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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Queen

The Queen is the best film I've seen so far this year. It is, at the surface, a fly-on-the-wall look at what happened between Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Tony Blair following the death of Diana, so in a thumbnail, this film is about planning a funeral. But it is so much more than that. At its broadest, the film is about modernization, and pulling an institution that has traditions a thousand years old into the era of Oprah.

I'm not sure how accurate it is. There is no source material listed for Peter Morgan's excellent script, so I don't know if someone who worked for the palace or the PM wrote a tell-all. It may all be complete guess-work, for certainly the royal family wouldn't have participated, as some of them come off quite badly, particularly Prince Philip, who is portrayed as a clueless and mean old codger. Prince Charles is acted as decent but feckless. Elizabeth is painted as far more complex. She is a woman who knows nothing but her insular life, and has for close to fifty years sacrificed a normal life to be sovereign. But she grows over the course of the picture, and her decision to accept Blair's advice and make a public statement about Diana's death is shown to be the tumultuous event that it must have been.

The peformances are all wonderful, particularly Helen Mirren as the Queen. She should start rehearsing her Oscar speech now. Michael Sheen, as Blair, will also be Oscar bait, and Alex Jennings is suitably facile as Charles.

The direction is by Stephen Frears, who has been uneven lately, but scores big here. Every decision seems to work. There is a sub-plot about a stag running wild on the Balmoral estate that becomes a metaphor for the monarchy. If it had been explained to me I would have thought it ridiculous, but it works perfectly.

What will remain with me longest is the subtle things that show the changing times--a monarch from a line going back a thousand years, but using a cell phone, or watching TV, or receiving a fax. These are somewhat jarring, but indicative of the modernization theme. I wonder if this film will ever be secretly screened in the royal apartments?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Wait 'Til Next Year!

It's over. The baseball season has come to a close, and with it the championship hopes of the Detroit Tigers. But as I watched the pitiful ending on Friday night, I wasn't particularly distraught, because I knew one thing--if someone had come to me on opening day this year and said the Tigers would be in the World Series but lose, I would have taken it. This team has had over a decade of lousy play, so this season was a huge leap forward.

Unfortunately, they went out with a whimper. After a stirring win over the Yankees and dominance over the Oakland As, they just about handed the Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Tigers couldn't hit, and they couldn't field, especially the pitchers, who had an error in each game. Certainly pitchers' fielding will be worked on hard next spring training. They pitched well enough to win, but that wasn't enough.

As for St. Louis, I didn't feel bad watching them celebrate. They are a good baseball town, and they hadn't won a championship in a longer time-period than the Tigers, and they've been tantalizingly close in the LaRussa era. And the last time the Tigers lost to the Cardinals in a World Series they came back and won the next year (granted, that was 1935).

I don't know what changes the Tigers will make. Clearly they need another bat in the lineup, preferably a left-hander. I would hate to see any of the current players go in a trade, and I would be extremely hesitant to trade any of the young starting pitchers they have. But I have faith in GM Dave Dombrowski to do the right thing. After all, he took a team that was epic in its awfulness three years ago and turned them into a pennant-winner.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Barack Obama

The hot candidate on the scene today seems to be Barack Obama, the freshman senator from Illinois, and I've kind of gotten excited about his prospects. He's young (he will be 47 in 2008) and extremely articulate. He doesn't have a ton of political experience, but I don't see that as a detriment. He hasn't been around long enough to inspire hatred from the red-state contingent (as a certain former First Lady has). I was recently at the Kennedy library, and he was there signing books the night before. Watching the old films of Kennedy and seeing Obama on TV I'm struck by certain similarities--they both have incredible poise and charisma, which in this day and age seems to more than half the battle.

Obama is of mixed race--an African father and a white mother. I think the country is more than ready for a president with such heritage. I'm sure there are many people still who would refuse to vote for a black man as president, but I don't think those people would vote for Hillary Clinton, either.

If Al Gore decides not to run and Obama does, I think Obama will be my guy. In my daydreams, though, it would be a Gore-Obama ticket, which I think would be very attractive.

Incidentally, Obama is, by about three months, younger than I am. The day that a person is older than the President of the United States must be a brutal one.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Shawn Colvin

I was a fan of Shawn Colvin even before she released her first record. There was a time, back in the 80s, when I was very much into folk music. I frequented places like the Bottom Line, and listened to radio shows like Mixed Bag with Pete Fornatale, Vin Scelsa's Idiot's Delight, and WFUV. I must have first heard Colvin when she guested on Scelsa's show, and I went to see her at a very small club in Greenwich Village called Speakeasy. Her opening act was John Gorka, another terrific singer-songwriter. The tiny place was packed, and it was a great show. I bought her hand-made cassette tape, and then when she had a major-label release I got that, and have purchased all her albums since then.

She has a new album out called These Four Walls, and I got it about a month ago and have listened to it about five times. I've had a hard time deciding whether I like it or not. I can say that it's not as strong as her first record, Steady On, or her Grammy-winning album, A Few Small Repairs. Her singing, as usual, is hauntingly beautiful. But much of the tone of the record, musically speaking, is a sort of lite FM quality that I don't dig much. Lyrically, however, there is more lurking beneath the surface. The title track starts, "I'm going to die in these four walls, I've had enough and tried it all," which is either the beginning of a suicide note or a massive shrug of resignation. And, in The Bird she sings, "We were still young like when me met, and I hadn't fucked it all up yet."

There are a couple of peppy numbers, such as Fill Me Up and Tuff Kid, and a couple of interesting covers--The Bee Gees "Words," and perhaps the most beautiful track is U2's Pride (In the Name of Love).

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Uh Oh

Tigers fans might wake up this morning with pessimism in their bones, as they fell behind the Cardinals last night 2-1 after getting shutout by Chris Carpenter. I turned the set off after Joel Zumaya stupidly threw the ball into left field trying to start a double play at third base (?!) to give the Cards a 4 run lead. I didn't miss much.

Full credit goes to Carpenter, but this series will be over quickly if Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, and Ivan Rodriguez continue to struggle at the plate. So far they are 0 for 34 in this series. Granderson is not a true lead-off hitter, as he strikes out way too much (the most Ks in the AL this year). And what happened to Polanco, who wore out Oakland? The broadcasters mentioned the Cardinal pitchers are busting him inside. Clearly some adjustments have to be made.

As for the brouhaha surrounding Kenny Rogers and the mysterious substance on his hand in Game 2: after reading and listening to all the scuttlebut on this (it couldn't be avoided on the off-day, when reporters had little else to comment on) I suspect that he did have something illegal on his hand. But there are two additional points to be made--if putting pine tar on your hand makes you pitch that great, and many pitchers do it (if less blatantly than Rogers), then why aren't other pitchers throwing as well, and two, I imagine Tony LaRussa didn't make a bigger deal of it because he knows some of his pitchers do the same thing, and didn't want Jim Leyland having the umpires undress his pitchers on the mound. Doctoring the baseball is a rule more honored in the breach than the observance, and it seems that it is almost winked at.

This tempest in a teapot may become a completely moot point if the Tigers can't get their bats going, and Rogers won't pitch again in this series unless Detroit can win at least one game in St. Louis.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland concerns a young Scottish doctor who, in order to escape the stultifying life in his hometown, goes to Africa to try to help people. He is working in a village clinic when, by chance, he meets the new charismatic president of Uganda, Idi Amin. He becomes seduced by Amin's charm and power, and becomes his personal physician and, crazily enough, one of his closest advisors. Amin, of course, is a megalomaniac and psychopath, and all too soon the doctor realizes he is in the center of a holocaust and looks to get out.

This film is well-made and acted, but while I was watching it I was searching for something. A film doesn't need to have a specific point, but this one kind of did. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of world events of the past thirty years knows the name Idi Amin and what a monster he was. There is nothing new here. The character of the doctor is fictional, so once again we have a film about Africa that is filtered through the eyes of a white man. The doctor is also not as smart as the viewer is, because it is apparent from the very beginning that Amin is dangerous, but the doctor refuses to see it until it is too late.

The ending is quite gripping--the doctor finally decides to act against Amin and is found out, and this all happens against the backdrop of the hijacked Air France plane that is being held at Entebbe. Will the doctor get out? There is also a subplot about the doctor's affair with one of Amin's wives that doesn't work.

As for Forest Whitaker as Amin, it is technically a fine performance. He brings out all the charisma, charm and menace of the man. While watching him you can see the wild beast in his eyes. But there are other unpleasant connotations of Emperor Jones. I would hope that more movies are made about more heroic figures from African history.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Boston Weekend

The Princeton women's hockey season opened in Boston on Friday, so I planned a trip around it. Headed up on Friday and, after a short delay after a flat tire on the New York State Thruway, I arrived in time to see the second half of the game. All the scoring took place before I got there, and the game ended in a 2-2 tie. I did watch the third period with my best buddy from the team, Mariesa Mason, who was the odd person out (the team can only dress 21 players--18 skaters and 3 goalies, and since Princeton is carrying 22 players on the roster, one player has to sit each game).

The next day my friend Lora, who accompanied me on the trip, joined me for a tour of Fenway Park. I'd never been there before, and I couldn't take my eyes off it as we walked around it. It's a beautiful structure, and getting to see the inside of it was terrific. The tour takes you to the press box, to the swanky luxury box areas, and of course the seats on top of the Green Monster. Time very well spent.

The next stop was the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum (pictured above). I've now been to two presidential libraries (Nixon's is the other one). They both follow roughly the same template--exhibits follow a time-line, dealing mainly with their time in public office, especially the presidency. Perhaps most impressive about this one is the location--a spit of land jutting into Boston harbor. As it was a sun-drenched day (though nippy) it was quite a sight.

The day concluded with another Princeton hockey game, this time at Quinnipiac College, and it had a happy ending, with a 6-3 Princeton win, but there was a depressing result in game one of the World Series, as the Tigers finally had a bad game after winning seven post-season games in a row. But, as of this writing, Kenny Rogers had righted the ship with a win last night, so it's now a best-of-five. There is still hope!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Reading the Oscar Tea Leaves--Best Actor

Unlike Best Actress, the Best Actor race is much more unfocused. There are several heavy hitters in films that are about to be released, but if the films are no good the chances for nominations sink. This is what we do know:

Forest Whitaker is close to a lock for his role as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Whitaker, an actor who has given superb, subtle performances, will likely be honored for going balls to the wall as the maniacal Amin. Again, performances as real people seem to earn points, as well as playing real people with gigantic personalities, no matter how psychopathic.

Another near-lock is Peter O'Toole (pictured) in the film Venus. I know practically nothing about this film, except that it's about an old man's love for a young woman. The Best Actor category is not usually one won by actors in films that are barely seen, but this could be an exception. If O'Toole gets nominated, how can he not win? It would be his eighth nomination, and no performer has ever gone 0 for 8 (O'Toole is currently tied with Richard Burton for Oscar futility among performers, but he did pick up an Honorary Oscar a few years ago). The hurdle, it seems to me, is getting the film out there and noticed to get O'Toole the nomination.

Other possibilities include Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed or for Blood Diamond, Matt Damon for The Good Shepherd (or The Departed, but less likely. Damon seems to be outshone by DiCaprio and Nicholson), George Clooney for The Good German, and Derek Luke for Catch a Fire. Perhaps more likely is Will Smith from The Pursuit of Happyness. Smith may well be honored for his continuing and astonishing career arc--a novelty rap act to a TV sit-com star to a major film star. Happyness, I read, is one of those rags-to-riches, tear-jerking films that the Academy would probably lap up.

There is also probably an actor who will get nominated that no one is thinking about right now, which is what makes the whole thing so much fun.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


This is how things work for me. I went to see Hollywoodland and noticed a stunning young woman playing a supporting role of Adrien Brody's girlfriend/secretary. I looked her up on the IMDB and discovered her name was Caroline Dhavernas, a Canadian actress. Her most notable role was the lead in a short-lived Fox TV series called Wonderfalls. I remembered reading about it--it was a critical darling but got axed after four episodes.

Well, through the magic of Netflix I was able to rent the DVD of the entire run of the series, as well as a couple of other films Dhavernas has starred in. One of them was called These Girls, a little indie comedy from Canada that was pretty dreadful. The premise was the stuff of many a Penthouse letter--a hunky man is blackmailed into sexually servicing three teenage girls, but has a feminist spin which sets out to make him the bad guy in the situation, even though the girls are heartless harpies. I also rented a film called Edge of Madness, which sounds like a parody of a soap opera but instead was a Western. A young woman is chosen to be the bride by a cruel homesteader who abuses her, and she and his much nicer brother get revenge. An okay film, not much to write home about.

As for Wonderfalls, I've now seen five episodes (there are thirteen total). I'll stick it out, but I think if I had watched the show when it aired I would have lost interest by now. It tells the story of a young woman who is an Ivy League grad but chooses to live the life of a slacker, working in a gift shop in Niagara Falls. Presumably this is an act of rebellion against her family, who were all over-achievers. Anyway, one day she starts hearing voices emanate from the tchotchke animals that are in the store. They give her cryptic instructions that inevitably lead her to helping someone.

The show is at times excruciatingly quirky. It reminds me of shows like Northern Exposure, which are set in an interesting place, but Wonderfalls doesn't have the rich tapestry that that show had. Also, though Dhavernas is very good in her role, her character is a bit of a pill, and at times difficult to root for. There are times you just want to slap some sense into her.

While watching the Edge of Madness I realized who Dhavernas reminded me of--Elizabeth McGovern. They have the same haunting blue eyes and winsome smile. She is now an actress I will keep an eye out for.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

On to the World Series

The Tigers made short work of the Oakland As last week, winning the American League pennant in four straight games. As usual, the main reason was pitching, but there was also some timely hitting. I watched every pitch of game 1, and almost all of game 2 (I did some flipping back and forth while Lost was on). On Friday night, I arrived home from the symposium (see below) in about the fourth inning, just in time to see Craig Monroe's home run which made it 3-0. That was more than enough, as Kenny Rogers and the bullpen shut the As out.

On Saturday, I hurried across campus to my car to put the radio on and discovered the Tigers were losing, 3-0. I was down but not out, but really didn't relish having to extend the series, especially since the Tigers would face the As best pitcher, Barry Zito, in the next game. But on the drive home the Tigers picked up two runs, and once in the comfort of my home, Magglio Ordonez tied things up with a solo shot.

The rest of the game featured chances on both sides, with both teams squandering bases loaded opportunities. Detroit was missing Joel Zumaya with a minor injury, and poor Jason Grilli, who ordinarily wouldn't pitch, walked the bases loaded on 12 straight pitches before Wil Ledezma came in to get a pop-out to end the inning.

But in the ninth, with two outs, Monroe and Placido Polanco both singled, and Ordonez swatted his second home run of the game and it was all over. The resulting celebration didn't match the intensity of the Yankee victory, which was appropriate. That was a much bigger deal, emotionally speaking, and there is still work to be done. I think the Tigers match up well with either the Mets or the Cardinals, especially with pitching, and Zumaya and Sean Casey should be back after having a week to heal their injuries.

The dream season continues...

Monday, October 16, 2006


This weekend was all about Irish drama and baseball. Princeton University held a symposium on Irish drama to coincide with the donation of a large collection of memorabilia donated to the library by a benefactor. Several prominent people from Irish theater (including three different artistic directors of the Abbey Theater) took part. On Friday night, a former director, Joe Dowling, gave the keynote address. On Saturday morning, actor Barry McGovern, who is well know for his roles in the plays of Samuel Beckett, performed a one-man reading of some of Beckett's works. He closed with one my favorite lines in all of literature: "You must go on. I can't go. I'll go on." I think I'll have that etched on my tombstone.

Following that was a staged reading of a one-act play by Sean O'Casey, The Cooing of Doves. The play was thought to be lost. No one went into details about where it was found. Those who read ranged from amateurs, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, who as head of the Fund for Irish Studies was all over the place this weekend (and not a bad actor) to Stephen Rea, prominent film actor (he was nominated for an Oscar in The Crying Game). Rea also participated in two panel discussions later in the afternoon. It was nice to be attend something like this, and reminded me of how engaged I was in these kinds of topics when I was in college. I could also listen to Irish people talk for hours, even if they were reading the phone book, because the accents are just delicious.

On Sunday I attended the play Translations, by Brian Friel, who is a a prominent Irish playwright. It was directed by Garry Hynes, the first woman to ever win a Tony Award for Best Director. She also participated in panel discussions. The play was first staged by a company founded by Friel and Rea, back in 1980, at the height of the Troubles. It is set in Donegal in 1831, when an ordnance company of British soldiers comes to a town to map the area and Anglicize the place names. So what we are seeing, essentially, is another step toward the eradication of the native culture, as the people there speak very little English. It's a very universal theme, and reminded me of the loss of native-American culture, as young Indians were sent to reservation schools and taught English, and several native languages have disappeared.

In between all these events I did my best to keep up with the Tigers. More on that in my next post.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Sweetest Victory

Because I've been traveling I've missed a few posts on the progress of the Detroit Tigers, who have been my favorite baseball team since I was a tot. My second-favorite team is whomever is playing the New York Yankees. It was thus that the Tigers victory in the ALDS over the Yankees on Saturday was doubly sweet, or maybe sweet squared.

On Friday night the much maligned (and deservedly so) Kenny Rogers took the hill against the mighty Yanks, who had a long history of knocking him around. The last time Rogers pitched in a post-season game was with the Mets, when he walked in the series-ending run against the Atlanta Braves in 1999. He has long been considered a pitcher who wilts under pressure, and his scuffle with a cameraman last year didn't earn him any love. So what does he do but go out and pitch the game of his life (he once threw a perfect game with Texas, but this game even topped that one). He shut the Yankees out for over seven innings, constantly baffling them with curveballs. The Tigers, meanwhile, got to an aching and aged Randy Johnson, and took a 6-0 victory in a game that stunned everyone.

The next day, the Tigers had to win to keep the series from going back to New York for a deciding game five. Taking the mound for Detroit was Jeremy Bonderman, who had last been seen blowing a six-run lead to the lowly Royals in a game that the Tigers needed to clinch the division. So what does he do? Pitch the game of his life, limiting the Yankees to one run through eight plus innings. The Tigers battered Yankee starter Jaret Wright, and so from the early innings on it was a matter of counting down the outs. The final: Tigers 8, Yankees 3, series over.

If that wasn't enough, I was thrilled to watch the way the players celebrated with the fans, high-fiving the front-row crowd, spraying them with bubbly. Rogers even poured champagne on a policeman (but made sure to get his permission first). For an old Michigan guy such as myself, it was tear-jerking.

Living in the New York metropolitan era, I got the spin from the Yankee point of view, which gave little respect for the Tigers and instead concentrated on whether Torre or A-Rod must go. I lapped it up in a delicious buffet of schadenfreude. Listening to Yankee fans suffer through a loss is almost as good as watching the Tigers win.

As of today, the Tigers have not suffered a let down, taking the first two from the Oakland As. The As are not a team worthy of hate, so there isn't the same kind of intense pressure while watching the games. Of course, I still want the Tigers to keep winning, but even if this is as far as they go, the taming of the Yankees will sustain me through the long, cold winter.

The Departed

The Departed is a grand entertainment, the kind of movie you just sit back in your seat and let wash over you. It is not, however, any kind of eloquent statement about the nature of man. In short, an extremely well-made popcorn film for adults.

The story concerns two young men from the south side of Boston, who grew up around the criminal element. One of them, Matt Damon, is taken under the wing of the local Irish mob boss, played by Jack Nicholson. He goes to become a state policeman, a mole for Nicholson. The other, Leonardo DiCaprio, washes out of the police academy, but his background catches the attention of a task force looking for undercover men. He goes under deep cover to infiltrate Nicholson's gang.

Each of them becomes, to the other side, a rat. The rat is seen as a very despicable figure for both the cops and the crooks, and there's a lot of cross-cutting between the two men's stories. The structure of the film is thus two strands, with only cursory intersection until the end of the picture (even though they share a lover, a police pyschologist played well by Vera Farmiga).

The picture is action-packed, profane, and very funny. Nicholson gives his usual larger-than-life performance, but doesn't overwhelm Damon or DiCaprio in his scenes. At times I saw a bit of his performance as The Joker sticking through. Both Damon and DiCaprio are excellent, but Mark Wahlberg is the surprise here, stealing every scene he's in as one of the cops running the undercover operation. Of course, credit is to be given to the writer, William Monahan, who has given Walhberg excellent lines.

The film ends in the kind of body count that recalls Hamlet, and a last shot that reminds us of rats feels a bit hollow. Unlike other great pictures about the mob, such as The Godfather and Goodfellas, The Departed is more razzle-dazzle than meaningful, but is nonetheless a terrific time at the movies.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Tigers Draw Even

Yesterday was an interesting day for me. The morning was ruined by knowledge that Fedex has lost an important package that had to be in England my Monday. Not my fault, but I'm the kind of person who takes any slip-ups hard, somehow thinking they reflect badly on me.

In the afternoon, from my computer, I followed the progress of Game Two of the ALDS between my beloved Tigers and the hated Yankees. The Tigers lost game 1, their sixth loss in a row overall, and the entire baseball nation seemed to think (including me) that they would roll over and get swept. Things started badly when Mike Mussina struck out the side in the first, and Justin Verlander loaded the bases in the Yankee half. But he struck out Alex Rodriguez, and wriggled out of a few more jams, and the Tigers got a 1-0 lead.

I was following this on Gameday, a wonderful program on, which tracks every pitch and has a plethora of graphics. There is no audio or video, but I was sitting there, waiting for the results of each pitch to be put on screen, almost like I was watching the game.

Johnny Damon hit a 3-run dinger to put the Yankees ahead, and my spirits sank, but only temporarily, as the Tigers clawed back. A home-run by Carlos Guillen tied it, and a triple by Curtis Granderson scored Marcus Thames to give them a 4-3 lead in the seventh. The Tiger bullpen, so dreadful in the season-ending Kansas City series, was sterling, especially Joel Zumaya, who struck out Jeter, Giambi and A-Rod, with 100 mph gas.

Todd Jones got the save in the ninth and the entire complexion of the series has changed, as the Tigers have snatched home-field advantage. Tonight is game three, with two men over forty, Kenny Rogers and Randy Johnson, on the hill. I'm not so optimistic as to say the Tigers will now win this series, but I feel a helluva lot better than before yesterday's game.

Perhaps the most pleasurable part of the day came when I got home and put on the local sports radio show, Mike and the Mad Dog. Mike is an arrogant Yankee fan (is there another kind) who was not showing any respect for Detroit. It was nice to see him squirm a little bit (he was dumping all over A-Rod). The Mad Dog is a shrill Yankee-hater, so the banter was music to my ears.

Funny how grown men playing a game with a stick and a ball miles away from me can affect my emotions like that.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

You're a Sick Fuck, Fink

Because of some traveling I'm behind on my continuing series on 1991 films.

I saw Barton Fink at an advance screening--I won free tickets from Vin Scelsa's radio program. It was at the Plaza Theater in the West 50s--a beautiful, old-fashioned stand alone that probably has seen the wrecking ball by now.

This was the fourth feature from the Coen Brothers, following Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller's Crossing, an uneven by highly entertaining trio. Barton Fink raised their game to a new level, I think, and paved the way for their apex, which was Fargo, five years later. Since then they'd show a steady falling off, as there last two pictures, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, I didn't like at all.

Barton Fink tells the story of the title character, an intense young playwright, played as a Harold Lloyd doppelganger by John Turturro. He is seduced by Hollywood, and upon arrival meets the vulgar studio boss, Michael Lerner. He is then assigned to write a Wallace Beery wrestling picture, and attempts to work on it in a moldy old hotel staffed, it seems, by one person, the obsequious Chet, played by Steve Buscemi. His next-door neighbor, a garrulous salesman played by John Goodman, soon becomes a friend. He also meets one of his idols, a writer clearly modeled on William Faulkner, who is also toiling in Hollywood, but is now a hopeless drunk.

But Fink has no idea what to write. He writes plays about the human condition, and the studio wants generic swill. He labors in the creepy hotel (a hotel that seems to spring from the imagination of David Lynch), and soon becomes involved in a nightmare when a dead body shows up in his room. Soon he learns that Goodman's character has undiscovered depths.

Roger Ebert's review suggests that this film, which is set in 1941, is about the coming holocaust. I'm not sure the metaphor can be stretched that far. It certainly is about how Hollywood, or institutions like it, can crush the spirit. But Fink is not the ideal hero. He has pretensions about representing the common man, but has no interest in associating with them. He is uncomfortable, it seems, everywhere, including his own skin.

Of course, this film is full of the rich details that make the Coen Brothers films a treat, such as the patter emanating from Lerner and Tony Shalhoub as a producer, or the way Chet signs his name with an exclamation point, to the way the wallpaper sweats off the wall of Fink's hotel. It is a fine film, and I'm glad I reacquainted myself with it.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Reading the Oscar Tea Leaves--Best Actress

Now that the Toronto Film Festival is over, there is more clarity for long-term Oscar prognostication. Some films get dumped by the curb, such as All the King's Men, while other films and performances, such as Peter O'Toole in Venus, leap to the forefront.

Best Actress is always interesting because of the shortage of juicy parts for women. Therefore, performances from small independent or foreign films can sneak in. This year, however, there are already a surfeit of candidates for the five nominations. Three of them, I think it's safe to say, are close to locks.

The pole position is held by Helen Mirren (pictured), as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. For some reason, the actors branch seems to love performances as real people. Mirren, who has also played Queen Elizabeth I, corners the market on British queens of that name in the film that covers the royal family in the period following Diana's death. If that isn't enough, she's British, always a plus for Oscar voters, and an accomplished actress with two previous nominations. I think she's the early favorite.

There are two other sure-fire nominations by performers who could spoil Mirren because they are "due." Annette Bening, who has been beaten out by Hilary Swank twice (and lost another Supporting nomination as well) will be in full crazy-bitch mode in Running With Scissors. Also, Kate Winslet seems a shoo-in for her role in Little Children, a dark tale about the underbelly of suburbia. It would be Winslet's fifth nomination, but she's still only about thirty, so the Academy may feel she has plenty of opportunities.

For the other two spots, the nominees should come from this group: Meryl Streep, from The Devil Wears Prada. I didn't see it (I will rent it, if only to slowly savor Anne Hathaway), and there seems to be some debate about whether it is a lead or supporting performance. Performers have no choice in the matter--the Academy voters decide, and it there is a split she could get left out. Also in consideration is Penelope Cruz, in Almodovar's latest, Volver, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, for the indie Sherrybaby. Also in the mix are Judi Dench, a perennial nominee, for Notes on a Scandal, and Cate Blanchett, who is also in that film, as well as The Good German.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Playoffs Begin

Well, there's good news and bad news for the Detroit Tiger fan. The good news is that they are in the post-season for the first time in 19 years. The bad news is they are on a five-game losing streak and didn't win the division, and so must play the evil New York Yankees in the first round.

As it turned out, the Tigers only needed to win one game from the Kansas City Royals, the worst team in baseball, over the last weekend. They had won all but one game against the Royals all year, and they would be home. On Friday night they blew a five-run lead, on Sunday they blew a six-run lead. The pitching, which had been their strong suit all season, completely abandoned them (there was some shoddy defensive play as well). And so, for the first time all season, the Minnesota Twins moved into first place, and at a most opportune time.

After losing three games to the Royals, there can't be a lot of hope in Tigertown. This team has to be dispirited. I was a little perturbed to see so much celebrating going on last Sunday, when they clinched a playoff spot, because there was so much work still to be done. Unless the pitching gets into focus, the Tigers will be lucky to win one game, and I don't even see that happening.

As for the other series, the Twins-As should be more competitive, but I like the Twins with home field and two starts by Johann Santana. In the NL, the Padres should take care of the slumping Cards, who also backed into the playoffs. I also like the Mets over the Dodgers, even though a lot of experts are picking the Dodgers because of a superior starting staff, and because the Mets will be without Pedro Martinez. But I like the Mets lineup to overcome that.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Weekend at Cape Fear

This past weekend I took a look at Cape Fear in my continuing look at the films of 1991. I also viewed the original, which was made in 1962.

The original starred Robert Mitchum as the ex-con who bears a grudge against a lawyer, Gregory Peck, who sent him to jail. Though racy for its time, the film seems rather quaint today. There was a lot of hubbub among the censors, for Mitchum's character clearly is angling to rape Peck's teenage daughter. The word rape is never used, though. There is also a slimy scene when Mitchum assaults Peck's wife, Polly Bergen, by smearing egg all over her front.

What's most curious about this film is that it seems to be a statement about the law. Peck, a lawyer, knows Mitchum is planning something, but can't do anything throug the law, as Mitchum has boned up on law and is well within his rights. The cops try to arrest him for vagrancy, but he has enough money. He "attacks" a woman, but she won't testify against him. Peck is therefore encouraged to take matters into his own hands. As a civil libertarian, I wasn't quite sure what this film was trying to say. It wasn't against civil rights, as the characters bent over backwards to emphasize. But it also made it clear that the law sometimes is not enough to protect the innocent.

The remake takes the original and injects it with growth hormones. Everything is bigger and louder. This time Robert DeNiro is the ex-con, and Nick Nolte the lawyer. The theme of this film is not the law, but slippery morality. In the original, Peck and his family are squeaky clean. Not so in the remake. Peck had sent Mitchum up by being a material witness against him. Nolte was DeNiro's public defender, and betrayed him by suppressing evidence. Also, Nolte's family has layering that would be unheard of in 1962. He has been unfaithful to his wife (Jessica Lange) and his daughter, Juliette Lewis, is a bit of a delinquent, who got caught smoking pot and has to go to summer school.

So, as the film goes on, one wonders who the victim is. DeNiro is on full boil as the villainous Max Cady, but his reasons are clearer than Mitchum's are. If Mitchum was menacing, DeNiro is savage. The ending, which involves a rainstorm and a runaway houseboat, borders on the silly (how indestructible can a man be?) but unlike the original, which has Mitchum returned to the hands of the law, Nolte exacts a harsher justice.