erik lundegaard

Sunday February 17, 2019

Box Office: China's ‘Wandering Earth’ Soars

Boldly going where only Hollywood has gone before. 

The big box office news is the lack of it in America and the plethora of it in China. 

That’s a bit to be expected. Chinese New Year began Feb. 5 and it’s one of the most lucrative weeks for Chinese movies. Last year’s two biggest films, “Operation Red Sea” and “Detective Chinatown 2,” were both released during Chinese New Year. However, this year’s juggernaut, “The Wandering Earth,” a sci-fi thriller about a jet-propelled planet seeking a new solar system, has already surpassed them. After 14 days, it’s grossed $561 million, making it the second highest-grossing film in Chinese history. Ahead of it is just “Wolf Warrior II,” which grossed $870 million in the summer of 2017.

Meanwhile, in America, there’s no “Black Panther” to propel the box office, just the CGIed “Alita: Battle Angel”—which won the weekend with $27 mil—and a few V-Day holdovers: the anti-rom-com rom-com “Isn’t It Romantic,” which finished in third place with $14 mil, and the horrorific “Happy Death Day 2U,” which finished fifth with $10. The second weekend of the underperforming “LEGO” sequel finished second with $21 mil (for a cumulative $62, less than the first grossed in three days), while the Taraji P. Henson comedy “What Men Want” finished fourth with $10.9, for a two-weekend total of $36.

If all that sounds a bit blah, the box office reflects it. According to Box Office Mojo, it was the weakest Presidents Day weekend since 2004.

So while the disparity between Chinese and U.S. markets is to be expected, given the time of year, everything else has been exacerbated. The Chinese are getting what they’ve never seen before—high-production Chinese sci-fi—while Americans are getting same old same old and opting for other means of entertainment. Maybe they’re studying Chinese?

For anyone worried about U.S. box office, don't. “Captain Marvel” opens March 8.

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Posted at 11:54 AM on Feb 17, 2019 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  
Saturday February 16, 2019

Mild-Mannered Columnist

The other night I called to my wife from my office and asked her: “How does it feel to be married to a New York Times columnist?” When she looked confused (and maybe momentarily hopeful?), I showed her this:

“It's in a book,” I said, “so it's all true now.”

The book is “Mapping Smallville: Critical Essays on the Series and Its Characters,” and this essay, by Roger Almendarez, is called “Model Immigraton and Superman's Impossible Dream,” a title, and an essay, that feels like it needs an upgrade for our current nasty times.

Anyway, I did have an Op-Ed on the history of “Truth, Justice and the American Way” in The New York Times in June 2006. And that was that. But I appreciate the promotion, Roger. 

In fact ... Can I put this on my resumé now? “New York Times columnist”? Since it's been in a book? Doing so wouldn't be the truth but it's not far off from the American way.

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Posted at 01:19 PM on Feb 16, 2019 in category Personal Pieces   |   Permalink  

Back On

The officers of the Board of Governors for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences issued the following statement yesterday:

The Academy has heard the feedback from its membership regarding the Oscar presentation of four awards - Cinematography, Film Editing, Live Action Short, and Makeup and Hairstyling. All Academy Awards will be presented without edits, in our traditional format. We look forward to Oscar Sunday, February 24.

So once again the Academy has announced a bad idea (“most popular film,” not bringing back last year's acting winners, etc.), causing a huge outcry among its fans, and then recanted. At leat it had the sense to recant. But the fact that it had the non-sense to float these bad ideas in the first place makes me worried for Oscar's future. I think maybe they need a new Board of Governors. Or a better consigliere.

My vote, by the way, for Academy non-legal counsel would be author Mark Harris:

Kudos to everyone who objected.  

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Posted at 12:05 PM on Feb 16, 2019 in category Movies - The Oscars   |   Permalink  
Friday February 15, 2019

Quote of the Day

“Look, Sean Hannity has been a terrific supporter of what I do. . . . Rush Limbaugh, I think he's a great guy. Here's a guy who could speak for three hours without a phone call. Try doing that sometime.”

— Pres. Donald Trump during a press conference today when asked how much outside conservative voices had influenced his thinking on declaring a national emergency for a border wall. He also blamed Paul Ryan for why the wall wasn't funded when both houses of Congress were majority Republican. He also all but admitted that his “national emergency” was a sham, saying, “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn't need to do this. But I'd rather do it much faster.”

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Posted at 07:22 PM on Feb 15, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Movie Review: The Wandering Earth (2019)

The Wandering Earth movie review

WARNING: SPOILERS 

“Now it’s China’s turn.”

That’s the general gist in western articles about “The Wandering Earth” (流浪地球), China’s first big-budget sci-fi film, which is currently the most lucrative movie at the worldwide box office. It grossed $350 million in its first week; it may overtake “Wolf Warrior II” to become the No. 1 box-office hit in Chinese history. Hell, it may become the first movie in history to gross $1 billion in a single market. So watch out Hollywood. That’s the general gist.

Here’s some perspective on that.

“Wandering” is the biggest movie at the worldwide box office because: 1) China is the second-biggest (soon to be the biggest) movie market in the world, and 2) it’s Chinese New Year—新年快乐 and all that—which, for the Chinese movie industry, is like Christmas break and the first week of summer all rolled into one. Going forward, unless China allows foreign films, like Hollywood’s, to open during Chinese New Year, I assume a Chinese movie will always be No. 1 at the worldwide box office during this period.

More important: Despite that “worldwide” mantle, it’s really just China. When a Hollywood movie is No. 1 at the worldwide box office, it’s generally because the world tunes in. With Chinese movies, it’s because China tunes in. They haven’t figured out how to appeal to other countries yet. 

One suggestion? Stop insulting them.

美国在那里?
In “Wolf Warrior II,” China’s biggest box office hit, an African country suffers both civil war and an outbreak of a deadly disease, and every other country, particularly the U.S., flees. We cut and run. Only China remains. It’s a true friend. It runs toward trouble while the rest of the cowardly world runs away.

We get something similar here—albeit in outer space. There’s a million-to-one shot to save the Earth and everything human beings have ever known, and our Chinese heroes are all in favor of rolling those dice. Every other country? They just want to return to their underground homes to spend their last precious hours wallowing in grief in the arms of their loved ones. They all cut and run. Some Europeans—I believe British—also wallow in drink, while the Japanese contemplate hara-kiri; but the Chinese stand firm. It’s only when a bubblegum-blowing junior high student, Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), gives a speech about hope that the rest of the world wakes up and joins China in this million-to-one shot. Which works, of course.

As for the U.S.? We don’t seem to exist. The leader of the United Earth Government is French, one of the astronauts is a vodka-loving, patriotic Russian, and there’s a goofy, blonde-haired, wannabe Chinese Aussie named Tim (Mike Sui) along for most of the ride. But the U.S. has either dissolved into the U.E.G. or we’ve ceased to exist. Or we’re just irrelevant.

Frant Gwo’s movie is based upon a novel by Liu Cixin, a respected “hard sci-fi” writer who has won the Hugo Award (2015), the Locus (2017), and the Arthur C. Clark Award for Imagination in Service to Society (2018). “The Wandering Earth” was published in 2000; can’t speak for its hard science.

Problem? The earth is warming up. Reason? No, not that. The sun is just getting bigger and will envelope us. Solution? Turn the Earth into a giant spaceship, of course, which will propel us out of orbit and into a centuries-long journey to find another solar system. In the meantime, everyone lives underground. Some people, mostly the military, work on the surface in spacesuits.

Cut to: 17 years later. Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao), the small child of astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing of “Wolf Warrior II”), has now grown up to be a cocky teenager. He also thinks he’s a genius at driving or something; so he gets a fake security pass for him and his younger adopted sister, Duoduo, whom we first see bored and blowing bubbles in class, and they go to the surface, steal a truck, and ride off to ... what’s their plan again? Just to see the surface? Visit dad on his revolving spaceship? (Incidental thought: this Earth future has pretty lame security measures. Is it everywhere or just in China?)

Anyway, they’re arrested, tossed in jail with Tim, and are getting chastised by Grandpa, Han Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat), when their plot, whatever it was, is interrupted by the movie’s plot: Earth passes too close to Jupiter, causing earthquakes that damage Earth’s rocket boosters, and we get pulled into Jupiter’s orbit. We’re all gonna die. Our team escapes in the same stolen truck but then it’s requisitioned by the military to take some maguffin to another part of China to help with the rocket boosters.

The rest of the movie is about 1) solving the gravitational pull problem, and 2) resolving personal matters. Often at the same time.

淘气
As they travel across China, from Beijing to Shanghai to Nanjing, I was surprised that everyone is surprised by the gray frozen wasteland each city has become. It’s like they didn’t listen to the prologue. Half the movie, meanwhile, is Liu Qi’s histrionics. He blames his dad for leaving them and the military for requisitioning the truck that leads to the death of Grandpa. He wants the world to know his pain as the world is ending. He’s like an early Tom Cruise character without the gravitas. 

What a brat. I never cared for him. Or his sister. What another brat. Whatever happened to well-behaved Chinese kids? 他们不是乖孩子. They’re as bratty as Americans now. Seriously, chewing gum and blowing bubbles? What’s more American than that? Maybe that’s where America went. We got subsumed by China. First they stole our IP and then they stole our ID. They’re certainly trying to steal Hollywood’s ID. As Xi Jinping has wanted to for a while.

In a way they’ve succeeded. “Wandering Earth” is as stupid as most Hollywood blockbusters. Also more jingoistic. 

Me, I couldn’t get past the stupidity. It’s more than the kids. I’m like: “Wait, we’re smart enough to turn Earth into a spaceship but dumb enough to miscalculate on Jupiter’s gravitational pull?” Doesn’t exactly buoy hopes for the rest of the journey.

And there will be more of the journey. This thing is already nearing $500 million in China. They’ll keep going. They’ll push the Earth further and further into outer space. They’ll boldly go where no one but Hollywood has gone before.

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Posted at 09:42 AM on Feb 15, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
Thursday February 14, 2019

Threat Level I

“People do not appreciate how far we have fallen from normal standards of presidential accountability. Today we have a president who is willing not only to comment prejudicially on criminal prosecutions but to comment on ones that potentially affect him. He does both of these things almost daily. He is not just sounding a dog whistle. He is lobbying for a result. The president has stepped over bright ethical and moral lines wherever he has encountered them. Every day brings a new low, with the president exposing himself as a deliberate liar who will say whatever he pleases to get whatever he wants. If he were ”on the box“ at Quantico, he would break the machine.”

— former acting director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, in his book, “The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump,” which was excerpted on The Atlantic site. The smallness and nastiness of Trump is highlighted in particular in how angry he got that James Comey was allowed to return to D.C. on a government airplane after he was fired while delivering a speech on the west coast. Trump wanted him to twist in the wind. When all the shit finally comes out, when the astonishing smallness, nastiness and greed of this man is laid bare for everyone (even Fox News watchers) to see, all those who supported him will look like the biggest saps or the biggest traitors in our country's history. Or both.  

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Posted at 08:55 PM on Feb 14, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Connected to the President

The New York Times put together this beautiful chart after Roger Stone was indicted in January. I think I took the screen shot for social media but it's worth putting into my online scrapbook here. Tip of the iceberg? Or not even close to the tip? 

How They Are Connected to Trump: Cohen Papadopoulos Flynn Manafort Stone Patten Gates

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Posted at 07:13 PM on Feb 14, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  
Wednesday February 13, 2019

Dear Academy III

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Posted at 08:08 AM on Feb 13, 2019 in category Movies - The Oscars   |   Permalink  
Tuesday February 12, 2019

Dear Academy II

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Posted at 06:58 PM on Feb 12, 2019 in category Movies - The Oscars   |   Permalink  

Dear Academy

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Posted at 06:56 PM on Feb 12, 2019 in category Movies - The Oscars   |   Permalink  
Monday February 11, 2019

Roma and Rami's BAFTA Reunion

The “Roma” team, clutching another award, via satellite.

Yesterday, the Brits held their Oscars, the BAFTAs, and it was the usual suspects this awards season: Roma and Rami. “The Favourite” was also a favorite, being a British monarchy tale seasoned with some Greek astringency, but it didn't win Outstanding Film; it won the lesser Outstanding British Film, which still seems the saddest of categories to me. Does any other country's film awards have a special category for their own country? Do the Golden Horse Awards, for example, have “Best Taiwanese Film”? No. Just the Brits do it. A consequence of their “special relationship” with Hollywood, I suppose.

Anyway, here they are: 

  • Outstanding Film – Roma
  • Outstanding Director – Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
  • Outstanding Leading Actress – Olivia Coleman, The Favourite
  • Outstanding Leading Actor – Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
  • Outstanding Supporting Actress – Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
  • Outstanding Supporting Actor – Mahershala Ali, Green Book
  • Outstanding Adapted Screenplay – BlacKkKlansman
  • Outstanding Original Screenplay – The Favourite
  • Outstanding British Film – The Favourite
  • Outstanding Film Not in the English Language – Roma
  • Outstanding Documentary – Free Solo
  • Outstanding Cinematography – Roma
  • Outstanding Special Visual Effects – Black Panther
  • Outstanding Costume Design – The Favourite
  • Outstanding Production Design – The Favourite
  • Outstanding Editing – Vice
  • Outstanding Animated Film – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse

Thoughts: Editing for “Vice”? Good god. Also “BlackkKlansman” for adapated screenplay? They adapted poorly—going for the ‘fros of ’72 rather than the right-wing resurgence of ‘79. That’s where the story takes place and where the true story is. 

Nice win for “Free Solo”; my friend Erika is happy. 

Malek seems a shoo-in now. Glad Coleman won here and hope Glenn Close wins in Hollywood—just to end it already. Close should‘ve won supporting for “Garp” back in ’82 (over Jessica Lange, whom I loved in “Tootsie”), and then we wouldn't be in this situation. You could also say for “Albert Nobbs” in 2011 over Meryl's “Iron Lady” but that was the year Viola Davis got robbed. The first year she got robbed.

Does the “Roma” win here mean anything for the Academy? Who knows? BAFTA and Oscar's best films didn't agree at all from 2004 to 2007; then they agreed every year from 2008 to 2013; then they haven't agreed since. Nor should they. But I wouldn't be surprised if this is the year they do. There's no real option, other than “The Favourite,” which couldn't even win with the Brits. Every other nominee is problematic. A superhero movie? A shitty music biopic? An otherwise good true-life period road film in which the white guy teaches the black guy everything—including about black culture—and was written by the white guy's son?

We'll find out Feb. 24. 

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Posted at 03:08 PM on Feb 11, 2019 in category Movies - Awards   |   Permalink  

Movie Review: Boy Erased (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

At some point, I asked my wife what she thought was going to happen. Jared (Lucas Hedges) will obviously escape the “Love in Action” gay conversion therapy group, I said, and be out and proud. But what about his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe)? How will they react? Who will support him?

She: I think his mom will be OK with it; I think his dad will have a harder time.

Bingo.

At some point, I also said: I think this Cameron kid is going to die. He’ll probably kill himself.

Bingo. 

And is that really Flea? Yes. Yes, it is.

Sometimes when you know what’s going to happen in a movie you still enjoy it. Not here. “Boy Erased” is an odd, careful little movie. Way too careful.

I admire Joel Edgerton for adapting, directing, and casting himself in this movie—about a subject wholly worth dramatizing—from a true-life memoir. It just doesn’t resonate.

Fake it
BTW: If “Boy Erased” is an accurate representation of gay conversion therapy, then, ethical issues aside, simply in practical terms, gay conversion therapy is pretty fucking stupid.

How do Christian parents who don’t want their sons to be gay stop them from being gay? They remove them from their normal routines and put them in close quarters with a bunch of similarly aged boys who are also repressing every sexual urge they have. Then they make sure they don’t jack off so there’s no sexual release. There’s just sexual tension—day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute. 

Brilliant.

I don’t get the batting cage, either. I get it for the boys. It’s the dipshit version of gay conversion therapy—if there’s another kind—since it’s supposed to be about making them manly. So why bring the girls? Why mock the one girl who can’t swing the bat? By your lights, isn’t that a good thing?

The movie opens on the day Jared starts his therapy. It’s supposed to be for 12 days but he later finds out he might wind up there as long as a year. Because it might take that long or because they want the money? Does he get to decide or do his parents? Or neither? 

In there with him is the girl who can’t swing a bat and gets hit by a baseball. Her father soon picks her up, threatening legal action. There’s also the handsome kid with a cut over his nose, and, later, a black eye. No one asks where his injuries came from—not even Jared. My favorite is Gary (Aussie pop star Troye Sivan), who gives Jared the following advice:

Play the part. Show ’em it’s working. You’re getting better. [Pause] Fake it until you make it, right? You don’t want to end up in one of those houses for any length of time. I’ve heard the stories and they’re not good.

Who’s saying this? A kid with dyed blonde hair, curls on top, for whom gaydar meters ring off the charts. Shouldn’t Jared have been honest? “Wait, you think you’re fooling them? At least I can swing a bat, dude.”

Also: “You don’t want to wind up in one of those houses” seems to indicate the real drama is there; but we never get there. Instead, a lot of the movie is flashback to Jared’s two gay encounters: the first, which is near rape; the second, which is sweet. Then the accusation that reaches his parents, and the admission: “I think about men. I don’t know why. I’m so sorry.” His father, a Baptist minister who runs a successful car dealership, is so shocked by this his left eyelid twitches. Twice. You can see it in the trailer. It’s my favorite part of the movie. I don’t how Russell Crowe can do that—act that. An eye twitch? It’s on another level.

Circle jerk
Besides the batting cages, what does the therapy actually consist of? Well, the head man, Victor Sykes (Edgerton), tells the kids all the answers are in the Bible. They also do the usual gather-the-chairs-into-a-circle confessional. Then there’s role playing: You’re supposed to pretend an empty chair is your dad and say why you hate him. Jared doesn’t hate his dad, so, with the help of mom, he breaks free, but he never tells his dad why he breaks free. “Dad, they wanted me to hate you.” He never says that. He never helps his case.

Then it’s four years later, he’s living up north, and, during a visit, he finally has it out with dad: “I’m gay and I’m your son, and neither of those things are going to change,” etc. We get real-life photos of the family, learn Jared has a husband, then learn Victor Sykes also has a husband. So the warden escaped the prison, too. Next gay conversion therapy movie should probably be a comedy.  

Last summer, this had awards buzz; then everyone saw it and the buzz died. It did manage to get 81% on Rotten Tomatoes—I assume, on the strength of the subject matter. It’s a movie you’re supposed to like. I wanted to like it, too.

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Posted at 10:57 AM on Feb 11, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2018   |   Permalink  
Saturday February 09, 2019

Movie Review: Hero (2002)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I don’t have much to say about Zhang Yimou's “Hero” but wanted to jot down a few notes so I’ll know in five or 10 years that I’ve already seen it. Because I might forget.

It’s kind of forgettable.

It’s beautiful, don't get me wrong. The direction and art direction and cinematography are all stunning. Plus, as in early Hollywood, there’s a cast of literally thousands. Chinese soldiers apparently make for cheap labor. And have we had five bigger stars of Chinese cinema in the same film?

Hero movie reviewBut as a story, it goes nowhere.

It’s ancient times in China, before China was China. At this point it’s six constantly warring states, and the King of the Qin state (Chen Daoming), a murderous, tyrannical SOB, has recently survived an assassination attempt. Into his heavily guarded capital city arrives a man called Nameless (Jet Li), who has apparently killed the three attempted assassins: Sky (Donnie Yen) and the lovers, Broken Sword and Flying Snow (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung). He tells him how he did it. And with each story, he is allowed to move closer to the King.

Quickly we realize he’s probably an assassin himself. Which he is.

Most of the movie is Nameless’ stories about how he killed the others, and most of these stories are lies. They’re all in league with each other. Kinda sorta. The lovers are at odds, and Broken Sword has a disciple, appropriately named Moon (Zhang Ziyi), who is in love with him, and ... Etc. Etc.

We actually get very little of Sky/Donnie Yen. He’s in and out quickly.

The bigger point: We watch a lot of stuff that never happened, all of which leads to the moment when our titular hero doesn’t act. If you boiled it down, the movie is this:

  • A guy sits before a king
  • He tells a bunch of lies
  • He doesn’t do what he came to do
  • He’s killed
  • The End

If there was a good reason to not kill the king I might’ve liked “Hero” more, but his reasoning is both ridiculously far-sighted and chest-thumpingly patriotic. The murderous king is the man who wants to unite the six warring states into one. Nameless must let him live so China can become China. He becomes the titular hero not by doing great deeds but by sacrificing himself so China may live. 

Again, there may not be a more beautiful movie to look at: the colors, the leaves, the water, the soldiers, the actors. But it signifies not much.

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Posted at 10:22 AM on Feb 09, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  
Friday February 08, 2019

Frank Robinson (1935-2019)

Frank Robinson loomed large when I was a kid. He also seemed overlooked. It's a weird combo.

He loomed large because he was the best hitter on the best team, the 1969-71 Baltimore Orioles. He'd also been 1956 Rookie of the Year, MVP in both leagues (still the only guy to do that), and the last true Triple Crown winner in ‘66 (Yaz tied Killebrew for the HR lead in ’67, so a little asterisk there).

His team certainly clobbered my team, the Minnesota Twins, who were feared most places (see Jim Bouton's comments in “Ball Four”) but lunch in Baltimore. Two best-of-five playoff series in ‘69 and ’70 and two sweeps. Did we ever come close? I remember in August ‘71 we took our grandmother, a Black+Decker worker from Finksburg, Maryland, and a huge Orioles fan, to a Twins-Orioles game at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. The day before, Harmon Killebrew became the 10th man in baseball history to hit 500 homeruns; he hit 500 and 501 off Mike Cuellar. This game seemed like it might be a pitchers’ duel: the battling Jims, Kaat vs. Palmer. But it quickly became not that. On the first pitch, Don Buford smacked a homerun. Four pitches later, with a man on first, Merv Rettenmund smacked another. Twins lost 8-2. That's how it always felt against Robby and those guys. It never felt close. 

Robby was overlooked, meanwhile, because he wasn't Hank Aaron, who was approaching Babe Ruth's all-time homerun record, and he wasn't Willie Mays, who was so beloved he even had a cartoon biopic. Was Robby even the most feared hitter on the O‘s? For a while, that was Boog Powell. Was he even the most famous Robinson on the O’s? For a while, that was Brooks, who won the MVP in the 1970 World Series with a performance, both offensively but particularly defensively, that is still talked about. He had a niche: 16 Gold Gloves. Boog had a niche: big and strong and named “Boog,” for god's sake. Robby? I don't even remember if he was left field or right field. 

That said, the fact that there were two superstar Robinsons on that pennant-stealing team seemed way cool in a kind of ‘70s black cop/white cop TV show way. Both became first-ballot Hall of Famers. No precedent for that: teammates, with the same last name, both going in first ballot. Frank joined in ’82, Brooks in ‘83. Even here, though, Frank was, in a way, overlooked. He went in with Hank Aaron, who received 97.8% of the vote—the second-highest percentage ever after Ty Cobb. That was the story. In the headlines, Robby, with 89% of the vote, was Aaron’s plus one. 

This will strike baseball fans funny, but as a kid I got him all wrong. I always thought he was a mellow guy. I think I thought that because he seemed so composed on his baseball cards. Almost wistful. It wasn't until Ken Burns' “Baseball” in 1994 that I found out he wasn't like that at all. He was as ultra competitive as that other Robinson, Jackie. He burned. His anger made him better.

I still get him wrong. Yesterday, after news reached me of his death at the age of 83, I did the usual digging, and was surprised by how short his stint with the Orioles was. I knew it began in ‘66, because the trade—Robinson for Milt Pappas—is generally regarded as one of the most lopsided in baseball history. But I didn’t know he only lasted in Baltimore until ‘71. They traded him to the Dodgers that off-season. So his last at-bat as an O was in the 1971 World Series, Game 7, 9th inning. He popped out to short. When he arrived in Baltimore, Brooks told him, “You’re just what this team needs,” and they wound up winning the World Series that year—the first ever for that benighted franchise, which had begun as the hapless St. Louis Browns. Then they kept on winning. In the six years Frank Robinson was with that franchise, they won four pennants. In the 100+ Frank Robinson-less years, they‘ve won three. 

You know what else surprised me? Not the homers. I knew he retired fourth on the all-time HR list—behind only Aaron, Ruth and Mays—because his 586 bested Harmon Killebrew’s 573 homers, and that kind of bugged me. He wasn't even a homerun hitter. He only had one 40+ season, while Killebrew had eight. But that's the way with him. He's not there, he's not there, and then he is. Why he was so overlooked.

No, what surprised me is the WAR. Among position players, Robby is 18th all time with 107.3. He's just behind Nap Lajoie and just ahead of Mike Schmidt. There are only 17 guys ahead of him in baseball history. That's his place. That high. 

I still say I was right about the baseball cards. Just look at him.

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Posted at 04:24 PM on Feb 08, 2019 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  
Thursday February 07, 2019

Tweet of the Day

Also the accusatons against AOC are untrue. Snopes has found zero evidence to support any of it. I know, the right-wing lying again. Shocking. 

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Posted at 02:04 PM on Feb 07, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  
Wednesday February 06, 2019

Movie Review: Cold War (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

There’s a moment in this movie, about 15 minutes in maybe, that connected me in all of my American comfort with people under the yoke of Soviet domination in the early years of the Cold War.

Cold War movie reviewThe movie begins in rural Poland. Two musicians, Wiktor and Irena (Tomasz Kot and Agata Kulesza), and their handler, a Polish apparatchik, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), seek out and record folk songs from the people in the hinterlands—stuff most likely passed down from generation to generation. Then they find young singers, also from the countryside, and bring them to a school to train them in song and dance. They are putting on a show. It’s one of those endemic folk festivals we’ve all seen at some point, with colorful costumes and choreographed movements; but since it’s backed by the power of the government, which wants to celebrate “the people’s music,” and, more important, since it’s being birthed by music professionals, it doesn’t come off as kitschy. The opposite. It soars. It’s beautiful. On opening night, shocked by how good it is, Kaczmarek is busy backslapping while Wiktor and Irena bask in the glory of a hard-fought aesthetic triumph.

Then they have a meeting with Kaczmarek’s superiors in which a few suggestions are made. The show was great, they’re told. But aren’t they ways to improve it? Might they not include, say, a song about land reform? Or in praise of Stalin?

There’s a pause. And Irena fills it by pointing out the obvious: Farmers don’t sing songs about land reform or Stalin; the songs wouldn’t be authentic; it goes against the program. Wiktor says nothing. He probably understands the program has already changed. 

Irena winds up leaving the meeting—and the movie. Just like that she’s out of the picture. Shame. Agata Kulesza, who starred in Pawel Pawlikowski’s previous film, “Ida,” brings such intelligent intensity to her roles.

But that’s the scene. I’ve never lived under totalitarianism; I’ve never been involved in a meeting of such import. Yet when the bad idea is floated by powerful people, and there’s that pause, because everyone knows it’s a bad idea but no one can say that, I thought, “Oh yeah. I’ve been in that room before.”

What Cold War?
I left out something in the above. After the first performance, in which Wiktor and Irena bask in the glory of a hard-fought aesthetic triumph, she’s feeling amorous and is looking to celebrate. She’s looking at him. He’s handsome, after all, rail thin, with a stoic, mysterious demeanor that suggests past suffering, and a few strands of black hair that perpetually fall over his forehead. Good news: he’s feeling amorous, too. Bad news: he’s looking at Zula (Joanna Kulig), one of the students. A moment later, he and Zula fucking. It’s a bit of a shock—the zero-to-60 of it. No time to waste under Soviet domination. Nor in this film. Pawlikowski keeps the story moving. 

Was fucking Zula Wiktor’s plan all along? She was the only student obviously not from the hinterlands. She snuck her way in and glommed onto another girl’s folk song; then, when asked to sing one of her own, she sang a song she’d learned from a movie. She doesn’t fit with the program but he gets her in. 

Their troupe is such a success, they’re soon playing bigger and bigger venues, and cities, and wind up in Berlin—recently divided between east and west, but before the wall went up in ’62. There, Wiktor plans to escape; and he wants Zula to escape with him. What is her reluctance? That they’ll be caught? That they’ll make it and she won’t know who she is in the West? We expect complications and suspense and drama in the way of movies but there really isn’t any. He waits for her, she never shows, so he just walks across the divide and into a new life for himself as a musician in Paris.

That’s another shocking thing about the movie—the relative ease with which Cold War borders are crossed. At one point Wiktor returns to—is it Prague?—to see the troupe again, and mostly her, but the secret police pick him up. And interrogate him? Put him in a prison for 30 years? Make him love Big Brother? No. They put him on a train back to the West. You chose your side, Wiktor, they seem to be saying. Stay there.

I forget how she’s able to join him. But suddenly she’s there, too, and you wonder where the drama is. Wasn’t this about the Cold War? He works on film soundtracks during the day and plays in a jazz band at night; and one night she joins him onstage and sings this beautiful, plaintive Polish song (oh yo yo), and they’re working on a French language version, and, I mean, how could life be better? They’re Polish émigrés in a loft apartment in 1950s Paris who live creative lives—in gorgeous black and white, no less—and yet she’s miserable. She drinks, she carps, she’s mad with jealousy. There’s a great moment when in we hear Bill Haley & the Comets on the jukebox, and it’s like a comet—American rock ‘n’ roll!—and she gets up, drunk, and dances, and you sense the age difference or aesthetic difference between them. 

Anyway, they ruin themselves. She provokes, he responds; she’s jealous, then he is. Then she’s gone again—back to Poland. The Cold War is them. The battle between east and west hardly factors in. Until it does.

This Cold War
That’s another great twist. At the moment we’re done expecting the great powers to crush this relationship—to be the barrier keeping the lovers apart—we see her walking in winter in Poland next to ... is it a prison camp? She goes into a cabin and finds him there, head shaved, gaunt, all ’50s romanticism gone—more reminiscent of the Holocaust than Paris. He’d tried to sneak back into the country to be with her, and they got him. But it opens her up again. The Iron Curtain isn’t what keeps the lovers apart but what drives them back together. There’s too much freedom on the other side.

Is this a fault with the film? It’s as if it’s saying the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism are nothing next to a crazy broad.

“Cold War” is beautifully photographed and melancholic and still moves quickly. It’s only 90 minutes long and keeps surprising us. It’s nearly perfect but for that fault.

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Posted at 09:40 AM on Feb 06, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2018   |   Permalink  

Shelby County, Cont.

“Consider voting rights. In the past decade, Republicans have changed and applied electoral laws to make it harder for Democrats, especially people of color, to vote. The Supreme Court abetted these practices with its decision, in 2013, in the Shelby County case, which gutted the Voting Rights Act. The midterm elections brought home the consequences. In states around the country—especially Florida and Georgia, where African-Americans ran competitive statewide campaigns—voter suppression, in various forms, demeaned the process and may have affected the outcome.

”And what has the Trump Justice Department done about these outrages? It's encouraged them...“

— Jeffrey Toobin, on his straightforward and nuanced piece, ”Making the Case," about the confirmation hearings for William Barr for AG 

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Posted at 07:44 AM on Feb 06, 2019 in category Law   |   Permalink  
Tuesday February 05, 2019

Quote of the Day

Michael Lewis and Al Franken“I think the longer term solution is we need a presidential candidate who's not afraid to sell the federal government—and actually explain its importance and use it as a political weapon. Everybody shied away from this. I don't see why we don't have a Democratic candidate who can explain what the government is doing for people so people can nod their heads and say yeah...

”I don't think it's that hard a sell. So it's perplexing to me that no one is trying to do it. You ask me what's the solution? I think you have to show there's a political marketplace for ... reconnecting the people to their government. The government is on the receiving end of essentially a 40-year negative political campaign, and the result is that people have really distorted views about what it does and how important it is and how it does it and who the people are in it.“

— Michael Lewis, author of ”Liar's Poker,“ ”Moneyball,“ ”The Blind Side,“ ”Flashboys,“ ”The Big Short“ and now ”The Fifth Risk"—which, again, everybody should be fucking reading—in a conversation with former U.S. Senator Al Franken. Encore.

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Posted at 07:21 PM on Feb 05, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  
Monday February 04, 2019

Movie Review: On the Basis of Sex (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Based on the trailers we had to watch before “On the Basis of Sex,” I assumed I was in for a long haul. Trailers are usually matched to film—arthouse trailers for arthouse films, etc.—and the seven or eight trailers we suffered through prior to this were some of the godawfulest things I’ve ever seen.

We got that dog reincarnation flick with Dennis Quaid—sorry, the sequel to that. We got a horror flick with Isabelle Hupert as basically Jason. We got another “teens with terminal illness in love” thing. And we got not one but two pedantic Christian movies—“Overcomer” and “Breakthrough”—which is a bit odd considering our biopic subject isn’t, you know, Christian. Imagine if they’d played a trailer for a different Christian movie coming out in 2019: “Roe v. Wade,” a pro-life take on the SCOTUS decision starring every right-wing nut in Hollywood. Don’t imagine the RBG crowd would’ve been too docile for that one.

“On the Basis of Sex” turned out to be better than these trailers—or its trailer—suggested. But RBG still deserves a better biopic.

On the basis of gender
For starters, how about someone Jewish? Or at least someone who can nail a Brooklyn accent? Was Felicity Jones England’s retribution for Kevin Costner? Her accent was mostly nonexistent, and then every half hour it would come in over-the-top: loi-yah. 

But that’s not the egregious part. The egregious part is that for the sake of imagined drama, they make their protagonist, one of the great legal minds of my lifetime, a shitty lawyer. They make her someone who is in constant need of pep talks: from her husband, from colleagues, even from her 15-year-old daughter. It would be like a biopic of Willie Mays in which he’s striking out and falling on his ass all the time but manages to get it together to make that catch in the ‘54 Series. You maybe want to remind people that Willie Mays was a little better than that. He was Willie Fucking Mays. 

There’s so many false notes here; and they seem false as you‘re watching. Did RBG really run into a brick wall with the ACLU’s legal director Melvin Wulf (Justin Theroux) in trying to promote gender equality? Of course not. Is Melvin Wulf Jewish? Of course he is. Is Theroux? Of course not.

I suppose I should also complain that Armie Hammer, as Martin Ginsburg, isn’t Jewish, either, but I like Hammer in this film. Although, good god, try to be a little less gorgeous, buddy. This is the movie where he completely won over my wife. Afterwards, she talked up the look of vulnerability and helplessness in his eyes when he’s stricken with testicular cancer at Harvard Law. When he’s trying to talk RBG down after another 1950s sexist moment, as he's lying across the bed resting his head on his hand, my wife leaned over and whispered, “I have to get you pajamas like that.” “I still won’t look like that in them,” I whispered back.

Anyone else uncomfortable during the boudoir scene? When he takes off her top, and they kiss, and she jumps into his arms and wraps her legs around him? I’m like: Dudes, it’s RBG. Yes, your grandparents had sex; you don’t necessarily want to see it dramatized.

One thing that was true? Ginsburg’s secretary suggesting they remove the word “sex” from much of the original brief for Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue and replace it with the less provocative word “gender.” Which is a great factoid but kind of undercuts the title, doesn’t it? Since Hollywood went with “sex”? For a change?

I did like that we got a half-hour scene before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. I was so excited when that was going down. Plus I don’t know who cast the three judges but kudos. They looked like judges.

But so much else is so wrong. RBG didn’t have to convince Moritz in a face-to-face trip to Denver to let her take his case pro bono; he agreed by phone. There wasn’t a moot court—and a moot court isn’t a punishment anyway, as the film suggests, but a privilege any attorney trying a big case would leap at. Moreover, if there had been a moot court, she wouldn’t have acted like a deer in headlights, necessitating getting hubby on board for half the oral argument. No, he was already on board for half the oral argument; that was the plan from the start. And I doubt when they were sitting there at the 10th Circuit, trading off like tag-team partners, they wasted long, precious seconds exchanging meaningful glances as argument time ticked down.

Oh, and when she finally finds her voice at the 11th hour and tears well up in her eyes? Remember earlier in the film when all those chauvinists said women were too emotional to be attorneys? So you have RBG tearing up in court? RBG? Who wrote this thing anyway?

Would you believe—her nephew?

Marvel Team-Up
Yes. “On the Basis of Sex,” directed by Mimi Leder (“The Peacemaker,” “Deep Impact”), has one writing credit: Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew. He admits having RBG freeze in moot court and before the 10th Circuit was Hollywood dramatization. “Ruth Ginsburg never flubbed an argument in her life,” he says. What goes unanswered is why they, or he, thought her flubbing it for most of the movie was a dramatic necessity. Why not make it like Loki vs. the Hulk? Loki taunts for two seconds and then ... whammo!

According to Stiepleman, when he proposed the screenplay idea to Ginsburg, she had two requests: get the law right and get Marty right. Shame she didn’t add: Get me right, too.

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Posted at 08:11 AM on Feb 04, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2018   |   Permalink  
Sunday February 03, 2019

When the Guilds Disagree

Since the SAG Cast Award was created in 1996, there have been five years when all three guilds disagreed on feature film. This year is the fifth.

So which guild tends to win out at the Oscars? For best picture? It's a mixed bag.

Year DGA PGA SAG - CAST
2018 Roma Green Book Black Panther
2015 The Revenanat The Big Short Spotlight
2004 Million Dollar Baby The Aviator Sideways
2001 A Beautiful Mind Moulin Rouge! Gosford Park
2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Gladiator Traffic

Follow-up: Does that mean this year's best picture winner is going to be one of these three films? Most likely. There's only been one year since ‘96 when a film that didn’t win any of the guilds won best picture: In 2016, “Hidden Figures” won SAG Cast, and “La La Land” won PGA and DGA, but “Moonlight” famously won best picture. That was the other shocking thing that night at the Oscars: It wasn't just the envelope screw up; it was a non-guild winner winning best picture, which was unprecedented. 

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Posted at 08:09 AM on Feb 03, 2019 in category Movies - Awards   |   Permalink  

Cuaron Wins 2018 DGA for ‘Roma’

All roads lead to “Roma.” 

Last night, Alfonso Cuaron's “Roma” won the Director's Guild Award for feature film, which pretty much guarantees Cuaron will win the best director Oscar on Feb. 24.

This century, the only years a director won the DGA and didn't win the Oscar were in 2000, when Ang Lee won the DGA for “Crouching Tiger' but the Academy gave it to Steven Soderbergh for the already forgotten ”Traffic“; and in 2012, when Ben Affleck won the DGA for ”Argo“ but wasn't nominated for an Oscar, so, maybe as a makeup call, it went to Ang Lee for the already forgotten ”Life of Pi.“

The one thing I could see happenng? Or maybe wanting to happen? Spike Lee winning it, ”Departed“-style, for ”BlacKkKlansman,“ since he has zero best director Oscars (or DGAs, for that matter), and Cuaron has the one (for ”Gravity“). But if it was really about the film, Cuaron should win.

What's not guaranteed? ”Roma" winning best picture. It used to go: DGA winner would win best director, whose movie would win best picture. But that cord has been cut in recent years. 

Year DGA AA Director? AA Picture?
2017 Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water Y Y
2016 Damien Chazelle, La La Land Y  
2015 Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant Y  
2014 Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman Y Y
2013 Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity Y  
2012 Ben Affleck, Argo   Y
2011 Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist Y Y
2010 Tom Hooper, The King's Speech Y Y
2009 Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker Y Y

On the other hand, what else is there? Nothing I'd vote for. 

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Posted at 07:41 AM on Feb 03, 2019 in category Movies - Awards   |   Permalink  
Friday February 01, 2019

Movie Review: Flash Gordon (1980)

WARNING: SPOILERS

There is no question mark in the history of movies more unnecessary than the one that pops up before the end credits to Dino De Laurentiis’ 1980 flop, “Flash Gordon.” You know the bit. The story is done, the villain vanquished, and “The End” appears on the screen. But wait, who’s that picking up the villain’s ring? And laughing like the villain? And that’s when the question mark is added:

The End?

No, honey, this is really the end. There won’t be any sequels to this fucking thing.

There is also probably no DVD bonus feature in the history of DVD bonus features more mislabeled than the interview here with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. Someone in PR called it “Writing a Classic” and for a moment that got me excited. Wait, is Semple really going to argue that “Flash Gordon” is a classic? I gotta hear this!

Yeah, no. Semple is defensive throughout:

I don’t remember having a single meeting with anybody except Dino. In my opinion, it could’ve used some criticism. There’s no question the script would’ve been better. ... Even though it may sound a dream, “Go write it and we’ll shoot it” is not a terribly good idea.

Review of Flash Gordon 1980Semple spoke no Italian and De Laurentiis spoke little English, so a woman who worked for DDL translated the script for him. Except, says Semple, her English wasn’t great. She once showed up at his house, saw his cat, said “Nice dog.”

It gets better. During filming, De Laurentiis told Semple to visit Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione for ideas. He did. He saw him in his London mansion with a couple of Penthouse pets. “It was idiotic and insane,” says Semple, “the idea of going to Bob Guccione for ideas.”

The coup de grace: “Obviously,” Semple says, “people at Universal read the script, and nobody said it was awful.” 

Nobody said it was awful. PR-speak for: “Writing a classic.”

‘We couldn’t figure it out’
Going in, I assumed watching this on the heels of watching the original 1936 version with Buster Crabbe would make it better—the way that, say, watching the 1966 “Batman” on the heels of suffering through the 1949 “Batman & Robin” serial made it way, way funnier. Nope. Doesn’t help at all. The ’36 version actually comes off good in comparison.

I assumed this, by the way, without even knowing that Semple, who wrote “Batman ’66,” also wrote this. So what happened? Was his sense of humor gone? Did it get lost in translation? 

“Star Wars” happened.

Originally, George Lucas wanted to remake “Flash Gordon” but he couldn’t secure the rights; so he made “Star Wars” instead. Once everyone saw how much money he made, they all scrambled to put together his original idea. Semple again:

I remember Dino said one day, “We run ‘Star Wars.’” He got a copy of it. “We see why everybody go see this movie.” But we couldn’t figure it out. “Star Wars” has a certain amount of ... I won’t say realism, but, I mean, it was treated as if it was really happening. And “Flash Gordon,” in my opinion, never appears as if it actually was really taking place anywhere. I mean, Mongo was more than mythical. I mean, Mongo is straight out of an Italian comic book.

My favorite line in the above? We couldn’t figure it out. Semple, Jr., 57, and De Laurentiis, 61, couldn’t figure out why a bunch of teenage boys like me were going to see “Star Wars” again and again. “Flash Gordon,” born of greed and jealousy, was created by old men attempting to emulate something none of them understood. 

“Star Wars” had a blonde lead? Here's one that‘s more handsome. 

“Star Wars” included a respected/Shakespearean actor? Here’s a bunch of them: 

  • Max Von Sydow as Ming
  • Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin
  • Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan
  • Topol as Dr. Hans Zarkov

This actually leads to a problem. In the ’36 original, the supporting players were bit actors who mumbled or hammed it up through their roles, while Crabbe’s Flash was earnest, athletic, dynamic. You could see why he was the star. Here, Sam Jones is fine as Flash, but he’s overwhelmed by the better actors. Ming is more powerful and more merciless; Barin is stronger, angrier, tougher. In the title song, Flash is repeatedly called “savoir of the universe,” but for most of the movie Dalton wipes the screen with him.

Sadly, the plot is pretty much the same. Yes, in the original, Mongo was going to crash into Earth, while here Ming simply toys with us from afar. He creates storms and typhoons and earthquakes, then sets Earth’s moon on a collision course with Earth. Dr. Zarkov recognizes this as an attack, and he’s planning to counterattack via rocketship, but, as in the original, his assistant flees. Which is when Flash and Dale (Melody Anderson) land near him by happenstance. Rather than agreeing to help, as in ’36, Zarkov simply kidnaps them. More exactly, he and Flash fight, but Flash’s crushing blow sends Zarkov into the big red button that starts up the rocket ship and takes them to their destiny. 

Of all the changes that happened in human history between 1936 and 1980, the most visible in the movie—more than atomic energy, computer technology and space flight—is the sexual revolution. In the original, Flash was stalwart; he wasn't interested in Princess Aura no matter how often she threw herself at him—or saved him. Here, from the get go, he's checking her out. So much so that Dale nudges him. “Hey, remember me?” she says. His initial “execution” is occultish, performed by men in metal masks and hooded cloaks that seem like extras from “Eyes Wide Shut." But he's saved by Aura ... who then seduces him.  

We keep waiting for the hero to emerge. Early on, there’s an absurd scene where Flash (a professional football player rather a polo player) is tossed a football-like object and is able—for the first time—to run rings around Ming’s men. It's weird—as if he needed the football to act. Without it, he’s not much. On a tree planet, where Barin acts like a tyrannical Robin Hood, Flash is lowered into a swamp and falls into quicksand, and in Vultan’s “Sky City,” he’s forced to duel Barin. This one he finally wins, then displays his true value by showing mercy. Everyone is stunned. Everyone except us, since it was telegraphed earlier:

Aura: Every moon of Mongo is a kingdom. My father keeps them fighting each other constantly. It’s really brilliant strategy.
Flash: Why don’t they team up and overthrow him?
Aura: Team up? What does that mean?
Flash: Why don’t I show you some time.

After the duel, he gets the air jetski thing, and helps lead the final assault on Ming’s castle. The good guys win, the bad guys are killed, and Barin is declared the new ruler of Mongo. Because what could be better than a tyrannical tree lord?

Barbarella II
I should add the special effects throughout are awful—recalling less 1977’s “Star Wars” than 1967’s “Barbarella,” which De Laurentiis also produced. But even with good effects, I’m not sure how you reboot “Flash Gordon” for the modern age. It’s really just a 1920s boys adventure story to the Orient (see: Ming), set in outer space. At least they left out the Shark King.

Van Sydow is the best thing in the movie. Early on, Zarkov is trying to reason with Ming and says, “We are only interested in friendship. Why do you attack us?” and Ming responds in that cold-blooded, matter-of-fact way of Sydow: “Why not?”  

But such moments are few. Director Mike Hodges made “Get Carter” in 1971 and “Croupier” in 1998, and not much of value in between. Semple, Jr. went on to write the Broccoli-less Bond flick, “Never Say Never Again,” and the jungle disaster “Sheena” with Tanya Roberts. De Laurentiis, with or without his translator, went on to produce some good movies (“Dead Zone”), one great one (“Blue Velvet”) and many disasters (“Dune,” “Maximum Overdrive,” “King Kong Lives,” “Body of Evidence.”). Via IMDb’s user ratings, “Flash” is considered his 101st worst feature film out of exactly 202. Its current rating is 6.5. Unbelievably, it has its fans.

The End?

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Posted at 12:33 PM on Feb 01, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s   |   Permalink  
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