1) Trump 2) Russia 3) Rest of America
“I know I've been targeted either by trolling attacks or been notified by the FBI, through the think tank, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, that they were a target of malware attacks. I know I'm on that list. If I speak today my bank accounts could very well be compromised, I could be discredited through compromising materials—some true, some false.
”But I think the biggest concern is that I'm not confident right now that the U.S. government would actually come to bat for me.
“I've seen Pres. Trump call for Russia to leak emails against a political opponent; I've seen him discredit the U.S. intellgience committee to cite conspiracies that he's seen on his Twitter feed. So if I say things that the Trump administration doesn't like, or that are counter to Putin, I'm not sure it's not, you know, Trump first, Russia second, and the rest of America third.”
-- Clinton Watts, fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Program on the Middle East as well as a Senior Fellow at the Center For Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University, on CNN yesterday.
Yesterday, Clinton Watts Dropped a Bomb No One Is Hearing
Amid the New York Times reveal that two White House officials helped Devin Nunes, Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, view secret documents, which he then refused to share with fellow committee members, and the fact that former national security adviser Michael Flynn wants immunity to testify before the Senate committee now investigating Trump-Russia entanglements because Nunes has screwed up the House's investigation so badly , the testimony of Clinton Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute before that same Senate intelligence panel didn't get the attention it deserved.
But it's like a bomb. It's a wake-up call. It should be. Here's part of what he said.
Why did Putin think he could get away with it now?
I think this answer is very simple and it's what no one is really saying in this room: Which is, part of the reason [Russian-style] active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the Commander-in-Chief [Trump] has used Russian active measures, at times, against his opponents. ... On 11 October, President Trump stood on a stage and cited what appeared to be a fake news story from Sputnik News that disappeared from the internet. He denies the intel from the United States about Russia. He claimed that the election could be rigged—that was the No. 1 theme pushed by RT, Sputnik News, white outlets, all the way up until the election. He's made claims of voter fraud, that Pres. Obama is not a citizen, that, you know, Congressman Cruz is not a citizen.
So part of the reason active measures works—and it does today in terms of Trump Tower being “wiretapped”—is because they parrot the same lines. So Putin is correct: He can say he's not influencing anything because he's just putting out a stance. But until we get a firm basis of fact and fiction in our own country, get [garbled] about the facts, whether it be do I support the intelligence community or a story I read on my Twitter feed, we're going to have a big problem. I can tell you right now, today, that gray outlets, that are Soviet-pushing accounts, tweet at President Trump during high volumes when they know he's online, and they push conspiracy theories.
Again: Why now? They look more prepared: probing, evaluating states, trying to get into voter records, trying to be more active in the process.
If you wanted to run this during the Cold War, you would've had to put agents inside the United States. They would've been stalked by counter-intelligence professionals, the would've been run down. You couldn't have gained an audience on a communist newspaper, for example. Today, you can create the content, gain the audience, build the bots, pick out the election and even the voters that are valued the most in swing states and actually insert the right content in the deliberate period. They pre-planned it, they were based a year and a half out, they're doing it today on the European elections. And here's the other thing that needs to come up: They tried all messages. We've been very focused on our presidential election, and the Republicans tend to come up, but the Democrats, they were there, too. They were there with Bernie Sanders supporters, trying to influence them in different directions. So they play all sides—much like I learned in infantry school about how they use artillery. They fire artillery everywhere and once they get a break in the wall, that's where they swarm in and they focus. ...
So I think the important point moving forward is we have to educate our public and even our institutions. And the mainstream media is right to be taking some on the chin right now. They've fallen for a lot of these fake news stories. They've amplfied it and not gone back and done good fact-checking. The media needs to improve, our U.S. government institutions need to improve, and we've got help Americans understand what the facts are. Because if we don't, we are lost. We'll be come two separate, maybe three separate, worlds in the United States, just because of this little bitty pinprick that was put in by a foreign country.
How should the committe do its work and parse the various layers of Russian society?
Follow the trail of dead Russians. ... There have been more dead Russians in the past three months that are tied to this investigation, who have assets in banks all over world. They are dropping dead even in Western countries.
How is the Trump administration helping? It's not.
I'm going to walk out of here today, I'm going to be cyberattacked, I'm going to be discredited by trolls. My biggest fear isn't being on Putin's hit list or psychological warfare targeting me — I've been doing that for two years. My biggest concern right now is I don't know what the American stance is on Russia, on who is going to take care of me. After years in the Army and the FBI, working in the intel community — today, I'm going to walk out of here and ain't nobody going to be covering my back. I'm going to be on my own, and so that's very disconcerting.
Could've Been Worse; Could've Been Jeter
What does it say that my favorite person in this picture—by far—is a New York Yankee?
Mo was at the White House yesterday to discuss how to combat opioid abuse. Looks like they took it seriously.
The Demand of a Dictator
The headline is about Trump fighting with the Freedom Caucus, the right-wing idiots that didn't repeal Obamacare because it wasn't draconian enough—it didn't hurt enough people—so the fact that they're fighting should gladden my heart. I should be happy that Trump is scolding them via tweet. I want them pecking at each other. But the end of Glenn Thrush's story in the Times, which details a meeting between Trump and the Caucasians yesterday at the White House, is the worrisome part:
One administration official, speaking as were others on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the meetings, said it was a long overdue attempt to keep conservatives from criticizing Mr. Trump publicly.
This would worry me even if we weren't talking heartless, reactionary clowns, who every day, it seems, work harder to make the world uglier and your place in it more difficult. Trump's demand is the demand of the dictator.
Movie Review: Rules Don't Apply (2016)
He waited too long.
Principal shooting on “Rules Don’t Apply” took place in 2014, but writer-director Warren Beatty kept tinkering with it throughout 2015, and the movie didn’t open until November 23, 2016—two weeks and a day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. And these are the first words the still-shellshocked citizens of the U.S. got to see on screen:
“Never check an interesting fact.”
— Howard Hughes
(names and dates have been changed)
What’s supposed to be a sly wink at the audience, something to make us laugh at the chicanery of it all—and maybe even recall one of the most famous lines in movie history: “When the legend becomes fact ... print the legend,” from John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”—instead, post-Trump, comes off as a kind of horror about what we’ve allowed everyone to get away with, the truth-less, factcheck-less world in which we now spin. It immediately sets the wrong tone.
Then it get worse.
To be honest, I don’t know what Beatty was thinking. I don’t know what he thought the story was.
Here’s the story as I see it: In 1958, two kids fall in love but Howard Hughes (Beatty) gets in the way. She gets pregnant (by Hughes), he stays employed (by Hughes), and then six years later, in Acapulco, they rally ’round the old man enough that he’s able to rise up from his dementia and beat back a charlatan autobiographer. Yay! Then boy and girl go off into the sunset—with Hughes’ now 5-year-old kid in tow—even as the old man sinks back into silence and darkness.
The girl is Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) a devout Baptist and the “Apple Blossom Queen” of Virginia, who arrives in Hollywood in 1958 with her suspicious, demanding mother, Lucy (Annette Bening, wasted), ready to take a screen test for the Hughes-produced film “Stella Starlight.” The boy is Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a devout Methodist low-level employee of Hughes and wannabe real estate tycoon who drives Marla and 25 other Hughes starlets to and from school, dance lessons, auditions, etc., even as he’s constantly warned by his superior, Levar Mathis (Matthew Broderick), not to get involved with them—and even as Levar does his level best to do just that. To no dramatic effect. Or plot point. Or anything.
There’s a great early shot of, I guess, Sunset Boulevard in 1958, done with, I imagine, lots of CGI, that made me happy. This is what CGI is for, I thought: resurrecting history. There’s also a nice montage of picking up the va-va-voomy starlets, as well as a fascinating moment when the girls get their weekly paychecks via clipboard dropped from a second-floor window like—as Lucy accurately states—a fishing line. But the movie loses itself quickly. The early scenes are rushed through. In one seven-minute stretch, I counted 14 separate scenes—three involving Frank’s visit with his girl and her family back in Fresno, which could’ve been cut altogether. But Beatty keeps them while giving short shrift to the others.
Where’s the emotional resonance? At one point, Lucy is lambasting Frank again from the backseat about how it’s been two weeks and Hughes hasn’t even seen Marla yet, and when is she going to get her screentest, and why isn’t he, Frank, doing something about it? Finally fed up, Fred pulls over, turns, and tells her he’s never seen Mr. Hughes, either. Ah ha! Except we’re already aware of this. Painfully so. The scene might’ve worked, if, say, the point-of-view had been Marla’s throughout, with Hollywood a dreamscape, and the driver mysterious and handsome, and then ... Oh! He’s just like me. He’s just another employee in the dark. Instead, this clunker.
We get a lot of clunkers. There’s a Bobby Darin joke that falls flatter than almost any line I’ve heard. Then it’s repeated 10 minutes later.
It all builds toward finally seeing the reclusive Hughes. She goes first, meeting him in his darkened bungalow at the Beverly Hills hotel, where she anticipates a pass or worse. Instead, he’s a Warren Beatty character: distracted, kooky, harmless. She’s served a TV dinner rather than a sumptuous meal, and sax rather than sex, and when he looms close and points to her chest it’s to talk about the Rayon in her blouse rather than paw at what’s beneath it.
Then it’s his turn, meeting Hughes for 3 a.m. burgers on folding chairs in front of Hughes’ massive airplane, The Hercules—just one of the many Hughes bio bits Beatty tries to pack in. In this six-year period, 1958 to 1963, we get references to Jane Russell’s bra (really from 1943) as well as the faux autobiography (really from 1972). Hughes is in a plane crash, Hughes is testifying before Congress, Hughes exhibits the OCD habits that will undo him. He’s increasingly paranoid that his underlings will declare him mentally incompetent and put him in an institution. Then he learns that if he’s married, he can’t be committed without his wife’s approval. And that sets up the movie’s turning point.
Here’s how it’s set up:
- Frank and Marla finally give in to their lustful passions (think: “Splendor in the Grass”) but it ends abruptly, even before clothes are removed.
- Immediate after, Levar takes her to Hughes’ bungalow because Hughes requested a tryst with “the MM girl”—but Beatty meant Marilyn Monroe.
- Marla, feeling guilty over the makeout session with Frank, discovers the champagne there, and gets bombed while waiting.
- He discovers the thing about the wife.
- He proposes to her.
- They have sex.
Apparently Beatty first thought of this project back in the 1970s, and if he’d pulled it off earlier, with him in the lead, it might’ve worked. I mean, Hughes in ’58 was relatively young: 53 years old. He was Brad Pitt’s age now. But Beatty at the time of filming? 77. Worse, he was 52 years older than the female lead. Again: Ick. Sorry, Warren, but some rules do apply.
Hughes, scatter-brained and unethical, winds up marrying Jean Peters and escaping to Las Vegas, then Nicaragua, then London. Marla winds up pregnant. She and Frank wind up on the outs because 1) he sees the engagement ring and assumes there’s another guy, 2) she doesn’t tell him about Hughes, 3) he doesn’t figure it out until the 11th hour. Quarter to midnight, more like.
What a mess. I get the feeling Beatty wants us to cheer as, buoyed by Marla’s sudden reappearance in Acapulco with her son, whom he recognizes as his son, meaning his DNA will continue on and he can live forever (don’t ask), buoyed by this, the clouds in his mind momentarily dissipate, he comes alive again, and he unmasks his biographer—the spurned boyfriend of one of his starlets six years earlier—as a charlatan. But ... he’s still Hughes. All that shit still happened. There’s no Hollywood ending here, but Beatty, or Fox, makes one out of it—right up to the boy chasing after the girl to let her know, finally know, how much she means to him.
You know what would’ve made a better movie? The story of another 1958 ingénue from Virginia, Warren Beatty, landing in Hollywood just as the old studio system was dying; and how he and his generation, via “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate,” created, for a time, what took its place: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
When the legend sucks, print the facts.
Since You Asked
“You know things are looking grim for President Trump when he starts tweeting about Hillary Clinton again. Monday evening he sounded trapped and wounded: 'Why isn't the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia, Russian speech.' Well, perhaps it is because she is not president, did not hold back her tax returns, did not constantly cheer for Vladimir Putin, did not hire a host of pro-Putin flunkies and did not have aides who lied about contact with Russian officials.”
-- Jennifer Rubin, “Now we know why Trump panicked about Russia probe,” Washington Post
Tweet of the Day
When DC Comics made Lex Luthor president, he sold LexCorp. Trump is literally less ethical than a comic book villain.— Andrew Berkshire (@AndrewBerkshire) March 27, 2017
Box Office: 'Beauty and the Beast' Keeps Humming Along
Last weekend, Disney's live-action “Beauty and the Beast” turned in the 6th-best opening weekend ever (domestically, unadjusted), behind only three “Avengers” movies, “Jurassic World” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
This weekend, it turned in the 4th-best second weekend ever ($90 mil), behind only the first “Avengers” movie, “Jurassic” and “Force.”
“Ultron” and “Civil War”? Eat her dust.
“BnB” is now at $316 million, which is (again) 4th-best ever after 10 days of release, and the highest domestic total this year by far. (“Logan” is second at $201.) Add another $373 abroad for $690 worldwide, which is (again) the best so far this year, with (again) “Logan” second at $565.
Where might it stop? $400 million domestic is a no-brainer. $500? Wouldn't be surprised. More? Encore?
Oh, there'll be encores. I just hope Hollywood is learning the right lessons: that female-centered storylines, not to mention musicals, can sell. But they're probably learning the wrong lesson and gearing up to just give us more live-action remakes of cartoons. Like Inspector Gadget, Rocky & Bullwinkle, Scooby Doo. Wait, sorry, those have all been made. And bombed.
Elsewhere, “Power Rangers” grossed $40 mil against a production budget of $100 mil. It looks like it contains elements of “Chronicle,” a Zac Efron look-alike as lead, and Earl from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” Also an RT rating of 46%.
“Life” was lifeless (sorry), coming in fourth with $13 mil. “Kong” took in another $14 for third while “Logan” added another $10 for fifth. A comedic remake of “CHiPs,” which I barely heard about, directed and starring Dax Shepard, whom I've barely heard about, grossed just $7.6 in almost 2,500 theaters—apparently deservedly (RT: 20%), while “Wilson,” starring Woody Harrelson as the obnoxious loser we're supposed to love, which I keep hearing about even though I don't wanna, made $330,000 in 310 theaters. Also deservedly (RT: 39%.)
Camera Day: César Tovar, 1970
“Can someone get these kids off me?” Chris, César Tovar and me; Met Stadium, 1970.
In my memory we went to many Camera Days at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn., but my father's old slides show it was just two: a sunny day in 1969, when I was 6 and Billy Martin was manager, and a cloudy day in 1970, when I was 7 and Bill Rigney was manager. I don't blame Bill Rigney for the clouds. Much.
This photo is from 1970.
At the time, the most beloved players on the Twins were Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva, but right behind them, particularly for me, was this guy, César Tovar, our leadoff hitter and center fielder from Caracas, Venezuela. There was something musical in the name. A family friend, Danny, used to emphasize the second syllable of each of Tovar's names, “See-SAARRRR Toh-VARRRRR,” while spreading his arms wide like an umpire calling “Safe!” Which makes sense: Tovar was speedy, and lean down to his cheekbones. When Martin was manager he stole 45 bases. Even under the more sedate and cautious Rigney he stole 30. The year above, 1970, he also led the league in doubles (36) and triples (13). The next year he'd lead the league in hits (204).
We used to play whiffle-ball in our small, south Minneapolis backyard, with bases represented by the sandbox (home plate), the tree (first), the garage (second), and the middle metal fencepost separating our property from the neighbors (third). Apparently we played before I'd ever seen a Major League game in person, because, according to family lore, after we came back from my first game, and after I hit a single, my father looked over at me next to the tree and began to laugh. Rather than continually keeping a hand on the tree, as I usually did, as if I was only safe on it, now I was several feet away, leading off with my hands on my knees. I was imitating César Tovar.
Why did I identify so much? Maybe because I could. Killebrew and Oliva were gods. How do you identify with a god who could clobber the ball into infinity? But slapping singles and being pesky and playing whatever position they needed you to play? That seemed closer to me. He seemed closer to me. He was a short guy out there, 5' 9“, and he made it work.
”The man was a dream to hit behind,“ Harmon Killebrew says in a book called ”The Greatest Team of All Time: As Selected by Baseball's Immortals, from Ty Cobb to Willie Mays.“ He adds: ”A truly great leadoff man who always seemed to be on base and who distracted the pitcher enough to benefit everyone who batted behind him.“ Killebrew calls him the teammate who never got enough credit.
He did with Billy Martin. ”Tovar was my little leader,“ Martin wrote in his 1981 autobiography, ”Number 1.“ ”He was the guy who got everyone going. When I wanted him to push Leo [Cárdenas] a little bit or if Rod [Carew] was getting down and I needed someone to give him a boost, I'd get César to do it.“
He hit for the cycle once, in 1970, finishing it with a walk-off homerun—only the second player in baseball history to do that. He kept breaking up no-hitters. Baseball Almanac counts five times he did this—providing the lone, often late hit in a pitcher's no-hit bid:
- April 30, 1967 vs. Washington Senators' Barry Moore (single in the 6th)
- May 15, 1969 vs. Baltimore Orioles' Dave McNally (single in the 9th, one out)
- August 10, 1969 vs. Baltimore Orioles' Mike Cuellar (single in the 9th, no outs)
- August 13, 1970 vs. Washington Senators' Dick Bosman (bunt single in the 1st)
- May 31, 1975 vs. New York Yankees' Catfish Hunter (single in the 6th)
He may be best known for being one of four men to play all nine positions in a nine-inning game. It was aping a stunt that Charlie Finely pulled off with Bert Campaneris in September 1965 when the Kansas City A's were no longer in the pennant hunt (which, in Kansas City, was every year). Finley was great at gimmicks and stunts, and Twins owner Calvin Griffith was great at copying other people's ideas, so he trotted out Tovar on Sept. 22, 1968. Campy started out at his natural position, shortstop, then went around the infield and outfield, before taking on pitcher and catcher. In the 9th, he bruised his shoulder in a collission at home plate and had to leave the game. The Twins went the opposite way. Tovar started out at pitcher, went to catcher, and then around the horn. It was against the A's, interestingly, so the first guy he faced was Campaneris. His inning of pitching went: foul out, stirke out (Reggie Jackson), walk (Danny Cater), balking Cater to second, foul out (Sal Bando). At the plate, he went 1-3 with a walk and a stolen base. The Twins won 2-1. Finley gave Campy a convertible for the effort. Tovar got a color TV set.
For years, I kept the December 1, 1972 newspaper with the headline, TOVAR TRADED FOR THREE PHILLIES, which felt like a death-knell on some part of my childhood. By then, Killebrew was old, Tony O injured, and now César Tovar, Pepito to his teammates, was gone, over to a team in the National League no one ever saw, while the big player we got in return had no music to his name: Joe Lis. It was barely a name at all. In one and a half years with the Twins, Lis hit .238 with 9 homers before being purchased by Cleveland.
Meanwhile, Tovar kept getting picked up by Billy Martin. ”Get me César Tovar,“ he told told Rangers ownership in December 1973. ”The little guy can beat you so many ways—his bat, his feet, his brains, his hustle.“ In '74, Tovar hit .292 for him, but after Martin was fired midway through the '75 season, Texas allowed him to be bought by the Oakland A's for their pennant run. In '76, same thing happened with the Yankees, now managed by Billy Martin, who picked up Tovar for another pennant hunt. But he hit only .154 in 13 games for them and was done. His last at-bat came on Sept. 29 vs. Boston. He flew out to center.
His last at-bat in the Majors, I should add. He kept playing—in Venezuela and in Mexico. Rory Costello over at SABR has a great bio on him that details his beginnings in the Cincinnati organization, his post-MLB career, and his death on July 14, 1994 of pancreatic cancer. ”Such was Tovar's stature in Venezuela,“ Costello writes, ”that the nation's president, Rafael Caldera, attended the funeral."
American Democracy was on the Honor System; Now with Trump It's on the Dishonor System
“During the campaign, and during his presidency, Trump has attempted—with considerable success—to transcend [the norm of answering questions from journalists], as with so many others. He responds instead with counterattacks and bold statements and accusations, knowing they will get more attention than subsequent fact-checks. It's one of many ways that Americans are learning from Trump that much of their democracy was run on the honor system, on agreed standards, not laws, and now there's someone who isn't going to play by those rules. It has very dangerous implications, especially since this is a theme that plays well with many of his supporters.”
-- Gary Kasparov, former world chess champion, during a Q&A with Michael Judge for the Columbia Journalism Review. He compares Trump with Putin, lays out that fake news = news in Russia, and that Putin calls any news he doesn't like “fake.” He adds, “The methodology of fake news isn't to convince anyone exactly what the truth is, but to make people doubt that the truth exists, or that it can ever be known.” Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Matt Drudge, Alex Jones, Breitbart, et al, have laid the groundwork for that in America. They are the existential threat.
'Justice League' Trailer: I'm Bored Already
In the mid-1980s, Newsweek magazine began running a chart on its opening pages called “Conventional Wisdom,” in which they'd rank how people/insitutions did for the week. Were they up? Down? The same? It was the Rotten Tomatoes of news 20 years before Rotten Tomatoes.
Here's the “conventional wisdom” for the superheroes in the new “Justice League” trailer that dropped today:
- ↑ : Aquaman: He was always a joke, a running gag on “Entourage”: blonde hair, orange and green tights, sitting astride a sea horse and communicating with sea creatures. There was nothing cool about him. Now he's Jason Momoa, dark-haired and glowering, tattooed and desired and a heavy drinker. It works in a trailer, but I worry he's simply been “300”ed by director Zack Snyder. That it's all more empty posturing by the worst director in the world.
- ↑ : Wonder Woman: Fanboys initially shrieked because they felt Gal Gadot wasn't bosomy enough for the role, but she couldn't be. The fanboys needed to be able to focus on her actions not her assets. Hell, she's probably less fetishized here, less objectified, than Aquaman is. Who saw that coming?
- ↔ : The Flash: One thing “Justice League” has is good casting. Ezra Miller, good choice. But we don't see much more here than we've seen in the past.
- ↓ : Batman: In a Justice League story, the reality of Batman sets in. “What are your super powers again?” asks Barry Allen. “I'm rich,” he responds. “Dressed like a bat; I dig it,” says Aquaman. And that's about the size of it: rich guy dressed like a bat, surrounded by gods. Worse, he's the guy who gathers them. It's not a good role. Ben Affleck already looks trapped by it. Batman needs to be obsessed, half-crazed, rather than a den mother.
- ? : Cyborg: Nobody gives a shit. Still.
Justice League started so much. In 1960, it united the remaining superheroes in the DC world, and it gave inspiration for Marvel to create its own team of superheroes. That turned out to be the Fantastic Four, which led to Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Dr. Strange, X-Men, et al. Now DC is playing catch up with Marvel, which, nearly 10 years ago, movie by movie, put together its team of superheroes, the Avengers, and made a mint. DC is trying the same here and it feels, well, the same. Just dumber. “We have to be ready. ... There's an attack coming—from far away.” Really? You couldn't think of another reason for the Justice League to come together besides another attack from outer space/other dimensions? Aren't we sick of this yet? Aren't we sick of Zack Snyder's cold climes, gray tones, and monosyllabic heroes leaping in the air in slow motion ready to strike? Jumping, landing, standing, posing?
I know I am. If Justice League started so much, maybe “Justice League” ends it?
I know. But one can hope.
Tim Allen, Hollywood Conservatives, Need to Stop
Yeah, I saw the Tim Allen thing a week ago. For folks who can ignore bullshit news for the real variety (and kudos to you for that), Allen, the voice of Buzz Lightyear, was on Jimmy Kimmel's talk show, and Kimmel asked about being at Trump's presidential inauguration in January. Allen stammered an answer, Kimmel said laughingly, “I'm not attacking you!,” and Allen, amid the laughs, said this:
You gotta be real careful around here so you don't get beat up—if you don't believe what everybody believes. It's like '30s Germany, I don't know what, I don't know what happens.
The Post's headline was incendiary, “For Tim Allen, being a non-liberal in Hollywood is like being in 1930s Germany,” but the clip itself? Eh. He's trying to make a joke. It's an awful comparison, sure, but he's milking it for humor and Kimmel is laughing along. So I didn't even bother to post about it. I know: Me, Mr. “What Liberal Hollywood?”
Then the right-wing sites chimed in:
- Fox News Insider: Tim Allen Calls Out Hollywood Liberals: 'This is Like 30s Germany'
- Heat Street: How Hollywood's Crusade Against Conservatives is Intensifying
They're perpetuating it. They know it's overblown but it fits into their narrative about what an awful place liberal Hollywood is.
Then The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect lambasted Allen, leading to headlines like “The Anne Frank Center is coming for Tim Allen,” which would be funny if, you know, Anne Frank hadn't been gassed to death at Bergen-Belsen at the age of 15. That fact alone brings home the idiocy of Allen's comparison. It brings home the whininess of Hollywood conservatives, who are not losing their rights as citizens, not being investigated by their government, not losing their lives. None of that is happening.
What is happening? What happens to liberals every day in, say, Montana or Kansas or Oklahoma or Miississippi: Your neighbors don't agree with your politics and let you know it. That's it.
Quote of the Day
“So, we just pulled it.”
-- Pres. Donald Trump to Washington Post reporter Robert Costa on the decision by Trump and the GOP to pull their plan (which pleased no one) to replace Obamacare. So it was a good day. Of course, Trump being Trump, he blamed the minority Democrats for not backing a proposal that no one liked (and few had seen in its most recent iteration), rather than majority Republicans with their 44-vote advantage, who could've passed the bill without a Democrat if the bill had been worth passing. But it wasn't. To anyone. And now my friends continue to have health care coverage. A good day.
I can't believe golfing every weekend & holding goofy campaign rallies in blue districts didn't lock this terrible repeal vote up for Trump.— John Dingell (@JohnDingell) March 24, 2017
Lancelot Links Confirms ‘Incidental Surveillance’ on Big Boy Driving Truckie Wuckie
This also happened: The president of the United States got into a parked truck on the White House driveway and made vroom vroom noises. Not embarrassing at all.
- Nazis in a beer hall in Portland, Oregon. Thanks, Trump.
- Anthony Kuhn has been a journalist in China for years, but this month he became a viral sensation for asking a question about President Xi Jingping's megaregion plans around Beijing and the relocation of businesses/residents there. Also because his Chinese is so good. I wrote more about it here.
- In hearings before the Intellgience Oversight Committee this week, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) laid out the Russia/Trump connections. This is just the stuff we know and they stuff the representatives can say. He acted responsibly.
- Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) did not act responsibly. He condemned the leaks more than what they revealed, then, the next day, went to Trump, whose administration he's investigating, and gave up the goods. Then he staged a press conference on the White House lawn and gave out tidbits of more information—information Schiff didn't even have—and which amounted to smoke for Trump's idiotic charge that Pres. Obama wiretapped him. But it's only smoke. U.S. intelligence “incidentally” picked up communications from Trump's transition team because (unspoken), they were calling foreign officials we‘re investigating. Attempting to unethically clear Trump’s team, he actually provided further evidence of its culpability. More than resign from the comittee, Nunes should be investigated himself.
- More on Trump/Russia from Pasquino. “Remember, Remember/The 8th of November.” Like I could forget.
- Actually this is better: Mother Jones gives us the long history of connections and deals between Trump and Russia.
- A more pointed version from earlier in the week, courtesy of David Leonhardt: “All the President's Lies.”
- RIP Jimmy Breslin, who died earlier this week. Any man who runs with Norman is OK by me. Here's Breslin's column from Dec. 9, 1980. The day after the day the music died.
- A reason you shouldn't be behind Neil Gorsuch for SCOTUS (besides Merick Garland)? The NRA is for him.
- Q&A with my man Jim Walsh on the beautiful inexplicability of music, and the experience of sitting with Prince who is going over your column on him line by line.
- Bodybuilder Oliver Lee Bateman takes on the nerd-to-he-man mythos of everyone from Charles Atlas to Arnold Schwartzenegger, and discovers the true purpose in “making a man out of Mac”: “to create a suit of armor behind which one might conceal a real self, in the hopes that no one would ever bother inquiring its whereabouts.” Cf., “Moonlight,” Act III.
- Sometimes I think Eyal Press should be the conscience of our nation. We certainly need one.
- I think this new Frank Rich column, “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly: Democrats need to stop trying to feel everyone's pain, and hold on to their own anger,” is a turning point in a good way. Or maybe he's just saying what I've long felt.
3,000 Hit Club By Decade
1910s, '70s, '90s, '20s, '70s again.
There are 30 members of the 3,000 hit club, and we'll probably have another, Adrian Beltre (2,942) this year and most likely Albert Pujols (2,825) in 2018. Next up would be Miguel Cabrera, who is at 2,519. Barring catastrophe, he seems a lock. I've also got fingers crossed for Robinson Cano, who is at 2,210 and a young 34. Plus he's signed for seven more years. If he plays all of those years, he'll just have to average 113 per, and he's never hit fewer than 155—and that was his rookie season. (Last year he hit 195.) In fact, if all goes well, he'll probably be the first guy to join the club in the 2020s.
This used to be a pretty exclusive club. From the 1860s to 1969, there were only eight members. Then, in one decade, the 1970s, we almost doubled that total with seven more.
- 1890s: Cap Anson
- 1910s: Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie
- 1920s: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins
- 1940s: Paul Waner
- 1950s: Stan Musial
- 1970s: Hank Aaron, Wilie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, Pete Rose, Lou Brock, Carl Yastrzemski
- 1980s: Rod Carew
- 1990s: Robin Yount, George Brett, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Paul Molitor, Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs
- 2000s: Cal Ripken, Rickey Henderson, Rafael Palmeiro, Craig Biggio
- 2010s: Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki
I'm old enough to remember that one of the arguments against free agency—or maybe it was hand-wringing once free agency came into existence—was that players wouldn't play into their dotage; they'd take the money and run. They wouldn't join these exclusive clubs. That certainly hasn't happened.
Other bits of 3,000-hit trivia:
- Team most represented? Cleveland. Kinda. Two players were wearing Indians jerseys (Tris Speaker and Eddie Murray), one was wearing a Cleveland Naps jersey (Nap Lajoie). But it's all the same franchise.
- Lowest batting average? Cal Ripken, Jr. at .276, followed by Rickey Henderson at .279.
- Five 3,000-hit members who aren't in the Hall of Fame? Pete Rose (gambling), Rafael Palmeiro (PEDs), and three guys who aren't eligible yet: Jeter, A-Rod, and Ichiro. Jeter and Ichiro will get in. It's less certain about A-Rod.
- Homeruns for No. 3,000? Three, by Jeter, A-Rod and Wade Boggs.
Movie Review: Moonlight (2016)
There is an early exchange between our main character, a kid called Little (Alex R. Hibbert), and Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who has begun to act as his big brother. We wonder for a time whether Juan has an ulterior motive. Is he trying to turn Little into a corner kid? Something worse? But doubts about Juan are extinguished by the doubt we see in Juan’s own face. Even he can’t fathom why he’s doing it. He seems confused by his own actions. Sure, the kid reminds him of himself as a boy, but don’t others? Why this one? I guess that’s the question all of us ask ourselves when we fall in love: Why this one?
The exchange is mostly monologue—Juan’s. That’s true of most of Little’s exchanges. He doesn’t say much. But when he does it has impact. It hits you in the gut.
Juan is telling Little about his experience coming to Miami from Cuba, running around, not knowing any better. He recalls a time when an old lady stopped him and said she would call him “Blue,” because, she says, in the moonlight black boys look blue.
Little: Is your name Blue?
Juan [laughs]: Nah. At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.
Much of the rest of the movie is how Little lets everyone else make that decision for him.
Who he’s going to be
The movie is split into three parts, each named for either the nickname or real name of our main character:
In the first, he’s about 10. The second ... 16 or so? By the time he’s Black, he’s in his late 20s and no longer little.
Does it lose something in the third act? For me, for a time, it does. For a time, Chiron lost my sympathy. He had it in the first two.
He’s small and picked-upon, living in the housing projects of Liberty City in Miami with his mom, Paula (Naomie Harris), a crack addict who is too busy looking for her next fix to look after, or even care about, her own son. It’s up to others to do it for her: Juan, who teaches him to swim, and his girl, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who feeds him and cares for him, and Little’s friend Kevin, who gives him advice: “See, you just gotta show them niggas you ain’t soft.” That’s the key to Kevin, who’s bigger, louder, occupies his space in the world. Little retreats from the world. He takes baths. I identified.
One of Little’s hit-you-in-the-guts lines is near the end of the first act. Juan has just had a showdown with Teresa, who, against neighborhood etiquette and common sense, is smoking crack in a car near the drug dealers, and Juan is ready to rip her a new one. But she senses his vulnerability; her son is his vulnerability, and she uses it. She uses the fact that he cares and she doesn’t, and back at his place, Juan and Teresa and Little sitting around the dining table like a family, Little drops a non sequitur like a bomb: “Am I a faggot?” I thought Juan’s response was a little cautious, a little PC, but then he’s hit in the gut with the next question: “Do you sell drugs?” Little is making sense of the world. The man saving him is the man destroying his mother. Juan owns to it but the admission, and Little’s quick exit, crumples him.
By the next act Juan is gone—a funeral is mentioned in passing—and his place in the story is taken by what Juan kept at bay: the bullies of the world, specifically Terrel (Patrick Decile) and his toadies, who pick on Chiron (Ashton Saunders) in class and in the schoolyard and follow him home, mocking his mother, his pants, his supposed sexual preference. Kevin isn’t part of that; he’s just nearby, bragging about this or that girl he did this or that with; then suddenly he’s at the beach with Chiron, who fled there at night, and the two share a joint and a sexual moment. You sense the world opening up to Chiron: Maybe it can be this; maybe it can be beautiful. The next day it slams shut. Terrel demands Kevin pick a fight with Chiron, and he does. Kevin gives in to the demands of the world, Chiron doesn’t and gets hurt for it—both physically and emotionally—and he snaps. I had friends in high school who snapped in similar ways, but less violent ways. Chiron busts a chair over Terrel’s back, and the authorities, who never acted throughout Terrel’s long reign of terror, now act: They put Chiron in juvey.
By the third act, the skinny kid is gone. Now he’s got a body like a superhero, and a grill like a drug dealer. He is a drug dealer. In Atlanta. It’s how he survived. We get the story piecemeal after Kevin (Andre Holland, Wendell Smith in “42”) phones out of the blue, and Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now Black—Kevin’s nickname for him in Act II—goes to see him in the Cuban restaurant Kevin runs in Miami. It’s a small place but I like the atmosphere of it and Kevin’s pride in it. That said, this part drags a bit. Maybe because I don’t identify with Black here? We don’t know exactly what he’s up to—Love? Revenge? Both?—and it’s pulling teeth getting anything out of him. I wonder where the kid I identified with went.
Where did he go? He went to a harder place and became a person who could survive there. That, too, when I figured it out, I identified with. The hardest thing is to remain sensitive in a hard world. The world closes you off, bit by bit, or all at once. It happened to me on some level and it happened to Chiron.
Eventually, back at Kevin’s place, he reveals where Little and Chiron are—still inside—when he says the most devastating line of the year:
You’re the only man who’s ever touched me. The only one. I haven’t really touched anyone, since.
The mind reels at the sadness of it all.
And the Oscar goes to...
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” is as beautifully structured as a short story or novella. It deserves its accolades and awards. It’s even more powerful during the second viewing.
I particularly like how intimately it’s photographed. We’re never far away from our lead—Little, Chiron, Black. We often seem to be following right behind him as if we’re bullies following him home from school or guardian angels looking after him. Helpless guardian angels.
My Father's Original 'Star Wars' Review from 1977 (with special guest star Muhammad Ali!)
A few days after Christmas, my 84-year-old father, me (53), and my 15-year-old nephew Jordy sat in the basement of my sister's house in south Minneapolis and did a podcast on three generations of movie reviewers talking about three generations of movies: “Four Feathers” from 1939, “Star Wars” from 1977, and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” from 2009. I first wrote about it here. You can listen to it here.
During the podcast, we referenced my father's 1977 review of “Star Wars,” which he famously, or infamously, didn't like, or at least didn't gush over. He has gripes. But if you read the piece, he's not wrong.
Because the Minneapolis Star-Tribune currently doesn't give subscribers access to its archive the way The New York Times does (and Strib: I would totally be a subscriber if you offered this service), I typed it up myself from the original newspaper review. I typed up a few other reviews of his from the '70s, too, including “Annie Hall” and “The Godfather Part II,” which I'll post someday.
Dad's “Star Wars” review shared a column with another film—The New Yorker still does this. Anyone remember “The Greatest” starring Muhammad Ali? Ironic title, given its release the same week as “Star Wars.” I've included that one, too, to give a better feel for the times.
‘Star Wars’ may be good fun, but leave your brains home
June 5, 1977
George Lucas’ “Star Wars,” his first movie since “American Graffiti,” is obviously the film phenomenon of the year, judging by the crowds it’s attracting at the St. Louis Park theater. It even packed them in at 11 a.m. last Sunday, which is an ungodly hour to see a movie. Clearly it’s the “Jaws” and “Exorcist” of 1977.
But is it also the best film of the year? Time magazine has already awarded it that accolade without bothering to check out the competition. If Time’s editors are so confident of premature judgments, why don’t they also select their Man of the Year now, instead of waiting till December?
I certainly don’t think it’s the best film of the year, or the month, for that matter (it ranks well behind “Annie Hall” and “Jonah” in my May rankings). It does have some gorgeous special effects and an amusing plot, if you like comic strips. There’s also a certain fun in spotting all the sources from which the eclectic Lucas has drawn his material.
It’s got some Flash Gordon, of course, but there’s also a good hunk of “The Wizard of Oz,” with a gold, English-speaking version of the Tin Woodsman and an apish version of the Cowardly Lion looking for that Yellow Brick Road in the sky, and a tribe of Sand People that sounds suspiciously like Munchkins. [Editor's Note: Yes, Jawas.]
Not to mention the Arthurian legends—the golden-haired, untested squire tilting lances with the Black Knight, who turns out to be a heavy-breathing warrior who sounds like the wrong end of an obscene phone call.
Most of Lucas’ dialogue sounds as if he’d lifted it unaltered from World War II John Wayne movies. “This is it, boys!” says the squadron commander as he prepares to attack the space station, followed by “Cover me!” (Sorry about all of those exclamation points, but this is a comic strip, so every sentence, no matter how innocuous, must end with an exclamation!)
The film also contains an ear-splitting amount of gunfire, none of which hits the outnumbered good guys. There’s a cornball story interred somewhere in the mish-mash—something about an interplanetary rebellion, a kidnapped princess (more of a take-charge type than we’re accustomed to in costumed epics) and the attempt to recover some secret plans. Your kids will love it, and you may too. But leave your brains at home.
Watching “The Greatest,” which is the filmed autobiography of Muhammad Ali, is like attending the weigh-in for one of Ali’s fights. For two hours.
The braggadocio, the doggerel, the taunting of a glowering opponent are all amusing in short doses. Stretched out for 120 minutes, they lose their fizz fast.
A hint of part of the problem emerged from a recent interview with Ring Lardner Jr., who wrote the screenplay but encouraged Ali to rewrite his own lines in the interest of authenticity. As a result, many of those lines become speeches—pontifical, redundant, verbose. It may be the way Ali talks, but it’s not very dramatic.
That’s just one of the problems, however. “The Greatest” certainly deserves one superlative: It’s the worst edited film I’ve seen in some time. Scenes are built up, then dropped, and key scenes are omitted. There’s very little about Angelo Dundee’s effect on Ali, for instance, either because it would have intruded on Ali’s ego or because it’s convenient to ignore his pre-Muslim past.
Ali is certainly an engaging actor, and the fight sequences are exciting, particularly if, like me, you’ve forgotten who won which fights. But despite the promise of the ads to discover the “real” Ali, you don’t learn much about him that you didn’t already know from the papers.
That “Leave your brains at home” line? Who knew we'd be doing that for the next 40 years?
Quote of the Day
“I come from a time when you spent time with records like they were books. So it was very much a journey with the music-maker. It remains that today. Trying to represent for that story as well as how it resonates with you, that's the unexplainable, because it's mysterious. A single musical note presents a lot of mystery.
”When you're left with words to try and get at that, it is kind of unexplainable, but you try. That's the fun of it. That's the inspiring part of it. I'm trying to explain, as much as I can, why this matters to me.
“That's with every piece, though, whether it's about music or not. You start out a column and you're trying to tell the reader, ”This matters to me, and I'm going to tell you why.“ That's just very basic. But with music you're diving into something that's pretty bottomless. It's explainable, but it could be a whole other explanation the next day.”
-- Jim Walsh, “Explaining the Unexplainable: With two new books out, Jim Walsh reflects on his career in journalism,” a Q&A with Dylan Thomas, in Southwest Journal. Check out Jim's memories of interviewing Prince in the 1990s.
Rich to Trump Voters: 'Drop Dead'
Frank Rich's New York Magazine piece, “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly: Democrats need to stop trying to feel everyone's pain, and hold on to their own anger,” is like a breath of fresh air amid the post-Trump Democratic hand-wringing. What can I say? I'm sick of stupid people ruining the world. They mock empathy, think government is the problem, belly up to corporations, buy the bullshit hucksterism of people like Reagan and Trump. Done. See ya, don't want to be ya. Just telling it like it is.
Rich is probably better, sharper, when attacking the Dems:
While the right is expert at channeling darker emotions like anger into ruthless political action, the Democrats' default inclination is still to feel everyone's pain, hang their hats on hope, and enter the fray in a softened state of unilateral disarmament. “Stronger Together,” the Clinton-campaign slogan, sounded more like an invitation to join a food co-op than a call to arms. After the debacle of 2016, might the time have at last come for Democrats to weaponize their anger instead of swallowing it? Instead of studying how to talk to “real people,” might they start talking like real people?
But the closer is a killer:
So hold the empathy and hold on to the anger. If Trump delivers on his promises to the “poorly educated” despite all indications to the contrary, then good for them. Once again, all the Trump naysayers will be proved wrong. But if his administration crashes into an iceberg, leaving his base trapped in America's steerage with no lifeboats, those who survive may at last be ready to burst out of their own bubble and listen to an alternative. Or not: Maybe, like Hochschild's new friends in Louisiana's oil country, they'll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether. Either way, the best course for Democrats may be to respect their right to choose.
Quote of the Day
“The current president of the United States lies. He lies in ways that no American politician ever has before. He has lied about — among many other things — Obama’s birthplace, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Sept. 11, the Iraq War, ISIS, NATO, military veterans, Mexican immigrants, Muslim immigrants, anti-Semitic attacks, the unemployment rate, the murder rate, the Electoral College, voter fraud and his groping of women.”
-- David Leonhardt, “All the President's Lies,” in the New York Times, about the Comey hearings and Trump's connections with Russia. And, yes, All the President's Lies.
Instead of Feet to the Fire, NPR's Steve Inskeep Gives Sen. Orrin Hatch a Footrub
I'd like it if NPR's “Morning Edition” made me want to throw the radio across the room a little less often.
This was an exchange this morning between NPR's Steve Inskeep and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) about the hearings for SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch:
INSKEEP: You know that Democrats were very unhappy that President Obama made a Supreme Court nomination last year and Republicans declined to give him a hearing. We have heard, of course, the Republican explanation that it was an election year. But I wonder if I can get you to speak to people who've heard those arguments and just think there has been an injustice here. Why should a Democrat who feels that way give a fair hearing to Neil Gorsuch and not block Senate confirmation?
HATCH: Well, first of all, from the whole history of the country, almost everybody has indicated there should not be a confirmation of a judge during a presidential election year. Joe Biden made that point. You know, this is not unusual.
“Almost everybody,” Senator? “From the whole history of the country”? “This is not unusual”?
The sad thing isn't that Hatch made this bogus claim again; it's that Steve Inskeep, who's had more than a year to research the matter, didn't ask a proper follow-up. He hasn't done the due diligence for his job that I did on my own on the day Justice Scalia died and the GOP first trotted out this argument.
- In our history, 15 SCOTUS justices have been nominated and approved during election years or during post-election lame-duck periods; most of these (8) occurred during the 19th century.
- The last justice to be nominated and approved during an election year was Frank Murphy, an FDR pick in January 1940.
- The last justice nominated but not approved during an election year was then-sitting justice Abe Fortas, whose name LBJ put forth for chief justice upon the retirement of Earl Warren in June 1968. The GOP fillibustered him during a weeklong debate, but he got a vote. What didn't happen back in 1968? No Republican (or Dixiecrat) claimed that presidents shouldn't fill SCOTUS seats during an election year. That was an argument that wasn't made, despite Hatch's assertion today.
- The last justice to be approved during an election year was Justice Anthony Kennedy in Feb. 1988, whose name was put forth in Nov. 1987.
If it hasn't happened since it's because, well, it hasn't happened. No SCOTUS seat has opened during an election year. Until 2016. And then the GOP, and the press, behaved with a kind of massive collective irresponsibility.
And it's still going on, Daniel. This was Inskeep's follow-up to Hatch:
INSKEEP: But can you give Democrats who interpret the history differently a reason that they should move forward? Is there a reason it is important for the country that they should look past whatever they believe was wrong in the past?
Good god. Democrats who interpret the history differently? As opposed to, you know, history. Facts. As opposed to Sen. Hatch lying to us again about that history. And once again, thanks to Steve Inskeep, getting away with it.
'I'm Looking at a Book'
“Well, you know, I love to read. Actually, I'm looking at a book, I'm reading a book, I'm trying to get started. Every time I do about a half a page, I get a phone call that there's some emergency, this or that. But we're going to see the home of Andrew Jackson today in Tennessee and I'm reading a book on Andrew Jackson. I love to read. I don't get to read very much, Tucker, because I'm working very hard on lots of different things, including getting costs down. The costs of our country are out of control. But we have a lot of great things happening, we have a lot of tremendous things happening.”
-- Donald Trump, last Thursday, when asked by Tucker Carlson what he does at the end of the day: What does he read? What does he watch? This should be asked at every presser. What a fucking embarrassment.
The Media Trump Wants But Doesn't Have (Yet)
Anthony Kuhn has been a journalist in China for years, but this month he became a viral sensation for asking a question about President Xi Jingping's “megaregion plans” around Beijing and the relocation of businesses/residents there. Video of his question at a government press conference went viral for a number of reasons: 1) he speaks Chinese like a native; 2) he seemed concerned about Beijing citizens; 3) the question was more pointed/critical than what the domestic press normally asks.
On NPR, Kuhn writes the following:
All Chinese media are nominally state-owned, and the government has increasingly leaned on journalists to “correctly guide public opinion” to the conclusions that the government prefers.
China's leaders acknowledge that the press has a watchdog role, which they call “supervision by public opinion.” But since the heyday of investigative Chinese journalism, much of it done by metropolitan tabloids in the 1990s and early 2000s, the government has muzzled many of the country's more independent media outlets and forced many journalists either to censor themselves or quit the business.
It's exactly the kind of press Pres. Trump wants. And gets? Everyone applauded the German reporter last Friday for asking Trump about why he is scared of “diversity” in the news, dismissing anything he doesn't like as “Fake news,” and about his constant, unproven claims. It was a breath of fresh air. She all but asked, “Why do you keep lying?” It was a breath of fresh air because nobody else is saying that to his face. He dismissed her as “Fake news.”
Scarier: Andrew Marantz in The New Yorker on the right-wing blogs and jackass conservative sites that are increasingly making up the White House press corps.
Really, the kind of press he wants is the question.
Quote of Last Month
“The personal attacks on the distinguished district judge [James Robart in Seattle, called a ”so-called judge“ by Trump in a tweet] and our colleagues were out of all bounds of civic and persuasive discourse—particularly when they came from the parties. Such personal attacks treat the court as though it were merely a political forum in which bargaining, compromise, and even intimidation are acceptable principles. The courts of law must be more than that, or we are not governed by law at all.”
-- Judge Jay Bybee, a conservative judge, and member of the George W. Bush administration, in his dissent on the Ninth Circuit ruling overturning Pres. Donald Trump's original excutive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven mostly Muslim countries.
In other words, Bybee thought Trump's EO was constitutional but his rhetoric and behavior loutish, and an attempt to undermine the rule of law. I came across the quote in John Cassidy's piece “Donald Trump Finally Pays a Price for his False and Reckless Words.” Not a high enough price, sadly. Not yet anyway.
Another Right-Wing Boycott Goes Bust as 'Beauty and the Beast' Breaks Box-Office Records
The live action “Beauty and the Beast,” starring Emma Watson, grossed $170 million over the weekend. In three days it made more in the U.S. than “The LEGO Batman Movie” has made in 38 days.
It's the 7th-biggest opening weekend ever, and the biggest that doesn't include superheroes, light sabres or dinosaurs. It's also Watson's biggest opener—by $1 million. The final “Harry Potter” opened to $169 in July 2011. Oh, and it's the biggest opener in March, wiping away last year's blemish, “Batman v. Superman,” by $4 mil.
One hopes this whopping weekend sends a message or two:
- To Hollywood: We don't need another hero. A heroine can work.
- To right-wingers: Try boycotting something that has a chance in hell of working.
In the last few months, conservatives have boycotted “Hamilton,” Starbucks, and this. They objected to this because there's a gay character in it. Cue: Randy Rainbow with the rebuttal.
Elsewhere, in its second weekend, “Kong: Skull Island” fell off by only 53%, not bad, but it's still only at $110 million. Not the tentpole Warner Bros. was hoping for.
In its third weekend, “Logan” fell of by 54% for another $17.5 and an overall domestic gross of $184 million. That's No. 1 on the year ... for another day or two. Then it gets swamped by Emma.
Jordan Peele's horror film/social commentary “Get Out” pulled in another $13 mil for a domestic take of $133.
Norman Mailer Died in 2007 But Every Year He Gets Smarter
My epitaph for him, back when I shamefully contributed to The Huffington Post. That second graf ain't bad.
Another HuffPost piece, in which, in 2008, I see demons in John McCain that came to fruition, in an outlandshishly loutish fashion, in our current president.
Movie Review: A Man Called Ove (2016)
Ove (Rolf Lassgård) is the quintessential grumpy old man with a heart of gold—Swedish version. He’s a widower who spends his days nitpicking over minor violations in block association rules, visiting his wife’s grave, and trying to kill himself. The neighbors keep interrupting these attempts to ask for favors. They keep blithely assuming he’s a sweetheart even though he’s shown them nothing but contempt.
It works. During the course of the movie, amid his grumblings, Ove: helps his new neighbors back their trailer into their driveway, loans them a ladder, drives them to the hospital, babysits their kids, fixes their dishwasher, teaches the Iranian wife to drive, repairs a bike, takes in a stray cat, takes in a gay kid who’s been kicked out by his homophobic dad, and saves the life of a stranger about to be run over by a train.
Then in the final showdown, he rallies the neighbors to prevent social services from taking Rune (Börge Lundberg), his onetime friend and rival for block association president, now wheelchair-bound after a stroke, and placing him in an institution against his and his wife’s wishes.
With grumpy old men like this, who needs friends?
You see early on where the movie’s going, and it gets there without many surprises. It’s about simple joys, loves, lives. Tragedy keeps intersecting with joy, but none of it feels particularly real.
- Tragedy: His father is proudly showing his teenage son’s grades around the railyard when he gets run over by a train.
- Heroism/tragedy: Shortly thereafter, he runs into a burning building to save his neighbors’ lives but gets no praise or backslaps, simply a sneer from social services, the villainous “Whiteshirts” of his imagination, who allow his own home to burn to the ground because they’re going to demolish it anyway.
- Joy: Now homeless, sleeping on a train, he runs into a beautiful, intelligent woman, Sonja (Ida Engvoll, looking like a “Twin Peaks”-era Sherilyn Fenn), and she does most of the heavy lifting to get them to the altar. What does she see in him? Who knows? He’s a tall hayseed, not particularly attractive, who can barely string two words together. But the movies are the movies.
- Tragedy: In a tour group in Spain when she’s six months pregnant, the bus goes over an embankment and Sonja loses the baby and the ability to walk.
- Overcoming tragedy: Denied teaching positions because she’s in a wheelchair, Ove builds a ramp in the rain that finally gets her the job.
None of it is grounded. The tragedy isn’t painful, the joy isn’t uplifting. It’s not life; it’s life packed in styrofoam peanuts.
There’s a kind of connective tissue between the tragedies and his old-man persnicketiness, since if people had simply been more careful most of the tragedies could’ve been avoided; but it’s not deep. There’s a kind of humor in the world’s various intrusion into his many failed attempts to kill himself, but it wears fast.
I did have one moment of true joy watching the film. Ove is reminiscing about first meeting, and discovering a kindred spirit in, Rune. Both are sticklers for block association rules, neighborhood enforcers who chase after scofflaws, and on their way to a great friendship. “Until,” Ove narrates, “we finally discovered the small difference.” Then we get a scene where young Ove, his face a mixture of confusion and betrayal, realizes Rune prefers Volvos to Saabs. That was brilliant. I laughed so hard at that.
But there wasn’t enough of it. I’ve heard the novel is better, as novels tend to be.
One of the Greatest Lines in Movie History
The shit you come across on Twitter.
This thing somehow wound up in my feed today. It's a right-wing defense by a right-wing idiot of Donald Trump's severe and idiotic budget cut proposals.
In Matt 25, when Jesus talks about caring for “the least of these,” he isn’t talking about the poor in general, but fellow Christians.— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) March 17, 2017
What do you do with that? Argue? Face palm? Move to Mexico?
On the plus side, it did make me recall one of the greatest lines in movie history—something that is truer today than when it was originally said in 1986:
Point for the arts, currently on the chopping block.
Tweet of the Day: Underminer in Chief
If someone were doing everything possible deliberately to undermine America, they would be doing the Trump budget and foreign policy https://t.co/jAw7ujgBrF— Norman Ornstein (@NormOrnstein) March 16, 2017
Reacting to this WaPost article: “Trump's budget calls for seismic disruption in medical and science research.” Trump wants to make us as stupid as he is.
Ornstein is a scholar at the American Enterprise Intstitute, a conservative think tank.
- My nephew, Jordy, 15, has put together his “Top 15 Films of 2016” list. Expecting “Star Wars” or “Dr. Strange”? Try “Cameraperson,” “Loving,” “Paterson,” “Certain Women,” “I Am Not Your Negro.” Torch, passed.
- The Chicago White Sox don't look too good this year, but their tickets do.
- Joey Poz calls Cubs' 2B Javier Baez the greatest tagger in baseball history, in part because “Nobody even knew that was a thing before he came along.” Check out that no-look tag during the World Baseball Classic. Makes me smile.
- Good piece by Sam Tanenhaus in The Atlantic: “Who Stopped McCarthy?” (Chase-cutter: Ike.) But this is an egregious line: “The villain was undone, ultimately, by methods like his own.” Really? By Tanenhaus' own description, McCarthy used lies and innuendo in a scattershot method to destroy lives; Ike planned carefully, leaked factual data, and let McCarthy hang himself. Seems the opposite method to me.
- A synagogue in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood—one of the most liberal in the country—was vandalized last week with graffiti reading: “Holocau$t i$ Fake Hi$tory.” Fake news/Fake history. They're learning from their masters. It's beyond sad. I'd like a couple of minutes with these cowards.
- East-siders: Don't forget that your rep, Dave Reichert, voted the GOP's godawful ACA replacement through committee, risking the health care of millions (24 million to be precise, according to the Congressional Budget Office). Vote this turd out of office in 2018.
- David Remnick is very smart on why there is no “Deep State,” another Trump admin locution that the press has to report and then disprove. Remnick ends with a flourish: the problem is not a deep state but “a shallow man—an untruthful, vain, vindictive, alarmingly erratic President.”
- Jelani Cobb uses Ben Carson's idiotic comment comparing slaves to immigrants as a jumping off point on how the optimism of American warps our view of our history.
- Bravo, Netherlands! Their Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, bleach blonde and xenophobic, who was leading in the polls recently, came in second in their election yesterday—although his party still gained six seats and now holds 20 of 150 in Parliament. The ruling party, the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (all bases covered there) lost seven seats but holds 33. Two more parties, one right-leaning, another left-leaning, have 19 seats each.
- It took three New Yorker writers (Remnick, Evan Osnos, Joshua Yaffa) to put together the must-read piece (thus far) of 2017: “Trump, Putin and the New Cold War.” Read it all. I think I may re-read it today.
What Liberal McCarthyism?
I have a piece on Salon, “A mea culpa to Hollywood conservatives, living under the shadow of a modern McCarthyism.” It went live just as Rachel Maddow was revealing/not revealing her scoop on two pages of Donald Trump's 2005 tax return. So not the best timing. Even I wasn't paying attention.
The piece is a reaction—as this post was—to David Ng's LA Times article on Hollywood conservatives in the Trump era, and how awful it is for them, and of course the spectre of McCarthyism is raised. I've done a little reading on the subject of the blacklist—not enough—but it's important to remember that during this period there was a collusion between various forces in American society:
- Hollywood: the right-wing org, The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, or MPA
- Government: the House Un-American Activities Committiee, or HUAC
- Law enforcement: the FBI
- Business and industry: Self-appointed aribiters like Red Channels
Back then, even if a studio head wanted a particular actor/writer/director with a suspect, vaguely leftish background, someone who hadn't been cleared by Red Channels or HUAC or MPA stalwarts like Ward Bond—and “clearing” always involved naming names—then they couldn't get them. None of this is close to happening in modern Hollywood. There is no corresponding Red Channels, there is no corresponding HUAC, there is no corresponding involvement from the FBI, and as far as I can tell there is no Hollywood left-wing org that corresponds to the MPA. There's just ... someone is “shunned” after a political argument. Well, welcome to America.
One of the less-commented-upon ironies of the blacklist is that even though it was put forth by right-wing business interests and anti-communists, it ran counter to the free market. If you wanted, say, Edward G. Robinson for a movie because you felt his presence, his marquee name, could help the movie make money, tough luck, you couldn't get him. Unless he named names. These right-wing forces helped besmirch a hugely successful American business, Hollywood, which, another irony, had spent decades presenting an ideal version of America and western values to an international audience.
Anyway, I hope journalists writing about this issue in the future keep some of this history in mind.
The Disappearing Art of the Steal
Luis Aparicio was the only player in the 1950s to have a 50+ stolen-base season.
Over the weekend I got lost in baseball stats, as I often do, and this time around it was single-season stolen base totals.
First, I noticed that we haven't had any blow-out years in a while (brilliant, Erik). Then, related, I noticed the number of 50+ SB seasons is way, way down. Then I noticed the 2000s have nothing on the '30s, '40s and '50s.
I'd always heard that once Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, he changed the staid way of baseball—going base to base, being risk averse—and made everything jazzier and thrilling. Apparently not. Or at least not in the numbers. The '50s were our most stolen-base-less decade.
Jackie led the league twice in stolen bases, in '47 and '49, but with 29 and 37 SBs respectively. Career, he had 197, good for a five-way tie for 356th all time. It really wasn't until Aparicio in '59, and Wills in '62, that things began to rev up and go-go.
Some good trivia questions come to mind from this mix.
- For every decade since 1900, which player had the highest single-season stolen base mark? (Answer: That entire third column; good luck on the '30s and '40s.)
- Who was the only player to have the single-season high two decades in a row? (Answer: You'd thinking Rickey or Lou but it's Ty Cobb, which also makes sense.)
- Since the Henderson/Raines/Coleman heyday of the 1980s, which two players have had the highest single-season stolen base total? (Answer: Marquis Grisson and Jose Reyes with 78 each.)
But the most startling bit of trivia for me is the stolen base champ of the 1930s: Ben Chapman. That's the guy in this clip. Not Jackie or Eddie Stanky. The other guy:
Believe it or not, he had more stolen bases in his career than Jackie, too: 287. Who knew?
Movie Review: Allied (2016)
The first thing I didn’t buy in “Allied” was Brad Pitt as a Canadian from Ottawa who parachutes into North Africa in 1942 and pretends to be the Parisian husband of Marion Cotillard in front of other French speakers and Parisians. The movie gets away with it by having Cotillard tease him about his Quebec accent, then tutor him to speak Parisian. Here’s the bigger problem: There aren’t many actors who seem more American, and less Canadian, than the Oklahoma-born-and-raised Pitt. Imagine Michael Fassbender in the part and things click.
The second thing I didn’t buy was that after their successful We’ll-always-have-Casablanca mission, Pitt and Cotillard (Max and Marianne) get married and move to pre-D-Day London, where he continues spy activities while she becomes a mom and housewife. Really? She ran the Casablanca operation. She kept schooling him. Suddenly she’s taking her piece off the table? With Paris still occupied? The movie gets away with it with this second-half reveal: She isn’t the real Marianne Beausejour. The real Marianne Beausejour was killed and she’s a German spy. But then we have to buy Marion Cotillard as German, not to mention a Nazi.
This movie, in other words, puts together the most American of actors and the most French of actresses and makes them Canadian and German, respectively.
But the main thing I didn’t buy was Max’s reaction to the reveal that his wife, and the mother of his child, is really a Nazi spy. Good god.
‘I need to protect my family’
He tries to flee with her and the baby to Canada. He’s ready to betray his country, western democracy and freedom for a pretty face.
OK, if any woman is worth it, it’s Cotillard. But, dramatically, how much can the hero put personal love above country and duty and not lose our sympathy? The movie wants to evoke the romanticism of “Casablanca” but it’s really the anti-“Casablanca.” It’s telling us that the problems in this crazy world don’t amount to a hill of beans next to three little people.
Pitt’s been here before, by the way, in a different world war: World War Z. Remember? The zombie virus strikes and Pitt’s character uses his wits and contacts to get aboard a virus-free aircraft carrier in the Atlantic, run by the U.S. government, which is searching for an antidote. They want Pitt involved. They want to send him to South Korea to help save the world. His reaction?
“I’m not your guy. I need to protect my family.”
Uhhh, dude? This is howyou protect your family. Really, this is the only way to protect your family. Added bonus: You help save the human race.
Here, Marianne reveals that, yes, she was a German spy but then she fell in love with him. Yes, she sent top-secret communiqués from London to Germany (Nazi, Germany), but only because the Germans found her, and threatened their daughter! What else could she do?
Somehow, he sees the logic in this. It could be bullshit for all he knows. She could be a full-throated, anti-Semitic, sieg-heiling, Leni Riefenstahl-watching Nazi, but he buys it, and tries to help her/them escape. When they’re caught, she has to kill herself to free him. So our heroine is a traitor who does a good deed in the end, while our hero is a man of inaction who doesn’t.
No wonder everyone was disappointed in this thing. What Rick said about himself with modesty is true of Pitt’s Max: He’s no good at being noble.
The movie starts well, despite the miscast Pitt. I particularly liked the rooftop scenes, where men go after making love to their wives, and how Max uses the excuse of the nosy neighbor to try to steal a kiss and how Marianne sees through the ruse. Check out Cotillard’s face during this scene, the myriad realizations/emotions crossing her face in seconds. Such a great actress.
The London scenes were OK. At least we had Jared Harris, always a pleasure, as Max’s commanding officer. He is good at being noble. At the airport, he tells MPs that Max shot and killed Marianne, that his friend did his duty, even as Max slumps there, an abject figure. It’s more echoes of “Casablanca,” a kind of “round up the usual suspects” on the airport tarmac. It should’ve been the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but it’s the end of a less-than-beautiful movie.
Quote of the Day
“The problem in Washington is not a Deep State; the problem is a shallow man—an untruthful, vain, vindictive, alarmingly erratic President. In order to pass fair and proper judgment, the public deserves a full airing of everything from Trump's tax returns and business entanglements to an accounting of whether he has been, in some way, compromised. Journalists can, and will, do a lot. But the courts, law enforcement, and Congress—without fear or favor—are responsible for such an investigation. Only if government officials take to heart their designation as ”public servants“ will justice prevail.”
-- David Remnick, “There Is No Deep State,” in The New Yorker
Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island (2017)
From the trailer, not to mention early reviews, it looked fast, furious and entertaining—and it was. It’s a roller-coaster movie and I wasn’t bored. That doesn’t happen often. I’d take this movie 100 times over any of the “Fast & Furious” or “Transformers” crapfests.
How did they make it work? First, they didn’t call it “King Kong.” That removes some of the weight of cinematic history. Allows you to be light and loose and less ponderous. Allows you to let John C. Reilly improvise.
More importantly, the filmmakers got rid of some of the baggage of the traditional King Kong narrative, which hasn’t aged well over the years, particularly:
- The capture of the white girl by the black natives, then offering her up to Kong as sacrifice.
- Kong’s sexual infatuation with the girl. No playing with boobies here.
- Bringing Kong back to NYC. Seriously, c’mon.
- “Twas beauty killed the beast.”
This beast lives. Sequels, yo. More than that. As Marvel has its Marvel-verse, so Warner Bros. will have its Monster-verse: Godzilla, Kong, et al. It’s leading up to the big 2020 confrontation “Godzilla vs. Kong.” Directed by Zack Snyder, since he did so well with “Batman v. Superman.”
Kidding. About Snyder. But the monster-verse, yes, that’s happening.
The Kongs of Summer
Are passports required when indie film people wind up in big-budget Hollywood tentpole films? If so, a lot of passports must have been issued for this one.
- Its director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who looks like reclusive Joaquin Phoenix, has only one feature film under his belt: the coming-of-age flick “The Kings of Summer,” which grossed a total of $1.3 million in the summer of 2013. Probably cost a fraction of that. This one was budgeted for $185 million. Talk about zero to 60.
- Remember Brie Larson, the troubled counselor in “Short Term 12”? Now she’s in Kong Kong’s palm. She’ll be Captain Marvel next year.
- The “me” in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015), Thomas Mann, is one of Sam Jackson’s soldiers. He gets off some good lines. He’s the one who keeps reminding everyone that what’s happening is crazy.
- Easy E and Dr. Dre from “Straight Outta Compton” have strong supporting roles.
The mistake of the recent “Godzilla” was to hide Godzilla for most of the movie, as if it were the thing we feared, like the shark in “Jaws,” rather than the hero. “Kong” doesn’t make that mistake. “Kong” knows we want immensity and gives it to us right away.
We start in 1944. Two planes are shot down, one American and one Japanese, and the soldiers square off, ineptly; then the Japanese guy chases the American guy with a hari-kari sword through the jungle. They’re wrestling near a cliff when Kong emerges and stuns our soldiers—as well as us. He’s about four times the size we’re used to. 100 feet tall? More? Oddly, I flashed onto “Lord of the Flies” during this scene. Just as the battle of the kids on the island isn’t the real battle (they’re eventually picked up by soldiers), so our soldiers think they’re enemies but Skull Island swiftly disabuses them of the notion.
During the opening credits we get years of news reports until we land, surprisingly, in 1973. It’s surprising because nobody looks like they live in 1973: hair, fashions, all wrong, at least for the non-military personnel. As for the military, well, they’re kind of listening to “Vietnam war movie” songs: “Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers and “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. Both are from 1967. That’s old shit by ’73. Why not “Brand New Key” by Melanie or “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” by Wayne Newton? It was a relief when “Ziggy Stardust” made an appearance.
John Goodman plays Bill Randa, who works for an organization called Monarch that’s trying to prove monsters exists. But it’s only when Randa’s assistant (Corey Hawkins), argues that this shrouded island in the South Pacific may be scientifically useful during the Cold War that the mission is funded.
Others have other motivations for the journey. The tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), former MIG, is paid well. The photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), senses a story. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is adrift with the Vietnam war ending. He wants another war, and he gets one, becoming Ahab to Kong’s white whale.
John C. Reilly steals all of his scenes as Hank Marlow, that American pilot still living/surviving on the island 28 years later, but some of the small roles stand out, too. Chopper pilot Toby Kebbell has a good line reading when they first spot Kong (“Is that a monkey?”) and I like the calm in his voice after he’s swatted from the sky and he’s radioing his position. Shea Whigham, Nucky’s screw-up brother in “Boardwalk Empire,” has a great misreading of the Androcles myth (he thinks Androcles killed the lion with the thorn), and the actor still has that great defeatist heaviness about him. He knows shit is fucked. Even his great sacrifice goes for naught.
And the Oscar goes to...
But the best actor in the movie is probably Kong. The computer graphics are amazing, and the movie never lets us forget his immensity. He also makes the most of his close-up. When Brie Larson strokes his face, you see, in his eyes, how lonely he is. He’s king, but the last of his kind. He rules, but he has no one. It’s a touching scene. I don’t know how they did the eyes so well.
Kong is also our hero, forever acting as Kong ex machina to save the puny humans from “Skull crawlers,” which live beneath ground, and which are huge lizardy things with bare heads. They’re the least interesting part of the movie. If the filmmakers really wanted to freak us out, a nest of giant ants would’ve sufficed.
We get echoes of/homages to “Apocalypse Now” (in the poster no less) but mostly “Kong” is just a ride. I don’t know if it’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys, but it has it all over giant fucking robots.
What Liberal Hollywood? Part 95
“Where is this liberal Hollywood agenda? The agenda seems to be whatever will entertain mass audiences. ... How could an industry have been successful this long if it was alienating half the country?” -- screenwriter Craig Mazin (“The Specials,” “Supehero Movie,” various “Scary Movie” and “Hangover” sequels).
“Film buyers are greedy. They want a good performing film. ... They will change religions for it.” — Ron Rodgers, the retired co-founder of Rocky Mountain Pictures, an independent distributor of conservative and Christian-themed movies.
Both quotes come from the L.A. Times article with the misleading headline, “In liberal Hollywood, a conservative minority faces backlash in the age of Trump.” It's misleading because it also owns up to the rightward leanings of corporate Hollywood—the people who actually make the decisions. And the one concrete example of “backlash”? There was an argument on a TV set, and afterwards the Trump-supporting producer was “shunned.” That's it. That's what's being compared to McCarthyism. My god. Those who don't know history are doomed to be assholes.
Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
It’s Mel Gibson, so it’s God and gore again. Question: Is it God because of the gore? In Mel’s worldview, does the gore—the suffering, the awareness that we are meat and food for rats —lead us to God? Make us search beyond ourselves? Lift us up?
I liked “Hacksaw Ridge,” by the way. The first half is sweet, the second half harrowing and bloody. It’s mildly, unapologetically corny and not overlong.
But it begins by stealing from one of the greatest movies ever made.
The Thin Red Likeness
This is the open. We get slow-motion shots of war in the Pacific: men charging and yelling and screaming in pain and dying; and all the while a voiceover with a thick Southern accent talks about God:
Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend. Darkness and light, strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?
Sorry, that’s Pvt. Train from Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” one of the greatest movies ever made. This is what we hear in “Hacksaw Ridge.” It’s the voice of our main character, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the second conscientious objector, after Sgt. York, to win the Medal of Honor, and the first to do so without carrying a weapon:
Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the Earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall. But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar like wings on eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not grow faint.
It’s interesting comparing the two voiceovers. Malick’s is all question marks. It’s uncertain, questioning, probing. It’s trying to translate the awful dichotomy of the world into the oneness we long for.
Doss’ voiceover begins with a question, too, but it already has the answer (God), which it then tells us. It’s not even Doss telling us; it’s Isaiah 40, 28-31. What it says prefigures the movie’s big moment—Doss, all alone at night, rescuing 75 wounded men, one by one, who were left behind on Hacksaw Ridge—but the promise within the verse sounds odd to my secular ears. It’s a little too quid pro quo: You give God belief, He gives you energy. It’s full of the suspect promises of a late-night infomercial. Apparently God is to us as spinach is to Popeye.
From that Malick-esque open, we cut to 16 years earlier and two brothers hiking and playing and fighting in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In the midst of a wrestling match on the lawn, young Desmond picks up a rock and clocks his brother, nearly killing him. In the horrified aftermath, he stands before a religious painting and its depiction of Cain and Abel, so near to what he himself did, and finds God.
Now a leap forward. Desmond is in his early 20s helping out at church when there’s a car accident out front. (The streets of rural Virginia, 1941, prove suprisingly dangerous in this film.) His makeshift tourniquet saves a leg, and at the hospital he comes across a beautiful nurse, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), whom he stares at starry-eyed. Their courtship is sweet. Then war calls. Despite being a Seventh-day Adventist who won’t touch a gun, Desmond signs up. He needs to do his duty.
A few thoughts on his platoon:
- I never bought Vince Vaughn as the tough-talking drill sergeant. He’s not actor enough. Also not in shape enough. At one point, he threatens his men during a march by saying they’ll have to keep going until he drops. Me: “I’ll take those odds.”
- At least, in this quintessential story, Vaughn is American. Everyone else, and I mean everyone else, is Aussie: mom (Rachel Griffiths), pop (Hugo Weaving), girl (Palmer); Smitty, Teach, Grease, Vito; Capt., Lt. Col., Col. Was it cheaper this way? Is Mel just prejudiced against Americans?
- The platoon itself is all walks of life: the tough Brooklynite, the cowboy, the Jew, the hillbilly, the card shark. Was it really like this back then? Or was it only like this in the movies back then?
- Speaking of: There’s an odd character, Zane (Luke Pegler, Aussie), who is nicknamed “Hollywood” because he loves his own looks so much. He’s got a cheesy Clark Gable moustache and a body that’s way too buff for the times. We first meet him naked, doing chinups. Once at Okinawa he's a bit cowardly. Is this Mel’s attack on Tinsel Town? Full of preeners whose muscle doesn’t match their spirit or soul?
I was a bit confused by the date they landed on Okinawa. You get the sense Doss signed up shortly after Pearl Harbor (he did: April 1, 1942), yet after basic training it’s suddenly May 1945. Where have they been for three years? Turns out Leyte and Guam, where Doss won the Bronze Star, but, for dramatic effect, Mel skips this and pretends the platoon is green.
That said, he handles the main set piece—Hacksaw Ridge, a.ka. the Maeda Escarpment—well. Does he go over-the-top with his battle scenes? Probably. It’s Mel. But we get a real feel for what it’s like to face a group of men trying to kill you. Also for how quickly our bodies become hamburger.
Aussie cast, Chinese aud
You know what’s shocking about “Hacksaw Ridge” besides the carnage? The fact that it took so long for Hollywood to tell the story. But apparently Doss didn’t want his story told. In the 1950s, producer Hal B. Wallis gave it a shot, with WWII hero Audie Murphy in the lead, but Doss wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t until 2001, two years before his death, that he was finally convinced that his story should be seen on the silver screen.
Another shocker: Where was the audience? The people who say Hollywood is ignoring them and their values? This thing has God, country, good reviews, Academy Award nominations, and it was helmed by their man, crazy Mel, whose “Passion of the Christ” grossed $370 million in 2004. Yet “Hacksaw” grossed almost as much in China ($62 million) as it did here ($66). USA? USA? USA?
Quote of the Day
“It has become a cliché of each February to present the argument that 'black history is American history,' yet that shopworn ideal has new relevance. A society with a fuller sense of history and its own capacity for tragedy would have spotted Trump's zero-sum hustle from many miles in the distance. Without it, though, it's easy to mistake the overblown tribulations he sold his followers for candor, not a con.”
-- Jelani Cobb, “Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and the Misuse of American History,” on The New Yorker site.
Is the fact that I studied history, and civil rights history in particular, the reason I saw through Donald Trump's bullshit? I doubt it. I saw it many miles off, and never understood why so many others didn't; why they bought into the con; why they let themselves get played, took and bamboozled.
A Few Quotes on the GOP Health Care Plan
This is what Rep.Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-MA, as if there were any doubt), the grandson of Bobby, and the grand nephew of John and Ted, had to say:
“I was struck last night by a comment that I heard made by Speaker Ryan, where he called this repeal bill 'an act of mercy.' With all due respect to our speaker, he and I must have read different Scripture...The one I read calls on us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, and to comfort the sick. It reminds us that we are judged not by how we treat the powerful, but by how we care for the least among us. There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill. This is not an act of mercy. It is an act of malice.”
The editorial cartoonists haven't been kinder:
My favorite comment so far came yesterday via Twitter in the following exchange:
Person A: I've yet to read a single positive analysis of the House's Obamacare bill.
Person B: Try going 2 a conservative source? Open up your reading habits 2 include those with whom u would naturally dismiss.
Person A: I'm the editor of National Review online.
As Casey Stengel said, “And you can look it up!”
From John Cassidy's piece, “The House GOP Health-Care Plan is Harmful, Regressive and Wrong,” in The New Yorker:
The [GOP health-care] bill aims to take a wrecking ball to the principle of universal coverage. If enacted, millions more Americans would end up without any health care. For many people who purchase individual policies, especially older people, it promises fewer services for more money. And it also proposes a big tax cut for the rich, which would be financed by slashing Medicaid, the federal program that provides health care to low-income people.
- Millions lose coverage
- Medicaid slashed
- Older people get less for more
- Tax cuts for the rich
Evil. Remember in 2018.
Movie Review: Logan (2017)
“Logan” is the best there is at what it does. But what it does isn’t very nice.
It gives us the superhero movie as grim, dystopian fable. Our hero is bruised, dissipated, scarred, drinking heavily. He’s a dying Johnny Cash song—as in the trailer—and doesn’t save people so much as get them killed. It’s an “end of the superhero” superhero film, as the western had its “end of the west” western, and it’s certainly the end of the Wolverine character. Well, in this timeline/incarnation anyway. Reboots sold separately.
This isn’t my kind of thing, by the way—the sad, gritty romance of all of the above—but writer-director James Mangold, and screenwriters Scott Frank and Michael Green, handle it well. Mostly. “Logan” is what “The Dark Knight Returns” wanted to be but wasn’t. It also ends with a grace note that’s really quite lovely.
Watching the end of things, I couldn’t help but flash to the beginning of them, Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” from 2000, which jumpstarted not only this series (nine “X-Men” movies and counting), but the modern superhero genre.
Before “X-Men,” meaningful superhero movies had been the province of “Superman” (1978) and its diminishing-returns sequels, “Batman” (1990) and its diminishing-returns sequels, and that was it. “X-Men” introduced us to the Marvel universe, computer graphics, Hugh Jackman. Back then, in both voiceover prelude and Jean Grey’s speech before Congress, mutants were seen as “the beginning of another stage of human evolution.” Great concept, but the series spent years squashing it. In last year’s “X-Men: Apocalypse,” we find out that the most powerful mutant of all was actually born millennia ago in ancient Egypt, so our X-Men were hardly “the beginning.” They were hardly a “next stage,” either, since here we discover that, a la “Children of Men,” no new mutants have been born for nearly 20 years, and the rest have been wiped out. It’s the year 2029 and we’re down to three: Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who is slowly being poisoned from within by his adamantine skeleton; Professor X (Patrick Stewart), who is suffering various stages of dementia, and who has killed off most of his students with a mental attack/seizure a year earlier; and Caliban (Stephen Merchant), whose mutant power is to sense other mutants—a useless power in this now mutant-less world.
Logan spends most of the movie fighting its plot. His initial plan is to make enough money as a limo driver in Texas to buy a boat, “the Sunseeker,” and sail away with Prof. X forever. We’re never sure why this is the plan. So he can leave the dust of Tex/Mex? So he can get the addled, dangerous Xavier away from as many people as possible? Because it sounds cool?
Either way, when the linchpin to the story, Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), approaches him at a funeral (he’s under a tree, drinking, in the rain), he angrily dismisses her, and only agrees to drive her and her 11-year-old daughter to “Eden,” North Dakota when he’s offered $50k. Then she shows up dead in her motel room and the daughter can’t be found; but even then Logan doesn’t get involved. He’s only pulled into the plot because the daughter stows away in his limo, and a corporate, proto-military security force, led by Pierce (Boyd Holbrook of “Narcos”), follows him back to Mexico.
I’ll cut to the chase: The girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), isn’t Gabriela’s daughter but Logan’s. She was bred in a lab with his DNA, as others were with other mutant DNA. She’s angry, fierce, deadly, snkt. You’d think it would be love at first sight, but Logan spends most of the movie complaining. He’s always been a reluctant hero but his obstinance here is annoying. He resists when he shouldn’t (going to “Eden,” when there’s no good alternative), and acquiesces when he shouldn’t. On a freeway in Oklahoma, for example, a family’s horses get loose, and Prof. X convinces Logan to help out. Sure, why not? Then he convinces Logan to accept dinner and lodging with the family. Um, you do realize people want to kill us? These people could get hurt. Guess what? They do. Father, mother and son are all killed—because of our heroes. Prof. X also buys it (his last lines are about the “Sunseeker”), while Caliban, tortured into tracking Logan/Laura, blows himself up. Then it’s off to Eden.
Should I bring up “Shane” here? The 1953 western makes several appearances in the film: Prof. X and Laura watch the movie in an Oklahoma City hotel room, and Laura recites its dialogue over Logan’s grave at the end. We get it. It’s Logan as modern (or futuristic) western hero. But here’s the contrast: Shane actually saved the Starrett family; he wasn't the instrument for their deaths. Worse, no one comments upon their deaths; there's no mea culpa. Once they're out of the picture, well, they're out of the picture.
Logan, come back
“Logan” has other problems, too. For one, the whole “recreating/controlling mutants in a lab” thing. Here's a list of ways humans have dealt with “the mutant problem” over the years:
- Sen. Kelly: “Mutant Registration Act” in “X-Men.” (We were so innocent then.)
- Col. Stryker: “Kill them all” in “X2.”
- Worthington Labs: Suppress the mutant gene in “X-Men: The Last Stand.”
- Col. Stryker (younger): Use them as a fighting force and experiment on them in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”
- Bolivar Trask: “Kill them all” in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”)
The scheme of Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant) in “Logan” is most like Stryker the Younger, but more idiotic. Apparently Rice thinks that by using dictatorial powers and corporal punishment, he can raise super-powered children in small, fluorescent-lit rooms and they’ll do whatever he says. Maybe he should’ve checked first with, I don’t know, every parent who’s ever existed.
As for the final battle along the Canadian border: Pierce’s paramilitary force, known as “The Reavers,” is pursuing the mutant kids, little versions of Ice Man and Storm and Magneto, through the forest. But aren’t these kids like 100 times more powerful than their pursuers? So why don’t they just turn around and fight? Which they do, eventually. It just takes time. Meanwhile, everyone in the audience is thinking what I thought.
What works? The acting is top-notch, particularly Stewart. Merchant makes a sympathetic Caliban, Holbrook a good nasty-piece-of-work, and newcomer Keen is a startling good 11-year-old Wolverine. Not a fan of Logan’s full beard (too latter-day Mel Gibson), but the dialogue is sharp throughout. It's got a soul amid all the skewerings. I also like the use of the “X-Men” comic books as 21st-century versions of the pulp novels of 19th-century western heroes: real people, exaggerated exploits. You could say that when legend becomes fact, Marvel printed the legend and Mangold filmed the fact.
Most dystopian stories, too, rely on a central government that’s either omnipresent (the totalitarianism of “1984”), or non-existent (the anarchy of the “Mad Max” movies), while this one seems based on economic inequality. Poverty is everywhere but fratboys and bachelorettes can still hire limos to whoop it. The police don’t seem to be around but corporations can hire well-armed, cybernetically enhanced security forces. The center hasn’t held.
Wolverine, of course, eventually comes around and goes out in a blaze of glory. The grace note for me is at his gravesite, where, with the other mutant kids heading north to Canada (and future movies?), Laura remains momentarily behind; then she lifts out their handmade cross, two thick twigs tied together, and places it back at an angle: less cross now than “X.” A fitting end for a beloved character.
From Paul Krugman's column today, “A Party Not Ready to Govern”:
It goes without saying that Donald Trump is the least qualified individual, temperamentally or intellectually, ever installed in the White House. As he veers from wild accusations against President Obama to snide remarks about Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s doing a very good imitation of someone experiencing a personal breakdown — even though he has yet to confront a crisis not of his own making. Thanks, Comey.
All of that. Particularly the last. Apparently Comey spent the weekend trying to fix Trump's fuck-ups—Trump's irresponsible, evidence-less charges against our most recent president—but Comey only has himself to blame. He made this happen. It's on his head. Now and forever.
Movie Review: Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)
Roger Corman was responsible for helping launch the careers of some of the best and most beloved actors and directors of the last 50 years: Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and James Cameron.
He also made hundreds of shitty exploitation movies.
“Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood rebel,” directed by Alex Stapleton, honors both of these achievements but there’s something disingenuous about it. It focuses on the “rebel” rather than the “exploits.” It continually pits Corman against the Hollywood studios (where he’s an underdog) rather than other exploitation filmmakers (where he’s just trying to make a buck in a crowded field).
Corman got into the biz in the early ‘50s going through the script slush pile at 20th Century Fox. Ironically, the man with no taste rejected most scripts as not being good enough. One he liked, and gave notes on, became “The Gunfighter” starring Gregory Peck, and his notes were used, but he received no on-screen credit. So he said “Screw that” and struck out on his own. He made low-budget, guerilla flicks that fit the times: teen rebel and dorky monster movies in the ’50s; Hammerish horror films with Vincent Price in the ’60s, followed by the biker flicks with Peter Fonda that prefigured “Easy Rider.” In the ’70s, it was dusty “Bonnie and Clyde” wannabes (“Big Bad Mama”), along with women-in-prison films.
His one stab at legitimacy, according to the doc, was the 1962 film, “The Intruder,” starring William Shatner as a northerner who goes South to stir up trouble against integration. When it died at the box office, that was that. Corman never tried to be hifalutin again.
I think that’s what he’s trying to get at with the “Star Wars” analogy. Here’s the quote:
When I saw “Star Wars,” I said, “This is a threat to me.” Because it means the major studios are beginning to understand what we’ve been doing for $100,000 or so, and they’re now doing it for multi-millions of dollars. And it’s going to be very difficult for us to compete.
Bigwigs like Peter Bogdanovich back him up:
He did it first with horror pictures and science fiction pictures, which he did for no money, and, you know, quickly and unpretentiously. ... I miss the Roger Corman versions.
Corman’s low-budget genre flicks, in other words, became the studios high-budget genre flicks. He had his niche and they took it away from him.
Except ... Bogdanovich’s comment about “He did it first with horror pictures and science fiction pictures”? What science fiction? In the ’50s, Corman directed rubber-monster movies, like everybody, and in 1968 Bogdanovich directed the Corman-produced “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women,” in which astronauts land on a planet of dinosaurs and Swedish girls, and in ’75 Corman directed “Death Race 2000” with David Carradine and an unknown Sylvester Stallone. That’s it. He really didn’t do much with the genre. While George Lucas was innovating in the science fiction realm, Corman was hip deep in things like “Candy Stripe Nurses,” “Caged Heat,” “Jackson County Jail” and “Eat My Dust.”
Yet the talking heads, and the doc itself, seem to give Corman credit for doing low-budget “Star Wars” even as they dismiss “Star Wars” as The Thing That Ruined Hollywood.
It certainly ruined it for Corman. Scorsese mentions meeting Corman in the early 1980s and having the following conversation: “I said, ‘Aren’t you going to do any more? Aren’t you going to direct a few more?’ and he said, ‘I don’t think so. The whole scene is changing ... I don’t belong there.’” Indeed, Corman directed only one movie after that conversation: “Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound” with John Hurt and Raul Julia in 1990.
Except ... he kept producing. How many movies? After 1980, a mere two hundred and eighty nine. But the doc glosses over this period. Why? I suppose because none of it matters. Corman didn’t give any new Nicholsons or Scorseses a leg up in the business, while most of his movies went straight to video or straight overseas. That might’ve been an interesting angle for Stapleton to pursue, actually. With drive-ins dying, where did Corman’s post-1980 movies show? In theaters? If no, was it really “Star Wars” that got to Corman or was it competition from fellow schlockmeisters Golan and Globus, whose company, Canon Entertainment, ruled the schlock-film realm during the 1980s?
The B movie of it
This might’ve been a good question to ask, too: What’s the difference between Corman’s grindhouse flicks of the early 1970s, which are celebrated, and the post-1980 straight-to-video flicks, which don’t rate a mention? What did Corman think of Golan and Globus? Russ Meyer? Was there a time when he got disgusted with humanity and its low desires? With himself and his low desires? When he thought “Enough already”?
Are any of these films worth making?
None of it is asked. Instead, we see Corman receiving an honorary Oscar in 2009. All of the talking heads say he deserved it, and Jack Nicholson, on his comfortable couch in his comfortable mansion, cries at the end, thinking how much he owes Corman. That scene almost makes the doc worth watching, but it never lays to rest my thought that Corman spent a lifetime titilating us to no good end.
“Oh, how we longed for the B movie of it,” wrote George W.S. Trow in “My Pilgrim's Progress.” That's where you begin.
Quote of the Day
Via Jeff Wells, here's a quote from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”) to the Miami-Herald about his new film, “Kong: Skull Island,” which will be released in a week, and which is coming in with a shorter runtime than expected: 115 minutes:
“I wanted to keep it short. I'm fascinated by how bloated movies have gotten these days. Fargo was 95 minutes. I miss the days of brevity in films. You've got Transformers movies that are three hours. I wanted this movie to be fun.”
I love the implication that the Transformers movies aren't fun. Which they so aren't.
Movie Review: The Great Wall (2017)
Damon, Jing. Whither Asbaek?
OK, if you're going to try to correct historic wrongs, such as white actors playing Asian parts in Hollywood films, which now goes by the hashtag-ready term #whitewashing, you need to pick your battles. I suppose that’s true of anything—picking your battles—but I think it’s particularly true if you’re relying on other people’s good will and sense of right to win the day. In those types of cases, you can’t afford a misstep. Humanity's good will isn't exactly inexhaustible.
Accusing Matt Damon in “The Great Wall” of white-washing is a misstep. He’s not white-washing anything. He’s green-washing. He’s money laundering.
“The Great Wall” is a joint American-Chinese production, filmed in China, and directed by legendary director Zhang Yimou (“Ju Dou,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” “To Live,” “Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”—need I go on?). Apparently that’s partly why Damon wanted to do the movie—to work with Zhang. It also allowed him and his family the opportunity to live in China for six months. I’m sure he also got paid a buttload.
As for why China wanted him? Money. Prestige. He’s a big international star. He’s Jason Bourne. International box office is currently owned by Hollywood and no one else is even close. There are 134 Hollywood films on the worldwide box office list before the top Chinese film, “Mei ren yu (The Mermaid),” makes an appearance. And most of its money was made in China. It didn’t travel. China wants its movies to travel; they figure having Jason Bourne on board could help.
Indeed, watching the film, I flashed back on all the hack Caucasian actors that used to appear in ’80s Hong Kong flicks and marveled at how far China had come. This far: Americans, such as Constance Wu, now get to call them “anti-Chinese.”
Beijing Olympics all over again
Damon plays William, an—I’m guessing—11th-century mercenary (“I fought for Harald against the Danes,” he says at one point), who travels to China with other mercenaries, including Tovar (“Game of Thrones”’ Pedro Pascal), to bring gunpowder back to Europe. Pursued by Chinese bandits, they come upon the Great Wall of China and surrender to the forces there. It’s better than the bandits.
Good thing. The Great Wall was built in the first place, it’s implied, to keep out the Tao Tie, a species of super-fierce, super-smart, dragon-y lizard-y things, who want to wreak havoc and eat people. They last attacked 65 years ago, and ever since the Chinese, led by Gen. Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and Commander Lin (Jing Tian), have been preparing for their return. Now they’re here. This allows Damon and Pascal to be goggle-eyed witnesses to insane, drumbeat, synchronized archers and spear throwers. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” William asks Tovar. I have. We all have. At the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Which, by the way, was also directed by Zhang.
There are red soldiers (archers, male) and blue soldiers (spear-throwers and bungee-jumpers, female), and, with the help of William and Tovar, the Chinese beat back the Tao Tie once, then twice. All the while, subplots: Damon and Commander Lin make eyes at each other; Tovar wants to get out as soon as possible, and does so with the help of Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another westerner who’s been trapped there for 25 years; and William bucks up a young Chinese recruit, played by Chinese pop star Lu Han.
- Pascal is the best thing in the movie. The only time I laughed out loud were because of his line readings.
- William and Tovar are supposed to have a kind of Butch and Sundance vibe, and they almost manage to pull it off. Pascal works but Damon isn’t quite lighthearted enough.
- I’ve never seen Damon act this badly in a movie.
In a way, and not the Constance Wu way, Damon is all wrong for the role. In most of his movies, Damon exudes working-class America—blunt-faced and two-fisted and ham-handed; generally good-hearted but with a bit of a smirk—yet “The Great Wall” takes place before any of that existed. So where is William from? Britain, I guess. From time to time, Damon adopts a slight accent: now vaguely Irish, now vaguely ... Spanish? He has trouble getting his mouth around some of the pompous, classical lines he’s supposed to say. In quiet moments, inside the fortress, he’s not bad; Matt Damon again.
We get an international All-Star cast: Damon and Dafoe (U.S.), Pascal (Spain), and, briefly, Pilou Asbaek (Denmark) and Numan Acar (Turkey). Plus all of the Chinese stars. Really, if anyone should protest, it’s Denmark. Their biggest star this side of Mads Mikkelsen and he gets a walk-on. Tak.
But China ain’t fooling around. They want this. That was Zhang’s point when he defended the movie against the Constance Wus of the world:
In many ways “The Great Wall” is the opposite of what is being suggested. For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tentpole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry.
But it wasn’t, and, for whatever reason, the movie is dying in the U.S. It did better in China, but only about half of what “Mei ren yu” pulled in. It’s not a great film so it’s not a great loss. But I admire the attempt of it.
Movie Review: The Towering Inferno (1974)
People often talk about the worst best picture Oscar winners of all time—I’m often one of them—but rarely do we get a discussion of the worst No. 1 box office movies of the year. The former indicts the Academy, the latter all of us. It’s so much more fun pointing fingers.
But if we were going to have such a discussion, the list would surely include the following:
- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
- Spider-Man 3 (2007)
- The Grinch (2000)
- Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
And this one.
On some level, this one feels more unforgiveable, since the No. 1 movies surrounding it chronologically are still regarded as, you know, pretty fucking good: “The Godfather” in 1972, “Exorcist” in ’73, “Jaws” in ’75. We still watch those, own those, discuss those. “The Towering Inferno”? Part of that Irwin-Allen-produced, All-Star Cast, disaster flick era, with “Airport” (No. 2 in 1970) “The Poseidon Adventure” (No. 2 in 1972), “Earthquake” (No. 4 in 1974), and “The Swarm” (died at the box office). And you say it was No. 1 in 1974?* Whaddaya know.
(* Box Office Mojo now lists “Blazing Saddles” as the No. 1 movie of 1974, but that’s only because the money it earned during a 2013 re-release. For decades, “Inferno” was No. 1.)
As a teenager in the 1970s, I didn’t see any of these disaster flicks. Maybe I caught bits when they showed up on “edited-for-television” TV, but I don’t think I sat through any of them. Particularly “Towering Inferno.” Planes and upside-down boats were one thing, but fire? The Fire Safety Program in 5th grade made me terrified enough. “Inferno” was the last thing I wanted to see.
Forty years later, though, I was curious. Just how bad was it?
When an “All-Star Cast” meant something
Pretty bad. It’s a soap opera. It’s like what “Love Boat” would become: different people come on board with their own little micro-dramas, then disaster strikes. Here it’s fire, there Gavin MacLeod.
As All-Star casts go, this one is pretty tight. The key is to mix old-timers and up-and-comers with current stars. Every decade after the silents is represented:
- 1930s: Fred Astaire, loose and athletic at 75.
- 1940s: Jennifer Jones, looking shellacked by plastic surgery; it’s her last film.
- 1950s: William Holden as the movie’s developer-villain, but apparently the nicest guy on the set.
- 1960s: Our headliners: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway.
- 1970s: dishy newbie Susan Blakely and everyone’s favorite football player O.J. Simpson.
We also get TV stars of the ’60s (Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner and Richard Chamberlain), along with one from the ’70s: Bobby Brady himself, Mike Lookinland, acting in scenes with Newman and Dunaway. OK, “acting.”
The micro-dramas: Newman is the architect of “the world’s tallest building” in L.A., but he’s ready to go off in the desert, or some such, disappointing the developer, Holden, as well as his paramour, Dunaway, who’s just been offered a managing editor gig that she can’t turn down. Except almost immediately after some afternoon delight with Faye, Newman has to track down wires in the building that are short-circuiting because his specs weren’t followed. The culprits? Holden, cutting corners, and Holden’s ne’er-do-well son-in-law, Richard Chamberlain, who’s married to Susan Blakely.
Meanwhile, Astaire plays a con artist with a heart of gold who is trying to bilk Jennifer Jones out of her money; Robert Wagner is some exec who’s sleeping with his secretary, Susan Flanner. A deaf woman with two kids and a cat also live in the building.
The kids are saved by Newman, the woman and the cat by O.J., our football hero. Wagner and Flannery are the first to die, post-coital. There’s almost a sadism to these scenes, a lingering over their pain and deaths. The lesson is clear: Don’t sleep with your secretary, kids, even in the ’70s when that shit was totally cool.
The one who doesn’t have a micro-drama attached to him? Who isn’t part of the soap? Steve McQueen, playing the fire chief. He’s also the best thing in the movie. By far. He’s the man doing his job and looking after his men. He’s no-nonsense. It’s shocking how good he is. Even Newman comes off as a cardboard figure in comparison.
Who lives who dies who tells your story
The story goes like you expect it to. There’s a party on the top floor, the developer ignores the warnings until it’s too late. Eventually a breeches buoy is strung between buildings to rescue the women. A scenic elevator gets caught in the flames and dangles by a cable. Plenty of flaming people fall from the building.
Mostly you wonder who will live and who will die. Chamberlain will buy it, of course, as well as the other villains: the developer, the politician (Vaughn), and Jennifer Jones (too old?). The only death that made me upset was when Gregory Sierra, playing Carlos the bartender, is killed off it at the 11th hour. I actually screamed “Noooooo!” out loud. Chano, we hardly knew ye.
The dialogue is awful, the romantic dialogue worse (Newman: “I'm not a cheeseburger”/ Dunaway: “No, you're way better: all protein, no bread.”). The day is saved when the water tanks on top are blown and smother the fire for 50 floors. It works so well, it makes you wonder why they didn’t do it before everyone started dying.
Throughout, the lesson is a ’70s one: Watch out for greedy bastards. But at the very end, back on the ground, McQueen the fireman blames Newman the architect, who seems to accept responsibility:
McQueen: One of these days, you’re gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps, and I’m gonna keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies until somebody asks us how to build them.
Newman: [pause] Okay, I’m asking.
Wait, so Newman designed the building poorly? Then why did we all cheer when Richard Chamberlain bought it? The further in we get, the less he sounds like an architect. Back on the ground, he dismisses the record-breaking monument he designed like a typical '70s cynic:
I don't know. Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.
He thought that was bullshit? He had no idea what was in store.
Tweet of the Day
If all it takes for a terrible person to make you praise him is for him to speak calmly, you're not merely a fool, you're an accomplice.— maura quint (@behindyourback) March 1, 2017