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Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscar 2010: Unfunny People

Another Oscar ceremony has come and gone, and I don't know what that has left as bad a taste in my mouth as this one. It wasn't any of the winners or losers that bothered me--I didn't find any of the winners egregiously unfair--but the show itself. What a turkey!

As predicted here, The King's Speech won the top prize, but it didn't win nearly as many Oscars as some guessed. It got Picture, Director, Actor and Screenplay, and if a film is going to win four those are the ones you want. The Social Network picked up three, while Inception also won four technical categories.

As the show wore on, though, it had a tedious quality. All of the acting winners had won at least two highly visible awards. I thought Hailee Steinfeld might stop Melissa Leo's streak, even if to prevent the latter from making another rambling acceptance speech, but it was not to be. If anything, Leo was at her most scatter-brained, dropping the F bomb and performing some strange bit of comedy with presenter Kirk Douglas. Leo has won almost every award in sight--could she have at least organized her thoughts?

When the awards become like this--no surprises--we turn to the show itself for some entertainment. But it was not to be this year. The producers decided to cast two likable actors in the role of hosts, Anne Hathaway and James Franco, and some were excited about the change. But it was a disaster.

Hathaway, for all her talent and enthusiasm, is not a comedian, and really didn't show much ability to think on her feet. She had a song that seemed completely pointless--did Hugh Jackman really bail at the last minute, and, if so, do we care? But the villain of the night was James Franco, whose entire career seems to be some kind of performance piece. He appeared bored, distracted, or, as some have speculated, stoned. He made some very unfunny things, such as saying he got a text from Charlie Sheen, and making a Beavis and Butt-head like joke about the titles of Winter's Bone and Rabbit Hole.

Franco brought nothing to the proceedings. He's not a comedian, he's not a singer, so what was he there for? He's getting killed throughout the media today, so we can be sure he will never host another awards show. My guess is that the producers of this show will not be asked back, and whoever takes the gig will hire a comedian. It may not be an old-timer, like Billy Crystal (who was greeted with a standing ovation, perhaps out of a hope that he would take over?) but there are younger comedians who can do the job. From his brief appearance, Russell Brand might be a good man for the gig.

Beyond the bad hosting, there was also bad writing. The insert-the-hosts-into-nominated-films gag, which Crystal made famous, seemed labored, and a bizarre bit involving auto-tuning flopped. Because the hosts weren't comics, there was no monologue, nor were there any running gags, which Crystal was so good at. It didn't help to resurrect clips from Bob Hope (and an impersonator), again reminding viewers how it's done better.

There were some things I liked. The clip segment to introduce the Best Picture nominees was novel and well done, but having it "scored" to The King's Speech seemed to give it away. In the long run, it was the speeches of winners that made the evening barely tolerable. David Seidler, the writer of The King's Speech, made the best one, and Randy Newman, winning for Best Song, had the funniest. Leo made the worst, and Colleen Atwood, winning for Best Costume, read directly from a piece of paper (but at least she wrote something).

I'll leave it to the fashion people to decide who looked good and who didn't. I know that that is the reason many people watch, and those postmortem fashion police shows are popular. Believe me, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Mila Kunis, or any other of the female presenters could wear burlap sacks for all I care.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Barney's Version

To start on a tangent, it should be noted that Paul Giamatti won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy this year for Barney's Version. It is fascinating to ponder how the Hollywood Foreign Press considered this film a comedy (it certainly isn't a musical). It's a dour, unpleasant, dispiriting film, with a few chuckles here and there, but to call it a comedy is to misunderstand the meaning of the word.

Perhaps they thought that Giamatti, as Barney, was some sort of charming figure. I think that was the intent of screenwriter Michael Konyves and director Richard J. Lewis, but it is not the result. As played by Giamatti, Barney is pretty much consistently an asshole and not worth the two hours of screen time that is devoted to telling his story.

The film is told in flashback from when Barney Panofsky, in his sixties and the producer of a Canadian soap opera, is the subject of a book by a police detective who thinks he got away with murder. He looks back at his life, mostly framed by this three marriages: a mentally ill artist he marries in Rome (Rachelle Lefevre), an obnoxious woman of means (Minnie Driver), and the love of his life (Rosamund Pike), whom he meets at wedding number two. Pike ultimately divorces him, leaving him a shell of a man, but it's hard to gather much sympathy, as he's a boozing curmudgeon through the whole film.

This film misfires on so many levels its hard to count. Lewis, a veteran of series television, seems to not know what kind of film he wants to make. Adapted from a novel by Mordecai Richler, it has a kind of novelistic structure that makes us think a lot is being left out. In particular, Dustin Hoffman appears intermittently as Giamatti's father, and given Hoffman's talents his appearances are welcome as a twinkly scene-stealer, but one can't help but wonder how his character may have been more fully developed in the book.

But more troubling is the constant shifts in tone. At certain points Barney's Version is a family drama like Terms of Endearment, and then it's a mystery story, featuring the unknown whereabouts of Giamatti's louche friend (Scott Speedman). Did he kill him, or not? (We get the classic Chekhovian rule of a gun appearing in the first act going off in the second). Finally, the film slides groaningly into a disease-of-the-week movie. The tip off is when Barney can't remember where he parked his car. Cue ominous music.

This film is also unfair to its female characters. Lefevre, as wife one, is a one-note character of suicidal mental illness. Driver plays an especially thankless part, recalling the original version of The Heartbreak Kid, in which Charles Grodin realizes his new bride (Jeannie Berlin in that film) is a horror show and chases after a shiksa on his honeymoon (Cybill Shepherd). Here Giamatti realizes his mistake at the wedding reception, and fixates, for no particular reason, on Pike. One is left to wonder why he wanted to marry Driver in the first place.

Giamatti's pursuit of Pike is set up to be charming, but it's not. Pike does fine with her role, but in contrast to Lefevre and Driver, her character is something of a saint. We wonder why she would give Giamatti the time of day and not report him to the police.

Lewis also has no sense of pacing, as this film drags to its conclusion (the closing shot is unbearably treacly).

Giamatti is an actor who is only as good as his director. I've liked him in several things, such as Sideways and Cinderella Man, and found him unbearable in others, like The Last Station. Here he has some fine moments--we can appreciate how he loves Pike, and when he errs into adultery his pain is finely etched--but he can't rise above the mediocre script and direction.

My grade for Barney's Version: D+

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Groundhog Day at the Rink


I've been going to Princeton women's hockey games for eleven years. For the past ten years, the team has made the playoffs every year. Only twice have they won the best two-of-three quarterfinals. Four times they have lost these quarterfinals while playing at home. Often these games are close, several by only one goal, a few in overtime. It's getting to be like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. It's the same day, different opponent.

This year the opponent was the Bobcats of Quinnipiac College. Princeton was seeded fourth, Q-Pac fifth, so it was assumed the series would be a close one. The teams split their home-on-home regular season series.

Princeton struck first in game one last night, when Sasha Sherry (pictured above, far left) scored in the second period. Later that period Sally Butler hit the post, the closest Princeton would come to scoring again. Q-Pac tied it up in that same period.

As regulation time wore down, it looked like the game would go into overtime. Then, with five seconds left, Q-Pac scored, stunning the home crowd into a comatose silence.

There was still hope, though, as a win today would have evened things up and made a third game necessary on Sunday. But it was not to be. Princeton had several great chances, but could not solve the Q-Pac goalie. Denna Laing was the player who hit the post tonight, the clang sure to reverberate in the ears of Princeton rooters all spring and summer. Down 1-0, Princeton pulled the goalie late but allowed an empty net goal, and the season ended ignominiously.

For Princeton coach Jeff Kampersal, this has got to be bitter. He's been the coach ever since I've been coming to games, and his playoff record is abysmal, equivalent to Marty Schottenheimer of the NFL. In the ten years Kampersal has taken the team to the playoffs, he's won five games and lost fifteen, with eight of those losses at home. One wonders whether somewhere along the way someone from the program insulted someone with a billy goat (Chicago Cub fans will get that reference).

So the season is over, and three seniors above (from left to right, Sasha Sherry, Caroline Park, and Laura Martindale) have skated their last in the orange and black. They were all fine players, and I got to know Sasha's parents pretty well--very nice people. They were both grim but philosophical at the end of tonight's game. I'm sure they realized they may have seen their daughter play her last game (although maybe not--Sasha is a possibility for the U.S. National Team, and has a shot at the next Olympic team).

As I said to someone after tonight's game, how many days till the start of next season?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscar 2010: Best Director, Picture

It's kind of fascinating how the Oscar "race" is seen by outsiders. There are supposed front-runners, and these front-runners are somehow eclipsed by other films. All of this happens without anyone casting a vote, and is completely based on perception and clues that may or may not have any bearing on the actual outcome.

That was certainly the case this year, when The Social Network was seen as the film to beat for the Oscar. It racked up win after win from critics' organizations, and then took the Golden Globe for Best Drama. Anyone paying attention to the race at that point would have been certain The Social Network was a mortal lock to win Best Picture. But a quick series of body-blows in January changed the landscape. The King's Speech won the Producer's Guild Award, The SAG Award, and Tom Hooper won the Director's Guild Award. Suddenly Oscar ninnies seemed dazed and confused, and many of them have not stopped bemoaning this development.

What we all seem to forget is that the Academy is a small and rarified voting group. Critics' awards don't seem to have much bearing on the Academy's tastes, and the Golden Globes are an even smaller and more idiosynchratic group than the Academy.

I've been bemused by the gnashing of teeth in the Oscar Blogosphere over these "revoltin' developments." As fascinated as I am by the Oscars, I've never invested much emotionally in the outcome, other than the results match by predictions in Oscar pools. My favorite film rarely matches the Oscar's choice--I think it's only happened a couple of times since I've been an adult--so I don't lose any sleep over whether or not my choice is going to win. My life will continue along the same course. Some say that what wins will determine Hollywood product for the immediate future, but I doubt that. The Oscar chase is a sideline for movie moguls, kind of like falconry is for sheiks--their number one concern is making money.

So why does it appear The Social Network will be beaten by The King's Speech? Some guess that it's the youthful subject matter of the former--how many of the graying eminences who belong to the Academy even know what Facebook is? There may be something to it, but I think it goes further than that. The Social Network is a cerebral film, The King's Speech is one of emotion. And emotion will win almost every time.

From where I sit, The Social Network is the best film I saw all year, but The King's Speech isn't far behind. I don't consider a crime is about to take place.

As for the other nominees, there really isn't a possibility for anything else to win. Toy Story 3 is the highest-grossing and overall best reviewed of them all, but it's not the year for an animated film to win (one wonders if that year will ever come). True Grit has its supporters, and so does Black Swan, but that film also has some vehement detractors. Inception is the choice of the fanboy element, but it may be even more cerebral than The Social Network, and its director, Christopher Nolan, was not nominated, indicating a lack of broad-based support.

The Fighter may win a couple of acting awards, but no more, and The Kids Are All Right and 127 Hours, while possibilities earlier in the year, didn't get much support in other categories. As for Winter's Bone, the small indie that snuck its way into the proceedings, well, the nomination is a major victory in itself.

When considering the race for Best Director, a lot of Oscar pundits are predicting a split, and that even if The King's Speech wins for Best Picture, The Social Network's director, David Fincher, will win for Best Director. I don't see it, and I think it's wish fulfillment. True, the BAFTAs did just that, and I wouldn't be shocked if it happens, but this would fly in the face of numbers. The DGA went to The King's Speech director Tom Hooper. In the last sixty years, only six directors have won the DGA and not gone on to win the Oscar. It last happened eight years ago, when Roman Polanski won instead of Rob Marshall. Is there enough respect for Fincher to convince voters that even if they didn't really like The Social Network, he deserves the award for directing it? Perhaps, but I wouldn't bet on it.

I think Hooper will win. Darren Aronofsky, for Black Swan, Joel and Ethan Coen, for True Grit, and David O. Russell, for The Fighter, need not prepare acceptance speeches.

So, for Best Picture:

Will win: The King's Speech
Could win: The Social Network
Should win: The Social Network

For Best Director:

Will win: Tom Hooper
Could win: David Fincher
Should win: David Fincher

In summary, and my picks for the other awards:

Best Picture: The King's Speech
Best Director: Tom Hooper
Best Actor: Colin Firth
Best Actress: Natalie Portman
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale
Best Supporting Actress: Hailee Steinfeld
Best Original Screenplay: The King's Speech
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Social Network
Best Foreign Language Film: In a Better World
Best Animated Film: Toy Story 3
Best Cinematography: True Grit
Best Editing: The Social Network
Best Art Direction: Alice in Wonderland
Best Costume Design: The King's Speech
Best Song: I See the Light
Best Musical Score: The King's Speech
Best Documentary Feature: Inside Job
Best Documentary Short Subject: Killing in the Name
Best Makeup: The Wolfman
Best Animated Short Subject: The Gruffalo
Best Live Action Short Subject: Na Wewe
Best Sound Editing: Inception
Best Sound Mixing: Inception
Best Visual Effects: Inception

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Monsters

Monsters is a quiet, contemplative film about immigration policy that has been dressed up like a sci-fi monster movie. The monsters are there, in the periphery, but ultimately are beside the point.

I'm acquainted with at least one viewer who was outraged to find not a sci-fi shoot 'em up like District 9, but instead a navel-gazing art film. That's fair enough, but on its own merits Monsters is an effective little film.

Written, directed, and photographed by Gareth Edwards (he also did the visual effects), Monsters is set in the near future. In title cards we are told that a spacecraft that gathered samples of an alien life-form crashed over Mexico. Now the entire northern part of that country is off limits, called the "Infected Zone." The creatures are giant cephalapods that reminded me of the Elder Gods from Lovecraft. They are kept out of the U.S., ideally, by the construction of a massive wall. Does any of this sound familiar?

The film centers on two characters. Scooter Nairy is a roguish photographer (are there any other kind?) who is on assignment for a major media conglomerate. He's enlisted to rescue the media mogul's daughter (Whitney Able), who is a marine biologist and has a pixie haircut. I learned later that Able is known mostly for her appearance in Maxim, and that she and Nairy have wed. Love blooms even on low-budget sets.

The two try to travel the legitimate way, by ferry (I missed why they didn't catch a plane in Mexico City), but when Nairy is robbed of their passports by a one-night fling they have to go through the Infected Zone. They have a run-in with the creatures, who are only seen briefly and usually in long-shot, given the limits of the budget. They talk a lot with their guides, and fall in love, I guess, but that's not really reflected in the acting.

When they reach the wall on the border, they have an unusually easy time breaching it. They have their closest encounter with the creatures at a gas station (apparently the wall was no more effective keeping them out), and two are transfixed by what appears to be two monsters in some sort of love dance.

Anyone thinking this will be a typical monster movie will be sorely disappointed, and those who were hoping for some sort of European art film might be let down as well. I suggest watching it with a completely open mind, because it does have some interesting things to say about U.S. xenophobia.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Oscar 2010: Best Supporting Actress

I've saved Best Supporting Actress for last in discussing the acting categories, because it has an exciting race and I keep changing my mind to who the winner will be. Any one of four of the nominees could win and I wouldn't be surprised.

The early favorite was Melissa Leo, as the mother of The Fighter. She won the Golden Globe and the SAG Award, and seemed to distance herself from the other nominees. But something keeps me from proclaiming her the favorite for Oscar. Maybe it was her disjointed acceptance speeches. Maybe it's because her performance was a lot of acting, but not necessarily good acting (a lot of it seemed to her hairstyle). To add fuel to the confusion, Leo has been involved in a flap regarding her advertisements, in which she dolled herself up, presumably to show that she's not the hag she plays in the film. She responded to the criticism by saying that "we all pimp ourselves out," perhaps not the best choice of words. Did this lose her any votes? It's hard to know. She's right, of course, there's all sorts of advertising for these awards, but she may pay for calling attention to it.

Therefore I'm expecting the kid, Hailee Steinfeld, who was so good in True Grit, to pull off the win. Oscar is not shy about handing out statuettes to juveniles, but it hasn't happened since Anna Paquin turned the trick in 1994. When a voter has a tough choice, sometimes voting for the kid works. Steinfeld so dominated the film, which has made beaucoup bucks, that it wouldn't be anathema to the voters to choose her.

Another possible winner is Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the patient Queen in The King's Speech. If she wins it will be entirely on sentiment, as she has no big scenes in the film. Bonham Carter, along with being in the film that may sweep to victory, has been a pleasant figure on the scene for about twenty-five years now and, again, if there's confusion, casting a vote for the sentimental choice may be the way they go.

Leo, in picking up awards for The Fighter, has distanced herself from her co-star and fellow nominee Amy Adams. I would vote for Adams here, as her performance is steely and gritty and because I had long been wanting to see her play someone who was not all smiles and giggles. I thought she was terrific, and much more shaded than Leo's character, and am surprised that she hasn't gotten more traction. I suppose she has little shot at an Oscar.

Finally, Jacki Weaver, who plays a ruthless mother of criminals in Animal Kingdom, has no chance. That an unknown (at least in the U.S.) actress from a little-seen Australian film got nominated in the first place is a testament to something, even if it's just marketing. But there is no scenario I can imagine where Weaver actually wins.

Will win: Hailee Steinfeld
Could win: Melissa Leo
Should win: Amy Adams

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Way of the Gun

Screenwriter of The Usual Suspects Christopher McQuarrie directed The Way of the Gun, a 2000 film that is an exercise in style over substance. In the DVD production notes McQuarrie said that he wanted to make a crime film that recalled Westerns and film noir, and had lead characters who weren't sympathetic, but cool. Jesus. I can't imagine a worse way to make a movie.

The "cool" leads are Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro) (those are the real names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), petty criminals. They are at a sperm bank hoping to get paid for a donation when they overhear that a surrogate mother is getting paid one million dollars. They decide to kidnap her.

She's played by Juliette Lewis, who spends most of the movie carrying around a huge pregnancy pad and walking barefoot. It turns out that the baby she's carrying is for a rich guy who has his fingers in some unsavory pies. He has a permanent team of bodyguards (including Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt) protecting her, but somehow Phillippe and Del Toro manage to kidnap her. The rich guy's henchman (James Caan) gets involved--it turns out he has a conflict of interest--and Lewis' obstetrician is another factor (he's the rich guy's son).

All of this gave me a headache, as I had trouble figuring out who was against who. Throughout the film the motives of Phillippe and Del Toro are unfathomable. I suppose they were after the ransom money, but they do things that make you scratch your head.

I think the plot is really less important than the shootouts, which are fairly well handled. The climactic one has Phillipe and Del Toro versus Caan and some similarly-aged guys in windbreakers--they look like the cast of a Flomaxx commercial.

It appears that McQuarrie has not directed another movie, and after The Way of the Gun it's not surprising. There is little about this film that feels authentic. Instead it's the result of a guy who has seen a lot of movies and regurgitated them. A lot of directors do that--Quentin Tarantino among them--but unlike Tarantino, McQuarrie shows no sense of freshness and originality.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is perhaps the funniest play ever written, and it has been given the most immense justice in a production by the Roundabout Theater Company now at the American Airlines Theater. I took in a Sunday matinee yesterday.

The play was directed by and starring Brian Bedford, and the story has been that he is playing the indomitable Lady Bracknell. Apparently this is not the first time the role has been played by a man, but after Bedford's perfect performance one wonders whether in the future "Aunt Augusta" will become like Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, and forever be played by men. In a certain sense this makes perfect sense, because the characters in Wilde's plays are almost completely neutered. Though there is a lot of pitching woo going on among young people, and two engagements are formed, one can not imagine anyone on stage actually having sex.

For those who haven't read or seen it, The Importance of Being Earnest is a classic case of mistaken identity. The plot is too elaborate to summarize quickly, but it involves two bachelors, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff. Jack is in love with Algernon's cousin Gwendolyn, but she knows him by the name of Ernest. He is horrified to learn that his name drew her to him--she could not love him if he had another name, especially Jack.

Jack was a ward, Cecily, who lives in his country house and knows him by his right name, but believes he has a brother named Ernest, to whom Jack assigns all of his negative qualities. In a prank, Algernon visits the home, pretending to be Ernest, and ends up falling in love with Cecily. She has been in love with him ever since she heard of his existence--she too, has always wanted to marry a man named Ernest.

There also is the matter of Jack's parentage. It seems he was found in a handbag in a cloakroom in Victoria Station. When Lady Bracknell, Gwendolyn's mother, finds out about this she refuses to consent to their engagement. Of course, before all is said and done, some startling information comes to light about Jack's real family and his real name.

The play is frothy as chiffon, and beautifully mounted here. The sets and costumes by Desmond Heeley are exquisite, full of fripperies and flowers. I was particularly impressed with the bold, burgundy dress that Lady Bracknell wears in Act III, making her look something like a fire engine. In fact, Bedford's Lady recalls no less than The Duchess from Lewis Carroll, not so much dressed as upholstered, her hats sitting atop her head like barges.

The play is full of one-liners, and at times is really no more than a string of epigrams, like "Every woman becomes like her mother; that is her tragedy. No man does; that's his." Wilde takes a withering look at marriage and romance, as Algernon takes a dim view of married people actually flirting with each other. There seems to be a distinct repulsion at sex running throughout, and one senses that Wilde appreciates the perfect retort more than an orgasm.

The best scene in the play is the interview Lady Bracknell subjects Jack to when she inquires about his prospects for marriage. The most famous line from that scene is when, after she learns he has lost both parents, she replies, "To lose one parent may be seen as a misfortune, but to lose both seems like carelessness." Lady Bracknell is a collection of every bit of upper-class posturing, and Bedford hits every moment out of the park. Just the look he gives Jack upon entering the room made the house laugh.

All of the performances are inspired. David Furr is Jack, Santino Fontana is Algernon, and they are both good, but I think they are one-upped by the girls--Sarah Topham as Gwendolyn and Charlotte Parry as Cecily (those character names were appropriated by Neil Simon in the form of the Pidgeon Sisters in The Odd Couple). They have a scene together in Act II in which they both come to realize they are engaged to a man named Ernest Worthing and it's expertly accomplished. I also love Gwendolyn's line, "I always travel with my diary; I like to have something sensational to read on the train."

Rounding out the cast are Paxton Whitehead as the Reverend Chasuble, who is called upon to christen both bachelors with the name of Ernest, and Dana Ivey as the governess Miss Prizm. I hope I'm not giving too much away to mention the delicious way Bedford cries out one of the key lines in the play--"Prizm, where is that baby!"

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids is a genial, sweet, and ultimately lightweight comedy that produces a lot of smiles, a few belly laughs, and a lot of good will. It doesn't aim very high, though, and I find the slow rollout strategy a strange one. Maybe because it was at Sundance people will think this is an art film. It's not.

The film is the adventure of Tim Lippe, played by Ed Helms. He's an insurance agent for a very small firm in a small town in Wisconsin. After the death of the firm's hot-shot agent by auto-asphyxiation (the go-to cause of death when a film needs to be morbidly funny) Helms is tapped to represent the firm at a convention in the titular Iowa city. His boss, the always great Stephen Root, pressures him to win a valuable industry award, and tells him to suck up to the association president, Kurtwood Smith.

What follows, directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Phil Johnston, seems predictable but has some pleasant surprises. Helms is the classic fish out of water, in that he's never taken a plane before, and appears to have been raised like a veal, never being exposed to anything worldly. He has a sexual relationship with his old grammar school teacher (Sigourney Weaver) though she's having a fling but he thinks it's true love. Helms plays the kind of guy who falls in love easily, as over the course of the brief time period of the film he will declare undying love to two more women.

Getting over the hurdle of buying Helms' character takes some doing. There's a Beverly Hillbillies quality to it--he's impressed by the hotel pool ("it's like Barbados here!" he exclaims), and has a momentary lapse of decorum when confronted by his black roommate, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. ("there's an Afro American in my room!"). In some ways, you have to accept the world that Cedar Rapids creates as much as any sci-fi space opera.

Helms quickly falls in with Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), the brash, vulgar, hard-drinking salesman. He also meets Joan Ostroski-Fox (Anne Heche), dubbed O-Fox, a married woman who declares, unironically, that everything that happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids. Whitlock, once Helms shock over his skin color abates, turns out to be a nerdy guy who has a fondness for acronyms like NTS (not too shabby) and the HBO program The Wire, which will turn out to be handy later on (I checked, and what I suspected is true--this is an inside gag, Whitlock had a role on that show).

So where does the surprise come in? You might think that this film ends up mocking the Midwestern naivete and blandness of its characters. I mean, we start with the title--Cedar Rapids, which I'm sure is a nice place but is no Las Vegas. I was sure I'd be in for an evening of condescending, withering comments about middle America. But no, the director and writer actually have a fondness for their characters and their values, at least the four at the core of the piece.

I noted in the closing credits that Alexander Payne was one of the executive producers, and I thought about his films while watching Cedar Rapids. Payne has made two of my favorite films of the last fifteen years, Election and Sideways, but I can't say that he has affection for his characters. At times he torments them. Arteta and Johnston pull back. Just when you think they're going to get mean they let their characters have a small triumph, and ultimately be heroic.

I think this is best exemplified in the role Reilly plays. We think he's going to be the typical asshole, but I was astonished at how Reilly, in a very smart performance, turns him into something else. His funniest bits aren't the crude jokes or boorish behavior (although seeing him in a swimming pool with the top of a garbage can on his head is pretty funny) but instead they are the small moments, such as his reaction to Helms singing an insurance-themed Christmas carol.

As pleasant an experience this film is, it didn't shake me to my core. Though it's not as caustic as Payne's films, it's also not as ambitious. The conflict is wrapped up in a pretty pat way (there is no surprise that Smith's character is a religious hypocrite). The subplot involving a prostitute (Alia Shawkat) is kind of odd. Do girls really hang out right in front of Iowa hotels and ply their trade in the open? The script seems to realize it's offering another Pretty Woman-like caricature of prostitution, and then tries to double back to prove that it's being serious about the subject, and the whole thing misfires. I did laugh when she offers Helms an opportunity to try a particular sex practice, and he earnestly replies, "I've heard about that."

Interesting note: the film's final scene, which has offers a very well-executed last line by both writer and actor, is included in the film's trailer. This is like including the "Nobody's perfect" line in a trailer for Some Like It Hot. Marketing people can be so stupid.

My grade for Cedar Rapids: B

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Brothers

I've been listening all week to a subtly gorgeous record called Brothers by The Black Keys, who sonically embody their name by creating music that, while combing elements of funk, blues, and swamp rock, carries a thread of malevolence. These songs seem to be sung by characters who who are in the throes of either danger or desperation.

The band is made up of two men: Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach. Carney is a drummer, and in this era when computers have almost made the drummer irrelevant, it is refreshing to hear a master drummer at work. Some of his rhythms are as interesting as the melodies, such as in the song "Too Afraid to Love You." Or consider the absolutely stunning arrangement of the best song on the record, "Ten Cent Pistol," which begins with a seductive drumbeat, and then introduces a penetrating guitar riff by Auerbach, who then chimes in with the vocals.

"Ten Cent Pistol" also has terrific lyrics, as do all the songs on the record. It makes one think of a pulp crime novel from the 1950s: "There's nothing worse in this world, than payback from a jealous girl. The laws of man don't apply when blood gets in a woman's eye."

This song is immediately followed by another gem, "Sinister Kid." If "Ten Cent Pistol" is Raymond Chandler, then "Sinister Kid" is Jim Thompson: "A sinister kid is a kid who runs to meet his maker. A drop dead sprint from the day he's born, straight into his maker's arms. And that's me, that's me, the boy with the broken halo. That's me, that's me, the devil won't let me be."

Auerbach's vocals are another big plus. He sings falsetto on a couple, but mostly he has a soulful growl. I think his best work is on the song "I'm Not the One," where he manages to give the word "one" two or three syllables. His voice works in perfect complement to the fuzz guitar and echo techniques of the music.

Brothers has a retro feel to it throughout--I wouldn't be surprised if there's nothing on it that couldn't have been created in 1973. There's even a wah-wah guitar sound the instrumental "Black Mud," which could have been on the soundtrack of a vintage Blaxploitation picture. "Howlin' for You" has a rhythm track that recalls Gary Glitter. And the one cover that The Black Keys choose to do is "Never Gonna Give You Up"--no, not the one by Rick Astley, but by Philadelphia soul singer Jerry Butler.

Brothers made a lot of best of 2010 lists and the accolades are deserved. This record was perfect listening on a recent drive home at night. It really should be listened to in the dark.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Oscar 2010: Best Actress

The Best Actress race is a two-gal affair that has a pretty heavy favorite with a decent chance at a sentimental upset. Natalie Portman, as the ballerina who descends into madness in Black Swan is the favorite. Much has been made of Portman's physical dedication to the role (although there have been detractors who have argued that she isn't doing that much dancing), but I was impressed with her smaller scenes, like the one in which she calls her mother to tell her she got the role in Swan Lake. Portman, who is a relatively private person when it comes to Hollywood folk, has been almost everywhere, whether by her publicist's initiatives or not (I loved the video made of her braying laugh while accepting the Golden Globe) so it feels like a win here for her is almost a fait accompli.

Only it isn't, and if enough Academy voters decide this is too much too soon for the youngish star than they can turn to addressing what may be perceived as an old wrong and give it to Annette Bening, for her performance as the lesbian parent in The Kids Are All Right. Bening has been thrice-before nominated without victory, which is not a tragedy, not in Peter O'Toole territory, but she has somehow acquired a victim label. Maybe it's because both of her losses in the Best Actress came to Hilary Swank. Her role in Kids has a lot of emotional scenes and she (along with Julianne Moore) is the best thing about the film, but she once again may lose to lightning in a bottle. In retrospect, it may have been wise to campaign here for the Supporting Actress race, which she might have won easily.

The other three actresses in the category all gave excellent performances, but don't figure to win. Jennifer Lawrence is this year's ingenue, springing from kid on a sit-com to star of the respected indie Winter's Bone, where she anchors the film as the resolute daughter in meth-cooking hill country. In the classic fashion, she has gone from unknown to appearing as a comic book superhero in short order. But her nomination is her victory.

Michelle Williams, another actress who began on TV, has earned her second nomination, this time for the harried wife in Blue Valentine, and in some ways I think she deserves the win. Her performance is subtle and sneaky, so that you aren't watching the film thinking, "Wow, she's great," it's only after it's over and you think about that you realize how transfixing she was. But the film didn't get much traction and she'll undoubtedly be in this position again, so not this year.

Finally, Nicole Kidman gives perhaps her best performance as the grieving mother of a dead child in Rabbit Hole. Kidman is a superduperstar, so her stripped-down work was refreshing to experience. She has won before, though, and the film garnered only this nomination. It's hard to imagine a scenario where she would win.

Will win: Natalie Portman
Could win: Annette Bening
Should win: Michelle Williams

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Wolfman

I'm a big fan of the Universal monster films of yore. Well, not really of the films themselves, but in the idea of them. Watching them one has a permanent sense of forgiving the cheap and shoddy way they were made, but an admiration for the sincerity involved in the writing and acting.

These films have been resurrected time and again, mostly in ways that are a disgrace to their memory. I had hopes for The Wolfman, released last February, but was scared away by bristlingly bad reviews. But when I watched the film on DVD a few nights ago I found I didn't hate it. It wasn't very good, true, but in a certain sense I have a fondness for it.

The film is based on Curt Siodmak's screenplay for the original 1940 film, in which he basically created from whole cloth the werewolf legends which exist today, such as they turn into wolves at a full moon, can only be stopped by silver bullets, etc. It is set on the moors of England, and has an American actor playing Lawrence Talbot, exiled from his homeland. Here is played by Benicio Del Toro, perhaps not the first person you'd think of as a typical Englishman, but maybe the first one you'd think of as a man who turns into a wolf.

Instead of Claude Rains, his father is played by Anthony Hopkins. Del Toro returns because his brother's fiancee (Emily Blunt) has written to him, explaining that the brother is missing. When Del Toro returns it's too late--the brother is dead, torn to pieces by either a wild animal or a lunatic. Unlike the dapper Rains, Hopkins is buggy from the outset, and since there is no Bela Lugosi as a gypsy here, we can pretty much figure out where this is heading.

This edition of The Wolfman, directed by the hackish Joe Johnston, is mostly attitude, but it's an attitude I appreciated. There is none of the winking jokiness of the execrable Van Helsing, which took the big three of Universal horror and turned them into a circus. There isn't one light moment here, and the performances range from Hopkins' hammy weirdness to Del Toro and Blunt in full despair.

Some of this works, particularly the photography by Shelly Johnson, which is stunning. It also works in a sequence in which Del Toro, committed to an asylum, is strapped to a chair in an operating theater, his psychiatrist seeking to prove that his lycanthropy is delusional. Needless to say he does not prove his point, and the result carnage is effective antiscience.

But the film does lack a spark. Perhaps it's the choice of Del Toro, who as I say already looks lupine, or finally the silliness of the climactic battle between two werewolves, lupo a lupo, looking as if they are both wearing the most hideous sweaters ever knitted.

I can understand the brickbats The Wolfman received, and perhaps my kindness to it stems from the film I wanted to see rather than what actually exists, the film that the 1940 version could have been, but isn't.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Possessed

The Possessed, subtitled Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, is kind of a hodgepodge of a book. Mostly it's a memoir by the author, Elif Batuman, and her experiences studying Russian literature. At times it's very entertaining in a droll fashion, but overall I wasn't enthralled with it.

Perhaps this is because I have never read any Russian novels. The only Russian literature I've read are the plays of Chekhov, and though he is mentioned here it's only in terms of his short stories (by this book one wouldn't know he wrote plays). Batuman doesn't assume she's writing to an audience that knows what she's talking about--in the last chapter, there's a lengthy plot summary of Dostoevsky's novel Demons--but having never experienced the sensation of Russian novels I felt at a distance.

Also, I'm not sure Batuman is as funny as she thinks she is. There are several whimsical descriptions of her experiences in grad school and at conferences--at one she arrives only to find that her luggage is missing, and so has to attend her panel discussion in sweatpants and flip-flops. There is a detailed anatomy of a relationship with a charismatic Croatian student, but it wasn't all that interesting. I am amazed at some of the peripatetic lives these people lead, though: "[He] fell in love with a girl who was obsessed with a Slovenian disc jockey. He had pursued the girl desperately, determined to tear her away from the DJ, regardless of whether he had to annihilate himself in the process. He got the girl, for a time, but they drove each other mad, quite literally. She ran away to Ljubljana. He followed her. She rushed to the top floor of her hotel and tried to throw herself from a window. Realizing he was on the verge of destroying both her and himself, Matej fled to Venice, holed himself up in a pension, and decided to read every book Nietzsche had ever written."

As for the discussion of Russian literature, the book is not really any kind of guide to them, and if one wanted that sort of thing it would be best to look elsewhere. She does make a nice contrast between contemporary American fiction and the Russian writers of the nineteenth century, particularly on how they use names. She mentions that the title canine in Chekhov's story "The Lady and the Lapdog" was unnamed, and in italics points out that "no contemporary American short-story writer would have had the stamina not to name that lapdog."

The best part of the book is the recounting of a summer she spent in Uzbekistan, learning the local language. It is here that her writing is strongest, and this reader understood exactly why the book had been written. I feel like I'm ready should I ever need to go to Samarkand. The grad school stuff seems like inside baseball, though I was amused by this realization: "So he would abandon his PhD--so what? Who had ever described grad school as the summit of human happiness? Wasn't it presumptuous to assume that every smart young person in the world could reach self-fulfillment only by going to Stanford to participate in Hegel seminars?"

This book made several top-ten lists for 2010, and while it is sparklingly written, it took me a good while to get through its 280 pages. Perhaps a more specialized reader is required.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Kiss Me Deadly

What better way to spend Valentine's night than to watch one of the more hard-boiled noir films ever made, Kiss Me Deadly, directed by Robert Aldrich and adapted from the novel by Mickey Spillane.

Noir is a term that has come to encompass many types of films, but in a strict sense only covers those films made from roughly the late thirties until the mid-fifties, with this one (from 1955), being from the latter stages of the period. There are still many films made in the noir style, but true Noir is like a true Impressionist or Abstract Expressionist--you can paint a picture in that style, but that doesn't mean you're one of them.

It begins with a woman, barefoot and only wearing a trench coat, running along a highway at night. She stops a sports car, which turns out to be driven by private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). He gives her a lift, and even helps her elude authorities, as it turns out she's escaped from an asylum. But eventually they are forced off the road by hoodlums, who are only shown from the waist down. They torture the woman (played by Cloris Leachman) to death, and then pile her body and Hammer's into his car, which they push off a cliff.

Hammer survives (without a scratch, amazingly) and decides to investigate. He's a sleazy gumshoe, who mostly takes divorce cases. Along with his dutiful secretary, Velda (Maxine Cooper), whom he also sleeps with, he digs into the case. He's warned away by a detective (Wesley Addy, in a marvelously taciturn performance) but manages to figure out that Leachman had something that those crooks wanted. He gets tips from a science reporter that lead him to a variety of locations--a boxing gym, a washed-up opera singer, and the mansion of a gangster, all of which lead to an item that everyone is looking for. Velda calls it "the whatzit," and it ends up being a box that that contains something very bright (Quentin Tarantino used this in Pulp Fiction).

Perhaps because it was at the end of Noir's golden era, Kiss Me Deadly at times seems to be a parody of itself. The slanted credits roll up instead of down. The stark black-and-white photography is almost chilly, and the angles are sharp, with most characters seen from high above or way below. Women are depicted in their usual categories: the nurturing Velda, or the manipulative femme fatale, played here in a weird performance by Gaby Rodgers, her hair cut in a blonde pixie do, her line-readings stilted and false.

Hammer, as written by Spillane, is a walking pile of testosterone. He is catnip to women, as one introduces herself by kissing him romantically. He also takes delight in inflicting injury. He knocks out several people in this film, sending one down a flight of stairs, and if bribing someone for information doesn't work, he slaps them around, even if they're old men. Hammer was Spillane's idea of a real man.

I don't want to give away what's in the box, but suffice it to say it fits the atomic, cold-war age in which it was made. When it is opened it recalls the scene of the ark being opened in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film has an interesting relationship with technology--Hammer has what must have been one of the first answering machines, with reel-to-reel tape.

I found Kiss Me Deadly to be interesting stylistically and historically but weak in story. I was lost almost immediately, and it suffered from a contrivance of having one character, the science reporter, doling out information piecemeal, keeping the plot going. I did like, though, that even if it had roots from the kind of pulp novel bought in a bus station, it had references to the poems of Christina Rosetti and the operas sung by Enrico Caruso. The ending, which suggests a cataclysm of apocalyptic proportions, contains references to Pandora, Cerberus, and Medusa.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Oscar 2010: Best Actor


Continuing my predictions for this year's Oscars, I turn to the easiest category of the night: Best Actor. There's just no wrapping my head around an outcome that doesn't have Colin Firth winning.

Firth, in his second consecutive nomination (last year it was for A Single Man), stars as stammering George VI in The King's Speech, the putative threat to win a passel of Oscars. His role is the kind that is almost always catnip to Academy voters: a person with some sort of disability that is ultimately overcome. Throw in the fact that he plays a real person, and a member of British royalty, well, it's just too much to contemplate.

And Firth deserves it. All five of these nominees are worthy, but I think Firth transcended the Oscar-bait qualities. He let George's prickly qualities come through, and what I remember most is not the stammering, but the embarrassment the man felt at having to enlist aid to overcome it. It's hard to guess if any actor in the part would have won an Oscar (Paul Bettany was first choice and turned it down), but that diminish Firth's greatness in it.

So, if the unthinkable happened and Firth didn't win, who would? I really can't come up with an alternative, and would love to see the actual vote. I would say Jeff Bridges for his re-imagining of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, which won John Wayne an Oscar forty-one years ago. I saw the two versions on back to back days, and it's stunning how more fully realized a character Bridges made his Cogburn, versus the typically bloated Wayne performance. By then Wayne seemed more and more like the impressionist's version of him, and his win was perhaps, in the long history of Oscar giving out awards based on sentiment more than ability, the most sentimental of all.

But Bridges won last year, and it would be difficult to imagine him inspiring any kind of support to knock off Firth. What about James Franco, as the unfortunate hiker Aron Rolston in 127 Hours? This is also the type of role that Oscar goes for, and Franco seems to get nothing but good press, both for his polymath qualities and his seemingly inexhaustable good cheer (he mirthfully chided Meredith Viera on Oscar-nomination morning for saying she would polish Firth's Oscar, reminding her "I can hear you")

Franco would seem an actor who will win one day, but not now, as the film has lagged below 20 million in box office (it is assumed that not enough people willingly want to see someone cut off their own arm) and voters will no doubt think that Franco has plenty of good performances ahead of him.

Jesse Eisenberg scored a nod for his eerily good performance as Facebook found Mark Zuckerberg. Eisenberg had heretofore been known for playing motor-mouthed, anguished teens, and though he plays a young man in this film--college-age through most of it--it marks a turn for him as a more adult role than he has played before. What's also different is that the role doesn't really call for an "Oscar moment"--what clip will they show? His Zuckerberg is all thinking, eyes darting back and forth when threatened, withering under the hatred of others. I applaud the Academy for recognizing this kind of acting, but I wouldn't suggest that he should win, and he won't.

Finally, Javier Bardem was nominated for playing Uxbal, a cancer-stricken businessman of a shady nature in Biutiful. It's tough sledding for performers in non-English-speaking films: only three have won in 82 years (although a few more, such as Robert DeNiro, Benicio Del Toro, and Marlee Matlin, won for communicating in languages other than English in otherwise English-speaking films). Bardem dominates Biutiful like no other performance in this category, but he has won before and recently, and there will be stopping Firth.

Will Win: Colin Firth
Could Win: Only Colin Firth
Should Win: Colin Firth

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Dave Clark Five

Three years ago The Dave Clark Five, one of the integral bands during the British Invasion years, was elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (poignantly, they were inducted just a few days after the death of their lead singer, Mike Smith). I was familiar with a few of their hits, and looked to buy a greatest hits collection. I was amazed that they were all out of print, and absurdly expensive on Amazon and eBay. A few weeks ago I saw one called The History of the Dave Clark Five, a double-disc set featuring fifty of their tracks, at Princeton Record Exchange, so even though it was $29 I picked it up.

Fifty songs by them is too many, as it includes some forgettable B-sides. But after several listens I've grown to appreciate that they were more than just the few hits that get continued play on oldie stations. I also learned, from the liner notes, that from 1964 to 1967 they had fifteen straight top-2o hits in the U.S., and during that same time had more top-40 hits than any group save The Beatles. But today they are far eclipsed in memory by The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Kinks.

Why? Probably because the group never really stretched their wings like those other bands. They did up-tempo pop exceedingly well, and are best known for the drum-heavy hits "Glad All Over," "Bits & Pieces," "Anyway You Want It," and "Catch Us If You Can." The group was unusual in that the front-man, Dave Clark, was their drummer, and he and his kit sat up front. They were also unusual in that they used a lot of saxophone. Their sound was called "the Tottenham Sound," named after the North London district they came from, which was meant to differentiate them from the "Mersey Beat" of the Liverpool groups like The Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers.

But The Dave Clark Five may have suffered from comparisons to the other groups. Lyrically they never branched out from basic boy-and-girl love stuff. There down-tempo love ballads, except for one I like called "Mighty Good Loving" are excessively treacly. When the music styles started to change to the more psychedelic, they really didn't make the jump, although they did record some songs that sounded trippy: "Maze of Love" has an acid-rock sound, "Live in the Sky" has a Sgt. Pepper sound (and even quotes The Beatles' "All Together Now" and "All You Need Is Love") and "Inside and Out," written but not used for Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, is reminiscent of "I Am the Walrus," but actually came first.

The DC5 also covered a lot of early rock hits, especially Motown and other R&B artists. Their first hit was "Do You Love Me," and it's a wonderful rendition, as are "Little Bitty Pretty One," "Over and Over," and "I Like It Like That." Their last top-20 hit was Barry Gordy's "You've Got It What It Takes," one of the worst backhanded compliment songs ever made: "You don't live in a fancy place, and you don't dress in best of taste, and nature didn't give you such a beautiful face, but baby, you've got what it takes." Gee, thanks.

While they were popular, they were rivals of The Beatles. Teen magazines created competition between the two bands, and like the Fab Four's A Hard Day's Night, the DC5 made a film called Catch Us If You Can (retitled Having a Wild Weekend in the U.S.), directed by John Boorman of all people. Sadly it doesn't seem to be available on DVD.

The Beatles eventually outpaced the DC5 in legacy, and The Dave Clark Five broke up in 1970 and slipped into oblivion, except for oldies radio. I think they really deserved their Hall of Fame induction, and have enjoyed getting to know the band.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

So Cold the River

Southern Indiana is not the first place one thinks of as a setting for a supernatural thriller, but just as Stephen King made Maine a prime location for spookiness, so has Michael Koryta in his novel So Cold the River, which turns the town of French Lick, heretofore known only as the hometown of Larry Bird, into a hot spot for mystery and murder.

The story is told from the point of view of Eric Shaw, a failed cinematographer, whose Hollywood career ended when he punched a director in the nose. He headed back to Chicago with his tail between his legs, and ended up as a videographer for events like weddings and funerals. He's hired by a woman to make a documentary about her father-in-law as a birthday surprise for her husband. That father-in-law, Campbell Bradford, Shaw is told, grew up in the environs of French Lick, which was once a tourist site because of the springs there. A grand hotel still exists.

All of this is real, but the story gets weird when Shaw takes a sip of the bottled spring water, called Pluto Water. He ends up having visions of what appear to be Bradford as a young man, when he ruled over the area in the 1920s, the personification of evil. Along with a graduate student and a local elderly woman, who happens to have a passion for meteorology, Shaw tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, while the last descendant of Bradford suddenly seems to be possessed by the spirit of his ancestor.

Koryta spins his tale in breathless prose, but it never edges into the silly. I found his descriptions of Shaw's visions, when Bradford, always wearing a bowler hat, commits some heinous crimes, to be crisply and frighteningly told, and does remind me of the best of King. The sections that seem most over the top are those involving Shaw's ex-wife, who runs to his side when he needs her. That the book climaxes with everything taking place while the countryside is swarming with tornadoes doesn't sound like it could possibly work, but it does.

So Cold the River works as both a mystery and a ghost story, and is probably best read during a fierce thunderstorm.

Friday, February 11, 2011

All Star Baseball

It's only a few days before pitchers and catchers report for spring training, so it's time to think about baseball again. I had occasion to yesterday when I read that Strat-O-Matic Baseball, the most popular baseball simulation game, had its fiftieth anniversary.

I've only played Strat-O-Matic once. When I was briefly employed at Crescent Publications (they publish High Society, Cheri, and other fine stroke mags) I had a colleague named Vin who was a delight. He took it into his head that we would play Strat-O-Matic on our lunch hour. I went with him to The Compleat Strategist, a game store in New York City, to buy a copy. We played exactly one game.

The game I spent my youth playing was Ethan Allen's All Star Baseball, which was far less realistic but perfect for younger kids. From the age of twelve to about fifteen I wore my set out, playing complete seasons, keeping track of all the stats.

The game, which was invented in the 1940s by an ex-ballplayer (not the revolutionary leader of the Green Mountain Boys) was imperfect, to say the least. For one thing it did not take into account pitching or defense. The premise was simple: each batter was represented by a cardboard disc, which was inserted into a slot on the gameboard. The card was ringed with numbers, each one representing an outcome, and the width of those pie slices varied by the players' reputation. Babe Ruth, for example, had a very fat "1" (which was a home run). You flicked the spinner and moved pegs on the board to represent the runners.

Strat-O-Matic's innovation was adding an outcome based on pitching and defense. I remember playing All Star Baseball games and if a pitcher got in trouble I'd remove him, though it made absolutely no difference. The game also had no provision for injuries, so I had a four-man starting rotation and they each had 40 starts. That never happen in real life.

I can still remember the sound that spinner made, and how the gameboard was a representation of Wrigley Field (you put up a cardboard scoreboard, which was a photo of Wrigley's scoreboard). I must have gotten the game as a gift, and I don't know of a present my parents got me that I made more use of. My brother also played games on it, though, oddly, we rarely played each other.

I got the game in the early seventies, and the players represented were already on their decline, if not out of the league outright. I don't remember who they were, but for some reason I remember their was a card representing the now long-forgotten Ted Uhlaender. Sometime in the late seventies I bought a set of new cards, which was like discovering a new wonderful flavor of ice cream. There were also old-time players in there, like Ruth.

I may have played the game longer than I want to remember--maybe even up through the end of high school. If I would have a Strat-O-Matic set I would have played that, too, but in a certain way I'm glad I never had one, because I would have probably been obsessed with it. In the mid-80s I got a game that is very similar in design, called Pursue the Pennant, and played that for a while, keeping stats like some sort of geek.

My last foray into this sort of world came by playing fantasy baseball, which I did for a while into the late 90s. I finally quit, out of lack of money and patience (to really play that well, you have to know almost every player, and assiduously check box scores). In some ways I miss it, in some ways I don't, as I kind of felt free when I stopped doing it. Now I can enjoy baseball without feeling trapped by it. I have never owned a computer baseball game, either. Maybe when I retire.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Oscar 2010: Best Supporting Actor

Over the next two and a half weeks I'll take a look at the major categories of the Oscar and putting my finger to the wind to see if I can forecast the victor. I'll also add my two cents on who I would vote for.

I'll start with a fairly easy category to predict, Best Supporting Actor. The front-runner, since the film was released, is Christian Bale for The Fighter, as Dicky Ecklund, the brother and erstwhile manager of boxer Micky Ward. Bale makes an impressive personal transformation, as at no time during this film do you think, "Hey, that's Batman!" It's the kind of performance that draws attention to itself, though, with numerous tics, but I suppose this is proper considering the person he's playing had done an awful lot of drugs.

Bale picks up his first ever nomination for this role, but he's been a prominent actor for a long time (starting with his juvenile role in 1987's Empire of the Sun, which I thought was the best performance by an actor that year) and his resolute performances in two Batman films have proved worth as an actor of blockbuster stature.

Lurking in the weeds is Geoffrey Rush, as the speech therapist Lionel Logue in The King's Speech. Rush has won before, in 1996 for Shine, and thus the voters won't feel any sympathy for him. But if a King's Speech wave crashes through the Kodak Theater, Rush could get caught up in it. He also has the kind of role that attracts attention--a quick wit, and a cuddly eccentricity. In some ways he's like George Sanders in All About Eve, having all the good lines, with an extra dollop of sentimentality.

I don't see anyone else in this category having a realistic shot. Mark Ruffalo, who's been kicking around in high profile films for a decade, finally gets a nod for The Kids Are All Right, as the sperm donor who finally meets his two teen-aged children. It's a showy part, and essential to the plot, but I found him a bit too jittery. Jeremy Renner, as the tightly coiled bank robber in The Town, scores his second nomination in as many years, and it's well deserved. It's the kind of part that has roots that can be traced back to Robert De Niro in Mean Streets and even further back to James Cagney in the Warner Brothers' gangster films of the 1930s--the guy who is ready to pop at any moment.

Standing the least chance is probably John Hawkes, as the menacing, meth-cooking uncle of the main character in Winter's Bone. Hawkes, who has a lot of credits but was unknown to me at the time I saw the film, grabbed me by the throat with his performance. He plays a scary guy, but as the film goes on we see the fully-rounded man. I walked out of the theater that day thinking this guy deserved an Oscar nomination, but I would have never imagined he'd actually get one.

Bale has won the Golden Globe and the Screen Actor's Guild Awards, so look for him to get the trifecta on Oscar night.

Will win: Christian Bale
Could win: Geoffrey Rush
Should win: John Hawkes

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

How to Train Your Dragon

The third of the nominees for Best Animated Feature that I've seen is How to Train Your Dragon (the others are Toy Story 3 and The Illusionist). All three films are excellent examples of animation, with this one hewing the closest to the traditional storytelling methods. It's a fine adventure, but what truly sets it apart is its technical qualities.

Set somewhere in Scandinavia a long, long time ago, How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of Hiccup, a spindly youth and the son of the village chief. His town is beset by dragons, which comes in all shapes and sizes and steal the livestock and burn down buildings. Hiccup desperately wants to kill a dragon, and goes off to try to down a Night Fury, the most dangerous kind of dragon. He succeeds, but no one believes him. He sets out to find it, and discovers he's only wounded it.

The dragon, whom Hiccup names Toothless, can't fly. He and the boy come to an understanding, and eventually Hiccup equips him with a harness that enables him to fly, but only if Hiccup is aboard him. Thus we get the first message of the film--sometimes you just need to rely on someone else.

The second message comes when Hiccup, who is now being trained to fight dragons, realizes that the creatures are misunderstood, and that they may have a common enemy. Of course, this type of talk amongst the Vikings is heresy, especially to the girl Hiccup likes, and most of all to his father.

The best thing about this film, which I saw on DVD and thus in 2-D, was its depiction of flying. When Hiccup is riding Toothless and soaring through the air, the majesty is brilliantly captured. The climax, in which everyone comes together to fight a humongous dragon, is also expertly done.

I was also intrigued by the design of Toothless. Most dragons are depicted as reptilian, with scales. This one, though, is more mammalian, with feline eyes and puppy-dog ears. It's an interesting choice, and it works, as the creature displays real personality.

I was also interested to learn that Roger Deakins, the great cinematographer, was a consultant on this film, and it shows, as the lighting is more sophisticated than the usual animated fare.

Aside from all that, the story is somewhat predictable. When the film was released some saw parallels to the blind hatred of Muslims in the U.S., and that does provide interesting subtext. There's also some routine physical comedy with a group of Hiccup's fellow teens.

Almost all of the major characters are voiced by well-known actors: Jay Baruchel is Hiccup, Gerard Butler is his father, America Ferrera is Astrid (Craig Ferguson voices another character, which makes me wonder why Vikings have Scottish accents). This brings up an eternal question I have, since I recognized none of these voices while the movie was on, and only learned about them during the closing credits: why use famous actors for voice-overs, when you could get actors just as good for far less money?

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Biutiful

This season on the sit-com 30 Rock, the character played by Tracy Morgan is pursuing his dream of winning the "EGOT"--the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. To win an Oscar, he makes a low-budget drama called Hard to Watch. From the clips shown, the film most resembles Precious, but I couldn't help but think about it as I watched Alejandro González Iñárritu's film Biutiful, which has just picked up a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It is hard to watch.

Set in Barcelona, the film covers a short period of time in the life of Uxbal, who is played to the hilt by Javier Bardem (who also received an Oscar nomination). Uxbal's occupation is as something of a middle-man between a Chinese outfit that manufactures pirated handbags and the African peddlers who sell them on the street. He would seem to make a comfortable living, and has custody of two children. His ex-wife, a bipolar woman who works as a "masseuse," is still in his life.

At the beginning of the film we learn a few things about Bardem: he can make contact with the dead, and does this for money; he has far too much empathy to be in the business he's in; and he is dying of cancer. All of this swirls around a business decision he makes with his Chinese supplier to get into the human trafficking business.

Biutiful, starting with its ironic title, spends most of its running time contrasting the squalor in which Bardem operates and his more idealized pursuits, namely his children. The action bounces back between moments of cozy banality, like a birthday party for a ten-year-old girl, and a basement full of Chinese immigrants, in Spain to find jobs. All this is well and good, but I never appreciated what Iñárritu was trying to say about all this. Instead, I felt like a tourist, led by a director who could do nothing more than point and gawk at the miseries of the underclass.

Bardem is brilliant, though, and deserves a better movie. He is in a good percentage of the film, and when he's not there I could feel myself checking out. He seems to have prepared for the role by staying up for three days straight, as his eyes are almost always bloodshot. He carries the combination of empathy and world-weariness well, though, even if the script doesn't support it (the communing with the dead angle is woefully underdeveloped). This does lead to another problem, though: Bardem comes across as such a good guy it's hard to believe he could be successful in such a cut-throat world.

Biutiful makes some departures from Iñárritu's usual structure, in that it focuses on one character and is almost completely linear. The opening scenes are not, though, and we don't know what they mean until the film ends. These scenes are very evocative, as is a sequence involving a large-scale tragedy, but the moments don't add up to a satisfying whole. The whole film, for me, as a long (two-and-a-half hours) of unrelenting misery, without an underlying justification.

I give Biutiful a C, mostly for Bardem's performance.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Illusionist

Nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year's Oscars, The Illusionist is a film by Sylvain Chomet, but is based on an unproduced screenplay by the legendary French director Jacquest Tati. It is a luscious work, excelling on several levels: an homage to Tati, a droll comedy, and a melancholy ode to lost family.

Set in 1959, Chomain's film, which is almost entirely free of dialogue, depicts a stage magician named Tatischeff (Tati's real name). He is a competent performer, but hardly an exciting one, working mostly with a top hat and a recalcitrant rabbit. As the film begins, Tatischeff is let go from a music hall in Paris, and he travels to London.

He finds a few gigs, including following a rock band called Billy and the Britoons, and is hired by a kilt-wearing Scotsman. He ends up playing a saloon on a remote Scottish island, where he enchants a young serving girl. He pays her a kindness, and she seems to think he really has magic powers. She follows him to Edinburgh, where he looks after her as a father might.

White Tatischeff struggles to find work--he takes a job performing in a department-store window, and a night job at an auto garage--the girl starts to blossom, wearing the nice clothing that he buys for her. She is kind to him and the others in their hotel, a motley bunch of performers that include a drunken ventriloquist and triplet acrobats, but the two begin drifting apart. When Tatischeff sees that she is keeping company with an attractive young man, he makes a fateful decision.

Tati wrote this script as something of an open letter to his estranged daughter, and once armed with that information The Illusionist takes on an even more poignant cast. Perhaps it was too personal for him to ever actual make, but Chomain has been very respectful in his adaptation. The animation is lovely--less frenetic that his previous film The Triplets of Belleville, but with the same kind of eye for detail and human oddity (the characters in this film display a wide variety of physical quirks).

Visually speaking, I enjoyed most the way Chomain captures a time now gone, the age when a certain kind of performer could travel the world, suitcase and rabbit cage in tow, searching for the next gig (in some ways the film made me think of Woody Allen's valentine to show business, Broadway Danny Rose).

The film also manages to balance humor and pathos. There are some wonderfully funny bits--the send-up of British rock bands, and a sequence in which Tatischeff worries that the girl has cooked his rabbit for dinner--and some moments of real heartbreak, such as when a clown is interrupted in a suicide attempt by the girl delivering soup (the clown made me laugh when, the sink in his room not operating, he washes his face by using his squirting flower).

The Illusionist isn't perfect. There are moments, even in the scant 90-minute running time, where the narrative hits dead spots. But for the most part I sat back in my seat and let this charming film wash over me.

My grade for The Illusionist: B+

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Super Bowl XLV

Today is Super Bowl Sunday, and like most Americans I will be watching the game. Even though I will be watching alone, I'm getting in the spirit and bought guacamole dip. I love guacamole but it's so fattening that it's a rare treat.

I have no rooting interest in the game, but it figures to be a good one. It features two of the oldest franchises in the game, the Green Bay Packers, who have more NFL titles than any other team, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who, if they win, would have more Super Bowl titles than any other team. (Unfortunately for the Packers, most people seem to have forgotten everything from the pre-Super Bowl era--a commentator this morning mentioned that they have three titles, but that's only counting Super Bowls).

When it comes down to it, though, I will probably be rooting for the Packers. The Steelers have won twice recently, and they would seem to have more "bad" guys than the Packers. I was talking with someone at work who said that it seems like every team has their own collection of felons, scoundrels, and rogues, which is true, but the Steelers seem to have more than their fair share. James Harrison, who was fined several thousand dollars for illegal hits, and Hines Ward, voted the dirtiest player in the game, are prominent Steelers, and then there's quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

This NFL season carried the theme of redemption, embodied by two players--Roethlisberger and Michael Vick. The latter, who went to federal prison for cruelty to dogs, emerged as an exciting player for the Philadelphia Eagles. His team came up short in getting to the Super Bowl, but he went a long way toward mending his image. I appreciate his effort to redeem himself, but I will never be able to root for him. I wish him well, and hope he's never allowed near a dog again.

Roethlisberger, who was not indicted for any crime, was suspended for four games by the league for behavior detrimental to football, stemming from an incident in a Georgia nightclub. A woman accused of him of a criminal case of "busy hands," but the case was dropped. As to Roethlisberger's guilt of innocence, I have no idea, but it's clear to me that the man was certainly guilty of a sense of entitlement, of thinking that because he's an NFL player that he lives by a different set of rules than ordinary people.

I find it interesting, and completely natural, that winning is the best way to resurrect a reputation. Last summer there were many Pittsburgh fans who said that they wanted to get rid of him. I wonder if those same people will be heartily rooting him on in today's game. I'm not judging these people--I'd probably do the same thing if it were my team. It does call into question the reasons why we root for the teams that we root for. What would cause our allegiance to shift--the off-field behavior of a player? What would be have to do to change a perhaps life-long rooting interest in a particular team? As Jerry Seinfeld said in one of his routines, we really root for the clothes, not the person wearing them. I'm sure a psychologist would attribute it to the basic instinct for humans to want to be part of a tribe. As long as he's one of us, even creeps like Ben Roethlisberger earn cheers.

I think Roethlisberger and his mates will figure out a way to win today. Steelers 19, Packers 16.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Salt

It's that time of year for me to catch up on films that I missed on general release and received Oscar nominations. Salt, a big-budget action picture starring Angelina Jolie, got a nod for Sound Mixing.

I kind of liked Salt through most of its running time. It doesn't break any new ground, certainly, but director Philip Noyce and editors Stuart Baird and John Gilroy know how to cut an action scene. But ultimately I have to give this film a thumbs down, as it groans and eventually buckles under the weight of a ridiculous plot.

Jolie is the title character (it was originally written for Tom Cruise, but was feminized for her), a CIA agent. A Russian defector is brought in from the cold (immediately I was on alert--do Russians need to defect any more? Can't they come and go as they please?) and Jolie interrogates him. He spins a wild tale about children who are trained as Russian operatives and then placed surreptitiously in American society, biding their time until they can strike.

Then he casually relays that the Jolie herself is a Russian spy. She denies it, but concerned about her husband, she makes a run for it. Her colleague, Liev Schreiber, and another more skeptical agent, Chiwetel Ejiofor, are in pursuit. Is Salt being set up, or is she actually a Russian mole?

There's some fun stuff early on, especially a highway chase that I enjoyed even though it had Jolie leaping from the top of one truck to another. I've always been a sucker for books or movies that have characters making miraculous escapes. But the film started to lose me when there's an assassination attempt at a church in New York that involves collapsing a ceiling. As my childhood friend and I used to say while watching Popeye cartoons, "Sure!"

The film only goes more haywire from there, culminating in Jolie managing to get into the White House bunker without too much trouble.The script, by Kurt Wimmer, has elements that are common to Cold War paranoia, reminding me most of The Manchurian Candidate. With the film coming out during the first year of Barack Obama's term strikes me as more than coincidental, considering there are some crackpots that think Obama is a Muslim agent anchor baby.

Jolie gives a very physical performance (and she's made up as a man at one point, looking a lot like Rob Lowe), but I fear that since she has become a star that is fodder for supermarket-checkout magazines, she's become less interesting as an actress. Aside from firing guns and kicking people in the throat, she's called upon to do little here than look regal. I wonder about what motivates her choices. Clearly these action-film tent-poles (a sequel is implied at the end) make her gobs more money than the more interesting films she made pre-Brad Pitt, and perhaps she wants to make enough money to fund her various charities. But I wonder if it's too late to rein in her persona enough to lose herself in a small, independent film.

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Party Ain't Over

I haven't bought much music lately, so I've gone on a bit of a splurge, picking up CDs of all different types. One of them is a new album by an old performer (and I say that respectfully). Wanda Jackson, a youthful 73, has made a record produced by Jack White, The Party Ain't Over, and it's a gem.

The title is presumably a reference to Jackson's biggest hit, "Let's Have a Party," from the early days of rock and roll. Some, in fact, consider Jackson the first female vocalist to sing rock and roll, and she has become known over the years as the "Queen of Rockabilly." White, who has catholic music tastes (as well as being part of three different rock groups) did something similar with Loretta Lynn a few years ago, but of course Lynn is far better known. Jackson, one hopes, picks up a lot of new fans.

The album is a mixture of styles, most in the rockabilly tempo, but not all. It kicks off with the oldie "Shakin' All Over," and this song is worth the purchase price all on its own. Jackson has lost none of the kittenish of her voice, but she's a kitten that bites, and combined with White's chainsawish, twangy guitar, this cut really shakes the rafters.

The album is all covers, including a Bob Dylan song, "Thunder on the Mountain," and a superb version of Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good." But the music stretches through time and genres, with the old Andrews' Sisters calypso number, "Rum and Coca-Cola," (co-written by Morey Amsterdam!) and a Jimmie Rodgers blues-yodel. Jackson, who eventually became more of a country artist, also sings the heavily countrified "Dust on the Bible."

I'm not sure I had ever heard of Jackson before, sad to say, but I know who she is now. She toured with Elvis and was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. White is to be commended for bringing her back in the spotlight, and furthers my claim that he is the most interesting person in contemporary music.