erik lundegaard

Wednesday August 31, 2011

Movie Review: Le Concert (2009)

WARNING: SPOILERS IN D MINOR

“Le concert” is French, so I assumed refined, about classical music, so I assumed refined again. Plus it was nominated for le meilleur film at the ’09 Cesars. But it’s a rather broad comedy about a group of Russian misfits who pretend to be the Bolshoi Orchestra, and whose concert in Paris looks to be a disaster until they come together and play like a team. It’s basically a misfit baseball movie (“Bad News Bears”; “Major League”), but with Tchaikovsky instead of horsehide.

Poster for "Le Concert" (2009)Andrey Simonovich Filipov (Alexeï Guskov) is the one-time conductor of the Bolshoi Orchestra, who, because of a run-in with Brezhnev in 1980, is now its janitor, bossed around by a bald Khruschevian blowhard. We later find out he has a reputation abroad, not only as a great conductor but as a man of conviction who stood up against anti-Semitism and despotism and suffered for it. He’s the Alexander Solzhenitsyn of conductors! So why is he still schlepping 20 years after the Iron Curtain fell? Why not move to Paris or New York or, hell, Milwaukee? Doesn’t he know his reputation?

For the purposes of this broad comedy, though, he’s still schlepping at the Bolshoi when, in the office of the current director, a fax arrives from the Châtelet Theater in Paris requesting a one-night performance. Filipov, scheming, takes the fax, deletes the corresponding email, and puts together the old team: his right-hand man Sasha (Dmitri Nazarov), a Russian bear of a man; Ivan Gavrilov (Valeriy Barinov), the KGB officer who fingered him, but who is needed for his French language skills and management capabilities; and various Jews (Viktor: Aleksandr Komissarov), Gypsies (Vassili: Anghel Gheorghe) and misfits. A deal with Paris is struck, passports and visas forged, and a gangster/beneficiary found to pay for airfare. Bienvenue a Paris!

Turns out many of the characters have ulterior motives for going: Gavrilov to hook up with the French communist party; Viktor and his son Moïse to sell caviar; and Filipov, most of all, to connect with his soloist for the concert, the beautiful violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet (Mélanie Laurent), who is the daughter of .... ?

It’s tricky. At first, I thought she was Filipov’s daughter—the result of a liaison with the wife of a friend. That would explain why Jacquet’s handler, Guylène de La Rivière (Miou Miou), initially turns down the offer to play with Filipov. It would also explain why Filipov keeps all of Anne-Marie’s recordings and press clippings and why he gets all moony-eyed around her. It would also explain why he takes her out to dinner and why he is hesitant, initially, to explain why he chose her as his soloist.

He could reply, “Because you are the best.” Instead, when she asks, he launches into the tale of his undoing: how, at the Bolshoi, he had a great Jewish soloist, Lea, with whom he was going to achieve greatness in music, but how they were stopped halfway through a Tchaikovsky concert by Gavrilov for illegally employing Jewish musicians; how he was ruined and how Lea and her husband subsequently denounced Brezhnev and were sent to Siberia, where they died.

What she should say: “I still don’t see what this has to do with me.”

What she says: “You’re nice, but sick, and I refuse to play with you.”

What she’s really saying: “We need some false tension for the last third of the film to go with the false tension of who my parents are. Everyone knows I’ll play with you.”

Intercut with this broad drama are scenes of broad comedy: clashes between noisy, grasping Russians and cultivated French. The Russians disperse, like the satellites of the Soviet Union itself, around Paris, and can’t be bothered to show up for practice even though they’ve never practiced together.

Meanwhile Sasha tells Anne-Marie, over the objections of Guylène, that if she plays for Filipov she may find out who her true parents were. (She’s been told they were scientists or something who died in a plane crash in the Alps.) So she shows up. As does everyone else. Well, Viktor and Moïse turn up late. You know Jews.

Initially, yes, the orchestra sounds like crap, and there are titters from the cultivated French crowd, and exasperation from the stuffy French critic, and worried looks back home, where the concert is being shown live on television. But Gavrilov, the former KGB man, reveals his worth by sacrificing his communist-party commitment to lock the true Bolshoi director, the Khruschevian blowhard, who shows up at the 11th hour, in an underground room; then he, this Godless communist, prays to God that the musicians will come together and make beautiful music.

Which they do. The Tchaikovsky is beautiful, the Châtelet is beautiful, and the filming augments the beauty of each; and through the music, and through Filipov’s impassioned conducting, Anne-Marie realizes her parents were, yes, Lea and her husband, who sacrificed so much; and though she is not reunited with them, though they are still as dead as the parents she thought she had for the first 28 years of her life, she is somehow filled and satisfied and made whole. As is Filipov, who goes on to fame and fortune.

“Le concert” is not a good movie. It’s not even as good as those misfit baseball movies I referenced earlier. The original “Bad News Bears” and “Major League” sketch their secondary characters better, and you see them practicing together, which is why they wind up succeeding. “Bad News Bears” even has the 1970s-era message that it’s about the performance, not the winning, which is a message Hollywood doesn’t send much, or we don’t receive much, anymore. “Le concert” implies you don’t need to practice, just wing it, and maybe with a prayer to God ... voila!

Plus: Why the subterfuge about Anne-Marie’s parents in the first place? Why didn’t Guylène tell her, particularly when she became a musical prodigy, that her parents were Soviet musicians who died heroes’ deaths? Why create and maintain a lie that has less meaning than the truth?

Admittedly, there is something admirable about making classical music accessible to the masses via a broad comedy/drama like this; but that doesn’t make the film meilleur. It doesn’t even make it bon.

Posted at 06:35 AM on Aug 31, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Movies - Foreign
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Tuesday August 30, 2011

Conversation of the Day

I've had some good conversations today, long ones, too, but this short, awful conversation stands out. I was leaving Metropolitan Market on Mercer with some red peppers for Patricia, who's recovering nicely from arthroscopic surgery, thank you, when a clean-cut, 20-ish dude, a young man really, waved his hands at me to get my attention. I looked down at his table, on which there was a poster of Pres. Obama with a Hitler moustache and the words “Dump Obama.” He smiled at me. I shook my head at him and kept going. He called after me.

He: Are you ready to end the madness?
Me: Yours?

And kept going.

Posted at 04:19 PM on Aug 30, 2011 in category Quote of the Day, Politics
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Monday August 29, 2011

Movie Review: The Guard (2011)

WARNIN’: SPYLERS

FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) says the key line about the protagonist in “The Guard,” Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), a third of the way through the film. He says, “You know, I can’t tell if you’re really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart.”

We’ve been wondering the same thing. Veering toward the latter.

Poster for "The Guard" (2011)Boyle is a cop, or garda, in a small town in Connemara in the west of Ireland. The movie opens with kids drinking and driving and taking drugs and speeding. Then they shoot past a police car parked by the side of the road. Then there’s a crash. Only then does the police officer (Boyle) react. He sighs and rolls his eyes.

Boyle is a man who doesn’t want to do much because there’s no point in it; the world is the way the world is.

But he’s given a new partner, Aidan McBride (Rory Keenan), fresh out of Dublin and gung ho. The two come across a dead body, an actual dead body, under creepy circumstances: bullet in the forehead, Bible verses stuffed in his mouth, potted flower in his lap, the number 5 1/2 on the wall. A serial killer? But why the number 5 1/2? “There was a movie ‘8 1/2,” McBride states. “Fellini.” Pause. “There was a movie ‘Se7en,’” he adds.

“You gonna list every fookin’ movie you can think of with a number in it?” Boyle asks.

At the police station we see Boyle taking notes. Nope, he’s actually drawing nonsensically. When a straight-arrow FBI agent, Everett, arrives and speaks to the local police force about an impending shipment of cocaine with a street value of $500 million, Doyle raises his hand and asks which street. Because doesn’t the value differ from street to street? (That’s the motherfucking smart part.) He adds that he thought all drug dealers were black lads. Or Mexicans. (That’s the motherfucking dumb part.) Accused of racism, he pleads multiculturalism: “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture.” He also knows something they don’t: One of the four men they’re looking for is dead; the guy with the bullet in his forehead and the number 5 1/2 on the wall.

“The Guard,” written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, is like its protagonist: dry and humorous. The three remaining drug dealers and killers, played by Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot and Mark Strong, have conversations like British variations of Tarantino’s criminals: they quote Nietzsche, argue whether “sociopath” or “psychopath” is worse, and make criminality seem like your own job by lamenting: “I’m just sick and tired of the people you have to deal with in this industry.” Whenever any local hears that Boyle is working with a man from the FBI, they ask, “Behavioral Science Unit?” Boyle takes his mother (Fionnula Flanagan), dying of cancer, to a nightclub so she can hear live music again, and when she laments missing out on life, he tells her, with his usual straightforwardness, “Sure you missed out, generally. You’re not fookin’ alone, dear.” The psychopath (Wilmot), dying, has the same lament.

But there’s silliness here as well. When Boyle refuses to work on his day off—instead indulging in a three-way with two prostitutes who are as pretty as actresses, because, of course, they are—Everett, rather than getting assistance from another cop, drives around the county by himself trying to extract information from the tight-lipped Irish, who don’t even speak English. That’s really motherfucking dumb. Later, he buys into disinformation about the drug dealers, dismisses a call from Boyle with the comment, “Idiot,” but still shows up, a la Han Solo and countless action movies, to be Boyle’s second for the gun-battle finale. That’s really motherfucking conventional.

The film is a little too in love with Boyle, too. It makes him always right and the straight-laced always wrong. It doesn't linger enough on the possibility that he's really motherfucking dumb.

And could a brother get some subtitles? It’s in English, sure, but I only understood about two-thirds of it. The other third, thickly Irish, was lost on my thick American ears.

The question many viewers will have at the end of the movie, I assume—a question that might even have brought you to here via the search engine of your choice—is whether Boyle survives the fire aboard the cocaine-laden ship. Does Boyle live? you ask. Of course he does. He’s forced into the final gun battle because the bad guys couldn’t let him be. But he also knows, as the ostensible gang leader, Francis Sheehy (Cunningham) tells him, “There are men behind the men.” So taking care of these guys won’t finish the problem. More will come at him. Unless they think he’s dead. That’s the conclusion Everett comes to at the end anyway. He replays the key line about Boyle, quoted at the beginning of this review, holds on Boyle’s smiling face, and then the soundtrack gives us the old John Denver song, “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane.” Which is where Boyle went. Which is why Everett smiles.

Boyle, in case we didn’t know it by now, is really motherfookin’ smart.

Posted at 07:15 AM on Aug 29, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Sunday August 28, 2011

Hollywood B.O.: Dog Days of August, More than Hurricane Irene, Keep Theaters Empty

The line from Variety and Box Office Mojo is that Hurricane Irene kept folks home and that's why the box office this weekend was so lousy. I find more to blame with recent August releases.

Movie poster for "The Help" (2011)Here, for example, are the no. 1 movies for the current weekend, the 34th weekend, from 2005 to 2010:

  • 2005: The 40-Year-Old Virgin *
  • 2006: Invincible
  • 2007: Superbad *
  • 2008: Tropic Thunder *
  • 2009: Inglourious Basterds
  • 2010: The Expendables *

* second weekend of release

With the exception of last year's aptly titled “Expendables,” these are all good movies that I could see again right now.

This year? The no. 1 movie for the 34th weekend is the third weekend of “The Help,” the controversial, starry-eyed, 50-year-old view of racism that women can't seem to get enough of. But it only grossed $14 mil. It was no. 1 because this is what's been wide-released in the last two weeks:

  • Spy Kids: All the Time in the World
  • Conan the Barbarian
  • Fright Night
  • One Day
  • Colombiana
  • Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
  • Our Idiot Brother

“Fright Night” has good critical numbers (88% among top critics), as does “Our Idiot Brother (67%). The others are all certified rotten. Some extremely so: ”Conan“'s 23%; ”One Day“'s 27%. ”Spy Kids"'s 27%.

Here are the helpless totals.

Posted at 05:46 PM on Aug 28, 2011 in category Movies - Box Office
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Celebrating the Tradition at Safeco Field

It’s a long walk back to First Hill from Safeco Field—two miles according to Google maps, uphill mostly, a little more than half an hour usually—but last night, after the Mariners 3-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox, it seemed longer than usual.

It’s not just that our starting pitcher, rookie Michael Pineda, struck out eight in 6 innings and gave up only three hits, all singles, but left the game down 2-0. It’s not just that the only three hits for the M’s included an infield single by Ichiro that should’ve been scored E5 and an excuse-me double by Miguel Olivo, nor that our last two innings contained no loft of hope (strikeout, strikeout, groundout/ groundout, groundout, strikeout), nor that rookie sensation Dustin Ackley looked less than sensational while the starting lineup included only three guys from our opening day lineup (Ichiro, Olivo, Ryan) way back on April 1st, April Fools Day, when we beat the A’s 6-2. In fact, I like that last fact. I like the team going young. I’ve been urging it on M’s management since 2004.

No, what’s depressing is that disconnect between the sketchy world outside Safeco and the false cheer within Safeco. You walk down James Street and through Occidental Park, with its homage to fallen firefighters, and are eyed by the men on the sidelines, the homeless, as if you might be their last meal, then past King Street onto Occidental Avenue, where you’re accosted by the scalpers, hoping to sell, hoping to buy, and you wonder why the two groups, buyers and sellers, don’t get together; but then you assume they do: that the men wishing to buy are with the guys pushing to sell, and you wonder what the profit margin for such an enterprise could possibly be. Who, these days, would buy an M’s ticket for more than face value? And you look around at the vendors urging fatty foods on fatty people and hawking jersey T-shirts with ... whose name? Who’s left? Ichiro, sure, and Ackley, yes, and is it too early to get a Mike Carp or a Trayvon Robinson? Is it too late to get a Justin Smoak? How reduced is that Chone Figgins M’s jersey? In what landfill did the Bradley and Bedard and Fister jerseys wind up? And you look at the sign advertising upcoming concerts at WaMu Theater at CenturyLink Field, which used to be Qwest Field, which used to be Seahawks Stadium, which was paid for with mostly public money, $360 million, but is now named after a private company you didn’t know existed until this year. But at least this crappily named theater is offering the equivalent, crappy concerts, haggard noisemakers (Iron Maiden) and a teenage provocateur so talentless it makes you fear for the younger generation (Ke$ha).

Inside it should be better, it should be clean, but they push false, family-friendly cheer on you until you want to puke. Here are the ballgirls. Here’s Timmy with the rosin bag. Here’s Susie announcing “Play ball!” Here is all the between-innings crap, the bloopers and hydro races and “Find the ball under the M’s cap” shite that keeps your mind off the lousy team and the lousy area and keeps you “entertained,” and thus passive; and since you are so passive, here are your scoreboard cues for the game itself, admonitions to “Put your hands together” and “Make noise” and “LOUDER,” and it works, you passive Pavlovian idiots, you actually make noise when you’re told.

But then you’re at the game, most of you, not for the game but for the freebie before the game, the bobblehead doll made in the image of a fictional creation, Larry Bernandez, a lame gag from a TV commercial in which it’s implied that Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez loves to pitch so much that on off days he puts on a wig and glasses and muttonchops and pretends to be “Larry Bernandez.” This is what Mariners fans, who once had Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Jamie Moyer and Jay Buhner on the same team, this is what they hold onto this year: Larry Bernandez. Of course it's not that Felix Hernandez loves to pitch; it’s that M’s PR people have so little to pitch. So they pitch him. He’s not a pitcher, he’s the pitchee. A curve ball that misses the plate by a mile. M’s fans swing anyway.

You sit with a couple of these dullards, people who make more noise for the hydro races—screaming “Green!”—than they do for the team, and who crow about getting a Larry Bernandez bobblehead from Larry Bernandez himself. He looks normal at first, this fan, maybe someone you can actually talk baseball with; but that’s before he begins babbling about bobbleheads and you notice the shopping bag full of them, and you know, no, not this guy. Meanwhile, four rows behind you, four boys, late teens or early twenties, hold up their homemade signs, one of which reads, “Who’s goin’ to DREAMGIRLS after the game?,” and that may have been the most depressing sign of all. Dreamgirls is a gentleman’s club that recently opened a half a block from Edgar Martinez Drive, where men-without-women go to watch women-they-can’t-have undulate. And you wonder what’s more depressing: that these boys are proud that they are without women; or that they agree to shill for Dreamgirls for nothing. Unless they’re plants. Which would be sadder still. A fake leer insinuating itself within the fake smile of the stadium. Even our libidoes are false.

So you hope for something clean to wash away all of this—a clean single, a clean double, a clean homer—but the M’s can’t even manage a dirty run. It’s a pitcher’s night, like most nights at Safeco, where even the White Sox three runs are dirty, full of infield and bloop singles, and homeruns that barely escape the park, but you stay to the end, the dirty end, hoping for something clean that never comes. And as you and your girl leave by the left-field gate you notice the signs, the latest PR campaign, the “Celebrate the Tradition” banners all along the entryways. They're filled with shots from the 1995 and 2001 seasons, winning seasons, but you know the true Mariners tradition—how it took 15 years before they even had a winning season; how the M’s are one of two teams who have never even been to a World Series; and how for the last two years they’ve been last in every major offensive category in the Major Leagues—and you find your friend Mike, who works the left-field gate, and who’s been a hapless M’s fan since ’77, and you point back at the “Celebrate the Tradition” banners and say, “I believe we just did,” before escaping into the night.

Safeco Field, August 27, 2011

Celebrate the Tradition.

Posted at 11:07 AM on Aug 28, 2011 in category Seattle Mariners, Baseball
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Friday August 26, 2011

26 Things I Learned While Camping on San Juan Island and at Baker Lake

  1. The wrong time to get attacked by mosquitoes is two days before camping. Makes you sensitive to what you can't avoid.
  2. The 2008 Mazda 3 doesn't have a plug-in or outlet to charge iPhones.
  3. Washington State Ferrys do--but we figured it out too late. Thus no personal pictures here. Apologies.
  4. The San Juan ferry trip is 100 times better on a sunny day (returning) than on a cloudy day (going).
  5. San Juan Island has a camel. Her name is Mona. She has a baby. T-shirts are for sale.
  6. A camel is all well and good but it doesn't beat baby alpacas.
  7. If you go to Downriggers, in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, spend the extra money for the dungeness crab sandwich. The grilled crab sandwich sounds like “grilled crab” but is actually a dollop of crab mixed with a gallon of mayonnaise and then the sandwich is grilled.
  8. Orca whales are actually dolphins.
  9. The skeletons of whale fins look like human hands.
  10. Dorsal fins are made of cartilage.
  11. Porpoises are shyer, smaller and chunkier than dolphins. They are nerds, essentially. Dophins are BMO-Seas. (Apologies.)
  12. Oceanographers are worried that boat noise, including noise from whale-watching boats, is depleting the whale population. Which is why we watched them from Lime Kiln Point State Park. Which may be why we didn't see any.
  13. The Whale Museum at Friday Harbor, where I learned #s 8-12, and which my nephews, 10 and 8, didn't want to leave after an hour, kicks ass.
  14. The scientists at Lime Kiln Point kick ass, too.
  15. Putting up a two-person tent is hard.
  16. Changing into your swimsuit in a two-person tent is harder.
  17. Changing into your swimsuit in a two-person tent, and getting a good look at your stomach, is a good way to get someone to go to pilates class next Wednesday at 5:30 PM.
  18. There are many multimillion-dollar yachts for sale at Roche Harbor, San Juan Island.
  19. The rich obviously need another tax break so they afford to buy these multimillion-dollar yachts and get our economy going again.*
  20. Yachta Yachta is a good pun but a bad name for a boat.
  21. Ryan, 8, likes rock climbing.
  22. Jordy, 10, knows the words to Sir Mix A Lot's “Baby Got Back.”
  23. Baker Lake is fucking gorgeous.
  24. A good brat beats a great hotdog.
  25. Patricia is freaked by worms. Even inchworms. Particularly inchworms that come down from trees on silk threads. She calls them “ninja worms.”
  26. The sign in park outhouses, advising against throwing garbage down toilets because “it is extremely difficult to remove,” is not only one of the most understated signs ever written, it also makes me think park employees are not paid nearly enough.

Baker Lake in western Washington

Baker Lake. We woke up to this. We went swimming in this. So can you. Because it's ours: a National Forest.

* Kidding.

Posted at 03:02 PM on Aug 26, 2011 in category Travels
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Tuesday August 23, 2011

I'm Coming!

From my nephew, Jordy...

I’m Coming!

This is Jordan. I know I have not done something in a while, but it’s because my dad deleted Microsoft Word accidentally, but we are getting a new computer, so I will be able to write reviews again, and I’m going to try to write one every week to make up for that. First thing some top 5’s and top 10’s. I’m writing this at Erik’s house. Soon will be more reviews. Soon.

Posted at 08:47 AM on Aug 23, 2011 in category Jordy's Reviews
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Movie Review: Unknown (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Unknown” is mostly dumb. It begins in the wrong place, telegraphs its big reveal, then gives us one of the worst lines in movies to justify the plot after the reveal. It might’ve been a smart thriller in the 1970s but our age needs to feel uplifted. We’re too cowardly and depressed to want anything but heroic and happy.

Liam Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, an American professor visiting a bio-tech conference in Berlin with his beautiful wife, Liz (January Jones). We see them on the airplane, going through customs, arriving at their swanky hotel. But the cabdriver missed Martin’s briefcase at the airport so he hails another cab and goes back. Good luck: The cab driver is the best-looking cab driver in the world, Gina, played by Diane Kruger. Bad luck: there’s a multicar accident, they go over a bridge and into the icy water below. He’s banged up and in a coma for four days. She disappears after saving him.

Poster for "Unknown" (2011)When he recovers, he’s a John Doe in the hospital. Nobody knows who he is.

He assumes his wife is distraught so he rushes out of the hospital and back to the swanky hotel, where the dignitaries are in the middle of a conference. From afar, he sees his wife in a nice backless dress, but she has no idea who he is. Moreover, there’s another Dr. Martin Harris, played by Aidan Quinn, and this guy has all the right credentials. Our Martin Harris has no credentials.

For the next 20 minutes of screen time, our Martin Harris fights, then acquiesces to, his loss of identity. His university website includes a picture of the other Martin Harris. The other Martin Harris knows the details, the same details, down to the same words, of his relationship with Liz, and how, over the phone and via email, he described that relationship to Prof. Leo Bressler (Sebastian Koch of “The Lives of Others”), the man hosting the bio-tech conference, who has, unfortunately, never seen him. Our Martin Harris moons outside of restaurants, where his beautiful wife dines with the other guy. He begins to doubt his own mind.

Three thoughts at this point:

  1. No Skype for these scientists?
  2. The movie really should’ve begun at the accident site, or at the hospital, so we could doubt his mind with him. But we saw him arrive in Berlin with Liz. We know he’s the real Martin Harris. We’re just wondering how and why this is happening.
  3. You could argue his tragedy at this point is less the loss of his identity than the loss of his wife. He’s been cuckolded in plain sight. It helps that she’s young and beautiful. Imagine him mooning outside a restaurant where some fat cow gorged herself. You’d have a whole other movie. Maybe a better one.

After attempts are made on his life, he snaps out of it and quickly assembles a kind of crew: Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz of “Wings of Desire” and “Downfall”), a former Stasi official, who’s an expert at finding missing people; and Gina, the cab driver, an illegal immigrant (Kruger, German, plays Bosnian), who eventually confirms he is who he thinks he is. She also lets him come back to her place for a shower. Nice lady. Nice cabdriver. Cue Prince:

Lady cab driver — Can U take me 4 a ride?
Don't know where I'm goin' 'cuz I don't know where I've been

Kidding. No Prince here. No sex, either. Just gun fights and car chases and New Order.

Jürgen, a secondary character, steals the movie. He’s proud of his immoral past and good at what he does. And he quickly figures out the obvious. One of the guests at the bio-tech conference, Prince Shada (Mido Hamada), is a progressive Arab who has already survived one assassination attempt. Jürgen assumes the new Martin Harris is an assassin to take out Prince Shada. Section 15, a legendary assassination unit, is mentioned. Then Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), shows up in Berlin, claiming several phone calls from Martin, and he visits Jürgen, who figures out Cole is the leader of Section 15. They have a tête-à-tête, maybe the best scene in the movie, before Jürgen kills himself like a good soldier.

By this point, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll add up the following:

  • When Martin first arrives in Berlin and is asked the purpose of his visit, he responds, “I’m here to give a lecture at a bio-tech conference.” Liz teases him about it in a way that could be wifely but could be more.
  • When he first wakes up in the hospital, the doctor asks him no long-term memory questions.
  • His memories of Liz include a recurring scene in which she has dark hair and says, “Are you ready?”

Jürgen, dying, provides the giveaway. He says to Cole, “What if he remembers everything?”

He’s the assassin. Our Martin. He went into a coma and when he woke up he only remembered the cover, he didn’t remember his true identity.

A bummer they telegraphed it—I would’ve removed the “Are you ready?” scenes—but also an opportunity. All this time, we’ve basically been rooting for a guy who turns out to be the villain. What happens now? Do we get flashbacks to all the people he’s killed? Maybe his memory is fully restored, and in that restoration his true personality emerges, and he has to kill Gina who knows too much? Can they make us horrified that we once cared about him? Can they do something darkly 1970s and Alan J. Pakula-ish?

Not even close. Instead, he and Gina have a heart-to-heart. When they were first set upon by German assassins, she slapped his face, saying angrily (and historically inaccurately), “My family in Bosnia was killed by people like that!” Now he’s a person like that. So what does she do?

She says one of the worst lines in movies this year: “What matters is what you do now, Martin.”

Holy crap, that’s bad. One of the themes of “Unknown” is amnesia—both personal and national. “We Germans are experts at forgetting,” Jürgen says upon meeting Martin. “We forgot we were Nazis. Now we have forgotten 40 years of Communism—all gone.” It’s not a positive, this forgetting. But suddenly it is. So that we may have our action-hero ending.

Which we get. The assassin becomes the anti-assassin and foils the plot—which turns out to be more complicated—and beats up the other Martin. Liz, meanwhile, gets blown up through her own incompetence. And in the end, Martin, our Martin, and Gina, his new beautiful blonde, with new names and new fake passports, have a light, whimsical exchange as they prepare to travel:

Gina: [opening her new passport] Claudia Marie Taylor. I like it.
Harris: It suits you.
Gina: Who are you?
Harris: Henry. Henry Taylor.
Gina: Nice to meet you, Mr. Taylor.
Harris: Nice to meet you...

Where are they going? Unknown. What is our protagonist’s real name and real past and real personality? Unknown. What is our capacity for absorbing bullshit like this? Unknown.

What matters is what you do now, Hollywood.

Posted at 07:14 AM on Aug 23, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Sunday August 21, 2011

Day Hikes from Seattle: Bandera Mountain

The guidebook, or guide website, mentions a fork in the trail about an hour into this hike: one path heading to Mason Lake, the other up to the summit of Bandera Mountain. It also mentions that, on the Bandera Mt. path, things get pretty steep. They ain't kidding. On the way down, I noticed  that the hill is so steep it's actually convex rather than concave. It curves, like the earth, and you lose sight of people on the other side of the curve.

Nice trail, all in all. Starts out wide and gently sloped, gets steeper past your first (and only?) waterfalls, opens into meadows and wildflowers. Then it makes you choose: a lake or that hellish ascent to the summit. I went latter. The summit, or false summit, is actually a bit of a disappointment. I was hoping for 360-degree views but no such luck. Rainier was way out, though. Bandera is actually one of those Mt. Rainier, peek-a-boo hikes. You go along a southern exposure in which you get the tip, then the top, then the whole of Mt. Rainier.

Bring DEET.

Posted at 05:28 PM on Aug 21, 2011 in category Hiking, Seattle
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Screenshot of the Day

Charlton Heston in Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" (1958)

I'm seeing political metaphors everywhere these days. First the narration in Terrence Malick's “The Tree of Life,” and now this screenshot of a store sign (and a Mexican Charlton Heston) in Orson Welles' “Touch of Evil.” In the metaphor, we are the blind, the GOP/rich are mean enough, and yes they are helping themselves.

I'm aware, by the way, that the metaphor can be reversed. I'm sure the folks at FOX-News would see the American people as the blind, the Dems/Socialists/Obamafolks/poor/minorities are mean enough, and the latter are helping themselves to what isn't theirs.

I stick with my metaphor because of what's changed in my lifetime. When I was born, the top 1% paid almost 90 percent of their income in taxes; now it's 35 percent (and according to Warren Buffett, rarely that), and yet they squawk, or have others squawk for them, when it's suggested they pay more four percent more.

No matter what, though, see “Touch of Evil.” After all, what does it matter what you say about people?

Posted at 06:55 AM on Aug 21, 2011 in category Photo of the Day
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Saturday August 20, 2011

No One in the Wings: The Underappreciated Career of Edgar Martinez

This essay was originally published in The Grand Salami in September 2004 on the occasion of Edgar Martinez's retirement from baseball.

If Edgar Martinez worked a 9-to-5 job he’d be the guy who arrived early, performed, excelled, was slapped on the back by the boss, and when the time came for that big raise or promotion … someone else would get it. At meetings he’d be silent while loud-mouths took over. He wouldn’t complain even as lesser-talents were elevated past him. He’d just keep doing the work, quietly and efficiently, and eventually he’d retire with an afternoon party, a slice of cake, and maybe a parting watch for his decades-long efforts. The quintessential company man: underutilized and underappreciated.

In baseball, thank goodness, we can quantify talent. We just look at the stats. Yet even in baseball—one of the purest meritocracies around—it took the Seattle Mariners years to figure out what kind of talent was toiling away in their mail room.

Edgar Martinez on his last Grand Salami cover before retirement: September 2004Reputations are made quickly and are hard to shake, and Edgar made his in 1983 in Bellingham when he hit a paltry .173, and again in 1985 and ’86, at Double-A Chattanooga, when he led Southern League third-basemen in putouts, assists, and fielding percentage. As a result, even after he hit .329 with Triple-A Calgary in 1987, director of player development Bill Haywood said the following about him when he was called up in September: “His glove is his strength. Hitting over .300 is a pleasant surprise.”

Translation: We have no clue what we have here.

Other people’s reputations are even harder to shake. In 1985, Jim Presley, a 23 year-old third baseman, set a Mariner record with 28 homeruns, and fans licked their chops imagining what this kid might do when he reached his prime. Except, it turned out, that was his prime. Three years later, when good-glove, no-hit Edgar was leading the PCL with a .363 batting average, Presley slumped to .230 and 14 homers. But he still had his rep, and Edgar had his, so even in 1989 Presley played twice as many games as Edgar; and even when Presley was finally traded before the 1990 season, Edgar still wasn’t part of the Mariners’ plans.

“I think Darnell Coles is going to surprise a lot of people,'' manager Jim Lefebvre told The Seattle Times in February 1990 about his new starting third baseman. “He knows there is no one in the wings, just Edgar Martinez to back him up. I think it is time for him to realize that he belongs at third, because to play that position you have to be an athlete. And Darnell Coles is an athlete.”

Translation: Edgar Martinez is not an athlete. He’s just a back-up. He’s no one in the wings.

Yet the numbers were there. Mariner management just had to look at them with a clear mind. Stats guru Bill James did, and in 1990 wrote, “What a sad story this one is. This guy is a good hitter, quite capable of hitting .300 in a park like Seattle, with more walks than strikeouts. Martinez has wasted about three years when he could have been helping the team.”

A month into the season Coles lost the job, and Edgar was finally allowed to help the team that never helped him.

In 1991 Jim Presley retired from baseball with the following batting average and on-base and slugging percentages: 247/.290/.420. Darnell Coles managed to hold on until 1997 with these lifetime numbers: .245/.307/.382. When Edgar Martinez retires on October 3, 2004, he’ll be only the 15th man in baseball history to retire with a batting average over .300, an on-base percentage over .400, and a slugging percentage over .500. Who didn’t make this list? How about Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Joe DiMaggio (they didn’t walk enough); Wade Boggs and Jackie Robinson (they didn’t have enough power); and Mickey Mantle (he didn’t hit .300).

More importantly, all but one of the .300/.400/.500 guys are in the Hall of Fame, and it would’ve been a clean sweep except Charles Comiskey was a cheap bastard and Shoeless Joe Jackson went looking for money in all the wrong places. So does this means Edgar will go into the Hall of Fame? Probably not. His percentages are out of sight but his raw numbers aren’t high enough to justify making him the first DH to be enshrined. If only he’d been able to play a few more good seasons. If only he’d been brought up earlier. If only Bill James had been running the team.

The man has reason to complain but that’s just not our Edgar. In a world of look-at-me swagger, Edgar is egoless and uncomplaining. His calm is almost comical. He’s been his own straight man for years in a series of very funny Mariners commercials. “Yes, we have a coupon.” “What's that all about?” “That’s a problem.” The ad campaign told us “You gotta love these guys,” but none was more lovable than Edgar. “I think he's a guy,” Mariner broadcaster Dave Niehaus once said, “that every grandmother likes to have around to cuddle. Just to say ‘He's my grandson.’ He's that type of guy.”

It’s more than grandmothers. When I was going to all those amazing games in September and October 1995, my girlfriend, who wasn’t a fan, began to watch them on television, and Edgar quickly became her favorite player. “He has all this pressure on him,” she said, “yet he stays so calm.”

Grace under pressure. Men want it and women dig it and Edgar has it. And of course, famously, he came through, with that double down the left field line, the most famous swing in Seattle history. But it wouldn’t have even been possible if the game before Edgar hadn’t driven in seven runs to force the deciding fifth game. I know a Yankees fan who recently admitted the following: “When Edgar came up in Game 4, bases loaded, none out, I knew from my Yankee perspective the game was lost. There was an absolute-zero possibility that Edgar would not come through. He was too hot, too good. Thus when he hit the grand slam I thought the hysteria was completely irrelevant, because the Mariners had already won the instant he stepped into the batter's box.”

It was Ken Griffey Jr. who wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the nom de guerre “Yankee Killer.” I’m sure SI had their marketing reports about who appealed to the proper demographic and who didn’t. News wasn’t news anymore but marketing. Junior appealed. Edgar who? Other Mariners eventually graced the cover of SI: Randy, Bone, A-Rod, Ichiro. Edgar who? He was A.L. Player of the Month five times but that didn’t matter. He won two batting titles but that didn’t matter. He kept ringing up .300/.400/500 seasons but that didn’t matter. He’d been overlooked before—by us—and now the national media was overlooking him, even as we were finally celebrating him. In April 1991 Mary Harder began bringing a sign to the games: “Edgar esta caliente!” Others caught on. The Diamond Vision screen caught on. Senor Doble. Senor Octubre. Gar. Papi. Eddddgrrrrrrrr… Edddddgrrrrrrr….

One by one, other players left us. They felt they weren’t appreciated. We didn’t pay them enough money or attention or love. Mostly money. Edgar stayed. Edgar doesn’t leave. In a business where players upgrade agents the way CEOs upgrade wives, Edgar has had the same agent since Double-A ball. He was raised by his grandparents in the Maguayo neighborhood in the town of Dorado, Puerto Rico. They were poor, and his grandfather ran a transport business, and when Edgar was 11 his parents reconciled and he had to choose between moving back to New York or staying in Puerto Rico. “I felt my grandparents needed me,” Edgar told Larry Stone in 2001. “I remember all the work they needed to do.”

The Mariners had work to do, too, and they nearly did it in 2001, when they won 116 games but got clobbered in the ALCS by the Yankees, whose management loves winning more than ours. So no World Series ring, or even a World Series, for Edgar, who got into baseball watching his hero, Roberto Clemente, triumph in the 1971 World Series. Edgar could’ve jumped ship. He could’ve gone over to the Yankees, like so many great players before him: Wade Boggs, Chuck Knoblauch, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez. Quick! I need a World Series ring! But Edgar doesn’t leave. Not for something as frivolous as jewelry. There was work to do.

Mariner records fell before his steady, blistering bat. In 1996 he passed Alvin Davis for most career doubles, and in 1997 most career walks. He passed Junior for most games played in 2000, most at-bats and hits in 2001, most runs and extra-base hits in 2002, and most RBIs and total bases in 2003. The Mariner record book is his now. This season he sliced his 500th double and clobbered his 300th homerun. In his first at-bat after announcing his retirement he went deep into the left field stands. The place went crazy. Such pandemonium this calm man causes.

It was from his grandparents that Edgar learned his famous work ethic. Former Mariner Dave Henderson:

He starts with the simple hitting off a tee: one-handed left-handed, one-handed right-handed, then flips [hands], then two hands. Then he goes into batting practice. And this is in January…When he gets into the batter's box, he's all done with his work. He's just applying it.

Former Mariner Stan Javier:

I've never seen anybody—maybe Don Mattingly—work as hard as Edgar Martinez. I'm talking about eyes, hands, feet. He spends hours and hours in the batting cage. He probably does more stuff for his eyes than for his swing.

The players know. The way other writers know who the good writers are, other players know who the good hitters are. In the end this may be his best chance for Cooperstown. Because if the Baseball Writers Association of America won’t vote him in, maybe the Veterans Committee will. Eventually. Good things come to those who wait, and Edgar is good at waiting. Just ask Jim Presley. Just ask Jim Lefebvre. Just ask any pitcher who tries to get him to nibble at something outside the strike zone.

As he limps into retirement, slower than any professional athlete has a right to move, the recipient, surely, of no infield hits since 1992, attention must be paid. So let’s turn September into one joyous retirement party. You see no. 11 striding to the plate? Get off your seat. Put your hands together. Point him out to the kids. Chant his name. Enjoy these last lingering moments. Because for a man who was no one in the wings, Edgar Martinez turned out to be the most special someone who ever put on a Mariners uniform.

Posted at 09:24 AM on Aug 20, 2011 in category Seattle Mariners, Baseball
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Friday August 19, 2011

Read These Books

The following list was given out at the funeral of Kim Ricketts last May. Thought I'd pass it along and encourage others to 1) read these books, and 2) come up with their own list. I double-down on Willa Cather:

  • My Antonia by Willa Cather“The Bunny Planet” by Rosemary Wells
  • “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott
  • “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis
  • “I Capture the Castle” by Dodie Smith
  • “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith
  • “The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatje
  • “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard
  • “My Antonia” by Willa Cather
  • “The Shipping News” by Annie Proulx
  • “Birds of America” by Lorrie Moore
  • “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” by Dave Eggers
  • “The Silver Palate Cookbook” by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins

What's on your must-read list?

Posted at 06:35 AM on Aug 19, 2011 in category Books
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Thursday August 18, 2011

Obama, the GOP and Terrence Malick's “The Tree of Life”

Early in Terrence Malick's “The Tree of Life,” the following existential dichotomy is set up in voiceover narration from the mother (Jessica Chastain):

The nuns taught us there were two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.

The she explains what she means by each one:

Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself. Gets others to please it, too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

The movie focuses on a young boy in Waco, Texas in the 1950s, Jack (Hunter McCracken), who aspires to the way of grace, like his mother, but who succumbs to the way of nature, like his father (Brad Pitt).

It struck me, as I was writing my review last weekend, around the time of the Ames, Iowa straw poll, that our current political struggles, and the upcoming 2012 election, can be seen through this same prism.

Obama is the way of grace. He's been more insulted than any sitting president, and his response has been to work with those who keep insulting him. People on his side often fault him for that. I'm often one of them.

The GOP, which claims to have God on its side, and which claims a kind of Godlessness for Obama, is the way of nature. It wants to please itself. It's about more for me and less for you (or us). It's about lording it over people. You see this attitude, which can be bullying or swaggering, in Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann and the pundits on FOX-News. There's a killer instinct there. Sometimes this instinct exhibits itself in actual calls for violence.

It is, at the least, a stark contrast. The question remains whether this country sees any value in the way of grace, or if we, like young Jack in the film, and like most of us in our lives, will succumb to the way of nature.

Image from Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" (2011)

Image from Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" (2011)

Images from Terrence Malick's “The Tree of Life” (2011)

Posted at 08:09 AM on Aug 18, 2011 in category Politics, Movies
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Wednesday August 17, 2011

Quote of the Day

“Toscanini once recorded a piece 65 times. You know what he said? 'It could be better.'”

--the father (Brad Pitt) in Terrence Malick's “The Tree of Life,” no doubt channeling Malick, a perfectionist, for whom 65 attempts is a dry run.

Terrence Malick

Posted at 07:37 AM on Aug 17, 2011 in category Quote of the Day, Movies
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Tuesday August 16, 2011

Movie Review: The Tree of Life (2011)

WARNING: NATURAL (RARELY GRACEFUL) SPOILERS

Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which is confusing audiences around the world, is essentially an unresolved Oedipal tale in 1950s Waco, Tex., punctuated by frequent Job-like prayers to God, and framed by the beginning and end of time. What’s so difficult to understand?

Of course, for “unresolved Oedipal tale” you could substitute a boy’s internal struggle between the way of nature, which is the way of his father (Brad Pitt), and the way of grace, which is the way of his mother (Jessica Chastain). That’s the true battle. The first words we hear, in fact, in voiceover narration from the mother, set up this dichotomy:

The nuns taught us there were two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.

These lines are also in the trailer and I loved them as soon as I heard them. Poster for Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" (2011)She sets up the dichotomy, gives us one half, nature, and in the audience I thought, “OK, so what’s the negative half?” I’m so used to nature, juxtaposed with the cruddier aspects of modern society, being used as the positive, as the “what we need to return to,” that I assumed the same here. But in the larger scheme of things, which is the only scheme Malick works in, nature is what we are while grace is what we aspire to.

Again, from the mother:

Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself. Gets others to please it, too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

Malick’s voice-over narration, used extensively in his films, never feels like voice-over narration to me; it’s more an articulation of our most profound feelings. It’s poetry.

The movie’s epigraph is from the Book of Job—another piece of poetry:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know. Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

This is essentially the “Who are you to question Me?” Bible verse and it’s invoked throughout the film, since God is questioned throughout the film, particularly around the issue of death. A boy dies at a neighborhood swimming pool and young Jack (Hunter McCracken), our protagonist for much of the movie, who is trying to sort through everything, and who has already prayed to God to help him be good, asks, “Where were You? You let a boy die.”

More immediately, there is the death of Jack’s younger brother, R.L. (Laramie Eppler) which opens the film, but whose death appears to be set 10 years after the film’s centerpiece. A telegram arrives—one assume a war—and the mother receives it, reads it, sits back stunned, horrified, and then a strangled scream begins to emit from her throat when we cut to the father at the noisy airfield where he works. The way this is directed by Malick and edited by his team of five—not to mention the acting and the sound effects editing—is brilliant. And it eventually leads to this thought, again from the mother, in voiceover: “Lord: Why? Where were you?”

At which point, as if in answer, we cut to the beginning of time.

Some have mocked Malick for his deep perspective, and for showing us the creation of life, both in the universe and on earth, and the movement of life on earth from water to land, but it is the ultimate answer to her and his and our question. Where was God when tragedy struck? That’s what existence is. Life is birth and change and death. He let every dinosaur die and you’re questioning him about R.L.? But that’s the way with us. Only when it hits close to home do we question it. Only when it happens to the good do we question it. Only when it hurts beyond measure. But the argument can be made, and has been made, millennia ago, that it’s the hurt that moves us from the way of nature to the way of grace. Aeschylus:

In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Young Jack’s battle is more immediate. We see him from birth to ... age 10? 12? We see him run and strive and pause and figure out. Malick tells his tale unconventionally, through images and metaphor and music. We go from a door opening underwater to the birth to the small foot in the big hand. We go to the ball, and walking with daddy, and running, and iodine on the cut knee. We go to the mother with the butterfly and the animal blocks: the Alligator; the Kangaroo. Jump jump jump. Then we go to the crib by the window and the new baby brother and the look on the boy’s face like “What the hell?”

This is a period dominated by the mother. Malick’s images are so evocative they reminded me of my own, two decades and 2,000 miles further north: frogs and grasshoppers and Halloween; climbing trees and kick-the-can and sparklers; running through yards and rolling down hills. There was a fire—God let that happen, too—from which a neighborhood kid still has the burn marks on the back of his head, where no hair will grow, and it freaks Jack out, this imperfection, and he keeps his distance. It also reminded me of a kid I used to see playing in the Lynnhurst swimming pool in Minneapolis in the late 1960s. He was a burn victim, too, with burns on his back and chest, and it freaked me out, this imperfection, and I kept my distance.

There’s also, amidst all this, the learning of boundaries—the neighbor’s yard, don’t cross this line—lessons imparted by the father. The idyllic period, the mother period, comes to a close, you could say, at the dinner table, when young Jack asks, “Pass the butter, please,” and Jack’s father corrects him, “Pass the butter, please, sir,” then stands up to imaginarily conduct the Brahms they’re listening to.

Now it’s the father who dominates. He’s not a bad man, or a bad father, he’s just the way of nature. He’s trying to teach his boys how to be tough in a tough world. He doesn’t want them to wind up like him, who gave up his calling, music, for regular work, to which he goes to regularly, never missing a day, and comes home dissatisfied and unwanted. He wants his boys to grow but stunts them. At the dinner table, young Jack seems almost deformed, hunched over and twitching, since he doesn’t know what he’s allowed to do, since the boundaries the father is imposing are both necessary and seemingly arbitrary, not to mention hypocritical. Elbows off the table. Yet his father keeps his elbows on the table. In the yard, when the father affectionately tries to rub the back of his son’s neck, Jack flinches.

The mother is soft, the father hard. The mother points to the sky and says “That’s where God lives” and the father says “Hit me.” He says, “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.” The mother is good, and the boy wants to be like her, and he prays to God to be like her, and the father says, “You want to succeed, you can’t be too good.”

It’s the younger brother, L.T., who rebels first, at the dinner table, telling the father to be quiet, and there’s an eruption, and everyone scatters, and the father is left alone shoveling food into his mouth. At the same time, L.T. is closer to the way of grace. He has the best part of the father, his musical talent, and there’s a scene where he plays guitar on the front steps, and the father listens, proud, that his son has an ear, while Jack stalks the edges and plots. As the father dominates Jack, Jack tries to dominate his brother. But L.T. says, “I won’t fight you.” L.T. says, “I trust you.” L.T. paints beautifully and Jack upends water on the painting. As Jack’s relationship with his parents give off whiff of Oedipus, so his relationship with his brother gives off whiffs of Cain.

The entire movie is a montage, impressionistic, one image leading to another, things all of a sudden just happening as they do in the world of kids. They wake up one morning and their father is gone— on a business trip, apparently; around the world, it turns out—and Jack, freed from under his father, becomes more like his father. He becomes more like the way of nature. He and his friends stalk the neighborhood, like extras out of “Lord of the Flies,” throwing rocks at the windows of abandoned garages. Jack has discovered girls at school and now he discovers women in his neighborhood, including his mother, washing her bare feet with the hose. One day he sees a neighbor lady leaving her home and he sneaks inside and looks through her things. He lies her nightgown on the bed. Then he’s running with it, breathlessly, down to the creek, where he hides it, his shame and his desire, under a log. But that’s not good enough. People are passing. So he puts it in the creek and lets the current take it away. Again, I was reminded of my youth, and the perverse way a burgeoning sexuality exhibits itself.

When the father returns, excited by his trips to China and Germany, things get worse. It’s a clash of the ways of nature. Jack sees his father flirting with a waitress, keeping the dollar bill just out of her grasp, and it’s like an earlier scene at school, where Jack had done the same with a pretty girl correcting his paper. He sees his father working under his jacked-up car, and he knows how easy it would be to kick the jack away. He actually looks around to see if anyone is watching. Even his prayers are now the way of nature: “Please, God, kill him. Let him die.” Then his father’s plant closes and his father returns diminished and the family is forced to move. The father calls Jack his sweet boy but Jack says, “I’m as bad as you are. I’m more like you than her.”

This is the brunt of the movie, as I said, with excursions to the beginning of time and into contemporary times, with an adult Jack (Sean Penn), a successful architect, still dealing with the legacy of his father and the death of his brother. We see him lighting a candle to his brother. We see him apologizing by phone to his father. We see him waking up and not talking with his wife. They live in a vertical box of glass and stainless steel and he works in a bigger vertical box of glass and steel, and he designs same, one assumes, and for a time I thought this was a third way, since neither grace or nature is present, but I don’t think that’s where Malick is going. I’m not quite sure where he’s going, to be honest. We get images, dream images, which may be of heaven, or the end of time, or death. When Jack was born he floated through an underwater door and here he walks through a door in the desert so death can be assumed. He winds up on the beach—that point where life began—and we get reunion and reconciliation and forgiveness: the adult Jack with his father and mother; with the young L.T. and with his younger self. We get a sense of welcome and forgiveness and grace. Then we see the adult Jack, back in his office, smiling. We see a skyscraper of glass and steel and all that represents. We see a long extension bridge and all that represents. We see the flickering flame image we’ve seen throughout the movie. Is it God? Is it akin to Kubrick’s monolith? Whatever it is, it’s the last image we see in the movie.

So. The obvious question: What does this unremarkable Waco, Texas family have to do with the beginning and end of time? The obvious answer: as much as anyone.

Another obvious question: How much of the Waco period is Malick’s own childhood? It feels very memoirish. One can even imagine the movie simply being the Waco period, with more conventional voiceover narration (from the adult Jack) and more conventional scene presentation. But that would not be a Malick movie; and it would be a lesser movie.

There are few movies as ambitious and beautiful as “The Tree of Life.” It doesn’t all work for me, but, where it does work, it works on a level few works of art, let alone movies, reach.

Posted at 06:52 AM on Aug 16, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Your Liberal Media at Work

Rick Perry in the NY Times

The above screenshot is from The New York Times. Their lede? Perry drowned out a heckler with a Texas college football reference. Now you know who to vote for.

So let's see if we can't get away from the Times front page for a little perspective.

Over at Salon.com, Joan Walsh puts the Texan on the grill:

Perry's Texas leads the nation in minimum-wage jobs, uninsured children, high school dropouts and pollution. He balanced the state's budget with stimulus money he railed against. His record won't back up his bragging.

The Wall Street Journal Op-Ed is hardly enthusiastic:

The questions about Mr. Perry concern how well his Lone Star swagger will sell in the suburbs of Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where the election is likely to be decided. He can sound more Texas than Jerry Jones, George W. Bush and Sam Houston combined, and his muscular religiosity also may not play well at a time when the economy has eclipsed culture as the main voter concern.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman, the Times Op-Ed columnist, is perhaps sharpest on the matter. How is Perry's Texas doing so well economically? In “The Texas Unmiracle” he gives two reasons: Big Oil and surprisingly strong mortgage regulations--the kind Republicans are usually against. Plus they're not necessarily doing well:

From mid-2008 onward unemployment soared in Texas, just as it did almost everywhere else.

In June 2011, the Texas unemployment rate was 8.2 percent. That was less than unemployment in collapsed-bubble states like California and Florida, but it was slightly higher than the unemployment rate in New York, and significantly higher than the rate in Massachusetts. By the way, one in four Texans lacks health insurance, the highest proportion in the nation, thanks largely to the state’s small-government approach.

So what about all those jobs Perry claims he added in Texas? The result of population growth more than anything:

Many of the people moving to Texas — retirees in search of warm winters, middle-class Mexicans in search of a safer life — bring purchasing power that leads to greater local employment. At the same time, the rapid growth in the Texas work force keeps wages low — almost 10 percent of Texan workers earn the minimum wage or less, well above the national average — and these low wages give corporations an incentive to move production to the Lone Star State.

So Texas tends, in good years and bad, to have higher job growth than the rest of America. But it needs lots of new jobs just to keep up with its rising population — and as those unemployment comparisons show, recent employment growth has fallen well short of what’s needed.

What else? Perry talked about seceding from the union. His Christianism is so overwhelming and political, he pisses off men of God. Oh, and he put an innocent man to death.

Posted at 05:07 AM on Aug 16, 2011 in category Politics, Media
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Monday August 15, 2011

Quote of the Day

Larry Bowa: And the thing is, he did it the right way--without steroids.
Mitch Williams: He did it with hay. Oats and hay.

--MLB Network announcers, and former Major Leaguers, reacting to the news of Jim Thome's 600th career homerun.

Jim Thome's 600th HR

My reaction? Thome is the 8th player in baseball history to do this. Derek Jeter was the 28th player in baseball history to reach 3,000 hits. Which got more press?

Posted at 09:41 PM on Aug 15, 2011 in category Baseball, Quote of the Day
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Hollywood B.O.: No Love for Terrence Malick

My favorite box office site, Box Office Mojo, includes not only individual movie pages but indvidual pages for actors and directors so it's easy to see how their films have done over the years. Sean Penn gets one, for example. Did you know no Sean Penn movie has grossed over $100 domestically? None. “Mystic River” came closest back in 2003: $90 mil. You can sort by opening weekend, adjust for inflation, etc. It's fun for box office geeks like me.

Apparently it's not difficult to get a page, since the site includes pages for Rupert Wyatt, director of “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (and one other film), Tate Taylor, director of “The Help” (and one other kinda film), and Steven Quale, director of “Final Destination 5” (and one other IMAX film).

Guess who doesn't have a page? Terrence Malick, the greatest director of the last 20 years. Did he not provide information they needed? Is it somehow his slight (of them) or their slight (of him)? Anyway it forced me to look at the box office for his films individually rather than collectively. I didn't know, for example, that “The Thin Red Line” had done so well at the box office: $36 million for an art film. “New World” grossed $12 mil. Now “The Tree of Life” is also around $12 mil. But of course you have to factor in the extra bucks from 3D for that one.

Kidding.

So no love for Terrence on BOM but here's some movie-theater love, if not necessarily movie-audience love. Not my pic. From Connecticut, I believe:

"Tree of Life" warning

Review of “Tree of Life” up tomorrow. (I didn't ask for my money back.)

Posted at 07:21 AM on Aug 15, 2011 in category Movies - Box Office
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Sunday August 14, 2011

How to Make a Heart: Take Two Shapes and Turn Them Into a More Complicated Shape

I wrote the following for an essay but it turned out to be the little darling that had to be cut. I offer it here instead:

My parents were married in 1960 and didn’t last much longer than their 13th wedding anniversary, for which, I remember, my older brother, younger sister and I made them a cake. It was single-layer and heart-shaped. You baked a cake in both a square and a round pan, set the square cake like a diamond, cut the round cake in half and then placed either end on the flat, upper-sides of the diamond. Voila: a heart. I liked how easy it was to make a heart: just take two familiar shapes and make that third, more complicated shape. It turned out that marriage—in which two familiar shapes make a third, more complicated shape—wasn’t so easy.

Posted at 07:38 AM on Aug 14, 2011 in category Quote of the Day
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Saturday August 13, 2011

Best at Something: My No. 1 Google Rankings

Several years ago my friend Mike told me he was going to be Best Man at an upcoming wedding. He paused a moment before adding, “It's nice to be best at something.”

In that spirit, here are a few of the Google searches where, according to statcounter.com, I have the No. 1 ranking. I've included links to where those searches lead. Your results may vary. Have at:

  • dialog between preacher meacham and doc earn God's presence cowboys and aliens = this review
  • HDNet what lead your brother to become a suicide bomber = this blog post
  • ivan vasilevich menyaet professiyu vladimer visotski = this blog post
  • certified copy, the whole purpose of life is to = this review
  • kimane maruge letter from president compensation = this review
  • angel toves = another review
  • f troop is fuzzy = yet another review
  • valid reasons why the yankees suck = this article
  • yankee fans batteries mariners = yep, this same article
  • average weekly movie attendance = post
  • midnight in paris quotes zelda fitzgerald you have a stuned look in your eyes, you look anesthetized, lobotomized = category of posts
  • I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life." = here
  • girl who played with fire how does lisbeth escape buried alive = here
  • Frank Crosetti Ball Four = here
  • johnny damon 3000 = here
  • Erik Lundegaard = whew

scene from "A Serious Man" (2009)

“Dad, 'F Troop' is fuzzy.” A serious man, making the world safe for unserious TV.

Posted at 06:50 AM on Aug 13, 2011 in category Technology, What Brings You Here
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Friday August 12, 2011

Movie Review: The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

WARNING: GO-GO GORILLA SPOILERS

We want the apes to win, don’t we? I didn’t realize that going in. We root for underdogs in movies and the original series began with apes in control and Charlton Heston mute (finally mute), so we root for the humans there. It’s not until the fourth in the series, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” with Roddy McDowell as Ceasar, son of Cornelius and Zira, the chimp couple who arrived from the future (for more sequels), that we finally get our ape on.

“Rise” is basically “Conquest,” so I should’ve realized where our sympathies would lie. But it goes beyond rooting for the underdog, doesn’t it? We arrive at the theater after another crappy day at the office, if we have an office to go to, and the news is all about the stock market dropping because of the debt in Europe, or the debt in America, or the S&P’s downgrade of the U.S.’s credit rating, with both political parties in the U.S., particularly the uncompromising one (you know), pointing fingers and chattering and pounding their chests, so you’re disgusted to begin with; then in the row in front of you, two slobs, slouched in their seats, knees up against the row in front of them, talk through the trailers and through the beginning of the movie and into the movie, and you think, “Really? You’re going to keep this up? You have so little regard for the rest of us, douchebags, that you treat this theater like it’s your own home entertainment system?”; and all of that just to watch, up on the screen, 30 feet high, pretty boy James Franco playing Will Rodman, supersmart scientist, and former supermodel Freida Pinto—one of the prettiest girls in the world—playing Caroline Aranha, just your run-of-the-mill zoo veterinarian who needs a date, and they’re such lies it makes you want to kick somebody, particularly the two louts who keep talking in front of you, and who force you, halfway through the movie, to change seats, as, on the screen, the apes, the intelligent apes, race through and tear up an office like the office you work in, and a traffic jam like the one you were stuck in, and a zoo full of more dolts and douchebags, full of the slackjawed, popcorn-munching endgame of humanity, and you think, “Yeah, that’s it, end it, wipe it all away. We don’t deserve it anymore. We’ve created crap. C’mon, monkeys, lay it all to fucking waste.”

Or am I projecting?

poster for "The Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011)“Rise” is smarter than “Conquest.” It’s “Conquest” injected with ALZ-112, the serum Dr. Rodman tests on monkeys to better treat Alzheimer’s patients like his father, Charles (John Lithgow).

The movie begins (and ends) in the jungle, as locals flush the monkeys and capture a few, including a smart female chimpanzee who becomes the focus of Dr. Rodman’s experiments. The drug not only makes her smarter, way smarter, it gives the irises of her eyes flecks of green, so she’s dubbed Bright Eyes—just as Zira in the original “Planet of the Apes” dubbed Charlton Heston’s character “Bright Eyes.” This monkey is about the be put on display before the money (not monkey) people when she gets aggressive, attacks her handlers, busts into the cafeteria, into the lobby, then crashes through the window where the money (not monkey) conference is being held. She’s shot to death by an alert guard. And there goes the ALZ-112 funding.

But guess what? Dr. Rodman discovers Bright Eyes wasn’t being aggressive. She’d been pregnant the whole time! And she’d just had her baby! So she was protecting her baby like any mother would!

So shouldn’t Rodman tell his overbearing boss, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo, British and therefore evil), about the baby chimp and save his ALZ-112 project? Or would he then have to admit that he’d had this chimp in his lab for months, testing it every day, and didn’t even know she was pregnant? Tough call.

The baby chimp, a male, also has flecks of green in his irises—ALZ-112 gets passed along, apparently—so Rodman does what any pretty-boy scientist would do when chimps all around him are losing their lives: He brings this one home and raises it like a son. And it is like a son. We watch the chimp, dubbed “Caesar,” grow from sweet boy to mischievous child to moody teen. We watch him watch the world from a round attic window and occasionally get into the action, which inevitably causes problems with Rodman’s rude neighbor Hunsiker (David Hewlett). As he figures out his place, he has questions, which he signs to Rodman. “Am I a pet?” “Where are my mother and father?” Rodman drives him to the lab and tells him the tale. It doesn’t sit well.

Rodman also tests ALZ-112 on his father, who is cured—temporarily, it turns out—but at least he gets his life back for several years. Amazing breakthrough. And who does Rodman tell? Jacobs? The press? The world? Nope. He tells no one. Because that’s not the story here.

The story here is how Caesar, from his attic window, sees the father, Charles, being attacked, or at least manhandled, by the rude neighbor, so Caesar attacks back with frightening rapidity, strength and smarts. He winds up in an animal control shelter, which seems nice, but it’s run by John Landon, played Brian Cox, who experimented on mutants in “X-Men 2,” and his son, Dodge, played by Tom Felton, who played Draco Malfoy in all the “Harry Potter” movies (poor bastard), so you know it’s going to be a hellhole. Which it is. The other monkeys there don’t help. Caesar tries to make friends but has his shirt torn off by the dominant monkey. A firehose is used on him by Malfoy. He pines in his cell and finds a piece of chalk and draws his old attic window on the wall and leans against it. (A very effective moment, actually.) Then he gets angry and begins to plot.

First he becomes the dominant monkey in the yard. Then he realizes he needs smarter companions, smarter apes (welcome to the party, pal), so he escapes, brings back canisters of ALZ-112, and rolls them through the monkey cages. When Malfoy wakes up the monkeys the next morning, there’s very little of the usual chatter. They’re all startlingly calm. They’ve woken up.

The turnabout at the animal shelter is the best scene in the movie and contains many an homage to the original series—including Charlton Heston, as Moses, on a nearby TV, and Malfoy shouting at Caesar “Get your stinkin’ paws off me you damned, dirty ape!”—but it’s more a “2001” moment than anything. Caesar takes the rod-like taser from Malfoy and raises it high in the air like the club in Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The evolutionary moment has arrived. We’re only missing Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

There’s an epic battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, which Caesar sees as the path to the redwood forests of northern California, which is where he wants to be. The bad guys get theirs, a few good monkeys die, and when Dr. Rodman shows up in the Redwoods and tells Caesar, “C’mon, let’s go home,” Caesar, who first spoke with one of the most powerful words in the English language, “No!,” whispers in his former owner/master/father’s ear, “Caesar is home”; then he climbs a tree and imperiously looks out over his domain. Caesar is also smart enough to know, as Dr. Rodman apparently is not, that there is no home anymore; that if they go there, they’ll find the cops and the U.S. Army and the entire international press corps waiting for them. You did WHAT? You made him into WHAT?

Despite my complaints, which include James Franco’s new “nothing” method of acting, “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” isn't a bad summer flick. As for what the apes can tear through and upend in “Apes II”? Here are a few suggestions: 1) the FOX-News studio, 2) a meeting of the Texas Board of Education, 3) a Michele Bachmann and/or Sarah Palin and/or Rick Perry event; 4) the Mall of America; and 5) a couple of douchebags, slouched in their seats, talking through a movie. With humans, really, the possibilities are endless.

Posted at 07:28 AM on Aug 12, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Thursday August 11, 2011

Lancelot Links

The international Fountain at the Seattle Center

The International Fountain at the Seattle Center last Saturday night, before taking in the Seattle Opera's production of ”Porgy & Bess."

Posted at 06:44 PM on Aug 11, 2011 in category Lancelot Links
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Quote of the Day

“This Shariah law business is crap. It’s just crazy, and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies. It’s just unnecessary to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious background.”

--Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, responding to questions about the campaign to villify his judicial appointee to the Superior Court in Passaic County, Sohail Mohammed. 

I've been on this story for awhile. Six years ago, the publication I work for featured Mohammed in the profile “First Call for Freedom.”

Mohammed, despite the crazies, wound up being confirmed. He's now the second Muslim judge in New Jersey. Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for Bloomberg News, applauds Christie here.

And here's the full Christie. Enjoy:

Posted at 06:37 AM on Aug 11, 2011 in category Culture, Politics
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Wednesday August 10, 2011

Movie Review: Sarah's Key (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS IN THE CLOSET

“Sarah’s Key” is half of a great movie.

The first hour details the horrors of holocaust better than recent films such as “City of Life and Death” and “John Rabe,” both about the Rape of Nanjing, or “Le rafle,” a French film about the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of Jews by the occupied French, and for the Nazis, in 1942. Those films tend toward melodrama. Here’s what I wrote about “Le rafle.”:

What is it with these recent movies about the horrors of World War II anyway? Why do we need to milk tragedy this way? Why is it not enough that Jewish mothers and children are stuffed into cattle cars bound for Poland? Do we need to intercut to the sympathetic, feverish nurse, biking to the train station on her last legs, on the hope that ... what? What if she got there in time? What could she do? Who would she stop? The French police? The Nazis? History? Yet the intercutting continues in order to heighten the drama. Or melodrama.

“Sarah’s Key,” based upon a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, and also about the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, is, for the most part, blunter and starker. Poster for "Sarah's Key" (2011)On July 16, 1942, two kids are playing under the sheets in their bedroom while their mother (Natasha Mashkevich, reminiscent of Diane Kruger in her beauty) smiles and does needlework. Then the knock on the door. The French official. All Jews are being rounded up. Schnell schnell! Apologies: Vite vite! The girl, Sarah Starzynski (an astonishing Mélusine Mayance), is a quick study and hides her baby brother Michel in a near-invisible bedroom closet and locks the door. She tells him not to make any noise; she promises to come back for him.

But if you know anything about the roundup you know there’s no coming back. The Jews were taken to the Vélodrome d'Hiver near the Eiffel Tower in Paris for several days; then they were transported by train to the Drancy internment camp; then most of them were sent to Auschwitz.

So the first half of the movie is driven by this question: Can Sarah, or someone in her family, escape and make it back in time to free Michel? That’s the key, or the palpable key, of the title. Sarah keeps gripping that key in her sweaty little hand. She holds onto it for dear life—the life of her brother, whom she promised to return for.

Intercut with this 1942 storyline is a contemporary one, featuring Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist for a dying international magazine, who is finally writing that in-depth piece on the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup she always wanted to write. She and her husband, Bertrand Tezac (Frédéric Pierrot), and their teenaged daughter, are also moving into his parents’ old place in the Marais district. Then she discovers she’s pregnant. Then she discovers that the Tezacs moved into their place in August 1942—a month after Vel’ d’Hiv—and that it originally belonged to the Starzynskis, whom she researches. So how culpable are her in-laws in the roundup? How culpable is she?

From her father-in-law, who was a boy at the time Sarah finally returned, she learns the full story. We’ve already watched Sarah survive Vel’ d’Hiv and Drancy—where she is separated from her father and mother—then overcome a three-day fever and escape the camp with a companion, who succumbs to her own fever in a small French town; and with each event, Sarah’s increasing panic becomes our own. We try to add up the time. A three-day fever? Weren’t they already at the velodrome for several days? Plus Drancy. Has it been a week yet? Longer? How long can a boy survive without food and water?

As a result, the primary horrors of “La ronde.,” which are milked unnecessarily, are here almost secondary horrors. Yeah yeah, there goes the father. Yeah yeah, mother and daughter being torn apart by French officials at Drancy. But what about Michel?

Sarah convinces the old farmers who have sheltered her, Jules and Geneviève Dufaure (Niels Arestrup of “Un Prophete” and Dominique Frot, both powerfully understated), to travel with her to Paris to free her brother. By then the Tezacs have moved in, but she pushes past them, puts the key in the lock and opens the door. By which time, of course, there’s not much of her brother left to free.

As soon as we see, or see the reaction to, what happened to Michel (“We thought a bird had died in a gutter,” the father-in-law tells Julia. “We closed the windows but the smell only got worse”), I immediately thought: OK. We’re halfway through the movie. What’s going to drive it forward now?

Answer: Not much.

Julia, obsessed, keeps researching Sarah’s story: How she grew up, strong and beautiful but distant, on that farm; how she left without a word, in ’53; how she made it to America, and met a man, and married, and had a child, who grew up to be Aidan Quinn living in Florence, Italy, but how she died in an automobile accident back in ’67, which we suspect wasn’t an accident at all but a suicide, and which we discover, later in the movie, yes, we were right, it was a suicide.

The story of Michel is focused and intense while this is unfocused and uncompelling. The movie becomes less about Sarah, who’s mysterious to all who know her, including us, than about Julia, who is researching all this because... ? Who knows? Even she doesn’t know. It becomes soft and distant, with well-off people viewing tragedy in the rearview mirror and holding hands with sad smiles over dinner or drinks. It does a disservice to the child Sarah’s story by making the adult Sarah a stranger to us. One can understand her eventual suicide—how, even in America, with a new family, she couldn’t escape her horrifying past—but one still wonders who she tried to become. One wonders about the conversations she had in her head with her parents and her brother. One wonders if she felt she owed it to them to live or owed it to them to end her life. But we can only wonder because the movie keeps Sarah, as Sarah keeps the world, at a distance.

As a child, Sarah Starzynski holds onto her key at all costs. Unfortunately, writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner lets our key to Sarah slip away.

Posted at 07:15 AM on Aug 10, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Tuesday August 09, 2011

Best Movie of the Summer?

They named it for a president. They made it soft and cuddly. But then the claws came out...

There's nothing more frustrating than seeing a great trailer like this, that promises a “Summer 2011” release, but then you can't find a release date on IMDb. I'm just saying that I hope somebody releases this thing soon because we need it. Caught between “Final Destination 5” and “The Help,” I'll take the action-adventure movie “The Teddy Bear,” starring Jordan Muschler and Ryan Muschler, thank you.

Posted at 06:05 PM on Aug 09, 2011 in category Trailers, Movies
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Monday August 08, 2011

Inspire Me Vaguely: How Hollywood thinks the movies inspire us; how they really do

“Inspire Me Vaguely” originally appeared under a different title in The Rake, a now-defunct, general-interest, Minneapolis magazine, in June 2006, and has since disappeared from the Web. Consider the following post both resurrection and refitting.

This June the American Film Institute (AFI) will count down the 100 most inspirational movies in Hollywood history. I’m not sure what that final list will look like but I’ve seen the 300 nominees and I’m disappointed that one of the most inspirational movies of all time—well, for my older brother anyway—was inexplicably left off.

That movie is “Evel Knievel,” a B-picture from 1971 starring George Hamilton as the daredevil motorcyclist. My brother saw it upon its release, and, 11 at the time, immediately set to work. He took my sister’s medium-sized play refrigerator, relegated to the garage, and laid it flat on the front sidewalk; then he found a sturdy wood plank and laid it on the prone refrigerator for his ramp; then he got on his banana-seat bicycle.

poster for Evel Knievel (1971)Initially it was enough to catch air but soon he was looking for things to jump: stuffed animals (too boring), then real animals (too disobedient), then real people (just right). It amazed me how many kids in the neighborhood would lie down on the wrong side of the refrigerator for him. At one point I think he jumped seven kids—all huddled together, scared and thrilled and giggling. The fun promptly stopped when a neighborhood mother glanced out her window and saw her youngest child, Geof, last in line, inches from my brother’s landing back tire.

So, yes, “Evel Knievel” was inspirational but not the kind of inspiration AFI has in mind. They’re thinking stand-up-and-cheer fare: “Rudy” and “Rocky,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” They want movies that inspire us vaguely (swell our chests) rather than specifically (give us the idea to jump the neighborhood kids on our banana-seat bicycle). They want good lawyers (“To Kill a Mockingbird”), good coaches (“Hoosiers”), good baseball players (“The Pride of the Yankees”), good prophets (“The Ten Commandments”) and good Gods (“King of Kings”). They want to counteract claims that Hollywood doesn’t represent American values anymore.

poster for "Birth of a Nation" (1915)Shame. What a discussion we could’ve had otherwise. You want inspiration? How about “Taxi Driver,” inspiration for John Hinkley, or “Death Wish,” inspiration for Bernie Goetz, or “The Candidate,” inspiration for Dan Quayle. Hell, let’s go with the granddaddy of them all, “The Birth of a Nation,” whose story of heroic whites protecting southern womanhood from rapacious darkies inspired William J. Simmons to reorganize the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Ah, for the days when Hollywood represented American values.

Movies are actually tailor-made for this kind of specific inspiration. What happens in a movie theater? First it gets dark, then you disappear. Then characters appear, larger than life. You become them. The are generally idealized human beings: better-looking and better-dressed, stronger and braver. You’re dazed when the lights go up. Who am I again? What am I supposed to do now? Woody Allen captured this feeling perfectly in “Play it Again, Sam.” While watching the final moments of Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca,” Allan Felix’s upper lip curls under his top teeth a la Bogart; then the lights go up and he turns into plain old Allan Felix again. We laugh at his predicament because we recognize ourselves in it. Drama is who we want to be; comedy is who we are.

I’ve felt that again and again at the movies. In the early 1970s my brother and I went to a re-release of “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid,” and when it was over and we were walking out of the theater, swaggering slightly, I was convinced, convinced, that the gaggle of girls a couple of rows back were looking at us and were amazed, amazed, by our resemblance to Paul Newman (my brother) and Robert Redford (me). What were we really? A skinny 12-year-old with brown hair and freckles and a blonde-banged 10-year-old schlub. This is close to dementia. It took me years to realize that not only was I not Robert Redford, I was Allan Felix.

Did you see “The Incredibles”? All the little boys running around afterwards like Dash. Parents think it’s cute, and it is, but Dash is the ultimate wish-fulfillment for a 4-year-old. Their whole lives, whenever they’ve run towards something interesting, someone picks them up and brings them back to a place that isn’t so interesting. But Dash is the fastest boy alive. A kid running like Dash is saying, “You will never fucking catch me again.”

poster for "Breaking Away" (1979)I ran after seeing a movie, too. Mine was “Rocky,” which is on the list of nominees, and will probably make the top three. When I got out of the theater it was evening, and, feeling pumped up, I began to run down the street. I ran all the way home without stopping. In high school I wound up on the cross-country team.

I biked after a movie, too. Mine was “Breaking Away,” which is also on the list of nominees and might make the top 100. At one point in the film Dave Stoller rides his bike on the freeway. He’s trailing behind a truck, and every time he appears in the truck’s side mirror, the driver indicates how fast they’re going by sticking fingers out the window: 4 for 40... 5 for 50...and then the triumph: 6 for 60! Afterwards I scoffed, “How can someone possibly ride their bike 60 miles an hour?” but my brother told me, “No no no, he was drafting. He was being pulled along by the truck. You can do that.” “Oh,” I said. Biking around one weekend, I came upon a freeway entrance, thought, “I should try that drafting thing,” and pedaled furiously onto the 77 North on-ramp. A minute later the freeway, thank God, drained into the south Lake Nokomis area. There had been no proper shoulder so I had been riding on the freeway, with cars honking and whizzing by me, drafting nothing. Afterwards I felt like a cat that had scurried across a busy street and found itself safe on the sidewalk again, wide-eyed and freaked but trying to maintain its dignity. Both of us probably with the same thought: “Well, that didn’t work.”

poster for Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" (1977)My most inspirational film may be “Annie Hall,” another unnominated film. I first saw it as an impressionable 14-year-old and upon watching it again 20 years later I suddenly realized that the loves of my life have tended to be like the title character: sweet, pretty, slightly daffy girls with long straight hair who are fun to be with. Maybe my heart would’ve gone in this direction anyway, but the fact that I don’t know is exactly the point. Woody Allen once said “The heart wants what it wants.” But does my heart want what Woody’s wants?

AFI will seem to be cheerleading for the industry with their list of vaguely inspirational films such as “Rudy” and “Erin Brockovich” and “Seabiscuit,” but they’ll actually be shortchanging it considerably. The movies are so powerful, we don’t know where they end and we begin.

      *  *  *

For this article I did something I hadn’t done in over 30 years: I watched “Evel Knievel” again. Unfortunately they copied the DVD from a bad print—there are pops and scratches and skips—and while George Hamilton isn’t bad playing Evel as public mischief-maker and private hypochondriac, the movie is awful. It obviously had no budget, and Evel’s career is glossed over in favor of, yes, how he won the love of his life. At the same time, there’s this kick-ass song, “I Do What I Please” (surely an anthem for any kid), and the footage of the real Evel jumping cars is still cool after all these years. Many of our cinematic forms of inspiration involve superhuman qualities—running like Dash, trying to bike 60 miles an hour, the Lone Rangeresque Klan of “Birth of a Nation”—and Evel fits right in. When he jumps, he’s defying gravity. Here, this is how inspiring the movies are: I sat there, a 43 year-old critic with notepad out and analytical abilities working, watching this stinky, low-budget thing, and man if I didn’t want to be that guy.

Posted at 06:43 AM on Aug 08, 2011 in category Movies
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Sunday August 07, 2011

Half of Mt. Pilchuck: Powder in August

I was late getting my teeth straightened and I was early losing (some of) my hair, so for a time, when I was 19, I feared I would exhibit the imperfections of youth and age simultaneously: bald with braces.

I remembered that post-adolescent injustice today while hiking Mt. Pilchuck in the Cascade Mountains. From the moment you get out of your car at the trailhead you're inundated with flies and mosquitoes. They're still bugging you an hour later, halfway through the hike, when the trail disappears under snow, making it difficult to continue unless you have serious hiking boots and ski poles.

Mosquitoes and snow? Imperfections of winter and summer? C'mon Nature, pick a season and end it.

For a time the hike seemed almost too pristine. Early on, it was a damp, a clue that the snow was still melting, but then it gave way to long stretches of a fairly easy, almost too easy, gradation. WTA had even built some steps into the hike. I breezed along, trying to get away from the bugs.

Around a corner the dirt-trail becomes a rock trail, which I find difficult to pick up. Ten minutes later, the rock trail disappears beneath patches of snow. Then “patches” disappears, leaving only the snow. This is as far as I got:

I could've gone further but at one point took a step and disappeared up to my knee. Bad sign.

On the way down I saw four dudes hiking up with skiis. “That's the idea,” I told them. They were pumped. Powder in August.

Posted at 05:24 PM on Aug 07, 2011 in category Hiking
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Saturday August 06, 2011

Aliens 'R' Us: How 9/11, the Holocaust and the Challenger disaster are evoked in “Cowboys & Aliens”

I didn't mention the following in my review of “Cowboys & Aliens” but it's been nagging at me enough to write about it now.

There are three scenes in the movie reminiscent of three real-life tragic events:

  1. Inside the aliens' spaceship, where humans are experimented upon to discover how to kill us (answer: easily), Jake (Daniel Craig) stumbles upon an old pile of eyeglasses and pocketwatches and things taken from victims. It's a horrific moment. Anyone who's seen any documentary about the Holocaust, particularly “Nuit et brouillard,” will be reminded of that great 20th century horror.
  2. The alien spaceship in the desert has the shape a skyscraper; and when Jake and company climb two-thirds of the way up and toss dynamite within, the ensuing explosion is like, you know, an explosion going off two-thirds of the way up a skyscraper. Which reminded me of the twin towers on 9/11.
  3. When the alien spaceship attempts to leave, it is blown up from within by Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), and the odd smoke configuration the blast leaves behind in the blue sky is reminiscent of the 1986 Challenger disaster.

I get why you might do 1). The aliens, after our gold—our gold, Dobbs!—are intent on perpetrating a Holocaust on the human race. They are the Nazis, we are the Jews. They are the bad guys, we are the good.

But why do 2) and 3)? In 2), the aliens are us, which makes us al-Qaeda. In 3), the aliens are us again, a sympathetic us, an us that attempts to slip the surly bonds of Earth and touch the face of God. It's completely at odds with both 1) and the entire thrust of the movie.

It could just be me, of course, seeing things that Jon Favreau doesn't. But a quick Internet search finds a few people with similar vision. Glenn Lovell over at cinemadope talks up the evocations of Challenger, while Ray Pride talks both Challenger and Holocaust at newcitynews.

I'd suggest that you decide for yourself but then you'd have to see the movie. And it's not worth the two hours of your life.

The Challenger disaster

Smoky pretty things.

Posted at 08:58 AM on Aug 06, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Friday August 05, 2011

Was Orson Welles Gay?

I'm taking a class at Northwest Film Forum on Orson Welles, taught by a woman who knew Welles briefly in the 1970s. The syllabus begins with “The Magnificent Ambersons” and ranges onto “Touch of Evil,” “Chimes at Midnight,” “The Stranger,” “Mr. Arkadin” and ends, where the film career began, with “Citizen Kane.”

In class on Monday, I had a question, a bit long (you know me), which went something like this:

  • If, as we've heard, the scenes at the Mirador Motel in “Touch of Evil” influenced Alfred Hitchcock in the making of “Psycho,” which starred Tony Perkins in what became the role of his lifetime ...
  • ... and Perkins subseqently starred in Welles' “The Trial” two years later ...
  • ... and three years later Welles cast a Perkins lookalike, Shakespearean actor Keith Baxter, to play Prince Hal opposite his Falstaff in “Chimes at Midnight” ...
  • ... well, is there anything to all this or is it just some interesting coincidences?

The teacher smiled and said it wasn't just coincidences. When pressed, she said that Perkins and Baxter were the type of man Welles was attracted to.

Orson Welles was gay? Or bi? I'd never heard this before. I guess David Thomson suggests as much in his bio “Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles.” I guess Simon Callow suggests as much in his series of bios on Welles. But Welles' daughter, Chris Welles Feder, who wrote her own book on Welles, dismisses the suggestion:

I try to read every book written about my father but I couldn’t even finish reading Rosebud! And in Road to Xanadu there is Simon Callow’s speculation about my father’s “homosexuality.” I asked Simon about that when he came to interview me at my place in New York. His first volume had already come out, so I said, “Simon, do you have any kind of positive proof that my father was homosexual, or is it all just second hand innuendo?” He had to admit he had no direct first hand evidence. It was all just innuendo. I even asked my mother about it, and she was so funny, she said, “oh, absolutely not!” I said, “Well Simon Callow has just published a book that suggests he was homosexual, and she said, “Oh, well that’s just wishful thinking on his part.”

I'll write more if I learn more.

Tony Perkins in "The Trial" (1962)

Hal Baxter as Prince Hal in Orson Welles' "Chimes at Midnight" (1965)

Top: Tony Perkins in Orson Welles' “The Trial” (1962). Bottom: Keith Baxter as Prince Hal in Orson Welles' “Chimes at Midnight” (1965).

Posted at 06:30 AM on Aug 05, 2011 in category Movies
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Thursday August 04, 2011

Look! On the Internet! It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Henry Cavill!

Here's the long shot:

Henry Cavill as Superman

And here's the close-up:

Henry Cavill as Superman (2012)

Jeff Wells talks a bit about the costume: the subdued reds, the criss-cross texture, the pleats of the cape. He's agin it. But he doesn't mention the most obvious deficiency:

Where's the curl?

This is a step back to George Reeves' Superman's hair. I'll gladly give up the red undies--which director Zack Snyder may in fact be doing. But the curl is as much part of Superman's coiffure as muttonchops are to Wolverine.

I'll say this, though. I don't know about Zack Snyder but at least Cavill looks like he means business.

Posted at 09:01 PM on Aug 04, 2011 in category Superman
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Seattle Sounders Win Best-of-Two Series, 1-1, against the Panamanians of San Francisco

My friend Parker told me yesterday afternoon that he had an extra ticket to the Seattle Sounders soccer game that evening and would I like to go? I did a quick mental check: Nothing planned. I looked outside: sunny and in the 70s. I thought about the sport: knew nothing. Why not?

Here's how much I don't know about soccer. I assumed it was still the regular season. But apparently the regular season is over and the Sounders won the championship. Or something. So what was this game? In this game, the Sounders, the best team in the MLS this season, played the best team from another league, a Panamanian team called San Francisco, whose colors, red and blue, happened to be the colors of the old Barcelonan futbol jersey (Rivaldo: 10) that I wore to the game. Oops. Almost everyone else in the stands was in Sounders/Xbox highlighter neon-green. Pity.

So: soccer. Two halves, 45 minutes each. But they count up. That was a surprise. In the second half they don't start over, either, but continue to 90. When that's over they sometimes (all the time?) add extra minutes for time lost due to injuries, set-ups, yadda yadda. I don't know who calculates the extra minutes. I don't know where those extra minutes are displayed in the stadium. But someone, somewhere, counts down. Or up.

No scoring for a while (this is soccer), but then the Sounders, who controlled the ball for most of the game and had many more shots on goal than Panama (San Francisco), head-butted one in for a 1-0 lead. And that's how it stayed until the 90 minutes were up. We won! Yayyyy! Sorry, what was that? Right, extra time. Then that ended, too. We won! Yayyyy! Sorry, what was that?

It still wasn't over. Apparently they'd already played one game in Panama, which ended 1-0 for Panama/SF, so now the series was tied 1-1, and the score was tied 1-1. They needed to break the tie to end the series.

“They play a best-of-two series?” I asked.

“Apparently,” Parker said.

“Huh,” I said.

So we settled back in. By which I mean we continued to stand, since everyone in our section stood throughout the game.

Thankfully the Sounders scored about halfway into the 15-minute overtime period to make it 2-0, Sounders, or 2-1 in the series. We won! Yayyyyy!

But they kept playing.

“They must finish out the 15-minute set,” Parker said.

“Right,” I said.

And they did. And we won. But they kept playing.

Two 15-minute overtime sets,” Parker said to me.

“Right,” I said.

The Sounders were playing a more cautious game now, which led to more shots-on-goal for the Panamanians of San Francisco, but nothing got in. And the clock counted up to 30. Which was 120. And that was that, right? We won, yay? No, they kept playing.

“The time-add thing,” Parker said.

“Where are they counting up?” I asked. “I don't see it anywhere.” The clock in the stadium was frozen on 30. Which was 120.

“They do it on TV anyway,” Parker said, looking around.

So the game continued. Until it didn't. The ball was in the Sounders corner, controlled by the Sounders, and a Panama/SF striker made an effort for the ball, and then everyone relaxed and walked off the field. And the remaining fans cheered.

“That's it?” I said to Parker.

“That's it,” he said.

“We won?” I said.

“We won,” he said.

“1-0 in regular time? And 2-0 in overtime? And the best-of-two series 1-1?”

“Yep,” Parker said.

No wonder soccer is the most popular sport in the world.

The Seattle Sounders vs. the Panamanians of San Francisco

The action.

Posted at 07:05 AM on Aug 04, 2011 in category Sports
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Wednesday August 03, 2011

More People Don't Bicycle Because of ... Bicyclists?

While we were visiting Portland in June I noticed a few people riding bikes, slowly—almost purposefully slowly—in everyday clothes. It reminded me of a European city more than an American city. It seemed pretty cool.

I didn't know it was a movement.

Yesterday on his blog, Andrew Sullivan quoted both Celeste LeCompte (Special to the San Francisco Chronicle) and Felix Salmon (a Reuters blogger) praising the slow bike movement. Both believe it encourages other people to ride. Both insinuate that the reason there are not more bike-riders is the bike-riders we already have.

LeCompte:

For some San Franciscans, seeing slow-riding folks like Logan and Stockmann out on the road can be a refreshing encouragement to hop on two wheels for a daily commute or a quick trip to the farmers' market. ... Being a Slow Bike Rider may mean being left behind by the pack of spandex-wearing cyclists in the mornings, but it also means getting to know more about the rest of your community.

Salmon:

If you live in a city where women in wedge heels are steering their old steel bikes around their daily errand route, there’s really nothing intimidating or scary about the prospect of getting on a bike yourself. If it’s all hipsters on fixies, by contrast, that just makes biking feel all the more alien and stupid.

I'm sure this is part of it. No one wants to join a group in which they'll feel unwelcome or unhip.

At the same time, I've had quite a few people ask me, often shyly, about biking to work, and what it's like, and how long it takes, etc. etc., but whenever I suggest they do it themselves and they beg off, the main reason they give is their perception of how dangerous it is. They're not fearful of “spandex-wearing cyclists” or “hipsters on fixies”; they're fearful of cars. They don't want to be exposed in traffic. They don't want to die.

With reason.

To ignore this in any discussion about cycling is to ignore the SUV in the room.

Posted at 07:38 AM on Aug 03, 2011 in category Biking
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Tuesday August 02, 2011

Movie Review: Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

During the climactic battle sequence in “Cowboys & Aliens,” in which Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) leads a rag-tag team of Indians and outlaws in an attack on an alien spaceship ensconced in the desert, while Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) and Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), having freed the town captives within, crawl deeper into the spaceship to blow it up, I was thinking the following:

Hey, there are nine lights on this side of the theater while the other side has only eight. Is that right? Yep, only eight. Where’s the missing one? Five before the exit sign on each side. That’s not it. But four after the exit sign here and only three there. And there it is. The top light is out. They should fix that.

Not a good sign.

The movie opens in a scabby section of the American Southwest, pans right, and, boom, up pops Lonergan. Movie poster for "Cowboys & Aliens" (2011)He’s in a panic and in pain. He reaches for his right side, where he’s bleeding, when he notices the high-tech metal bracelet on his left wrist. He claws at it, uses a rock to try to bash it off. Captive animals, tagged and released into the wild, come to mind.

Then three grubby men ride into view, take him for an escaped outlaw, and get ready to kill him for the bounty. “It’s not your lucky day, stranger,” the clan leader says. That “stranger” part is correct, since Lonergan doesn’t even know his own name, but the rest? The reverse. Lonergan attacks and kills all three, takes their boots, belts and guns, and heads off into the nearby town of Absolution to fix himself up.

Not a bad open, I thought. A classic western stranger. A new “man with no name.” Plus Daniel Craig is cool and intense in the usual Daniel Craig way.

In Absolution, he keeps running into interesting characters played by interesting character actors: Meacham (Clancy Brown), the town preacher, and moral authority of the film; Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano) the spoiled son of Woodrow, who likes to shoot up the town; Doc (Sam Rockwell), the town saloonkeeper and everyman, who doesn’t know how to shoot a gun and thus can’t defend himself or his Mexican wife; and Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine), sighing, and trying to keep the peace.

I was even beginning to enjoy myself. I’d always liked the whole “cowboys and aliens” concept. As soon as I heard it, I thought: Of course. If aliens land, why would they only land in the 20th century? Why couldn’t they land earlier when we were truly, hopelessly outmatched? Pit them against grubby men with Colt revolvers. Combine the classic “stranger” narratives of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The movie, I knew, had a low Rotten Tomatoes score, 44%, but, in the darkened theater, I was beginning to think the critics were wrong.

Then the movie began to go wrong.

At one point, Meacham says to Jake, “I’ve seen good men do bad things and bad men do good things,” which is a bit too all-encompassing for the circumstances. It’s the movie announcing its theme as subtly as a fifth grader writing a theme paper.

There’s a snatch of dialogue between Doc and his wife that suggests an unnecessary, unwelcome backstory. These begin to multiply. Col. Dolarhyde spoils one son but ignores the other, Nate Colorado (Adam Beach), an Indian orphan from a long-ago attack whom he’s raised without love or attention. Sheriff Taggart has a grandson who keeps tagging along and taking up valuable screen time. Doc is taught to shoot a gun.

Plus Jake is not only not “a man with no name” but a man with several pasts. He’s an outlaw who led a gang that robbed gold from Dolarhyde. No, wait, he abandoned that gang for the woman he loved, a former whore. No, wait, he finally remembers the following scene. He comes home, splashes gold pieces on the kitchen table, and his wife, the former whore, objects.

She: You gotta take it back.
He: Like hell I will.
She: That’s blood money!
He: That’s gonna get us what we need!

Of all the scenes to remember, he has to remember the one with such lousy dialogue.

After aliens attack and lasso townsfolk from their spaceships, and Jake downs one such ship with the high-tech gadget on his wrist—he and his wife were taken before, we find out; he escaped—a posse is formed to track the wounded alien. Dolarhyde wants his son back, Doc his wife, the boy his grandfather, so they do what they know, form a posse, even as they’re unsure what they’re tracking. Is it a demon? Is God punishing them? They have no clue what’s going on but they act as if they’re familiar with the tropes of the genres. The whole alienness of the situation should’ve increased tenfold. They should’ve gotten on their knees and prayed to God. They should’ve clung to Meacham, the preacher, and begged for understanding.

Is all the good dialogue in the movie Meacham’s? As they ride along, slowly, Doc complains about his life as if he were a twentysomething liberal arts grad, and suggests, from the evidence, that there’s either no God or one who doesn’t care about him. Meacham responds: “You’ve got to earn His presence; you’ve got to recognize it; then you’ve got to act on it.” Wow. That’s pretty good for a preacher in the middle of a posse. So who’s the first to die? Meacham, of course. “We’re screwed now,” I thought.

Indeed. The aliens, it turns out, are merely scouts after our gold, and they’re kidnapping our people to see what it takes to kill us, all of us, but that’s not the problem with the movie. The problem with the movie is this: When deciding between doing what’s true for the characters or what furthers the clichés of the genre, the filmmakers, director Jon Favreau and his six screenwriters, always opt for the latter. They’re not interested in the perspective of their 19th-century characters; they’re only interested in the perspective of their 21st-century audience. Dolarhyde and Lonergan are assholes not because life is hard but so they can redeem themselves in the end. The town’s name is a giveaway. The theme Meacham stated earlier is a giveaway. Lonergan, always on the verge of leaving, always has to return as if it’s a surprise. Doc, like Sgt. Powell in “Die Hard,” has to shoot to kill at just the right moment. Dolarhyde has to bond with the boy; he has to come to an understanding with Nate; he has to save the Indian chief so the two, in the midst of battle, can give each other a nod of understanding.

It’s all so false and awful that the difference between the number of lights on each side of the theater suddenly seems like a fascinating area for your mind to go.

Posted at 07:52 AM on Aug 02, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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