erik lundegaard

Wednesday February 28, 2018

Top 10 Movies of 2017

OK, so I'm ridiculously late to this party. Sue me. It's been a busy few months. Plus it takes a while for some of these to show up in Seattle. Or on Amazon. So let's just get going, shall we? 

10. Spider-Man: Homecoming: “Homecoming” does two things most superhero movies don’t. First, you get a real sense of how tough it is to put the “super” in “superhero.” Pete can scale the Washington Monument but it’s hardly effortless—any more than you or I doing wind-sprints up a hill would be effortless. Plus crimes don’t just happen, wah-lah, in front of you. He nabs a bike thief but can’t find the bike’s owner. At one point, with nothing to do, he helps an old lady with directions. The movie also answers the question David Mamet says every playwright/screenwriter needs to ask: What does the guy want? Generally, once a hero becomes super, they have no motivation other than a grand one (stopping crime, saving the world). Supervillains are the ones with schemes; heroes are just trying to stem the tide. Not here. Pete? He desperately wants to be an Avenger. He wants superhero friends. He wants a superhero home.  

Spider-Man: Homecoming: top 10 movie of 2017

9. Louis CK 2017: I don't think that titular year turned out the way Louis CK imagined, but that shouldn't stop people from appreciating his brilliance. He's the greatest stand-up comic of the 21st century. He's a truthteller who held onto a dark secret. He begins this concert, which I saw live in Seattle in December 2016, by making comedy out of 1) abortion and 2) ISIS. Think about that. I assume he did it as a dare to himself. Well, it worked. I laughed harder at the ISIS bit than at just about anything in this horrible, horrible year.  

Louis CK 2017: top 10 movie of 2017

8. Get OutGreat premise: Using the tropes of the horror genre to tell the story of a black guy visiting the family of his white girlfriend. It's racial awkwardness as the underlying horror of American society. Good follow-through: the GF is obtuse about race, thinking everyone's cool with everything; the father keeps dropping racial references to show how cool he is; the mother is steely and distant, perpetually stirring her tea. The white neighbors say inappropriate things. They‘re like the neighbors in “Rosemary’s Baby”: Everyone seems off. The third act doesn't undercuts a lot of this or “GO” would‘ve been higher. 

 Get Out: top 10 movie of 2017

7. Phantom Thread: I got a whiff of the serial killer at the outset. A ride in a sports car in the British countryside at night made me flash on Alex and his droogs in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” Woodcock peeking through a peephole at how his fashion show is doing made me flash on Norman Bates doing the same with an undressing Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock's “Psycho.” Did Paul Thomas Anderson intend this? There's such a density to his movies. They feel beyond flickering images; they‘re palpable. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Woodcock, a precise, haute couture fashion designer in the 1950s, is heavier than all the CGI monsters in the world. 

Phantom Thread: top 10 movie of 2017

6. 120 BPM: The personal is political. It's also way more interesting. The first third of the French film “120 BPM” (Beats Per Minute) deals mostly with the comings and goings of ACT UP Paris in the early 1990s—their actions, stridency, the internecine battles between various players. You find yourself siding with this one ... or that one. And maybe sympathizing with that take ... or the other one. It's not until the focus lands on Sean, a radical, insouciant member, and his relationship with newbie Nathan, and then Sean's suddenly quick slide toward death, the thing they‘re all fighting, the thing we’re all fighting, that it hits you in the gut. That's when arguments about politics and tactics go out the door. It reminds you: Death is our greatest villain. It. Takes. Everything.

120 BPM: top 10 movie of 2017

5. The Square: Writer-director Rebuen Ostlund is interested in cowardice—in what happens when men of the civilized and privileged upper classes face natural forces. In his previous film, “Force Majeur,” it was an avalanche. Here, it’s a thief. Then it’s confronting people with their possible thievery. Then it’s a noisy kid shouting his innocence in your face. It’s everything that’s avoided, and can afford to be avoided. And then when it can‘t. 

The Square: top 10 movie of 2017

4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriA movie about small-town police corruption and the battle of one woman, Mildred, to bring the truth to light? That’s how it seems at first, particularly when we meet Deputy Dixon, a dim, small-town bully known for racial profiling. But then Mildred has a tete-a-tete with Chief Willoughby, and the further the scene progresses, the more you feel your sympathies shift. The movie keeps shifting. By the end, it becomes a movie about all of us who are stuck between a desire for revenge and a need to forgive. Ourselves most of all. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri top 10

3. Lady Bird: She’s a mix of contradictions. She displays confidence but isn’t. She may audition for the school musical, and run for school president, but she painfully aware that she’s a middle-class girl in a rich Catholic school. She’s authentic but pretends to be from richer homes; she pretends to have money. She drops one true friend for a prettier, more popular one. The irony is that once she gets the thing she wants, once she winds up in New York City, she embraces everything she’d previously rejected: her family, her church, California. Even her given name: Christine. She has to fly to let Lady Bird go.

Lady Bird: top 10 movie of 2017

2. The Big Sick: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl goes into coma, boy becomes closer to girl’s parents, girl wakes up and says, “What are you doing here, jerk, you already lost me.” Who knew this would be the recipe for the funniest, truest romantic comedy of the century? And how lovely to get such a round portrait of a Pakistani family, whose dilemmas are both new to the movies and universal. What Kumail goes through with his parents is what Portnoy did with his. The story of America is the story of assimilation, and Kumail's response to his parents is the response of every first-generation son and daughter: “Why did you bring me here if you wanted me to not have an American life? We come here, but we pretend like we‘re still back there?” Oh, and did I mention? It’s fucking funny.  

The Big Sick: top 10 movie of 2017

1. Call Me By Your NameIn this impossibly beautiful Italian country home, 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, and, for a time, each sublimates his desire with a pretty Italian girl. (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 on our own. 

Call Me By Your Name top 10

See you next year. Hopefully sooner? 

Past top 10s:

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted at 07:01 PM on Feb 28, 2018 in category Movies - Lists
Comments   |   Permalink  
Tuesday February 27, 2018

The Only Reason to Fear Death

I'm reading E.L. Doctorow's novel “The March,” about Gen. Sherman's across the South near the end of the Civil War, and the following passage stood out for me. Not just because it recalls Hamlet's soliloquy but because it matches my feelings about the afterlife.  

The thoughts are Gen. Sherman‘s, as he stares, distracted, at the dead outside Fort McAllister:

What if the dead man dreams as the sleeper dreams? How do we know there is not a posthumous mind? Or that death is not a dream state from which the dead can’t awaken? And so they are trapped in the hideous universe of such looming terrors as I have known in my nightmares.

The only reason to fear death is that it is not a true, insensible end of consciousness.

Doctorow turns Hamlet's poetic vision into a horrific one, which gives power to that last sentence. George Bernard Shaw said something similar—something about not wanting to live eternity as George Bernard Shaw. 

Tags: , , ,
Posted at 08:19 AM on Feb 27, 2018 in category Books
Comments   |   Permalink  
Monday February 26, 2018

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Which character does writer-director Ryan Coogler identifies with more: T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the hero, or Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the villain? I’m guessing the latter. And not just because of the Oakland connection.

The best villains make you want to switch sides, and that’s Killmonger. His antecedent in the Marvel Comics movie world is Magneto—another Erik with a k (don’t mess)—whose “By any means necessary” stance vs. humans seems more pragmatic, or at least more dramatic, than Professor X’s bland accommdations. The historical antecedent, of course, is Malcolm and Martin. Hell, the only reason Killmonger is a quote-unquote villain is because he shows no mercy. He’s an asshole. If he weren’t, he might be preferable to T’Challa, who, like Prof. X, is a bit anodyne. He’s a comfortable king.

Black Panther movie reviewIndeed, as you hear the history of Wakanda—how they keep their riches and weaponry and tech hidden from the rest of the world—you go: Wait, what? Through the centuries? Through the slave trade? The fuck, Wakanda, how about helping a brother out? How about helping 100 million brothers out?

You know what that makes you? Killmonger before Killmonger even shows up.

The Biblical sins of Wakanda
So: Long ago, a meteor made of vibranium, the strongest substance in the universe (see: Captain America’s shield), crashed into Africa, and turned Wakanda into a superpower. And what did they do with this power? They helped their own. Instituted a kind of “Wakanda First” program. That’s the original sin.

The second sin takes place in Oakland in 1992. The king’s brother, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), is there doing outreach but gets radicalized. He decides that maybe Wakanda shouldn’t just sit by; that it should arm the oppressed peoples of the world. For this, the king, T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani), kills his brother for treason. If the original sin has vague Biblical connotations (staying in Eden rather than being booted out), the second is exact: fratricide.

Cut to: present-day Wakanda. Remember how, in “Captain America: Civil War,” King T’Chaka had been assassinated? Yeah, me neither. Well, now his son, T’Challa, is set to take the throne. The five tribes of Wakanda gather by a shallow pool overlooking a majestic waterfall, where T’Challa stands stripped to the waist, ready take on anyone who wants to challenge him for the throne—to the death. That’s how they do. And guess what? Someone does: M’Baku (Winston Duke), of the all-but-forgotten mountain people. Of course, T’Challa wins, and of course he shows M’Baku mercy. And, of course, this act of mercy will help T’Challa in the third act—as acts of mercy in the real world tend not to.

Going in, I’d heard the first part of the movie has pacing issues, and it does. Several times I thought, “You know, you could lose this scene ... or this one.” But each time, that scene was revisited later in the film: the rite of succession; the Black Panther burial/dream. Too much of the story is then lost. But editing could’ve been tighter.

You know who I might’ve lost? Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). Yes, romances between African-American characters in mainstream Hollywood movies are such a rarity as to be celebrated. But she doesn’t add much. She wants to do on her own, and keeps her distant from T’Challa, who is way too smitten around her. She’s not essential. Plus we‘re introduced to too many new characters as is. Thankfully, most of them are memorable:

  • the supercute baby sister playing Q to T’Challa’s Bond (Letitia Wright as Shuri)
  • the fierce bald warrior women/Secret Service (led by Danai Gurira as Okoye, a stand-out)
  • Angela Basset as the mom
  • Forest Whitaker as the sage counselor
  • Andy Serkis as the leering Afrikaner villain
  • the cute dude from “Get Out” as the only tribal leader who has to wear a sweatshirt

I did look askance that they made T’Challa’s sister the Q here. Is this family keeping it all for themselves? Don’t they have any outreach programs? 

The movie speeds up when T’Challa, Okoye and Nakia (with Shuri phoning it in) travel to Korea, to track Ulysses Klaue (Serkis), who’s trying to sell African artifacts to a CIA agent, Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman, this movie’s Felix Leiter). It’s a good set piece/chase scene. They wind up with the artifact but lose Klaue. In the process, Ross is shot and brought to Wakanda so Shuri/Q can save his life.

In the meantime, Klaue’s partner, Killmonger, betrays and kills him, and delivers the body to Wakanda. He also reveals he’s Wakandan—the American son of the slain N’Jobu—and immediately demands a shot at the throne. So back to the shallow pool above the waterfall we go, but you already know where it’s heading. Killmonger wins, shows no mercy, throws T’Challa over the waterfall to the lamentations of the women. Now he’s king. 

Nice rite of succession, Wakanda. Well, we elected Trump, so I can’t nitpick.

T’Challa as Zushio
I would’ve liked a more studied Killmonger at this point—someone ready to take power. I mean, wouldn’t you need Shuri/Q? Or does she have assistants? There’s a bit of wonderment as he takes over the throne, but it’s not enough. Mostly he just keeps glowering and bullying. He’s tearing down from inside before he can export out.

Meanwhile, mom, sis and GF (Ramonda, Shuri and Nakia) travel to the mountaintop to convince M’Baku, the would-be usurper, to take on the successful usurper. Instead, he gives them what they really want: T’Challa: in a coma, but alive. Vibranium cures the rest.

I also wanted a greater fire in the eyes from T’Challa here. Throughout, he reminded me a bit of Zushio, the young boy in the great Japanese film “Sansho the Bailiff,” who takes his father’s lessons on mercy to heart (“Without mercy, man is like a beast”), only to find himself bereft—a literal slave in a merciless world—because mercy wasn’t his to give. T’Challa was merciful, he lost everything to the merciless, but he comes back virtually the same. Dude: Get angry.  

“Black Panther” is a cultural phenomenon (box office soaring through the roof) but merely a good superhero movie. It wouldn't make my top five. There’s no line as good as “There are always men like you” from “The Avengers,” nor anything as fun as rag-doll Loki from same. There’s no counselor as wise as Yinsen in “Iron Man,” nor a death as tragic. The lead isn’t as interesting as Tony Stark or Peter Parker. Or Hank Pym or Steve Rogers. Or Logan.

The standouts, besides Jordan’s Killmonger, are the women—particularly the super-enthusiastic Shuri and the super-badass Okoye, who stops a rhino charge like it’s a replay of Tianamen Square. And the ending works. T’Challa adopts a less radical version of Killmonger’s program and reveals Wakanda as a superpower before the world. That, in itself, is a victory for Killmonger. He lost the battle but half-won the war. Can you imagine something similar in other superhero movies? Reed Richards saying, “Hey, this planet-eating idea of Galactus’ isn’t bad.”

T’Challa’s outreach begins where we began the movie, in Oakland, which is where writer-director Coogan grew up, and where he first began reading “Black Panther” comic books. How cool is that? The kid brought his superhero home.

Tags: , , , , , , ,
Posted at 08:14 AM on Feb 26, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
Comments   |   Permalink  
Sunday February 25, 2018

Or The Children's Crusade

In the wake of the high school students in Parkland, FL leading the charge against the NRA, a friend posted the following on Facebook last week:

Sophie Scholl: And the children shall lead

Seveal movies have been made about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose group—non-violent intellectuals at the University of Munich who opposed Hitler in the midst of World War II—most recently in “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” from 2005. And wasn't there some line in there that really resonated with me, and that I'd posted about before? No, I hadn't posted about it before. But there was a line. I found it in an old Word doc full of potential ideas for MSNBC.com, although, really, it's not much of an idea. It's just a condemnation, by comparison, of the previous Republican administration. 

The powers-that-be want Sophie to sign an apology after she's caught passing out anti-Hitler leaflets at the university:

Nazi official: Following our talks, have you come to the conclusion that your action together with your brother can be seen as a crime against society, and in particular against our hard-fighting troops, and that it must be harshly condemned?
Sophie: Nein.

Conflating attacks on a political entity with attacks on the soldiers following the orders of that political entity: Never goes away, does it?

The day Sophie Scholl was killed for speaking reason to tyranny was Feb. 22.

Tags: , , ,
Posted at 06:18 AM on Feb 25, 2018 in category Politics
Comments   |   Permalink  
Friday February 23, 2018

Quote of the Day

“As a moment in American politics, the pummelling of Rubio felt like an expression of collective rage at the falseness of so much that happens in Washington: the pivot, the dodge, the pallid follow-up question. Authenticity has rarely been more sought after in our public life—and, at once, so elusive. Accountability—the knowledge that the men and women we elect will act, foremost, in our interest and not that of their donors—has become a civic myth. Until a week ago, the students and parents of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School never intended to be part of politics in this way, so they reject its pieties and rhythms. In several minutes on a weeknight, they laid bare Rubio's central political flaw—inauthenticity—more vividly than I ever could in a magazine profile.

”It was easy to watch the town hall and wonder if this will be an inflection point in America's broken politics regarding guns—a moment when the force of money and political organization will actually be overwhelmed by the public desire to end the slaughter in American schools. But it is naïve to assume that it will necessarily be different this time; those choices are ahead, not behind.“

— Evan Osnos, ”CNN's Town Hall on Guns and the Unmaking of Marco Rubio," The New Yorker

Tags: , , ,
Posted at 05:29 PM on Feb 23, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
Comments   |   Permalink  

Movie Review: Monkey King 3 (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Well, that took forever to end.

Were all the waterworks—and I mean the river kind—the result of the popularity of “The Mermaid” two years ago? Combine water and unrequited love and get bang-o box office? Did anyone suggest that it might not be the best use of our time? That it’s all part of a minor subplot between our lead character’s love interest’s fierce adviser, Chang’E (Gigi Leung), and a river god (or goddess), and has nothing to do with anything anyone cares about?

I’m not saying it’s easy to adapt a classic, much-beloved, 16th-century picaresque for the 21st century, but surely more fun can be had.

Womenland of Western Liang
Monkey King 3 reviewFor those who arrived late: “Journey to the West” is an episodic adventure tale about a Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng), traveling west to get scriptures to save the hedonistic east. He’s aided by three companions/disciples:

  • Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shenyang), a half-pig creature
  • Sha Wujing (Him Law), a blue-skinned water creature
  • Sun Wukong, the all-powerful Monkey King (Aaron Kwok), who was born of divine crystals used to repair Heaven after a battle between the Bull Demon King and the Jade Emperor

They all call Sanzang “Master” (Shifu) but they’re the ones forever getting him out of trouble. The chapters on which “Monkey King 3” is based, #s 53-55, follow this trajectory: get into trouble, get out of it, move on.

In the original, via this translation, the four pass through Womenland of Western Liang, populated, yes, only by women. Most have never seen a man before. So how do they procreate? By drinking from the Motherhood River. That’s what two of our protagonists (Sanzang, Bajie) do by mistake. And Monkey King is sent to Miscarriage Spring in Childfree Cave to battle the immortals there and return with a cure to end their pregnancy.

In the next chapter, they go to the “Male-Welcoming Post Station” in order to pass through Womenland. But word gets out that Sanzang is the brother of the Emperor Tang, and the Queen wants to marry him for the power and because she’s, well, man-crazy—like all the women in Womenland. But before all of that can happen, Sanzang is stolen by a woman who turns out to be a demon-scorpion. It takes the disciples all of Chapter 55, and the deus-ex-machina help of the Bodhisattva, to rescue him.

That’s the original. What do you keep, what do you toss, how do you make a modern movie out of it?

They toss the scorpion woman. They make the potential nuptials between Sanzang and the Queen (Zhao Liying) less the result of power, expedience and/or lust than moon-eyed love. Believe it or not, they keep the Motherhood River. As with the nuptials, though, they soften it. Sanzang decides he can’t abort the baby, so Monkey King freezes everyone and makes the pregnant men drink the miscarriage water. Our hero remains moral and gets to continue the journey. 

You know that line about the moral arc of the universe being long but bending toward justice? If we see the truth in it, and I do, it means earlier times were less moral, less just. You certainly get a sense of that in the original (or translated) text of “Journey to the West.” Everyone’s threatening to kill everyone; everyone laughs at the pain of others. When the men first alight into Womenland, they happen upon a house with older women, who tell our heroes the following:

“All of us in this family are getting on,” the old woman replied, “and desire doesn't bother us any more, which is why we didn't harm you. If you'd gone to another household with women of different ages, the younger ones would never have let you go. They'd have forced you to sleep with them, and if you'd refused they'd have murdered you and cut all the flesh off your bodies to put in perfume bags.”

And yes, the perfume bags were left out of “Monkey King 3,” too.

What they left in? Not worth much. The women in Womenland alternate between fierce Amazonian warriors and Chinese shopping-mall girls using sa jiao. We get two unrequited loves. We also get an entire scene of our heroes chasing after a mischievous missing parchment whose words hold the key to everything.

Meanwhile, you know who gets short shrift in “Monkey King 3”? Monkey King.

Seriously, I don’t know what director Cheang Pou-soi was thinking.

Down down down
So after the warriors capture our heroes a second time, Chang’E, worried about the Queen’s growing infatuation, sends Sanzang in a dinghy into the middle of the Sea of Sorrow—but not before the Queen rides past them and joins him. Was that her plan? Or was she not thinking? Because they wind up nearly dying out there. No one can find them, not even the Monkey King. But somehow—and I’ve already forgotten how—the four of them, and the Queen, wind up at the gateway on the other side of the Sea of Sorrow, where they can finally leave. Except the Queen can’t. There’s a forcefield around Womenland and it gets her, sickens her, and much of Womenland dies.

So they have to return. And she has to be revived. And then the river god arises and blah blah blah.

There’s 45 chapters to go, but I can’t imagine this series will continue much longer. The first movie got negative reviews but was still the No. 3 movie of 2014, grossing US$167 million. The second movie got better reviews and was the No. 4 movie of 2016, grossing $185. This one? Mostly negative reviews and it was the No. 4 movie. Of the weekend.

Not a good sign. Monkey King himself might not be able to save this franchise now.

Tags: , , , ,
Posted at 08:09 AM on Feb 23, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
Comments   |   Permalink  
Wednesday February 21, 2018

Trashing, 1970s-Style

The following is from Jill Lepore's much-recommended “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” after the author details the successes of the women's movement in 1972, including:

  • the first issue of Ms. magazine
  • Shirley Chisholm running for president
  • the ERA passing the Senate
  • Title IX signed into law

The Secret History of Wonder WomanTwo steps forward, meet the step back:

“Who'd be against equal rights for women?” Bella Abzug asked in 1972. A lot of people. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the women's movement stalled. Wages never reached parity; social and economic gains were rolled back; political and legal victories seemingly within sight were never achieved.

Then, too, feminists were divided, radicals attacking liberals and liberals attacking radicals in a phenomenon so widespread it even had a name: “trashing.”

As early as 1970, the founder of the New Feminist Theater warned, in a letter of resignation from the Congress to Unite Women, that feminist “rage, masquerading as a pseudo-egalitarian radicalism,” was becoming “frighteningly vicious anti-intellectual fascism.”

The divided feminists? Radicals attacking liberals? Anyone else flash on the Democrats in 2016? You could say the same about rage turning into “anti-intellectual fascism.”

Lepore adds this about one radical group's attack on liberal feminism:

In May 1975 ... the Redstockings held a press conference to announce the release of a sixteen-page report. It purported to prove (1) that Gloria Steinem was a CIA agent; (2) that Ms. was both a capitalist manifesto and part of a CIA strategy to destroy the women's movement; and (3) that Wonder Woman was a symbol of the ruination of feminism. The report, printed as a broadside, was illustrated by a drawing of Wonder Woman with Steinem's head.

Everything old is new again.

Tags: , ,
Posted at 06:10 PM on Feb 21, 2018 in category Books
Comments   |   Permalink  
Tuesday February 20, 2018

Under the Influence

He really is just an astonishing piece of shit. 

Trump-Russian connection

Tags: , ,
Posted at 03:35 PM on Feb 20, 2018 in category Politics
Comments   |   Permalink  

Movie Review: The Monkey King (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Well, at least I learned the origin of the Monkey King. Otherwise, this thing was painful.

Is it even possible to tell this story to westerners? I think you have to grow up with it. Although apparently the movie took its critical hits in China, too. It did well at the box office—No. 3 movie for the year—but there was grousing. Replacements were made.

But it's even worse for moviegoers outside of China. Here, for example, is IMDb’s synopsis:

A monkey born from heavenly stone acquires supernatural powers and must battle the armies of both gods and demons to find his place in the heavens.

That ain’t quite it. You ready?

Monkeyshines
The Monkey King American reviewOK. So the Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok) attacks Heaven but is beaten back the Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat), who is about to kill the upstart when Jade's beautiful sister (and the Bull Demon King’s lover) pleads for his life. So Jade simply banishes the dude to Earth.

Meanwhile, with most of Heaven destroyed, the Goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin, Miss World 2007) turns her body into crystals to rebuild it. One of those crystals lands on Mount Huaguo and becomes a monkey in a bubble, who, for a second, bonds with a fox/girl, before her paw is burned.

You still with me?

Cut to: Several years later. Monkey (now Donnie Yen, “Ip Man,” “Rogue One”) is an annoying, chattery thing, who, after grabbing after a butterfly, falls a great distance. He survives, the butterfly does not. This saddens him. So when Master Puti (Hai Yitian), one of the Ten Great Sāvakas of Gotama Buddha, brings the butterfly back to life, Monkey wants to learn the trick and agrees to be his student. Puti gives Monkey a name: Sun Wukong.

Sun is a quick study, gets into it with other students, but eventually the Master spirits him away, shows him a bit of his future, then let him to return to Mount Huaguo, where the other monkeys—all of whom, including an oddly long-nosed one, look like extras on a bizarre British children's show—are amazed at his new powers. But what if he leaves them? Won’t they be defenseless? So Wukong visits an underground kingdom and takes everything the Dragon King throws at him. He winds up with: 1) a suit of armor, 2) weapons for the monkeys, and 3) a new staff. But he causes a massive tidal wave in the process, the Dragon King complains to Heaven, and the Jade Emperor sends a guard, Nezha, to arrest him. They battle. And then...

Wait, by this point, Wukong has reunited with fox girl, Ruxue (Xia Zitong), who’s been sent there by the Bull Demon King; and it’s BDK who kills Nezha, earning Wukong’s gratitude. BDK also tells him he belongs in Heaven. Monkey King is intrigued, but he mostly wants to learn about immortality because he doesn’t want Ruxue and the monkeys to die. That’s why he goes.

In Heaven, the Jade Emperor is amused by him and makes him a stable boy; everyone else is less amused, sees him as impertinent, and fights him. Much shape-shifting occurs. No one is who they seem. But after battling through hell (almost literally—a molten fiery place), Monkey King returns home ... to find all of the monkeys and Ruxue slaughtered. He went away to find immortality for them but in doing so sealed their fate. Worse, they are killed because of him. Bull Demon King tells him it was the soldiers of Heaven who did it, and MK buys it, and, enraged, attacks Heaven; but of course it was BDK who did the killing so Monkey would do his bidding.

Cue big final battle.

Aftermath?

  • Master Puti is killed by BDK
  • BDK is turned into an actual one-eared bull by the Jade Emperor
  • The Monkey King, as punishment, is buried under the Five-Finger Mountain for 500 years. Or until “Monkey King 2.”

All of this insanity is exacerbated by the bad CGI and a lousy lead performance from Donnie Yen. Sorry. Love him. But he’s not the right dude to play Monkey. 

The hero with one face
So what does it all mean? Fuck if I know.

The entire movie is really preamble. “The Monkey King” is the first part of the great 16th-century classic of Chinese literature, “Journey to the West,” which contains four parts and 100 chapters, and whose ostensible protagonist, Tang Sanzang, hasn’t even been introduced yet. “West,” whose truncated, translated version is called “The Adventures of Monkey,” is an episodic adventure story about Tang, a young Buddhist scholar traveling west to bring back scriptures, and encountering various evils along the way. His traveling companions include Monkey King, a half-pig creature and a river ogre. The evils they encounter include spider-women. This story has been made into paintings, plays, movies. Over and over again.

But in the original preamble, Monkey King falls from grace because of hubris, not because he’s tricked into attacking Heaven. I guess modern China, like modern Hollywood, wants its obvious heroes and villains. The hero is always the hero, even when he's in the middle of his hero's journey. Joseph Campbell is turning over in his grave. Or smiling wistfully.

Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted at 08:16 AM on Feb 20, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
Comments   |   Permalink  
Monday February 19, 2018

Quote of the Day

“For decades, in Trump's business dealings, he never paid a price for his salesman's hype, which repeatedly edged into falsehood. The Mueller investigation may now bring an unprecedented and overdue moment of reckoning.”

— Jeffrey Toobin, “Trump's Miss Universe Gambit,” The  New Yorker, a detailed article on the history of Trump's involvement with the Miss Universe pageant and in particular the 2013 pageant set in Moscow.

Tags: ,
Posted at 02:11 PM on Feb 19, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
Comments   |   Permalink  

Movie Review: Phantom Thread (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Why does Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) acquiesce to the poison in the end? I assume that's the question everyone asks as they leave the theater. And acquiesce so enthusiastically? With more love than he’s shown throughout? Is it that? Poison is his avenue to weakness and weakness is his avenue to love? Or is it subtler? He’s a control freak and this is a way to give up control for a time. It's a vacation. He gets sick to go on vacation from his awful self.

Even before the poisonings began, I got a whiff of the serial killer amid the movie’s stifled beauty. Woodcock, a 1950s haute couture fashion designer, takes Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress, for a ride in his Bristol 404 sports car in the British countryside at night, and for a second I flashed on Alex and his droogs doing the same in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” (Did Paul Thomas Anderson intend this?) Later, Woodcock peeks through a peephole at how his fashion show is doing, or how Alma is doing in it, and I flashed on Norman Bates doing the same with an undressing Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” (I know PTA intended that.)

Phantom Thread movie reviewBeyond these allusions, there’s just a quiet, insinuating creepiness throughout. How a dinner date with a gentle, handsome fashion designer turns into something else. How quickly his questions turn to directives. He’s not interested in who she is but in what she’ll become. What he can make her become. She’s fabric he can stitch into something beautiful.

See? Right there. It doesn’t take much to push the story into serial killer realm. Particularly with Woodcock’s sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), sitting cold-eyed on the attic couch while Alma disrobes and measurements are taken.

Then Alma flips the tables. She turns “Psycho” into “Misery.”

C’est moi
We saw what happened to Alma’s predecessor. She disturbed the careful quiet of breakfast with her questions, the proffer of rolls, the uncareful buttering of toast. She’s gone without a second thought.

But what attracts Reynolds to Alma? Her clumsiness? The sense that there’s something prettier behind the waitress garb? That she doesn’t question him—or that she does?

Woodcock brings up death himself. “There’s an air of quiet death in this house,” he says. He talks about secrets. “When I was a boy I started to hide things in the linings of the garments; things that only I knew were there. Secrets.” I’m not sure the meaning of this but I love the way Day-Lewis says it.

From the trailer, and for much of the film, I assumed Woodcock was gay, and closeted, and miserable, but maybe he’s just miserable. As in SOB. He forces his exactitude on the world and it’s never enough. He’s insufferable. Alma cooks him asparagus in butter rather than oil, and he says, “I’m admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you prepared it.” In the middle of his day, in the middle of his creative process, she brings him tea he didn’t ask for, and they argue. Upset, she leaves with the tea. “The tea is going out,“ he calls after her, ”but the interruption is staying right here with me!”

Confession: I identified with that line. Completely. Even as I was writing this review, which is hardly haute couture, my wife came down the hallway talking of a friend’s house-hunting difficulties and I just stared at her with that “in the middle of something” look until she left. In any creative process, there's that selfish need to stay inside your own head. And the less you can concentrate, the worse you act. When my wife is working on graphic design, you can play a John Philip Sousa march behind her and she won’t blink. She’s DiMaggio at the plate, Marshawn Lynch with the football. I call her “Beast Mode.” I envy her. 

The tea is going out, but the interruption is staying right here with me. Even his one-liners are perfection. 

Anti-Hitchcock
What makes Cyril align with Alma? I haven’t figured that out. The predecessor she viewed with cold eyes, but somehow Alma wins her over. Maybe she’s just sick of Reynolds. Maybe I’ll have to see the movie again.

Most people wouldn’t want to return to that stuffy house, but PTA’s movies win me over. There’s a density to them. His movies feel beyond flickering images; they're palpable. Daniel Day-Lewis’ precise Reynolds Woodcock is heavier than all the CGI monsters in the world.

Ah, but his endings. He has so much trouble; he’s the anti-Hitchcock there. Yet for all your puzzlement as you leave the theater, debating why Woodcock does it, this may be one of his better endings. “I’m a confirmed bachelor,” Reynolds says at one point. “I’m incurable.” But Alma finds the cure.

Tags: , , , ,
Posted at 07:30 AM on Feb 19, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
Comments   |   Permalink  
Sunday February 18, 2018

‘Three Billboards’ Wins BAFTA for Best Picture; Does this Presage Oscar?

Three Billboards BAFTA win

Still no arrests, but many awards.

If you'd told me that “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” had just won the BAFTA, the British Oscar, for best picture, and that this presaged an Oscar victory for same since previous BAFTA winners “La La Land,” “The Revenant” and “Boyhood” all won the Oscar, too, I would‘ve probably just nodded and continued the conversation. It would’ve taken me a few seconds to go, “Wait ... Did those three win the Oscar?” They didn‘t: “Moonlight,” “Spotlight,” and “Birdman” did. But I think the pre-Oscar conversation goes on so long these days that it’s harder to keep track of which movie actually won. Those were all in the running, of course. They were part of the conversation up until the announcement. Hell, “La La Land” actually was announced. It was on stage and in the middle of its acceptance speech. Then: Yoink.

So BAFTA presages not much in the best picture category. Although BAFTA and Oscar agreed every year between 2008 (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and 2013 (“12 Years a Slave”), this was an anomaly. In their history together, they‘ve disagreed more than agreed on best picture: 28 of 71 times. Not even 40 percent. And that’s including the movies that won BAFTA/Oscar in different years. 

I like how they differ, by the way. BAFTA usually goes (shockingly) British, choosing, say, “Atonement” over “No Country for Old Men,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” over “Forrest Gump,” and (my personal favorite) “Howard's End” over “Unforgiven.” You may say “Howard's End” deserved its BAFTA and I'd be forced to respond, “Deserve's got nothing to do with it, kid.”

BAFTA also goes French more than we do—since we never do. Or we only do if it's Hollywood French (“Gigi”). BAFTA has chosen for its best pic, among others, “Jean de Florette,” “Day for Night,” “Wages of Fear” and “La Ronde.” Not a bad list. 

Finally, BAFTA likes small better than we do. “The Full Monty” won in ‘97 over “Titanic.” Only one Woody Allen movie has won the Oscar for best pic (“Annie Hall,” 1977), but three have claimed BAFTAs: “Annie,” “Manhattan” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” Remember “Educating Rita”? That won. “The Commitments” beat “The Silence of the Lambs.” 

Another trivia question: What three Martin Scorsese movies won the BAFTA? I’ll let you mull it over for a second. 

But the BAFTA acting wins do probably presage Oscar victories, since they‘re the same that the Screen Actors Guild chose a few weeks ago: McDormand, Oldman, Janey and Rockwell. Wouldn’t bet against any of these. 

They also awarded a BAFTA to oft-Oscar-nominated/never-won cinematographer Roger Deakins for his work on “Blade Runner 2049.” I thought, “That's nice. Nice to see him get one.” It's actually his fourth BAFTA. He won previously for three Coens: “The Man Who Wasn't There,” “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit.” Oscar has nominated him 12 times before this year and handed out exactly zero statuettes. Maybe 13 is his lucky number. 

The chart below details all the BAFTA/Oscar wins with agreements highlighted in yellow. You can see the answer to the Scorsese trivia question, too. Ready? The three Scorsese movies that won BAFTAs are: “Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore,” “Goodfellas” and “The Aviator.” If you'd given me 10 guesses, I doubt I would‘ve nailed all three. 

Year BAFTA Oscar
2017 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  
2016 La La Land Moonlight
2015 The Revenant Spotlight
2014 Boyhood Birdman
2013 12 Years a Slave 12 Years a Slave
2012 Argo Argo
2011 The Artist The Artist
2010 The King’s Speech The King's Speech
2009 The Hurt Locker The Hurt Locker
2008 Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire
2007 Atonement No Country for Old Men
2006 The Queen The Departed
2005 Brokeback Mountain Crash
2004 The Aviator Million Dollar Baby
2003 The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
2002 The Pianist Chicago
2001 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring A Beautiful Mind
2000 Gladiator Gladiator
1999 American Beauty American Beauty
1998 Shakespeare in Love Shakespeare in Love
1997 The Full Monty Titanic
1996 The English Patient The English Patient
1995 Sense and Sensibility Braveheart
1994 Four Weddings and a Funeral Forrest Gump
1993 Schindler's List Schindler's List
1992 Howard's End Unforgiven
1991 The Commitments Silence of the Lambs
1990 Goodfellas Dances with Wolves
1989 Dead Poets Society Driving Miss Daisy
1988 The Last Emperor Rain Man
1987 Jean de Florette The Last Emperor
1986 A Room with a View Platoon
1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo Out of Africa
1984 The Killing Fields Amadeus
1983 Educating Rita Terms of Endearment
1982 Gandhi Gandhi
1981 Chariots of Fire Chariots of Fire
1980 The Elephant Man Ordinary People
1979 Manhattan Kramer vs. Kramer
1978 Julia  The Deer Hunter
1977 Annie Hall Annie Hall
1976 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Rocky
1975 Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
1974 Lacombe Lucien The Godfather Part II
1973 Day for Night The Sting
1972 Cabaret The Godfather
1971 Sunday Bloody Sunday The French Connection 
1970 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Patton
1969 Midnight Cowboy Midnight Cowboy
1968 The Graduate Oliver!
1967 A Man for All Seasons In the Heat of the Night
1966 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A Man for All Seasons
1965 My Fair Lady The Sound of Music
1964 Dr. Strangelove My Fair Lady
1963 Tom Jones Tom Jones
1962 Lawrence of Arabia Lawrence of Arabia
1961 Ballad of a Soldier/The Hustler West Side Story
1960 The Apartment The Apartment
1959 Ben-Hur Ben-Hur
1958 Room at the Top Gigi
1957 The Bridge of the River Kwai The Bridge on the River Kwai
1956 Gervaise Around the World in 80 Days
1955 Richard III Marty
1954 The Wages of Fear On the Waterfront
1953 Forbidden Games From Here to Eternity
1952 The Sound Barrier The Greatest Show on Earth
1951 La Ronde An American in Paris
1950 All About Eve All About Eve
1949 Bicycle Thieves All the King's Men
1948 Hamlet Hamlet
1947 The Best Years of Our Lives Gentleman's Agreement
1946 n/a The Best Years of Our Lives

Two weeks until Oscar.

Tags: ,
Posted at 02:46 PM on Feb 18, 2018 in category Movies - Awards
Comments   |   Permalink  

Paul Ryan's Jerk Reactions to Mass Killings

Tags: , ,
Posted at 01:51 PM on Feb 18, 2018 in category Politics
Comments   |   Permalink  

Box Office: Black Panther Roars to $192 Million Record-Breaking Opening

Black Panther breaks box office records with $192 million opening

This is how the world changes: not with a bang but a ka-ching.

OK, there was a bang in there, too. 

In case you didn't hear, three movies opened this weekend:

  • “Samson,” a “bargain-bin Biblical epic” whose main critical watchword appears to be “sluggish”—although it is the kind of thing right-wing Christians have demanded from Hollywood for years. It grossed $1.9 million and finished in 10th place.
  • “Early Man,” a British stop-action animation from the makers of “Wallace and Grommit.” It grossed $3.1 million and finished in 7th place.
  • “Black Panther,” about the titular Wakandan/Marvel superhero, starring Chadwick Boseman (“42,” “Get On Up,” “Marshall”—basically every 20th-century African-American icon), and directed by Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”). It got great reviews (97% at RT) and grossed $192 million. It finished in 1st place. With a fucking bullet. 

You could actually say “Black Panther” finished in 5th place since that's where its $192 mil places it on the all-time opening weekend chart. Only “The Avengers,” “Jurassic World,” and “Star Wars” VII and VIII opened better.

Wow.

I wish I saw it coming. Not even close. I always thought of Black Panther as a minor character in the Marvel universe. Even among black characters in the Marvel universe, I would‘ve placed him behind Luke Cage and maybe the Falcon. And here he’s blowing everybody away. He's blowing Batman and Superman away. He reigns. 

Plus it's February. You know the biggest all-time Feb. opening before this? “Deadpool” at $132 million two years ago. Then “Fifty Shades of Grey” at $85 and “Passion of the Christ” at $84. It's not a big box-office month. February has generally been a dumping ground for shitty romances (“Valentine's Day,” “The Vow”), cut-rate Christian movies (“Son of God,” “Risen”), and second-rate superheroes (“Daredevil,” “Ghost Rider”). Maybe that's what Buena Vista originally thought “Black Panther” was. Or maybe they saw unstaked territory. But I doubt they saw $192. 

Here's the records “Black Panther” has already shattered:

  • Biggest Feb. opening
  • Biggest single-character Marvel opening
  • Biggest single-character superhero opening

But that's actually downplaying the achievement. This feels like a game-changer. $192 million is something even Hollywood can't ignore. 

Would it be wrong to suggest that some part of this box office feels like a reaction against our cultural times? That if Trump wasn't in the White House, “Black Panther” would‘ve done well but not $192 million well? Unprovable, of course. And just a sense. Raising the question: Has some part of our box office become politicized? We go to the theater to hear/see what we’re not hearing/seeing in the public/political realms. Or what we think we‘re not hearing in the public/political realm. During the Obama years, Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” broke January box-office records; but with Trump fulminating in the Oval Office the same people couldn't be bothered to see Clint Eastwood's “The 15:17 to Paris,” which, after two weekends, stands at $25 mil. The right-wing crazies don't need that fix; they get it every day on Twitter.

I was curious how Breitbart's Big Hollywood was dealing with BP's huge weekend. Doesn't it go against what they always argue? That Hollywood does poorly at the box office because conservative values aren't honored by Hollywood liberals? So how are they justifying this? So I went there. And no, you don't want to know. Their critic, John Nolte, is arguing that “Black Panther” is not a movie about race but about values. Conservative values. Nolte is actually arguing that Black Panther is Trump while the villain is Black Lives Matter. Yes. Yes, he is. 

Patricia and I see the movie tomorrow.

Breitbart can spin however it wants, this is a roar. This is such a roar that everyone has to pay attention. It's James Baldwin's line backed by money: “The world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.”

UPDATE:  The actuals were better than the estimates, as “BP” grossed $202 million for the three-day weekend (still fifth-best) and $242 million if you include Presidents' Day (when Patricia and I saw it in a packed Cinerama Theater). That's the second-best four-day total ever—after only “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Seems an unintended but fitting revenge for “American Sniper” setting box-office records on MLK weekend, of all holidays. Oh, and Nolte's an idiot. The Panther isn't Trump. Maintaining Wakanda's secrecy, and its borders, is the one thing T‘Challa does wrong; it’s the sin he must rectify. And does. Does anyone ever call any of these guys on this shit?   

Tags: , , , , , , ,
Posted at 10:27 AM on Feb 18, 2018 in category Movies - Box Office
Comments   |   Permalink  
Saturday February 17, 2018

Person of Interest

Earlier this month, I wrote more than 1,000 words on a shitty movie, “Mark Felt,” which is basically “All the President's Men” from Deep Throat's perspective, but I forgot to add this. It's a small thing, barely worth mentioning. But I'm going to mention it. 

It's from a late-movie meeting between Felt and an unnamed CIA figure played by Eddie Marsan. They sit on park benches. Without many wasted words, we get the sense that the agency man knows Felt is Deep Throat. He's warning him. He says he‘ll cover for him as long as he can, then reminds him: “Presidents come and go. The CIA stays, the FBI stays. We are the constants.” It’s a good scene.

So what's my problem? This line from the agency man:

Time magazine's Person of the Year is going to be Richard Nixon. I thought you'd like to know.

The line has the vibe of something Ben Bradlee says at the end of “All the President's Men”: “Have you seen the latest polls? Half the country hasn't even heard of Watergate. No one gives a shit.” I.e., You‘re risking all of this but Nixon’s as popular as ever. No one gives a shit.  

I'm fine with the ATPM echo. I'm fine with “No one gives a shit,” because no words are truer, sadly. I'm not fine with one word. 

Person of the Year? In 1972? That just leapt out at me. Watching, I thought, “It didn‘t become Person of the Year until when? The 1980s? At least? Before that it was ’Man of the Year.' Or ‘Woman.’ Or ‘Men’ or ‘Women.’” I was right. And wrong. Time didn't change it to “Person of the Year” until 1999. More than a quarter century after that scene.

I know. It's a tiny detail. But you get the details right. Because some of the details—as here—tell you the story of the culture.

Tags: , ,
Posted at 07:03 AM on Feb 17, 2018 in category Movies
Comments   |   Permalink  
Friday February 16, 2018

NPR Thought It Thaw a Thaw

The mainstream media still bends over backwards to appease the right-wing in this country. Even The Washington Post, which normally does better, ran this headline over a post-Parkland piece about the grades given to U.S. Senators by the NRA:

52 senators have an A-minus NRA rating or higher — including four Democrats

“Including four Democrats.” Republicans don't even make the cut. They don't get the blame unless you do the obvious math: Ninety-two percent of the politicians who back the NRA's agenda are Republicans. In what world does the 8% become the headline rather than the 92%?

You can argue the headline is pushing back against the conventional wisdom that says it's all the Republicans' fault—except they never run that headline. They run headlines blaming “Washington” or “Congress” or “politicians.” So the above pushes back against a conventional wisdom that is never aired. 

Christ. 

On NPR this morning, as part of their top-of-the-hour news rundown, they mentioned that Mitt Romney officially declared his run for U.S. Senate in Utah, then talked about his icy relationship with Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. This icy relationship, NPR said, thawed after the election. 

Thawed? This is that thaw:

Trump Romney meeting

These small things add up. You can't keep describing a reality that doesn't exist without losing readers and listeners.

Thufferin' thuccotash.

Tags: , , , ,
Posted at 07:32 AM on Feb 16, 2018 in category Media
Comments   |   Permalink  
Thursday February 15, 2018

Someone Finally Said It

“If we actually want to do something about gun violence, both the dramatic mass shootings and the relentless toll of 30 or so gun homicides we experience each and every day, there is something we can do. It's simple and straightforward. Are you ready? Here it is:

Don't vote for Republicans.”

— Paul Waldman, “The one thing we can do to address gun violence,”  The Washington Post

Tags: , ,
Posted at 08:24 PM on Feb 15, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
Comments   |   Permalink  

To Do

Tags: , ,
Posted at 08:52 AM on Feb 15, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
Comments   |   Permalink  

‘It doesn’t seem to matter to our government that children are being shot to death day after day'

“Nothing has been done. It doesn't seem to matter to our government that children are being shot to death day after day in schools. It doesn't matter that people are being shot at a concert, in a movie theater. It's not enough, apparently, to move our leadership, our government, people that are running this country, to actually do anything. That's demoralizing.

”But we can do something about it. We can vote people in who actually have the courage to protect people's lives and not just bow down to the NRA because they‘ve financed their campaign for them. So, hopefully we’ll find enough people, first of all, to vote good people in, but hopefully we can find enough people with courage to help our citizens remain safe and focus on the real safety issues. Not building some stupid wall for billions of dollars that has nothing to do with our safety, but actually protecting us from what truly is dangerous, which is maniacs with semi-automatic weapons just slaughtering our children. It's disgusting."

Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors, following the killing of 17 children and adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Tags: , ,
Posted at 07:46 AM on Feb 15, 2018 in category Politics
Comments   |   Permalink  
Wednesday February 14, 2018

Who's Who (and White) in Baseball?

I suppose this is less trivia question than history lesson. But it's still a trivia question. 

About a year ago I bought a copy of the book, “100 Years of Who's Who in Baseball,” a compendium of the annual baseball magazine's covers from 1916 to 2015—with the cover of the very first issue, a one-off in 1912, tossed in. The only cover missing is the final one in 2016, featuring Bryce Harper. The magazine stopped publishing after that.

Who's Who in Baseball 1916For the kids: “Who's Who...” had a distinctive red cover and included the relevant stats of every active Major Leaguer. I think I bought it every year between 1971 and 1975 when there wasn't much else to go on, and when its appearance, like the appearance of baseball cards, signaled spring was finally here. 

Those “relevant stats” are interesting, by the way. The very first issue in 1912 included only three: games, batting average, and (of all things) fielding average. By 1928, according to Marty Appel in his foreword to the book, readers could peruse six stats: games, at-bats, runs, hits, stolen bases and batting average. Appel writes: “The readers would know that Babe [Ruth] had seven stolen bases in 1927, but not 60 home runs. Crazy.” Home runs were finally added in 1940. 

Flipping through the book, I began to notice something odd, and it led to this trivia question.

Who was the first African-American/person of color on the cover of “Who's Who in Baseball”? And in what year? 

The answer has several gradations, which I‘ll get to by and by. 

Since the cover of “Who’s Who...” featured a dynamic player from the previous season, the first year an African-American could have been on the cover was 1948—the year after Jackie Robinson's debut. He wouldn't have been a bad choice, either: Rookie of the Year, fifth in MVP voting, changed the game forever. But not to be. WWIB opted for another good choice, “The Home Run Twins of 1947,” Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize, both of whom hit 51. 

Who's Who in Baseball 1952Year to year, cover subjects often switched leagues, since you didn't want one league dominating too much. For the ‘49 cover, for example, WWIB went with 1948 AL MVP winner Lou Boudreau. And if they’d switched back to the NL for the following year, Jackie Robinson, again, wouldn't have been a bad choice. He won the 1949 NL MVP, hitting .342 and slugging .528, while leading the league in stolen bases (37). By modern metrics, too, he was the best player in baseball, with a 9.6 WAR. But he didn't make the cover. (Jackie never made the cover.) Instead, WWIB stayed in the AL. It didn't highlight the AL MVP winner, either, Ted Williams (.343/.490/.650), who'd graced the cover back in ‘43, but his teammate, pitcher Mel Parnel, who went 25-7 with a 2.77 ERA. I guess they didn’t want to double up on Ted. Plus you gotta get pitchers in the mix, too. 

Next year, another pitcher: NL MVP Jim Konstanty of the Phillies. The year after, they skipped over the NL MVP (Roy Campanella) for Stan Musial, who'd finished second in MVP voting, and who'd already been on the cover in ‘44. He’d certainly had a great season (.355/.449/.614), but you can begin to see a pattern emerging.

For the ‘53 cover, apparently someone on the WWIB staff thought, “Hey, why not both MVPs?” So it was done: A’s pitcher Bobby Shantz (24-7, 2.48 ERA) and Cubs slugger Hank Sauer (37 HRs, 121 RBIs). That idea (both MVPs) lasted but a year. For the ‘53 season, Al Rosen won the AL MVP, and Roy Campanella (again) the NL, and WWIB opted for ... just Rosen.

Who's Who in Baseball 1955But it’s the next year that blows the lid off things. They'd just featured Rosen so the likely cover would be a National Leaguer. Maybe even the NL MVP, Willie Mays, who'd just had a season for the ages. He led the league in hitting, slugging, OPS and triples. He went .345/.411/.667. His WAR was 10.6. Plus there was that World Series catch, now known simply as “The Catch.” But they didn't choose Willie. Of course not. They didn't go AL, either. They stayed in the NL. In fact, they stayed on the same team. The ‘55 cover was Willie’s teammate, Al Dark, who hit a respectable .293/.325/.446, and finished fifth in the MVP voting. But he didn't exactly have a season for the ages. 

By now the pattern has fully emerged. 

I‘ll cut to the chase. Here is a list of NL MVPs from 1949 to 1963, along with the following year’s “Who's Who” cover choice. I‘ve highlighted the African-American players:

YEAR NL MVP WWIB cover Why?
1949 Jackie Robinson Mel Parnell Leader in W, ERA, IP
1950 Phil Konstanty Phil Konstanty NL MVP
1951 Roy Campanella Stan Musial (2) 2nd in NL MVP
1952 Hank Sauer Hank Sauer/Bobby Shantz NL/AL MVP
1953 Roy Campanella Al Rosen AL MVP
1954 Willie Mays Al Dark 5th in NL MVP
1955 Roy Campanella Duke Snider 2nd in NL MVP
1956 Don Newcombe Mickey Mantle AL MVP
1957 Hank Aaron Warren Spahn MLB Cy Young
1958 Ernie Banks Bob Turley MLB Cy Young
1959 Ernie Banks Don Drysdale ??
1960 Dick Groat Roger Maris AL MVP
1961 Frank Robinson Whitey Ford MLB Cy Young
1962 Maury Wills Don Drysdale (2) MLB Cy Young
1963 Sandy Koufax Sandy Koufax NL MVP/Cy Young

In 15 years, 11 black players were voted NL MVP, and none of them wound up on the cover. In that same time, four white players were voted NL MVP and three of them wound up on the cover. Only Dick Groat, among white players, got the scroogie. Welcome to the party, pal. 

The second half of that above list is particularly odd. Six pitchers in seven years? And four Dodgers and four Yankees in nine years? The Yanks, of course, were one of the last teams to integrate. The Dodgers had been the first, but somehow WWIB kept missing its black stars (Robinson, Campanella, Newcombe, Wills) but not the white (Snider, Drysdale, Koufax). 

But at least we’re getting around to the answer to the trivia question. Or an answer. For the ‘64 season, Brooks Robinson won the AL MVP and Ken Boyer won the NL. And “Who’s Who” went with ... Ken Boyer. 

No, Boyer wasn't black. But this was the first year that WWIB, along with its “in action” shot, included several headshots along the side of the cover. And in the ‘65 issue, those headshots included Larry Jackson (2nd in MLB Cy Young voting), Joe Torre (5th in NL MVP voting), Juan Marichal (15th in NL MVP voting) and Tony Oliva (AL batting champion/Rookie of the Year).

Who's Who in BaseballSo that’s your answer. Tony Oliva and Juan Marichal in 1965 were the first people of color on the cover of “Who's Who in Baseball.”

At the same time, it's a bit of a cheat, isn't it? Since they‘re not the main cover subject? So that’s the follow-up: When did WWIB first feature an African-American/person of color as its main cover subject?

1966? Willie Mays had another season for the ages in ‘65, hitting .317 with 52 homers while leading the league OBP, SLG, OPS, TB, and winning his ninth Gold Glove and his second NL MVP. And he did make the cover—finally. But it’s a headshot. The bigger, dominant headshot belongs to Sandy Koufax.

1967? Frank Robinson won the ‘66 AL triple crown, and he’s one of four equal-sized headshots on the cover, sharing space with Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax and Jim Kaat. But he's not the feature.

The ‘67 season was all about Yaz, and WWIB made their cover all about him, too. There’s no one else on it.  

And if ‘67 makes you think of Yaz, ’68 surely makes you think of Bob Gibson. And, along with Yaz and Pete Rose, he is one of three headshots on the cover. But the big “in action” shot belongs to 30-game winner Denny McLain.

Who's Who in Baseball 1975Tom Seaver on the ‘70 cover makes sense, as does Johnny Bench on the ’71 cover. But ‘72? Gotta be Vida Blue, right? Dude won the 1971 AL Cy Young and MVP. He made the cover of Time magazine. He was the talk of baseball. But he’s just the headshot. The dominating photo belongs to NL MVP Joe Torre.

I‘ll cut to the chase for the second time. After ’73 (Steve Carlton) and ‘74 (Nolan Ryan), “Who’s Who in Baseball,” in 1975, finally made a person of color their main cover image. The irony is that this is one of the few seasons during these decades when no person of color won the MVP (Jeff Burroughs, Steve Garvey) or Cy Young award (Catfish Hunter and Mike Marshall). But this player performed a big feat in ‘74. He broke a record. 

Not Hank Aaron. Yes, Aaron broke the most hallowed record in baseball in ’74, Babe Ruth's 714 homeruns, but he didn't make the cover. (He never made the cover—not even as a headshot.) The ‘75 cover belonged to Lou Brock, who stole 118 bases in ’74. And that's the answer to the second part of our question. The first African-American to be the featured cover subject on “Who's Who in Baseball” is Lou Brock in 1975—nearly three decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

As I said, this was both trivia question and history lesson. But the history is American rather than baseball; and the answer isn't exactly trivial.

Tags: , , , , ,
Posted at 07:23 AM on Feb 14, 2018 in category Baseball
Comments   |   Permalink  
Tuesday February 13, 2018

Movie Review: Darkest Hour (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

For a movie that agonizes over a decision that is now obvious to everyone (Nazi Germany: fight/not fight?), “Darkest Hour,” written by Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”), directed by Joe Wright (“Atonement”), and starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, manages to be thrilling. It’s one of the few 2017 movies I saw where the audience broke into spontaneous applause at the end.

Which makes sense. Other cinematic heroes may have the weight of the world on their shoulders, but here it’s actually true.

Unfortunately, McCarten and Wright do fudge the history a bit.

What’re we waitin’ fer?
Darkest Hour movie reviewQuestion: Does this fudging make the story more dramatic—or less so?

Do we need Churchill’s secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, this year’s crush), starting her job with the famously irascible and demanding man on the same day he is named Prime Minister, which also happens to be the same day Nazi Germany launched its war against Western Europe and threatened to end fucking everything? Aren’t these last two historical facts enough? Do we have to bump up Layton’s employment by a year? And why is Layton forever in the wings mouthing the words Churchill speaks—as if she were Ray Sharkey in “The Idolmaker”? Is the movie implying Churchill needs help? Is this supposed to be another endearing quality of Layton’s? Do we really need more to endear us to Lily James?

And what about that transatlantic phone call between a hemmed-in Churchill and a blasé Roosevelt? For all the faults of America, and the internal battles with America Firsters, FDR was never blasé about Europe. And that transatlantic hotline didn’t go up until 1943. (That said, it is a wrenching scene.)

But what we definitely don't need? That ride in the tube. Good god. It’s not only bullshit, it feels like bullshit. Worse, it doesn’t even make sense dramatically. Churchill has just been visited by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, stellar), who, previously, had kept his distance from the new PM. He hadn’t liked him much. He thought he was the wrong man for the role. But now, staring into the abyss, finally angry at the spot England is in, he allies with his PM. Meaning Winston has been given royal prerogative to fight. Meaning it’s like that scene in “Rocky II” when Adrian wakes up from her coma and tells Rocky to “win”! But instead of Mickey yelling, “What’re we waitin’ fer!” followed by a training montage to Bill Conti’s uplifting theme music, it’s like Rocky wanders down to the Italian Market and says, “I don’t know, what do youse think?” No! Go to Parliament, Winston! Go to your war cabinet. Win! V for fucking victory already!

I keep going back to that line from “The Insider”: Ordinary people under extraordinary pressure. That's all you need. It’s about the isolation and the stakes. It’s about one man seeing the horrific future (if we don’t act) while everyone around him sees the tragic past (where acting led to horror). It’s about the leader being as trapped in the halls of government as any soldier on the beaches of Dunkirk. 

Plus the person here isn't ordinary; and the pressure is beyond extraordinary. 

We all want to change the world
Wright has maybe too many overhead flourishes, as if anticipating the blitz, but I like how he teases the intro of our hero: much talked-about before seen, as with Rick in “Casablanca.”

Oldman is great, yes. At times, I was reminded of Ned Beatty, at times I saw Gary Oldman in the eyes, but mostly it was like Churchill brought to life. The great man was 65 in May 1940, and between the booze and the cigars and the mumblings, Oldman sometimes makes him seem like an old 65. Watching, you’d be astonished to learn he lived another quarter century. He lived to see John Winston Lennon (b., Oct. 1940) and the Beatles take over the world.

The movie’s true value is putting us in the midst of the debate before history takes over; when the would-be disastrous decision seems, for a sad second, faintly reasonable. But I worry. Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation has been used to justify every war since—as if every two-bit tyrant were Hitler. That shouldn’t be the lesson people take from “Darkest Hour”...but they will. 

Tags: , , , , ,
Posted at 07:54 AM on Feb 13, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
Comments   |   Permalink  
Monday February 12, 2018

Box Office: The Rock and The Show Keep Going ... and Going ... and Going

15:17 to Paris disappoints at box office

The 15:17 to Paris appears more crowded than most showings of “The 15:17 to Paris.”

Three movies each opened in more than 3,000 theaters this weekend and they all more-or-less disappointed. 

“50 Shades Freed,” No. 1 at the box office, grossed $38.8 mil, which is $8 million less than what “50 Shades Darker” opened to in Feb. 2017, which was itself $39 million less than the original, “50 Shades of Grey,” opened to in Feb. 2015. Cue Bruce. Supposedly this is the last “50 Shades.” I'd say yay but we haven't seen its replacement.  

No. 2 for the weekend was “Peter Rabbit,” whose $25 mil opening was on par with last year's “The Emoji Movie.” It's the 89th-best opening for an animated movie. It's also now raised anger among some parents because it seems to make light of food allergies. At the least, it gives them to the movie's villain, and the movie's heroes exploit it. 

And coming in third was Clint Eastwood's “The 15:17 to Paris,” about the three U.S. military dudes who stopped a terrorist act on a train headed to, yes, Paris, in 2015. They star as themselves. It grossed $12 mil. Slightly off the $35 mil Eastwood's previous American-hero movie, “Sully,” opened to in Sept. 2016, but then that one starred Tom Hanks, who does this kind of thing professionally. And that‘s way less than the $89 mil Eastwood’s previous American-hero movie, “American Sniper,” grossed in its first wide-release opening weekend in January 2015. Of course, back then Obama was in the White House, so Trump folks had to go to the movies to get their wish-fulfillment fantasy. Now they just go to Twitter.

Each of these movies didn't just disappoint at the box office, by the way. Here are their Rotten Tomatoes scores:

  • “50 Shades”: 11%
  • “Peter Rabbit”: 58%
  • “15:17 to Paris”: 21%

These disappointments, Hollywood, might be related. 

Meanwhile, two other films, both released eight weekends ago in the dark days before Christmas, keep on keeping on. 

The box office's No. 4 movie was “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” which grossed another $9.8 mil, for a $365 domestic total and $881 worldwide. It's the fifth-highest-grossing film of 2017 both domestically and worldwide, and has cemented the Rock as one of the world's biggest stars. If not the biggest. 

And at No. 5? Believe it or not, “The Greatest Showman,” starring Hugh Jackman, which grossed another $6.4 million for $146 domestic and $314 worldwide. This is a startling story of perseverance. It opened the weekend before Christmas in fourth place, grossing just $8.8 million, and seemed dead in the water. Each weekend since, it's never grossed more than $16 mil nor less than $6. It just doesn't drop. Here are its rankings weekend by weekend: 4th, 4th, 4th, 4th, 5th, 4th, 4th, 5th. Movies that have ranked ahead of it include “Pitch Perfect 3,” “Insidious: The Last Key,” “The Commuter,” “12 Strong,” “Den of Thieves” and “Maze Runner: The Death Cure.” They all fall away. It doesn't. The show goes on. 

Tags: , , ,
Posted at 07:41 AM on Feb 12, 2018 in category Movies - Box Office
Comments   |   Permalink  
Friday February 09, 2018

Paper Elephant

“Back when he was president, Barack Obama told me that only two people treated any interaction with him as a zero-sum game. One was Vladimir Putin, the other congressional Republicans. Both behaved as if there was no such thing as a win-win situation: Any gain for Obama was a loss for them, and any gain for them must also entail a loss for Obama. The moment that the Russian president or congressional Republicans saw he wanted something, they went to work trying to keep him from getting it — even if it was something they might otherwise have approved of.”

— Michael Lewis, “Has Anyone Seen the President?,” Bloomberg News

I‘ve long loved Lewis, and much of the piece is Lewis, George Plimpton-like, or maybe Joan Didion-like (“Insider Baseball”), giving the unvarnished, vaguely absurd details of the process from within the process: a White House Press briefing; a late night, cursory press conference after Trump returns from Davos, from which Lewis gets off a great line, playing off one of Trump’s idiot lines: “I try and fail to imagine anyone in Davos saying to Trump 'I want to bring my money to your country.'”

But much of the piece is about the when and where of Steve Bannon. He's still in D.C. Is he on a lone island now? He's got a Man Friday anyway. He's also got acolytes, and thoughts and ideas; he sees where the country is heading. “Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls,” he says, and maybe his fear is that the anger is now on the other side, particularly with the #MeToo movement. He says as much. But nowhere does Lewis mention the Mercers, who bankrolled Bannon's 11th-hour triumph, and who, after the release of Michael Wolff's book, have supposedly cut him off. How is he doing all this without them? How is he living in Georgetown, with his Man Friday, on his island of Regnery books, without them? Not a word.

But the lede above is killer: a good distillatiion of where we are. Putin and Republicans: together again.

Tags: , , , ,
Posted at 06:18 PM on Feb 09, 2018 in category Politics
Comments   |   Permalink  
Thursday February 08, 2018

To Be 84 and Not Give a Fuck

This Quincy Jones interview with David Marchese on the Vulture.com site has been making the rounds this week, and with good reason. Jones is 84, doesn't give a fuck (for the most part), and (mostly) tells all in a blunt, matter-of-fact, David Mamet manner.

Among the revelations:

  • Michael Jackson was a greedy, Machivallean bastard (sure)
  • JFK was killed on orders from Chicago mobster Sam Giancana (yeah, I need more on that)
  • The Beatles sucked as musicians but Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen rocks (cough)
  • Oprah shouldn't run for president (sure)
  • Cyndi Lauper was a big complainer on the “We Are the World” set
  • Tevin Campbell should‘ve been bigger (I think this every time I hear “Round and Round”)
  • Marlon Brando slept with James Baldwin and Richard Pryor (Pryor’s widow has confirmed)

Beyond the gossip, there was wisdom:

Do you hear the spirit of jazz in pop today?
No. People gave it up to chase money. When you go after Cîroc vodka and Phat Farm and all that shit, God walks out of the room. I have never in my life made music for money or fame. Not even Thriller. No way. God walks out of the room when you’re thinking about money.

And this is from a man who doesn't believe in God:

Are you religious?
No, man. I know too much about it. I knew Romano Mussolini, the jazz piano player, the son of Benito Mussolini. We used to jam all night. And he'd tell me about where the Catholics were coming from. The Catholics have a religion based on fear, smoke, and murder. And the biggest gimmick in the world is confession: “You tell me what you did wrong and it‘ll be okay.” Come on. And almost everywhere you go in the world, the biggest structures are the Catholic churches. It’s money, man. It's fucked up.

But no surprise, this is my favorite quote. It's when Marchese asks if he's on board for Oprah for president and he says no. He says, “If you haven't been governor of a state or the CEO of a company or a military general, you don't know how to lead people,” and Marchese reminds him that Oprah is the CEO of a company. To which Jones says:

A symphony conductor knows more about how to lead than most businesspeople — more than Trump does. He doesn't know shit. Someone who knows about real leadership wouldn't have as many people against him as he does. He's a fucking idiot.

The piece is called “Quincy Jones in Conversation.” May all of our conversations be so interesting. 

Tags: , , , , ,
Posted at 08:50 AM on Feb 08, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
Comments   |   Permalink  
Tuesday February 06, 2018

Super-Homme

I was watching “Voyage á travers le cinema française,” a three-hour doc about the history of French cinema—essentially Bernard Tavernier doing with France what Scorsese did with America back in ‘95—and an hour in we get this shot while Tavernier talks up the many great theaters in postwar Paris:

Superman in Paris in 1948

It took a little digging to figure out this promotion was for the 1948 “Superman” serial starring Kirk Alyn. OK, a little peering. The spiderwebs on the poster to the right, sign of the villainous Spider Lady, are the giveaway.

I’m a little surprised that Superman was a big-enough deal to warrant this kind of promo, to be honest. And this very French promo. Look at Supes' face: more Jean-Paul Belmondo than Kirk Alyn. Then again, this is before the Cold War-era “the American way”; and it's not exactly leaping a tall building in a single bound to go from liberté, egalité, fraternité to verité et justice. 

Tags: , ,
Posted at 09:22 AM on Feb 06, 2018 in category Superman
Comments   |   Permalink  
Monday February 05, 2018

Roy Cohn Lives

“Congressman Nunes saw his task, from the get-go, not as investigating the underlying issue as a congressman concerned with the integrity of elections, but as finding a way to protect his tribal chieftain, Donald Trump, from suspicions that his own campaign might have invited such intervention, or that he might have obstructed justice to stymie Mueller's inquiry. The entire concept of digging fairly into the facts to discover exactly what relationship, if any, the Trump campaign had with agents of the Russian government is close to meaningless to Nunes. So is any cooperation with Democrats or waiting until the full investigation is finished. More to the point, all this is meaningless to the Republican base as well. Their tribal chief has said there was no Russian interference and no collusion, and that's all they need to know. ...

”If Trump is accused of collusion, the gambit is to accuse the FBI, the media, and the DOJ of some sort of “collusion” as well. If Trump is exposed as evading the rule of law, so now must the Justice Department and the FBI be seen as undermining it. The logic here is pure Roy Cohn. ... Throw sand in everyone's eyes. Get your allegations out first, in as inflammatory and scandalous a way as possible. Ransack people's private lives and communications to more effectively demonize them. Dominate the news cycles. Do anything to muddy the conflict and to sow suspicion. Lie, if you have to. Exercise not the slightest concern for the stability of the system as a whole — because tribe comes first.“

— Andrew Sullivan, ”When Two Tribes Go to War," New York Magazine

Tags: , , , ,
Posted at 01:05 PM on Feb 05, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
Comments   |   Permalink  

Movie Review: Mark Felt (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I get that “Deep Throat” was taken as a title, but surely there’s a less cumbersome subtitle than “The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” Not to mention more accurate. The White House still stands, yo. It’s Nixon who was brought down.

Mark Felt was, of course, Deep Throat, Bob Woodward’s garage freak, the man on deep background in the Woodward/Bernstein investigation into Watergate, which, yes, brought down the Nixon White House, paving the way for the Ford one, then Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush II, Obama and, yeah, here we are with the Trump White House and its attempts to control and/or malign the FBI. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to be fucking assholes.

Mark Felt reviewSo guess when Bob Woodward rears his pretty head in this movie? An hour in—two-thirds of the way through. He’s a blip. Hell, he’s not even Felt’s main press contact! That would be Sandy Smith of Time magazine (Bruce Greenwood), whom Felt meets in a diner like normal folk, and who, when Felt finally tells him to take out his notepad, warns him: “Mark, are you sure about this?” You know: like any true reporter on top of a world-breaking scoop would.

Smith is also one of the many characters who keep telling us who Felt is:

  • Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore): “Mark Felt: Integrity, bravery, fidelity. Ladies and gentlemen, the G man’s G man!”
  • Mrs. Felt (Diane Lane): “I give you the chief dragon slayer and guardian of the American dream!”

So why does Felt become more opaque the longer the movie goes on? And why does “Mark Felt,” which should bring greater clarity to Watergate—revealing the other side of “All the President’s Men”—bog us down in murkiness?

All we’ve got are pieces
It even begins wrong. On April 11, 1972, Felt goes the White House to meet with the three Johns of the Nixon administration: Dean (Michael C. Hall, a good match), Mitchell (Stephen Michael Ayers, not so good), and Ehrlichman (Wayne Pére, shitty). Referencing the antiwar protesters outside, we get this convo:

Ehrlichman: Goddamn Russian revolution out there. Why aren’t we arresting anybody?
Felt: Because that ... isn’t a crime.

So we’ve set up our dynamic in the most reductive way possible. Thanks, Hollywood.

The Johns are offering Felt a kind of quid pro quo: If J. Edgar Hoover is fired, would he be a friend to the administration? Maybe as director? But Felt is a company man, loyal to the Bureau and to Hoover. He’s so loyal to Hoover, in fact, that after being dismissed, he sticks around to give a long, exacting synopsis of FBI intelligence gathering regarding the peccadillos of Washington politicians—all of which Mr. Hoover keeps safely in his secret files. And if something should happen to Mr. Hoover? Who knows what will happen to them?

It’s a threat. From our hero. Our guy is someone who actually makes us feel sorry for Nixon's men. The fuck?

Most of “Mark Felt” is dimly lit, ominous, airless. We’re forever in closed rooms, forever getting close-ups of faces. Everyone is trying to figure things out. Everyone but Felt, who has them figured out and is trying to keep that knowledge from his face. He’s inscrutable. Do we even know when he decides to leak? Do we understand how he first meets Bob Woodward and why he goes to him? 

The basic conflict is straightforward—not to mention topical. The Nixon administration wants to control the FBI, particularly its investigation into the Watergate affair, and Felt wants to keep the Bureau independent. Halfway through, we get a good scene that exemplifies this conflict. By this point, Hoover has died, and Felt has already determined that Hoover’s replacement, L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), is doing Nixon’s bidding rather than the FBI’s. So Felt has begun to leak information about Watergate. John Dean calls him up to investigate and plug the leaks.

Dean: We want you to do something about it, Mr. Felt. Now.
Felt: Fine. But I don’t understand.
Dean: Which part?
Felt: The part about you calling me. The White House has no authority over the FBI.
Dean: Uh, we can—
Felt: At all, Mr. Dean.
Dean: But we can suggest—
Felt: I’m afraid the White House has nothing to suggest to the FBI.

That’s great. It also sets up a great inner conflict: How does Felt investigate leaks that he himself is causing—and that others are beginning to suspect him of—while protecting his men? While not accusing the innocent? The movie doesn’t really have an answer. At one point, doesn’t he let a subordinate twist in the wind? Then doesn’t he clear him? Kinda sorta? It’s never as straightforward as you’d want. It's as if half the movie is on deep background. 

Here’s a clearer answer from the book the movie is based on:

On one report prepared by his team, Felt dramatically circled a paragraph stating that [assistant U.S. attorney Donald E.] Campbell had been approached by Woodward before a leak but denied giving any comment. Felt wrote boldly capital letters, “LAST PAGE OF ATTACHED MEMO—HERE IS ENTIRE ANSWER.” That was not the only time Felt tried to deflect attention from the FBI to other potential leakers.

That’s some nasty business. But so what, right? Campbell was probably one of those Nixon cronies. He probably got what he deserved. Except Campbell turned out to be one of the prosecutors who helped break James McCord (in January ’73), which helped break the Watergate case wide open.

We also get way too many dull subplots. Felt’s daughter has left home, (like in the Beatles song), and the Weather Underground is blowing things up (like in that other Beatles’ song). Are the two related? Does Felt think they are? Does he let the personal get in the way of the professional in pursuing the WU? The movie implies it. And what’s up with his wife? The movie opens with the two of them generically happy, but before long she’s blaming the FBI for ruining her life, and he’s blaming her for ruining their daughter.

Throughout, Felt never loses Neeson’s Irish accent, just as L. Patrick Gray, who is Irish, never loses Csonka’s Eastern European one. It’s like a battle over who is the least likely American.

What the puzzle is supposed to look like
What a mess. Writer-director Peter Landesman, a former New Yorker reporter, directed the underrated “Parkland,” about the JFK assassination, as well as the disappointing “Concussion,” about the collision of science and football starring Will Smith. This is his worst. By far.

This is what it should’ve been. Felt is a man who, in order to save the FBI (from the Nixon administration), betrays the FBI (by leaking its secrets). And he’s successful. He helps reporters connect the dots and bring down a president. Except in saving the FBI (by bringing down Nixon), Felt exposes the FBI (to the Church committee). Its secrets are revealed, too. Its image is tarnished. And he gets caught up in this. He’s indicted before a Grand Jury for violating the civil rights of Americans in pursuit of the Weather Underground. He loses by winning.

A movie that connected those dots would be worth seeing.

Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted at 07:45 AM on Feb 05, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
Comments   |   Permalink  
Sunday February 04, 2018

Del Toro Wins DGA; Is Oscar a Lock?

Guillermo del Toro wins the DGA for outstanding achievement in feature film

Last night, the Directors Guild of America gave its award in outstanding achievement in feature film to Guillermo del Toro for “The Shape of Water.” This follows on the heels of the Producers Guild of America awarding its feature film prize to “The Shape of Water,” too. 

So how often has a film won the DGA and PGA and not gone on to win the Oscar for best picture? Four and a half times since the PGAs began in 1989:

YEAR DGA PGA OSCAR
2016 La La Land La La Land Moonlight
2013 Gravity Gravity/12 Years a Slave 12 Years a Slave
2005 Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain Crash
1998 Saving Private Ryan Saving Private Ryan Shakespeare in Love
1995 Apollo 13 Apollo 13 Braveheart

Even if “Shape” doesn't win best pic, del Toro seems a lock for best director. Just winning the DGA usually means the Oscar for best director. In the last 10 years, the only break came when Ben Affleck won the DGA for “Argo” but wasn't nominated by the Academy, so its prize went to Ang Lee for “Life of Pi.” Before that, you have to go back to 2002, when the DGA went with Rob Marshall for “Chicago” while the Academy honored Roman Polanski for “The Pianist.” 

If del Toro does win the Oscar, it will also continue the recent diversification of an award that was once staunchly white and male:

  • 2017: Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water”
  • 2016: Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”
  • 2015: Alejandro Innaritu, “The Revenant”
  • 2014: Alejandro Innaritu, “Birdman”
  • 2013: Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”
  • 2012: Ang Lee, “Life of Pi”

Six awards, four Mexican directors, one Taiwanese director. Don't tell Donald. Or do. Let's have some fun.

Tags: , , ,
Posted at 09:19 AM on Feb 04, 2018 in category Movies - Awards
Comments   |   Permalink  
Saturday February 03, 2018

The Five Worst Movies of 2017

Alright, the five worst movies I saw.

That's actually true every year, but for some reason I feel the need to qualify it this year. Maybe because I have less distaste for these films? None of them horrified me like “Tusk,” or sickened me like “Nocturnal Animals,” or turned iconic heroes into ponderous boobs like “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” None tried to make comedy out of a massive social anxiety. They just suck. They just dim down the culture a notch.

So maybe this year I got lucky? Or I'm inured? (Voice inside my head: Yes, you‘re a nerd.) Or maybe it’s this: Nothing Hollywood produces could dim down the culture as much as the low-IQ ego-spurtings of Pres. Trump. 

Now on with the countdown.

5. “The Mummy” (Universal): How many movies kill off an entire universe? This one did. Universal wanted to do with its monsters what Marvel did with its superheroes—create an interlocking, continuous, ka-chinging series of films—but “Mummy” sputtered out of the gate. The movie itself sputters out of the gate. It begins in 12th century A.D., shifts to modern-day London, then, why not, takes us all the way back to ancient Egypt for our intro to the titular character. That's a lot of throat-clearing before we get to Tom Cruise playing a devil-may-care opportunist in Iraq. Right, that's another thing: Our hero is an American trying to steal ancient artifacts from a country we already destroyed. Tone? Light comedy.

Worst movies of 2017: The Mummy

“Wait a minute, I do what to Iraq?”

4. The Fate of the Furious (Universal): You know a series has run out of ideas when it makes its hero evil. Dom (Vin Diesel) doesn‘t become evil—like Superman in “Superman III” or Spider-Man in “Spider-Man 3”—he’s just blackmailed by Cipher (Charlize Theron) into doing evil stuff. The announcement to the rest of the team is made with all the gravitas of a newsman reporting on the JFK assassination: “Dominic Torretto just went rogue.” They‘re not even trying to not make this a cartoon anymore. The final battle in Russia involves a nuke sub that breaks through the ice and fires a heat-seeking missile at Dom in his muscle car. But Dom deeks out the missile (yes), and, in slow-mo, drives his shit up over the submarine, causing the missile to do its chicken-coming-home-to-roost thing with the sub. Boom. There are, I’m sure, more ludicrious scenes in the long, sad history of movies. But there shouldn’t be.

Worst movies of 2017: The Fate of the Furious

The classy-as-ever “Fast/Furious” opening credits. 

3. The Circle (Image Nation Abu Dhabi/Playtone/Likely Story/IM Global/STX Entertainment): At first, it seems like our hero, Mae (Emma Watson), a new employee at TrueYou, a Facebookish Silicon Valley megacompany, will provide a cynical viewpoint for all things techy and corporate and awful. She even jokes with another savvy insider about people who drink the Kool-Aid. Then she becomes the Kool-Aid. She agrees to have her entire life recorded 24/7, and in this way accumulates millions of followers and power. And what does she do with this power? When CEO Tom Hanks suggests allowing people to register to vote via TrueYou, she one-ups him. She suggests that everyone be required to have a TrueYou account. That it would be law. The scales only fall from her eyes when she inadventently kills her childhood friend (the kid from “Boyhood”) but by this point we‘re long done with her. And the movie. 

Worst movies of 2017: The Circle

Exactly, Emma. 

2. Transformers: The Last Knight (Paramount): Remember when you were 9 or 10 and played at war, and it was basically, “And then this happens, and then this happens”? No logic, no sense of connecting the past with the now? That’s this. It’s a movie written by 9-year-olds. A big robot named Optimus Prime and a bunch of army men chase our heroes—Mark Wahlberg and a hot newbie chick (British, named, I shit you not, Vivian Wembley)—who are trying to find a MacGuffin (an alien staff) that could lead to the end of the world, and which only they can find. Meaning if they don't find it, no one can find it, and the world isn't destroyed. So of course they find it. And of course the bad guys immediately steal it. And of course the big robot and the bunch of army men now join our heroes for the final battle, which takes place over jolly old England, and which involves a U.S. government scientist (Tony Hale) yelling orders at generals, as always happens. It's all so bad I kept flashing to that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” season in which Mel Brooks hires Larry David for “The Producers” because he wants his hit Broadway show to finally end. Because he's sick of it. Is Michael Bay doing the same with “Transformers”? Or is he simply boundary-testing how stupid we are?

Worst movies of 2017: Transformers: The Last Knight

Exactly, Mark. 

1. “Baywatch” (Paramount): The biggest boobs here are the ones behind the scenes—particularly director Seth Gordon, who has already given us “Four Christmases” and “Identity Thief” and yet somehow keeps getting work. You know how “Jumanji” managed to make Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson both heroic and mockable? That's what this needed. It doesn't come close. The arcs in the movie belong to Zac Efron's gold-medal swimmer, who goes from douche to team player, and Jon Bass' Ronnie, who goes from schlubby tech guy wishing to be part of the team to ludicrously becoming part of the team (because “he has heart”). No, that's not really his arc. His arc involves his not-so-secret crush, C.J. (Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kelly Rohrbach), who is out of his league by 20,000 or so. For most of the movie, he's constantly humilated around her. I.e., 1) he gets food caught in his throat, 2) she performs the Heimlich to save his life, 3) he gets a boner as a result, 4) he falls on a raft to hide his boner, 5) he gets his boner caught in the slats of wood, 6) medics are called in and a crowd gathers, laughing, as he's extricated. So of course C.J. falls for him. What S.I. model wouldn‘t? After the team saves the day, they wind up in bed together. Cuz movies.

Worst movies of 2017: Baywatch

What S.I. model woudn’t?

Other worst lists: 2016, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011

See you next year, Hollywood. Same time? 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
Posted at 08:19 AM on Feb 03, 2018 in category Movies - Lists
Comments   |   Permalink  
Thursday February 01, 2018

GOP: 'A Threat to National Security'

“If Democrats ever needed proof for the midterms that the GOP is a threat to national security and is unfit to govern, [the issues surrounding the Nunes memo] should do it. The Republicans cannot with a straight face claim to be the party of national security while carrying on in such fashion. And even if a congressman in Iowa or Michigan were to say he played no part in Nunes's conduct, his or her reelection by definition would help return Nunes to the intelligence committee chairmanship and Ryan to the speakership. In short, Democrats can argue that if you vote for anyone with an 'R' after his or her name, you are voting to hobble the FBI, expose our secrets to our enemies and help Trump escape the consequences of possible wrongdoing.”

— Jennifer Rubin, “The Nunes fiasco grows more preposterous by the hour,” The Washington Post

Tags: , ,
Posted at 09:47 AM on Feb 01, 2018 in category Politics
Comments   |   Permalink  
 RSS    Facebook

Twitter: @ErikLundegaard

ARCHIVES
LINKS