erik lundegaard

Wednesday February 29, 2012

Movie Review: One Day (2011)

WARNING: A SPOILER A DAY

“One Day” is a gimmicky little film that doesn’t deliver. It gives us one day a year for 20 years in the lives of Emma (Anne Hathaway), a smart, mousy girl who loves Dexter, and Dexter (Jim Sturgess), an attractive, outgoing, shallow lad who's too busy sowing wild oats to get serious about Emma. That’s the film’s main conflict: When will they get together? This year? Next?

The day in question is always July 15th, or St. Swithin’s Day in Britain, which is famous because of the following traditional verse:

St. Swithin's day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin's day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain nae mair.

poster for "One Day" (2011)I knew about the day mostly because of the Billy Bragg song, and because it sounds so fantastically British: Swithin’s. According to a quick online search, St. Swithin was “a Saxon Bishop of Winchester. He was born in the kingdom of Wessex and educated in its capital, Winchester. He was famous for charitable gifts and building churches.”

So is the movie about building churches? No. Is it about the weather? Not so much. Does it have anything to do with Billy Bragg’s song of lost love?

The Polaroids that hold us together
Will surely fade away
Like the love we spoke of forever
On St. Swithin's Day.

Sort of. But the movie fudges things in the manner of movies about love.

It begins chronologically in the late 1980s with the graduation of Emma and Dexter from college. Each has grand plans. She’s moving to London to write a book. He’s going to France to... I forget what. Learn about other cultures and then forget them.

In London, Emma winds up working long hours in a cheesey Mexican restaurant and getting nowhere with her writing and feeling defeated. Eventually she becomes a teacher involved with the wrong guy, Ian (Rafe Spall), a drab fellow who wants to be a stand-up comedian even though nothing he says is remotely funny.

Dexter winds up breezing through life. Before we know it, he’s the host of a loud, shallow TV show aimed at loud, shallow twentysomethings who like clubbing and video games. His dying mother (Patricia Clarkson) is appalled that he’s wasting his talents and his time in this manner. His father (Ken Stott) is merely appalled. He feels his son is drinking too much and not spending enough time with his dying mother. We’re supposed to take the father’s side in this, but the structure of the film, the one-day-per-year template, doesn’t allow for much emotional involvement. The father harangues the son for drinking before we even realize he’s drunk, for example.

Then fortunes change. Emma breaks it off with Ian, writes a book, it’s popular, and she moves to Paris and meets a gorgeous Parisian man. Dexter gets married to a busty blonde, has a kid, but loses his job and can’t find another. His wife cheats on him with his best friend. He’s washed-up and gray at 30.

But Emma still takes him back. She ditches Frenchy for him. True love.

With the central tension of the film thus resolved, other tensions need to emerge. They do. Year by year, Emma: 1) wants a kid; 2) still hasn’t had a kid; 3) dies in a biking accident. All on St. Swithin’s Day.

Afterwards, director Lone Scherfig (“An Education”) and screenwriter David Nicholls (from his novel) do a good call-back to that first St. Swithin’s Day, in the late 1980s, and to a moment where the relationship could’ve deepened immediately but didn’t. There’s a sadness to it, certainly, this early scene, but it’s not the sadness of the Billy Bragg song. Bragg’s sadness is about how love, which we claim to be forever, fades. “One Day” claims that love is forever. So the sadness of the callback, and of the movie, relates to the earlier, shallow choices Dexter made with his life and his love. It’s about all that time wasted.

I would argue that, regardless of what we do with time, whether we “waste” it like the grasshopper (Dexter), or "make proper use of it” like the ant (Emma), it keeps going. That's what's truly sad. It's not about bad choices made but of any choices made. Time takes us from a place where we are young and have many choices to where we are old and have but one: death. It takes us to the moment when one of us is gone and the other is mourning, to the moment when both of us are gone and what survivors we have are mourning, to the moment when both of us are long-gone and there’s no one left to mourn.

Love the poster, though.

Posted at 07:04 AM on Feb 29, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Tuesday February 28, 2012

Quote of the Day

“The studios that churn out 'This Means War' and its ilk ... seem geuinely worried that an audience left to contemplate human deeds without the assistance of sonic or editorial frenzy might start to think for itself. People might look at Chris Pine's eyes and wonder, first, why a blue so startling and unreal should suggest not the gleam of a born seducer but one of the stronger brands of industrial cleaning gel. And, second, whether the character he depicts here, for all its vigor, is anything more than a jerk.

”That is certainly how Lauren [Reese Witherspoon] reads him at the start. They meet at a video store, a setting that might have seemed fresh and topical sometime around the summer of 1993. He actually says, 'I know movies. And women,' a boast that would be correct only if uttered by George Cukor.“

--Anthony Lane in ”The Current Cinema: Big Men," in the 2/27/12 issue of The New Yorker

George Cukor and the cast of "The Women"

Cukor and subject. His IMDb CV.

Posted at 02:28 PM on Feb 28, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday February 27, 2012

Jason Varitek, of Varitek-and-Lowe-for-Slocumb, Retires from Major League Baseball

Jason Varitek is retiring from Major League Baseball.

Most baseball fans associate Varitek with Alex Rodriguez because of this fight from July 2004:

Varitek and A-Rod fight, July 2004

He's the one smooshing A-Rod's face.

I associate him with A-Rod for another reason.

During the early morning hours of July 31, 1997, I had a bad dream. I was back in my father's house in south Minneapolis, and the window in my old room was open and there was a nice summer breeze billowing the curtains. On the radio I heard something about a baseball trade. It was fuzzy at first, then had startling clarity. The Seattle Mariners had traded shortstop Alex Rodriguez to the Chicago Cubs for shortstop Shawon Dunston and pitcher Steve Trachsel. The news was delivered in by-the-way fashion, without much commentary, because it was Minneapolis, not Seattle, and no one really cared. So I tried to contact my friends in Seattle who knew the National League better than I did. Dunston? Trachsel? What the fuck? Did this make any sense at all?

I'd like to say I woke up in a cold sweat but probably not. I did wake up relieved, however. Thank God! The M's still had A-Rod! General Manager Woody Woodward hadn't blown it.

Yet.

That happened later in the day when Woody traded our other budding superstar, Jose Cruz, Jr., to the Toronto Blue Jays for relief pitchers Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric.

Several years later, my punchline went something like this: “The worst part? That wasn't even Woody's worst trade that day.”

When we traded Cruz, Jr., he was young and had an OPS of .856 and it seemed the sky was the limit. Turned out .856 was the limit. He retired in 2008 with a .247/.337/.445 line. And while Spoljaric combusted, Timlin endured and won two World Series rings as a solid bullpen member of two Boston Red Sox championship teams.

No, the worst trade that day was to those Red Sox: Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek for relief pitcher Heathcliff Slocumb.

The 1997 Seattle Mariners, you see, had been forever blowing ballgames, and not in the manner of the 1919 Chicago White Sox. We had a lineup. A line-fucking-up. Griffey and A-Rod and Buhner and Edgar and Cruz, Jr. and Paul Sorrento. We scored tons. Then our bullpen always blew it. We seemed poised to go to the World Series, to be a dynasty. Then Woody Woodward blew it. At the trade deadline, he finally went for the bullpen help we needed and it wasn't what we needed.

At the time, it wasn't so much what we traded as what we traded for. We didn't know much about these kids, Derek Lowe, who'd had a cup, and Jason Varitek, who hadn't; but Heathcliff Slocumb had numbers. He was 0-5 with an ERA over 5.00 for Boston. Did we really want this guy on a team that was already forever blowing ballgames?

We didn't. We were smouldering, licking flames, and he was gasoline. In two years with the Mariners he went 2-9 with a 4.97 ERA. He would last in Major League Baseball only two more years, by which time Jason Varitek was Boston's regular catcher. By 2003, Derek Lowe would go 21-8 and finish third in the A.L. Cy Young balloting. He pitched the Game 4 comeback against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and then won Game 7 to seal the deal. He was the winning pitcher in Game 4 of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals--the victory that finally brought a championship to Boston after 86 years of futility. He was that guy. The guy we traded. Him and Varitek. For Heathcliff Slocumb.

Varitek caught those amazing games. He caught the final strike in the 2007 World Series and jumped into the arms of closer Jonathan Papelbon. After the final out of the 2004 World Series he jumped into the arms of closer Keith Foulke. It made the cover of TIME magazine in October. Here it is:

Jason Varitek and Keith Foulke: Time magazine, October 2004

Here's the 2004 World Series trophy:

That's Lowe is on the left. That's Varitek next to him. Together again and for all time.

In Seattle, we probe the wound. The Bleacher Report named Jason Varitek the 11th greatest player in any sport, and fourth greatest in baseball, who never played for the team that drafted him. ESPN's Page 2 named the Lowe-Varitek for Slocumb trade the seventh-worst deadline trade in MLB history.

In Seattle, at Safeco Field, we count our pennants flapping in the breeze.

Zero.

For Heathcliff Slocumb.

My unconscious was trying to warn me something in the early morning hours of July 31, 1997, but I didn't know what it was. I thought it was A-Rod; but it was the guy smooshing A-Rod's face.

Farewell, Jason. We never knew ye.

Posted at 10:51 PM on Feb 27, 2012 in category Baseball
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Quote of the Day

“The fact that the Oscar telecast is a bust, that it is doomed—almost designed—to be a bust, and that the varying degrees of bustness are all that separates one year from the next, should neither surprise nor even dismay us, because the Academy Awards are like teen-age sex. It’s all about the fizzing buildup, and the self-persuading aftermath: the occurrence itself, nowadays, is nothing but fumble and flub...”

-- Anthony Lane, “The Oscars: Man or Muppet?” on The New Yorker site, in what is easily the best post-Oscar commentary. Most critics fulminate. They snipe. Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes of The New York Times write about the Academy's doomed ratings ... even though, they admit, the ratings were up 3.7 percent. The Hollywood Reporter slams host Billy Crystal, as it slams all hosts, even though he was funny and got off several of the evening's best lines, particularly: “Nothing takes the sting out of these tough economic times like watching a bunch of millionaires giving golden statues to each other.” Julia Turner over at Slate.com actually criticized the way Penelope Cruz looked. (“The look is blah ... stupid princess gown.”) Lane keeps the proper distance. He expects little and is amused when he gets less. He unleashes bon mots with a shrug. All other critics should read and learn.

Ryan Seacrest and Sasha Baron Cohen on the red carpet. Cohen is the one with a sense  of humor.

Ryan Seacrest,” Lane writes, “whose very name resembles a brand of luxury yacht, so smooth are the waves on which he sails through life...” Choppier waters here thanks (and yes, thanks) to Sacha Baron Cohen.

Posted at 07:23 PM on Feb 27, 2012 in category Quote of the Day, Movies - The Oscars
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Sunday February 26, 2012

The 2011 Academy Awards - Postmortem

At the start of the evening I said I wanted one thing: pleasant surprises. I didn't get any and won my Oscar pool—or at least split it four ways: with Mr. B, Mr. P and Jayne. If Viola had won I would've won it outright. But how can you not love Meryl? And her speech? In 2005, I wrote an MSNBC piece on which performers were overdue for an Oscar, and brought up her name even then:

An argument could be made that the actress most-due is Meryl Streep. Yes, she’s won, twice in fact (lead and supporting), but not since 1982. Since then she’s been nominated nine times (eight lead, one supporting). Time to get her out of her seat already.

Even so, this was the wrong year. Should've been Viola's year.

So what were the surprises--pleasant or otherwise? That “The Artist” won? Dujardin? Davis? “Midnight in Paris”? “The Descendants”? That Billy Crystal was funny? It seems we have the Academy figured out. Too bad.

I guess the big surprise for us was that Uncle Vinny left early. What the hell, dude? I kept looking for you to share something and found you gone.

The line of the night, at our party, came from David, who, after Penelope Cruz said something innocuous like “And the winner is...,” but in her dynamite accent, and of course looking like she does, David, after a pause, asked, “Can we rewind that?”

Amen.

Our 2012 Oscar party.

Mr. B raises faux-Oscar high after tying with three others for first place. But he gave a helluva speech.

Posted at 11:00 PM on Feb 26, 2012 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Woody Allen at the Oscars 2002

I saw this video clip on Slate.com today of Woody Allen's only Oscar visit in 2002. It was great seeing it again. I realized what a terrific person he was, and how much fun it was just listening him. And I thought of that old joke. Y'know, this... this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken.” And the doctor says, “Well, why don't you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about my relationship with Woody. It's totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd. But I guess I keep going through it because ... I need the eggs.

Posted at 02:55 PM on Feb 26, 2012 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Lancelot Links: Oscar Edition

  • The most interesting piece I've read this Oscar season is the least-surprising. Three reporters at The LA Times, John Horn, Nicole Sperling and Doug Smith, finally break the cloak on anonymity that has always surrounded the Academy and give us exact numbers ... and it's pretty much as we always suspected: Oscar is old, white and male. Specifically, he's 94% white, 77% male, and with an average age of 62. I once compared the Academy to Gordon Jump on “WKRP in Cincinnati” and it's not far off. The surprise? I always assumed the Academy was made up of past nominees and winners but 64% of its members, including TV stars Erik Estrada and Gavin McLeod, have never been nominated. So how did they get in? We don't really get that from the Times. We don't get a sense of who gets invited and why. Apparently women and non-whites are still vast minorities in terms of even new membership. At the same time, I don't think this kind of rash action is doing anyone any good:

“People of color are always peripheral,” said veteran African American character actor Bernie Casey (“Under Siege”), who said he recently quit the academy because he was disenchanted with its racial makeup.

No live-blogging tonight kids. Oscar hosting. But I'm sure I'll have an opinion or two when the night is through...

Berenice Bejo in "The Artist"

Oui, vous est tres jolie. Je t'aime, vraiment. Mais... meilleure actrice?

Posted at 07:56 AM on Feb 26, 2012 in category Movies - The Oscars, Lancelot Links
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Friday February 24, 2012

From 'Godfather' to 'Crash': My Rankings of Most Every Best Picture Winner Since 1927

Meh.

That's what surprised me most. Not that I loved or hated most of the best picture winners since 1927 but that I didn't have much feeling one way or another. “The Departed”? “The English Patient”? “Rain Man”? “The Deer Hunter”? “In the Heat of the Night”? “From Here to Eternity”? “Lost Weekend”? Did I even see “Lost Weekend”? What do I really remember about it? Maybe better put that in the NOT SEEN group. Only fair.

In his discussion yesterday on the New Yorker site, critic Richard Brody said the switch from five best picture nominees to 10, or 9, or what have you, was a good thing, because it inspired passion among moviegoers. Which is something the Academy is generally good at tamping down. These films are sometimes an example of that.

I certainly have passion for my top 10. I have a different kind of passion for my bottom five. But the middle took a lot of rejiggering and soul-searching. How to rank this movie? By my feeling upon first watching it? By my feelings now? By how much I'd like to watch it again? By how deep it is, or how well it tells its story, or exemplifies its genre?

I wound up choosing an awkward mix of all of these criteria and it was still tough. I kept going back and forth. Am I putting this one low because so many people like it? Am I putting this one high because so many people don't? It's hard to separate your feelings from society's but you give it a go. In the end I thought “Would I rather watch 'Lord of the Rings: Return of the King' right now or 'Driving Miss Daisy'?” I may be the only person this side of Bruce Beresford who would answer the latter. Probably not him, either.

Revelation: I like big and boldly drawn: “My Fair Lady” and “Gone with the Wind” and “Patton” and “Titanic.” Yes, “Titanic.” A friend of mine, a songwriter, always runs across contemporaries who disparage middle-of-the-road work, but he says that's what he strives for. He thinks of it like a mountain, where the middle is the highest point, and the hardest to attain. Some of these big movies do that.

Lesser revelation: I dig the '70s. It was the glory period of American filmmaking, easy riders and raging bulls and all that. It was also the period I first became aware of the Oscars. I was coming of age then. The Academy seemed important then. Maybe it was. Maybe it honored more important movies. And even when it didn't, as in '76, choosing “Rocky” over “All the President's Men,” “Network” and “Taxi Driver,” well, its choice was still a good movie. “Rocky” is another boldly drawn story but finely defined along the edges. It has patience and grit. It tells its tale really, really well. It's not its fault it had so many awful children.

Sometimes the titles get in the way. They're so storied, I think, “Shouldn't this be higher?” Then I think about what the film is, what it lacks, and go, “Meh.”

But, really, you can make your argument for No.s 25 through 60 and I'll probably buy it. To do this properly, I'd have to watch all of these movies again but who wants to do that? They're only best pictures.

Final note: I've also included a column on the greatest disparities between my opinion and the mass opinion on IMDb. No surprise: The movies I love and they didn't tend to be musicals. There's a +63 variance for “An American in Paris,” +41 for “West Side Story,” and +35 for “My Fair Lady.” The next one is “Titanic,” which feels like a musical. On the other side of the equation, movies they loved and I didn't, we have the recent and the blockbusty: “Forrest Gump” at -57, “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” at -52, and “Braveheart” at -50. We agreed on exactly two: “The Godfather” and “Cuckoo's Nest.”

Enjoy. Your results will vary.

MY RANK
MOVIE IMDb RANK IMDb RATING IMDb VOTES ME v. IMDb
1 The Godfather (1972) 1 9.2 535,083 0
2 Annie Hall (1977) 25 8.2 87,916 23
3 Casablanca (1943) 6 8.7 209,989 3
4 The Godfather, Part II (1974) 2 9.0 336,575 -2
5 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) 5 8.8 300,314 0
6 On the Waterfront (1954) 12 8.4 52,369 6
7 Amadeus (1984) 12 8.4 128,078 5
8 Lawrence of Arabia (1962) 11 8.5 98,407 3
9 All About Eve (1950) 12 8.4 43,955 3
10 An American In Paris (1951) 73 7.2 11,808 63






11 Unforgiven (1992) 22 8.3 135,496 11
12 My Fair Lady (1964) 47 7.9 35,262 35
13 Gone With the Wind (1939) 25 8.2 106,428 12
14 The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) 12 8.4 76,003 -2
15 No Country For Old Men (2007) 25 8.2 274,692 10
16 West Side Story (1961) 57 7.7 37,371 41
17 The Sting (1973) 12 8.4 85,891 -5
18 Rocky (1976) 34 8.1 143,362 16
19 The Silence of the Lambs (1991) 6 8.7 344,094 -13
20 Patton (1970) 38 8.0 49,384 18






21 The Sound of Music (1965) 47 7.9 68,810 26
22 The Last Emperor (1987) 54 7.8 33,160 32
23 American Beauty (1999) 10 8.5 389,392 -13
24 Schindler's List (1993) 3 8.9 375,193 -21
25 Hamlet (1948) 47 7.9 6,557 22
26 The French Connection (1971) 47 7.9 42,667 21
27 All Quiet On the Western Front (1930) 34 8.1 28,205 7
28 The Deer Hunter (1978) 25 8.2 117,540 -3
29 Midnight Cowboy (1969) 38 8.0 42,805 9
30 It Happened One Night (1934) 22 8.3 32,375 -8






31 Titanic (1997) 64 7.5 336,027 33
32 The Apartment (1960) 12 8.4 49,785 -20
33 Dances With Wolves (1990) 38 8.0 94,144 5
34 All the King's Men (1949) 62 7.6 5,597 28
35 A Man For All Seasons (1966) 38 8.0 14,614 3
36 Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) 57 7.7 40,353 21
37 Platoon (1986) 25 8.2 145,818 -12
38 The Hurt Locker (2009) 57 7.7 137,683 19
39 In the Heat of the Night (1967) 38 8.0 26,928 -1
40 Rain Man (1988) 38 8.0 165,428 -2






41 Driving Miss Daisy (1989) 66 7.4 30,411 25
42 Gandhi (1982) 34 8.1 71,833 -8
43 Rebecca (1940) 12 8.4 45,011 -31
44 Million Dollar Baby (2004) 25 8.2 204,335 -19
45 Slumdog Millionaire (2008) 25 8.2 269,582 -20
46 Chariots of Fire (1981) 73 7.2 20,114 27
47 Chicago (2002) 73 7.2 99,936 26
48 Terms of Endearment (1983) 70 7.3 21,085 22
49 The English Patient (1996) 70 7.3 72,322 21
50 Gladiator (2000) 12 8.4 397,268 -38






51 You Can't Take It With You (1938) 38 8.0 10,500 -13
52 Shakespeare In Love (1998) 70 7.3 97,391 18
53 The Departed (2006) 9 8.5 368,308 -44
54 The King's Speech (2010) 25 8.2 155,972 -29
55 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) 3 8.9 501,289 -52
56 How Green Was My Valley (1941) 47 7.9 8,993 -9
57 Ordinary People (1980) 54 7.8 20,192 -3
58 The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) 22 8.3 21,793 -36
59 From Here To Eternity (1953) 47 7.9 19,141 -12
60 A Beautiful Mind (2001) 38 8.0 202,651 -22






61 Gentleman's Agreement (1947) 66 7.4 5,688 5
62 Braveheart (1995) 12 8.4 327,548 -50
63 Forrest Gump (1994) 6 8.7 446,991 -57
64 Out of Africa (1985) 76 7.0 25,363 12
65 Going My Way (1944) 66 7.4 4,143 1
66 Tom Jones (1963) 77 6.9 4,857 11
67 Oliver! (1968) 64 7.5 12,026 -3
68 Around the World In 80 Days (1956) 80 6.8 9,129 12
69 The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) 81 6.7 5,186 12
70 Crash (2005) 38 8.0 217,777 -32







HAVEN'T SEEN IMDb RANK IMDb RATING IMDb VOTES

Wings (1927) 54 7.8 3,792

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1928) 12 8.4 15,384

The Broadway Melody (1929) 82 6.4 2,466

Cimarron (1931) 84 6.1 1,744

Grand Hotel (1932) 62 7.6 7,300

Cavalcade (1933) 83 6.3 1,426

Mutiny On the Bounty (1935) 47 7.9 9,276

The Great Ziegfeld (1936) 77 6.9 2,583

The Life of Emile Zola (1937) 66 7.4 2,376

Mrs. Miniver (1942) 57 7.7 6,058

The Lost Weekend (1945) 34 8.1 14,287

Marty (1955) 57 7.7 8,028

Gigi (1958) 77 6.9 7,472

Ben-Hur (1959) 25 8.2 76,925
Posted at 08:10 AM on Feb 24, 2012 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Thursday February 23, 2012

This Is Not a Film They Will Submit for an Academy Award: Richard Brody and David Denby on Oscar's Backward Foreign Language Award

Comment From Indira: Could there be an overhaul to the Foreign Language award to get better movies into consideration? 
Poster for "This is Not a Film"Richard Brody: Absolutely; first, the initial nominations shouldn't be made by the official cinema organizations of each country; foreign films should be nominated here, among films released, by an Academy board that sees lots of them.
David Denby: As you probably know, each country submits a film, which no doubt reflects political as well as commercial considerations. Funny that the Iranian authorities are both pleased by the success of “A Separation” and afraid of it in some way. They are so screwed up.
Richard Brody: Exactly; it makes it impossible for a film that's in political opposition to the regime ever getting nominated from many countries. I can think of some Iranian films that are even better than “A Separation” that would never, ever get past the local governing body
David Denby: I don't think the Iranians will nominate Panahi's “This Is Not a Film,” which he shot under house arrest.
Richard Brody: “This Is Not a Film” is at the head of the list.

--from “Ask the Author: Live Chat with David Denby and Richard Brody on the Oscars,” on The New Yorker site this afternoon.

BTW: The search for the poster led me to the site “Frontier Psychiatrist” and this post, by L.V. Lopez, on the best films of the 2011 New York Film Festival. In case you're looking for a good foreign film to watch.

Posted at 06:08 PM on Feb 23, 2012 in category Movies - Foreign
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Gorgeous and Brilliant or Bombastic Propaganda? The Exchange of the Day

Comment from Jay: Speaking of overlooked movies, how about City of Life and Death? Gorgeous, brilliant movie.

David Denby: Richard, your move. I missed it.



Richard Brody: City of Life and Death seemed to me to be bombastic propaganda.



David Denby: Oh dear.



--from “Ask the Author: Live Chat with David Denby and Richard Brody on the Oscars,” on The New Yorker site this afternoon.

I'm with Brody.

Posted at 01:21 PM on Feb 23, 2012 in category Movie Reviews
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From 'Godfather' to 'Cimarron': The 84 Best Picture Winners as Ranked by the Nerds of IMDb.com

I realized too late that yesterday's post about IMDb rankings of every best picture winner since 1927 should've included the entire list as sorted by ranking. Here it is, with my notes:

RANK MOVIE IMDb RATING VOTES NOTES
1 The Godfather (1972) 9.2 535,083 But of course.
2 The Godfather, Part II (1974) 9.0 336,575 But of course II.
3 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) 8.9 501,289 NERDS!

Schindler's List (1993) 8.9 375,193 Overrated. Is it just me and David Mamet on this one?
5 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) 8.8 300,314 Yep.
6 Forrest Gump (1994) 8.7 446,991 Wow. Most people are as dumb as Forrest — and not nearly so nice.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) 8.7 344,094 It's not bad but not top 10.

Casablanca (1943) 8.7 209,989 Tied for sixth. I'd have it higher.
9 The Departed (2006) 8.5 368,308 Way lower. Sorry, Marty.
10 American Beauty (1999) 8.5 389,392 Lower. Sorry 1999 me.
11 Lawrence of Arabia (1962) 8.5 98,407 About right.
12 Gladiator (2000) 8.4 397,268 Lower.

Braveheart (1995) 8.4 327,548 Should've been Apollo 13.

Amadeus (1984) 8.4 128,078 I could see this again right now.

The Sting (1973) 8.4 85,891

The Apartment (1960) 8.4 49,785

The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) 8.4 76,003

On the Waterfront (1954) 8.4 52,369 Higher.

All About Eve (1950) 8.4 43,955 This one, too.

Rebecca (1940) 8.4 45,011 Hitchcock's only best picture winner. And it's Selznick's.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1928) 8.4 15,384 Never seen it. Bad me.
22 Unforgiven (1992) 8.3 135,496 I'd say it deserves to be higher, but I keep hearing Clint's voice saying “Deserve's got nothin to do with it.”

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) 8.3 21,793 Hasn't aged well. Unfortunately.

It Happened One Night (1934) 8.3 32,375 To be honest, this neither.
25 The King's Speech (2010) 8.2 155,972 This one will go down.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) 8.2 269,582 You, too.

No Country For Old Men (2007) 8.2 274,692 This one will go up.

Million Dollar Baby (2004) 8.2 204,335 I liked the ending.

Platoon (1986) 8.2 145,818 Haven't seen since 1986.

The Deer Hunter (1978) 8.2 117,540 Tied with Deer Hunter. Appropriate.

Annie Hall (1977) 8.2 87,916 “Alvy Singer! Am I right?” This is top 5 for me.

Ben-Hur (1959) 8.2 76,925 Have I ever seen this? Without commercials?

Gone With the Wind (1939) 8.2 106,428 Once the mightiest. Now kinda like its title.
34 Gandhi (1982) 8.1 71,833 Gandhi ...

Rocky (1976) 8.1 143,362 ... and Rocky duking it out at 8.1.

The Lost Weekend (1945) 8.1 14,287 Money's on “Gandhi.”

All Quiet On the Western Front (1930) 8.1 28,205 The highest-ranked pre-GWTW movie. I need to see it again.
38 Crash (2005) 8.0 217,777 Oh, fuck you.

A Beautiful Mind (2001) 8.0 202,651 Really?

Dances With Wolves (1990) 8.0 94,144 Eh.

Rain Man (1988) 8.0 165,428 Meh.

Patton (1970) 8.0 49,384 Yeah.

Midnight Cowboy (1969) 8.0 42,805

In the Heat of the Night (1967) 8.0 26,928

A Man For All Seasons (1966) 8.0 14,614

You Can't Take It With You (1938) 8.0 10,500
47 The French Connection (1971) 7.9 42,667 Definition of 'gritty.'

The Sound of Music (1965) 7.9 68,810 Oh, Julie. Higher.

My Fair Lady (1964) 7.9 35,262 Oh, Audrey. Higher.

From Here To Eternity (1953) 7.9 19,141 Oh, Burt. Eh.

Hamlet (1948) 7.9 6,557 O that this too too solid film should melt...

How Green Was My Valley (1941) 7.9 8,993

Mutiny On the Bounty (1935) 7.9 9,276 The third Gable on the list.
54 The Last Emperor (1987) 7.8 33,160 Colors. I remember exquisite colors.

Ordinary People (1980) 7.8 20,192 For a while I was Tim Hutton.

Wings (1927) 7.8 3,792 Never seen.
57 The Hurt Locker (2009) 7.7 137,683 Is this the pro-“Avatar” vote or something?

Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) 7.7 40,353 What's this movie like now? Anyone?

West Side Story (1961) 7.7 37,371 Git your ass up there.

Marty (1955) 7.7 8,028

Mrs. Miniver (1942) 7.7 6,058
62 All the King's Men (1949) 7.6 5,597

Grand Hotel (1932) 7.6 7,300
64 Titanic (1997) 7.5 336,027 Great spectacle. I'd have it higher.

Oliver! (1968) 7.5 12,026 Consider yourself/ About right.
66 Driving Miss Daisy (1989) 7.4 30,411 A better movie than people remember.

Gentleman's Agreement (1947) 7.4 5,688 Movies about prejudice don't age well, do they?

Going My Way (1944) 7.4 4,143

The Life of Emile Zola (1937) 7.4 2,376
70 Shakespeare In Love (1998) 7.3 97,391 Will never live it down.

The English Patient (1996) 7.3 72,322

Terms of Endearment (1983) 7.3 21,085 Wasn't this better that this?
73 Chicago (2002) 7.2 99,936 Shouldn't the fishnets alone boost its rating?

Chariots of Fire (1981) 7.2 20,114 “Chariots of Eggs”

An American In Paris (1951) 7.2 11,808 So, SO wrong to be down here.
76 Out of Africa (1985) 7.0 25,363
77 Tom Jones (1963) 6.9 4,857

Gigi (1958) 6.9 7,472

The Great Ziegfeld (1936) 6.9 2,583
80 Around the World In 80 Days (1956) 6.8 9,129 So dull.
81 The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) 6.7 5,186 Yep. But where's its buddy, “Crash”?
82 The Broadway Melody (1929) 6.4 2,466
83 Cavalcade (1933) 6.3 1,426
84 Cimarron (1931) 6.1 1,744

 ........

TOMORROW: My choices....

Posted at 07:15 AM on Feb 23, 2012 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Wednesday February 22, 2012

Quote of the Day

“When Ted Williams refused to wear a necktie in the late 1940s, he got scant argument from Red Sox manager Joe McCarthy, even though the skipper insisted that everyone else on the club be so attired. When a sportswriter asked McCarthy why he let Williams get away with it, the manager offered a simple answer. 'I want to be fair,' he said. 'Any other gentleman on this club hits. .390, he won't have to wear a necktie, either.'”

--Jason Turbow and Michael Duca in their book, “The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing & Bench-Clearing Brawls: The unwritten rules of America's pastime.” According to the book's footnotes, they got the quote from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Cooperstown,” by Mickey McDermott and Howard Eisenberg.

Ted Wiliams signing contract with Eddie Collins. Photograph by Leslie Jones

Ted Williams, tieless, signing a contract at the desk of Red Sox general manager Eddie Collins at Fenway Park in the late 1940s. Photograph by Leslie Jones (1886-1967). Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Posted at 04:28 PM on Feb 22, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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How Do Best Pictures Rate on IMDb?

My recent post about the IMDb ratings of current best picture nominees, along with the usual slew of “worst best-pictures” articles, or revisionist or do-over Oscar picks, made me wonder how every best picture winner has fared with IMDb users—or at least those IMDb users who bother to rate films.

Which are the highest-rated best picture winners? Which are the lowest-rated? Which pictures get votes and which are ignored?Oscar Oscar Oscar

No big surprise: Recent best picture winners get rated more often, way more often, than older best picture winners. In the past 20 years, there are only three films that haven't been rated by more than 100,000 users: “Chicago,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “The English Patient.” Meanwhile, of the first 45 best picture winners—i.e., from 1927 to 1971—only two films, “Casablanca” and “Gone with the Wind,” have generated more than 100,000 votes. Most people can't be bothered with what's old. Those who can, like me, can't be bothered to rate them on IMDb.

The films with the lowest vote totals also tend to have the lowest ratings. That was a bit of a surprise to me. I thought that the few fans of, say, “Cavalcade” (1933), would skew its results up, but it's simply logic. Lesser movies just don't get watched, and thus don't get rated, particularly if they're older. Among best picture winners, “Calvacade,” from 1933, has the fewest votes: 1,426.

A note to IMDb: Isn't it time to increase the decimal? Ten of the 84 films are tied with an 8.4 rating. Nine are tied with an 8.0 rating. That's too many ties. Give us that hundredth already.

Now on with the countdown.

Here are the highest-ranked best picture winners on IMDb:

MOVIE
IMDb RATING
VOTES
The Godfather (1972) 9.2 535,083
The Godfather, Part II (1974) 9.0 336,575
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) 8.9 501,289
Schindler's List (1993) 8.9 375,193
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) 8.8 300,314
Forrest Gump (1994) 8.7 446,991
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) 8.7 344,094
Casablanca (1943) 8.7 209,989
The Departed (2006) 8.5 368,308
American Beauty (1999) 8.5 389,392
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) 8.5 98,407

Again, it skews recent. Of the top 11, more than half were released in the last 20 years. Only two—“Lawrence” and “Casablanca”—were released prior to 1970.

Here are the bottom 10:

MOVIE

IMDb RATING

VOTES
Cimarron (1931) 6.1 1,744
Cavalcade (1933) 6.3 1,426
The Broadway Melody (1929) 6.4 2,466
The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) 6.7 5,186
Around the World In 80 Days (1956) 6.8 9,129
Tom Jones (1963) 6.9 4,857
Gigi (1958) 6.9 7,472
The Great Ziegfeld (1936) 6.9 2,583
Out of Africa (1985) 7.0 25,363
Chicago (2002) 7.2 99,936
Chariots of Fire (1981) 7.2 20,114
An American In Paris (1951) 7.2 11,808

It skews old. We get the forgotten BPs of the 1930s, the bloated spectacles of the 1950s, plus a few recent head-scratchers. But “An American in Paris” at 7.2? Really? IMDb's voters don't like musicals, do they? The great musicals of the early sixties, “My Fair Lady” (7.9), “The Sound of Music” (7.9) and “West Side Story” (7.7) all get less love than the abyssmal “Crash,” which is somehow still perched at a lofty 8.0.

Something is even more apparent when you look at each decade's highest- and lowest-ranked films:

Decade Highest-Ranked Rating Lowest-ranked Rating
1930s It Happened One Night 8.3 Cimarron 6.1
1940s Casablanca 8.7 Gentleman's Agreement 7.4
1950s The Bridge on the River Kwai 8.4 The Greatest Show on Earth 6.7
1960s Lawrence of Arabia 8.5 Tom Jones 6.9
1970s The Godfather 9.2 Kramer vs. Kramer 7.7
1980s Amadeus 8.4 Out of Africa 7.0
1990s Schindler's List 8.9 Shakespeare in Love 7.3
2000s Lord of the Rings: Return of the King 8.9 Chicago 7.2

It's the dude angle, the fanboy angle. The highest-ranked films above are testosterone-heavy. From the 1950s on, in fact, it's tough to find a leading woman in the mix. Diane Keaton in “The Godfather” maybe? Mozart's wife in “Amadeus”? Cate Blanchett in “LOTR: ROTK”? On the lowest-ranked side, it's all female-centered stories (“Chicago”) or empathetic male stories (“Kramer vs. Kramer”), or both (“Shakespeare in Love”). It's hardly a scoop that IMDb's users are young and male but it is sad. The Academy is historically dismissive of female-centered stories. IMDb's voters turn out to be worse.

As I was compiling the above, I noticed that the highest-ranked of the highest-ranked movies was “The Godfather,” while the highest-ranked of the lowest-ranked movies was “Kramer vs. Kramer,” both from the 1970s. It led me to break down the ratings by decade:

Decade Avg Rating
1970s 8.35
1990s 8.16
2000s 8.13
1940s 7.94
1960s 7.88
1980s 7.72
1950s 7.66
1930s 7.48

The 1970s, with its great slew of American films, is rightly in first place. The 1950s is weighed down by a few of the Academy's tepid choices (“Greatest Show,” “Around the World”), as is the 1980s (“Ordinary People,” “Chariots of Fire,” “Driving Miss Daisy”). The '90s and 2000s are obviously too high but what are you gonna do? They'll come down.

For completeists, here's the entire list:

MOVIE IMDb RATING VOTES
The King's Speech (2010) 8.2 155,972
The Hurt Locker (2009) 7.7 137,683
Slumdog Millionaire (2008) 8.2 269,582
No Country For Old Men (2007) 8.2 274,692
The Departed (2006) 8.5 368,308
Crash (2005) 8.0 217,777
Million Dollar Baby (2004) 8.2 204,335
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) 8.9 501,289
Chicago (2002) 7.2 99,936
A Beautiful Mind (2001) 8.0 202,651
Gladiator (2000) 8.4 397,268
American Beauty (1999) 8.5 389,392
Shakespeare In Love (1998) 7.3 97,391
Titanic (1997) 7.5 336,027
The English Patient (1996) 7.3 72,322
Braveheart (1995) 8.4 327,548
Forrest Gump (1994) 8.7 446,991
Schindler's List (1993) 8.9 375,193
Unforgiven (1992) 8.3 135,496
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) 8.7 344,094
Dances With Wolves (1990) 8.0 94,144
Driving Miss Daisy (1989) 7.4 30,411
Rain Man (1988) 8.0 165,428
The Last Emperor (1987) 7.8 33,160
Platoon (1986) 8.2 145,818
Out of Africa (1985) 7.0 25,363
Amadeus (1984) 8.4 128,078
Terms of Endearment (1983) 7.3 21,085
Gandhi (1982) 8.1 71,833
Chariots of Fire (1981) 7.2 20,114
Ordinary People (1980) 7.8 20,192
Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) 7.7 40,353
The Deer Hunter (1978) 8.2 117,540
Annie Hall (1977) 8.2 87,916
Rocky (1976) 8.1 143,362
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) 8.8 300,314
The Godfather, Part II (1974) 9.0 336,575
The Sting (1973) 8.4 85,891
The Godfather (1972) 9.2 535,083
The French Connection (1971) 7.9 42,667
Patton (1970) 8.0 49,384
Midnight Cowboy (1969) 8.0 42,805
Oliver! (1968) 7.5 12,026
In the Heat of the Night (1967) 8.0 26,928
A Man For All Seasons (1966) 8.0 14,614
The Sound of Music (1965) 7.9 68,810
My Fair Lady (1964) 7.9 35,262
Tom Jones (1963) 6.9 4,857
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) 8.5 98,407
West Side Story (1961) 7.7 37,371
The Apartment (1960) 8.4 49,785
Ben-Hur (1959) 8.2 76,925
Gigi (1958) 6.9 7,472
The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) 8.4 76,003
Around the World In 80 Days (1956) 6.8 9,129
Marty (1955) 7.7 8,028
On the Waterfront (1954) 8.4 52,369
From Here To Eternity (1953) 7.9 19,141
The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) 6.7 5,186
An American In Paris (1951) 7.2 11,808
All About Eve (1950) 8.4 43,955
All the King's Men (1949) 7.6 5,597
Hamlet (1948) 7.9 6,557
Gentleman's Agreement (1947) 7.4 5,688
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) 8.3 21,793
The Lost Weekend (1945) 8.1 14,287
Going My Way (1944) 7.4 4,143
Casablanca (1943) 8.7 209,989
Mrs. Miniver (1942) 7.7 6,058
How Green Was My Valley (1941) 7.9 8,993
Rebecca (1940) 8.4 45,011
Gone With the Wind (1939) 8.2 106,428
You Can't Take It With You (1938) 8.0 10,500
The Life of Emile Zola (1937) 7.4 2,376
The Great Ziegfeld (1936) 6.9 2,583
Mutiny On the Bounty (1935) 7.9 9,276
It Happened One Night (1934) 8.3 32,375
Cavalcade (1933) 6.3 1,426
Grand Hotel (1932) 7.6 7,300
Cimarron (1931) 6.1 1,744
All Quiet On the Western Front (1930) 8.1 28,205
The Broadway Melody (1929) 6.4 2,466
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1928) 8.4 15,384
Wings (1927) 7.8 3,792
Posted at 06:59 AM on Feb 22, 2012 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Tuesday February 21, 2012

The Leftover, Less-Romantic, Movie-Quote Candy Hearts of Valentine's Day

I'm not much of a fan of holidays that make half the population feel like crap—hello, Valentine's Day!—and Hollywood, with its beautiful people saying beautiful lines of love, hasn't exactly helped.

Or has it? You just need to know where to look:

movie quote hearts

And can you match the quote with the movie?

  1. American Beauty
  2. Anchorman
  3. Annie Hall (3)
  4. Chinatown
  5. The Descendants
  6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  7. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  8. Gone with the Wind
  9. Grand Hotel
  10. Hamlet
  11. Jules et Jim
  12. Moonstruck
  13. Say Anything
  14. Scarface
  15. The Silence of the Lambs
  16. Some Like It Hot
  17. When Harry Met Sally
Posted at 06:47 AM on Feb 21, 2012 in category Movies
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Monday February 20, 2012

Hollywood B.O.: Second 'Ghost Rider'? Road Kill

How bad must a $100-million-grossing movie be before studios nix a sequel? Is there a limit? Some kind of badness ratio that indicates dropping interest? A point where caveat emptor (buyer beware) becomes caveat vendito (seller beware)?

The first “Ghost Rider,” starring Nicholas Cage, was released Presidents' Day weekend 2007 and grossed $45 million in three days and $52 million in four. It was No. 1 at the box office by a long shot. The next weekend it dropped more than 55 percent—bad, but hardly the worst second-weekend drop ever—and by the end of its run, its overall domestic gross was $115 million: barely twice what it grossed in its first four days. So there were a few warning signs. Plus its Rotten Tomatoes rating of 27% was only that high because of so-called positive reviews like this one from Dave White at MSN.com:

By any real-world standard, this is a stupid piece of junk. But it's very good at being a stupid piece of junk.

Five years later, Presidents' Day weekend 2012, the sequel no one asked for, “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vegeance,” was distributed by Sony, who dumped it into more than 3,000 theaters despite a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 17%. Even so, the movie was expected to do ... OK. It might not draw as many moviegoers (“Fool me once,” etc.), and Cage has gone from star to punchline during that time, but prices were higher, and 3-D prices were even higher than that, and both would cover some of the ground lost.

Instead “Spirit of Vegeance” finished third for the weekend, grossing $22 million in three days. It got beat by the second weekends of “Safe House” and “The Vow.” GR lost his roar.

Could Sony have prevented all of this? Were there clues that the franchise, such as it was, had run its course, such as it was? Some measurement beyond RT ratings and second-weekend drops and opening-weekend-to-domestic-totals ratios?

I'm serious. I come not to mock Sony but to help them. And us.

The weekend estimates here.

What's not to like?

Posted at 08:58 AM on Feb 20, 2012 in category Movies - Box Office
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Sunday February 19, 2012

“And they're STILL cheering Mike Cameron...”

I'll always remember Mike Cameron for one thing.

It wasn't how he was dealt for two great players: Paul Konerko (straight up) during the 1998-99 off-season and Ken Griffey, Jr. (as the main part of a package) during the following 1999-2000 off-season.

It wasn't for the itinerant nature of his career. In 17 seasons he played for eight teams, and his stay in Seattle, four full seasons, was his longest. The Washington Nationals in 2012 would've been his ninth club but he called it quits today at the age of 39.

Grand Salami, May 2001It wasn't for his numbers, which were nice if unexceptional: .249/.338/.444. He won three Gold Gloves, made one All-Star Game (I was there) and is currently 8th all-time in career strikeouts with 1901. Admittedly, he was nearly a 300-300 guy, with 278 career home runs and 297 career stolen bases, and admittedly he had that day, in May 2002, when he did what only 12 previous players in baseball history had done when he hit four home runs in a single game. But that's not what I'll remember him for.

I'll remember him for my first impression of him.

Back in 2000 I was still writing the player profiles for The Grand Salami, an alternative Mariners program, and this is what I wrote about our new acquisition:

Michael Terrance Cameron (44)
Height: 6'2,“ Weight: 195
Bats: Right, Throws: Right
Born: 1-8-73 in LaGrange, GA
Family: Wife, JaBreka, and two children, Dazmon and T'Aja
Acquired: If you don't know, you've been in a coma all winter
Major League debut: August 27, 1996, with Chicago White Sox
This was Cameron's second off-season trade in as many years. In November 1998 he was swapped by the ChiSox to Cincy for 1B Paul Konerko. Then in February 2000... Well, you know. In Cameron's one season in the NL he didn't perform poorly: .256 BA, .357 OBP, 34 doubles, 21 HRs, 37 SBs. Plus a helluva glove. His one major drawback is strikeouts. He piles great gobs of strikeouts onto his plate: over 100 each of the last three seasons, and 146 in 1999 (fourth most in the majors). The one place you don't want to bat him then is second, since the second spot is designed for moving the runner along, and strikeouts tend not to do that (unless Lou Brock is on the basepaths). So where are the M's talking about batting Cameron? Second. We say lead him off.

It was a bad time to be a Mariners fan. It would soon get good again (in 2000), and then great (in 2001), and then bad again (October 2001-present), but we didn't know that. We also didn't know that the guy we got for Griffey would, in his four years with us, outhomer Griffey's first four years in Cincinnati, (87-83), that he would drive in more runs (344-232), that he would steal more bases (106-10), that he would win more Gold Gloves (2-0). We didn't know he would charm us. We just knew our franchise guy, the ”All-Century“ player, the guy everyone thought would break Hank Aaron's homerun record, was gone. We were bitter. I know I was. Some magic seemed to have gone from the world. And to Cincinnati of all places.

Was it my first game of the season? The M's had already played three home games when the defending-champion New York Yankees, the team we loved to hate, and used to crush, sauntered in on a chilly Friday night, April 7, 2000. The pitching matchup didn't favor us (Andy Pettitte vs. John Halama), and our lineup, which used to feature a modern murderer's row, now included the likes of Charles Gipson, Joe Oliver and David Bell. A-Rod batted third, Griffey's slot, and hit a homerun. Cameron led off and went 1-4: a two-out double in the 4th with nobody on. He didn't score.

For a while, the game was a back-and-forth affair. M's went up 2-0. Yanks tied it and went ahead 3-2. We tied it and went ahead. In the top of the 8th, it was 6-3, us, but the Yankees had the top of their lineup against reliever Paul Abbott. Chuck Knoblauch flew out for the first out.

Then this happened.

We went nuts. We gave Cameron a standing 'o' after the catch, we gave him a standing 'o' as he trotted in, we gave him a standing 'o' as he batted the next inning, and we gave him a standing 'o' as he walked back to the dugout after striking out on three pitches. ”I don't think I've ever seen anyone get an ovation for striking out," Lou Piniella said with a smile after the game. But how could we not? How else do you thank someone who lets you know it's not over? How else do you thank someone who's restored a bit of magic to the world?

Cameron, robbing Jeter, April 7, 2000.

Posted at 04:18 PM on Feb 19, 2012 in category Seattle Mariners
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How 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' Speaks to Our Time

The absurdity of the title is the point of the title but the point of the movie isn't absurdity. From the trailer, it appears to be the usual slow-mo, martial-arts mayhem but with a strong, 19th-century industrial and gadgetry presence. It's “Sherlock Holmes” but in America, and with a real historical (and beloved) character. Plus vampires. The ol' railsplitter is now a vampire-splitter. God save the union. 

I'm sure it'll be shite. But it's the tagline at the end that made me post this. It made me laugh out loud. Did you catch it? It says:

ARE YOU A PATRIOT OR A VAMPIRE?

Brilliant. Truly. It lays bare the absurdity of our time: the uncompromising, absolutist, bifurcated vision of our modern politics and media. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. Because there's no middle ground. America during the Bush years lost its middle class and its middle ground. We've been trying to get both back ever since.

Are you a patriot or a vampire? Someone, somewhere, is laughing their asses off.

Posted at 07:25 AM on Feb 19, 2012 in category Trailers
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Saturday February 18, 2012

The Best Picture Nominees by Current IMDb Ranking

  • The Artist: 8.4
  • Hugo: 8.2
  • The Help: 8.0
  • Midnight in Paris: 7.8
  • Moneyball: 7.7
  • The Descendants: 7.7
  • War Horse: 7.3
  • The Tree of Life: 7.1
  • Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: 6.4

I'm a bit surprised that “The Help” is that high but I shouldn't be. I'm a bit surprised that “The Tree of Life” is that low but I shouldn't be. I should revisit in a year and see what's changed. Someone remind me. Vinny? Reed?

“The Help”: It's funny cuz it's untrue.

Posted at 03:26 PM on Feb 18, 2012 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Max Landis and 'the Death and Return of Superman'

A few weeks back, during music breaks on the “Karl Show (Starring Jason),” Karl and Jason talked up “Chronicle,” and screenwriter Max Winter, son of Jon, who apparently, recently, had a few scripts on “The Black List,” which are the great unmade (soon-to-be-made) scripts making the rounds in Hollywood. Karl said the dude had also done a video on “The Death and Return of Superman.” I asked for a link.

Turns out I'd watched a bit of it before but turned it off, or the web equivalent, because Landis' persona, his general pronouncements, and the scotch sloshing around his glass, all annoyed me too much. This time I watched the whole thing. Here it is:

Landis, who was born in 1985, is railing against “The Death and Return of Superman,” a comic-book storyline that began in 1992 with, yes, the death of the world's first superhero, continued into a storyline in which four super men vie for the now-open position of “Superman,” and ended with Superman's return, not from death, but from a Kryptonian-type “healing coma,” which is similar to our “human death.”

Right. Lame. And Landis rightly rails against it. But he begins so poorly. First words:

Nobody gives a fuck about Superman. You don't give a fuck about Superman even if you think you do. What's special about him? That he was the first superhero? That's it.

How untrue is this? It's not even true for Landis. Here he is in a more recent video:

Lastly, a quick note to people who have been saying 'I hate Superman.' If I hate Superman, would I have spent two months of my life and 16 minutes of yours talking about him? I LOVE Superman.

Landis' conclusion is that, rather than being about the death of Superman, the storyline was ultimately about the death of death, since, afterward, no character died, truly died, in comic books. I'd say that's the perspective of the young. When the “death of Superman” story broke into the mainstream media in 1992, I was 29 years old, 15 years removed from my comic-buying days, but even I knew they weren't talking about the real death of Superman. Did the Green Goblin die? Did Gwen Stacy? Everyone comes back. If there's money to be made, you come back. And there's nothing but money to be made from Superman.

In fact, rather than being about the death of death, you could argue that “The Death of Superman” began the birth of “the death of” storyline: Superman, Captain America, whomever. But they all come back. It's the industry that's dying.

Superman at the 1940 World's Fair: two years after his birth; 52 years before his “death.”

Posted at 08:18 AM on Feb 18, 2012 in category Superman
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Friday February 17, 2012

The Bechdel Test, Stein, Hemingway and Woody Allen

“What's even more embarassing about this film [Midnight in Paris] is that one of the more important historical figures that Gil interacts with is Gertrude Stein. For those of you who aren't familiar with her, Stein is one of the most famous writers, and lesbians, in American history. And Woody Allen has the nerve to not have her speak to another female character in the entire film?”

--Anita Sarkeesian, in her video, The 2012 Oscars and the Bechdel Test, below, at the 3:30 mark. (But keep reading beyond the video.)

“Miss Stein was very big but not tall and was heavily built like a peasant woman. She had beautiful eyes and a strong German-Jewish face that also could have been Friulano and she reminded me of a northern Italian peasant woman with her clothes, her mobile face and her lovely, thick, alive immigrant hair which she wore put up in the same way she had probably worn it in college. She talked all the time and at first it was about people and places.

”Her companion [Alice B. Toklas] had a very pleasant voice, was small, very dark, with her hair cut like Joan of Arc in the Boutet de Monvel illustrations and had a very hooked nose. She was working on a piece of needlepoint when we first met them and she worked on this and saw to the food and drink and talked to my wife. She made one conversation and listened to two and often interrupted the one she was not making. Afterwards she explained to me that she always talked to the wives. The wives, my wife and I felt, were tolerated...

“'I said to my wife, ”You know, Gertrude is nice, anyway.“ ...

”'I never hear her,' my wife said. 'I'm a wife. It's her friend that talks to me.'“

--Ernest Hemingway, ”A Moveable Feast"

Posted at 07:32 AM on Feb 17, 2012 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Movie Review: A Separation (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Our sympathies keep changing in “A Separation” in a way that reminded me of life.

Initially, Simin (Leila Hatami) seems the sympathetic one, at least to western eyes, since she wants out of Iran for both herself and her daughter, while her husband Nader (Peyman Maadi) seem stubborn and awful for refusing to go. When Simin does leave, she goes, not out of the country but across town, to stay at her mother’s, leaving Nader to care for their daughter, Termeh (Arina Farhadi), who’s 11 and smart, as well as his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is old and suffering from Alzheimer’s.

A SeparationBut we also have sympathy for Razieh (Sareh Bayat), whom Nader hires to help in his wife’s absence. She’s pregnant; she has her own daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), an adorable, big-eyed thing, to worry about; and now, for 300,000 rials a day (about US$26.50), she has to look after Nader’s father, who wets himself, and who may wander off at any moment to get the newspaper at the newsstand down the street. Wetting himself, and not being able to change himself, is the big problem. She’s unsure whether it’s a sin for her to be this close to a man she doesn’t know, but there’s a kind of Islamic hotline she can call to plead her case. She does, successfully, but it’s really more than she bargained for. So she asks Nader: Could her husband, Hodjat (Shahb Hosseini), take the job instead?

Nader is willing, even grateful, but surprised when it’s still Razieh who shows up the next day, and the next. Something about her husband being in jail? Something about creditors? Nader is even more surprised, and angered, when he comes home early one day to find no one at home and his father tied to the bed. Initially he thinks he’s dead. He’s not, but he’s bruised. And really who would do such a thing? And where is the day’s money Nader left on the dresser? And it’s at this point that Razieh returns, with her daughter, and with nothing like shame or guilt on her face. Who is this woman? How could she do such a thing to his father? And still she demands her day’s pay? Why doesn’t she get out of his apartment. Out! Out!

Yeah, so what if Razieh slipped when he shoved her out the door. Really? She miscarried? That’s awful. From the shove? That doesn’t seem...? She and her husband are pressing charges? For murder?

Poor Nader.

God, where the fuck is his wife during all of this?!

The relativity of all of this is key. The lack of absolutes is key. The small lies that occur daily, or the big lies that occur when our backs are to the wall, or the information withheld to make one’s case better, all of these things are key. “A Separation” begins inconclusively before an unseen judge, and it ends—beautifully—in a kind of purgatory of inconclusiveness, and in the middle ... is anything resolved? The more both parties go to find justice, the more injustice they find. The more control they attempt to exert, the more things fall apart. “A Separation” isn’t just about the separation of a man and a wife; it’s about a separation from truth, from respect, and maybe from love.

Posted at 06:06 AM on Feb 17, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Thursday February 16, 2012

Quote of the Day

“...rarer has it been clearer to me that 'the Academy' is not a monolithic individual entity we conveniently paint it as for the purpose of analysis, but a hive of conflicting individual opinions and personalities. The new voting structure for the Best Picture race is a case in point. We know each of these nine nominees received at least 5% of the number-one votes cast, suggesting a diverse range of committed camps. The people responsible for The Tree of Life being on the list are not the same people who put War Horse there, who in turn are different from the sneaky contingent who came through for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

”There's evidence of contrasting impulses within individual branches, too. Are the actors who rallied for Demián Bichir the same ones who are high on Rooney Mara? Are there Academy screenwriters who are equally jazzed about Bridesmaids and A Separation? I'm sure there are some — speaking as the person whose best-of-2011 list found room for Margaret and Immortals — but I'm sure you'd find plenty more who are befuddled by at least one of those nominations. Get angry with the Academy if you like, but wonder first what — or who — you're even getting angry with.“

-- Guy Lodge, ”Stuck in the middle with you: Thoughts on the Oscar nominations,“ on the ”In Contention" site. Which is now, what, HitFix? Too bad.

Posted at 04:47 PM on Feb 16, 2012 in category Quote of the Day, Movies - The Oscars
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Hollywood B.O.: The Devil Whimpers

I haven't posted much on box office lately. Got bored with it, I guess. Began to do other things with my Sundays. More power to me.

So I missed the near-historic performance of “The Devil Inside” in the first week of January. Opening weekend, it was No. 1 at the box office with $33 million, even though moviegoers had a slew of great, end-of-the-year releases to choose from. (Fuckers.) But “Devil” was the only new film opening, it was horror, and the horror fans came out for it. (Fuckers.)

Then they didn't. That's the thing with horror. Opening weekend: BANG! Second weekend: whimper. For “Devil,” it was a near-historic second weekend of whimper:

Movie
Opening Wknd
2nd Wknd Drop
2nd Wknd BO
Theaters
Total BO
Release Date
Gigli $3.7m
-81.90% $0.67m 2,215 $6,087,542 8/1/03
Friday the 13th (2009) $40m
-80.40% $7.9m 3,105 $65,002,019 2/13/09
Star Trek: Nemesis $18.5m
-76.20% $4.4m 2,711 $43,254,409 12/13/02
The Devil Inside $33.7m
-76.20% $8.0m 2,551 $53,153,016 1/6/12

It tied for the third-largest, second-weekend drop of any film opening in more than 2,000 theaters. The movies ahead of it? The Bennifer-related disaster that was “Gigli”; and the 2009 remake of Friday the 13th. “Devil” tied with the umpteenth version of a “Star Trek” sequel. It dropped 76.2 percent. That's like bungee jumping. Gnarly.

“The Devil Inside”'s second weekend wasn't helped by a 5% critics rating and a 23% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Its current IMDb rating? Where 7.0 is generally considered “good”? 3.6.

Posted at 07:20 AM on Feb 16, 2012 in category Movies - Box Office
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Wednesday February 15, 2012

Viola Davis Lays the Smackdown on Tavis Smiley

I discovered this via Nathaniel Roger's Film Experience site.

Seems professional provacateur Tavis Smiley had Oscar nominees Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer of “The Help” on his show earllier this month. Quickly in the conversation, Smiley brings up his problem with “The Help.” It amounts to “You're playing maids, the same role that Hattie McDaniel played in 1939's 'Gone with the Wind,' and haven't we progressed any further than that in 72 years?” He brings up the Academy honoring Denzel Washington for playing, not Malcolm X or Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, but the thuggish cop of “Training Day.” Why can't more positive, more uplifting portrayals be honored?

Here's Viola Davis' response:

That mindset... is absolutely destroying the black artist. The black artist cannot live in a revisionist place. The black artist can only tell the truth about humanity. Humanity is messy. People are messy. Caucasian actors know that. They understand that. They understand that when you bring a human being to life you show all the flaws as well as the beauty. We, as African American artists, are more concerned with image and message and not execution. Which is why every time you see our images they've been watered down to a point where they are not realistic at all. It's like all of our humanity has been washed out. We as artists cannot be politicians. We as artists can only be truth tellers.

Amen amen amen.

Here's the full interview:

Watch Actresses Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

Posted at 04:58 PM on Feb 15, 2012 in category Movies
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Movie Review: Chronicle (2012)

WARNING: FOUND SPOILERS

“With great power comes great responsibility,” Ben Parker tells his nephew, Peter, in “Spider-Man” (2002).

“A weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power,” Dr. Carl Erskine tells Steve Rogers in “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011).

Cue Josh Trank and Max Landis (son of Jon), the first-time director and screenwriter of “Chronicle,” clearing their throats.

They imagine a Peter Parker raised by an alcoholic, abusive, former firefighter instead of kindly Uncle Ben. They suggest that a weak man knows the value of strength because it’s been used against him his entire life. And once that strength is his? He might not be so nice as Peter Parker.

I suggested as much in my review of “Captain America” last year. After quoting Erskine’s line I wrote:

I could raise an objection here, and did so, silently, in the theater. I thought of a line from college: “The worst taskmasters are former slaves.” I thought of myself, a skinny Steve Rogers-type most of my childhood, and of my many subsequent resentments. Did Steve have none? Was he that good?

So I should be a fan of what Trank and Landis, both of whom will turn 27 this year, have done with “Chronicle.” They’ve reimagined a superhero storyline in which three teenagers gain powers through telekinesis, and then, rather than put on costumes and fight crime, act poster of "Chronicle" (2012)like assholes. They film themselves pulling pranks in a toy store: lifting a teddy bear in the air and having it dance before a frightened girl. They move a woman’s car in the parking lot so she has trouble finding it. They do impossible tricks at their high school talent show to become popular. Then they begin fighting each other.

Their story is told through found footage, the point-of-view of the young (and of January/October releases), which means someone, usually Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), our weak teenager who knows the value of strength, always has to be filming what we see. Initially this worked. It lets us know how lonely and abused Andrew is. But the deeper we go into the story the more problematic it becomes. Really? He’s filming this argument? He’s filming this funeral? He’s filming himself crushing this car in the junkyard? If the traditional superhero tends to hide his identity from the world and do good, Andrew tends to film everything for the world and do bad. He’s Peter Parker as supervillain. He’s a male “Carrie” with a camera.

Our other two leads are Andrew’s handsome cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), who likes to pretend he’s not shallow by quoting philosophy 101; and Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), the popular black guy who’s running for class president. Andrew is the pick-upon one. But one night he goes to a party, with camera, and Matt and Steve find a hole in a valley in the woods and bring Andrew along to film what they find. Inside they discover ... well, probably a spaceship. But then things go crazy and zzzzttt, the camera stops working, and when we’re back to filming again in someone’s backyard (with a different camera?), the three teenagers are able to move things with their minds. And Andrew is the strongest of the three.

If they push themselves too far, they get nose bleeds. Sometimes if Andrew pushes himself too far, Matt gets the nose-bleed. So they’re linked symbiotically. At one point, for example, Andrew uses his telekinesis to fly into the sky during a lightning storm, and Steve just senses he’s there and joins him and tries to talk him down. Sadly, this is the moment Steve gets zapped and dies, and Andrew, blamed by Matt, turns more inward.

Andrew also has a sick mother, like Aunt May, who needs medicine, like Aunt May, but it costs: a $700 co-pay. So where can a boy with super-powers find $700? Well, first he robs the local drug dealers but it’s not enough. (Lousy drug dealers.) Then he robs the local food mart, but the proprietor comes out with shotgun blazing, sets the gas pumps aflame, and sends Andrew to the hospital.

I.e., for a nerdy boy with superpowers, Andrew isn’t the brightest bulb. So what is he?

This may be the biggest problem with “Chronicle.” It’s not that the three teenagers never worry about long-term health issues after exposure to the radiating alien spaceship. It’s not that, with their great power, comes great irresponsibility. It’s not that, of this irresponsibility, none of it is the kind most randy, teenage boys would pull—i.e., removing the clothes of girls, a la “Zapped”—meaning the film feels false even as it strives for authenticity.

No, the biggest problem is that the boys don’t have any identity beyond the initial one. Steve’s the popular black guy, Andrew is the unpopular nerd who likes to film shit, Matt is somewhere in between. And that’s all they ever are.

Does Andrew like comics? Sci-fi? Is he a “Star Trek” or a “Star Wars” guy? Does he read science or poetry? Who knows? He’s just a picked-upon virgin. He has resentments. In one of the movie’s better, creepier moments, he films himself in a bathroom stall analyzing the brutal removal of a bully’s teeth: how that tooth broke in half, too bad, but this one remained whole, which is how you want to do it. A second later the plot kicks in and he’s searching for the $700 and winds up in the hospital, where his father lets him know that his mother died, for which the father blames the son, for which Andrew blows a hole in the side of the hospital and drops the father 10 stories. But Matt’s there to save the father and battle Andrew high above the city of Seattle (Vancouver, B.C.).

At least by this point Andrew has stopped filming. The found footage is now culled from various sources: hospital tapes; the video-blog of a local girl; all of the folks with their cellphones at the top of the Space Needle. This was my first found-footage film and I always assumed the footage in question was found in the same camera. But some imaginary editor obviously went to extraordinary lengths to piece together something fairly shallow.

Yes, Trank and Landis do some smart things with “Chronicle.” The moment when Matt saves Andrew’s father recalls that great scene in the original “Superman: The Movie” (1978) when Superman first saves Lois Lane from the helicopter crash atop the Daily Planet buidling. There, though, the revelation of a superstrong being who can fly was triumphant, and greeted—absurdly, I would argue—with applause from the crowd below (See: No. 2 on this list.) Here it’s kind of creepy. There’s nothing triumphant about it. Everyone’s like ... WTF?!? ... because their world is upended. As it is.

So “Chronicle” has its smart moments. Unfortunately they’re few. Dane DeHaan is a good young actor that has something of a young, sickly Leo DiCaprio about him. Unfortunately he’s playing a shallow character in a lightweight enterprise. One wonders if the movie’s lack of depth is the result of the found-footage formula or the fact that its creators are 26 years old and just aren't that deep.

Posted at 08:59 AM on Feb 15, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Tuesday February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day: The Point of the Story

The point of the story is to keep the lovers apart. That’s where the drama is. That’s what we paid to see. We want to anticipate them being together, we want to hope for them to stay together, but once they do stay together they become a bit dull. They share a bathroom and go to work and come home and share a bathroom. They’re no longer lovers. They’re a couple. Who wants to watch that? Nobody. Not even the couple. Especially not the couple.

So the goal of the dramatist is to keep the lovers apart for as long as possible. How? However. Family hatreds, class issues, war. She’s married, he’s shallow, they’re gay. He doesn’t recognize true love, neither does she. Fiddle-dee-dee and lah-dee-dah and Play it again, Sam. Stella! Elaine! Adrian! Or the old standby: Please, we’re British.

Which is to say if you’re alone on this awful day of forced national celebration of what Gore Vidal once referred to as “love love love”? You’re the point of the story.

Posted at 08:35 AM on Feb 14, 2012 in category General
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Monday February 13, 2012

My Top 10 Movies of 2011

In my late twenties I got corrective lenses for the first time, for near-sightedness, and I remember how they not only clarified my vision but polarized the world. The muddy middle disappeared. Both beauty and ugly became sharper: the former's perfections, previously half-hidden, now dazzled, while the latter's imperfections, also half-hidden, were now sadly revealed. The glasses seemed unfair. Part of me felt the world would be a kinder place if we all walked around with a bit of myopia.

Writing about movies is in some sense like putting on corrective lenses. It clarifies my vision but it also also polarizes my feelings. The good becomes very, very good; the bad godawful. The muddy middle disappears.

I think this explains why I'm always a little surprised when end-of-the-year pronouncements are made and the recent year in movies is found lacking. People said 2009 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Summer Hours' and 'Up' and 'A Serious Man' and 'Seraphine' and 'Avatar'?” People said 2010 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Un Prophete' and 'Restrepo' and 'True Grit' and 'The Social Network' and 'A Film Unfinished' and 'Inception' and 'Toy Story 3'?”

Now people say it of 2011 and my reaction is just as strong. Really? Because I can't squeeze all I want to into my top 10. I think, “Surely I have room for 'Hugo' or 'Midnight in Paris' or 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,'” and I look back at what I already have and I think maybe this, or maybe that, or should I substitute the other? For what it's worth, my top six were decided early. It's the last four that caused hand-wringing.

I love the many connections between the choices below: the ominous, near silent moods of 9, 8 and 7. (“Tinker Tailor” would've fit in well there.) The stubborn, sad persistence of character in 8 and 3. The everyday transcendance of 5 and 4. The search for safety and God in 2 and 1.

Lacking? No, 2011 was a great year for movies. Here is my very, very late top 10.

10. “Bridesmaids”: When I came home from viewing this opening night and Patricia asked me how it was, I said, “It's the funniest movie of the year.” I paused. “And not just so far. I'm saying it'll be the funniest movie I see all year.” That prediction was really only threatened by one film, “Young Adult” (see below). Much of the movie is actually conventional. When her best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), gets engaged, Annie (Kristen Wiig) tries to be happy for her but can’t help compare where she and Lillian are both heading. Annie's life is in the crapper but she's her own worst enemy. She keeps going back to the wrong guy (Jon Hamm), keeps ignoring the right guy, (Chris O’Dowd), is forced to move home with her mother (Jill Clayburgh, the original unmarried woman). We’ve seen this kind of thing before yet it feels different here. It’s funnier, yes, but it also feels truer. The way people try to talk Annie out of her downward spiral and the way she doesn’t listen. There’s a scene where, after Rhodes encourages her to bake again, she does, she bakes a glorious cupcake, topped with all kinds of candied configurations. Then she stares at it on the counter, unhappily. Then she eats it, unhappily. Not because she wants the cupcake but because she doesn’t want to make the cupcake. Because baking isn’t satisfying what it used to satisfy.

9. “Drive”: Driver (Ryan Goslling) is so laconic he makes Clint Eastwood’s characters seem like blabbermouths. Initially this annoyed me. Initially I felt there was too much atmosphere and not enough substance. I’m not a fan of cool, or profess to be such, since cool is silent and distant, and the most interesting people I’ve encountered in life are the ones who are most engaged. Who talk. I’m a word man. Driver is not. He’s most definitely cool, with his toothpick in his mouth or tucked behind his ear, and so silent, a man of so few words, that I began to wonder, a half-hour in, if there wasn’t something wrong with him mentally. Was he autistic? And yet, despite all this, by the end of the movie I had absorbed him, or he me. I could feel it as I put on my yellow biking jacket, so similar to his silver racing jacket, and my biking gloves, so similar to his driving gloves, and walked out of the theater immersed in the dreamlike silence of the movie. I imagined I was tough and cool and hard-to-read instead of what I am: a tired 48-year-old in need of a shave and a beer. Holden was right. The goddamn movies.

8. “Shame”: “Shame” is a snapshot from a life because there’s no real resolution. There’s just need and heartache and awful need again. Sissy (Carrey Mulligan) tries to kill herself but she’s tried to kill herself before. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) binges on sex but no doubt he’s binged before. It leaves him exhausted and crying but the thing inside him won’t come out. Sexaholism used to be a punchline to me—who isn’t addicted to sex?—but writer-director Steve McQueen shows us the difference as well as the similarity. The difference is in volume and the similarity is in almost everything else. The similarity is in trying to get this thing out of us. The similarity is in the lack of resolution or resurrection. In the end, Brandon is back on the subway, and there’s that girl again, and now she’s ready; and the hunger is always ready.

7. “Margin Call”: J.C. Chandor's debut film is our best dramatization of the global financial meltdown and should be seen on a double bill with “Inside Job” and maybe several “Frontline” episodes, including the ones on Brooksley Born and the demise of the Glass-Steagall Act. It's an ominous, moody, sometimes silent film with a great cast and a kill-or-be-killed message that the film doesn't celebrate but doesn't exactly condemn, either. It's about knowingly selling toxic assets so they infect some other schmuck. It's about how to SURVIVE, as CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) tells the 3 a.m. board meeting. I love how the characters surprise in small ways. Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) immediately comes off slick and fierce but that doesn’t mean he’s disingenuous or doesn’t have a moral code of his own. Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) is appalled by what he’s asked to do but that doesn’t mean he can’t rally the troops to do that very thing. What kind of world is Wall Street? The kind where Kevin Spacey plays the moral pillar. Be very afraid.

6. “The Artist”: I think both fans and detractors have gotten this one wrong. They think it's a bit of lightweight nostalgia, a throwback not only to the silent era but to the next generation of filmmakers, which made great films about the silent era (“Singin' in the Rain,” “Sunset Blvd.,” etc.). But to me there are few films more relevant to the United States in 2011 than this silent, black-and-white, French film. For all its charms and zip and melodrama, it's ultimately about a man made irrelevant by new technology. It's about a man made silent by new technology. And in 2011, after 15 years of entire professions being decimated by the digital revolution, that describes too many of us.

5. “The Descendants”: Everyone says that comedy is tragedy plus time, but in “The Descendants” writer-director Alexander Payne removes time from the equation. A woman—a mother, wife and daughter—is dying in a hospital bed, having spent the last year of her life cheating on her husband, Matt (George Clooney), and we find ourselves laughing out loud. Payne creates comedy out of tragedy as it’s happening. The movie's main characters, Matt and his two daughters—plus all of their cousins, including Beau Briddges' own version of The Dude—are the descendants of the title. They’ve been entrusted with this great wealth and the question is what they do with it. But the dynamic and the dilemma filters through to us in the audience. All of us are descendants. All of us are entrusted with this great wealth. And the question is what we do with it.

4. “Moneyball”: The feeling captured in the opening sentence of my review, written in September, hasn't gone away: I had trouble with the falsehoods but was won over by the poignancy. Slowly I'm forgetting the falsehoods, however, the reduction of the career to one year, and I keep returning to the poignancy: the close-up of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) as he listens to his daughter singing on her homemade CD with words that fit him. Throughout the movie he wants to be the uberman. He wants to change baseball, and he does, but not the way he envisions, through ultimate victory. He changes it because he hits a mammoth homerun in a losing cause, but the mammoth homerun draws attention. Others steal his stance, his style, and in that way the game changes. In this moment, though, he's not the uberman but the everyman. He's us. Most of us are stuck in the middle; most of us don't know when we hit homeruns, or, if we suspect it, the homeruns go unnoticed and unmentioned. They're before the sparsest of crowds. Most felt “Moneyball” couldn't be filmed because it's about baseball stats, and who beside geeks like me care about baseball stats? But I knew it could be filmed because it's really about underdogs who band together to beat the big boys, the corporation, the evil empire, and that's most of our movies. I just didn't know how they would do the ending. The underdog A's under Billy Beane never won it all; they never even went to the World Series. I thought it was the story's great weakness. In the end, screenwriters Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and director Bennett Miller make it the film's great strength.

3. “Young Adult”: Mavis Gary is one of the most original characters American cinema has produced in years and Charlize Theron totally embodies her. So why didn't it get out there more? It was written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, the team who gave us “Juno” back in 2007, but this one isn't so traditionally feel-good. Mavis is an awful person (no empathy or tact), involved in an awful enterprise (winning back her high-school boyfriend at the age of 37), and in the end she doesn't change. She stays on the less-righteous, all-American path of perpetual consumerism and loneliness. Most people won't find it touching or amusing but I thought it was both. I found Mavis sympathetic in her situation and entertaining in her response to her situation. When Paige, Patricia and I saw it in a small, downtown theater with maybe a dozen other people in attendance, we were about the only people laughing; but we were roaring. It's that kind of movie. Its ending is so cynical, I felt something like pure joy wash over me. Most feel-good movies make me feel bad because they aren't any good. “Young Adult,” with its awful characters, made me feel great.

2. “Des hommes et des dieux”: “Of Gods and Men” is a monastic movie. It’s filmed as unaffectedly as the Cistercian monks lived their lives in Tibhirine, Algeria, in 1996. It documents their modest activities in a modest manner. We see them carry firewood and clean floors. They pack honey, miel de l’Atlas, and sell it at the local market. They farm, tend to the sick, help procure visas. They study—both St. Augustine and the Koran. They pray and sing hymns and psalms. Mostly they are caught, trapped, between a growing Islamic fundamentalism and an authoritarian military government. They are trapped between the need for safety elsewhere and the need to do good here. What to do? What to do? At one point, the Islamic revolutionary, Fayattia, tells Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), a tall, bespectacled man who likes to walk in the woods and feel the bark of trees, that he doesn't have a choice in the matter they're discussing. “Vous n'avez pas le choix,” he says. Brother Christian replies: “Si, j'ai le choix.” (Yes, I have a choice.) “Of Gods and Men” is all about the awful, potentially transcendant weight of “J'ai le choix.”

1. “The Tree of Life”: Was there any doubt? It's not only one of the more evocative films about childhood (ball, butterfly, blocks, baby brother arriving and cramping your style); it's not only one of the more honest depictions of coming of age (from fighting father to wishing him dead to becoming him in his absence); it keeps in mind the existential. It doesn't allow us a cultural memory of 10 or 15 or 100 years; it goes back to the beginning of time. It blends religion and science, Job and the dinosaurs. How can bad things happen in Waco, Texas in the 1950s? Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations? Where were you when I allowed entire species to go extinct? The vast background puts the life, and the questions, in perspective. The fundamental dilemma of the movie, and of life (the movie suggests), is between the way of nature and the way of grace. The short cultural memory, the one presented in most of our products, certainly most of our movies, leads to the way of nature: the “I” standing in this spot and pronouncing dominion over this spot. The long cultural memory, blending science and religion, in which the “I” dissolves against the vastness of time and space stretching behind us and ahead of us, leads, not to despair, but to the way of grace. When the world is shining around us. And love is smiling through all things.

Posted at 06:54 AM on Feb 13, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Saturday February 11, 2012

Oscar: Doing the Wrong Thing

I'm finally getting together my invites for the Oscar party on Sunday, Feb. 26 and got distracted on the oscar.go.com site. Is that an official site of the Academy? It looks to be. There's oscars.org as well, which is definitely official, but I assume the organization runs both.

Anyway I was distracted by a “Celebrate the Movies” photo gallery that is also advertising the Oscar broadcast this year and the Oscars and the movies in general. One photos shows Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” with the line WE SHOWED YOU HOW TO BE A MAVERICK; another shows Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany's” with the line WE SHOWED YOU HOW TO HAVE STYLE. Etc.

It's halfway to annoying. But it went the entire way with the following slide:

"Do the Right Thing" on the Oscar site

YOU showed us how to make a change? How about Spike Lee did? Or not even. He made a good, incendiary movie, which, in a weak year, didn't get nominated for best picture or director or cinematographer. It got ignored by the Academy—infamously—in favor of past pleasantries. Yet here you are using it to promote yourself.

WE SHOWED YOU HOW TO FUDGE HISTORY.

WE SHOWED YOU HOW TO USE THE ABUSED.

WE SHOWED YOU HOW TO TAKE CREDIT FOR WHAT YOU ONCE IGNORED.

All are more accurate.

Posted at 09:59 AM on Feb 11, 2012 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Quote of the Day

“After nearly twenty years in England, my wife and I had taken the decision to move back to America for a while, to give the children the chance of experiencing life in another country and my wife the chance to shop until 10 P.M. seven nights a week. I had recently read that 3.7 million Americans, according to a Gallup poll, believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, so it was clear that my people needed me.”

--Bill Bryson, “Notes From a Small Island” (1995), pg. 5

Posted at 07:29 AM on Feb 11, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday February 10, 2012

Movie Review: Ghost Rider (2007)

WARNING: SPOILERS

At what point did the makers of “Ghost Rider” decide, “Ah, fuck it”? When they hired Nicholas Cage instead of Eric Bana? When Cage began playing Elvis playing Johnny Blaze and no one said shit? When they hired writer-director Mark Steven Johnson, who was hot off his abysmal 2003 version of “Daredevil”?

Or was it when they read the source material?

Ghost Rider poster“Ghost Rider” was part of that awful wave of horror-hero hybrids from Marvel Comics in the 1970s, a wave that began when the Comics Code Authority, which was rapidly losing its authority, allowed traditional horror characters back into comics. As a result, Marvel, which 10 years earlier had reinvented the superhero genre with Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Fantastic Four, was suddenly offering its version of creature-feature night: “Tomb of Dracula,” “Swamp Thing,” “Werewolf by Night,” “Son of Satan,” and, yes, “Ghost Rider,” in which a motorcycle stuntman named Johnny Blaze turns into a superpowerful, hell-spawned demon with a flaming skull, and rides around town doing … whatever it is he does. Does he fight crime or fight the Devil? Or both? I’m not sure because I never read the damned thing.

A friend of mine did. What I thought was schlock—flaming skulls, chains and leather, chopper motorcycles—he thought was cool. This has been the basic disagreement between fans and non-fans ever since. What’s cool? What’s schlock? The makers of “Ghost Rider,” knowing they would never appeal to people like me, decided to double-down on schlock. They give us carneys and cowboys and yee-ha rubes and bounty hunters for the Devil and Eva Mendes doing newscasts in a tight, cleavage-baring shirt and Nicholas Cage doing Elvis doing Johnny Blaze. They give us ripostes that make Schwarzenegger’s seem scripted by Shakespeare:

Criminal: Have mercy!
Ghost Rider (low growl): Sorry! All out of mercy!

The movie is more plothole than story. Young Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) is about to ditch his father and their carney motorcycle act for true love, his sweetheart Roxanne (Raquel Alessi), for whom he carves initials into the only tree visible for miles. Except the cough Dad has? Cancer, dude. Totally. But in walks the Devil (Peter Fonda) with a proposition: Dad’s health for Johnny’s soul. While Johnny is thinking about it, oops, a drop of his blood spills on the contract. Apparently this makes it a done deal. Hardly seems fair to me, let alone legal. Isn’t there a lawyer Johnny could’ve hired? Blaze v. Mephistopheles. Who wouldn’t take that case? The arguments over jurisdiction alone would make a career.

The Devil being the Devil, which is to say devilish, cures Barton Blaze’s cancer but causes him to die in a motorcycle crash the same day. Doesn’t Johnny die, too, at the crossroads where the Devil  lives? The contract has now been rushed into effect and the Devil issues a warning: “Forget about friends, forget about family, forget about love. You’re mine now, Johnny Blaze.”

At which point he disappears for 20 years.

During that time, Johnny (now Nick Cage) forgets about family, forgets about love, but gains fame as the Evel Knievel of his generation. He jumps everything—cars, trucks, helicopters—because he doesn’t fear death. Why should he? He doesn’t even know if he’s alive. But in his dressing room, with his friend, Mack (Donal Logue), he broods about second chances. Then he cranks the Carpenters. A nice bit, actually. My favorite bit in the movie.

At this point, Roxanne (now Eva Mendes) re-enters his world as a pushy TV reporter with a push-up bra and a bit of attitude for the way Johnny ditched her. But persistence wins her over again and they make a date. Unfortunately, and from the Dept. of Insane Coincidences, this is the very moment that the Devil’s son, Blackheart (poor Wes Bentley, who once seemed so promising), in defiance of his father, enters the world to take it over. The Devil can’t stop him (for some reason) but Johnny can (for some reason), which is why, instead of the date with the girl he ditched 20 years earlier because he’d become the Devil’s rider, he finally becomes, for the first time, the Devil’s rider. His body starts smoking, Cage starts overacting, and eventually his face bursts into a flaming skull. This initial transformation is long and traumatic but subsequent changes become smoother as the plot necessitates.

As for what brings Blackheart here? For that, backstory.

You see, there was another ghost rider before Johnny, a cowboy in the 19th century who was instructed to bring the Devil a contract claiming a thousand souls in the town of San Venganza. But he knew this contract would make the Devil too powerful so he reneged on the deal and galloped away and hid the contract. And that’s what Blackheart is after: the contract containing the lost souls of San Venganza.

Questions:

  • How can anyone escape the Devil?
  • How does anyone hide something from the Devil?
  • Is Blackheart related to Daimon Hellstrom? How about Little Nicky?

In his quest, Blackheart gathers minions of his own, ghouls with long dark coats and long scraggly hair who can hide in the elements—there a sand guy, a water guy and a wind guy—and they leave a trail of dead bodies in their search for the contract. When Johnny shows up, Blackheart sics all three minions on him at once. Kidding. That would be too logical. They attack him one at a time so he can defeat them one at a time and lengthen out the movie.

But let’s fast-forward to one of the dumbest scenes in movie history. After his first transformation, Johnny wakes in a church graveyard, where a good-natured Texan named Caretaker (Sam Elliott), whose voiceover explained the San Venganza backstory to us at the beginning of the movie, relays this selfsame backstory to Johnny. You’d never guess it, if you were a moron, but Caretaker turns out to be the original Ghost Rider. And when Blackheart takes Roxanne prisoner in the town of San Venganza, Caretaker whistles for his horse, Johnny whistles for his motorcycle, and both, in defiance of the movie’s internal logic, and without seeming pain, burst into flame-skulled ghost riders and ride across the Texas plains together as “(Ghost) Rider of the Sky” plays on the soundtrack.

Wait, it gets better. At the outskirts of San Venganza, Caretaker suddenly pulls up. He says adios. He says, “I could only change one more time and I saved it for this.” For ... the ride? Why didn’t you save it for the fight? Wouldn’t that have made more sense? Seriously, dude, pull your head out of your ass.

I admit I’m no fan of this character. Ghost Rider gets his powers from the ultimate source of evil yet somehow isn’t controlled by that evil. There should be this ongoing tension between Johnny and the Devil, this “Devil and Daniel Webster” brand of one-upmanship, but we never get that. We don’t get close to that. Instead, we get exchanges like this:

Johnny: I sure wish things could’ve turned out different.
Roxanne: No. This is what you were meant to be.

Cool, schlock, whatever. Did they have to make it so blisteringly stupid?

Posted at 06:23 AM on Feb 10, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Thursday February 09, 2012

The Return of Karl Show! (Starring Jason)

A few months ago I was on the Portland radio show Karl Show! (Starring Jason) to talk about movies and reviewing movies. Tomorrow night, Friday night at 8 pm (PST), I'll be back on to talk about this year's Oscars: the good, the bad and “War Horse.”

You can listen live here.

The podcast will be available on the Karl Show! (Starring Jason) website.

Posted at 08:01 AM on Feb 09, 2012 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Wednesday February 08, 2012

Black History Month Linkage

I have no profound thoughts on black history month, the shortest month of the year, other than to hope that someday it won't be necessary.

In the meantime, lamely, I offer past articles that touch on some of the issues this month touches on:

MLK's "I have a dream" speech

In “Reporting Civil Rights,” Russell Baker reminds us that by the time Dr. King spoke, “huge portions of the crowd had drifted out of earshot,” while civil-rights worker Michael Thelwell details how the Kennedy administration turned the March into something “too sweet, too contrived, and its spirit too amiable to represent anything of the bitterness that had brought the people there.”

Posted at 09:17 AM on Feb 08, 2012 in category Culture
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Tuesday February 07, 2012

Scene of the Day: Design for Living (1933)

“It's true we have our gentleman's agreement. But I unfortunately am no gentleman.”

--Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) to George (Gary Cooper) after the departure of Tom (Frederic March) to London in Ernst's Lubitsch's “Design for Living” (1933).

The gentleman's agreement referenced above was that all three could live together—both men in love with her and she in love with both of them—only if there was no sex. That fell apart with Tom's departure to London. But the movie ended happily, if not traditionally, with the three reunited and ready to make another go of it ... so to speak. The movie, which should've been called “A Gentleman's Agreement,” is one of the pre-code Hollywood films that have been resurrected in the last two decades, and which remind us that, yes, Virginia, people did talk sex and have sex before 1962.

scene from "Design for Living" (1933)

Gilda, soft “G,” suggesting softness.

Posted at 08:34 AM on Feb 07, 2012 in category Scene of the Day
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Monday February 06, 2012

Trailer of the Day

Loki: I have an army.
Tony Stark: We have a Hulk.

If I'd seen this when I was a kid, I would've wet my pants.

Via Ross Pfund on Facebook.

Posted at 06:01 PM on Feb 06, 2012 in category Trailers, Superheroes
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The Five Worst Movies of 2011

In my late twenties I got corrective lenses for the first time, for near-sightedness, and I remember how they not only clarified my vision but polarized the world. The muddy middle disappeared. Both beauty and ugly became sharper: the former's perfections, previously half-hidden, now dazzled, while the latter's imperfections, also half-hidden, were now sadly revealed. The glasses almost seemed unfair. Part of me felt the world would be a kinder place if we all walked around with a bit of myopia.

Writing about movies is in some sense like putting on corrective lenses. It clarifies my vision but it also also polarizes my feelings. The good become very, very good; the bad godawful. The muddy middle disappears.

I think this explains why I'm always a little surprised when end-of-the-year pronouncements are made and the recent year in movies is found lacking. People said 2009 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Summer Hours' and 'Up' and 'A Serious Man' and 'Seraphine' and 'Avatar'?” People said 2010 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Un Prophete' and 'Restrepo' and 'True Grit' and 'The Social Network' and 'A Film Unfinished' and 'Inception' and 'Toy Story 3'?”

Now people say it of 2011.

I'll get to the very, very good movies soon but first here's the godawful: the five worst movies I saw in 2011. Your results may vary.

Keep in mind, as an independent reviewer, I'm not called upon to review just anything the studios put out. So I never saw the following: “Bucky Larson,” “Jack and Jill,” “Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son,” “Abduction,” “Atlas Shrugged” and anything starring Nicholas Cage.

That said...

5. “Cowboys & Aliens”: The aliens are 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. Always. 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 (Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig) are hard and selfish not because life is hard and selfish but so they can redeem themselves in the end. The town’s name, Absolution, is a giveaway. Lonergan, always on the verge of leaving, always has to return as if it’s a surprise. Dolarhyde, a growling, racist cuss for the first half of the movie, has to bond with the orphaned boy; he has to come to an understanding with his half-Indian, bastard son (Adam Beach); and he has to save the Indian chief so the two of them, in the midst of battle, with death all around, can give each other a nod of understanding.

4. “The First Grader”: Would this have made my list if it hadn't opened the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival? I'm a member, and a fan, of SIFF, and love the fact that they resurrected the Uptown Theater, a block from my workplace, and are showing good movies there; but the organization also has a kind of upper-class, stupid liberal sensibiity that tends to trump, I don't know, aesthetics. That's how you wind up with “First Grader” on Opening Night. It's about Africans, in Africa, so it must be meaningful, even though the good in the movie are way good (and good-looking), and the bad are unjustifiably, incomprehensibly bad (and scowling), and the big reveal is no reveal at all. The movie focuses on an 84-year-old former Mau Mau warrior, Maruge (Oliver Litondo), who fights to go to first grade so he can read a letter on his own that the president of Kenya sent him. His teacher, Jane (a gorgeous Naomie Harris) backs him in the endeavor, but suffers from officials, who transfer her to another part of the country—until Maruge and the other students drive away the new teacher with stones and win Jane back. Yay! And after all this, Maruge has Jane read the letter for him anyway. OK. So what's in this letter we’ve waited the entire movie to hear? Well, the President of Kenya thanks Maruge for his service to his country; he also says Kenya is now independent because of people like him. Then Jane looks at him with proud, shining eyes, and he looks at her with proud, shining eyes, and the soundtrack gives us more generic African music, and we fade to a shot of the real Maruge, who died in 2009, and that’s the movie. To some of the honchos at SIFF this meant one thing: Opening Night. My thought: I got dressed up for this?

3. “War Horse”: Destined to go down as one of the worst movies to be nominated best picture. Detractors accuse Steven Spielberg of being “manipulative,” a criticism I've never really understood, since most directors are manipulative; that's what they do. Spielberg just tends to do it better. Not here, though. Let's look at the film's climax. The horse's true owner, Albert, has been gassed and blinded in the trenches of WWI, and Joey, the horse, after his magnificent gallop through the German trenches, has been injured and is due to be shot, and they’re like 50 yards from each other and don’t even know it. But the sergeant is given his orders and raises his gun and points it at Joey’s head. In that moment, before a familiar whistle is heard that startles Joey, that reminds him of Devon, England, a whistle that’s repeated twice more until the crowd of soldiers parts, miraculously revealing Albert, the man we already knew was there, and the music wells up, and Albert makes his case that the horse is his, that it has white hooves and a white diamond-shaped mark on its forehead, which can’t be seen for all the mud, but which is slowly, miraculously revealed even though we know that that, too, is already there; before all of this, in that moment when Sgt. Fry raises his gun and points it at Joey’s head, I had but one amused thought: I dare ya, Steven.

2. “Green Lantern”: Some movies have absurdly long backstories, but none are more absurd or longer than the one in “Green Lantern.” These are the first words were hear, in voice-over:

Billions of years ago, a group of immortals harnessed the most powerful force in existence: the emerald energy of willpower. These immortals, the guardians of the universe, built a world from where they could watch over all of existence: the planet Oa. A ring powered by the energy of will was sent to every sector of the universe to select or recruit. In order to be chosen by the ring, one had to be without fear. Together these recruits formed the intergalactic peacekeepers known as the Green Lantern Corps.

Lord, save me now. And half of it's a lie! Hal Jordan is told he reeks of fear but this turns out to be his strength: the ability to admit fear and act anyway. So we start out with a point of view that isn't ours (who is truly without fear?) only to arrive at one that is (admitting and overcoming fear is a good thing, etc.). Meanwhile, the longstanding heroes of the movie, the Green Lantern Corps, guardians of the universe, are actually like little Nazis: all willpower and no professed fear and shooting their beams into the sky during some kind of intergalatic bund rally. They've spent a billion years searching for the fearless to wear powerful rings when, as Hal Jordan is told during his training: “The ring creates only what you can imagine.” So why don't they choose someone with imagination? Wouldn't that be better? I suppose the same can be asked of DC Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures.

1. “Sucker Punch”: There's a rogue group of critics out there who are trying to elevate this movie into, in Kim Morgan's words, “one of the most misunderstood, feminist, wildly experimental, anti-patriarchy pictures this year.” A critic named Nordling on the Ain't It Cool site seems to agree with her. He writes:

“The film becomes an opportunity for [director Zack] Snyder to wear his influences on his sleeve — from a World War I trench warfare sequence where anime mech meets clockwork zombies to a medieval siege complete with orcs and a really big dragon — think Vermithrax, not REIGN OF FIRE — as our heroines do battle using a World War II Flying Fortress. I imagine everything Zack Snyder ever said 'Cool!' at in passing is in this film in some way or another.”

Question: Aren't they praising the film for opposite reasons? She thinks Snyder is involved in deconstruction, he thinks celebration. Or is he deconstructing on one level (Fantasy I) and celebrating on another (Fantasy II)? A bigger problem is that everything Snyder and Nordling think is cool, I think is crap. “Where anime mech meets clockwork zombies” makes me think: “Mech.

Both Nordling and I agree that the movie is like a video game but for him this is a huge positive and for me it's a huge negative. He's a gamer, I'm not (STE at Xbox circa 2000-2003 notwithstanding). What he doesn't tell us is why a movie that's like a video game—that tells its story vertically rather than horizontally—is actually worth watching. Isn't the point of a video game to play it? To have some measure of control? To me, there are few things more boring than watching someone else play a video game.

Switching metaphors, Nordling writes:

“You're basically watching Snyder riff on his guitar for two hours. That's okay if you like that sort of thing, because Snyder's one of the best in the business. But if you can't stomach the way Snyder spirals, jazzlike, through the film's setpieces, you're going to be fairly miserable.”

Lord save us from jazz metaphors. The world is full of people who think they can riff, jazzlike, on musical instruments, just as it's full of people who think they can write great free-verse poetry. Most can't. Most need structure and discipline. Snyder is like that. He's the guy who thinks he's a great free-verse poet when nothing he says is close to profound or beautiful.

Bottom line: “Sucker Punch” is a movie in which there's violence without consequence, titillation without release, and a gritty, comic-book surrealism masking as realism. The women are dolled up for sex, prone to violence, and treated as extras in their own story. The only thing more shabbily treated is the whole of human history, which is seen as a backdrop for cool stuff to happen.  Tossing the worst aspects of our culture into one movie—either to deconstruct the worst aspects of our culture or to celebrate them—doesn't change the fact that Snyder is in fact tossing the worst aspects of our culture into one movie. He's created a shit sundae. To critics like Morgan and Nording, words like “meta” are the cherry on top of this sundae. To me, it's still a shit sundae. Who's hungry?

Posted at 07:33 AM on Feb 06, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2011, Movies - Lists
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Sunday February 05, 2012

Talkin’ Leeea-vy, Bryant and Jim Hirsch

In the 1950s, among baseball fans across the country and New York City kids in particular, the question was “Willie, Mickey or the Duke?”

It turned out to be the wrong question. It was circumscribed by time and place—1950s, New York, center field—and anyway Duke Snider, who led the 1950s in homers, faded in the LA sun, and Mantle crumpled under bad knees, leaving Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James Hirschonly Willie and his .302 batting average and 660 career homeruns in the discussion—even if modern stats such as OBP and OPS have resurrected Mantle back into it.

No, the true argument was Willie, Mickey or the Hammer, as in Henry Aaron, another kid who arrived in the bigs in the early 1950s and rewrote the record books. They were the three preeminent players of their era.

In the last two years we’ve had well-received biographies written on all three: “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend” by James Hirsch; “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” by Jane Leavy; and “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron” by Howard Bryant. I’ve now read all three.

Leaving aside the publishing industry’s awful penchant for titular absolutes, for “The Last X” or “The End of Y” (Aaron wasn’t the last hero and Mantle certainly wasn’t the last boy); and ignoring, for the moment, which of the three was the better player (OK, I still choose Mays), a new question emerges: Leavy, Bryant or Hirsch?

"The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron" by Howard BryantI can’t go Bryant, which is too bad. Hank Aaron’s life and career, more than Mays’ (who was more insulated), spanned the great racial divide of our country. He began playing in the Deep South in an era of segregation and lynchings, and came to true national prominence in a post-civil-rights era of Wheaties commercials and Jesse Jackson press conferences. He's also the underdog: the great player left out of the discussion until everyone suddenly realized that he was the guy who was going to break the game's greatest record. It should be a fascinating story. Part of it is. But Bryant spends too much time pushing us toward a specific viewpoint, his “last hero” viewpoint, and becomes annoying. He makes excuses for Aaron. He doesn’t just let him be. He spends so much time trying to make us like Henry Aaron, I actually began to dislike Henry Aaron.

James Hirsch isn’t pushing us toward a particular viewpoint with his subject. But “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend” is still a monumental book in the sense that we view Mays from a distance. It’s an authorized biography but apparently that didn’t mean much greater access. It meant, Yeah, go ahead, whatever. It’s a fine baseball book, and the chapter “Miraloma Drive,” about the difficulty Mays had buying a home in San Francisco in the late 1950s, should be made into a movie—either HBO or theatrical. But I still don’t get a true sense of the man.

"The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood" by Jane LeavyLeavy is the best writer of the bunch, and she gets closest to her subject—colonoscopy close. Mantle was dead by the time she began writing but she did interview him in 1983 and gives us a scene of Mantle making a late-night, drunken pass, hand up her skirt, then passing out on top of her. It’s pretty sad. She gives us Mantle’s positives and negatives but lets us make up our own minds. She’s basically saying: This is the way some people saw him; this is the way other people saw him. Here’s some good he did. This is destruction he left in his wake. This is how he acknowledged that destruction.

Some folks want to prop up our heroes; they want us to return to the era of ghost-written hagiographies. They miss the point. I keep returning to something actor Philip Seymour Hoffman told critic David Edelstein in 2005. He was talking as an actor toward his character but he could have been a biographer, or any writer really, talking about his subject:

The way toward empathy is actually to be as hard as possible on this character. The harder you are, the more empathy you'll gain, ultimately, by the end. ... [Because] I think deep down inside, people understand how flawed they are. I think the more benign you make somebody, the less truthful it is.

The Aaron bio is benign and thus other. The Mays bio is distant and thus other. The Mantle bio gives us the flaws and joys and horrible, horrible moments but what feels like the whole man. I always thought Mantle was a dull boy: stolid and strong and sun-bleached and stupid. I came away from “The Last Boy” with admiration and empathy. I came away grateful.

Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Henry Aaron, at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, 1969

Is this the only photo of the three of them together? It's the only one I could find--and Mantle was retired by the time it was taken. No photog got a shot of them in some All-Star Game in the late 1950s or early 1960s? We get Mays and Mantle (at All-Star Games and before the '62 World Series), and Mantle and Aaron (before the '57 and '58 World Series), and of course Mays and Aaron (all the time), but not all three together. Except for this. For now. Someone out there, some newspaper, some magazine, some photographer, has a better shot. I know it.

Posted at 07:58 AM on Feb 05, 2012 in category Baseball, Books
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Saturday February 04, 2012

Quote of the Day

“Feeling wrapped in light gives me a sense of spiritual atmosphere. You've got light, you needn't feel alone.”

--Cinematographer Sven Nykvist (1922-2006), in the documentary “Ljuset håller mig sällskap” (“Light Keeps Me Company”), which is currently streaming on Netflix.

Sven Nyqvist in "Light Keeps Me Company"

Some of the movies Nykvist photographed:

Posted at 08:54 AM on Feb 04, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday February 03, 2012

Something Rotten Among the Best Picture Nominees

In case you were wondering how the best picture nominees look as ranked by Rotten Tomatoes ...

By Top Critics:

By all critics:

What surprised me? Not the less-than-spectacular numbers for “Tree of Life,” which I expected, since I know some critics didn't like it or didn't have patience for it or it wasn't what they want in a movie.

I'm a bit surprised that “The Descendants” wasn't higher. Fifth of the nine nominees? Behind “Midnight in Paris”?

I'm even more surprised that “War Horse” didn't tank. Top critics gave it 82%. Maybe we need to redefine “top.”

But I'm most surprised that “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” wound up with the kind of low numbers I thought “War Horse” would have. “Extremely” is considered rotten in both rankings. Has any best picture nominee ever had such low RT ratings? Even “The Blind Side,” which also starred Sandra Bullock, went 62%/66%.

**

After a quick search, I discovered “The Reader” went 56%/62% in 2008. So there is rotten precendent, just not as rotten. The connection, of course, is that both films were directed by Stephen Daldry.

Posted at 07:24 AM on Feb 03, 2012 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Thursday February 02, 2012

My Top 10 Movie Lines of 2011

I like collecting quotes. I guess I've been doing it since I began to care about serious reading and writing, which was probably in college. I used to write favorites on the inside cover of whatever sad journal I was keeping at the time. The usual undergraduate stuff:

“Everyone is broken by life ... afterward some are stronger in the broken places.”
--Ernest Hemingway

And:

“The God I believe in isn't short of cash, mister!”
--Bono

Here are a few of the movie lines from 2011 that stuck with me. Some are short, some are long. Some I can quote; some I just love. There's life advice and contextual stuff that I imagine myself repeating down the road. The Malick quote is already part of my life. It's changed, or at least articulated, some way that I see the world.

No back-and-forth exchanges. That's a whole other beast. So you won't get anything like this from “Moneyball”:

Peter Brand: It's a metaphor.
Billy Beane: I know it's a metaphor.

Or this from “Young Adult”:

Matt: What're you doing back in Mercury? You moving back?
Mavis: Course not. Gross.

Feel free to add your own in the comments field below.

10. “I didn’t know that was your diary; I thought it was a very sad, handwritten book.”
--Brynn (Rebel Wilson), the Brit roommate from hell, to Annie (Kristen Wiig), in “Bridemaids.” Original screenplay by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo. One of many I could've chosen from this movie. I think I've probably quoted the “Daily Show” line more than any, but this one relates so well to the sad journals I used to keep.

9.  “Because you’re his girlfriend he’s got cancer you cheated on him you fucking lunatic!”
-- Kyle (Seth Rogen) to Rachael, the girlfriend from hell, when asked why he doesn't like her, in “50/50.” Original screenplay by Will Reiser. It's less the insult than the exasperrated run-on quality of it. I included no punctuation because Rogen doesn't imply any. It's Joycean in its stream-of-consciousness.

 

8. “If you're first out the door, that's not called panicking.”
-- John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) to Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) in “Margin Call.” Original screenplay by J.C. Chandor. What I love is the unmentioned follow-up: So what DO you call it? You call it survival, I suppose, or dickishness or reptilian. You call it capitalism. You call it (see no. 1) the way of nature.

7. “When you’re dealing with a kid or an adult or a horse, treat them the way you’d like them to be, not how they are now.“
-- Buck Brannaman in the documentary ”Buck.“

6. ”You are about a hundred miles from smart.“
-- Matt King (George Clooney) to Sid (Nick Krause) in ”The Descendants.“ Original screenplay by Alexander Payne. A second later, the kid demonstrates that he's closer to smart. Or at least closer to pain—and smart enough, or kind enough, not to bring it up during the pain of others.

George Clooney in "The Descendants" (2011)

5. ”That’s how I know he can be beaten. Because he’s a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.“
--George Smiley (Gary Oldman) in ”Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.“ Adapted screenplay by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, from the novel by John LeCarre. Although aren't we all concealing secret doubts? Although I guess for some our doubts aren't so secret. For the fanatic they would have to be. 

4.  ”If the sun were to explode you wouldn't even know about it for eight minutes because that's how long it takes for light to travel to us. For eight minutes the world would still be bright and it would still feel warm.“
--Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), in voiceover, in ”Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.“ Adapted screenplay by Eric Roth, from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.

3. ”Fuck you, you fucking fuck.“
-- T-shirt worn by Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) in ”The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.“ In case anyone's thinking belated birthday or early Valentine's Day gift: I'm a medium.

2. ”My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father's and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you, too, friend of the last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell, which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen. Insha'Allah.“
-- Christian (Lambert Wilson) in ”Of Gods and Men.“ Xavier Beauvois (adaptation et dialogue), Etienne Comar (scenario).

Final scene in "Of Gods and Men"

1. “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. ... 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.”
-- Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) in voiceover in “The Tree of Life.” Original screenplay by Terrence Malick.

Jessica Chastain in "The Tree of Life" (2011)

Posted at 06:19 AM on Feb 02, 2012 in category Movies - Quotes
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Wednesday February 01, 2012

One-Word Review of Madonna's “W/E”

E/W.

Posted at 08:09 AM on Feb 01, 2012 in category Movie Reviews
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