erik lundegaard

Wednesday September 30, 2015

Lancelot Links Chokes Bryce Harper

  • So over the weekend the (recent) closer from the Washington Nationals, Jonathan Papelbon, called out the star of the Washington Nationals (and the best player in baseball) Bryce Harper for not running hard enough on an eighth-inning pop out. He kept at him. Harper said come get some. And Papelbon went for his throat. Literally. So teammates separated them.
  • I first read Tyler Kepner on it, and he put a lot of blame on manager Matt Williams for allowing Papelbon to go out in the ninth and pitch. He thinks he should've sent a signal to the rest of the team. 
  • Joe Posnanski said much the same thing in his inimitable fashion—meaning with humor and sadness. He talked about when it's right to do this kind of thing and when it's wrong. He felt the Nats demonstrated the really, really wrong way to do it. 
  • Then former pitcher, and decent writer, C.J. Nitkowski weighed in with quotes from other players ... who backed Papelbon
  • Then Washington Post sportswriter Adam Kilgore weighed in, saying it was SO Papelbon's fault, don't even THINK it wasn't. Plus Harper did run out that pop-up.
  • And Posnanski offers a further (rather classy) follow-up to Nitkowski's column. I'm sure there will be more to come. 
  • Elsehwere, meaning the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle Mariners, who have now been absent from the postseason longer than any team in baseball (14 years and counting), have hired a new general manager: Jerry Dipoto, 47, who apparently resigned as GM of the Angels earlier this year because he favored analytics. More later on our new GM.
  • Grantland's Alex Pappademas has a great piece on why the new “Muppets” suck. Then he goes further: “We are a terrible, dispirited society and we finally have the terrible, dispirited Muppets we deserve.” Fun! (Quibble: While I think Alan Moore critiqued the suphero-as-vigilante, I think Frank Miller bought into it from the get-go.)
  • Nicholas Dawidoff (the heir apparent?) writes of another lost Red Sox season in The New Yorker. I question the “another.” The BoSox are tied with the San Francisco Giants for most titles this century (three) and won it all as recently as 2013. Twins fans? Haven't been, or won it all, since 1991. Mariners fans? Never won it all. Never been. How do you like them apples, Bahstan?
  • Kevin McCarthy, another heir apparent, who shares a name with the star of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” apparently has loose lips. Essentially he's saying: Look how we torpedoed Hilary with Benghazi! Classy.  
  • A lot of reporters are giving John Boehner a pass as he heads off into the sunset. Not Jeffrey Toobin.
  • How is America like the worst girlfriend in the world? Louis CK explains.
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Posted at 03:31 PM on Sep 30, 2015 in category Lancelot Links
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Tuesday September 29, 2015

Where Michael Medved Went Wrong with ‘Hollywood vs. America’

OK, so I finally got around to reading Michael Medved’s “Hollywood vs. America.” Give me a few decades and I’ll get right on things.

What surprised me? I agreed with him more than I thought I would.

Our minds meet here:

  1. Movies influence us. In my view, everything affects everything, and movies, with their wide reach, with millions of potential viewers, can influence that much more. So there’s a responsibility there. With great power, etc.
  2. Movies are excessively violent. Given his conservative credentials, I was pleased that Medved attacks right-wing icons Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris. He doesn’t give them a pass. Here.
  3. Too many ‘Kid Knows Best’ features are a drag. Obviously the goal is to flatter one of Hollywood’s key demographics while insulting the people actually paying for the ticket.

Our disagreements cut deeper.

Medved thinks Hollywood movies are generally anti-family, anti-hero, anti-country, anti-religion, pro-obscenity, and tend to glorify ugliness.

I think most Hollywood movies are good-vs.-evil heroic wish-fulfillment fantasies, and so much about the beauty of its stars that for the rest of our lives the rest of us feel like something the cat dragged in.

But our biggest disagreement is who we blame for whatever mess we think Hollywood is in.

Me: Hollywood’s a business, they’re trying to appeal to as many people as possible—to make as much money as possible—and so they come up with these wish-fulfillment fantasies about heroic men and beautiful women because that’s the story we want to see again and again. The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves.

Medved: It’s the hippies.

Specifically:

Between 1965 and 1969 the values of the entertainment industry changed, and audiences fled from the theaters in horror and disgust.

A little background. In 1966, Jack Valenti, the newly appointed president of the Motion Picture Association of America, officially ended the longstanding Hays Code, which had banned, among other things, nudity, miscegenation, “sex perversion,” and “willful offense to any nation, race or creed”—or at least the white ones. In its place, he instituted a ratings system: initially G, M, R and X; eventually G, PG, PG-13, R, X and NC-17. From then on, characters on movie screens could swear, and take off their clothes. If you pricked them they bled and if you poisoned them they died. Movies could have sympathy for criminals and could ridicule clergy.

To Medved, that’s where everything went wrong. In 1966, Hollywood opened Pandora’s Box, filth came out, and most of us turned away. He writes:

While individual examples of the countercultural trend might achieve respectable box office returns (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967; Easy Rider, 1969; Midnight Cowboy, 1969; M*A*S*H, 1970), the general distaste for the industry’s emphasis on sex and violence provoked an unprecedented flight of the mass audience.

My thought while reading: Except there wasn’t an unprecedented flight of the mass audience.

Ah. But according to Medved, there was:

In 1967, the first year in which Hollywood found itself finally free to appeal to the public without the “paralyzing” restrictions of the old Production Code, American pictures drew an average weekly audience of only 17.8 million—compared to the weekly average of 38 million who had gone to the theaters just one year before!

Wow, I didn’t know that. Hollywood lost more than half its audience in a single year? And did nothing about it?

So where did Medved get those numbers? From the footnotes:

All figures on weekly movie attendance from the Motion Picture Association of America (research by Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, New Jersey), cited in Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, by Cobbett Steinberg, Vintage Books, 1978, pp. 370–71.

Steinberg’s book does in fact give us those 38/17.8 numbers. In my updated 1982 version, they’re on page 46. But are they correct?

First, let’s admit it’s tough to get accurate box office data on almost anything before 1980. It’s all a little sketchy and the numbers never quite match.

That said, almost everything I’ve ever read on the history of box office disagrees with Medved/Steinberg. Here, for example, is a graph from George Lucas's Blockbusting: A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success:

Average weekly movie attendance by decade: 1910-2000This is the agreed-upon history. From the late ‘40s to the mid-‘60s, fewer and fewer people went to the movies because of the following factors:

  1. The advent of TV (the big one)
  2. The 1948 federally mandated breakup of Hollywood’s production/distribution monopoly, causing the studios to sell its theaters and cut back on production
  3. Suburbanization

I.e., 3) meant traveling further when you left the house, 2) meant fewer film options once you left the house, and 1) meant “Why leave the house? Milton Berle’s on!”

(Another factor, less commented upon, is HUAC’s assault on Hollywood, which tainted the brand. For many Americans, the question became: Why spend time and money to see something created by pinkos and fellow travelers? The great irony is that HUAC’s search for communists damaged a successful capitalist enterprise that 99.99% of the time promoted American values around the world.)

Another graph, from Michelle Pautz of Elon University in North Carolina, in her paper, “The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930 -2000,” suggests that attendance actually began to level off around the time Valenti and Hollywood got rid of the outdated Production Code:

 Average Weekly Movie Attendance: 1930 to 2000

Movies survived the TV era by giving people what they couldn’t get on TV. In the 1950s, this meant Cinemascope and Technicolor and epics. In the mid-to-late ‘60s, it meant sex, violence and adult themes. This was the lifeline the movies used until Hollywood hit upon the summer blockbuster concept in the mid-1970s. 

But there's an even more important source that disagrees with Steinberg: Steinberg.

During my online research, I came across a 2006 discussion on a message board devoted to arts and faith, in which one user quotes Medved’s 38/17.8 numbers, another challenges him, and the first essentially offers a mea culpa—linking to a LA City Beat article that refutes Medved’s numbers. Sadly, LA City Beat is no more, the links are broken, and I can’t find the original article or even its author’s name. (Let me know if you know who this is.) But the message board user did quote from the article:

...had [Medved] turned one leaf backward [in Steinberg’s book] to look at page 368, he would have seen the chart saying that the average 1966 ticket price was $1.094, and the average 1967 price $1.198. Had he turned one leaf forward, to page 373, he would have discovered that annual U.S. box-office receipts for 1966 were $1.119 billion; for 1967, $1.128 billion.

If anyone can tell me how ticket prices can go up roughly 10 percent, box-office receipts can go up a little under 1 percent, and attendance drop by nearly 53 percent … well, please drop me a line.

Let’s do that math, shall we? If you take Steinberg’s annual box office receipts and divide by Steinberg’s annual ticket price, then divide by the 52 weeks in the year, you get the following average weekly attendance for 1966 and 1967:

Year

U.S. Box Office

Avg. ticket

Est. annual att.

Est. wkly att.

1966

$964,000,000

$1.09

881,170,018

16,945,577.27

1967

$989,000,000

$1.20

825,542,571

15,875,818.67

Not exactly 38/17.8.

So Steinberg doesn’t even agree with himself. In fact, he’s culling information from many different sources. But it’s only the average weekly attendance number, on which Medved based so much, and which comes from a study by the Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, that includes a proviso from Steinberg:

These figures are only estimates of the average weekly number of American moviegoers. Industry statistics can never be exact here. 

I searched to see if any book and/or movie critics at the time that “Hollywood vs. America” was published called out Medved on his suspect data. Nada.

I checked to see if Medved has since offered a mea culpa on his suspect data. Bupkis.

To be sure, Medved gets other things wrong, too. He goes on for pages about a 1990 Christian movie, “China Cry,” claiming it earned twice what Box Office Mojo says it grossed ($10 million vs. $4.2 million). He attacks B movies of the 1980s that aren’t worth a second thought, and ascribes shabby, countercultural motives behind Martin Scorsese’s desire to make “The Last Temptation of Christ.” He thinks R.E.M.’s song “Losing My Religion” is anti-religion and “The Simpsons” isn’t funny.

But this is the big one. He believes that the movie business, which has given us John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Rambo, Arnold and Bruce Willis, puts left-wing ideology before money. It’s right there in that 38/17.8 number: the number that other numbers, not to mention logic, not to mention its original source, tells us is wrong.

Post Hays code movies: The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy

The movies that caused audiences to flee from the theaters “in horror and disgust,” according to Medved. 

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Posted at 05:39 AM on Sep 29, 2015 in category What Liberal Hollywood?
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Monday September 28, 2015

Movie Review: Focus (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Why the Hollywood fascination with con artists? Is it an easy metaphor for what they do to us? Show us a pretty face or a handsome bod and while our attention is diverted pick our pocket? We leave the theater feeling rooked.

And what the fuck happened to Will Smith? For 15 years he couldn’t appear onscreen without exuding charm, but since coming back from a four-year hiatus he’s played the most charmless dolts. He plays soft-spoken superior men who don’t have time for the rest of us. We’re an avenue to his power. We get stepped on.

Woo woo
Focus, starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie“Focus” is a kind of love story, just not a very good one. Nicky (Smith) takes Jess (Margot Robbie), a pretty blonde amateur scam artist, under his wing, and shows her the basics of grifting. Then during a Super Bowl weekend in New Orleans, he lets her in on the super-efficient rarefied air of his grifting operation, where members of his team pick pockets and scam football fans as easily as football fans high five one another. Before the game even starts, they’ve netted more than $1 million of, well, our money. Thanks, bro.

But there are intimations that Nicky has a gambling problem, and, at the game, which isn’t really the Super Bowl since the NFL didn’t want to be associated with this thing, he gets into a series of bets with Liyuan (B.D. Wong), a happy-go-lucky Chinese gambler, and keeps losing: $1,000, $50K, then $1 million—all the money he’d earned, or stolen, all gone on what are in essence 50/50 bets: The next play will be a run; the next pass will be caught, etc. Finally, ruined, he decides to make an absurd bet where the odds are astronomically against him. He bets that Liyuan can pick the number of any player on the field and Jess can guess it. Liyuan tries to warn him off; Jess is horrified and wants no part of it. But the bet goes forward. And using binoculars, Jess spies, on the sidelines, Farhad (Adrian Martinez), an overweight grifter who is part of Nicky’s team, wearing No. 55. So she chooses that one. Which is the number Liyuan chose. Nicky wins it all back! But how? That’s what Jess wants to know.

Turns out they’d set up Liyuan from the beginning. They made sure the number “55” kept appearing in his field of vision during the previous few days. They were also playing the Rolling Stones’ song, “Sympathy for the Devil” in the luxury suite, with its background vocals going “Woo woo, woo woo,” and Nicky helpfully explains to Jess that the Chinese word for five is “Woo.” Woo woo. Five five.

And?

And that’s it. That’s how they won that absurd, impossible bet. In that absurd, impossible fashion.

It turns out Nicky doesn’t have a gambling problem. But then why does he go to the racetrack and lose? Who’s being set up there? Just us? And how did he know he would lose all of those 50/50 bets earlier? Or did he plan to just keep betting until they got to the point where the absurd bet was necessary? Except it never was. 

After all this excitement, Nicky unceremoniously cuts Jess loose. He gives her the money she earned and boots her from his car. I guess he was becoming attached and he doesn’t want attachments. That would be vaguely human and Will Smith isn’t that anymore.

Oh, and FYI, but the Chinese word for “five” sounds more like “oo” than “woo.” It’s third tone, falling and rising. It's very specific. What the Stones sing sounds as much like five in Chinese as it sounds like five in English.

Daddyo
Anyway, that’s the first half of the movie. The second half is set in Buenos Aires, where a rich, unscrupulous racecar owner, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), against the wishes of his personal bodyguard Owens (Gerald McRaney), hires a seemingly bereft Nicky to scam his competition. Garriga owns a McGuffin that will allow him to race faster, and he wants Nicky to pretend to be a disgruntled engineer who will sell that technology to the Aussie competition, McEwen (Robert Taylor). Ah, except he’ll really be selling something that’s not quite as good, allowing Garriga to keep winning! Hahahahahaha.

So that idea is stupid. But then Nicky double-crosses him by selling the real McGuffin to nine of Garriga’s competitors, netting $27 million in all, even as Owens closes in on both Nicky and Jess, who is Garriga’s girlfriend, and over whom Nicky seems to be getting all moony-eyed. Seems he’s missed her these past years.

Except! She’s not really Garriga’s girlfriend. She’s just trying to steal his watch or something, while Garriga and Owens think of her as a garden-variety racetrack skank. (The movie is not kind to Robbie's character.) Plus! Nicky is faking being moony-eyed. That’s part of the scam, too. Because! Owens is really working with Nicky. He’s really Nicky’s father. Which leave us! Nowhere.

Woo woo.

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Posted at 06:59 AM on Sep 28, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Sunday September 27, 2015

15 Songs for the Super Blood Moon

In honor of tonight's super blood moon (three, three, three lunar events in one), a sampling of moon songs from my iTunes roster. 

YEAR SONG ARTIST
1962 Moon River Audrey Hepburn
1970 Moondance Van Morrison
1971 Moonshadow Cat Stevens
1972 Pink Moon Nick Drake
1973 Grapefruit Moon Tom Waits
1988 Hawkmoon 269 U2
1989 Full Moon Full of Love k.d. lang
1991 Blue Moon Waltz Jimmie Day Gilmore
1992 Man on the Moon R.E.M.
1993 Crescent Moon Cowboy Junkies
1993 Why Look at the Moon The Waterboys
1995 Smog Moon Matthew Sweet
2000 Goodnight Moon Shivaree
2002 I Wish I Was the Moon Neko Case
2012 Dead Moon Calexico

It's not a bad list but I thought there would be, I don't know, more songs, I guess. It is the moon, after all. It's the ultimate romantic heavenly body. In China, they even have a holiday for it. 

The Shivaree song is really about wishing for the morning and fearing the night, but it's such a good song I had to include it. 

Additions?

No tagsPosted at 03:07 PM on Sep 27, 2015 in category Music
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The #1 Box-Office Hits the Year Our Last Five Presidents were Elected

YEAR PRESIDENT-ELECT #1 BOX-OFFICE HIT
1980 Ronald Reagan The Empire Strikes Back
1988 George H.W. Bush Rain Man
1992 Bill Clinton Aladdin
2000 George W. Bush The Grinch
2008 Barack Obama The Dark Knight

Mostly I was amused by the juxtaposition of Ronald Reagan and the return of far-right conservatism with “The Empire Strikes Back,” but some of the others aren't bad, either.

No tagsPosted at 10:52 AM on Sep 27, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office
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Lancelot Links

  • Earlier this week, Yogi Berra died. Here's the Times obit. Here's mine.
  • My friend Jerry Grillo also has a nice remembrance on meeting Yogi at the tail end of the '86 season.  
  • As soon as Yogi died, the Times' George Vecsey wrote a post about Whitey Ford now being the greatest living Yankee. My immediate thought: Wait, shouldn't that be Derek Jeter? I mean, I'm not exactly Derek Jeter's No. 1 fan, but c'mon. 
  • And just as I'm thinking, “I don't have to write a post extolling Jeter, do I?” Joe Posnanski did it for me. And with some great history about what that “greatest living Yankee” b.s. is all about.
  • Angels in the outfield: Did you see Mike Trout's catch off of Jesus Montero the other night? The ball was a no-doubter and Trout put more than half his body over the wall to bring it back. Less commented upon? That kept it 2-1, Mariners, rather than 5-1 Mariners; and though we had two on and only one out we never scored that inning. In the ninth, now 2-2, the Angels won it on a homer by David Freese to almost that exact spot.  

Mike Trout HR route off of Jesus Montero

Trout route.

  • I've often thought the Aurora Bridge in Seattle—narrow lanes, no divider—was an accident waiting to happen. This Thursday, it did
  • Here's a New York Times editorial on John Boehner's decision to resign from Congress (and of course from his role as Speaker of the House). He departs, they write, “as a figure thrown out by party zealots enthralled by a woeful Ronald Reagan dictum: 'Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.'”
  • A Democratic Congressional insider writes that Boehner was never well-suited for the role of leading the Tea Partiers: “I think he lacks the blood lust that courses through so many in the G.O.P. ranks. He enjoys legislating, he likes politicians; he wants to succeed, albeit very much on his own terms. And he has a personable, thoughtful side that endears him to political adversaries and supporters alike, a contrast to the bombastic, tiresome nihilists who have driven him out of Congress.”
  • The Volkswagen scandal (cheating on emissions tests in an effort to become the world's #1 automaker) is another reason (reason #10,337, for those counting at home) why we need government regulations of industry. All you need is “a hard-charging chief executive” with lofty ambitions; the rest of us just make it happen. 
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Posted at 07:13 AM on Sep 27, 2015 in category Lancelot Links
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Saturday September 26, 2015

Screenshot of the Day

Any guesses who this is? Which movie character? Hint: He was in three of this series' movies:

Mickey Goldmill gravestone

Answer. 

No tagsPosted at 03:19 PM on Sep 26, 2015 in category Photo of the Day
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Friday September 25, 2015

Trailer: Truth

When I first heard the title, I thought it was also a take on Dan Rather's brief but dopey closing line—his attempt, post-Cronkite, to come up with his own “And that's the way it is.” But then I remembered that line was “Courage” not “Truth.”

 

Either way, I'm looking forward to this. It's one of two movies about journalism opening in October. (The other, “Spotlight,” about The Boston Globe's investigation into the Catholic Church molestation scandal, got a greater reception at the Toronto International Film Festival.)

Redford has now played the extremes in journalism, hasn't he? From Bob Woodward bringing down Pres. Nixon in “All the President's Men” to Dan Rather bringing down himself here. 

“Truth” is written and directed by James Vanderbilt, who wrote, among others, “Zodiac,” “White House Down” and the two “Amazing Spider-Man” movies. Fingers crossed. 

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Posted at 04:11 PM on Sep 25, 2015 in category Trailers
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Movie Review: Everest (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Everyone leaving the 4:30 show of “Everest” at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle last Saturday looked wrecked. They kept exhaling, a few gripped and ungripped their hands, many asked aloud, “Why the fuck would you...?”

That’s asked of the mountain climbers in “Everest,” too, apologetically by Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), the famed journalist for “Outside” magazine who is writing an article on the paid expeditions of Mount Everest begun by New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke). At first, Krakauer’s question elicits hems and haws. Then, joking, they all point and yell in unison, “Because it’s there!” Finally, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), the postman, gives an answer in his usual quiet, forthright manner:

I have kids. If they see a regular guy can follow impossible dreams, maybe they’ll do the same.

Everyone smiles and nods, and you get the sense that Krakauer has his lede—or at least a good anecdote for the story.

EverestThe unasked follow-up becomes more important as the movie progresses. And if you fail? And if you bring others down with you? What lesson have you imparted?

This is not the usual bullshit; it’s not a Hollywood story. Here are some lines from the trailer:

  • “You’ve got to get moving! You’ve got to come on down!”
  • “We’re all getting down together!”
  • “If anyone can come back, you can.”

In most Hollywood movies, the guy would get moving, they would all get down together, the dude would come back. In “Everest,” the answers are: Nope, nope, nope.

Gripping
“Everest” is a felt movie; it’s a movie you feel in your bones. Its director, Baltasar Kormakur, directed “The Deep,” a 2012 Icelandic film about a fisherman who survives in impossibly cold waters, and my review ended thus: “You’ll be chilled to the bone. Bring warm clothes.” Same here. It’s an ordeal. It’s gripping. I know I kept gripping Patricia sitting next to me. It’s also stunning and beautiful, and worth seeing on the big screen. You’re amazed at all that beauty, and more amazed that anyone would risk everything to experience that beauty. You also sense that the beauty doesn’t care. The mountain doesn’t care.

We do. We have a short window to care about these characters, and Kormakur makes it work. I think it has something to do with the way they were written and the quality of the actors: Kelly’s dark-eyed stare, Hawke’s good-natured humbleness, Clarke’s professional calm. You sense quiet competence from them. From Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), you get an outsized Texas personality, but that’s fun, too. He’s not my guy, but I enjoy him. He wears a Dole-Kemp T-shirt but I could hang with him.

Why this disaster—one of the worst in Everest's history—on this day? Four things:

  1. The ropes near the summit need to be repaired
  2. The oxygen tanks are empty
  3. Doug has to summit
  4. The storm

Basically, if the storm hadn’t hit the delays wouldn’t have mattered to the extent that they did. If the delays hadn’t happened, most of the climbers would’ve made it back to camp in time. Eight people wouldn’t have died.

Were 1) and 2) a consequence of all of the other adventure companies climbing and profiting from Everest in Rob’s wake? That with this competition came cutting corners? That not everyone was professional in a place where you had to be professional or die? The famed Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Sigurosson) gets off a good line early when the different adventure companies are fighting for space and time. “We don’t need competition between people,” he says. “The competition is between the people and the mountain; and the last word always belongs to the mountain.”

In the end, “Everest” is as cold as the mountain. It offers little in the way of solace. That's the harsh beauty of it. 

Krakauer’s question
I keep going back to Krakauer’s question. Why summit? Why climb? Why be impelled upwards?

It’s not on nearly the same scale, but I love hiking the mountains of the Pacific Northwest; and I think I love hiking because it’s arduous, it’s beautiful, and I feel better having done it. But I also hike because I’m good at it. Going up, not many people on the trail pass me; I pass them. It makes me feel good.

I think that’s why most of us do what we do. We feel good about being good at this thing, so we keep doing it. And I think that’s why these climbers did what they did. They were among the best in the world at it. But for some that wasn’t enough.

Bring warm clothes and someone to grip.

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Posted at 07:31 AM on Sep 25, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Thursday September 24, 2015

Yogi Berra: 1925-2015

Yogi Berra

There are some amazing stats and facts about Yogi Berra, who died yesterday at the age of 90.

He was a three-time MVP who played in more World Series games than anyone in baseball history—and by a long shot: 75 games vs. 65 games for second-place Mickey Mantle*. He's the only man to ever catch a perfect game in the World Series. Every season in which he played more than 100 games, which is every season from 1947 to 1961, he received MVP votes. Every one. He was a 15-time All-Star with 13 World Championship rings. Oddly, he never led the league in anything: runs, RBIs, doubles. Nada. But he had a career OPS of .830, he was part of the D-Day landing, and he had a cartoon bear named after him. He was beloved even by inveterate Yankee haters. Maybe you know some of those. For inveterate Yankee haters, he was also the guy in left field when Bill Mazeroski's ball sailed over the left field wall at Forbes Field to win the 1960 World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  

(*Berra's World Series games played record will probably never be broken. If you played 20 years and got to the World Series in half of those years and every World Series went to seven games and you played in every one of those games, you would still be five short of tying Berra's mark. Didn't it seem like Derek Jeter was in the World Series forever? Well, guess how many World Series games he played in? Thirty-eight. Halfway.) 

This is my favorite Yogi stat: In five different seasons, he had more homeruns than strikeouts. Only Joe DiMaggio did it more often (seven times). Yogi came pretty close to doing it in his career, too: 414 Ks against 358 homeruns. He was a famous bad-ball hitter but he put that ball in play. If I hit it, he liked to say, it wasn't a bad pitch. ESPN.com has a nice piece on the friendship between Berra and Derek Jeter, in which we get the following story:

One day after Jeter swung and missed on a high, full-count pitch, Berra asked him, “What the hell are you doing swinging at that? You looked terrible.”

Jeter reminded Berra that he used to swing at pitches out of the strike zone all the time.

“But I hit them,” Yogi shot back. “You don't.”

(For the record, Jeter struck out 1,840 times against 260 homers.)

But Yogi isn't known for stats and facts—no matter how interesting. He's known for saying shit: 

  • Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.
  • You got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there.
  • If you can't imitate 'em, don't copy 'em.
  • It ain't over til it's over.

A good Yogi-ism is tough to come up with. When they made them up for various commercials he starred in (Miller Lite, Aflac), they fall flat. The stuff writers came up with paled next to the master in his domain. It helps if they're illogical in a mathematical sense but logical in a human sense. They shouldn't make sense but do. 

Stories about Yogi are even better. This may be my favorite. After he retired, Berra was on a radio show and the broadcaster told him beforehand:

“We're going to do free association. I'm going to throw out a few names, and you just say the first thing that pops into your mind.”

“O.K.,” said Berra.

They went on the air. “I'm here tonight with Yogi Berra,” said the host, “and we're going to play free association. I'm going to mention a name, andYogi's just going to say the first thing that comes to mind. O.K., Yogi?”

“O.K.”

“All right, here we go then. Mickey Mantle.”

“What about him?” said Berra.

That still makes me laugh. 

This story is lesser-known but just as apt in delineating the man. It's from Bill Pennington's recent book “Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius,” about the infamous dugout explosion between Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin on national television in the summer of '77:

Billy charged at Reggie. But Yogi Berra, who had known Billy since 1949—and like Rizzuto knew when an explosion was about to occur—had already positioned himself between Reggie and Billy. Elston Howard, another coach and former 1950s teammate of Billy's, made it his assignment to corral Reggie. Unnoticed in the drama, the two men had maneuvered like trained bar bouncers accustomed to defusing confrontations. Watching the two former Yankees catchers move tactically and in tandem without saying a word was Ron Guidry, the young pitcher who was sitting on the dugout bench. As Guidry told author Harvey Araton, Berra and Howard both stood up as soon as Billy told Blair to get his glove. “They had the smarts to know that this doesn't look good, something's going to happen here,” Guidry told Araton. “Nobody else did, just them. ...”

Berra, fifty-two years old, was a bear of a man at the time, and he grabbed Billy by the belt and the crotch, which is an especially effective way to control someone. “Yogi had hands like vises,” Billy said later. “I wanted to get at Reggie in the worst way but Yogi had ahold of me.”

He was always in the midst of things. As Joe Posnanski reminds us, from 1957 to 1985, no New York team went to the World Series without Yogi on the squad as player, coach or manager. He played for the Yankees in '57, '58, '60, '61, '62 and '63. He was the player-manager for the '64 squad but got fired after the Yankees lost the Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. (The Yankees didn't appear in the World Series after that for another 12 years.) He was a coach on the '69 Mets, manager of the '73 Mets, and coach on the Yankee squads in the “Bronx Zoo” turmoil of '76, '77, '78 and '81. He became manager in '84 but was fired 16 games into the '85 season. (The Yankees didn't appear in the World Series after that for another 11 years.) The '86 Mets was the first New York team to go to the Series without Berra since '57. Interestingly, he was coaching the team that nearly prevented them getting there: the '86 Astros.

His last game as a player was on May 9, 1965. As a Met, he faced Tony Cloninger of the Milwaukee Braves and went 0-4 with three strikeouts. The man who rarely struck out couldn't abide that. “I didn't go out there to be embarrassed,” he said and quit the next day.

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Posted at 06:37 AM on Sep 24, 2015 in category Baseball
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Tuesday September 22, 2015

Trailer: The Big Short

Please be good. Please. If “The Big Short” can make more people see what went wrong with the world economy in the 2000s, this will be the most important movie of the year:

Christian Bale's character is the key. Steve Carrell's reaction shot at the end is wonderful, as is his line reading of “You're wrong.” 

Extra credit: other scattered posts from the Global Financial Meltdown

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Posted at 07:49 AM on Sep 22, 2015 in category Trailers
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Messaging of Cocktails, and Other Notes from the Culture's End

Monetize,
Pull out my eyes,
Pull out my eyes,
Monetize
-- with apologies to James Joyce 

This afternoon I read Lizzie Widdicombe's piece on entrepreneur (I guess) Bethenny Frankel, who has parlayed a gig on “The Apprentice with Martha Stewart” into a regular turn on “The Real Housewives of New York,” on which she began to promote her Skinnygirl products: margaritas and other adult beverages, as well as chips and popcorn and salad dressing. It's not my thing—none of it—but it's a good window into the world that runs things now.

Here's Frankel with her assistant, Alexandra Cohen, blonde and 26, in a black SUV on the way to a promo appearance:

Frankel would be meeting a group of life-style bloggers who had been hired by [Jim] Beam to act as “influencers” for Skinnygirl Cocktails. “These are ten bloggers who are going to share with every single follower that they met you, and that you're inspirational,” Cohen said. She added, firmly, “It's important that you message the right things to these people. Because these people have a ton of followers.”

“O.K.,” Frankel said. “Why did they only pick ten, though?” She's active on Twitter, but the nuances of social media sometimes escape her. (An agency called DM2 manages most of her social-media accounts.)

“Because they're the most influential.”

“Influential of what?”

“Messaging of cocktails,” Cohen said.

Amid the awfulness, comedy.

No tagsPosted at 07:06 AM on Sep 22, 2015 in category Culture
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Quote of the Day

“What's placed now in high relief by many of the current disputes is the tension inherent in religion clauses of the First Amendment. The amendment prohibits the ”establishment“ of religion while also protecting ”the free exercise thereof.“ When does government solicitude for religious exercise cross the line into establishment? When does policing of the Establishment Clause's prohibition go too far and stifle free exercise? There is no easy or obvious answer, and the Supreme Court has never given a consistent one. The relative weight the court has accorded each of the religion clauses shifts over time, reflecting in broad strokes the concerns of the general culture as the tension between the two principles comes to the fore in different ways.”

-- Linda Greenhouse, “Drawing the Line Between Civil and Religious Rights,” in The New York Times. And yes, she digs into the Kim Davis controversy.  

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Posted at 07:00 AM on Sep 22, 2015 in category Law
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Monday September 21, 2015

Jack Larson: 1928-2015

Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen in "The Adventures of Superman"

Larson as Jimmy Olsen in “The Haunted Lighthouse” episode of “The Adventures of Superman,” which aired on Sept. 26, 1952. 

Shortly after I heard about the death of Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen on “The Adventures of Superman” TV show in the 1950s, I read the following tweet from author Mark Harris:

With one tweet I found out the original Jimmy Olsen (or the second, after Tommy Bond), whose acting career pretty much ended with Jimmy Olsen, was:

  • gay
  • involved in high art
  • had good taste in men

That's the problem with being straight. Actually, more, that's the disadvantage for anyone in the majority when the majority forces people who are different from them underground or away—segregating or marginalizing them. It means you don't know the whole story. 

I mean, how much have I written about Superman? And I didn't know any of the above? Yeah, I feel a little rooked. 

The New York Times has a good obit, which makes Larson's life and career sound pretty fascinating. Thomson's previous librettist, for example, was Gertrude Stein. Larson met James Bridges when they were both young actors, and Bridges went on to write and direct, among other films, “The Paper Chase,” “The China Syndrome,” and “Urban Cowboy.”

Imagine if this were 40 years ago. How odd Larson's story would read. How much of it would've remained hidden from people like me.

Did anyone ever interview Larson about Superman and popular culture? About what it was like to star in a superhero story at a time when movies were for grownups and reading comic books were thought to lead to homosexuality? And to strive for decades for literary respectability (plays, opera) only to find the culture gravitating in the opposite direction? Toward superheroes?

Anyway, I agree with Mark Harris. Wow.

 Jack Larson in Superman Returns

Larson as Bo the bartender in 2006's “Superman Returns.” 

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Posted at 03:18 PM on Sep 21, 2015 in category Superman
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Movie Review: Hot Pursuit (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Sometimes a summer movie that looks OK in trailers but bombs at the box office still turns out to be not horrible.

This isn’t that. “Hot Pursuit” is a candidate for worst movie of the year.

Reese Witherspoon is Cooper, a by-the-book, daughter-of-a-cop who, having infamously tasered the Mayor’s teenaged son after he calls “shotgun!” while walking with his bros to their car, is relegated to the evidence room. Ah, but then the plot. Or the assignment: help bring back Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara) and her husband, who is turning state’s evidence against Mexican drug lord Vicente Cortez (Joaquín Cosio), whose enemies tend to disappear. The husband doesn’t even make it out of his house. Anglos in masks attack first, then Mexicans. Both Riva’s husband and Cooper’s partner are killed and the two women go on the lam in a red Cadillac convertible with 42 kilos of coke in the back.

Hot Pursuit with Reese Witherspoon and Sofia VergaraIt’s a buddy film. Cooper’s white and uptight, Riva’s loco and Latina. It’s “The Heat” but more outré and far less funny. Witherspoon and Vergara are rushed through set pieces that become increasingly cartoonish. They cross the Mexican border, for example, by pretending to be a deer and making “deer noises,” even as they bicker loudly. Later in the movie, handcuffed together, they commandeer a bus full of old people, whose eyes light up happily as they find themselves in the middle of a crazy car chase/shooting gallery. Because you know old people. 

Witherspoon mostly works doing a working-class Tracy Flick but Vergara is way too outsized. She stomps on scenes.

Of course, during their adventures, Cooper learns to loosen up while Riva learns ... responsibility? Doesn’t matter. In these types of movies, it’s always the uptight one that has to learn something. Being less uptight, chiefly. Getting a man

Early movie reveal: The masked Anglos are cops from Cooper’s precinct, so she can’t trust that outfit.

Mid-movie reveal: It was Riva herself who hired the Mexicans to kidnap her (and her husband?) because she wants revenge against Cortez, who killed her brother years earlier. So why not let hubby turn state’s evidence against him? Wouldn’t rotting in a U.S. prison be pretty good revenge? 

Eleventh-hour reveal: Cooper’s captain is dirty, too. Which raises the question: Shouldn’t Cooper come out of this totally effed up? Disillusioned? No one is who they say they are. Instead, she comes out whole, and pals with Riva, who, in movie terms, is her biggest betrayal.

“Hot Pursuit” comes from two writers with lousy sitcom backgrounds (“According to Jim,” “Two Broke Girls,” “Whitney”) and a director, Anne Fletcher, who has directed mostly lousy chick flicks (“Step Up,” “27 Dresses,” “The Proposal” and “The Guilt Trip”). It shows.

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Posted at 05:42 AM on Sep 21, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Sunday September 20, 2015

Box Office: 'Maze Runner' Doesn't Get Lost, 'Black Mass' Doesn't Kill, 'Captive' Doesn't Break Out

“Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials,” the second in the “Maze Runner” series, won the weekend with a $30 million domestic haul. That almost guarantees a $100 million run ($30 mil+ opening wknd generally equals $100 mil+ overall domestic gross), but it's still $2 mil less than what the first “Maze Runner” grossed a year ago. The series is not exactly lighting the teen world on fire. It's the red-headed stepchild of YA/high-school-clique dystopias. 

“Black Mass,” the rather lifeless retelling of the White Berger saga starring Johnny Depp, finished second with $23 mil. 

Other openers: “Everest finished in fifth place in only 545 theaters—a lot of those IMAX. It earned $7.5 for a $13K average. (The movie's recommended, btw. P and I saw it yesterday.) But the highest per-theater average belonged to ”Sicario,“ which opened in six theaters and grossed $390K, or $65K per theater. According to Brad Brevert at Box Office Mojo, that's the highest per-theater-average so far this year. It's just ahead of ”Ex Machina“ ($59K per in four theaters) and ”While We Were Young“ ($56K in four theaters). 

Then there's ”Captive,“ which I'd barely heard about, and which seems like a suspect topic to me. It's based upon the horrific Brian Nichols shootings in Atlanta in 2005 in which, in the middle of trial, Nichols overpowered a sheriff's deputy and killed a judge, court reporter and police officer. He then took a woman hostage in her home but she talked him down, and back into police custody, with religious teachings. That's why it was made, I assume, and why it was written by Brian Bird (”Touched by an Angel“) and directed by Jerry Jameson (”Walker: Texas Ranger,“ ”Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman“ and ”Murder She Wrote,“ among others). But critics weren't impressed (36% on RT) and it died at the box office: 806 theaters, $1.4 million, $1.7K per theater. 

Of the return flights, M. Night's ”The Visit“ dropped 55% for $11.3 million and third place; ”The Perfect Guy“ dropped 62% for $9.6 million and fourth place; and ”War Room“ dropped only 19% for $6.2 million and sixth place.

The rest of the top 10 were filled with the third weekend of ”A Walk in the Woods,“ the eighth weekend of ”Mission: Impossible,“ the sixth weekend of ”Straight Outta Compton“ and the fifth weekend (but first to appear in more than 1,000+ theaters) for Lily Tomlin's ”Grandma.“ For the year, ”Mission“ is at $191 mil ($656 worldwide) and ”Compton“ is at $158 ($183 worldwide). 

Hang tight, kids. Nearly through with September. 

Kate Mara Captive

Kate Mara in ”Captive": trying to escape into a better movie? Or simply get out of September? 

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Posted at 03:44 PM on Sep 20, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office
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Lancelot Links

All the President's Men

First movie Jimmy Carter watched in The White House. Also the reason he was in The White House. 

  • Linda Greenhouse does a good job breaking down the tension in the First Amendment between making no law establishing a national religion while still not prohibiting “the free exercise thereof.” And yes, the piece deals with good ol' nutsy Kim Davis. 
  • Speaking of nutsy: We had our second big GOP debate and Gail Collins breaks it down. (My favorite is the Marco Rubio line.)
  • Even better? Emily Uecker at McSweeney's gives to each GOP presidential hopeful a Shakespeare quote. Trump's is good; Pataki's is brutal. 
  • Toles: What will the GOP President do on Day 2? Not brutal; just right. 
  • Amy Davidson on Donald Trump and the man in the T-shirt. You know, the one who said, “We have a problem in this country: It's called 'Muslim.'  You know our current President is one. You know he's not even an American.” 
  • Via Dave Sheldon: Every movie Jimmy Carter watched in The White House: from “All the President's Men” on Jan. 22, 1977 (in a sense, the reason he was in the White House) to “Fools' Parade” on Jan. 5, 1981, which is latter-day Jimmy Stewart, and recalls Jack Warner's famous line about the miscasting of a GOP aspirant: “No, Jimmy Stewart for president; Ronald Reagan for best friend.” It's 400 movies exactly. Seems like a lot for a POTUS.
  • I'd like to see more SCOTUS interviews on late night, which I might now that Stephen Colbert is on late night. Here, he talks with Stephen Breyer but never gets around to asking about Proust. 
  • What did Exxon know about climate change and when did it know it? According to Bill McKibben, the answers are “a lot” and “as early as 1977.”
  • Finally, the New Yorker excerpt of Stacy Schiff's forthcoming book on the Salem witch trials, in which people went collectively crazy, reminds me, no surprise, of the current GOP. We use the word “Muslim” now, and “foreigner,” and “Kenyan,” and occasionally “anti-Christ,” but it all means the same thing. Another parallel: Cotton Mather made his name on that craziness  but by the end he was complaining in his diary. The people, he wrote, talk “not only like idiots but also like fanaticks.” Paging John McCain, Reince Priebus, all of them.
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Posted at 09:33 AM on Sep 20, 2015 in category Lancelot Links
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Saturday September 19, 2015

Edgar Dreams of Hitting

David Laurila at FanGraphs recently posted an interview with Mariners batting coach Edgar Martinez, one of baseball's purest hitters, and some of his lines reminded me of what Jiro Ono, the great Japanese sushi chef, says in the 2012 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” 

A food critic in the doc, for example, sums up Jiro's philosophy thus: “Ultimate simplicity leads to purity.”

And here's Edgar Martinez on hitting:

We sometimes make it complicated, but the simpler it is—the simpler the mechanics—the better your chance of hitting a fastball. Sometimes we think too much about the mechanics. If we go to the plate thinking about our legs or our hands, we're not focusing on what we need to focus on, which is hitting the pitch.

You hear that lesson a lot: in writing, design, art, food. Now hitting. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Here's my (wordy) tribute to Edgar from 2004.

Edgar Martinez

"Once you decide on your occupation you must immerse yourself in your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success.” --Jiro Ono.

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Posted at 10:56 AM on Sep 19, 2015 in category Seattle Mariners
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Movie Review: Black Mass (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Here’s my theory about James J. “Whitey” Bulger.

Everyone agrees he was a ruthless South Boston gangster responsible for a dozen murders, probably more. He was involved in drugs, extortion, the IRA. But was he an FBI informant? Or did he use the FBI to further his career? Did he feed the feds information to take down his enemies while he was allowed to operate with federal cover?

That’s not my theory, by the way. Most of that is fairly well-established.

Here’s my theory. I think someone got to director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”), and maybe screenwriters Jez Butterworth (“Fair Game,” “Get On Up”) and Mark Mallouk (first timer). Someone got to them and said, “Yeah, great cast. Great story. But you know what? This picture’s gonna lie there like a dead fish. Get it? No one’s gonna come out of this thing saying, ‘Hey, great fuckin’ movie.’ None of that. They’re gonna piss all over it. And it’s gonna die. And no one’s gonna see it no more. It’s gonna disa-fucking-pear. You understand? If anyone anywhere likes this fucking picture, someone’s gonna get fucking hurt.”

Black MassThat’s my theory. It’s the only explanation I could come up with for why “Black Mass,” which should be a fascinating gangster flick, is so hopelessly inert.

Aping Homer, Goodfellas
In the documentary, “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” the tension is the above: was Bulger an FBI informant, and if so, was the FBI being played?

The tension in “Black Mass” is ... I’m not sure. That’s the problem. It’s just one thing after another.

Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a local Irish mob guy in South Boston. He’s served 10 years in Alcatraz. He’s got his crew, he’s nice to the old ladies in the neighborhood, and he plays gin rummy with his mother and loses. Maybe on purpose. At the dinner table, he gives Homer Simpson-esque advice to his kid about fights at school. The problem isn’t fighting, it’s where you do it. “If nobody sees it,” he says, moving his hands like a magician, “it didn’t happen.”

Then FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), also from Southie, who looks up to Whitey and his brother Billy, a state senator (Benedict Cumberbatch), suggests that Whitey—or Jimmy, as everyone calls him—turn informant. No go. Then Bulger’s son dies and we’re told he gets meaner. Then he takes the FBI gig. Because? Then his mom dies and we’re told he gets meaner. But he never seemed not mean. A guy almost starts a fight with him in a bar. Dead. A sweet, ditzy girl maybe says a little too much to the cops without realizing it. Dead. Two guys, no, three, get in the way of his Jai alai empire in Florida. Dead dead dead. Meanwhile, Connolly keeps covering for him.

I could never figure out Connolly. Was he protecting Bulger for Bulger or was he protecting his asset, which he felt was furthering his career? At what point did he get in too deep? At what point was he more interested in protecting Bulger than himself? Initially he seems kind of smart, or at least street smart, but by the end he’s the dumbest guy on screen.

Ditto John Morris (David Harbour). Initially he seems thoughtful, weighing consequences, making a deal with the lesser evil to get the greater one (the mafia). Then he’s buying Connolly’s ridiculous excuses that protect Bulger. Then he’s actually at Connolly’s for a barbecue with Bulger. Then he’s being threatened by Bulger. No wait, he’s just getting his balls busted—in a scene that so wants to be the “Am I a clown to you?” scene from “Goodfellas,” but isn’t. After that, Bulger threatens Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson) in a creepy psychosexual scene that furthers nothing.

The longer the movie, in fact, the more incomprehensible Bulger becomes. Bulger gets away from the feds, but he gets away from the filmmakers even more.

Like Luca
It’s not all bad. I liked Corey Stoll as the no-nonsense prosecutor Fred Wyshak, Peter Sarsgaard as the sweaty hitman/addict Brian Halloran, and—in particular—Juno Temple as the heartbreakingly forthright prostitute who lets too much slip. They’re all small roles. Depp? He’s serviceable but one-note. And the Husky eyes are distracting.

The film has no point of view. Initially, the conceit is flashback confessions from Bulger’s men, but this is abandoned for Cooper’s “this, then that” approach. Could you have made it a legal procedural from Wyshak’s perspective? Or a journalistic procedural from The Boston Globe’s? Channel it all through Bulger? Or Connolly? Or Robert Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott), an FBI agent who, in the doc, questioned everything and got canned, but here is mostly a background figure? 

Cooper doesn’t do any of that. Instead he made a gangster movie that just lies there. “Black Mass” sleeps with the fishes.

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Posted at 07:23 AM on Sep 19, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Friday September 18, 2015

A Few Thoughts on the 'Creed' Trailer

Rocky's back! And this time he's black! Kinda sorta:

A few scattered thoughts:

  • Is this Stallone's payback for all those years of being the Great White Hope? Getting white people/Italians all pumped up per Eddie Murphy
  • Is Rocky Mickey now? (Trainer, see “Rocky”)
  • Is Rocky Adrian now? (Sick before big fight, see “Rocky II”)
  • Paulie's dead, eh? Like Mickey (“Rocky III”) Apollo (“Rocky IV”), and Adrian (“Rocky Balboa”). Wither Gazzo?
  • Mrs. Cosby is Mrs. Creed, eh? Lavelle Roby too busy?
  • Wallace again? When is Bodie going to get some respect?
  • Surely those damned star-spangled boxing trunks are a little rank.

Nov. 25. Ding. 

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Posted at 10:27 AM on Sep 18, 2015 in category Trailers
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Michael Medved is His Own Best Critic

Finally reading “Hollywood vs. America” (1992), in which right-wing film critic Michael Medved argues that Hollywood makes the wrong movies for all the wrong reasons, and it's all Hollywood's fault. (As opposed to America's fault.)

What kinds of movies should Hollywood make? Medved brings up a few fondly remembered ones from his youth:

  • The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), starring Fess Parker as a fearless Union officer who leads a daring raid behind enemy lines to steal a key Confederate train.
  • The Buccaneer (1958), with Andrew Jackson and pirate Jean Lafitte winning the Battle of New Orleans
  • The Horse Soldiers (1959), starring John Wayne and William Holden as Union cavalry officers in the Civil War
  • John Paul Jones (1959), with Robert Stack as the great naval hero of the American Revolution
  • And, of course, John Wayne's two-hour-and-forty-minute epic, The Alamo

Then he adds this:

I still recall every one of these long-ago entertainments with enormous affection, though I would never go so far as to offer them my blanket critical endorsement. Its easy to spot the artistic and historical shortcomings in such projects, to decry their jingoistic simplicity and to lament the way that America's enemies are callously reduced to two-dimensional bad guys. From a contemporary and politically correct perspective, one might well argue that my endless exposure to such blood-and-guts sagas between the impressionable ages of seven and twelve permanently warped my tender young mind by implanting the dubious proposition that our country's problems could all be solved on the battlefield. Nevertheless, I miss the energetic, flag-waving films of my boyhood and regret that comparable projects have found no place in todays movie mix. 

Turns out Medved is a good critic after all.

Michael Medved movie night

Michael Medved movie night? Warning: prolonged expsure may cause jingoism and two-dimensional worldviews. But it's all in good, clean fun. 

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Posted at 09:39 AM on Sep 18, 2015 in category Books
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Movie Review: Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Far from the Madding Crowd” is considered a proto-feminist tale since it concerns a headstrong young woman in 19th-century Britain who ruins the lives of three men.

Look, I love me some Carey Mulligan, but her character, Bathsheba Everdene (yes, the inspiration for Katniss), is a bit of a pain. She turns down a kind, prosperous sheep farmer, Gabriel Oak (Mathhias Schoenaerts of “Rust and Bone” and “The Drop”), because she likes her in-de-pendence. Then they switch fortunes: she inherits her uncle’s estate while his dog, Young George, also headstrong, drives his sheep off a cliff and him into poverty. So he winds up working for her. He still has feelings for her, and she for him (maybe), but ... Please, we’re British.

The even more British William Boldwood (Michael Sheen)—whose name surely was chosen with an ironic laugh by Thomas Hardy—becomes enamored of Bathsheba as well, but only acts when, as a joke, she sends him a valentine embossed with the words “Marry me.” He thinks she means it and offers his hand. She doesn’t and turns him down. But he stays on the fringes, acting apologetically British and proposing now and again just for the humiliation of it.

Which leaves the third man, who finally gets some. Sgt. Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) sees Bathsheba late at night, tells her she’s beautiful, then sets up a rendezvous where, before she can speak, he grabs her and kisses her. That does it—she’s his. So much for in-de-pendence. It’s classic bad boy stuff. He’s a dolt and a gambler, but they marry. During the wedding celebration, storms approach, Mr. Oak warns that precautions must be taken, but Troy drunkenly and truculently dismisses him. Oak still goes to the rescue and saves the farm. For her. Then she sleeps with Troy. 

Far from the Madding Crowd, starring Carey Mulligan

Guess which man she winds up with?

There’s a lot of 19th-century melodrama here and Troy gets the worst of it. Earlier, we see him in the church, resplendent in uniform, about to marry the woman he loves, Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple), who is walking to the church with flowers in hand. Except it’s the wrong church. And that's that. He finds out the true story, and the fact that she’s pregnant with his child, later a county fair, where she’s begging for alms. Again, he agrees to meet up with her later, and again there's disaster. She dies, and her child with her. Heartbroken, he performs that classic scene out of of British melodrama—parodied in “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin”—by swimming out to sea to kill himself.

Which leaves Bathsheba free to marry ... Boldwood. Really? Yes, really.

So first she goes for the bad boy. Then she goes for the money. “Feminist.”

But at a party at Boldwood’s estate, guess who shows up? Troy. I’m not dead yet. He’s back, bitter and petulant, and demands Bathsheba’s money and person. Boldwood denies him both and shoots him. Dead. And there goes Boldwood, too, taken into custody.

Which leaves Mr. Oak, the man she should’ve been with at the beginning. But first she had to ruin the lives of two other men.

“Madding” is well-acted, beautifully art directed (by Julia Castle), capably directed (by Thomas Vingterberg, “The Hunt”), but the story is this.

Patricia loved it. Should I be worried? 

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Posted at 05:39 AM on Sep 18, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Thursday September 17, 2015

Ranking the Sad, Orwellian, Burt-Reynolds-in-a-1970s-Car-Chase-Movie Codenames the GOP Candidates Chose for Themselves

2015 GOP candidates Trump Bush Walker

Il Ducebag, Twig, DietKoch

I didn't watch the GOP Debates last night. I had somewhere else to be, better people to see, different drinking games to play. 

But I liked one of the questions posed to the candidates: If elected, what would they want their Secret Service codename to be?

Fun question. Godawful answers. 

Let's group them:

Onesies

  • John Kasich: “Unit One”
  • Ben Carson: “One Nation”

Orwellian

  • Chris Christie: “True Heart”

Really Orwellian

  • Jeb Bush: “Ever-Ready”

So Orwellian it makes Orwell throw up

  • Donald Trump: “Humble”

A rebooted 1970s Burt Reynolds car chase movie

  • Marco Rubio: “Gator”
  • Scott Walker: “Harley”
  • Mike Huckabee: “Duck Hunter”

Or a '80s Sylvester Stallone flick directed by Robert Rodriguez

  • Ted Cruz: “Cohiba”

A bigger lie than Trump's lie

  • Rand Paul: “Justice Never Sleeps”

The final insult

  • Carly Fiorina: “Secretariat”

You can dismiss all the “ones” as forgettable, and all the guys trying to associate themselves with motorcycles and cigars and huntin' as pathetic. Jeb's is sad, too, trying to associate himself with his opposite and thus coming off like a Glee Club president.

Trump? Well, he's obviously enjoying himself with that one. He's obviously thumbing his nose at anyone who gives a shit about holding these guys, and this forum, to any kind of standard. He's saying, “I play by my own rules.” It's beyond Truthiness. It's Trumpiness. 

But I give Fiorina the prize for worst answer. When I'm low, I watch the 1973 Belmont Stakes to pick me up; to remind myself that greatness exists. Fiorina is assocating herself with the greatest racehorse who ever lived and right now she isn't even in the race. I wouldn't even associate her with Secretariat's great rival, Sham, because Sham was a helluva horse. Think about that: Fiorina isn't even close to being a sham. 

Oh, and for the record, my Secret Service codename would be YankeesSuck.

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Posted at 09:15 AM on Sep 17, 2015 in category Politics
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Movie Review: A Walk in the Woods (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I would’ve gone with Paul Giamatti, too. Then you could cast Thomas Hayden Church as Stephen Katz, have him put on weight, get yourself a good “Sideways” reunion.

With Redford, I assumed the biggest problem would be his age. He’s owned the rights to Bill Bryson’s book since its publication in 1998, and originally considered it a vehicle for a reunion with Paul Newman. That might’ve worked. But even back then Redford was 62 (and fit), and Newman 74 (and fit), so not exactly the out-of-shape fortysomethings Bryson and Katz were when they hiked the Appalachian Trail.

A Walk in the WoodsNow Redford is 79, and Nick Nolte, the new Katz, is 74, and not exactly a spry 74, either. That turns out to be a problem. Middle age is funny, old age isn’t. Midlife crises are funny, funerals aren’t. Given Redford, Nolte isn’t bad casting, since Katz is supposed to be a fuck-up—the guy bringing candy bars on the trail, abandoning his gear when it gets too heavy, etc.—and Nolte can do fucked up. But his face and body are so wrecked now that his donut-sprinkled mouth doesn’t make us laugh the way it should. We cringe.

But Redford’s the bigger problem. He’s just not funny enough to play Bryson.

Beginning Bryson, becoming Redford
Have you read “A Walk in the Woods”? I don’t know if I’ve laughed harder at a book. It was so funny that the next book I read, “Me Talk So Pretty” by David Sedaris—considered humorous by most people—seemed like shit to me. I didn’t even finish it.

Redford turns this book into his own vehicle. Instead of open and engaged, his Bryson is closed and suspicious. He’s a successful American writer, returned from England, tired of going to funerals, tired of seeing his grandkids waste their lives with video games. Early on, he gets off some good dry line-readings; then he becomes pedantic and the line-readings fall flat. Environmentalism is Redford’s cause, and bless him for it, but he makes it Bryson’s cause, too. Or he turns his Bryson from a guy who never hikes to one who knows everything in the woods. The further they go, the preachier he gets.

The dilemma of making “Woods” into a movie is similar to the dilemma of making “Moneyball” into a movie: the real story doesn’t have a Hollywood ending. In “Moneyball,” the A’s don’t win the pennant and in “A Walk in the Woods” Bryson and Katz don’t finish the Appalachian Trail. They hike and hike and hike, and when it seems like they’ve been hiking forever they find a map and realize they’ve barely gone anywhere: two states out of a dozen. So they cut their losses. They skip a huge chunk and then leave it. Bryson hikes the last bit alone in the fall in New England.

In the movie, we get the map scene, and yes, Katz talks about driving the Appalachian Trail; then Bryson convinces him to keep going. Then they have a near-death experience and Bryson lets Katz go. He lets them leave the trail and return home: Katz to Iowa, Bryson to New Hampshire and his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson, 23 years younger than Redford, and underutilized).

So where’s the poignancy? What’s the lesson?

Guys like us
In “Moneyball,” Aaron Sorkin and Bennett Miller make it less about the clarity of winning than the murkiness of everything else: being first through the wall and getting bloody; hitting a homerun and not realizing it; being a little bit caught in the middle. Billy Beane wins by losing, but he can’t shake the loss. It sticks to him.

In “A Walk in the Woods,” director Ken Kwapis (“The Office”), and first-time screenwriters Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, create false drama. This Bill Bryson hasn’t written anything in four years; and during the hike, several times, he says he’s not going to write about the hike. Then he gets home and writes about the hike. He opens his laptop and types: “A Walk in the Woods.” That’s cute, but: 1) I saw it coming, 2) I don’t buy the conceit, and 3) it’s not exactly poignant.

But the main problem with the movie is still the casting.

At one point, Bryson and Katz talk up their early, rapscallion days. A pretty girl is mentioned, and they say she was the kind of girl who didn’t wind up “with guys like us.” Guys like us. Redford? It made me flash back to a scene from William Goldman’s great book about Hollywood, “Adventures in the Screen Trade.” Goldman, the screenwriter, is on a 1972 location shoot just outside a prison for Redford’s new movie, “The Hot Rock.” He’s chatting with a nearby prison guard. And, unbidden, and without heat, the prison guard offers the following comments about Redford:

“My wife would like to fuck him.”

“I mean, you don’t know what she would give just to fuck him.”

“She said to me today, my wife, that she would get down on her hands and knees and crawl just for the chance to fuck him one time.”

Guys like us.

Seriously, Giamatti would’ve been perfect.

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Posted at 06:05 AM on Sep 17, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Tuesday September 08, 2015

Lancelot Links

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Posted at 05:36 AM on Sep 08, 2015 in category Lancelot Links
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Monday September 07, 2015

Movie Review: The Cat's Meow (2001)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Peter Bogdanovich has always been fascinated with early Hollywood (cf.,  “Nickelodeon”), so the scandal-laden death of film pioneer Thomas Ince while he was aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht during a 1924 trip down the coast, which included Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Louella Parson (Jennifer Tilly) and Margaret Livingston (Claudia Harrison), well, that’s the cat’s meow.

The result is a fairly straightforward picture, with touches of melodrama in the end.

I first saw the movie shortly after it was released, but 14 years later had pretty much forgotten whodunit. Didn’t Bogdanovich and screenwriter Steven Peros leave Ince’s death up in the air?

No, they didn’t.

Orson Welles, piker
The Cat's Meow, directed by Peter BogdanovichAlmost everyone boards Hearst’s Oneida with an agenda that relates to Hearst:

  • Ince, credited with creating the “cowboy picture,” but with career floundering, wants to strike a deal with Hearst.
  • Chaplin wants to woo Davies away from Hearst.
  • Parsons wants greater Hearst distribution for her entertainment column.

The rest, mostly girls, just want to have fun.

So what happens? Ince witnesses Chaplin wooing Davies and uses this intel to get closer to Hearst. He keeps feeding him information (innuendo, love letters) until Hearst’s volcanic, cuckolded anger erupts. Except Hearst mistakes Ince—wearing Charlie’s hat, and talking softly with Marion in a stairwell—for Charlie, and shoots him in the head. Ince, in other words, creates the circumstances for his own death.

In the messy aftermath, the murder is covered up, Chaplin and Davies part company, and Parsons, a witness, lands a lifetime contract with Hearst’s newspapers and becomes one of the most powerful women in Hollywood.

How true is all this? Unknown. It’s gossip and guesswork. Apparently Bogdanovich first heard about it from that great raconteur Orson Welles, and in telling Welles’ tale, Bogdanovich actually gets to outdo his idol. In “Citizen Kane,” Welles suggested Hearst was a megalomaniac, warmonger, tyrant, bad friend, and a poor little boy who just wanted his sled—but he stopped short of murderer. 

What I never understood while watching? Why these people were on that boat. Why did Hearst invite Chaplin? To spy on him? If so, why in the early going does he seem oblivious? Why invite Ince if he doesn’t want to do business with him? Or did Marion choose the guest list?

Creating cowboys
Dunst makes a great, bubbly Marion, and Izzard is a good Chaplin, if a bit thick-limbed and graceless. (Chaplin would’ve been all over that Charleston number.) The standout is Edward Hermann’s Hearst: the giant undone by the Little Tramp, and then, post-tragedy, remade by will, wealth and power.

(I’m curious: Did Hearst’s newspapers hound Chaplin after this? Were they part of the “Get Charlie out of the good ol’ USA” line in the late 1940s? Anyone know?)

Another standout is Joanna Lumley as the cold-eyed romance writer and Valentino screenwriter Elinor Glyn, who I knew nothing about before this movie. (Apparently she popularized the concept of It, as in “The It Girl.”) So much of our history just goes. We need to remind ourselves how our archetypes (cowboys, Valentinos) were created and monetized. In the long run, that’s a more valuable exercise than figuring out who killed Thomas Ince. Ince is long dead, but we still have Valentinos. And men are still being elected president of the United States by pretending to be cowboys.

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Posted at 07:23 AM on Sep 07, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Sunday September 06, 2015

Dreamin' World War III Blues

Some time ago a crazy dream came to me
I dreamt I was walkin' into World War Three
-- Bob Dylan, “Talkin' World War III Blues,” 1963

That was my dream last night. Not fun. 

I dreamt I was in my apartment in San Diego (disclosure for those who don't know me: I live in Seattle, and have never been to San Diego). There were rumors about a possible nuclear attack, which I didn't believe. But in bed, I heard and then saw a giant mushroom cloud appearing over the Pacific shore; then another, then another. It was the end. My life was over; I would die. I closed my eyes and braced myself for the inferno and for whatever happened after that. Would I just cease? Would something else happen? I waited and wait and yet remained alive. But wouldn't that be worse? Wasn't that what John Hershey wrote in “Hiroshima”? Those who didn't die immediately, died from radiation a few days, or weeks, or months later, their skin peeling away? My skin felt warm but somehow I stayed alive. 

I went outside and joined a group of people wandering. People were hooking up—trying to get in one last bit of pleasure before the end. A woman on a streetcar was separated from a man running alongside it, and I helped him on board to unite them. 

I was with three younger people who were going to sit at a low table and eat Mexican food. It was in front of two big picture windows and didn't look safe if more bombs came, so I began to walk back to my apartment. I felt like I should let family know I was still alive. I felt like I should talk to them one last time, if this was the end. 

At a cavernous train station, I ran into Pres. Obama, who was on the phone and seemed to be fending off accusations; he seemed to be politicking. The train station was almost empty and he didn't have any security detail. Donald Trump was there, too, quiet and serious, and seemed more helpmate than rival. 

When I got home and to my cellphone again, it wouldn't work. Because it had been damaged or because the lines were jammed?

Anyway, I was happy to wake up from that dream. 

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Posted at 06:00 PM on Sep 06, 2015 in category Personal Pieces
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Box Office: 'War Room' Prays Away the Competition During Another Weak Weekend

Miss Clara in "War Room"

Miss Clara prays for weak competition in “War Room.”

Last weekend, an African-American hip-hop story barely beat out an African-American Christian story for the top of the box office. 

This weekend? Strike that, reverse it.

Alex Kendrick's “War Room,” about a wise, elderly woman named Miss Clara who brings clarity and stability to a black family that's lost its way, grossed $9.3 million in its second weekend for first place. “Straight Outta Compton,” a music biopic on the rap group NWA, grossed $8.8 million in its fourth weekend for second place. 

“War Room” did all that while playing in only 1,526 theaters. It's now at $24.6 overall, while “Compton”'s total gross of $147 million is the most ever for a music biopic (unadjusted).

As for the new films, Robert Redford's turn as Bill Bryson in “A Walk in the Woods” finished third with $8.4 million, “The Transporter Refueled” stalled at $7.1 million and fifth place, while a Mexican cartoon, “Un Gallo con Muchos Huevos,” grossed an astonishing $3.4 million in only 395 theaters to finish in eighth place. 

Rounding out the top 10: “M:I-Rogue Nation,” “No Escape,” “Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “Sinister 2” and “Inside Out.”

All told, it was the weakest weekend of the year, bringing in only $86 mil. Oh, and the last time a movie won the weekend with less than $10 mil? Three years ago, Sept. 7-9, 2012, when the second week of “Possession” also finished with $9.3 million.

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Posted at 12:20 PM on Sep 06, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office
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Dumbest. Sign. Ever.

Today, Major League Baseball and the Baltimore Orioles are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the magical night that Cal Ripken, Jr. played in his 2,131st consecutive game and thus passed Lou Gehrig's longstanding mark of 2,130 consecutive games. 

It's also the 20th anniversary of the magical night a fan brought the dumbest sign ever to a Major League ballpark.

A photo of both was on the back cover of the 1998 book, “Sporting News Selects The 100 Greatest Baseball Players,” which I reviewed for The Grand Salami back in the day:

It is September 6, 1995, and Cal Ripken is jogging the perimeter of Camden Yards, high-fiving fans. Everyone is excited, cheering. Different people are holding up different placards: “2131: Iron Man” and “We Love You Cal.” And in the center of this celebration a fan brandishes a homemade sign which reads, “Lou Who?”

Lou Who? What goes through such a fan's mind? Does he imagine that in playing in his 2,131st consecutive game, Cal Ripken has just defeated Lou Gehrig in the same way that, say, Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston? That with Gehrig sprawled on the canvas we have to forget him now? That, as Patton put it, Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser, and that's just what Lou Gehrig is now, a loser, because he's only second on the all-time consecutive games list?

I no longer own that book (why, right?), but I searched the vastest, searchiest reservoir of human data ever created, and came up with ... this one shot:

Lou Who? Ripken's 2,131st consecutive game 

It's tough to read but there it is, right above the “[Heart] You Cal” sign.

“Lou Who?” Jesus. 

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Posted at 10:56 AM on Sep 06, 2015 in category Baseball
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Michael Medved Quotes that Aged Poorly II

“Why is it inherently less valid for the American Family Association to try to pressure the networks to feature fewer homosexual characters on prime-time TV than it is for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination (GLAAD) to try to pressure the networks for more such characters? Both groups are engaged in totally legitimate efforts to influence major TV producers to broadcast images that correspond with their own views of what constitutes a good society.”

-- Michael Medved, “Hollywood vs. America,” 1992; chapter 19, “The End of the Beginning.”

Sigh. American Family Association was trying to deny the humanity of an unprotected group of people (particularly back then), while GLAAD was trying to assert their own humanity through visibility. GLAAD won. I hope Medved's evolved in this area over the last two decades.

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Posted at 05:56 AM on Sep 06, 2015 in category Books
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Saturday September 05, 2015

Michael Medved Quotes that Aged Poorly

“Surely even sun-dazed Southern Californians can look beyond their hot tubs every now and then and see the wreckage that family breakdown is creating in American life. There is only one way to stop the epidemic of illegitimacy and the resulting poverty among children—and that is to bring back the stigma of unwed motherhood.”

-- Michael Medved, “Hollywood vs. America,” 1992, Chapter 8

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Posted at 03:48 PM on Sep 05, 2015 in category Books
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Blurb Whore Refueled

I haven't thought about blurb whores in a while. I guess I didn't know if they still did them. Why, in a world that doesn't care what critics think? 

Then this morning I saw an ad on IMDb.com that called “The Transporter Refueled,” which is getting shitty reviews, “the summer's sexiest action thriller,” or some such. First thought: Isn't it fall already? Second thought: Who the hell said that? Peter Travers? Larry King? Earl Dittman? I looked. And looked. And looked harder:

Transporters Refueled blurb

Can you read it? I zoomed in. And in:

The Transporter Refueled blurb

Kyle Something, obviously. From “Made in Hollywood.”

Actually, after some quick searching, Kylie Erica Mar. She interviews celebs. But thanks for making it clear, ad agency. 

The movie opened to $2.4 million on Friday, good enough for barely first place. Apparently not enough moviegoers are reading Kyle.

No tagsPosted at 08:58 AM on Sep 05, 2015 in category Movie Reviews
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Colbert's Guest List is So Personal It Makes Us Wonder Who We Would Choose

Louis CK, Marion Cotillard, Joe Henry

First show.

A few weeks ago, the day after Jon Stewart's last “Daily Show,” Patricia and I got rid of our cable box. These days that means TV, which means I won't be able to watch “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” when it debuts next week. Except, as he says in his last pre-show web video, “on the internet.” Even so, I'm afeared of missing it in real time. Have you seen his guest list? Persons of interest (for me) include:

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders
  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer
  • Carol Burnett

His guest list is so eclectic, and seemingly so personal, it made me wonder who *I* would book if I had a choice. And a show. And talent.

I'm thinking:

  • Louis CK
  • Marion Cotillard
  • Joe Henry

Others to book before I get the hook:

  • Ricky Gervais
  • Jon Stewart
  • Stephen Colbert
  • Jim Jeffries
  • Chris Rock
  • Tina Fey
  • Philip Roth
  • John Irving
  • Tobias Wolff
  • Milan Kundera
  • Toni Morrison
  • Bill Bryson
  • Jill Lepore
  • Martin Scorsese
  • Michael Mann
  • Terrence Malick
  • Jacques Audiard
  • The Coen Bros.
  • Craig Wright
  • Jim Walsh
  • David Simon
  • Joe Posnanski
  • Jane Leavy
  • Paul Krugman
  • Jelani Cobb
  • Jackie Chan
  • Penelope Cruz
  • Salma Hayek
  • Berenice Bejo
  • Carey Mulligan
  • Steve Earle
  • The National
  • Iron & Wine
  • Paul Simon
  • The Decemberists
  • John Lewis
  • David Boies
  • Ron Safer
  • ANY U.S. Supreme Court justice, but generally in this order: Stevens (ret.), Ginsburg, Scalia, Sotomayor, Kennedy, Breyer, Roberts, Kagan, Thomas, Alito. 

It's endless, really. 

What about you? First show.

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Posted at 07:47 AM on Sep 05, 2015 in category TV
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Friday September 04, 2015

Will I Wait a Lonely Lifetime? Um...

On the way home from a hike today (Snow Lake/Cascades), Patricia and I were listening to shuffle on the iPhone, and for some reason it was giving us a Beatles-heavy rotation, particularly The White Album, and including, eventually, Paul McCartney's lovely song “I Will”:

But these words stuck out for me in a way they hadn't before:

Will I wait a lonely lifetime?
If you want me to, I will

That's a bit much, isn't it? Or mooch? A lonely lifetime? Why would anyone want anyone who wants them to wait a lonely lifetime? Or even half a lonely lifetime? Or a couple of crappy months? That's like agreeing to wait for a sadist. 

It's lines like these that make the opening of the Rutles' “With a Girl Like You” so perfect:

Shoot me down in flames if I should tell a lie
Cross my heart I promise that it's true...

Paul had a tendency to overdo it. 

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Posted at 05:20 PM on Sep 04, 2015 in category Music
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Movie Review: Laggies (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I wanted to like it.

It’s set in Seattle, and directed by one of our own, Lynn Shelton, who’s super pretty. I liked the scene in the trailer where Megan (Keira Knightley) twirls the “Tax” sign to stir up business for her accountant father, Ed (Jeff Garlin). No one in the movie gets super powers, nothing blows up but relationships. I wanted to like it.

But I got a bad vibe early.

It begins with found footage, a senior prom escapade from 10 years earlier. Four girls get drunk, get naked, swim in a skanky hotel pool. They laugh. They’re having an adventure.

LaggiesCut to today, where three of the four are soft and self-satisfied in motherhood and matrimony. Only Megan feels like this isn’t for her.

We’re supposed to sympathize because her friends are silly and have bad taste. She’s also, of course, with the wrong guy, Anthony (Mark Webber). You can tell he’s the wrong guy because he’s dull and has a receding hairline. He talks up a “personal development seminar” on Orcas Island in which you choose an animal to help with your behavorial patterns. His is a shark—a reminder to keep going or sink. And it works. After 10 years, he finally proposes to Megan, but he does it at the wedding of their friend. Surely a breach in decorum.

What finally propels Megan out of this rut? It’s partly the proposal, and partly seeing her father making out with the bride’s mother in the reception parking lot. Betrayal! At 28! So, pretending she’s heading to Orcas, she instead gets caught up with high schoolers, led by Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz). First she buys them booze. Then she pretends to be Annika’s mom for a parent-teacher conference. Then she’s staying in Annika’s bedroom.

Thank god Sam Rockwell shows up.

Sam Rockwell, lifeguard
He’s Annika’s father, Craig, and his role here is almost like his role in “The Way Way Back”—except instead of playing a lifeguard offering life advice (and friendship) to a wayward teenage boy, he’s a divorce lawyer offering life advice (and eventually love) to a wayward twentysomething girl. He adds pizzazz and jazz to the movie. He asks pointed questions and delivers blunt truths:

Craig: I get that this can sometimes be sensitive information for a woman, but how old are you?
Megan: I'm ... in my 20s.
Craig: And why are you sleeping over at my house? Or I guess the larger question is: Why are you hanging out with my daughter?
Megan: It's kind of hard to explain.
Craig: I bet.
Megan: No, I mean, I've never really tried to. Not even to myself.
Craig: I like hearing things better when they're not rehearsed.

He’s the movie’s most interesting character.

I’ve said it before: Some of the best on-screen portraits of men in recent years have come from women. Here, it’s not just director Shelton but screenwriter Andrea Seigel. And it’s not just Craig but Anthony. He’s dull, yeah, but he’s loyal. He’s stolid—like Gandolfini in “Enough Said,” and Adam in “Girls.” It’s the women who are flighty and backbiting and hard-to-please. I’m surprised this isn’t mentioned more when critics, particularly male ones, encourage getting more female voices out there. Yes, this is good for women, but I think it’s even better for men. Because they like us, they really like us.

Sadly, we don’t spend enough time with Craig. It’s more about Megan, who’s meh, and Annika, who has adolescent issues and mommy issues. Bethany (Gretchen Mol, underused), a catalogue model, left a long time ago. She has a good line when Megan and Annika visit her and she wonders to Megan in the kitchen what Annika expects:

Megan: That you serve some lemonade and ask her five to ten questions about her life.
Bethany: [Pause] Treat somebody badly enough you just assume they'll be happy to let you go.

Fighting the momentum
The resolution should be intriguing. I think we’re all propelled along pathways, and it’s easy to give in to the momentum and intertia, and it’s hard to get on a new path. So the question is: How does Megan get on a new path?

Well, after she begins a relationship with Craig, Annika discovers Megan’s engagement ring and feels betrayed. So does Craig. Then Megan does a good deed for the girl but returns to Anthony and her old life. And that’s the end.

Kidding. She and Anthony are about to elope to Vegas when he makes a fatal mistake. He takes a selfie of the two of them at the boarding gate and sends it to “the group,” their friends with bad taste. And that’s when Megan knows she can’t be with him; that’s when she gets off that pathway and onto the one that leads back to Craig.

So she begins with movie directionless and with the wrong guy and ends the movie directionless and with the right guy. Progress, I suppose.

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Posted at 07:46 AM on Sep 04, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Thursday September 03, 2015

Movie Review: Fantastic Four (1994)

WARNING: SPOILERS

For a famously bad movie, it’s not that bad. In some ways it’s better than the big-budget FF movies of 2005 and 2007. At least it has a campy charm and a few good lines about the psyche.

But yeah, on a normal day it’s godawful.

Examples of inexplicable, laugh-out-loud moments:

  • Reed tripping Dr. Doom’s soldiers with an elongated foot.
  • The Thing getting pissed off about the monster he’s become and leaving the Baxter Building; a second later, he is shocked, shocked, when two girls flee from him in terror. Poor Thing!
  • The Invisible Girl turning invisible and ducking out of the way of bullets.
  • The fact that the actor playing the Thing (Carl Ciarfalio) is much shorter than the actor playing Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith).

But my favorite idiotic moment is earlier.

Love > Astrophysics
1994 Fantastic Four posterThe movie starts with Ben, Reed (Alex Hyde-White) and Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) in college, while Johnny and Sue are just kids in “Mrs. Storm’s Boarding House,” where Reed and Ben rent a room. Sue is played by 13-year-old Mercedes McNab, and she has a crush on Reed. “He’s dreamy,” she says. Since we know they’ll wind up together, this is kind of creepy.

After Doom apparently dies in a scientific experiment involving the comet Colossus, we cut to 10 years later. Reed has figured out how to observe Colossus from aboard a space ship, with a gigantic diamond absorbing its energy and keeping them alive, and Ben agrees to pilot the ship. But what about the crew? Ben suggests Johnny and Sue, now in their twenties:

Reed: What do they know about astrophysics?
Ben: C’mon. They may not have Harvard diplomas but they know more about this project than anyone else on earth. Besides, if you don’t let them come, they will never forgive you.

Part of the blame for this goes to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In FF #1, they never did come up with a rationale for why Sue and Johnny were in the rocket ship. “I’m your fiancée! Where you go, I go!” Sue says as they drive to the launch site. “And I’m taggin’ along with sis—so it’s settled!” Johnny adds.

But my favorite idiotic moment is just after that. Inside the house, Johnny (Jay Underwood, overacting throughout) is excited, but Reed is still on the fence.

Johnny: Ready to go!
Reed: Actually, Johnny, I don’t think ...
Female voice (off camera): We’re ready.

And there she is on the stairs, Sue Storm, now played by Rebecca Staab, who was born in 1961 as opposed to 1980 for McNab. In 10 years, in other words, Sue has gone from being 21 years younger than Reed to just two. (I guess girls do mature faster than boys.) She and Reed stare into each other’s eyes as we hear tinkly piano music from a bad 1970s “Movie of the Week” love story, and everyone looks on with silly smiles. Then Reed says, “Absolutely! We’ve got a lot to do!”

That’s the moment. When Reed Richards lets Sue and Johnny fly into outer space because he’s in looooove.

Battle of the minions
The diamond is the key. It’s supposed to keep our four safe from the cosmic rays; but Doom wants it to power a laser cannon that will eventually destroy New York City, while the Jeweler (Ian Trigger), a decidedly non-cannon villain, wants to give it to the woman he loves, Alicia Masters (Kat Green), the beautiful blind sculptress we all know will become the Thing’s girlfriend. The Jeweler gets to the diamond first, but Doom laughs at this, ha ha ha, because it still works with his diabolical plans. Even better! Because now Reed Richards will suffer!

Or some such.

Not sure which villain has the worst minions. Doom keeps sending the same two guys, one of whom seems to be channeling Vito Scotti’s Dr. Boris Balinkoff from “Gilligan’s Island” (Bela Lugosi by way of Groovy Ghoulies), while both are accompanied by soundtrack music that seems stolen from John Williams’ “March of the Villains” theme in “Superman: The Movie”—the comic, bumbling tune that followed Ned Beatty’s Otis around. But I’ll take them over the nondescript Jeweler’s minions, who are sent to kidnap Alicia, the woman their boss loves, and they’re not exactly careful with her. The scene comes off like a PG version of rape.

Absurdities mount. Without the diamond, the four are affected by the cosmic rays and crashland next to a hill with a lone tree on the top, where we get low-budget revelations of powers. Sue disappears, Reed stretches, Johnny sneezes flames. “Just tell me what is happening to us!” Sue demands of Reed. Because no one arrives (“We must have dropped telemetry,” Reed says), they decide to camp out for the night. When they wake up, two things happen: 1) the Army arrives, and 2) so does the Thing.

But it’s not the U.S. Army; it’s Dr. Doom’s Army. For all his brains, it takes Reed a while to figure out they’re being held captive. After they escape, it takes him even longer to report back to the federal government. Meaning he never does. Nor does he wonder about being kidnapped in the first place.

The three storylines (FF, Doom, Jeweler) finally merge during the Thing’s Ringo-like wanderings. The moment the Thing is adopted by the Jeweler’s minions is the exact moment Dr. Doom shows up to take back the diamond. Cue epic battle!

Kidding. Alicia, being crowned “Queen” by the Jeweler, tells the Thing she loves him, and this, inexplicably, causes him to turn back into Ben Grimm. And this causes him to run away, get angry, cry in the night, then transform into the Thing again. Excuse me? If love makes him Ben again, why doesn’t he turn back at the end? No budget for transformation scenes, either, so we just get a spinning motion.

The big final battle is in Latveria, I guess. The Thing cries “It’s clobbering time!,” Reed battles Doom on the castle precipice, and the laser goes off, so Johnny—heretofore relegated to throwing fireballs—finally flames on, outraces the beam (nice trick), and stops it before it hits the Baxter Building.

How do they manage this special effect on such a low budget? The same way they made Superman fly in 1948: animation. It doesn’t look horrible. 

Nothing to see here
This 1994 fiasco was never supposed to be released. It was only made so the producer, Bernd Eichinger (“The Name of the Rose,” “Nowhere in Africa,” “The Baader Meinhof Complex”), could retain rights to a movie he hoped to make with a bigger budget. That’s why he hired Roger Corman, King of the Bs, who could do it for $1 million instead of $30. Most of that apparently went into the Thing’s animatronic look. I’m guessing Sue got sloppy seconds and the Torch thucky thirds. The worst special effect is Reed’s stretching. It’s a lame superpower anyway—a holdover from when “plastic” was the new thing.

Regardless, someone in power should official release the 1994 “Fantastic Four” so the rest of us don’t have to rely on online or comic-con bootlegs to experience the suckiness. I mean, yes, it’s awful, but it’s hardly more embarrassing than the 2005 and 2007 versions. 

SLIDESHOW


  • SLIDESHOW: Here's the moment Reed first sees Sue—as a woman rather than a 13-year-old girl. His reaction is supposed to be love. Johnny's reaction is supposed to be ... brotherly? 

  • The four before the transformation, but not before Jay Underwood's overacting.  

  • Three celebrate the arrival of the U.S./Latverian Army after the crash. But wait, where's Ben?

  • Ah, here he is. 

  • “I got a rock. Rats.”

  • Ben should be happy. His special effects aren't nearly as crappy as Reed's. 

  • Or the Torch's, who's reduced to animation. 

  • At times, though, it almost looks like it's might've been ... good. *FIN*
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Posted at 06:39 AM on Sep 03, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 1990s
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Tuesday September 01, 2015

Paul Krugman on GOP Political Poseurs on the 10th Anniversary of Katrina

From Paul Krugman's piece yesterday, “A Heckuva Job,” a phrase forever ruined by Pres. George W. Bush and GOP cronyism. The wrong people were put in important positions and the disasters that tend to happen got much, much worse:

Katrina was special in political terms because it revealed such a huge gap between image and reality. Ever since 9/11, former President George W. Bush had been posing as a strong, effective leader keeping America safe. He wasn't. ... It took a domestic disaster, which made his administration's cronyism and incompetence obvious to anyone with a TV set, to burst his bubble.

To quote Paul Isaacson from E.L. Doctorow's “The Book of Daniel”: “And it's still going on, Danny. In today's newspaper, it's still going on. Right outside the door of this house it's going on.”

And it's not just Donald Trump, Krugman tells us. Krugman goes through the slate of GOP candidates and finds not much besides Hollywood-style PR. Chris Christie was supposed to be the straight-talking gov who got things done; Jeb Bush was supposed to be the smart Bush. 

Remember when Scott Walker was the man to watch? Remember when Bobby Jindal was brilliant?

Then my favorite graf:

I know, now I'm supposed to be evenhanded, and point out equivalent figures on the Democratic side. But there really aren't any; in modern America, cults of personality built around undeserving politicians seem to be a Republican thing.

Yes, yes and yes. And why is that? That's the question for Republicans to ask themselves. 

I would argue it goes back to Reagan.

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Posted at 05:46 AM on Sep 01, 2015 in category Quote of the Day
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