erik lundegaard

Thursday February 28, 2019

Leg Man

My man Joe Posnanski, on his subscription site, is counting down his (or our, via poll) top 100 candidates who never made the Baseball Hall of Fame; and for No. 83, Norm Cash, he includes a story that highlights the difference between the sports media world in 1973 and today.

It's about Nolan Ryan's second no-hitter, against Cash's Detroit Tigers, in which he also struck out 17. The record then was 19, and Ryan was cruising toward it—16 through seven innings, so an average of more than two an inning with two innings to go. Then the Angels scored 5 runs in a long bottom-of-the-7th, and for the final two innings Ryan wasn't quite as dominating. He still didn't give up a hit but only got one more K. 

Poz:

Anyway, it's unlikely that anyone has ever been MORE unhittable than Ryan was the first seven innings of that game. That's why it's so funny that Norm Cash came to the plate in the sixth inning with a table leg instead of a bat.

I seem to remember reading this story in one of the myriad books by umpire Ron Luciano, who happened to be behind the plate that game. As the story goes, Luciano told Cash he had to use an actual bat to which Cash famously replied: “Why? I'm not going to hit him anyway.”

But my favorite part of this is something admittedly inside-baseball: NOBODY reported it at the time. None of the sportswriters wrote about it, not one. I don't even know what to say. Could you even imagine the Twitter explosion if something like that happened now? Could you imagine the coverage that would get? We'd get an oral history within days. There would be a 30 for 30 on it by the end of the month.

But the only place I can even find the story in 1973 was buried in a baseball notebook in The Baltimore Sun. The lead item was about Reggie Jackson saying how he was rooting for Ryan. Then, a bit later, there was this cryptic note:

“Oriole catcher Andy Etchebarren relayed the story he heard from Clyde Wright earlier that day about how Norm Cash came to the plate Sunday with a table leg instead of a bat in his hands.”

That's it. Weird.

Now I want to see that “30 for 30.” 

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Posted at 02:57 PM on Feb 28, 2019 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Yeah Yeah, That Adult Film Star Hush Money Thing with the President; Whatever

This was NPR “Morning Edition” host Steve Inskeep talking to reporter Ryan Lucas about the Michael Cohen hearings this morning: 

We should note that a lot of what Michael Cohen said essentially confirmed things that had already been reported. Yes, the president paid hush money to an adult film star through Cohen, Cohen said. Yes, the president paid for a painting of himself with charitable contributions. But what did you learn during yesterday's testimony that you had not heard before?

Pause for a second on that. Because when he said it I laughed out loud. I don't know whether to give Inskeep credit for raising these points again or to condemn him for doing so in such a dismissive way. Yeah yeah, the president of the United States had an affair with an adult film star then paid her $130k to keep quiet about it during the 2016 presidential campaign. Yawn. And sure, people donated their hard-earned bucks for a charitable cause and he used that to buy a painting. Of himself. But show me someone in Congress who hasn‘t done that. 

I’m reminded again how corrupt Trump is and how weak our current system is. Scandals that might unseat a president, or at least hound his entire presidency, are here almost footnotes.

Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Breitbart, Drudge and the GOP generally have a lot to answer for. Also NPR. The day after the Cohen testimony, and they touch on it twice in their three-hour(?) broadcast. They spend the majority of time on Wilbur Ross and the failed North Korea Summit. What are they afraid of? 

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Posted at 08:45 AM on Feb 28, 2019 in category Media   |   Permalink  

Meadows By a Nose

“Who was your favorite [GOP congressman during the Michael Cohen hearings]? Was it Paul Gosar of Arizona, the guy whose entire family made a commercial for his opponent the last time he ran? (Gosar struggled so long with the phrase, ‘pathological liar’ that he gave Cohen to opportunity to ask,‘Are you referring to me or to the president?’) Was it jacketless Clay Higgins of Louisiana, who once filmed a campaign spot at Auschwitz? (Cohen mentioned at one point that he'd consulted some documents that were stored in boxes. Higgins demanded that a warrant be served on the boxes only to be told that Robert Mueller already had examined the contents and returned the boxes to Cohen.)

”Was it Bob Gibbs of Ohio, who seemed to drift away to Oz in the middle of his sentences, or Carol Miller of West Virginia, who was simply appalled at being a part of this when the committee could be discussing ‘neo-natal abstinence syndrome,’ a condition afflicting newborns due to their mother's drug use in utero? A worthy topic, surely, but hardly the provenance of the House Oversight Committee. And everybody kept yielding time to the egregious ranking Republican member, Jim Jordan of Ohio, or to Jordan's fellow Freedom Caucasian, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, and those two jamokes couldn't get out of their own way. ...

“As for Meadows, well, he thought he had something going with an item regarding contracts with foreign clients on a disclosure form that Cohen had signed, only to have Cohen point out that, contrary to Meadows's obvious reading deficits, the form referred only to foreign governments, for whom he had not worked. Meadows thundered away that Cohen was dodging the truth only to have a copy of the form pop up all over the Intertoobz in about 15 minutes, just long enough for Congresswoman Katie Hill to read it into the record and make Meadows look like a fool.”

— Charles P. Pierce, “The Republican Party Completely and Utterly Disgraced Itself at Michael Cohen's Hearing,” Esquire. The key quote for me comes from Steve Lynch, a Democrat who represents Massachussett's 8th district (Tip O‘Neill’s former hunting grounds), and who said, “I don't think any of them asked any questions about the possible criminal actions by the president.”

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Posted at 08:06 AM on Feb 28, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  
Wednesday February 27, 2019

Encore

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Posted at 03:19 PM on Feb 27, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Michael Cohen Speaks

Here's a good sum-up of today's congressional hearings with Trump's former personal attorney, now right-wing bete noire, Michael Cohen. 

Basically, Democrats were interested in searching for truth, Republicans in obfuscating it. Maybe more charitably: Democrats were interested in what the witness had to say, Republicans in tarnishing that witness—and even the hearing itself—in order to discount what the witness had to say.

Headlines as early as last night said Cohen would call Trump a racist and a con man, but that's been obvious all of Trump's life to anyone paying attention. It was obvious in 2015 and 2016 when he was campaigning for president. He began on a racist note. Hell, the one thing Trump isn't a con man on is his racism. That's why racists support him no matter what. He's their last best hope. 

Current New York Times headline:

Cohen Says President Told Him to Lie About Hush Money Payments

Washington Post:

Trump was deeply involved in hush-money plan, Cohen says

Ford called Watergate “our long national nightmare.” What's this? “Our shallow, stupid reality show”?

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Posted at 02:50 PM on Feb 27, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  
Tuesday February 26, 2019

My Five Worst Movies of 2018

My top 10 list is always late because I try to see the best movies of the year, which often arrive late. My five worst movies list is always incomplete because I don’t try to see the worst movies of the year. That’s the caveat here.

There’s no real hatred for the movies below as there have been with past lists. Nothing pissed me off as much as “Batman v. Superman” or “Tusk” or “Nocturnal Animals.” There’s just a lot of boredom, disappointment, and occasional face palms.


5. Life of the Party
Back in college, middle-aged Deanna winds up schtupping Jack, a handsome, supernice fratboy who becomes obsessed with her—which seems a bit much. Later, at an expensive restaurant with her friends, including bestie Christine, Deanna runs into her ex, Dan, and his new wife Marcie, who acts all catty. Then their waiter arrives and ... it’s Jack! More: Jack is Marcie’s son! What are the odds? So trump card for Deanna, right? Yes, but it quickly gets uncomfortable. Christine in particular rubs it in Marcie’s face as if Dan weren’t standing right there. That’s all he does, by the way: He doesn’t defend mom from Christine, doesn’t defend Deanna from mom. He just stands there, a stupid expression on his face, while the others improvise around him. None of it is funny. 

Life of the Party: one of the worst movies of the year  

4. Big Brother
This should’ve been the easiest movie in the world to make. Donnie Yen becomes the new teacher for a gang of ne’er-do-well kids in a poor Hong Kong neighborhood. It’s “Ip Man” meets “To Sir, With Love.” Except the kids come off less underprivileged than spoiled. One girl feels her dad doesn’t love her so she wants to race cars. A Pakistani kid wants to sing but keeps remembering that time other kids laughed at his Cantonese accent. The most clichéd problem and insulting resolution is the alcoholic dad. He comes homes from what little work he does and demands his two boys buy him booze. Then one day Donnie sends the class on a field trip to a rehab center. And guess who’s speaking? Dad. Not sure when he decided to give up drink—the night before?—and if this is what the Chinese do instead of AA meetings. Please, come bare your soul to some high school kids who don’t know shit. Anyway, Donnie solves all their problems. “The White Shadow” wishes he were as involved in his students’ lives. 

Big Brother: one of the worst movies of the year

3. Ocean’s Eight
After all the schemes and shenanigans and supercool talking through earpieces, we discover there was a bigger haul than the $150 million Cartier necklace: the crown jewels on exhibit at the Met. So guess which of our intrepid female heroes swiped those? Sandra? Cate? Rihanna? The answer is Shaobo. If you’re thinking, “Huh, I don’t remember her,” it’s because Shaobo is a guy—the Chinese Cirque du Soleil dude from the other Ocean’s movies, who shows up late to lend a hand. Wait, lend a hand? He does it all. That’s our feminist heist film. Written and directed by Gary Ross.

Ocean's Eight: one of the worst movies of the year

2. Skyscraper
This wants to be “Die Hard” in Hong Kong. One reason it fails miserably? You more-or-less buy Bruce Willis as a cop, you buy Bonnie Bedilia as his estranged wife/business exec, and most of what McClane does—even the crazy outside-the-building stuff—seems vaguely plausible. Do I buy The Rock as a security executive? Neve Campbell as a surgeon fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese? Do I believe the size and shape of The Pearl: 240 stories, with outside turbines forever spinning? Do I believe that the Rock’s character, Sawyer, who has a prosthetic leg and must weigh 250 pounds, can climb a building crane, swing it close to the Pearl, and leap from the crane’s top into an open window 150 stories above the ground? The only thing I bought about this movie—sadly—was the ticket.

Skyscraper: Worst movie of the year?

1. Hello, Mrs. Money
At a Sunday matinee show at Pacific Place (attendance: 3), most of my time was spent waiting out overlong set-pieces and not-exactly #MeToo-friendly scenarios. Nothing funnier than a man in drag being sexually assaulted by a grinning lothario who won’t take no for an answer. Nothing funnier than date-rape drugs sprinkled into drinks. It felt like vague consolation that the powder was less sedative than Chinese aphrodisiac, and the people who drank it were already in relationships. At the same time, those relationships were hardly worth saving. The deer that lost its penis for the aphrodisiac must‘ve gone: “You’re shitting me. For this?”

Hello Mrs. Money: Worst movie of the year?

Getting off easy: “1985,” “Boy Erased,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” “Monkey King 3,” “Robin Hood,” and “Sorry to Bother You.”  I know. Some of these are acclaimed. 

Other past worsts: 201720162014201320122011.

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Posted at 12:39 PM on Feb 26, 2019 in category Movies - Lists   |   Permalink  
Monday February 25, 2019

‘Best Picture’

“Once you realize Green Book is really just Nick Vallelonga's attempt to make a film out of the nifty road-trip stories his dad shared with him as a kid, the movie's myopia is somehow harder to be mad at. It's boneheaded, perhaps, but it's not malicious.

”Rather, that's how I feel until I remember the sickening ways that the film fabricates Dr. Shirley's feelings towards other blacks, his lack of black cultural knowledge, his utter racial isolation—falsehoods, according to his brother. Then I'm taken aback. It's one thing to get historical facts wrong, or to massage them for the sake of dramatic coherence. It's another thing entirely to take something so essential as racial identity—as the inner life of a person of color—and revise it. And to bypass due diligence. And to think, as a white filmmaker, that questions of this sort are things you can blithely make up or change outright.“

— from ”The Truth About Green Book" by K. Austin Collins, Vanity Fair, December 2018—or nearly three months before this movie won best picture at the 91st Annual Academy Awards. Obviously, not enough members of the Academy read this piece. 

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Posted at 06:23 PM on Feb 25, 2019 in category Movies - The Oscars   |   Permalink  

‘He Does Not Know What Democracy Means’

“But I will say this. Donald Trump ... has shown the citizens of this country that he does not know what democracy means. He demonstrates no understanding or appreciation of our form of government. He takes no action to protect it. Has any president done more to undermine democracy than this one? His 'I hereby demand' tweet in May 2018, ordering Department of Justice investigations of the investigators who are investigating him—I can barely believe that I just wrote that phrase—is a clear example.”

— Andrew McCabe, former acting director of the FBI, in his book, “The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump”

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Posted at 06:13 PM on Feb 25, 2019 in category Books   |   Permalink  

91st Oscars: Spike TV

Spike gets to at least say “Do the right thing” at the Oscars; and then the Oscars did the wrong thing.

I don't really have much to say about the Oscars last night. My wife, Patricia, was sick, I had a less deleterious cold, so the party we planned turned into a handful of people just hanging out and eating snacks and watching the hostless zingers and cupcakes and twinkies. Under the circumstances, it wasn't bad. 

I also don't have much to say because I predicted the major plot point a month ago, in a post entitled “2018 Oscar Noms: Is It ‘89 All Over Again?”:

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? 

Which is exactly what happened. 

Spike got off a good line backstage: “I'm snake bit. Every time somebody is driving somebody, I lose – but they changed the seating arrangement!” But the camera really should‘ve been on him the entire time. Here’s the blow by blow

He was a joy, really: bowing to Barbra, jumping into Samuel Jackson's arms. We need more Spike at the Oscars. Make better movies, Spike. Someone fund them. 

Initially I didn't like his acceptance speech for best adapted screenplay. He's up there with three others but they don't get to say shit. It's all him. He just reads off from a handwritten speech, and the language is stilted:

The word today is “irony.” The date, the 24th. The month, February, which also happens to be the shortest month of the year, which also happens to be Black History month. The year, 2019. The year, 1619. History. Her story. 1619. 2019. 400 years.

Yes, the Black History month joke. Say something! I think when he went back to the 17th century, I went into the kitchen to fix a drink. I should‘ve waited him out:

Four hundred years. Our ancestors were stolen from Mother Africa and bought to Jamestown, Virginia, enslaved. Our ancestors worked the land from can’t see in the morning to can't see at night. My grandmother, Zimmie Shelton Retha, who lived to be 100 years young, who was a Spelman College graduate even though her mother was a slave. My grandmother who saved 50 years of Social Security checks to put her first grandchild — she called me Spikie-poo — she put me through Morehouse College and NYU grad film. NYU!

Before the world tonight, I give praise to our ancestors who have built this country into what it is today along with the genocide of its native people. We all connect with our ancestors. We will have love and wisdom regained, we will regain our humanity. It will be a powerful moment. The 2020 presidential election is around the corner. Let's all mobilize. Let's all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let's do the right thing! You know I had to get that in there.

OK, it's still a bit of a mess, particularly for something writtten down, but it's less of a mess than I thought it was. Plus we got his passion. We got him. We got Brooklyn in the house. “BlacKkKlansman” shouldn't have won best adapted screenplay but an honor for Spike was long overdue. Is he the director of my generation?* He was the first director who came into prominence after I became an adult. He roared onto the scene and kept roaring, even as his movies diminished.

Overall, hostless wasn't bad but give me John Mulaney. Opening with Queen + Adam Lambert wasn't bad, but mostly for the reaction from the stars, particularly Javier Bardem, digging every minute of it. Sure, Cuaron. Again. But deserved. It was sad to see Glenn Close not take home the statuette—again. She's now 0-7, the new actress record, and one short of tying Peter O‘Toole’s all-time 0-8 record, but that's pretty good company to be in. Plus she lost to a worthy performance, Oliva Colman in “The Favourite,” who gave an equally worthy speech. It was maybe my favorite moment of the evening. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's duet on “Shallow” was another. The three hours sped. The ratings were slightly up. They‘ll think it’s because of the hostlessness, but c‘mon, it’s box office, stupid: Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born. 

The Oscars keep getting more open and more diverse. Look at the last Oscars of the 20th century, the 72nd, and it's all white people and mostly men behind the scenes. Not now. Five of the last six director achievements have gone to Mexican filmmakers. More African Americans win acting awards; you see more winning for behind-the-scenes work. Last night, Peter Ramsey became the first African-American director to win, as part of the team behind “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which won best animated feature.

And yet “Green Book.” Miles to go. 

* ADDENDUM: Sorry. Coen brothers. 

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Posted at 05:08 PM on Feb 25, 2019 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  
Sunday February 24, 2019

The Self-Loathing Oscars

The Academy, which only a few years ago was making bold strides to diversify its membership, now seems exhaustingly tone-deaf and indecisive, unsure how to grow its viewership without alienating its members or its core audience, who definitely want to see the Best Cinematography category in full. Putting aside how any of the proposed changes would have meaningfully attracted viewers (was anyone really avoiding the Oscars because she couldn't stand to watch Best Editing?), the string of panicked about-faces has had a numbing effect. At times, it has felt like watching the Oscars undergo an existential crisis, which the Times summed up in the headline “Are the Oscars Ashamed to Be the Oscars?” Typically, awards season is when Hollywood gets slammed for excessive self-congratulation. Self-loathing—that's a new one.

— Michael Schulman, “A Fraught Oscars Season Limps to the Finish Line,” The New Yorker

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Posted at 12:20 PM on Feb 24, 2019 in category Movies - The Oscars   |   Permalink  

No Rooting Interests for Hostless Oscars

I‘ve been making my Top 10 movies list for 10 years now, and this is the first year without a best picture nominee on it. None, zero, zilch.

I was vaguely aware of this as I was writing it. Or I was aware there was only one, “Roma,” but it didn’t make my final cut, for which my wife still hasn't forgiven me. I was pretty sure I'd never had zero before. Had I had only one before? Not even close. Turns out, before this year, I averaged about four: 

  • 2018: 0
  • 2017: 5: Get Out, Phantom Thread, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name
  • 2016: 3: La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester By the Sea
  • 2015: 4: Brooklyn, Spotlight, The Big Short, The Revenant
  • 2014: 3: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, Boyhood
  • 2013: 3: Philomena, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street
  • 2012: 3: Argo, Amour, Lincoln
  • 2011: 4: The Artist, The Descendants, Moneyball, The Tree of Life
  • 2010: 5: Black Swan, Toy Story 3, Inception, The Social Network, True Grit
  • 2009: 5: Inglourious Basterds, The Hurt Locker, A Serious Man, Avatar, Up

That's a lot of agreement with an institution I constantly bitch about.

At the same time, I admit I‘ve gotten too swept up in the discussions around end-of-the-year/Oscar nomination time and allowed that to sway me more than I should. I think. It feels like that anyway. This distant voice in my head: “Well, of course you have to have ’The Hurt Locker' in there.” No. No, you don‘t. 

That said, what might I remove from the above? Not many. Probably “La La Land” and “Black Swan” and “The Hurt Locker.” Maybe “The Artist” or “Argo” or “Inglourious Basterds.” I’d have to see these movies again, of course. The main point is the Oscars do tend to nominate a lot of good movies. This year I just didn't think many good American movies were made. Studio or indie.

It also means tonight I don't any real rooting interests. Maybe Spike for director even though I didn't like “BlacKkKlansman” much. And even though it should really go to either Cuaron or Pawlikowski. 

I do find myself amused by the passionate intensity with which #FilmTwitter is battling it out over very flawed movies. How their flawed movie should win out over this other very flawed movie. To me it's like hearing an angry, passionate debate over which brand-name peanut butter is the best. “Jif better win! I‘ve been hearing reports that Peter Pan is gaining ground, which I can’t believe. God, what's the matter with people!?!”

5 PM, PST. Hostless. 

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Posted at 11:14 AM on Feb 24, 2019 in category Movies - The Oscars   |   Permalink  
Saturday February 23, 2019

Beware Public Domain Movies

Just a reminder when searching for movies to stream: If it's a movie that's in the public domain you‘ll probably get more than one option. Last weekend I watched “Beat the Devil” for the first time and began it with a dead-awful version: blurry and dark (bottom pic). I recovered with the top-pic version, which has a vague, stretched kinescope feel to it, but at least you can see what you need to see. Chiefly Gina Lollobrigida. 

two versions of BEAT THE DEVIL

Both of these were on Amazon Prime ... which, it turns out, has a third version, which I found after I’d finished the film. That one's even better.

Thus the lesson: If you‘re watching a really shitty streamed version of an old film, chances are it’s in the public domain. Look around. 

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Posted at 03:18 PM on Feb 23, 2019 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Turning Every Page with Robert Caro

Along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of course, another American we‘re all hoping lives long enough to finish his work is Robert Caro, who, in 1976, began a multi-volume biography of the then-recently deceased 36th president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson. Since then, he’s published four volumes, tomes really, that have taken us all the way to the first days of Johnson's presidency. He supposedly has 300-400 pages of the presidential years finished, which would be about one-third of the size of one of his normal books. He says it will take anywhere from two to 10 years to finish. He's 83. 

Working by Robert CaroOn some level, it already seems a shame that a man has spent his life writing about another man, but it would be a particular shame if that work went unfinished, with the last, perhaps most important volume published posthumously. That said, Caro's books aren't merely about LBJ but about the sweep of American history; and if anything, American remains forever unfinished and in a state of constant reinvention. (Our latest is the two steps back variety.) So while such an end wouldn't be desired, it might be appropriate. 

Anyway, he has a new book coming out, which isn't an LBJ book but a book about writing the LBJ book. Many fans are disappointed, perplexed, angry. “Finish!” they cry. But I'm gettingit. I loved the recent excerpt in The New Yorker, “The Secrets of Lyndon Johnson's Archives,” which is all about the slow, steady work of research; it's about the truths that are there if you take the time to turn every page.

All of this is in direct contrast to the current state of things, where not only is no one turning every page but few read past the headlines or check the source or timestamp of their latest rage—assuming it has a timestamp. Was this yesterday or five years ago? Was it 40 years ago? Judgment feels in lockstep with the news and sometimes a step or two ahead. And I'm talking legit news, not the manufactured variety. That's an even deeper problem.

Caro's pace you can feel in the New Yorker piece. I felt myself relaxing even as I read it. I thought: One of my people. My natural state.

Here's an excerpt from the excerpt:

V. Tricks of the Trade
In interviews, silence is the weapon, silence and people's need to fill it—as long as the person isn't you, the interviewer. Two of fiction's greatest interviewers—Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret and John le Carré's George Smiley—have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking and to let silence do its work. Maigret cleans his ever-present pipe, tapping it gently on his desk and then scraping it out until the witness breaks down and talks. Smiley takes off his eyeglasses and polishes them with the thick end of his necktie. As for me, I have less class. When I'm waiting for the person I'm interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SU”s.

“Working” by Robert Caro, subtitled “Researching, Interviewing, Writing,” will be published April 9.

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Posted at 10:40 AM on Feb 23, 2019 in category Books   |   Permalink  
Friday February 22, 2019

Movie Review: Robin Hood (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

They keep mucking it up. Year after year, attempt after attempt.

First they gave the lead to an American who fumbled around with a British accent before giving it up entirely; then it went to an actor in his late 40s when it was an origin story about Robin’s early years. That one, with Russell Crowe, ended as the rob-the-rich legend began—anticipating sequels, no doubt. But it was poorly reviewed (43% on RT), and while its box office wasn’t bad ($105 domestic, $325 worldwide), no sequels came.

This one, too, anticipates sequels—ending, again, with Robin escaping into Sherwood to start the legend. But the reviews were damning (15%) and the box office more so ($30 domestic, $84 worldwide). Sequels seem unlikely. When will Hollywood learn? It keeps giving us throat-clearing as feature films and is surprised when we don’t show up.

One Direction
Taron Egerton is fine, I guess, but he’s a bit of a boy. Compare him to Robins past—Fairbanks and Flynn, Connery and Crowe—and you feel sad for our time.

Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), who was fat and comic relief, is now thin and comic-relief—and not funny. There is no Alan-a-Dale or Much, the Miller’s Son. There is no King Richard or Prince John. It’s just Guy of Gisborne (Paul Anderson) who works for the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn), who works for the Vatican (F. Murray Abraham), which is trying to overthrow the British throne.

Here are the two biggest changes. John Little is now a Muslim warrior, Yahya (Jamie Foxx), who owes a debt to Robin and thus follows him back to England. He’s basically John Little + Morgan Freeman’s Azeem. He’s actually the driving force here. While Robin would wallow in sorrow for losing Marian—she married Will Scarlett (Jamie Dornan) when he was presumed dead in the Crusades—it’s John/Yahya who shakes sense into him. Not only does he help Robin hone his archery skills, he masterminds the entire robbing-from the-rich, giving-to-the-poor conceit. He’s basically Simon Cowell to Robin’s One Direction.

Meanwhile, Will Scarlet, Robin’s right-hand man in the Errol Flynn version, not only cuckolds him here, but he’s an accommodating politician who, once he realizes Marian still loves Robin, turns to the dark side. By the end, he becomes the new Sheriff of Nottingham. It’s supposed to shock, but the way the film industry plays with our legends now it’s as meaningful as a face turning heel in the WWE. Plus it’s setting up sequels that will never arrive. It’s sad.

But it’s not the worst of it. This, to me, is the worst of it. They’re the first words we hear in the film, via voiceover from Friar Tuck:

So, I would tell you what year it was, but I can’t actually remember. I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen 

Um...

  1. The history wouldn’t bore me; in fact, it would be so, so welcome
  2. Yes, I would like to know what year it was

The reason he can’t tell us the year is there isn’t one. This thing is an amalgamation of centuries. It should be Middle Ages, right, Robin Hood and all, but most of the movie is set in a Nottingham township built around what appears to be 19th-century industrial mining. People wear leather coats and jackets, the parties are like raves, and there’s an early version of a roulette wheel and craps table. For a time, I thought, Oh, so is it updating Robin into the 19th century—like Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet”? Or into the 20th per Ian McKellen’s “Richard III”? Except: Crusades: 1095-1492. So what’s up?

Elton and Ray
What’s up is that first-time screenwriters Ben Chandler and David James Kelly, and director Otto Bathurst (“Peaky Blinders,” three episodes), don’t seem to give a shit about history. They toss centuries into a blender and serve us the result with a hipster smile.

God, the hipsterism. “The Hood.” The clothes and the parties and the modern language and sensibilities. The camera shots—a la “Dark Knight”—that confuse rather than clarify. Is it a fight or is it jazz hands? You decide. 

At the least, we got the actors who played Ray Charles and Elton John starring in the same movie. Shame they weren’t playing Ray Charles and Elton John.

As for the history of cinematic Robin Hoods, this isn't a bad place to start. Hope it doesn't bore you. 

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Posted at 10:22 AM on Feb 22, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2018   |   Permalink  
Thursday February 21, 2019

‘Known For’ III

IMDb's algorithms aren't getting better. Can you figure out who this is

John Goodman known for IMDb

The second movie is a bit of a giveaway if you‘re a fan of the film. And maybe the kids know him for “10 Cloverfield Lane.” But for the rest of us? Who first saw him maybe in a Foot Locker ad, and wasn’t there a Snicker's bar ad, too, where he's singing on a tarmac in a cowboy hat, but either way he really came into focus as the lead in David Byrne's “True Stories,” which was followed by “Raising Arizona” and “Punchline” (a movie that maybe doesn't deserve to be so forgotten?), and even though I didn't watch “Roseanne,” most of the country did, and so why isn‘t that on there? You could even go into the sad ’90s movies he made when he was so popular they turned him into a lead: “King Ralph,” “The Babe,” “The Flintstones.” He was so beloved, when they did a “Blues Brothers” sequel 15 years after the death of John Belushi, he was essentially tapped for Belushi. 

Or good god how about “The Big Lebowski”??? The fuck? Dude abides but he doesn‘t? Or “Monsters, Inc.”??? Sullying Sully’s name?

Earlier thoughts on the same problem. Here, too. Plus IMDb still hasn't fixed the Chinese name issue. Plus you still can't do a character search like you could five years ago. Think of the history that's lost, or impossible to reach, because someone made that corporate decision. 

Maybe it's time to nationalize IMDb for the greater good? 

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Posted at 07:02 AM on Feb 21, 2019 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Wednesday February 20, 2019

Movie Review: What Men Want (2019)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I was wrong about this movie. On the way to the theater, I was telling my wife how, in magic-realism comedies starring men, the point is for the man to become a better person (“Liar, Liar,” “What Women Want”), while for female leads it’s mostly about furthering the career (“Isn’t It Romantic”); and based on the trailer, this one looked to continue that trend.

Nope. Ali (Taraji P. Henson) uses her mind-reading power to both further her career and become a better person.

I was wrong about this movie in another way. Based on the trailer, I thought it would be somewhat funny.

Nope. 

SWMs
Ali begins the movie a gung-ho, up-at-3-am, where’s-my-damn-coffee sports agent for megafirm Summit Worldwide Management, whose acronym, SWM, or Straight White Male, is one of the better, subtler jokes here.

She has a gay assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener of “Silicon Valley”), whom she bosses mercilessly, and a dad who runs a boxing gym (Richard Roundtree) and who basically raised her like a boy. She fights to win, has selfish sex, and doesn’t have time for BS—other than hanging with her lady friends on Monday margarita nights. 

It’s the day SWM’s president, Nick (Brian Bosworth, surprisingly good), is going to announce a new partner and Ali assumes it’s all hers. It isn’t. It goes to a lesser-talented SWM. She’s furious, but Nick says she’s not signing the big talent, just numerous lesser female athletes, and she needs to land someone like, oh, like future No. 1 NBA draft pick Jamal Berry (Shane Paul McGhie), a nice local kid. The problem is his dad, Joe “Dolla” Berry (Tracy Morgan), who basically acts like Tracy Morgan. So she proclaims to the world, or at least to SWM, that she will sign Jamal Berry.

In “What Women Want,” the 2000 original with Mel Gibson, Mel develops the power to hear women’s thoughts when he gets electrocuted with a hairdryer in the bathtub. Here, the magic realism happens when Ali drinks spiked tea from a voodooish fortune teller, Sister (Erykah Badu, good), then conks her head during a bachelorette party. Voila! 

What are men’s thoughts? I mean, aren’t we obvious? Sex and money. Right?

Right. Here, we get the usual “tap that ass” stuff. One of the lines that actually made me laugh out loud was the nice elderly man who looks at Ali and thinks how he should’ve slept with a black girl before he got married. But there’s other stuff, too. Farts. I like that the new SWM partner is full of self-doubt.

What most of the thoughts are not, sadly, is funny.

Ali is initially freaked by her new power—as who wouldn’t be?—but it takes Sister to point out the obvious: Maybe this will help her with the job. It does. She joins the SWM poker game with Joe “Dolla,” keeps winning, then, by reading Nick’s mind, realizes she should let Joe “Dolla” win the last hand. Then to please Joe’s family-friendly declarations, she pretends her latest one-night stand, the impossibly good-looking and extremely dull Will (Aldis Hodge), and his young son, Ben (Auston Jon Moore), are her family.

With Jamal, the firm keeps mucking it up (with an idiotic bling video) and she keeps saving the day; but when the father has the son sign with a league in China, for some reason she’s to blame.

Some of the sexist shit the movie doesn’t untangle and may exacerbate:

  • Initially, she doesn’t get ahead because she fights like a man, and men don’t like that from a woman
  • Her power allows her to appeal to men rather than compete with them

The movie sees this as a positive, but ... really? Then it introduces the whole “She can read men’s minds but it’s better to know what’s in their hearts” thing. Jamal wants to play in Atlanta; that’s what’s in his heart. Right. It was also in his head at the Atlanta Hawks game. Why make the head/heart distinction on something that was in both? 

Bless their hearts
So much else. The little kid, bless his heart, is the worst child actor I’ve seen in years. The gay relationship is treated with a head-patting, “I guess this is OK, too” vibe that feels 15 years behind the times. The actor who plays Jamal is OK but doesn’t seem like a No. 1 draft pick, while Will, as mentioned, is so impossibly perfect as to be a non-entity. At a billiards bar, Ali hears the randy thoughts of her friend’s fiancé but Will won’t give a cute, flirty waitress a second glance. He doesn’t even think, “Don’t look at her. Don’t look at that ass.” It’s like wind through a canyon up there. Shouldn’t this be a turn off? It was to me anyway.

Plus the nicer Ali becomes, the less funny she becomes, and the less funny the movie becomes.

You or I could write the rest of it. In the end, she loses her power but wins it all. She signs Jamal, wins back Will, and announces she’s starting her own firm with the nice white agent at SWM (Max Greenfield), as well as Brandon, who’s long pestered her to become an agent. Earlier she claimed he’d make a lousy one, and she was right, but now we’re in Niceland, where nothing is true and nothing is funny.

Someday, in one of these mind-reading things, I’d like to actually learn something about men or women.

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Posted at 12:01 PM on Feb 20, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  

A David Ferrie Vibe

The other night I read Jeffrey Toobin‘s New Yorker piece on Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi, and who knew what and when about the Wikileaks documents dumps that affected the 2016 presidential election. Also how. If there’s a what and when, the next question is how. 

They seem like small-timers, by the way. They‘re sad little men scurrying along the sidelines and trying to get into the game. Doesn’t mean they‘re not the key to unlock this thing. 

I didn’t know Corsi's oeuvre. I didn't know, or I'd forgotten, he was the man who co-wrote the swiftboating attack on John Kerry. Which is odd, given Corsi's supposed distaste for the Bush family. “Stone told me,” Toobin writes, “that he and Corsi first connected when they exchanged e-mails about their Kennedy books and bonded over their mutual disdain for the Bush family.” Toobinn doesn't clarify. 

Much of the piece is about the quackery and the scurrying, and I began to flash on Joe Pesci's character from “JFK”—that kind of crazy marginality—when I was reminded of Stone's potential importance in the case: 

For a person who is usually categorical in his statements, Stone is cautious when describing Trump's involvement in the quest for WikiLeaks' documents during the campaign. “I have no memory of ever talking about WikiLeaks with him,” Stone told me in Fort Lauderdale. ... Stone's indictment speaks of an unnamed person, possibly Trump himself, who “directed” a senior campaign official to tell Stone to find out what was coming from WikiLeaks.

There's also this good sum-up of the Russian affair so far:

The Russians helped Trump, and the Trump people lied about the Russians. But why did so many people lie to Mueller and the other investigators? Were they lying to cover up crimes—or were they lying simply because they are liars?

How awful that we have to spend so much time on idiots like Stone and Corsi. We have to parse the meaning of Stone's tweets like he's James Joyce. This is the most infamous one, from August 21, 2016: “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta's time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary.”

Here's Toobin:

Did Stone write “the” instead of “be,” meaning it was going to be Podesta's time in the barrel? Or was Stone saying “the Podestas' time,” referring to John and his brother, Tony?

What these quacks have created in the smithy of our soul.

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Posted at 07:31 AM on Feb 20, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  
Tuesday February 19, 2019

My Top 10 Movies of 2018

It was a weak year for American movies. At the least, it was a year in which I disagreed with most American critics about most American movies. The movies they touted (“First Reformed,” “Sorry to Bother You,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) left me cold, while the movies that stuck with me (“Wajib,” “Love Education”) no one mentioned at all. Overall, I left a lot of theaters disappointed.

That’s my curmudgeonly greeting to this way-late list of 10 best movies of 2018.

I should add I don’t feel like a zealot on the matter. I’m open to the idea that the problem is me. Maybe in five years I’ll see some of these again and go, “What was I thinking?” But for now, this is what I was thinking.


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

 People's Republic of Desire

9. Mid90s (USA)
This rang so true to me in Jonah Hill’s directorial debut: 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’s terrifying. The great irony with “Mid90s” is that the navigator, Stevie, is trying to fit in with a gang that is slowly breaking apart.

Mid90s

8. The King/The Searcher (Part I) (USA)
During the summer of 2016, Eugene Jarecki drove Elvis Presley’s 1964 Rolls Royce through the places that made Elvis who he was—Tupelo, Memphis, Nashville, New York, Germany, Hollywood, and Vegas—and let different folks into the backseat to play, sing, or just talk about Elvis and the state of the country. It’s Elvis as metaphor for America. We took over the world with a sneer and a shake of our hips, then we grew comfortable, addicted, overweight and addled. Trump is our late-stage Vegas period. “The Searcher” is the more straightforward HBO doc that digs into the roots. The second half makes too many excuses but the first half rocks and rolls. 

The King/The Searcher

7. Juliet, Naked (USA/UK)
It’s that rare rom-com for adults. Ethan Hawke is perfectly cast as Tucker Crowe, a shaggy, reclusive, former indie rock star who released an album of quiet love songs, “Juliet,” in 1993, then disappeared from a Minneapolis stage and never came back. Chris O’Dowd is perfectly cast as the fan obsessed with his work. Rose Byrne is the woman between them. Comedy, and something approaching wisdom, ensue.

Juliet, Naked

6. Cold War (Poland)
One of the surprising things about this movie is the relative ease with which Cold War borders are crossed. At one point Wiktor returns to—is it Prague?—to see the troupe, and Zula, again, but the secret police pick him up. And interrogate him? 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. This is true until it horrifyingly isn’t. Question: Is it a fault of the film that it seems to be saying the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism are nothing next to a crazy broad? If you can't be happy as an artist/singer in 1950s Paris, good god, brother, what hope? 

Cold War

5. John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City (USA)
What really won me over was the gazebo bit. Mulaney talks about seeing a gazebo in Connecticut that was dedicated in 1863, and before he gets to the joke, this was my thought: “Huh. Middle of the Civil War.” And that’s the joke. Mulaney imagines the scene with a Prof. Harold Hill-type charlatan selling town leaders—who have just read off their Gettysburg war dead—on the concept. I immediately knew I’d found a kindred spirit: someone who paid attention to the chronology of things. Mulaney also tells jokes, of course, that reveal the trauma of our times—from “Horse loose in a hospital” to idiot online Captcha crap: “You spend most of your day telling a robot you’re not a robot. Think about that for two seconds and tell me you don’t want to go walk into the ocean.” It’s the line of the year.

John Mulaney

4. Burning (South Korea)
“Burning” is about the death of a girl that happens off-stage. Not only do we not see it happen, we don’t even know if it does happen. Consider it an arthouse version of a revenge thriller. The revenge happens clumsily, and less-than-heroically, at the 11th hour, and we’re not sure if it’s necessary. Traditional revenge movies are all about certitude and satisfaction. This leaves us with nothing but questions. It haunts us long after we leave the theater. 

Burning

3. Capernaum (Lebanon)
The sadness and hardness of the world is reflected in the eyes of Zain, age 12, and there’s nothing romantic about it. As you’re watching, you wonder how this kid could act this. How he could be so dead-eyed? What trauma could he have suffered? Answer: He’s a Syrian refugee. He plays Lebanese here, a son in a large family of the undocumented, who tries to look after his sister, who then tries to look after a small immigrant baby, and the most heartbreaking moments are those moments, like on the bus with Cockroach-Man, or in the movie’s final scene, when you realize that despite all the adult things he's doing he’s just a fucking kid.

Capernaum

2. Love Education (Taiwan)
You work through the comedy to get to the poignancy. I think that’s what most of life is like, and that’s what Sylvia Chang’s “Love Education” is like. We get three generations of women, each dealing with their own issues at their own stage of life. When the grandmother dies, and her daughter (also Chang) wants to move her father’s grave next to her mother’s, that’s when things kick into another gear. I saw this at SIFF and keep waiting for it to show up anywhere else: streaming, video stores, etc. It deserves an audience.

Love Education

1. Wajib (Palestine)
A father and his estranged son spend a day hand-delivering wedding invitations in present-day Nazareth and resurrect old wounds. It’s the kind of episodic non-plot that should weary us; but writer-director Annemarie Jacir and her two stars—real-life father and son Mohammed and Saleh Bakri—make it riveting. “Wajib” is specific and universal, funny and human. The day is long, tempers cool with the evening, but nothing is resolved. It’s just another round of forgiveness and understanding that never seems to stretch far enough; but maybe it covers what we can while we can.  

You know, now that I look at it, that's a pretty good year. A shout-out as well to the following: Free Solo, The Third Murder, Shoplifters, Three Identical Strangers, The Guilty, Roma, The Favourite, Last Letter, Eighth Grade and Isle of Dogs.

明年见, y'all. 

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Posted at 07:40 AM on Feb 19, 2019 in category Movies - Lists   |   Permalink  
Monday February 18, 2019

Bastard of the Senate

“The two forces that characterized Mr. McConnell's career, obstruction and increasing the power of corporate money in our democracy, have worked hand in hand to diminish the Senate and paralyze American politics. The flood of outside money incentivized obstruction over cooperation, and a new generation of Republicans embraced Mr. McConnell's obstructionist tactics.”

— former Harry Reid aide Adam Jentleson in a New York Times Op-Ed “How Mitch McConnell Enables Trump: He's not an institutionalist. He's the man who surrendered the Senate to the president.” Not much new was learned, but it's one of the most important messages Americans can hear on this Presidents Day. Kentucky, are you listening? 

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Posted at 11:37 AM on Feb 18, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Happy Presidents Day 2019

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Posted at 08:44 AM on Feb 18, 2019 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Movie Review: Isn't It Romantic (2019)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The problem with most movie parodies is that they wind up buying into the tropes of the genre they’re satirizing. The person who is incompetent and/or cowardly at the beginning (who is us, basically), becomes, by the end, a hero in the Hollywood mold (them):

“Isn’t It Romantic” is a little better than most of these because it actually takes issue with its genre, romantic comedies, and in particular the notion that validation comes from another person. It picks this bone. At one point, we get a rousing version of the rom-com perennial, Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” but the movie’s message is closer to Whitney’s “The Greatest Love of All”: Love yourself before you inflict you on other people.

Like that, but nicer. Too nice, really. That's the problem. 

Her three issues
Isn't It Romantic reviewNatalie (Rebel Wilson) is a smart, pudgy, Aussie girl living in a small apartment in New York City with her dog. She’s an architect, and manages several people at her firm, including Whitney (Betty Gilpin), a dowdy girl who watches rom-coms on her computer. Natalie lets her even though she doesn’t like rom-coms. Early in the movie, she tears into all the stupid tropes: the gay sidekick who has no life of his own; the bitchy coworker intent on ruining our hero; the false love, the true love; the run in slow-mo at the end to let the true love know they’re the true love. Etc.

Natalie has her own true love—or at least someone who wants a date—Josh (Adam Devine), but she thinks so little of herself she can’t pick up the vibes everyone is feeling for blocks around. She also lets others at the firm run roughshod over her. It’s not just Whitney and her movie-watching on company time. The office manager asks her to fix what is the office manager’s job; a hunky billionaire client, Blake (Liam Hemsworth), sends her for coffee; and she literally takes the trash from some chairbound goober too lazy to throw it out on his own.

Got that? These are her issues:

  1. She lets others boss her around (because she has low self-esteem)
  2. She doesn’t realize Josh likes her (because she has low self-esteem)
  3. She hates rom-coms (because she’s smart)

Since we know the premise of the movie, we already know what’s going to happen: Being trapped in the third thing will help her overcome the first two.

During a subway mugging, she conks her head. When she comes to, everything is perfect: the emergency room is like “a Williams Sonoma,” her apartment is huge and stocked with every shoe imaginable, her standoffish neighbor, Donny (Brandon Scott Jones), is suddenly her gay best friend, Whitney is now her ultra-bitchy coworker, and Blake, who sent her for coffee, is suddenly dazzled by her sight. My favorite bit is when she realizes what’s happened, and every swear word is blotted out by a truck backing up. “My life’s become a [beep beep] romantic comedy!” she cries helplessly. “And it’s PG-13!”

Given that reality, or fantasy, some might have just enjoyed the ride but not her. She fights it all the way. At the same time, she’s not particularly smart about it. For someone who knows the tropes, she doesn’t exactly call them to her aid. And as funny as Wilson is, she’s not quite actor enough to pull all this off. Many times I was confused about how Natalie was actually feeling.

At the same time, to break the spell, she knows what to do: fall in love. With Blake, she assumes. But even in the rom-com world he’s an asshole, so she finally realizes, “Oh, I’m supposed to be with Josh.” Except he’s already involved in his own impossible rom-com relationship with “Yoga ambassador” Isabella (Priyanka Chopra)—the supermodel whose billboard the real Josh stares at all day. All of which leads to her breathless run to the chapel to stop his wedding; instead, that's where she gets her Whitney Houston epiphany: “Learning to love yourself....” Then a car accident, bump on the head, and back to reality. 

Like Dorothy and Ebenezer
I like how they do this. So many magic-realism/personal betterment movies, from “Liar Liar” to “What Women Want” and on down the line, never explain how the magic happens. It just does. Here? She was in an induced coma for 18 hours after the subway mugging. It was all a dream. Like with Dorothy and Ebenezer. 

The dream still changes her—like with Dorothy and Ebenezer. At work, she becomes assertive, makes her presentation (which is a metaphor for her), and confronts Josh. Another nice bit, actually. She tells him to stop staring at the billboard supermodel outside her window. Josh smiles, gets her to sit in his seat, then he sits in hers and asks, “What do you see?” She realizes, from his angle, he can’t see the billboard out the window; he can only see her. Tears well up. Not just in her eyes, I imagine.

Sadly, the movie ends on a high note, a singalong to Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” in celebration of love and “yourself.” Shame they didn’t go back to Natalie’s earlier criticism of rom-coms ending on a high note—the lovers getting together—since, after that moment, the rest is just life. Why not give us a glimpse of Josh and Natalie in two years or 10? Kids or not? Just the everyday of it. Homer eating pork rinds and watching bowling on TV

The screenplay was written by three women (Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, Katie Silberman) and directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson, whose previous film, “The Final Girls,” was similar: teenagers trapped in an ’80s slasher film. Is this his thing now? If so, what genre would you like to see him lampoon next? Hopefully with more teeth?

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Posted at 08:29 AM on Feb 18, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
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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