erik lundegaard

Friday July 21, 2017

Sean Spicer Resigns

It's tough to keep up with the news about the Trump administration. Every day a new disaster. Is anyone double-checking productivity in the U.S.? Is it going down because it's so difficult to keep up with this soap opera? John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight” calls the Trump/Russia scandal “stupid Watergate” because it's like Watergate if everyone associated with that scandal was stupid. Similarly, you could call Trump “Stupid J.R.,” since he shares the unethical qualities of Larry Hagman's infamous nighttime soap opera character but without the smarts.

Anyway, the news this morning: Sean Spicer has resigned as White House press secretary. On principle

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, resigned on Friday morning, after denouncing chaos in the West Wing and telling President Trump he vehemently disagreed with the appointment of the New York financier Anthony Scaramucci as communications director. ...

Mr. Scaramucci, who founded the global investment firm SkyBridge Capital and is a Fox News Channel contributor, is known for his spirited on-air defense of Mr. Trump, but he also enjoys good relationships with journalists from an array of outlets, including those the president has labeled “fake news.”

In a way this isn't really news, since Spicer will be replaced by someone just as awful or worse. Think of it as a “Meet the new WH press secretary, same as the old WH press secretary” kind of thing.

And while everyone is jokily sending their condolences to Melissa McCarthy, who killed with her Spicer imitation on SNL over the last six months, the New York Times offers a jokes-aside look at the ways in which Spicer, and the Trump admin., has effed up the White House press conference: Not only with its lack of civility but with rewarding and calling on right-wing propaganda outlets over legitimate, mainstream news sources. 

Mr. Spicer has also awarded first questions to reporters in the new “Skype seats” that appear on two large flat-screens on either side of the lectern, including one to the CBS affiliate in his native Rhode Island. In addition to local TV networks, Skype seats have gone to conservative radio hosts and a Kentucky newspaper publisher.

All of that, I'm sure, will continue. 

Hope Spicer took notes for his book. Hope he puts country above party. Not holding my breath on that last one. 

UPDATE: The new White House press secretary, hardly a surprise, is Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She'll be just as awful. Maybe worse. 

UPDATE: The bigger story could be the resignation of two of his attorneys, including Marc Kasowitz, although maybe the shift is simply from the NY-based Kasowitz to the DC-based Ty Cobb and John Dowd. (There's also Jay Sekulow but the less said of him the better.) Cobb and Dowd could play good cop/bad cop for Trump's legal strategy, since Cobb's rep is easy-going while Dowd is known for combativeness. Then there's the baseball theme. Cobb is a distant relative of his more famous baseball namesake, while Dowd helped investigate Pete Rose in the 1980s and repped Ted Williams in a civil lawsuit. 

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Posted at 10:28 AM on Jul 21, 2017 in category Politics
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Dirty, Russian Money

“Over the past three decades, at least 13 people with known or alleged links to Russian mobsters or oligarchs have owned, lived in, and even run criminal activities out of Trump Tower and other Trump properties. Many used his apartments and casinos to launder untold millions in dirty money. Some ran a worldwide high-stakes gambling ring out of Trump Tower—in a unit directly below one owned by Trump. Others provided Trump with lucrative branding deals that required no investment on his part. Taken together, the flow of money from Russia provided Trump with a crucial infusion of financing that helped rescue his empire from ruin, burnish his image, and launch his career in television and politics. 'They saved his bacon,' says Kenneth McCallion, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Reagan administration who investigated ties between organized crime and Trump's developments in the 1980s...

”.. whatever his knowledge about the source of his wealth, the public record makes clear that Trump built his business empire in no small part with a lot of dirty money from a lot of dirty Russians...“

-- Craig Unger, ”Trump's Russian Laundromat," The New Republic, July 13, 2017

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Posted at 07:37 AM on Jul 21, 2017 in category Politics
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Thursday July 20, 2017

The Mess of Texas

Why did Trump happen? Why is there such political gridlock? Why aren't things getting done? Why is one political party insistent on taking away insurance from tens of millions of Americans for a tax break for the wealthy? 

You might want to look not only to the post-Reagan obstinance of the GOP, (first exemplified, stridently, by Newt Gringrich in 1994), and to the rise of right-wing media and propaganda (Fox News, Rush, Breitbart, Sinclair, Drudge, and on and on and on), and to all that right-wing money being poured into races and so-called think tanks (see: Jane Mayer's “Dark Money”), but to redistricting and gerrymandering. 

Native Texan Lawrence Wright has a piece on the history of politics in his state in the July 10th New Yorker, and it ain't pretty. An excerpt:

In May, 2003, the redistricting plan came up for a vote in the Texas House. .... The redistricting had a revolutionary effect. Today, the Texas delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives includes twenty-five Republicans and eleven Democrats—a far more conservative profile than the political demography of the state. The Austin metropolitan area, the heart of the Texas left, was divvied up into six congressional districts, with city residents a minority in each. All but one of these districts are now held by Republicans. I'm currently represented by Roger Williams, a conservative automobile dealer from Weatherford, two hundred miles north of Austin. Another Republican congressman, Lamar Smith, lives in San Antonio, but his district includes—and neutralizes—the liberal area surrounding the University of Texas at Austin. Smith, a member of the Tea Party Caucus, in Washington, denies that human activity affects global warming. He heads the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which oversees nasa, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Lloyd Doggett is the only Democrat representing the Austin area, and his district runs along I-35, from East Austin to East San Antonio, scooping up as many Democrats as possible in one basket.

Texas's redistricting process has since been replicated in statehouses around the country, creating congressional districts that are practically immune to challenge and giving Republicans an impregnable edge in Washington. “Texas became a model for how to get control,” Craddick told me.

And ever since, the GOP has been out of control. Wright's piece, by the way, is called “The Future is Texas.” God help us. 

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Posted at 03:04 PM on Jul 20, 2017 in category Politics
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Movie Review: Island of Lost Souls (1932)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

Thirty years ago I remember my friend Craig telling me he liked to begin his plays with characters entering the stage and basically saying, “Whew, glad that’s over.”

“Island of Lost Souls,” based on H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” and which I watched, yes, because it was referenced in “Paterson,” begins similarly. Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is picked up by a ship, the S.S. Covena, half mad on a life-raft, and for a moment I wondered if we’d get his tale in flashback. Nope. This is his “Whew.” His previous ship sunk, he seems to be its only survivor (no thought is given to the rest of the crew), and aboard the Covena he recovers nicely enough to deck the captain, a drunk piece of work named Davies (Stanley Fields). As reward, Davies sucker-punches him and deposits him, along with Davies’ cargo of wild animals, at their first port of call, which, earlier, he’d called “An island without a name. An island not on the chart.”

Thanks for everything, Julie Newmar
I’ve never read the novel, nor, before this, seen any of the story’s roughly half-dozen screen versions—from Germany’s “The Island of the Lost” in 1921 to John Frankenheimer’s 1996 remake with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer—but I knew the basics: a doctor plays god with man and beast on an island. Island of Lost Souls (1932) reviewBut I had always assumed Moreau was tinkering with both man and beast—that he was mixing genetic pools. Nope. Or not here anyway. Here, he takes animals and speeds up their evolutionary processes, which, he says, always tend toward the human. Apparently it’s not just apes that evolve into man; it’s everything.

Since his knowledge is incomplete, so are the results. He gets mostly missing links—hulking, hairy, monosyllabic creatures—although M’ling (Tetsu Komai) is a half-dog houseboy, while Lota (Kathleen Burke, film debut), Moreau’s most successful creation, is, as her film credit goes, “The Panther Woman.” Indeed, in the movie poster, she incorrectly gets all the credit. And the blame:

THE PANTHER WOMAN lured men—only to destroy them body and soul!

This is, what, eight years before Catwoman appeared? And 10 years before Simone Simon in “Cat People”? So we were already on board with that cat fantasy. Poor dogs, they get scraps. No superheroes, mostly pejorative metaphors.

Ever the scientist, Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) decides to throw Parker and Lota together. Can she seduce him? Will he fall in love? Will she? At the same time, like an idiot, he keeps experimenting on animals in the “House of Pain,” and since one cries out (in pain), Parker investigates. He draws the wrong conclusion: “They’re vivisecting a human being!” Like an idiot he confronts Moreau, who, like an idiot, explains everything. He even ends the macabre lecture in half-shadow, intoning ominously, “Do you know what it means to feel like a God?”

Way to go, Doc. Cards close to the chest, Doc.

In the midst of all of this, there’s a truly creepy moment when Parker and Lota flee, and they’re surrounded by the creatures in the jungle. She’s about to be assaulted by the hairy-faced Lawgiver (Bela Lugosi) when Moreau appears with a whip and we get this call and response:

Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?

Yep, that’s where Devo got it. I never knew. Apparently “Island of Lost Souls” was particularly popular among bands of the ’80s and ’90s . Cf., “House of Pain.” 

Banned in Britain
In the nearly 100 years since its release, what we want out of a horror film hasn’t changed much—this thing is still way creepy—but what we want in a leading man certainly has. Arlen is that 1930s all-American male: blunt, uncharismatic and unimaginative. You watch him act and think, “B pictures,“ which is where he wound up, despite co-starring in the award-winning “Wings” only four years earlier. He continued to act in movies and on TV into the 1970s

I did like Leila Hyams as Ruth, the smart fiancée who tracks down Parker (she stopped making movies in 1936), and Paul Hurst as the captain of the ship who reluctantly joins the search (he died in '53). At Moreau’s, he’s plied with liquor, takes it all with a smile, and turns out to be not drunk at all. “Oh, you oughta see me when I’m real...” he says with a wink.

But it’s Laughton’s show. There’s a moment when he tells Parker the lengths it took to get his creatures to talk. Then he smiles a pleased-with-himself smile and says, “Someday I’ll create a woman and it’ll be easier.” I love that it’s both a joke (because women talk a lot, ha ha) and an inside joke (since he’s already created Lota), and Laughton manages to capture both of these feelings.

The ending is poetic justice. Moreau orders one of the missing links, Ouran (Hans Steinke), to kill Hurst before he gets to his ship. Since this goes against the Law, and since Ouran gets away with it, the creatures know the Law is bullshit. So they go after the one they truly hate: Moreau. They get him, strap him to a table, break out the knives. Cue scream. That, and the vivisection, got “Island of Lost Souls” banned in Britain until 1958, and even then it was censored. The original Paramount version wasn’t available in England until 2011.

So are movies like this where so many Americans get their anti-science bent? ”Lost Souls" understandably focuses on the horror of what Moreau does but not enough on the fact that, you know, he actually does it. He takes a panther and turns it into Kathleen Burke. I'm not saying he's not the villain, but give the man his props.

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Posted at 07:29 AM on Jul 20, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s
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Wednesday July 19, 2017

Quote of the Day

A reminder of the big bullet we all dodged, from the New York Times article, “How the Senate Health Care Bill Failed: G.O.P. Divisions and a Fed-Up President”

Senator Susan Collins of Maine criticized the Trump administration's often specious descriptions of what the [GOP healthcare] bill would actually do, bolstering other more quiet critics' resolve.

“The only change that Obamacare made in Medicaid was to give states the option of expanding coverage with increased federal funding,” said Ms. Collins, who opposed the Senate legislation. “Yet the Senate bill would have cut hundreds of billions of dollars from this program, imposed an entirely new formula and reduced the reimbursement rate below the cost of medical inflation.”

The changes, she added, “would have been made without the Senate holding a single hearing to evaluate the consequences on some of our most vulnerable citizens, rural hospitals and nursing homes.”

I'd also like to know who put pressure on McConnell and company to try to push this bill through. What awful moneymen behind them wanted this?

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Posted at 07:06 AM on Jul 19, 2017 in category Quote of the Day
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Ding Dong, Mitch is Dead

Mitch McConnell: horrible loser

Mitch, please.

Sen. Mitch McConnell and Pres. Donald Trump were gearing up for a fight nobody wanted but that fight finally seems over. Even when it was over—even when Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) pulled support from a procedure to even debate the Republican's shitty healthcare bill—McConnell continued to flail about. Monday night, he said that rather than repeal-and-replace Obamacare, the Senate would just repeal it and figure on replacing it down the road. When they got ... what .. smarter? More immune? When they purged voter rolls of more Democrats so it didn't matter that 80% of Americans disliked whatever draconian measure the GOP came up with? When conservatives bought up even more media, as Sinclair Broadcasting is doing now, so they could propagandize further?

Both Trump and McConnell are awful. I figure Trump can't support Obamacare because it has someone else's name on it and you know how much he likes his own name—even on shitty products. But McConnell? Does his antipathy for Obama go beyond party lines? Is it personal? Racist? Some combination?  

Either way, stick a fork in him. Senator McConnell? He dead.

The epitaphs:

  • “It is time for the Senate GOP to replace Mitch McConnell so that President Trump can actually get some of his legislative policies advanced. It is not conservatives who are the obstacle, but the Senate leader himself.” — Erick Erickson, Fox News
  • “Widely considered a brilliant tactician, in fact McConnell has never had to craft conservative legislation that would survive in the real world, as long as President Obama stood ready with his veto pen. Now, with control of the House, the Senate, and the White House, Republicans have had to confront the anti-government derangement that animates the party's right wing—while so-called moderates and even some conservatives come to terms with the ways that their constituents increasingly rely on government assistance, especially the ACA, and don't want any part of House Speaker Paul Ryan's fantasies of a world without Medicaid.” — Joan Walsh, The Nation
  • “While the governors got a direct presentation of the budgetary impact of the Medicaid expansion reductions, The Washington Post reported that McConnell told members of his caucus last week that the cuts to core Medicaid would likely never be more than theoretical. ... it was enough to anger Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, a conservative who only reluctantly offered support for the BCRA. Johnson pulled his support from the motion to proceed to debate on the bill, claiming that McConnell had engaged in 'a pretty serious breach of trust.'” — Edward Morrisey, The Week
  • “Many [GOP]senators are annoyed with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for the rushed, secretive process that produced the health-care bill, and for threatening to cancel their August vacation for a potentially fruitless legislative session.” — Molly Ball, The Atlantic
  • “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell failed the president and his party on health care twice in less than 24-hours...Despite having 7-years to prepare for this legislative moment. ... A recent Fox News poll shows McConnell's favorability just 25-percent.” — Lou Dobbs, Fox News

And on and on. It's fun to read. Does McConnell have any friends left? Is there a procedure to relieve him of Senator Majority status during a session? Will the GOP risk it? Is the bigger risk to do nothing? Could he finally lose in Kentucky in 2020?

I almost begin to feel for this man without feelings. Yes, McConnell is awful but then so is the GOP and Fox News and the pundits above blaming McConnell for failing to pass an impossible bill that would cut tens of millions from insurance, cut many billions from Medicaid, while presenting a huge tax break for the uber-wealthy. It's the bill, stupid. It's the heartlessness. It's your stupidity, stupid.

It's a good moment but nothing's over. To Dems, a reminder from Ben Bradlee: Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up... 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We're under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing's riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.

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Posted at 06:20 AM on Jul 19, 2017 in category Politics
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Tuesday July 18, 2017

Movie Review: Paterson (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

You assume going in that the title character of “Paterson” is a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver: “Girls,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”); but the title character could also be where he lives, Paterson, New Jersey, a working class town that is the home, or at least home, to American poets: William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Costello.

The movie, a week in the life of the bus driver, is a veritable love letter to the city. Every ride on every bus is a history lesson into one of its famous residents. On Monday two black kids talk “Hurricane” Carter. On Wednesday two white kids (the now-teenage stars of “Moonrise Kingdom”) discuss Italian anarchist and assassin Gaetano Bresci. There are clippings of other famous residents behind the bar at the little dive Paterson goes to every night, and it seems our bus driver can't sit anywhere in town without someone wanting to talk poetry with him. Is this a Paterson, N.J. thing? Because it's not an American thing. Not in my lifetime. 

Paterson, the character, is oddly disconnected. So is Paterson, N.J., seemingly, from the worst aspects of modern life. There are no addicts on these buses, no homeless, no one who raises their voice. Everyone's so fucking polite. One day the bus breaks down, and the kids on it are docile and helpful, and the old folks on it are worried but reassured. Two guys talk girls, but pathetically rather than predatorily. They tell stories of “hot girls” who were interested in them and how, well, they just didn’t follow through. The guys didn't. They had work the next day or some such. They had excuses. 

No one really follows through in this movie. It’s oddly sexless. It’s an old man’s rhythm, and I guess writer-director Jim Jarmusch is an old man now.

The Jarmusch Variations
Paterson film review Jim JarmuschHere’s Jarmusch on “Paterson”:

I wanted to make this little structure to be a metaphor for life: that every day is a variation on the day before or the day coming up. They’re just variations.

Well, he did that. Every day, Paterson wakes up between 6 and 6:30 next to his hot, enthusastic, often annoying girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), kisses her, then trundles down for coffee and Cheerios and to think his thoughts, which wind up as poems in his secret notebook. Then it’s off to work. It’s early autumn, jacket weather, but always pleasant; no rain, wind, or blinding sun. At the terminal, Donnie (Rizwan Manji), Paterson’s colleague and/or supervisor, wakes him from his poetry reverie with complaints about his own life; then it’s the drive. Evenings, Paterson returns to their small house with the crooked mailbox out front to hear Laura’s latest enthusiasms: what she’s painted black and white; how she wants to make a mint selling cupcakes; how she wants to learn guitar and become a great country singer in Nashville like Tammy Wynnette. After dinner, he takes their English bulldog Marvin for a walk and always winds up at the local bar, where Paterson nurses a beer, chats with the bar’s owner, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), and where we get another installment of Everett’s pathetic attempts to win over Marie (William Jackson Harper, Chasten Harmon, respectively).

Rinse, repeat.

At times, I liked the day-to-dayness of it, its appreciation of small things and moments and just being, but more often I felt trapped. The movie is insular to the point of suffocation. Does Paterson have other friends? Does Laura? How did they meet? He was in the military once—we see the photo. So is this mundaneness designed to protect him from the drama he experienced there? I wondered if Paterson felt as suffocated by his life as I did; if he was going to snap. Nope. It’s Everett who snaps. He pulls a gun on Marie, propeling Paterson into action, into saving the day. But the gun is a prop, Everett’s pulled it before, and Paterson’s heroism is completely unnecessary. It’s a neutered moment in a movie—a life—full of them.

Fugue state
Half an hour in, I figured if anything was going to “happen” it would be one of two things:

  • Early on, a local tells Paterson that his dog is an expensive breed, the type that gets dognapped, so be careful. Paterson isn’t, leaving Marvin tied up outside the bar. So maybe Marvin gets napped?
  • Laura pleads with Paterson to make copies of his poems before something happens to them and they’re lost forever. So maybe something happens to the poems?

It’s the latter. And it’s telegraphed.

On Saturday, Laura’s cupcakes are a hit at the farmers market, so they celebrate by going out to dinner and then to a 1932 horror film, “Island of Lost Souls,” one of the first cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” But Paterson leaves his notebook on the couch and when they return it’s chewed to bits by Marvin. Sunday, and the rest of the movie, is how Paterson deals with this loss. He finds that it matters to him. Serendipitously, at the Great Falls of Paterson, his favorite place, he runs into a Japanese tourist, a poetry lover who has traveled to Paterson because of Williams’ five-book series, “Paterson”; and after a slow conversation, the tourist gives Paterson a new blank notebook. Alone again, Paterson writes a new poem about the musical lyric “Or would you rather be a fish?” I actually liked that poem. It's the only poem of his that I liked. 

And that’s pretty much it. 

As you can tell, the movie didn’t do much for me. That Japanese tourist, despite carrying a book of translated poetry, says, “Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on,” and that’s what “Paterson” felt like to me. Its main character seems to be in a fugue state, and the movie puts us into a kind of fugue state, too. It’s not just disconnected; there seems to be a real fear of connection in it. It’s almost a horror film: an island of lost souls. 

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Posted at 07:06 AM on Jul 18, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Monday July 17, 2017

Movie Review: Ming Yue Ji Shi You (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

A few years back I complained that more than a few European and Chinese filmmakers were taking the natural horror and drama of the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanjing and making them melodramatic.

This doesn’t do that. Here, director Ann Hui takes the natural horror and drama of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong and makes it undramatic.

Hui is a celebrated and critically acclaimed member of the Hong Kong New Wave. She received a lifetime achievement award at the 2012 Asian Film Awards, while her last two films—“Tou ze” (“A Simple Life”) in 2011 and “Huang jin shi dai” (“The Golden Era”) in 2014—won best director honors at both the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Film Festival. I assume “Ming yue ji shi you” (“Our Time Will Come”), which was released a month ago in China, will be up for same.

But it makes me realize why some of our better, quieter films don’t travel well. A lot of cultural nuance must get lost in the journey, and we’re left with ... this.

Paperwork
Ming Yue Ji Shi You (2017) review“Ming” focuses on WWII-era guerilla activity in Hong Kong, particularly the Dongjiang (East River) guerilla unit, which, as the movie opens, is tasked with spiriting artists and intellectuals off the islands and into unoccupied Chinese territory. The Japanese are the least of it. You also have to navigate Hong Kong gangs and watch out for collaborators and quislings.

The main focus of our concern—if we’re concerned, and I wasn’t particularly—is Mao Dun (Tao Guo), an acclaimed left-wring writer who is boarding with Mrs. Fong (Deannie Yip) and her schoolteacher daughter Lan (Zhou Xun, ridiculously gorgeous). We see some of the machinations involved in getting him to safety. He trades in his western suit for traditional Chinese wear. Call-and-response passwords are exchanged. But he’s being watched and/or traduced, and the day of, we know the man claiming to be his contact is a collaborator. Dun suspects as much, too, but doesn’t know what to do. Then Blackie Lau (Eddie Peng), a cocksure rebel, shows up and kills the spy, and convinces Lan to chaperone Mao and his wife to the embarkation point. She agrees, and returns with a soft glow of satisfaction. She becomes a guerilla herself.

I suppose this contrasts with one of her first scenes. In a meadow on a sunny afternoon, she releases her pet rabbit into the wilderness rather than allow him to wind up on the family dinner table. In the same scene, she rejects the marriage proposal of her boyfriend Kam-Wing (Wallace Huo), since it comes on the heels of his announcement that he's going to ... another island? To Japan? Either the movie was too subtle, was translated poorly, or I wasn’t watching closely enough. Maybe all three. Kam-wing winds up working for a Japanese official, but he’s no collaborator. He’s part of the rebellion, ferreting out maps and other important documents to the Allies.

Much of the guerilla activity is, in fact, paperwork: bringing pamphlets from Point A to Point B; passing notes and eating them to prevent detection. Lan’s mother, initially dismissive of her daughter’s activities, gets involved, too, but she’s caught, imprisoned, tortured. Blackie comes up with a plan to rescue her, but Lan, seeing how hopeless it is, how many lives will be lost, tearfully abandons it, leaving her mother to her fate (digging her own grave with a bowl before being shot in the head).

Much of the movie is like this. It’s about the heroism that still happens within the thing that doesn’t.

Framing
Zhou is lovely to look at, and Eddie Peng provides a welcome jolt every time he’s onscreen; but the pace of the movie is soporific, its loose ends puzzling. Kam-wing’s Japanese superior figures out he’s a spy, and cuts him with a Samurai sword but allows him to live; but we never see Kam with Lan again. Indeed, he’s the one rebel we never see interact with the others. How is his story connected? Is it just one of the many? And if the point of the movie is verisimilitude, life lived, then why are so many of the Japanese soldiers fat and stupid? Sgt. Schultz comes to mind. 

Meanwhile, the framing device, a la “Saving Private Ryan,” is a present-day interview with one of the guerillas, now an aged taxi driver (Tony Leung), who was 10 back then. Except he was a peripheral figure, barely involved in the events described. If he’s telling the story, how does he know the rest? If he’s not telling it, what’s with the framing device?

There’s a good movie in here but this isn’t it. Most of the characters, Chinese and Japanese, just seem to be waiting out the misery. I felt the same. 

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Posted at 06:22 AM on Jul 17, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Sunday July 16, 2017

Box Office: Well-Reviewed 'Apes' Doesn't Exactly Blow Up

War for the Planet of the Apes box office

Les Biz

For once it's not Hollywood's fault. 

Normally the summer months mean shitty movies that everyone goes to see. This weekend was kind of the opposite of that. 

It was the first weekend of “War of the Planet of the Apes,” which got great reviews (95% on Rotten Tomatoes), and whose predecessor in the series, “Dawn of...,” opened at $72.6 million. But this one opened down, at $56 million.

It was the second weekend of “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which got great reviews (93% on Rotten Tomatoes), and which opened last weekend at a sturdy $116 mil. But this weekend it dropped 61.4%, grossing just $45.2. 

Most disappointing for me, it was the first weekend of a wide-ish release (2,000+ theaters) of the brilliant rom-com “The Big Sick,” which got greater-than-great reviews (97% on Rotten Tomatoes), and which, in limited release, had done well on a per-theater basis, averaging between $10k-$84k per theater. But this weekend it averaged just $2.9k per theater, pulling in $7.6 million. It finished in fifth place. 

You can make excuses as to why the three underperformed. Sequels tend to open on the strength of the previous film, and “Dawn of...” was just so-so. “Homecoming” was the sixth Spider-Man movie in 15 years and people are franchise fatigued. And “The Big Sick” stars nobody big, the lead is Muslim-American, and we're still a shitty, racist society. 

OK, some excuses are better than others. 

Seriously, though, I can't remember a summer with so many wide-release movies that got these kinds of rave reviews: “Baby Driver” at 95%, “Wonder Woman” at 92%. True, I thought both of those movies weren't all that, but at least they're not “Transformers”-type films that leave you brain-dead and ready to throw western civilization in the trashcan. 

Indeed, that's a positive takeaway of the summer: Domestically anyway, “Transformers,” with its shitty reviews (15%), is taking a nose dive—or a belly flop:

Year Movie Total U.S. Gross Opening Wknd
2009 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen $402,111,870 $108,966,307
2011 Transformers: Dark of the Moon $352,390,543 $97,852,865
2007 Transformers $319,246,193 $70,502,384
2014 Transformers: Age of Extinction $245,439,076 $100,038,390
2017 Transformers: The Last Knight $124,888,619 $44,680,073

Since 2009, the “Transformers” domestic total has fallen off by: 1) $50 mil, then another 2) $100+ million, and now yet another 3) $100+ million. Down $250 million? Stick a fork in it. 

Meanwhile, Spidey, with its good reviews, is on the upswing: 

Year Movie Total U.S. Gross Opening Wknd
2002 Spider-Man $403,706,375 $114,844,116
2004 Spider-Man 2 $373,585,825 $88,156,227
2007 Spider-Man 3 $336,530,303 $151,116,516
2012 The Amazing Spider-Man $262,030,663 $62,004,688
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming $208,270,314 $117,027,503
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 $202,853,933 $91,608,337

In just its second weekend, it's already surpassed “Amazing 2,” and looks to pass “Amazing.” It will be the highest-grossing Spidey since Raimi. 

So there's that. 

Other poorly reviewed movies that underperformed this summer include “The Mummy” (15%/$79 mil) and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” (29%/$170 mil, down $70 mil from the one six years ago). The third “Cars” (68%/$140) is grossing $100 mil less than the first “Cars” 11 years ago (unadjusted), while the third “Despicable Me” (61%/$187) is, after three weekends, at half of what “2” grossed three years ago. 

So there is correlation between quality and box office—even for the tentpoles. 

But c'mon people, go see “The Big Sick” already. Don't make me come over there.

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Posted at 02:12 PM on Jul 16, 2017 in category Movies - Box Office
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Friday July 14, 2017

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

WARNING: SPOILER 

When the announcement dropped a few years back that they were rebooting Spider-Man again—just 15 years after the original and only five years after the first reboot—I mostly shook my head. Yeah, congrats guys, Spidey’s part of the MCU* now. But another one? So soon? I mean, I don’t know if I can watch Uncle Ben die a third time.

(*Marvel Cinematic Universe. – Acronym-lovin’ Erik.)

Just how many ways can you differentiate yourself from canon? The 2012 reboot tried by:

  • making Peter a skateboarding hipster dude, played by an older-looking actor
  • focusing on a romance with Gwen rather than M.J.
  • focusing on the father-daughter Tracy tragedies (Spider-Man #s 90 and 121) rather than the iconic Uncle Ben one (Amazing Fantasy #15)
  • introducing a backstory about Pete’s dad, who was ... what again? A chemist? A spy? Wasn’t there a secret lab hidden in a subway station or did I just dream that?

Did Pete even catch the Burglar in the first reboot? And now another one? Good luck.

It’s not exactly news that they hit it out of the park.

Avenger No More!
“Homecoming” works because it goes younger, nerdier, funnier and more diverse. Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is young and hot, while Pete (Tom Holland) can’t drive a car and can barely talk to girls. He’s 15. Spider-Man: Homecoming reviewWe get such Ditko-era stalwarts as Liz (Laura Harrier), Flash (Tony Revolori), Ned (Jacob Batalon), and M.J. (Zendaya), but reimagined in different ways. Flash, for example, is a verbal rather than a physical bully, while Ned is Pete’s Legos-playing best friend who discovers his secret identity. All of these supporting parts, by the way, are played by people of color. It doesn’t matter (in their world), and shouldn’t matter (in ours), but it does. It’s Marvel living up to James Baldwin’s line: “The world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.”

“Homecoming” also works because it does two things most superhero movies don’t do.

First, you also get a real sense of how tough it is to put the “super” in “superhero.” Not emotionally, as in “Oh no, I’m a giant rock creature and no one will ever love me again,” but in just getting from place to place. Sure, Pete’s spider-powers allow him to scale the Washington Monument, but it’s not effortless—any more than you or I doing wind-sprints up a hill would be effortless. He runs out of breath; he all but clutches his side. In Queens, where he lives, there are no tall buildings to web-sling on to, and, at one point, he winds up running through backyards like Ferris Bueller. Plus crimes don’t just happen, wah-lah, in front of you. He nabs a bike thief but can’t find the bike’s owner. At one point, with nothing to do, he helps an old lady with directions. It’s all rather pedestrian. He’s a super kid trying to make his way in a world of super adults, and frequently coming up short.

The movie also answers the question David Mamet says every playwright/screenwriter needs to ask: What does the guy want? This is a rarity in superhero movies. Generally, once the hero becomes super, they have no motivation other than a grand one (stopping crime). Supervillains are the ones with schemes. Heroes are just trying to stem the tide. They’re reactive.

Not here. Pete wants something: He’s desperate to join the Avengers. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) brought him on board for “Civil War” but in the first minutes of this one he just plunks him back into his regular world with barely a how-do-you-do. Pete goes from stealing Captain America’s shield to watching dull Captain America PSAs with his classmates (a great, recurring gag). So of course he’s chafing; of course he wants to be in the center of things again. But Tony is a distant, dismissive father. He tells him to buckle down, do his schoolwork, and be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Basically he feels Pete is too young for the Avengers.

And he’s kinda right. In trying to prove he’s ready for the Avengers, Pete proves he’s not ready for the Avengers. He causes near disasters at the Washington Monument and on the Staten Island Ferry. He rushes in to save the day and ruins the day and rues the day.

But it’s not all on him. Tony Stark is not only distant father but distant oligarch. He’s above it all (literally) and too busy to clean up his own messes. He’s kind of an ass. At one point he says to Pete, “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it.” Um, dude? Aren’t you all suit? Stark’s mere presence creates envy but his sloppiness creates opportunities for destruction.

Hell, he’s the reason we get our supervillain.

The Vulture’s Prey!
Adrian Toomes, a.k.a., The Vulture (Michael Keaton), is one of Spidey’s oldest nemeses** but previously ignored onscreen. I can imagine the meetings with Hollywood suits: “Wait, this bald guy with the buck teeth and feathers? Pass.”

(** Vulchie first appeared way back in Amazing Spider-Man #2. – Anal Erik)

Well, the feathers have been replaced by metal and powered by alien tech, and Keaton makes him truly terrifying: a working-class hero with a giant (and not unjustified) chip on his shoulder. Eight years earlier, Toomes’ salvage company was hired to clean up in the wake of the alien attack in “The Avengers”; but then the feds swooped in, roped things off, and dismissed him. He was left with debts and doomed to bankruptcy ... except for the truck full of debris and alien tech at his warehouse.

That cache leads to the creation of three Spidey supervillains: Vulture,  Shocker (Logan Marshall-Green; Bookem Woodbine), and the not-so-terrible Tinkerer (Michael Chernus)***. Initially, Toomes just wants to get his and provide for his family. They rob ATMs and sell dangerous weaponry on the black market. But increasingly he wants revenge—on Tony Stark and the Avengers. He’s the opposite side of the same coin as Pete. Both are fixated on Stark. Pete, fatherless and uncleless, wants his love, while Toomes plots his destruction.

(*** The Tinkerer also debuted in Spidey #2 – Everything-But-the-Kitchen-Sink Erik)

Is that third-act reveal too much? After Pete loses his Stark-manufactured Spidey suit, he focuses on high school and friends and asks his crush, Liz, to the dance. Life is on the upswing. Then Homecoming night he opens her front door and is greeted by her father: Adrian Toomes. It’s a jolt. It’s also one fantastic coincidence: My sworn enemy is the father of the girl I love! It recalls that first Green Goblin reveal****: My sworn enemy is the father of my best friend! And is it me or does that marriage seem ... off? No offense, Mike, but Garcelle Beauvais is a bit above your paygrade. That said, kudos to Keaton’s acting. At one point, he has to pivot from chaperoning dad to malicious super-killer, and he does so naturally and seamlessly.

(**** Spidey #39, natch. – Aren’t-You-Sick-of-Me-Yet Erik)

O, Bitter Victory!
Kudos all around, really. Holland makes an amazing Pete/Spider-Man, Batalon is pitch-perfect comic relief, Michelle/M.J. is great sarcastic sidebar. We get a Spider-Man #33 homage: Spidey, exhausted and trapped by an enormous weight, overcoming it to save the day. (I always loved that issue.) “Homecoming” has a 133-minute runtime but it zips. I was never bored. And I’m frequently bored at these things.

The final battle involves a planeload of Stark Industries tech, which Vulture hijacks because he’s trying to get Iron Man’s attention. He has to settle for Spider-Man’s. It’s almost poignant. Both of our leads are wallflowers at the dance, unable to get the homecoming queen's attention. It’s They Might Be Giants: No one in the world ever gets what they want, and that is beautiful.

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Posted at 06:04 AM on Jul 14, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Thursday July 13, 2017

Lane on 'Big Sick'

“If [Kumail] Nanjiani cuts a likable figure, onstage and off, it's because he never pleads to be liked. His punch lines are not punched at all but flicked as casually as cigarette butts.”

-- Anthony Lane in his review of “The Big Sick” on The New Yorker site. I liked this line even though I don't know how true it is. Flicking a cigarette butt has a kind of contempt that I don't see in Nanjiani. Not to mention the fact that Lane seems so-so on “The Big Sick,” which I consider the best movie I've seen so far this yearAnd it should've been the lead review, not secondary and after-thoughtish. Right, New Yorker? I mean, WTF? It's like you don't even know. 

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Posted at 05:58 PM on Jul 13, 2017 in category Movie Reviews
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The Canadian Dream

“Afterward, the imam told the group that, if they were fearful, maybe they should consider moving to Canada. [Neighborhood activist Mohammad ”Moe“] Razvi was taken aback, though he understood the appeal. A decade earlier, he had visited Toronto and run into the man who had abandoned his barbershop. 'He had a house, his own business. He had everything happening for him,' Razvi recalled. 'He's, like, ”I'm living the American Dream—in Canada!“' Razvi's brother D.C., who runs a store across the street from Punjab Grocery, heard people talking about moving to Canada every day. 'Nobody has actually done it,' he said. 'But everyone is preparing.'”

-- from “Neighborhood Watched: Little Pakistan perservered after 9/11. Can it survive the age of Trump?” by Jennifer Gonnerman in The New Yorker, June 26, 2017. Also if the American Dream can survive the age of Trump. 

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Posted at 05:45 PM on Jul 13, 2017 in category Politics
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Collusion, Collusion, Wear a Gas Mask and a Veil

It's been a few days but it doesn't cease to astonish—particularly since Trump Jr., Trump and Fox News are all trying to deny it and downplay it.

Here's what British entertainment publicist Rob Goldstone wrote to Don Trump Jr. on June 3, 2016 about his client, Emin Agalarov:

Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting.

The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.

This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump - helped along by Aras and Emin.

Nothing secretive or ambiguous about that last line. No doubt what is being offered.

And here's Jr.'s response 17 minutes later:

Thanks Rob I appreciate that. I am on the road at the moment but perhaps I just speak to Emin first. Seems we have some time and if it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer.  

Nothing ambiguous about that either. A meeting was set up at Trump tower for June 9 with a Russian attorney with Kremlin connections. Trump Jr. says that nothing came of that meeting—the woman spoke in vague terms and then about adoptions. Should we believe him? Here's Trump Jr. last July on CNN responding to charges of Trump-Russia collusion:

It's disgusting. It's so phony. ... I can't think of bigger lies. But that exactly goes to show you what the D.N.C. and what the Clinton camp will do. They will lie and do anything to win.

Projection much? 

David Corn at Mother Jones connects the obvious dots. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo writes about how the Trump folks, intent on the latest news cycle, don't seem to realize the legal trouble they're in. John Cassidy at The New Yorker notes Republicans still aren't breaking from Trump in any meaningful way

It's Day 174 of America Held Hostage.

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Posted at 12:00 PM on Jul 13, 2017 in category Politics
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Trump Protest Songs: Elvis Costello's 'Sunday's Best' (1979)

It's from 1979 but ain't exactly dated. It begins this way:

Times are tough for English babies
Send the army and the navy
Beat up strangers who talk funny
Take their greasy foreign money

And it ends this way:

Put them all in boots and khaki
Blame it all upon the darkies

Add it to the list. Crazy what you could've had. Crazy what you could've had.

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Posted at 11:11 AM on Jul 13, 2017 in category Music
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Sunday July 09, 2017

'This Borders on Treason'

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Posted at 05:18 PM on Jul 09, 2017 in category Politics
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Keillor on Baseball

Garrison Keillor had eye surgery recently, and he wrote about the experience, and the necessity of a touch of kindness, for The Washington Post last week. But this is the graf that reached out to me. It's my world view. He describes those awful carnival-barker voices eminating from the television set so well, as well as the tonic to them, which is my tonic:

Back in the room, I hung up my jacket, opened my laptop and I couldn't see the keys that would increase font size to where I could read the text. I lay on the bed and contemplated the prospect of life as a man in a blur. I dozed. I turned on the TV. I couldn't watch it, only listen. I clicked around, hoping for a friendly voice, and everyone sounded hyped-up and weird, canned laughter, big carnival barker voices, big woofers and screaming meemies, and then I found a ballgame. Two men, talking nice and slow in level tones, describing actions taking place before their eyes. Players I didn't know playing games I didn't care about, but those were the voices of my uncles discussing cars, gardens, future construction projects, the secret of pouring concrete, and that was reassuring, to know that the country has not come unhinged.

Good thing Joe Buck wasn't announcing.

Keillor concludes by talking about the unkind acts of so-called Christians voting for a vainglorious, bullying solipsist, and a Congress of rich men trying to make other rich men richer at the expense of health care for the many. A blind man knows that. The above is a good paragraph but the conclusion is off: one-third of the country has come unhinged and their representatives are in power. The voices of Vin Scully, Dave Niehaus and Ernie Harwell isn't balm enough for that. 

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Posted at 08:40 AM on Jul 09, 2017 in category Quote of the Day
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Saturday July 08, 2017

Frum Sums Up Trump Effrontery

Here's David Frum, former spechwriter to Bush II, and the man who coined the phrase “Axis of Evil,” on the horrors of Trump abroad:

As presidential speeches go, Trump's address in Warsaw was fair. Ish. If you forget who is speaking and what that person has been saying and doing since Inauguration Day—since the opening of his campaign in 2015—and really through his career.

But if you remember those things, the speech jolted you to attention again and again.

“We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.” This must be an example of what the grammarians should rename the “disjunctive we”: a we that does not include the speaker of the words. Rule of law? Free speech? Shortly before boarding the plane to Europe, President Trump's advisers were reportedly discussing a pending CNN merger with AT&T as leverage against the news network—a possibility that, if realized, would be a perversion of anti-trust law.

And so it went through the catalogue of effrontery. A president who has made lewd remarks about assaulting women said, “We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success.” A president who won't read his briefing books declared, “We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves.” A president who once seemed unsure whether the abolitionist Frederick Douglass is alive or dead congratulated himself: “We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs.” A president whose brand is notorious worldwide for gaudy hideousness preened: “We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art.”

More on the Atlantic site. 

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Posted at 01:23 PM on Jul 08, 2017 in category Politics
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Friday July 07, 2017

What's Crawling Beneath the American Rock

Jared Yates Sexton exposed the anti-Semitism behind  Trump's CNN/WWE video, and all he got for his trouble were accusations, villification and death threats from right-wing and US Nazi sites and subreddits:

In the past few hours I'd been getting plenty of threats about going on a “helicopter ride” and cartoons of people being hurled out the doors of an airborne chopper. Here I found it was all a reference to the murderous Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's practice of tossing his victims into the sea. The posters there, and in my Twitter feed, seemed to take a great deal of pleasure at the thought of replicating that atrocity in modern-day America.

Other threats appeared on related sites, particularly on 4chan, the wild west of internet forums. Here, in reference to my reporting, they talked openly about “the Journocaust,” a term some used in place of the civil war. The fantasy seemed to be open hostilities in which journalists, academics and liberals could be hung in public, an event some called “The Day of the Rope” after a plot point in William Pierce's The Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel about a fictional race war some in the extreme right hold as a holy book of sorts.

America's problem isn't immigrants. 

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Posted at 11:13 AM on Jul 07, 2017 in category Politics
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M's Game: E-Scoreboard (2)

Question: How can a team be behind 8-0 in the 5th and wind up losing 7-4? Answer: Mariners baseball. 

We were never in this one. By the time my friend Tim arrived in the bottom of the 1st, the M's were behind the lowly Oakland A's 3-0—single, walk, double, strikeout, double—and Tim never saw us closer than 3. We never even had the tying run at the plate. Our leadoff hitter Jean Segura went 4-4 and never got past second base, mostly because our No. 2 man Ben Gamel went 0-4. In our first three innings, we ran into three double plays: 4-6-3, 4-6-3, and 8-5 (flyout, throw 'em out). Segura got picked off in the 4th. We kept erasing runners.

How bad were we? Even the scoreboard operator kept screwing up. 

In the 5th, the A's had two on and nobody out for Khris Davis, who looked bad his first two times up: two strikeouts.Mariners lose 7-4, scoreboard operator makes two errors He's a guy with a lot of Ks (at gametime, 113, second in the A.L.), and a lot of homers (23, fifth in the A.L.), so I said, “Guess he's due for a homer now.” Boom. Three runs. Then another hit, a double-play, and their catcher Bruce Maxwell went deep to left-center. I looked up at the video scoreboard. 

“Wait, isn't it 7-0?”

Tim looked down at his scorecard. “Yeah.”

“So how come they have 8-0?” The electronic scoreboard in center, which towers over Safeco Field, had given the A's five runs in the 5th for an 8-0 lead. I looked over at the hand-operated scoreboard in the left field corner. They'd done the same. 

“Did we miss something?” 

Tim looked down at his scorecard again. “Maybe that wasn't Maxwell who hit the homer? Maybe he got on somehow and the next guy hit it?”

“Cause we did get that double-play, right?”

“Yeah.” 

At this point, down either 7 or 8, the M's finally pulled 27-year-old journeyman starter Sam Gaviglio for one-time Milwaukee bullpen stalwart Yovani Gallardo; but as Gallardo warmed up, the numbers on the scoreboards stayed the same: 8-0.

“This is annoying.” So I got out my phone, Googled “Mariners score,” and showed the results to Tim: 7-0.

We looked back up. “Has someone noticed the error yet?”

“Will they?”

It took a while. In the meantime, Gallardo got the final out of the inning. 

“How good is Gallardo?” I asked. “He comes in down 8-0 and leaves down 7-0.”

“Minus 1 ERA!” Tim shouted.  

We finally got on the board in the bottom half of the 5th when Mitch Haniger went deep. Well, “deep.” The ball barely escaped right field. It eked out. It would be our only run against 23-year-old A's starter Paul Blackburn, who was pitching only his second game in the Majors. Blackburn debuted July 1st against Atlanta and got the loss, giving up 1 run (and zero earned runs) in six innings. This time he went 7 2/3. Haniger's HR is his only earned run in the Majors so far. 

The guy who relieved him, Daniel Coulombe, seemed to be throwing inside to me. He seemed way agressive for a guy with a six-run lead. Before this season, in 68 innings pitched with the Dodgers and A's, Coulombe had never hit a batter. This season, in 30 innings, he's hit 4. Is he wilder now? Or does he have a new approach? If so, it backfired last night. In the bottom of the 9th, with one on and one out, he threw at Kyle Seager, who ducked, and the ball ricocheted off his helmet and to the backstop. Seager, the professional, got up, dusted himself off, jogged down to first. Four pitches later, Danny Valencia homered to center, making it 7-4, and Coulombe was gone, replaced by A's closer Santiago Casilla.

Well, 7-4 in the scorebooks. And, I should add, on the electronic scoreboard in center. But on the hand-operated scoreboard down in left field, the score remained 7-1. It was like our scoreboard operators had something against the Ms.

“Did they send that guy home?” Tim asked. 

During Casilla's warmups it remained 7-1. Mitch Haniger grounded sharply to second and it remained 7-1. Jarrod Dyson hit a stand-up triple in the gap and it remained 7-1. We had the tying run in the on-deck circle—Segura, who was 4-4—and I couldn't keep my eyes off the left-field scoreboard. 

Finally, we saw movement in the spot for bottom of the ninth. The blank card was removed and replaced with a ... “1.”

Three, idiots!” I shouted. 

They finally got it right just as Mike Zunino popped out to the pitcher for the final out. 

Last night was also, appropriately, “Bark at the Park” night. Fans could bring their dogs to the game and walk around the bases afterward. Pooper scooper not included.

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Posted at 09:31 AM on Jul 07, 2017 in category Seattle Mariners
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Thursday July 06, 2017

Movie Review: Baby Driver (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I heard nothing but compliments from critics and friends before I went to see “Baby Driver” and I heard nothing but complaints from my wife on the way out. She hated the movie. Hated hated. She likes a good, stupid time at the theater as much as anyone but couldn’t get past the lead, Ansel Elgort, whom she found insipid, annoying, and with zero sex appeal. “Why would any woman over 12 even like him?” she said. “He’s a 12-year-old’s idea of sexy.”

Me, I’ve got mixed feelings. I found the character of Baby, particularly in the beginning, too insular and impressed with himself. He thought he was cooler than he was and the movie let him get away with it. He couldn’t just make a sandwich, he had to make a production out of making a sandwich. To me he was just another white kid lip-syncing to black artists, which, c’mon, what year is this? 1985?

Then shit went south for him and the movie improved a bit. But enough to justify a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Critics? Vinny? Sure, there’s tons of adrenaline, but is anyone smart driving this thing?

I hit the road and I’m gone
Written and directed by Edgar Wright, the man behind the Cornetto trilogy, “Baby Driver” is about an expert getaway driver named Baby (Elgort), who works exclusively for Doc (Kevin Spacey), an Atlanta gangster. Baby Driver reviewWell, “works.” When he was young he stole one of Doc’s cars and he’s been paying off the debt ever since. After the cold open, he’s the proverbial one job away from getting out.

Baby got backstory: He was orphaned at six when his mom crashed their car into a truck. Baby was in the backseat listening to his new iPod, and he’s had tinnitus ever since. He relieves it by ... listening to an iPod while driving really fast. I think Wright posits a connection between his listening and his driving. The music gets him into a zone. He pumps himself up with his own soundtrack.

The heists, for all their planning, seem ill-planned. Basically three gunmen run into a bank wearing masks and carrying high-powered weaponry, then leave with money and the cops right on their tail. It’s up to Baby to shake them. He does. (Can I just applaud the Atlanta police in this movie? Baby performs sick, only-in-a-movie maneuvers, and a second later they’re on him again. Kudos.) Afterwards, money is divvied, Baby loses most of his share to Doc, but puts the remainder under the floorboards in a three-story walkup he shares with his deaf foster father, Joseph (CJ Jones, who is deaf), for whom he makes the aforementioned sandwiches.

The movie improved greatly for me when Baby begins to romance Debora, since she’s played by Lily James, who is both adorable and can act. They’re good together: flirty and sweet. The give good dialogue. I was surprised during their “Debora song” conversation that she wasn’t aware of T-Rex’s “Debora,” since, if you’re interested in songs with your name, well, there’s a little thing called Google. I did it on iTunes 10 years ago for my wife and found “Darling Patricia” by Owen Gray. And I’m old.

Debora, of course, is young, and her dream is the dream of the young: to get out. Specifically, to get on interstate 20 with a friend and some tunes, and head west and never stop. Her wish soon becomes their goal because that “last job” isn’t the last. It only meant the debt was paid, it didn’t mean Baby doesn’t work for Doc anymore. In this next job, a Post Office of all places, everyone makes stupid decisions that lead to third-act disaster:

  • Doc has Baby case the Post Office. Seems an unnecessary risk to take with your reluctant getaway driver.
  • Doc has the heist team, including  the well-named “Bats” (Jamie Foxx), pick up the fenced weapons without telling them they’re dealing with corrupt cops. So when Bats sees APD (Atlanta Police Dept.), bullets start flying. 
  • Baby tries to get away from the others at 2 a.m., but is caught by Buddy (Jon Hamm) in the parking garage. Except ... Baby’s in a car at this point, and all he has on his side is a lame excuse. (“Going to get coffee.”) Why doesn’t he just spin out and away? Like every other time in the movie?
  • Instead, Bats reveals Baby’s predilection for taping conversations, including myriad ones with Doc, to sample later for his own sad amusement. And Doc doesn’t kill him right there? And he lets him drive the next day? Simply because Baby says he will?
  • When everything goes wrong, and Bats and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez, hot) are killed, and Baby is pursued by both a crazed Buddy and half the APD, he grabs Debora and goes for help to ... Doc? And gets it? And Doc gives his life helping him?

Throughout, the movie makes it seem like Baby has a plan, but he has no plan. He’s a stupid kid that has a lot of luck. That scene in the diner? Where Buddy, who lost his love because of Baby, asks Baby if he loves Debora, and Baby says yes? And Debora is only saved because a cop suddenly shows up looking for a restroom? How much serendipity does Baby (and Wright) get away with here?

What’s my number
But I wasn’t bored. I’ll give it that. I thought Jon Hamm was miscast and Kevin Spacey typecast, although I liked his “Monsters Inc.” line, as did everyone. I really liked Foxx, who was note perfect. I liked that there was comeuppance—that Baby and Debora seem to be getting away, heading west like in the dream, but then the blockade, the arrest, the trial, the prison term. I loved Lily James. Can’t say this enough. My new movie crush. Slightly awkward since I’m twice her age.

But 97 percent? I liked Edgar Wright better when he was satirizing movie genres rather than making them go vroom

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Posted at 06:09 AM on Jul 06, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Wednesday July 05, 2017

Trump Law

The New York Times Magazine has a good piece by Jonathan Mahler entitled “All the President's Lawyers.” It's not only on Donald Trump's current plethora of lawyers, and not only some of his past lawyers, but the type of lawyer (and law) he prefers:

Trump Law does not concern itself with how you're supposed to do things. ''Donald would say, 'I hate lawyers who tell me that I can't do this or that,''' Goldberg told me. And so Trump Lawyers don't. It was an arrangement that worked for Trump and his legal teams for years. And so it continues in Washington. Under Trump Law, it is perfectly fine for the president of China to stay as a guest at Mar-­a-­Lago, for the lobbying arm of the Saudi government to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars at Trump's Washington hotel, for Trump to have a private dinner with the director of the F.B.I., James Comey, even as his agency was investigating Trump's campaign. Under Trump Law, it is O.K. for Trump not to divest himself of his assets or place them in a blind trust, and for the drafting and rollout of his Muslim travel ban to be overseen not by experienced government lawyers but by his 31-year-old senior adviser, Stephen Miller. Under Trump Law, Trump can appoint a national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, who had worked secretly as a paid lobbyist for Turkey, and fire Comey, as he himself explained, to relieve the pressure of the Russia investigation.

Expect more of the same with this administration. Me, I think the law trumps Trump Law. I'll take David Boies.

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Posted at 10:40 AM on Jul 05, 2017 in category Law
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Tuesday July 04, 2017

When They Go Low, We Kick Them in the Face

I agree with almost everything Dan Savage says here, particularly the part about Dems getting on message and fighting back. I don't even know if we have to cheat like the Republicans cheat—the way he suggests—but we at least have to state, precisely and vehemently, and over and over and over again, what the fuck is going on. And in broad terms, it's what I wrote back in November. Basically it's what I've been writing the entire sad history of this blog:

Republicans wants to give more to those who have most; and they want to take away from those who have least.

Cf., everything Mitch McConnell has ever done. Cf., this idiot anti-healthcare bill he's still trying to pass, and that will cause such harm to so many people.  

And it's getting worse. The right-wing propaganda machine is getting worse. It's not just Fox and Rush and Alex and Breitbart and Drudge and ... It's also Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which John Oliver profiled Sunday night, and which is on the verge of buying the Tribune Company. And it's all the Russian propaganda, which differs in almost no way from right-wing propaganda. Not enough attention has been paid to that. That's how much the GOP and Fox News and et al. is the enemy now. Our greatest enemy, Russia, is simply parroting what they say. Russia swayed our election because Fox News laid the groundwork. 

Happy 4th.

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Posted at 08:55 AM on Jul 04, 2017 in category Politics
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Quote of the Day

“It is no overstatement to say that my conversations with [GOP operative Peter] Smith shocked me. Given the amount of media attention given at the time to the likely involvement of the Russian government in the DNC hack, it seemed mind-boggling for the Trump campaign—or for this offshoot of it—to be actively seeking those emails. To me this felt really wrong.

”In my conversations with Smith and his colleague, I tried to stress this point: if this dark web contact is a front for the Russian government, you really don't want to play this game. But they were not discouraged. They appeared to be convinced of the need to obtain Clinton's private emails and make them public, and they had a reckless lack of interest in whether the emails came from a Russian cut-out. Indeed, they made it quite clear to me that it made no difference to them who hacked the emails or why they did so, only that the emails be found and made public before the election.“

-- Matt Tait, ”The Time I Got Recruited to Collude with the Russians," on Lawfare, about the lead-up to the 2016 election. Tait is currently the CEO and founder of Capital Alpha Security, a UK based security consultancy. This story is not getting enough attention. 

Happy 4th.

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Posted at 07:16 AM on Jul 04, 2017 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday July 03, 2017

Movie Review: The Mummy (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“The Mummy” is the second feature Alex Kurtzman has directed—after “People Like Us,” a small drama from 2012 starring Chris Pine and Michelle Pfeiffer—but it’s not far off from what he normally does. For most of this century, he’s taken existing intellectual property and turned it into zipped-up but dumbed-down action-movie franchises.

He gave us the screenplay for the first two “Transformers,” for example, then wrote and produced the first two rebooted “Star Trek” movies (the ones its fans didn’t like). He wrote the second Antonio Banderas/Zorro movie (the one that killed the franchise), the third “Mission: Impossible” movie (the one its fans didn’t like), and the second “Amazing Spider-Man” (the one that killed the franchise). He also wrote “The Island,” wrote and produced “Cowboys & Aliens,” and produced the “Now You See Me” movies. Almost all of his movies get rotten ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.

Now he’s the man behind the Dark Universe. Maybe he always was.

Fates worse than death
The Mummy with Tom Cruise: reviewAccording to Kurtzman, Universal approached him in 2012 with the idea of producing a reboot of The Mummy. But in tossing it around, he began to connect it with other monster movies, and envisioned a whole universe of gods and monsters—similar to Marvel’s continuing universe (MCU), DC’s extended universe (DCEU), and Warners upcoming MonsterVerse (Godzilla, King Kong, et al.).

He talks about it all in this interview with denofgeek.com. Read the whole thing. It’s sad. He mentions the great horror movies he and Tom Cruise watched before or during the making of this one, including Kurtzman’s favorite, “The Exorcist”:

In the first 10 minutes of the movie, which is essentially a silent film, you are immersed in a world and filled with a deep sense of dread, without any real understanding of why. Friedkin builds this extraordinarily scary tone, and a sense that something really, really bad is coming...

We get that in “The Mummy,” too, but with a different sense of dread, a different kind of bad.

“The Mummy” starts in England, 12th century A.D., where a ritual among knights is underway; then, boom, it’s same place, modern day, and excavation for a new London subway system reveals their tombs. A voiceover by the unidentified Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) goes into a backstory, but not about the knights. Instead, we’re suddenly in ancient Egypt, hearing about a princess, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), and how, to maintain power, she sold her soul to the Egyptian God of Death, Set, then killed her father, step-mother and baby brother, and was in the midst of a ritual to transfer Set’s spirit into the body of her lover, making him a living god, when she was captured by Egyptian priests and mummified alive.

Only then do we cut to modern-day Iraq and our hero.

That’s a lot of throat clearing. Worse, most of it is unnecessary (12th-century England) or detrimental to the story. Seriously, shouldn’t Ahmanet’s story have been kept in the movie’s backpocket for a bit? Instead, we know it from the get-go. As a result, when devil-may-care soldier-of-fortune Nick Morton (Cruise), and his hapless partner Vail (Jake Johnson), ride down on a shattered Iraqi town, are shot at by (essentially) ISIS, and call in a surgical strike whose subsequent hole in the earth reveals an ancient Egyptian tomb, there’s no mystery for us. There’s no suspense or dread. We’re just waiting for our hero to get up-to-speed.

And man is the tone ever wrong. The movie not only stresses action-adventure over horror, it adds comedic banter. In Iraq. I can’t stress this enough. Our hero is an American who is trying to steal ancient artifacts from a country we already destroyed. And the tone is light comedy.

Hell, ignore geopolitics and focus on what happens in the movie. In the movie, Vail objects to riding down into this enemy-held village but Nick forces his hand by slitting open his bota bag of water. “Where’s your sense of adventure?” Nick says jauntily. Then they’re shot at, the airstrike, the tomb is revealed, and Nick causes the sarcophagus of Ahmanet to be released from a pool of mercury along with a shitload of spiders. One spider bites Vail and ... well, it kills him. Or it turns him into a zombie or something. He pops up, jaundiced skin, scabs, and one eyes turned white. He talks about “fates worse than death.” Guess what? He’s comic relief. The tone is jokey. As in: “Isn’t it funny what happened to Vail? Ha! Oh, Vail. You and your eye.” Then at the end, after all the horrors and battles, after Nick is fused with Set, the God of Death and resurrects Vail, they’re in the desert again, and Nick says the exact same line in the same jaunty tone: “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Uh, maybe I lost it after you made me suffer a fate worse than death.”

It’s all inflated self-regard and lack of accountability. You couldn’t make a movie more infused with the reckless, idiot sprit of America if you’d tried.

Dracula, Frankenstein, and Nick
Anyway, to the rest of this crapfest.

As soon as the sarcophagus is removed, all sorts of bad shit happens. A sandstorm nearly overwhelms them, then the transport plane is destroyed by kamikaze crows and goes down over England. But Nick, finally a hero, gives the last parachute to archeologist/love interest/superblonde Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) before dying himself. Except, oops, he can’t die. Or he keeps dying—like Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow”—but because Ahmanet chose him to be the vessel for Set, there he is again, without a scratch. (Question: Couldn’t she have just chosen another lover for Set? And if she wanted the plane to go down in England, why the sandstorm in Iraq to try to stop the plane?)

In London, Nick is introduced to Dr. Jekyll (Crowe), who runs Prodigium, a secret society designed to combat supernatural threats. It’s this universe’s SHIELD and Jekyll is its Nick Fury. Except, being Hyde, he’s also a customer.

I liked Crowe, to be honest. I liked his Etonish Jekyll and Cockney Hyde. I liked Boutella as Ahmanet, and the way she hissed “Thief!” at Nick—although between this, “Kingsman” and “Star Trek,” will the girl ever get to play someone with an office job? Wallis wasn’t bad, either, despite her super-blondeness. I liked the scene of the plane going down—that was actually thrilling.

And that’s it.

I mean, does anyone get the limits of Ahmanet’s powers? Even from the sarcophagus she can summon spiders, crows, sand. She can control Vail. She can also literally suck the life out of men, leaving them shriveled corpses while she regains her bodacious form; then she commands these corpses, these zombies, to do her bidding. She does this with the knights/crusaders, too, so apparently it’s anything that’s ever died. Churchill. Shakespeare. Jesus. That seems like a lot of power. How did Egyptian priests ever mummify her in the first place?

And does anyone get the ritual that’s at the center of everything? By stabbing her chosen lover with an ancient dagger embedded with a giant ruby, she transfers Set’s soul—which, I guess, is in the ruby—into human form, and the lover/Set becomes “a living God.” In underground London, after many millennia, Ahmanet finally has everything to make the ritual work: the ruby is back in the dagger, and Nick, her chosen, is there, and nobody is around to stop her. But then Nick steals the dagger and—against her cries—destroys the ruby. Ha! He wins!

So ... what does he win?

Well, Set’s spirit is fused with Nick’s and he becomes superpowerful.

But ... wouldn’t that have happened anyway? If she had stabbed him with the dagger? Wasn’t that the whole point of the ritual? So why should two different paths lead to the same result?

Uh ... Maybe this way Nick is stronger? Maybe he would’ve disappeared otherwise and only Set would’ve ruled his body?

Yeah. Either way, Nick/Set is now superpowerful, so he sucks the life out of Ahmanet, returning her to shriveled, mummified form. Serious question: Since she is the mummy of the title, what exactly is Nick in all of this? How does he belong in the Dark Universe? The characters/stars involved include Frankenstein (Javier Bardem), Invisible Man (Johnny Depp), Dr. Jekyll (Crowe), Dracula and Wolfman (TBA), and ... Nick Morton? Not exactly canon.

Anyway, after all that, Nick says “Where’s your sense of adventure?” like a moron, and he and Vail ride in the desert with a sandstorm in their wake, while, via voiceover, Jenny and Jekyll debate whether Nick is now more monster than man. We could ask of Hollywood the same.

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Posted at 08:40 AM on Jul 03, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Saturday July 01, 2017

Quote of the Day

“The thing [the Russians] did that matters the most gets the least attention, which is that they had tens of thousands of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, and they were micro-targeting individual voters in individual swing districts, shaping their opinion: psychological warfare on a grand scale. They conducted the largest psychological warfare campaign and they won.”

-- Former terrorism czar and author Richard A. Clarke on “Real Time with Bill Mahr”

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Posted at 09:08 AM on Jul 01, 2017 in category Quote of the Day
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