Monday, November 29, 2010

Now available on DVD: "Babies"

The French globe-trotting documentarian Thomas Balmès has taken up a delicate and treacherous assignment in this film. Fanning out around the world — to the plains of Mongolia, the dusty grasslands of Namibia, the high rises of Tokyo and the streets of San Francisco — Balmès and his crew set out, about three years ago, to probe a network of mysterious creatures who speak a common idiom barely comprehensible to the rest of us. The film’s subjects are hard to understand and nearly impossible to resist. They project weakness and innocence, yet they also possess almost terrifying powers. And they are just so gosh-darn cute!

Frankly, it’s hard to know just what to say about Babies, which episodically chronicles the first year in the lives of four far-flung infants. “Awwwwww” would be a start and will no doubt be the sound you hear most frequently from those (especially if they ae parents) watching this DVD with you, along with an occasional “ewwww,” a stray gasp of concern or disapproval — you know how anxious and judgmental parents can be — and intermittent laughter. If you have read any child-rearing manuals (or just stared guiltily at a bedside stack of them while dragging yourself toward the squalling bundle of wee-hours need in the next room), Babies may be both a puzzle and a relief.

It offers no advice or analysis, no talking-head rumination or voice-over explanation. The occasional snippets of grown-up dialogue are not accompanied by subtitles, which would be superfluous in any case. Babies is exactly what its title promises. It’s babies. And if you love babies you will find it very hard not to love Babies.

Is it that simple? I mean, who doesn’t love babies? Why isn’t this just a smattering of YouTube videos (“Baby Pulls Cat’s Tail,” “Baby Eats Banana,” etc.) stitched together into a feature film and accompanied by a peppy musical score? That’s kind of what it is, but the utter accessibility of the movie — even babies will enjoy watching Babies! — results as much from Balmès’s canny formal intelligence as from the intrinsic adorability of his subjects.

Which is not to be denied. Their names are Hattie, Mari, Bayarjargal and Ponijao, and they show themselves to be natural-born comedians, single-minded researchers, action heroes and disciplined workers, each in his or her own special way. They seem to possess distinctive personalities from the very beginning, and as they make their way through infancy, you watch their temperaments grow from bud to blossom.

You also note that while parental love transcends differences of geography and tradition, various cultures cultivate their fledgling members in different ways. Bayarjargal, in Mongolia, is first tightly swaddled and then, as his mobility increases, tethered to his yurt by a long cloth cord. Ponijao, in Africa, crawls about surrounded by a group of women, and her play mimics their daily tasks of grinding meal and preparing food.

In the metropolises of the developed world, Mari (in Japan) and Hattie (in California) are part of a structured world of work and leisure, surrounded by cellphones and computers and exposed to organized group activities that in some cases self-consciously try to mimic the rituals of agrarian and tribal societies.

In the one scene that can be taken as infantile satire, Hattie, at a music class featuring songs of praise to “the earth, our mother,” stands up and makes for the exit, as if fed up with the New Age mumbo-jumbo to which she has been subjected. Another brilliantly funny sequence cuts between Mari’s frustration as she tries to thread a wooden spindle onto a disc with a hole in it and Bayarjargal’s patient wrangling of a roll of toilet paper, which he bites into once it has arrived in his grasp. There is something profound and poignant in these struggles, which illustrate one of the fundamental tasks of babyhood: the mastery of the physical environment.

Other challenges confront these intrepid young travelers on what a philosopher once called the long forced march toward humanity: the aggression (and affection) of siblings and peers; the ways of other animals (cats in particular); the recognition and communication of basic emotions. And though they do their share of crying — they are babies, after all — Hattie, Ponijao, Bayarjargal and Mari all demonstrate remarkable stoicism in the face of a complicated universe. And the ultimate lesson of Babies, at least for non- (which is of course to say ex-) babies, is that being small, helpless and brand new is hard.

But hardly impossible. They grow, they learn, and they remind the rest of us of the astonishing power that is our common birthright. We are cast into the world as a bundle of reflexes, unable to focus our eyes, control our limbs or influence our environment in any way. Twelve months later we can walk, kiss, utter basic words and comprehend complicated utterances. It may be downhill from there: a movie called Adolescents or, heaven knows, Grownups, would hardly be as charming as Babies. But Babies just might restore your faith in our perplexing, peculiar and stubbornly lovable species.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

My Top 25 College Football, Basketball teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis; BCS rank in brackets
1.  Oregon (1) [2]
2.  Auburn (4) [1]
3.  TCU (2) [3]
4.  Stanford (5) [4]
5.  Boise State (3) [11]
6.  Ohio State (7) [6]
7.  Wisconsin (9) [5]
8.  Nevada (11) [17]
9.  Michigan State (10) [8]
10. Oklahoma (15) [9]
11. Arkansas (13) [7]
12. Missouri (14) [12]
13. LSU (6) [10]
14. Nebraska (16) [13]
15. Oklahoma State (8) [14]
16. Virginia Tech (17) [15]
17. Utah (18) [20]
18. Alabama (12) [16]
19. Texas A&M (19) [18]
20. South Carolina (20) [19]
21. Florida State (22) [21]
22. West Virginia (UR) [24]
23. Arizona (21) [23]
24. Mississippi State (UR) [22]
25. Southern California (23) [UR*]
DROPPED OUT: Iowa, Florida
* The BCS won't rank Southern California because it is on probation

1.  Duke (4)
2.  Pittsburgh (1)
3.  Connecticut (9)
4.  Georgetown (8)
5.  Louisville (11)
6.  Minnesota (7)
7.  Kansas (5)
8.  Tennessee (22)
9.  Ohio State (6)
10. UNLV (17)
11. San Diego State (15)
12. Saint Mary's, Calif. (UR)
13. Notre Dame (UR)
14. BYU (13)
15. Purdue (UR)
16. Missouri (UR)
17. Butler (UR)
18. West Virginia (2)
19. Kentucky (3)
20. Texas (UR)
21. Michigan State (14)
22. Villanova (UR)
23. Vanderbilt (UR)
24. Kansas State (UR)
25. California (12)
DROPPED OUT: Syracuse, Clemson, UCLA, Temple, Dayton, Memphis, Washington, Florida State, Texas A&M

Wassup, Robocop

I revisited the film RoboCop the other day and enjoyed what it had to say about media manipulation, resurrection, gentrification and corruption-in-high-places this time as much as I did when I first saw the film almost a quarter of a century ago. Of course I also enjoyed seeing all the Dallas locations, especially Dallas City Hall which matte painters made appear to be taller than 100 stories (as well as City Hall's labyrinthine underground parking garage) , although recognizing that our skyline was completed that long ago came as somewhat of a shock. The movie takes place in Detroit but was filmed here because location scouts decided our downtown buildings looked more "futuristic."

But the real shock came at the end, during the roll of the final credits. The word "Dallas" never appeared. It is a courtesy, especially when municipal government buildings are used (the old City Hall, which was city's Criminal Courts building when the film was shot, was used as Detroit's City Hall) to recognize the cooperation of the city "in the making of this picture."

I asked a current high-ranking city official (who shall remain respectfully anonymous) who was working for then Mayor Starke Taylor when filming was going on here if some kind of dispute developed during filming between the city and the filmmakers which resulted in the latter, out of spite, deciding not to give Dallas any credit. The city official said she didn't know about any possible rift.

Still, in my mind it was wrong for the credits not to include any mention of the city that appeared to give director Paul Verhoeven carte blanche to film wherever he needed to shoot in the city.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Cowboys' future: Garrett and Mallett

  • Dallas Cowboys interim coach Jason Garrett's performance in Thursday's loss against New Orleans did more to ensure owner Jerry Jones will take the interim off his Garrett's than his performances in the two victories over the Giants and Detroit that preceded the Thanksgiving Day game.  The Cowboys displayed a lot of character and resilience -- both qualities that have been missing before Garrett took over -- in coming back from 20-3 deficit with less than a minute remaining in the first half to outscore the defending Super Bowl champions 24-10 the rest of the game. And I can't blame Garrett for Roy Williams' fumble with three minutes left in the game, but I can applaud the decision to call that pass. More to blame than Williams was the Cowboys' defense that allowed the Saints to go 89 yards in five plays in just over a minute for the winning touchdown, especially the 55-yard Drew Brees to Randy Meachem pass on third and 10.
  • The Cowboys have been searching for a quarterback to lead the team back to greatness since Troy Aikman retired a decade ago. They have been so desperate for one they have latched on to Tony Romo as the solution, but, in reality, anyone who really thinks Romo is the solution doesn't fully understand the problem. I agree with the poll of NFL players in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated in which Romo was voted the second most overrated player in the NFL, behind former teammate Terrell Owens. The Cowboys definitely need an upgrade at the quarterback position and I have a possible solution. The way the Cowboys' record seems to be shaping up, I'm figuring Arkansas signal-called Ryan Mallett will be available when it comes the Cowboys' turn to draft. And knowing Jones' proclivity for selecting talent from his alma mater, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the team actually made a sensible selection in the draft this year. Mallett is going to make some NFL team an excellent quarterback and it would be nice if that team was the Pokes.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Stay safe, enjoy the day and remember to give thanks

ESPN covers Heat like Woods

ESPN's coverage of PGA tournament highlights will have only two possible storylines: A. Tiger Woods wins the tournament or B. Tiger Woods doesn't win the tournament. But win or lose (and in the last year it has mostly been the latter), the only pro golfer ESPN's Sportcenter will have quotes from after the tournament ends (or even during the four-day affair) is Tiger Woods, accompanied by graphics showing us where he stands currently on the all-time money winner's list and other charts comparing his performance this year to the same number of tournaments the year before.

ESPN is using the exact same approach to covering the Miami Heat. The nightly Sportscenter report on the days Miami plays will either be A. the Heat win or B. the Heat lose. Last night the second best NBA team in Florida got hosed by their northern neighbors Orlando. Ex-Maverick Brandon Bass made major contributions to the Magic win and Dwight Howard was his usual dominating self. Miami's Chris Bosh briefly left the game in the second quarter with back spasms and then became a defensive liability when he returned. LaBron James made a number of crucial mistakes, including dribbling the ball out of bounds on his own endline. So who did ESPN feature in the post-game interviews? You got it: Just Bosh and James.

C'mon, ESPN. You need to take the spotlight off those over-celebrated, overpaid, self-centered jerks and let us hear from those worthy players who are leading their teams to victories.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My Top 10 NBA, NFL Teams

Last week's rankings in parenthesis:
1.  New Orleans Hornets (1)
2.  San Antonio Spurs (2)
3.  Los Angeles Lakers (5)
4.  Orlando Magic (7)
5.  Boston Celtics (3)
6.  Dallas Mavericks (4)
7.  Chicago Bulls (6)
8.  Oklahoma City Thunder (UR)
9.  Miami Heat (8)
10. Utah Jazz (10)
DROPPED OUT: Phoenix Suns

1.  New England Patriots (1)
2.  Atlanta Falcons (3)
3.  New York Jets (2)
4.  Pittsburgh Steelers (4)
5.  Green Bay Packers (7)
6.  Baltimore Ravens (5)
7.  Philadelphia Eagles (6)
8.  Chicago Bears (UR)
9.  New Orleans Saints (9)
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (UR)
DROPPED OUT: Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants

Currently available on DVD: "Ondine"

You know it's an Irish fairytale when the mists swirl and the sea churns around the harsh beauty of the Emerald Isle. You know it's a Neil Jordan Irish fairytale when at the center of all that harsh beauty is a working-class family broken apart by alcoholism.

That is Ondine, starring Colin Farrell as Syracuse, a local fisherman with a grudge-holding, heavy-drinking ex-wife and a spirited daughter on dialysis. Syracuse is long past having dreams when he snares a beautiful woman in his nets and reality and Irish mythology soon tangle in ways both magical and frustrating. It can sometimes feel as if the director is the one lost at sea.

Nevertheless, there is much to recommend Ondine, Jordan's love letter to Castletownbere, the fishing village on Ireland's southern coast where he lives and where the film was shot; and the notion that no matter how bruised and battered by life, love is still possible, still the answer.

It's a small film, and there's a spare, dreamlike quality that's a departure for a writer-director who tends toward densely detailed stories stuffed with moral complications, The Crying Game, Mona Lisa and Michael Collins among them. Sometimes, the simplicity of the story confounds him, with young Annie (Alison Barry) saddled with a wheelchair, a failing kidney and most of the exposition of the story — too much to ask of a child.

The mysterious woman at the heart of this tale is Ondine, Alicja Bachleda of Trade, who's perfectly cast as an ethereal creature that may be a selkie — in the way of mermaids, they are seals able to transform into seductively gorgeous humans when the circumstances are right. There are, as might be expected, all sorts of strings attached involving seven tears, sealskins and long-term commitments.

All Syracuse knows is that Ondine is running from something, that her haunting songs increase his daily catch and that she seems to be falling in love with him. Annie is more interested in a selkie's wish-granting powers, while Syracuse's ex, Maura (Dervla Kirwan), is more concerned with where she's sleeping.

Jordan uses the push and pull between real life and legend to explore ideas of social ills, retribution, justice, family bonds and miracles in an age in which it seems there are none. For the filmmaker, optimism and a happy ending are not things he gives away easily, if ever, and there are any number of difficulties he's thrown in along the way, with Ondine's shadowy past rising up right alongside Syracuse's to rough things up.

The filmmaker creates a world so real that you can feel the chill of the water, smell the sweat in the bar. There is so much beauty too, with Jordan clearly ecstatic to be kicking around his hometown, where he uses its weathered nooks and crannies as a gritty contrast to the wild coast and bucolic fields of wildflowers and green as he moves between reality and myth. Director of photography Christopher Doyle follows closely along, capturing both in ways that keep the film's heart beating and that will no doubt boost the region's tourism as well.

At times, the narrative flows beautifully, particularly in the growing connection between Syracuse and Ondine, the slow reveal of who they really are, the delicious tension in their tentativeness. Farrell exposes much with those dark eyes and wary hesitations. It's hard not to wish more filmmakers would tap into that quieter, more vulnerable side.

At other times, the road is rocky when the story speeds up to take care of business, with the end a mad dash to tie up loose ends. Still, there is enough saving grace on these craggy shores to let the mists and the legends roll in and envelop you for a while.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Why I think "Speech" will beat "Network" for best picture

The consensus right now is that the Oscar race for best picture is between two films, The Social Network, and The King's Speech. If that's true, and I have no reason to doubt its veracity, then I'm leaning to Speech as the winner. I have several reasons for thinking this way, including the fact that I heard an Academy screening of The King's Speech Saturday in Los Angeles received the most enthusiastic reception of any film in five years. But I'm also convinced Speech is going to get a more positive reception from Oscar voters because it is a film populated by characters audiences will be rooting for while The Social Network is all about unlikeable individuals. And, finally, Speech has an edge because it is more of an actors' picture while Network is more of a writers' picture and the actors branch of the Academy outnumbers the writer's branch 1,205 to 382.

I am also leaning to the notion that this could be one of those occasions where one picture wins the best picture Oscar and the other gets the director's trophy.

But, of course, it's still early and anything could happen. This time last month I was sure that Annette Bening  would finally win a best actress Oscar, but now I hear that Natalie Portman may be the leading contender with Nicole Kidman coming up on the outside.

The poor state of the News' movie blog

It's been a long time since I paid a visit to the Dallas Morning News' movie blog. However, I dropped in today and was shocked that it was nothing more than a shill for the new Harry Potter movie. There are 20 entries on the blog and an astounding 18 of them are on the Harry Potter movie. The News should be ashamed of itself. With so many worthwhile films and performances to write about, why is the paper wasting all its energy on this piece of fluff? I had a hunch that the Morning News's coverage of film became irrelevant the day the great Philip Wuntch left the paper. This proves that assumption to be absolutely dead-on correct.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

My Top 25 College Football, Basketball teams

Last week's rankings in parenthesis; BCS rankings in brackets
1.  Oregon (1) [1]
2.  TCU (2) [3]
3.  Boise State (4) [4]
4.  Auburn (3) [2]
5.  Stanford (5) [6]
6.  LSU (6) [5]
7.  Ohio State (9) [8]
8.  Oklahoma State (8) [9]
9.  Wisconsin (10) [7]
10. Michigan State (11) [10]
11. Nevada (12) [19]
12. Alabama (13) [11]
13. Arkansas (15) [12]
14. Missouri (14) [14]
15. Oklahoma (16) [13]
16. Nebraska (7) [15]
17. Virginia Tech (17) [16]
18. Utah (18) [20]
19. Texas A&M (20) [17]
20. South Carolina (22) [18]
21. Arizona (21) [21]
22. Florida State (25) [22]
23. Southern California (19) [UR]*
24. Iowa (23) [24]
25. Florida (UR) [UR]
DROPPED OUT: Miami, Fla.
* Southern California is on probabation and thus not eligible for BCS ranking

1.  Pittsburgh
2.  West Virginia
3.  Kentucky
4.  Duke
5.  Kansas
6.  Ohio State
7.  Minnesota
8.  Georgetown
9.  Connecticut
10. Syracuse
11. Louisville
12. California
13. BYU
14. Michigan State
15. San Diego State
16. Clemson
17. UNLV
18. UCLA
19. Temple
20. Dayton
21. Memphis
22. Tennessee
23. Washington
24. Florida State
25. Texas A&M

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The billionaires are now in charge

If the Republicans get their way, Walmart's Walton family will get a $30 billion tax break while taxes will increase for the rest of us living here in the country with " by far, the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of any major country on earth."

Despite all their talk about reducing the deficit, the Republicans want to extend the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent of income earners which would add $700 billion to the deficit during the next decade. They are seeking to reduce the estate tax, in existence since 1916, which would benefit only the top 0.3 percent of income earners and add another $1 trillion to the deficit.

But there's more and you can read all about it here. Hopefully, President Obama and the Senate can make sure that the billionaires who bought the last election from the American people will stop much of this in its tracks.

Here's why Texas must not opt out of Medicaid

From the editorial pages of today's New York Times:
Texas and several other states are flirting with the idea of dropping out of the Medicaid program and trying to shift most of the burden of providing health insurance for the poor to the federal government.

The idea appears to be driven at least as much by ideology as economics: Republicans’ fierce opposition to President Obama’s health care reform and their insistence that state budgets can be balanced solely by cutting services, like Medicaid, rather than raising taxes.

The idea originated with analysts at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization based in Washington. They argue that many states would be irresponsible not to drop Medicaid in 2014 and direct poor residents to buy commercial insurance on new competitive insurance exchanges, where they would receive generous federal subsidies. A Heritage analyst believes that 40 states and the District of Columbia could save money this way and estimated that Texas could save $46.5 billion between 2014 and 2019.

That may sound great. Even assuming it is legal — a big question — at the core, this would amount to a shell game. It may save money for some state budgets but only by driving up costs for the federal budget and for the poor enrollees, who would have to pay more for commercial policies even with the federal subsidies.

And for all of the me-firstism out there, state taxpayers need to remember that they are also federal taxpayers. Even if their state drops Medicaid, they will continue to pay taxes that support the subsidies in the insurance exchanges and Medicaid programs in other states.

There is no question that Medicaid is badly straining many state budgets. And state leaders need to do a lot more to make their systems more efficient and reduce waste and abuse. The burden, and the need for reform, will undeniably grow under health care reform because the states will have to enroll many adults not previously covered and allow people with somewhat higher incomes to enroll.

The federal government, however, will pay for most of that increase — 100 percent of the cost for newly eligible enrollees for three years and at least 90 percent ever after, as well as 90 percent of the added administrative expenses. Despite that largess, the Texas health agency estimates the state will have to spend $27 billion of its own money over a decade. Outside experts are skeptical of those numbers.

Before any more politicians get excited about the opt-out idea, they need to consider several basic issues.

First, none of these maneuvers will help states meet their current budget crises. The exchanges won’t exist until 2014, by which time state revenues will probably have picked up.

Even more important, no one seems certain whether the federal government can even legally pick up the Medicaid burden, or would be willing to. One provision of the reform law indicates that the poorest people on Medicaid — those earning less than the federal poverty level — could not receive subsidies on the exchanges; a separate table implies that they might be eligible. If that issue is not clarified by federal officials, it may have to be resolved in the courts or Congress.

Large numbers of people, mainly low-income elderly and disabled patients who need long-term care services, would not be eligible to buy insurance on the exchanges. These are the two most expensive groups to cover, and the cost of their care would fall solely on the state. It is conceivable that a state with small enrollments of these groups might be able to shoulder the whole burden; states with big enrollments ought to be wary about relinquishing federal matching funds.

Medicaid is also so intertwined with multiple parts of the health care system that political leaders will need to be wary about harming a wide range of medical institutions that depend on Medicaid reimbursements.

Despite all of the campaign rhetoric, there are no easy fixes out there.

Darkness on the edge of a Saturday morning

It was one of those days. I spent most of Friday in some form of physical discomfort -- a constant tightening in the chest and the feeling that I had strained every muscle in my torso. When I struggled back to the hacienda between 5:30 and 6 p.m., I wrote for a little while until, absolutely exhausted, I fell into bed around 6:30 p.m. I slept until 10 p.m. or so, and when I awoke, I came back downstairs, wrote a little more and, around 11:30, decided to check the mail. I spotted it as soon as I opened the front door: the package containing my copy of The Promise: Darkness on the Edge of Town box set.

Now I had already downloaded the double CD The Promise the day it was released and although I dearly love the Darkness on the Edge of Town album, Bruce Springsteen's masterpiece for me will always be Born to Run. In fact, I'm willing to argue that it is the best rock album of all time. So I skipped the remastered Darkness CD and focused my attention on the three DVDs included in the set.I figured since it was getting close to midnight, I should just watch one of the three and, of course, I picked out the longest one, a three-hour Springsteen concert recorded in 1978 in Houston.

I picked this one because as many times as I have seen the Boss in concert since 1972, there is no question he and the E-Street Band reached their performing peak in 1978, the tour that etched in granite Springsteen's rightful place as the greatest live concert act ever and the E-Street Band as the best live rock band of all time. And the Houston show didn't disappoint. The only thing missing was any of the stories Springsteen use to tell while introducing songs during that tour. But that's OK, because the set list is magnificent. The most pleasant surprise for me was something I had not seen before -- an musical interchange between saxophonist Clarence Clemons and organist Danny Federici during Fever. It almost made my leap from my couch and give my television screen a one-person standing ovation.

So now it's after 3 a.m. and during the next couple of days I will make sure I find the time to visit the other two DVDs (I've heard some wonderful reports from friends who saw at the Toronto Film Festival the documentary on the making of Darkness that's included on the first DVD). But I'm not going to do it right now.

However, I will take a few more moments to whisper to all the Bruce fans out there, or anyone interested in the legacy of rock 'n' roll in the context of what otherwise was the dismal disco decade, you owe it to yourself to make the investment in this box set. From what I've heard and watched and read already, I promise you it's a treasure.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The worst of the Beatles

To commemorate the fact that the entire Beatles catalog has finally been digitized and is not available on iTunes (I figured most everyone just uploaded them from their CDs like I did) British rock critic Neil McCormick has compiled his list of the worst Beatles songs ever (a possible eye-opener for those who thought the Beatles could never do anything bad).

Since I enthusiastically agree with his choice for the worst song (in fact, I would say it was one of the worst contributions by anyone claiming to be a recording musician), I am reprinting his entire list here. I must also admit that I wholeheartedly agree that the so-called White Album should have been a one-disc effort with all the crap removed.

Here's McCormick's list:

1. Revolution 9 (The Beatles aka The White Album)
Start with John and Yoko’s nearly nine minute avant-garde sound collage, once pored over by hippies for hidden meanings. What it really means is that you shouldn’t try to make music when you’re stoned out of your brain.

2. Only A Northern Song (Yellow Submarine soundtrack)
“If you’re listening to this song / You may think the chords are going wrong” admits George, on a dreary, tuneless, quasi-psychedelic paean to The Beatles publishing company that proclaims its own laziness: “It doesn’t really matter what chords I play, what words I say”. But it bloody well does.

3. Your Mother Should Know (Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack)
Soft-shoe music hall whimsy from Macca. One of his child friendly numbers that John always hated (others include "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" and "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer"), this has the added disadvantage of starting with a simple idea and not taking it anywhere.

4. Mr Moonlight (Beatles For Sale)
Here’s one your mother might know, and wish she didn’t. A waste of Lennon’s roaring vocal opening, this is an extraordinarily silly cocktail lounge style cover with cheesy harmonies and a hammy organ solo.

5. The Inner Light (B-side, available on Past Masters)
Droning Indian mysticism from George. “Without going out of my door / I can know all things on Earth”. Yeah, right.

6. I’ll Get You (B-side, available on Past Masters)
Uninspiring Lennon-McCartney Merseybeat workout that seems like an exercise in getting to the chorus. Unusual for an early Beatles b-side, nobody else even bothered covering it.

7. Honey Don’t (Beatles For Sale)
Rockabilly classic that they allowed Ringo to sing with more enthusiasm than skill from an album on which you can almost hear the band’s exhaustion at the madness of Beatlemania.

8. Long, Long, Long (The Beatles aka The White Album)
George created some beautiful songs, but he could really get on a minor chord downer sometimes. A boring song about ennui. Which, you could argue, is conceptual perfection.

9. Blue Jay Way (Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack)
George barely stirs himself from marijuana torpor to provide a tuneless account of a dinner party in his house in L.A.

10. Don’t Pass Me By (The Beatles aka The White Album)
Ringo’s first attempt at solo songwriting, it should have been his last. Country chaos, that includes the immortal couplet: “”I’m sorry that I doubted you, I was so unfair / You were in a car crash and you lost your hair."

11. Savoy Truffle (The Beatles aka The White Album)
As glorious as The White Album is, it's questionable whether they had enough really great songs to make it a double. Here George fills the gaps with a little ditty about the contents of a box of chocolates. It’s basically a song about the munchies from the marijuana mystic.

12. Octopus’s Garden (Abbey Road)
Ringo trying to replicate the childish underwater joys of Yellow Submarine, but only succeeding in ruining the otherwise perfect Abbey Road album.

13. Maggie Mae (Let It Be)
During increasingly acrimonious recording sessions, The Feuding Four release tensions with a sudden burst of a dirty scouse folk song. Not their finest moment.

14. You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) (B side, available on Past Masters)
We can play out with another stoned farrago of a comedy song. You should only be grateful that I didn’t include "What’s The New Mary Jane" from Anthology.

A British Lincoln

I always thought Liam Neeson would have been a good choice to play Abraham Lincoln, but Steven Spielberg has decided he wants an English Abe, not a wild Irish one. According to this report, Sir Steve has named Daniel Day-Lewis as the actor he wants in the title role of his planned biopic. Apparently Neeson was considered for the role, but bowed out, probably because Spielbeg has been dilly-dallying around with this project for nearly 10 years now. One thing in Day-Lewis' favor -- he is not suferring from over-exposure. He's only been in four pictures this decade (The Gangs of New York, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, There Will Be Blood, Nine), about as many as Neeson has in the last year.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Baby wants technicolor cinemascope, baby gets technicolor cinemascope"

I don't know how it would stand up today -- I have refrained from looking at the DVD editions -- but I remember really liking the television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. back in the mid-'60s. I even remember what U.N.C.L.E. stood for (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement -- loved that superfluous "and"). However, I never did learn what T.H.R.U.S.H. (the acronym for the organization that U.N.C.L.E. battled in its attempt to take over the world) represented. Each show had the word "Affair" in its title, such as The Vulcan Affair, The Green Opal Affair and during its parody season (Season 3) The Indian Affairs Affair. And within each show, every segment had its own chapter heading, my favorite, in a program featuring a gangland chief who wants his girlfriend to be the movie star she desires to become, being the headline to this entry. Inspired by the success of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., its production company commissioned Mel Brooks and Buck Henry to write a spoof of the show which became the popular Get Smart television series.

I bring this up because I leaned today that George Clooney is talking to filmmaker Steven Soderbergh about starring in Soderbergh's movie adaptation of the spy vs. spy television classic. Clooney and Soderberg have a history of working together on such worthwhile projects as Out of Sight, Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck and the much underrated and overlooked Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. One report has Soderberg keeping the story in its original 1960s setting. I assume Clooney would play Napoleon Solo, the character created by Robert Vaughn on the television program. (A little piece of trivia: The name Napoleon Solo was conceived by James Bond-creator Ian Fleming, who contributed to the television show's creation. Fleming named him after Mr Solo, a character in Fleming's book Goldfinger.) No word yet on who would play Solo's Russian partner Illya Kuryakin, originally played by David McCallum. (Another piece of trivia: Fleming named the hero Solo because he was supposed to be the show's only hero, but an early, albeit brief appearance by McCallum was so popular, it was decided to pair the two.) Nor is their any notice about who would play the show's third major character, Alexander Waverly, the chief of U.N.C.L.E., played by the marvelous Leo G. Carroll in the original TV show.

Currently available on DVD: "The Secret in Their Eyes"

What are the odds that the year's most compelling mystery would end up hanging its hat on the year's richest love story?

From Argentina, The Secret in Their Eyes won this year's Academy Award for best foreign language film, besting such formidable titles as The White Ribbon and A Prophet. All three offer lessons in combining pulp and sociology, bringing to life geographically specific and richly detailed worlds on screen. Of the three, though, it's this one — co-written, co-produced, edited and directed by Juan Jose Campanella — that, if not the best fiilm, really delivers as entertainment.

Campanella's resume is fascinating: He was born in Buenos Aires, where most of this legal drama takes place, but he has done a lot of American television in what could broadly be defined as workplace procedurals, ranging from Law & Order and House to 30 Rock. The Secret in Their Eyes ranges nearly as widely within its own 129 minutes.

You never quite know where it's going, yet its mixture of tones and colors and melodrama and mature, mellow romance is irresistible.

It takes a while to get the hang of its two-track narrative structure, adapted by Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri from Sacheri's novel. A divorced, 60-ish and recently retired criminal court investigator has undertaken a writing project, a fictionalized version of a 25-year-old rape and murder case never solved. Benjamin Esposito — played by Ricardo Darin — revisits his old haunts to bring the past into some kind of focus. His former colleague (Soledad Villamil), now a judge, has tantalized Esposito since they first met. He remains haunted by this woman, no less than the murder victim's grieving husband (Pablo Rago) is haunted by his own loss.

The movie works for many reasons. Each major character registers, both as written and as acted by this superb cast, and is vivid enough to deserve a film of his or her own. The wry, funny interaction of these midlevel bureaucrats, including Esposito's alcoholic but wily colleague (Guillermo Francella), moves and sounds and feels like life. (At times you might think you're watching two terrific episodes of Law & Order back to back, if Law & Order were set in Buenos Aires.)

Half the film unfolds in flashback in 1970s Argentina, as Esposito and his intrepid colleagues buck the system and try to solve a murder case rapidly growing cold. When they do catch up with their prime suspect, the scene's a fantastic showpiece: a chase all over a packed soccer stadium, seamlessly connecting several long takes, the most memorable of which follows the suspect onto the field during the match. (A key scene preceding this, one of ugly sexual goading behind closed office doors, is in its explicit way no less arresting.)

The mystery's resolution may remind you of Dennis Lehane's crime and morality tales. The script's exploration of a corrupt judicial system recalls the best of Sidney Lumet's ensemble works. But the love story is what sets The Secret in Their Eyes apart. Make no mistake, the film's a bit shameless: The poetic, running-to-say-goodbye-at-the-train-station prologue and its bookend sequence carry a whiff of the romance novel ethos. Yet Darin and Villamil are wonderful together, playing actual, three-dimensional grown-ups. It's a shock to the system, let me tell you.

There's nothing high-minded or consciously elevating about this picture. It's simply the best kind of pulp, done with feeling and smarts and behavioral details usually left out of both crime films and love stories.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Currently available on DVD: "Afterschool"

You have a choice when sitting down to watch Afterschool, an arresting feature by Antonio Campos about death at a snooty prep school. You can put a figurative lens in front of your eyes with the words “The guy was only 24 when he made this” stenciled on it and have everything you see colored by that. Or you can just absorb the movie as you would any other, giving it a chance to catch your interest and creep you out.

The film first attracted attention at festivals, some of it from people who apparently had that lens in place. They have written at length about the stylistic quirks Campos loads into the movie, detailing who used them before and better (like Gus Van Sant, Michael Haneke and the documentarian Frederick Wiseman). The subtext is, “See, the kid’s not really that talented.”

But such dissecting of influences (all of which Campos has acknowledged anyway) doesn’t shed much light in this age of cultural overproduction, when almost nothing is truly original and everybody is imitating or sampling or homaging or ripping off someone else. So let’s instead consider the real question: Is Afterschool any good?

The film focuses on Robert (Ezra Miller), a withdrawn underclassman who consumes Web videos, though “focuses on” isn’t perhaps the best choice of words. Campos goes in heavily for unconventional shots, the characters being barely in the frame, the camera lingering on legs or empty hallways. He also likes the stationary long shot, like something a security camera might take. It all makes for a slow-evolving tale, especially since Campos has yet to learn when such gimmicks wear out their welcome and plain-old storytelling is required. But it sure does build ominousness.

Robert joins an after-school video-production club, and while shooting footage in a stairwell he accidentally captures the deaths of two fellow students, popular twin girls who have taken bad drugs. Paranoia settles over the institution, even as Robert is asked to make what his adviser assumes will be a celebratory video tribute to the dead students. Campos plays with viewpoint, time and everything else as he chronicles Robert’s increasing instability.

In truth there isn’t much story here, or much insight either; the kind of alienated teenagers wandering through this film exist in movies far out of proportion to their number in real life. But those with the patience to wait out Campos’s overindulgences will definitely finish watching Afterschool unnerved, which is probably exactly what he had in mind.

Currently available on DVD: "Looking for Eric"

There are two Erics in Looking for Eric. One is Eric Bishop (Steve Evets), a middle-aged Manchester, England, postal worker whose existence has been a chronicle of hardship and disappointment, much of it self-inflicted. We first see him driving the wrong way around a traffic circle, as if trying to outrun decades of accumulated anxiety. The inevitable accident is almost redundant, since he was already pretty much a wreck.

Eric lives in a messy house with two teenage stepsons (Gerard Kearns and Stefan Gumbs) who seem to be en route from ordinary adolescent sullenness to outright criminality. He also has an infant granddaughter and a grown-up daughter (Lucy-Jo Hudson), whose mother, Lily (Stephanie Bishop), he abandoned many years before, but who is enough of a presence in Eric’s life to keep him in a perpetual state of guilt.

Once upon a time, he was young and handsome, a gifted dancer full of potential. (He met Lily at a dance contest glimpsed in lyrical flashbacks.) Now he is angry, stressed out and miserable, in spite of his friends’ efforts to cheer him up with jokes and self-help exercises.

The other Eric, who becomes this Eric’s confidant and guru (though he is also a hallucination), is Eric Cantona, the real-life former star of the Manchester United soccer team. Cantona, an executive producer of this film (directed by Ken Loach from a script by Paul Laverty), was, at least on the strength of the movie’s own testimony, the greatest center forward ever. Evidence for this is provided by clips showing some of his memorable goals, and also by the adulation expressed by Eric and his pals at the post office, for whom football is both a great cause and a steady source of consolation.

Cantona shows up from time to time in Eric’s bedroom, where the two men drink wine, smoke a little grass and exchange philosophical insights.

“We always have more choices than we think,” the footballer observes. “You must always trust your teammates.”

The sentimentality of these scenes is undercut by their frank, understated absurdity, and by the way Evets, a nimble and instinctive actor, slides back and forth between incredulity and shrugging acceptance of his famous, imaginary friend’s presence.

And since this is a Ken Loach film, there is plenty of grit and working-class stoicism, and also the hovering threat of violence and repressive state power. Loach is a proud and passionate old-school British leftist, but the recent films he has done with Laverty display a gratifyingly flinty conservatism, both aesthetic and cultural.

He is grumpy about much of the modern world — the nihilism of youth culture in particular — and also committed to formal and visual traditionalism. But the clarity of his view of the world, and his absolute mastery of cinematic storytelling, endows films like Sweet Sixteen and The Wind That Shakes the Barley with an authoritative feeling of solidity and coherence.

Loach’s touch is a bit lighter here. Sweet Sixteen is a coming-of-age story shot through the lens of social tragedy, while The Wind That Shakes the Barley is an epic of historical disaster. Looking for Eric is, by comparison, gentle and sweet and often very funny. The filmmakers recruited a squad of fleshy, foul-mouthed Manchester comedians to play Eric’s mates, whose easy camaraderie and shared passion for the United team make them embodiments of the class solidarity that is Loach’s main (or possibly only) source of hope. They are also genuinely hilarious, especially Meatballs (John Henshaw), whose down-to-earth good sense backs up Cantona’s loftier wisdom.

And the film’s riotous climax deftly turns grim social realism into action-slapstick revenge farce. Not something Loach has tried before, and something he turns out to do rather well.

Oh-no: A "Wizard of Oz" remake

This is a terrible idea waiting to happen. Word is out that Warner Bros. wants director Robert Zemeckis to remake The Wizard of Oz as a live-action feature from the original 1939 movie script. Warners obtained the script when it purchased Ted Turner's assets. Turner, you might recall, got it when he took over MGM's library. You might think that using the original script would be a good idea, but look at what happened when Gus Van Zant tried to do the same thing with Psycho. It was an absolute disaster. C'mon, can anyone replace Judy Garland? Can't happen and shouldn't be tried.

What I want for Christmas ....

... is one of those wristband gadgets that Daniel Craig is wearing in this trailer.

This is the first time I've heard anything about this movie, but it looks interesting, albeit a tad dark.

What if "The Social Network" had different directors

This parody is pretty funny, especially if you've seen The Social Network, anything by Wes Anderson, Reservoir Dogs and It's a Wonderful Life. I thought the Christopher Guest bit was far-fetched and somewhat tasteless, however.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Gatsby returns

Director Baz Luhrmann, whose remake of Moulin Rouge I found pretentious but others -- a lot of others -- liked, is now going to attempt another remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 classic The Great Gatsby. Leonardo DiCaprio will play the title tole, Carey Mulligan will portray Daisy and Tobey Maguire is expected to play Gatsby's best friend Nick.

The movie was filmed first in 1926 with Warner Baxter, Lois Wilson and Neil Hamilton with Herbert Brenon directing. The 1949 version starred Alan Ladd, Betty Field and Macdonald Carey with Elliot Nugent directing. The most popular version, the one released in 1974, featured Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston. It was directed by Jack Clayton. There was also a made-for-TV version in 2000 with Toby Stephens, Mia Sorvino and Paul Rudd.

My Top 10 NBA, NFL Teams

Last week's rankings in parenthesis
1.  New Orleans Hornets (2)
2.  San Antonio Spurs (4)
3.  Boston Celtics (5)
4.  Dallas Mavericks (7)
5.  Los Angeles Lakers (1)
6.  Chicago Bulls (UR)
7.  Orlando Magic (3)
8.  Miami Heat (9)
9.  Phoenix Suns (UR)
10. Utah Jazz (UR)
DROPPED OUT: Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warrios, Portland Trailblazers

1.  New England Patriots (5)
2.  New York Jets (4)
3.  Atlanta Falcons (3)
4.  Pittsburgh Steelers (1)
5.  Baltimore Ravens (2)
6.  Philadelphia Eagles (10)
7.  Green Bay Packers (8)
8.  Indianapolis Colts (9)
9.  New Orleans Saints (UR)
10. New York Giants (6)
DROPPED OUT: Tennessee Titans

Monday, November 15, 2010

GOP presidential hopefuls missing Hair

I found it interesting to note that a story in today's New York Times that mentions that possible GOP presidential contenders two years hence did not include Gov. Hair. For those not wanting to read the piece, the story basically says former Alaska Gov. and veep candidate Tiny Fey ... oops, I mean Sarah Palin ... is the wild card in the race, althought not in the ways you might think. In this case, "wild," means the other "possibles" are basically waiting around to see what antics she's got up her sleeves this time around.

The others listed in the story are (in order of mention): Tim Pawlenty, the departing governor of Minnesota; Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi; Mitt Romney, the former governor Massachusetts who also ran in 2008; Gov. Georbge E. Pataki of New York; Senator John Thune of South Dakota (Has anyone outside of the Dakotas heard of this guy?); Newt Gingrich (omigod!), the former House speaker; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the darling of the Christian conservatives; Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana; Rep. Mike Pence, also of Indiana (both of whom sound like Dan Quayle-type VP possibilities); and Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania who was quote by the Times as saying: “Unlike the past, I’m not sure there is a prohibitive favorite. It’s a matter of raising resources to conduct a viable effort. A lot of folks will never be able to get off the ground.”

Sunday, November 14, 2010

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rankings in parenthesis; BCS rankings in brackets.
1.  Oregon (1) [1]
2.  TCU (2) [3]
3.  Auburn (3) [3]
4.  Boise State (4) [4]
5.  Stanford (5) [6]
6.  LSU (7) [5]
7.  Nebraska (6) [8]
8.  Oklahoma State (8) [10]
9.  Ohio State (9) [9]
10. Wisconsin (11) [7]
11. Michigan State (12) [12]
12. Nevada (13) [18]
13. Alabama (14) [11]
14. Missouri (15) [15]
15. Arkansas (18) [13]
16. Oklahoma (19) [14]
17. Virginia Tech (UR) [16]
18. Utah (10) [23]
19. Southern California* (21) [UR]
20. Texas A&M (22) [19]
21. Arizona (16) [22]
22. South Carolina (UR) [17]
23. Iowa (17) [20]
24. Miami, Fla. (UR) [24]
25. Florida State (UR) [25]
*Southern California is on probabation and thus not ranked by the BCS
DROPPED OUT: Baylor, Florida, Kansas State, Mississippi State

Currently available on DVD: "Casino Jack and the United States of Money"

Convicted super lobbyist Jack Abramoff was so corrupt, there's no easy summary of his crimes. He and his cronies were masters of "astroturfing" - creating phony grass-roots campaigns to hide big corporate money - and the old-fashioned flimflam, playing one client against another. They persuaded Christian activists to fund anti-gambling campaigns against Indian tribes, who then paid Abramoff to muster congressional support in defense of their casinos. His crimes were ideally adapted to the age of complex derivatives: The web was so complicated and opaque that only when it began to collapse did its true extent become apparent.

Alex Gibney, who took home an Oscar for the 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, struggles to get his arms around the amorphous, appalling and yet shockingly banal schemes of Abramoff in Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Not to be confused with George Hickenlooper's fictional treatment of the same scandals (starring Kevin Spacey) scheduled for release Dec. 17, Gibney's documentary strains to make sense of the minutiae without losing the audience's attention over its formidable, two-hour length.

Fact may be stranger than fiction, but Gibney's account comes to life only when Abramoff's bankrupt soul is revealed in strokes bold enough for satire. His e-mails, bursting with contempt for his own clients, are some of the best material in the film. And there are other golden moments, though many of them are already familiar: When we learn he committed to Orthodox Judaism after seeing Fiddler on the Roof, that his Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant Signatures offered "liberal portions in a conservative setting," that one of his large and important-sounding front organizations was headed by a Rehoboth Beach lifeguard who charmingly confesses, "I'm not qualified to run a Baskin-Robbins."

But Gibney's efforts at a larger narrative are problematic, in part because it seems that Abramoff, who is scheduled to be released from federal prison next month, was a nasty, cynical, devious lowlife right from the start. There was no Lady Macbeth whispering in impressionable Jack's ear, no road paved with good intentions, no Rake's Progress. He rose quickly in college Republican circles, forged a powerful nexus with Christian conservative Ralph Reed and anti-tax campaigner Grover Norquist, and then started cashing in once Republicans came into congressional power with the 1994 elections. Close ties to former House majority leader Tom DeLay, other top Republicans (and a handful of Democrats) in Congress, plus Bush administration officials helped Abramoff form one of the most powerful networks ever to warp the ways of democracy.

Gibney's larger thesis - that Abramoff wasn't exceptional, but rather a manifestation of an openly acknowledged alliance between moneyed interests and elected officials - undermines his efforts to build outrage. This is the new normal, and there's DeLay all but saying (without a hint of shame) what should sound outrageous: that if public officials are bought openly and transparently, well, what's wrong with that? Isn't that capitalism?

Gibney reaches into the usual bag of tricks to keep things light and snappy as he tries to connect the many dots. He throws in clips from old films (please, no more using Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), and he uses wry chapter headings such as "Treasure Island" for a section of the film detailing Abramoff's lobbying efforts on behalf of sweatshop owners in the Northern Mariana Islands (something I became intimately familiar with), and lots of retro music with funny lyrics. The tone of much of the film has that knowing, cynical, can't-shock-me-anymore flavor of liberal political satire on cable television.

The presence of several of the major players in the scandal helps keep the film from becoming a screed. Former Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican who went to jail in 2007 for his involvement with Abramoff, talks openly about his participation, as does Ney's former chief of staff, Neil Volz, who is the only person in the film who sounds convincingly chastened. DeLay also sits for an interview, nervously rubbing his hands but standing his ground.

But it's hard to assume Gibney's ironic tone and still expect to scandalize your audience into outrage. It's hard to make these dull, hollow, scheming men, who live in the perpetual testosterone-soaked locker room of adolescence, who seem to have no intellectual or spiritual depth, who take sophomoric pleasure in golf trips, sky boxes and private planes, into cinematic villains. They are pond scum - they are Washington - yet not quite interesting enough to be characters in a film.

So Gibney expands his focus, going for breadth when depth, at least in terms of character, is elusive. The film swells with Russian oil execs, Chinese sweatshop owners and Miami hit men. It swells in length, too, taxing the patience of even the most committed student of corruption. Ultimately, it becomes a Rorschach test of the viewer's cynicism: Does it shock you? You must not live in Washington, read the newspaper or follow politics. Are you horrified? Congratulations, and now wise up.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Currently available in theaters: "Unstoppable"

The thrill of Tony Scott’s Unstoppable, in which a runaway freight train hurtles through rural — and toward not-so-rural — Pennsylvania, is that its setup asks us to believe only in human ineptitude. There are no scheming terrorists, no lone crazies: Just one numbnuts who decides to jump from the engine he’s driving, fully intending to jump back in before the thing really gets going. No one in Unstoppable actually wants this train — which happens, by the way, to be loaded with hazardous substances — to wreak havoc on the countryside and its attendant population. But everyone, including the moron who set the thing on autopilot in the first place, wants to stop it.

No one wants to stop it more than Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), a longtime engineer who on this particular day finds himself stuck baby-sitting a rookie conductor, Will Colson (Chris Pine). These two aren’t, at first, anywhere near the runaway train — they’re driving another one that’s headed straight for it, on the same track — which gives them some time to work through the inevitable getting-to-know-you portion of Unstoppable. Frank has two almost-20 daughters whom he clearly loves very much — at the beginning of his shift, he hangs a photo strip of the two of them in his cab. (A moment of minor hilarity ensues when it’s revealed that both girls are waitressing their way through college — at Hooters.) Will is estranged from his wife and child as the result, we learn, of a misunderstanding; he spends much of his workday morning (too much, Frank seems to think) on his cell phone, trying to work out his myriad personal problems.

Washington and Pine are predictably likable, together and separately: Washington is wonderful at playing a great tease, and Pine’s grouchy, troubled character is eminently teasable. But what about that out-of-control train? Eventually, Will and Frank learn it’s headed their way, and Frank — working via radio with a no-nonsense yardmaster, played by the as-always marvelously expressive Rosario Dawson — hatches a plan that just might slow down the speeding behemoth. Or it might just kill him and his colleague. But in true Denzel Washington fashion, he’s just got to try it.

Unstoppable was inspired by true events — the script is by Mark Bomback, the writer behind Race to Witch Mountain and Live Free or Die Hard — and although many of the plot details seem plenty jacked up, it’s easy enough to believe that something like this could possibly happen. Of course, we’re in Tony Scott territory, so the runaway train just has to be carrying highly toxic gluemaking supplies. There’s also some folderol with a trainful of boisterous schoolchildren who, of course, do not get creamed by the oncoming loco-locomotive.

But Scott doesn’t get hung up on those specific clichéd details — he and cinematographer Ben Seresin treat them with a wink and move on, devoting most of their energy to building not-so-subtle layers of tension and suspense. The movie’s last half is beautifully sustained — the action isn’t so much fast-paced as it is discreetly, marvelously taut. And while the camerawork and the cutting are, in some ways, action-movie typical — there’s lots of zig-zaggy editing and clever, oblique camera angles — Seresin doesn’t just go for the obvious. As Frank and Will begin their workday, the engine they’re driving makes its way around an elevated curve of track in Stanton, Pa., and Seresin makes the landscape look dewy and gleaming in the morning light. He sees beauty in the surrounding working-class clapboard houses and old brick industrial buildings. This isn’t one of those “Why would you wanna live in this crap town?” visual essays; it’s more of a casual postcard with some real affection for the American landscape.

Even the unmanned train itself — it goes by the jazzy number 777 — has a personality of its own. Seresin and Scott are fond of showing it head-on, a red-faced beast with slanted windows staring us down like a pair of menacing eyes. If this were a Stephen King story, the 777 would have an evil heart and an even more evil mission. As it is, though, it’s just a powerful machine that has been let down by human dorkiness. The people who want to stop it include a know-it-all inspector (played, wonderfully, by Kevin Corrigan) whose unabashedly nerdy pronouncements grease the works with just the right amount of comic relief. “Will the portable derailing whichamajigger succeed in halting the train, thus preventing what could be the greatest railway disaster in history?” one character might ask him, to which he’ll reply, after a deep and thoughtful pause, “Possibly.” There’s no surefire cure for a runaway train. Plus this one is, as one character puts it, a missile the size of the Chrysler Building. It’s a thing of majesty and menace, just like the movie around it. Unstoppable is one gleaming machine paying tribute to another.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The need for deficit reduction

Politically, you could probably classify me as more of a liberal than not, and that's why I find it surprising that my fellow "liberals" are supposedly saying "not in my lifetime" when it comes to the subject of draft report issued earlier in the week by the bipartisan deficit reduction committee. I can imagine the Tea Party folks being against it -- they are against everything, even if it is something aimed at accomplishing their goal to drive down the deficit. The Tea Party folks live in this cloudy world of unreality in which they think spending cuts are the only alternative, but then no one has ever accused Tea Party members of anything remotely resembling intelligence.

I'll admit, the report needs to be thrashed out, but to dismiss it out of hand is ridiculous. Anyone who is serious about reducing the deficit needs to put all the possible alternatives on the table. There is absolutely no way the deficit can be reduced without a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. And nothing should be exempt from the discussion and that includes such sacred cows as Medicare, Social Security,defense spending and eliminating the Bush tax breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent of our population which, alone, will reduce the deficit by $40 billion next year alone. And the Medicare and Social Security cuts recommended by the draft report still protect those most vulnerable, especially those receiving those benefits now.

The solution to the problem of the deficit is going to be a painful one for everyone, regardless of what side of the political fence you're on and the sooner the politicians in Washington face that reality, the better we will all be. And one politician in particular needs to step up right away. Without the backing of the President, the report probably will never make it to Congress for the much-needed debate. The White House must assume a leadership role in this immediately or else we will find ourselves in an even deeper deficit mess.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Currently available on DVD: "The Exploding Girl"

Ivy (Zoe Kazan), present in virtually every frame of The Exploding Girl, Bradley Rust Gray’s sweet and tentative film, is home from college for the summer, back in a New York suffused with leafy green in the daytime and red neon at night. Her life is fairly uneventful — she hangs out, works with some children, talks on her cellphone, goes to a party or two, visits a doctor who monitors her epilepsy — but nonetheless complicated.

Ivy’s boyfriend, Greg, is somewhere else, and his sporadic calls and awkward pauses suggest emotional as well as physical distance. An old friend named Al (Mark Rendall) is staying in the apartment Ivy shares with her distracted mother (Maryann Urbano), and a tiny current of sexual possibility — to call it tension would be false to the film’s studious slackness of tone —connects these two timid young people.

Since Ivy’s emotions are, for the most part, muffled and indirectly expressed, the movie’s title may seem ironic, even as it clearly refers to her medical condition. The threat of a seizure hovers over the movie, as does the specter of an outburst of pent-up, half-understood feeling. Both things happen, but the film is driven less by plot than by a desire to explore, intimately and yet from a tactful distance, the quiet moods and quotidian interactions of its characters.

Influenced by the contemplative, observant strains in Japanese and European cinema — Hirokazu Kore-eda’s example is especially strong here — The Exploding Girl is a companion piece to In Between Days, which Gray wrote with his wife, So Yong Kim, who directed it. Both movies follow a young woman through a period of indecision, and both respect their main characters’ lack of direction almost to the point of sharing it.

Kazan, who has been popping up all over the place in memorable small roles — she was one of Meryl Streep’s kids in It’s Complicated, an aspiring writer in Me and Orson Welles and Leonardo DiCaprio’s office fling in Revolutionary Road — is careful not to give away too much of Ivy’s inner life. And Gray does not probe too deeply, which is both a fair aesthetic choice and a limitation. Ivy’s half-swallowed utterances make mumblecore look like melodrama by comparison: “Yeah, O.K.” “Yeah, I guess.” “O.K., sure.”

Which is not to say that The Exploding Girl is entirely lacking in energy or affect. Gray has a sensitive eye and a graceful sense of pace, and the film’s best moments — hushed conversations between Ivy and Al; extended close-ups of Kazan’s soft, oddly shaped face — have an almost exquisite delicacy.

But to put the slightest pressure on something so delicate is to risk breaking it, and the film’s reticence can be frustrating as well as charming. Gray’s achievement — and Kazan’s, too — is to make you care enough about Ivy to be curious about her. But The Exploding Girl can also make you feel bad about wishing that she were just a little more interesting.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Top 10 NBA, NFL Teams

1.  Los Angeles Lakers
2.  New Orleans Hornets
3.  Orlando Magic
4.  San Antonio Spurs
5.  Boston Celtics
6.  Atlanta Hawks
7.  Dallas Mavericks
8.  Golden State Warriors
9.  Miami Heat
10. Portland Trailblazers

1.  Pittsburgh Steelers
2.  Baltimore Ravens
3.  Atlanta Falcons
4.  New York Jets
5.  New England Patriots
6.  New York Giants
7.  Tennessee Titans
8.  Green Bay Packers
9.  Indianapolis Colts
10. Philadelphia Eagles

Now available on DVD: "Solitary Man"

You know the drill in a typical movie: Things go wrong for a selfish man, he hits bottom, sees the light and the rest of the film is spent with his stirring return to good-guy status.

But what if there were no bottom? What if there were endless mistakes to make, some of them spectacular, and the resurrection of the character was put off till the last minute, if it occurred at all? If that sounds like an intriguing notion, well, it is, and Solitary Man proves it. Even better, it's bolstered by a terrific performance from Michael Douglas, his best in years, as a disgraced car salesman who can't, or won't, stop his downward spiral. Douglas' performance is so strong that we don't even care. He's just so much fun to watch. Add a really good supporting cast that's uniformly outstanding - although they really are supporting here; it's Douglas' movie - and you've got a fine movie.

The film opens with Ben Kalmen (Douglas) getting a checkup at his doctor's office. He's such a salesman he can't help schmoozing with the physician. But there's a worry in one of the tests, an irregularity with Ben's heart that could be serious. He should get it checked out.

Cut to six years later. Ben is ruined, or getting there, having participated in a stupid scam and cheated his way out of marriage to his sensible, loving wife, Nancy (Susan Sarandon). He has lost his fortune and his relative fame (he once graced the cover of Forbes), though not his touch with younger, vulnerable women. He still sees his daughter, Susan (Jenna Fischer), and his grandson Scotty (Jake Siciliano). But Susan's husband, Gary (David Costabile), is onto him. Actually, so is Susan, but she feels sorry for him and, well, he is her father. But everyone has limits.

Jordan Karsch (Mary-Louise Parker), Ben's girlfriend, has her limits, reaching them after Ben exercises monumentally poor judgment involving her teenage daughter (Imogen Poots). Out of options, Ben lands back in his college town (where a building is named after him, thanks to a donation back in his salad days, but he's more interested, even at his age, in the keg parties). Old friend Jimmy (Danny DeVito), with whom Ben hasn't spoken since college, is exceptionally gracious, a warm man who doesn't judge, whether his friends are riding high or sinking low.

Ben's in the latter category. He befriends a shy student (Jesse Eisenberg), perhaps seeking the chance to serve as a mentor of sorts. But in Ben's world, there is only one person who really counts: Ben. He's selfish, self-centered and a heel to everyone he comes into contact with. And yet ... Douglas treads a careful line, in that he (and directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien) don't make Ben sympathetic, exactly - he's too boorish for that. But Douglas allows the salesman to shine through a bit, even in disgrace. The disarming smile, the smack on the shoulder - it's all as insincere as the promises he makes.

But Ben, and what we really mean here is Douglas, won't be ignored. Douglas excels at this kind of role. You don't root for Ben, certainly. But you do wish that he could maybe turn things around a bit, stop the slide a little.

If not that, you'll happily settle for simply sitting back and watching.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Now available on DVD: "That Evening Sun"

That Evening Sun moves slowly, deliberately, like its lead character, Abner Meecham, a crusty old coot who escapes the old-folks home his son has put him in.

Played with exquisite skill by the sorely underrated Hal Holbrook, Abner lives his life in the same straightforward manner in which he executes his escape - by simply walking out the door.

He wants to go back to his Tennessee farm to live out the rest of his life, so he persuades the taxi driver who comes to deliver him back to the old-folks home to take him there. Once he arrives, however, he encounters a problem: Someone else is living there.

Abner's lawyer son, Paul (Walton Goggins), has leased the place to the Choats, for whom Abner has no use, and the old man is not shy about letting the family know it.

You even walk like it, he tells Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon).

Walk like what?

"White trash.

Abner is determined to get his home back, but for the time being, he has to settle for being a squatter in the sharecropper's shack out back. He's not happy there, and Lonzo's certainly not happy about him being there.

Lonzo's long-suffering wife, Ludie (Carrie Preston), is a little friendlier, while their daughter, Pamela (Mia Wasikowska), reaches out to Abner - he's a mean old goat; you get the sense that no one has made a friendly overture his way in a long time, so he's not quite sure how to respond.

Lonzo's a drunk, and a mean one. When Abner sees him whipping Ludie and Pamela with a garden hose one night, mad about a date Pamela has gone on, Abner's had enough. He fires a shot Lonzo's way and lets him know he'll be in touch with the sheriff the next morning.

From there, the movie is a test of wills between Abner and Lonzo. It takes a while for that to play out; this is the rural South, after all, so no one's in much of a hurry. The characters simply move forward, at their own pace, and there is a kind of nobility to that. Scenes in which Abner shoots the breeze with his neighbor Thurl (Barry Corbin) linger and are a treat. Just watching the two men drawl about life is time well spent.

Director Scott Teems, who also wrote the script, based on the short story by William Gay, finds some humanity in all the characters, even Lonzo, who indeed may seem like a lazy redneck. But there are reasons, and we see, in brief moments, how tortured he is - he's more self-aware than we realize.

The beauty of Holbrook's performance is that Abner is not a particularly likable character. He's not without a certain Southern charm, but he has a vindictive streak - as he tells Paul, he has never been one to let things lie, and that will cost him.

But we also recognize in him a real fear of losing his independence, his dignity, compounded by flashbacks of time spent with his wife (Holbrook's real-life wife, Dixie Carter).

There is a predictability to the story, but that's OK. The acting is superb, Holbrook in particular, making That Evening Sun an understated pleasure.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's ranking in parenthesis; BCS ranking in brackets:
1.  Oregon (1) [1]
2.  TCU (2) [3]
3.  Auburn (3) [2]
4.  Boise State (4) [4]
5.  Stanford (6) [6]
6.  Nebraska (7) [8]
7.  LSU (13) [5]
8.  Oklahoma State (14) [10]
9.  Ohio State (12) [9]
10. Utah (5) [14]
11. Wisconsin (15)\[7]
12. Michigan State (18) [11]
13. Nevada (17) [21]
14. Alabama (10) [12]
15. Missouri (8) [17]
16. Arizona (11) [18]
17. Iowa (16) [13]
18. Arkansas (20) [15]
19. Oklahoma (9) [16]
20. Mississippi State (22) [19]
21. Southern California (UR) [UR]
22. Texas A&M (UR) [25]
23. Florida (UR) [22]
24. Kansas State (UR) [24]
25. Baylor (23) [UR]
Dropped out: Florida State, North Carolina State, South Carolina, Virginia Tech

Saturday, November 6, 2010

My November Oscar Predictions

Here is the way the Oscar race shapes up to me as of this month. All nominees are listed alphabetically.

127 Hours
Another Year
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
WAITING IN THE WINGS: Rabbit Hole, The Way Back, Winter's Bone

Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Robert Duvall, Get Low
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours
WAITING IN THE WINGS: No one that I can see

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Nicolle Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Leslie Manville, Another Year
Natalie Portman, The Black Swan

Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Fighter
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
Sam Rockwell, Conviction
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech
WAITING IN THE WINGS: Ed Harris, The Way Back

Supporting Actress
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Miranda Richardson, Made in Dagenham
Jackie Weaver, Animal Kingdom
Dianne Wiest, Rabbit Hole
WAITING IN THE WINGS: Barbara Hershey, Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Danny Boyle, 127 Hours
David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
Christopher Nolan, Inception
WAITING IN THE WINGS: Ethan and Joel Coen, True Grit

Original Sceenplay
Another Year
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech

Adapted Screenplay
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Film Editing
127 Hours
The King's Speech
The Social Network
True Grit

127 Hours
Black Swan
The Social Network
True Grit

Art Direction
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
The King's Speech
True Grit

Sound Mixing
127 Hours
Toy Story 3
TRON: Legacy
WAITING IN THE WINGS: Iron Man 2, The Social Network

Sound Editing
127 Hours
Iron Man 2
Toy Story 3
TRON: Legacy

Costume Design
Alice in Wonderland
Get Low
The King's Speech
The Tempest

I'll save the rest for later

Whatever you say, Jerry

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said during a KRLD interview yesterday he had no intentions of firing head coach Wade Phillips after his team, which he expected to be the first to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium, began this season 1-6 and will probably add another loss to its record tomorrow night. I agree with the decision -- it really makes no sense to fire a head coach in the middle of a season, but I, along with millions of others, will be shocked if Phillips is running things (well, as much as any coach can really be said to be "running things" with the Cowboys as long as Jones is the owner) at the beginning of the 2011 season.

When asked, however, when would be the best time to replace a head coach, Jones, according to this account, said the following:

"I think this: I do want to remind every fan that is listening, that if some of the fundamental things that help teams win are…the franchise, frankly, can be important and the stature of the franchise can be important. The amount of money in professional football, professional sports, the amount of money that is expended to help the team win; that’s a big deal. We spend more on this team than any team in all of football. So, I’ll answer that one for you."
Huh? That sounds more like an answer this guy would have given.

Same song, new verse

A Dallas Police Department investigation has revealed that City Council member Carolyn Davis did nothing illegal when she interfered with police for stopping the driver of a pickup who had run a couple of stop signs; she was just being stupid. Heard that one before?

Another Baptist hoax

This has as much to do with legitimate Jewish studies as does a course on the New Testament. The giveaway is that the late Rev. W.A. Criswell of Dallas's First Baptist Church was involved in this movement. Criswell devoted his life to ridding the world of Jews by trying to convert as many as he could to Christianity. His underhanded way of accomplishing this was for the First Baptist Church to start something called the Adat Shalom Congregation in 1990, which was designed to attract Jews who could be converted. For SMU to claim the their program is one of "Jewish studies" is just more Christian propaganda.

Good night, Jill

Jill Clayburgh died Friday of lukemia. She was 66 and surrounded by family when she died in her Connecticut home. She was twice nominated for an Oscar for best actress, once in 1978 for An Unmarried Woman and again the following year for Starting Over. The above clip is one of my favorite moments from An Unmarried Woman.

Currently available on DVD: "Harry Brown"

Vigilante justice has long been a popular movie theme, but seldom has the central figure in such stories been of retirement age. Harry Brown (Michael Caine), a veteran of the Royal Marines who lives alone in a dangerous housing project in southeast London, would probably be just as happy not to play the hero. But circumstances dictate otherwise.

Brown prefers not to talk about his violent past and claims that he has become a different man than he was in his military days. But when local thugs murder his friend Leonard (David Bradley), Brown can't stop himself from seeking revenge. That puts him at odds with detective Alice Frampton (an intense and intriguing Emily Mortimer), who is investigating Leonard's death. Brown is bitter that the police are interested in a crime that, in his mind, they didn't do enough to prevent.

Disdainfully, he stalks the thugs on the streets. And as the body count mounts, Brown finds that he's in danger of losing the identity that he's worked so hard to build.

Harry Brown largely succeeds in transcending the clichés of the Death Wish genre, portraying the conflicted emotions of a man who takes little joy in the mayhem he perpetrates. Working from a screenplay by Gary Young, director Daniel Barber delivers a film that's as much a character study as it is a crime drama. At the heart of it is Caine's hauntingly memorable performance.

Despite his two supporting-actor Oscars — for Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and The Cider House Rules (1999) — Caine remains somewhat underrated. It's unlikely that Harry Brown will do much to change that. But the film reasserts what his fans have known all along: that when it comes to combining vulnerability and menace, nobody does it quite like Caine.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Good Night Ed

I did not know Ed Kuempel that well. In fact, I didn't even know he was a state legislator until I read that he had died this morning of a heart attack in Austin. Truth be told, the last time I saw Ed (the newspaper story referred to him as Edmund, but I always knew him as Ed) was a little more than 48 years ago.

It was during my first internship, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. I was working for the Seguin Gazette, at the time a weekly newspaper in Seguin, known back then as the town 30 miles east of San Antonio where U.S. Highways 90 and 90A joined (they separated in Houston, depending on which way you traveled). My job at the Seguin Gazette was basically to cover and write about everything, except the editorials and the society columns. That meant city news, county news, the police beat and sports. That summer sports consisted of two semi-pro baseball teams based in Seguin, the Seguin White Sox and the SMI (for Seguin Steel Mills) Steelers. Kumpel, who had also pitched for Seguin'sTexas Lutheran College's baseball team, was the ace of the White Sox starting rotation, which meant he pitched almost every game since the two teams only played twice a week.

The University of Texas' baseball team, then coached by the legendary Bibb Falk, had just won another Southwest Conference championship that season and was heading up to Omaha to play in the College Wold Series. Between the end of the SWC season and the start of the series, Falk scheduled a couple of warmup games, one of which was with the White Sox in Seguin. I covered the game for the Gazette and since the field had nothing resembling a functioning press box, I sat behind the Texas bench, one of those chain-link enclosures you see on just about all municipal baseball fields even to this day.

Falk had a reputation for trying to unnerve opposing pitchers by talking to them constantly and he never let up on poor Ed throughout his stint on the mound. "He throws inside, he throws outside," Falk yelled to his batters. "His main pitch is his changeup." I distinctly remember one moment, when Kuempel was about halfway through his windup, Falk yelled "Hey, Kuempel! Can you open a beer can with that chin?" A hapless Kuempel collapsed in laughter right there on the mound. Even the umpire was laughing too hard to call a balk.

About half the teams in the league in which the White Sox and SMI played were based in San Antonio, so I often accompanied the team on road trips to the Alamo City. The team usually piled into four or five cars, each one belonging to and driven by a player, to make the trip. This league could not afford team buses. After one of these road contests it was decided that we would stop off at a neighborhood drive-in for dinner, which was going to be expensed by the team. We placed our order and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally Kuempel had had enough. He slammed his fist on the dashboard of the car he was riding in, jumped out of the card and screamed:

"Why you clowns can't fulfill a simple order of 37 hamburgers, 28 cheeseburgers, two double cheeseburgers, five with lettuce and tomato, 16 with pickles and mayonnaise, seven with mustard and lettuce ... 42 with French fries, 20 with onion rings ... 6 plain Cokes, 4 vanilla Cokes, 8 cherry Cokes, 7 chocolates shakes .... is beyond me."

This time it was the turn of the rest of us to roll around laughing out loud.

I did not know you well, Ed Kuempel, but the time I did know you were some of my best times.