The Man Standing Beside the Men Who Applied for the First Same-Sex Marriage License in 1970
As the year ends, I'm clearing the digital house and I came across this photo that I meant to post earlier. It came to me via my sister, Karen, an editor at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, who got it from a colleague. It shows the two men who first applied for a same-sex marriage licenese: Jack Baker and James McConnell. It happened in Hennepin County, Minn., in 1970. They were denied, of course, sued, and were further denied by 1) the Court of Appeals, 2) the Minnesota State Supreme Court, 3) the U.S. Supreme Court. This last one, I assume, didn't even bother to hear the case.
This year, of course, the Obergefell decision, just six short months ago, recognized a federal, constitutional right to same-sex marriage. We've come a long way, baby.
And the man standing beside the men applying for that 1970 marriage license? My father, Bob Lundegaard, reporting for The Minneapolis Tribune.
“Yeah, that's me,” he said when Karen and I asked him about it. “Always in the front lines of history. No, I don't remember anything about it. Who knew it was such a big deal?”
Front lines of history.
Superman Before The American Way
That was in 1948, three years after the discovery of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, et al., when tolerance seemed like an important concept to instill in kids. Three years later, for the “Adventures of Superman” TV series, and amid various McCarthy and HUAC hearings in which people lost careers and lives because of left-wing political leanings, “tolerance” was removed in favor the all-purpose “American way.”
Feel free to share.
- You know all that talk about narco-terrorism? How terrorists are making tons of money off the drug trade to fund their activities? It might not be very true. What busts have been made could be a sad conjoining of: 1) the need to do something after 9/11; 2) the desire for a bigger DEA budget; 3) the fact that we pay (“incentivize”) informants based on arrests rather than intel, which encourages entrapment. Most high-profile busts over the years have essentially been sting operations. Read on.
- 4,191 vs. 4,189. How did Ty Cobb lose two basehits long after he was dead? Joe Posnanski sets the record straight.
- Pete Souza, official White House photographer, on Obama's very good year.
- Speaking of: This might be my favorite thing this year: Obama in a car (a 1963 Corvette Stingray) getting coffee with Jerry Seinfeld. “Oh, the sunscreen.” It's like we're back in the diner on “Seinfeld” but one guy is the President of the United States.
- I love these New York Times “Anatomy of a Scene” videos, in which a movie director talks us through all the details in a scene in their latest movie. Here it's Todd Haynes on the meeting of Therese and Carol in “Carol.”
- My nephew Jordy then found this one from one of his favorite films of 2015: “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”
- Came across this after the death of Meadowlark Lemon last Sunday: The Harlem Globetrotters on “What's My Line?” in 1956.
- The Dec. 21 & 28 Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker is a keeper. Among the pieces:
- Margaret Talbot on the Laquan McDonald shooting in Chicago, and the bad year for law enforcement. (And this doesn't take into account the Netflix documentary series, “Making a Murderer,” which everyone should watch.)
- The creator/star of “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, author Michael Chabon, and director Martin Scorsese talk New York history in a museum on the Bowery, a few blocks from where Scorsese grew up. Makes me want to see the Wallace Beery film.
- Performing devout Muslim rituals at the Trump SoHo Hotel. Great ending to this piece by Andrew Marantz.
- In the same issue, Emily Nussbaum talks up the subtext of “Jessica Jones,” which she admires. Her reaction to the series was the opposite of mine: initially bored, then interested. I went: “Not bad,” and then, “No, bad.” Love her line on Mike Colter: “... an actor with so much sexual gravity that he could be his own planet.”
- Long read of the week: Forrest Wickman on all the influences that went into the original “Star Wars.” At the least, it beats all the influences that went into “Star Wars VII,” which seems to be, you know, “Star Wars.”
Dave Henderson (1958-2015)
One for the ages.
Little-known fact: It was his only hit of the series.
How light on his feet he was, almost like a dancer. He even does a mid-air pirouette down the first base line when he sees, finally sees, that the ball is out of the park, and the Boston Red Sox, down 3 games to 1 in the 1986 American League Championship Series vs. the California Angels, and behind 5-4 in the top of the ninth inning in Game 5, with two outs, two strikes, and a man on, were back in it. “Unbelievable!” broadcaster Al Michaels shouts. “You’re looking at one for the ages here!”
Truly, though, Hendu’s homerun would’ve been all-but-forgotten if the Angels had just had a little timely hitting of their own. In the bottom of the 9th, they tied it up and loaded the bases with one out. But DeCinces flyball to right wasn’t deep enough; and Grich lined out to the pitcher, sending it into extras, where, in the top of the 11th, Hendu came up again, this time with the bases loaded, and did what DeCinces didn’t: he hit the sac fly. That won it. The series took two more games, and Hendu started these instead of Tony Armas, who had started games 1-5, but he never managed another hit. It was, statistically, his worst post-season performance: 1 for 9; a .111 batting average. But he hit the one for the ages.
One strike away was such a theme in the ’86 postseason that it became the title of a book about the ’86 postseason, and about how those pitches to Henderson, and before him Don Baylor, wrecked Angels’ reliever Donnie Moore, who became abusive toward his wife, and then took his own life three years later, July 18, 1989, aged 35. The Red Sox, who only got to the World Series because of Hendu, were themselves one strike away from winning it all in Game 6, after Hendu led off the top of the 10th with a homer. Imagine if Schiraldi, or Stanley, had gotten that one strike, how much of a hero Hendu would’ve been forever after in Boston. Instead, he became a kind of postive, gap-toothed, lighter-than-air reminder of the agony of defeat. There was a through line from him to Bill Buckner—just as, for some Seattle fans, Marshawn Lynch is a reminder of the one time we didn’t hand off to him.
For the next few years, Hendu kept making it back to the World Series, and performing well. His regular-season career line is average: .258/.320/.436. His World Series line is exemplary: 324/.410/.606, with 4 homers and 10 RBIs in 20 games. He helped the A’s beat Boston in the ’88 ALCS, then watched from centerfield, as, again, one strike away, the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson hit an even more famous homerun in Game 1 of the World Series that turned it all around. Hendu got his ring a year later in the earthquake series, but played his last game in July 1994 with the Kansas City Royals.
He died Sunday of a heart attack at the age of 57—way too early for such a happy warrior.
Longtime Mariners broadcast partner Rick Rizzs has a nice remembrance here:
He had that big body to hold that big heart, and it gave out way too early. ... Hendu was one of the nicest, most compassionate people you'd ever want to meet. He was a tremendous athlete and incredible baseball player, but he was 100 times more than that as a person because he was so giving. He cared about everybody.
Meadowlark Lemon (1932-2015)
Meadowlark, with his game face on.
I first knew him as part of a Saturday morning cartoon show, “Harlem Globe Trotters,” which debuted in September 1970, and which, I suppose, is how I came to know basketball. What I didn’t know: He wasn’t doing his own voice (Scatman Crothers was), and it was the first regular network cartoon to feature a mostly African-American cast—beating “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” by two years. But I was a kid, and truly color blind then. The blinds came off a few years later.
I also remember him from the live-action variety show “The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine” (“And now/Rodney Allen Rippy, take a bow”), which debuted in 1974, as well as all of those commercials he did. He shilled for Vitalis, stacked Whoppers for Burger King, squeezed the Charmin. The Globetrotters even solved a mystery with Scooby Doo and the gang.
I also remember seeing them once in person in the early 1970s at, I believe, the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn. I think I expected the up-close “wow” factor of the cartoons and was slightly disappointed to be so far away from them and their antics.
Of course you could never forget his name: Meadowlark Lemon. So mellifluous. So beautiful.
Am I the only one who remembers a theme song for him? Because I can’t find it anywhere online, and almost every pop cultural scrap is online now. It went something like this:
Dah dah dah dah dah
He’s so dah, and so dah
Dah dah dah dah dah
And everybody’s sayin’
Oh Meadowlark Oh Lemon
Everybody loves you, Meadowlark
Probably to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” per the Globetrotters own theme song. Anyone?
The Washington Post has a nice obit on the man born Meadow George Lemon in 1932 in Wilmington, N.C., which doesn’t mention the cartoon show; so does The New York Times, which does. Both obits tell me more of what I didn’t know: that before they were a pop cultural phenomenon, the Harlem Globetrotters were a cultural one. I.e., before they regularly played their foils, the Washington Generals, in games that were mostly antics, they played college All-Stars and NBA championship teams in games that were mostly serious. It was a segregated era, and the Globetrotters regularly beat the best white teams, and helped integrate basketball as a result. The first black player signed to an NBA contract was Globetrotters center Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton in 1950. Four years later, Meadowlark joined the Trotters and quickly became its leader and star.
They really were basketball’s good-will ambassadors. One wonders if the sport would’ve become the global phenomenon it’s become, as quickly as it’s become, without them.
This Times article is from 1950:
This one is from 1959:
Eventually their performances, perhaps out of necessity, because less serious, more comedy. For some, it was out of step in an era of black power. They paved the way but were criticized by those for whom they paved it.
There was a fall throughout the ’70s, and bottom may have been the made-for-TV movie, “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island” in 1981. Meadowlark had left the team by then over a contract dispute, and was making his own name on TV (“Hello, Larry”) and in movies (“The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh”). But he more or less disappeared from mainstream media by the mid-1980s.
The most startling quote from both obits comes from Wilt Chamberlain, who played with the Globetrotters for a year, in 1959, and who said the following before his death in 1999:
Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen. People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.
There’s a good documentary to be made here.
Could 'Star Wars VII' Be the First $1 Billion Domestic Movie?
How high will it go?
Let's break it down.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (also known as “Star Wars VII,” or “SW: TFA” or just “TFA”) shattered the opening weekend box office record by grossing $247.9 million December 18-20. The previous record, set earlier this year by “Jurassic World,” was $208 million, which was just a hair over the mark “The Avengers” set in 2012. Lost in the numbers is the fact that “Star Wars” did this the weekend before Christmas, when box office is generally as dry as Tatooine. Everyone's just too busy getting ready for Christmas to go see a movie. Put it this way: The previous record for any December weekend was the first “Hobbit” movie, which grossed $84 mil in 2012. So quite a leap. A leap into hyper space, you might say.
Which is why, after “SW7” shattered the record, it began to widen its lead. It was Secretariat at Belmont Stakes, and “Jurassic World” was Sham:
- 3-Day lead: $39.1 million
- 4-Day lead: $54 million
- 5-Day lead: $67 million
- 6-Day lead: $85 million
- 7-Day lead: $94 million
Just a few years ago, the 10-day record belonged to “The Dark Knight” at $313 mil until “The Avengers” broke it in 2012 with $373 mil. That record was then broken by “Jurassic World,” which grossed $402 in 10 days this summer. “Star Wars VII” is currently at $540 million. Its lead is $138 million.
So at this point it seems assured of breaking the all-time domestic record of $760 million set by “Avatar” in 2009. But the bigger question is really where it stops. Could it break the $1 billion domestic mark?
It could—but it won't be easy. A look at the recent 10-day record holders indicates that most of these films earned about 60% of their total gross after 10 days. For “Jurassic World” it was 61.8%, “The Avengers” 59.8%, “The Dark Knight” 58.8%. If “Star Wars VII” holds to this pattern—if its 10-day total represents 60% of its final domestic gross—it will eventually gross $900 million.
To get to $1 billion domestic, that 10-day total will have to go down to 54% of its total gross. This is actually more difficult than it sounds. We ride movies hard out of the gates now, and they fade quickly. Of the 33 other films that grossed more than $200 million after 10 days, only one, “Avatar” (another December release), came in under this mark:
|MOVIE||10-DAY GROSS||% OF TOTAL||THTRS||TOTAL||YEAR|
|Toy Story 3||$226,889,351||54.7%||4,028||$415,004,880||2010|
|The Dark Knight||$313,781,677||58.8%||4,366||$533,345,358||2008|
|Marvel's The Avengers||$373,071,647||59.8%||4,349||$623,357,910||2012|
(For the record: 11 of the 33 were in the 60-65% range, nine were in the 65-70% range, and eight (bad sequels like “Spider-Man 3”; franchises with a rabid fanbase but no general appeal, such as “Twilight”) were over 70%.)
But my sense is that “Star Wars VII” could transcend all of this. People are going to see it again and again. Families are going. Single dudes are going. Girls are going.
Where will it stop? We'll have a better idea on Sunday. But if I could get long odds on the $1 billion mark, I'd put money down. People love this franchise. They love it even when it sucks. And this one doesn't suck.
Quote of the Day
“How can [Trump, Carson, Cruz] be happening? After all, the antiestablishment candidates now dominating the field, aside from being deeply ignorant about policy, have a habit of making false claims, then refusing to acknowledge error. Why don't Republican voters seem to care?
”Well, part of the answer has to be that the party taught them not to care. Bluster and belligerence as substitutes for analysis, disdain for any kind of measured response, dismissal of inconvenient facts reported by the “liberal media” didn't suddenly arrive on the Republican scene last summer. On the contrary, they have long been key elements of the party brand.“
-- Paul Krugman, ”The Donald and the Decider," with a quick look at when the GOP chose attitude over analysis. He says the Trump lineage can be traced back to Palin and then to Bush 43. I'd go back further, to Reagan, but it's a sharp, succinct article for a country with fuzzy memories about the real kind of fuzzy math.
'The Force Awakens' Shatters Box Office Records
It's true. All of it.
Opening weekend, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” grossed $247.9 million domestically. That shatters the mark set by “Jurassic World” earlier this summer by around $40 million. You expected it, you would have been hugely disappointed if it hadn't, but it's still fun to run through the numbers:
- Its single-day total on Friday was $119 million, which is the best single-day total by something like $30 million. The former record-holder was the final “Harry Potter” film, which opened to $91 million in 2011. Put it this way: Only 19 movies have ever had better opening weekends.
- It shattered the best December opening weekend by threefold. The previous record-holder was “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which grossed $84.6 million in 2012. (December tends to be a tepid month for box office because everyone's too busy getting ready for Christmas.)
- It's the seventh-highest grossing release of the year.
- It also grossed $281 million internationally, for an opening worldwide total of $528 million: another record.
If it picks up again after Christmas, which I expect it to, all bets are off for the highest-grossing domestic film of all time: “Avatar” at $749 million. But it'll be tougher to beat “Avatar”'s worldwide mark of $2.7 billion. I'd put money on the former, not on the latter.
My $12 or so was among the receipts, as I saw the movie on Saturday afternoon with Patricia, my nephews, my sister and her husband. “The Force Awakens” is not without its problems (a bit derivative of the first “Star Wars”), but the two new leads are great, and it's the kind of film that will draw repeat customers.
Minnesota winter, 1970
Movie Review: Entourage (2015)
This is the first line we hear. It comes from Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon), as the boys of the title (Drama, E, Turtle) are taking a speed boat to a yacht, where movie star Vince (Adrian Grenier) is partying with bikini-clad and/or topless starlets:
I may have to jerk it before we even get there!
The movie gets less classy from there.
Last summer, “Entourage” got slammed for being horribly misogynistic—for showing slinky women humping stars and their hangers on without showing them as fully developed characters—but it’s actually worse than that. Because the more we see of a woman, the worse she is.
Take the tribulations of E (Kevin Connolly). Please. Longtime girlfriend Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is pregnant with his child, but she broke it off with him for sleeping with ... I forget. Some relation. In the past. Anyway, he’s now humping some blonde starlet (Sabina Gadecki), who texts him, “I want your cock”; but then she breaks it off with him a minute later. I forget why. That night, he meets a nice brunette and bangs her in Turtle’s room. The next day, just as Sloan is saying she’s ready to make it work again, Blondie texts him that she’s pregnant. Oops. At the restaurant where they’re supposed to meet, Brunette shows up and confesses she’s got an STD. Oops again.
Punchline? They’re roommates, and messing with him because he had the temerity to sleep with both of them on the same day: Blondie in the morning when they were dating, and Brunette 12 hours later after Blondie broke up with him. They’re getting back at E for ... um ... what exactly?
Meanwhile, the better female characters from the TV show—Ari’s wife, Shauna, Dana Gordon—are given zilch to do.
The main plot point is Vince’s latest movie, “Hyde,” which he’s also directing. So far, he’s spent $100 million but needs more. So the moneyman, Texas yahoo Larsen McCredle (Billy Bob Thornton), sends his yahoo-er son, Travis (Haley Joel Osment), to LA to see if it’s worth it. He says it’s not. He says Johnny, who has a supporting role, has to go; then he says Vince has to go. His recommendation, in other words, is to throw away the star of the film and eat the $100 million and start over. That’s like getting rid of Johnny Depp in a Johnny Depp movie. Why would he ever suggest such a thing? Because, it turns out, Vince is schtupping Emily Ratajkowski, the girl from the “Blurred Lines” video, and Travis wants to bone her, too.
So our boys win by meeting someone even douchier than they are.
God, maybe this thing is even more insulting to men.
“Hyde,” of course, winds up critically acclaimed, grosses $450 worldwide, and Drama wins a Golden Globe for best supporting actor. At the podium he shouts “Victory!” his catchphrase from “Viking Quest,” the bad 1990s-era TV show he starred in. That’s our merciful end.
“Entourage,” in contrast, was critically maligned (20% from top critics on RT) and died at the box office ($32 mil, despite debuting in more than 3,000 theaters). In terms of TV adaptations, if you adjust for inflation, it’s 66th out of 84, behind such humdingers as “My Favorite Martian,” “The Nude Bomb” and “A Very Brady Sequel.’
Here’s the bright side.
One, Turtle is always wearing a Yankees cap, so it’s nice to associate those bastards with this shitty movie.
Two, the people here, the stars and players of L.A., are so shallow and pointless that it may help us take at least one step toward curing our long, international, nightmarish obsession with celebrity.
Three, the ride is most assuredly over.
Movie Review: In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
After it’s over, when we’re back in Nantucket, 1821, the merchants that sent the men of the Essex out to sea in search of whale oil are about to hold an inquiry into its sinking; and the two men who were at odds for much of the voyage, Capt. George Pollard (Benjamin Walker, reminding me of a young Colin Firth) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, AKA Thor), are asked to lie. They’re asked to lie twice, actually. The merchants want them to lie about the cannibalism for obvious reasons, but they also want them to lie about the white whale. Don’t say at the edge of the earth there’s a monster that sinks ships. That would be ... bad for business.
Chase, who would have been captain of the Essex if not for his lowly birth, and who is offered a captaincy if only he’ll go along with this plan, is stunned that they don’t want to hear the truth; and he admonishes the men who, in his words, want to “whitewash the truth for profit.” And he walks out the door and into another life.
In the audience, long fed up with the film, I thought, “Hey, that’s a good description of Hollywood, isn’t it? We whitewash the truth for profit.” But movies do this a lot: chastise characters for doing the very thing the movies do. I should make a list.
That said, Ron Howard, who’s directed some very good movies (“Splash,” “Parenthood,” “Apollo 13,” “The Missing”), and screenwriter Charles Leavitt, who’s written one (“Blood Diamond”; otherwise, it’s “K-PAX,” “The Express,” and the like), do attempt some kind of verisimilitude. They go places most mainstream movies won’t; they attempt to remind us how long ago 1820 was in terms of attitudes about class.
I just wish it worked better.
Stuck at sea
It’s an odd mix of storytelling methods:
- It sprawls like a 19th century novel.
- It looks at times, like a 1940s film. Some of the shots gave me the same vibe I got with Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse”: like the director was trying to imitate John Ford.
- It includes the unpalatable truths of a post-Hays code film.
- Plus CGI whales.
The movie focuses on the main characters (which is good) but they’re not interesting characters (which is bad). Pollard has a line to Chase near the end: “You were born to do this job, I was just born into it.” But it comes too late; and it’s obvious to us from the get-go.
I admire that Howard refrains from demonizing Pollard and making a hero of Chase; unfortunately, in his restraint, he makes them both rather unlikeable. So we’re stuck at sea with two unlikeable characters, along with a host of others who look interesting but don’t have much to do. Cillian Murphy is on board as Matthew Joy; and he seems an early version of an alcoholic, but to what end? Does it matter if he picks up the bottle again? There’s a fucking white whale out there, remember. Frank Dillane does a good job as Henry Coffin, nephew to Pollard, and thus more privileged than the other men, while Joseph Mawle’s Benjamin looks like a seafaring man from the 19th century. Glancing at Mawle’s CV, in fact, one wonders if he ever gets out of that century. But his character isn’t given much to do, either.
Or The Whale
Here’s the framing device: The last survivor of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson in 1850, Tom Holland in the 1810s), tells the story to Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw), who will, of course, use it to write the great American novel, “Moby Dick.” So occasionally we cut back to this pair: interrupting the story for the storytellers. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s necessary. (No matter what they told you in writing class, kids, cannibalism is better told than shown.) But we don’t get much of a sense of the younger Nickerson. He’s like the other crewmembers: just younger and greener.
It was fun when the whale showed up. I was like, “Hey, this is a revenge flick!” But it’s a revenge flick that focuses on the bad guys, whom we’re somehow supposed to somehow care about. I didn't.
Bad title, too.
The Problems with 'Jessica Jones'
It's a not-bad superhero show. Krysten Ritter is good in it, while both Mike Colter (Luke Cage) and David Tenant (Kilgrave) are superb. I liked the first episode with the shock ending. I also like the villain's superpower. Mind-control is a nice change of pace. It seems truly evil, more evil than brute strength. Even when it's used for good in that one episode, there's something horrifying in it that you don't feel when someone is merely being punched in the face. “It's clobberin' time!” seems sweet in comparison.
But I kept shaking my head. I kept pausing to complain to Patricia. (Yeah, I'm that guy.) I kept going, “Really? That's your plan, Jessica Jones? To beat the shit out of Kilgrave on camera so he'll use his mind-control powers on you? And this will somehow be admissible evidence in the ultimate exoneration of Hope Shlottman? ” Even better was was when she put Kilgrave's parents into an isolation chamber with him and watched all hell break loose. No one saw that one coming. No one except everyone except Jessica Jones.
These are my main problems with the show:
- If someone has Kilgrave's powers, and you're out to stop him, you don't have subplots. It's all you'd do.
- Because what if he wakes up to the true nature of his power? What if he decides to walk into the White House? That's some scary shit. Instead, he's content to shut up a noisy crowd at a cafe. (Great scene, btw.)
In other words, she's not bright and he's unimaginative. Not a good combo.
In tonight's episode: Jessica tries to get herself incarcerated for life in a supermax prison!
Why Trump Appeals ... to Politicians
“From a certain reptilian perspective—from the angle that most closely considers Trump—the whole machinery of the modern campaign serves to constrain an individual candidate's ability to chase votes. Seeking donors requires promoting an economic vision that turns off working-class voters. Winning the favor of élites means presenting detailed policies to show that you are a serious candidate, but policies are trade-offs, and each will alienate someone. Employing political professionals, who will want jobs with other candidates in the future, lessens the likelihood that your campaign will scorch the earth—by demonizing an ethnic group, for instance—in order to win. If the pros sound a little jealous of Trump, it's because he raises the alluring, impossible alternative. What if they could just opt out?”
-- Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “Donald Trump vs. the Modern Political Campaign,” on The New Yorker site.
Movie Review: Sicario (2015)
We get quiet interludes throughout, otherworldly, overhead shots that make the desert landscape around the U.S.-Mexican border seem like the moon. It seems like another world. Which it is. That’s the point that director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (everything) seem to be making. That’s what FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is finding out. She’s not in Kansas anymore.
Kate is our eyes and ears here. She’s our main character, the most important person to the story—or so we assume in the beginning. But “Sicario” is good at upending tropes. We may, for example, be learning everything along with Kate, and rooting for her, but she’s not the most important person to the story. You could argue she’s not even our main character.
You could argue she’s the least important person to the story.
In the dark
The movie opens in Chandler, Ariz., as an FBI SWAT team, led by Kate and Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), crash through the wall of a bleached-out house in their armor-plated HUMVEE, sending sprawling a Mexican dude watching TV. For a second you think, “Wow, that’s excessive.” Then Kate and Reggie are shot at. They discover bodies in the wall, 41 total, heads wrapped in smeared, bloodied plastic. In a shed out back, an IED is tripped and two officers die. It’s a warning from the filmmakers: our notion of “excessive” will keep changing.
In a conference room, we meet Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the man heading a task force to take down cartel leader Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino). Wearing flip flops, Matt sizes up Kate and Reggie and ultimately opts to put Kate on his team. He seems pleased with her background and gumption. Too pleased? There’s something off about his reaction. He seems effusive and dismissive at the same time.
So Kate goes from the smartest in the class to the dumbest, with the teacher showing no interest in helping her catch up. Why is she there? What’s her purpose? Who’s running things anyway? DOD? CIA? The men around her are Delta Force, brawny, bearded combat veterans who share a history, a shorthand, a breezy, ball-busting attitude. The two outsiders are Kate and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a quiet Columbian who has nightmares, cold eyes, and a tragic past.
The first op is an incursion into Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, to extract Diaz’s brother, Guillermo (Edgar Arreola), from prison. The team has a fleet of black SUVs and cooperation from the Juarez police—as much as it can be trusted. Juarez, we find, is virtually lawless. Mutilated bodies hang from overpasses and sporadic automatic weapons fire is heard in the distance. The difficulty with the extradition, Kate is told, is on the way back, at the border-crossing; and indeed, instead of the clear path they’ve been given throughout, they’re stuck in traffic on the bridge. Everyone’s suddenly alert, wary. A gunfight breaks out, but we never really know if the gangbangers were gunning for Matt’s team or each other. We remain, like Kate, in the dark.
She’s interested in process, in building a case, and objects to Matt’s extralegal methods. Guillermo is tortured by Alejandro, laundered money is seized, a corrupt American cop beaten. “This is the future, Kate,” Matt says to her. At one point, he and Reggie have this exchange:
Reggie (to Kate): You OK?
Matt: She’s alright.
Reggie: I didn’t ask you.
Matt: And yet I answered.
What’s Matt’s goal? To make enough noise on the U.S. side so Diaz will go see his boss on the Mexican side. “Then we’ll know where his boss is,” he says.
But it’s more than He’s playing the long game. He’s doing with the drug trade what we did in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in ’54 and Chile in ’73.
In the beginning, we’re told that “sicario” means hitman in Mexico, so throughout we’re wondering who the title character is. Kate? Or the Mexican cop with the wife and kid and drinking problem that we keep cutting back to? Do their paths cross? Does he take her out or she him?
Neither. It’s after a tunnel between Mexico and the U.S. is found (so much for your giant wall, Mr. Trump), during an op in the dark with night goggles, that all of our tropes are upended.
Kate and Reggie, bringing up the rear, exchange gunfire with a narco, and Kate takes him down. She’s pissed. You finally feel she’s fed up and taking control of a chaotic, lawless situation. On the Mexican side, she finds Alejandro with a gun on our Mexican cop, who’s delivering drugs, and she yells at Alejandro, “Move away from him right now!”
And Alejandro shoots her in the chest.
She’s wearing body armor so she doesn’t die. But as he stands over her, he says, with a modicum of heat, “Don’t ever point a weapon at me again.” Then he moves forward with Silvio to take out the cartel leader, while she returns to the U.S., where the rest of the team is waiting. In her anger, she attacks Matt.
And he decks her.
That’s when we get the rest of the story.
Why is she along? Because any CIA operation on U.S. soil needs FBI cover. What is the mission? To send Alejandro through the tunnel to get the leader of the cartel, who killed his wife and daughter. He’s the sicario. More, he’s part of the Medellin cartel that held power in the early 1990s. The CIA is working with him to restore the Columbians to power, so they can return some sense of order to the border. It’s “providing a measure of order that we can control,” Matt says. It regime change.
And Kate? Our hero? She’s a dupe, a stooge. There’s hardly a moment in the movie where she’s not out of her element. She goes into the bank when she shouldn’t, takes home a local corrupt cop who tries to kill her, and winds up signing an exonerating paper for the CIA at gunpoint. “You look like a little girl when you’re scared,” Alejandro tells her at the end. He urges her to leave the area. “You are not a wolf. And this is the land of wolves now.”
“Sicario” is a stunning movie: visually, dramatically, ethically. How true is it? I’m sure liberties were taken. The larger truth is about how thin our veneer of civilization is, and how brutal things can be—and are, somewhere, right now. Most movies are wish-fulfillment fantasy. We leave the theater thinking we’re stronger, braver, better-looking than we are. Not here. I left thinking I was like Kate, and the world was full of wolves.
Movie Review: Magic Mike XXL (2015)
Did you like that, ladies? Was it good for you? Well, just so you know, my name is Erik, and I'm your movie reviewer today. Ladies, do you mind if I refer to y'all as queens? Because every last one of you out there is a queen, and don't you ever forget it. Now ... are you ready to be disappointed? Are you ready to be bored out of your skull ? Are you ready to meet that special kind of beast that makes you feel trapped and lost and hopeless? That makes you check your cellphone every five minutes for something, god, something ELSE? Then get yourself ready for “Magic Mike! X! X! L!”
Seriously. This movie is a mix of indie films and exploitation flicks but the duller aspects of each. It’s hard bodies performing simulated sex acts (mostly on stage, but also in workshops and convenience stores) interrupted by conversations so boring they seem improvised by actors with no training whatsoever in improv.
And it wasn't just me. I didn’t see the first movie, but Patricia did, and liked it. This one, not so much. She missed Matthew McConaughey. She wanted less talk and more dancing. And by dancing, she means dancing, not dudes giving lap dances.
The first dance we see is actually good. It’s three years later, and Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) runs a small, struggling carpentry business. He’s in his workshop late one night when a song comes on, and he busts a move. Several moves. It’s impressive. His whole body is as slippery as a wet bar of soap. It's like Yuen Biao combined with John Travolta. So he decides to join the old gang—Ken, Tito, Tarzan, and Big Dick Richie—for one last fling: a roadtrip to a stripper convention in Atlanta.
Then the conversations begin. Dear god. You know how in “Star Trek” movies all the minor players have to have their scene? Here's one with Chekov, Sulu, Uhura; here's Trois, Dr. Crusher, Geordi, Worf? Well, the road trip is like that. Everyone has to have their heart-to-heart, their makeup chat, their bromance, with Mike. They quote Oprah, meditate, admit their failings. They come clean. Here's Mike (I think) to Ken (I think):
If there's anybody that was jealous, it was me. Every time I would come
over to your apartment... remember? I'd put on your Tide commercial. That shit was dope.
They also decide to abandon the old stale numbers (fireman, cop) for something new and exciting: Just being themselves: Male entertainers, bro. They’re celebrating this decision when Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) crashes the van, leaving them without an MC or transportation.
Ah, but Mike has a friend nearby! OK, an ex: Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), who now runs a swanky, exclusive stripclub for wealthy Georgian ladies, which seems just a G-string away from being a brothel. She’s a little pissed off at the Double-M for ditching her way back when, so she strings him along, makes him dance, makes all the boys dance, and then says no to being their MC anyway. But she loans them her car and driver, Andre (Donald Glover), who’s a rapper and self-important. He carries with him a quiet assuredness that is more annoying for being quiet. Not sure how that works.
Where does he drive them? Some mansion. Why do they go there? I forget. Who’s there? More wealthy, attractive older women, including Nancy (Andie MacDowell), whose daughter—and here’s the thing—just happens to be the hot chick Mike met on the beach a few days earlier: Zoe (Amber Heard). So is it a giant coincidence they wind up at Nancy’s mansion where Zoe also lives? If so, that's one gigantic mother of a coincidence.
Anyway, Elizabeth Banks, with a way-too-thick Georgian accent, shows up as the stripper-convention gatekeeper, but it’s Rome to the 11th-hour rescue. She shows up, gets the boys in, MCs for them (parodied above), and they all do their new, non-fireman routines, most of which are various forms of simulated sex acts. Then, in the afterglow, they watch fireworks. Then mercy.
Quote of the Day
“Each of the three times I have sat in the darkened room and watched for the first time a movie of my book I have felt simple delighted surprise. With each movie the surprise has been greater. The Blind Side wasn't that hard to imagine as a movie—at the heart of the book was a bizarre and moving family drama. Moneyball was hard to imagine as a movie, but at least it was about baseball and thus organically linked to popular culture. Wall Street, even in the aftermath of a financial crisis that has cost so many so much, is not. The behavior of our money people is still treated as a subject for specialists. This is a huge cultural mistake. High finance touches—ruins—the lives of ordinary people in a way that, say, baseball does not, unless you are a Cubs fan. And yet, ordinary people, even those who have been most violated, are never left with a clear sense of how they've been touched or by whom. Wall Street, like a clever pervert, is often suspected but seldom understood and never convicted.
It is my hope that Adam McKay's The Big Short might actually help change this situation.”
-- Michael Lewis, “Even Michael Lewis Was Surprised Hollywood Bet on The Big Short,” in Vanity Fair
Lancelot Links Sings a Foreign Song
Deepika at No. 14.
- I couldn't name 50 foreign-language musicals, but Bilge Ibiri actually counts down the 50 best. Four of them star Catherine Deneuve, including No. 1. Glad to see Om Shanti Om there. (Deepika Padukone: Call me.)
- “Honest Trailers” are often lamer than the movies they attempt to satirize, but the recent one on “Ant-Man” is pretty good.
- Love this appearance by Steve Carrell on “The Stephen Colbert Show.” The former “Even Stevphen” colleagues seem to enjoy how far they've come. Carrell is actually almost giddy.
- Charles P. Pierce on how Pres. Obama's post-San Bernadino speech seemed aimed at a wiser, more rational country. Which is why I like him.
- Nathaniel over at Film Experience wasn't a fan of the recent Screen Actors Guild nominations.
- The New York Times lays out the top books of 2015 from the usual suspects: Michiko, Dwight, Janet. I've read half of one, “Between the World and Me,” and wasn't overly impressed. I find Dwight's list most intriguing.
- A man took his family to a Minnesota Vikings game, and, before the opening kickoff, he was angrily accused of being a refugee. This is where FOX News' fearmongering gets us, kids.
- Paul Krugman blames the GOP for all the climate-change deniers in its midst. He also blames the press for not doing its job.
- Ryan Lizza has a good insidery piece on the nutjobs within the GOP and why they do what they do. The difference between then and now? The tail now wags the dog. The inmates run the asylum.
- Kurt Russell toes the NRA line on gun control (cars kill too, bombs kill too, the bad guys will still get guns so why try to stop them with things like laws?) in this back-and-forth with Jeff Wells. He also doesn't seem to think the movies affect anything. Well, maybe his movies.
- Alex Ross has a nice retrospective on Orson Welles on the 100th anniversary of his birth, referencing nearly a dozen books along the way, including one by my man Josh Karp.
- Will the “Mad Max” madness never end? Of all critics, Manohla Dargis chose it as her top film of 2015. Manohla! A.O. Scott has it on his list, too, but Stephen Holden is more sensible, as always. The two movies on all three NY Times “best of” lists? “Carol” and “The Big Short.” Both opening soon. So it goes.
American Exceptionalism, and Why Donald Trump is Against It
A lot of idiocy in the news these past few weeks, most of it based on fear-mongering and divisiveness. And yes, Donald Trump has been responsible (or irresponsible) for much of it. The latest, of course, is his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.
In response, journalist/author Fareed Zakaria has an Op-Ed in the Washington Post that's worth reading. Zakaira says he finds the rhetoric appalling not because he's a Muslim but because he's American.
The tragedy is that, unlike in Europe, Muslims in the United States are by and large well-assimilated. I remember talking to a Moroccan immigrant in Norway last year who had a brother in New York. I asked him how their experiences differed. He said, “Over here, I’ll always be a Muslim, or a Moroccan, but my brother is already an American.”
That's key. That's important to remember. If Patricia and I moved to China and had kids, we and they would never be considered Chinese; we would always be foreigners. But in America, eventually, if not immediately, you become American. That's American exceptionalism to me. We are a microcosm of the world. If we can make it work here, then the world has a chance.
Donald Trump has spent the last six months arguing against what makes us exceptional, and doing so under a banner of patriotism. To me, he's as anti-American as they come.
Movie Review: Trumbo (2015)
“Trumbo” is the fourth Hollywood feature film to tackle the Hollywood blacklist—after “The Front” (great), “Guilty by Suspicion” (meh) and “The Majestic” (blah). It’s also, ironically, the first to use the real names of the blacklisted.
John McNamara’s script is witty, director Jay Roach’s direction is zippy, but do we have too much fun? We're dealing with a dark moment in American history, after all; a kind that, growing up, I thought we’d grown past; a kind that, I’ve found, never goes away. Too many people are too willing to demonize others for power and advantage; too many of us are too frightened to do anything about it.
But I am grateful for the perspective “Trumbo” gives. This is from the first 10 minutes alone:
- Many Americans became communists because of the Great Depression.
- The Soviet Union was our ally during World War II.
- While the U.S.S.R. fought the Nazis, guess who didn’t? John Fucking Wayne.
That said, I would’ve begun later, with the 1957 Academy Awards ceremony, in which Deborah Kerr announces the nominees for Best Motion Picture Story, then the winner: Robert Rich for “The Brave One.” At the actual ceremony, Jesse Lasky, Jr., the vice president of the screenwriters guild, who had also written the screenplay for “The Ten Commandments,” immediately bounded to the stage to accept the award on Rich’s behalf, but in my version of “Trumbo” I would have left Ms. Kerr up there to act flummoxed, to hem and haw, and to suggest the Hollywood machinery grinding to a halt. The Academy, after all, had just given one of its major awards to a man who didn’t exist—or who only existed because of right-wing pressure and various forms of industry cowardice, and I would’ve augmented that fact. Robert Rich? Robert Rich? Robert Rich?
From there, I’d flash back to whatever year you’d begin. Maybe 1943 when Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) joined the American Communist Party.
The movie actually begins around 1947, when various post-war pressures, augmented by HUAC, the FBI and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), are coming down upon the Hollywood community like an iron curtain.
At the time, Trumbo was one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood. Also one of the wealthiest. His friend, Arlen Hird, a more committed communist, and a composite of several blacklisted writers (played in no-nonsense manner by Louis C.K.), comments upon this:
Hird: You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy. .... I don’t think you’re willing to lose all of this just to do the right thing.
Trumbo: Well, I despise martyrdom, and I won’t fight for a lost cause. So you’re right. I’m not willing to lose it all, certainly not to them. But I am willing to risk it all. That’s where the radical and the rich guy make a perfect combination. The radical may fight with the purity of Jesus, but the rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan.
Cranston practically twirls his moustache with delight with these lines but Hird gets the last word: “Just please shut up.”
That’s really Hird’s role: keeping honest a man who is: 1) too in love with his own voice, and 2) not a committed leftist, in Hird’s view. Those two factors also make Trumbo’s downfall tragic in our eyes. His bombastic voice is stilled for no real reason. His life is upended by pro-capitalist forces via anti-capitalist methods. They don’t let the free market work. More irony.
Actually, it gets worse, and this bears repeating: Under the banner of anti-communism, conservative Republicans attacked American movies, a massively successful capitalist enterprise. Hollywood was a brand that not only dominated the world but spoke almost completely to conservative values: family, democracy, cowboys, justice, happy endings. It was about absolutes (good and evil) over relativism. In its wildest dreams, the MPA could hardly come up with a better program than what Hollywood delivered 99.99% of the time. Yet MPA and others were stuck on that .01%. They couldn’t see the forest for that twig over there. No, not that one. The other one.
So after testifying before Congress as one of the Hollywood 10, Trumbo goes to jail, then can’t get work; then he works undercover, and cheaply, for Frank King (John Goodman), who runs his own B-movie operation, and who doesn’t give a crap for the MPA and HUAC. Goodman portrays him as a bat-wielding iconoclast, but I’m curious: Why couldn’t HUAC simply call him to testify? And do to him what they did to everyone else? I’m also curious why Trumbo didn’t try to write novels again, like “Johnny Got His Gun.” Not lucrative enough? Were screenplays his medium? Were novels too difficult?
The Trumbo/Hird relationship is the best in the movie, but when Hird dies, the chief internal conflict for Trumbo is within the family. It's not particularly satisfying. He’s breaking his back, almost literally, to provide for them under the worst circumstances, but eventually his teenage daughter, Niki (Elle Fanning), revolts because he’s not paying enough attention to her. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with her, but, given the circumstances, she comes off as a spoiled child.
From there, we get: Robert Rich, the battle between Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger over who will first give Trumbo screen credit, the end of the blacklist.
Moguls and shtetls
It’s a great supporting cast: Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, Alan Tudyk as Ian McKellan Hunter, Helen Mirren chewing scenery as former starlet and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. She brings to heel the studio bosses—all East European Jews—by suggesting that the shtetl, and anti-Semitism, isn’t so far in the past, particularly for powerful Jews who have corrupted gentile starlets.
“Trumbo” doesn't quite sing the way it should, but it's a good history lesson for those who need it. These days, sadly, many people seem to.
The First Mention of the 'Greenhouse Effect' in The New York Times was on Sept. 25, 1955
Yes, that was a long time ago.
See: “... man-made increase in the best of carbond dioxide around the earth may be 'having a greenhouse effect on our climate.'”
See: “That there is a change, no meterologist denies.”
See: “Perhaps the riddle will be solved ... in 1958.”
See more here.
Quote of the Day
“Once the press came to believe that their job was not to say, 'This is a lie, this is the truth,' but 'We have to be balanced between two ideological factions'? That structurally advantaged the side that was more willing to lie.”
-- Rick Perlstein, “A Recent History of Political Lies,” articulating the problem with the press and our political system that began with the advent of Reagan.
Movie Review: It Follows (2015)
It’s a metaphor for STDs, as well as time and death. It’s a warning against sex and a warning to have sex. It’s also a horror version of the relentlessness of the Terminator—as if the Terminator weren’t horror enough.
“It”is the it of “It Follows,” which turns out to be a great title. Because we don’t know enough about “It” to call it anything more than “It”—that most open-ended of pronouns. About all we know is what the title tells us: It follows. And It kills.
I’m not a horror fan but I like some high-end horror: “The Babadook,” “The Others,” “El Orfanato,” “The Conjuring,” “The Changeling.” This fits with those. It’s quiet, moody, beautifully photographed, nightmarish. It lets the horror come to us.
Smell ya later
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell (“The Myth of the American Sleepover”) shows us the consequences in a kind of cold open. A barefoot teenage girl runs screaming from her house as if pursued, is persuaded back inside the house, then bolts. She peels out in her car. The next morning we see her by the beach, dead. The bottom half of one leg is twisted toward her head; the bottom half of the other leg is missing. Consequences.
At which point we begin to follow Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty blonde teenager in various stages of legginess (shorts, swimsuit, underwear), hanging with friends and family in a suburb of Detroit. It’s mostly friends. Are adults around? I don’t remember them much. Jay’s coterie, including sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), smart girl Yara (Olivia Luccardi, the Velma of the group), and nerdy boy Paul (Keir Gilchrist, mooning after Jay), watch bad 1950s horror/monster movies on TV while she goes on a date with a new guy, Hugh (Jake Weary). They seem stuck and purposeless. It kind of reminds me of summers after fifth or sixth grade, when all the kids in the neighborhood would watch “Andy Griffith” reruns, stupid game shows, and play cards like “War.” Before sex kicked in.
Here, sex kicks in. Jay and Hugh have the classic teenage kind—in the backseat of a big American car—before he administers the classic postcoital chloroform. When Jay wakes, she’s tied to a chair in the sketchy area under a bridge, and Hugh is trying to explain all about “It.”
Because Hugh was infected, and she had sex with him, she’s now infected; and It, who was pursuing him, is now pursuing her. It walks, It doesn’t run, and only the infected can see It. It also changes form. It can be anything: man, woman, white, black, young, old. You won’t know it’s It until It gets you. And the only way to get rid of It is to pay it forward: have sex with someone else. But if It catches and kills that someone else, then It’ll come back for you.
Those are the rules. Smell ya later.
It seems awful, what Hugh does to Jay, but it turns out to be a masterstroke of strategy compared with what Jay and her friends wind up doing. Hugh is Eisenhower at D-Day in comparison.
The friends initially don’t know whether to believe Jay or not—since they can’t see It—but at a beach they flee to, It grabs Jay by the hair, and they fight it off and flee again. They keep fleeing and returning. They keep going out to come back. Kind of the cycle the girl in the beginning took—serpentine. The older neighbor boy with the hot rod, Greg (Daniel Zovatto), joins them, and ends up having sex with Jay, but doesn’t seem to realize the gravity of the situation. He’s young, and stupid with youth, and you look at him and go, “Yeah, he’s dead.” Which he is. Which means It’s going after Jay again.
Why do they set up the final confrontation in the swimming pool? When did they figure out It doesn’t swim? And why did they think they could electrocute It? It’s really one of the worst strategies ever. Sit Jay in the middle of a pool, surrounded by appliances, and wait for It to show up. When It does, It’s the first to use the appliances—throwing them at Jay helpless in the pool. After Paul shoots, It falls in the pool, but grabs a fleeing Jay. She escapes with bruises around her ankle after Paul keeps shooting It. Is It dead? She crawls forward to peer into the pool. You half-expect It to leap out again, per every horror film ever, but Mitchell is made of better stuff. Instead, he shows us the pool filling with blood.
Except the nightmare doesn’t go away. Jay finally has sex with Paul, then Paul visits some prostitutes, and that’s how they pay it forward; that’s how they get rid of It—if It still lives. But it’s a bad strategy. Sure, the prostitute will have sex with John, and John with his wife (maybe), and she with ... ? Who? Won’t It get her, then him, then the prostitute, and Paul and Jay will be running again?
That’s the fear. So the movie ends with Paul and Jay walking in the neighborhood, holding hands less from love than fear, while someone walks behind them. Is it It? Who knows?
Great ending. It doesn’t let us know. It doesn’t let us out.
I have so many questions:
- What about condoms? Is it the sex act itself that leaves its calling card or something else?
- Is there any way to put a tracking device on It?
- Who discovered all this intel in the first place?
- If It can only walk, and not use transportation, then why not lure It to L.A. and go live in New York? Walking that, according to Google, would take 909 hours, or 37.8 days, assuming an entity that never gets tired. That’s some breathing room. After 30 days, say, then fly back to L.A. And so on. Or would It wise up eventually and be waiting for you in one or the other places?
- What if you moved to Europe? Or Taiwan? It’s an island nation. Can It even get there?
- What if one link in the chain is already dead? Would It skip it or come to a halt?
I have so many questions, David Robert Mitchell. I’m glad you answered none of them.
Movie Review: Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2015)
The story of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the Israeli Go-Go Boys of Cannon Films, who were responsible for some of the worst movies of the 1980s (“Invasion U.S.A.,” “Bolero,” “Hercules,” “Going Bananas”), turns out to be much more interesting than any of the stories they produced. Low bar, yes.
A key, early line in Mark Hartley’s zippy documentary comes from Mark Rosenthal, the screenwriter for “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” the final, awful nail in that revered superhero franchise:
I hold them in huge affection even though they ruined our movie.
That’s the dichotomy of the documentary. Golan and Globus made shitty movies but were fun guys. People who worked with them liked them. They certainly imitated them. All of the talking heads here trot out their hellbent, gesticulating Israeli Jew.
But then the movies. Holy crap, the movies.
Boobs watching boobs
It was partly a result of economics. Cannon pre-sold the international distribution rights to movies based upon the poster; then they’d make the movie with that money. It was a kind of Ponzi scheme. It was a juggling act. They had 10 to 15 balls in the air at the same time. If they were low-budget balls, they could continue to juggle pretty easily. Once they became big-budget balls (signing Sylvester Stallone to a two-picture $25 million deal), things began to drop.
But their shitty movies were also a matter of taste—in that they didn’t have any. They sincerely thought, for example, that Brooke Shields would win an Oscar for “Sahara.” At which point Hartley cuts to Shields delivering one of the worst line readings ever: “I wish we could stay here forever. But we risked our lives taking this short cut.” Cannon wound up killing her career, such as it was.
Sure, they dabbled in A-list talent. They produced John Cassavetes’ “Love Streams,” Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Maria’s Lovers” and “Runaway Train,” Franco Zeffirelli’s “Otello” with Placido Domingo.
But mostly Cannon Films went all in with lowest-common denominator crap: strong men and naked women. Think of it as boobs watching boobs. Worse, some of the most gratuitous, graphic rape scenes in the history of cinema belong to them, since they kept hiring director Michael Winner (“Death Wish II” and “3,” “The Wicked Lady”), who is described by both Marina Siritis and Alex Winter as a virtual sadist on the set. “They put a stamp on pop culture,” says “American Ninja” star Michael Dudikoff of Golan and Globus. Yes, sadly.
Does Hartley have a little too much fun with all of this? The documentary is boom boom boom. We barely hold on anything or anyone for more than 10 seconds. It’s a documentary cut the way that Cannon made movies: without looking back.
Meanwhile the doc glosses over the following:
- Cannon’s place in the history of exploitation cinema (they didn’t operate in a vaccum)
- Cannon’s negative impact on the culture
- Box office
Box office is mentioned only in general terms—whether a movie was a hit or a flop. It would have been interesting to know, for example, that “Breakin’,” the 1984 quickie on the urban dance craze, starring Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones, Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers and Lucinda Dickey—the “Solid Gold” dancer that Golan was determinded to make a big, big star—grossed $38 million in 1984. That made it the 18th biggest hit of the year, ahead of “The Terminator,” “All of Me,” and “The Killing Fields.” But then they made the quickier sequel, whose absurd subtitle became the title of this doc, and released it (absurdly) the week before Christmas 1984. And that was that.
They lacked even a modicum of patience. One of the more telling lines is from Stephen Tokin, who wrote the screenplay for the 1990 straight-to-video “Captain America” for Golan after the two Israeli cousins went separate ways. He says:
The problem is they loved cinema in the abstract. I don’t think, in my experience, that they really knew what it was like to love something so much that you were patient, and took the time, and went through the pain of seeing it through draft after draft after draft—admitting to yourself that it might not be right yet.
“He’s no ninja!”
“Electric Boogaloo” gives us great tales from the trenches of low-budget filmmaking. On location in the Philippines, for example, they lost their lead for the first “American Ninja” movie, but happened to find spaghetti western star Franco Nero in a nearby Manilla restaurant and hired him. Despite the fact that he: 1) didn’t know martial arts, 2) wasn’t American, and 3) couldn’t even do a passable American accent. So he was dubbed. I also like how they had two Chuck Norris “Missing in Action” movies in the can—one good, one bad. The good one was the second one, chronologically, so they released it first, so it wouldn’t damage the brand. Then they released the other as a prequel: “Missing in Action 2: The Beginning.”
This is what they did; they wheeled and dealed.
But bottom line? They made shitty movies, ruined careers, ripped off moviegoers. They added so much awfulness to a world that doesn’t need any more of it. I would've liked a mea culpa here amid the laughter.
'That's America's Housing Market': The Guy Behind 'Anchorman' Explains the Global Financial Meltdown
Here's a scene from the upcoming film, “The Big Short,” based upon the book by Michael Lewis, and directed by Adam McKay, who has mostly directed comedies: “Anchorman,” “Talledega Nights,” “Step Brothers,” and “The Other Guys”:
Things to love about this scene:
- Steve Carrell's impatient, “OK,” after Gosling's opening salvo: “What do you smell?/I smell money.” It's the polite version of, “Get on with it, ClownFace.”
- “Layers of tranches” leading to an on-screen explanation of “tranches.”
- “Somewhere along the line, these Big Es and Double Big Es [is that right?] went from a little risky to dogshit. Where's the trash.”
Plus the fact that they're trying to explain why the world works as it does.
Michael Lewis has a nice piece in the latest Vanity Fair on Hollywood turning his books into movies. His take is the antithesis of almost every take I've read on Hollywood. To most people, Hollywood is a place full of rapacious, rude, lowest-common-denominator crapmakers. To Lewis, the people in Hollywood are polite, charming, sadly inefficient, but when they get around to it they do a great job making movies from his books, including “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side.” But he never thought anyone would make a movie out of “The Big Short.” Too complicated. Here's the money shot:
High finance touches—ruins—the lives of ordinary people in a way that, say, baseball does not, unless you are a Cubs fan. And yet, ordinary people, even those who have been most violated, are never left with a clear sense of how they've been touched or by whom. Wall Street, like a clever pervert, is often suspected but seldom understood and never convicted.
It is my hope that Adam McKay's The Big Short might actually help change this situation.
Opens December 23.
I wrote this about 17 years ago, at the dawn of the Internet age, but I never sold it; I might not even have tried. I thought of it again when Playboy decided to stop featuring nude women in their magazines.
Recently I was surfing the Web for pictures of pretty girls when a name I hadn’t thought of in years popped into my head: Gig Gangel. She had been Playboy’s Miss January 1980. I remembered her not just for the usual anatomical reasons, nor for the happy coincidence of the four hard G’s in her name, but because she was the only playmate I ever pinned to my wall.
I was 16, living in an all-male household—the divorce had split us up along gender lines—and I already had posters of several booby actresses in my room (Cheryl Ladd, Lt. Uhura); so why not a naked one? Yet Gig lasted less than a week. One night my father brought home a date, a woman I’d never met, whose politeness I mistook, with the egotism of adolescence, for flirtation. Wasn’t I wearing a high school letter jacket? What woman could resist?
I was waiting for friends to pick me up so we could cruise around town and do our not much of anything, and for some reason my father wanted to show her my room. Because I was so neat? I forget. Anyway, they were halfway up the steps when I remembered Gig. I think I made some noise of protest but it was too late. The lights were flicked and there she hung. The next day, still mortified, I took Gig down, and, as the saying goes, we lost track of one another.
The Web gave us a chance to reunite. Typing Gig’s name into the search engine elicited a surprising number of sites—I thought her more obscure than that—but I immediately focused on the only one that didn’t sound like a perverted man panting. The URL was Japanese, and after several seconds, lo and behold, Gig began to download. It was her centerfold shot: a Bob Fosse fedora tilted seductively over one eye, red red lipstick, and a fishnet body suit. For the week she was on my wall I used to mentally trace the lines of that fishnet, which stretched to the point of bursting over her voluminous chest, and then slowly converged until the lines became indistinguishable and intermingled with whatever was going on below her waist. (Full disclosure: I had no idea what was going on below her waist.)
Gig: mid download
Manipulating the URL I discovered I could call up other centerfolds from my teen years, such as Candy Loving, the 25th anniversary playmate, and Lou Ann Fernald, Miss June 1979, playfully pouring a pitcher a water over herself, as girls do.
But I soon became less interested in the centerfolds than in the stat sheets accompanying them: Turn-Ons, Turn-Offs, Favorite Movies, Secret Dreams. These have long been a national joke (a big warm bed on a cold rainy night, etc.) but provoked interest now for cultural reasons. Generally, a playmate’s favorites include both high culture (to make the girls appear smart) and low culture (to make them appear fun), and the two don’t mix well after 20 years. Gig’s favorite movies, for example, were The Godfather and The End; and apparently when Liz Glazowski, April 1980, was done finished with Harold Robbins she loved nothing more than to curl up with a little Ernest Hemingway.
Overall, there wasn’t a lot of difference in these various likes/dislikes. One prefered autumn, the other spring; one blue eyes, the other brown. Most liked roses. No one cared much for crowds or traffic or hairy backs. The September ’79 playmate, Vicki McCarty, said she was tired of hearing about Ronald Reagan, so you get the feeling the’80s were a bit of a drag for her. Well, not just for her.
It was when I began reading the “Goals” and “Secret Dreams” of these girls, though, that the whole thing turned sadder than I’d anticipated. It was like flipping through an old yearbook and wondering whatever happened to this “Most Likely to Succeed” or that “Most Talented.” Did Sandra Joyce Cagle (February 1980) get to ride a hot air balloon cross-country? Did Henriette Allais (March 1980) learn to play the flute? Was Vicki Witt (August 1978) ever shipwrecked on a desert island with Lee Majors?
Most wanted to be famous actresses, of course, but a quick search through IMDb reveals that neither noun nor adjective took much hold. Rosanne Katon, Miss September 1978, was featured in The Swinging Cheerleaders and Motel Hell, and even managed to share scenes with future Oscar winner Tom Hanks in Bachelor Party; but then “Girl #3” roles began to go to younger playmates and her career fizzled.
Yet Ms. Katon is Meryl Streep compared with the other playmates. More common is the experience of Lee Ann Michelle (February 1979), Sylvie Garant (November 1979), and Liz Glazowski (April 1980). Each hoped to light up the silver screen; each appeared in not much. Garant wound up on two episodes of two Canadian TV shows, while Glazowski’s sole credit is a bit part (as “Liz”) in “The Happy Goes to Hollywood.” I find nothing on Michelle.
As for Gig, who wanted to be a famous singer? She did appear in the 1993 straight-to-video actioner “Killing Device,” opposite Alan Alda’s son Antony, and under the stage name (or married name?) “Gig Rauch.” But there’s nothing on her on iTunes.
In my youth, playmates seemed mythical beings; they generated such fantasies. Now I realize they're just another group of people for whom the world didn’t turn out as planned.
Movie Review: Suffragette (2015)
“Suffragette” is one of those fall prestige pictures we suffer through: sympathetic characters fighting historical injustices we’ve long corrected. These types of films should make us feel good—since society has long corrected these things—but they rarely do. There’s a weight to them that should be the burden of the injustice but often feels like the weight of self-importance.
“12 Years a Slave” had the advantage of being based upon an historical document, while the lead was a person who actually existed. “Suffragette” includes a few such people in supporting roles (Emmeline Pankhurst), but most, including the lead, are either composites or fiction.
For all that, it’s not bad.
Taking a Mulligan
It helps that Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a 24-year-old laundress, wife and mother, who, during the course of the film, changes from someone on the sidelines to a major actor in the movement. Remember at the 2000 Academy Awards when producers thanked Russell Crowe for filling “a whole arena with the force of your face”? Mulligan is like that on a gentler note. Two scenes in particular stand out: when she testifies before a government committee looking into granting women the right to vote; and when she looks up, beaming with hope, as Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) rallies a crowd after they are once again denied that right. Something about Mulligan makes me fall in love with her almost every time I see her.
Maud gets into the movement gradually but her life is upended rapidly. She initially denies being a suffragette (cf., a lot of folks with “feminist”), but after she’s jailed for the first time, she loses, in succession: her home, husband, son, job. She has no rights in the matter. That’s what she’s fighting for.
Losing her son is particularly heartbreaking, but then she gets over it. A little too quickly, really. She throws herself headlong into the movement. She helps bomb mailboxes and cut telegraph wires—the hacking of its day.
Others flit in and out of the movement. When the going gets tough, they go. This includes Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), the co-worker who initially recruits Maud, and Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a pharmacist, older and steadier and determined. When it's decided to confront King George V on Derby Day, only Maud and Emily Davison (Natalie Press) make it to the track. When they are prevented from confronting the king, Emily makes herself a martyr: She walks onto the track during the race and is trampled to death.
Watching, I didn’t realize this was a seminal event in the British suffragette moment, so kudos to director Sarah Gavron (“Brick Lane”) and screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Iron Lady,” “The Invisible Woman”) for making me learn something. But it’s still an odd ending. Emily is trampled, there’s a march in her honor, and the fictional march is replaced by historical footage of the actual event. I like that. Then we get a timeline of women’s suffrage throughout the world. I like that, too. In Britain it was 1918—or five years after Davison’s death. And that was just for propertied women over 30. Younger, poor women didn’t get the vote until 1928—or 15 years after Davison’s death. So the connection between climax and resolution feels tenuous, which it shouldn’t in drama but often is in life. The arc of the moral universe, etc. Not sure how you fix that in historical drama.
But I do appreciate the timeline. 1971, Switzerland? Really?
There was a mild controversy about the film before it opened, when Mulligan, Streep, et al., were photographed wearing T-shirts with words from Pankhurst: “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” Some black people objected. They felt the condition of white, working-class women in early 20th century Britain wasn’t akin to slavery. And it wasn’t. But it’s a silly objection. You’re making our side look bad. “Suffragette” isn’t the enemy.
Besides, if you’re going to object to the shirt, object on logical grounds. Generally, if you posit, “I’d rather be X than Y,” X should be somewhat pejorative, too, and maybe in 1905 “rebel” was viewed that way. But by 2015? Everyone wants to be a rebel. Even one unhip enough to actually have a cause.
- An article about “A Charlie Brown Christmas”? I'm there. An article about Willie Mays? I'm there. An article about how Willie Mays helped make “A Charlie Brown Christmas a reality? I'm in heaven.
- I knew that Curt Swan was the illustrator for Superman comic books from the 1950s to the 1970s. I just didn't know he was from Minneapolis.
- Michael Lewis on what happens when Hollywood wants to make a movie of your book—”The Big Short“ version.
- The above in Vanity Fair led me to the 1996 VF article by Marie Brenner, ”The Man Who Knew Too Much,“ about Jeffrey Wigand, which led to the 1999 Michael Mann movie, ”The Insider.“ I've seen ”The Insider“ a dozen times but had never read the article. Rectified.
- According to Frank Bruni, talking to some GOP insiders, Ted Cruz is really, really, really, really, really really disliked.
- From the New York Times: The 100 Notable Books of 2015. I've read approximately ... half. Of one. I.e., I read half of ”Between the World and Me,“ by Ta-Nahesi Coates and wasn't impressed and stopped. I know: I'm in the minority there.
- One of my favorite recent Q&As: with Bob Mankoff, the New Yorker's cartoon editor.
- Evan Osnos' article on Marco Rubio, ”The Opportunist,“ is well-titled. The guy seems like a shit. But a very likeable shit. (Cf. Ted Cruz.)
- Meanwhile, I tend to think Dr. Ben Carson isn't all there.
- Finally, listen to my man Rick Perlstein on the history of political lies, and that brief shining moment in the early 1970s when the press held everyone accountable. What happened? Nixon, Agnew and Reagan happened. Key quote: ”Once the press came to believe that their job was not to say, 'This is a lie, this is the truth,' but 'We have to be balanced between two ideological factions'? That structurally advantaged the side that was more willing to lie."
The Big Question on ISIS
From “ISIS After Paris” by Steve Coll in the 11/30/15 issue of The New Yorker:
If President Obama ordered the Marines into urgent action, they could be waving flags of liberation in Raqqa by New Year's. But, after taking the region, killing scores of ISIS commanders as well as Syrian civilians, and flushing surviving fighters and international recruits into the broken, ungoverned cities of Syria and Iraq's Sunni heartland, then what? ...
Syrian rebels overwhelmingly regard Assad's regime as their main enemy, and for good reason: his forces have killed more Syrians than anyone else has. In the absence of a political agreement with Assad or his removal from office, it is impossible to conceive of a Muslim-majority occupation force that would be able and willing to keep the peace after the Marines departed. Some may argue that it would be worthwhile, nonetheless, to wipe out the Islamic State on the ground and deal with the fallout later. After Paris, such an approach may hold emotional appeal. After Afghanistan and Iraq, however, it is not a responsible course of action.
The Latest 'Batman v Superman' Trailer: Uh Oh
I've got a bad feeling about this.
Superman: She with you?
Batman: I thought she was with you.
Ha ha. Although, what, eight city blocks have just been scorched? Because Batman and Superman couldn't see fit to compromise, allowing Lex Luthor to, I guess, create a monster out of the corpse of Gen. Zod?
Both men seem to have narrow visions here. They're like two clods on opposite sides of “Crossfire.” Superman, you ignorant slut. Plus Batman's carrying a gun? C'mon.
Eisenberg's Luthor looks good but I still think I'm right about Affleck.
Every Step in the 'Star Wars' Saga Has Ruined the First Ones
“Star Wars” was wholly original when it was released in 1977. It was a sci-fi adventure with “A” production values—Saturday afternoon serials combined into one great story. From the opening crawl, to the gigantic ship pursing the tiny one, to all of those crazy, metalic characters, we were mesmerized.
If we'd only known what George Lucas had in mind. Because this is what the opening of the movie, long renamed “Star Wars IV: A New Hope,” is like now:
- A princess in outer space is being pursued by her father, although she doesn't know he's her father, just as he doesn't know she's his daughter.
- So she downloads important intel into a droid, and sends this droid and another droid (who was built by her father when he was a kid) to the random planet below.
- Except it's not a random planet. It's her father's home planet.
- These droids are then bought at a weekend sale ... by her twin brother, who doesn't know they were sent by his twin sister, whom he doesn't know he has, nor that one of them was built by his father, whom he assumes is dead.
- Meanwhile, in outer space, the father tortures the daughter for information.
- Meanwhile, the daughter's message finds its recipient: the man who mentored the father when he was a young boy, and changed him from a precocious, cherubic kid to an angry, mopey teenager. The mentor decides to do the same with the son. He starts out by lying about who his father is.
Really, it's the most fantastic series of coincidences in any story ever.
You could argue it's the Force doing all of this—binding the story together. But then I'd argue that the Force is a pretty shitty storyteller.
Hopefully, “VII” won't screw things up more.
NOTE: An earlier version of this stated incorrectly that R2D2 was built by Anakin; appaerntly only C3PO was built by Anakin.
Daddy-daughter day: You put the rebel plans into a droid and sent it to my home planet, where it's being bought by my son? I'll torture you for that, young lady.
The Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of Sylvester Stallone
“Rocky” had already won best picture when my best friend Peter and I went to see it on a weeknight in the spring of 1977 at the Boulevard I & II, a South Minneapolis neighborhood theater surviving temporarily in the multiplex age by splitting in two. We were in eighth grade. After the long winter the air was suddenly soft and full of possibility, and Peter and I talked briefly outside the theater, then parted. Here’s what he remembers: He looked back and saw me running down Lyndale avenue, so he did the same in the opposite direction. Me, I just remember being pumped. I remember feeling the need to run. I didn’t think I’d make it home without stopping but I did. I went the distance.
OK, so it wasn’t a very long distance (according to Google maps, not quite half a mile), but before I’d always stopped whenever I ran out of breath. Something about “Rocky” made me keep going. A few years later I joined the Washburn high school cross-country team.
Hollywood likes to congratulate itself about movies that are inspirational—“Makes you want to stand up and cheer,” etc.—but Sylvester Stallone is one of the few writer-actors that actually inspired me to do things. Running home from the Boulevard was just the beginning. Because of him, I: 1) ate a raw egg; 2) bounced a tennis ball around town; 3) lifted weights. In my late teens, I became obsessed with getting stronger. Or at least looking stronger. Or at least looking less weak.
“Rocky” changed more than me, of course; it changed Hollywood. Is any movie more perfectly bifurcated? The first half is a gritty, 1970s character study. It’s about a down-on-his-luck pug barely scraping by in a dead-end part of Philadelphia. His chosen career, boxing, didn’t pan out and he’s become, in Mickey’s words, “a legbreaker to some cheap, second-rate loanshark.” Mickey calls it a waste of life but he’s merely saying aloud what Rocky already knows. After the opening fight with Spider Rico, back in his lonely, shitty apartment, Rocky plucks a photo of himself as a kid from the mirror frame and stares at it, then back up at his reflection. It’s a look we’ve all given ourselves at some point. How did I wind up here? Wasn’t I going to be something else? Something better?
The second half of the movie is how he becomes that person. He gets an incredible opportunity, makes the most of it, goes the distance and gets the girl.
The first half of the movie, in other words, is what movies were from around 1967 to 1976: character studies about ordinary people getting screwed. The second half is what movies became: wish-fulfillment fantasies about heroic men with upbeat endings.
“Rocky” not only won best picture at the 1977 Academy Awards—over “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver” and “Network”—but it became the No. 1 box-office hit of the year, and it was followed by “Star Wars” in 1977 and “Grease” and “Superman” in 1978. After years in which the top box-office hits were gritty, critically acclaimed downers like “The Godfather,” “The Exorcist” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a light bulb went on for studio executives everywhere. “Oh,” they said. “People want to feel good again.” So that’s what they gave us: feel-good movies. They haven't stopped.
And now I pluck that image of ourselves from back then, from the spring of 1977, and I look back up at what movies have become; and I wonder what the fuck went wrong.
Limp-wristed librarians need not apply
Stallone saw the future, by the way. In his first interviews with The New York Times, on Sept. 24, 1976 (two months before “Rocky” opened) and Nov. 18, 1976 (opening weekend), with journalists Guy Flatley and Judy Klemesrud, he articulates that future.
To both, he brags that it took him only three and a half days to write “Rocky”; to Klemesrud, he describes the writing process as if it were an athletic event, with his wife spurring him on: “Push it, Sly, go for broke.”
He talks up his workout regimen. To Flatley he says, “An actor is what he looks like; I exercise religiously every day.” To Klemesrud, “If macho means I like to look good and feel strong and shoot guns in the woods, yes, I’m macho. I don’t think that even women’s lib wants all men to become limp-wristed librarians.”
Mostly he talks about the movies and what’s wrong with them circa 1976:
There are no heroes anymore, only anti-Christs and hatchet murderers. Bring back comedies, bring back mirth and dreams. If you want realism, cut a hole in the wall of your living room and charge people $3 to sit and watch what’s going on in your front yard.
He says something similar a few months later in Family Weekly, a mass-market supplement that appeared in local newspapers around the country:
The public is sick of weirdos. A man who works hard all week and wants to go to the movies with his family is subjected to brutality, murder, a bombardment of foul language. You have every conceivable sicko on screen. The public wants something, someone to believe in. And that’s just what I’m going to give them in the future—optimistic films.
He was right: Optimistic films were the future of movies. Yet, oddly, he couldn’t quite make it work for himself outside of the “Rocky” flicks. Every three years, he’d trot out another “Rocky” film and it would be among the year’s biggest hits; and in-between he’d make two other films, which would more or less die with both audiences and critics:
Yet hidden among these four non-“Rocky” flicks was one of the most influential films Stallone ever made. Influential, that is, with him.
Again, The New York Times, July 31, 1981:
After shooting “Victory,” which opens today, Sylvester Stallone came home from Hungary a flag waver. He says if everybody had to spend two weeks in a Communist country, “patriotism in America would reach epidemic proportions.
“To this day, I believe all our hotel rooms were bugged,” he says. “If you had an amorous night with your wife, you'd walk downstairs next morning and everyone would be grinning. The police have keys to everyone's house. They can turn off all the electricity in a city if they don't like what's going on. And every couple of months the tanks run down the streets, just to remind people that they're there.”
Was this the final element for Stallone’s success? Along with 1) heroes 2) with pecs, and 3) upbeat endings, he now added, 4) flag waving.
Apollo’s ironic stars-and-stripes boxing trunks from the original “Rocky” reappeared in “Rocky III,” without a shred of irony, on Stallone’s carefully reconstructed body with its 2.8% body fat. That fall, Stallone had his first non-“Rocky” hit, “First Blood,” in which the hero, John Rambo, is a misunderstood Vietnam vet who says of the war, “I did what I had to do to win! But somebody wouldn’t let us win!” Three years later, Rambo was back, in “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” and this time he did win the Vietnam War, single-handedly, despite more “somebodies” (read: government bureaucrats) trying to prevent him. Then Stallone topped it off by winning the Cold War in “Rocky IV.” He avenges the death of Apollo Creed by taking on his Russian killer, the chemically suspect villain Ivan Drago, in the Soviet Union. And he wins! And the Soviet crowd cheers for him! Including the Politburo! Then he drapes himself in the American flag to go with his stars-and-stripes boxing trunks.
Audiences loved it. Or at least saw it. “Rocky IV” was the third-biggest movie of 1985. “Rambo: First Blood Part II” was the second-biggest movie of 1985. And that year, Stallone was chosen by Quigley’s as the No. 1 box office star in the world.
Yo, Adrian, I did it!
And then it all went away.
Stinkers, not thinkers
I’d always assumed that Stallone remained a big movie star until the mid-’90s, but you look at the numbers and it was all pretty much downhill after 1985. His movies didn’t do poorly but they didn’t exactly capture the public’s imagination, either:
|Year||Movie||Box Office||Yearly Rank|
|1985||Rambo: First Blood Part II||$150,415,432||2|
|1987||Over the Top||$16,057,580||68|
|1989||Tango & Cash||$63,408,614||20|
|1992||Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!||$28,411,210||46|
What caused this slide? Was it his two-picture, $25 million deal with the Cannon Group, the low-budget Golan and Globus outfit not exactly known for making quality movies? Was it Stallone’s tabloid relationship with Brigitte Nielsen, his tall, blonde co-star from “Rocky IV” and “Cobra”? Was it his narcissistic fascination with his own body? Was it the number of times he wrapped himself in the American flag?
Or did his movies just get way too stupid?
“Cobra,” his first movie after the one/two triumph of 1985, was supposed to be his version of Dirty Harry, the lone cop taking down the horrific bad guys despite a liberal system that wants to mollycoddle them. It’s basically Dirty Harry turned up to 11. And it began, believe it or not, with Stallone’s rewrite of “Beverly Hills Cop,” which producers offered to him in the early 1980s. But in the rewrite, Stallone removed the comedy and increased the violence. He did, in other words, exactly what his 1976 self felt moviemakers shouldn’t do. “Bring back mirth and dreams,” he said back then. The producers passed and gave the project to rising star Eddie Murphy, who kept the comedy intact and promptly turned the film into the No. 1 box office hit of 1984. Stallone’s rewrite became “Cobra.”
Should we talk about villains here? Back in ’76, Stallone didn’t really talk about villains; he talked heroes. And you can have heroes without villains. Look at the first “Rocky.” Paulie’s an asshole but he’s Adrian’s brother and Rocky’s friend. Gazzo is a loanshark but a really nice loanshark. Apollo Creed? He’s the man who, on a whim, gives Rocky his million-to-one shot. “Rocky” doesn’t really have a villain.
By the time we get to “Rocky III” and “IV,” oh yeah, we've got villains. Clubber Lang is an angry black monstrosity, and that’s all he is. Ivan Drago is a Teutonic, Soviet-made machine that kills without remorse, and that’s all he is. They’re cartoons. Stallone doesn’t want us to imagine them with a life outside the confines of the plot. Ditto “Cobra.” During the shoot, actor Brian Thompson, who plays Night Slasher, the movie’s main villain, a creepy cult leader that kills the weak and the innocent for sport and a bankrupt ideology, kept bugging Stallone for motivation for his character. What was his background? Stallone told him his character didn't have a background; his character was simply evil.
Admittedly, “Cobra” did great opening weekend—the second-biggest opening of 1986 ($12.6 million), appearing in the most theaters of 1986 (2,131)—but then it died. In an era when movies tended to play in theaters for six months, “Cobra” lasted just six weeks. It opened Memorial Day weekend and was gone before the 4th of July.
With “Over the Top,” Stallone tried to do with arm wrestling what he did with boxing. Didn’t take. Then he returned to his staple products but the mass audience was no longer there. “Rambo III,” in which Rambo aids Afghan rebels (i.e., the future Taliban) against the Soviet Union, grossed only 35% of what “Rambo II” did three years earlier. “Rocky V,” in which Rocky loses all of his dough and then trains an ungrateful punk kid before the two of them have a street fight, grossed 31% of what “Rocky IV” did five years earlier. His failsafes were no longer safe.
He also probably got crowded out. He showed the way, and Arnold Schwarzenegger took it. So did Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steve Seagal. They all gave us hard bodies and cartoonish plots and sick villains, and they all made a mint for a while. Thinking of them, and what movies became, I’m reminded of an early scene in “Rocky,” in which Rocky is watching Apollo Creed being interviewed on TV. And Apollo says the following to the kids watching:
Stay in school and use your brain. Be a doctor, be a lawyer, carry a leather briefcase. Forget about sports as a profession. Sports make you grunt and smell. Be a thinker, not a stinker.
Stallone, followed by the rest of Hollywood, did the opposite. They made stinkers, not thinkers.
Now the redemption song.
In the ’90s, attempting to get it all back, Stallone tried comedies (“Oscar,” “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!”) and sci-fi action (“Demolition Man,” “Judge Dredd”). He teamed up with the girl of the moment: Sharon Stone, Sandra Bullock, Janine Turner, Amy Brennamen. Nothing worked. Someone suggested he do what John Travolta did to get his career back—after Stallone all but ruined it by directing him in “Staying Alive” in 1983—and make a gritty independent picture surrounded by serious actors like Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. “Cop Land” was the kind of movie Stallone had been fleeing since 1976—a worm-turns movie in which he plays the worm. He even gained weight for the role. He went method. Critics were mostly kind, but it wasn’t exactly “Pulp Fiction.” By the early 2000s, Stallone’s movies were essentially straight-to-video products.
But he kept punching. Give him that. He returned to Rocky and Rambo in 2006 and 2008, then envisioned the “Expendables” franchise, which makes most of its hundreds of millions of dollars abroad rather than at home. It’s not exactly a thinker.
But “Creed” is. I saw it opening weekend. It’s actually the first Stallone movie I’ve seen in the theater since “First Blood” way back in 1982. Imagine that. And it’s good. And he’s good in it. It’s a quiet film in which the relationships matter as much as the fight. It’s about human beings with foibles, not heroes and villains. In this way, it's a throwback to “Rocky.” I certainly felt it. I’m 52 now, not 14, and living in Seattle, not Minneapolis, but on my way home, confronted with the hills of First Hill, what can I say? I ran up them.
Quote of the Day
“There's a great quote from Thomas Merton that I used to have inside my notebook for a while, and I think this works whether you're a spiritual person or not. He said, and I'm paraphrasing: 'If you write for God, you will enlighten a lot of people and you will be fulfilled; if you write for other people, you may make a splash in the world and be known for some time and then you'll fade away like everybody else does. And if you write for yourself, after 10 minutes, you will look at what you yourself have written and you'll be so disgusted that you'll wish you were dead.' And I challenge myself with that all the time. At the point where I'm most frustrated, I think that's mostly vanity. You do your work because that's what you do. You either get satisfaction out of doing it or your don't.”
-- Joe Henry to Jim Walsh, back in 1991. Jim posted this on Facebook in honor of Joe's birthday today.
Take us out, Joe:
NYFCC Sings Oh! Carol
The New York Film Critics Circle chose its year-end awards today. The fascinating thing to me is that “Carol,” Todd Haynes' drama about a love affair between two women in the 1950s, starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett—both of whom have been getting great notices—was awarded in the following categories: film, director, screenplay, cinematography ... but not actress or supporting actress. That's actually a good sign. Means those categories are stacked.
Here's NYFCC's awards from last year.
And this year's cherces:
- Best film: Carol
- Best director: Todd Haynes, Carol
- Best actor: Michael Keaton, Spotlight
- Best actress: Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
- Best supporting actor: Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
- Best supporting actress: Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria
- Best screenplay: Carol, Phyllis Nagy
- Best animated film: Inside Out
- Best cinematography: Carol, Edward Lachman
- Best first film: Son of Saul
- Best foreign film: Timbuktu (Mauritania)
- Best non-fiction film (documentary): In Jackson Heights directed by Frederick Wiseman.
- Special Award:Posthumous award honoring the legacy of William Becker and Janus Films
- Special Award # 2: composer Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
Famous Last Words: Chuck Norris
“Cannon's going to be a huge, huge company, and that's one reason I'm going in with them. They will be a major studio; they could be the biggest.”
-- Chuck Norris on the Cannon Group, run by Israeli producers Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus, in the New York Times, on January 21, 1986. (“Cannon Seeks Respectability” by Nicholas Kristoff.) Even back then, Kristoff intimated the company was overextended and running into financial difficulty but Norris wanted to believe what he wanted to believe. The Cannon Group was done before the decade was out, but not before they killed the “Superman” franchise and the star status of Sylvester Stallone. A good documentary on Golan and Globus, “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films,” is currently streaming on Netflix.
The worst movies from the worst movie decade.