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Friday, August 31, 2007

Beauty & Crime

"New York is a woman, she'll make you cry, but to her you're just another guy." For that line alone I recommend Suzanne Vega's latest record, Beauty & Crime, which is a very personal document about her own life and her hometown, New York City.

Suzanne and I go way back. I first heard about her when I was into the folk music scene back in the mid-eighties. I had her first record and saw her many times in concert before she had her time in the mainstream sun, when Luka was a big hit (could it be that it was 20 years ago? Yikes.) Since then I've bought all of her records, and it's been interesting to see her develop from a coffeehouse folk act to a performer who defies genres. Her latest album is on Blue Note records, and there is a jazzy flavor to it, but I don't envy the record store employee who has to figure out what category to put her in.

Vega's last album, Songs in Red and Gray, was dealing with divorce. This record has some happier moments. She is recently remarried, and sings about that on Bound. She also has a teenage-daughter, who gets a song of her own. But Vega also sings about loss, particularly about her brother Tim, who died in 2002, and to whom the record is dedicated. In one of the many songs about New York, she has one called Ludlow Street, where Tim lived, and one of the lyrics mention how empty it feels to walk down the street and not see him there. She also dedicates a song called Edith Wharton's Figurines to author Olivia Goldsmith, who died during a botched plastic surgery procedure. There are also references to 9/11, in the form of Angel in the Doorway and Anniversary. There is also a song about the relationship between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, who fought all the time except when they were making love.

Vega has always been an interesting lyricist and her voice, which is a vibrato-less, breathy whisper much of the time, brings an appropriate eerie yet sophisticated attitude to her songs. This is a fine album, both elegant and playful and deeply heart-felt, music for grownups.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Light in August

The novel begins with a young woman, at the last stages of her pregnancy, traveling by foot from Alabama into Mississippi. She is tracking down the father of her baby. She is cheerful and grateful for any assistance she receives, even though her swollen belly and lack of a ring on her finger instantly mark her (for this is a Mississippi of long ago). Her name is Lena Grove.

After one chapter of Light in August, William Faulkner's novel from 1932, one would think that this book will be about Lena, and in a certain sense it is--but it is about the birth of her baby (the oldest plot known to man). But along the way the book is shanghaied by a sinister figure named Joe Christmas, who sort of sneaks in a back room and takes the text over. While Lena is a force of nature, Christmas is something of an abomination--he suspects that he has black blood in him, but he can't be sure. He is stained, and what's worse, he can never know the truth. He is a man without identity.

This is the fourth Faulkner novel I've read. Previously I've read The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and The Reivers, and for a Faulkner book, Light in August is fairly accessible. The bare bones of the plot are a kind of Southern Gothic that are familiar to readers and moviegoers, full of miscegenation and bigotry. What's startling is that it was written over seventy years ago, since the discussion of premarital and interracial sex is quite frank. It is also the first novel of Faulkner's that confronts what has haunted America, and specifically the South, for over two hundred years: race.

Christmas, as his name suggests, is something of a Christ-like figure, but in a very twisted manner, as he is not holy. When we first meet him, he's a taciturn man working at a saw mill, living in a shack where black folk usually live. He is also selling booze and carrying on an affair with his landlady, an older woman who is shunned by the town because she and her family have always been kind to blacks. But then she turns up dead, her head nearly cut off, and Christmas is the number one suspect.

The book then flashes back to his upbringing, when he was in an orphanage. He is adopted by a strictly religious man who attempts to beat God into him. Christmas is warped from an early age, particularly sexually, as his first encounter is part of a gang-bang of a black girl, whom he beats viciously until the other boys pull him off of her. Then he falls in love with a waitress (also an older woman), but he scotches things when, in a way that suggests he is sabotaging himself on purpose, he post-coitally confesses that he has black blood.

The third major character in the book is Gail Hightower, a disgraced minister. He gets drawn into both Lena and Christmas' stories, and seems to be representative of the old South, as his father was a Civil War veteran, though an abolitionist. For many years, after he is banished from his church for the misconduct of his wife, he hides in his house, but events bring him out into the sunlight.

This is a spellbinding book, written in a style that is both extremely poetic but also offensive to modern ears. A certain word beginning with N is used quite liberally, as it certainly would have been back then. Faulkner does not judge his characters for their prejudices. But the poetry is frequently beautiful: "Now the copper light of afternoon fades; now the street beyond the low maples and the low signboard is prepared and empty, framed by the study window like a stage," and "The wagon goes on, slow, timeless. The red and unhurried miles unroll beneath the steady feet of the mules, beneath the creaking and clanking wheels."

Joe Christmas has been termed the loneliest man in all of American literature, for he fits in nowhere. At the end of the book he is hunted down and castrated, one of the more brutal endings in fiction. He is not an exemplary figure by any means, and in fact has hardly one single thing to recommend him as a human being, but there is also something pitiable about his fate, as if it were part of a greater scheme, the wound of the Southern culture.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Lay of the Land

The Lay of the Land is the third novel chronicling Richard Ford's American Everyman, Frank Bascombe. He began Frank's story in The Sportswriter, and then in Independence Day (which I read and reviewed last year). Ford continues the tradition of John Updike and his character, Rabbit Angstrom, in that he drops in on his creation every ten years or so and gets a sense of what it's like to be an American in that time period.

The title has a bit of a double meaning. "Land" is what Frank is interested in, as he's a real estate agent, but he's also getting a lay of the land that is his life. He is now 55, and diagnosed with prostrate cancer. His second wife has left him, miraculously reunited with her first husband, who she thought was dead. He has left the leafy suburb of Haddam (which is clearly a fictionalized Princeton--since I live in the area he's writing about, I recognized what locations he was talking about) and lives on Long Beach Island. When we join up with him, it is November 2000. The controversial election is dragging on (Frank voted for Gore and thinks Bush is a numbskull) and it is just before Thanksgiving. We follow Frank through every moment covering three days, including deep into his thoughts. He and his Tibetan co-worker look at some land in western Jersey, then Frank pays a visit to a funeral home for a dead friend, swings by the hospital to have lunch (eating lunch at a hospital cafeteria never occurred to me, but it probably is a good value), but the hospital is a crime scene; he ends up in a bar fight, and visits his ex-wife, who has some startling news. The next day he watches a hotel being imploded, his car window gets smashed, and he ends up in a lesbian bar while the window is fixed. Then, on Thanksgiving Day, everything comes to a head, including dealing with his troublesome son and his new girlfriend, who happens to be missing a hand.

All of this minutiae of everyday life is alternately compelling and at times numbing. Ford is an amazing wordsmith, a chef with metaphors and similes, and describing people and places so vividly that it's easy to imagine oneself right in the room with him. But at times Frank's thoughts become so rattled and self-indulgent that I found myself almost looking ahead so I could see what happens next. Also, the climax of the book is a bit over the top. I was expecting something to go awry on the holiday, but what actually happens was more extreme than I would have thought possible.

Still, The Lay of the Land is a great achievement, especially considering its place in the trilogy. I would hope that like Updike, Ford is up for granting his creation a fourth book.



Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Miss Teen USA

I've copped to a number of embarrassing things on this blog, but perhaps none so much as this: last Friday night I watched, with laser-like focus, the Miss Teen USA pageant. Was it because I am a big Saved By the Bell fan, and thus tuned in to see Mario Lopez host? No. Am I a big fan of musical guests Kat DeLuna or the Jonas Brothers (who?) No. Maybe it just makes me well with patriotic pride to see young people of this country who have good G.P.A.s and don't do drugs? Not really. No, I tune in for the obvious reason, which is probably why most of the viewers do. It's two hours of yummy eye candy.

Beauty pageants are a curious artifact from the antediluvian TV era. Used to be that pageants like Miss America drew big ratings and the winner was instantly famous. Now that faded pageant has trouble finding a home on basic cable. I'm sure the reasons for this are simple and good ones: in this era of hundreds of channels, there's lots better on, and the whole idea of young women parading around like prize heifers is an intellectual turn-off. Feminism dealt a severe blow to the whole concept of beauty pageants, and in an attempt to keep up with the times, they were rechristened "scholarship" pageants, stressing that the women were being rewarded for their brains and citizenship, but nobody believed it.

When Donald Trump bought the Miss USA, Miss Universe, and Miss Teen USA pageants, he did away with that notion. No scholarships are awarded to the winners, just cash and prizes. Trump turned the pageants into something that readers of Maxim would want to see (many former contestants have turned up in Playboy, no surprise). Now that some prominent women are writing books that feminism is a bad thing (women who have achieved prominence on the backs of the women of the feminist movement, but that's another story) no one seems to care that these pageants are a form of soft-core titillation for perverts like me.

As for the pageant itself, I found it very easy to predict who was going to do well. Even with only a five-second glimpse of the 51 original contestants, I predicted about half of the first fifteen semi-finalists. They still go through the familiar rituals: swimwear, evening gown, and then at the end they answer a question. This seems highly unfair, kind of like the kids in the final round of the spelling bee determining the winner by arm-wrestling. Poor Miss South Carolina was given the question: "Only 1 in 5 student in the U.S. can identify their own country on a map. Why is that?" Looking as if she were smacked between the eyes by a two-by-four, South Carolina went on to give a gloriously incoherent answer, something about not all kids having maps, and then mentioning South Africa and "the Iraq." She might have been the prettiest of the five finalists, but as she went back to her spot her chances of winning were doomed.

Miss Colorado, Hilary Cruz, got a softball question: "Who do you prefer: Paris Hilton, Nichole Richie, or Lindsay Lohan, and why?" Hilary, with the impeccable timing of a vaudevillian, waited a beat before saying, "Well, none of them are my role models," which earned her a big ovation. They might as well have put the tiara on her head right then and there, and sure enough, she won. She gets a boat-load of prizes, and signs a contract with the Trump organization, and will live for a year in an apartment in Trump Tower with Miss USA and Miss Universe. I'm sure her parents are regretting that she won already.

In time, these pageants may end up in the ash heap of history. I read that NBC will not continue to air Miss Teen USA, so I guess pervs have better things to do on a Friday night. Other than affecting the tiara and sash manufacturers, this is a good thing for society, though I will sorely miss it.



Monday, August 27, 2007

Superbad

Superbad is the best comedy I've seen this year, a gleefully profane look at what it's like to be a virginal, perpetually horny teen. Though it is packaged in 1970's blaxploitation veneer (complete with a funk-heavy soundtrack and opening credits that recall Cleopatra Jones and Dolemite), this film is very contemporary, and also smart and even sometimes sweet. It was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and is apparently something they've been working on for years, and is about their own high school experiences. It was directed by Greg Mottola and produced by Judd Apatow, who now seems to be king of cinema comedy, after The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up.

The story is basically an odyssey, though on a much smaller scale than a man sailing back to Ithaca. Seth and Evan, too high school kids and best friends, are about to graduate. They don't get invited to many parties, but because their friend Fogell is getting a fake ID, they've promised to bring booze to a party thrown by Jules, who is Seth's inamorata. The rest of the film details how they go about getting liquor and transporting it to the party, but along they way their friendship endures stresses and they run across a menagerie of bizarre characters.

The two leads are terrific. Jonah Hill seems to be a cross between Curly Howard and Larry Fine, and is the engine of this piece, sputtering vulgarities at every turn. He thinks only about getting laid, or at least about "pussy," since at the beginning of the picture he has finally decided which Internet porn site to subscribe to. His friend Evan, played by Michael Cera, is more thoughtful and subdued, and seems to live vicariously through the bombast of Seth. Evan has gotten into Dartmouth, but Seth did not, so the boys are starting to undergo separation anxiety, as their friendship will certainly suffer when they attend different schools.

Seth lusts after Jules, played by Emma Stone, and Evan has it bad for Becca, played by Martha McIsaac. The screenplay is smart enough that both of these girls, while very pretty, are not femme fatales, and are basically good eggs. Fogell is memorably played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, a performance that should be the standard for actors playing nerds in the future. Though he is about 100 pounds and looks like a strong wind could break him in two, he has a defiant swagger that makes him irresistible. Who else would choose the single-moniker "McLovin" as the name on his fake ID?

The only misstep in this film, and it's a significant one in terms of time, are the characters of two cops, played by Rogen and Bill Hader. They befriend "McLovin" when he is assaulted during a liquor store holdup, and he rides along with them as they make a bad name for peace officers everywhere. I'm not naive enough to think that all cops are knights in blue like Malloy and Reed on Adam-12, but I'm doubtful that cops would get drunk, shoot at street signs, and do donuts in a parking lot, especially with a witness tagging along for the ride. It doesn't ring true, and seems more like Police Academy than anything else.

That being said, I laughed a lot at Superbad. There are too many good lines to even begin to catalogue them, but I especially liked a comparison Evan makes to Seth having some limited success with the girls too early. "You were like Orson Welles," he said, referring to another genius of a sort who had early success too soon. Imagining the comparison between Brillo-haired Seth and Orson Welles is going to stick with me for a long time.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Jenna Jameson

Jenna Jameson has been in the news a lot lately (at least the kind of news I read). She has announced her retirement from performing in adult movies, and to that end had her breast implants removed. In the world of adult films, this is what counts for headlines.

Jameson is, without too much doubt, the most successful adult film star of all time. She has a $30 million dollar empire, with Web sites and her own production company. She wrote an autobiography that apparently does not suck (I've never read it, but should I stumble across it in a bargain bin I'd snap it up in a second). Though she has led a picaresque life (her E! True Hollywood Story was a hoot. My favorite part was when the owner of the Crazy Horse strip club in Las Vegas told her he wasn't about to hire a girl with braces, so she went home and had her brother remove her orthodontics with a pair of pliers) she has not been ravaged by drugs, a common predicament for porn stars.

Who would have thought she would turn out to be such a great businesswoman? I remember her back when she was billed as Daisy, and she was as fresh as...well, a daisy. In those days she was a cutie-pie little blonde with nothing artificial about her at all. One of her first scenes was a threesome with Randy West and Kylie Ireland. West points out that Jameson is still a little uncomfortable with intercourse on film, and she only performs oral sex. She quickly became comfortable with intercourse, thank goodness, and has made over 100 films, including some kinky shit (one of her last films is called Jenna Loves Pain). I'm sorry she ever did get breast implants, as she certainly didn't need them (most women don't, in my opinion), and the plastic surgery did not stop there. She has had so much work done on her face she has that tight-skinned, big-lipped look that makes her look like she is perpetually in a wind tunnel.

That someone like Jameson could become a multi-millionaire is a testament to the schizoid personality of America, where our leaders condemn pornography (most of them do--Janet Reno, when she was attorney general, refused to prosecute federal obscenity cases, saying she had more important work to do, god bless her) while the rest of us are downloading it and watching it in all the big hotel chains.

I never got a chance to meet Jenna. It was in the works--while I was at Penthouse I was friendly with the marketing director of Wicked Pictures, who employed Jenna at the time. I was told the next time Jenna came through New York she would try to arrange a visit. Unfortunately I got sacked before that could happen. I would have liked to tell Jenna how much I admired her work. Seriously!



Thursday, August 23, 2007

John Edwards

I was channel surfing last night and alighted on Fox News, which I usually zip by quicker than I zip by home shopping channels. And it was the Bill O'Reilly Show, which most nights I'd rather gargle with bleach than watch. But he had Bill Maher on, who usually can hold his own with any crackpot right-winger, so I hung in there.

O'Reilly asked Maher who he favored of the Democratic candidates. Maher demurred, saying he didn't like to endorse anyone, but he thought John Edwards was the most electable. O'Reilly raised his eyebrows and told Maher that he was crazy, that Edwards changed his mind daily and is left-wing.

That O'Reilly thinks Edwards has no chance makes me think he does. I'm sure O'Reilly scoffed at Bill Clinton's chances at this stage of the campaign back in 1991. And I think Maher is right. Edwards is the most electable candidate the Democrats are running.

I'm not sure who I'm going to vote for yet. I think New Jersey is moving up their primary, so my vote might actually mean something (it has been in June for years, when all of the shouting is over). Democrats, being people of principle, have a habit of not seeing the big picture, and thus send a flawed candidate to be slaughtered in a general election. The two front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are immensely appealing and I would be tickled pink if either of them of were to occupy the White House. But they both have big negatives: Hillary is despised by a good portion of the population (unfairly, I think) and Obama might turn some off because of perceived inexperience (was Bush Junior experienced? If so, experience is way over-rated). Also, of course, they happen to a woman and an African-American, respectively, which allows bigotry to enter the picture.

Edwards, it seems to me, has no drawbacks other than his policies and that he was a personal injury lawyer (and he once got a $400 haircut). I don't think anyone finds him particularly offensive, and he has just enough of a golly-gosh corn pone spin around him to make him appealing to moderates, even though he does have some progressive beliefs (I think he's spelled out the most comprehensive agenda for benefiting the poor in this country, and he's rabidly pro-union).

If I think of an ideal ticket, it would be Edwards-Obama, with Hillary getting Attorney General or something like that. I think that ticket could do quite well in a general election, especially against an empty suit like Mitt Romney.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Edie Sedgwick


I'll admit I share a fascination that many have with Edie Sedgwick, who streaked comet-like through the underground art movement of the 1960s, becoming a fashion trend-setter and Andy Warhol's muse, before dying of a drug overdose at 28. When I wrote my review of the film Factory Girl, which is about her, I expressed my disappointment that the film was a dud because I'd been waiting for that film for over twenty years.

I first became interested in Edie after reading the oral biography of her by Jean Stein and George Plimpton sometime in the early 80s. If she hadn't existed, surely some novelist would have created her. A scion of a very old moneyed family of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Edie had some artistic ability and came to New York. She found some success as a model, but it was hitched to Andy Warhol's star that she became famous, appearing in his underground films and becoming a fixture on the New York scene. The clothes she wore and the way she cut her hair became iconographic, and many women copied her style. She dated Bob Dylan, and is supposedly the inspiration for the songs Just Like a Woman and Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat. She fell out with both Warhol and Dylan, though, and ended up in rehab in California, where she met a fellow patient and married him, and it seemed she would have a happy ending. But she died of a barbiturate overdose.

Last night I saw her last film, Ciao, Manhattan, which was directed by a couple of splinter members of Warhol's Factory. It was filmed over a long period of time, first in 1967, and then just before Edie's death. As with many avant-garde underground films of the period, it is completely incoherent, and interesting only for anthropological reasons. The film is structured as the Edie of 1971 has returned to her mother's home in California, where she lives in an empty swimming pool. She's become friendly with the hitchhiker who brought her home, a Texas rube named Butch (who was played by an actual hitchhiker from Texas). Edie seems eerily too good playing a zonked out girl, constantly flashing her tits (it is clear she had breast implants, and must have been proud of them). This footage is in color, and in black and white flashbacks we see the film they shot back in '67, which is a garbled mess that I couldn't begin to try to explain.

What's clear from this document is that Edie was a beautiful girl, and though a drug addict, maintained an innocent appearance. She had huge brown eyes, which were accentuated by excessive mascara and eyelashes. The short hair made her look like a pixie. And though she didn't seem to have any acting skill to speak of, the camera loved her. In some interviews on the DVD, it comes across that people wanted to protect her. She was the quintessential "poor little rich girl," who came from a family that had a history of insanity. As George Plimpton put it, when it came to Edie there really wasn't anything there, she just sort of wafted through the time period. "I don't think she ever had a serious thought in her head," was how he put it.

As I said, I'm not the only one who's fascinated. When I was in Virgin Records in Times Square a few months ago there was a whole table of Edie merchandise (no doubt timed for the Factory Girl release). She's been referenced in many songs. It seems that people can kind of project their own feelings about the sixties and underground art onto her, turning her into a symbol of sorts. Of course, she was a living breathing human being who lived a very sad life, but left an enduring legacy.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Put Up or Shut Up

The next week will probably determine the Tigers' fate this season. After having the best record in baseball exactly one month ago, the team has gone into a tailspin, and are now out of the playoffs. They split a two-game series with the Indians, who lead them in the AL Central, and dropped three of four to the Yankees, who are now ahead of them in the Wild Card hunt (Seattle is currently the Wild Card leader). Detroit now plays the same two teams for the next seven days. If they don't at least win four of the games, they may be done.

One ray of optimism is that Joel Zumaya, their fireballing set-up man, comes back tonight. The pitching staff has been decimated by injuries this year, and Zumaya may have been the biggest loss. But over the last month it hasn't been the bullpen that's been at fault--mostly it's been the starting pitching. Kenny Rogers and Andrew Miller are both on the shelf, and a series of hurlers from Triple A have tried to fill in, to mostly bad results. At one point, over twenty games, a starter only won game. Jason Verlander has held it together, for the most part, but Jeremy Bonderman (pictured) and Nate Robertson have not.

The hitting has been there for the most part, with Magglio Ordonez providing most of the spark, but occasionally the lineup has let the team down, too. Craig Monroe was slumping so bad the Tigers designated him for assignment, meaning he will probably be gone. They're clearly interested in grooming an outfield spot for Cameron Maybin, who was rushed to the big leagues (and got his first hit--a home run--off Roger Clemens) but it would be too much to expect a 20-year-old kid to make a huge impact on a pennant race.

So, as usual, it's all about pitching, and it's all about beating the teams that are ahead of you, and the Tigers need to do that. By this time next week it will be time to shovel earth onto their 2007 grave or be ready for another pennant race.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Simpsons Movie


A lot of ink has been spilled in the last few weeks about the cultural phenomenon that is The Simpsons. I have no argument with anyone who says that is the best show in the history of television, but it is inarguable that the show has seen a decline in the last five or so years. Therefore, it couldn't be certain what kind of quality the first feature-length film with the
four-fingered, yellow-skinned denizens of Springfield would yield.

I'm happy to report that I enjoyed the film very much. Simpsons' devotees can get quite monkish about the show, and some of those who have disliked the film have pointed out things that are quite true. The plot is nothing new. Homer has ruined the eco-system of Springfield before, and there have been multi-eyed animal mutations before. Bart has been seduced by the idea of Ned Flanders being has father before, Homer has found truths with the aid of Native American spiritualists, and the clan has been on the run and tried to start over again numerous times. But the final answer to that is so what, if the movie is funny? There's no accounting for what's funny, but I found this film very amusing.

I was laughing from the opening, an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon that had Itchy as president, and looking very JFKish. There are some nice laughs from one-liners featuring familiar characters like Ralph Wiggum and Krusty the Clown, and some good visual gags including one that revolved around a wanted poster, and another where when the end is near, churchgoers run into a bar and bar patrons run into the church. Most of the humor centers around the oafishness of Homer Simpson, and I will admit that's not my favorite avenue that this show takes, and it can be too easy at times to make someone incredibly stupid. I think the film would have been even better had they done something like 32 Short Films About Springfield, which featured almost the entire Simpsons universe.

But this is quibbling. I laughed, and I don't laugh out loud out much at movies. In answer to Maggie's first word, ("Sequel?") I say, why not?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Oscar Bait

At about last time this year, I first published a list of films that would be in the hunt for Oscar, so I'll do that again this year. As with last year, the same provisos go: I haven't seen any of these films, and who knows whether they'll flop or not. And there's always some surprise film that pops up (last year I didn't figure on Little Miss Sunshine or The Queen, and I got the wrong Clint Eastwood Iwo Jima picture).

It's not going out on much of a limb to suggest that none of the Best Picture nominees have yet been released, and that's not unusual. Fall is the time for the prestige pictures to roll off the assembly line. Some performances, namely Julie Christie in Away From Her and Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, are out there in the general public, and it seems a sure bet that Ratatouille will win Best Animated Film, but the cream of the crop have been unseen by the great unwashed.

The following list contains those that most smell like Oscar, either because of subject matter, pedigree of the talent, or both. In any event, they all sound like interesting pictures and I'd like to see them all. Thus, in alphabetical order:

American Gangster: Ridley Scott directs Denzel Washington as a Harlem crime boss, with Russel Crowe as the nemesis detective. Looks like a good candidate for lots of nominations, but after The Departed won last year I doubt the voters would anoint a second organized crime movie in a row.

Atonement: Joe Wright, who had a hit with Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, adapts Ian McEwan's novel about how a child's lie ruins a life. The novel is fantastic, but it contains unreliable narration, so I'm interested to see how Wright handles this. Oscar loves all things British, as well. This also gives me an excuse to run a picture of Knightley.

Charlie Wilson's War: You can't ignore a teaming of Mike Nichols and Tom Hanks, with the latter as a congressman involved in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. If it's too wonky Oscar could check out, but Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman are also in the cast, so it sounds delicious.

In the Valley of Elah: If I had to bet on a Best Picture winner right now, this is where I would go. Paul Haggis, the writer/director, has written two Best Picture winners so far (Million Dollar Baby and Crash), so he seems to know how to tap Oscar's g-spot. The subject also seems ripe: Tommy Lee Jones teams with a detective (Charlize Theron) to find his son, who has gone AWOL after returning from duty in Iraq.

Michael Clayton: Don't know too much about this one, other than George Clooney plays a lawyer. Might be Oscar bait for Clooney, not sure about it's picture chances, as it's directed by a first-timer, Tony Gilroy, who has written all of the Bourne pictures.

No Country For Old Men: After some duds, Joel and Ethan Coen seem to be back, with an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel about a man who finds some dead bodies and a sack of money in the Texas desert, and ends up with a sadistic hit man on his tail. Getting lots of good advance word. The novel seemed deliberately uncinematic, so I'm interested to see what changes the Coen boys make.

Rendition: Don't know much about this one, either, except that it's got to do with the CIA, and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, and Meryl Streep, and is directed by Gavin Hood, who won a Best Foreign Language Oscar for Tsotsi. Could come and go without a blip.

Reservation Road: Another film about tragedy and angst in the suburbs, with Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly. Directed by Terry George, who did Hotel Rwanda. Seems like 21 Grams meets Little Children, so might pick up some acting and writing nominations, less sure about the top prize.

Sweeney Todd: I guess we have Chicago to thank for the Broadway musical adaptation being mentioned every year. Of course, Dreamgirls spit the bit last year, and Tim Burton has never been an Oscar darling (he's gotten one nomination, for Best Animated Film for Corpse Bride). Johnny Depp is the villainous barber, and that sounds intriguing, but my guess is this will get tech nominations only.

There Will Be Blood: P.T. Anderson has been around the fringes of Oscar before, getting nominations for Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but Punch-Drunk Love was ignored. This is an adaptation of a novel by muckraking Upton Sinclair, with Daniel Day-Lewis. Could be relegated to art-house hell.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Lookout


Scott Frank has written a couple of very good adaptations of the work of Elmore Leonard (Out of Sight and Get Shorty). It is therefore not a surprise that his directorial debut of his own original script is also a crime drama, a heist picture set in the plains. Unlike Leonard's underlying sense of comedy, though, The Lookout is a grim and nervous picture.

At the center is a young man, played ably by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was a high school hotshot but had a severe head injury after a car accident. He struggles to live an independent life, sharing an apartment with a blind man (Jeff Daniels) and working as a night janitor in a small-town bank. Then he meets an old classmate who befriends him and introduces him to a pretty girl (an ex-stripper, no less) who becomes his girlfriend. Of course, things are not as they seem, and it isn't too long before he is told that he is being used for a bank robbery.

This film is very well structured and tightly written. This may sound like a strange criticism, but it's almost too tight, as if it were written while one of those screenwriting how-to books were open on Frank's desk as he pecked it out. The corners in this film are just a little too neat. Consider the scene where Gordon-Levitt goes home for Thanksgiving, and compliments his father on his new shotgun. Hmm, I think Chekhov's law is being invoked there. And they might as well play Chopin's Funeral March underneath scenes with a friendly police officer who checks up on the bank at night when he talks about how his wife is ready to deliver a baby. When I think about what the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, or even Elmore Leonard would have done with the same story, I'm sure there would have been interesting little meanders and bizarre oddities. Frank gives us the bare bones, straight up, with no chaser, and that's fine, but not tremendously interesting.

The cast is good. Gordon-Levitt is sort of establishing himself as a force in small pictures, following Mysterious Skin and Brick. I kind of hope he doesn't go the Shia LaBoeuf route and end up in some loud blockbuster. Daniels is also solid. I was really surprised to see that the thief who befriends Gordon-Levitt was played by Matthew Goode, last seen as a British swell in Match Point. That he was now playing a Kansas scumbag and was completely unrecognizable is a testament to his skill. Isla Fisher also looks pretty damn good in her role as the ex-stripper.

The Lookout is a fine directorial debut, but for Frank's next picture I'd like to see him take a breath and shake out the jams a little bit.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Farewell, Scooter

When I moved to northern New Jersey in 1977, I took an instant dislike to the Yankees. I had spent most of my childhood years in Dearborn, Michigan, and was thus a Tigers fan, as were my father, grandparents, and everyone else in my family. In 1977, the Yankees were the defending AL champs, but they got spanked by the Reds (my second favorite team) in the World Series, and it was the first pennant they had won in my memory, so upon moving to Jersey I had no special animosity toward them. That would change.

Of course, they were a team of bluster, with the unlikeable (to me) players like Nettles, Munson, Rivers, Piniella, and then the newly arrived Reggie Jackson. But what really set my teeth on edge were the announcers, a trio that did both TV and radio in those days: Bill White, Frank Messer, and the Scooter, Phil Rizzuto. Having grown up with Ernie Harwell, who was the epitome of a professional broadcaster, these guys were clowns, and hopeless homers. It became my habit to root against the Yankees whenever I was watching just to get some weird sense of satisfaction. Rizzuto, of course, was the most clownish of all. He barely paid attention to the game, instead reading off birthday announcements, talking about his favorite Italian restaurants, and making a point of leaving early so he could beat the traffic over the George Washington Bridge.

But over the years, it became apparent that Rizzuto had an irresistible charm. I began to see what those who loved him saw. No, he wasn't a great announcer, by any stretch of the imagination. But he was a genuine character, a folksy, avuncular figure who watched the game as if he were sitting in your living room with you.

I'm old, but I'm not old enough to know him from his playing days, where he was a sparkplug shortstop for the great Yankee teams of the 40s and 50s. He was the MVP in 1950, and was a master bunter, base stealer, and defensive whiz. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1994 (after years of sturm and drang--truth be told, he probably would never have made the Hall if he hadn't become a legendary broadcaster) and was the Hall's oldest living member. When he was released mid-season by the Yankees in 1956, he made an immediate jump to the booth, where he remained for forty years.

To those growing up in the New York metropolitan area in the 70s and 80s he was omnipresent, even if you didn't watch baseball. He was a pitchman for The Money Store, a mortgage lender, and made dozens of commercials, his New York-accented voice honking the copy. At times his stories while broadcasting were surreal shaggy dog tales, and in the 80s a couple of writers for the Village Voice took transcripts of snippets of these broadcasts and put them in poetic form, which they called the Verse of P.F. Rizzuto. When the Yankees honored him with his very own day, they presented him with a cow (for his signature "Holy Cow!" calls) which promptly knocked him to the turf (the thunder that day was stolen by Tom Seaver, who won his 300th game for the visiting Chisox). And, of course, his play-by-play was featured in the Meat Loaf song, Paradise by the Dashboard Light, used for purposes the Scooter would become embarrassed by.

Rizzuto called it quits after an ugly incident in which he was asked to call a game in Boston and forced to miss Mickey Mantle's funeral. It was probably time for him to go, anyway, as cable networks got into the baseball business, with fancy graphics, pitch counts, speed guns, and strategy minutae. Rizzuto belonged to an earlier era of baseball. Though he was out of the public eye for the last few years, his presence will surely be missed.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Minor Leagues


On a beautifully temperate Saturday night, a friend and I took in a minor league baseball game in Atlantic City. The home team is called the Surf, and they took on the Pride of Nashua (I'm down on team names that are collective plurals--team nicknames should end in s's. However, I'm intrigued by the idea of a league that is made up of the other of the seven deadly sins. I want to play for the Lust).

The Surf are a class-A level team, and not affiliated with any major league club. As near as I can tell, they have never had someone go on to the bigs from their team, although they did have Ruben Sierra for a while when he was clinging to a professional baseball career. They play in a 5,500 seat ballpark, which has a gorgeous view of the Atlantic City skyline over the outfield wall, so you can see the name "Trump" as much as you dare.

The minor leagues are all about marketing. There were perhaps a thousand people at the game (and I may be being very generous) but the team worked that crowd as if it were 50,000. They have a mascot, a sea monster in a foam-suit that desperately needs dry cleaning. His name is Splash, and it was his birthday the night I went, and the crowd was reminded of that every half-inning. They even gave out birthday cake, which was a first for me. There were all sorts of competitions between innings, like musical chairs and the bat-spinning race, where two kids spin around a bat, the knob pressed to their foreheads, and then have to run, completely disoriented.

I'm sure this is true all over the minors, and applies to minor league hockey, if I can judge by the game I went to in Las Vegas in April. There is no moment during a stoppage in play that isn't occupied by some sort of distraction. The play of the players themselves wasn't bad--there were no errors afield, but the Surf pitcher got tired midway through and the Pride won, 7-2, but somehow the score of the game at one these affairs is an afterthought, and instead the experience itself is what matters.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Stardust

Stardust is a mostly enjoyable fantasy film with a jokey, contemporary spin. Almost every review I've seen or read compares it to the Princess Bride, and that's an accurate assessment, but Stardust takes it's fantasy core more seriously than the earlier picture, but still lightens things up with droll humor to keep the non-fantasy fans from rolling their eyes too much.

The film is based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, and was co-written by director Matthew Vaughn. I was impressed by how the script managed to keep so many plot plates spinning, without becoming confusing. It's a difficult story to summarize, but here goes:

In 19th-century England, there is a small village called Wall, named for a stone wall that the villagers are forbidden to transverse. On the other side is a parallel kingdom called Stormhold, which has all the fairy-tale cliches. Their king, played in a cameo by Peter O'Toole, has seven sons, and they must kill each other off, the last one remaining will be heir to the throne (this was a fun to scene to watch because it reminded me of O'Toole in The Lion in Winter). The last remaining price must also come in possession of a magic gem, which O'Toole lets loose into the heavens, where it knocks a star loose, sending it plummeting to Earth. Turns out stars in the universe of Stormhold are humanoid, because when it lands it is in the form of Claire Danes, and she has the gem.

The princes aren't the only ones who must track down Danes. A trio of witches (MacBeth, anyone?) need to ingest the heart of a fallen star to remain eternally youthful. One of the witches, Michelle Pfeiffer (in the second villainous role I've seen her play this month) is dispatched to retrieve Danes. Now, that's all background for the main story, which involves a young man from the village, who has promised the girl he loves that he will retrieve the fallen star to prove his love for her. Got all that?

There are more twists along the way, including a very funny cameo by Ricky Gervais, and an appearance by Robert De Niro as a pirate, Captain Shakespeare. Turns out the good Captain is, well, let's just say he's effete. I got a little uncomfortable in my seat watching the man who played Jake LaMotta and Don Vito Corleone mincing, and I don't think I ever want to see that again. It's one of the few places where the film goes over the top to the point of silliness. For the rest of the film, the envelope is pushed, but manages to contain itself without being too broad.

I especially liked a chorus of ghosts, the spirits of the princes as they are offed, one by one, who provide funny repartee as they comment on the action. Danes is appropriately luminous in her role, and gamely tries a working-class English accent, although it's not clear why a celestial body would speak as if she were from Whitechapel.

This film opened to pretty dismal box office, and that's too bad, because it deserves better. I hope it finds more viewers on DVD.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Police


During those halcyon days of college, way back in the Mesozoic, like most other kids I was into pop music, and The Police was one of my favorite bands. Along with Talking Heads and The Pretenders, they were the pillars of contemporary music for me at that time. When Roxanne became a hit and announced them to the scene, I was a senior in high school, drifting away from Top 40 radio, and they were one of the first "now" bands that caught my attention. Over their short history I bought all their records, but didn't have any of them on CD, so when I noticed there was a new two-disc retrospective I had to pick it up. I was heartened to learn that their music holds up quite nicely.

When they began, thirty years ago, they were a punk band with a reggae flavor. Outlandos D'Amour, their first record, is a chronicle of teenage angst, with some ridiculously delirious hooks. Most of the songs are about thwarted love, including Can't Stand Losing You, which has some terrific self-indulgent lyrics like, "This is our last goodbye, and you don't care, so I won't cry. You'll be sorry when I'm dead, and all this guilt will be on your head." What teenage boy hasn't thought the same thing at one point or another? It's interesting that this theme of the jilted lover would reappear five years later in their biggest smash, Every Breath You Take, the sinister stalker manifesto that would spend eight weeks at number one, only instead of an amped up punk number, it had a faux classical motif.

Listening to this retrospective, it's interesting to hear how they transformed themselves from angry punk band to mega-pop-stars. There second, third and fourth albums are full of sublime gems like Message in a Bottle (a marvel of pop construction), Don't Stand So Close to Me, De Do Do Do De Da Da Da, Every Little Thing She Does is Magic, Bring on the Night, and my personal favorite, Canary in a Coal Mine, which has an infectious riff while the lyrics read the riot act at a friend. Of course, these guys were also smarter than the average rock and roll star, and had songs of political import, like Invisible Sun, a haunting song about political prisoners. And how often does a band that becomes this big take album titles from works by Arthur Koestler and Karl Jung, and include rhymes for Nabokov and influenza?

Their last record, Synchronicity, was a tour de force, and remains one of my favorite records. In addition to Every Breath You Take, it included Synchronicity II, a magnificent composition that kicks out the jams while also juxtaposing the hell of modern life with a creature crawling out of the slime of a Scottish lake. I still love the ending: "Another working day has ended, only the rush hour hell to face. Packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes, contestants in a suicidal race. Daddy grips the wheel and stares alone into the distance, he knows that something somewhere has to break. He sees the family home now, looming in his headlights, a pain upstairs that make his eyeballs ache."

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Ruins


Scott Smith scored big with a novel called A Simple Plan more than a decade ago. It was an effective white-knuckler with a very simple premise. He's followed that up with his second novel, also a thriller, also with a very simple premise, called The Ruins. While not as good as A Simple Plan, it has its merits.

The story concerns a quartet of young American tourists in Cancun. They become friendly with a German tourist, who wants some help finding his brother, who has run off to a ruin with an archaeologist girlfriend. Together with a Greek friend they head into the jungle. Although they are discouraged by local Mayan villagers, they proceed to the ruins, only to be blocked from leaving by the Mayans. They soon find out why--there are killer vines that live on the hill, and the Mayans will do anything to keep the vine from spreading.

Once you find out that the whole plot concerns killer, sentient plants (these things can do just about everything) there's a little letdown, a "is that all there is?" Also, the writing is so simple at times that it bordered on childish. The characters are rather simply drawn, and even though Smith gives them some contemplative moments, thinking back to their pasts, I never really got a good handle on them. One girl is a priss, the other loose, one guy is an eagle scout, another a joker. I don't think Smith even gives us a physical description.

What Smith does do well is convey the terror of their predicament. Reading this you can almost feel the heat, the thirst, the panic of the people. One of them has a rather nasty fall, and some crude surgery has to take place, which should give anyone the willies.

This is a good beach read, but I wouldn't bring it on a vacation to Mexico.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Where They Ain't


Every year at this time, to coincide with my trip to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame induction, I like to read a baseball book. This year, because of Cal Ripken's association with the Baltimore Orioles, I read a book about that team, only this was about the Orioles of the 1890s, one of the best teams of all time. The book was called Where They Ain't, by Burt Solomon.

The title comes from a quote by Willie Keeler, one of the best of the Orioles, whose response to how to be a good hitter was, "Keep a clear eye, and hit 'em where they ain't," which over the ensuing hundred plus years has been a koan of baseball from the little league fields to the majors. Keeler is one of the six main characters of this book, which is basically a chronicle of major league baseball from the early 1890s to the first decade of the twentieth century, when the American League emerged as an equal to the existing National.

The Orioles were way ahead of their time, mostly because of their manager, Ned Hanlon, who pioneered what became known as "scientific" baseball. He employed the sacrifice bunt, the hit and run, and the "Baltimore chop," which was hitting down on the ball so it bounced high off a hard surface, enabling runners to beat throws to first. In addition to Keeler, who once hit .424 for a season and had a 44-game hitting streak, the other major players on these teams were John McGraw, the scrappy third baseman, Hughey Jennings, the chipper shortstop, Joe Kelley, a matinee idol outfielder, and Wilbert Robinson, the catcher. All of these men would one day make the Hall of Fame.

In reading books about early baseball, though, one thing becomes clear: the more things change, the more they stay the same. As the book begins, the Player's League, which was an attempt by players to form a league in which they got a fair shake, folded. The battle between management and the players has been going on probably since the first player has ever been paid. In fin de siecle America, though, it was particularly nasty, and Solomon relates this sharply through the way the Orioles fans were treated. After winning four pennants with the Orioles, Hanlon cooked up a deal with the owners of the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers. The Dodgers and the Orioles would be owned by the same consortium, and all the good players, including Keeler, would be assigned to Brooklyn, leaving the Orioles team a shambles (McGraw and Robinson would refuse to go). Hanlon would manage in Brooklyn. Suddenly a dominant team was an also-ran. Things got worse a year later when the team was disbanded entirely.

The owners behaviors toward the players were like feudal landlords toward serfs, but the players couldn't get much sympathy because they were still well paid when compared to a typical working stiff. I was interested to learn that late in the 1890s the National League became very close to being a cartel, with ownership owning all teams, and freely moving players around without their say-so. The plan failed by one vote.

The American League came along in 1901, and Baltimore was granted a team, which was managed by McGraw. He soon jumped to the New York Giants, and took with him a lot of the Orioles best players (he would manage the Giants imperiously for the next 30 years). Then the Orioles moved to upper Manhattan to become the New York Highlanders, who in a few years would become known as the Yankees.

The book has a lot of interesting facts, and Solomon tries to invest the human element in the story, beginning the book with Keeler's untimely death at the age of 50, but I thought the prose was still dry. Solomon's normal beat is politics, and that shows through. I'm also grateful he didn't succumb to what other writers of baseball books do, and that is write in the style of sportswriters of the time. He does use a few terms that have fallen out of fashion, such as "cranks" instead of fans, and "twirlers" instead of pitchers, but that is easily digestable.

As for my trip to Cooperstown, it was a blast. Eighty-two thousand people attended the ceremony, smashing the record by over fifty percent. It's great to think that Ripken and Gwynn play essentially the same game that Keeler and McGraw and the like played, and that the tradition still is going strong.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

I've seen and enjoyed all three Bourne pictures, but there's something about them that doesn't stick with me. They're like snack food. But I don't want to give the impression that that's a bad thing. These pictures are all about relentless motion, because I think if they stopped for a rest the canny viewer may realize that there's really nothing there.

In this third tale of super spy Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, who is seeking to find out his true identity and the people responsible for turning into what he is, we hit the ground running. I haven't seen the first two pictures again since I saw them in theaters at the time of their release, but thankfully I remembered enough to keep me afloat, and some necessary exposition was woven into the dialogue. In the second film, Bourne avenged the murder of his girlfriend. In this film, he's still on the run, tracked by a CIA bureaucrat played by David Strathairn, who brings on Joan Allen, who is more sympathetic to Bourne and would prefer to leave him alone. Bourne is starting to remember his indoctrination, and wants to go back to the source of his transformation.

Along the way he gets out of one tight spot after another. The film is full of masterful set pieces, ably choreographed by director Paul Greengrass. There's a cat and mouse scene in a London train station, a rooftop chase in Tangier, and a car chase through the streets of Manhattan, all thrillingly done. We even get a return appearance by Julia Stiles, whose parts in these films have gotten larger with each successive one. I thought maybe in this one she and Matt Damon would finally hook up. I won't spoil that here, though.

The main appeal of the Bourne films is seeing a hero is completely competent using every bit of his skill and wiles to get out of impossible situations. There is something inherently satisfying about that, even after seeing it over and over again. Also, these films are much sleeker and more intelligent than typical Michael Bay "blow shit up" films, which lends them a certain snob appeal. They are the action thrillers for people who don't like action thrillers.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Hairspray

While visiting my mother last week, we decided to go to a movie. In situations like this, sometimes you have to bite the bullet and see something you otherwise wouldn't see. My mother likes musicals, so we went to see Hairspray. I'm glad I did, because it was mostly enjoyable.

Based on the Broadway show that was in turn based on a film by John Waters, Hairspray is the story of Tracy Turnblad, an overweight but endlessly cheerful teen in 1962 Baltimore. She wants to be on the local dance show (sort of like American Bandstand), but faces opposition due to her size. In the course of this adventure, she manages to coax her plus-size mother out of the house for the first time in years, and manages to make huge strides in integrating local television.

This is all told in a manner that is almost a cartoon, with bright colors and bouncy musical numbers. The key to a good musical is good songs, and thankfully Hairspray has them. The opening number, Good Morning, Baltimore, tries to avoid being too sunny by including rats, perverts and alcoholics to the things Tracy loves about her home town. Most of the songs are peppy, upbeat, and reminiscent of the early sixties time-frame, and that's fine with me.

The performances are broad, but generally good. Michelle Pfeiffer vamps it up as the villainous TV station manager, whose equally vain daughter, Brittany Snow, is the lead dancer. Nikki Blonsky, who was plucked from obscurity to play Tracy, does just fine. Elijah Kelly is electrifying as Seaweed, one of the black kids who can only dance on the show on "Negro Day," when his mother, Queen Latifah, is the DJ. Amanda Bynes is appealingly goofy as Tracy's best friend, and Allison Janney is a hoot as her overly protective mother. And of course Christopher Walken, who can liven up even the most dreadful dross, is a joy to behold as Tracy's father, who runs a joke shop. When Pfeiffer attempts to seduce him, he responds with joy buzzers and bright red fright wigs.

As for John Travolta, who plays Tracy's mother, I have to ask: why was he cast? He does fine, going to town with the Baltimore accent. The original character was played by Divine in the film, and then Harvey Fierstein in the stage production. But both of these men were well-known for drag performances. Travolta has no history in this area, so it seems to me there's no reason this part couldn't have been played by a large woman.

Some of the film doesn't play well, particularly the civil rights angle. All of the integration talk is shrouded in a Hallmark card mist, which is almost an insult to the people who actually went through the struggle. Still, I can't help but think of how Waters initial attempt to make a film about how people who were different can still contribute to society has succeeded. When his film was turned into a musical he reacted with glee because he knew that when high schools put this production on it will be the fat girls who get the lead part.