‘The Handshake’ on Jackie's 100th
Today, Jackie Robinson would‘ve been 100 years old. He was born January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia, and moved to Pasadena, Calif., at a young age. He died at 53. I’m older than he ever got to be. One wonders how long he would‘ve lived if he hadn’t had to endure, and swallow, so much.
My friend Jerry, a great writer and better person and huge baseball fan, recently pointed me to this song by Chuck Brodsky called “The Handshake.” It's worth a listen or two or 12:
The song is about April 18, 1946, a day Jules Tygiel felt important enough to make the first story in the first chapter of his seminal book, “Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy.” It's Jackie's first day of professional MLB baseball. He's in the minors, sure, but he's the only non-white guy in the entire system. Branch Rickey had signed him, amid much fanfare, the previous October, and this was his debut. It took place at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, NJ, and all eyes were upon him. So what did he do?
- 3-run HR
- Single, SB, bluff to third, and balk home
- Single, SB
- Single, another balk home
He went 4-5, with 4 runs scored and 3 RBIs in a 14-1 Montreal Royals win. He stole two bases and got balked home twice. Astonishing, considering the pressure he was under.
Chuck Brodsky's great song is about that second at-bat. Jackie homers with two men on, and as he's crossing home plate, the next hitter, George Shuba, is waiting for him and shakes his hand. An AP photographer took a photo, and boom: It became a symbol of racial tolerance in professional sports.
This is what Shuba said about it later:
“We'd spent 30 days at spring training, and we all knew that Jackie had been a great athlete at U.C.L.A. As far as I was concerned, he was a great ballplayer — our best. I had no problem going to the plate to shake his hand instead of waiting for him to come by me in the on-deck circle.”
My favorite part of Brodsky's song is the by-the-way nature of it; the shrugging “well, that's what you do” nature of it:
It's just something that happened
It was nothing he'd planned
A guy hit a homer
So he stuck out his hand
That part almost always makes me tear up.
Fun fact: the next day, Shuba hit three homeruns. Soon enough, though, he was sent down to AA ball, and while Jackie made the Majors the following year, Shuba had to wait until ‘48 and was basically a journeyman throughout his career. Over seven years, he had nearly 1,000 plate appearances, and hit .259 with a .779 OPS. The handshake is what he became known for. When he died in 2014, this was the headline in his New York Times obit:
George Shuba, 89, Dies; Handshake Heralded Racial Tolerance in Baseball.
He didn’t mind, either. It's the part that mattered to him:
Shuba kept only one baseball memento from his playing days in his living room, the photograph of that handshake when he was a minor leaguer. He carried a print with him when he visited schools in the Youngstown area to speak about racial tolerance.
Apparently we still need Shuba's talks.
Thanks, Jackie. Thanks, George. Thanks, Chuck. Thanks, Jerry.
“It was nothing he'd planned...”
Movie Review: Something to Sing About (1937)
In “Lady Killer” (1933), James Cagney plays a NY gangster who flees to LA and becomes a Hollywood star. In “Something to Sing About,” Cagney plays a NY bandleader, Terry Rooney, who is sent to LA and becomes a Hollywood star. It was a theme.
It was certainly a theme for Cagney and other stars of the era. Most of them arrived from somewhere else and quickly became famous in a way that no one prior to the 20th century had ever been famous: worldwide. Clark Gable assumed the bubble was going to burst, and Cagney felt similar. He was a vaudeville hoofer who snagged a lead in a Broadway play, Penny Arcade, which was optioned by Al Jolson, which led to the call.
“I came out on a three-week guarantee,” he writes in his autobiography, “and I stayed, to my absolute amazement, for 31 years.”
For a time, “Something to Sing About” is a send-up of the Hollywood factory similar to what “Singin’ in the Rain” would do 15 years later: experts on diction, clothing and hairline descend on our hapless hero to “improve” him. At the same time, he's getting the brush-off from the studio. The studio mogul, B.O. Regan (Gene Lockhart, the judge in “Miracle on 34th Street”), is having contract trouble with his exotic Russian star, Steffie Hajos (Mona Barrie), and he doesn't want the same thing to happen to Rooney. So even when the rushes come back and Rooney is dynamite, Regan orders everyone to tell him he’s no good. There's a bit of a Jack Warner vibe to all this.
There are other Cagney parallels. On the last day of shooting, for a big fight scene, the stuntmen decide to really sock Rooney. Cf., “Public Enemy” director Wild Bill Wellman telling Donald Cook, playing Cagney’s brother, to really punch him.
Another possible parallel: After wrapping the film, and ready to chuck the whole crazy movie business, Rooney and his girl, Rita (newcomer Evelyn Daw), take a cruise to the South Seas. When they return they’re amazed to discover he’s a star; he’s mobbed for autographs outside a San Francisco movie theater. According to IMDb, something similar happened to Cagney:
After several supporting roles, Cagney filmed his breakout movie, The Public Enemy (1931), in early 1931. When filming was completed, Cagney returned to New York, thinking the movie would be nothing special. A few months later he was surprised to see a long line of moviegoers outside a New York theater where “The Public Enemy” was being shown. Cagney had become a star.
I say this is a “possible” parallel because I can’t find corroboration. Cagney’s autobiography makes it sound like Warners worked him nonstop—he made five movies in 1931, three in ’32, and five again in ’33. Where’s the time to let Cagney walk the streets of New York for months on end? And while he was under contract?
Anyway, because the studio badmouths Rooney, who becomes a star, I’d assumed the conflict for the rest of the movie would be trying to resign him when Rooney has all the leverage. Nope. He's ready to sign right away. The conflict is he’s now married, which the studio doesn’t want, so Rita has to pretend she’s merely his secretary. Why he doesn’t bargain better, or just walk, I don’t know. But that’s the plot for the second half: Rita chafing under the role, and Rooney having to win her back with a big song in New York.
It’s not much of a movie, and the version I saw on Amazon Prime was a bit blurry because it’s been in the public domain for a while. Grand National, the studio Cagney made it for, went out of business in 1939. It actually went out of business because of this movie. It was their shot and getting out of “poverty row” so they put a lot of money into it, but it didn’t do well at the box office. In a movie about elevating a fictional studio, Cagney helped sink a real one.
But there is something of value here.
First: I was intrigued that William Frawley was in the picture and wondered what he looked like 15 years before “I Love Lucy” began. Turns out: the exact same.
I was also intrigued that Philip Ahn was in it. I’d seen him on “Kung Fu” in the ’70s and recently (for me) in “The Shadow” movie serial from 1940. Here, he plays Ito, Rooney’s Hollywood valet, who speaks embarrassing pidgin English: “Honorable Master” and “humble servant” and the like. While bowing.
Guess what? It’s an act. Not Ahn’s, Ito’s.
At one point, Rooney is depressed, because he thinks his acting is awful, and he says something about how only Ito will talk to him and all he’ll say is “Yes, sir, please.” So Ito drops the act, speaking impeccable English, and Rooney does a double take.
Ito: My former employers felt that the accent lent a certain dignity...
Rooney: Pull up a chair. Sit down. I want to hear about this. Tell me about yourself.
Ito: I came here aspiring to be an actor.
Rooney: Uh huh. And they couldn’t mold you, huh?
Ito: They didn’t even try.
Every once in a while, in an old Hollywood movie, you’ll see a character who doesn’t play into the racist stereotypes of the day. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that actually points out the racist stereotypes of the day—certainly not in the ’30s. Even our hero doesn’t get it. Rooney thinks he has something in common with Ito—“molding” by the studio—but Ito lets him know that’s not the case with the heartbreaking line “They didn’t even try.” What’s a burden to Rooney is the opportunity Ito never got.
Indeed, when you pull back, it’s worse. We find out Rooney's real name is “Thaddeus McGillicuddy,“ but he changed it to succeed. To succeed, he has to become more like the mass. For Ito to succeed, he has to be less like the mass; he has to adapt a pidgin dialect and bow and scrape. America is telling Rooney “Be like us,” but it’s telling Ito, “Be the other thing we like; the thing not like us. Then we’ll let you eat.”
They didn’t even try. It says so much, and it’s nothing to sing about.
Tour Guide in Chief
Past occupation: Truck driver in chief.
Yesterday, The Washington Post ran a story, based on an early copy of “Team of Vipers,” a new book by former White House aide Cliff Sims. The Post's piece is all about the apparent joy Trump has showing guests around the White House—including the private residence. He likes to bring them to the Lincoln bedroom and comment on how big Lincoln was versus how small the bed is. He likes to take them to the the spot, just off the Oval Office, where Bill and Monica had their sexual encounters. Crass conversations sometimes follow. The Post leads with that tidbit but to me they bured the lead. Because we get this halfway through:
The president has also claimed to guests, without evidence, that his private dining room off the Oval Office was in “rough shape” and had a hole in the wall when he came into the West Wing and that President Barack Obama used it to watch sports, according to two White House officials and two other people who have heard him discuss the dining room. “He just sat in here and watched basketball all day,” Trump told a recent group, before saying he upgraded Obama's smaller TV to a sprawling, flat-screen one, the four people said.
It shouldn't shock by now—the pettiness of the man, and the projection of the right-wing in general: foisting their own crimes on their enemies—but it still does. This man is still president. And he will always have been president. He will always have been in the 45th spot. This idiot. This liar and racist, this spoiled five-year-old in the worn-out, grotesque 72-year-old body. This know-nothing who claims supreme knoweldge on everything. “No one knows more about tour guiding than I do.”
The Post includes this graf, which almost feels unnecessary at this point:
An Obama White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Obama does not generally respond to Trump's remarks, said that there was no hole in the wall and that Obama rarely worked in the room and did not watch basketball there.
How does the legit press cover a man this small and petty and childish? Who lies more than he breathes? They haven't figured it out.
SAG Passes Oscar a Blunt
Last night, in Hollywood, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) doled out its annual awards. For Oscar watchers, it's noteworthy because SAG winners tend to go on to win their respetive Oscars. In the last five years, among the big four awards (Actress, Actor, supportings), the Academy has agreed with SAG 18 of 20 times—or 90 percent. In ‘16, SAG went Denzel over Casey Affleck, and in ’15 it went Idris Elba over Mark Rylance. That's it. The only disagreements.
Add another. Last night, SAG chose the following:
- Lead actor: Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
- Lead actress: Glenn Close, “The Wife”
- Supporting actor: Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”
- Supporting actress: Emily Blunt, “A Quiet Place”
Since Blunt's performance wasn't nominated by the Academy, that one's already out. So, at best, 3 of 4. But I don't think it‘ll even be that. I can see Malek and Close, but Ali winning again, so soon after “Moonlight”? I’m assuming it's Adam Driver in “BlacKkKlansman,” Sam Elliott given a kind of lifetime nod for “A Star is Born,” or Richard E. Grant for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” But I‘ve been wrong before.
“Black Panther” also won the SAG cast award, which many posit as a precursor to best picture. Nope. Since they began SAG cast in ’96, it's correlated with best pic only 11 of 23 times.
Here's the recent history. Yellow highlight indicates discrepancy with Oscar.
|Year||Lead Actor||Lead Actress||Supporting Actor||Supporting Actress|
|2018||Rami Malek||Glenn Close||Mahershala Ali||Emily Blunt|
|2017||Gary Oldman||Frances McDormand||Sam Rockwell||Allison Janey|
|2016||Denzel Washington||Emma Stone||Mahershala Ali||Viola Davis|
|2015||Leonardo DiCaprio||Brie Larson||Idris Elba||Alicia Vikander|
|2014||Eddie Redmayne||Julianne Moore||J.K. Simmons||Patricia Arquette|
|2013||Matthew McConaughey||Cate Blanchett||Jared Leto||Lupita Nyong'o|
|2012||Daniel Day-Lewis||Jennifer Lawrence||Tommy Lee Jones||Anne Hathaway|
|2011||Jean Dujardin||Viola Davis||Christopher Plummer||Octavia Spencer|
|2010||Colin Firth||Natalie Portman||Christian Bale||Melissa Leo|
I was at the downtown Seattle library yesterday doing some research on an old Hollywood screenwriter when I came across the following cartoon in a 1933 copy of the The Saturday Evening Post (founded AD 1728 by Benj. Franklin). I know a bit of racial history in this country, I know the era I was in, but you still do a double-take at the combo of cutesy/kitschy and horror:
That's a Henry comic by Carl Anderson. I remember seeing them as a kid. He kind of freaked me out: bald and silent, he looked like he was made of taffy. Anderson created him in 1932, they were taken over by others in the 1940s, and kept going in some dailies until about 1990.
The magazines themselves are amazing: large, edit-heavy, often more than 100 pages, and generally trying to make sense of the world. In just one issue, June 24, 1933, you could read Dorothy Thompson's boots-on-the-ground take on the new German Socialist Party led by Adolf Hitler, along with short stories by Booth Tarkington and F. Scott Fitzgerald—who, by the way, didn't even make the cover. His name didn't mean enough in 1933 to sell the magazine. Tarkington's and Thompson's did.
But even while trying to make sense of the world, they had this one huge blind spot. In another issue, from ‘34, there’s a non-fiction piece by Mississippi author Harris Dickson, “The First Law of Farming,” that includes photos of African Americans, and captions reading, for example, “On ‘Ration Day,’ Negroes Flock to the Store, Chattering Like Happy Blackbirds.” Yes, they capitalized most words in captions back then. Maybe where Trump got it.
All of this is less to condemn the people in the past for their blind spot than to acknowledge the distance traveled. Also to wonder what our blind spot is. Because there surely is one, seen every day, which will be just as obvious to people 100 years from now.
Movie Review: Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
This movie so wants to be a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Several people, pretending to be who they aren’t, arrive in an out-of-the-way locale for different reasons, get into conversations involving long monologues, and all of this is punctuated by sudden violence and bloodshed. Oh, and writer-director Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods”) also messes with the chronology. We see Person A shot, and 10 minutes later we get it from Person D’s perspective.
Even the title: “El Royale.” With cheese?
Just doesn’t work.
I have my issues with QT but he doesn’t bore me. This bored me a little. When the movie’s main villain, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), hits the stage, holds the others hostage and plays games with their lives, all while keeping up a patter of pseudo-philosophy, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) tells him he’s boring. She’s right: He is. Imagine saying that, or thinking that, about the monologues of Col. Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds.” You can’t.
Billy Lee, by the way, is a version of Charles Manson, Darlene Sweet is a version of Darlene Love, and the El Royale is a version of the Cal Neva Resort and Casino, which was co-owned by Frank Sinatra, and which (per the name) straddled the border of California and Nevada. It’s also a version of purgatory. For most it becomes a hell. Two escape.
Want one more? The El Royale is also a version of Gerald Foos’ Manor House Hotel, which Gay Talese wrote about for The New Yorkera few years back, but which (I believe) has since been debunked. Foos claimed to have created observation areas behind ventilation slats, through which he watched and wrote about his guests for decades.
Here, it’s a hallway, accessible through the manager’s office, where you can see each room via one-way mirror. Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), pretending to be a loquacious vacuum-cleaner salesman, but in reality FBI agent Dwight Broadbeck, stumbles upon it. It’s 1969, and he’s been sent by Hoover to retrieve FBI bugs from the honeymoon suite, but discovers eight times as many as the agency left. Investigating, he finds the seemingly clean-cut concierge, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), high on drugs and asleep in his office. Then he discovers the passageway.
What are each of the guests doing?
- Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has dug up the floorboard of his room in a futile search for money he and his brother stole 10 years ago, for which his brother was killed. He’s not really a priest. (“No shit,” as Darlene says.) He’s been in prison for the last 10 years.
- Darlene is practicing for a singing gig in Reno.
- Emily (Dakota Johnson) has bound and gagged a young girl to a chair.
Broadbeck is ordered by Hoover to ignore the kidnapping but sabotage everyone’s cars. Don’t quite get this last order. Is it part of the purgatory metaphor? No one leaves? Or is another FBI team on the way? Either way, they never arrive, and Broadbeck tries to do the right thing by knocking out Emily and rescuing the girl. Two problems: Emily isn’t knocked out and kills him with a shotgun; and the girl, Emily’s sister, Rose (Cailee Spaeny), is the real problem. She’s part of a cult. Basically, she’s Squeaky Fromme, her sister was trying to get her clean, but, freed, she phones Billy Lee, who, when he arrives with armed backups, begins his dull, dancy torture games in the lobby. Like Madsen in “Reservoir Dogs”? Either way, like Darlene, I was bored.
I shouldn’t have been. Toss in the tape of a prominent but dead leader having sex in the honeymoon suite (most likely RFK or MLK), not to mention the hotel’s unseen owners (most likely the mob), as well as the late reveal that Miles isn’t just an aw-shucks kid but a former Vietnam War sharpshooter with 123 kills to his credit, and it’s a good mix of fucked-up Americana. It should be way more interesting than it is.
I did like one line. After Father Flynn discovers the passageway, and the videotape, Miles is trying to confess to him. At this point, we think the kid is just a kid who’s carried water for the mob, or whomever, and that’s what he wants to confess. Either way, the Father isn’t a Father, but Miles doesn’t know that. He’s killed 123 but has kept his innocence or naiveté—sort of like a Vietnam-era Alvin York. And we get this exchange.
Miles: I’ve done horrible things.
Father Flynn (after long look): So has everybody. You’ll be fine.
Maybe with 30 minutes cut from its 141-minute runtime, and more lines like the above, we might’ve had something.
Movie Review: The Death of Stalin (2018)
I saw “Death of Stalin” in movie theaters last spring, didn’t laugh much but liked it well enough. I knew smart people were behind it, such as writer-director Armando Iannucci, who has given us “VEEP,” “In the Loop,” and “The Thick of It”—scorching political satires that produce shock and discomfort as much as laughter. Plus, look at the cast. My god.
So when I saw it on some Top 10/honorable mention lists at the end of the year, I thought I’d give it another go. Maybe I missed something.
There’s some truth to the equation: Comedy = Tragedy + Time.
Would “We lost 19 of our best guys” have been funny on 9/12? At the same time, the Bush era war comedy “In the Loop” was funny during the Bush era. We didn’t need time to turn that tragedy into comedy. Similarly, maybe in some cases time never helps. Some tragedies are just never funny.
A lot of the humor in “In the Loop,” for example, comes out of the word “unforeseeable.” As England is following the U.S. into a Mideast war, a bland government minister on a bland British radio show says the phrase “I think war is unforeseeable” and all hell breaks loose. In general, he’s right: War is unforeseeable, since so many factors go into its creation. On the other hand, this particular war is totally foreseeable, since an unnamed U.S. administration is hell-bent on having it. But you can’t say that. So you’re left with nothing. You’re left with lies and prevarication, which is where the humor is.
We get something similar athe beginning of “Death of Stalin.” A Moscow radio station is broadcasting a Mozart concerto when the national director receives a phone call. From Stalin. Who wants a recording. Except they’re not recording the concerto. So they have to play it again and record it before Stalin’s men arrive. Except the pianist, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), refuses. She lost brother and father to Stalin, despises him, won’t do anything that might give him pleasure. The others scramble. What about a new pianist? The conductor shakes his head: “Even Stalin,” he says, “would be able to tell the difference.” The others jump on this line—even Stalin?—and he scrambles to correct himself to the recording devices that might be listening until he faints outright. Now they need a new conductor, too.
In both situations, language is used to disguise truth. The ineffectual Brit official tries to backtrack on “unforeseeable” so he won’t fall from power, while the Russian conductor tries to erase “even” so he won’t be imprisoned, tortured or killed.
The former's funnier.
Being imprisoned, tortured or killed is on everyone’s mind in the U.S.S.R. in 1953. We first see Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) perusing the latest list with Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of the NKVD, the Soviet Union’s secret service:
Beria: Oh, I put Shteyman on the list, the writer. I know you like his work, but...
Stalin: No, leave him on.
Beria: And, uh ... Shteyman 2, his wife?
Stalin: On. [Eyes twinkling] They're a couple, ain’t they?
When Beria gives the list to his men, he add this: “Shoot her before him. Make sure he sees it.”
Not exactly a laugh line.
Some of the situations are funny. Stalin dies of a cerebral hemorrhage, for example, because everyone is terrified of him. The guards are too afraid to investigate the thump in his room so he lies on the carpet all night; the new chairman, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), is too wishy-washy to call a doctor because he has no backbone; and the doctors themselves are old, young or third-rate, because Stalin has eliminated the best: they’re dead or in gulags. And even then the doctors can hardly deliver the bad news. They do what Malenkov did: rely on the group to disperse potential blame: “Following a, uh, group assessment of Comrade Stalin, we’ve arrived at the unanimous conclusion, based on a collective finding...” Etc.
I will say, with a bit of pride, that the actors who elicited the most laughs from me were American: Tambor as Malenkov, and particularly Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev. When Malenkov dithers on calling the doctor until the Politburo convenes, saying they should wait until they’re quorate, Khrushchev responds, in that exasperated tone Buscemi has used throughout his career, “Quorate? The room is only 75% conscious!”
Another LOL line: Beria, already making his move, comforts Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), with a hug and these words: “Courage, little bird. We’re here for you.” Not to be outdone, Khrushchev steps forward. Awkwardly. “Most of all, we cry for you, little ... bird.” That pause. That slight disgust on Buscemi’s face that he has to say it. Killed me.
The scramble for power after Stalin’s death quickly becomes a scramble between Beria and Khrushchev. Everyone else is just too incompetent. But Beria is a horror show—a serial murderer, torturer and rapist—which means we root for Khrushchev. Yes. In “The Death of Stalin,” Nikita Khrushchev is the hero.
There is no one else, by the way; the people are awful, too. Sons give up fathers, friends deny friends, everyone is looking to blame someone else. Plus the propaganda worked: People still mourn for Stalin. He terrorized them and they arrive by the tens of thousands to mourn him. They say whatever needs to be said to survive. Or not survive:
Prisoner: Long Live Stalin!
Guard: Stalin’s Dead. Malenkov’s in charge.
Prisoner: Long live Malenk...
[shot in the head]
It’s worth seeing but don’t expect to laugh too much. Imagine a comedy out of “Animal Farm.” Like that.
2018 Oscar Noms: Is It '89 All Over Again?
Oh, right. The Oscars. Sorry.
I actually watched the announcements being made at 5:30 AM Tuesday. I'm sick with a cold, and woke up early, so I watched. Reminded me of the days when I'd set the alarm and get in front of the TV and write down the nominees as they were being announced as fast as I could. Until I realized IMDb or Twitter or whomever could do it faster and easier; and before, as with Tuesday, I watched via livestream on YouTube.
But I felt shitty, went back to bed, got caught up in the Baseball Hall of Fame announcements, with favorite son Edgar Martinez finally getting in, and that was my focus. I was passionate on Edgar but lukewarm on the Oscars, so the post on Edgar went first. BTW: They should never do Oscar noms and Baseball Hall of Fame announcements on the same day. Spread it around, people. Save something for the other 364.
I don't know if the passionless thing is just me, either. The Oscars this year feel like in 1989. No standouts, no cohesion. I think it's going to be a bit of a mess. Maybe it already is.
Here are the nominees. “Roma” and “The Favourite” garnered the most, 10 each, and they are the two best movies up for best pic, so it works. Second-most noms are “A Star is Born” (which I can see) and “Vice” (which I can‘t). Then ... “Black Panther” with seven? Including best picture? Yes. “BP” became the first superhero film so nominated. It’s not even my favorite superhero movie of 2018. But I know I'm in the minority here. Or maybe just more outspoken.
Spike Lee's “BlacKkKlansman” came next with six noms, including one for him as director. I should‘ve known this, but, yeah, he’s never been nominated director before. It's a good make-up call for passing him over for “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X,” but I'm not much of a fan of “Klansman,” either.
BTW: These were the first two films announced:
Best picture winners are usually nominated in two other categories: directing and editing. The last time a movie won best pic w/o an editing nom was “Birdman” in 2014, and the last time without a directing nod was “Argo” in 2012. Before that, for directing, it was “Driving Miss Daisy” in 1989. It's a rarity.
Given that, which movie has the best shot?
|A Star Is Born|
It looks like “Klansman,” “Favourite” or “Vice,” but who knows? As I said, I think it's going to be one of those smorgasbord years, like ‘89, where the Academy takes a little of this, a little of that, doesn’t fill up too much on one thing, and calls it a night.
I'm curious: Has a movie ever NOT been nominated for both edit or director and still won pic?
Let's go the easy route. Since all this began in the late ‘20s, there have only been four movies that have won best pic without a director nom:
- “Wings” (1929)
- “Grand Hotel” (1932)
- “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989)
- “Argo” (2012)
Best Film Editing began in 1934, so you can discount the first two. “Daisy” was nominated for edit but lost to “Born on the Fourth of July”; “Argo” won edit. So no. No film has won best picture without at least a director or edit nom. “Panther” and “Star is Born” are out.
The split I would like? Spike Lee for best director (the way Scorsese got it for “The Departed”: as a kind of thanks for the memories) and “Roma” for best pic (because it is). Edit, I wouldn’t be surprised to see go to “Vice.” Odd movies win that one: “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (the American one). Do they usually go to violent movies? Last year, it was “Dunkirk,” which played with chronology, which is why I think “Vice” might get it. I didn‘t like the way “Vice” played with chronology but everything else is just ... not much.
What would be fascinating? 1989 was the year the Academy didn’t nominate Spike Lee or “Do the Right Thing” and then unprecedentedly gave the Oscar to “Driving Miss Daisy” without a director nom. Can you imagine if something like that happened again? This year's “Driving” is “Green Book.” The racial positions are reversed but it‘s, you know, your grandpa’s feel-good race movie. It's set more than 50 years ago, and based on a true story, in which the big-hearted white guy overcomes racism and helps teach the black guy all about black culture in a supposedly awful but actually cleaned-up version of the American South. And guess what? It was written by the white guy's son!
So can you imagine that winning best picture? Also without a director nom? And with Spike in the audience?
My ideal is a make-up call for ‘89. But I could also see a re-do of ’89.
Edgar Martinez Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame
The patient man, patiently waiting his turn.
“Thank you, sir.”
He had to wait 10 years, often with low vote totals, before a push of SABRmetric dudes, the Mariners organization and its fans, and, maybe most importantly, the pitchers who faced him—who kept calling him the toughest hitter they ever faced—all of those forces finally woke up enough old, tired baseball writers and pushed Edgar Martinez over the 75% mark and into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
YES!! About fucking time!
And Edgar's response when Jack O‘Connell, secretary-treasurer of the BBWAA, phoned to tell him the good news?
“Thank you. Thank you, sir. Appreciate the call.”
Oh my god. So Edgar. So, so Edgar.
It seems appropriate that he’s going in with three pitchers—two first-ballot guys, with one, Mariano Rivera, Mo, the first player ever to be elected to the Hall unanimously—since he owned pitchers for so long. It's like Bruce Lee needing to fight three guys because he's Bruce Lee. Even with these pitchers, who are, you know, Hall of Famers, here's what Edgar did against them:
- Mike Mussina: .307/.337/.627 (83 PA)
- Roy Halladay: .444/.474/.722 (19 PA)
- Mariano Rivera: .579/.652/.1.053 (23 PA)
The national headlines are all about Mo, of course, but that's par for the course for Edgar. He spent a career overshadowed by others, in a west-coast city that often played while the east coast slept, so many people didn't know. Hell, the Mariners didn't even know. I‘ve written about this before. When Edgar was called up for his first cup of coffee in September 1987, after hitting .329 in Triple-A Calgary, director of player development Bill Haywood said this to The Seattle Times:
“His glove is his strength. Hitting over .300 is a pleasant surprise.”
Again: That was the director of player development.
The next year, Edgar led the PCL with a .363 batting average and was awarded another cup of coffee. The Ms turned him into a yo-yo. Up and down, up and down. In 1990, Bill James wrote, “What a sad story this one is. ... Martinez has wasted about three years when he could have been helping the team.” And even then, even when it was so obvious to Bill James, the M’s didn't know. In spring 1990, manager Jim Lefebvre bragged about his new starting third baseman to The Seattle Times:
“I think Darnell Coles is going to surprise a lot of people. He knows there is no one in the wings, just Edgar Martinez to back him up. I think it is time for him to realize that he belongs at third, because to play that position you have to be an athlete. And Darnell Coles is an athlete.”
Again: That was the Mariners manager.
Yes, I‘ve written about this before. Yes, I’m repeating myself. But it's still amazing to me: “No one in the wings.” That's how the M's thought of him. That's how much they didn't know.
Hell, I didn't know, either. In that 2004 piece, I got it wrong, too. I wrote:
All but one of the .300/.400/.500 guys are in the Hall of Fame ... So does this means Edgar will go into the Hall of Fame? Probably not. His percentages are out of sight but his raw numbers aren't high enough to justify making him the first DH to be enshrined. If only he'd been able to play a few more good seasons. If only he'd been brought up earlier. If only Bill James had been running the team.
Although, in a way, I was right with the “first DH” comment. Because he's not. Frank Thomas played more than half his games at DH and he was enshrined in 2014. And it was after that that Edgar's numbers began to rise. He went from 27% to 43% to 58 to 70. He kept chipping away. He kept fouling off pitches. Yesterday, he went in with 85%. Another testament to patience. A rare instance of good coming to the good who wait.
The news was overshadowed a bit nationally but Seattle went nuts. We‘re flying the 11 flag atop the Space Needle. We’re lighting up the 520 bridge. He's our second Hall of Famer but favorite son. Edgar never complained and he never left. He just kept doing the work. And for that, Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest, have one thing to say to him.
Thank you, sir.
Rudy, Hitting the Showers
There's a kind of insane interview between Isaac Chotiner and Rudy Giuliani on the New Yorker site. A lot has to do with the Buzzfeed article last week about whether Trump ordered Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about when Trump Tower Moscow negotiations ended. We now know Cohen did lie to Congress—he told Congress the negotiations ended in Jan. 2016 when they continued until at least June 2016 and possibly into the Nov. election—but is there evidence or corroboration that Trump told Cohen to lie? That's the issue. That's where we are now.
The insane thing is how all over the place Rudy sounds. He's not exactly playing it close to the vest. He says he can only talk a minute because he needs to take a shower and then just keeps talking. That gift of gab is probably in his DNA.
He's also doing the lawyer thing: What can be charged, and what can be proven, in a court of law? It's insane that that's where we are with the president of the United States, where even appearances are supposed to matter:
Does it matter to the American people if it's true? We are living in a democracy here. We want to know these things.
That's an insane question you just asked me. I am not saying that he did it. I just told you he didn't do it. I am telling you that their investigation is so ridiculous that, even if he did do it, it wouldn't be a crime. Now, would the American people be interested in it? Of course. There's a big difference between what the American people would be interested in and what's a crime. The American people can be interested in a lot of things people conceal that aren't crimes. I'm a criminal lawyer. I am not an ethicist. And I defend people against unfair criminal charges.
We haven't begun to pay for all this.
Movie Review: Free Solo (2018)
There’s no more thankless role in movies than the wife who urges her husband away from the plot. We’re here to see the hero do X (investigate the JFK assassination, say, or fight foreigners who disparage Wing Chun), she tell him, “Don't do that, you’re breaking apart the family!” or whatever her argument is, and so we have to wait until she caves or goes away and we get to watch the hero do what we paid to see him do.
“Free Solo” contains the first non-fiction version of this thankless role I’ve seen.
The documentary by husband-and-wife team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Meru”), is about Alex Honnold, one of the most acclaimed free solo rock climbers in the world. “Free solo” means climbing without ropes, harnesses, etc. You fall, you die. He's one of the most acclaimed in the world not only because he boldly goes where no one has gone before, but because the others keep dying.
Why does Alex do it? He says he likes how focused and concentrated he has to become. I have a friend, Craig, who wrote a song in the ’90s called “Marina,” based on the T.S. Elliott poem of the same name, and which includes many of the same words. Both begin, for example, with: “What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands/What water lapping the bow.” My friend’s song, though, contains a thought not in Elliott’s poem:
I’d trade all the world and all time before me
For one pure day alive
I believe that’s Alex’s trade-off. He’s risking all time before him for one pure day alive.
Oh, there’s another factor for why he does it. There’s a portion of our brains, called the amygdala, which controls emotions such as fear; and after Alex has a brain scan we find out his amygdala is way less responsive than the norm. The fears that stimulate the amygdala in others don’t for his. Which is why he is able to do what he does.
Who knows? Maybe he free solos so he can feel as much of a thrill as we feel when we do a cannonball off the high dive.
Live long and prosper
Anyway, that’s our guy. He’s been on the cover of all the rock climbing mags, as well as The New York Times Magazine. He makes a decent living—as much as a dentist, he tells the kids in his old high school—but he lives sparingly, in a kind of junky mobile van, where he stir-fries meals and eats them with a spatula to give himself fuel for the next day’s climb. He’s superfit, with a fantastic core and fantastic balance (he does the tree pose on a tree fallen at a 45-degree angle), and with hands and fingers so strong and fine-tuned they look like they could seek out nerve endings in your neck and kill you. He looks like he could do the Vulcan neck pinch. (I wonder what amygdalas in Vulcans are like?)
He’s a good-looking kid, too. At times, I was thinking Lukas Haas grown up; other times, Jim Caviezel (“The Thin Red Line”). He’s got insanely large pupils that no one comments on. Very little of the white part, the sclera. I was reminded of Robert Durst, the accused murderer featured in the HBO doc, “The Jinx,” which is obviously less a compliment than Jim Caviezel or Lukas Haas.
As the doc opens, Alex is already at the top of his game; but he has a challenge remaining: to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite, a 3,200-foot sheer granite vertical climb that no one has ever free-soloed. Because, you know, it would be insane. Besides the 3,200 feet straight up, El Capitan has six “trouble spots,” which, in rock-climbing parlance, indicates an area where you don’t have fractions of an inch to rely upon for finger- or toe-holds; where you somehow have to vault the blank area to the other fraction-inch finger/toehold. All of this at 600 feet up, or 1500 feet up, or whatever it is; where the trees below look like tiny stalks of broccoli.
The best comment on the idea of free-soloing El Capitan comes from rock climber extraordinaire, and Alex’s friend, Tommy Caldwell:
People who know a little bit about climbing, they’re like, “Oh, he’s totally safe.” And then people who really know exactly what he’s doing are freaked out.
Chin’s camera crew follows him around as he prepares for this feat. “I’ll never be content unless I at least put in the effort,” Alex says. He also says: “I could just walk away, but I’m like, I don’t want to.”
El Capitan, though, turns out to be just one challenge Alex has to overcome. The other is the girlfriend who urges him away from the plot.
By his own admission, Alex, despite being handsome and fit as fuck, didn’t date much. He wasn’t into the long-term thing. He has some pretty fun, almost Vulcanish comments about love. But as the doc progresses, he does, in fact, have a girlfriend, Sanni, whom he met at a book-signing. She did the cheeky thing: As he signed her book, she slipped him her phone number. And because she’s cute, with a high-wattage all-American smile, complete with dimples deeper than some fingerholds he uses, they got together and became a couple.
They seem good together, and sweet, and he takes her on climbs. Not free solos—regular climbs with ropes and safety gear. Which is when Alex begins to fall. The man who never fell before is suddenly falling. It’s almost a metaphor for love if Alex seemed like somebody in love. At one point he hurts his back; in the other, he sprains his ankle. Alex never used to get injured, Caldwell says; yet here, in the summer of 2016, before he’s attempting to free solo El Capitan, it happens twice with Sanni. Is she a jinx? A distraction? No one raises such points in the doc; we, in our seats, raise them ourselves.
He tries the free solo anyway in the fall of 2016, five weeks after he sprained his ankle. Doesn’t take. In the early morning dark, he gets to the first trouble spot, “The Boulder Problem,” 600 feet up, and decides to return. The others talk about how they’d never seen Alex do that before. He seems defeated. At the same time, just think about what he’s done. He spent the morning free-soloing 600 feet—or two football fields—straight up a granite monolith. For you or I, that would be the achievement of a lifetime. To him, it’s a crushing defeat. His amygdala remains unstimulated.
That winter, he and Sanni buy a house outside of Las Vegas. Why Vegas? No one says. But now he has his own place. I love them shopping for refrigerators together, opening and closing doors on these behemoths, and Alex settling for a regular-sized model circa 1960.
But he still has his mind set on El Capitan. And the closer he and Sanni get, the more it bothers her. Early on, she’s the modern “you do you” girlfriend. She says: “If he doesn’t do this stuff, he’d regret it.” The closer it gets to spring 2017, however, the more emotional she becomes. “What if something happens?” she tells the camera in tears. “What if I don’t see him again?” And in this way, she becomes the real-life version of the wife who gets in the way of the plot.
Does she become annoying? After the doc was over, the first words out of my wife’s mouth were, “I know this is bad, but I didn’t like her much.”
That’s the moviegoer in us. Then you pull back, and you think, c’mon, she’s simply worried about what any of us would be worried about: the unnecessary risks loved ones take. Besides, she vastly improves the movie by creating a dilemma within the dilemma. She’s El Capitan, Jr.
The doc itself is beautiful, exhilarating and exhausting. I don’t do well with heights—just climbing the stairs of the Eifel Tower and looking down, my legs turned to jelly—so I could barely watch his free-solo ascent. It was like a horror movie to me. And this knowing he succeeds. Because if he didn’t, the doc wouldn’t have been made; or it would’ve been made way differently.
That said, I love the smile on his face as he passes each of the trouble spots, and, lickety split, keeps ascending. I love the joy of it. There’s humor, too. Halfway up, he crosses a flat ledge where someone’s been camped out for the night ... in a giant bunny costume. WTF? Alex breezes past him, hardly seeming to notice. One wonders which sight is actually odder: a dude in a bunny costume halfway up El Capitan, or a guy free-soloing up El Capitan? I think the bunny dude was more freaked.
Love the kicker, too. In the celebratory high afterwards, there's relief and respite for both Alex and Sanni. He doesn't have the task nagging at him and she doesn't have the worry that he might die tomorrow. And then in a post-climb interview, he talks up other challenges; maybe some free solo greater than El Capitan? And we see both the excitement in his eyes, and, in the background, her dawning realization that this isn't a one-off; that the horror will continue; that the problem isn't the plot but the man. Maybe that should be the end of every “wife urging husband away from the plot” movie. As I said, it's a thankless role.
‘Green Book’ Wins PGA Award
“Green Book,” the anodyne-yet-controversial update of “Driving Miss Daisy” with the racial positions reversed, won the Producers Guild Award, or PGA, last night in Hollywood.
What does this mean? Historically, it means the movie has a 66% chance of winning best picture at the Academy Awards. That's the numbers from this century. (See below.)
The 10 PGA nominees weren't exactly stellar anyway, since 2018 was a fairly lousy year for American movies. If I had to rank them I'd go:
- The Favourite
- A Star is Born
- A Quiet Place
- Green Book
- Black Panther
- Bohemian Rhapsody
- Crazy Rich Asians
There's a big dropoff after 1) and another big dropoff after 3). So “Green Book” winning is a kind of middle-of-the-road pick by the PGA. For an anodyne road picture.
Well, “anodyne.” What struck me when first seeing the film, which is based on a true story, is how quickly its racist chauffeur overcomes his racism. It shows up in the first act and never again. He's also not homophobic. In 1962. He also has to show the black guy black culture. All of that. He's got the biggest heart of any man out there, and guess what? The screenplay was co-written by his son! Who, oh right, had a habit of retweeting racist accusations Donald Trump made. So apparently racism is harder to overcome than Vallelanga or Hollywood would have us believe. (See also: yesterday.)
The Academy has become a bit more diverse in recent years, a consequence of the #OscarsSoWhite viral campaign, so maybe they‘ll be able to go another route. The two surest: “Roma,” which is the best pic of the bunch by far, and “A Star is Born,” which is a well-made, traditional Hollywood story by favorite son Bradley Cooper.
What an odd situation to be in. Expecting Oscar to save the day.
Here are the PGA/Oscar comparisons.
|2017||The Shape of Water||The Shape of Water|
|2016||La La Land||Moonlight|
|2015||The Big Short||Spotlight|
|2013||Gravity/ 12 Years a Slave||12 Years a Slave|
|2011||The Artist||The Artist|
|2010||The King’s Speech||The King's Speech|
|2009||The Hurt Locker||The Hurt Locker|
|2008||Slumdog Millionaire||Slumdog Millionaire|
|2007||No Country for Old Men||No Country for Old Men|
|2006||Little Miss Sunshine||The Departed|
|2004||The Aviator||Million Dollar Baby|
|2003||Lord of the Rings||Lord of the Rings|
|2001||Moulin Rouge!||A Beautiful Mind|
|1999||American Beauty||American Beauty|
|1998||Saving Private Ryan||Shakespeare in Love|
|1996||The English Patient||The English Patient|
|1994||Forrest Gump||Forrest Gump|
|1993||Schindler's List||Schindler's List|
|1992||The Crying Game||Unforgiven|
|1991||The Silence of the Lambs||The Silence of the Lambs|
|1990||Dances with Wolves||Dances with Wolves|
|1989||Driving Miss Daisy||Driving Miss Daisy|
For a time there, I would've gone PGA: Apollo 13, Private Ryan, Brokeback, Little Miss Sunshine. Better choices, all. And yes, the PGAs awarded “Driving Miss Daisy,” too.
Tweet of the Day
Upending the lives of DACA recipients and then using them as hostages for an absurd and useless wall as hundreds of thousands of government workers go unpaid is one of the most immoral polices any modern president has pursued. Can’t dance around this. It’s just awful.— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) January 19, 2019
I came across this old Milton Caniff strip on IMDb.com when I was watching the 1940 movie serial of the same name. Serial wasn't bad, considering it was a 1940 movie serial. There was racism in it, but nothing like this.
A few thoughts:
- “Chinaman” isn't even the bad part.
- “Warm up to that Chinaman”: That's the bad part. Terry, our hero, is being duplicitous from the start.
- And how does he warm up to him? He takes his “A” sweater and makes it spell “SAP.” He turns him into the butt of a joke.
- And for that, he demands a favor. God, what a dick.
- And those Chinese characters Caniff writes? They‘re not anything. The only one that’s a real character is the first: 女。It means “female.” It's generally not part of a name, and it certainly wouldn't be part of this guy's name. The others are horseshit. Like pretending Xtruioq is a word.
- But because Terry can't pronounce the Chinese guy's name (that isn't a name), he renames him. Is there a joke in the name, too? Like a pitiful sigh?
Remember: This was read by kids. Terry was a role model for kids. Next time some right-wing yahoo complains that modern athletes aren't good “role models,” feel free to bring up Terry and the Pirates.
In the rest of this Sunday strip, which you can see here, Pat, the older hero of the strip, Batman to Terry's Robin, is almost seduced by the sexy “Dragon Lady.” It's both sides of the All-American white male attitude toward the Chinese: the women are sexy and thus dangerous; the men are idiots and thus comic foils.
Roughing the Ref
The other day, Joe Posnanski mentioned something in passing—an “outtake,” in his words—during an extensive post on why Aaron Nola's 2018 stats are so incredibly good by certain statistical measures, and whether those measure are wrong or Nola's really that good (spoiler: the measures are wrong).
What he mentioned in passing was about reffing in the NFL:
The referees immediately called it an incomplete pass [in the Philly-Chicago playoff game two weeks ago] because it's not humanly possible to officiate an NFL game. I don't mean this facetiously. It is not humanly possible to officiate an NFL game. The game moves too fast, there's too much happening at once, the rules are too vague and teams work harder at breaking the rules than referees could ever work at upholding them.
Calling an NFL game is like trying to police a 42.4 mph speed limit (or maybe it's 37.3 mph speed limit) on the Autobahn if the cars were (only in specific ways) allowed to crash into each other.
Watching a different game that weekend (Seahawks vs. Cowboys), I had the exact some thought.
It was the 4th quarter, Seahawks were still down by 3, and they had the ball on their own 20 with 9:33 to go. So here we go! First pass from scrimmage, gain of six. No, wait. Penalty on us: holding. Now it's first and 20 at the 10.
So here we go! Another short pass, five yards. No, wait. Penalty on us: unncessary roughness. Now it's second and 22 at the 8.
All of that kind of killed that drive. We wound up punting, they wound up scoring (to go ahead by 10), we wound up scoring (to bring it within 2), but then flubbed the onside kick and that was the game and the season.
I‘ve spent a lifetime listening to my father yelling at the refs on Sunday afternoons in Minnesota, and I kind of did the same during that drive at a Seattle bar, but it also made me think. How many refs are there on the field? Seven? How many umps during a MLB game? Four? Six during the postseason? But think of the difference in responsibilities. In baseball, the job is basically to follow the ball. That’s really it. If a player leads off an inning with a single to right, umps won't have to look at the center-fielder or left-fielder or third baseman or shortstop; they won't factor. Just follow the ball and follow the runner.
In football, refs have to watch every single player on every single play. Even a guy across the field from where the action is. He could do something—flag!—that brings the play back. Imagine if that happened in baseball. “Sorry, Felix, that's not a strikeout; the third baseman did X while you were throwing the ball.”
I don't know how refs do it. I suppose we should stop yelling at them and take in the enormity of the task.
Longtime readers may notice there is no more comments field on EL.com. Been thinking about removing this for a while, since it was a bit clunky-looking and most people know how to contact me anyway. If you don‘t, check out the bio page or the Twitter feed.
The deathknell came from a spammer, stephane3constant, who, on Jan. 11, placed 14 comments on 14 posts that were all basically ads. Each of these had to be removed individually, which is a pain, particularly when you add in remembering exactly how to do it. That always takes me a while. So I finally said, “Enough. Tim, let’s just remove it.” Now gone.
Have to admit: I feel sorry for anyone who felt placing spam on my site would help them in any way.
Movie Review: Borg vs. McEnroe (2017)
Turns out some of my 1970s heroes were the opposite of what I thought they were.
Back then, Steve Martin seemed the hippest host of the hippest show on television; but then you read his autobiography, “Born Standing Up,” and realize what an absolute square he was. He was such a square that while others were marching for civil rights, or against the war in Vietnam, he was doing magic tricks at Knotts Berry Farm. That’s like writing online movie reviews during the Trump era.
And if there was anything we knew about five-time Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg, it was this: He was emotionless. Borg’s smiling face appeared on the cover of Time magazine in June 1980, and I remember adults commenting on how odd it looked. Borg didn’t smile. He was a tennis machine. He was an ice machine.
Not so much, it turns out.
Did anyone else think of “The Natural? At the end of that movie, Roy Hobbs, an old, hobbled man of 39, fresh from the hospital, faces a blonde-haired, strong-armed boy from the farmland. He faces his younger self, in other words. In a perverse way, that’s Borg here. The revelation—both in “Borg vs. McEnroe” and the excellent HBO documentary “Fire and Ice”—is that as a very young man Borg wasn’t ice; he was fire. He was so passionate, so determined to win, he kept running into trouble. To succeed in Sweden, he had to learn to subsume his rage. And he did. Maybe if he’d grown up on Long Island, like McEnroe, he could’ve let loose.
Did anyone else think of Philip Roth’s “The Anatomy Lesson”? In that novel, Roth’s doppelganger, Nathan Zuckerman, is a huge success, a literary lion, but he’s also just received a deathbed curse from his father and can’t write anymore. He has constant backpain—perhaps psychosomatic—and dreams of going to med school and becoming the nice Jewish doctor every parent wants. At the least, he wants a different job. At most, he wants to be a different person.
That’s Borg as the movie starts. Early on, we see him duck into a café in France to avoid fans. The man running the place doesn’t recognize him, which, given his celebrity status, not to mention his distinctive, iconic look—long hair, headband, eyes close together—was like not recognizing Ali in his prime. But it’s a relief for Borg. Hanging in the café, he pretends to be an electrician named Rune. He pretends to be his father. Anything other than being himself.
Borg, here, is not too cold; he’s too hot. The superstitions of sports fans are nothing next to him. Wade Boggs (eating chicken every lunch for 20 years because the first time he did it he went 4-4) is a piker in comparison. Borg has to do everything the same way: stay at the same hotel, ride in the same car, and on the same side, eat the same foods. All of that was necessary to get him to the top and so he has to keep doing it. Because the only place he can go from there is down. And that’s death. What does his coach, Lenert Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), say? It’s first or nothing for him. Second or third might as well be 1,000th. “When he starts losing,” Bergelin says, “it’s over.”
Excellent casting, by the way. Sverrir Gudnason is Bjorn Borg’s physical doppelganger and Shia LaBeouf is John McEnroe’s temperamental one. In a way, LeBeouf’s is beyond typecasting. He’s like meta-typecasting. It would be a joke if it weren’t so perfect.
As doppelgangers go, Gudnason is slightly better looking than Borg and a whole lot older. He was about 39 when this was filmed. Whereas Borg in 1980—when most of this is set? After winning four straight Wimbledons and going for his fifth, and seeming like the grand old man of tennis? I was shocked when I found out. He’d just turned 24 years old. He won his first Wimbledon at 19 and his last at 24 and he retired at 26.
Anyway, that’s the dynamic. Each man isn’t quite who he seems to be on the court or in the press. McEnroe is studied and measured, Borg is seething behind his mask. He’s a bit of an asshole; he pushes everyone away. He mocks his coach. “What are you going to do—drone on about your lousy three quarter finals?” he says. Those were crowning achievements for Bergelin, but to Borg it’s not No. 1 so it might as well be nothing. “When did it stop being fun?” his girlfriend asks him. The movie, Swedish, makes McEnroe seem healthy in comparison.
They’re almost the same. They’re battling each other, sure, but they’re also battling us.
“Everyone acts like this is easy,” Borg complains privately. “You don’t understand what it takes to play tennis,” McEnroe says publicly.
Is this dynamic enough to sustain a feature-length film? Yes.
Did I want more? Yes.
Stockholm is closer to Minnesota than Long Island
I’d forgotten that McEnroe won the mythic 18-16 tie-breaking set. Borg was up two sets to one, and he had seven match points, and McEnroe beat back each one, and won the set, and forced the fifth. What I would’ve liked from the movie? A greater sense of how Borg culled up what reserves he had to win. How do you come back from that? How do you not tumble? He didn’t. Is it glorious—not tumbling—or is it part of the same psychosis? You can’t tumble because that’s death. He’s beating back death.
For what it’s worth, I was a Borg guy when all of this was going on; I hated McEnroe. I suppose I should’ve been rooting for the American, just on principle, but it wasn’t even a question. The way Borg did it, unsmiling and professional, is the way I thought you did it. It was Bud Grant and Harmon Killebrew. You didn’t celebrate when you hit a homerun or scored a touchdown, you just bowed your head and trotted the bases or back to the bench. You were almost embarrassed. In this way, Stockholm was closer to Minnesota than Long Island. Still is.
Borg won the 1980 battle but McEnroe won the war. The McEnroes of the world are everywhere now. What I thought was the norm is now a quaint anomaly. I miss it.
Quote of the Day
“If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell. He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more. Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments.”
Christopher R. Browning, “The Suffocation of Democracy,” in The New York Review of Books
Movie Review: Mid90s (2018)
“Mid90s,” written and directed by Jonah Hill, is a coming-of-age movie that took me back to my own coming of age.
It shouldn’t have. I turned 12 in the mid-70s not the mid-90s, in Minneapolis not LA, and definitely not around skateboarding culture. At Stevie’s age, I would’ve been writing and drawing comic books, not mastering moves on a board. I never wanted to be a rebel, or hang with them, particularly not anyone like Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), all wild hair and attitude and not much else—one of two leaders of a rag-tag group that hang out in a skate shop and periodically rouse the rabble.
But here’s what took me back: reaching a certain age, 10, 12, and suddenly having to navigate shit you’re supposed to know but have no clue about. It’s generally stuff about girls, and sex, or about how to act with guys. What to say, what not to say, and when. What’s cool and what isn’t. What are the rules? Where are the rules? At such moments, ignorance isn’t bliss. It can make you the butt of jokes for years.
Your shit for their shit
Here’s an example from my childhood—probably around 6th grade. My friend Dan and I were walking along 54th Street toward Little General and Rexall’s Drugs, most likely to buy comic books. I think it was winter. It always seemed like winter back then. Dan, who was the same grade as me but older by a month, and who used the cutting remark “You’re too young to understand” too often, said he had a joke. He ran thumb and forefinger along the sides of his mouth, which was puckered like a gaping fish, and said, “Blower’s cramp. Get it?” I, of course, didn’t. I knew there was something about “blowing” that had something to do with ... girls? But I didn’t know what it was. Most times I would’ve just lied; I would’ve pretended to be more sophisticated than I was. But something in the quick way Dan said “Get it?” made me think otherwise. So I said no. “You don’t?” he asked in disbelief. No, I said, what is it? Eventually he had to own up it meant nothing. “It was just a test,” he said. I had passed. For now.
That’s Stevie (Sunny Suljic) here. The movie begins with a nasty beatdown from his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). The two live in a cramped house with their single, mostly absent mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterston, just four years from playing the object of Joaquin Phoenix’s affection in “Inherent Vice”), and they all seem isolated. Ian exudes inarticulate anger. Stevie is sweet but trapped; he’s looking for an out.
Why skateboarders? Is it because they seem to do what they want when they want? Would he have drifted toward them without the beatings from Ian? Either way, he does. He lingers in the skate shop, hangs on the outskirts of their conversation. The first to acknowledge him is the youngest, Ruben (Gio Galicia), who probably wants a protégé of his own. He wants someone beneath him. When Ray (Na-kel Smith), for example, admonishes Ruben for drinking all the water from the jug and tells him to go fill it up, Ruben gives the task to Stevie—who is delighted. It’s his in. It’s the preteen boy’s crush on older boys.
Ruben is the one forever telling Stevie he failed the test. Like saying “thank you”? What the fuck, dude? That’s for fags. And the skateboard he bought from his older brother? With the ’80s cartoon figure on it? What is he—a kid? That’s for fags, too.
There are other unspoken rules Stevie is trying to navigate—specific to the gang. Who gets nicknames and who doesn’t? Fuckshit is Fuckshit because he begins so many sentences with “Fuck, shit...” Fourth Grade (Ryder McGlaughlin), who spends more time filming than skating, is a bit on the dumb side. Stevie acquires the nickname “Sunburn” because he asks Ray if black dudes get sunburned. Ruben is mortified the question is asked, then more mortified that Ray doesn’t really seem to mind it; that it leads to this nickname, which seems like a badge of honor. That’s Ruben’s role: entrée for Stevie, eyeing him with jealousy forever after.
I like how this gang of kids, which seems monolithic from the outside, breaks down into individuals the more Stevie hangs with them. Fuckshit, with his light-brown skin and blonde curly hair, is the mouthy one, the stoner, the guy ready to fight. He’s probably the most affluent, too. He rebels because he can afford to. Ray can’t. Ray is looking to see what money can be made in skateboarding. He’s looking for a way out. He’s also the wisest. In a late-movie heart-to-heart, he tells Stevie:
A lot of the time, we feel that our lives are the worst. But I think that if you looked in anybody else's closet, you wouldn't trade your shit for their shit.
Cf., Ruben. They drop him off at a motel-like place but Stevie sees him bolt down the steps after he goes up them. Meaning he doesn’t really live there? Or he does but can’t return? Or won’t? We never find out.
I particularly like this aspect of “Mid90s”: The arc of the movie is Stevie slowly fitting in with a gang that’s slowly breaking apart.
Only if you’re really interested
Does it end too quickly? Did for me. I guess that’s a compliment (we want more) but it still isn’t (it wasn’t as fulfilling as it might’ve been). The car crash is done well. Fuckshit is driving, fucked up, and arguing with Ray; and Fourth Grade, who isn’t supposed to know any better, is the one to speak up: “Could you, like, pull over?” But it’s already too late. As soon as the words are out, the car is upended, on its side, and Stevie is in the hospital. His mom arrives to see the gang asleep in the waiting area. Does she soften toward them? Should she? Then the boys go into the room. They talk. Fourth Grade brings his movie, his video of them. They watch it.
It ends in a vacuum but in a way it began there, too. Did Stevie have any friends before? Usually when you make the leap to a new group, particularly a planned leap, as Stevie does here, there’s at least a friend you leave behind. We get no inkling of this. It’s just his abusive older brother, his absentee mom, and him. No friends, no school, no nothing. Kayla in “Eighth Grade” was like this, too. Don’t any junior high kids have friends as they make the leap toward older, cooler friends?
That said, I really love this movie. I think of the scene where the gang skateboards between traffic down the middle of an LA hill in the magic-hour light, with the Mamas and Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” on the soundtrack. The scene is reprised near the end with just Stevie and Ray, after their heart-to-heart, and to Morrissey’s “We’ll Let You Know”:
How sad are we?
And how sad have we been?
We‘ll let you know
We’ll let you know
Oh, but only if, you're really interested
The magic hour is gone, and what light is there is bruised. It’s aching.
I was spending my Saturday night like the rebel-rouser that I am, trying to translate a 30-year-old Chinese song called “Chichi dedeng” (“Foolishly waiting” is the best I can come up with), when I came across this post on Twitter that made me just stop everything:
He is https://t.co/1pFpQG9ynM— Ted Boutrous (@BoutrousTed) January 13, 2019
In case you don't know: Ted Boutrous is one of the top appellate lawyers in the country. He works for the law firm Gibson Dunn, whose biggest name is probably former solicitor general Ted Olson, who repped Bush in Bush v. Gore and Citizens United in the Citizens United decision. So not exactly leaning left. Boutrous isn't that, and he's been a vocal social media and legal opponent of Trump since the get-go, but he's a respected attorney for a respected firm. He wouldn't make random public charges about anyone, let alone a vindictive president of the United States. This feels new. This feels real.
Here's the beginning of the WaPost piece by Greg Miller:
President Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including on at least one occasion taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials, current and former U.S. officials said.
Read the whole thing.
Trump is denying everything, of course. One day the truth will out. That day feels closer and closer.
Quote of the Day
“I think Edgar's one of the 50 greatest hitters who ever lived.”
Joe Posnanski on Edgar Martinez in his series on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot this year. It's Edgar last year before the BBWAA. Looks like he has a chance to make it. In Pos' piece, there are even nicer quotes on Edgar from pitchers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera. Slouches, all.
Edgar, waiting his turn.
‘Lin-Manuel Miranda Liked Your Reply’
I was working late the other night, occasionally distracted by the usual social-media suspects when I came across this on Twitter: one of my guys commenting on one of my other guys.
Every day I come to this platform to say the same blessed things as this great heart, binding me in fellowship to every other sacred soul in our glorious human drama. And then some pratfalling fuckstumble tries to tell me what he really thinks and my words just end up different. https://t.co/LdlCtTpeV9— David Simon (@AoDespair) January 8, 2019
I love that Simon called Miranda “this great heart.” I also love “pratfalling fuckstumble,” but that's par for Simon's course. The creator of “The Wire” is also the creator of the best epithets in social media. Or anywhere, really. He's a Mozart in the arena.
Anyway, I responded with the obvious: “We need you both.” I was kind of thinking “The Enemy Within,” the fifth episode of “Star Trek” TOS, when Kirk gets split in two—the kind that bleeds and the kind that cuts—and how each needed the other. Mostly I was thinking how both men are heroes to me. We need both to help keep us sane and interested and honest and engaged.
Very quickly I got this.
So my year is done. I can't ask anything more of it.
OK, maybe if our pratfalling president fuckstumbled his way out of office. I could dig that, too.
The 2017-2018 lineup, back in 2009.
I remember a time when we didn't have any living ex-presidents.
I was a kid, and, in quick order, Eisenhower (March 1969), Truman (December 1972) and LBJ (January 1973) all died. Obviously JFK and FDR were dead, too, and the dudes before FDR (Hoover: 1964; Coolidge: 1933), so we were left with no living ex-presidents, just one living president: President Fucking Nixon.
Then our roster of exes began to grow:
- 1974: Nixon
- 1977: Ford
- 1981: Carter
- 1989: Reagan
- 1993: H.W. Bush
At this point we had five. In ‘94, Nixon took the dirt nap. That left four. But in 2001, we added Clinton to bring the team back to five.
During W.’s terms we lost two more: Reagan in 2004 and Ford in 2006. That left us with three:
Carter, H.W. Bush, Clinton
W. was added in 2009, Obama in 2017, and H.W. left us at the tail end of last year. The current roster:
Carter, Clinton, W. Bush, Obama
What's startling is that since that moment when I was 10 when we had no ex-presidents, no Democratic ex-president has died. Meaning the roster of exes is mostly Dems.
And in the news today?
Trump just claimed that former PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES have privately told him that he's doing things they should have done re: the border. Seems highly unlikely this ever happened and should be pretty easy to verify.— Robert Maguire (@RobertMaguire_) January 4, 2019
As it was. Another lie. Shocking.
Anyway, it's nice to have ex-presidents. I hope we get to add to the list soon. Like this year. Or this month. Or this week. Or yesterday.
Quote of the Day
From 1947's “Le Diable souffle” (“Woman of Evil”), written and directed by Edmond Gréville. More on Gréville here.
Oa·kum /ˈōkəm/ (n): loose fiber obtained by untwisting old rope, used especially in caulking wooden ships.
2018 DGA Nominees: Why one of these movies will be the Oscar winner for best picture
The Directors Guild Awards (DGAs) for 2018 feature film were announced yesterday:
- Bradley Cooper, “A Star is Born”
- Alfonso Cuaron, “Roma”
- Peter Farrelly, “Green Book”
- Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman”
- Adam McKay, “VICE”
For newbie Oscar watchers, this is how it works. Generally, the director that wins the DGA also wins the Oscar's best director, and usually that picture wins best picture. There's been some fumbling of handoffs on this recently but overall it holds. Since 1948, when the DGA began handing out this award, there's been a 75% chance (55/71) that the DGA's directorial achievement is the Oscar's best picture.
Related question: How likely is it that one of the above films isn't our ultimate Oscar winner for best picture?
Not bloody likely, as Jerry once said.
Yes, in that first year, 1948, the DGAs didn't nominate Laurence Olivier for best director for “Hamlet,” which went on to win best picture. And in 1989, the DGAs didn't nominate Bruce Beresford for best director for “Driving Miss Daisy,” which went on to win best picture.
And that's it. Two of 71. 97% chance. So unless something shock occurs, one of the above is our 2018 Oscar winner for best picture.
Among those, I'd vote “Roma” early and often. “A Star is Born” and “Green Book” have good shots, I believe. “Vice” and “BlacKkKlansman”: probably not.
UPDATE 90 MINUTES LATER: OK, “Green Book” is out.
Movie Review: They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
The light bulb went off for me when I saw “Road to Perdition” starring Tom Hanks in 2002. At one point, Hanks’ character, a Chicago mobster, drives through downtown Chicago circa 1931, and it’s not a backdrop, and they’re not filming in neighborhoods that evoke the era. Through computer technology, they resurrected the past. “Oh,” I thought, “CGI isn’t limited to sci-fi futuristic stuff. It can restore history.”
In a more immediate way, director Peter Jackson has done that here.
In 2014, Imperial War Museums, a British institution, asked Jackson if he could create a documentary for the centenary of the end of World War I, Nov. 11, 1918. The museum had 100 hours of footage from the 1910s and 600 hours of interviews with surviving war vets from the ’60s and ’70s. To hear him tell it—in a half-hour “making of” doc that follows this 99-minute doc—he mulled it over for a while. He didn’t want to do it unless he could do something new.
The footage was silent, of course. It was old, scratched, and some of it was just copies of copies. Like most films of the era, it also looked comically sped-up. Our current standard is 24 frames per second. The standard back then was 16 frames a second, but Jackson soon discovered it wasn’t even that simple. Many film cameras were hand-cranked, so the speed depended upon how fast the cameraman twirled the lever. In order to bring them up to the current standard and look natural, each film had to be adjusted individually.
Ultimately, he and his team at Wingnut Studios tried an experiment: How good could they make a segment of film if they cleaned it up and adjusted the speed? And how about if they colorized it? Jackson is against colorizing movies generally, but that’s an artistic integrity argument; here, he wanted to see the men as they saw themselves.
The result is astonishing. It's the past restored.
Not in Kansas anymore
The title of the documentary comes from the fourth stanza of Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen,” about the men who died during World War I:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
According to IMDb, Jackson switched up the “grow not old” line to avoid a Yoda-ish cadence, but it also makes it more of a declaration, doesn’t it? It makes it more of a crime. Political leaders and emperors ensured that millions would not grow old; Jackson and his team brought them back to life.
Immediate thought as I was watching: Can we do this with other footage of the era? Baseball movies? Chaplin films? I assume we can. It’s just a matter of time and money and will. Mostly money. It just depends how much we care about the past. (Answer: not much, sadly.)
Some of the shots are truly astonishing: horses killed; men dying in trenches, covered in insects. Also the ordinary: the look upon soldiers as they realize they’re being filmed. As Jackson says in the post-doc, film was such a new medium, and the act of filming so rarely seen, that they didn’t know what to do. The tendency was to do what one did with photography: stand still. Waving at the camera wasn’t a thing yet. “Hi, mom,” was half a century away.
One young man—you can see him in the trailer—turns to his comrades and says with a smile, “Hey boys, here it comes. We’re in the pictures,” then laughs, and the work that went into that little bit, and all the audio in the doc, is equally astonishing. First, Jackson hired lip readers to figure out what was being said; then he and his team researched which outfit was what, and where its men were from; then he hired voice actors from that region.
As in the trailer, the movie begins with a small black-and-white box that expands until it fills the entire screen. But the footage is still a bit choppy, and it’s still in black and white. it’s only when we arrive at the battlefield that the full effect takes place—that we enter into their world. It’s like “The Wizard of Oz” in this way, but an Oz of blunt reality rather than fantasy.
With such a technological feat as this, so beautifully realized, and done pro bono, it would take a real asshole to quibble with it.
Here I go.
Again, from IMDb:
It was a deliberate choice not to identify the soldiers or battlegrounds as that would ground the film in too many facts and slow it down. Instead, the desire was to make this about the experience of being a soldier.
I think this was a mistake. Individuals, and individual stories, are lost. Everything becomes part of the mass. It’s like reading an oral history that’s been stripped of who stays what, and when, and with no overarching narrative. I’m a detail man; I wanted the details rather than the generalities. The details that Jackson worked on technologically should‘ve been worked on narratively.
I get, too, that Jackson had 600 hours of commentary to choose from, and he wanted to fit in what he could; he wanted us to hear their voices. But the narration winds up feeling somewhat relentless. I wanted a little more silence. I wanted to absorb more of what I was seeing. Ironic, given these are silent films.
A long way to Tukwila
Even so, if you have the opportunity to see “They Shall Not Grow Old,” don’t hesitate. It’s being parceled out in movie theaters—a week’s showing here, a day’s showing there, so blink and you miss it. Next show in Seattle is apparently January 21. No, not starting January 21. Just January 21. In December, Patricia and I drove all the way to Tukwila to see it; Seattle theaters were already booked.
I’m glad there’s such interest. Most of us forget the past too quickly; Americans are particularly bad at this. Jackson and his team have put it right in front of us. They’ve made ghosts of long ago seem you like or me. We’re in the pictures.
The New York Times has a piece on how the Florida panhandle suffered through Hurricane Michael in October and is now suffering through Hurricane Donald and his partial government shutdown. Many in the panhandle, who reliably vote Republican, rely on the federal government for jobs. Now they're looking at a potential abyss caused by the guy they voted for.
The jaw-dropping part of the article is the ending quote from a federal prison employee:
“I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this,” she said of Mr. Trump. “I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”
Obvious follow-up: “Who did you want him to hurt?” Was it even asked?
- Outgoing chief of staff John Kelly says the man responsible for the “zero tolerance” border policy that separated families was Jeff Sessions. Kelly says the White House was surprised by it but doesn't say anything on why they didn't immediately push back. Also stuff about the wall. Old news.
- Robert Horton's 10 best/worst movies of 2018. I don't necessarily agree but I like the way he says it.
- Dave Barry's review of 2018. Wasn't pretty, kids.
- I am still in love with “Ben Franklin's Song” by the Decembrists, via Lin-Manuel Miranda. What I didn't know? The Ben Franklin Institute wrote about it!
- Via The New York Times, photographer Li Zhensheng tries to make the Chinese remember its recent past—specifically the Cultural Revolution.
- Good Q&A with Jena Friedman on the latest Louis CK controversy. Good because it's tempered. She acknowledges both the faults and the genius of the man. In the new routine that has people up in arms, secretly recorded and posted by others, she acknowledges that stand-up is a process. Exactly. To me, this is like people getting angry at an author over a rough draft that someone stole off his desk.
- Chris Rock is kind of funny on not being able to be funny anymore.
- Elina Shatkin makes a list of complaints about the things Millennials are supposedly putting out of business through lack of interest—including Buffalo Wild Wings, Applebee‘s, Hooters, golf and breakfast cereal—and says, “You go, kids.” Then she offers up a few other targets.
- Recommending again the New Yorker piece on how Mark Burnett revived Donald Trump’s sad career with “The Apprentice,” setting up our current predicament.
- From the same issue: the Trump-Merkel contretemps. The horror of what Trump is blithely ending. How it may end the world as we know it.
What Liberal Hollywood? Part 101
“We‘re just so divided right now. Even in the identity of Hollywood as being the liberal place, when you’re in Hollywood, you know that's not all true. In fact, if you look at Ronald Reagan, he was not liberal, Clint Eastwood not liberal, Arnold Schwarzenegger not liberal. If you look at most action stars, in fact, they‘re not liberal. And they go on to politics.”
Peter Farrelly, director of “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary,” speaking to The Daily Mail at the Golden Globes ceremony, where his latest film, “Green Book,” won best comedy/musical, even though it's neither.
I‘ve been saying it for years from a product (movies, TV) perspective. And it’s true of the community itself, too? Jesus. BTW: Farrelly says it, the Mail, a dirty, conservative rag, repeats it, but conservatives will still push the “liberal Hollywood” meme because there's too much money and divisiveness in it for them not to. In a way, they want both. They want the scapegoat, and they want Hollywood to be theirs.
Movie Review: Aquaman (2018)
Hey, it’s not awful! Why isn’t it?
The first and biggest reason is Jason Momoa. He’s handsome, built like a rock (or The Rock), and he’s got a fun recklessness in his eyes. You imagine him as someone who most comes alive when doing dangerous things.
The second reason is the hero’s journey. OK, so it’s a stupid hero’s journey. Arthur Curry/Aquaman begins it a hero (single-handedly rescuing Russian sailors from a hijacked submarine), and ends it with a dull job (King of Atlantis), and the only reason he succeeds is because of weaponry. In the 1981 bomb, “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” the title character, recovering from an attack, is shooting his pistol but keeps missing the target; so Tonto suggests using silver for his bullets since silver is pure. My father back then: “Who knew the Lone Ranger used silver bullets because he was such a lousy shot?” You can ask a similar rhetorical question here: Who knew Aquaman needed his gold trident because he couldn’t win a fair fight with his half-brother?
Overall, too, Aquaman’s heroic journey is less journey than treasure hunt. Go here, do this, which will tell you to go there and do that, which will tell you ... etc. Arthur Curry’s journey takes him from the Sahara Desert to Sicily to the middle of the Atlantic and then through a wormhole to a pristine beach at the center of the Earth. What, you thought the center of the earth was fire and lava? Nah. More like Maui.
Something else that makes “Aquaman” not horrible? The villain isn’t exactly wrong. (Cf., “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Incredibles 2.”) Yes, Orm (Patrick Wilson), the next would-be ruler of Atlantis, makes it seem surface dwellers are attacking Atlantis in order to justify a war. But his first act is to create tidal waves all over the world that wash up all the garbage we dumped in the ocean. We get our trash back. Not a bad move. The movie should’ve lingered more on this garbage. It should’ve been food for thought as we shoveled popcorn into our pieholes, then dropped the buckets onto the sticky theater floor.
To the story. In 1985, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman, CGIed well), queen of Atlantis, washes up on the rocks of a Maine lighthouse and is rescued by its lighthouse keeper, Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison of “Once Were Warriors,” CGIed creepily), who nurses her back to health. Love and a child follow. But then soldiers of Atlantis find her, and she returns to the sea in order to keep secret her half-human kid. She's killed anyway for the transgression. The boy grows up motherless.
He also grows up to be Jason Momoa, all buff and tatted and half-fish. He can communicate with underwater creatures—demonstrated in a great scene at an aquarium when two boys try to pick on him and a giant shark almost breaks through the glass to take them on. An even better scene? He and his dad at a bar, and four or five toughs gather around asking if he’s “Aqua boy.” He stands and confronts them: “Aquaman,” he corrects. An ass-whupping seems imminent. Instead, the lead tough asks, “Can we get a selfie?” Then we see a series of selfies from the evening as men and Aquaman get deeper and deeper into their cups.
After that, the tidal wave, and the appearance of Princess Mera (Amber Heard), who wants AM to return Atlantis to reclaim his birthright and end the war. Doesn’t go as planned. He’s seen as an interloper, a bastard, and a mongrel. Orm challenges him to a duel, defeats him, and only doesn’t kill him because Mera springs into action and the two escape and begin their treasure hunt to get the original trident of Atlantis. So Aquaman can win the fight.
A few questions at this point:
- Why Maine? Momoa is from Hawaii, Morrison from an island in New Zealand. Why not one of those? Because the filmmakers needed cold and gray? Because cold and gray is cooler? Dudes, I live in Seattle. That shit ain't cool.
- What’s with all these kingdoms in comics? Why no democracies? Asgard, Themyscira, Wakanda, Atlantis. If they’re all so advanced, how come they're relying on kings and queens? Or are we wrong?
- And who’d want to rule Atlantis? Those dudes are assholes. I haven’t heard “half-breed” shouted so much since Cher sang it.
- And what’s with the hair? Millennia ago, Atlanteans were surface dwellers; then a power surge sank their kingdom and gave them the power to adapt. Yet everyone kept hair? Underwater? Is no one evolving? Is that why no democracy, either?
Another question: Shouldn’t they get weaker away from water? Like when walking in the desert? That’s part of the heroic journey but neither Aquaman nor Mera seem to suffer at all.
Just before the war with the crustaceans
In the center of the earth, Aquaman is reunited with Moms, who, sure, was destined for execution; but she survived. AM then gets the trident, and they all return for a giant battle Orm has started with ... no, not us. Not yet. It’s with the crustaceans. Yeah, doesn’t make sense in the movie, either. In the midst, Aquaman and Orm fight again, this time Aquaman wins (natch), but he shows mercy and spares Orm’s life (natch). And Arthur Curry is crowned the new King of Atlantis.
Wait, since Atlanna is alive, shouldn’t she be the ruler? Or is Atlantis a patriarchy on top of all its other problems?
“Aquaman,” directed by James Wan (“Saw,” “The Conjuring”), is monumentally stupid, but it has something. I guess it’s personality, which, as Jules said, goes a long way. The one thing the DC universe has done well—really the only thing it’s done well—is casting: Cavill as Superman, Gadot as Wonder Woman, Momoa here. Now if they can just work on literally everything else.
Aquaman, Freddie Mercury Rule Box Office
Worldwide, “Aquaman” already rules the DCEU.
“Escape Room” is the No. 1 movie of the year! It's also the only movie of the year:
It's a seasonal tradition, like Christmas and bad Mariners trades. For some reason, one horror flick (always just one) is released during the first weekend of the year, so for a week, and sometimes longer, it's the No. 1 movie of the year. “Escape Room” did so-so biz in this regard. A year ago, “Insidious: The Last Key” grossed $29. In 2012, “The Devil Inside” grossed $33. $18 is about average. The one thing these horror flicks have in common is they‘re all forgettable.
“Escape” is first for the year but finished second for the weekend—to the third weekend of “Aquaman,” which added another $30 million to bring its domestic total to $259.7. In the DC Extended Universe, it’s ranked fifth of six, beating only “Justice League.” Domestically, that is. Worldwide it's already No. 1, having grossed $681 overseas for a worldwide total of $970. It's the fifth biggest movie of the year, surpassed only by “Avengers,” “Black Panther,” “Jurassic” and “Incredibles.”
Back home, in places 3 though 6 for the weekend, are the same movies that have been battling each other for the spoils since Dec, 19: “Mary Poppins Returns,” now at $138.7 ($258 worldwide); “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” now at $133.8 ($275 worldwide); “Bumblebee” with $97 ($287 worldwide); and Clint Eastwood's “The Mule,” with $81 ($81 worldwide).
What's not faring well? “Holmes and Watson” at just $29 after two weeks. Odd release date. The weekend after Christmas? At that point, everyone is itching to see the movies that were released before Christmas but everyone was too busy to see. J-Lo's “Second Act,” originally pitched as a you-go-girl job movie, and repackaged at the 11th hour as a rom-com, never had much of a first act: It's grossed $33 after three weekends. And “Welcome to Marwen,” which looked supersappyawful, and whose fucking trailers I had to endure for like six months, wasn't particularly welcome: It's at $10 mil after three weekends.
The movie with the longest legs? “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which, in its 10th weekend, pulled in another $2.4 million for 11th place. It's now at $193 domestic and—get this—$550 internationally, for a worldwide total of $743 million. Holy crap, I had no idea. It's now the 99th highest-grossing film of all time, worldwide and unadjusted, and eighth among 2018 releases. The only movies above it are superhero flicks and action-adventures.
In a Squeaker, National Society of Film Critics Goes for ‘Rider’ Over ‘Roma’
The Natonal Society of Film Critics issued their year-end awards last night, and here are the winners, along with runners up. I like that they gave you the point totals for each, too. Would be interesting if the Academy did the same.
- Olivia Colman (The Favourite) – 36 points
- Regina Hall (Support the Girls) – 33
- Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) – 27
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
- Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) – 47
- Elizabeth Debicki (Widows) – 37
- Emma Stone (The Favourite) – 24
- Ethan Hawke (First Reformed) – 58
- Willem Dafoe (At Eternity's Gate) – 30
- Ben Foster (Leave No Trace) – 25 and John C. Reilly (The Sisters Brothers, Stan & Ollie) – 25
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:
- Steven Yeun (Burning) – 40
- Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) – 35
- Brian Tyree Henry (If Beale Street Could Talk, Widows, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) – 32
- Roma (Alfonso Cuarón) – 70
- If Beale Street Could Talk (James Laxton) – 26
- Cold War (Lukasz Zal) – 24
- The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin) – 47
- Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty) – 27
- The Favourite (Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara) – 24
- The Rider – 44
- Roma – 41
- Burning – 27
- Alfonso Cuarón (Roma) – 60
- Lee Chang-dong (Burning) – 22 and Chloé Zhao (The Rider) – 22
BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM:
- Roma – 44
- Cold War – 34
- Burning – 30 and Shoplifters – 30
BEST NON-FICTION FILM:
- Minding the Gap – 35
- Shirkers – 31
- Amazing Grace – 24
FILM HERITAGE AWARD:
- To the team of producers, editors, restorers, technicians, and cineastes who labored for decades to bring Orson Welles's The Other Side of the Wind to completion for a new generation of movie lovers.
- To the Museum of Modern Art for restoring Ernst Lubitsch's 1923 film Rosita, starring Mary Pickford.
SPECIAL CITATION for a film awaiting U.S. distribution: A Family Tour (Ying Liang, Taiwan/Hong Kong/Singapore/Malaysia).
Closest race was best actress and best film. One wonders if “Roma” might‘ve won its best pic if it also wasn’t up for best foreign-language film.
Still need to see “The Rider.” P and I saw “Minding the Gap” yesterday. I went in thinking it was about daredevil skateboarders. Nope.
Here are the past winners from the Natonal Society of Film Critics, so you can see if you agree much. I tend to, give or take a Godard:
|2004||Million Dollar Baby|
|2007||There Will Be Blood|
|2008||Waltz with Bashir|
|2009||The Hurt Locker|
|2010||The Social Network|
|2013||Inside Llewyn Davis|
|2014||Goodbye to Language|
Trying to clean up my desktop this afternoon, I came across a spreadsheet labeled “NYR-2018” and wasn't sure what it was.
I opened it up and went, “Oh, right: New Years Resolutions from last year.” It looked like this:
That's as much as I tabulated. Eight days. I kept doing this stuff, but the goal, the resolution, was to tabulate it in order to encourage myself to do it every day. At least situps and Chinese. Plus one of the three: running, walking, biking. But ... poof.
Some small comfort in case, on Day 5, you're already having trouble with your 2019 resolutions.
PGA Noms Show Diversity, Not Much Else
Poster collage via Nathaniel at Film Experience.
The Producers Guild announced their top films of 2018 yesterday, and it's not exactly inspiring:
My fave of the group is “Roma” (oddly, the only one whose review isn't up), followed by .... whoosh. Not sure. Maybe “The Favourite”? Then, in no order, “Star,” “Quiet,” “Vice,” Green.“ All have issues but better than ”BlacKkKlansman,“ which has bigger issues. ”Panther“ is an OK superhero flick, ”Rhapsody“ is a below-average music biopic and ”Asians“ is a below-average rom-com.
But it is diverse.
Is that enough? I look at this list and think: weak year. Or maybe I‘ve just been cranky for 12 months.
A year ago, the PGA noms went:
The Big Sick
Call Me By Your Name
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I would take 5-6 of these over every one of this year's noms save ”Roma."
Fear of a Blacklisting
Patrick Radden Keefe's must-read piece in The New Yorker, “How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success,” is, as you gather from that title, mostly about how we wouldn't be in the precarious situation we‘re in without the Mark Burnett-produced reality show, “The Apprentice,” which restored and burnished the career and the image of the oft-bankrupt Donald Trump. Hell, in some ways, it created that image. And, god, the lengths they had to go to to make him seem like an intellilgent and intelligible human being. Reading, you think, it’s not just “sad”; it's a fucking crime.
And I didn't even mention Trump's mobsters reference yet.
Anyway, amidst all that, there's the following quote that made me flash back to all the whiny conservative complaints about how they can't be all whiny and conservative in Hollywood for fear of a “liberal McCarthyism.” Never mind Jon Voight, never mind Kelsey Grammer. Never mind that the real blacklist in Hollywood in the 1940s/50s was the result of collusion between right-wing and often anti-Semitic forces in the U.S. Congress (HUAC), the FBI, Hollywood (the MPA) and business (Red Channels); these guys feel bad because they can't wear their MAGA hats to a table reading for “Fresh Off the Boat.” Cry me a river. If you want to make America great again, learn some fucking history.
Here's what made me think of that. Is Burnett, the man who gave us Donald Trump, and who is still a Trump friend, on the outs in Hollywood? The opposite:
He had now achieved such a level of power that, even in reflexively liberal Hollywood, his association with Trump was discussed mostly in whispers. Many people who spoke to me for this piece would not do so on the record, citing fears of being blacklisted.
I assume they mean blacklisted by him and his shows and his production company. Only a few, like Tom Arnold and Jimmy Kimmel, have spoken up or out. It points out the lie of “liberal McCarthyism.” There's no collusion, per the real Hollywood blacklist of the ‘40s and ’50s; there's just individual tastes, and everyone is worried about stepping on the toes of the powerful—whether they‘re on the left or the right.
It’s not criminal, it's just sad.
Movie Review: The Perils of Pauline (1914)
Well, “spoilers.” If you haven’t seen it yet, that’s kind of on you.
I doubt many people who are alive have seen the original “Perils of Pauline,“ but most everyone knows the title. It’s part of the culture. It was a huge hit that propelled the career of Pearl White and made serials a staple for decades. And it introduced us to the term “cliffhanger,” even though the serial doesn’t have traditional cliffhangers. Chapters don’t end with Pauline yelling, “Help! Help help!”; they end happily for the heroine, with the villain thinking “Curses, foiled again!” But Pauline hung from a cliff in one episode, and the name stuck.
It’s been remade several times—in 1933 and 1967—but I think I was introduced to the concept via the 1969 Saturday morning cartoon show “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop,” whose plot, unbeknownst to me, was taken directly from the 1914 original: Pauline’s legal guardian keeps trying to kill her so he can get her money. You know: the usual kids fare.
Pauline also remains oblivious, not to mention incurious, as to who is trying to kill her. She’s a bit of a dim bulb. That’s one of the annoying things about Pauline.
Actually, there are many annoying things about Pauline.
Tom and Daisy
I mention “the 1914 original” but that’s not quite correct. When “Pauline” was released in the U.S., it was 20 chapters long. A shortened nine-chapter version then made its way through Europe in 1916. That’s the one I watched because it’s the only one that still exists. Imagine that. Europe suffered two world wars but managed to hold onto someone else's movie history; we, uninvaded, lets ours slip through our grasp. World wars are nothing next to a disposable culture.
The plot is simple. Harry (Crane Wilbur), the son of a rich man, wants to marry his father’s ward, Pauline (Pearl White), but she begs off, wishing first for “a life of adventure.” So the rich man, Sanford Marvin (Edward José), promises her an inheritance, then puts his secretary, Koerner (Paul Panzer, who looks a bit like Rod Blagojevich), in charge of it. When she and Harry marry, she‘ll get the dough. Or he will.
Of course, Koerner—who was originally called Raymond Owen but became Germanic in France during WWI—isn’t who he appears to be. From the title card:
“Koerner, a man with a tainted past, has wormed his way into a position of confidence as Mr. Marvin’s secretary.”
I love the insinuation: His past is tainted so he’s automatically untrustworthy in the present. And he hasn’t done a good job as secretary; he’s wormed his way in. Was he already thinking nefarious deeds? Initially, he just seems like a guy doing his job. But then an old comrade, the evil Hicks (Francis Carlyle), shows up and blackmails him. Then the old man dies, Koerner gets bupkis except trustee of Pauline’s estate, so Hicks more or less whispers in his ear: “If you can manage to dispose of her, you’ll gain control of all her property.”
Hicks sets everything in motion, but, oddly, he’s not around for long. Each chapter begins with a new plot to kill Pauline but increasingly it’s only Koerner doing the plotting. And in the end, only Koerner finds his just desserts. Hicks? I don’t recall seeing him after the third chapter.
So what exactly are the perils of Pauline? She’s...
- trapped in a runaway balloon
- bound and gagged in a burning house
- bound and gagged in a flooding basement
- kidnapped by bandits, then Indians, then made to undergo “the race of the Great Stone of Death”
- left alone on a boat with a bomb on it
- adrift on a boat used as Gunnery target practice
She also enters a motor race and a steeplechase, tries to fly in an airplane, and helps rescue a submarine from foreign sabotage.
There’s great irony throughout. The “life of adventure” she wants is mostly created by Koerner in his various plots to kill her. Of the above, she only initiates the motor race, the steeplechase, and the trip out West. Otherwise, she’s just hanging around the mansion, waiting. For what? Mostly to not marry Harry. I get the feeling she doesn’t really like him.
Yet it’s mostly Harry to the rescue. He discovers the bomb on the boat and the snake in the flower basket. He rescues her from the burning house by riding up on a white horse (there’s that trope), and lassos her out of the way of a big boulder rolling downhill toward her (there’s that trope). After she manages to halt the runaway balloon by dropping anchor and then scaling down onto a rock cliff, Harry climbs up to meet her. She responds, “I’m dizzy, Harry. You’ll have to carry me down!”
Wait, I thought you wanted a life of adventure.
Both of them are kind of awful. With the plane, he delays her arrival on the airfield, which prevents her from flying with famed aviator Wilson Smith. Instead only he is killed—in a plane sabotaged by Koerner. No one blinks an eye. Neither she nor Harry wonder about all the attempts on her life. They’re like Tom and Daisy in “Gatsby”: careless people who smash up things and then retreat back into their money and vast carelessness.
It wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure it out, either: all evidence points to Koerner. He’s got motive—the money—and he’s the one forever suggesting these life-threatening escapades. In Chapter 5, “A Watery Doom,” a band of gypsies (yes) dressed as firemen (sure) tie a bound-and-gagged Pauline and Harry in a cellar, which is then flooded by a nearby river. They report back to Koerner: “All is over!” Does Koerner play it tight to the vest? Not exactly. He celebrates by arrogantly firing the butler: “I am the master here now and I no longer require your services!” So, when Harry and Pauline turn up alive, why didn’t the butler say anything? “You know Koerner fired me while you were gone. He said he was the master here. He seemed to think you were both dead.” Instead, oblivious to the end.
Make that oblivious past the end. In the final chapter, on Harry’s yacht, Pauline points to a motorboat and says, “Harry, I should like to go all alone for a short cruise.” She does but Koerner puts a hole in the boat. When she realizes she’s sinking, she bites her fist, then rows to the target practice boat. When she realizes it’s being shelled, she puts a note in the collar of her faithful dog (there’s that trope), who swims to the gunnery. Pauline is saved! Which is when Koerner finally gets his comeuppance. By Pauline? By Harry? Nope. Just some guy. He saw the sabotage, fights Koerner and tosses him in the water. We see Koerner clinging to a log; then he’s underwater and his hands are clawing the air (there’s that trope). Then the end.
That’s right; They never find out. Instead, Pauline just agrees to marry Harry, and the two live obviously ever after.
Tune in tomorrow
There’s a lot of racism, of course, Indians and gypsies and probably worse which didn’t make the French cut (see slideshow). In the Indian camp, at one point, Pauline is declared a “fair goddess,” which results in happy dancing and kowtowing. “Our deviner has predicted your coming,” a warrior tells her. “You are the white girl who was to spring forth from the ground to lead the warriors of our tribe to victory.” So there’s that trope.
I like the oddities that resulted from—I imagine—translating title cards from English to French back to English: a reference to Pauline’s “immoral” strength, for example. The balloon ride at Palisades Amusement Park is said to cost $500. That would be more than $12K today. Francs, right?
In his book, “Classics of the Silent Screen,” Joe Franklin says ”The Perils of Pauline“ is the film ”that put serials on the map.“ They‘re still on the map—just hidden. They were replaced by television in the 1950s, then rebooted as single features with A-production values by nostalgic directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in the 1970s. That’s what ”Star Wars“ was, and ”Raiders of the Lost Ark.“ Our long national rollercoaster ride began here.
A lot of future movie tropes can be seen in ”The Perils of Pauline.“ Example: The heroic man on the horse, and the woman saying, ”They went thataway!" But the biggest trope of all was the damsel in distress.
As here, from gypsies.
And here, from Indians.
Much of the serial is dress-up: Pauline as Indian and race car driver; as aviatrix and scuba diver.
Translating from English to French and then back to English led to some good, garbled title cards.
I guess there is a kind of strength in immorality.
Even when they get it right it's wrong.
Some of the racist stereotypes didn't make the French cut. But the French did like the Indians and gypsies.
Particularly the gypsies.
Here's our villain. Initially named Owen, he was renamed Koerner in France during WWI, and bears a passing resemblance to disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.
He gets his.
While Harry gets his: Pauline, rescued again, is finally ready to marry.
Obliviously ever after. *FIN*
The American Idea
“You know, I love Ireland, I'm a proud Irishman. Ireland is a great country, but it's not an idea. America is not just a country; it's an idea.”
— Bono, front man of U2, as related by U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), in Jeffrey Toobin's article, ”Adam Schiff's Plans to Obliterate Trump's Red Line,“ in the Dec. 24/31 New Yorker.
The obviously follow-up is ”What's the idea?" To me, it's the opposite of almost everything Donald Trump stands for. The idea is that you come here and within a generation you are American. That doesn't happen in almost any other country. We are a microcosm of the world. If we can make it work here, the world has a chance.
Movie Review: VICE (2018)
I had high hopes for “Vice” after seeing the trailer a few months ago. Hopes were dimmed after certain reviewers slammed the movie for not being critical enough of the Bush/Cheney era; then they were buoyed again when author Rick Perlstein and former terrorism czar Richard Clarke weighed in positively via social media:
Just watched VICE, the Cheney movie. I thought it really was Cheney and not Christian Bale. And I used to work with Cheney. An amazing job. Sam Rockwell as W was also spot on. Only a great script and acting could tell this story. #VICEmovie— Richard A Clarke (@richardclarke) December 27, 2018
Sadly, I’m with the critics. “VICE” feels disjoined from the start and never quite finds its stride. It keeps lurching. It begins in 1963, catapults us to the White House Situation Room on 9/11, then back to Cheney’s drunken, ne’er-do-well days in ’63. From there, it mostly stays chronological but with a few, odd jumps back into the Bush White House. Like the scene where’s he’s eating a Danish and jokes about eating healthy? And then it’s back to whatever it was—the ’70s or’80s? What the fuck?
The narrative innovations that felt effortless, charming and clarifying in writer-director Adam McKay’s previous film, “The Big Short,” feel forced here—like Naomi Watts showing up as a faux Fox News broadcaster. The worst may be the narration that frames the movie. The narrator is Kurt from Pennsylvania (Jesse Plemons), who says he’s close to Cheney. Almost related, he says. The big reveal is that Kurt (RIP) is Cheney’s 2012 heart donor. That’s the connection. It adds nothing.
12 years a turnaround
What did I learn about Dick Cheney watching this? That he was a Yale dropout with a drinking problem who had his share of bar fights and DWIs. The impetus for straightening up and flying right was his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), who lays down the law to her deadbeat husband: Make something of yourself because, as a woman in 1963, I’m not allowed; make something of yourself or I’m gone. So he does. Boom. In fiction, this kind of turnaround would make me roll my eyes, but it works here because: 1) we know where he’s heading, and 2) Amy Adams just nails the scene.
Twelve years later, Cheney is White House Chief of Staff. Wow. How the fuck did that happen?
It’s kind of a blur, but basically Cheney (Christian Bale, outstanding) becomes a congressional aide and then rides the coattails of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell), portrayed here as outgoing, jovial, ribald—and at odds with Nixon’s men. This turns out to be a boon. Since he’s not an inside man, since he’s physically relegated to Belgium, he’s untainted by Watergate. As a result, after Nixon resigns and Nixon’s men go to prison, there’s not many top GOP guys left, and Ford taps him as chief of staff. When Rummy becomes Secretary of Defense, it’s Cheney’s turn. He’s only 34.
Looking at pictures from the period, they probably make Cheney too fat too fast, but maybe they had to; maybe he was still too handsome otherwise. It really is astonishing that the man who played Batman so well could play Dick Cheney even better.
Is height a problem? Bale is listed as 6’ while Cheney is 5’ 8”. Meanwhile, George W. is 6’ but the man who plays him, Sam Rockwell, is 5’ 8”. It’s all reversed. Combine it with Bale’s bulk and Rockwell’s wispiness and Cheney seems to dominate Bush all the more. It works metaphorically but probably too much. I imagine W. stood his ground now and again.
The movie implies the Cheneys expected Ford to win in ’76, which is odd, since he was polling behind from the get-go. It suggests Cheney was a dull candidate for U.S. rep who probably would’ve lost if he hadn’t had a heart attack, which allowed Lynne to campaign dynamically in his stead. As Wyoming’s sole U.S. rep from 1979 to 1989, it shows us various nefarious votes he cast—such as against making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. That’s true; he voted against in 1979. It’s also misleading since he voted in favor of it in 1983 when it passed. To use the Rovian nomenclature, he flip flopped.
I like the false end-credits sequence in the middle of the movie, in which Cheney and wife live out the rest of their days in Virginia, raising golden retrievers. But then the phone call. There’s a lot of these “If not for this, history would’ve been different” moments, but the movie ignores the biggest. Why did Bush 41 tap Cheney, the House Minority Whip, for defense secretary? In the movie, it just happens. But Cheney wasn’t Bush’s first choice—former U.S. Sen. John Tower (R-TX) was, but he got shot down by his Senate colleagues because of allegations of drunkenness and adultery, and the Bush team needed a clean candidate. Despite the DWIs, that was Cheney. More irony: I remember Dems back then crowing about defeating Tower, but two things happened as a result:
- Dick Cheney was catapulted to national prominence
- Newt Gingrich became House Minority Whip
Thank you, sir, may I have another?
Much of the movie feels like a primer on the era and may be necessary for people who didn't live through it or weren't paying attention: Bush v. Gore, Cheney’s power grab, 9/11, run-up to Iraq, the Iraq war, the torture of Iraqis, Fox-News, etc. chest beating. The movie crystalizes a lot of what went wrong in this country: right-wing money leading to right-wing think tanks leading to right-wing policies which are trumpeted by right-wing propaganda machines—creating a world in which the rich get richer and most of us got screwed. And most of the screwed keep voting for the screwers.
I like that McKay shows us the consequences of our actions. Nixon decides to bomb Cambodia and we see shots of a Cambodian village—before and after. A similar instance with Iraq is overdone—Bush’s twitching leg beneath the Oval Office desk tied to the twitching leg of the terrified Iraqi father under the table—but cutaways to scenes of torture of Iraqi prisoners are truly powerful.
The Valerie Plame affair is a blip: referenced, gone, along with Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk). Rumsfeld’s firing, too, seems to take place in a vacuum, but it was a direct consequence of the GOP losing the midterms in 2006. Would the movie have been better to have focused on one or two of Cheney’s relationships? Maybe just Rumsfeld? The student becoming the master and betraying his former master? As is, it’s scattershot. It’s warm family man vs. cold, calculating pol. The more he moves into history, the more unknowable he becomes.
Bale, at least, is monumental; I can’t recall an actor nailing such a well-known figure. That said, his decision to improvise Cheney breaking the fourth wall and giving us, in essence, Jack Nicholson’s “You want me on that wall” speech from “A Few Good Men,” feels like a mistake. Particularly where it was placed—near the end of the movie. We wind up lurching from the left-wing POV to the right with no intervening clarity. We long for a signal but “VICE” simply descends into noise. It ends with a focus group yelling at each other about, and then physically fighting over, Trump. Adam, I could get that on Twitter for free.
Something to Look Forward to in 2019
“One critical issue was the meeting at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, when the senior leadership of the Trump campaign, including Kushner, Manafort, and Donald Trump, Jr., met with a lawyer whom they had been told was a representative of the Russian government who had ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton. According to telephone records available to the [intelligence] committee, three days before the meeting Trump, Jr., made a series of calls. In the interval between one call from Russia and another to Russia on that day, Trump, Jr., spoke for three or four minutes to someone whose phone number was blocked. This raised the question of whether Trump, Jr., had advised his father of the planned meeting—which both the President and his son have long denied. Under Nunes, the committee declined to issue a subpoena to the telephone company to determine whether Trump, Jr., had been talking with his father. Schiff told me that, when he takes over the committee, one of his first orders of business will be to issue such a subpoena.
Jeffrey Toobin in his article, ”Adam Schiff's Plans to Obliterate Trump's Red Line," in the Dec. 24/31 New Yorker