erik lundegaard

Saturday August 31, 2019

Valerie Harper (1939-2019)

In Minneapolis, where it's cold, and she figured she'd keep better.

I never got why Rhoda was supposed to be the unattractive one. I always thought Valerie Harper looked great. I always thought she looked better even than Mary, who was supposed to be the pretty one. Mary was pretty, thin, and over-diplomatic (Minnesota Nice), while Rhoda stood her ground and told you what's what. I loved that. 

Mary attracted the brassy ones, didn't she? Rhoda at home and Lou at work. Both were my favorites. Then Murray, the sardonic writer. At the bottom of the list was Phyllis, Cloris Leachman, who was nails on a chalkboard to me. I guess she was supposed to be. I remember reading that Leachman had been in the Miss America competition and did a mental doubletake: Wait, so she's supposed to be pretty, too? And not Rhoda? What world am I living in?  

Valerie Harper had a helluva ‘70s. Emmy for best supporting actress in ’71, ‘72 and ’73; Emmy for lead actress in ‘75 now that she was back in Manhattan and running her own show. Her marriage to Joe was must-see TV before anyone coined that phrase. Carlton the Doorman was one of the decade’s standout characters even though he was unseen. Or because of it. 

But did Rhoda ever find her rhythm in New York? Maybe they thought like I thought—she's too pretty to be the non-pretty one—so they set up a dynamic where she played Mary to Julie Kavner's Brenda. But beyond that? What was her job? Was it graphic design? Mary's stuff is indelible at the WJM newsroom, Rhoda's not. What do I remember about “Rhoda”? I remember Rhoda/Joe/Brenda trying to get through to Carlton the Doorman via intercom, and him, breaking into the middle of the sentence with an inebriated, “This is Carlton your doorman.”  I remember Phyllis was supposed to pick her up before the wedding, didn‘t, and so she had to run around Manhattan in her wedding dress trying to flag a cab. I remember Rhoda seeing her diminuitive mother from behind, waiting for a bus or something after an argument, and Rhoda welling up and saying something like “She can break your heart with her back” ... but no, that was actually on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” before the big move. I guess I only watched so much of “Rhoda.” Maybe just up to the wedding. Once she and Joe got together, where was the drama? And once she and Joe split? Nah. My own parents had just split. That wasn’t must-see TV for me. That hurt too much. That was too ‘70s. 

She wasn’t Jewish! How about that? Rhoda, yes, but not Valerie, according to the Times obit. She was European and French-Canadian. Rhoda still remains an early gateway to Jewish culture for me.

She was married to Richard Schaal! I never knew that, either. There‘s a photo on IMDb of Harper mugging with other Second City stalwarts and it’s everything you want in ‘70s sitcoms. There’s Hamilton Camp, who played a diminuitive date of Mary's in an early episode, and Paul Sand, who got his own show, “Friends and Lovers,” which didn't last, and Melinda Dillon, famously exasperated/distraught but still sexy mom in “Close Encounters” and “A Christmas Story.” And good god, Richard Libertini, tall and long-faced, who was on everything, and kept going, and who died in 2016. And then Schaal, who was also in everything: “MTM” (five episodes), “Bob Newhart” (three) and “Rhoda” (three) and “Phyllis” (all of them, a regular), as well as spots on “Partridge Family” and “Fish.” He died in 2014. Of the five, only Dillon and Sand are still with us.

Rhoda came on when TV and sitcoms were trending smart and relevant, and she went off the air when they were trending toward the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the Fonz or the jiggle TV of “Three's Company” and “Charlie's Angels.” In a way Rhoda was replaced by the real Jewish thing, Laverne from “Laverne & Shirley.” Those two were a kind of working class Mary and Rhoda. Just not funny. Not close. The show didn't have the chops. Sitcoms almost died in the ‘80s, remember? God, look at the top-rated shows of the 1975-76 season: five of the top 10 shows are women-helmed, including “Rhoda,” “Phyllis,” and “Maude.” Compare it to the mid-Reagan years. Suddenly we’re just watching hourlong soaps about rich people. We used to watch us and now we watch them. And vote for them.

For Harper, after “Rhoda,” it was just TV movies I never watched. I think I didn't see Valerie again until “Blame It On Rio,” a randy mid-80s comedy in which the hot daughter of a friend of Michael Caine's makes a play for him. Valerie played Caine's wife. So it goes. 

I heard the news of her passing on Twitter from Ed Asner, who offered up this perfect tribute. 

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Posted at 09:31 AM on Aug 31, 2019 in category TV   |   Permalink  
Friday August 30, 2019

Movie Review: Booksmart (2019)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

Most everyone has already pointed out the “Superbad” similarities. A heavy bossy high schooler (Beanie Feldstein, the sister of Jonah Hill), and her thin shy friend (Kaitlyn Dever, apparently unrelated to Michael Cera), try to find the party on the night before high school graduation. Along the way, they get into and out of trouble, lose and find love, get drunk, fight, make-up, and say good-bye. It’s raunchy, funny and surprisingly sweet.

It also made me feel old. Like: way, way old.

So they have unisex bathrooms in high school now? Or is that just in So Cal? Or is that just in So Cal in the movies? And why is the teacher, Ms. Fine (Jessica Williams, late of “The Daily Show”), hanging around the edges of the party? She’s not going to party with them, is she? Wait, she’s not going to sleep with that student, is she? With no repercussions? In the #MeToo age? Wow. Reverse the genders and see how well that bit plays.

I was also wary of how close the camera got to some of those young bodies. Maybe that’s just the female gaze of first-time director Olivia Wilde. Or maybe I’m old. Like: way, way old.

A brassy Tracy Flick
I like this aspect of “Booksmart”: You think the problem will be ostracism but it turns out to be something much more universal: heartbreak.

In the beginning, the filmmakers—Wilde, and screenwriters Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins (“Trophy Wife”)—set it up so there’s jocks here, skateboarders there, techies and burnouts, along with our two heroes, Molly and Amy (Feldstein and Deaver), as the brainiacs who, ssshh, got into Ivy League schools. Except it turns out the other kids did, too. Like all of them. Again, is this specific to So Cal? Or does Lori Laughlin have that many kids?

But this knowledge—that her laser focus on her studies didn’t take her any further than the doofuses that partied all the time—is like an epiphany for Molly, senior class president, and she turns that laser focus into making sure they get in their share of partying before graduation the next day. She’s like a brassy Tracy Flick cramming for a final—but with partying.

The party to go to is Nick’s (Mason Gooding), the cutest of the jocks, and VEEP to Molly’s class president, but they don’t know his address. Trying to find it is the driving force for much of the movie. They wind up: 1) at the empty boat party of rich kid Jared (Skyler Gisondo); 2) at a murder mystery party hosted by gay, theatrical classmates George and Alan (Noah Galvin, Austin Crute, standouts); 3) tripping and hallucinating after drug-laced strawberries kick in; and finally 4) hijacking the pizza-delivery dude for Nick’s address. Then they call Ms. Fine to drive them there.

I assumed once there they wouldn’t exactly be welcomed by the various cliques, but they are. By everyone. It’s nice. But it makes you wonder what the conflict will be.

Turns out: heartbreak.

Amy has a thing for skateboarding girl Ryan (skateboarder Victoria Ruesga), who digs her, too, and makes her sing at the karaoke portion of the party; but then Ryan winds up snogging in the shallow end of the pool with Nick, Molly’s 11th-hour crush. Amy is crushed, but when she tries to leave the party, Molly stops her. And rather than explain what happened, Amy suddenly brings up everything that’s been bubbling below the surface of their probably lifelong relationship: How Molly is so controlling, and how Amy needs to get away from her, and no, she’s not just going to Botswana for the summer but for a year, because she needs to breathe; then she runs, distraught, into the bathroom.

At this point, “Booksmart” becomes a bit conventional. What happens in the movies when you don’t get the one you want? Someone else, generally shockingly good-looking, turns up. See: Minka Kelly as Autumn in “(500) Days of Summer” or Lea Seydoux as Gabrielle in “Midnight in Paris.” Here, Amy is surprised in the bathroom by the ultracool and aptly named Hope (Diana Silvers), who looks like a model. In fact, she’s played by a model. She’s played by a woman whose upper lip puts most lower lips to shame. And Amy winds up mashing on that upper lip. Such is the way: If Summer is gone, Autumn shows up; if you’re feeling hopeless, here’s Hope. 

Such is the way of Hollywood anyway. The rest of us pay full price.

You are all a video-taking generation
I like that Molly and Amy don’t reunite that night. Everyone is separated, and Amy gets arrested, and Molly has a moment with a girl (Molly Gordon), nicknamed Triple A, who’s known for giving handjobs/blowjobs in cars. Thus the nickname. And With Triple A, Molly learns an important lesson. No, not that the rumors aren’t true. They are. Triple A likes giving handjobs/blowjobs in cars. She just doesn’t like the nickname.

The reunion occurs the next morning when Molly bails Amy out of jail, and they race to make the graduation ceremony, where Molly, as class prez, has to give a speech; and the speech she’s written isn’t the speech she gives, of course, because she’s learned so much the previous evening about blah blah blah. Yeah, that speech is actually a disappointing part of the movie. So are the so-called 1% (Jared and Gigi, played by Billie Lourd), who were just too over-the-top for me. I didn’t buy them, or care about them.

But I laughed. A lot. And I like the movie’s by-the-way inclusiveness—like it weren’t no big thing. As I was watching, it even made me feel good about this generation. They were putting divisiveness behind us and forging a newer, better, cleaner path. Good for them.

Then we got the big Molly-Amy breakup scene. They’re yelling at each other in the middle of the party, and in front of all the other kids, who stop what they’re doing and listen. You wonder if anyone is going to try to break it up. Nope. In the background, somewhat blurry, you see one light, then another, and then another.

Me: Are the other kids ... filming this?

A second later: Yes. Yes, they are.

Pause.

Yeah, OK, you guys are fucked up, too.  

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Posted at 07:36 AM on Aug 30, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
Thursday August 29, 2019

Yanks Use Former M's to Crush M's on a Beautiful Sky-Blue Day in Seattle

Judge sends it high and deep for 99's 101st career homer.

So after the M’s managed to tie the game in the bottom of the 4th with a 2-run homer by Kyle Seager that eked out over the outstretched supertall glove of Aaron Judge in right field, making it 2-2, and the teams switched sides, I wondered how long before the Yankees retook the lead.

Answer? One batter.

It was a beautiful day yesterday in Seattle, blue skies and highs in the mid-80s, but I knew the afternoon game between the M’s and Yankees wouldn’t be beautiful. First, all those damn Yankee fans. I’m guessing about a third of the crowd wore Yankee paraphernalia. Individually they’re not bad but whenever they score a run you get that contingent clapping “Let’s go, Yank-kees!” like they’re in the fucking Bronx rather than in your backyard. Cue 2016 Felix against Toronto.

Then there was the drama of the pitching matchup: our former ace, James Paxton, he of the no-hitter and American eagle landing on his shoulder, whom we traded in the off-season to the Yankees, going against the main component of that trade, top prospect Justus Sheffield. Paxton has had an off-on season with the Yanks, but lately on, while Sheffield had pitched in two games for us—one in April and one last week. At gametime, his ERA was over 6.00 and his WHIP nearing 2.5. Small sample size but yikes.

For all that, Sheffield might have set ‘em down in the 1st except we overshifted on Gleyber Torres: Second baseman Dee Gordon, playing on the shortstop-side of second, couldn’t move to his left in time. That would’ve been the third out. Instead, Sheffield faced Gary Sanchez, who, on the seventh pitch, launched a ball into the upper deck in left. For a second I thought it might physically leave the park. The only doubt was fair or foul and it was ruled fair, even after the appeal, and the Yanks had a 2-0 lead. Meanwhile, Paxton retired our side on nine pitches.

For all that, there was a moment we had a chance. The winds of fortune shifted. Sheffield settled down and faced the minimum in the 3rd, then struck out the side in the 4th: Sanchez looking, Gardner swinging, Urshela swinging. Fun! And Paxton suddenly couldn’t find the plate. In the 4th, we should’ve scored more, but somehow turned four walks and a homer into just 2 runs, stranding 2. The other walk was erased on a caught stealing.

Still: tie game. But how long would it last?

Five pitches. On a 1-2 count, 27-year-old rookie Mike Ford, whom the Yanks brought up when Luke Voigt went on the DL earlier this month, and who’s hit eight homeruns in that time, went deep. Sheffield got Maybin to ground out, but the Yankees journeyman Tyler “White Shoes” Wade beat our shift again, poking a hit into the empty area by third base and legging out an easy double. Then he stole third. Then D.J. LeMahieu singled and the Yankees had their 2-run lead back. And there went Sheffield ... and in came Matt Wisler, whom we purchased from the San Diego Padres on July 4. (Because nothing says American independence better than buying a dude.) And on Wisler’s sixth pitch, Aaron Judge went deep. The only question was whether he hit it too high but I think it wound up over the bullpen in left. Haven’t seen such a high, arching homer since Mark McGwire’s heyday. 6-2, Evils.

And that’s where it stayed until the 9th when LeMahieu homered to make it 7-2, which got those assholes behind the visitors dugout chanting again. To add insult, in the bottom of the 9th, manager Aaron Boone sent former Mariner Cory Gearrin, whom the Yanks selected off waivers last week, to close it out. So we began against former M’s and ended against former M’s. At least we managed two hits off Gearrin—our second and third hits of the game. Final: 7-3.

And here ya are. And it’s a beautiful day.

Still, and despite the horror of Sheffield’s pitching line (4.1 IP, 6 H, 5R, 7.94 ERA on the season), the kid didn’t do poorly. Two of the hits, and thus two of the runs, I blame on bad shifts. Another run came via Wisler. So we’ll see. I look at his top of the 4th and hold out hope. What else we got?

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Posted at 11:17 AM on Aug 29, 2019 in category Seattle Mariners   |   Permalink  
Wednesday August 21, 2019

Betty Lundegaard (1930-2019)

“She loved horses more than she loved most people,” my sister wrote in the obit, “but she liked people enough that she coveted the middle seat on an airplane.”

My mother died two weeks ago, August 8, 2019, at Jones-Harrison nursing home in Minneapolis. I was on my way to see her. I was waiting in the security line at SeaTac airport when I got word.

After my sister Karen told me the news I asked if should delay coming out. “Are you kidding???” she said. “You know how much there is to do???” Truer words. There should be a book on it. “So You‘re Going to Die...” or “So A Loved One Is About to Die...” or “1,001 Questions to Answer Before You or a Loved One Dies.” I’m not talking existential questions, although those, too. I'm talking the mundane:

  • Open casket?
  • Which casket? 
  • Which vault? 
  • What's a vault?
  • Embalming?
  • Makeup? Hairdo?
  • Flower arrangements?
  • Minister? Pastor?
  • Funeral procession?
  • From where? 
  • Chapel service?
  • Deceased's father's name?
  • Deceased's mother's maiden name?

On some of the bigger questions, I knew where Mom stood. Considering that she'd had a stroke in Sept. 2016 and couldn't speak afterwards, just nod or shake her head, we actually had some fairly deep conversations. This year, for example, on a Saturday morning in May, I found her crying in bed. She'd been crying a lot since the seizures began in December and they'd put her on anti-seizure meds. We were never sure if it was the meds, the seizures, or what, and we'd tried different meds, and different doses, and some seemed to work better than others, but not completely. Mostly we were in the dark.

When I found her that day, crying like she no doubt found me crying at the age of 7, or 3, or 3 months, we had the following conversation. 

  • Are you in pain? Physical pain? (No.)
  • Is someone here hurting you? (No.)
  • Being mean to you? (No.)
  • Do you feel like it's the anti-seizure meds? Chemistry? (Confused. No.)
  • Are you scared? (Yes.)
  • Are you scared of dying? (Yes.)

Pause.

  • Are you scared of being judged after you die? (Yes.)

I did my best with that. I told her that if we‘re judged on our actions in this life, and she, of all people, is judged wanting, then heaven wouldn’t be a very populated place. It certainly wouldn't be a place I'd want to be. 

I confirmed she didn't want to be cremated; she wanted to be buried. Two weeks ago, it was up to my sister and I to figure out the rest.

Some of our answers to the 1,001 questions helped answer the other ones. My sister wanted a closed casket (open caskets creep her out), so we didn't have to worry about hairdo and makeup, and since burial was within six days of death, we didn't have to embalm, either, thank god. My wife's advice was to avoid the ornate and go simple, and we tried, even though the impulse is to spend, spend, spend. What—don't you care? We chose a finished pinewood box which promised that for every such casket purchased, 100 trees would be planted in Wisconsin. We eschewed the gaudy floral arrangements for flowers from the Farmers Market—a place Mom loved. We did the photos ourselves. The chaplain at Jones-Harrison was away on vacation but my sister had a friend who was a minister who agreed to do the service. Initially it was a graveside service. But after visiting cemeteries in the Twin Cities, and deciding on Lakewood Cemetery near Lake Calhoun/Bde Make Ska, we found out they had a chapel there we could use for free, and which was gorgeous. So that's where we did it. Lakewood is where Hubert H. Humphrey is buried (Mom would‘ve loved that), and it’s only a little more expensive and you get so much for that: Not just the chapel, and the beautiful grounds, but a sense of space in figuring out what you want. I felt rushed and pressured at the other place but none of that from Lakewood. The rep there gave us space; and she was so helpful. If you want a name to contact, let me know; I can't recommend her, and Lakewood, highly enough.

There was also an obituary to write, and a eulogy (below), and a service to put on. Thankfully Karen married into a talented family and had talented kids. Here's Jordan singing one of the songs we went with, “Anytime (I Am There),” from the musical “Elegies,” by William Finn. He played it for Karen and I in the basement, and reprised it for me here after the ceremony. As impressive as the singing is, it's equally impressive that he suggested it—that he plucked this perfect song for the occasion, and it dovetailed so nicely with what I was writing in the eulogy, and with what I was thinking and feeling. We'd Googled “funeral songs” but that wasn't among them, and it's much better than the others. Apologies for the hand-held camera.

 

And now I'm back in Seattle, and there's nothing else to do for her now; there's just a bone-deep sadness.

Here's the eulogy.


Shortly after Mom’s obituary went up on the Star Tribune website, and was shared on my sister Karen’s Facebook page, and then mine, I got a text message from my sister-in-law, Jayne. Over the past 10 years Jayne has lost several family members to cancer, including her mother and sister, so she knows her away around this. She knows what to say. She sent her sympathies, of course. She also added this thought: 

We only get one mother and no matter how many years we get with her, it’s somehow never enough.

It was the perfect sentiment for that imperfect time.

 It certainly resonated with me. Thursday morning, just five days ago now, I was working at home in Seattle when I got the call from Karen. Jones-Harrison, where Mom has been living since the stroke in Sept. 2016, called and said Mom wasn’t good and we’d all better gather soon. As I made my plane reservations, I was already thinking of what I wanted to say to her. I wanted to say that because of her, I was able to move through life knowing there was someone, somewhere, who loved me unconditionally. There’s a lot of strength in knowing that. You always have a base somewhere; and she’d given me that base.

I remember when I first moved to Seattle, I arrived abruptly, unprepared, and without much money. I felt like a failure and didn’t want people to know where I was. She was the first person I told, the first person I reached out to for help. Because I knew she would give it without judgment. And she did. She sent me money, even though she didn’t have much of her own, and helped right me again.

The Seattle story I tell more often, though, because it’s funnier, is one from a few months earlier, when I was simply visiting Seattle for the first time. My sister was living there then, and Mom had come out a week earlier and so she knew the lay of the land. She got to show me around. I think she liked that—showing me the ropes. On my first full day there, we walked down Queen Anne hill to take the bus downtown. When the bus arrived—I don’t know why, maybe because she's my mom, maybe because I thought she had a bus pass for both of us—I assumed she would pay. So I just walked in and down the aisle until the bus driver called me back. “Hey, hey, didn’t pay!” I walked back, digging into my pockets for coins. Mom was still standing next to the coin box. “You have to pay,” she said. I did; I dropped the coins in. “Now ask the man for a transfer.” I didn’t have to. The bus driver, suppressing a laugh, just handed it to me. And when I turned to go back down the aisle, I saw an entire busload of people smiling with suppressed laughter. But she was happy. She was showing me the ropes. 

We all have such stories. One of Mom’s best, oldest friends, JoAnna Vail, a nurse like mom, who actually introduced Dad and Mom, and so is the reason we’re all here—certainly Chris, Karen, and myself—she called these stories “Bettyisms.” One time, for example, they were cooking dinner and Dave Vail, her husband, tasted the sauce and said, “Needs a certain je ne sais quoi." Mom said, “You mean salt and pepper?”

Mom had a tendency to collapse hierarchies. She was the farm girl who liked working people and the British royal family. When my father was a young reporter, he introduced her to the owner of the Minneapolis Tribune and she responded, “Oh, you work for the paper, too!” In the late ’60s, a party was thrown for John Berryman, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, who had recently returned from Ireland on a Guggenheim fellowship. It was thrown by the mayor of Minneapolis, Art Naftalin, and was full of the movers and shakers of the Twin Cities. Plus Mom and Dad. At one point in the evening, John Berryman gave a poetry reading, which he dedicated to three women in the room: Fran Naftalin, the wife of the mayor and hostess; Maris Thomes, the wife of his friend and physician, Boyd Thomes; and Betty Lundegaard. At the mention of the third name, all of these people, the movers and shakers, turned wondering, “Betty Lundegaard?” And there was mom, sitting on the floor, almost preening, as proud as could be.

She didn’t have much formal education. There’s a movie that reminds me of mom and me: “Philomena,” with Steve Coogan and Judi Dench: His college smarts learning her wisdom. Mom was just so kind and genuine. She liked people. She loved animals and they loved her. Everyone here knows about the horses. She was all about the horses. I can’t have a eulogy for Mom without mentioning Jody’s Nifty Bee, her favorite.

She loved being a nurse. That’s why she kept doing it until she was 80: open-heart surgery, eye surgery. If any of us were sick in the middle of the night, she would be ready in the bathroom with a cold washcloth for our forehead. Me especially. I was a sickly kid. Mom was a nurse for 50 years but 60 if you count my childhood. She had a nurse’s instinct. She knew Karen was pregnant just by talking to her on the phone, long before Karen told anyone.

She loved doctors. She would quote her favorite, Dr. Segal, as if her words had come down from Mt. Sinai. Her time nursing also made her somewhat blunt about medical matters. I once came home and found the following on my answering machine. It was her stern voice, meaning something serious had happened: “Erik. This is your mother. Uncle Roger is in the hospital. He’s bleeding from his rectum.” 

But my sister-in-law Jayne is right. We get so many years but it’s somehow never enough. I was waiting in the security line at Sea-Tac airport when Karen called again with the news that mom had passed on. At the Minneapolis airport, my brother-in-law Eric picked me up, and we drove out to Jones-Harrison. It was past midnight. My sister made sure they didn’t move the body until I arrived, so I had time with her. So I could say the things I wanted to say. And I did. I told her that because of her, I was able to move through life knowing someone, somewhere, loved me unconditionally, and what a gift that was. But it wasn’t the same. Of course not. There’s a blunt finality to death. When I was talking to her, she didn’t react, as Mom always reacted; Mom lit up when you talked to her. And when I kissed her goodbye, her forehead was the one thing mom never was: cold.

But I’m glad I had that moment. And the truth is I’d been saying these things to her as soon as I’d heard the news in the security line at SeaTac airport. Ever since, I’d been talking to her and telling her things. Going through security, waiting at the gate, on the plane. It’s like in the beautiful song that my nephew Jordan just sang. “I am there each morning/I am there each fall/ I am present without warning/ And I am watching it all.” My wife’s mother died six years ago and she says she talks to her every day. I imagine I’ll be the same. I’m already talking to her about all this: Mom, look at this chapel. And free. What a deal Karen got! And did you hear the songs your grandsons sang? Thank god they have Eric’s voice. And look at all the nice people who showed up. What a time, Mom. What a time.

Talk soon.

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Posted at 09:20 AM on Aug 21, 2019 in category Personal Pieces   |   Permalink  
Wednesday August 07, 2019

Hey Jack Kerouac, I Think of Lopes' Homer

Last night, after Omar Narvaez lined a single to right in the 7th inning, breaking up Dinelson Lamet's bid to become the first pitcher in San Diego Padres history to throw a no-hitter (the only MLB team that doesn't have one), and after the Padres scored 3 more in the top of the 8th, making it 8-0, there didn't seem to be much for a Mariners fan on a lovely Tuesday Seattle night to root for. But then baseball happened. 

No, the Mariners did not threaten. Not really. We just had a nice moment in the bottom of the 8th.

Mariners fans need nice moments in this rebuilding phase, where the players come and go with dizzying regularity, and where the only game we might win against the other 29 teams would be Scrabble, considering our current high-value Scrabble-tiled players: Broxton, Narvaez, Vogelbach and Mallex, each of whom started last night. At one point a call to the pen brought in Zac Grotz. That's right: from Z to shining Z. 

The comedy that is the 2019 Seattle Mariners was exemplified by the caps on the pitching matchup I saw on ESPN.com before the game:

 

A little one-sided. Which is, of course, how the game turned out.

The nice moment in the 8th began with a little nubber from Mallex Smith that didn't go more than 10 feet. The Padres' catcher sprang on it, but Mallex has wheels, and the throw was a little high, necessitating a slight jump from first basemen Eric Hosmer. Safe. So instead of 2 out and nobody on, we had one out and somebody superfast on. Next batter, J.P. Crawford, lined a single to left-center and Mallex went for third and to be honest I thought he was going to be nailed. Nope, safe again, and the Pads had blown their umpire challenge on Hosmer's hop. Meanwhile, Crawford went to 2nd on the throw. Now we‘re cooking. Then Domingo Santana singled, and we had a run. Then Santana stole 2nd and the throw went into center field and we had another run. Meanwhile, the batter was someone named Tim Lopes. My friend Andy, who keeps abreast of the comings-and-goings of the Mariners less than I do, asked who he was. I shrugged and looked at the scoreboard. Lopes had an odd line: 2 games, 1 AB, 0 H, 1 W, a .667 OBP. I was trying to make sense of the OBP math (answer: he got hit by a pitch) when Lopes clobbered a pitch over the left-centerfield wall.

Andy and I were celebrating and high-fiving with the guy sitting next to us, an air-traffic controller from Ireland, who was attending his first baseball game with his family at the tail end of a west-coast family vacation. At one point I asked him if he had any questions about the game but he seemed to understand it well enough. “It’s similar to a game called rounders we played in school,” he said. Rounders from visiting Brits again. Cf., this afternoon game from 2017.

I think we first began to talk to him in the 5th inning or so, when Andy and I were talking literature, and he disagreed with Andy's disparagement of Jack Kerouac. It was a good-natured conversation with a “grass is greener” tinge. Andy, who has read Ulysses several times, and once did the Joyce walk around Dublin, talked up James Joyce, whom our Irish friend thought overrated; while our Irish friend talked up the all-American Jack Kerouac, whom we thought overrated. So it goes. 

As Lopes was rounding the bases, I looked up at his stats again and said, “I wouldn't be surprised if that was his first Major League hit.” Five seconds later, the scoreboard announced exactly that, and he got a curtain call and everything. Nice moment for the kid, who isn't much of a kid: He turned 25 in June. Mariners drafted him in the sixth round in 2012 and he's been bouncing around the minors ever since, where his slash line was a not-great .277/.339/.382. This year, though, he hit better in AAA Tacoma (.302/.362/.476), maybe because AAA is experimenting with the bouncier MLB ball and homeruns have skyrocketed. Either way, he got the call up in July. He came in as a 9th-inning defensive replacement July 24 (no chances, no ABs), then started the next game against Detroit, playing second and batting ninth. He led off the bottom of the 3rd and drew a walk against Drew VerHagen and later scored on an error. He led off the bottom of the 4th with a HBP, stole second, and scored on a triple by J.P. Crawford. In the 5th, he grounded out (there goes his 1.000 career OBP), and in the 7th he was replaced by Dylan Moore. The fear was concussion from the HBP. He was activated before last night's game when—more fun for M's fans—Tim Beckham was suspended 80 games for a PED violation.  

Good thing. Lopes, apparently unrelated to Davey, gave some buzz to the evening that otherwise wouldn't have had much. His homer, in fact, was the last Mariners hit of the game. After him, we went gentle into that good night.

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Posted at 11:20 AM on Aug 07, 2019 in category Seattle Mariners   |   Permalink  
Monday August 05, 2019

‘How Did Any of Us Walk Away Unchanged?’

In the wake of the mass murders in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio this weekend, Joe Posnanski wrote the following poem and posted it on his site, where he usually writes about sports. This piece is called “This Isn't Sports.” It begins this way:

Didn't a little piece of you die in Newtown?
A little piece of me died there.
Babies.
They were just babies.
Cut down like wheat
Babies
Six and seven years old
Still learning how to read and write
Big block letters
Unicorns and baseball cards
Teachers
Jumping in front of a Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle
A Glock 20SF handgun
Hoping to save one

How did we not all die in Newtown?
How did any of us walk away unchanged?

It's that last line that got me. How did the NRA/GOP get away with it? They evoked Hollywood (“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun...”), whom they also attack. They also made asinine suggestions like arming teachers. There's this thing that kills people, see, so the way to reduce the killings is to make sure more people have this thing that kills people. It's Illogic 101.

Yet they got away with it. We let them get away with it.

Joe goes on to mention other places now marked as places of mass murder: Tucson, Vegas, Virginia Beach, Chippewa Falls, Sebring and Aurora. He goes through Yountville and Paintsville and Nashville and Asheville. He ticks off so many places, so many tragedies, for which we did nothing. Half of them I'd already forgotten. That's how often it happens here:

In Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit
Just as in Lutcher and Gravette and Ascension Parish
In a Pittsburgh Synagogue
And a Charleston church
And a Sutherland Springs church
And an Annapolis newspaper office
And an Orlando nightclub
And Marjory Stoneman Douglas High
And an El Paso Wal-Mart
And just outside a Dayton Bar

How do any of us walk away unchanged? Yet bit by bit we are changed. For the worse.

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Posted at 02:18 PM on Aug 05, 2019 in category Culture   |   Permalink  

Ng Joins Breitbart

Last week I read that David Ng, entertainment reporter for the LA Times, was hired by the right-wing propaganda site Breitbart.

First thought: Is that the guy who... 

Yes, that's the guy.

Two years ago, Ng wrote a piece in the Times whose headline says it all: “In liberal Hollywood, a conservative minority faces backlash in the age of Trump.” I wrote a response for Salon a few days later mostly attacking the notion of a liberal McCarthyism or a liberal Hollywood blacklist—notions perpetuated by right-wing propaganda sites like ... Breitbart.

And now the writer of that Times article is with Breitbart. Shocked, shocked.

He's written often of the Breitbart. Such as here in late Nov. 2016: Breitbart News sees advertisers exit, calls Kellogg's decision ‘un-American’

The ickiness is really in pretending they‘re not doing what they’re doing; that they‘re legit. Like this: 

“I’ve always been drawn to publications that have an iconoclastic voice and that challenge the orthodoxy on both sides of the political spectrum. Breitbart is definitely that,” says Ng. “It's hard to overestimate the impact that Andrew Breitbart has had on our current political and cultural climate, and I'm excited to be part of that legacy.”

“Both sides.” Good god. 

“I'm excited to be part of that legacy.” Have fun with the white supremacists, David.

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Posted at 09:49 AM on Aug 05, 2019 in category Politics   |   Permalink  
Sunday August 04, 2019

Box Office: Ampersand-Heavy ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ Wins Weekend; But...

Not a fan of box office takes like these:

This hed is from Indie Wire, which should know better. And does, really. You read the article and it's all about why studios are reluctant to make new, original movies like “Once Upon a Time...” when even a spinoff from a profitable franchise can turn this kind of buck. But that's Box Office 101 these days. As Joe Henry sang in “Dirty Magazine”:

Just tell me everything I‘ve heard before
Like it was news
Like it was news

To me, the real story is that even though “Hobbs & Shaw” won the weekend, and did so with the 8th-best opening of the year, it’s way down from previous “Fast & Furious” franchise films:

Not sure what to make of that “Fast & Furious presents...” bit. Will other franchises follow suit? “Star Wars presents...” “Batman presents...” Just what we need: more colons in film titles. Not to mention ampersands. 

After “F&FP:H&S,” the third weekend of “Lion King” came in at $38.2 for a domestic total of $430 and a worldwide take of $1.195 billion. It's now No. 2 both domestically and worldwide, beating out “Captain Marvel” on both charts. 

Tarantino's take on LA 1969 dropped 51% for another $20 mil; it's at $78 domestic, which, unadjusted, is fourth-best for a QT movie, after “Django” ($162), “Inglourious” ($120), “Pulp” ($107). Adjust and “Pulp” is No. 1 at $228.

In true indie-wire news, “The Farewell” added 270 theaters for 409 total and grossed another $2.4 mil for $6.8. That's the movie you should go see. That and “Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood.”

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Posted at 03:29 PM on Aug 04, 2019 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  
Saturday August 03, 2019

Movie Review: Hatchet Man (1932)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s not often that a movie in which the principle characters are white actors in yellow face is more embarrassing for its sexual politics. But here we are.

After playing Italian gangster (“Little Caesar”) and Greek barber/gambler/gangster (“Smart Money”), Warner Bros. cast Edward G. Robinson as Wong Low Get, an honorable hatchet man from Sacramento, who is sent to San Francisco for a job. What is a hatchet man? The opening title card tells all. Warning: It's a bit dated:

San Francisco's Chinatown of fifteen years ago had the largest Oriental population of any colony outside China. Its forty thousand yellow residents were divided into various political factions known as “Tongs,” each governed by a President and Council. These various Tongs were almost constantly at war, so the office of “Hatchet Man” was one of special importance. The honorable title of “Hatchet Man” was passed from father to son by inheritance only, and it was he, with the aid of his sharp axe, who dispensed the justice of the great god Buddha.

Basically they keep the peace by chopping off people’s heads. And whose head needs chopping off in San Francisco? “Not Sun Yat Ming, the silk merchant?“ says Wong Long Get, stunned. ”But he’s my closest friend!”

Of course he is.

And how about that name? Sun Yat Ming? They didn’t dig deep into Chinese history for that one, did they? Why not Chiang Kai Qing? It’s as if the Chinese created an American character called Abrajim Lincoln.

Initially objecting in a way that gives us backstory (“Why, we were boys together, came over on the same boat from China”), Wong relents and sadly visits Sun (J. Carrol Naish), who is, of course, writing his will. And of course leaving everything to his good friend Wong Low Get—including, by the way, the hand of his daughter, Toya (Loretta Young) when she comes of age. Except she’s not Loretta Young yet. She’s just young: 6 years old, to be precise.  

Yikes.

When Harry met Toya
We do get some nice early shots from director William Wellman. When the gong of war sounds, the camera pans across the street and back again, as people panic. And after Sun is killed by Wong, we cut to his daughter falling asleep, while her doll, with its head barely held on, lolls to the side. Nice.

One would think the plot would revolve around what happens when Toya (a name that sounds a bit Japanese) discovers her husband killed her father, but that doesn’t enter into it. Suddenly it’s 15 years later, the Tong wars are heating up again, and Wong, now on the council, keeps pushing for diplomacy. He warns that the actions of Tong president Nog Hong Fah (Dudley Digges) will cause wars in Chinatowns across the U.S. Wong’s argument wins the day, but Nog (a name that sounds a bit ... caveman) insists on bodyguards to protect against assassins from the east. Wong finds this amusing—a bodyguard for a hatchet man—and when he sees them he dismisses them aloud: “Boys. Just little boys.”

One of the little boys is Harry En Hai (Leslie Fenton), whom we’ve already seen make a play for Toya at a nightclub. Of course he’s assigned to Toya. Of course Wong is sent to Sacramento. Of course when he returns he finds Toya in Harry’s arms. They’ve become lovers. A dark shadow falls across Wong, and Harry panics:

Harry: You can’t take the law into your own hands like this! We’re in America.
Wong: Tonight, we three are in China.

Except Toya objects, Wong remembers his promise to her father, so he gives her to Harry. He makes one demand: Make her happy. Classy move, considering. But not to Nog, who expels Wong from the Tong for acting “in a manner unworthy of the great Lem Sing Tong.” In a flash, Wong loses his wife, his place in society, his business.

As slow-paced as the first hour is, the final 10-15 minutes cover a lot of ground. When we next see Wong, he’s an itinerant field worker, yet somehow a letter from Toya finds him. Guess what? Harry didn’t exactly make her happy. Opposite. They’re in China, he’s an opium addict, and she’s become a servant girl in the same opium den. She calls it “a living death more terrible than that which mercifully puts an end to suffering.”

So hatchet man to the rescue. He buys back his hatchets from a pawnbroker, shovels coal to pay for his slow boat to China, and finds her in an opium den/brothel at No. 7, Street of Red Lanterns. The Madame there objects to Wong taking Toya, since she paid good money for her, but Wong plays the hatchet-man card. He demonstrates with an expert throw across the crowded room—which, unbeknownst, kills Harry, who was leaning against the wall on the other side. That’s how the movie ends. Someone is talking to Harry, and Harry, dead-eyed, seems to be shaking his head, but it’s because someone is trying to dislodge the hatchet on the other side. When it’s pulled free, Harry falls, we hear a scream, the movie ends.

That's a pretty good end for a pretty weak movie.

Related to Russian royalty
“Hatchet Man” is a First National picture, which is basically Warner Bros., which is why you have all the Warners players from the early ’30s in yellow face. It was based on an unproduced play, “The Honorable Mr. Wong” by David Belasco and a guy named Achmed Abdullah, a pulp writer who grew up in Afghanistan and claimed he was related to the Russian tsar. One gets the feeling his life and lies would’ve made a more compelling movie than this one.

In his 1932 New York Times review, Mordaunt Hall writes of the New York premiere in which Robinson and Abdullah overpraise each other and visiting star Janet Gaynor blows kisses from the audience. Hall, who mistakenly calls Naish’s character “Sun Yat Sen,” doesn’t praise the movie much, but adds:

It is, however, a fast-moving tale with an Oriental motif and one of its particularly effective features is the make-up of the players, not so much that of Mr. Robinson but of others, especially Dudley Digges and Loretta Young.

So the thing that was praised then is what’s embarrassing now. I’d also disagree that the make-up was effective, particularly for Loretta Young. She looks ridiculous. And was it considered far-sighted that the white actors don’t use pidgin English but speak in their own voices? Maybe, but it winds up sounding ridiculous, too.

Question: Did Robinson always play guys betrayed by women? Was that part of his shtick? Cagney slaps them around, Bogart gets his heart broken, Robinson is betrayed. 

All of this is true, by the way: the Tong wars and the hatchet men in turn-of-the-century Chinatowns. A good movie could be made from this.

What was praised then is what's embarrassing now. 

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Posted at 07:22 AM on Aug 03, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Friday August 02, 2019

Box Office: How Often is the Biggest Movie of the Year (Worldwide) Not a Sequel?

I recently found out Box Office Mojo has a page that breaks down worldwide box office by year. This is helpful. I think of all the times I went to its overall worldwide box office page and searched by year. Now, no need. 

If you go to the year-by-year page, what do you immediately notice? In the ‘90s, those titles were sure shorter, weren’t they? Because? Yes, they weren't sequels. No need for colons. Sometimes just a word would do. “Ghost.” “Aladdin.” “Titanic.”

A few years ago I did a post where I broke down, by decade, how often the biggest domestic movie of the year was a sequel. Wait, a few years ago? It's been 10 already. It looked like this:

  • 1970s: 0
  • 1980s: 2
  • 1990s: 2
  • 2000s: 7

Except this was before “Avatar” was released and it looked like “Transformers 2” would be No. 1 for 2009, so I included it in the 2000s. So if you correct that, and add this most recent decade (I'm assuming “Avengers: Endgame” has got it this year), it looks like this:

  • 1970s: 0
  • 1980s: 2
  • 1990s: 2
  • 2000s: 6
  • 2010s: 9

I should clarify: I'm not just counting sequels, but prequels and “continuing universe” movies. So, to me, both “Avengers” and “Black Panther” fit that bill. The one year in the 2010s the No. 1 domestic movie wasn't a sequel, prequel or continuing universe movie? 2014: Clint Eastwood's “American Sniper.” It's also the lowest-grossing of the decade's top-grossing films: $350 million. About a third of what “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” made a year later.

Anyway, that's how we look domestically. 

And worldwide? For which we now have a page? It's similar:

  • 1990s: 2
  • 2000s: 8 
  • 2010s: 9 

The only top worldwide movies this century that weren't sequels, prequels or “continuing universe” movies were:

  • 2001: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (because it was first)
  • 2009: Avatar (ditto)
  • 2013: Frozen (ditto)

The top movies for the last six years have all been colon movies: Long titles with a colon in the middle, as “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” The days of one-word titles dominating? Gone like “Ghost.”

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Posted at 09:26 AM on Aug 02, 2019 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  
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