronicle.”
It could be that Trank's original vision wasn't that good. It could be that the Fantastic Four, Marvel's first superheroes, who are more or less updated versions of 1) Plastic Man, 2) The WWII-era Human Torch, 3) The Invisible Man and 4) every rock creature out of every crappy 1950s Marvel mag, just don't work in the 21st century.
But I'm betting there are idiot execs at Fox who ruined this thing with their dumb ideas. Or at least ruined it further.
Whatta revoltin' development.
ADDENDUM: My friend Ciam pointed me to this Vulture piece on the long, tangled, gossip-ridden buzz for the new FF movie, and which mostly blames Trank and lets the studio off the hook. Maybe. But that doesn't explain all of the above.
From the studio that brought You Elektra, Daredevil, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: The Last Stand, and the first two shitty Fantastic Four movies.
Let Us Now Praise a Funny Man
Some encomiums and links on the way out, as Jon Stewart hosts his final “Daily Show” tonight ...
“He is not so much pro-left as he is anti-bullshit.”
--David Remnick, “Exit, Stage Left,” in The New Yorker
“The narrative you helped give us, to navigate the madness that is this world, cannot be overstated.”
-- J.J. Abrams on “The Daily Show” last week
“He says he's just a comedian but he's more than a comedian and I think he knows that. I spent three decades-plus doing network news but if you ask me today, what do I pay more attention to, John Oliver and Jon Stewart or the evening newscast, it's not close. I get much more out of Oliver and Stewart when he's cooking than I do out of those formulaic 22-minute newscasts.”
--Jeff Greenfield, in “Jon Stewart, Sarcastic Critic of Politics and Media, Is Signing Off,” in The New York Times
“Only Megyn Kelly and her ilk will breathe a sigh of relief when he’s gone.”
-- Charles Kaiser, “Jon Stewart made sense of the insanity all around us,” Columbia Journalism Review
“You had the guts to address yourself in the mirror, and say, 'Jon? It's not working.' For 17 years you've banged yourself against this desk, and we've all watched this trainwreck go on. You never found your voice, you never found your audience, you don't know what the fuck you're talking about.”
-- Will Ferrell on “The Daily Show” in March
Movie Review: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Twenty years ago, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) became an international star by playing a scheming young woman, Sigrid, who takes advantage of her older boss and lover, Helena, in Maloja Snake, a play and then film by Wilhelm Melchior.
In the first part of Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Maria, accompanied by her super-competent personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), takes the train to Zurich to accept an award for Melchior, who, they hear en route, dies at home. A heart attack. So there is sadness, mourning and regret amid public ceremonies. Maria also reverses herself and agrees to take the role of Helena in a London revival of Maloja Snake by director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger).
In the main part of the movie, Maria and Valentine stay at Melchior’s place in Sils Maria, and rehearse and argue over Maloja Snake. Maria has trouble seeing herself as Helena, since Helena is the weak one in the play; she has trouble even liking Helena. There are echoes between the women in the play and the women rehearsing—except that Maria, the employer and artist, has power that Helena didn’t, or felt she didn’t, while Valentine struggles to get her views across. She feels her opinions are not respected. Which is why it’s Valentine who disappears on a hike in Sils Maria, echoing the disappearance of Helena in the play. We never find out what happens to either of them, although it’s assumed Helena, the older character, dies (that’s what older characters do), while Valentine simply leaves for a better opportunity (that’s what younger people do).
In the epilogue of the film, Maria is an afterthought in the run-up to the premiere in London, as the gossip machine surrounding the new Sigrid, Hollywood bad girl Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), overwhelms all.
The first part is the most interesting—it has zip and snap amid the close quarters of the train—while the second part is meditative. It’s the epilogue that’s weakest.
Mellifluous vowels vs. nasty consonants
Stewart is a revelation. The film was nominated for six Césars but won only one, for Stewart as supporting, and it’s deserved. She seems real, forthright and vulnerable. She’s subtle and sexy. It’s a role that puts memories of the nothing Bella in the trashbin.
Her character is also an idiot in the way that young people are idiots. She thinks Twitter is the real world, for example, as opposed to an aspect of what passes for the public world at the moment. It came on like that and will be replaced like that.
Much of the movie is about Maria being replaced like that. It’s coming to terms with no longer being Sigrid but Helena, with all that the name implies: classic, ancient, all mellifluous vowels versus the hard, nasty consonants of Sigrid. As Sigrid, Maria never liked Helena, nor the actress who played her, who died a year after the film was released. Old actresses don’t fade away, apparently, they just disappear. (Cf. Debra Winger, Bridget Fonda.)
Here’s the problem. The trashy tabloid world is an easy target and Assayas doesn’t even hit it right. He glances off it. Jo-Ann Ellis has starred in a recent superhero flick, which Valentine defends to Maria, but when we (they) finally see it, replete with 3-D glasses, it’s like a low-budget, 1970s version of a superhero flick, with tinfoil outfits and awful haircuts and dialogue. There’s so much to lampoon in modern movie culture, in our love of the superhero, but it helps if you’ve know what you’re lampooning. I got the feeling Assayas has seen none of it.
Plus Jo-Ann’s lover is a famous novelist? Let me quote Gore Vidal in 1992: “To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun.”
How sweet to be a cloud
A common Assayas theme is whither culture, French or otherwise, in this Americanized and Hollywoodized world, but he’s handled it better elsewhere (“L’heure d’ete,” particularly). We were young once, and serious, and now things have gotten away from us. And look who (or what) is powerful.
But “Sils Maria” doesn’t quite click. Its use of the Maloja Snake, the cloud formation in the Alps, is both heavy-handed and slightly incomprehensible, and the film doesn’t do what it does: coalesce into a distinct form.
Creating 'Liberal Hollywood' in Five Simple Steps
Here are the first five searches for the phrase “liberal Hollywood” on the New York Times site, as sorted by oldest:
- Jan. 28, 1975: “He is also consulting with Warren Beatty and other liberal Hollywood stars who backed Senator George McGovern for the 1972 nomination.” — from Christopher Lydon's straightforward “Special to the Times” piece on Henry “Scoop” Jackson considering a run for president in 1976.
- Oct. 7, 1990: “He has won wide admiration among Jews for his staunch support for Israel and has earned credits in traditionally liberal Hollywood circles for backing the motion picture industry in its regulatory battle with the television networks over syndication of reruns.” — from Robert Reinhold's straightforward “Special to the Times” piece on California gubernatorial candidate Pete Wilson steering a course for the political center.
- Oct. 26, 1990: “Citing contributions to Mr. Waite from Al Pacino and other movie figures, Mr. McCandless said that Mr. Waite is part of the 'liberal Hollywood crowd'...” — from Robert Reinhold's “Special to the Times” piece on conservative U.S. Rep. Al McCandless' poliltical battle with actor Ralph Waite, who played Pa Walton on “The Waltons” in the 1970s.
- Sept. 17, 1991: “'[Bob] Kerrey's the one in the liberal Hollywood community,' said one influential public relations executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. 'He's spent a lot of time out here. Frankly, he's young, he's attractive, he's a war hero, he slept with a movie star and he's got a good hair cut.'” — from Bernard Weinraub's piece on Hollywood's love of gossip, including, but not limited to, the 1992 presidential election.
- June 25, 1992: “Perotmania seems to be hitting liberal Hollywood, at least somewhat.” — from Bernard Weinraub's gossip column on budgets and the '92 campaign.
Over time, the compound modifier becomes its own phrase. Then it's off to the races.
Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)
“Ex Machina” dramatizes a question that has plagued mankind for decades: What should we fear more—artificial intelligence or women?
Alex Garland’s film is actually smart and moody. It pulses and throbs. It’s a mystery. The biggest mystery is less about A.I., or women, than what the Great Man is doing with the kid.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young, mid-level programmer for the search engine Blue Book, which dominates the near-future market the way Google does the present. As the movie opens, he’s informed, via text, that he won first prize in a contest to meet the Great Man, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who founded the company after writing the Blue Book code at the age of 13. “When do we get to his estate?” Caleb shouts at the helicopter pilot as they fly over what looks like Greenland. The pilot chuckles. “We’ve been flying over his estate for the past two hours!” the pilot shouts back. Eventually they land in what looks like primordial green with no building in sight. But that’s as far as the pilot is allowed. No further. The Great Man is Howard Hughes for the digital set.
Nathan’s an odd one but shouldn’t he be odder? Say, more spooked by another human presence? He lives alone in this vastness yet comes across as just another asshole CEO. He’s dismissive in greeting (pounding the heavy bag when Caleb first arrives), then regular-guy in conversation (beer talk and “man” endearments).
But we know he’s got a game. Even after he says his game, we know he’s got a different game.
He says he brought Caleb there for a Turing test. He’s created a robot in the form of a beautiful woman—named, Biblically, Ava (Alicia Vikander)—and he wants to see if Caleb can tell if she’s a machine. Except, since she’s unfinished, Caleb can see she’s a machine. Initially Caleb is confused by this. Then he’s confused by Ava. Then he begins to fall in love with her. Her big-eyed vulnerability helps. During their talks, the power generator goes out, meaning Nathan can’t monitor the two of them—or so Ava says—and she uses this alone time to tell Caleb not to trust Nathan. So is Ava causing the power to go out to steal these moments with Caleb? To what end? Or is Nathan responsible for the outages so he can better spy on them? Are Ava and Nathan enemies (with Caleb caught in the middle), or are they in cahoots (with Caleb being used)?
Actually, we know Caleb is being used. The question is: In what way is Caleb being used? And is he smart enough to figure it out?
He thinks he’s smart anyway. He’s told he won the contest because his coding is so good, and for a time he believes this. He even deigns to school Nathan. At one point, he says, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds,” then adds, pedantically: J. Robert Oppenheimer/atom bomb. Nathan in effect shushes him. It also takes Caleb a while to figure out what is obvious to us: that the fourth presence in the house, a silent servant named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), is also A.I.
It’s a smart movie, referencing Turing, Wittgenstein, Jackson Pollock. Ava’s A.I. turns out to be a compendium of the world’s online searches—both what we search and how we search—which is also pretty smart. Unfortunately, there’s only so many answers to the main mystery. What is Nathan’s goal? For most of the movie, I assumed Caleb won the contest (which wasn’t a contest) to see if a man could fall in love with a machine. Nope. Nathan wants to see whether the machine can manipulate the man. Which it does. Better than Nathan anticipates.
I like how easily the knife goes into Nathan’s body—like he’s made of butter. I like how indomitable Ava is in spirit yet how vulnerable in form. (Nathan smashes her arm like it’s an old PC; the Terminator she’s not.) I also like the irony of the ending. Nathan tries to kill Ava but she kills him instead. Caleb tries to free Ava and she traps him instead. There’s no morality to it, just survival. She leaves Caleb behind and goes out into the world—Big Data as a small woman. It’s that rare movie that actually calls for a sequel.
It’s also that rare movie that is open to many interpretations. Is it about Big Data, and how our search results will kill us in the end? Is the metaphor Frankenstein? God? Ava, after all, removes her creator, Nathan, from the equation, as Garland removed “Deus” from the title. Me, I kept thinking of old movie moguls. These guys had vast power, and lived on vast estates, where they created beautiful women with which to manipulate the rest of us. “Ex Machina” is steeped in near-future techi-ness, but you could argue it’s really a movie about old Hollywood.
'Less Pro-Left than Anti-Bullshit'
Nice graf from David Remnick's too-short farewell to Jon Stewart, who is relinquishing his seat after 16 years on “The Daily Show”:
There was always something a little disingenuous about Stewart's insistence that he is a centrist, free of ideological commitment to anything except truth and sanity. In fact, his politics tend to lean left of center. He's been aggressive toward, and ruthlessly funny about, unsurprising targets from Donald Rumsfeld to Wall Street. His support for L.G.B.T. rights, civil rights, voting rights, and women's rights has always been unambiguous. His critique of Obama is generally that of the somewhat disappointed liberal, particularly on issues like Guantánamo and drones. But Stewart is a centrist only in this sense: he is not so much pro-left as he is anti-bullshit.
A-fucking-men. And could we get some bullshit detectors on some people on the right for a change? We're tired of doing all the work.
Box Office: How Big a Star was Tom Cruise Anyway?
Tom Cruise's “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” won the weekend with a $56 million haul, beating the reprise of National Lampoon's “Vacation,” which earned $14.8 million after a Wednesday release. If you count its first two days as well, the reboot still comes in at only $21.7.
“M:I”'s gross is the 10th-best opening of the year, behind, among others, “Pitch Perfect 2,” but it's the third-biggest opening of Cruise's career, behind only “War of the Worlds” ($64.8 in 2005) and “Mission: Impossible II” ($57.8 in 2000).
Doesn't that seem startling? Tom Cruise has been a box-office champ for so long you expect his numbers to be higher. In the big three categories, in fact, here are the biggest movies of Tom Cruises's career, along with their rank in each category:
- Domestic: “War of the Worlds” (2005): $234.2 million (110th)
- Worldwide: “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol” (2011): $694.7 million (77th)
- Domestic (adjusted for inflation): “Top Gun” (1986): $389.9 million (109th)
Each stat is startling in its own way.
No Tom Cruise movie grossed from than $235 million in the U.S.? And “Ghost Protocol” was his biggest worldwide hit? And even when you adjust for inflation to compensate for Cruise's early years as a movie star, his biggest hit, “Top Gun,” doesn't even rank in the top 100?
I thought Cruise was our biggest movie star over the past 30 years but these numbers don't really indicate it.
So I looked at other numbers—specifically where each movie ranked the year it was released:
|Year||Movie||Dom. Gross||Yearly Rank||Key moments in career|
|1981||Taps||$35.8||16||<— Stuns in debut|
|1983||Risky Business||$63.5||10||<— Becomes a star|
|1983||All the Right Moves||$17.2||42|
|1986||Top Gun||$179.8||1||<— Becomes a superstar|
|1986||The Color of Money||$52.2||12|
|1989||Born on the Fourth of July||$70.0||17||<— First Oscar nom|
|1990||Days of Thunder||$82.6||13|
|1992||Far and Away||$58.8||21|
|1992||A Few Good Men||$141.3||5|
|1993||The Firm||$158.3||4||<— No. 4 for the year?|
|1994||Interview with the Vampire||$105.2||11|
|1996||Mission: Impossible||$215.4||3||<— First M:I film|
|1996||Jerry Maguire||$153.9||4||<— Second Oscar nom|
|1999||Eyes Wide Shut||$55.6||42||<— Kubrick|
|1999||Magnolia||$22.4||80||<— Last Oscar nom|
|2000||Mission: Impossible II||$215.4||3||<— First sequel|
|2003||The Last Samurai||$111.1||20|
|2004||Collateral||$101.0||23||<— Villain role|
|2005||War of the Worlds||$234.2||4||<— Couch jumping on “Oprah,” etc.|
|2006||Mission: Impossible III||$134.0||14|
|2007||Lions for Lambs||$15.0||127|
|2010||Knight & Day||$76.4||45|
|2011||Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol||$209.3||7||<— Still Cruise's only sequels|
|2012||Rock of Ages||$38.5||84|
|2014||Edge of Tomorrow||$100.2||33|
All numbers courtesy of Box Office Mojo.
Now his status makes a little more sense. From “A Few Good Men” in 1992 to “Mission: Impossible III” in 2006, the only Tom Cruise movies that didn't gross $100 million domestically were two serious art films with acclaimed directors. Hell, he even raised a difficult film like the U.S. remake of “Vanilla Sky” to the $100 million mark. He had two No. 1 movies in the 1980s, and top five movies in '92, '93, '96 (two in '96), 2000 and 2005. He kept cruising.
Most likely, his box office numbers would have gone down as he aged and his fans grew up and had kids of their own, but obviously his 2005 Summer of Weirdness, which included couch jumping on “Oprah,” chastising Matt Lauer for being glib on “Today,” and berating Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressants after childbirth, sped up that process. It also probably dinged the b.o. numbers of “War of the Worlds” in 2005, as well as, a year later, “M:I III,” which is the least lucrative of the series by far.
Ever since that summer, Cruise has been crawling his way back, although rather than taking difficult projects he seems resigned to starring in “M:I” movies and smartish sci-fi and/or action flicks that do meh domestic box office. Before “Rogue Nation,” none of his movies this decade opened better than $38 mil—they averaged only $21 mil per opening—so “Rogue” is a nice reprieve for the besmirched, aging Scientologist. But the poster is indicative. Tom Cruise became a superstar by piloting planes and now he's on the outside of them, hanging on for dear life.
Movie Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)
If the subtext of the first three “Mission: Impossible” movie is that we need IMF agents like Ethan Hunt to protect us from IMF agents like Jim Phelps, Sean Ambrose and John Musgrave, traitors all (the fourth movie went in a different direction, thankfully), the subtext of the fifth installment, “Rogue Nation,” is that we need IMF agents like Ethan to protect us from MI6 agents. So ... different.
There’s another related subtext, too, with which almost everyone in the movie audience—all the slovenly, popcorn-crunching and cellphone-checking doofuses—can identify: Don’t trust the boss; he’s a major asshole.
But it’s the first subtext that’s most important. Spy agencies in the “M:I” movies have become self-fulfilling prophecies. We need spies to protect us from spies. So we better get more spies.
Talk about job security.
He’s been going in and out of style
It’s been almost 20 years since Tom Cruise first played Ethan Hunt. Back then, Cruise was 34, married to Nicole Kidman, and beginning to stretch as an actor: “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Magnolia,” “Vanilla Sky,” “The Last Samurai,” “Collateral.” Now he’s 53 and thrice-divorced, the creepy Scientologist and former couch-jumper who’s maintaining his place in the Hollywood power structure by doing nothing but action sequels. Back then we were in a post-Cold War world (whee!) and now we’re post-9/11 (oh). Digital tech was so new in ’96 that Ethan used the nonsensical “Job@Book of Job” as an email address. Now Ethan and his IMF crew use the latest Hollywood tech shortcut: facial recognition technology. (No one can hide anymore! Anywhere!) Back then, the big stunt was Ethan hanging from a zipline in Langley, Va.; now he hangs from the doors of airplanes in flight. Even Jackie Chan looks at that stunt and goes, “Dude, that’s just crazy.”
The team, such as it is, is back. There’s the big black tech dude named Luther (Ving Rhames), who’s been with Ethan since the first movie. There’s the comic-relief Brit named Benji (Simon Pegg), who’s been with him since the third. Then there’s William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), the Ethan doppelganger who didn’t betray him, who’s been around since the fourth.
Almost all the other actors get promotions of a sort. Tom Hollander, best known to me as the comically inept Minister for International Development in “In the Loop,” winds up as Britain’s Prime Minister here, while Simon McBurney, the undersecretary in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” is promoted to the head of MI6. Sean Harris is usually the underling creep (“Red Riding”) but now he gets to be the head creep. Nice work! Alec Baldwin? CIA director! Jeremy Renner? A step below CIA director! Rebecca Ferguson? Instead of kinda betraying Hercules but still being on his side in “Hercules,” she kinda betrays Ethan Hunt but is still on his side here. She’s Ilsa Faust, the Love Interest, replacing, I think, Emmanuelle Béart, Thandie Newton, Michelle Monaghan and Paula Patton. Nice work if you can get it.
The movie is getting positive reviews (93% on RT), but we’ve seen it before. Here’s the IMDb description of the first movie:
An American agent, under false suspicion of disloyalty, must discover and expose the real spy without the help of his organization.
And the fourth:
The IMF is shut down when it’s implicated in the bombing of the Kremlin, causing Ethan Hunt and his new team to go rogue to clear their organization’s name.
Mix and match. As the movie opens, IMF is subsumed by the CIA and Hunt is discredited and forced to go rogue to discover the rogue nation of the title, called, somewhat unimaginatively, “The Syndicate.” His team is loyal to him. But is Ilsa? (Yes.) But will his boss back him in the end? (Yes.) But will hers? (No.) Effin’ Brits.
The act you’ve known for all these years
There’s a big missed opportunity here. The Syndicate, an MI6 plan gone awry, is made up of former agents from all over the world (Mossad, BND), and instead of killing to maintain the status quo they now kill to disrupt things. To what end? Not sure. I don’t even know if they know. But it’s fuel for paranoids everywhere. That plane that disappeared over that ocean? That just didn’t happen, dude. The message of the movie is that there are no accidents. Thanks for that, Chris McQuarrie. Just what we need.
But this is the missed opportunity. At one point, the lines between right and wrong become so blurred that I couldn’t tell for whom Ethan should be fighting, or whether he was actually the good guy. That was pretty cool. Are MI6 and the CIA too corrupt to fight for? Was Ethan risking too much—as he always does—and would Brandt betray him as a result? But then the roller coaster arrives back at the station with everything as it was at the start: Ethan vindicated, IMF restored, sequel set up. Cue theme music.
“Rogue Nation” is a movie with great stunts, great legs (Ferguson, ouch), exotic locales and a nice rendition of “Turandot.” But there’s got to be a more interesting plot somewhere.