erik lundegaard

Thursday March 31, 2016

One-Sentence Review of 'Batman v Superman'

“I'm just glad we finally found out what happened to Bruce Wayne's parents.”

-- Seth Woehrle

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Posted at 01:58 PM on Mar 31, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Newman!

“Hail, Caesar!” is lesser Coen Bros. but I liked it. It has a bigger heart than a lot of their comedies (cf., “Burn After Reading,” “Barton Fink”) and finds redeeming qualities in even that most pointless of occupations: Hollywood star. It’s really the Coens’ smudged love letter to Hollywood. It doesn’t disparage the place, doesn’t idealize it, just presents it with all of its ordinary, quotidian, comic imperfections.

Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a no-nonsense fixer for 1950s-era Capitol Studios, whose big star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped while shooting the Biblical epic, “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ,” in which he plays a Roman tribune won over by the son of God. (“Squint against the grandeur!” his director shouts at him during the conversion scene.) Baird is then drugged by an extra (Wayne Knight of “Seinfeld”), and taken to a Malibu pad overlooking the ocean, which is occupied by a dozen or so communist writers, who, without much effort, and despite constant disagreement amongst themselves, indoctrinate the star. He becomes a communist. Which is totally unbelievable in the blacklist era—that he wouldn’t know communism, and he wouldn’t know enough to stay away from it—but the movie seems a kind of ’50s Hollywood version of ’50s Hollywood. It mimics the tropes of the genres it reproduces: drawing-room romance; singing cowboy picture; Esther Williams extravaganza; Biblical epic.

The future is calling
Hail, Caesar!At one point, for example, singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), an aw-shucks mensch, is tailing the star of homoerotic musicals, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), and in classic ’50s fashion we see the neon lights of the city gliding by over his car windshield. Later, Gurney defects to the U.S.S.R. The old writers row him out to sea, where a Soviet sub emerges. Per the period, it looks like it was filmed in a giant bathtub.

What makes this almost poignant is the name the writers use in their ransom demand: the Future. We see Mannix trying to fend off one of the movie’s twin gossip columnists, both played by Tilda Swinton, when an assistant tracks him down:

Assistant: I know this sounds screwy, but someone’s calling from the future?
Mannix: Good lord!

All of those genres? They don’t last the decade. Neither does the studio system, while communism  itself will wind up on the ash heap of history. The future is always calling here.

Is that why the Coens are nicer to these characters? Because they recognize their short shelf life? Mannix, for all his toughness, is a man who confesses sins that are hardly sins, even as he spends his days trying to cover up scandals that are hardly scandals: Baird’s drinking; swim star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) having a child out of wedlock; a starlet making “French postcards.” It’s all quaint in the era of Kim Kardashian breaking the Internet. 

All the stars are decent, really. Hobie is a singing cowboy, sure, but he’s not a fake; he can sing, ride, lasso. He’s also humble. Baird is a ham but harmless. He can also inspire with his acting—if he can just remember the words. Hobie’s arranged studio date, Carlotta Valdez (Vernoice Osorio), is sweet, while director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) has almost infinite patience when forced to star the wrong actor (Hobie) in his sophisticated, drawing-room romance. Their scene together, the “Would that it ’twere so simple” scene, already feels like a classic.

The worst person in the movie is probably the twin gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, but they’re so easily sidetracked, and Swinton so good, that it’s all forgiven. Just the way Swinton says “Eddie.” Just that.

HUAC’s fears realized
It is startling that the Coens could make a light-hearted comedy set during the dark days of the blacklist, in which all of HUAC’s worst fears (or hopes) are realized:

  • There’s a communist cell in Hollywood.
  • It’s smuggling red propaganda into movies
  • A Hollywood star is a Soviet spy, who gives the U.S. a goodly portion of homoerotic song and dance as if to undermine American masculinity.

But it’s a Coen movie: all the machinations amount to not much. One of my favorite lines, in fact, comes from a communist writer bragging about his propagandizing. He talks up a fairly anodyne Hollywood scene, then says with self-satisfaction, “Well, I like to think we changed a few minds.”

That might've been my biggest laugh of the night. 

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Posted at 10:08 AM on Mar 31, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Wednesday March 30, 2016

Who's Most Due After the Cubs?

The baseball season is about to begin and the Chicago Cubs of all teams are among the favorites. Joe Posnanski makes his case for the hapless wonders in a piece called “This Is the Year,” which includes this anecdote:

 “We came out of the dugout for opening day,” Cubs pitcher Moe Drabowsky remembered, and this was way back in the 1950s. “And we saw a fan holding a sign: ‘Wait ‘Til Next Year.'”

Chicago CubsMade me laugh out loud. Also made me think of lthe Seattle Mariners today. Which raises the question: If the Cubs make it to the World Series for the first time since 1945, or god forbid win the World Series for the first time since 1908, who will take on the mantle of Hapless Wonders? Who is most due after the Chicago Cubs?

Let me make the argument for the Ms:

  • We are the team with the longest current postseason-less streak in baseball: We last saw October in 2001.
  • We are one of eight teams that has never won a World Series.
  • We are one of two teams that has never even been to the World Series.
  • This despite the Hall of Fame talent on the team in the 1990s: Griffey, A-Rod, Randy Johnson, Edgar, Jay Buhner, Tino, etc. We had Omar Vizquel for a time. We had Ichiro. Has any team had that much talent with so little to show for it?

All telling points. But some part of me wanted to chart it. I wanted to figure out with data points which team was most due. 

I started out with “Years Since Post-Season,” then quickly added “Years Since Pennant” and “Years Since World Series,“ since that’s what it’s all about, Alfie.

But previous pennants and World Series championships should count against you, right? How can the Yankees or Cardinals be ”most due"? They can't. At first I just took away one point for every pennant and two for a championship, but that didn't seem enough; so I bumped it up to 2 and 4, respectively. I gave extra points for the teams that never won a title (+5), or never even went (another +5).

Oh, and I counted current cities rather than franchises. In the chart below, the Nats only go back to 2005, when they moved to Washington, rather than to 1969, when they were born as the Montreal Expos. It's a judgment call. I asked myself: Did the years in Montreal matter to Nats fans? Did the year as the Seattle Pilots matter to Brewers fans? This goes for pennants and trophies, too. Those Philly A’s pennants didn’t wind up in the Oakland column. Ditto Boston/Milwaukee Braves for Atlantans. There's no right answer here. It just felt like it made more sense going with the city. 

But it still didn’t seem right.

It took me a while to figure it out, but it really came down to the Pirates. They were skewed. They’d made the postseason the past few years, so lost points there; but they’d hardly gone anywhere in those postseasons. One and out twice, and the LDS. They had the longest dry run for the LCS, 24 years, since Sid slid, and that should be reflected in some way. So I added another column for LCS, which also bumped the numbers of the Reds, Padres, and Braves. And the M's. Yay.

The result?

TEAMS  Y/Post Y/LCS Y/Penn. Y/WSC Xtra Penn. (-2) WS titles (-4) TOTAL
Chicago Cubs 1 1 71 108   -20 -8 153
Seattle Mariners 15 15 39 39 10     118
San Diego Padres 10 18 18 47 5 -4   94
Milwaukee Brewers 5 5 34 46 5 -2   93
Cleveland Indians 3 9 19 68   -10 -8 81
Houston Astros 1 11 11 54 5 -2   80
Pittsburgh Pirates 1 24 37 37   -14 -20 65
Texas Rangers 1 5 5 44 5 -4   56
Minnesota Twins 6 14 25 25   -6 -8 56
Colorado Rockies 7 9 9 21 5 -2   49
Baltimore Orioles 2 2 33 33   -12 -12 46
Washington Nationals 2 11 11 11 10     45
Atlanta Braves 3 15 17 21   -10 -4 42
Tampa Bay Rays 3 8 8 18 5 -2   40
Miami Marlins 13 13 13 13   -4 -8 40
Cincinnati Reds 3 21 26 26   -18 -20 38
Arizona Diamondbacks 5 9 15 15   -2 -4 38
Toronto Blue Jays 1 1 24 24   -4 -8 38
Oakland Athletics 2 10 26 27   -12 -16 37
Los Angeles Angels 2 7 14 14   -2 -4 31
Los Angeles Dodgers 1 3 28 28   -18 -20 22
Chicago White Sox 8 11 11 11   -12 -12 17
New York Mets 1 1 1 30   -10 -8 15
Detroit Tigers 2 3 10 32   -22 -16 9
Philadelphia Phillies 5 7 7 8   -14 -8 5
Kansas City Royals 1 1 1 1   -8 -8 -12
San Francisco Giants 2 2 2 2   -12 -12 -16
Boston Red Sox 3 3 3 3   -26 -32 -46
St. Louis Cardinals 1 2 3 5   -38 -44 -71
New York Yankees 1 4 7 7   -80 -108 -169

So Cubs on top, followed by the Mariners. Padres and Brewers are neck and neck. Then the Cleveland Indians, who, after the Cubs, have the longest championship dry run. They haven’t won it all since 1948.

Some would put the Indians ahead of the Pads, Brewers and Ms in hapless points, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree: 68 years, boy. On the other hand, they did make it to the World Series when they had all that talent in the mid-90s, even if they lost to the Braves in ’95 and the Marlins in heartbreaking fashion in ’97. The M's never went. 

Which raises another question: Do you get extra points for coming so heartbreakingly close like the '97 Indians, who were a decent Jose Mesa half-inning from a championship? Do you lose points for being a heartbreaker? How do you quantify heartbreak?

The chart's a work in progress; it can definitely be tinkered with. Suggestions welcome. Think of it as a conversation starter rather than stopper. 

One thing we can all agree on: the team least due. By my calculations, the New York Yankees need a half century of utter backbreaking futility, of not even touching the post-season, just to break even; just to be where the Tigers are right now. May they get there. 

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Posted at 06:16 AM on Mar 30, 2016 in category Baseball
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Tuesday March 29, 2016

HR# 738

Hank Aaron at Met Stadium 1975

Opening Day is around the corner so I thought I'd offer the above shot, taken by my father, of the all-time homerun king, Hank Aaron, at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. There was a cool little phenomenon about homerun kings back then. Aaron finished his career in the city where he began (Milwaukee) but with a different team (the Brewers rather than the Braves), just as Willie Mays had finished up his career in New York with the Mets rather than the Giants, and Babe Ruth had finished in Boston with the Braves rather than the Red Sox. 

Bonds screwed up this tradition, of course. The least of the traditions he screwed up. 

Anyway, because Aaron signed with the Brewers, it gave me, an American League kid, a chance to finally see him play in person. That's why we went. That's why a lot of people went. Those stands along the third base/left field side were rarely this packed.

Here's what I remember: I wanted to see Aaron hit a homer, and he did, and I wanted the Twins to win, and they did. 

Not much to go on, but I figured, with Baseball Reference's vast resources, that would be enough to figure out which number homerun this was for Aaron. How many homers could Aaron have hit at Met Stadium anyway?

Two, it turns out.

Right, but how many did he hit in games in which the Twins came back to win

Two, it turns out. Both games wound up 8-7, Twins. The first in May 1975, the second in August. So at least we had a year. 

Other clues?

It's a little blurry but the pitcher on the mound for the Twins appears to be a right-hander. Any luck there?

Nope. On May 17, 1975, Aaron homered off Ray Corbin, a righty in the top of the 5th to put the Brewers up 6-2. Twins scored six runs in the 6th, 7th and 8th innings to win it. On August 11, 1975, Aaron homered off of Tom Johnson, a righty, in the top of the 3rd to put the Brew Crew on top 7-3. Twins scored five more on two homeruns (Eric Soderholm, Steve Braun) to win it.

But I assumed this was from the May 17 game. Why would my father wait until August to see him? Wouldn't we go the first chance we got? 

I also remember being somewhat optimistic about the Twins chances after the come-from-behind win. That would make more sense in May, when we were 15-15, 4 1/2 games back, rather than in August, when we were 53-65, 19 games back.  

Then the more obvious clue hit me. Saturday, May 17 was a day game, Monday, August 11 was a night game. It stays light pretty late in August, but... Nah. The above pic was obviously taken in the middle of the day. It's May 17, 1975.

And that's homerun #738 for Aaron. He would hit 17 more. 

It's not every day you get to see someone hit their 738th career homerun. Thanks, Dad.

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Posted at 05:52 AM on Mar 29, 2016 in category Baseball
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Monday March 28, 2016

Why 'Batman v Superman''s $170 Million Open Isn't the Important Number

Batman v Superman box office

“It's your fault.” “No, it's your fault.” 

Despite often blistering reviews (including mine), “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” opened at $170 million domestic, $254 foreign, for a $424 worldwide opening, which is the fourth-best ever; but that was never really in doubt. It's a summer movie opening in March, and the first cinematic pairing of two of the world's most beloved superheroes. It's supposed to open big. 

You could argue, in fact, that it should've opened bigger. Domestically, sure, that $170 beats anything from the Dark Knight series (unadjusted), but it's still behind, among others, “Iron Man 3,” which opened at $174 million in 2013. 

Batman and Superman together can't beat Iron Man? In the comic book world, that shouldn't compute.

“Iron Man 3” was actually kind of lousy, but it opened well because it followed upon “The Avengers,” which was hugely successful both critically and commercially. Why didn't Batman/Superman open bigger? Three reasons, off the top of my head:

  1. It followed upon, “Man of Steel,” which wasn't particularly good. 
  2. The trailers looked lousy (no “We have a Hulk” moment) and word-of-mouth from critics and others confirmed it.
  3. The non-geek crowd is wearying of end-of-the-world superhero movies.

The truly important number isn't this weekend's gross but next weekend's drop. For these types of movies, a 50-60% drop is normal; anything more than 65 is problematic. Given “BVS”'s big open and general lousiness, I'm expecting 70%. I'm expecting Hulk 2003 numbers. 

Yeah, it's still going to make a mint. But I'm guessing “Batman v Superman” loses hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly as much as half a billion dollars, because it sucked. And that's on Zack Snyder. Specifically it's on the Warner Bros. people who gave him the job: who entrusted their most popular characters, their most prized intellectual property, to the man who made “300,”  “Watchmen” and “Sucker Punch.” 

UPDATE: The final domestic number was $166 million, which puts it behind the last “Harry Potter” film, too. 

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Posted at 07:06 AM on Mar 28, 2016 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday March 26, 2016

Movie Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

This is why you don’t let Zack Snyder play with your toys, DC and Warner Bros. He breaks shit. He ruins your fun with his stupidity.

Seriously, is anyone smart in this thing? Does anyone show the least bit of common sense?

Superman (Henry Cavill) keeps doing that stupid Superman thing: standing around and letting enemies gather. Lois (Amy Adams), for example, is captured in Africa, held at gunpoint, and what does he do? He bursts through the roof and lands 15 feet away in a three-point stance, then slowly stands. Who isn’t sick of that bit? Dude, just swoop in and save her before anyone even knows you’re there. He goes to the U.S. Capitol, there’s a bomb there, he doesn’t figure it out. Boom! He visits flood victims and just hovers above them. Does he rescue them? Snyder doesn’t show us. He travels to Mexico to save a child because he sees she’s in trouble on TV. Is that the only child in the world in trouble? Is she only alive because he saw her on TV? Here’s my favorite. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) kidnaps Supes’ mother, Martha Kent (Diane Lane), to force the titular battle with Batman. What does Superman do? He succumbs. He kneels. I’m like, “Um, dude. Super hearing? Ever hear of it? You know how you found Lois in Africa? Or when she was nearly drowning later? Like that, but with your moms. Oh, and when you return to Luthor, don’t let him talk and push a lot of buttons. Because if he does he creates Doomsday out of the corpse of Gen. Zod and a drop of his own blood. No, don’t do that, I said. No, it’s ... Never mind.”

By the way: How did Luthor figure out Supes was Clark Kent? Do we see that? Is it just assumed? Is it super obvious?

The signal and the noise
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice reviewFor all of his idiocy, Supes is brilliant next to Batman (Ben Affleck). Bruce Wayne loses employees/friends during the grand battle between Supes and Zod in “Man of Steel.” It’s his 9/11 and he blames Supes for bringing the fight, and the destruction, to Earth. Which kinda makes sense. But he also listens to all of the FOX-News-like lies about Superman. It’s a signal and noise thing, and he listens to the noise. He is the noise. Alfred (Jeremy Irons) tries to warn him about this: “That’s how it starts,” Alfred says. “The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel.” To which Bruce says the following:

He has the power to wipe out the entire human race. And if we believe there is even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.

One percent is an absolute. Right. It’s like Bruce and Clark are two morons from “Point/CounterPoint,” each believing the lies about the other. Bruce fears Supes because of his power, Clark doesn’t like Bats because he tramps on people’s civil rights. Oddly, he wants to pursue Batman as a reporter rather than as Superman. Does he even have a goal as Superman? It feels like, “Well, I guess I have to save people again. I guess.” At least Batman has a goal: He wants to stop Superman, the guy who’s helping everyone.

When Batman and Superman first meet—which, keep in mind, is the cinematic event fans have been waiting on for 70 years—this is the exchange we get:

Superman: Next time they shine your light in the sky, don't go to it. The Bat is dead. Bury it. Consider this mercy.
Batman:
Tell me. Do you bleed?
[Superman flies away]
Batman: You will.

It’s the reference to the bat signal that bugs me. Batman has two stages: vigilante and law enforcer. In the former he’s pursued by the cops, in the latter the cops call him via the bat signal. He’s a vigilante here. The signal shouldn’t factor in. But Zack tosses in whatever he thinks is cool at the moment.

For the titular fight, Batman preps by lifting industrial weights like he’s Rocky in “Rocky IV”; then he wears Iron Man-like armor with lit-up eyes; then in the midst he refuses to listen to Superman’s pleas. He’s a dick. He also doesn’t use the kryptonite until like the fourth round. How stupid is that? Me, I’d be springing that surprise early. By the way: Is Superman at all surprised by this substance? Something that can take away his mighty powers? Who knows? Batman uses it once and gains the upper hand (point: Batman); then it dissipates, Supes’ jaw turns to steel again, and it’s not a contest anymore (point: Supes). So Supes allows Batman to use it again (point: no one, because, c’mon, someone show an ounce of sense here). Then Batman is on the verge of killing Superman with a kryptonite spear. Why doesn’t he? For the dumbest reason possible. Supes gasps out his mother’s name, Martha, and that’s Bruce’s mom’s name, too, and ... that’s the reason. That. If either woman had been named something else, or nicknamed something else; or if Supes had choked out, “Mom” rather than “Martha,” game over. The life of Superman, the mightiest being in the universe, hung on the thread of a stupid coincidence.

But at least Supes’ powers return and he saves his mom. Wait. Scratch that. He lets Batman save his mom, because, hell, it’s only his mom. He goes after Luthor. But really he lets Luthor bring Doomsday to life. Which creates more havoc in Metropolis. Which forces Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to finally get involved.

Yeah, Wonder Woman. All of the feminists, male and female, are out in force, saying rah rah and it’s about time; but c’mon, she’s just as dumb as everyone else in this thing.

What is her point? She seems to travel around the world in designer outfits doing what exactly? Who knows? She shows up at Luthor’s gala in order to retrieve a digital photo that shows her with some doughboys in Belgium in 1918? Why does she care? Is that evidence of anything? “Yeah, that’s my great-great grandmom. Yeah, people say we look alike.” And why WWI rather than WWII? Is this some perverse homage to Zack Snyder’s own super-crappy 2011 film “Sucker Punch,” which included WWI trenches and women in teddies sucking on lollipops? Either way, we find out that Wonder Woman hasn’t helped humanity in 100 years—since that photo. What caused the break? Who knows? She seems happy enough in the photo. And why didn’t it happen before WWI? Was she cool with slavery? And after? WWII couldn’t bring her out of retirement? The Holocaust? The Cold War? The Beatles?

Besides .jpgs of WW, Luthor is gathering evidence of other super-powered beings, too, which he calls “Meta-Humans,” and which will, of course, become the Justice League of America. We get short clips of Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg. So let me get this straight: In the Marvel universe, the Avengers were assembled by the U.S. government in the person of Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “I’m putting together a team,” etc. And DC’s response is to have its super team, the Justice League, assembled, at least in PowerPoint presentation, by ... Lex Luthor?

But I guess the government here isn’t smart enough to do any assembling. At one point, Superman is pushing Doomsday into outerspace—away from the Earth, mind you—and what’s the U.S. government’s brilliant move? To shoot a nuke at both of them. To shoot them back to Earth.

Slow. Clap.

70 years for this?
I admit I was wrong about Affleck. I thought he wasn’t intense enough for the role but he makes a good Batman. Cavill is a great Superman but he’s not given enough to do, and no reason for being. Eisenberg? A disappointment. Too crazy jittery, and his schemes are all over the place. The one who acquits himself most is Alfred. It should’ve been his movie. “Alfred: The Movie.” Next time, Jeremy.

Mostly I kept shaking my head. I’d look over at my friend Tim sitting next to me, palms up, like “What the fuck was that?” Don’t get me started on Batman’s nightmares, or Superman’s imaginary conversation with his father (Kevin Costner) in the Arctic, or how he wanders for two seconds in the cold and then, when he returns to save Lois (again), she responds as if he’s been gone for weeks; as if his leaving humanity was a plot point and his return a revelation.

In the end (and again, spoiler alert), Superman dies at the hands of Doomsday, so it’s like Superman #75, vol. 2, back in 1992. And like there, we know it’s not going to last. Supes already died once in this movie, when we shot the nuke at him and he floated in outer space with a shriveled-up face. He got better. He’ll get better here, too.

Sadly, when he does, Zack Snyder will be waiting. With friends like that, who needs Lex Luthor?

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Posted at 08:05 AM on Mar 26, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Thursday March 24, 2016

SLIDESHOW: Batman Movies v. Superman Movies


  • SLIDESHOW: BATMAN MOVIES V. SUPERMAN MOVIES: We know Superman could totally take Batman in a fight—even with Bats wearing that ridiculous armour. But what about a battle of the movies? Who wins that fight? A tougher call. Each has exactly 10 feature-length live-action films and/or movie serials under their utility belts. But whose are better? Or worse? Let's count down their 20 films, from worst to first, and see who really wins the battle of the world's best-known and best-loved superheroes.

  • 20. SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987): Sorry, Supes: You lose the first round. The idea for this film is absurd (kid tells Supes to get rid of nukes, he does, supervillain is born), the cast is old, the special effects awful. Producers Golan and Globus slashed the budget from $40 to $17 mil after one of their Sylvester Stallone flicks failed. A sad end to the superhero franchise that began it all. Watching, you won't believe you once believed a man could fly. 

  • 19. BATMAN & ROBIN (1997): George Clooney plays Batman ironically, Uma Thurman hams it up, and Arnold delivers some of his worst puns ever as Mr. Freeze (“What killed da dinosaurs? Da ice age!”). The Adam West Batman series was intentional camp, tweaking both ‘40s sensibilities and our desperate need for heroes. Joel Schumacher's version is unintentional camp. He turns Batman into a joke without being funny at all.

  • 18. BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949): Worst. Costume. Ever. Batman's suit seems made of felt and his cowl keeps slipping, forcing him to tilt his head up to see. He loses fights, sometimes one-on-one, which makes you wonder why he dresses up as Batman in the first place. Dude, if you can't take a 40-year-old in a fedora, time to hang it up. Everyone here is no-nonsense and marching to the same post-WWII, bureaucratic and martial drumbeat. It's so dull, it almost makes you miss the racism of the first Batman serial. 

  • 17. SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN (1951)A small Texas town menaces three midgets in bald wigs, who emerge from the world's biggest oil well, and Superman shows up periodically, stern and humorless, to stop any bloodshed. Best moment? When a lynch mob takes a shot at Lois and Superman responds, “Obviously none of you can be trusted with guns. So I’m going to take them away from you.” And he does. In Texas.

  • 16. SUPERMAN III (1983): First they make Superman play second fiddle to a post-freebase Richard Pryor; then they turn him evil and split him in two. They also took away Lois since Margot Kidder was adamant that Donner was the director for Supes, not Lester. Serves her right for being right. I mean, all the things they could've done here and look what they did. Look at what they did to my boy.

  • 15. BATMAN RETURNS (1992): Batman returns? When? In the first 45 minutes, we get maybe five minutes of him. Too much time, and too much empathy, is given to the supervillains: Penguin (ick) and Catwoman (num), and to the machinations of Chris Walken in white bouffant (whatever). Too many crooks spoil the plot—their schemes keep bumping into and sidetracking one another.

  • 14. ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN (1950): You gotta give Lex Luthor credit. In this second Superman serial, he buys a TV station in the beginning of the TV age, builds a flying saucer, and invents the transporter beam 16 years before “Star Trek.” He also wears a glitter jug on his head for half the movie. Even so, he's still smarter than every other character in the serial, particularly Perry White, who manages to get everything wrong. As for the above image? That's Supes with a nuke between his legs. This looks like a job for Freud.  

  • 13. BATMAN FOREVER (1995): Batman gets psychoanalyzed by a sexed-up Nicole Kidman so he can change from a Batman who has to fight crime to one who wants to fight crime. “You trying to get under my cape, doctor?” “A girl can’t live by psychoses alone.” Then there's the scenery-chewing battle between Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey. Plus Robin's back. It's the beginning of the end of this franchise. 

  • 12. SUPERMAN II (1981): A job for Superman? Sadly, this is a Superman who doesn't do his job. He shows up late at The Daily Planet, explodes a second nuke in space despite an explicit warning against doing that, then gives up his superpowers to get laid. Donner's watchword, verisimilitude, went out the window here and Lester's camp began. Lester did what Zod couldn't: He flattened Superman. 

  • 11. BATMAN (1943): Not bad for a racist serial. It introduces the “Bat's Cave,” gives us Capt. Arnold rather than Commissioner Gordon, and has Batman sticking bat stickers on the foreheads of crooks like a latter-day Zorro. But at least Batman is still a vigilante here—that's how we like him. 

  • 10. SUPERMAN (1948): Kirk Allyn gave this Superman a dancer's grace and a neophyte's enthusiasm. We also get the whole origin of Superman: Krypton, rocket ship, Kents, trip from Smallville to Metropolis. “Your unique abilities make you … a kind of super man,” Pa Kent says, as he urges his son to fight for ”truth, tolerance and justice." That was our post-WWII, pre-Cold War lesson. Tolerance had a small window. 

  • 9. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012): Bloated and needlessly complicated. Batman returns from retirement to get his back broken, thrown down a third-world hole, rise up again, and retire again. Gotham, cleaned up by the Batman, succumbs to fascism and anarchy. Nobody can understand a word Bane says. But the movie is redeemed in part by Oldman's Gordon, Gordon-Levitt's Blake, and Hathaway's Selina Kyle.

  • 8. SUPERMAN II: THE DONNER CUT (1981/2006): The opening scene, where Lois draws glasses and a fedora on a photo of Superman, then teases Clark, trying to get him to reveal his secret identity, is better than anything in Lester's version. Watching it, you wonder what might have been if the Salkinds had left Donner in control rather than going for Lester. You also want to borrow Jimmy Olsen's watch to signal Superman. Cuz we wuz robbed. 

  • 7. SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006): We live in a throwaway culture, so you have to admire Bryan Singer's attempt to recycle the 25-year-old Donner Superman movies. It doesn't quite work, though. The leads look and act too young, the ass-kicking of Superman on the kryptonite isle is too disturbing, and then there's the voyeurism. But what poignancy. Superman goes searching for Krypton and finds it in his own backyard.

  • 6. MAN OF STEEL (2013): Cavill is an underrated Superman, and the main storyline—the idea that the U.S. would freak rather than applaud if an illegal alien with godlike powers showed up one day—is a smart move. Plus Lois is smart: She figures out Clark is Superman before there is a Superman. But then it gets dumb fast. I said it from day one: Zack Snyder is not the right director for Superman. He's really not the right director for anything.

  • 5. BATMAN (1989): It starts out with gothic seriousness, ends as a kind of joke, but in-between it's not bad. Keaton makes the best Bruce Wayne, since he's constantly distracted, not quite there, which he isn't. (He's Batman.) Plus his bat suit is one of the coolest. Plus Jack. Plus Prince. But then we get: “Tell me if I’m crazy, but that wasn’t just another night for either of us, was it?” Girls.

  • 4. BATMAN BEGINS (2005): If only Bruce Wayne had hated Gotham City for killing his parents. Then Ra's al Ghul's offer to destroy Gotham would've resonated. Bruce would've realized that what he'd always wanted wasn't what he really wanted. Instead, this. The movie also suffers because its main villains are all flunkies: Carmine Falcone just takes orders from Jonathan Crane, Scarecrow, who takes orders from ... Etc. But at least we got Christian Bale.   

  • 3. BATMAN: THE MOVIE (1966): Suggestion: Watch the '49 serial and then this. You'll laugh your ass off. It's not only a great sendup of America's chest-thumping post-WWII sensibilities, it's the best satire ever created on our need for heroes, super or otherwise. Sadly, this need has only grown. To paraphrase Dylan: We were so much older then; we're much more juvenile now.  

  • 2. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008): The Joker terrorizes Gotham in order to reveal its ugly soul. And he's right. Again and again, the people and institutions of the city give in to indirect terror. But threatened directly? On the ferry boats? The people act nobly. How? More, how does Batman know this would happen? Yeah, I know. Most Batman fans don’t go to the movies looking for anything logical. Most Batman fans just want to watch the world burn.

  • 1. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978): It's epic, witty and gritty, with Reeves perfect in the title role. And it was years ahead of its time—Kryptonian in its advancement. It took another 11 years before we got Tim Burton’s “Batman” and another 11 after that to get to Bryan Singer’s “X-Men.” Twenty-two years: an entire generation. Back in the mid-1970s, Hollywood, enamored of disaster movies, didn’t think much of superheroes. But it only lacked the light to show it the way.

  • FIN: So who wins? What's the final tally? Well, Supes has the No. 1 movie but Batman dominates the top 5. If you do it numerically (20 points for No. 1, 19 for No. 2, etc.), then Batman beats his more powerful friend, 111 to 99. I'll still take Superman. But I'd like a Superman not produced by Golan and Globus. Or directed by Richard Lester. Or Zack Snyder. Or...
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Posted at 12:53 PM on Mar 24, 2016 in category Superheroes
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Tuesday March 22, 2016

What Liberal Hollywood? Part 90

For years, I've argued that the product of Hollywood (i.e., the movies) isn't liberal and never has been. If liberal values are, as George Packer recently asserted in The New Yorker, tolerance, skepticism and reason, then what's so liberal about Hollywood movies that promote certainty, wish fulfillment, and revenge fantasies? Where good guys are good, bad are bad, and relativism is for Oscar season?

But now Ann Coulter, stumping for Trump in L.A., where she lives and cackles, is raising the possibility that the Hollywood artistic community ain't all that liberal either:

“There are definitely more conservatives in Hollywood than anyone would expect,” Coulter told The Daily Beast. “I always say that if they all came out at once, they'd realize they're a majority.”

Hollywood conservatives are both marginalized victims and the majority? Got it.

So far the usual suspects: Clint Eastwood, Jon Voight, James Woods, Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, Gary Sinese. There's also a secret right-wing org, Friends of Abe or FOA, that the Hollywood Reporter has reported on, and which includes Lionel Chetwynd, the man who gave us a quick-thinking George W. Bush barking orders at a submissive Dick Cheney in the TV movie, “DC 9/11: Time of Crisis.” 

I doubt anything Coulter says, but one thing's certain: If Hollywood were full of cons it would make sense of the absolutist crap they produce.

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Posted at 07:21 AM on Mar 22, 2016 in category What Liberal Hollywood?
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Monday March 21, 2016

Movie Review: Knight of Cups (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Wanted: Beautiful actress to run away from camera, laughing. Dancer’s twirls a plus. No dialogue necessary. Contact: Terrence Malick.

Sigh.

“Knight of Cups” is a movie about a man who’s lost his way (spiritually) directed by a director who’s lost his way (artistically). His art has overwhelmed narrative. The movie’s beautiful to look at, and occasionally wise, but it’s as blocked as its main character.

Rick (Christian Bale) is in almost every scene but says maybe 10 words aloud—mostly “What’s your name?” to the latest beautiful girl. Not a bug; by design. From IMDb:

While there wasn’t an actual script, Terrence Malick would write multiple pages of dialogue for some of the actors ... Despite playing the lead character, Christian Bale received no writing for himself. This prompted Bale to try to sneak a peek of the other actors’ pages to ascertain what he could expect in each scene.

Knight of CupsAlso this:

Although a script was never used, Terence Malick wrote a 17-page monologue for Joel Kinnaman's character.

Joel Kinnaman was in the movie? Now what does that say? You write 17 pages for a guy who’s barely there and nothing for the guy who’s in every scene? Screenwriters can take heart. Malick is showing us how necessary they are.

What do we know about Rick? He appears to be a movie director who directs nothing—so like Malick from 1978 to 1998. He’s brother to an angry minister (Wes Bentley, I’ve missed you), son to an angry father (Brian Dennehy, ditto), and diplomat, or maybe simply witness, during histrionic, plate-breaking scenes between the two. All of this, per Malick, without dialogue. It’s voiceover. It’s memory.

Rick is trying to fulfill himself spiritually by chasing, or being chased by, the latest impossibly beautiful woman: punk rock (Imogene Poots), model (Freida Pinto), stripper (Teresa Palmer), doctor (Cate Blanchett), married woman (Natalie Portman). Toss in Japanese Girls #1 and 2 and models #1 and 2. They flirt; sex is suggested, or at least bedsheets; there’s partying. One by one, they ride in the passenger seat of his convertible, and raise their hands in the air and whoop it up. They run away from him at the beach. Then a shadow creeps over their face, a disappointment. What’s the disappointment? Who knows? Who knows why they appear, why they stay, why they leave. They just do. Because he’s on a spiritual journey.

Does Malick know how boring this guy is?  He’s stuck in his own head. “Where did I go wrong?” he says to himself. “Wake up,” others say. “How do I begin?” he says to himself. “Wake up,” others say. Psychiatrists should see this film. It actually made me wonder if Malick has some form of Asperger’s. He thinks it’s spirit/soul but it could just be chemicals.

Let’s face it, most spiritual journeys are undertaken by people who don’t have to work for a living. Get a job at 7-Eleven and then talk to me about spiritual suffering. Take the bus. “Knight of Cups” is the story of a man who got everything he ever wanted but it’s not what he wanted.

But that’s not the problem with the movie. The problem is in the telling—or lack of it. If “The Thin Red Line” was 60 percent narrative, this is 10. Or five. It’s the story of a man who can’t connect with others directed by a guy who can’t, or won’t, connect with us. And its ending epiphany? Rick talks up “The lightness in the eyes of others.” That’s the pearl he’s been looking for all this time. And that’s why most spiritual journeys are a drag. They almost always come back to the obvious or mundane.

I like the earthquake scene. I like the home invasion scene—the burglars who can’t believe this guy doesn’t have anything to steal. Because those are actually scenes. Things are happening. Then they dissolve. Then there’s another beautiful girl.

I like this voice-over thought from Rick near the end:

So much love
Inside us
That never gets out

Or this from another of Rick’s guru/fathers:

[God] shows His love not by helping avoid suffering, but by sending you suffering, by keeping you there. To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself, higher than your own will. Takes you from the world to find what lies beyond it.

Well, normally I would like that. But here? Suffering is Teresa Palmer and Freida Pinto and the beach? Suffering is 7-Eleven, Terrence. Or Syria.

Near the end, the father, dying, says this is voiceover:

You think when you reach a certain age things will start making sense. And you find out that you are just as lost as you were before. I suppose that’s what damnation is. The pieces of your life never to come together, just splashed out there.

Which is the movie. The movie is the pieces of Rick’s life just splashed out there. The movie is damnation.

Terrence: Wake up. Please.

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Posted at 06:10 AM on Mar 21, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Sunday March 20, 2016

Box Office: Dystopian Times for Dystopian Movies?

The Divergent Series: Allegiant

Is it dystopian times for our teenaged dystopian movies? Meaning a utopia for critics?

“The Hunger Games” ended last fall with a whimper, grossing 68% of what the first one did, while “The Maze Runner” never really caught on ($80-$100 mil). As for “The Divergent Series”? It had hopes to be another “Hunger Games” but now it's cratering toward “Maze.”

This weekend, “Divergent: Allegiant” opened at $29 million, which is almost half of what the original opened to in 2014:

YEAR MOVIE US GROSS OPENING
2014 Divergent $150,947,895 $54,607,747
2015 The Divergent Series: Insurgent $130,179,072 $52,263,680
2016 The Divergent Series: Allegiant $29,050,000 $29,050,000

The original wound up grossing 2.75 x its opening, the sequel 2.5 times. If this one does that, that's only $72.5 million, or half of what the original grossed. If it does 3 x its opening, it'll still be around $87. And there's one more sequel to go. Jane, stop this crazy thing. 

“Divergent”'s loss is “Zootopia”'s gain. For the third weekend in a row, it took top prize, with $38 mil, bringing its total thus far to $201. Abroad, it's added another $389. 

In third place? One of those springtime (read: Easterish) Christian movies, “Miracles from Heaven,” starring a former star (Jennifer Garner). Trailer here. I hadn't heard of it until this week, but then I'm not in its demographic. Key words from the trailer: “faith” and “From the producers of 'Heaven Is For Real.'” On the one hand, it didn't open great: $15 mil. On the other hand, that's the 7th-best opening for quote-unquote “Christian” movies, meaning cultre-war Christian movies. And if you remove the big boys (“Passion” and the “Narnia” series), it's actually third, behind only “Son of God” ($25) and “Heaven Is For Real” ($22). 

What's dying on the vine? “10 Cloverfield Lane” (12.5/45), “London Has Fallen” (6.8/50), “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” (2.8/19), and “The Brothers Grimsby” (1.4/5.9) What's holding on? “Deadpool,” the year's biggest hit so far. In its sixth weekend it grossed another $8 mil for $341 domestic and $389 overseas.  

Anomaly of the weekend: “The Bronze,” opening in 1,167 theaters, had one of the worst per-theater-average openings ever: $361 per. To be precise, it's the seventh-worst ever for movies opening in more than 1,000 theaters.

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Posted at 06:10 PM on Mar 20, 2016 in category Movies - Box Office
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The Seattle Response to Paul O'Neill's Endorsement of Donald Trump

Paul O'Neill/ John Marzano fightSee: right. Story here

I was at that '96 game at the Kingdome, by the way. Our catcher, John Marzano (RIP), was channeling every fan in MLB with that headlock/punch. O'Neill was despised. He was known as the whiniest of whiners. He complained about everything. Which, of course, makes him the perfect person to endorse The Donald. Spoiled shits of the world, unite. 

Apparently Johnny Damon has also joined him in supporting Trump, undoing all the good Damon did in 2004 with one sentence. “Everything he does,” Damon said of Trump, “he does first-class—his hotels, his businesses, his golf courses.” I guess Damon and I have different definitions of “first class.” For one, I save it for people with class. 

Anyway it's a good reminder that all of these guys are just jocks. And you remember what jocks were like in high school, right? Well, times that by a thousand. Ten thousand. Times it by 252 million.

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Posted at 07:05 AM on Mar 20, 2016 in category Politics
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Saturday March 19, 2016

Movie Review: The Witch (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I thought it would be scarier.

It’s well-made, full of dread, fairly straightforward. We know early on that some demonic force is at work in the woods, and that’s how it plays out. Horrible things happen, people blame each other (for being in league with Satan) or themselves (for not being devout enough), but the fault lies elsewhere. God isn’t punishing them, He’s just not around. It’s like most modern horror stories: the Devil exists but God doesn’t. Or He doesn’t care. Or He isn’t as interested in getting up in our business.

Robert Eggers "The Witch"What did you think of the decision to show the baby in the woods with the witch/woman/creature? It felt like a mistake to me. It was horrifying—the smooth baby belly against the sharp steel of the knife—but it actually relieved tension. We realized something was out there. We got answers. We weren’t second-guessing the family.

An American family
So how Puritan do you have to be to be excommunicated from a Puritan community for “excessive pride”? That’s what happens to William (Ralph Ineson) and his family. They wind up exiled to the land east of Eden, i.e., 17th century New England, next to a deep woods, where they praise God and raise kids. But one day, while eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing peekaboo with the newborn, it suddenly disappears, and the camera pans toward the woods. The mother (Kate Dickie, “Game of Thrones”) is distraught and prays constantly, while eldest boy Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), is worried about the baby’s soul—mostly because he’s worried about his own. He’s noticing sis’ budding breasts in a not exactly Puritan or brotherly manner.

Caleb is the second to disappear, also in the company of Thomasin, so the family begins to blame her—particularly since the creepy twins, Mercy and Jonas, who communicate with a black goat, accuse her of being a witch. She accuses them back since who else communicates with a black goat? The father’s solution is to board both up in the barn for the night. Smart move, Daddyo. A witch appears out of the back end of the goat—a great, creepy special effect, by the way, the best in the movie—and in the morning, the goats are skinned, the barn razed, the twins poof. Thomasin, once again, is the last one standing. Even as she’s sprawled on the ground.

What writer-director Robert Eggers is particularly good at is visiting violence out of nowhere. William is berating/beating Thomasin when—pow!—he’s struck by ... wait for it ... the black goat. More than struck: gored. Then pummeled and buried beneath the wood he’s been chopping for the entire movie. We’ve been watching him digging his own grave. Thomasin, horrified, is then violently yanked by ... wait for it ... the mother, the last surviving member of the family, who of course blames the daughter. By this point, I would, too. It’s only logical.

Diaboli ex machina
Question: Is she to blame? That evening, after Thomasin kills her mother in self-defense, the Devil, or a demon, gets her to sign away her soul, strip, and join other naked women/witches in the woods. Chanting around a fire, they begin to dance and levitate. Thomasin does, too, laughing. She’s one of them now. She’s got a new family.

So was that the plan from the get-go? Thomasin? Was the rest of the family just in the way?

“The Witch,” supposedly culled from historical records/accusations, is a good primer into 17th century New England. It’s also another lesson in scapegoating. External forces act upon the family and they blame each other or themselves for falling out of favor with God. They pray more fervently to God but someone else answers. It’s interesting. For the longest time, drama relied upon the deus ex machina, but we’ve bid adieu to deus. Now it’s diaboli ex machina. The Devil solves all dramatic problems. 

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Posted at 07:40 AM on Mar 19, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Thursday March 17, 2016

Two Baseball Trivia Questions and a Stickler Proviso

Some baseball trivia for you. The first question is a little complicated but here we go.

There are 27 players who have hit 500 or more homeruns—the most being Barry Bonds at 762. His best single-season total is, of course, 73. Ruth's is 60, Foxx 58, A-Rod 57, Griffey 56. 

So of the 27, whose single-season high is the lowest?

I don't know if this is a hint, but here we go: He's the only guy in the 500 club who never hit 40 homeruns in a season. He didn't even hit 35. His high is 33.

baseball triviaWhile you're pondering that (if you're pondering that)...

I came across the question after noticing that only eight players ever played in more than 3,000 games, and two of these were teammates. They weren't teammates for their entire careers, just for 7+ years. But those were good years for both of them. And they're both identified with that team: Each went into the Hall of Fame wearing that cap. So that's another, related trivia question: Who are the only two players with more than 3,000 career games who played on the same team?

The big three in games played are Rose (3,562 games), Yaz (3,308) and Aaron (3,298). The other five in the 3,000-game club are all between 3,000 and 3,100 games. 

As for the teammates? Cal Ripken, Jr. (3,001 games) and Eddie Murray (3,026 games).

Murray is also the answer to the earlier trivia question. As a rookie in 1977 he hit 27 homeruns. For 20 years, from 1977 to 1996, he never hit more than 33 (in 1983) nor less than 16 (1992). In all but five of those years, he was within six of his rookie year total. That's pretty stunning consistency. He was on low simmer all the time.

The next lowest single-season high among the 500 HR guys? 42, from Mel Ott.

I should add, for the 3,000-game teammate question, there is a proviso, but it's for the stickiest of sticklers. 

In his last season in the Majors, 1997 (in which he hit only three homers), Eddie Murray was playing for the Anaheim Angels until they released him on August 14. A week later, he signed with the LA Dodgers and finished his career there. But the day before his release, August 13, the Angels traded for Rickey Henderson, who also played in 3,000 career games (3,081). So technically these two were teammates, but just for an odd part of a day; and they never played together. Murray's last game with the Angels was on August 12 (he pinch-hit for Jack Howell and grounded to 3rd), while Rickey's first game for the Angels was on August 14 (he led off and went 0-5). Ships in the night more than teammates. But I thought I would raise it before someone else did. 

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Posted at 03:46 PM on Mar 17, 2016 in category Baseball
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Tuesday March 15, 2016

Lois Chiles by Arthur Laurents

“In New York, Ray [Stark, producer of ”The Way We Were“], bubbling with that infectious enthusiasm, worked overtime at the job he wanted: casting young actresses. He took me with him to a casting session at an excellent Chinese restaurant convenient to his apartment on East Fifty-seventh. The other guests were Oleg Cassini and his very pretty girl who had no interest in becoming an actress, and an even prettier girl who was an actress and extremely interested in being recognized as one.

”Her name was Lois Chiles. I liked her; it was a pleasure just to look at her. Although she gave the impression of being the well-spoken, fresh-faced graduate of a very good private school, she got all Ray's jokes which flew thick, fast and dirty. The part she wanted in The Way We Were was a good one. The requirements for the role were simple; understanding the requirements for getting the role was also simple. Lois understood.

“'In other words,' she said to Ray as though she were talking to a broker who had just explained the contents of her portfolio, 'I get the part if I fuck you.'

”'Right!' Ray winked and laughed as though he might not have meant it. No one was going to catch him. Lois got the part.“

[Several months later...]

”The first person I saw on the set, however, wasn't Barbra [Streisand]; it wasn't Sydney [Pollack] or [Robert] Redford; it wasn't even Ray. It was Lois Chiles. She raced over, threw her arms around me as though we knew each other, and burst into tears. Sydney was mean to her, Redford was glacial, Barbra invisible, Ray ignored her—could we please have dinner please? Of course. Here, take my handkerchief, call me at my hotel later to fix the time.

“When she called, she asked: 'Would you mind if I brought a friend? Would it be alright?' 'Sure. Who's your friend?' 'Bob Evans.' Jesus. 'You don't need me, Lois. You're doing fine.' The Great Gatsby, her next picture, was produced by Bob Evans. Hollywood was full of Chinese restaurants.”

-- from ”Original Story By Arthur Laurents: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood."

Lois Chiles and Robert Redford in "The Way We Were"

And it all began in a Chinese restaurant.

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Posted at 10:05 AM on Mar 15, 2016 in category Books
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Monday March 14, 2016

Movie Review: Intruder in the Dust (1949)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Intruder in the Dust” was one of several movies produced in the short progressive period between the horror of the Holocaust (when tolerance suddenly seemed like a good idea) and the paranoia of the Red Menace (when fuck it). They were called “message movies” or “problem pictures” and included such films as “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Crossfire” (anti-Semitism), “Pinky” and “Home of the Brave” (racism).

“Intruder,” also about racism, only got made because of one man, Clarence Brown, who learned at the feet of Maurice Tourneur, Jacques’ daddy, during the silent era, then became one of the main dudes at MGM during its lush glory days. He was also a member of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance, and a Southerner, making him an odd choice to push for such a racially progressive picture.

Intruder in the DustWhy did he do it? In Patrick McGilligan’s book, “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends,“ he talks about being in Atlanta during the 1906 race riots when 16 black men were lynched. Three decades later, William Faulkner published his novel about a near lynching, and as Brown recounts:

I didn’t walk, I ran up to the front office at MGM. “I’ve got to make this picture,” I said. “You’re nuts,” said [Louis B.] Mayer, because the hero was a black man. “If you owe me anything, you owe me a chance to make this picture,” I said.

There were battles throughout production—both on location in Oxford, Mississippi (Faulkner’s hometown), and at MGM. Mayer felt the protagonist, Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez), was “uppity,” and that the picture would lose money. He was right about the latter—did it even play in the South?—but the picture earned critical raves. The National Board of Review included it on its top 10 list, and it finished second to “All the King’s Men” in the New York Film Critics Circle’s best picture category. It received multiple nominations from the WGA, Golden Globes, and British Academy, and won BAFTA’s short-lived “UN Award” (for the film “embodying one or more of the principles of the United Nations Charter”). In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote, “By all our standards of pre-eminence, this is—or will prove—a great film.”

He’s right. At the least, I was startled by how good “Intruder” is. The cinematography is often reminiscent of Dorthea Lange’s Dust Bowl photographs, while Beauchamp (pronounced “Beach-em”) is a type of rich, powerful African-American character that Hollywood, always worried about the Southern market, rarely allowed to be seen on screen.

It also bears a passing resemblance to a later, much-beloved film. Maybe more than a passing resemblance.

Before Atticus, before Superman
Seriously, when “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960, didn't anyone bring up “Intruder in the Dust”? Let's count it off:

  • A black man is jailed for a horrific crime.
  • He’s represented by a white lawyer.
  • A kid, related to the lawyer, is central to the story—the main character, more or less.  
  • There’s a standoff on the courthouse steps between an unarmed white person and a white mob, who want to lynch the black man.
  • The real criminal is a white relative of the victim.

Yes, there are differences. It’s murder rather than rape. The black man here, Beauchamp, is proud, almost haughty, as opposed to the humble, bland Tom Robinson. Our lawyer, John Gavin Stevens (David Brian), is no Atticus, and starts the case assuming his own client guilty. Rather than the lawyer’s children, Scout and Jem, it’s the lawyer’s teenaged nephew, Chick (Claude Jarman, Jr.), who acts as our eyes and ears. Oh, and Stevens proves Beauchamp innocent even without a trial. Apparently, in 1949 Mississippi, the criminal justice system worked.

The courthouse-steps confrontation not only prefigures “To Kill a Mockingbird” but—indulge me—“Superman vs. The Mole Men,” an hour-long intro to the 1950s TV series, in which the Man of Steel stops a Texas mob from lynching an alien. Of course, being Superman, he’s hardly unarmed, but otherwise the dynamic is the same as in the other two: the stalwart one (without a gun) against the angry many (Southern racists) to protect the defenseless one (black/alien). (Note to readers: If you know of other such scenes in novels/movies, write me.)

Here, the stalwart one is old Southern white lady, Miss Eunice Habersham (Elizabeth Patterson), sitting in a rocking chair and doing her mending. Why her? Calculation on the part of Stevens. The mob, he says:

...would pass even [deputized] Will Legate sooner or later when there's enough of them. But there's one thing that would stop them. Long enough anyhow. And that's somebody without a gun. [Pause] A lady. [Pause] A white lady.

I have to admit, I always found the “Mockingbird” scenario absurd. Atticus thinks one unarmed man can turn back a mob in the middle of the night? Him and his lamp and his book? Really, he’s only saved because Scout and Jem show up, and Scout (a white lady) asks questions of different people in the mob. She humanizes them.

Faulkner’s way is smarter, and Patterson, supposedly handpicked by Faulkner, is a story in herself. Born in Tennessee in 1875, 10 years after the Civil War, she died in 1966, a year after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She began her career on stage, and became a frequent character actress on Broadway before doing the same in movies. The subhed to her New York Times obituary reads: “Was Said to Have ‘Played Mother of About Every Star in Hollywood.’” Here, she mothers this role into being. She was Atticus before Atticus, Superman before Superman.

Her nemesis in the scene is the perfectly named Nub Gowrie (Charles Kemper), the brother of the deceased, and the man who actually did the killing. He’s a Southern stereotype—fat, ineffectual, unethical—but you also get a sense of a man trapped in his role. As in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Nub is propelled along by the expectations of the mob.

There’s already a sleepy, carnival atmosphere in town, as folks gather to watch the lynching, and Gowrie, sitting in his truck, is confronted in by-the-way fashion. A woman with a baby begins it. (Think about that for a moment.) She says, “Well, Mr. Gowrie, when you reckon you gonna get started?” Jokes are made, Nub gets fed up, and after he gets a metal canister overflowing with gasoline, he walks across the street, sloshing things as he goes, to confront Miss Eunice through the screen door. She refuses to budge. So he dumps gas on the floor, and, with a bully’s grin, lights a match.

Miss Eunice: “Could you step out of the light so I can thread my needle?”

And that defuses it. Literally. Nub waves the fire out, puts the match in his shirt pocket (nice touch), and we get the following exchange:

Nub: Miss Habersham, I ain’t gonna touch you now. You’re an old lady but you’re in the wrong. You’re fightin’ the whole county but you gonna get tired. And when you do get tired, we gonna go in.
Miss Habersham: I’m goin’ for 80 and I’m not tired yet.

Then she stands up, goes to the porch, and talks to the crowd. “Go home! Everyone one of you, go on home. You oughta be ashamed!” Trying to shame the crowd. So she was Joseph Welch before Joseph Welch, too. 

To be honest, I think the scene should’ve ended with “I’m not tired yet.” But the movie keeps doing this. It keeps pulling back to make grander, progressive points that deflate the power of its smaller scenes. It doesn’t trust its micro and insists upon the macro. It wants pontification. 

The worst example is in the movie’s penultimate scene.

Micro > Macro
“Intruder” opens beautifully with the arrival of Beauchamp in the custody of the benevolent sheriff (Will Geer), and his walk through a gauntlet of tense, Southern faces. Beauchamp, unbowed even in handcuffs is almost contemptuous here; and on the courthouse steps, he turns and orders Chick to get his uncle to represent him. Interestingly, though he asks for him, he never confides in the uncle; he confides in Chick, with whom he has a history. Halfway through the movie, Stevens wonders over this. Why didn’t Beauchamp trust him? It’s Miss Habersham who answers: “You’re a white man,” she says. “Worse than that, you’re a grown white man.” Worse than that. From a 1949 movie? Amazing.

Most of the movie’s casting (Miss Eunice, Beauchamp) is perfect, but Brian, I have to say, is all wrong for Stevens. Born and bred in New York, he doesn’t attempt a Southern accent; he just has that bland, post-World War II voice. There’s something unpleasant about him in look and manner, too; something pinched in the eyes. In his obit, from 1993, the Times wrote, “Mr. Brian repeatedly portrayed characters who were ruthless or powerful or both, including some villains in Westerns,” and I can see it. But maybe that’s what makes him right for this? Stevens isn’t an Atticus, after all. He’s supposed to be the hero but he actually gets in the way of justice. Everyone else does the hard work—digging up graves, jumping into quicksand—while he stands around pontificating and sucking on his pipe.

He’s doing the same in the movie’s penultimate scene.

By this point, Nub has been arrested for the murder of his brother, the crowd dispersed, Beauchamp freed. We get some awful dialogue between Chick and Stevens as they watch the crowd disperse (“It’s alright, Chick”/“Is it?”), when silence would’ve spoken volumes. Then a few days later, Beauchamp shows up at Stevens’ office to settle his debts, but Stevens, all paternal benevolence, refuses payment since he didn’t do anything. (He’s right.) Beauchamp insists; Stevens mentions that he did break his pipe, and it cost two dollars to fix. Beauchamp says he’ll pay for that, then pays him with: a bill, two quarters and 50 pennies. “I was aimin’ to take ’em to the bank, but you can save me the trouble,” he says, with a glint in his eye. Then he insists, as in any transaction, that the pennies be counted. Stevens, still with the upper hand, tells him to do it. Which he does. And as he does, we get this exchange:

Stevens: That night in the jail—why didn’t you tell me the truth?
Beauchamp: Would you have believed me?

It seems straightforward enough, this back-and-forth, but there are chasms beneath it. Stevens is acting the great white father here, even though he knows what he knows; and instead of playing along, Beauchamp calls him on it. Beneath the bland words, he’s calling Stevens a racist. And that’s too much for Stevens, our ostensible hero, whose face suddenly darkens and becomes pinched; and he puts up a barrier—a book—between himself and Beauchamp. He expects Beauchamp to leave. But Beauchamp doesn’t leave. He keeps standing there until Stevens testily admonishes him. 

Stevens: Now what. What are you waiting for now?
Beauchamp: (Standing taller) My receipt.

Holy crap, that’s good. The movie really should’ve ended there (the novel, in fact, does), or with Beauchamp walking outside, and through the town, and past the people that wanted to lynch him just a few days earlier. But instead we pan back to Stevens and Chick on the balcony, watching Beauchamp. And we get more pontificating:

Chick: They don’t see ‘em—as though it never happened. ... They don’t even know he’s there.
Stevens: But they do—same as I do. They always will as long as he lives. Proud, stubborn, insufferable. But there he goes, the keeper of my conscience.
Chick: Our conscience, Uncle John.
(Music wells up: THE END)

MGM saves the white man in the end by letting him sound profound; by pretending he’s the hero. The story knows different.

SLIDESHOW


  • INTRO: Lucas Beauchamp (an amazing Juano Hernandez) arrives at the police station, unbowed, despite being charged with the murder of a white man.

  • The crowd isn't exactly friendly. 

  • It is, however, reminiscent of Dorthea Lange's photography. 

  • John Gavin Stevens: the lawyer Beauchamp asks for but never trusts. Not exactly Atticus Finch. 

  • The movie's villain, the perfectly named Nub, walks with a cannister of gasoline to confront another of the movie's heroes. 

  • Miss Habersham is Atticus before Atticus, Superman before Superman. 

  • The threat is ignited. 

  • And defused. “Could you step out of the light so I can thread ma needle?”

  • Shaming the crowd that has no shame. She's Joseph Welch before Joseph Welch, too.

  • The movie ends on this false note, with this false hero. 

  • Faulkner's novel ends on this true note with this true hero: ”My receipt." *FIN*
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Posted at 07:03 AM on Mar 14, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s
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Sunday March 13, 2016

Hamilton: 'A Gateway to Obsession'

Hamilton oops

Mea kinda culpa.

Today's New York Times Magazine has a piece on “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going,” which, yeah, sounds a little pretentious, maybe a little desperate, and it doesn't help that they begin with Justin Bieber. The Times telling you where music is going is like your dad telling you. But I'll probably check out some of the songs since I'm nearly granddad's age these days. 

But I do know No. 2 on the list, “Say No to This,” from the Hamilton cast album, since I've been listening to that regularly since January 20. Patricia, in fact, laughed out loud when I read her the following this morning since it's so exactly me:

Back on Earth, there's the cast album: a 46-number souvenir for an experience most of us won't be experiencing. At less than $20 on iTunes, however, where it has been in and out of the Top 10 for months, this is a more-than-adequate substitute for the budget-conscious. It's a gateway to obsession. To know someone who has this album is to know someone who needs a restraining order.

I spread my arms wide. “I am legion,” I told her. 

The writer for No. 2, Wesley Morris, adds that the album has so many great songs, never great song, but he chose this one because it's the one he's listening to now. “Not only is this song funny,” he writes, “it's also kind of hot.” Yeah, I would lose that “kind of.” It's actually swirling-down sexy. The first time I listened to it I had to fan myself. It's a song that lets you know why Alexander Hamilton succumbs, and it does that. At the same time, I don't listen to it much, since, you know, it presages Alexander's political downfall. So I keep saying no to it. 

I probably would've gone with the first song, “Alexander Hamilton,” or the showstopper, “The Room Where It Happens” (already a metaphor for the disenfranchised, which is most of us), or the one Lin-Manuel Miranda worked a year on, “My Shot,” which melds Hamilton and the colonies: “I'm just like my country/ I'm young scrappy and hungry/ And I'm not throwing away my shot.” It's tough to go wrong, really. The album is the best deal in town.

“You laugh! But it's true.” The beginning of “Hamilton,” back in 2009.

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Posted at 10:13 AM on Mar 13, 2016 in category Music
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Saturday March 12, 2016

Lena Horne by Arthur Laurents

“The core stars [at Gene Kelly's late 1940s parties] were Peter Lawford, Louis Jourdan, and Lena Horne. Lena was quiet, not wholly there; usually just sitting, sipping brandy near the piano where her husband, Lennie Hayton, doodled at the keyboard ... Lena Horne, PlaybillAlthough he was a musical director at Metro, his whole focus, professional and personal, was on Lena. He radically changed her career as a singer. It happened overnight, not in pictures—she was the wrong color for pictures—but at a downtown club called Slapsie Maxie on the night it opened. ...

”The voice deeper, the lyrics almost bitten and spat out, the eyes glittering, this was a new Lena. This Lena was angry sex. I gave the credit to Lennie because that was all I knew then ... [but] credit for turning the lady into a tiger doesn't matter; the angry sexuality was always there, uniquely hers, just growling while it waited to be let out of her cage.

“In the early Sixties, when we were so close, I asked her what was in her head when she came out on the elegant floor of the Waldorf in New York or the Fairmount in San Francisco. She bared her teeth in the smile those expensive audiences waited for. ”Fuck you,“ she said. ”That's what I think when I look at them. Fuck all of you.“

-- from ”Original Story By Arthur Laurents: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood."

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Posted at 02:06 PM on Mar 12, 2016 in category Books
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Bending Over Backwards in Different Directions

Two things caught my eye this morning.

The first, via Jeffrey Wells' site, was a YouTube video of Pres. Obama talking at the South-by-Southwest Festival, where he mentioned that the U.S. is “the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote.” The audience laughs a little, Obama says, “You're laughing, but it's ... bad. We systematically put up barriers and make it as hard as possible for our citizens to vote.”

The second was a New York Times piece on a far-right conservative running for the Texas State Board of Education, which, as longtime readers know, chooses the standards for our nation's textbooks. This conservative, Mary Lou Bruner, believes, among other things, that:

  • Pres. Obama worked as a gay prostitute in his youth
  • the U.S. should ban Islam
  • the Democratic Party had John F. Kennedy killed
  • the U.N. has hatched a plot to depopulate the world

What do these two articles have in common?

The Obama quote reveals a man bending over backwards to be conciliatory. “We systematically put up barriers,” he says, but as Wells rightly notes, it's not “we”: it's GOP governors and legislatures, mostly in the Deep South. Pres. Obama could call conservatives on this but he goes out of his way to be diplomatic. 

The Bruner thing? That's the far right going out of its way (and out of its mind) to attack, besmirch, sully, not only Pres. Obama but democracy, history, common sense. They make up shit and report it as news. They've been doing it forever but ramped it up when Obama took office. 

Then these same conservatives accuse Pres. Obama of not being conciliatory; of not willing to compromise. 

Then the mainstream press reports this in “he said/she said” fashion, as if both parties were responsible for “gridlock.”  

Then these same conservatives accuse this same mainstream press of being “liberal.”

Repeat.

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Posted at 08:26 AM on Mar 12, 2016 in category Politics
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Friday March 11, 2016

Lancelot Links

Ty Cobb: King of the Tobacco World

Don't throw away that paper bag. 

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Posted at 09:08 AM on Mar 11, 2016 in category Lancelot Links
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Thursday March 10, 2016

Goose Gossage on the F---ers Ruining the F---ing Game

“It is a joke. The game is becoming a freaking joke because of the nerds who are running it. Goose GossageThese guys played rotisserie baseball at Harvard or wherever the f--- they went and they thought they figured the f---ing game out. They don't know s---.

”A bunch of f---ing nerds running the game. You can't slide into second base. You can't take out the f---ing catcher because Posey was in the wrong position and they are going to change all the rules. You can't pitch inside anymore. I'd like to knock some of these f---ers on their ass...

“Ryan Braun is a f---ing steroid user. He gets a standing ovation on Opening Day in Milwaukee. How do you explain that to your kid after throwing people under the bus and lying through his f---ing teeth? They don't have anyone passing the f---ing torch to these people.

”If I had acted like that, you don't go in that f---ing dugout. There are going to be 20 f---ing guys waiting for you."

-- Goose Gossage, baseball ambassador, at Yankees training camp. In other ex-Yankees news, former right fielder and epic whiner Paul O'Neill endorsed Donald Trump for president earlier this week.  

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Posted at 05:04 PM on Mar 10, 2016 in category Baseball
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A Pass from Peyton Manning

I've told this story before but not here. So one more time. 

In spring 2001, I was working on the first Xbox iteration of “NFL Fever,” a short-lived game that never could compete with “Madden NFL”—despite, I should add, our cover guy that year, Peyton Manning. One day he and his father, Archie, another football legend, arrived at RedWest in Redmond for a meet-and-greet with the team. Hell, I can even tell you the exact day: April 16. I know because that evening I went to Safeco Field to “greet” Alex Rodriguez on his first day back in Seattle after signing a $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers. That game was a proud moment for me. Before then, Mariners fans had always been rather polite with returning players. We'd always applauded them. Not A-Rod. We showered unrelenting abuse and paper money on the bastard for nine innings. It was the beginning of something new, for both us and him. 

Peyton Manning and meAnyway, on the Microsoft campus, everyone on the team got their photo-op with our cover guy. Peyton stood in the cold and drizzle, polite, smiling, gracious, as each of us took our turn. Some folks, in their photos, had Peyton handing off to them, etc., but I was too shy for that. And all of us were too shy to ask for what we really wanted. 

Almost all of us. One upper-level mucky muck wasn't. When the photo session ended, standing 20-25 feet away, he clapped his hand, held them up, and said, “C'mon, toss it here.” Peyton did: a nice lob. Almost before it arrived, the mucky-muck was shaking his head. “No, no, no,” he said, and tossed the ball back. “I mean really throw it.”

A small smile passed over Peyton's face. 

I swear, the arm motion of the second throw was exactly the same: easy, smooth. He wasn't rearing back or anything. But the ball just shot out of his hand like a rocket and landed right in the guy's gut. I still remember the small satisfactory “oof” sound the mucky-muck made. But give the dude credit. He asked. He can say, “I caught two passes from Peyton Manning.” Me, I just got this picture. 

Well, one more thing. The football in question was mine, so later in the afternoon I had to chase Peyton down to get it back. “You want me to sign it?” he asked. “Sure,” I said. He got out his black marker but paused. He turned the ball around in his hands, reading. “What are all of these other signatures on it?” he asked. I didn't go into the whole permatemp situation at Microsoft; I merely said that I'd left the team last year and this was my going-away present back then, and everyone signed it with little messages like “Great working with you.” One line, from a guy named Jimbo, I still remember. I was the only non-gamer on our team, so whenever we had to do a group test for like “Motorcycle Madness,” I would always lose, but everyone would have to wait for me, with my handle “Withak” (as in “Erik with a k”), to finish. So on the football Jimbo wrote, “Withak, hurry up and finish!” which I thought was pretty funny. 

Anyway, on the football, Peyton, with another small smile, gave me his autograph then added, “Great working with you!” which I also thought was pretty funny.

I had that football for about 10 years. But I didn't try to protect it or anything. The opposite, really. My friend Gavin and I used to toss it around the Microsoft parking lot during (for him) smoke breaks. Eventually, it began to shed and a few years ago I just threw it away. NFL Fever? Microsoft tried three iterations before throwing away not only that title but the whole sports division of Microsoft Game Studios, including NBA Inside Drive and NHL Rivals. This week, it was Peyton Manning's turn. On Monday, he announced his retirement from professional football.

A-Rod endures.

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Posted at 08:17 AM on Mar 10, 2016 in category Personal Pieces
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Wednesday March 09, 2016

Trailer: Fastball (2016)

I'm there for this, despite the presence of #2bercular. Looks interesting. Good choice for narrator, too. Due in theaters March 25 but probably available online shortly around then. 

Jeff Wells has a nice short post here about going to batting cages with his son and not being able to hit 50- and 60-MPH pitches. It's amost a confession. Of course, he was in his, what, 50s then? In my 30s I used to go to the batting cages quite a bit, ostensibly to get ready for softball, but we'd always take a couple of rounds in the fastball cage. I could do 60s for a while but that was about it.

I've also done the opposite—those carnival-like speed pitch booths, where they time how fast you're throwing. Again, best I ever did, and this was about 20 years ago, was low 60s. That's not even a Jamie Moyer changeup. Professional baseball pitchers can't even throw that slow; I don't think they know how. And that's me practically throwing my arm out. 

Again, looking forward to this.

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Posted at 07:55 PM on Mar 09, 2016 in category Trailers
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Quote of the Day

“For most of the last century, progressives of various sorts were always convinced that [nationalsim] might be magically transmuted from the wrong kind of rage into the right kind of reform. It doesn't happen like that. In truth, nationalism sufficiently strident can get by with an eclectic or completely vague economic program both in promise and in practice. Fascism may have appealed to the economically insecure, but it did not appeal by giving them an economic answer. It appealed by giving them an enemy.”

-- Adam Gopnik, “Roots and Rot: Dodging the Blame for Donald Trump,” on the New Yorker site

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Posted at 07:19 PM on Mar 09, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Mission to Moscow (1943)

WARNING: SPOILERS

If I’d been a member of HUAC back in 1947, this is the movie I would’ve focused on. Screw the others. Seriously, someone saying “Share and share alike” in a Ginger Rogers movie? Gregory Peck and Paul Muni portraying allied soldiers as heroes? Russian peasants smiling? You look small just bringing it up. You look like bullies. Which you were.

But “Mission to Moscow”? Good god, is there a movie more wrong in the history of Hollywood?

At the same time, I don’t think Hollywood is to blame for it.

Stalin: for all mankind
Some background: In 1941, Simon & Schuster published a book, “Mission to Moscow,” by Joseph E. Davies, about his experience as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938. Once the U.S. entered World War II, according to Jack Warner, Pres. Roosevelt urged him to make a movie out of it, which Warner Bros. studios did, with Walter Huston, Abe Lincoln himself, as Davies. Mission to MoscowThe real Davies not only introduces the movie (in ponderous fashion), he had creative control over the script. And when he didn’t like the original draft, Jack Warner tapped Howard Koch to do the rewrite. Four years later, as a friendly witness before HUAC, Jack Warner denounced Koch as a communist sympathizer for that work, and he was later blacklisted.

Politically, Koch was definitely on the left, stumping for Henry Wallace in 1948, for example, but that’s only a crime to the Breitbarts of the world. One of the original “Hollywood 19” called before HUAC, he was also the first to break ranks with their ultimately unsuccessful legal strategy. In an open letter in The Hollywood Reporter in November 1947, he went his own way. Meanwhile, scapegoated and fired by Warner, he freelanced for a few years (“Letter from an Unknown Woman” for Max Ophuls) before work mysteriously dried up; so in 1950 he moved to England, where he continued to write under a pseudonym. He eventually returned to the U.S. and settled in Woodstock, NY, wrote several forgettable screenplays in the 1960s, published his memoir, “As Time Goes By,” in 1979, hocked his Oscar to pay for his granddaughter’s law school in 1994, and died in 1995 at the age of 93. (Heather Heckman, a Ph.D. student at Madison, goes deep into Koch’s story here.)

That Oscar, by the way, was for writing “Casablanca.” He also wrote “Sergeant York.” That’s your communist sympathizer. Sergeant York. Only in America.

The director of “Mission,” meanwhile, was Michael Curtiz, whose previous films had been “Casablanca” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and who went on to make “This is the Army,” starring Ronald Reagan, among others. Another obvious com-symp.

So how did we get this apology for Stalinism? The problem, I assume, is Davies. The dude was just wrong about everything.

In some respects, “Mission” is a typical, corny, Hollywood movie. As it opens, Davies, a lawyer, is about to go on a long-delayed lake vacation with his wife and daughter (Ann Harding and Eleanor Parker), when he’s pursued in a boat by his chauffeur Freddie (George Tobias, Abner Kravitz of “Bewitched”), with news of a phone call. “I don’t care if it’s the president of the United States!” Davies cries. Setting up the obvious punchline and titular mission. FDR wants him to suss out both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in terms of the looming war.

When he arrives in Germany? Awful! Davies looks with disgust as Hitler Youth march near the Hamburg train station. When he arrives in Russia? Great! Davies looks with delight as Soviet troops train near the Moscow train station.

How good are things in the Soviet Union? Very good! Caviar is plentiful, gender discrimination nonexistent, workers happy. The Soviet leaders, meanwhile, are down-to-earth and open-minded. “I believe in individualism as it’s practiced in America,” Davies declares upon arriving. “All we want is that you see all that you can before you arrive at your conclusion,” Soviet leaders respond sagely.

He visits a factory and is amazed by its output. His wife visits a department store (run by Mrs. Molotov) and is amazed by its luxury items. He’s told that the harder the people work, the more money they make. “The greatest good for the greatest number of people,” he’s told. “Not a bad principle,” he responds. “We believe in it, too!”

Ah, but there’s trouble in paradise. Sabotage! Betrayal! And in whose name? Nazi Germany! Thus we get a truncated, laughably incorrect version of the show trials, the Stalinist purges, that led to the death of millions of innocent people. But here, no one’s innocent. Here, they all confess without pressure. “The only pressure came from my own conscience,” says one saboteur stoically. “Based on twenty years of trial practice,” Davies pontificates from the cheap seats, “I’d be inclined to believe these confessions.”

Seriously, you couldn’t create a better dolt if you’d tried. At one point, others in the U.S. embassy are suspicious of the Soviets. Not Davies:

U.S. official: The Kremlin may be recording every word we say.
Davies: Well, perhaps they have a reason. Moscow is a hotbed for foreign agents.
Official: But eavesdropping, sir! Why that is an open affront of international rights!
Davies: I never say anything outside the Kremlin about Russia that I wouldn’t say to Stalin’s face, do you?
Official: Well, that’s putting it rather stiffly sir.
Davies: Then stop gossiping and stop listening to it. We’re here in a sense as guests of the Soviet government. And I’m going to believe they trust the United States as a friend until they prove otherwise. 

The kicker is when he meets Stalin himself, and tells him, “I believe, sir, history will record you as a great builder for the benefit of mankind.” Then it’s off to Britain for a meeting with an up-and-comer, Winston Churchill, to tell him how the world really works.

At home, as war approaches, Davies makes excuses for everything Stalin does. The Nazi-Soviet Pact? Stalin had to do that to give himself more time to prepare for war. Attacking Finland? Finland asked Russia to attack it—to protect herself against German aggression.

You can barely watch “Mission to Moscow” for the number of times you facepalm.

War-time propaganda
Occasionally, we get something good. I like the conversation Davies and his family have on a train bound for Berlin:

German: You Americans have a very good tobacco. Ours is terrible—at the moment. We tend to improve it. Very shortly.
Mrs. Davies: Really? What do you intend to buy?
German: I’m not so sure we’ll have to buy from anyone. Our Fuehrer is a very clever man. He has many ideas. ... We Germans don’t mind a few discomforts now because we know what’s in store for us in the great future life.
Davies’ daughter: You mean on earth or somewhere else?
German: Shall we say, somewhere else on Earth.

That’s nice wordplay, and the scene isn’t overdone. Throughout, Curtiz plays with shadows well, as he always did. He’s a pro, Koch is a pro, it’s a Golden Age Hollywood movie.

And it’s still atrocious.

Even so, I would argue “Mission to Moscow” is less communist propaganda than war-time propaganda. If it stands out, it’s because the rest of our war-time propaganda (portraying Japan and Nazi Germany as cruel regimes), was, if anything, underplayed against the awful reality. There’s no conspiracy here, just stupidity. “Mission” is a tale told by an idiot, but the idiot didn’t come from Hollywood.

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Posted at 07:41 AM on Mar 09, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s
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Tuesday March 08, 2016

Quote of the Day

“It's unlikely that Scalia will be replaced anytime soon. But let's hope that, when a successor is finally appointed, it is someone willing to give ordinary citizens the day in court that Scalia worked so hard to deny them.”

-- James Surowiecki, “Courting Business,” about how the Roberts Court is the most pro-corporate court since the Great Depression; on The New Yorker site.

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Posted at 08:45 AM on Mar 08, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Sunday March 06, 2016

Box Office: 'Zootopia' Busts Loose; 'London' Falls

I saw “Olympus Has Fallen” three years ago and I still haven't washed the stink off. How awful that that's our wish-fulfillment fantasy: a terror attack on the White House. But of course, in the language of Hollywood, one man knows what to do. And for 90-120 minutes, in the dark, munching our popcorn and slurping our soda, we get to be that one man—stronger, braver, and more handsome than we really are. Well, stronger and braver. Gerard Butler's hardly Cary Grant. 

“Olympus” wound up grossing $98 mil domestically, $62 overseas, and it probably did well on VOD and DVD for those fans who can't bother to get up off the couch to see a man save the world; so that's why we're now stuck with the sequel, “London Has Fallen.”

The first one opened to $30 mil. How did the sequel do?

Per its title, it fell to $21. But that was good enough for second place. 

The weekend was won by Disney's “Zootopia,” which grossed $73 million at home and $158 million abroad. Domestically, that's the fourth-best opening ever for a March release, and the ninth-best opening ever for an animated movie. It's also, believe it or not, the best opening ever for a Disney animated movie. 

Meanwhile, the fourth weekend of “Deadpool” finished in third place with another $16 mil (it's up to $311/$362), while the opening of the new Tina Fey Afghan-war comedy, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” finished in fourth place with a disappointing $7.6 in 2300 theaters. 

Post-Oscars, “The Revenant” grossed another $3 mil for a $175 total, while “Spotlight” picked up another $1.8 for a $41 total.

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Posted at 04:25 PM on Mar 06, 2016 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday March 05, 2016

The Feb. 22 2016 issue of The New Yorker

Like everyone, I get behind in my New Yorkers, but I spent much of this morning nursing a cold and reading the Feb. 22 issue—the one with the black-history cover: Baldwin, Ellington, Holliday, Hurston, the Nicholas Brothers, Malcolm X.

This is what's inside:

Each story is worth it. Each gives a broader, less certain view of the world. It's astonishing, really, that all five are in the same issue of the same magazine. Seems unfair. To both the competition and to readers like me, who suddenly have their hands full. 

Each is a downer, too, but that's often the way of the world. We go to the movies for uppers, serious literature for downers. Why so few people read seriously now.

The San Bernadino piece is particularly good. Finnegan begins with a church service for one of the victims, Nicholas Thalasinos, who seems like a good guy, then gives us the history (as we know it) of the terrorists, Rizwan and Malik, and their various intolerances, and then back to Thalasinos, who worked with Rizan and used to argue with him about religion. He was, in fact, a frequent social media poster, and made enemies there. He hated all of Islam, which he called “the cult of rape, pedophilia, antisemitism and murder.” He hated our president, too, calling him an “utterly vile pagan filthy antisemitic drug addicted maggot”; he felt that while Obama didn't necessarily deserve lynching, he should at least be tried and executed—the trial apparently perfunctory. There's a line near the end of the piece from Rizan's less-religious father, Syed Sr., which was my feeling finishing the piece: “I despair and I do not understand.”

Then I read Packer on liberal apostates and felt a step closer to understanding. Or re-understanding. Packer is writing about Whitaker Chambers, a closeted homosexual and communist, whose testimony against Alger Hiss in the late 1940s led to the rise of Richard M. Nixon (although, let's face it, nothing would stop his rise; not even his fall). It's a quote from Chambers himself about why, after a shoddy childhood, he embraced communism in 1925:

It offered what nothing else in the dying world had power to offer at the same intensity: faith and a vision, something for which to live and something for which to die.

It's what hooks so many of us: communists and capitalists; Christians and Muslims; Republicans and Democrats. That awful search for meaning that leads to so much violence and death. 

Anyway, subscribe to The New Yorker when you get the chance. 

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Posted at 12:01 PM on Mar 05, 2016 in category Media
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Thursday March 03, 2016

Linking the Koch Brothers' Chain

  • In Nevada, Koch brothers front group, “Concerned Veterans for America,” purchases big ad-buy for U.S. Rep Joe Heck (R) against former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D), to replace U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. Via Las Vegas Sun.
  • The New York Times calls the Heck ad-buy the Kochs' “first political ad of 2016.” A Democratic spokeswoman says that the Kochs' support for Heck is unsurprising: “Whether it's supporting the privatization of Social Security, voting to turn Medicare over to private insurance companies, or opposing an increase in the minimum wage, Congressman Heck has spent his half a decade in Washington voting with the Koch brothers and special interests at every turn.”
  • A letter in the Cherry Hill (NJ) Courier Post points out that an anti-regulatory Op-Ed in the paper was in fact written by Thomas J. Pyle, “president of the American Energy Alliance, the political arm of the Institute for Energy Research. The group is a nonprofit that is primarily funded by the Koch brothers and their donor network. The organization slams everything solar, while promoting everything oil, gas and coal.”
  • One thing—probably the only thing—good about Donald Trump? The Koch brothers don't want him
  • At the same time, they're not going to spend money to try to stop Trump. They only do that with, you know, Pres. Obama, climate change scientists, etc. Funniest line: “The Koch brothers are also smarting from the millions of dollars they pumped into the failed 2012 Republican presidential bids of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, the sources said.”
  • Common-sense question from a Kansas City Star reader on Charles Koch, the head of the Koch empire: “Why does someone who doesn't need health insurance for himself or his family want to deprive it for so many?”
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Posted at 04:49 PM on Mar 03, 2016 in category Lancelot Links
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Wednesday March 02, 2016

Someone Needs to Bitchslap Jeffrey Lord

And anyone who perpetuates his kind of misinformation.

Lord, a Pennsylvania political strategist and Donald Trump apologist on CNN, is defending Trump's soft, nonexistent line on the Ku Klux Klan by arguing that the KKK was an organization run by Democrats. 

In a recent dust-up with Van Jones on CNN, Lord called the KKK “a leftist terrorist organization,” and claimed it was designed to “further the progressive agenda.”

Here's what you say to that:

  • Why are you lying? Because you are lying. You're withholding information.
  • Southern Democrats were not progressive, they were regressive. They were called Dixiecrats. 
  • And where are they now? Where did those Dixiecrats go?
  • In 1964, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and 1965, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, they jumped to the Republican party. They backed Nixon, they back Reagan. They listened for the dog whistle. Now they're backing your man Trump, who is trying to do without the dog whistle. He's trying to bring back old-fashioned racism. He's trying to make America grate again. 

C'mon, it's simple, people. Don't let him get away with this bullshit.

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Posted at 11:12 AM on Mar 02, 2016 in category Politics
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That Ballooning Chinese Box Office

Chinese box office hits

No. 1 in 2008, 2012 and this year. With bullets.

Via Box Office Mojo, here's a list of the biggest box-office hits in China since 2007, with numbers in $US:

YEAR MOVIE CHINESE B.O.
2007 Transformers $37.21
2008 Red Cliff: Part I $46.69
2009 2012 $68.67
2010 Avatar $204.12
2011 Transformers: Dark of the Moon $165.10
2012 Lost in Thailand $197.41
2013 Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons $196.74
2014 Transformers: Age of Extinction $320.00
2015 Furious 7 $390.91
2016 The Mermaid * $481.91 *

*Still in release

See that last number? “The Mermaid” was only released in February and yet, transposed to the U.S. market, it would already be the seventh-highest-grossing film of all time. And it'll go higher. How high? Not sure. $600 mil, most likely. Maybe higher. So in 10 years, as measured by its top box-office hit, the Chinese box office has ballooned by more than 16 times

Here's a quick, related story. I was living in Taiwan in 1990 when “Total Recall,” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, was released, and some friends and I went to see it in Taipei's movie district. We went to, I believe, the 2 a.m. show on a Friday night, and the place was packed. Sold out. And when we were leaving? Outside the theater? We saw this long line of people waiting to get into the 4 a.m. show. 

Overall, China's box office was about half the U.S.'s in 2014 (10.4 billion vs. 4.8 billion) but I wouldn't be surprised to see China eclipse the U.S. here someday. And maybe sooner than we thought.

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Posted at 07:34 AM on Mar 02, 2016 in category Movies - Box Office
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Tuesday March 01, 2016

Post-Oscar Quote of the Day VI

“I've always just adored stories: hearing them, seeing them, being in them. So for me to have the chance to work with, I think, one of the greatest storytellers of our time, Steven Spielberg, is just such an honor. And unlike some of the leaders we're being presented with these days, he leads with such love that he's surrounded by masters in every craft on his films—every craft—not the least Mr. Tom Hanks. 

”People, I'm so pleased that our film has been nominated so many times, and as a face of the film, I meet many people in the streets and it's lovely to have them [say to me] 'Would it help?' and all that stuff [from the film]. And I think, if you ever wondered about acting with Tom Hanks, 'Would it help?' the answer's clearly yes.“ 

-- Mark Rylance, accepting the Oscar for best supporting actor for ”Bridge of Spies," Sunday night.

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Posted at 03:36 PM on Mar 01, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Post-Oscar Quote of the Day V

“Anyone out there who's in junior high, high school, suffering, there are days you're going to feel sad, you're going to feel angry, you're going to feel scared—that's nothing you can choose. But you can make stuff. Make film. Draw. Write. It'll make a world of difference.”

-- Pete Docter, upon accepting an Oscar for co-writing the Pixar film “Inside Out,” Sunday night. 

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Posted at 03:27 PM on Mar 01, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Post-Oscar Quote of the Day IV

“The weirdness tends to peak, however, not in isolated sights but during a series of events. As László Nemes, for instance, the director of the Holocaust drama 'Son of Saul,' left the stage, having collected his well-earned Oscar for Best Foreign Film, he was played off to the strains of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' The obvious choice. On came Joe Biden, to give a speech about sexual abuse and consent, demanding that we 'change the culture.' He in turn was succeeded by Lady Gaga, whom he hailed as a good friend, and whose performance of her nominated song, during which she went into peculiar, high-kicking spasms at the piano, was backed up by victims of sexual abuse, arriving en masse for the finale. Now, there is no denying the solemnity of the issues being aired here; what astounds is the combination of them, the brazenness of which would have made Salvador Dali pause to stroke his mustache. Millions of Americans may desert the Academy Awards, as is their prerogative, but Surrealists everywhere should continue to show their support.”

-- Anthony Lane, “The Surreal Achievements of the 2016 Oscars,” on the New Yorker site.

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Posted at 03:18 PM on Mar 01, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Post-Oscar Quote of the Day III

“Louis C.K. would be fun as host but I would love to see Sacha Baron Cohen triple host as Borat, Bruno, and Ali G.”

-- Jordan Muschler, 14, via Facebook. You can read his reviews, including who he would have nominated this year, at Jordan's Reviews.

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Posted at 03:07 PM on Mar 01, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Post-Oscar Quote of the Day II

“As an aside, I thought Chris Rock was really good as host (though the girls scout cookie thing dragged a bit), and I thought Louis CK's presentation for Documentary Short was the highlight of the night. But I will say that the way diversity so overwhelmed the Oscars broadcast was a bit disconcerting. It's obvious that the Academy utterly embarrassed itself by not nominating even a single person of color, and yes it was something that the Oscars would have to face head on. But we are also in the midst of an incredible (defined as: impossible to believe) election, and to think that there was barely a joke or word all night about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz tells you that maybe we're not paying attention.”

-- Joe Posnanski, “Oscar Predictions 2016,” Are asides more interesting than the point of the piece? Sometimes. 

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Posted at 02:46 PM on Mar 01, 2016 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Post-Oscar Quote of the Day I

“Finally, it's worth another raspberry for the producers' use of Ride of the Valkyries to 'play off' winners who went on past the 30-second mark. I've always argued that the thank-you speeches are much more interesting than the scripted shtick and that straitjacketing people at perhaps the apex of their careers is both cruel and stupid. But it was particularly outrageous last night — especially when Wagner was invoked to drown out the Hungarian Jew who'd won an Oscar for his Holocaust movie, Son of Saul.”

-- David Edelstein, “David Edelstein Looks Back on the Uneven But Memorable 2016 Oscars,” on Vulture.com. Damn straight. I'm seriously tired of this shit. My favorite Oscar speeches, such as Dustin Hoffman in 1979, require a little room. Give it to them.

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Posted at 02:45 PM on Mar 01, 2016 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Lancelot Links Loses It at the 2016 Oscars

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Posted at 01:41 PM on Mar 01, 2016 in category Lancelot Links
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Movie Review: The Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913)

Bert Williams and Odessa Warren Grey in Lime Kiln Club Field Day 

Williams and Grey get ready for their close-up.

Last Monday, at the Paramount in Seattle, as part of “Silent Movie Mondays,” I saw a movie few people have ever seen.

It's called “Lime Kiln Club Field Day,” and no worries if you haven't heard of it. It was produced by the Biograph Company in 1913, and starred Bert Williams, a West Indian vaudeville performer who is considered the first black star (headlining shows on Broadway, for example, at a time of the KKK and lynchings in the South), but it was never released. And it would've disappeared completely if, in 1939, the Museum of Modern Art hadn't bought 900 cans of film that the bankrupt Biograph company was planning to destroy. “Lime Kiln” was among those reels; MOMA didn't know what it had until recently. 

And why do we care? Because it's the first feature-length film with a mostly African-American cast. Williams is in blackface but no one else is. And as fraught as the concept of blackface is, within the confines of the film it feels like another comic mask—like Chaplin's moustache or Keaton's stone face. In the film, it doesn't feel racially derogatory. He's our clown, as Chaplin was. Indeed, one of the startling aspects of the film is how typically “silent film” it is. How long before we got another cinematic portrait of the African-American community that was this positive? Or this neutral? I'm guessing decades.

The plot is fairly simple. Williams is one of three men trying to court a girl, played by the super-stylish Odessa Warren Grey, and things begin to turn in his favor when he inadvertently drops a jug of gin down a well, tainting the water. He then labels the well “Gin Spring” and sells it, or something, and comes into cash. Then he escorts Ms. Grey through the fair, onto the rides (including an early 20th century Merry-Go-Round with brass ring), and to the big dance, where, I believe, he's revealed as a charlatan. No matter. He still gets the girl. The movie ends at her gate with a big kiss. Multiple versions of a big kiss, actually. Spike Lee would be proud. 

If I sound shaky on some of the details it's because no title cards were ever created for the film, and no script was found. The curators at MOMA, including Ron Magliozzi who toured with the film, went so far as to hire lip readers to figure out what was being spoken. Most it was unhelpful ad-libbing. (After the screening, I asked Magliozzi what was being said, and he mentioned that in some scenes, such as when the rivals all show up at Ms. Grey's gate, they're actually swearing: “What the fuck are you doing here!” etc. Makes one wonder how R-rated silent films might actually be. Surely a good future project for someone.)

Even without the title cards, though, you pretty much know what's going on. Indeed, their lack probably helps the film, since we do get title cards in the Bert Williams short, “Natural Born Gambler,” which precedes “Lime Kiln,” and they're rendered in the usual, minstrel-y fashion of the time: “de debbil” for “the devil.” To me, the title cards are more problematic than the blackface, which in some ways emphasizes Williams humanity rather than detracting from it. So it's probably a net positive that “Lime Kiln” doesn't have the cards. It allows the story to be the story. 

The most commented-upon aspect of the film is the cakewalk at the big dance. It feels like the first episode of “Soul Train” ever recorded:

After our screening, there was a discussion, moderated by Seattle Theater Group's marketing director Vivian Williams, and featuring Magliozzi; Teddie Gibson, who composed a score for the film and played on the Paramount's Wurlitzer organ; and Dr. Louis Chude-Sokei, a UW professor who's written a book about Williams, “The Last 'Darky,'”  which I would love to read someday when I don't have a stack of books to get through. I've sat through a lot of these Q&As, and they're usually death, but this one was great. It had history, disagreement, discussion, insight. I wanted it to keep going. 

So why was the film never released? Magliozzi suggests that once “Birth of a Nation” was released in 1915, and became a huge hit, and the KKK reformed and everything, it didn't seem like a good idea. But that would mean they kept it in the can for two years? Did they do that with silent films? I'm guessing there's a different answer—one we'll probably never know.

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Posted at 07:13 AM on Mar 01, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s
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