Inferences From A Magazine Rack

When you’re killing time during a long layover in an airport, and a Hudson News is the only non-fast food place to visit, you tend to check out the magazine rack. So, what does the generic airport magazine rack tell you?

First, it tells you that magazines aren’t exactly thriving. The current magazine rack is pretty shrimpy by comparison to the full wall of magazines you found in the old days. Airport book options are shrinking, too.

Second, it suggests that modern Americans aren’t all that interested in serious reading. Once you go past The Economist, you’ve pretty much exhausted the serious reading category. Time and Newsweek have become the print equivalent of clickbait and don’t even try to present themselves as serious journalism. The rest of the shelves are devoted to the celebrity culture and the Royals — which is pretty much the same thing. How many interviews with, say, Taylor Swift is a person going to read?

And third, has any celebrity couple been the subject of a longer run in the romantic speculation/break-up/make-up category than Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt? Didn’t they first hit the gossip rags more than 20 years ago? And yet here they are, the subject of rumor and speculation and disclosures by purported insiders. In the history of American popular culture, is there any other couple that has had greater tittle-tattle staying power than these two?

Advertisements

Once Upon A Time . . . In Hollywood

After Kish and I went to The Hateful Eight, I swore off ever going to another Quentin Tarantino film.  I meant it, too.  I’d just had enough of seemingly pointless, ultraviolent bloodbaths.

But three years of lots of superhero movies and remakes and uninteresting, formulaic movie fare have a way of undermining your resolve and making you hunger for something different.  Whatever else they may be, Quentin Tarantino films are definitely different than your normal Hollywood fare.  When the hype started building for his new movie Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, I thought it looked sufficiently different — and decidedly less bloody — to be worth a screening, so Kish and I went to see it yesterday.

once_upon_a_time_still.0The movie acquaints us with Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of the black-and-white, ’50s TV show Bounty Law who is now relegated to making guest villain appearances on other TV shows and starring in spaghetti westerns, and his stunt double, chauffeur, gofer, and pal Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they make their way through the Hollywood movie and TV scene of 1969.  Along the way, we see members of the Manson Family, Bruce Lee, some of the singers in the Mamas and the Papas, a party at the Playboy Mansion, and other mainstays of the swinging late ’60s Hollywood scene.

DiCaprio and Pitt are the human stars of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, but the real stars are Hollywood itself, and the ’60s.  The movie is a full-on immersion in that time and place, from the cars the characters drive to the clothes they wear to the old-time Hollywood landmarks where the characters meet to the music playing on the car radio to TV shows playing in the background to the huge movie posters for long-forgotten films that you see as the cars with the characters roll by.  It’s almost as if the movie’s plot is an excuse to visit places from days gone by and get a few shots of a well-known restaurant or theater.  And there’s no doubt — the feeling that what you are seeing must be what it was actually like to be a fading star knocking around Hollywood in 1969 is pretty much total.

The setting was thoroughly convincing, but most people don’t go to films just to revel in the setting.  We’d like a little plot with the fantasy world, and that’s where Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood falls short.  The movie is less bloody than other Tarantino efforts, for sure.  It wouldn’t be a Tarantino product without some gore, but at least the violence is pretty much limited to the end of the film.  And the film is well-acted by both DiCaprio and Pitt, and you definitely come to like the ever-emotional Dalton and the tough, common-sense Booth and appreciate their unique friendship.

But there are a lot of diversions along the way, like scenes of the Sharon Tate character watching herself in a movie theater or flashbacks that happen when Booth is repairing a TV antenna, that don’t really seem to advance the story and make the movie overlong.  As is always the case with a Tarantino movie, there are some great scenes sprinkled in — I particularly liked some taut scenes about Dalton acting as the guest-villain in a TV western, and a tense encounter between Booth and the full, creepy Manson clan at a ramshackle movie ranch — but there’s also a lot of fluff in the package.  And ultimately the final, bloody encounter between Dalton, Booth, a well-trained hound, and the Mansonites seems like little more than a convenient way to bring the movie to a close.

Quentin Tarantino obviously has a huge amount of talent, and few directors can pull you to the edge of your seat like he can.  But boy . . . he sure could use an editor.  You wonder what kind of quality he could produce if he worked with a more focused script and a producer who is willing to leave some of the film on the cutting room floor.

The Big Short

The Big Short is one of those movies that is intended to make you uncomfortable — and it succeeds, twice over.

The film tells the story of the housing bubble and sub-prime mortgage fiasco that led to the economic collapse and stock market crash of 2008. It begins with the handful of loners and clear-eyed if vulgar realists who investigated, read what others didn’t, identified the unsustainable reality, and then figured out a way to make lots of money, even as the financial and political establishment was smugly convinced that the impending disaster couldn’t possibly occur.

bigshortbaleDon’t worry if you don’t know much about finance or economics — as the movie progresses you’ll get humorous little tutorials on the key concepts from exotic-looking women taking bubble baths, Anthony Bourdain figuring out what to do with old fish, and a prize-winning economist and Selena Gomez playing blackjack.  And, of course, all along the viewer knows the catastrophe is coming.  Even so, it’s uncomfortable to watch it unfold and to hear once again about Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and Countrywide and bailouts and the other events that made some people wonder if the American economy and capitalism would even survive the cataclysm.

It’s a powerful story, and The Big Short tells it well.  Its ensemble cast, which features Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell, is excellent, but it’s not an ensemble movie in the traditional sense, because some of the principal players never interact on screen.  They’re each running their own funds, dealing with their own investors and institutional pressures and insecurities, seeing the overall mess from different perspectives and wondering whether they are witnessing fraud or imbecility or incompetence.  And, as the movie reaches the point where the world economy teeters on the brink, they convincingly portray the sense of astonishment and shaken wonder at how the hell it all happened in the first place.

So, reliving those grim days when fortunes were lost and the country plunged into recession is uncomfortable, for sure.  And the second uncomfortable moment comes when the movie ends — because the final message of The Big Short questions whether the same thing could happen again and whether new bubbles are percolating even as we speak.  One of the core themes of the film is that most of the Wall Street wizards really aren’t so wizard-like after all — just greedy hustlers who don’t really sweat the details or even fully understand why they’re making the obscene amounts of money they’re making and are oblivious to the risks they are creating for the rest of us who have to deal with the aftermath.

It doesn’t exactly make you feel super secure about your 401(k) plan, now does it?

Moneyball

Last night Kish and I watched Moneyball, the new Brad Pitt movie that has gotten some good buzz among our friends.

Moneyball is a movie about baseball — and also a lot more than baseball.  Pitt convincingly plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, a chronically cash-strapped, small-market team trying to compete with the New York Yankees and other wealthy team that can buy the talents of any good players the small-market teams develop.  To be competitive, Beane must try to outwit the big-money teams by adopting a new, statistic-driven approach to evaluating talent and putting a team on the field.  He enlists the help of a brainy, Yale-educated assistant — played by “guy comedy” staple  Jonah Hill in a real career-changing role — and then butts heads with scouts, his manager, and every other “baseball man” who can’t give up on the old way of putting a team on the field and playing the game.  Along the way, we learn about Beane’s own back story, which includes a disappointing career as a former “can’t miss” prospect who turned down Stanford to play ball and a challenging relationship with his daughter after his divorce.

Kish and I liked this movie, although I wouldn’t give it four stars.  There were lots of humorous moments, and I think even non-baseball fans would enjoy a peek at “inside baseball.”  It also was refreshing to watch an adult movie that doesn’t rely on exploding cars, alien invasions, or constant cursing to maintain audience interest — but at the same time, the pace of the movie seemed to be a bit slow and the “back story” asides were distracting.  What I ultimately found interesting about the movie, however, was the universality of the theme.  Anyone who has ever tried to convince their Dad, their boss, or their spouse that they should try a different approach to doing something is going to identify with Billy Beane.

“Inglourious Basterds” Review

inglorious-basterds1

Yesterday, my friends and I went to the Arena Grand to see Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, Inglorious Basterds, which he has supposedly been working on for almost a decade. At the very end of the movie, after carving a swastika into a Nazi’s forehead, Brad Pitt’s character turns to the camera and says “I think this is my masterpiece.” Obviously, Quentin Tarantino was speaking to the audience with this line, and is quite proud of this movie.

Tarantino should be proud. He took his usual routine – humorous violence, cool villains, non-stop cheesy pop culture references – and made it work in the setting of the Holocaust, a historical event that few like to joke about, at least openly. Tarantino’s style is toned down slightly, since the 1940s didn’t have the cheesy pop songs or fast food orders of the late 20th century, but everything is still there. When one character, known for killing dozens of Nazi SS officials, is introduced, his name shoots across the screen in bold, bright letters that look like they came from the seventies, and a power guitar chord is sounded. The movie also features a montage set to David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder’s early eighties hit “Cat People”.

Despite Tarantino’s sarcasm, I never felt that the gravity of the Holocaust was disrespected. Brad Pitt’s crew of American Jews intent on killing as many Nazis as possible is always understood to be on a righteous mission, despite their ruthlessness. If anything, the Holocaust setting makes Tarantino’s formula work better. Tarantino’s movies have always glamorized violence, and the fact that most of the violence in Basterds is affecting Nazis makes it easier to enjoy. The scenes that show the violence and hatred of the Nazis are intense and could upset some people, but they served to make Brad Pitt’s murderous acts more excusable and, frankly, enjoyable. They are certainly easier to root for than John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction and even Uma Thurman’s in Kill Bill.

The movie is flawed, mostly in the same ways all of Tarantino’s movies are flawed. The dialogue sometimes drags on too long and feels awkward, some characters (including Brad Pitt’s) are underdeveloped, and the movie itself is too long. But it is good, and Tarantino should get credit for presenting the Holocaust from a new, bold perspective, and doing so quite masterfully.