My Oscar Picks
Every year we have an Oscar pool, and every year friends tell me they can't do it because they haven't seen enough (or any) of the nominated movies, and every year I tell them the same thing. You're better off that way. You don't have any opinions. You can vote with the head and not the heart.
The picks below are heart picks; they're what I want to win. Your mileage will vary—particularly if you like “Mad Max.” (See Nathaniel at Film Experience, who inspired this post):
- PICTURE: “The Revenant,” but I'd be happy with “The Big Short” or “Spotlight.”
- DIRECTOR: Alejandro Inarritu, “The Revenant.”
- ACTOR: Leo, damnit, for “The Revenant.” One, he's most deserving; and, two, let's get this over with already and move on.
- ACTRESS: Charlotte Rampling, “45 Years,” although I'm not passionate here.
- SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies,” although Sly makes for a better story, and let's face it this is a stacked category.
- SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Rooney Mara, “Carol.” If she'd been nominated in lead, I would've picked her there, too.
- ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Pete Docter, et al., for “Inside Out.”
- ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay for “The Big Short,” a book that no one, including its author, could envision as a movie. These guys nailed it.
- CINEMATOGRAPHY: Emmaneul Lubezki, “The Revenant,” but I'd be happy for the oft-nom'ed, never-won Roger Deakins winning for “Sicario.”
- FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: “Theeb,” yo! Sadly, haven't seen any of the others, even though three (“Son of Saul,” “Mustang” and “A War”) are currently playing in Seattle. Who wants to go this week?
- ANIMATED FEATURE: “Inside Out,” although I haven't seen most of the others.
- PRODUCTION DESIGN: Adam Stockhausen, et al., for “Bridge of Spies.”
- FILM EDITING: Hank Corwin, “The Big Short.”
- COSTUME DESIGN: Sandy Powell for “Carol.”
- VISUAL: Andrew Whitehurst, et al., for “Ex Machina,” although I'll take “Star Wars.”
- MAKEUP AND HAIR: Lesley Vanderwalt, et al. for “Mad Max.” I'll give them this one since there are only two other options, and “100 Year Old Man” should not win.
- ORIGINAL SCORE: No skin in this game.
- ORIGINAL SONG: Blech. Worst category, year after year.
- SOUND MIXING: I don't know enough about this to have an opinion.
- SOUND EDITING: Seriously, what do I know?
- DOCUMENTARY: Wow, I haven't seen any of these! When was the last time that happened?
- DOC SHORT: Someday I have to get off my ass and see the shorts before the Oscars.
- LIVE ACTION SHORT: See above.
- ANIMATED SHORT: See above.
Movie Review: The Mermaid: Mei ren yu (2016)
It’s a mix of “Splash” and “Pretty Woman” with a strong environmental message; a Stephen Chow comedy (“Kung Fu Hustle”) whose jokes are either poorly translated, way too broad, or downright bloody; and a romance in which a billionaire becomes a better man through the love of a good woman. Er, mermaid.
Oh, and after only two weeks it’s the biggest box-office hit in Chinese movie history, grossing $419 million.
So it’s not just the U.S. Other people can spend half a billion dollars on crap, too.
Like baby seals
I’ll tell you what I liked about this thing, but first the plot.
As the movie opens, asshole industrialist Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) outbids other asshole industrialists, including his sometime lover Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi, showing cleavage and leg throughout), for a parcel of land on the Chinese coast. Everyone thinks he overpaid since the area is a protected habitat for dolphins. Nope. He planted sonar devices in the water, scattered the dolphins, and now it isn’t. Now apparently he can do whatever he wants.
Then at one of those pool parties for the rich and tasteless, an odd girl, apparently tipsy, wearing makeup as if applied by a six-year-old, clumsily tries to come onto him. He throws her out, but we follow her as she skateboards around town, eats barbecued chicken, and goes to a shack on the coast that, through a series of Rube Goldberg-like devices, leads us to an underground cavern, near an ancient shipwreck, where she, a mermaid named Shan (Lin Yun, or Jelly Lin, a 19-year-old newcomer/hottie), lives with the rest of the mermaid/man crew. They, too, were scattered by the sonar device. Some are dying (sores), and it’s Shan’s job to lure Liu Xuan to the cabin so they can kill him.
That nearly happens after their first real date, but by then the super-innocent Shan is falling for the bastard and dismisses him to save him. Twenty-four hours later, he proposes. Then he finds out she’s a mermaid. For a reason I can’t fathom, he goes to the cops (who laugh at him), tells his board of directors (who disbelieve him), and confides in Ruolan, who not only believes him but has teamed up with a mermaid-obsessed westerner to find, capture and study the creatures. And that’s what they do. While Liu is stuck in traffic (really?), Ruolan’s entire team of mercenaries infiltrates the cavern. And guess what they do? They massacre the mermaids. They take out machine guns and turn the water red with blood. When the mermaids jump onto land to try to get to safety, they’re clubbed like baby seals.
Reminder: This is a romantic comedy.
I don’t know if Chow is making a statement about cruelty to animals, or if this is one of those Chinese things, like eating live monkey brain, that doesn’t quite translate; but it’s not even an anomaly within the movie. Earlier, at a sushi bar, the leader of the mermaid outcasts, Octopus (Luo Shun), has his still-attached limbs skewered, diced and ground up as part of running gag that was painful to watch—particularly since Chow plays it for comedy. But the mostly Chinese crowd at Pacific Place on Friday night got it; as I was wincing, they were laughed along.
Wise and powerful
Anyway, I promised you something I liked about the movie and here it is. At this awful moment of turning the water red, the mermaid matriarch, who has been an occasional fount of wisdom throughout, uses her powers—thrashing her tail like a martial arts weapon—and creates a near-tidal wave that douses the bad guys.
Sure, so on the one hand this is really stupid. Why didn’t she do this before the mercenaries machine-gunned half her people? Why wait for the 11th hour? But of course we know the answer. Because the movies like nothing better than an 11th hour.
But here’s what I liked: In many Chinese movies the elderly are not only wise but powerful. They’re often the most powerful.Does this tradition come out of martial arts, where, even into old age, you can retain power? In the U.S., the elderly are generally portrayed as not only not powerful but not wise, either. It’s one of the things I’ve always hated about western culture: our denigration of the aged; how quickly we dispose of them.
Anyway, there’s a big chase—of Shan—and she’s about to be killed when (11th hour!) Liu arrives to save her. The epilogue is all married bliss and undersea tours. It’s not a bad message for a society that pollutes as much as China’s does. Mostly, though, I liked the granny.
Newcomer Lin Yun (Jelly Lin) treads water in “Mei ren yu” (“The Mermaid”),which is smashing box-office records in China.
Lancelot Links is Not Throwin' Away Its Shot
- From November 2015: PBS' “The News Hour” on Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop musical “Hamilton.” Yes, about the 10-dollar founding father without a father.
- I didn't know this: Miranda went to the same high school as MSNBC's Chris Hayes, who interviewed him almost a year ago, in March 2015.
- A lot of encomiums in the wake of Justice Scalia's wake. But not from the man my friend Adam calls “Toobs”: Jeffrey Toobin.
- Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) gives a nice speech about the unprecedented obstructionism by Mitch McConnell on the Scalia vacancy. Shorter version: Mitch McConnell is a big fat idiot, and other observations.
- Pres. Obama actually has a piece on SCOTUSblog on the subject: “A Responsibility I Take Seriously.” laying out what he's looking for in a SCOTUS justice: 1) supremely qualified; 2) someone who interpets the law, doesn't make it; and 3) someone with real world experience, who, in particularly gray areas, won't rely on the law's footnotes but that experience.
- Even the usually staid NY Times Op-Ed has had it with the GOP and reports, “Senate Republican Lose Their Minds On a Supreme Court Seat.”
- Reagan scholar Jacob Weisberg on how the modern GOP is betraying the legacy of Ronald Reagan in the name of Ronald Reagan.
- Nice piece in the Times on how the journalists in “Spotlight” view the experience of seeing themselves on the big screen.
- The Post has an advantage: “Spotlight”'s managing editor, Marty Baron, is now the Post's managing editor. So he wrote his own piece about the experience. Colleagues seem to think Liev Schreiber's Baron was pretty good. “He nailed you,” people said. After two hours. Really, both pieces are in praise of actors as well as journalists.
- Reporter Julia B. Chan of revealnews.com counts down the favorite movies about journalism by journalists. Or at least the few hanging out in her office. My top 3 is their top top 3, just in a different order.
- And from the Dept. of Here's Why We Can't Have Nice Things: an excellent New Yorker profile on the man behind the gossip-site TMZ, Harvey Levin.
Ranking The Hollywood Reporter's Ranking of Every Marvel Comics Movie
“Oh no! Even though THR forgot how bad I was, EL is darkening my bad name again!”
The Hollywood Reporter put together a ranking of every Marvel movie ever made. I mean ever. Roger Corman is included. So is “Man-Thing,” a 2005 film I didn't even know existed.
All in all, it's not a bad list. It was put together by John DeFore, Leslie Felperin, and Jordan Mintzer, and my main beefs, off the top of my head, would be:
- “Guardians of the Galaxy” should be higher
- “Spider-Man 3” should be much, much lower
Aw, fuck it. Here's their ranking, and mine, sorted by the difference between us. (I've eliminated the seven or so Marvel movies I haven't seen: the “Blade” movies and the like.) Links go to my reviews.
The movies at the top are the ones THR ranked higher; at the bottom, the ones I ranked higher. Your results will vary.
|9||Avengers: Age of Ultron||18||9|
|26||X-Men: The Last Stand||34||8|
|13||The Amazing Spider-Man||20||7|
|30||Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vegeance||33||3|
|29||Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer||31||2|
|4||Captain America: The Winter Soldier||5||1|
|10||Captain America: The First Avenger||11||1|
|14||X-Men: Days of Future Past||15||1|
|21||Iron Man 3||22||1|
|22||The Amazing Spider-Man 2||23||1|
|16||The Wolverine (2013)||16||0|
|15||Iron Man 2||14||-1|
|25||X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)||24||-1|
|31||Fantastic Four (2005)||28||-3|
|23||Thor: The Dark World||19||-4|
|11||Guardians of the Galaxy||6||-5|
|32||Fantastic Four (1994)||26||-6|
|35||Captain America (1990)||27||-8|
|18||The Incredible Hulk||9||-9|
|19||X-Men: First Class||10||-9|
|34||Fantastic Four (2015)||21||-13|
Yeah, that's right. I'll go out on a limb that FF2015 wasn't great but it's not nearly as bad as everyone's making it out to be. I think it's the best of the FFs. Low bar, I know.
Mostly, though, I agree with THR.
NY Times: 'Senate Republicans Lose Their Minds'
“The truth is they are afraid — and they should be. They know Mr. Obama has a large pool of extremely smart and thoroughly mainstream candidates from which to choose a nominee. They know that if the American people were allowed to hear such a person answer questions in a Senate hearing, they would wonder what all the fuss is about.
”So Mr. McConnell and his colleagues plan to shut their doors, plug their ears and hope the public doesn't notice. The Republican spin machine is working overtime to rationalize this behavior. Don't be fooled. It is panic masquerading as strength.“
-- New York Times Op-Ed, ”Senate Republicans Lose Their Minds on a Supreme Court Seat," February 24, 2016
Mitch McConnell and 'Dark Money,' Part II
“One reflection of [the Koch brothers'] singular status was their relationship with the new majority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell. Only a few months before assuming that position, McConnell had been an honored speaker at their June donor summit. There, he had thanked 'Charles and David' and added, 'I don't know where we would be without you.' Soon after he was sworn in, McConnell hired a new policy chief—a former lobbyist for Koch Industries. McConnell then went on to launch a stunning all-out war on the Environmental Protection Agency, urging governors across the country to refuse to comply with its new restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.”
McConnell to Kochs: You complete me.
Mitch McConnell and 'Dark Money,' Part I
“The [James Madison Center for Free Speech]'s sole goal was to end all legal restrictions on money in politics. Its honorary chairman was Senator Mitch McConnell, a savvy and prodigious fund-raiser.
”Conservatives cast their opposition to campaign-finance restrictions as a principled defense of free speech, but McConnell, who was one of the cause's biggest champions, had occasionally revealed a more partisan motive. As a Republican running for office in Kentucky in the 1970s, when it was almost solidly Democratic, he once admitted 'a spending edge is the only thing that gives a Republican a chance to compete.' He had once opened a college class by writing on the blackboard the three ingredients that he felt were necessary to build a political party: 'Money, money, money.' In a Senate debate on proposed campaign-finance restrictions, McConnell reportedly told colleagues, 'If we stop this thing, we can control the institution for the next twenty years.'
Money, money, money.
Box Office: 'Deadpool' Keeps Grossing, 'Risen' Barely Rises, 'Witch' Scares Up Little, 'Race' Falls Behind
Once again, “Deadpool” took our milk money, falling off only 58.5% and grossing another $55 mil for a 10-day total of $235. That's the 16th-best 10-day total ever (unadjusted), and indicates where our mouthy manchild might wind up. “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith” is one above it, in 15th place, and it grossed $380; one below, “Twilight: New Moon” conked out at $296. So probably between those, and probably closer to the former. He's your only superhero, after all, until the end of March.
This weekend, three new movies opened, two of which I've anticpated, so of course it's the third one, with the lowest RT rating, “Risen” (Jesus, nonbeliever, resurrection), that rises above the others. But none of them have anything to brag about:
I'm surprised by the shrug elicited for both “The Witch,” which looks truly terrifying, and “Race,” which looks typical of an early season biopic but is still the first feature film to focus on Jesse Owens. Ever.
Definitely no love for “Zoolander 2,” which opened abysmally and still fell off by 60%, for $5.5 mil and 7th place. It's now at $23.7. To be fair, the original hardly killed, grossing $45 in 2000. I guess people thought it picked up a following on cable. Or something.
In eighth place? The 10th weekend of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which is now at $921 million domestic and $2.039 billion worldwide. But it's crawling now rather than zipping at lightspeed.
The best per-theater average? “The Mermaid” or “Mei ren yu,” the latest from Stephen Chow, which is setting records in China. It played in only 35 theaters in the U.S. but grossed $29K per.
Movies I want to see? In order:
- The Witch
- Hail, Caesar! (I know; busy)
- Mei ren yu
The Kochs: Scapegoating the Other with the Kochs' Own Crimes
The following, another great case of right-wing projection, is from Bill McKibbon's review of Jane Mayer's book, “Dark Money,” which is all about how the Koch Brothers and Scaifes and other right-wing richie riches are undermining democracy:
Sometimes the hypocrisy ran so deep that it almost seemed like an inside joke. In 2009, Americans for Prosperity ran a TV ad attacking environmental laws featuring “a louche-looking young man, plucking away at a plate of canapés.” He identified himself as
Carlton, the wealthy eco-hypocrite. I inherited my money and attended fancy schools. I own three homes and five cars, but always talk with my rich friends about saving the planet. And I want Congress to spend billions on programs in the name of global warming.
As Mayer points out, it was David Koch, founder of AFP, who had inherited hundreds of millions, gone to Deerfield, owned four homes including an eighteen-room Park Avenue duplex, and drove a Ferrari.
Or check out the way a young Scaife graduated college. (Psst: It wasn't through hard work.)
The right keeps doing this: scapegoating the other with the right's own crimes. Cf. the Nazis. Which, yes, is how the Koch brothers fortune was made—via Nazi Germany.
Are you reading Mayer's book yet? Shouldn't you be?
Message-Movie Shell Game
Homophobia, exit through the gift shop.
I'm reading the Hollywood/Broadway memoir “Original Story By Arthur Laurents” right now, to calm myself between maddening excursions into Jane Mayer's expose of the Koch brothers (a.ka. why you no longer live in a democracy), and came across this interesting Hollywood “message movie” shell game.
Laurents' first theatrical play, “Home of the Brave,” was made into a movie in 1949. The play was about anti-Semitism but Hollywood made it about racism: a black soldier rather than a Jewish soldier was attacked. Why the switch? Because both “Gentleman's Agreement” and “Crossfire” had been released in 1947, so it was felt that anti-Semitism “had been done.”
Interestingly, “Crossfire” had originally been about homophobia but of course that wasn't commercial in 1947. So...
- homophobia --> anti-Semitism
- anti-Semitism --> racism
No surprise, I'm sure, to Laurents, who is both gay and Jewish, and who had written the following earlier in the memoir, which was published in 2000:
I believed most Americans were prejudiced against homosexuals, Negroes and Jews, in that order. I still do. It's somewhat less overt now because it's somewhat less sanctioned, but bigotry is still alive and killing in the U.S.A.
And here's his take on the switch, not to mention “Gentleman's Agreement”:
In the screen adaptation produced by Stanley Kramer, the Jew was changed to a Negro. When I asked why, Stanley replied: “Jews have been done.” He was referring to the movie Gentleman's Agreement, in which Gregory Peck played a gentile (no stretch) pretending to be a Jew (only in the movies). The picture's moral was Be nice to a Jew because he might turn out to be a gentile. The film version of Home of the Brave was highly acclaimed and was a commercial hit. Not a critic, not a vocal soul was bothered that there were no racially integrated units in the Army like the one in the picture. It was a movie.
It's a good memoir. So far a swirl of wit and drink and sex in New York in the 1940s. Haven't gotten to the blacklist yet.
What If All of Hank Aaron's HRs were Ks?
This is one of my favorite baseball stats ever. Not a stat, I guess, but a factoid. I think I first saw it on Twitter last year.
Here it is:
If all of Hank Aaron's 755 homeruns were strikeouts, he would still have more hits than Babe Ruth and fewer strikeouts than Reggie Jackson.
When I first saw that, I went, “Naaah.” Because it seems like it shouldn't be. Aaron is known for the homeruns, so turning every one of those blasts, the zenith of hits, into whiffs, into goose-eggs, would, you would think, diminish his stature.
Except Aaron also has the third-most hits in baseball history (3,771) so if every whammo was a whiff he would still have 3,016 hits, which is not only more than Babe Ruth but all but 26 players in Major League history.
He's also not high on the career K list (94th, with 1,393), despite big swingers being associated with big whiffers. Add 755 Ks and you get 2,138, which is not only less than Reggie, but also less than Jim Thome, Adam Dunn, Sammy Sosa and A-Rod.
Total bases? Aaron's number, criminally, would be halved: from 6,856 to 3,836. Yet that would still be more total bases than Ichiro, Tim Raines, Mike Piazza, Johnny Bench or Mark McGwire. Among many, many others.
So then I wondered: OK, sure, but how do other homerun hitters rank when you do this? Maybe they're all this way.
Nope. Take away homeruns from the top 10 homerun hitters of all time and you get these hit totals:
|PLAYERS||HITS - HRs|
Only Mays is within 400 hits of him. Most are 800-900 away. McGwire is 2,000 hits away.
And if you add those HRs to the K column for the all-time HR leaders?
|PLAYERS||Ks + HRS|
My way of saying pitchers and catchers reported this week.
- News you only get in Minnesota: The man who inspired the Peanuts character Linus, has died at the age of 90.
- Video you only get in Seattle: A pod of Orcas spotted in Elliott Bay.
- This story about Rod Carew's recovery from a massive heart attack should be a Minnesota one, but I came across it in The New York Times.
- Former EW movie critic Owen Gleiberman has a book out, “Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies.” Jeff Wells turns to the second-to-last chapter.
- My nephew Jordy, 14, recently posted his top 10 movies of 2015.
- “Zoolander 2” might suck but Ben Stiller's female viagra ad is hilarious.
- Why do preseason predictors keep thinking the Kansas City Royals won't do well? They thought that in 2014 when the Royals won the AL pennant. They thought that last year when the Royals won the World Series. They think it again this year. Royals fan Joey Poz tries to break it down.
- People who know me know I'm obsessed with Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical “Hamilton.” Brilliant. Historical. Historic. And a documentary about it is going to air on PBS! Yes! When? In ... September. Aw, man.
- But! If you saw the Grammys the other night, you saw the opening number. And if you didn't, here it is. Starts slowly (Burr!) but picks up.
- And it all began, at least publicly, nearly seven years ago at a White House poetry jam session, when Miranda performed that opening number. Back then it was a concept album. But Miranda kept writing like he was running out of time.
- Speaking of: RIP Justice Scalia. What a mess you left behind. But I like this humanizing portrait, “Driving Mr. Scalia,” by Dean Miller in The Spokesman-Review.
- Here's another humanizing portrait: from Stephen Colbert.
- SCOTUSblog cut through the post-Scalia GOP rhetoric nicely, with a history lesson.
- Finally, my president weighs in.
Pres. Obama alluded to the GOP rhetoric surrounding who he'll appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace Justice Scalia. Measured, thoughtful, forthright: best president of my lifetime. Full stop.
And here he is on the GOP candidates and how Donald Trump, whom he doesn't think will become president, is just better at talking up GOP rhetoric than the others.
Movie Review: 45 Years (2015)
On the Monday morning before her 45th wedding anniversary, which will be celebrated with friends on Saturday, Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) goes for a walk in the flat fields of the English countryside with her dog Max, says hello to the postman, a former student, then greets her husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay), still unshaven and in his bathrobe, in the kitchen. One of the letters in her hand is for him. The contents of it will affect the next five days, and taint their previous 45 years.
“They found her,” he says.
From the trailer I thought the missing person was their daughter, but it’s Katya, his first love. In 1962, he’d been hiking with her in the Swiss Alps when she’d fallen into a fissure. Thanks to global warming, the glacier melted enough that her body, perfectly preserved, was visible if unreachable. It’s a good metaphor for first loves—preserved in ice, irretrievable—and in her late 70s Kate suddenly finds herself competing with a woman 50 years younger; with all of that cold perfection.
Variations in e minor
Their relationship changes subtly and immediately. Geoff tries to probe the depths of his feelings in solitude, which causes Kate to try to get closer. Biscuits in the backyard? Tea? Camera placement highlights this. In the frame, we often see her face, not his. Sometimes we don’t see him at all, as if he isn’t there anymore. In a way, he’s not. He’s visiting the attic in the middle of the night, going into town, mumbling to himself on park benches. Is he returning to Switzerland to see her body? He would like to, but at his age he can’t climb that mountain anymore. Another good metaphor for the past. So he stays where he is; but a fissure develops.
Like themes in a song, we keep getting variations on that awful moment in 1962. Geoff tells Kate he’d hired a guide, a German, who’d fancied himself a Jack Kerouac type. (Kate laughs, knowing how much Geoff dislikes Kerouac—which makes me like Geoff all the more.) Katya spoke German, too, Geoff no, so you get a sense of Geoff being left behind. He allowed himself to be left behind, literally; the other two hiked ahead. He talks about hearing Katya laugh, and how, in his jealousy, he hated her in that moment. Then he heard her cry out as she fell.
What Kate doesn’t explore (the movie either) is how much guilt Geoff must feel about all of this. If he hadn’t been sulking, he would’ve been walking with them; and if he’d been walking with them, would she have died? Is that what he’s doing on the park bench? Arguing against Katya? Kerouac? Himself?
A few days later, we get another variation when Geoff is in town and Kate ascends into the attic. I like how her dog Max whimpers as she prepares to go up, as if he knows there’s danger there, as if he knows this is not regular behavior. He knows the man goes up the ladder, not the woman. But up she goes, into his past. I also like how, in the opening credits, white type against a black screen, we hear a whirring and a clicking. I thought, “Slides?” Yes. After going through his old notebook, its pages mottled and thickened by age, she views the slides he’s been viewing. It’s a great, silent scene: the blurred images of Katya on the right side of the screen, with Kate on the left, in focus, and hardening. She and Geoff have very few photos of themselves—her call—and no kids. Now she discovers Geoff has all of these photos of Katya, perfectly preserved; and in the slides, it’s obvious that Katya was pregnant when she died. So it’s not just his old love that’s forever frozen in the Alps but his unborn child. The slides contain the beginning of a life he tragically didn’t lead. Which makes Kate what? The life he tragically did?
(The pregnancy revelation does raise questions. Why were they hiking in the mountains if she was pregnant? And why the jealousy? Would Kerouac really have come on to a pregnant woman? Would Geoff really have been so jealous? Pregnancy is a different dynamic—woman as mother rather than sex object—so skews things a bit, even as it deepens them.)
More things in their careful world are changing. Each day, the first thing we first see is Kate walking the fields with Max. But by Thursday, no, and Friday she wakes to a note next to her: “I’ve taken the bus into town. Sorry.” Saturday, the day of their anniversary celebration, Geoff wakes her up with tea and breakfast. Now he’s the one trying to get close again—like biscuits in the backyard—and later we get an interlude. She’s digging in the garage and comes across some J.S. Bach sheet music. “Found it!” she calls out. Then she goes into the living room and plays it. But in the entire scene, we never see or hear Geoff. She’s calling out to no one, playing for no one.
How I knew
The Bach is an anomaly. The music we get for most of the movie, and which plays at their anniversary celebration, is ’60s pop. It’s “true love” music: “The only one for me is you/And you for me/So happy together,” etc. That night, in fact, they dance to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by the Platters, which is about as lush and romantic a pop song as there is:
They asked me how I knew
My true love was true
I of course replied
Something here inside
Cannot be denied
But it’s the opposite of romantic here. By now Kate knows, or feels, that she’s not the true love of the song, so she hardens and stiffens in Geoff’s arms, even as he (compensating?) gets looser, loopier. You could say she’s dancing to some other woman’s song on some other woman’s anniversary. Because 45 years? Who does a black-tie celebration for that? That’s why the title of the movie is so perfect. The big one is the 50th, and that’s Katya’s. It’s been 50 years since she died. Is nothing Kate’s? Even their names: “Katya” is exotic, romantic; “Kate,” in comparison, can’t help but sound quotidian. It doesn't compare.
For all of the movie’s quiet power, though, I found myself disappointed in Kate. Almost everyone has their (albeit less tragic) past love, their Katya on ice, and part of aging, part of wisdom, is to accept that, and them. It’s to not buy into the bullshit of the pop song. Charlotte Rampling usually plays smarter, more wordly women.
Even so, “45 Years,” written and directed by Andrew Haigh (HBO’s “Looking”), from a short story by David Constantine, is the epitome of the quiet-but-powerful movie. It’s about what ties us to the past, and what divides us in the present. It’s the unknowability of the heart, and of the other person. It’s the misstep that isn’t righted.
Movie Review: True Legend (2010)
“True Legend” seems like a typical revenge movie until it isn’t; then it slaps on a half hour coda that points the way toward other, better movies. But there’s a meta aspect I found intriguing.
First the plot, such as it is.
Su Can (Zhao Wenzhuo) is a general in 1860s China that’s overrun by foreigners in the wake of the Unequal Treaties. (Fodder for martial arts movie forever.) In a huge cavern, he almost singlehandedly rescues an imperial prince, then in humble, Buddhist fashion, gives up a governorship to return home to his wife, Yuan Ying (the ridiculously beautiful Zhou Xun), and their son, Feng, and start a Wushu school. It’s an odd move. What’s the point of a Wushu school in a China overrun by wyguoren? He also suggests his godbrother as governor, when everyone can see that Yuan Lie (Andy On) is a haughty, resentful man. But off Su goes. And he prospers.
Then Yuan Lie returns with an army to get his revenge. Why revenge? It turns out he and Ying are adopted siblings of Su’s father, who killed Yuan’s father in a battle long ago. Su’s father raised them, but, you know, blood will out. And he beheads the old man, then takes Ying and Feng next to a roaring river. To throw them in? No. He’s waiting for Su. He's itching for a fight.
First thought: Su is so much better at gongfu. How can Yuan take him?
Because he’s been cheating. He’s had armor plating stitched into his skin, like the ironclad ships the Ching dynasty couldn’t defeat. He’s also developed the Five Venoms Fist move, which, for our purposes, turn his arms blue and injects venom into his opponents. That’s how he wins. Su, poisoned, falls into the river, and Ying after him, to save him. The boy gets left behind.
Su and Ying are further saved in the mountains by Dr. Yu (special guest star Michelle Yeoh!), but Su, the man who was so magnanimous in victory, is a poor loser. First he starts drinking. Then he starts punching trees and ripping off their bark. Then martial arts masters appear before him tauntingly, always out of reach. The Old Sage (Liu Chia-Hui) says he will teach him, “Only if you defeat the God of Wushu” (Jay Chou). So day after day, week after week, year after year, Su fights the God of Wushu. And guess what? It’s all in his head. It’s like “Fight Club.” Ying tearfully tries to get him to see this, but it’s only after he finally wins that he sees it himself. “Ying is right,” he says, almost cheerfully. “You are all in my head. I never want to see you again, ha ha ha.”
This sets up the final battle with Yuan Lie, who, being the villain, rigs the game. He has his soldiers bury Ying alive. Problem? He neglects to tell Su this; and Su, ripping off Lie’s armor like it’s the bark of a tree, kills him first. By the time Su finds his wife, it’s too late.
So at this point, we’re 75 minutes in. Our villain is dead, our hero’s wife killed. Where does we go from here?
We go to my favorite part of the movie.
The legend who taught the legend
By the way: You thought Su took the first defeat hard? Even though he has a son to raise, Su becomes a town drunk: long matted hair and beard, tattered rags for clothes, forcing his son to beg for money. Ah, but foreigners are still insulting Chinese women and killing Chinese men. So Su, in his drunken craziness, develops the “drunken fist” style of fighting; and in a raised, star-shaped arena surrounded by tigers, he takes on, and defeats, the usual haughty, muscle-bound foreigners, led by 11th-hour villain Anthony, played with scenery-chewing and line-forgetting aplomb by David Carradine, in one of his last film roles. The End.
But that's not my favorite part of the movie. This is: the title card right before the closing credits.
Yeah, that sounds like a dig, but that title card genuinely made the movie for me. Because it reveals—and I probably should have known this going in—that Su becomes Beggar Su, the giggling, red-nosed master who teaches the drunken fist to the better-known legend, Wong Fei-hung, who’s been portrayed in the movies 100 times—most famously in “Drunken Master,” which made an international star out of Jackie Chan in 1978. More, not only does that movie and this one share directors (famed fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping), but it was Woo-ping’s father, Yuen Siu-Tin, who originally played Beggar Su back in ’78, just a year before his death. So “True Legend” is like Woo-ping resurrecting his own father.
How cool is that?
I just wish I found the movie itself as fascinating.
Zhou Xun: The other reason to see the movie.
The Permanent Campaign
I've been reading Jane Mayer's “Dark Money” over the past few weeks, but only in short bursts. Otherwise I think my head would explode with anger.
It's truly enraging. Since I was born in 1963, this country has gone through social progress but economic regress. We're all more equal now except for the wealthiest among us, who keep getting wealthier. And the reason for that, I would argue, is in the title of Mayer's book: the money that's been funneled into think tanks and universities and politician's pockets to push an anti-regulation, pro-libertarian agenda. All the bullshit political items that seem to come out of left (read: right) field, like privatizing Social Security? That's these guys.
“Dark Money” already feels like the most important book of the year, and I wish more people were reading it. In the meantime, another excerpt:
When Obama took office, the stock market was down nearly six thousand points, and unemployment was shooting up toward 7 percent. As the former senator Tom Daschle later recalled, “There was a growing sense of calamity.” Obama expected bipartisan support at a moment that seemed like an economic version of the September 11, 2001, crisis. He had proclaimed in his 2004 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America!” Or so he thought. Obama's billionaire opponents wasted no time indulging him in a honeymoon. Forty-eight hours after Obama was sworn in, Americans for Prosperity started attacking his first major piece of legislation, a massive $800 billion Keynesian-inspired boost in public spending and tax cuts meant to stimulate the economy, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. ...
What Obama was up against was a new form of permanent campaign. It was waged not by politicians but by people whose wealth gave them the ability to fund their own private field operations with which they could undermine the outcome of the election.
It's not the political campaign anymore, it's the aftermath. That's when the campaign truly starts—when the rest of us are back at our day jobs.
Box Office: 'Deadpool' Takes Our Milk Money
In December, my nephew Ryan took me to his neighborhood comic book store on 48th and Chicago in South Minneapolis to show it off, since he knows I know a lot about comics and superheroes. While there, I talked to the proprietor about various things, including the new Deadpool movie, which he thought would do incredibly well when it opened in February. He thought it would be a blockbuster. I nodded politely but said nothing. A relatively unknown and profane superhero with a small but rabid fanbase in an R-rated flick? Opening on Valentine’s Day weekend? Right. Good luck with that.
The previous record for a February opening belonged to “Fifty Shades of Grey” ($85 mil last year), followed by “Passion of the Christ” ($83 mil in 2004).
This wekend, “Deadpool” blew past them, grossing an estimated $135 million in three days. That’s the 17th-best opening weekend ever, and the highest for an R-rated movie. (Previous: “The Matrix Reloaded”: $91.7 in May 2003.) So the torch has been passed to a new generation of superheroes: born after Frank Miller, steeped in a bankrupt pop cultural miasma, ready to mock anything and everything.
My review is here. (Psst. I wasn’t much of a fan.)
A few extra b.o. thoughts:
- Why are the top three February box-office hits R-rated movies? Do we just open more “R” movies that month?
- There are now four months that don’t have a $100 million opener: January (best: $89 mil), August ($94), September ($48) and October ($55). Unless studios switch things up, I assume Sept. will be the last to fall.
“Deadpool” also grossed $125 million abroad, so it’s not just the United States that loves this kind of thing. Snark is global.
15 SCOTUS Justices Have Been Nominated and Confirmed During Election Years
It's not even an argument, but the GOP, and the money behind the GOP, and the sad false equivance in the mainstream press, is making it so.
In the wake of Justice Scalia's death yesterday, the immediate, in-step, GOP talking point was that Pres. Obama, the twice-elected voice of the people, with nearly a year left in office, shouldn't put forth a name to replace Scalia; that it should be left to the next president, elected in November. That somehow it's unprecedented if Obama does anything.
It's not. In the history of this country, 34 names have been submitted either during election years or during presidential lame duck periods (which used to run six months), and 15 of those have been approved:
|Samuel Chase||January 26, 1796||January 27, 1796||Washington||1|
|Oliver Ellsworth||March 3, 1796||March 4, 1796||Washington||1|
|John Marshall||January 20, 1801||January 27, 1801||J. Adams||7|
|William Johnson||March 22, 1804||March 24, 1804||Jefferson||2|
|John Catron||March 3, 1837||March 8, 1837||Jackson||5|
|Samuel Nelson||February 4, 1845||February 14, 1845||Tyler||10|
|William Burnham Woods||December 15, 1880||December 21, 1880||Hayes||6|
|Melville Fuller||April 30, 1888||July 20, 1888||Cleveland||81|
|George Shiras, Jr.||July 19, 1892||July 26, 1892||B. Harrison||7|
|Howell Edmunds Jackson||February 2, 1893||February 18, 1893||B. Harrison||16|
|Mahlon Pitney||February 19, 1912||March 13, 1912||Taft||23|
|Louis Brandeis||January 28, 1916||June 1, 1916||Wilson||125|
|John Hessin Clarke||July 14, 1916||July 24, 1916||Wilson||10|
|Benjamin N. Cardozo||February 15, 1932||February 24, 1932||Hoover||9|
|Frank Murphy||January 4, 1940||January 16, 1940||F. Roosevelt||14|
If it hasn't happened much recently, it's because it hasn't come up much. There was the nasty Abe Fortas battle, in which the GOP denied LBJ's final appointment in 1968. (Nixon got to make it in 1969, and chose Warren Burger to replace Earl Warren as Chief Justice.) Justice Kennedy had his name put forth in late November '87 by Pres. Reagan and he was confirmed during an election year, Feb. 1988.
But it's happened a lot in our history, particularly in our early history. And what better way to honor Justice Scalia, the court's first originalist, than by proceeding in the manner of the founding fathers?
Dear Sen. McConnell: Get Over It
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next supreme court justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.” — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, following the death today of Justice Antonin Scalia at the age of 79.
Dear Sen. McConnell: We do have a voice. We chose him on Nov. 6, 2012. To quote Justice Scalia on Bush v. Gore: “Get over it.”
Movie Review: Deadpool (2016)
Deadpool is a snarky, profane former mercenary named Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) who develops cancer and takes a tortuous, sadistic cure that makes him a superhero: both 1) impossible to kill, and 2) butt ugly. When his friend, Weasel (T.J. Miller of HBO’s “Silicon Valley”), sees him again, he tells him his mottled, hairless face looks like an avocado had sex with a much older avocado. He says he looks like Freddy Krueger face-f**ked a topographical map of Utah.
If that’s your idea of great humor, you’re in for a treat.
To me, “Deadpool” is like the superhero genre itself: It’s impossible to kill, and it’s gotten a little ugly.
Spidey + Wolverine + Punisher
There’s a through line in superherodom that generally points toward the darker and grimmer: from the All-American families of Superman and Batman in the 1950s, to the wise-cracking of Spider-Man and the grumpiness of Ben Grimm in the early 1960s, to the even grumpier Wolverine and deadly seriousness of the Punisher in the 1970s, to the vigilantism of Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Dark Knight in the 1980s.
Deadpool, who showed up in 1991, takes it up a notch: He wisecracks like Spidey, heals like Wolverine, and kills like the Punisher. But his most obvious superpower is meta. He’s self-referential. He comments upon the rules of the genre from within the genre. The only thing he breaks more than bad guys’ heads is the fourth wall.
When you get down to it, he’s us. He says about the movie what you and I would say about the movie if we were watching it in your mom’s basement.
Example: This is right before the final act. The bad guy has kidnapped the girl (Morena Baccarin, num), it’s Deadpool to the rescue, but first he stops off at the Xavier School for Gifted Students (X-Men HQ) to pick up some reinforcements. Earlier in the movie, he’d encountered two of the X-Men—Colossus (two dudes: motion capture/voice) and a bored teenage girl called Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand)—during his opening set-piece attack on a highway overpass, and they’re the only two around when he rings the bell. Deadpool talks up the size of the mansion, the facilities, then points out the obvious: “Funny,” he says, “I always see the two of you. It’s almost like the studio could only afford two X-Men.”
That made me laugh out loud, since I’d been thinking it a second earlier. And there are a lot of laughs here, even for a curmudgeon like myself. But is this a losing strategy? They’re not fixing the problems of the genre, they’re just making snarky comments from within the genre. It’s like Deadpool is winning the battle (this moment) but losing the war. He’s badmouthing the entire enterprise on its way down.
It would probably be worth it to parse why I like Spidey’s wisecracks but not Deadpool’s so much. Maybe because Spidey seemed to believe in something? Or he had a wider cultural vision? Deadpool is another character—like “Ted”—choking on the miasma of a bankrupt popular culture, and enjoying it either ironically (Wham!) or as a cudgel. He describes cancer, for example, as “Yakov Smirnoff opening for the Spin Doctors at the Iowa State Fair.” Right? Cuz Wham! good and Spin Doctors bad. Plus Iowa State Fair bad because you know what Iowa and state fairs are like. Even if you haven’t been to either. Especially if.
Good at what it does
The movie, directed by Tim Miller (his first feature), and written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Zombieland”), has the same ironic tone. During the cancer treatment/torture scenes, we get “Mr. Sandman” on the soundtrack. For the stop-action opening it’s Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning.” The closing credits begin with Wham! (“Careless Whisper”) then get serious—that is unironic—with Salt-N-Pepa (“Shoop”).
You know Wolverine’s line, “I’m the best at what I do but what I do isn’t very nice”? “Deadpool” is good at what it does but what it does isn’t really worth it. There’s a disconnect here, a cultural schizophrenia. We know we shouldn’t like the things we like, so we mock them even as we indulge in them. At some point, is there a reckoning? Or do we just keep fooling ourselves until game over, man?
Movie Review: The Monkey King 2 (2016)
Once again, Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng), a devout Buddhist monk, travels west to find scriptures to bring back to the hedonistic east, and once again he’s accompanied on this perilous journey by Bajie (Xiao Shenyang), the half-pig creature; Wujing (Him Law), the water/celestial creature; and most important and powerful of all, Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok), the Monkey King, who is given to mischievousness and bursts of anger and violence. Oh, and once again their main nemeses are sexy women/demons, led by Baigujing, the White Bone Spirit (international actress Gong Li), who wants to eat Xuanshang to attain immortality. Because that’s how you do it in the east. Fountains of youth, schmountains of youth. It’s all about the monks.
I keep saying “once again” because all of this is from the classic 16th-century Chinese novel “Journey to the West,” which is invariably translated into English as “The Adventures of Monkey.” It’s as widely known in China as “Don Quixote” in Spain, or “The Wizard of Oz” here, and it shares qualities with each. I still have a copy of the book from my days in Taiwan. (Mouse over movie poster to see.) I never got around to reading it.
But I’ve seen versions before. Last spring, the Seattle International Film Festival showed two of them: the 1927 silent film “Cave of the Silken Web,” and its 1967 Shaw Brothers remake, in which the sexy women/demons are in reality giant spiders. Since this is “Monkey King 2,” I figured we would be past this part.
Freed to be trapped
Apparently the first movie, which set opening box office records in China in 2014, focused on chapters 1-7 of “Journey,” in which Wukong gains more and more power, and more and more hubris, until he challenges heaven itself. He’s only thwarted when the Buddha traps him under a mountain.
This one picks up 500 years later when Tang Sanzang begins his journey west. He’s quickly abandoned by his two human disciples after a giant tiger threatens them and Sanzang flees into a cave—the same cave, it turns out, where the Monkey King is trapped. Sanzang releases him, and the Monkey King is free again! Well, yes and no. He’s trapped, in a sense, by the Goddess—think Glynda, or a Deus Ex Machina—who ensures that a journey is taken, friends found, lessons learned; who ensures, in other words, that we get a story.
Meanwhile, further west, children are being kidnapped by the White Bone Spirit and never seen again. Except she’s not really doing the kidnapping; the king is, and he’s using the blood of the children, held in small cages, to stave off a crippling disease. Not that the White Bone Spirit is all good, mind you. She still kills humans to stay young. She also tries to trap Sanzang so she can eat him. Gong Li, by the way, is great in the role: all whispery, sexy insinuation. When she moves through the air, her long dark dress billows behind her as if they were steps she had taken. They’re like building blocks that then go poof. It’s a great effect—eclipsed only by Gong Li herself, who, at 50, looks 20 years younger. A steady diet of devout monks maybe?
The chief conflict throughout the journey is the Monkey King’s ability to see danger and kill it, and Sanzang’s inability to see the same danger and his constant admonition against killing.
So is Sanzang devout here or naïve? Or both? And will the way he punishes the Monkey King (constricting a gold band around his head via Buddhist chants) cause the Monkey King to rebel against him? Also, how do you end the story if not by killing the villain?
Actually, that’s my favorite thing about “The Monkey King 2.”
There’s the usual big final battle, in which the White Bone Spirit brings to life an army of skeletons surrounding her palace (think: “Jason and the Argonauts”), and when these are shattered and defeated by our heroes, the remnants are swirled into one giant skeleton (think: “The Mummy”), who tries to get at Sanzang. Nope. Monkey King wins. The White Bone Spirit is in the process of dying, and her spirit will never be reborn. Victory!
Except the movie actually lives up to the precepts of its protagonist. Instead of revenge and killing, we get forgiveness and sacrifice. Sanzang, knowing he will be reincarnated, sacrifices himself so that the White Bone Spirit, who was once human, can be reincarnated, too; so her spirit can live on. Sanzang’s physical body turns to stone, and in the end it’s carried on the back of the Monkey King, who, with Bajie and Wujing, continue the journey.
How cool is that?
The rest of the movie is just CGI swirls. For me, “The Monkey King 2” is most interesting for being what western movies are not.
Final thought: Getting eaten by Gong Li: Surely there are worse ways to go.
“Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend.”
-- Pres. George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796
“It's one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I'll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
-- Pres. Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, 2016
“We are going to start winning again. We don't win anymore as a country. We don't win on trade. We don't win with the military. We can't beat ISIS. We don't win with anything. We are going to start winning again. And we're going to win so much, you are going to be so happy. We are going to make America so great again.”
-- Donald Trump, victory speech after winning the Republican New Hampshire primary Tuesday night
PARIS REVIEW: I once interviewed Allen Ginsberg, and asked him why he wrote the way he did—to which he replied, “Just because I do!” Is there much more to be said by poets about why they write the way they do?
SIMIC: Probably not. I write to annoy God, to make Death laugh. I write because I can’t get it right. I write because I want every woman in the world to fall in love with me. One can try to be clever like that, but in the end it comes down to what Ginsberg said.
-- from “Charles Simic, The Art of Poetry No. 90” in The Paris Review
What Liberal Hollywood? Part 89
John Leguizamo says what I've been saying for years—although, in this USA Today Op-Ed about #OscarSoWhite, etc., he's saying it about the place, while I've been saying it about the product:
For all the talk about “liberal Hollywood,” the film industry is as conservative as any other wealthy institution. If Hollywood were a U.S. state, it would be Alabama. It's more conservative than TV. It's more conservative than Broadway, which was the dinosaur of the media world not too long ago.
Then he talks up the musical, “Hamilton,” in which people of color play the founding fathers, and which has been my absolute obsession these past few weeks. Here's an early version of the opening number. Here's a CBS Morning Report on Lin-Manuel Miranda. In the #OscarSWhite controversy, Spike Lee also referenced “Hamilton,” specifically the song “The Room Where It Happens,” insisting—like Leguizamo and Viola Davis—that it's a matter of opportunity; of getting into the room where it happens.
Oscar Watch: Guilds Have a Threeway
“Revenant” carries home its DGA.
For the first time since 2004, the three major guild awards (Actors, Producers, Directors) have awarded their best picture to three different movies. Back then, actors went “Sideways,” producers “The Aviator,” and the directors chose “Million Dollar Baby,” which wound up winning both best director and picture at the Oscars in March.
This year, the actors chose “Spotlight,” the producers “The Big Short,” and last night the Directors Guild went with Alejandro Inarritu for “The Revenant.” It's the second year in a row Inarritu has won the DGA, which, I believe, has never happened before.
Who saw it coming? Me. Kinda. This was last Sunday:
I could see a 3-way split among the guilds: Spotlight (SAG), Big Short (PGA), Revenant (DGA). So like 2004 but w/better movies— Erik Lundegaard (@ErikLundegaard) January 31, 2016
Inarritu and “The Revenant” had a shot with the DGAs, I thought, because it was the most visually spectacular movie among the nominees. Just gorgeous. It's a real director's movie the way that “Spotlight” is an actors movie.
A secondary reason: In a season of #OscarsSoWhite noise, Inarritu is the only person of color nominated in the major awards categories.
I actually teased Oscar predictor Sasha Stone about this. All month she's been hot with #OscarSoWhite anger because of the lack of noms for people of color, yet she's not a “Revenant” fan. After SAG, we had this exchange:
To be honest, I'd be happy with any of the three winning best picture. They landed exactly 4, 3 and 2 in my top 10 movies of 2015, and the No. 1 slot is a foreign film. I think “Spotlight” is important, “The Big Short” even more important (also more entertaining), but I think “The Revenant” is the most artistic of the three. But again, any of them.
Oh, and if Inarritu wins the Oscar for best director, too? Which he seems likely to do? It'll be the fourth year in a row a non-white person has won the award. #BestDirectorSoNotWhite?
Here's a recent history of the guilds:
|Year||DGA||PGA||SAG - CAST|
|2015||The Revenanat||The Big Short||Spotlight|
|2013||Gravity||Gravity/ 12 Years a Slave||American Hustle|
|2011||The Artist||The Artist||The Help|
|2010||The King's Speech||The King's Speech||The King's Speech|
|2009||The Hurt Locker||The Hurt Locker||Inglourious Bastards|
|2008||Slumdog Millionaire||Slumdog Millionaire||Slumdog Millionaire|
|2007||No Country for Old Men||No Country for Old Men||No Country for Old Men|
|2006||The Departed||Little Miss Sunshine||Little Miss Sunshine|
|2005||Brokeback Mountain||Brokeback Mountain||Crash|
|2004||Million Dollar Baby||The Aviator||Sideways|
|2003||Lord of the Rings||Lord of the Rings||Lord of the Rings|
|2001||A Beautiful Mind||Moulin Rouge!||Gosford Park|
|2000||Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon||Gladiator||Traffic|
Final thought: I actually like years like this. I like it when the hardware is divided among good movies, and we're not sure what will happen Oscar night.
That Idiotic 'Hail, Caesar!" Race-Based Protest
On the town.
Thursday was an annoying online day for me. First that idiotic Frank Underwood meme, then this. Clowns to the right of me, jokers to the left.
On the Daily Beast site, frequent contributor Jen Yamato interviewed the Coen Brothers about their movie, “Hail, Caesar!” and asked them about #OscarSoWhite. They weren't really hip to the protest. Or they thought everyone cares too much about the Oscars. Which is true. Here, too. Although, in my defense, I don't really care so much as I'm intrigued by what the Academy decides to honor each year; what the conversation is. Really, the point of the Oscars is to disappoint, and everyone has their breaking point when they stop caring too much. Mine happened in March 2006.
Anyway, Ms. Yamato brought up why the cast for “Hail, Caesar!” was in fact so white: all of these white 2010s Hollywood stars playing 1950s Hollywood stars. The answer, of course, is obvious, but in the piece she only brings it up to bypass it:
Such overwhelming whiteness could conceivably be explained away by pointing to the milieu of Tinseltown circa the 1950s, when the industry's racial demographic was far less diverse than it is today. I asked the Coens to respond to criticisms that there aren't more minority characters in the film. In other words, why is #HailCaesarSoWhite?
Then the Coens responded. And they weren't exactly Minnesota Nice about it.
“It's important to tell the story you're telling in the right way, which might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity—or it might not.”
“You don't sit down and write a story and say, 'I'm going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,'—right? That's not how stories get written. If you don't understand that, you don't understand anything about how stories get written and you don't realize that the question you're asking is idiotic.”
“It's not an illegitimate thing to say there should be more diversity in an industry. But that's not what that question is about. That question is about something else.”
In a way, Yamato was brave to include all of this in her piece. She allowed herself to be an idiot in print to make a larger point.
Except she, and a lot of other people, think her smaller point is the legitimate one. Some of these people are friends of mine who are friends of hers, and who defended her on the usual social media outlets. I went the opposite route. I pointed out that all of these hashtag protests actually cancel each other out:
- #OscarSoWhite only because...
- #MovieIndustrySoWhite, and...
- It was incredibly so in the early 1950s, when “Hail, Caesar!” is set, which means ...
- #HailCaesarSoWhite as a protest makes no fucking sense.
So Thursday was a long day.
That Idiotic Frank Underwood Meme
A friend posted this on Facebook the other day:
She leans right, I lean left, and we had the following FB conversation:
Me: Frank Underwood (pictured) succeeds by lying, manipulating, threatening and killing. Is that the message this meme wanted to convey?
She: Didn't make it so I can't speak to author's intent. I prefer to take the words at face value.
Me: If you want the meme to mean something, you have to earn it. This is just sloppy.
She: Think you may be over analyzing it a bit.
So if she didn't make the meme, who did? Ted Nugent, it turns out. Or it came from his FB page. So,yeah, not overanalyzing. It's an anti-entitlement message, which means it's anti-Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. It's saying: If you don't succeed, you only have yourself to blame.
It made me think of a story I'd just read in Jane Mayer's book, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” which everyone should be reading. I mean everyone. It's the most infuriating read ever.
The story is about a man named Donald “Bull” Carlson, who began to work at the Koch Refining Company in Rosemount, Minn., in 1974. He often worked 12- and 16-hour days, scrubbing out huge storage tanks that had been filled with leaded gasoline. He vacuumed up fuel spills. Sometimes vapors from the storage tanks were so powerful they blew his helmet off.
In 1995, Carlson became too sick to work any longer at the refinery. When he obtained his company medical records, he and his wife were shocked by what they read.
In the late 1970s, OSHA had issued regulations requiring companies whose workers were exposed to benzene to offer annual blood tests, and to retest, and notify workers if any abnormalities were found. Companies were also required to refer employees with abnormal results to medical specialists. Koch Refining Company had offered the annual blood tests as legally required, and Carlson had dutifully taken advantage of the regular screening. But what he discovered was that even though his tests had shown increasingly serious, abnormal blood cell counts beginning in 1990, as well as in 1992 and 1993, the company had not mentioned it to him until 1994. Charles Koch had disparaged government regulations as “socialistic.” From his standpoint, the regulatory state that had grown out of the Progressive Era was an illegitimate encroachment on free enterprise and a roadblock to initiative and profitability. But while such theories might appeal to the company's owners, the reality was quite different for many of their tens of thousands of employees.
Carlson continued working for another year but grew weaker, needing transfusions of three to five pints of blood a week. Finally, in the summer of 1995, he grew too sick to work at all. At that point, his wife recalls, “they let him go. Six-months' pay is what they gave him. It was basically his accumulated sick pay.” Carlson argued that his illness was job related, but Koch Refining denied this claim, refusing to pay him workers' compensation, which would have covered his medical bills and continued dependency benefits for his wife and their teenage daughter.
In February 1997, twenty-three years after he joined Koch Industries, Donald Carlson died of leukemia. He was fifty-three. He and his wife had been married thirty-one years. “Almost the worst part,” she said, was that “he died thinking he'd let us down financially.” She added, “My husband was the sort of man who truly believed that if you worked hard and did a good job, you would be rewarded.”
The story made me think of Boxer, the strong, loyal horse in George Orwell's “Animal Farm,” who works hard to make the farm succeed, and who is rewarded by the pigs when he's old by being shipped off to the glue factory. The pigs in “Animal Farm” are communists, of course, but it's a leftist critique of communism. The point being that in the end, the pigs are just as bad as the other human farmers; they're just as bad as capitalists like the Koch brothers.
So Ted Nugent's sloppy Frank Underwood meme is more apt than he realizes. Want something? Earn it by being a ruthless sonofabitch. Earn it by being a horrible human being. It's so much easier to get ahead if you don't give a fuck about anyone else.
Speaking of: Ted Nuget has some authentic autographed memorabilia he'd like to sell you.
The Origins and Ironies of the Tea Party
“Critics would later point out that [Rick Santelli's] indignation had not been similarly stirred by the Bush administration's bailouts of the country's largest banks, about which he had grumblingly conceded, 'I agree, something needs to be done.' Yet when Obama proposed help for the over-extended underclasses, Santelli looked into the camera and shrieked, 'This is America! How many of you people want to pay your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom, and can't pay their bills? Raise their hand. President Obama, are you listening?'
”As his fellow traders whistled and cheered, he went on to say, 'We're thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I'm gonna start organizing.' From the start, the analogy was inapt. As Michael Grunwald, author of The New New Deal, a richly reported book about Obama's stimulus plan, observed, 'The Boston Tea Party was a protest against an unelected leader who raised taxes, while Obama was an elected leader who had just cut them.'"
Movie Review: Guilty By Suspicion (1991)
It should’ve been a slam dunk. A Hollywood movie about the blacklist (with its obvious heroes and villains) that was originally written by someone who had been blacklisted (Abraham Polonsky, “Force of Evil”), and starring one of the greatest actors of his generation (Robert De Niro).
So what happened? Why does it lie there?
I think it combines too many stories into too few characters in a way that doesn’t make sense dramatically or historically.
Take the opening. In September 1951, Larry Nolan (Chris Cooper) testifies in private session before the white-haired, fat men of HUAC—one literally smoking a cigar—and begs them not to force him to name names. “Don’t make me crawl through the mud,” he says. “They’re my friends.” It’s a powerful scene. The next time we see him, Nolan ruins a welcome-home party for director David Merrill (De Niro) by shouting, to the movie people gathered, “Who are we trying to kid? We’re all dead!” Then he goes home to burn books in his front yard—including, I should add, “The Catcher in the Rye,” which, since it had been published only two months earlier, was hardly on anyone’s list of “subversive” material yet. Upstairs, his wife, Dorothy (Patricia Wettig), drunk and hysterical, makes accusations and throws his clothes/typewriter out the window. It’s the stuff of melodrama. But that’s not the worst of it.
For the rest of the movie, Nolan becomes a major asshole. After naming his wife’s name, he sues her for sole custody of their child, and wins, since she, a former communist, is an unfit mother. (And he? No? Because he ratted?) She winds up alone, unemployable, and eventually kills herself in front of Merrill and his ex-wife, Ruth (Annette Bening), by driving her car off a cliff. At her funeral, Nolan doesn’t bat an eye.
This is a helluva 180: from begging “Don’t make me crawl through the mud” to throwing it on everyone without a thought. It’s like Nolan is two different people. Which he is.
The powerful opening scene is based on the 1951 testimony of Larry Parks (“The Jolson Story”), who used the “crawling through the mud” metaphor before HUAC in ’51, betrayed friends, and was blacklisted anyway. But he didn’t become a major asshole; he and his wife, Betty Garrett, stayed together. The second half of the 180? That’s probably based on someone like Elia Kazan, who named names but took a kind of neocon pride in it. Of his 1954 film “On the Waterfront,” he writes, “When Brando at the end yells . . . ‘I’m glad what I done!’ that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.” (ADDENDUM: A better possibility is Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter of “Waterfront,” who testified against his ex-wife, Virginia.)
And you can’t do that. You can’t combine two very different people and think you’ve made a whole character.
‘Wait, with who?’
We have a bigger problem with our main character. David Merrill seems bright enough, but at times he’s about as sharp as Homer Simpson.
Merrill, a golden boy director, has the ear of studio chief Darryl Zanuck (Ben Piazza), and has just returned from a few months in Europe, ready to start his next picture. Then the party; then the book burning, where Nolan warns him about HUAC: “Wait until Karlin and Wood put your nuts in a vise.”
He doesn’t have to wait long. The next morning, Zanuck breaks the news:
We got a problem. I got a board of directors in New York, and ... I gotta listen to ’em when they tell me my movies won’t get played because some guy running for Congress has a hard-on for Hollywood. Business is lousy, the theaters are empty, everyone’s staying home to watch Milton Berle dressed up as a woman. And now this.
Merrill’s quiet response: “What do you mean, ‘Now this,’ Darryl?”
Zanuck then gives him the name of an attorney, Felix Graff (Sam Wanamaker, who was himself blacklisted), to get straightened out.
Merrill’s quiet response: “I’m sorry, Darryl, I don’t get this.”
Then he goes to see Graff in a dingy hotel room (to preserve his rep, Graff says), and Graff talks about clearing his name with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Merrill’s response: “Wait. With who?”
Then HUAC stooge Ray Karlin (Tom Sizemore, playing essentially Roy Cohn) emerges from the shadows, and says, “It’s probably no surprise to you that your name has come up as a communist sympathizer.”
Yes. Yes, it is a surprise. “Wait a minute,” Merrill says, “I’m no communist. I went to a couple of meetings 10 or 12 years ago—that’s it.”
I guess the point is to show how innocent Merrill is. It takes him this long to get up-to-speed. But man is it boring.
Since Merrill refuses to cooperate, the Zanuck gig, and other gigs, disappear. People won’t take his phone calls; friends desert him. They accuse him. They think he named their names, since they know how much making movies means to him. That’s a dull little subplot, actually: Merrill realizing that he spent too much time on work, and not enough with family, and with his kid, Paulie (Luke Edwards, soon seen in “Little Big League”). So he amends his ways. He becomes a better father. Yay.
Eventually he goes to New York to see about work there. He visits old theater friends, the Barrons (Stuart Margolin and Roxann Dawson), but doesn’t let them know he’s been named. Which is, again, not smart. Doesn’t he get it? He’s got the plague. Everyone he’s with can get contaminated. A good scene at the Barrons’ apartment exemplifies this. It’s just Merrill and Felicia. She’s drinking, acting flirty, and lets him know Abe is away for the weekend. Then Merrill mentions he’s being followed by HUAC investigators. Talk about your cold water! She says the following in rapid order:
- “Do you think they followed you here?”
- “I think you’d better go, honey.”
- “And stay away from the theater, OK? I don’t want Abe to have any problems.”
She’s supposed to be awful in this scene, but he isn’t much better. His innocence is a liability.
Is De Niro a liability? He internalizes everything. He’s just there. When Martin Scorsese shows up in a small role as Joe Lesser (i.e., Joseph Losey), a director who flees to England to keep working, and gives us that Scorsese rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, it’s a relief. It’s pizzazz and excitement and life. As opposed to what De Niro is giving us.
The one lively moment with Merrill is when he gets a B western and begins directing again; he takes over and the cast and crew suddenly light up because they know they’re in the hands of a pro. But it calls attention to what’s been missing. The movie is about a guy who does one thing well, and we don’t get to watch him do that one thing. Which, yes, is the point. But surely there’s a better way to dramatize it.
An ounce of decency
That western, by the way, is another odd amalgamation. It’s a B version of “High Noon,” in which the lead is a young, B-list actor named Jerry Cooper, rather than an old, A-list actor named Gary Cooper. Jerry even tries to defend Merrill the way Gary did with Carl Foreman, “High Noon”’s blacklisted screenwriter; but Jerry, unlike Gary, has no clout, and the producer questions his loyalty. It leads to one of the movie’s best lines:
Jerry (angrily, to producer): If you want to call me a commie, you got to back it up!
David (quietly, to Jerry): Jerry, if he wants to call you a commie, he doesn't need to back it up.
In Polonsky’s original version, Merrill actually was a communist; but writer-director Irwin Winkler took over and turned Merrill into a fairly apolitical everyman. It pissed off Polonsky so much he took his name off the product and badmouthed the movie all the way to the theaters.
He was right. Even the final dramatic showdown against HUAC, with flashbulbs popping, doesn’t quite work. I like that Merrill doesn’t know what he’ll do until he does it. I also like the fact that the members of HUAC don’t back down even after he gets all Joseph Welch in their faces. “Don’t you have an ounce of decency?” he tells them when they ask about Dorothy Nolan. “Don’t you have an ounce of shame? She’s DEAD!” But, no, they don’t have any shame; they keep talking. As in life. What’s the significance of the line: “I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch?” It’s what Sen. Joseph McCarthy says after Welch asks him if he has no sense of decency. We think of Welch’s line as a game-changer; but it didn’t change the game immediately, only historically. In the moment, McCarthy kept attacking. Because he had no sense of decency.
Except Merrill can’t be Welch. Welch was an attorney sparring with McCarthy in 1954, not an accused director dealing with HUAC in 1952. Winkler has Merrill take a principled stand, and he’s followed by a friend, screenwriter Bunny Baxter (George Wendt), who takes the same principled stand: I will answer any questions about me but not about my friends. It’s seen as a kind of victory, this ending. Merrill and his wife walk out of the hearings in triumph. But can’t HUAC find Merrill and Baxter in contempt—as it did with the Hollywood Ten? Won’t they go to jail? Won’t they still be blacklisted for another 10 years? The movie wants it to be a happy ending but it isn’t. Hollywood wants the hero to come from Hollywood but he didn’t.
Hail, Joel and Ethan!
From an interview with Joel and Ethan Coen by Ramin Setoodeh in Variety:
Has [the movie business] gotten more or less crazy with time?
Ethan: Probably less crazy, sadly.
Is that because studios are less inclined to take risks?
Joel: Is that what it is? I’m not so sure, to tell you the truth. Studios have always been, in a certain way, risk-averse.
Ethan: I agree — I wouldn’t blame the studios. Like Barney Frank once said: “People talk about how horrible politicians are. Sometimes the electorate is no prize either.” The audience for movies, their tastes have gotten more homogeneous. Mainstream movies used to be more adventurous because people went to them.
As someone who pays attention to box office, all I can say is: Amen.
Worst Movie Critics Ever: The FBI Notes on Anti-American Movies of the 1940s and '50s
Red propaganda. Obviously.
At the end of “J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War” (recommended), author John Sbardellati includes a glossary of movies that the FBI tagged as suspect. It's a lot of fun. Some highlights:
- “Buck Privates Come Home” (1947), starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello: “One scene portrays a party given for a General, while other scenes reflect an enlisted man on KP duty, making the audience unnecessarily class conscious.”
- “Crossfire” (1947), directed by Edward Dmytryk: “This picture is a good example of placing over-emphasis on the racial problem.”
- Gentlemen's Agreement“ (1947), directed by Elia Kazan; starring Gregory Peck and John Garfield: ”A Police Lieutenant is a party to anti-Semitism and as such is subjected to much criticism.... This was a deliberate effort to discredit law enforcement.“
- ”The Marrying Kind“ (1952), directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin; starring Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray: ”The [Counterattack] article reflected that pickets led by Catholic war veterans would protest [Judy Holliday's] appearance in this picture because of her impressive front record which included affiliations with such organizations as the Civil Rights Congress, the Council of African Affairs, the National Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions and many others.“
- ”Mr. Smith Goes to Washington“ (1939), directed by Frank Capra; starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Claude Rains: ”First Hollywood movie to show tie-up between Congressman and Big Business.“
- ”State of the Union“ (1948), directed by Frank Capra; starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn: ”Seems to be a deep seated dislike for most of the things America is and stands for.“
- ”The Treasure of the Sierra Madre“ (1948), directed by John Huston; starring Humphrey Bogart: ”Walter Huston makes a speech in this picture which ... is practically a direct quotation from Marx's 'Das Kapital.'“
- ”It's a Wonderful Life“ (1947), directed by Frank Capra; starring James Stewart: ”The picture represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers."
Why I Stopped Reading Fiction
I’m 53, but I still think of myself as the person I was from about 18 to 35, the one who found an author he liked and kept reading them: Salinger to Irving to Vonnegut to Roth to Doctorow. Baldwin to Updike to Vidal to Mailer to Kundera. The best of Hemingway and Faulkner and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I liked being that person but I think I stopped being that person around 1998. Maybe reviewing crap books for The Seattle Times killed some spark in me. Or maybe working at Microsoft in its games division did.
But I think the biggest factor is that I went online.
Reading, I think, made me feel less lonely. It gave me a connection to somebody—the author—and now online does that. Social media does that. Or tries to do it. But really it does it poorly. It’s salt water for a thirsty man. Even when it works, it’s a simulacrum of a connection. It’s connection in everything but the connecting.
So I should go back to fiction, I should go back to literature, to assuage this feeling; to drink real water after the salt variety. But I don’t. And I think I don’t because reading literature, in some way, actually makes me feel more lonely now. Because I know so few people do it.
But that doesn't explain why I read non-fiction, since, apparently, even fewer people do that. Maybe because non-fiction, on almost any topic, at least connects you to an ongoing conversation on that topic. Read “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer and you can talk about the Koch brothers, or the funding of think tanks, or the rightward drift of our country since the mid-1970s. A fictional book simply connects you back to that book. It should, of course, connect you to a larger discussion about aesthetics, but that conversation seems reserved for academics. And it helps if you have a book group, but ... sometimes those make me feel a little lonely too.
Quote of the Day
“Blaming Obama for the GOP diehard strategy. Like blaming the town's first black family for the burnt spot in their front yard.”
-- Illustrator Eric Hanson, on Facebook, responding to the book “Buyer's Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down,” which includes a blurb by Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Movie Review: Big Jim McLain (1952)
“Big Jim McLain” is a fascinating cultural artifact. It’s the first movie from John Wayne’s independent company (eventually: Batjac Productions), and it’s apparently the only Hollywood movie that turns members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)—which was, at the time, ruining Hollywood lives—into heroes.
A little background before I get to the greater irony. HUAC’s original reason for investigating Hollywood was as follows: 1) The film industry was crawling with commies, who were 2) injecting red propaganda into mainstream American movies and warping American minds. But while HUAC had some examples of 1), it was never very good at proving 2). In 1947, for example, it called Ayn Rand, a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (like Wayne), to testify, and she tagged the World War II-era “Song of Russia” as propaganda. The Russians in it, she said, were smiling, and Russians never smile. “Pretty much no,” she said when questioned. “If they do, it is privately and accidentally.”
As a result, during the second round of Hollywood hearings that began in 1951, HUAC pretty much dropped 2) and focused on 1). Basically: Betray your friends or end your career. Or both, in the case of Larry Parks.
Go get 'em.
Here’s the awful irony: While HUAC had trouble proving left-wing propaganda in Hollywood movies, preview audiences had no trouble at all distinguishing the right-wing kind in “Big Jim McLain.” Among the preview comments, as recounted in Scott Eyman’s biography, “John Wayne: The Life and Legend”:
- “Good in spots, except for the too, too obvious propaganda (and I am NOT a Commie).”
- “[Stephen Vincent] Benet would turn over in his grave the way he was quoted.”
- “One wonders about the future of this country when this sort of tripe passes for Americanism.”
The movie presents HUAC as surprisingly toothless. (All the better, I suppose, to show us the need for a stronger HUAC.) It opens with a left-wing professor taking the fifth before the committee while investigator McLain (Wayne) and his sidekick Mal Baxter (James Arness) seethe on the sidelines. Here’s Wayne’s voiceover:
Eleven frustrating months we rang doorbells and shoveled through a million pages of dull documents, and proved to any intelligent person that these people were communists, agents of the Kremlin; and they all walk out free.
Yes, that’s what happens. The witness is excused and Wayne claims that Dr. Carter will return to his “well-paid chair as a full professor of economics at the university—to contaminate more kids.” Instead of, you know, having his life completely upended. Or winding up in jail. (See: Hollywood Ten.)
Wayne’s voiceover, believe it or not, is actually the third voiceover in the film. And at the three-minute mark. That’s how disorganized this thing is.
The first voiceover (Harry Morgan) is the folksy, cornball kind. It talks up Daniel (or “Dan’l”) Webster, and suggests you can summon him from his grave by calling his name:
And sometimes the ground will shake and he’ll respond, “Neighbor, how stands the union?” And you’d better answer the union stands as she stood: oak-bottomed and copper-sheathed! One and indivisible! Or he’s liable to rear right out of the ground!
Then we get a bland, bureaucratic voice to talk up HUAC’s good works:
We, the citizens of the United States of America, owe these, our elected representatives, a great debt. Undaunted by the vicious campaign of slander launched against them as a whole and as individuals, they have staunchly continued their investigation, pursuing their stated beliefs: that anyone who continued to be a communist after 1945 is guilty of high treason.
Then we get the rest of this horseshit movie.
McLain and Baxter (who, like a lot of Wayne’s 1950s sidekicks, is a hothead, to better highlight Wayne’s cool one), fly to Hawaii to ferret out a Soviet cell there. The ringleader is named Sturak, and he’s played by Alan Napier, who would later play Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, in the 1960s camp classic “Batman.”
What’s the commie plan? To “create a paralysis of island shipping and communications.” Who’s a commie? Eggheads mostly: a doctor, a labor lawyer, a bacteriologist, a rising star in the labor union. One guy, who looks like a bruiser but has a glass jaw when fighting McLain, claims to be a country club type, and condemns “white trash and niggers.” Back then, you see, commies played up our “Negro problem,” and this was Wayne’s way of showing that they, and not Strom Thurmond, were the true racists. Our open-mindedness, in fact, is on display in the end, when smiling soldiers report to duty as Wayne, and his fiancée, Nancy (Nancy Olson), stand at attention nearby. Here are the names:
- Donahue! (black)
- Pratt! (black)
- St. John! (Asian)
For a non-military movie, we get a lot of homages to the military. In Hawaii, McLain and Baxter first stop at the final resting place of the U.S.S. Arizona. The soldiers aboard, Wayne tells us, “have been there since Sunday ... Sunday, December 7, 1941.” The date that will live in infamy. And the one that propelled Wayne to join the military. Kidding. Wayne fought World War II from a Hollywood backlot. He became a star.
The plot is thin. McLain and Baxter hand out subpoenas, then get on the trail of Willie Namaka, a member of the party who’s been acting erratically, and who may be ready to talk. Early obvious clues as to commie headquarters (the Okole Maluna Club) are saved for the final reel. Nothing is smartly pursued except Nancy, by Big Jim, and she’s easily caught. You could argue that McLain, for a staunch capitalist, has a pretty lousy work ethic. Just as he and Baxter are on what seems to be a trail, his voiceover interrupts: “The weekdays were real dull. But not the weekends!” Then we get a travelogue of Hawaii: sailing, dinner and dancing.
Two extended comic relief sections go nowhere: a nutjob fellow traveler (Hans Conreid) claims to have met Stalin; and a brassy blonde (Veda Ann Borg) all but blackmails Big Jim into taking her out to dinner before handing over intel about Namaka. Everyone talks up Wayne’s size. He’s 6’4” we’re told numerous times; the blonde even calls him “76,” with its double meaning: inches and “spirit of.” That’s “a lot of man,” she adds. Arness, about the same size, and broader of shoulder, gets bupkis. No, that’s not true. He gets killed. Wayne fights on alone. Because that’s the Hollywood way.
Riding into the sunset
In the end, after McLain saves the day, we get a replay of the opening HUAC hearing in which the commies, including Sturak, plead the fifth and then walk away. Later, McLain has the following conversation with Honolulu’s Chief of Police Dan Liu, played with the expected stiffness by Honolulu’s Chief of Police Dan Liu:
Liu: I wonder how Mal would’ve felt about this fifth amendment.
McLain: He died for it. There are a lot of wonderful things written into our constitution that were meant for honest, decent citizens, and I resent the fact that it can be used and abused by the very people that want to destroy it.
“Big Jim McLain” is a low-budget affair, a B movie with an A actor; but its suggestion that HUAC was an upright but surprisingly toothless organization whose hands were tied once the suspect decided to plead the fifth, and that it, and not the accused, were the victims of “vicious slander,” is beyond insulting.
Nobody seems to get it. For most of its history, Hollywood movies have been unintended propaganda for the right. They’re neocon bedtime stories, tales of good vs. evil, in which good (generally white) triumphs over evil (generally not), and often with a gun. The whole thing is a century-long ad for the NRA. And at the height of Hollywood’s powers, when this absolutist, All-American message was being broadcast around the world, dominating the global film industry in a way that few American enterprises ever dominated their industries, HUAC attacked, and damaged, this Hollywood brand. It accused a successful capitalist enterprise of communist sympathies, and hurt its bottom line in the name of capitalism. Then it rode off into the sunset not knowing how stupid it was. But it left behind this movie to remind us.
UnAmericans this way.