This year, I’m getting a very early start on my usual mosey through the year’s most mainstream movies and/or easy-to-find indie movies.
- Get Out
This year, I’m getting a very early start on my usual mosey through the year’s most mainstream movies and/or easy-to-find indie movies.
I was speeding; sure, I won’t deny that. It was 8:20 or so on Super Bowl Sunday, and I was returning my rental car at Detroit’s airport before jumping on a 10:00 flight to Minneapolis for a story. Detroit, like most big cities, has spawned an airport inside a morass of frontage roads — to return a rental, you follow the signs, turn to what seems like an abandoned stretch of lots, and you’re there.
So, I turned onto Lucas, passing by the Hertz drop-off, intending to get gas at the end of the street before circling back and dropping it off. I notice, surreally, a cop car blazing into my rear view mirror.
“Can you… actually get pulled over on the street where you’re dropping the car off?” I wonder.
Indeed, you can. A surly officer asks why I think I was pulled over.
“I was in a hurry, so maybe I missed a turn signal on the way in,” I speculate.
According to him, no: I did not give the right of way when turning onto the final frontage road. I cut someone off — him, I assume — and was going 41 in a 35 mph zone.
(Here I will pause for an instructional video on how uniquely strange it is to drive in Michigan.)
“Do you have $100 in cash to post bond?” asks the cop.
My mind… I was going to say “races,” but it actually turns pretty slowly. “No,” I say, knowing I have around $85 in cash, “but I can pay a ticket.”
Friendly enough, right? Wrong. The cop returns to his car with my license, and with knowledge of my story — trying to return the car for my 10 a.m. flight so I can get to Minneapolis for work. In literally 90 minutes I will be out of his state, a problem for the motorists of the Twin Cities, not him.
He returns 10 minutes later, as I check my watch, and hands me a ticket — but no license.
“I’m holding onto your license as bond,” he says.
“Oh,” I say. “I didn’t realize that was what you meant by bond. Can I go to the ATM over there” — I point to the gas station, maybe 20 yards away — “and get the cash.”
The cop summons up that attitude that only an armed and un-criticizable agent of the state can summon. He already gave me a chance. He only charged me for speeding. I should cut my losses.
“But I can’t get on my plane without my license,” I say.
“You can use the ticket and say what happened,” he says.
This part of the story engenders less sympathy — suffice to say that instead of using the TSA pre-check status I pay for, I must show the ticket at a regular TSA line, empty my wallet to find that there’s no other card with my birth date, note the disbelief of the agent at the idea that the ticket would be enough ID, and get every single item patted down and searched before getting a chance to sprint to my plane. I make it by 5 minutes. Could be worse.
I can’t rent a car anymore, but I can borrow one from a friend. I can’t get back to the airport right before my flight on Monday — I will have to subject myself to another long pat-down. Okay. In future, I’ll travel with my passport.
But here is the long tail of the problem — getting my license back means trusting the Wayne County traffic court to send it back. I’m not saying its employees are dishonest. On Monday, they seem perfectly polite, if confused. I’m saying an infamously cash-poor urban county is not exactly staffed up to process a ticket quickly or mail a license back. Also, I’ve moved since I got the license, and that’s the sort of thing you’d like to explain to a bureaucrat before they mail your ID to an address.
When I call, three times, I talk to three confused people who refer me to a website that doesn’t recognize my ticket number. My follow-up questions are directed the voicemail of “Maya,” or maybe “Maia,” with no indication of what she does.
Here is the larger context: I am shredded. I’ve worked every day of January and had half a day off in February. I’m lucky, insofar that once I’m not going through airports, I don’t need my ID to drive to work; I take public transportation. But I tend to pack my days with assignments, and now I’ve got to navigate around the motherfucking Wayne County traffic courts.
I guess I’m saying that I don’t understand the policy. You want to get dangerous drivers off the road? Okay. I am… probably more aware of the text messages being sent to me than I should while driving.
But Jesus Christ — why bludgeon someone who’s trying to drop off a rental car? Why, for speeding not on a road choked with motorists, but a road that exists so people can get out of your state and to a plane? Why throw someone into, as far as you know, days or weeks of difficulty that will impede his ability to get a job done?
From time to time, until November 8, people last year would ask me how much I was loving the political circus. “It must be the story of your career,” they’d say.
“Well, yes,” I would say. “Much like Joan Didion got the story of her career when her husband and daughter dead.”
Hyperbole — it’s our new lingua franca. I’d reported on politics for most of my life by the time the 2016 election began, and knew that elections typically devolved into gaffe-policing and guides to which ads were false. (Usually not most of them.) But 2016 was, as the documentarian Adam Curtis put it, a defeat for journalism, in which people like me were reminded how little people want to hear information that rumbles their worldview. My worst memory of the year is not anything from a rally; it is becoming part of the problem, and telling friends on election night that early returns suggested their favored candidate would win.
Lots of hairshirting already; I don’t need to add more. Once I got some distance from the election, I felt bursts of pleasure about what good had come out of the year.
Crank up the listicle-maker.
I wrote a book. After 12 years of daydreaming and 3 years of writing, I finished my history of progressive rock; it’s being edited now for a June 2017 release. The panic I have about articles (did I leave in any clunk? Will a grammar scold hunt me down?) is multiplied 1000fold but this is a lifetime goal that cost me a personal life and feels worth it.
I made new friends. This happens every fours, and while I’m not sure how much longer it can happen — do I want to be passing out on the Gillibrand campaign plane at age 39? — it’s always a joy. You develop a little patois on the campaign bus, and (assuming you’re not singularly annoying) you share it with people who are chasing the same deadlines as you. You trade transcripts; you let her have a question because he has a follow-up because you asked a question already.
I survived a car crash. Wasn’t planning on it, but a small nightmare finally came to me. I was making good time on the road from Madison to Green Bay (to De Pere, first), when a traffic stoppage came out of nowhere and I spun off, taking a car with me. The permanent damage has been a right thumb that no longer bends. And that is it. I could have died, I didn’t, and have never felt the same since.
I do a version of this every year. The campaign and my book deadline made this year’s explorations a little more limited — which is fine. I have maybe 10 more to see in order to not be befuddled by award season.
I’ve been traveling for work, so — maybe blessedly — I didn’t initially see this AP story by two reporters I like very much personally. It’s no patch on them when I say that “Welcome to the Trump-Clinton conspiracy election” is a textbook-ready case of how the search for equivalence can wreck a piece of journalism.
The problems previewed by the headline get worse in the nut graf.
Donald Trump and his surrogates hint at a mysterious “illness” afflicting rival Hillary Clinton. Pushing back, Clinton warns of murky ties between Trump and the Russian government, insinuating that her Republican opponent may be a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Two problems here. One: The ties between Trump and the Russians are by no means as “murky” as the conspiracy theory that Clinton’s doctors (and her campaign schedule) are covering up a devastating illness. Two: The Russia talk is not a pushback on the “Hillary’s health” stuff. It’s been happening independently; indeed, Clinton was been pushing it before Trump elevated the health rumors.
The second point is just obviously misleading, while the first requires the application of blinders that characters the worst both-sides journalism. Much of the story deals with the ways Trump has tried to exploit Internet theories about Clinton’s health, and how Clinton’s pivoted from that to an attack on Trump’s embrace of kookery more generally. The “but Russia!” equivalence platter is saved for the final two grafs.
In the aftermath of hacked Democratic emails, Trump encouraged hackers from Russia to find Clinton’s missing State Department emails, an apparent invitation for a foreign power to intervene in a U.S. election.
Clinton’s team frequently points to Trump’s ties to Russia. Her campaign has a page on its website devoted to a Q-and-A about Trump’s “bizarre relationship” with Russia, fueling an unproven theory that Trump is a shill for Putin.
So on the one hand, Trump is elevating theories that rely on rumors or forged medical records; on the other, Clinton’s accusation that Trump “is a shill for Putin” is “unproven.” But the first attack is baseless; the second is political rhetoric based on — wait for it — reporting from the AP.
I’m not fond of quickie campaign “fact sheets” like “5 questions every voter should ask about Donald Trump’s bizarre relationship with Russia.” Question 5 suggests that “Trump publicly encouraged further Russian espionage to help his campaign.” That’s true, though Trump later tried to pass it off as a joke. Question 4 is fishier, noting that “some suggest” that Trump’s as-yet hidden tax returns might reveal deals with Russian oligarchs. But the basis is a 2008 quote from Trump’s son Donald: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”
Question 3 suggests that Trump would fulfill a Russian “wish list.” Again, there’s a basis: He has talked about lifting sanctions on Russia, and he rather uniquely among Republicans has said he wouldn’t contest the annexation of Crimea. Question 1 quotes a few instances of Trump praising Putin.
But Question 2 is the humdinger. Asking why Trump “surround[s] himself with advisers with links to the Kremlin,” the Clinton campaign… explains the links several Trump advisers have to Russia. The outdated page spends the most time on Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager until this month. The “kill shot” on Manafort is generally understood to be the AP’s August 17 story on his secret work for Ukraine’s pro-Russian faction.
Donald Trump’s campaign chairman helped a pro-Russian governing party in Ukraine secretly route at least $2.2 million in payments to two prominent Washington lobbying firms in 2012, and did so in a way that effectively obscured the foreign political party’s efforts to influence U.S. policy.
So, on the one hand, Trump’s campaign and surrogates are speculating wildly — and in some cases, citing bogus medical information — to question whether Hillary Clinton’s health has collapsed. On the other hand, Clinton’s campaign is citing Trump’s public statements, his family’s public statements, and the financial ties of campaign advisers to say that he’s shilling for Russia.
I am wracking my brains, and I can’t imagine how these two stories were conflated. In the quest to say that Both Sides Do It, the AP elevated Trump’s conspiracy-mongering about Clinton’s health to the level of his campaign’s well-reported Russia friendliness; it downgraded that friendliness to the level of a conspiracy.
The word for this is not “balanced.” It’s “pathetic.”
Zootopia (Howard/Moore/Bush, 2016)
A terrifying and unrelenting vision of a world long after the apocalypse, where only mammals survived, and built their own civilization with all of the mistakes that zoomed humanity.
Nah, fuck it, this is a kid’s movie about a cute bunny (Ginnifer Goodwin) who fulfills her lifelong dream of becoming the first tiny mammal cop in a world of talking animals; previously, we see, only the largest animals had become cops. (This seems entirely sensible, but a nice training sequence reveals how Judy Hopps learned to use her speed and high jump to compete with the more lumbering cops). Assigned to the garbage meter maid beat, she encounters a con artist fox (Jason Bateman), who is far more comfortable with the limitations placed on him by speciesism. There is a mystery. Spoiler: They solve it.
The test of any kid’s cartoon is whether the target audience will find it cute and the parents who pay for it will find it witty. “Zootopia” succeeds, even if some of the jokes are right on the bunny nose. (A mob boss named Mr. Big — who is actually very tiny — and talks like Vito Corleone! Ah ha ha fuck you.) The characters are adorable, the world-building is gorgeous if theme park-esque, and there is a delightfully problematic through-line about whether we can ever escape our genetic inheritance. Put another way: This is a movie for children in which the hero explains that some animals may simply be “biologically” inclined to violence, and where the voice of Idris Elba, through a water buffalo, says that “this world was already broken.”
Kung Fu Panda 3 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2016)
The delightful but derivative series continues (no one can say “concludes”) with a story about the titular panda, Po, (Jack Black) encountering an ancient, soul-sucking evil (J.K. Simmons) and overcoming him to become a “master of qi.”
Look, if I was eight or nine years old, I fully believe that these would be my favorite movies — funny, furry characters getting into beautifully choreographed battles, all re-enactable in the backyard. As a man who was born around the same time as Michael Phelps but achieved much less, I still have a spot for these movies — in part because the voice casting rewards fans of “Mr. Show,” in part because I watch them when I am on planes and very tired.
Still, there’s a visible tug of war between the plot points that were designed by committee and the dialogue punched up by funny people. I enjoyed the banter, especially a running gag about Kai’s frustration that no one remembers him 500 years after he was banished to the spirit realm. I sort of shrugged through the introduction of a Secret Panda Village where a civilization that abandoned Po (for reasons never explained) takes him in and acts all goofy. Evil is defeated by people Being Themselves and Working Together. Finally!
The first “Ghostbusters” was a formative movie experience for me, but not a sacred one. I saw it on TV or VHS sometime before 1989, i.e. when I was 7 or 8 years old. (I know this because I saw the sequel in the theater, when I was tood young.) Parts of that movie mapped the “screaming terror” part of my brain — Rick Moranis’s party gone wrong, Gozer’s red eyes, the librarian ghost that transforms when Bill Murray talks to it. In my teenage years and, yes, even today, the better lines became part of my conversation. “Cats and dogs, living together!” “When someone asks you if you’re a God, you say yes!”
Still, I snorted with all of the other right-thinking people when the geek army, having conquered all of pop culture, declared war on “Lady Ghostbusters.” I wanted it to be great.
It is not great. As remakes go, it’s higher than “Rollerball” and many floors below “Dawn of the Dead.” I align myself, as usual, with Sonny Bunch, mostly in his contempt for the people (cough RICHARD BRODY) who have been attempting to retcon the original film as a middling nostalgia joint.
PETTY COMPLAINT DEPT.
Product placement. A minor gripe elevated by how goddamn much it appears. Patty’s uncle is not just not a rent-a-car — he’s not a “Enterprise rent-a-car.” Holtzmann doesn’t just eat during the first sighting — she eats Pringles. For Christ’s sake, the Manhattan-based Ghostbusters order pizza and we get several wide shots of the Papa John’s box it came in. I’m not even a New Yorker and I was offended on Gotham’s behalf.
Dialogue. This is by far the least funny of the Paul Feig movies, and it happens to be the one grasping for the baton from a cultural institution. The more improved-sounding dialogue is perfectly fine; Wiig and McCarthy have great chemistry, eve if the joke is that they’re never in emotional sync. McKinnon, one of our muggiest actors, is fun to watch but never quotable; Leslie Jones is better than I’ve ever seen her, but I can’t remember anything she said.
Plotting. We get to the ghosts fast enough, but there’s no momentum and plenty of holes. The chintzy TV ad campaign of the first film explained how they stayed in business; this time the ‘busters have money problems but seemingly infinite scrap metal. Killer lazers shoot into random streets with no effect. Characters make stupid decisions to set up the conflict, far less satisfying than the original film’s “everything was going fine until the fucking EPA showed up” plot motor.
DEPT. OF THINGS I DIDN’T HATE
New characterizations. Feig didn’t want people to be muttering “is that the new Egon,” and voila, the four ‘busters are actually pretty well drawn characters. If one measure of success is that nerdy girls have new heroes to trick-or-treat as, then this is a success — go ahead, awkward girl who wants to gel up her hair and be Holtzmann.
Feminity. Seriously, it was fine. A dance party instead of “we came, we saw, we kicked its ass?” Sure. A himbo secretary? Very funny, thanks to Thor. Unlike some percentage of the Internet, I’m fine with this film existing. I just don’t feel a need to ever see it again.
Just a few goals: Finishing a story, finding someone to buy a concert ticket, meeting up with the busy friend who could not make time for the concert. They were met in that ascending order of difficulty.
The story had come from an editor, who realized that the grumpy recalcitrance of Republicans toward the “Black Lives Matter” movement had been absent (or at least underplayed) in our coverage. Putting that together was easy, mostly involving sources from my coverage of criminal justice reform. Around 1, however, I decided everything would be improved if I went to the Hill and grabbed some senators after their weekly lunch. (Their last, for a while.)
No holes in that plan until around 4, when I slowly made my way out of the Capitol and saw a police officer running to the floor of the House.
“What’s up?” I asked Billy, an old colleague from Bloomberg.
“I’m trying to figure that out,” he said.
For a reporter, I remained uncurious, and walked toward the exit. From Twitter I learned that the Capitol was “on lockdown,” or as the news chyrons would put it: “ON LOCKDOWN (SIREN SIREN SIREN).”
Fucking lockdowns. I enjoy weird danger as much as anyone, but the “lockdown” is usually a feature of the security state mingling with the media’s fear complex. If anything threatening or unmonitored approaches the Capitol (or any federal building)
“Some guy had a gun on 3rd Street.”
“Lost Themes,” the album, is perfectly produced – so much so that you wonder if more could have been unlocked from the melodies Carpenter wrote when he was throwing them onto soundtracks. Live, the only flaw was Carpenter’s guitar player. Most of his task involved windmilling, which he pulled off so barely that we waited for the inevitable flub. It never came, but the sound never clicked, either, and the riffs that were tyrannosauric on vinyl sounded like the gasps of a fuzzbox.
The crowd made up for that. I’ve never actually sought out one of those “Everytown Philharmonic Plays Themes from Blow-Em-Up” movie revues, but I can now imagine them, with the ordinary thrill of the familiar amplified by a frenzied audience. An establishing shot from “They Live,” a smoggy bridge with a pick-up truck parked on it, elicited fist-pumping and ovations. (I joined at the sight of Rowdy Roddy Piper.)
“Horror movies will never die!”
Apparently, for years, people have misremembered Will Smith’s alien-punching “Independence Day” quip as “Welcome ta Urf” and not the clearly enunciated “Welcome to Earth” that one of our most beloved and marketable stars actually delivered.
General consensus: People be racist. And I spend a lot of time on the Internet, so I can confirm that people are pretty racist.
However, I wonder if there’s a less ethnocentric reason for the wide misremembering of the scene. Thinking of it, I remembered Will Smith chomping on a cigar as he punched the alien. With a cigar in your mouth, “Welcome to Earth” would indeed sound more like “Weh-come ta Urf.”
I remembered it wrong. First, Smith punched the alien. Then he said “Welcome to Earth.” THEN he grabbed a cigar (he was just carrying one), put it in his mouth, and said: “Now that’s what I call a close encounter.”
Because humans have evolved to minimize the amount of trauma we remember, we have forgotten that second, clunk-tastic quip. Indeed, many “Welcome ta Urf” memes use the photo of Smith and the cigar, suggesting that people conflate the two lines and their relative use of Smith’s mouth and teeth.
In conclusion, racism is over. Congratulations, everyone!