erik lundegaard

Friday July 27, 2018

Jellybean, as Filmed by Wes Anderson

“Felis Catus,” as my nephew Jordy said. 

Jellybean, as filmed by Wes Anderson

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Posted at 11:49 AM on Jul 27, 2018 in category Jellybean
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Movie Review: The King (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The fact that I left a screening of “The King” happy and ready to sing its praises should probably be taken with a grain of salt—or two beers, since that’s what I drank during the show. I’d ordered one (pilsner), the concession guy opened the wrong one (IPA), so he offered both. I looked at the bottles on the counter and thought, “Why the fuck not?” It was another shitty day in Trump’s America—the week Justice Kennedy announced his retirement—and I was dispirited. Ninety minutes later, I felt great. I felt ready to fight again. Was it the doc or the beer? Or some combo?

The doc, by the way, isn't exactly uplifting. But it does discuss, on an intelligent, macro level, much of what I feel is wrong with the country. So I felt less alone afterwards. 

The King documentary reviewDuring the summer of 2016—the run-up to the Clinton-Trump election—director Eugene Jarecki (“The Trials of Henry Kissinger,” “Why We Fight,”) drove Elvis Presley’s 1964 Rolls Royce through the towns and cities that made Elvis who he was. Chronologically:

  • Tupelo
  • Memphis
  • Nashville
  • New York
  • Germany
  • Hollywood
  • Las Vegas

Jarecki lets different folks into the backseat to play, sing, or just talk about Elvis and the state of the country. Basically, Elvis is seen as a metaphor for America. We took over the world with a sneer and a shake of our hips and without really knowing what we were doing. Then we grew addicted and overweight and addled. We forgot the words. Trump is our late-stage Vegas period. He's our fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. The toilet isn’t far away.

Money Honey
Give Jarecki credit. Not many filmmakers would let a supporting player, two-thirds of the way through the movie, say, in effect, “Your metaphor is all wrong.”

David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” gets to say just that. He gives Jarecki shit for the Rolls. He says he should’ve been driving one of the many American-made Cadillacs Elvis gave away to friends and family over the years. Emmylou Harris echoes a bit of this, too: “I thought he only drove American cars,” she says. In effect, Simon wants to continue the argument from “The Wire”’s second season: “We used to make shit in this country, build shit,” Baltimore dock worker Frank Sobotka says. “Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.” But it’s not Simon’s movie. And maybe the opulence of the Rolls is a better metaphor anyway.

Based on the trailer, I was worried the doc would be too much Elvis-bashing in terms of race: that he stole black music and made a fortune on it; that the various country and gospel influences in Elvis’ background didn’t factor in at all. Simon, of all people, is the one who brings up the other influences.

As for “stole,” well, you can argue Elvis was simply playing the music he liked. At Sun Records, he was recording stuff he assumed would be popular—ballads and ‘50s pop—and that just didn’t click for Sam Phillips. It was only between sessions, goofing around, that he launched into an old blues number, “That’s All Right, Mama,” which caused Phillips to perk up and ask him what he was doing. Elvis’ inclination was to apologize. Phillips knew, Elvis did not.

That said, Chuck D has a point, too. Whether Elvis “stole,” “appropriated” or was simply “influenced by” black music, he never repaid the debt. A lot of white stars, without such a debt, participated in civil rights marches and the emblematic 1963 March on Washington, including Paul Newman (born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio), Marlon Brando (Nebraska) and even Charlton Heston (Illinois/Michigan). Elvis stayed silent. He didn’t get involved in any of it. He doubled down on “good ol' boy.”  

You could probably do a doc just on “Hound Dog” alone. Most know Elvis made a hit of it in’56; a few know Big Mama Thornton had a hit earlier; fewer still know it was written by a couple of Jewish kids, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who got so screwed from Thornton’s recording they started their own label in 1953. The hand-wringers claim Elvis stole the song from Thornton, but she recorded her version back in ’52, when it was a rhythm-and-blues hit. It went as far as it could under the circumstances. His take is different. It races. It rocks and rolls. You can blame racism for why her version didn't hit bigger. Elvis was just singing a song. 

“You have no idea how hard he hit American culture,” James Carville reminds us, and it’s because of what he was bringing into white living rooms: race and sex, the forbidden duo. The white power structure—both South and North—went crazy. Elvis was condemned, mocked, viewed as a freak. He was viewed as low class. Eventually they just drafted him away. When he returned he was tamed: maybe by age, or the Army, or Hollywood, or maybe just by the need to fit in; to not be a freak in the eyes of people whose approval he wanted.

Maybe he was tamed by money? That’s something Ethan Hawke, sitting in the front seat, with a dumbass toothpick in his mouth, mentions. Every chance Elvis had between money and art, he went with the money. But this could also be about his need to fit in; to win over his detractors. Sadly, as he was mollifying one group, others, off his flank, were rising. One mocked him as a thief; another made him irrelevant. Mike Myers tells a great story—probably apocryphal—about Elvis’ early Hollywood days. At the studio gates, girls gathered, hoping for a glimpse and a chance to scream. So Col. Tom Parker had them put a blanket over Elvis in the back seat, and he sailed through. Then when the Beatles broke, the girls went away but the blanket stayed. Before it was to hide Elvis so he wouldn’t cause a frenzy; after, it was to hide from Elvis the fact that he was no longer causing one.

Heartbreak Hotel
We get a little on Elvis’ early days: the dead twin; how his dad went to prison for a few months. I could’ve used more of this. That background is so sketchy. I’ve read several biographies of the Beatles but none on Elvis. Maybe I should get on that. But what can I say? Their music is more interesting and they’re more interesting.

The doc includes some great music I haven’t heard before: Emi Sunshine & The Rain; Immortal Technique. My favorite backseat drivers are Carville, Simon, Immortal Technique and Van Jones. I'd love to hear them get together and just talk. John Hiatt, meanwhile, gets in the backseat and cries. You think it’s because he's sitting where Elvis sat, and the power of that thought, but it’s the opposite. He sits there and senses just how trapped Elvis was.

Saddest moment? Alec Baldwin in New York talking politics. He makes a prediction about the 2016 election. He's wrong. 

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Posted at 01:58 AM on Jul 27, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Thursday July 26, 2018

Movie Review: Chasing the Dragon (2017)

Chasing the Dragon movie review

WARNING: SPOILERS

The first fight fooled me into thinking this movie might be more than it is.  

Early on, our four heroes—OK, one hero, Ho (Donnie Yen of “Ip Man”), and his three nondescript pals—newly and illegally arrived in Hong Kong from China in 1960, are talking about making money by fighting, so I assumed they meant a competition: rings, rules, etc. Ho would shine (he’s Ip Man, after all), and from there, who knows? But that’s all wrong. They’ve lent their services to a local gang, fighting another local gang, under the watchful eyes of corrupt police. In this free-for-all, Ho does shine, but not in the usual martial-arts movie manner. The movements aren’t crisp and super-choreographed; they’re messy and sloppy. It looks like a real fight.

That fact, plus the period nature of the piece—Hong Kong from roughly 1960 to 1974—made me think they (director Wong Jing, some mucky-muck in the Chinese film industry) wanted something more like a Scorsese picture rather than the typical Hong Kong actioner.

They didn't get it. 

你帮我,我帮你
“Chasing the Dragon” (追龍) is the story of how a half-corrupt cop, Lui Lok or Lee Rock, (Andy Lau, reprising the role he played in the 1990s), and a halfway-decent crook (Ho), band together to “save” Hong Kong from more nefarious forces. It’s basically the rise and fall of a drug dealer.

Problems? Some of the film’s shorthand. We first see Ho being decent to a little girl, Alva, bringing her a bowl of congee; and though they owe their landlords money, he surreptitiously hands a nerdy kid a few bills for his tuition. See? He’s decent. The nerdlinger turns out to be his kid brother who gets hooked on the drugs Ho peddles, while the girl turns into a beauty whom Ho uses to infiltrate the police dept. She winds up dead, he winds up a vegetable.

The filmmakers also screw up the period nature. More oddly, they actually get it right except for our main characters. We see them arriving in Hong Kong—where, we’re told, everything was super-corrupt before 1974—so I assumed, based on their period hairstyles and the fact that Ho is smoking pot, that it was 1974. It’s not; it’s 1960.

Here’s how they look in 1960:

Chasing the Dragon haircuts

And here’s everyone else:

Chasing the Dragon haircuts

I hate this kind of thing. I wrote about it recently. Details matter. The hairstyles of 1974 are not interchangeable with the hairstyles of 1960. That change is in fact the story, and to ignore it, or get it wrong, is to fuck up the story. 

In that opening brawl, Ho also knocks out a corrupt British cop, Hunt (Bryan Larkin), and nearly gets beaten to death in prison for it. Lee Rock saves him so the two have this bond. Later, Ho returns the favor and gets his kneecap bashed in; he winds up with a lifelong limp. We suspected this might happen because in the intro he calls himself “Crippled Ho,” which is the name he goes by for the second half of the film. The Chinese are nothing if not politically incorrect in this manner. See “Piggy” (Kent Cheng) and “Chubby” (Ben Ng). See screen legend Sammo Hung, who is still called “Fatty.”

As our heroes rise through the various layers of gangsters and corrupt cops, Rock becomes more cautious, Ho less so. He wants revenge: against the gangster who crippled him; against Hunt, who is generally awful and racist. The film wants revenge. It lays the blame for the corrupt situation at the feet of the British imperialists, even though the organization that helped clean up Hong Kong, the ICAC, or Independent Commission Against Corruption, was formed in February 1974 by the British governor. You almost want the movie to be about them. But such a movie might be less xenophobic, and xenophobia is the watchword of Chinese cinema now. 

This movie meanders. We never really know who Ho is. He's just a series of gestures that don't add up to a complete character. We get moments of melodrama (the kid brother becoming a vegetable), moments of suspense (will Rock’s family make it out?), and a Han Soloish surprise return by Rock (to save Ho yet again). There’s a final rooftop confrontation between Ho and Hunt, but Rock intervenes. You think he’s talked him back from the ledge. But after the two heroes look into each other’s eyes, and Ho says “You’ve been a good brother,” he fires two shots back, without looking, and kills Hunt. That’s a good scene. Also handled well is Rock’s reaction. He sighs, takes his own gun, shoots himself in the shoulder, then wipes it clean and puts it in Hunt’s dead hand. The camera pulls back. The music wells. Then the movie reminds us one more time that all of this was all the result of British imperialism.

不是第一
“Chasing the Dragon,” with its double meaning, is, I found out, a remake of the 1991 film “To Be Number One,” which was highly acclaimed: It won best picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards, beating out both “Once Upon a Time in China” and—interestingly— Andy Lau’s “Lee Rock,” about the character he plays here. Its Chinese name, by the way, isn’t “To Be Number One.” It’s 跛毫 or  Bo hao: “Crippled Ho.”

This one was kind of acclaimed, too. It was nominated for six Hong Kong awards (including picture), and won two (cinematography, editing). But I’m surprised it got that far. It’s not that good.

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Posted at 01:12 AM on Jul 26, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Wednesday July 25, 2018

Movie Review: Skyscraper (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The people who made “Skyscraper” seemed to say to themselves, “OK, whatever ‘Die Hard’ did, let’s double it!”

So in “Die Hard,” John McClane loses his shoes. In “Skyscraper,” Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) has a prosthetic leg. In “Die Hard,” Nakatomi Tower is pretty tall. In “Skyscraper,” The Pearl is the tallest building in the world. McClane’s estranged wife is a hostage in the building; for Sawyer it’s his entire family. 

McClane is a cop, Sawyer is ex-FBI. McClane is buff, Sawyer is The Rock.

Etc.

Of course, it doesn’t work. In fact, it's just awful. 

The patsy
Skyscraper reviewWhy don’t we give a shit about any of it? Why is “Die Hard” so much better? Because McClane has personality? Because he seems like an average joe? He complains in the air duct: “Come to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.” He references pop culture: “Ehhh! Sorry, Hans, wrong guess. Would you like to go for Double Jeopardy where the scores can really change?” He's the smartass in the back row. He doesn’t want to be the hero, he’s just trapped in the building and has to make do until the cavalry arrives; but then he finds outs, no, he’s the cavalry. Half his lines are classics: “Make fists with your toes.” “Welcome to the party, pal.” “Yippee-kai-yay, motherfucker.”

(For more on why “Die Hard” rocks, see here.)

Will Sawyer doesn’t have any memorable lines. He doesn’t have a memorable personality. He’s a bland nice guy whose sole mission is to save his family. Even his name is bland: “Will Sawyer” C‘mon, people, it’s The Rock. Give the man at least one hard consonant.

Plus you more-or-less buy what happens in “Die Hard.” You buy that Bruce Willis is a cop, you buy Bonnie Bedilia as his estranged wife and up-and-coming executive. The building seems real, the terrorists seem splashy but kinda real. Most of what McClane does—even the crazy outside-the-building stuff—seems vaguely plausible.

Do I buy The Rock as a security executive? Neve Campbell as a surgeon? Do I believe the size and shape of The Pearl in Hong Kong: 3500 feet, 240 stories, with outside turbines forever spinning? Do I believe that Sawyer, who must weight 250 and has a prosthetic leg, can climb a building crane, swing it close to the Pearl, and leap from the crane’s top into an open window on the Pearl 150 stories above the ground? No, no, no. None of it. The one thing they get right is the duct tape. It’s the best part of the film. It’s the John McClane part of the film. 

When the movie begins, the Pearl is nearing completion, and its designer, Zhao Jong Li (Ng Chin Han), has looked at different security experts; but based on the advice of his—I guess—assistant, Ben (Pablo Schreiber of “The Wire” and “Orange if the New Black”), he chooses Sawyer, who is an ex-FBI buddy of Ben’s. Plus Sawyer’s done his homework or whatever. He’s even kind of memorized a Chinese phrase his wife taught him: 很高兴认识你: “Nice to know you.” It’s in Mandarin, but later we hear her speak Cantonese to a Hong Kong police officer. So does she know both languages? And she’s a surgeon? And she looks like Neve Campbell? 好棒啊!

Getting Zhao to hire Sawyer is part of the bad guys’ plot, by the way. Imagine that. They need a patsy, and who better than 250-pounds of solid ex-FBI muscle? Ben is in on the plot, of course, which you can tell by the way he fidgets and because he's played by Pornstache Mendez. Pierce, the accountant (Noah Taylor), is a traitor, too, which you can tell by the way he glowers and the fact that he’s played by Locke from “Game of Thrones.” Everything is telegraphed here. None of it is a surprise.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when Pablo told his friends about his new role:

Yeah, and I get into a fight with the Rock!
You?
Well, I’m ex-FBI.
So how long does it last—a second?
No, but he doesn’t expect it.
Who would?
C'mon, I could totally take him out. 
For ice cream?

Here’s the scheme. An international mob organization, run, as usual, by a Scandinavian (Roland Møller, playing Kores Botha), shakes down Zhang halfway through construction, demanding kickbacks sent to encrypted bank accounts. Except Zhang is Chinese and shit, so he un-encrypts it all and gets all their real names, and he keeps this info in a safe in his penthouse on the 240th floor. That’s why they start a fire on the 90th floor and turn off all fire-safety protocol; to get this info. Which I’m sure is backed up nowhere.

The bad guys then get Ben to get Zhang to hire Sawyer because all security measures will be on one tablet, and how hard can it be to steal one tablet away from the Rock? But they do it, Sawyer is blamed by the media, but he eludes the cops, climbs the crane, leaps into the burning building to save his family—all to the cheers of Chinese onlookers. Mother and son get out first but then daughter is held hostage on the rooftop. Sawyer and Zhang have to work together to get her free and beat the bad guys. They do. But even then they’re about to be burnt to a crisp.

Thankfully, back on the ground, Dr. Sarah has already defeated the bitchy Chinese chick with the mod haircut (Hannah Quinlivan), taken back the tablet, and promptly puts the fire protocol back online to save husband and child. Is there nothing Neve can’t do?

We were so much older then
Afterwards, in the helicopter transporting them to safety, Sawyer asks Zhang “What next?” and Zhang contemplates for a second before replying, “We rebuild.” The Rock smiles. Oh, that indomitable human spirit.

Compare this with the end of another obvious predecessor, “The Towering Inferno,” which was released in December 1974, a few months after Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and a more cynical time generally. Its architect, played by Paul Newman, surveys the charred wreckage of his building and says:

I don’t know. Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.

I miss those days.

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Posted at 03:48 AM on Jul 25, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Tuesday July 24, 2018

Quote of the Day

“He is the greatest hitter who ever lived. It's not even an argument.”

— Wade Boggs, in the hour-long documentary, “American Masters: Ted Williams,” which aired last night on PBS. You can also see it here. It's a quick watch. I wanted something longer, with more ballplayers. But I loved the stories from his longtime fishing buddy. Also loved the matter-of-fact way Boggs says the above, with a slight shrug at the end, and a tone that implies anyone who does argue it isn't worth talking to.

Ted Williams, American Masters

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Posted at 12:07 PM on Jul 24, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Orwell Warned Us

Astonishing. Horrifying. Not surprising. 

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Posted at 06:29 AM on Jul 24, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Mulaney, Vonnegut and Walking Into the Ocean

Several years ago, I pointed out the similarities between a bit of Marcel Proust's writing and a bit of Louis C.K.'s stand-up comedy. The fact that these professions collide actually makes sense to me. Proust once described artists as “creatures who talk of precisely the things one shouldn't mention,” and that's pretty much what modern stand-up comedians do. 

Well, here's another novelist/comic comparison: Kurt Vonnegut and John Mulaney. 

One of Mulaney's recent bits is about how robots ask us if we‘re robots. We try to log onto our stuff, and we’re made to jump through idiotic hoops (“Which of these pictures does not have a stop sign in it?”) that techies have devised that are supposedly beyond the capabiities of robots. You can see the bit here beginning at 5:41:

“You spend a lot of your day,” Mulaney says, “telling a robot that you‘re not a robot. Think about that for two minutes and tell me you don’t want to walk into the ocean.”

God, I love that. 

So the other day I was rereading “Palm Sunday” by Kurt Vonnegut, and came across the following in an essay entitled “When I Lost My Innocence.” Vonnegut was asked to write the essay by an editor in a Swedish newspaper but he replied with a letter. The letter began by talking about how his only religion growing up was an enthusiasm for technological cures for most forms of human discontent. He says he lost that religion when the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. He said the soul that created that blast was so sick “it did not want to live anymore.” He adds:

It is quite awful, really, to realize that perhaps most of the people around me find lives in the service of machines so tedious and exasperating that they would not mind much, even if they have children, if life were turned out like a light switch at any time. How many of your readers will deny that the movie Dr. Strangelove was so popular because its ending was a happy one?

Made me think of Mulaney, and telling robots you‘re not a robot, and walking into the ocean.

Of these four artists I’ve mentioned, you'd think the tidy Mulaney would match better with Proust, while the sloppy, populist Louis would fit in with Vonnegut. And maybe they do. Somewhere.

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Posted at 04:14 AM on Jul 24, 2018 in category Books
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Monday July 23, 2018

Movie Review: Three Identical Strangers (2018)

Three Identical Strangers movie review

WARNING: SPOILERS

I had two main thoughts by the end: one deadly serious, one less so.

Here’s the deadly serious thought: Surely the filmmakers were wary their doc might be continuing the experiment. Surely they knew that by making a film about how these boys, now men, had been in essence turned into lab rats, and then finding new evidence about why this had happened, and showing it to them and filming their response in real time, surely they knew that this wasn’t far removed from what the scientists themselves had done. Here you go. Here’s what this one lab tech had to say about your adopted parents. How does that make you FEEL? The filmmakers must have had these conversations deep into the night, right? Conversations about the ethics of it all? Surely?

The other, less serious thought was this: If only the Eddie Murphy comedy “Trading Places” had existed in the late 1950s. This whole thing might never have happened.

Nature vs. nurture
Here’s the trailer.

 

Pretty amazing stuff. Twins separated at birth, then reunited. Wait, not twins: triplets. They found each other in New York in 1980, and they were all tall, good-looking and fun. They were Jewish but seemed Italian, and became minor celebrities. They went on Today and Phil Donahue. They had a cameo in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” smiling at Madonna in the early morning light.

What’s amazing, and not commented upon enough, is how much joy being reunited brings them. I think if I were in college and found a long-lost twin—someone who looked, talked and thought like me—I’d throw up. I wouldn’t want to hang with them. I certainly wouldn’t want to dress like them. I’d see it as an affront to my individuality. At least I suspect I would. But maybe this is because I don’t have a long-lost twin. I was alone in the uterus, they weren’t. And maybe this accounts for their special joy. It’s an ur-reunification. They feel it in their bones.

Or maybe they’re just joyful people.

Are they interesting people? That’s an issue a third of the way through. In the ’80s, they hang with each other, go to clubs, drink, etc. Do they have jobs? We don’t know. All we’re told is that after years of partying they open a restaurant, Triplets, in the Soho district. I expected disaster but it does well. First year, they clear a million. They each get married; they start families.

Then David breaks away.

Do we get the why of that? Or just the consequences? It happens suddenly, doesn’t it, and then we’re into Eddy’s fall. But we expected that one. We hear and see David and Bobby, today, in their 50s, talking directly to the camera, and we’re painfully aware there’s no Eddy. So that hangs over our viewing: What happened to Eddy?

Apparently he had trouble with David leaving; he had trouble with the group splitting up. He was most likely manic-depressive—outgoing, loving, beloved—and then the opposite of that. During one of his opposites, in 1995, he took his own life.

Did this wreck the relationship between Bobby and David, or was that already wrecked? When we see them today, greeting each other on camera, it feels awkward, like they haven’t seen each other in a while. They were the extremes, classwise. Part of the experiment involved placing the boys in different economic strata: upper class (David), middle (Eddy), working (Bobby). Bobby’s dad was the most gregarious, Eddy’s the biggest disciplinarian, David’s (a doctor) the most absent.

The experiment, started by renowned psychologist Peter Neubauer—who fled the Nazis and should’ve known better than to experiment with people, with children—was apparently the old nature vs. nurture argument. What’s bred into us? What do we learn? Much of the early media surrounding the boys focused on their superficial similarities. They all wrestled, smoked the same cigs, dressed similarly even before they did it on purpose. Over and over again. The boys, back then, played this up. The doc does, too.

The differences turned out to be a matter of life and death. All suffered depression but it was Eddy who took his own life. Why?

J’accuse
The doc places the blame on Eddy’s martinet father, now in his 90s. He’s a talking head early in the doc so there’s a dramatic “butler did it” quality to the accusation. So it was him all along! But this turnabout made me uneasy. We’re blaming an old man for the death of his son based on ... dime-store psychology? A desperation to show nurture matters? I’m not sure. It feels facile. 

“Three Identical Strangers” is still worth seeing. It’s an amazing, crazy, awful story. I just hope British documentarian Tim Wardle wanted me to feel uneasy afterwards. I hope his ethics discussions went deep into the night.

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Posted at 03:48 AM on Jul 23, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Sunday July 22, 2018

Extraordinary! Really Wild Ride!

More NPR. I know. Apologies. You picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue. 

So here's Korva Coleman on “Weekend Edition: Sunday” this morning, explaining the week we just went through:

Last week, by almost any measure, was an extraordinary one for news. The meeting between Pres. Putin and Trump in Helsinki reverberated throughout the week and particularly on Capitol Hill:

  • Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA, 28): “This was a wholesale betrayal of the values and interests in this country.”
  • Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN): “It made us look as a nation more like a pushover.”
  • Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY): “I think the Russians need to know that there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016, and it better not happen again in 2018.” *

NPR's Mara Liasson is here to help us process the past week and prepare for the next one. Good morning, Mara. 

Hi, Corva.

Mara, the post-Helsinki week was a really wild ride, full of clarifications and walkbacks from the president, and meanwhile Putin and the Russians appear to be defining the post-summit narrative. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will go to the Hill this week to talk to members of Congress. What will they want to know?

* For more and how much Mitch knew about Russian interference in the 2016 election, please consult this Dec. 2016 Washington Post article. Please. 

Sigh. How horrifying does a week have to be before NPR will call it horrifying? How embarrassing before it's embarrassing? Instead, what adjectives do we get? “Extraordinary” and “a really wild ride.” They could be advertising the roller coaster at Six Flags. How would they describe Kristallnacht? Amazing? Astounding? A helluva party? 

Oh, and NPR is still saying Trump is clarifying when he's obfuscating. I guess that‘ll never go away. 

As for perspective, Mara doesn’t tell us much we don't already know. Putin and Trump met for an hour, alone, and what came out of that no one knows. Putin offered to let federal agents interrogate the 12 indicted Russians (currently safe in Russia) if we fly a former U.S. ambassador to him to interrogate, which is both shocking and, to Pres. Trump, “an incredible offer.” Trump also wants to meet Putin in the U.S. in September. I doubt Republicans up for re-election are enthused about that. 

For true perspective, I'd recommend Andrew Sullivan's most recent column (Trump actually believes what he says; i.e., he wants a zero-sum game where the powerful bully the weak, and NATO and western values are meaningless because they don't let us do that); and Adam Davidson's New Yorker piece, “A Theory of Trump Kompromat” (Putin isn't dictating to Trump; Trump simply believes the Russians have something on him—probably financial—and is acting accordingly).

See you next week. I'm sure by Friday NPR will be calling it “exceptional.”

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Posted at 02:30 PM on Jul 22, 2018 in category Media
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‘Lulu Garcia Navarro is Away’

That's what NPR's “Weekend Edition: Sunday” broadcast mentioned this morning, but I would argue you can say that almost every weekend.

Last Sunday morning, for example, while making coffee, I was listening to her interview Misha Glenny, author of “McMafia,” and an expert on cybersecurity and global organized crime, who was brought on to talk about the recent indictments of 12 Russians in hacking the DNC and influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

It was a good interview. Glenny reminds us of the weakness of the Russian economy, how cyberwarfare is a cost-effective way to undercut countries, and how Putin is essentially a mob boss: the gangster capitalism of 1990s Russia now being organized by, and subordinate to, him. Then Navarro asks him if the Russians are scared because of the 12 indictments.

GLENNY: I don't think that the Russians will be scared at all by this. I think that they‘re enjoying the whole spectacle. And I suspect that Donald Trump is going to basically accommodate Putin’s wishes at the meeting. There is something very, very fishy in the state of Denmark at the moment in the United States. And I think the Russians are making hay out of this.

I was practically on my toes in anticipation of the follow-up. What is fishy? What is he going to say? You‘ve got an expert in an area that is worrying millions of Americans, and billions of people across the globe. What are his thoughts? 

Navarro’s follow-up?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Misha Glenny, author of “McMafia,” thank you so much for joining us.

Yes, Lulu Garcia Navarro is away. 

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Posted at 02:13 AM on Jul 22, 2018 in category Media
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Saturday July 21, 2018

The Week that Wuz

“Like a mad experiment proving the elasticity of time, the Trump era has confounded our temporal sensibilities. The past seven days have witnessed the hostile questioning of an F.B.I. agent by Republican members of the House of Representatives intent on exonerating the Trump campaign from the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation; Mueller’s indictment of twelve Russian intelligence officials on charges of interfering in the 2016 election; a bizarre set of exchanges between Donald Trump and NATO; a visit to the United Kingdom, during which the President insulted Prime Minister Theresa May; a press conference in Helsinki, in which he all but offered President Vladimir Putin a foot massage; and the arrest of a Russian woman with ties to the National Rifle Association on charges of espionage.

This level of intrigue would be overwrought for a season of “Homeland”; as a moment in our national affairs it is vertigo-inducing.”

— Jelani Cobb, “In Celebrating Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama Indicts Trumpism,” The New Yorker. After the above was published, news broke of the Cohen/Trump tapes—Cohen recording Trump talking hush money for Playboy model Karen MacDougal prior to the 2016 election—as well as Trump's invite to Putin to arrive in this country. Plus whatever the fuck happened today. 

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Posted at 06:40 AM on Jul 21, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday July 20, 2018

The Trump Tapes, Part I

The big story of the day was this one from The New York Times, although its headline was a bit misleading: 

Michael Cohen Secretly Taped Trump Discussing Payment to Playboy Model

At least it misled me. I thought this meant Cohen taped Trump talking to the model. Nope. Cohen taped him and Trump talking about the model. Specifically how to keep her quiet in the months leading up to the election. Money was apparently involved. That's all we know so far.

Wow.

The Playboy model in question is Karen McDougal who says she had an affair with Trump in 2007 or so. She eventually sold her story to The National Enquirer, but they squelched it. They paid $150k not to run it. As a favor to Trump

Of course, Trump's current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, jumped in today with a topnotch defense:

“Nothing in that conversation suggests that he had any knowledge of it in advance,” Mr. Giuliani said, adding that Mr. Trump had directed Mr. Cohen that if he were to make a payment related to the woman, write a check, rather than sending cash, so it could be properly documented.

“In the big scheme of things, it's powerful exculpatory evidence,” Mr. Giuliani.

Right. It's exculpatory because a man running for president directed his lawyer that if they had to pay off a woman who said she'd had an affair with him, probably in violation of election laws, please use one of your own checks. 

There's more tapes, btw, and all of this will eventually come out. But the fact that it's taken so long—a year a half into Trump's presidency—even though it's about a president makes me wonder what CEOs and other titans invariably get away with on a daily basis.

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Posted at 08:21 AM on Jul 20, 2018 in category Politics
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Movie Review: Eighth Grade (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I spent more time covering my eyes during this movie than I do during most horror movies. That’s a testament to the accuracy writer-director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher bring to the project. Anyone who’s been through it knows: eighth grade is like a horror movie.

Fisher plays Kayla, a girl living in two worlds: the hallways of junior high, through which she slinks, hoping no one will talk to her, praying someone will; and the online/social media world, where she acts confident and posts self-help videos to not-many followers. In her videos, she gives advice such as be yourself, which she clarifies as “Like, not changing yourself to impress someone else.” Then she spends much of the rest of the movie not following her own advice.

There’s not a false note in Fisher’s performance. She’s amazing and heartbreaking.

Quietest
eighth grade movie reviewIt’s the last week of eighth grade, and Kayla’s view of her real-world self is upended—or her worst fears realized—when during auditorium it’s announced that she’s been voted “quietest.” She’s mortified (quietly), but becomes determined to upend that image. She makes an effort. That’s part of the horror: the earnest effort to put herself out there. Most of us know where earnest efforts—particularly in junior high—lead.

Is the pool party first? The mom of the cool girl in school invites her to the cool girl’s pool party, and Elsie decides to make her determined stand in this most awkward of situations: in a green bathing suit. It’s an indelible scene. She arrives late, changes inside, then makes her slow, slouched, painful way through the happy throngs playing in the sun. We’re relieved when she finally makes it all the way into the water. There’s almost a collective sigh from the audience. Even better: a goofy kid, Gabe (Jake Ryan), begins to talk to her, so she’s not alone. But of course she’s not interested in the goofy kid. She’s interested in Aiden (Luke Prael), who has sleek eyes, tousled hair, and a cool demeanor that’s probably hiding not much.

We get an endearing scene. At night, in bed with her smartphone, she visits Aiden’s Instagram page, closes her eyes and kisses one of his selfies. At this point, Dad (Josh Hamilton), walks into the bedroom and in a panic she tosses the smartphone across the room, then yells at him. When she recovers it, the screen is cracked. It’s like a girl version of a Portnoy scene.

We also get an icy scene. During a classroom test, Kayla sneaks over to Aiden—literally crawling on the ground—to deliver a message, and flirt, and pretend to be more experienced sexually than she is. She winds up bragging about things she doesn’t know about. His eyes light up. We want to shout at the screen: RUN!

Thankfully, that goes nowhere. Much of the movie goes nowhere. It’s episodic. The movement forward is in starts and stops. We, and she, anticipate disasters that never happen. At the pool party, she sings karaoke, but it seems to go fine. She’s given a high school mentor, like all the eighth graders, and hers isn’t an awful person—like, say, Parker Posey in “Dazed & Confused”—but nice and nurturing. The girl’s one mistake—after a meet-up at the mall with other high schoolers—is getting dropped off before Kayla. That allows a high school boy to get weirdly creepy. Thankfully, that goes nowhere, too.

Burnham, who made his name via YouTube, has an overt message in the movie: get off social media; go offline. But his subtler message is the better one. Every scene has the potential for disaster, but it never arrives. You put yourself out there, disasters generally don’t befall you. Hell, most people don’t notice or care. Which, in eighth grade, can be a huge positive.

Small victories
Some of the jokes are OK but seem like retread “Fast Times” and/or “Simpsons” bits. Kayla looks around at her peers and sees dudes sniffing markers, girls dealing with retainers. The cool girls are vapid. Instead of “Fuzzy Bunny,” the narrator for the hip-new sex-ed video says, “It’s gonna be lit.” The vice-principal dabs, but he seems self-aware doing it. He’s the older dude doing it as a joke on himself. He was on screen for seconds and I liked him immediately. 

Throughout, there’s small victories. By the end, Kayla is beginning to find her voice, beginning to find her peers—including Gabe—and beginning to think the self-help videos aren’t helping her self much. It’s a great slice-of-life. Kudos to Burnham for making it.

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Posted at 01:53 AM on Jul 20, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Thursday July 19, 2018

Quote of the Day

“Don't sleep on the NRA piece. It's the funnel to the whole GOP, not just Trump.”

— Rick Perlstein, author, via Facebook yesterday. He provided a link to this piece in The New York Times about Maria Butina at the National Prayer Breakfast. Basics: right-wing Christians see kindred spirits in Russian homophobia; Russians sees access to halls of American power via same Christians and the NRA.  Set oven to 2016. Bake. 

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Posted at 05:46 AM on Jul 19, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Wednesday July 18, 2018

Movie Review: My Beloved Bodyguard (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I was intrigued by the description on Netflix, where the American title is simply “The Bodyguard”:

A retired security officer with dementia befriends a little girl whose father is running from the mob. To save her, his old skills start to kick in.

I envisioned a combo of “Gran Torino” and “The Bourne Identity.” Ordinary old dude, suddenly ... POW! ... and all the bad dudes are on the ground, and all the townsfolk are looking at him in amazement.

And starring Sammo Hung? How can it be bad?

It’s worse.

很多的问题
My Beloved Bodyguard reviewFirst off, everyone already knows about the martial arts skills. “Old Ding? Yeah, he’s a former Center Security Bureau officer. Bad dude. Way up there. Now he’s losing it. Too bad.” We get a female voiceover explaining everything. Everything. It’s awful. Can no one write scenes? Dialogue? 

Second, there’s the way he’s losing it. He’s going to identify the movie’s leering villain, Choi (Feng Jia-yi), but during the police lineup can’t remember his face. He forgets his key, but it’s on a string around his neck. It’s all rather sanitized. Plus Sammo, bless his heart, isn’t actor enough to pull it off. He just stands there, blinking. A better director might’ve helped him out but he’s the director—his first movie since “Once Upon a Time in China and America” in 1997.

The sideplots and side characters suck, too. His doctor (Feng Shaofeng of the “Monkey King” movies) tells him all of his organs are failing and he needs multiple operations; then he smiles and says, “I’m joking. Other than your memory issues, you’re fine.” Funny, doc. Always good to joke with a dementia patient. A neighbor lady, Mrs. Park (Li QinQin), keeps making a play for him, but her age and neediness (and his reluctance) are played for laughs. There’s a recurring bit with three old men sitting on the sidelines and commenting upon the proceedings, and they’re played by old Hong Kong mainstays Tsui Hark, Dean Shek and Karl Maka. It should be great stuff—like the three old men in “Do the Right Thing”—but something either gets lost in translation or it wasn’t good to begin with.

But the biggest problem? The girl Sammo is supposed to save. Good god, she’s obnoxious.

Her name is Cherry (Jacqueline Chan), and she runs away from her gambling, good-for-nothing father (Andy Lau) to hang with Ding. How does she lay low? She puts on his old Chinese guard outfit, with all the medals, and pretends to be a headless ghost. He tells her not to wear it. Three times. “Fat men are supposed to be funny!” she yells before pouting and stomping off. At night, he gently fixes the wound on her forehead (from her father?) and in the morning she’s repaid his ministrations by fixing a bandage on his forehead with the words “Serves you right” and a frowny face. They pass an ice cream stand. “Buy one for me!” she yells. They go fishing; she complains he catches too many fish. He looks at her with love but she was nails on a chalkboard to me.

The plot. Andy Lau owes the local gangster gambling debts so agrees to do a job: steal a bag from Russian mobsters across the border. He does, but with the Russians in pursuit, and Choi refuses to forgive the debt—if he was ever going to—so Andy keeps the bag. Now he’s got Chinese and Russian gangsters after him.

One night, Choi’s men show up at Ding’s place, grab the girl, and demand to know where the father is. Here’s our moment. We’re finally going to get what we came for. But it takes Ding forever to move. It’s less “Bourne” and more slow-mo. Once a fight finally happens, he breaks bones. I’ve never seen a martial arts movie with more bone snapping in the soundtrack. Is the little girl amazed? Nah, she faints. Then the authorities move her to nearby relatives. But they can’t stand her (see?), so she flees back to Ding, who keeps buying her ice cream. 

Then she goes missing.

她在那里?
I should add there’s a dull backstory about Ding losing his granddaughter. One day, they went out and only he came back. Maybe that was the beginning of his dementia? We’re never sure. But his daughter never forgives him, nor he himself. Trying to protect this horrible brat, the movie suggests, is his way of making amends.

And that’s why he confronts Choi. Using a newspaper photograph, Ding hobbles around town until he finds the autoshop that is the front for gambling operations run by Choi, and he demands to know what they’ve done with the girl. When they give him nothing, he fights and breaks limbs. They keep coming at him with knives rather than guns. (One gun and he’s done.) Then the Russians arrive, start killing the Chinese, and the main bad Russian dude take a swipe at him. This may be my favorite part of the movie. He looks back, does a double-take (how could he have missed?) and takes several, more serious swipes. And still misses. Then the battle is engaged. Ding takes them all out. He risks life and limb to find the girl.

Guess where she is? Oh, at a friend’s house. She just never bothered to tell anyone.

Old “Three Dragons” costar Yuen Biao makes an appearance as a friendly cop to whom Ding shows a tape recorder that includes Choi’s bragging confession for murder. But it’s blank. Either Ding never turned it on or he erased it. Here’s the weird thing: By the time he shows the recorder, Choi is already dead. So it doesn’t matter that it’s blank. But the movie treats it like it’s a sad thing with consequences.

Ding winds up living with the girl, who, as she matures, takes care of him in his dotage and dementia. She’s the narrative voiceover, of course.

Look again at that plot description at the top of this review. Someone can still make a good movie of that. But this isn’t it. Not nearly.

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Posted at 10:40 PM on Jul 18, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Quote of the Day

“The president has first and foremost his interests at the top of his mind, as opposed to the government‘s. That’s very clear over the past week and a half—between shitting on our NATO allies and kissing Putin's ass. He cares more about himself than the nation and any of us who serve it. ... Either he's compromised by Putin or he's a pussy, in which case he should grab himself.”

— U.S. diplomat in the article “U.S. Officials ‘at a Fucking Loss’ Over Latest Russia Sell Out,” by Spencer Ackerman, on the Daily Beast site

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Posted at 04:11 PM on Jul 18, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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NPR Sees Clarification in Trump's Obfuscation

NPR continues to piss me off. They do a disservice to journalism and to the country. They are part of the problem. 

In the wake of Monday's Helsinki Summit, when Pres. Trump heaped praise on  Vladimir Putin and cast doubts on his own intelligence agencies, NPR, this morning, broadcast an interview between their reporter Noel King and U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). I made it about two minutes in.

First, they played a soundbite of Mitch McConnell warning Russia not to interfere in the midterms. It made him sound tough. The problem: No mention that McConnell was the one who torpedoed a bipartisan Sept. 2016 statement warning Russia about interfering in the 2016 presidential election, and warning U.S. citizens that this was in fact happening. So Mitch gets off. He puts party above country and he gets off. The relevant past is irrelevant on NPR.

Then King makes it all about politics. Trump's actions in Helsinki aren't near-treasonous ramblings that astonished everyone around the world; they‘re “possibly a political opening” for the Democrats.

But here’s the worst of it. In only her second question to Sen. Van Hollen, King says this:

The president then clarified yesterday. Did his clarification change anything for you?

Here's the clarification she meant. You probably already know all this but I'm going to write it down anyway for my own sake. Because it's kind of insane. 

During the Trump/Putin joint press conference, Jonathan Lemire of the Associated Press asked the following question of Pres. Trump:

Just now President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every US intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. My first question for you, sir, is who do you believe? My second question is would you now with the whole world watching tell President Putin — would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn him to never do it again?

Who do you believe—the murderous, lawless, Russian autocrat or the FBI? And will you warn Putin to not interfere again? Pretty straightforward. Sad, indeed, that it needed to be asked in the first place. 

And here is the beginning of Trump's two-part answer:

So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. Why haven't they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the democratic national committee? I‘ve been wondering that. I’ve been asking that for months and months and I‘ve been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know, where is the server and what is the server saying?

What is he talking about? Turns out it’s an obscure right-wing theory that has been debunked by everybody. Here's one such debunking.

Bad enough he deflects the question with these nutjob “we didn't land on the moon” conspiracies; then he gets to this:

With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others and said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server. But I have confidence in both parties. I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don't think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC? Where are those servers? They‘re missing. Where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails? 33,000 emails gone — just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn't be gone so easily. I think it's a disgrace that we can't get Hillary Clinton's 33,000 emails. So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that president Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators, with respect to the 12 people. I think that's an incredible offer. Okay, thank you.

There it is: the president of the United States, on foreign soil, siding with the Russian president over U.S. intelligence agencies. Then he delves into the conspiracy theory again. Then he compliments Putin on his “extremely strong and powerful” denial and more-or-less thanks him for offering Russian help to further investigate Russian interference. He thanks him for offering further interference into allegations of Russian interference.  

It's all insane. 

So what was the clarification that Noel King brought up? It's this: Trump claimed that he misspoke. He meant to say “wouldn‘t.” 

Huh?

Yes, in all that garbage, and all that praise heaped on Putin, yesterday the White House claimed that, in the part below, the “would” should’ve been a “wouldn‘t.”

My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others and said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server. 

Amid all the rest of that praise, those superlatives for Putin, he's now claiming he wanted to blame them. He returned to D.C., with Republicans in angry disarray, and, one assumes, they looked for options. The facts were against them; how could they muddy the waters? And they chose this. They saw this as their escape pod. Wouldn‘t.  

And NPR and Noel King happily let them escape. 

She called this change, this obfuscation, a clarificiation. “The president then clarified yesterday. Did his clarification change anything for you?” 

The Democrats really need to confront reporters who ask dumb-ass questions like this. They need to say things like: “How is that a clarification, Noel? The original statement is at least consistent. He’s praising Putin and doesn't blame Putin. He's siding with Putin over the FBI but at least he's consistent in how treasonous he's acting. The do-over he wants would mean that while he's heaping praise on Putin, while he's blaming the FBI out of some right-wing paranoid fantasy, he's also siding with the FBI. Do you think that's a clarification? If not, why did you state it as such? You‘re making it a statement. You’re making it a fact. You‘re doing their dirty work.”

And guess what? Today he backtracked again. “Is Russian trying to influence the midterms?” Naw. 

Seriously, how much further can NPR and other members of the so-called legitimate press get played? How much further to the right must they lean in a lame attempt to seem objective? And how much does the country—and the truth—suffer as a result?

Anyway, it was at this point, with the word “clarified” echoing all around me, that I turned off the radio; I was too furious to keep listening. NPR is so bad at what it does that it turns away people simply interested in hearing the news.

Trump questions U.S. intelligence

Monday’s New York Times headline. When the facts are against you, muddy the waters. 

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Posted at 05:28 AM on Jul 18, 2018 in category Media
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Sunday July 15, 2018

Kindred Spirit

“I confess it: There is some resentment. But it never degenerates into emulousness or envy. No one elsewhere wants to root for a team like the Yankees. The notion is appalling. Could any franchise be more devoid of romance? What has it ever represented but the brute power of money? One can admire the St. Louis Cardinals' magnificent history, or cherish fond memories of the great Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds or Oakland A's teams of the past. But no morally sane soul could delight in that graceless enormity in the Bronx, or its supremacy over smaller markets. It is an intrinsically depraved pleasure, like a taste for bearbaiting. And certainly none of us wants to be anything like Yankees fans — especially after seeing them at close quarters. ...

”Not that the horror is easy to recall clearly. The trauma is too violent. Memory cringes, whines, tries to slink away. One recollects only a kaleidoscopic flux of gruesomely fragmentary impressions, too outlandish to be perfectly accurate, too vivid to be entirely false: nightmarish revenants from the dim haunts of the collective unconscious ... monstrous, abortive shapes emerging from the abysmal murk of evolutionary history ... things pre-hominid, even pre-mammalian ... forms never quite resolving into discrete organisms, spilling over and into one another, making it uncertain where one ends and another begins. ... It really is awful.“

— David Bentley Hart, ”The New York Yankees Are a Moral Abomination," in The New York Times

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Posted at 10:41 AM on Jul 15, 2018 in category Yankees Suck
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Saturday July 14, 2018

The Ambassador

How dare you: Trump headline

Suggestion: Sub in a shot of the Trump blimp baby. At least we'll get a laugh out of it. 

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Posted at 07:32 AM on Jul 14, 2018 in category Politics
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Ditto

And the answer to Trump's query is obvious: Obama did try to do something, in a joint, bipartisan statement, but he was torpedoed in this regard by Mitch McConnell, who, for the millionth time in his sad career, put party above country. 

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Posted at 05:47 AM on Jul 14, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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12 Russian Intelligence Officers Indicted

Trump balloon baby

The indictments were announced as Pres. Trump was in the midst of a European trip involving meetings with NATO leaders, British Prime Minister Teresa May, the Queen of England and Putin.

“Today is actually a significant moment in American history. We‘ve only had 45 presidents. And here we now know that one of them was elected with the explicit and intentional help of a foreign power, in violation of American law, with the aggressive and open support of the candidate who was the beneficiary of those crimes.”

—Jeffrey Toobin, last night on Anderson Cooper 360, in the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller issuing a 29-page indictment on 12 Russian intelligence officers, charging them in the hacking of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. A good piece and podcast on the indictments can be found at LawFareBlog.

A lot of the above is already known, or assumed, but we get some interesting details:

  1. By the end of June 2016, Russian military intelligence (GRU) had hacked into at least 33 computers in the DNC orbit.
  2. Though the DNC hired a cybersecurity agency, malware remained on some computers until at least October.
  3. The conspirators created an online persona, Guccifer 2.0, a “lone Romanian hacker,” in order to undermine and misdirect claims of Russian responsibility.
  4. By August, Guccifer 2.0 received and responded to requests for intel from:
    1. a U.S. congressman
    2. a reporter regarding Black Lives Matter
    3. “a person who was in regular contact with senior members” of the Trump presidential campaign
  5. On July 22, 2016, the government asserts, Wikileaks released more than 20,000 emails and documents stolen from the DNC network by the conspirators and “did not disclose Guccifer 2.0’s role in providing them.”

Plus, as they say, much, much more. And more to come. At the least, the names of the congressman, reporter, and Trump presidential campaign contact.

BTW: I highlighted the above in Toobin's quote because as I heard it I was thinking this charge might relate to new info from the Mueller indictments. It doesn‘t. It relates, I assume, to Trump’s July 2016 public declaration that Russia hack Hillary's emails. Toobin is tying it all together. The bow isn't neat yet—I doubt it will ever be, even Watergate remained messy—but it's not looking good for Trump. Which means it's looking good for the rest of us. 

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Posted at 03:58 AM on Jul 14, 2018 in category Politics
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Friday July 13, 2018

Star Strzok

Other Peter Strzok text messages

Other Peter Strzok text messages, per Rachel Maddow.

This won't shut up the GOP but it would be great if it helped shut them down. 

Much-maligned FBI agent Peter Strzok (pronounced: Struck) was trotted before the House of Representatives yesterday as a sacrificial lamb in the GOP's and Pres. Trump's attempts to accuse the opposition (hard-working Americans, basically) of its own crimes. In this alternative reality, the narrative of which gets aired daily on Fox News and the like, the FBI, in the person of James Comey, didn't help Trump win the 2016 election; the Bureau actively tried stopping him. Exhibit A is Strzok, who, in private text messages with an FBI lawyer with whom he was having an affair, slammed Trump during the 2016 campaign. Here, for example, is one from July 21:

“Trump is a disaster. I have no idea how destabilizing his presidency would be.”

More prescient than anything. The one the GOP likes to wring its hands over is from a few weeks later:

Lisa Page: Trump's never going to become president, right?
Strzok: No. No. He's not. We‘ll stop it.

OMG! A smoking gun!

Not so fast, says Strzok. The “we,” he’s said constantly, is not the FBI but the American people. Who, sadly, were not up to the task Strzok gave them. We stopped shit. 

Anyway, in the hearing yesterday, Strzok didn't stop there. Not nearly. He laid out the apparently revolutionary idea, to Republicans, that one can still be a professional even though one has political opinions. Unlike the GOP, and folks like Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), he puts the professional before the political:

I can assure you, Mr. Chairman, at no time in any of these texts did those personal beliefs ever enter into the realm of any action I took. Furthermore, this isn't just me sitting here telling you. You don't have to take my word for it. At every step, at every investigative decision, there are multiple layers of people above me—the assistant director, executive assistant director, deputy director, and director of the F.B.I.—and multiple layers of people below me—section chiefs, supervisors, unit chiefs, case agents, and analysts—all of whom were involved in all of these decisions.

They would not tolerate any improper behavior in me any more than I would tolerate it in them. That is who we are as the F.B.I. And the suggestion that I, in some dark chamber somewhere in the F.B.I., would somehow cast aside all of these procedures, all of these safeguards, and somehow be able to do this is astounding to me. It simply couldn't happen. And the proposition that is going on, that it might occur anywhere in the F.B.I., deeply corrodes what the F.B.I. is in American society, the effectiveness of their mission, and it is deeply destructive.

Cf., my review of “The Post.” Also see the above image. Strzok not only didn't like Trump; he didn't think much of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Loretta Lynch. He was like much of America in 2016 in this regard. 

The New Yorker's John Cassidy has a nice piece on Strzok's testimony, and ends it this way:

As Strzok spoke, Gowdy leaned back in his chair, a cold look on his face. What was he thinking? He hasn't served entirely as a White House patsy on the Russia affair. At one point, he suggested that Trump should start acting more like he is innocent. But Gowdy and other House Republicans invested what was left of their credibility in a conspiracy theory that was now blowing up in their faces, live on television. After Strzok said the words “deeply destructive,” there was a brief silence in the hearing room. Then there was a round of applause from the public gallery.

Great ending. But you know the GOP. They simply ignored reality and shopped its narrative to the usual suspects. They have way too much invested in this.

What a sad side they've chosen. 

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Posted at 12:26 PM on Jul 13, 2018 in category Politics
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Literary Quote of the Day

Kurt Vonnegut and Jesus“Does this old poop have any advice for young people in times of such awful trouble? Well, I'm sure you know that our country is the only so-called advanced nation that still has a death penalty. And torture chambers. I mean, why screw around?

”But listen: If anyone here should wind up on a gurney in a lethal-injection facility, maybe the one at Terre Haute, here is what your last words should be: ‘This will certainly teach me a lesson.’

“If Jesus were alive today, we would kill him with lethal injection. I call that progress. We would have to kill him for the same reason he was killed the first time. His ideas are just too liberal.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., speech at Clowes Hall, Indianapolis, April 27, 2007, from the book “Armageddon in Retrospect.”

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Posted at 03:07 AM on Jul 13, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Two Careers of Kevin Bacon

Kevin Bacon in JFK

“People got to know...”

“It felt like a downward slide from Footloose. At that point in my life, I was really just looking at leads because that was what I thought I was supposed to be doing. And Paula [Wagner] said to me, 'I remember seeing you,‘—actually before she represented me—’in a lot of theater in New York,' because that's really where I started, as an Off-Broadway stage actor. I was doing edgy character stuff, not trying to really carry things. In some cases it was a major role, but at other times it was just darker, edgier, sometimes funny stuff—like gay hookers and junkies. And she said, 'I think you need to get back into that in the movies. Don't just focus on leads.'

”The first thing Paula suggested was that I go and sit with Oliver Stone. He had a part that she thought I could do in JFK. She represented Oliver as well at the time. ...

“It was one of those special times when I could actually feel a change within myself, like ‘Okay, this is what I need to do, not all the time, but this is the type of actor that I want to be. I’ve been a character actor pretending to be a leading man. That can't continue.' And I have Paula to thank for that. Afterward, the tide changed and that led to A Few Good Men, Murder in the First, and River Wild. The movies got better, and the parts got better.”

— Kevin Bacon in the oral history “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency,” by James Andrew Miller. The early pages of the book are fun, but it gets bogged down a bit in the 1990s, and not enough context is given. I began to Google the principles to find out what happened to them.

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Posted at 02:43 AM on Jul 13, 2018 in category Books
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Thursday July 12, 2018

Wherever Trump is Pointing...

Trump NATO summit directionless

Can he do even one thing right? 

Here's a tweet from a Wall Street Journal reporter on Pres. Trump's recent trip to Europe and visit with NATO leaders:

Embarrassing, stupid, rude. He also said that Germany was “a captive of Russia,” which is even more embarrassing, stupid and rude—not to mention a form of projection. Trump is the more likely captive of Russia. One hopes someday the truth will out. 

So how does the New York Times sum up yet another buffoonish day in the life of this American president? As if it's Angela Merkel's fault. From last night:

Merkel Trump Times headline

This is from the news source that the GOP constantly howls is too “liberal.”

Note to the New York Times: Your headlines reveal your seeming reluctance to publicly stand up to Mr. Trump.  

Note to all members of the legitimate media: Wherever Trump is pointing, the real story is most likely in the exact opposite direction. 

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Posted at 06:01 AM on Jul 12, 2018 in category Media
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Wednesday July 11, 2018

Movie Review: Ocean's 8 (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

Does Sandra Bullock have to kill off George Clooney in every movie now? Is that a stipulation in her contract? 

Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, sister to Danny, who, as the movie begins, gets paroled, visits her brother’s grave (buh-bye, George), and then goes on a high-end shopping scam at Bergdorf’s. I like the scam. She picks some items, plays the rich bitch returning them without a receipt, is frustrated by the poor customer service rep simply following rules, then says, “Well, can I at least have a bag for them?” And out she walks out with the bootie.

After she scams a room at the Plaza for a long soak, she’s ready to call together the old team.

Come back to the nickel-and-dime
Ocean's 8 movie reviewOK, so initially it consists of Lou (Cate Blanchett), her partner from way back when, and ... that’s it. The two of them were involved in nickel-and-dime stuff before Debbie got involved, personally and professionally, with Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), a jerky gallery owner who used her to bid up prices of artworks. When the feds closed in, all the evidence, including his quick confession, pointed to her, and she got five years. Now she’s after revenge.

How? As a sideplot while heisting a $150 million Cartier diamond necklace. It will be worn around the neck of famous actress and pain-in-the-ass Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), who will play co-host at the biggest fashion show of the year: the annual Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum.

This means Daphne goes from nickel-and-diming, and then getting scammed herself, to pulling off the heist of the century. It’s like a little league pitcher tossing a no-hitter in the Majors. Yet no one in the movie gives it a second thought because she's Danny Ocean's sister. The movie doesn't give it a second thought. The movie isn't big on second thoughts. 

Here, by the way, is our titular team:

  1. Debbie: Leader, revenge maven
  2. Lou: Kitchen help
  3. Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), a Betsey Johnson-like fashion designer on the downside of her career
  4. Amita (Mindy Kaling), diamonds expert
  5. Nine Ball (Rihanna), computer hacker
  6. Constance (Awkwafina), pickpocket
  7. Tammy (Sarah Paulson), fence and general professional

The eighth comes at the 11th hour: the seeming dupe, Kluger, but I was confused about exactly when she came on board: before or after the emetic? And even with Kluger, shouldn’t it be Ocean’s Seven? Do you count yourself in your own group? And is this a question for linguists or mathematicians?

The scam, complicated and smooth in the “Ocean’s” fashion, veers, at a key point, to idiotic. This is that point: Rather than replace the necklace with the cubic zirconium they’ve created, which would’ve alerted no one, they let everyone know the necklace is missing. So there’s this big search, and the fake is eventually found in a fountain. By Tammy. Everyone seems fine with this—including the necklace’s security detail, which is full of former Mossad agents. The movie has already insulted Mossad by implying its former agents wouldn’t dare enter a ladies room, so this is just more salt in the wound.

But I guess all that hubbub was to create a diversion? Allowing for a bigger haul—swiping the crown jewels from a Met exhibit? News not only to us but to the rest of the team. And it’s only accomplished because Yen (Qin Shaobo), the Chinese Cirque du Soleil dude from the other Ocean’s movies, lends a hand. Lends a hand? Let me rephrase: He does it all. Most of the money they swipe is because of him. So why isn’t he celebrating with the rest? Because he’s a dude? Because he’s Chinese? He didn’t even make the title cut. 很可怜。

Much of the movie is like this: It doesn’t work if you think about it for two seconds. After the haul, James Corden shows up as a super-smart insurance investigator, John Frazier, but once he hits a dead end he lets Debbie point the way. She points it toward her ex, Becker, but Frazier needs probable cause to search his place. So Daphne prostitutes herself to snap a photo of some of the missing jewels. She sends it to Debbie, who sends it on to Frazier, who gets his warrant. How likely is this to stand up in court? What are the odds the photo signatures lead back to Debbie and Daphne and the scam is revealed? And everyone else is discovered? And winds up in jail? And Becker is released? And laughs at all of them?

But whatever. Cue happy ending: Rihanna opens a pool hall—as all hackers do. 

Frozen
“Ocean’s 8,” directed by Gary Ross, has moments, but it doesn’t have much forward movement. It’s both zippy and oddly stagnant. It also bothered me that no one else thought cutting up this priceless Cartier necklace was the wrong thing to do—like destroying a Rodin sculpture. 

Here's who I loved: Hathaway, Helena and James Corden. Blanchett is shockingly wasted. The biggest problem may be Bullock. She’s so busy being cool she’s nearly frozen. The plastic surgery doesn’t help. Cate's either. And good god, Mindy, lip injections? You’re supposed to be funny. You’re supposed to be us.

At one point, Debbie says they’ll go under-the-radar because nobody notices women, which, with this crew, is the exact opposite of true. Nobody notices Rihanna? C‘mon. The line should’ve been about how nobody notices older women. Then you hire good actresses in their 50s and 60s who haven’t had plastic surgery and send them off to do this thing. Hollywood: There's still time.

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Posted at 02:09 AM on Jul 11, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Tuesday July 10, 2018

Four Questions for Brett Kavanaugh

Turns out current SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh was for prosecuting POTUSes before he was, like, totally against it. 

Here, via Jeffrey Toobin, is his POV when he was on the Starr commission investigating Pres. Clinton in the 1990s:

Kavanaugh, who “was considered one of Starr's intellectual heavy-lifters, pushed hardest to confront Clinton with some of the dirtiest facts linked to his sexual indiscretions with Lewinsky.” In a memo to Starr, he proposed that Clinton be asked the following questions, among others, before the grand jury: “If Monica Lewinsky says that you ejaculated into her mouth on two occasions in the Oval Office area, would she be lying? . . . If Monica Lewinsky says that on several occasions you had her give [you] oral sex, made her stop, and then ejaculated into the sink in the bathroom off the Oval Office, would she be lying?” Starr apparently thought better of this plan ...

Then Kavanuagh thought better of the whole “Are presidents above the law?” thing:

Kavanaugh's service in the Bush White House—and, perhaps, his view of future Republican Presidential patrons—led him to revise his Clinton-era view of the rights of Presidents who are under investigation. In a law-review article from 2009, Kavanaugh said that Presidents should not only be free from the possibility of indictment while in office but should also be allowed to avoid questioning from law-enforcement officials. He wrote that Congress should “consider a law exempting a president—while in office—from criminal prosecution and investigation, including from questioning by criminal prosecutors or defense counsel.”

Here are four questions I'd like to ask him:

  1. You‘ve been appointed to the highest court in the land by a president who gained office with help from Russia. How do you feel about that?
  2. Because of your views on presidents being above the law, would you recuse yourself from any decision involving Pres. Trump’s Russian scandal and/or Robert Mueller's investigation into same?
  3. If it turns out Pres. Trump's connections to Russia go deeper than already revealed, to the point where we have to question his loyalty to this country, would you resign?
  4. Have you ever ejaculated into your wife's mouth?
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Posted at 10:39 AM on Jul 10, 2018 in category Law
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Monday July 09, 2018

Movie Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Love the title. Is it the first time a female superhero has gotten such billing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Yes. MCU hasn’t exactly been an EOE. It’s the one area where it lags behind DC. And the Wasp deserves the honor. Not only was she an original member of the Avengers, she named the Avengers:

Wasp names the Avengers

The title also has a 1950s sci-fi feel to it, doesn’t it? It wants an exclamation point: “Ant-Man and the Wasp!” Which makes sense because the characters truly bridged the gap between the horror stories Marvel produced in the post-Fredric Wertham 1950s and the mighty age of troubled superheroes they started creating in the early 1960s.

Our hero, Ant-Man, first appeared (hyphen-less) in Tales to Astonish #35, which was a Sept. 1962 issue. Keep in mind: That’s only a month after the debuts of Spider-Man and Thor, and a good six months before Iron Man. But that wasn’t the first time we saw Hank Pym.  In January 1962—when the Mighty Marvel Age was just the Fantastic Four—the cover story for Tales to Astonish #27 was “The Man in the Ant Hill!” It’s one of those “Be careful what you wish for” 1950s horror stories. Other scientists laugh at what scientist Hank Pym claims to have created: a serum that can shrink and a serum that can bring back to normal size. He takes the former and then can’t reach the latter and is in danger of being dragged into an ant hill to die a horrible death. He’s only saved by a friendly ant. Restored to his normal size, he throws away his serums as too dangerous for the likes of man.

Until, of course, Stan, Jack or some other scrub saw the possibilities.

One wonders why Hank and the ants. Why not Gorilla Man (Tales to Astonish #s 28 and 30)? Why not Titano, Vandoom or Moomba (TTA #s 10, 17 and 23)? Why not Groot (TTA #13)?

OK, Groot did make a comeback. But “The Man in the Bee-Hive!” (Tales of Suspense #32, August 1962)? One and done. Definitely not anchoring $162 million action movies.

Partridge Family redux
Ant-Man and the Wasp movie reviewAnyway, I love the title, and I love this early history, and I liked the movie a lot. If it’s a roller coaster, at least it's a roller coaster with a sense of humor. Paul Rudd has impeccable comic timing and is shockingly handsome. No one that handsome should be allowed to be that funny, yet there he is.

Nearly two years after the events in “Captain America: Civil War,” Scott Lang (Rudd), who helped Cap, et al., battle Iron Man, et al., in an airfield in Germany, is under house arrest, and watched like a hawk by hapless FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park of “VEEP” and “Fresh Off the Boat”). He just has a few days to go and the ankle bracelet can be removed. But during a daughter-less “C’mon, Get Happy” weekend (drums, book reading, bubble bath), he dreams, or flashes on, the original Wasp, Janet Van Dyne (wouldja believe ... Michelle Pfeiffer?), the only other person who went “subatomic,” as he did in the original, except he made it back. She was lost forever.

Or was she?

This revelation re-teams him with Janet’s husband, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and their daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). The two are trying to create a portal to the subatomic realm where Scott might contact/rescue Janet.

Two things get in the way:

  • Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a gangster with Russian help, who is after the portal for monetary gain
  • Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who keeps shifting into and out of the physical realm, and who, thanks to SHIELD, can kick ass

There’s a “Can’t we all just get along?” aspect to it. Ghost and the Pym/Van Dyne clan are actually after the same thing, if they’d only stop and talk. But Ghost, beautiful eyes flashing, British accent unexplained, blames Hank Pym for her current state and can hardly see through her hatred. She keeps taking what Pym needs: the building where the subatomic portal is being developed, shrunk to the size of carry-on luggage.

Quick question: Wasn’t the point of Ant-Man that he shrunk to ant size but maintained the density and weight of a normal man? So wouldn’t it be the same with the building? Or is that no longer the case in the MCU?

Adding levity is Scott’s ex-con business partners, the security firm X-Con, headed up by Luis (Michael Peña). Their back-and-forth with Sonny’s crew on truth serum/not truth serum already feels like a classic.

The MCU does what the Might Marvel Age did, and what the DC Extended Universe can’t for the life of itself manage: has fun. It clashes personalities in a humorous way and occasionally gives us a big wink. I love Hope questioning Scott’s use of “Cap” for Captain America, as if they were best pals. I love it when Scott is shrunk to toddler size and how Hank keeps chiding him, asking how school was, and would he like some string cheese and a juicebox, and how Scott suddenly perks up: “Do you really have that?” No better way to end the joke than to go along with the joke. Particularly if it's sincere.  

Many of the principles (Rudd, Peña) have comedy backgrounds. The director, Peyton Reed, directs comedies. Start with the funny and build out.

Infinity War redux
As we’re on the roller coaster, we wonder two things. OK, two and a half things:

  • Will Janet Van Dyne be rescued from the subatomic world?
  • Will Scott get away with violating house arrest?
  • Will Ghost be cured?

I assumed: Yes, maybe, shrug. Turns out: Yes, yes, yes. Indeed, the resolution to the first (Janet’s return) is what leads to the resolution of the third (Ghost’s cure). The woman (Janet) eases the pain the man (Hank) caused.

After the happy ending—two couples reunited, X-Con business booming, but isn’t there an underhanded FBI agent still on the loose?—and after the first round of credits, we get a reminder of where the MCU left off. Scott is gathering subatomic data and is about to be extracted when Hank and Hope, amid ashes, go poof, per “Avengers: Infinity War,” leaving Scott stranded. Party’s over. Funny no more.

I am intrigued by where they’ll go with this. It feels like they’ve totally worked themselves into a corner. I see no good escape. That’s the intriguing part.

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Posted at 01:49 AM on Jul 09, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Sunday July 08, 2018

NPR's Accountability Problem

Friday morning, I listened to NPR's Steve Inskeep interview Sue Mi Terry, an expert on Korea, about Mike Pompeo's trip to North Korea. This is the gist:

  • Nothing substantive came out of the Singapore summit
  • Pompeo needs something substantive
  • The current administration timeline toward denuclearization is unrealistic

Guess how often Pres. Trump's name comes up in this interview? Once. And it's in the passive voice. At the top of the segment, Inskeep says:

A U.S. official compares North Korea's denuclearization to going on a diet. To make progress, the official says, you first have to climb on a scale. In other words, North Korea must first clarify exactly what its nuclear program has so the U.S. can track its removal later. North Korea agreed to do none of that in the vague statement approved after its president met President Trump last month.

It's as if Trump is a vague bystander in all of this. It's as if the vague statement wasn't the direct result of his insane incompetence. Remember: “I don't have to study”? Remember: “I‘ll know immediately”? And remember this? 

Less than a month ago, our president essentially said “Problem solved.” Now NPR is doing a report on how the problem hasn’t begun to be solved ... and they don't even mention that? How much less can NPR hold Trump accountable for his words and actions?

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Posted at 03:47 AM on Jul 08, 2018 in category Media
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Saturday July 07, 2018

Steve Ditko (1927-2018)

The man who first made Spider-Man swing (all gangly-like) died yesterday at the age of 90. In a way—to me anyway—the real news was that Steve Ditko had been living all this time. He was so long out of the limelight. He coveted none of it: no premieres, no cameos. I'd like to say he was noble in this but he was a bit of an odd duck.

Steve Dikto dies at age 90
One of the greats. Mouse over for
one of the less-than-greats.

The Steve Ditko-penned Spideys were always my favorites. When I was collecting in the ‘70s, and “The Amazing Spider-Man” hadn’t even reached #150, his were the ones I coveted, in cheap plastic bags at Schinder's in downtown Minneapolis, or in sleeker plastic bags at Comic City in Uptown. I got a lot of them. I think at one point I had like Amazing Spider-Man #8 all the way to the present. Not bad for a teenage wallflower.

I liked how unheroic Ditko made everyone look—particularly Spidey—at a time when I felt decidedly so. Spidey looked like the least likely superhero. His feet were often so twisted in midair, he looked like he'd trip himself.

Back then, I'd assumed it was Ditko's geekiness, his nerdiness, that eventually got him booted off of Spidey. I assumed they wanted Spidey handsomer and more heroic. Not so, according to Douglas Wolk's review of Blake Bell's 2008 biography of Ditko:

He split with Lee and Marvel in 1966. By then, he’d fallen under the spell of Ayn Rand and Objectivism, and started producing an endless string of ham-fisted comics about how A is A and there is no gray area between good and evil and so on. “The Hawk and the Dove,” for instance, concerns two superhero brothers who … oh, you’ve already figured it out. 

And in case you haven‘t, mouse over the above image.

A few years back, my colleague, Ross Pfund, said, RE: Ditko’s Objectivism, “How much must he hate it that his most famous creation's most famous quote is ‘With great power comes great responsibility’?” 

This morning, my friend Jason Lamb wrote the following: “I've read thousands upon thousands of comics books over the course of nearly 50 years, but nothing has impacted me more than the images here. Thank you and R.I.P., Steve Ditko.”

Then he posted this. I know it well: Spider-Man #33:

 Spider-Man #33

That last panel is actually a partial of a full page. And the whole scene was re-done on the big screen in “Spider-Man: Homecoming”—more than 50 years after he drew it. 

What a moment in time.

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Posted at 05:41 AM on Jul 07, 2018 in category Superheroes
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Severino Chases Record*

This was a headline a few days ago on ESPN.com:

Yanks new strikeout king

It took me a second to realize that Yankees pitcher Luis Severino wasn't chasing the single-season strikeout record (Nolan Ryan, 383, 1973), but the Yankees' single-season strikeout record (Ron Guidry, 248, 1978), which, in 1978, didn't even lead the Majors (J.R. Richard's 303), nor his league (Nolan Ryan's 260). In fact, the all-time Yankees mark simply tied 39-year-old Phil Niekro for third place that year. That's what's being trumpeted. That's the great glory Severino is pursuing. 

This is a headline how? A player is on pace to break a mediocre team record. Baseball Reference lists Guidry's mark as the 186th most strikeouts a pitcher has had in a season. If you remove 19th-century records, as you should, it's still tied for 127th. That's it. That's the mark Severino might break. 

Hell, this season, Severino is ninth in the Majors in strikeouts. Ninth.

Headlines like these are yet another reason people hate the Yankees. No other team gets this treatment. 

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Posted at 04:14 AM on Jul 07, 2018 in category Yankees Suck
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This is the President of the United States

This is the president of the United States. 

This is the president of the United States cheering for the failure of American businesses. 

This is the president of the United States cheering against the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

This is the president of the United States equating our two greatest newspapers, fact-checking bastions of free speech, with the often-Russian bots whose lies and slander helped elect this president of the United States.

This is not normal. Don't let this be normal. 

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Posted at 02:33 AM on Jul 07, 2018 in category Politics
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Friday July 06, 2018

Movie Review: First Reformed (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Imagine Travis Bickle as a minister rather than a taxi driver, obsessed about environmental issues rather than pornography and prostitution, and you have something like “First Reformed,” a movie written and directed by “Taxi Driver”’s screenwriter Paul Schrader, and starring Ethan Hawke as Rev. Ernst Toller.

It’s getting buzz. Some people think it’s the best movie of the first half of the year.

I know. That’s a little like winning the tallest munchkin competition. Besides, I don’t agree. I didn’t like it much. It’s a dreary, hushed film. Half the shots reminded me of Edward Hopper paintings but not in a good way. I kept flashing on Eric Engstrom’s photograph “Grace,” but not in a good way. Everything is spare and lit like a painting with about as much movement. I was frequently bored and ultimately disappointed because what Toller was wrestling with didn’t feel profound to me.

Jonah will be 33 in the year 2050
First Reformed movie reviewToller is the minister at First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, NY, which is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. It has some heady history—including as a stop on the underground railroad. Now it is owned by a mega-church, Abundant Life, and is more museum and gift shop than sanctuary. Every Sunday, Toller preaches, without much light or charity, to a handful of people in the pews. Mostly singles and a couple. You can’t miss the couple because one half of it, Mary, is played by Amanda Seyfried, all big-eyed and blond-haired and full-lipped and concerned. She’s mostly concerned about her husband, Michael (Phillip Ettinger). He thinks it’s wrong to bring a child into a world such as this, and since she's pregnant it's more than a rhetorical point. So she asks the Reverend to come around the house for a talk.

Their talk isn’t much, but Toller, in voiceover, equates it with wrestling with God. We get voiceovers a lot since, at night, sipping bourbon, Toller is writing down his thoughts. He plans to do this for a year and then burn the results. What started such a process I don’t know. Why for a year I don’t know. As for the thoughts themselves? They don’t shed a lot of light. Scurrying in the gloaming.  

I like the actor who plays Michael. He’s husky and bearded and there’s something off about his eyes in the same way Vincent D’Onofrio has something off about his eyes. Toller does get in one good line. He says he comes from a military family, and he was a chaplain in the military, and he encouraged his son to join. Then the son was shipped to Iraq during the Iraq War and died. He tells Michael that as dark and depressing as it may be to think about bringing a child into the world, it is much, much worse to take one out of it.

You know what else he could’ve brought up? “Jonah Will Be 25 in the Year 2000.” It’s a 1976 Swiss/French film about former counterculture revolutionaries rehashing what went wrong and worrying over what the world will be like for the child, Jonah, in that distant, titular year. He could’ve said every generation thinks what they’re going through is the worst but they get through it. The future arrives and becomes the past. He could‘ve said that the answer to the destruction of the planet isn’t greater destruction but life. He could have recommended a doctor. 

The revelation about his own family misfortune—his wife left him shortly afterwards—explains some aspect of Toller. He’s not a man comfortable in his own skin. He’s uncomfortable in the way that Hawke frequently is during the second half of his career. Schrader’s script actually demands that he seem both tortured and a beacon to kids. Imagine that conversation: You drink too much, see? You piss blood—literally. Do you have cancer? You’re afraid to find out. You walk around in pain. You’re tortured. Kids love you. Now go.

I don’t know if Hawke manages. He leans toward odd and doesn’t seem like a minister to me. There's no calm. Basically the movie gives us the jittery, alcoholic Toller and the gladhanding megachurch minister, Rev. Joel Jeffers, played sotto-voce style by Cedric the Entertainer, and neither feels like a man of God. Rev. Jeffers is also in cahoots from Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a brash, bald industrialist, who may be destroying the planet but at least gives the movie a jolt with his presence.

Several things happen. In the garage, Mary finds a suicide-bomb jacket Michael made. She calls Toller to take it away. He and Michael are supposed to have a follow-up discussion but Michael changes the venue to a more secluded spot. When Toller shows up, he finds Michael with his brains blown out.

And then slowly, suicide jacket in hand, Michael’s fanaticism becomes Toller’s. 

The lady or the tiger?
Is it partly meeting Balq? Balq chastises him for holding Michael’s funeral on a superfund site. Then Balq implies that Rev. Toller was responsible for Michael’s death. Oh, you were counseling him? Oh, then he died? That kind of thing. He does this to a reverend. The reverend just sits there. 

Watching, one thing I hoped was that Toller wouldn’t get together with Mary. She’s not the answer. For Toller or for the film.

Does it happen? Ça depend. During the 250th anniversary celebration at First Reformed, with Balq, Jeffries, the mayor and the governor among the luminaries attending, Toller plans on wearing the suicide bomber jacket below his vestments and blowing the place sky high. Except Mary, against his wishes, shows up. Quick question: How does she get a seat? Aren’t they so coveted that folks are watching the ceremony on video at the megachurch? Or is she not really there? Is her appearance simply a form of his conscience taking hold? 

Either way, once he knows he can’t blow the joint sky-high, he lets out an almost animalistic howl of protest, then opts for Plan B. And Plan B is so Schrader. Toller wraps his bare torso tightly with barb wire, and, with his flesh cut and bleeding, contemplates tossing back a glass of Drano. He holds it in his hand and stares at it. At that point, Mary enters the rectory. He drops the glass, and they run to each other and kiss as the camera spins around them and ... The End.

So: Is this camera-whirling kiss just his imagination? A brief glimpse of the afterlife after he's Dranoed himself? Who knows? Who cares? If he's dead, the movie is about two men who contemplate eco-terrorism before killing themselves; if he's alive and the kiss is real, it's about how no despair is so deep that the love of a woman as pretty as Amanda Seyfried can’t cure it. Neither thought is exactly profound.

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Posted at 01:46 AM on Jul 06, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Thursday July 05, 2018

Movie Review: Wajib (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

A father and his estranged son spend a day hand-delivering wedding invitations in present-day Nazareth and resurrect old wounds.

That’s about it. “Wajib” is faces and conversation and history. There’s humor, disgust, and love for one’s city and family and self. There’s politics. (There’s always politics.) It’s episodic. We watch two men doing the same thing over and over, and writer-director Annemarie Jacir (“When I Saw You”) has to advance the story through each of these episodes. It’s the kind of non-plot that should weary us as much as the repetition of the day wearies our protagonists.

I was rapt.

Talking of a different film, Jeffrey Wells recently wrote, “Plus the father-and-son roadtrip formula has been done to death.” Consider “Wajib” its resurrection. 

My son, the doctor
Wajib movie reviewHow cool, by the way, that I could identify with part of it? After college graduation in the late 1980s, I lived for a year in Taiwan, and when I returned everyone kept asking me how I liked Thailand. I must’ve had this conversation a dozen times:

A: “How was Thailand?”
Me: “I was in Taiwan.”
A: “Oh? I thought you were in Thailand.”
Me: “No, I’m pretty sure it was Taiwan.”

That’s the experience of Shadi (Saleh Bakri), a tall, handsome 30ish architect who returns to Nazareth from living abroad to help with the wedding of his younger sister. As they make the rounds of extended family and friends, he’s constantly greeted with questions about how he likes America. “How’s America?” He corrects with a small smile: “Italy.” They also ask how his medical practice is going and when he’s returning to Nazareth—since they hear he’s thinking of coming back. “There’s some good hospitals here,” one man tells him helpfully. “I’m an architect,” Shadi explains helplessly.

Blame Dad for this latter confusion.  

We first see Dad, Abu Shadi (Mohammad Bakri), waiting in the passenger’s side of a car and sneaking a cigarette as the day begins. He seems a go-along-to-get-along type. A scamp (with lion’s head) in winter.

The son is more militant. He eyes Israeli soldiers at a falafel shop and is living with the daughter of a PLO bigwig of the ’70s. At the same time, he views his homeland with an expatriate’s (and architect’s) eye. Doesn’t anyone pick up garbage? Why do people ruin their beautiful buildings with cheap blue tarps? His father calls him a snob—and he is—but he’s not wrong. There’s a ying-yang to it. He misses the warmth and the humus, but he doesn’t really fit in anymore. Europe has ruined him—and not just because of the man-bun and pastel pants.

Through the early part of the day, his father is trying to get his son interested in the myriad women they meet. How about this one? Or that one? His son tells him he has a girlfriend, Nada, whom the father calls Salma. We’re not sure if he dislikes her, her militant father, or simply want his son closer to home.

The son thinks he can win arguments the way he can in Europe. For one delivery, they park in a spot for paying customers at a stand of useless gimcracks. The son says just five minutes; the dude doesn’t budge. The son grows frustrated. Then the father walks over, picks up a teddy bear, buys it. Now they’re paying customers. Later, the father tries to give the bear to a kid—a former West Bank kid—who’s selling cheap shit along a busy street. The kid walks away; he knows cheap shit when he sees it. You get the feeling Jacir could’ve made a movie just about this stuffed animal.

Beyond the norm, father and son have two main points of contention:

  • The son’s suggestion to postpone the wedding if the mother, living in America, and caring for her dying husband, can’t make it.
  • The father’s insistence on inviting a Jewish colleague who—the son says—fingered him back in the day, forcing him into exile.

Initially I was with the son on both. Then the conversation deepens, and other voices—chiefly the bride-to-be’s—are added, and my feelings shifted about the former. But never on the latter. The father seems to be doing it to curry favor with the powerful, and the son is beyond adamant that the man is secret service. We never find out who’s right but we get a sense of who’s wrong.

Bakris
Both men are handsome, with beautiful eyes, and their interaction is impeccable. Watching, I kept thinking, “It’s like they’ve done it together for a lifetime.” Turns out they have. The actor Saleh Bakri is the actor Mohammed Bakri’s son.

“Wajib” is specific and universal, funny and human—often painfully so. There's not a false note. The day is long, tempers cool with the evening, but nothing is really resolved. It’s just another round of forgiveness and understanding that never seems to stretch far enough but maybe covers what we can while we can.  

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Posted at 06:39 AM on Jul 05, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Wednesday July 04, 2018

Qing gei wo mai yixie huasheng he Cracker Jacks

Dee Gordon turns ahead the clock, Griffey-style

Dee sports the sleeveless, untucked and backwards cap look. 很好看。

So I took my Chinese teacher to the Seattle Mariners game last Saturday. She’s heading back to China in August, had never seen a baseball game, and how can you let someone leave the states without at least one game? Plus there’s the whole Confucian thing. When I lived in Taiwan, and I was out with Chinese peers, they wouldn’t let me buy anything. I heard this over and over again: 

有朋自远方来, 不亦乐乎?

It can translated a thousand ways, but this is the gist: “To have friends come from far away, isn’t that a joy?” I.e., Be a good host, damnit.

This was my third attempt in the last few years to explain the game to someone from another country. I should be getting better at it but ... no. Most team sports are metaphors for war: You have a rectangular field, a goal on either side, and an object of some kind. The point is to get that object into your opponent’s goal more often than they get it into yours before time expires. Easy.

Baseball’s different and I always struggle about where to begin. In the future, this wouldn’t be a bad place:

The goal of the game is to make it around the bases before making an out, and the team that does this the most times wins.

But I didn’t do that on Saturday. I began with the outs, and the three main ways to make an out: ground ball, fly ball, strikeout. Strikeout was the most difficult, beause it led to “ball” and “strike zone” and what happens when you don’t swing. Not to mention “foul ball.” I didn’t even get into the whole “foul ball with two strikes” thing. Good god.

As I explained all of this, positing an imaginary batter making an out and returning to the dugout, my teacher said, “And he’s gone from the game.”

“No ...” I began, but was already imagining what baseball would be like if this were true.

Beyond the game’s uniqueness: two things got in the way of better explanations: 1) the language barrier (her English was good but not like a native speaker, while my Chinese is beginning level); and 2) Safeco’s loudspeakers and constant music and announcements. It's so loud it makes it difficult to hold a conversation, let alone explain the game to someone from another country who’s never seen it. My throat was raw by the second inning.

Oh, a third thing got in the way: It was “Turn Ahead the Clock” Night at Safeco: the Mariners wore their “futuristic” unis with cut-off sleeves and crazy colors and logos. The entire game was centered around this. A robot delivered the rosin bag, the National Anthem singer had Spock ears, and the PA announcer sounded like Majel Barret’s computer voice on “Star Trek”: Occupying second quadrant, digit 9, Dee Gordon. “Normally,” I explained to my teacher, “we’d hear, ‘Playing second base, number 9...’ So this is just a kind of play off of that.” Things got even tougher when I said the whole concept of Turn Ahead the Clock nights was a parody of Turn Back the Clock nights, in which players from both teams wear the uniforms from, say, 50 years earlier. 为什么?she asked. Why do they do that? And that led to a talk about nostalgia: people wanting to see what they saw when they were young.

The M’s were playing the Royals—hapless again after a few years as one of baseball’s best and most fun teams—but it began poorly for our starting pitcher, Felix Hernandez. He gave up a single, a single, then a homerun. Three batters, three runs. Ouch. Then he settled in. The Mariners came back with a run in the bottom of the first, and after I pointed this out on the scoreboard above the left-field wall, my teacher said, “So the Royals win that round.”

Um ... Kind of. 

In the end, she got to see quite a game. M's hit for the cycle: Ryon Healey homered in the second to tie it up, Ben Gamel tripled in the same inning to put us ahead, and Denard Span doubled in the third to pad the lead. Singles were spread out all over, but that's all they'd need. Edwin Diaz closed the door in the ninth and the M's won the future, 6-4. My teacher also got a free cap. It's brick-red rather than traditonal blue but that's probably better: red is a lucky color in China.

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Posted at 02:18 AM on Jul 04, 2018 in category Seattle Mariners
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Tuesday July 03, 2018

Literary Quote of the Day

Kurt Vonnegut: a little less love, and a little more common decency“Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous.

”I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, ‘Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.’“

— Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in the intro to his 1976 novel, ”Slapstick." I've quoted this often, usually to deaf ears, particularly mine.

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Posted at 09:44 AM on Jul 03, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: A Quiet Place (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

I’m glad the kid bought it in the first 10 minutes—he was a pain and a liability. Also, though most of us go in knowing the plot (armor-plated, insect-y aliens hunt us by sound), we still need to see it in action. 

It's Day 89, we’re told, by which time towns are ghost towns, newspapers have stopped printing (IT’S SOUND reads the headline of one of the last local papers printed), and the Abbott family, led by Evelyn and Lee (Emily Blunt and John Krasinski, who also wrote and directed), take the clan into town to pick up supplies and get son Marcus (Noah Jupe) his meds. They’re all barefoot, silent, signing. The eldest, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), is deaf, so maybe they had a headstart on learning that. But the youngest, Cade (Beau Abbott), even after 89 days, still doesn’t get the danger. He’s bored, wants a toy rocket on a top shelf, and, reaching for it, knocks it off. Only a shoestring catch by Regan saves the day.

Dad then tries to counsel Cade—again—while taking the batteries out of the toy. (Odd, right? Is this the one “Batteries not included” toy in the world?) But Regan takes pity, hand the boy the rocket, and then the boy—because he’s so dumb—grabs the batteries, too. On the silent walk home, single file on a path of sand to muffle footsteps, the toy suddenly lights up and makes the usual toy noises, and the boy goes vroom vroom with it. Mom stifles a horrified scream, Dad races back to try to save the brat, but ... Clickety clickety ... chomp! Bye, kid.

The weakness
A Quiet Place movie review weaknessDo they eat us, by the way? I was never sure. Is that how they nourish themselves? Later we see a raccoon getting squashed, which makes me wonder how many animals are left. No animals that roar or trumpet or bark. Maybe a few deer; they’re quiet. Maybe some kitty cats. Same. Jellybean would’ve lasted until she began meowing for dinner.

Then it’s a year later. Dad has his workshop set up in a soundproofed basement with a whiteboard on which he’s written the pertinent questions of the day:

  • How many?
  • Demands?
  • Organized?
  • Attack in Packs?

On the other side, he’s written what we know: They’re blind and they attack sound. But the best bit is written at an angle, with the final word in all caps and circled in red pen: What is the WEAKNESS?

Ah yes, the weakness. Because there has to be one. We can blame H.G. Wells for that assumption. Ever since “The War of the Worlds,” there’s got to be something that messes with attacking aliens. In the 1898 novel, it was pathogens; in the 1953 film, bacteria in the air. Perhaps no alien weakness was dumber than the one in “Signs”: water. It was like acid to them. Meaning they tried to take over a planet whose surface was 71 percent acid and whose inhabitants were 60 to 80 percent acid. One wonders how they were smart enough to make spaceships in the first place. 

Are the Abbotts smart? They’ve survived this long, and have quiet meals of fish and vegetables, and play board games at night; and Dad is trying to find a Cochlear implant to help Regan hear again. But there’s also this:

Mom is pregnant.

Think about that for two seconds. In a world in which dropping a book may mean death, they’ve decided to bring into the world a creature whose main function, besides eating and shitting, is crying. Bawling. How long would this thing be a liability? Two years? Five? What’s the likelihood they would survive all of its crying jags and temper tantrums? Zero? Bupkis? Less than nothing? I just saw a movie where someone was hesitant about bringing a child into a world such as ours. And Mr. and Mrs. Abbott don’t even have a conversation about it?

And that’s assuming you get past the pregnancy (in which mom is in a weakened, vulnerable state) and the birth (which tends to get noisy). Me, I couldn’t get past this plot point. I kept wondering when the other shoe would drop. With a thud.

It does a few weeks later. Dad takes a reluctant Marcus out to teach him how to catch fish—and to show him that louder noises, such as a roaring river, can mask their normal conversation and keep them safe—and Mom does the laundry. She’s less than three weeks from the due date but she’s doing laundry. OK. Of course, she snags the laundry bag on a nail on the basement wood steps, exposing it. The camera holds on it: “This ain’t gonna be good. 

It’s worse. First her water breaks, then she steps on the nail. She refrains from screaming but drops a picture frame, and it crashes and attracts You Know What. So she’s bleeding from her foot while going through the pain of childbirth and an alien is stalking her. She manages to turn on the red warning lights and crawl upstairs into the bathtub, but she’s only saved by two things:

  1. Dad sends Marcus to light the fireworks display to distract the aliens just as Mom screams her one childbirth scream
  2. Mom has the quickest delivery in human history

Afterwards, everything begins to fall apart, and not just because they suddenly have a crying, eating, shitting thing in their midst. No, everything just goes wrong. A pipe bursts, the basement is flooded, and the kids fall into a corn silo. The noise they make surviving alerts an alien who attacks. But—ah ha!—Regan’s new cochlear implant emits a high-frequency noise which is painful and disorienting to them (what is their WEAKNESS), and it flees. As more aliens approach, Dad, for some reason, decides now is the time to panic: “Run to the truck!” he says. But isn’t the point to not make noise—particularly when they’re around? Don’t move. Certainly don’t run. And certainly don’t run toward a creaking, metal truck. But by this point, the Abbotts have gotten sloppy. Or the plot has.

Locking, loading
There are a few subplots, too, that didn’t do much for me. Regan still blames herself for the death of Cade. She thinks Dad blames her, too—that he doesn’t love her. But he does. Which he shows—and signs—before sacrificing himself to save her.

It’s Regan, in the end, who figures out the alien’s weakness: the high-frequency noise, which disorients them and exposes their flesh. And it’s Mom who blasts the alien with a shotgun. Then, via Dad’s camera monitors, they see more aliens approaching. They look at each other, nod, and Mom locks and loads. 

The End. 

That’s a great ending. 

It’s a good movie, too: clever premise, suspenseful throughout. I could just never get past the idiocy of the pregnancy.

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Posted at 01:36 AM on Jul 03, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Monday July 02, 2018

No Matter

“For ten continuous years, at 6 A.M. each day, Michael Ovitz would face the morning with a diurnal, hour-long, rigorous aikido workout. It got his juices flowing, and it reflected his overall interest in—indeed, obsession with—Eastern philosophy. While other martial arts students would do their hour and wander off, Ovitz began to fixate on his swarthy instructor as yet another potential revenue stream. In one of his cheekiest displays of hubris ever, Ovitz decided he would make that instructor a movie star—and so the career of Steven Seagal was launched. Ovitz brought Seagal over to Warner Bros., where studio bosses Terry Semel and Bob Daley, along with other key executives, obligingly sat in a soundstage and watched Steven Seagal beat the crap out of sundry guest attackers. It was an impressive display of physical skill and brutality—if not of acting prowess, showmanship, or the speaking of dialogue. No matter; those studio chiefs were wowed, and slick-haired Seagal was on his way.”

— from the oral history “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency,” by James Andrew Miller

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Posted at 03:44 PM on Jul 02, 2018 in category Books
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Flip a Cohen

Has Michael Cohen flipped? Based on a new interview with George Stephanopoulos, particularly Cohen stating “My wife, my daughter, and my son, and this country have my first loyalty,” New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait says all signs point to YES. 

This, he adds, would be bad news for Trump, for the following reasons:

  • Cohen apparently made illegal payments on Trump's behalf (See: Stormy)
  • Cohen kept a lot of evidence (300,000 communiques, with only 161 designated “privileged”)
  • Cohen can't be pardoned by Trump (Mueller is working with NY state prosecutor)
  • Cohen dealt with Russia during the campaign (Prague, fall, 2016)
  • Cohen may have collected bribes after Trump's election (see: Viktor Vekselberg)

Looking forward to the day when those apparentlys and may haves are removed.

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Posted at 05:22 AM on Jul 02, 2018 in category Politics
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Box Office: Dinos vs. Cartoon Supes

Roaring louder abroad. 

This past weekend, a week after its opening, “Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom” dropped nearly 60% but still finished first with a $60 million haul. Two weeks after its opening, “Incredibles 2” fell 43% and was No. 2 with $45 million. 

But let's look deeper. 

“Jurassic/Fallen” has thus far grossed $264 million domestically, which, among “Jurassic” films adjusted for inflation, ranks dead last. In a few days it will pass up “Jurassic World III,” which grossed the equivalent of $293 million in 2001, but probably won't make it past “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” which grossed the equivalent of $457 million in 1997. So domestically, among Jurassic films, it will be fourth of five. Not a huge success. 

“Incredibles 2” has thus far grossed $439.7 million, which, among Pixar films adjusted for inflation, ranks fourth of 20. It will probably pass them all. Unadjusted, the biggest domestic Pixar flick is “Finding Dory,” grossing $486 a few summers back. Adjusted, it's “Finding Nemo,” which grossed the equivalent of $516 mil in 2003. Expect “I2” to be top of the heap in both categories. So a huge success. 

But that's just domestic. If you go global, “Jurassic” stomps “Incredibles.” It's grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide—meaning including U.S. receipts). “I2” is at $646 million.

So which would you rather be: 1) critically well-received, domestically on top of your clan but losing out on hundreds of millions internationally, or 2) critically received with a shrug and a sign, a domestic disappointment among your clan but killing it internationally? 

Several other films opened well: “Sicario: Day of Soldado” grossed $19 mil, which is nearly half of the original's total gross in Sept. 2015; and “Uncle Drew,” which stars Shaq, Nick Kroll and the suddenly omnipresent Tiffany Haddish, and which took in $15 mil. 

Some good news for people who care about quality cinema and documentaries: the fourth weekend of “Won't You Be My Neighbor?” is in a dead heat with the sixth weekend of “Solo: A Star Wars Story”: $2.29 mil. With $7.4 mil, “Neighbor” is the second-highest-grossing doc of the year after “RBG” at $11.5.

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Posted at 04:16 AM on Jul 02, 2018 in category Movies - Box Office
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Sunday July 01, 2018

Song of the Summer

I'm going to have to steal “While ol' Satan stands impressed.” That's evergreen shit these days.

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Posted at 04:52 AM on Jul 01, 2018 in category Music
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