Thursday February 02, 2023

Kyle, We Hardly Knew Ye

I missed the Kyle Lewis trade last November. In my defense, I was down with COVID. 

My friend Jeff and I were there for his first game in Sept. 2019 when he homered in his second Major League at-bat. He had a nice cup of coffee that September: .268/.293/.593. OK, so the OBP was worrisome, particularly since everything else was in place: 29 Ks to 3 walks? Still, we were hopeful. 

And though the next season was truncated by the COVID pandemic, he did well, .262/.364/.437, and stabilized that K-BB ratio somewhat: 71-34. For that, he got named A.L. Rookie of the Year, the fourth Mariner so honored, and first since Ichiro in 2001. And if you discount players like Ichiro and Kazahiro Sasaki, who, let's face it, had played in professional leagues before MLB, then Kyle was the first Mariner ROY since Alvin Davis in 1984. Either way, it was a helluva beginning. All the world like a woolen lover did seem on Kyle's side. 

Then spring training 2001, he crashed into the wall in a game against the Dodgers. Bone bruise. 10-Day IL. He came back in late April, played in May, but went back on the IL in June. Same knee. Torn meniscus. Surgery. He didn't return until May 2022. A month later a curveball to the head. Concussion. His return from that was spotty. Plus his spot, center field, was taken by the guy who would become the Mariners' fifth Rookie of the Year, and new face of the franchise, Julio Rodriguez. Lewis, meanwhile, was hiting .143 when the M's sent him down in early August to finish the season in AAA.

And now this. Or then this. November this. Traded to Arizona.

So who did we get for him? Cooper Hummel, an outfielder/catcher, according to Baseball Reference

Has Cooper played a lot? No, and not particularly well. Just 66 games last year for a .176/.274/.307 line and a -0.3 WAR. 

Is he young or something? Not, he's 28, a year older than Kyle. 

Good D? Not apparently. -0.3 defensive WAR, too.

Did he improve as the season progressed? Maybe. His best split is from 10 games in September. A .710 OPS.

That seems like not much for a guy two years removed from ROY. Though there's this from Ryan Divish's column on the trade: “Mariners' analysts loved him, particularly his ability to control the strike zone at the plate. He had a career .397 on-base percentage in six seasons in the minor leagues.” One assumes he'll be our backup catcher rather than sixth or 12th outfielder. 

All in all, a fairly sad end after such a promising start. Kyle, we hardly knew ye. We also hardly knew ye were gone.

Posted at 01:10 PM on Thursday February 02, 2023 in category Seattle Mariners   |   Permalink  

Wednesday February 01, 2023

Movie Review: The Oklahoma Kid (1939)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Cagney had high hopes when this film was pitched to him by screenwriter Edward E. Paramore, Jr. as an homage to 19th-century mountain men like Kit Carson. Then Warners pulled Paramore and tapped director Lloyd Bacon for his ninth and last teamup with Cagney. “When I got the final script it had as much to do with actual history as the Katzenjammer Kids,” Cagney said in his 1974 memoir. “It had become typical horse opera, just another programmer.”

Sure. But some interesting stuff gets smuggled in.

The movie is set around the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 when the U.S. government opened up former Indian territories for settlement. We get grand shots of the land rush, and heroic montages of Tulsa being built up from nothing. The movie celebrates all of this. 

Or does it? It begins with no less than Pres. Grover Cleveland (Stuart Holmes) dismissing the land grab. “I was opposed to the opening of any Oklahoma territory to white settlement, because I felt the terms were unfair to the Indians,” he tells the press. “But both houses have now approved the measure. And since I happen to believe that the will of the people is properly expressed through the Congress, I will sign the bill.”

That’s the official dismissal. The unofficial dismissal comes from our outlaw hero.

Half an hour in, he gets into a conversation with the upright Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp), just as the land rush is underway. Hardwick is astonished that the Kid isn’t participating in it. Doesn’t he have any pride in seeing a civilization carved out of the wilderness?

Kid: Now look. In the first place, the white people steal the land from the Indians, right?
Hardwick: They get paid for it, don't they?
Kid: Paid for? Yeah. A measly dollar and 44 cents an acre, price agreed to at the point of a gun. Then the immigrants sweat and strain and break their hearts carving out a civilization. Fine. Great! Then, when they get it all pretty and prosperous, along come the grafters and land-grabbers and politicians and with one hand skim off the cream and with the other scoop up the gravy. [Shakes head] Not for me.

The veneer of the film is hokum but there’s some blunt truth here. You could even argue that the good white people of the film are actually its villains—blithely cheating the Indians of their land. The only reason they’re not perceived as villains is because you got worse white people: the ones who cheat while cheating the Indians of their land. The nerve.

Feel the air
These are Sooners—scofflaws who leave early for the land grab. (And yes, it cracks me up that the term is somehow celebrated in Oklahoma today.) They’re led by Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart, excellent as always), whose gang we first see robbing a stagecoach carrying the Indian money. Then our title character appears out of nowhere and robs it back. The Oklahoma Kid is supposed to be a notorious outlaw but what crimes do we actually see him commit? Just this one. He robs robbers. He’s Omar from “The Wire.”

Afterwards, in town, a tall, folksy, mustachioed man, John Kincaid (Hugh Sothern), harangues everyone about how he knows of a spot with rich, rich land, and in the land rush tomorrow he and his son, Ned (Harvey Stephens, forever cuckolded), plan to race to that spot, claim it, and then build a good clean town with good clean people. Who’s with us? (Hurrah!) Then there’s a square dance, the Kid arrives and quickly becomes enamored of Judge Hardwick’s daughter, Jane (Rosemary Lane, of the Lane sisters), who happens to be dating Ned Kincaid. But the Kid gets her alone and tells her to feel the air. No, that’s not a metaphor. Cagney again:

Not long ago I was at a party and a gentleman there said he had seen me on television in the “feel the air” movie. Funny how little things you drop in a picture can become the most memorable things about it for most people. This bit of business derived from a friend of Ed McNamara’s, a gent who had the habit of inhaling deeply when going outdoors, saying, “Feel that air, just feel it!,” and proceeding to do so. Simply to give my one-dimensional character in The Oklahoma Kid something just a trifle memorable, I dropped this little bit in several times—reaching up to feel the air as I said that line—and it persisted in audience memory.

Anyway, Kincaid probably gabbed too much about the spot with rich land, because McCord and his men—cheating, sooning—beat him there and strike a deal. Sure, you can build your town, old man, but we want exclusive rights to all saloons and gambling houses. Kincaid accepts, and we see that town (Tulsa) being hewed out of nothing; but instead of the ideal community Kincaid envisioned, it becomes overrun with rowdies and the lawless.

The Kid, meanwhile, is hiding out with a Mexican couple. There’s a nice scene when their baby cries, the Kid begins to sing “Rock a Bye Baby,” catches himself, then continues in Spanish. It’s here, when he’s unpacking foodstuffs, that he sees a headline about John Kincaid being charged with murder. That’s when he tells Pedro (George Regas), his supposed host, to saddle his horse. 

Why does he care? Who’s John Kincaid to him? The big reveal, which he tells Jane in Tulsa, is that Kincaid is his father. Then he tells it to Judge Hardwick. Then he can’t shut up and blabs it to the crooks as he’s locking them up in order to spring the old man. But of course Dad refuses to go. Too upstanding. So McCord whips a crowd into a frenzy, they break into the jailhouse and lynch him. That’s a fairly powerful scene, actually. In the hands of a better director—Michael Curtiz, for example—it might’ve become legendary.

Now it’s up to the Kid, a.k.a. Jim Kincaid, to exact revenge, by pursuing and killing McCord’s four henchmen. Indian Joe (Trevor Bardette) gets it in a saloon, Curley (Lew Harvey) at a farmhouse, and Handley (Ward Bond, that SOB) atop a train. The bad guys draw first, of course. The Kid finds the last, Doolin (Edward Pawley), wandering in the desert, parched, etc., and he gives up without a fight. Then he confesses that McCord was the one who whipped up the lynch mob, meaning McCord can face trial. He can face justice. Which leads to this great exchange as the Kid leaves to pursue McCord.

Hardwick: Listen son, I know just how you feel.
Kid: In that case you won't hold me up with a lot of talk, will you?

By this point, Ned Kincaid—the Kid’s brother, remember—is U.S. Marshall, and both he and the Kid arrive at McCord’s saloon at the same time. Ned wants to bring him in, the Kid wants to kill him. So of course it’s Ned who winds up killing McCord, after being shot himself. Both men die. This is after a long, drawn-out fistfight, with bad cuts between Cagney/Bogie and their stunt doubles, that reminded me of nothing so much as fistfights in movie serials or on, say, 1960s “Star Trek” episodes. Did previous Cagney flicks have such battles? I don’t remember any. Super cheesy.

As is the ending. The Kid is about to cut out for the wide-open spaces of the Arizona Territory, while Jane—not at all distraught over the death of Ned—flirts, and suggests, and then gets Dad, the judge, to marry them on the spot. And they do. Bummer. I wanted him back with the Mexican couple.

Your yard
This is Cagney’s first western, and it led to some guffaws, not least from his co-star. Bogart said that in his 10-gallon hat Cagney looked like a mushroom. He does look oddly smaller here. Others had trouble seeing Cagney, the kid from the Lower East Side, the gangster's gangster, hanging with horses; but of course by then he was a gentleman farmer on Martha’s Vineyard. “I am, have been, and will be always a man for horses,” he said in his memoir. But the rep was the rep. Even so, I don’t think the movie hurt him—he still made Quigley’s list of top 10 box-office champions of 1939.

Beyond the cream/gravy speech, he gets in a few good bits. After dismissing the land grab to Judge Hardwick, the sheriff shows up in the saloon to arrest the Kid and we get this exchange: 

Sheriff: I’m Abe Collins.
Kid: Who?
Sheriff: Abe Collins!
Kid: Is he?
Hardwick: Yes, he’s the sheriff.

I flashed on the Marx Brothers—it has that kind of patter. The Kid is basically Groucho dealing with another stuffed shirt.

Earlier, in the saloon, Cagney sang “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard,” which was not only Cagney’s father’s favorite song but fits the movie, too. We never find out why Jim Kincaid split off from his family, but, yeah, he doesn’t want to play in their yard. We don’t want him to, either. But the thrust of the film is getting him back there—with all the good white people. Shame.

See my shorter and sweeter review from 2002 here.

Posted at 07:15 AM on Wednesday February 01, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Tuesday January 31, 2023

My Man Michael Schur

“As an example, let's take mildness, which Aristotle describes as 'the mean concerned with anger.' ... Without any anger, if we saw something cruel—like a bully picking on an innocent kid—we might just stand there, slack-jawed and drooling, rather than responding with an appropriate amount of indignation. But if we have way too much anger, we might grab the bully and dropkick him into a lake and then grab his whole family and dropkick them into the lake and then burn their house down. The golden mean of anger—which, again, Aristotle calls ”mildness“—represents an appropriate amount of anger, reserved for the right situations, to be directed at people who deserve it. Like fascists, or corrupt politicians, or anyone associated with the New York Yankees.”

-- Michael Schur, “How to Be Perfec: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question.” I like that he then provides a footnote, and you think it's going to be a kind of J/K comment. Instead: “Ethically speaking, Yankees players and fans deserve an excessive amount of anger. It's the only exception Aristotle allows for. Don't try to look it up in Ethics; it's in a different book. I forget which one, but it's in one of them.”

Posted at 01:37 PM on Tuesday January 31, 2023 in category Yankees Suck   |   Permalink  

Saturday January 28, 2023

Lance Kerwin (1960-2023)

Oh, man. Too soon.

He was once my jokey answer whenever I had that stupid conversation about who you’d want to play you in a movie. This was in the ’80s or ’90s, long after his Tiger Beat heyday. Friends would be picking the big movie stars of the day while I went with a semi-forgotten TV actor.

When I was just becoming a teenager, though, Lance Kerwin was one of the main teenage stars of sensitive “issue of the day” TV drama. He was on five ABC Afterschool Specials, where the plots related to school bullies, step moms, and shortness. Over the years, he played a blind kid (“Shazam!”), the younger brother of a kid who ODs (“The Death of Richie”), and the child of divorced parents (“Children of Divorce”). He kept running into Kristy McNichol and Melissa Sue Anderson, and got to hang with Lynda Carter on “Wonder Woman” (where he played a rancher’s son) and Lindsay Wagner on “Bionic Woman” (where he played, cough, an Arabian prince). And in the pilot episode of “James at 15/16,” the show that made him famous, he runs away from home and winds up hitch-hiking with and learning life lessons from a Charlie’s Angel, Kate Jackson, who got Emmy-nominated for the part.

I don’t think I really watched “James at 15/16.” Right, it was opposite “Barney Miller” in pre-VCR days, so no. But it was critically acclaimed, and, I believe, quotidian. Some issue of the day stuff—a deaf kid, teen pregnancy, teen alcoholism—but mostly just, you know, crushes and friends and trying to fit in. The episode where he turns 16 and loses his virginity was controversial, and not because his uncle tried to buy him a prostitute, or because two episodes later he worried he contracted VD, but because, per The New York Times, “the network objected to the script’s use of the word ‘responsible’ as a euphemism for birth control.” Who was the lucky girl? A Swedish cultural exchange student. Quotidian. 

But the performance of his that hit home for me was the 1976 TV movie “The Loneliest Runner,” a Michael Landon production about a teen who wets the bed, as I did. IMDb’s little descriptor is actually incorrect—or misses the point: 

A young boy who still wets the bed finds escapism from his abusive mother and his own embarrassment by going running after school.

Not quite. His mother was abusive because she assumed his bed-wetting was laziness, and she hoped to cure him of it by hanging the wet, stained sheet out his bedroom window to dry—and where all the neighbors could see it. That’s why, every day, after school, he’d run home to pull it up. This went on for months. We got a montage of him running and running and running. And then in gym class one day, when everyone has to run 600 yards, or a half mile, or whatever it was, he pulls away from the other students. Eventually he becomes an Olympic runner, played by Michael Landon, but that’s just at the end. The brunt of the movie is him dealing with his awful mother, hoping to grow out of his bed-wetting ways, hoping to get the girl (Melissa Sue Anderson).

He continued to act into the 1980s—he, Eric Stoltz and James Spader play brothers who break their father, Robert Mitchum, out of prison in the 1983 TV movie “A Killer in the Family”—but he struggled with sobriety and left the profession in the 1990s. Per the Times obit, he was busted for theft and falsifying documents to get food stamps in 2010, which makes it sound like he was on his last legs; but in the AP story on the incident, the apparent problem was omitting the three properties he owned on the mainland, so hardly last legs. It also seems he was already running a rehab program and being a youth pastor, so not sure of his trajectory. Plus he was returning to acting? IMDb has him fourth-billed in a 2022 movie, “The Wind & the Reckoning,” about leprosy in 19th-century Hawaii.

The cause of death isn’t mentioned. He was just 62.

Posted at 01:40 PM on Saturday January 28, 2023 in category TV   |   Permalink  

Thursday January 26, 2023

Rolen Elected to HOF, Kent Fans Cry Foul

My sister and I at the Baseball Hall of Fame  in 1973—my one trip there! It was the year they inducted Warren Spahn and (by special ballot) Roberto Clemente, while ignoring Whitey Ford, Johnny Mize, Robin Roberts, Duke Snider and Ralph Kiner, among others. 

Joe Posnanski has a good piece on the social-media backlash against Jeff Kent falling off the ballot after 10 years. Here are the arguments he's seen in favor of the former Giants second baseman. Kent was...

  • ...the greatest power-hitting second baseman ever
  • ...the greatest offensive second baseman of all time
  • ...only dissed because he was not nice to the press
  • ...being unfairly compared to players of previous generations (Kent's own argument)

To which Poz basically goes: 1) sorry, 2) not at all, 3) nope, and 4) isn't that the point? In fact, isn't the main argument Kent supporters make—that he hit more homers than any second baseman—comparing him to previous generations? All of those homers, though, do not mean Kent was the greatest power-hitting second baseman ever, Poz adds, and certainly not the greatest offensive force at second ever. In that, Kent takes a bit of a backseat to guys like Hornsby, Joe Morgan, Eddie Collins, Jackie Robinson.

If you're going to make Jeff Kent's Hall of Fame case, just make it honestly. I could give you an honest Jeff Kent case, one that points to the fact that he hit 377 home runs, most for a second baseman (different from saying he was the greatest power-hitting second baseman) and he was incredibly consistent, and he was a key part of some fine teams, and he won an MVP award and had a few other seasons where he got MVP consideration, and in his prime with San Francisco, he probably was an average defensive second baseman, and he was a very good run producer for almost a full decade for three different teams.

But the majority of voters think that case falls short.

Good piece.

A few days ago, Poz ran down his HOF ballot, with no Kent on it, and his 1-10 choices. What struck me was how his 7-8-9 picks (Manny Ramirez, A-Rod and Gary Sheffield) were way more interesting, and fun, than his 1-2-3 choices (Scott Rolen, Todd Helton, Carlos Beltran). I mean, sure, vote those guys. But they don't exactly loom large like the others, do they? I'm missing looming. 

In case you missed it, only Rolen made the cut. “It'll either be nobody or Rolen” I wrote back in November, and that's what we got. There seems to be a more fun path somewhere, just not sure how we get on it. 

Posted at 01:10 PM on Thursday January 26, 2023 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Tuesday January 24, 2023

Oscars Announce Nominations, IMDb Promotes 'Dungeons & Dragons'

This morning I remembered it was Oscar nomination day, so I went to IMDb to see what was what. This is the screen that greeted me. 

See the cat? See the cradle?

The Oscar nomination story, such as it is, is bottom left: Cruise and “Avatar” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” It's not even a story, it's a link to the Oscar nominations page, the one they put together every year. Everything everywhere all at once, but just this much Oscar coverage on IMDb. Someone should remind them that the M in IMDb stands for Movie, so they might want to play up their coverage more. They did that, once upon a time. They were better at this.

So was I. At least I used to get up early and follow along as the nominations were announced on television at like 5:30 AM, PST. I'd have a post up an hour later. Now I'm like, “Oh right, Oscars.”

So what's the big story this year? Nothing in particular, it seems. We're kind of spread out. “Everything Everywhere” leads with 11 noms, and both “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” nabbed nine each. But most of those frontrunners are divisive. Both “EEAAO” and “Banshees” have a finger fetish, while “Quiet” kind of came out of left field. It's German, Netflix, unpromoted. I didn't even know it existed until a conversation with my sister last weekend. She told me one of my nephews had watched “All Quiet” and I'm like “The 1930 film?” and she's like “No no, the remake on Netflix.” In my head it was a miniseries. I didn't even know. Oscars, I hardly knew ye.

Here are the 2022 best picture nominees:

  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Avatar: The Way of Water
  • The Banshees of Inisherin*
  • Elvis
  • Everything Everywhere All at Once*
  • The Fabelmans*
  • Tar*
  • Top Gun: Maverick
  • Triangle of Sadness*
  • Women Talking

* Also nominated for direction

Glad “Babylon” and “Empire of Light,” both once touted, aren't here, though I'm surprised Olivia Colman didn't make the actress cut. What might have I included? “Aftersun” and “The Batman,” for an odd pairing, in place of, say, “Elvis” and “Top Gun.” I've seen six of the 10, missing “Quiet,” “Tar,” “Sadness” and “Talking.” Hope to remedy all that. 

No idea how it's going to go down on March 12. I've no dogs in this hunt. I kind of miss those days, when it felt like life and death. Before life showed me what life and death was.

ADDENDUM: In his Oscar nom piece, Kyle Buchanan of the Times raises an interesting point: two of the 10 picture nominations are sequels. It's kind of a big deal since only seven sequels have ever been nominated for best picture before: “The Bells of St. Mary's,” “The Godfather II,” “The Godfather III,” “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Toy Story III” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Some sites list eight, but they consider “The Silence of the Lambs” a sequel to “Manhunter,” which ... no. And now that I think about it, isn't “Mad Max” more reboot than sequel? The sequels this year are “Avatar” and “Top Gun.” The latter might have a shot; doubt the former does. 

Posted at 10:16 AM on Tuesday January 24, 2023 in category Movies - The Oscars   |   Permalink  

Sunday January 22, 2023

Sal Bando (1944-2023)

Coming your way, Bob.

The only foul ball caught during my childhood by someone I know was hit by Sal Bando, the captain of the world champion Oakland A's, in the early to mid-1970s.

Our family and family friends were sitting in the wood-bench section along the third-base/right-field side of Metropolitan Stadium, as was our wont, and my father and older brother left to go to the bathroom. For some reason not many foul balls came our way, at least not in my memory, but I do remember Sal's. I think my stomach dropped a bit. Yeah, I was more afraid than excited. But it fell short of us, dropping into the concourse area between the box seats and the bench seats. A few minutes later, my father was walking back up to our row, grinning wide, holding the ball triumphantly aloft. He'd been waiting for Chris outside the men's room, which was in the concourse area, when Bando's foul ball caromed off a wall and back toward him. I think he had to fight a teenaged kid for it. “I played it off the wall like Clemente,” Dad said later.

I wonder if baseball players realize that almost every foul ball they hit is a piece of immortality. You catch one, you don't forget. For me, it's Tino Martinez and Chili Davis; for Tim, it's Felix Fermin and Ken Griffey Jr.; for Mike, it's ... OK, someday, Mr. B.

That A's team was glorious: long-haired and moustachioed by design—owner Charlie Finley gave them bonuses to grow them out—they were kelly green-wearing bad asses, stomping all over both leagues. They had the most exciting pitcher in the game, Vida Blue, and maybe the most exciting player—Reggie Jackson, baseball's first superduperstar, per a 1974 Sports Illustrated cover story—plus great role players all around. I remember the talk at the time was how left fielder Joe Rudi might be the most underrated player in baseball, but if you look at advanced metrics like bWAR it's gotta be Bando. He got MVP votes from 1969 to 1974 but never won—he came in second in '71 when it went to Vida Blue—but during that period, per a recent SABR quiz, he had the highest bWAR is baseball. Yep, higher than Johnny Bench, Dick Allen, Rod Carew, or Joe Morgan. His career slash line isn't superdupery (.254/.352/.408), but he did everything well enough that his career bWAR (61.5) is near Hall of Fame level.

Which means, of course, that during his first year of eligibility, 1987, he got exactly three votes, 0.7%, and fell off the ballot. Meanwhile, that same year, his former teammate, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, marched in with 315 votes and a 40.9 bWAR.

And yet ... you gotta wonder about bWAR. Other measures, like leading the league in various important stats, or appearing in the top 10, Hunter is through the roof and Bando is nowhere. Even so, Bando's case is much better than it appeared in the '80s—certainly worth more than a one-and-done. Plus he was captain of the only team besides the Yankees to win three straight World Series championships. Plus my family will never forget him.

He was 78. Five-year battle with cancer.

Posted at 12:25 PM on Sunday January 22, 2023 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Tuesday January 17, 2023

Gina Lollobrigida (1927-2023)

I’ve only seen a handful of her movies and not the better-known ones. Looking over her IMDb page, I guess it’s just “The Law” (1959) and “Beat the Devil” (1953) rather than, say, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1956) with Anthony Quinn and “Solomon and Sheba” (1959) with Yul Brynner. But she does leave an impression. Oof. Both sexy and lovely. Her figure almost gets in the way of how beautiful she is. Co-star and onscreen husband in “Beat the Devil,” Humphrey Bogart, put it well. He said she was “the most woman I’ve seen for a long time—makes Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple.” In 1955, she starred in “La donna più bella del mondo,” which 20th Century Fox redubbed “Beautiful But Dangerous,” but the exact translation is more apt: The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.

Then there’s that name. You couldn’t come up with a name that sounded more like a sex symbol. In fact, that may be where I first came across her: spoofed as Lollobrickida on “The Flintstones” and Gina Lollo Jupiter on “The Jetsons.”

She won three Donatellos for best actress—“La donna più bella del mondo” (1955), “Venere imperiale” (1963), and “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” (1969)—and was nominated for a BAFTA for “Pane, amore e fantasia” (1955), but no Oscar noms. I guess the Academy couldn’t get past the name or the figure. She left the movies in the early 1970s, became a photo-journalist, interviewed Fidel Castro, returned to acting for “Falcon Crest” in the mid-1980s, ran for political office in the mid-1990s, lost. Apparently she lost a lot of her money along the way, too. Helluva life.

The most beautiful woman in the world. She was 95.

Posted at 10:00 AM on Tuesday January 17, 2023 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Monday January 16, 2023

Movie Review: Aftersun (2022)

WARNING: SPOILERS

A small criminal of perception. That’s how E.L. Doctorow describes Danny Isaacson, who sees what he shouldn’t see, and notices what he shouldn’t notice, in the 1971 novel “The Book of Daniel.” And that’s the phrase that came to mind as I watched Sophie (Frankie Corio) in “Aftersun,” Charlotte Weber’s’s acclaimed feature film debut.

She’s a Scottish girl on vacation with her divorced father, Calum (Paul Mescal), in a resort in Turkey. Give or take a Turkish rug or phrase, it could be anywhere. The resort has a swimming pool, video games, billiards, karaoke, Chumbawamba. There’s the ocean but everyone hangs around the pool. The sky is full of people parasailing but Sophie and Calum never do it. At the pool, he encourages her toward the littler kids but she gravitates to the teenagers. She’s attuned to their cues, smiles, touchings and trysts. She’s 11 and sees all. We worry for her. She wants to grow up so fast, and such circumstances are never good for young girls in movies. 

Turns out we’re worrying about the wrong person.

Strobe light
When did I realize it? To be honest, probably after the movie. I missed a lot of cues. I’m an old criminal of misperception.

The vacation begins poorly. They’re supposed to have two beds but just get a double. Later we see how the resort handles the snafu: They give him a kind of cot, next to the big bed, and he sleeps on the cot. Maybe the resort knows they can get away with it with this guy. 

OK, more honesty: I flashed on a trip I took to Portland in the mid-1990s with my then-girlfriend Brenda. I was working in a bookstore, and didn’t have much money, and was probably beaten down. When we arrived in our room at a hostel, it should’ve been obvious that something was wrong. There were used condoms in the wastebasket, the bed wasn’t made, and there were shitstains on the sheets. If it happened today I would yell holy hell, but I hadn’t been traveling much back then, particularly to hostels, and I thought “Well, maybe this is how they do things here.” At the front desk, I waited my turn and then politely explained the situation. What did that politeness get me? Blank stares. I think they just handed me fresh sheets. So we could change the bed ourselves. And we did.

The world knows who to fuck over.

I like a moment after the snafu. Sophie falls asleep on the big bed, and from inside we see Calum on the balcony. He’s moving. Kind of. Is it dance? Is it tai-chi? It feels like something so personal we shouldn’t even be watching.

Throughout, he tries to teach Sophie tai-chi (but she jokes about it), and self-defense (but she’s uninterested), and he tries to get her on the dance floor (but no). Throughout, too, we get flashes of a strobe-lit dance scene, a rave or a disco, with Dad in his cups. And is that adult Sophie with him? Are they arguing? Is it a real scene? A memory? The strobe could be a metaphor for memory: flashes of illumination amid the darkness. 

Turns out Calum has money problems. He has work problems. At one point, they visit a Turkish rug dealer who serves them black tea in his cramped store. There’s a rug on the floor, and Calum tells Sophie how the pattern tells a story. He’s enamored of the rug, then finds out its cost, 850 pounds, and the air goes out of him. During karaoke night, after Sophie powers through an off-key rendition of “Losing My Religion,” Dad suggests voice lessons, and she dismisses him, saying he couldn’t afford it anyway. She says it to hurt him, and it does, but she’s smart enough to know that, and caring enough to apologize.

Is it karaoke night when she goes off on her own? With the older kids? They’re flirting, some are making out, but her first kiss comes from the video-game playing kid nearer her own age. I like how he tries a surprise attack on her, in the manner of boys who don’t know how to talk to girls, and she drops him. She’s learned Dad’s lessons after all. We also see Dad looking for her. In a long still shot, he walks determinedly toward the beach, and we want to tell him, “She’s not there, champ,” but he keeps walking straight toward the surf, and we think, “He’s not… Is he?” Yes, he dives in and swims out. It’s night, and Weber holds on the shot, and holds on the shot, and we keep peering into the darkness to see some glimmer that he’s still alive.

He is. Sophie has to get a resort clerk to let her into their room, but he’s there on the big bed, asleep on his stomach, naked, and it’s odd and awkward and leaves us with so many questions. Did he try to kill himself but swam back? Did he get drunk? If so, what was the suicide scene? Right now, he’s just there. He’s in decent shape but like most men there’s a heavy bear quality to him, particularly next to a pre-adolescent girl, and it’s all so awkward. 

Calum’s heaviness isn’t just weight. He winds up buying that rug, and later it’s next to the big bed as feet come dangling off. His? No, too thin for his, and too adult for hers. But it is her. It’s adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), the one yelling at him at the rave. It’s present day, and it’s her rug now. Because? Where is he? Near the end of the film, during a bus-tour stop, Sophie gets the other tourists to sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” for his birthday. He’s above them on some ancient steps, and his reaction is just off. He doesn’t smile. He just stares. It’s not the wrong song to sing, just the incorrect one. There’s nothing jolly there. 

Missing
I missed bits and pieces—the Scottish—so I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. It’s generally not the type of movie you want to see again: day-in-the-life stuff, in a dull locale with characters who don’t do much. It’s also the kind of movie you want to see again. To see that you missed, or misunderstood. To re-see what you miss.

It’s what adult Sophie does. That’s how the movie ends. Eleven-year-old Sophie waves to Calum as she prepares to board her plane back home, back to her mum, and he films her waving and acting goofy, and they exchange I love yous. And then it’s today and she’s watching the video he took. He’s gone. We don’t know how, we just know it. Of course, she’s gone, too. That 11-year-old girl is gone. It’s awful to say, but every time we saw adult Sophie I felt such disappointment. I might’ve missed the young actress, Frankie Corio, who is amazing and tomboy-cute and heartbreakingly like a little girl; or maybe I missed the possibilities of what Sophie might become. “You can live wherever you want to live, be whoever you want to be,” Calum tells her at one point, and now that’s no longer true. She lives there and is that.

We saw it at the Egyptian Theater on Friday night, and it’s days later now and I keep thinking about it. It’s a movie where not much happens except everything.

FURTHER READING

Posted at 10:10 AM on Monday January 16, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

Sunday January 15, 2023

It's Not 'Classified Documents'; It's 'Willfully Retain' and 'Fail to Return'

“Individuals violate the Espionage Act when, among other things, they willfully retain national-defense documents and fail to return them to a proper government official upon request. In November, Biden's personal lawyer discovered the classified documents and returned them to the government without a request. So that statute does not apply. Biden has denied knowing that he had the documents.

”The contrast with Trump is stark. The National Archives and Records Administration first asked him to return missing documents in May 2021. The following January, Archives officials retrieved 15 boxes of government records, and on June 3, 2022, his lawyer signed a sworn statement that all documents responsive to a grand jury subpoena were being returned after a 'diligent' search. ... In August, a federal court was provided evidence that the lawyer's statement was likely false, and the court issued the search warrant that allowed the FBI to seize upwards of 11,000 documents from Mar-a-Lago. They included more than 70 documents marked 'Secret' or 'Top Secret,' some apparently containing information whose disclosure could conceivably endanger the lives of American intelligence sources overseas.

“The apparent obstruction of justice—with evidence pointing to Trump's direct involvement—makes up the serious misconduct here, more serious than a former president simply having removed documents from their proper place. Trump's lawyers repeatedly asserted in court that the Mar-a-Lago documents were 'personal,' effectively admitting that Trump took them and kept them.”

-- “Biden's Classified Documents Should Have No Impact on Trump's Legal Jeopardy,” by Donald Ayer, Mark S. Zaid, and Dennis Aftergut, in The Atlantic. Good reminders all around. I'm already sensing Republicans and even the press desperate to create a false equivalance between these two matters, while some Dems, hand-wringing all the while, seem desperate for expiation. They should just read this article and STFU. All three writers are lawyers. Ayer was deputy solicitor general under Reagan and deputy attorney general under George H. W. Bush; Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor; and Zaid is a national security attorney in D.C. We did a piece on Zaid in my day job a few years back.

Posted at 01:17 PM on Sunday January 15, 2023 in category Law   |   Permalink  

Tuesday January 10, 2023

Movie Review: Babylon (2022)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s not often I watch a movie and think, “Hey, scale back on the tits and ass, will ya?” So kudos to Damien Chazelle. 

What did Chazelle think the point of “Babylon” was? That the great, unbridled bacchanalia of the silent era gave way to the strictures of sound, and there went all the fun? Does he believe this is true? In fact or in spirit?

Some of his inspiration apparently came from Kenneth Anger’s book “Hollywood Babylon,” which was published in France but banned in the U.S. until 1975. We had a copy of it when I was a teenager—Dad, movie critic—and I was drawn to some of the pictures but never to the words. In the last year, I bought a copy and tried reading it again. Couldn’t. It all felt false—reveling in the most salacious rumors and scandals in Hollywood history, exaggerating and enjoying them. I think that’s what really turned me off. It’s not the lack of humanity in the stories but in the storyteller. Like all tabloid fodder, it’s saying, “Look how awful these people are,” but revealing how awful the author is.

You ain’t heard
Chazelle isn’t like that, he cares about his characters, but he revels in the exaggerations. It’s not enough to cart an elephant up a hill to a mansion for an all-night party, the elephant has to shit all over the guys pushing the vehicle. It’s not enough to show a Fatty Arbuckle type, naked and voluminously fat, enjoying sex, no, the naked girl above him has to pee all over his chest and face while he laughs uproariously. And then she dies, of course. And it’s swept under the rug. It doesn’t lead—as with the real Arbuckle—to three murder trials and an eventual acquittal but a ruined career and an early death. Legal and journalistic careers were made off of Fatty’s carcass. Sometimes the true scandal is who benefits from the scandal.

The first half hour of “Babylon,” a Babylonian party, is all excess—drink, drugs, nudity, sex, dance—filmed at a frenetic pace. Amid it all, we’re introduced to our main characters:

  • Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the matinee idol of the day, who, between drinks and wives, longs to kinda make something meaningful
  • Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), the brash up-and-comer, who acts like a bratty star before she becomes one
  • Manny Torres (Diego Calva), helpmate and gofer, who finds himself inexplicably drawn to it all—particularly Nellie

The freneticism continues the next day, as three or four films for Kinescope Pictures are filmed simultaneously in a large field in close proximity to one another. Manny proves himself resourceful and begins his rise. Nellie proves she can act and steals the movie away from an established star. Jack proves that when the cameras roll, he can still project star power. 

But then that upstart Warner Bros. produces a sound picture, “The Jazz Singer,” and it’s getting standing ovations all over New York (source, Damien?), and everything changes. Goodbye large field and close proximity. Hello separate sound stages and hitting your mark. There’s a good scene on the number of takes a simple entrance requires, but that, too, is over-the-top, as the cameraman dies of heat stroke in the soundproof booth. More unforgiveable: you see it coming. 

Pitt’s character is basically John Gilbert, the silent star whose flat line-readings in the sound era (“I love you, I love you, I love you”) provoked laughter and ruined his career. Meanwhile, Nellie (Clara Bow-like) is just too Jersey, it’s decided, and given elocution lessons by scenario writer Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), and then taken to a party where she’s supposed to put on airs. All of this goes as poorly as you’d imagine. The snobs see through her, she reacts badly, shoving food into her face, and then projectile vomits all over the host. Sure. I never got who these people were or why they mattered. And that’s not what ends her anyway. She gets too deep into booze, drugs and gambling. She winds up owing $85,000 to gangsters who threaten to throw acid in her face.

That’s when Manny returns into her life. He’s been rising all the while, helping create a series of movies about a jazz band led by Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo). Now Nellie, the love of his life, needs his help. The $85k he gets from studio pill-pusher “The Count” (Rory Scovel), who goes with him to deliver it to gangster James McKay. We turn a corner, see Tobey Maguire, and are momentarily relieved. Then not. He’s drug addicted and super-creepy, taking the men on a tour of underground L.A., where there are live alligators, sex shows, geeks eating live mice, and the Elephant Man himself. Is this some comment by Chazelle on what happens when bacchanalia is bridled—that it’s driven underground and becomes perverse? The elephant of the opening party becomes the Elephant Man of underground L.A.

Oh, and the $85k from the prop man turns out to be prop money. The gangsters figure it out and kill The Count but let Manny skip town. Sure.

There’s also an Anna May Wong character who seems too self-satisfied given her circumstances, along with way too many studio executives and movie producers: Flea, the kid from “Witness,” Jeff Garlin, Irving Thalberg. I liked Chazelle’s wife, Olivia Hamilton, playing the director who first spots Nellie’s talent. Afterwards, my wife dismissed the female director thing as PC revisionism. Me: “No, there were women directors in the silent era. It was sound that screwed them over.” Maybe that should’ve been the story.

Nothing yet
Pitt is great—is he never not these days?—but I never bought Robbie as a 1920s starlet. Something too tall, hard and modern about her. She's supposed to be Clara Bow? Come on. Meanwhile, Calva’s Manny is a nonentity. What does the guy want? That's the question. And the answer for Manny is, I guess, to be part of it all? And then Nellie? And then to survive? 

I kept wanting other. St. John becomes the town gossip columnist, its Louella Parsons, and she writes a cover story on the fall of Jack Conrad. He confronts her about it, she responds that what he really wants to know is: Why did they laugh? That’s not bad, but I wanted him to also wonder why they loved him in the first place. Why was it magic one way and comic another? Instead, she talks about how, 50 years after his death, people will still be admiring his work. Even as she said it, I flashed on how James Cagney and other 1930s contemporaries assumed none of it would last. I wanted more of that contemporary, cynical attitude rather than Chazelle’s dreamy historical take.

But of course he’s teeing up his ending. After Conrad blows his brains out in a hotel bathroom, and we see below-the-fold newspaper headlines on the deaths of Nellie and St. John, it’s suddenly 1952. Manny returns to L.A. with wife and daughter, and stands outside the gates of Kinescope Pictures. Later, alone, he wanders into a movie theater, which is playing “Singin’ in the Rain,” MGM’s comedy-musical about the transition from silents to talkies; and he’s stunned to see versions of the men and women he knew and loved. And then he seems to see, or Chazelle shows us, the long future of movies, up to and including “Avatar,” and the joy it brings the world, and … it’s so fucking pointless. He should’ve just left Manny outside the Kinescope gates. He’s our eyes and ears here, and that’s where we all wind up. 

I’m currently reading “Hollywood: The Oral History,” by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson, culled from countless AFI interviews over the decades. I’m still in the silent era and loving it. The other night, I came across this quote from Raoul Walsh: “Work. That’s the true story of Hollywood. But who wants to hear it? They’re looking for something else. Who took off whose panties behind the piano while the director shot the producer in the head? People want to know stuff like that, even if it isn’t true.”

FURTHER READING/LISTENING

Posted at 09:42 AM on Tuesday January 10, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

Sunday January 08, 2023

Another IMDb 'Known For' Quiz

I'll show you the actual IMDb “Known For” image in a second, but it's tougher these days to cut out the character names that might give it away. So for now I'll just list off the productions this actor, per IMDb's algorithm, is KNOWN FOR.

In this order:

  1. The Waterboy
  2. Night Shift
  3. Click
  4. Arrested Development

I knew he was in 2). I also knew he was in 4) but he's not the first name I associate with that great show. I did not know he was in 1) and 3), but then I'm not a huge Adam Sandler guy. Maybe that puts me at odds with the culture and IMDb's algorithm. If the algorithm truly taps into the culture. Which I doubt.

The point is, there's a massive #1 that IMDb's algorithm is somehow missing. It's older than these others but it was seismic. And it's still part of the culture—particularly as a recent catch-phrase. And if you're like “Forget it, old is old,” and you want a recency bias, there's a current, critically acclaimed show for which this actor has won Emmys. The algorithm supposedly cares about that.

More clues? He was one of the most famous faces of the 1970s for playing this character on this TV show. He wound up starring in movies as a result. But he's mostly known for TV. For this missing TV show.

Hell, when he's introduced, people often place this character's name between the actor's first and last name: X “Y” Z. He's referenced in “Pulp Fiction.” There's a statue of him, as this character, in Milwaukee.

Want more? Ayyyyyy.

Exactamundo. It's Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, who, per IMDb, is somehow not known for playing the Fonz on “Happy Days.”

I think IMDb's jumped the shark.

Posted at 12:08 PM on Sunday January 08, 2023 in category TV   |   Permalink  
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