Trump: Women and Children First
“Trump's fans tend to express little regard for political norms. They cheer at his most outlandish statements. [Bill] O'Reilly asked Trump if he meant it when he said that he would 'take out' the family members of terrorists. He didn't believe that Trump would 'put out hits on women and children' if he were elected. Trump replied, 'I would do pretty severe stuff.' The Mesa crowd erupted in applause. 'Yeah, baby!' a man near me yelled. I had never previously been to a political event at which people cheered for the murder of women and children.”
-- from Ryan Lizza's article, “The Duel: The Trump and Cruz campaigns embody opposite views of politics and the future of the G.O.P.,” on the New Yorker site.
- Movie mashups used to be a thing, then kind of went away, at least for me. But this one's worth it: “50 Shades of Mr. Bean.”
- OK, this one too. It's two of the three guys singing “Please Mr. Kennedy” in “Inside Llewyn Davis” (Oscar Isaacs and Adam Driver) against the backdrop of their “Star Wars” battles.
- Well, what do you know? Another one: Turning “Dumb & Dumber” into an Oscar-worthy drama.
- Stop me if you've heard this one: A man in Renton, Wash., brings a gun to a movie theater for a showing of Michael Bay's “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” in case some nut starts shooting up the place. And he winds up shooting up the place.
- My man Rick Perlstein admits the rise and rise of Donald Trump threw him for a loop, but his thoughts on the phenomenon are clarifying, particularly why former GOP candidates, as demagogic as they might have been, always put on the brakes. And maybe why Trump hasn't.
- Jonathan Chait is also good in his piece: The Trump Party vs. the Republican Party. Particularly this thought: “A Republican presidential candidate might run on Willie Horton and opposing same-sex marriage, but after being elected, he was expected to turn to reducing the top tax rate and deregulating business. Cultural appeal was the means, and economics the ends. What conservatives fear is that Trump might upend that delicate, unstated system by turning the means into the ends.”
- I use the term “auteur whore” for critics who love anything a particular director does; Jeff Wells uses a Wall Street metaphor: when do you purchase or dump director stock? I like it. I have to say, I'm still holding on to my Michael Mann stock, despite “Blackhat”; it was still more interesting, more dense, than most movies. And I go long on the Coens and Jacques Audiard. Anyone else? Vinny? Reed? Bueller?
Can We Make Sense of Trump?
“A Republican presidential candidate might run on Willie Horton and opposing same-sex marriage, but after being elected, he was expected to turn to reducing the top tax rate and deregulating business. Cultural appeal was the means, and economics the ends. What conservatives fear is that Trump might upend that delicate, unstated system by turning the means into the ends.”
-- Jonathan Chait, “The Trump Party vs. The Republican Party,” New York Magazine
“I think that people who base their political appeal on stirring up the latent anger of, let's just say, for shorthand's sake, what Richard Nixon called the ”silent majority,“ know that they're riding a tiger. [Nixon, Reagan, George W. Bush] always resisted the urge to go full demagogue. I think they understood that if they did so, it would have very scary consequences. There was always this boundary of responsibility ...
”For a lot of these people growing up, the experience of Europe, and World War II, and fascism, was a living memory. I think there was this kind of understanding that civilization can often be precarious. I think people knew that, and people saw that, and as ugly as some of these folks could be, whether it was Ronald Reagan going after welfare queens, or Richard Nixon calling anti-war protesters “bums,” or George W. Bush basically engineering a conspiracy to get us into a war in Iraq, there was a certain kind of disciplining, an internal disciplining. I think that anyone who plays the game of American politics at that level knows this can be a very ugly country, that a lot of anger courses barely beneath the surface. ... I think that Donald Trump is the first front-runner in the Republican Party to throw that kind of caution to the wind.“
-- Rick Perlstein, ”Is This the End of the GOP As We Know It?" on Slate
Quote of the Day
“He makes the guy look like an iceman. That's not right.”
-- Italian Mafioso on the set of “The Godfather” in 1971, complaining about Marlon Brando's lack of bling as Vito Corelone, as recounted in The New York Times Magazine in August 1971.
On the set, April 12, 1971.
Here's more: “Neither of them had been impressed when they heard Brando was to play the godfather, so they watched his performance critically. They volunteered to grips, cameramen and extras that they would have preferred Ernest Borgnine or Anthony Quinn.”
Another good bit, about how popular Mario Puzo's novel was among the Mafia when it was released in 1969: “In Las Vegas, [Puzo] found that a gambling debt he had run up was somehow marked paid. When Puzo protested he was told, 'It's a certain party's pleasure.'”
Subscribing to the Times is the best deal out there: current events and all of this history.
I'm Not Saying HUAC was Fascist, But...
From “J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War” by John Sbardellati (recommended):
In one sense HUAC wished to restore the entertainment function of Hollywood. According to Jack Moffitt, Communist propagandists had been waging a battle to make the cinema a “forum for reform” by favoring social problem films “attacking American institutions, showing up the worst side of it.” Committee member John McDowell agreed and repeatedly advised “that pictures ought to stay in the pure field of entertainment.”
And from “Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present” by James Chapman (also recommended):
Goebbels, for his part, was firmly of the opinion that feature films should provide escapist entertainment for the masses and that direct propaganda should be confined to the newsreels.
Quote of the Day
“This is the first nice word I've ever had to say about Fox News.
”I'm glad Fox News chairman Roger Ailes and his organization had the courage to stand up to Donald Trump's demand that Megyn Kelly not be one of the moderators for Thursday night's Republican debate. Trump's threat not to attend if she were moderating because he thought she treated him unfairly at last August's debate – and Trump's subsequent decision not to attend the debate because Fox didn't back down – are the clearest signs yet that Donald Trump is the most unqualified person ever to run for president of the United States. It is an office that requires, at the very least, a profound respect for an independent press willing to critically scrutinize whomever occupies the Oval Office.“
-- Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, and star of the 2013 documentary ”Inequality for All," on his Facebook page.
Captain America vs. Donald Trump
Researching this post, I found myself reading the last issue of the 1950s Captain America series. At that time, superhero comics were on the outs and Timely/Marvel was down to Cap, who was in his “commie smasher” persona; but his run finally ended with issue #78 in Sept. 1954.
In the last story of that last issue, he battles Chuck Blayne, the idol of American boys everywhere, who counsels them to keep clean minds, strong bodies and “play to win.” Cap is suspicious.
As he should be, since Blayne is really a Soviet spy. To be honest, Blayne's plot is lame. He tries to turn American boys against the U.N. by showing how weak it is, and, in this regard, plants a bomb and laughs that no one can do anything about it. It's a little over-the-top. Surely someone could've come up with a less maniacal plan.
After Cap wins the day, he talks up who Blayne initially reminded him of. These are the last panels of Captain America until he was resurrected by Stan and Jack in Avengers #4 in March 1963:
Two things in particular struck me about this story:
- The U.N. is seen as a positive force, something our enemies are trying to undermine. I guess it would be a while before the whole “black helicopters” meme took a stronger hold in the right-wing mind.
- Play to win vs. Good sportsmanship. Cf., any Donald Trump speech.
Abe Vigoda (1921-2016)
Fish sleeps with the fishes.
Let me tell you a story I've told probably a dozen times. It was Dec. 1990, I believe, and I was in a car with my sister and our friend Josh Karp, driving from Minneapolis to Chicago for New Year's Eve. Josh was from that area. Suburbs, I believe. It was the first house I'd ever been in that had heated floors.
Anyway, on the way down, we played many a game of “20 Questions.” Josh and I are adept at pop cultural crap so we were doing well, and my sister was struggling to keep up. But then she figured out someone that we couldn't figure out: an actor ... white, male, no longer alive ... who had been on a TV show in the 1970s. He'd had his own TV show but he was better known for a different TV show. His show had even been a spinoff of the first one, but his wasn't that successful. We're racking our brains. We're asking other questions. Movies? Other occupations? Sports? Politics? Karen is giddy with triumph. Finally, as we pull into the driveway of the house with the heated floors, we give up and Karen announces the answer with pride: Abe Vigoda.
Josh and I simultaneously: “Abe Vigoda's not dead!”
We hit her with it every once in a while, even though a lot of others have made the same mistake; even though People magazine was the first to do so.
Today, on Facebook, she posted the Times' obit (probably in the can since Dec. 1990), and wrote: “Erik, Josh: See, I was right.”
I first knew Abe Vigoda as Fish, of course, on “Barney Miller,” an underrated sitcom of the 1970s that I absolutely loved. For years, I remember, it was voted by cops as the most realistic portrayal of police work on TV (until “Hill Street Blues” came along). Back then, Vigoda looked impossibly old, but when the show began in 1974, he was actually my age now: 53. I'm the age of Fish.
He was also two years removed from the role that turned around his (up to that point, mostly stage) career: Sal Tessio, the Corleone insider that betrays them and pays for it. I still see him with that tight smile, trying one last time to wriggle free. “Tell Mike, it was only business. I always liked him.”
Does anyone know how he landed that role? Who cast him and why? Shortly thereafter he played Don Talusso in “The Don is Dead,” and John Dellanzia in an episode of “Newman's Law.” But despite how large “The Godfather” looms, I'll always think of him as Det. Fish of the 12th precinct. That episode where Wojo brought in the brownies laced with hashish? “The old guy--bang zoom!” And then Fish's later sad realization: “The first time in years I felt good ... and it has to be illegal.”
I finally just read the Times' obit and I'm getting a little teary-eyed now, more than I should be. An amazing life that had no business connecting with so many others, but did. If I had all the time in the world, I would check out his entire ouevre. But we don't have all the time in the world. Not even Abe Vigoda.
Comic Book Spinner Rack, May 1956
I don't remember where I got this photo, but it reminds me how much I miss the comic book spinner racks that used to be in every drug store, and quite a few supermarkets, when I was growing up in the 1970s. When did they disappear? Late '70s? I think specialty comic stores began to get better deals from the manufacturer/distributor, comic book geeks flocked there, boom. Another example of our social fragmentation.
The photo must be from around May 1956 since the Superman comic in the kid's hands is this one, which is May 1956. Other clues: The Action Comics on the rack is most likely this April 1956 one, while the real key is “Matt Slade, Gunfighter,” which only ran for four issues, all of them in, of course, 1956. The one on the rack appears to be Matt Slade #1. Collector's item!
For all the nostalgia of the photo, it was a bad time for comic books. The post-war comic bonfires of the late '40s were followed by Dr. Frederic Wertham's denunciations of how comics warped young minds (made us violent and/or gay); this was followed by U.S. Senate hearings. As a result we got the Comics Code Authority and a lot of westerns and kids comics (Little Lulu, Casper, Woody Woodpecker) as well as celebrity comics, such as “The Adventures of Bob Hope,” which ran from 1950 to 1968, believe it or not. What superheroes remained became toothless. Marvel/Timely was in fact out of the superhero biz: Its remaining hero, Capt. America, ended his run in Sept. 1954.
Kid seems happy enough, though.
Where the Koch Family Fortune Began
From Jane Mayer's book, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” Chapter 1:
In late 1938, as World War II approached and Hitler's aims were unmistakable, [Fred Koch] wrote admiringly about fascism in Germany, and elsewhere, drawing an invidious comparison with America under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
“Although nobody agrees with me, I am of the opinion that the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy, and Japan, simply because they are all working and working hard,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. Koch added, “The laboring people in those countries are proportionately much better off than they are any place else in the world. When you contrast the state of mind of Germany today with what it was in 1925 you begin to think that perhaps this course of idleness, feeding at the public trough, dependence on government, etc., with which we are afflicted is not permanent and can be overcome.” ...
Fred Koch's willingness to work with the Soviets and the Nazis was a major factor in creating the Koch family's early fortune.
Staliln and Hitler. If you'd invented it, you couldn't have come up with two worse sources of wealth. I'm shocked, shocked that this isn't a regular piece of conversation in the “liberal media.”
Fred Koch is, of course, the father of Charles and David Koch, who have been the big money and philosophical attitude behind right-wing intransigence and attacks against the Obama administration from Day One. Expect more excerpts.
Movie Review: The Hateful Eight (2015)
Halfway through, I felt something I rarely feel in a Quentin Tarantino movie: Boredom.
Tarantino’s movies are like “My Dinner with Andre” directed by Sam Peckinpah: they're long conversations punctuated by violence. And if the conversations are good (and usually they are), and the violence isn’t too excessive (well...), then I leave the theater happy and energized. Here, the stories are kinda lame and the violence over-the-top.
Kurt Russell may be at fault, too. He plays John “The Hangman” Ruth, a bounty hunter who is taking a prize catch, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, welcome back), worth $10,000, to Red Rock, via stagecoach that’s trying to stay one step ahead of a blizzard. Along the way they pick up two separate passengers in the middle of nowhere: Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), another bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), whose father used to run a post-Civil War Confederate gang in the west, and who claims he’s going to Red Rock to become its next sheriff.
Eventually, the blizzard catches up to them and they’re forced to lodge at Minnie’s (Dana Gourrier), but, oddly, Minnie isn’t there, and Ruth takes a long slow look at the other guests: the flamboyantly British Oswaldo Mobry (Tim Roth), who claims to be the hangman of Red Rock; the quiet Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), sitting near the fire and writing his life story; and Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a cranky old Confederate officer who was responsible for a massacre in Louisiana.
Holding the floor
It’s a movie about shifting suspicions and loyalties. Of course Mannix (named for the ’60s TV detective played by Mike Conners) and Smithers (for Waylon?) don’t much like Warren, while Warren is suspicious of Bob (Demian Bichir), a Mexican who claims to be running Minnie’s in her absence. Warren, you see, knows things. He’s privy to information. So are most of the others. (In this Wyoming standoff, in fact, who isn’t holding secret intel? I think just Ruth and Mannix.) And it all comes to a boil when Warren goads Gen. Smithers to go for a gun. He does this by telling him a story.
That’s classic QT: In a Tarantino movie, the one with the story is the one in control. You hold the power by holding the floor. Sadly, Maj. Warren’s story is hardly a classic.
Seems Gen. Smithers’ son was in Wyoming to kill Warren—a notorious Northern renegade with a bounty on his head—but Warren got the upper hand, marched the kid naked through the snow; and when the kid begged for a blanket, he forced him to go down on him; then he killed him anyway. We never know if this story is real or designed to mess with the aged mind of Gen. Smithers, whom Warren despises, but either way the General listens to the story way too long to feel real. He would’ve gone for the gun much earlier. When he does, of course, he’s dead. And in the meantime, with everyone distracted, someone’s poisoned the coffee, and both Ruth and the stage coach driver suffer a long, horrid, blood-spewing death from it. That’s when Warren really takes over the movie.
And this is when it gets interesting. So it made me think that either Kurt Russell isn’t charismatic enough, or his character, Ruth, is too grumbling and irascible to be the main guy. In the first half, he held the floor and the result was “meh.” After his death, Maj. Warren holds the floor, we get Sam Jackson’s clear voice ringing out, and I was intrigued.
It helps, I suppose, that by this point the movie has become a whodunit. Who poisoned the coffee? To what end? And who will be the last man standing? (Full disclosure: no one.)
What about Bob?
“Hateful Eight” shares other Tarantino tropes. The enclosed nature of the standoff is like “Reservoir Dogs.” Like in “Pulp Fiction,” there’s a man with a gun (Daisy’s brother, played by Channing Tatum) hidden away as Sam Jackson rages on; unlike in “Pulp Fiction,” the hidden guy doesn’t miss his mark. We get an extensive flashback to make sense of what’s going on—as in “Dogs,” “Fiction,” etc.—but it’s wholly unnecessary here. We get it: Daisy’s gang came in and killed Minnie and the others. Onward already.
My favorite part of the movie is the detective work. Bob says Minnie left earlier in the week to visit her mother, but Warren knows: 1) Minnie hates Mexicans, and 2) the stew tastes like Minnie’s stew, which means she couldn’t have left earlier in the week. So why doesn’t he share this info with Ruth? More, why does he go after the toothless general first—allowing Gage to poison the coffee that kills Ruth? Once we know the whole story, Warren’s actions don’t make much sense.
“Hateful Eight” is long on runtime (167 minutes), long on viscera, and short on wit. It's lesser Tarantino. Possibly least Tarantino.
Producers Guild Goes Long on 'The Big Short'
Here's a list of movies since 1990 that the Producers Guild of America has chosen best picture that didn't go on to win the Oscar for best picture:
|1992||The Crying Game|
|1998||Saving Private Ryan|
|2006||Little Miss Sunshine|
A short list. Two years ago, too, they split on “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” and the latter won the Oscar for best picture. Otherwise, since 2006, they've nailed it. If you want to call prefiguring the Oscar “nailing it.”
I mention all this because last night the PGAs chose “The Big Short” for best picture.
Good news for “The Big Short” but there are still no clear frontrunners in the field; I can still see “The Revenant” or “Spotlight” having a go. I think it's down to these three. Three of my four favorite films of the year.
An even more accurate predictor, The Directors Guild of America, announces its winner on Feb. 6.
To Every Year, a Baseball Book
Baseball books about 1973, 1975, 1976 and 1977. Wither '74?
Quick question for the Hot Stove League: Has a book been written about every baseball year since whenever? 1903? I like those types of books. Years have arcs that lives and careers tend not to.
I'm thinking books that take in the whole year rather than simply one team's journey through that year, but I'll accept the latter, too.
Here's a few I know. Others? Please weigh in.
- 2014: “Ninety Feet Away: The Story of the 2014 Kansas City Royals” by Kent Krause
- 2004: “Don't Let Us Win Tonight: An Oral History of the 2004 Boston Red Sox's Impossible Playoff Run” by Allan Wood and Bill Nowlin
- 1991: “Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time” by Tim Wendel
- 1990: “The Wire-to-Wire Reds: Sweet Lou, Nasty Boys, and the Wild Run to a World Championship” by John Erardi and Joel Luckhaupt
- 1986: “The Bad Guys Won: A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo Chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, the Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform--and Maybe the Best,” by Jeff Pearlman; “One Pitch Away” by Mike Sowell
- 1981: “Split Season: 1981: Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball” by Jeff Katz
- 1979: Tales from the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates Dugout: Remembering “The Fam-A-Lee” (Tales from the Team), by John McCollister
- 1978: “October Men: Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin and the Yankees Miraculous Finish in 1978” by Roger Kahn; “The Bronx Zoo: The Astonishing Inside Story of the 1978 World Champion New York Yankees” by Sparky Lyle and Peter Golenbock
- 1977: “The Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City,” by Jonathan Mahler
- 1976: “Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76” by Dan Epstein
- 1975: “The Long Ball: The Summer of '75—Spaceman, Catfish, Charlie Hustle, and the Greatest World Series Ever Played” by Tom Adelman; “The Machine” by Joe Posnanski
- 1973: “Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid: The Year That Changed Baseball Forever” by John Rosengren
- 1971: “The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates,” by Bruce Markusen
- 1969: “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton; “Ernie Banks: Mr. Cub and the Summer of '69” by Phil Rogers
- 1968: “Summer of '68: The Season That Changed Baseball--and America--Forever” by Tim Wendel; “The Tigers of '68: Baseball's Last Real Champions” by George Cantor
- 1967: “1967 Red Sox: The Impossible Dream Season (Images of Baseball)” by Raymond Sinibaldi and Billy Rohr
- 1964: “October 1964” by David Halbertstam; “The Year of Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies” by Mel Marmer; “Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 Cincinnati Reds” by Doug Wilson
- 1962: “Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?: The Improbable Saga of the New York Mets' First Year” by Jimmy Breslin
- 1960: “Sweet '60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates (SABR Digital Library Book 10)” by Dick Rosen and C. Paul Rogers
- 1954: “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever” by Bill Madden
- 1951: “Strangers in the Bronx: DiMaggio, Mantle, and the Changing of the Yankee Guard by Andrew O'Toole
- 1949: ”Summer of '49“ by David Halberstam
- 1947: ”Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season“ by Jonathan Eig; ”1947: When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball“ by Red Barber
- 1941: ”56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number“ by Kostya Kennedy
- 1923: ”The House that Ruth Built: A New Stadium, the First Yankees Championship, and the Redemption of 1923,“ by Robert Weintraub
- 1920: ”The Pitch That Killed“ by Mike Sowell
- 1919: ”Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series,“ by Eliot Asinof; ”Red Legs and Black Sox: Edd Roush and the Untold Story of the 1919 World Series“ by Susan Dellinger, Ph.D.
- 1908: ”Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History“ by Cait N. Murphy
And if you could, what year would you like to read about? Me, I'd love more on the '69 season, which is when: 1) MLB went to a division format; 2) Jim Bouton was writing ”Ball Four," which would forever change our perception of baseball and its players; 3) Curt Flood was traded to the Phillies but refused to report and sued MLB, setting in motion what would eventually become free agency, which would change baseball forever; 4) Reggie Jackson threatened Maris' HR record midseason but lost the crown, and the MVP, to my man Harmon Killebrew; 5) the Cubs collapsed (again); 6) the Baltimore Orioles were the best team in baseball but somehow lost the World Series to the Miracle Mets; and most importantly, certainly to me, 7) at age 6, I began to follow baseball regularly.
- Beautiful obit of Negro Leaguer/Major Leaguer Monte Irvin by Joe Posnanski. I had no idea he was considered that good. Or that he wasn't in his prime when he made the Major Leagues. Books need to be written; movies need to be made.
- Before Pres. Obama's State of the Union on Tuesday, we experienced another Iranian Hostage Crisis—the very thing that brought down Pres. Carter and led to Ronald Reagan and the triumph of know-nothing conservatism. So GOP candidates made the most of it. And what happened? It resolved peacefully within 24 hours. So this big “fuck you” goes out to Mssrs. Rubio, Cruz, Trump and Scarborough.
- A “satirical” site wrote a piece about author and CNN host Fareed Zakaria, right-wing websites picked it up as fact, it spread, and there went some part of his reputation and peace of mind. “For a few days,” he writes on his blog, “the digital intimidation veered out into the real world. Some people called my house late one night and woke up and threatened my daughters, who are 7 and 12.” One wonders if courts will eventually (or perpetually?) have to decide what is satire, since satire is protected speech, and a lot of these sites seem to be taking advantage of that. No one wants judges deciding what's funny, but talk about a gray area.
- In honor of MLK Day, Rick Perlstein gives his Facebook followers an excerpt of his next book: the lead-up to the Bakke anti-affirmative action decision in 1976.
- Again on Facebook, Joe Henry has a great tribute to Glenn Frey. “Joe: Five thousand or fifty ... what do we care? We play for who comes.” Amen.
- Nate Silver, who nailed the 2008 and 2012 elections, suggests that unless things change big time, current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump starts out with yuuuuge negatives among independent and even Republican voters. Currently, the leader of the GOP field in terms of net favorability ratings are: Ted Cruz (!) among Republicans; Ben Carson and Marco Rubio among indies; John Kasich among Dems.
- Great piece by Kathryn Schulz on what the Netflix 10-part series “Making a Murderer” gets right and wrong. And she does what I love doing: Using a famous line from the work to critique the work.
- The Post's Dana Milbank juxtaposes Jesus' Sermon on the Mount with the gospel of Donald Trump. Funny stuff. Sad stuff.
- The Ziegfeld Theater is NYC is closing. I don't think I've ever been there, and I live 3,000 miles away, but it's still a drag. It's being replaced by “a high-end space for corporate events.” Yay team.
- My friend Andy is reviving his blog “The Lost Salt Atlas,” and he's got his own Lancelot Links. Glad people are still doing this. Glad we're not just leaving it up to social media.
- Most of the feelings I have for the #OscarsSoWhite campaign have been negative. There's an issue there but it's an industry-wide issue, and tagging the Oscars in this instance is like tagging the Baseball Hall of Fame in the mid-1960s for having only one black member. So props to Charlotte Rampling for standing up to it. On another level, you know who I kind of feel sorry for? Michael Shannon and Paul Dano. They gave great performances in 2015 (“99 Homes” and “Love & Mercy,” respectively), didn't get nom'ed, and no one's said shit. Because they would be “part of the problem” if they had. Once it comes to that, I'm sorry, but I can't be part of your revolution.
Palin Endorses, Trump Grimaces
The funniest thing to me about Sarah Palin's endorsement of Donald Trump is the pained expression on Trump's face as she rambles through her grab bag of idiot ideas:
No man was less sure of being feted. You can't spell Palin without pain.
- Stephen Colbert does his own, brilliantly rambling, stream-of-consciousness version of Palinism.
- The Washington Post's Tom Toles on the man Sarah Palin is leaving behind.
- Trump's lines if Palin had endorsed someone else.
- That New York Daily News cover.
Movie Review: 2016: Obama's America (2012)
The title is just another lie.
I watched “2016: Obama’s America” in 2016 figuring it’d be a hoot—apocalyptic visions of what will happen if Barack Obama actually gets reelected in 2012. Which he totally did. And here we are. And what exactly did Dinesh D’Souza, Dartmouth alum, right-wing mouthpiece, and perpetual victim of the soft bigotry of low expectations, foresee about our world?
We have to wait until the last 10 minutes of a very long slog. Then he says this:
The world could be a pretty scary place in 2016: Israel brought to its knees, America’s defenses weakened, the Muslim world united.
No, no, and no. OK, drive safely, kids.
The only real laugh-out-loud line is when D’Souza envisions a world without U.S. influence, and we’re shown a map of the Middle East in which all of the Arab countries begin turning the same color: “The Middle East,” D’Souza intones, “transforms itself into the United States of Islam.”
Yeah. Good luck with that.
The rest of the movie, sadly, painfully, is D’Souza’s theories about why Obama will try to undermine the U.S.; why, in essence, Barack Hussein Obama is a modern-day “Manchurian Candidate”: the man programmed by our enemies to take control of our country in order to bring it down. And it’s the saddest little conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard.
Worse, D’Souza presents it all as if he were simply investigating things that didn’t make sense to him. He’s impartial, you understand. He’s got an open mind. “Just like the rest of the country, I was intrigued by Obama,” he says about the heady days of January 2009 when Obama took office as the world was in midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But then Pres. Obama keeps doing things that don’t make sense to D’Souza; like pulling us out of that crisis.
No. Here’s a list of things Pres. Obama did that didn’t add up to our Ivy Leaguer:
- Returning a bust of Winston Churchill to Great Britain (answer)
- Not supporting Britain on the Falkland Islands (how is this still a thing?)
- Delaying the Keystone Pipeline (“which could create tens of thousands of American jobs”)
- Blocking oil drilling in the U.S. and encouraging it in Latin America
- Encouraging NASA to reach out to the Muslim world so it can be more aware of the contributions it made to science and math
All of that can only mean one thing: Obama has been mentored from birth by communists, anti-colonialists and anti-Americans, to fulfill the dreams of his absentee, anti-colonialist father, to take down all that’s good and holy and Christian in the world. Duh.
We get the usual suspects: Franklin Marshall Davis, Bill Ayers, Edward Said, Jeremiah Wright. We get a lot of insinuation, and guilt by association. When Rev. Wright’s “Goddamn America” speech surfaces in spring 2008, which leads to candidate Obama’s heartfelt hour-long discussion on race, D’Souza stands off on the sidelines shaking his head. “Somehow,” he says, “the real issue, which is whether America is the most evil nation in the world, disappears into the background. Obama has skillfully changed the subject.”
Skillfully changed the subject? To race? The one topic most Americans don’t want to talk about?
There’s a circular idiocy to D’Souza’s critique, which, to be fair, is the circular idiocy of the GOP in general. D’Souza relies on different talking heads to point out that America needs to:
- be tough and influential abroad, particularly in the Middle East
- rein in the national debt
- and don’t think about raising taxes
Of course 1) and 3) counteract 2), and have for the last 40 years, particularly under adventurous Republican administrations, which grow the debt that Democrats are then tasked with shrinking. Meanwhile, the middle class gets screwed.
Early in the doc, D’Souza tells us his story (essentially: India, Dartmouth, right-wing dirtbag), and waxes nostalgic about helping create “The Dartmouth Review” in 1980, mainly for the purpose of provoking liberals on campus. When he was accused of being sophomoric, his answer back then was always: We’re sophomores.
He’s still a sophomore.
Quote of the Day as I Turn 53
“You’re 53, with a life in tatters like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We’re all on the brink of despair. All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little. Don’t you agree?”
— Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) in “La grande bellezza” (“The Great Beauty”). I hope I don't act superior, etc., but yes I agree with the rest. Most certainly.
Party on, Jep.
Movie Review: Spotlight (2015)
For a drama about uncovering the Catholic church child molestation scandal, “Spotlight” is surprisingly undramatic. What’s the most dramatic moment? Racing to a copy machine before a government office closes? A lawyer circling a list of names? Its tone throughout is matter-of-fact. You might even call it objective.
Director Tom McCarthy keeps making good movies (“Station Agent,” “Win Win”), but as an actor his most famous role is probably Scott Templeton, the Baltimore Sun reporter who fabricated details and quotes and, well, people, in the fifth season of “The Wire.” Now he—Scotty Templeton!—has given us the best movie about investigative journalism since “The Insider.”
The more interesting point of comparison, though, may be with “All the President’s Men.” Both movies feature Ben Bradlee: Sr. (Jason Robards) in the first, Jr. (John Slattery, doomed to play bon vivants) here. Both movies focus on uncovering the corruption of powerful institutions (the White House, the Catholic Church) that loom large over their respective cities (D.C., Boston). The difference is in the numbers. For Woodward and Bernstein, the investigative thrust is toward the one: What did the president know and when did he know it? In “Spotlight,” the investigative thrust is toward the many. The question isn’t “How high does it go?” but “How widespread is it?” At first we have one child-abusing priest, then three; then 13; then 87. Each time, the newer number is met with incredulity. It seems an impossibly cynical suggestion. Then it’s eclipsed.
It takes a village
There aren’t many movie characters that intrigued me more this past year than Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron. He arrives at The Boston Globe from Florida with the reputation as a hatchet man. Is he? We wonder, along with Bradlee, and Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the head of the four-person Spotlight investigative team. Will they lose headcount? Is Spotlight being cut altogether? There’s an initial tentativeness around Baron that feels real, and he doesn’t help matters by being a slightly odd duck. He’s soft-spoken, seemingly distracted but actually focused. His oddities, his stranger-in-a-strange-land persona, jumpstarts the investigation, since he sees Boston with fresh eyes. If Schreiber had had more screentime, I think he would’ve been nominated for an Oscar.
Each member of the Spotlight team has a particular focus. The hyperactive Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) sniffs around the offices of attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who represents more than 50 plaintiffs in separate lawsuits against the Catholic Church, and who is not impressed with the Globe’s coverage thus far. Initially he’s not helpful. But he appreciates Rezendes’ doggedness, and eventually his work, and he keeps pointing the way. He’s this movie’s Deep Throat, except they meet on park benches in the afternoon rather than parking garages at 3 a.m.
Meanwhile, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) goes door-to-door to find victims and victimizers, while Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) realizes halfway through the investigation that a kind of halfway house for abusive priests is a block away from where he’s raising his kids; that’s when it gets personal for him. (Sidenote: Critics keep talking up how much the actors actually look like journalists, and it’s particularly true for James with his soup-strained moustache; but it’s not true at all for McAdams. Sorry. Bless your heart, Rachel, you give it a go, but you’re still way too pretty for print journalism.)
Robby is the guy who deals with the mucky-mucks and poo-bahs. At one point, he accuses a rich, seemingly slick PI-plaintiff attorney, Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup), of making money off abuse, and Macleish tosses it back in his face. He alerted the paper years ago, he says; and the paper did nothing. Do we ever get closure on this? Who’s at fault? Robby? Bradlee?
The larger message is that no one is clean. “If it takes a village to raise a child,” Garabedian says later, “it takes a village to abuse one.”
Tell me the half of it
“Spotlight” is a treasure trove of great dialogue. Early on, Baron is telling Robby how he wants to find a way to make the paper essential to its readers:
Robby: I like to think it already is.
Baron [pause, assessment]: Fair enough.
Or this moment when Pfeiffer is drawing out an abuse victim in the shadow of a nearby church:
Pfeiffer: Joe, did you ever try to tell anyone?
Joe: Like who—a priest?
Even this, as Rezendes sits with a beleaguered Garabedian, who really is begging to tell his story, during a lunch break from the local courthouse:
Garabedian: You don’t know the half of it.
Rezendes: Tell me the half of it, Mitch.
I love that 9/11, of all days, is a kind of annoyance in this story; it interrupts the story, as it interrupted all of our stories. I like the looming churches, and all they signify, and the AOL billboard outside the Globe offices, and all it signifies. It’s a reminder of the other battle journalists are fighting—against obsolescence. “Spotlight” shows us the necessity of good investigative journalism even as we are creating the circumstances—by what we buy, what we click on—that will soon restrict its efficacy. The last words we hear are Robby’s, picking up a phone. “This is Spotlight,” he says. The story is out, the phones are ringing, the work continues. It should be triumphant; and it is. But it also feels like the end of something.
From Raf Sanches' and David Lawler's piece on the fall of Sarah Palin, which was published in The Telegraph just a year ago: Jan. 30, 2015:
Mrs Palin made similar indications [about running for president] before the 2012 election but never actually jumped off the sidelines. It's a trick that gets a bit of buzz the first few times but eventually you end up as irrelevant as Donald Trump, another serial presidential wannabe.
Those were the days, my friend.
'A Dark Side to the American Populace' or Where Have You Gone, John McCain?
Ed Harris as John McCain: recreating the last moment the GOP tried to tamp down the ‘dark side of the American populace.’
Last night, P and I watched “Game Change,” Jay Roach's 2012 HBO movie on the unlikely rise of Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign, with Julianne Moore as Palin, Ed Harris as John McCain and Woody Harrelson excellent as McCain's campaign manager Steve Schmidt. Sarah Paulson, recently so good in “Carol,” is also excellent as a senior advisor, Nicolle Wallace, initially proud that a woman will be the GOP's VP choice, then concerned, then horrified.
Each revelation of how much Palin doesn't know is stunning: why North and South Korea are two countries; which countries made up the Axis powers during WWII; the fact that the Queen isn't the head of the British government. If the press had been allowed to vet Palin the way the McCain campaign didn‘t—if there had been more than the Charlie Rose and Katie Couric interviews—she would’ve been torn to shreds. Deservedly.
But what truly stands out is a line McCain says near the end. It's October, things are going poorly, and his team, particularly Rick Davis (Peter MacNichol), urges McCain to use the two big guns left in the arsenal:
- Rev. Wright
- Bill Ayers
McCain refuses on the first, acquiesces on the second. His refusal on the first is the result, in part, of the push-polling Karl Rove and the Bush campaign did to him in the 2000 South Carolina primary, implying that he had a black child out of wedlock rather than an adopted daughter from Bangladesh. But Davis keeps pushing. The Bush campaign lied, he says, but Rev. Wright said what he said. To which McCain responds:
That may be true. But there's a dark side to the American populace. Some people win elections by tapping into it. I'm not one of those people.
Later, we get that moment at a campaign rally when a woman calls Obama “an Arab,” and McCain takes the microphone back, and reminds her, and the rest of the crowd, that Obama is “a decent, family man, citizen, that I just happen to have some disagreements with on fundamental issues.” That's also startling. It may be the last moment anyone in the GOP tried to tamp down that type of ignorance and hatred. Ever since, and from multiple sources—including Palin, Limbaugh, all of right-wing radio, all of FOX News, and now the current GOP candidates, led, of course, by Donald Trump—they‘ve not only been tapping into the dark side of the American populace; they’ve been poking it and prodding it. They've smiled as they enraged it.
Quote of the Day
“It's worth noting that a lot of people who write about the Oscars each year at websites and in papers and online magazines also vote as members of this or that 'precursor' ... The media contributes each year to who is included in 'the conversation' so why, when most people ignored ['Creed''s Michael B.] Jordan this season, were they then upset that Oscar didn't nominate him?
”I think this is a very reasonable question to ask but it's a complicated question when it's so much easier to just blame a monolothic institution like OSCAR. There's a whiff of hypocrisy to blaming Oscar if you ask me. They don't vote in a vacuum. If you don't advocate for worthy players shouldn't you shut up when Oscar ignores the same worthy players?“
-- Nathaniel Rogers, ”Handwringing: The Ongoing, Important But Not Always Helpful #OscarsSoWhite Conversation," on Film Experience.
The Nominees and the Noise
Was it racist that Idris Elba wasn't nominated? Or would it have been racist to nominate him?
It's less the Oscar nominations now than the noise surrounding the Oscar nominations.
This year, it's been the outrage of #OscarsSoWhite, led, in my Twitter feed anyway, by Sasha Stone of Awards Daily, who has been one relentless piercing note on the subject, despite being part of a group you might as well tag #CriticsSoWhite. Glass houses, kids.
Here's the issue: For the second year in a row, no person of color has been nominated in any of the acting categories. This used to be a regular thing, then it wasn't, now it is again. Here's the history of African-American acting nominations and wins by decade:
So a big surge in the 2000s, followed by a drop-off. Because of that surge? Who knows? I wouldn't mind a more in-depth discussion of that from an industry insider.
But why am I not more outraged like these other white critics? I don't know. Maybe my outrage meter broke 10 years ago when “Crash” beat “Brokeback Mountain” for best picture. Maybe I assume the worst from the Academy. Maybe I'm not into identity aesthetics. (I'm not into identity aesthetics.)
Or maybe I just don't see the fuss this particular year. Basically I find myself in agreement with Jeff Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere, who posted a podcast with Sasha and another critic, Erik Anderson, Thursday, adding this on his blog:
Neither Erik nor Sasha would admit that The Revenant is far and way the likeliest winner of the Best Picture Oscar at this stage. Not would they grapple with my riff about current racial profiling gripes (i.e., why no nominations for Straight Outta Compton and Creed?) not being worth discussing except in the case of Beasts of No Nation's Idris Elba, who definitely should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
That's my feeling. Who else should have been nominated? Alyssa Rosenberg over at The Washington Post has a soft piece in which she lists “8 great performances by black actors” without saying if they should have replaced any of the nominated actors, and if so who. The whole piece is the sound of one white woman patting herself on the back. Her choices: Michael B. Jordan (Creed), O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Straight Outta Compton), Abraham Atta (Beasts of No Nation), Jada Pinkett Smith (Magic Mike XXL), Audra McConald (Rikki and the Flash), Adepero Oduye (The Big Short), John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Teyonnah Paris (Chi-Raq).
Some of these are headscratchers. Oduye? She was in the movie for like a New York minute. Pinkett Smith? In that awful film? Rosenberg says Atta was as great as Jacob Tremblay in “Room,” but of course Tremblay didn't get nominated either. (Kids rarely do in lead roles.) Jordan was fine, and if you'd swapped him out with Matt Damon for “The Martian” I wouldn't have blinked; but Damon lost weight for his role, Jordan built up for his. The Academy rewards you for starving yourself rather than working out with a personal trainer.
“Beasts of No Nation” might also have suffered with the Academy because 1) it all-but-premiered on Netflix, giving it a “straight to video” vibe; and 2) it was condemned, in some circles, as racist. On Roger Ebert's site, Matt Zoller Seitz brought up the issue of Hollywood's constant depiction of the monstrous African man. Movie critic Charles Muedede was even more insistent. So nominating Elba might have opened up the Academy to a different charge of racism: that the Academy only recognizes the work of scary black men: Denzel in “Training Day”; Forrest Whitaker in “The King of Scotland.” That can be countered with Jamie Foxx in “Ray” and Morgan Freeman in “Million Dollar Baby,” but it would've been out there. There will always be an outrage.
My outrage, such as it is, is for the number of nominations for “Mad Max,” which, to me, is a two-hour-long chase movie, in which bad, ugly people pursue good, good-looking people, and the good, good-looking people win. Somehow this meant critics awards and 10 nominations.
But mostly I was happy; the Academy recognized some of the best movies I saw in 2015: “The Revenanat,” “The Big Short,” “Spotlight,” and my favorite film, “Theeb,” which became the first movie from Jordan to be nominated in the best foreign language category. It's about a Bedouin boy in the 1910s; it's “Lawrence of Arabia” from a different perspective. Oscars aren't always so white.
Michael Bay is the Stone on Which Critics Sharpen Their Wit
Jeff Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere has been criticizing the dudes at “Honest Trailers” for being a bit behind the times, but I suppose they did their send-up of the trailer for Michael Bay's 2001 film “Pearl Harbor” to coincide with the opening of Bay's new war movie, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” which is getting a lot of attention. (Me, I'd attack “Honest Trailers” more for not being very funny.)
Anyway, Wells uses the opportunity to quote from A.O. Scott's “Pearl Harbor” lede, which he calls “one of the finest opening paragraphs in the history of movie reviewing.” It ain't bad. But it ain't Anthony Lane, who gave us the following in his blistering review:
[That's] the second-best question of the film, topped only when Evelyn [Kate Beckinsale] finds Rafe [Ben Affleck] packing a suitcase, and, quick as a flash, says, “Packing?” She is understandably distraught by her sudden change of fortunes. One moment she is trying to cope with two grown men scrapping over her like a couple of roosters, and the next, as she says in some exasperation, “All this happened.” I am not absolutely sure what she means by “this,” but I imagine that she is referring to the trifling matter of an enraged United States being hauled into a global conflict. I guess we should thank Michael Bay for so bold a revisionist take on the Second World War: no longer the clash of virtuous freedom and a malevolent tyranny but a terrible bummer when a girl is trying to get her dates straight.
Quote of the Day
“Republicans who would not applaud the creation of 14 million jobs, an unemployment rate cut in half, 17 million people given health care, a global climate change pact, the strongest military in the world and a rousing call for a 'moonshot' to cure cancer are incapable of taking a fair measure of Obama's achievements.”
-- Timothy Egan, “Giving Obama His Due,” The New York Times
Movie Review: The Revenant (2015)
Glass is an interesting choice for the name of a man who doesn’t break, but it turns out it’s not a choice.
Hugh Glass was part of an expedition that went up the Missouri river, from South Dakota to Montana, on a fur-trading expedition in the early 1820s. He was attacked by a bear, left for dead by a man named Fitzgerald, survived, sought revenge. It’s all there. In real life, of course, the revenge isn’t as clean as in the movie. And it’s not clean in the movie.
“The Revenant” (meaning: one who has returned, particularly from the dead) is a shifting landscape of betrayal and revenge; it’s a movie you feel as much as see. In old westerns, arrows flew threw the air like toothpicks; here they have heft and force. The bear is fast, monstrous; you feel its weight as it smashes Leonardo DiCaprio’s face into the mud, and its hot breath literally fogs the camera. The power of the river current is overwhelming, the chill of the wind debilitating. It’s a palpable movie. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu could’ve called it, “The Unrelentant,” because it doesn’t stop.
It’s also gorgeously filmed, and one of the best movies of the year.
The turnin’ of the earth
It’s actually a collision of two westerns, isn’t it? The story is set in motion by Elk Dog (Duane Howard), the leader of the Arikara tribe, who is searching for his kidnapped daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o). That’s why the fur-trading expedition is attacked—mistakenly, it turns out, they had nothing to do with Powaqa—and why Glass and the men flee down the Missouri, then take to land. They’re pursued. In this way, Elk Dog is a Native American version of John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, in John Ford’s “The Searchers.” Ironic, given Ethan’s thoughts on the matter:
Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter that’ll just keep comin’ on. So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We'll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.
Glass’ story, meanwhile, is a western tale of revenge a la “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” He loses everything and becomes revenge personified; but he never becomes wish-fulfillment fantasy in the way Clint Eastwood does. He’s too broken; it’s all too awful.
In fleeing the Arikara, fur pelts—the whole point of the expedition—have to be left behind, and that doesn’t sit right with Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy); and in a backwoods Maryland accent so thick it makes Bain’s enunciation in “The Dark Knight Rises” seem as precise as John Houseman’s, he bitches, threatens, and casts aspersions on Glass and his half-breed son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). There’s a good line from Glass berating Hawk for his intemperance in native Pawnee: “They don’t hear you; they only see the color of your face.”
It’s a dirty world Inarritu recreates, but there’s something extra dirty about Fitzgerald. Once almost scalped, he now scalps. He complains about Indians stealing from the dead even as he does the same. He feels screwed, and is: After all that work and risk, we find he still owes the company store.
His most awful moment may be when he confronts Glass, rendered immobile and helpless by the bear attack, and offers to end his pain if he’ll only signal by blinking. It’s like making the signal breathing. Fitzgerald needs Glass to die so he can move on, but he wants permission and rigs the game. Or does he? We watch Glass’ helpless face, his eyes struggling not to blink; but then he seems to acquiesce. He closes them completely. Later, in their climactic struggle, Fitzgerald will bring this up. “You and me, we had a deal,” he says. But as Fitzgerald tries to suffocate Glass, and as Glass struggles, Hawk arrives, attacks Fitzgerald, and is killed himself. Then Glass is tossed into a hastily dug grave. “We buried him proper,” Fitzgerald says later. Everything the man touches turns to dishonor.
It’s a long road back for Glass, and Inarritu doesn’t allow him (or us) any cinematic shortcuts. We see him go through animal stages: crawling on all fours; eating small birds, and raw fish, and liver. It’s almost a triumph when he can walk upright again, a man again, but a man with one thing in mind: revenge. Which is its own burden. At one point, Glass is saved by a lone Pawnee, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), trying to reconnect with his tribe, who tells him, “Revenge is in the creator’s hands, not man’s.” Glass will think back on this as he finally has his hands around Fitzgerald’s throat. It’s the high ground, but he—and we—don’t want it. Instead, he takes a middle ground. He lets the current, and the Arikara, take Fitzgerald.
There are still honorable men in this world: Hikuc; Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the expedition leader; Bridger (Will Poulter, quite good), Fitzgerald’s unwilling partner, who is not witness to Fitzgerald’s crimes, and remains haunted by their actions. Each man surprised me a little. The modern western gives us the cackling and the profane, suggesting this was the norm in a harsh, lawless world. These guys seem honorable despite that world. Or maybe because of it. To distinguish themselves from it. To keep it at a distance.
Of course, they don’t end well. Capt. Henry counsels Glass against pursuing Fitzgerald but accompanies him anyway; he’s scalped for this trouble. And Hikuc? After saving Glass’ life, he’s strung up by French forces—the ones who kidnapped Powaqa in the first place—who hang a sign around his neck: On est tous des sauvages. “We are all savages.” Not quite. The savages survive.
Light as a principle of survival
Nature may be the most savage of all. Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki film both the grandeur and horror of nature, along with the smallness of man (both ways) against that landscape. In a great article in Film Comment, David Thomson says the use of natural light in the film “addresses mankind’s relationship with nature before electricity.” He call it “a principle of survival,” which is exactly right. So often in this movie light means life, or a chance at it. It bursts through, and we’re grateful.
Near the end, after Glass lets the Arikara take Fitzgerald, he kneels on all fours by the river, spent, as the Indians pass. They don’t kill him—he freed Powaqa from the French—but they, and she, are not exactly grateful. She views him imperiously from above. That’s the feel of nature, too. If it views us, that’s how it views us.
Some of my favorite moments have nothing to do with the plot: the avalanche in the distance after Capt. Henry’s death; Glass and Hikuc catching snowflakes on their tongue. Is it too improbable? Too much? Maybe. When it was over, I was exhausted. I thought, “Beautiful, but I doubt if I’ll ever want to see it again.” It’s a day later and I want to see it again.
'Theeb' Nominated Best Foreign Language Film, and Other Oscar Thoughts
Normally I get up early for the Oscar nominations—5:30 a.m. here on the west coast—but I passed this year. What was the rush? To judgment? There didn't seem to be any need. That said, now that it's an impossibly late 7 a.m., I do kind of miss it. Oscar nom morning always has a Christmas morning feeling. What did Santa bring this year? Even if, most of the time, we find a lump of coal in our stocking.
The lump of coal this year, for many, was the lack of a best picture nomination for Todd Haynes' “Carol,” but that's an art picture more than a narrative-driven picture, and the Academy isn't big on those. Here are the nominees for best picture:
- The Big Short (yes!)
- Bridge of Spies (I guess)
- Brooklyn (thank you!)
- Mad Max: Fury Road (Lord help me)
- The Martian (sure)
- The Revenanat (yes, yes, a thousand times yes)
- Room (ewww)
- Spotlight (mais bien sur)
Director gave us a bit of a surprise. It's the DGA noms (McKay, Miller, McCarthy, Inarritu) but instead of Ridley Scott for “The Martian,” it's Lenny Abrahamson for “Room.” He's an indie Irish director who will turn 50 this year. His last film was “Frank,” in which Michael Fassbender wears a big puppet mask and sings. I didn't see it, as you can tell. I didn't see “Room,” either. The storyline—a woman kept captive for years in a single room while raising the son she had with her captor/rapist—freaks me out. As a novel, it seems more interesting, since, from what I've heard, the perspective is the boy's, and it's an obviously stunted perspective. Almost like Plato's cave shadows. But as a movie? Still, I suppose I should see it. It's part of the conversation.
No real surprises in the acting categories: Matt, Leo, Eddie, Fassbender, Cranston. Cate, Brie, Jennifer, Charlotte, Saoirse. Oh, I guess some people thought Johnny Depp would be nom'ed for “Black Mass.” Well, so-so movie, so no.
Supporting boys? Sylvester Stallone got a deserved nod for “Creed,” along with Bale (“Big Short”), Hardy (“Revenanat”), Ruffalo (“Spotlight”), and frontrunner Mark Rylance (“Spies”). No love (or mercy) for Paul Dano's turn as Brian Wilson. Jeff Wells is fulminating, I'm sure, but I'll take Rylance, who gave us one of the more indelible characters in 2015.
Supporting girls? Jennifer Jason Leigh (“Hateful Eight”), Rooney Mara (“Carol”), Rachel McAdams (“Spotlight”), Alicia Vikander (“Danish Girl”) and Katie Winslet (“Steve Jobs”). I'll take Mara.
Already a brewing controversy that no people of color were nom'ed. Any discussion of this should indicate who it should have been, and who they would replace. I could see Idris Elba for “Beasts,” for example, but in place of who? Plus the Academy opens itself up to the charge that they only nominate scary or bad characters of color. I could also see Michael B. Jordan for “Creed” over, say, Matt Damon in “The Martian.”
A plus: Aaron Sorkin, whom I normally like, didn't get a nomination for “Steve Jobs” despite winning the Golden Globe. Good. The script was the problem. Note to budding screenwriters: never build a movie around product launches.
Overall, “The Revenant” wound up with 12 noms, “Meh Max” with 10. Via the L.A. Times, here's the complete list of nominees.
I'll end on a high note: My choice for the best movie of 2015, “Theeb” from Jordan, was nominated in the best foreign language category. It won't win (“Son of Saul”), but it's great that it's been recognized in this way. That's like the best Christmas gift imaginable. Thanks, Santa.
My Top 10 Movies of 2015
INTRO. Caveat: I haven't seen some contenders yet, such as “45 Years,” “The Hateful Eight,” “Son of Saul,” but you don't want to wait until February for this kind of thing. Mid-January is already a month behind. I thought it was a weak year, but it ended well, and I had to leave off some deserving candidates: “Ex Machina,” “It Follows,” “Going Clear,” “Of Miracles and Men,” “The Martian,” “Love & Mercy,” “Bridge of Spies,”Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,“ ”Creed.“ Here we go. Your mileage will differ.
10. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. Yes, it's derivative of itself; yes, Rey is a quick study; but my what fun. The torch has been passed to a new generation of Star Warsians, and they have—whaddaya know—personality.
9. CAROL. Not just a love story, not just a coming-of-age story, but a beautiful look back at a bygone era. Between this, ”Brooklyn,“ and ”Bridge of Spies,“ was there any 1950s memorabilia left in the second-hand shops in the New York Metro area?
8. SICARIO. Stunning 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. Both ways.
7. MEETING DR. SUN. A quirky joy from Taiwan and the Seattle International Film Festival. It's a heist film gone horribly amaterurish. The final, sad wrestling match on the Taipei streets, beneath the gaze of the titular statue, can be read as the two Chinas forever embroiled.
6. BROOKLYN. Something beautiful or unexpected happens in each scene. Watching, it was like I was being handed a rose. By the end of the movie, I felt like I was holding a bouquet.
5. INSIDE OUT. Sadness, and, particularly Bing Bong, take the movie to another level—a level that, in animated films, only Pixar seems to reach. ”Take her to the moon for me“ literally made me stifle a sob in the middle of a packed movie theater. It's the great cinematic sacrifice of 2015.
4. SPOTLIGHT. The best movie about investigative journalism since ”The Insider.“ What's shocking is how undramatic it is, how matter-of-fact. You could almost call it objective.
3. THE BIG SHORT. It's the eat-your-vegetables movie that goes down like an ice-cream sundae. It's a primer on Wall Street, and mortgage derivatives, and the global financial meltdown. You want them to get the bad guys, to prick their bloated self-assurance, even though you know we all fall down. It's tragic, yes, but also fucking hilarious.
2. THE REVENANT. You feel it as much as see it. It's palpable, and beautiful, and exhausting. When it was over I exhaled and thought, ”Great, but I doubt I'll want to see it again.“ The next day, I wanted to see it again.
1. THEEB. It's that rare beast: an art film that is also a harrowing adventure story. It's ”Lawrence of Arabia" from a Bedouin boy's perspective. It's not just about the loss of life but the loss of a way of life.
The DGA Nominations: 3 out of 5 Ain't Bad
The Directors Guild of America announced its 2015 nominees for outstanding directorial achievement in feature film:
- Alejandro G. Iñárritu, “The Revenant” (Yes!)
- Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight” (Yes!)
- Adam McKay, “The Big Short” (Yes!)
- George Miller, “Mad Max: Fury Road” (No!)
- Ridley Scott, “The Martian” (Whatever)
I'd lose Miller and Scott for Naji Abu Nowar (“Theeb”) and Todd Haynes (“Carol”), but three out of five ain't bad.
One of the above will almost certainly win the Academy Award for best picture. Since 1952, only one movie has ever won the Academy's best picture without its director being nominated for a DGA: “Driving Miss Daisy” in 1989; Bruce Beresford. FWIW, the DGA also ignored Spike Lee that year.
Little discussed fact, given how so many film critics on social media are complaining about the lack of diversity in the DGA and AMPAS: It's been almost 10 years since an American male has won the Academy Award for best director. Recently it's been Mexican, Taiwanese, French and British nationals. The last American was Kathryn Bigelow in 2009. The last American male? Or males? The Coens for “No Country for Old Men.”
Rooting interests, anyone?
Movie Review: Goodnight Mommy (2015)
The original German title for “Goodnight Mommy” is “Ich Seh, Ich Seh” or “I see, I see,” which is ironic since I didn’t see the film’s central conceit. Near the end, when it’s revealed, I went, “Holy shit.” Long pause. “Right.” Longer pause. “Of course.”
It’s a moody, atmospheric film that’s majorly fucked up. I flashed early to “Lord of the Flies,” thinking that, of the twin boys, the more favored one, Elias, was like Ralph, the benevolent leader, while the one with mommy problems, Lukas, was Jack, who appeals to our worst instincts. Which one would dominate? I also wondered this early on: Who’s really in danger here—the mother (Susanne Wuest) or the kids (Elias and Lukas Schwarz)? From the conversation surrounding the movie, not to mention its trailer, not to mention the poster, I assumed the mother would become menaced. But she’s so awful in the early going, I began to doubt this.
The key is in one of the first conversations with the mother. Playing outside in cornfields (cf. “Children of the Corn”), the boys come home to find their mother with her head bandaged from an operation. Was she in an accident? Did she have plastic surgery? She’s curt, demands quiet and darkness. She keeps pulling the blinds. The boys’ clothes are muddy and she demands they strip near the laundry and take a shower. Then she feeds them. We see her pouring a glass of juice for Elias, and we get this conversation:
Elias: Lukas wants some, too.
Mother: Then he can ask me himself.
Elias: You only made supper for me.
Mother: You know why.
[Mother goes away; Lukas drinks the juice.]
Elias to Lukas: You should apologize.
[Lukas shakes head.]
That’s the key right there, and I’m stunned I didn’t see it. It helps, of course, that in English, and I assume in German, the singular and plural form of “you” is the same. I don’t know how they’ll translate this in China, for example, where the language differentiates: ni for you and ni-men for all of you.
The mother seems like an awful person—harsh and brittle. She doesn’t want visitors. “If anyone asks,” she explains, “tell them I’m ill.” Putting ointment on her damaged face, she shoots an accusatory bloodshot eye at one of the boys. (It helps, too, that we keep mixing up the boys.) When someone actually stops by, and one of the boys pads gently into her room to wake her, she pretends to be asleep; when he leaves, she crunches harshly on the snack she’d been hiding in her mouth. It was at this point that I wondered if the boys were in danger from her.
Some horror films are relentless throughout; the point is to exhaust us (“It Follows” is a good example). Others are often supernatural mysteries to be solved (“El Orfanato,” “The Others”). This one has a bit of mystery, but it’s mostly looming dread. We wonder two things: 1) When will it get bad?; 2) How bad will it get?
We realize, bit by bit, there was an accident, and a marital separation, and the mother is trying to start over. This humanizes her in our eyes. At the same time, the boys begin to feel that the mother isn’t their mother. They have nightmares about her; they begin to demonize her. It’s a clean cross: The more human she seems to us, the more demonic to them.
Eventually they tie her to her bed, ask questions, demand that she prove she’s their mother. She’s an idiot for not responding immediately and authoritatively, but she doesn’t. They demand to know where her birthmark went (it was on her face, and got lost in the accident), so, with a magnifying glass, and the sun from the nearby window, they try to burn one in. When she cries, the put masking tape over her mouth. Later they glue her mouth shut with superglue. It’s all so horrible. She fails at her one chance at escape, and wakes to find herself glued the ground, one eye glued horribly shut. And it’s here that we get the big reveal. This is what she says to Elias:
I’ll play along. I’ll talk to Lukas again. Lukas will be alive. [Pause] Elias. It’s not your fault that Lukas died.
But it’s too late by that point.
Writer-directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz open their film with footage of a happy mother and children singing on TV, a la the Von Trapps. We’re in rural Austria, after all. But it’s a different rural Austria. So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, good night. Mommy.
- Remember the U VA gang-rape story that Rolling Stone magazine reportedly on sensationally and incorrectly last year? More details here from The Washington Post. If true, how sad and pathetic. And not helpful.
- Police artists sketch five literary characters based upon the author's description. Not the five I'd go with, but fun. Who I'd like to see? Holden Caulfield, Seymour Glass, T.S. Garp, Daniel Isaacson, Holly Golightly.
- Garrison Keillor calls Donald Trump a “cartoon candidate” and compares him to former Minn. Gov. Jesse Ventura.
- More from Minnesota: It's the 25th anniversary of the major-label debut of the Geardaddies, whom I used to see all the time back in the day. One of the best Minnesota garage bands ever. Viddy well. (I'd forgotten how much I love “Gonna Change.” Great song, bad title.)
- Criterion asks four actors (Benecio del Toro, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Greta Gerwig and Paul Dano) for favorite sex scenes. The women deliver, the men go with romantic (if sexy) scenes. Dudes. That said, I like the choices, or the movies, of the men more. I might add the kiss in the elevator in “Drive.” You?
- Great take by David Thomson on “The Revenant,” one of the year's best movies.
- Joe Posnanski doesn't think Fred McGriff belongs in the Hall of Fame (most members of the BBWAA agree), Tom Verducci does, and wrote a column comparing McGriff's numbers with Hall of Famer Eddie Matthews. Posnanski, normally polite, pushes back.
- The death of David Bowie at the age of 69. Out of the blue. As my friend Jeff wrote, “So far 2016 can suck it.”
- There's a new kid in Hollywood, STX Entertainment, and they're trying to create thoughtful, mid-range entertainment at a time of franchise blockbusters. Good luck. Also, thoughtful isn't necessarily “thoughtful.” Put another way: Even here, the marketing tail is this close to wagging the movie dog. It's actually a pretty depressing read.
- Charles Blow on guns and white terror. He glosses over heartbreaking assassinations in 1968 that led to gun control measures (it wasn't all about the Black Panthers), but the most telling stat is this: “77 percent of white gun deaths are suicides while 82 percent of black gun deaths are homicides.” So maybe eventually white gun owners will eliminate themselves?
- There will be continued talk about the Seahwaks 10-9 victory over the Vikings in below-zero weather in Minneapolis, but few will write about it better than Art Thiel.
- Well, unless it's Joe Posnanski.
- The long read of the week: “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare,” by Nathaniel Rich, in The New York Times Magazine. Read it and realize why DuPont and other corporations are our worst nightmare: what they knew, when they knew it, what they did about it, how they were punished for it. Try not to be sick.
How to Win Primaries and Influence the Conversation
Coming back from Trader Joe's this morning, I heard a bit of “This American Life.” They were talking about Dale Carnegie's seminal book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and one person's interaction with it. I actually sat in the car after I got home to listen for another five minutes, then brought the groceries in.
The most extensive passage from the book that they quote, at least while I listened, is this:
Personally I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn't think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted. I didn't bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangled a worm or grasshopper in front of the fish and said: “Wouldn't you like to have that?”
Why not use the same common sense when fishing for people?
Who did this passage make me think of? Donald Trump. Folks on the left talk about him as if he were a monster or a buffoon, but mostly I think he's a salesman; his current rhetoric is simply the bait he's dangling. A lot of people are biting, sadly, but then he's a good salesman. For now.
Comparing Shots: 'Revenant' and 'Clockwork Orange'
You know that head thrown back, helpless and enraged look on Leo's face as his son is killed in front of him in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's “The Revenant”? This one:
It felt familiar to me. It took a little thinking, and then I remembered. I don't know how I could ever forget. The rape scene in “A Clockwork Orange”:
Patricia and I saw “The Revenanat” yesterday, and it's much recommended for people who like this kind of thing—which seems to be fewer and fewer of us. But it's truly breathtaking and horrifying. It's not nature good/man bad; each have their horrors. Further reading here: David Thomson in Film Comment.
I was exhausted after the screening yesterday. I was exhilirated but thought, “Glad I saw it but I don't want to sit through it again.” It's a day later and now I do. I've got my second wind. I'll be the one who returns.
Quote of the Day
“It is the truth that right-wing populist nationalism, of the sort that Donald Trump currently offers, far from being a special growth of our period and its specific discontents, has been constant and mostly unchanging throughout America's modern history. ...
”The contours of the ideology are always exactly the same, even if its internal shadings, its chiaroscuro, differ: an evil foreign force (Freemasonry, Communism, terrorism) awaits outside to destroy all that we value, and is working in collusion with an élite who either don't oppose it adequately or are actually in secret collusion. (It is difficult to recall now that Cold War liberals like Adlai Stevenson were routinely condemned as traitors to their country, but they were.) At the same time, the élite is said to look down on the ordinary people who have detected their treachery. These elements—the exaggerated outside threat, the insistence on élite collusion—and a third, the hysterical certainty that an assertion, any assertion, of national strength will be the antidote, manifest themselves over and over, and probably always will. The keynote is insecurity, and the insecurity is a function not really of the specifics of the moment but of the permanent insecurities of modernity, with its constant dissolution of hierarchies and stable orders.
“The most persistent mistake that historians and politicians have made in analyzing the modern world is to imagine, again and again—a fallacy shared by liberals and Marxists alike—that people will pursue their own economic interests in preference to their ideological fixations. They don't. They never will.”
-- Adam Gopnik, “Why We Remember The Beatles and Forget So Much Else,” in The New Yorker.
'The Force Awakens' Passes 'Avatar" to Become Biggest Box Office Hit in U.S. History (Unadjusted)
Some time on Wednesday afternoon, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” passed “Avatar” to become the highest-grossing domestic movie of all time.
Here are the numbers, courtesy of Box Office Mojo:
That's unadjusted, of course. If you adjust for inflation, it's still hugely impressive:
I love the adjusted list. It's not full of recent and regrettable infatuations like “Age of Ultron” and “Dark Knight Rises”; most are classic films. In the top 10 alone, six decades are represented: 1930s (twice), 1950s, 1960s (twice), 1970s (thrice), 1980s and 1990s. They're also all original films. No sequels or reboots. It's not until you expand into the top 20 that you see any sequels. See if you can spot the pattern among them:
- 12. The Empire Strikes Back
- 15. Return of the Jedi
- 17. Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace
- 20. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
That's right. And the highest-ranking non-Star Wars sequel? “Jurassic World” at No. 24, then “Thunderball” at No. 30. Rounding out the top 50: “The Dark Knight,” “Shrek 2,” “Goldfinger,” Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.“
That's pretty amazing to me—that the top 20 is devoid of sequels except for ”Star Wars“ sequels. I guess that's how much we love George Lucas' universe.
So now that ”The Force Awakens“ has the unadjusted mark, the big question is where it will wind up on the adusted list. I assume it will get to $845 million to become the highest-ranking ”Star Wars" sequel of all time. Might it reach the top 10? That's $938.4 billion. Tougher. And can it reach $1 billion domestic? Toughest. It's already beginning to fall off now that the kids are back in school. Despite a strong weekend, for example, where it fell off only 39%, it wound up falling 54.7% for the week.
Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
What’s your favorite moment? Mine is the lightsaber lying in the snow and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) trying to beckon it with the Force, and struggling, and confused by the struggling, but finally the lightsaber breaks free and flies towards him—and, whoops, past him—and into the hand of Rey (Daisy Ridley), who stares at it in wonder, and then takes up the Jedi pose as the music wells. I had tears in my eyes after that.
And I knew it was going to happen. That’s the thing. It was totally telegraphed. But still. Tears.
A lot of the movie was totally telegraphed. Certainly (and again, please accept this spoiler alert) the death of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) at the hands of his son, Kylo Ren, on the walkway over the giant chasm in the heart of the Starkiller Base, which is like the Death Star to the 100th power, as all of the principle characters, and I mean all of them, Chewie and Rey and Finn (John Boyega), watch in horror. That scene did nothing for me. Although, I have to admit, after Han is cut by the lightsaber but before he falls forever into the void, I liked it when he caresses his son’s cheek. It’s not only a tender gesture but a kind of exquisite revenge. Kylo, after all, is fighting to stay on the dark side, and, for him, love hurts. “I want to be free of this pain,” he says, right before he sticks it in. So Han, in a way, sticks it back.
But most of my favorite moments in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” involve Rey. Ridley lights up the screen with the force of her face, and the humanity in it. I think I’ve got a crush.
Here’s the problem everyone’s identified: She’s a bit of a quick study. What’s the first time we see Luke Skywalker summon anything with the power of the Force? Is it his lightsaber in the snow, as he hangs upside down in the wampa’s cave in “The Empire Strikes Back”? That’s after how much training and how many months/years? Rey, she does it after, what, a day or two? And with no training? And with a Jedi master also trying to summon it away from her? But I get why Disney and writer-director J.J. Abrams went this route. Our attention spans are shorter than they were a long time ago, in movie theaters far, far away.
Rey of New Hope
So Rey is the key to it all. She’s the awakening of the title, the ray of hope, the big question mark. “Who’s the girl?” they keep asking in the movie. “Yeah, who is she?” we keep asking after the movie. Is she a Skywalker? Luke’s daughter? Probably not. If I had to guess, I’d guess Kenobi. She avoids detection in the Starkiller Base the way Obi-wan did in the Death Star.
Here’s what we know about her:
- She’s a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku.
- Apparently she was abandoned there as a child, and she’s been living hand-to-mouth ever since.
- At the same time, she wants/needs to go back to Jakku, because she feels ... her family is coming back? Is that right? So is she deluded or far-seeing? Deluded, I think. I think that’s why Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) later tells her, “The belonging you seek is not behind you, it’s ahead.”
I do hope there’s not much of a connection to the Skywalkers. The “Star Wars” universe collapses in on itself way too often; way too many roads lead back to Anakin. I’d rather this one didn’t. Plus, if it was Luke, then he was the one who abandoned her. Which would be a total dick move.
Instead, he simply abandons the galaxy. First he saves it (in “The Return of the Jedi”); then, at some point, he trains young Jedis/Padowans but Kylo Ren, son of Han and Leia, turns to the Dark Side, like his grandfather (Darth Vader, yo), and slaughters the rest of the students. We see a flash of the massacre when Rey touches Luke’s lightsaber in Maz’s cantina basement. This is why Luke leaves to a distant part of the galaxy. And that’s why the Empire strikes back (this time as the “First Order”), and we get our oppressive regime again along with our embattled underdogs again. It’s as if the Ewoks never danced.
So it’s odd that Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), this movie’s Emperor, is desperate to find the map to Luke, hidden in the droid BB8. “If Skywalker returns,” he says, “a new Jedi will rise.” Really? Didn’t he already try that? And didn’t it lead to a massacre? So what are you afraid of?
But that’s the plot device that drives the movie, and, yeah, the movie is similar to “Star Wars IV: A New Hope.” Way similar. Intel is hidden in a droid (BB8), who winds up on a desert planet and is befriended by an orphan who is powerful in the Force (Rey), along with a dude who keeps trying to get away from the Rebellion even as he keeps returning to it (Finn). We’ve seen this story before. There’s just so many similarities it’s not worth going into.
It’s also not the first time J.J. Abrams has copied off of George Lucas’ paper (see: “Star Trek” in 2009). Not to mention Steven Spielberg’s (see: “Super 8” in 2011). Do you know “Direct the movie you want to see”? Well, Abrams directs the movies he wanted to see when he was 13.
So why does it work?
One word: personality. The new characters are fun, and the actors who play them exude charm and humanity. Plus the dialogue works. Imagine that: the dialogue. In a Star Wars movie. Take that, prequels!
Finn tries to lead Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) off the First Order’s ship.
Finn (sotto voce): OK, stay calm, stay calm.
Poe: I am calm.
Finn: I’m talking to myself.
Han to Chewie on an ice planet: Oh really, you’re cold?
Finn to Capt. Phasma: I’m in charge! I’m in charge!
Han: Bring it down.
But you know who gets short shrift here? Leia. Again.
After “Jedi,” anyone with a mind went, “Wait, weren’t they twins? So why is it all about Luke? Why is Leia in a bikini and chained to Jabba the Hutt when she too has the power of the Force?” Rey, in this movie, is a way to restore some (gender) balance to the Force. Which she does. But Leia still gets short shrift. She’s a general now, rather than a mere princess, but what does she really do? Has a few scenes with Han. Nags him a bit. About their son. Even this is wrong. Somehow it’s up to Han to turn Kylo Ren around when it’s from Leia that he inherited the Force, and it’s Leia’s father he’s obsessed with. So why doesn’t she go after him? Probably because we’d rather see Han/Harrison in action than Leia/Carrie. But from their perspective it makes no sense.
I’ll still take it. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is what the Star Wars universe is supposed to be: fun. We get desert planets, forest planets, ice planets, water planets. The good guys win, the bad guys stay in power (for the next movie), and my man Luke makes an appearance at the 11th hour and 59th minute. Better, they give us new blood: Rey and Finn and BB8 and Poe, and you’re confident these guys will carry the mantle. You hope the filmmakers realize that. You hope the sequels won’t be so derivative. You hope Abrams and Disney know that the belonging we seek is not behind us, it’s ahead.
Quote of the Day
There are people who might ask, What's so progressive about having an Asian-American family on TV if it's just the same comedy that you would see with a white family?
That's white people talking. No minority would ever say that. And if you went the other direction, those same white people would say, ''Oh, he does too much Asian stuff.''
-- Ken Jeong, “Ken Jeong is Not Cracking Asian Jokes,” in The New York Times Magazine, January 3, 2016
Movie Review: The Big Short (2015)
“The Big Short” is the important, eat-your-vegetables movie that goes down like an ice cream sundae. It’s got big stars, zips, is fun. It shows us Margot Robbie in a bathtub, talking directly to the camera and using the word “fuck.” True, the actual quote is “Now fuck off,” but feel free to extrapolate.
It also concerns one of the most earthshaking events in our lifetime: the global financial meltdown of 2007-08. Before the closing title credits we get some of the numbers: $5 trillion lost, 8 million jobs lost, 6 million homes lost. And that’s just in America. So why did it happen?
For more than a decade, easy money was made (in mortgage-backed securities) in a way that seemed risk-free, so the powers-that-be kept upping the ante until it was no longer risk-free. Until it sank the world economy.
It also happened because regulation was nowhere. Regulation (in the form of the SEC and ratings agencies, such as Moody’s and S&P) was in bed with Wall Street. Sometimes literally, as the movie suggests.
It also happened because you and I let it happen; because we’re perpetually distracted.
Country club/stripper club
There’s a great early line about Lewis Ranieri, a bond trader with Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street investment firm, in the 1980s:
He changed your life more than Michael Jordan, the iPod and YouTube put together.
This is how things used to work. Banks loaned you money for a house, you paid it back with interest, end of story. Wall Street wasn’t interested because each mortgage was small potatoes and required too much work to figure out the risk-factor of the individual homeowner. It was Ranieri’s genius to take a bunch of mortgages, cut them up, and bundle them together as mortgage-backed securities, which minimized risk and turned small potatoes into big ones. Suddenly, bankers went from the country club to the stripper club, and your mortgage was no longer held by the bank but by ... I don’t even really know. I guess the investment firm? No, the investors? Apologies in advance if/when I use the incorrect nomenclature. I’m sure, throughout, I’ll be talking about this stuff like someone talking up the number of “points” a baseball team scores.
But I understand this much: Because there was risk-free money to be made, the banks kept expanding to whom they would loan money, and the terms of those loans; and in the end we got subprime mortgages.
We get a sense of that expansion when Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and his hedge-fund team travel to Florida in 2005 to investigate whether they should short (bet against) the housing market. They meet an exotic dancer who owns/is flipping five houses, and two douchebag brokers making a killing by selling homes to people who can’t afford them. Our hedge-fund guys also meet the future: neighborhoods abandoned by people unable to pay their mortgages when the adjustable rates go up.
“The Big Short” follows four main storylines:
- Michael Burry M.D. (Christian Bale), whose lack of social skills is offset by his math skills. He sees the looming disaster first when the internet bust of 2001 doesn’t correlate to a dip in Silicon Valley housing prices; in fact, they go up.
- Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who follows Burry’s coattails from inside Wall Street but can’t get many others to sign on. Conventional wisdom says a bet against the housing market is a sucker’s bet.
- Mark Baum’s team, which gets involved because of: 1) a wrong number; 2) Baum’s desire to stick it to Wall Street.
- Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock): Two Colorado garage hedge-fund guys who follow Burry’s lead, and, with a reluctant neighbor/mentor, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), try to cash in.
Bale is wonderfully off, Gosling a sharp sword. Carrell is grasping, empathetic and the movie’s moral center, while Pitt shows us a quieter morality. He’s a man who left Wall Street long ago; he’s trying to cleanse himself. Behind the bushy beard and longish hair, Pitt barely moves a facial muscle; he acts with his eyes. He sees the looming disaster and knows it’s a double-edged sword. They all do. They know that in sticking it to Wall Street, everyone suffers.
There’s a nice early scene when Burry visits Goldman Sachs, and lets the suits in the conference room know he wants to bet against the real estate market by buying credit default swaps. $5 million? they suggest. $100 million, he answers. They can’t believe their luck. As he leaves, you see them all laughing and high-fiving one another. Then he goes to Deutsche Bank and others and does the same. He winds up betting against the housing market to the tune of $1.3 billion.
Here’s the question the movie doesn’t answer: How much did these credit default swaps, and subsequent ones, help sink the system? I.e., how less bad would it have been if these guys hadn’t gotten skin in the game?
Writer-director Adam McKay, mostly known for Will Ferrell comedies (“Talladega Nights,” “The Other Guys,” “Anchorman”), keeps us both entertained and informed. He intercuts with relevant quotes (“It ain’t what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” – Mark Twain), and cuts away from the action to have stars (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain) explain the more complicated details of the financial system. Characters constantly break the fourth wall, particularly Gosling’s Vennett.
I could’ve done without the star interludes, to be honest. Robbie in a bathtub was more distracting than informative, and having Selena Gomez, all of 23, explain CDOs was just annoying.
But the script, written with Charles Randolph (“The Interpreter”), from the book by Michael Lewis, is super sharp:
- “It’s like 2+2 = fish.”
- “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I‘ll have my wife’s brother arrested.”
- “The truth is like poetry, and most people hate poetry.”
I thrilled at the intelligence of this movie. I can see myself watching it again and again.
One of my favorite exchanges is during the Florida trip, when the douchebag brokers keep talking up the dupes to whom they sell subprime mortgages. Baum, confused, talks sotto voce with his team:
Baum: I don't get it. Why are they confessing?
Moses: They‘re not confessing.
Collins: They’re bragging.
In America, every braggart is confessing; you just need to listen.
Ken Griffey Jr. Elected to the Hall of Fame with Highest Percentage Ever
The swing. Oh, the swing.
After nearly 40 years of existence, the Seattle Mariners have a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. And what a member.
Ken Griffey, Jr. was elected to the Hall of Fame today with 99.3% of the vote. That's the highest percentage ever for entry into the Hall of Fame. Ever. Here's the top 15:
|1||Ken Griffey Jr.||2015||99.3%|
And here's a Ken Griffey Jr. story, one of many. Maybe I've already told it to you. It was a game in '93/'94, and I was at the Kingdome with my friend Mike. I had to go to the bathroom, then realized, after leaving my seat, that Junior was up, so I stood in the entryway during his at-bat. It went to 3-0. “Do you greenlight him?” I yelled to Mike, who was close by over the railing. Mike looked down at his scorecard, looked back up, shook his head. “I would!” I shouted. And he was. And the next pitch? Gone. I smiled at Mike, who shook his head.
But that was the typical kind of thing we would see back then. I remember a game against the Blue Jays at the Skydome with Roger Clemens on the mound. First time up, Junior hit a homerun. Second time up, first pitch, Clemens threw at Junior's head. Second pitch? Gone.
So many times. “Wait, let me just watch Griffey's at bat.” Gone.
By my ticket-stub history count? I saw him hit 45 homers in person. Actually, 46, since I saw him hit one in 2009 when he came back. There may have been more. How lucky have I been? I may not have seen the Mariners in the World Series but I got to see Ken Griffey Jr. play on a regular basis.
Some extra reading on Junior:
- A TV news report from back in 1987 on 17-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. playing for the Bellingham Mariners.
- My man Jim Caple counts down the Griffey feats: 24 from No. 24.
- C. Trent Rosencrans has a great story about the time he told Junior about his mother's cancer diagnosis. It's an ongoing story.
- Rosencrans' story makes sense to me since I already knew about Junior's work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
- I wrote this post the day Ken Griffey Jr. retired in 2010.
- A few days ago, David Schoenfield wondered whether Junior would be the first unanimous selection. I assumed not. Nice thought, though.
- MLB has put some of the classic Griffey moments (first at-bat, first Kingdome at-bat, a few great catches) on YouTube.
Quick question: Who was the last man elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame whose representative team hadn't retired his number yet? C'mon, Mariners, let's get on that.
The Mainstream Media Strikes Back (Finally!)
Because how often can you regurgitate lies with a straight face?
Quote of the Day
“We need to develop new technologies that make guns safer. If we can develop technology that you can't unlock your phone unless you've got the right fingerprint, why can't we do it for guns? If a child can't open a bottle of Aspirin, we should make sure that they can't pull the trigger on a gun.”
The Four Attorneys of Steven Avery
In my day job, I talk to top attorneys around the country, and one of the questions we often ask is, “What’s the best advice you’ve received?” Here’s one of my favorite answers, which came to us from multiple sources:
Take the work seriously but don’t take yourself seriously.
It’s advice I wish I’d heard 30 years ago. The first part I’m fine with—I’ve always worked hard—but I think I've always taken myself a little too seriously.
I kept flashing back to this piece of advice while watching Netflix’s 10-part documentary series, “Making a Murderer,” which Patricia and I binge-watched, like so many of you, during the final days of 2015. We watched one episode Tuesday last week, six episodes on Wednesday, the final three on Thursday. It has relevance to my work, but we kept going because Patricia couldn’t stop. She had to find out more; I already knew. I knew because, as editor of our Wisconsin magazine, I kept coming across the story.
“Making a Murderer” is about Steven Avery, a Manitowoc County, Wisc. man convicted of sexual assault in 1985 who was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2003. Two years later, in the midst of a $36 million lawsuit against the county and its police department, and weeks after key figures had been deposed in that lawsuit, Avery was arrested again, this time for the rape/murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. He was ultimately tried for her murder—all rape charges stemmed from a suspect confession from Avery’s 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, on March 2, 2006—found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The 10-part documentary suggests this was a miscarriage of justice.
And it was a miscarriage of justice despite the excellent representation Avery had. I was in an odd position watching the doc because I knew the players. Once Avery was arrested for the Halbach murder, for example, his appellate lawyer, Stephen Glynn, recommended two criminal defense attorneys, and with each name, I went, “Oh yeah, he’s good.” I knew their reputations. I knew they represented the profession well. And they do here, too.
Of Avery’s four main attorneys, in fact—two civil, two criminal—our publication has featured three of them, and, oddly, not because of their involvement in the Avery case. Robert Henak first came to our attention because he collected “drug tax stamps.” Glynn was our cover subject in 2007 because he was top-ranked, and has a long history of big cases, including representing (and exonerating) Native-American activist Leonard Peltier on a murder charge in Wisconsin. We ran our 2012 Q&A with criminal defense attorney Jerome Buting initially because he was a cancer survivor; he’d actually been diagnosed on, of all days, Sept. 11, 2001.
Each of these features, of course, also spends a good deal of time on the Avery cases. Together, they almost represent a timeline of his cases.
Henak’s story ran in 2005, and ends this way: “When Avery was set free [on the 1985 charge], Henak cried. Justice had been a long time coming—too long coming—but finally it had been done.” As we went to press, Avery was about to be arrested for the Halbach murder.
Glynn’s story ran in 2007 after Avery’s trial and conviction, and we focus on the emotional effect all of this had on the attorney who helped set him free: “Glynn never got over the feeling of guilt he felt the day Avery was arrested for the photographer’s murder.”
The Buting Q&A, from 2012, starts with a presumption of innocence. “I think his fight for justice is going to go on,” Buting says at one point. “It may take a long time before the truth comes out.”
The one attorney we’ve yet to feature is Avery’s other criminal defense attorney, Dean Strang. We’ll rectify this soon, I’m sure.
All four of these attorneys made me think of the above quote—the above piece of advice. Because they all take the work seriously but they don’t take themselves seriously. They’re advocates; they don’t grandstand or bask in the limelight. They know it’s not about them; they know it’s about something bigger.
Sadly, this can’t be said for every lawyer in “Making a Murderer.” There’s a lot of sad takeaways about our criminal justice system here, but one of the saddest to me is this: Attorneys who represent the profession well could not, in the end, win a case against those who don’t.