Movie Review: Dark Phoenix (2019)
This thing pissed me off right away. It pushed my buttons.
We begin in 1975, with little Jean Grey in the back of the family car. On the radio we hear a country song, Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which is an unnecessary bit of foreshadowing. Dad says it’s a classic, but little Jean doesn’t want to listen to it. So with her mind she switches stations and we hear Warren Zevon belting out, “Aw-wooooooo, werewolves of London.”
Me: Wait a minute, that didn’t come out in ’75. It was later. Right?
So why did they use it? For the “Aw-woooooo!” part?
I’m not two minutes in.
The movie nearly won me back. Unable to control her powers, Jean causes the car to veer into the opposing lane, into a truck, and both parents are killed. For Jean, not a scratch. A young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) shows up at the hospital and invites her to his academy for gifted students. She’d doubtful, he’s kind.
Jean: You think you can fix me.
X: No. Because you’re not broken.
It's a nice scene. But then they blow it again. God, do they blow it.
Last Stand 2
Have to say: It was ballsy of them to return to the Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix storyline since that’s the plot of “X-Men: Last Stand” and “Last Stand” basically ruined everything in the X-Men universe. It killed off Prof. X, Scott and Jean, stripped Magneto of his powers, and left the filmmakers nowhere to go. So they went backward and rebooted the series as a 1960s prequel: “X-Men: First Class.” Then in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (the best of the bunch), they created an alternate timeline in which mutants were outed in the 1970s—a brilliant maneuver since it allowed them to bypass the mess of “Last Stand” and do whatever they wanted with the characters again.
And what do they do? Return to the mess of “Last Stand.” Cue face palm.
Worse, who do they tap to write and direct it? Simon Kinberg, the guy who wrote “Last Stand.” It’s his first feature-film directing credit. Maybe his last, given the box office.
It is interesting comparing the two movies. In “Last Stand,” Prof. X is not at all regretful that he created psychic barriers in order to save young Jean from the immensity of her own power. “I don’t have to explain myself—least of all to you” he sneers at Wolverine. It’s a line so out of character I assumed it wasn’t Prof. X speaking but Mystique or someone. Nope: him. He says he had to choose the lesser of two evils and went with that one and he’s not regretful.
In “Dark Phoenix,” Prof. X is continually regretful. He apologizes like a zillion times. Plus what he does isn’t nearly as bad. In “Stand” he created psychic barriers to control Jean because she was too powerful. In “Phoenix” he creates psychic “walls” to protect her from unending trauma: the fact that she caused the death of her mother and in the aftermath her father (who survived) didn’t want her. That’s why Prof. X raised her himself. And he gets no end of shit for it.
Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is particularly bad. She’s a nag. Did no one see this? Were they all so blinded by #MeToo and the need for strong female characters that they let J-Law become a harridan?
In this timeline, it’s 1992, the X-Men are celebrated rather than feared, and Prof. X has a direct line to the president. Manned space flights are still happening, so maybe the Challenger disaster didn’t, but either way the latest space flight encounters a solar flare and the X-Men are shot into space to save them. But Jean (Sophie Turner of “Game of Thrones”) gets caught in the flare, kinda dies, then comes back to life. Back home, the other mutant kids begin to call her Phoenix. She begins to drink a lot of wine. A sure danger sign.
Even before the wine drinking, Raven questions Prof. X (invariably pouring himself a bourbon—another danger sign) on what they’re doing: the bigger risks they’re taking. “Please, tell me it’s not your ego,” she says. “Being on the cover of magazines, getting a medal from the president. You like it, don’t you?” Maybe he is drinking too much, because he can’t answer these charges. Me, I’d go, “Bigger risks than what—taking on Apocalypse? And I don’t create the disasters. They’re there, and we do what we can, and nobody has to go if they don’t want to. You can opt out.” Instead he says it’s better than being hunted, which it is, but otherwise he’s kinda mute.
And it’s not enough for Raven. “It’s not our life, it’s his,” she tells Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult). “What do you think the X in X-Men stands for?” And when she finds out about the psychic walls? Hoo boy.
Raven: What did you do to her, Charles?
X: I ... saved her.
Raven: What did you do?
X: I protected her.
Raven: From the truth. There’s another word for that.
I’m not sure what that word is. Lying? Either way, Jean goes off, finds her father, discovers that he didn’t want her, gets angry. And in a confrontation with some of the X-Men, she kills Raven, who, with her dying breath, tells Hank that she loved him. It’s almost like the torch is being passed to a new generation of X-Men with grudges against Prof. X:
Hank: This is your fault, Charles. It’s your fault that she’s dead. ... She saw what the rest of us didn’t.
X: And what was that?
Hank: This whole time, we’ve been trying to protect these kids from the world, when really we should’ve been protecting them from you.
Really, Brainiac? Because he tried to shield a little girl from tragedy?
Anyway, a distraught Jean, with Raven’s blood on her shirt like she’s Lady Macbeth, seeks out Magneto (Michael Fassbender, looking gorgeous), who’s running a commune. She wants to know how he turned to good. He wants to know whose blood that it is. (He, too, loved Raven, you see.) When he finds out, he’s Magneto again.
Eventually, he and his team, including Hank, assemble to kill Jean, while Prof. X and his team assemble to save her. Meanwhile, aliens, led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), try to entice her to their side. But really they want the power the solar flare gave her. “It’s the spark that gave life to the universe,” Vuk says. “It destroyed everything it ever came into contact with. Until you.”
The battle includes an absolutely horrific scene where a smiling Jean uses her powers to make Prof. X walk, puppet-like, up the stairs to her and Vuk. Then we get the apology parade. From him. “I was trying to protect you—I was trying to keep the pain away,” he says. It’s only when Jean enters his mind that she sees all the good, realizes the X-Men are her family, and fights Vuk and the aliens to protect her family. She disappears in an explosion in the form of a Phoenix. In the aftermath, Hank takes over the Xavier Academy, it’s renamed in honor of Jean (not Raven?), and the movie ends, as “Last Stand” ended, with Magneto playing chess. At least this time he’s doing it with Prof. X at a café in Paris. If you’re going to do it, that’s the way to go.
50th of 58
The movie was a disaster—with both critics (23% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences. There have been 12 X-Men movies, and the worst any of them did at the domestic box office was 2013’s “The Wolverine,” which, trying to overcome the absolute disaster of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” managed to gross only $132 million. This one? Half that: $65 million. That’s shocking for a modern superhero movie. Currently, “Dark Phoenix” ranks 50th among 58 Marvel movies. The only movies that did worse at the box office include: the 2015 “Fantastic Four,” the second “Ghost Rider,” the third “Blade,” the two “Punisher”s, “Elektra” and “Howard the Duck.”
So are we just tired of it? Do we have, if not superhero fatigue, X-Men fatigue? (Probably.) Is Sophie Turner not the box-office draw Hollywood thinks she is? (She’s not the box-office draw Hollywood thinks she is.) Was it a mistake to return to this story so soon? (Oh yeah.) Was it a mistake to hire the screenwriter for “Last Stand” to write and direct it? (Fuck yeah.)
The movie even writes its own epitaph. Before the big battle, Magneto tells Prof. X the following:
You’re always sorry, Charles, and there’s always a speech. But nobody cares anymore.
M's Playoff Drought Reaches 18th Year
Yeah, not exactly news. We knew it in March. Or at least by the time the M's turned their shocking 13-2 start into a 20-23 deficit a month later. We were 11 games over .500 on April 11 and 11 games under .500 by May 30. Quick work. Hopes dashed. See you next year. Or the year after. Or...
Anyway, it's the 18th straight season the M's haven't played October baseball, which is the longest such drought in baseball. It‘s not the longest drought in baseball history—not by a longshot. That would be 41 years, shared by three teams:
- St. Louis Browns: 1903-1944
- Philadelphia/KC/Oakland Athletics: 1930-1971
- Cleveland Indians: 1954-1995*
(*Were the Indians the only original-16 team that didn’t make the postseason during the first playoff era (1969-1993)? Yep. Even the hapless Chicago White Sox did it twice (1983, 1993). Even the hapless Cubs (1984, 1989)).
Here's the various title-holders for “Longest drought” throughout MLB history: How many years without seeing the postseason; and how many years they held the “longest drought” title.
|LONGEST DROUGHT TEAM||PERIOD||YEARS||YRS W/TITLE|
|St. Louis Browns||1903-1944||41||18|
|Chicago White Sox||1919-1959||40||9|
|Phil/ KC/ Oakland Athletics||1931-1971||40||11|
|Mon. Expos/Wash. Nationals||1981-2012||31||16|
|Kansas City Royals||1985-2014||29||2|
|Toronto Blue Jays||1993-2015||22||1|
The length of the droughts are shrinking because it's easier to get into the postseason. The Browns had just one slot: AL pennant. The M‘s, in the wild card era, have had either four or five slots. Even with expansion, with 30 teams rather than 16, your have better odds today.
If you’re curious how the other 29 teams have done since the last time the Mariners were in the postseason in 2001, well, you came to the right place:
After the M's, the longest MLB postseason droughts are the usual suspects: Marlins (2003), Padres (2006), and the White Sox (2008). Every other MLB team has gone to the postseason this decade. Every one. Think of that.
Take us out, Tanner Boyle and Timmy Lupus.
Billy Jack, Dirty Harry and the Lafayette Escadrille
I like this screenshot from the movie “Lafayette Escadrille,” which was the last movie Wild Bill Wellman directed. A few future stars in it.
“Lafayette Escadrille” is a 1958 melodrama set in France during World War I, starring Tab Hunter (center). According to Wellman's son, Wild Bill wanted the kid on the right for the lead; Warners said no. Tab Hunter was a draw, Clint Whatshisface most definitely wasn't (he hadn't even begun “Rawhide” yet), and that was that. Warners also demanded changes to the end. Hunter's character dying in battle? Nope. He lives, and reunites with his prostitute/girlfriend, and they live happily ever after. That's Hollywood.
The other guy in the screenshot is Tom Laughlin, who made a huge splash as the half-Indian Billy Jack in a series of films in the early 1970s. He was a violent cinematic hero of the left (he didn't want to fight, but...) as Eastwood's Dirty Harry was the violent cinematic hero of the right (“I'm all broken up about that man‘s rights”).
I still haven’t seen the movie, by the way; I took the screenshot from a good documentary about Wellman's life and career. All three men are talking heads in it.
I still think you can make a good movie about the Lafayette Escadrille—the foreign legion of American pilots, including Wellman, who joined WWI before the U.S. did. You can write an essay on its emblem alone: Chief Sitting Bull with a pre-Nazi swastika in its headdress. A lot to unpack there.
Liddle' Shop of Horrors
In the wake of the Ukraine scandal and the beginning of impeachment inquiries by the U.S. House of Representatives, Pres. Trump remains as calm and steadfast as ever:
To show you how dishonest the LameStream Media is, I used the word Liddle’, not Liddle, in discribing Corrupt Congressman Liddle’ Adam Schiff. Low ratings @CNN purposely took the hyphen out and said I spelled the word little wrong. A small but never ending situation with CNN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 27, 2019
- “hyphen”? He means apostrophe
- What the hell is Liddle with an apostrophe anyway? I get “Liddle.” In his usual bully-at-recess manner, Trump is trying to make a U.S. representative seem small—smaller than even the use of “Little”—by saying it like a kid would say it. But what's “Liddle” apostrophe? That's nothing. Is he thinking “Li‘l”? As in “Li’l Abner”?
I don't think I'm smart enough to fathom this stupidity.
Reminder: This is the president of the United States.
Movie Review: John Wick (2014)
If you’re going to do a revenge flick, a puppy and a ’69 Mustang are good reasons to seek it.
I’d been hearing about “John Wick” for years, the chorus growing louder as the box office receipts to its sequels grew larger: from $43 million for the first, to $92 for the second, to, this year, $171.
It’s certainly atmospheric and moody—but not crushingly so. It’s got a light touch and even vague humor. The Continental Hotel, for example, which is owned by Winston (Ian McShane of HBO’s “Deadwood”) and run by the impeccable Charon (Lance Reddick of HBO’s “The Wire”), is not just a landing spot for criminals on the run, a “safe place,” as it were, where no one can do business on the premises; it’s almost otherworldly. Particularly from Reddick, you get an Overlook Hotel vibe.
The whole thing, of course, is otherworldly in the way of Hollywood crime/gangster movies. These people live in a world not like ours. You take care of 12 assassins in your house, calmly make a “dinner reservation” for 12, and superefficient cleanup men arrive to remove the evidence. Cops are not a factor. The rule of law is not a factor.
What these men have instead of the law is a code. “No business at the Continental” is just one aspect of it. It’s throughout. Who do you trust? And who are the ones who just get sloppy?
You don’t tug on Superman’s cape
First to get sloppy is Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), son of Russian crime boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist of “The Girl with...” movies). He’s at a gas station, sees John Wick (Keanu Reeves) filling up his ’69 Mustang, asks about it, offers to buy it. Not for sale. But he doesn’t leave well enough alone. He insults him in Russian but John knows Russian and answers in kind before driving off. But Iosef still doesn’t leave well enough alone. He and his two doofus friends break into John’s home in the middle of the night, kill his puppy, steal his car, but they leave him alive.
Quick question: How do they find out where he lives without finding out who he is? Because who he is is the main thing. These guys thought they attacked Clark Kent, and I assumed they’d realize, by and by, no, they attacked Superman. But it’s not by and by. Everyone tells them: Hey, fucksticks, that was Superman! Then everyone waits for Superman to crash through the wall.
I missed the by and by of it, to be honest. I like the dawning realization.
Wick isn’t just Superman but a grieving Superman. He was once assassin for Viggo but asked out to marry the love of his life, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), whom we mostly see in iPhone videos and dreamy flashbacks. She dies of a disease. He’s distraught. Then he get the puppy in the mail—a final gift from his now-dead wife so he’ll have something to love again. That’s what Iosef and his friends kill.
The first to let them know who they fucked with is Aurelio (John Leguizamo), who runs an underworld autoshop. They want new VIN numbers, etc., for the ’69 Mustang, but he recognizes it, asks where they got it, then decks Iosef and orders him out of his shop. Aurelio lets Viggo know. Then Viggo lets his son know.
Does Viggo have more honor than Iosef or is he just smarter? Viggo knows his son is in the wrong but it’s still his son. So the 12 assassins. Nope. Then a $2 million bounty, which, given the stakes, seems skimpy. Why not $100 million since you stand to lose everything? Eventually Viggo hires Marcus (Willem Dafoe), a sniper, whom we first saw in that most clichéd of action-movie scenes—at the outskirts of a funeral holding an umbrella in the rain. Marcus takes the money, follows Wick around, but he’s more guardian angel than assassin. He uses rifle shots to alert John or take down enemies. He’s got a code, too.
One who doesn’t have a code? Another assassin, Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki). She attacks John in his room at the Continental, but he gets the upper hand and leaves her with a colleague, Harry (Clarke Peters of HBO’s “The Wire”); then she gets the upper hand on Harry. I like how we assume she’ll be the assassin trailing John for the rest of the movie, as in James Bond, but they don’t even have a final confrontation. Winston takes care of her. She didn’t follow rules.
All of this makes me think a littlel of Don Corleone: “Women and children can be careless but not men.” This movie is playing into that. It’s wish fulfillment for older men, really. The young are idiots who play video games and trash talk, while women don’t have a code or don’t follow it. They’re careless. Real men are older, talk little, and drink bourbon. They do their job and got your back and clean up the mess.
Like ‘Ip Man’ but not
Apparently a lot of thought went into the fight choreography. I couldn’t pause without Amazon Prime informing me, via IMDb, that in this fight Keanu uses this martial arts style while his opponent uses that one. But it ain’t Hong Kong. There’s little beauty in it.
There is, however, a purity and simplicity. Like in “Ip Man,” which reduced the kung fu flick to its essence, “John Wick” does the same with revenge fantasies. There’s not much that’s extraneous.
Did I enjoy it? Not really. It’s not my thing. Guns aren’t my thing, nor the Russian mob. Look at the poster above. Keanu isn't in focus, the gun is. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know.
Rudy Can't Fail
Here's a laugh-out loud paragraph in The Guardian's article on the growing Trump-Ukraine scandal, and the dangers for people around the president—including Attorney General William Barr and Trump's personal attorney, and former Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani:
Through a spokesperson, Barr has denied involvement. Speaking on Fox News, Giuliani has enthusiastically detailed his involvement, but said he was working at the behest of the state department, which the state department has denied.
'I Would Like You to Do Us a Favor, Though'
This morning, the White House released what was mistakenly called a transcript, and which is in reality a phone summary with many redacted points, and trumpeted their victory over the Democrats.
Then everybody read it—or read someone who read it—and their jaws fell open. Key exchange:
Zelensky: I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.
Trump: I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike... I guess you have one of your wealthy people... The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you‘re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it: As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that's possible.
... (< This ellipsis is mine)
The other thing, There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it... It sounds horrible to me.
Republicans are still out there defending this, saying the Dems are crazy, that Trump is innocent, when it's obvious, just from the above—from the official White House redacted version—that he's not. It's astonishing, really. They‘ve listened to their own bullshit for so long, via Fox, Rush, et al., they think they can keep manufacturing their own version of reality no matter how far it strays from the actual version of reality. But they can’t. At some point, it breaks. This might be the point. Finally.
Does he go down? How fast? And who goes with him? Dems are already talking about keeping the focus of the impeachment inquiry narrow but I think that's a mistake. At the least, you‘ve got to keep an eye open for the rest of it. This isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. It's a snowball on the tip. This is just how Trump operates. You get this, and worse, everywhere.
Today, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would open an impeachment inquiry into Whatshisface, Donald Somethingorother. Pres. Blah Blah. Here's why, via The New Yorker. The bullet-pointing is mine:
- On July 18th, the Pentagon and the State Department were informed that the President had decided to suspend almost $400 million in aid to the new government of President Volodymyr Zelensky, who took office in May.
- On July 25th, Trump called Zelensky and, as he admits, discussed former Vice-President Joe Biden, whose son Hunter had done business in Ukraine. Trump also urged the young Ukrainian leader—eight times, according to the Wall Street Journal—to investigate the Bidens for corruption.
- In early August, Rudy Giuliani, the President's personal lawyer, met with a representative of Zelensky's government in Spain and, according to the Times, again urged an investigation of the Bidens.
- Three weeks after Trump had frozen the funds, the aid had still not been released.
- On August 12th, an anonymous whistle-blower in the U.S. intelligence community filed a complaint involving communications between Trump and Zelensky.
- On September 9th, members of Congress were notified of the whistle-blower's complaint and demanded that it be released.
- Finally, on September 11th, the Administration released aid to Ukraine, which faces existential military challenges from Russia.
That's a dry, just-the-facts-so-far-ma‘am rendition, but it gets at it. Here’s the main: Trump urged a foreign leader to investigate a political rival for his own benefit. That's it. That's enough. That's a violation of his oath of office right there. Using foreign policy levers and coffers is simply the icing on the cake.
Truth is, he's been putting himself above country from Day 1. Let's hope Day Last is soon.
‘Cool Papa Bell’ Starring Jamie Hector
On Twitter, a history prof. was asking who should play who in an historical movie. He wanted likenesses between historical figures and current actors. I think he had Jack Black playing someone? Sorry, it was a few weeks back.
Anyway, this was my decidedly 20th-century contribution:
The guy on the left is Cool Papa Bell, one of the best players in the Negro Leagues, and the man about whom it was said he was so fast he could turn off the light and be in bed before it got dark. He's been honored by both Ken Burns, in his baseball doc, and Paul Simon, in this song, but never by Hollywood. Not by name. And he's got a helluva name.
The guy on the right is actor Jamie Hector, who played Marlo Stanfield, the cold-blooded gangster in seasons 3-5 of HBO's “The Wire.” I can't remember when I made the connection between the two. I think I was just looking at a photo of Cool Papa and going, “Who does this remind me of again?” Then it hit.
I‘ve been thinking about compiling a list on the horrors of Donald Trump and his presidency, since he, and we, keep moving on. It’s as if after the Watergate break-in, Nixon had admitted it, then said it wasn't illegal, then kept doing it—bugging hotels in other cities where Democrats were meeting and strategizing—while simultaneously embracing Brezhnev and Pol Pot, knocking Pierre Trudeau and Georges Pompidou, and attacking Walter Cronkite. That, but worse. A thousand times worse.
Anyway, I don't have to compile such a list now because David Leonhardt has done it for us. Please read it, remind yourself of it, memorize it. We need to arm ourselves.
- He has pressured a foreign leader to interfere in the 2020 American presidential election.
- He urged a foreign country to intervene in the 2016 presidential election.
- He divulged classified information to foreign officials.
- He publicly undermined American intelligence agents while standing next to a hostile foreign autocrat.
- He encourages foreign leaders to enrich him and his family by staying at his hotels.
- He spends hours on end watching television and days on end staying at resorts.
- He often declines to read briefing books or perform other basic functions of a president's job.
How much of the federal government remains unstaffed? Or is headed by someone antithetical to its cause? Or by someone who plans to monetize it for his/her own purposes? It's like that scene in “The Sopranos” where Tony takes over the sporting goods store of a friend and they just pick it to death; he and his cronies tear it apart like a roast turkey. That's what Trump is doing to our government and our country.
Read, remind, memorize.
Movie Review: It Chapter Two (2019)
Not to spoil everyone’s fun but the homophobic bullies from the beginning of the movie get away with it. It’s a horrific scene and nothing happens to them. They’re still out there. I mean, I’m glad most of the Losers are OK, but .... the fuck?
Same with the girl beneath the bleachers. That happens and nothing. Poof. No crying mother on TV. No demands from the town council to investigate. “Kids are missing again. Why does this seem to happen every 27 years?” Silence.
I actually got pissed off at the town of Derry, Maine, in this thing. Bullies roaming free, a murderous clown showing up every 27 years, and where are they? The only one who’s doing anything is the township’s lone black guy living in its library attic. Is he conferring with law enforcement? Would you? And not just in a #BlackLivesMatter way. Sheriffs aren't exactly bright spots in Stephen King's work. Years ago, for MSN, I ranked the top 5/worst 5 Stephen King adaptations, meaning I had to watch all of them, which is pain enough for anyone, and I noticed so many incompetent sheriffs and evil trucks that it became a question for each of the ranked movies: Evil truck or incompetent sheriff? No evil trucks here, but the Derry sheriff is so incompetent he doesn’t even exist. We never see him. Kids are being killed again and where is he?
Well, at least it’s got a Chinese restaurant now. That’s progress. But mostly for the fortune cookie bit, I imagine.
Sans Batman, Robin, Starlord, Mysterio and Black Panther
In my review of “It” I wrote that every parent in town was worth zero: “Less than zero. There are no adults in the room. The kids have to be the adults in the room.” Now the kids are the adults in the room.
Great casting, by the way. They all look like older versions of the younger actors.
So it should’ve been Amy Adams. I mean, Sophia Lillis is a dead ringer. The press/marketing says the kids got to request who they wanted to play them, and Sophia said Jessica Chastain and Chastain said yes. First, I don’t buy the press reports. Warner Bros./New Line is going to entrust casting for their billion-dollar property to teenagers? Besides, everyone’s going to want the movie-star version of themselves and it’s not going to be sustainable. Apparently that happened. According to IMDb, here’s who the kids requested and who they got:
- Sophia (Beverly) wanted Jessica Chastain and got ... Jessica Chastain
- Finn Wolfhard (Richie) wanted Bill Hader and got ... Bill Hader
- Chosen Jacobs (Mike) wanted Chadwick Boseman and got ... Isaiah Mustafa
- Jack Dylan Grazer (Eddie) wanted Jake Gyllenhaal and got ... James Ransone (Ziggy of “The Wire,” season 2)
- Wyatt Oleff (Stanley) said Joseph Gordon-Levitt and got ... Andy Bean
- Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ben) wanted Chris Pratt and got ... Jay Ryan
- Jaeden Martell (Bill) wanted Christian Bale and got ... James McAvoy
BTW, and assuming they had influence: Thank you, Finn Wolfhard. Hader is one of my favorite actors. I think he’s going to win an acting Oscar someday if he doesn’t give it up. He’s also perfect for a grown-up Richie. Now if only he could’ve been Jewish.
As the movie opens, it’s 2016, and most of the Losers have left Derry. The further away they got, the more the horrors of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) dimmed, until they basically forgot him. Impossible, right? Well, it’s not normal forgetting. “Something happens to you when you leave this town,” Mike tells them. “The farther away, the hazier it all gets.” He’s the only one who remembers since he’s the only one who stayed. He’s been researching the evil ever since.
Once Pennywise returns, Mike alerts them, and they all return, somewhat confused. The only one who doesn’t come back is Stanley. He’s just too scared. But he knows, somehow, they all have to be together to make it work. So, as he says in a letter near the end of the movie, he removes his piece from the gameboard. He kills himself.
I like that their first reaction to remembering and encountering Pennywise again is to get the fuck out of Dodge. But Mike convinces Bill to stay, and Bill convinces some of the others. And what has Mike learned after 27 years of research? Apparently an ancient Native American ceremony might kill the evil. Why didn’t it kill Pennywise before? The final answer is that, oops, it doesn’t really work, but that’s third-act stuff. In the meantime, each Loser has to find a personal item (on their own) for the ritual (that doesn’t work). But it leads to some good, scary scenes—particularly Beverly visiting her old apartment and encountering a kind old lady (Joan Gregson), who, we see, is Pennywise, skittering insectlike behind Beverly’s back. So creepy. Felt very “Twin Peaks.” These personal journeys also create flashbacks that allow us to see the kid versions of the Losers again.
In the meantime, the school bully from the first movie, Henry Bowers (Teach Grant), who’d been pushed to his apparent death, is actually alive and living and in a mental asylum. He’s also grown to seed. When he sees a red balloon signaling the return of Pennywise, he teams up with his now-zombie toadies to wreak revenge upon the Losers. Why is he in thrall to Pennywise who killed his friends? Who knows? Bullies will bully. He actually stabs Eddie in the cheek—the cheek the creepy pharmacist had recently pinched—then shows up at the library and is about to kill Mike when Richie splices his head open with an axe. Or something. To me, Bowers is a subplot we didn’t need. The movie’s long enough already.
Question for people who read the novel: Did the little boy die in the Hall of Mirrors or is that another Pennywise illusion to fuck with Bill? That’s the thing: When is the horror an illusion (fortune cookies morphing into monsters, a giant Pennywise terrorizing a carnival) and when does it have real-world repercussions? At time, it almost felt like the Losers were invulnerable to Pennywise. He would fuck with their minds but leave no physical wounds. Anyone know why? Other than they’re the stars?
All of this leads us back to the abandoned Neibolt house, which was dilapidated in 1988-89, and now looks like ash, but is somehow still standing there on the corner next to nice homes with manicured lawns. (The Derry township can’t even condemn a fucking property right.) They go down the well, through the sewers, and into the creepy spot from the finale of the last film (a pile of circus props and kids toys). But that’s not enough. From there, they keep descending: down a sewer, crawling and scraping to get to a specific subterranean locale for the incantation that doesn’t work. They’ve basically arrived defenseless into Pennywise’s lair. It’s a wonder only one of them dies. Bye, Eddie. See ya, Zig.
There’s a running gag throughout the film in which fans of Bill say they liked this or that book of his but never the ending. Apparently it’s a criticism Stephen King heard a lot. He even gets to say it here, to Bill, in a great cameo as the most unimpressed of Maine shopkeepers. And while the ending to this film isn’t great (it goes on too long), I liked the ending to Pennywise. Since he has to abide by the rules of the shape he’s in, they decide to make him small by escaping through a narrow aperture. But he doesn’t bite. Then they realize there are other ways to make someone feel small. They’ve felt it all their lives. So they taunt him and insult him until he becomes small enough that they can rip his heart from his chest and crush it.
OK, so it’s not great. I mean, Pennywise can have his feelings hurt? But at least it’s using brains rather than fists.
Sans Eddie and Stanley
Other complaints. In the novel, the kids’ portion was set in the 1950s, and the adult portion in the 1980s. In the movie, it’s 1980s and 2010s, but they didn’t always update properly. The flashbacks to 1980s Derry look very 1950s, while Bill’s childhood bike is a Schwinn? Why not a BMX like in “E.T.”? Plus when he repurchases it from Stephen King’s grousy Maine shopkeeper, what does he say as he rides it down the street? Right: “Hi-yo, Silver!” That’s a ’50s kid, watching Clayton Moore’s Lone Ranger, not an ’80s kid. Certainly not after the Klinton Spilsbury version.
“It Chapter Two” is scary enough—I watched much of it through splayed fingers—just not as scary as the first. Which makes sense. They’re adults now. The world, and clowns, are much scarier when you’re a kid. Plus we don’t see Pennywise much. Plus they keep giving us the horror in the sigh after the horror doesn’t appear. Like that’s supposed to still shock.
Here’s a question: Will the township of Derry become nicer without the evil nearby? Or is the evil we see the townspeople commit—from horrific bullying to sex abuse—unrelated to Pennywise? I assume the latter. There’s a real sense here of things we can’t escape. Our heroes all leave the horrors of Derry and wind up in similar situations. Momma’s boy Eddie winds up married to a woman just like his mom—and played by the same actress. Beverly, abused by her father, winds up abused by her husband. Even Ben, chubby and brutalized in Derry, who manages to turn himself into a trim, hugely successful architect, is creating open-spaced buildings in reaction to the claustrophobia he felt in Derry. As for Bill? He becomes Stephen King, and relives the horror all the time. With, one imagines, evil trucks and incompetent sheriffs.
At least the movie gives them all (sans Eddie and Stanley) a happy ending. Beverly winds up with Ben, who’s now gorgeous and rich. Richie had his standup, Bill his writing, and Mike finally gets to leave Derry. Good for him. And good riddance. Has there been a more worthless town in movie history?
Really tired of “Impeachment is useless because it will fail” takes. Impeachment will succeed. REMOVAL will failbut that's on Republicans. At least the Democrats will have done their job and made their case.— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) September 22, 2019
High Crimes, High Time
“Trump has already done more than enough to warrant impeachment and removal with his relentless attempts, on multiple fronts, to sabotage the counterintelligence and criminal investigation by then-special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and to conceal evidence of those attempts. ...
”The current whistleblowing allegations, however, are even worse. Unlike the allegations of conspiracy with Russia before the 2016 election, these concern Trump's actions as president, not as a private citizen, and his exercise of presidential powers over foreign policy with Ukraine. Moreover, with Russia, at least there was an attempt to get the facts through the Mueller investigation; here the White House is trying to shut down the entire inquiry from the start — depriving not just the American people, but even congressional intelligence committees, of necessary information.
“It is high time for Congress to do its duty, in the manner the framers intended. ... Congressional procrastination has probably emboldened Trump, and it risks emboldening future presidents who might turn out to be of his sorry ilk. To borrow John Dean's haunting Watergate-era metaphor once again, there is a cancer on the presidency, and cancers, if not removed, only grow.”
George Conway and Neal Katyal, “Trump has done plenty to warrant impeachment. But the Ukraine allegations are over the top,” in The Washington Post
'I Cannot Imagine a More Corrupt Act...'
I cannot imagine a more corrupt act than a President of the United States urging a foreign nation to investigate a private citizen because that person is the son of a political rival.— Kurt Eichenwald (@kurteichenwald) September 20, 2019
And if he promised military aid in exchange - it is off-the charts mind-blowing.
The Wall Street Journal broke the story this afternoon. Apparently on July 25, Trump, talking by phone to Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, pushed him to aggressively investigate Hunter Biden, the son of presidential candidate Joe Biden, who once served as a board member on a Ukrainian energy company. He wanted dirt to use against Biden in the 2020 campaign. Maybe he wants it to make sure Biden won't be the candidate?
From the Washington Post:
The call is part of a broader set of facts included in the whistleblower complaint that is at the center of a showdown between the executive branch and Congress, with officials in the Trump administration refusing to divulge any information about the substance of an Aug. 12 report to the inspector general of the U.S. intelligence community.
Early Twitter reaction:
- Clint Watts: Seems we went from “No Collusion” to “All Collusion, All The Time”
- Norman Ornstein: This is impeachable now. Right now.
- Susan Hennessey: Either they impeach him for this or the constitutional remedy no longer exists.
- Kurt Eichenwald: If @ODNIgov Joseph Maguire refuses at a committee hearing to turn over the whistleblower report as required under #TitleVIIofPublicLawNo105272, @RepAdamSchiff must request the House Sergeant at Arms to immediately take Maguire into custody.
- Seth Abramson: Any Democratic politician who hems or haws in response to today's breaking news and suggests that the actions described would *not*, if proven true, be impeachable on at least five grounds is not a politician who believes in or is willing to support the rule of law in America.
Sadly, the Dem response has been weak. Again:
The Trump Admin is clearly violating federal statute by blocking the head of US Intelligence from providing Congress with a whistleblower complaint described as being of "urgent concern & credible.” The stonewalling must end. What is the President hiding? https://t.co/Yg0LqT5HMd— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) September 20, 2019
The problem is twofold: A hugely corrupt president and political party (the GOP), and an opposition unwilling to fight.
Elsewhere, around the world, kids are marching to bring attention and action to man-made climate change.
‘Only in America’
“You have an industry that was run by Jews, censored by Catholics, with an audience of Protestants. ... Only in America.”
Steven Ross, USC history professor, in the 2007 documentary “The Brothers Warner,” on the early days of Hollywood. Unfortunately, “Brothers” is a tiresome doc, since it's written-directed by Cass Warner, Harry's granddaughter, and is too much about burnishing the family rep. I could only watch about a third of it. But Ross is good as a talking head.
Baseball Team WAR: The Answers
Yankees' Mr. October, yes. Yankees' Mr. WAR? Less.
Yesterday I posted nine questions about baseball team-related WAR. Here are the answers. If you'd rather check out the questions first, without the answers, go to yesterday's post.
1. Two active players lead their current team’s all-time WAR chart—meaning, in theory, they‘re the most valuable player that team has ever had. One of them is Mike Trout with the Angels. Who is the other?
Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers. That's what started this whole deep dive into bWAR. I was like, “Wait, so, by this measure, Kershaw is the best player in the long history of the Dodgers/Robins/Superbas? That covers a lot of ground.” (Insert Groucho joke.) But yes, according to the Dodgers BR team page, he's at 67.7 bWAR, which is a tick better than previous record-holder Don Drysdale's 67.1. Pee Wee Reese(!) is third (66.3), followed by Duke Snider (65.7) and Jackie Robinson (61.4). Sandy Koufax is ninth. Short career. Brief moment in the sun.
2. Two other active players are the all-time WAR leaders for an MLB team but not the one they’re currently playing for. Name them.
Evan Longoria for the Rays (49.8) and Giancarlo Stanton for the Marlins (35.5). Stanton's is the lowest WAR for any best franchise player, Longoria's second-lowest. Every other team has at least one player who accumulated 50+ WAR for them.
3. Which player in baseball history accumulated the most WAR for one team?
Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins franchise with 164.3. Second is Willie Mays with the NY/SF Giants with 154.8. No one else is above 150.
4. Which player has the most overall WAR but didn't make the top 5 for any one team?
It's gotta be a great player who divided his time (and loyalties) between teams, right? And it is: Alex Rodriguez. He's 16th all-time in WAR with 117.8 but it's divided between the Mariners (38.1), Rangers (25.5), and Yankees (54.2). His Mariners WAR is sixth-best on that franchise, Rangers is 14th-best, Yankees 11th-best. BTW: The answer was nearly Cy Young, who is third all-time with 163.6, but most of that for a team/franchise that doesn't exist: the National League Cleveland Spiders. But he accumulated enough bWAR in eight seasons with the Red Sox (66.5) to tie Dwight Evans for fifth place. (Oh, and here's the story of my encounter with A-Rod.)
5. Thirty-one players in baseball history have accumulated 100+ WAR but only 15 managed to do so for one team. Which team has the most such 100+ WAR players? Hint: It's not the Yankees.
It's the New York/San Francisco Giants: Willie Mays (154.8), Barry Bonds (112.5), Mel Ott (107.8) and Christy Mathewson (104.0). The Yankees have three: Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle. Braves two: Hank Aaron and Kid Nichols. Senators/Twins, Tigers, Cards, BoSox, Pirates and Phillies each have one. See the chart below.
6. This is a bit convoluted. If you count the top 5 players in terms of WAR for each of the 30 MLB franchises—so 150 slots in all—only two names appear twice. One has the fourth-most WAR for one team and fifth-most for another. The second player has the most WAR for one franchise and the fifth-most for another. Name them.
Eddie Collins accumulated the fourth-most WAR in White Sox history (66.7) and fifth-most in A's history (57.3). And Randy Johnson has the fifth-most for the Mariners (39.0) and the most for the Arizona Diamondbacks (50.9).
7. Which player has the highest WAR for any expansion franchise?
George Brett's 88.7 WAR for the KC Royals is the best on any expansion franchise.
8. Here's a few for the Yankee fans and/or haters: Of the 22 numbers the team has retired, and excluding managers (Billy, Casey, Torre), who accumulated the least amount of WAR while in pinstripes?
Ready? It's Mr. October, Reggie Jackson. He managed 17.2 WAR in his five seasons with the Bronx Bombers. Second is Roger's Maris' 26.3. Both obviously had their numbers retired for other reasons: 61 for Maris, 3 for Reggie.
BTW: Haven't run the numbers yet, so take it with a grain of salt, but I assume the player who accumulated the least amount of WAR for a team and still had his number retired is Wade Boggs' two-year, end-of-career stint with the Tampa Bay Rays. His WAR for them was 1.2. Which kind of matches his #12 that they sadly retired.
9. Now reverse it: Which player accumulated the most amount of WAR for the Yankees but never had their number retired? Who's second?
Pitcher Red Ruffing tallied 57.3 bWAR for the Yankees from 1931 to 1946, which is the eighth-most in Yankees history—better than, among others, Whitey Ford, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettite and Ron Guidry. But they didn't retire numbers much back then. Gehrig's was the first in MLB history, in 1939, and the Yankees did about one a decade after that: Ruth in ‘48, DiMaggio in ’52, Mantle in ‘69. Then it was off to the races; but Ruffing was generally overlooked. Plus the number he wore for most of his Yankee career, #15, was retired in 1979 when Thurman Munson died in a plane crash.
As for second-most Yankees WAR with no retired number? That’s A-Rod again. Unless attitudes toward him soften, I imagine A-Rod will be the greatest modern player to never have his number retired by any team he played on.
Here's a chart of the top three players in terms of bWAR in each MLB team's history, as sorted by first player WAR. Some head-scratchers in there:
|TEAM||PLAYER 1||WAR||PLAYER 2||WAR||PLAYER 3||WAR|
|Minnesota Twins||Walter Johnson||164.3||Rod Carew||63.8||Harmon Killebrew||60.5|
|San Francisco Giants||Willie Mays||154.8||Barry Bonds||112.5||Mel Ott||107.8|
|Detroit Tigers||Ty Cobb||144.8||Al Kaline||92.8||Charlie Gehringer||80.7|
|Atlanta Braves||Hank Aaron||142.5||Kid Nichols||107.2||Warren Spahn||98.9|
|New York Yankees||Babe Ruth||142.4||Lou Gehrig||112.4||Mickey Mantle||110.3|
|St. Louis Cardinals||Stan Musial||128.2||Rogers Hornbsby||91.4||Bob Gibson||89.1|
|Boston Red Sox||Ted Williams||123.1||Carl Yastrzemski||96.4||Roger Clemens||80.8|
|Pittsburgh Pirates||Honus Wagner||120.1||Roberto Clemente||94.5||Paul Waner||68.2|
|Philadelphia Phillies||Mike Schmidt||106.8||Robin Roberts||71.7||Steve Carlton||69.4|
|Baltimore Orioles||Cal Ripken Jr.||95.9||Brooks Robinson||78.4||Jim Palmer||68.4|
|Kansas City Royals||George Brett||88.7||Kevin Appier||47.0||Amos Otis||40.8|
|Chicago Cubs||Cap Anson||84.7||Ron Santo||72.1||Ryne Sandberg||68.1|
|Cleveland Indians||Nap Lajoie||80.0||Tris Speaker||74.2||Bob Feller||63.4|
|Houston Astros||Jeff Bagwell||79.9||Craig Biggio||65.5||Jose Cruz||51.4|
|New York Mets||Tom Seaver||78.8||David Wright||50.4||Dwight Gooden||46.3|
|Cincinnati Reds||Pete Rose||78.1||Johnny Bench||75.2||Barry Larkin||70.4|
|Oakland Athletics||Eddie Plank||77.4||Rickey Henderson||72.7||Lefty Grove||64.9|
|Milwaukee Brewers||Robin Yount||77.3||Paul Molitor||60.0||Ryan Braun||47.7|
|Chicago White Sox||Luke Appling||74.5||Ted Lyons||70.7||Frank Thomas||68.3|
|Los Angeles Angels||Mike Trout||72.6||Chuck Finley||51.8||Jim Fregosi||45.9|
|Seattle Mariners||Ken Griffey Jr.||70.6||Edgar Martinez||68.4||Ichiro Suzuki||56.2|
|San Diego Padres||Tony Gwynn||69.2||Dave Winfield||32.0||Jake Peavy||26.8|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||Clayton Kershaw||67.7||Don Drysdale||67.1||Pee Wee Reese||66.3|
|Colorado Rockies||Todd Helton||61.2||Larry Walker||48.3||Troy Tulowitzki||39.4|
|Toronto Blue Jays||Dave Stieb||56.7||Roy Halladay||48.0||Tony Fernandez||37.5|
|Washington Nationals||Gary Carter||55.8||Tim Raines||49.2||Andre Dawson||48.4|
|Arizona Diamondbacks||Randy Johnson||50.9||Paul Goldschmidt||40.3||Brandon Webb||31.1|
|Texas Rangers||Ivan Rodriguez||50.1||Rafael Palmeiro||44.6||Adrian Beltre||43.2|
|Tampa Bay Rays||Evan Longoria||49.8||Ben Zobrist||36.0||Carl Crawford||35.6|
|Miami Marlins||Giancarlo Stanton||35.5||Hanley Ramirez||26.9||Josh Johnson||25.7|
Let me know if you notice any errors.
Baseball Team WAR: The Quiz
Over the weekend I did a deep dive into the team pages of Baseball Reference. I like their team pages. At the top, they list all the numbers retired by that team (Mariners have two, Edgar and Junior, while the Yankees lead the pack with 22, which I won't bother to list here), as well as the best players in that franchise's history by bWAR (Wins Above Replacement as calculated by Baseball Reference). Babe Ruth, for example, is tops on the Yankees team page, but not with his overall WAR (182.4), just the WAR he accumulated with the Yankees (142.6). The rest he accumulated with the Boston Red Sox as both hitter and pitcher (19.3 and 20.6), and with the Boston Braves in his final truncated season after the Yankees cut him loose (-0.1).
You get the idea.
Anyway, I was on one team's page and I was surprised by who led that team in WAR. It was an active players for original-16 team. It made me wonder how many active players have accumulated the most WAR in their team's history.
That's the thought that led to the deep dive. It also led to these trivia questions. I‘ll post answers tomorrow.
- Two active players lead their current team’s all-time WAR chart—meaning, in theory, they‘re the most valuable player that team has ever had. One of them is Mike Trout with the Angels. Who is the other?
- HINT: It’s an NL team.
- HINT: He made his MLB debut in 2008.
- Two other active players are the all-time WAR leaders for an MLB team but not the one they‘re currently playing for. Name them.
- HINT: One started in the AL, won rookie of the year, and now plays for an NL team.
- HINT: The other started in the NL, was a recent MVP, and now plays for an AL team.
- Which player in baseball history accumulated the most WAR for one team?
- HINT: The franchise is no longer in the same city, nor has the same name, as when he pitched for them.
- Which player has the most overall WAR but didn’t make the top 5 for any one team?
- HINT: He played for three teams—all in the American League.
- HINT: I once had a memorable run-in with him. Well, memorable to me.
- Thirty-one players in baseball history have accumulated 100+ WAR but only 15 managed to do so for one team. Which team has the most such 100+ WAR players?
- HINT: It's not the Yankees.
- HINT: They switched cities in the 20th century.
- This is a bit tough and convoluted. If you count the top 5 players in terms of WAR for each of the 30 MLB franchises—so 150 slots in all—only two names appear twice. One has the fourth-most WAR for one team and fifth-most for another. The second player has the most WAR for one franchise and the fifth-most for another. Name them.
- HINT: One player began his career in the first decade of the 20th century, and the other ended his career in the first decade of the 21st century.
- HINT: The modern player is a pitcher.
- Which player has the highest WAR for any expansion franchise?
- The team is tied for the most World Series titles by any expansion franchise.
- Here's a few for the Yankee fans and/or haters: Of the 22 numbers the team has retired, and excluding managers (Billy, Casey, Torre), who accumulated the least amount of WAR while in pinstripes?
- HINT: His number is also retired by another team.
- HINT: The two retired numbers aren't the same.
- Now reverse it: Which player accumulated the most amount of WAR for the Yankees but never had their number retired? Who's second?
- HINT: The first player's most-used number was retired by the Yankees for another player in the 1970s.
- HINT: The second player had to switch numbers when he joined the Yankees, because the iconic number he wore had long been retired by the Yankees.
See you tomorrow.
UPDATE: Here are the answers .
Movie Review: Other Men's Women (1931)
Apparently they were down with OPP in the 1930s, too. At least at Warner Bros.
In the clunkily titled “Other Men’s Women,” Loretta Young-elopee Grant Withers plays Bill White, a raconteur for the railroad who has a girl in every station. We first see him stepping off a slow-moving train and ducking into a station diner for three eggs and double entendres with the waitress. He’s counting all the while. Counting what? Double entendres? No. Train cars, we soon realize. So he knows when to get back on board. Like a lot of early Warner Bros. leads, he also has a catchphrase. Offering a stick of gum, he says “Have a little chew on me.” He must say it 10 times in the first 10 minutes.
He also drinks too much, carouses, and is tossed out of his flat by a stuttering female landlord, whose stutter he makes fun of. Plus he’s trying to avoid Marie (Joan Blondell), one of his dames. Not sure why.
Good news: His colleague Jack (Regis Toomey) has offered to let him stay at his place, further out of town, with his wife, Lily (Mary Astor of “Maltese Falcon” fame), and a handyman, Peg-Leg (J. Farrell MacDonald), who, yes, has a literal peg leg. At one point Peg-Leg and Lily are arguing over who should use the shovel to turn the earth for her sweet-pea garden. Peg-Leg wants to help but can’t really use the shovel, which is about when Bill offers his services. Then we see the result: Bill turning the earth, Peg-Leg following behind and poking a hole in the ground, into which Lily plants her seeds. Everyone is useful. Nice scene.
Bad news: The longer he stays the more he and Lily flirt; and one day, when Jack is gone, she’s sewing a button onto his shirt, he feigns to dance with her, and we get this exchange.
Bill: Say, I think you‘re the swellest girl in the world.
Lily: Oh, you’re a dear. And just for that I'm gonna give you a little kiss.
At which point both suddenly realize the depths of their longing for each other. She moves off, he pesters, he grabs and demands to know how she feels, she admits, they kiss.
And to think, it all began with “Say, I think you’re the swellest girl in the world.” Sign of a true lothario: making that line work.
When Jack returns, he senses something wrong—his wife is pale and Bill isn’t around. In fact, he’s already fled. But they’re still colleagues, so Jack sees him. By the time Bill confesses to kissing Lily, Jack thinks it’s worse. They fight, Jack gets the worst of it, and his head hits a rail. Result?
“He’s blind,” Lily says. “Stone blind.”
Now we’re in melodrama territory. A character can’t go blind—let alone stone blind—at the end of the second act without it being a melodrama.
As for the final act? Bill is still working on the railroad, now partnering with his friend Ed (James Cagney, fourth-billed in his third film), when the rains come. A flood might wash away the bridge, so Bill decides to take a train, loaded with cement, and drive it onto the bridge to weigh it down. Or something. Ah, but Jack overhears and stumbles to do the job himself. Now they’re fighting over who gets to sacrifice himself. Jack, blinded, wins this one. He drives the train onto the bridge, a wave comes, the bridge collapses, there goes that.
To sum up, Jack lets Bill stay at his place, and Bill repays him by:
- cuckolding him
- blinding him
- floating the idea that kills him
You’d think this wouldn’t lead to a happy ending but you’d be underestimating Hollywood’s capacity for such things. At the end, we get a refrain of the opening. Train pulls up, Bill, counting cars, goes into EATS, and now Lily is there, too. They’re happy to see each other. They make small talk. She asks him to come see her sometime. He makes it back to the train, and, as he’s running along the top, jumps up and down in excitement.
“Other Men’s Women” was written by playwright/actress Maude Fulton and directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman. We get a few good shots—like when Jack feels his way toward the train that will lead to his sacrificial death—but no memorable lines. Withers isn’t bad but you get why he didn’t last as a leading man. He played big, and often goofy, and not exactly smoldering. Blondell is underused and Cagney criminally so, but we do get to see him dance lightly across the screen. He and Withers also have a nice bit talking atop the train cars, and, without looking, stooping for low bridges because they know the route so well.
As stated, it’s Cagney third movie role. In his fifth, also for Wellman, they made movie history.
Movie Review: Late Night (2019)
What a disappointment.
I get why screenwriter/star Mindy Kaling created up-and-comer Molly Patel (Kaling), who gets a dream job writing for iconic female late-night host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), since Kaling was an intern for Conan O’Brien and the sole woman and person of color on the writing staff of “The Office” back in 2005. She knows this stuff.
I just don’t get why the female late-night host. If Kaling was a rarity in writing rooms, Newbury didn’t exist. Not in the early ’90s, when her show supposedly started, and not today, when all the late-night slots are taken by Stephen, Seth, two Jimmys and a James. If you’re riffing on the sexism of the industry, as this movie does, why create a character that makes the industry seem progressive in comparison?
And why make her British? And starchy and out-of-touch? Yes, apparently off-camera Johnny Carson was abrupt and unavailable, but on-camera he was the epitome of sly charm—and we don’t see that from Newbury. Yes, Carson got famously out-of-touch near the end of his 30-year reign, leading to Dana Carvey’s blistering “I did not know that ... Wild, weird stuff...” imitation, so I guess that’s a good avenue to explore, but you need the other elements. You need someone who seems funny. Was Ellen DeGeneres too busy for the role? Lily Tomlin? How about Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Tina Fey—aged 10 years? Thompson’s a pro but I saw nothing about her character that would make me think she’d been a national comic treasure for almost 30 years.
Not very PC
I must’ve seen the trailer a zillion times during the Seattle International Film Festival. It was playing the Centerpiece Gala, a prestigious slot, but the more I saw the trailer the more I worried. That’s the best they’ve got? What’s in this not-very-funny trailer?
Yep. “Late Night” is supposed to be about funny people and it’s not very funny.
Newbury gets off some zingers but overall she’s entitled and out-of-touch. She thinks she doesn’t have to keep up-to-date to keep an audience. New writers are told: Nothing happened after 1995, not the internet, and certainly not social media, so don’t mention any of that. Plus she’s sexist. Her writing staff consists of eight Yalie white men. Her personal assistant, Brad (Denis O’Hare), tells her, “I think you have a problem with living female writers on your staff,” and when it becomes an issue, he’s ordered to find her one. And there, across his desk, is Molly Patel, who works at a chemical plant, and has never done standup or comedy writing of any kind; she’s just a fan of the show. But she gets the gig. Because she’s a woman.
Also because she gets off this line.
Brad: A TV writer’s room is ... It’s not very PC. It can be a pretty masculine environment.
Molly: Oh, I saw most of the writers. I’m not overly worried about masculinity.
It’s one of the movie’s last funny lines.
That sets it all up. Molly is young, non-white, kinda hip; Newbury is old, very white, and decidedly unhip; and the movie’s trajectory is for Newbury to open up enough to Molly’s ideas to save both of their careers.
Except the stuff Molly comes up with? The worst. We get a recurring on-the-street bit called “Katherine Newbury: White Savoir,” where she helps two black dudes hail a cab, a fat woman buy clothes (I think), and some other dude get fries by complaining on social media. This is what turns the show from soporific into “a viral sensation.” I remember my father used to complain about movies in which some fictional Broadway show would get a standing ovation opening night when it was so bad it would probably close in a week, and this is the modern version of that. Even if people got the joke, and there isn't much of one, Newbury would be skewered more than celebrated for “White Savoir.”
As for that politically incorrect writers room? I wish. These guys are sweethearts. There’s a cute monologue writer (Reid Scott of “VEEP”), an older, empathetic, I’ll-be-fired-any-day-now dude (Max Casella), a lothario (Hugh Dancy), a fat guy (Paul Walter Hauser), and some non-descripts. At one point, they wonder over this “diversity hire” but they kind of whisper it. Mostly they’re there to support Molly. When a story breaks that Katherine slept with the lothario, cheating on her Parkinson’s-ridden husband Walter (John Lithgow), they all seem shocked. They soul search. “I thought she really loved Walter,” says the “VEEP” dude, betrayed. It comes off more like a consciousness-raising session.
You like us again; you really like us again
The story about the affair sets up our third act. Katherine takes a sabbatical, then says she’ll return to hand over the show over to the douchey standup the network wants (Ike Barinholtz); Molly says no, she should acknowledge the affair and fight for her show. They argue. Molly’s fired. “VEEP” dude shows up at her house to buck her up. Then Katherine does what Molly suggested, wins back the crowd, wins over the network president (Amy Ryan), keeps the job, and shows up at Molly’s new apartment to woo her back. A year later, everything’s hunky dory.
I didn’t like anybody in it. No, not true. I mostly didn’t like our female leads. It’s basically another example of female storytellers (Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra) giving us flawed, unsympathetic female characters and sympathetic, supportive male ones. Which is fine, but the flaws should be interesting. “Late Night” sets up the usual false dichotomy of Hollywood films: High culture is snooty so let’s wallow in the YouTube muck. These are our only two options.
O’Hare, who’s been in everything, is good, as is Casella. I particularly liked Lithgow’s Walter. There’s a scene when Molly attends a party at Katherine’s and finds Walter upstairs alone playing the piano. She listens. They talk. It’s nice. I didn’t want to leave that room.
Box Office: J-Lo Makes it Rain, ‘IT 2’ Scares Up More
Girls just wanna have bonds.
Could “Hustlers,” in which sympathetic strippers rip off douchey Wall Street brokers in the lead-up to the 2008 Global Financial Meltdown, be Jennifer Lopez’s first $100 million movie? It came in second this weekend, grossing $33 million, and such films are usually right on the cusp. From recent years:
|2018||Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again||$34,952,180||$120,634,935||3,514|
|2016||The Magnificent Seven (2016)||$34,703,397||$93,432,655||3,696|
|2019||The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part||$34,115,335||$105,806,508||4,303|
|2018||A Wrinkle in Time||$33,123,609||$100,478,608||3,980|
|2017||Blade Runner 2049||$32,753,122||$92,054,159||4,058|
|2019||Men in Black International||$30,035,838||$79,800,736||4,224|
Is anyone surprised a J-Lo movie never broken $100? OK, two movies have—both animated, and neither really J-Lo movies: “Ice Age: Continental Drift” and “Home.” The best live-action grosser of hers if “Maid in Manhattan” from 2002 ($94) and “Monster-in-Law” from 2005 ($82). Her heyday. She’s only done seven live-actioners in the 14 years since 2005:
- 2007: “El Cantante” with Marc Anthony ($7.5)
- 2010: “The Back-Up Plan” with Alex O’Loughlin(?) ($37.4)
- 2012: “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” with mostly female cast ($41.1)
- 2013: “Parker,” a Jason Statham actioner ($17.6)
- 2015: “The Boy Next Door,” threatened by a younger lover ($35.4)
- 2015: “Lila & Eve”(?) with Viola Davis ($0.038)
- 2018: “Second Act,” girl from the block succeeds in business world ($39.2)
Feels like a film festival in hell. In three days, “Hustlers,” which is supposed to be good (88%), has made almost as much money as almost any of them. Welcome back. Now don’t blow it.
Speaking of: “It: Chapter Two” won the weekend with another $40.7 mil, bringing its 10-day total to $153.8. Nothing to sneeze at ... unless you compare it to “It,” which grossed $218 domestic by this point. A little odd to me. It’s rare when a sequel to a good movie doesn’t do as well in the opening rounds. Because the first played off “Stranger Things” and now we’re kinda tired of it? Because it’s not kids? Because it’s not new? It’s still doing great, just not “It” great.
The fourth weekend of “Angel Has Fallen” grossed another $4.4 to bring its total to $60. The fifth weekend of “Good Boys” grossed another $4.2 to bring its total to $73. The ninth weekend of “Lion King” grossed at $3.5 to bring its total to $553.9.
The other wide opener, “The Goldfinch,” has buzz for a bit, but like so many September releases the buzz died fast: 25% RT, $2.6. The well-reviewed “Monos,” which I saw at SIFF last May, opened in five theaters to good reviews (91%) and little dough ($43k).
What Liberal Media? Part 2,398
“There’s also a degree to which TV anchors and pundits offer an unspoken acceptance of a basic Republican idea, that taxes are somehow uniquely bad. You can see it in the way Matthews pressed Warren, acknowledging that total costs may go down but saying he didn’t really care, because what matters to him is whether taxes go up.
”Which, when you think about it, is utterly bonkers. The average insurance premium for an employer-provided family plan is nearly $20,000 a year. If that’s what you were paying, and I told you that I could give you back that $20,000 but your taxes would go up by $10,000 so you’d wind up with $10,000 more than you had to begin with, and you replied, “No deal — I don’t want to pay higher taxes!” you’d be a complete fool.“
Paul Waldman, ”What is it so important to get Warren to say, 'I‘ll raise taxes’?" in The Washington Post
Movie Review: Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931)
Does anything make less sense than a Cole Porter musical without the Cole Porter music? Maybe a Pearl Jam concert without Eddie Vedder? It’s like you’ve got LeBron on your team and you leave him on the bench. Because “box office receipts for LeBron are down at this time.”
My roundabout rationale for checking this out:
- A few months back, I was watching the Cagney flick, “The Crowd Roars,” in which Cagney players a race-car driver, and at one point Joan Blondell says sardonically, “Well, 50 million race-car drivers can’t be wrong.”
- My ears perked up. I’d long known that Elvis Presley had a greatest hits album called, “50 Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong,” which I’d always thought a weird, catchy title. So much so that I’d played off it before. Example: “5,000 Elvis Cards Can’t Be Wrong,” about a Memphis attorney who sends cards to his clients on Elvis’ birthday rather than Christmas. But I had no idea the Elvis album title was playing off of something else. But what? What was Blondell referencing?
- Turns out, the 1927 hit Sophie Tucker record, “50 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.”
- Hey, Cole Porter turned that into a musical in 1929!
- Hey, Warners turned that into a movie in 1931!
- Hey, Scarecrow Video has it!
And here we are.
So was it worth the journey? Eh.
The song is mostly about sex (“They shorten them here, They shorten them there/ And if her name is Teddy they make Teddy bare”) but the movie is mostly about love. So Hollywood. Apparently even pre-code.
Jack Forbes (William Gaxton) is a rich American playboy who arrives in Paris on a luxury liner with a French girl on his arm (Carmelia Teraghty of Rushville, Indiana), but spots an American girl, LuLu Carroll (Claudia Dell, Octavia in the ’34 “Cleopatra”), and falls hard and fast. He searches all over Paris and finally finds her dining with relatives at the Hotel Ritz. It’s his friend Michael Cummins (John Halliday) who IDs her. Trouble? Cummins likes her, too, so he suckers Forbes into a bet. Part of their dialogue here almost feels like song lyrics:
Cummins: May the best man win? What’s that got to do with it—with all his jack.
Forbes: That sounds like a dirty crack
Cummins: That may be. But everyone woman you’ve ever got, you’ve got with your money.
Cummins winds up betting Forbes $50k that in two weeks, with no money he didn’t earn during that time, he can’t get the girl. Then Cummins badmouths Forbes to her. Says he’s crazy. And he is—for her—while she’s surprisingly open. I mean that negatively. She’s just kind of a big blank.
So was such a bet a common conceit in 1930s movies? Or high society? I was reminded of “Trading Places.”
I did like the moment when Forbes realizes how much of his day-to-day he’s lost by losing money. He calls the bellboy over to page Lulu and is going to tip him, then pats his pockets. Right, no dough. He still makes the request, but the bellboy, knowing the score, stands there, waiting. Forbes pats his pockets again and gives him ... is it a pen? Anyway, not a bad bit. Later, when he hops aboard Lulu’s cab and sweet talks her all the way back to her hotel, but is left holding the cab fare, he hands over his coat in exchange. Good thing he gets a job or he might’ve been naked before long.
The job he gets? Tour guide. Leads to a long scene in which various characters (in both senses of the word) try to engage him. There’s a slim woman “who wants to be insulted” in Paris. She’s played by Helen Broderick, who like Gaxton, was in the Broadway musical. There’s a Jewish couple and their bratty kid.
Wife: Mister, will you kindly tell us where is the house of Victor Hugo?
Forbes: Victor Hugo? The guy who wrote the movie ‘The Man Who Laughs’?
Forbes: Never heard of him.
It’s like the absurdist comedy of the Marx Brothers without the Marx Brothers. Or the comedy.
All the while, Forbes is being tailed by two inept detectives, Simon Johanssen and Peter Swanson, played by the vaudeville comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. They’re supposed to make sure Forbes doesn’t get the girl. But of course they wind up sympathizing with his plight.
Olsen and Johnson are actually the stars of the film—the leads—but for the most part I didn’t find them funny. L’opposite. Olsen is the stern, severe one while Johnson has an insane, sloppy giggle that wears fast. He laughs at an effete bar patron and a fat one. He laughs more during the movie than we do.
I do like a scene where they become unwilling assistants to a magician (Bela Lugosi, I believe), and a nice slow-mo chase by the cops over a recently tarred street. And of course how could I not love this self-intro to the high-society types: “And my name is Peter Swanson. Of the Minnesota Swansons.”
In the end, of course, Forbes gets the girl and wins the bet, Cummins is foiled, and Olsen and Johnson wind up at a place called “Café of All Nations” with a bevy of beauties. Initially it’s just Johnson (we hear his giggle inside) while Olsen stands on the sidewalk with their ticket home: From HAVRE to NEW YORK. But he tears this up with a shrug and says the movie’s closing line. “Well, fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” So we get the line if not the song.
Apparently director Lloyd Bacon filmed the entire musical, which was released in Europe, just not the U.S., where audiences had supposedly soured on musicals. Only the music-less American version remains. Evalyn Knapp gets a credit, and a photo, on IMDb, but I don’t remember seeing her, so maybe she wound up on the cutting room floor? Meanwhile, an actress playing a hotel-room hottie named Suzette gets no credit at all. Anyone know who she is?
Movie Review: Echo in the Canyon (2018)
The most indelible recent cinematic moment involving Lauren Canyon music wasn’t from this doc about its heyday (1965-1967), but from a scene near the end of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” when members of the Manson family pull into the long steep drive that leads to the rented home of Roman Polanski; and on the soundtrack, using irony like a scalpel, or maybe a bludgeon, QT plays The Mamas and the Papas’ 1967 hit single, “Twelve Thirty” with this exuberant line:
Young girls are coming to the can-yon!
It’s almost too on-the-nose. John Phillips’ song is about how great So Cal is, particularly compared to New York City, which is “dark and dirty,” and where things are so broken the clock outside always reads 12:30. Time has like stopped there, man, but Cali’s the future. You lift your blinds, say “Good morning” and really mean it.
Right. Until one early morning, on the other side of the window, therrrrrrre’s Charlie!
Good vibrations and our imaginations
I was looking forward to learning about the history of the Laurel Canyon music scene from this doc and almost groaned aloud (and probably did) when I realized it was more Jakob Dylan, looking like the haunted movie-star version of his dad, visiting and interviewing folks about those days and what they meant—interspersed with a 2015 homage concert put on by Dylan and contemporaries Fiona Apple, Beck, Nora Jones, Cat Power and Regina Spektor. This, meanwhile, is interspersed with archive footage of the bands in question (Byrds, Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield), as well as scenes from the 1969 Jacques Demy film “Model Shop,” starring Gary Lockwood, which is set in the Canyon, and which supposedly gives us a feel for the times.
I would’ve preferred more archive footage and a talking head or two to sort the details. Give us the chronology. Tell us who besides David Crosby is full of shit.
They says the Beatles started it all, which makes sense since they started so much. They appeared on “Ed Sullivan” in February ’64, and Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn thought, “Hey, let’s do that.” He succeeded so well by doing Beatle-esque versions of folk songs that for a time, and without nearly the track record, the Byrds were called “the American Beatles.” Tough mantle.
Once it all began, everyone influenced everyone. This might be my favorite part of the doc: This song influenced that one which influenced the other. George Harrison even got a “If I Needed Someone” guitar riff from the Byrds’ cover of the Pete Seeger song “The Bells of Rhymney.” He even sent Derek Taylor to see McGuinn to see if it was OK. It was. Some cite this kind of collaboration and openness as the reason for the bursting creativity of those years.
But the doc is more laudatory than I would’ve liked; the filmmakers (Dylan, writer-director Andrew Slater) are too close to the story. We get some warts—Michelle Phillips slept around, David Crosby was a douche—but not a good discussion of why, beyond the track record (two No. 1s vs. 21), the Byrds weren’t the American Beatles. Here’s one answer: They were too earnest. The Beatles were sly and wicked, while Dylan, whom the Byrds relied on for material, had almost a third eye he was so timeless. There aren’t many geniuses in rock ‘n’ roll but those were two. The doc needed to get into the why of it while still celebrating it.
Can’t go on indefinitely
I liked hearing Jakob and the others singing but I was less impressed with him as an interviewer. His main technique is to say nothing. Most of the time, it’s not a bad technique—cf., Robert Caro—but it’s not exactly cinematic. Plus a good interviewer needs follow-ups and, I don’t know, curiosity. People talk up the flak McGuinn encountered when he mixed rock and folk, and no one references Newport? Not even a “I guess your dad knew something about that”? And doesn’t the doc imply Dylan got the idea from McGuinn rather than hearing the wails of Eric Burden and the Animals on “House of the Rising Sun” coming over his car radio? Or is the latter story apocryphal? If so, this was a chance to clear that up. They didn't. They muddied the waters.
How did everybody meet? I kept expecting to hear “Creeque Alley,” which is really the origin story of so many of these bands and personalities, but it never comes. I wanted more on the breakups, too. They harmonized beautifully on a west-coast idealism but couldn’t keep the harmony going. I wanted that dynamic: the disharmony among those beautiful harmonies, with Charlie waiting in the wings. What wasa he, after all, but another So Cal resident influenced by the Beatles.
M's Game: Kyle and the Kids Take One from the Reds
A few minutes before gametime. Mariners attendance will dip below 2 million this year.
I'm part of a season ticket group that meets every March to divvy up the season's tickets and talk about the year ahead. Mostly it's gallows humor. It's a good bunch of guys, with good humor and a deep knowledge of baseball history. I tend to buy tickets to 10 Mariner games, and last night was my last for the season. It was also the first time I ever saw the Cincinnati Reds live. I think. I grew up in an AL city.
Even so, it felt like the tail end of the tail end. It felt like the dregs. The weather was supposed to be nasty, and the M's were coming home from a really nasty Midwest road trip, in which they went 2-2 against the Rangers, 0-2 against the Cubs, and then 0-4 against Houston, including a 21-1 drubbing on Sunday. During the day, on my lunchbreak, I happened upon the Mariners Baseball Reference page and was comparing how this awful season compared with other Mariner awful seasons of the past:
- Our .403 winning percentage is on pace for the ninth-worst mark in M's history. Last season's .549 mark was our sixth-best (after 2001, 2002, 2003, 2000, and 1997).
- We‘ve had 14 winning seasons. This will be our 29th losing season.
- 2001 was the big one, of course: 116-46 for a .716 winning percentage. Second-best is .574 (twice). Meaning we’ve been .700+ but never .600-.700. Odd.
- Our attendance this year will amost certainly be below 2 mil for the fourth time (in a full season) since 1993. For the remaining 12 games, we'd need to average 34.7k to break 2 mil, and there have only been three games this entire season when we‘ve drawn better than 34.7k: two games in March, and a game last month against Toronto when all the Canadians came down.
- All of the sub-2 million attendance years have been this decade: 2011-13, and 2019.
- We’ve used more position players this year than ever before: 63. The previous record was 61 in 2017. Oh, and this was before last night's game when two new players made their MLB debuts. So I guess it's 65? (Yes, it's 65.)
- We‘ve also used more pitchers (40) than ever before. Well, it ties 2017. But 105 players total? What’s the record among all MLB teams?
- The best season a Mariner player has ever had, as judged by WAR, was Alex Rodriguez in 2000 when he posted a 10.4 WAR. Junior's 1996 season, when he missed a month to a hamate bone injury, is second at 9.7. The lowest WAR for the best Mariner player of a particular season is Ichiro's 3.9 out in 2005. We‘re likely to break that one, too. The best WAR on the team currently belongs to Kyle Seager. At 2.6.
All of which didn’t make the evening seem propitious.
But midday the skies cleared, and stayed so, and it was 69 degrees at gametime—about as beautiful a September evening as you could ask for. Plus we had Justus Sheffield on the mound, and I‘ve got hope in the kid. He had a couple good innings against the Yankees, and in his one outing on our sorry roadtrip he pitched five scoreless against the Cubs. Plus starting in right was Kyle Lewis, our 2016 No. 1 draft pick. So things felt new. There was upside. There were possibilities.
First inning looked good: three up and down for the Reds, while Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer had trouble finding the plate.
In the second, Reds right fielder Aristides (Double A) Aquino singled sharply between third and short, but he was erased on a DP. Then Phillip Ervin lofted one into the right-field corner, and our #1 draft pick dove for it. He didn’t come close, the ball bounced to the wall, Ervin glided in with a triple. Then a single, then a double, all sharply rapped. But a comeback to Sheffield ended the threat and it was only 1-0.
Sheffield kept ending threats. They kept getting hits but we kept getting double plays—four double plays in four innnings. We were hitless against Bauer but after 4 innings it was still only 1-0. Sadly, the kid misplayed another one in right, twisting the wrong way several times before making a desperate stab that went for naught (for him) and a double (for the batter). He got no error on either play. My friend Jeff was defending Lewis, since it was his first game, but I'm like, “He's doing the same thing he was doing for three years in the minors, just in a different field. I get where pitching might be at another level. But fielding? Misplaying a ball like that?” I was in the middle of all this when Lewis came to bat for the second time in his Major League career and promptly homered to left center. Tie game. Curtain call. An inning later, our No. 9 hitter, Dylan Moore, rapped one to left. 2-1, M‘s.
In the 7th, we brought in Austin (Double A) Adams, and he got two quick outs, walked the No. 9 hitter, and faced a pinch hitter. “Isn’t it odd to pinch-hit for your leadoff hitter?” I was asking Jeff. Which is when the pinch hitter, Brian O‘Gradym went deep to right with a no-doubter second-decker, and just like that (as Dave used to say) the Reds were back on top. Oh, that was O’Grady's first Major League homer, too. September baseball.
The Reds pattern that inning was out, out, walk, homer, and in the bottom of the 8th we duplicated it. Narvaez struck out, Gordon grounded out, Nola walked and Kyle Seager (our No. 1 WAR guy, after all), hit a parabola that landed about three rows deep in right. And just like that we were on top again. Tony Bass finished it off, 1, 2, 3, and the M's losing streak stopped at six. It was our second victory in September.
Of the seven runs in the game, six were scored via homers. That's getting old. Yesterday I read that something like 50% of all MLB runs this year are scored on homers. Pretty soon, everyone's first hit will be a homer.
Attendance last night was 12,230. Officially. The unofficial number seemed about half that.
Is Jerry Dipoto's reclamation project going well? We are getting younger. But young enough? By position-player age, we‘re currently tied for the 13th-youngest Mariners team with an average age of 27.9—as opposed to last year’s 29.8. By pitcher age, we‘re about the same: 28.8 this year vs. 29.0 last year. It’s the 11th-oldest pitching staff in M's history.
Movie Review: Ne Zha (2019)
I keep wondering when a Chinese movie will break out and do well in other markets. They’re killing it in China, with six homegrown movies in the last four years that have grossed north of half a billion dollars; but these things don’t travel well.
|YEAR||MOVIE||CHINESE BO||FOREIGN BO|
|2017||Wolf Warrior 2||$854||$15|
|2019||The Wandering Earth||$691||$9|
|2018||Operation Red Sea||$576||$4|
|2018||Detective Chinatown 2||$541||$3|
Why does the world come to Hollywood movies and not Chinese movies? Because they’re in English, which much of the world speaks? Because they offer a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy that feels universal? Because the U.S. is a microcosm of the world and that’s reflected in our movies, while China isn’t, and that’s reflected in theirs?
Last February, I saw “The Wandering Earth,” China’s entry into the big-budget sci-fi blockbuster realm, and was thinking, “They still haven’t nailed special effects, but they’re closer. But oy, the story.” I mean, how many people besides scientists have to be insulted in this thing? From my review:
There’s a million-to-one shot to save the Earth and our Chinese heroes are 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. The Brits wallow in drink while the Japanese contemplate hara-kiri. As for the U.S.? We don’t seem to exist. We’ve been expunged.
With “Ne Zha,” an animated movie based on a classic Chinese character, they’ve nailed the special-effects part. I was thinking, “Wow, the animation looks great. As good anything Pixar or DreamWorks does.”
But oy, the story.
Nurture over nature
I lived in Taiwan for two years but I still can’t begin to wrap my head around Chinese mythology. This one basically begins in the clouds, where a pig man and a jaguar man battle against ... I don’t even remember. But the battle results in two pearls—a spirit and a demon—being loosed upon the earth. I don’t want to go into too much detail, because I can’t, but basically the underwater dragons convince jaguar-man to get pig-man drunk so they can get steal the spirit pearl, and either through happenstance or by design, the demon pearl winds up in Ne Zha, the newborn of Li Jing and Madam Yin. The distraught parents are informed that this means he’ll only live to his third birthday.
It also means he’s a demon, but the parents do what they can to raise him right anyway. In the village, though, he’s feared. That makes sense—he has a demon’s power and sensibility—but they assume the worst, too, blaming him for things he doesn’t do. He’s a misunderstood demon.
There’s a good scene where village boys conspire against him. One suggests setting up a Rube Goldbergesque series of traps, involving a rotten wood bridge, a beehive, etc., where the only avenue of escapes leads to another trap, which leads to another trap, and so on, until the hapless Ne Zha is forced to flop into a rancid mudpit. The boys are totally game for this and decide the only improvement is to add burrs and their own pee into the mudpit. At which point the planner reveals himself to be Ne Zha and we see the village boys go through the Rube Goldberg machine and wind up in the nasty mudpit of their own making.
That’s the sorta demon part. The misunderstood part is when he’s accused of kidnapping a little girl to eat her. That was actually a different demon, a water demon, whom Ne Zha battles in the village and on the beach, where he’s joined by the tall, graceful, horned Ao Bing. The two play hacky-sack on the beach as well. Ao Bing is Ne Zha’s first friend.
He’s also the son of the Dragon King, and infused with the power of the stolen spirit pearl. It’s his father’s wish for him to use his powers to raise the dragons from their underwater prison. To do so would mean the end of the village. Or something.
All of this comes to a head on Ne Zha’s third birthday, when Li Jing tries to sacrifice himself for his son. Ne Zha refuses to let him, and in accepting his destiny (early death) becomes more than his destiny (a demon). He becomes the hero no one thought he would be.
A bowlful of snot
That’s the part of the movie that could travel well: nurture over nature; controlling your own destiny. Everyone in the world digs that. But to get there you have to go through a dizzying array of Chinese folks legends, none of which are really explained for the neophyte or 外国人。
My wife had a problem, too, with how one-note it all is: relentlessly loud with few pauses. I was more turned off by the frequent scatological humor—although the Chinese kids who sat in front of us for a Sunday matinee at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle certainly enjoyed the fart jokes. That was cute—the kids more than the fart jokes. I missed how they took the scene where Ne Zha is forced to swallow a bowlful of the water demon’s snot; I was too busy shielding my eyes.
There’s also a running gag with a brawny villager who has a fearful girlish cry. It’s funny the first time; by the 10th, it feels a lot more homophobic.
But they’re closer.
Movie Review: Good Boys (2019)
These types of movies—the machinations involved in getting to a party, troubles therein and lessons learned—are usually reserved for high school or college kids (most recently: “Booksmart”); but as you’re watching “Good Boys,” you’re thinking, “Yeah, why not 12-year-olds?”
Answer: 12-year-olds generally aren’t the actors 18-to-22-year-olds are. Particularly when it comes to comedy.
These kids are alright, though. Maybe with a better director, or better editor, we would’ve seen fewer bumps. Anyway, I laughed a lot. And smiled. And remembered.
Max, Lucas and Thor (Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams and Brady Noon) are best buds who call themselves “the Beanbag Boys” because they like lounging in beanbags in a tent in Thor’s room and talking their talk. Periodically, they’re interrupted by Thor’s little sister, Annabelle, who appears out of nowhere, creepily, like in a horror movie. It’s a good bit.
As the movie opens, they’ve just started sixth grade, and each has his own dilemma:
- Max likes a girl, Brixlee (Millie Davis), but doesn’t know how to let her know beyond talking to her—which is way too scary
- Thor wants to try out for the school musical “Rock of Ages” and fit in with the popular kids—wishes that are mutually exclusive
- Lucas’ parents are getting divorced, so he’s becoming even more of a straight arrow than he normally is
At the local park, the cool kids (sadly, with slicked-back hair, like Spike Fonzarelli) take our boys into the woods and offer a beer. The goal is to sip it. The record is three sips. No one has been able to sip a beer more than three times. Max manages but Thor can’t, and he’s subsequently labeled “Sippy Cup.” Leads to a good line during school lunch when someone mocks him:
Does this look like a sippy cup? No, it's a fucking juice box! Because I'm not a fucking child!
Language aside, these kids are the good boys of the title. They’re innocent and rather sweet-natured. Max is invited to a kissing party, at which Brixlee will be in attendance, and he worries about never having kissed anyone. So he and the others use Max’s dad’s drone to spy on the neighborhood high school girl, Hannah (Molly Gordon, Triple A of “Booksmart”), to maybe see her kissing with her douchey boyfriend. Instead, Hannah captures the drone and won’t give it back. The boys then steal her purse, which includes ecstasy in a childproof vitamin container, and a swap is suggested. But Lucas balks at trafficking in drugs, they try to steal the drone back, but it’s crushed by an oncoming car. Now they have to buy a new one before Max’s dad (Will Forte, who played Molly’s dad in “Booksmart”) returns from a business trip. This involves a trip to the mega mall 4+ miles away—all the while pursued by Hannah and her friend Lily (Midori Francis), who, at one point, offers a good “T2” chase parody.
Occasionally, screenwriters Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (“Bad Teacher,” “The Office”) and director Stupnitsky (making his directorial debut) push the envelope too much, as when Lucas dislocates his shoulder and the boys ram him into a metal trash bin to shove it back into place. Sometimes they don’t push it enough. None of these boys, for example, think of having the high school girls teach them to kiss? They are good boys. At that age, that would’ve been my first, last and only thought.
Plus the movie goes on too long.
But it’s funny. I like the Kwiki-Mart scene. I like Sam Richardson, who played Richard Splett on “VEEP,” as the bored cop to whom Lucas keeps confessing everything. I like Lucas’ high-pitched squeal. I like the boys trying to make sense of the world. “That's a tampon,” Max says with authority. “Girls shove it up their buttholes to stop babies from coming out.”
Ultimately the boys prove their mettle—Max kisses the girl and Thor takes an unprecedented fourth sip of beer—but they’re already beginning to outgrow what united them. Each wants different things. There’s melancholy in this. You can’t help but think about your own boyhood friends and the paths taken.
Movie Review: The Doorway to Hell (1930)
There’s a good bit about halfway through this.
Our lead, Louie Ricarno (Lew Ayres), who organized the Chicago gangs only to walk away from it all, is down in Florida, golfing and writing a book about his life. He proudly reads the last line aloud to his wife, Doris (Dorothy Mathews):
“Now, this concludes the life of a gangster, and begins the life of a man.”
A minute later, he finds out his kid brother has been in an auto accident—inadvertently caused by one of the gangs in a clumsy attempt to get him to return—and he gets quiet, and looks up, and the killer is in his eyes again. Then the phone rings.
Doris: I hate to bother you, but the man from the Atlas Publishing Company wants to know when he can read your book.
Louie (slowly): Tell him it’s not done yet.
That’s damn good.
I like another scene shortly after this one. Louie is back in Chicago, visiting a plastic surgeon. To disguise himself? To get revenge? But then who will play the part? Which actor? That’s what I’m thinking. But the visit isn’t about him. He shows the surgeon a photo of his kid brother. He asks him to make him look like this again. The surgeon asks where he is. “He’s down at Morse Brothers Undertaking Parlors,” Louie says. Then turns and we see the black mourning band on his sleeve.
That’s a bit like the “Look how they massacred my boy” scene from “The Godfather,” isn’t it? One wonders.
To be honest, I thought “The Doorway to Hell” (original title: “A Handful of Clouds”) would be another of those early Cagney movies where the casting choices got screwed up—where Cagney should’ve been lead rather than second banana—and you can certainly make that argument. I buy Ayres as a gangster, why not, but not as someone who organizes the Chicago mobs—who stares down fat, brutal men and gets them to fall in line. That’s actually not even on Ayres, is it? It’s the script. Those scenes are absurd. They require a suspension of disbelief longer than the Golden Gate Bridge.
Even so, Ayres, born in Minneapolis and raised in San Diego, who had recently received raves playing Paul in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” is good. He doesn’t look tough but can convey an inner toughness. He reminds me a bit of Edward Norton in this way. He even looks like him. See above poster.
This is Cagney’s second movie role. After playing what he called “a sniveling murderer” in “Sinners’ Holiday” (original title: “Penny Arcade”), he plays fifth-billed Steve Mileaway, right-hand man to Louie Ricarno, who’s also cuckolding him. Yep. He’s fooling around with Doris. She’s a pill, too; a real jerk. Oh, and when Louie leaves for Florida, Mileaway is supposed to make sure the organization sticks together; it doesn’t.
Basically he’s a hapless two-timer, a real crumb bum.
Well, he has some measure of loyalty:
Cop: Me afraid of Louie? Why, I’d spit in his eye.
Mileaway: Yeah? And he’d spit in your grave.
(BTW: in your grave? Not on? That’s interesting. Implying a time when we actually watched people being buried.)
Doris is another weak link—or the fact that Louie can’t see she’s not worth anything is a weak part of the film. It’s obvious. Louie also identifies with Napoleon, which is odd, since Napoleon walked away from nothing—and certainly not from power. It's Warner Bros.' attempt to create a “Little Emperor” a few months before they would release “Little Caesar.” Yeah, this predates that. This is the ur-Warners gangster film.
The movie’s title comes from the closing title card. After Louie returns to Chicago to kill the men who caused the death of his kid brother, and he’s jailed by the tough-love paternalistic police chief, Pat O’Grady (Robert Elliott), then escapes and makes a final stand before buying it off-screen in a hail of bullets, after all that we’re informed of the following:
The “Doorway to Hell” is a one-way door. There is no retribution—no plea for further clemency. The little boy walked through it with his head up and a smile on his lips. They gave him a funeral—a swell funeral that stopped traffic—and then they forgot him before the roses had a chance to wilt.
Classic Warners. “Don’t be like this exciting guy who’s exciting tale we’ve just told you. Be like the boring stick-in-the-muds that survived.” I was a bit surprised that Mileaway, nor Doris, ever get comeuppance for their affair. I can’t even remember if Louie ever figures it out. But everybody else, including the cops, knows.
The New York Times, in a spoilers-and-all review on Nov. 1, 1930, called “The Doorway to Hell” intelligent and exciting, adding, “With excellent directing by Archie Mayo and an excellent cast, among whom only Lewis Ayres may properly be called a star...”
Turns out there was another.
Disliking David Brooks
Here's a killer lede to Jacob Bacharach's review of David Brooks' new book, “The Second Mountain.”
David Brooks is an easy character to dislike. In the wake of the 2000 presidential election, he concocted ethnographies of the habits of conservative voters to tell a story about cultural divisions and the red-blue divide that just so happened to confirm everything his readership already believed. His specialty as a columnist is to identify some just-so failure of the “welfare state” in order to promote the kind of “entrepreneur” whose semi-private innovations are austerity by another name. He loudly supported the war in Iraq. He taught a course on “Humility” at Yale that prominently featured his own works. Although it is his job to interpret the currents of American culture for an audience of millions in the pages of TheNew York Times, he has never been good at looking beyond his own instincts and experience.
A defining experience came when, in 2013, Brooks divorced his first wife, Sarah, and several years later married his much younger research assistant, Anne, whom he met while writing a book called The Road to Character.
Ouch. And truer words. The piece is called “David Brooks's Moral Journey,” and it's often good, but—caveat—there's a lot of Brooks quotes to slog through. I came across it because Brooks wrote another idiot column for the Times today that trended on Twitter, and which I didn't read because I have work to do.
Movie Review: Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
The only interesting thing about “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is its stupidity. That’s what kept me hanging around: How stupid could it get? Answer: Really stupid. Godzilla and Monster Zero may be gigantic, but the stupidity of this movie is even more gigantic. It fills the screen. It’s so vast you can’t see from one end to the next. It roars.
Remember how in the 2014 “Godzilla” movie, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character kept winding up in the thick of things? Like he was in Japan and the monsters were there, and then he went to Hawaii and the monsters were there. In the desert of the American Southwest? Yep. All the way to San Francisco, where his wife and kid were fighting for survival, and where Godzilla finally defeated the other monsters, the MUTOs, and then disappeared beneath the surf with a hiss. One of my favorite parts—because it’s so stupid—is the news coverage, particularly the most far-sighted chyron in the history of television. It doesn’t read: “Holy shit! Dinosaurs are alive and destroying our cities!” It anticipates the title of the sequel: “King of the Monsters: Savoir of Our City?” It anoints and cheers on a giant, fire-breathing lizard.
Remember all that? Well, Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t in this one.
Instead, we get a different family to foreground all the monster battles. Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) is a kind of scientist, or techie, or something, while her husband, Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) ... um ... takes nature photos? And gets really angry at people who are trying to help? The two have a daughter, Madison, played by Millie Bobby Brown, who’s cashing the check she wrote for her good work in “Stranger Things.” Oh, Millie. Surely there were better banks.
Our lizard overlord
“King of the Monsters” opens with the Russell family’s flashbacks to San Francisco 2014, where they lost a son. Five years later, no one’s gotten over it. At one point, Dr. Russell, the angry male version, explains it all to Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins), in one of the thinnest bits of exposition rendered on film:
About three years ago, we went back home to Boston. Tried to put the pieces back together. Emma dealt with it by doubling down on saving the world. And I started drinking.
Ah. So that’s why you were taking nature photos of wolves devouring a deer in Colorado. That’s where alcoholism always leads.
As for that “saving the world” thing mom doubled down on? Apparently she created a small device, dubbed ORCA, that can communicate with and/or control the monsters. We see her beta-test the thing as Mothra emerges from its pupa stage in a military-scientific outpost in Yunnan, China. She doesn’t even set it up beforehand, just barges into the enclosure and turns it on and starts fiddling with dials—while Mothra, who’s already killed several dudes, is like 20 feet away. But it works; Mothra is calmed. Then a paramilitary group barges in and starts killing more dudes. They kidnap Dr. Russell, her daughter, and the ORCA.
That’s when the good guys pick up angry Dr. Russell in a field in Colorado. So he can get on screen and not help.
You see, despite that five-year-old chyron welcoming our lizard overlord, we haven’t agreed on what to do in a world with monsters. Destroy them? Communicate and coexist with them? There are also those who think we’re the problem and the monsters the solution. That paramilitary group? They’re “eco-terrorists,” led by Alan Jonah, played by Charles Dance, who also played Tywin Lannister in “Game of Thrones.” This is their credo:
Our world is changing. The mass extinction we feared has already begun. And we are the cause. We are the infection. But like all living organisms, the earth unleashed a fever to fight this infection: Its original and rightful rulers—the Titans.
A few things. First, isn’t it amazing how so-called liberal Hollywood can talk about global warming without once mentioning global warming? To top it off, they make environmentalists the villains in all this? And the leader of this eco movement is supposedly Tywin Lannister—who would never give a rat's ass about anyone but himself?
He’s not the one making the above speech, by the way. That’s Emma. Yeah, she wasn’t kidnapped. She’s the bad guy—or in league with the bad guys. It’s our early, nonsensical reveal. You’d think a woman who lost her son to monsters wouldn’t think monsters were the solution to anything, let alone not-global warming, but nobody raises this point with her. They raise other, more personal points:
Mark: You are out of your goddamn mind! First, you put our daughter’s life in danger and now you get to decide the fate of the world. That’s rich, Emma!
That’s rich. It’s like they’re arguing about who flirted with whom at a cocktail party.
Since tentpoles movies are all about the roller-coaster ride, it’s time to zip around the globe some more. First Antarctica, where Emma frees Monster Zero, a giant three-headed dragon encased in ice. Except, oops, it’s not really a Titan. It’s an alien. (From Planet X, yo.) And it kicks Godzilla’s ass. Then Emma awakens Rodan from a volcano in Mexico, and there’s more battles, but the U.S. military uses an oxygen-depriving bomb to stop and/or kill the beasts. It works—on everyone but Monster Zero (he’s an alien), so he’s now the ruler, and awakens all the other Titans to, I guess, take over the world. Meanwhile, Godzilla nurses his wounds. At this point, in fights with Zero, Godzilla's 0-2. Not exactly “king.”
The final battle is in Boston. That’s where Madison turns on mom (“You’re a monster”) and steals the ORCA, and goes to Fenway Park (of course) to ... what is she doing again? Calming the Titans? Because she winds up attracting them. To Boston. Brilliant.
And all of this awakens in mom the need to finally do the right thing. Like just when Madison can’t run anymore, Mom pulls up in a military vehicle and shouts “Get in!” That idiocy. The movie, directed by Michael Dougherty (“Krampus”), who also wrote a lot of it, wants us to care about the Russells, but how can we? Mom causes the death of probably millions because she thinks giant lizards and moths are wiser than we are. Dad fulminates against any course of action, while Daughter acts too late and then destroys Fenway Park. Those are our heroes.
Ancient Chinese secret
Gotta say: The cast is great but the casting is horrendous. It’s casting as shorthand. Everyone is who you think they are. “West Wing” dude says sardonic shit while drinking coffee, “Silicon Valley” tech dude stammers awkwardly, “Game of Thrones” dude is cuttingly brutal. Ice Cube’s son scowls and stands his ground, as does the bald black chick. They protect us. As does the “Hamilton” dude who stays in the background—as he did in “A Star is Born.” We learn nothing about these characters because there’s nothing to learn. They’re plug-ins.
Ken Watanabe, repping Japan, Godzilla’s original hunting grounds, spends the movie advocating for him. Zhang Ziyi, repping China, Warner Bros.’ box-office hunting grounds, spends the movie ... Yeah, what is her role? And isn’t it roles plural? Yes. She’s both Dr. Ilene Chen and Dr. Ling Chen. At one point she says she, or they, are third-generation Monarch. Meaning her/their parents/grandparents were involved in this international scientific project around the time of, oh, the virulently anti-western, anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution. Thanks for the history lesson.
I do like it that when Mark talks up slaying dragons, Chen dismisses it as a western concept: “In the East, they are sacred: divine creatures who brought wisdom, strength. Even redemption.” OK, so her dialogue could’ve been better. No Chinese person says “In the east.” It’s fucking 中国. And why not talk up the dragon being the luckiest of the zodiac signs, or dragon dances and boat races, or how Bruce Lee’s Chinese name is 小龍, (Small Dragon), and Jackie Chan’s is 龍, (Dragon)? Have fun with it.
At least that conversation isn’t as soul-crushingly stupid as when Dr. Serizawa imparts his wisdom to Coach Taylor:
Dr. Serizawa: There are some things beyond our understanding, Mark. We must accept them and learn from them. Because these moments of crisis are also potential moments of faith. A time when we either come together or fall apart. Nature always has a way of balancing itself. The only question is: What part will we play?
Mark (impressed): Did you just make that up?
Dr. Serizawa: No. I read it in a fortune cookie once.
Dr. Serizawa: A really long fortune cookie.
The wisdom is bad enough—bland nothingness—but the fortune cookie reference? I can’t even unpack that. Why would his character say it? And why would a modern international movie have him say it? It’s like a line out of a 1970s commercial. “Ancient Chinese secret...” And does the movie not know he’s Japanese rather than Chinese, or does the movie think we don’t know this? Or does he assume Mark doesn't know? I’d love to hear if anyone at Warner Bros. suggested taking out this line. I’d love to hear what argument kept it in.
This is Warner's second attempt to create a universe in the manner of the hugely successful MCU. The first included the most famous superheroes in the world—Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman—and they fucked it up. They gave the keys to Zack Snyder and he brought back pure idiocy. Now they’re trying to create a “Monsterverse” with King Kong, Godzilla, and the lesser Japanese monsters. They’re fucking this up, too.
|YEAR||MOVIE||ROTTEN TOMATOES||US BOX OFFICE||WORLDWIDE BOX OFFICE|
|2017||Kong: Skull Island||75%||$168.0||$566.7|
|2019||Godzilla: King of the Monsters||41%||$110.5||$385.9|
The only improvement with any of it was the slight uptick in “Kong”’s worldwide numbers. Otherwise, it's down down down. We’re getting less interested as the movies are getting worse. Hey, maybe there’s a correlation.
Movie Review: Sinners' Holiday (1930)
See the sinners? See the holiday?
The reason we still care about this 60-minute “All-Talking Picture” from 1930, and why a print has been preserved at the Library of Congress, isn’t because of its director (John G. Adolfi), nor its lead (Grant Withers), and certainly not because it’s considered a classic (it’s a bit meh). No, it’s the fourth-billed talent: a Vaudevillian hoofer from New York making his film debut named James Cagney. He won’t be fourth-billed for long.
Do you know the story of how it and he came to be? The Broadway version, “Penny Arcade” by Marie Baumer, which included Cagney and Joan Blondell, premiered earlier in the year and closed after only three weeks. During that time, though, Al Jolson saw it, bought the rights, and recommended both Cagney and Blondell to Warners. (Jolson should’ve been a talent scout.) “I came out on a three-week guarantee,” Cagney remembers in his 1974 autobiography, “and I stayed, to my absolute amazement, for 31 years.”
Since the play/movie concerns Ma Delano (Lucille LaVerne) who runs the Coney Island penny arcade with her kids—the non-descript Joe (Ray Gallagher), the pretty Jenny (Evelyn Knapp), and the ne’er-do-well Harry (Cagney)—“Penny Arcade” isn’t a bad title. Why did they change it? Cagney again:
There was a great vogue then for pictures with “holiday” in the title, and “Sinners’ Holiday” was part of that trend. That title had as much to do with the picture as Winnie-the-Pooh.
It opens well. Over the credits, we hear the sounds and squeals of Coney Island; then we see several barkers working the crowds. I love the enthusiasm of the pitch versus the tawdry reality of the enterprise. They’re selling thrills and sex, but the sex in particular is already bored with it.
One guy says you can get your picture taken with a pretty girl, Myrtle (Blondell), but she’s off to the side, cracking gum, reading a movie magazine, and could care less. Joe Delano, at mom’s behest, extols the penny arcade, while Buck Rogers (Noel Madison), of all names, encourages men to take turns hitting a target, which will “tip the girls back in their chairs,” and you win a cigar. He’s also directing Prohibition-era traffic to bootlegger Mitch McKane (Warren Hymer). “Tell ’im Buck Rogers sent ya,” he says. It’s booze, cigars and upskirts: Doucheville 1930.
But my absolute favorite is a place called Palace of Joy, whose barker, Angel Harrigan (Withers), extols as a place where you can, drink and be merry all for a dime. “Just one thin dime, folks! And you get to see these gorgeous, beautiful women.” He motions to five not-very attractive women standing in coats next to him. “Give ’em a quick flash, girls,” he says. They do so, bored to death. I love that. Right away we know this is a movie about the con. Which makes it a perfect movie for Warners, con artists themselves, who had a tendency to celebrate the grifters of the world. Cf., “Blonde Crazy,” “Hard to Handle,” “Picture Snatcher.”
The first time we see Cagney—in movie history—he’s playing cards, his back to us. Then he stands up:
Card player: Not going already, are you?
Harry: Already? I’ve been here since yesterday afternoon. There’s going to be an awful beef out of the old lady when she sees me.
His voice is higher-pitched than we’re used to, but still slippery and fast, and there’s already something alive about his face. In the biography, “Cagney,” by John McCabe, fellow actors often talked up how much Cagney listened to them during their scenes together. Shirley Jones:
He always gave to you. Totally unselfish. You never had any sense of your being alone in a scene, as you do with actors who are mainly concerned with themselves. Jim was always with you, listening to you carefully, truthfully...
You can see this quality right away when he’s talking to Mitch, who’s about to hijack some booze. You can see it when he’s talking to his mom, who berates him for “tom-catting” all night. But we quickly come to realize this isn’t the classic Cagney character. Yes, mama’s boy. Yes, hanging with hoods. But he’s not tough, and he’s not straightforward. He’s two-faced. In his autobiography, Cagney calls the character a “sniveling murderer.”
Storyline, such as it is: While Angel tries to romance Harry’s sister, Jenny, and while Myrtle tries to romance Harry, Mitch gets busted and asks Harry to look after things while he’s in jail. Harry does so but skims the dough for himself. When Mitch returns, he comes gunning for Harry; but Harry, panicky, shoots first, and hides the body in the closed “Hit the Bulls Eye, Up She Goes” booth. The next day the cops arrive, the body is found, and everyone’s questioned in a kind of working-class “the butler did it” tableau—even though we know who did it.
So does Jenny. She saw her brother kill Mitch from her upstairs window. Initially I’m like, “So what? She’s not going to turn in her brother for a lout like Mitch.” But then Angel becomes the prime suspect, and you go, “Ah, that’s the dilemma: beau or brother.” She eventually goes with her beau and the truth, Harry confesses and is taken into custody, and the world, and Coney Island, keep spinning.
You know what I wanted? More of a tour of the penny arcade. What amused people for a penny in the 1930? At one point, Angel—fired by Mitch, hired by Ma to fix the machines—is standing next to something called “The IT Girl,” with the tagline “She’s got IT.” 1¢. Next to that is “The Midnight Girl.” But I can’t tell what these machines are. Ur-pinball? Bagatelle? Slot machine? Amberolas? I want to walk around the joint and try things out. All of that background stuff is way more interesting to me than the foreground melodrama.
I could’ve used more Blondell, too. She’s great—forever eating hot dogs. Withers is broad, goofy and cynical; you get why he didn’t last as a leading man—though he had a nice career as a secondary player for John Ford, among others, before committing suicide in 1959. Evalyn Knapp would become so highly touted she was tapped for the lead in the feature-film remake of the 1914 serial “The Perils of Pauline”; but her career, like a lot of the early Warner Bros. blondes, didn’t last much past the 1930s. Director Adolfi would die three years later, age 52, but not before he directed eight more movies, including the prestige picture “Alexander Hamilton,” starring George Arliss, and based on his Broadway play of the 1910s.
As for that sniveling murderer? He’d get a few more secondary roles, usually as the pal to the lead, before being cast again as the pal to the lead in “The Public Enemy.” Then director William Wellman saw something in him and decided maybe he shouldn’t be secondary after all.