Tuesday, December 03, 2013
Clint Eastwood is Gus Lobel, a grizzled old baseball scout. He's basically the same character Eastwood played in Gran Torino, but with an eye for baseball talent. In a direct refutation to Moneyball, Eastwood doesn't believe in computers or statistics but in intangibles that only he can see. Problem: he's starting to go blind.
His daughter, Amy Adams, is a lawyer on the cusp of getting a partnership. She seems to be close to her dad, but there's a lot of baggage there, since her mother died when she was six and he sent her to live with an aunt and uncle, and then to boarding school. When Eastwood's boss, John Goodman, asks her to tag along on a scouting trip to North Carolina, she does so, even though she has to leave work at a critical time in her career.
Everything about this is unchallenging. We get a love interest for Adams with Justin Timberlake as an ex-player turned scout. We get the easy villain, Matthew Lillard, who specializes in these roles. The player Eastwood is scouting is an obnoxious asshole, so of course he will have a flaw in his game that only Eastwood and Adams will detect. And we will get broad stroke psychology that will explain why Adams and Eastwood are the way they are.
But damned if I wasn't just a bit charmed by the end. Everything wraps into a very nice bow, of course, but Eastwood and Adams, and even Timberlake, are too good not to root for. Most of the baseball seems fairly realistic, though I don't think judgements on players are made in such snap decision fashion (the GM, played by Robert Patrick, watches a player throw some tosses and declares he looks like Sandy Koufax).
There's also some problems with the characterization of Adams--we're told that she felt abandoned by her father, and spent years apart from him, yet she's gleaned an amazing amount of talent and inspiration from him, from how to shoot pool to being a font of baseball trivia. Was she close to him or not?
Trouble With the Curve is like an afternoon amateur baseball game--fairly slow, no big surprises, and oddly comforting.
Monday, December 02, 2013
Woody is headed toward Lincoln, Nebraska. The problem is he's in Billings, Montana. He has received a letter in the mail from one of those publishing clearing house firms that has promised him a million dollars. Most of us read the fine print and see that it's conditional on having the winning number. But Woody, confused in his old age, can't or won't see it.
His wife, Kathy, thinks he's a "dumb cluck." One son, a TV reporter, tries to make him see reason. But his younger son, David, eventually takes pity on him and decides to drive him to Lincoln. Along the way they stop in Woody's home town and visit relatives and old friends. Some things are learned along the way.
Payne, who has set many of his films in his native state of Nebraska, walks a tightrope here. He displays the habits and behavior of the taciturn people of the Great Plains with what some would call affection and others might call mockery. I lean toward affection, as I recognized a lot of this behavior in my people, and I expect almost everyone would, no matter where they were raised. A tableau of Woody and his brothers watching TV is like the 21st century version of American Gothic. I don't think it's a coincidence that Woody Grant is a sideways version of the painter of that work, Grant Wood.
Shot in breathtaking black and white by Phedon Papamichael that suggests Walker Evans photographs, the austerity of the plains is brought into sharp focus. We get the lonely highways, the boarded up storefronts, the signs missing letters, the silos in the twilight. The photography also shows every bit of wear and tear these people have endured on their faces. Woody, with that hunch and a nimbus of uncombed snow white hair, looks every bit of what must be almost eight decades on the planet.
There is so much to like here. The script by Bob Nelson may be a little contrived--the central conceit of a man duped by a marketing scheme may have some truth in it, but it barely holds up. The son, played solidly by Will Forte, isn't fully developed. We see him as a stereo salesman, and breaking up with a girlfriend, but we don't know much about him, and I'm always baffled by films where a grown child knows nothing about his parents, but that's just me. The ending also gives in a bit to sentimentality.
But Nelson also has a fine ear for the dialogue of such people. When asked how by his son why he had kids, Woody replies, "I liked screwing, and your mother is a Catholic." He also responds to the question of whether he ever had regrets about marrying Kathy by quickly saying, "All of the time."
As a director, Payne adds some wonderful touches, such as having Stacy Keach, as Woody's old partner, sing karaoke (Elvis Presley's "In the Ghetto"), and magnificently uses the talents of June Squibb, an actress getting the part of her lifetime as Kathy. She is most memorable in a scene in the home town cemetery, commenting with brutal honest about the interred, such as Woody's sister Rose, who died when she was 19. "Whore," she says. She also lets out a rousing "Go fuck yourself" to the family members who want a piece of Woody's mythical prize winnings.
What this film will most be remembered for is Bruce Dern's performance as Woody. An actor who has specialized in playing oddballs for fifty years, Woody is his crowning achievement. He is a man who has said little his whole life, and is now slowly losing his faculties. He can't drive, but he wants a new truck. He's an alcoholic, but he's also generous to a fault. When Keach, who turns bilious, reminds him of an affair he had, in front of Forte, the shame he feels his palpable, even though his face doesn't register much. Another scene has him visiting the farmhouse where he grew up. He looks in on the room where his brother died of scarlet fever, and his parents' room, where he was taken to be whipped. "I guess nobody's going to whip me now," he says.
Nebraska is also laugh out loud funny, and very touching in that familiar way that relationships between fathers and sons are portrayed. I laughed and got a little lump in my throat at a shot late in the film while Dern is wearing a hat that says "Prize Winner." Dern, if there's any justice, will be in the running for lots of prizes this award season. He's already won at Cannes.
My grade for Nebraska: A-.
Sunday, December 01, 2013
Therefore it was nice to check The Best American Comics 2013, where there is no Archie nor anyone in spandex or a cape. Edited by Jeff Smith, the book is a cornucopia of different styles, with something for almost anybody.
However, there is an inherent problem. Many of the comics selected are excerpts, which means we only get a few pages of a much larger work. Either the excerpt is too short to grab much context, or one is left wanting more. Also, as with any collection with this many selections, some of them left me scratching my head.
I suppose my favorites were those that were most traditional; Craig Thompson's Habibi, which is kind of an Arabian Nights story; Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson's Story Time, which is in the form of a fable told by and to dogs; Tony Puryear's Concrete Park, a gritty urban crime tale; and Terry Moore's Rachel Rising, the one that I would most likely check out in its entirety.
There are also some terrific history-based comics in here, such as Colleen Doran, Derek McCullough, and Jose Villarrubia's tale of an Irish pirate queen in Gone to Amerikay; Derf Backderf's My Friend Dahmer, about the serial killer's youth; Joseph Lambert's Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller; and Paul Pope's vigorously researched 1969, about the Apollo 12 moon landing.
There are also some cute and quirky comics that are like daily funnies. The best of these is Evan Dorkin's Fun Strips. My favorite is the "Rejected Make-a-Wish Applicants": "I'd like to take as many with me as possible;" "I want Katy Perry and instructions on how to do love to her;" and "I wish to taste human flesh." Gabrielle's Cody is a great comic short story that has the look of Robert Crumb.
There are some in here that I just didn't get at all, such as Michael DeForge's Manananggal and Kate Beaton's Velocipedes. Some had good stories but shaky art, such as Leela Corman's Unterzakhn and Eleanor Davis' Nita Goes Home.
By far the best selection in the book is the very first one, Alison Bechdel's excerpt from Are You My Mother? Bechdel writes and draws memoir comics, and this one is about her relationship with her mother, incorporating the psychoanalytical theories of Donald Winnicott, A Little Night Music, and Middle English poetry. I just might have to get the entire book, as Bechdel may be the best comic book writer working today.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
The group is made up of two guys, Randy Randall and Dean Spunt. The sound is hard to classify, as it's a hybrid of many different styles. There's an element of punk in their, from The Ramones to The Buzzcocks, but also a modern noise element.
Most of the songs are very hard-driving and perfect for head-banging, if you're into that sort of thing. The best guitar lick is on "C'mon, Stimmung," while "No Ground," "Defector/ed," and "Lock Box" also kick ass. The closest thing to a pop song is "I Won't Be Your Generator."
Many of the songs have cryptic titles that invite all sorts of speculation. What are we to make of "Circling with Dizzy," "A Ceiling Dreams of a Floor," or "My Hands, Birch and Steel?" The vocals are buried deep down in the mix, and have a droning quality, but at times the lyrics are intriguing (the band has kindly put in lyric sheets on cards, which I read were hand-stuffed by the band themselves). "Running From A-Go-Go" is a nifty little poem that seems to be about a lonely truck driver:
tears in your eyes
I want to go off that road again.
Truck stop in the middle of the world
I don't want to be alone again.
So much trash
You wouldn't know
Bullshit on the stereo
It's cold when the motel's home
One more night alone again.
The closing song, "Commerce, Comment, Commence" is a mind-blower. It is mostly noise, a building crescendo of samples, that could be the sound of the end of the world or maybe the beginning. To listen to it is to feel like being swallowed by noise. It also has a cryptic but poignant lyric:
Time opens up
Like the back of
a pick-up truck
There is no here
when there is no where."
Friday, November 29, 2013
The film opens with vignettes of four magicians doing their acts at various levels of success. Jesse Eisenberg plays a card magician, Woody Harrelson a mentalist and hypnotist, Dave Franco a pickpocket, and Isla Fisher an escape artist. They are contacted by a mysterious figure, who employs them to work together. They become famous Las Vegas stage musicians as a foursome ("The Four Horsemen") and stun everyone by somehow robbing a French bank while in Las Vegas.
This brings them the attention of FBI agent Mark Ruffalo, along with Interpol agent Melanie Laurent. Added to the mix are Michael Caine, as the Horsemen's financial backer, and Morgan Freeman, as an ex-magician who makes money revealing other magicians' secrets. Everything is tied to a magician who disappeared trying to do an escape from a locked safe dropped into a river.
The film is full of twists and turns and shifting allegiances and has a final twist that I didn't anticipate. I like magic, to a certain extent, if it's the more cerebral Ricky Jay or Penn & Teller type (no David Blaine or Copperfield for me, thanks). The script, by a trio of writers, has a certain affection for magic and magicians, as those featured here steal from the rich and give to the poor.
But magic doesn't work well in films, because we already know that film is a type of magic. Stage magic works better, because the special effects aren't so obvious. Misdirection is the key to magic, and that doesn't work in film because film is an art form that focuses the viewer on a specific thing.
I also eye-rolled a bit at the extent of the magicians' exploits, including a finale that seems to have involved Con Edison. Where they got the funds to stage all this is a mystery. Another trick involved Woody Harrelson somehow getting control of a New York City bus. Right.
The film did excellent counter-programming business this early summer, and a sequel is scheduled. I might check it out, if only as a rental.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
Our narrator is Hazel Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old girl with cancer. She is living on borrowed time, forced to lug around an oxygen canister, and home schooled. She is remarkably clear-eyed about her situation: "Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying."
Her parents, especially her mother, are smothering, and urge her to get out more. She does, attending a cancer support group, where she meets Augustus Waters, a beautiful boy who lost a leg to cancer, but is otherwise in good health. He is instantly smitten, and the romance gets started, in fits and starts. He introduces her to his favorite movie (V for Vendetta) and she to her favorite book, written by the reclusive Peter Van Houten, a novel that famously ends in the middle of a sentence.
Augustus, who has not used his "wish" from the Genie Foundation (obviously a stand-in for the Make a Wish Foundation) arranges to use it so he and Hazel can fly to Amsterdam, meet Van Houten, and find out what happens to the characters in his book after the abrupt ending. Of course, things don't go as hoped, and there's the inevitable, given that we're talking about kids with cancer, tragic turn.
I liked this book a great deal, although I think some of the hosannas are a bit much. It is very well written and very funny at times, but it's a bit precious. Hazel and Augustus are very precocious, especially Augustus, who is one of those guys who is always "on," such as responding to questions of how are you by saying, "Grand." I can see how this book may be very popular with girls, as Augustus is idealized. Here is how he professes his love to Hazel: "'I'm in love with you, and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll have, and I am in love with you." Wow.
Green has done his research on kids with cancer, and this book is a model for how to deal with anyone with a terminal disease, because most of us without one have no clue how to behave around someone in that situation. We get certain insights into their daily lives, such as: "Cancer perks are the little things cancer kids get that regular kids don't: basketballs signed by sports heroes, free passes on late homework, unearned driver's licences, etc."
The film, coming out next year, will star the amazing Shailene Woodley as Hazel. I can't wait for that.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
The greatest deviation from the real story is the depiction of Inspector Frederick Abberline, the lead policeman on the case. Here is played as an opium fiend by Johnny Depp, who also solves crimes by visions (this is perhaps incorporating the character of Robert James Lees, the psychic who was played by Donald Sutherland in Murder By Decree). To satisfy the Hollywood demands for a romance, Depp is in love with Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), who was the Ripper's last victim, but is here given a second chance at life.
As with Murder By Decree, we are led to believe that the Ripper murders are intended to keep secret the Duke of Clarence's secret marriage and child by Annie Crook. In Murder By Decree she was a maid, but here she is a Whitechapel prostitute, and the five victims are her friends who know the truth. Moore, in his book, also makes several connections with the Freemasons (this is also in Murder By Decree), including the juicy coincidence that one of the girls was killed in Mitre Square, and that the "Juwes" included in the Gholston Street graffito may not have been a reference to Jews, but instead to the betrayers of the Freemason's founder.
All that is fun stuff, and the Hughes brothers, along with their designers, create a rich Victorian London.
I saw this when it first came out in 2001 and it holds up well.