Quote of the Day
“So far, election commentary has been even worse than I imagined it would be. ... people aren't being properly informed about the basic arithmetic of the situation. ...
”First, at a certain point you have to stop reporting about the race for a party's nomination as if it's mainly about narrative and 'momentum.' That may be true at an early stage, when candidates are competing for credibility and dollars. Eventually, however, it all becomes a simple, concrete matter of delegate counts. ...
“Second, polls can be really helpful at assessing the state of a race, but only if you fight the temptation to cherry-pick, to only cite polls telling the story you want to hear. Recent hyperventilating over the California primary is a classic example. Most polls show Mrs. Clinton with a solid lead, but one recent poll shows a very close race. So, has her lead 'evaporated,' as some reports suggest? Probably not: Another poll, taken at the very same time, showed an 18-point lead.
”What the polling experts keep telling us to do is rely on averages of polls rather than highlighting any one poll in particular. This does double duty: it prevents cherry-picking, and it also helps smooth out the random fluctuations that are an inherent part of polling, but can all too easily be mistaken for real movement. And the polling average for California has, in fact, been pretty stable, with a solid Clinton lead.“
-- Paul Krugman, ”Feel the Math," The New York Times
Box Office: 'X-Men,' 'Alice' Get Small
CGI villain tries to destroy humanity. Again.
The eighth “X-Men” movie apparently isn't the charm. Neither is the second “Alice” movie.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” opened to an estimated $65 mil over three days, and $79 mil if you count Memorial Day, which is down from the $90 mil, three-day total the seventh “X-Men” movie (“Days of Future Past”) grossed on its opening weekend just two years ago.
Maybe we're tired of groups of bickering superheroes saving the world from monstrosities. If you adjust for inflation, that's the third-worst opener for our merry marching mutant society:
|Title||Opening (Adj)||Date||Tot/ Gross (Adj)|
|1||X-Men: The Last Stand||$134,595,500||May-06||$306,996,900|
|2||X2: X-Men United||$121,740,300||May-03||$305,848,800|
|3||X-Men Origins: Wolverine||$97,828,100||May-09||$206,889,700|
|4||X-Men: Days of Future Past||$93,549,500||May-14||$241,381,100|
|7||X-Men: First Class||$58,656,500||Jun-11||$156,026,100|
In some way, I'm not surprised. I remember seeing the trailer back whenever and just sighing. I don't even know what year it is in that universe anymore. Reviews weren't good, either (49%).
The other sequel that opened this weekend was “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” which, yeah, did even worse: $26 mil vs. the shocking, $116-million opener for the original, Tim Burton-directed film in March 2010. This one was directed by James Bobin (“Muppets”) and the reviews were not good (30%). All in all, not a happy weekend for Johnny Depp.
Some changeover: “Captain America: Civil War” added another $15 mil to become the highest-grossing domestic film of the year at $377. It's the seventh highest-grossing superhero movie, 12th if you adjust for inflation. Worldwide, it's at $1.1 billion. That's 15th-best all-time.
It's been a lopsided year so far: five movies have grossed more than $300 mil, compared with only one movie (“Kung Fu Panda 3”) which grossed between $100 and $300. Compare this with just two years ago when we didn't get our first $300 mil feature until the August release of “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Movie Review: The People vs. Fritz Bauer (2015)
“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” is a solid-enough historical drama, with a meaty, central performance by Burghart Klaussner. It sheds some light on: the capture of Adolf Eichmann; the prevalence of Nazis in prominent roles in postwar West Germany; the politics of the Cold War. It makes Mossad seem slightly ineffectual. We learn—or I learned anyway—about the title character, the Jewish district attorney of Hessen in Frankfurt during the 1950s and ’60s, who was instrumental in bringing about the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65.
But it’s too neat. It feels like writer-director Lars Kraume bends history to fit a cleaner, less-interesting narrative.
And what’s with the casting? The role of a male transvestite is played by a woman: Lilith Stangenberg. So certain segments of the audience don’t get squeamish during love scenes? Aren’t we honoring a homosexual hero here?
The question the movie turns on
Bauer is that hero, and for a time his homosexuality, all but repressed, is seen by his enemies as a way to bring him down; but ultimately it may be his zealousness in pursuit of justice.
Early on, via letter from Argentina, Bauer finds out where Adolf Eichmann is hiding, and he wants to extradite him and put him on trial in Germany. He wants to force Germany to confront its past. The problem: Who does he share this information with? “No one, from Bonn to Washington, wants Eichmann on trial,” Bauer tells Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld of “Phoenix”), his one loyal assistant. “My own agency is enemy territory.
So he goes to Israel/Mossad. Two problems: 1) sharing intel with a foreign government is a treasonous offense; and 2) Mossad hears the intel and shrugs. Like Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men,” they want a second source, and they leave that up to Bauer. (He finds it in an interesting place: the HR department at Mercedes-Benz.)
Both friends and enemies accuse Bauer of being obsessed with Eichmann but it’s a shame the movie isn’t similarly obsessed. Instead, we keep meandering into the Angermann subplot: the slow revelation that he’s gay; testing the waters in the transvestite bar; the beginning of something with Victoria (Stangenberg), then being traduced to the authorities. Bauer’s enemies, Paul Gebhardt and Ulrich Kreidler, both ex-SS, strike a deal with Angermann: Give them proof that Bauer is working with Mossad and Angermann’s crime, his career-ending scandal, will go away.
That’s what the movie turns on: this question. Earlier, Bauer told Angermann his own tale of capitulating to power. In 1920, Bauer, only 17, became the youngest district judge in 1920, and by 1933 he and Kurt Schumacher were leaders of the Social Democratic Party; but a May general strike against the Nazis went nowhere and they were put into a concentration camp, where Schumacher remained for the entirety of the war. Bauer got out in 1933. He wrote something nice about the Nazis in the paper, fled to Denmark, then Sweden. His capitulation spared him the Holocaust but it gnawed at him. In the movie he says it’s the great embarrassment of his life.
Angermann avoids that embarrassment by turning himself in. But we don’t see the consequences of that act of courage, just the act, which makes the courage seem easy. It makes you wonder why more people don’t have such courage, and I would argue that, per Frederick in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” that’s the wrong question. The better question is: The few who have it, how do they have it? A good discussion on this topic can be found in Eyal Press’ 2012 book “Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times.” Essentially Press argues that’s it’s often conservatives who believe in the original system who stand up to power, rather than rebels. It’s people who believe in the myth rather than cynics who know the shitty way the world runs.
Losing by winning
Anyway, Mossad gets Eichmann (as we know), Germany refuses to extradite him so he goes on trial in Israel (as we know), and Bauer, fired up again by Angermann’s loyalty and bravery, becomes more determined to put Germany on trial. We hear about the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials in an afterword, yet that business seems more interesting than what we’ve just watched—particularly since Bauer wasn’t happy with its outcome. He said the trials supported the “wishful fantasy that there were only a few people with responsibility ... and the rest were merely terrorized, violated hangers-on, compelled to do things completely contrary to their true nature.”
This movie, nominated for five German Film Awards, ends with a fierce determination to exact justice; the reality is messier and more interesting. A movie in which Bauer lost by winning might’ve resonated.
Obama, Bun Cha and Food Diplomacy
“The reaction among regular people in Hanoi to the fact that the US President chose to eat Bun Cha was beyond all imagining. The effect was unbelievable. People were actually crying the next day, describing to me their shock and their pride, the reactions of their neighbors, to this completely unexpected choice of meal—and the venue.”
-- Anthony Bourdain, who adds five other true things about dinner with Pres. Barack Obama.
P and I visited our friends Andy and Joanie in Hanoi in 2010, and P came back with a deep craving for bun cha, her favorite dish, which we had trouble finding. Here, in Seattle, where most of the Vietnamese are from the south, for obvious reasons, it's called “Bun cha Hanoi,” we discovered, and it never tasted the same. Maybe you need those little plastic stools.
Andy added the following to the Obama/bun cha discussion:
The whole thing isn't just a nifty little photo op...it was specifically designed to show his respect for Hanoi, for north Vietnam. And food's a very powerful ally if you handle it right. I remember in a cab ride in Bali, all the driver wanted to talk about when he heard we were American was how Obama loves bakso, the noodle soup found all over Indonesia. That's a kind of diplomacy that the US will miss when either Clinton or Trump is president...
P's dish, my president.
Movie Review: Ma Ma (2015)
I’m having trouble articulating the utter absurdity of Julio Medem’s “Ma Ma,” starring Penelope Cruz: its icky mix of tragedy and wish-fulfillment fantasy; the glory of Woman as life hands her lemons from which she makes a lemon-scented cathedral.
Bear with me. And remember: I’m just the messenger here.
What Magda wants
As the movie opens, Magda (Cruz), whose husband has just left her for one of his philosophy students, is told by her handsome, friendly, singing gynecologist, Julian (Asier Etxeqneia), that she has stage-3 breast cancer in one breast. She will lose it. There will be chemo. She will lose her hair. Deep breath.
Immediately afterwards, at her son’s futbol game, she meets Arturo (Luis Tosar), a bald, bearded, bushy-eyebrowed scout for Real Madrid, who, as he’s praising her son’s futbol skills, receives a phone call that there was a car accident and his daughter is dead and his wife in a coma. He faints. Magda to the rescue! She gets him to the hospital, then visits him daily after her own chemotherapy treatments. He’s forever collapsing, she’s forever strong. Eventually she loses her hair and her breast, he loses his wife, then she and he, with her son, Dani (Teo Planell), travel to the coast for a vacation, where he and she, on the second day, kiss on the beach.
Cut to: the following January. By now she’s married to Arturo and her hair has grown back into a cute pixie cut, though Penelope—sorry, Magda—keeps covering it with an awful wig. Girls. Plus she and Arturo haven’t had sex yet; he has trouble getting it up. Plus, though Dani likes Arturo, he’s acting weird around her, because of the breast thing.
She mentions all of this in passing to Julian at a follow-up appointment, during which he finds, oops, more cancer, stage 4 now and incurable. He gives her six months to live.
So she sues the quack for a million euros.
Kidding. She quietly informs Arturo that she’s going to die, then quietly demands they have sex on the couch. Somehow the added pressure, not to mention tragic circumstances, helps. The deed is done, and shortly thereafter, hey, she’s going to have a baby.
Sadly, the baby dies in utero when she dies of cancer after five months. It’s quite gruesome.
Kidding. The ever-upbeat Magda just wants three things from the rest of her days:
- a girl
- to live long enough to give birth to this girl
- no, to live long enough to hold this girl in her arms
Guess which one of those things doesn’t happen? Right: None of them.
Wait, I didn’t even get into the Natasha thing, did I? Oh god.
OK, so the movie actually opens on a frozen tundra, where, during the credit sequence, a small blonde girl, 5 maybe, slowly makes her impassive, dead-eyed way toward the camera. Later we see a framed photo of this girl on Julian’s desk. His daughter? No. It’s the girl that Julian and his wife are thinking about adopting from Siberia. Magda encourages it because she says yes to life. But Julian eventually says no to his wife and the girl. So the girl stays in Siberia yet remains in the picture because Magda keeps imagining her in everyday situations. Dani is in the backseat talking futbol, and there’s the impassive blonde girl next to him. They’re all frolicking in the ocean, and there’s the dead-eyed blonde girl swimming around them. It’s super creepy but I don’t know if the movie recognizes it as super creepy. I think the movie sees it as somehow beautiful. More of Magda’s great yesness.
Nothing else happens with Natasha, by the way. Magda just keeps imagining her, then names her own daughter “Natasha” in her honor, but for all we know the real Natasha remains parentless and frozen, not to mention dead-eyed, in Siberia. Sorry, kid.
The movie does one thing I like. At different times, it shows us a close-up of Magda’s heart pumping away. Like during the first kiss with Arturo, it thumps harder. And during the first (and only?) sex with Arturo, it thumps really hard. Then at the end, after the baby is delivered via cesarean section, it thumps steady as we hear mother being united with daughter. Then it slows. Then it stops. Then the screen goes dark.
“Well,” I thought. “Nice ending anyway.”
Except the movie doesn’t end there. It gives us an overhead shot of the now-dead Magda staring straight into the camera with the mastectomy scar on her right side and the newborn baby quivering in her left arm.
And that’s not the end of it, either. We get an epilogue, maybe four months later, in which the three men in Magda’s life, Dani, Arturo, and Julian, the handsome, singing, housecall-making gynecologist quack, gather around the baby, feed it a bottle, and sing the song Julian sang to Magda at the beach, something like “Eso es vivir,” which lists off all the things life is about. It’s “Three Men and a Baby.” It’s all the life that the upbeat death of Magda has created. More, because Magda has told Dani that the soul is eternal, and that after she dies she’ll stay near him, he thinks the baby is Magda reincarnated. And he calls the baby “Mama.”
That’s some fucked-up shit right there.
People keep calling this movie “inspiring” but for me it just inspired an urge to run out of the theater. Screaming.
Movie Review: The Lovers and the Despot (2016)
Imagine if Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, or maybe Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews, went missing in the 1970s, then turned up in the Soviet Union making movies for the Kremlin. Helluva story, right? This is the Korean version of that.
In 1978, Choi Eun-hee, a South Korean movie star past her prime, visited Hong Kong and disappeared. Her estranged husband, famed director Shin Sang-ok, went looking for her and also went missing. Years later, they turned up in North Korea, seeming happy, directing movies for Kim Jong-il. Traitors? Victims?
Documentarians Robert Cannan and Ross Adam argue for the latter, but vaguely. “The Lovers and the Despot” is a slow-moving, opaque documentary that raises more questions than it answers. Shin died in 2006, so for talking heads it’s mostly Choi, her kids, a few South Korean film critics, and a few U.S. State Department folks. Not enough light is shed.
Apparently Kim, a solitary child who fancied himself artistic, lamented the state of North Korean moviemaking and asked who in South Korea was good. Shin’s name came up, but it’s Choi who’s drugged and kidnapped first. She wakes up in Pyongyang, where she meets the dictator, is given communist tracts to read, fears for her life; but at least she’s living in a home and sleeping in a bed. Shin is imprisoned, tries to escape, is caught. Years go by. If Kim wanted the artists for their art, why are they not working? We get audio of Kim later explaining to the couple that his orders were misinterpreted. Choi says she kept a tape recorder in her purse, which is how we get the audio, but how did she get the tape recorder? And why is it never found on her? And how does the couple smuggle out all of their audiotapes?
Eventually, in just a few years, the two make dozens of movies in North Korea. Shin elevates its cinema the way he did in the South. Not hard, I suppose.
But we don’t get nearly enough on his background. Most of this information from Shin’s New York Times obit is news to me even after seeing the doc:
In South Korea, however, he was a major figure of that nation's film industry in the 1950's and 60's, leading some to call him the Orson Welles of South Korea. He directed at least 60 movies in 20 years, introducing techniques like the zoom lens and themes like the plight of women in Korean history. The South Korean government eventually took away his license because he refused to toe its line.
Even part of his plight in North Korea is news:
After eating grass and bark in prison for five years, he was suddenly released by Mr. Kim, who told him he could make any movies he liked.
Here’s irony: In South Korea, Shin went overbudget on movies, his studio went bankrupt, his family was kicked out of their home. In North Korea, one of the poorest, most repressive countries in the world, Shin suddenly had the budgets he never had in a capitalist society, as well as (within limits) free rein. Shin and Choi wound up living better than almost anyone else in North Korea, but were, by her account, fearful and miserable. So in 1986, in Vienna for a film festival, they escaped to the U.S. embassy. I'd give anything to know Kim’s reaction to their “defection." The history that’s waiting to get out there. The horrors.
In the doc, the best sense we get of these horrors doesn’t come from Choi but from official footage. During the funeral processions of Kim Il-sung in 1994, we witness the absurdly over-the-top lamentations of the people. It feels fake and awful, and in voiceover we’re told that those who didn’t mourn properly simply disappeared. Entire families disappeared. Everyone, in other words, is trying to outdo one another simply to stay alive. It’s a horrible tableau. It’s people competing to show the most sadness for the death of their worst oppressor.
“Lovers/Despot” is a little over 90 minutes long but feels longer. All of the areas of interest the documentarians could’ve delved into—South/North Korean cinema, in particular—and we wind up on this slow, meandering path.
The best thing I've read that explains the rise of Donald Trump—a cottage industry now—comes from George Packer in The New Yorker, who doesn't pull punches (calling Trump, among other things, “a celebrity proto-fascist with no impulse control”) but is measured while discussing how we got here; how Trump is both the same and different:
Republican Presidential candidates received majorities of the white vote in every election after 1964. In 2012, Barack Obama won about forty per cent of it, average for Democrats in the past half century. But no Republican candidate—not even Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan—made as specific an appeal to the economic anxieties and social resentments of white Americans as Trump has. When he vows to “make America great again,” he is talking about and to white America, especially the less well off.
More, Packer doesn't dismiss these Trump supporters:
White male privilege remains alive in America, but the phrase would seem odd, if not infuriating, to a sixty-year-old man working as a Walmart greeter in southern Ohio. The growing strain of identity politics on the left is pushing working-class whites, chastised for various types of bigotry (and sometimes justifiably), all the more decisively toward Trump.
This is probably the key line:
Trump has seized the Republican nomination by finding scapegoats for the economic hardships and disintegrating lives of working-class whites, while giving these voters a reassuring but false promise of their restoration to the center of American life.
I keep going back to these four words:
During my lifetime (b. 1963), we've had social progress (Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights, Title IX, Lawrence, Obergefell) but economic regress (rich richer, etc.). More groups of people now have the chance to be part of the dwindling middle class.
Worse, GOP candidates have appealed to those suffering from economic regress by blaming social progress. It's mostly veiled—Goldwater's states' rights, Nixon's law and order, Reagan welfare queen, H.W.'s prison turnstiles—but it's there. And once in power, their policies wind up increasing economic regress while continuing to blame social progress.
Trump, as Packer says, is simply more blatant in his scapegoating. It's a formula will keep working until Americans wise up.
Movie Review: Weiner (2016)
The truest, funniest, most necessary line in “Weiner” is spoken by documentarian Josh Kriegman near the end.
It’s the night of the New York City mayoral primary, Sept. 13, 2013, and as the returns come in, it’s apparent that candidate Anthony Weiner, who in an early poll led with 25 percent of the vote, has gotten crushed: He finishes with less than 5 percent. Meaning all of the work he and his staff and his wife (and his wife!) have gone through during the previous months has been for naught: the ramping up, the fundraising, the endless ethnic parades and shaking of hands; the newspaper and magazine and television interviews; the attempts to overcome Weiner’s idiotic 2010 sexting scandal only to be immersed in the wider, more egregious, and more punchline-worthy “Carlos Danger” scandal of 2013, all of it for nothing. And after the concession speech, with its own farcical elements, and after friends and staff have left, it’s just Weiner and his lovely wife, Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton, in the silence of their Manhattan apartment. Oh, and Kriegman and his camera. And it’s Kriegman who breaks the silence with the question we’ve wondered throughout this painful, absurd, all-too-human exposé:
“Why are you letting me film this?”
You deserve a break today
I’d forgotten about the second scandal, by the way. Or I guess I thought the second scandal was simply a rehash of the first instead of its own new thing. I tend to turn away from public accidents like this. I don’t rubberneck on the freeway, either. So why did I go see this documentary about a carwreck of a political career? Two reasons: I heard it was good, and I was curious what it could tell me about Anthony Weiner that I didn’t know.
Give him this: He’s a man who doesn’t back down from a fight—any fight. The floor of the U.S. House, a political dais, a bakery in Brooklyn: It’s all the same to him. “I don’t like bullies,” he says, but it only makes sense if the fight is worth it, and in the doc his fights are increasingly not worth it. Not after “Carlos Danger.”
He’s articulate and quick-witted, too. He has a great line when he’s riding in the back of his towncar to another whatever—event, interview—and Kriegman asks him something, and Weiner responds with a query of his own: Is there a species of fly on the wall that talks? He’d like to know about that. He thinks that would be interesting to see: a fly on the wall that talks. It’s one of the wittier ways of saying “Shut the fuck up.”
There’s tragedy in this. You look at Weiner’s attacks on Republicans in 2009, 2010, his sticking up for the common man, and you think about what might have been. You look at his wife, so beautiful and poised, and how important this image of the two of them, the Jew and the Muslim, could’ve been for the world.
Instead, the image is of bulging gray underwear. The movie opens with a great quote from Marshall McLuhan, “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers,” but Weiner manages to come up with a worse name than his own: Carlos Danger. And the woman he’s sexting has an equally ridiculous name: Sydney Leathers. The press goes crazy over all of this; Huma is even drawn into it. The New York Post, with maybe an eye toward Hillary, attacks her for sticking by her husband. Truly, the press comes off awful here. We’re a moralizing culture that craves dirt. We keep throwing the first stone but it’s a tomato.
Election night is the worst. Leathers goes on Howard Stern’s show, and he convinces her to stalk Weiner, to wait outside his campaign headquarters to confront the losing candidate. To kick a man when he’s down? For shits and giggles? It’s never stated why. But off she goes, happy for another day in the spotlight, and he’s forced to dash through a nearby McDonald’s to avoid her. Even in losing, he’s not allowed a moment of grace. Every element of his life is turned into farce.
The role of women in these scandals generally goes unexplored. We get why men are attracted to beautiful women but why are women attracted to famous men? One wonders, too, what our history would be like if we assumed the same sexual restraint on the part of political leaders as we do from a Mick Jagger or a Warren Beatty. Is the scandal that we like the scandal? That we need the scandal? But there’s an obvious lesson: Women who will fuck you because you’re famous will most assuredly eliminate the middle man given the chance.
So get up and get away
You know what stunned me? Huma and Anthony are still together. I watched everything he dragged her through and assumed the marriage was kaput. It’s not. Not officially. How did he salvage it? What did he say to her in private? In the private more private than the private we see.
As for the question Kriegman asks? Why let him film this? I guess it’s all we’ve mentioned: Weiner’s inability to not fight; his desire for the last word. Or maybe he needs the spotlight as much as Leathers. Maybe it’s the same reason for the sexting that brought down his career: He can’t help himself.
One of the best scenes in the doc, one that will stick with me as indicative of our times, is Weiner’s post-Carlos Danger interview with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC—an interview that takes place via satellite. O’Donnell, both high-handed and exasperated, is in the studio, while Weiner, increasingly desperate and combative, with a look in his eyes that asks “It’s him, right?” when he knows it’s himself, is ... I don’t even know where Weiner is here. A big empty room. But he’s got the earpiece in, and the lights and camera are on, and Kriegman and co-director Elyse Steinberg cut to footage of that combative, split-screen exchange as it appears on TV. But they also pull back and show us what it’s like to be where they are. And from that perspective, Anthony Weiner is simply a man talking to himself in the midst of a big empty.