Movie Review: Ready Player One (2018)
“Ready Player One” feels like the death of entertainment to me. The old master, Steven Spielberg, creates escapist entertainment about a shitty, dystopian world (2045) in which the escapist entertainment is a virtual reality video game with the sweep of the internet called “The Oasis.” It was created by a near-autistic genius named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), in conjunction, somehow, with a dude named Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), whom he eventually pushes out in a sort of Bill Gates/Paul Allen-style putsch. Except Halliday never seems ruthless the way Gates was/is. He’s just a fucked-up gentle soul. Who passes his disease, or the Band-Aid for his disease, onto the rest of us. Thanks, nerdlinger.
Wait, it gets worse. Because the iconography of this game is based on Halliday’s youth. Which just happened to take place in the 1980s—the worst decade ever for pop culture. So we get the Zemeckis cube (after Robert), the alien from “Aliens,” the Iron Giant, etc. Also Batman, Catwoman and King Kong, and on the soundtrack, Van Halen and Twister Sister, all glommed together into one noxious stew.
Wait, it gets worse. Because Halliday died in 2040 but left behind a video message in which he said there were three “keys” in The Oasis; and the first to gather all three keys gains control over the whole thing—the whole Oasis. Which is like gaining control of the whole Internet. Which means, yes, every fucking asshole in the world is going for it. Or at least one: a corporation named IOI, run by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who used to run errands for Halliday. And ... no one else? Really? No other assholes or asshole corporations? Are there other asshole corporations in 2045? Who knows? Our POV is fairly constricted here. Almost claustrophobic.
Wait, it gets worse. Because you know who else is gunning for the grand prize? Gamers. With like tats and shit. A group of them have banded together to ... Nah, kidding. It’s all loose and jangly. The corporation is greedy and pure evil, using indentured servitude to further its machinations, while the kids are pure, just doing their thing, yo, in between tries at that first key.
The world, in other words, is divided between hipster gamers and a big asshole corporation, while ’80s iconography swoops in and out. Doesn’t get closer to hell than that.
And I haven’t even gotten to Superman’s spitcurl.
In The Oasis, nobody knows you’re exactly who you are
Our focus is a kid named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan of “Mud”), whose father named him alliteratively in the manner of superhero alter-egos—like Peter Parker. The fates rewarded Dad by killing him off before the opening act—like Richard Parker. Wade lives with his white-trash aunt, who ain’t no May, in “The Stacks,” which is like make-shift trailer homes piled one on top of the other, in the most populous city in the world, Columbus, Ohio. He has nothing to do and nowhere to go. “Nowhere,” he says, “except ... The Oasis.”
I’m curious: Did Spielberg and screenwriters Zak Penn (“Last Action Hero,” “The Avengers”) and Ernest Cline (the 2009 doc “Fanboys”) consider putting us in the Oasis first? Before meeting Wade and hearing about Columbus? Could’ve been interesting. Or not. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, and in The Oasis it’s the same—anybody could be anybody. The sad part is anybody turns out to be exactly who you expect.
Wade, a short white kid with dark hair, chooses to be a short white avatar with blonde hair named Parzival, who looks anime, struts like Travolta, and hangs with Aitch, a big black first-person shooter/supermechanic (Lena Waithe). Parzival also has a crush on a cute, kick-ass girl named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). She has friends named Sho (a ninja) and Daito (samurai), Chinese and Japanese, respectively (Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki, respectively). They wind up being early leaders in the battle for the key. They’re called “the High Five.”
But who are they really?
- white male avatar = white male
- white female avatar = white female
- black male avatar = black lesbian
- Chinese dude avatar = Chinese dude (albeit 11 years old)
- Japanese dude avatar = Japanese dude
No cultural appropriation here. Not much imagination, either. I like that Aitch warns Parzival/Wade about falling for Art3mis, since she could be anybody, not at all like her cute white-girl avatar, and she turns out to be, you know, Olivia Cooke, as cute a white teenage crush as any lovestruck white teenage boy could ask for. It’s the jackpot. But ... oh no ... she has a birthmark around her eye. She feels it disfigures her. She hides it with her hair like Veronica Lake.
Right. It’s still the jackpot. The odds against him finding someone like Olivia Cooke on the other end of her avatar are greater than the odds of actually winning The Oasis.
Watching, I kept thinking, “We’re not far removed from ‘The Mod Squad,’ are we?” That hipster 1968 show gave us a white male lead, a white female sidekick, and a black male sidekick. That’s here. We’ve just added a Chinese and Japanese dude for effect. Or for international box office.
Parzival is, of course, the first to the first key, but Art3mis manages to be first to the second key. Made me hope for a second that maybe Wade/Parzival wasn’t the answer to everything. Nah. He still is. It’s still just that: one white male to unite them all.
Once they team up, it’s mainly the five against Sorrento, whose villainous avatar sports Superman’s spitcurl (I would sue, but I have no standing), and who, in real life, knows nothing of tech or pop culture—just big business. Apparently those are our options now: big business vs. pop culture. As if pop culture isn’t big business. As for real culture? Literature and art music and art? Not a whisper. Mr. Kurtz, they dead.
I like that Parzival attains the first key via research. Get to the libraries, kids. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard Bruce Springsteen’s “Stand On It” blasting midway through the film. I’d forgotten all about that great B-side. I truly enjoyed the fact that the battle for the second key takes place within a virtual version of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” That was fun.
But the rest? It felt like the flotsam of the last 40 years. It felt like they regurgitated '80s crap, put it on a roller coaster, and called it a movie.
Quote of the Day
“In December, after the election, my colleagues in Washington wrote a Pulitzer-winning article about how the Russians had pulled off the perfect hack. I was on the F train on my way to the newsroom when I read it. I had no new assignment yet and still existed in a kind of postelection fog that took months to lift. I must‘ve read this line 15 times: ’Every major publication, including The Times, published multiple stories citing the D.N.C. and Podesta emails posted by WikiLeaks, becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.'
”The Bernie Bros and Mr. Trump's Twitter trolls had called me a donkey-faced whore and a Hillary shill, but nothing hurt worse than my own colleagues calling me a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence. The worst part was, they were right.“
Amy Chozik, ”‘They Were Never Going to Let Me Be President’: Covering Hillary Clinton's campaign from before it started to the very last moment," The New York Times. Worth the painful read.
The Story for Now
“The story for now is that a good judge has kept the courtroom open, and when she got pushback about the name of the third client, she allowed a representative of the press—me—to be heard. What I find heartening is that our institutions are functioning. The procedure Monday went as it should have under First Amendment jurisprudence.”
Robert Balin, a media attorney at Davis Wright Tremaine, who argued yesterday why the name of a “third client” of Michael Cohen's should be included in the public record. He prevailed, Sean Hannity's name was spoken, and there was an audible gasp in the courtroom. It was a Perry Mason moment. Balin was in court representing the interests of several news organizations, including The New York Times, AP and CNN.
We have a low bar for success in the Trump era (“our institutions are functioning”) but at least we passed it yesterday. As for the future? As Balin says, “The story for now...”
Yet Another Reason to Love French Film
This is a gangster. From a gangster movie.
The Ultimate Human Experience
“Man may penetrate the outer reaches of the universe. He may solve the very secret of eternity itself. But for me, the ultimate human experience is to witness the flawless execution of the hit and run.”
Branch Rickey, who, as general manager of the 1940s Brooklyn Dodgers, helped break the color barrier. But earlier this week, on Jackie Robinson Day, Joe Posnanski reminded us he did so much more than that.
Chinese Box Office: Bragging About a Rigged Game
A “different form of national pride”? Or “Rambo” with a Chinese face?
Wu Haiyun has a piece on the website Sixth Tone, which is for “Fresh Voices from Today's China,” and her point is as obvious as the headline:
Why Chinese Filmgoers Don't Buy Hollywood's Values Anymore: Well-worn Western tropes of individualism and liberalism fail to resonate with audiences embracing a different form of national pride
Quite the mouthful.
According to her bio, Wu is an editor at Sixth Tone, she has a Ph.D., and she was a visiting fellow at the Harvard-Yenching Institute. And her piece is misleading. It's so misleading it amounts to propaganda.
She begins by talking up China's role as the world's No. 1 movie market. To give perspective: This year, with the release of “Black Panther,” the domestic market in North America had a good February, grossing just over $1 billion, a record for that month. The domestic market in China? According to Wu, it grossed $1.6 billion, which would be a record for any month in North America. That China is now, or nearly is, the world's No. 1 movie market is not in dispute. Nor is it disputed that most of those new February movies in China were domestic releases: “Operation Red Sea,” “Detective Chinatown 2,” “Monster Hunt 2.”
Here's what's disputed. She writes:
In March, major Hollywood titles like “Black Panther,” “The Shape of Water,” “Tomb Raider,” “Pacific Rim: Uprising,” and “Ready Player One” all premiered in the country. In the absence of any major domestic releases, the monthly sales of 51.6 billion yuan were only about half of February's figure.
Right. And in the absence of Chinese New Year, too.
That's the key. Seriously, who among her readers doesn't know this? In terms of moviegoing, February in China is like summertime or Christmastime in the states. Everyone is off for a week, everyone has leisure, everyone goes to the movies. It's prime movie real estate. And it‘s not available to Hollywood movies.
During Chinese New Year, as well as the summer months, the Chinese government, for years now, has instituted what it calls “domestic film protection periods,” or what the U.S. press calls “Hollywood blackout periods.” No new foreign releases are allowed. That’s why all those Hollywood movies Wu listed above were released in March. February was off limits. You want to see a new Hollywood movie during Chinese New Year? 没有了。Go to the states.
Wu mentions this, yes, but passingly, and without specifying when such policies are in place. She brings it up to dismiss it. “These claims are overblown,” she writes. “Chinese audiences, not the Chinese government, are turning their noses up at Hollywood.”
If that's true, why have the protectionist policies in the first place? Why not allow Hollywood movies to be released during Chinese New Year, to compete with “Monster Hunt 2,” or during the summer months, to compete with “Wolf Warrior II”? Instead, China clears the field. During its most lucrative months, it runs races with just the Chinese and then brags that the Chinese won.
Wu's article is full of other misleading ideas about movies and box office. She brings up the poor Chinese performance of U.S. Oscar nominees such as “Moonlight” and “The Shape of Water,” as if this is a rejection of western values (feminism, LGBT rights), and as if these movies did boffo box office in the states. They didn‘t. Oscar nominees/winners rarely do. Serious films rarely do. Not for decades now. It’s sad but it's mostly global. People go see crap.
Hell, look at the Hollywood movies that do well in China: the “Fast and Furious” franchise; “Transformers”; and the video-game adaptation “Warcraft,” which the U.S. market rejected hugely ($47 million, domestic), but which did 很棒 in China ($230 million). What does that say about Chinese values? Do we fathom a guess? Would Wu like the answer?
The truly awful thing about the article? Wu didn't have to juke the stats. Her basic premise is correct. Chinese audiences are flocking to Chinese movies more than to Hollywood movies, and I don't think it's just because of protectionism. I think it's because Chinese production values are now at such a level as to compete with Hollywood‘s. The absolutist storylines are similar, too. The difference is the faces. It’s their faces now. It's their country and language. And who wouldn't want to see their face, their country, their language, up on the screen, in well-produced wish-fulfillment fantasy, after years of seeing only the other kind?
To me it's that simple. It's so simple only a Ph.D. could miss it.
Movie Review: Molly's Game (2017)
Whenever I watch anything scripted by Aaron Sorkin I find myself channeling Eliza Doolittle:
Words Words Words
I’m so sick of words
I get words all day through
First from him, now from you
Is that all you blighters can do?
And I’m a writer.
Sorkin does love to hear himself go on, doesn’t he? It was the part I never bought about “The West Wing”: the hyper-articulateness of it all. It’s certainly refreshing to hear in a dumbed-down world but it leaves a false aftertaste. His characters all sound similar, for one. They also have all the answers. No one’s searching, they already know, so the conversations are less Socratic than Sorkinic. They simply rush headlong through their stats, data, anecdotes. Cf., that opening scene of “The Newsroom,” which so many love but which is a bit fish-in-a-barrel for me. Can a brother get a pause? My kingdom for an um.
I actually found myself laughing out loud near the end of “Molly’s Game” when our protagonist’s father, Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner), who drove his daughter to succeed and then drove her away, shows up at the 11th hour while she’s making a speed-skating ass of herself at the Central Park rink. He walks her over to a park bench for a better-late-than-never father-daughter talk, which begins this way:
I’m going to give you three years of therapy in three minutes.
So Sorkin. If it were any more Sorkin it would explode from self-importance.
As for the great lesson the great man has come to impart? It’s about how our hero, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-caliber freestyle ski champion, wound up where she wound up: on federal trial in New York for running a high-stakes poker game with as much as a $250k buy-in, and surrounded by some of the worst of the wealthy worst: Wall Street execs, Russian mobsters, etc. This was after running a similar game in LA surrounded by douchebag Hollywood celebs and skeevy hangers-on. Wasn’t she planning to go to law school? How did she wind up on trial for her freedom?
She offers up an answer, “drugs,” but he waves it off.
Larry: You didn’t start with drugs until the end. They weren’t the problem, they were the medicine. No. It was so you could control powerful men. Your addiction was having power over powerful men.
Molly: That’s really what you think?
Larry: No. I know it for sure.
Also so similar. To what her attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) does. The men in the movie are there to suss out the real her—the her she keeps hidden. She even keeps it hidden from Charlie when she’s begging him to take her case. It’s up to him to suss out why he should.
See, Molly had a debt sheet (money gamblers owed her) worth millions, and she could have sold it but didn’t. She sold other things: her clothes, her car, but not this thing worth the most. Why? Because she couldn’t be sure how the buyers might collect—whose thumbs or legs might be broken. Whose lives might be ruined. She couldn’t do that. Because she’s a good person. So he has to take the case.
Hell, she could’ve gotten a $1.5 million advance on a book deal if she’d only named the Hollywood names in her poker game, including, here, Mr. X (Michael Cera), whom everyone assumes is Tobey Maguire, and not just because he’s played by Cera. She couldn’t do that, either. She only named the names already in the public record. For which she got a $30k advance. Bit of a hit there.
Even to the feds, whose sphere she entered only because of the Russian mobsters and Wall Street execs and Ponzi schemers at her table, men who quickly gave up her name to save their own asses, she refuses to name names. “She’s got the winning lottery ticket,” Jaffey says, “and won’t cash it!” Because she has integrity. Because her name is her name. Because she’s a good person.
Except ... wouldn’t the world be better off if she had given up the Russians and Ponzi schemers? Don’t we want to see that? Them behind bars?
More, doesn’t this contradict what her father sussed out about her? Dad says she turned bad because she wants to control powerful men; Jaffey says she’s good because she won’t give up powerful men. The only way that’s not a contradiction is if she doesn’t give them up because she wants to maintain control over them; she wants to keep them in her back pocket and maintain some kind of hold over them. In which case, she’s hardly the good person Jaffey (and Sorkin) make her out to be.
“Molly’s Game” was released last fall in the midst of the #MeToo movement, and many critics thought it was indicative of that movement: a powerful woman standing up for herself amid scummy men. But it’s actually the opposite of that movement. She has the goods on bad men and lets them off. She accuses no one. For all the words Sorkin gives her, he doesn’t give her those.
Box Office: ‘Rampage’ Opens with a Quiet Win; 'A Quiet Place' Continues to Rampage
Dwayne Johnson's giant ape movie “Rampage” opened to a soft $34 million win this weekend, but what's in an opening? Last April, his “The Fate of the Furious” opened to $98 and grossed a total of $226, while last December his “Jumanji” opened to a tepid $36 (admittedly, the week before Xmas) and wound up grossing $401. That's a rarity but never underestimate The Rock's appeal. Last thing my wife wants to see is a giant ape movie. But with The Rock? She's there.
It's also the third-biggest opening for a video game adaptation ever—after the first “Lara Kroft” in 2001 ($47.7) and “Angry Birds” two years ago ($38). Those are the only VG adapts that ever grossed north of $100 mil, and “Kroft” topped out at $131. I'm pretty sure “Rampage” will beat that. We‘ll see.
Meanwhile, John Kransinski’s “A Quiet Place,” which grossed $50 mil last weekend, dropped only 35% to add $32 to its coffers, for a grand total of $99.6. It also added something equally important. For some reason, last weekend, under its genre, Box Office Mojo simply listed one. No, not “horror.” Not “thriller.” Just this: “Off-Screen Couples On Screen.” WTF, right? How can we gauge how it's doing against other horror films if it's not listed as one? This weekend, they fixed that. It now ranks 13th all-time in horror and 11th in “Off-Screen Couples On Screen.” The top three of those are “Twilight” movies.
And for the record, its opening was the third-best for a horror film—after “It” and “Paranormal Activity 3.”
In third place, another horror film, “Truth or Dare,” which earned $19. Apparently the Trump administration isn't enough for some people.
“Black Panther” earned another $5 mil, and is at $673 (third-best ever domestically) and $1.3 billion worldwide (10th-best). Even if you adjust for inflation, “BP,” a Feb. release, is 33rd all-time, just behind “The Dark Knight” and “Thunderball.”
Exit Stage Right? Trump's ‘Rampant Criminality’
“I am unaware of anybody who has taken a serious look at Trump’s business who doesn’t believe that there is a high likelihood of rampant criminality. In Azerbaijan, he did business with a likely money launderer for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. In the Republic of Georgia, he partnered with a group that was being investigated for a possible role in the largest known bank-fraud and money-laundering case in history. In Indonesia, his development partner is “knee-deep in dirty politics”; there are criminal investigations of his deals in Brazil; the F.B.I. is reportedly looking into his daughter Ivanka’s role in the Trump hotel in Vancouver, for which she worked with a Malaysian family that has admitted to financial fraud. Back home, Donald, Jr., and Ivanka were investigated for financial crimes associated with the Trump hotel in SoHo—an investigation that was halted suspiciously. His Taj Mahal casino received what was then the largest fine in history for money-laundering violations.”
Adam Davidson, The New Yorker, “Michael Cohen and the End Stage of the Trump Presidency.” He says that reporters on the ground knew Iraq was fucked in April 2003 before the rest of us. He says business reporters who were paying attention knew the world economy was fucked in Dec. 2007 before the rest of us. And he says people who are paying attention know that Trump is done. Collusion is still up in the air. But this stuff? This stuff will stick, he says.
M's Game: Let's Do It Again
My second M's game of the season last night against the A's was memorable despite being pretty damned similar to my first M's game of the season, April 1 against Cleveland—the last game the M's played at Safeco before their recent eight-game roadtrip. In both:
- Mike Leake started
- M's fell behind 2-0
- They tied it 2-2 on a Kyle Seager double
- They soared ahead in the bottom of the 7th on two homeruns, one by Mitch Hanniger, the other by a player who doesn't hit many (Dee Gordon/Daniel Vogelbach)
- Juan Nicasio gave up a dinger in the top of the 8th—a no-doubter to a guy who had hit one earlier in the game (Edwin Encarnacion/Khrys Davis)
- Edwin Diaz closed it out in the 9th
Opposition line in the first game: 4/7/0. This one: 4/8/0. M's line went from 5/8/1 to 7/11/1. Almost all of our hitting came from the top half of the lineup. Bottom half is Death Valley. April 1st, our bottom four spots went 1-15 with a walk. Last night, 2-16 without a walk. Ichiro, batting 8th, went 0-3 with a K in both games. In both games, he was replaced in the top of the 8th by Guillermo Heredia, who, in the bottom of the 8th, got on (walk/single). Our first baseman (Ryon Healey/Andy Romine) went 0-4 to raise/lower/unchange his average to .000. After both games, our first baseman was exactly 0-11 on the season. In both games, the weather was shitty.
It's a formula.
All of that was still memorable because each game is unique. April 1st's shitty weather was 44 degrees at gametime and not budging thereafter. Last night, when I began walking to Safeco from First Hill, it was low 50s but seemed warmer. Halfway there, about 3rd and James, I felt a few drops. Once I hit Occidental I had to get the umbrella out. Waiting for my friend David by the glove, I stood up against the stadium, under protective eaves, and watched as the sky suddenly opened. A real downpour. Buckets. Not Seattle rain at all. David said it was like the rain in Georgia, where he's from, except in Georgia it's warm out when it does that. We watched as people scattered, squealed, jumped puddles. The Bible thumper with the loudspeaker system stood underneath it all, at 1st and Royal Brougham, proclaiming his truth, proclaiming our doom. I half admired him for it. A few hours earlier, with British and French support, Pres. Trump had ordered missile attacks on Syrian targets following Pres. Assad's chemical attacks on his own people. This in the midst of another scandal-ridden week of this scandal-ridden sad excuse for a presidency. It was less the act that bothered me, because what do I know, than the anticipated spin. This fat dipshit playing at war without consequences. Citizens in other countries worry about bombs and chemicals, I get to worry about words. Everyone in America stands under a protective eave.
I like going to games with David because he's annoyed by the things that annoyed me 20 years ago but which I‘ve since become innured to: the noisiness between innings; the urge to entertain us 24/7 with non-baseball gimcracks: cup stacking; music trivia; ball-under-cap; hydro races. Most fans cheer louder for red than for the game. What are you gonna do.
David’s friend Jacob, who is blind and works part-time at Safeco, joined us around the 4th inning. After the final out, after the M's won 7-4, we went looking to get a drink before Jacob bussed/David ubered/I walked home. Tougher than you think. There's that place with the big flame out front on the corner of Occidental and Jackson, right across the street from where FX McCrory's used to be, and which still sits unoccupied, but we opted to keep going. Bad choice. The joints were either loud dance places or closing up for the night. Eventually the moment passed, and we walked Jacob over to 4th and James for his bus. There was already a bus waiting there, not his, but I liked how the female bus driver, seeing Jacob, opened the door, asked, made sure he was alright.
Movie Review: Lost in Hong Kong (2015)
Thought: If you’re going to make a movie that’s also an homage to the great Hong Kong flicks of your youth, make a better one.
“Lost in Hong Kong” was China’s fifth-biggest film of 2015, grossing $234 million, but I struggled to get through it. It’s a comedy and I hardly laughed. It’s an adventure but I wasn’t intrigued until the last half hour—when the goal switched from trying to reunite with an impossible long-lost first love (emphasis on impossible) to fleeing dirty cops whose latest misdeed your dingbat brother-in-law has unknowingly filmed.
I didn’t buy it from the get-go.
In the mood for 成 龙
In 1994, a college student, Xu Lai (director Xu Zheng), wearing flannel and long hair, but looking like a pudgy 40-something wearing flannel and long hair, lectures on Van Gogh to his classmates:
This painting, The Sower, is why I want to be a painter. Of course, one day I hope that me and my loved one can go to the place in the painting, Arles in the Provence, open a studio, and create art together, and bear testimony to love.
The class erupts in applause—real or derisive, I can’t tell—while two girls immediately try to chat him up. One is tall, thin, gorgeous and sure of herself (right after his talk, she presents on Andy Warhol), and the other is shorter and mousier, wearing big glasses and bangs. He winds up going out with the tall one, Yang Yi (supermodel Du Juan), but every time they try to kiss disaster strikes: library stacks fall like dominoes, etc. Then she’s leaves for an arts program in Hong Kong and he’s bereft. That’s when the second one, Cai Bo (Zhao Wei of “Mulan,” “Red Cliff” and “Shaolin Soccer,” among others), makes her move. Her father runs a brassiere shop, Xu winds up designing bras for him, he and Cai Bo get married, life goes on. But in his heart he holds onto the dream of the artist’s life in Arles. With Yang Yi.
Twenty years later he’s on a trip to Hong Kong, where his in-laws pester him about why he and Bo haven’t been able to conceive yet, while his wife’s idiot younger brother, Lala (Bao Bei’er), in the midst of making a documentary about the family, pesters him about filming the real him. Xu relents to the request, but his real goal for the day is attending the art exhibition across town of Yang Yinow an internationally acclaimed artist.
Of course, everything gets in the way of a reunion. It's as if fate, or the filmmakers, are against him. But it's mostly Lala. He pursues Xu with a ferocity that would put Javert to shame. Then two cops investigating a murder also get on his tail; it turns out they’re the murderers and they need Lala’s videocam, which contains evidence of the crime.
Throughout, we get nice homages to classic Hong Kong cinema. Richard Ng shows up in an elevator. Yang Yi’s hotel room is 2046, as in the Wong Kar-wai film, whose “Chungking Express” Xu and Yang Yi watched as college students. My favorite reference is when Xu and Lala go over a bridge and onto a double-decker bus, and the cops say, “Who do they think they are—Jackie Chan?” A minute later, Xu winds up hanging off the bus by an umbrella—as Jackie did in “Police Story.”
A longer list of the homages can be found here.
Over the top
Wasn’t enough. I found the film painful. And not in a Ricky Gervais, “Well, at least we’re learning something about humanity” kind of pain. No, just pain. Xu is way too put-upon but we don’t even sympathize with him because his goal is so absurd. He didn’t really have a shot with Yang Yi back in college. And now? Now that she’s internationally acclaimed? And looks like this? Good god, man, your wife is out of your league. Count your blessings. Which is, of course, the long-delayed lesson in the end.
Then there's Lala, whom you just want to slug. Why in these very successful Chinese buddy capers (Cf., the “Detective Chinatown” series) must one character be uber-calm and the other obnoxiously over-the-top? Isn't there another way to do opposites?
We get a good ending sequence on top of a high-rise Hong Kong construction project, but it doesn’t make up for the pain.
- China Film Insider on the top 10 Chinese movies of 2017. I‘ve seen three of them, and agree that “Youth” was the best of those. But “Wolf Warrior II”? C’mon.
- Rolling Stone has a nice profile of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson that‘ll make you like him more than before. Even if you love him already.
- Louis Menand on the haunting photos of Paul Fusco as he traveled on the train bearing Robert Kennedy’s corpse travels from New York to Washington, D.C. It's people alongside the tracks. It's a nation mourning. Most of a nation.
- The bad photo selections of 1960s-era Topps baseball cards.
- Joey Poz on the guy some call the greatest baseball player to ever come out of California: George Brett. Scratch that: Ken Brett, his older brother. It's charming and sad and then charming again. BTW, how long have I been a baseball fan? When George broke through in the mid-70s, I thought of him as Ken's kid brother. Some part of me still thinks that.
- For some reason, Truman Capote's great piece on Marlon Brando, “The Duke in His Domain,” was trending on the New Yorker site the other day. If you haven't read it, now's your chance.
- The CBS era of Yankee ownership (1965-72) are the glory years of Yankee hating. But as Mark Armour points out, CBS was hardly at fault. The acquired an aging franchise from Webb/Topping and handed off a young, resurgent team to George Steinbrenner. Unmentioned by Armour? Race. The Yanks were one of the last teams to sign African-American and Latino ballplayers.
- Molly Ringwald revisits the movies she made with John Hughes and realizes how problematic they were. Also how important to a certain segment of the population.
“When it comes to the phenomenon of Donald Trump, you have to give him this: sanctimony is not foremost among his sins. He provokes no moral disappointment, because he creates no moral expectations. Just as his business career was characterized by Mob-connected cronies, racial bias, aggrieved contractors, dubious partners, byzantine lawsuits, and tabloid sensation, his Presidency dispenses with ethical pretense. Human rights in foreign affairs, compassion for the disadvantaged in domestic affairs, and truth in public statements are objects only of disdain.”
Read this last night. Just went “Dah-yum.” If Trump had sense enough, he'd wither from the brutal truth of it. But part of his power is in his obtuseness. That's part of how he's never held accountable. You get the feeling when the reckoning comes, it will come, not for him, but for the country.
Recommended: Andrew Marantz's New Yorker portrait of Reddit, midflight, as it tries to figure out where to draw a line it didn't think it had to: between free speech and hate speech; between acceptable and un. Full title: “Reddit and the Struggle to Detoxify the Internet: How do we fix life online without limiting free speech?”
No easy answers. Well, there are. One is to say it's all free speech, but then you run into the problem of us. You wind up with subreddits on revenge porn or Jewhating or worse. You wind up with Donald Trump as president.
A recurring bit is when Marantz describes some awful subreddits, then adds a parenthetical, “(Yes, it gets worse.)” As here:
In September of 2011, Anderson Cooper discussed the [jailbait] subreddit on CNN. “It's pretty amazing that a big corporation would have something like this, which reflects badly on it,” he said. Traffic to Jailbait quadrupled overnight. Twelve days later, after someone in the group apparently shared a nude photo of a fourteen-year-old girl, the community was banned. And yet the founder of Jailbait, an infamous troll who went by u/Violentacrez, was allowed to stay on Reddit, as were some four hundred other communities he'd created—r/Jewmerica, r/ChokeABitch, and worse. (Yes, it gets worse.)
Despite the dive into the worst of humanity, the piece isn't without its laugh-out-loud absurdities. In 2014, Ellen Pao became CEO of the often-misogynistic site. She lasted eight months:
Early in her tenure, Reddit announced a crackdown on involuntary pornography. If you found a compromising photo of yourself circulating on Reddit without your consent, you could report it and the company would remove it. In retrospect, this seems like a straightforward business decision, but some redditors treated it as the first in an inevitable parade of horrors. “This rule is stupid and suppresses our rights,” u/penisfuckermcgee commented.
I'd like the audio version read by Jason Bateman.
Meeting Xi Jinping
I'm reading “CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping” by Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King's College, London. Just started.
It's already interesting. We learn that Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, was a high-ranking CCP official who was purged in the early 1960s, then reeducated in the provinces during the Cultural Revolution. As a teenager, Xi was sent to the Shaanxi countryside in central China. After Mao's death, and after the opening up under Deng Xiaoping, he spent time in the U.S., visiting Muscatine, Iowa of all places. (Has anyone written about this? Yes. And yes.)
Brown mentions the one time he met Xi, in 2007, which he sees as indicative of some of the ways Chinese power works:
I did have one chance to observe Xi close up when he was in Shanghai as Party secretary there. He had only been in his position for a few weeks when I arrived with my delegation of political and business leaders from Liverpool, visiting the city to re-energize the relationship. The usual lobbying had secured a meeting with the then mayor, a man called Han Zheng. But most people were aware that the real power lay in the hands of the Party boss, and that securing a meeting with him was unlikely. ... To almost everyone's surprise, however, the news came back during the first day of our visit that Mr Xi did want to see us. ...
Xi did not put a foot wrong. The meeting ended punctually, and we were whisked away, us to our fate, he to his. A few days after this meeting, we crowed about it to British journalists based in Shanghai, and they laughed. They had recently heard a story by another group who had had a similar experience – they had arrived in Shanghai on a low-profile business delegation, expected to only meet a deputy mayor, or, at best, the mayor himself, and then found themselves taken to meet Mr Xi. ‘The speculation is that Xi needs to do the least risky, most fail-safe things at the moment,’ one of the journalists said. ‘Any edgy delegations or people who might challenge him at all, and he keeps away from them. But the minor stuff that carries no risk is fine. The last thing he wants to do is blot his copybook so close to getting final promotion.’ Unflattering as it may have been, it sounded as good an explanation as any for our being gifted with this high-level attention. It also says something quite profound about how to get to the top in modern China.
Xi was in Shanghai for eight months. Brown says there were three striking things he did there that might help us understand him further. One of the three doesn't seem much to me: he admired the competence of Ding Xuexiang, a private secretary, and helped elevate him. Nice. Great. The other two strike a chord in the geopolitical world of 2018:
- “He opposed the lavish supply of government goods and services to him as Party leader in the city. He asked for a smaller apartment than the one allocated to him, and also insisted that he did not need the fleet of cars that was at his call when in office.”
- “He reportedly demanded that his family not become involved in business in the city while he was there, and made it clear that they could not call on his help if they went against this instruction.”
Who is this in sharp contrast to? Yeah.
A Rather Softspoken Man
Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 38.
The image below doesn't relate to that. It's earlier—the first time King was profiled in The New York Times, on March 21, 1956, a few months into the year-long Montgomery bus boycott that turned him into a national and international figure. It's worth reading for the historical perspective alone. The Times describes him as “a rather softspoken man with a learning and maturity far beyond his twenty- seven years.” The cutline under his photo is a quote from him: “All men are basically good.” Cf., Anne Frank's “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Cf., their endings.
Another line from the article, “He sees the current bus boycott as just one aspect of a world-wide revolt of oppressed peoples,” dovetails nicely with one of the lead newspaper stories that day: “U.S. Backs France in Liberal Plans for North Africa.” We were choosing the wrong side even then. So was the Times. Its first sentence is all about France's search for solutions to her North African problems. That's an interesting problem to have: How to hold onto something that isn't yours.
Other headlines that day. A strike at Westinghouse was settled after 156 days. There was a spring thaw. Sen. Estes Kefauver upset Sen. Adlai Stevenson to win the Democratic primary in Minnesota. King was on page. 28.
Imagine telling a Times reader back then that someone in the paper that day would have a national holiday in their honor in less than 30 years. Would be interesting to see how many guesses it took.
Movie Review: Game Night (2018)
“Game Night” is another of those suburbanites-out-of-water comedies (cf., “Date Night,” “The Hangover,” “Central Intelligence”), but better than most. Subtler anyway. It has a nice, dry, off-hand sense of humor. Jason Bateman is a master at this, while his on-screen wife Rachel McAdams is so good we wonder why she isn’t doing more comedies. Witness her paroxysms when she plays the kids-at-home card after a gangster gets the drop on her, and he responds, “Not with that ass you don’t.”
We also get regular laughs from Billy Magnussen as Ryan, the dopey friend who favors bimbos, and Jesse Plemons as Gary, the creepy, needy neighbor/cop who just wants back into game night. I laughed a lot. At one point I laughed so hard my wife shushed me in the nearly empty theater at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle. And initially I didn’t even think much of the bit.
The absurdity of the situation
It’s that moment, mid-chase, when most of the gang is in Gary’s living room, faux-playing, but really allowing Max (Bateman) time to sneak into Gary’s bedroom and look up intel on the police computer. While there, he unknowingly drips blood from his gunshot wound onto Gary’s white terrier, Bastion (Olivia). Horrified, he tries to rub it off with a towel, which turns out to be a T-shirt with Gary’s beloved ex, Debbie, on it; and when that doesn’t work, he adds water and makes it all worse—both dog and T-shirt turn pink. This kind of thing never makes me laugh, by the way, just anxious. It’s a little too “I Love Lucy.” He’s not doing the smart thing to extricate himself from the situation; he’s doing the dumb thing to keep himself in the situation. So I was just nodding along, waiting for the stupid scene to end, when, covered now with water and blood, Bastion does the dog shake and winds up splattering slow-mo blood all over Gary’s already-creepy shrine to Debbie. That’s when I lost it.
The plot: Max and Annie (McAdams) are a fun, competitive couple who have weekly game nights at their small home in a nondescript cul-de-sac; but this one is hijacked by Max’s older, more successful brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), to the trendy apartment he’s renting in town. There, he announces game night will be an interactive role-playing game, and whoever solves it will get the keys to his 1976 Corvette Stingray. “Just the keys?” Ryan asks.
A faux FBI agent (Jeffrey Wright) soon arrives and announces one of them will be kidnapped before the night is over. And sure enough, two toughs break in, knock out the agent, and battle and take away Brooks while the others ooh and ah at how real it looks but mostly keep up the normal patter. “You have to try this cheese,” Max says.
Of course, the kidnapping is real, and our couples spend the rest of the movie in pursuit and pursued. Each has its subplot:
- Max and Annie have been having trouble conceiving, and Max is maybe thinking it’s not a good idea anyway.
- Michelle (Kylie Bunbury, distractingly pretty) lets slip she once slept with a celebrity, and hubbie Kevin (Lamorne Morris) spends the evening guessing.
- Rather than his usual bimbo, Ryan brings along a smarter, older colleague as a ringer (Sharon Horgan), and throughout they maybe become closer. Or maybe not.
Max also has older brother issues and maybe they’re related to why he can’t conceive? Maybe he lacks confidence? Because of Brooks?
The absurdity of us
Many things aren't what they seem, though. Brooks is not a Wall Street trader, he just sold coke to those guys, which is why he’s been kidnapped. He was supposed to deliver a Fabergé egg to “the Bulgarian” (Michael C. Hall), and someone else got it. But the egg isn’t an egg, either. It’s a fake containing a list of names on the Witness Protection Program. Even the game night that seems so deadly? It’s part of an elaborate plot by Gary to get back into game night. Gary, of course, didn’t know Brooks was a crook, so he didn’t know about the Fabergé egg and the Bulgarian. Also, if you unpack it, it means Gary—a cop—planned an assault (on the faux FBI agent and Brooks) and a kidnapping (on Brooks). I know he doesn’t seem smart, but he’s not that dumb.
But all that’s maguffin. What matters, as always in a comedy, is the comedy, and “Game Night” has enough of it. At one point, after Max is shot in the arm, Annie gets supplies to remove the bullet from a nearby mart. No rubbing alcohol, she informs him, so “I got you this lovely chard.” He: “Way to pivot.” My favorite part? She also picks up a magazine, Country Living, for its corn chowder recipe. It’s that. It’s almost never the absurdity of the situation; it’s almost always the absurdity of us.
M's Game: Warming Up in the Hit It Here Cafe
Jeff and I were sitting in the Hit It Here Cafe in the 7th inning of yesterday's M's game when Dee Gordon launched a rocket right at us.
It was the M's third game of the season, the rubber match with Cleveland, and my first time in the Hit It Here Cafe. My normal seats are better (300 level behind homeplate) but it was 44 degrees at gametime, and while we were well-covered (four layers, stocking cap, gloves), it was still, you know, 44 fucking degrees at gametime. Why not warm up?
We didn't much, but the M's did. Down 2-0 when we arrived, the M's strung together three doubles in the 5th to tie it—the last, I suppose, less double than “double.” It was a grounder to first that ticked up and over Yonder Alonso's glove and into right field. Hardly an error but I would‘ve scored it one. The official scorekeeper decided no and that’s how Kyle Seager got his first hit of the season. He's now 1-10. There was also some oddity with Mitch Haniger and our third base coach. He was on first when Seager hit his double, and was halfway to home when he slammed on the brakes and retreated. Would he have been nailed at the plate? I don't know. But the revision looked more dangerous than the original plan. That third base coach, by the way, is the infamous Scott Brosius of the infamous ‘98-’00 Yanks. How did that happen? Why is he with us? Why wasn't I consulted?
Anyway, Haniger braked, and our sub-DH for Nellie Cruz, Daniel Vogelbach, who looks like the greatest softball player in the world but doubtful for the bigs, struck out (he went 0-4), and that's where we were when Dee led off the 7th with his rocket shot. I thought, “Wow, that‘s hit. That’s a homer. From Dee Gordon? Does he hit many?” He doesn‘t. Before that swing he had 11 in his career. There are TVs in the cafe, too, and when I watched the replay, I flashed on Ken Griffey Jr., particularly the bat drop after the swing. Apparently I wasn’t the only one:
🤔🤔🤔— Mariners (@Mariners) April 1, 2018
He *was* working out with Junior, we heard. pic.twitter.com/bORFmleZmx
So Dee has more homers than stolen bases for the season. Odds on that happening?
Cano then singled (he's hitting .600), and Haniger (hitting .625) added a homer to left, and suddenly we were up 5-2. Turns out we needed it. In the 8th, Edwin Encarnacion, who'd homered earlier, added a two-run no-doubter to make it 5-4. But our Edwin (Diaz) shut out the lights in the 9th with three swinging strikeouts on 17 pitches, and we took 2 of 3 from the defending AL Central champs. Not bad.
Some worries. Seager had an off year last year and he's starting out slow. Our new first baseman, Ryon Healy, is 0 for the season. Paxton had trouble keeping them in the park Saturday. But Felix looked good opening night, Mike Leake performed well yesterday, and Haniger looks like the real deal. I'm more optimistic than I was a week ago.
Box Office: Spielberg's ‘Ready Player One’ Opens OK
Steven Spielberg is the only director to have two movies among the top 10 most popular movies of all time (domestic, adjusted), three in the top 20, and four in the top 25. No other director comes close. George Lucas has one in the top 10, two in the top 20, but his No. 3 isn't until No. 66. James Cameron: one in the top 10, two in the top 20, but no No. 3 until 113.
Just not lately. His biggest hit of the 21st century has been the dopey “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which grossed $317 in ‘08, or $405 adjusted (142nd all-time), then the grim “War of the Worlds,” which grossed $234 in ’05, or $335 adjusted (221st all-time). His biggest hit this decade, meanwhile, was “Lincoln,” $182/$208, which is definitely a feat—getting all of those asses in seats for a Civil War biopic. It's just that his lighter movies (“BFG,” “Adventures of Tintin”) don't bring them out like they used to.
“Ready Player One” doesn't quite change that. It grossed $41 million to win the weekend, and $53 over four days. (For some reason, it opened on Thursday.) Nothing to sneeze at, nothing to crow about. Its weekend total, for example, is about as good as the fourth weekend of “Black Panther,” this year's runaway hit, which, btw, earned another $11 mil to reach $650. It will soon pass “Jurassic World” ($652) and “Titanic” ($659) to become the third-highest-grossing domestic film of all time. Unadjusted. Adjust, and it's currently 36th, having just passed “Love Story” and “Butch Cassidy,” the No. 1 box-office hits of 1970 and 1969, respectively.
Will be interesting to see how “Ready Player One” does in its second weekend. Is word-of-mouth good? Looks like it won't have any real competition until Dwayne Johnson's “Rampage” opens April 13.
No. 2 this weekend? “Tyler Perry's Acrimony,” starring Taraji P. Henson, which is one of Perry's weaker openings.
Meanwhile, the third “God's Not Dead” flick, “God's Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness,” died. It earned $2.6 million—or about a third of what the second film earned during its opening in 2016. It grossed less in 1,693 theaters than Wes Anderson's “Isle of Dogs” did in 165 theaters ($2.8 million; 11th place).
The big Christian movie this Easter weekend is still “I Can Only Imagine,” which grossed another $10 mil for fourth place. It's now at $55.5. “Pacific Rim Uprising” dropped 67%, not good, and finished in fifth place. It's at $45 after two weeks.