erik lundegaard

Monday January 31, 2011

Movie Review: “The Town” (2010)

WAHNING: SPOILAHS

You can tell Dougie McRay (Ben Affleck), the handsome bank robber, will wind up with Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), the pretty manager of the first bank we see him robbing, because, while the other robbers in scary skull masks yell at her to open the safe, and quickly, causing her to keep flubbing the combination, Dougie, ever sensitive to the situation, gently puts his hands on her hands and tells her to “breathe.” We should all have such bank robbers.

Where did it come from—this sensitivity? Dougie’s background belies it. When he was six, his mother ran away from home and he never saw her again. His father, Stephen (Chris Cooper), is currently serving five life sentences in federal prison for killing a guard during a robbery. His sometime-girl, Krista (Blake Lively), has a four-year-old girl of her own (his?), as well as a drug habit. Oh, and Dougie was a good enough hockey player (“hawkey playa”) to make the NHL but had such a temper he fought with his own teammates and was cut loose. Claire sees a photo of him, the local star, at a youth hockey arena where she volunteers, and he just shakes his head. “I look at that picture and see a 20-year-old kid who thinks he’s got it all figured out,” he says, “right before he’s about to throw it all away.”

Not a bad line. Not a bad director, either. Affleck has written and directed two movies now worth seeing, and while “The Town” isn’t as good as “Gone Baby Gone,” it’s not bad. Word of advice, though, for the writer-director: Get a better leading actor next time.

Affleck, as actor, can be awful (“Pearl Harbor,” “Surviving Christmas”), but he can also be very good. Check out “Dazed and Confused,” “Good Will Hunting,” and, in particular, “Hollywoodland,” in which he plays George Reeves, the 1950s Superman, who winds up caught and trapped by his role. He’s good playing petty men or regretful men. But as leading man?

Admittedly it’s a tough role. Doug McRay is supposed to have the quiet calm of a leader, and we see the quiet calm but we don’t really see the leader. He’s supposed to be capable of sudden violence—beating hoods with bats; killing gangsters—but we don’t feel violence within him. His threats, when he makes them, sound hollow. Compare him, for example, with Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), the gangland boss inside the florist’s shop, who keeps Doug in the game and in the town. He may be old, his arms may be shriveled, he may be in the act of trimming roses, but you still feel that this is a man capable of sudden and remorseless violence. He’s scary. Dougie isn't. He has arms like oaks, and tats all over his body, but there’s no threat in him, no killer inside him. The opposite. He’s the guy who can put his hands on the hands of a flustered girl and tell her to “breathe.”

His main partner, on the other hand, Jimmy (Jeremy Renner), is a dude you cross the street to avoid. Anyone else think of Cagney here? The short, volatile, Irish gangster? His ending, machine gun blazing as he’s rattled with bullets, has a particular “Top of the world, ma!” quality to it.

The story: Charlestown is the bank-robbingest neighborhood in the world, and these guys, our four guys, are good at it. So good they get a slightly immoral FBI agent, Frawley (Jon Hamm, also without the killer instinct necessary for the role), on their tail.

The trailer tells you most of the first half of the movie. Robbers use Claire as hostage; Dougie subsequently romances Claire, who doesn’t know what he does, or that he used her as a hostage. Jimmy, meanwhile, wants her scared. “Scared,” in Jimmy’s worldview, may equal “dead.”

At this point we have three questions:

  1. Will these guys get caught?
  2. Will Claire forgive Doug when she finds out?
  3. Will Doug choose Jimmy or Claire?

The second half doesn’t do poorly with these questions. Jimmy finds out about Claire, and he and Doug brawl about it, but it doesn’t get any worse. Claire finds out about Doug, through Frawley, and has no forgiveness. Her reaction seems real. She refuses to listen to his explanations and throws him out.

Finally, yes, they get caught, stealing money from Fenway Park after a four-game Red Sox-Yankees series. (The fun Affleck must have had writing that.) Well, three of them get caught—“caught” as in “dead”—but Doug, the smart one, escapes. Then he wraps things up neatly. He kills Fergie and his bodyguard (too easily, to be honest), then calls Claire one last time. He can see her from his uncle’s apartment across the street, surrounded by FBI agents, urging him to come over. She’s ready to betray him. That’s sad. But at the last instant she gives a verbal cue, one the agents won’t suspect, to warn him away. She cares. That’s good. He smiles. Me, I smiled at FBI agents so stupid they’d stand around in full view in a curtainless apartment while laying a trap. Your tax dollars at work.

All the compliments I have for “The Town” are in the negative. It’s not bad, not poor, the second half is not cheesy. Has anyone compared “The Town” to “Good Will Hunting”? Two friends: one a tall, tracksuit-wearing goombah (Affleck in both), the other a volatile shrimpkin (Damon, Renner). Plus a girl. Here, Affleck takes Will’s genius I.Q., halves it, and gives it to his character, along with the lead and the girl. Both movies are basically love letters to working-class Boston about getting the hell out of working-class Boston. Care is given to character, and story, but the ultimate goal for the lead is as inchoate and adolescent as an early Springsteen song. Just get out. Somewhere, maybe, there’s a girl waiting.

Posted at 04:40 AM on Jan 31, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Saturday January 29, 2011

Jordy's Reviews: “Tangled” (2010)

Another animated review by my nine-year-old nephew Jordy...

“Tangled” is a movie that my brother told me I would not know the plot of, for he saw it before me. I knew what it was about because I had looked up plot summaries and more trailers than the ones you see on TV. But even with that, and knowing the fairy tale, there was still enough that surprised me in this movie.

“Tangled” is a great movie. The basic plot is that a witch kidnaps a girl with the biggest hair of the entire kingdom, who is also the daughter of the king and queen. Is this supposed to be Rapunzel? Yes, it is. Anyway, a handsome thief, Flynn, goes to their lair and she wants to see the golden lights that appear on her birthday, so they set off on a quest.

I know you’ve heard the story before with a little tweaks, but it works well enough. This is a movie that has songs with good lyrics and good voicing with or without songs. The action scenes are good but they lack someone achieving something. It’s pretty much use weapon, dodge, repeated over and over again. Because of that, the action scenes are a bit predictable, but still good. It’s Rapunzel who kept me attached, but for laughs, it’s definitely either the horse Maximus or Pascal the frog. All the characters are well designed and can be funny. “Tangled” has good animation and a nice landscape, although I would have liked to see an animated movie that is good when most of the time, they’re just talking. That would have been really, really cool.

Its best song is definitely “I See The Light”, although it just beats “Mother Knows Best” by a tiny bit. The dialogue is mostly a thumbs up, with only a few bad lines making it not two thumbs up. I personally think it’s just a little bit predictable. One of the movie’s main themes is that love can go a long way. It’s definitely true. The bonding between Rapunzel and Flynn is probably my favorite thing about the movie. They bond very slowly, and the bond makes you feel like the bond will grow into love. It has a nice ending that closes the story perfectly, and it definitely has a good feeling to it.

It’s better than “Megamind” and “Despicable Me,” although just by a little. The two animated films that are better than this are “Toy Story 3” and “How To Train Your Dragon”, but what animated film these days is? Just go buy tickets and see one of the best animated films of the year.

90% Okay For 4+

Next: “The Ghost Writer”

Posted at 06:14 AM on Jan 29, 2011 in category Jordy's Reviews
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Friday January 28, 2011

Half-True Grit

Did you read Frank Rich's column last Sunday? Back in the Bush years, he was required reading for me. Less so now. That's actually good. It's nice to be able to disagree with him about a good president rather than huddle together in obvious opposition to a bad one.

His column Sunday was about the movies and America, specifically what “True Grit” and “The Social Network” say about different visions of America. It was much linked to and applauded.

But the article felt like half truths to me. Rich writes:

What is most stirring about “True Grit” today — besides the primal father-daughter relationship that blossoms between Rooster and Mattie — is its unalloyed faith in values antithetical to those of the 21st century America so deftly skewered, as it happens, in “The Social Network.”

He writes:

But what leaps out this time, to the point of seeming fresh, is the fierce loyalty of the principal characters to each other (the third being a vain Texas Ranger, played by Matt Damon) and their clear-cut sense of morality and justice, even when the justice is rough. More than the first “True Grit,” the new one emphasizes Mattie’s precocious, almost obsessive preoccupation with the law. She is forever citing law-book principles, invoking lawyers and affidavits, and threatening to go to court. “You must pay for everything in this world one way or another,” says Mattie. “There is nothing free except the grace of God.”

Loyalty? A bit, but hardly fierce. Mattie only goes on the trip in the first place because Cogburn finally allows it (Damon's character, LaBoeuf, is horse whipping her, remember). Cogburn and LaBoeuf constantly fight. They split up, come back together when the bad guys close in, and are on the verge of splitting up for good when Mattie sees Chaney, her father's killer, by the stream, and Chaney kidnaps her. These characters are really only as loyal to each other as I am to Frank Rich. I'm with him when the bad guys, the Chaneys/Cheneys of the world, are nearby or in power. Otherwise we squabble.

(Fun fact: Josh Brolin is the only actor who has played both Bush and Chaney.)

Rich then writes of “The Social Network”:

In contrast to Mattie’s dictum [“There is nothing free but the grace of God”], no one has to pay for any transgression in the world it depicts. Zuckerberg’s antagonists, Harvard classmates who accuse him of intellectual theft, and his allies, exemplified by a predatory venture capitalist, sometimes seem more entitled and ruthless than he is. The blackest joke in Aaron Sorkin’s priceless script is that Lawrence Summers, a Harvard president who would later moonlight as a hedge fund consultant, might intervene to arbitrate any ethical conflicts. You almost wish Rooster were around to get the job done.

This is also off. The Zuckerberg of “TSN” pays with his friends, particularly Andrew Garfield's Eduardo, and with his Rosebud of girlfriends, Erica Albright, with whom, at the end, he's still intent on connecting. He's someone who connects the world with each other but can't connect himself. That's his tragedy. That's how he pays.

(Agreement on Summers, by the way, whom the film portrays not only as too self-important to intervene in a student squabble but not visionary enough to see what Facebook might become. He scoffs that it's a million dollar idea when it becomes a multi- multi- billion-dollar idea. This man, by the way, with such strong vision, is once again economic advisor to the president of the United States.)

But that's as far as I got in my critique. Thank God for Richard Brody over at The New Yorker, an increasingly necessary read, who pretty much takes care of Rich in the opening graf:

Pundits who lay hold of movies often seem merely to filter them to yield predetermined results—as Frank Rich does, in Sunday’s Times, in a piece in which he draws tendentious conclusions from a comparison of the stories and the box-office results of the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” and David Fincher’s “The Social Network.”

Now that I've read Brody further, though, I have a problem with what he says, too. He writes:
Actually, “True Grit” is a success because it allows viewers to have their cake (the cake of extra-legal frontier justice) and to eat it (in the form of a wholesome recognition that the pursuit is damaging to the pursuers, and that, though the extrajudicial hunt makes for quite a show, it’s one that, in the modern age, is obsolete, enjoyable precisely and solely as a tall tale). It’s not a movie for the post-meltdown age but one for the post-9/11 age of devil-may-care vengeance.

Does “True Grit” feel like a tall tale to you? As movies go, it's fairly rooted in time and history. It's obviously wish fulfillment, and revenge fantasy, but less so than most Hollywood wish fulfillments and revenge fantasies. The hero is a drunk. His sidekick is full of hot air. The villain, Lucky Ned, has honor. Meanwhile, Mattie, forever using the fact of her lawyer as both bribe and cudgel, is the one who metes out frontier justice on Chaney. But we don't get to enjoy it. As soon as it happens, she begins to pay. Cogburn lost an eye, LeBoeuf nearly a tongue, and now she loses an arm. And a horse. And her youth. That's hardly devil-may-care. That's why the film resonates so. It lives up to its own principles. Nothing is free but the grace of God.

“True Grit” also resonates because it's a good metaphor—not for our time, or for a time long gone, but for our own interactions in times of crisis. Frank Rich, Richard Brody and I are squabbling now; but soon, too soon, the Cheneys of the world will be strong again and we'll ride together.

Rooster, not riding into the sunset.

Posted at 06:40 AM on Jan 28, 2011 in category Movies
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Thursday January 27, 2011

Movie Review: Vincere (2009)

AVVERTIMENTO: SPOILERS

Once, in my fiction writing days, I contemplated a story about a character who became famous, after which he would no longer be seen with the third-person omniscient voice. From then on, the reader would only experience him in the third person, and only through a media filter. It would be as if he went into another realm. I suppose that’s how I see the famous: in another realm.

“Vincere,” written and directed by Marco Bellocchio, does something similar but better.

The first half of the movie focuses on the torrid romance between Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and a young, Socialist journalist, Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi), in Milano in the 1910s. They get married, have a child. Then she discovers he’s already married. As he accrues power, she is shunted to the side. Once he becomes prime minister, he disappears from the story. We only experience him through a media filter: in newsreel footage and newspaper photos. It’s as if he disappeared into another realm.

Here’s the “better.” Ida is eventually put into an insane asylum, where she keeps insisting she’s the wife of Benito Mussolini. Initially, since it’s her story we’re watching, we think this is a gross injustice. But at some point we wonder: Wait a minute. Did the first half of the film, that fevered dream, happen? Or did it only happen in her mind? That Mussolini is played by Timi as a young man and himself in newsreel footage furthers our doubt.

This doubt, I’m willing to concede, could be reserved for people, like myself, unfamiliar with her story. Or his.

That surprised me. I don’t know much about Mussolini, do I? I just know the bald, strutting clown on the balcony, head tilted up, bottom lip pouted, arms akimbo. But that he was once a journalist? And a socialist? And had hair?

Timi plays him intense, with love and sex as distractions from the greater game of politics and power. Mezzogiorno plays her distracted by love and sex. Mussolini becomes her all, her reason for living. She slips him notes in the middle of political protests and sells her business to promote his. This is in 1914. Another scene takes place in 1907, as the police break up a nighttime protest, and she pulls him over to the side, kisses him, strokes the back of his head ... which is covered in blood. It’s like a scene out of a horror movie. Is this where they meet? Or does she first see him during the opening scene, a theological debate between a priest and the young Socialist. Mussolini asks for a watch and then challenges God to strike him dead in five minutes to prove He exists. Mussolini lives. Ergo...

This jumping around from place to place, from year to year, adds to the sense of a fevered dream. How do they hook up again? He always seems there. His voice is thunderous during protests but in private he hardly speaks to her. Is she there? Is he?

And why so many scenes in movie theaters? While watching newsreel footage of the beginnings of the Great War, he cries out “Viva Italia!” and helps cause a riot that mirrors the violence on screen. In the hospital, wounded, he watches Giulio Antamoro’s “Cristus” and probably gets ideas—as if he needed them. She sees ... is it a jungle movie? ... and the kids in the audience act the apes.

Life is mirrored on the screen. Then life becomes the screen. Suddenly he’s prime minister, and at the theater Ida’s view is blocked by all the young Fascists standing and saluting his image, huge now, and one-dimensional. She has to share him with everyone.

First he looks down at her from his balcony with contempt ...

... then she looks up at his image during the newsreels ...

... where everyone stands and salutes ...

... his huge, flickering, one-dimensional image.

Her brother-in-law, with whom she’s staying in Trento, tells her, “Resign yourself.” She says, “I can’t.” She says, with a fierce intensity in her eyes, “I was the first to believe in him ... I’m the mother of his first-born son.”

Attempting to meet Mussolini’s functionary in Trento (she’s reduced to that), she’s beaten by black shirts and interred in a mental hospital in Pergine. She fits right in. “I’m Mussolini’s wife!” she cries. “And I’m Napoleon’s!” another woman answers. Then the stakes become known. “My son is waiting,” she says. Everyone just stares.

The inmates of Pergine.

The nuns of Pergine.

There is no figure more sympathetic than a mother kept from her child, but initially Ida doesn’t have ours. In practical terms, she chooses her lover, who is one of the great criminals of the 20th century, over her son, who is an innocent. She turns totalitarian eyes toward him. The secret police tear him from her sister’s family and place him in a private school, where he can be watched. It’s a heart-rending scene. “Uncle, help!” the boy shouts as the uncle is held back and the car speeds away. Maybe I found it heart-rending because I’m an uncle.

Yet her uncompromising stance is both her tragedy and her triumph. Most of us resign ourselves to the ways of power, even in a democracy, but she doesn’t bend even to Fascism. Powerful people visit her, this powerless inmate, but she has the truth like a fire in her eyes and she’s not willing to give it up. She’s shuttled around. A sympathetic doctor in Venice cautions her to play along, to compromise, so she can get back to her son, then shows her Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” to drive the point home; but even then she’s only willing to go so far. Dragged back to Pergine, sitting before an array of doctors, she seems willing play her part—everyone just wants her to play her part—but at the end she adds, yes, that her son is the first-born child of Benito Mussolini. Negotiations commence. “Senora, just admit you lied.” “Then I would be released?” “In due time.” Pause. “No, no. This questioning ... is a farce.”

There’s a beautiful scene, a Christmas scene, where she climbs an iron fence and sails out letters to her son amid the swirl of snowfall. It’s a fruitless act but it feels like a necessary act. Her circumstances are specific but it seems a universal gesture. We are all trapped in some way. We are all just trying to get word out to someone we love.

“Vincere” is beautifully filmed and powerfully acted but its story is uneven, its ending unsatisfying. Did Bellocchio need to focus on the elements he focused on? Were there no better scenes? Were some cut? We get seven fewer minutes in the States than they got in Italy. What did we miss?

That was my first reaction. But I find myself warming to its unknowability. It feels like it’s trying to communicate something important but I can’t fathom it. It feels like a letter sailed out into the night.

Posted at 06:07 AM on Jan 27, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Movies - Foreign
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Wednesday January 26, 2011

Oscar Talk: “Most Noms” = “Best Picture”?

Because “The King's Speech” received the most Oscar nominations yesterday, 12, there's a lot of talk that it's now the frontrunner to win best picture. Example of such talk here. Hair-pulling and general cursing from Jeff Wells here.

But nobody bothered to answer the question I want answered: How often does the film with the most nominations win best picture?

So here's the recent history:

  • 2009: Tie between “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” with nine nominations each. “The Hurt Locker” wins best picture.
  • 2008: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” garners 13 noms. “Slumdog Millionaire” wins best picture.
  • 2007: Tie between “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” with eight each. “No Country” wins.
  • 2006: “Dreamgirls”: eight noms. But not one for best picture, which “The Departed” wins.
  • 2005: “Brokeback Mountain” has the most noms: eight. We all remember how that turned out.
  • 2004: 11 nominations for “The Aviator”; “Million Dollar Baby,” with seven noms, wins.
  • 2003: All “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”: 11 noms, 11 wins, includiing BP.
  • 2002: “Chicago”: 13 noms. “Chicago,” surprise best picture winner.
  • 2001: “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring”: 11 noms. “A Beautiful Mind”: BP.
  • 2000: “Gladiator,” 12 noms and the victory.

Result: Five times in the last 10 years (2000, 2002, 2003, 2007 and 2009), the movie with the most noms won best picture.

Meaning?

Meaning 50-50. Meaning less.

Posted at 09:17 AM on Jan 26, 2011 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Oscar Snubs Everyone!

So the smoke has cleared from the Oscar nominations ... and everyone keeps blowing more smoke.

Google “Oscars” and “snubbed” and you get 259,000 results, including 708 under Google News. People love this shit. They're not just writing their outrage, they're tweeting their outrage, fans and stars, while pubs like Hollywood Reporter fan the flames. No. 2 on HR's list was Danny Boyle. “Though 127 Hours was nominated for best picture,” it wrote, “the director was not.” Yes. Same for five other directors. The categories are lopsided. So is singling out Boyle considered a snub of Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids are Alright”), Debra Granik (“Winter's Bone”) and Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”), whose pictures were all nominated? Should I fan those flames? HOLLYWOOD REPORTER SNUBS FEMALE, ANIMATED DIRECTORS ON “SNUBBED” LIST! 

Worse, almost no one does the hard work of pointing out who's just taking up space on the Academy's list. If you're saying somebody should be snubbed in, you have to tell us who should be snubbed out.

This was actually the subject of my first blog post, ever, way back on February 14, 2008:

if you’re going to say Joe Wright and Sean Penn both deserve director nods, tell us who didn’t deserve them. Julian Schnabel? Jason Reitman? Tony Gilroy? Yes, Angelina Jolie was great. So choose her over whom? Ellen Page? Cate Blanchett? And really? Christian Bale and/or Ryan Gosling over Tommy Lee Jones or Viggo Mortensen or Johnny Depp or George Clooney or Daniel Day-Lewis? If you’re adding, you gotta subtract. If you’re going to bitch about the Academy, you’ve gotta play within their parameters.

Things have only gotten worse. Everyone's got an opinion now, and the technology to broadcast it, but they think their opinion doesn't cost. It always costs. As a better writer once said: There's nothing free in this world but the grace of God.

Posted at 07:39 AM on Jan 26, 2011 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Tuesday January 25, 2011

The Oscar Noms! With a Surprise Ending!

I didn't get up early to watch the Oscar nominations read live at 5:30 PST as I've done in the past. Instead I got up at six, as usual, showered, grabbed coffee, and read them online via IMDb.com. Much more civilized.

My first thought? No surprises. I thought: Nathaniel over at Film Experience had all of these 10 best picture nominees yesterday. Maybe we should just go through Nathaniel instead of AMPAS.

Actor? Great group. No weak spots:

Actress? Another strong group, but ...

... no Hailee? She must be in supporting.

Yep. Too bad. She deserved to be in the lead category. But hardly a surprise. Business as usual, in fact.

Supporting actors? Did they ...

Yes, they did! They included John Hawkes! Alright! No Pierce Brosnan but that would've been a stretch. In fact, is the “Ghost Writer” anywhere? Nope. Not in one category. More proof, as if we need it, that America is not Europe. America is more puritanical. Even Hollywood is puritanical.

Director? Consider it the Class of 1999/2000. The Coens are old hands here.

I'd replace Hooper or Russell with Nolan, but, again, this is hardly a surprise. (Read Nathaniel on the third-time snub of Nolan.)

In fact, where are the surprises?

Fourth from the end, in the “Best Documentary, Features” category.

Not only was “Waiting for Superman,” which won the PGA last week, not nominated, but neither was “The Tillman Story.” Both, I thought, would elbow out my favorite, “Restrepo,” which I think is one of the best movies of the year, documentary or feature, but “Restrepo” made the list.

I would've put “A Film Unfinished” on that list as well, if it were eligible (not sure if it is), but it's still a strong list. I haven't seen the two “Lands,” “Gas” or “Waste” (isn't that the same?), but the others are all worthy. “Exit” is unique, but parts of it are a bit of a larf, maybe the whole thing, so I wouldn't vote for it. “Inside Job” is a traditional, talking-head doc, and important, but, as I've written, hardly told me anything I didn't know.

But “Restrepo”? With apologies to Banksy: That's art.

See you February 27th. Maybe we'll even be pleasantly surprised that evening.

ADDENDA: A good post on Oscar snubs from The Film Experience.

Meanwhile, the smartest comment about “Waiting for Superman” being snubbed is in the comments field at Hollywood Elsewhere from a reader named Martin Blank. He writes: “Waiting for Superman got snubbed because it's anti-union. And Hollywood is a union town.” As soon as you read that, you go “Of course.”

Posted at 07:38 AM on Jan 25, 2011 in category Movies - The Oscars, Restrepo
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Monday January 24, 2011

Can Boxoffice.com Predict Our Moviegoing Ways?

I don't know if I was late to Box Office Magazine's Web site, boxoffice.com, or if Box Office Magazine, in print since the 1920s, was late to the Web, but I discovered the site last November and have visited it occasionally since. Along with the usual suspects (weekend estimates/actuals), it displays more modern indicators of moviegoer interest: Facebook (“Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon” already has 3.8 million fans), Twitter (don't mess with Justin Bieber) and Most-Viewed Trailers (the last installment of “Harry Potter”: by far).

What intrigued me the most, though, was a section called Long Term Projections. Here's a screenshot I took last November, which includes projections of films all the way to “No Strings Attached”:

Table 1: Boxoffice.com's Long-Term Projectons: Nov-Jan

I was curious to see how predictable we are.

And?

And ... we're getting there. But not yet.

Here's a chart of boxoffice.com's opening weekend predictions versus the actual opening-weekend grosses, sorted by how well a movie did against the prediction:

Table 2: Opening Weekend Projections vs. Actuals (in millions)

So boxoffice.com got one exactly right (“The Fighter”). It was within 10 percent for four of the 20 movies, within 25 percent for nine of the 20. It was off by more than 50 percent for four of the films, and off by more than 100 percent for one film.

“True Grit” has certainly lived up to its name. It was supposed to fold out of the gate but started strong. Plus it's not fading. (More on that later.) That same wekeend in December, “Little Fockers” opened slightly bigger, with $30 million, but against a predicted $45 million. Plus it's kind of sputtered. (More on that later.)

The bigger bombs, against the long-term projections, are “The Dilemma,” “Gulliver's Travels,” “How Do You Know” and “The Tourist.” What do these films have in common? With the exception of “Gulliver's,” they're all vaguely funny/vaguely serious films aimed at grown-ups. Plus they all received bad reviews. (More on that later.)

As for how well boxoffice.com predicted each film's total grosses? Obviously it's a little early for some of these, but let's take a look:

Table 3: Total Gross: Projections vs. Actuals (in millions)

Only one film, “Harry Potter,” is within 10% of the prediction. That one will creep closer to 100% but not close enough. It's already running out of steam. “Tron” won't make the prediction, either, but it could crawl to within 10%. Of the other 11 films below “Tron,” only “No Strings Attached,” which just opened, has a chance to come close to the prediction. The others are floundering, listing, or have already sunk. (I had to look up “The Next Three Days” to even remember what it was.)

Again, boxoffice.com completely underestimated “True Grit,” which, despite grossing almost twice as much as the site predicted, is still going strong. This past weekend it finished in fifth place with another $8 million, down only 27%. Next weekend it'll probably catch “Little Fockers.” Did anyone see that coming in November? A film by the Coen Bros., who have never had a film gross more than $75 million, outperforming “Fockers,” whose previous film grossed $279 million in 2004 dollars? That sound you hear, by the way, is the sound of me smiling.

Before signing off, let me add two more tables. They're the same two tables as above but with one additional column: the Rotten Tomatoes top critics rating for each film (“fresh” films in red):

Table 4: Opening Weekend Projections vs. Actuals (with RT scores)

Table 3: Total Gross: Projections vs. Actuals (with RT scores)

It's a small sample size but quality seems to matter—as I've argued here and here and here. And everywhere. Making a quality film and releasing it wide may not guarantee big bucks; but you're almost guaranteed that the film will do better than you, or boxoffice.com, thinks.

Posted at 07:24 AM on Jan 24, 2011 in category Movies - Box Office
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Sunday January 23, 2011

Jordy's Review: “Despicable Me” (2010)

Another review by my nine-year-old nephew Jordy...

“Despicable Me” is a movie about raising kids, so is it despicable, or is it despicably wonderful? It’s wonderful, that’s what it is.

“Despicable Me” starts out with an intro like no other: a superkid. If you’re wondering what I mean, a kid drops to his death, when all of a sudden, the pyramid he’s going to land on turns out to be inflatable. He flies through the air like superman, and from then on, the plot changes from a story about a naughty kid to a story about a tall bald guy, also with skinny legs, called Gru (Steve Carell). This man is trying to steal the moon.

Here comes my first complaint: how could he steal the moon? It doesn’t belong to anybody, unless you count earth. So he steals a shrink ray to steal the moon, and it gets stolen from another villain called Victor (Jason Segel). So he tries to get in to Victor’s compound to steal it back, and he’s horrendous at it, but three girls come along selling cookies and get in easily. So he adopts them, and he bonds with them, and soon he has to choose the moon or the kids.

The plot gets a bit predictable, but I still think it’s good. The humor is around gags for kids, but it is still goofy enough for adults. This movie is hilarious, although at times, it gets a little too silly. Steve Carell changed his accent to a Hungarian, I think. The rest of the cast is great, but Jason Segel is not as good as I thought the first time I saw this movie. The minions are my favorite characters and are easily the funniest part of the movie. The dialogue is good, but not great. It has some funny lines, like this one:

Layout: Gru tucking the girls in.

Margo: Let’s read a book.
Agnes: Three Sleepy Kittens!
Gru: Oh, no, that book was accidentally destroyed maliciously.

(Dog thing snorts)

Lines like that are very nice, while some can be stupid, like this one:

Layout: Gru stealing shrink ray from Victor, Gru hanging from vents. Victor’s pet shark tries to be Jaws and get Gru.

Victor: Quiet down, fish! Tell him to stop banging against the glass before he breaks it!

Anyway, once the movie starts getting predictable, adults might get a little bored. Kids will probably like the movie more than adults, though both my mom and dad liked it.

It’s a very good movie, and it definitely will get nominated for an Oscar for best animated film. And if you have not been keeping track, the first two are “How To Train Your Dragon” and “Toy Story 3.” (I’m not sure about “Megamind”).

Rating: 88%

Okay For 5+

Next Review: “Tangled” or “The Ghost Writer.” Comment on which!

Posted at 07:59 AM on Jan 23, 2011 in category Jordy's Reviews
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Saturday January 22, 2011

Lancelot Links

  • My friend Tim Harrison has some thoughts on Tucson, Ariz., his hometown, in the aftermath of the Giffords shooting.
  • My friend Jim Walsh compares teachers during winter break to soldiers on leave: “While the rest of us go back to work or celebrate back-to-school peace and routine,” he writes, “the teacher’s job is to prepare hundreds of kids for the white-hot competition of life/careers/college, while at the same time making sure they take something away from the classroom that can’t be measured in grades or monetary success.”
  • My friend Andy Engelson, living in Hanoi, tries eating man's best friend.
  • My man Jackie Chan on his White House visit.
  • My kindred spirit, Josh Wilker, with a short post on the connection between dry Xmas trees, writing and “Let Her Dance” by the Bobby Fuller Four. “Life seems thin sometimes,” he says, “most of all when I’m between the writing of books.” (As an aside, it's depressing that someone who has written a book as deep and entertaining as “Cardboard Gods” still has a day job. Help the brother out. Have you bought your copy yet?)
  • On the other hand, in this interview with Graham Womack, Wilker talks about how the stability of a regular job helps him with writing even as it eats into what little time he has. Also why he admires Chekhov (who had a day job, too).
  • Quick quiz, baseball fans. When is a single worth more than a walk? Only when runners are on base. It's in all of those first-to-third or second-to-home situations. This leads Bill James, the granddaddy of all baseball statisticians, in a subscription-only series on the Hall of Fame, to write the following: “500 walks, according to people who study this, have almost the same value as 325 singles.” And this leads Joe Posnanski to do the calculations to see who might benefit from such a trade to improve their Hall chances. McGwire, yes, McGriff, yes, Palmeiro, no. He points out the players who couldn't do it since they don't have 500 career walks (Raul Mondesi; Juan Gonzalez). Then he gets to my man:

Edgar Martinez
Actual line: .312/.418/.515
After the trade: .341/.405/.536
Make the trade: Abso-freaking-lutely.

Edgar was so good at getting on base that he could just give away 175 times on base and STILL keep his on-base percentage above .400. His batting average would soar to .341, and people might finally realize that when it came to hitting a baseball very hard, very often, there are not many people in baseball history better than Edgar.

  • I've always like these “Familiar Faces” posts Nathaniel Rogers writes for Film Experience, and his latest, on the recurring actors in Darren Aronofsky's movies, is a trip. “Okay, in this scene, Dad, I want you to...”
  • I've got an iPad now and one of the bells and whistles in the 1/24 New Yorker (which costs $4.98 even if you already have a subscription: that's Conde Nasty), is this great, short video piece by Richard Brody talking up Harry Langdon, a silent film comedian I barely know. 
  • Also recommended from that issue is Louis Menand with an historical analysis of Betty Friedan's “The Feminine Mystique,” and Ken Auletta in a subscription-only piece on Tim Armstrong, AOL's new CEO, and his attempt to save both AOL and journalism. It's not going well. Here's Auletta's sharp downer of an open: “In the past three years, newspaper advertising revenues have plummeted, a fourth of all newsroom employees have been laid off or have accepted buyouts, and more than a hundred free local papers have folded. During these unhappy times for the profession, a surprising savior has appeared: America Online....”
  • In an interview with FrumForum, ousted RNC chair Michael Steele complains about incoming RNC chair Reince Priebus. “I know exactly how Caesar felt,” Steele says. “I trust my friends. Well, I guess the adage is right. In Washington, you should get a dog… We put a lot of resources in Wisconsin over the last two years… that’s what you do for [the] team.” FrumForum also implies that Steele made Priebus, by appointing him RNC general counsel, but it ignores how much Priebus helped make Steele. From an article Kevin Featherly wrote for my magazine, Wisconsin Super Lawyers & Rising Stars, in December 2009, just over a year ago: "I wouldn’t be here without [Priebus],” Steele said. “And I don’t mean in Wisconsin, I mean as chairman of this party. … He just laid down a nice pathway to this chairmanship by being honest, by being genuine and by being the counsel in my ear.” Doesn't mean Steele's advice isn't correct. We should all get dogs.
  • Speaking of, this heartbreaking photo of love and loyalty comes via Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish.

Posted at 08:24 AM on Jan 22, 2011 in category Lancelot Links
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Friday January 21, 2011

Three-Day Weekend

Monday night, the last night of the three-day weekend, Patricia was reading in bed while I was taking off my shoes on a nearby chair. I was a little down. Friday night, with all its possibilities, seemed but a moment ago, and here it was, Monday night already. It had been a fairly productive weekend but it was still Monday night. I sighed. Patricia looked up from her book.

“Three day weekend,” I said, then pantomimed a small explosion with my hand. “Poof.”

She nodded.

Pause.

“Although I suppose no matter what I’d done,“ I said, ”we’d still be at this point in time.”

It wasn’t until I said it that I realized I was actually feeling guilty. Not about anything that had or hadn't been done; simply about the passage of time. If only I’d been more careful or attentive, I was feeling, this three-day weekend wouldn’t be over just yet. But I hadn't been attentive enough, and here we are, and I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

Long way of saying I turned 48 yesterday. And I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

My friend Doug's birthday party, circa 1969. I'm the leftmost kid, wearing what looks like a tennis sweater. In front of me, in shirt and tie, is my friend, Mark. The birthday boy is center stage, holding a small flag.

Posted at 06:36 AM on Jan 21, 2011 in category Personal Pieces
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Wednesday January 19, 2011

NP + AK = WTF

I have a piece up on MSNBC.com on the oddity of Natalie Portman, Oscar nominee, ballet dancer and multilinguist, shacking up with Ashton Kutcher, tweeter and monosyllabist, in Ivan Reitman's romantic comedy “No Strings Attached.” 

Two weekends ago, when I was in the midst of writing it, some friends and I were at a multiplex in downtown Seattle, talking close to a big poster of “No Strings Attached.” Curious what others felt, curious if it was just me, I nodded toward the poster.

Me: And what do we think of that?

Pause.

Female friend: “Love her. Hate him.”

Pause.

Male friend: “She can do so much better.”

You can check out the piece here.

Posted at 03:05 PM on Jan 19, 2011 in category Movies
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Tuesday January 18, 2011

Movie Review: “The Green Hornet” (2011)

LET’S ROLL, SPOILERS

The Green Hornet has always been the lamest of superheroes. He was created in 1936 by George W. Trendle, co-owner and managing partner of Detroit radio station WXYZ, as a modern update of Trendle’s previous creation, the Lone Ranger. Like the Ranger, the Hornet wore a mask, fought crime (often posing as a criminal himself), and relied upon a faithful companion: a Japanese valet named Kato, who became a Filipino valet after Pearl Harbor and a Korean valet for the 1940’s movie serials. The Hornet’s real identity, debonair newspaper published Britt Reid, was even posited as the grand nephew of John Reid, the Lone Ranger’s real identity.

I first came to know the character through syndicated re-runs of the 1966-67 TV series, starring Van Williams as The Green Hornet, and Bruce Lee as Kato, which was created in the wake of yet another successful series: the camp classic, “Batman.” This Hornet had a couple of things going for him. He rode in a cool, black Mustang; he looked cool in his black mask and fedora; his theme song, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” was cool, while his sidekick, Kato, wearing his own black mask and chauffeur’s cap, was way cool.

But even as kids we knew something was wrong: The Green Hornet didn’t do anything. Kato drove the car. Kato was the bad-ass in fights. Basically the Green Hornet was his own Robin. He was the superhero overshadowed by the sidekick.

Thus the obvious task before screenwriters Seth Rogen and Even Goldberg (“Pineapple Express”), director Michael Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), and Sony Pictures Entertainment: How to update this lame character for 2011 audiences?

Their answer? Make him lamer.

It’s not a bad answer, actually. They just don’t go far enough with it.

This Britt Reid (Rogen) is the spoiled son of a crusading newspaper publisher, James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), who dies from an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Brit is put in charge of “The Daily Sentinel” but he’s hardly read it. What has he done with his life? Not much. He likes to party with beautiful women. Who doesn’t? He likes beer. Ditto. He’s basically an everyman with gobs of money. He also likes a nice cappuccino in the morning with a leaf design in the foam. But the morning after his father’s funeral, the leaf is gone and the coffee’s shite, and after throwing a tantrum he learns that a servant named Kato (Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou), whom he fired the day before, always made his morning cappuccino. So he hires him back. That’s how they meet.

Kato, it turns out, is not just a master barista. He’s a martial arts master, a scientific master, a guy who redesigns the father’s black mustang with the material of shark tanks. Reid can barely keep up. “I was born in Shanghai,” Kato says. “Love Japan,” Reid responds. Not a bad in-joke for a movie that gives its Chinese character a Japanese name.

Their first night-time excursion is collegiate and Oedipal, and recalls an episode of “The Simpsons”: James Reid was buried next to a giant statue of himself; so the son, still fuming that daddy was considered a great man, cuts off the head of the statue. Then he witnesses an attack on a nice couple by a gang of cackling idiots. He confronts them and runs. They’re about to kill him. But Kato to the rescue.

Then the cops chase them from the scene. But Kato’s souped-up car to the rescue.

And we’re on. Britt has his grand idea to “pose like villains and act like heroes.” He also decides to be his own J. Jonah Jameson: He will turn this character who decapitated his father’s statue, seen on grainy, green footage, into a villain. And he will call him: The Green ... Bee!

Kato to the rescue again with a better name. The Green Hornet is born.

The two take on the L.A. underworld, run by a man named Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, in his first role, and it’s a thankless one, since winning best supporting actor for “Inglourious Basterds). Reid as the Green Hornet gets in a couple of blows now and then, but it’s mostly Kato, as fighter, or Kato, as designer of high-tech weapons and cars, who gets the work done. But Reid never seems to notice this. He still thinks he’s the hero. He’s as deluded as Ronnie Barnhart, Rogen’s character from “Observe and Report.” Is this the new Rogen role? The guy who’s scary in his delusions? The ostensible hero who isn’t really a hero?

At one point, Kato designs a gas gun but only makes one for Reid. When Reid questions him on this, Kato implies (rightly) that he doesn’t need one. Now it’s Reid who chafes under the idea (a correct one) that he’s the weaker half of the duo. So he promptly shows his worth by shooting himself in the face with the gas gun. He’s out for 11 days.

Should we look at their relationship symbolically—as a backdrop to geopolitics? The American is rich, talentless and stupid, but with a sense of privilege. The Chinese guy knows everything, can fight anyone, and can even make a damn good cappuccino, but he has to listen to the American. Who thinks he’s Japanese. No way the filmmakers weren’t aware of this dynamic.

A shame they didn’t press this theme. Instead, what breaks the two up is ... wait for it ... a girl, Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), a temp who becomes full-time secretary to Reid because she knows things like “how much trouble newspapers are in these days.” Both men make plays for her: Reid obviously and thus humorously; Kato subtly and thus creepily. She’s not interested in either.

There are grand, meaningless subplots. Was James Reid in the pocket of the corrupt local D.A. (David Harbour)? Will Kato accept a $1 million assignment to kill Britt Reid? Blah blah blah.

Reid’s stupidity is magnified through two laugh-out-loud bits. At a sushi bar with the corrupt D.A., we get a high-tech flashback of Reid piecing everything together. At which point the corrupt D.A. says something like, “I can see by the stupid look you’ve had on your face for the last five minutes that you’ve finally pieced everything together.” It recalls, like the decapitated statue, “The Simpsons,” specifically Homer.

At the same time, Reid manages to get the corrupt D.A.’s confession recorded, and he and Kato, reunited, are chased back to The Daily Sentinel, where Reid can upload the audio onto the Internet. The damage done to the building so he can perform this simple task is insane. But he’s doing it. As Kato holds off the bad guys, we get the traditional “Hollywood bar of upload,” with the hero saying, “C’mon, c’mon,” to technology he doesn’t understand. In the audience, I’m thinking, “How can they make this interesting? What can we get at the other end that’s unique?” Answer? A pop-up window: NO DATA RECORDED. “I’m so stupid!” Reid says, slapping himself in the forehead.

Unfortunately the movie fudges Reid’s Homer Simpson moments by allowing him Kato’s power at the end: In a moment of crisis, time slows down, and, boom boom, he is able to take care of the bad guys. What took Kato a lifetime of training, Reid simply stumbles into. It’s the American way.

Question: Is all of this simply humorous or truly subversive? I.e., are the filmmakers pandering to the audience (“Idiots like you can be heroes!”) or are they trying to slap sense into them (“Your hero is an idiot, Idiot!”)?

My hero of the film, anyway, doesn’t wear a mask. He’s Axford (Edward James Olmos), an editor at The Daily Sentinel, who, after James Reid dies, is forced to watch the newspaper he’s worked on for decades, and which is barely surviving as is, become the plaything of three people who know nothing of journalism: Reid, Kato and Lenore, who is suddenly holding forth at edit meetings as if she’s Ben Bradlee. He is made redundant. At this point he tries to set Reid straight, and begins: “I know you think my experience ain’t worth shit...” Truer words by the American workingman to his boss were never spoken.

 

Earlier incarnations: 1940 (left) and 1966. The updated version contains two homages to Bruce Lee, the 1966 Kato. Can you name them?

Posted at 08:14 AM on Jan 18, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Monday January 17, 2011

Review: “True Grit” (2010)

WARNING: FILL YOUR HAND WITH SPOILERS, YOU SON OF A BITCH!

There’s an irony to how well “True Grit” is doing at the box office—$126 million after four weeks, by far the Coens highest-grosser—because, and with deep apologies to cinematographer Roger Deakins, this is a movie that needs to be seen on DVD, and with the subtitles most definitely on. It’s not just that some of Jeff Bridges’ better lines are swallowed in a drunken rumble; there’s such richness to the language here that you don't want to miss anything. It’s so specific to time and place. Examples:

  • You cannot have your way in every particular.
  • I do not entertain hypotheticals; the world, as it is, is vexing enough.
  • You have got very little sugar with your pronouncements.

People speak without contractions. They are precise. Their language is the language of those raised on the poetry of the King James Bible and little else:

  • I felt like Ezequiel walking in the valley of dry bones.
  • The author of all things walks with me and I have a fine horse.
  • I will meet him later walking in streets of glory.

Most of this comes from the source material, Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, but the Coens knew enough not to mess with it, as Hollywood levelers and temperature-takers generally do. You could say this is true of all of the Coens' movies. Each has its own language specific to time and place. Darn tootin’.

In the Coens’ previous western, “No Country for Old Men,” they upended the genre’s tropes—the hero is killed off screen, the sheriff, plagued by nightmares, retires, while the villain keeps on keeping on—and, at first glance, “True Grit” feels like a corrective. It feels like a more traditional western. It is, but those boys are still upending the genre’s tropes.

For one, the story isn’t set in the “west.” It’s set in Arkansas, and the Choctaw Nation, which eventually became Oklahoma.

More, most westerns are about lawless places getting law. The line is clear: there’s chaos and then, generally after the hero arrives, there’s order. “True Grit” has a mix more familiar to modern sensibilities. Yes, people are killed, and outlaws light out for the territory; but the law still reigns.

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl intent on avenging her father’s death, uses her lawyer as both cudgel and bargaining tool with everyone she meets. Won’t give her what she wants? She’ll sic her lawyer on you. Won’t tell her what she wants? Her lawyer can help you if you talk.

The first time she sees Rooster J. Cogburn (Bridges), drunkard and U.S. Marshall, he’s in a courtroom, the prosecution’s witness, and a defense lawyer, an almost strutting popinjay, who in anyone else’s movie would be flicked aside by the hero without much trouble, gets the better of him. Cogburn gets off some good lines, some unintentional, and you can see him playing to the crowd; but in the end the defense lawyer confuses him, makes him backtrack and ruins his case. Cogburn is the man with true grit, who has, Mattie says later, “great poise”; but this is a West where words matter as much as guns. Maybe more.

Let’s count the instances.

It’s Mattie’s words, along with the threat of her lawyer, which finagle $320 out of Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) in a hilarious epic of bargaining; and it’s Mattie’s words, along with $100, which finally prompt Cogburn into pursuing Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s killer; and it’s Mattie’s words, along with her own true grit, and the true grit of her horse, Little Blackie, fording the cold waters of the Mississippi into Choctaw territory, that allow her to accompany both Cogburn and a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who has been, in Mattie’s words, “ineffectually pursuing Chaney” for years for the murder (an assassination we would say now) of a Texas state senator.

Each of the main characters has his own vocabulary. Mattie’s words are always straightforward and come with a purpose: these words to get this done. Cogburn’s words are as rambling and shambling as he is. While they ride he goes on about his many wives, and in the midst of pursuit he makes promises to a dying man he doesn’t keep. It’s his very carelessness with words that allows the defense lawyer to run him in circles. LaBoeuf, meanwhile, makes grand, airy pronouncements like he’s his own PR rep. He’s forever in the midst of creating his own legend. “Never doubt a Texas Ranger,” he says at the end, when he finally makes good. “Ever stalwart.” He’s Hollywood a half century before Hollywood.

A word almost causes Cogburn and LaBoeuf to come to blows. “Sounds to me like you are being hoo-rahed by a little girl,” LaBoeuf says, and Cogburn can’t abide it. They accuse each other of being “bushwackers” and “brushpoppers,” and then they get on each other about the Civil War, only 11 years gone at this point, and the role of Capt. Quantrill, whom Cogburn served under, and who staged guerilla raids into neighboring territories—including an infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in which 190 men and boys were executed. It’s a passing reference that suggests the vast history beneath the small story we’re watching. The Coens don’t bother tidying it up. You either know or you don’t, and if you don’t you can look it up. (I looked it up.)

Do I need to say Bridges is monumental here? Cogburn’s vanity is on display in the courtroom and Bridges’ lack of vanity is on display everywhere else. He hangs out in his filthy longjohns, hair askew, bloated stomach threatening to burst past his buttons. His one visible eye looks confused at Mattie, annoyed at LeBoeuf, determined and deadly in a gunfight, and mean when he’s on a drunk. His comic timing is impeccable: “Well,” he says, dead bodies lying all around, “that didn’t pan out.”

No vanity for old men.

Steinfeld is a find, wonderfully forthright and proper and heroic; Damon suggests the hollow man LaBoeuf is, while Brolin is all low brow and grunts. He looks villainous and frightening but takes a while to get there.

When, after all that tracking and pursuit, Chaney is suddenly there in the creek in which Mattie has gone to get water, his reaction isn’t frightening at all; it’s dimwittedly friendly. “I know you,” he says, pleased. He can’t imagine why Mattie would be this far out in Choctaw territory. He sees it as a wonderful coincidence.

In the gang with which he hooked up, led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), again, he’s not frightening. He’s the younger, stupider brother, forever ignored, disrespected and left behind. “Take me with you,” he whines, to no avail. One member of the gang is a short pug of a man who can only make animal sounds, but even he gets the respect denied Chaney. Mattie needles him for this and almost succumbs to the same fate as her father. Because this is when Chaney becomes frightening and villainous. He’s a man who takes out the disrespect he feels from more powerful people, such as Lucky Ned, on less powerful people, such as Mattie.

Each character surprises. Each has his own code. Cogburn, a U.S. Marshall, robbed banks in his youth, then dismisses it with a shrug and an excuse about never robbing a citizen. Lucky Ned, wearing the nastiest set of teeth in movies, and trading spittle-filled invective with Cogburn while pushing a boot into Mattie’s face, later acts the man of honor with her. Bargains are made—you do this and I’ll do this—but both Cogburn and Chaney go back on their word. Only Ned Pepper keeps his.

This is a rough and absurd world, an Old Testament world, where a laugh is followed by the horror of fingers being chopped off; where an anticipated showdown with a killer becomes the absurdist image of a bear toddling through the woods on a horse. (Should the Coens adapt John Irving? Or is he too New Testament for them?)

“You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another,” the adult Mattie narrates at the beginning of the film. “There is nothing free except the grace of God.” Indeed. Mattie gets her revenge—she’s the one who shoots and kills Chaney—but in that exact moment, when she (and we) should be enjoying her revenge, she begins to pay. The kick of the gun propels her into a deep pit she’s been twice warned about, and once she stops falling she looks up as if from the bottom of grave. (One can’t help but think of her sleeping accommodations at the undertaker’s place in Fort Smith.) Then she’s snake-bit, and Cogburn takes her to the nearest doctor, riding Little Blackie through the day and into the night, and into death. That’s the first way she pays. The second way is with her arm. She wanted to travel with these men and so becomes like them. LaBoeuf, the man full of hollow talk, loses part of his tongue; Cogburn, who likes to pull a cork, has a missing eye. She and her arm. No one gets through this life whole.

You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another.

Posted at 10:51 AM on Jan 17, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Sunday January 16, 2011

An Empire of His Own: How Neal Gabler Invented a Powerful Critical Elite

This year I’ve been reading and immensely enjoying Neal Gabler’s 1989 book “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” (more on this in later posts), so it’s a supreme bummer to come across Gabler’s recent article, “The end of cultural elitism,” in The Boston Globe.

I found it in the usual, pinball-y, online manner: a post from Roger Ebert on Facebook bounced me to A.O. Scott’s takedown in The New York Times which pinged me over to Gabler’s original article.

Except his thought isn’t that original. Did you know elitists have been telling the people, which is you and I, what to see and like since the republic began? But now, with the help of that great, democratizing medium, the Web, with its aggregate and social networking sites, the people, which is you and I, are fighting back? And the year that just passed is the year we finally won?

Evidence? He gives three examples of products pushed on the public that the public pushed back, unopened:

  • “The Social Network": Critics loved it but, according to Gabler, “something startling happened. Audiences didn’t bow. They yawned.”
  • Jonathan Franzen’s novel, “Freedom,” which “soared to the top of the bestseller lists but didn’t linger long.”
  • HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”: “Once again, the tastemakers proved far more enthusiastic than audiences. Though HBO, as a subscription service, is not ratings addicted, the show’s ratings have plummeted, and ‘Boardwalk Empire’ has hardly made the kind of impression that ‘The Sopranos’ did.

A.O. Scott comes to the defense of each of these examples but I’ll just deal with the first.

“The Social Network” was the no. 1 movie in America during its first two weekends, and has thus far grossed $94 million, which makes it (again: thus far) the 31st highest-grossing movie of the year. Not bad for a drama in which words employ the same function as guns in most Hollywood films. (Vocabulary is to Aaron Sorkin as gunpowder is to Michael Bay.)

It's also the current favorite to win the best picture Oscar. Last year’s best picture winner, “The Hurt Locker,” grossed only $17 million, which was only good enough for 116th place for the year, which is some kind of low point for best picture winners. So why doesn't Gabler make 2009 his year that people stopped listening to the cultural elites? Because then Gabler couldn’t sell his article? Because he didn’t notice what he thinks is a pattern until 2010?

I confess: I’m not seeing his pattern. I’m seeing the opposite of his pattern. Critically acclaimed movies that I thought would be released like “The Hurt Locker” (that is: parsimoniously) and gross like “The Hurt Locker” (that is: painstakingly), are actually filling theaters. It’s not just “The Social Network.”

“True Grit,” a western from the Coen brothers, whose previous highest grosser stopped at $74 million, is currently riding the high country at $126 million and shows no signs of slowing down.

More amazingly, “The Black Swan,” a film about ballet, of all subjects, directed by indie and critical darling Darren Aronofsky, of all directors, whose previous four films have grossed a combined $43 million, has currently grossed $74 million, and is set to pass such would-be tentpole flicks as “The A-Team.” That’s something to be celebrated.

Add in “Inception,” “Shutter Island” and “The Town,” and 2010 was a pretty good year for audiences turning out to watch sometimes difficult, critically acclaimed films. As I've written before, critics and moviegoers have more in common than critics and moviegoers realize.

If Gabler is saying that moviegoers are showing up for the good films (“True Grit”), and ignoring the bad ones (“How Do You Know”), because of word-of-mouth engendered by social networking sites like Facebook, and aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes, and that these sites are cutting into the traditional cultural authority of critics, well, then Gabler is saying this poorly, with horrible examples, and with a demonization and sense of conspiracy from an Other (“cultural elitists” and “commissars”) that stinks of the cheap shots and half-truths of a Michael Medved.

I would add the following. It relates to something A.O. Scott writes in his sharp rebuttal:

There is a cultural elite, in America, which tries its utmost to manipulate the habits and tastes of consumers. It consists of the corporations who sell nearly everything with the possible exception of classical music and conceptual arts, and while its methods include some of the publicity-driven hype that finds its way into newspapers, magazines and other traditional media, its main tool is not criticism but marketing.

If social networking sites like Facebook, and aggregated sites like Rotten Tomatoes, are cutting into any authority, it’s not the critics', who are aggregated, after all, on Rotten Tomatoes, and who, as A.O. Scott reminds us, have rarely been listened to anyway. The authority that’s being cut into is the corporations', the marketers', the PR people, who have spent decades pushing crap on us and calling it ice cream.

 

Gabler (left) feels the cultural elites have finally been defeated; Scott (right) feels they were never in power.

Posted at 01:30 PM on Jan 16, 2011 in category Movies - Box Office
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Friday January 14, 2011

“Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro" at Rap Thang 8

Read Part 1 here.

On our last day in Hanoi, along with buying last-minute gifts for friends and returning to Cha Cha La Vong for the fried fish lunch, Patricia and I went to “Rap Thang 8.” which sounds like the worst MC Hammer song ever, but is in fact a movie theater frequented by Vietnamese, to see a movie called “Những nụ hôn rực rỡ.” Google translates those words into “The Brilliant Kiss” but at the time we had no idea what it was called or what it was about. We just wanted to see a Vietnamese movie and it was the only one playing in Hanoi that day. The woman selling tickets even warned us. “Vietnamese,” she said. I nodded, made hand motions and smiley faces that indicated we wanted to see it anyway. She giggled. With reason.

The cafe next door, “The Majestic,” was under construction, and I remember a lot of equipment and sawdust in the exposed lobby. The innards of the Majestic itself were exposed. It looked like the place had been bombed out. It was the exact opposite of the ultraclean MegaStar Cinema from the day before.

The posters for all three movies, along with TVs looping trailers for each, were on display behind the ticket-taker. In Phong Chieu 2, we could see “Legion.” Hollywood. In Phong Chieu 1, some kind of samurai horror movie. Japanese? And in Phong Chieu 3, our movie, “Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro,” a Vietnamese musical comedy.

We were told Phong Chieu 1 was through that door to the right. It looked like an exit. But we walked through it ... and into an alleyway.

“What the hell,” I said.

“Did you get the directions right?” Patricia asked.

I returned, pointed to the ticket, and the ticket-taker again pointed me to the exit. “No,” I began, “That’s...” What could I say? I wished for the zillionth time I could some semblance of the language.

Sensing my confusion, the ticket-taker pointed out the door and then down the alleyway.

“Really?” I asked. “Okay...”

This time we saw the sign at the end of the alleyway: RAP THANG 8, Phong Chieu 3.” Except there was nothing at that sign even remotely like a movie theater. We stood and looked around.

“What the hell,” I said.

“Well, you wanted a different movie experience,” Patricia said.

“Not this different,” I said.

 

“Phong Chieu 3 is past the bombed-out cafe and down the dank alleyway. You can't miss it.”

Patricia was the one who finally found Phong Chieu 3. It wasn’t all the way down the alley, where the sign was located; it was about three-quarters of the way down the alley on the right-hand-side. You parted some heavy curtains and there you were. The floor was almost level, the theater seated about 50, flies buzzed around. It felt like something out of community theater.

There were no subtitles to the movie, of course, so we had to figure out the plot for ourselves. In the end it wasn’t hard for anyone raised on 1960s sitcoms.

The movie is set on a remote island resort, where a member of a boy band  (which are still popular in Asia) shows up ... to get away from it all? One assumes. The owner of the resort, a good-looking woman, then finagles him and his bandmembers into giving a concert to get the customers to save her resort. Or something. Shenanigans, mistaken identities and romance ensues.

Just another resort owner greeting another boy band frontman in Viet Nam.

It’s a colorful, poppy, probably supremely dopey movie, but there are two things worth noting about it.

One of the supporting players, an assistant at the resort, is an over-the-top gay character. He’s there mostly for comic effect. During montage sequences, for example, in which Girl A is pursuing Boy A, or Boy B is pursuing Girl B, he’s pursuing, haplessly, the quietest member of the boy band: a kid with one eye hidden by his hair, a la Veronica Lake, and a fedora, a la Sinatra.

No surprise that he was unsuccessful in his pursuit. One of our guide books, “The Rough Guide,” mentioned that, while there was no law in Vietnam banning homosexual activity, “Officially, homosexuality is regarded as a ‘social evil,’ alongside drugs and prostitution.” The surprise was that there was a gay character in the movie at all.

Then we got to the end, and the big concert, and the onstage confessions of love from Girl A for Boy A, and Boy B for Girl B. And everyone getting together.

Except for our gay character. He comes onstage. He talks into the microphone. He becomes emotional about what he’s saying. But no one comes out to sing with him. He’s alone. Tears well up. He’s comforted but it’s sad. The message is clear: Don’t be gay.

Except suddenly the Veronica Lakeish boy-band member comes onstage, singing the love song they’ve all been singing. And the two meet in the center of the stage and hold hands. And everyone applauds.

Then the lights go off, along with fireworks, and you see silhouettes of the principles embracing. Including our gay couple.

Then the lights go up and you see everyone kissing. Including our gay couple.

Then we get our happy ending.

Wow, I thought. Much more enlightened than I anticipated. Not only are the Vietnamese not behind us in this particular area, but ... they seem ahead of us.

A confession is made: “We're more enlightened than you.”

That’s the first thing worth noting about the film. The second is more of a punchline than anything.

I wanted to see this particular film because it was the only Vietnamese film playing in Hanoi that day, and I knew, from trying to see Vietnamese movies before we left, that they’re few and far between in the States. All that’s available is a handful of art films (“Cyclo”; “Scent of Green Papaya”; “Owl and the Sparrow”), and the long, messy history of Vietnam War movies.

But I was wrong. “Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro” is available in the States. You can watch the entire thing, in 10 segments, on YouTube.

Posted at 08:25 AM on Jan 14, 2011 in category Movies - Foreign, Personal Pieces, Vietnam, Travels
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Thursday January 13, 2011

Alice in Hanoi

Because, I suppose, I write about movies, I like going to movie theaters when I’m abroad. I’m curious not just what they watch but how they watch it.

In Taiwan, for example, when I lived there 20 years ago, they played the national anthem before each show. We’d all stand and sing along while they ran a short, government-created film. In 1987, when I first arrived, the theme of the film was martial in nature: troops and tanks and such. (China and Taiwan were still at war, after all.) By 1988, it became more cultural: dragon boat races, etc, and by 1990 it showcased the beauty of the Taiwanese landscape: Ya Ming Shan, waves crashing on rocks, etc. Not that “martial” was forgotten. That final film ended with the characters Jung Hua Ming Guo (“Republic of China”) dominating the screen, then appearing on a map of Taiwan. Except it wasn’t a map of Taiwan. It was a map of mainland China. The two countries were still at war but both agreed on this most important fact: there was only one China.

Then we watched “Ghost.”

So at the tail end of our Vietnam trip last spring, after all the museums and mausoleums and parks and restaurants, Patricia and I agreed to check out some movies.

We had two options. I’ll write about the second one, Rap Thang 8, tomorrow. It’s a smaller theater, shows some Vietnamese movies, foreigners rarely go there. Often for a reason. But we did.

On our second-to-last day in Vietnam, however, we went to MegaStar Cinema on an upper floor of the Vincom Towers in the southern part of Hanoi. It looks like almost any shiny megaplex in the States. They serve popcorn and colas and M&Ms and Mars bars. Also sausage and seaweed. I should’ve gotten the seaweed.

 

Eight movies were playing that day, seven from Hollywood, one from Hong Kong (Jackie Chan’s “Little Big Soldier”). The biggest of the bunch was Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” in both its 3D and 2-D incarnations, on its way to grossing more than a billion bucks worldwide.

I’m not sure who was responsible for marketing “Alice in Wonderland” in this megaplex in Hanoi, the capital city of communist Vietnam, just two miles from the former Hanoi Hilton where prisoners of war were held and tortured, but the results were a capitalist’s wet dream. Employees were wearing “Alice” T-shirts. There were “Alice” posters and tables and a little set in the lobby where you could sit in big-sized “Alice” chairs and pretend you were small.

It was a quiet, weekday afternoon in early April, and a few kids were hanging out in a lounge area set up just off the concession stand. There was also a big fan board for Robert Pattinson, and pleas for him not to forget his Vietnamese fans, as part of a “Remember Me” promotion. It was all very clean and empty and kind of depressing.

 

We had assigned seats for the movie and listened to music from XONE FM, including, oddly, “The Girl Can’t Help It,” as we watched the last of the couples straggle in. The ads before the feature were of the superloud, superbright, supercheery Asian variety: teeth whitener, a product called “Diana,” another for a drink (0°?) in which everyone is refreshed by synchronized swimmers. I don’t know if knowing Vietnamese would’ve made sense of these things. Then theater ads:

  • No smoking
  • No chewing gum
  • No cameras
  • No outside food and drink
  • Please remain silent

The movie was the least interesting part of the exercise.

Tomorrow: Nung Nu Hon Ruc Ro at Rap Thang 8.

Posted at 07:13 AM on Jan 13, 2011 in category Movies - Foreign, Personal Pieces, Vietnam, Travels
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Tuesday January 11, 2011

Lancelot Links

  • January may be the month for sucky new releases but not for reviews of sucky new releases—as Manohla Dargis proves here while batting about “Country Strong” as easily as a cat bats about a mouse.
  • Our friend Nathaniel Rogers over at the film experience blogspot finally gets his own place. Here. Check him out. He's always worth a visit.
  • Hey, Seattleites! The new “At the Movies” will premiere this month in 48 of the 50 major markets ... but not Seattle. Moira Macdonald's got the scoop, along with an e-mail address to voice your displeasure.
  • The National Society of Film Critics, my favorite film society, released their winners for 2010 last Saturday night. Basically: “The Social Network,” David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Eisenberg. For foreign language film, they went with “Carlos” over “Un Prophete,” which is my best movie of the year. Makes me chomp at the bit that much more for “Carlos.” 
  • More of this, please: pushback against everyone who thinks the U.S. Constitution is an absolute in a changing world.
  • USA Today takes down Sarah Palin's reality show.
  • You may have heard: A version of “Huckleberry Finn” is being published in which the word “Nigger” is expurgated. Michiko Kakutani, under the best headline I've read on the controversy (“Light Out, Huck, They Still Want to Sivilize You”), is on the case. Here's the money graf for me:

Authors’ original texts should be sacrosanct intellectual property, whether a book is a classic or not. Tampering with a writer’s words underscores both editors’ extraordinary hubris and a cavalier attitude embraced by more and more people in this day of mash-ups, sampling and digital books — the attitude that all texts are fungible, that readers are entitled to alter as they please, that the very idea of authorship is old-fashioned.

  • Roger Ebert gets in on the controversy, too. He tweets about it (“I'd rather be called a Nigger than a Slave”), is criticized for that tweet (since he's not likely to be called either), offers a mea culpa (unlike so many in similar situations), and his reward is a catty, misleading headline on Huffington Post designed to get you to click and click and click some more. His money graf, in a post about the whole, idiotic controversy, hits HuffPo where they live and advertise:

Of course Twitter doesn't black out words. That graphic was provided by HuffPost, to avoid offending its millions of readers who have never seen the word Nigger in print. If you look carefully, you'll see that Huff's web wizards made the block just a teeny tiny bit transparent, so you can see the word dimly peeking through. This reminds me of the wet T-shirts worn by the troubled starlets that HuffPost features with such unflagging dedication. I applaud their daring in not blacking out “****.”

Posted at 07:25 AM on Jan 11, 2011 in category Lancelot Links
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Monday January 10, 2011

“Make It Go”

The Pakleds, for the non-geeks in the audience, are a race of low-browed, backwards humanoids from a fourth season episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” entitled “Samaritan Snare,” who nevertheless manage to travel through space. They do this by kidnapping members of more advanced species--such as Geordi La Forge (Levar Burton) in this episode--and utilizing his advanced technology. They gather around him and say things like “We look for things” and “Make it go.” Eventually Geordi escapes, of course.

Here's the question of the day: Are the Pakleds an after-the-fact metaphor for all the non-techies in the world, such as myself, who gather around the techies of the world with our broken smartphones and TV remotes and laptops and say, “Make it go”? Or were they conceived as such by Robert L. McCullough, the writer of the episode?

I have no idea. I just know this: teeth are for chewing.

Posted at 03:47 PM on Jan 10, 2011 in category TV
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Sunday January 09, 2011

Tucson

When news of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) arrived late yesterday morning, via a Facebook post from a friend, I alternated between The New York Times and other sites to find out what was happening. The other sites tended to update more quickly, the Times more accurately. The Times never declared, for example, as Huffington Post did in a banner headline, that Rep. Giffords was dead. I should've just stuck with the Times but there's always that urge to find out now, now, now. We refresh pages like Mark Zuckerberg at the end of “The Social Network.” With about the same results.

At the same time, for something that's a little more than 24 hours old, a lot of smart, thoughtful stuff has already been written.

Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic liveblogged the news. It includes some initially incorrect reporting as well as a particularly vile e-mail he received.

James Fallows, also of The Atlantic, warns us all how the politics of an assassin and the politics of the intended target are rarely at odds. He sums up:

1) anything that can be called an “assassination” is inherently political;
2) very often the “politics” are obscure, personal, or reflecting mental disorders rather than “normal” political disagreements. But now a further step,
3) the political tone of an era can have some bearing on violent events. The Jonestown/Ryan and Fromme/Ford shootings had no detectable source in deeper political disagreements of that era. But the anti-JFK hate-rhetoric in Dallas before his visit was so intense that for decades people debated whether the city was somehow “responsible” for the killing. (Even given that Lee Harvey Oswald was an outlier in all ways.)

There are clips from an MSNBC interview with Rep. Giffords last year in which she sounds off about that political tone

But the best thing I've read thus far is George Packer's “It Doesn't Matter Why He Did It” on The New Yorker's site, which also delves into the larger point:

This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.) And it has gone almost entirely uncriticized by Republican leaders. Partisan media encourages it, while the mainstream media finds it titillating and airs it, often without comment, so that the gradual effect is to desensitize even people to whom the rhetoric is repellent. We’ve all grown so used to it over the past couple of years that it took the shock of an assassination attempt to show us the ugliness to which our politics has sunk.

The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point. Whatever drove Jared Lee Loughner, America's political frequencies are full of violent static.

Posted at 02:25 PM on Jan 09, 2011 in category Culture
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Saturday January 08, 2011

Photo of the Day

Posted at 07:57 AM on Jan 08, 2011 in category General
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Friday January 07, 2011

Lancelot Links

  • IFC lets us know the top 10 indie films for 2011. Particularly looking forward to the Cronenberg, the Almodovar, and the Alfredson.
  • Josh Wilker blends talk of the last Jose Canseco card, “The Twilight Zone” and “Jersey Shore” into a great, morbid greeting for the new year.
  • I rail on the stupidity of American moviegoers but French ones ain't all that. In this unscientific poll from Le Monde, French readers chose “Inception” as the best movie of the year, with only one movie, “Des hommes et des dieux” (“Men and Gods”), within 40 percent of the former's total. That's fine. I have no problem with that. But somehow “L'arnacouer,” a lame romantic comedy, wound up with three times as many votes as “Carlos”? Mon dieu!
  • My god. How interesting talk shows used to be. This time Dick Cavett talks to, believe it or not, Robert Altman, Mel Brooks, Peter Bogdonavich and Frank Capra. All on the same stage.
  • My god. What a good writer Hendrik Hertzberg is. This time he talks up the 111h Congress and talks down the filibuster.
  • Another good writer. Roger Ebert's last graph in this “White Material” review is as good as film criticism gets.
  • The Land of 10,000 Lakes looks to be in good hands, as new Gov. Mark Dayton allows tea party protesters, railing against “Obamacare,” to have their say at the Capitol.
  • Meanwhile, Karl Bremer, of Ripple in Stillwater, does due diligence on one of those protesters, and discovers that the man railing against churches for not providing medical ministrations (forcing the government, his argument goes, to do so unconstitutionally) is in fact a minister ... whose church doesn't provide medical ministrations. But that's just the beginning of the tale.
  • The Writers Guild of America announces its 2010 nominees. I've seen all of the originals, only two of the adapted. Not sure what to make of that. According to Nathaniel Rogers over at Film Experience (which finally has its own Web site instead of a mere blogspot), many screenwriters couldn't get nom'ed because they weren't WGA members.
  • The Producers Guild of America announces its 2010 nominees. Six documentaries and no “Restrepo.” The world gets dumber by the day.
  • Last word goes to Joe Posnanski and his Hall of Fame post: “And Bert Blyleven, finally, made it into the Hall of Fame. This should cut back my writing work load by about 10% in 2011.”
  • No, wait. Last word has to go to my last man standing. Apparently Michelle Bachman (R-Mn.) recently told a crowd of well-wishers that she became a Republican after reading a snooty book by Gore Vidal. (“Burr” or “1876,” she's mentioned both.) Salon's Justin Elliott then went in search of Vidal for a response. He finally got one through an assistant: “She is too stupid to deserve an answer.”
Posted at 06:37 AM on Jan 07, 2011 in category Lancelot Links
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Thursday January 06, 2011

Jordy's Reviews: “Stand By Me” (1986)

Another review by my nine-year-old, ratings-conscious nephew Jordy...

“Stand By Me” is a film that is by Rob Reiner, a filmmaker who has made some great movies like “This Is Spinal Tap,” “When Harry Met Sally,” and much more. It is based off a short story by Stephen King called “The Body” (no wonder they changed the title; it sounds like a zombie book) and “Stand By Me” is the only movie where I think that the people that gave the movie the rating might have turned into a dull boy. “R”? What? Although I have to admit, it is quite inappropriate to see kids swear and smoke.

But “Stand By Me” is a great Rob Reiner movie because of the characters. It starts out with a guy sitting in a car with a newspaper that says that a man was stabbed by a knife and died. Then the guy, who starts narrating, says the first time he ever saw a dead body was on an adventure with his friends. So basically the whole plot is searching for a dead body.

The kids are all people who do bad things, yet you love these characters somehow, although it’s probably because they all stick out for each other. They also are funny sometimes. For example, one kid tells a story called “Lardass And The Pie-Eating Contest”, which has all the kid gags, yet it is fun for adults too. “Stand By Me” has a vast landscape that goes along with the movie the whole time, and some camera shots truly are some of the best that I’ve seen. For example, a shot of them walking with the sun setting in the background is beautiful. The actors are all great, and they manage to pull off roles as complex characters, while putting emotion into the sadness of the two main characters. I love how they all fool around with each other; they can be mean to each other, but they always stick out for each other, too. Because of that, you can tell they have a really good friendship. Also, even though they are on a dangerous journey (the dead body was presumably hit by a train), with the chance of getting hit by a train and all, they say that they are having a great time, which can tell you that they enjoy each other’s company, and that is another way to tell they have a great friendship.

That’s one of the movies main themes: friendship. It definitely is a powerful thing, that’s for sure. The adventure scenes are spectacular, including a scene where they have to run from the train. In fact, the only thing I don’t like about the movie is that sometimes it doesn’t make sense, although it’s so minor, you don’t care. (This is supposed to be a real story in the movie, you know!) In the ending, the narrator says that his best friend was the one who was stabbed by the knife, and that even though the friends are separate, he never had better friends then the ones on that adventure. Once you turn off the movie, you get a very powerful feeling: sympathy. You feel sympathetic for some of the characters, and that’s something only a great movie can do. Rob Reiner, well done: you’ve created a masterpiece.

Rating: 99%

Okay For: 13+

Jordan Muschler, 2011

Posted at 07:28 AM on Jan 06, 2011 in category Jordy's Reviews
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Wednesday January 05, 2011

Hall of Fame Quote of the Day

“My gosh, what a character [1960s-1970s Minnesota Twins' color announcer] Halsey Hall was. You never wanted to get too close when Halsey talked to you because you could smell the onions on his breath. During my first year in the big leagues, Halsey told me, 'You're going to make the Hall of Fame one day.' I said, 'Oh, do you think so?' He said, 'Yes, you just keep pitching like you are, young man.'”

—Bert Blyleven, who was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame today with nearly 80 percent of the vote, in Bob Showers' oral and pictoral history, “The Twins at the Met”

Posted at 12:25 PM on Jan 05, 2011 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: “The King's Speech” (2010)

WARNING: SP-SP-SPOILERS

When I first saw a trailer for “The King Speech” (American trailer, not international), I was almost moved to tears. I thought, “Colin Firth seems amazing. Geoffrey Rush looks like he’s having a ball.” Then I thought, “Except it feels like I’ve seen the entire movie now but for the last 10 minutes. And I can guess those.” (Psst: The speech goes well.)

And?

And Colin Firth is amazing, Geoffrey Rush seems like he’s having a ball, and the entirety of the movie is in the trailer except for the last 10 minutes. And you can guess those.

Once upon a time, trailers merely hinted at what a movie might be. It gave away a sense of the film, its genre, certainly, as well as first-act particulars. By the 1990s, it felt like the trailers were giving away second-act particulars as well. Now we get the whole bloody thing: first, second and third act, all tied up in a neat, two-minute package. For a sequel-mad culture, which only wants to see what it’s already seen, this makes sense. In this way, trailers become a kind of first movie while the actual movie becomes a kind of sequel. Audiences are never forced to deal with the unfamiliar; they go away comforted. As for those of us who still want to be surprised by story? We’re fucked.

(Aside: Among the differences between the international and American trailers, the one I find most amusing is the moment where Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Helena Bonham Carter), explains to unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) why her husband can’t change jobs. International version: “And what if my husband were the Duke of York?” American version: “And what if my husband were [cut] the King?” Yep. We smart.)

The movie opens in 1925 as the Duke of York (Firth), son of King George V (Michael Gambon), and second-in-line to the throne after the Prince of Wales (Guy Pearce), attempts to give a speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. It goes poorly. Poor man can barely get a word out. Some in the audience look annoyed, some amused (these are the bad people), while his wife looks on with a pity (she’s good). Yet isn’t pity as awful a reaction as the others? Who wants pity?

Traditional speech therapists do nothing for him, and, as a last resort, under a pseudonym, his wife seeks out Logue. His office is in a dingy basement, he’s not much for formalities (he has no secretary), and he greets the Duchess of York with a handshake after flushing the toilet.

Informality is key to his therapy. He insists on calling the Duke “Bertie” (as the royal family does) and being addressed as “Lionel.” These early scenes—the clash between an uptight, stammering royal and an iconoclastic, unlettered therapist—are the best in the film. We get one good line after another from screenwriter David Seidler: My favorite exchange:

Bertie starts to light a cigarette from a silver case.

Lionel: Please don’t do that.
Bertie: I’m sorry?
Lionel: I believe sucking smoke into your lungs will kill you.
Bertie: My physicians say it relaxes the throat.
Lionel: They’re idiots.
Bertie: They’ve all been knighted.
Lionel: Makes it official then.

What Bertie needs, of course, is not just speech therapy but therapy. As a child he was mistreated by a nanny, who favored his older brother. He was made to wear braces on his legs and forced to correct a natural left-handedness. Supposedly this last is a common cause (was a common cause?) for stutterers.

Firth does an amazing job making us care about this man born to privilege. We get a sense of how trapped he is by circumstances. He is, in fact, doubly trapped: by his role, which he can never escape, and by his speech impediment, which won’t let him carry out that role.

He’s not wholly a victim, thank God. He lashes out, often, but even in that lashing out we maintain sympathy. We see the correlation. What we don’t see, and what would’ve been interesting to see, is more of his life outside his attempt to correct the stammer. Yes, his father was impatient and demanding; yes, his older brother was dashing, slightly mad (for Wallis Simpson) and cruel to Bertie when he needed to be. Yes, his wife was supportive, and, yes, his children, Elizabeth and Margaret, were adorable, as was he when he stammered through a children’s story for them. But I still don’t have a sense of what it feels like to be a royal. The dailiness of it. You wake up and ... what? Who is there for you? What is the schedule like? How much of your time is your own? Any of it? All of it? Do you get to go to the bathroom by yourself?

Instead we get a relationship movie, along with the starts and stops typical of relationship movies. At one point, Lionel, the commoner, oversteps his bounds and they break up; at another, Bertie, the royal, discovers Lionel isn’t properly credentialed and they nearly break up. Etc.

Ultimately it’s Lionel’s job to not only correct Bertie’s stammer but his squashed ego: his belief that he doesn’t deserve his position. In this he is the same as any pitching coach from Little League to the Majors. He has to make his charge believe he belongs where he is.

This very personal story is set against a backdrop of love and war. The “love” (and the movie would definitely put the quote marks there) is Edward’s for Wallis Simpson’s, which leads to his abdication, and the coronation, in 1936, of a reluctant Bertie as King of England. The war, meanwhile, is Hitler’s, and then all of ours. In September 1939 it’s up to Bertie, suddenly, to rally the country. But there’s the stammer. “The nation believes that when I speak I speak for them,” he says. “But I can’t speak.” That’s the 10 minutes the trailer didn’t reveal: how the titular speech goes.

And?

And he blows it. His stammer reflects on a nation nervous about war, which plunges the Brits into depression and makes them easy pickings for the Nazis, who roll over the country and the world, ending the idea of democracy and freedom forever. Heil Hitler.

Kidding.

“The King’s Speech” is a smart movie that’s fun to watch. I expect Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Firth, Rush and Seidler. I was moved by the montage of the British people listening to the speech, all ears turned, all with a shared purpose. Other than that, there’s not much to say. It’s all in the trailer.

Posted at 06:33 AM on Jan 05, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Tuesday January 04, 2011

Scene at a Barnes & Noble II

Scene: The Barnes & Noble on the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis three days before Christmas. I enter the store for the second time in the span of an hour to buy a DVD (“How to Train Your Dragon”) for my nephew Jordy. That's when I spot an author table near the door. The table is small, the author ready, no one is paying attention. Too bad, I think. Wonder what the dude wrote? Then I see the book propped up around the table:


Me: Whoa.

I go over, pick up the book, leaf through it. I exchange pleasantries with the author, Bob Showers. He begins to explain how the book came about.

Bob: I contacted the Twins organization for official photos from the period. See these? I got all of these from the Twins. Then I brought them along when I interviewed the players to jog their memories.
Me: Oh, so it's an oral history, too. Wow, you interviewed Killebrew?
Bob:  Yep.
Me: Hey, has anyone written a biography of him?
Bob: Well, biographies have been written, back in his playing days, but...
Me: I'm talking about a big bio, like Mays and Aaron just got, but about Harmon. There'd be less interest nationally, of course, but ... I don't know. All the more reason to do it. I'd like to read it anyway. Hey, the Beatles!
Bob (nodding): Beatles played at the Met in '65, Eagles in '78.
Me: I remember that concert. The Eagles, not the Beatles. God, great photos. Cesar Tovar, Rich Rollins, Ted Uhlander. Love the '60s uni. That “Twins” script and the TC caps. Hated it when they went to the red cap and the beltless stretch pants in the mid-seven- ... Holy crap!
Bob: What?
Me: It's ... me.

I'd come across a photo that I knew well but hadn't seen in decades: Dave Edwards, on June 13, 1979, bounding toward the Twins dugout after hitting a late-game, two-run homer to give the Twins an 8-6 lead over the New York Yankees. The shot is from behind so you can see his name and number (33), the Twins players in the dugout, including Kenny Landreux and Johnny Castino, smiling and ready to congratulate him, and about ten rows of cheering fans. The photo made the front page of the sports section of The Minneapolis Tribune the next day, and I kept it for years, because I was in it. Me, my father, and my friend Dave Budge sat in row 8 that night.

Bob: Where?
Me: Right there.
Observer #1: That's you?

I look up. By now we've drawn a crowd.

Me: Yep.
Observer #2: Right. Sure, that's you.
Me (vaguely amused): Why would I make that up?
Bob: The guy in front of you is wearing a CheapTrick concert T-shirt. When was the photo taken? June 1979? I bet he was at that CheapTrick concert at the Met around that time.

I flip through more pages. I'd planned on buying it anyway. Now it's a done deal. Me and two other guys start talking about the last Twins game at Met Stadium. Turns out we were all there.

Me: How odd. Because that crowd was, like, sparse.
Observer #1: Less than 25 thousand.
Bob: 15 thousand.
Observer #1: That low?
Me: Right? So it's weird that 30 years later three of those 15 thousand would be in the same Barnes & Noble at the same time. Weird but cool.

If you're at all interested in the book, you can buy copies here or here. Bob Showers' Web site is here.

And remember to check out author tables. I'm not saying you'll find yourself but you never know.


Posted at 06:39 AM on Jan 04, 2011 in category Books, Baseball, Personal Pieces
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Monday January 03, 2011

Lancelot Links

Weclome to 2011, everyone. Let's get it right this time.

Posted at 06:39 AM on Jan 03, 2011 in category Lancelot Links
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Sunday January 02, 2011

Me and Manohla Sittin' In a Tree...

I'm beginning to enjoy the annual feature, “And the Nominees Should Be,” from the three movie critics at The New York Times, almost as much as all of the inevitable nitpicking and second-guessing when the nominees themselves are announced, this year, on Jan 25. It's fascinating to see where the three critics agree (if they do), and with whom I agree (if I do). 

One thing for sure: they agree more this year than last. Last year, for the 45 slots in the eight categories (best pic, director, the four actings and the two writings), they agreed on only four: “The Hurt Locker” for best picture, Katherine Bigelow for best director, Mark Boal for best screenplay, and Colin Firth for best actor.

(Aside: Three of those four wound up winning Oscars. Maybe if you can get the three Times critics to agree, you can get the industry to agree.)

So who do they agree on this year?

For Best Picture, with 10 nominees each, just “Carlos,” a five-hour-long French film, which came to Seattle for one show for one weekend, and which I'm still smarting about not seeing. Bring it back!

Director? Nada. A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis both went Aronosky for “Black Swan,” and Dargis and Stephen Holden both went Olivier Assayas for “Carlos” and Fincher for “The Social Network,” but no threesies. Interestingly, Scott chose three female directors: Lisa Cholodenko for “The Kids Are Alight,” Sofia Coppola for “Somewhere,” and Debra Granlik for “Winter's Bone.” Dargis chose none.

Our threeway have their greatest agreement on Actor: They all went with Jesse Eisenberg for “The Social Network,” James Franco for “127 Hours,” and Edgar Ramirez for “Carlos.” Dargis, interestingly, went with three actors in French productions: Ramirez, Vincent Cassel in “Mesrine” (for which he won the Cesar two years ago) and Tahar Rahim in “Un Prophete” (for which he won the Cesar last year.) Don't know if I can fault her. Though I probably won't leave out Firth.

Actress? Just one agreement: Natalie Portman in “Black Swan.”

Supporting actor? Christian Bale in “The Fighter.” But two favorites whom I thought out of the running, Pierce Brosnan in “The Ghost Writer” and John Hawkes in “Winter's Bone,” wound up on both Scott's and Dargis's lists. Fingers crossed.

Nothing close to agreement on supporting actress. In fact, only two names wound up on more than one ballot: Greta Gerwig for “Greenberg” (Scott and Dargis) and Barbara Hershey for “Black Swan” (Dargis and Holden).

Screenplay? Only adapted had a threepeat: the Coens for “True Grit.”

As for which critic I most agreed with? Last year it was Dargis. This year it's ... Dargis. (You and me, Manohla!) I particularly like the sensibility behind her 10 films—four of which I haven't seen:

I hope to do my own “And The Nominees Should Be...” before Jan. 25.

Posted at 05:02 PM on Jan 02, 2011 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Saturday January 01, 2011

Review: “The Birds” (1963)

This fall I took a class on Alfred Hitchcock at Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and for the final session, on “The Birds,” the professor asked a relatively simple question—a question that most of the characters in the movie ask: Why do the birds attack? Then, as he was wont to do, he began to answer his own question.

He talked up the scene in the diner where the mother of two children, a boy and a girl, quickly descends from questions to accusations to Salem Mass.-like pronouncements of witchery. “They said when you got here the whole thing started,” she says to Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren). “I think you’re the cause of all this! I think you’re evil! E-vil!

But what if, the teacher posited, it wasn’t Melanie who was responsible? What if it was someone else? Then he diverged into a 10-minute synopsis of the 1950s sci-fi flick “Forbidden Planet” and the dark forces we can unknowingly unleash, then referred back to Melanie’s elder-generation doppelganger, Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy), mother of Melanie’s love interest, Mitch (Rod Taylor), who has a tendency to look severely at any of her son’s girlfriends because she’s afraid of winding up alone. And what if, the teacher continued, the dark forces within Lydia, somehow...? He moved his hands forward, as if to propel his theory forward, but that’s about as far as he got. He admitted his ideas were inchoate.

Others piped in with their own theories—mostly dealing with a kind of cosmic comeuppance. Oh, we treat the birds so poorly. Oh, we put them in cages, and eat them, and use them in our own silly little games of romance. So they finally got fed up. For a moment, my classmates and I reminded me of all of the characters at the diner trying to fathom the unfathomable. We even had a doomsayer who proclaimed, tongue mostly in cheek, “It’s the end of the world!”

I added my own two cents, of course. I said I thought all of our theories were ultimately reductive. I said the brilliance of “The Birds” is that it gives us no explanation for why the birds attack. And since we’re not told why, we’re forced to wonder: Why not? Which is the scariest thought of all.

A cleverer man simply would’ve put a finger to his lips, said “Ssshhh,” and looked warily around.

That’s a key to “The Birds,” isn’t it? The silences. Not just the absence of a soundtrack, which amplifies the sound of the birds, their awful clucking and cooing, but the absence of talk, of human talk, in the face of an attack. Lydia sees Dan Fawcett with his eyes gouged out and speech is strangled from her. Melanie sees the line of fire roaring toward the gas pumps and speech is strangled from her. When the birds attack the house no one says shit, they just try to melt into the walls; and after the attacks, when the birds are still there, hanging out on wires or jungle gyms or trees or garage roofs—wherever they want. really—that’s when we really don’t say shit. Because we don’t want to upset the birds. Because it’s their world now. We survive at their sufferance.

Speech is strangled from us.

In structure, “The Birds” reminds me a bit of “Psycho,” Hitchcock’s previous film. It starts out about one thing but becomes about something else. Something seemingly harmless (a hotel manager, birds) hijacks the story.

Thank God. I love Tippi Hedren here—done up like so many of Hitchcock’s ice-cool blondes, but so much more playful, ready to act on the world rather than wait for the world to act on her—but it’s a slow slog at the beginning. Maybe because we’re waiting for the title characters to take over.

They’re there from the start. On a San Francisco street, Melanie, about to enter a bird shop (which Sir Alfred is about to walk out of), and just whistled at by some boys (she’s a good-looking bird, after all), notices, for a second, the odd activity of birds in the sky. Then she enters a place where birds are caged and humans are not and begins a romance, in classic, opposites-attract Hollywood fashion, with criminal defense attorney Mitch Brenner.

The first half hour of the film is her attempt to deliver on a frivolous practical joke. To do this she tracks down Mitch’s home address, then his Bodega Bay address, then buys two lovebirds and drives the hour north of San Francisco, where, among other machinations, she orders up an outboard motorboat, pilots it across Bodega Bay to the Brenner dock, steals inside with the caged lovebirds and a note, makes a getaway by boat, is followed by Mitch, who waits for her on the dock on the other side with a smile in his eyes and a witticism about to burble from his lips when ... bam! A seagull, smacks into Melanie’s forehead, drawing blood. Whatever witticisms he and she were about to engage in are gone.

It turns out Melanie is the second woman that Mitch’s charms have lured to town. The first is the school teacher, Annie (Suzanne Pleschette), who began a relationship with Mitch years earlier but couldn’t get past first base with the mother. Yet she stayed. To be near Mitch. Kinda creepy.

Now I’m not positing this as a reason for the bird attacks, but it is fascinating how most of the characters in the film seem to be frittering away their lives: Annie here, Melanie there. Mitch defends a man who shot his wife in the head six times because she changed the channel on the TV, and everyone jokes less about the kill than the overkill: “I mean, even twice would be overdoing it, don't you think?” An impartial observer might think, from this sample, that human beings don’t deserve dominion over the earth.

That bonk-bonk on the head occurs half an hour into the movie. As the romance heats up, and we learn more about Melanie (she’s a socialite who went all Anita Ekberg in a fountain in Rome but is trying to repair her life), we get some excellent foreshadowing—call it horror foreplay—from Sir Alfred:

  • Annie sees a flock of birds fly by and asks, rhetorically, “Don’t they ever stop migrating?”
  • The chickens aren’t eating the feed. That’s never happened.
  • As Melanie and Mitch argue their way out of a good evening, we hear, in the background, much cluck-clucking. It’s not until Melanie departs in her that we see the culprits: dozens of birds on a telephone wire.
  • That same evening, as Melanie and Annie drink brandy and make nice, a bird launches a kamikaze attack on Annie’s door.

Then it all comes fast and furious. The birds attack the children at a party, they fly down the chimney at the Brenner household, they kill Dan Fawcett and gouge out his eyes. Mrs. Brenner, shaken by the incident, worries about her daughter, Cathy (little Veronica Cartwright), at school, which is why Melanie heads over there, and why she’s waiting on the bench behind the jungle gym having a quiet smoke.

This is the “Psycho” shower scene all over again. Entire chapters have been written— deservedly—and here’s my poor addition: While Melanie looks off to the side, and while the children in the schoolhouse sing an Americanized version of a Scottish folk song (“Ristle-tee, rostle-tee/ Now, now, now”), one crow lands on the jungle gym behind her. While she lights a cigarette, here come two more, then four more. Then she gets lost in thought. It doesn’t hurt that Hedren is exquisite to look at. But after about 15 seconds she spots a crow flying in the sky, and, alarmed, follows its flight over, down, and onto the jungle gym ... which is now filled with hundreds of crows. It’s not only a shock to her, who didn’t know about the first crows, it’s a shock to us, who did, but who last saw only seven crows on the bars. Interestingly, her stunned, reaction shot is filmed against one of those fake backdrops Hitchcock liked to employ, even at this late date, because he didn’t like location shooting. Does he use it here on purpose? To add to the unreality of the situation?

More and more of the movie is silent now. Post-gas station attack, Mitch and Melanie find the diner group huddled in a corner, silent, afraid to disturb the birds, with amateur ornithologist Mrs. Bundy (a brilliant Ethel Griffies) so shamed she can’t even turn her face to the camera. On the way to Annie’s, Mitch, for the first time, shushes Melanie as they walk past the schoolhouse. Don’t disturb the birds. When they find Annie dead, his reaction is Cro-Magninian: he picks up a rock. But Melanie, quietly, almost silently, convinces him to put it down. Don’t disturb the birds. This sets us up for the final assault on the house.

Has any filmmaker ended movies more brilliantly than Hitchcock? Here, it’s not just that a stray bird pecks at Mitch as he prepares for evacuation, letting him know that the pecking order, the literal pecking order, has changed. It’s not just that the four humans—Mitch, Melanie, Lydia and Cathy—are crammed into Melanie’s sports car like birds in a cage, while the birds fly and land free. It’s not just that Cathy—idiotically!—brings along her caged lovebirds, letting us know that the whole bloody mess isn’t about the caged lovebirds, since the free birds obviously don’t care about the caged lovebirds.

No, what’s brilliant about the ending of “The Birds” is this: Once Mitch opens the door and sees all the birds, we hope for one thing: that our main characters will get away. And they do. We see them drive off. The car gets smaller and smaller in the distance, and the bird’s noise grows louder and louder, and the movie ends without a “The End,” without credits, without anything, really; and it slowly dawns on us that this ending, which is the ending we wanted, is the most horrifying ending of all. We want Mitch and Melanie to be safe because they matter to us; they’re our main characters, after all. But the reason they get away is because they don’t matter at all. The camera stays behind. With the birds. The viewpoint has shifted and the main characters in the drama have changed. We think that final scene is about Mitch and Melanie getting away but it’s really about the birds driving the humans out. And from above, a light, almost like God’s light, shines down, signaling a brand new day.

Posted at 09:12 AM on Jan 01, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 1960s, Hitchcock
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