erik lundegaard

Wednesday January 31, 2018

The Oscars and Box Office: This Again

Last week, when my friend Mike asked me about the box office of the 2017 best picture nominees, my first thought was, “Actually some of them did OK. Right? 'Dunkirk' and 'Get Out.' So it won't be like in the bad old days when, you know, no best picture nominee was among the top 15 movies of the year.”

No, but close.

MOVIE BO (in millions) 2017 RANK
Dunkirk $188 14
Get Out** $179 15
The Post* $58 46
Darkest Hour* $45 56
Lady Bird* $41 63
The Shape of Water* $37 69
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri* $37 70
Call Me By Your Name* $11 123
Phantom Thread* $10 125

* Currently in release
** Currently in re-release

Indeed, this is comparable to the last three years before the big switch, 2006-08, when the biggest box office hit among the best picture nominees ranked 15th or 16th for its respective year.

The Academy's decision to expand to 10 nominees in 2009 was initially a boon for best picture/box office hits: three of the nominees that year were top 10 hits: “Avatar” (1), “Up” (5) and “The Blind Side” (8). The next year, two were top 10 hits: “Toy Story 3” (1) and “Inception” (6).

It's been iffier since. 

ANNUAL BOX OFFICE RANKS OF BEST PICTURE NOMINEES

Year  First Second Third Fourth Fifth Sixth Seventh Eighth Ninth Tenth
2009 1 5 8 25 27 38 65 116 132 145
2010 1 6 13 18 25 32 35 114 119 143
2011 13 39 41 47 49 59 71 97 132  
2012 13 15 18 22 23 27 32 130 145  
2013 6 17 28 32 62 80 95 100 117  
2014 1 36 54 61 78 85 100 125    
2015 8 13 21 42 44 62 70 111    
2016 14 19 29 46 57 66 69 92 95  
2017 14 15 46 56 63 69 70 123 125  

Then I noticed something interesting.

These are the annual box office rankings of the best picture nominees from the last 19 years before the switch, with the eventual winner highlighted in yellow:

Year  First Second Third Fourth Fifth Best Picture
1990 2 3 17 23 26 Dances with Wolves
 1991  3  4 16 17 25 Silence of the Lambs
 1992  5 11 19 20 48 Unforgiven
 1993  3  9 38 61 66 Schindler's List
 1994  1  10 21 51 56 Forrest Gump
 1995  3  18  28 39 77 Braveheart
 1996  4  19 41 67 108 The English Patient
 1997  1   6 7 24 44 Titanic
 1998  1  18  35 59 65 Shakespeare in Love
 1999  2  12 13 41 69 American Beauty
 2000  4 12 13 15 32 Gladiator
 2001  2 11 43 59 68 A Beautiful Mind
 2002  2  10 35 56 80 Chicago
 2003  1  17 31 33 67 The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
 2004  22  24 37 40 61 Million Dollar Baby
 2005  22  49 62 88 95 Crash
 2006  15  51 57 92 138 The Departed
 2007  15 36 50 55 66 No Country for Old Men
2008  16 20 82 89 120 Slumdog Millionaire

The winner was almost always the first or second high-grossing movie among the nominees. And since the switch? Which, by the way, included a switch to instant-runoff voting, requiring a majority rather than a plurality? 

Year  First Second Third Fourth Fifth Sixth Seventh Eighth Ninth Tenth Best Picture
2009 1 5 8 25 27 38 65 116 132 145 The Hurt Locker
2010 1 6 13 18 25 32 35 114 119 143 The King's Speech
2011 13 39 41 47 49 59 71 97 132   The Artist
2012 13 15 18 22 23 27 32 130 145   Argo
2013 6 17 28 32 62 80 95 100 117   12 Years a Slave
2014 1 36 54 61 78 85 100 125     Birdman
2015 8 13 21 42 44 62 70 111     Spotlight
2016 14 19 29 46 57 66 69 92 95   Moonlight

The winner is never among the top 3. It's as if the top 3 are for show. Or for TV ratings. It's as if merely nominating the likes of “Avatar” and “Inception” and “The Martian” releases members of the Academy from having to vote for them. 

Those TV ratings, by the way, haven't exactly gone through the roof since the Academy mucked with the system to curry its favor. In the eight years before the switch, the average rating (in millions) was 38.45. Since? 38.41. Last year's “La La Land” vs. “Moonlight” showdown garnered a 32.9 rating—similar to the 32.0 rating from 2007 when “No Country for Old Men” battled “There Will Be Blood.” 

It's the same old divide that didn't used to be such a divide. The Academy used to nominate box-office smashes that weren't exactly “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” (ex: “Love Story” and “Star Wars”), while moviegoers would turn critical darlings, such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” into box-office smashes (it was the No. 2 grosser of 1975, making the equivalent of $493 million). 

I don't see any of that in the near future. The opposite.

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Posted at 07:45 AM on Jan 31, 2018 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Tuesday January 30, 2018

‘And the Public was Glad to Go Along’

“Nothing had bugged me more during and right after Watergate than the know-nothing charge that the press had gone after Nixon because he was a Republican and the press consisted of a bunch of liberal Democrats. ‘You guys never would have gone after Kennedy,’ went the dreary charge, ‘if he were involved in Watergate.’ Truth is, at the Post anyway, we were always praying for good Democratic scandals ... and found more than our share. But that criticism, the suggestion of bias, wore me down over the years, I now think, and I know we walked the extra mile to accept the official version of events from the [Republican] White House—explanations that I doubt we would have accepted from the right-hand men of Democratic presidents. And the public was glad to go along.” 

— Ben Bradlee, “A Good Life,” pg.  409

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Posted at 04:19 PM on Jan 30, 2018 in category Media
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Monday January 29, 2018

Movie Review: The Post (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

During the movie’s rollout, The New York Times kept saying that they broke the Pentagon Papers story, not the Washington Post, so the movie should be called “The Times” not “The Post.”

Huff.

Except the movie isn’t about that. It’s about this:

  • The struggle to make the Post a national newspaper.
  • The struggle for Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) to find her voice.

These things coincide, according to the movie, with the risks the Post took in publishing the Pentagon Papers.

The Post movie reviewThe movie gives full credit to Neil Sheehan and the Times for breaking that story. Hell, the Times is not just present here but omnipresent. It’s the big brother whose shadow you can’t overcome. To Ben Bradlee, it’s as much an enemy as the Nixon White House. More so, in some sense.

That’s actually one thing that I loved about it. While lionizing liberal icons Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who are in the midst of a battle with a corrupt Republican administration, the movie lays bear the lie of “the liberal media.” True journalists like Bradlee don’t have political agendas; they have professional ones. Their goal is to beat the other guy to the story. 

This isn't a Hollywoodization, by the way. In Bradlee’s memoir, “A Good Life,” from 1995, he writes about the moment the Nixon Justice Dept. got an injunction to keep the Times from publishing more excerpts from the Pentagon Papers—restraining an American newspaper in this manner, he writes, “for the first time in the history of the republic.” Dark days. Was he frustrated? Angry? Nope. More like relieved and energized. “At least the New York Times had been silenced,” he writes, “never mind how.”

Never mind how?

That stunned me when I first read it. But Bradley’s agenda isn't political but professional—ruthlessly so. Same with today’s Post and Times and Wall Street Journal. As opposed to, say, Fox News, where the agenda is wholly political. And completely unprofessional.

Zero to 60
That said, I was a little disappointed with “The Post.” It should totally be in my wheelhouse—a historical procedural about historic journalism that’s smart, true, and cares about the details—but I never felt engaged. There was always distance. The movie started on the wrong track and never quite righted itself.

I wouldn’t have begun in 1966 in Vietnam. Or if I did, I would’ve worked in that Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) wasn’t just an intellectual; he had been a first lieutenant in the Marines in the 1950s. I did like the dynamic on McNamara’s plane. Ellsberg is called back to give his assessment, says the war isn’t improving, and Bob McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), rather than discount him, agrees. Angrily agrees. Yet on the tarmac, before the press, he still gives LBJ’s and the Pentagon’s upbeat assessment. That helps sour Ellsberg, which helps explain his later decision to leak the Pentagon Papers.

Here’s something the movie doesn’t wonder over that both Bradlee and Graham, in their respective memoirs, do. From Graham’s “Personal History”:

It’s hard to understand why Nixon and his people were so upset by the publication of these Papers, which were essentially a history of decisions made before they were in power. Nothing in them was a reflection on Nixon. I believe the administration’s reaction was an example of its extreme paranoia about national security and secrecy in general.

Overall, the journalistic side of the story ain’t bad. I like Bradlee wondering what Neil Sheehan is up to—“Haven’t seen his byline in a while”—and the amateur spy games to try to suss it out. I like everyone reading the Times the day the story breaks. It’s assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) who tags Ellsberg as the leak, and who contacts him from the usual public pay phones, and who travels to Boston to get a copy. The sorting of the papers in Bradlee’s living room is good—with the daughter selling lemonade outside—but does it have the zip it should? I associate Bradlee with energy, with that ballsy, freewheelingness of WWII vets who moved through life as if stunned they were still alive and decided to make the most of it. The movie doesn’t have that verve. Bradlee and Graham were the upstarts, the unknowns, trying to prove something at ages 49 and 53 respectively, and director Steven Spielberg cast the grand dames of American cinema, Hanks and Streep, ages 61 and 68 respectively, and maybe that was a mistake. There needed to be a greater hunger there. 

The second half of the story is Graham’s, who is often the only woman in a room full of accountants and lawyers, and who, according to the film, is virtually mute at the start. She’s smart, a good study, but can’t perform. Then she finds her voice.

The pivotal moment occurs after the reporters do their work and the Post’s lawyers warn about publishing it. From Graham’s memoir:

I was extremely torn by Fritz’s saying that he wouldn’t publish. I knew him so well, and we had never differed on any important issue; and, after all, he was the lawyer, not I. But I also heard how he said it: he didn’t hammer at me, he didn’t stress the issues related to going public, and he didn’t say the obvious thing—that I would be risking the whole company on this decision. He simply said he guessed he wouldn’t. I felt that, despite his stated opinion, he had somehow left the door open for me to decide on a different course. Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, “Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish.” And I hung up.

The movie, to its credit, captures all of this—particularly the silent interaction between her and Fritz Beebe, a legend at the Post, played by playwright Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County”). It’s nearly the same role he plays in “Lady Bird,” isn’t it? The wise, patient man next to the leading lady. Just as Bradley Whitford (“Get Out”) gets to play another asshole.

Anyway, it’s a great moment, and Streep nails it. Graham’s arc is the arc of the film—from figurehead to actor—but it feels overdone. It’s too obvious what she’s lacking, and then, boom, all of a sudden she gets it. How nice. And this is even before Spielberg—forever underlining points—films Graham, after the SCOTUS decision, making her way through the crowd, which suddenly turns into only admiring women. I don't buy it—the trajectory. Pretending she only found it at the 11th hour does a disservice to her and to the movie.  

27 for 30
“The Post” is Steven Spielberg’s 30th feature film and I’ve seen 27 of them. He and I have spent a lot of time together in the dark. Here's a question: As he’s aged, as his future has receded and his past has grown, have his futuristic sci-fi movies become more dystopian (the idealism of “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” giving way to “War of the Worlds” and “Ready Player One”), while the historical movies have become more nostalgic?

The nostalgia is certainly thick in this one. I learned more about how newspapers were printed than ever before—and I'm the son of a newspaper man. And those newspapers were read—from beginning to end. People didn’t just see a headline, or a tweet or a meme, and share it. Those were the days.

I’m with him. I just find it ironic that Spielberg, the former wunderkind, has such love for what no longer is—for what’s been replaced by the very thing that used to make his eyes light up: the whiz-bang of it all.

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Posted at 08:07 AM on Jan 29, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Sunday January 28, 2018

Our Continuing National Nightmare

“This is no longer about Trump alone. This is now an indictment of the entire Republican Party — the elected officials and the still strident Trump voters — as well as the Trump propaganda machine at Fox News (”news“ clearly being a misnomer). These folks are engaged in an attack on the country from within. They are attacking our institutions. They are attacking the truth. All of this is being done to protect Trump rather than protect America.”

-- Charles M. Blow, “Trump Repeats Nixon's Fateful Panic,” The New York Times

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Posted at 07:08 PM on Jan 28, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday January 26, 2018

January Pick-Me-Up

Here's a late-January pick-me-up: a first-inning at-bat in Game 4 of the 2003 World Series between Miguel Cabrera (just a kid, 20) and Roger Clemens (41 asshole years old):

This should be a life lesson. It should be a TED Talk. They should show it in high school and have discussions about it with kids afterwards.  

There are people who will throw at your head to get ahead. And you need to know what to do when that happens. You need to stay cool. Because you need to make them pay. 

Miguel Cabrera did just that with Clemens. You could even say this at-bat turned the tide of the World Series and the Yankees dynasty. Marlins were down two games to one, Yanks had Roger Clemens on the mound, he's throwing at the heads of kids. I like the look Miggy gives him after that first pitch. Would be interesting to see Roger's look back. I like Miggy's rush to punish, the big swings, then pulling back when he has two strikes; and then just fighting everything off. And he finds his equilibrium again and makes Clemens pay. Tim McCarver: “There is nothing that makes a hitter feel better than being knocked off the plate and then hitting a homerun. Nothing.”

And there's nothing that makes a Yankee hater feel better.

After this at-bat, the Yankees would have the lead for just one inning more: the 1st inning in Game 5. Otherwise, it was all Marlins.

Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 13. 

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Posted at 02:18 PM on Jan 26, 2018 in category Baseball
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Thursday January 25, 2018

Irony & Wine

Mark Felt, 1980

Mark Felt with reporters in 1980.

I recently watched the movie “Mark Felt” (don't ask), and while doing some research for my review, I came across this ironic snippet of history.

On April 30, 1981The New York Times reported that two former FBI agents, who had recently been pardoned by Pres. Reagan, each received a bottle of champagne in celebration. 

One of the two men was Mark Felt, the No. 2 man under J. Edgar Hoover, who, in 2005, revealed that he had been “Deep Throat,” the inside man on deep background for The Washington Post's Bob Woodward during the Watergate investigation. Felt is basically the man who ended Nixon's corrupt administration.

So of course the bottles of champagne celebrating his pardon came from Richard Nixon—along with a note: “Justice ultimately prevails.”

Truer words.

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Posted at 06:56 AM on Jan 25, 2018 in category U.S. History
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Wednesday January 24, 2018

If There Were a Hall of Fame for Class...

Here's Edgar Martinez after he found out he received 70% of the Hall of Fame vote (22 votes, or 5%, shy) from the Baseball Writers Association of America today, in this, his ninth year on the ballot (it's 10 and done; then it goes to the Veterans committee): 

 An hour later:

Could it be otherwise? The man the Seattle Mariners kept in the minors two or three years too long; the man they thought would be a sub at best; the Mariner who was forever overlooked by the nationa media—of course he has to wait until the last year to (fingers crossed, fingers crossed) be inducted into the Hall of Fame. 

That said, it's been a remarkable turnaround. In 2015 he was still at 27% of the vote. That's when inductee Randy Johnson said if he had a vote he'd vote for Edgar. Other pitchers piled on—the best pitchers of the era: Both Pedro (whom Edgar couldn't hit) and Mariano (whom he could: .579 career) called Edgar the toughest hitter they ever faced. And the following year, Edgar's numbers leapt to 43%; then, last year, 58%. Now this. 

Next year, I'm guessing it'll be lined down the left field line for a base hit. 

FURTHER READING: No One in the Wings: The Underappreciated Career of Edgar Martinez

Edgar Martinez

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Posted at 06:16 PM on Jan 24, 2018 in category Seattle Mariners
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Best Picture Release Months

I'm working on a post about Oscar and box office, but in the meantime here's a chart on the last time a best picture was released in each month. Yeah, January's not the way to go. That took some reasearch to get there. OK, not so much research but clicking. (I miss the days of research.)

MONTH MOVIE YEAR
October Moonlight 2016
November Spotlight 2015
June The Hurt Locker 2009
May Crash 2005
December Million Dollar Baby 2004
September American Beauty 1999
July Forrest Gump 1994
August Unforgiven 1992
February

The Silence of the Lambs

1991
April Annie Hall 1977
March The Godfather  1972
January The Greatest Show on Earth 1952

The big surprise is less that no one releases a prestige pic in January, but how long it's been since we've had a best picture winner released in December. That used to be the norm. Between 1997 and 2004, six of the eight BP winners were December releases: “Titanic,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Chicago,” “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” and Eastwood's “Million Dollar Baby.”  

Since then we've had one May winner (“Crash”), one June winner (“The Hurt Locker”), five October winners (“Departed,” “Argo,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman” and “Moonlight”) and five November winners (“No Country for Old Men,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King's Speech,” “The Artist,” “Spotlight”). No Decembers. 

I hope the trend continues. Maybe it will discourage studios from releasing their prestige movies in the last two weeks of the year on the obscure hope they'll be better remembered—rather than simply trampled. 

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Posted at 08:56 AM on Jan 24, 2018 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Tuesday January 23, 2018

Ladies and Gentlemen, Your (OK, Their) 2017 Oscar Nominations

2017 Oscars

Well, I guess have to see “Darkest Hour” now. Sigh. 

Yes, the 2017 Oscar nominations are out! And yes, it's the 2017 Oscars. To quote the all-knowing Nathaniel Rogers, it's “not the 2018 Oscars, bitches. Oscars are for the film year, not the calendar year in which they take place.”

Amen, brother. 

So one of my faves of the year, “The Big Sick,” got an original screenplay nod in a stacked category, but no best picture (I had fingers and toes crossed but wasn't expecting it) and, shockingly, horribly, no Holly Hunter in supporting! And yes, that's another stacked category, but I'd tap Hunter over, say, Octavia Spencer, whose work in “The Shape of Water” was fine but hardly memorable. 

Speaking of: “Shape of Water” led the way with 13 nominations. 13! Guillermo del Toro, with his love of the dark, should like that unlucky total. It's just one off the record, which is shared by “All About Eve,” “Titanic” and “La La Land.” First two won best pic, the last, famously, didn't.

Meanwhile, these are the pics with 13 noms that “Shape” is now joining. Best picture winners highlighted:

  • “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008)
  • “Chicago” (2002)
  • “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001)
  • “Shakespeare in Love” (1998)
  • “Forrest Gump” (1994)
  • “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)
  • “Mary Poppins” (1964)
  • “From Here to Eternity” (1953)
  • “Gone With The Wind” (1939)

So by no means a done deal. I mean, all that love for “Benjamin Button”? Talk about curious cases. 

Should we just do a little category by category breakdown? Not Foggy Mountain but worth something:

PICTURE (# of total nominations in parentheses)

  • “Call Me by Your Name” (4)
  • “Darkest Hour” (6)
  • “Dunkirk” (8)
  • “Get Out” (4)
  • “Lady Bird” (5)
  • “Phantom Thread” (6)
  • “The Post” (2)
  • “The Shape of Water” (13)
  • “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (7)

My tops in this category: 1) “Call Me By Your Name” 2) “Lady Bird” 3) “Three Billboards.” Don't get the “Dunkirk” love. I guess it's an old-fashioned spectacle war drama by a boffo box-office director, but the characters are nothing. “Get Out” is wholly original but its metaphor falters with its big reveal. “Phantom Thread” is a suffocating, beautiful story with the stench of murder in it, and as perplexing an ending as you'll find. “The Post” was straightforward but without much of an engine. What's missing? “The Big Sick.” 

ACTOR:

  • Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”
  • Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread”
  • Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”
  • Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
  • Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

I'd rather see Roman J. Israel get nominated for “Denzel Washington” but maybe that's me. Has anyone seen that movie? The only guys who now have more acting noms than Denzel (who now has 8) are: Jack Nicholson (12), Laurence Olivier (10), Paul Newman (10), and Spencer Tracy (9). We got some kids in the mix, too. Chalamet, at 22, is the third-youngest best actor nominee (after Mickey Rooney and Jackie Cooper), while Kaluuya, at 28,is the 20th-youngest. (See here.) I just saw “Phantom Thread” and in a perfect world, where no one had won anything, the Academy would be giving it to DDL. But this is apparently Oldman's to lose. Who's missing? Some say James Franco in “The Disaster Artist,” but I wouldn't have gone there. Same with Hanks in “The Post.” Both playing real people, btw. As is Oldman. 

ACTRESS

  • Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”
  • Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
  • Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”
  • Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”
  • Meryl Streep, “The Post”

Interesting stat from Nathaniel: “This is Meryl's first time in a Best Picture nominee since Out of Africa (1985).” Sad, not shocking. Since WWII, the Academy has relegated women's pictures to “less than best.” Two real people in the mix (Graham and Harding), and a tough vote. Don't know who would get mine. Either Hawkins, McDormand or Ronan.

SUPPORTING ACTOR

  • Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”
  • Woody Harrelson, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
  • Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water”
  • Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World”
  • Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Missing: Michael Stuhlbarg in either “Call Me” or “Shape of Water.” Rockwell is getting the love, which I love. I'd go him or Harrelson, whose work in “3B” was underrated. 

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  • Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”
  • Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”
  • Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”
  • Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”
  • Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water”

One of my favorite cinematic moments this year was Holly Hunter's by-the-way smelling her daughter's jacket as they entered her apartment for the first time. We'll always have that, Holly. Also missing: Betty Gabriel from “Get Out.” 

DIRECTOR

  • “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan
  • “Get Out,” Jordan Peele
  • “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig
  • “Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson
  • “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro

Missing: Martin McDonagh for “Three Billboards.” Making it no longer a best picture threat? Once upon a time, yes, but “Argo” went there a few years ago. That said, I think del Toro will probably join his “Three Amigos” companions, Inarritu (2014, 2015) and Cuaron (2013), with a best director statuette. If so, it would mean best director has gone to someone from Mexico four of the last five years. And Taiwan the year before that. (Don't tell Donald.) Not bad for a category that always used to bet on white.  

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

  • “Call Me by Your Name,” James Ivory
  • “The Disaster Artist,” Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
  • “Logan,” Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green
  • “Molly's Game,” Aaron Sorkin
  • “Mudbound,” Virgil Williams and Dee Rees

Future trivia buffs: Name the only superhero movie that won a best screenplay nomination. The answer is there, “Logan.” The lesson is apparently to go dark and dystopic. My vote is on Ivory all the way. 

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

  • “The Big Sick,” Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
  • “Get Out,” Jordan Peele
  • “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig
  • “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
  • “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Martin McDonagh

Another stacked category. I get the feeling Peele will get it as a sop for not getting director, but I'd go either Gerwig or Gordon/Nanjiani. Hey Academy! You can honor both women AND men of color if you vote “The Big Sick”! Just saying. 

CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • “Blade Runner 2049,” Roger Deakins
  • “Darkest Hour,” Bruno Delbonnel
  • “Dunkirk,” Hoyte van Hoytema
  • “Mudbound,” Rachel Morrison
  • “The Shape of Water,” Dan Laustsen

No “Phantom Thread,” huh? Historic note: Rachel Morrison is the first woman nom'ed for DP. This will also be poor Roger Deakins 14th nom. Without a win.

The Oscars are Sunday, March 4. Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. Party at my place. 

FURTHER READING

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Posted at 11:57 AM on Jan 23, 2018 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Monday January 22, 2018

Your 2017 Oscar Picks, Courtesy of SAG

If you're in an Oscar pool, these should probably be your picks in the acting categories this year:

  • Actor: Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
  • Actress: Francis McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
  • Supporting Actor: Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
  • Supoorting Actress: Allison Janey, “I, Tonya”

They should be your picks because they were the winners at the 24th Annual Screen Actors Guild/SAG Awards last night, and because SAG has predicted—or, to be fair, preceded—the Oscar choices in at least three of the four acting categories every year since 2009. Often it was a clean sweep. Here are the SAG choices, with differences with Oscar highlighted:

Year Lead Actor Lead Actress Supporting Actor Supporting Actress
2016 Denzel Washington Emma Stone Mahershala Ali Viola Davis
2015 Leonardo DiCaprio Brie Larson Idris Elba Alicia Vikander
2014 Eddie Redmayne Julianne Moore J.K. Simmons Patricia Arquette
2013 Matthew McConaughey Cate Blanchett Jared Leto Lupita Nyong'o
2012 Daniel Day-Lewis Jennifer Lawrence Tommy Lee Jones Anne Hathaway
2011 Jean Dujardin Viola Davis Christopher Plummer Octavia Spencer
2010 Colin Firth Natalie Portman Christian Bale Melissa Leo
2009 Jeff Bridges Sandra Bullock Christoph Waltz No'Nique

In 2011, the Academy went Meryl Streep for “Iron Lady” rather than Viola Davis for “The Help” (bad choice, Oscar), and in 2012, it opted for Christoph Waltz reprising his cooky Tarantino villainy in “Django Unchained” rather than Tommy Lee Jones' 19th-century gravitas in “Lincoln” (another bad choice). Two years ago, it tapped Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies” over Idris Elba's straight-to-Netflix monstrous commander in “Beasts of No Nation,” which, being straight-to-Netflix, wasn't even nominated by the Academy (I lean Rylance). And last year, it went Casey Affleck in “Manchester By the Sea” over Denzel directing himself in “Fences” (another wash, but, given my preference for “Manchester,” and Denzel's closetful of awards, I lean Affleck). 

So: 28 of 32. Almost a lock. 

It actually feels like more of a lock than that. It doesn't take Ta-Nehesi Coates to see that three of the four differences between SAG and Oscar involved race: SAG chose African-American actors, Oscar didn't. Only in one (Jones/Waltz) was white traded for white. And of course Jones was one of the Men in Black.

So now we're at 31 of 32. Tough to get better odds.  

Oscar nominations announced tomorrow morning. 

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Posted at 07:42 AM on Jan 22, 2018 in category Movies - Awards
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Sunday January 21, 2018

Pick a Pose

A lot has been written about the Minnesota Vikings thrilling, last-minute victory over the New Orleans Saints last Sunday, but I particularly like this piece by Barry Svrluga in The Washington Post. He goes into the background of game-changer Stefon Diggs and the “late-round guys” that make up the Vikings offense. It's classic underdog stuff. Here's the end:

There are paintings of Ahmad Rashad and Jim Marshall and Fran Tarkenton and so many others hung in different spots around U.S. Bank Stadium. Pick a pose for Diggs now — leaping to grab the ball, balancing himself with his hand, spreading his arm as a disbelieving stadium pulsed around him, flinging his helmet in celebration afterward. The kid from Gaithersburg, Md., who felt slighted all this time needs to feel that way no longer. His life changed Sunday night, and he will forever be a hero here.

Stefon Diggs TD

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Posted at 09:09 AM on Jan 21, 2018 in category Sports
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Thursday January 18, 2018

Movie Review: Call Me By Your Name (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Can anyone watch this movie and not be reminded of their first overwhelming love? For me it was in college with a girl named Kristin; and just as Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) dance around each other for weeks here, repelling and attracting, repelling and attracting, so I did the same with Kristin—but for years. There was always an excuse—she with someone, I with someone—but mostly I felt unworthy. I couldn’t imagine it. Then I couldn’t imagine not letting her know, so I told her the spring of my senior year. And then suddenly, magically, we were seeing each other, in the few weeks before I graduated and she left for a summer job on the coast of Maine.

Another parallel: Near the end of the movie, and near the end of Oliver’s stay in Italy, the two are walking and kissing at night in the nearly deserted cobblestone streets of Bergamo, a northern Italian/Germanic town, and they come across some locals listening to music (“Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs); and Oliver, overcome by it all, and with his usual boundless enthusiasm, dances with the girl, while Elio, overcome by other things, stumbles to a nearby trashcan and throws up.

I doubt it was the drink; I think it was the love. I think that because that was me. When I realized my case with Kristin wasn’t hopeless, what did I do? Dance? Shout with joy? Sure. I also returned home and threw up. For a time, it made me think our anatomical symbol for love was all wrong. It shouldn’t be the heart, I decided, but the stomach. We should send each other cards with stomachs on them. Our love notes should read “I (stomach) you” and “You make me nauseous.”

Keeping the lovers apart
Call Me By Your Name reviewCan anyone imagine a more languorous film? That’s the word that kept coming to me: languid. It’s a movie that feels like a summer day with nothing much to do.

It’s a slow dance. It’s circular. There’s the doors that open and close—literally and metaphorically. In this impossibly beautiful Italian country home in Lombardy, Italy, Oliver is using Elio’s room, and Elio is forced into the smaller room on the other side of a shared bathroom, and the doors are like invitations or refusals. Generally when one is opening the other is closing. It’s red light, green light, keep away. There are little verbal attacks, snarky little bites that confuse the other, and probably the biter. The two men show off and compete with each other, and, for a time, each sublimates his desire with a pretty Italian girl. (As sublimation goes, that's not a bad way.) The point of the love story is to keep the lovers apart, and dramatists often bend over backwards to find ways, but “Call Me By Your Name” reminds us that we do a pretty fine job of it on our own.

You keep the lovers apart because once they get together it’s fairly dull business for the viewer. Here, too, a bit. We’re no longer building toward something, we’re just at something. I found my attention wavering.

But screenwriter James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory) and director Luca Guadagnino (“A Bigger Splash”) still keep it interesting. Maybe because we know it’s ending shortly? Because they go there with the fruit? Because there’s always the specter of possible gay bashing—that it’ll end in violence and pain? Thank god, it doesn’t. It ends traditionally, at a train station. No violence, just pain.

I was confused by the title before I saw the film but not after: “Call me by your name,” one says, “and I’ll call you by mine.” The wish to subsume yourself in the other, to be the other. Is it stronger in homosexual relationships? Where it’s easier to be the other? Oliver and Elio trade names and clothes and secrets. Then again, Kristin and I traded shirts. Or maybe she just wore mine.

Yes, the privilege here is immense. The Perlman family has cooks and gardeners and (the greatest privilege of all) lives with meaning. The father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an archeology professor, Oliver is his graduate student, they are living lives of the mind. They have the dining table outdoors, and the meals served without fuss, and volleyball on the grass. Friends drop by. I envied the place, and the privilege, but mostly I envied the intelligence. Most movies make me feel too smart; this made me feel the opposite. Like I hadn’t studied enough. Like, at 54, I really needed to hit the books again.

L’interloper
In that final phone conversation, in winter during Hanukah, when Oliver tells Elio he’s getting married, he also tells him how lucky he is that he has parents who are so understanding—so open—about his homosexuality. “My father would’ve carted me off to a correctional facility,” he says. And Elio is lucky. To be who he is and where he is with the people he’s with. He's particularly lucky to have a father who gives him “the talk," the real talk, that every sensitive son needs to hear. I certainly needed to hear it in the summer of 1987. I still need to hear it. I want the speech on an MP3 file. I'd listen to it weekly:

We rip out so much of ourselves, to be cured of things faster than we should, that we go bankrupt by the age of 30, and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. 

And this:

Our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out. And as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it.

Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it, and with it the joy you’ve felt.

Staying open is so tough. Most things in life push us in the opposite direction. Most movies, too. “Call Me By Your Name” opened me up in a way I have not felt in a long time. It’s the best movie of the year.

At the start of the movie, as Elio first watches Oliver arrive, he jokingly calls him an interloper. So he is. For life.

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Posted at 09:15 AM on Jan 18, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Wednesday January 17, 2018

A Succinct Answer to a Convoluted Question

Yesterday on NPR's “Morning Edition,” host Steve Inskeep talked with two top ethics lawyers from previous administrations, Richard Painter (Bush II) and Norman Eisen (Obama), about the lack of ethics of our current president. I know: shocker. Both men are on the board of CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has sued Pres. Trump for violating the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution:

No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

I.e., you can't make money from being prez. Trump is ignoring that. Ironically, at his apparent financial peril

CREW's first lawsuit was tossed out because the judge ruled the org lacked legal standing. They're appealing, and states, which do have legal standing, are now suing on the same grounds. All of which led to this exchange:

INSKEEP: I want to ask about another aspect of this because as I understand the judge's ruling—throwing out your lawsuit—the judge said, really, this ought to be up to Congress to police, among other things. Congress, of course, is controlled by Republicans. They've said they want to hold the White House accountable. They've been accused of actually defending the White House.

But, you know, we're just been discussing immigration, and it's an issue in which it appears the president was at one point ready to compromise with Democrats, and conservatives realized they needed to stay very close to the president and talk to him a lot or he was going to wander off and not support their policies. You have an example of why Republicans in Congress need, politically, to stay close to the president. What would you advise them to do when it comes to ethics and this president?

PAINTER: Do their job.

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Posted at 07:56 AM on Jan 17, 2018 in category Media
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Tuesday January 16, 2018

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Despite the thrilling ending, that whole “Every word you just said was wrong” triptych ticked off by Luke Skywalker, which not only upends Kylo Ren’s worldview but our subtitle, since the last of the three is “And I will not be the last Jedi”—which, let’s face it, we all knew it going in, Rey being the ray of hope and the Jedi idea worth billions—despite all that, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” disappointed me. Mostly for this reason:

They had 35 years to figure out what happened to Luke Skywalker, and this is what they came up with? I vant to be alone? Sulking for a long time, at the edge of a galaxy far, far away?

Luke was my guy. And look what they did to him. Look what they did to my boy.

Most likely to succeed
Star Wars: The Last Jedi reviewIn the summer of 1977, when I was 14, I must have seen “Star Wars” half a dozen times. I had “May the Force Be With You” and “Darth Vader Lives” iron-on T-shirts. And if I knew anything I knew this: Luke was going to wind up with the girl. The other dude? Han? A jerk. A hot-rodder. Besides, it wasn’t his story. It was Luke’s. He had the true heart. I knew that. Everyone knew that.

But that was before a car accident disfigured Mark Hamill’s pretty face, and before George Lucas—who had already invented something that binds his universe together—decided to tie it all up in a way-too-neat bow by making the villain, Darth Vader, Luke’s father, and the girl, Princess Leia, Luke’s sister, which created all kinds of complications for the original—the least of which is the kiss. I mean, Darth tortures his own daughter? He tries to kill his own son? Without knowing it? What good is the Force if it can’t fathom that?

But at least we got Luke’s heroic journey: rise and savior in the first movie; training and setback in the second; rescue and ... OK, so he doesn’t exactly stop the Emperor in the third. Daddy does that. He surrenders, hoping he can bring Darth back from the Dark Side, and he does, in the most-telegraphed, worst-edited change-of-heart in movie history. So Luke kinda-sorta gets credit for stopping the Empire. And by the end he’s a Jedi master. Also secondary to Han/Harrison Ford, who became the bigger star by far, and whose bad-ass ways were apparently more appealing to both men and women. Talk about your upended worldviews! “Wait, women want the jerk? All women want the jerk? Damn, this is going to be a long life."

Really, what heroic thing did Luke do after blowing up the Death Star in the first movie? He gets clocked by a wampa, whines with Yoda, loses a hand to Darth, gets trapped by Jabba, and is zapped by the Emperor. Still he’s treated as a legend, rather than someone who never lived up to his promise, so he sets up a Jedi camp to train the next generation, including his nephew, Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia. And he screws that up, too. And he screws it up in the exact same way Obi-wan did.

Obi-wan took a kid, Anakin, trained him in the Jedi ways, lost him to the Dark Side, then lied about it to his next pupil, Luke: “A young Jedi named Darth Vader...betrayed and murdered your father.”

Luke took a kid, Ben Solo, trained him in the Jedi ways, lost him to the Dark Side, then he too lies about it to his next pupil, Rey, leaving out the part about thinking of killing him. Which woke up Ben/Kylo and completely turned him.

And what about that anyway? How exactly does Kylo, the student, best Luke, the Master? All we see is Luke looking horrified, falling backward, “Noooo!,” then waking up to flaming ruins. Is it that Luke was off balance by his earlier murderous thoughts, while Kylo was enraged? But OK, since it happens, here’s another one: Why doesn’t Kylo take the opportunity to kill Luke here? He killed everyone else—why not Luke? He certainly hated him enough.

That’s not even the worst of it. Imagine you’re Luke amid the wreckage and the bodies. You’re a legend, a Jedi Master, and now your nephew is the disciple of Snoke, who is rebuilding the Empire as the First Order. What do you do?

You flee to the edge of the galaxy, live like a hermit, and cut yourself off from the Force. Of course.

Faux feminism
Admittedly there’s a kind of symmetry to it. Luke begins the saga desperate to leave the desert planet, Tatooine, and join the rebellion, and he ends it on the water planet, Ahch-To, refusing to join the rebellion. Except the latter part isn’t exactly heroic. And if he didn’t become heroic, what was that hero’s journey all about? What was my childhood all about?

Dude isn’t even wise or resigned in his hermitage. He’s bitter. He went from whining to bitterness. The wisdom we get comes from ghostly Yoda, appearing in cackling, crackling form, talking about failure. Luke can’t even burn the ancient Jedi texts; ghost Yoda has to do that for him.

Wait, isn’t this true: Yoda is to Young Luke in “Empire” as Old Luke is to Rey in “Last Jedi”? So why is Rey’s mission to recruit old Luke to battle while young Luke’s mission was to just get trained by Yoda? How come Obi-wan didn’t instruct him, “Luke, go to the Dagobah system and find Yoda and bring him back to lead the rebellion because that dude can seriously kick ass”? Why weren’t the Emperor and Darth worried about Yoda returning the way Snoke/Kylo Ren are worried about Luke? Because Yoda was super old? Because his powers were weak, old man? Maybe. But at the time, his powers were still greater than young Luke’s.

Are Star Wars’ powers getting weak, old man? We keep seeing the same movie. Once again we watch our young hero (Luke/Rey) tossed about by the wizened Sith Lord (The Emperor/Snoke), while the Dark Side disciple (Darth/Kylo) stands to one side deciding whose side he’s on. At least the editing was better this time around. At least victory was a matter of intellect—hiding your true intentions. And at least Kylo did what he did for dark reasons: power. Still, I’m curious: Didn’t Snoke know the story of the Emperor’s fall? And doesn’t this galaxy have its version of George Santayana? Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. Ditto those who have lousy screenwriters.

You know what really bugged me about that scene? The throne. Dude’s sitting on a fucking throne in the midst of a big red empty in the middle of a spaceship. Can we get past this throne trope already? How about a desk with some paperwork on it? How about a comfy couch with two corgis? Where’s the pleasure in a big red empty? And what is Snoke doing while waiting for his 1:1s? Does he have hobbies? Has he tried moisturizer? Visine? 

The movie does go off in some new directions—notably with Rey’s lineage, which isn’t related at all to the Skywalker/Kenobi clan. Thank god. She’s a nothing from nowhere. She’s the exceptional borne from the unexceptional. In this way, the Force is being democratized. Cf., the kid before the end credits who uses the Force to grab his broom.

“Last Jedi” also trots out the subversive—in the sense of subverting usual tropes—with its newfound feminism: Rose Tico schooling Finn; Leia and Holdo schooling Poe Dameron. But it feels like faux feminism to me.

Let me get this out of the way first: Leia slaps Poe Dameron for losing lives while destroying a dreadnought? I get the demotion, or worse, for not following orders; but a slap?

Besides, the whole “hot-dog flyboys wrong/calm women right” dynamic feels forced; it feels like the movie stacked the decks to make its “gotcha!” point. First they cast Laura Dern (never a good sign) as Vice Admiral Holdo; then they doll her up with purple hair and an odd turtlenecky dress so she looks like a cross between a “Hunger Games” socialite and an “Alice in Wonderland” sketch. Military rep aside, she seems like the unlikeliest admiral in the world. Which is why Poe leads others in a mutiny when they discover she’s abandoning ship. Actually that’s not why they mutiny. They mutiny because she doesn’t explain why they’re abandoning ship. To anyone. It would’ve been so easy, too. “Hey, let’s take these undetected transports to the rebel base on Crait so we can fight another day. Who’s with me?” But nah. And the movie doesn’t own up to this. The movie thinks Poe is a hothead, and wrong, and she’s a leader, and wise.

Doesn’t Poe also get the (dis)credit for the idiot Canto Bight subplot? But that’s a Rose Tico/Finn/Maz Kanata operation from the get-go. And how stupid is Finn in all this? The place is Vegas, full of rich, drunk, gambling fools, and he’s luxuriating in it. He needs RT to tell him look beneath the surface to find the exploitation. I wanted to smack my head—or his. That whole subplot is a longshot that never pays off. Worse, the partner in crime they pick up, DJ (Benicio del Toro, the best thing in the movie, btw), gives away Holdo’s plan and the transports get zapped like so much popcorn. Which leads to Holdo’s big sacrifice.

How come this hasn’t been tried before? Hyperspace the shit out of a giant Imperial/First Order ship? Kamikaze it. Cut it in two. Of course, for all the destruction, no main characters buy it. Fancy that. Finn and Rose are over there, as is, I believe, Rey. Not to mention Kylo Ren and Gen. Hux—the perpetual Abel to Kylo’s Cain. All survive. They don't even lose a hand. 

On Crait, Finn attempts his own sacrifice. He’s going to ram his speeder down the throat of the First Order, but at the last minute Rose’s speeder comes from the side to clip his and take him out of harm’s way. A few objections:

  • Attempting to rescue someone by ramming your vehicle into theirs at full speed? In the real world, the odds are pretty high both of you will die.
  • How is this logistically possible?

She veers off but he keeps racing in a straight line. But somehow, taking a circuitous route, she beats his straight line and gets ahead of him? That only works if: 1) her speeder is speedier; 2) she’s a better pilot. And if it’s 2) add that to the list of things Finn can’t do. One wonders, between this, and the Vegas infatuation, and constantly trying to run away, why we care about him at all.

But at least Luke gets to go out with a bang.

Old tech
I’m not the only one who had a problem with Luke’s outcome, by the way. Luke himself wasn’t thrilled. From a Vanity Fair piece on Mark Hamill:

“I at one point had to say to Rian [Johnson, director], ‘I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character. Now, having said that, I have gotten it off my chest, and my job now is to take what you’ve created and do my best to realize your vision.’”

That said, that final battle, with its twist, is pretty good. He gets to fight, or “fight,” but remain true to his last-act “plague on both your houses” persona. He gives the rebels the time to escape in the Millennium Falcon, which he called “a piece of junk” a long time ago, and which just keeps going. Chewie just keeps going. But he’s a bit player now, as is C3PO and R2D2. They come on, play their greatest hits—“Help me Obi-wan”; “The odds against our survival are...”—then are shown the door. They’re old tech and no longer supported by the machinery.

Anyone know why Luke buys it? Is it the strain of projecting his form across the galaxy? Or was it just time to die? For all my problem with his hermitage, they give him a good end. He gets to stare at the setting sun one last time—as a young Luke once stared at the setting suns of Tatooine, longing for adventure. He certainly found it. He’s seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

Luke Skywalker staring at the sunset on Tatooine

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Posted at 06:18 AM on Jan 16, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Monday January 15, 2018

'This Doesn't Happen to Us'

“In the moment, when there is ten seconds left, you start preparing your mind with all the past conditioning; you start saying, 'It doesn't matter' and 'We are now free to stop watching and caring' and then boom Diggs is up in the air, he catches the ball. Does he run out of bounds for the field goal? No, there is no time. Does he step out of bounds? Did one knee touch the surface after the catch? Where's the flag? There has to be a flag that brings it all back? ... This is the life and legacy of being a Vikings fan. It can't be real. This doesn't happen to us.”

-- Robb Mitchell, long-suffering Vikings fan, the day after Stefon Diggs' incredible 61-yard touchdown that propeled the Vikings to the NFC Championship. 

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Posted at 09:15 PM on Jan 15, 2018 in category Sports
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Presidential MLK Day Message: 'I Am Not a Racist'

“I am not a racist.”

Could there be a more profound message from the president of the United States on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend? 

Via CNN:

In remarks to reporters at a dinner photo opportunity with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in West Palm Beach, Florida, Trump said when asked if he is a racist, “No, I'm not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”

No need to bring up the litany of racist behavior again. Probably enough to mention the Central Park Five case, in which a woman jogger, a white investment banker, was brutally beaten and raped in Central Park in 1989 and five black kids, ages 14 to 16, were charged with the crime. They were innocent. DNA evidence later proved it. It proved it then, if we were willing to look at it. We weren't. Neither was Donald Trump, who took out a full-page ad in the New York Times urging a return to the death penalty. Can you imagine if we'd put these kids to death? Then found out? Then realized all the signs we'd missed? 

You now what doesn't get enough attention about Trump's walkback lines like the above? How it plays with his base. He's got a core constituency that's racist at its heart but such declarations don't ever make them waver in their support for him. I guess it means they know he's lying. And they're fine with that. They're fine with the president of the United States lying on a regular basis to the American people—as long as he stays racist. 

Happy MLK Day. 

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Posted at 08:31 AM on Jan 15, 2018 in category Politics
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Sunday January 14, 2018

The Minneapolis Miracle

Stephon Diggs TD Vikings

Stefon Diggs redeems a franchise.

After it was all over, after I'd yelled at the TV about the flag that had flashed across the screen for an instant (an orange peel, we later found out), and after I couldn't believe that Drew Pearson hadn't been called for something (offensive interference, pushing off, being a Dallas Cowboy), and after the Vikings attempted a last-minute drive of their own that went nowhere, and the game, and the season, and the dream died, I put on my coat, hat and gloves, and in the twilight, with snow crunching beneath my feet, walked down 54th to Salk's Rexall Drugs. And there, while I looked at the comic book racks but didn't really look at the comic book racks, I heard a conversation between the back cashier and the pharmacist. 

“Vikings lost.”

“Yeah? What happened?”

“Don't know. Just heard they lost.”

Casual, like that. Just another day.

I wanted to yell at them, these strangers, these poor people working the last Sunday of the year, December 29, 1975. Because IT WASN'T CASUAL! It was HORRIBLE! It was THE END OF THE WORLD! 

Instead I walked back outside, down Lyndale, and over to 53rd, and made my way home in the cold. I was 12, almost 13. I didn't know about adult solutions to pain yet—drinking, pot, Xanax, whatever. All I had was walking in the Minnesota cold.

I'd been a fan since ‘72, when we went 7-7, and when we still had, I believe, Gary Cuozzo as QB, before we got back Francis, scrambling Fran Tarkenton. The next year we went to the Super Bowl against the Dolphins, and lost, and the year after we went to the Super Bowl against the Steelers, and lost, and the year after the Drew Pearson debacle, the ’76 season, we went to the Super Bowl against the Raiders, and lost. And by the end of the decade I was doing other things and never watched football regularly again. Not like this. Never like this again. 

But I have friends in Minnesota who still bleed purple, and for them, and for the 12-year-old in me, the end of today's game, a 61-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs with no time remaining, to beat the New Orleans Saints 29-24, and send the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game against the Eagles, feels fucking awesome. It brings tears to my eyes. I didn't even watch the game but I‘ve seen that final play a dozen times now. I could watch it 100 times. 

It was finally the Vikings’ turn. After all that heartbreak, it was finally their time. And your time, Jim, and Adam, and Eric, and Stu, and Deano. And Dad.

Skol. 

Minnesota Vikings Halloween

Halloween 1972

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Posted at 10:18 PM on Jan 14, 2018 in category Sports
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Saturday January 13, 2018

Wolff on Spencer on Trump

I read this today and it seems appropriate considering Trump's recent “shithole” and “bring more Norweigans” comments the other day. The speaker is alt-right founder Richard Spencer, talking to the press during the 2017 CPAC Conference, as recounted in “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” by Michael Wolff.Fire and Fury: more European immigrants remark at CPAC

“Trump has said things that conservatives never would have thought.... His criticism of the Iraq War, bashing the Bush family, I couldn't believe he did that ... but he did.... Fuck them ... if at the end of the day an Anglo Wasp family produces Jeb and W then clearly that's a clear sign of denegation.... And now they marry Mexicans ... Jeb's wife ... he married his housekeeper or something.

”In Trump's 2011 CPAC address he specifically calls for a relaxation of immigration restrictions for Europeans ... that we should re-create an America that was far more stable and more beautiful.... No other conservative politician would say those things ... but on the other hand pretty much everyone thought it ... so it's powerful to say it.... 

"We are the Trump vanguard. The left will say Trump is a nationalist and an implicit or quasi-racialist. Conservatives, because they are just so douchey, say Oh, no, of course not, he's a constitutionalist, or whatever. We on the alt-right will say, He is a nationalist and he is a racialist. His movement is a white movement.

On the other side of things, Ivanka apparently feels like her father just wants to be loved. I think both are true. He wants to be loved, and he's racist, and, worse than being racist, he uses racism as a means to power. He appeals to the worst devils in our nature. But he's appealing to fewer and fewer people every day.

I'm halfway through the book and we just got to early March 2017. I get the feeling there's a sequel. 

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Posted at 04:26 PM on Jan 13, 2018 in category Books
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Friday January 12, 2018

And Here with the Response to the President, Pvt. John Winger...

I'm a bit surprised that everyone's surprised by Pres. Trump's remarks yesterday questioning why the U.S. lets in people from “shithole countries,” like Haiti, El Salvador, and the various countries of Africa. OK, not everyone's surprised. On CNNThe New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin (Toobs to my friend Adam), reminded us that this POV ain't exactly news:

He has racist views. ... And the worst thing is: that's part of his appeal. It's a feature, not a bug. There are a lot of people who like this.

I'd go further. Trump's numbers don't sink lower with his base because he has racist views. There are Americans, in other words, who will forgive Trump his treason because he is racist. Mull on that for a while. 

Here's my rebuttal to Trump's idiocy. I was 18 when “Stripes” was released in the summer of 1981 and I must have seen it nearly a dozen times over the years. And I've always loved this speech. It's not really true—most immigrants, including my paternal grandparents, weren't kicked out of another country, they left on their own and risked a lot to come here—but the attitude is exactly right. It's my American attitude: a sly, winking self-deprecation. It's my patriotism. “We're mutts... We're all dog-faces, we're all very, very different...” Trump isn't just racist, he's isn't just wrong. He's boring.  

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Posted at 10:17 AM on Jan 12, 2018 in category Politics
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There Goes the Worst MVP Vote That Ever Lived

Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio

“So Joe, you led the league in what exactly?”

Amid my usual Baseball Reference wanderings, I came across the voting for 1947 AL MVP, and it made me wonder if it was the worst MVP vote ever. It was certainly the closest: one point separated first and second place. 

The runner-up was Ted Williams, who wound up with 201 points, including three first-place votes. That year, he led the league in:

  • Runs
  • HRs
  • RBIs
  • Walks
  • Batting average
  • On-base percentage
  • Slugging percentage
  • OPS
  • Total bases

Dude slugged .634 and his OBP was .499. He won the Triple Crown for the second time. But he didn't win the MVP.  

The winner was Joe DiMaggio, who wound up with 202 points and eight first-place votes. He certainly had a good season: .315/.399/.522. But this is what he led the league in:

  • Nothing

Wait, let me double-check:

  • Yeah, absolutely nothing

Sure, DiMaggio was better defensively—just not that better. Even by advanced metrics that factor in defense, it's not close: Williams had a 9.9 WAR, DiMaggio 4.8. But you don't need advanced metrics. Just look at all of the above. 

A few years back, Brian Cronin debunked some myths about that year's voting in the LA Times. He gets at why it wasn't a Boston writer (or writers), but not why it happened at all. Besides the usual: DiMag beloved, Williams not.

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Posted at 06:40 AM on Jan 12, 2018 in category Baseball
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Thursday January 11, 2018

300-Game Winners: By Decade

This post was spurred by Joe Posnanski's piece on Mike Mussina's Hall of Fame case. Here:

Before [Gaylord] Perry (and Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton and Nolan Ryan), winning 300 games was almost unheard of. Two post-World War II players had done it. One was the freakishly durable Warren Spahn. ... The other 300-game winner was Early Wynn, who won exactly 300 by just chugging along and chugging along...

Some part of me always thought, yeah, 300 wins, tough row but there's been quite a few. Nope, just 24, including five who did it in the 19th century. And between Sept. 1924 (Grover Cleveland Alexander) and August 1961 (Spahn)—or before Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic but after man orbitted the earth—there was just one guy who did it: Lefty Grove. And he hit 300 on the button.

The list:

DECADE NO. 300-GAME WINNERS
1880s 1 Pud Galvin (365) 
1890s 4 Tim Keefe (342), Mickey Welch (307), Charles Radbourn (309), John Clarkson (328)
1900s 2 Kid Nichols (361), Cy Young (511)
1910s 2 Christy Mathewson (373), Eddie Plank (326)
1920s 2 Walter Johnson (417), Grover Cleveland Alexander (373)
1930s 0  
1940s 1 Lefty Grove (300)
1950s 0  
1960s 2 Warren Spahn (363), Early Wynn (300)
1970s 0  
1980s 5 Gaylord Perry (314), Steve Carlton (329), Tom Seaver (311), Phil Niekro (318), Don Sutton (324)
1990s 1 Nolan Ryan (324)
2000s 4 Roger Clemens (354), Greg Maddux (355), Tom Glavine (305), Randy Johnson (303)
2010s 0  

Why the slowdown after the 1920s? I imagine WWII has something to do with it. Red Ruffing lost two years to the war (non-combat, four missing toes) and wound up with 273 career victories. Bob Feller lost four prime years to the war, years when he routinely won 20 games, and he finished with 266. Without the war, he'd probably have been in the rarefied 350+ territory. 

But what about our '60s guys? Yeah, there was still the draft. Whitey Ford lost two years to the military but it wouldn't have helped his 236 wins get over the magic mark. A sore shoulder forced Don Drysdale to retire young, at age 33, a year after he set the consecutive inning scoreless streak in 1968. He had 209 wins. Obviously Koufax, same, plus a long way away at 165. Jim Bunning stopped at 224, Juan Marichal at 243, Bob Gibson 251, Jim Palmer 268, Ferguson Jenkins 284. Even Fergie, who kept winning 20. That's how tough it is.

As for the guys that did it post-70s? Several things helped: the 162-game schedule (a few more games every year), Tommy John surgery, and just general fitness and personal training. Plus the spitter (Gaylord), the knuckler (Niekro), freakish durability (Nolan Ryan) and PEDs (??).

The last pitcher to make 300 was Randy Johnson, wearing a Giants uniform in 2009. Since then, the closest has been his one-time teammate, Jamie Moyer, who retired (at nearly 50!) with 269. The current active leaders are Bartolo Colon (240 at age 44) and C.C. Sabathia (237 at age 36). If C.C. has a second wind like Bartolo (87 wins since his age 36 season), he would do it; but it doesn't usually work that way. One man's second wind is another man's retirement. No other active pitcher has more than 200 wins.

Now we're not just in the era of the closer but the era of the bullpen. You want that sucker stacked. You want guys that can come in in the 8th or 7th or 6th. Or 5th? Or 2nd? All of whom might wind up with the W. So 300? We might not see its like again. 

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Posted at 07:52 AM on Jan 11, 2018 in category Baseball
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Wednesday January 10, 2018

Movie Review: Youth (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In “Youth,” Feng Xiaogang’s sweeping tale of a cultural troupe in the People’s Liberation Army in the 1970s, one of our main characters is He Xiaoping (Miao Miao), a young dancer from the provinces with a sad backstory. Her father was reeducated during the Cultural Revolution, and her mother remarried; Xiaoping has since taken her step-father’s name, but he ignores her, and village peers bully her. She’s hoping for better now that she’s in the PLA.

She doesn’t get it. Is it simply first impressions? Mean girls? When she arrives, her clothes smell (it costs to shower where she lived), and she sweats more than the other girls, and, despite her cheery demeanor, she can’t live this down. It doesn’t help that she borrows the military uniform of Dingding (Yang Caiyu) to take a picture to send back home—specifically to her father, to whom she’s loyal, and who isn’t long for this world—nor that she doesn’t own up to it when confronted. There’s also an incident with a padded bra, which is apparently scandalous. Bottom line: She’s “other” in this troupe. She’s mistreated, a punchline.

Review of Feng Xiaogang's YouthBut boy can she dance. And when the group is readying to perform before cavalry officers in the mountains, the lead dancer, as in a classic Hollywood melodrama, injures herself. It’s Xiaoping, the understudy, who is called upon to save the day.

Except by this point she’s done with the troupe—less for the way they’ve treated her than the way they treated Liu Feng (Huang Xuan), a selfless, almost saintly figure, who is kicked out for indescretions. Specifically: He spent years doing good deeds for Dingding because he was hopelessly in love with her; and when he finally confesses this to her, and tries to embrace her, he’s caught (“caught”) and condemned.

So Xiaoping, done with it all, feigns illness to get out of dancing the lead role. Ah, but the political commissar realizes she’s faking, and, in his wisdom, decides to see where she’s going with it. He takes her on stage before the cavalry officers, tells them that she’s sick but has agreed to perform for them anyway. The troops chant her name: “Learn from Comrade Xiaoping!” they cry. The music wells up, and the camera closes in on her, saluting the troops, overcome with emotion.

And then she shows them what she can do. 

Except that doesn’t happen. Instead we cut away, and the next time we see Xiaoping she’s working as a nurse on the front lines of the Sino-Vietnamese War. We never get the big dance number the movie seems to be building toward.

It’s even weirder than that. Because the big dance number was actually filmed. It was in the movie when it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. It’s even on YouTube. You can see it here. But it’s not in the movie I saw in downtown Seattle last weekend. And apparently it’s not in the film released in China on Dec. 15.

And what about that release? For a film from Feng Xiaogang, the Steven Spielberg of China, “Youth” had a really rocky time getting before the public. It was supposed to be released in late September, just prior to “National Day,” October 1, but was pulled by the Chinese government at the last minute. There’s an extremely informative article on the background to all of this by Richard Yu on the Cinema Escapist site, but even he doesn’t know why the film was pulled. He simply thinks the politics of the film, such as they are, had nothing to do with it.

So did something happen between when it was pulled and when it was released? Did Feng take some extra scissors to his project? Did someone else?

It’s the real thing
“Youth” is based upon a popular novel by Yan Geling, who was herself a dancer in a PLA troop in the 1970s, then became a journalist during the Sino-Vietnamese War. Essentially she’s Suizi (Elane Zhong), who narrates the film, and who’s part of the troup’s two unrequited love stories. Just as Liu Feng does everything for the shallow Dingding (for naught), so she does everything for the callow Chen Can (Wang TianChen) for naught. The Chinese do love their weepies. They love the scent of bitter almonds.

Me, I love this period in Chinese history. In 10 years, China went from the Cultural Revolution, when a whiff of westernism, let alone capitalism, was enough to be reeducated; to “to get rich is glorious,” when the machinery of capitalism was put into place and began to roar. The movie reflects that leap. The first thing we see is a giant mural of Mao Zedong; one of the last, a giant ad for Coca-Cola.

I admit that when the war started I went, “Wait, what? A Sino-Vietnamese war? In the ’70s?” Turns out it wasn’t much to brag about. The Chinese backed the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and when Vietnam desposed them, China took offense and attacked. (Most wars have suspect provenances, but starting one to keep Pol Pot in power has to be at the bottom.) The war lasted a month and cost China between 9,000 to 62,000 lives, depending on who you believe. Here, it costs the ever-helpful Xiaoping her sanity (temporarily) and the ever-selfless Liu Feng his arm (permanently). We do get a lovely scene where Xiaoping’s old troupe performs for the war’s wounded, and she, startled into recognition by the music, winds up outside, dancing on the grass under the stars.

Shortly after, amid tears, the troupe is disbanded. Economic reforms are on the way. Capitalism is on its way. 

To get rich may be glorious but it’s not portrayed so here. The people who get rich are the Chan Cans of the world—the opportunists. The Xiaopings and Lei Fengs get screwed again. The last time we see them, they’re huddled together on a train station bench in the mid-90s. Suizi’s voiceover lets us know they remain together, unmarried and without children, and show up at a reunion in 2016. But she says she won’t show us those scenes. She says it’s better to remember everyone as they were when they were young.

These days are ours
This is the second international film in the last three years to use “Youth” for its English language title—after Paolo Sorrentino’s 2015 film—and there's some interesting differences between the two. Most obviously, the western film focuses on the aged (Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel), while the Eastern film on the young (to the point of casting unfamous actors in the leads, and not showing us how they aged). It’s the opposite of how we perceive each culture: the west discards its aged, the east reveres its elders. I hope China doesn’t give up on that as it moves to the center of the world stage.

Overall, I enjoyed “Youth”—I was certainly swept up by it—but there’s a big disconnect that isn’t addressed. On some level, we’re all nostalgic for our youth, as is our narrator, Suizi, as is the film itself. Which means she/it yearns for this troupe, full of mean people, and this period, the Cultural Revolution, a time when society was upended, education reviled, priceless artifacts destroyed, and millions of lives ruined. Not exactly “Happy Days.” Not even “That ’70s Show.”

The movie also should've given us Xiaoping’s triumphant dance scene. I mean, c’mon.

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Posted at 08:02 AM on Jan 10, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Monday January 08, 2018

Movie Review: The Disaster Artist (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I’m not a fan of shitty movies. I have friends who are, who gather monthly to drink, laugh, and do the whole “MST3K” shtick with this or that piece of crap. Sometimes it sounds fun. It's just not for me.

I’ve never seen “The Room,” for example, a 2003 vanity project by a long-haired, pockmarked, deep-pocketed, thick-accented dude named Tommy Wiseau, who not only stars but writes, directs and produces. He’s good at none of these things. He’s notoriously bad at all of them. The movie is notoriously bad. It’s the “so bad it’s good” movie of the 21st century, and, over the years, has acquired a cult following, including various Hollywood stars: among them, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen and James Franco.

“The Disaster Artist,” directed by and starring Franco as Tommy, chronicles its making. It’s the opposite of “The Room”: it's gotten raves: 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, top 10 lists, WGA nomination. It’s the acclaimed movie about the making of a bad one—a la “Ed Wood” or “Boogie Nights.”

Here’s my question: Does “The Disaster Artist” make “The Room” worse? Somehow less fun?

A cable kind of guy
The Disaster Artist reviewI began to understand how huge all of this was last month, at Christmastime, when my nephew kept repeating the following line of dialogue to me. It's almost like his generation's “wild and crazy guy”:

I did not hit her, it’s not true. It’s bullshit. I did not hit her. I did naaaht. Oh hi, Mark.

It's from an infamously bad scene in “The Room.” You can see it here.

You can also see how it’s redone in “The Disaster Artist.” Franco's scene is good: the number of takes it took; how everyone on set knew the line except for the actor, Tommy Wiseau; how when he finally nailed it, in a manner so bad it became a joke, everyone broke into applause—because at least it had been done.

But ... Franco doesn’t quite nail it, does he? He doesn’t get the quick glance over to Mark before tossing the bottle on the ground. He doesn’t get the squinched eyes on “Naaaaht.” You look at the difference between the two scenes and wonder if Franco isn't a good-enough actor to act as badly as Tommy Wiseau. 

Plus ... isn't he’s kind of menacing?

That’s what surprised me when I watched some YouTube scenes from “The Room” after seeing “The Disaster Artist.” Tommy Wiseau may be weird and off, but he’s not as weird and off as James Franco playing Tommy. There’s an innocence in the original that isn’t in “The Disaster Artist.”

Indeed, if “The Disaster Artist” reminds me of any movie, it’s “The Cable Guy,” starring Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick. Each is about a vaguely menacing loner who insinuates himself into the life of a well-meaning guy.

The well-meaning guy here is Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), a San Francisco actor who’s too uptight onstage. That’s why he admires Tommy, who puts it all out there. In their acting class, Tommy does an extended version of Brando doing Stella; at one point, he literally climbs the walls. Greg wants to be like that.

But the closer he gets to Tommy, the more he realizes how odd he is. The hair, the thousand-yard stare, the Eastern European accent. The insistence that—despite the accent—he’s an American from New Orleans.

Franco piles on oddities of his own. Tommy does Brando in acting class but he’s never seen a James Dean movie? But it allows us to watch the “tearing me apart” scene in “Rebel Without a Cause,” which Tommy incorporates into/steals for “The Room.” As with tossing a football around with Greg. Even though he can’t toss a football around.

Despite his near-comatose look, Tommy is a go-getter with a carpe diem attitude—at least when it comes to Greg. A move to LA seems impossible to Greg until Tommy says they can stay at his apartment down there. He has one. He’s loaded. But he seems fixated on Greg to an unhealthy degree. When the two are at a bar, and Greg starts chatting up a cute bartender, Amber (Alison Brie), Tommy demands they leave. And when Greg moves out to move in with Amber? It’s like a betrayal.

Is it because Tommy is lonely without Greg? Because Greg is his only friend? Or is it something deeper? The movie never answers these questions, merely insinuates. It never answers who Tommy is, or where he’s from, or how he got rich. It almost delights in not answering.

Later, when Greg laments the endless, fruitless auditions, and says the only way they can be in a movie is make one themselves, a light bulb goes on over Tommy’s head, and “The Room,” in which Tommy mistreats nearly everyone on set, and which is about how everyone betrays the upstanding hero, is made.

Thus the implication of “The Disaster Artist”: that Tommy makes “The Room” to keep Greg close, then makes it all about Greg’s betrayal of him.

That’s some fucked-up shit. And does it make “The Room” itself less fun as a result? I guess people who like shitty movies will have to answer that one.

For the birds
So Tommy spends millions of dollars to make a horrible movie while being a horrible person in the process. But this is Hollywood, so we need a happy ending. More: Franco and others like “The Room.” They know it's a horrible movie but they don't feel it's a horrible movie. It's given them too much joy. And that's their out. That's their happy ending. 

In “Ed Wood,” the best director in the world, Orson Welles, tells the worst director in the world, Ed Wood, to keep going: “Visions are worth fighting for,“ he says. ”Why spend your life making someone else's dreams?”

Here, it’s something similar. Though the movie is a disaster, though at the premiere every winds up laughing at it, Greg convinces Tommy that that’s a good thing. Did Hitchcock ever make people laugh like this? No. So in this way Tommy is better than Hitchcock

Yeah. He is naaaht. 

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Posted at 08:41 AM on Jan 08, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Saturday January 06, 2018

Who's 'Full-Fledged Nuts,' According to White House Staffer? In This Example, Not Him

Fire and Fury excerpt“[Robert Mercer's] political beliefs, to the extent they could be discerned, were generally Bush-like, and his political discussions, to the extent that you could get him to be responsive, were about issues involving ground game and data gathering. It was Rebekah Mercer—who had bonded with [Steve] Bannon, and whose politics were grim, unyielding, and doctrinaire—who defined the family. 'She's nuts ... nuts ... full-fledged ... like whoa, ideologically there is no conversation with her,' said one senior Trump White House staffer.”

-- Michael Wolff, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.” Much, much more to come. 

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Posted at 08:20 PM on Jan 06, 2018 in category Books
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'Mariano Rivera Could Not Get Him Out': #EdgarHOF

My man Joey Poz makes the case (for about the 20th time) for Edgar Martinez for the Baseball Hall of Fame. It's fun. Read the whole thing. Some highlights:

Mariano Rivera could not get him out. I don't think an amazing career like Edgar Martinez's could be summed up by just seven words, but those seven words tell a pretty good story. ...

Martinez faced Rivera 14 times [from 1995 to 2001]. Yes, it's true that half of those plate appearances were in 1995, when Rivera was a struggling starter still trying to find himself. Still, Martinez faced the great Rivera 14 times over a six-year period — and he reached base 13 times, hitting .769.

After 2000, when Rivera was ascendant and Martinez began to decline, Rivera got Martinez out a few times, but he knew this was only because Martinez was no longer himself. Still, Rivera never forgot. In '04, when Martinez was 41 and at the end, Rivera faced him in a tied game with the winning run on second base. Rivera walked him without hesitation. “I still don't know how to get him out,” Rivera admitted.

The last time the two men faced each other, Martinez rapped a single.

Thing is, just about every pitcher Martinez faced in his prime will list him as their toughest out. Pedro Martinez said he was the toughest hitter he ever faced, and Pedro was one of the few pitchers who actually had success against him. Randy Johnson said Martinez was the best hitter he ever saw. David Cone, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, all of them say the same thing; it seems like every good pitcher of the 1990s put Martinez in a different class. Other hitters did, too. Alex Rodriguez called him the best hitter he ever played with. Jeter said he was the one guy he would watch in the cage.

That realization — that Martinez was in a different class — seems like it will push him over the top in Hall of Fame voting.

Edgar Martinez for the Hall of Fame

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Posted at 05:14 PM on Jan 06, 2018 in category Seattle Mariners
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Contempt

Donald Trump and the rule of law

Would you buy a used car from this man? 

From Jeffrey Toobin, or Toobs as my friend Adam calls him, in a piece called, “Donald Trump and the Rule of Law,”  via The New Yorker website. This is the sum-up graf:

The Times' revelation [that Trump sent White House counsel Donald F. McGahn to ask AG Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russian investigaiton] makes an obstruction case stronger. Trump asked for loyalty from James Comey, the F.B.I. director, who was supervising the investigation. When Comey equivocated, Trump fired him, then put out a false story for why he did so, which he promptly undermined by admitting the real reason. And when e-mails emerged over the summer showing that Donald Trump, Jr., had met during the campaign with a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, the President participated in concocting a bogus story to explain them. (An especially incriminating version of Trump's role in the e-mail cover story appears in “Fire and Fury,” Michael Wolff's explosive new book.)

I'm reading the book right now, btw, about 1/4 of the way through. Much of it is what we always thought (Trump knows next-to-nothing about government, let alone governance, and doesn't care to know), or suspected (he didn't expect or want to win the presidency, but then felt it was his destiny). He is the joke we assumed he was, but, as Randy Rainbow sang, the joke's on us. That so many could've been suckered in makes one worry about the future of democratic government. 

Toobs' piece is not only about Trump's contempt for the rule of law but about the gaps he's left, and the loyalty he's won, from traditional lawpeople, such as U.S. attorneys. “There are positions for 93 U.S. Attorneys,” Toobs writes, “but Trump has nominated people to fill only 58 of them, and the Senate has confirmed just 46.” The rest are acting U.S. attorneys, accountable only to Sessions and Trump. And, one hopes, to history, and to the rule of law. But that's just a hope. 

Fasten your seatbelts. 

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Posted at 02:27 PM on Jan 06, 2018 in category Law
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Friday January 05, 2018

PGA and WGA Swipe Right

The Writers and Producers Guilds have announced their nominees for best films of 2017, and they match! Seven times:

PGA WGA
The Big Sick The Big Sick (O)
Call Me By Your Name Call Me By Your Name (A)
Dunkirk The Disaster Artist (A)
Get Out Get Out (O)
I, Tonya I, Tonya (O)
Lady Bird Lady Bird (O)
Molly's Game Logan (A)
The Post Molly's Game (A)
The Shape of Water Mudbound (A)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri* The Shape of Water (O)
Wonder Woman  

* “Three Billboards” was not eligible for the WGA award 

Happy to see both nods for “The Big Sick.” I'm crossing my fingers it gets Oscar noms for pic and screenplay.

Also found it interesting that each guild chose a superhero flick. PGA went with the big, bold and politically correct choice, “Wonder Woman,” while WGA opted for the dystopian, end-of-the-superhero superhero flick in “Logan.” I would've gone neither. My favorite superhero movie of the year was “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” 

And hey, check out the number of woman-led pics from both guilds. That's new.

The PGA Awards will be held Saturday, Jan. 20, while the WGA Awards procrastinate (as writers do) until Sunday, Feb. 11. DGA nominees will be announced Jan. 11, winners Feb. 3.

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Posted at 03:26 PM on Jan 05, 2018 in category Movies - Awards
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'A Massive Transfer of Wealth to the Very Rich' = 'A Win' to NPR

Here's Andrew Sullivan in his weekly column on the New York magazine site, recounting some of Pres. Trump's achievements in office:

We have record levels of social and economic inequality, along with unprecedented peacetime debt, and the only serious legislative achievement of an all-Republican federal government is a massive transfer of wealth to the very rich, funded through an increase in the national debt of close to a trillion dollars.

And here's Rachel Martin on NPR this morning:

Pres. Trump heads to Camp David today to meet with congressional Republican leaders. They're expected to start planing their next move after the GOP notched a win by passing [estate?] tax legislation.

After the GOP notched a win...

I really wish Martin, and NPR in general, and journalists in general, would stop using this horse-race language. It's the language of Washington, D.C., not us. It's not the language of NPR's listeners and donaters. 

The GOP notched a win... We'll see how much of a win that was in November. Or during NPR's next fundraising drive. 

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Posted at 10:54 AM on Jan 05, 2018 in category Media
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Thursday January 04, 2018

Movie Review: The Shape of Water (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

For a director as esteemed as Guillermo del Toro, it’s kind of shocking how few esteemed movies he’s made. It’s really just “Pan’s Labyrinth” and this. Everything else is lesser fare (“Crimson Peak”), B-comic movies (“Blade II,” “Hellboy”) and giant stupid shit (“Pacific Rim”). He’s got one Oscar nom (original screenplay, “Pan’s”), two BAFTA noms (both for “Pan’s”) and a shitload of sci-fi awards. 

I guess that’s who he really is: a sci-fi geek.

The Shape of Water movie reviewAs for this fairy tale, fish-out-of-water love story? Patricia loved it from beginning to end. I liked it. But you know what I liked more? I liked Del Toro talking about it.

In December, he was on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and pointed out that “The Shape of Water” is really a revisionist take on “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” It’s the outsider’s take—the creature’s take. The woman, rather than being desired, is desirous. The creature is a creature, but benevolent and intelligent and curious. The true villains are the white men in charge: scientists and military officials and bureaucrats. I wonder if del Toro considered having Michael Shannon smoke a pipe throughout—like a ’50s era, B-movie scientist hero.

Then he goes deeper:

The screenplay makes a point of showing you that the characters that have the power of speech, that talk, have more of a trouble communicating with each other than the characters that just are.

That's nice. The movie is set in the early 1960s, one of the most frigid parts of the Cold War, but del Toro lets us know why the film is relevant today:

Every time we talk about emotions we do so very guardedly and with the fear of appearing disingenuous. And I wanted to make a completely honest, heart on the sleeve, non-ironic melodrama in which we talk about falling in love with, quote unquote, “the other”—as opposed to fearing the other, which is what we face every day in the news and politics.

Listen to the whole thing. His accent alone makes it worth it.

Follow through
As for the movie?

OK, so I’m a worst-case-scenario person. Sue me. I just couldn’t get past the stupidity of our heroes, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), stealing an Amazonian river-god from the U.S. government in 1962, right under the nose of a borderline psychotic head of security, Richard Strickland (Shannon, essentially reprising his “Boardwalk Empire” character), and then ... not doing anything with him. For days. They just fill up the bathtub and let him flop around in there. Then Elisa has sex with him. She fills her entire bathroom with water and has sex with him. Mind you, she lives above a movie theater, and the building is old and made of wood. Fuck the shape of water, what about its weight? That’s risking a lot for one fairy-tale schtup. It’s not exactly staying on the down-low.

Even before then, in the government facility, isn’t Elisa quick to embrace the creature? To assume he’s not harmful? Here’s an egg, here’s another. You have claws and fangs but what the hell, I’ll just hang poolside with you. Within reach.

BTW: He is harmful. Ask the cat.

And what about the cat? Don’t they get over her pretty easily? If this things bites the head off Jellybean, I don’t think I’ll risk my ass helping him escape. Not that he’d get anywhere near Jellybean; she’d mess him up.

With most of this, del Toro is placing his needs as a filmmaker (to create the visually and emotionally dazzling) above the needs of his characters. He’s doing what he wants rather than what they need.

Not budging
That said, Hawkins is wonderful as Elisa, a mute janitor at a government lab, the lowest person on the totem pole, who, despite her mousy exterior, has an inner steel and her own, full, no-apologies sex life. Some of my favorite scenes are her confrontations with the bullying, supertall Strickland. How her eyes don’t budge. How her gaze undoes him because it doesn't bend to his will.

I also loved Michael Stuhlbarg as the most sensitive undercover Russian spy in the world. He brought true emotion, true feeling, to what might otherwise have been a by-the-way character. When he’s killed, shot by his own, it almost physically pained me.

I just wanted the movie to make more sense. Even Cold-War fairy tales should have their own internal logic. 

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Posted at 06:45 AM on Jan 04, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Wednesday January 03, 2018

Bannon vs. Trump: Bumblers in the Jungle

Ailes, a veteran of the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 41 administrations, tried to impress on Trump the need to create a White House structure that could serve and protect him. “You need a son of a bitch as your chief of staff,” he told Trump. “And you need a son of a bitch who knows Washington. You'll want to be your own son of a bitch, but you don't know Washington.” Ailes had a suggestion: John Boehner, who had stepped down as Speaker of the House only a year earlier.

“Who's that?” asked Trump.

-- from “Donald Trump Didn't Want to Be President: One year ago: the plan to lose, and the administration's shocked first days,” by Michael Wolff, on the New York magazine site.

Crazy day, kids. And we're not even through Day 3 of 2018. 

Wolff's book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” broke, with soundbite-ready quotes from Steve Bannon, Trump's campaign manager and onetime close adviser, sounding off in particular on Jared Kushner and the Trump children. He called Don Jr.'s meeting with Russians to get dirt on Hillary Clinton “anti-American” and “treasonous,” adding “They are going to crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV.” Of Kushner's financial shenanigans, he said, “The Kushner shit is greasy. They're going to go right through that. They're going to roll those two guys up and say play me or trade me.” 

Trump, of course, fired back

All of that is great. I take no joy, though, in the portion of the book quoted above—how Trump didn't want to be president. It means the Dems lost to a guy who didn't even want it. Although maybe that's why he got it, in the end. It's They Might Be Giants philosophy: “Nobody ever gets what they want and that is beautiful.” Well, “beautiful.” 

More to come. Every hour, almost. 

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Posted at 03:53 PM on Jan 03, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Johnny Damon/How I Love Him

Was I the only one who channeled the 1961 Shelly Fabares song when Johnny Damon's name came up? Surely not the only one. 

My man Joe Posnanski is doing a rundown of players on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot this year, and he's up to Johnny Angel/Damon, whom he covered in Kansas City when both he and Johnny were kids. Of course, Damon will always have a warm place in my heart for putting the nail in the coffin to the greatest chokesters in the history of baseball, the 2004 New York Yankees, who, up 3-0 in a best-of-7 series, lost the next four in a row to the Boston Red Sox. Good times. David Ortiz towered during this period, but Damon was the one with the grand slam and two-run homer in Game 7. He put it forever out of reach for the Yankees and their fans. For all of us in Yankees-Suck-Nation, he made watching Game 7 fun rather than tense.  

Anyway, I love this graf of Posnanski's:

Damon was an unusual player; nothing he did seemed especially smooth or graceful. His throwing motion was this odd multistep process that seemed to be building up to something impressive ... and instead the ball would kind of fall out of his hand, helpless, limp, like a firecracker that didn't go off. You could almost hear a sad trombone.

Even though Poz isn't make a HOF case for Damon, he almost makes a HOF case for Damon.

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Posted at 07:17 AM on Jan 03, 2018 in category Baseball
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Tuesday January 02, 2018

How Did Donald Embarrass Us/Himself Today? Cont.

I spoke too soon earlier today. Trump taking credit for the fact that no domestic airlines crashed in 2017 is positively brilliant compared to the rest of his day.

Here's most of it, courtesy of Daniel Dale. All times, I believe, are EST:

Donald Trump's Day: Jan. 2, 2018

The 7:49 slot was particularly bad. A few days back, Un talked about the nuclear button on his desk; today, Trump said his was bigger. I shit you not.

Later tonight, he added this:

I can't imagine a more pathetic man—let alone president.

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Posted at 10:25 PM on Jan 02, 2018 in category Politics
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'Star Wars' Threepeats as No Film Franchise Has

"Star Wars" has now topped the annual box office chart three years in a row

Over the weekend, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” grossed another $52 million to become the biggest domestic box office hit of the year. Its $531 million (and counting) supplants the $504 million “Beauty and the Beast” earned this spring. 

More, it's now three years in a row that our No. 1 movie has been a “Star Wars” movie. That's never happened. I mean not nearly. Yes, every “Star Wars” but one (Ep. II) was the No. 1 movie of its year, but they used to space them out. One every three years. Now they come at us like laser blasts. Pew pew pew!

Several years ago, because of an idiot Breitbart column, I actually researched this question: Has the same franchise movie ever been the year's biggest movie two years in a row? Answer? Yes, once, in 1944 and '45, when “Going My Way” was followed by “The Bells of St. Mary's.” Otherwise, no, it's never been done. Now “Star Wars” has done it three years in a row. As the man sang: Star War, nothing but Star Wars.

Even so, even with this threepeat, the big box-office story this weekend may have been the resurgence of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” “Last Jedi” won the weekend, falling only 23% over its previous, pre-Christmas weekend frame. But “Jumanji” killed it, grossing 38% more than the previous weekend, and finishing a tight second with $50 mil. It's now grossed $185 million for the year, which is 13th and counting. It'll most certainly pass The Rock's other big b.o. hit this year, “The Fate of the Furious,” which performed below expectations. 

The only new wide-release movie this weekend, “All the Money in the World,” didn't make much of it: just $5.6 million in 2,000+ theaters, to finish in 7th place. Ridley Scott worked overtime to excise Kevin Spacey from the picture, but to not much benefit, box office-wise.

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Posted at 05:50 PM on Jan 02, 2018 in category Movies - Box Office
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How Did Donald Embarrass Us/Himself Today?

Addendum:

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Posted at 03:50 PM on Jan 02, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday January 01, 2018

Movie Review: Girls Trip (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I wasn’t planning on seeing this, but then the New York Film Critics Circle tapped Tiffany Haddish for supporting actress over Laurie Metcalf in “Lady Bird” and Holly Hunter in “The Big Sick,” so I had to check it out.

No doubt, Haddish is the best thing in the movie, the only one who’s laugh-out-loud funny. But choosing her and this role over Metcalf and Hunter? The hell? Does NYFCC have a history of going with broad comedies? Did they, for example, choose Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids,” a role which garnered a best supporting actress nomination at the 2011 Oscars? Nope. They went with Jessica Chastain for three films: “The Tree of Life,” “The Help” and “Take Shelter.” So why this one? Why now? 

Plus “Bridesmaids” was actually a good movie. Remember how it opens? With Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph having conversations that felt as intimate as any lifelong friendship? It felt personal and specific and funny.

“Girls Trip” is the opposite of that.

A mile away
Girls Trip movie reviewWe’re told that four friends graduated from college in 1995 and went their separate ways. And each became a plot point waiting to turn:

  • Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall) is super-successful, “the next Oprah,” with a line of books, shows, products she pushes with her ex-football star husband, Stewart (Mike Colter of “Luke Cage”), encouraging women to “have it all.” Let me guess: He’s cheating on her.
  • Sasha Franklin (Queen Latifah) is a struggling former journalist who runs a celebrity-gossip blog. Bills are piling up and backers are demanding more dirt and more clicks. Let me guess: She’ll realize the error of her dirt-digging ways.
  • Lisa Cooper (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a single mom so anal she borders on obsessive-compulsive. Let me guess: She’ll let her freak flag fly.

Yes, yes, and yes.

The last of the four is Dina (Haddish), a take-no-prisoners party girl who refuses to be fired from her office job for physically attacking the coworker that stole her Go-Gurt. The four are reunited when Ryan, on the verge of her Oprahesque deal, flies them to New Orleans for the Essence Music Festival, where she is keynote speaker.

During the course of the weekend, things get crazy. Lisa accidentally pees over a crowd on Bourbon Street and hooks up with a studly man half her age; Dina pees over a crowd on Bourbon Street on purpose and gets the others effed up on absinthe; Sasha keeps pondering whether to go public with photos of Stewart in flagrante delicto with an Instagram queen (all bootie, boobs, and bitchiness), while Ryan has to decide whether to give Stewart, and possibly that Oprahesque business opportunity, the heave-ho.

It’s obvious what Ryan needs to do but it takes her the entire movie to do it. And then of course it turns out OK. The Oprahesque deal goes through anyway—Oprah didn’t need a Stewart, after all—while Sasha is rewarded with a partnership. It makes up for the time Ryan totally threw her over for Stewart—a key fact that’s revealed only two-thirds of the way through.

What’s not funny
The obvious plot turns might have been forgivable if any of this had been funny. It isn’t. Haddish is funny. Her demonstration of the grapefruit method had me laughing so hard I missed the next 15 seconds of dialogue. I think I had a few other laughing jags courtesy of Haddish, who, not coincidentally, is the only character who doesn't have an obvious plot-turn.

That’s the lesson. The obvious isn’t funny. Bullshit isn’t funny. The other characters are obvious and bullshit. Bravo to Haddish and thanks for the laughs, but unlike NYFCC I stop there.

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Posted at 01:35 PM on Jan 01, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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