erik lundegaard

Tuesday May 31, 2016

Movie Review: Disorder (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Alice Winocour’s “Disorder” (original, better title: “Maryland”) is my kind of thriller: drenched in atmosphere and ambiguity. We don’t who the woman is, or how she feels about the hero, or if the hero is even the hero. He could be the villain. We keep guessing. Our minds are engaged.

For most of the movie, we don’t even know what war Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts, excellent) has returned from (Afghanistan, it turns out), or what’s the matter with him (some form of PTSD), or if he will return to battle (he wants to). When he gets a security gig from fellow soldier Denis (Paul Hamy), we, and he, don’t know who they’re guarding.

Disorder Maryland starring Diane Kruger and Matthias Schoenaerts

Bodyguard or liability?
Imad (Percy Kemp) is rich and powerful, and high-ranking men keep drifting away from the party to talk in private. But none of the tropes of thrillers are engaged. Vincent doesn’t form a special bond with Imad, or his wife, Jessie (Diane Kruger), whom he, and we, notice at the party, wearing a backless dress. It’s Diane Kruger after all. It’s wow. Does her beauty distract him from doing his job? Does his PTSD? His ears keep ringing; he keeps putting cold water on the back of his neck. For most of the movie, Schoenaerts feels like a mass of coiled, helpless anger. He’s the guard who needs guarding.

At the gate, for example, filling in for Denis, he stops a guest trying to enter: someone not on the list, who, after impatiently getting clearance, calls Vincent a moron and flips him off. When Denis returns, Vincent immediately searches for this guy, and finds him in the middle of an argument in an upstairs room with Imad. When the guest rises, threateningly, Vincent enters the room asking if he’s needed. He isn’t, but Imad wants him close by. Is this our bonding moment? No. Imad simply wants to know how much Vincent has heard. Nothing, he says, but we don’t know whether to believe him. More, we don’t know if Vincent pursued the man because he was suspicious of him or just pissed off. Was he looking to protect or to fight?

There’s been a lot of buzz over the last few years, particularly in the U.S., about the need for women directors and writers: women-created stories. Is this a good example of that? A perspective of men that women in particular are good at portraying? Our unknowability, our silences; the strength that might protect or hurt.

The next morning Denis asks Vincent if he’d like to stick around to guard the wife for a few days. Why Vincent? The Hollywood trope would be because he’s “the best,” or because Imad (or, better, Jessie) asked for him specifically, seeing something specialin him. Here it’s because Denis knows he needs the gig—he might not be returning to the war. So it’s out of a kind of pity. Or maybe Vincent is being set up? Why does Jessie and her son, Ali (Zaid Errougui-Demonsant), need guarding anyway?

On the way to the beach, in a traffic jam, Vincent guns the engine and veers into oncoming traffic to avoid, he says, someone following them. Is this the bodyguard or the PTSD talking? At the beach, she’s still angry with him, and he drifts, and then wanders. What is he seeing? Something real? At this point, he feels like a liability.

Until the attack in the parking lot—and even then it’s not handled with Jason Bourne-style efficiency. It’s messy, as it should be, and afterwards the police are more interested in who they are rather than who their attackers were.

Imad, it turns out, is an arms dealer, he's been arrested at the Swiss border, and his empire crumbles swiftly. The estate, called Maryland, which was the setting of a glamorous party just a few days earlier, quickly becomes abandoned: by servants, friends, cops. Vincent stays. Does Jessie have somewhere she can go? Not really. A friend in Canada, she says. Are people still trying to attack her? Why? Denis is called in as backup. Can he be trusted? 

That’s what I loved about this movie—the constant questioning against a genuinely thrilling backdrop. It’s a star movie—Schoenaerts and Kruger shine. There’s an early scene, where Vincent is riding a bus, lost in thought, then wakes up and realizes where he is—past his stop. Just that, but Schoenaerts does it so well. He’s the real deal. If we didn’t already know that from “Bullhead,” “Rust and Bone” and “The Drop.”

Lady or tiger?
The ending is ambiguous, too: a kind of lady-or-the-tiger ending.

In the final assault—and we never find out who’s assaulting the home, or why—Vincent lives up to the job description: He saves Jessie, Ali, even Denis. But he can’t stop. He slams an attacker's head against an unbreakable glass table until it’s basically mush. Jessie sees this, and he sees she sees. He had planned on going with them all the way to Canada (to protect, to be husband and father?) but here seems to realize it wouldn't work. He’s gruff with the boy, charmless with Jessie. He’s only needed when things go wrong. He asks Denis to take them to the airport. 

But then Jessie returns, puts her arms around him, says his name. Screen goes dark. Directed by.

It’s the tiger. To me, the embrace is in his mind. More, it’s his raison d’etre, the reason he’s done all of this. For her. As if we didn’t know that already. I mean, just look at her.

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Posted at 05:31 AM on May 31, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Monday May 30, 2016

Quote of the Day

“So far, election commentary has been even worse than I imagined it would be. ... people aren't being properly informed about the basic arithmetic of the situation. ...

”First, at a certain point you have to stop reporting about the race for a party's nomination as if it's mainly about narrative and 'momentum.' That may be true at an early stage, when candidates are competing for credibility and dollars. Eventually, however, it all becomes a simple, concrete matter of delegate counts. ...

“Second, polls can be really helpful at assessing the state of a race, but only if you fight the temptation to cherry-pick, to only cite polls telling the story you want to hear. Recent hyperventilating over the California primary is a classic example. Most polls show Mrs. Clinton with a solid lead, but one recent poll shows a very close race. So, has her lead 'evaporated,' as some reports suggest? Probably not: Another poll, taken at the very same time, showed an 18-point lead.

”What the polling experts keep telling us to do is rely on averages of polls rather than highlighting any one poll in particular. This does double duty: it prevents cherry-picking, and it also helps smooth out the random fluctuations that are an inherent part of polling, but can all too easily be mistaken for real movement. And the polling average for California has, in fact, been pretty stable, with a solid Clinton lead.“

-- Paul Krugman, ”Feel the Math," The New York Times

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Posted at 01:58 PM on May 30, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Box Office: 'X-Men,' 'Alice' Get Small

X-Men: Apocalypse

CGI villain tries to destroy humanity. Again.

The eighth “X-Men” movie apparently isn't the charm. Neither is the second “Alice” movie. 

“X-Men: Apocalypse” opened to an estimated $65 mil over three days, and $79 mil if you count Memorial Day, which is down from the $90 mil, three-day total the seventh “X-Men” movie (“Days of Future Past”) grossed on its opening weekend just two years ago. 

Maybe we're tired of groups of bickering superheroes saving the world from monstrosities. If you adjust for inflation, that's the third-worst opener for our merry marching mutant society:

  Title Opening (Adj) Date Tot/ Gross (Adj)
1 X-Men: The Last Stand $134,595,500 May-06 $306,996,900
2 X2: X-Men United $121,740,300 May-03 $305,848,800
3 X-Men Origins: Wolverine $97,828,100 May-09 $206,889,700
4 X-Men: Days of Future Past $93,549,500 May-14 $241,381,100
5 X-Men $86,709,700 Jul-00 $250,395,500
6 X-Men: Apocalypse $65,300,000 May-16 ??
7 X-Men: First Class $58,656,500 Jun-11 $156,026,100
8 The Wolverine $58,127,000 Jul-13 $144,966,900

In some way, I'm not surprised. I remember seeing the trailer back whenever and just sighing. I don't even know what year it is in that universe anymore. Reviews weren't good, either (49%). 

The other sequel that opened this weekend was “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” which, yeah, did even worse: $26 mil vs. the shocking, $116-million opener for the original, Tim Burton-directed film in March 2010. This one was directed by James Bobin (“Muppets”) and the reviews were not good (30%). All in all, not a happy weekend for Johnny Depp.

Some changeover: “Captain America: Civil War” added another $15 mil to become the highest-grossing domestic film of the year at $377. It's the seventh highest-grossing superhero movie, 12th if you adjust for inflation. Worldwide, it's at $1.1 billion. That's 15th-best all-time. 

It's been a lopsided year so far: five movies have grossed more than $300 mil, compared with only one movie (“Kung Fu Panda 3”) which grossed between $100 and $300. Compare this with just two years ago when we didn't get our first $300 mil feature until the August release of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” 

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Posted at 01:50 PM on May 30, 2016 in category Movies - Box Office
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Movie Review: The People vs. Fritz Bauer (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” is a solid-enough historical drama, with a meaty, central performance by Burghart Klaussner. It sheds some light on: the capture of Adolf Eichmann; the prevalence of Nazis in prominent roles in postwar West Germany; the politics of the Cold War. It makes Mossad seem slightly ineffectual. We learn—or I learned anyway—about the title character, the Jewish district attorney of Hessen in Frankfurt during the 1950s and ’60s, who was instrumental in bringing about the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65.

But it’s too neat. It feels like writer-director Lars Kraume bends history to fit a cleaner, less-interesting narrative.

And what’s with the casting? The role of a male transvestite is played by a woman: Lilith Stangenberg. So certain segments of the audience don’t get squeamish during love scenes? Aren’t we honoring a homosexual hero here?

The question the movie turns on
The People vs. Fritz BauerBauer is that hero, and for a time his homosexuality, all but repressed, is seen by his enemies as a way to bring him down; but ultimately it may be his zealousness in pursuit of justice.

Early on, via letter from Argentina, Bauer finds out where Adolf Eichmann is hiding, and he wants to extradite him and put him on trial in Germany. He wants to force Germany to confront its past. The problem: Who does he share this information with?  “No one, from Bonn to Washington, wants Eichmann on trial,” Bauer tells Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld of “Phoenix”), his one loyal assistant. “My own agency is enemy territory. 

So he goes to Israel/Mossad. Two problems: 1) sharing intel with a foreign government is a treasonous offense; and 2) Mossad hears the intel and shrugs. Like Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men,” they want a second source, and they leave that up to Bauer. (He finds it in an interesting place: the HR department at Mercedes-Benz.)

Both friends and enemies accuse Bauer of being obsessed with Eichmann but it’s a shame the movie isn’t similarly obsessed. Instead, we keep meandering into the Angermann subplot: the slow revelation that he’s gay; testing the waters in the transvestite bar; the beginning of something with Victoria (Stangenberg), then being traduced to the authorities. Bauer’s enemies, Paul Gebhardt and Ulrich Kreidler, both ex-SS, strike a deal with Angermann: Give them proof that Bauer is working with Mossad and Angermann’s crime, his career-ending scandal, will go away.

That’s what the movie turns on: this question. Earlier, Bauer told Angermann his own tale of capitulating to power. In 1920, Bauer, only 17, became the youngest district judge in 1920, and by 1933 he and Kurt Schumacher were leaders of the Social Democratic Party; but a May general strike against the Nazis went nowhere and they were put into a concentration camp, where Schumacher remained for the entirety of the war. Bauer got out in 1933. He wrote something nice about the Nazis in the paper, fled to Denmark, then Sweden. His capitulation spared him the Holocaust but it gnawed at him. In the movie he says it’s the great embarrassment of his life.

Angermann avoids that embarrassment by turning himself in. But we don’t see the consequences of that act of courage, just the act, which makes the courage seem easy. It makes you wonder why more people don’t have such courage, and I would argue that, per Frederick in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” that’s the wrong question. The better question is: The few who have it, how do they have it? A good discussion on this topic can be found in Eyal Press’ 2012 book “Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times.” Essentially Press argues that’s it’s often conservatives who believe in the original system who stand up to power, rather than rebels. It’s people who believe in the myth rather than cynics who know the shitty way the world runs.

Losing by winning
Anyway, Mossad gets Eichmann (as we know), Germany refuses to extradite him so he goes on trial in Israel (as we know), and Bauer, fired up again by Angermann’s loyalty and bravery, becomes more determined to put Germany on trial. We hear about the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials in an afterword, yet that business seems more interesting than what we’ve just watched—particularly since Bauer wasn’t happy with its outcome. He said the trials supported the “wishful fantasy that there were only a few people with responsibility ... and the rest were merely terrorized, violated hangers-on, compelled to do things completely contrary to their true nature.”

This movie, nominated for five German Film Awards, ends with a fierce determination to exact justice; the reality is messier and more interesting. A movie in which Bauer lost by winning might’ve resonated. 

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Posted at 09:33 AM on May 30, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Sunday May 29, 2016

Obama, Bun Cha and Food Diplomacy

“The reaction among regular people in Hanoi to the fact that the US President chose to eat Bun Cha was beyond all imagining. The effect was unbelievable. People were actually crying the next day, describing to me their shock and their pride, the reactions of their neighbors, to this completely unexpected choice of meal—and the venue.”

-- Anthony Bourdain, who adds five other true things about dinner with Pres. Barack Obama

P and I visited our friends Andy and Joanie in Hanoi in 2010, and P came back with a deep craving for bun cha, her favorite dish, which we had trouble finding. Here, in Seattle, where most of the Vietnamese are from the south, for obvious reasons, it's called “Bun cha Hanoi,” we discovered, and it never tasted the same. Maybe you need those little plastic stools.

Andy added the following to the Obama/bun cha discussion: 

The whole thing isn't just a nifty little photo op...it was specifically designed to show his respect for Hanoi, for north Vietnam. And food's a very powerful ally if you handle it right. I remember in a cab ride in Bali, all the driver wanted to talk about when he heard we were American was how Obama loves bakso, the noodle soup found all over Indonesia. That's a kind of diplomacy that the US will miss when either Clinton or Trump is president...

Obama Bourdain bun cha Hanoi

P's dish, my president.

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Posted at 07:29 AM on May 29, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Saturday May 28, 2016

Movie Review: Ma Ma (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I’m having trouble articulating the utter absurdity of Julio Medem’s “Ma Ma,” starring Penelope Cruz: its icky mix of tragedy and wish-fulfillment fantasy; the glory of Woman as life hands her lemons from which she makes a lemon-scented cathedral.

Bear with me. And remember: I’m just the messenger here.

Ma Ma starring Penelope Cruz

What Magda wants
As the movie opens, Magda (Cruz), whose husband has just left her for one of his philosophy students, is told by her handsome, friendly, singing gynecologist, Julian (Asier Etxeqneia), that she has stage-3 breast cancer in one breast. She will lose it. There will be chemo. She will lose her hair. Deep breath.

Immediately afterwards, at her son’s futbol game, she meets Arturo (Luis Tosar), a bald, bearded, bushy-eyebrowed scout for Real Madrid, who, as he’s praising her son’s futbol skills, receives a phone call that there was a car accident and his daughter is dead and his wife in a coma. He faints. Magda to the rescue! She gets him to the hospital, then visits him daily after her own chemotherapy treatments. He’s forever collapsing, she’s forever strong. Eventually she loses her hair and her breast, he loses his wife, then she and he, with her son, Dani (Teo Planell), travel to the coast for a vacation, where he and she, on the second day, kiss on the beach.

Cut to: the following January. By now she’s married to Arturo and her hair has grown back into a cute pixie cut, though Penelope—sorry, Magda—keeps covering it with an awful wig. Girls. Plus she and Arturo haven’t had sex yet; he has trouble getting it up. Plus, though Dani likes Arturo, he’s acting weird around her, because of the breast thing.

She mentions all of this in passing to Julian at a follow-up appointment, during which he finds, oops, more cancer, stage 4 now and incurable. He gives her six months to live.

So she sues the quack for a million euros.

Kidding. She quietly informs Arturo that she’s going to die, then quietly demands they have sex on the couch. Somehow the added pressure, not to mention tragic circumstances, helps. The deed is done, and shortly thereafter, hey, she’s going to have a baby.

Sadly, the baby dies in utero when she dies of cancer after five months. It’s quite gruesome.

Kidding. The ever-upbeat Magda just wants three things from the rest of her days:

  1. a girl
  2. to live long enough to give birth to this girl
  3. no, to live long enough to hold this girl in her arms

Guess which one of those things doesn’t happen? Right: None of them.

Wait, I didn’t even get into the Natasha thing, did I? Oh god.

Natasha
OK, so the movie actually opens on a frozen tundra, where, during the credit sequence, a small blonde girl, 5 maybe, slowly makes her impassive, dead-eyed way toward the camera. Later we see a framed photo of this girl on Julian’s desk. His daughter? No. It’s the girl that Julian and his wife are thinking about adopting from Siberia. Magda encourages it because she says yes to life. But Julian eventually says no to his wife and the girl. So the girl stays in Siberia yet remains in the picture because Magda keeps imagining her in everyday situations. Dani is in the backseat talking futbol, and there’s the impassive blonde girl next to him. They’re all frolicking in the ocean, and there’s the dead-eyed blonde girl swimming around them. It’s super creepy but I don’t know if the movie recognizes it as super creepy. I think the movie sees it as somehow beautiful. More of Magda’s great yesness.

Nothing else happens with Natasha, by the way. Magda just keeps imagining her, then names her own daughter “Natasha” in her honor, but for all we know the real Natasha remains parentless and frozen, not to mention dead-eyed, in Siberia. Sorry, kid.

The movie does one thing I like. At different times, it shows us a close-up of Magda’s heart pumping away. Like during the first kiss with Arturo, it thumps harder. And during the first (and only?) sex with Arturo, it thumps really hard. Then at the end, after the baby is delivered via cesarean section, it thumps steady as we hear mother being united with daughter. Then it slows. Then it stops. Then the screen goes dark.

“Well,” I thought. “Nice ending anyway.”

Except the movie doesn’t end there. It gives us an overhead shot of the now-dead Magda staring straight into the camera with the mastectomy scar on her right side and the newborn baby quivering in her left arm.

And that’s not the end of it, either. We get an epilogue, maybe four months later, in which the three men in Magda’s life, Dani, Arturo, and Julian, the handsome, singing, housecall-making gynecologist quack, gather around the baby, feed it a bottle, and sing the song Julian sang to Magda at the beach, something like “Eso es vivir,” which lists off all the things life is about. It’s “Three Men and a Baby.” It’s all the life that the upbeat death of Magda has created. More, because Magda has told Dani that the soul is eternal, and that after she dies she’ll stay near him, he thinks the baby is Magda reincarnated. And he calls the baby “Mama.”

That’s some fucked-up shit right there.

People keep calling this movie “inspiring” but for me it just inspired an urge to run out of the theater. Screaming.

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Posted at 08:44 AM on May 28, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Friday May 27, 2016

Movie Review: The Lovers and the Despot (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Imagine if Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, or maybe Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews, went missing in the 1970s, then turned up in the Soviet Union making movies for the Kremlin. Helluva story, right? This is the Korean version of that.

In 1978, Choi Eun-hee, a South Korean movie star past her prime, visited Hong Kong and disappeared. Her estranged husband, famed director Shin Sang-ok, went looking for her and also went missing. Years later, they turned up in North Korea, seeming happy, directing movies for Kim Jong-il. Traitors? Victims?

The Lovers and the DespotDocumentarians Robert Cannan and Ross Adam argue for the latter, but vaguely. “The Lovers and the Despot” is a slow-moving, opaque documentary that raises more questions than it answers. Shin died in 2006, so for talking heads it’s mostly Choi, her kids, a few South Korean film critics, and a few U.S. State Department folks. Not enough light is shed.

Apparently Kim, a solitary child who fancied himself artistic, lamented the state of North Korean moviemaking and asked who in South Korea was good. Shin’s name came up, but it’s Choi who’s drugged and kidnapped first. She wakes up in Pyongyang, where she meets the dictator, is given communist tracts to read, fears for her life; but at least she’s living in a home and sleeping in a bed. Shin is imprisoned, tries to escape, is caught. Years go by. If Kim wanted the artists for their art, why are they not working? We get audio of Kim later explaining to the couple that his orders were misinterpreted. Choi says she kept a tape recorder in her purse, which is how we get the audio, but how did she get the tape recorder? And why is it never found on her? And how does the couple smuggle out all of their audiotapes?

Eventually, in just a few years, the two make dozens of movies in North Korea. Shin elevates its cinema the way he did in the South. Not hard, I suppose.

But we don’t get nearly enough on his background. Most of this information from Shin’s New York Times obit is news to me even after seeing the doc:

In South Korea, however, he was a major figure of that nation's film industry in the 1950's and 60's, leading some to call him the Orson Welles of South Korea. He directed at least 60 movies in 20 years, introducing techniques like the zoom lens and themes like the plight of women in Korean history. The South Korean government eventually took away his license because he refused to toe its line.

Even part of his plight in North Korea is news:

After eating grass and bark in prison for five years, he was suddenly released by Mr. Kim, who told him he could make any movies he liked.

Here’s irony: In South Korea, Shin went overbudget on movies, his studio went bankrupt, his family was kicked out of their home. In North Korea, one of the poorest, most repressive countries in the world, Shin suddenly had the budgets he never had in a capitalist society, as well as (within limits) free rein. Shin and Choi wound up living better than almost anyone else in North Korea, but were, by her account, fearful and miserable. So in 1986, in Vienna for a film festival, they escaped to the U.S. embassy. I'd give anything to know Kim’s reaction to their “defection." The history that’s waiting to get out there. The horrors. 

In the doc, the best sense we get of these horrors doesn’t come from Choi but from official footage. During the funeral processions of Kim Il-sung in 1994, we witness the absurdly over-the-top lamentations of the people. It feels fake and awful, and in voiceover we’re told that those who didn’t mourn properly simply disappeared. Entire families disappeared. Everyone, in other words, is trying to outdo one another simply to stay alive. It’s a horrible tableau. It’s people competing to show the most sadness for the death of their worst oppressor.

“Lovers/Despot” is a little over 90 minutes long but feels longer. All of the areas of interest the documentarians could’ve delved into—South/North Korean cinema, in particular—and we wind up on this slow, meandering path.

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Posted at 06:07 AM on May 27, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Thursday May 26, 2016

Explaining Trump

The best thing I've read that explains the rise of Donald Trump—a cottage industry now—comes from George Packer in The New Yorker, who doesn't pull punches (calling Trump, among other things, “a celebrity proto-fascist with no impulse control”) but is measured while discussing how we got here; how Trump is both the same and different:

Republican Presidential candidates received majorities of the white vote in every election after 1964. In 2012, Barack Obama won about forty per cent of it, average for Democrats in the past half century. But no Republican candidate—not even Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan—made as specific an appeal to the economic anxieties and social resentments of white Americans as Trump has. When he vows to “make America great again,” he is talking about and to white America, especially the less well off.

More, Packer doesn't dismiss these Trump supporters:

White male privilege remains alive in America, but the phrase would seem odd, if not infuriating, to a sixty-year-old man working as a Walmart greeter in southern Ohio. The growing strain of identity politics on the left is pushing working-class whites, chastised for various types of bigotry (and sometimes justifiably), all the more decisively toward Trump.

This is probably the key line: 

Trump has seized the Republican nomination by finding scapegoats for the economic hardships and disintegrating lives of working-class whites, while giving these voters a reassuring but false promise of their restoration to the center of American life.

I keep going back to these four words:

Social progress
Economic regress

During my lifetime (b. 1963), we've had social progress (Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights, Title IX, Lawrence, Obergefell) but economic regress (rich richer, etc.). More groups of people now have the chance to be part of the dwindling middle class.

Worse, GOP candidates have appealed to those suffering from economic regress by blaming social progress. It's mostly veiled—Goldwater's states' rights, Nixon's law and order, Reagan welfare queen, H.W.'s prison turnstiles—but it's there. And once in power, their policies wind up increasing economic regress while continuing to blame social progress.

Trump, as Packer says, is simply more blatant in his scapegoating. It's a formula will keep working until Americans wise up. 

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Posted at 06:44 AM on May 26, 2016 in category Politics
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Wednesday May 25, 2016

Movie Review: Weiner (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The truest, funniest, most necessary line in “Weiner” is spoken by documentarian Josh Kriegman near the end.

It’s the night of the New York City mayoral primary, Sept. 13, 2013, and as the returns come in, it’s apparent that candidate Anthony Weiner, who in an early poll led with 25 percent of the vote, has gotten crushed: He finishes with less than 5 percent. Meaning all of the work he and his staff and his wife (and his wife!) have gone through during the previous months has been for naught: the ramping up, the fundraising, the endless ethnic parades and shaking of hands; the newspaper and magazine and television interviews; the attempts to overcome Weiner’s idiotic 2010 sexting scandal only to be immersed in the wider, more egregious, and more punchline-worthy “Carlos Danger” scandal of 2013, all of it for nothing. And after the concession speech, with its own farcical elements, and after friends and staff have left, it’s just Weiner and his lovely wife, Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton, in the silence of their Manhattan apartment. Oh, and Kriegman and his camera. And it’s Kriegman who breaks the silence with the question we’ve wondered throughout this painful, absurd, all-too-human exposé:

“Why are you letting me film this?”

You deserve a break today
Weiner documentaryI’d forgotten about the second scandal, by the way. Or I guess I thought the second scandal was simply a rehash of the first instead of its own new thing. I tend to turn away from public accidents like this. I don’t rubberneck on the freeway, either. So why did I go see this documentary about a carwreck of a political career? Two reasons: I heard it was good, and I was curious what it could tell me about Anthony Weiner that I didn’t know.

Give him this: He’s a man who doesn’t back down from a fight—any fight. The floor of the U.S. House, a political dais, a bakery in Brooklyn: It’s all the same to him. “I don’t like bullies,” he says, but it only makes sense if the fight is worth it, and in the doc his fights are increasingly not worth it. Not after “Carlos Danger.”

He’s articulate and quick-witted, too. He has a great line when he’s riding in the back of his towncar to another whatever—event, interview—and Kriegman asks him something, and Weiner responds with a query of his own: Is there a species of fly on the wall that talks? He’d like to know about that. He thinks that would be interesting to see: a fly on the wall that talks. It’s one of the wittier ways of saying “Shut the fuck up.”

There’s tragedy in this. You look at Weiner’s attacks on Republicans in 2009, 2010, his sticking up for the common man, and you think about what might have been. You look at his wife, so beautiful and poised, and how important this image of the two of them, the Jew and the Muslim, could’ve been for the world.

Instead, the image is of bulging gray underwear. The movie opens with a great quote from Marshall McLuhan, “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers,” but Weiner manages to come up with a worse name than his own: Carlos Danger. And the woman he’s sexting has an equally ridiculous name: Sydney Leathers. The press goes crazy over all of this; Huma is even drawn into it. The New York Post, with maybe an eye toward Hillary, attacks her for sticking by her husband. Truly, the press comes off awful here. We’re a moralizing culture that craves dirt. We keep throwing the first stone but it’s a tomato.

Election night is the worst. Leathers goes on Howard Stern’s show, and he convinces her to stalk Weiner, to wait outside his campaign headquarters to confront the losing candidate. To kick a man when he’s down? For shits and giggles? It’s never stated why. But off she goes, happy for another day in the spotlight, and he’s forced to dash through a nearby McDonald’s to avoid her. Even in losing, he’s not allowed a moment of grace. Every element of his life is turned into farce.

The role of women in these scandals generally goes unexplored. We get why men are attracted to beautiful women but why are women attracted to famous men? One wonders, too, what our history would be like if we assumed the same sexual restraint on the part of political leaders as we do from a Mick Jagger or a Warren Beatty. Is the scandal that we like the scandal? That we need the scandal? But there’s an obvious lesson: Women who will fuck you because you’re famous will most assuredly eliminate the middle man given the chance.

So get up and get away
You know what stunned me? Huma and Anthony are still together. I watched everything he dragged her through and assumed the marriage was kaput. It’s not. Not officially. How did he salvage it? What did he say to her in private? In the private more private than the private we see.

As for the question Kriegman asks? Why let him film this? I guess it’s all we’ve mentioned: Weiner’s inability to not fight; his desire for the last word. Or maybe he needs the spotlight as much as Leathers. Maybe it’s the same reason for the sexting that brought down his career: He can’t help himself.

One of the best scenes in the doc, one that will stick with me as indicative of our times, is Weiner’s post-Carlos Danger interview with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC—an interview that takes place via satellite. O’Donnell, both high-handed and exasperated, is in the studio, while Weiner, increasingly desperate and combative, with a look in his eyes that asks “It’s him, right?” when he knows it’s himself, is ... I don’t even know where Weiner is here. A big empty room. But he’s got the earpiece in, and the lights and camera are on, and Kriegman and co-director Elyse Steinberg cut to footage of that combative, split-screen exchange as it appears on TV. But they also pull back and show us what it’s like to be where they are. And from that perspective, Anthony Weiner is simply a man talking to himself in the midst of a big empty. 

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Posted at 07:10 AM on May 25, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Tuesday May 24, 2016

Lancelot Links Gets Bun Cha in Hanoi

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Posted at 05:45 AM on May 24, 2016 in category Lancelot Links
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Monday May 23, 2016

Quote of the Day

Trump Mussolini

“He's not Hitler, as his wife recently said? Well, of course he isn't. But then Hitler wasn't Hitler—until he was. At each step of the way, the shock was tempered by acceptance. It depended on conservatives pretending he wasn't so bad, compared with the Communists, while at the same time the militant left decided that their real enemies were the moderate leftists, who were really indistinguishable from the Nazis. The radical progressives decided that there was no difference between the democratic left and the totalitarian right and that an explosion of institutions was exactly the most thrilling thing imaginable.”

-- Adam Gopnik, “The Dangerous Acceptance of Donald Trump,” in The New Yorker, May 20, 2016

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Posted at 02:14 PM on May 23, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Indignation (2016)

Indignation James Schamus Philip Roth

He's driving the car, she's driving everything else. 

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Indignation” is the most lyrical movie about a blowjob ever. 

It’s an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel of the same name, but first-time director James Schamus, who wrote some of Ang Lee’s best films (“Eat Drink Man Woman,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), left out most of the indignation. He softens the characters and makes them reasonable. Roth’s story is hysterical comedy while Schamus’ is lyric tragedy with a dry absurdist centerpiece.

In some ways, Schamus actually improves upon the book. For one, he makes us care about the characters. But without Roth’s indignation, the story doesn’t quite cohere.

This one goes out to Bertrand Russell
Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is the son of a Newark butcher who winds up attending the very goyishe, not to mention very English 101, Winesburg College in Ohio in the fall of 1951. In the novel, he goes because his father has become unreasonably concerned for his safety in the midst of the Korean War, and Marcus can’t deal. In the movie, he just goes. His father is a little meshuge, sure, but it’s long-distance meshuge. He’s hardly in the picture.

While taking on problematic roommates, weekly chapel, and invitations to the one Jewish fraternity on campus, Marcus must also deal with his libido. In the library, he spies a girl with her leg dangling over the arm of her chair, and he has to stay up until 2 a.m. to finish what he should’ve been studying when he was studying that leg. That's a good bit. It recalls another Roth scene—I forget which book—in which his Newark protagonist, also in a library, also enamored of a nearby girl, rewrites Shakespeare/Romeo: Rather than wishing to be the glove that touches the cheek, he wishes to be the bra that touches the breast.

The girl here is Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon, quite good), a lovely blonde in his American Studies class, whom Marcus takes to dinner one evening, then to the nearby cemetery to “park.” He’s driving the car but she’s driving everything else. He’s too nice to ask, too innocent to know. And it’s there, amid the quiet of the dead, that she does the deed that in a roundabout way leads to his death.

See, his roommates, one gay and in love with Marcus, the other straight and a doofus, mock him, and disparage her, and after a quick fight he moves into a room of his own: a third-floor garret that any college student would kill for, and which is treated here as if it were hardly worth the climb. The move also pricks the ears of uber-upright Dean Caudwell (playwright Tracy Letts), who summons Marcus to his office, where the two engage in a debate with raised hackles barely concealed beneath confusion (on Marcus’ side) and beneficent smiles (for the Dean).

Is Caudwell anti-Semitic? Is Marcus too sensitive? Whatever the reason, the debate goes on and on. At one point, Bertrand Russell is called upon, dismissed, defended. God and man are engaged. It’s semi-absurdist in its pointlessness, and it ends with Marcus, suffering acute appendicitis, vomiting over the Dean’s rug.

In the hospital, he’s visited by the no-longer estranged Olivia, who gives him a post-op hand or two beneath the sheets, and then by his mother, Esther (Tony nominee Linda Emond), who bears bad news: She wants a divorce from Marcus’ father. But she takes one look at Olivia, who has a scar on her left wrist from a previous suicide attempt, and whose father may be sexually abusing her, and cuts a deal: no divorce from the father (which Marcus doesn’t want) in exchange for no Olivia (whom Marcus does). Marcus accedes but is heartbroken. And it leads to his death.

How? Post-op, he can’t climb the stairs to his garret, so he stays at the Jewish fraternity, where its president, Sonny Cottler (Pico Alexander), tells him he doesn’t need to go to chapel: He can pay someone else to go for him. But the ruse is discovered, Marcus is kicked out of college, and, with no deferment, he’s sent to Korea, where he’s KIA. The end.

Causation is big in novel and movie, and it goes: blowjob —> roommate fight —> garret —> post-op Jewish frat —> scheme —> expulsion —> Korea.

So don’t get blowjobs. Sincerely, Philip Roth.

Look homeward, angel, and melt with Roth
In his novel, Roth lets us know fairly early that our first-person narrator is stuck in a limbo/purgatory he can’t comprehend:

... perhaps this perpetual remembering is merely the anteroom to oblivion. As a nonbeliever, I assumed that the afterlife was without a clock, a body, a brain, a soul, a god—without anything of any shape, form, or substance, decomposition absolute. I did not know that it was not only not without remembering but that remembering would be the everything.

But we eventually comprehend it. The first chapter, which lasts for 224 of the novel’s 233 pages, is called “On Morphine,” while the second-to-last chapter, “Out from Under” (just seven pages), informs us that Pvt. Messner, after having his intestines and genitals hacked to bits in Korea, is doped before dying. That’s the book. It’s death throes: a howl of protest against Jewish parents, sexual mores, and self-satisfied Christian puritanism that led, or is leading to, his death. It also feels like Roth’s own protest against his hugely successful career: the writing life, that scribbling limbo, that took over from the life as lived, and during which he’s forced, as Marcus says, to “remember each moment of life down to its tiniest component.” As Marcus recreates Winesburg, so Roth recreates Weequahic, Newark, on page after page, in book after book, down to its tiniest detail. No wonder he retired a few years back.

The final chapter, “Historical Note,” is just two pages long, and adds irony to what’s passed. We’re informed that, two decades later, in 1971, after a week-long protest, the chapel requirement at Winesburg was abolished. So what caused Marcus to die is ended by the next generation with hardly a whimper, and with, one assumes, much celebratory oral sex. Roth once wrote (again, I forget which book) that in the sexual revolution his generation was like the first wave at Normandy, over which the hippies of the ’60s stepped on their way to easy sexual bliss, and this is the literal version of that. Even into 2008, Roth is still indignant about it. Portnoy still has his complaint.

But that’s not for Schamus, who goes with his own, softer framing device. 1971 isn’t mentioned. Hacked genitals certainly aren’t mentioned. Instead, what begins and ends the film is an old woman at a nursing home being given her daily meds. Then she looks at the wallpaper in the home—little bouquets of roses in a quaint, 1950s pattern—and memories flood back into her. It’s Olivia, and the wallpaper makes her recall the flowers she brought to Marcus in the hospital; and she recalls that long-lost love. 

Three things: 1) It's very sweet; 2) shouldn’t Olivia’s thoughts lead to Olivia’s story rather than Marcus’?; 3) for good or ill, it’s not exactly Rothian.

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Posted at 10:12 AM on May 23, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Friday May 20, 2016

Movie Review: Cafe Society (2016)

Cafe Society by Woody Allen

He's hardly a schmoozing nightclub owner; she plays love like it's a stubbed toe.

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Love fades” the old woman tells Alvy Singer after his first break-up with Annie in “Annie Hall,” and it’s a kind of horror for him: that even this greatest of human feelings is temporary; that nothing lasts.

“Could it be that love doesn’t end?” Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) wonders three-quarters of the way through Woody Allen’s “Café Society,” and it’s a kind of horror for him, since he loves a woman, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who loves him (kinda sorta), but who’s married to his uncle Phil (Steve Carell). Must he carry this hurt through the rest of his life?

Bobby: Call Alvy. Or that old woman on the street. You’ll feel better.

Tin man
“Café Society” opened both the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and, a week later, the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival (we’re sloppy seconds), but I imagine mostly for reasons of pedigree. It’s Woody, it’s got a great cast. That’s it.

It contains echoes of his earlier, better films. A New York Jew goes to Los Angeles, finds he misses New York, returns. But there’s no wit to it. Bobby doesn’t skewer Hollywood as Alvy did; it’s more of a shrug. The movie is a shrug. Like most latter-day Woody, it’s got a tinny, inauthentic quality. It’s propelled by narration (by Woody, as in “Radio Days”) that moves the characters around like chess pieces but delivers no emotional impact.

Bobby goes to LA to find work with his uncle, a Hollywood agent, who avoids him for several weeks, then gives the kid a job as a go-fer. Then he has his assistant, Vonnie, show Bobby around town. She does, he falls, but she’s got a boyfriend: a journalist who travels a lot. The boyfriend is a bit of a mystery. Watching, you think, “Who could it be? Who shouldn’t it be? Phil, right?” Yes, Uncle Phil.

But when Phil breaks it off with Vonnie, she’s distraught and finds comfort with Bobby. They’re about to move to New York and get married.

Then Phil changes his mind and takes her back. Heartbroken, Bobby returns to New York, where, inexplicably, and with the help of his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), he runs a high-end, hugely successful nightclub. Life goes on. He meets and marries Veronica (Blake Lively). Phil and Vonnie show up, with friends, and Vonnie is now like the name-dropping Hollywoodites he and she used to make fun of. Yet she isn’t. She’s still her (whoever that is). And she still loves him (whoever he is). And she tells him this when they go for a walk in Central Park.

Some problems:

  • Jesse Eisenberg makes a good stuttering neophyte but hardly a smooth, schmoozing nightclub owner. Too much nervous energy.
  • Kristen Stewart, so good with Olivier Assayas, is so so-so here: good as the woman you fall in love with, not-so-good as the woman who supposedly loves. Stewart plays love like it’s a stubbed toe.
  • Blake Lively is Bobby’s fallback position. Blake Lively.

One good line
Stoll is the best thing in “Café Society,” but his mob killings are treated as a kind of joke; and when he’s finally caught and sentenced to death, that, too, feels like a shrug. Our main characters are all stunned that their son/brother was a killer but don’t seem to care that he gets the chair.

Here’s a good bit: On death row, he converts to Christianity, since it has an afterlife and why take chances? His mother’s reaction—which is worse: the chair or the conversion?—is also good.  

And one line made me laugh out loud. Bobby’s uncle is that classic, thin, New York Communist Jew of the 1930s who overthinks everything, and near the end, pontificating, he tells the table, “As Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’” Then he adds, “But the examined one … is no bargain.”

That’s classic Woody. Which makes you realize how inconsequential the rest of the movie is. 

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Posted at 07:52 AM on May 20, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Thursday May 19, 2016

SIFF-List 2016: from 'Weiner' to 'Wiener-Dog'

Diane Kruger in Disorder (Maryland)

Yes, Diane Kruger made it easier to choose “Disorder” (orig. title: “Maryland”).

Today the Seattle International Film Festival opens with Woody Allen's “Cafe Society.” Should be fun barring protests from Frank Sinatra lookalikes.

It's always both fun (and time-consuming) figuring out which movies to see at SIFF. I usually get a 20-pack in the fall and in the spring I figure out how to use them. This year I rolled the dice with the list below: 

If you hear anything good (or bad), let me know. 

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Posted at 10:28 AM on May 19, 2016 in category Seattle
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Tuesday May 17, 2016

The Banality of Goodness: 'Beautiful Souls' by Eyal Press

I came to Eyal Press' “Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times” not because of its title (although the subtitle helps) but because I'd read the author's recent New Yorker piece on corruption in the Dade Correctional Institution in Florida: guards torturing prisoners in the mental-health ward and intimidating the psychiatric workers whose job it is to help the prisoners—in some cases, simply by removing themselves from the premises, leaving the worker unprotected. 

Beautiful Souls by Eyal PressIt's a harrowing piece, and the book, per its subtitle, is part of the same theme. In it, Press examines four people who resisted unethical/immoral times:

  1. Paul Grüninger, a Swiss police commander who backdated visas allowing Jewish refugees fleeing the 1938 Anschluss with Nazi Germany to stay in Switzerland, which had recently passed laws against their entry.
  2. Aleksander Jevtić, a Bosnian Serb, who saved dozens of Croats in a detention facility in 1991 simply by pretending they were Serbs. 
  3. Avner Wishnitzer, a member of Sayeret Matkal, an elite unit of the Israeli Defense Forces, who became a refusenik: officially declaring his opposition to serving in the occupied Palestinian territories.
  4. Leyla Wydler, a financial advisor, who suspected and blew the whistle on her company, Stanford Group, for engaging in a Ponzi scheme in the early 2000s.

What connects them? How did they do what few could? Were they extraordinarily courageous? Iconoclasts? Natural rebels? Press thinks the opposite: 

In every society, there are rebels and iconoclasts who don't share the moral code to which most of their fellow citizens subscribe—who delight in thumbing their noses at whatever authority figure will pay them mind. The resisters featured in these pages are not among them. Their problem was not that they airily dismissed the values and ideals of the societies they lived in or the organizations they belonged to, but that they regarded them as inviolable.

So Grüninger believed in Switzerland as a place that welcomed refugees, Wishnitzer believed in the IDF as “the most moral army in the world,” Wydler believed in the U.S. financial system as an honest industry that looked out for its clients. They were true believers. If Eichmann represented the banality of evil, these courageous people, in a sense, represent the banality of goodness. 

Press doesn't let us off the hook: 

It's easy enough to judge soldiers at Abu Ghraib or bystanders during World War II who failed to find their courage when unconscionable things were happening before their eyes. It's a lot harder to acknowledge or even realize how often we avoid making uncomfortable choices in the course of our daily lives by attributing the small injustices that momentarily grate at our consciences to the system, or the circumstances, or our superiors. Or how rarely we bother to ask what role our own passivity and acquiescence may play in enabling unconscionable things to be done in our name.

I'm surprised Wydler's story hasn't been made into a movie; I suspect it might. Grüninger's has. In 1938, he lost his job, his reputation; his daughter had to drop out of college to support the family, and even she had trouble finding work because of what her father had done: his inconceivable betrayal of Switzerland. And his ostracism didn't end when the war ended; it continued into the 1980s. Then, finally, redemption. In the '90s, his story was made into a documentary, “Gruningers Fall,” and it's now a Swiss-Austrian feature-length film, which, from the trailer, looks slightly sentimentalized. I would've preferred something like Press' cool, matter-of-fact tone.

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Posted at 06:20 AM on May 17, 2016 in category Books
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Monday May 16, 2016

Something Else

I'm usually not a huge fan of Andy Borowitz's stuff on the New Yorker site, but “Obama Alienates Millions with Incendiary Pro-Knowledge Remarks” is pretty damn funny. And the closing quote is perfect:

“This fall, we will ask the American people, 'Do you want four more years of knowledge, or do you want something else?' ” Priebus said. “Because the Republican Party has something else.”

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Posted at 06:07 PM on May 16, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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The Team with the Longest Postseason Drought

St. Louis Browns 1944 pennant

Apparently it doesn't pay to name your team the Browns. (Cf., football, Super Bowl)

It began with a simple thought: The baseball team with the longest, current postseason drought is my Seattle Mariners, who haven't been since 2001, when they won 116 games but got killed in the ALCS by the New York Yankees, 4 games to 1, including a 12-3 drubbing in the final game in the Bronx. Manager Lou Piniella had promised a Game 6 back in Seattle, and, as the outs dwindled down, the Yankee faithful taunted him, their former beloved skipper/right fielder, with “No Game 6! No Game 6!” Salt in the wound: Joe Torre used Mariano Rivera in the 9th inning with a 9-run lead—even though Mo had pitched an inning the day before and hardly needed the workout. Torre and Mo would get theirs a few weeks later in Arizona.

Anyway, the thought was this: What other teams have held this ignominious title: Team with Longest Postseason Drought (LPD)? 

Last year, I knew it was the Blue Jays, the other '77 expansion team, which hadn't been to the post since 1993, when they won their second World Series in a row. Of course they then went in '15 (bat flip, etc.) but lost to the eventual World Champion Kansas City Royals ... which had been the team with the longest postseason drought before them. 

But what about earlier? And which of the original 16 teams was the last to get to the postseason?

So I crunched the numbers.

Interesting tidbit: the 15th of the 16 teams to make it to the World Series was the St. Louis Cardinals, which didn't go until 1926, and which now has more championships than any NL team.

As for last? That was the other St. Louis team, the Browns, which didn't make it until 1944, then lost (to the crosstown Cards), and never went again until they moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles. By the time '44 rolled around, it had been 41 years of famine for the Browns, and 18 years (since the start of the '27 season) with the LPD title. 

Who took over the mantle in '45? The Boston Braves, which had been only once, back in '14. They held the title for four years until they made the Series in '48, when it passed onto the Phillies, pennantless since '15, who went two years later. So the ChiSox/BlackSox got it. 

Here's a chart. Search for your favorite team:

TEAM W/ LPSD PERIOD YEARS YRS W/TITLE
St. Louis Browns 1903-1944 41 18
Boston Braves 1914-1948 34 4
Philadelphia Phillies 1915-1950 35 2
Chicago White Sox 1919-1959 40 9
Pittsburgh Pirates 1928-1960 32 1
Phil/ KC/ Oakland Athletics 1931-1971 40 11
Chicago Cubs 1945-1984 39 13
Cleveland Indians 1954-1995 41 11
Texas Rangers 1961-1996 35 1
Mon. Expos/Wash. Nationals 1981-2012 31 16
Kansas City Royals 1985-2014 29 2
Toronto Blue Jays 1993-2015 22 1
Seattle Mariners 2001-? 15* 1*

* and counting

Trivia learned along the way:

  • The last of the original 16 teams to make the postseason in the new, post-1969 playoff format? Cleveland Indians. In 1995. Ouch. 
  • The last team, original or expansion, to make the post-season? The Rays in 2008. The second-to-last was the D-backs in '99.
  • Which team has made it to the post-season the fewest times? The Marlins. Just twice: 1997 and 2003. But they won the World Series both years. So: compensation. 
  • The original 16 team that's been to the postseason the fewest times? Not the Cubs. It's their crosstown rivals, the White Sox, which—even in the era of expanded playoffs—have only made the postseason nine times. Two expansion teams, the Astros and Angels, have been more often (10). Hell, the Cubs, pennant-less since 1945, still have more pennants (10) than the ChiSox have postseason appearances (9).
  • Only one franchise from each expansion year has won a World Series title. Isn't that odd? In '61, we got the Senators/Rangers (visited Series twice, lost twice) and Angels (title: 2002). In '62, the Astros (went once, lost) and Mets ('69, '86). Among the four teams of '69, the Royals are far and away the most successful: four Series and two championships ('85, '15). No championships for the Padres (been twice), Brewers (once), Expos/Nationals (nonce). And so on. '77, it's Blue Jays (two titles) over Mariners (never been); in '93, Marlins over Rockies; '97, D-backs over Rays. Odd little phenomenon. Will end soon but it's interesting it's worked out this way so far.

This dive into the stats, by the way, did nothing to curb my hatred for the Yankees. The opposite. More on that later. 

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Posted at 06:06 AM on May 16, 2016 in category Baseball
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Sunday May 15, 2016

Box Office: 'Cap' Passes 'Batman v Superman' Worldwide

What difference does 10% make? Depends. If you start at, say, $166-169 million, you're talking a little bit of change.

This weekend, “Captain America: Civil War” fell 59% in its second weekend, earning $72 million domestically. Compare that to the second weekend of the similarly themed but roundly maligned “Batman v Superman,” which fell 69% back in March, grossing $51 million.

And that's the difference between a quality movie (“Cap”) and a travesty (“BvS”). But that's just the beginning. It's going to grow. It's going to be huge.

It already is. On its 10th day of release, “Cap” is at $295 domestic, which “BvS” didn't reach until its 17th day. And “BvS” had a bigger opening Friday: $81 vs. $75. But then word got out. 

“BvS” opened big overseas, too. It looked like a surefire $1 billion movie. But it's stalled worldwide at $868. Because word got out in other languages.

“Cap,” in fact, has already passed it. It's at $940.9 worldwide and will probably wind up at $1.5 billion or so—half a billion ahead of “BvS.” That's what Warner Bros. flushed down the toilet when they put Zack Snyder in charge of their DC universe—dubbed the “murderverse” by pissed-off fanboys. (I'd dub it the stupidverse; it's Snyder's stupidity, more than his lack of ethics and morality, that I truly can't stomach. But yeah, the killing and torture can get to you, too.)

So will Warner Bros. finally give Zack Snyder the boot? Please. Before he has superheroes kill again. Or reminisce about their mothers' names. 

Elsewhere, “The Jungle Book” continues to clean up, grossing another $17 for $311 domestic and second place for the weekend. Jodie Foster's “Money Monster” debuted in third place with $15 mil. Anyone see it? I might check it out. 

#FireZackSnyder.

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Posted at 08:52 AM on May 15, 2016 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday May 14, 2016

Baseball Trivia: The Original 16 Teams and the World Series

Some trivia questions that arose out of a side-project on the history of the World Series.

(Answers in the comments section.)

  1. Which was the first MLB team to go to the World Series twice?
  2. First World Series: 1903Which was the first team to WIN the World Series twice?
  3. By the time the Boston Red Sox traded Babe Ruth in 1919, they had been to the World Series five times. How many had they won?
  4. Which was the last of the original 16 teams to go to the World Series?
  5. Which was the last of the original 16 to WIN the World Series?
  6. Of the original 16, how many teams went to the World Series before the Yankees?
  7. Of the original 16, two teams are currently tied for the fewest pennants: Who and how many?
  8. Five teams, including expansions teams, won the first two World Series they appeared in. Name them.
  9. Which was the first World Series that didn’t include at least one of the original 16 franchises?
  10. The NY/SF Giants have the second-most pennants in MLB history: 20. That amounts to 18% of all possible NL pennants that could be won. The Yankees, of course, are far ahead of that percentage. To lower itself to only 18%, how many pennant-less seasons would the Yankees need to have? What year would it be before they could win another?
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Posted at 06:45 AM on May 14, 2016 in category Baseball
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Friday May 13, 2016

Trailer: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

This has a chance of being great. Ang Lee, yo. And it hits the right points about what's wrong with America (war as spectator sport, PR, not owning who/what you are), and maybe what's right. I just hope it doesn't hit them too hard, or misses for political/financial reasons. Great title, too. 

Shocking seeing Vin Diesel in this, but he was in “Saving Private Ryan” before he turned himself into a cartoon. Kid (Joe Alwyn) looks about perfect. And when is Garrett Hedlund going to be a star? I thought that would've happened already. 

Here's an excerpt from the New York Times review of the Ben Fountain novel on which the movie is based:

All this unfolds amid the constant attention of the public. Left to themselves, the Bravos act like a bunch of street-­corner pervs who snap into politeness when required. Events are complicated by the halftime fireworks, which risk setting off P.T.S.D. flashbacks among the soldiers, who, if provoked, are primed to respond as a pack.

November.

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Posted at 07:57 AM on May 13, 2016 in category Trailers
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Thursday May 12, 2016

Trailer: The Founder

Fingers crossed. Keaton looks good, it's got John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman as the McDonald brothers, and it's written by the guy who wrote “The Wrestler.” More worrisome, it's directected by John Lee Hancock, who gave us “The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” and the 2004 version of “The Alamo.” Not a great track record. But a great American story. Fingers crossed. 

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Posted at 02:57 PM on May 12, 2016 in category Trailers
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Wednesday May 11, 2016

Quote of the Day

“Voting against Trump is an act of allegiance to America. Even if Republicans are persuaded that [Hillary] is Claire Underwood out of 'House of Cards'—well, Claire Underwood is a more stable person to have in office than a cross between Sauron and Bozo the Clown.”

-- Adam Gopnik, “Going There with Donald Trump,” The New Yorker

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Posted at 06:16 PM on May 11, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Tuesday May 10, 2016

A Few Thoughts on the History of Sports Illustrated's 'Sportsman of the Year'

Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year

1954, 1967, 1996.

I was simply looking to see if Secretariat was Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1973 and got lost in SI's coverage of its covers: every Sportsman/men or Sportswoman/women of the Year between 1954 (Roger Bannister) and 2015 (Serena Williams). It's an interesting list.

First, no Secretariat. No animals. Just people. That year they gave it to Jackie Stewart, the race car driver, rather than the horse who won the Triple Crown with times, in each race, that still haven't been broken. 

Some titles, you assume, SI would want back: Lance Armstrong in 2002, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, Joe Paterno in 1986.

That's another thing: More than a few coaches here, mostly college, mostly basketball and football. No baseball managers made the cut:

  • 2011: Pat Summitt and Mike Krzyzewski
  • 1997: Dean Smith
  • 1993: Don Shula (the only pro coach)
  • 1986: Joe Paterno
  • 1972: John Wooden (shared w/Billie Jean King)
  • 1963: Pete Rozelle

King was the first woman, by the way, 18 years after it started, and she had to share. The first solo woman on the cover was Chris Evert in '76. The next was Mary Decker in '83. The third, Serena, in 2015. Bit of a gap. 

The first African-American? Rafer Johnson in 1958, followed by Bill Russell in 1968, followed by (about time) Muhammad Ali in '74. So in the first 20 years, 1954-73, only two African-Americans were honored.

Baseball has dominated. That surprised me:

Sport Total
Baseball 13.5
Basketball  10
Football 9
Golf 6
Olympics 6
Tennis 3.5
Boxing 3
Running 3
Cycling 2
Hockey  2
Athletes Who Care 1
Car racing 1
Horse racing 1
Soccer 1

Tiger Woods was tapped twice, in '96 and 2000, which seems a bit much, particularly considering who never got it: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds, Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas, Walter Payton, Wilt Chamberlain, Martina Navratilova, Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer. The only male tennis star was Arthur Ashe in 1992, i.e., right before his death, speaking out against racism in sport. No Mark Spitz, either, which seems odd. No Carl Lewis, either. 1972 went to Wooden/King, '84 to Edwin Moses/Mary Lou Retton. I guess? 1980 went to the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, a good choice.

Trivia question: Who was the first black baseball player to get the title? Answer: Willie Stargell in 1979, and he had to share with Terry Bradshaw in a “Pittsburgh champions” cover. Stargell was indicative in one sense: He was the World Series MVP that year, and most of SI's baseball SOTY have been World Series MVPs:

Year Player Team Why?
2014 Madison Bumgarner San Francisco Giants World Series MVP
2009 Derek Jeter New York Yankees On World Series winning team
2004 Boston Red Sox Boston Red Sox World Series winners
2001 Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling Arizona Diamondbacks World Series MVPs
1998

Mark McGwire/ Sammy Sosa

Cardinals/Cubs Homerun champions
1995 Cal Ripken, Jr. Baltimore Orioles Consecutive game streak
1988 Orel Hershiser Los Angeles Dodgers World Series MVP
1979 Willie Stargell Pittsburgh Pirates World Series MVP
1975 Pete Rose Cincinnati Reds World Series MVP
1969 Tom Seaver New York Mets On World Series-winning team (MVP: Donn Clendenon)
1967 Carl Yastrzemski Boston Red Sox On World Series-losing team (WS MVP: Bob Gibson)
1965 Sandy Koufax Los Angeles Dodgers World Series MVP
1957 Stan Musial St. Louis Cardinals 2nd in NL MVP (to Hank Aaron) 
1955 Johnny Podres Brooklyn Dodgers World Series MVP

It's interesting checking out when it didn't go to the World Series MVP. In '57, Hank Aaron won the NL MVP, the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series, and in it he hit .393 with 3 homeruns and 7 RBIs but didn't win the MVP because Lew Burdette had one of the greatest Series ever: 3-0, 27 IP, 2 earned runs, 0.67 ERA. He was Christy Mathewson for a week. So why not Burdette? I guess because his season was good but not great: No Cy Young votes. So why not the guy who was the best position player on the champs and who was also NL MVP? Why choose the guy who finished second to him in the MVP voting and whose team didn't even make the Series? You know why. Business concerns, too, probably. You don't want the South rising in anger again, as it did when SI put Willie Mays on the cover with manager Leo Durocher and Durocher's wife.

It's tough to argue Yaz in '67 but Bob Gibson did go 3-0 in the Series that year. Seaver? Best player on the upstart Mets, but he went 1-1 in the Series when his team went 4-1. No Clemente in '71 or Reggie in '77. Lee Trevino and Steve Cauthen, respectively. As a result, the only African-American baseball player to be honored without a white guy next to him was Derek Jeter in 2009. Jeter had a good season that year, finishing third in MVP voting, but led the league in nothing. He also had a good postseason, and even hit .409 in the Series. But the better postseasons were had by A-Rod, who kept crushing homers, and Hideki Matsui, the World Series MVP, who batted .615 (you read that right) with 3 homers and 8 RBIs. But Jeter was the face of the franchise. He also sold magazines.  

The list is often reflective of its times, and most likely of SI's readership: the big three + golf. It ignored women and black athletes for too long, then fumbled trying to make it up to them (1970s/ early '80s), then seemed to lose interest at least where women were concerned. Until last year, that is, when, for the first time, it chose a black woman. And what happened? Readers thought it should've been a horse. Plus ca change. 

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Posted at 06:31 AM on May 10, 2016 in category Sports
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Monday May 09, 2016

Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Aliens attack the earth, superheroes beat them back, we’re saved. Then superheroes are blamed for the destruction. Then they fight each other.

That’s the plot for both this movie and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” This one is “Citizen Kane” in comparison.

The battle lines are drawn here because both Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) are unreasonable, not because they’re complete moronic shithead idiots as in Zack Snyder’s “BvS.” Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (ditto), actually bring breeziness, fun and wit to the enterprise.

Example: During the Berlin airport fight scene halfway through the movie, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd, a standout in a small role) gets inside Iron Man’s suit and begins to cause damage:

Ant-Man: You’re going to have to take this to the shop.
Iron Man (startled): Who’s speaking?
Ant-Man: Your conscience. We don’t talk a lot these days.

At another point, Ant-Man morphs into Goliath, freaking out the other superheroes, and leading Iron Man to tell his team: “OK, anybody on our side hiding any shocking or fantastic abilities they’d like to disclose?”

Captain America: Civil WarOr this: To defeat Goliath, Spider-Man (introducing: Tom Holland) wraps his webbing around his legs to topple him. It’s a rip-off of Luke Skywalker toppling the Imperial Walkers in “The Empire Strikes Back.” What’s cool is he acknowledges it. He references it. And it’s the way he references it: “Hey guys, you ever see that really old movie, ‘Empire Strikes Back’?” Leading Rhodey (Don Cheadle) to ask, “Jesus, Tony, how old is this kid?”

It’s all classic, Stan Lee-era Marvel. Doesn’t mean there’s not problems.

You in
“Captain America: Civil War” is based upon the landmark 2006 comic series by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven, in which, post-9/11, superheroes were forced to register with, and reveal their identities to, the federal government. Tony Stark said yes, Cap said no. Battle lines.

Since secret identities aren’t much of a thing in the Marvel movie universe (“I’m Iron Man,” etc.), they needed a new issue. But the replacement doesn’t quite resonate. The issue has issues.

In the aftermath of Avengers battles in New York (“The Avengers”), Sokovia (“Avengers/Ultron”), and Lagos (here), U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), informs our heroes that 117 countries have signed an agreement putting the team under the control of the United Nations. Essentially the Avengers can only assemble when it gets agreement from the U.N. Security Council.

Right. Coupla quick questions:

  • Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross is our Secretary of State? Who’s president—Dick Cheney?
  • Why would the U.S. government hand over its chief form of security to the rest of the world? Who’s president—Noam Chomsky?
  • 117 nations agree on something and none of our heroes have heard about it? Can’t a brother get a newspaper? Or a Twitter account?
  • Where’s Nick Fury again?

Before, the Avengers assembled at the behest of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Cap never objected. Here, Cap says it’s a matter of choice, which he didn’t really have before, and which is an odd thing for a soldier to want anyway.

Meanwhile, Tony Stark, the former weapons manufacturer, who is berated by a woman (Alfre Woodard) who lost her son in Sokovia, is compliant. He’s all in. Downey does a not-bad job of selling the U.N. resolution, but he’s got the inferior product.

Then it gets personal. A U.N. conference in Vienna is blown up, the father of the Black Panther (introducing: Chadwick Boseman) is killed, and Cap’s friend, the brooding Winter Soldier, the former Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Shaw), is fingered. Cap discovers that the Winter Soldier was framed but Iron Man won’t listen. So we get the big Berlin airport battle. Essentially:

#TeamCap   #TeamTony
Captain America   Iron Man
Winter Soldier   War Machine
Falcon   Black Panther
Scarlet Witch   Vision
Hawkeye   Black Widow
Ant-Man   Spider-Man

Then it gets more personal. Rhodey, War Machine, is a victim of friendly fire from the Vision and may be paralyzed for life.

Then it gets less personal: Iron Man realizes Cap was right and the Winter Soldier was framed for the Vienna bombing.

Then it gets the most personal: Iron Man discovers the Winter Soldier, as a brainwashed Soviet spy in 1991, killed his parents in order to get five samples of the supersoldier formula.

So now Winter Soldier has two superheroes trying to kill him. And Cap keeps defending him. Which is a bit tiresome. I liked it better in the ’60s and ’70s when Bucky was just dead.

Oh, right. The villain.

A machination too far
He’s Zemo (Daniel Brühl), formerly Baron, who lost his family in Sokovia when the Avengers saved the world. Now he wants revenge. Here’s how he goes about getting it:

  • He finds a former Soviet/Hydra agent living in a cluttered home in Cleveland and steals his intel, including the key words that brainwash the Winter Soldier.
  • He orchestrates the Vienna bombing and frames the Winter Soldier.
  • He kills the government shrink/analyst scheduled to interview the Winter Soldier and activates him. (To do what again?)
  • Then he travels to the Siberian hideout where five Soviet supersoldiers are in cryogenic sleep and awaits the arrival of the Avengers.

I like the twist: He doesn’t activate the supersoldiers and sic them on the Avengers, as we suspect. He kills them with bullets to the head. Empires fall, he says, when they crumble from within, so he wants the Avengers to fight each other. He wants the Avengers to crumble from within. The supersoldiers were just a lure.

But ... weren’t they already doing that? Without his help? And didn’t his final move—showing Tony Stark evidence that the Winter Soldier killed his parents—depend upon Iron Man actually showing up in Siberia? That’s a fantastic coincidence to begin with. It depends upon Tony: 1) listening to the frame-up argument from Natasha (Scarlett Johannson), 2) finding evidence that confirmed this, 3) flying to Siberia at just the right moment.

How great if it had just been Cap and WS in Siberia. Zemo makes his big reveal, looks around: “Wait, where’s Iron Man? Seriously, this thing really depends upon Iron Man being here.”

Too much heavy lifting, Zemo. Just show Tony that footage in Vienna. Siberia shouldn’t enter into it.

Make Mine Marvel
I admit I’m a little tired of superhero movies. We’ve had 13 of these things since “Iron Man” in 2008—and that’s just the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Doesn’t include X-Men (Fox), Spider-Man (Sony), Batman/Superman/Green Lantern (Warner Bros.). Poor Chris Evans has been Captain America every summer but one since 2011. 

But if you’re going to have them, this is the way. Just look at the great scene where Ant-Man meets Captain America. How fun is that? That’s what you want: wit, personality, continuity. Don’t be like Zack: be smart.

But a little smarter would be nice, Marvel.

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Posted at 05:54 AM on May 09, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Sunday May 08, 2016

Box Office: 'Captain America: Civil War' Has 5th-Best Opening Ever

Captain America: Civil War

#TeamCap trying to catch a plane. 

“Captain America: Civil War” grossed an estimated $181 million this weekend, more than “Captain America: First Avenger” grossed in its entire domestic run back in 2011. But that, of course, was B.A.: Before “Avengers.”

It's the fifth-best opening weekend ever, but some might see it as a comedown since “Civil War” is essentially an “Avengers” movie (+ Spider-Man), and it's not quite at their monetary level: “Avengers” opened to $207 back in 2012, “Ultron” to $191 in 2015.

But to me it's a startlingly high number for a series that I thought was oversaturated. Put it this way: We've seen Captain America, in some form, every summer but one since 2011:

It's a testament to star Chris Evans and the filmmakers, who have created interesting continuity, that we're not sick of him yet. Good reviews help, too. DC helps, too, by showing us godawful versions of same. We could all use a Zack Snyder to make us look good.

Speaking of: “Batman v Superman” fell off 73% in its seventh weekend, grossing just over a mil, for a domestic total of $327. Looks like it won't even double its opening weekend take of $166. Moviegoers have fled from that movie like Metropolisians from a Superman/Zod battle. 

The year's biggest domestic grosses so far:

  Movie Dist. Total Opening
1 Deadpool Fox $362,192,266 $132,434,639
2 Zootopia BV $327,624,990 $75,063,401
3 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice WB $327,250,133 $166,007,347
4 The Jungle Book (2016) BV $284,985,265 $103,261,464
5 Captain America: Civil War BV $181,791,000 $181,791,000

“Civil War” review up tomorrow. 

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Posted at 09:28 AM on May 08, 2016 in category Movies - Box Office
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Quote of the Day

“And you don't have excuses. You don't have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap to register to vote. You don't have to risk your lives to cast a ballot. Other people already did that for you.”

-- Pres. Barack Obama during his commencement address to Howard University's Class of '16, urging a more strategic and thoughtful activism, including, per above, voting in midterm elections. 

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Posted at 08:19 AM on May 08, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Sunday May 01, 2016

Batman, Superman Robbed of Millions by Zack Snyder, Warner Bros.

Fire Zack Snyder

Snyder, before the heist. 

Zack Snyder's “Batman v Superman” shed 736 theaters this weekend, dropped 30% from the previous weekend, and grossed another $3.8 million (ninth place) for a total domestic gross of $325 million. It's the second-highest of the year, the third-highest-grossing DC movie ever (after “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Returns”), and the highest-grossing Superman film ever. 

That, I suppose, is the good news. 

The bad news:

  • “BvS” is second on the year to “Deadpool,” a little-known, R-rated Marvel comics character that opened Valentine's Day weekend. It won't catch it. 
  • Repeat: Batman and Superman combined can't beat Deadpool. 
  • If you adjust for inflation, “BvS” drops to eighth all-time in the DC Universe. The movies above it include “Batman Returns,” “Batman Forever” and “Superman II.”
  • “BvS” is about to set an undesirable record among the highest-grossing openers ever. For that, let's get off bullet points. 

Among the top 50 openers of all time, these are the films that had the longest legs (opening weekend /domestic gross):

Rank Movie Opening Dom. Gross % Thtrs
1 Shrek 2 $108,037,878 $441,226,247 24.5% 4,163
2 Inside Out $90,440,272 $356,461,711 25.4% 3,946
3 Star Wars: The Force Awakens $247,966,675 $936,121,508 26.5% 4,134
4 Toy Story 3 $110,307,189 $415,004,880 26.6% 4,028
5 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen $108,966,307 $402,111,870 27.1% 4,234
6 Transformers: Dark of the Moon $97,852,865 $352,390,543 27.8% 4,088
7 Guardians of the Galaxy $94,320,883 $333,176,600 28.3% 4,080
8 Spider-Man (2002) $114,844,116 $403,706,375 28.4% 3,615
9 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone $90,294,621 $317,575,550 28.4% 3,672
10 Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith $108,435,841 $380,270,577 28.5% 3,661

Give or take a “Transformers” or “Sith,” pretty good movies for their type. 

Now here's the bottom 10 in terms of legs:

Rank Movie Opening Dom. Gross % Thtrs
1 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice $166,007,347 $325,132,593 51.11% 4,242
2 The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 $138,122,261 $281,287,133 49.1% 4,061
3 The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 $141,067,634 $292,324,737 48.3% 4,070
4 The Twilight Saga: New Moon $142,839,137 $296,623,634 48.2% 4,024
5 Godzilla (2014) $93,188,384 $200,676,069 46.4% 3,952
6 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 $91,608,337 $202,853,933 45.2% 4,324
7 Spider-Man 3 $151,116,516 $336,530,303 44.9% 4,252
8 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 $169,189,427 $381,011,219 44.4% 4,375
9 X-Men: The Last Stand $102,750,665 $234,362,462 43.8% 3,690
10 Iron Man 3 $174,144,585 $409,013,994 42.6% 4,253

They're either movies that have a small core audience (“Twilight”), or shitty word-of-mouth (“Spider-Man 3,” “X-Men: The Last Stand”). 

And “Batman v Superman” is about to beat them all. 

The movie needs another $13 mil or so to ensure that it's not No. 1 in this category, and it looks iffy to make that. Either way, it will only double the gross of its opening. That's it. 

Now look back up at the first table. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” shattered the record for biggest box-officer openers last December with $247 mil, yet it still grossed almost four times that amount. Because people liked it. They went more than once. They recommended it to friends. 

If “BvS” had been such a well-received movie, it would've grossed something like $664 million. Instead, it's half that. Warner Bros. is losing hundreds of millions of dollars because they hired Zack Snyder to direct, and everything Zack Snyder touches turns to stupid. And people can only take so much stupid. 

And that's not even taking into account international, and all the money lost in merchandising. Is it a $500 million loss? A billion? Whatever the final number, it's an epic disaster. I'd suggest Warner Bros. call Superman to save the day, but look what they've already done to him. Look what they did to my boy.

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Posted at 03:55 PM on May 01, 2016 in category Movies - Box Office
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Quote of the Day

“In the United States, most banks take special precautions with their Swift computers, building multiple firewalls to isolate the system from the bank's other networks and keeping the machines physically isolated in a separate locked room.

”But elsewhere, some banks take far fewer precautions. ... The central bank in Bangladesh, by some accounts, employed fewer protections against cyberattacks than many other large banks. The bank, for example, used $10 routers and no firewalls, according to news reports.“

-- from ”Hackers' $81 Million Sneak Attack on World Banking" on the front page of the New York Times. 

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Posted at 07:29 AM on May 01, 2016 in category Technology
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