erik lundegaard

Thursday May 31, 2018

Pardon Our Mess

The president of the United States announced today that he plans to grant a full pardon to conservative commentator Dinesh D‘Souza. Here’s the official pronouncement:

So how was Dinesh D‘Souza treated unfairly by our government? Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman counts the ways:

There are some campaign finance violations that are trivial, or that might be explained away as oversights. This was not one of them. D’Souza knew very well he was breaking the law, and took steps to conceal his actions. He devised and carried out a scheme to violate election laws. Specifically, once he and his wife had given the legal limit in contributions to a friend of D‘Souza’s who was running for Senate, he wanted to give more money, but he was prohibited by law from doing so. So he instructed his assistant and his mistress (yes, his mistress) to also give the legal limit, and he then reimbursed them for their contributions, concealing the true source of the money. That is not an oversight; it was a willful fraud.

Waldman, increasingly my favorite, also lists the awful, stupid things D‘Souza has said over the years. He also talks big picture: the message Trump’s recent pardons (Joe Arpaio, Scotter Libby) are sending to Trump's base and to colleagues caught in Robert Mueller's net.

Remember when the Republican party pretended to care about accountability? They don't pretend anymore.

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Posted at 06:47 AM on May 31, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: The Third Murder (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I say “spoilers” but, really, how can I spoil what I can’t fathom? There’s nothing to spoil here because there are so few answers. It’s legal procedural as M.C. Escher painting. Every step seems to lead us somewhere, but, scratching our heads, perplexed, we simply wind up right back where we started.

The movie opens with a murder. In the grassy fields near a river, Misumi (Koji Yakusho) takes a wrench and beats in the head of his former factory boss. The blood splatters Misumi’s cheek; then he splatters the corpse with gasoline and sets it aflame. Later, he confesses to the crime. Open and shut? Seemingly. But we’re two minutes in. As the movie progresses, we wonder if what we’ve watched is a thing that even happened.

Do the right thing
The Third Murder movie reviewOur protagonist, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), is brought in by Misumi’s first attorney to help with the case. He’s the son of a judge—the same judge who 30 years earlier was lenient with Misumi during his first murder trial—and he’s, you know, doing lawyerly things. He’s looking for ways to get his client off or his sentence reduced. He wants to avoid the death penalty.

Apparently this was the impetus for the film. Here’s director Hirokazu Kore-eda:

I was talking to a friend, who is a lawyer, and ... I asked him “What was it that he did?” and he said, “We’re there to make adjustments to the conflict interest.” I mean, I don’t know if addressing the conflict of interest is more of a common way of thinking in the west, but many people in Japan believe that the court is the space in which the right thing is done and the truth is pursued. So there was a gap between what the lawyer was telling me and how the Japanese public perceives it. 

You could argue it’s the difference between the movie version of the world and the reality, which is why Kore-eda decided to make a movie that dealt with that reality. Or, really, that began with that reality—using the best facts in your client’s best interests—and then ... not. Here’s what he asked himself:

“Okay, what would happen if a lawyer really started wanting to know the truth?”

It takes us a while to get there. The movie is masterfully atmospheric. You know how a film clings to you afterwards? Walking home, every sentence my wife said seemed to float in the air, pulsating with potential meaning, until disappating and leaving nothing behind; just a residue of meaninglessness. That’s what much of the dialogue, much of the movie, felt like to me.

Is Misumi crazy or wise? Is he malicious or protective? Did he kill the factory boss because he had debt, because he was fired, because the boss’ wife asked him to, because the boss’ daughter, Sakie (Suzie Hirose), wanted him to?

At one point, Misumi seems to commune with, and read the mind of, his attorney after the two hold up hands against the plastic partition separating them. So is he an empath? Later, Sakie implies something similar. She says Misumi sensed she wanted her father dead—since he was molesting her—and that’s why he killed him. And yet we hear nothing more of his empathic abilities. They‘re raised to be forgotten. 

Or how about the thing with the birds? If he didn’t kill the factory boss, then why mercy-kill his own birds beforehand while setting one free? Why bury them in the backyard beneath a cross of stones? And what does it mean that the burned body at the crime scene also formed a neat, perfect cross? Or that the movie ends with Shigemori standing at a literal crossroads?

My wife thought Misumi hadn’t committed the murder. She felt he was simply covering for Sakie. That’s why he kept changing his story and motives: to protect her. Sure, I said. Except 30 years earlier, he’d committed another murder in another city, and the prosecutor there said he kept changing his story, too. Changing the story to protect Sakie can’t be the answer because it’s what he’s always done. We’ve just gone in circles. We’re back on M.C. Escher’s steps.

The truth will not out
To be honest, I can't even pinpoint what the title refers to. The earlier murder was a two-fer, so is the factory boss the third? Or is Misumi himself the third murder? He’s an innocent man doomed to be executed by the state, which isn’t interested in a search for truth.

I admit I liked “The Third Murder." From the beginning, I felt in the hands of a master. What’s fascinating, too, is that Kore-eda seems to have upended his original purpose. Disappointed by the reality of the Japanese legal system, he wanted to make a movie about a lawyer who did search for the truth, who was what we envisioned a lawyer to be. And what happened? His client got screwed and the truth wasn’t outed. Indeed, the more he searched for the truth, the further it got from him. And from us.

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Posted at 01:50 AM on May 31, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Tuesday May 29, 2018

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Memorial Day

Too much me and not enough Candace at Safeco Field on Sunday. She's wearing the new M's cap she bought—flat brim, as the kids do.

I went to the Seattle Mariners game on Sunday afternoon with a friend from Australia, Candace, who's lived in the states for five or so years, had never been to an MLB game, and always wanted to see one. She saw a not-bad one: a 3-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins in a quick two and a half hours under blue skies. M's scored two with two outs in the bottom of the 8th. Our earlier run came on a Kyle Seager homer that we didn't see; we were standing in long slow line to get a Mariner Dog. Yep, the hot dog, too. She wanted the whole experience. 

This baseball lesson wasn't like the one with my friend from Lebanon. Candace had played softball growing up so she knew the rudiments—although I did remind her about nine innings, visiting team batting first, three outs, etc. I gave examples of outs: ground, fly, strike. She asked about the guys wearing black and I said they were the umpires. I said there were four here but six in the postseason. She asked what the postseason was. I told her. I told her you could tell the teams apart because the home team tended to wear white and the road team gray. I added that my father told me that when he took me to my first MLB game when I was about 4 years old. I still remember him telling me. Maybe because it added clarity to the proceedings. “Ah, so I root for these guys.” 

I also told Candace the “Yo La Tengo” story. Just not as well as Roger Angell. 

Baseball on Memorial DayThroughout, she peppered me with good questions. She asked if the best hitter batted first. When a Mariner finally got aboard with a single, she asked why there were two Mariners on first base, so I had to explain about first/third-base coaches and what they did. I told her that traditionally the fastest guy batted first, but over the years it's evolved to where you want someone who isn't slow with a good OBP at the top of the lineup. I explained OBP and batting average, and how you calculate both: percentages to the thousandth rather than hundredth point. I told her what a clean-up hitter was. 

She seemed most impressed by, or made the most noise about, foul balls ricocheting back. We were 300-level behind homeplate so I didn't give a second glance to most of them, but she was worried for the other fans. “Do they get hit often?” she asked. I replied: “Thrown and batted balls can be dangerous. The Seattle Mariners and Major League Baseball wish fans a safe and happy...blah blah blah.” You'd think I'd know this official warning verbatim by now. In my younger days, with a spongier brain, I would have. Oh, I then told her about Carl Mays and Ray Chapman. That was chilling to her. 

There was one question she asked that I couldn't answer. She said that for a holiday that felt like it should be about quiet with remembrance, everyone seemed fairly loud and celebratory during Memorial Day weekend. I nodded and said that's the nature of American holidays. We want to honor a thing but we wind up whooping it up for the day off. Plus we‘re not particularly good at history or remembering. Cf., Bowie:

Do you remember your President Nixon?
Do you remember the bills you have to pay
Or even yesterday?

The question I couldn’t answer? “Why was Memorial Day at the end of May? Was it tied to some battle?” Yesterday morning, Memorial Day morning, I looked it up. Apparently the holiday began in the South during the Civil War and spread North after the war. It's not only about remembering war dead, of course, but placing flowers on their tombstones. Which is one possible answer as to why it's held during the last Monday in May:

The first northern Memorial Day was observed on May 30, 1868. One author claims that the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. According to a White House address in 2010, the date was chosen as the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom in the North.

 That second answer makes the most sense. 

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Posted at 06:39 AM on May 29, 2018 in category Seattle Mariners
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Monday May 28, 2018

Movie Review: Love, Gilda (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Love, Gilda” is a sweet documentary about a sweet comedian, Gilda Radner, one of the break-out stars from the original cast of “Saturday Night Live,” who died of cancer in 1989 at the age of 42. It’s probably too sweet. For a doc about someone who spent much of her life making us laugh, I didn’t laugh much. We only get snippets of bits. It’s fair-use clips.

We also get a few WTF moments. First-time director Lisa Dapolito takes us to the launch of “SNL” in the fall of 1975, and behind-the-scenes romances and battles, and the characters Radner and others created, and I’m wondering, “OK. When will it hit that they’re huge? When will she feel the impact of becoming a national icon?” According to Dapolito, it took place when “SNL” did a live show in New Orelans in 1977. That’s when they all saw how popular they were.

Love, Gilda movie review1977? A year and a half after it exploded like a bomb onto American pop culture? Months after its first break-out star, Chevy Chase, left the show to star in Hollywood movies? They didn’t know until then?

Or is the point that the Nola adventure was different from mere fame? That it was scary? This is from the Times-Picyaune’s 2017 look back on that episode:

In another sketch, after Gilda Radner did her popular Emily Litella character—complaining about “liverboats” on the Mississippi River—fans stormed the stage. Groping ensued.

I searched for clarification because we don’t get much from Dapolito, who seems to have based a lot of the doc on Radner’s 1989 memoir, “It’s Always Something.” We don’t get clarity on the romances, either. Radner had many boyfriends over the years, even before she became a star, but how they began and ended? Who knows? They just come and go. The only onscreen ex/talking head is Martin Short, who met Gilda during the 1972 Toronto production of “Godspell,” and who is sweet and funny in his remembrances. But overall the doc implies that her many relationships were indicative less of experimentation or fun than low self-esteem. Gilda lost her father at an early age, and, via audio-book voiceover, she makes a reference to maybe trying to compensate for that loss.

I like the various stepping stones to “SNL,” such as “Second City” and “National Lampoon Radio Hour.” Not enough is done on that. I’d like a doc on just that. I like the coming together of the team: Now Aykroyd’s on board, now Belushi, there’s Bill Murray in the background. BTW: How did the SCTV guys, who were also part of these shows, not wind up on “SNL”? Did Lorne Michaels, whose first pick for the show was Radner, really reject them? Did he not think John Candy and Joe Flaherty were funny?

Revelations: I didn’t know Gilda was anorexic. (How did I not?) I didn’t know she married G.E. Smith, the future “SNL” guitarist and band leader, whom she met doing her one-woman show on Broadway in 1980. The doc glosses over that relationship to get to the Gene Wilder one, and then kind of glosses over that. It keeps a discreet distance from its subject. It's polite. The doc also glosses over the play “Lunch Hour” that she did with Sam Waterston in 1980, and the movie, “First Family“ with Bob Newhart that also came out in 1980. That was her first big post-”SNL" movie. How was that her first? Belushi was in both “Animal House” and “Goin’ South” in ’78. He and Aykroyd were in “1941” the next year, and “Blues Brothers” the year after. Late arrival Bill Murray starred in “Meatballs” in ’79. Even Jane Curtain starred with Jessica Lange in “How to Beat the High Cost of Living” in 1980. Did Gilda turn down projects? Was she not offered them? Was it Hollywood sexism or her predilection for the theater? 

And then it was too late. After “First Family,” she went off on that Gene Wilder string: “Hanky Panky” in 1982 (second-billed), “The Woman in Red” in 1984 (seventh-billed), “Haunted Honeymoon” in 1986 (second-billed). She didn’t click. Whatever clicked before, didn’t here. (The why of the click is worth exploring.) She was riding the wave and then the wave went elsewhere.

I could’ve used more of her contemporaries as talking heads. We get Chevy, Marty, Paul Shaffer, Laraine Newman, Lorne Michaels, and “SNL” writer Alan Zweibel. That’s it. The other talking heads are next-gen comics to whom she’s an icon: Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudoph. There’s a sweet moment when one of them is handed her scrapbook/diary, and says, in awe, “Is this her handwriting?”

But there’s not much insight. It’s mostly feeling. And I left feeling meh.

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Posted at 06:46 AM on May 28, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Sunday May 27, 2018

Box Office for ‘Solo’: A Great Disturbance in the Force

Did you know “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is the first “Star Wars” movie to open in more 4,300 theaters? Twenty other movies have done that—superhero movies, mostly—but none were in the “Star Wars” franchise. The previous biggest for “SW” was the last one, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which opened in 4,232 theaters last December and grossed $220 million over three days. 

Solo: A Star Wars Story opens way down“Solo” opened this weekend in a little more than that, 4,381 theaters, and grossed a little less than that: an estimated $83 milliion.

How does that rank? Among the 21, it's 16th-best. That's not supposed to happen to “Star Wars” movies. 

How does it rank among “Star Wars” openings? Harder to judge. The first one, after all, opened in 1977 in 43 theaters. Unadjusted, “Solo” is fifth-best. But the three other “Star Wars” movies that opened north of 4,000 theaters grossed the following: $247, $220 and $155 million. $83 looks pretty flimsy by comparison. Call it a great disturbance in the Force. It's as if millions of voices suddenly said “Nah” and walked away and did something else. 

The question is why. 

I assume it's a combination of “Star Wars” fatigue, some mild disappointment in recent “Star Wars” movies, and lukewarm reviews. The movie had a troubled birth, too. Original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“The Lego Movie,” “21 Jump Street”) were fired early in the project and Ron Howard was tapped to step in. Much felt unimaginative about it. Emilia Clarke—again? Woody Harrelson—again? One of the biggest complaints I heard was casting Alden Ehrenreich as the young Solo. He's a good-looking kid, but he often plays wide-eyed (“Rules Don't Apply”) or wider-eyed (“Hail, Caesar!”). He doesn't exactly have the knowing smirk of Harrison Ford. I guess the movie is how he acquired that smirk but that's not what people want to see. People want to see Harrison Ford. 

Is this one of those instances where the actor matters? Stephen Metcalf has a piece in the latest New Yorker entitled “How Superheroes Made Movie Stars Expendable: The Hollywood overhauls that got us from Bogart to Batman.” For anyone who's been paying attention, it's sort of a no-shit-Sherlock headline. At the same time, the actor replacing the actor who previously played the character has to be right. Good luck, for example, finding a new Iron Man. Or, apparently, a new Han Solo.

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Posted at 10:35 AM on May 27, 2018 in category Movies - Box Office
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America's Loss of Prestige in the Trump Era

Jon Lee Anderson has a piece in The New Yorker on John Feeley, the former ambassador to Panama, who quit his post earlier this year because of the moral failings of the Trump administration. It's about that, the diplomatic corps in general, and America's loss of prestige in the Trump era. Some excerpts:

  • When Tillerson was fired, this March, eight of the ten most senior positions at State were unfilled, leaving no one in charge of arms control, human rights, trade policy, or the environment. For diplomats in the field, the consequences were clearly evident. In 2017, Dave Harden, a longtime Foreign Service officer, was assigned to provide relief to victims of the war in Yemen, one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters. The entire diplomatic staff for the country was barely a dozen people. “We worked out of a three-bedroom house,” he said. “It felt like a startup.” There was no support from State, and no policy direction, he said: “The whole system was completely broken.” Harden resigned last month.
  • Privately, [former U.S. ambassador to Mexico Roberta] Jacobson was more forthcoming. “The level of coöperation we‘ve gotten is something you don’t just build overnight,” she told me. “We are still the preferred commercial and economic partner, but we have to be trustworthy. The mere fact that in some sectors, especially in agriculture, Mexican buyers are beginning to look elsewhere should be a warning to us that we may be starting to lose a clear advantage. This could prove true in security or migration as well.”
  • Jorge Guajardo, the former Mexican Ambassador, told me that the loss of prestige was already evident. “In Latin America, the relationship with the U.S. has gone from aspirational to transactional,” he said. “In countries like Mexico, we used to say, when there was a case of corruption, ‘If this happened in the U.S.A. . . .’ But we don’t say that anymore. There used to be a kind of deference to the U.S. Not anymore. If something doesn’t benefit Mexico, we’ll walk away.” In the past, he said, Latin-American countries looking for business partners might select a U.S. company over one from another country, because America represented higher ethical standards. Since Trump’s election, he said, things had changed. “There’s this idea that the States is just like the rest of us. That’s the saddest thing to me.”
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Posted at 08:41 AM on May 27, 2018 in category Politics
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Saturday May 26, 2018

We All Want to Change the World

I like that Noah Berlatsky has a piece on Hollywood that includes the following sentences:

Conservatives claim that Hollywood is hopelessly liberal, constantly pushing feminism and LGBTQ rights and other subversive agendas. But when it comes to portraying actual subversives, Hollywood isn't enthusiastic. On the contrary, big-budget action films often go out of their way to show that radicals are corrupt, misguided or ridiculous, and to insist that the status quo, whatever its faults, is the thing worth fighting for.

Good god, yes. Beyond that, Hollywood mostly glamorizes guns, violence, sex, and an absolutist vision of the world (white hats/black hats) because that's what sells. Most Hollywood plots would feel right at home at an NRA convention. So not “liberal.”

But the headline of Berlatsky's piece is misleading:

Hollywood isn't on the side of the resistance

His point is that Hollywood isn't revolutionary. Resistance to Trump (which most Hollywood folks back) and actual revolution (which ... not so much) are two different things. Indeed, you read the piece and you go, “Corporations don't want to lose power? No shit, Sherlock. Thanks for the news.”

That said, I'm a fan of anyone calling out the lie in the “liberal Hollywood” charge.

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Posted at 09:17 AM on May 26, 2018 in category What Liberal Hollywood?
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The Media's Absurd Dance with Donald J. Trump

Donald Trump

“Trump has earned the presumption that everything he says on the topic of the Russia investigation is offered in bad faith.”

Paul Waldman, a writer for the Washington Post, The Week and the American Prospect, has cut to the chase in his latest Post column. It's entitled “Time to stop chasing Trump's lies down the rabbit hole” and it's required reading for everyone in the legit news media. Particularly you, “Morning Edition.”

Waldman sums up the absurd dance between the legit media and the 45th president of the United States:

It goes like this: President Trump makes a ridiculous accusation that almost everyone immediately understands to be false. Then we in the media, because it's the president, treat that accusation as though it's something that has to be taken seriously. Then governmental resources are mustered to deal with the accusation. Then Republicans try to twist the mobilization of those resources to give them the answer they‘re seeking. But because it’s all based on a lie, they fail once Democrats force some measure of truth to be revealed.

Worst of all, we‘re going to end up doing it again.

Glenn Kessler and Meg Kelly run through some of the iterations of this maddening pattern. Barack Obama tapped my phones! The Obama administration illegally “unmasked” Americans caught up in surveillance of Russian targets! The Democrats colluded with Russia! The whole Russia investigation happened because of the Steele dossier!

No matter what ludicrous charge Trump makes, the entire political system reacts as though it might be true. If tomorrow the president said that “Robert Mueller” never existed and the person claiming to be him is actually Nancy Pelosi in elaborate makeup, we’d all find ourselves debating whether Mueller is a real person while House Republicans angrily demand that he produce a DNA sample.

The latest example is the repeated charge Trump has made that the Obama administration put a “spy” in his campaign to undermine his campaign. Waldman breaks this down, too:

In this latest case, we learned that in 2016, the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation when it discovered that people associated with the Russian government had made contact with Trump campaign officials. The bureau went about its investigation in the most circumspect way possible: Instead of marching agents into Trump headquarters to interview people on the campaign, they used an experienced informant who quietly reached out to those officials to see what the nature of the Russian contacts was. Then they kept the results of their investigation quiet until after the election so as not to affect the outcome of the race.

Yet Trump took those facts and twisted them around to claim that the bureau, on the direction of the Obama White House, planted a spy in his campaign in order to help Hillary Clinton. This preposterous lie was dutifully repeated by Fox News and talk radio, ramping up pressure to the point where Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein felt it necessary to ask the department’s inspector general to take a look. Then the Trump White House instructed the Justice Department to brief two Republican committee chairs, including shameless Trump lickspittle Rep. Devin Nunes, on the department’s use of that informant. It was only later that they agreed to hold a second meeting to give the same information to the “Gang of 8,” the bipartisan group of congressional leaders who are regularly briefed on intelligence matters.

I like Waldman's solution, too:

At this point, Trump has earned the presumption that everything he says on the topic of the Russia investigation is offered in bad faith and is almost certainly false, until proved otherwise. So we should treat his statements the way we do press releases from the North Korean state news agency. They may be newsworthy in that they show what the regime would like people to believe, but we don't assume that they have any relationship to actual facts.

Here's the thing: Even after Trump, we‘ll still have the above absurd pattern, because we’ll still have Fox News and the current heads of the Republican party, who rely more and more on lies to justify the awful things they do. But yes, no one is better at it, and more dangerous to this country and to democracy, than Donald J. Trump. 

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Posted at 08:58 AM on May 26, 2018 in category Media
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Friday May 25, 2018

The Only Derek Jeter T-Shirt I'd Wear

Jordan Shusterman, a writer over at Cut4.com, has a piece from earlier this month called “Let's appreciate how long Ichiro has been playing professional baseball.” It's mostly timeline, and not bad, although my version would include different historic markers. But I particularly like this one: Shohei Otani was born two years after Ichiro began playing professional baseball with the Orix BlueWave. How about that?

Here's my favorite part, though. It's the historic marker for 2014.

Derek Jeter retires

It's the combo of words and images. Jeter seems to be celebrating with us that he's leaving. 

In reality, Jeter was celebrating because his last at-bat at Yankee Stadium yielded a game-winning single. But it was a meaningless game—the Yanks missed the post-season by a big margin that year—so why such excitement? Because it helped secure his legacy and legend. It was another “Derek Jeter moment.” It was all about him. 

But the above? Put it on a T-shirt and I'd wear it—the only Derek Jeter T-shirt I'd be caught dead in.

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Posted at 05:38 AM on May 25, 2018 in category Yankees Suck
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Thursday May 24, 2018

Muscle Memory

Still practicing my Chinese—slowly but way not-so-surely—and was working on gei or “to give.” Wo gei ni kahn, etc. This is that character:

Oddly, though, every time I'd begin, rather than a straight line under the radical, the part on the left, I'd add three vertical dashes. I did that like three or four times, again and again, chastising myself all the while. “Where did that come from?” I wondered. 

It came from the past. It came from muscle memory. Because that's how the traditional character, which I learned 30 years ago, is written:

I do think China screwed up a lot of characters when they simplified. For example: This is ur, or “son,” first as traditional and then as simplified:

兒   vs.   儿

The traditonal always reminded me of a wobbly-headed kid on splindly legs. That's how I always remembered it. It looks like what it is, and it's kinda cute. Don't know what to make of the simplfied version. Just legs? Like spider legs? I'm getting nothing here.  

They also butchered dong, or “east”:

東   vs.   东

The first is a rising sun, which, you know, makes sense. The second is ... what ... the Fantastic Four signal? I‘ve got no clue. It’s lopsided, too. I hate writing that character. 

I know: Who am I to criticize. 我是什么东西?

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Posted at 01:43 PM on May 24, 2018 in category Chinese Language
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Movie Review: Shabab Sheyab (2018)

Movie review: On Borrowed Time

Hamad, Hassan and the General. Think Steve Buscemi, Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones.

WARNING: SPOILERS

I was drawn to the movie by its description in the film guide for the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival:

After one of them receives a windfall inheritance, a group of fiesty [sic] elderly men escape their assisted living home and hit the streets of Dubai to explore the dreams they had all but forgotten in this tender comedy-adventure that proves you are never too old to discover life's joys.

In Hollywood, I figured, it would be a forgettable, dispiriting film with a few elderly actors romping around, making non-poignant jokes about aging, and, for a scene, dressing up in ridiculous hip-hop fashions and walking in slow-mo toward the camera. But at SIFF? From United Arab Emirates? I had confidence it would be better than that. 

Nope. Worse.

Everything wrapped up nicely
“On Borrowed Time” (Arab title “Shabab Sheyab” or “Old Youth”) borrows the clichés of Hollywood movies—including that hip-hop, slow-mo walk toward the camera—without its century of professional storytelling. It’s a bad combo. Thirty minutes in, I silently chastised myself: “Dude, you really have to check out the trailers before you drag your wife to these things.”

It begins well. An old man in voiceover talks about the stars and the moon aligning and making the conditions perfect for writing. And what he’s writing? It's good. I assumed he was a writer, a professional, now living the last years of his life in an assisted-living facility in Dubai. I wanted more of it. But that angle disappears almost immediately.

The voiceover belongs to Abu Hassan (Sad Al-Faraj), who has an expressive face and a twinkle in his eye, and would be played by Morgan Freeman in the Hollywood version. He’s the one continually urging his three assisted-living friends to make the most of the rest of their lives. Basically: Get busy living or get busy dying. The three friends are:

  • General Talaat (Salloum Haddad), who still gets up early and shaves every morning, and would be played by Tommy Lee Jones.
  • The Pharmacist (Mansoor Alfeeli), a good-natured germaphobe who wears rubber gloves and takes too many pills. (Dick Van Dyke, maybe?)
  • Abu Hamad (Marei Halyan), affable and wheelchair-bound, who still dreams of making a recording. (I could see Steve Buscemi playing older.)

When lawyers reveal that the General has inherited 50 million dirham (about $12 million) from a distant relative, the four, plus their youthful caretaker, Khalid (Fouad Ali), go out to claim the money. The law office is closed, but in the parking garage, look, there’s a recording studio. Some subterfuge is necessary to get Hamad to the front of the line, but he makes his recording—which, of course, will be left at the club/disco the Pharmacist always wanted to go to (the one for which they wear the hip-hop clothes), and will then, of course, wind up on the radio, where, of course, it will become a hit. For a minute they celebrate. Then that storyline is dropped.

This happens with all the plot points. There’s a thing that needs to happen, it does, it's dropped. It’s always obvious what needs to happen and it’s always easy to make it so. Hamad should sing, the Pharmacist shouldn’t be such a germaphobe, and Khalid should get together with the pretty doctor, Ruqayyeh (Layla Abdullah). Yes, yes, and yes. Problems solved.

Ed Rooney lives
The biggest such problem is reuniting the General with his estranged son. Indeed, the whole inheritance thing was a fake, a subterfuge concocted by Abu Hassan to bring father and son together. Initially, it fails. When the two meet in a mall, the General curses his son and slaps him. When Hassan tries to intervene, he has a heart attack and dies. Road to hell/good intentions.

But in the aftermath, with the subterfuge revealed, the General’s heart softens, and his son forgives, and the grandson wants nothing more than to sit on grandpa’s lap. Meanwhile, the manager of the assisted care facility, who, for a time, chased after the four as if he were Principal Rooney in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” is fired and mocked by the residents on his way out. 

“On Borrowed Time” is dreadful. Don’t go expecting any insight into UAE. Expect Hollywood-lite.

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Posted at 06:36 AM on May 24, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Wednesday May 23, 2018

Tweet of the Day

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Posted at 08:54 PM on May 23, 2018 in category Media
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Philip Roth (1933-2018)

I was thinking of a Philip Roth line yesterday morning before I heard the news of his death yesterday evening at the age of 85. It's a line from “The Ghost Writer,” my favorite of his novels, about a young Nathan Zuckerman visiting his idol, E.I. Lonoff, who is a combination of Malamud, Bellow, Salinger and probably other Jewish authors I'm unaware of, in the Berkshires—“that is to say,” Zuckerman adds, “in the goyish wilderness of birds and trees where America began and long ago had ended.”

But that's not the line. This is the line:

To get it wrong so many times. 

It's Lonoff's line. He's an exacting presence, a meticulous writer and personality who often goes through 20-30 drafts of a short story before it's considered done. When he's complimented on this, by Zuckerman, he says the above. I‘ve quoted it before. Here, for example. Philip Roth dies at the age of 85I can’t remember why I thought it yesterday. Probably work related. But I think of Lonoff a lot. He read with a pen in hand to mark passages, and I began to do the same. I still do it when I'm not on a Kindle. Like Lonoff, I have trouble concentrating otherwise. 

I urge “The Ghost Writer” on you as I‘ve urged it on, and given it to, countless friends over the years. I think it’s about as perfect as a novel can be. It reminds me of “Gatsby” or “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” or “Breakfast at Tiffany‘s” in that way. All of these books are eminently accessible, fun and profound. They stick with you. They’re deep in my bones.  

That was my first Roth, wasn't it? It was the summer of 1981, we were on the eastern shore, at Rehoboth Beach, Del., and I'd been reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I think my father was finally curious about Vonnegut, picked him up, thought “Not bad, but ... ” When I objected to the “but,” he suggested I read some Roth. I was used to Vonnegut's short sentences and Roth gave me this at the opening of “The Ghost Writer”:

It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago—I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsromanwhen I arrived at his hideaway to meet the great man. The clapboard farmhouse was at the end of an unpaved road twelve hundred feet up in the Berkshires, yet the figure who emerged from the study to bestow a ceremonious greeting wore a gabardine suit, a knitted blue tie clipped to a white shirt by an unadorned silver clasp, and well-brushed ministerial black shoes that made me think of him stepping down from a shoeshine stand rather than from the high altar of art. 

It would be easier to name the Roth books I haven't read than the ones I have. I didn't read him much this century, so I haven't touched “Everyman,” “The Humbling,” “Nemesis.” I failed to pick up “The Dying Animal” and “Exit Ghost.” Back in the day, I didn't make it through “Operation Shylock.” “Shop Talk,” no. The other 25 books, yes.

In pre-social media days, I was part of a group of friends that met in a private online chatroom to talk about the world, and within it, by its ringleader, I was given the nom de plume Zuckerman, after Nathan, Roth's alter ego. The ringleader and I had known each other since the 1980s, and I guess I spoke a lot about Roth then. Or it could be that my early work was very much Roth-influenced: that super-articulate howl, that beating your head against the wall, that catch between being the good boy and living the good life. 

How much yiddish do I know because of Roth? He was my entree there. (He and Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers.) “Gonif,” certainly. That's “Goodbye, Columbus.” It's a scene between Roth's alter-ego, Neil, and Mr. Patimkin, the father of Neil's girlfriend, Brenda, two-thirds of the way through the novella:

“Here [in business] you need a little of the gonif in you. You know what that means? Gonif?”
“Thief,” I said.
“You know more than my own kids. They‘re goyim, my kids, that’s how much they understand.”

That's such great dialogue. All that doesn't need to be said. Patimkin is the mercenary business Jew, the man who raised himself by his bootstraps, and made his children taller, more beautiful, but ultimately softer than he was. He made them goyim. That unspoken sigh of resignation when Neil knows what his kids don‘t. There’s so much of America captured in this little back and forth. 

That's the thing I missed when Roth went on his spree of Great American novels in the 1990s. I reviewed most of them for The Seattle Times—I was considered their Roth expert—but gave them middling reviews. They won national book awards and I was disappointed. The themes were amazing, it was America through the American century, but by then Roth had moved past dialogue (and his trademark brilliant sense of humor) and into monologue, which was often humorless. He traded dialogue for diatribe. I missed his back-and-forths. I wanted Alvin Pepler on the scene.

I still feel guilty about those reviews. I want to return to those books to see what I missed.

In the middle of the Trump era is no time to die for someone like Roth. The man who skewered Nixon and his men in “Our Gang” in the early 1970s dismissed Trump in a paragraph just last January: 

I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.

He was in retirement by then but maybe shouldn't have been. I could‘ve used an essay, or a book, on the above. His novel, “The Plot Against America,” imagined a fascistic U.S. in the 1940s with a Pres. Lindbergh in charge, and Jews rounded up and taken into those goyish woods, and for that Roth was considered prescient. He dismmised it. Lindbergh was a hero, he said. “Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.” The unstated is that 21st-century America can’t even do fascism right. We voted for a strutting clown, a pompous ass. During the 2016 campaign, I could never understand why more people didn't see through Trump, and why it was so easy for me to do so. Maybe because I saw him partly through Philip Roth's eyes.   

He was the starting right-fielder of my literary nine. When Gore Vidal died I wrote “Doctorow and Roth live” and when Doctorow died I said “Now just Roth.” And now, not. Goodbye, Columbus. Goodbye, Columbus. Goodbye. 

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Posted at 11:25 AM on May 23, 2018 in category Books
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Tuesday May 22, 2018

Quote of the Day

“You have to ask yourself how you will be remembered: as one of the three big internet giants, together with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who have enriched our world and our societies; or, on the other hand, in fact, the genius that created a digital monster that is destroying our democracies and our societies. That’s the question that you have to put for yourself.”

— Former Belgian prime minister Guy Maurice Marie Louise Verhofstadt, speaking to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, before the European Parliament in Brussels as Europe prepares to implement new data protection regulations

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Posted at 01:50 PM on May 22, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Richard Goodwin (1931-2018)

As I was leaving to get a coffee Sunday afternoon, for some reason I focused on the book “Remembering America” by Richard Goodwin on the bookshelf in the foyer. Just the title. It had meaning for Goodwin when it was published in 1988 amid the Reagan Revolution, which was undoing much of the good work he and Democrats had done throughout the century; and now, in the Trump era, it had even greater meaning. Was I thinking about reading it again? Or just getting it off the shelf? I did a day later when I heard Goodwin had died of cancer at the age of 88. 

My copy wasn't even my copy—I'd forgotten that. It wasn't the copy I'd read and marked up in 1988. It was a replacement I bought in a used bookstore in Seattle. But I knew there was a quote in there that once had great meaning for me, and I was trying to find it. It was at the end of a chapter. An early chapter? Maybe even the one where he recounted his involvement in uncovering the game show scandal of the 1950s, which was made into the movie “Quiz Show,” where he was played by Rob Morrow? Or working the JFK election in ‘60 and then in the JFK administration? Or being LBJ’s favorite speechwriter and coining the phrase “The Great Society” and writing Johnson's “Voting Rights” speech? He split with Johnson on Vietnam. He abandoned LBJ for Bobby, then Bobby for Eugene, then Eugene for Bobby again. And on June 6, 1968, in Los Angeles, it all crashed. 

The quote I was looking for was at the end of the book, of course. Its last lines:

If this book has any purpose at all, it is not to impose a guide on that future, but to remind that men and women can live as if their world was malleable to their grasp; and that, true or false, to live in this belief is to be the most authentically alive.

That felt profound to me in 1988. I particularly liked the “true or false” line, the implication that it's not true, that the world isn't malleable to our grasp, but fuck it, do it anyway, since it's the best way to live. I repeated that line a lot back then. If it feels less profound to me now, maybe that's why. It's part of my make-up. It's obvious because he made it so. 

Here's the Times obit

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Posted at 06:56 AM on May 22, 2018 in category Politics
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Shining City on a Hollywood Hill

Hollywood sign

It still astounds me that one of America's most successful industries is forever being disparaged by the political party that claims to care about American industry.

This is from two weeks ago on box office mojo:

Worldwide box office May 2018

Look at that. What other country can do that? None. I‘ve written about the box office of “Wolf Warrior II” and other Chinese films, as well as the fact that China is on the verge of becoming the world’s No. 1 movie marketplace. But Chinese films don't travel well. Few besides the Chinese go see them. The world goes to see Hollywood films. 

Americans don't comprehend how much Hollywood dominates the world maybe because we‘re used to it and maybe because we’re too close to it, but it's stunning and has real-world consequences. China Daily just posted an article on the number of Chinese students who come to the U.S. to study. Their lede is about a young man from Henan province who became determined to study here after seeing a Hollywood movie (“High School Musical”). He's not alone. People don't come here just because there's greater freedom, or because within a generation your family can become American—in a way that you can never become, say, Chinese or French. It's more than that. It's the movies. The shining city on a hill has a Hollywood sign on it.

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Posted at 06:08 AM on May 22, 2018 in category Movies - Box Office
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Monday May 21, 2018

Quote of the Day

“We’re supposed to provide back-and-forth perspective, so that you make the best decision based on science and based on the law. But that’s a pretty big struggle right now. ... I hunt and fish—I’m actually kind of a redneck. But I believe in the public good and public land. When Trump talks his B.S. about the ‘deep state,’ that’s who he’s referring to. I totally reject that kind of characterization. That’s how these guys see it: if you’re not a tool of the most high-powered lobbyists in Washington or following orders, then they really don’t want you around.

— Unnamed civil servant in the Dept. of the Interior, currently headed by Trump loyalist Ryan Zinke, in Evan Osnos' must-read New Yorker piece,  “Only the Best People: Donald Trump's war on the ‘deep state,’” about how Trump is remaking the federal government in his image: with incompetent personnel whose main qualification is loyalty to him.

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Posted at 03:42 PM on May 21, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: A Man of Integrity (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Iranian writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof likes opposites. He began his 2011 film “Goodbye” with someone saying hello, and he begins “A Man of Integrity” with the title character, Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), engaged in an illicit activity: fermenting alcohol inside watermelons and hiding them below the floorboards in his small shack on his fish farm in northern Iran.

Immediately, two men appear asking about the watermelons. They search, can’t find them, but take away a rifle whose permit is expired. Are they cops or private contractors? At the outset we think the former but by the end we’re not so sure.

We’re not sure of a lot throughout the film.

Sleeping with the fishes
A Man of Integrity movie reviewWhere’s the “integrity” of the title? Here: Rather than pay a bribe to a bank official to delay mortgage payments, Reza sells his car and tries to do it legit. Things get worse from there. It’s like Serpico refusing the bribe; the corrupt in power no longer trust him. They need him to be one of them. And if he isn’t one of them, he must be excised.

That's when the fish in his fish farm begin to die. Eyes burning, Reza tracks things to Assad, his neighbor. He’s in the midst of pulling up the chains of a dam which may have kept fresh water from them when a figure appears over his shoulder. Next thing we know, Assad has a broken arm and Reza is in jail for assault. Frustrations now mount for Reza’s wife, Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee). Reza is supposed to be released after 24 hours, but there’s always a delay, or new rules or new charges, or prematurely closed offices. She brings in her brother to help navigate the corrupt system, and even then it takes five days. Finally back in his own bed, Reza, the next morning, awakens to fresh horror: birds swooping on his farm, attracted by the scent of dead fish. They’ve been poisoned.

For a time, I wondered what the movie would become. Would we simply watch Reza’s downward trajectory? From refusing to leave his farm to agreeing to sell it to being offered half of what it's worth? Or nothing? At every turn, the straightjacket is tightened. His wife is the head of a school, which Assad’s daughter attends, from whom she finds out Assad’s arm was never broken. Hadis sends a message to Assad through the girl. Assad sends a message back: He pulls the girl from the school.

I kept wondering about the watermelon-fermented wine seen in the first act. Was that a way out? No. It’s for Reza’s personal use—even though it’s been prohibited for Muslims in the Islamic Republic since 1979. He takes it to an underground spring—a literal man cave—where he drinks and rests and thinks. And plots.

Akhlaghirad has a handsome, powerful presence. His eyes burn. They burn in part because he can’t see a way out as a man of integrity; so he becomes its opposite. It’s a movie of escalations. Reza is trapped so he traps the well-connected Assad by framing him for drug use. Assad, from prison, engineers a response: He burns down Reza’s house. Reza then uses a corrupt prison guard to bring him poisoned drugs. Assad is killed, and, at his funeral, Reza attends and stares down his children with those burning eyes.

An offer he can’t refuse
“A Man of Integrity,” which won “Un Certain Regard” at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is beautifully art-directed but often slow-moving, and it uses a verbal shorthand to explain complex Iranian societal matters. For an outsider like me, much has to be guessed at, and even now, writing this, I’ve often got my hands in the air. One review mentioned that Reza was a former univeristy professor. When did that come up? And in what period was the movie set? Is it contemporary, or is that news footage of Khomeni on TV?

So what kind of movie does “Integrity” become? It’s a lose-by-winning movie. Reza wins but he doesn‘t. In winning, he loses. Just as Michael Corleone, in “Godfather Part III,” tries to raise his family above the corruption, only to find greater corruption among the legitimately powerful, so Reza, by defeating Assad, wins the admiration of the powerful and corrupt, and, in a final irony, is offered Assad’s position. Reza wants to be a man of integrity but the corrupt machine doesn’t allow it; and in the end he’s offered a prime spot in that very corrupt machine. It’s an offer he can’t refuse.

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Posted at 05:50 AM on May 21, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Sunday May 20, 2018

Of the Trump, By the Trump, For the Trump

Trump is a traitor

“Trump’s antagonistic relationship to facts is no longer just a matter of politics. It now affects day-to-day governance.” 

Here's a Cliff Notes version of Evan Osnos' must-read New Yorker piece, “Only the Best People: Donald Trump's war on the ‘deep state,’” about how Trump is remaking the federal government with people whose main qualificaiton is loyalty to him. It's scary shit. Please read the whole thing:

  • Every President expects devotion. ... But Trump has elevated loyalty to the primary consideration. Since he has no fixed ideology, the White House cannot screen for ideas, so it seeks a more personal form of devotion. ...
  • To vet candidates, the Obama campaign had used a questionnaire with 63 queries about employment, finances, writings, and social-media posts. The Trump team cut the number of questions to 25, by dropping the requests for professional references and tax returns and removing items concerning loans, personal income, and real-estate holdings. The questionnaire was speckled with typos ...
  • Republican think tanks and donors succeeded in installing preferred nominees. The earliest wave arrived from the Heritage Foundation; subsequent ones came from Charles and David Koch’s network of conservative advocacy groups and from the American Enterprise Institute. But the White House maintained a virtual blockade against Republicans who had signed letters opposing Trump’s candidacy. ...
  • The White House brought in an array of outsiders, who, at times, ran into trouble. As an assistant to the Secretary of Energy, the Administration installed Sid Bowdidge, whose recent employment had included managing a Meineke Car Care branch in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Bowdidge departed after it emerged that he had called Muslims “maggots.” In December, Matthew Spencer Petersen, a nominee to the federal bench, became a brief online sensation when Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, asked him a series of basic law-school questions, which revealed that Petersen had never argued a motion, tried a case, or taken a deposition by himself. Embarrassing details came out about other judicial nominees: Brett Talley, who had never tried a case in federal court, wandered cemeteries hunting for ghosts; Jeff Mateer had called transgender children part of “Satan’s plan.” ...
  • Trump sometimes tested ethical standards in the hiring process. In January, shortly before the Justice Department named Geoffrey Berman to be the interim U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York—a position with jurisdiction over the headquarters of Trump’s business empire—Trump personally interviewed Berman for the job. Criminal-justice experts were alarmed. “I am not aware of any President in recent history that personally conducted such interviews,” Marcos Daniel Jiménez, a former U.S. Attorney appointed by George W. Bush, told me. William Cummings, a U.S. Attorney appointed by Gerald Ford, said, “In the situation where the sitting President has publicly been noted to be the subject of an investigation by the F.B.I. or special counsel, I think it is unseemly.” ...
  • Last fall, Trump appointees in the department became frustrated by bad press over efforts to expand mining and drilling, and by Freedom of Information Act requests that sought details of their contacts with powerful industries. [Communications Director Matthew] Allen received another order: send FOIA requests about political appointees to the subjects themselves before releasing the results to the public. He was taken aback. “It was just a blatant conflict of interest,” he said. “The person who may be under suspicion, that they’re requesting records on, is going to be an approval authority in the chain. That just doesn’t seem O.K.” ...
  • In one agency after another, I encountered a pattern: on controversial issues, the Administration is often not writing down potentially damaging information. ... For many in government, Trump’s antagonistic relationship to facts is no longer just a matter of politics. It now affects day-to-day governance. 
  • The White House has politicized work that was once insulated from interference, Schwab said. “We see that in the F.B.I. very publicly, and then I saw that at ICE from the highest levels of the White House. Who knows where else it’s happening in the rest of the government.”

Is there a tipping point? That's a key question. At what point is our federal government made up of such idiot Trump loyalists that the entire aparatus, a government of the people, by the people, for the people, does Trump's bidding rather than the country's?

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Posted at 05:38 PM on May 20, 2018 in category Politics
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Box Office: ‘Deadpool 2’ Opens Down from ‘Deadpool’

Deadpool 2 opens to $125 million

“Deadpool 2” opened in a better month than “Deadpool” (May vs. Feb.) and in nearly 1,000 more theaters (4,349 vs. 3,558) but did slightly less business opening weekend ($125 million vs. $132). That's still the third-best opening of the year, after “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity,” and the 30th-best all time. Nothing to sneeze at. But it's got to be a slight disappointment for Ryan Reynolds and Fox Studios.

Meanwhile, in its fourth weekend, “Avengers: Infinity War” fell 53% to rake in another $28 mil for $595 domestically. That's slightly ahead of “Black Panther”'s numbers in its fourth weekend ($561); but “BP” was falling much less fast. It actually grossed $40 million that weekend and $26 in its fifth. Don't know if “Avengers” can catch it. Right now “BP is at $697 million and grossed another $800k the past three days. I'm sure Buena Vista will push for the magic $700 million mark, which only two domestic movies (”Star Wars: The Force Awakens“ and ”Avatar“) have ever reached. 

Speaking of magic numbers, the worldwide gross of ”Avengers“ is at $1.8 billion and climbing. That's fourth-best all-time. Ahead: ”Force Awakens“ and the two Camerons. Bigger question: Can it pass the $2 billion mark? I think it can. 

The other new releases? Not much. The awful-looking ”Book Club“ (my favorite ‘70s actresses read ”Fifty Shades of Gray“) finished in third place with $12 million; the awful-looking ”Show Dogs“ (Will Arnett + talking dogs in a police comedy) finished in sixth with $6 mil; and the intriguing-looking doc ”Pope Francis: A Man of His Word“ grossed $481k for 16th place. 

Better doc news, as Mark Harris tweeted this morning, is that for the second weekend in a row, ”RBG," the doc on SCOTUS justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, finished in the top 10. It’s grossed $3.8 mil, and is worth seeing, btw. 

Next weekend is Memorial Day weekend. Han Solo gets into the act. 

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Posted at 12:35 PM on May 20, 2018 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday May 19, 2018

‘We Are Putting Our Country at Risk’

From Evan Osnos' must-read piece on the Trump administration's attack on the career civil servants that protect us:

Since taking office, Trump has attacked the integrity of multiple parts of his government, including the F.B.I. (“reputation is in tatters”) and the Department of Justice (“embarrassment to our country”). His relationship with the State Department is especially vexed. ... Sixty per cent of the highest-ranked diplomats have departed.

Veteran U.S. diplomats say that the State Department is in its most diminished condition since the nineteen-fifties, when McCarthy called it a hotbed of “Communists and queers” and vowed to root out the “prancing mimics of the Moscow party line.” McEldowney, the retired Ambassador, said, “I believe to the depth of my being that by undermining our diplomatic capability we are putting our country at risk. Something awful is inevitably going to happen, and people will ask, ‘Where are the diplomats?’ And the tragic answer will have to be ‘We got rid of them in a fire sale.’”

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Posted at 01:26 PM on May 19, 2018 in category Politics
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A Nothing Burger with Everything On It

In case you don't know: Trump and the GOP are trying to end the Mueller investigation after a year because it's a “nothing burger” and a “witch hunt.” But that's a lot of something for a nothing burger. And witch hunts aren't supposed to catch actual witches. 

Today's revelation: Don Trump Jr. met with foreign reps, including an Israeli expert on social media manipulation and an emissary for two Saudi princes, as well as Erik Prince, the controversial former head of Blackwater who has denied involvement in the Trump campaign, on August 3, 2016 in order to win the election. From the Times:

The meetings, which have not been reported previously, are the first indication that countries other than Russia may have offered assistance to the Trump campaign in the months before the presidential election. The interactions are a focus of the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, who was originally tasked with examining possible Trump campaign coordination with Russia in the election.

It's a nothing burger with everything. 

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Posted at 11:40 AM on May 19, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Still Crazy After All These Years

Paul Simon Homeward Bound

Went with my friend Jim to the Paul Simon “Homeward Bound” concert at Key Arena last night. Not sure what else was going on, but Lower Queen Anne was packed. I met Jim at 6 PM outside Toulouse Petit, thinking we'd head into their first-come-first-serve Happy Hour pit; but we talked to a guy, next in line seemingly, who'd been waiting 20 minutes. Peso's was even worse. So we wound up across the street at the Tin Lizzie Lounge, a bar/restaurant associated with the Mediterranean Inn, which was also overwhelmed and/or understaffed. Orders never arrived; drinks took forever. But it was pleasant enough, and for whatever reason there were some astonishingly good-looking customers there. It felt a little like that secret club on “Seinfeld.” I felt like George, who somehow snuck in. 

The show at Key Arena began just as we were taking our seats. Paul opened with “America,” and talked a a bit about the current state of America, without really naming names. His voice, at 76, started rusty but soon hit its stride. Can't hit the highs (no “You can call MEEEE ... AL”) but skated through the middles. He's also in astonishingly good shape. Dude's got guns. Did a lot of fluttery hand movements throughout—like his version of Elvis' latter-day karate poses. I wondered if the movements began as physical therapy. When you do one thing all your life, your body often rebels. 

His backing band was great, and he did a lot of favorites, but he mostly has favorites. Is there a more fun-filled all-American song than “Me & Julio Down by the School Yard”? It's nearly 50 years old now but feels contemporary, and I thought of the video versions I knew:

I also flashed back to an argument I had in junior high with my best friend Pete and his brother John. It was 1977, we were in their basement, and for some reason we argued over who was better—Paul Simon (me) or the Bee Gees (them). I wound up storming out and we didn't speak for months. I was that odd junior-high kid whose favorite musician was Dick Cavett's favorite musician. 

What didn't he play that I wanted to hear? A few thoughts:

I also would‘ve liked to hear more from his first solo album, Paul Simon, or his second, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, both of which feel underrated to me. But what are you going to do? There's so many.

Here's his set list for the night, 25 songs in all. A third encore is mentioned, but in truth, after the four songs of the second encore, he dismissed the band, stayed, and played the final two, including “The Sound of Silence,” with just himself and his guitar on stage. A fitting end: A poet and his one-man band.

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Posted at 08:51 AM on May 19, 2018 in category Music
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Friday May 18, 2018

Movie Review: The Bookshop (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The sad ending made me happy but otherwise I don’t get this movie. I don’t get why it was chosen to open the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival, particularly without anyone (director, star, best boy) in attendance. I don’t get how it was nominated for 12 awards, and won three (best film, director and adapted screenplay), at the 32nd annual Goya awards in Madrid, Spain earlier this year. I don’t get what the point of it is. Books are good? People are bad? Bad things happen to good people when bad people force the issue? Sure. Also when bad people don’t force the issue. 

Here’s the story, reduced:

  • Good woman opens bookshop
  • Bad woman machinates against her
  • Bookshop goes out of business

Main thought, afterwards: Do you even need the bad woman? Why not:

  • Good woman opens bookshop
  • Nobody gives a shit
  • Bookshop goes out of business

The Bookshop movie reviewThat’s more indicative of the world, isn’t it? Imagine if more movies followed this trajectory. All of us might be a little wiser, and a little less paranoid.

Don’t fuck with arts center patrons
The good woman is Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a widow who loves books and wants to share her love by opening a bookshop on the Suffolk coast of England in 1959. What is she doing in Hardborough, Suffolk? I assumed she was there with her husband, who recently died, and she was trying to figure out how to give the rest of her life meaning. Nope. Halfway through, we find out her husband died 16 years earlier in the midst of World War II. So what has she been doing all of this time? And was she already on the Suffolk coast or did she move there? She seems like an outsider. Maybe that’s just the nature of readers.

The bad woman is Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson). Problems arise when Florence buys “The Old House,” a damp property, for her bookshop, because Gamart wanted it for an arts center.

Believe it or not, that’s the conflict. As Florence gets her bookshop up and running, and acquires friends and allies, chiefly the town’s big, reclusive reader, Edmond Brundish (Bill Nighy, who has all the best lines), Violet, from within her upper-middle class walls, and with her own allies, machinates against her. Christine (Honor Kneafsey), the bright, curly-haired girl who helps in the bookshop, and who improbably hasn’t read anything until Florence arrived, is made to work in another bookshop. Something about child labor laws. So Milo North (James Lance), Violet’s smug, closeted confidante, offers his services. For some reason, Florence accepts. Now the fox is in the henhouse.

Truly, though, the big blow for Florence is when Violet gets her nephew, a government official, to pass a law allowing the government to buy “The Old House” from under Florence. Meanwhile, because of Milo’s internal machinations, the building is declared unfit for human occupation—even though Florence lives there—and they don’t pay her anything for it.

Actually, the bigger blow happens earlier. Brundish becomes adviser and friend to Florence. She gets him to read Ray Bradbury, for example, and he advises her on whether or not “Lolita” is a good novel and she should sell it. (It is, she should.) He’s old money, too, in this sleepy town, where you’re either working class or don’t seem to do any work at all, and eventually he comes out of his shell and confronts Violet. Over tea, he tells her what a nasty piece of work she is. Nice! Then, on the walk home, he suffers a heart attack. Bummer! Now Florence has no allies and enemies pounce.

Well, she has one ally left.

A lantern in the first act...
As Florence is leaving Hardborough for good, via boat, defeated, Christine pops up on the pier with the lantern she’s always carried, and, in the distance, Florence sees “The Old House” on fire. It’s Christine’s revenge on Violet's vengeful spirit. And it’s at that point we learn our narrator throughout the film (Julie Christie) was actually Christine, grown up and running her own bookshop. Florence’s legacy lives! Books live! The whole thing is supposed to add a touch of sweet to the bitter.

Except it feels false. If the building goes up in flames just as Florence is leaving, how is she not be blamed, and pursued, and imprisoned? And where is she leaving to by boat— Belgium? In the acclaimed novel written by Penelope Fitzgerald, she leaves by train, bowing her head in shame, according to The New Yorker, “because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.”

That line is key to me. Wasn’t Florence’s bookshop a doomed enterprise from the beginning—even without Violet? And isn’t grown-up Christine’s bookshop a doomed enterprise in the Internet/Amazon age? The movie's focus on Violet covers up the bigger problem: It's less the machinations of a few than the indifference of most. Not to mention our own sad dreams.  

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Posted at 10:31 AM on May 18, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Tweet of the Day (So Far)

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Posted at 07:26 AM on May 18, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Thursday May 17, 2018

TMI, SIFF

The Bookshop Opens SIFF

The Englishwoman who opened a bookstore and brought down a mountain of trouble.

The Seattle International Film Festival kicks off tonight with a movie that looks like not-much to me. “The Bookshop” is set in the recent past (1959), and chronicles “a headstrong widow” (Emily Mortimer) battling “provincial locals” (coastal Brits) over what was then commonplace and is now disappearing (a bookshop). Seems a bit precious and obvious. If it were set today, and featured a woman (or anyone) fighting the indifference to books of millennials (and everyone), sign me up. But this? Hope I'm wrong. If not, there's always gin and tonic at the screening. P and I will both attend in what passes for our finery. 

I was in Minneapolis this past weekend, visiting my mother and seeing my nephew Jordy in a high school play (“The Laramie Project”), but I did spend some time going over SIFF's schedule of 400+ movies. Right now I‘ve got about 15 picked out, with fingers decidedly crossed.

Gotta say, the blurbs didn’t help much. Most are one-sentence long—as if directed to be so—and a few are inevitably run-ons. It's as if the writer is running downhill, breathless, trying to tell us all the good news:

In this Western-inspired crime thriller set in the Chinese countryside, a laboring family man whose brutal past led to biting his own tongue off in a fight, sets out on a mission of stunningly choreographed violence after his son is kidnapped by a crossbow-wielding, meat-obsessed gangster.

Many have trouble sticking their landings: 

In a rapidly gentrifying Oakland, home to co-writers and co-stars Rafael Casal and “Hamilton” Tony Award-winner Daveed Diggs, two lifelong hip-hop-loving friends struggle to adapt in this energetic slice-of-life buddy comedy set in a world that won't let it be one. [???]

Others needed a copy editor or at least a pair of m-dashes:

Following a serendipitous meeting on a train through the rugged Turkish countryside, two should unite for a journey that will offer new insight into the importance of charting one's own path, wherever it may lead.

The gorgeous swirling sands of the Thar Desert provide the backdrop for this emotional revenge saga about a scorpion singer, famed shamanistic healers that could supposedly cure scorpion bites by chanting, who has lost her grandmother after suffering an assault.

I‘ve got a few movies picked out (“Love, Gilda”; “On Borrowed Time”; “Love Education”) but if you’ve heard anything, let me know. Don't hesitate to tell me all the good news.

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Posted at 06:42 AM on May 17, 2018 in category Seattle
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Tuesday May 15, 2018

Frank Quilici (1939-2018)

Frank Quilici, Met Stadium, 1970

Frank Quilici and my brother Chris on Camera Day, 1970.

When I was a kid, and time went slowly, second baseman Frank Quilici seemed a mainstay on the Minnesota Twins. If you'd asked me last week how long he'd played for them, I would‘ve guessed seven years. Something like ’67 to ‘73. Maybe longer. 

Nope. He was a semi-regular for only three seasons: ’68-‘70. His last game was the third game of the 1970 ALCS—a few months after the above photo was taken. The Orioles, who had swept the Twins in the ALCS the previous year, were already up two games to none, and were beating my boys soundly 5-1 in the top of the sixth when Rich Reese drew a two-out walk against starter Jim Palmer. Twins manager Bill Rigney, hoping to get something going, subbed in former star Bob Allison for light-hitting second baseman Danny Thompson. Allison popped to short. Now Rigney needed a new second baseman, so Quilici came in. (Why not Rod Carew? He had been injured halfway through the ’70 season and was used only twice in the ALCS—both times as a pinch-hitter.) Later, when it was Quilici's turn at bat, in the top of the ninth with one out and Rich Reese again on first, Rigney brought in Danny Alyea as a pinch-hitter. He struck out. Then another pinch-hitter, Rick Renick, grounded out and there went the season.

That was Quilici's last appearance as a player on a Major League field: as a defensive sub who was subbed for a pinch-hitter. 

I also assumed Quilici was fairly solid but his career numbers are as follows: .214/.281/.287 hitter. That's why he only lasted parts of three seasons. But I have fond memories. The above photo was taken on Camera Day, 1970, at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota. The kid with him is my older brother, Chris, who was wearing a Camp Kichi Yapi t-shirt. Apparently Quilici's son went there? That's in my head anyway. They spoke, and it led to this great photo.

Two years later, in the summer of ‘72, I was at a different camp, Cathedral of the Pines, when I heard Quilici was replacing Bill Rigney as the Twins manager. That made me happy. Rigney was grumpy-looking and at the helm when the Twins began their downhill slide, so I blamed him. I thought Quilici would turn things around. He didn’t. In 3+ years, the Twins went 280-287 under his leadership. That's actually not bad, considering the core of our team was dropping like flies: Killebrew old, Tony-O injured, Tovar traded. Only Rodney Cline kept coming through. 

After Quilici was replaced by Gene Mauch, he became a broadcaster for a time. Here's his obit in the Star-Tribune. Strib sportswriter Patrick Reusse has a good remembrance, too

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Posted at 01:55 PM on May 15, 2018 in category Baseball
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Monday May 14, 2018

Margot Kidder (1948-2018)

Margot Kidder: RIP

From my 2013 slideshow on the cinematic history of Lois Lane:

Why does Kidder's Lois Lane in “Superman: The Movie” still define the role? Because there's a difficulty dichotomy to thread in portraying Lois. She's supposed to scoop Clark and get rescued by Superman, but often within this dynamic they make her either too tough (and unlikeable) or too agreeable (and thus hardly a scoop-worthy reporter). Margot was able to inhabit both aspects of Lois. She held the two opposing ideas of Lois in her mind and was still able to function. Her toughness (at work) was never annoying, her vulnerability (around Superman) was always endearing. Plus I just like the way she says “Peter Pan.” Not to mention, “Blaghhh.”

She's also the object of my fifth-most quoted movie line.  Not to mention one of the primary actors in the best lost scene ever. And she was smart enough to know the franchise was better in the hands of Richard Donner than Richard Lester—for which she got the shaft in “Superman III.” If barely appearing in a movie is really “the shaft.”

I love that little scene in the original, so '70s New York, when Lois and Clark run into film critic Rex Reed coming into The Daily Planet building, and we get this exchange:

Lois: See anything good today?
Rex: Not until you came along.

Truer words.

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Posted at 01:06 PM on May 14, 2018 in category Superman
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Movie Review: Cet homme est dangereux (1953)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Cet homme est dangereux” is a French B-movie based on a British novel about an American tough guy. Expect dislocation.

Example: The movie opens on a closeup of an actor dressed as an American cop laying out in APB fashion how American gangster Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) escaped from Oklahoma State Prison, and was “last seen heading east.”

Where is he in the next scene?  Marseilles. So, yeah, “east.”

All of this is done both on the cheap (just a closeup) and intriguingly (great lighting). You can immediately sense the talent.

Cet homme est dangereux movie reviewI first heard of  “Cet homme” when it was praised by Betrand Tavernier in the documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema,” and it’s pretty good for what it is. It’s noirish, with nice, tough-guy snatches of dialogue. But it’s got a plot that’s tough to unpack.

Avant Godard
First, the dialogue.

Early on, before we really know Lemmy, a woman on a boat tells him, “I’m sick,” and this is his response: “Don’t worry. You suffer because you’re alive.” Lemmy may be American, but he speaks the French ennui. Later, he even gets meta. He rescues a dim-bulb American heiress, Miranda Van Zelten (Claude Borelli), and as they drive along Marseille’s coast, she starts talking in English. “Speak French!” he admonishes. “People don’t get subtitles here.”

Another woman, Constance (Colette Deréal), pulls up at his hotel, pretends like they know each other, and invites him back to her place for a whiskey. He hesitates.

She: Are you afraid of me?
He (getting in): No. The whiskey.

Dialogue like that just makes me happy. It can sustain me through a week of my own ennui.

As for the tough-to-unpack plot? I’ll say right off that Lemmy isn’t a gangster but an undercover G-man. The target (from the get go?) is French mob boss named Siegella (Grégiure Aslan), who is apparently in the process of kidnapping the heiress, Miranda, when Lemmy shows up on the boat to rescue her. He also finds a dead man in a state room (another G man?) and it pisses him off. He’s so pissed off he kills one of the gangsters, Goyaz, in cold blood and throws him overboard. So not exactly Elliott Ness.

Not sure if there was an original plan involving the stateroom guy but the new plan is to become reluctant partners with Siegella in kidnapping Miranda. So he can get evidence? And put Siegella away? I guess. But he seems to have enough of it fairly early and just keeps going.

It’s really one of those “Nobody trusts anybody” movies. Siegella doesn’t trust Lemmy—not because he thinks he’s a fed but because he’s an uncontrollable element. Lemmy doesn’t trust the women buzzing around him—and shouldn’t. Constance works for Siegella, which we find out soon enough, as does Miranda’s secretary, Susanne (Véra Norman). Another woman, an angry blonde named Dora (Jacquelline Pierreux), turns out to be Goyaz’s lover seeking revenge. She suspects Lemmy but teams up with him, and winds up being killed by Siegella. She is who she says she is; as is Miranda.

At one point, after Siegella and Lemmy agree to work together, Siegella wakes to find both Miranda and Lemmy gone. Traitors! But Lemmy isn’t gone; he’s checking in on Miranda himself, finds her gone, and suspects Siegella. Good bit. Eventually he figures it out: Miranda just flew to Paris for a haute couture fashion show—as heiresses do.

Lemmy uses Miranda as bait but it backfires. He takes her to a country estate, run by Siegella, and lets her play cards while he pretends to succumb to whiskey. For all his smarts and running around: 1) Dora winds up dead, 2) Miranda winds up kidnapped, and 3) Lemmy winds up in a shoot-out with two of Siegella’s men.

In the real world, that would’ve been the end of it: Siegella no longer needs Lemmy, n’est-ce pas? Except all of a sudden Lemmy has a satchel full of Siegalla’s vital intel. It's just there to keep the dishes spinning. So Lemmy, backed by the cops, returns to rescue Miranda, but the cops lose him en route and he’s on his own. He’s caught, tied to a bed, and the room is set on fire. He escapes, of course. The final battle takes place in a country garage. While Lemmy and Siegella duke it out, Miranda and Constance take turns dousing each other with a firehose. Where are the rest of Siegella’s men? Who knows? Hardly matters. After Lemmy chokes the life out of Siegella, and after Constance is properly wetted down, the cops finally arrive and we get our end. 

Apres le firehose
What sells the movie are the visuals. It’s directed by Jean Sacha, who edited under both Max Ophuls and Orson Welles but only directed six feature-length films; this is the third. The cinematographer is Marcel Weiss, who worked under Bresson and has 37 DP credits. This is his seventh.

They work well together:


  • Here's our hero about to light a cigarette. 

  • Does he know he's being spied on? 

  • Oui. 

  • This is Dora. We see what she sees. 

  • This is Constance. We see what Lemmy is about to see. 

  • See? 

  • Love this one: Before the pullback. 

  • Et apres.

  • Not a bad spot for the penultimate battle. 

  • Lemmy finally caught. 

  • And the villains celebrate in French fashion. 

  • Constance again, before the dousing. *FIN*

“Cet homme” was the second Eddie Constantine/Lemmy Caution film. There would be nearly a dozen more, including the celebrated “Alphaville,” directed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1965. Constantine last portrayed him in 1991: “Germany Year Nine Zero,” also directed by Godard, which is described as “a post-modern film about Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.” So a long way from the firehoses.

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Posted at 05:31 AM on May 14, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s
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Friday May 11, 2018

My Hobby

In the new session of my weekly Chinese class at the downtown Seattle library, our teacher asked for volunteers to present on one of three topics, and I went with the “My Hobby” option. “Hobby,” I quickly learned, is translated as two familiar characters: 爱好. love/good. 

In Taiwan, 30 years ago, I learned traditional characters, and now I'm learning the simplified versions, and this was the first time I'd noticed the difference in “love.”

This is the traditional Chinese character for love: 愛.

And this is the modern simplified version:爱

It may be tough to see the difference, but here it is: They took out 心.

What's that? Xin. It means heart. That's right. To simplify “love,” they took out “heart.” Not sure who was on that committee, but, as we say today, the optics aren't good. 

My presentation is below. It's about movie box office, particularly Chinese movie box office—a topic that was way too difficult given my level. Put another way: You have no idea how much work went into sounding this stupid.

A look at Chinese box office

China is about to become the world's biggest movie market. 

我很喜欢看电影。我小的时候,我爸爸在明尼苏达报纸写电影评轮。这是他的工作。 不错。

我也写电影评论 。十五年以前,我给西雅图时报写过。 现在,我用我的博客。

我也觉得电影票房很有趣。 “为什么很多人要看这部电影?他们要什么?”

今年, 我听说, 中国票房比美国票房大。

中国票房最大的电影是。。。

  1. 战狼II (2017): $854 million
  2. 红海行动 (2018): $579 million

(它们都发生在非州。为什么? 这个。)

  1. 唐人街探案 2 (2018):  $541 million
  2. 美人鱼 (2016): $526 million

我最喜欢的中国电影是。。。

  • 一一 (Edward Yang)
  • 饮食男女 (Ang Lee)
  • 警察故事,第一,二, 三 (Jackie Chan)
  • 功夫(Stephen Chow: 在美国是“Kung Fu Hustle”)
  • 巴尔扎克与小裁缝:Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
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Posted at 05:32 AM on May 11, 2018 in category Chinese Language
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Wednesday May 09, 2018

So Much Winning

Still reading ”China in Ten Words“ by Chinese novelist Yu Hua, and his recollections of Mao's China remind me of someone. Particularly this state-sanctioned song that workers in the late ‘50s and early ’60s recited during their labors:

You‘re all heroes and we’re all champs, By the furnace here let's compare our stats. Good for you, you‘ve smelted a ton—But a ton and a half is what we’ve done! Right, you go off and fly your jet—Now watch as we launch our rocket! Your arrow can pierce the sky—But ours has gone into orbit!

You‘ll win so much you’ll be tired of winning. Which, yes, I am tired of it. 

BTW: After the above labors during the Great Leap Forward, millions of Chinese workers starved to death. 

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Posted at 09:16 AM on May 09, 2018 in category Books
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Lancelot Links Asks What's on Weibo?

  • Via What's on Weibo: Best 30 books to explain Modern China. Does not include “Be a China Expert in One Day” ... which I believe is sitting on Donald Trump's bookshelf. If he had a bookshelf.  
  • Last month, Weibo decided to crack down on three things: pornography (sure), “bloody violence” (makes sense) and ... homosexuality? C‘mon, China. It’s 2018. But it led to a trending hashtag, #我是同性恋, or #IAmGay.
  • From last year, and intriguing for its timing: How film-loving Weibo users are tired of “Domestic Film Protection Month,” during which no foreign films, particularly Hollywood films, are allowed to open. What's intriguing about the timing? That piece appeared just when “Wolf Warrior II” was beginning to break all Chinese box-office records ... without Hollywood competition. 
  • A lot of what the Chinese Communist Youth League thinks of the recent US/China trade war/sabre-rattling is pretty much what we think: It's Trump being Trump (sadly); it will backfire on Americans (see: soybean farmers). But comparing it to the Japanese invasion of China? Really? Someone's not reading their history. Also worrisome: They‘re using the same damned Hitler/Chamberlain metaphor that American hawks use to argue against appeasement. That said, the art print being shared on Weibo, of Trump on a tank with a rifle and an eagle and explosions and a big flag, which apparently sells in the U.S. to Trump supporters, is the new nadir of kitsch.
  • A man on a Sichuan bus violently throws down a 7-year old kid (who had been kicking him) and kicks him in the head, and this leads to a discussion of what’s the matter with ... the kid? 
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Posted at 07:55 AM on May 09, 2018 in category Lancelot Links
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Tuesday May 08, 2018

Movie Review: Ip Man (2008)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Donnie Yen as Ip Man, the real-life Wing Chun martial artist who would eventually teach Bruce Lee, embodies the stillness of the master. He is quiet and modest, his movements minimal. At one point, I was reminded of the beginning of the final battle in “Drunken Master 2,” when an angry musclebound man wielding a chain battles Jackie Chan ... who is carrying only a Chinese hand fan. Here, in Ip Man’s second battle, he takes on a bullying northern master who is wielding an axe. Ip Man’s weapon? A feather duster.

Ip Man movie reviewThe movie is in two parts: before and during the Japanese occupation of the 1930s/40s. We get four main Ip Man battles:

  • vs. Master Liu (Chen Zhi-hui), who wants to test his prowess
  • vs. Jin (Fan Sui-wong), the bristling northerner intent on embarassing the town of Foshan and all southern kung fu
  • vs. 10 Japanese martial artists for 10 bags of rice, which Ip Man refuses
  • vs. Gen. Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), the movie’s main villain, an honorable autocrat intent on proving Japanese karate better than Chinese kung fu

Production values are high. Characters are stock but not outré. The movie is similar to its main character in that it has little wasted space.

Much of the movie is seeing who will become what under Japanese occupation. The cocky police inspector (Lam Ka Tung) becomes a translator ... and a traitor? No. He has honor. He does what he can to protect Chinese citizens. Ditto the Chinese businessman (Simon Yam). The main disappointment is the northerner, who winds up a thief in the woods robbing the Chinese, who have nothing. Fan Sui-wong has presence, but his character is an idiot; he’s Dennis Moore. Apparently he shows up in the sequels.

Ip Man, meanwhile, loses his estate to the Japanese and winds up shoveling coal. When the northerner begins to bully the factory workers, he relents and teaches them Wing Chun. Why has he resisted educating for so long? Not sure. Because he was wealthy? Because his wife (Lynn Hung) didn’t want him to?

That could’ve improved upon. The wife thing. There’s no more thankless task than to play the wife who tries to keep her husband from the plot. We’re here to see him do X (fight Apollo Creed, investigate the JFK assassination), she doesn’t want him to do X, so we wait. That's the wife here—particularly in the first half. She doesn’t want him to fight anyone, even for the honor of the town. In the second half, with Japanese everywhere, she’s more like Adrian waking from her coma: Win.

There’s not much more to it than that. “Ip Man,” directed by Wilson Yip, with fight choreography from Sammo Hong, reminds me a bit of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” It doesn’t try to add to the classic kung fu movie; it reduces it to its essence. It tries to perfect what’s there.

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Posted at 07:19 AM on May 08, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Monday May 07, 2018

Big Characters, Small Characters

The excerpt below is from the third chapter (“Reading” or “阅读“/yue du) of ”China in Ten Words“ by novelist Yu Hua. It's been translated by Allan H. Barr:

As a little boy in primary school I was terrified of big-character posters. Every morning as I headed off to class with my satchel on my back I would nervously scan the walls on either side of the street, checking to see if my father's name appeared in the headlines of the latest batch of posters. China in Ten Words excerptMy father was a surgeon and a low-level functionary in the Communist Party. In the early stages of the Cultural Revolution I had personally witnessed the disgrace of several of my classmates' fathers who were officials; they were denounced for being ”power holders following the capitalist road.“ Activists in the revolutionary rebel faction beat them till their faces were black-and-blue, and they were forced to wear wooden signs over their chests and tall dunce caps on their heads. I would see them every day with brooms in their hands, trembling with fear as they swept the streets. Passersby would give them a kick if they felt like it, or spit in their faces. Their children naturally shared the ignominy, being constant butts of their classmates' insults and targets of their discrimination.

Not many movements have terrified me more than the Cultural Revolution. Maybe because it doesn't seem too far removed from the anti-intellectualism I‘ve experienced in the U.S. most of my life. I know it doesn’t compare, but it still feels close. The right push, from the wrong man, could send us there. And we have wrong men everywhere. 

”Ten Words,“ a memoir, is much recommended. The Telegraph calls it, ”Yu Hua's humane, sceptical take on China's changing identity.“ I've just finished Chapter 5, ”Lu Xun,“ and am looking forward to the others—particularly ”Bamboozle," a word I associate with just one man. Well, maybe two now. 

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Posted at 07:19 AM on May 07, 2018 in category Books
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Sunday May 06, 2018

NPR Asks Gun Rights Kid About His Feelings

This morning, NPR's “Weekend Edition” host Lulu Garcia-Navarro interviewed Will Riley, a high school senior in New Mexico who organized a school walkout for gun rights last week. That's right: gun rights. So the opposite of the Parkland kids. It was called “Stand for the Second.” 

Why did he do it? Is he a gun owner? Was he helped by the NRA? No and no, according to him. He just believes in the Constitution. He says:

As far as depriving our fellow citizens of their natural rights, there is no compromise there. ... I am someone who is a strong believer in the Constitution and the founding principles of our country, and that's why I am so passionate about this issue. 

Here are some of Lulu's follow-ups:

  • Do you feel out of step with your peers? 
  • What has been the reaction to your stance [on social media]?

What she might have asked? Since the kid cares so much about the Second Amendment and the U.S. Constitution? Maybe...

  • Do you think the Second Amendment guarantees a collective right or individual right to gun ownership? 
  • What is the point of the first clause of the Second Amendment (“A well-regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state...”)? Was it simply throat-clearing? Were the founders bad writers? 
  • Are you an originalist on the Constitution like Justice Scalia? If so, what did the words in the Second Amendment mean to the founding fathers? How is that meaning reflected in modern discussions?

I'm not saying these are the best questions to ask, but they might have moved the debate forward a little more than questions about his feelings.

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Posted at 09:20 AM on May 06, 2018 in category Media
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Box Office: ‘Avengers’ Keeps Roaring

Avengers Infinity War fastest to $1 billion worldwide

After 10 days, “Avengers: Infinity War” is the 15th-biggest domestic hit of all time—unadjusted—and it's just shy of the final total the subpar “Avengers: Age of Ultron” took in: $450 million vs. $459.

It fell 56% from its record-setting opening but still brought in the second-biggest second weekend of all time: $112. It's also the fastest film to a billion bucks worldwide. Took eight days. It's 15th in terms of worldwide gross, too. Yes, unadjusted. $1.164 billion. “Ultron” wound up at $1.4, “Marvel's The Avengers” at $1.5. I expect this will eclipse both. 

If you adjust for inflation, “Infinity” is 110th with a bullet. It's already ahead of “Top Gun,” the No. 1 movie of 1986. 

In second place for the weekend was “Overboard,” which, last December, I called an early candidate for the worst movie of 2018. Its RT number is 30%, and that's on the backs of positive reviews of the “It's not a perfect movie by any means” type. It grossed $14.7. 

I didn't see it. The movie I saw this weekend is “RBG,” the documentary on Supreme Court Justice, and cultural icon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It didn't do poorly for a doc in 36 theaters across the country, grossing $16K per for a total of $560k. “RBG” had the second best per-theater average in the country, after “Avengers.” 

Third place for the weekend, by the way, was “A Quiet Place,” which grossed another $7.6 for a domestic total of $159.8. It's now the fourth-biggest horror film of all time (unadjusted), after “It,” “The Sixth Sense,” and “The Excorcist.” 

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Posted at 08:32 AM on May 06, 2018 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday May 05, 2018

3,000 for Albert

Albert Pujols 3,000 hits

32nd to 3,000

I'm an idiot. I'm such an idiot I deserve the Peter Lorre treatment

Thursday night I knew Albert Pujols was sitting on 2,999 hits but I didn't know where the Angels were heading for their next series. I didn't even bother to check. I found out last night around 7:15. They, and he, were in Seattle, at Safeco Field, 1.5 miles from my home—from where I was sitting. It was the bottom of the 1st inning and Albert had ended the top of the 1st with a lineout to short. 

This isn't why I'm an idiot, by the way. It's what I did next. I didn't rush to Safeco Field. Instead I headed to my local watering hole a few blocks away to watch the game on TV.

In baseball history, 31 players have reached 3,000 hits, and Albert, King Albert, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, was about to be the 32nd. A rare event. And there I sat at the bar slowly realizing I'd gone in the wrong direction. True, I'd never seen someone get their 3,000th hit live on TV, either. But live at the game? I doubt I'd ever been in a city where that had happened. And today I had that chance. And I was blowing it. 

That's why I began to root against him. Isn't that awful? I hoped he would go oh-fer so I could go to the next game, today's game, with the chance to see baseball history made. Instead, in the top of the 5th, his third time at bat, Albert made baseball history: He lined a 1-0 pitch to the opposite field for No. 3,000. Most people at the bar weren't paying attention, but I applauded, even as, in my head, Peter Lorre cursed me out.

For a rare baseball event, 3,000 hits has been happening a lot lately. This is the fourth year in a row a player has reached that plateau. How often has that happened? Four years in a row? It's never happened. The previous record was three years in a row, 1999-2001, although four guys did it in that span: Gwynn, Boggs, Ripken, Henderson. 

Put it this way: There was once a 28-year stretch—between Paul Waner in 1942 and Hank Aaron in 1970—when only one guy joined the club: Stan Musial in 1958. The entire decade of the 1980s also saw only one guy enter: Rod Carew, smack dab in the middle, 1985. He's also the midpoint for 3,000 hits. He was 16th to do it and 16 guys have done it since.  

As for the players in the recent stretch? They have a few things in common: their first initials are vowels; together, they‘ve hit for the cycle in reverse order (HR, 3B, 2B, 1B); and there’s the Mariners factor:

YEAR PLAYER HIT MARINERS FACTOR
2015 Alex Rodriguez HR  Ex
2016 Ichiro Suzuki 3B Ex
2017 Adrian Beltre 2B Ex
2018 Albert Pujols 1B Against

It's almost as if the gods let Albert get No. 3,000 here in Seattle as a way of making up for the fact that the previous three were all ex-Mariners but didn't reach the mark as Mariners. It was a sop thrown to us. And I missed it. I missed the sop. 

ESPN has a good statistical breakdown of Albert's achievements. (He hit nearly .500 against Randy? Wow.) Other side, Jay Jaffe over at fangraphs reminds us most guys crawl rather than romp to 3,000.

Will there be five such players five years in a row? Unlikely. Next on the list is Miguel Cabrera with 2,666. He began the season needing 364 and he hasn't accumulated that many hits two years in a row since 2013-14. He's also on the DL again. 

Next in line? Robinson Cano with 2,409. He's signed with the M's for another 5+ years. So maybe I'll get another shot to see No. 3,000 around in, say, 2021. 

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Posted at 10:20 AM on May 05, 2018 in category Baseball
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Friday May 04, 2018

Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Remember when they said you couldn’t make a successful superhero movie if you had, like, two supervillains in it? Another piece of conventional wisdom bites the dust. Along with half the Marvel universe.

To be fair, “Avengers: Infinity War” really features just one supervillain, Thanos (Josh Brolin), plus a few of his powerful minions, plus a slathering army of whatchacallms that attack Wakanda. But it also has, what, two dozen superheroes? Three dozen? Just naming them all, and the actors playing them, would take half this review.

Avengers: Infinity War movie review And it works. It's fun. They did it. Yes, some characters inevitably get short shrift—see: Captain America (Chris Evans)—but I was enthralled from the get-go. “Avengers: Infinity War” is both galactic in scale and allows space for the usual Mighty Marvel petty bickering (Iron Man vs. Dr. Strange, the battle of our  cinematic Sherlocks) and spot-on humor (Ben & Jerry’s, “Rabbit,” “Wait, there’s an Ant-Man and a Spider-Man?” “Why was she up there this whole time?”). Smart people are obviously behind this, including directors Joe and Anthony Russo, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and Marvel impresario Kevin Feige. They’re playing the long game. DC should take notice. It should cry at everything it’s already lost.

Malthusian
The movie begins in medias res. Scratch that. It begins in media res even for those who of us who have watched the previous 18 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Now that’s some serious in media res.

Last time we saw Thor, in “Thor: Ragnarok,” the 17th of the MCU movies, he’d lost his hammer, his father, his eye, and Asgard; but he was on a spaceship, wasn’t he, with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and the remnants of Asgard, heading toward Earth. OK, I guess there was some mid-credits sequence when their ship was overtaken by a bigger ship. I’d forgotten that. This movie begins with the smoldering remains of the battle that followed, while a bureaucratic voice, Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), intones how the defeated should rejoice at falling before Thanos; that it’s an honor to lose their meaningless lives in this way. It’s a good bit. Chilling. It will be repeated.

Thanos, our purple-skinned supervillain, is after the infinity stone in Loki’s possession and tortures a defeated Thor to get it—but not before Loki gets to use the line that Tony Stark used on him in the first “Avengers” movie: “We have a Hulk.” Back then we relished it because we knew what it meant. (It meant Loki being slapped around like a rag doll.) For a second, as Hulk pummels Thanos, we think it still means something ... until Ebony Maw holds back Thanos’ other minions, saying, in effect, let Thanos have his fun. And he does. He pummels Hulk into the ground. Hulk. No bigger statement could be made about the menace to come.

And this was Thanos with just one infinity stone in his possession. He soon gets the second from Loki. He’s collecting all six:

  1. Power (which Thanos has at the outset)
  2. Space (which he takes from Loki)
  3. Mind (in Vision’s forehead)
  4. Reality (with the Collector)
  5. Time (in Dr. Strange’s amulet)
  6. Soul (on another planet)

Apparently these stones are what’s left over from the beginning of the universe? Or something? The bigger point is they give the holder immense powers, which means that as the movie progresses, our villain, who has already pummeled Hulk, becomes even more powerful. So how do you stop him? How do the filmmakers come up with a credible rationale for defeating him in the final act (when he's a virtual god) when they couldn't in the first? That mind puzzle intrigued me throughout. 

Maybe, I thought, they don’t need to defeat him. Maybe as Thanos acquires these stones, particularly Mind and Time and Soul, he’ll become wise and abandon his plans. He’ll change. Right? How could he not? How could anyone take in the vastness of the universe and not change?

Well, he doesn’t. The filmmakers don’t go that way. The gems don’t affect him that way. I was particularly disappointed in the Soul stone, which is hidden on the planet Vormir, guarded by, whoa, of all people, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), and which demands that Thanos sacrifice something he loves in order to attain it. That annoyed me. Really? A sacrifice? So the Hawaiians were right after all? Worse, Thanos is standing there with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the girl he orphaned and then raised, the daughter who hates him, and she laughs because she assumes Thanos doesn’t love anything, has nothing to sacrifice, and won’t get the stone. Which would’ve been a great twist. But no, they don’t go there, either. They go where we know they’re going. Amid tears, Thanos kills Gamora, whom he loves. She’s the last to realize this. It’s beyond telegraphed, and thus a little disappointing.

Are our heroes a little disappointing? Three of the six stones Thanos acquires in the exact same way—by torturing a sibling/compatriot of the holder:

  • Thanos tortures Thor until Loki gives it to him 
  • Thanos tortures Nebula (Karen Gillan) until Gamora gives it to him
  • Thanos is about to kill Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) so Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) gives it to him*

* More on this later

Our heroes know the horror that awaits if Thanos gets all six stones, and yet they still give it up to save one life. What’s that “Star Trek” quote? The needs of the many outweigh the news of the few—or the one? Well, the Avengers turn it on its head. The lives of a known one outweigh the lives of unknown trillions. Including, potentially, that one. Bad math.

What is the horror that awaits? I actually like this part. Thanos figures the universe is too full, and it’s creating unending misery, so if, say, half of all life were gone in the blink of an eye, the rest of us would get along better and enjoy ourselves more. That's what he plans to do: kill half the universe. It's particularly chilling because it has its logic. Thanos isn’t some cackling, hand-rubbing bad guy. He’s a Malthusian. He thinks he’s doing the right thing, and Brolin, through motion-capture, gives him and his monstrous face and body a kind of weary dignity. He sees himself as burdened with this task. And when it’s over, he tells Dr. Strange, he’ll finally get to rest, “and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.”

That’s some fucked-up shit right there.

Even more fucked-up? It happens. Throughout, I kept wondering how our heroes would defeat Thanos, this ever-stronger madman, because that’s how it works in the movies. The good guys win. Well, not here. Thanos wins. He gets the six stones and kills off half the universe, including Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Nick Fury, Spider-Man and all of the Guardians of the Galaxy—billions in worldwide box office, mind you—and then returns to, I guess, his home planet, where, on a kind of cottage in the hills, he sits down on some porch steps, sighs, and watches the sun rise.

You know the Hollywood sunset ending? The hero riding off into it? This is like that—but with the villain. Who’s just killed trillions.

That's pretty audacious. That's showing some fucking stones. 

But it leads to an obvious problem.

The obvious problem
How are they going to get all these superheroes back? It’s beyond the billions in revenue. Some of these movies are already in development with the actors attached: “Untitled Spider-Man: Homecoming” sequel with Tom Holland. And can you imagine the uproar if Chadwick Boseman doesn’t come back as Black Panther? #AvengersSoWhite.

One solution is for one of our heroes to steal the glove with all the infinity stones, then reverse everything—either through time, or, you know, just willing it. Poof. Everyone’s back. 好久不见.

There’s also the Dr. Strange factor. When Tony Stark admonishes him for giving up the Time stone to Thanos, and before he turns to dust like half the universe, Strange says, “There was no other way.” Now this could just be a self-justifying line, an idiot line to justify furthering the plot, but I don’t think so. Earlier, Dr. Strange used the Time stone to see 14 million possible outcomes to their battle with Thanos, and in only one were they victorious. So part of me thinks that’s why he did what he did: It’s the one path to victory. Apparently I’m not the only one thinking this.

“Infinity War” had its slow spots. I could’ve done with more Earth time and more Captain America. I didn’t particularly like Tony’s pause on whether to call Steve Rogers with the Earth in peril. Really, dude? You guys had a spat; get over it. And the opportunities to defeat Thanos that were lost, from Peter Quill in particular, left me shaking my head. C‘mon. Who squabbles with allies instead of banding together to fight the enemy? Besides Bernie bros, I mean.

But overall this “Avengers” is what a superhero movie should be: big, powerful, fun, and never forgetting the human equation. It even includes heartbreak. While most of our heroes simply fade and crumble silently before our eyes, Peter Parker, speaking to his mentor, Tony Stark, says these lines apparently ad-libbed by Tom Holland: “I don’t want to go. Please, I don’t want to go, Mr. Stark.” It’s heartbreaking. You realize how young he is. He wanted adventure but he didn’t want to lose everything. He had such plans. We all have such plans. 

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Posted at 07:10 AM on May 04, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Thursday May 03, 2018

Thanks, Ichiro

Ichiro retires

This was the profile I wrote about newcomer Ichiro Suzuki for The Grand Salami, the Seattle Mariners alternative program, back in the spring of 2001:

Hey, when did we pick up this guy? Just kidding. Ichiro comes to the M's with quite a bit of fanfare, and a playing record whose numerological significance seems something out of folklore. You‘ve heard of the 7 Deadly Sins, the 7 Wonders of the World? Ichiro won 7 straight batting titles with the Orix Blue Wave, 7 straight Gold Gloves; he was named to 7 straight “Best Nine” All-Star teams. And he’s only 27. He has a .353 lifetime batting average and Michael Jordan stature in Japan. Yet he's given it all up to try to become the first Japanese position player to make it big in the bigs. Can he do it? That's the question. The U.S. players he's been compared to keeps leveling off: from Johnny Damon (hitting plus power) to Rod Carew (hitting with no power) to Brett Butler (hitting, but not Rod Carew-type hitting). How does .353 translate into English? We hope well.

This is what I wrote three weeks into the season:

Well, that didn't take long. In his first game he looked a little overmatched against Oakland's Tim Hudson—and admitted as much in a post-game interview—but that didn't stop him from dropping a key bunt-hit to help win the game. Four days later against Texas (and You-Know-Who), Ichiro went deep in the 10th inning for the game-winner. The following week against Oakland, he made a throw from right field (now capitalized: The Throw) which defied physics, nailing Terrence Long at third. A week later he robbed Raffy Palmeiro of a homerun at Safeco. What's next? Lightning bolts shooting from his hands? Ridding the universe of evil-doers everywhere—or at least Scott Boras? And we haven't even mentioned the way he slaps that sweet single between third and short, his speed on the basepaths, and his quiet efficiency in an age of blowhard swagger. To paraphrase an old ad slogan: You Gotta Love This Guy.

So we did. So we do. 

Today, the Seattle Mariners announced Ichiro Suzuki would be leaving the field but not the team. He's being kicked upstairs and given a suit and a Zhou Enlai-like title: “Special Assistant to the Chairman.” Good call. Whenever a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer is slipping toward Mendoza territory, as Ichiro was this season with his .205/.255/.205 line, it's probably time. 

But what fun to recall that great rookie season in 2001, when he hit .350, collected 242 hits, stole 56 bases, and electrified several continents. He also hit .600 in his first post-season series. I'd forgotten that. Against Cleveland in a 5-game ALDS he went 12 for 20. It was one of four post-season series he would play in: two in 2001 (ended by the Yankees) and two in 2012 (with the Yankees). He never made the World Series. Like Junior and Edgar. Our best players are ringless.  

That 242 hits, by the way? That was the ninth-most hits in a single season in MLB history, and the most in any season since 1930. Three years later, he set the record with 262. He broke a record no one had come close to breaking since the ‘20s. Just look at the guys who have collected the most hits in a season in baseball history. That first row of a dozen guys. Nothing but black-and-white photos. And then Ichiro. Twice. 

He collected 200+ hits 10 years in a row—another record. He collected 10 Gold Gloves. He wound up with 3,089 hits, which is amazing when you consider he didn’t get his first hit in the Majors until he was 27. Combine what he did in Japan and the U.S., he had more professional hits than anyone in baseball history. 

On the Mariners, he's the all-time team leader in hits (2,542), batting average (.322), at-bats (7,902), triples (79) and stolen bases (438). He's second in games (1,859) and runs (1,181). He's third in total bases (3,292). He‘ll be the third Seattle Mariners inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

I haven’t even gotten to the intangibles: the sumo stretching moves in the on-deck circle, the sleeve tug, the cool. On the Terrence Long throw, he was so matter-of-fact it sounds like bragging: “The ball was hit right to me,” he said. “Why did he run when I was going to throw him out?”

Someone on Twitter suggested it was a shame Ichiro didn't get to go out like Derek Jeter: collecting gifts and accolades in stadium after stadium until you wanted to slug the dude. My friend Nick's response: “Self-effacing Ichiro? Don't think he wants that, deserving though he is.”

Ichiro's last game was last night at Safeco. He went 0-3 with a walk and he scored one of the M's two runs. The last hit in his remarkable baseball career happened more than a week ago, April 22 against Texas, 4th inning. It's not a hit for most people, but for this 44-year-old, yes: a single to shortstop.

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Posted at 03:56 PM on May 03, 2018 in category Seattle Mariners
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These Days are Ours

“Audience surveys show: many of us are ready for a More Organized Moment. We want our 1950s.

”Well, we can't have them.“

— George W.S. Trow, ”My Pilgrim's Progress,“ pg. 55, in a short chapter on the Julia Roberts' romcom, ”My Best Friend's Wedding." The book was published in 1999. Please remember the quote next time some asshole comes up with more #MAGA bullshit.

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Posted at 08:24 AM on May 03, 2018 in category Books
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Chinese Box Office, Addendum

Wolf Warrior II box office

Leng Feng beat Americans in “Wolf Warrior II” but at the box office he sidestepped Hollywood for 28 days.

Been thinking about this post more. Wu Haiyun is arguing that the boffo box office for Chinese films indicates a rejection of western values of individualism and liberalism in favor of the following Chinese values: “collective effort, patriotism, and self-sacrifice for the cause of national rejuvenation.”

OK. 

She also argues that periods in which the Chinese government don't allow new foreign films to be shown, called “Hollywood blackout periods” or, in China, “Domestic Film Protection Month,” have nothing to do with this rejection of western and embrace of Chinese values. 

Chinese audiences, not the Chinese government, are turning their noses up at Hollywood.

OK.

And yet ...

Here are the highest-grossing domestic movies in China, along with how long they were protected from U.S. competition:

Film Dom. $$ Release date Days w/o US comp
Wolf Warior II $854 Jul. 29, 2017 28
Operation Red Sea $579 Feb. 16, 2018 14
Detective Chinatown 2 $541 Feb. 16, 2018 14
The Mermaid $526 Feb. 12, 2016 14
Monster Hunt $381 Jul. 16, 2015 0
Monster Hunt 2 $356 Feb. 16, 2018 14
Never Day Die $334 Sept. 29, 2017 21
The Ex-File 3 $306 Dec. 29, 2017 7
Kung Fu Yoga $254 Jan. 27, 2017 14
Mojin: The Lost Legend $255 Dec. 18, 2015 21
Journey to the West 2 $239 Jan. 27, 2017 14
Lost in Hong Kong $234 Sept. 21, 2015 14
Goodbye Mr. Loser $226 Sept. 21, 2015 14

Only one movie, the original “Monster Hunt,” went head-to-head against a Hollywood competitor. Well, “Hollywood.” It was “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” so really more Brit than U.S. After that, “Monster” had more than a month without a Hollywood competitor until “Terminator: Genisys” showed up in late August. As is the case for most of the above. 

Wu might also want to respond to an article on “What's on Weibo,” the Chinese social media site, that indicates that not all Chinese filmgoers necessarily want self-sacrifice; some want Hollywood movies. They want the blackout periods to end. 

Bottom line: We‘ll never know how true Wu Haiyun’s words are until China actually gets rid of Domestic Film Protection Month.

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Posted at 06:02 AM on May 03, 2018 in category Movies - Foreign
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Wednesday May 02, 2018

Tweet of the Day

Following Rudy Giuliani's stunning admission on Sean Hannity's Fox News show that Pres. Trump reimbursed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, the $130,000 that Cohen paid to porn actress Stormy Daniels in the month prior to the 2016 election to keep quiet about her 2006 affair (or one-night stand) with Trump:

Ding dong, something's dead.

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Posted at 06:48 PM on May 02, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Kung Fu Yoga (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

There’s a moment midway through “Kung Fu Yoga” (“功 夫 瑜 伽”) that warmed my heart.

Our hero, Prof. Jack Chan (Jackie Chan), the most famous archeologist in China (“one of them,” he always responds with modesty), is in a high-end hotel in Dubai, where he’s just fooled a friend, a rich Chinese businessman, into buying a stolen Indian artifact for $160 million so it can be studied rather than privatized and coveted. Except now several toughs start a fight on the stairs leading to the second floor of the lobby; they want the artifact, handcuffed to the wrist of the businessman, and pull him away. Jackie fights the others, sending two of them tumbling down the stairs, and then jumps over a railing to protect his friend. Except it’s more than a jump. He piourettes. He kicks his back leg up to twist around and land and keep moving and fighting. All in one swift motion.

Kung Fu Yoga American review It’s that slippery grace we’ve seen onscreen for more than 40 years. And at age 62 (his age when “Kung Fu Yoga” was filmed), Jackie can still bring a bit of it.

Which is good because the movie, directed by longtime Chan collaborator Stanley Tong (“Supercop”), is a mess. An expensive, well-produced mess.

ESL, Lesson 2
It was supposed to be a joint production between China and India, but at the last moment the Indian partners, Viacom 18, backed out, as did Bollywood star Aamir Khan, who was set to play the film’s villain, Randall. He was replaced by Sonu Sood, who is meh but does his best with lines like the following—the first words the movie’s villain says to the movie’s hero:

Some call it “destiny.” Some may call it “meant to be.” But I call it “I make it happen.”

Whoosh.

All of this in English, by the way. The Chinese characters speak Chinese, but when the Indian co-stars arrive everyone communicates in the international realm of stilted English. We get painful intros out of an ESL reader:

Ashmita: Nice to meet you, Profesor Chan. Your reputation precedes you ...
Jackie: Call me Jack.

[Pause]

Xiaoguang: Doctor, how are you?
Ashmita: I’m good. Thank you.
Xiaoguang: I’m Zhu Xiaoguang, Professor Chan’s T.A.
Ashmita: You’re Zhu Xioaguang? Your thesis is brilliant!

(Jackie, next time your films need help with English dialogue, 打 电 话 给 我。我 帮 您.)

It doesn’t help, either, that we first see Ashmita (Bollywood newcomer Disha Patani) walking toward us in luxuriant-haired slow mo, while, on the soundtrack, angelic music plays. It’s reminiscent of what they did back in the day with Spanish beauty Lola Forner in “Wheels on Meals” (1984)—except that was used to comic effect, since it provoked dopey, slack-jawed looks from both Jackie and Yuen Biao. This? It’s just dopey. Jackie’s Prof. Chan now, 62, and can’t get be the slack-jawed youth. Plus he has 40 years on the girl: He was born in ’54, Patani in ’92. Yet somehow she’s the one who holds onto his hand a beat too long? And Americans think Hollywood has problems with this shit.

Past the intros, the movie is set in three places:

  1. The Kunlun mountains of Tibet, where the Magadha treasures, tributes from India to the Tang dynasty, were lost in 647 A.D., and are now found 30 meters below the icy surface
  2. Dubai, where Jack’s friend’s son, fortune hunter Jones (Aarif Rahman), absconds with the Diamond of Magadha, which is the key that unlocks the entire Magadha treasure
  3. India, where that treasure is finally unlocked.

All of these places are gorgeous. (Temple of Thuban, here I come!) Each place has its chases and fights, and they’re not bad, just not “Supercop” good. The whole thing is a little like “Fast & Furious” but by way of Jackie’s “Operation Condor” movies.

There are good bits. In Dubai, Xiaoguang and company arrive in front of the hotel late for the car chase when a visiting westerner assumes Xiaoguang is the carhop and hands him his keys. “We’ve got a car!” he shouts. I like the Indian fights with the rope and the snake. I like “Never touch a woman’s hair!” and Jackie getting all “Eighteen strokes to subdue the dragon” on the villain. Old Hong Kong mainstay Eric Tsang shows up in a minor role, and both male supporting actors have personality. Aarif is dynamic, while Zhang Yixing, AKA Lay of the hugely popular boyband Exo, who plays Xiaoguang, has self-effacing comic timing for such a pop sensation.

But the movie takes too long to get up-to-speed, and too many characters are added unncessarily—including Ashmita’s T.A., Kyra (Amra Dastra), who’s mostly there as potential love-interest for Jones. The reveals, meanwhile, are less than revealing. Oh, so Kyra isn’t Ashmita’s T.A. but her sister? Sure, why not? Oh, Ashmita is really a princess? Sure, whatever. “Truthfully,” we’re told, “she is the 68th generation descendant of Prince Gitanjali of Magadha.” And, oh no, crap, here she comes in slow-mo with angelic music again.

A Bollywood ending
The final scenes take place in a deep Indian cavern, where they find a gold temple, and where Jackie gives Randall about a thousand chances to do the right thing.

“This is passion, devotion, dedication,” Jackie says of the temple. But Randall and his thugs simply try to strip it of its jewels. “Respect history!” Jackie tells them. They don’t. He sheds light on a gold Buddha and everyone bows, but Randall is bowing to the gold more than the Buddha. He’s enthused about the chests full of treasure until his men discover they’re just full of ancient scrolls about medicine and Buddhism and throw them on the ground. “This is the knowledge and wisdom to help people live better lives!” Ashmita tells him. Right. So what’s it doing in an underground cavern?

All of this leads to the final big battle. Jackie breaks out the classic gong fu moves, and both Ashmita and Jones prove themselves adept. The fight’s almost over when Indians in the usual maroon/gold flowing religious robes show up out of nowhere. For a second, I thought they’d lived there all these years, but apparently not. Apparently they just wandered in? As reps of the people? To whom all of this belongs? It’s absurd but it stops the fight. Jackie and Randall look at each other. They walk down the stairs. Then, in Bollywood fashion, everyone breaks out into song and dance.

For all that, the movie killed at the Chinese box office (and died at the Indian one). It grossed US$250 million during Chinese New Year 2017—Jackie’s biggest haul by far. Was it the international settings? The high production values? The Bollywood stars? Sad to say, I think it was mostly the kid from the boy band. Brought the girls in.

For what it’s worth, Jackie, I came for you—the greatest movie star in the world.

Jackie: “One of them.”

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Posted at 06:34 AM on May 02, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Tuesday May 01, 2018

Quote of the Day

“In short, the effects of the Trump tax cut are already looking like the effects of the Brownback tax cut in Kansas, the Bush tax cut and every other much-hyped tax cut of the past three decades: big talk, big promises, but no results aside from a swollen budget deficit.

”You might think that the G.O.P. would eventually learn something from this experience, realize that tax cuts aren't magical, and come up with some different ideas. But I guess it's difficult for a man to understand something when his campaign contributions depend on his not understanding it.“

— Paul Krugman, ”How's That Tax Cut Working Out?," The New York Times

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Posted at 08:22 AM on May 01, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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What's an A+ CinemaScore Worth?

One of my old freelance employers, MSN, finally uploaded something I wanted to read: a list of the “46 movies with A+ CinemaScore since 2000.”  

First, this is CinemaScore:

CinemaScore is the industry leader in measuring movie appeal among theatre audiences. Since 1978, CinemaScore has been polling moviegoers at major movie releases on opening night to collect demographic information and calculate a distinctive CinemaScore grade.

In other words, it tries to find out if the movie appeals to the people to whom it's supposed to appeal—the people who couldn't wait to see it; who had to see it opening night.

So what kind of movie appeals to the people to whom it's supposed to appeal? And appeals to them SO MUCH they give it an A+? Superhero movies? Horror films? Chick flicks? Actioners starring The Rock? 

Nope, nope, nope, and nope.

Turns out, they‘re movies starring and/or targeted toward audiences that feel marginalized by Hollywood. Two groups in particular: African Americans and conservative Christians. Their films make up 65% of the A+ scores. 

Of the 46 movies, 17 are about or star African-Americans:

  • Finding Forrester (2000)
  • Remember the Titans (2000)
  • Antwone Fisher (2002)
  • Drumline (2002)
  • Ray (2004)
  • Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005)
  • Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
  • Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? (2007)
  • The Help (2011)
  • 42 (2013)
  • The Best Man (2013)
  • Woodlawn (2015)
  • Selma (2015)
  • Queen of Katwe (2016)
  • Hidden Figures (2016)
  • Girls Trip (2017)
  • Black Panther (2018)

And twelve are conservative Christian movies:

  • The Passion of the Christ (2004)
  • Dreamer (2005)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
  • The Blind Side (2009)
  • Soul Surfer (2011)
  • Courageous (2011)
  • Dolphin Tale (2011)
  • Lone Survivor (2014)
  • American Sniper (2015)
  • Miracles from Heaven (2016)
  • Patriots Day (2016)
  • I Can Only Imagine (2018)

There's also one Mexican-American co-production:

  • Instructions Not Included (2013) 

So why are so many of the A+ scores from groups that see themselves at odds with the very entity (Hollywood) that creates the product? A few guesses. 

Many of the above movies have no other audience other than that group. Who went to see “Miracles from Heaven,” for example, except white Christians? Who went to see “Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?” except black Christians? At opening night, there were no outsiders going, “What the fuck is this crap?” and screwing up its score. 

But that doesn't mean the targeted demographic will like the movies in question. So why did they? And so uncritically? 

A lot of it, I'd guess, comes down to this: If you‘re embattled, or feel embattled, you don’t disparage your side to the enemy. You circle the wagons. Most of these scores seem like wagon-circling to me. Or some kind of circling.  

As for the other 16 A+ movies? Eight are animated—Pixar, mostly:

  • Monsters, Inc. (2001)
  • Finding Nemo (2003)
  • The Incredibles (2004)
  • The Polar Express (2004)
  • Up (2009)
  • Tangled (2010)
  • Frozen (2013)
  • Coco (2017)

Then there's live-action movies that should be geared toward kids but which we all go see now: 

  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
  • The Lord of the Rings: Returns of the King (2003)
  • The Avengers (2012)

We also have inoffensive Oscar (or Oscar-y) movies:

  • Cinderella Man (2006)
  • The King's Speech (2010)
  • Argo (2012)

Finally, we have two recent from-the-heart curios:

  • Wonder (2017) 
  • Love, Simon (2018)

What's missing from CinemaScore's list of A+ movies from this century? With the exception of the Pixars, just the best movies from this century. But I kind of expected that going in. 

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Posted at 06:55 AM on May 01, 2018 in category Movies - Lists
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