erik lundegaard

Tuesday April 28, 2009

Quote of the Day (Freudian Version)

"We are all perpetually smoothing and rearranging reality to conform to our wishes; we lie to others and to ourselves constantly, unthinkingly. When, occasionally—and not by dint of our own efforts but under the pressue of external events—we are forced to see things as they are, we are like naked people in a storm. There are a few of us—psychoanalysts have encountered them—who are blessed or cursed with a strange imperviousness to the unpleasantness of self-knowledge. Their lies to themselves are so convincing that they are never unmasked. These are the people who never feel in the wrong, who are always able to justify their conduct, and who in the end—human nature being what it is—cause their fallible fellow-men to turn away from them."

— Janet Malcolm, "In the Freud Archives," pg. 70. Here's to turning away from them. Here's to naked people in a storm.

No tagsPosted at 08:07 AM on Apr 28, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday April 27, 2009

Worst Netflix Summary Ever

WARNING: SPOILERS

The following is Netflix's description (both onsite and on their DVD sleeve) of Akira Kurosawa's “The Bad Sleep Well” (1060):

Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) is distraught after his father's demise, which he blames on the cutthroat corporate environment in which he worked. Desperate to avenge his father's senseless death, Koichi begins to tamper with the sanity of each person who ever wronged the man. He starts with the cake at his very own wedding; per Koichi's instructions, the confection has been specially crafted to remind the attendees of their darkest secrets. …

In case you haven't seen the film (and are still shamefully reading this): The movie opens with the wedding of the daughter of a high-ranking public official, at which reporters gather in anticipation of the arrest of this official and several of his right-hand men. We follow the initial police investigation into the scandal — apparently the government accepted a high bid on a construction project for kickbacks — but government and corporate officials remain tightlipped and no one's prosecuted. Then two of the right-hand men kill themselves. No, just one. Koichi Nishi (Mifune), the groom at the wedding, prevents the other from doing so. Why? We find out an hour and twenty minutes in: He's the son of an official who killed himself five years earlier — in another scandal, protecting these same guys — and he's been plotting revenge ever snce.

In other words, in their first sentence, Netflix gives away the goods. As for their last sentence? The description reminded me of that early “Star Trek” episode in which people act out their darkest secrets (Sulu turns into a barechested swashbuckler, etc.), but, in the Kurosawa film, there's nothing in the cake in question. It was simply baked in a way to remind the men of a shared dark secret. Singular.

Oh well. IMDb.com gives away the plot, too. No tight lips here anyway.

A shame because the first half of the movie is the best. It loses itself in the second.

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Posted at 08:14 AM on Apr 27, 2009 in category Movies - Foreign
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Sunday April 26, 2009

Before the Show: 4-24-09

Theater: Pacific Place
Screen: No. 9 (upstairs on the left)
Location: Downtown Seattle
Chain: AMC
Operating: Since 1998
Arrived: 3:55, ten minutes early (I’m always early; it’s a curse.)
Ads:

  • AMC “Star Trek” gift cards (“Collect all four!” Four?)
  • “Doubt” DVD (“You should understand that. Or you will mistake me.”)
  • “Terminator: Salvation” (Bale holding onto that Dark Knight voice.)
  • Nintendo DSI (Kids distorting each other’s photographs on their phones. One photo looks normal, though, and it turns out the kid himself has a distorted face. Uck.)
  • “Parks & Recreation” (Again.)
  • Another Nintendo DSI ad with distorted-face kid
  • NCM.com and the premiere of “Angels & Demons”
  • Olay body yadda-yadda
  • New season of “The Deadliest Catch” (It feels like a Ken Burns doc compacted into 15 seconds.)
  • The Honda Insight (A fun, quirky ad, actually.)
  • Coke (Thirsty kid sees coke bottles everywhere.)
  • Sprint ad/warning with chimpanzee movie star and agent (“It takes many calls to make a movie...”)
  • Dr. Laura: “In Praise of Mom”
  • “Death Note”
  • Autism Society

Lights dim

Coming soon:

  • “Angels & Demons”: Don’t know about this movie, and I’m a little tired of operatic ooomph in trailers, but I like Tom Hanks’ admonishing line-reading here: “Fellas. You called me.”
  • “The Boat That Rocked” with Philip Seymour Hoffman: How much of the movie are they giving away? I felt like I got the whole story. I felt like I don’t need to see the thing now.
  • “The Proposal” with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. I hope the movie doesn’t fudge this fact: If your boss looks like Bullock and you hate her? You’d want to bang her even more, not less. But I get the feeling Reynolds’ character will only want to sleep with her (genteelly, of course) once he begins to like her. Blech.
  • “Taking Woodstock”: Ang Lee and what looks like a great cast. Fingers crossed.
  • “Imagine That”: Eddie Murphy and Rudy Huxtable.
  • “Star Trek”: This is the summer blockbuster I’m most anticipating. Love it when Kirk sits in the captain’s chair. And Zachary Quinto (if his name only counted in Scrabble!) looks freakingly amazingly like young Leonard Nimoy.

“Please don’t spoil the movie by adding your own soundtrack”

Movie starts: 4:23 (18 minutes after scheduled showtime.)

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Posted at 12:11 PM on Apr 26, 2009 in category Movies - Theaters
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Saturday April 25, 2009

Review: “The Soloist” (2009)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“The Soloist” is much better than I thought it would be when I sat down and not quite as good as I hoped it would be halfway through. But it’s still very, very good. The best Hollywood release so far this year.

You probably know the story. You might’ve seen the “60 Minutes” segment on Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.), columnist for The Los Angeles Times, and one of his column subjects, Nathaniel Ayers, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a homeless man he finds beneath a statue of Beethoven playing a violin with only two strings, and who, it turns out, attended Juilliard for two years in the ‘70s only to drop out when mental problems overwhelmed him. You might’ve read Lopez’s book about the experience. Hell, you might’ve seen the trailer for the film last fall, when the release date was November and Downey was being talked up for an Oscar nom. Then — boom — the film was pulled until April. “Uh oh,” I thought. Springtime for a serious film generally means death. It means it ain’t good enough for autumn.

I began to relax — began to realize how smart this film was — while hearing the early voiceovers from Downey: either writing his column on available scraps, recording it into a tape recorder, or, best of all, just writing it in his head as he’s walking. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what we do. At the same time, the story is moved along.

The film is remarkably integrated this way. It includes, among other riffs, dying newspapers, the homeless, Hurricane Katrina and Neil Diamond, but none of these things seems heavy or extraneous. Everything is integral. The flashbacks to Nathaniel’s earlier years don’t interrupt the story but continue or augment it. Yes, the movie borrows from “Amadeus” — using music to shut out the world — but why not? That’s what music does. That’s what any art does. Even if you’re not a true artist, the point is to have the world fall away for a time. It keeps us sane.

Nathaniel is not. We get conversations like this, as Nathaniel and Lopez watch a plane fly overhead:

Nathaniel: Are you flying that plane?
Lopez: No, I’m right here.
Nathaniel: I don’t know how that works.

Nathaniel’s can’t separate things. Everything blends together. Even his words come in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of Robin Williams’ comedy. One thing leads to the next leads to the next. Yet, for a time, this almost seems...sane. For a time, everything seems part of the same big pattern — a pattern we can’t quite see — even though director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) keeps pulling back for overhead shots that let us take in, if not the pattern, then at least a pattern. The one we’ve created.

Is there any actor I’d rather watch think than Downey, Jr.? Everything he does here has energy and intelligence. When he was a younger actor (and, yes, on coke), it was as if there was too much he was trying to convey too quickly. He needed to age in order to slow down, in order to become palatable.

His Steve Lopez is divorced, lives alone, has trouble with raccoons. He’s the other soloist, the man who keeps the world at a writerly distance, or who, through whatever circumstances, has wound up alone. But he’s straightforward. When he finally reaches Karen, Nathaniel’s sister, and she asks why he’s interested in her brother, he doesn’t bullshit:

Lopez: I’m going to write a column about Nathaniel.
Karen: Why?
(pause)
Lopez: Because that’s what I do.

One column leads to another. Nathaniel’s true instrument is the cello, and an elderly woman who reads these columns sends hers. Of course Nathaniel can’t keep such an expensive item in his shopping cart — it could be stolen, he could be hurt or killed during the theft — so Lopez arranges to have it kept at Lamp, a nonprofit homeless shelter for the mentally ill. Initially Nathaniel objects to such a plan. When we finally see the place, so do we. The area outside Lamp is filled with refugees, like it’s a scene from a post-apocalyptic film; like it’s Los Angeles’ own Katrina, whose images flicker on background newsroom televisions. Lopez, more than Nathaniel, feels justifiably threatened there — among the mentally ill and drug-addicted.

There’s a great scene — maybe the best scene in a movie full of great scenes — where, once again, Lopez has made the difficult 30-foot, nighttime journey from Lamp offices to the safety of his car, and, inside, he breathes a sigh of relief. We’ve all been there. The camera holds on him and you wonder: Is someone going to attack him now that he feels safe? That’s a Hollywood staple. But no. The camera just holds. And a realization comes over him, some fundamental change, some silent recognition of responsibility or awareness of artificial boundaries (between, say, the car and the street), or maybe just an awareness of his own fears, and he gets out again and walks and searches — part of the crowd, now, not apart from it — and finds Nathaniel bedded down for the night and joins him. That’s another column. These columns lead to change, as the mayor promises $50 million for the homeless and Lopez is feted at a black-tie affair.

One wonders where the movie will go from here but I like where it goes. Two forces are at work within Lopez. He tries to help Nathaniel — getting him an apartment and a tutor — and he also wants to wash his hands of him. These seem like opposite forces but are part of the same impulse. By making him independent, he’s no longer responsible for him. Or he’s responsible for him only in the way that each of us is responsible for each other. Which is to say: Not at all.

When someone tells Lopez that he’s the only thing Nathaniel’s got, he responds, “I don’t want to be his only thing,” and, again, we know where he’s coming from. How much does he have to do? How much does he need to care? How much do we?

The script by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) is full of great dialogue. “I don’t want to die in here,” says Nathaniel, freaked out by his new apartment. “Don’t,” Lopez replies matter-of-factly. Earlier, outside Lamp, Nathaniel says: “I hope these children of God will be okay tonight. They’ll sleep and dream as humans do.” That’s nice. Don’t know if it’s Grant or in Lopez’s book, but it’s nice.

Great supporting cast — particularly Nelsan Ellis as the man at Lamp, and Catherine Keener, an editor at the Times, who, we find out, was once married to Lopez.

A few elements feels clunky, or political, only compared to the smoothness of the rest of the film. The ending, for example, includes both voice-over and revelation, but it needed only one of these.

Even so, “The Soloist” comes close to being a remarkable film. I want to close with another great scene, an almost throwaway, that feels, without trying, without dotting its “i”s, to be integrating all of its parts. Keener is in her office as an offscreen higher-up is letting someone (her?) go by talking up the company’s “very good exit package.” Out her window, several stories high, she sees Lopez helping to push Nathaniel’s shopping cart up a hill. They’re heading to the L.A. Symphony to listen to a rehearsal, but she doesn’t know that, she only knows what she sees. And she smiles a wistful smile. There’s great balance here: the comedy outside and the tragedy within; one man helping another while a company, part of a dying industry, lets go of another employee. It doesn’t draw too fine a point — as I fear I might be doing — it just feels part of this big shifting pattern we all create. It’s worthy of Keener’s beautiful, wistful smile.

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Posted at 12:47 PM on Apr 25, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Friday April 24, 2009

Before the Show: 4-19-09

  • Theater: Varsity
  • Screen: No. 1, (ground floor)
  • Location: University District, Seattle
  • Chain: Landmark Theaters, since 1989
  • History: The Meister Building was built in 1921 but it didn't house a movie theater until 1940. Renovation for additional screens occurred in 1985.
  • Ads (begun at showtime):
  1. HDNet (“Television...is no place to hide,” says Dan Rather, as if he’s imparting wisdom. Surely one of the dumbest lines I keep hearing.)
  2. Stella Artois (Surely one of the best ad series I keep seeing. This was the one with the French cyclists. “C’est pour toi, Papa.”)
  3. The Wrestler on DVD
  4. Volvo
  5. 2009 Seattle International Film Festival (creepier and more opaque than it needed to be. C’mon, dudes.)
  • Trailers:
  1. “Enlighten Up!” (A doc about yoga that started out interesting and then got a little too west-coast loopy for me. Pass, unless the reviews are good.)
  2. “Good-bye Solo”
  3. “Every Little Step: A Chorus Line”

I used to go to this theater all the time, 10, 15 years ago, when I worked across the street at the University Book Store, and its eclectic schedule is part of the reason I got such a warped perspective of our national movieviewing habits. You mean everyone didn’t see “Stalingrad”? Or even have the chance to not see “Stalingrad”? I live on the other side of town now so haven’t spent much time at the Varsity recently. I was even surprised at how small their main theater was — as if I were an adult returning to a childhood hangout rather than a 40-something revisiting some place I hung out at 33. Either everything gets smaller with time (we certainly do), or I’m used to the bigger, newer Regal theaters downtown now.

I know. The latter.

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Posted at 09:21 AM on Apr 24, 2009 in category Movies - Theaters
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Thursday April 23, 2009

Review: “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” (2008)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I’m not a fan of heavy-metal music. The opposite. I spent my teenage years trapped in a household with a heavy-metal-banging older brother, who, when no one was around, or only I was around, would close all the windows in our house, turn up the volume on the record player, and, with the rake we used for our lime-green shag carpet as his microphone, sing along to Zeppelin or Sabbath:

Generals gathered in their masses!
Just like witches at black masses!

I always gave him shit about those lyrics. “Nice rhyme,” I’d say.

So I wouldn’t seem the ideal audience for “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” a documentary about the little heavy-metal band that couldn’t (break through).

And yet, as with Randy the Ram of “The Wrestler,” another dude with whom I have nothing in common, I wound up not only caring but identifying. The two original members of Anvil, Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner, are in their 50s now and still fighting the good fight. Actually that’s one of the unanswered questions in the doc: Is it still a good fight?

“Anvil” begins with footage from a 1984 heavy-metal tour of Japan, which featured bands such as Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and the Scorpions — all of whom would go on to sell millions of records — and Anvil, who would not. Various talking heads, from Lemmy of Motorhead to Slash of Guns N’ Roses, then talk quickly about Anvil’s antics on stage (Lips playing his guitar with a dildo), how influential they were, and what the hell happened. “Everyone sort of ripped them off,” Slash says, “then sort of left them for dead.”

Cut to: modern-day Toronto in winter. Lips, his thinning hair still long, his eyes wide with optimism, a half-smile on his face, is driving and matter-of-factly talking food — meatloaf and shepherd’s pie — and we’re wondering if he’s driving to where he eats or works. It’s the latter. He’s a delivery guy.

Reiner, with the irony-infused same name as the director of “This is Spinal Tap,” the irony-infused monster of all heavy-metal mockumentaries, works construction. He has a quality similar to U2’s Edge — like he’s the last guy in the world to get angry — and he and Lips are still friends, and still pal around Toronto. We see them play a gig at a sports bar for Lips' 50th birthday. A couple of longtime fans are there, headbanging and singing along.

They’ve had new bandmates since ’95 and ’96, and overall they’ve put out a total of 12 albums, but this is their life. It’s like most of our lives: Not bad, but full of What Ifs.

Then (even in documentaries there’s a “then”) Lips gets an e-mail from a female fan in Europe, Tiziani Arrigoni, who offers to manage the band for a European tour, and off they go. One hopes for success, one fears she’ll rip them off, but the reality is somewhere in between. She has a good heart but she’s not a professional. Things keep going wrong. They miss a train. They play dives for peanuts. Their fans are fervent but few. Late to one gig in the Czech Republic, they’re told the place is “jam fucking packed” but they get there and rock out before fewer than 10 fans; then the club owner refuses to pay them — because they were late — and we see the first of several eruptions from Lips, who quickly loses his half-smile and, spittle flying, nearly goes off on the dude. Their next gig should be a natural heavy-metal highlight — a rock show in Transylvania, with a 10,000-seat capacity — and as they make their way to the stage through narrow hallways, one bandmember, an obvious “Spinal Tap” fan, shouts “Hello, Cleveland!” Unlike Spinal Tap, Anvil finds its way to the stage. The crowd doesn’t. Only 174 show up. Cut to: Toronto in winter.

And so it goes. We learn more about the (Jewish) family history of each. Lips’ father was at odds with his career choice (everyone else in his family is a successful professional), while Robb’s father, who survived Auschwitz, was fine with whatever his son wanted to do. Robb also paints in the style of Edward Hopper, whom he likes for his sense of quiet. Apparently even heavy-metal drummers want quiet.

You get the feeling Robb could give it up, but Lips, eyes bugging with perpetual optimism, half-smile beginning to strain after all these years, keeps pushing. They’re going to put out a 13th album, this time with legendary producer Chris Tsangarides, but they need money. A scene where Lips tries telemarketing is painful to watch. Each hurdle jumped, or stumbled over, leads to another. Will they raise the money? Will they be able to stay together long enough to record the album? Will they be able to sell it to a record company? Will anyone listen?

All the while they wonder over what went wrong. Was it management? Was it production? Lips in particular embodies the schizophrenia of the semi- or un-successful artist. One moment he’s ready to swear off music-making completely; the next he’s telling himself that it’s the doing — the creative act — that matters, regardless of the response it engenders. Talk about hitting home. This internal dialogue is my own. Every day.

The doc, which zips along, will be compared to “Spinal Tap,” and, yes, there are funny moments in it, and, yes, even the title, with its conscious repetition, is funny. But filmmaker Sacha Gervasi, a fan and former Anvil roadie, who also wrote the screenplay for “The Terminal," does his subjects the courtesy of taking them seriously. He presents them in raw and real and complex fashion.

The blurbs in the poster above mention that the film is “inspirational” and “a hymn to the human spirit,” but for me its strength lies in its ambiguity. You walk away not knowing if these guys are inspirational, or delusional, or both. The answer to Lips’ internal dialogue, in other words, is as unanswerable as our own, and, finally, the answer may not be what matters. I keep going back to what Van Morrison sings in “Summertime in England”: It ain’t why why why why why why why. It just is. Same here. In both this doc and in this room where I’m writing about this doc.

I’m not a fan of heavy-metal music. The opposite. But “Anvil” floored me.

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Posted at 08:41 AM on Apr 23, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Wednesday April 22, 2009

The Short, Unhappy Life of Fox Atomic

Most moviegoers don’t know from studios — particularly these days when each studio seems a bland corporate entity without the personality, or even the Eastern-European mogul, that each had back in the day.

I’m no different. Even as a critic I never paid much attention to which studio released which film. But I became aware of Fox Atomic when I was gathering info for what became that Slate article on box office last year — because 20th Century Fox seemed a case study of what was wrong with the movie industry. Its crap films (distributed by parent company Fox, mostly) got massive distribution while its good films (put out by specialty division Fox Searchlight, mostly) were barely shown anywhere. Between these two — the slovenly screw-up to Fox Searchlight’s straight-A student —was Fox Atomic, which seemed to distribute, on the 2,000-theater scale, disappointing genre films like “The Hills Have Eyes 2.”

Here, for example, is Fox’s 2007 schedule sorted by each film’s maximum distribution. Pay particular attention to the Rotten Tomatoes rating on the right:

Rank
Movie
Distributor
Dom. BO
Max. Thtrs.
TR Rating
1.
 Fantastic Four 2
 Fox $131M 3,963
 35%
2.
 The Simpsons Movie
 Fox $183M 3,926
 89%
3.
 Alvin and the Chipmunks
 Fox $217M 3,499
 24%
4.
 Live Free or Die Hard
 Fox $134M 3,411 80%
5.
 The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
 Fox $8M 3,173 13%
6.
 Mr. Magorium
 Fox $32M 3,168 36%
7.
 Firehouse Dog
 Fox $13M 2,881 38%
8.
 Epic Movie
 Fox $39M 2,840 2%
9.
 The Comebacks
 Fox Atomic
 $13M 2,812 10%
10.
 Reno 911!: Miami
 Fox $20M 2,702 34%
11.
 Aliens vs.Predator - Requiem
 Fox $41M 2,617 15%
12.
 Juno Fox SL
 $143M 2,534 93%
13.
 Hitman Fox $39M 2,468 15%
14.
 The Hills Have Eyes 2
 Fox Atomic
 $20M 2,465 12%
15.
 28 Weeks Later
 Fox Atomic $28M 2,305 71%
16.
 Death Sentence
 Fox $9M 1,823 16%
17.
 I Think I Love My Wife
 Fox SL
 $12M 1,794 19%
18.
 Pathfinder: Legend of the Ghost Warrior  Fox $10M 1,756 11%
19.
 Waitress Fox SL
 $19M 707 89%
20.
 The Darjeeling Limited
 Fox SL
 $11M 698 68%
21.
 Sunshine Fox SL
 $3M 461 75%
22.
 The Namesake
 Fox SL
 $13M 335 85%
23.
 The Savages
 Fox SL
 $6M 201 90%
24.
 Joshua Fox SL
 $.4M 152 62%
25.
 Once Fox SL
 $9M 150 97%

Sad, but in a way I understood the dynamic between Fox and Fox Searchlight. The former heaved onto our plates mostly fad-laden slop while the latter parceled out, in teaspoons, cuisine for the adult palate. I didn’t agree that this was always the best thing, financially, to do. Couldn’t, say, “The Darjeeling Limited,” given proper distribution and marketing, have done better than, say, “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising”? But at least I understood how they understood it all. Give the masses goop and pray for money. Give the elites caviar and pray for awards.

But Fox Atomic? What was its point? A specialty studio that released stuff that made even Fox hold their noses? Movies that didn’t do well critically or financially?

Well, Fox Atomic is dead now, its shop closed, its employees returned to the larger Fox fold. Here’s a list of films they distributed in their short, unhappy lifetime, along with domestic box office total and Rotten Tomatoes rating. Each opened in at least 1,500 theaters:

  • Turistas (2006): $7M, 15%          
  • The Hills Have Eyes 2 (2007): $20M, 12%
  • 28 Weeks Later (2007): $28M, 71%
  • The Comebacks (2007): $13M, 10%
  • The Rocker (2008): $6M, 39%
  • Miss March (2009): $4M, 4%
  • 12 Rounds (2009): $11M, 20%

Any death, any funeral, is a lesson. We all go sometime. What do you want to leave behind?

Hopefully it’s not “Miss March.”

No tagsPosted at 11:27 AM on Apr 22, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Tuesday April 21, 2009

Goldstein Disappoints on Susan Boyle

I tend to like Patrick Goldstein’s posts for “The Big Picture” blog on the L.A. Times site. He has a matter-of-factness that’s refreshing in this noisy online world. He’s got a good recent take on journalists in cinema, for example, and gets quickly to the heart of what’s wrong with “State of Play”:
The film makes a halting attempt to introduce a contemporary storyline -- his paper has an annoying young blogger on the same story -- but instead of pursuing the tension in that relationship, the film simply turns the character (played by Rachel McAdams) into a perky gofer for Crowe's big-shot journalist.
Why it was disappointing to read his take on Susan Boyle, whose soaring breakthrough on “Britain’s Got Talent” is currently not just the most-seen video on YouTube this month, but, because of various copycat uploaders, it's the three-most-seen videos on YouTube this month — with 37 million views, 10 million views and 7 million views respectively. And counting. Other videos of her occupy, currently, 6th, 7th, 10, 11th and 12th places as well.

Everyone has an opinion on this phenomenon — including, yes, me — but Goldstein’s seems odd. For one thing he repeats an offer from a pornographic site not worth repeating. But he also writes this:
What has made her sudden celebrity so fascinating -- and disturbing -- is that it seems thoroughly intertwined with the notion that, to be blunt about it, an ugly woman can have a beautiful voice.
If a petite, pretty in pink 20-year-old had done a marvelous job of warbling the song, would anyone have made such a big fuss about it? Clearly not. Would the Web be so full of wonder if the singer were a chubby guy who hadn't had a date in a decade? In a word: No. So for all our delight in Boyle's triumph, isn't the fuss over her a compelling example of our society's rampant sexism?

First, I’m not sure why her sudden celebrity is particularly disturbing. I would assume the success of all of those pretty women who can’t sing — and we know who they are — is even more disturbing, yes?

As for the sexism issue: Hasn’t Mr. Goldstein heard of Paul Potts, who won “Britain’s Got Talent” two years ago, and whose initial appearance on the show — shy and dentally challenged but then busting out into a beautiful operatic voice — is, at the moment, still ahead of Ms. Boyle’s on YouTube, with 47 million views? (For the record, neither his nor her video is in YouTube’s all-time top 25, and both are far, far away from the most viewed video: Avril Levigne’s “Girlfriend,” with 118 million hits. At least she can sing...ish.)

A more intriguing area of inquiry into the phenomenon may be the set-up itself: an individual standing before three often bored or jaded judges, who are either slowly or quickly bowled over by the talents of that individual, who is a stand-in for all of us. Who knew, in other words, that “Flashdance” would be so influential for something other than torn sweatshirts and legwarmers?

No tagsPosted at 07:08 PM on Apr 21, 2009 in category Culture
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Monday April 20, 2009

Quote of the Day

In case the moral argument against torture isn't swaying you:

Imagine if an American operative out of uniform were captured by the Iranians tomorrow. Imagine he were put into a coffin for hours with no light and barely enough air to breathe, imagine if he were then removed and smashed against a plywood wall by a towel tied around his neck thirty times, imagine if he were then kept awake for eleven days in a row, then kept in a cell frozen to hypothermia levels, and then waterboarded multiple times, after which he confessed to being a spy trying to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. Would you believe that intelligence? Would Krauthammer? Would you believe both that he wasn't tortured and that the information he gave was reliable?
—Andrew Sullivan, taking on Charles Krauthammer, here.
No tagsPosted at 02:54 PM on Apr 20, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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Before the Show: 4-17-09

  • Theater: Uptown Cinemas
  • Location: Lower Queen Anne, Seattle
  • Chain: AMC Loews
  • Arrived: 7 minutes early
  • Ads: “Doubt” (DVD)
    “Terminator: Salvation”
    “Parks & Recreation” (TV)
    The KIA gerbil ad (it’s cool not to exercise)
    “Life After People” (TV)
    Olay ad
    U.S. Marines ad
    “Deadliest Catch” (TV)
    Honda Accord ad (where they split the car down the middle)
    Coke ad (sweaty, thirsty guy seeing coke-bottle images everywhere)
    Dr. Laura (“In Praise of Mom” – live screening)
    “You have been watching the AMC Movie Watchers Network”
  • Trailers began: 4 minute late
  • Trailers: “Public Enemies”
    “Star Trek”
    “Extract”
    “Wolverine”
  • Movie began: 12-14 minutes late
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Posted at 07:56 AM on Apr 20, 2009 in category Movies - Theaters
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Saturday April 18, 2009

Review: “State of Play” (2009)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Old old old. Everything about this movie feels old.

Its heroes are newspaper reporters, or at least a grizzled old newspaper reporter, Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), and a svelte blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), and of course these two, initially at odds, have to work together to break the story, which is still, for some reason, and despite the obvious online presence, “on deadline,” as if print were the only way to break the thing. Old tropes die hard.

The paper is the Washington Post-like Washington Globe, and it’s run by the Katherine Graham-like Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), but I can’t remember if she’s supposed to be the publisher or the editor. If the latter, where are her editors? Worse, where are her values? At one point she says she’s going to run a story that’s not finished (so much for the old “two sources” rule) and the next day she’s refusing to run a piece that sheds light on the biggest, juiciest story of the year, because the higher-ups at MediaCorp, which apparently recently bought the Globe, and who have no on-site representative, told her so. This little side-plot is supposed to represent another example of corporate villainy — those awful conglomerates buying up our First Amendment sources! — but that, too, is an old trope. The new trope is that no one’s buying them. They’re just dying.

The film’s villains, meanwhile, are the Blackwater-like PointCorp, a private company making billions off our wars and being investigated by young Pennsylvania congressman, and Gulf War veteran, Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Again: feels old. Feels Bush era.

Of course if this were the only problem with “State of Play,” it might not be bad. But it’s bad.

The movie begins, in a manner reminiscent of the superior “Enemy of State,” with a scared but speedy black man racing through the streets of D.C. Eventually he’s shot and killed by someone who knows how to shoot and kill, who then shoots a passing, bike-riding, pizza-delivery guy who saw too much. The slovenly, junk-food-eating Cal pursues the story.

Meanwhile a young redhead waits for her train at the D.C. Metro. Is someone following her? Has he pushed her under the train? Yes and yes.

Turns out she’s Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), the chief investigator on the committee run by Rep. Collins looking into PointCorp. When the congressman announces her death at a hearing, he breaks down, and the press, and the blogosphere, including the Globe’s Della, have a field day. Were the two having an affair? Did she commit suicide because of him? Della then tries to get a quote out of Cal, because he and the Rep. were, of course, college roommates.

That evening the congressman visits the reporter — “You’re the only friend I’ve got,” he says — and the reporter acts like a PR rep. He’s less interested in the facts of the story than in ways to revive the congressman’s career. Then he gives Della the story. Of course he can’t write it himself — conflict of interest — but why feed the facts to a blogger for whom he has contempt? Why not another grizzled reporter?

There’s more, of course. The congressman was having an affair with Sonia. But then Cal was having an affair with the congressman’s wife, Anne (Robin Penn Wright), who is able to meet Cal at a nice D.C. restaurant, unpursued by paparazzi, the night after Sonia’s death. Neat trick. This second affair adds almost nothing to the story but detracts from it a great deal. Poor Robin Penn Wright.

The black guy/pizza guy killings? Turns out they’re linked to the Sonia Baker killing.

Sonia? Turns out she was initially working undercover for PointCorp. Until the affair. Then she turned.

So did PointCorp kill her and make it look like a suicide to besmirch, and quiet, Rep. Collins? And how did Sonia wind up on his staff anyway? Could it have something to do with Collins’ friend, the more senior, and more religious, Rep. George Fergus (Jeff Daniels)?

Reveals keep coming. Then at the end there’s a final reveal.

Know what would make a great reveal? No reveal. Just saying.

The movie is based upon a BBC miniseries and feels exactly like a soapy miniseries crammed into two-plus hours. New technologies are mentioned but they don’t alter the investigation the way that, say, cellphones altered (read: jumpstarted) the chase in “Casino Royale.” Here, they’re simply grafted onto old technologies. We get a montage, for example, of Della getting doors slammed in her face. It’s supposed to represent Della’s progress from blogger to reporter — she’s getting the Woodward and Bernstein treatment! — but the door-slamming doesn’t feel tied to anything important. Hell, every meeting between reporter and source in this thing is face-to-face. Because it’s more “dramatic” that way? Look, if you’re going to steal from “All the President’s Men,” why not have Stella work the phones the way that Woodward (Redford) worked the phones? That was plenty dramatic. Then ask yourself this. Can you update it? Can you quicken it? Can you tie it to something important?

Parts of the movie work. I like the location shooting. I like Cal’s visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a D.C. landmark, and the handmade sign listing the people who can eat there for free: Bill Cosby...and nobody else. Crowe, as always, is good, but nobody else is given anything. All the female roles are thankless, while Affleck, so perfectly sad as George Reeves in “Hollywoodland,” feels stiff and unresponsive again, while his Philadelphia accent should give some slight redemption to Kevin Costner’s British accent in “Robin Hood.”

Near the end, in one of the film’s many lurches toward relevance, Globe publisher Lynne suddenly shouts to her reporters, “The real story is the sinking of this bloody newspaper!”

She’s right. Too bad the filmmakers didn’t listen to her.

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Posted at 10:37 AM on Apr 18, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Friday April 17, 2009

0-1

A gentle reminder to Yankees fans everywhere that, as of this moment, their team is the losingest team in the history of New Yankee Stadium. Yesterday afternoon, in their $1.6 billion stadium debut, they got drubbed by the Cleveland Indians, 10-2. Some firsts at the new park:

  • First pitch: by C.C. Sabathia, a ball, at 1:09 PM eastern time
  • First batter:  Grady Sizemore, groundout to first
  • First strikeout: Victor Martinez, by Sabathia, in the top of the 1st
  • First Yankees batter: Derek Jeter, fly out to center
  • First basehit: Johnny Damon, single, bottom of the 1st
  • First extra-base hit: Ben Francisco,Cle., double in the top of the 2nd
  • First run: Ben Francisco,Cle., who scored from first on a two-out double by Kelly Shoppach in the top of the 4th
  • First homerun: Jorge Posada, NY, nobody on, bottom of the 5th
  • First grand slam: Grady Sizemore in the top of the 7th

Not exactly names that might ring through the ages, right? Francisco is 27 and his double was the 38th of his career. Shoppach is 28 and the RBI was the 103rd of his career.

I hate the Yankees, of course, but you gotta love some of their fans in times like these. From the NY Times article on the Indians' nine-run 7th:

The inning was so bad that by the end of it, some fans shouted, “We want Swisher!” — as in Nick Swisher, the outfielder who tossed a scoreless inning in a blowout at Tampa Bay on Monday. 

May the streak continue.

No tagsPosted at 11:33 AM on Apr 17, 2009 in category Baseball
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The Journalistic Mission of Bill O'Reilly

In Brian Stelter’s article in The New York Times yesterday about the ambush journalism that Bill O’Reilly practices, which a producer of “The O’Reilly Factor” calls “part of the journalistic mission of the show,” and which is compared (favorably) with what Mike Wallace did on “60 Minutes” and (unfavorably) with what Michael Moore does in his movies, O’Reilly, in drawing distinction between himself and Moore, says he does what he does because “there’s no other way to hold these villains accountable.”
 
You don’t need to read any more.
 
Quick: What’s goal no. 1 for any journalist? To get the story first. To scoop the other bastards.
 
What’s goal no. 2? To be as objective as possible in doing this.
 
Journalistic mission? These villains? Does he know he's sticking his foot in, if not his own mouth, then his producer's mouth?
 
And what villains? Murderers? Torturers? Bernie Madoff types?
 
Not exactly. The ambushees include Mike Hoyt, executive editor of The Columbia Journalism Review, who assigned a story on right-wing media to a writer with a supposed liberal background. There’s Hendrik Hertzberg, my man from The New Yorker, who, the Times writes, “was confronted for what Mr. O’Reilly described as taking a ‘Factor’ segment out of context.” (No word from the Times on how Mr. Hertzberg described the incident.) There’s also Amanda Terkel of thinkprogress.org, who organized a protest against O’Reilly.
 
These are the villains. People who disagreed with Bill O’Reilly.
 
From what I remember of those “60 Minutes” segments, Wallace and his producers would use the ambush technique, when they used it, to confront either legitimately powerful people and/or crooks. It was a technique unmotivated by politics or personal vendettas.
 
Michael Moore, when he uses the ambush technique (which is often), uses it to confront legitimately powerful people: U.S. congressmen and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. His ambushes are, more often than not, motivated by politics but unmotivated by personal vendettas.

Both are examples of the journalistic mission, the journalistic mission, to speak truth to power.

Most of O’Reilly’s targets are less powerful than he is. His ambushes are simply another bullying aspect of his show. It’s less speaking truth to power than power picking on truth.

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Posted at 08:37 AM on Apr 17, 2009 in category Media
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Thursday April 16, 2009

Review: “Seraphine” (2008)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Seraphine” begins with a series of short, quiet scenes in 1914 Senlis, France. In the moonlight, as crickets chirp, we see a hand gliding through the water. In the daytime, a stout cleaning woman at a boarding house is told by the owner to open the rooms downstairs. “I have a new tenant,” she says. This cleaning woman is both devout (singing hymns in church slightly off from the masses) and a sensualist. She sits in trees and basks in the breeze, and it’s her hand, we realize, that glides through the water. She’s obsessive — humorously so. She’s doing laundry for five sous here, cleaning rooms for ten sous there, but she doesn’t respond much to human interactions. “Bon jour” and “Merci” bring out nothing in her. In the back of a butcher’s shop we see her steal cow’s blood in a small glass jar and bring it to church. For what bizarre ritual? Then we realize she’s not pouring blood out; she’s pouring melted wax from the candles in. Which is when the other shoe drops. She’s making paint.

SeraphineLet’s face it, by the time most of us sit down to watch “Seraphine,” we know a few basic facts about her story: She’s a painter who lived in France at the turn of the last century. But this fact may trump all: She’s important enough that 100 years later we’re watching a film about her. The mere fact of the film acts as a kind of redemption for her and a kind of guide for us. We see her scraping by to paint at night but we know, by virtue of the film, that she succeeds. We know, when the boarding-house owner demands to see her work and then dismisses it because the apples don’t look like apples (“They could be plums,” she says), that the woman is a philistine. We know, when dinner-party guests chuckle knowingly about how Seraphine left the convent because she felt God “called her” to paint, that they’re bourgeoisie with lousy bourgeois taste.

The thrill we get, then, is as old as the thrill we get from the Gospels: These people don’t know who’s in their midst. They don’t know how special she is. It’s not a stretch to say we wait for her recognition as surely as we wait for our own.

Thankfully, for Seraphine, the new tenant turns out to be Wilhelm Uhde, a German art critic and collector, one of the first purchasers of Picasso and a champion of Rousseau. Their early encounters are awkward — he doesn’t know why Seraphine’s in his kitchen, she doesn’t know why he likes tea — but she softens when she sees drawings on his bed (a Picasso sketch, it turns out), and his handwriting, which she thinks is beautiful, and which makes her, charmingly, almost coquettish with him. Perhaps most importantly, she finds him in his room crying. “When I feel sad,” she tells him, later, with childlike intensity, “I go for a walk in the country and I touch the trees. I talk to the birds, the flowers, the insects, and I feel better.” That she's devoted to both God and Nature is a stark reminder just how idiotically divisive the U.S. — where you’re devoted to one or the other — has become.

One gets the sense that Uhde is bored and anxious in Senlis, and never moreso than at that bourgeois dinner party where the guests compliment each other’s talents while dismissing out-of-hand the kind of art that enthralls him. Then he becomes enthralled. He sees, in a corner, the painting of apples that could be plums, and is shocked to discover it’s by his cleaning woman. The next day he asks Seraphine to see more. He’s overwhelmed with discovery. She’s overwhelmed to be discovered. This is 40 minutes in and we wonder — with the “reveal” revealed — where the story will go from here. She keeps scrubbing his floors, for example, and when he insists that she not, she quotes St. Teresa of Avila: “Be ardent in your work and you will find God in your cooking pots.” One wonders if she needs manual labor in order to do the artistic kind. Will this be the source of the film’s future conflict and tension?

Non. It’s 1914. As summer continues the war heats up until Uhde, a “Boche” to Senlis’ residents, is forced to flee — less from the French, so this French film tells us, than from the invading Germans, who would shoot him as a deserter. He leaves behind many of his paintings, including Seraphine’s, and Seraphine, on the verge of being discovered, returns to her cramped existence as cleaning woman by day and painter by night.

Thirteen years go by. It’s 1927 and Uhde, his sister, and his latest discovery, take a house in a different French village, while he goes about the messy business of retrieving his collection, tossed to the winds during the war. He talks the primitif moderne to visiting Parisian journalists and worries over his discovery, and lover, a young man suffering from tuberculosis. Seraphine seems forgotten. It’s not until the sister reads of an art exhibition in nearby Senlis that we hear her name again. Uhde, who assumed Seraphine was dead, visits and walks through the exhibition with trepidation until he turns a corner and sees two of her works hanging there, big and beautiful, and finds her in the same dark flat. The story, tossed to the winds by the war, picks up again.

Uhde’s art-exhibition walk is important — at least for me. As viewers, for reasons already mentioned, we have a sense of superiority over the philistines of Senlis who don’t recognize Seraphine’s talent. But watching Uhde search for Seraphine’s work at the exhibition, rejecting with barely a glance the other works there, I realized I had no clue either. Why is this painting art and that one simply a pretty thing for a relative to hang on the wall? I truly have no idea. I only have the received wisdom of the ages telling me what is or is not art, and from there I choose what I like, but it’s not the same thing as doing what Uhde does.

Then I did further internal inventory. The artistic medium in which I feel most comfortable doing what Uhde does, is this one, writing, probably because it’s the only medium in which form is as important to me as content. I’m OK with film, but I don’t look at film with a director’s eye. Yes, I feel the artistic weight of some directors — Kubrick, Malick — but generally the story’s more important to me than what shots were chosen. With writing, what words were chosen is more important to me than what the story is. Generally.

That said, certain shots in “Seraphine” are as beautiful as paintings, and the final shot, silent and two minutes long, gives us a soft landing to what is a hard tale. The film delineates the creative process — or at least a creative process, her creative process — better than almost any film I’ve seen, and drives home the point that artistic talent is fluid, that it must be worked like anything else. It’s always in a state of becoming. I like the scene where Uhde stares intently, and with wonder, at one of her paintings, asking this and that, and she, behind him, says she only sees the mistakes. I like the montage where she shows off her work to friends, standing behind her paintings and often only visible from the nose up, like Kilroy. Some of these paintings are gorgeous. Even a philistine like me recognizes that.

This past February “Seraphine” won 10 Cesars (French Oscars), including best actress and best picture, and will get a limited release in this country in June. A shame it’s not wider. The film, while remaining distinctly French, reminds me of the best pictures we used to make, and see, in this country — historic, beautiful, accessible — before we stopped making and seeing best pictures.

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Posted at 09:08 AM on Apr 16, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Tuesday April 14, 2009

Tuesday Pick-Me-Up: Susan Boyle

I first saw this video of Susan Boyle on the BBC show “Britain’s Got Talent,” yesterday via Andrew Sullivan’s site. Then my friend Jake mentioned it. Then Andrew Sullivan brought it up again. I’m sure it’s making the rounds like nobody’s business. Everytime I see it I tear up, but you know me. Anyway check it out. Don’t make me sit you down and have you watch it with me hanging over your shoulder. That’s not fun for anybody.

The clip is, in effect, what these shows are supposed to be about: discovering talent that otherwise gets overlooked. In that sense — not to mention who Susan is, and what’s she been through, and how she triumphed — it’s uplifting. Incredibly so. Hell, she reduces Simon Cowell to a little boy holding his face in his hands and smiling and sighing.

Yet the unanswered (unasked) question is: How could this woman not be discovered before this? How could she not have a career as a singer? Even a little career in her little village? With a voice like that?

Put it this way: If she looked like that middle female judge she’d be a star. But she doesn’t so she wasn’t even a professional. She just sang – where? In the shower? Since she was 12? All because of where she was born and how she talked and how she looked?

It’s a truly inspiring clip. At the same time it’s reminding us, on this most superficial of shows, just how superficial our society can be.
No tagsPosted at 04:13 PM on Apr 14, 2009 in category Music
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Monday April 13, 2009

Quote of the Day — for the Decade

“You know what the trouble is, Bruce? We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy's pocket.”

— Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) in Season 2, Episode 11 of “The Wire,” originally aired on August 17, 2003

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Posted at 08:10 AM on Apr 13, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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Sunday April 12, 2009

Review: “Observe and Report” (2009)

WARNING: SPOILERS

More than halfway through “Observe and Report,” the new dark comedy written and directed by Jody Hill, Det. Harrison (Ray Liotta) is delivering the bad news to mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) that, because he failed the psychological portion of the police exam — because he’s basically loons — he’s not going to become the cop he always wanted to be. Ronnie breaks down. At this point another detective, whom we’d seen entering Harrison’s closet laughing and ready to listen in on the bad news, emerges straight-faced. “I thought this was going to be funny,” he says, “but it’s actually kind of sad.”

The line is almost a toe-hold for reviewers. You go in thinking “Observe and Report” is going to be funny, but it’s actually kind of sad.

I don’t even know whether I like it. It’s hard to like. Ronnie is partly sympathetic. He suffers from bipolar disorder, lives with his alcoholic mother, moons after a dim, jewelry-counter girl, Brandi (Anna Faris).

More often, though, he’s just unpleasant. He’s the kind of guy who, when others are laughing, he tries to slip, laughing, into the conversation. He — whoops! — let’s slip big-deal news in order to seem a big deal. He obviously feels small but it’s hard to care since, within his fiefdom, he’s a petty dictator. He chews out subordinates with one foot up on a chair. One of the proprietors at the mall, whom Ronnie calls Saddam, actually has a restraining order against him. When a flasher begins to stalk women at the mall, Ronnie sees it as his chance to matter, but after a night-time theft, an actual detective, Harrison, is brought in to investigate. A bigger dog has entered his yard and Ronnie spends most of his time yapping at him, screwing up his investigation, until, with one big “woof!,” Harrison lets him know just how small a dog he is.

That’s when Ronnie decides to become a cop himself and demands an impromptu ride-along with Harrison as part of his training. Fed-up, Harrison abandons him, in the most dangerous part in town, his big white tennis shoes gleaming like a beacon. Soon he’s surrounded by crack dealers and gangbangers.

In a certain sense the movie is about the distance between the lives we lead and the lives we lead in our heads, and here we think this distance is going to come crashing down on Ronnie. A gun is pulled. He goes down on his knees. He’s begging for his life. But no. It’s all a ruse to get a weapon, and, with martial-arts skill, dispatch five gangbangers. He can be as heroic as he imagines himself to be.

Which makes us wonder: So what’s the point? That an annoying, petty bully can be a hero?

And that’s exactly the point. The filmmakers have put a very unpleasant guy in the traditional action-hero role. As much as anything, the film’s a send-up of Hollywood conventions — and how these conventions screw us, the audience, up.

The tropes are all there — loner, protects the weak, goes too far and loses his badge but, with a “go after your dreams” speech from mom, still manages to bring the bad guys to justice — they’re just made small and pathetic. After Ronnie loses both the possibility of the cop’s job and his mall-cop job, the flasher, dick flapping, returns and Ronnie chases him through the mall. Just as the flasher is about to pounce on Brandi, Ronnie shoots him, wounding him. Then he hauls him through a phalanx of cops, including Det. Harrison, standing in front of the police station, where he deposits him, turns on his heels, thrusts a fist in the air, and announces, “I win!”

It’s a great moment because you know, in his head, Ronnie sees himself as Dirty Harry. A few cops even applaud him, as they would Dirty Harry in a Dirty Harry movie. But we don’t thrill in Ronnie’s victory. The filmmakers manage to keep him small and pathetic. That’s impressive. It’s rare in a film when the audience is able to see so clearly this disconnect between the life led and the life in the head.

So what’s my problem? Why aren’t I giving this movie a ringing endorsement?

I could argue the missteps — those scenes when Ronnie stops being the petty dictator and, following a subordinate, lets loose his petty anarchist — but it’s bigger than that. Ronnie may be small and pathetic but so is everyone else. You get the feeling that Jody Hill and company just don’t like people much.

Everyone’s awful: the mall customers and the mall employees. Nell, the traditional “other girl” — the sensible one who likes the protagonist, and with whom he winds up in the end — wears a purity ring. But when Ronnie asks her if she’s a virgin, she responds, “Well, technically I’m a born-again virgin.” Ick.

Everyone has this disconnect between the lives they lead and the lives they think they’re leading, and our culture widens this gap. The rap song blaring in Brandi’s car, right before she’s flashed, includes the lyrics, “I’ll show him mine if he shows me his.” Feminists are up-in-arms over the date-rape scene but they miss the point. This is part of Ronnie’s disconnect. When the flasher first shows up, Ronnie warns Brandi, who wants nothing to do with him, “Everyone thinks they’re going to be fine — until someone puts something they didn’t want in some place they didn’t want it.” Turns out he’s that guy...and he doesn’t even know it. He thinks he’s the hero when he’s really the villain.

Which, I suppose makes “Observe and Report,” for all its misanthropy, a worthy film for our time. We think we’re the hero when we’re often the villain. We think we’re ridding the world of terrorism when we’re making pyramids out of naked Iraqis.

It’s actually kind of sad.

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Posted at 11:03 AM on Apr 12, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Saturday April 11, 2009

My Proust Questionnaire

Vanity Fair has been publishing the Proust Questionnaire on their back page for as long as I can remember. Hit-or-miss stuff but I liked Dustin Hoffman’s a few months back — probably because I agreed with him most of the time. Mine’s below. It’s tough. My own marked characteristic works against me. Plus you realize how far you are from where and what you want to be. Or maybe that's another marked characteristic.

Feel free to post your own in the comments section.

Cascade MountainsWhat is your idea of perfect happiness?
Writing into a deeper thought or connection. Hiking in the Cascades or Olympics on a sunny day.

What is your greatest fear?
Harm coming to loved ones.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Cowardice.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Bullying.

What is your greatest extravagance?
The amount of time I spend writing. Or maybe the amount of time I spend not writing.

What is your current state of mind?
Anxious. For a change.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Prudence.

John LewisWhat is the quality you most like in a man?
Courage and calm.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Grace.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“I got nuthin'.”

On what occasion do you lie?
When it seems funny. When it spares feelings. When not to do so would seem dickish.

What do you dislike most about your appearance?
The lack of a jawline.

Which living person do you most despise?
I don't know enough to say.

Which living person do you most admire?
John Lewis. Barack Obama. My sister.

What do you most value in your friends?
Humor.

When and where were you happiest?
Wherever it was, the “when” was always behind me.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would have super-powers.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Hopefully it’s ahead.

Where would you like to live?
Paris.

What is your favorite occupation?
Writing. Hiking. Biking. “I”ing.

What is your most marked characteristic?
Wishy-washiness.

Norman MailerWho are your favorite writers?
Chronologically as I read them: Salinger, Irving, Vonnegut, Roth, Doctorow, Tolstoy, Baldwin, Vidal, Capote, Updike, Kundera, Mailer, Hemingway, Tobias Wolff. I’m taking offers for the next one.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Buddy Glass. T.S. Garp. Superman.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
The reduction and mechanization of humanity in all forms. The lowest being the final solution.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Antonio Salieri.

Which talent would you most like to have?
To dance like Fred Astaire, to fight like Jackie Chan, to field like Omar Vizquel. Something with that kind of grace.

How would you like to die?
When it feels like falling asleep after a good day.

What is your motto?
Who has a motto?

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Posted at 11:43 AM on Apr 11, 2009 in category Personal Pieces
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Friday April 10, 2009

Your Friday Pick-Me-Up...

...courtesy of those crazy Belgians.

ADDENDUM: Check out some of the other, less official (if we can even use that term) versions of same. What fun! Best reclamation of a public space — and a public space where people tend to be zoned out, in limbo, not where they were and not where they're going — that I've seen in a long time.

I really like this one.

And here's the official vtm version. Apparently it was basically an advertisement for an upcoming reality show on Belgian TV about casting "The Sound of Music," but... that's my kind of advertising.

No tagsPosted at 04:17 PM on Apr 10, 2009 in category Music
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Thursday April 09, 2009

Parity!

Here we are, the Thursday after Opening Day, four games at most into the season, and there are only two undefeated teams left. That's pretty wild. And anyone who had the Texas Rangers and Florida Marlins (both 3-0)? Start picking stocks, baby, because you've got the magic touch.
No tagsPosted at 03:12 PM on Apr 09, 2009 in category Baseball
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Wednesday April 08, 2009

Arkoff Asylum

Here’s the best analysis I’ve read on the success of “Fast & Furious” last weekend:
Why does the audience keep coming to this type of photoplay if neither lust, love, hate, nor hunger is adequately conveyed? Simply because such spectacles gratify the incipient or rampant speed-mania in every American.
OK, that’s not an analysis of “F&F.” It’s poet Vachel Lindsay writing about the action picture (by which he meant something from the ink-bottle of Robert Louis Stevenson) in his book “The Art of the Moving Picture.” First published in 1915.

The more things change.

A man who knows of what Lindsay writes is Neal Moritz, the producer behind all the “Fast & Furious” pictures, as well as the “I Know What You Did Last Summer” series, as well as upcoming comic-book features such as “Green Hornet” and “Luke Cage.” Patrick Goldstein, of The Big Picture blog, has an interesting piece on Moritz this week.

Moritz represents two things to Goldstein. On the one hand, he’s the modern, more respectable version of b-movie impressarios like Sam Arkoff, who always seemed to be riding whatever wave was blowing into shore. He produced movies about juvenile delinquents in the ‘50s (“High School Hellcats”), beach-blanket movies in the early ‘60s (“How to Stuff a Wild Bikini”), motorcycle gangs in the late ‘60s (“The Savage Seven”), blaxploitation flicks in the early ‘70s (“Coffy”), and disaster pictures in the mid-and-late ‘70s (“Frogs”). Once copyrights to more respectable works fell away, he fell on them: Poe, Bronte, H.G. Wells. Goldstein interviewed him back in the day:
In his office, Arkoff had a variety of movie posters propped up against the wall, adorned with catchy titles and ad slogans. Embarrassed that I didn't recognize any of the titles, I said, "Geez, I'm sorry I missed these films. They look like they're a lot of fun." Smoking a cigar as long as a Cadillac, Arkoff laughed me off. "Don't apologize," he boomed. "We haven't even shot them yet. Never make a movie until you know if you can sell it first."

Mortiz’s father, Milt, spent several decades working for Arkoff as his head of advertising and publicity, so he knows of what he does. That’s how “F&F” came about. Mortiz the younger saw a documentary referencing “The Fast and the Furious,” an early Roger Corman feature, and got Universal to buy rights to the title. Start with the title; fill in the story later.

Which is the second, related thing Mortiz represents: the concept picture in ascendance over the star-powered picture. It’s another reminder, as if we needed one, of how the majors now put a high-gloss finish on former “b” pictures while the independents give a grittier look to former “a” pictures. B = A, A = B. Bizarro Hollywood.

Goldstein, like a lot of journalists (and like some part of me, too), has a reserve of admiration for these guys — guys that can sell crap. Maybe because they’re good copy. (That’s a great quote, above, from Arkoff.) Maybe because they're fun. They're not striving after art, they're striving after business. It seems a more sensible way to live. Until, maybe, you look at what you've left behind.

No tagsPosted at 10:25 AM on Apr 08, 2009 in category Movies
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Tuesday April 07, 2009

Presidential Quote of the Day

“We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world — including in my own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country. I know, because I am one of them.”

— Pres. Barack Obama in a speech before the Turkish parliament.

I read this in The New York Times (newspaper version) while sitting at the Kerry Park overlook on this sunny Seattle day, eating my lunch and listening to Teddy Thompson's “In My Arms.” I was pretty happy for that half hour. Tomorrow it's supposed to rain. Tomorrow things may get worse economically. But for now it's sunny and more people realize we're at least heading in the direction we should. Amen.

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Posted at 05:48 PM on Apr 07, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday April 06, 2009

Betting Against Pixar

Do I have the energy on this Monday, when dozens are dead from an earthquake in Italy, to get worked up over the state of the movie world? Not even the movie world, really, but the business side of the movie world? Yeah, those guys.

First New York Times writer Brooks Barnes pats Universal Studios on the back for both “Fast & Furious,” which made $72 million over the weekend, and for reviving the “Hellboy” franchise last summer, which, Barnes writes, the studio turned “into a hit after Sony Pictures Entertainment passed on making a sequel.” Apparently Barnes forgot the role Guillermo del Toro played. At the same time, his use of the term “hit” may be a slight exaggeration. Yes, the film made $34 million its opening weekend. Then it dropped off 70 percent and struggled to make $75 million. Nothing to sneeze at, but, in Hollywood terms, is that a “hit”? For a superhero film?

Richard Greenfield wouldn’t think so. In the Business section of the paper, Barnes (back again) writes how Greenfield’s firm, Pali Research, recently downgraded Disney shares because of — get this — a poor outlook for the next Pixar movie.

Whoa. So is the Pixar movie, “Up,” screening poorly? No. It’s screening extremely well.

Pali has a problem with the lead, an old man voiced by Ed Asner: “‘We doubt younger boys will be that excited by the main character,’ Greenfield wrote, adding a complaint about the lack of a female lead.”

Others pile on. “'The worries keep coming despite Pixar’s track record, because each film it delivers seems to be less commercial than the last,' said Doug Creutz of Cowen and Company."

Barnes then looks at said commerciality of Pixar’s films and agrees. Compared with the $405 million “Finding Nemo” made in 2003, he writes:

Pixar’s last two films, “Wall-E” and “Ratatouille,” have been the studio’s two worst performers, delivering sales of $224 million and $216 million respectively, according to Box Office Mojo, a tracking service.

Well, yes and no. Actually, no and no.

According to box office mojo, a tracking service, “Nemo” made $339 million domestically. The $405 million figure? Apparently that’s in all of North America. So Barnes isn’t even comparing similar box office totals.

Still, if you look at unadjusted domestic box office, yes, it appears Pixar, while still doing great business, isn't doing as well as it used to:

1.  Finding Nemo  $309M  2003 
2.  The Incredibles  $261M  2004 
3.  Monsters, Inc.  $255M  2001 
4.  Toy Story 2 $245M  1999 
5.  Cars  $244M  2006 
6.  WALL-E  $223M  2008
7.  Ratatouille  $206M  2007 
8.  Toy Story  $191M  1995 
9.  A Bug's Life $162M  1998 


The last two Pixar films are stuck there at sixth and seventh, and the only reason they’re not at the bottom is because we’re not adjusting for inflation.

But that’s domestically. Other countries see films, too, right? So what does the worldwide gross of Pixar films look like? Here:

1.  Finding Nemo  $864M  2003 
2.  The Incredibles  $631M  2004 
3.  Ratatouille  $621M  2007 
4.  WALL-E  $534M  2008 
5.  Monsters, Inc.  $525M  2001 
6.  Toy Story 2 $485M  1999 
7.  Cars  $461M  2006 
8.  A Bug's Life  $363M  1998 
9.  Toy Story  $362M  1995 

Now Pixar’s two most recent entries rank third and fourth. Hardly "each less commercial than the last."

Forget for a moment that a financial services firm thinks it’s in a situation to basically pass notes to the most successful movie studio of the past 10 years. Even within the narrow parameters in which these guys are talking — the business side of things — they don’t know what they’re talking about. How awful is that?

On the plus side, these guys did make me excited to see "Up." Opening weekend.

No tagsPosted at 02:31 PM on Apr 06, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Sunday April 05, 2009

Opening Day

Welcome to my favorite day of the year. Here are your active career leaders, with all-time rankings in parentheses:

Batting:

  • Games: Omar Vizquel, Tex.: 2680 (30th)
  • At-Bats: Omar Vizquel, Tex.: 9745 (30th)
  • Runs: Ken Griffey, Jr., Sea.: 1612 (39th)
  • Hits: Ken Griffey, Jr. Sea.: 2680 (58th)
  • Doubles: Ivan Rodriguez, Hou.: 524 (34th)
  • Triples: Johnny Damon, NYY: 92 (193th) — second place, only two behind, is Jimmy Rollins, Phi., who was 29 years old last season.
  • Home Runs: Ken Griffey, Jr., Sea.: 611 (5th)
  • RBIs: Ken Griffey, Jr., Sea.: 1772 (18th)
  • Walks: Jim Thome, CWS: 1550 (15th)
  • Strikeouts: Jim Thome, CWS: 2190 (3rd)
  • Stolen Bases: Juan Pierre, LA: 429 (56th)
  • Caught Stealing: Omar Vizquel, Tex.: 156 (19th)
  • Batting Average: Albert Pujols, Stl: .334 (20th)
  • On-Base Percentage: Todd Helton, Col.: .428 (10th)
  • Slugging Percentage: Albert Pujols, Stl: .623 (4th)

Pitching:

  • Games: Trevor Hoffman, Mil: 930 (18th)
  • Games Started: Tom Glavine, Atl.: 682 (11th)
  • Complete Games: Randy Johnson, SF: 100 (395th)
  • Shutouts: Randy Johnson, SF: 37 (58th)
  • Innings Pitched: Tom Glavine, Atl.: 4413 (29th)
  • Hits: Tom Glavine, Atl.: 4298 (24th)
  • Walks: Tom Glavine, Atl.: 1500 (12th)
  • Strikeouts: Randy Johnson, SF: 4789 (2nd)
  • Wins: Tom Glavine, Atl.: 305 (21st)
  • Losses: Tom Glavine, Atl.: 203 (43rd)
  • Saves: Trevor Hoffman, Mil.: 554 (1st) — Mariano Rivera is second, 72 behind.
  • ERA (5 yrs. minimum): Mariano Rivera, NYY: .228 (17th)

Some quick observations:

1) A lot of 1990s Mariners on the list. Would that they’d stayed together to win something. Or one thing.

2) A quarter of the traditional pitching categories are negative (hits, walks, losses), while only 2/15 of the traditional batting categories are (strikeouts, caught stealing). Seems like a raw deal for pitchers. But I guess the options for positive results from a batter (single, double, triple, homer) are so much more varied than for a pitcher (out, strikeout). Still, seems odd to tabulate the number of hits a pitcher gives up and a batter gets, but not the number of outs for both. I’ve been a fan of the game most of my life and I never realized this?

3) Jim Thome leads all active players in both strikeouts and walks, and has 541 career homeruns. Meaning in only about half (52%) of his 9029 plate appearances did the ball land in an area where a fielder had a shot at it. Wonder where he ranks in this non-category?

4) Whenever anyone talks about unbreakable career records in baseball and doesn’t mention triples (for batters) and complete games (for pitchers)? They don’t know what they’re talking about.

5) Play ball!

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Posted at 10:25 AM on Apr 05, 2009 in category Baseball
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Saturday April 04, 2009

Book Quote of the Day

"They were both of them jovial about the cold in winter and the heat in summer, always ready to work overtime and to meet emergencies. It was a matter of pride with them not to spare themselves. Yet they were the sort of men who never get on, somehow, or do anything but work hard for a dollar or two a day."

— "My Antonia" by Willa Cather, published 1918

No tagsPosted at 05:26 PM on Apr 04, 2009 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday April 03, 2009

Pirating Wolverine

From yesterday's New York Times: In a case of piracy that some analysts called unprecedented, untold thousands of people watched a version of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” online Wednesday, a full month before its scheduled theater release. The film’s distributor, 20th Century Fox, said it did not know how the unfinished copy of the comic book adaptation was leaked onto the Internet. The copy was missing many special effects and included temporary sound and music. Nonetheless, it circulated widely online beginning late Tuesday, even prompting some viewers to publish reviews, favorable and unfavorable, of the hotly anticipated film…

HOLLYWOOD, CA — In  a case of piracy that some analysts called unfortunate, millions of online fans downloaded an unedited version of “Wolverine II” a full four months before its scheduled Blu-Ray release.

Reaction has been mixed. Some fans refused to wade through the nearly six hours of raw, unedited footage. Others were dismayed that special effects were not yet added. “His claws don’t even come out!” wrote Pakled of itsjustamovie.com. “Or he’s supposed to leap? And he just leaps a little bit and then you hear some dude yell, ‘Cut!’ I mean how lame is that?”

Others were not only excited by the footage but offered tips. “The second-unit director obviously doesn’t know what he’s doing,” wrote Hollywoody.com, the influential insider blog. “Plus the Princess Tam-Tam character seems totally superfluous. Not to mention flat-chested.”

The studio could not be reached for comment.


HOLLYWOODY, CA — In  a case of piracy that some analysts called unexciting, the first daily rushes from “Wolverine III: Princess Tam-Tam’s Revenge” wound up online a full month before the film’s scheduled online release.

Reviews have been brutal.

“Am I to understand that Mark Steven Johnson considers this scene complete?” said DickDick of the vlog “B&B.” "Why, there are values and dimensions he hasn’t begun to hit!”

Producers are treating the leak less as an act of piracy and more as a means of helping shape the picture. “The fans are the ones who keep this franchise alive,” said producer Fenton Dunstan, who added that he’s passing “notes” from fans to director Johnson.

“He’ll pay attention or he’s gone,” Dunstan said. “It's that simple.”

Johnson could be reached for comment.


HOWDYDOODY, CA — An attempt to reboot the moribund “Wolverine” franchise has been scuttled when the germ of an idea from the brain of screenwriter Doc Wahlberg was immediately uploaded to the Internet and torn apart by rabid fans.

“Oh right. A reboot. How original,” said Hollywoody.

Snkkt this, motherhumper,” said DickDick.

“That stupid,” said Pakled.

Everyone everywhere could be reached for comment.
No tagsPosted at 12:57 PM on Apr 03, 2009 in category Movies
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Thursday April 02, 2009

Slumdog Watch - II

I posted the first "Slumdog" watch on March 21, when, during the preceeding week, almost a month after the Oscars and more than four months after it premiered, the film fell off by less than 25 percent. "Amazing," I thought. "Maybe it actually has a chance to make another $20 million and reach the top 10 for 2008 —becoming the first best-pic nominee to do so since "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" in 2003."

And at that very point it died. The following week the film fell by over 40 percent and, with the release of the DVD on Tuesday, it's now off by over 50 percent. 

It's currently $2 million behind 15th place and it'll struggle to make that.

Shame. So make it official. Five years in a row now.

No tagsPosted at 12:38 PM on Apr 02, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Wednesday April 01, 2009

Pardon My French

Here are some of the words and phrases you too can learn by watching “Pineapple Express” with the French subtitles on:

  • nichons: boobies
  • c'est la Cadillac: it's the best
  • ma bite, votre bouche: my dick, your mouth
  • gros con: asshole
  • t'emmerdes Goldblum: f**k Jeff Goldblum
  • sois cool: chill out
  • nique la police: f**k the police

Movies: Bringing the world together peu a peu.

No tagsPosted at 08:01 AM on Apr 01, 2009 in category Movies
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