erik lundegaard

Thursday April 14, 2022

'The Litany of Trump-Russia Intersections Remains Remarkable'

There is a long, remarkable paragraph in Robert Draper's excellent New York Times Magazine feature on former presidential adviser Fiona Hall. It's good reading for Americans who, per David Bowie, don't really remember their President Trump. Or the bills they have to pay. Or yesterday. 

As I said, it's a long paragraph. This is how it begins: “The litany of Trump-Russia intersections remains remarkable,” and then Draper lists them off. He doesnt' bullet-point them but I'm going to. They demand bullet-pointing. Most of them I remember. I didn't know the thing about Gordon and Kislyak. I knew about the watering down but not the details behind it. Ready? Rock 'n' roll...

  • Citizen Trump's business pursuits in Moscow, which continued throughout his candidacy
  • Candidate Trump's abiding affinity for Putin
  • The incident in which the Trump campaign's national security director, J.D. Gordon, watered down language in the 2016 Republican Party platform pledging to provide Ukraine with “lethal defense weapons” to combat Russian interference — and did so the same week Gordon dined with Russia's ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, at an event
  • Trump's longtime political consigliere Roger Stone's reaching out to WikiLeaks through an intermediary and requesting “the pending emails,” an apparent reference to the Clinton campaign emails pirated by Russia, which the site had started to post
  • Trump's chiming in: “Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
  • The meeting in the Seychelles islands between Erik Prince (the founder of the military contractor Blackwater and a Trump-campaign supporter whose sister Betsy DeVos would become Trump's secretary of education) and the head of Russia's sovereign wealth fund in an effort to facilitate a back-channel dialogue between the two countries before Trump's inauguration
  • The former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort's consistent lying to federal investigators about his own secretive dealings with the Russian political consultant and intelligence operative Konstantin V. Kilimnik, with whom he shared Trump campaign polling
  • Trump's two-hour meeting with Putin in Helsinki in the summer of 2018, unattended by staff
  • Trump's public declaration, at a joint news conference in Helsinki, that he was more inclined to believe Putin than the U.S. intelligence team when it came to Russia's interference in the 2016 election
  • The dissemination by Trump and his allies in 2019 of the Russian propaganda that it was Ukraine that meddled in the 2016 election, in support of the Clinton campaign
  • Trump's pardoning of Manafort and Stone in December 2020
  • And most recently, on March 29, Trump's saying yet again that Putin “should release” dirt on a political opponent — this time President Biden, who, Trump asserted without evidence, had received, along with his son Hunter Biden, $3.5 million from the wife of Moscow's former mayor

This is the guy that his base, his idiot base, says would be tough on Russia right now. This fucking putz.

Jonathan Chait has a piece over on the New York magazine site about Sean Hannity trying desperately to get Trump to condemn Russia's aggression in Ukraine and Trump constantly deflecting to complain about NATO and our western allies and Ukraine. Jesus fucking Christ. It could be high comedy but Chait knows it's not and ends the piece ominously: “Had 44,000 votes in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin swung the other way, Zelensky would probably at this moment be in exile, in a Russian prison, or dead.”

Posted at 06:05 PM on Thursday April 14, 2022 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Thursday April 14, 2022

Six Outs from Perfection

Yesterday, in Minnesota, visiting LA Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled his pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, after 7 innings. Kershaw had thrown 80 pitches, struck out 13, walked nobody, and hadn't allowed a hit. None of the Dodgers had made an error and no Twin got on via a dropped third strike. No Twin had gotten on: 21 up and 21 down. Kershaw had a perfect game going

And he was pulled.

After 7 innings and 80 pitches.

I get the arguments in favor. To the Dodgers and Roberts, a win is a win. You don't get extra points for being perfect. And Kershaw's fragile. He's gone on the IL so many times. You need him for later in the year. You need him for October. 

But a perfect game is a bit of magic dropped into our sad world. There have only been 21 perfect games in the modern era—beginning with Cy Young in 1904, adding Addie Joss' in 1908 and Charlie Robertson(?) in 1922; then nothing until Don Larsen in the 1956 World Series. Think of the great pitchers who never threw one: Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Lefty Grove, Bob Feller. We got three in the swinging '60s (including Sandy Koufax's), none in the '70s when I was beginning to pay attention, three more in the '80s, four in the '90s, and two in the aughts (including Randy Johnson's). Then in the first three years of the 2010s we had five, including King Felix's perfecto on a sunny August afternoon at Safeco Field, and it seemed like it wouldn't be much of a thing anymore. But no, Felix's was the last. Silence for 10 years now. Magic is tough. Perfection is tough.

I doubt he would have done it—those last six outs, man—but I don't know how you don't give him a chance to go for it. “Anyone gets on, you're out.” Just that. Kershaw is the best pitcher of his generation, but he's 34 and faltering, he's not going to get more chances. And no Dodger has thrown one since Koufax in '65.

But intead of a chance at magic, at perfection, in came the set-up man, Alex Vesia, who was 26, who'd pitched well last year (2.25 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 40 IP), but was hardly Kershaw. He got a ground out, then gave up a single to Gary Sanchez (of all people) and a walk to Max Kepler, and there went that. But it didn't matter. Even if he and whomever from the Dodger relief corps had retired the next six in a row, it wouldn't have been a perfect game. It would've been a team perfect game and nobody cares about that, the way nobody cares about team no-hitters. Imagine a team homerun: Harmon Killebrew swings, Cesar Tovar runs to third, Rod Carew runs from third to home. Great. Nobody cares.

I should be the last person complaining. Now King Felix still has the last perfecto. And the Twins are already 0-2 in perfect games: Catfish Hunter blanked them in Sept. '68, and David Wells did it in May '98. If they'd been perfected again, they would tie the Rays for the worst record in perfect games.

But it's so indicative of Major League Baseball these days. Here's a chance for greatness, for magic. And ... nah.

7 IP, 0 Hits, 0 Runs, 0 BBs, 13 Ks

Posted at 07:19 AM on Thursday April 14, 2022 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Thursday April 07, 2022

Opening Day 2022: Your Active Leaders


  • SLIDESHOW: Albert is still with us, as is Miggy and Nellie, as is (sadly) the 10th-inning ghost runner. Who's gone? Mostly guys who didn't factor in on the active leaderboard: Nick Markakis, Buster Posey, Ryan Braun and Wade Davis. Oh, and Kyle Seager, of course. Next year we'll get huge turnover, since Albert, now back with St. Louie, says this is his final season. In the meantime, be prepared to scroll through a lot of Albert. And Mike, and Justin, and Clayton.

  • BATTING AVERAGE: Almost every year I expect Miggy to tumble and almost every year he kind of does—but not enough. Before the start of the 2019 season, for example, the difference between him and second-place Jose Altuve was razor-thin: .3165 vs .3164. And Miggy was seven years older. And since then, he's hit just .266. But Altuve hasn't hit well, either, so here Miggy stands, ahead .310 to .307. They're the only active players with career BAs over .305. Trout is third with .3048, then it's a scattering of guys between .303 and .300. Last year, I wrote that Miggy's .313 was “the lowest active batting average since ... ever.” Rinse. Repeat.

  • ON-BASE PERCENTAGE: Just three years ago, active leader Joey Votto's .427 OBP was tied with Tris Speaker for 13th all-time. It's a still an impressive .416, 26th all-time, but Mike Trout has eclipsed him at .419. No one else is close. Bryce Harper is at .391, then you got three guys in the .380s. Come Opening Day 2024, though, expect some competition. Baseball Reference has a 3,000 PA minimum for active leaders and Juan Soto is 2/3 of the way there. And he's at .432. And it's rising.

  • SLUGGING PERCENTAGE: Only 17 active players have career slugging percentages above .500, but only one of those, Mike Trout, is above .550—and he's at .583. So a bit of a gap. He'll get some competition when players like Aaron Judge (.554) and Juan Soto (.550) get their qualifying 3,000 plate appearances (2,465 and 2,003, respectively). Until then, can't touch this.

  • OPS: Same story. Seven active players have an OPS above .900. Joey Votto is second with a .936 mark, while Mike Trout is first with 1.001. A bit of a gap. A year or two from qualifying, Aaron Judge is at .940 and Juan Soto is at .981. More junior achievements: Vlad Jr. is halfway to qualifying with .884, Acuna Jr. also halfway with .925, and Tatis Jr. is one-third of the way to qualifying with .965.

  • GAMES: Only nine players in baseball history have ever played 3,000 games: Rose, Yaz, Henry, Rickey, Ty, Stan, Eddie Murray, Willie, Cal. With 29 more games, Albert joins the club. It's a pretty cool club even if no one knows it exists. Go, Albert.

  • HITS: Another milestone to look forward to: Miguel Cabrera is just 13 hits shy of 3,000. Barring a horrific start, he should do it in April. Serious question: Might he be the last to do this? Robinson Cano is 376 shy and he's only banged out 248 hits since 2018. Then it's Yadier Molina at 2112 and no one young seems on the trajectory. Getting hits feels like a lost art. Last season, the NL averaged 8.04 hits per game, which is the lowest since 1909. Oh, and yes, Albert is the active leader with 3301—12th all-time. Barring disaster, he'll wind up 10th: Paul Molitor is currently that with 3319.

  • DOUBLES: Albert has 672, 5th all time, but we're nearing another Miggy miletone: He's just three doubles from becoming the 19th player in baseball history with 600 doubles. That means he'd have 3,000 hits, 500 HRs and 600 doubles. How many guys in baseball history have done that? Talk about your exclusive clubs. It's just Hank Aaron and Albert Pujols.

  • TRIPLES: Not even sure who to put here. Dexter Fowler (82 triples) signed a minor league deal with the Blue Jays but he could be let go at any moment. Brett Gardner (73) is in pinstripe limbo. No. 3 Alcides Escobar (56) is apparently assured playing time on the awful Washington Nationals. The one thing that's certain? The most exciting play in baseball is the saddest of stats, because it's disappearing. Last year I wrote: “Fowler's 82 is the lowest for an active leader since 1883, when a dude named Tom York had 80.” Rinse. Repeat.

  • HOMERUNS: Albert's No. 1 with 679. Does he have 21 more in him? Last year, split between So Cal teams, he hit 17. Miggy, at 502, is on his last legs. No. 3 is interesting: Nelson Cruz. He turned 41 last July and between Minnesota and Tampa Bay hit 32, giving him 449 career. Does he have 51 more in him? I can't imagine a baseball fan in the world rooting against him. 

  • RBIs: Seven active players have more than 1,000. Albert is first with 2150 (third all-time), Miggy is second with 1804 (22nd all-time) and a distant third is Robinson Cano with 1302 (114th all-time). Fun stat: Asdrubal Cabrera has more RBIs than Mike Trout: 869 to 816. I guess that's what happens when the best player in baseball spends most of his career leading off or batting second.

  • RUNS: Same top three, more evenly spaced: Albert at 1872, Miggy at 1505, Cano at 1257. Trout is the first twentysomething on the active list: 967. The all-time record is Rickey Henderson, 2295, 50 more than second-place Ty Cobb. Albert is 14th. Eleven more and he passes Tris Speaker. 

  • BASES ON BALLS: Four guys have more than 1,000: Albert at 1345, Joey Votto on his heels at 1294 and Miggy at 1199. Any guesses as to the fourth guy? I wouldn't have gotten it: Carlos Santana with 1077. All-time, Albert is tied for 34th with Willie McCovey but doesn't walk much anymore: just 14 last season. 

  • STRIKEOUTS: There was a time when the active leader in K’s was a sure HOFer: Mantle, Killebrew, Stargell, Jackson, Schmidt. Now it's just as likely to be an Adam Dunn, Chris Davis or, this year, Justin Upton, who's whiffed 1948 times, good for seventh all-time. This is another question-mark active leader, though, since Upton was let go by the Angels a week before Opening Day. If no one picks him up, then insert Miggy. He's got 1930: 10th all-time. 

  • STOLEN BASES: Here's a Washington Post headline from a week ago: “Dee Strange-Gordon hopes to impress Nationals with 'lost art' of base running.” Truer words. The “lost art” part. If Strange-Gordon makes the team, he's the active leader with 333. If he doesn't, Elvis Andrus has entered the building with 317. Either way, it'll be the lowest active leader since Luis Aparicio in the early '60s. Last player to steal 50+ in a season? That would be Dee with 60 in 2017. Last to steal 75+? Jose Reyes, 78, 2007. How about 80+? You gotta go back to Rickey Henderson with 93 in 1988.

  • GROUNDED INTO DOUBLE PLAYS: As hits go down, will GDPs go down, too? It feels like it. Last season, the AL was near historic lows in GDPs, with only the hitless '60s comparing, while the NL was the same, but playing second fiddle to the early '90s for some reason. Anyway, if true, then this record is Albert's forever. Career, he's got 413, 63 ahead of second-place Cal Ripken, Jr. Second on the actives, and third all-time, is Miggy with 342. 

  • DEFENSIVE WAR: Andrelton Simmons's 28.1 dWAR is 13th all-time. Meaning, according to Baseball Reference, Simmons has provided as much value defensively as Paul Konerko did everywhere. Second on the active dWAR list is Yadier Molina with 26.8. They're the only actives above 20. Fun stat: No. 1 in dWAR last season is the guy who replaced Simmons at shortstop for the Twins: Carlos Correa with 2.9.

  • WAR FOR POSITION PLAYERS: Of the top five guys, two of them had their career numbers drop last season. No. 1 Albert went from 100.8 to 99.6, while No. 4 Miggy went from 69.6 to 68.7. Mike Trout played only 36 games, but they were stellar, and he improved from 74.5 to 76.1. Robinson Cano got bumped up a bit, too, 69.1 to 69.6, as did Joey Votto: 62.0 to 64.6. So which of the five is a HOFer? Albert, Trout and Miggy, obviously. Cano, sadly, no. Votto is the question mark. 

  • WINS: Seven active pitchers have 150+ wins, but only two have 200+ wins. The leader of the pack, Justin Verlander, who turned 39 in February, is also promising to become the first 300-game winner since Randy Johnson in 2009. More power to him. Currently he's at 226, and has won exactly one game in the last two years. Zack Greinke is second on the actives with 219. Verlander is currently 70th on the all-time list, three behind Luis Tiant and Sad Sam Jones. 

  • ERA: This stat used to be Clayton Kershaw's and no one was close. Now someone is. During his heyday, after the 2016 season, Kershaw's career ERA stood at an insane 2.37, and now it's a still stellar 2.49, but Jacob deGrom has all but caught up. Or down? After the 2017 season, his ERA stood at 2.98, and since then he's gone: 1.70, 2.43, 2.38, 1.09 (in a half season). All that adds up to a career ERA of 2.497. Third is Chris Sale (3.03), fourth Max Scherzer (3.16), fifth Corey Kluber (3.19).

  • STRIKEOUTS: This used to be Verlander's but if you miss a few seasons people catch up—in this case Max Scherzer, who now has 3020 Ks to JV's 3013. Verlander doesn't walk much, just 851 free passes, but Scherzer is even better: just 677 BBs. Back in the day, the only pitcher with > 3,000 Ks and < 1,000 BBs was Fergie Jenkins. In the last two decades, he's been joined by Maddux, Shilling, and Pedro. These two could make it six. 

  • BASES ON BALLS: Last season, Verlander was leading with 851 career passes but two guys were close on his tail: Jon Lester and Francisco Liriano. Lester passed him up, but both men retired, so it's Verlander's again. Ervin Santana is second with 776 and Oliver Perez(?) is third with 761. 

  • INNINGS PITCHED: Last season, Zack Greinke became the 137th pitcher to reach 3,000 innings pitched. Verlander will join that club in April: He's sitting on 2988. Then it's Max Scherzer, 2586, Ervin Santana, 2486, and Clayton Kershaw at 2454. The all-time record is Cy Young: 7356. The modern record, Phil Niekro, 5404.  

  • COMPLETE GAMES: Last season, his age 39 season, Adam Wainwright pitched three complete games, leading the Majors, and is now the active leader with 27. Verlander is second with 26, Kershaw third with 25. But as you know, this is barely a stat now. The all-time leader is Cy Young, with 749. How much is no one going to touch this? If you count every CG for every active pitcher in the Majors, you get 528. 

  • SAVES: The Dodgers let the No. 2 active saves leader, Kenley Jansen (350) test the free-agent waters, then traded for the No. 1 active saves leader, Craig Kimbrel (372). Will be interesting to see how this turns out. After several pretty horrific seasons, Kimbrel was Mariano-good for the first half of 2021, giving up only 2 earned runs in 36.3 innings. The Cubs then traded him across town. And in his third appearance with the ChiSox, Kimbrel gave up 3 earned runs. Against the Cubs! He did it again later that month—also against the Cubs. His splits last season are like Jekyll/Hyde: 0.49 ERA for the Cubs, 5.09 for the ChiSox. So who shows up at Chavez Ravine?

  • WAR FOR PITCHERS: Verlander's barely pitched for two seasons and he's still on top here with a 72.2. Then it's Kershaw (69.1), Greinke (68), Scherzer (66.2). After that quartet, no one is above 50. Are all four going into the Hall? To me, the only question mark is Greinke, who never dominated the way the others did. But he was fun.

  • EXIT MUSIC (FOR A SLIDESHOW): And exit music for baseball? The way the current lords are running the show, sometimes it feels like it.  *FIN*
Posted at 06:50 AM on Thursday April 07, 2022 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Monday April 04, 2022

Movie Review: The Batman (2022)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” is arthouse Batman: long, brooding and morally ambiguous. It’s reminiscent less of a superhero flick than David Fincher’s “Se7en”: two detectives, an elder Black officer and his white, hothead partner, attempt to solve a series of grisly, serial-killer murders. You know how recent Batmen swoop around Gotham the way Spider-Man swings around Manhattan—almost as if he had super powers? This ain’t that. This is a grounded Batman. He’s definitely a dude in a bat suit, who relies on gadgets and martial arts, determination and smarts. The first time he’s on the roof of some gothic skyscraper he doesn’t brood over the city in the rain but all but goes “Yikes!” Recent Batmen have been like ninjas, too—all of a sudden, poof, there—while the first time we see Robert Pattinson’s Batman, we actually hear him, slowly clomping up the steps like the Terminator. Nothing about him is fast. Nothing about the movie is fast. Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” plays several times on the soundtrack, which is appropriate because it’s the movie’s tempo. Exactly that. “The Batman” is like “Something in the Way” for three hours.

And it’s pretty great.

Who is director Matt Reeves and how the hell did he land this gig? Back in 2008, he directed the sleeper hit “Cloverfield”; then he was tapped to remake the great Swedish horror-vampire film “Let the Right One In” for American audiences, and did a great job. So he spent the next decade doing the “Planet of the Apes” sequels. Now this.

Oh, and Batman’s sexy again. About time.

John Doe
We begin the movie looking through the high-tech goggles of someone spying on a rich man and his kid in a townhouse. The kid is pretending to be a ninja and Dad is accommodating; he pretends to be stabbed. Then the kid goes trick-or-treating since it’s Halloween in Gotham City.

All the while, these were my thoughts:

  • Are these the Waynes?
  • Or is this another family and it’s the bad guy watching them?
  • Or is it Batman watching them?

Right out of the gate, in other words, Reeves blurs the line between hero and villain. That’s a lot of the film. And not in the way of “You created me, I created you,” the Batman/Joker dynamic in the Tim Burton movie. Nobody says it, but I kept thinking, “OK, so Batman beats up a bunch of skull-faced subway punks while the Riddler (an excellent Paul Dano) is taking down the corrupt officials of Gotham City. Batman is fighting the symptom, the Riddler is fighting the cause. So why is the Riddler the villain again?”

Answer: He’s the villain because he’s insane and tortures people. Don’t do that, kids.

Anyway, yes, in the opening scene, it’s the Riddler’s eyes we’re looking through, after which the Riddler shows up as silent as a ninja in the townhouse and bludgeons the rich man—Mayor Don Mitchell (Rupert Penry-Jones)—to death. Then he gets out the duct tape. He’s big on the duct tape. When he stretches out a strip, it’s as loud on the soundtrack as gunfire in “Shane.” He also leaves clues/riddles and a message to the Batman. Not to taunt; I think he’s testing his smarts. He feels kinship. He wants partnership.

This is Year Two of Batman’s exploits, and he’s still this odd, caped vigilante around town. Most cops hate him, but he’s become the all-but-official partner of Lt. James Gordon (an excellent Jeffrey Wright), who is already using the bat signal when he needs to contact him. This is another stroke of genius to me. I’ve written about the bat signal before. It’s super-cool, I loved it as a kid, but it tends to mean we’ve left the Batman-as-vigilante phase (cool) and entered the Batman-as-institution phase (meh), which is a step away from Batman as camp (death). Here, Reeves manages to give us both Batman-as-vigilante and the bat signal. Because Gordon isn’t in charge yet. And the people who are in charge are corrupt.

Which is the point of the Riddler. Like John Doe in “Se7en,” he’s acting as judge, jury and executioner for the city’s sins. First it’s the mayor, then the police commissioner (Alex Ferns), whose face is eaten by rats during a livestream; then it’s the DA (Peter Sarsgaard), who is kidnapped and forced to crash a car, with a bomb locked around his neck, into the mass funeral for the mayor in midtown Gotham. All of these city officials are in the pocket of Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), the crime boss who runs the town from his penthouse above the Iceberg Lounge. So why doesn’t the Riddler just go after Falcone? Too logical, I guess. Way shorter movie. And how does the Riddler connect the dots between the mayor and the DA and the like? Was it common knowledge—like Mitch McConnell and dark money? Now there’s a Batman villain for you.

I keep using the term “the Riddler” but I don’t know if we ever hear it in the film, and he’s not exactly Frank Gorshin in a green leotard with question marks over it. (Though one of his lines is said with a very Gorshin-like inflection.) All the supervillains are mere suggestions of their comic book personas. The Riddler is a nerd accountant with crazy goggles and dark green hoodie. The Penguin (an excellent Colin Farrell), is a fat, squat crimeboss with a limp named Oz. Selina Kyle (a superhot Zoe Kravitz) is a martial arts-trained cat burglar, who, on the prowl, wears a mask with mere suggestions of ears. Plus the cats in her apartment. “I have a thing about strays,” she says to Batman, giving him a suggestive look. All three characters could fit into most crime/gangster movies and it wouldn’t look weird.

Meanwhile, Pattinson’s Batman looks iconically Batman—like a ’70s-era, Neal Adams drawing, but with dark cape/cowl rather than blue. He might look better than any Batman we’ve ever seen on screen. It should look weird—like “Se7en” with Brad Pitt in a bat outfit—but somehow it works. I assume because we expect it? I bet if you found someone who’d never heard of Batman, or superheroes, they’d think the whole thing was bizarre.

Pattinson makes it work, too. Like Edward from the “Twilight” series, he has a bruised, tragic stillness to him.* His Batman may mete out pain but he also exudes it. His Bruce isn’t the usual playboy, either. When he shows up at the mayor’s funeral, and the press goes crazy, Falcone (I think) calls him the only man in Gotham more reclusive than himself. He’s the city’s lost child, its poor little rich boy.

(* Has any actor played both vampire and Batman? I think Pattinson’s the first. He did it for the girls and now for the fanboys. OK, fangirls, too. He’s tall, quiet, tortured, mascaraed, passive. Selina makes all the moves. Their scenes together smoke.)

I like that there’s no slow-mo flashback to the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne; it’s assuming we know that story by now. I like that Wayne Manor isn’t a mansion outside of the city but a city skyscraper. Initially, too, Batman gets around on a nondescript motorcycle, which blends, and the passage to his “bat cave,” is serpentine, with secret walls, making it, you imagine, difficult to follow. To be honest, I was almost disappointed when the Batmobile showed up for the car chase with Oz—which, despite the one cool moment (the Batmobile leaping through the flames), felt overlong and unnecessary: an action-adventure bit for a noirish police procedural.

Travis Bickle
Let’s ask the Mamet question: What do the characters want?

So Selina is trying to find out what happened to her friend, Annika, a fellow waitress at the Iceberg Lounge, who goes missing; that’s why she teams up with Batman. She’s also the illegitimate daughter of Falcone. Does he know? And was she working at the Iceberg Lounge to become part of his life or kill him?

Oz is the loyal henchman who turns out to be not-so-loyal. We don’t know much more about him.

We know what the Riddler wants but he keeps going astray. Yes, it’s weird to talk about a crazy dude who uses 1984-style torture devices “going astray,” but, to me, the Riddler does this with his fourth target: Bruce Wayne. Why does he go after him? The Riddler, nee Edward Nashton, was an orphan himself in Wayne Orphanage. But after Thomas and Martha were murdered, the orphanage wound up in the hands of Falcone and Oz, who pillaged it like Tony Soprano’s men, leaving the orphans starving. Yet every day he had to hear about “poor little Bruce Wayne,” surrounded by his wealth. And he came to hate him. He identified with Batman and hated Bruce Wayne, and he decides to kill him. But it’s off the mark: Bruce isn’t part of the city’s corruption. Is that why the Ridder’s M.O. changes? With the others, it’s close quarters and sadistic torture, but with Bruce he just sends him a bomb in the mail. Blah. Alfred (Andy Serkis) opens it instead. Blah. He survives. Blah.

Then Riddler goes further astray. For most of the movie, his cinematic antecedent is John Doe in “Se7en,” and the sinners who need eradicating are the city’s fathers—the rich and powerful. In the final act, he’s all Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” unleashing a real flood that, like Travis’ imaginary rain, will wash all the scum off the streets. It’s a big, grandiose moment but kind of a bummer. At least John Doe stuck to the plan.

Batman changes, too, but in a way that makes sense. He has a trajectory. He begins the movie saying “I’m vengeance” to the subway punks, then realizes how corrupt the city leaders are, and that even his father was hardly a paragon of virtue; and at the end he’s confronted by one of the Riddler’s acolytes, who, when asked who he is, responds, “I am vengeance.” So the hero comes to realize his path is wrong, and rather than hurt criminals he winds up helping citizens caught in the flood. If the storyline were true to itself, in fact, this would be the moment when he unmasked himself—like Zorro at the end of the original 1920 “Zorro.” Basically it’s the moment he needs to be Bruce rather than Batman. But: sequels; moola. We even get a glimpse of Barry Keoghan as the Joker in Arkham Asylum. Warner Bros. primes that pump. Least shocking part of the film.

Despite that, I think this is the best Batman movie ever made. I love the scene in the police station where Batman is surrounded by cops, love Jeffrey Wright as Gordon, think Dano is a revelation (again), think Pattinson makes a great, brooding Batman. They’ll have a tougher go in the sequel. How do you scare criminals when you’re a beacon of hope? Good luck. Just don’t forget the Nirvana.

Posted at 06:04 AM on Monday April 04, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

Sunday April 03, 2022

The Other Bad Stuff that Happened at the 94th Annual Academy Awards

Before I get into the other bad stuff at this year's Oscars, here's something my onetime hometown newspaper tweeted midshow:

Never. Tweet. Early. 

Oscar's producers were lucky in a way. The Will Smith thing obscured/obliterated any other conversation about the Oscars, and that conversation should've been brutal. The people running the show are making the same mistake as the people running Major League Baseball: They're trying to appeal to the people who don't like their product while alienating those who do.

Here are some of the lowlights from last Sunday's broadcast:

  • The “In Memoriam” segment: It was not somber. It was New Orleans. They had a choir onstage, and people dancing, and those dancing people often partially obscured the faces of those who died. And occasionally it would quiet down for a live person (Tyler Perry, Bill Murray, Jamie Lee Curtis) to talk briefly about one of those who passed (Sidney Poitier, Ivan Reitman, Betty White). And it was all wrong. Just give us the faces, and occasional clips, and some measure of respect. Please. Think of what Anthony Hopkins said before presenting lead actress: “Let's have peace and love and quiet.” That.
  • Twits: Apparently the Academy teamed up with Twitter on two polls: “Oscar fan favorites”  and “Most Cheer-Worthy Moment.” The former was for 2021 films, the latter for any moment in movie history. And shockingly, for that, there was a recency bias among the voters. We didn't get Gene Kelly in “Singin' in the Rain,” in other words, but it did go chronologically. No. 5 was the old one from the deep, dim past: Neo dodging bullets in “The Matrix” from 1999. No. 4 was Jennifer Hudson singing “I'm Telling You” from “Dreamgirls” in 2006. Those were the oldies. I mean, who knew they made movies way back then? No. 3: Avengers assembling against Thanos in “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) and No. 2 was the Spider-Men teaming up in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (2021). As for the most cheer-worthy moment in movie history? “The Flash enters speedforce” from Zack Snyder's retooled “Justice League,” which played on HBO in 2021. Of course. And that should be history for Oscar's Twitter polls. There's nothing democratic in it. It's dominated by those who dominate the platform, and who are organized, and the Zackflaks are certainly that on Twitter. They're better organized than his movies. So much so that he won the other poll, too, as his “Army of the Dead” was voted the Oscar fan favorite of 2021. So fucking embarrassing. Stop it. Just ... stop.
  • Regina Hall's sexual harassment extravaganza: Didn't she do it twice? With this group of hunks and that group of hunks? It wasn't funny the first time so I guess they tried it again. Reverse the genders and see how it flies. Seriously, the double standards in our modern world are out of control.
  • Jackson Schmackson. But overall the worst of it was what the producers thought worth our time and what wasn't. Lifetime achievements to Samuel L. Jackson and Elaine May? Nah. Kids don't want to see that. Pre-tape it. Oscars for film editing? And sound? And hair and makeup? What does all that matter anyway? Pre-tape. A clip segment of 60 years of James Bond films introduced by three extreme sports dudes who have nothing to do with movies? Hey, now that needs to be part of the show. So fucking embarrassing. Stop it. Just stop.

 I liked Amy Schumer. Bring her back. 

Posted at 10:55 AM on Sunday April 03, 2022 in category Movies - The Oscars   |   Permalink  

Friday April 01, 2022

The Best Take on the Will Smith Thing

“The experience of seeing it live was just baffling. Like: What? What?? What the fuck just happened? 

”A few things in retrospect now that we've got a little distance from it. First off: It was wrong. There's no conversation about, 'Well, I don't know, Will had...' No. 'But Chris...' No. 'I mean, seriously, if it was his wife...“ No! It was fucking wrong. You don't go up and smack someone in the fucking face anywhere. It was wrong. I mean, there's no conversation about that.

”And that other idea that, 'Is this what happens when we tell jokes? Are we afraid to tell jokes?' No! It had nothing to do with the joke. ... 

“In that moment, all that happened in terms of the discussion, is: The guy who's spent the last 30 years of his career managing his personality to be one of the nicest guys in show business, and have everyone like him, lost his fucking mind. That's what happened. I don't know what's going on with him, how far back it goes, I don't know if it's relative to a past thing with Chris, or if it's relative to his marriage, to the pressure he's been under, what he exposed about himself in his memoir—I don't know what caused it. But in that moment that guy left reality, no longer had a context, and decided, impulsively, and without much reflection, to go onstage and hit a peer on national television. That's what happened. A guy fucking snapped. It could happen to anyone, I guess. Not great timing. But it's got nothing to do with 'Can you tell jokes anymore?' It's got nothing to do with whether it was virtuous or not, it's got nothing to do with any of that. 

”A guy snapped. And it was a bad time for it to happen. And it was wrong. That's it. ...

“When he went up and hit Chris, he was not at the Oscars. I don't know where he was. All he knew was he was following a red-hot rage impulse, and I think by the time he got up there to accept that Oscar, he was still sort of out-of-body, and he was still reckoning with I-don't-know-what. ... It was the most profound display of self-sabotage I've ever seen.” 

-- Marc Maron, on his WTF podcast, which dropped yesterday. Give it a listen. It starts at 3 1/2 minutes in.

Posted at 05:06 PM on Friday April 01, 2022 in category Movies - The Oscars   |   Permalink  

Wednesday March 30, 2022

Why Dictatorships Fail

“We believe that Putin is being misinformed by his advisers about how badly the Russian military is performing, and how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions, because his senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth.”

-- U.S. intelligence official in a statement today. Here's hoping Putin doesn't learn the truth until it's too late. (At the same time, he must suspect something, right?)

Posted at 04:53 PM on Wednesday March 30, 2022 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Tuesday March 29, 2022

Movie Review: CODA (2021)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The hearing daughter of two deaf parents—fisher folk along the coast of Massachusetts—must navigate a crush on a cute boy, music class, and the needs of her family during her senior year of high school. Does the boy like her? (He does.) Is she a good singer? (She is.) Will she get into that prestigious music school? (She will.) Can her parents let her go? (They can.) Thanks for coming.

It’s a nice movie. I just don’t see best picture.

Both sides now
I will say this: Even when I anticipated what would happen, I was moved. Her parents, Frank and Jackie Rossi (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin), don’t know from music, though Dad likes to turn up his gangsta rap full volume to feel the throbbing bass. So they wonder: Is their daughter, Ruby (Emilia Jones), a good singer? How can they tell? I assumed there would be a music pageant of some kind, and they would see the delight on the faces of other audience members, and that would be that. Which is what happens—though writer-director Sian Heder, adapting the 2014 French film “La Famille Belier,” adds a nice touch: halfway through the song, she eliminates the sound. We hear what Frank and Jackie hear, which is nothing. We, too, rely on the faces of others.

Then there’s the moment when Ruby auditions at Berklee College of Music in Boston, singing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” and her parents and her older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) sneak into the balcony to support her. I told my wife, “She should sign the lyrics. That would bring her family into it.” A few seconds later, that’s what she does.

“You were right,” my wife said.

“Still made me tear up,” I said.

“Not me,” my wife said. She’s made of sterner stuff.

We root for Ruby throughout because she’s cute but not too cute, tough but not too tough, and bears everything with an equanimity most of us didn’t have in high school—if ever. She gets up at 3 AM to fish with her father and brother because they need a hearing person on board, then, smelling of fish, bears the scorn of the mean girls in school. Because she has to act as interpreter between her family and the rest of the world, she’s often the adult in the room, but the movie doubles down on this conceit. Her dad listens to too-loud gangsta rap and her parents have too-loud sex, etc. It’s supposed to be funny and mold-breaking—they’re rebels, damnit—but they often come off as irresponsible and selfish. The movie’s title stands for “Children Of Deaf Adults” but her parents don’t act much like adults. I’m curious if anyone in the deaf community has objected.

The movie’s main conflict—can the family’s fishing business survive without Ruby?—is resolved at the 11th hour, all but off-screen, and the mother, who’d always felt out of place among hearing contemporaries, suddenly gets along with them, and her older brother finds his place, too.

Kotsur has won every prestigious award he can carry—BAFTA, SAG, Oscar—but some part of me wonders if he’s the best supporting actor in this movie. At the least, I was more intrigued by Durant as the brother. He’s got something. A certain cool. Will be interesting to see what else he does.

I also liked seeing Mexican comedian/actor Eugenio Derbez as Bernardo Villalobos, the demanding music instructor who takes Ruby under his wing. Sadly, we lose the thread of that relationship. She keeps showing up late to his private instruction because of family obligations but he thinks she’s a typical spoiled teenager who can’t tell time. Me, watching: “Tell him. Tell him your parents needed someone to interpret during a TV interview for their new fishing collective. Tell him that’s why you’re late.” But she doesn’t. She doesn’t say the obvious true thing. Instead, she offers vague excuses. And oddly, we never see them reconcile. There they are at the high school music pageant. There he is accompanying her on the piano during her Berklee audition. There they are celebrating when she gets in. Thanks for coming.

Record-breaking
According to Nathaniel over at Film Experience, “CODA”’s best picture win set some records:

  • It’s the lowest-grossing best picture winner ever (< $1 mil)
  • It has the lowest amount of nominations (3) for any best picture winner in the modern era
  • While it’s the 11th film to win BP without an editing nomination (“It Happened One Night,” “The Life of Emile Zola,” “Hamlet,” “Marty,” “Tom Jones,” “A Man for All Seasons,” “The Godfather Part II,” “Annie Hall,” “Ordinary People” and “Birdman”), and the fifth film to win BP without a directing nomination (“Wings,” “Grand Hotel,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Argo”), it’s the first film to win BP without a directing and an editing nomination

So I guess the stats didn’t really see best picture, either.

Posted at 08:32 AM on Tuesday March 29, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 2021   |   Permalink  

Monday March 28, 2022

'More Likely Than Not'

“A federal judge said Monday that then-President Donald Trump 'more likely than not' committed federal crimes in trying to obstruct the congressional count of electoral college votes on Jan. 6, 2021 — an assertion that is likely to increase public pressure on the Justice Department to investigate the former commander in chief.”

-- from an article in The Washington Post about U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter, who had to read over sensitive emails between Trump and conservative lawyer John Eastman to determine if they were covered by attorney-client privilege. That was Eastman's claim before the Jan. 6 committee: You can't see this correspondence because of attorney-client privilege. But such privilege is void if the correspondence relates to the commission of a crime. Carter has apparently determined that that's the case. According to the article, Eastman's legal team says that he “intends to comply with the court's order” to turn over documents.“ As Richie Valens sang, ”Let's go."

Posted at 05:56 PM on Monday March 28, 2022 in category Law   |   Permalink  

Monday March 28, 2022

The Slap Seen 'Round the World

Will either man ever not be known for this? 

What should've been the pinnacle of Will Smith's professional life turned into its nadir. It was both in one night. That's why it felt so hard to function. It felt like we all got slapped.

It was jaw-dropping and shocking and vaguely nauseating—and at the same time, not any of those things given the state of the world—but oh god does it play into the racial and racist stereotypes. I could write the bits myself. “You know, when Oscars was so white, no one ever assaulted anyone onstage.” Seriously, I hate the way this is going to be dragged through the mud by the usual suspects, but it will, for a long, long time. Did Will Smith just rewrite his obit? ACTOR WILL SMITH DIES, SLAPPED CHRIS ROCK AT OSCARS. Did he rewrite Chris Rock's? 

It also obliterated, and I mean obliterated, all the other bad shit that happened last night, and there was a lot of it, which I'll get to in another post. First, this. Let's try to stick to the facts of it.

Chris Rock was onstage to present best documentary feature, which, by the way, went to “Summer of Soul.” He told some jokes about Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz: how both are nominated and “If she loses, he can't win. He is praying that Will Smith wins, like, please, lord.” (Rock's jokes, by the way, were not good. That's an opinion, not a fact, but it's worth stating.) At which point, Rock turned to that other front-row couple, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, saying  “Jada, I love you. 'G.I. Jane 2,' can't wait to see it, all right?” The joke, such as it was, played off her shaved head and the 1997 Demi Moore movie, in which Moore's head is shaved. Except Pinkett Smith has alopecia, which causes hair loss in different parts of the body. I have family members who have alopecia. It's a frustrating condition. And the joke did not go over. Jada rolled her eyes and glared. And Will Smith saw her roll her eyes and glare. And he stood up, walked slowly and purposefully up the runway to the stage, and slapped Chris Rock in the face in front of millions and millions of worldwide viewers.

Initially people thought it might be staged? Because we'd never seen anything like it before. Even as Will Smith was approaching, Rock made a joke, something like “Uh oh, Richard,” referring to Smith's Oscar-nominated performance as Richard Williams, the father/coach/martinet of Venus and Serena. After the slap, he fumblingly tried to continue by stating what had happened: “Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me.” But his eyes had already crumbled. He said “Wow, dude, it was a G.I. Jane joke.” Smith, furious, from his seat, yelled, “Keep my wife's name out your fucking mouth!” And that's when everyone knew it was not staged.

By the time Smith won the Oscar an hour later, he knew he'd lost. He apologized to the Academy, and to his fellow nominees, and hoped to be asked back. He invoked higher powers: love and the devil. He joked it was art imitating life, the Richard Williams in him getting out to protect his family. He kept tearing up. He was allowed to talk on and on.

I should have more empathy because I've been there. I've done the zero-to-60 thing, too, where my anger overwhelmed me, getting me to act foolishly, and 10 minutes later, after the adrenaline has worn off and abandoned me and left me exposed, I'm left with just the horror of it. I'm left with, “Well, I'll never live that down. I'll never repair that relationship. That's over forever.” After the worst incident a few years ago, involving verbal abuse not physical violence, I saw an anger management therapist for a time. So I should have more empathy for Will Smith here. Not sure why I don't. Maybe because I never have much sympathy for myself after my own incidents? And I was lucky, too, oddly, in not being rich and famous, and not going zero-to-60 in front of millions and millions of worldwide viewers. My soul searching—“Is this me? Is this who I really am?”—didn't involve my professional career. There was no video of it. It didn't wind up on YouTube and newscasts and radio broadcasts. It didn't become a cultural touchstone for others to rub against. It didn't become a meme.

That Oscar is always going to hurt him. If he's anything like me, he'll look at it and chastise himself. Goddamnit. It'll cause him pain. Every damn day for the rest of his life.

I guess I just talked myself into some empathy for him.

There's going to be so much noise over this. That's why I like what Anthony Hopkins said before presenting the award for best actress to Jessica Chastain. He walked on stage, 84 now, still a great actor, alluded to the evening's event, and said, “Let's have peace and love and quiet.” Amen. Let's make that the meme.

Posted at 10:14 AM on Monday March 28, 2022 in category Movies - The Oscars   |   Permalink  

Wednesday March 23, 2022

A Steve McQueen Vibe

That's what I got from Franchot Tone in this scene from MGM's “Three Comrades,” which was released in 1938:

He's between two Bobs: Robert Taylor on the left and future “Father Knows Best” Robert Young on the right. It's not a good film. I watched it because “Three Comrades” was one of those 1930s Hollywood movies denuded of any anti-Nazi themes. It's based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque about three friends in the post-WWI Weimar Republic, and a romance for one of them, and, according to Louis B. Mayer biographer Scott Eyman, its production was watched closely by George Gyssling, the Nazi consul in Los Angeles. Yes, Germany had a consul there who pressured studios to do right by the Nazis. Eyman writes: 

Gyssling had been emboldened by MGM's canceling of a film based on Sinclair Lewis's controversial novel It Can't Happen Here a few months earlier. The studio had been no more than a week away from going into production when the film was suddenly shelved. The studio blamed a high budget, but Lewis claimed that Will Hays, worried about a threatened boycott from Germany and Italy, had told MGM to cease and desist.

Then Gysslling set to work on this one. Apparently the novel was also vague as to who those early 1920s mobs were. Communists? Fascists? Whigs? The movie doubles down on the vagueness but it's vague on everything. MGM was good at sanding off any rough edges. Here's a quote from “Three Comrades” producer Joe Mankiewicz:

“Warner Bros. had guts. They hated the Nazis more than they cared for the German grosses. MGM did not. It kept on releasing its films in Nazi Germany until Hitler finally threw them out.”

“Three Comrades” is also of note because it's the only official screenplay credit for F. Scott Fitzgerald. In it, the two Roberts are dull boys—though Young gives us a little something something—but Tone seems like a real person, and interesting, as the photos above indicate. Poor Robert Taylor is the dude saddled with a dull romance, with the dull Margaret Sullvan (nominated for an Oscar), whose character suffers from a dull, nondescript illness that eventually kills her. Taylor was big back then but his movies haven't aged well, have they? Or they've just never crossed my path. Beyond this, what have I seen of his? “Quo Vadis,” I guess, once upon a time. 

Posted at 01:10 PM on Wednesday March 23, 2022 in category Movies - Studios   |   Permalink  

Tuesday March 22, 2022

Twins Grin!

“The Yankees have been beating up on the Twins for almost 20 years now — it's one of the PosCast's favorite/least favorite topics. So we will cherish March of 2022, when the Twins somehow outmaneuvered the Yankees by dumping Josh Donaldson's overpriced salary on them and then using the money to get the jewel of free agency, Carlos Correa. Whoa! I don't know how long Correa will actually stay in Minnesota, but you get the sense he's just about ready to have the monster, 'bow before Correa' year and I'm sure the Twins would be very, very happy for him to have that season in Minnesota.”

-- Joe Posnanski, “The Baseball Whirlwind,” about the various trades/signings each team has made in the past two weeks.

Posted at 12:56 PM on Tuesday March 22, 2022 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  
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