Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes (2017)
On September 20, 1973, when I was 10 years old and a few weeks into fifth grade, the media circus/tennis match known as “The Battle of the Sexes,” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, roared into the Houston Astrodome. I have two strong memories about it.
Mostly I remember my mom watching it on the small black-and-white TV we kept in our south Minneapolis basement. I remember being surprised by her intensity. She was usually calm and sweet, but this was something she needed. It made me want to root for Billie Jean. I probably was anyway—Minnesotans are preternaturally inclined to root against the braggart—but this underscored that. I remember her pride when Billie Jean won. It felt like Mom’s victory, too.
A few months later—Nov. 16, according to IMDb—Billie Jean and Bobby appeared on an episode of “The Odd Couple,” which my brother and I watched every Friday night. The commercials promoting the episode gave them equal time but it was mostly Bobby’s show—she simply gets a cameo at the end. Maybe with reason. She was a bit wooden and he was a natural actor. Or ham. He played himself, of course, an old friend of Oscar’s who winds up scamming him out of everything he owns. Felix tries to win it all back, there’s a ping-pong match in which Bobby spots the two of them a 19-0 lead, then psychs them out to take it all. “I feel hot tonight!” Bobby says as he checks to see who has the table reserved next, then tries to leave ... but not before the reservee, Billie Jean, shows up. “Who’d you hustle today, Bobby?” she asks, and he points to Oscar and Felix, chagrined, and wearing their own psych-out garb: the two-headed man; the huge blow-up sandwich-board photo of Billie Jean. After the two tennis stars begin to play, and get a rally going, Felix suddenly tells Oscar, with excitement, “I think we can take them.”
And ... scene.
I was oddly bummed that that “Odd Couple” episode was missing from the movie, “Battle of the Sexes,” starring Emma Stone and Steve Carrell. Couldn’t they have run it during the end credits or something? For fun?
But I was more bummed that my mom was missing.
Of sharks and dolphins
“Battle of the Sexes” was written by a Brit, Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours,” “Everest”), and directed by the wife-husband team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”), and it’s a nice movie but oddly insular. It’s too nice. It’s mostly about the lives of the two tennis stars in the year leading up to the match. And mostly about her. And a lot of that is just ... off.
She’s the top women’s player in the world but disrespected by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), recent founder of the Association of Tennis Professionals, so, with her agent, Gladys (Sarah Silverman), she creates the Women’s Tennis Association and goes off on a seemingly perpetual low-budget Virginia Slims tour on the California coast. There, for the first time, she gets involved in a same-sex relationship—with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough)—and deals with its psychic, marital and professional repercussions.
More on that in a second.
He’s a former No. 1 tennis player, now 55, with a rich wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), and a dull office job via his father-in-law. He escapes it, and the wife, by meeting the boys, drinking and betting. His betting here is seen as gambling rather than (as in the day) hustling. It’s good-natured—as he is. He goes to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and gives a carpe diem-ish “life is a gamble” speech. He just wants to have fun. The unstated joke is that the No. 1 male chauvinist pig is basically a henpecked husband.
He isn’t even the villain in the movie! The villain is Kramer, and, more generally, social mores. As a result, you don’t get a sense of all of the women in the world like my mom desperately rooting on Billie Jean. That’s just wrong. Dude played into reactionary, misogynistic forces for money and fame. Riggs was a shark but the movie makes him into a dolphin.
It does something similar to Marilyn Barnett. You certainly get an odd vibe from her. She shows up during the tour like, “Here I am,” and, worse, shows up a half hour before the Riggs match for a haircut and a chat. Really? When Billie Jean is repping her gender in the grudge match of the decade, you take the risk of throwing off her concentration? But their relationship in the movie is still steeped in romanticism. It's positive. Which I get. You can’t make this first lesbian relationship for Ms. King seem “bad.”
But it was. Barnett scared Billie Jean with her controlling ways, then attempted to extort her eight years later. She outed her in the press, and they faced off against each other in court. Billie Jean won that match, too, but you don’t get a glimmer of it here. It’s not even mentioned in a title card. It’s all soft focus. Or no focus.
Jumping the net
Interestingly, Billie Jean’s husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell), may be the most sympathetic person in the mix. Even as he’s getting pushed out of the picture, he always seems to have Billie Jean’s best interests—certainly her best professional interests—at heart. And the moment in the hotel room when he realizes he’s being cuckolded, and maybe all of the suspicions he’s had tumble into place, is heartbreaking.
But this, too, is screwed-up history. Watching, you'd think they divorced that year or the next, but they remained married until 1988. They're still good friends.
After Bobby loses in straight sets, he jumps over the net to congratulate Billie Jean—which is at least something that truly happened. I remember because I remember being incensed. Even as a 10-year-old I knew: “You don’t jump over the net if you lose; that only happens if you win.” It felt like Riggs was taking away some aspect of Billie Jean’s victory. And by portraying Riggs and Barnett in such soft focus, it kind of feels like the movie does the same.
Claim to Non-Fame
I was referenced without being named in a New York Times piece earlier this week.
Matthew Haag, a Brother of the Double-A, wrote an article entitled “So Where Are the New J. D. Salinger Books We Were Promised?” which is my question these days, too. In the disappointing 2013 Shane Salerno doc “Salinger,” and in articles surrounding that doc, we were told, starting in 2015, we would begin to see the following stories Salinger supposedly wrote but never published after 1965:
- “A Counterintelligence Agent’s Diary,” a novella, most likely based on Salinger's work during World War II
- “A World War II Love Story,” most likely based on his short, odd marriage to Sylvia Welter just after the war
- “The Complete Chronicle of the Glass Family,” featuring five new stories about Seymour Glass
- “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans,” about Holden Caulfield
- A religious manual on Hinduism
Well, here we are, nearly in 2018, and where are they?
Haag doesn't really answer that question, just gives us the back-and-forth between Salerno, who says they're still coming, and J.D.'s son (and one-time Captain America) Matthew, who is terse and opaque. Haag also gives us this:
[Salinger's] last published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” appeared in The New Yorker in June 1965, but Mr. Salinger decided in the mid-1990s to release it as a novella. He chose a small publishing company, Orchises Press, and demanded that the distribution be limited, that bookstores could not discount the price and that his name not be included on the cover.
But shortly before the work's release, a reporter uncovered details about it in a Library of Congress catalog, and the story spread. Afterward, Mr. Salinger never called Orchises Press to finalize the publication and it was never released, Roger Lathbury, the company's owner, recounted in New York magazine after the author's death.
That's me. I'm “a reporter.”
Actually “a reporter” is kind of an amalgamation of my sister and myself. I found “Hapworth” on amazon.com's site, back when amazon was less than a year old and got its book list in part from the Library of Congress, wrote about it in a small piece on Jeff Bezos for The Seattle Times, told my sister about it, she did the heavy lifting. It's our claim to non-fame. It's a little sad all around. If I hadn't been such a fan, I wouldn't have known “Hapworth” was anything and publication would've continued apace. But I was so it didn't.
The Long Con of the Conservative
Tom Toles, not holding back. pic.twitter.com/41azP1ZvZl— Alec MacGillis (@AlecMacGillis) October 27, 2017
Why anyone who isn't rich, or isn't racist, votes Republican, I have no idea.
Whose Emerald City is it Anyway?
Here's my odd coincidence of the week.
Two books I'm reading get into (just as asides, really) what inspired L. Frank Baum to create the Emerald City in his “Wizard of Oz” series at the end of the 19th century.
First, from “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History,” by Kurt Andersen:
L. Frank Baum was living [in Chicago] at the same time [as architect Frank Lloyd Wright] when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the world's fair's White City clearly inspired his Emerald City.
Yes, that's the White City of Erik Larson's “The Devil in the White City.” Andersen's book is about how American fantasy has seeped into and upended (and fucked up) much of our American reality throughout much of our history—but particularly since the 1960s. It's totally in my wheelhouse.
Then yesterday, feeling the need for a little baseball during lunchtime reading, I began Rich Cohen's memoir/history, “The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse.” Early on, amid discussions of how their team nickname went from the presitigious “White Stockings” to the deragatory/Irish “Spuds” to the close-enough/headline-friendly “Cubs,” Cohen writes this about their home ballpark in the days before Wrigley Field:
For two generations, Chicago baseball meant the West Side Grounds. It's where thousands of fans learned that it's thrilling to win but clarifying to lose. It's where Ring Lardner became a sports reporter. It's where Albert Spalding tolled a gong when he wanted his manager to change pitchers. It might even have been a model for the most fantastic landscape of all, Emerald City, capital of Oz. In the late 1800s, L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz novels, was living in Humboldt Park, a few blocks from the West Side Grounds. He could see the pennants above the rooftops, hear the cheers when something went right. Now and then, he bought a ticket. The trip from dreary Polk Street through the tunnel into the great green light-filled bowl, where men in uniforms chased each other around the bases trying to get home, is the trip from Kansas to Oz told another way.
Of course, Cohen qualifies his statment (“might have”), Andersen doesn't (“clearly”), and Wikipedia backs up Andersen, where West Side Park isn't even mentioned as a possible inspiration for Oz. But I like Cohen's spin. Hope that's not too much fantasyland.
West Side Park during the 1906 World Series. Green glasses sold separately.
Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
The big reveal in the original “Blade Runner” is that our hero, Deckard (Harrison Ford), who is tasked with hunting down and “retiring” four renegade and superpowerful androids, or replicants, including their charismatic leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), is himself a replicant. We find that out, obliquely, in the movie’s final scene.
The big reveal in “Blade Runner 2049” isn’t that the new blade runner, K (Ryan Gosling), is a replicant, since we get that in the first scene. No, the big reveal—halfway through the film—is that he’s the offspring of Deckard and the beautiful replicant Rachael (Rachel Ward). In other words, he wasn’t formed as an adult in a lab; he came out of a replicant’s womb. In other words, replicants can reproduce.
Then the big reveal is: Naw, that wasn’t him. The true offspring is someone we met in the first act.
The power of the original “Blade Runner” is that the renegade replicants, Nexus-6 models, have a short shelf-life, four years, because their maker, the Tyrell Corporation, and specifically Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), feared that after this period they would develop human emotions and do the awful things humans do. But it's also the point where they develop empathy. You see it in Roy Batty’s eyes and manner as he’s pursuing Deckard in the film’s final scenes. He’s beginning to feel for him. He even saves his life. Then, sitting in the rain, and dying, he says his famous last words, which are like poetry:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost ... in time ... like tears in rain.
Time to die.
So because we fear the worst in us, we kill off our creations just at the point they are revealing the best in us. Nice.
The power of “Blade Runner 2049” is... um...
I first saw the original a few years after it was released, when I was living in Taipei, Taiwan, and it was a vaguely surreal experience: watching a film set in 2019 Los Angeles, where it’s forever rainy, crowded, and Asian neon signs hang everywhere, and going out into the streets of Taipei, where it was rainy, crowded, and neon signs were everywhere.
I wasn’t a huge fan, by the way. It didn’t help that I may have been making out with a girl while watching it so missed clues like the unicorn dream that revealed all. Either way, I didn’t get it. When I watched it again this week, October 2017 (the future!), I liked it a little more, but overall it’s still too atmospheric for my taste. Plus the Deckard/Rachael relationship is ... Hollywoody? Plus the star is a nothing character. Sorry, it’s Rutger Hauer’s show. I did like our evolving feelings about the movie’s villains. They’re terrifying, yes, but also interesting, and finally heroic.
The villains in “Blade Runner 2049”? Just villains.
There’s an unstated joke in the new movie and it goes something like this: About two years after the dystopia of the first film, things got bad. Some event occurred, a virus or something, and all data was lost, and so ... I guess new replicants had to be built? Also nothing could be grown so we’re eating grubs? Also it stopped raining and started snowing.
The new Tyrell is Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who seems more replicant than the replicants in the movie. We see him in darkened room that’s like a sensory deprivation chamber. He’s got that white eyeball Master Po thing going, so I assume he’s blind. Like humanity? He also speaks...slowly and...quietly.
K’s job, like Deckard’s before him, is to retire old-model replicants, and as the movie opens he does this at a California farm. Outside, he discovers a dead tree, and a date carved into it, 6-10-21, that gives him a start. Beneath the tree they discover a box filled with bones: a woman who died in childbirth but had a Caesarean section. Except not a woman, a replicant. Wallace IDs the bones as Rachael’s.
Even as the hunt is on for more clues, the powers-that-be have divergent interests. The police, in the form of K’s boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), want to suppress the info so (I imagine) the few people on Earth don’t freak. Meanwhile, Wallace wants to know how this happened—he figures replicants reproducing will be good for his bottom line—so he dispatches Luv (Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks), all black bangs, impassive face, and occasionally furious eyes, to gather intel and kill people.
The replicants are second-class citizens here, virtual slave labor, avoiding eye contact with humans. At the same time, K is allowed an apartment with a holographic woman, Joi (Ana de Armas), who greets him, nurtures him, etc. The apartment thing is curious, though. Why don’t they just unplug the replicants like with Robocop? Whose need is being met with the apartment? And just what percentage of the population is replicant? If you go by cast, it’s a lot. Mostly, we’re just watching replicants interact with replicants.
In his investigation, K visits an old factory/orphanage, which corresponds exactly to a memory he’s had implanted in him, of running from bullies and hiding a toy wooden horse with the date 6-10-21 carved in the bottom. (That’s why he started earlier.) He finds the toy and takes it to Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), a memory designer, who tells him two things: 1) replicants can’t be given memories from humans; 2) his memories are real. Meaning he’s The One.
Yeah, “The One” again.
Anyway, the horse leads him to the ruins of Vegas, where he fights with, then drinks with, Deckard (Ford, of course), older now, and as embittered as ever. But Luv and her team find them, kidnap Deckard, and leave K for dead. He’s then rescued by the rebellion, who tell him the child born to Deckard and Rachael was a girl. From earlier clues, K surmises it was Dr. Ana Stelline. But why would she implant her memories into him? I still don’t get that part. Also, what is Deckard doing in Vegas? I like the holographic Elvises and such, not to mention his whiskey-drinking dog, but...does he have company? Ever? Is he just waiting for his final act?
In the movie's final act, K kills Luv, rescues Deckard, and reunites father and daughter before dying on the steps outside her institute in the snow—like Cagney in “The Roaring Twenties,“ but without tracing his rise-and-fall arc, and without the pietá.
A lot of people are giving director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival,” “Sicario,” “Incendies”) credit for recreating the artistic, ponderous atmosphere of the first film—but I'm obviously not a fan of that atmosphere. A few times here, waiting for shit to happen, I nearly drifted off. As for the question that began this review? I don’t see any real power to ”Blade Runner 2049." Time to die.
From Billy Witz's New York Times' post-mortem on the 2017 Yankees' season-ending loss to the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the ALCS:
It was the second consecutive game in which [Brian] McCann, who was traded by the Yankees to the Astros for a pair of low-level prospects last winter, had delivered a critical run-scoring double.
In a particularly painful twist, the Yankees are paying $5.5 million of McCann’s salary this year — and will do the same next season. The Yankees paid at least 15 players on their postseason roster less than they gave McCann this season.
Which Team is the Biggest Yankees Killer of the 21st Century?
Count 'em down:
- 2000: Oakland A's, Seattle Mariners, New York Mets
- 2001: Oakland A's, Seattle Mariners, Arizona Diamondbacks
- 2002: Anaheim Angels
- 2003: Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox, Florida Marlins
- 2004: Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox
- 2005: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
- 2006: Detroit Tigers
- 2007: Cleveland Indians
- 2008: n/a
- 2009: Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Philadelphia Phillies
- 2010: Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers
- 2011: Detroit Tigers
- 2012: Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers
- 2013: n/a
- 2014: n/a
- 2015: Houston Astros
- 2016: n/a
- 2017: Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros
In terms of the post-season, then, you gotta tip your cap to the Detroit Tigers. They've faced the Yankees three times and eliminated them three times. That's the way to do it, kids.
Astros? Twice and twice.
Angels were the first real Yankee killers of the 20th century, knocking them out in '02 and '05. But then '09. Oh well.
Every other Yankee killer is a one-fer: Diamondbacks, Marlins, BoSox (1-1), Indians (1-1), Rangers.
(The team you don't want the Yankees to face in the post? The Twins, obviously, who are a woeful 0-5. A's and M's also suck: 0-2.)
Extra points to the D-backs and the Red Sox, for making it so, so painful. Send 'em out, Carey:
How I Helped the Houston Astros Beat the New York Yankees in the 2017 ALCS
Key play: Bird clipped in the 5th. As The Wire‘s Omar said, “Just Bird to me.”
I can’t lie. I couldn't watch Game 7.
Yesterday, Saturday, we had plans to see the Andrew Wyeth exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum with our friends Vinny and LoLo and we stayed until around 5:00 (gametime), and then we went out for drinks and dinner until around 7:30. I could‘ve watched then. But I didn’t. I didn't even go online. I left my phone off. Like all the way off. The day before a friend, who was a Yankees fan, texted me some snide comment mid-game, and I didn't want to know, so I turned the whole thing off that night and the next night. I didn't want to jinx it.
This is partly the result of what happened Tuesday night. Patricia and I were on our way to dinner before seeing “Ragtime” at the 5th Avenue Theater (full disclosure: it's rare when we get out this much), and beforehand I checked the score on ESPN.com: 4-0, Astros, in the 7th. Great! They'd be up three games to one with one more to win. But then I saw something on Twitter. Something about how someone, Joe Musgrove or someone, was supposed to be the Astros' Andrew Miller and it hadn't happened. I went back to ESPN.com with an awful feeling in my stomach. Yep. It was now 4-3 in the bottom of the 8th, one out, and the Yankees had runners on first and third. Then it was 4-4 in the bottom of the 8th, one out, and the Yankees had runners on first and third. Then it was 6-4, Yankees. Then it was over and the series was tied, 2-2, and the Yankees had momentum.
All because I'd checked the score on ESPN.com.
I don't know why baseball fans are like this but some part of me was thinking that. No, not thinking. Feeling. Stupidly feeling. I just had that awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. So when the games went back to Houston, with the Yankees up 3-2, I decided not to watch. I didn't want to jinx anything. Last night, when P and I got home, I suggested we watch “Minority Report,” which I hadn't seen since it was released, and which some people feel is a great movie. (It's not.) Before then, Patricia wanted to show me a video of something someone shared on Facebook, something about corgis, and I told her no, not going to look. Couldn't risk it. Couldn't risk even that proximity to social media. Instead the movie. We watched half of it, before I grew tired, got in bed, read a bit of “The Snowman,” fell asleep with Jellybean on my chest. Woke up, fed Jellybean, made coffee, brushed my teeth while listening to NPR, and in the midst of the usual horrid Trump news, they gave us their World Series announcement.
They took their sweet time getting there, but even that was a good sign. If the Yankees had won, after all, that would be the lead. Yankees Yankees Yankees. Instead, they announced that the World Series would begin on Tuesday evening (right...) with the Los Angeles Dodgers representing the National League (OK...) and representing the American League (c'mon already...) ... the Houston Astros, who beat ...
It was all I could do, at 6 AM in our condo on First Hill in Seattle, not to scream for joy.
This is what that means. Instead of the New York Yankees winning their 41st pennant (second-best team has 20) and having the opportunity to win their 28th World Series (second-best team has 11), the Houston Astros won their second pennant and have the opportunity to win their first World Series.
Meaning, on this Sunday morning, in this awful Trump era, in this awful year of 2017, there is a little justice in the world.
Thank you, Astros.
NPR's Ron Elving Knows What He Signed Up For
I’ve ragged on NPR a lot over the last year, with reason, but I’ve got to give credit to senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving, who, in discussion with Weekend Edition’s Scott Simon, deftly and humanely handled how you deal with the perpetual and absurd distraction machine coming from the Trump White House.
The topic was Pres. Trump’s remarks to the widow of a fallen soldier, Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in Niger a few weeks ago. In a phone call to her, Trump said that Johnson “knew what he was signing up for, but it still hurts.” Clumsy. He also never used Sgt. Johnson's name. He kept saying “your guy.” The widow, with two children, and pregnant with a third, felt like the president didn’t even know her husband’s name. “That’s the hurting part,” Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fl), who was with Johnson’s widow when the call was received, told MSNBC.
At first Trump denied he said those words. Then he’s spent days attacking Congresswoman Wilson. He's still doing it.
Now to NPR:
Scott Simon: [White House Chief of Staff] John Kelly, in addition to delivering, I think, very moving remarks about what it’s like to be a parent and lose a child, he stepped into the controversy by directing criticism at the congresswoman, didn’t he?
Ron Elving: Yes. Someone had apparently given him some kind of bad information about a claim that she had supposedly made of giving some funding for a building in Florida. Turns out she never made that claim. ... And the White House was also (sighs), oh, poking fun at the congresswoman’s dress and hat. And this just turned out to be the sort of thing that, if they were trying to distract from the original questions about what these soldiers were doing in Niger, why we were suddenly taking casualties in this part of the world where most people don’t think the United States is engaged, and of course the controversy over why it took so long for the president to acknowledge these deaths, or to say anything to the families, or to acknowledge them at all, if that was the purpose, well, I guess that has been accomplished.
Love the way he framed that: If they’re trying to distract us from A, B, C, well, it worked—even as he reminds us of A, B. C.
Rest of media, please take note.
The rest of their discussion is good, too.
If He Catches You You're Through
Patricia had bought and liked the Norweigian serial-killer thriller “The Snowman: A Harry Hole Novel”—which has been made into a movie directed by Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) and sadly getting horrific reviews—and, a bit tired of all of my non-fiction, I began it last night.
It's good. It's not literature. It's a thriller, a page-turner, and creepy, and I'm enjoying it. I like how, set in Norway, so much is still set against U.S. presidential elections: Reagan in '80, Clinton in '92, W. in '04. I like how author Jo Nesbo holds back and holds back. He suggests the horror. At the stage I'm at, he's not showing us the shark, we're just getting the du dun ... du dun... I also like how easily he turns a figure of childhood fun, the snowman, into a source of terror.
And I like this bit that I read this morning. Our hero is investigating the disappearance of a mother, and talks with her 10-year old son who had been watching a “Road Runner” cartoon until his stern father returned:
Harry crouched down beside Jonas, who was still staring at the black TV screen.
“So you like roadrunners, do you?” Harry asked.
The boy shook his head mutely.“Why not?”
Jonas's whisper was barely audible: “I feel sorry for Wile E. Coyote.”
That was me as a kid. I'd forgotten I'd ever felt that way.
The Last Time the Dodgers Won the Pennant
The last time the Dodgers won the pennant, in 1988, the year of Kirk Gibsons's Roy Hobbes-ish homerun and Orel Hershiser's dominance, they had more pennants than any NL team: 18. Now, with 19, they're tied for second with the Cardinals and one behind the Giants.
Here are the teams who've won the NL pennant since the Dodgers last won the pennant:
- Giants (5)
- Braves (5)
- Cardinals (4)
- Phillies (3)
- Mets (2)
- Marlins (2)
The only NL teams to not win a pennant since the Dodgers last did it are the Pirates, who last went in 1979, the Brewers, who went as an AL team in 1982, and the Expos/Nationals, who have never been at all.
In terms of postseason appearances, the Dodgers, with 31, are second only to the Yankees (who have 53). For pennants, as mentioned, the Dodgers are tied for third (19). With World Series titles, they're fifth (6). The farther they get into the postseason, the more they're screwed.
I had no real dogs in this NLCS hunt. I wouldn't have minded the Cubs going back-to-back, to make up for the century-long drought; but the Dodgers, per above, have had a real dry spell. Plus Clayton Kerhsaw needs to go. We should only have so many Ken Griffey Jrs and King Felixes and Rod Carews.
Last night's pennant-clincher at Wrigley Field was a blowout. The Dodgers scored one in the first, one in the second, one in the third and had the bases loaded with on one out. That's when Cubs' manager Joe Maddon went to his bullpen. I don't really follow the Cubs but when relief pitcher Hector Rondon came in, and they flashed his season ERA, 4.24, I was taken aback. Was that the best they had for this situation? With the season on the line? At first it seemed a pretty smart move: Rondon struck out Logan Forsythe on three pitches. Then it didn't: Enrique Hernandez, who hit a homer to left in the 2nd inning, hit one to right. At first I thought: double in the gap. Then it sneaked over the fence for a grand slam. Hernandez added a two-run job in the 9th to add his name to list of (now 10) guys who've hit three HRs in a postseason game—beginning with Babe Ruth in the 1926 World Series, and ending with Jose Altuve in Game 1 of the 2017 ALDS. Ruth is the only one to do it twice.
I watched all of this at the Quarter Lounge, surrounded by Cubs fans, whose hopes dimmed then darkened. On the plus side they had last year; and they still have a good young team; and they're not Pirates fans.
Two years ago I wrote a post about LA's postseason futility entitled “Dodgers Dodge Another World Series.” Wait 'til this year, I guess.
Movie Review: Goodbye Mr. Loser (2015)
It’s fascinating watching a time-travel comedy that relies on cultural knowledge without having real knowledge of that culture.
At one point in “Goodbye Mr. Loser,” for example, Xia Luo (Shen Teng), the titular loser, who’s been transported from his sad life in 2016 back to his senior year of high school in 1997 where he can rectify things, is standing in his old room skimming VHS tapes and looking for a singer named Pu Shu. Then he has an epiphany. Pu Shu isn’t famous yet! Neither are his songs. But he knows them. He can sing Pu Shu’s songs, and anyone else’s, and become famous himself!
My thought: Who’s Pu Shu?
But yeah, you still get it. More: I found myself laughing at “Goodbye Mr. Loser.” A lot. Once Luo shows songwriting talent/theft, his principal demands he perform in the school talent show. Cut to: Luo, dressed in Bruce Lee Game-of-Death yellows, leaping around the stage and singing Jay Chou’s 2006 death-metal rap about nunchucks. Cut to: Perky moderator awarding first prize to ... a primary school boy for his song “I Offered Petroleum to My Motherland.”
And how cool that the Chinese movie industry can make this joke now. Does that mean those days are gone? Where kids win awards for idiot (and super dull) propaganda? I’m curious.
The main point is that, despite the cultural dislocation, the comedy travels well. It's other parts that don’t.
Without the Beatles
I never liked the main character. Ever.
During the cold open, sure, when he’s being chased at a wedding by his crazed wife, he seems hapless enough. Then you get the backstory. He’s at the wedding of Qui Ya (Wang Zhi) because 20 years after high school he still has a crush on her. So he shows up, pretends to be rich, is revealed to be a fraud, gets drunk, reads bad poetry to her on bended knee, and—the topper—when his wife, Ma Dong Mei (Ma Li, a standout), shows up and pleads with him to leave with her, we find out she holds down two jobs and he has none.
Dude. Man up.
And what does he do back in ’97? Starts out by making a pass at Qui Ya, mortifying her. Then he demands the seat next to her and stares, while she squirms uncomfortably. He’s like a stalker here. And that’s the least of it. Once he becomes famous (and marries Qui Ya), he turns into a major asshole: yachts, bikini babes, affairs, tantrums, outlandish clothes and hairstyle. At the 2016 wedding, he’d worn a feather in his lapel and been mocked for it, so in his superstar incarnation he wears bigger and bigger feathers. It’s a good gag. But him? He’s just awful.
Not to mention...
OK, so fans in China have noticed similarities between “Finding Mr. Right” and Francis Coppola’s “Peggy Sue Got Married” from 1986. I actually had to familiarize myself with “Peggy Sue”’s plot again, since I hadn’t seen it since 1986, but there are similarities—including the whole “stealing the song” idea. In Coppola’s movie, in 1960, Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) gives her then-boyfriend, the hapless Charlie (Nicolas Cage), who’s pining to be a rock ‘n’ roll star, a song with which he can achieve his dream. It’s called “She Loves You.” I remember watching that scene back in 1986 and suddenly getting pissed off. Wait, she’s stealing the Beatles’ song? For this schmuck? So he can become a star? What happens to them? What the hell, Peggy Sue? Who wants to live in a world where the Beatles are usurped by Nicolas effin' Cage?
This movie takes that and times it by 100. Xiao Luo keeps stealing songs. He keeps stealing Jay Chou’s songs. He creates a version of “The Voice,” where, on one episode, a young Taiwanese contestant sings one of his songs, which throws Luo into a rage. Who is it? Jay Chou, of course, unknown in this world, and perplexed by the odd shadow Xia Luo has cast over his life. It’s supposed to be funny but it’s kind of creepy.
Is there comeuppance Xia Luo? Of course, but it’s a little stupid. He comes to realize that he loves (yawn) his old wife, Ma Dong Mei, whom he’d already palmed off on his dopey friend Chun. So he visits their small apartment. He tastes her food again. Most of this bit is so ennervating I could barely watch. But finally he leaves. Back to his riches and fame, which aren’t enough anymore.
Oh yeah, then he’s diagnosed with AIDS. Then he dies. Lesson for everybody.
No place like home
The death, though, releases him from that particular timeline, and, like in a dream, he winds up back in the bathroom of the 2016 grand wedding ballroom where it all began. He’s so grateful to have his old life back—to being Mr. Loser again—that he clings to Dong Mei wherever she goes. But even here, lesson learned, he’s pathetic.
I’d still recommend it for Americans curious about Chinese movies. “Goodbye Mr. Loser” was a huge sleeper hit in China in 2015. Made without stars, it grossed $226 million—the seventh-highest-grossing film of the year, just behind “Jurassic World”—and it’s already spawned a Malaysian knockoff. The Hollywood one, I’m sure, isn’t far behind. Question: Does Coppola get a cut?
Movie Review: Marshall (2017)
If you’re wondering why it’s Connecticut v. Joseph Spell rather than any number of Thurgood Marshall’s more famous civil rights cases, particularly Brown v. Board of Education, it’s because the film’s screenwriter, Michael Koskoff, is a plaintiff’s attorney from Bridgeport, Conn. A colleague had researched the Spell case extensively and encouraged Koskoff, who had defended a member of the Black Panthers in the early ’70s, and whose family has a performing arts background, to write a screenplay about it. So he did. His son, Jacob, a screenwriter in Hollywood (the Michael Fassbender “Macbeth” movie), helped.
Susan Dunne, at the Hartford Courant, has a great piece on Koskoff here.
I like all of that. I like that a prestigious lawyer wrote a courtroom drama about a sensational-but-forgotten case involving one of the most famous lawyers of the 20th century. I like Chadwick Boseman’s turn as Thurgood Marshall, full of pop and verve and charm, and I like the sense of him as a marshal, a Lone Ranger, going from town to town and righting wrongs. I like the cameo at the end that lets us know the distance we haven’t traveled.
I just wish I’d liked the movie better.
Friedman > Gad
We get too many subplots. Marshall’s wife is pregnant, they hang out with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, then she has a miscarriage. Marshall’s local counsel Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) is a young insurance-defense lawyer who is basically snookered into the case. His wife, Stella (Marina Squerciati), is angry at him for even taking it, but at the local synagogue, piqued by a bigoted friend, she comes around. Then she finds out about her family in Europe. The Holocaust looms. Crazy bigots are on every other street corner, and synchronize attacks on Marshall and Friedman. The lawyers have battle scars. Oh, and one of the jurors has a thing for Friedman.
In reality, Friedman was an attorney in good standing who mostly needed counseling on how to present racial matters, not how to present a criminal-defense case. This description of Friedman by Daniel J. Sharfstein for Legal Affairs in 2005 is way more interesting to me than the movie’s fumbling version:
A few years older than Marshall, Friedman had practiced law with his brother, Irwin, since the 1920s. Unassuming in his dark three-piece suit and matching bow tie, his short black hair neatly combed back, Friedman was developing a reputation as a tenacious advocate with a flair for courtroom drama.
And why didn’t we get this scene?
Bridgeport was not a hospitable city for African-Americans: A 1933 Connecticut law banning discrimination in public places was not enforced. Friedman was allowed to take Marshall to lunch at the Stratfield Hotel restaurant only because he was the hotel’s lawyer.
Spell (Sterling K. Brown, Chris Darden in “The People v. O.J. Simpson) was accused by his employer, prominent socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), of rape and attempted murder, and right from the beginning (not at the end of the second act, as in the movie), Spell tells his lawyers that it was consensual sex. It’s basically he said/she said—but with the “he” black and the “she” white and well-connected. His story has fewer holes but you’re dealing with all-white jury in 1941. So who knows? I like that, too. It’s not super obvious which way the jury will go.
By the time the jury delivered its verdict (not guilty), Marshall, as in real life, had already moved on to another town and another case, but the movie implies that Strubing wanted something from Spell after it was over. Tenderness? Forgiveness? At least publicly, that wasn’t the case. From The New York Times, Feb. 3, 1941:
Mrs. Eleanor Strubing, socially prominent Greenwich (Conn.) woman whose Negro butler was acquitted last week of charges that he attacked her, said today "the verdict leaves the women of America at the mercy of any one who may seek their ruin. ... The law has failed utterly in this case. My indignation is boundless.”
The state’s governor, too, was swamped with mail saying the verdict was “beyond all belief” and “a disgrace to Connecticut,” while the district attorney, Loren Willis (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey”), considered an appeal. It was like the O.J. verdict; white people were incensed.
What’s odd and tone-deaf about the movie, particularly in this weekend when Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual harassment is all over the news, is how the defense discredits Strubing’s story. They imply she’s lying because she didn’t go for help; she didn’t scream. It ignores what panic does to people. I felt like I could’ve argued her case better than the D.A.
Overall, “Marshall,” directed by Reginald Hudlin (“House Party,” “The Ladies Man”), is a sleeker, glossier version of history than I like, but the ending, particularly once you know the cameos, is powerful.
Marshall continues on to his next case (in reality Oklahoma, here Mississippi), where, via a bad phone connection, he gets the good news from Friedman. He smiles and leans against the wall ... and into the picture we see a “Whites Only” drinking fountain. I would’ve liked just that, just that reminder, but the movie demands Marshall get all Jane Pittman on us, drinking from the fountain before walking out to meet his new clients in his next civil rights case. Who are they? Parents dealing with the horrors a racist system does to their children. Why is that powerful? They’re played by Trayvon Martin’s parents.
It’s like Marshall has stepped through the past and into our time. It’s like that role, that Lone Ranger role, moving from town to town and trying to extract a small piece of justice, never ends.
Rooting for the New York Yankees is like Rooting for White People
Imagine if the Houston Astros hadn't done its job, we'd be getting Yankees vs. Red Sox in the ALCS again. Lord.
Last night the Cleveland Indians didn't do its job and so “for the first time since 2012” (as SI intoned on Twitter), the New York Yankees are going to the ALCS. Yeah, that five-year-long wandering in the wilderness they went through; I don't know how their fans stuck it out.
Overall, it will be the Yankees' eighth ALCS this century. Since 2000, we‘ve had 18 LCSes and the Yankees have been in eight of them. The Indians remain stuck on three. Scratch that: two. This will be Houston’s third LCS this century, and its first in the American League. The team with the most is the Cardinals, who have nine.
But to Yankee fans, those aren't the numbers that matter. The numbers that matter are 40 and 27. As in pennants and rings. They‘ve been stuck on those since 2009 and want to move on. They want to add to them. Continually. Ad nauseum. And in case you don’t know, the team with the most rings after the Yankees is the Cardinals, who have ... 11. The team with the most pennants after the Yankees is the Giants, who have ... 20. So no one's close. The Yankees have most and want more.
Last night, watching all of this at the QL, our local bar, with too much drink in me and surrounded by too few people who cared about the game, I thought of the famous slogan from the early 1960s: “Rooting for the New York Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel.” Meaning a powerful, faceless, pointless entity. A machine that kept producing this product on an assembly line. Rah.
I thought of the update while stewing (stewed) at the QL: Rooting for the New York Yankees is like rooting for white people. When I got home I plastered it all over Twitter. I interrupted Yankees fans online celebrations with it. Many didn't get the reference, of course, and thought to educate me by bringing up all the non-white players on the team.
In the remaining LDS, I'm rooting for the Nats (with zero LCS appearances and zero pennants) over the Cubs (last year's feel-good story). Mostly, though, I'm just rooting for Houston. To end it already.
My Favorite Thing Today
Then why are we disputing it— Julius Ghost 🦆 (@JuliusGoat) October 11, 2017
ALDS Game 5: Who to Root For
Right now there's some mainstream-media confusion as to who is the underdog (and thus who you should root for) in tonight's winner-take-all American League Division Series matchup between the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians.
Cleveland, you see, went to the World Series last year. They forced a Game 7. They were one measly run from winning it all. And this year they set a modern record by winning 22 straight games. They had the best record in the American League. They's a powerhouse.
The Yankees, meanwhile, haven't won it all since way back in 2009. (I can barely see back that far.) The team, for once, is not totally made up of high-priced free agents (although it's still got its share of those), but its heart is a couple of young, hungry, powerful players, like 6' 8“ monstrosity Aaron Judge, and 1930s Warner Bros. gangster Gary Sanchez. They've been dubbed the ”Baby Bombers," which is a cute name, and they do cute things. After a player hits a homerun, for example, the others, rather than congratulate him, conduct a mock press conference in the dugout. And they've turned a hapless Tampa Bay Ray fan's sign of disapproval, a thumbs down gesture after a Todd Frazier homerun, into a talisman. Now when they do good things, they use this gesture with each other. Shows that fan of that team that never won anything.
So, for some in the media, the Yankees are not completely the Goliath here. If you squint, like until your eyes are completley shut, they're a little bit of David.
In this frame of reference, both teams are due. The Yankees have won 27 World Series championships throughout their storied career, which is an average of one every 4.15 years. And it's been eight years now, nearly twice that. Their fans are bereft.
The Indians have won two World Series championships throughout their less-than-storied career, which is an average of one every 56 years. They last won it all in 1948, which is longer than 56 years. But is it twice that? No. So whose fans are truly bereft?
A few more stats to continue the discussion. I posted these on Facebook yesterday.
Before baseball's expansion era began, meaning from 1903 to 1960, the New York Yankees won 25 pennants. That's 44% of all possible pennants they could've won during this period. The second-best AL team (the Athletics) won 8 pennants—or 14%.
The Cleveland Indians won 3.
Once the expansion era began, and the number of league rivals grew from eight to 10 to 12 to 14, and now 15, the Yankees couldn't dominate the way they once did—but they still dominated. Since '61, they've won 15 pennants. That's 27% of all possible pennants they could've won during this period.
The second-best AL team during this era (Orioles, BoSox, A's) won 6 pennants—or 11%.
The Cleveland Indians won 3.
But here's the best measure of the success, or not, of the two teams. Warning: There's some math involved.
In both eras, i.e., from 1903 to today, the Yankees, with their 27 rings, have won 24% of all available World Series titles, while the Indians, with their two, have won 1.8%. So for the Yankees to reach the Indians' current percentage level of titles to opportunties, i.e., that 1.8%, they need to not win a World Series title for a while. How long?
The answer is approximately 1,350 years. Until the year 3366.
Essentially that's how much misery the Yankees and their fans have to make up in order to to reach the current misery-level index of the Cleveland Indians and their fans. Just a thousand years. And change.
That's also my answer as to when I might begin to root for them. If the Yankees haven't won another World Series title by the year 3366, I'll consider it. I might throw them a bone. Until then, nah. Until then, I have another hand gesture for the Baby Bombers and their fans. It's a little less polite than the one used in Tampa Bay.
Movie Review: Wolf Warrior II (2017)
It’s got a great open. I’ll give it that.
In a single shot, we see Somali pirates attack a freighter, the panicked faces of the crew, and then, moving with grace and purpose, there’s our hero from the first “Wolf Warrior,” Leng Feng (Wu Jing), diving into the water, upending the hijackers’ inflatables and fighting and defeating them underwater before he—and this is still one shot, by the way—pulls himself into one of the remaining inflatables, grabs a rifle and picks off the lead hijacker (who’s aiming at him) with a crack shot from a hundred yards away. Cue credits.
Then it gets stupid fast.
I don’t mind the overt nationalism, the literal flag-waving, the Chinese businessman who dismisses his Chinese citizenship only to cling to Leng Feng and that very citizenship once the bullets start flying.
No, it’s the racism, stupid.
Not your typical travelogue
In case you haven’t been following Chinese box office receipts (most westerners), or reading this blog (ditto +), “Wolf Warrior II” is the movie phenomenon of the year. Last year, Stephen Chow’s “The Mermaid” shattered Chinese box office records by bringing in $526 million, which was a startling, tough-to-beat amount. But this shattered that. In China alone, it grossed $852 million. Add the $20 million it made abroad, and “Wolf Warrior II” is the first Chinese movie—hell, the first non-Hollywood movie—to enter the list of the top 100 movies in terms of worldwide gross. It does for the movie business what Leng Feng does for geopolitics: Makes a stand for China.
The first “Wolf Warrior,” which came out in March 2015 and grossed a respectable-ish $80 mil or so, was all about border security and protecting the homeland. “Don’t even think of going back when you break into China!” Leng tells the movie’s villains. This one is about protecting Chinese nationals abroad. The movie may revel in explosions and violence amid a bloody civil war and an Ebola-like disease in a fictional coastal African nation—things that normally put one off travel—but it ends with a shot of a Chinese passport and this message:
“Citizens of the People’s Republic of China: When you encounter danger in a foreign land, do not give up! Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland.”
China literally means “center country” (jung guo), as in “the center of the world,” and once upon a time it expected the world to come to it. No longer. Its official message now is the message of “Scarface”: The world is yours.
The last time we saw Leng Feng, he was triumphant and chatting up his superior officer/girlfriend, Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan). So what’s he doing alone on a freighter off the African coast? The backstory comes sepia-toned.
- The Wolf Warrior team returns the remains of a fallen comrade to his family, only to find them inches away from death at the hands of a nasty developer—until Leng Feng takes care of that dude. For his troubles, or his temper, he gets three years in prison.
- During his prison stay, his girlfriend is kidnapped and killed by terrorists. The only clue is a specially designed, striated bullet that did the deed. Oddly, it’s undamaged. More oddly, he wears it on a chain around his neck as a talisman.
That’s why Africa. His search for the killer has led him here. Shame. The Chinese don’t do Africa, or black people, particularly well.
In this fictional country, Feng is godfather to a fat African kid, Tundu (Nwachukwu Kennedy Chukwuebuka, making his film debut), who is both li’l rascal (selling bootleg porn), and pudgy comic relief (forever interested in food). When the bullets fly, and Feng goes above and beyond to get him to the safety of a Chinese warship, Tundu runs down the plank crying for him mom, who’s stuck in an inland city. Feng promises to bring her back, setting in motion the rest of the movie. Later, Tundu sees his mom via Skype, and cries. He cries while eating. He’s got a big bounty in front of him, courtesy of the Chinese, and he’s both crying and stuffing his face.
But that’s not close to the worst of it. Here’s the worst of it. More than halfway through, in the quiet after a battle, Feng and He Jianguo (Wu Gang), an old, wise, former career soldier, watch as the Africans celebrate another day of living by lighting a bonfire and dancing. “Our African friends,” says He. “Once they’re around a bonfire, they can’t help themselves.”
While the movie is obtuse in its racism, it’s concise in its anti-Americanism—although with an odd corresponding need for western approval. Sure, the movie’s villain, Big Daddy (Frank Grillo), goes out in a blaze of racist glory (“People like you will always be beaten by people like me” he says to Leng Feng), but first he has to give grudging admiration: “I guess the Chinese military isn’t as lame as I thought,” he sneers. Ditto Leng Feng with the U.S. military. The female lead, feisty American girl Rachel Prescott Smith (Hong Kong actress Celina Jade), mistakenly thinks the U.S. will come to her rescue. “You think the U.S. Marines are the best in the world?” Leng Feng asks her. “They may be, but where are they now?” The point is we lack spirit. We cut and run. China doesn’t. They steam into port while we flee.
Except ... our Marines may be the best in the world? Under the circumstances, that’s kinda sweet.
If you can get past the racism and the geopolitics, “Wolf Warrior II” is your typical action-adventure, with an indestructible hero, near-indestructible villains (including 6’ 6” Ukrainian martial artist Oleg Prudius), and tons of explosions. The spoiled soldier redeems himself while the hectoring middle manager doesn’t. Leng Feng’s original goal—rescuing Tundu’s mom—keeps growing, as he’s responsible for more and more civilians, in worse locations, even as the bad guys close in. Oh, and it turns out Big Daddy is the one who uses striated bullets. Shocker.
Comparisons to mid-80s Stallone are inevitable. Like Rambo in “Rambo II,” Leng fights for his country’s honor abroad; he rectifies past wrongs and imagines future greatness. Like Rocky in “Rocky IV,” he drapes himself in the flag. Leng literally wears it on his sleeve so his rag-tag group of Chinese nationals and African locals can safely drive through a war zone. “Hold your fire!” the African soldiers shout. “It’s the Chinese!”
So what does it all mean? Why did the ultra-patriotic “Wolf Warrior” do meh box office while this one went gangbusters? Because sequels do better than originals? Because “I” was local and “II” international? Because “I” was released when Obama was president and “II” came out during the first hot, idiot summer of Trump?
Maybe the better question is this: When will Chinese movies begin to do better internationally? They’ve already got the production values, the tropes, and the explosions of Hollywood. What’s missing? A white face? But that doesn’t explain the international popularity of stars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Will Smith. Does the movie contain too much nationalism? Or maybe the wrong kind of nationalism? Almost anyone can imagine themselves American, after all, but only the Chinese get to be Chinese.
That’s one of the great ironies about “Wolf Warrior II”: The movie about Chinese power abroad is really only powerful at home. But make no mistake: There’s a lot of power there.
Nice Knowing You
This was tweeted on Saturday by Tony Schwartz, Trump's ghostwriter on “The Art of the Deal,” who tried to warn us all a year ago June, in a shocking, sobering assessment of the then-GOP nominee by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker. Not enough people read it, or listened to those who did. Not enough voters sobered up:
Wag the Dog. Trump is willing to start a NUCLEAR WAR & kill tens of millions of people to divert attention from his failures. He is a madman— Tony Schwartz (@tonyschwartz) October 7, 2017
And the Best Baseball Team of the 21st Century is...
Here's one take anyway.
Caveats: The chart below is just about the postseason. Regular season, schmegular season. The first column (PS) includes this year's postseason appearances, but there's no 2017 additions for the rest since we haven't gotten there yet. Soon, soon. (Maybe tomorrow, Cleveland?) It also includes the year 2000. I'm not one of those sticklers.
Here's the key I used to reach the total on the right:
- Postseason = 1 point
- LCS = 2 points
- Pennant = 3 points
- World Series title = 5 points
|St. Louis Cardinals||12||9||4||2||52|
|New York Yankees||14||7||4||2||50|
|Boston Red Sox||9||5||3||3||43|
|San Francisco Giants||7||4||4||3||42|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||9||4||17|
|Kansas City Royals||2||2||2||1||17|
|New York Mets||4||3||2||16|
|Chicago White Sox||3||1||1||1||13|
|Tampa Bay Rays||4||1||1||9|
|Toronto Blue Jays||2||2||6|
|San Diego Padres||2||2|
You might want to weigh things differently. Originally I thought, “A pennant should mean way more than an LCS, and a title way more than that,” so had something like a 1/3/5/10 point scheme. But under that, you'd have one-time wonders like the Marlins beating perennials like the Dodgers and that didn't seem right to me. So I opted for this.
But in either point scheme, or almost any you come up with, four teams dominate: Cards, Yanks, Giants, BoSox. Then a big drop.
BTW, as a Mariners fan, it's hard to imagine five teams having worse centuries than the M's, but the numbers don't lie.
My rooting interests this year, from fave to least, for the eight teams remaining:
- Cleveland Indians
- Washington Nationals
- Houston Astros
- Los Angeles Dodgers
- Chicago Cubs
- Boston Red Sox
- Arizona Diamondbacks
- Lima beans
- The cut I got on my right index finger while washing Jellybean's food can the other day
- The stain on the sofa that won't come out
- Steve Inskeep
- “Transformers 2”
- That bout with the stomach flu I had after Christmas 2006
- Steve Bannon
- The NRA
- Mitch McConnell
- Donald Trump
- New York Yankees
Actually, that's unfair. I'd totally root for the Yankees over those last four.
Note: If the Indians win it all, which they haven't done since '48, the “longest title drought” title will, for the first time, enter the expansion era (1961-today). And the title holder will be the Texas Rangers, who came into existence as the second Washington Senators in 1961, the same year as the California Angels (who won it all in 2002), then moved to Texas in '72. After that, it's 'Stros, who arrived in '62 with the Mets (who have two titles), then three of the four '69 teams: Padres, Brewers, Expos/Nats. The fourth '69er, the Royals, long considered hapless, are actually, along with the Mets, the second-most successful expansion team in baseball history.
David Freese forces a Game 7, Oct. 2011
I remember a baseball game I went to with my father when I was in about first grade. It was just the two of us, I believe, and we were in our seats, and the game was about to begin. But first a song. After it was over, he looked at me with an air of wonderment and pride. “Where did you learn that?” he asked. “School,” I shrugged. “Huh. I didn't know you knew that.” On one level, I didn't think much of it; on another, I felt pride in the pride he felt in me. So much so that I remember the scene to this day.
I've had a mixed relationship with the “Star-Spangled Banner” ever since. How many times have I sung it? Too many. I get bored now. At the same time, I remember taking umbrage when friends in college suggested that it might not be the best song for our National Anthem, since it: 1) was hard to sing, and 2) ended with a question we never answer. Oh say, does that star-bangled banner yet wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave? We never find out. Shouldn't we all sing “Yesssss!” at the end? For closure's sake? But not getting closure, keeping it open-ended, feels very American to me now. In the American experiment, nothing is guaranteed.
Particularly these days.
So how many more weekends will the “Banner” be an issue? And let's face it: It's an issue now not because Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee two or so years ago to quietly protest law enforcement shooting and killing unarmed black men. It's an issue because our megalomaniac president opened his piehole during an Alabama rally two weeks ago and fed the crowd red (state) meat:
That's a total disrespect of our heritage. That's a total disrespect of everything that we stand for. ... Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you'd say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired!”
What precipitated this outburst? Nothing. The protests, which were few, hadn't really been in the news or in our consciousnesses. Trump made it all about him. As he does. The result? The number of on-field or locker-room protests zoomed from about 10 to 250. Question: If you're a Trump supporter, and you don't want players kneeling or sitting or remaining in the locker room during the National Anthem, has your man made things better or worse?
I'm surprised more fans haven't started taking a knee. That's what I want to do now, particularly after Trump doubled down last weekend:
Very important that NFL players STAND tomorrow, and always, for the playing of our National Anthem. Respect our Flag and our Country!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017
Remember how he wanted FBI Director James Comey to swear loyalty to him? That's what it feels like he's doing with our song. He's not only making the issue about him, he's making the song, and the flag, about him. It's part of his authoritarian instincts. Deep down, he probably suspects it's the only way he'll get any respect.
#Takeaknee, everyone. Take a fucking knee.
Movie Review: American Made (2017)
“American Made” is a fun, rollickin’ look at the insane juxtaposition of South American drugs, anti-communist rebels and right-wing American politics in the early 1980s. I laughed throughout at the absurdity and hypocrisy of it all.
Pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is a good-ol-boy cog in these machines. At each turn, as things ratchet up and he’s faced with a powerful and dangerous handler giving him a new insane mission, he just tosses up his hands, gives us that Tom Cruise All-American smile, and says, “Whatever you say, boss.” He’s the daredevil trying to thread his way amidst several colliding enterprises. No wonder he gets crushed.
I liked that aspect of the movie. A lot. I also liked that we were getting necessary history here—the Howard Zinn-ish underside of the All-American smile, the cynical wink behind the Reagan-era propaganda.
Until, that is, I looked into the history.
Ellin Stein at Slate goes over some of the discrepancies between fact and fiction here, but it may be enough to know that the movie opens in 1978 with Seal as a straight-laced TWA pilot who gets sucked into the biz by a CIA contact named “Shafer” (Domhnall Gleeson), when Seal wasn’t with TWA in 1978. He was fired in ’72 after being arrested for running plastic explosives. So not exactly straight-laced. He also didn’t look like Tom Cruise, either—more like a ’70s-era Joe Don Baker—but that’s artistic license we’re used to from Hollywood. Hell, that’s the one we demand.
In the movie version, Seal is so bored with his routine that he fakes midnight turbulence to jolt the passengers and can’t be bothered to schtup his hot blonde wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), back in Baton Rouge. Then “Shafer” arrives. Initially Seal is just taking CIA reconnaissance photos—the best anyone in the agency has seen!—but on a runway in Colombia he’s requested at a meeting with the Medellin cartel (Escobar, et al.), and agrees, on his own, to transport their cocaine back to the U.S. Eventually he’s caught up in an Escobar raid and winds up in Colombian prison. Shafer springs him overnight (in reality he spent six months there), and warns him the DEA is descending. So Seal moves his family to the sleepy town of Mena, Arkansas, where the CIA has bought him a home and 2,000 acres—including his own airfield and fleet of planes.
Soon his team is running guns to the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua—portrayed as materialistic dopes, less interested in overthrowing the Sandinistas than in stealing Seal’s sunglasses. The CIA decides they just lack training, and do it on Seal’s property in Arkansas. Half the Contras wind up fleeing into the Arkansas hills, their semi-automatics wind up in the hands of the Medellin cartel, and Seal, still transporting coke, can’t bury the money fast enough. Meanwhile, Pres. and Nancy Reagan are on TV extolling the virtues of the Contras and “Just Say No.” It’s a hilarious mass of hypocritical clusterfuckiness.
But how much of it is true? At one point, to disentangle himself from his various messes, Seal agrees to be a DEA informant and take photos of Escobar, et al., loading drugs with the Sandinistas, which would tie Reagan’s pet causes together: communists = drug runners. Then Reagan shows the photos during an address to the nation. Now the cartel knows Seal betrayed them. Nice going, Reagan!
Except ... Reagan gave that address to the nation in March 1986, a month after Seal was shot to death by the Medellins outside a Salvation Army facility, where he was doing community service work. As for the Contras being trained in Arkansas? There appears to be just one source on that. A shaky one.
Here’s a question I have for writer Gary Spinelli and director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Edge of Tomorrow”): If you’re going to smudge the history, why not at least get the chronology right? Early on, we see Jimmy Carter giving his malaise speech from ’79 and then title graphics tell us it’s 1978. We see Reagan coming into office in 1981 and then title graphics tell us it’s still 1980.
Seriously, doesn’t anyone give a shit about chronology anymore?
Cruise is good in the title role—amoral and care-free and grinning to the very end, a kind of bookend to his 1980s “Top Gun” star turn—and Wright holds her own. Loved Jesse Plemons in a small role as the Mena sheriff who’d rather think the best of people, or look the other way, until Seal’s idiot brother-in-law, JB (Caleb Landry Jones), forces him to act. As for Jones, he does what he did in “Get Out”: adds a shiver of someone so off-kilter that the smooth-running enterprise gets creepy. If you’re looking to make your audience uncomfortable, plop him into your movie.
The movie’s fun. It’s a stew of all the idiot political crap we went through in the ’80s. As history? Take it with the grains of salt on your popcorn.
Of Monsters and Mean People
The other day I was looking through an old notebook from a trip Patricia and I took to Prague, Vienna, etc., in the summer of 2014, and came across this conversation we had the morning after we arrived in Salzburg, Austria. It wasn't about Mozart:
Me: Wow. Weirdest dream last night.
She: What about?
Me: OK, this will sound silly, but the Yankees were in the postseason against the Oakland A's. They'd won the first two games and were ahead in the third game, 22-6, and it was just awful. This awful feeling.
She: (Laughs) My nightmares are always about monsters and mean people.
Me: (Pause) So are mine.
Last night, in the one-game American League wildcard playoff, the Twins took a 3-0 lead against the Yankees in the top of the 1st, Yanks tied it in the bottom of the 1st, and went ahead for good in the bottom of the 2nd. The rest played out as normal. The Twins knocked out the Yankees starting pitcher sooner than any Yankees starting pitcher has ever been knocked out in the post-season, and they lost the game, 8-4. And the shocking thing was how unshocking it all was. Twins go up 3-0 and the thought was, “So how are they going to blow it?” I could tell from the player's faces on the bench. They weren't loose; they weren't having fun; they didn't have fire in the belly. They were tight. That team needs some Eric Hosmers or Sal Perezes or Tino Martinezes on it. The guys that whoop it up or burn. Or both.
Movie Review: Rebel in the Rye (2017)
I so wanted “Rebel in the Rye,” the first biopic of J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult), to use this quote as its epigraph:
“The goddamn movies. They can ruin you. I’m not kidding.”
– Holden Caulfield
But for that it would need a sense of humor—or confidence in its final product.
The movie doesn’t ruin Salinger’s story (I’m not saying that), it just focuses on the conventional and ignores the oddities that might reveal something. It gets the irony of his trajectory (from unknown author desperate to publish to world-famous author refusing to publish), but it misses out on a greater irony. Which is right there.
“Rebel” begins with Salinger’s teacher, Story editor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), telling Salinger to focus on story, and it ends—if you know anything about Salinger's arc—with Salinger essentially giving up on story. “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” (published, Nov. 1955) was his last real story-story that wound up in print. After that, he gave us “Zooey” (May ’57), which is self-indulgent but at least resolves beautifully; then “Seymour: An Introduction” (June ’59), which is just Buddy Glass writing about his dead genius of an older brother (and that tries and fails for the epiphany of “Zooey”); and finally “Hapworth 16, 1924” (June ’65), a 100-page letter written by Seymour ... at the age of 6. Then silence. The movie doesn’t comment upon any of this.
Even its title is off: “Rebel in the Rye”? I guess someone wanted “...in the Rye” and “Rebel” was alliterative and James Dean-y, but ... nah.
But the movie did take me back.
Salinger: An introduction
Mostly it took me back to the summer of 1987, the year after I graduated from college, when I was living in Minnesota, pining for a girl in Maine, and unable to function, really. I wound up re-reading a lot of Salinger that summer. I felt bruised, other authors only pressed on the sore spots, and Salinger soothed. I needed him so much I sought out the stories he’d published before “The Catcher in the Rye,” and before the stories of “Nine Stories,” and those are some of the stories we see him create here: “The Young Folks”; “Slight Rebellion off Madison.” I liked hearing those titles again. I liked seeing Story magazine and getting some of its backstory.
OK, so here’s the conventional part. We see Salinger getting rejection letter after rejection letter (what writer can’t identify?), and needing the confidence to ignore bad edits and the humility to accept good ones (same). At one point, Salinger finally lands his white whale, The New Yorker, with a Holden Caulfield story (“Slight Rebellion”); but then the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and the story suddenly seems too frivolous for a nation at war and they don’t publish. Watching, in the near-empty theater, I practically did a doubletake. In early 2003, the L.A. Times accepted a non-fiction piece from me; then the Iraq War broke out and the piece suddenly seemed too frivolous for a nation at war. Happy ending: Both stories eventually saw print.
As for the oddities? His early girlfriend, Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), supposedly liked talented men, and supposedly saw great talent in the author of “The Young Folks.” But how is Jerry even in her orbit? She’s the daughter of Eugene O’Neill, and wound up married to Chaplin. How is he there?
After the war, he comes home with PTSD, writer’s block, and a German wife—Sylvia Welter. We don’t see how they meet, why they marry, how they divorce. We’re outsiders to all that. We’re like family—stunned that he’s married and then stunned again that he’s divorced.
As for that writer’s block? Salinger kept publishing throughout the war—stories about the war. But here he’s got the block, and it requires Zen Buddhism to get him going again, and that allows him to finish “The Catcher in the Rye.” And that changes everything.
Except it was all a little less obvious than that. The movie is based on Kenneth Slawenski’s much-recommended biography, “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” and Slawenski ties Salinger’s post-war silence less to a “block” and more to Sylvia. He writes that after the wedding, despite being a lifelong letter writer, Salinger suddenly stopped corresponding with family and friends. And after the divorce, Salinger traveled to Florida (shades of “Bananafish”), where he wrote a friend:
He and Sylvia had made each other miserable, he said, and he was relieved to see the relationship end. He also confessed that he had not written a word in the eight months they were together. In Florida, he managed to complete his first story since early 1945. He considered the piece unusual and named it “The Male Goodbye.”
I like some of the interaction with the various New Yorker editors, particularly Gus Lobrano (James Urbaniak) and William Maxwell (Jefferson Mays)—how they helped with “Bananafish” but actually rejected “Catcher” as unfocused—but not enough of it sticks. There’s Eric Bogosian as Harold Ross, but why not William Shawn, who edited Salinger’s later, more unfocused work, and to whom he dedicated “Franny and Zooey”? Was Wallace Shawn not available?
His main relationship in the movie is with Burnett, who keeps telling him that Holden Caulfield is a novel, and with whom he has a falling out. In the mid-40s, Burnett promises to publish a collection of Salinger’s early short stories but he’s overselling his influence. Burnett’s boss says no, Salinger blames Burnett, and for the rest of the movie Spacey is forced to hold up his hands and trail after Salinger helplessly. It’s a little sad. Not to mention undramatic. Also: Isn't it odd that Salinger keeps exploring spirituality, religion, God, that he concocts the fat lady as Christ, yet remains so hardhearted and unforgiving? You could call him the most unforgiving Buddhist who ever lived. You could, since the movie is silent on the subject.
Salinger: An exit
Hoult is a fine actor but he’s all wrong as Salinger—too handsome, not long-faced enough, not sad-eyed enough. Plus the New York accent comes and goes.
After “Catcher” is published, Salinger is suddenly the talk of the town but he doesn’t want to be. It’s worse when troubled young men show up on his front stoop wearing red hunting caps, identifying with Holden, prefiguring John Hinckley. Did it happen? I couldn’t find a word of it in Slawenski’s book. I assume it’s Hollywood license; it’s “goddamn movies” stuff.
The rest, to be honest, is a little dull. Salinger meets a girl at a party, Claire Douglas (Lucy Boynton), who’s actually 16 but the movie is mum on this, too. She disses him, he falls in love, or something. They move out to Cornish, N.H., get married, and he slowly closes himself off from the world. Any small betrayal is a final betrayal.
Here's the problem: Is this a tragedy? What he does to himself? What he does to his readers? Cutting himself off verbally, then cutting himself off literarily, to tamp down on his gargantuan ego? To save himself from himself? The movie really doesn’t take a stand. Writer-director Danny Strong just presents it. And, to be fair, maybe that’s all you can do at this point. Maybe we won’t know if it was an act of grace or hubris until we know what Salinger wrote in his—to borrow a phrase—jealously defended privacy. But from out here it sure doesn't feel healthy.
I see the photographs of young people with blood-stained legs, hunched over, and running toward hoped-for safety, and they remind me of photos of recent terror attacks that we've seen in Europe—at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England earlier this year, or during the November 2015 Paris attacks. The culprits there were Muslim extremists. Our terrorism is internal.
This time it was Las Vegas, a country music concert on the strip, where, from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino, another white American man, Stephen Paddock, 64, a retiree who supposedly loved country music and gambling, holed up with 42 rifles and then began raining down terror, killing 59 (as of this writing) and wounding hundreds, before taking his own life. In the days to come we'll sort out why. If there is a why. I doubt it.
Immediately, from the GOP, we got the usual. “Wrong time to talk about gun control.” “We shouldn't politicize the issue.”
Of course, not talking about it is politicizing it, too, probably more so. It's a political calculation. Talking about it now puts the GOP and NRA at a political disadvantage, which they don't want, so they stifle the debate with these comments. And the Dems let them.
But there's something wrong and it needs fixing. You know who didn't want to talk airline safety after 9/11? Terrorists.
I came across this today. It's by Brian Bilston. I like the lack of rhyme, the thud, the dullness, of each fourth line.
Good-bye To My Favorite Team of the 21st Century
It's the last day of the 2017 MLB regular season and Joe Posnanski has a nice piece on the final game together for three foundational members of the 2014-15 Kansas City Royals—Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain—all of whom will become free agents, and all of whom helped the Royals, the sad-sackiest team of the 1990s and 2000s, to two pennants and a world championship. These grafs in particular:
Then the Royals drafted Moustakas and Hosmer in back-to-back years, not only because they both had the precious talent that Kansas City lacked (power) but because they seemed confident, cocky even. That cockiness was what Royals general manager Dayton Moore wanted more than anything. He wanted players who would not be drowned by the overwhelming weight of the Royals' longtime awfulness.
“Guys,” Moore told them after they were drafted, “this is YOUR team. I don't want to put pressure on you, but that's how it is. The Royals will go as far as you carry us.”
I recently rewatched the game that really began it all, the 2014 wild card match with the Oakland A's, when the Royals were down by four in the 8th inning, 7-3, then made it 7-6 with runners in scoring position but couldn't tie it. Until the 9th inning when they did. In the 12th the A's went ahead 8-7 but the Royals came back again, scoring two to win it and go on. And on. And on. Sometimes with more insane come-from-behind victories. Sorry, 'Stros.
Watching that wild-card game again, the thing that struck me was the way Hosmer scored the tying run in the bottom of the 12th—sprawling across the plate ahead of the throw on Christian Colon's high chopper. It looked so much like that iconic moment a year and a month later, when, in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, Hosmer made his mad dash home to tie the game against the Mets and send it to extras, where the Royals won it all. The Royals' back-to-backs are bookended by these Hosmer mad dashes and sprawling slides.
Is this Royals team my favorite team of the 21st century? I certainly give props to the 2004 Boston Red Sox for their humiliation of the New York Yankees, coming back in unprecedented fashion with an almost carefree manner. M's teams? I always liked the 2000 squad and their surprise run, while the 2001 club, with all of those wins but nothing to show for it, is a little too heart-achey. I've liked the M's the past two years, too, the Robinson Cano/Nelson Cruz-led M's. They've been about as fun as a team who hasn't gotten anywhere could be.
But this Royals team? Man. Speed, defense, the sturdiest bullpen in the world. Forever putting the ball in play. Forever coming from behind. When I was a kid and read about how the St. Louis Cardinals won the 1946 World Series—Enos “Country” Slaughter scoring from first on a single—I could never wrap my head around it. How does anyone score from first on a single? Well, Lorenzo Cain did it twice during the 2015 postseason—including what would be the winning run in the 8th inning of Game 6 of the ALCS to send the Royals to the World Series again, this time against the Mets, the one they would win.
That's all over. It was over before, as Joe mentions, with the depatures of Wade Davis and Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist and Jarrod Dyson. But now there's no doubt.
Godspeed, guys. Just don't sign with the fucking Yankees.
The mark of Cain: 1st to home on a single.