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Friday, July 27, 2007

Ripken and Gwynn


This weekend, barring an unforeseen mishap, I will be up in Cooperstown, New York for the annual Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. This will be my sixth induction in a row, and is always a highlight of my year. It's pretty easy to attend, if you can get a hotel room way in advance (although one year I drove up and back in one day--four hours each way!)

For this year's event, the Hall is expecting a record crowd. Last year's induction, which featured Bruce Sutter and seventeen Negro League personalities, the attendance was 11,000 and something. This year they expect over 50,000. Why? Well, it's pretty easy to answer: the two men going in are among the most well-liked players of the recent vintage, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr.

Ripken will assuredly draw fans from Baltimore. When I saw Eddie Murray inducted, the place was a sea of Orioles caps, and Murray wasn't nearly as popular as Ripken, who is as close to a baseball saint as you can get. The guy seems to have never made misstep to affect his popularity. He is best known for breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games-played streak, the most selfless of records, and the night he did it was one of the more electric events I've seen on a baseball diamond.

Tony Gwynn will also have his supporters, though it's a much longer haul to get to Cooperstown from San Diego. But Gwynn, like Ripken, has a reputation as being a player who thought of the best interests of the game, as a really good guy, and of course a hit machine. Both of them are also a rarity--they played for twenty or more seasons with the same team (this is a rarity for any period in baseball, not just the present day. Players back in the good old days moved around just as much as they do now, only they were traded, as there was no free agency).

So, if I can find a decent parking space and it doesn't rain, Sunday promises to be a special baseball day.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

This Is How Advertising Works


Lately, while watching ESPN's Sports Center in the mornings, I've seen a lot of commercials for a body spray called RGX Life. I don't use body sprays, and for all I know it smells like rotten cabbage. The ads simply consist of the woman, pictured above, talking seductively into the camera. My eyes feel like they are bulging out of my head as if in a Tex Avery cartoon. Now I feel compelled to buy this product, like Homer Simpson was compelled to go to Krusty's Clown College after seeing it advertised on a billboard.

The whole world of advertising gets under my skin, mostly in a negative way, and I'm sure I'm not alone. We all hate television commercials, but in a way they are kind of celebrated. It seems like the Super Bowl telecast is less concerned with the game than with the razzle-dazzle of the ads. And most TV commercials fly in the face of what would seem to be common sense for an advertisement: tell us what the product is, how much it costs, where I can get it, and why I should get it. The ads for RGX Life say nothing about the quality of the product, only that a smokin' hot girl seems to like men who wear it. Ads about perfume and cologne are fundamentally ridiculous, anyway, because we can't smell the stuff over the airwaves, so advertisers are reduced to suggesting that wearing a particular scent will make the opposite sex go crazy, which I guess appeals to our biological imperative.

When I was just out of college and looking for a job, I scanned the "College Grad" ads in the New York Times, which seemed to fall into a few categories: publishing, public relations, and advertising. Being an ad guy would have made some sense, as it probably is a good job for someone who can write and think creatively. But I was wary of it, as if it were dabbling in black magic, an ethical quagmire. What if, I thought to myself back then, I was put to work on a campaign for cigarettes, or the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney? I couldn't possibly sleep at night. And I would also sit awake nights, wondering how a television manufacturer could effectively advertise a set with a great picture--if you're watching the commercial on a crappy TV, you can't tell how good the picture is, and if you can see how good the picture is, you don't need a new TV!

So I ended up working as a copy editor for a legal publishing company, which was as exciting as it sounds. I have no regrets about shunning the advertising industry, except perhaps that it would have afforded me the chance to meet the RGX girl, who I discovered after a bit of Googling, is named Rachel Specter. Va va voom!




Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Mere Anarchy

My first exposure to Woody Allen was his writings. Somewhere I have an old copy of Without Feathers that is held together by masking tape, as if it were unearthed from some peat bog. Back in high school creative writing class, I blatantly copied his style, churning out pale imitations of his sterling comic essays. Mere Anarchy is his fourth such collection, but the first in over twenty years. Many of these pieces first appeared in The New Yorker.

While not as dazzling as Without Feathers, or as literary as some of short stories in Side Effects, his last collection, Mere Anarchy is inspired zaniness, especially for Allen fans. His style remains much the same: combine an obscure academic reference with something banal, such as Friedrich Nietschze's diet book, or "And how does gravity work? And if it were to cease suddenly, would certain restaurants still require a jacket?" There's also an unashamed treasure trove of funny names, for both people and businesses, like Fabian Wunch, Flanders Mealworm, and Mengele Realty.

My favorite stories concern the foibles of Manhattan's upperclass: a couple fear that their nanny is writing a tell-all book about them, another couple's child is rejected admittance at a prestigious nursery school (told in the manner of a Russian novel), and my favorite piece is about an epistolary war between the owner of a summer film camp and the father of one of the children, because the child has sold his film for millions and the camp owner wants a cut. There's also a great spoof of The Maltese Falcon, only this time the dingus is a truffle (the "Mandalay Truffle") that is worth millions.

Another great piece is "This Nib For Hire," which has an obscure novelist hired to write a novelization of a Three Stooges movie: "Calmly and for no apparent reason the dark-haired man took the nose of the bald man in his right hand and slowly twisted it in a long, counterclockwise circle. A horrible grinding sound broke the silence of the Great Plains. 'We suffer,' the dark-haired man said, 'O woe to the random violence of human existence.'" Or consider Surprise Rocks Disney Trial, when Mickey Mouse takes the stand in the Michael Eisner-Mike Ovitz trial, and we learn that Goofy went to the Betty Ford Center for a Percodan addiction, and Daffy Duck is a Scientologist.

Some of the stories are a bit lame, recycling gags from Allen's TV writing days, like a dentist who kills people with boring small talk, or a spoof of In Cold Blood concerning criminals who remove the tags from mattresses (has anyone ever found that funny?). However, it's fun just to pick the book and flip to a random page, and find bon mots like, "He...was recently married to an actress in a relationship based not so much on traditional Western ethics as on Hammurabi's Code," or, "Next to him was a young blond woman who might have been considered beautiful if she had not been a dead ringer for Abe Vigoda." Very silly stuff.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Original Gangsters

Over the past few weeks I've had occasion to take a look at the DVDs in the Warner Brothers Gangster Film collection. While MGM was making musicals, and Universal horror pictures, Warner Brothers cornered the market on the gangster picture, and six of the best are included in this boxed set. They are, in chronological order: Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, Petrified Forest, Angels With Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, and White Heat.

James Cagney is star of four of the films, with The Public Enemy establishing him as a star. Along with Little Caesar, which also came out in 1931, the template was set: the hardscrabble rise of a criminal from petty thief to mob boss, with an accompanying fall. Cagney's Tom Powers works his way up in the rackets, as does Edward G. Robinson as Rico Baldelli, aka Little Caesar. The main difference in the films is that Cagney has a family life--a mother who chooses not to believe he's a gangster (and a brother who knows he is), while Robinson has no attachments, either a family or a girl. In fact, his partner, played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., leaves the rackets for a girlfriend, which sets in motion the events that propel the plot. As for Cagney, he does have girlfriends, particularly one who ends up with a grapefruit in her face.

Both Cagney and Robinson became stars and tried to play parts other than gangsters, but Cagney went on to make perhaps the quintessential gangster picture of the 30s--Angels With Dirty Faces. This is the classic tale of two childhood friends. One of them runs a bit faster than the other, which means the slower one is caught and sent to reform school, and becomes a habitual criminal. The other grows up to be a priest, working with the neighborhood kids so they don't make the same mistakes. This is the stuff of many satires, but watching the real thing again reinforces how well this story works. Cagney plays off Pat O'Brian, as the priest, so brilliantly it was reassuring to know that Cagney received an Oscar nomination. His character, Rocky Sullivan, is all charm. He knows he's nothing more than a crook, but deep down he has a heart, particularly when it comes to the boys he befriends, played by The Dead End Kids. The film ends in a gut-wrenching scene, when O'Brian asks Rocky, who is on his way to the deathhouse, to show cowardice so the boys won't idolize him. Initially he refuses, but when he's brought to the chair, he screams in terror, while the camera focuses on O'Brian's face, which produces a single tear. If you don't get emotional while watching then you're just too hard.

Cagney also stars in The Roaring Twenties, as Eddie Bartlett, a World War I vet who can't get a job after the war so turns to bootlegging. This film illustrates how Warner Brothers got around censorship--they made sure these shoot 'em ups were infused with sociology. All of the hoods in these pictures are in some ways victims of their upbringings, whether it be coddling parents, impossible living conditions, or economic pressures. In this film, Cagney is clearly a victim of circumstances, contrasted with his foil, played by Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart is in three of these films, all as a heavy. He exploded on the film world in The Petrified Forest, which was adapted from a play by Robert Sherwood. The stars of the film were a very young Bette Davis, as a girl stuck at a diner in a dead end desert town. She is enchanted by a drifter, played by Leslie Howard, who is an intellectual. He is intrigued by the nearby petrified forest, and thinks of it as a metaphor for his own existence. Enter Bogart as Duke Mantee, a gangster on the run, who holes up in the diner with a group of hostages. Bogart gives one of the more menacing performances you're likely to see, paying particular attention to how he holds his hands and hunches his shoulders. You don't want to run across him in a dark alley. Yet he is also vulnerable, giving up a sure chance at freedom to wait for his girl.

In Angels With Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties, Bogart played sniveling, sadistic cowards. In one of the extras it is shown how Bogart was killed by Cagney in three pictures (the two mentioned plus a Western). It wasn't until The Maltese Falcon that Bogart began to play heroic characters.

Cagney left Warner Brothers after Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942 and didn't return until 1949 to make his valedictory gangster picture, the brilliant White Heat. This was a different era, when we were on the cusp of the television era and the gangster picture was already tired. In this film, Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a psychopathic hoodlum who really has a mother problem--his Ma in this pic, played by Margaret Wycherly, actually aids and abets his crimes. She's great, but Cagney is scintillating as Jarrett, who is clearly battling insanity. Instead of committing crimes because of society, this time it's psychology that's at issue. Cagney was almost fifty when he made this film, a little jowly and wrinkled, but just as unrelentingly terrifying, as he would just as soon shoot you as you look at you. A couple of scenes really stand out: the jailhouse scene where Jarrett learns his mother is dead, and of course the classic ending, when he cries out, "Made it Ma, top of the world!" just before a gas tank explodes beneath his feet.

The discs in this collection have great extras. Each one has a built-in program to recreate a night at a Warner Brothers movie in whatever particular year the film is from. You get a trailer, a newsreel, a short, and a cartoon. There's also an original documentary for each film. Some of the commentaries are excessively academic (they are by film professors, after all), but any student of the golden age of Hollywood would do well to have these in his collection.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Goya's Ghosts

Milos Forman has a remarkably eclectic filmography, creating great films in a number of genres. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, Hair, Ragtime, The People vs. Larry Flynt, all tantalizing films, both visually interesting as well as intellectually stimulating. It is hard to believe Goya's Ghosts, which tackles a large subject, could be his work, for the resulting product is on such a small, tinny scale, and often plays like one of those bad docudramas on the History Channel.

I think the main problem is I don't know why this film was made. What, exactly, is Forman and his co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, trying to tell us? That the Spanish Inquisition was bad? That a great artist like Goya, who was at times very subversive, could also be a man who was very concerned about the bottom line? That power corrupts? The film tells us all those things, but it's certainly nothing new. The film doesn't really offer any insights into the human condition, or the nature of art. All it really did was get to me to spend some on Wikipedia looking up the historical particulars.

The story concerns Francisco de Goya, a painter to the royal court of Spain who also created disturbing, grotesque images depicting evil. The film begins in 1792, and his work is being examined by the Holy Office, a body of churchmen who have their thumb on the people. Goya has a defender, a Brother Lorenzo, played by Javier Bardem. Lorenzo is a slippery character, stating that Goya is only exposing evil, not creating it. But Lorenzo is no liberal. He takes the opportunity to ramp up the Inquisition, which had started to die down.

One of the first victims of this is Inez, who is a muse of Goya's and the daughter of a rich merchant. Because she turns her nose up at pork, she is suspected of being a Jew, and is "put to the question," a euphemism for torture. Goya attempts to get her released, but her father, in a very satisfying scene, turns the tables on Lorenzo, who then has to flee the country.

Flash forward 15 years, as the French invade Spain and imprison the inquisitors. Portman is released from prison, a shell of her former self, but claims that she had a daughter--fathered by Lorenzo. Goya, now deaf, but still a prominent painter, again tries to help her. He finds her daughter, also played by Portman wearing some ghastly dentures, but the lass is turning tricks. As the painter attempts to reunited mother and daughter, the shifting sands of power lead the principals on a rollercoaster ride from vanquishers to vanquished.

Though this may sound like the stuff of sweeping epics (or a film made from one of those fat historical novels), the result seems sketchy. I was particularly annoyed by the music, the kind of generic stuff from TV melodramas that injects itself into the action with no subtlety. I have no idea how accurate any of the history is, but people seem to run into each other in crowds without too much trouble.

Of the actors, Bardem is effectively reptilian as an opportunist, and Stellan Skarsgard is fine as Goya (who is really a supporting character). I'm a little concerned about Natalie Portman, though. She must have done this film right around V for Vendetta (Goya's Ghosts has been on the shelf for a while), which makes two films in which she is tortured back t0 back. She wears some pretty frightening makeup for when she is a prisoner, so I suppose this role appealed to her in an attempt to de-glam, but there isn't much of a character there.

The best part of the film may be the closing credits, when painting after painting of Goya's is shown. It's a reminder that one would be better served by attending an exhibition of Goya's work that seeing this well-intentioned but unsatisfying film.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The People's Act of Love

Castration and cannibalism are two of the pleasant topics covered in this novel, which is by James Meek. It is set largely in a Siberian town during the Russian Revolution, and focuses on three characters: a stolid Czech soldier (there was a legion of Czech soldiers who participated in the Russian civil War), a widowed beauty, and a mysterious stranger who wanders into town, telling tales of his escape from a gulag. The stranger warns everyone that a horrible killer is on his tail, known as The Mohican, who has a penchant for eating his victims. The town is also home to a religious sect who, in order to become like angels and refrain from sinning, remove a certain party of their body by knife, which they refer to as "the Keys to Hell."

All of this makes for a lurid, rich yarn, but I really didn't get totally involved in this book. It was relatively easy reading, but it took me about three weeks to finish it, because I wasn't burning to find out what happens next, at least not until the last hundred pages or so. Meek's best talent, I think, is his ability to evoke the sense of smell. Often he tells us what a person or room smells like, by giving us three comparisons, and damn if those smells don't immediately come to mind.

This book also has a couple of twists, involving identity. You may be reminded of a similar twist in the film The Usual Suspects. They were easy twists to predict, but they weren't particularly shocking, either.

The hero of this book turns out to be stolid Czech soldier, and that's appropriate, because this book is similar to the character--steady, reasonable, and without flourishes.



Thursday, July 19, 2007

Big Brother 8

I don't watch much broadcast TV, especially in the summer, but one thing I always seem to get hooked on is Big Brother. I admit this with a certain amount of shame, because this is real lowest-common denominator television. A gaggle of shallow, preening young adults, mostly from LA, are put into a house and over the course of two months vote each other out, a la Survivor, except there's none of the outdoor survival stuff. Instead they sit and around and sun themselves, smoke cigarettes, and examine themselves in the mirror.

Yet I watch, fascinated. The eighth season of this ghastly enterprise just got started, and already I'm addicted. This year the producers have outdone themselves, and gotten some real characters. For example, there is Dick, a forty-something guy with multiple tattoos and piercings, and who wears Suicidal Tendencies t-shirts. He is penned up with his daughter, Daniele, whom he hadn't spoken to in two years. She appears to have some sort of eating disorder, because her face, though cute, is drawn back on her skull without a hint of baby-fat. She's caught the eye of Nick, who is said to be a former pro football player (I looked it up--he played in the European league, so that really doesn't count).

But this year's star of the show has got to be Jen (pictured), who is supposed to be a nanny but is really a model of some sort. She is the most narcissistic, vapid, infuriating person I've seen on a reality show in a long time, and that's saying something. She first stood out of the crowd when she became upset over the picture of her that is displayed on the wall of the house, and cried copious tears over it. Then she took a picture of herself and her mother off the wall because she wasn't wearing makeup. She is utterly loathsome.

But, here's the rub, and the inherent dilemma of the male animal, she's smokin' hot. If I were in that house my brain would tell me to despise everything she stands for and try to vote her out immediately, but my gonads would urge me to make an idiot of myself, on the one-in-a-trillion chance that I could get some action, or at least get another chance to see her parading around in a bikini. Dick, to his credit, will have none of her, and openly tells her to her face how despicable she is. I'm not sure I could do that, though, as I am cursed by biology.

Ah, the lazy, stupid days of summer on U.S. television!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I can't remember reading a book that told me more stuff that I didn't know before, and in such an engaging manner. I don't read a lot of books about agriculture or nutrition, so of course I have a lot to learn, but this book, by Michael Pollan, was never didactic or hard to follow for the non-scientist. It appeals to every reader, because every reader eats food.

Pollan tackles a big subject--what we eat, and why we eat it. He does this by dividing the book into three parts, each a sort of natural history of three different meals, tracing the foodstuff from its origins to the inside of his stomach. Pollan's journalism here is participatory--he's a major character in his own book, and in some of the sections it has that kind of fun attitude of George Plimpton.

What is the omnivore's dilemma? Because as humans we eat so many different things, deciding what to eat, or what not to eat, becomes a problem. This is not a problem for say, a koala bear, that eats nothing but eucalyptus leaves, and thus spends zero time thinking about his next meal. Humans, on the other hand, can go crazy with the dilemma. Pollan kicks this off discussing how bread, a staple of man's diet for millennia, became suddenly verboten after one article the The New York Times Magazine.

The first section is devoted to corn, which I was shocked to find is an ingredient in almost everything we buy in the supermarket, whether it's processed foods, soda, or by way of degree, in the meat we eat. Pollan visits a corn farmer in Iowa, who grows a type of corn that humans don't eat, but is instead used for other things, among them feeding cattle. Pollan goes on to in-depth study of the sorry world of industrial farming, with the overuse of fertilizer (which creates pollution) to the sorry treatment of cattle (who lead short, unhappy lives) and are force-fed corn, even though grass-fed cattle are better tasting and better for the cow and us (it just isn't good business to feed them grass, I guess). I learned about a fellow named Fritz Haber, who some think made the most important scientific discovery of the twentieth century--how to separate nitrogen from the nitrogen atom, thus being able to create nitrogen-based fertilizer, which has enabled mankind to feed its burgeoning population. Haber also invented Zyklon B.

The second section explores organic farming. Pollan makes some digs at Whole Foods, suggesting the definition of "organic" is elastic enough to mislead consumers. He then puts in a week's work at an organic farm in Virginia, where the farmer is a conservative Christian environmentalist, who uses no pesticides or other additives, and has a model of natural efficiency. Pollan works his aching muscles and learns about this alternative form of agriculture, where people who have "opted out" of agribusiness produce healthier, better tasting, and yes more expensive food.

Finally, Pollan aims to make a meal that he has grown, foraged and hunted for himself. The Plimpton angles kicks in while he describes hunting for wild pig, as the man has never shot a gun before. There is also an excellent chapter on the ethics of vegetarianism, covering the subject from every angle. I also learned more about mushrooms than I could have ever thought possible. It turns out there's a whole community of mycophiles that guard great mushroom-foraging sites as if they were state secrets.

This book will make you reconsider what you eat, but it is not like Fast Food Nation--it doesn't condemn anyone's eating habits (although it is pretty hard on huge conglomerates that are shoveling corn into our mouths). It's very funny in spots, and Pollan comes across as a guy you would want to know, or at least have him cook a meal for you.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Pop Art


I love pop art, it's perhaps my favorite style (it's a toss up with the Pre-Raphaelites). But I can certainly see why some hate it. When someone walks into a museum and sees a reproduction of a Brillo box, there's little in between. And Andy Warhol's Brillo box was just one of the pieces in the pop art exhibition at the Princeton University Museum of Art, which I took a look at this past Saturday.

Several artists familiar to me were represented: Roy Lichtenstein (perhaps my favorite artist), James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, Robert Indiana, Alex Katz and of course Andy Warhol. But I found a few artists I didn't know as well, such as Edward Ruscha, who has a great painting of a gas station on Route 66, and Tom Wesselman, who works in a variety of materials (one of his still lifes, of an apple and a radio, is in Grip-Flex on Uvex Plastic, while another, a beach scene, is Alkyd on steel) has several evocative pieces.

What is pop art? Well, from what I understand, it's basically a melding or art and mass media, whether it be advertising slogans, comic strips, everyday objects, or photojournalism. This mixture creates an "either you get it or you don't" opinion about what the definition of art is. When Andy Warhol made silk screen of Campbell's Tomato Soup cans, the art wasn't in the recreation, as any decent art student could do it, it was coming up with the idea to make a soup can a piece of art in the first place. This was sort of the culmination of where art was headed after the invention of photography, when painting was freed from being photorealistic, and went off into impressionism, abstraction, and finally pop art.

Some of it I like more than others. As I said, I really dig Lichtenstein, who used comic strip images in much of his work. Those works aren't in the Princeton exhibit, but I did like a sculpture/painting, a brushstroke in oil on bronze. Though it's simply a brushstroke, it's unmistakeably the work of Lichtenstein. I also like the work of Rosenquist, who mixes bold colors with collages of images taken from newspapers and magazines. I'm less thrilled with Oldenburg, who is famous for his "soft" sculptures. At Princeton were some of his sculptures of food, like a chocolate sundae and blueberry pie a la mode, which did make me hungry.

The artists of this movement, if they are still alive, are now in their seventies, and still working, as many of these works are from the last ten years. Pop art, it seems, is like rock and roll: it's here to stay.




Monday, July 16, 2007

Days of Glory/After the Wedding

After having already seen Pan's Labyrinth, The Lives of Others, and Water (all of which are reviewed on this site somewhere, if you're interested) I caught up with the last two nominees for Best Foreign Film for last year's Academy Awards. First up was an Algerian film, Days of Glory, which is the English-language title (the original title is Indigenes, which roughly translates from French as "Natives"). Directed by Rachid Bouchareb, the film details the action of a platoon of North African soldiers fighting for France in World War II.

Days of Glory (which is a meaningless title) is as old-fashioned as a Victrola. It uses almost every cliche from the war film catalogue, with the modern spin being that we are supposed to see things from a different point of view; the man fighting for a country that has colonized his own country. The Arab troops, of course, are treated with a lot of disrespect (they are reluctantly promoted, they don't get as much leave time, etc.) They earn the grudging respect of their sergeant, and I don't think it's a big shock when we learn a secret about his past. We even get an epilogue straight out of Saving Private Ryan.

That being said, these templates are re-used because they work. There's a certain satisfaction in slowly getting to know the different members of the outfit, with the story leading to a final stand against the Germans when the Arab troops are all that are left to defend a town. The actors, who are all Frenchmen of Arab descent, and apparently popular actors back in France, are uniformly good (I was distracted by one of the actors, who always kept a hand in his pocket. I have learned that the actor who plays him is missing a hand, and this is quite distracting as it is never explained).

After the Wedding, from Denmark and Susanne Bier, is an entirely different kind of film. I knew nothing about this film going in, so I was surprised when the first few scenes are set in India. A Danish aid worker tends to children at an orphanage. He is called back to his home country to meet a billionaire who wants to meet him before committing to donating money. The billionaire's daughter happens to be getting married that weekend, so the aid worker is invited to attend. While there, he realizes he knows the billionaire's wife. Ominous organ chord!

This film is fascinating up until that moment, as one wonders where this all is going. After that, it's not quite as interesting. There are some standard, soap opera plot points, which I don't want to reveal here, but wouldn't be out of place on The Young and the Restless. Given these hoary twists, the film still manages to be a classy affair. Bier's directs this thing within an inch of its life, using jump cuts and odd closeups (particularly on eyes, whether of her actors or glass eyes of hunting trophies). Mads Mikkelsen, who was so good as the Bond villain in Casino Royale, is the aid worker, and his character is a puzzle, a formerly dissolute man who is repenting by giving up everything to work with poor children in India. In contrast, Rolf Lassgard gets a chance to chew some scenery as the mogul. He's very good, in one scene reading a story to his small children, in another ruthlessly manipulating those around him.

Both of these films are solid efforts, but it is no injustice that they lost to The Lives of Others.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Cautious Optimism

Just after the break in the 2007 season, I have guarded optimism about the fate of the Tigers. They currently cling to a half-game lead in the A.L. Central, after losing last night to the Seattle Mariners, who are playing well are in the thick of both the A.L. West race and the Wild Card. It's important to remember this, because the Tigers don't have much of a net if they let the Indians slip by them to take the division, because plenty of teams (including the Yankees) are ripe for a Wild Card bid.

After another one of those horrible blown leads by the bullpen last Tuesday night against Cleveland, the Tigers ripped off five wins in a row, including two against the Indians and then a sweep of the Red Sox, who had the best record in all of baseball. The bullpen remains the big question mark, and there's probably about a half-dozen games they should have won if they had an effective relief corps. Lately, though, it's settled down some. A pickup from Milwaukee, Jose Cappellan, is working out pretty well. I don't know what the timetable is on the return of Joel Zumaya, but realistically, nothing can be expected from his this year, and if he does come back and is true to form that will be a huge plus.

I'm sure the Tigers are not done looking for more relief pitchers before the trading deadline. Meanwhile, the big bats in the lineup are churning out hits and they're getting great work from the starting pitching. It should be a doozy of a race right down the to the end.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Icky Thump

I must admit it took me a few listens to get into Icky Thump, the latest release from The White Stripes. I'm a big fan, based mainly on the albums White Blood Cells and Elephant. Their last record, Get Behind Thee Satan, was a departure for them and not well received, but Icky Thump is getting all sorts of praise. I like the record, but I'd still rather play their early stuff.

In interviews, it's apparent that Jack White is one of the most calculating "alternative" rock stars around. Whether it's being a stickler about what he and his band mate Meg White wear (only black, white and red), or the instruments used, White doesn't seem to do anything haphazardly. He's also an experimenter with earlier forms of music. After appearing in the film Cold Mountain, he seems to be reveling in a love for Appalachian folk and blues. On Icky Thump there's lots of it. There's also some snarling guitars and plenty of White's yowling vocals.

The opening, title track sets the pace with a driving drum beat, getting the listener ready for a rough ride. Although the promise of that opening track is only met intermittently, there's plenty to like here. I admired the songs Little Cream Soda (in which White shrugs off life's problems with a menacing "Oh well"), Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn (which comes complete with bagpipes) and A Martyr for my Love For You, a spooky number which seems to be about the singer's attraction for a sixteen-year-old girl. You Don't Know What Love Is is a pleasant song that could be a top-40 hit from the seventies, and Rag and Bone has a nice tempo with some call and response vocals between Jack and Meg.

The one curiosity on this disc is Conquest, a cover of a song done in Mariachi style. I admire the bravado of tackling such a thing at the same time I wince a little in hearing it.

Even if I don't think this is a superb White Stripes recording, I do appreciate that White is stretching the limits and not playing it safe, and I look forward to future releases.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sicko

One thing can't be argued about Michael Moore--he knows how to push buttons. Whether you love him or hate him, after seeing one of his films you're likely to be angry. Since I am of the same political bent as he is, my anger, after seeing his film Sicko, was at the insurance companies and the politicians who are in their pocket. I was ready to storm the nearest HMO with a torch and pitchfork, until I had time to calm down a little bit and examine just what Moore was trying to say.

Unlike his earlier films, Moore doesn't perform many pranks in this film. Instead, he just piles up evidence. Person after person who has full health coverage but was either denied benefits for a variety of reasons, or the co-pays were too large, display their hard luck stories. A retired couple with health problems lose their home, file for bankruptcy, and have to move into their daughter's home. A woman who rushes her daughter to the hospital with a fever is told to go to a different hospital, and by then the baby dies. A woman with a brain tumor is told she has a non-life threatening condition, and she dies of it. A woman is denied treatment for cancer because it is "experimental." And on and on. Moore also examines the policies of insurance companies, interviewing those who used to work for them, and finds out that they encourage employees to deny claims for the flimsiest of reasons--medical directors are rewarded handsomely for denying the most claims. A woman is denied a claim because she had a yeast infection years earlier, which they say was a "pre-existing condition."

Moore then takes a look at the health care systems of Canada, England, and France. All of these countries have a universal, single-payer health care, the payer being the government. Moore finds plenty of people who are quite happy with this and puzzled at the American system. During this segment Moore expands his point and examines the purpose of government. He is of the belief that government is supposed to take care of its citizens, and argues that we already socialize some things in this country, like fire and police, schools and libraries, why not health care? Of course the simple answer is that insurance companies aren't likely to want to be dismantled, and pay off politicians (even Hillary Clinton, who tried to topple them fifteen years ago) a pretty penny to keep them viable.

Moore has an interesting conversation with a former British parliament member who crystallizes the issue--governments rely on fear and demoralization to keep their people in line. And in France, an American expat explains it this way--in France, the government is afraid of the people, and in America the people are afraid of the government. In France, people get almost free day care, they even get doctors who make house calls, and nannies who will do laundry while you are sick. It seems they will do anything but wipe your ass. I'm sure this utopian vision of France is overblown, and the people of Western Europe pay taxes like nobody's business (even if they do get unlimited sick days and five weeks of vacation). I'm also sure that there are medical horror stories from Canada, England and France, but Moore wasn't about to present them.

The only stunt Moore pulls is the last half-hour of the film. Rescue workers from 9/11 who were not city employees (but worked on the pile nonetheless) and were denied health claims are rounded up by Moore and taken by boat to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where imprisoned members of Al Qaeda are getting the best health care the U.S. can offer. Of course Moore's flotilla is repulsed, so instead he takes them to Havana, where they get wonderful health care. I think this segment, illustrative as it is, is fraught with pitfalls. Maybe you can get asthma inhalers for five cents, but there must be some reason Cubans take to the sea on rafts made out of truck tires to get out of there and come here, where the same inhaler costs $125. To make Cuba look like such a paradise is pretty irresponsible of Moore, but it certainly is part of his game.

This is clear from what we learn from this film: the health care system in this country is broken and needs to be fixed. I'm not sure of the answer, but removing profit from the equation is key. Hopefully Sicko will fuel a movement to get that accomplished.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Mighty Heart

One can't read or think about this film without wondering why the death of Daniel Pearl is film-worthy. Of all the deaths that have come to people in the ongoing war between the West and radical Islam, why does the kidnapping and murder of an American journalist in Pakistan in 2002 merit a film? It's an unfair question, and not really answerable. Even the character of Marianne Pearl, Daniel's wife, can't answer it, for at the end of the film she points out how many innocent Pakistanis had died in the period between 9/11 and when Daniel died.

So we turn that question aside and judge the film on its own merits, and when I do that, I have to say it's a fine, gritty film. It's really a police procedural above all else, not an examination of the conflict. Pearl, who wrote for the Wall Street Journal, is on his way to an interview with a Sheikh. He doesn't come home, and Marianne gets on the phone and soon an investigation is under way. She gets help from her colleagues, the U.S. consulate, and the Pakistani police, in the person of a Captain, masterfully played by Irrfan Kahn (who was so good in The Namesake). They interrogate witnesses, track down leads, and go up blind alleys. All of this is nimbly directed by Michael Winterbottom and edited with a pace that doesn't allow you to take a breath.

There is also a lot of talk about the star of this picture, Angelina Jolie. As Marianne, who is of Caribbean descent, Jolie wears a wig of curls and had her skin darkened. It's not exactly like Charlize Theron playing Aileen Wuornos, but I guess this is how Jolie "deglams." In any case, she is quite good, playing a woman who is a Buddhist, and therefore keeps a calm exterior through the madness of the weeks that follow her husband's kidnapping. After an interview on CNN, a producer comments that one would never know what she was going through by her demeanor. But after Daniel is confirmed dead, she lets it all out in a long take that is brutal to sit through. There's also a great moment for Jolie when she is asked whether she watched the video of her husband's beheading, a pretty insulting question.

A Mighty Heart, which is not a very good title, is a good crime film with a downbeat ending, but it is not a film that has much to say about U.S.-Arab relations. I think that's probably a good thing.



Monday, July 09, 2007

Ratatouille

Pixar is rightly recognized as one of the premiere movie studios putting out product today. I've liked all but one of their films (didn't care for Cars), and Ratatouille continues their fine tradition. However, I don't think it deserves as much praise as it has been getting in some quarters. It's a nice film, with stunning animation, but I have some problems with it.

It is the story of Remy, who is a rat. He lives in large colony that lives in an old house in the French countryside. While his fellow rodents are happy to dine on garbage, Remy, who can read and understand human language, has gourmet tastes. He especially likes to watch the cooking show of Gusteau, the great French chef who's motto is "Anyone can cook!" Remy takes this to heart, and endeavors to pilfer fancier foods from the house. When the colony is discovered, they hightail it to the river and get washed away, and Remy is separated from them. He ends up in the kitchen of one of Paris' fancier restaurants, formerly owned by Gusteau. Gusteau has died, but his spirit serves pretty much the Jiminy Cricket role, encouraging Remy to follow his dream. He is able to do this by teaming up with a bumbling garbage boy, Linguini, who has no cooking talent but with Remy's help manages to whip up a mean ratatouille.

The message, which is elucidated by a food critic who is voiced by Peter O'Toole, that not everyone can be an artistic genius, but an artistic genius can be anyone, is noble enough. The writer and director, Brad Bird, has made some daring choices. One, a movie that will attract children about gourmet food, and two, a protagonist who is a rat, and not only a rat, but a rat that is handling food. I think kids will get the food part, but I'm not so sure about the second (well, maybe kids will be okay with rats, but it might be the adults who are squirming). Anyone who remembers the video of rats overrunning a Taco Bell won't be all sighs when they see a kitchen teeming with vermin, cartoon characters or not. Also, the film makes an abrupt change of point of view about a third of the way through, when Remy's story becomes Linguini's (Remy can understand human language, but can't speak it, at least to humans).

The film is also not particularly funny. There's lots of slapstick, but nothing to write home about. Of course, in this age of technology and an unlimited budget, the animation is sterling. Just looking at the detail that goes into the pots and pans and utensils is breathtaking.

Ratatouille is on the second level of Pixar's output, below Toy Story II and The Incredibles, about on a par with the first Toy Story and Finding Nemo. And that ain't bad.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

The only reason I saw this movie was because it happened to be playing at Grauman's Chinese Theater when I was in Hollywood last weekend. I've always wanted to see a movie there, so I held my nose and went in. To be fair, I had to realize that I also saw the first three Die Hard films in theaters, but I suppose I wasn't as discriminating back then.

I'm tired of action films. Watching what new ways cars, trucks and planes can be destroyed holds no interest for me. Therefore, I thought this film was aggressively dumb, but I sadly suspect this is the point. This is explosion porn, with fireballs occurring at an equivalent rate that orgasms do in regular porn films.

However, there are some saving graces. Bruce Willis displays a lot of star quality in this film. He's aware of how dumb it is, and almost winks at the audience after each stunt. Some of them are so preposterous that Chuck Jones wouldn't have included them in a Roadrunner cartoon. After pulling them off, Willis admires his handiwork, perhaps no more than when he manages to jump from a truck onto the back of a fighter jet, which is where I wanted to throw something at the screen. There are also some good supporting performances here, notably by Justin Long as the computer hacker who ends up as Willis' sidekick, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Willis' daughter.

The plot, such as it is, concerns cyber-terrorists taking command of the U.S. computer systems. I'm sure an expert on computers could enlighten me on how laughably unreal this all is, but it's in keeping with the lack of realism this film shoots for. What is tired about all this is we once again learn that hackers are social misfits who like comic books and video games. Gee, haven't we seen that cliche going back to when personal computers became ubiquitous?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Swimming Pools, Movie Stars

This past weekend I took a vacation to Los Angeles. I won the trip from the Newark Star-Ledger by answering a multitude of movie trivia questions. They were quite difficult, some requiring extensive research (I even had to rent a few films from Netflix to get answers). I teamed up with my buddy Bob, so we both had perfect scores, but my name got picked so I took him with me (as he did when he won 3 years ago).

It was a sweet set-up, as I got free airfare, rental car, hotel (the Hilton Universal), passes to Universal, and a Hollywood Star Homes tour. The first day we cruised down Wilshire Boulevard, checked out the Disney Concert Hall in downtown, and then went up to Dodger Stadium to see a game. I was pretty tuckered out by the end, but it's a nice place to see a baseball game.

The next day was devoted to Hollywood. We took the Star Homes tour, which we also did three years ago. This time the tour guide wasn't as polished, but we saw some different stuff. What I will remember is the Guess designer Marciano's house, which had about a dozen Ferraris in the driveway. I couldn't believe he kept them exposed to the elements like that. Then we went through the Hollywood History Museum, which is housed in the old Max Factor building. If the Smithsonian is America's attic, then this is Hollywood's. It's full of old pictures, posters, costumes and other bric-a-brac from across the decades. There's an extensive collection of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, as well as Hannibal Lecter's cell from Silence of the Lambs.

After that we hopped back in the car and found the Hollywood Reservoir, and then worked our way up the mountain to get the closest possible view of the Hollywood sign. We got about as close as legally allowed, driving around some hairpin turns and scary ascents. We felt quite a sense of accomplishment.

After some time in the pool, we headed back into Hollywood to a cemetery called Hollywood Forever. On Saturday nights during the summer, they play movies outdoors there, projecting a film against the large mausoleum that holds the mortal remains of Rudolph Valentino. A sizable crowd of hipsters gathered, lying on pillows and blankets on the grass. The movie this time was Roman Holiday, which I'd never seen before. This is the film that made Audrey Hepburn a star, and it was absolutely delightful. It was directed by William Wyler, and was very well-crafted.

On Sunday we took a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu, and then into Simi Valley to visit the Ronald Reagan Library. I'm no admirer of Reagan's, but I enjoy Presidential libraries (I've been to Nixon's and Kennedy's). Reagan's isn't as interesting as theirs, but that makes sense because he wasn't a terribly complex man. The museum is as bland as the man and his presidency. There were a few references to Iran-Contra (a clip of him denying knowledge but claiming responsibility), no references to Bitburg, and plenty to him bringing an end to the Cold War. Nancy Reagan, improbably, was hailed as the most admired First Lady of the 20th Century (Eleanor Roosevelt, anyone?). It was interesting to go through Air Force One, which is kept there intact in a separate rotunda.

That afternoon we went to Universal Studios. My days for amusement parks are long gone, and we had only a few hours, so we hit the major rides. As usual, it was about a half-hour wait for each one, and then the ride lasts about five minutes. The Jurassic Park ride was neat, and you get soaked at the end.

That night we drove back to Hollywood to Grauman's Chinese Theater to see Live Free or Die Hard. We wanted to see a film there, and this one wasn't smelly enough to keep us away (we would have balked at Evan Almighty). I will write a full review tomorrow. We also wandered around the hand and footprints in the cement. The newest were the Ocean's 13 guys--George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. One realizes that there can't be enough room for everyone, so they must take the panels out of those who are no longer famous.

On Monday morning we had time to stop by Venice Beach for breakfast before heading back to the airport. All in all it was a great time, with great weather. If I could I would make a trip to Hollywood every year.