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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese has always been a stylist. Looking back at his best films: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, King of Comedy, Goodfellas, the style leaps from the screen, but in those films there was something behind the style. But occasionally his films have been all sizzle and no steak, and have been lots of fun, but nothing to paste in the memory book. For examples I think of Cape Fear and now, Shutter Island.

Scorsese is also a living encyclopaedia of film history, and Shutter Island contains many references to the past, both glorious and not. Scorsese has mentioned films as diverse as the silent German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Frederick Wiseman's documentary Titicut Follies, but when this film comes out on home video a fun game might be shouting out other "quotes" from films. Most of the references can be grabbed from a kind of schlocky B-film legacy seen in the horror films of Roger Corman or drive-in exploitation films of the sixties and seventies. Scorsese is aiming to grind these B-movie entrails into A-movie sausage, but the effort falls short. Shutter Island isn't boring, and it's mostly fun, but it's not a great film.

We start with Leonardo DiCaprio as a U.S. marshal, seasick on a ferry bound for the titular place, which is in Boston harbor and houses a mental hospital for the criminally insane. The early dialogue with his new partner, played by Mark Ruffalo, is so amateurish that we are immediately on alert that all isn't probably what it seems--"So you're my new partner?" DiCaprio asks Ruffalo. Of course there's a thick fog, and the captain ominously tells them the ferry is the only way on or off the island, and then, "Storm's coming," followed by chords that resemble the blasts of a foghorn. Scorsese clearly has decided to jettison all subtlety.

DiCaprio and Ruffalo are there to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient, a woman who murdered her three children. They meet with the oleaginous head doctor, played with slippery ease by Ben Kingsley. They interview other patients, and as a hurricane hits the island they explore the place as if it were levels of a video game--graveyard, Civil-War-era fort, with a lighthouse as the ultimate destination. As the film progresses the plot is revealed in onion-like layers--it seems that DiCaprio's wife (Michelle Williams, seen in flashback) died in a fire, and the killer may be a patient on the island. All sorts of conspiracy theories are espoused, tying in to the Nazis (Max Von Sydow plays a German doctor who likes to listen to Mahler--why not Wagner?) and the HUAC committee. In between we see DiCaprio flashing back to his experiences as a soldier liberating the Dachau concentration camp.

The film is convoluted and implausible. By the time Patricia Clarkson shows up (after a scene with an onslaught of rats) and gives us a whole new batch of information, I was checking out. But yet the rug is still to be pulled out from under us. I won't dare spoil it, but the savvier viewer will have it figured out. The ending, in which all is explained, is long and laborious, and even includes visual aids. If it were a contemporary story (it's set in 1954) no doubt a PowerPoint presentation would have been included.

So what remains is Scorsese's flair. He's also been a filmmaker that liked to use every color in the big box of Crayolas. He teams with frequent collaborators Robert Richardson (cinematographer) and Thelma Schoonmaker (editor) to create a hurlyburly concoction of sight and sound. There are several dream sequences, and I've never been a big fan of them in any film. They seem like a cheat to me, a lazy way to express the theme of a story, without the rules otherwise associated with narrative story-telling. In the Dachau flashbacks, we get a long tracking scene of American G.I.s machine-gunning German guards, which is stunning to behold but makes no sense, as the guards are killed one by one down a line--wouldn't they be shot all at once?

Shutter Island is a B-movie dressed up like a classy Hollywood release, and as that goes makes for moderately intriguing entertainment. I give it a slight thumb's up on that basis, but I do not count it as one of Scorsese's great works, and instead can't escape the impression that he's slumming.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Catching Up With Harry

For the first four films in the Harry Potter series, I dutifully attended them at the theater, reading the book beforehand. After the fourth, though, I got a little disenchanted. I loved the books, but I was so busy reading other things that they became less of a priority, and the films were starting to become a chore to sit through. Therefore the most recent two of the series, films five and six, were unseen by me until I watched them on consecutive nights. The results were decidedly mixed.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the worst of the series. It works on almost no level. The entire film is a dry condemnation of mid-level bureaucrats and the manipulation of facts by the media--it could be shown to wild applause at a Tea Party convention. Harry spends most of his time suffering from a persecution complex, and the supporting cast--namely Hermione and Ron--are given little to do. The showdown at the end between the re-emerging Voldemort and Dumbledore failed to get my blood pumping--it's just two guys pointing wands at each other.

So how surprised was I the next night when the sixth film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, had me enthralled, and is easily the best of the lot? Both films were directed by David Yates, but for Half-Blood Prince he seems to have been inspired, as the film is beautiful to behold (with gorgeous Oscar-nominated cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel) and framed exquisitely. This film is sort of the equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back was in the Star Wars series--a dark, shadowy, brooding contemplation of the duality of good and evil. After watching it I can't wait for the final film.

I have not read either of the books that go with these films, so I'm sure there's lots left out. But the screenwriter for Half-Blood, Steve Kloves, has done a great job in making these characters seem like real people, even if they are wizards. When he had Dumbledore, early on, asking to use the loo, I was hooked. The sub-plots involving Hermione and Ron, which were left out of Phoenix, are richly developed here (though I could do without any more quidditch matches). And the best part of this series is shaping up to be the character arc of Professor Snape. I still don't know whether he's a double- or triple-agent, and it's a testimony to Alan Rickman that I'm so intrigued by his character. He's just one of many terrific British character actors who have been showcased through the years by these films.

I'm also intrigued by Luna Lovegood, played by Evanna Lynch, who won a talent search to win the role. Her portrayal of this dotty young witch, who shows up in a lion costume without explanation, is a pleasure to watch. I have no idea what role she will play in how everything turns out in the last film, but she's still fun anyway.

As for Harry, he's still the least interesting part of the whole enterprise. Much of the worst dialogue of the series belongs to him, and his act of refusing help gets tired. I see that he seems to be stuck on Ginny Weasly, but the film makes no mention of why poor Cho Chang got thrown over. Oh, the fickle behavior of teenagers!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Oscar Predictions: Actor, Actress

I mentioned in my entry on the Supporting Acting categories that there wasn't much suspense. There isn't much more in the lead categories. One of them is a slam-dunk and the other has what was a race but has now seemed to settle into a comfortable call for a performer who, at the year's outset, many would have been surprised to see as an Oscar contender.

The easy race to call is Best Actor. Jeff Bridges will win for his role as the washed-up country singer in Crazy Heart, and though Bridges is very good in the role, a lot of credit belongs to the distributors of the film, who saw that their was no obvious favorite in the Best Actor race and pushed this film into theaters to qualify (at one time it was going to be straight-to-DVD). Whoever pulled the trigger on this saw the perfect storm of Oscar indicators: an actor, now 60, who has been nominated many times but has never won, and is also well-respected as the kind of actor who is rarely flashy; and a role that is surefire Oscar bait, an alcoholic who finds redemption through the love of a good woman. One of these factors alone might not have pulled the trick, but in combination it will prove too tempting for voters to pass up.

If a miracle occurs and Bridges' name is not on the envelope, who would it be? Some talk up Jeremy Renner, who was very good as the danger-addicted bomb defuser in The Hurt Locker. That film seems on the precipice of winning a good share of Oscars, could Renner be caught in the sweep? I don't think so, and I don't buy the comparison to Adrien Brody, who won a surprise Oscar for The Pianist. Brody was the only nominee that year who hadn't won before, while Renner is one of three non-winners, and he won't knock off Bridges.

The other non-winner is Colin Firth, as the gay college professor planning suicide in A Single Man. This is the candidate for those who prize subtle acting, as he doesn't have any obvious scenery-chewing scenes. Firth has been a familiar face for a long time, and is sure to get some support, but it's not enough this year.

The two previous winners are George Clooney, in Up in the Air, and Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus. Clooney, had he not won previously (for Syriana in 2005) would be a formidable challenge to Bridges. His role, the unattached frequent-flier who learns what's really important, is also the kind that wins Oscars, and he is a popular figure--someone recently described him as the Hollywood's class president (which had recently been held by Tom Hanks). Freeman, who won in 2004 for Million Dollar Baby, seems to be in the happy-to-be-nominated category, as the film never generated any buzz.

The only acting category with a modicum of suspense is Best Actress. In the fall, it seemed likely that Meryl Streep, the most nominated performer in history, would "finally" win her third Oscar (that there are those who see it as an injustice that she hasn't won an Oscar in twenty-seven years is testament to her legend) for her charming performance as Julia Child in Julie & Julia. I think she could have won last year for Doubt, but Oscar was playing catch-up with Kate Winslet. But an unforeseen player entered the fray, and much like the title of her film, blind-sided Streep with hit that has left the Oscar world buzzing.

That player is Sandra Bullock, in The Blind Side, and just typing this sentence has me recalling how unlikely it all is. Bullock has been a big star for a long time, a reliable earner for the bosses, while not exactly a respected thespian. Her bread and butter has been as the goofy romantic heroine or the lead in turgid psychological thrillers, not the kind of career that gets Oscars. When The Blind Side rolled around, there was nothing about it to me that suggested any Oscar nominations, but it struck a nerve and the folks in Hollywood saw it as an opportunity to honor her for the greenbacks she has pulled in. It is nowhere near an Oscar-worthy performance, but it's competent and professional and my opinion doesn't matter. Bullock will win.

At least I think she will. If enough voters come to their senses and realize what it is they are about to do, someone else may win. It could be Streep, who though she has been nominated more times than anyone, has also lost more times than anyone (and remained a good sport about it). There are also two ingenues in the category, and every once in a while a new face can steal a win in this category. The more likely is Carey Mulligan in An Education. She's been compared to Audrey Hepburn, and Hepburn won this category for her first leading role in Roman Holiday in 1953. Mulligan also reminds me of the situation in 1965, when Julie Christie, another Brit, won in her first starring role for Darling.

The other newcomer is Gabourey Sidibe in Precious. Much has been made of her and this part--an obese, nearly illiterate teen suffering under the hand of an abusive mother. Sidibe is of a body type that is unusual for an actress, and there's been a lot of discussion about her and what her future career may be like. She's been on a lot of chat shows and has shown that she's nothing like Precious, and that if the acting thing doesn't work out she would be a viable candidate to be a co-host on The View. In a less star-filled category she might have a chance, but I don't see it this year.

The performer with no shot this year is Helen Mirren, as the stressed-out wife of Tolstoy in The Last Station. I didn't care for her performance at all--it was much too histrionic for me--but Mirren's reputation got her the nomination. The movie hasn't been seen by many, and she won recently, so she needn't prepare a speech.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


I have now seen all five of the 2008 nominees for Best Foreign Film Oscar. As a reminder, the other nominees were: The Baader Meinhof Complex, The Class, Departures, (the winner), and Waltz With Bashir. The last to be seen by this reviewer in the Austrian entry, Revanche, directed by Gotz Spielman.

In many ways Revanche is an unusual film to be included in this sweepstakes. So often we hear that the films that end up getting nominated are those that appeal to older sensibilities, and are over-saturated with sentimentality, melodrama, and old-fashioned Hollywood values. Revanche, while resolutely rooted in Hollywood's belief in the power of redemption, is also a crawl through some unsavory parts of Vienna. The hero is a ex-con, and his girlfriend is a prostitute, and the sexuality is frank, the nudity casual. Perhaps the voters who liked it were reminded of American films from the seventies.

I knew nothing about this film before seeing it, so I am reticent to share much of the plot. We are introduced to a small group of characters--Alex (Johannes Kirsch), an ex-con who is now working for a brothel, and is in a secret relationship with one of the girls, the Ukrainian Tamara (Irina Potapenko). They dream of breaking free of their tawdry lives--Kirsch knows of a fellow who would let him buy into a bar on Ibiza.

Intermixed with the scenes of these two, which show the dehumanizing lives of the sex-workers, we are introduced to a policeman (Andreas Lust) and his wife (Ursula Strauss), who live in a rural town. They are friends with an old farmer, who happens to be Alex' grandfather. These groups of characters will intersect after tragic consequences. Suffice it to say that when Alex reveals his plan to rob a bank, it doesn't take more than a few brain cells to know it won't go as he thought it would. Has any bank robbery in cinema history gone off without a hitch?

Revanche means revenge, and to know that one watches wondering how what form the vengeance will take, and by whom. The key moment of the plot doesn't occur until well into the film, as Spielman allows the film to unfold slowly, enhancing the freshness and originality of the story. The first image shows an object plunking into a body of water, but we don't know what that is until the scene is replayed at the end of the film. It is the moment when a character has achieved his redemption.

I guess what I found most interesting about this film is that the point of view is largely told through the eyes of Alex, the criminal, rather than the policeman, who is a secondary character. It is Alex's complexity and self-doubt that fuels the story (he is told by the brothel owner that he is "too soft.") I think this makes the film much more interesting than a typical cops and robbers flick would ordinarily be.

Now that I've seen all five, I conclude that if I had a vote it would have been for The Class, slightly ahead of Waltz With Bashir. I would rank Revanche third, Departures fourth, and The Baader Meinhof Complex fifth.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Long Fall

Just finished Walter Mosley's The Long Fall, a fine private-eye novel in the tradition of Raymond Chandler by way of Andrew Vachss.

Mosley, best known as the creator of Easy Rawlins, of Los Angeles, as come up with a new hero, Leonid McGill, a fiftyish African American ex-boxer who navigates the unseemly world of New York City gangsters and other nefarious types. As the book begins he's sworn off the criminal life--his previous work consisted mostly of finding people for the mob so they could get whacked--so he's a little touchy when what looks like a legitimate job turns out to be the same thing. He finds four men, based only on their teenage street names, and they start turning up dead.

The story gets pretty complicated, with two trips to Albany, and subplots involving a persistent gangster client and heading off a son's potential lawbreaking. I lost the thread a few times, and am still not sure how McGill makes the connection that leads him to a wealthy family after a visit to a mental hospital.

This is an echo of Chandler, both the complex nature of the plot and the visits to rich people who live in hot rooms, but there's also a vibe from Andrew Vachss' Burke novels, in that McGill travels in the demimonde, knowing how the real world works. There are also relationships that will certainly be built upon in future books, such as a friendship with a deadly hit man called Hush.

If the solution to the mystery is underwhelming, the ride to the finish is enjoyable because of Mosley's terse first-person narration. McGill, named Leonid because of a communist father, is an engaging character, a tough guy who has come to adhere to a moral code after years of failing to do so. There are lots of little pearls of private-eye patter: "You don't have to be smart to be tough-minded. As a matter of fact, the combination of stupidity and silence might be the greatest weapon in the history of our species."

Mosley is clearly a man who respects the traditions of the genre. At one point McGill is doing a crossword puzzle and the clue is five letters, African American mystery writer. I assume the answer is Himes, Chester Himes.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Cove

The Cove is the first of this year's crop of Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees I've had the chance to see, but it would be tough to top it in my book. It's a thrilling and enraging film that has changed the way I look at things, which is the goal of films of its type.

As with all propagandistic documentaries, there are two elements at work--judging the film on its merits as a film, and its particular cause. Often a film that addresses a particularly sympathetic cause will be well received, though it may not be well-made, while other films, that are masterpieces of the genre, such as Triumph of the Will, are for causes long ago abandoned by right-thinking people. The Cove is about the unwarranted slaughter of dolphins, and unless you're one of the Japanese fisherman whose economic interests lie at the heart of the issue, you would have to be pretty heartless not to feel empathy for the cause. But I'm happy to report that the film itself is a crackerjack entertainment, crafted like a top-flight caper film.

The Cove was directed by Louie Psihoyos, a nature photographer who was alerted to a dolphin killing-ground in Japan by Ric O'Barry, who is the heart of the film. He was the original dolphin-trainer, the man responsible for the performances by the animals in the TV show Flipper almost fifty years ago. He had an epiphany many years ago that keeping these creatures in captivity and training them for the amusement of humans was wrong, and has spent the rest of his life trying to atone, to the point of being arrested several times for freeing dolphins. His evangelical fervor is hard to resist, and he makes a great subject.

He tells Psihoyos about a village called Taiji in Japan, and a small cove where dolphins are captured and sold to places where dolphins are exhibited. Those that aren't sold are slaughtered for meat, though very few people eat dolphins, and there are high levels of mercury in them. The ironies of the town are everywhere, as touristy statues of whales and dolphins abound. The local aqua-park has dolphin shows, and also sells their meat, so you can pet a dolphin and then take some home for dinner.

The fishermen protect their cove zealously, and the government hides the activities from the general public. The Japanese have always been resistant to commercial whaling laws, and there's a pointed segment on how they buy the support of smaller, poorer nations in their fight to roll back bans on whaling.

Psihoyos and O'Barry assemble a team that attempts to plant surveillance cameras to document what the fishermen do to dolphins, and it's here that The Cove becomes something more than a dry recitation of atrocities. Psihoyos likens it to Ocean's Eleven, and he's not far off, as he recruits a special-effects whiz from Industrial Light and Magic to create hidden cameras in rocks, and free-divers to plant microphones. Like a squadron of Navy seals they sneak into the cove after dark, wary of authorities. It's as thrilling as The Guns of Navarone.

Of course this film is propaganda, which shouldn't be viewed as a pejorative term--anything that attempts to influence one's opinion on something is propaganda. What's important is if it's true. The Cove doesn't bend over backwards presenting the other side--the Japanese whaling commission figure is clearly presented as villainous. The Japanese fishermen argue that Westerners eat cows, what's the difference, but there is a huge difference--dolphins are wild animals, and also extremely intelligent. I was taken aback by O'Barry's claim that they are self-aware. It's often been said that man is the only animal that knows he's going to die, but perhaps that isn't true. One person in the film says that dolphins may be more intelligent than people, but I can't buy that. If that were true they'd be training us to perform in shows.

What is clear is that their is no huge demand for dolphin as a food source--they are killed as a by-product of their capture for places like Sea World. I'm not an absolute animal-rights guy--I'm not a vegetarian--but I refuse to go to the circus and I'll these kind of water parks to the list. The enslavement and torture of wild animals for entertainment seems to me to be just plain wrong.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Messenger

The first image of this film is tears running down the face of Will Montgomery, but they are not real tears--Montgomery, stateside after being wounded in Iraq, has an eye injury, and he is using drops in one eye, as otherwise it gets dried out. So, we might be led to believe, he can not cry, which makes him an ideal candidate for his next assignment--casualty notification, the "angel of death" duty that requires him to notify next of kin that a soldier has been killed in action.

This is the set-up for the fine, gritty drama The Messenger, directed by Oren Moverman, and written by Moverman and Alessandro Camon. Their script has been Oscar-nominated, and deservedly so, as though it is as conventional as anything from a Robert McKee seminar, it also has ringingly authentic moments of pathos, and is exquisitely acted by a trio of leads.

Montgomery is played by the fine Ben Foster, who objects to his assignment. He has only three months to go in his enlistment, and is paired with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), an on-the-wagon alcoholic who has the drill down pat. He lays out the rules to Foster, and as he lists each one those of us who have seen more than a handful of movies knows that each of these rules will be broken (particularly one that stipulates that the NOK--next of kin--must not be physically touched), and eventually Foster will teach Harrelson a thing or two, but if the conventions are hoary the ride is moving.

As the duo make their morbid rounds they encounter different types of reactions. A father, played memorably by Steve Buscemi, lashes out, while a soft-spoken woman, Samantha Morton, is almost apologetic, and understands how difficult their job is. Foster, intrigued by and attracted to Morton, starts hanging around her, and I initially objected to this course of events as it seemed achingly contrived. However the relationship doesn't go where I thought it would, and Morton is so good as a woman who now mourns the death of an unhappy marriage that I changed my mind. Morton, it seems to me, should have received an Oscar nomination--I would vote for her over Mo'Nique. My only complaint is that she was so soft-spoken I missed some of her lines, but that's probably due to my hearing and not her performance.

Harrelson did receive a nomination, and it's easy to see why, as he is the juice of this story. His character is one of those guys who think they've seen it all, and instantly size people up, finishing their sentences for them. When we learn he's in AA, but still hangs out in bars, a red flag pops up, but again the script doesn't do the completely obvious thing. A scene in which he and Foster attend the engagement party of Foster's old girlfriend is similar to the one in About Schmidt, when we cringe about the words of a toast, but as in that film we are let down easy.

The film is not political in any way--this could be about any war. Harrelson mentions that before Vietnam, families were notified by telegram (this recalls a terrific scene in We Were Soldiers that shows that the presence of a telegram delivery boy on military housing was a scary sight), and it's fascinating to see how this detail works. Though it is not a combat assignment, the constant interaction with, and needing to be stoic in the presence of, grief must be psychologically battering.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Roger Ebert

The film blog community was abuzz this week with an article, written by Chris Jones, in this month's Esquire on Roger Ebert, sage of movie critics. I actually subscribe to Esquire, and got my copy in the mail and read the article the old-fashioned way on Friday night. It is a beautifully wrought examination of a brilliant man who has suffered numerous health problems, and now can not speak, eat or drink. But he is thriving.

I have been a fan of Ebert's since the first time I saw him, and I can pinpoint that moment almost to the day. I was in my dorm room at school, looking for something to watch on my portable black and white set, when I stumbled across Sneak Previews on PBS. I don't think I had heard about the show, but here was an intelligent discussion between two movie critics on new movies. I was hooked, through the duo's various iterations, until Gene Siskel's death in 1999. I remember that one of the movies they discussed was the otherwise forgettable Frank Sinatra film, The First Deadly Sin, so as I check it's release date I see I must have been watching around the first of October, 1980.

Since then, almost thirty years ago, my admiration for Ebert has steadily grown. I always favored his approach to criticism more than Siskel's--Ebert seemed to apply more rationality, while I thought Siskel went off half-cocked much of the time. Still, they made for great television, and their love/hate relationship has become something of legend. But Ebert branched out and ended up writing about many more topics than Siskel had a chance to. He has become one of the great representatives of secular humanism in America today, and he frequently voices the definitive statements in resistance to the Neanderthal right, whether it be on Darwinism, health-care reform, or the colorization of black and white films, that I wish I were eloquent enough to articulate. I find myself in agreement with him (on matters unrelated to the quality of a certain a film) almost one-hundred percent of the time. I could simply follow him around, repeating, "What he said."

In fact, of all the people alive today, Roger Ebert is right up at the top of those I wish I could consider a personal friend. And in a certain sense, I am, since the man is so forthcoming in his new career as Internet town crier. His loss of speech, resulting from surgeries to combat cancer of the salivary glands, has given him full-throated voice on the Web. He Tweets voraciously--sometimes my home page on Twitter is full of his missives, whether he is retweeting what he finds interesting or succinctly, in the 140 characters allowed, refuting the idiocies of Rush Limbaugh and the like. His Journal is one of the best reads anywhere to be found on the 'Net, with his remembrances of walking in London, the myriad uses of a rice cooker, or the old watering hole frequented by his newspaper cronies in Chicago. He is also remarkably democratic, reading and responding to the hundreds of comments he gets, and being willing to reconsider a position he takes, a remarkable attribute in this day and age of foolish certainty.

Ebert, as we could have expected, has responded to Jones' article, citing it was well-written. The article had an elegiac tone, but Ebert wants us all to know he is not dying any faster than any of the rest of us. As he puts it, we are all dying incrementally. Though we can wince a little when we see what the ravages of the operations have done to his face (he also broke a hip during the ordeal), we can be immensely cheered by the sublime happiness of his marriage to his wife Chaz and the unstoppable love of cinema he still has. My favorite part of the article was Jones' description of his attending a screening of Almodovar's Broken Embraces: "He radiates kid joy. Throughout the screening, he takes excited notes...Ebert scribbles constantly, his pen digging into page after page, and then he tears the pages out of his notebook and drops them to the floor around him. The lights come back on. Ebert stays in his chair, savoring, surrounded by his notes. It looks as though he's sitting on top of a cloud of paper."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Farewell to the Class of 2010

The regular season came to an end today for the Princeton women's ice hockey team today with a 4-0 victory over Yale. This result means that the Tigers finish sixth in the ECACHL, and they will play third-seeded Harvard in Cambridge next weekend. Thus this was the last home game for the senior class, and they were honored before the game.

This season was a bumpy ride for Princeton. The sixth seed is the lowest they've had since the ECACHL was reconfigured nine years ago, and they struggled to eke out an above-.500 record. They had big wins over top ten teams Clarkson, Boston University, and Harvard, but also had some tough losses, none so bad as Friday night's loss to Brown, who had not won a league game all year. The Tigers played sloppy and lost in overtime to the Bears 4-3, ending any hope of getting home-ice in the playoffs.

This is a young team, dominated by sophomores and forwards. The four graduating players, who are pictured above, were role players who didn't score much. From left to right they are: Maddie Endicott, a tough defenseman who looks like Heidi but has a stinging slap shot. She is a dependable blue-liner, and I enjoyed the way, right before the opening face-off of a period, how she did a quick skating loop of the defensive zone. Julie Flynn, whose greatest contribution was her flexibility, as she could play both forward and defense. Today she took more shots than usual, as I'm sure she wanted to end her home career with a bang. Stephanie Denino, a tough defenseman whose greatest asset was her leadership, as she was captain in both her junior and senior years. She hurt her knee in January, and was thought to be done for the season, but has battled back, played hurt, and showed no signs of injury. Melanie Wallace, who gets my vote for unsung hero. She has always been near the top of the team in points scored, but is not a flashy player, usually getting big goals or assists and playing two-ways effectively, with a team-leading plus-minus total.

The season has to be considered a disappointment, but it's not over yet, and I'm sure the Harvard squad are aware they have to guard against upsets. I will not be able to see the games, but I'll be following the action as best I can, and counting the days until the next season begins in late October.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Oscar Predictions: Supporting Actor, Actress

There's not much suspense in the acting categories for this year's Academy Awards, as three of the categories have mortal locks for winners, including both of the supporting acting slates. For Best Supporting Actress, Mo'Nique, as the monstrous mother from Precious has been working out by ascending to podiums, and there seems to be no reason to think that she won't do the same come Oscar night. There was a brief tempest of controversy before she was nominated, when she made statements that seemed to indicate that she would not participate in the awards-season campaign process without being paid for her trouble. And, indeed, she did not attend the New York Film Critics Awards. But she did graciously accept the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards, dispelling any notion of a backlash.

Even if there were voters who harbored some animus, who would be the alternative? Before the nominations were announced, and mean-spirited attacks on Mo'Nique were being made by the likes of Jeffrey Wells, I thought Julianne Moore from A Single Man might be the spoiler, as she is due for a win after being nominated four times without winning. But then she up and didn't get nominated. Who does that leave as the first runner-up? You got me, and unless you work for PriceWaterhouseCoopers you'll never know. My guess would be Maggie Gyllenhaal for Crazy Heart, who was a surprise nominee but could get some votes for being associated with the putative Best Actor winner, Jeff Bridges.

The two ladies nominated from Up in the Air, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, would be stronger competitors if they weren't from the same film--it would be hard for a voter to choose between them. Kendrick had the early heat, but Mo'Nique's winning streak has tamped it down. Running in the fifth spot would have to be Penelope Cruz for Nine. Not only did she win just last year, but the film was a colossal critical and box office dud.

The race in Best Supporting Actor is even more one-sided, if that's possible. Christoph Waltz, as the suavely evil Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, has had this puppy sewn up since the film premiered in August. Though heretofore unknown, he took a great role and knocked it out of the park, becoming memorable to anyone who saw the film. He has been on an awards spree himself, with the oddly off-putting habit of tailoring his speech around the name of the award. One wonders how he'll work the name "Oscar" into his acceptance speech.

Again, if Waltz were to lose, who would it be to? I'm hard pressed to even rank the runners-up. Woody Harrelson, as the alcoholic family-notification offer in The Messenger? The Academy loves actors who play angry drunks, and he's been around a long time. Stanley Tucci is also a well-respected character actor who received his first nomination, but it's for playing a child-murderer in the critically dismissed The Lovely Bones. Christopher Plummer is also a well-respected actor, mostly for his stage work, though many know him as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, and he received his first nomination as Tolstoy in The Last Station. But the film is little seen and esoteric.

That leaves Matt Damon, as the rugby star in Invictus. I find this nomination puzzling, as Damon, a fine actor (he would be my choice for Best Actor this year for The Informant! but he wasn't nominated). Damon has won an Oscar for screenwriting, and aside from impressing those for being able to look like a world-class athlete, there's little in the performance to suggest it's Oscar-worthy.

So, as he we have seen time and again this awards season, it will be Mo'Nique and Waltz for the win. If this does not happen I will be flabbergasted beyond measure.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Pale Lasses of Vanity Fair

Another newsstand pickup I made this week was Vanity Fair's annual Hollywood issue. I used to subscribe to this magazine, but I became disenchanted with the over-abundance of features on the trials and tribulations of the very rich. I enjoy schadenfreude as much as the next guy, but editor Graydon Carter seems to be fixated on a love-hate relationship with the plutocracy.

But the Hollywood issue, released the same month as the Academy Awards, is almost always worth a purchase. For the last generation they've used up-and-coming stars on their covers, which is something of a publicity-generator. The Tom Ford photo of himself with a naked Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johannson of a few years ago was an arresting image, if not salacious. In 1995, there was the infamous grouping that looked like a police line-up of prostitutes in their lingerie (and it was a prescient group, that included still-respected actresses Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sandra Bullock, Angela Bassett, Uma Thurman, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Patricia Arquette--the only actress on that cover who has slipped into obscurity is Linda Fiorentino). This year they've gone to the tried and true line-up of sweet young starlets, and the publicity has been negative, as not one of the nonet is a woman bearing much more skin pigment than one would find in a Scandinavian sorority.

I understand the outrage--not only are these nine ladies all caucasian (no African or Asians) but there isn't anyone of Hispanic descent, either. This has allowed some groups to ruffle their feathers and tut-tut. But let's look at this rationally. First of all, these covers are a result of publicists, not of any insight into who the big stars will be (past actresses included in these things are the now forgotten Marley Shelton, Jordana Brewster, and Vinessa Shaw). Note the performers who are featured in the extreme left, who are therefore not folded in--Kristen Stewart prominently featured. She's the biggest star of this group, and is her second time on on a VF Hollywood issue. This is designed to move product, which for a print magazine these days is the difference between life and death.

Secondly, if an actress of color had been included--Zoe Saldana, let's say--would that have made everyone content? Is tokenism really the answer? When a new president selects a cabinet there is a mandate to make it "look like America." When Bill Richardson dropped out of the cabinet selection process, a Latino reporter aggressively asked President Obama about too-few Hispanics. But does the cover of Vanity Fair have to look like America? I don't sense any discrimination at work here, just the dice coming up alabaster when the publicists were finished working the phones. I will add, though, that though Oscar-nominee Carey Mulligan is prominently placed on the cover, it is impossible to imagine her fellow nominee Gabourey Sidibe being included, but that's an issue of body type, not of color.

As for the issue, I skipped over the articles on the money of Hollywood--Ryan Kavanaugh and Jon Peters--but enjoyed those on John Hughes, Ali McGraw, the girls who worked in the Ink and Paint department for Disney during the glory years, and on the making of Raging Bull (De Niro had to coax Scorsese into doing it--Marty didn't understand boxing). There is also the list of the top earners of 2009 (at least of the talent, no studio people involved). These lists, like the "power" lists, bore me, but I have to stop and wonder when the top earner is Michael Bay, and the highest placing female is Emma Watson.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Who Sell Out

Last week I wrote a tribute entry to The Who, one of my favorite rock and roll bands of all-time. I read a little bit about them on the Web in preparation, and most of it I knew. But I was curious about an album that I didn't have, The Who Sell Out. Over the weekend I was at Princeton Record Exchange and they had a cheap copy so I picked it up.

I was stunned to realize I knew none of the songs on it, except for the one hit it spawned, "I Can See For Miles." How could this be? How could the rest of this album escape my notice over all these years--three and half decades of listening to "classic rock" radio? It would be like a Beatles' fan never hearing Rubber Soul.

I do remember seeing this record in the Who bins at record stores over the years, and remembering how turned off I was by the cover, which as you can see features Pete Townshend applying deodorant to his armpit and Roger Daltrey in a bath of baked beans. But it doesn't explain why perfectly good, radio-ready songs like "Armenia City in the Sky," "Relax," "Sunrise," or "Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand" have been off the air for all these years. It might have to do with the gimmick of the record--it's presented as a broadcast of a pirate radio station--Radio London--complete with jingles and commercials. Many of the tracks include these commercials, so perhaps they weren't edited for regular radio play.

The album was released in 1967, a hybrid between British invasion pop and the burgeoning psychedelic explosion. Some of it sounds like the jangly folk of The Byrds. There is a John Entwhistle composed ditty--"Silas Stingy"--that sorts of prefigures some of The Beatles odd-character songs, and Townshend's first experiment with rock opera, the song that closes the original album, "Rael."

The compact disc contains several bonus tracks, which are fascinating for Who historians. One discovers that Townshend plagiarized himself--a portion of "Rael" would later be the main theme of "Underture" from Tommy, and another bit of that album can be heard in "Glow Girl" with a gender switch: "It's a girl, Mrs. Walker, it's a girl." My favorite cut on the entire disc may be a kick-ass rock version of Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King."

It was great to experience this, discovering Who music that I had never heard before. The album is an odd one--not as finger-snappingly pleasing as their first singles from their first two records, and not has soaringly powerful as Tommy, Who's Next, or Who Are You, but has pleasures nonetheless.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Swimsuit Issue

This year, like so many years in the past, I have purchased and perused Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue, and I am reminded that the experience is not what it used to be. There was a time when this thing rocked my world, but now it's a momentary little rush of adrenaline, but in the grand scheme of cheesecake photography, it doesn't offer much.

I would imagine that I am not alone when I recall how this issue was a major part of my erotic awakening when I was a teenager. Now, I had a bit of a head start, in that my dad subscribed to Playboy and Penthouse (and even had some Hustlers) so from the age of thirteen or so I had seen many photos of naked women. But there was something about the SI swimsuit issue that energized the imagination. I have a vivid memory of a photo of Cheryl Tiegs in a see-through suit that made me feel special things deep down inside. Christine Brinkley, Paulina Porizkova, and Kathy Ireland would all become my special friends through adolescence and young adulthood.

It's interesting to track the history of this thing. What started as a filler topic in between baseball and football seasons has become the major money-maker of the Sports Illustrated business. At one time the swimsuit feature was just part of a regular issue, in between coverage of basketball and the Daytona 500. Now it's a special issue, packed with nothing but photos of nubile beauties in as little as possible. Over the years the issues have featured articles, usually on the exotic locations used, but I see that this year's issue has hardly any text--as it should be.

This year's cover girl (a high honor for a certain part of the model population) is Brooklyn Decker, who I've had my eye on for a while (and so has tennis star Andy Roddick, who is now her husband). She's a favorite of mine, as is Bar Refaeli, who I believe is or was the arm-candy of Leonardo DiCaprio. Some other models that made my gaze linger are Hilary Rhoda and Cintia Dicker (a freckle-faced redhead--love that look). In an attempt to tie it into sports, there are the obligatory shots of fetching athletes, including tennis player Ana Ivanonic and skier Lindsey Vonn (showing no signs of a shin bruise), plus some "WAGs", which stands for wives and girlfriends, in this case of international soccer stars.

The printed issue is becoming quaint. All the photos, plus more, are available on the Internet, and the issue itself is laid out like a Web page. Who knows what the future of this thing is, although I guess it still generates a ton of income for the magazine. It also inspires the annual debate between those who find this distasteful, anti-feminist or, strangely, pornography (soft-core, of course) and those of us who have other things to worry about. Though the enjoyment may not be as deeply moving as it was when I was a teenager, the annual rite of flesh-baring is nice pick-me-up during the gray days of winter.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Last Station

Okay, so the only reason I went to see The Last Station in a theater is that two of the cast are nominated for Oscars. It's also about a writer, which is interesting, though it's not a writer I've ever read. But it turns out to one of a long string of period costume dramas that are a pale imitation of A Lion in Winter--an old married couple, in love but unable to stand each other--battling it out in their sunset years.

The writer is Leo Tolstoy, here played by Christopher Plummer, who after a long and esteemed career has nabbed his first Oscar nomination. If we are to believe the script, Tolstoy was a beloved figure in Russia, and also had some forward ways of thinking--he didn't believe in personal property, a philosophy that was akin to Marxism, but maintaining certain Christian principles. By 1910, the action of the film, he had inspired a movement of intellectuals who set up a commune, where they practiced tai chi and abstinence, although Tolstoy was something of a randy old goat.

His long-time wife, played by Helen Mirren, turns up her nose at the acolytes surrounding her husband. She's desperate to stop him changing his will and leaving the copyright of his work to the people. Thus we have the battle of wills comparable to that between Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn in A Lion in Winter. Only in The Last Station, writer/director Michael Hoffman has chosen to frame the film fro the point of view of Tolstoy's secretary, a naive young man played by James McAvoy.

Why this was done is anybody's guess. Perhaps this was the structure of the film's basis, a novel by Jay Parini. In any event, it doesn't work. McAvoy's character is profoundly uninteresting, even when he's given a romance (with nudity) with fellow Tolstoyan Kerry Condon (who apparently ignored the memos about celibacy). We've got a movie about one of the greatest writers and thinkers of the modern age and he's in the periphery. Instead we get a dry discussion of copyright law and pre-revolutionary Russian social philosophy.

Oh, Hoffman tries to jazz things up. He's constantly letting us know that despite their differences, Tolstoy and his wife couldn't keep their hands off each other. We get a scene in which Mirren is forced to say, "I'm still your little chicken, and you're my big cock," followed by Plummer clucking and crowing like the fowl he has been compared to. Plummer is very good, nimbly capturing a man who knows he's great but tries to be humble, but Mirren--well, it was an impossible role, a spoiled, emotionally unbalanced woman who good use a strong prescription of Xanax. Hoffman appears to have given her zero direction.

Also in this mix is Paul Giammati, another actor who, when undirected, falls into bad habits. Here he is the supposed villain, a Tolstoyan who wants the copyright for the people, but acts like the banker who's ready to foreclose on the widow's mortgage. He literally twirls his mustache. There are also insinuations about his sexuality--Mirren calls him a "fat little catamite," but this thankfully goes further unexplored. Giammati utters his lines in a sensual growl that should have left everyone involved embarrassed. As for McEvoy, the less said the better. I don't blame him as much as the script, which evens give him the habit of sneezing when nervous.

Beyond these problems, the film is also poorly photographed, with numerous tight close-ups that seem barely in focus. Aside from Dr. Zhivago, I can't think of a Russian film that makes the country look attractive. It's a wonder anyone stays.

Though I did not care for this film, and spent much of it looking at my watch, there are things that caught my interest, the credit for which doesn't belong to the filmmakers but instead to the facts at hand. It was interesting to see how photographers camped out in front of Tolstoy's home--an early example of paparazzi. Over the closing credits actual film of Tolstoy is shown, which made me want to see a documentary about him.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The White Ribbon

I mentioned in my review of The Blind Side that there are films that challenge and films that reassure--Michael Haneke makes the former. Before The White Ribbon, the presumptive front-runner for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, I had only seen one of his films, Cache, which I found intriguing, and due to its ambiguous ending has provided fodder for inumerable conversations and arguments among its promoters and detractors. After some internal debate I passed on his first English-language film, Funny Games (a remake of his own German film) because I finally came to the conclusion that life is too short to spend two hours watching a family being tortured and murdered.

The White Ribbon is no departure--he hasn't decided to stretch his legs and make a screwball comedy. It's a focused, unrelentingly grim study of the nature of evil, but it's much more straightforward than Cache, though no less mystifying, as once again he has let the audience figure out what they have seen. This can be refreshing, as Hollywood product typically spoon-feeds the audience and tells them what they have just seen, but on the other hand, a person likes the satisfaction of seeing a story wrapped up in a classic fashion. After seeing two of his films that do not provide easy answers, I wonder if it isn't a sleight of hand to hide script problems. I'm reminded of Oscar Wilde's line, spoken by Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest: "To lose one parent is a tragedy, to lose two is carelessness."

The film is set in Germany in 1913. We are in a small village, and as life must have been like in those days, it's a very insular world. All the villagers know each other, and most work for the local Baron. Slowly we are introduced to his family and the families of the local pastor, a stern figure who lives to heart the adage, "Spare the rod, spoil the child," the family of the local doctor, a young teacher who courts the Baron's nanny, and the family of a farmer, in which the oldest son makes an impetuous decision that has tragic repercussions.

In the opening scene the doctor is injured when his horse trips over a wire that has been purposefully tied to two trees. Later, the farmer's wife falls through some boards in a sawmill and dies, and then the Baron's young son is severely beaten. All the while the village's children, a stone-faced bunch who seem to be led by the pastor's two oldest children, roam around like the kids in a horror film.

To that end this film reminded me of Village of the Damned, as directed by Ingmar Bergman. We never know for sure if the children are responsible for the acts of criminality, or what the motive is. We do find out that the doctor is screwing his housekeeper, while also diddling his teenage daughter, but the people there seem no better or worse than any others to be found anywhere in the world, nor do we unearth any signifying moment when a child receives some kind of provident statement telling them to punish sinners. Instead the evil hangs like a cloud.

The key, it seems to me, is the pastor (Burghart Klaussner) and his two children, the sullen girl Klara and the equally sullen boy, Martin. We see them being punished for some infraction (we never learn what exactly what they have done, another significant mystery) and it's a ritualistic bit or corporal punishment. He is the character that made me think of Bergman, especially the brutal clergyman of Fanny and Alexander, but he's also a loving father, as evidenced by scenes with his younger son and an injured bird. Pointedly, he confronts Martin about his suspicions that the boy is masturbating, and goes so far as to have his hands tied while sleeping. He also ties white ribbons, a simble of innocence, to the misbehaving children to help them remember to be good. In a certain way, these ribbons are like Hawthorne's scarlet letter.

It's easy, given the knowledge of the year and the country, to do the math and figure out that the children of 1913 will be in their thirties when Hitler took over, but I'm not sure if that's the lesson we take away here--that corporal punishment created Nazis. I would think that World War I, which began in 1914, is what Haneke is interested in. Many historians think 1914 was the year that everything changed in the world, when global conflict and carnage on a massive scale began. World War II was a much larger event, but was in effect a sequel to the first war. I think of Alan Moore's graphic novel, The Lost Girls, which has characters from Victorian children's literature meeting as adults in Vienna in 1914, and the innocence of those books--Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz, is eviscerated by the act of assassin Gavrilo Princip.

As for the film itself, it is a superb work of art. The photography, by Christian Berger, is Oscar-nominated, and is in black and white, though I understand it was shot in color and then blanched. There are some stunning scenes, such as burning barn, or the scene of the teacher (Christian Friedel) walking along a snowy path in bright sunlight. Haneke frequently uses a stationary camera and limited close-ups, recalling the video camera of Cache. I think of the scene where Martin fetches his father's whip and then takes it into the dining room to face his punishment, while the camera remains at the end of the hall, or when the Doctor, after returning home from the hospital, steps out of his house for a smoke, and is then followed by his daughter, and then his young son, in deep focus. I should also point out that there is no musical underscore, a welcome choice. There have been hundreds of films that are improved by a score, from The Third Man to The Godfather, but the inclusion of a typical orchestral score seems like a duty in many films, as if the composer's union mandated it. There are many scenes in The White Ribbon, such as when a coffin is borne out of a house, that any hack director would want accompanied by stirring strings, but Haneke rightly lets the scene speak for itself and all is silent.

This is the first of the nominees for this year's Foreign Language Film, so I can't honestly say if The White Ribbon is the best of the lot, but it is a magnificent achievement, and if it does win I'm sure it won't be a robbery. This is an instance, though, where I would like world cinema to bend just a little bit toward Hollywood convention, and give me a few more clues as to just what happened.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Chronic City

Book three of the Ten Best Books of 2009, as chosen by the New York Times Book Review, is Chronic City, a novel by Jonathan Lethem. I'm fairly familiar with his work, as this is the fourth novel of his I've read. He's a writer who has roots in speculative fiction--his Gun, With Occasional Music is a noir book featuring anthropomorphic animals; Motherless Brooklyn is a detective novel with the hero being a private eye with Tourette's syndrome, and his best book, Fortress of Solitude, skirts the world of comic-book superheroes and rock criticism.

Chronic City is in a similar vein. It is set in a very real place--the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but Lethem's New York is an alternate one. There may be a Jewish billionaire mayor, but there is also a tiger on the loose, an odor of chocolate permeates the air, the lower tip of the island is shrouded in a perpetual fog, and The New York Times publishes a "war-free" edition.

Into this alternate reality Lethem has created some characters who also seem just slightly out of whack, and in a Pynchonesque manner he has given them bizarre names. The narrator through much of the book is the relatively normal-named Chase Insteadman, a former child actor who is now living an idle existence, going to parties and hobnobbing with the glitterati. He is in a long line of bland narrators, a Nick Carraway for the twenty-first century. He describes himself thusly: "I may as well acknowledge I function as an ornament to dinner parties. There's something pleasant about me. I skate on frictionless ball bearings of charm, convey a middling charisma that threatens no one." He is also universally sympathized with because his fiancee is an astronaut who is stranded on the International Space Station and sends him love letters as she slowly dies.

As the book begins he meets the improbably-named Perkus Tooth, his Gatsby, a culture critic who lives a bizarre life of marinating in his own ideas and conspiracies. He became famous by putting up broadsides throughout the city, and then wrote a column for Rolling Stone, but he spurns the rock critic tag. He has obsessions with Marlon Brando, the "Gnuppets" (presumably the alternate version of the Muppets), the type-face of the New Yorker and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. He is a whirlwind of tics and pop-culture effluvia, and while an inspired creation he is ultimately an inauthentic one, as I had trouble believing such a person could exist and a bigger trouble caring about him. Chase and the circle of friends surrounding him seem to do nothing but worry about him, and I wondered what the fuss was all about. Tooth attracts a lot of filial devotion, but doesn't much return any.

As I said, there are a lot of funny names and bizarre occupations. Chase has an affair with a ghostwriter named Oona Laszlo. Other names include Strabo Blandovia (a Romanian acupuncturist), Laird Noteless (a sculptor who has built a fjord of garbage uptown), and Sandee Zapping, who works in an apartment complex for abandoned dogs (each dog gets its own unit). There is a character named Russ Grinspoon who seems a thinly-veiled slam at Art Garfunkel, and one wonders what he did to Lethem to deserve such enmity. All of this has a distancing effect, which I wonder if Lethem intends.

Though the book is emotionally distant, there is some brilliant turning of phrase. I kvelled at a description of Oona and Noteless as "the bird perched on the alligator's fang," and has any writer ever wrung more out of a snowfall: "The first globs had begun drifting to earth three hours before the mayor's party, not so much flakes as frost-spun jigsaw chunks rotating themselves into view as if an invisible examiner were hoping to puzzle them together on arrival. None of these were pure six-pointed specimens, those famously symmetrical and fingerprint-unique ski-chalet wallpaper darlings, instead rough amalgams of three or four or six that had clotted together somewhere above the city, assembling into eerie contours, snow-cartoon images of docking spacecraft or German coffeemakers or shattered Greek statuary. This advance wave melted so smoothly it was as though ghosts slid through the wet pavement's screen to some realm below. Then, abruptly, the stuff quadrupled and began to lodge, the ghosts denied entry to the subterranean world, too many to welcome there, their bodies heaping uselessly against the former portal." Whew! Perhaps Lethem harbors a secret desire to be a weatherman.

The names may remind one of Thomas Pynchon, but other aspects of the book resemble the work of Tom Robbins. Tooth is obsessed not only with Marlon Brando, who may or may not be dead, but also with chaldrons, a kind of ceramic vase that he compulsively bids for on eBay. These obsessions, as in Robbins (think of the Camel cigarette package in Still Life With Woodpecker) take on mystical qualities. Unlike Robbins, though, Lethem doesn't inject the same degree of whimsy into the tale, instead every detail seems weighted with false import. The book ends, cleverly enough, with a reveal that tells us much of what we assumed is not true, and upon closing the book you may experience a "but what did it all mean?" feeling. I have no answer.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sugarless Survivor

The 20th season of Survivor kicked off last night, and I tuned in, out of much duty as anything else. I haven't watched all the seasons of the show, but more than fifteen of them, and I've enjoyed most of them--it appeals to my love of a narrative where you start with a certain number of characters and then they get picked off, one by one. That probably started with reading Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None as a child. The only difference is that Survivor contestants don't die bizarre deaths.

This season is yet another one where they have returning cast members, in a "Heroes vs. Villains" format. The heroes are those who were popular among fans, and played with some kind of integrity, while the Villains, also popular, but in a different way, have become famous for their scheming, backstabbing, and at times socially abhorrent personalities. Some of these contestants, like Anne Hathway-look-alike Amanda, and the buff Colby, are back for their third go-round on the show, while a few are just filler (who is Danielle?).

As I said, I tuned it because I felt I needed to, and as the cast was deposited on the beach by military helicopters (why not to the tune of "Ride of the Valkyries?") I was both appalled and amused by the self-imposed sense of importance this show gives itself. But then, as the two teams stood side-by-side, I thought of the great Marvel Comics limited series, Secret Wars, which had some kind of deity putting the greatest superheroes and the evillest supervillains on a distant planet to let them duke it out. Seen this way, I think the show will be entertaining, and the first show gave a glimpse of the most awful, wonderful "showmance" possible: Coach and Jerri.

I was also looking forward to seeing Sugar again. Jessica Kiper is her real name, but she's known to the world as Sugar (no doubt a nickname inspired by Marilyn Monroe's character in Some Like it Hot, Sugar Kane) and she was on the Survivor: China show, where she managed to make it to the final three, all the while crying and getting sent to Exile Island. She describes her profession as "retro pinup model," which I doubt pays her a living wage, but is great anyway, as she seeks to relive the days of Alberto Vargas, Bettie Page, and of course, Miss Monroe. As I watched the season that year I was aware that if knew Sugar, and especially if I played the game with her, I would have fallen for her like a ton of coconuts. She's just my type--needy, emotionally vulnerable, and with a kitschy wardrobe.

This season Sugar was back, wearing pumps on the beach. During the first challenge her bra was pulled off, and she ran down the sand, her assets pixeled out but flying gloriously free. Topless, she flipped off the Villains team with both barrels, and my love was reaffirmed. But then, as the show wore on, it became clear that it was a mistake for her to return to this game. Sugar does not belong in the jungle, she belongs in a bachelor pad, wearing leopard-print undies, listening to Esquivel, and sipping a tall, cool tropical cocktail. Her heart didn't seem in it, and she seemed more concerned with hooking up with Colby, who wasn't interested. They voted her out first, and she seemed to be relieved.

So the show will go on without her. There's still Amanda to look at--she may be my second-favorite player ever, a girl-next-door type that got to the finals twice but blew it by being incoherent and insincere in the final question-and-answer portions of the jury vote. I can only hope that pint-size Russell, Boston Rob, or Coach don't win. In the meantime, I'm given an excuse for running this picture of Sugar.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Simple Pleasures of a Snow Day

This was how the East Coast of the U.S. looked yesterday, as a blizzard hit. Given the forecasting abilities we now enjoy, most sensible people stayed home from work/school, and one of those gifts that we all cherish came along--a day in which we had nothing to do except hang around the house. For those who had families, it (hopefully) meant sledding, snowman-building and snowball fights, for others watching DVDs or reading or listening to music.

The term "comfort food" has come in vogue to describe those dishes, like macaroni and cheese or meatloaf, that remind us of our childhoods, either made by mom or served in the school cafeteria. A snow day is pretty much the same thing. For those who grew up in northern climates, sitting around the radio or TV on the morning of a heavy snowfall, breathless in anticipation of hearing our school was closed, was one of the great moments of education. "Such-and-Such Elementary School is closed," were perhaps the greatest words of childhood, rivaling the last day of school of a particular year, but increased in giddiness because of the randomness involved. We could all look to the last day on a calendar, but a snow day was a freak of nature.

That feeling never really leaves us. For some, the decision to not go to work because of weather is left up to us, as it was to me--my place of work did not officially close, but I was repeatedly told not to come in if I felt it was a danger. I arrived this morning to find out only the bosses came in, and they promptly called others and told them to stay home. I got up early, took a look outside, and saw a few inches on the ground and fine sleet falling. I could have easily driven in, as a walk to the supermarket revealed the roads were in decent shape, albeit empty of traffic. But the weathermen were united in their grim forecast of a blizzard, a thing that doesn't occur all that often in New Jersey--we're not like Dakotans, who are probably used to it. I called in and left a message early and, my decision made, could kick back and enjoy the day off.

The only drawback is, since I'm a temp, I don't get paid for hours I don't work. I'm hoping that if I can ever get through to unemployment I will be able to make a claim, since I will have worked what is considered part-time for the week. I still enjoyed the day, though, wandering outside in the middle of it all, as evidenced in the picture above. Someone commented that with the combination of snow and lampposts, it looks like Narnia. True enough, though I saw no talking beavers.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Who

The Who have been in the spotlight this week, following their performance at the Super Bowl half-time show. There was a lot of grumbling about that, as the artists chosen for this have lately been musicians whose popularity peaked long ago; it's sort of been a de facto lifetime achievement award. One of my friends posted on Facebook that if she wanted to see geezers perform she would prefer Tony Bennett. Well!

Frankly who plays the Super Bowl is of very little interest to me, but I'll always pay attention if The Who is on television. They are a face on my Mount Rushmore of rock, part of yet distinctly separate of the British invasion acts The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. While those two bands competed and copied each other, The Who, under Pete Townshend's edgy genius, blazed a distinct path.

Following their Super Bowl performance I've listened to the CDs I own by them: Tommy (a full discussion of that record can be found here), Who's Next and a greatest hits collection. I have many more vinyl albums, silently waiting for an opportunity to be played: Quadrophenia, Who Are You, Face Dances, and It's Hard. Today, socked in by snow, I've listened incessantly and right now am listening to Tommy--at the moment the masterful "Underture" is just starting.

I don't remember precisely when I became conscious of The Who. I have a faint recollection of being in a Shakey's Pizza parlor in about 1969 (it couldn't have been earlier) and hearing the jukebox play the "Overture" from Tommy. I liked it, and asked my father what it was. Being a relatively young man for a father of an eight-year-old, he was hip enough to know and told me it was Tommy. But I didn't start to appreciate who they were until, as a top-4o listening fourteen-year-old, Elton John hit it big with his version of "Pinball Wizard." A few years later I gave up top-40 for album-oriented rock, and was became fully cognizant of The Who.

The first album I bought, when I was in high school, was Who Are You, which featured a photograph of Keith Moon, 31 years old but looking at least ten years older, in a chair which has stencilled on it the words "Not to be taken away." He would die weeks after its release. Though the band would never quite recover from his death, I kept up my interest. I distinctly remember being at my college orientation, and my orientation leader, a fellow named Tom Ho, asking us if we wanted to hear some music. I asked, sounding like an ass, I'm sure, to hear some "late sixties British rock." He put on Who's Next, and as I heard the first twittering notes of "Baba O'Riley" I felt like a grown-up.

I dutifully acquired their next two forgettable albums, Face Dances (which as I pull it off my shelf I see was a promotional copy, no doubt received when I worked for the college newspaper--I may have even reviewed it for the paper, but have no memory of it) and It's Hard. The band wouldn't make another record of new material for over twenty years, enduring the death of another band member, John Entwhistle. When the album Endless Wire came out in 2006, I paid it no attention.

I did see the band in concert once, in about 1989, at Giants Stadium. I was in just about the last row, but the show was great. In about a twelve-month period I went on what I termed my "Dinosaurs of Rock" tour, seeing The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Paul McCartney. Mind you--The Who were dinosaurs twenty years ago. I suppose they could be considered fossils now.

So, to paraphrase a line in "Pinball Wizard," what makes them so good? Their early stuff, in the mods vs. rockers days, was similar to the Beatles, Stones, and Kinks, but with a more skewed perspective. I especially liked some of the humorous songs, like the transgendered hero of "I'm a Boy" and the ode to masturbation "Pictures of Lily," as well as the macabre Entwhistle song "Boris the Spider." Of course "My Generation" became their signature song (I guess they can't sing "hope I die before I get old" without severe irony anymore--Townshend orchestrated it for a symphony orchestra, sans lyrics) and some of Moon's best drumming can be heard on "I Can See For Miles."

It was Tommy that changed everything for them, and set the bar high for rock bands everywhere. While all sorts of groups mimicked the Beatles' music hall tweeness from Sgt. Pepper, few followed The Who's lead of narrative through song. Townshend was to do it again with a project called Lifehouse, but that was aborted and the songs scattered on albums to come, such as Who's Next, one of the great rock albums of all time, and then another rock opera, Quadrophenia. I'm not as high on that one, as it brims with excess. "Love Reign O'er Me" is a beautiful song, but the production and Roger Daltrey's leather-lunged vocal is just a bit much.

Following Who Are You, a fantastic record, and the death of Moon, the Who declined. They had a few good songs--I like "Athena," and the pop-py "You Better You Bet" has one of their better lyrics--"I drank myself blind to the sound of old T. Rex." But it was becoming clear that time had claimed The Who, and they were slipping into the realm of nostalgia, to the point where they are known to a new generation as the band that recorded the themes of the various C.S.I. shows.

While they were at their height they exemplified, even more so than Cream or Led Zeppelin, the possibilities of the power-trio, of stadium rock that was loud but at the same time intimate. Sure Townshend's guitar was a battering ram of sound, and Moon played drums as if sitting on an electrified fence, but there was also some beautiful music in there. I think of the lyric from "Pure and Easy": "There once was a note, pure and easy, playing so free, like a breath rippling by."

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Cowboys Full

James McManus begins his free-wheeling and wide-ranging history of poker, Cowboys Full (that's a term for a full house with three kings, by the way) with a theme that he will return to over and over again--that poker has been played by many important people. He starts with discussing Barack Obama's poker-playing acumen, and contrasts this with John McCain's favorite game, craps, which relies less on skill and more on risk-taking (which he ties to the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate). He then repeats the oft-told tale of how Richard Nixon earned a small fortune playing poker during World War II, which he used to fund his first campaign for congress.

I won't deny the facts that presidents have by and large been poker players, or that poker can be seen as a metaphor for many things, such as the bluff that John F. Kennedy used in the Cuban missile crisis, but McManus, as if challenged by a doubter, spends too much time laboring on this point. He also gives us warmed over history when discussing the history that surrounds poker, including factoids that are entirely beside the point, such as that Franklin Roosevelt, though paralyzed, could still get an erection.

But when McManus sticks to the history of the game, and how it has come to be as huge and popular as it is, then the book sings. The game's history is somewhat nebulous, possibly coming from a Persian game, which developed into the German Poch, the French Poque, and then, traveling up riverboats from New Orleans, poker. McManus also throws in a brief but elucidating history of playing cards.

He then hits on poker throughout the ages, from the Wild West (a detailed discussion of Wild Bill Hickok's last hand, when he held aces and eights) to gangster/gambler Arnold Rothstein to the kitschy paintings of dogs playing poker by C.M. Coolidge. Whether it's poker in literature or in the movies, McManus touches on it. He then spends a great deal of time on Herbert O. Yardley, a cryptographer who wrote one of the first primers on the game.

McManus also wrote a wonderful book about his participation in a World Series of Poker called Positively Fifth Street. This is perhaps why the best section of the book covers the history of that competition from its humble beginnings in 1970--just a few dozen of contestants and a prize of $30,000, to the extravaganza it is today, with over six-thousand players and a multimillion-dollar jackpot. He skillfully sketches the more colorful and gifted players, from Johnny Moss, the first winner, to Amarillo Slim, Doyle Brunson, Stu Ungar (who is dubbed the Keith Richards of poker), and the two Phils--Hellmuth and Ivey. At times I had to slow down when McManus gives details of hands, as I'm not a poker player and it takes me a while to figure out who's got a straight and what exactly beats what. His style is also very conversational, using a lot of lingo, but there's a helpful glossary in the back (although I'm still not quite sure what "the nuts" means).

This book offers poker from soup to nuts, with sections on cheating, both in the old days and in the Internet days, and takes a stand against the law signed by George W. Bush that outlawed Internet gambling. He also is very informative on how Texas Hold 'Em displaced draw poker as the most commonly played variant. I'm not quite sold on his claim that it is "America's game," perhaps because I don't know anyone who plays it, but I can't deny that it's a ubiquitous presence on television (due to the invention of a glass-table and camera set-up that allowed viewers to see the players' hold cards). I refuse to except it as a sport--any endeavor that doesn't call for players to leave their chairs is not a sport.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Blind Side

I hadn't planned on seeing The Blind Side, at least not in a theater. But then it up and got nominated for Best Picture, and I got the itch, the one that tells me I need to see every Best Picture nominee before the Oscar ceremony. I don't feel the need to see the films nominated in all the categories--I still haven't seen The Mirror Has Two Faces, for example--but something would be gnawing at me if I let this one go.

After watching the film something that all people who are serious about cinema understand was reinforced to me. There are two ways of experiencing pleasure with films: you can be challenged by them, or you can be reassured. Most popular films at the box office do the latter, and why not? Life is hard, why add to that by spending your leisure time contemplating the various problems of humanity? An action film that eventually dispatches bad guys, a romantic comedy that puts the leads together, or an escapist fantasy that does both is balm for troubled times. You can add to that mix the immensely successful The Blind Side, which appeals to our sense of charity and fair play, and allows us to leave the theater feeling righteous and maybe a little choked up. No wonder it made a mint.

What The Blind Side is not is good art. It doesn't have an authentic minute of action, or a moment that couldn't be predicted. It follows a certain path like a blind donkey down a cart path, its conflicts manufactured but not really threatening, and none of its characters exhibit the slightest introspection. It's not really a movie, more of a concoction of emotional grabs, and when considered on those terms it is effective. But to nominate it for an Academy Award is an insult.

The film is about a homeless teen who--strike that, it's not about the teen, who would go on to become an All-American football star and is now a professional on the Baltimore Ravens--it's about the woman who took him into her family off the rough and tumble streets of Memphis and enabled him to become the success he is. I say this because the character of Michael Oher, as played by the actor Quinton Aaron, is something of an afterthought in the film. He's an object on which all the collective guilt of America can be projected. At one point in the film a friend of Leigh Ann Tuohy, who would become Oher's surrogate mother, asks her if it's white guilt. It may not have been for the real Tuohy, but it certainly is for the film.

I did not hate this movie, by any means, and I kind of liked the first half hour or so, as it established that Oher was accepted into a Christian high school mainly because he was so big that he would be a good football player. He's so withdrawn, though, that even if he's not stupid his grades suffer. When Tuohy, played by Sandra Bullock, drives by him walking underdressed on a cold night, invites him to stay the night that the film starts to turn mawkish, like curdling milk. From then on the film really only functions as a form of congratulations to the Tuohy clan, who selflessly opened their huge mansion to this boy, and then rooted him on to greatness on the football field.

How could this film have been better? For one thing, it should have focused on Oher, not Tuohy. We really never know what he's thinking. The film is structured as a flashback, from a moment when an NCAA investigator asks him if he thinks he was adopted only for his football prowess (he has decided to go to Ole Miss, the Tuohy's alma mater). The character seems to awaken from a deep slumber, and for one brief moment questions his foster family's motives. Up until that moment, the character had been treated as if he were the family pet, a bear not unlike Gentle Ben, who they'd felt sorry for as it poked around in their trash.

No, Oher plays second fiddle in this story to Bullock's Tuohy, who has played it like some sort of crusading angel. Many of have commented that this is Bullock's Erin Brockovich, but at least that film gave the character in question a depth that is missing here. Bullock's character is a sassy Southern woman, a successful interior decorator and busybody (she seems to be involved in everything from the football team to the cheerleading squad) who never has a doubt of her own moral superiority. This results in some embarrassingly bad scenes, like one in which she is in some sort of government office and bullies her way to the front of the line, telling the employees that they are too busy goofing off. That the woman behind the desk doesn't have her bodily removed from the premises is one of the more fantasy-inspired moments of the film.

Bullock is seen to be the front-runner for Best Actress, an unfortunate situation that may be a fait accompli. I'll discuss this more during my predictions, but if she wins it won't be because she gave a good performance. It's a competent one, and suits the limitations of the film, but it is one without shading. The running gag is that the character is a forceful person who has a hard time admitting she's wrong. But even people like that have inner doubts, at least they do in a drama. The only crisis Bullock goes through is when Oher, convinced he's been used, goes on the lam, retreating to the projects in search of his mother. Of course what he finds there is nothing but drugs and guns, and he quickly returns to the soft bosom of his upple-middle-class saviors, reinforcing for us all our belief that well-manicured lawns and ownership of eighty-five Taco Bells are the building blocks to happiness.

A few more annoying aspects of the film: the Tuohy's youngest child is an irrepressible boy, played by Jae Head, who seems to have escaped from a bad family sit-com. The other kid is a teen daughter, Lily Collins, who is given little to do except look good (there's a scene in which Bullock asks if she's okay with Oher staying there, which comes out of leftfield, as the script and performance indicate nothing). Sticking with that, one of Bullock's friends wonders about any sexual tension between Oher and Collins, a reasonable question, but Bullock shoots her a death stare and says she should be ashamed. Why, exactly?

The film was written and directed by John Lee Hancock, who made a good sports movie, The Rookie. It's a shame that this one, based on a book by Michael Lewis that I hear is good, took an interesting story and turned it into a Hallmark card celebrating the self-congratulatory nature of middle-class America.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Super Bowl XLIV

I'm looking forward to today's Super Bowl, even though I don't have a rooting interest. As a fan of the Detroit Lions, I've never had a rooting interest, as they are now the only team that has never been to a Super Bowl that has been around since the Super Bowl started (the Houston Texans and new Cleveland Browns also qualify, but they've had much shorter existences). But I look at today's game as a feel-good contest, with a warm and fuzzy response no matter the outcome.

Clearly the New Orleans Saints are the sentimental favorite. The city has been on all of our minds for over four years now, as we keep tabs on their efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Throw in the fact that this team has historically been awful--the fans of the Saints (or 'Aints as they were sometimes known) originated the practice of attending games with a bag over their heads to hide their shame. This is their first Super Bowl after forty-four years of existence, and the city would greet a win with a suitably festive, if hopefully not destructive, glee.

However, the Indianapolis Colts are not well-cast as the villains. Many of the Colts were asked about playing such a role, and they grinned and confirmed that they understood that not many would be rooting for them. That may be true, mathematically, but if they win the game there shouldn't be too many folks crying in their beer outside of Louisiana. Even though they won the game four years ago, this squad, unlike say the Cowboys or Raiders or even Patriots of old, just don't wear the villain's handlebar mustache well.

I think a lot of that has to do with Peyton Manning. We should all be sick of this guy by now. Now that Tiger Woods is in sex rehab, there isn't an athlete that's on our TV screens more than this guy, who seems to have wandered out of a community theater production of Li'l Abner. He seems to shill without shame, as testament to those horrible Oreo commercials with his brother Eli and Donald Trump, or the almost-as-bad commercials with Justin Timberlake for some brand of televisions. But I like the guy, and usually pull for him. I think it's because he seems without guile, and that he seems to have a genuine enthusiasm for his work.

An article on posits that he's a kind of genius, and that is certainly true, perhaps even a savant. Watching him behind center for a snap, his arms moving as if he were desperately pulling switches to avert a nuclear meltdown, is a joy to watch. For real football fans, one can't help but admire how he uses smarts, as well as a golden arm, to beat teams. For instance, in the AFC championship game, for the first two series the Jets had him down, and sacked him twice. They didn't touch him the rest of the game, though. The man sees all, and will find a chink in your armor.

The big story leading up to this game, then, has been how Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will design a plan to stop Manning (that, and Dwight Freeney's ankle, the most fussed over ligaments in America this week). Williams, a little uncouthly, has mentioned that his boys will endeavor to hit Manning, and hit him hard. There's the whiff of a bounty in his statements, and the unpleasant connotation of trying to send Manning to the X-ray room, both no-nos in the NFL. But for now it's all talk, and I think the Saints will give it a go, and may even get to Manning early, but in the end the Colts will prevail.

It should be a fun game, and I'm looking forward to it, and to The Who, who will no doubt do a medley of the CSI theme songs. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Headless Woman

I try to do write-ups on all the films I see, especially those of significance, such as The Headless Woman, which polled high on many best-of lists of last year, and was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes. But this Argentine film, written and directed by Lucrecia Martel, confounded me. I didn't hate it, I just didn't think much about it all. It just kind of lay there, inert. I didn't really watch it, it watched me.

There's no real story to talk about. A woman (Maria Onetto), is driving along a dirt road by a canal. She hits something--we are led to believe it's a dog, but we're never really sure. She sits in the driver's seat, composing herself, but doesn't get out and doesn't look back. Then she drives on, but spends the rest of the movie in a kind of fog. I wasn't clear what she was doing--she spends the night in a hotel, goes to a hospital emergency room, etc. Does she have partial amnesia? She's a dentist, and when she goes to her office she sits down in the waiting room as if she were a patient.

Later in the film she tells her husband what happened, as she has convinced herself that she has run over a person. They drive to the spot and he sees a dead dog, and tells her to relax. But the next day the authorities are fishing a body of a child out of the canal (in the first shots of the movie we see boys and a dog playing by an empty canal).

So what we have here is a movie where nothing really happens, and it's all guesswork. The plot, what there is of it, is second to atmosphere. There are different themes here, such as loss of identity and the social strata of Argentine life (Onetto, who has died her hair blonde, is of the upper middle-class, while the boys and many others are Indian). But nothing about this film grabbed me, and at more than one point I was ready to bail, but since it's short I stuck with it. Onetto seems to have been directed to act with a confused expression through the whole film, which probably duplicated by own confused expression while watching it.