erik lundegaard

Wednesday November 29, 2017

Lancelot Links

  • An archivist has created a database of 751,785 murders carried out in the U.S. since 1976 with the hope that algorithms can spot serial killers that local police can't. 
  • Related: Patricia and I watched all 10 episodes of Netflix's new show “Mindhunter,” starring Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany, in three days. I liked it a lot. Here's a “just the facts, ma'am” New Yorker review.  
  • Travis Sawchik at ESPN.com suggests an off-season move for each team, and I kinda like his suggestion for the M's: signing Lorenzo Cain. But I think this is Cain's first-to-home 2015 postseason talking. He's got great d, speed, a good bat, but he's 31. And don't the M's really need healthy starters?
  • Did our solar system just get its first interstellar visitor? if so, it's already on its way out. “Nothing to see here.” 
  • An illustrated walk with Loudon Wainwright III through Greenwich Village, but really through his career. He also has a new memoir: “Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & A Few of My Other Favorite Things.” “I never thought I'd write a book, until somebody told me that I had one in me,” Loudon says. “It was like a medical diagnosis. I had to get it out!”
  • Speaking of Loudon: I missed his song/video “I Had a Dream,” released in June 2016, about what might happen if Donald Fucking Trump actually won the presidency. Maybe I avoided it. That seemed too horrible to laugh about. Anyway, he doesn't play it anymore for the same reason. “It's not funny anymore,” he says. “It's just not.” 
  • It isn't
  • I'll be looking at this every day for a month: It's how Edgar Martinez's votes for the Hall of Fame are faring—among the writers sharing. Today: He's got 7 of 10. That includes three new votes. He needs 75%.
  • In case you're on the fence with Edgar (and shame on you if you are), Jay Jaffe makes Edgar's case.  
  • A look at the great turn-of-the-last-century baseball photography of Paul Thompson.
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Posted at 11:04 AM on Nov 29, 2017 in category Lancelot Links
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Tuesday November 28, 2017

How is the National Board of Review Like Spinal Tap?

The Post is NBR's best film

Return with us now, to those thrilling days of yesteryear...

The National Board of Review, the first of the never-ending awardists, gave its top prizes to Steven Spielberg's The Postthe film about the Pentagon Papers and the moment when The Washington Post became our other national newspaper—awarding it: 1) Best Film, 2) Best Actress (Meryl Streep) and Best Actor (Tom Hanks).

Which means? Just that. If you're looking for an Oscar predictor, look elsewhere. In the last five years, NBR's best film has been: “Manchester By the Sea,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” (gag), “A Most Violent Year,” “Her” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” none of which won the Oscar. In that time, they match with the Academy once on actor (Casey Affleck, last year), and twice on actress (Brie Larson, “The Room” and Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”). One year, they gave the acting award to Matt Damon for “The Martian.” They're a kooky bunch. 

And never more so than in their Top 10 Movies. Or their “Top 10 Movies Other Than The One We've Just Chosen.” How is NBR like Spinal Tap? They go to 11.

Here is their Top 10 Except for No. 1. With a few mild suggestions:

  • Baby Driver The Big Sick
  • Call Me by Your Name  
  • The Disaster Artist 
  • Downsizing 
  • Dunkirk Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • The Florida Project 
  • Get Out 
  • Lady Bird
  • Logan The Shape of Water, maybe? 
  • Phantom Thread

NBR's entire list of 2017 award winners can be found here.

ADDENDUM: OK, I did a little more digging. This century, NBR and the Academy have agreed on best picture only twice: “No Country for Old Men” in 2007 and “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2008. Among NBR's forgotten best films: “Quills” in 2000, “Finding Neverland” in 2004, “Good Night, and Good Luck” in 2005, “Up in the Air” in 2009 and “Hugo” in 2011. 

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Posted at 03:19 PM on Nov 28, 2017 in category Movies - Awards
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Monday November 27, 2017

Movie Review: Baywatch (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Is Seth Gordon the worst comedy director in Hollywood? Here are his four feature films with their Rotten Tomatoes scores:

Baywatch movie reviewI actually asked that question back in 2013 when “Identity Thief” topped my list of worst movies of the year. Since then, Seth has been directing TV shows I’ve never seen (“Marry Me,” “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” “Sneaky Pete,” and “The Goldbergs”), but now he’s back in the theater, with this monstrosity, so it's time to ask it again.

We get one good running gag. Mitch (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is the can-do lead lifeguard at a vacation resort in Broward County, Fla., who’s saved the life of practically everyone’s mother/aunt/son in the community, and who realizes, as the movie opens, that there’s a drug problem on the beach. Flaca is washing up on shores. Eventually dead bodies, too. So he and his team investigate. The gag is pointing this out.

“Am I the only one who thinks this is clearly a job for the police?” asks Matt Brody (Zac Efron), the two-time Olympic gold-medalist swimming champion.

Oddly, a minute or two later, Matt says virtually the same thing, but the line lands with a thud: “This is the real world, Mitch. Lifeguards can’t do shit.”

Someone needs to send Seth off to study why the first line is funny and the second isn’t.

Cake
Too many recent comedy-satires spend their first half mocking the idiotic tropes of the genre and the second half buying into those tropes. (See: “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “21/22 Jump Street.”) How an ordinary guy fits into the Hollywood fantasy is usually funny, because it points out the absuridty of the Hollywood fantasy. But apparently Hollywood can only see a way out by having the ordinary guy suddenly become the Hollywood fantasy. He proves he’s brave, stops the bad guy, gets the girl. We mock our cake and eat it, too.

“Baywatch” is worse because it does this at the same fucking time. Brody is right—drugs and dead bodies washing up on shore isn’t a job for lifeguards. But Mitch is right, too: He’s the one best equipped to save the day. The movie really needs to see Mitch as a self-important douche, but it doesn’t. It sees him as the hero. Right from the beginning.

Maybe that could’ve been the joke? Mitch running along the beach, thinking he’s a hero, saving and helping everyone, while in his wake, everyone complains about what a nosey fucker he is and how his beach is the most dangerous in the country.

The idiot plot: The evil Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) is importing drugs to drive down real estate prices in order to buy out everyone. Then she plans to make the beach private.

The idiot relationship subplots:

  • The selfish Brody has to learn to become a team player. (He does.)
  • He has eyes for another newbie lifeguard, Summer (Alexandra Daddario). Will they get together? (They do.)
  • Meanwhile, a third newbie lifeguard, Ronnie (Jon Bass), a schlubby Jewish tech guy, who gets on the team because "he has heart,” suffers a series of embarrassing moments with his not-so-secret crush C.J. (S.I. swimsuit model Kelly Rohrbach). These include getting an erection after she performs the Heimlich maneuver on him, then getting that erection caught in the slats of a wood raft he falls on to avoid detection. But will he and C.J. get together in the end? (They will.)

Horror show
The whole Ronnie thing is just the worst. It’s never commented upon—the absurdity of his being where he is with who he is simply to placate all the schlubby guys in the audience. He’s comic relief, but not comic. I don’t know if Bass is the unfunniest Jewish guy in Hollywood or if Seth Gordon simply drains the funny out of everything he touches, but it's brutal to watch.

Of course we get cameos from the TV stars, including David Hasselhoff as Mitch, Mitch’s mentor, who gives him the “Get back in the game” pep talk; and Pam Anderson, the original C.J., as “Casey Jean,” who’s now a suit-wearing executive, and whose face, 20 years after her heyday, has become a horror show of the work that’s been done on it. Imagine if they'd commented upon that. Instead, they have to pretend she's beautiful. That's brutal, too.

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Posted at 08:28 AM on Nov 27, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Sunday November 26, 2017

Pitcher WAR and IP Spikes of the Early '70s

Last week, my man Joe Posnanski answered a baseball trivia question from me on Twitter. This week he announced he's essentially quitting Twitter. Sorry, everybody.

He nailed the question, by the way.

The germ of it began on Twitter, too. A friend posted the 1971 Time magazine cover of Vida Blue, I wrote “Helluva year,” then went to Baseball Reference to look up his career stats. That season, which he began as a 21-year-old, he pitched 312 innings, struck out 301, and posted a 24-8 record with a 1.82 ERA. He was voted both MVP and Cy Young. Wow. I noticed his ERA led the league but not his wins (br.com bolds league-leading stats), so I clicked on the Cy Young voting to see who had more wins. Mickey Lolich, it turns out, who went 25-14 with a 2.92 ERA.

But neither guy led the league in pitcher's WAR. Lolich's was 8.7, which is fantastic. Blue's was 9.0, ditto. But the league leader had an 11.7 WAR.

11.7!

That sent me scurrying to BR's best single-season WAR performances by a pitcher. It's a list clogged with 19th century players. The first 20th century player on the list is Walter Johnson with a 14.6 WAR in 1913 (That's good for 9th all-time). The second is Walter Johnson, with a 13.5 WAR in 1912 (18th). That's followed by Cy Young (1901, 12.06, tied for 23rd), and Dwight Gooden's phenomenal 1985 season (12.02, 25th).

And I got curious: How many of the top 100 single-season WAR pitcher performances were after the deadball era (1920 on)?

Answer: Just 27. Several guys make the list twice. 

So that became the trivia question I sent to Joey Poz and whoever else wanted to answer it:

The point, I added, is that six of the seven aren't surprises. One is. (The guy with the 11.7 WAR in 1971.) Naming the one is the fun part. 

The six no-brainers are Lefty Grove, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton and Roger Clemens.

The other guy? Wilbur Wood.

Wilbur Wood: single-season WARIf you'd ask me the day before to give my thoughts on Wilbur Wood, I would've said he was a chubby, mediocre pitcher with the Chicago White Sox in the 1970s who once lost 20 games in a season (1975, when he went 16-20), and whose baseball card I got too much and tended to trade quickly. Yet according to WAR, he had two of the greatest pitching seasons in modern times in the early '70s.

It wasn't just him. There was something about those years, too. If you break down the post-deadball top 100 WAR pitching seasons by decade, you get this:

  • 1920s: 4 (and none after 1924)
  • 1930s: 2 (both by Lefty Grove)
  • 1940s: 1 (Hal Newhouser in the last war year, 1945)
  • 1950s: 0
  • 1960s: 6
  • 1970s: 7
  • 1980s: 2
  • 1990s: 2 (both Roger Clemens)
  • 2000s: 3 (Pedro, Randy, Zack)
  • 2010s: 0 (so far)

It's startling. The '60s are known as the pitching decade, since the mound was raised post-61*. That ended after the Year of the Pitcher ('68), and hitting supposedly returned. Yet the '70s had more great pitcher years by WAR? And they were all within the same small window: 1971-73? 1971 alone had as many top pitching WAR performances (3) as there were in the 35+ years between 1925 and 1962, and none of them was Vida Blue. It went Wood, Fergie Jenkins, Tom Seaver. The next year was Steve Carlton's great year, and he was joined by Gaylord Perry and Wilbur Wood. '73 was just Seaver.

Innings Pitched leaders went up during those years, too. In the late '50s, at the tail end of the 154-game schedule, no one threw more than 300 innings. Then we got the 162-game schedule and league leaders were again above 300, with the high for the decade being Denny McClain with 336 in 1968. But in 1971, Mickey Lolich pitched 376 innings—the most since Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1917. And in '72? Wilbur Wood topped him, pitching 376.2 innings. This despite a player's strike at the start of the season that caused most teams to miss 6-8 games. (The White Sox missed 8, playing a 154-game schedule.)

And it wasn't just him. The top three pitchers for IP that year all threw more innings than any pitcher in the 1960s: Wood with 376.2, Steve Carlton with 346.1, Gaylord Perry with 342.2. Again, this was a strike-shortened year. And it was temporary. After '73 no one would ever throw as many innings as even the No. 3 guy, Perry, in '72. And after Steve Carlton threw 304 in 1980, no one would ever throw 300+ again. 

What accounts for that IP spike in the early '70s? Wood was helped by being a knuckleballer (as was Phil Niekro later in the decade), but that doesn't explain Lolich, Carlton or Perry. I assume all those innings pitched help with the WAR spike, too. I just wonder if it helps too much. 

Either way, I want my Wilbur Wood cards back.

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Posted at 02:33 PM on Nov 26, 2017 in category Baseball
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Saturday November 25, 2017

Movie Review: Lady Bird (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Come back, Greta Gerwig. All is forgiven.

For most of the decade, Gerwig has been acclaimed for playing characters I found annoying even as other critics, not to mention the movies themselves, seemed to find them loveable. There she was again, in “Lola Versus,” “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” a quirky, solipsistic twentysomething trying to find herself in New York. Yay. By the end of each movie she’d learned a lesson, but the lesson wasn’t deep or meaningful. The movies felt airless. They were about young, privileged people in a spoiled age, and I could give a shit.

Lady Bird movie reviewThen last year she played Abbie, a cancer survivor/photographer in Mike Mills’ great, underrated coming-of-age movie “20th Century Women,” set in Santa Barbara, California. She’s the punk-rock older sister you always wanted.

But even that didn’t prepare me for this. “Lady Bird,” written and directed by Gerwig, and starring Saoirse Ronan, is a coming-of-age story about a high school senior in Sacramento, California in 2002/03, who acts out and searches for her place even as she prepares to take wing. She rejects everything around her for everything she doesn’t have:

I hate California, I want to go to the east coast. I want to go where culture is. Like New York, or Connecticut or New Hampshire.

The irony is that once she gets this thing, once she winds up in New York City, she embraces everything she’d previously rejected: her family, her church, California. Even her given name: Christine. She has to fly to let “Lady Bird” go.

Is there a similar irony with Gerwig? She made her name as the kooky girl in New York. She had to come home again, to California, to become great.

Given name
I like that we never find out why Lady Bird chooses that name—just that she’s adamant about it. She calls it her given name. “It was given to me by me,” she tells the theater director, Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson), before her audition for the school musical, “Merrily, We Roll Along.”

She’s a mix of contradictions. She displays confidence but isn’t. She may audition for the school musical, and run for school president, but she painfully aware that she’s a middle-class girl in a rich Catholic school. She’s authentic but pretends to be from richer homes; she pretends to have money. She drops one true friend for a prettier, more popular one.

Much of the movie is about relationships and reaction shots. It’s about the nothing moment that suddenly means everything. The line in the women’s room is taking forever? OK, me and my friend will barge into the men’s room, giggling, and bang open a stall where ... fuck, there’s my boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges of “Manchester By the Sea”), kissing another boy. Lady Bird is embarrassed, furious and gone, while we (and probably she) relationship-backtrack. Oh, so that’s why she made almost every first move. Oh, so that’s why he didn’t touch her boobs. He wasn’t too Catholic, he was too gay. It also sets up one of the movie’s heartbreaking moments. In the alleyway behind her work, Danny apologizes, says he’s still trying to work through things, then begs her not to tell anyone before collapsing into her stunned and suddenly sympathetic arms.

That’s Boyfriend #1. Boyfriend #2? Kyle (Timothée Chalamat of “Call Me By Your Name)? He’s the supercool rich kid in a rock band who reads Howard Zinn and won’t buy a cellphone because it’s a “government tracking device.” He’s a privileged leftist who takes her for granted in a way Danny never did. There should be a special circle of hell for the supercool.

The key relationship in the movie is with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf of “Roseanne”), which is beyond messy and complicated. It’s both seriously fucked up and beautiful. I think of the two clothes-shopping scenes. In the first, at a thrift store, they’re bickering as usual, and just when you expect a blow-up the mother holds up a find:

Lady Bird: Ohhh, it’s perfect.
Mom: Don’t you love it?

And whatever they were arguing about is forgotten. Not in the second scene. It’s the following spring and they’re shopping for a Prom dress. Lady Bird can’t find anything she likes amid the newer, hipper, sleeker stuff. Then she finds what she wants in the traditional: a pink, frilly prom dress. She looks great in it. Mom: “Is it ... too pink?” Lady Bird’s face, her whole body, her whole life, seems to crumple, but Mom won’t let it go. She doesn’t let go. She strives and pushes for perfection. She makes the bed in the motel, can’t abide her daughter’s messy room. She’s a clinical psychologist who’s got low-grade OCD and can’t stop.

“You both has such strong personalities,” says Larry, Lady Bird’s father, played by playwright Tracy Letts.

Larry is the opposite, the nurturer, the “let it be” guy. Lady Bird wants to be dropped off a block from school? That’s fine. He’s a sweetheart who reminds rather than insists. “You going to run to a horn honker?” he asks, almost amused, on prom night, when Kyle can’t be bothered to leave his car. She is, but when Kyle and Jenna (Odeya Rush), the pretty, popular one,  decide they’re too cool for school prom, she abandons them for her real best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s younger sister) and then prom. From the first scene, Lady Bird is forever ditching cars.

Whither Father Leviatch?
“Lady Bird” is a year-in-the-life. It’s a character study. It’s a characters study. Everyone is human-sized and complex. Even Father Leviatch is dealing with issues but we don’t learn much more. It’s like he’s on the shoulder of a highway and we keep going but we keep wondering what happened. Shouldn’t we have stopped? Shouldn’t we have found out more? Shouldn’t we have cared more?

We do when the lights go up. It’s that kind of movie. There’s not a false moment. Anyone who had dry eyes after Marion's airport scene isn't paying attention. I’m ready to see it again. 

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Posted at 09:38 AM on Nov 25, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Thursday November 23, 2017

Must-Read

The quote below is from “The Nationalist's Delusion,” by Andrew Serwer in The Atlantic. Please check it out. It's a brutal dismantling of the mainstream media argument that economic anxieties led to Trump. Serwer, who's African-American, is having none of it. As such, it's the must-read piece of the year, especially for anyone working at NPR, which keeps pushing the economic argument. 

I love this part in particular, because it gets at what has driven me crazy about the Trump/Obama eras:

The president's supporters have stood by him even as he has evinced every quality they described as a deal breaker under Obama. Conservatives attacked Obama's lack of faith; Trump is a thrice-married libertine who has never asked God for forgiveness. They accused Obama of being under malign foreign influence; Trump eagerly accepted the aid of a foreign adversary during the election. They accused Obama of genuflecting before Russian President Vladimir Putin; Trump has refused to even criticize Putin publicly. They attacked Obama for his ties to Tony Rezko, the crooked real-estate agent; Trump's ties to organized crime are too numerous to name. Conservatives said Obama was lazy; Trump “gets bored and likes to watch TV.” They said Obama's golfing was excessive; as of August Trump had spent nearly a fifth of his presidency golfing. They attributed Obama's intellectual prowess to his teleprompter; Trump seems unable to describe the basics of any of his own policies. They said Obama was a self-obsessed egomaniac; Trump is unable to broach topics of public concern without boasting. Conservatives said Obama quietly used the power of the state to attack his enemies; Trump has publicly attempted to use the power of the state to attack his enemies. Republicans said Obama was racially divisive; Trump has called Nazis “very fine people.” Conservatives portrayed Obama as a vapid celebrity; Trump is a vapid celebrity.

There is virtually no personality defect that conservatives accused Obama of possessing that Trump himself does not actually possess.

This is the reason why Trump's numbers won't go below what they're at now: mid-30s. As long as he remains racist, his supporters will abide anything. Even treason. 

Think about that for a moment. They'll take treason as long as he's racist. 

There's nothing good in this, and in him.  

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Posted at 07:13 AM on Nov 23, 2017 in category Politics
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Wednesday November 22, 2017

Rebuttal of the Day

Point:

Counterpoint:

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Posted at 05:00 PM on Nov 22, 2017 in category Quote of the Day
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3:05 In

A few months ago, my 16-year-old nephew alerted me to this “What the Flick?!?” discussion between movie critics Alonso Duralde and Ben Mankiewicz and former Rotten Tomatoes EIC Matt Atchity. (He's a big fan of the show, and of Duralde in particular.) They're talking about a New York Times article by Brooks Barnes in which people in Hollywood (including Brett Ratner) blame Rotten Tomatoes for Hollywood's awful summer at the box office.

“3:05 in the video,” my nephew wrote. 

 

“As soon as it was mentioned,” he added. “I was like 'no way.'”

Gotta give Atchity credit: Remembering the name of a writer of a seven-year-old article? That's impressive. Not impressive enough to include my EL.com reviews among Tomatometer reviews, of course, but I'll take what I can get.

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Posted at 01:09 PM on Nov 22, 2017 in category Movie Reviews
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Tuesday November 21, 2017

Movie Review: Justice League (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Just when the world is at its darkest, a hero arrives to save the day.

No, not Superman. And not Batman or Wonder Woman, either. I’m talking Joss Whedon.

Last year, Warner Bros. tapped him to salvage one of its most valuable franchises (this one) from the idiotic clutches of Zack Snyder—the director forever putting adolescent style over mindless substance. Snyder favors gloomy pallettes, glowering, near-naked heroes (see: “300,” “Sucker Punch,” and the new Amazonian costumes), and posing. Much posing. Forever with the pose. He seems incapable of creating any kind of logical continuity between scenes. Two of his movies have been my Worst Movie of the Year—“Sucker Punch” in 2011, and “Batman v. Superman” last year—and it’s probably only two because I began such lists several years into his career. He’s the dude who turned Batman into a raging, Fox-News-watching maniac, Superman into a limp noodle, and “WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?” into one of the most laughable lines in the long, squalid history of superherodom.

Justice League reviewAs screenwriter with Chris Terrio (“Argo”), and uncredited reshoot director, Whedon, the man behind “The Avengers," holds Zack’s worst instincts in check. We get humor. We get stabs at creating relationships between characters. Whedon and Terrio gamely try to explain away the idiocies of the previous movies: Batman’s plot to kill Superman; Wonder Woman’s 100-year absence from the scene cuz her boyfriend died.

It’s far from perfect. But I went in expecting the worst and when the lights went up I turned to the dude next to me: “You know, that wasn’t bad.”

When does this begin to suck?
The movie opens with Batman (Ben Affleck) battling a rooftop burglar (Holt McCallany). He swings around chimneys and bat-ropes the dude over the edge, forcing him to face a 30-story drop; and when asked what he wants, Batman growls, “Your fear.” OK, so I thought that line was pretty stupid. But then we discover Batman wants the fear not because he’s a dick but to attract a Parademon, a kind of screeching flying monkey-creature (created by Jack Kirby), which is attracted to, or feeds on, fear. Then they battle, Batman wins, but before he can question the demon it’s gone—poof—leaving a greasy stain on the chimney brick.

“Well, that was good anyway,” I thought.

Then a group of terrorists enter a London building, probably the Old Bailey, proceeding with the usual ruthless efficiency and mayhem. The plot? To blow up the entire neighborhood. But there’s Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), standing boldly atop Lady Justice. OK, so I thought that was unnecessary posing. Also, how did she know about this terrorist attack? Isn’t she in Paris most of the time? No matter. She makes a great entrance by shattering the door—just obliterating it—kicks serious ass, throws the bomb high in the air (where it explodes harmlessly), then returns to deflect a hail of bullets directed at the hostages.

“Huh,” I thought. “Wonder when this begins to suck?”

I kept wondering. We’re introduced to the Flash (Ezra Miller, a standout), visiting his father, Henry Allen (Billy Cruddup) in prison. For a short scene, it’s fairly emotional. We get a cameo from Marc McClure, Jimmy Olsen from the Chrisopher Reeve Superman movies, then watch Bruce Wayne recruit Barry onto the team. The Flash is the opposite of the usual Zack hero. He’s not cool; he wears his heart on his sleeve. “Can I keep this?” he asks of the batarang thrown at his head.

Recruiting the Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) doesn’t go as well, and those scenes, I would argue, aren’t as good. Maybe because, unlike the Flash—who agrees to join the Justice League before Bruce even finishes the question—neither guy can see past his own self-interest and/or pain to save the world. Which feels not only unheroic but dumb. World dies, you die, idiot. Also, per Zack’s predilection, the Aquaman drinks hard liquor and hangs out in the grayest, coldest of Scandinavian fishing villages. Why not Hawaii, where Momoa is from? Why not Ko Samui? Why so serious? Also, is it a bit racist that the two holdouts are people of color, or is it just racist to bring it up? And what’s with the definite article? The Batman. The Aquaman. The Kryptonian. I get it—it sounds cool—but dial it back a bit, OK?

All of which points to a structural problem with the movie that even Whedon can’t solve: We’re introduced to too many characters at the same time. By the time “The Avengers” was released in 2012, four of the six (Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America) had already starred in their own movies/origin stories, while the other two (Black Widow, Hawkeye) had extensive cameos in those films. Here, three of the six are basically introduced for the first time. So the movie has to simultaneously explain who they are while moving the plot forward. The backstories of both Aquaman and Cyborg wind up getting short shrift. Maybe deservedly.

The plot forward is fairly dull business, too. Supernatural badguy with horns and a rock ‘n’ roll name (Steppenwolf: voice and motion capture by Ciarán Hinds), wants to take over the world by ending it. Apparently in ancient times he nearly did this by bringing together three power sources, called “Mother Boxes,” which would create “The Unity,” which would turn Earth into a hellish landscape. (Shades of Zod’s plot in “Man of Steel.”) But Steppy was beaten back by three other power sources: the Amazonians, the Atlanteans and Man. Afterwards, they each hid a Mother Box to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. Well, “hid.” The Amazonians kept theirs on display in a temple, and the Atlanteans in a temple under the sea. Only Man buried the mother.

Why is Steppenwolf returning now? Because the Kryptonian was killed in the last movie, creating a power vacuum on Earth. Which explains but doesn’t. In Steppenwolf terms, Superman’s only been here a short while. So why not return in 1848? Or 1492? There’s a suggestion that without Supes, many on Earth are suddenly fearful, and Steppy and his Parademons are attracted to fear. But fear compared with ... World War II? The Cuban Missile Crisis? C’mon.

What’s interesting about the post-Superman world, though, is how similar it is to our own: white racists filled with hatred attacking immigrant shop owners. For a major studio franchise flick, that’s not bad political commentary. What’s the ascendancy of Donald Trump like? It’s like the death of Superman. It’s that fucking sad.

Superman returns
Of course, Superman is brought back to life because the JLers need him to defeat Steppenwolf and the studio needs him to make billions of dollars. Batman, et al., take his undecayed corpose, dip it in some Kryptonian waters, turn on the third Mother Box, and have Flash jolt it with lightning at just the right moment.

It’s alive! It’s alive!

And oh shit, it’s angry! (Love the “Pet Cemetery” reference from the Flash.)

During the subsequent battle at Heroes Park, Supes seems close to killing Batman, but Bats go to Plan B—bringing in Lois Lane (Amy Adams) to restore his humanity. Which raises the question: Why wasn’t that Plan A? And seriously? Clark is dead, too? With a gravestone and everything? Someone's gonna have some splainin' to do. Imagine the Smallville conversations: “Hey, isn’t it weird that Clark Kent and Superman died at the same time, and then both came back to life at the same time? That just seems like a pretty weird coincidence to me. Also, isn't Superman’s girlfriend forever hanging out at the Kent house? And don't Clark and Superman kinda look alike except for the glasses? OK, can we just stop this fucking charade already? How dumb do they think we are?”

But even with Lois, it takes a while for Supes to come around. First he has to fly to Smallville, to the Terrence Malicky wheatfields there, and have several conversations with Lois and his mom (Diane Lane). Meanwhile in Russia, the world begins to burn. That’s where Steppenwolf is creating the Unity and a hellish landscape. (Seriously, I long for a good actor in a grounded supervillain role—like Ian McKellan as Magneto or Alfred Molina as Doc Ock. Enough with the space operas already.)

I’m glad they didn’t draw out the final battle too much. Once Superman returns, he and Flash vacate the civilians (including that one annoying Russian family that’s supposed to represent all of humanity or something); then he and Cyborg pull apart “the Unity” (we get a humorous line from Supes even if it feels contrary to his entire character since “Man of Steel”); then Supes freezes Steppenwolf’s sword while Wonder Woman slices it to bits. Weapon gone, Steppenwolf grows afraid, and the Parademons sense this and feed on him. Nice little irony—even if you figure Steppy should’ve worked out safety protocols on that centuries ago.

“Justice League” still has problems beyond those already mentioned. How does Batman know about the Parademons? Why are they kidnapping civilians again? How come the Amazonians haven’t progressed past arrows, swords and horses? And the CGI to remove Cavill's moustache during the reshoots just doesn't work. We also get way too much flirty talk with Wonder Woman, which sounds particularly bad post-Weinstein. The whole thing is a mash of Whedon’s light touch and Zack’s heavy hand, so expect unevenness.

Just don’t expect anything nearly as bad as “Batman v. Superman.”

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Posted at 07:41 AM on Nov 21, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Monday November 20, 2017

At War with WAR

Last week in the Hot Stove League, MLB gave out the hardware. It awarded its 2017 Rookies of the Year (Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, both unanimous), Managers of the Year (Paul Molitor and Torey Lovullo), Cy Youngs (Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer), and MVPs (Jose Altuve in a walk, Giancarlo Stanton in a squeaker).

I agree with almost all of these choices, with the possible exception of managers. I like Joey Poz's critique of that category, which he feels simply rewards managers of teams that defy expectations rather than, you know, resoundingly deliver on them.

But I was particularly happy that Altuve won the AL MVP. And not just because his main rival was Aaron Judge of the Yankees (and I'm not exactly a fan of the Yankees), and Altuve is short (and this is a short man's room). I also like the way Altuve plays, the enthusiasm he shows and how he's closed in ever so slowly on MVP over the years. This is where he's placed in the voting during the last four seasons:

  • 2014 (led league in hits, BA, SB): 13th
  • 2015 (led league in hits, SB, CS): 10th
  • 2016 (led league in hits, CS, BA): 3rd
  • 2017 (led league in hits, BA): 1st

It's like a cat following you: Every time you turn he's a little closer. Then he's on you.  

Altuve also hit much better in close and late situations than Judge. Here's Bill James on the subject

In the late innings of close games (100 plate appearances), Judge hit .216 with a .780 OPS. But when the Yankees were 4 or more runs ahead or 4 or more runs behind (112 plate appearances), he hit .382 with an OPS of 1.500.

In the late innings of close games, Jose Altuve hit .441 with a 1.190 OPS. When the Astros were 4 or more runs ahead or 4 or more runs behind, Altuve hit .313 with a .942 OPS.

In what Baseball Reference identifies as “high leverage” situations, Judge hit .219 with an .861 OPS. In medium leverage situations he improved to .297 with a 1.058 OPS, and in low leverage situations he hit .299 with a 1.115 OPS. Altuve hit .337-.377-.329 in those three situations.

James brings this up not to be a dick, nor to justify the MVP voting, but to pick a bone with WAR (Wins Above Replacement). 

I've been using WAR a lot lately as a measure of baseball greatness even though I don't know how to calculate it. Not even close. Look at the Wiki entry on it and try not to throw up your hands. 

For example, apparently WAR takes into account the performances of the team of each player when calculating the WAR for that player. I had no idea. And they don't do it based on the wins that team actually had; it's based on the wins that team should've had when you look at the runs they scored/gave up.

Here's James again:

The Yankees, by the normal and general relationship, should have won 102 games, when in fact they won only 91. That's a BIG gap. The Yankees played poorly in one-run games (18-26) and other close games, which is why they fell short of their expected wins. I am getting ahead of my argument in making this statement now, but it is not right to give the Yankee players credit for winning 102 games when in fact they won only 91 games. To give the Yankee players credit for winning 102 games when in fact they won only 91 games is what we would call an “error”. It is not a “choice”; it is not an “option”. It is an error.

Joey Poz steps into the fray, too, with his own thoughts on the problems with WAR.

Will be interesting to see where this battle lands. 

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Posted at 05:11 PM on Nov 20, 2017 in category Baseball
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Sunday November 19, 2017

Box Office: The Not-So-Super Opening of 'Justice League'

Justice League box office

Oops.

When the Marvel Cinematic Universe began back in 2008, its movies opened OK—generally in the $60 mil to $100 mil range. Then when the movie they were all building toward, “The Avengers,” came out in May 2012, the thing just exploded. It set a new record with a $206 million open and grossed a total of $623 mil in the U.S. Because each step along the way had been careful. They built quality upon quality. You wouldn't have had that opening without all the small steps preceding it. 

Now it's DC's turn and ... they already blew it. Their steps weren't careful. They didn't build customer loyalty. 

The preceding movies opened big—all more than $100 million, culminating in “Batman v. Superman”'s $166 million open last March. But that movie was panned, rightly, a sour taste remained, and people didn't forget, despite the positive feeling left by this year's “Wonder Woman.” As a result, “Justice League” didn't explode out of the gate. The opposite. The movie that everyone was waiting for opened at $96 mil this weekend, decidedly less than all of its predecessors. 

And even though “JL” is “Citizen Kane” compared with “Batman v. Superman,” its fairly low Rotten Tomatoes rating, 40%, doesn't bode well for its overall box office. Look at the performance of the other movies in the DC Extended Universe. 

DCEU Movie Thtrs Total Opening Open % RT%
Wonder Woman 4,165 $412,563,408 $103,251,471 0.25 92%
Man of Steel 4,207 $291,045,518 $116,619,362 0.40 55%
Suicide Squad 4,255 $325,100,054 $133,682,248 0.41 26%
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 4,256 $330,360,194 $166,007,347 0.50 27%

The better the movie, the longer the legs. Shittier, shorter the legs. “Wonder Woman” grossed four times its opening, “BvS” only two times. “BvS” began with a $63 million lead over “WW” and lost the race by $82 mil.

What might “Justice League” do? I don't think it'll fade as quickly as “BvS” simply because word-of-mouth won't be as bad. Plus “Wonder Woman” fans might come out for it. But at best it'll probably do 2.5 or three times its opening.

Which has got to be a huge disappointment for Warner Bros. But it's their fault: They're the ones who hired Zack Snyder way back when, despite, you know, all the evidence that he'd already left behind: “300,” “Watchmen,” “Sucker Punch.” 

Interestingly, some Zack Snyder fans are already blaming screenwriter Joss Whedon (“The Avengers”) for writing a lighter, funnier screenplay and reshooting scenes earlier this year. I don't agree. To me, those are the best parts of the movie. Besides, the bigger issue is the shitty steps DC took to get here, and that's on Zack. Whedon was brought in for a reason. And that reason has a name: Martha.  

In other news, “Wonder,” a Julia Roberts film about a kid with Treacher Collins Syndrome, which looked like the weepie of the week, got suprisingly strong reviews and surprisingly good box office. It finished second with $27 mil. “Thor: Ragnarok” fell off 61% for third place. 

Among the Oscar hopefuls, “Lady Bird” grossed $2.5 million in only 238 theaters, while “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” grossed $1.1 million in only 53 theaters. They finished 8th and 9th, respectively. 

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Posted at 11:43 AM on Nov 19, 2017 in category Movies - Box Office
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Tuesday November 14, 2017

Movie Review: Finding Mr. Right (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

How often is the man the moral corrective in a romantic comedy? Ever? Generally, the men in these movies have issues (think “Pretty Woman,” “As Good As It Gets”), and it's up to the woman to, you know, make them want to be a better man.

Not so in Xue Xiaolu’s “Finding Mr. Right” (Chinese title: “Beijing Meets Seattle”). Here, the male lead, Frank (Wu Xiubo), is quiet and centered, lovely around his daughter, and with infinite patience around even the worst of humanity. The female lead? She's the worst of humanity.

Finding Mr. Right review Jia Jia (Tang Wei) is somehow both former editor of a gourmet food magazine and spoiled, pregnant mistress to a Chinese tycoon. And since she can’t legally have the baby in China (since she's not married), she flies to the U.S., specifically Seattle (because she loves “Sleepless in...”), to have the baby there.

And she's just awful. She berates the driver who meets her at the airport (Frank), calls him “mouse boy” (for the gerbil cage he has in the backseat), and makes him carry her heavy, designer luggage everywhere. At the illegal maternity center—the house of Mrs. Huang (Elaine Jin of “Yi Yi”)—she demands a bigger room, then demands and gets Mrs. Huang’s room. She glares, pouts, mocks, flashes money. She walks into a room where a movie is being watched and gives away its ending. She gets drunk at a nightclub, and after Frank gently suggests she not drink for the baby, she accuses him of looking down on her and declares, “As a mother, I’m a hundred times better than any of those women!” You want to be a million miles from her. 

It's almost refreshing. 

Was it refereshing to Chinese moviegoers? For they not only made “Finding Mr. Right” one of the highest-grossing movies of 2013, they made Seattle the destination spot for Chinese living abroad. 

Last exit to First Hill
That's how I first heard about “Finding Mr. Right." In 2014, our office moved from lower Queen Anne near downtown Seattle, to Bellevue, Wash., and I was surprised by the number of Mandarin-speaking Chinese people there. What happened? According to The Guardian, this movie happened.

Gotta say: It's kinda fun to see your city through foreign eyes. That freeway exit you encounter after a long slog up from Portland is suddenly exotic. Same with those tired buildings in downtown during the Christmas months. Because it means you’re here. Or at least Vancouver, B.C., where most of the non-establishing shots were filmed. 

Christmastime is when Jia Jia begins to be a better woman. The Chinese tycoon is supposed to visit but instead sends another designer handbag, and Jia Jia, despondent, walks in the drizzle of Mrs. Huang’s residential neighborhood—the kind without sidewalks—where she comes across Frank’s car, invites herself in, marvels at how nice the place is given his circumstances, then finds out why. Just as she's really a magazine editor, he’s really Hao Zhi, a famous surgeon from Fuwei hospital in Beijing! So why is he picking up pregnant girls at the airport?

To be honest, I never quite got that. He and his wife needed to move for their daughter, Julie (Jessica Song), who’s asthmatic, and probably averse to Beijing pollution, and for some reason one of them has to give up their career? And since she makes more, as executive at some international company, he drew the short stick?

The wife, Linda (Rene Wang), turns out to be even more of a piece of work than Jia Jia, while the daughter’s a pill in that overly cutesy way of Chinese movie kids. At one point, she fakes an asthma attack to get away from mom and everyone treats it with a smile and a mock finger wag. But it gives Frank and Jia Jia (and Julie) a chance to bond and watch fireworks. On Christmas. Nothing like good old-fashioned, all-American Christmas fireworks. 

The movie has its charms. After Jia Jia and Julie hop a flight to New York, where Frank is taking the medical board exams, they disagree on where to go first—MOMA (Julie) or the Empire State Building (Jia Jia/“Sleepless in Seattle”)? Jia Jia wins, and Julie, bitter pill that she is, writes HELP on her hand and shows it to a cop. Nice going, kid. They’re arrested, Frank is called in (missing his boards), and, because Jia Jia is there vaguely illegally, they have to concoct a better story while being interrogated in separate rooms. They come up with the “We’re really in love” story, which allows them to talk up the quality in the other they truly admire. That’s kind of sweet.

Better, at one point Jia Jia tells her cop, a Chinese woman who speaks Mandarin, that she’s trying to create the kind of ideal family she sees in Hollywood movies: mother, father, two cute kids, and a dog. Then she says aloud: Wait, Julie is allergic to dogs. There’s a pause. The cop, who surely isn’t buying any of this, suddenly bursts out angrily: “That’s not an issue! Obama’s daughter is allergic to dogs, too. But they have a Portuguese water dog and everything’s fine!”

Love that. 

Finding a sleepless affair to rightly remember
Are there too many subplots? Jia Jia's tycoon boyfriend is arrested for fraud, freezing her accounts, and of course speeding up her return to normalcy. Mrs. Huang has to leave before her baby is born, conveniently sticking Jia Jia with Frank—who, by the way, is actually divorced. Has been for a year. His wife is even getting remarried. So we know where it's all going.

But damn does it take a while to get there.

Frank doesn’t help. “You know what your problem is?” Jia Jia tells him. “You’re too nice. Women don’t like guys who are too nice.” She’s not wrong. Frank actually picks up his ex-wife's wedding dress. He's there at the wedding. Thankfully, Jia Jia shows up, too, trashtalks through it, then has a catty face-to-face with Linda, in both English and Chinese, in which Linda gets the upper hand. We watch Jia Jia stew, wondering what crazy thing she’ll do, while Frank stares at her in silence. After several beats, he says it: “You spoke good English.” Another charming moment. 

But even from here it’s a long slog to the end. Jia Jia collapses at the wedding and Frank diagnoses her problem and saves her life. He and Jia Jia and Julie (and the new, uncrying baby) are enjoying an idyllic American time together when a thicknecked man pulls up in an expensive car. Seems the tycoon beat his fraud rap and wants Jia Jia back. And gets her! The designer luggage is loaded into the trunk again, and she looks at Frank longingly. And then off she goes to Beijing.

Wait, what? 

Then we get a montage of opulent clothes-buying and cold, opulent Chinese hotel rooms, along with complaints to the still absentee tycoon—who apparently can’t be torn away from business deals to be with her—and so Jia Jia finally ends it. “Two years later...” we‘re told and see her fixing a sink and face-timing friends. It’s idyllic mommy time in that Hollywoody way: hardwood floors and morning light and quiet playtime while mommy works on her website about gourmet Chinese food. And Frank is...?

Out of the picture. Yeah, they’re still not together.

Wait, what?

Here's why: As “Sleepless in Seattle” needed its “An Affair to Remember” ending on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, so “Finding Mr. Right” needs its “Sleepless in Seattle” ending on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Frank takes the med boards again (are they only given in New York?), and celebrates with Julie from the observation deck of the ESB. Julie takes a selfie and sends it to Jia Jia, who receives it ... from the observation deck of the ESB! She's there!  But she looks around and can’t find them. Because ... ? Yeah, they’re already back on the street. (Good god.) So she takes her own selfie, sends it to Julie, and eventually, finally, Christ already, our romantic leads are united romantically. He holds her hand, she puts her head on his shoulder, and the camera pans out from the observation deck and into a wider shot of New York, while, on the soundtrack, Louis Armstrong sings “What a Wonderful World.” 

Somewhere Nora Ephron smiles. Or sues. 

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Posted at 07:58 AM on Nov 14, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Monday November 13, 2017

Breakfast with Trump

I don't know how I wound up on Donald Trump's mailing list but it's been educational. And more than a little revolting. 

Today's message addresses me as “Friend,” says he wants to hear from REAL Americans over breakfast, asks me to contribute $3 so I can enter the raffle for said breakfast, takes a sideswipe at the fourth estate—“The media is CLUELESS when it comes to understanding what voters think”—then reiterates the $3 ask.

He doesn't sign his name. Just posts his unsmiling picture over the title “President of the United States.”

How far we've fallen.

Maybe every time I get one of these I contribute that amount to the Dems? 

Trump asks for $3 contribution to enter raffle for breakfast

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Posted at 03:31 PM on Nov 13, 2017 in category Politics
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Movie Review: The Little Hours (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

A 77% rating, movie critics? Why? Because it’s an indie, written and directed by the guy who did “Life After Beth,” with an assortment of your favorites from “Parks and Rec” (Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman), “Community” (Allison Brie), and “The Big Bang Theory” (Kate Micucci)? Along with indie faves John C. Reilly and Fred Armisen? And Jemima Kirke reprising Jessa from “Girls”? Because you like these people? 

The Little Hours reviewIt’s a one-joke movie. It’s 14th-century nuns with modern attitudes and vocabulary. They basically swear the fuck out of the thing. It’s funny the first time we hear it, less so the 37th.

In a convent in 14th-century Italy, Fernanda (Plaza, of course) is the main swearer and tormenter of a well-meaning gardener; Ginerva (Micucci) is a tag-along tattletale, while Alessandra (Brie) just wants to get married—but her father, Ilario (Paul Reiser), doesn’t like the dowry that’s being demanded, so there she stays, embroidering.

Into this not-so-sedate world stumbles Massetto (Dave Franco, “21 Jump Street”), his blouse undone, fleeing his previous master, Lord Bruno (Offerman), whom he cuckolded. Father Tommasso (Reilly), knowing nothing of his background but needing a gardener to replace the one Fernanda scared away, tells him to pretend to be a deaf-mute, which, he feels, will placate the nuns. It doesn't. Instead, they take turns seducing him.

The big reveal in the third act is that Fernanda and her friend Marta (Kirke) are part of a coven of witches that meet regularly in the woods. Oh, and that the Father is getting it on with Sister Marea (Molly Shannon).

We get comeuppance from the Bishop (Armisen), but that’s about it. As for the confusing title? Apparently the last word is supposed to begin with a “w.” Hilarious. 

According to IMDb, writer-director Jeff Baena based his movie on Pasolini’s “The Decameron” (1971), but he didn't do much actual writing—just an outline. The cast improvised the dialogue. It shows.

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Posted at 09:13 AM on Nov 13, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Sunday November 12, 2017

Box Office: 'Thor' Doesn't Fall, 'Lady Bird' Cheeps

Patricia, Vinny and I went to see Greta Gerwig's “Lady Bird” last night at the SIFF Egyptian, and all of us loved it. Turns out we're lucky. This movie playing less than a mile from our homes is playing in only 37 theaters in the country. It's playing in 1/100 the theaters of “Bad Mom's Christmas” (3,615) or “Daddy's Home 2” (3,575). A reminder of just how screwed up distribution is.

“Thor: Ragnarok” (4,080 theaters, forsooth) won the weekend again, grossing $56 mil and falling off only 53%. Good word-of-mouth on this one. After only 10 days, it's already the highest-grossing “Thor” movie domestically ($211 vs. $180 for the first and $207 for the second), and worldwide ($650). It's particularly big in China, the UK, South Korea, Brazil, and Australia.  

Newcomers “Daddy's Home 2” ($30 mil) and “Murder on the Orient Express” ($28.2), both poorly reviewed, came in second and third.

“Lady Bird,” with its measly 37 theaters, did $33k per to finish in 10th place with $1.2 mil. No other movie in the top 20 appeared in fewer than 200 theaters.

Other Oscar contenders at the bottom of the box office mix:

  • “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”: 4 theaters, $320k, 24th
  • “Wonderstruck”: 261 theaters, $245k, 26th
  • “The Square”: 50 theaters, $156k, 32nd

Go see good movies. 

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Posted at 10:26 AM on Nov 12, 2017 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday November 11, 2017

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

For a movie in which Thor loses: 1) his hammer, 2) his father, 3) his locks, 4) his eye, and finally 5) Asgard itself, “Thor: Ragnarok” is pretty loose and funny.

It’s a testament to director Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”), and the writing team (Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost), not to mention the improvisational talents of the cast, that this doesn’t seem like too much of a disconnect. But does it undercut the drama? If you keep winking at the audience, or at each other, how much does the stuff on screen matter?

Actually, let’s break down each of above losses and see. Do these losses matter? To us. OK, to me. 

Thor: Ragnarok reviewAsgard itself. It’s an idiot realm with a rainbow bridge. In the first Thor movie they describe it as a “beacon of hope” but to whom? They’re a monarchy, for freak’s sake. Here, we’re told time and again that “Asgard is a people, not a place,” which allows for its destruction, because the people survive a la “Battlestar Galactica.” But this doesn’t exactly help. Because the people—beyond Thor, Loki, et al.—are really fucking boring. They huddle together in clothing left over from some ’50s Biblical epic or ’70s “Planet of the Apes” episode, in constant need of saving. They’re great huddlers. You need huddling? Go Asgard. But not missed. A zero on the 0-10 missed scale.

His eye. One moment it’s there, the next moment his older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), gouges it out. He fights the rest of the last battle with a bloody empty socket, then pilots Battlestar Asgardia with the kind of eyepatch Odin always wore. It’s a bit of a shock—Thor loses an eye!—but puts a deserved chink in his armor. He’s no longer pristine. Plus Stark Industries can create a fake eye if they want to. A four on the missed scale.

His locks. To me, not many guys look good with long hair but Hemsworth pulls it off. But he looks even better with short hair. 1.

His father. I love me some Anthony Hopkins but was there ever a worse father? In the first movie, after the war with the Frost Giants, he not only brings back an enemy baby, not only raises it as his own, but sets up a rivalry with his biological son. “Only one can ascend to the throne,” he tells Thor and Loki, “but both of you were born to be kings.” Thanks, Dad. Later, he strips Thor of his powers and banishes him to Earth, then goes into an “Odin Sleep” that allows Loki to take power and create havoc. In the second movie he just gets everything wrong. At one point, for example, he shouts, “The Dark Elves are dead!” right before the Dark Elves attack. And in this one? He dies at the beginning, but not before telling Thor and Loki, “Oh, by the way, you have an older sister who went crazy with power, and whom I’ve entombed all these years, but with me gone she’ll be back. With a vengeance. And she’s way more powerful than you dudes. Bye.” Plus he’s not even gone. He returns the way Obi-wan Kenobi returns in the original “Star Wars” movies: to dispense wisdom. Such as “Asgard is not a place, it’s a shitty huddling people.” Missed scale? Zero.

His hammer. This is the one that really hurts. And yeah, Dead Odin tells Thor that his power was never in his hammer, it was in him all the time, allowing him to become all Lord of Lightning and shit and defeat Hela. But it ain’t the same. Thor without his hammer is like Spider-Man without his thwip, Wolverine without his snkt. Something indelible is lost. Missed scale: 10.

Again, for a movie that’s down-to-Earth figuratively but never literally (i.e., we’re always in various “astral realms” rather than on terra firma), “Thor: Ragnarok” ain’t bad, just undeserving of its 90+ Rotten Tomatoes rating and general critical acclaim. Hemsworth’s comic timing is excellent, Blanchett is slitheringly good, Jeff Goldblum kills as Grandmaster, an emperor in another realm forever pitting warriors against each other, and Tadanobu Asano as Hogun makes a short, futile stand against Hela that feels meaningful—maybe because Asano doesn’t wink at us. His sacrifice feels real and noble because he takes it seriously.

Tessa Thompson, recent of “Dear White People” and “Creed,” makes a credible Valkyrie, even if forever neutralizing Thor with an electronic device seems an easy out. Plus she seems an asshole. As does the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)—regaled on Grandmaster’s planet as the ultimate warrior. BTW: Do we ever find out why he stays the Hulk for two years? Is it the air on that planet?

The mid-credits ending scene is like the beginning of “Star Wars”: our smaller ship of good guys being dwarfed by the bigger enemy ship of bad guys, indicating the size of the problem. It sets up “Avengers: Infinity War,” due in May 2018, with its All-Star cast, and, after six years of teasing, Thanos. Let’s hope it doesn’t overdo the winks.

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Posted at 08:01 AM on Nov 11, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Thursday November 09, 2017

Sean Hannity's 'Let There Be Light' Makes Me Almost Believe in God

I'd kinda forgotten about “Let There Be Light” until Dan Piepenbring wrote about it for The New Yorker. Brave man. He watched it so we wouldn't have to.

Movie doesn't ring a bell? It's that Kevin Sorbo-directed thing about a famous atheist who sees the light. 

Oh, Kevin Sorbo doesn't ring a bell? Nice! I wish I were you. He's the guy who played “Hercules” on TV in the 1990s and is undergoing his second act (or third, or 12th) as the go-to actor/director for conservative Christian movies.

Sean Hannity's Let There Be LightIn “God's Not Dead,” for example, he played an atheistic philosophy professor who forces every one of his students to say “God is dead” ... until one brave young man shows him the light. In this one, which he also directed, and co-wrote with his wife, he plays an infamous atheist who has a near-death experience and sees the light on his own.

In “GND,” his character became an atheist because his mother died of cancer when he was 12 and he couldn't see how God would let that happen. In this one, he becomes an atheist because his 8-year-old son dies of cancer and he can't see how God could let that happen.

Etc.

This latest is getting some attention because Sean Hannity co-produced it and makes a cameo as himself. Once the “seen-the-light” Sorbo goes on Hannity's show, we get the following back-and-forth:

Hannity: You're literally going to try and convert kids to Christianity. What about diversity? What right do you have to impose your religious values onto somebody else?
Sorbo: Well, what right does ISIS have to cut people's heads off?
Hannity: That's a powerful point.

I love that Hannity portrays himself as a man interested in diversity.

These types of conservative Christian movies have been a minor thing for a while now—I guess since spring 2014. That's when “Son of God,” which merely took episodes of the TV series “The Bible” and repackaged them into a movie, grossed $59 mil at the U.S. box office. “God's Not Dead,” released a month later, grossed $60 mil. Less than a month after that, in April, “Heaven is for Real,” starring Greg Kinnear, was released and grossed $91 mil.

And conservative Christian movies were off and...

Actually, that was about it. Only three CC movies since have grossed north of $50 mil: “War Room” in August 2015 ($67.7), “Miracles from Heaven” in March 2016 ($61), and “The Shack” in March 2017 ($57). Even Jesus Christ Himself, Jim Caviezel, playing a football coach in “When the Game Stands Tall,” couldn't get them off the couch in August 2014 ($30).

So did conservative Christians begin to see the con? Did they get tired of, oh I don't know, storylines in which men become athiests because so-and-so dies of cancer, but then they see the light? Who knows. 

Now we have “Let There Be Light,” which not only has Hercules Hercules Hercules, but Hannity, who can promote it to his heart's content on his radio and Fox-News shows. And his heart is content. Christian news sites have talked up the movie's success. After its first weekend, Hannity himself tweeted this message: 

“On a per-screen box office average, ”Let There Be Light“ is the No. 2 movie in the country! Amazing for an independent film! Thx to all!”

As a result, for its second weekend it doubled its theater total: from 373 to 642. And as a result of that, after nearly two weeks, “Let There Be Light” has grossed a total of...

$4.5 million.

Makes me almost believe in God.

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Posted at 08:23 AM on Nov 09, 2017 in category Religion
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Wednesday November 08, 2017

Quote of the Day

“In the first big set of votes since Trump became President, the America that reviles him and his backward-looking, monochromatic vision of the country stood up and made itself heard. The city of Charlotte elected its first female black mayor. In Virginia, a thirty-three-year-old openly transgender candidate defeated a seventy-three-year-old Republican assemblyman who wrote a bill that would have forced people to use restrooms corresponding with the gender on their birth certificates. In Hoboken, New Jersey, Frank Sinatra's home town, a Sikh city councilman was elected as mayor. This isn't the America that Trump embraces, but it is the increasingly multi-racial, multi-cultural America he was elected to serve. If he were a bigger, better person, he'd take heed of Tuesday's results and adopt a more tolerant and inclusive stance. That won't happen, of course.”

-- John Cassidy, “A First Step in Defeating Trump and Trumpism,” on the New Yorker site

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Posted at 12:50 PM on Nov 08, 2017 in category Quote of the Day
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Virginia is for Lovers

(Not haters.)

This tweet from last night tells us everything we need to know about this year's off-year election:

I do not think that I shall see/A poem as lovely as that fucking tweet.

It's not just that Dems won, it's the diversity in the winning. St. Paul, Minn., elected its first African-American mayor. Minneapolis elected an African-American trans woman to its city council with 73% of the vote. Seattle elected its first female mayor in 91 years, but that was a given, since the two main candidates were both women.

The big national news was Dems winning governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey, but the bigger news is the gains made in the Virginia house: 10 seats and counting, maybe 17, maybe enough to flip the house. From NBC News:

Virginia House Democratic Leader David Toscano called the results “unprecedented,” noting that the last time Democrats won more than five seats in a single year was 1975. “This isn't a wave, this is a tsunami,” he told NBC News.

1975 was, of course, the first election after Nixon's resignation. That's how toxic Trump is. He's three times worse than post-resignation Nixon.

And how did NPR begin yesterday's election day? By returning to 2016 battleground states and interviewing past Trump supporters about whether they're still Trump supporters. Spoiler alert: they are. Their reasoning?

  • “We wanted somebody that wasn't our enemy in the presidential seat.”
  • “And every day we get up, and even if you think Trump's having a bad day, you remember Hillary's not president.”
  • “How's your 401(k) doing? How's your stock doing? He's created jobs. He's created economic optimism. What's the old saying? You vote your pocketbook. He's fine.”

Correspondent Don Gonyea called this “revealing.” I guess it is. It reveals that NPR still thinks that repeating misperceptions and lies is reporting; that it's news

But fuck NPR. Yesterday was a good day. For once in 2017, we had a good day. 

And now I say to the Dems what Harry Rosenfeld said to Woodward and Bernstein after telling them they were working on the Watergate story together: “Now don't fuck it up.”

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Posted at 08:50 AM on Nov 08, 2017 in category Politics
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Tuesday November 07, 2017

Missing the Twin Towers

There's a moment in the new HBO doc “Spielberg” (recommended but slightly disappointing) that made me almost sputter in disbelief. I think, in the tradition of my family, I even yelled at the TV. Fact-check with Patricia when you get the chance.  

The moment concerned “Munich,” a film I defended back in 2006, mostly from (of all people) Leon Wieseltier, who accused it of being manipulative, tedious, and—its real crime to Wieseltier—“soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness.” I.e., It didn't laud the Israelis enough nor demonize the Palestinians enough. It was ambiguous on something Hollywood is not usually ambiguous on: revenge.

That ambiguity is now praised from the talking heads in the doc, including film historian Annette Insdorf, who says the following:  

The end of this film is not celebratory—rejoicing in the death of the enemy. It is incredibly quiet. And only on the second viewing did I realize the twin towers were revealed at the end. 

That's when I sputtered in disbelief. Because even in defending “Munich,” I quibbled with parts of it. Particularly that part:

As Avner [Eric Bana's character] walked with the New York City skyline behind him, including, eventually, the World Trade towers, the camera should have followed him and faded out; instead it ignored Avner and stopped with the towers in center-frame. Spielberg is always underlining points that would be more powerful without his help.

Insdorf missed what I thought was way too obvious.

And I think it was too obvious because I anticipated it. “Munich” is a movie about the difficulties (logistically and morally) of tracking down terrorists, and it was released four years after 9/11, and so that more recent tragedy is never far from our minds. And in the movie's final scene, as our hero talks to his former Mossad handler (Geoffrey Rush) with Manhattan in the distance, in the late 1970s, you don't have to be Einstein (or Kael) to think, “Spielberg's gotta have the World Trade Center in there.” And he did. And for a second I was happy ... until his camera stopped on it. Until he underlined what I felt should've been subtler. 

I look at the shots now and think, “Maybe I overreacted.” But I still can't believe Insdorf underanticipated. Seriously, how do you miss that? 

World Trade Center in "Munich"

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Posted at 05:01 PM on Nov 07, 2017 in category Movies
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Sunday November 05, 2017

Movie Review: Never Say Die (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

OK, if you’re going to do a male-female body-switch comedy, wouldn’t it be funnier if each gender started as, you know, a typical or extreme version of itself? Like Sofia Vergara and the Rock? So you can play off that once the switch is made?

In “Never Say Die,” the male lead, Ai Disheng (pronounced “Edison,” and played by Allen Ai), supposedly an ultimate fighter with the UFK, is thin, untoned and not particularly macho, while the female lead, Ma Xiao (Ma Li, so outstanding in the 2015 sleeper hit “Goodbye, Mr. Loser”), an award-winning TV reporter, is short, squat, and looks like someone who can throw a punch. She looks like she could take him from the start.

Never Say Die reviewThus when the switch is made, and he suddenly starts acting feminized, and she’s all tough guy, it’s not ... particularly different. Or logical. Or funny. Although I did laugh when, trying to get something from her boyfriend, he (inner she) resorts to a little sa jiao, freaking the dude out.

And if you’re doing the gender switch then get into it. I.e., What would you want to explore if suddenly you became the other gender? She (inner he) visits the women’s locker room, and of course it’s as sexy as in any teenage boy’s imagination. But what if it weren’t? What if it were boring? I like that they start out enemies—she’s the award-winning reporter that ruined his career three years earlier, while he’s managed by the father she hates—so they each do things to try to ruin the other. He (inner she) runs around the fight ring like a coward; she (inner he) files idiot reports and gets suspended. The former isn’t a bad bit but the latter is either unfunny or doesn’t translate well.

Sadly, per the rom-com rules, they have to fall in love with each other, but how weird is that? You’re falling in love with you. That’s way creepier than the movie lets on.

It all leads to a championship fight. And man does it miss an opportunity there.

Yo, Adrian
The UFK champ is Wu Liang (Xue Haowen), to whom Edison lost the big match three years ago, after which it was revealed—via Ma’s intrepid reporting—that he took money to throw the fight. It ruins Edison’s reputation and his career. Kinda sorta.

There's immediate problems with all that. First, Wu looks like he could take Edison with one punch. In other words, what odds are you getting on Wu to win? Also, Wu turns out to be Ma’s boyfriend. She's exposing the corruption of ... her boyfriend’s opponent? And no one thinks this odd? Does she at least give full disclosure?

It's no surprise that Wu turns out to be our villain: corrupt, manipulative, and cheating on Ma. She finds this out when he brags about it all to Edison, but with her mind/soul inside. More, Edison never threw that fight. He actually won that fight (on points), but the results were skewed by the UFK commission, which is run by Wu’s father. It's a crooked family affair. 

All of this leads to a big rematch. But since Edison’s body now houses Ma’s untrained instincts, they have to go to the Buddhist mountains to train. Some of this isn’t bad—particularly when a Buddhist master flies off a balcony, robes fluttering in the Hong Kong movie manner, and stumbles on landing. I also liked the two of them being trained in dexterity by shooting Buddhist fliers into passing cars. But the whole thing isn't far removed from “Rocky IV“ and all the rest. It's ”We‘re gonna need a montage."

As for the missed opportunity? Ma is now in Edison’s body about to fight the ex-boyfriend who cheated on her. She’s got her inner toughness and his muscles—such as they are. She’s the woman scorned with the power to throw a punch. She should be a rage machine. She should slaughter him. But we don’t get a glimmer of that. Instead, in the second round, they switch bodies back again so Edison can be the hero who never says die and wins the championship and gets the girl.

That's what never dies. That storyline.

What Never Dies II
“Never Say Die” was created by the same production company, Happy Mahua Pictures, that made “Goodbye Mr. Loser” two years ago, and the two films share characteristics: low budgets, no stars, an easy route to magic realism. There, he time-traveled by getting drunk; here, they switch bodies when they’re hit by lightning.

Both are also box-office smashes. “Loser” was anything but, becoming the highest-grossing comedy in Chinese history: $226 million. “Die” swamped it: $320 million and counting. So expect more of the same. That's also, sadly, what never dies. 

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Posted at 05:16 AM on Nov 05, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Friday November 03, 2017

Quote of the Day

“It hit me this week, around the time when Sarah Huckabee Sanders was blithely seconding Chief of Staff John Kelly's Civil War revisionism, that I missed Sean Spicer.

”I missed the panic in his eyes, which signaled a scintilla of awareness that he was peddling hooey. I missed the squeak in his voice, which suggested perhaps the tiniest smidgen of shame.

“He never seemed to me entirely at home in his domicile of deception; she dwells without evident compunction in a gaudier fairyland of grander fictions. There's no panic. No squeak. Just that repulsed expression, as if a foul odor had wafted in and she knew — just knew — that the culprit was CNN.”

-- Frank Bruni, “Sarah Huckabee Sanders Makes the Heart Grow Fonder,” in The New York Times. Read it all. The piece is brutal and glorious.

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Posted at 05:28 AM on Nov 03, 2017 in category Politics
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Thursday November 02, 2017

And Then There Were Seven: Houston Astros Win First World Championship

Was Game 7 the dullest of the seven? My friend Jim began complaining in the second inning when the Astros went up 5-0 on the back of George Springer's lead-off double and two-run homer. He thought it was over then. I didn't. Five runs? What's five runs in Major League baseball? And in this series? Pfft. Plus the Dodgers kept threatening. Three on in the first. Two on in the second. Two on in the third. Two on in the fifth. But: nothing, nada, bupkis, meiyo.

Sports Illustrated: greatest cover prediction everThen in the sixth, with two on and one out, Andre Ethier, the forgotten Dodger, grounded a single to the right side to plate Joc Pederson and put the Dodgers on the board. Except instead of the beginning, that was the end—the Dodgers last hit of the game, the series, the season. Astros pitcher Charlie Morton got Chris Taylor swinging and Corey Seager on a grounder to short to end the threat. He retired the last 11 men he faced and got the W.

Ethier's hit was, in fact, the last hit for either team. Jose Altuve, who drew a two-out walk in the seventh and then stole second, was the season's last baserunner. For the rest of the game, it was three up, three down. Old-fashioned baseball. This bangiest of World Series ended with a whimper.

And after 55 years, the Houston Astros were World Champions. 

Thank god, I say. They began this post-season as my third-favorite team but moved up fast. I mean, I had the Nats ahead of them, mostly because the Expos/Nats franchise has never even seen a World Series, while the Astros had at least been in 2005, but c'mon, it's much easier to root for Jose Altuve than Bryce Harper. Plus the Astros knocked out the Yankees. That's extra props. It also makes Sports Illustrated's June 2014 cover look like the most prescient of sports predictions. They even nailed the Series MVP.  

It wasn't easy. In that last game they made it look easy, but it wasn't. The wounded were everywhere. If you'd told Astros fans at the beginning of the series that neither Dallas Keuchel or Justin Verlander would win a game, and their closer, Ken Giles, would wind up with a 27.00 ERA and lose his closer role, they would've envisioned disaster. Instead, this. 

So now that Houston, which began things in the National League in 1962 as the Colt .45s, has its first ring, which teams remain ringless? Seven. Count 'em off:

  1. Texas Rangers (1961): 2 pennants
  2. Milwaukee Brewers (1969): 1 pennant
  3. San Diego Padres (1969): 2 pennants
  4. Washington Nationals (1969): 0 pennants
  5. Seattle Mariners (1977): 0 pennants
  6. Colorado Rockies (1993): 1 pennant
  7. Tampa Bay Rays (1998): 1 pennant

The victory parade for this most likeable of Astros teams is tomorrow. Three-day weekend, Houston. Enjoy.

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Posted at 06:08 AM on Nov 02, 2017 in category Baseball
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Wednesday November 01, 2017

Nothing Like a Game 7

2017 World Series Game 7

In June 2011 I wrote a blog post complaining, or at least detailing, the dearth of recent Game 7s in the World Series. How far we've come.

When I was a kid in the early 1970s, we seemed to get them every year—and it was even better earlier. In the 21 years between 1955 and 1975 there were 14 Game 7s—or two every three years. In the 35 years between that great Red Sox-Reds World Series in '75, and my blog post in June 2011, we'd had only 11: less than one every three years. And this despite a flurry of them in the mid-1980s.

Since then we've had four more—including tonight's game. “Back on top, baby!” as St. George once said.

Here's how they break down by decade:

  • 1900s: 1 (1909)
  • 1910s: 1 (1912)
  • 1920s: 3 (1924, 1925, 1926)
  • 1930s: 2 (1931, 1934)
  • 1940s: 4 (1940, 1945, 1946, 1947)
  • 1950s: 5 (1952, 1955 1956, 1957, 1958)
  • 1960s: 6 (1960, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968)
  • 1970s: 5 (1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1979)
  • 1980s: 4 (1982, 1985, 1986, 1987)
  • 1990s: 2 (1991, 1997)
  • 2000s: 2 (2001, 2002)
  • 2010s: 4 (2011, 2014, 2016, 2017)

Most Game 7s in a row? Four: 1955-1958. All with the Yankees, by the way, and with the same pattern: Yankees lose the first series to team X (Dodgers), then beat team X; Yankees lose the first series to team Y (Mil. Braves), then beat team Y. 

Game 7s have come in three-plusses four times, and usually in the middle of the decade: 1924-26; 1945-47; 1955-58; 1971-73; 1985-87. So fingers crossed for next year. 

The team with the most Game 7s? It's not the Yankees outright, believe it or not. The Evil Empire has far and away the most WS appearances (40) but only about a quarter of those (11) went to Game 7. The Cardinals, with fewer than half the pennants (19), have the same number of Game 7s: 11. Cards also have the better record in those 7s: 8-3. Yanks are 5-6. 

Fun fact: During the Red Sox “Curse of the Babe” era, from 1919 to 2004, the Sox made it to the World Series four times. And every time it went to Game 7. And every time, of course, they lost: in '46 to the Cards, in '67 to the Cards, in '75 to the Reds, and in '86 to the Mets. Those, by the way, are the only losses the BoSox have ever had in the World Series. Meaning they either win or it goes to Game 7. (They've won one Game 7, in 1912, vs. the Giants.)

Team with the best record in Game 7? The Pirates, far and away. They've been to the World Series seven times, and every time they've gone to a Game 7 they've won: 1909, 1925, 1960, 1971 and 1979. They're 5-0. 

Worst record? Orioles are 0-2, both times against the Pirates in the '70s. Indians are 0-2 ('97 and last year). Red Sox, as mentioned, are 1-4, while the Giants are also 1-4. That “1” was via Madison Baumgarner vs. the KC Royals in 2014. 

Greatest percentage of Game 7s? Might be the Senators/Twins franchise. They've gone six times and have five Game 7s. The only miss was in '33, when they lost in five to the Giants. 

As for which of the original 16 franchises haven't managed a Game 7? The usual sad sacks: ChiSox and Phillies. 

This is (obviously) the Astros' first Game 7, and (less obviously) the Dodgers' sixth. The Dodgers first four were when they were in Brooklyn, and all of them were against the Yankees, where the Dodgers went 1-3. In L.A., they beat the Twins in seven in '65. That was it. Until this. 

How often does a team win Game 6 at home and then lose Game 7 at home? It's not common. But it did happen to the Royals in 2014 and to the Red Sox in '75. But the more common experience is the 2011 Cards, 2002 Angels, the Twins in '91 and '87, and the Mets in '86. 

Go 'Stros.  

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Posted at 09:43 AM on Nov 01, 2017 in category Baseball
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