erik lundegaard

Saturday July 30, 2016

'The Surreal Being Normalized'

“As outrageous as Trump's victory is, the media covering the GOP convention have become so acclimated to it that they are acclimating us, too. Watching the convention was watching the spectacle of the surreal being normalized: the parade of 1980s retreads like Scott ”Chachi“ Baio and underwear model-turned-actor Antonio Sabato Jr. given prime speaking real estate; the chants of ”Lock Her Up!“ out of some dystopian sci-fi film where the public runs amok; the spittle-spewing mania of Rudy Giuliani, like some crazed villain from a Marvel picture; the WWE confrontation between Ted Cruz and Trump as the latter entered the arena to step on Cruz's peroration; the disjunction of a convention with all of 18 black delegates (yes, 18!) while a caravan of black speakers made it seem like the NAACP convention; and, last but by no means least, Trump himself, looking like a grumpy potentate.

”None of this is normal ... “

-- Neil Gabler, ”The media went AWOL: Members of the press shied away from doing their jobs during RNC coverage," on BillMoyers.com

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Posted at 05:49 AM on Jul 30, 2016 in category Media
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Movie Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Interesting movie. Very unique.

Kidding.

For those who haven’t seen it: Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is the patriarch of six kids raised deep in the Pacific Northwest woods, and one of the things he counsels them on—besides hunting, climbing, surviving—is grammar: that the word “unique,” for example, doesn’t take a modifier, and “interesting” is a limp word that hides more than it illuminates. No wonder I was happy watching it. It’s a movie that cares about words, and books, and scholarship. It’s a movie that actually made me think, “I haven’t tried hard enough in life.” How rare is that?

Then we got to the last act.

Miles from nowhere
Captain Fantastic“Captain Fantastic” opens as eldest son Bo (George McKay) kills a deer with a hunting knife and is anointed by his father with the deer’s blood before eating its heart; then the carcass is transported back to camp, where all of its parts are put to use. That night, around the campfire, Ben and Bo strum guitars, while perpetually scowling middle child Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) begins to bang an angry drumbeat. Everyone joins in. It’s like summer camp that never stops. It’s a white family living as they imagine Native Americans lived.

It's also boot camp for Noam Chomsky scholars. Ben is essentially a left-wing martinet—leading the kids on dawn runs, demanding excellence, and handing out Nabokov and Chomsky assignments. When they climb a sheer cliff that would give Ethan Hunt of “Mission: Impossible” pause, and Rellian slips and breaks his hand, Ben tells him to shake it off since there’s no one to help him. The boy’s resentment burns the screen.

A question that came to me after the family heads out in a beat-up bus for the funeral of their mother in New Mexico: What is all of this training for? To what end? His kids are superfit but unfit for modern life. They can recite and interpret the Bill of Rights, which is more than their dopey cousins can do, but they don’t know how most people live. Have they seen a web browser? Can they turn on a computer? “How did you kill those chickens—with an axe or a knife?” the youngest asks her aunt at a family dinner. At a trailer camp, after a make-out session with a pretty blonde, Bo gets down on one knee like a 19th-century balladeer and proposes; he's laughed at. “Unless it comes out of a book I don’t know anything!” Bo later cries to his stunned father.

(Some of this seems a reach. Is there no modern literature in Bo's curriculum? No Doctorow, Irving, Kundera, Roth? Surely the Nabokov helped.)

Ben’s bête noir, his father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella), annunciates the dilemma. “Even if they make it through whatever it is you’re doing to them,” he says, “they’re going to be totally unprepared for the real world.”

He’s right. But I was still rooting for Ben. Then Rellian decides to remain with his grandparents, Ben sends one of the girls to kidnap him, the girl falls off the roof and nearly dies, and Ben, mortified, does what any loving parent would do: He gives up his kids and drives back home alone.

Wait, what?

Wild world
I suppose it’s the other side of the same coin of Ben’s intolerant perfectionism. He raised his kids away from what he viewed as the impurity of society; but when he saw himself as part of that impurity, he removed himself from the equation, too. Thus:

  • Thesis: modern culture bad (so we live away from it)
  • Antithesis: me bad (so I live away from them)
  • Synthesis: living together in the little house near the woods (where we borrow from the best of both cultures)

This ending is way too neat for me, but the movie truly slipped away when Ben gave up his kids. (They return as stowaways on the bus.) I just couldn’t care about a man who would abandon his family that way.

I still recommend the movie, though. From the opening shot, writer-director Matt Ross (Gavin Belson of “Silicon Valley,” ironically) gives it the weight and randomness of cinema vérité; he gets great performances out of everyone, particularly the children; and he delves into an important issue: how to raise kids in an era of unrelenting consumerism and screens. His ending may be facile but his questions aren’t.

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Posted at 05:30 AM on Jul 30, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Thursday July 28, 2016

It Can't Happen Here

From Jonathan Chait on New York magazine's website:

Amazingly, even as Democrats painted Trump as an authoritarian menace, he continued to confirm the point on the ground. Weeks earlier, Trump's campaign had banned the Washington Post, whose coverage it found objectionable, from campaign events. The ban had only symbolic meaning, though. ... But yesterday, the Trump campaign extended its ban from the symbolic to the real by preventing Post reporter Jose DelReal from entering a public speech by Trump's vice-presidential nominee, Mike Pence. Private security first told DelReal he could not enter the rally with his laptop and phone. DelReal asked if other attendees were allowed to bring phones and was told, “Not if they work for the Washington Post.” DelReal placed the items in his car, returned, was patted down by security, and then still told he could not enter. Later, Pence's staffers insisted it had all been a mistake, blaming overzealous local staffers. This sort of iterative, inconsistent, and even chaotic sequence of events fits a common pattern of how political authoritarians break down rules and norms.

Be afraid. Or better: Keep Calm and Fucking Vote. 

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Posted at 11:21 AM on Jul 28, 2016 in category Politics
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Andrew Sullivan, Speaking for Me

“10:54 p.m. I've never felt this way about a president, so I might as well admit it. Against hideously graceless opposition, in the face of extraordinary odds, facing immense crises, he stayed the course and changed this country. This election is, at its core, about not letting a bigot and a madman take that away from all of us.”

-- “Andrew Sullivan Liveblogs the DNC, Night 3”

Obama

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Posted at 04:28 AM on Jul 28, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Tuesday July 26, 2016

My Thoughts Exactly

Jeffrey Toobin on the email hack/scandal at the DNC, potentially orchestrated by the Russians to benefit Donald Trump, which led to the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schutlz:

What was so terrible about the e-mails? In one, a D.N.C. staffer raised the possibility of Sanders being asked about his religious views, though it appears nothing came of the suggestion. In another, D.W.S. referred to a Sanders campaign official who had criticized her as a “damn liar.” A third showed her explicitly criticizing Sanders himself, saying he had “no understanding” of the Democratic Party. (This might be because Sanders has never been elected as a Democrat but, rather, always as an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate.)

Do these e-mails strike anyone as appalling and outrageous? Not me. They strike me as . . . e-mails. The idea that people might speak casually or caustically via e-mail has been portrayed as a shocking breach of civilized discourse. Imagine! People bullshitting on e-mail!

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Posted at 08:26 PM on Jul 26, 2016 in category Politics
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Savaging the Green Party

“A vote for Jill Stein in 2016 is a vote for Donald Trump. Stein knows it, Andrea Mérida Cuéllar knows it, and the Green Party knows it and doesn't care.”

-- Dan Savage, “How Green Is Her Bullshit: An Uncharacteristically Brief Response to the Green Party Spokesperson's Dishonest Response to My Podcast Rant,” July 22. Gives a good background on the battle between Savage and the Greens. His main argument is the Greens don't do enough grassroots stuff. Instead, they trot out presidential candidates every four years to screw with the Dems. Stein touted their grassroots work but Savage runs the numbers and finds them lacking. 

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Posted at 11:41 AM on Jul 26, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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10 Quick Thoughts on the Wonder Woman Trailer

  1. “You're a man.” Um, yeah. This is a little too close to the hot-but-innocent alien chick saying things like “What is love?” (See: TOS, “Gamesters of Triskelion”), but Gal Gadot saves it a little by stating it, and then Chris Pine helps with his comic response.
  2. But let's face it: The origin of Wonder Woman, the Amazon island thing, was always fairly idiotic/boring and the movie doesn't seem to make it any smarter/more interesting. 
  3. Chick with the cracked mask: “Boardwalk Empire” did it better. 
  4. “I was brought to life by... ” Juice? Jews? Oh, Zeus. Whew.
  5. So why WWI instead of WWII? The argument from io9 is that her character becomes disgusted with humanity and stays away for 100 years, and the Great War was a bad war (resolving nothing), while WWII had a clear villain and absolute atrocities. Me, I think the Holocaust is reason enough to steer clear of humanity, but whatever. Do what you need to do. 
  6. Her fighting scenes look good. 
  7. “I can't let you do this.”/“What I do is not up to you.” Good line. 
  8. Same with “I like her.” 
  9. The muted grays: Zack Snyder's sucky pallette. Can't we ever get away from this, DC?
  10. Fingers crossed.  
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Posted at 10:31 AM on Jul 26, 2016 in category Trailers
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Monday July 25, 2016

'Star Trek,' 'Ice Age' Continue Summer of Sequel Sag

Star Trek: Jaylah

For box office, you should probably be looking down, Montgomery Scotty.

The fifth “Ice Age” movie, “Collision Course,” opened to shitty reviews (13% RT) and shitty box office ($21 mil, fifth place), which is the weakest opening for an “Ice Age” by far. The others opened between $41 and $68, and grossed between $161 and $196. “CC” will be lucky to top out at $100.

The third rebooted “Star Trek” movie, “Beyond,” opened to good reviews (84%) but so-so box office ($59 mil, first place), which is the weakest opening for a rebooted “Trek.” The others opened at $75 and $70. 

Oddly, this is probably worse news for “Trek.”

The “Ice Age”s make most of its money abroad. Chronologically: $206, $465, $690, and $715 million. So the bigger question for “Collision Course” is: How will it play in Bonn or Beijing? The answer, so far, is: not bad: $178 and counting.

I remember seeing the original “Star Trek” in reruns in Taiwan in the late 1980s (Spock's dubbed voice sounded like it was recorded in a big empty metal box), so it's obviously disseminated abroad. It's just not big abroad—grossing, internationally, $128 and $238 for “Star Trek” and “Into Darkness” respectively. It needs those U.S. dollars more. 

The poor opening of “IA” and “ST” continues a summer trend. Yes, the two top movies of the summer, “Finding Dory” and “Captain America: Civil War,” are both sequels, but after that it's originals or reboots. Most sequels are grossing only a fraction of what the previous film grossed:

Franchise 2016 B.O. Previous B.O. %
Alice/Wonderland $76 $334 22.8%
Indepedence Day $101 $306* 33.0%
Neighbors $55 $150 36.7%
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles $81 $191 42.4%
Now You See Me $64 $117 54.7%
X-Men $155 $233 66.5%

* Believe it or not, that's unadjusted, so it's actually much, much worse.

I hope Hollywood execs are paying attention. Probably not.

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Posted at 06:58 AM on Jul 25, 2016 in category Movies - Box Office
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Black and Blue

“Here is the difference a color makes: 'blue lives matter' expresses a fact in our society; 'black lives matter' exists as a reminder, or an aspiration. The former is not a radical proposition; the latter, given the weight of history and habit, is a contested idea. The presence at the Dallas service of a mayor, a senator, a Vice-President, a former President, and a President sent a clear message about the importance of the men who died in that city and, by extension, of the profession to which they belonged. The movement that has sprung up to demand police accountability is voicing another principle that should be equally obvious: if the killing of an officer carries wider social implications, a killing at the hands of an officer does, too.”

-- Jelani Cobb, “Honoring the Police and Their Victims,” in The New Yorker, July 25, 2016. Read the whole thing, please.

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Posted at 05:54 AM on Jul 25, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Sunday July 24, 2016

Junior in the Hall

“Here's Junior to third! They're going to wave him in! The throw to the plate will be ... LATE, the Mariners are going to enshrine a player in the Baseball Hall of Fame! I don't believe it!”

Yes, it's finally happened. Today, in Cooperstown, NY, the Seattle Mariners joined 25 other teams/franchises with an actual player in the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Missing teams: Angels, Rockies, Marlins, Rays.) The M's will have a few more in a few more. Ichiro will go in as a Mariner. Maybe Felix, if he pulls out of this slump. Maybe Edgar—he hit a career high 43% of the HOF votes this year. But today was Junior's day. He went in with the highest vote total ever: 99.3%. He's the only 99-percenter.

Thoughts on the plaque?

Ken Griffey Jr. Hall of Fame plaque

  • They never get those face etchings right, do they? Junior was way more handsome than this. 
  • I almost want the cap on backwards. But I want to see that Mariners logo, too.
  • “Ken”? That's a nickname? What about “The Natural”?
  • I don't think you need “...particularly in the Pacific Northwest.” Junior was one of those players beloved in almost every city he played in. Mr. B can attest. He'll tell you his “visiting Wrigley Field in '94” story, if you want to hear it. Or even if you don't.  
  • “Easy-Going Nature”? Yeah, but he was also work.
  • Maybe add “5 HRs in a five-game playoff series”? That was a record once.
  • How about “Greatest player never to play in a World Series game”? That's the true sadness.

Extra credit:

  • Junior's full HOF speech. A lot of tears. A few laughs. My favorite are the Jay Buhner recollections.
  • Art Thiel talks up Junior and Senior. That's also one of the best quotes in Junior's speech: “He made a decision to play baseball to provide his family, because that's what men do.”
  • Junior on the dash home on Edgar's double. Pretty funny stuff. Piazza's his hallelujah chorus.
  • David Schoenfield's Top 10 Junior memories. I'd put more catches in there. I'd put the Opening Day HRs. I'd put in this general memory of heading out for the night and then saying, “Wait, just this Griffey at-bat.” And invariably something beautiful would happen. 
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Posted at 05:26 PM on Jul 24, 2016 in category Seattle Mariners
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Quote of the Day

“The Ailes-Trump relationship has been turbulent, roiled by the differences of large narcissisms—two immense egos competing for the same ideological berth. Last year, Trump moodily boycotted Ailes’s network, complaining that Megyn Kelly, as a debate moderator, had unreasonably quoted back to him some of his most memorable descriptions of half of humanity: “fat pigs,” “slobs,” “disgusting animals.” Nevertheless, Trump, who admits that he reads almost nothing and gets his information from “the shows,” adopted Fox rhetoric, Fox fury, and Fox standards of truth and falsehood, all with a dollop of Trumpian nativist flair. The Republican Convention in Cleveland last week was like a four-day-long Fox-fest, full of fearmongering, demagoguery, xenophobia, third-rate show biz, pandering, and raw anger. By comparison, Nixon in ’68 was Adlai Stevenson murmuring sonnets at a library luncheon.”

-- David Remnick, “The Donald Trump/Roger Ailes Nexus,” on the New Yorker site

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Posted at 08:04 AM on Jul 24, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Saturday July 23, 2016

Ezra Miller is the Best Thing in the 'Justice League' Trailer

Here:

Thoughts:

  • It's smart putting Batman/Bruce Wayne into the Nick Fury role, since he doesn't have, you know, super powers. At the same time, isn't it a little too “Avengers”? “I'm putting together a team.” Over and over again.
  • What does “I was last night” mean? And when did Aquaman get so cool?   
  • Still don't know the Borged-out-looking black guy. As character or actor.  
  • The best thing here, by far, is Ezra Miller's Barry Allen/Flash. Every nuance, every line. Sometimes when you put an intelligent actor into a mediocre role, you make beautiful music. Cf., “Iron Man.” 
  • The worst thing, by far, is: “Directed by Zack Snyder.” On IMDb, not in the trailer. Who'd brag about that? They're even pushing it as a “Ben Affleck Movie” on YouTube. 
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Posted at 05:50 PM on Jul 23, 2016 in category Trailers
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Movie Review: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Third time’s the charm, I guess.

The first rebooted “Star Trek” was too “Star Wars”-y for me, second was too “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-y (not to mention stupid). This one gets the appeal of “Star Trek.” So who do we thank for this midsummer gift? Simon Pegg (Cornetto trilogy), for co-writing it with Doug Jones? Justin Lin (Fast/Furious movies) for directing it? Or J.J. Abrams for finally stepping aside?

Star Trek BeyondIt starts slowly, which is so not-done these days it felt like a relief. Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) is in the doldrums because in the third year of his five-year mission it’s all beginning to feel a bit “episodic” (great line: I laughed out loud), and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) tries to bolster him with bad beside manner and good Scotch. Meanwhile, Spock (Zach Quinto) is on the outs with Uhura (Zoe Saldana, call me), and ready to leave the Enterprise, because he feels he owes something to New Vulcan—like propagating its nearly decimated species.

Not to brag, but here’s what I wrote about Spock three years ago in my review of “Star Trek: Into Darkness”:

How many members of the Vulcan species are left? Wouldn’t this small fact alter his trajectory a bit, get him off the Enterprise maybe, doing something else? Wouldn’t it give him a different girlfriend? (No offense, Zoe.) Doesn’t it make sense for Spock to want to propagate his species now that they’re nearly extinct? Or at least consider doing so? Or at least talk about it with someone?

It really isn’t bragging since it’s all rather obvious. You might even call it logical.

Arena-ish
While on shore leave at the starbase Yorktown—which is a kind of M.C. Escher painting in space—Kirk volunteers the crew to retrieve a ship stranded in a nearby nebula. But as Admiral Ackbar would say, it’s a trap. The Enterprise is attacked by a swarm of ships that literally cut it apart, and it plunges to the planet below. And our roller coaster ride begins.

What I liked about the ride? Mystery. Who was the alien Krall (Idris Elba) and why did he attack the Enterprise? What’s his game? The early “Star Trek”s—and I’m talking TOS, first season—had a real air of the bizarre and mysterious and dangerous. You’re going into space. You’re finding all kinds of creepy shit. We get a whiff of that here.

What else I liked? We get character development and humor during the ride. There’s good repartee between Spock and McCoy, as well as Scotty (Pegg) and Jaylah (Sofia Boutelia), an alien who saves him. Yes, she’s the usual bodacious bod, ass-kicking chickiepoo that all the sci-fi geeks love, but she’s a great version of that. When they first meet, she repeats his name, “Montgomery Scott,” and he lets her know she can use the familiar, “Scotty,” so for the rest of the movie she calls him “Montgomery Scotty.” She speaks a sing-songy English, and knows all about the Federation, because she lives on the downed U.S.S. Franklin, which was the first starship equipped with warp drive. It went missing 100 years ago. One assumes it fell into Krall’s hands but the answer is more surprising and less interesting.

For a while I wondered if Krall was Cardassian (forgive: it’s been a while since my “ST” heyday), but—alley oop—he’s actually the former commander of the Franklin, whose physiognomy has been altered because ...  I didn’t quite get it. Apparently he absorbs other life forms to stay young, a technology which he—I don’t know—found on this rocky, desolate planet? Anyway, his goal in downing the Enterprise wasn’t just for vengies on the Federation, which he blames for abandoning him, but to get a thingamabob (maguffin), that fits with another thingamabob, which creates a superpowerful bioweapon. He’s going to use this to destroy the Yorktown.

Are we better united or does it encourage weakness? That’s the slight (very slight) philosophical showdown between Krall and Uhura in the film. Krall gets the maguffin by torturing one crew member until another caves—thereby demonstrating the weakness in unity argument—but of course Kirk, et al., demonstrate its strength by working as a team and using the Franklin’s still operating transporters to beam the rest of the crew to safety.  Then, in the Franklin, they take off in pursuit of Krall and his hive-like ships, and bring down the latter with a blast of old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. (In space, everyone can hear you scream bad heavy-metal.) BTW: Doesn’t this undercut Uhura’s, and the movie’s, argument? The hive-like unity of the ships is their weakness. And sure, that’s hive-like, which is bad, rather than creative team-building, which is good, but still. It’s also a ripoff of “Best of Both Worlds,” isn’t it? Not to mention—and not to brag again—“Fuck-Ups of the Federation.” Mr. B, you have the conn.

All of this leads to the inevitable battle between Kirk and Krall, which is done well, and then the usual bow-tying: Kirk turns down a vice-admiralship to keep his command, and Spock decides to stay with Uhura (schmaht!) and on the Enterprise (newly rebuilt). Screw New Vulcan, I guess. There’s a nice homage to Leonard Nimoy and the original crew, and a new version of the original opening monologue (“Space, the final frontier...”), but this time, per the movie’s theme, with many voices of the crew reading it rather than the one. Because the needs of the many...

Split your infinitives
I would’ve sacrificed some of the roller coaster for more character development, or a greater explanation of Krall. And once the endorphins wore off, I noted a lot of absurdity. But I had a good time.  

A few thoughts for the future:

  • Simon Pegg should keep writing these; well done, laddie.
  • Jaylah should return; superhot and a good character.
  • They still haven’t figured out Uhura. She’s still kind of a blank.
  • Is Kirk? “You spent all this time trying to be your father,” McCoy says. “Now you’re wondering what it’s like to be you.” So are we.
  • Sulu, too. Gay isn’t a personality.
  • They still can’t get Spock’s hair right; but at least they get the Spock-McCoy dynamic right.

The movie focuses on the triumvirate—Kirk, Spock, McCoy—but right now McCoy’s relationship with both feels deeper than Kirk’s with Spock. So there's room for improvement. Just keep the characters in mind and boldly go.

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Posted at 11:22 AM on Jul 23, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Quote of the Day

“A wise old friend once told me that the most basic paradox in American history can be summed up in the question, ”Do you govern or are you governed?“ The answer throughout the week in Cleveland was something beyond even the parameters of that question. These were not people begging to govern. These were not even people begging to be governed. These were people begging to be ruled. For all the palaver about freedom and liberty, and all the appeals to the Founders and the American experiment, this whole convention was shot through with an overwhelming lust for authority.

”This was a gathering of subjects thirsting for a king.“

-- Charles P. Pierce, ”Donald Trump Sold Us Fear; Next Comes the Wrath," on the Esquire site. The FDR quote from 1932 is particularly instructive. 

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Posted at 08:53 AM on Jul 23, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday July 22, 2016

Really, Amazon?

Amazon: Frequently Bought Together

I guess by people who care about cinema history, but otherwise I'm not seeing the connection. 

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Posted at 07:37 AM on Jul 22, 2016 in category Advertisements
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Quote of the Day

“Republicans have used their convention to spew hate toward Hillary Clinton instead of making the case for Donald Trump. I've known Hillary Clinton for 22 years, and she's the hardest working person that I know. She never comes unprepared. Donald Trump, on the other hand, always is unprepared. The trust that you put in the President is that the President will do the job—will put in the work. This guy doesn't know what he's doing. You can't trust him at all.”

-- Al Franken on “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” during the RNC this week. 

This is key. People need to know this. Donald Trump wants attention but he has no attention for detail, no attention span. He has the attention span of a 5-year-old, and reads about as much—or less. He doesn't do the work, he just makes promises. He's very good at selling you the line. He's very good at telling you what you want (no crime, no terrorism) and then not giving it to you, and then winding up in court a year later. The promises he's making cannot be kept by anyone, even a dictator. 

Elsewhere, my man Jon Stewart returned. Jonny, we hardly knew we missed ye this much. 

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Posted at 07:25 AM on Jul 22, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Thursday July 21, 2016

Trump is 'What America Was Founded to Resist'

“Trump's draft acceptance speech [is] a remarkable piece of oratory, cannily crafted, framed by massive lies and distortions, crammed with incoherence, and yet, I'm afraid to say, scarily potent. It invents a reality—that the U.S. is in a state of chaos, lawlessness and soaring crime; that the world is careening toward catastrophe—and then makes a classic argument for a strongman to set things straight.

”This is a very new departure for politics in a liberal democracy. We've never heard an appeal from a major party platform to junk traditional democratic norms, and cede power to a new tyrant, whose magical powers will somehow cause almost every problem in the country to disappear. In this election, the very basis of liberal democracy is on the ballot. ... 

“The speech is entirely about fear, to be somehow vanquished by a single man's will to power. Its core message is what America was founded to resist. ...

”It can happen here. It is happening here. No election has been more important in my lifetime."

-- Andrew Sullivan, live-blogging Day 4 of the Republican National Convention for New York magazine. 

Donald Trump

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Posted at 04:26 PM on Jul 21, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Wednesday July 20, 2016

Famous Last Words: Fred Quimby

“Walt had gone to see Fred Quimby at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with the hope, at the very least, of getting a competing bid to put pressure on [early Disney distributor Charles] Mintz, but Quimby told him that 'Cartoons [were] on the wane' and said he was not interested.”

-- from Neal Gabler's biography “Walt Disney.” The above meeting took place in Feb. 1928. A few weeks later, Disney did the first sketch on the character below. This is like the Decca exec saying “Guitar groups are on the way out” to the Beatles in 1962. Better.   

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse

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Posted at 12:16 PM on Jul 20, 2016 in category Books
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Movie Review: Son of Saul (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Son of Saul” is a relentless, exhausting film that never strays five feet from its protagonist for most of its 107-minute runtime. The camera stays on the back of the head or on the intense, vacant face of Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew and member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. It’s his job to get the arrivals ready for the showers. We see this happening, often blurred, in his peripheral vision. It’s business as usual for the Sonderkommando, who know the end game, yet horror upon horror for the new arrivals, who don’t; who become further dehumanized with every step. They’re herded, stripped, packed in, gassed; their dead bodies dragged and burned, their ashes shoveled into a nearby pond.

Son of SaulOne assumes the tight camera shots, the inability to see no further than five feet around us, is a kind of protective device for Saul: how he survives and stays sane. One also expects the camera to open up as his worldview expands; as he finds something to live for.

It does and doesn’t. Because he does and doesn’t.

What he finds is his son, the title character, who is still breathing after being gassed in the showers, making him of interest to Nazi doctors, who then suffocate the boy and order an autopsy. Saul watches all of this, transfixed. His face becomes less vacant, more intense. Then he takes over the task of transporting the body. For a moment, one wonders if the boy is still alive and Saul is trying to save him. The boy isn’t but Saul is still trying to save him. Amid the dehumanization, Saul wants a human moment. He wants a Jewish burial: a rabbi, the kaddish, and a grave. In a world where life has no meaning, he wants one death to have meaning, so he keeps risking everything—stepping outside the rigid procedures of the Sonderkommando—to make it so, even as his fellows, their time short-lived, plot an escape. He lets burial get in the way of escape.

The longer this goes on, the more insane—even selfish—it seems. “You failed the living for the dead,” he's told afterwards.

It also feels like the purest form of sanity. And he almost makes it happen. He finds a rabbi amid the arrivals and hides him. He cuts his beard—the way leering Nazis did in posed photographs in the ’30s and ’40s. He actually makes it outside the camp with the body and the rabbi, and he’s pawing at the dirt, and the rabbi begins the kaddish: “Blessed and sanctified be God’s...” he says, but can’t go on. The kaddish is a prayer that acknowledges God’s sovereignty, which the rabbi can no longer do. It’s a prayer in times of mourning but not in times of insanity. This world is insane. As is Saul.

Because the boy isn’t his son. Saul doesn’t have a son. So what is he doing? What is the meaning of his machinations throughout the film?

I think we get a glimpse of it in the end. After Saul loses the body in the rapids and follows the others to a farmhouse to rest before continuing on, he spies, in the doorway, a small boy. Not Jewish. A fat, blonde, Polish kid. The enemy, really. And Saul smiles at him. Beatifically. The camera holds on Saul’s face, with something like glory shining in his eyes. Because the kid is the future in a world that seems to have none? Because all kids are sons of Saul now? Or is it because his appearance signifies Saul’s impending death, which he welcomes? It’s the last shot we see of him before German troops surround the farmhouse and begin the offscreen slaughter. 

Directed by László Nemes, written by Nemes and Clara Royer, “Son of Saul” is a unique Holocaust film for raising questions rather than answering them. It's also exhausting. Everyone should see it but I doubt I'll see it again.

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Posted at 05:22 AM on Jul 20, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Tuesday July 19, 2016

Quotes of the Day: Welcome Back Sully Edition

Andrew Sullivan is blogging the GOP convention for New York magazine, and he was on last night:

This:

There's nothing this crowd loves more than calling for Hillary Clinton to be in jail. It's worth noting that this is not normal politics. This is stab-in-the-back neo-fascist rhetoric. Obama refused to prosecute or even threaten to prosecute officials guilty of brutal war crimes – so as not to criminalize politics. This parody of a political party wants to jail their political opponent for extremely careless storage of emails.

And this: 

The GOP nominee wants to end the Geneva Conventions and authorize war crimes of unimaginable ferocity. No candidate in the history of the United States has ever campaigned on a platform of war crimes as an ideal form of warfare. .. Trump is attacking the core civilizational norms that actually do keep us safe.

And this:

Just mulling over the events tonight, there's one obvious stand-out. I didn't hear any specific policy proposals to tackle clearly stated public problems. It is almost as if governing, for the Republican right, is fundamentally about an attitude, rather than about experience or practicality or reasoning. The degeneracy of conservatism – its descent into literally mindless appeals to tribalism and fear and hatred – was on full display. You might also say the same about the religious right, the members of whom have eagerly embraced a racist, a nativist, a believer in war crimes, and a lover of the tyrants that conservatism once defined itself against. Their movement long lost any claim to a serious Christian conscience.

Welcome back, Sully. You've been missed. 

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Posted at 06:31 AM on Jul 19, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday July 18, 2016

Catch 22 at the GOP Convention

From Reuters, specifically Elizabeth Culliford, at the GOP Convention in Cleveland:

Party leaders declared there wasn't enough [anti-Trump] support to allow for a roll-call vote that would record the number of delegates opposed to Trump.

Somewhere Joseph Heller is rolling over in his grave and wistfully musing, “Now why didn't I think of that?”

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Posted at 01:47 PM on Jul 18, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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The Kindergartner in Chief

Donald Trump, Sociopath?

“I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”

The following quotes are from Jane Mayer's article, “Donald Trump's Ghostwriter Tells All,” about Tony Schwartz's experience writing Trump's 1987 bestseller, “The Art of the Deal.” WARNING: May scare small children and other living things.

  • “I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is,” Schwartz said. “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”
  • If he were writing “The Art of the Deal” today, Schwartz said, it would be a very different book with a very different title. Asked what he would call it, he answered, “The Sociopath.”
  • “Trump didn't fit any model of human being I'd ever met. He was obsessed with publicity, and he didn't care what you wrote.” He went on, “Trump only takes two positions. Either you're a scummy loser, liar, whatever, or you're the greatest.”
  • The discussion was soon hobbled by what Schwartz regards as one of Trump's most essential characteristics: “He has no attention span.”
  • After sitting for only a few minutes in his suit and tie, Trump became impatient and irritable. He looked fidgety, Schwartz recalls, “like a kindergartner who can't sit still in a classroom.”
  • “This fundamental aspect of who he is doesn't seem to be fully understood,” Schwartz told me. “It's implicit in a lot of what people write, but it's never explicit—or, at least, I haven't seen it. And that is that it's impossible to keep him focused on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes . . . ”
  • “If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it's impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time.”
  • Schwartz believes that Trump's short attention span has left him with “a stunning level of superficial knowledge and plain ignorance.”
  • “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.”
  • “Lying is second nature to him,” Schwartz said. “More than anyone else I have ever met, Trump has the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying at any given moment is true, or sort of true, or at least ought to be true.”
  • [He asked Trump] about a story making the rounds—that Trump often called up news outlets using a pseudonym. Trump didn't deny it. As Schwartz recalls, he smirked and said, “You like that, do you?”
  • “He lied strategically. He had a complete lack of conscience about it.” Since most people are “constrained by the truth,” Trump's indifference to it “gave him a strange advantage.”
  • When challenged about the facts, Schwartz says, Trump would often double down, repeat himself, and grow belligerent.
  • Whenever “the thin veneer of Trump's vanity is challenged,” Schwartz says, he overreacts—not an ideal quality in a head of state.
  • “One of the most deep and basic needs he has is to prove that 'I'm richer than you.'”
  • In 1992, the journalist David Cay Johnston published a book about casinos, “Temples of Chance,” and cited a net-worth statement from 1990 that assessed Trump's personal wealth. It showed that Trump owed nearly three hundred million dollars more to his creditors than his assets were worth. The next year, his company was forced into bankruptcy—the first of six such instances.
  • “He didn't write the book,” Trump told me. “I wrote the book. I wrote the book. It was my book. And it was a No. 1 best-seller, and one of the best-selling business books of all time. Some say it was the best-selling business book ever.” (It is not.) Howard Kaminsky, the former Random House head, laughed and said, “Trump didn't write a postcard for us!”
  • Minutes after Trump got off the phone with me, Schwartz's cell phone rang. “I hear you're not voting for me,” Trump said. “I just talked to The New Yorker—which, by the way, is a failing magazine that no one reads—and I heard you were critical of me. ... You should have just remained silent. I just want to tell you that I think you're very disloyal.”
  • As for Trump's anger toward him, he said, “I don't take it personally, because the truth is he didn't mean it personally. People are dispensable and disposable in Trump's world.” If Trump is elected President, he warned, “the millions of people who voted for him and believe that he represents their interests will learn what anyone who deals closely with him already knows—that he couldn't care less about them.”

In the past I've called Trump a third grader, but that's an insult to third graders. He's a rich snot, a bully and a liar, with no attention span, who has a meltdown whenever called on to concentrate or tell the truth. As liars go, he makes Nixon look like a piker. He seems like the worst person in the history of our country to get this close to the presidency.

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Posted at 10:17 AM on Jul 18, 2016 in category Politics
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Quote of the Day

“I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”

-- Tony Schwartz, who spent 18 months with Trump in the mid-1980s ghostwriting “The Art of the Deal,” via Jane Mayer's article, “Donald Trump's Ghostwriter Tells All,” in the latest New Yorker

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Posted at 06:50 AM on Jul 18, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Box Office: Not Many Call Ghostbusters

Paul Feig's Ghostbusters

Meh reviews, meh box office, but McKinnon (far right) is getting good notices.

Paul Feig's womencentric “Ghostbusters” isn't exactly a bust, raking in $46 million at the domestic box office this weekend, a bigger opening than any of his other movies (“Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Spy”), but it's not exactly a smash. “Ghostbusters” is supposed to be big. The original took in a domestic total of $610 million (adjusted) in 1984, while this version didn't even win the weekend. It finished second to the second weekend of “The Secret Life of Pets,” which fell only 50% to gross another $50 mil. Hell, in the genre “Horror comedy,” “Scary Movie 3” opened bigger in 2003: $48 mil. That's unadjusted. 

“Scary Movie 3” also barely grossed twice that ($110) while Feig's movies tend to have legs, grossing four times (or in the case of “Bridesmaids,” six times) their opening total. So we'll see. The movie got a positive 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which would help, but most reviews were of the “Could've been worse” variety, which won't. But SNL's Kate McKinnon is getting good notices. I'm sure I'll see it at some point. 

“The Legend of Tarzan,” in third place with $11.1, crossed the $100 million mark to $103, with $90 mil in foreign sales, so it's not doing poorly for a poorly reviewed film that never finished in first place.

Meanwhile, “Finding Dory” grossed another $11.1 for a $445 million total, which makes it, according to Box Office Mojo, not only the highest-grossing Pixar movie ever but the highest-grossing animinated movie ever, passing “Shrek 2”'s $441. That's unadjusted, of course. Adjust, and it's still Disney's “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” which is the 10th-best of all time at $935 million. Even so, impressive for “Dory,” which I found B-level Pixar. 

For the year, “Dory”'s on top domestically, while worldwide it's still “Captain America: Civil War” at $1.15 billion. But since “Finding Nemo” grossed $936 worldwide in 2003, I expect “Dory” to eventually pass Cap here, too.

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Posted at 05:59 AM on Jul 18, 2016 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday July 16, 2016

Lancelot Links

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Posted at 10:29 AM on Jul 16, 2016 in category Lancelot Links
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The Last Word on the Hollywood Blacklist*

Another Lillian Hellman quote from “Scoundrel Time.” She's writing about the moguls, the Eastern European Jewish men who came to power in Hollywood: 

Certainly they had force and daring, but by the time of McCarthy they had grown older and wearier. Threats that might once have been laughed about over a gin rummy game now seemed dangerous to their fortunes. Movie producers knew full well that the Communists of Hollywood had never made a single Communist picture, but they were perfectly willing to act as dupes for those who pretended that was a danger. 

That's the key, really. There were Communists in Hollywood, and many of them pushed to get their ideas into their screenplays (as every writer does), but they didn't come close to succeeding. You could argue that the most pro-Communist movie during this period was “Mission to Moscow,” directed by a non-communist, written by a non-communist, based on a memoir by a non-communist, and produced at virulently anti-communist Warner Bros. As for communists like John Howard Lawson? He wrote action movies for Humphrey Bogart. The blacklist was paranoia, or a power grab, or a pogrom. 

* Not my last word, mind you. 

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Posted at 07:06 AM on Jul 16, 2016 in category Books
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Friday July 15, 2016

Movie Review: Race (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I shouldn’t find this shocking but I do: Stephan James is only the fifth actor to ever play Jesse Owens on TV or in the movies. Chronologically:

  1. Garrett Morris in a 1976 “SNL” skit: “Jesse Owens presents a set of commemorative medals honoring white athletes” 
  2. Dorian Harewood in a 1984 TV biopic
  3. Ronnie Britton in a 1988 TV movie about IOC president Avery Brundage
  4. Bangalie Keita in the 2014 feature film “Unbroken”
  5. This

I bring it up for two reasons: 1) It’s indicative of the racism implied in the film’s title; and 2) we still don’t see much of Jesse Owens here. He’s in almost every scene but he’s basically MIA from his own biopic.

Race: Jesse OwensWhat was Jesse Owens like? According to screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (“Frankie & Alice”), and director Stephen Hopkins (“Lost in Space,” “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers”)—white folks all, by the way—Owens was a dutiful son, a good listener, a mostly loyal boyfriend/husband. Politically, he’s ... I don’t know. Academically, he’s ... whatever. In sum: he’s a decent guy who runs/jumps fast. Thanks for coming.

Should I stay or should I go?
“Race” tries as hard as possible to insult none of us so it insults all of us. It takes us from Jesse Owens’ first day at Ohio State University in the fall of 1933 to the glory of his four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. But we know he wins four gold. So where’s the drama?

This is what they try.

Learning to focus: On the OSU campus, Owens has to deal with a tough schedule (classes, track, part-time job) and racism, and coach Larry Snyder (SNL’s Jason Sudekis, better than I expected) solves both. He gets Jesse a sinecure with the state legislature so he can give up the part-time job; and while he doesn’t exactly solve racism, he helps Jesse deal with it. It’s a good scene, actually. In the locker room, with the football team yelling the usual shit football teams yell (even when they’re not racists), Snyder teaches Owens to block out the noise and focus on what matters.

Losing his focus: After setting three world records at a Big 10 track meet, he becomes known as “The world’s fastest human.” Fame leads to a fling with a beautiful, ritzy girl (Chantel Riley), but that causes him to lose his focus and that causes him to lose a race. It’s basically “The Natural,” with Quincella in the Kim Basinger role, and the girl back home, Ruth (Shanice Banton), playing Glenn Close. But all is righted again. Except...

Hell no, we won’t go: There’s a subplot about whether the U.S. will even attend the games, since Nazis/Jews/etc., but Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, makes it happen. Then Jesse is counseled against attending by an NAACP rep for reasons that remain murky. Because of racism abroad? Racism at home? “Master Race” rhetoric? This goes on for half an hour even though we know the outcome. We wouldn’t be watching if he’d missed the ’36 Games.  

Summertime for Hitler: In Berlin, it’s little dramas. Will Jesse be allowed to train the way he likes or will Snyder’s bête noire, Coach Dean Cromwell, block him? (He trains the way he likes.) Will he make the preliminaries in the long jump? (Yes.) Will Hitler shake his hand? (No.) Are Owens and another black athlete replacing two Jewish athletes in the 4x100 sprint relay to placate the Nazis? (Yes.)

Surely there’s better drama to be mined.

Helping Goebbels
The key figure in the movie is Avery Brundage, and Irons is good in the role, but it’s all so reductive. The real Brundage was virulently anti-communist to the point of being pro-fascist (cf., William Randolph Hearst), and he may have been anti-Semitic. But the movie tones all of this down in favor of a simple, barrel-chested businessman who: 1) tells Goebbels to hide anti-Jewish policies so the U.S. won’t boycott (as if Goebbels needed propaganda advice); 2) allows himself to become part of a business deal with Nazi Germany, which is then 3) used to blackmail Brundage to kick off the two Jewish athletes in the 4x100 relay. 

We get nothing on Owens’ sad, later life: racing horses to make a living, the business and commercial deals that fell through. He declared bankruptcy in the 1950s and was prosecuted for tax evasion in 1966. In the movie, Snyder tells Owens that some young punk can break your record but a medal is forever. The real Jesse Owens said, “I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals." 

There’s so much gloss here it’s tough to see the history beneath. The real drama in Jesse Owens’ story is defeating racism abroad and being defeated by it at home. But that’s too much drama (by half) for modern-day Hollywood.

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Posted at 07:30 AM on Jul 15, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Thursday July 14, 2016

The Bravery of the Staircase

Lillian Hellman stood up to HUAC better than most, and risked a lot (and lost a lot) in doing so. But in her 1976 memoir “Scoundrel Time” she felt she didn't risk/do enough. This is what she wished she'd said to HUAC committee members:

There is no Communist menace in this country and you know it. You have made cowards into liars, an ugly business, and you made me write a letter in which I acknowledged your power. I should have gone into your Committee room, given my name and address, and walked out.

She adds:

Many people have said they liked what I did, but I don't much, and if I hadn't worried about rats in jail, and such. ... Ah, the bravery you tell yourself was possible when it's all over, the bravery of the staircase.

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Posted at 01:23 PM on Jul 14, 2016 in category Books
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Movie Review: Finding Dory (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The best one-sentence review of “Finding Dory” that I've heard came about two hours after Patricia and I saw it with our friends Jeff and Sullivan, and their two kids, Reilly and Beckett, at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle. Over drinks in their backyard, Jeff placed “Dory” solidly in the B-ranking of Pixar movies, and most of us nodded agreement. Then Sullivan added, “I think it began to lose me when the octopus started driving the truck.”

Touché.

Finding Dory review

Seriously, did we have to have that absurd car chase at the end? Couldn’t we have ended on the bridge? Did Dory have to stay behind in the truck, risking everything, including the Californian horror of being transported forever to Cleveland, in order to convince Hank, the curmudgeonly octopus (voice: Ed O’Neill), to join her old/new family in the open sea? And if we had to have Dory and Hank hijack the truck, did they have to drive against traffic, on the wrong side of the freeway, as if Pixar were re-doing “To Live and Die in “L.A.”? Maybe it would’ve been interesting if there was actual risk involved—if Dory and Hank might wind up, SPLAT, on the L.A. freeway—but we knew that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, we get what we get: slow-motion plunge back into the water and safety.

It must be tough for Hollywood and Pixar to do this again and again: to start us in the safety and security of home, send us out into the world for various adventures, then return us to the safety and security of home—changed for the better.

What sends us out on this particular adventure? Flickers of memory from the memory-addled blue tang fish Dory (Ellen DeGeneres, reprising her great role from “Finding Nemo”). A phrase is said, which is like something someone in the past said, and suddenly she remembers that: 1) she had parents, which 2) she lost. Her birthplace is across the ocean, in California, so she wrangles Nemo (Hayden Rolence, replacing Alexander Gould, who’s 22 now) and Marlin (Albert Brooks, brilliant), to join her. Across the ocean they go. In record time, too.

After Dory gets entangled in a plastic six-pack ring (cut those up, kids), she’s taken to the Marine Life Institute, an environmentally conscious, sea life conservatory, where PA annoucements from film star Sigourney Weaver (Sigourney Weaver) keep playing nonsensically throughout the adventure. (“M*A*S*H” PA announcements anyone?). It turns out that's where she was born, and where her parents might be, so she keeps searching for them as Nemo and Marlin keep searching for her.

There’s a necessary balancing act: Dory needs to remember enough to keep the plot going but not enough so she stops being herself; so she stops being funny.

We get a few good moments from Pixar’s filmmaking team, led by co-directors Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane. My favorite is the horror of the kiddie touching pool: all of those pudgy human arms plunging into the water. I also like the fact that there’s no real villain to further the plot. We're just dealing with the limits of memory and ability.

But there’s no transcendent Pixar moment: no “Stuff I’m going to do”; no “Take her to the moon for me.” Jeff was right: it’s B-level Pixar. Sullivan was right. You wonder if “the octopus driving the truck” could be Pixar's “jumping the shark.”

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Posted at 07:28 AM on Jul 14, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Wednesday July 13, 2016

Quote of the Day

“I never made a drawing that I liked.”

-- Walt Disney, as reported in Neal Gabler's biography. Cf. “Seraphine.” 

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Posted at 05:36 PM on Jul 13, 2016 in category Quote of the Day
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Lillian Hellman Sells the Farm

Recently read Lillian Hellman's 1976 memoir, “Scoundrel Time,” about her days being blacklisted and testifying before HUAC as an unfriendly witness. It's good but apparently not good enough to get its own Wikipedia page.

Blacklisted, and with her lover, Dashiell Hammett, also blacklisted, Hellman must sell her farm and move on:

I am angry that corrupt and unjust men made me sell the only place that was ever right for me, but that doesn't have much to do with anything anymore, because there have been other places and they do fine. If I had stayed on the farm I would have grown old faster in its service. There are not many places or periods or scenes that you can think back upon with no rip in the pleasure. The people who worked for us must feel the same way, because each Christmas we still send each other gifts, but we do not meet because all of us fear, I think, the sad talk of a good past. Benson, my farmer, is dead, but his wife lived to raise a good son, and whenever I talk to her I remember the picture of her fat, cheerful little boy sitting on the terrace steps with Hammett, a bitter ex-Catholic, who was taking the boy through his catechism and explaining with sympathy the meaning of the ceremony. 

A moment of grace in a graceless time. 

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Posted at 04:45 PM on Jul 13, 2016 in category Books
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The Least-Popular Box-Office Smash of All Time

Least Popular IMDb rating for the biggest box office smashes

Putting together a post on Steven Spielberg's ubiquity in the 100 highest-grossing domestic films of all time (adjusted for inflation), I often resorted to IMDb to check who directed which box office smash. “Twister,” for example. No clue. (Turns out: Jan de Bont. OK.)

Then I began to notice the IMDb ratings for these films.

Then I began to wonder which had the lowest rating.

In other words, what is the least popular (by IMDb rating) most popular (by adjusted $$) movie ever made? For which movie did we have the greatest buyer's remorse?

Most, to be sure, are still beloved by IMDb users. Two of the top 100 movies are in the nines (“The Godfather,” “Dark Knight”), 33 are in the eights, 51 in the sevens. The average is 7.66. Nothing to sneeze at.

But there are 14 movies with IMDb rankings lower than 7.0. Here they are, from least shitty to most shitty:

 $$ Rank Movie Adjusted Gross Year IMDb
37 Love Story $600,584,100 1970 6.9
39 Independence Day $594,326,900 1996 6.9
56 The Towering Inferno $526,603,200 1974 6.9
70 Smokey and the Bandit $487,626,500 1977 6.9
92 Mrs. Doubtfire $452,032,000 1993 6.9
97 Duel in the Sun $437,755,100 1946 6.9
47 The Robe $561,600,000 1953 6.8
49 Around the World in 80 Days $554,400,000 1956 6.8
60 The Greatest Show on Earth $514,800,000 1952 6.7
91 Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones $458,759,500 2002 6.7
45 Airport $567,234,800 1970 6.6
18 Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace $774,877,600 1999 6.5
81 Twister $469,224,100 1996 6.3
84 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen $462,470,000 2009 6.0

This makes me truly happy. I remember how I recoiled and thrashed around in the summer of '09 when that idiot “Transformers” movie was raking it in at the box office. How I wished revenge on its viewers. How one post was simply titled “Die, Die, Die!” Turns out many agree with me.

Which of these would you watch again? I don't think I've ever seen “Towering Inferno” so that would be on my list. Ditto “Duel in the Sun.” I have fond memories of “Smokey and the Bandit” but haven't seen it since it was in movie theaters. How quaint is “Airport” now? Has anyone put together an “Airport”/“Airplane” double feature? And if you could spoof one of the movies on this list, a la “Airplane,” which would you choose?

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Posted at 06:17 AM on Jul 13, 2016 in category Movies - Lists
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Monday July 11, 2016

Donald Trump Before Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS

Via ESPN's 30 for 30 doc, “Four Days in October.” Trump is talking about the way the Boston Red Sox have battled back from a three-games-to-none deficit:

Oh, you have to respect them. I mean they've had great fight, great comeback, and now we'll see if they can take it all the way. But the Yankees are the Yankees and George is a winner.

Final score: BOS: 10, NY: 3.

Donald Trump WRONG before Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS

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Posted at 01:15 PM on Jul 11, 2016 in category Baseball
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Thursday July 07, 2016

Fox & Former Friends

Fox News has long seemed like a Golden Age Hollywood movie studio to me. Behind the scenes you have moguls: Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes. And on the screen you have:

  • hardened, flinty old guys: Bill O'Reilly, etc.
  • pretty young women in secondary roles, mostly blonde
  • villains: often liberal guests
  • white hat/black hat absolutism

The point of the network is for the flinty old guys, sometimes paired with the pretty blondes, to take on the villains, defeat them, and ride off into the sunset before the end of the show. It's a formula that plays into how its oldster demographic digested entertainment in movie theaters in the 1930s and '40s. It's comforting for them and profitable for Murdoch. It also bends reality—inevitably. It remakes our world to fit inside its (I imagine stultifying) studio.  

It's also in line with Karl Rove's thoughts to Ron Suskind in 2004 about “the reality-based community,” and how stooges likes Suskind thought they were still in it. “We create our own reality,” Rove said, “And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.”

That's Fox News.

Did Ailes see himself as a mogul? Did he think he could get away with what you could get away with in the '30s and '40s, and even into the '70s and '80s? Did he think the world he was creating protected him from, I don't know, rule of law? 

That's assuming the accusations in Gretchen Carlson's sexual harassment suit are correct. Either way, it's interesting seeing a little 2016 reality intrude upon that old-time fantasy world.

Gretchen Carlson sues Roger Ailes for sexual harassment

Exit, stage left. 

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Posted at 08:58 AM on Jul 07, 2016 in category Politics
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Not The Onion

This is the lede paragraph in last night's New York Times story on the 2016 presumptive presidential nominee for the Republican party:

Donald J. Trump on Wednesday offered a defiant defense of his campaign's decision to publish an image widely viewed as anti-Semitic — saying he regretted deleting it — and vigorously reaffirmed his praise of Saddam Hussein, the murderous Iraqi dictator.

The party is ratfucking itself. 

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Posted at 05:16 AM on Jul 07, 2016 in category Politics
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Wednesday July 06, 2016

Movie Review: The Nice Guys (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

So close.

Is this the lament of Shane Black’s career? He’s been putting mismatched detectives together in fairly smart action-comedies for decades now, starting with his scripts for “Lethal Weapon” and “The Last Boy Scout,” and hitting paydirt (for me) when he wrote and directed “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” in 2005. But his career is mostly: Good stuff, almost works.

“The Nice Guys” begins well. Before the title credits, we get an Isaac Hayes-ish funk beat to remind us we’re in the 1970s; then a scene that reminded me of me in the ’70s: a teenage boy in the early morning stealing a porno mag from under his parents’ bed and checking out the airbrushed centerfold: Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). At that age, the wish is for such goddesses to suddenly appear before you, and that’s what happens to this kid. Except Misty is driving an out-of-control convertible that crashes through their house and into the valley below. He finds her mostly nude, still bodacious body flung from the car and stares for a good long second; then he covers her up. Nice touch.

The Nice Guys: Russell Crowe and Ryan GoslingAt this point, we’re introduced to the times (gas lines, L.A. smog, “Jaws 2”) and our mismatched heroes. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is the private detective that screws up, Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is the muscle guy who doesn’t. Crowe begins similarly to “L.A. Confidential,” where he beats up a wife-beater. Here, Healy beats up a man selling dope to, and possibly having sex with, minors. The difference between the two movies is 20 years and 100 pounds, but it hardly matters. I could watch Russell Crowe do that shit forever.

March has been hired by an older relative of Misty Mountains, who swears she saw her niece a few days after her death. His investigation leads to a young girl, Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who subsequently hires Healy to get March to back off. Then two rough customers break into Healy’s apartment and demand to know Amelia’s whereabouts. Which is why our boys team up.

Crowe and Gosling have crazy good chemistry. My favorite is a scene where, from a toilet stall, pants around his ankles, Gosling tries to keep a gun on Crowe while dealing with: 1) a stall door that keeps closing, 2) a cigarette he keeps losing in his crotch, and 3) the embarrassment of his predicament. His timing is impeccable. It's worthy of silent film comedy. 

But then ... meh. March is given a previously unseen drinking problem, which he overcomes in the third act; Healy is given a previously unseen penchant for strangling guys, which he overcomes in the third act. Both subplots feel like they were inserted at the 11th hour and are tied to March’s teenage daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice, also quite good). She's the innocent girl who makes both men better men.

Worse: Kim Basinger’s prosecutor enters the picture. She’s: 1) Amelia’s mom; 2) prosecuting a case against Detroit involving catalytic converters (the maguffin); and has had 3) way too much plastic surgery. Immediately we suspect she’s the villain, and we turn out to be right: She’s cut a deal with Detroit, and her daughter knows, and she’s inserted that intel into an art-house porno movie starring Misty Mountains, which is why all the bloodshed. Sadly, our heroes suspect nothing. So we wait for them to catch up—never a good place for an audience to be. 

One minute they’re smart, the next they’re not; one minute they’re brave, the next they’re not. I like the happenstance of some of it. Just as they’re debating whether to rescue Amelia from a penthouse apartment, she jumps onto the roof of their car. The first car Amelia flags down after running from the March home is driven by the contract killer, John Boy (Matt Bomer, sporting a Richard Thomas birthmark), who shoots her dead. 

But the movie feels bloated even though it's under two hours. I kept wondering, “Who edited this?” Joel Negron, it turns out, who’s edited some of my least-favorite movies (“Transformers 2,” “Pain & Gain”). So is it his fault? Or Warner Bros.’? Or Shane Black’s? Maybe he’s just got a fatal flaw.

So close. 

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Posted at 05:48 AM on Jul 06, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Tuesday July 05, 2016

René Clair on Chaplin, Twice

Here are two excerpts from the book “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends” by Patrick McGilligan. Both quote French filmmaker René Clair, both are about Charlie Chaplin. 

In the first, McGilligan asks Clair, in the mid-1970s, if films affect him, or audiences in general, the way they did when they first premiered:

No, never. Even among the great masters ... Chaplin, for example ... I'm old enough to have seen “The Gold Rush” at its premiere in Paris ... well, people were literally dying of laughter. I know, that, for myself, I couldn't look at the screen. I was sick with laughter! Since then, thirty or so years later, I have seen a very good reissue of “The Gold Rush,” and people were again laughing but it was not the same. Do you see? It was not the same.

Not sure about that “literally dying of laughter.” Is Clair saying “The Gold Rush” killed people? But the rest is interesting. Question: Do some films improve with age? 

The other quote is about the similarities between Clair's “A Nous la Liberté” (1931) and Chaplin's “Modern Times” (1936): 

If you could see the two films at the same time, at one sitting, well, you would be struck by the comparison. And the truth is that, of course, Chaplin never admitted it. The company for which I made “À Nous la Liberté” sued United Artists, which had made “Modern Times,” for plagiarism. And, of course, I was asked to take part in the suit and I always refused. I said I know that Chaplin has seen “À Nous la Liberté.” It is enough to look at his film.

I seem to recall this thought when I first saw “A Nous...” a few years back: Had Chaplin seen it? Now I need to see it again. 

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Posted at 06:41 AM on Jul 05, 2016 in category Books
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Sunday July 03, 2016

Is Steven Spielberg the Most Popular Director in Movie History?

Steven Spielberg on the set of "E.T."

Spielberg, in his heyday, with friend.

Twenty-six movies have grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, but Steven Spielberg, the man considered the most popular director in movie history, didn't direct any of them. (His biggest, unadjusted, is “Jurassic Park” at $983 million.) Thirty-nine movies have opened domestically to more than $100 million, but Steven Spielberg, the man considered the most popular director in movie history, directed only one of them: the now-thoroughly and deservedly discredited “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which wheezed across the finish line at $101 million in May 2008.

Which raises the question: Is Steven Spielberg the most popular director in movie history?

Oh yeah. By a long shot. 

The above milestones, $1 bil and $100 mil, are 21st-century milestones, and Spielberg's heyday was earlier. These are the top 10 movies of all time, domestically, adjusted for inflation: 

  Movie Adj. Gross Gross Year Director
1 Gone with the Wind $1,733,542,900 $198,676,459 1939 Victor Fleming
2 Star Wars $1,528,266,100 $460,998,007 1977 George Lucas
3 The Sound of Music $1,221,923,900 $158,671,368 1965 Robert Wise
4 E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial $1,217,110,200 $435,110,554 1982 Steven Spielberg
5 Titanic $1,162,371,000 $658,672,302 1997 James Cameron
6 The Ten Commandments $1,123,980,000 $65,500,000 1956 Cecil B. DeMille
7 Jaws $1,098,916,300 $260,000,000 1975 Steven Spielberg
8 Doctor Zhivago $1,065,082,200 $111,721,910 1965 David Lean
9 The Exorcist $948,940,900 $232,906,145 1973 William Friedkin
10 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs $935,220,000 $184,925,486 1937 (Six directors)

Spielberg is the only director to make the list twice. James Cameron, a rival for the title of most popular director in movie history, adds his second film, “Avatar,” at No. 15; but then Spielberg immediately usurps him again with “Jurassic Park” at No. 17. George Lucas, another potential rival for the title, adds his second, the abyssmal “Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace,” at No. 18, before Spielberg adds a fourth, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” at No. 21. 

That's right: Steven Spielberg has four of the 25 highest-grossing American movies of all time, adjusted for inflation, and no other director has more than two.

If you plunge further, into the top 100 American movies of all time, these are the only directors who appear more than once*:

Director  App.
Steven Spielberg 6
George Lucas 5
Peter Jackson 3
Chris Columbus 3
James Cameron 2
George Roy Hill 2
Sam Raimi 2
Cecil B. DeMille 2
Robert Zemeckis 2
Christopher Nolan 2
Robert Wise 2
David Lean 2
William Wyler 2
Joss Whedon 2
Lee Unkrich 2

* Not included are the Disney directors, since as many as 11 directors worked on a single film. 

Only Lucas is close, and that's where he tops out. Spielberg keeps going. He also has No.s 102 and 103. He has no rival. 

This is a long lead-in to the poor domestic box office of his latest film, “The BFG,” which opened to $19.5 million this weekend. It finished behind the third weekend of “Finding Dory” ($41 mil), and the opening weekends for “The Legend of Tarzan” ($38) and “The Purge: Election Year” ($30). 

It's true that most Roald Dahl stories don't do particularly well at the box office—the two Willie Wonkas being the exception. It's also true that Spielberg is turning 70 in December, and the wonder and energy felt in his earlier films has been replaced by muted tones and somber discussions. I get trying to recapture the magic of youth, and I think he did that with the underrated and underseen (in the U.S.) “Tin Tin” movie; but there's something to be said for making movies for adults—particularly in this adolescent age of movies, which Spielberg helped create.

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Posted at 08:17 AM on Jul 03, 2016 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday July 02, 2016

The Story of 'The Story of Louis Pasteur'

I love this story I read this morning in  “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends” by Patrick McGilligan. It's about the making of “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1936), which I've never seen, but which always seemed like an odd movie to come out of gangster-crazy Warner Bros. studio. I assumed it was a stab at respectability, since studios, then and now, don't exactly beat down doors to portray historical scientists. According to IMDb, Pasteur has been portrayed on screen only 19 times, and most of those are European productions—French, German, British—and many of those on the small screen (“Dr. Who,” etc.).

The Story of Louis Pasteur, with Paul Muni

The interview is with Sheridan Gibney, who wrote “Pasteur”'s screenplay as well as “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” became twice president of the Screen Writers Guild, and whose last credit is an episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man” in 1975. Asked why Paul Muni, a big star in the 1930s, who got the kind of roles that Humphrey Bogart always wanted, wanted to play Louis Pasteur, he shrugs and says with a laugh. “His wife told me that he had always wanted to play someone with a beard, and that is what intrigued him.” 

(Sidenote: What is it with actors and beards anyway?)

Muni told Gibney he wanted the movie to be almost documentary-like, so Gibney did weeks and weeks of research, visited hospitals, spent time with doctors, then sat down and wrote the screenplay in four weeks. Muni got a copy at the same time Jack Warner did. Their reactions differed. 

Jack was horrified. He called up Hal Wallis, who was, I believe, at Lake Arrowhead or Tahoe, and sent the script up by special messenger. Monday morning, when I got to the studio, I had a three-page telegram from Hal Wallis, saying that I was to be taken off the script immediately and Laird Doyle was to put on the project. And there was to be no mention in the script of any disease that would frighten women, no experimentation with dogs, because of the Cruelty to Animals Society, no mention of Russian scientists, because that would offend Mr. Hearst, who was anti-Russian, and Mr. Muni could not wear a beard, and the whole story should take place while Pasteur is in college.

Of course Muni loves the script; and when Gibney shows him Wallis' telegram, he's furious—“I'd never seen him so mad,” Gibney says—and Muni has final approval. Now Warner bawls out Gibney for insurbordination, for showing a script to an actor before the producer, but his hands are tied. They have to make the movie to placate Muni. 

They gave it the lowest possible budget an A star like Muni could work with, which was $330,000, and they cast it all with company people under contract. They gave it to an unknown director brought over by Reinhardt, who could barely speak English at this time—Bill Dieterle. He could read, but his vocabulary was limited, and he had to have the script translated to him by his wife, who spoke excellent English. And Bill Dieterle hated the script. This is the way we went into the picture. ...

When it was done, my contract was up and Leland was told I'd never be back at Warner Brothers and I left for London to work on a play. I was gone about six months, and I got a cable from [my agent] Leland saying I should come right home. The picture was nominated for an Academy Award! When I got home I was met at the dock, to my amazement, by the top New York executive of Warner Brothers, who had a limousine waiting to take me to my hotel. Sure enough, I won the Academy Award. But winning the Academy Award meant my salary automatically tripled, and even if they had wanted me back now I was beyond the range of Warner Brothers. So I signed with Zanuck, who was over at 20th Century Fox by now and wanted me to come to work for him.  

The movie was also nominated for best picture, while Muni won the Oscar for lead actor. It was a huge success. Muni would go on to play similarly prestigious parts: Chinese in “The Good Earth”; Emile Zola in “The Life of Emile Zola.” But my favorite part of the story is the coda: 

Two years later, Jack Warner was invited to Paris by the president of France and given the highest arts decoration and kissed on both cheeks by the president himself for this wonderful monument to French science. And for years afterward, Warner wouldn't let Muni appear in anything without a beard.

Way of the world. 

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Posted at 05:58 AM on Jul 02, 2016 in category Movies
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Friday July 01, 2016

Movie Review: De Palma (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“De Palma” is aptly named. It's a documentary about the life and career of director Brian De Palma, in which we get one talking head, De Palma, intercut with movies, mostly De Palma’s, and a few personal photos, also De Palma’s. Next-gen directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow have been meeting De Palma for years at two NYC hangouts, and recently decided to film him. That’s this. They set up a camera and let him talk and talk and talk. So the doc is a little like being stuck at a bar with a dude who won’t shut up. I wanted to come up for air. I wanted to turn to the next guy and ask, “So what about you?”

De Palma

In his early days, De Palma hung out with four other directors, and, despite his acclaim, he’s basically the Pete Best of this group. He’s the Zeppo, the “... and Peggy.” The others include: the director of the greatest American movie of the second half of the 20th century (Francis Ford Coppola); possibly the greatest American director of the second half of the 20th century (Martin Scorsese); the creator of the most popular movie series of all time (George Lucas); and the most popular director of all time (Steven Spielberg).

And Peggy.

So how did it feel to be among these giants who remade American movies? We don’t really get that. What happened when the kids (Spielberg, Lucas) got more clout than the father (Coppola)? Nada. Discussions on art (Scorsese) vs. commerce (Lucas)? Nope. Any of these guys ever say, “Brian, you’ve seriously got to pull back on the Hitchcock”? Who knows?

We get stories. Most of them aren’t bad. One of my favorite revelations is that De Palma and Lucas were casting “Carrie” and “Star Wars” at the same time, often with the same young actors, and Amy Irving, Spielberg’s wife in the 1980s, nearly became Prince Leia. I could see that. It would’ve made me hot for Princess Leia in a way I never was with Carrie Fisher in the role, but maybe this would’ve been a bad thing? I guess I just like that moment of possibility, for everyone involved, before the cards were finally dealt and we got the reality we got.

So while his friends were remaking American cinema in ways both good and bad, De Palma directed movies both good and bad. The doc made me want to rewatch some of them, notably the ’80s stuff: “Dressed to Kill,” “Blow Out” (which is soured by that ending), “Body Double,” and “The Untouchables.” I still don’t want to watch that Joe Piscopo crap, or rewatch “Casualties of War,” where Michael J. Fox, bless his heart, is overwhelmed by Sean Penn. “Carlito’s Way” I remember being good but not good enough. “Carrie,” sure, and “Scarface.”

Anything else worth a damn?

De Palma was lauded by the preeminent critic of his day, Pauline Kael, but the critical schism on him is exemplified by the single-word, point-counterpoint argument between Andrew Sarris and J. Hoberman in the Village Voice in 1980. Hoberman went with “Dazzling,” Sarris chose “Derivative.” I see both arguments. Compared to most filmmakers, De Palma is dazzling; he also has too much Hitchcock in his bloodstream to be a uniquely American director. He has too much “Vertigo,” “Rear Window,” “Psycho.” And when he borrows from other directors, it’s obviously borrowed (baby carriage/steps). His friends are now being copied themselves—Paul Thomas Anderson with Scorsese, J.J. Abrams with Spielberg/Lucas—but who’s aping De Palma? Wouldn’t you just go to the original source?

The doc doesn’t deal with any of these criticisms in a meaningful way; De Palma just backhands them and moves onto the next story about the next movie. One assumes there’s many more stories. The “extra scenes” in the DVD could be interesting.

A bit of a disappointment considering what it could’ve been. At the same time, who’s up for “Blow Out”?

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Posted at 07:00 AM on Jul 01, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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