Trailer: Roma (2018)
Coming to select theaters and on Netflix. See it in theaters, people.
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
I was walking around lower Manhattan last week, focusing on Chinatown, then decided to visit Trinity Church again. We'd been there in 2015 before “Hamilton” broke big—with me or the country—and I was curious if it felt any different. It didn‘t. Not much. There were a few more people hanging around, and a lot more reverence, and more coins left on the tombs of Alexander and Eliza. But that was about it on a hot, muggy Monday afternoon in early August.
This time I was particularly struck by the inscription on Hamilton’s marble tomb. It touts his career as a PATRIOT, SOLDIER and STATESMAN...
Whose TALENTS and VIRTUES will be admired
Long after this MARBLE shall have mouldered into DUST
Except between these two lines there's an ornamental flourish and the lines “Grateful Posterity,” so you don't initially connect the second line with the first. It reads like Hamilton is a patriot, soldier and statesman “whose talents and virtures will be admired.” I.e., one day. I.e., in the future. I.e., maybe after Lin-Manuel Miranda picks up Ron Chernow's biography for vacation reading, sees his father in the story, and music begins to form in his head.
Quote of the Day
“[Citizens United] changed our political system from a democracy to an oligarchy. Money is now preeminent. I mean, it's just gone to hell now.”
(Former) Pres. Jimmy Carter, 93, in the Washington Post piece, “The Un-Celebrity President: Jimmy Carter shuns riches, lives modestly in his Georgia hometown,” by Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan. It's about simple living. He's not exactly kind to Trump, either, calling him a disaster, and saying there's an “attitude of ignorance toward the truth” with him. But his harshest words seem to be for this idiot SCOTUS decision.
Interesting tidbit: “Carter has been an ex-president for 37 years, longer than anyone else in history.”
- Via my friend Andy, the best Shakespeare movies of the 1990s. Agree with the top 3.
- Trevor Noah and Roy Wood Jr. on the 50th anniversary of the first appearance of Franklin in “Peanuts”: its origins, breakthroughs and TV/movie oddities.
- Should this be in contention for greatest rock song ever? It's never mentioned. Nothing. It's not even mentioned among top 10 Elvis songs. Time to change that.
- What's your NPR name? According to Lianablog, you add your middle initial somewhere in your first name, then choose the smallest foreign town you‘ve visited for your last name. Don’t really know the smallest foreign town I‘ve visited, but how’s this: Erika Enkhuizen. I'm Erika Enkhuizen and this is “Fresh Air.” I'm Erika Enkhuizen and let me interview Wisconsin farmers who are hurt by Trump's trade war but still support the president “because he's the president” and not ask one decent follow-up question. Yeah. Works.
- Are Netflix movies from China actually helping American cinephiles appreciate Chinese cinema? Via China Film Insider.
- MLB.com gathers the coolest baseball cards every year from 1950 to today, with guest editors for every decade. Quibble: I love Joey Poz, but how was Josh “Cardboard Gods” Wilker not chosen for the ‘70s? Secondary quibble: I think the ’65 card, with the team name within a pennant, is the greatest card created. But guest editor and M's broadcast Dave Sims goes with a blurry Bob Gibson? I might go Tony Oliva. Because c‘mon. Or maybe I’d save Tony for the ‘68 “Manager’s Dream” card with Chico Cardenas and Roberto Clemente. It not only introduces the first great Latino players, it gets all of their first names wrong. Welcome to America, guys.
- Speaking of: Did you get see the A's Ramon Laureano's throw the other day? Shouldn't you?
- Amazing story by Jayson Jenks on everyone's favorite new Mariner, the continually upbeat Dee Gordon. Two things I didn't know: His father is former pitcher Tom “Flash” Gordon, about whom Stephen King wrote a novel (which I reviewed for the Times); and his mother was shot to death by her boyfriend when Dee was only 7.
- My friend Jerry had a stroke and lived to write about it.
In the Trump era, you grab joy where you can, and this isn't a bad one for me today. It wasn't just that the Yankees lost, 3-1, it‘s how they lost:
That’s a thing of beauty. Yanks down by 2, get the bases loaded with nobody out ... and then can't get the ball in play: foul out, strike out, strike out. Better, the pitcher who did this to them is Adam Kolarek, who's 29, in only his second MLB season, came in with a 6.00 ERA, and somehow managed to nab the save. His first. In his career. Helluva way to start out, kid.
The win also gave the Rays their first series victory at Yankee Stadium since 2014, and, at 8-7, they‘re now one of two AL teams that have a winning record against the Baby Bombers. BoSox are 8-5.
If it almost feels over for the Yanks, it’s not. Yes, they‘re an astonishing 10.5 games back of Boston in the AL East, but they still have the second-best record in baseball. How nuts is that? It means that unless the A’s and Mariners can both steamroll past NYY for the two wildcard spots, and they're 3 and 5.5 games back respectively, Yanks are in the postseason again, where almost anything can happen.
But in the meantime: FO, K, K. Mm-wah.
Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)
How isolated was I as a kid in the ‘70s? How segregated are we as a society and a culture even though we had national meeting places like the three big networks back then? I saw “The Blues Brothers” in 1980, age 17, with some little knowledge of the world and music; and when Jake and Ellwood, on a mission from God, are putting together their band again, and recruit Matt “Guitar” Murphy at the diner, and his wife, a waitress, tries to stop him, singing “Think,” this was my thought halfway through that song:
Wow, that waitress sure can sing.
I’d heard Aretha's name, of course, I just didn't know what she looked like. Of the big-name singers from that movie, Aretha, James Brown, Ray Charles and Cab Calloway, I only knew Ray. This was my intro to the others. So at least it gave us that.
The Queen of Soul died this morning at the age of 76. Other remembrances here. The greatest remembrance of all is the music, which everyone is listening to this morning, and which lives on and on and on.
The other day, when news broke that Aretha was sick, my friend David, a good Southern boy, posted this clip from the 2013 documentary “Muscle Shoals” to social media. It's a reminder that even with all that talent, even with all that power, it didn't have to happen. It's not just talent and hard work. You need people who know what they're doing. And even if you have all that, sometimes you need the right piano riff.
‘One of the Best Things We’ll See All Year'
“In baseball's odd parlance, we say that Laureano has a hose on him. In less euphemistic terms, we dub that a cannon. Either way, it's an absurd throw—321 feet on the fly, perfectly on target, dumbfounding everyone involved. It's not just the best thing you or I or anyone else saw this week; it's one of the best things we‘ll see all year. It makes you want to rush home and tell your friends.”
SI’s Jon Tayler on rookie Ramon Laureano's throw from center field that doubled up Eric Young Saturday night. I like the little cap tip Young gives him afterward. I assumed Laureano had been up all year and I just hadn't heard of him but it's only his fifth game in the Majors. No matter. We'll be talking about it for years.
Movie Review: Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
I was bored.
I know: 97% RT rating, good word-of-mouth, “greatest action movie ever.” People I know and respect liked it.
Was it the sense of déjà vu? The fact that no one seems to remember the previous movies so they get repeated, again and again, world without end? It’s the same roller coaster ride, people:
- Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and IMF begin the movie under suspicion
- Introduce new IMF/CIA agent played by handsome B-lister (Dougray Scott, Billy Cruddup, Henry Cavill), who is the real traitor
- Introduce crazy man and his crazy terrorist plans
- Crazy man makes it personal with Ethan
- Include scene of Ethan running through foreign city in his super upright, arm slicing motion
- Include crazy stunt everyone will talk about: outside skyscraper, outside airplane, in helicopter
- Don’t worry about making sense
It’s the “under suspicion” thing that bugs me most. In every movie, Ethan saves the world, and every new movie begins with him back at square one. At some point, Ethan should wonder if it’s all worth it. He should get drunk at a bar and just ramble.
I saved you ... and you and you. And you didn’t even know it. You don’t know shit. I saved you from Chimera, I saved you from Rabbit’s Foot, I saved you from the Syndicate and the Apostles. I stopped San Francisco from getting nuked, motherfucker. That was me. And what did I get for it? Did I get a medal? Do you see any medals on me? Helloooo, medals! No. I got blamed. They blamed me. I went blam blam blam and they went blame blame blame.
I’d pay to see that. Maybe I'd be less bored.
Needs of the many
In the past, Ethan was distrusted for being reckless—blowing up the Kremlin, etc.—but here he’s too caring. In a bit of a “Star Trek: Wrath of Khan” ripoff, he’d rather spare the life of one member of his team, the useless Luther (Ving Rhames), even if it means plutonium getting into the hands of terrorists and risking billions. Me, I would’ve taken the plutonium and run. Sorry, Luther, but you were only on the team anyway because “M:I” was made a year after your big splash in “Pulp Fiction.” You’re doing straight-to-video piranha movies now. Time to cut you loose.
I'd forgotten a lot of the last movie. I’d forgotten that the new CIA director, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), subsumed IMF into his org. Now he’s such an Ethan fan he’s demoted himself to director of IMF. Except, oops, the new CIA chief, Erika Sloane (Angela Bassett), like all new CIA directors, doesn’t trust Ethan and IMF, so she crashes their party with her own heavy hitter, Walker (Cavill). Ethan is the scalpel, she says, and Walker is the hammer. He’s the real man. He’s the Superman.
He’s also the traitor. The mustache is a dead giveaway.
Last movie’s villain, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), all whispering brogue, is back, too. His organization, The Syndicate, has morphed into “the Apostles,” and there’s another dude, John Lark, who’s trying to acquire plutonium from an arms dealer, the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby, Princess Margaret on “The Crown”). Ethan gets all this intel in the usual tape-recorded message that self-destructs in five seconds. What made me laugh? Lark and the 12 apostles are all represented by blank avatars. U.S. intelligence knows there’s 13 guys, knows their codenames, and can’t get one decent photo? Not even a blurry Bigfoot shot?
As writer-director Christopher McQuarrie moves the pieces around the board, from Belfast to Berlin to Paris to London to Kashmir, I kept losing the thread. Like why did Ethan and Walker need to parachute into that Paris party rather than, you know, walk in the front door? IMF can fake faces but not invites? And how odd was that Eiffel Tower meeting between Walker and Sloane? It’s just kinda stuck there. And what was the White Widow’s game anyway? Just money? She’s giving plutonium to fundamentalist terrorists without a second thought? Does she wind up in prison? Shouldn’t she? Where’s the accountability?
Speaking of: Let’s talk about the movie’s 11th-hour save of Sloane. As CIA director, she forces her right-hand man onto IMF’s search for a terrorist ... when he’s the terrorist. Then after IMF tricks him into confessing that he’s the terrorist, she still insists on sending in her agents ... except half are Apostles, Walker escapes and Hunley is killed. Imagine that. She’s responsible for the death of the former director of the CIA. Her right-hand man is a terrorist ready to kill billions. Yet because she sends a helicopter for Ethan in the end, we’re supposed to forgive and forget?
And, for a change, could the shadowy villain not be one of the five people in the room? There’s seven billion people on the planet. Spread the wealth.
Meet your second wife
This is McQuarrie’s second “M:I” movie. No “M:I” director has ever done that:
- I: Brian De Palma
- II: John Woo
- III: J.J. Abrams
- Ghost Protocol: Brad Bird
- Rogue Nation: McQuarrie
- Fallout: McQuarrie
BTW: What a shame they didn’t stick with the numerals. This one could’ve been called “MI6” rather than subtitled “Fallout,” which is a little flaccid and forgettable.
Cruise? He gives it his all, and he looks great for 56, but his face is getting oddly puffy. An injury? Bad plastic surgery? Age? Is it time for him to hang up Ethan? He won‘t, of course, it’s his only true moneymaker these days, but maybe he should. Consider what Ethan's “Fallout” love interests and nemeses were doing when the first “M:I” was released back in '96:
- Michelle Monaghan was studying college journalism
- Henry Cavill was 13
- Rebecca Ferguson was 13
- Vanessa Kirby was 8
Dear Academy: Lose ‘Popular Film’ for ‘Best Sequel’
When news broke last week that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was adding a new award, Achievement in Popular Film, this was my first reaction:
Does this mean Best Picture is now Best Unpopular Picture? #Oscars— Erik Lundegaard (@ErikLundegaard) August 8, 2018
OK, so my first reaction was probably to roll my eyes and think something along the lines of: “I guess expanding the best picture category to 10 pictures back in 2009, and then up to 10 a few years later, didn't work out so well.” Which I already knew. After nominating five top 10 box office hits in the first two years after the change, we‘ve had just three since: “Gravity,” “American Sniper” and “The Martian.” More people have been tuning out the broadcast. Last year had record low ratings. I wrote about all that last March and in the end threw up my hands. I didn’t know how to fix the problem.
This new category, by the way, is not a way to fix the problem.
To the Academy, and ABC-TV, which demanded the change, the problem is ratings and relevancy. To me it's deeper. The problem is that art and commerce used to mesh in our most popular storytelling form. Popular but hardly profound films like “Love Story” and “Airport” used to get nominated for best picture, while tough, profound films like “Five Easy Pieces” and “M*A*S*H” used to rake in the bucks at the box office. Now, rarely the twain meet. It comes closest with smart adventure films like “Lord or the Rings” and “Avatar,” or smart animated movies like “Toy Story 3” and “Up,” or rightwing movies that get Hollywood-hating conservatives off the couch like “American Sniper.” But otherwise, not much.
Recent box office hits that maybe should have gotten more consideration include “Beauty and the Beast” and some of the better superhero movies that now rule Hollywood. If the Academy could nominate “Airport,” why not “The Avengers”?
But of course it's more than the genre. Sequels rarely get nominated, too. In the entire history of the Academy, it's just been these:
- The Bells of St. Mary's
- The Godfather Part II *
- The Godfather Part III
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King *
- Toy Story 3
* Won best picture
But sequels, prequels and continuing-universe movies are what we go see now. Last year, the only original film in the top 10 was “It.” In 2016, it was “Deadpool” and three animated movies. In 2015, just “The Martian,” “Cinderella” and “Inside Out.”
In fact, rather than create a new category for “popular” film, which can lead to a host of problems—the least of which is the definition of “popular”—maybe the Academy should go with what I‘ve outlined above: Best sequel, prequel or continuing-universe movie.
Hey, is that the answer?
Look: The real problem with “Popular Film” is its mushiness. All 24 of Oscar’s current categories are definite; you don't have to wait and see if your movie will fit into one of them. Is it a feature-length film released in an American movie theater in 2018? OK, it can be considered. As can that actor, that actress, and that adapted screenplay. Your editor, production designer, sound editing and sound mixing, we know where they fit once the movie is done and released. “Popular Film” would be the only Oscar category where we'd have to wait and see which movies could even be considered. And that's after the parameters are figured out. Should it be the $100 million domestic threshold? Should it be top 10 or 20 or 30 for the year? And is the 30th-biggest hit of the year truly “popular”?
“Popular” is a constantly moving target. When Clint Eastwood's “American Sniper” was nominated for best picture in January 2015, it was sitting on about $3 million after a limited release. That's not popular by any parameters we can imagine. Then the movie went wide and raked in the bucks. It did so well it wound up as the No. 1 box office hit of 2014. Get that? If the No. 1 movie of 2014 wouldn't have qualified—by any sane measure—as “popular” in time for the Oscars, what good is the category?
But sequel, prequel or continuing-universe movie? It‘s specific.
I’m trying to figure out the downside of going this route and I can‘t. I’m also trying to figure out why the Academy didn't go this way in the first place. If you go sequel, you‘re going to get popular, since unpopular films rarely get sequels. Indeed, part of me is beginning to wonder if the Academy floated “Popular Film” to set the stage for “Best Sequel.” Float the horrendous idea to allow easier passage of the vaguely unpalatable one.
What might an “Achievement in Sequel, Prequel or Continuing Universe” look like? Here are films from 2018 that would fit that bill, along with their current box-office ranking:
|2||Avengers: Infinity War|
|4||Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom|
|6||Solo: A Star Wars Story|
|7||Ant-Man and the Wasp|
|9||Mission: Impossible - Fallout|
|10||Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation|
|15||Fifty Shades Freed|
|16||Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again|
|18||The Equalizer 2|
|22||The First Purge|
|23||Insidious: The Last Key|
|26||Pacific Rim Uprising|
|27||Maze Runner: The Death Cure|
|32||Sicario: Day of the Soldado|
|52||Super Troopers 2|
|84||God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness|
Is the Academy, and ABC/Disney, worried that more prestigious sequels like “Sicario” could upset or upend the Marvel/Disney blockbusters like “Avengers” and “Incredibles 2”? Well, that's a risk. You can't have a rigged game, ABC/Disney. People get a vote.
The bigger roll of the dice is the idea that “Best Sequel” or “Popular Film” will get people to watch. I assume either one will be seen as a secondary award, like animated film, and dismissed as such, and might not draw much of a crowd on Oscar night. It's sad. The Academy keeps doing what Major League Baseball does: It's trying to appeal to people who don't much like their product while ignoring the people who do. Time to stop that shit.
That said, if something needs to be done, “Sequel” is better than “Popular Film,” for all the reasons listed above.
All Mixed Up and Baked in a Beautiful Pie
Row AA, Seat 7
After Rehoboth, Patricia and I went up to New York for a few days and a few adventures. This was one of them.
We arrived Saturday afternoon, had dinner plans every evening, so the only chance for a Broadway show was a Sunday matinee. For a moment I considered a baseball game instead, but the Yankees were in Boston (getting their asses kicked), and the Mets were the Mets. I went Great White Way.
My nephew recommended the tkts app but P and I are old and had trouble making it work for us. More specifically: For the shows we wanted to see, the Times Square tkts booth wasn't available on the app. Other ones were: Brooklyn, etc. But we were staying near Union Square; we wanted Times Square.
The TS booth opened at 11 AM and last time we did this, January a few years ago, we wound up way back in line and got slim pickings. This time we arrived early: 9 AM. How early were we? There was no line yet, and no indication of where the line even began. There was just a lugubrious security guard in the glass booth, who looked at us, kind of shook his head, got up slowly, came to the door, and, somewhere between saddened and amused, let us know: “You guys are way too early. You can go get a good breakfast, take a walk around, and you‘d still be too early.” But he indicated the bench where the line began, and Patricia, who had blisters on her feet from a hike in Rehoboth, manned the position while I walked up to Central Park.
It was early but already getting hot and muggy. I wandered past a run, 5K or 10K, in the park. I walked past Trump Tower on 5th Avenue, shuddered, then walked past St. Patrick’s, Rockefeller Center. You can walk anywhere in New York and find something interesting or iconic. It's the best way to see the city. Then I picked up an iced coffee for Patricia and joined her on the bench. It was now 10 AM and the line was about 20 deep. We were at the front. We kept hearing the gossip from more seasoned theatergoers. We were leaning toward “The Band's Visit” but many were down on it. Others recommended “Come from Away” but when the booth finally opened, and we asked about it, only single seats were available. We asked about “Hello, Dolly!” but Bette Midler was off for the afternoon. So we went with “Waitress.” Mostly for this reason. I never even saw the film and I barely looked at the tickets. For some reason, I assumed we were in one of the balconies.
We weren‘t. We were in the front row. Way over to the left as you faced the stage, but front row. Right next to the stage. This close.
Those seats used to be mine.
The show was fine but “She Used to Be Mine” is the showstopper and it’s not close. Second-best song is way down there. Plus the story is kinda meh. It's good things happen to good people. It's the magic of baking. It's “Why is she putting up with this?” and then “Ah, at the 11th hour, she grows a spleen. OK.” Katharine McPhee played the lead, and she's got pipes, but is a little emotionally unavailable. Adam Shapiro as Ogie, and Erich Bergen as Dr. Pomatter, were audience faves. Mine was understudy Anastacia McCleskey as Becky. She fit into the scheme of things but also seemed like a real person. Some of the others weren‘t. Earl had no redeeming value whatsoever. He was a man’s dream: Every man looks good in comparison.
I still loved it. I love those snug Broadway theaters. And now I'll have an answer when someone asks me how close I got to the Broadway stage. Just a foot away.
Literary Quote of the Day
“Talking to Francis gave me the sensation of settling slowly to the bottom of the ocean. He was the most boring child I ever met.”
Scout talking about her cousin in “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. What a great, original metaphor. It's so good I'm shocked it's not more widespread.
I took this shot a week ago on our last full day in Rehoboth Beach, Del., a few hours before they closed the beaches for thunderstorms. I know: You don't exactly see storm clouds brewing. Nor was it particularly dark when they closed the beaches. But it was raining hard in Lewes, lightning had struck (or flashed?) nearby, and so, though we were merely feeling a nice schpritz under otherwise sunny skies, everyone was herded off the sand and the beach umbrellas were folded. For a few hours anyway. We had one last go at the waves.
This was my first trip back to Rehoboth—my childhood vacation spot—since 2010, and I wrote about it enough back then. I don't have much to add. It's mostly the same. Funland's still fun. There's still only one mini-golf course, where, either in homage or warning, the animal remnants of the old circus-themed mini-golf course litter its fairways. Most of the customer service people are still from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus. Even one Asian girl I talked to turned out to be from Kazakhstan. The anti-immigrant “Tea-shirts” (see here and here) are oddly toned down in the Trump era—although one on offer depicted a silhouette of a soldier crouching and taking aim in front of an American flag, emblazoned with the words: THIS IS HOW AMERICANS TAKE A KNEE. Grotto Pizza and Kohr Bros. prospers. Gus & Gus still does its thing. The Whitson and Bob's Bikes are still there, as is Lingo's grocery store, where my comic collecting began in the summer of ‘73. The week still goes by too fast.
We stayed in a big house three long blocks from the ocean, on Sussex Avenue, and set up camp on the north part of the beach, past where the boardwalk ends. Early on it looked like we would get thunderstorms every day but Monday was our only non-beach day. Normally we’d show up about high noon—stupidly for folks wary of getting too much sun—and stayed until the lifeguards left at 5 PM. Then drinks and dinner. We often ate out. We went to Funland twice. You get prizes now at Skee-Ball. Was that always the way?
There were injuries. The second day, after the lifeguards left, Patricia and I went in one last time. I ran in, like the kids do, but the sand was uneven and I hit a dropoff and went down hard. For a day it hurt to walk, and I worried I'd sprained my ankle, but it wasn't that bad: just a bad bruise on the top of my foot. Patricia got it worse. She kept hiking in the mornings in the Gordon Pond Wildlife Area and wound up with blisters. The ocean helped there. The ocean taketh away and giveth.
I think that's what I'll mostly remember: the waves and the density of the water, looking like mercury in the late afternoon sun.