Quote of the Day
“Washington had an extraordinary American life. I think the most extraordinary thing he did was step down from the presidency—ensuring that this American experiment would continue without him. By modeling a peaceful transition from president to president, he puts us eons ahead of every other fledgling democracy on earth.”
-- Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Hamilton's America,” which aired last night on PBS. It can be seen here in full until Nov. 18.
Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven (2016)
The point of the Magnificent Seven, and the Seven Samurai before them—you might even say the beauty of these guys—is that they do the deed for the deed. They may have qualms about it, they may not always be the best men, and the villagers they protect aren’t exactly pure; but it’s still a noble, selfless act amid a (for them) pyrrhic victory.
The 2016 update of “The Magnificent Seven” by Antoine Fuqua changes a few things—names, locale, victims, the ethnic makeup of the Seven—but the biggest and most uncommented-upon change is the motivation of team leader Chisolm (Denzel Washington), which isn’t revealed until the final act.
Turns out the villain they’re fighting? The rich, 19th-century industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, overacting by underacting), who rules the mining town of Rose Creek with a sadistic, powerful, and blasé finger? Chisolm knows him! In fact, ol’ Bartholomew killed Chisolm’s wife and kids way back when. He tried to kill Chisolm, too (cue: neck scar reveal) but our man didn’t die. Or maybe, a la certain Clint Eastwood heroes, he’s a vengeful ghost or something.
The point is, Chisolm doesn’t do the deed for the deed, as Chris and Shimada did before him. He does it for revenge. For him, it’s personal.
This changes everything about the story. Worse, he doesn’t even tell any of the rest of the Seven that he's got skin in the game. He gathers them, and gets them to do the deed for the deed, even as he’s doing it for the most personal reasons possible. He lies, essentially. Our hero lies.
I gotta ask: Who on the filmmaking team thought this was a good idea? Fuqua? Screenwriters Richard Wenk (“The Expendables 2”) or Nic Pizzolatto (HBO's “True Detective”)? Denzel? Some suit? Has anyone accepted credit? Or blame?
Chisolm’s motivation also allows for one of the worst tropes in modern action movies: the slow, sadistic death of the villain. For decades now we’ve gone Old Testament; we want our eye for an eye. We want the villain to suffer as he made others suffer. “I seek righteousness, but I’ll take revenge,” says Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, forever spilling cleavage). That’s us. We want to be both moral and sadistic. We get it here. Slower. Slower. Make it last. We’re sick puppies.
Overall, Denzel is in fine form, the final battle is surprisingly well-orchestrated and well-told, and it’s always nice to see Vincent D’Onofrio. But most of the Seven aren’t interesting. Fuqua gives them race (the Mexican, the Native American, the Asian guy) but no personality. Personality is still for the white dudes (Pratt, Hawke, D'Onofrio).
Most importantly, Chisolm's motivation fucks up the most beautiful part of the story.
Last night I dreamed we were watching a TV show or movie about drug wars or gang wars, and the setting was a rival gang in Mexico or Colombia or somewhere else in Latin America. An attack was imminent, we knew that much; the gangmembers were without character, unknown to us. They were just there to be eliminated as an element of the plot. The attack began at night when one man, maybe sleeping on a wooden table, with a tent-like canvas behind him, popped his head up and was shot in the head through the canvas. He was the first. Then the bullets started whizzing and winging. They just kept coming, and the camera with them, deeper and deeper into the gang's headquarters, toward its nominal leader, and men kept falling. We never saw the attackers, we just heard and felt their bullets. It was like a million other cheap massacres I'd seen on screen but it began to hurt, watching it. Each bullet was like a bee sting, and there were a lot of bullets. “I'm tired of this,” I said.
Then we were watching the aftermath of the attack. It was the next morning and authorities were carting the bullet-riddled bodies away and trying to clean up the mess left behind. Two men were labeled with first names but the last name was sort of the Spanish equivalent of John Doe. “Right,” I thought, “because how would they know who these guys were? How could they identify them?” That seemed like an entire investigative arm of the police I hadn't considered before. The men and women who try to figure out the names and lives of nondescript dead men.
Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven (1960)
My main takeaway after watching “The Magnificent Seven” for only the second time in my life is that for all its faults Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen—as the leader, Chris, and his right-hand man, Vin—have fantastic chemistry, and what a shame they didn’t make another movie together. Then I read up on it and discovered why: They hated each other. Their chemistry onscreen may be cooler than cool, but it hid heat.
IMDb’s trivia on the movie is extensive but doesn’t bother to sort through the contradictions. Did Brynner own the rights to “Seven Samurai”? If so, why was Spencer Tracy considered for the lead? Why was Anthony Quinn?
Most answers are in the doc “Guns for Hire: The Making of ‘The Magnificent Seven’” (2000), which is also a good primer into the litigiousness, oneupsmanship and happy accidents of Hollywood moviemaking.
Starring Anthony Quinn
Apparently, by the mid-1950s, everyone in Hollywood had seen and loved Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” and everyone envisioned remaking it as a western. Brynner claimed to have bought the rights, but that distinction actually went to B-movie screenwriter Lou Morheim, who wanted to produce, and who got the rights for the princely sum of $250. Later, Brynner bought the rights from Morheim, and was looking to direct rather than star.
Here was the initial team:
Director: Yul Brynner
Star: Anthony Quinn
That package fell apart, and it became:
Director: Martin Ritt
Writer: Walter Bernstein
Star: Spencer Tracy
Independent producer Walter Mirisch then entered the picture, and he brought along John Sturgis, who had recently won acclaim for directing “Gunfight at the OK Coral” with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Sturgis tapped Walter Newman to write, then assembled the group of future stars—McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn—that made up the rest of the cast.
Newman, meanwhile, was the one who deviated from Kurosawa’s version, but Mexican censors didn’t help. A few years earlier, the Hollywood feature “Vera Cruz” had so upset Mexican audiences that they tore apart theaters; it led to the creation of a censor board, which watched over any production filmed in Mexico. They wanted to make sure Mexicans didn’t look bad in any Mexican-made movies. A good idea in theory. In practice? One censor objected to how dirty the peasants looked, so they were filmed in spotless whites even as the cool gringo gunslingers looked grimy. (Cf., McQueen’s stained hat.) Worse, the board objected to the very premise of the film: that these farmers needed outsiders to protect them. This wasn’t a big deal in Kurosawa’s version, since everyone was Japanese; but here it’s weak Mexicans and gringo heroes. Their solution? The three Mexican farmers seek guns rather than gunslingers. Even after encountering noble versions of the latter (Brynner, McQueen), the farmers don’t connect the dots. It’s up to Chris, the gringo, to do it for them.
In other words, because Mexican censors didn’t want Mexicans to look weak, they made them look stupid.
On to Brynner/McQueen.
Is there an unwritten rule on movie sets that you don’t upstage the star? If so, McQueen ignored it. From the beginning, he was doing things in the background—jiggling bullets, adjusting his hat, dipping his hat into streams they crossed on horseback—that upstaged, and upset, Brynner. More, he actually badmouthed his lead. He told the other actors how Chris’ horse, and even his gun, were bigger than theirs, and made them look silly. He fomented discord.
“The set was fraught with testosterone,” McQueen’s ex says in the doc. “Here were these young Turks, all on the brink, you know, and they were all trying to get attention on the screen. Especially Steve.”
I’ll say one thing: It worked. You notice him straight away. I’ll say another thing: It improves the movie. It’s like Brando picking up Edie’s glove and trying it on in the playground scene in “On the Waterfront.”
The best scene in the movie for me is the one where McQueen/Brynner take a horse-and-carriage hearse up to Boot Hill despite the local racists in town who don’t want an Indian buried there—and that’s the jiggling the bullets/adjusting the cap scene. The dialogue is terse as they keep an eye out for snipers:
Vin: New in town?
Vin: Where you from?
Chris: Dodge. You?
Vin: Tombstone. See any action up there?
Chris: Uh-uh. Tombstone?
Vin: Same. People all settled down like.
Chris: Same all over.
But the best dialogue may be no dialogue. Afterwards, the salesman who paid for the burial is impressed with Chris and asks him where he’s from. Brynner points a thumb back. He asks him where he’s going. Yep: a finger forward.
Samurai > Cowboys
So why doesn’t the movie work? Or why isn’t it close to “Samurai”’s stratosphere? A few thoughts:
- Chico, Horst Buchholz’s role, collapses two characters from “Samurai”: Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), the comic-relief, would-be samurai, and Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura), the young, handsome romantic, and the two characters don’t work together. They particularly don’t work when the Mexican farmer is played by the German James Dean.
- Oh, about that: still too much Stella Adler-style emoting going on, from both Buchholz and Robert Vaughn, recently nominated for an Academy Award for “Young Philadelphians.” You guys are tearing me apart.
- The story is truncated. It doesn’t take the time, or have the silences, that Kurosawa’s version does. The villagers, in particular, are given short shrift. No equivalent of Rikichi, for example, so we have less of an idea what the heroes are fighting for.
- Guns ain’t swords. Guns are the great levelers. You can kill a superior gunman from behind, or from a distance, in a way you can’t with swords.
But this is the most important reason: Sturgis ain’t Kurosawa. There’s a tinny quality to the movie. It feels cheap, like something out of television. Kurosawa has depth in every frame; Sturgis’ stuff is two-dimensional in comparison. You can push over his sets and his characters.
Shimada (Takashi Shimura) is the leader of the samurai because he’s both psychologist and strategist. He actually plans how to survive the bandit assault. The bandits attack three times, the last in the rain, and four of the samurai die; but the bandits are slaughtered. The farmers win.
Chris? He’s cool, and a good draw, and he has the same moral center Shimada has, but that’s about it. The Hollywood version relies on less planning and fewer attacks: just two, and in the second one the Seven are betrayed, and have their guns taken from them, and are then slaughtered in the village square.
Kidding. The bandit leader (a delightful Eli Wallach) just lets them go. So they get stupidly caught and he stupidly lets them go. But then they stupidly return to stupidly save the day.
Even so, you’ve got the great Elmer Bernstein score, and you’ve Brynner and McQueen. They may have hated each other but they had personality. And as Jules said, personality goes a long way.
New in town?
And Then There Were Four
A year ago, the Toronto Blue Jays were the team with the longest postseason drought.
Today they're the remaining 2016 team with the most recent World Series title:
|TEAM||LAST PENNANT||LAST TITLE|
|Toronto Blue Jays||1993||1993|
That's good news for baseball fans. For the World Series, we are at least going to get a team that hasn't won a pennant since '97 or a World Series since '93. Those are worst-case scenarios.
The bigger news is we're on the verge of a potentially historic underdog series, Indians vs. Cubs, or a team that hasn't won the World Series since 1948 (longest AL drought) vs. a team that hasn't won since 1908 (longest MLB drought by far). That would be something. Let's see both of them lose that.
That said, the Cubs aren't as historically bad as people think. They were the first team to go to the World Series twice (1906, 1907) and to win it twice (1907, 1908). And that pennant in 1945? It was their 10th overall. At that point, only the Yankees (14) and the Giants (12) had captured more flags.
Hell, despite this historic drought, they still average one pennant every 11 years, which is a better average than both the Blue Jays and Indians. It's only when you look at average years between titles that their historic ineptitude becomes obvious:
|Toronto Blue Jays||37||7||2||2||18.5||18.5|
* Since advent of World Series in 1903, excluding 1904, 1994 and this year.
(And if you're curious, yes, the Yankees slaughter everyone in each of these categories. They have 52 postseason appearances (Dodgers are second), 40 pennants (Giants are second w/20), 27 titles (Cards: 11). They average a pennant once every 2.75 years, and a championship once every 4.07 years. It's why we hate them.)
(BTW: For the above, I did not factor in the number of overall MLB teams during every given year of each team's existence. In other words, it was statistically easier to win a pennant/title from 1903 to 1960 when there were only 16 teams, rather than the 18 teams in 1961, the 20 teams from 1962 to 1968, the 24 teams from 1969 to 1976, the 26 teams until '92, and 28/30 teams in the '90s. This kind of calculation goes beyond my decidedly amateur stats brain. Others are welcome to have at.)
So how likely is Cubs vs. Indians, the ultimate historic underdog showdown?
The 2016 numbers don't look bad. Cleveland was 4-3 against Toronto this year, while Cubs went 4-3 against LA.
More, the Cubs had the best run differential in baseball (+256), while the Indians were 4th-best (+101). Jays were 5th (+93), Dodgers 6th (+87).
But it's October, they're short series, and anything can happen. We find out starting tonight at 5 PM PST.
Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize for Literature
Well, that was unexpected.
It was the final story of NPR's top-of-the-hour news report as I shaved and showered this morning, but it would've been my lede. Because, c'mon. Has any songwriter ever won this? American songwriter? Minnesota songwriter?
And deserved. Wholly deserved.
About a decade ago, I was in an online discussion with a group of friends, some very smart people, including screenwriters and songwriters, and we were parsing the good and bad of a song when one guy, probably the smartest in the group, wrote something like, “Dylan would never do anything like that.” I wrote back, “No Dylan comparisons. Unfair. It's another plain.”
I mentioned that story in another post in which I listed off some favorite Dylan lyrics but I hardly scratched the surface of those songs. Listening to him this morning in celebration, the early '60s song “With God On Our Side,” about the wars we conduct in God's name, came on; and I got to this verse, which stunned me all over again:
Through many a dark hour
I've been thinking about this
That Jesus Christ was
Betrayed by a kiss
Now I can't think for ya
You'll have to decide
Whether Judias Iscariot
Had God on his side
But it's almost any Dylan song, really. If you listen to it, you'll find it: brilliance.
In Martin Scorsese's documentary on Dylan, “No Direction Home,” you get a real sense of what a conduit to genius he became at such a young age; how it flowed out of him; how he tapped into something bigger than himself. Scorsese's doc is one of the best arguments for the collective unconscious I've come across.
It's also one of the best arguments for a true artistic life. Dylan kept ramblin', and folks who celebrated ramblin' in folk songs didn't want it in their heroes; they wanted him to stay put. He betrayed folkies with rock 'n' roll, then betrayed rockers with country, then betrayed youth with breakup and middle age. He had the nerve to find religion. And at every stage he kept producing great music. His loyalty was to that.
Killebrew Goes Deep in '71 All-Star Game
Mouse over for the follow-through:
In the early '90s I was living in a group home near Green Lake, with, among others, Alex, Parker and my good friend Mike Busick, Mr. B, who had a VHS recording of the '71 All-Star Game. One night, one hot stove league, I watched it. I knew it was the Reggie AS game (as opposed to the Pete Rose/Ray Fosse game from the previous year): the game in which Reggie, still in Oakland greens and without the pornstar 'stache he would wear in the Bronx, launched a monster homer off the transom in Tiger Stadium—one of the longest homeruns anyone's ever hit in the All-Star Game. Or anywhere, really.
What I didn't know? Five other players, all future Hall of Famers, went deep in that game: Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, and the man above. The wind was blowing strongly to right, and most of the homers went there. Not Killer's. His was launched into the wind and landed in the left-field bleachers. In Mr. B's room, when I saw it go out, I began to cheer like I was watching a live game. I cracked up Mr. B. “You do know this happened 20 years ago,” he said. It felt new all the same. I felt like a kid again.
But just look at that list. When these guys retired, they were, on the all-time homerun list, No.s 1 (Aaron), 4 (F. Robinson), 5 (Killebrew), and 6 (Jackson), while Bench had the most HRs for a catcher ever, and Clemente was a few months away from World Series glory, and 18 months away from his death flying relief supplies to earthquake victimes in Managua, Nicaragua.
Have six greater players ever hit homeruns in the same game? How could that even be possible?
Movie Review: The Lobster (2016)
With apologies to my nephew Jordan.
Imagine a dystopian sci-fi flick told by Wes Anderson, with a soundtrack out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, and you have “The Lobster” from writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth”).
If that sounds intriguing, hang on.
Junior high mixer
As the movie opens, the recently cuckolded David (a paunchy, moustached Colin Farrell) is checking into The Hotel, an elegant-but-starched residence on the coast, where he has 45 days to find a mate before being turned into the animal of his choice. In an early interview, he opts for lobster. He likes the sea, he says.
He’s so dispirited I assumed he wanted such a fate, even as the others around him desperately search for a partner. But their problem is twofold:
- They need to find someone with a similar “distinguishing characteristic,” such as nearsightedness, nosebleeds or emotionlessness
- They’re all inept at socializing. They’re adults but sound like kids at a junior high mixer.
The people in charge are equally inept. The Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman of “Broadchurch”) puts on deadpan playlets that show the benefits of coupling (preventing choking, rape), while, to encourage mingling, maids, or one maid anyway (Ariane Labed, Lanthimos’ wife), goes room-to-room and grinds her buttocks perfunctorily into the laps of heterosexual men. She leaves before they finish and self-finishing isn’t allowed. One guest, Lisping Man (John C. Reilly), is found guilty of this infraction and has his hand burned in a toaster as a result. What encourages the female guests to mingle, and how, and by whom, the movie doesn’t bother to answer.
Other rules: Your stay at the Hotel is extended for every “loner”—single people who live in the woods—you bag during “loner hunts.” A heartless woman, known only as The Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), is so good at this she’s got 150+ days before transformation. But for the rest, including David, the days wind down.
The bureaucracy is inept, too. The Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) pretends to get nosebleeds to win over the Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden), and somehow gets away with it. Eventually, David follows his example: he pretends to be as heartless as The Heartless Woman. It works, for a time, until she kills his dog, Bob (his brother transformed), and he cries. But with the help of the Maid, he escapes, and runs off to join the Loners.
Unfortunately, their rules are just as absurd and draconian. No coupling. No flirting even. Punishment for kissing is Ellen Jamesian. Of course it’s here, where coupling is discouraged, that a real romance blossoms between David and Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), who is also our narrator.
Long story short, the Loner Leader (Lea Seydoux) blinds Short Sighted Woman, making her an inappropriate mate for David. The movie ends at a diner in the City, where Short Sighted (now Blind) Woman sits waiting for David, who is attempting to blind himself in the bathroom. Does he? Will he? The camera holds on her, waiting, waiting, waiting, then blinks out.
Love is blind
“The Lobster” is beloved by critics. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and won its Jury Prize. It’s got a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Critic Guy Lodge calls is “a brilliant allegory for the increasingly superficial systems of contemporary courtship, including the like-for-like algorithms of online dating sites and the hot-or-not snap judgments of Tinder.”
Me, I barely got through it.
It could be that I haven’t been on the dating scene for 16 years. It could be that I’m in my 50s and want energy rather than enervation from my art. It could be more.
It’s absurdist but I didn’t laugh. I also didn’t find much meaning in it. If you extend Lodge’s allegory, what is the point of the animal transformation? What is the point of the title? I do like this aspect of the ending: Our lovers are now outside the realm of society, but continue to play by its rules. Rather than just pretending to be blind (as he pretended to be cold-hearted), David physically tries to blind himself. We’re always trying to fit in.
It’s a unique movie, certainly. But overall my reaction mirrored the expression of most of the movie’s characters: deadpan.