erik lundegaard

Friday March 23, 2018

Nuts and Bolton

Good lede by the New York Times editorial board on Trump's latest appointment in his increasingly nationalistic cabinet:

The good thing about John Bolton, President Trump's new national security adviser, is that he says what he thinks.

The bad thing is what he thinks.

And what is that? 

Over a 30-year career in which he served three Republican presidents, including as United Nations ambassador and the State Department's top arms control official, Mr. Bolton has largely disdained diplomacy and arms control in favor of military solutions; no one worked harder to blow up the 1994 agreement under which North Korea's plutonium program was frozen for nearly eight years in exchange for heavy fuel oil and other assistance. The collapse of that agreement helped bring us to the crisis today, where North Korea is believed to have 20 or more nuclear weapons.

Bolton is also mentioned in Andrew Sullivan's weekly article for New York magazine, in which he worries that we're entering the late-stages of a democracy as articulated by Plato 2500 years ago:

The prism is essentially how a late-stage democracy, dripping with decadence and corruption, with elites dedicated primarily to enriching themselves, and a people well past any kind of civic virtue, morphs so easily into tyranny. 

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Posted at 10:33 AM on Mar 23, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Thursday March 22, 2018

The Audience is a Child

The audience is a child. — David Simon

Optimus Prime in “Transformers 2.” Plot sold separately.

“The audience is a child. If you ask the audience what they want, they‘ll want dessert. They’ll say they want ice cream. They‘ll want cake. You ask them what they want the next minute, they’ll say more ice cream, more cake. You show them that they like something else. ‘You like fried chicken? Here, taste my fried chicken.’ Then the next ten things they order will be the fried chicken. ‘You like Omar?’ ‘Yeah, I love Omar. Give me more of Omar.’ No, I want to tell you a story, and the characters are going to do what they‘re supposed to do in the story, and that’s the job of the writer. That's the writer's job. That's the storyteller's job. You don't write for anybody but the story, for yourself and for your idea of what the story is. The moment you start thinking about the audience and the audience's expectation, you‘re lost. You’re just lost.”

— David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” in the oral history “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire,” by Jonathan Abrams.

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Posted at 07:01 AM on Mar 22, 2018 in category TV
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Wednesday March 21, 2018

Trailer: The China Hustle

“The China Hustle” is available via On Demand, iTunes and Amazon on March 30. Fingers crossed. 

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Posted at 02:06 PM on Mar 21, 2018 in category Trailers
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“I led Facebook's efforts to fix privacy problems on its developer platform in advance of its 2012 initial public offering. What I saw from the inside was a company that prioritized data collection from its users over protecting them from abuse. As the world contemplates what to do about Facebook in the wake of its role in Russia's election meddling, it must consider this history. Lawmakers shouldn't allow Facebook to regulate itself. Because it won‘t.”

— Sandy Parakilas, operations manager at Facebook in 2011-12, in a New York Times Op-Ed, “We Can’t Trust Facebook to Regulate Itself,” from last November. Since then, the Cambridge Analytica story has broken. Almost as big a story has been Facebook's non-response. Mark Zuckerberg is supposed to “break silence” on the controversy today, but it already feels too late. 

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Posted at 08:15 AM on Mar 21, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Brennan vs. Trump: Dawn of Justice?

This is how nuts everything is.

On Friday, March 16, the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, fired the deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, two days short of his retirement, for reasons we‘re not quite clear on yet, but which, overall, smack of political retribution. Shortly thereafter, the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, sent this message to the nation via tweet:

Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI - A great day for Democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!

It’s that classic GOP strategy—accuse others of your own crimes—filtered through the taunting and bullying manner of a third-grader. I‘ll pause for a second to remind everyone that Trump wouldn’t even be president if it wasn't for James Comey. 

But that's not the nuts thing. 

The following morning, the former director of the CIA, John O. Brennan, responded to Trump, the sitting president of the United States, with this quote-retweet of his own:

When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America ... America will triumph over you.

Again, that's from a former director of the CIA to the sitting president of the United States. For everyone to see.  

But in a way that's not the nuts thing, either. The nuts things is that this isn't making headlines. It's barely a blip on the media radar.

No tagsPosted at 06:25 AM on Mar 21, 2018 in category Politics
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Tuesday March 20, 2018

The Short, Consequential Career of Pee Wee Wanninger

My father is fond of the following baseball trivia question:

Who did Lou Gehrig replace to begin his 2,130 consecutive-games-played streak?

It’s a famous baseball story—if partially apocryphal. On June 2, 1925, Wally Pipp, the Yankees longtime first baseman, complained of a headache and asked manager Miller Huggins if he could sit out a game. Huggins sent in Gehrig ... who stayed at the position for 14 years.

The apocryphal bit is the headache. If there was a headache, it was Huggins’, since the Yankees started the season poorly: 15-26, seventh in the A.L. And they’d just lost five in a row—three to the Athletics, one to Boston, and one to the Washington Senators, who were, remember, 1924 World Champions, and who at this point had as many titles as the Yanks: one. So Huggins was doing what he could to change things around. Pipp, a career .300 hitter, was down to .244. His replacement, Gehrig, wound up going 3-5, with a double, a run, and an RBI, in a 8-5 Yankee victory. The rest is history. Certainly for Pipp: In the off-season the Yanks sold him to the Cincinnati Reds for $7500. Three years later, he was out of baseball.

Pee Wee WanningerAnyway, that’s the famous story but it’s not the answer to the trivia question—which is why my father likes it. Because the day before this game, on June 1, 1925, Gehrig came in as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the 8th inning for shortstop Pee-Wee Wanninger.

And that’s the answer: Pee-Wee Wanninger.

Dad and I were talking about this again on the phone last week, and afterwards, curious, I did a dive into Baseball Reference stats and came away with some interesting tidbits my father didn’t know.

The first game of the streak was a 5-3 loss to the Senators. The last game of the streak was a 3-2 loss to the Senators. Oh, and guess who Gehrig faced in that first game? Walter Johnson, the Big Train, one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Talk about your deep ends. He flew out to left.

But here’s the part that amazed me most.

Before Gehrig, the record-holder for consecutive games played was a shortstop named Everett Scott, who was part of that late '10s/early ‘20s migration of Red Sox players to the Yankees. His streak, 1,307 games—still the third-longest ever—began in 1916 in Boston and ended on May 5, 1925 with the Yanks. It was part of another Miller Huggins shake-up. Scott was hitting just .208, so, streak or no streak, on May 6, Huggins replaced him.

With Pee-Wee Wanninger.

Isn’t that amazing? Wanninger replaced the guy with the longest consecutive-games streak, and then, less than a month later, was replaced by the guy starting the new consecutive-games streak. Life doesn’t give us this kind of symmetry often. We need to appreciate it when we find it. 

For all the baseball history he made, Wanninger didn’t last long. He was hitting .316 on June 6, but by the end of the month he was down to .291 and kept falling. End of July: .264. August: .243. He played sparsely in September, and that off-season was dealt to the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. A year later, the Saints traded him to Boston. He ended his Major League career that same season in Cincinnati. Lifetime, he hit .234/.266./295. He has negative career WAR. But he could close a bar with the stories he could tell. 

Lou Gehrig's streak starts: June 1, 1925

Boxscore, June 1, 1925 

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Posted at 08:56 AM on Mar 20, 2018 in category Baseball
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Monday March 19, 2018

Box Office: Bet on ‘Black Panther’

Black Panther passes $600 million mark

Still sharpening its claws. 

This weekend, Marvel's “Black Panther” became just the second movie this century to top the U.S. domestic box office five weeks in a row. The other was all-time box-office king “Avatar” in 2009/2010. 

In its fifth weekend, “BP” dropped just 34% to gross another $26.6 million. It's now at $605 million domestic, $1.185 billion worldwide. The latter is 14th-best, the former seventh-best. Domestically, it will soon pass “The Last Jedi” ($619) and “The Avengers” ($623). The only real question is if it can pass “Titanic,” too ($659), and become the third-highest-grossing domestic movie ever. “Avatar,” at $760, is out of reach.

That's unadjusted, of course. But even if you adjust for inflation, “BP” is 47th all-time, having already passed up the likes of the ‘89 “Batman,” “Bambi” and “Around the World in 80 Days.” 

Less celebrated but also relevant? “Jumanji” grossed another $1.6 to eke over the $400 million mark. 

Most of the new releases didn’t exactly bowl anyone over. The reboot of “Tomb Raider” finished second with $23.6 mil, while the gay teen movie “Love, Simon” finished fifth with $11. But: the Christian uplifter “I Can Only Imagine,” starring Dennis Quaid, surprised with a healthy $17 mil. It finished third. 

Meanwhile, the much-ballyhooed “A Wrinkle in Time” dropped 50% in its second weekend for $16 mil and fourth place. It's grossed $60 mil domestic.

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Posted at 01:21 PM on Mar 19, 2018 in category Movies - Box Office
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It's Not the Tweets

“The largest faction of the [Republican] party has taken the position that Donald Trump is a fantastically successful president whose main error is undisciplined tweeting. What is most notable about this approach is what it omits: the idea that Trump possesses authoritarian instincts or might be deeply implicated in the Russia scandal. It focuses entirely on the most superficial critique of his job performance and ignores evidence of his fundamental unfitness for office.”

— Jonathan Chait, “Republicans Can't Understand Why Trump Is Acting Guilty,” New York Magazine

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Posted at 12:53 PM on Mar 19, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Saturday March 17, 2018

Movie Review: Detective Chinatown (2015)


It goes on too long, one of the leads is way, way over-the-top, and the solution to the crime is a bit icky for a comedy; but “Detective Chinatown” isn’t bad for a foreign comedy. I laughed a lot. It helps to know Chinese culture a little.

Or does it? At the beginning, when Qin Feng (Liu Haoran) is disconsolate after failing the police entrance exam, his mom consoles him by suggesting a week’s vacation in Thailand, where he can stay with a relative: “He is your great-aunt’s husband’s cousin’s wife’s nephew!” she says. Sure, if you know the Chinese concept of relationships, guanxi, (关 系)—basically using any connection, particularly familial ones, to get ahead—that gets a laugh. But every culture has something similar, right?

Detective Chinatown movie reviewOn the other hand, knowing Chinese wouldn’t hurt. Example: Qin’s third cousin once removed, whom his mom claims is the “No. 1 detective in Chinatown,” is named Tang Ren, which seems to be a play off of tang ren jie (唐 人 街), the Chinese for “Chinatown.” How it plays? I have no idea.

Is it also an in-joke that the movie is set in Thailand and Tang Ren is played by Wang Baoqiang, one of the leads in “Lost in Thailand,” China’s No. 1 box-office hit of 2012? You’d have to be in the culture to know that, and I’m over here in Seattle. And using that whole “No. 1” thing: Are they playing off the Chinese stereotype embodied in Charlie Chan, et al., or is this the language/cultural distinction that led to that stereotype? I’m guessing the latter. But again: 我 不 知 道。

中 国 夏 洛 克
The distant relative turns out to be no detective—officially or otherwise. He just scams old ladies who want their missing dogs returned and acts as informant for a sloppily dressed police sergeant, Kon Tai (Xiao Yang). Otherwise, he drinks, plays mahjong, and spies on his pretty landlady, Xiang (Tong Liya). He gets facials and permanents and lies about his age—saying he was born in the’90s when his craggy face indicates ’70s. (Wang was born in ’84 but they make him look older.)

Qin is the opposite: fresh-faced, Beatle-banged, tie-wearing, and so quiet Tang asks him if he’s mute. But it turns out he’s super-smart in that almost-ADD way of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes: the smoking with the right hand but tobacco stains on the left, plus dirt under the fingernails, indicating ... whatever. He’d be derivative if his character wasn’t the opposite of Cumberbatch’s Holmes: young rather than middle-aged; innocent rather than cynical; polite rather than impolite. He’s the nice Chinese boy with the super brain. He’s the new smart China to Tang’s crass older version.

The case they get involved in is Hitchcockian: an innocent man accused of a horrific crime. The innocent man is actually Tang himself, and the mystery isn’t bad:

  • A man named Sompat is murdered in his apartment/studio
  • There’s only one way in
  • Street cameras indicate that the last to go in and out was Tang, who went in empty-handed and came out with a package
  • No one else ever came out

Tang claims/insists he left the package in a garage next to a van. He never saw anyone in the van. He never saw his client.

The murdered man, it turns out, was also involved in a gold heist, and his partners, working for local crimelord Mr. Yan (King Shih-Chieh), assume he double-crossed them with Tang ... and then Tang double-crossed him. So, along with the hapless police, the gang, in the person of three hapless toughs, are also pursuing our heroes for most of the movie. But thanks to Qin’s brain and Tang’s survival instincts, they elude both and figure it all out.

Ready? The crimes are unrelated. (I like that.) The gold is still hiding in plain sight in the studio—within a Buddhist statue. As for the murder? That’s more convoluted.

Sompat’s son, it turns out, went missing a year ago, so Sompat parked himself at a coffee shop near his son’s former high school to spy on the kids to figure out what he could figure out. He thought one girl, Snow (Zhang Zifeng), was responsible—I forget why—and he winds up raping her. She writes about it in her journal, which her step-father finds; so the step-father plots to murder Sompat. He hidin his studio, killed him, then pretended to be Sompat when Teng arrived for the delivery job. Then, unseen, he got into the delivery box, and via silhouette and prerecorded directive, ordered Teng to pick it up.

In essence, he delivered himself to safety. That’s pretty smart.

He didn’t just do it for revenge for the rape, by the way. He was also in love with his stepdaughter in more than a fatherly way. But why set up Tang for the crime? Not sure. Except he was a perfect foil. 

脏 雪
There’s a subplot about a rivalry within the police between the sloppy, incompetent Kon Tai and  the handsome Huang Landeng (Chen He), who knows what he’s doing, but is too ready for his Hollywood close-up and keeps falling on his nose—literally. That’s a good bit. But too much time is spent on this rivalry.

Who gets short shrift? The pretty landlady. She’s barely in it.

Plus, just when we think it’s over, it’s not. Qin is on the way to the airport when he has an epiphany. Sompat, he realizes, was gay; so why would he rape Snow? (Why would he rape her anyway?) And he didn’t. Snow invented the rape, and put it in her diary, to set up her stepfather, whom she knew would read it and take action.

But does that mean ... Snow was responsible for the disappearance of Sompat’s kid? Or is she just awful? That’s some nasty shit to end a comedy on: not just murder but incest and rape; but, oh, not rape, just a girl crying rape. 

Half an hour shorter would’ve been better, with the lead taking it down a notch. Or two. Or 12. But I love the concept. Two mismatched detectives, repping old and new China, visiting Chinatowns around the world. Does any other culture have this? Pocket representations of the home country in almost every port? Next stop: New York.

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Posted at 07:18 AM on Mar 17, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Friday March 16, 2018

In Case You Were Sleeping Well

“The [Trump] administration also took the unusual step of citing the Russian government for a previously unconfirmed series of intrusions into American power plants and the computer networks that control power grids that occurred about the time of the election. Those attacks suggest Russian state-sponsored hackers have been actively mapping out Western industrial, power and nuclear facilities for eventual sabotage, experts say.”

“Finally, Trump Has Something Bad to Say About Russia,” New York Times Editorial Board, which adds this about the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration after the 2016 Election. “Mr. Trump, for reasons that have never been made completely clear, has until now resisted a congressional mandate that he expand the penalties.”


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Posted at 06:16 AM on Mar 16, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Thursday March 15, 2018

TV Shows Nominated Best Drama Over ‘The Wire’

D'Angelo explains chess to Bodie, Wallace, on "The Wire"

“Pawns, man, in the game, they get capped quick.”

I think everyone knows “The Wire” never won an Emmy but what's surprising is the few number of times it was even nominated. Just twice, and both for scripts: Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series for the third season episode “Middle Ground” (the one where Stringer dies), and for the fifth season episode “—30—” (the last episode of the series). 

Here, by the way, are the shows that were nominated for best drama during “The Wire”'s run:

Show Noms Wins
The Sopranos 3 2
The West Wing 3 1
24 3  
Lost  2 1
Boston Legal 2  
CSI: Crime Scene Invesgitation 2  
House 2  
Six Feet Under 2  
Mad Men 1 1
Damages 1  
Deadwood 1  
Dexter 1  
Grey's Anatomy 1  
Heroes 1  
Joan of Arcadia 1  

Great shows, good shows, a few head-scratchers. Almost all are mostly white shows. 

I'm reading Jonathan Abrams' oral history on the series, “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire.” Halfway through he quotes Lance Reddick, who played Lt. Daniels, and who recognized early on how special the show was. According to Abrams, Reddick is still upset about the lack of awards. “I'll be pissed off about it until the day I die,” he says.

Posted at 03:45 PM on Mar 15, 2018 in category TV
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Wednesday March 14, 2018

Movie Review: Detective Chinatown 2 (2018)


Our B movies are coming back to haunt us. They’ve lived abroad for three, four decades, and they’ve affected—or infected—the way people see the states. These people are now making movies. 

Here, for example, is what we learn about New York from writer-director Chen Sicheng's new Chinese action-comedy “Detective Chinatown 2.” Apparently if you duck into an Irish pub in Manhattan you‘ll find yourself in a biker bar—packed with tough, bearded dudes in leather, each of whom carries a sawed-off shotgun. Also, if someone threatens the Mandarin-Chinese teacher in Harlem, every black student in class pulls a gun. Every one.

The U.S.’s most recent and embarrasing export is also visible. Apparently New York City has a police chief who has messy strawlike hair, talks in a bullying manner, and mentions the need to build a wall along the west coast to keep the Chinese out. In case anyone missed the connection, the first time we see him he pops up in front of a giant portrait of Pres. Trump.

Didn't think much of the first two bits. But the Trump one? 非 常 好. 和 不 好 意 思。

爸 爸 打 我
“2” is very much a replay of “1”—just set in New York rather than Bangkok.

Detective Chinatown 2 movie reviewIt’s another everything-but-the-kitchen-sink comedy that once again convolutes the mystery with a second mystery—or a second resolution. Just when you think it’s solved, nope, here’s another layer. Kind of an unnecessary one, too. But our leads continue to have good chemistry, even if one continues to be way over-the-top. 

As the movie opens, our Beatle-banged and brilliant millennial, Qin Feng (Liu Haoran), a student now at the Chinese police academy, is using an international online app, Crimemaster, which has him ranked #2 worldwide. He’s in New York for the wedding of his former partner, and distant cousin (his great-aunt's husband's cousin's wife's nephew), Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang), who isn’t really getting married. Though he greets Feng at the airport in celebratory fashion, with black bodyguards and a limo full of babes as is the American way, he just needs Feng to help solve a case.

It’s a creepy case. Someone is killing people and removing parts of their bodies: a liver here, a kidney there. Tang and Qin aren’t the only ones on it, either. Because one victim is the grandson of Uncle Seven (Kenneth Tsang), the longtime “Godfather of Chinatown,” who’s offering a $6 million reward for a resolution, we’re introduced to a virtual “Clue” board of potential detectives:

  • Sherlock Holmes as pre-teen British girl
  • a grunting western muscleman (a sad staple of Chinese cinema)
  • an older wheelchair-bound black woman who knows Chinese kung fu
  • a cute lollipop-sucking Asian girl hacker

Most remain in the background except for the cute Asian hacker, Kiko (Shang Yuxian). She shows up when necessary to spring our heroes, since, with an early-but-acquitted suspect in tow, Song Yi (Xiao Yang), they are being pursued around New York by Uncle Seven’s larcenous nephew (Wang Xun) and his gang. Also on the case is a New York detective, Chen Ying (Aussie actress Natasha Liu Bordizzo), whom Tang Ren is sweet on. She, however, is interested in an American doctor, who shows up midway through, who’s played by Michael Pitt (“Boardwalk Empire,” “Funny Games”). As soon as I saw him, I went, “Well, there’s your killer; why else would he be in the movie?”

The answer to the crimes does for the Tao what “The Da Vinci Code” did with Catholic/Vatican history and “Se7en” did for the deadly sins: everything matches. Otherwise, our heroes race (or strut in slow-mo) in matching tan overcoats around Manhattan. I laughed at two recurring bits: an old forgetful sifu who mistakes Feng for a pretty girl and keeps complimenting him; and the western muscleman (Brett Azar), who asks how to say “Stop!” in Mandarin, and is told “Baba, da wo” (Daddy, hit me). He keeps saying it. Enthusiastically. 

Meanwhile, the scene where our heroes steal a Central Park carriage and race through Times Square, shouting exuberantly, is almost a shout-out to America and Hollywood about the new status of Chinese cinema on the world market: We have arrived. Related: “Detective Chinatown 2” has already grossed $519 million in China. That's more than any comedy has ever grossed in the U.S.

Detective Chinatown 2 in Times Square

唐 人 街 在 那 里?
The biggest problem with the film? At least abroad? Too broad. Again, I like the dynamic between Feng and Tang Ren, which plays off perceptions of new international China vs. old crass China. But Wang Baoqiang’s Tang Ren doesn’t make me laugh. Cringe, more like. He’s so over-the-top he makes Chris Tucker seem as subtle as a Michael Stuhlbarg character. I wish he'd tone it down a notch. Or 10.

Plus there’s just not enough Chinatown in “Detective Chinatown 2.” The title is a play off of Wang's character (Tang ren also means Chinatown), as well as the Chinatowns they‘re visiting (in Bangkok and New York), and I thought the series would give us the flavor of different Chinatowns around the world. Not. Maybe because Chinese audiences don’t want to see different Chinatowns? They want the exotic, not the familiar.

Next stop: Tokyo. 

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Posted at 06:42 AM on Mar 14, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Tuesday March 13, 2018

‘How to Pick Up Girls’ by Dominic West

Dominic West, The Wire

“He has that kind of personality where he can say things and you just go, ‘How did you get away with that?’ I once stood behind him on an elevator—this was back in the early days, before he was married. We had a beautiful day player in the scene, and she was only there for the day, then she was taking the train back to New York. It was a crowded elevator, and he's only got this moment. ... You know what his pickup line was? She turned toward him and she said, ‘You know, I just broke up with my boyfriend.’ And he looked at her and went, ‘Really?’

”Later on, when she missed her train back to New York, I was like, ‘That’s all you needed? “Really?”' I think for the next two years I just kept going up to him whenever he was talking bullshit, ‘Really?’ That was my code for ‘Fuck you.’"

— David Simon, “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire,” by Jonathan Abrams. Cf., Mike Nichols on Robert Redford.

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Posted at 04:25 PM on Mar 13, 2018 in category TV
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The Royal Way

Lorenzo Cain scoring the go-ahead run in the final game of the 2015 ALCS

Passion, check. Innocence, check. Urgency, check. Fun, double check. 

“I tell players all the time. I tell them, ‘Look, your number one responsibility is to grow the game. You have an opportunity to play the game because somebody did it so well and made it look like so much fun that you thought, ’Yes! I want to be a ballplayer.'

”That's your responsibility now, to play this game so that someone watching thinks, ‘You played this game with passion, you did it through injury, you did it with innocence, you did it with urgency.’ You made it look so fun that some boy or little girl says, ‘Boy, I’d like to do this someday.' That's your calling. The rest will work itself out.“

— KC Royals GM Dayton Moore, ”As Royals Reset, Moore of Same from GM," by Joe Posnanski

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Posted at 06:31 AM on Mar 13, 2018 in category Baseball
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Monday March 12, 2018

Movie Review: Operation Red Sea (2018)


Who knew China’s humanitarian/military adventures would be so lucrative?

In March 2015, as fighting in the civil war in Yemen intensified, the Chinese Navy evacuated roughly 225 foreign nationals and 600 Chinese citizens from the southern port of Aden. It was a triumph: logistically, symbolically, internationally.

Now: cinematically.

Operation Red Sea movie review“Wolf Warrior II” (战 狼 II), released last summer, set its rescue of Chinese citizens and foreign nationals by the Chinese Navy and elite wolf warrior Leng Feng (Wu Jing) in a fictional southern African country. The film grossed $854 million dollars. It’s the biggest box-office hit in Chinese history.

“Operation Red Sea” (红 海 行 动), released last month, set its rescue of Chinese citizens and foreign nationals by the Chinese Navy and its elite Jiaolong Assault Team in a fictional northern African country, Yewaire, along the Arabian peninsula. The film has grossed $520 million and counting. It’s about to become the second-biggest box-office hit in Chinese history.  

The movies share more than real-life inspiration and big bucks. Both begin with the hero/heroes taking down Somali pirates. Both end with callouts to Chinese citizens abroad: that the Chinese motherland has their back (“Wolf Warrior”); and here’s the number to call or text if you run into trouble (“Red Sea”).

The differences are interesting.

他 们 是 谁?
“Wolf Warrior II” is more cartoonish, vaguely racist, anti-American. It needs not only China steaming to the rescue but America cutting and running. In “Red Sea,” America doesn’t factor in; it’s not even mentioned. 

Leng Feng, despite the title of his film, is really a former Wolf Warrior; he goes where he wants. In this way, he’s a more traditional action hero: the lone wolf. The eight PLA heroes, meanwhile, still follow orders. They’re more professional and buttoned. And dull. Also tougher to follow. Who’s who again? None of the eight are recognizable stars (to me), they all wear the same clothes, none have backstories. What do we really know about them? One guy likes candy; the new sniper is cocky and chews gum. That’s about it. I wound up differentiating them so:

  • The Captain
  • Big Eyes
  • Candy Man
  • The Spotter
  • The New Sniper
  • The Girl

That leaves two; I don’t even remember which two.

The plot: As the Yewaire civil war heats up, the terrorist group Zaka tries to get its hands on Yellowcake and the secret to making a dirty bomb. The latter is stored in a locket hanging from the neck of an industrialist, whom we see kidnapped and brutalized. The terrorist leader, an imam, speaks soothingly to him as he examines a Christ-like wound in the man’s side; then he calmly opens up the wound with a knife; then, as the man screams, his sticks his hand in. 

Most of the fighting involves machinery—sniper vs. sniper; tank vs. tank—so there’s little in the way of traditional cinematic martials arts battles. At one point, though, the Girl, head shaved, battles a terrorist in hand-to-hand aboard a grounded plane. It feels real. There are no clean movements, nothing balletic about it. It’s just a constant, close, sweaty struggle to get the upper hand, to get the right hold, in order to kill the other person. It’s kill or be killed. She kills.

Early on, the Chinese military seem so well-equipped and trained that I wondered how director Dante Lam was going to make a battle of it; how would he make them underdogs? Then the mortars start flying. Then the teenage Arab sniper with the scar (a great find, by the way; the kid has intensity) begins to pick off targets. After that, eight are left, and of course they’re ordered to attack the Zaka stronghold and free its one Chinese hostage. “Eight against 150,” the Captain says.

There you go. Movie odds.

糖 果 人
This is probably the biggest difference between the two Yemen-inspired movies: As violent as “Wolf Warrior II” is, I’ve never seen a level of violence like in “Red Sea.” It’s relentlessly, viscerally violent. It’s literally viscerally violent—as in here’s another shot of human innards splattered around what remains of a bus. “WWII”’s Leng Feng gets mussed, right? He winds up sweaty and dirty with dashing cuts on his face—like any Hollywood movie star. Here, one of the eight loses a finger, another an arm. Candy Man loses half his face. He spends his last five minutes on screen screaming in pain before finally succumbing to his wounds.

French director Francois Truffaut once said—via Roger Ebert—that even anti-war films are pro-war because they can’t help but be thrilling. I’m wondering if Dante Lam has managed to do the opposite: make a film so gung-ho, so full of his chest-beating love of guns, missiles and gore, that it’s actually anti-war. I’d be curious to hear from people who normally like war movies. For me, the violence is so brutal I kept turning away; the gunfire is so relentless, I just wanted it to end.

“This mission is a message to all terrorists,“ a Chinese Naval Officer says halfway through, ”that you will never harm a Chinese citizen.” Right. I would say the movie has a mixed message then. Chinese citizens may not get harmed, but everyone else does. Just ask Candy Man.

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Posted at 06:09 AM on Mar 12, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Sunday March 11, 2018

A Box Office Wrinkle for ‘Wrinkle in Time’

A Wrinkle in Time bombs at box office

In its weekend preview, Box Office Mojo predicted $42 mil for the new Ava DuVernay-directed “A Wrinkle in Time,” with “Black Panther” settling into second place with $38 mil or so. 

Scratch that. Reverse it.

And then push “Wrinkle” even lower. 

“BP” had the biggest gross for the fourth weekend in a row, earning another $41 mil, and raising its domestic total to $562 million. That's 7th-best all time, unadjusted. Ahead: two “Star Wars,” two Camerons, one Avengers and one Jurassic. It's also now past the $1 billion mark worldwide: 21st and counting. 

“Wrinkle,” meanwhile, opened to a tepid $33 mil, which is surprising given the hoopla around it, but unsurprising given its trailer. Last year, when my wife and I saw the trailer, she leaned over to me and whispered, “That looks awful.” I agreed but hadn't read the books. (She had and wasn't a fan.) But yes: Oprah, Renee and Mindy looked absurd. Zack did, too, but wasn't he supposed to? He was comic relief. The others, in the trailer, played up the nobility angle. Or the trailer played it up for them. Or DuVernay or the book did. 

Critics weren't exactly kind: 42% on Rotten Tomatoes. Here's one comment: 

Unfortunately, the slow pace of the first hour coupled by the tedium of a CGI overload, reduces A Wrinkle in Time to one of Disney's most lackluster big-budget releases since The BFG.

Believe it or not, that's from one of the positive reviews. 

Friday on social media, a female film critic responded to the film's negative reviews by stating she didn't care what 50ish white men thought of the film. Immediately, on FB anyway, a bunch of 50ish white men responded about how enthused they were to see the film. That cracked me up. I thought: Isn't that what she didn't want to hear? What you guys thought? Or we guys? Or was it OK as long as they/we liked it or were enthused by it? I.e., the problem was less “50ish” and “white” and “male” than “thumbs down.” 

But I get where she's going. Her stated rationale is “It's what the kids think that matters,” and that's true. And not. When I was a kid, I loved 1967's “Dr. Doolittle” not realizing until decades later what a disaster it was—financially and critically. Would be interesting to see it now. Is there anything there? It's a kids movie that didn't last except in reboots ... which also haven't lasted. But I did enjoy it. I still have fond memories of it. 

The real rationale for the critic, though (who is 50ish, white and female), is to promote a movie directed by a woman of color, and starring women of color, with a young female lead. Such movies need to make money if Hollywood is going to change. At the moment, “A Wrinkle in Times” doesn't help the cause, and she wants it to help the cause. But there's only one cause a critic should care about. 

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Posted at 10:23 AM on Mar 11, 2018 in category Movies - Box Office
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The View from the 520

Yesterday it got into the mid-50s and I went for a bikeride over the newly constructed 520 bridge. The Cascades were out. My iPhone camera doesn't do the shot justice. 

Cascade mountains Seattle

The bridge was crowded but not as crowded as when I did the same two months ago. You know where everyone was? Fremont Brewery. I biked by there, too, thinking I'd grab a quick drink, but the line indicated anything but quick. 

Today is supposed to be mid-60s. Get out, get out, wherever you are. 

Posted at 07:42 AM on Mar 11, 2018 in category Seattle
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Saturday March 10, 2018

Movie Review: Riphagen (2016)


“Riphagen” is the story of Dries Riphagen (Jeroen van Koningsbrugge), a real-life Dutch gangster who stole from and betrayed and sent to the gas chambers more than 200 Jews in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. He's the anti-Schindler.

And he gets away in the end. It’s infuriating.

Not because he gets away. Because several people, including our ostensible hero, Jan (Kay Greidanhus), have the drop on him and let him talk his way out of it. Again and again. And again. Three times, by my count.

The real story is both sobering and damning. It’s about how opportunists survive and thrive, relying on the naiveté or opportunism or helplessness of others. The filmmakers reduce this to B-movie shtick. They fuck it up.

A confederacy of Dutchies
Riphagen movie reviewFirst, we don’t even find out that Riphagen was a gangster. That his nickname was “Al Capone.” That he joined the anti-Semitic National Socialist Dutch Workers’ Party prior to Nazi occupation. I had to look all that up

Maybe we don't get any of this because the movie begins with the conceit that Riphagen might be helping Jews. He discovers an older Jewish woman in an attic, sets her up in an apartment, takes her out for meals, tells her a sob story about how his Jewish wife was killed, decks an anti-Semite in her presence, and in this manner, and despite the fact that he’s a dead ringer for Lex Luthor, her suspicions slowly turn to trust. So much so that she brings in other Jewish friends who entrust their money and lives to him. And when he gets it all? That’s when he betrays them.

As we knew he would.

Seriously, even if we don’t know the history going in (as I didn’t), it’s how the movie is sold. “Riphagen” is about “a Dutch traitor” who helped “round up Jews.” So when he does, it’s not exactly a shock. Plus isn’t Riphagen infamous enough in the Netherlands that the beginning conceit is wasted on them? Wouldn’t it be like Norway making a movie called “Quisling” whose big reveal is that, hey, he collaborated with the Nazis! Quisling! Of all people!

The movie keeps mixing real-life events/people with fictional elements—but not in that good E.L. Doctorow way:

  • Anna Raadsveld (a Kim Darby lookalike) plays Betje Wary, a weepy-eyed Jewish girl pressured by Riphagen into betraying her friends in the Dutch underground. The real Betje seems more calculating.
  • Sieger Sloot plays Frits Kerkhoven, a member of the Dutch underground during the war and the Dutch secret service after, who is fooled by Riphagen. The real Frits seems less of a rube. Apparently he helped smuggle Riphagen to Belgium; then in Spain he brought him suit and shoes lined with diamonds. He aided and abetted.

Our hero, as far as I know, is fictional. Jan is a handsome, big-eyed, worried-looking kid, who is both cop and member of the Dutch resistance. He’s part of a (real life) raid on a printing plant in The Hague. Then he’s part of a (fictional) romance with Betje that goes nowhere. He makes out with her, she’s confused by a fake badge he has, she begs off. So he just goes home to his beautiful wife. Wait, what? Then Riphagen forces a teary-eyed Betje to betray everyone. She does, teary-eyed. Resistance members like Charley Hartog are killed (this happened, too), so Jan goes into hiding. After the war, he emerges, pursues Riphagen, gets the drop on him, but talks too much and only wounds him. But Riphagen plays it like he’s dead.

Half the movie is a postwar battle between Wim Sanders (Michel Sluysman) and Louis Einthoven (Mark Reitman) over control of the National Security Service. Both are historical personages. For some reason, here, Sanders has it in for Jan and trusts Riphagen. The real Sanders, I believe, tried to use Riphagen, the way Riphagen knew he would. In other words, Riphagen sold himself as what he was, a traitor, because that way Sanders knew he had useful information. 

In the movie, it’s just stupid. Jan searches for Betje, who can prove his innocence and Riphagen’s villainy, but Frits finds her first, then, like a doofus, leaves her alone near Riphagen ... who threatens her life. So of course she gets panicky and teary-eyed again. But why? War is over, girlfriend. One word and Riphagen is hanging. One word from you. You have the power. Instead, with tapes rolling, she blames ... herself. I wanted to slap my forehead. Or her.

Eventually Riphagen reveals his villainy to all—ha ha!—knowing the politicians can’t own up to their ineptitude without destroying their careers. So they make matters worse: Sanders actually drives Riphagen to Belgium. Thankfully, Jan pursues, gets the drop on him, is ready to shoot. He tells him to get on his knees. Me: “C’mon. Pull the trigger already. Or just shoot him in the knees. That’ll make him bend, right? And that way you won’t have to worry that he’ll suddenly overpower you and strangle you and kill y—

“Never mind.”

Don’t cry for him
So the fictional Jan dies while the real Riphagen gets away—first, we’re told, to Spain, then Argentina, where he became friends with the Perons. All of that seems more interesting than the fictional stuff we’re given; where everyone but Riphagen is an idiot.

Maybe they were? The afterword also mentions that the Dutch government finally put a bounty on Riphagen ... in 1988. Late much, Holland? They discover he'd died in a Swiss sanitarium in 1973. Apparently he spent the ’60s having a swinging time in Spain, Germany and Switzerland. Way to stay on top of things, Europe.

Koningsbrugge has a powerful presence, Greidanhus is a handsome kid, and the raw material for a good/great movie is here. This ain't it. 

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Posted at 09:09 AM on Mar 10, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Friday March 09, 2018

Quote of the Day

“Season Two, I knew I wanted to go to the death of work. Because where do these drug corners come from? They come from deindustrialization. Our economy no longer needs mass employment. The only factory in town that's still hiring and is always hiring are the corners.”

— David Simon, “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire,” by Jonathan Abrams

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Posted at 12:41 PM on Mar 09, 2018 in category TV
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Thursday March 08, 2018

It's 2018: Do You Know Where Your .350 Hitters Are?

Tony Gwynn

Since WWII, no one's had more .350+ seasons than this guy. Or .360+ seasons. Or .370+. Or... 

Yesterday, perhaps inspired by the Seattle Mariners signing 44-year-old Ichiro Suzuki to a one-year deal, Bill James tweeted the following:

That seemed about right. I'd recently researched guys who hit over .350, and in the wake of James' tweet I did it again. And yes, no one has hit .350 or better since Josh Hamilton's .359 in 2010. But wait, wasn't Hamilton an active player? Nope. Drug relapse in 2015, didn't play in 2016, and last year signed a minor-league deal with Texas but knee issues resurfaced and he was released in April. He hasn't played an official game since Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS—that crazy, Jose Bautista bat-flip game. Hamilton went 1-3 with a double and an RBI.

Anyway, looking at that 7-year gap without a .350 hitter, I began to wonder how common it was. I assumed it was kind of common. It's tough to hit .350, after all. 

But no, that's the record. It's the longest baseball has gone without a .350 hitter. Ever.  

The previous record was five years, 1962-1966, after they raised the mound in the wake of Maris/Mantle. Clemente hit .357 in 1967, but that was the only .350+ season during the raised-mound years.

Here's the longest dearths without seeing .350:

  • 7 (and counting): 2011-2017
  • 5: 1962-1966
  • 4: 1952-1955
  • 4: 1989-1992

No three years in a row, btw. A few scattered twos.

And here are the number of seasons per decade without a .350 hitter:

  • 1900s: 0
  • 1910s: 0
  • 1920s: 0
  • 1930s: 1

Yes. We didn't have our first .350-less year in the 20th century until 1938. We had three in the 19th century. Onward.

  • 1940s: 1
  • 1950s: 5
  • 1960s: 8
  • 1970s: 4
  • 1980s: 3
  • 1990s: 3
  • 2000s: 2
  • 2010s: 7

For the record, and not counting round-ups (.3497, for example, which knocks off one of Ichiro‘s), we’ve had 79 instances of players hitting .350 or better since Ted Williams' .400 in 1941. Tony Gwynn leads the pack—he did it six times—followed by Stan Musial and Wade Boggs with five each. 

.360+ seasons since ‘41? Thirty-five: from Musial in ’46 to Joe Mauer in 2009. Boggs and Gwynn are tied for the most with four. 

.370+ seasons? Twelve: from Musial in ‘48 to Ichiro in 2004. Gwynn has three. No one else has two. 

.380+? Just four: Ted Williams’ .388 in ‘57, Rod Carew’s .388 in ‘77, George Brett’s .389 in ‘80 and Gwynn’s .393 in the strike-shortened ‘94 season.

And what’s the closest we‘ve come to .350 since Josh Hamilton? DJ LeMahieu’s .3478 in 2016. So we‘re not far off. We’re just not there. Unprecedentedly.

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Posted at 07:13 AM on Mar 08, 2018 in category Baseball
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Wednesday March 07, 2018

Movie Review: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)


It’s tough watching a movie based on history you know.

At first, it’s the little things. This movie opens with kids pulling red wagons full of comic books, chiefly “Wonder Woman,” from door to door in an idyllic American neighborhood. “Probably a comic-book burning,” I thought. Those were prevalent in the late 1940s—part of what author David Hajdu in The Ten-Cent Plague calls “the pathologies of postwar America.” And that’s what this is. The kids take the comics to a field, make a pile, light it on fire, dance around. Watching sadly in the glow is a much-too-handsome version of Prof. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), creator of Wonder Woman.

Then we cut to an interrogation of Marston by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), director of Child Study Association of America, and we’re told it’s 1945. Except they didn’t have comic-book burnings in 1945. We were too busy fighting a war. So is this a flashback? Doesn’t seem like it. Plus Marston died in 1947 anyway. So how could he have watched comic-book burnings in 1949?

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women: movie reviewBut you let it go. It’s minor. “Chronology.” Still, you have questions, and after the movie you do a little internet research.

This interrogation of Marston frames the film, and, within it, Josette Frank comes off as officious and powerful, her organization like an early version of the Family Research Council. “Doctor Marston,” she says. “Wonder Woman has drawn criticism for being full of depictions of bondage, spanking, torture, homosexuality, and other sex perversions. ... Would you care to explain yourself?” So to the obvious question: Did Josette Frank exist?

She did. Except ... she was actually a proponent of comic books at a time when many professionals thought they were bad for kids. She even served on the Editorial Advisory Board at National/DC Comics, from which, yes, she did complain to publisher M.C. Gaines (Oliver Platt) about the bondage scenes in “Wonder Woman.” But an interrogation? In which Marston is defensive, Gaines is sweating, and Frank holds all the cards? Not even close. In real life, she had so little power she resigned from the board. In the movie, she’s so powerful that after her cross-examination Marston collapses, sick, and eventually dies. From what? The movie doesn’t say. For the record, it was polio, a stroke and skin cancer, all of which he contracted in his final three years. Bam bam bam. Age 53. Too young. But the movie makes it seem that Josette Frank and her ilk—people too square to think bondage scenes are cool in children’s stories—are somehow responsible.

Why would writer-director Angela Robinson (“The L Word”) do this? To a real person? A woman so beloved her org’s annual children’s book award is now named for her? What am I missing?

So I read “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” by Yale professor and New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore, to find an answer. And I did. The answer is the movie sucks.

Less Lesbos
Of the literary biopics released last fall (Salinger, Milne, Dickens), I had the highest hopes for “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,“ since its backstory was least-known and most complicated.

Here are the complications.

Wonder Woman, the most popular female superhero of all time, was created by a man who lived with two women: his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), with whom he had two children; and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), a former student, with whom he had two children. 

How does Robinson make this fact palatable to audiences in the #MeToo age? By suggesting that the two women are more interested in each other than in Marston. Olive is really in love with Elizabeth, and vice-versa. Marston is almost their beard. It’s almost a lesbian love story.

Except .... According to Lepore, who had access to Marston family records, that three-way living arrangement occurred when Marston delivered an ultimatum to his wife: Byrne would either live with them, or he would leave her and live with Byrne. Poor Elizabeth! Except ... No, she was looking out for herself, too. She realized that Marston's ultimatum was the answer to her dilemma—the modern woman's dilemma. She could have the babies she wanted, and then go back to the career she wanted, because Olive would be there to raise the babies. Win win. For her. And Marston. Byrne, that's up in the air.

So really less Lesbos, more Joseph Smith.

Even so, Marston was an early feminist, and that feminism is evident in early “Wonder Woman” comics. “I am amazed by the strength of their feminist message,” Gloria Steinem said in 1972 before putting Wonder Woman on the cover of the first Ms. magazine. That was all Marston. If he wasn’t writing it, Wonder Woman fell back on the gender stereotypes of the day. When she joined the Gardner Fox-written ”Justice Society of America," he made her its secretary; the male superheroes went off to fight and she stayed behind and cleaned up. No joke. Marston’s comic included a four-page section called “Wonder Women of History,” which featured short bios on the likes of Clara Barton, Dolley Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt. Once he died, it was replaced with a section on weddings, while Wonder Woman spent a lot of her time scheming, or pining, to marry Steve Trevor. She became Lois Lane with superpowers. 

So bravo for Marston’s feminism. Except ... it did have some kinks in it.

“Women enjoy submission—being bound,” he wrote to Gaines after Frank suggested removing the bondage scenes from Wonder Woman. He added: “This, my dear friend, is the one truly great contribution of my Wonder Woman strip to the moral education of the young. The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound—enjoy submission to kind authority, wise authority, not merely tolerate such submission. Wars will only cease when humans enjoy being bound.”

Marston is a maddening character: progressive and not; brilliant and a charlatan. While at Harvard, he created an early version of the lie detector test but may have fudged the results. He did win a nationwide screenwriting contest, and the movie, “Jack Kennard, Coward,” was subsequently produced by the Edison Company. He should have gone to Hollywood. Instead, he got a law degree, taught law, and was involved in a landmark case, Frye v. United States, that went before the U.S. Supreme Court. It turned on the issue of when new scientific testimony (in this case, his lie detector) might be deemed admissible in court. But Lepore uncovers squeamish details: 1) Frye’s lawyers were actually Marston’s students, who, in their appeal, 2) seemed more interested in proving the efficacy of Marston’s lie detector than in their client’s innocence. Marston later claimed that his role in the Frye case opened “a wedge” for lie-detector evidence in court; Lepore writes, “Nothing could have been further from the truth; the Frye case closed the door on that evidence.” Frye, an African American, and poorly represented by Marston’s students, wound up serving 18 years in prison.

None of this is in the movie, by the way, except for the creation of Marston’s lie detector—which Robinson sets not when Marston was a student at Harvard but 10 years later when he was an assistant professor at Tufts and Olive Byrne was his student. Robinson gives Byrne credit for the breakthrough.

Family Circle
So much is wrong here. Marston should be an overweight raconteur with a twinkle in his eye rather than this dull, handsome man-toy. So much is left out. During the 1930s, Marston kept appearing as a wise, benevolent psychiatrist in puff pieces for Family Circle magazine. Who wrote them? Olive Byrne, pretending she didn’t know Marston, let alone live with him, let alone ... everything else. One of these puff pieces, by the way, in which he expounded on the benefits of comics, is what led to his relationship with DC. In the movie? He just barrels into their offices. He cold calls.

Robinson even bends the fade-out graphics to suit her narrative:

After he died, Marston’s sexual motifs were stripped from the Wonder Woman comic book ... along with her super powers.

Sufferin' Sappho. Yes, the bondage scenes were removed from Wonder Woman in the late ’40s—as they should have. But removing her super powers? That happened two decades later, in 1969, for which the man responsible, legendary writer Denny O’Neil, has offered many a mea culpa. He also exiled Diana from Paradise Island and gave her a pants suit and a blind Chinese mentor. I think he thought he was doing the feminist thing. But it wasn’t what fans wanted. They wanted the bustier and boots and magic lasso. The problematic had become nostalgic.

The kicker to all of this? Olive Byrne, whose '20s-era bracelets inspired Wonder Woman’s, is actually the daughter of Ethel Byrne and the niece of Margaret Sanger, heroes of the suffragist/birth control movement. This is mentioned in the movie. Except ... they’re not exactly who we think they are, either. Ethel didn’t want to raise her daughter; Olive was physically tossed into the snow as an infant. Growing up, she hardly saw her famous mother and aunt. 

History is more complex than we think, our heroes more complicated than we want. They’re rarely super.


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Posted at 07:48 AM on Mar 07, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Tuesday March 06, 2018

Not Brand ECCC: 2018

Betty Bates, Lady at Law

No, honey, not Betty Page.

Last weekend I did something I hadn't done for six years—and before that, whoosh, decades. I attended a comic convention. Specifically, the Emerald City Comic Con 2018. ECCC to friends. 

Speaking of: I went stag, which is a bad way to go—although it does make it easier making it through crowds. It also helped that I wasn't in any hurry. Plus I'm still thin enough to—apologies, sorry, my bad—squeeze through when necessary.

My goal again was the comic resellers in the far back of the main room—the whole point of the comic convention when I was a kid, and now an afterthought. I‘ve been reading a book, “Take That, Adolf!” about WWII-era superheroes who, on their various covers, deck Hitler (Captain America) or choke him out (Cat-Man), and I was curious if there were more books about same, or, ideally, not exorbitant copies of originals. Not the popular ones, mind you (I’m a working man), but heroes who didn't last long: Uncle Sam, Steel Sterling, The Shield. How much does a Shock Gibson go for these days? I was curious. 

I remain curious. There was one table that laid out their Golden Age comics in easy-to-rifle-through fashion, even as I was extra careful in doing so. These things were almost as old as my father, after all; they had made it through so much just to get here. Some, shockingly, were affordable—i.e., less than $250. I kept thinking, “Hey, I could buy this!” And I kept having to rein in that thought. Because ... to what end? I don't collect. When I was young I had the desire but not the money; now I have the money but not the desire. Well, not an overwhelming desire, but there's something there. Just holding a copy of Action Comics #28 was thrilling. Just the smell of old comics took me back. It's my madeleine. 

At one point, thinking practically (i.e., relating it to my day job), I asked after copies of “Betty Bates, Lady at Law.” Ever since I found out about her, about 10 years ago, I‘ve been intrigued that she became a comic-book character at a time when women were, what, two percent of law school grads? And probably less of practicing lawyers? And probably less of comic-book characters? The guys at the Golden Age stand nodded and directed me to another seller, where, they said, they’d seen such a copy. But when I arrived, I didn't see any “Betty Bates”; I saw “Betty Page.” Had I been misunderstood? I asked again. And again, they thought I said “Betty Page.” When I clarified, they exchanged glances and eyed me dubiously, then looked her up in their comic-book catalog. Bupkis, as they'd suspected. I got a “Check yer facts, kid,” look, to which I nodded. I should‘ve checked my facts. She existed, she just never had her own comic. She was always part of “Hit” Comics. (And now a book is available that collects all over her old comics in one place; I might have to get it.)

It wasn’t a bad few hours. I checked out the wares, checked out the cosplay. On some level, these should be my people, fellow nerds, but I feel like an interloper now. This thing that used to be just skinny nerds and overweight resellers has been turned it into a party, a real party, and I'm late to it. I'm late to a party I left early.

  • If you can't have fun with Deadpool...

  • Always bet on “Game of Death” yellow.

  • Harry Potter and the Knight of Dark. Dude even nails Adam West's self-important smile. 

  • This guy caused a sensation. No disturbing lack of faith here.  

  • *FIN*
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Posted at 08:37 AM on Mar 06, 2018 in category Personal Pieces
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Monday March 05, 2018

Oscar Round-Up: Watching the Least-Watched

Last night we had the usual Oscar party with the usual folks and the usual results for the Oscar pool: my nephew Jordy, who is 16 going on 17, won. OK, he actually tied for first with his mom and dad and our friend Natalie. A four-way tie. Each got 19 of 24 correct.

That's a lot, and it leads to this question. 

Are the Oscars too predictable now? Do we have too many experts telling us who will win so no one's surprised anymore? I'm not wishing “Crash”-worthy upsets on anyone, and this year best picture seemed a bit of a toss-up. Three of the nine, everyone said, had a shot on the preferential ballot: “Shape of Water,” “Three Billboards” and maybe “Get Out.” Wound up being, yeah, the most-nominated movie, which also won the PGA and DGA. So the least surprising. 

2017 Oscars round-upEverything else played out as normal, too. DGA winner (del Toro) got the directing Oscar. The four SAG winners (McDormand, Oldman, Rockwell, Janney) got the four acting Oscars. The two WGA winners (Ivory, Peele) got the two writing Oscars. For the first time in Oscar history, an African-American won for screenplay and ... it wasn't much of a surprise. Maybe just to him. 

You know what else isn't much of a surprise? The TV ratings dropped: from the 32s to 26.5 million. According to Hollywood Reporter, it's “easily the least-watched Oscars in history.”

Why? Everyone has theories. FOX News says it's because “liberal Hollywood,” and other says because the telecast is too long, but c‘mon. It’s the box office, stupid. In the last 40 years, Oscar's highest TV ratings have occurred for the ‘82 Oscars, when the hugely popular “E.T.” was nominated (53.2 million), and the ’97 Oscars, when the hugely popular “Titanic” was nominated and won best picture (55.2 million). The lows are reserved for years when little-seen films are nominated or battle it out. 2007, for example, was seen as a fight between “No Country for Old Men” ($74 mil, 36th for the year) and “There Will Be Blood” ($40 mil, 66th), while the highest-grossing best picture nominee that year, “Juno,” still only 15th, wasn't really seen as a contender for BP. Shocker: the broadcast wound up with its lowest ratings to that point: 32 mil.

Two years later, the Academy instituted its new BP nomination system: first 10 nominees, then up to 10. And along with nominating popular films for best picture, such as “Avatar” and “Toy Story 3,” the ratings went up. Then they dropped again as popular and Oscar tastes continue to diverge. Last year, the highest-grossing nominated BP was “Hidden Figures” at 14th, while “Moonllght” (92nd) won. This year, the highest-grossing nominated BP was “Dunkirk,” also at 14th, while “Shape” (48th) won.

But you can't really blame Academy voters. Which of 2017's top 10 in box office would you choose for best picture?

Rank Movie
1 Star Wars: The Last Jedi
2 Beauty and the Beast
3 Wonder Woman
4 Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
5 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
6 Spider-Man: Homecoming
7 It
8 Thor: Ragnarok
9 Despicable Me 3
10 Justice League

Gun to my head? I go “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

Still, for those who watched and enjoy serious movies, it was a fun night. Lot of laughs, starting with Allison Janney's “I did it all by myself” to Sam Rockwell's “It's grandma” story to Jodie Foster blaming busted leg/crutches on Meryl Streep.

Meryl is the new Jack, isn't she? The front-and-center, life-of-the-party rep of Hollywood whom everyone tosses jokes at. She just does it without the shades.

One of my favorite moments was James Ivory's acceptance speech—90-year-old James Ivory, the oldest Oscar recipient ever, for his screenplay from my favorite movie of the year, “Call Me By Your Name.” He called it a story of first love, and everyone goes through first love, whether you‘re gay or straight, and it’s universal in that way. And that recalled Kumail Nanjiani, earlier in the evening, talking about how he identified with white guys on screen for so long, and if there's more diversity now, well, then there's other people to identify with. Find the universal in the specific or the personal; that's what artists do.

Nanjiani, star of my second-favorite film of 2017, is also one of three or four potential future hosts I saw at last night's ceremony: 

  • Nanjiani
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda
  • Tiffany Haddish/Maya Rudolph

Any of them would raise the roof; none of them, most likely, would raise the ratings. 

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Posted at 06:06 PM on Mar 05, 2018 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Sunday March 04, 2018

‘Black Panther’ Passes $500 Million Domestic

Black Panther passes $500 million domestic

Claws: good for fighting, less for counting.

Two weeks ago, “Black Panther” had the fifth-highest opening-weekend gross in history: $202 mil. 

Last week, it had the second-highest second-weekend gross in history, $111 mil, second only to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

This weekend? The third-highest third weekend, $65 mil, after “Star Wars” and “Avatar.”

Add it all up and “BP” is now at $501 million domestic gross, which is the 10th-best all time. Unadjusted. Adjust and it's 87th. But that's with a bullet.

This is astonishing on two levels. “Panther” is a February release. That's afterthought territory for Hollywood. That's beta-testing. The previous high for a Feb. film on the unadjusted box-office chart was No. 37, “Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson's beta-test on religious movies/culture wars from 2004, which grossed $370 mil. Second? No. 41, “Deadpool,” Marvel's beta-test on R-rated superheroes from 2016, which grossed $363. That's it for the top 100. No other February release has grossed more than $300 mil. Only one other, “The LEGO Movie,” has grossed more than $200 mil. It's long-been thought to be a lame month when no one goes to see films. Don't waste your best on this less-than-prime real estate. That's the first reason this is astonishing. 

The second is the mostly African-American cast. Even after Hollywood's love affair with the South was over (“Birth of a Nation,” “Gone with the Wind”), it was reluctant to be too progressive since it didn't want to lose Southern box office. “Black Panther” is in effect saying, “Fuck Southern box office.” Or maybe: “There's a new Southern box office.”

So where will it wind up on the all-time chart? Weekend to weekend, it's dropping slowly: 44%, 41%. (“The Avengers,” by comparison, dropped 50% and 46% its first two weekends.) It does poorer on weekdays, because it's not summer and the kids aren't out of school, but it‘ll obviously get up to No. 7 all-time (currently “The Dark Knight,” $534). Then it’s a big leap to No. 6, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” at $619. But I think it can do it. If I had to bet, I'd go No. 3 all time, passing James Cameron's “Titanic” ($659) but not James Cameron's “Avatar” ($760). We‘ll know more next weekend.

Either way, “Black Panther” is making history. Your old formulas Hollywood? They’re gone with the wind.

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Posted at 11:29 AM on Mar 04, 2018 in category Movies - Box Office
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Friday March 02, 2018

Trump, Hopeless

“The Administration's penchant for deception is injurious in many ways, not least because it devalues truth as a value in public discourse. Like Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, [Hope] Hicks, even in her camera- and microphone-shy way, spent years being loyal to Trump and his mendacities. She was always prepared to do his bidding, including when there was an ugliness to the bidding: She pushed back hard against the Pope when he dared to criticize the President's hopes to wall off Mexico. She cast her lot with him and stayed with him as the injuries he inflicted multiplied...

”Perhaps we will hear from Hope Hicks in a more unguarded way in the future. The pattern has been that, once these aides lose their White House passes and get some distance from the tumult of Pennsylvania Avenue, they begin to reveal their sense of despair about the place, if not their shame.“

— David Remnick, ”Hope Against Hope: Hope Hicks is kidding herself if she thinks that her tenure in the Trump White House will be judged only for harmless, situational untruths," The New Yorker

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Posted at 03:32 PM on Mar 02, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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The Quickening

“Drudge and Hannity are, for me, the best indicators of when Trump is in trouble. The more they bury news, the more important and dangerous it is for the Trump agenda. And there's a lot to bury right now: metastasizing scandal, an administration at war with itself, a chief of staff looking wobbly, egregious corruption, and open rhetorical betrayal of the base. It's not that we haven't seen all of this before — but it's the combination of all these in a sudden and accumulating pile that seems more ominous than usual.”

— Andrew Sullivan, “Is This the Beginning of Trump's End?” on the New York magazine site. 

Not sure why Sully uses “ominous” here; I'm giddy. OK, cautiously giddy. OK, cautious and giddy and sad that it's come to this. That it's this bad and so many Americans are sticking to their guns. Literally but mostly figuratively. 

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Posted at 10:27 AM on Mar 02, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Thursday March 01, 2018

The Times: Poking, Chortling

Writer-editor Tom Scocca (Gawker, Deadspin, The Baltimore City Paper, New York Observer and Slate) is starting a new website called the “Hmm Daily,” and for once, and despite the title, it doesn't sound like something that makes me want to take a shower. It sounds smart. He sounds smart—someone I could learn from.

Here's the portion of his interview with Columbia Journalism Review that made me perk up and all but shout, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” while pumping my fist in the air:

In this new project, what is it that you are working in opposition to?

There’s a quick answer that I feel is a woefully incomplete one. I think in my pitch [for the site] I outright said that this is going to be against everything The New York Times opinion section stands for. There’s a whole style of argumentation out there that’s grounded in bad intellectual faith. People are trying to do provocations based on partisan self-positioning. The way James Bennet keeps describing the Times opinion operation is great; it’s great to challenge your readers, but that’s not what they’re doing. They’re just poking their readers in the eye and then chortling about it. If there is one thing I try to get across to people in editing them, it’s that somebody is going to find the weakest part of your argument, and it might as well be you. That kind of taking responsibility for what you say, and making sure that it will seem meaningful and defensible to other people, is the thing they just are categorically not doing there. There’s just so much room for a higher level of honest discussion and argumentation.

The line after the highlighted is great, too. Need to remember that one. 

It is a shame how bad the Times Op-Ed page is. Not sure which is worse, that or NPR's “Morning Edition.”

Posted at 10:48 AM on Mar 01, 2018 in category Media
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Dates I Posted My Top 10 Movies of the Year

Yeah, sorry, this is mostly just for me.

Yesterday I got my top 10 movies of 2017 posted just hours before a self-imposed March 1 deadline, and it took a flurry of early-evening activity to pull it off. Even so. Feb. 28? I can't do better than that? Made me wonder when I posted the top 10 list in previous years.

Here are the dates, along with my #1 movie in parentheses. 

I was impressed by all those mid-Januarys. And a December! The hell? Way to be on top of things, younger me.

I began to wonder about my #1s, too. Three of the first four were French. What happened to that? Them or me? Or Hollywood taking it up a notch? Mostly male stories, too: sensitive (“Manchester”) or insensitive (“Wolf”). The only female leads are in “L’heure” and “De rouille.” And “L‘heure” is more ensemble. 

Next year is my 10th year doing this and I’m tired of this end-of-February shit. But the movie studios, releasing the best films later and later in the year, aren't helping much.

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Posted at 08:56 AM on Mar 01, 2018 in category Movies - Lists
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