erik lundegaard

Monday December 31, 2018

Some Shitty 2018 New York Times Headlines

Not a comprehensive study, by the way, just the ones I had lying around. I basically took the screenshots when I: 1) noticed, 2) cared enough/was incensed enough, and 3) had the time. But there is a theme.

      

It's the “Trump says” theme. He says North Korea is no longer a nuke threat, Germany is a captive of Russia, and, maybe most absurdly, he “laid down the law,” when at best he laid it aside. He threw it away. He stomped on it without even knowing or caring he was stomping on it. 

Why is it a problem to simply report what a powerful person said? Here. From “Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower's Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy” by David A. Nichols:

Sensing the chance to gain more headlines, [Joseph] McCarthy terminated his honeymoon and rushed back to take charge of the Monmouth investigation. Once back, he rolled out sensational charges every day. He was free to emerge from closed-door hearings and tell the press anything he wished, accurate or not, knowing that reporters would report whatever he said.

One hopes that in 2019 The New York Times and other responsible media outlets will try to avoid this construction as much as possible.

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Posted at 10:45 AM on Dec 31, 2018 in category Media   |   Permalink  

Quote of the Day

“I'm a retired attorney who is on no one's short list to serve on the Supreme Court. But I listened on Sept. 27 while Kavanaugh peppered two hours of Senate testimony with attacks against people and groups he associated with Democrats. Kavanaugh alleged (without factual basis) that he was the victim of a vast, secret, left-wing cabal, masterminded by senators such as Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and motivated by ‘revenge on behalf of the Clintons.’ I was shocked to hear a Supreme Court nominee carry on like a crazed conspiracy theorist.

”Turns out, there's a rule against federal judges behaving like this. Congress passed the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act in 1980, and the rules under that act state that it's misconduct for a federal judge to make ‘inappropriately partisan statements.’ I may be retired, but I think I know an inappropriately partisan statement when I hear one.“

— Larry Behrendt, ”I filed one of the 83 dismissed misconduct complaints against Brett Kavanaugh. Here's why." on The Washington Post site. Behrendt's complaint, along with the others, was dismissed by the 10th Circuit Judicial Council earlier this month. Its reasoning was like out of a Marx Brothers movie or Joseph Heller novel: the Judicial Conduct Act applies to circuit judges, and while Kavanaugh was one when he made the remarks, he's now an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, so the rule doesn't apply. It's straight from Groucho: Too late, that's old business already.

 

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Posted at 07:53 AM on Dec 31, 2018 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Movie Review: People's Republic of Desire (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The girl in the poster looks trapped and she is. She’s Shen Man, a live-streaming star on YY.com, a Chinese social network that launched in 2005 mostly for gamers, then relaunched in the 2010s for a wider audience. I still don’t quite get it, to be honest. It has something called “hosts,” and fans follow these hosts. Some give them virtual gifts, which are somehow translated into real money, and in this way the hosts can make a living and even become rich. Sometimes the hosts have huge financial backers and if they’re popular enough (or financially backed enough?) they can enter an annual 15-day contest to determine who’s “best.”

review of People's Republic of DesireHow is best determined? By wittiest? Funniest? Sexiest?

By votes. Except you can also buy votes. And the richer you are the more votes you can buy. Think of it as American democracy after Citizens United, with Chinese versions of the Koch brothers solely interested in promoting this or that YY.com host rather than directing governmental policy. Why do they do it? Because they’re bored? Because it brings them status? Who knows? Director Wu Hao only talks to a few financial backers. 

That’s my main complaint. I wanted a wider vision. I wanted more explanations as to the absurdities going on in front of me.

At the least, YY.com is aptly named. Watching, I kept going “Why? Why?”

First
Start with the two hosts who make up the brunt of the doc. 

Shen Man is a former nurse who’s had cosmetic surgery to look prettier, but she’s still no Zhao Xun. She flirts with and whines to her fans, and has tens of thousands of followers, some of whom are encouraging, some of whom are just assholes (“Show us your tits,” etc.). Big Li, meanwhile, is always referred to as “a comic” but in the many times we hear him hosting his live-streaming show, I think I laughed maybe once. Mostly he cajoles and complains and cheerleads. For what exactly? For him—and his audience. They’re a kind of a team—the downtrodden and ignored. The way I root for the Seattle Mariners, Chinese provincials root for Big Li. Similarly, he disappoints.

How did they get to this position in the first place? I’m not sure. I don’t think they’re sure. A wider vision, maybe showing us marginal hosts with only a handful of fans, would at least give us something to compare to. But I get the feeling Shen Man and Big Li are where they are because they were first. The first ones through the wall may get bloody, per “Moneyball,” but the first ones through the technological door don’t have to be particularly talented. See early movie, radio and TV stars. See the early stars of YouTube and Instagram.

Fame and fortune don’t exactly make them happy, either. Shen Man winds up supporting her father, who comes to live with her. Big Li visits his relatives in the provinces and promises to make them all proud. It’s like he’s talking to his fanbase rather than his family.

Their isolation increases. We see them in their apartments and live-streaming from their apartments, and that’s about it. As the movie progresses, each  gets more sallow and unhealthy. We long for them to get outside. We long for us to get outside.

The doc is bookended by two “best of” competitions. In the first, Shen Man wins without much effort but Big Li is blindsided by a new competitor, Picasso, with a wealthy patron. The loss doesn’t bring out the best in him. He spends months licking his wounds, then plans a comeback with his own wealthy benefactor. Doesn’t help. In the second 15-day competition, not only does Picasso swamp him but he falls into massive debt— something like a million dollars—because he owes his benefactor some percentage of the votes bought for him ... or something. Either way, he's ruined. We flash back to the beginning of the doc, with Li, a former migrant worker, riding through Beijing in the backseat of a town car, smoking a cigar and wearing shades, and feeling full of himself. We expected comeuppance but not a million dollars worth.

Thirst
In her match, Shen Man loses, too, but she’s smarter, or more risk-averse, and drops out sooner. But she’s still distraught; her self-worth is gone. At the end of the doc, talking to her fans, those men who often encourage her to take off her clothes, she finally reveals herself—not without clothes but without makeup. It’s the movie’s one healthy act.

“People’s Republic of Desire” does what documentaries are supposed to do: It gave me a glimpse into a world I know nothing about. It's also a world I know everything about. It’s about the desire for wealth and fame, yes, but at bottom it’s about loneliness and isolation. It’s about the urge to connect, and how social media taps into this urge and never assuages it. Social media is to connection like salt water is to thirst. We drink and we drink, and we wonder why we keep getting thirstier.

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Posted at 07:18 AM on Dec 31, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018   |   Permalink  
Sunday December 30, 2018

Box Office: ‘Aquaman’ Swims in International Waters

Aquaman swims in international waters

Vinny Chase, eat your heart out.

“Aquaman” dropped only 23.5% this weekend to add $51.5 million to its coffers and top box office charts for the second weekend in a row, but that ain't no great shakes. The weekend before Xmas is a busy time, the weekend after is when we relax and go to the movies, so box office tends not to drop much. Last year, for example, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” dropped just 26%. More to the point, “Jumanji” added 38% on its way to $404 domestic and $962 worldwide.

Nothing like that this year. Yes, most movies added box office (“Mary Poppins Returns,” “Into the Spider-Verse,” “The Mule”) but there are no “Jumanji”s in the mix. 

The real story about “Aquaman”'s box office is international, where it's already grossed $566 million (vs. $188 domestic). Almost half the foreign total is in China ($232). Not sure how Warners marketed it abroad but it's working.

Put it this way: Of the six films in the DC Extended Universe, “Aquaman” is still sixth domestically: $40 mil behind “Justice League” and $110 behind “Man of Steel.” But worldwide? It's third with a bullet: It's already grossed $748 vs. $821 for “Wonder Woman” and $873 for “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” It‘ll catch both. It will reign.

The worst decision Warners ever made was handing over its lucrative universe to Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen,” “Sucker Punch”). Damage has been done but clouds are clearing. At the same time, it’s not like we need to make movie theaters safe for superheroes again. 2018 is winding down and the three biggest domestic flicks are all supers: “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Incredibles 2.” Top 10 also includes “Deadpool 2,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and “Venom.” “Aquaman” will join this team ... which beats the last team he joined.

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Posted at 09:41 AM on Dec 30, 2018 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  

USDA-Approved Anecdote

There's a great anecdote in Michael Lewis' “The Fifth Risk,” a book that's not only about how the Trump administration screwed up the transition but how government works, and how dedicated its civil servants are, and what we‘re losing as a result of doubling down on Trump idiocy and half a century of GOP anti-government rhetoric.

Here’s the anecdote:

As the USDA's loans were usually made through local banks, the people on the receiving end of them were often unaware of where the money was coming from. There were many stories very like the one Tom Vilsack told, about a loan they had made, in Minnesota, to a government-shade-throwing, Fox News–watching, small-town businessman. The bank held a ceremony and the guy wound up being interviewed by the local paper. “He's telling the reporter how proud he is to have done it on his own,” said Vilsack. “The USDA person goes to introduce herself, and he says,‘So, who are you?’ She says,” I'm the USDA person.' He asks,‘What are you doing here?’ She says,“ Well, sir, we supplied the money you are announcing.' He was white as a sheet.”

In this section, Lewis interviews Lillian Salerno, a Texas enterpreneur and Deputy Undersecretary of Rural Development in the USDA during the Obama administration. What did her department do? “Channel low-interest-rate loans, along with a few grants, mainly to towns with fewer than fifty thousand people in them,” Lewis writes.

Salerno: “You go through these small towns and you see these ridiculously nice fire stations. That's us.” Lewis: “It was always more expensive for these towns to get electricity and internet access and health care.” Salerno: “But for the federal government, rural Alaska wouldn't have any drinking water.”

Of course, the good work the federal government does here isn't well-known, per above, and most of the people in these areas watch Fox-News and buy into the small-government argument and vote Republican. They voted overwhelmingly for Trump. They gave us Trump. And what did he give them? To show he was serious about foreign trade, he split USDA department, “Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services,” into two: farm programs and foreign ag affairs.

Oddly, at that very moment, Trump was removing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and costing American farmers an estimated $4.4 billion a year in foreign sales, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. As there's a rule against having more than seven little boxes on the USDA's org chart, they had to eliminate one of the little boxes. The little box they got rid of was Rural Development.

“I worked in the little box in the government most responsible for helping the people who elected Trump,” said Salerno. “And they literally took my little box off the organization chart.”

Read the book. Spread the word. 

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Posted at 07:52 AM on Dec 30, 2018 in category Books   |   Permalink  
Saturday December 29, 2018

Quote of the Day

“One of the things that has surprised me about many of the Trump appointees—and [Rick] Perry is an example of this—is that if you were genuinely patriotic, if you genuinely loved the country, if someone offers you a job that you know you‘re not qualified to do, you don’t just take it. You should say no. You should say, ‘Actually, I don’t know anything about this, and I embarrassed myself on a public stage calling for the elimination of this place; really, someone who can start with a cleaner slate should come in and do this.'”

— Michael Lewis, author of “The Fifth Risk,” on Preet Bhara's podcast, “Stay Tuned with Preet.”

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Posted at 03:25 PM on Dec 29, 2018 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Inside the Building

I read the following this morning in Michael Lewis' must-read book “The Fifth Risk“: 

[Kevin] Concannon was pushing seventy, but he came out of retirement to take charge of the box inside the USDA labeled ”Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services.“ He'd run the place right up until the Trump people finally arrived, in January 2017.

In his job at USDA, Concannon had overseen for eight years the nation's school-lunch program; the program that ensures that pregnant women, new mothers, and young children receive proper nutrition; and a dozen or so smaller programs designed to alleviate hunger. Together these accounted for approximately 70 percent of the USDA's budget—he'd spent the better part of a trillion dollars feeding people with taxpayer money while somehow remaining virtually anonymous. ”We used to say if we stopped the tourists outside the building and told them what we were doing inside, most of them would have no idea that we were doing it,“ he said.

He'd helped to prepare for the Trump transition, but, of course, that transition never happened. He hadn't had a single encounter with anyone associated with it. Nor had the Trump people bothered to speak with anyone who reported to him. And so it seemed fair to say, as Concannon had said to me on the phone, that ”they don't seem to be focused on nutrition.“ The Trump people were a bit like those tourists outside the Whitten Building. Only now they were inside it.

”The Fifth Risk" is ostensibly about what our federal government does—how much we rely upon it to keep us safe. It's about how all responsible president-elects transition into the behemoth to ensure it keeps running smoothly and efficiently, and what a shitty, irresponsible job Trump and his team did. Instead of 30-40 people showing up in each department the day after the election, as Obama‘s and Bush’s teams had done, there was no one. For days or weeks or months. And when Trump people finally showed up, they knew nothing and didn't want to know anything.

Lewis' book re-enforces my longstanding view of the true danger of Donald Trump. It's not just that he's a horrible person that cozies up to dictators and racists and has the attention span and TV-viewing habits of a 5-year-old. Most of us would make better presidents than Trump because at least we know what we don't know; so we would shore up our deficiencies with experts who do know these things. Trump not only doesn't know what he doesn't know, he thinks he knows it better than anyone. He thinks it's easy. He thinks it's all easy because he doesn't know any of it. He's the biggest idiot that's ever walked across the international stage.

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Posted at 08:10 AM on Dec 29, 2018 in category Books   |   Permalink  
Friday December 28, 2018

Little Grasp

“‘The Apprentice’ was built around a weekly series of business challenges. At the end of each episode, Trump determined which competitor should be ‘fired.’ But, as Braun explained, Trump was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, Braun said, the editors were often obliged to ‘reverse engineer’ the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump's shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense. During the making of ‘The Apprentice,’ Burnett conceded that the stories were constructed in this way, saying, ‘We know each week who has been fired, and, therefore, you’re editing in reverse.' Braun noted that President Trump's staff seems to have been similarly forced to learn the art of retroactive narrative construction, adding, 'I find it strangely validating to hear that they‘re doing the same thing in the White House.’”

— from Patrick Radden Keefe's must-read piece, “How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success,” in The New Yorker. It's a tale told by an idiot culture.

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Posted at 03:28 PM on Dec 28, 2018 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

No-Drama Obama's Top 15 Movies of 2018

 

Today on social media, which helped elect Donald Trump and destroy his legacy, Barack Obama listed his favorite books, movies and songs of 2018. Dude's well-read, well-watched, well-listened to.

In music, glad that he likes local hero Brandi Carlisle but gotta wonder where his Matt Maltese is. Probably too apocalyptic for 44. Oh wait, “As the World Caves In” is last year? Damn, I'm old.

Movie's I know, and here's Obama's top 15:

  • Annihilation
  • Black Panther
  • BlacKkKlansman
  • Blindspotting
  • Burning
  • The Death of Stalin
  • Eighth Grade
  • If Beale Street Could Talk
  • Leave No Trace
  • Minding the Gap
  • The Rider
  • Roma
  • Shoplifters
  • Support the Girls
  • Won’t You Be My Neighbor

A few of these will be on my top 10, but overall there's nothing surprising. It's like he took critics “best of...” lists and mixed, sorted. I wouldn't have minded a surprise or two. (The closest to a surprise is “Blindspotting.”) On the other hand, if everything I did caused 40 percent of the country to throw up their arms and curse and shout and spit and threaten my life for the rest of my life, I'd probably play it safe, too. 

Besides, there's something to be said for having a president who's well-read, well-watched and well-listened to. Not to mention well-liked

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Posted at 02:02 PM on Dec 28, 2018 in category Movies - Lists   |   Permalink  

Movie Review: Burning (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Writer-director Lee Chang-dong’s last film, “Poetry,” was about the horrific death of a girl that happens off-stage. We never see the girl but we hear about her rape and death, and we see the blasé and calculating reactions of the people responsible. We also watch the old woman who tries to make it matter; who tries to truly see the girl even though she’s never met her. 

“Burning” is also about the death of a girl that happens off-stage. And not only do we not see it happen, we really don’t even know if it happens.  

Consider it an arthouse version of a revenge thriller. The revenge happens clumsily—not to mention less-than-heroically—at the 11th hour, and we’re not sure if it’s necessary. Traditional revenge movies are all about certitude and satisfaction. This leaves us with nothing but questions.

We three
Burning movie reviewWe first see her outside a department store, dressed in a cute, midriff-baring outfit, with another cute girl, involved in a kind of raffle. They’re drumming up business; that’s why they’re out there. It’s about a minute into the movie, and we’ve followed Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), smoking a cigarette in an alley and onto this delivery. He’s thick-lipped, with an expression halfway between numb and stunned. He wants to be a writer but doesn’t know how to start. “To me, the world is a mystery,” he says later. It doesn't get clearer.

Initially, Haemi (newcomer Jeon Jong-seo) is a pleasant mystery. She eyes him, flirts with him. Hey, he wins the raffle! It’s a pink woman’s wristwatch. In an alleyway, smoking cigarettes, he gives it to her.

Turns out they know each other from their small village, and soon she’s taking him back to her tiny apartment. Does he sense something off about her? We do. Like an increasing number of young Korean girls, she’s had plastic surgery, and in her apartment she talks about that time in eighth grade when he crossed the street to tell her she was ugly. You think it’s a comeuppance moment: You thought I was ugly, now I’m pretty and flirting with you but you can’t have any of this. Bye. Instead she kisses him, sleeps with him. In their relationship, he’s quiet and passive; she does all the heavy lifting.

Then she’s off for a trek to Africa and he’s left to care for a cat he never sees. He arrives, fills the now-empty dish, then masturbates standing up. He’s biding time until she returns. 

When she does, she does so with another boy, Ben (Steven Yuen), who is cordial enough but mostly smug, superior, amused. On the phone, he mentions something about his superior genes. In the audience, we do a double take. Did he really say that? It’s either a bad joke or a worse reality. We quickly suspect the latter.

All definitions are lost, and Jong-su doesn’t know how to ask the right questions to bring them back. Are he and Haemi a couple? Are Haemi and Ben? What’s his role? Even so, he keeps hanging out with them—he never sees her alone again—and the places they’re hanging out get ritzier, with more and more of Ben’s high-end friends. You know that scene in “High Fidelity” when Charlie Nicholson (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has John Cusack over, and there’s a dinner party in progress? “Everybody, this is Rob,” she says. “Rob, this is everybody.” This is like that. Our protagonists aren’t part of the crowd.

The key moment occurs at Jong-su’s father’s ranch. When he first goes there, we hear some awful, tinny noise in the background, and I’m thinking “Is that North Korean propaganda?” It is. The ranch is right on the Demilitarized Zone. Jong-su is looking after the rundown ranch because his father is in prison for attacking another man. His father, it seems, has a tendency to explode. We wonder if it runs in the family.

On the porch, the three smoke pot and Haemi takes off her top and twirls and dances; then she passes out on the couch. To Jong-su, Ben confesses a pastime: he likes to burn greenhouses. He’ll find an abandoned greenhouse nobody wants and torch it. “You can make it disappear as if it never existed,” he says. He says he has his eye on a greenhouse near Jong-su’s place. Jong-su looks around. Near? Very near, Ben says.

For a while, we see Jong-su running up and down the dirt roads near his father’s place, checking on all the greenhouses. Is he trying to protect them? Is he waiting until one burns up so he can alert the cops and get Ben out of the way? What he’s doing isn’t exactly proactive.

At what point do we suspect he's already lost? When he can’t get in touch with Haemi? As she was leaving his father’s place, he chastised her for dancing in front of them topless, saying only whores do that, and we suspect her absence is related to that. But then he can’t find her at her apartment, either. She's disappeared. Plus the landlord says she never had a cat and he can’t find evidence of the one he fed all those weeks. Did he merely dream the cat? The whole thing becomes dreamy, or nightmarish, with Ben is at the center of it. But Ben never reveals himself as such. He stays cordial, distant, supercilious. He’s always seems amused by Jong-su’s efforts.

And he has a new cat.

You can make it disappear as if it never existed.

Revenge is a dish
Any thoughts on the false ending? Jong-su does his amateur investigations and doesn’t get far, but far enough to strongly suspect Ben killed Haemi. Then he settles behind his computer screen and types. We see him from outside his window, and the camera pans back, and we get the building, and more and more of the city. It’s a classic ending shot, but it would leave most everything unresolved. Was Jong-su writing about Haemi? Ben? Was it fiction? Is this the way he finally becomes a writer—via this horrible mystery?

But the movie keeps going, and the son becomes the father. Jong-su explodes. He and Ben meet on a lonely wintry road, and as Ben is about to take control of the conversation again, Jong-su knifes him in the gut. Initially I was so confused that I thought it was the other way, that Ben had knifed Jong-su, but no. It’s our guy doing the deed. Then he stuffs Ben in his sports car and sets the thing on fire. He makes a thing disappear as if it never existed.

Shivering, naked for having disrobed and burned his bloody clothes, he drives away in his beat-up truck. And that’s the end.

Steven Yuen as Ben is getting acclaim from American critics groups, deservedly, but Jeon Jong-seo really anchored the movie for me. She anchored it with how off she was—in a breezy, believable way. It’s her first role.

“Burning” was a little too long for me, a little too dreamy. My mind began to drift. Was that Lee’s intention? It actually makes you want to watch the film a second time. To see what you’ve missed. I like thinking about it, though. The more I think about it, the more I like it.

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Posted at 06:35 AM on Dec 28, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018   |   Permalink  
Thursday December 27, 2018

Trump: ‘Fuck the law. I don’t give a fuck about the law. I want my fucking money.'

Michael Lewis' new book, “The Fifth Risk,” is about how the Trump administration, through idiocy or intent (I‘ve only just begun it), is attacking the agencies of our own government; and it begins with the formation of Trump’s transition team, headed by Gov. Chris Christie, in the summer of 2016. Again, Steve Bannon seems to be a source. Christie as well.

Some basics. Our taxes pay for offices and computers for both major party nominees to create transition teams so the wheels of government can run as smoothly as possible as one adminstration, from the same or opposite party, transitions to the next. So most of it is paid for. The nominee merely needs to foot the bill for staff. Christie was tapped not only to run the team but raise the funds. And that's where he ran into trouble with Trump. 

The first time Donald Trump paid attention to any of this was when he read about it in the newspaper. ...

Trump was apoplectic, actually yelling, You‘re stealing my money! You’re stealing my fucking money! What the fuck is this?? Seeing Bannon, Trump turned on him and screamed, Why are you letting him steal my fucking money? Bannon and Christie together set out to explain to Trump federal law. ...

To which Trump replied, Fuck the law. I don't give a fuck about the law. I want my fucking money. Bannon and Christie tried to explain that Trump couldn't have both his money and a transition. Shut it down, said Trump. Shut down the transition.

It was only when Bannon suggested that such a move—shutting down the transition team in the middle of the campaign—might signal to the media that was throwing in the towel; that he felt he couldn't win. So Trump went forward with it. But he wasn't happy. Because money. 

Once Trump won, the whole thing fell apart again. Christie was fired because he'd prosecuted Jared Kushner's father in 2005 and Jared (and Ivanka?) holds grudges. The family took over ... and botched it completely. Lewis includes an amazing scene at the Dept. of Energy where, the day after the election, everyone is waiting for members of Trump's transition team to arrive and be briefed. That's what happens. In 2008, for example, the day after Obama won, 30 members of his transition team showed up. Want to guess how many members of Trump's transition team showed up the day after his victory? Yes, it was less than 30. It was less than one. It was nobody. The following day as well. And it wasn't just at Energy. It was across the board.

Lewis' book is a reminder of a few things that we need to be reminded of—constantly. Trump, the most powerful man in the world, doesn't just not know what he doesn't know; he actually thinks he knows it better than anyone. He told Christie this: “Chris, you and I are so smart that we can leave the victory party two hours early and do the transition ourselves.”

The book is also a reminder of how important and necessary government is. To me, it feels like a legitimate antidote to Reagan's argument that government is the problem. It feels like the argument Democrats should have been making 30 years ago and most definitely should be making now. 

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Posted at 11:59 AM on Dec 27, 2018 in category Books   |   Permalink  
Monday December 24, 2018

Lancelot Links

  • In the wake of the Harold Baines debaccle, Joey Poz had a great piece on the long sad history of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Baseball Writers Association of America, and the Veterans Committee. I know a lot about baseball history but the specifics he brings are new to me. It's basically how underreaction can lead to overaction, and over to under. Balance is tough.
  • But Baseball's sure as hell beats the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. One of my guys, John Mulaney, did a great, brutal bit on the Rock HOF on Seth Meyer's show, and this Rolling Stone interview is an expansion on that. It's funny, chastising, but mostly heartwarming. He's reminding the honorees, “You mean a lot to all of us. Your music made happy days happier and sad days happier, or sometimes made normal days more poignant and sad, and that was necessary. ... Go ahead and enjoy it.”
  • Life-lesson from John Cassidy: He who rises by the tabloid shall fall by the tabloid. Not that the lessonee will listen.
  • Seattle Film Critics (sans me) announced their best of 2018 and it's the usual suspects: “Roma,” Cuaron, Hawke, Collette, etc. Not their fault; other film critics get to see and announce first. And none are bad choices. By now it's just ... familiar. They do give some love to tentpole films “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and “Black Panther,” but even there, it's not unfamiliar. Here's what I think has been missing from the conversation this awards season: “Wajib,” “Love Education,” “The King,” Sakura Ando, Jun Jong-seo, Hawke for “Juliet, Naked.” Maybe “Avengers: Infinity War.” Why I wrote, I suppose.
  • The good folks at SABR have written a clear-eyed portrait of baseball's greatest loveable loser: Charlie Brown. The fact-checking graf on his exact birthdate alone makes it worth reading.
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Posted at 06:59 AM on Dec 24, 2018 in category Lancelot Links   |   Permalink  
Friday December 21, 2018

Corps Beliefs

“One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Instead, we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. NATO's 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof.

”Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations' economic, diplomatic, and security decisions — to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.

“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

”Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.“

— Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, in his resignation letter to Donald Trump yesterday—the day after Trump announced the U.S. was withdrawing its troops from Syria. I‘ve long suspected Trump only chose Mattis in the first place because of his nickname: ”Mad Dog.“ All in all, it’s one of the classiest ways of saying ”You‘re an idiot and a danger to this country" that I’ve read.

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Posted at 06:38 AM on Dec 21, 2018 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  
Thursday December 20, 2018

Movie Review: Shoplifters (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

A middle-aged couple who committed murder hole up in the tiny, shack-like home of an elderly Japanese woman, who lives there with her granddaughter—a sex parlor worker. The couple is also raising a young boy whom they kidnapped from a pachinko parlor and taught how to shoplift. Returning from a shoplifting escapade, they spy a four-year-old girl on a balcony and take her home as well. When the old woman dies, the couple buries her body inside the home and take all of her money. 

They’re the good guys.

Shoplifters reviewMost of the above is learned at the 11th hour, or by and by. We begin thinking the couple is the parents of the boy, and one of them is the child of the matriarch. We begin thinking they’re a family. Which they are. That’s writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s point. At least that’s how he began the movie—with the question, “What makes a family?” He decided it wasn’t blood.

Question: Does he rig the game?

Chosen
The couple is big-hearted in a cold-hearted world. They keep the girl because she was being abused. They found the boy abandoned in a car. The “father,” Osamu Shibata (Lily Frank), taught him shoplifting, he later tells the cops, because it’s the only thing he knew how to teach him. He says this haplessly, but without pity or ego. There’s a recognition in his eyes that it all went wrong, that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, but what are you going to do?

There’s nothing venal about them is my point, and they have an upfront honesty that most families don’t have. The boy, Shota (Kairi Jo), is acting distant, and Osamu surmises why. At the ocean, in the waves, he talks to him about boobs and morning boners and desires. He tells him he’s not abnormal for these urges but at one with the world. “Everybody likes boobs,” he says. The “mother,” Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), compares the girl’s scar, where her biological mother burned her with an iron, to her own near identical scar from a work accident. “We’ve been chosen, haven’t we?” she says. It’s a bonding moment.

Kore-eda keeps giving us these moments. They’re precious without being precious. Shota, upset about the addition of the girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), or maybe because he’s asked to think of her as a sister, and to train her in shoplifting techniques, doesn’t come home. Osamu surmises he’s in a nearby abandoned car. He goes there, sits in the car with Shota, talks to him, talks him into going back home. There’s nothing haranguing about it. It’s gentle. It reminded me of a moment, when I was a child and threw a temper tantrum at my grandparent’s house and locked myself in the car outside. Eventually my grandfather came and got me. By then I was depleted. I went willingly, happily. I was so happy to see him.

When the family is finally caught, and wind up before the authorities and the press, everything gets twisted.

Another question: Why does Shota do it? They get caught because Shota gets caught for shoplifting, and at the end of the movie he tells Osamu he got caught on purpose. Which we know. We see it happening. He abandons the technique he’d been taught, and which didn’t work as well as Osamu thought. (The local grocer, for example, knows the kid is shoplifting—another poignant, charming scene.) But why does Shota do it? To momentarily protect Yuri, who is trying to shoplift too? Or to protect her on a larger scale? To get her away from Osamu and Nobuyo and the cramped, big-hearted life they live with its petty crimes?

Also, why tell Osamu at the end? What is he telling him? That he did it on purpose to end a lifestyle that wasn’t sustainable? Or is he saying: I didn’t really fail. Your techniques are still good. I’m still a good shoplifter.

Triumphant
The kids are beyond cute. Is that rigging the game, too? Shota is so pretty he looks like a girl—the way that a teenage Joaquin Phoenix looked like a girl in “Parenthood,” or the middle Hanson brother in the “MMMBop” video. Yuri, meanwhile, is so quiet and vulnerable that when she finally smiles it lights up the world. Just the way she moves, my wife said, broke her heart. 

The standout for me is Ando as the mother, Nobuyo, who is tougher than her husband. She’s the one who takes the rap for the crime of kidnapping Yuri away from abusive parents. Ando reveals complicated depths with a glance, an intonation, a shrug. She deals with the pettiness of humanity—as at work, with bosses or colleagues—with a knowing, amused smile. It’s not saddened or bowed; it’s almost triumphant. It’s like she’s thinking, “I knew you were going to be that small.” She knows how the game is really rigged.

When the cops accuse her of simply “throwing away” the matriarch by burying her, she looks them in the eye, directly, but without heat. “I found her,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It was someone else who threw her away.”

I could watch this movie again just for Ando; just for moments like that.

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Posted at 07:49 AM on Dec 20, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018   |   Permalink  
Monday December 17, 2018

Movie Review: The Favourite (2018)

The Favourite reivew

WARNING: SPOILERS

About five minutes in, I went “Oh, right. Yorgos Lanthimos.” 

The trailer makes it look more fun than a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. It lies. Trailers do that. In fact, as I was watching this, I began to think maybe trailers should only be made by the directors of the movies they promote. That way, we’d get their sensibility—the movie’s sensibility—rather than the marketing department’s. We’d get more original trailers and fewer lies.

So what’s a Yorgos Lanthimos movie like? Disturbing. Discordant. Often unnecessarily so. In an early scene in “The Favourite,” we slowly become aware that there’s a steady thrumming, thumping noise on the soundtrack. Occasionally there’s an urgency to it, as if it were warning us of some upcoming shock, but mostly it’s just there: constant and annoying and taking us out of the movie. To me, it sounds like a headache. It’s classic Yorgos.

That said, I mostly liked “The Favourite.” And I liked it more when I found out its characters were historical.

Stripped and whipped
Watching, I’d assumed this British queen, at war with France, with a powerful, Machiavellian Duchess whispering in one ear, and an equally Machiavellian servant girl whispering in the other, was a kind of fiction. It was England but not England—like Central Europe in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” It was Evergreen England.

But it’s the story of Queen Anne, the last ruler of the House of Stuart (Olivia Colman, brilliant), and her close friendship with Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who is, in the end, usurped as “power behind the throne” by her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). The whole story is right there on Wikipedia:

Flattering, subtle and retiring, Abigail was the complete opposite of Sarah, who was dominating, blunt and scathing. During Sarah’s frequent absences from court, Abigail and Anne grew close; Abigail was not only happy to give the queen the kindness and compassion that Anne had longed for from Sarah, but she also never pressured the queen about politics...

In real life, the Duchess lost the battle but won the war. Queen Anne died in 1714, Abigail retired to a private life, and the Duchess lived another 30 years. In her memoirs, she writes dismissively of the Queen, which, some say, is why Anne has generally been discounted by historians:

She certainly meant well and was not a fool, but nobody can maintain that she was wise, nor entertaining in conversation. She was ignorant in everything but what the parsons had taught her when a child.

There's a bit of irony here. The bad words written by the Duchess are actually kind compared to what “The Favourite” does. In “The Favourite,” Anne is most definitely a fool: easily manipulated, whining, crying, caring nothing for the people around her. She’s concerned she’s fat but overeats and throws it up. She’s the original binge-and-purge girl. You know “The Godfather” edict—it’s not personal, it’s just business? Lanthimos’ Queen Anne is always personal. She's so uninterested in business she doesn’t even know her country is still at war.

Our lens through all this is Abigail, who arrives in court in a crowded carriage in which a man is masturbating in his trousers; then she’s literally pushed out of the carriage and into the mud. At the palace, she’s dressed down by the Duchess, who, enjoying her power, lingers over such moments like a cat with a mouse. Abigail is put to work as a scullery maid—assistant to the kitchen maid, the lowest possible position—where the other servants cackle when her hand is burned by lye. Several times, she’s literally kicked by men, who are more dangerous—or at least more comic—when they start acting lascivious. “I should have you stripped and whipped,” she’s told several times. How horrible the world is. How nice she is. Or seems.

For her burned hand, she makes a balm from plants she finds in the woods, and this turns out to be her in. The Queen suffers from gout, and the raw meat slapped on her swollen red joints does nothing, so Abigail arrives surreptitiously and applies the balm. It helps enough, and she insinuates herself enough into the conversation, to get herself noticed—less by the Queen and more by the Duchess, who senses that Abigail is more calculating than she seems. She's sees her as a lieutenant. But that's not how Abigail sees herself.

The movie then is about Abigail’s rise and Sarah’s fall. In her memoirs, or maybe just via her wicked tongue, the real Duchess implied Abigail was also the Queen’s lover. The movie does more than imply and tosses in the Duchess for good measure. Their wicked tongues are used for more than spreading gossip.

Typo                                                                                                                                       graphy
Much of the movie is funny, and most of the funny stuff—chiefly with the foolish Queen—wound up in the trailer. Colman is a treasure: the whole “look at me/don’t look at me/look at me” exchange. There’s even a moment when we feel for her—when, early on, Anne tells Abigail how she gave birth to 17 children and lost them all. Most were stillborn or died in infancy. One, Prince William, lived to age 11 before succumbing. It’s tough to imagine giving birth to 17 kids, let alone losing them all. For a moment, she seems like a human being. The moment passes.

I would’ve liked “The Favourite” more, I think, without Lanthimos’ singular, distracting discordancy and general showiness. Patricia, a graphic designer, a former art director, hated the typography that accompanied the film. She found it pointless, hard to read, and smug. She loved the women in all their awfulness.

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Posted at 08:48 AM on Dec 17, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018   |   Permalink  
Sunday December 16, 2018

Tweet of the Day

Didn't think I'd ever be posting tweets from Bill Kristol—particularly ones that I agree with—but we live in strange times. Hey, bedfellow. 

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Posted at 02:17 PM on Dec 16, 2018 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  
Friday December 14, 2018

Movie Review: Flash Gordon (1936)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s just a metaphor for China, isn’t it? It’s taking the quintessential early 20th-century boys adventure story—travel to the Far East!—and sticking it in outer space, where the oriental tyrant lusts after the blonde woman and the exotic beauty lusts after the Teutonic hero. Ming (Charles Middleton) is the giveaway—in name, looks, manner and gongs. He’s a Chinese emperor in space.

Flash Gordon 1936 movie reviewIs this where we started the thrones-in-space trope? I was noticing this even in 2017’s “Last Jedi”:

You know what really bugged me about that scene? The throne. Dude’s sitting on a fucking throne in the midst of a big red empty in the middle of a spaceship. Can we get past this throne trope already? How about a desk with some paperwork on it? How about a comfy couch with two corgis?

Secondary thought: Is Capt. Kirk’s chair a kind of throne, too? Or is it a command chair because it swivels? Can a throne swivel? Not onomatopoeically. Throne, like stone, seems to demand stasis.

I’d heard that “Flash Gordon” had been an inspiration for “Star Wars,” but here at least (I haven’t seen the sequels yet), there’s no strong connection. Yes, there’s a princess, but she’s not our princess. Yes, we get a few screen wipes. The most obvious connection is King Vultan’s city in the sky, which is like Cloud City in “Empire Strikes Back,” and just as absurd. Much work goes into keeping it aloft but no one asks the obvious question: Who thought it was a good idea to put it there in the first place?

On the whole, “Flash Gordon” is simply battles with various hawkmen, sharkmen, lion men and monkey men. 

Dr. Zarkov and his Interstellar Inventions
It begins in a planetarium, where two elderly scientists (George Cleveland and Richard Tucker) look at the stars and wring their hands:

Prof. Hensley: We are doomed, Professor Gordon. The planet is rushing madly toward the earth. And no human power can stop it!
Prof. Gordon: You’re right, Henry. It’s only a question of time. Soon the earth will be smashed to atoms!

Thanks, guys. We’re then shown cities throughout the world in panic. Well, “panic.” It’s stock footage, and the white cities (London, Rome, Paris) tend to be fairly placid, while the darker places (Shanghai, India, Africa, Arabia) tend toward riots. The titles themselves are indicative: three European cities, one Chinese city, and then, fuck it, let’s go countries and continents.

Professor Gordon is, yes, Flash’s father, but the two will never meet in this serial, and Prof. Gordon, that old hand-wringer, will never be much help. In fact, he’ll get everything wrong. At one point, he and Hensley discuss a possibility to save the planet only to dismiss it. “Zarkov’s mad, his theory fantastic,” Gordon says.

Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) turns out to be correct, his theory totally doable. By the second chapter, he’s actually saved the earth:

Zarkov: The course of this planet has been changed. The earth will not be destroyed.
Flash: Ah ha, that’s fine. Where’s Dale?

“Ah ha, that’s fine, where’s Dale?” Dude, he saved the earth! I don’t think Zarkov gets his necessary props in this serial. He does everything. It’s called “Flash Gordon” but what does Flash really do? Fights some guys? Then fights more guys? He falls in love (with Dale) and is lusted after (by Aura). He makes friends with enemies. That’s about it. Mostly he fights.

What does Zarkov do?

  • Invents a rocket ship that can land on distant planets and return to Earth—in the 1930s!
  • Convinces Ming to divert his planet’s course so it won’t crash into Earth
  • Saves Flash’s life after the various tortures of the Static Room
  • Creates an explosive device that allows Flash and others to escape King Vultan’s atomic furnace rooms
  • Creates a substitute for radium that will allow Sky City to remain aloft
  • Throws a grenade at the fire monster, saving Flash
  • Helps Flash regain his memory after Princess Aura has wiped it out
  • Invents an invisibility machine that again saves Flash’s life  
  • Electrifies the door to the lab preventing Ming’s men from entering
  • Figures out a way to signal Earth
  • Figures out a way to return to Earth

It’s the invisibility machine that really got me. When did he have time to invent that? In his spare time in Ming’s lab? The guy’s Einstein and Edison rolled into one! This thing should be called “Dr. Zarkov and his Interstellar Inventions.” He really should talk to his agent—he’s getting short shrift here. 

Does Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson) get short shrift, too? Yes, there are numerous instances when, in her goal to win Flash and destroy Dale, she imperils both. But just as often she saves Flash. She shows up at the 11th hour, gun drawn, to save him from King Kala’s octopus (Chapter 3) and Vultan’s “Static Room” (Chapter 7). She joins him in the arena to save him from the monkey men (Chapter 1) and the Orangopoid (Chapter 8). What’s Dale doing in the meantime? Cringing. Fainting. Aura actually develops as a character—tamping down her love/lust for Flash to accept the hand of the monumentally dull Prince Barin (Richard Alexander). She so pisses off her father, Ming, that by the end he’s ready to let her die: “You have chosen to consort with traitors, you shall share their fate.” Thanks, dad.

At least she gets a reward. In the final chapter, after Ming enters “the sacred palace of the great god Tayo, from which no man returns,” she becomes Queen and sits on the throne.

Except ... Is the serial forgetting Barin’s intro from Chapter 5?

I am Prince Barin, real ruler of Mongo. I was dethroned as a child by Ming the Merciless who killed my father.

I’d assumed this was setting up our ending, with Ming dead and Barin restored to his rightful patriarchal place. Nope. Ming winds up dead (ish), Barin winds up with Aura, but the throne goes to Aura. Too bad we don’t get that conversations:

Barin: Can’t I sit on it for just a little?
Aura: No.
Barin: Please? I am the rightful ruler, you know.
Aura: You are a rightful nothing.
Barin: You’d let me do it if I were Flash.
Aura: You are not Flash!

I was impressed with Buster Crabbe, the former Olympic gold medal swimmer. He’s athletic, earnest, shockingly handsome, and not a bad actor by serial standards. He’s certainly better than most of the actors here. Barin is a limp noodle, Thon worse, while Vultan overacts horribly. In the first chapter, Flash’s dress- shirt-and-jodhpurs look is torn, Doc Savage style, and thereafter he wears skintight Mongo suits. Just as often, he’s shirtless, glistening with sweat, and wearing boots and big-belted supertight shorts. The movie apparently ran into trouble with censors because of some of Aura’s more revealing outfits, necessitating refilming, but no one noticed the near-naked bondage sequences with the star? Maybe that’s the one nice thing about being sexually marginalized in a puritanical society: Your kink may pass unnoticed.

What’s the role of Jean Rogers’ Dale Arden? Love interest (for Flash), lust interest (for Ming and Vultan), rival (for Aura), general damsel in distress. She also looks good in her midriff-baring Mongo outfits (sans bellybutton). But does she ever do anything? Plan? Scheme? Aura’s best revenge may be that she won over her share of fan boys. In “Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial,” Alan G. Barbour writes, “Many fans felt that Flash should have been interested in Princess Aura rather than the constantly screaming Dale Arden.”

Aura also never stepped on anyone’s lines. From Chapter 9:

Dale: We must go after them.
Zarkov: No, we must not. There’ll—
Dale: No mo—
Zarkov: There‘ll be  danger.
Dale: No more than here.

How Flash and Dale wind up on Mongo may be the most absurd element of a story full of them. In Chapter 1, Flash, on a flight back to America to see his father, is flirting with Dale, whom he’s just met, when the plane is buffeted by forces of the oncoming planet. The pilot tells everyone to bail out, adding helpfully, “You’ll find a parachute on every seat. We were ordered to bring them aboard in anticipation of any trouble.” Where do they land after they bail out together? Of all the places on Earth? Right next to Dr. Zarkov and his rocket ship.

After an absurdity like that, monkey men and orangopoids are easy to take.

Ode to Aura
Is Flash even necessary for the main storyline of “Flash Gordon”? Doesn’t he cause more trouble—with his looks and his fists—than he solves? You can imagine a much shorter version if it was just Zarkov: He arrives, convinces Ming not to crash into Earth, invents his invisibility machine, uses it, plants a bomb under Ming’s throne. In the confusion, he escapes back to Earth. The End.

One thing Flash and Dale do accomplish: They keep turning enemies into friends: Thon, Barin, Aura, and especially Vultan, who, for several chapters, is truly villainous: all but raping Dale Arden and subjecting Flash, Thon and Barin to the atomic furnace rooms, where they toil along with other slave labor. Question: Does Zarkov’s substitute for radium mean that furnace rooms are no longer necessary? Or are shirtless slaves still shoveling this substitute into his furnaces?

“Flash Gordon” supposedly had a budget three times the norm for a serial ($360,000), and the special effects aren’t bad for the time. The rocket ship (left over from the 1930 sci-fi musical “Just Imagine”) turns in a circle and lands shakily but charmingly. A few scenes with a giant lizard in the same shot as Flash and Dale are particularly well done. More quaint are Ming’s mores. He doesn’t just take Dale; he feels he needs to be married to her. So, via hypnosis and banged gongs, he attempts an elaborate wedding ceremony. That also includes scenes from “Just Imagine.”

I don’t know how they measure the financial clout of serials (which, after all, played before features), but supposedly “Flash Gordon” made more than any Universal film—let alone serial—that year. Yet first-time director Frederick Stephani didn’t direct anything else until TV in the early ’50s. Why?

It’s interesting who went on. Buster Crabbe wound up having such a popular and extensive movie serial career, he’s been dubbed “King of the Serials.” Jean Rogers kept acting until 1950, Charles Middleton until his death in 1949, Richard Alexander all the way to 1970. For Patricia Lawson, “Miss Miami Beach” of 1935, this was her first credited movie appearance, but she would manage only five more credits (and 23 uncredited roles) before retiring from movies in 1941. Supposedly she joined the military; there are rumors she lost a leg and opened up a stationary shop in LA. She died from a duodenal ulcer on August 27, 1958 in a Los Angeles VA hospital. She was 44.

SLIDESHOW


  • Alex Raymond’s comic strip was born when King Features needed a spaceman to compete with the popular “Buck Rogers,” whose comic strip debuted in 1929. “Flash” didn't show up until five years later, January 1934, but beat “Buck” to the big screen by several years. Both would be played by Buster Crabbe.

  • The special effects aren't bad for the time. 

  • Here, too, as Dale Arden almost walks into a giant lizard on Mongo. 

  • Less so here. It's Mongo's plodding welcome committee. “Grab whatever's left in wardrobe.”

  • Ming the Merciless, a Chinese emperor in space. 

  • What begins as a battle to save Earth becomes a battle to save Dale.

  • The first of many arena fights—this time against the monkey men.

  • I suppose Constantine Romanoff (real name: Friedrich William Heinrich August Meyer) had prouder moments on screen, but he made the best of “Monkey Man.”

  • Crabbe would‘ve made a good Doc Savage. 

  • Or an Aquaman. If Aquaman had existed. (He was created five years later.) 

  • Typical Flash/Dale shot: He’s determined, she's frightened. 

  • Typical Flash/Aura shot: He's determined, she's ... determined, too. 

  • The risqueness: A hypnotized Dale is sent to bed in anticpation of Ming...

  • ... and cowers before the rapacious Vultan. 

  • Vultan, aroused. A year earlier, he played the engineer's assistant in the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' “A Night at the Opera.”

  • The orangopoid. Mugato, “Star Trek” fans?

  • In the 1960s, journalists were amazed at the shots of the Earth that Apollo astronauts sent back, but moviegoers had been seeing such shots for decades. 

  • Sadly, “spaceographed” never caught on. 

  • Neither did “Stratosphere Party,” although it sounds fun. 

  • All's well that ends well. *FIN*
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Posted at 06:45 AM on Dec 14, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Thursday December 13, 2018

Tweet of the Day

Cf. an NBC News headline today: Trump was in the room during hush money discussions with tabloid publisher. Cohen got three years for this, right? Will be interesting to see if the other shoe ever falls for Donnie.

This past summer, I told my friend Andy, who was afraid Trump would get reelected in 2020, that he wouldn't even last the year. I'm probably wrong but ... I'm not that wrong. 

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Posted at 07:58 PM on Dec 13, 2018 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Boxscores: August 1, 1970, II

Twins Tigers August 1, 1970

Earlier this year, while writing a blog post about a long-remembered 1970 game between the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates, which the Pirates won by the football-like score of 20-10, I checked to see how other teams did that day. How did those 30 combined runs compare with the rest of the Majors? I was assuming there weren't other high-scoring games, but I was wrong. There was even another football-like score: St. Louis over Houston, 14-7.

Anyway, that's how I stumbled upon this high-scoring game between my team, the Twins, and a Detroit Tigers team only two years removed from winning the World Series. Twins won 12-4. Then I noticed the oddity. Wait, in 10 innings? The Twins scored eight runs in the top of the 10th? 

Yes. Yes, they did.

Wow. So how many homers did they hit?

None. Three doubles, though.

That's it?

That's it. This is how they did it. 

FRED SCHERMAN PITCHING

  • Bob Allison: K
  • Cesar Tovar: 1B
  • Danny Thompson: 2B (Tovar scores)
  • Harmon Killebrew: IBB
  • Tony Oliva: 2B (Thompson scores)

TOM TIMMERMAN REPLACES SCHERMAN 

  • Rick Renick: 2B (Killebrew, Oliva score)
  • Rich Reese: IBB
  • Leo Cardenas: 6-3
  • Paul Ratliff: IBB
  • Bob Allison: BB (Renick scores)
  • Cesar Tovar: 1B (Reese, Ratliff score)

MIKE KILKENNY REPLACES TIMMERMAN

  • Danny Thompson: 1B (Allison scores)
  • Harmon Killebrew: K

Notice the three intentional walks? I immediately thought of Joe Posnanski, a longtime sportswriter who has long railed against the intentional walk. He thinks it's bad for the game for two reasons: it's 1) stupid and 2) not exactly sporting or fun. A good hitter like Harmon Killebrew comes to the plate, you want to see him swing. It's no fun seeing him not get the chance. Imagine if every time LeBron James got the ball, the other side did something so he'd have to give it up. So we couldn't see him play. No fun. 

The Twins' 8-run 10th is both testament to Poz's philosophy and a refutation of it. It was obviously stupid, since it didn't help the Tigers at all. Everyone intentionally walked came around to score. At the same time, Detroit manager Mayo Smith's use of the intentional walk was so idiotic it must‘ve been fun to watch. “Really? You’re going to walk another one? Sure, have at.”

A lot of people might agree with Mayo's first free pass. At this point in the game, you‘re down by one, there’s one out, you‘ve got a not-very-fast guy, Danny Thompson, on second base, and last year’s MVP and the greatest homerun hitter of the 1960s, Harmon Killebrew, at the plate. Plus he's slow and the guy on deck has knee issues. A ground ball and you get out of the inning. 

The trouble: The guy on deck is Tony Oliva, who was one of the best hitters of the ‘60s, and the only man to win the battle title his first two years in the Majors. And at that point in the 1970 season, he was hitting .325. (He’d wind up leading the league in hits and doubles.) So walking Killebrew to get to Oliva was like walking Ken Griffey Jr. to get to Edgar Martinez. Pick your poison. The only argument in favor of it is the lefty-right thing. Detroit's pitcher, Fred Scherman, was a lefty. That's why Mayo did it. Why you shouldn't do it? Oliva doubled.  

Mayo rewards Scherman by yanking him for Tom Timmerman, a righty, to face the right-handed Rick Renick. Renick doubles, too. (BTW: The Renick at-bat is the only time during that long, long inning that first base was open with men in scoring position and Mayo didn‘t go for the IBB.) 

That brings up another Double-R, Rich Reese. He’d had a good season the year before (.322/.362/.513 in 132 games), but had fallen off a bit in ‘70. At this point, he was .271/.339/.374. But he was also a lefty and now Mayo had a righty on the mound. So he intentionally walks Reese to get to Leo Cardenas, a former four-time All-Star who was hitting .281. But it kinda worked. He got the grounder he wanted, but no double play. And now two men were in scoring position. 

Which brings up my favorite intentional pass of the evening. 

At this point, remember, the double play is meaningless. There are two outs. A grounder and you get out of the inning. Plus you’re down by 4 anyway, in a game in August, for a team that's going nowhere. Pitch away. Go for it. 

Nope. Mayo had Timmerman issue the Tigers' third intentional pass of the inning. To Paul Ratliff. 

My immediate reaction upon seeing the name was “Who?” That's most people's reactions. Except that's probably their reaction to Rick Renick, Rich Reese and Danny Thompson, too, but I knew all those guys. In 1970, I was a 7-year-old with a mind like a sponge who was ga-ga over the Minnesota Twins. I collected baseball cards, I went to games, I knew them. I knew them all: Brenta Alyea, Jim Holt, George Mitterwald. They were legends to me.

But Paul Ratliff? Nothing. 

Turns out he was a back-up catcher who came up in ‘63 for a cup of coffe, then not again until 1970. As of August 1, he was hitting .243 with a .706 OPS. Not exactly an intentional-pass candidate. But the lefty-righty thing. So Mayo, for the third time that half inning, played the percentages. He assumed the next guy up, a guy hitting .170, and who had started the inning with a K, would get him his out.

Except the next guy up was former All-Star Bob Allison, who, with Killebrew and Oliva, had been part of that Murderers Row Twins Club of the mid-1960s. And while he was on his last legs, and his batting average was way, way down, his OBP wasn’t: .333. He couldn't hit but he could still draw a walk. Which is exactly what he did. With the bases loaded. Another run.

Then Tovar singled to plate Reese and Ratliff, the two most recent IBBs, and then Thompson singled to plate Allison. The final out of the inning was made by Killebrew, the first IBB.

Anyway, that's how you get a 12-4 score in 10 innings: two singles, three doubles, and four walks—three intentional. Those IBBs weren't smart, they weren't sporting, but I bet they were a lot of fun.

Rich Reese, Camera Day 1970

Me and my brother with Rich Reese on Camera Day, 1970, a few weeks after the above game. And is the guy in the background the elulsive Paul Ratliff? Anyone know? 

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Posted at 10:54 AM on Dec 13, 2018 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  
Wednesday December 12, 2018

Lancelot Links

Crazy Rich Asians bombs in Crazy Rich China

很好看的中国人。可是,中国人不要看。

  • The U.S. box office hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” which some U.S. critics sadly keep touting, debuted two weeks ago in China—and bombed. It wound up in eighth place, grossing the equivalent of $1.1 million, $23 mil behind “A Cool Fish” in its third week. The website Sixth Tone tries to sort out why. Too shallow? Too Mary Sue—“a pejorative referring to the trope of shallow, unconvincing female characters in works of fiction”? How about too Asian? The article mentions how an All-Asian cast is a breath of fresh air in the U.S. but kinda not in China. It also doesn't mention the arms-length reaction of many Chinese to overseas Chinese or huaqiao. At the same time, the movie did OK in smaller Chinese markets like Taiwan and Hong Kong. But China said 不要。Could make a good dissertation someday—the why of all of this.
  • Hey, guess what didn't bomb in China? “Aquaman.” It's opening weekend gross was $93 mil, which is the 21st biggest opening in China ever. Go know. 
  • Larry Stone has a good eulogy on Robinson Cano's five-year tenure with the M's: PED suspension, yes, occasional lapses, yes, but two top-10 MVP finishes and 23.6 WAR. He delivered. Mariners management didn‘t. Not enough. It was a bad deal, and now we’re out of it for the worst part of it, but I‘ll miss him. He was fun to watch. What Yankee fans saw as laziness, I saw as the usual nonchalance of great baseball players turned to 11. 
  • In an interview with Bob Schieffer, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says it was difficult to work for Trump because he’s “pretty undisciplined, doesn't like to read, doesn't read briefing reports, doesn't like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘This is what I believe.’” Not a huge shocker. Nothing about Trump is a huge shocker to anyone who was paying attention in 2015 and 2016. And all the years previous. 
  • Speaking of: If you know anyone who says “They didn't know ...” what Trump was like, kindly direct them to this 2006 piece by Mark Singer in The New Yorker. He nailed it all then. There have been no surprises.
  • Can't recommend enough George Packer's mid-November piece on the demise of a moderate Republican. Mostly because it's not about that. It's about Packer holding the GOP accountable for its 50-year-long slide into the muck: from the Southern strategy to welfare queens to Willie Horton. “They pushed conspiracy theories into the mainstream,” Packer writes. “They kept raising the bar of viciousness. ... Trump is the movement's darkest realization, not its betrayal.” His Mitch McConnell metaphor is brilliant. 
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Posted at 11:07 AM on Dec 12, 2018 in category Lancelot Links   |   Permalink  
Tuesday December 11, 2018

For NPR, ‘Trump Implicated in Felony’ Creates Dilemma for Democrats

So the president of the United States was implicated in a felony in federal court on Friday—for buying the silence of McDougal/Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 election regarding affairs with each of them. Here's the headline the next day in my hometown newspaper:

TRUMP IMPLICATED IN FELONY

That's straightforward. Much of the rest of the mainstream press was less so. They prevaricated as much as possible.

Did anyone do this more than NPR? When I listened to Morning Edition on Monday, the focus of their broadcast, for the 15 or so minutes I listened, was on the dilemma all this causes for Democrats.

I shit you not. 

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, in breaking down the matter, refers to Trump once; she refers to Democrats six times. 

INSKEEP: Now, you said unindicted co-conspirator. Of course, the key word there is unindicted. He's not indicted here. He's just named for his involvement in a crime, or Individual One is. It is a matter of dispute whether a sitting president can be indicted by a grand jury, but he certainly can be impeached by Congress. Do Democrats want to do that?

LIASSON: Some Democrats do. Most Democrats don‘t. Democrats want to keep the right balance when they take over power in the House. They want to exercise oversight. They want to investigate the president and the administration in a non-showboaty way.

BTW: Some people might consider the key word “co-conspirator,” Steve. 

Then Morning Edition’s crack team immediately went to a long interview with Jonah Golberg, senior editor at National Review, who also talked about what a dilemma all this was for the Democrats. Particular, he added, because of the demands of its base:

The base of the Democratic Party wants impeachment. They crave impeachment. They hunger for it. They're sort of like werewolves. At the full moon, they must feed. And if they must impeach over this stuff, they may in fact impeach over this stuff.

Rachel Martin brings up how the Clinton impeachment actually backfired against the GOP, to which Goldberg says: 

I agree. I think politically it would be a bad idea. It was a bad idea for the Republicans to do it politically, but they sort of had to follow through on their own, you know, line of reasoning and consistency.

Got that? Dems are werewolves, Repubs follow a “line of reasoning.” And the illegalities of a Republican president create dilemmas for the other party. So glad NPR is here to help me make sense of the world.

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Posted at 05:07 PM on Dec 11, 2018 in category Media   |   Permalink  

Movie Review: The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

There’s a moment about 45 minutes into “The Spy Who Dumped Me” that made me laugh.

Our main characters, Audrey and Morgan (Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon), two American girls caught up in international spy intrigue, are on the run for their lives in Europe. Unbeknownst to them, Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno), an international model/gymnast/assassin (you know the type), has been sent to Prague to kill them, and, I assume, retrieve the maguffin in Audrey’s possession. She’s getting in position over Prague’s Old Town Square and asks her superior, via earpiece, who she’s looking for. Response: “Targets are two dumb American women.” She raises her rifle, looks through the scope, sees:

  • two girls posing for a picture, one flipping the bird, the other doing the flicking-tongue-under-v-sign gesture
  • a hung-over girl on a bridge throwing up into the water below while her friend holds her hair back
  • two girls doing a bump-and-grind against a shrouded medieval statue, and, per subtitles, “both whooping”

The Spy Who Dumped Me reviewAt which point, realizing the impossibility of her task, she lowers her rifle.

That’s a good bit.

The rest of the movie is simply empowerment of those same dumb American women.

Us/them
Our heroes are amateurs who bungle their way into international espionage and thrive there. The outlandishness that makes Morgan “a bit much” in the real world is perfect for distraction, while Audrey, 30 and going nowhere with her life, has real talent for the spy game. Before, she couldn’t lie. Now she’s adept at it. She’s good at the bait-and-switch, at killing (via all those Friday-night video arcade shooting games), and at hiding the maguffin where the sun don’t shine. Sure, innocent people die (Uber driver), but our girls wind up feeling good about themselves, and isn’t that what’s important?

Audrey also gets to kill the duplicitous spy who dumped her (Justin Theroux) and win the spy who’s loyal (Sam Heugan). Both women get new, sexy careers. They start out the movie as us (stunted, marginal) and wind up the movie as them (heroic, central). The thing they were brought in to mock is what they become. 

Sound familiar? It should. Think: “The Other Guys,” “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “The LEGO Movie,” and “21/22 Jump Street.”

Here’s an excerpt from my 2015 review of “Spy” starring Melissa McCarthy:

Most genre spoofs occur when Hollywood takes someone who looks and acts like us (a schlub) and places them in an exciting genre movie (western, action-adventure, spy thriller). The laughs come when the schlub tries to live up to the genre and falls flat, while the catharsis comes when the schlub becomes the wish-fulfillment fantasy figure in the end. The genre may be mocked but it ultimately wins. Wish-fulfillment fantasy wins. We want us on the screen but no we don’t; we’d rather see them.

“Spy” did the genre spoof better because McCarthy’s character wasn’t a schlub; she was assistant to a superspy (Jude Law) but actually competent. I.e., more competent than the men. She’d just never been given the chance. But when Jude appears to die in the first reel, she gets it. The comedy comes in how less-than-glamorous her version of the spy game is. It’s really a feminist/lookist take within the genre spoof. 

This isn’t that. “Dumped Me” reverts us back to the stupid norm. It pretends that you can join late with zero experience and still master the game. 

Funny/not funny
That’s not what dooms it, though. It's just not funny. I think I laughed fewer than 10 times. I liked the bit about driving the manual-transmission car into the kiosk at 2 mph. I liked Cheesecake Factory menus compared to the novels of Dostoevsky. I liked Paul Reiser and Jane Curtain as the parents, and Reiser’s line reading on Woody Harrelson. And not much else. 

Some of the action sequences are surprisingly good but has McKinnon ever been less funny? Has Kunis made a smart decision since “Black Swan”?

“Targets are two dumb American women.” The movie’s targets are many dumb American women. Based on its pallid box office, it didn’t hit them, either.

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Posted at 08:54 AM on Dec 11, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018   |   Permalink  
Monday December 10, 2018

Movie Review: The Spider's Web (1938)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In its current listing, Wikipedia credits “The Spider’s Web” as the first superhero movie serial ever. It was released in 1938, two years before “The Green Hornet” and “The Shadow,” and three years before “Captain Marvel” truly ushered in the superhero age.

So what makes a superhero serial? A better question: What makes a superhero? Off the top of my head, I’d say:

  • superpowers (but not necessarily: Batman)
  • mask (but not necessarily: Superman)
  • fights crime (but not necessarily: X-Men)
  • urban (but not necessarily: Black Panther)

The Spider's Web movie reviewI might also add this:

  • Born in comic books (rather than radio, pulps, comic strips)

None of those guys before Captain Marvel were born in comic books. The Shadow began as a radio narrator who was so popular they created his own radio show around him; then he took over the pulps. The Green Hornet began on radio as a modern update of The Lone Ranger, who, in Wikipedia’s classification, is a western hero rather than a super hero. The Spider began in the pulps in 1933 to compete with The Shadow—and wound up beating him to the movies by two years.

Overall, at least in their serial incarnations, these three are basically the same guy: a rich dude with no superpowers and an ethnic sidekick, who puts on a mask, fedora and trenchcoat to fight a criminal mastermind bent on taking over the city. In this, The Spider should suffer in comparison. The Shadow has the best calling card (his laugh and catchphrase), the Green Hornet has the best sidekick (Kato), and both have better masks. To modern eyes, the Spider’s mask, with holes for eyes and mouth, looks suspiciously like bondage gear.

And yet “The Spider’s Web” is slightly better than the first offerings from Shadow and Hornet. Its lead, Warren Hull, has energy and verve throughout—even before he puts on the mask and cape. He’s not overshadowed by his sidekick (see: Hornet) nor is his main power given to the villain (see: Shadow). Plus Iris Meredith’s Nita Van Sloan has it all over her female counterparts.

But the serial, like all serials, gets bogged down in the sameness of it all: the hidden villain in his lair sending out his men to implement his orders; the hero and his team working to counteract them; the police stymied and useless and suspicious of the hero; the cliffhanger, the escape, and the regroup. Repeat.

I’m curious: Has anyone with talent ever taken one of these serials—which can run 300 minutes—and edited it down to about 90-100 minutes? So it has a modern pace? So there’s less pause and bad fill and it flows? What would that look like? Could it be good?

Friendly neighborhood Spider
I first heard of The Spider in 1974, while reading Stan Lee’s “Origins of Marvel Comics.“ I was 11. Stan takes us back to the glory years. By 1962, he had created the Fantastic Four and the Hulk and was looking around for other characters to invent and promote:

In the long-dead, practically Paleolithic era when I had been on the verge of approaching teenagehood, one of my favorite pulp magazine heroes was a stalwart named The Spider. He wore a slouch hat and a finger ring with the image of an arachnid—a ring which, when he punched a foe fearlessly in the face, would leave its mark, an impression of a spider. It was The Spider’s calling card, and it sent goose pimples up and down my ten-year-old spine. More than that, I can still remember how the magazine’s subtitle grabbed me. It was called The Spider— but after his name were the never-to-be-forgotten words: Master of Men. Just play with that for a moment—roll it around on your tongue, savor the fateful, fascinating flavor—The Spider, Master of Men. My mind was made up, the stage was set, the cards had been dealt. I was no more than a puppet in the shadow show of destiny.

Yes, Spider-Man. The similarities between the two characters end with the name.

Except watching this, you do see other similarities. The Spider has webbing on his mask and cape. He’s fairly athletic, can climb easily and swings from ropes a lot. Then there’s the villain: The Octopus. He’s not a scientist, doesn’t have mechanical arms, but in the 1938 battle between The Spider and The Octopus, it’s easy to see the trace outline of the epic Spidey/Doc Ock battles to come.

The serial begins well—with villainy and the chaos it causes. We see trains colliding followed by numerous headlines about sabotage, the bombing of freight trucks, a fire destroying the airport. It’s all the work of the Octopus. Who is? Just a guy in a white mask wearing a white cloak who hobbles on a crutch to the big mahogany desk in his lair, and then, to his men—who are all cloaked in black and sitting politely in chairs in front of him—announces plans and issues threats via a raspy voice into a microphone.

Roberts from the Bankers Association shows up and we get this exchange:

Roberts: Where do I fit in?
Octopus: You don’t. You will be eliminated as an obstacle. Tomorrow morning you will no longer be chairman of Roberts Co. Inc. My man will take your place.
Roberts: You’re crazy!
Octopus: I’m quite serious. ... Very soon I will have control of every key industry in this country. I will have the very nerve centers of the nation in the palm of my hand. 

That last line almost calls for a “Mwa-ha-ha!” but instead the Octopus calmly shoots Roberts, then announces the next target: our hero, Richard Wentworth (Hull). Why Wentworth? Who knows? But it’s a classic example of picking on the wrong guy. 

At this point, and despite the headlines, our hero is oblivious to the Octopus’ doings. He just wants to go on a trip and settle down with his new wife, Nita Van Sloan, who knows he’s The Spider. They’re in a plane that he’s flying. Are they coming back from some place? Just flying around for the day? They’re about to land when the Octopus’ men sabotage the runway, forcing them to take off again and bail out. 

For a ’30s serial, it’s nonstop action for a while. The bailout leads to fistfights on the ground and Wentworth even kills a few dudes; then he says to his assistant Ram Singh (Kenne Duncan in beard and turban), “Nita just landed in the meadow. You get her into the city as fast as you can—I think the Jefferson Highway will have the least traffic.” That last bit of micro-managing cracked me up ... until I realized it was part of the plot, since Wentworth discovers the Octopus’ men plan to blow up the Jefferson Highway bridge. So off he goes in pursuit. 

It may be a new series but there’s a nice in medias res aspect to it. On the plane, Wentworth tells Nita he’s putting The Spider behind him. Obviously the attempt on their lives changes things, but we don’t see him as The Spider until the last few minutes of the half-hour opener. The Octopus plans to blow up the bus terminal with a bomb on a bus. The Spider and Ram Singh clear the terminal by firing off guns. After a gun battle with the bad guys, The Spider is driving the bomb-ticking bus away, when ... boom! Except of course, in the next episode, we see The Spider leave the bus and pull down the garage door before the boom.

Here’s how all those cliffhangers work out:

 Ch. Cliffhanger Escape
1 Bomb goes off in bus Spider is driving He'd already gotten out
2 Spider and Nita on fast-falling dumbwaiter thing Ram Singh slows descent
3 Spider seems electrified after being punched into bank of switches He isn‘t. He gets up groggily
4 Spider is gassed He gets up, opens window, leaves
5 Bank of lights is pushed on Spider, who cowers He flattens against the wall
6 Car, with Spider on runner, crashes into electrical transformer He jumps off at last minute
7 Door with jagged edges threatens to close on KO’ed Spider He wakes up and rolls away
8 Fights O's men in car that goes into drink He and Ram Singh jump off beforehand
9 Spider and Ram Singh plunge in elevator whose cables are shot out They initiate the ”Automatic Brake Control“
10 He plummets in plane that's aflame Uses high speed to put out the flames
11 Rockslide Spider jumps from car in time
12 One side of wire Spider dangles from is cut loose He swings into a brick wall, then drops to the ground
13 A motor on a chain swings toward the Spider He jumps out of the way
14 Falls through trap door and dangles by rope upside down Slips out of rope
15 n/a n/a

You pity the screenwriters. You imagine them in the writers room, exhausted, drunk, or both, saying, “OK, what the fuck can happen to him now?” 

I admit being excited at the end of Chapter 12, “The Spider Falls,” when, pursued, he shimmies across a wire high above a courtyard and the bad guys—who seem unable to shoot him from like 10 feet away—cut one side of the wire. I’m thinking, “Hey, he’s going to swing to safety! It’ll be like Spider-Man!” We’d already seen him swinging several times—at the Bureau of Power & Light in Chapter 3; and onto a double-decker bus in Chapter 8—so we know he can do it. And he does—but into a brick wall. It’s more George of the Jungle than Spider-Man. But for this period it’ll do.

Arguing against the hero
There are missed opportunities throughout—scenes that indicate a better serial. My favorite is from Chapter 13. By now Wentworth has figured out that The Octopus, who keeps killing members of the Bankers Association, is a member of the Bankers Association, and, in his living room, he holds forth before the other members of his team with the following written on a chalkboard:

Reynolds        Gordon
Bronson         Gray
Mason            Frank
Chase            Crane

“Now that Chase has been eliminated,” Wentworth says (he was kidnapped in the last chapter), “we find that our search is down to three men: Gray, the banker; Gordon, head of the power company; and Frank, head of the broadcast company.”

Imagine if we’d learned about all of these men earlier—and if they’d had distinguishing personalities or features rather than being vague background figures. Might’ve made a pretty good whodunnit. We could’ve been trying to figure out the identity of The Octopus with Wentworth. But of course that would’ve taken planning, time and talent. 

Ironically, the above scene also includes an example of why vigilantes like The Spider are dangerous. After a brief discussion, Wentworth says the following: “Gray is a very powerful man in this city. Nevertheless, we must go on the assumption that he is the Octopus and let him prove that he isn’t.” Wait. Guilty until proven innocent? In such scenes, Hull’s dynamism actually works against him. He comes off as dangerous.

He was certainly a danger to Charlie Dennis in Chapter 4. Once upon a time, Wentworth helped youthful gas station owner Charlie build a radio, and more recently Charlie was able to get on the Hertzenband(?) wavelength, where he heard men talking in a kind of code; so he alerts his mentor. Wentworth listens, too, and hands Charlie money. “Buy some candy for the kids,” he says. As Wentworth is figuring out the code (the letters and number correspond to pages and words in Webster’s dictionary), and realizes it's the work of the Octopus, does he get back with Charlie? No. Who does? The Octopus' men. They figure out someone is on their wavelength, show up at the gas station and shoot Charlie dead. Then they blow up the gas station. By the time Wentworth finally arrives, he's distraught. He cries over Charlie’s corpse.

I'm kidding about this last part. It's actually worse: Wentworth never finds out what happened to Charlie. How awful is that? The kid has served his purpose in the story and can be eliminated—by both the bad guys and the writers. I get the former but why did the latter eliminate him in this sudden, brutal manner? And why blow up the gas station? Yes, it reveals the menace of the bad guys but it also reveals the obtuseness of our hero. Were scenes cut? 

There's a lot of suspect actions on Wentworth's part. He kidnaps a switchboard operator who is being blackmailed by the Octopus, and questions her until she faints. Then he involves her newsboy brother, Johnny, and almost gets him killed. He often uses Nita as bait. As for The Octopus’ true identity? It turns out to be Chase—the very guy Wentworth eliminated from contention. 

It's as if the serial is an argument against its hero. 

One more time with feeling
Even so, “The Spider’s Web” became a big hit for Columbia. (Does anyone know how they measure serial popularity?) So much so they turned the “Shadow” into a virtual remake: businesses targeted by masked /invisible villain who turns out to be one of the businessmen; incompetent cops suspecting hero; sideplots including raygun that causes airplanes to plummet; early references to television.

Each hero, too, has a third identity with underworld ties. For The Shadow it’s Lin Chang; for The Spider, Blinky McQuade, an eyepatch-wearing con who sounds a like Popeye. He extracts relevant info from time to time. He’s so good at it, one wonders why Wentworth ever bothers with The Spider.

THE SPIDER SLIDESHOW


  • The Spider began in the pulps in 1933 to compete with The Shadow—and wound up beating him to the movies by two years. In fact, ”The Shadow“ serial, also created by Columbia Pictures, pretty much followed the blueprint of ”The Spider's Web.“ 

  • You have a rich guy who plays a masked superhero at night (The Shadow's mask was cooler, less fetish-y)...

  • ...who also adopts a third identity: a man with underworld ties who extracts info from the bad guys. 

  • Buck Rainey's ”Serial Film Stars“ references Meredith's ”ethereal charm, and attractive, restrained acting style." She certainly made this more watchable. 

  • We never see The Octopus outside of this room. The movie may be Spider vs. Octopus but we‘ve got a long way to go to reach Spidey vs. Doc Ock. 

  • But at least we get an early version of web-swinging.  

  • Here, too. Did anything look cooler to kids in 1938?

  • Of course, the police suspect Wentworth of being The Spider, whom they suspect of being a criminal. They’re right on both counts. 

  • Caught. Not in flagrante delicto, despite appearances. 

  • Nita, wondering when the honeymoon can begin. *FIN* 
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Posted at 08:41 AM on Dec 10, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Sunday December 09, 2018

LA —> Roma

Another victory celebration

A week after NY, LA film critics chose their best of 2018, and with the same best of 2018: Alfonso Cuaron's “Roma.” 

I think LA is unique in giving out both gold and silver. No bronze. Here's the films they tapped:

  • Best Film: “Roma”
    • Runner-up: “Burning”
  • Best Director: Debra Granik, “Leave No Trace”
    • Runner-up: Alfonso Cuaron, “Roma”
  • Best Actor: Ethan Hawke, “First Reformed”
    • Runner-up: Ben Foster, “Leave No Trace”
  • Best Actress: Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”
    • Runner-up: Toni Collette, “Hereditary”
  • Best Supporting Actor: Steven Yeun, “Burning”
    • Runner-up: Hugh Grant, “Paddington 2”
  • Best Supporting Actress: Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
    • Runner-up: Elizabeth Debicki, “Widows”
  • Best Foreign-Language Film: ??
    • Runner-up: ??
  • Best Documentary/Nonfiction Film: “Shirkers”
    • Runner-up: “Minding the Gap”
  • Best Animated Film: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
    • Runner-up: “Incredibles 2”
  • Best Screenplay: “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
    • Runner-up: “The Favourite,” Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
  • Best Cinematography: Alfonso Cuaron, “Roma”
    • Runner-up: James Laxton, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
  • Best Editing: Joshua Altman and Bing Liu, “Minding the Gap”
    • Runner-up: Alfonso Cuaron and Adam Gough, “Roma”
  • Best Music/Score: Nicholas Britell, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
    • Runner-up: Justin Hurwitz, “First Man”
  • Best Production Design: Hannah Beachler, “Black Panther”
    • Runner-up: Fiona Crombie, “The Favourite”

I saw “Roma” Friday and can't disagree. Looking forward to “The Favourite.” Seeing “Burning” in a few hours. 

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Posted at 04:24 PM on Dec 09, 2018 in category Movies - Awards   |   Permalink  

Something You've Never Seen Before, 1960

Norman, looking at truly secret things. 

“The movies had always been based on a tension. On the one hand, the form says, ‘Look, I can show you something you have never seen before’: it could be an act of violence, a sexual suggestion; it might be a beautiful man or woman alone with their thoughts, unaware of being spied on. Much of the charm of pictures lay in this privileged opportunity granted to us. For instance, do you want to look at Garbo or Harlow at your leisure so that you can speculate over whether they are wearing underwear? Here you are. At the same time, the business apparatus of movies was always backed up by a guardian-like sternness that said, ‘Don’t expect to get a look at truly secret things. Don't think we‘re going to let Garbo or Harlow take off the dress—that outer cover—so that you can see whether you were right or wrong. Yes, we’ll show you ”murder,“ but don't expect us to be cruel or bloodthirsty or murderous about it. Because that would be too naughty—and would put film too close to sadism or torture.'

”No country lives as blithely or as uneasily with the opposed ideals of orgy and restriction as America. No other country has such warring impulses toward libertarianism and restraint. No other country required so detailed or comical a code of what could be seen on public screens and what could not. And no other film business so encouraged the ingenuity of directors, photographers, and actors to see what they could get away with.“

— David Thomson, ”The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder." My review of the title film.

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Posted at 04:18 PM on Dec 09, 2018 in category Hitchcock   |   Permalink  

Don't Ban the Shift; Promote Spray Hitters

George Will's solution to the shift: More Rod Carews

Baseball needs more guys like this, here trying on my glove at Met Stadium in 1970.

Apparently MLB is thinking of banning defensive shifts, which are preventing too many hits by players who hit too many times to the same spot. 

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has been promoting such a ban since 2015, according to Jayson Stark, and now it's gaining traction. 

This is beyond idiotic. First, how would you implement it? Tell a fielder he can't move X feet from his normal defensive position? Create fielders' boxes the way batters have a batter's box? 

The bigger point: players will adjust. If they don‘t, teams will adjust—by putting a premium on players who will adjust; who can hit to all fields. We’ll eventually get better baseball because we‘ll have more spray hitters.

George Will said much the same, but smarter, on Brian Kenny’s show. His arguments against the ban are two-fold: 

I just don't like the whole principle of saying, “It will be illegal for baseball to make rational decisions based on abundant good information.” That's what we‘re saying: “You can’t do it, even though it's smart.” I don't think a nation or a society or a business should ban information. Doesn't look right to me.

Then he holds up one of my childhood heroes as the spray hitter in question:

My solution is two words: Rod Carew. I know Rod Carew was a genius, I know Rod Carews don't grow on trees. But the market will eventually demand left-handed hitters who can take advantage of this, and I believe in markets. The supply will come forward. ...

Baseball has never had an equilibrium that lasted forever. ... Nothing lasts. 

George Will for MLB Commissioner. 

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Posted at 09:23 AM on Dec 09, 2018 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  
Saturday December 08, 2018

Felonious Trump

More from Adam Davidson.

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Posted at 11:02 AM on Dec 08, 2018 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  
Friday December 07, 2018

Nixon '46 —> Trump '16

“Richard] Nixon adopted, in his first campaign, his signature tactic: making false claims and then taking umbrage when his opponent impugned his integrity. Voorhis was blindsided. ‘Every time that I would say that something wasn’t true,' he recalled, ‘the response was always ”Voorhis is using unfair tactics by accusing Dick Nixon of lying.“’ But Nixon, the lunch-bucket candidate, also exploited voters' unease with a distant government run by Ivy League–educated bureaucrats; he found it took only the merest of gestures to convince voters that there was something un-American about people like Voorhis, people like them. His campaign motto: ‘Richard Nixon is one of us.’”

— Jill Lepore, “These Truths: A History of the United States.” Of course, Nixon's signature tactic didn't go away with Nixon; it grew. It's basically the modern GOP platform. It's the one thing they believe in.

1946 is also the year Trump was born. 

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Posted at 02:29 PM on Dec 07, 2018 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Trailer: Avengers: Endgame

I don't know what the movie is going to be like, and I don't know what the resolution will be like—how they‘ll reverse things so all of these lucrative properties are alive again and making money for Marvel/Disney without it seeming like a massive cheat to the rest of us—but the tone of the first trailer to drop on “Avengers: Endgame” is just about perfect: from Tony Stark drifting and dying in space, to the reappearance of a fierce Hawkeye, to Black Widow’s quiet conversation with a determined Captain America. Plus the reappearance of Scott Lang adding a comic touch at the end of all this gravitas. That's amazing they‘re able to do that—put Cap and Ant Man in the same scene, with their different tones, and make it work. I know we’re superhero saturated as a culture but this got me excited to see the movie when it's released in April. Hell, I want to see it now.

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Posted at 12:32 PM on Dec 07, 2018 in category Trailers   |   Permalink  
Thursday December 06, 2018

Movie Review: Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I expected little from “Ip Man: The Final Fight.”

It’s directed by Herman Yau, who’s made 70 feature films, of which I was aware of exactly zero. One of his more popular films, at least according to IMDb ratings, is “The Legend is Born: Ip Man,” which was released in 2010, and seemed designed to capitalize on the success of the Donnie Yen “Ip Man” series. This is the sequel to that one, and, yeah, same. Meanwhile, its star, Anthony Wong, is hardly a kung fu master and claims to have been drunk when he accepted the offer.

Ip Man: The Final Fight reviewBut it’s good. This Ip Man is older, his stomach troubles more pronounced. His wife comes and goes, dies quickly, and he embarks upon a polite, discreet affair with a nightclub singer, Miss Jenny (Zhao Chuchu), which scandalizes his students. The movie is as much about his students as him. He is the calm center of a flurry of activities and outsized emotions.

香港,我来了
Did no one make a movie about Ip Man until 2008? Is that right? There was nothing, and then there was everything:

  • 2008: “Ip Man,” with Donnie Yen
  • 2010: “Ip Man 2,” with Donnie Yen
  • 2010: “The Legend is Born: Ip Man,” with To Yu-hang
  • 2013: An Ip Man TV series, with Kevin Chang
  • 2013: “The Grandmaster,” directed by Wong Kar-wei, and starring Tony Leung
  • 2013: This one
  • 2015: “Ip Man 3,” with Donnie Yen
  • 2018: “Master Z: Ip Man Legacy,” a spinoff of “Ip Man 3,” with Zhang Jin
  • 2019: “Ip Man 4,” with Donnie Yen

According to Ip’s Wiki page, a biopic was long considered:

The idea of an Ip Man biopic originated in 1998 when Jeffrey Lau and Corey Yuen discussed the idea of making a film based on Bruce Lee's martial arts teacher. 

Yet for all that, none of these movies say exactly why he moved from Guangdong province to Hong Kong in 1949. Or they fudge it. They say, you know, he was looking for work. But c’mon—1949? That’s the year the communists routed the Kuomintang and took over China. Ip Man, according to Wiki, was an officer in the KMT. So he was fleeing the communists—the party that is now making him a cinematic hero. Irony, irony everywhere.

The movie opens with that—Ip’s arrival in Hong Kong. He has a few tenuous connections and a stellar reputation. Leung Sheung (Timmy Hung) asks him about Wing Chun, almost demanding a demonstration, and Ip calmly says they should eat first. After the meal,  he asks for a piece of paper. He lays it on the floor, stands atop it, and tells Sheung to try to knock him off. You know how that ends.   

He gathers students—or students gather to him. We learn about them briefly: the factory worker, the cop, the prison guard. Two students get into a fight and Ip Man tells them kung fu is not about starting fights. If he taught them to swim, he says, he wouldn’t want them pushing people into the water, either. Love that. 

Little things keep happening. One of Ip’s students—the cop, Tang Sing (Jordan Chan)—is offered a bribe by the corrupt Hong Kong police force and doesn’t know what to do. He goes to Ip, who counsels without suggesting a course. Then another student, Le King (Jiang Luxia), hits a British officer during a union strike and winds up in prison. So Tang uses the bribe money to bribe the British officer to drop the charges. 

Much of the movie is like this. It’s episodic—as much about Hong Kong as Ip. Some of his students date, get married, have children. A dinner with old family friends turns horrifying when it’s revealed that the father sold one of his sons to make ends meet. (This supposedly happened to Jackie Chan as a child.) Tang has several encounters with a local gang boss, Dragon (Xiong Xinxin), who takes control of everything inside the “walled city.” Ip must fight a rival master, Ng Chung (longtime HK character actor Eric Tsang), but on the politest of terms. One of Ip’s students opens a Wing Chun school opposite his with a big ceremony and a big sign, and his remaining students are aghast. He shrugs. Life goes on.

Then there’s the Miss Jenny complication. At an outdoor nightclub, some jerks manhandle her, she slaps one of them, they give chase. Ip Man gets in the way. You know how that ends. Later, he helps her write the English-language postal address of a place in San Francisco that caters to Chinese wives—but in helping, he discovers she can’t read or write Chinese, either. As always, he’s polite and discreet, and says, “I hope you find your Mr. Right.” She’s about to drop the letter into the mailbox, then retracts it and smiles to herself. It doesn’t get sent. She’s already found her Mr. Right. It's a sweet scene. 

Is he smitten? I certainly was, and became curious what else Zhao Chuchu has done. Not much. But she seems all over the Chinese gossip pages. Was she on a reality TV show? And what exactly breaks up Jenny and Ip Man here? At one point she gives him opium when he’s writhing in pain from stomach troubles. When he recovers, he gets angry, she cries, she apologizes. Ip and his son move in together, and the son, narrating, says, “Then, for some reason, she stopped coming.” We get her deathbed scene later in the movie. It’s quiet, discreet, sweet.

Zhou Chuchu in Ip Man: The Final Fight

周楚楚: May we all have such complications. 

再次
The big battle doesn’t come until about 15 minutes from the end. One of Ip’s former Wing Chun students, Tung, is now a star in Dragon’s arena, and Dragon asks him to throw a fight. He refuses. So Dragon both 1) drugs him, and tells his opponent, Ngai (Ken Lo of “Drunken Master 2”), to 2) kill him. He’s about to do so when Tang Sing intercedes, Tung’s pregnant wife arrives, and Ip, informed by his students, takes control. When Sing tells Ip he can't arrest Ngai because they're inside the walled city and thus outside police jurisdiction, Ip, with hands clasped behind his back, calmly asks, “If I take them out of the city, can you do your job?” You know how that ends.

Bruce Lee, Ip’s most famous student, comes off poorly here. He shows up at the end, a movie star with sunglasses, western friends, a big car and a big attitude. Ip ignores him. Bruce is also played by an actor much less attractive than the real Bruce Lee. It feels like someone is getting back at someone.

I like the very end. We get some Wing Chun philosophy (“One’s attitude should be like a [Chinese] coin, square on the inside and smooth on the edges”), and then old, grainy footage of the real Ip Man, practicing.

It should be one Ip Man too many but I guess I’ll never tire of the story he represents: The martial arts master who doesn’t want to fight; but there’s just too many assholes in the world.

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Posted at 09:33 AM on Dec 06, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2013   |   Permalink  
Monday December 03, 2018

Killing Our Little Darlings: Cano, Diaz to Mets

Cano and Diaz to Mets

“Nah, no garlic fries but Fuku's loaded fries. Trust me, it's worth it.”

This is what I wrote last March for the 2018 Grand Salami player profile on young Edwin Diaz:

He’s so close to being elite, isn’t he? He’s young, lean, throws in the triple digits. If you rank least season’s 30 top relievers by saves, Diaz comes in 15th in innings pitched (15), tied for 19th in blown saves (5) and tied for 8th in saves (34). Meaning he’s right in the middle for opportunities, at the higher end for succeeding at those opportunities, and at the lower end for screwing them up. All good. He’s eighth in strikeouts (89) and tied for 9th in hits given up (44)—great numbers given his IP. Yet among these relievers, his WHIP (1.15) is 16th and his ERA (3.27) is 19th. What’s the problem?

The problem is the thing that comes back to haunt us: walks. His 32 free passes last season is more than all of these relievers save two (AJ Ramos and Corey Knebel). Homeruns are also an issue: He gave up 10 last year. But the biggest problem, oddly, may be that so-called pitchers’ paradise he calls home: Safeco Field. On the road, Diaz threw 36.1 innings, gave up 13 hits, 14 walks and two homers. His batting average against was .106 and his ERA was 1.24. But at the Safe, he wasn’t: 29.2 IP, 31 hits, 18 walks, and eight homers. That’s a .265 batting average against and a 5.76 ERA. Aberration? Anomaly? Probably. We’ll find out more this year.

The M’s have never had a great reliever. At best we’ve had a guy who made us cheer one season and groan the next: Mike Schooler, Bobby Ayala, Norm Charlton, Kasuhiro Sasaki, J.J. Putz, Fernando Rodney. Put it this way: If Diaz simply keeps repeating his 2017 performance, he’ll be the all-time Mariners saves leader by June 2020.

Then what happened? Then he became elite. He became the best closer in baseball, with a league-leading 57 saves in 73.1 IP, 124 Ks against a shockingly low 17Ks, a 1.96 ERA and a 0.79 WHIP. He led closers in almost every category. He was an All-Star, finished 8th in Cy Young voting and 18th in MVP voting. From the beginning of the season to the end, he was just lights out. 

Plus: He was only 20 saves away from tying the all-time Mariners saves record (129, Kasuhiro Sasaki). Did I say June 2020? June 2019, more like it! 

And then...

The rumors started last week and they kept solidifying until it was all but a done deal. Today the deal was done: Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz and cash to the New York Mets for five players. The Mariners organization apparently looked around, decided we weren't going to beat the young upstart Houston Astros anytime soon, and decided to start anew—the way the Astros themselves did back in 2012/13. Initially we had a few untouchables in the lineup, including Diaz and Mitch Haniger. But to unload Cano and his expensive, long-term deal, we had to let the Mets grab one of those untouchables. There's a phrase in writing, “You have to kill your little darlings,” meaning you have to cut sentences and paragraphs you love if they don't fit in with the overall. That's kind of what Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners did here. Diaz fit in with the overall, of trying to win it all in, say, 2023, but to engage this plan they had to give him up. They had to kill our little darling. 

Fuck. 

I get what they‘re doing, but—and this is a big but, a Sir Mix-A-Lot-sized but—I don’t know if I trust this organization to do it right. Before this off-season, we had the worst farm system in Major League Baseball, by some rankings, and that takes a lot of bad decisions over the years. Is this one of those? Was the Paxton deal? We draft lousy, our trades are iffy, our longterm contracts quickly become albatrosses, and when we do find a diamond in the rough, a guy we scouted and drafted and signed and brought up through our system, who throws 100-mph fastballs and 90-mph sliders with poise, and who, in only his third season, ties Bobby Thigpen for the second-most saves in a single season in baseball history, well, we can't even keep him around long enough to break out pathetic team record for saves. 

Fuck. 

And what did we get in return? 

  • outfielder Jay Bruce, who is signed to two more years at $14 mil each, will be 32 in early April, and had a -0.4 WAR last season.
  • reliever Anthony Swarzak, 33, signed to one more season at $8.15 mil, and who had a 6.15 ERA and another -0.4 WAR last season. So far that's -0.8 WAR we‘ve picked up.
  • right-hander Gerson Bautista, 23, who pitched a bit in mid-April and the end of May before being sent back to the minors. Small sample size: 5 games, 4.1 IP, 12.46 ERA, -0.3 WAR. Still counting at home? -1.1 WAR now. 
  • right-hander Justin Dunn, also 23, who hasn’t pitched above AA ball, where, last season, he went 605 with a 4.22 ERA.
  • And finally, the main possible upside, outfielder Jarred Kelenic, the No. 6 pick in the 2018 draft and a potential five-tool player.

So that's -1.1 WAR and two maybes. All because we can't draft well and five years ago we oversigned for Cano. 

Fuck.

I'm going to miss Cano. I was against his signing and I'm against his firing. Yes, PEDs last year. He still hit over .300. He's fun to watch. I like him. I like both of them. I get the feeling we're killing our little darlings needlessly—when the rest of our prose sucks.

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Posted at 05:47 PM on Dec 03, 2018 in category Seattle Mariners   |   Permalink  

Movie Review: The Phantom (1996)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Of all the 1930s ur-superhero reclamation projects attempted in the wake of the box-office success of “Superman” (1978) and “Batman” (1989)—i.e., Flash Gordon, Lone Ranger, and The Shadow—this would have been voted least likely to succeed. The Phantom is problematic for so many reasons:

  • He’s a white guy treated as a god by jungle natives
  • He’s considered “The Ghost Who Walks” (which is kind of spooky) yet dresses in a skintight purple suit and Robin mask (which isn’t).
  • Plus: skintight suit in the jungle? For the weight-loss?
  • Plus: purple suit in the jungle? For the camouflage?
  • Plus: the jungle? Who gives a shit about the jungle?

Review of 1996 Phantom with Billy ZaneThe Phantom was a comic strip creation rather than a comic book or radio/pulp creation, and creator Lee Falk simply tacked on 1930s accoutrement (skintight suit/mask) to the tropes of decades-old boys adventure stories (jungle, signet ring, kowtowing natives, dog sidekick). Put it this way: The Phantom was backwards-looking in the 1930s. What chance did he have 60 years later?

More: The ‘90s output of Aussie director Simon Wincer’s wasn’t exactly inspiring: “Quigley Down Under,” “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man,” “Free Willy,” “Lightning Jack” and “Operation Dumbo Drop.” It’s like a film festival in hell.

Ditto its lead. Billy Zane showed up during the second season of “Twin Peaks” and everyone went “Movie star!” Then he made one bad film after another—culminating in the 1994 Italian spoof “The Silence of the Hams,” where he plays FBI agent Jo Dee Fostar opposite Dom DeLuise’s Dr. Animal Cannibal Pizza—and everyone thought, “OK, maybe not.”

And yet, for all that, “The Phantom” isn’t bad.

How The Phantom > Indiana Jones
There’s a light, humorous touch throughout and Wincer keeps things moving. We don’t get bogged down in the tons of backstory. Wincer, or screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, even saves the majority of exposition—the 400 years of Phantoms, and the latest, Kit Walker, is the 21st—for the very end.

Was Boam its saving grace? He wrote “The Dead Zone,” “Innerspace,” “The Lost Boys,” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” so he seems to know his way around a story. He begins this one a la “Raiders of the Lost Ark”: 1930s, jungle, treasure hunters—but with bad guys seeking the treasure. It actually upends, or clarifies, a disturbing point in “Raiders.” Indiana Jones, the guy we root for, voted the second-greatest cinematic hero of all time by the American Film Institute, is actually a thief. Worse: He’s a first-world thief robbing a third-world country. He’s robbing from the poor to give to a rich university. Maybe he’s due for some revisionism.

The bad-guy treasure hunters here are led by Quill (perennial bad guy James Remar, who will always be Ganz from “48 Hrs.” to me), who berates a small native boy, makes him drive a truck across a shaky rope bridge, and claims to have killed the Phantom. (He did: the 20th, Kit's father.) In a cave deep in the jungle, they lose one man in retrieving a skull with glowing bejeweled eyes, then are pursued, not by natives as in “Raiders,” but by a white dude in a purple skintight suit riding a white horse. It’s the intro of the Phantom and it should’ve been cool. It’s not. I wouldn’t be surprised if the scene was greeted with laughter in 1996 movie theaters. At the same time, I’m not sure what else you do. Maybe not have the bad guys spooked? Since, you know, there’s nothing scary about The Phantom. He’s just a dude in a purple suit on a white horse in the jungle.

That said, the action scenes are well-done, and the rope bridge—a favorite trope of serials—makes a solid reappearance. Zane supposedly worked out for a year for the role and did such a good job they dispensed with the padded suit. It shows. Back in his skull cave, we see him sitting shirtless, and there’s not an ounce of fat on him. He looks supremely, nonchalantly dashing. I immediately thought “movie star” again.

Another smart decision: The Phantom isn’t a god to the native people but a friend. There’s no “swaying the native mind” with tricks and illusions, as in the 1943 serial. At the same time, one wonders what The Phantom does with his day. The point of the old racist Phantom was to keep the tribes from fighting; his mere presence kept the peace. What does this one do? Just wait for white assholes to show up?

Kit soon learns from an ancient text that the purloined skull is one of the three “Skulls of Tuganda,” which, when placed together, “harness a force a thousand times greater than any known to man.” The Tuganda tribe used to own all of them, but they were attacked by pirates of the Sengh Brotherhood, and the skulls were separated and lost—four centuries ago.

Immediate thoughts:

  • If the skulls were so all-powerful, how did the Tuganda tribe lose?
  • Is the force a thousand times greater than any known to man circa 1938 ... or 1538? I was rooting for the latter. The power maybe of a grenade at best. Instead of apocalypse, it went pop and fizz.

The man after the skulls is Xander Drax (Treat Williams), a New York businessman/mogul with ties to the modern Sengh. Williams plays him as a kind of broad, comic Howard Hughes. It’s mostly welcome; other times a bit much.

Did Boam include too many characters from the strip? They all have to be introduced. Not just the girl, Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson), recently returned to New York from the Yukon, but her would-be suitor, the useless Jimmy Wells (Jon Tenney), Lee Falk’s original consideration for the Phantom’s secret identity; and Diana’s uncle, Dave (Bill Smitrovich), an upright man who runs The New York Herald Tribune, and who tells Drax that they‘re running that exposé on him. Uncle Dave holds a soiree at his mansion, where we also meet Mayor and Police Commissioner, both of whom, of course, answer to Drax. As does the local mob bosses, the Zephro brothers. There’s a not bad scene where Drax gives a big speech in front of his lackeys about God being dead, America in financial ruin, darkness ruling the earth, and the opportunities in chaos. Ray Zephro (Joseph Ragno) objects. He talks about being an altar boy at St. Timothy’s and not putting up with this bullshit. There goes him. His brother, Charlie (David Proval), takes over. (Proval is mostly wasted here. You get no inkling of Richie Aprile.)

There’s also Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose all-female squadron works for Drax, and who will change sides before the end. Diana flies to Bengala to find out more about a spiderweb design (it’s the mark of the Sengh Brotherhood), but they’re forced down by Sala and her girls, and Diana is kidnapped. Enter the Phantom. Diana’s feistiness comes off a little bitchy. I.e., “Thanks, I can take it from here.” But they’re off and running.

So is the movie. At this point, it attempts, not poorly, the nonstop-action thing Spielberg perfected: From ship to plane to horse (a bit of a stretch—and ouch) to immediately being chased through the jungle by Quill and his men, guns blazing. Ultimately Phantom is helped by “the Rope People,” and he and Diana wind up back at the Skull Cave, where we’re introduced to yet another character, Capt. Horton (Robert Coleby), who tells Diana that the Sengh brotherhood is  “an ancient order of evil. They started out as pirates. Nowadays, there’s no telling what they’ve become.”

Ah ha. NAZIS.

Probably, but we never get there. Apparently three movies were planned, but when this one opened to meh reviews (42% on RT) and meh box office (sixth place opening weekend), all that was scrapped. 

Another smart thing the movie does? Gets Phantom out of the jungle. When I saw Kit Walker getting out of a cab in New York City, I got as excited as I did as a kid watching “Tarzan’s New York Adventure.” They don’t quite take advantage of it but it’s still fun: the run over the car rooftops in a traffic jam; stealing the cop’s horse; riding through Central Park and into the zoo, where, Tarzan-like, he’s apparently able to communicate with animals. Why not? Then we’re off for the movie’s final leg in the “Devil’s Vortex” (read: Triangle).

Lord of the rings
One of my favorite things about Billy Zane’s Phantom is his bemused matter-of-factness. “Your dog’s a wolf,” Diana tells him. “I know,” he responds. Here’s his first encounter with Drax:

Drax: All right, what's your name? Why do you want that skull so badly?
Kit: Kit Walker.
Drax: Huh. And who is Kit Walker?
Kit: I am.

On paper (or online) it doesn’t seem like much, but Zane nails it. He and Swanson also have good chemistry. She figures out who he is, of course—her college beau who left without saying goodbye. As Kit, he apologizes without apologizing. “My father died suddenly,” he says. “I had to take over the family business.”

The final battle in the pirate’s cove pits the three united skulls against the heretofore unmentioned fourth one: The Phantom’s ring. Guess who wins?

I’m not saying “The Phantom” is great, or even particularly good. But given all the problems with the source material, they didn’t do a bad job.

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Posted at 07:29 AM on Dec 03, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1990s   |   Permalink  
Sunday December 02, 2018

Movie Review: Movie Crazy (1932)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I watched this one night on FilmStruck (RIP) because it was a Harold Lloyd comedy and I hadn’t seen many if those. I came away thinking I didn’t particularly like Harold Lloyd. At least I didn’t like the character he plays here, Harold Hall, a kid from Kansas City who dreams of being a movie star. When the wrong publicity photo is sent to a studio head—a shot of a handsome man—he’s invited to LA for a screen test. Havoc ensues.

Is he the anti-Marx Brothers? The Marxes brought chaos wherever they went—but intentionally. They didn’t revel in the chaos or apologize for it. It just was. They just were. They popped pretensions in part because they didn’t have any.

Movie Crazy with Harold LloydHarold Hall is all pretension. He assumes he’s a great actor but isn’t. He’s well-meaning but a walking disaster area. He cares about the problems he causes but keeps causing more. He huffs, surprised, at everything.

I found most of it annoying; I found none of it funny. 

Yet I loved Constance Cummings as the love interest, Mary Sears, a movie star, who is first amused by the funny little man—she nicknames him “Trouble”—then intrigued because he doesn’t make a pass at her like every other man. But he’s too dim to know she’s also the Hispanic actress on the set—she’s made up Spanish for a role—and she uses this mistaken-identity to test him. He fails. Every time. He can’t stand up to the Spanish actress so he has to lie to Mary—the same woman. Eventually, she tosses him to the curb. Ah, but he lucks into more opportunities. Then out of them. Then he feels sorry for himself.

Example. He sees her walking into a friend’s house, writes a note and gives it to the maid, who gives it to Mary. She tears it up, writes him a note: “There is no need waiting out there. I have nothing more to say to you.” Ouch. Except she writes it on the back of an invitation to a dinner/dance at the Falcon Hotel in honor of such-and-such, and that's the only part he reads. He assumes she wants to meet him there. And there, in the hotel bathroom, he accidentally switches jackets with a magician, whose pockets and sleeves are lined with birds, mice, etc. Chaos ensues.

The big final set piece goes like this:

  • Harold enters a phone booth to make a call.
  • It’s a prop for a movie that is wheeled onto the set.
  • There, Mary’s ex tells him to leave. “If I can’t have her nobody can. I’d kill her first.” Yikes!
  • Harold objects but is ineffectual. The ex, Vance (Kenneth Thomson), mocks him, bullies him, kicks him in the shins, then knocks him unconscious into a wicker basket, closing the lid.
  • The wicker basket is wheeled onto the set of Mary’s/Vance’s picture, where the director says to keep filming the next scene no matter what.
  • Harold emerges mid-scene, he and Vance fight, and it lasts like 10 minutes, through various permutations. It’s all filmed.
  • The head of the studio sees the footage, thinks it’s hilarious, and signs Harold to a contract. Mary forgives him. The End.

Not sure why this made the Criterion collection.

“Movie Crazy” is one of the last directing credits for Clyde Bruckman, who directed Buster Keaton in “The General,” and who helped develop Laurel and Hardy as a team. He was also an alcoholic who wound up killing himself in 1955, age 60. He borrowed Buster Keaton's gun, went into a restaurant in Santa Monica, and, possibly after eating a meal he couldn't pay for, entered the restroom and shot himself. Most of his work on “Movie Crazy” was apparently done by Lloyd himself. That's one of the movie's saving graces to me, the direction—that and Cummings—since we get some nice sweeping backstage shots. 

Lloyd would only make four more movies: one in every even year of the '30s, and then “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” for Preston Sturges in 1948.

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Posted at 11:57 AM on Dec 02, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Saturday December 01, 2018

The Boss

“[Trump] has no interest in uniting the country, really, and actually has an interest in doing the opposite and dividing us, which he does on an almost daily basis. So that's simply a crime against humanity, as far as I'm concerned. It's an awful, awful message to send out into the world if you‘re in that job and in that position. It’s just an ugly, awful message. You are intentionally trying to disenfranchise a large portion of Americans.

”These are folks who are invested in denying the idea of a united America and an America for all. It's a critical moment. This has come so far to the surface, and it's so toxic. And it appears to have a grip . . . and to be so powerful . . . in a lot of people's lives at the moment. It's a scary moment for any conscientious American.“

— Bruce Springsteen, ”Beneath the Surface of Bruce Springsteen," Vanity Fair

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Posted at 07:31 AM on Dec 01, 2018 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  
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