Movie Review: What Just Happened (2008)
The book was better.
Seriously, how sad is it that Hollywood can’t make a good movie from a juicy, insidery memoir about the absurdity of making movies in Hollywood? Shouldn’t they own that shit?
Art Linson’s book, “What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line,” focuses on Linson’s years in the late ’90s producing pictures for Fox Studios, including: “The Edge,” “Great Expectations,” “Pushing Tin,” and “Fight Club.” You look at that list and think, “Well, ‘Fight Club’ anyway.” Except that one was the real disaster. The Fox brass was horrified by the film. Nobody got it. And it led to a shitty marketing campaign that smoothed over the very things—its violent complexity; its take on modern male culture—that might have made it a box office success. “Fight Club” has become part of the cultural vernacular but at the time, to use a Linson phrase, it didn’t keep anyone’s swimming pool heated.
Think of that. The thing that’s dismissed out of hand by the people in power is the thing that means something, the thing that lasts. This dichotomy is indicative of Hollywood but not limited to Hollywood.
Bring me the beard of Alec Baldwin
Linson’s memoir gives you all of this; it’s blunt and funny. The movie, which he wrote, soft-pedals and fictionalizes things. It follows the rules of “Fight Club” by not talking about “Fight Club.”
Instead, we get “Fiercely,” an idiotic-looking (and idiotically titled) action-adventure movie starring Sean Penn; and instead of the stunned horror of Fox execs at the “Fight Club” screening, we get dull art/commerce arguments:
- The rebellious director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) wants to kill his hero in the end—and his little dog, too.
- Preview audiences freak when the dog is shot.
- The studio head (Catherine Keener) makes Brunell change the ending for the Cannes Film Festival so the dog lives.
- Brunell screens the dead-dog version anyway.
- Our hero, Ben (Robert De Niro), the movie’s producer, becomes persona non grata at the studio as a result.
Worse, I actually liked the ending where the dog lives. It’s bittersweet; it resonates. Brunell’s “artistic” ending simply piles on misery. I’ve said it before: Just because studios and test audiences want the happy ending doesn’t mean the grim ending is any good. It’s probably equally reductive.
Oh, the movie screws up the story of Alec Baldwin’s beard, too.
In the mid-1990s, Baldwin, still a leading man, agreed to make a movie called “Bookworm” (eventually: “The Edge”), written by David Mamet, but he showed up to the reading wearing a heavy beard. He was supposed to be the young rival to an older patriarch, played by Anthony Hopkins, but Baldwin looked as old as Hopkins. They needed him to shave, but he refused: temper tantrums, curses, overturning tables, etc. He kept claiming artistic integrity. Finally, days before shooting begins, he shaves. Afterwards, Linson asks an actor friend why Baldwin was so committed to the beard and the friend responds, “Alec probably thought he was a little too heavy and he didn’t like the way his chin looked.”
And in the movie? It’s Bruce Willis rather than Baldwin; and after much ado, including asinine behavior at a funeral, everyone gathers around Bruce’s trailer on the first day of filming to see if he’s shaved. When the door opens, he appears in the doorframe in profile—still bearded. Do you see it coming? A mile away? I did. Bruce turns and the other half of his face is shaved. Then he makes a joke and everyone on screen laughs. They’re friends again!
In the book we got the small, vain, but very human reason inside all that hifalutin artistic/commercial turmoil. In the movie we got ... Got me.
You can’t handle the truth
Linson and director Barry Levinson also add a love story to the movie: Who’s Been Sleeping with My Beautiful Ex-Wife (Robin Wright)? Like we give a fuck.
The book is about how difficult it is to get movies made, and how difficult it is for any movie made to make money. More, it’s about all the forces that prevent Hollywood movies from being good or true. The movie proves the book's point.
René Clair's Hooray for Hollywood
From “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends” by Patrick McGilligan:
McGilligan: You have always been a severe critic of Hollywood, even though you spent your wartime years in America, working in Hollywood. How did you adjust to the Hollywood method of filmmaking?
René Clair: After the success of my first film, I was asked to come to Hollywood many times, but I always turned the offers down because I knew that their system of production was completely opposed to my individualism. In France I could do practically anything I wanted to. But in 1940, I had my choice between Hitler and Hollywood and I preferred Hollywood. [laughing] Just a little.
Leaving Your Brad Pitt-ness Unprotected
“One of the true surprises for me during the making of Fight Club was Brad Pitt. He never showed any evidence of an actor who was out there trying to protect his 'Brad Pitt–ness.' Usually when this happens to a young actor, the first instinct is hang on and play it safe. He doesn't want to fuck things up. And for sure, his manager, agent, and lawyer don't want to fuck things up. An awful lot of money is at stake. The result is that actors tend to repeat the same performances and the same kind of roles that created the most success. Without a shred of false vanity or the use of old tricks to win over an audience, Pitt proved to be a formidable actor of enormous talent. Can anyone imagine, thirty years ago, Robert Redford or Warren Beatty shaving his head or working without caps on his teeth or exposing himself so raw and ruthless as Brad had done and just let the chips fall?”
-- Producer Art Linson in his book, “What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line.” His take on how stunned the execs were when they screened “Fight Club” is great, but not as great as the battle over Alec Baldwin's beard.
As for Pitt, agreed. Cf., this piece from 2005.
Finding Dory's Box Office
Biggest Pixar ever? Just don't adjust for inflation.
It's been a busy few weeks, so I haven't had time for stupid stuff like box office. But now I'm a little less busy.
The big box-office story during the last two weeks has been Pixar's “Finding Dory,” which opened bigger than any animated movie ever: $135 mil. The previous highs were: 1) “Shrek the Third,” $121 in 2007; 2) “Minions,” $115 in 2015; and 3) “Toy Story 3,” $110 in 2010. Animateds tend not to open as big as other movies—“Dory” is 19th all-time, for example—but they last longer. Even something as shitty as “Shrek the Third” fell off by only 56% during its second weekend. “Toy Story 3” fell off by only 46%.
Same with “Dory” last weekend: only 46%. So its opening was the 19th best all-time, its second weekend was the 8th best all-time. Movin' on up.
Question: Can it become the biggest Pixar grosser of all time? Most certainly. That's “Toy Story 3” at $415. After 10 days, “Dory” is at $286, $60 million ahead of “TS3”'s pace. It just needs to keep up that pace.
Question: Can it become the biggest animated grosser of all time? Sure. That's “Shrek 2” at $441, and it didn't break “Dory”'s 10-day total until its 17th day.
Question: Can it become the biggest animated grosser of all time adjusted for inflation? Yeah, no. That's Disney's “Snow White” from 1937, which, in the era before DVDs, VHS, or even television, was re-released every 5 to 10 years and kept racking up the box office. Box Office Mojo has it as the 10th biggest grosser of all time at $935 million domestic. “Dory” won't come near that. But the rest is impressive.
In other news, the sequel to “Independence Day,” titled “Independence Day: Resurgence,” opened poorly, at $41 mil. That's $9 million less than the first one grossed on its opening weekend 20 years ago. Unadjusted. The first grossed nearly $600 million in 2016 dollars; this one will be lucky to do 1/4 of that.
Movie Review: The Intern (2015)
A 70-year-old widower named Ben answers an ad for a senior intern (65+) at an internet startup in Brooklyn, charms the people he works with, calms the high-strung founder, Jules (Anne Hathaway), and empowers her in business while helping fix her marriage.
And this charming, calming influence is played by ... Robert De Niro.
Most of the movie is as improbable as most movies, but I draw the line at an avuncular De Niro. The movie really needed a Michael Caine or a Morgan Freeman; someone with a twinkle. As great an actor as De Niro is, he comes off stiff and sarcastic here. He comes off as a Know-It-All.
I get it: Casting De Niro probably helped the movie get made. But it's also why the movie never had a chance.
They really like us
On its surface, the concept seems part of that odd, mini-trend of making uplifting comedies out of social anxieties: “Identity Thief” for identify theft; “The Internship” for career obsolescence in the digital age. Now ageism.
Except unlike those movies, where the joke is on the victim, Ben is our straight man. He needs a little help to get up and going, but mostly he dispenses needed advice to the hapless kids: about women, apartments, traffic routes, clothes, handkerchiefs. He’s never wrong and everyone is fascinated by him. Everyone’s surprised that this older guy is competent. (Sub in “black” for “older,” by the way, and good luck with that pitch.) It’s Grandfather Knows Best.
There’s a saccharine child, Jules, who is tough to take. There’s an affair, Jules’ husband, that needs to be confronted. It’s the story of the successful businesswoman with a wreck of a personal life. But Ben understands and nurtures. He fixes. A desk full of unwanted crap? He cleans it up. Jules mistakenly sends a nasty email to her mom? He organizes a break-in to delete the email. Mommies are catty around the career woman? He puts them in their place.
“The truth is,” she tells him, “something about you makes me feel calm, or more centered.”
That turns out to be the mini-trend this movie is a part of: men as the calm, rational center of movies written and directed by women. (See: James Gandolfini in “Enough Said”; Sam Rockwell in “Laggies”; Jake Lacy in “Obvious Child” and “Girls.”)
It’s a Nancy Meyers movie (“It’s Complicated”; “What Women Want”), which is almost interchangeable with a Nora Ephron movie. Brooklyn is idyllic, leafy and sparsely populated; classic movies are always on TV. It’s both clean in the present and nostalgic for the past. And a massive lie.
Where have all the good men gone?
Hathaway is good. She’s moving in a movie that does the opposite of move me. Her “buried alone” speech is funny, and reminded me of Meg Ryan’s “almost 40” bit in “When Harry Met Sally.”
She also gives a talk to Ben and the boys (her employees) after too many drinks at the local bar, that is worth examining. It’s about What Happened to Men:
We all grew up during the “Take your daughter to work day” thing, right? So we were always told we could be anything, do anything. And I think guys got—maybe not left behind—but not quite as nurtured, you know? I mean, we were the generation of “You go, girl.” We had Oprah. And I wonder sometimes how guys fit in. They still seem to be trying to figure it out. They’re still dressing like little boys. They’re still playing video games. How, in one generation, have men gone from guys like Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford to... Take Ben, here. A dying breed. You know? Look and learn, boys.
This is interesting. I think it's getting at something that is true in our culture: a kind of white female privilege.
- Extended childhood knows no gender boundaries.
- Jules says this to her employees? Is she tone deaf?
- It feels like Nancy Meyers’ observations rather than Jules’.
- In the ’70s, people were saying, “How could we have gone from John Wayne to Jack Nicholson?”
Seriously: Jack Nicholson a model for manhood? The guy pounding the steering wheel and picking on the waitress in “Five Easy Pieces”? Why not just pick Jake La Motta as your nostalgic model for manhood? Why not Travis Bickle? “A dying breed. Look and learn, boys.”
We Interrupt This Blog for a Wedding
That's me on the right later today. But hopefully better dressed and with less drama.
Wait, that's wrong, isn't it? He's dragging Elaine away from a wedding. Oh well, you get the idea.
Also, what other movie image to go with? “The Godfather”? He's going to abuse her, then one brother will beat him up while another will have him killed. “Diner”? That's about fear of marriage. “Romeo and Juliet”? Doesn't end well. So, this. Plus Dusty's one of my patron saints.
In the Future, We Will Know Nothing as Well as We Know Every Action on a Baseball Diamond
From The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller:
Lead length [by a baserunner contemplating stealing] is one of many new measurements made possible by Statcast, a system installed in every major league park for the first time in 2015. Statcast combines a Doppler radar array that takes two thousand readings per second with a network of high-definition cameras that capture images thirty times per second, producing a three-dimensional record of every action on the field: every player's position at every instant, as well as the speed, spin, and trajectory of every thrown and batted ball.
The book is about two stats heads (the authors) who run a semipro baseball team in Northern California for a season, and try to remake it according to SABERmetrician logic. It's about where they're right, and wrong, and what happens when statistical probabilities collide with reality. Well-written by both, who alternate chapters, although I did keep losing track of which player was which.
I'm a baseball fan, but the above makes me wonder whether we're spending too much time on the national pastime. If we're going for a three-dimensional record of every action on a particular field, the floor of Congress might be a better place to start.
Movie Review: The General (1926)
Does anyone else extrapolate beyond Hollywood endings?
I know Buster Keaton’s “The General” is a classic, voted the 18th greatest movie of all time by the American Film Institute, with only Chaplin’s “City Lights” (No. 11) ahead of it in the pure comedy category. And I know 1926 wasn’t exactly an enlightened time when it came to race, so the fact that our hapless hero is in effect fighting to preserve slavery, even if he is just trying to get the girl, well, I’ll let go of that.
But the ending? Keaton’s Johnnie Gray finally gets the girl and the uniform; he’s both honored and loved. And we get that great final shot of Keaton and the girl, Annabelle Lee of Marietta, Ga. (Marion Mack), sitting on the siderod of the titular train, kissing, as he keeps saluting passing soldiers at such a furious pace it’s as if he’s dismissing them. There’s almost an Army schmarmy vibe to it. It’s as if he’s saying “Make love not war” 40 years before that became a rallying cry.
But it’s still 1862. And he’s still wearing Confederate grays. “So he’s dead in three years,” I thought. “And at best she’s Scarlett O’Hara, at worst ‘A Woman in Berlin.’”
I know. Don’t extrapolate.
Comic imperatives, narrative imperatives
The story is built on misperceptions that would easily be cleared up if someone, anyone, would just say something. Ironic, given silent film.
Johnnie, we’re told, loves two things, his train and Annabelle Lee. and we see him wooing her in her front parlor in his usual fumbling fashion. Then Confederates fire upon a Union garrison at Fort Sumter, war is declared, and Annabelle’s father and brother immediately go to sign up. And what about you? Annabelle seems to indicate to Johnnie. It takes a second for the other shoe to drop. Oh, right, I’m supposed to be brave. I loved Keaton at this moment. For not going along.
Except then he does. He’s first in line to sign up, but the Rebs won’t take him. The officers behind the scenes feel he’ll be more valuable as a train engineer except nobody bothers to tell him this. Despite his persistence, they simply order him out, repeatedly, and out he goes, dejected, only to be greeted by Annabelle’s father and brother, who eye him the way Annabelle did: So? You signing up? And he doesn’t bother to tell them. They think he’s a coward. Annabelle does, too. Even when he tries to tell her, she doesn’t believe him.
A year later, her brother has medals (I thought of Bob Dylan’s “John Brown”), her father’s been injured (superficially), and she’s still ignoring Johnnie. Then his train is hijacked by Yankee spies, who plan on destroying the Western & Atlantic Railroad tracks between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn., cutting off the South from needed supplies. (Needed to keep slavery going.) This is based on a historic incident, the Great Locomotive Chase, or the Andrews’ Raid, after James J. Andrews, a Kentucky civilian who concocted it. The hero for the South was the train’s conductor, William Allen Fuller, who, per Wikipedia, “pursued the train hijackers on foot, by handcar, and in a variety of other locomotives.”
And that’s Keaton. There’s a great balance here between the comic imperative to have Johnnie fumble and the narrative imperative to have him succeed, and Keaton threads it like the silent-film genius he is. It’s this element of the movie, oddly, that Mordaunt Hall, in his review in The New York Times in February 1927, found problematic:
It is difficult to reconcile one’s self to a hero who is apparently astute in some things and almost idiotic in others. This man, who has difficulty in crossing a road, is supposed to be crafty enough to outwit the Northern General.
Hall’s piece is titled “Mr. Keaton’s Face Overpowers This Film,” which most modern critics would agree with; but he also dismisses the film as “somewhat mirthless,” which, for most critics, is like shots fired at Fort Sumter.
I’m in the middle. Keaton does beautiful things onscreen but he doesn’t make me laugh like Chaplin. Chaplin is also gentler around women. There’s something petulant and vaguely menacing about Keaton at times. Example: As Johnnie and Annabelle work to bring back The General and save the South (temporarily), she keeps mucking up in ways different from his own. So he throttles her neck. Like she’s Laurel or something. I guess it’s EOE but it’s still a bit of a surprise, particularly given his parlor shyness. Beware the shy ones, girls.
Most of the movie is chase, and includes the most expensive scene of the silent era: a locomotive is sent over a burning bridge, which collapses and sends the train, a real train, into the river below. But its most famous shot is an early one: a heartbroken Keaton sitting on the siderods as the train moves again, taking him up and down as if on a merry-go-round, or, more aptly, on the vicissitudes of life. It’s exquisite. I also liked a moment in the North when Johnnie is hiding under a table where the generals are making their plans. A cigar burns a hole in the tablecloth, and for a moment we fear that Johnnie will be revealed. Nope. It’s so Johnnie can see Annabelle through the hole. It’s a natural iris shot. Lovely.
But 18th all time? In AFI’s first 100 greatest films list, from 1997, “The General” didn’t even make the cut. Anyone know what happened between 1997 and 2007 to give it such a boost?
Plus, fuck it I’ll say it, Johnnie is fighting to preserve slavery. That curdles some of the comedy for me.
Movie Review: The Red Menace (1949)
“The Red Menace,” a 1949 B-picture from Republic Studios, was one of the first anti-communist movies to be released during the post-WWII Red Scare, but from a distance it’s kinda quaint. Sure, there’s a Soviet cell operating in the U.S., but it’s the furthest thing from effective. A better title for the movie might be: “Red ... Menace?”
A tall, broad-shouldered lunkhead, Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell), is pissed that he’s been ripped off in some GI real estate scam and the government won’t do anything about it. Overhearing, a party member invites him to a nearby bar “for discriminating people,” where two broads make a play for him. While the brunette, Yvonne (Betty Lou Gerson), looks on disgruntled, the blonde, Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller), takes him back to her place and mixes drinks while he peruses the shelves and ... Hey, what are these books? Marx? Lenin? You’re a commie! Yeah, but a looker. C’mere. Pucker up, baby.
Irish Italian Jewish Negro
The Soviet cell that Bill Jones is slowly indoctrinated into is like one of those WWII movie platoons: someone from every race:
- Henry (Shepard Menken), a nice Jewish poet, cuckolded by Mollie on a weekly basis.
- Mollie, Irish Catholic, whose mother hangs around like a gray cloud, mourning the loss of her daughter’s respectability.
- Sam, the affable Negro front-office worker at The Toilers, the commie newspaper.
- Reachi, the Italian, who wonders if communism is a democracy as they say, why is it called “a dictatorship of the proletariat”?
- Nina, the foreign beauty, who will become The Love Interest.
Things first go south when Reachi is killed in a back alleyway for asking questions. Then Henry gets curious, too, and is kicked out of the party. He quickly turns into a patriot:
At least that [American] flag has three colors in it, not one. Not one bloody one!
But he can’t take the ostracism and throws himself out a window. He leaves a note for Mollie, telling her to return to her mother, which she does; in a church. Sam leaves with his respectable father, while Yvonne, always ratting out others, is picked up by the cops, who, it turns out, know everything. (Because our law enforcement is on the case.) Then she goes mad. (Because that’s what happens to commies.)
That’s it. The filmmakers, I’m sure, wanted to make sure communism didn’t seem attractive, but they were so successful they made it seem hardly a threat at all. Which makes the way the movie is bookended even odder.
‘We can’t suspect everybody’
It opens steeped in paranoia. Nina and Bill flee California, sure that communists are right behind. At an Arizona gas station, the attendant makes small talk—Where are you from? Where are you going?—and Nina freezes:
Nina (whispering): Why’d he say that?
Bill: Just to make conversation probably.
Nina: I don’t believe it. There must be some reason why he’s so curious.
Bill: Take it easy, Nina. We can’t suspect everybody.
After we get the rest of the story in flashback, we see them driving into Talbot, Texas, where Bill suddenly becomes sensible: “I’ve been thinking, Nina. What are we running away from? This is the United States not a police state. Let’s go see that sheriff.” Which they do. And they tell him their tale. (This really should’ve been the spot for the flashback, but the movie screwed up that, too.)
The sheriff’s response to their tale?
You folks have been running away from yourselves, and the fear in your own minds.
The entire movie is an argument against the paranoia of groups like HUAC, presented as an argument in favor of such groups.
Nobody on either side of the political fence saw this. The Daily Worker denounced the movie, while California’s own HUAC, the Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, honored it, commending “Republic Studios and those persons who have so courageously assisted in this production.”
And then, like most anti-communist movies, it died at the box office. No one went to see it because that stuff's a drag: preachy, heavy-handed. It's called the free market.
Quote of the Day from Last Week
“Indeed, the road to Trumpism began with ideological conservatives cynically exploiting America's racial divisions. The modern Republican Party's central policy agenda of cutting taxes on the rich while slashing benefits has never been very popular, even among its own voters. It won elections nonetheless by getting working-class whites to think of themselves as a group under siege, and to see government programs as giveaways to Those People.”
-- Paul Krugman, “Hilary and the Horizontals,” The New York Times, June 10, or two days before the Orlando shooting. Trump doubled down on that.
Movie Review: The Innocents (2016)
It’s December 1945, and Mathilde Beaulieu (future international star Lou de Laage) is an intern with the French Red Cross in Poland, helping identify, treat and repatriate French citizens in Nazi camps. One day, a young Polish nun asks for help; Mathilde directs her to the Polish or Soviet authorities then goes about her day. At the end of it, as she’s smoking a cigarette, she looks outside and sees the same nun praying in the snow.
At the convent, she arrives to find a nun in pain—giving birth to a breech baby—and she does what she does. Then she discovers other nuns are pregnant. Six? Eight? Is it a miracle? The opposite. Backdate eight months and it’s when the Soviet Army came through. These are women who hardly know their own bodies, whose bodies, they feel, belong to God. Some of them won’t even let Mathilde examine them for the shame of it all. And Russians soldiers were at the convent for three days. That’s the first horrific revelation.
Mathilde is sworn to secrecy in all of this. The Mother Superior, Mere Abesse (Agata Kulesza, who played the freewheeling, self-destructive aunt in “Ida”), has found homes for the babies but it’s all hush-hush. They’re under Soviet occupation now; they’re Catholics in a communist world. Plus 1945 wasn’t exactly an enlightened time for victims of rape.
Gradually, Mathilde develops friendships with the nuns, particularly Maria (Agata Buzek), who is younger and more open than the Mother Superior. Mathilde has her own run-in with Soviet troops in the woods at night, and barely escapes. When Polish troops come through, she scatters them with talk of disease and becomes a hero to the nuns—a sweet scene.
Her superiors, meanwhile, wonder what’s up—she’s falling asleep on the job. A Jewish doctor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), woos her with such blunt, dead-eyed hopelessness we worry for her, but he turns out to be a fascinating character with some wit. “Yes, a Jew,” he says, evenly, at one point. “There are still a few of us left.” He loves though the light in his eyes has gone out.
The film itself is so dimly lit that for a time I wondered if the projector at SIFF Uptown was missing a bulb. Was it all natural lighting? Was Fontaine going for the look of classic paintings? The palette reminded me of “Les raboteurs de parquet” by Gustave Caillebotte. It's the look of the first winter after our most horrific war.
I won’t go into the second horrific revelation but will add that I didn’t see the solution to the problem even though it was right in front of me the entire time. I like that. I like the feel of the film and its ending notes.
Lancelot Links Goes to the 2016 Tonys
“Immigrants: We get the job done.”
- Lin-Manuel Miranda's first acceptance speech (for best score) was the highlight of the 70th Tony Awards for me.
- Here's that opening “Hamilton” parody for James Corden. Anthony Ramos killed it, but then he had the best line. Also like Corden's “No! Just you wait...” to the cast, RE: the Tonys.
- The ratings were up 35% from last year and posted the best overall numbers for the Tonys since 2001. What happened in 2001? “The Producers.” But back then, remember, YouTube hadn't been invented yet. So if you wanted to watch the Tonys you had to sit and watch the Tonys. You couldn't wait for it (wait for it).
- James Surowiecki on how scalpers set a true market value for “Hamilton,” allowing producers to double the most expensive seats; also a GOP Texas congressman attempts to undo Dodd-Frank. Of course.
- Adam Gopnik on what Hamilton and Burr checked out of the New York Society Library. “Slipping back out onto the noise of East Seventy-ninth Street, three tentative conclusions suggest themselves: art alone makes old things new; the more you read, the less you know for certain; and self-government, of every kind, is hard.”
- Gopnik also wrote about “Hamilton” back in February: “'Hamilton' is the Obama-era musical. At the simplest presentational level, it shows previously marginalized people taking on the responsibility and burden of American history.”
- Oh, and that opening number to the Tonys I love so much that Neil Patrick Harris did a few years back? The “Now we're bigger” thing? Apparently Lin-Manuel Miranda helped write it.
- John Oliver on the Orlando shooting: “That terrorist dipshit is vastly outnumbered.”
- Jiayang Fan's New Yorker piece on Chinese racism and that racist Qiaobi detergent ad begins well (great opening graf) but gets bogged down in handwringing and vague finger-pointing. The last graf begins, “Learning to live in a pluralistic world requires...” Too bad.
- The whole Qiaobi controversy reminded me of “Darkie” toothpaste from Taiwan, whose named changed to “Dakkie” when I lived there in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and then, apparently, “Darlie.” Researching, I came across George McKibbons' article on the history on “Darkie.” More than I ever knew.
- How do the movies differ from other art forms? Nora Desmond had the answer, and Vimeo has the video: “Every Face Tells a Story.” But I like dialogue, too.
- Slow Jamming the News with Pres. Obama. There will never be a cooler leader of the free world. I like the band cracking up behind him on “You know me.”
- Billy Crystal's eulogy at Muhammad Ali's funeral was as pretty as Ali was. Particularly love the anecdote about Cossell's funeral.
- Silent film trope: A history of women being tied to RR tracks. Except: 1) it rarely happened, and 2) when it did, it wasn't women.
- A Vulture Q&A with Louis C.K., who gets better with age.
- David Remnick lets loose on Donald Trump. Gloves are coming off all over the place.
- Speaking of: If this helps Liev Schreiber reprise his role as Marty Baron, I'm all for it.
- What's the matter with Twitter, part I, via The New York Times (it's the virulent racists).
- What's the matter with Twitter, part II, via Vanity Fair (it's the left-wing outrage machine).
Louis C.K. Endorses Hillary by Analogy
“Sometimes I think the system is so deeply fucked up that somebody as disruptive as Bernie — maybe he doesn't even do a good job as president but he jars something loose in our system and something exciting happens. I mean, Hillary is better at this than any of these people. The American government is a very volatile, dangerous mechanism, and Hillary has the most experience with it.
It's like if you were on a plane and you wanted to choose a pilot. You have one person, Hillary, who says, 'Here's my license. Here's all the thousands of flights that I've flown. Here's planes I've flown in really difficult situations. I've had some good flights and some bad flights, but I've been flying for a very long time, and I know exactly how this plane works.' Then you've got Bernie, who says, 'Everyone should get a ride right to their house with this plane.' 'Well, how are you going to do that?' 'I just think we should. It's only fair that everyone gets to use the plane equally.' And then Trump says, 'I'm going to fly so well. You're not going to believe how good I'm going to fly this plane, and by the way, Hillary never flew a plane in her life.' 'She did, and we have pictures.' 'No, she never did it.' It's insane.”
-- Louis C.K., in conversation with David Marchese, on the Vulture website. The conversation is long-ranging and worth it, with one glaring (to me) contradiction from Louie. I'll write about that later. Still need to see “Horace and Pete.”
And Love is Love is Love is Love is Love is Love
When Lin-Manuel Miranda won best score at the 70th Annual Tony Awards last night, he addressed the Orlando shooting massacre that occurred 15 hours earlier.
“Hamilton” was nominated for a record 16 Tonys and won 11. It was its night—although the Tonys also made me want to see: 1) The Humans, 2) The Color Purple, 3) She Loves Me. Hell, I'll take 'em all. After I finally see “Hamilton,” of course. In 2019 or so.
Movie Review: Women He's Undressed (2015)
How do you dramatize in a documentary without archival footage? You’ve already got talking heads, photos, voiceovers. What else? How do you make the story come alive?
In his “Civil War” series, Ken Burns takes old photos and pans across them; it works. In “Tower,” Keith Maitland recreates scenes (and talking heads) via animation; it works. In “Women He’s Undressed,” Gillian Armstrong hires an actor (Darren Gilshenan) to play the subject, Australian-born costume designer Orry-Kelly, who clothed some of Hollywood’s greatest stars in its Golden Age. And it doesn’t work. Sorry. He talks directly to the camera, often, or exclusively, from a rowboat with KIAMA (the village in Australia where he was born) painted on the side. It’s supposed to be funny and theatrical but feels cheesy and cheap. I waited out these moments rather than anticipating them.
Armstrong also withholds any photos of the Kelly until the end, when we get a rash of them, along with his speech at the Academy Awards in 1961, accepting for “Some Like It Hot,” his third. It’s a nice revelation but feels like a cheat. It makes you realize Orry-Kelly is missing for most of his own doc.
Motorboat > rowboat
What a life: Australia to New York in the early 1920s, Broadway to Hollywood in the early 1930s. He was roommate/lover of Archie Leach/Cary Grant in Greenwich Village, and, unlike Grant, never hid who he was in the more circumspect, less open (not exactly liberal) Hollywood of the 1930s. Of course, unlike Grant, his career didn’t depend on being heterosexual. As a costume designer, particularly of female stars, he was all but expected to be gay.
And what actresses he helped clothe! Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Blondell (unmentioned here), Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland (unmentioned), Cyd Charisse, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda. What movies he worked on: all the weepy Bette Davis melodramas, “Angels with Dirty Faces” (unmentioned), “Casablanca,” “An American in Paris,” “Oklahoma!,” “Auntie Mame,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Gypsy.”
In the 1930s, he did gowns for the dames in the tough-guy Warner Bros. studio; in the 1940s he moved on to Fox. There was a gap in the early 1950s—no work between ’52 and ’55—which usually means blacklist but meant detox for him. Kelly was a nice guy but a mean drunk.
Most of the talking heads are other costume designers (Ann Roth is particularly good) and a few actresses he dressed. My favorite, by far, is Jane Fonda, who talks with amazement about Kelly’s dresses for Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like It Hot”: how they made the most of her most; how she seemed nude but wasn’t. She adds that she’s not a lesbian but those dresses make you wanna ... And here she does the motorboat: shaking her head, vibrating her lips, imagining herself in Monroe’s cleavage.
If I liked Jane Fonda before, I worship her now.
Watching, I kept thinking we needed a good doc on costume designers, the way we have “Visions of Light” for cinematography and “Casting By” for casting directors.
I’d also like a serious, in-depth look at homosexuality in Hollywood. It’s a helluva story: How gay actors/writers/directors helped create masculine archetypes for America and the world.
Start your engines.
My Name is Erik and I'm a Hamilariac
The goal of a young Woody Allen, I remember reading 30 years ago, was to make his audience laugh so hard that they would beg the projectionist to stop the film so they could catch a breath.
I wonder if Lin-Manuel Miranda's “Hamilton” hasn't done something similar with the dramatic musical. It's so good, so addictive, it takes over lives.
My name is Erik and it's been 8 hours and 49 minutes since I last listened to “My Shot”...
Tonys tonight. I'll be singing along.
'The Kind of Country We Want to Be'
“This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school or a house of worship or a movie theater or a nightclub. We have to decide if that's the kind of country we want to be. To actively do nothing is a decision as well.”
-- Pres. Obama, after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, at an Orlando gay nightclub last night.
Movie Review: Truman (2015)
“Truman,” winner of five Goya Awards, including best picture, director, actor, supporting actor and original screenplay, may be the most charming movie about death I’ve seen.
It’s “My Dinner with Andre” if Andre were about to die, and the story were spread over four days in Madrid (and Amsterdam) rather than one night in Manhattan. Death hovers close, but it’s handled with a wistful shrug. It’s the asshole in the room, and the other two combat it with a shared secret and a twinkle in the eye.
Few do that twinkle better than Ricardo Darin, the Argentinian actor of “El secreto de sus ojos,” who plays Julián, a theater actor, who has decided to bypass the latest round of chemotherapy and accept his fate. Now he’s working out the details, including finding a home for his beloved bullmastiff, Truman, who is named—one assumes from his wall art—after Truman Capote. Is there a double meaning in the title? Not just the dog but Julián? The movie’s True Man? I know: the movie’s in Spanish and the pun is in English. Still.
‘Yes, you did’
I always want to be wondering in movies and “Truman” has us wondering from the start. Who is this guy? Where is he? Minnesota? Canada? I thought this was a Spanish movie. Where is he traveling and why?
He’s Tomás (Javier Camara), going from Canada back to Madrid to visit his friend Julián and possibly talk him back into chemotherapy. Well, that’s what Julián’s cousin, Paula (Dolores Fonzi, hot), hopes.
But after an early effort goes poorly, Tomás more or less drops the subject. He’s an agreeable sort and why waste the four days? The last days they’ll be together? Early on, Julián turns to Tomás and tells him what he loves about him: that he does the favor for the favor; he doesn’t expect payback. Tomás nods and accepts this. Then, beautifully, Julián asks, “So what do you like about me?” Tomás struggles at first, then answers from the heart; and the answer is in the way the question was asked: It’s Julián’s straightforward nature.
The exchange resonates throughout the movie as we see Tomás paying for almost everything (and expecting nothing in return) and Julián confronting not only death but the people around him. A couple he knows from the theater ignores him at a restaurant—because death: icky—but he can’t ignore them. He greets them at their table, and when the man says he didn’t see Julián, Julián responds, without heat, “Yes, you did.” Here’s what I love: Later that day, Julián, too, ignores a man at a restaurant. (I know: a lot of restaurants—it’s Madrid.). Years before, Julián schtupped the guy’s wife, so Julián doesn’t want to deal with him. But the man has a lovely new fiancée, he’s forgiving, c’est la vie. There’s still some hurt in his face, but their conversation is grown-up and rooted in the knowledge that life is short.
I think I probably got most emotional when Julián leaves Truman with the lesbian couple so their adopted son can “try him out.” The look on Truman’s face, and on Julián’s: neither wants this. Pets always kill me because we can’t tell them why things are happening; we’re left with the emotional component. We’re as helpless as they are. A close second: the good-bye from Julián’s son, Nico (Oriol Pla, hot), in Amsterdam. Julián was unable to tell his son that he was dying, but the hug let us know that Nico knew.
We anticipate a lot of the third-act stuff: Paula and Tomás sleep together; Tomás takes Truman back to Canada with him. I didn't mind guessing all this. There's an inevitability to things. Watching, we feel our own inevitable deaths on a deeper level while being reminding of what makes life worth living.
Wait Till This Year, Yankee Haters
Still waiting on a losing Yankees season. Maybe this is the year?
From Hardball Times' article, “Damning the Yankees”:
The Yankees are boring, old and slow, and their only exciting pitchers are in the bullpen, waiting for a late-inning lead that seldom comes. They began the season 9-17, and since they won to improve to 4-4 on April 14, the Yanks have spent just one day with a .500 record — May 24, when they won to put their record at 22-22. The Bombers quickly dipped back below .500 and now stand at 27-30. ...
Saddled with oft-injured, over-the-hill former All-Stars on the tail ends of suspect-at-best contracts – Alex Rodriguez ($40 million through 2017), Jacoby Ellsbury ($111 million through 2021), Mark Teixeira ($22.5 million, final year), Carlos Beltran ($15 million, final year) – the Yankees are likely to end this season with the ignominious distinction of the worst win-to-payroll ratio in baseball history.
I also like this dig at New Yankee Stadium, which saw a championship its first year in 2009 (just like old Yankee Stadium in 1923), but not much since (unlike old Yankee Stadium):
Their ballpark is as unappealing as their play. The New Yankee Stadium is a corporatist knock-off of the House That Ruth Built – a sterile, supremely overpriced bandbox where stiffs in suits eat sushi in $1,200 seats. The home field of the most famous team in sports history has gone from hallowed ground to variety show laughingstock.
The House that Ruthlessness Built?
That said, since the article came out, the Yanks have swept the Angels and are now back at .500. It's an old team but it ain't over 'til the pretty lady sings.
Movie Review: The Brand New Testament (2015)
It’s a little like “Amelie”: A young girl (10 instead of 20-something) fixes the situations of the small, sad people in her city (Brussels rather than Paris), and we get a happy ending with a bit of magic. The difference is the girl is the literal daughter of God so the magic is often real. But the movie itself is much less magical.
Nice premise, so-so execution. God (Benoît Poelvoorde, “Man Bites Dog”) is a dick and lives in Brussels with his wife, the Goddess (Yolande Moreau, “Seraphine”), a put-upon Edith Bunker-type, and daughter, Ea (Pili Groune), a little spitfire who hates the old man and relies upon the counsel of her older brother, J.C., who hides in her room as a statuette.
God, or Dieu, spends his days in his office down the hall, a massive room with files expanding into the heavens, and, in the center, a small table with a single computer on it. There, cackling to himself, he creates laws for all of the petty annoyances of the world, such as:
- the phone always rings when you’re in the bathtub
- a jelly sandwich always falls jelly-side up
- the other line always moves faster
Except: 1) it doesn’t (and this seems like a pre-cellphone joke anyway); 2) it doesn't; 3) logically impossible since the law applies to all of humanity, including the people in the faster-moving line.
No mention of things beyond petty annoyances. Like Hitler. This is a comedy.
So one day, after the Old Man beats Ea (offscreen, this is a comedy), she decides to stick it to him. She sneaks into his office, releases everybody’s death dates, and freezes his computer (the source of his power); then she escapes through a laundry chute to Brussels, where she plans to put together the new testament of the title while gathering six apostles. Angry, Dieu follows but never gets close.
The death dates provide some good bits, particularly an “extreme” kid who is supposed to live another 70 years, and who keeps testing it by jumping out of higher and higher windows. (someone breaks his fall; he lands in a truck carrying sand, etc.). I also like the interaction between Dieu and a priest, who becomes so angry he winds up choking God.
But the apostle thing falls flat. She’s not gathering converts to spread the Word, she’s just fixing lives:
- One man follows birds to the Arctic Circle, where he meets an impossibly pretty Eskimo girl.
- A self-described sex maniac, who became that way when he saw a beautiful German girl at the age of 9, is reunited with her in middle age.
- A lonely older woman (Catherine Deneuve) leaves her businessman husband for a gorilla. A real gorilla.
- A guy who wants to kill people falls in love with the first apostle, a pretty girl with a fake arm, and they become a couple and he stops wanting to kill people.
Love love love. There is no problem in the world so difficult that an ordinary/ugly man uniting with a beautiful girl won't solve it.
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Bad things keep happening to Dieu, who ends up working a factory job in Uzbekistan. Good things happen to everyone else. When the Goddess is cleaning in the office, she reboots the computer that resets everyone’s death dates. She also gets on the computer and begins to change the world for the better, starting with the sky.
Me: Not the sky!!
Yep. She makes it all flowery. She takes away gravity. She projects her bad taste onto the world.
It's supposed to be a happy ending but it felt a little frying pan/fire to me.
Movie Review: Tower (2016)
My immediate thought afterwards was: Couldn't you do this with almost any big event? It doesn’t have to be recent, right? It could be 19th century, 17th century, B.C. All you need is ... eyewitness accounts? Right? Then you hire actors to read the accounts and relive the event; then you animate. And mix and match.
This is a compliment, by the way. This is a testament to how much the partly animated docudrama “Tower,” directed by Keith Maitland, moved me. I want to see it done with the rest of our history.
On Monday, August 1, 1966, after killing his wife and mother-in-law, former U.S. Marine Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the tower on the University of Texas campus in Austin, with its 360-degree observation platform, and on a sky-blue day began shooting and killing whomever he saw. I was 3. I think I first became aware of the event from a photo in LIFE Magazine, the end-of-the-decade issue, “The ‘60s: Decade of Tumult and Change,” from December 1969. The cover of that issue included, among other ’60s icons, Snoopy and the Beatles, which might be why it attracted my attention in the first place. The Texas tower photo inside, in a section on sudden, inexplicable violence in America, seemed an outlier then. Not part of the civil right movement and its aftermath; not part of the Vietnam War and its protests; not an assassination of a political leader. Just a crazy guy with a gun on a campus. An outlier.
“Tower” puts you at ground level. It doesn’t cut to Whitman on the tower; it doesn’t give you his story or try to explain him. In a sense, it doesn’t give a shit about him. It cares about what it was like to be there that day.
We begin with Claire Wilson (Violett Beane), who sitting at a cafeteria with her boyfriend Tom, talking with friends, when they get up to feed the meter. When she stands, oh, she’s pregnant. (Wait, did she say boyfriend? Isn’t this 1966?) They walk outside holding hands, talking, but what we hear is her narration. It's animated by the same Austin team that did Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly.” We also cut to talking head shots of her, also animated. She’s young in these, and her voice sounds young, too. For a time I puzzled over this. So was she interviewed back then? I didn’t get right away that this was an actress playing Claire in the 2010s rather than Claire in 1966.
Then she feels like she’s stepped on a live wire and collapses on the ground. Tom reaches for her. Then he’s hit, too.
We meet others:
- A Hispanic kid delivering newspapers with his cousin on his bicycle.
- Two police officers called onto the scene.
- A radio newsman reporting from his car.
- A manager of a local co-op, Allen Crum, who goes outside to help the Hispanic kid, realizes he can’t go back into the co-op (he’ll be in the line of sight), so keeps moving forward.
We get some newsreel footage/TV news reports of the day, but most of it is animated. A few times, Maitland superimposes animation over real footage. That doesn’t quite work for me. Everything else does.
I never truly understood from how far away Whitman was picking off people. The Hispanic kid wasn’t even on campus, really. Nor did I get the 360-degree vantage point. He turned a whole swath of Austin into his firing range. As Crum says: If you could see the tower, he could see you.
The rifle shots are unrelenting; they just keep going, but a number of people who were drawn toward the Tower rather than away from it. This is Texas, so good ol’ boys show up with their own rifles to try to take out the sniper from below. The guys who make it into the building are Crum and the two police officers, Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy. No one is trying to be a hero. Far from it. But they become that. It’s the messy heroics of life rather than the clean heroism of Hollywood. Even the guy with the movie-ready name Houston McCoy: He was skipping rocks when it all began; when he first got onto campus, he assumed the worst: the Black Panthers. Or so he says in the narration. It’s an odd confession—black people accused once more of white crimes—but I also thought: In August ’66? Isn’t that early? It was. The Panthers weren’t founded for another three months. But black nationalists were already making news, so he probably means them. “Panthers” is shorthand.
There’s a jolt, and a joy, about two-thirds of the way through, when Maitland cuts from the animated, youthful talking head footage to the real witnesses to the event, now old, never as handsome as the actors portraying them in the animation, the weight of the tragedy still on them.
Harbinger, not outlier
“Tower” goes on for a few minutes too long, as if Maitland didn’t want to let go of a project he began 10 years ago when he first read Pamela Colloff’s oral history, “96 Minutes,” in Texas Monthly. Plus the connection between Whitman and today’s campus killings—Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook—doesn’t resonate like it should. It should hit us like a bitchslap. In that LIFE magazine, the other types of senseless violence depicted there—civil rights, war protest, political assassination—which seemed the norm, have diminished or disappeared; Whitman’s has grown. He wasn’t an outlier but a harbinger. He was a trendsetter.
In a way, we feel this early in the doc from a moment of inclusion. “There’s a guy on top of the tower,” the radio newman tells his colleagues. “He’s shooting.” Then he adds, for clarification, “Shooting at people.” No one needs to add that now.
Ali in Atlanta: the Perfect Choice
Joe Posnanski has a nice piece on how Muhammad Ali came to light the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996, with a key exchange coming between the Atlanta Olympic Committee, who wanted Atlanta's own Edwin Moses, and NBC's Dick Ebersol, who suggested the 1960 Olympic gold medalist in heavyweight boxing:
“I think I have a better choice,” Ebersol said. The Atlanta people leaned in.
“Muhammad Ali,” he said.
The three men looked at each other. Finally, one of them spoke up.
“Wasn't he a draft dodger?” he said.
Ebersol, and Poz, go on to explain why Ali wasn't a draft dodger—he didn't dodge anything, he stood firm and upright—and how Ebersol convinced the Atlantans that Ali was the man. Poz then writes how the reporters gathered that night tried to figure out who that final torcher bearer would be. Mark Spitz? Carl Lewis? Janet Evans?
“There were undoubtedly some people who suspected that Ali might light the cauldron,” Poz writes, “but I didn't know any of those people.”
I was in Seattle, watching it on TV, back when we all watched the same thing at the same time, and, like everybody else, I too was ticking off the candidates. I think we saw each of the above run with the torch and hand it off to someone else. Didn't we? Anyway, as the possibilities ticked away, I searched back and asked myself this: Who is the most famous American athlete who is also an Olympic gold medalist? Who is the best representative of American athletic prowess? That's when I thought of Ali. And not only did I suspect it would be him, I would be angry if it wasn't him. He was the perfect choice. I just didn't know how much work went into making others realize it.
- Who's on the cover of the Rolling Stone? My man Lin-Manuel Miranda. Good article, too.
- The Q&A is even better. Quote about Trump's wall that bears repeating: “It's such a malignant form of a very common American electoral disease, which is, 'Point at the newest people here and say they're the reason you're broke.' That's as old as time itself. That's 'Irish Need Not Apply.'”
- Oh yeah. Looks like Lin will also be in the Mary Poppins sequel. Feed the birds, bro.
- And talk about worlds colliding: One of my favorite writers on my favorite musical.
- Ken Griffey Jr. talks about the best play he ever made. I remember this one; I saw it on TV.
- Speaking of: June 2 is a big day for the Mariners: 1) day we signed Junior in '87; 2) day he retired in 2010; 3) Randy's no-no in '90; and, this year, the biggest comeback in M's history.
- Documentarian Robert B. Weide responds to Ronan Farrow's demand for journalistic accountability w/Woody Allen by asking some pretty tough, straightforward questions of Ronan Farrow.
- Can't believe this story isn't bigger: At Trump University, sales people were encouraged to separate people from their money. Think of it as academic subprime mortgage loans. One confidential instruction read, “Let them know you've found an answer to their problems.” *Cough*
- At least John Oliver is on it.
- Must read of the week: Frank Rich on the parallels between Trump now and Reagan in the spring of 1980. Before everything went to hell.
Movie Review: The Intervention (2016)
If the premise is absurd—an intervention by three couples to encourage a fourth to get divorced—the execution isn't bad. First-time writer-director-actress Clea DuVall keeps the movie funny and real. For most of it.
Annie (Melanie Lynskey) is the instigator for the intervention, which takes place at a beautiful home/mansion just outside Savannah, Ga. We first see her on the airplane ordering an orange juice; then, with a glance at her snoozing fiancé, Matt (Jason Ritter, John’s son), she switches to Scotch. It turns out she has a drinking problem, which becomes painfully obvious that first night when she gets blotto. The interventionist needs intervening; the doctor has the disease.
Misson: Break up Lucky Luciano and Agent Maria Hill.
The other couples include Jessie and Sarah (DuVall of “VEEP” and Natasha Lyonne of “Orange is the New Black”), and Jack and Lola (Ben Schwartz and Ali Shawkat, Maeby of “Arrested Development”). If Annie is the most gung-ho, Jack is the biggest foot-dragger. It’s his childhood home they’re visiting, and it contains painful memories—mostly about his first wife, who died of cancer several years earlier. Thus his spin around the world with free-spirit Lola, who is more than a decade younger than anyone else (she doesn't know from “M*A*SH”), and who, during the course of the weekend, makes a pass at Jessie. The turmoil created by the younger, more vivacious partner reminded me of Alan Alda’s successful all-but-forgotten “The Four Seasons,” which did something similar.
As for our awful couple? That’s Peter and Ruby (Vincent Piazza of “Boardwalk Empire” and Colbie Smulders of “The Avengers” movies), and, yes, they argue a lot, and their simmering anger casts a pall over dinner. But it hardly seems worth a cross-country intervention.
Later (or sooner), we realize it’s Annie who needs the intervention. Beyond the booze, she doesn’t want to get married to nice-guy Matt. It’s her impending marriage she wants to break up more than Peter and Ruby’s current one. Which raises the question: why does Jessie go along? Why does Jack, despite the foot dragging?
The intervention doesn’t last long anyway. Everything blows up. Peter takes that cast stone and tosses it back at everyone else, as we knew he would, then stalks out into the woods with a bottle of booze. Jessie and Sarah get into a shoving match on the dock, then a kissing battle with Jack and Lola at the picnic table (nice bit). Annie is semi-contrite but confused. She thought she was helping. (Lynskey is quite good in this.)
Do things get too outsized? Peter switches, literally overnight, from the angry man in the woods to the guy who bakes 20 kinds of breakfast for everyone while planning an all-day boat excursion; Ruby goes from the woman enticing Peter in bed to one who refuses to talk to him at all.
I also would’ve liked less of a “lessons learned” vibe from the ending. As they part, everyone seems to realize the error of their ways; they leave better people. Yuck. I'd like to see an intervention on that.
Box Office: Stick a Fork in Ninja Turtles, X-Men, Andy Samberg
Samberg's box office is ghost like Swayze.
The three lessons of this weekend’s box office:
- The third iteration of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (the one with Megan Fox) is done. The first film opened to $65 mil two years ago; this one opened to $35. It won the weekend, but that’s the wrong direction. If you adjust for inflation, that’s the fourth-weakest opening of the six TMNT movies; and weaker openers killed their respective franchises: “TMNT” in 2007; “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III” in ’93.
- Is “X-Men” done? It also opened weaker than its predecessor ($65 mil vs. $90), then fell 66% this weekend, which is a steep fall for a weak open. It’s at $116 after 10 days. In February, “Deadpool” passed that after three days.
- Andy Samberg isn’t a star. His “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” opened in 2,311 theaters and grossed just $4.6 mil. Ouch. No movie in which he’s starred or co-starred (as a physical being rather than an animated one) has grossed more $40 mil. Generally, they don’t make $15. He’ll always be the “Lazy Sunday” guy—which was 10 years ago, btw. His fans are the fans who don't pay for content.
Overall, it was a bad weekend for BO. Everything dropped like hanged men: X-Men (66%), Alice (60%), Angry Birds (47%), Captain America (50%).
The one bright spot, if you want to call it that, was “Me Before You,” the weepy Emilia Clarke romance, which grossed $18 mil despite mostly negative reviews. Question: Was this box office largesse driven by Clarke, the Mother of Dragons, or fans of the Jo Jo Moyes novel? I assume the latter. Khaleesi is for lazy Sundays, too.
Posnanski on Ali
“He was the most hated athlete of his time and the most beloved of all time. He was the loudmouth kid who couldn't be touched, and the bruised warrior who would not go down, and the aging man who, though trapped by silence, talked about love. He was my father's favorite athlete. I was raised on Ali.”
-- Joe Posnanski, writing that there is no way to sum up Muhammad Ali, then doing a pretty good job of just that, in “Magic Man.” Stay for the killer ending.
Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)
He was a star so young, and got old so fast, and was silent for so long, that it was a surprise to me that Muhammad Ali was only 74 when he died yesterday.
In the 1970s, when I was growing up, we weren't a boxing family, and I wasn't a “Wide World of Sports” guy, and I had that Minnesota aversion to braggarts, but Ali was ubiquitous. When I became aware of him he was already champion a second time. When he did it an unprecedented third time, I kept the newspaper. That was the world I grew up into: Harmon Killebrew always hit two homeruns, the Vikings always lost the Super Bowl, Muhammad Ali was always champion of the world. I thought it was stable.
I remember seeing a news report about the Soviet Union in the late '70s, early '80s, maybe about the refreezing of the Cold War. People on the streets of Moscow were being interviewed; one young Russian man, 20s, wore a Muhammad Ali T-shirt. I loved that. I felt such pride in that. The things that transcend geographical and ideological boundaries. I thought: Here is our power.
We'll hear a lot of effusive praise over the next few days, weeks, years, but it's worth remembering that Ali was once disliked by many Americans. Despised even. Bill Siegel's documentary “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” begins with this hatred, and it's startling, the invective, spoken right to his face, by David Susskind: “He's a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly calls his profession”:
His true heroism is right there, taking those blows, staring down that invective. It's in the sacrifice he made. Most of us compromise in the shitty jobs we have so we can keep those shitty jobs, while here was a guy who was the best in the world at what he did. Undisputed. And he gave it up, in his prime years, for a political/religious stand, and despite the hatred and invective that it brought down upon him.
“When We Were Kings” is a well-known, much-recommended doc on the Ali-Foreman fight. Less well-known is Norman Mailer's excellent book, “The Fight.” I also recommend his essay on the first Ali-Frazier fight, “King of the Hill,” which begins with a word that describes both writer and subject well: Ego! Ali lost that fight, but it went 15; and Mailer, with his usual gift for prognostication, writes at the end:
The world was talking instantly of a rematch. For Ali had shown America what we all had hoped was secretly true. He was a man. He could bear moral and physical torture and he could stand. And if he could beat Frazier in the rematch, we would have at last a national hero who was hero of the world as well...
Paul Simon's ‘Cool Papa Bell’
Paul Simon is singing about baseball players again.
I‘ve been listening to this song since early May. How could I not? It’s one of my guys singing about one of my guys:
The chorus gets in your head (“Well well well/And Cool Papa Bell”), but I particularly like the lyrics in the middle verse, where Simon does a little dive into the word “Motherfucker,” which he calls an ugly word, then adds:
Ugly got a case to make
It's not like every rodent gets a birthday cake
No, it's “You‘re a chipmunk, how cute is that?
But you, you motherfucker, are a filthy rat.”
I’ve made that argument to Patricia before. It's all in the tail. And I guess the Plague.
The rest of the album is mixed but not bad for 75. Here's a little more on the title character.
Quote of the Day
“I believe that Trump University was a fraudulent scheme, and that it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money.”
-- Ronald Schnackenberg, former sales manager for Trump University, in sworn testimony recently made public, as recounted in The New York Times. I can't believe this story isn't getting more attention.
See also: “'We teach the technique of using OPM ... Other People's Money,' explained the internal instructions for salespeople. The documents pushed employees to exploit the emotions of potential customers. ”Let them know you've found an answer to their problems,“ read confidential instructions to salespeople.” Plus ca change.
Movie Review: Wiener-Dog (2016)
“This movie sucks!”
That comment was shouted in the final minutes of a screening of “Wiener-Dog” at the Egyptian Theater during the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival, and was followed by applause, a few hisses (of disagreement, I assume), and a few more shouts of “I agree!”
I was silent but smiling, since I agreed, too. But I knew the movie would suck after about five minutes. I actually suspected it going in.
I bought the tickets because of the premise: the lives of various characters as seen through the eyes of the titular dog. I thought Patricia might like that. After the purchase, I saw it was directed by Todd Solondz, the “Happiness” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse” guy. Shit. What had he done lately? Anything I’d seen? Oh yeah, “Storytelling.” Fifteen years ago.
OK, so maybe he’s changed a little? That was the hope going in.
The Black Beauty of dachshunds
“Wiener-Dog” begins with our titular hero taken from farm country in the back of a truck to an animal shelter where he’s picked up by his first improbable family: a charmless, disciplinarian older couple (playwright Tracy Letts and my bête noire Julie Delpy), and their clueless, overly sensitive son, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), whose sensitivity, in the real world, would’ve been drained from him long before by such awful, awful parents. The boy names the dog “Wiener Dog,” feeds it a granola bar, and it winds up with diarrhea. Cue 45-second tracking shot of shit on the sidewalk. Then the dog shits blood and the father takes it to the vet to have it put to sleep.
Except the vet assistant, Dawn Wiener (Patricia’s bête noire Greta Gerwig, taking over the “Dollhouse” role from Heather Matarazzo), steals it, nurses it back to health, then gets involved in a long roadtrip with crush Brandon (Kieran Culkin). They pick up a deadpan Mexican mariachi band by the side of the freeway, who play a tune in their motel room while Brandon gets high on meth. Yay. The dog, now named Doody, winds up with Brandon’s brother, who’s mentally challenged, plays violent video games, but has a yard.
In the second half, the dog becomes the property of a struggling screenwriter/teacher, Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), who tries to blow up his university with explosives strapped to the dog; then he's the property of an old bitter woman (Ellen Burstyn) who names the dog “Cancer,” and who listens stoically as her granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) visits with her idiot artist/boyfriend Fantasy (Michael James Shaw) to borrow money. When Nana wakes up from a bad dream, she finds the dog missing. She calls for it, and sees it running away, across a busy road, where it’s run over by a truck. Splat. The truck keeps going. Other cars drive over the bloody mess. No one bothers to change lanes. We’re all that awful.
That’s when the guy at the Egyptian shouted “This movie sucks!”
Is it tough being Todd Solondz? What makes life worth living for him? You almost feel sorry for the dude if he didn’t subject us to his pointless, depressing vision of the world.
I should add that the woman sitting next to me at the Egyptian got Solondz's sense of humor. She laughed throughout: loud, long and slushy. Her hilarity made it worse.
Culkin and Burstyn are both good. Each give us a little touch of humanity—some glimmer of something besides the deadpan and dead awful. The rest is like that tracking shot. For 90 minutes.
Hamilton v. Trump
“I am so less informed than your average Rolling Stone reader, just because I've had my head up in this world. But I can tell you that Trump's politics about building a wall, that's old. And it's such a malignant form of a very common American electoral disease, which is, 'Point at the newest people here and say they're the reason you're broke.' That's as old as time itself. That's 'Irish Need Not Apply. That's [Pat] Buchanan in the Nineties. And it's finding purchase with Trump right now.”
-- Lin-Manuel Miranda in, and on the cover of, Rolling Stone magazine.
Miranda definitely tries to avoid the politics of today, saying nice things about Dick Cheney of all people, but his show, the biggest cultural phenomenon of the year, is a good contrast with the biggest political story of year. The story of Alexander Hamilton is about “another immigrant coming in up from the bottom” and “We're finally on the field, we've had quite a run/ Immigrants—we get the job done.” Cf., Trump, 11 million, rapists, wall, pay for it.
The story of today.
Trailer: Tickled (2016)
I would've gone to this movie at SIFF 2016 if I'd known what it was about, but I saw the promo photo—buff guy in chains getting tickled—and went, “Nah.”
But “Tickled” is more than a doc about tickling fetishists. It's about the NY company behind tickling videos, who's running it, and—based on conversations with friends who have seen the doc—whether what they're doing is criminally liable:
Now the filmmakers are being sued, and a website is devoted to discrediting the movie. Which makes me want to see it all the more.