Monday, December 31, 2012

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Duke 12-0 (1)
2.  Kansas 11-1 (2)
3.  Louisville 12-1 (4)
4.  Michigan 13-0 (3)
5.  Indiana 12-1 (6)
6.  Arizona 12-0 (5)
7.  Florida 9-2 (8)
8.  Syracuse 11-1 (7)
9.  Minnesota 12-1 (9)
10. Gonzaga 12-1 (12)
11. Creighton 12-1 (10)
12. Ohio State 10-2 (13)
13. Cincinnati 12-1 (11)
14. Oklahoma State 10-1 (17)
15. Pittsburgh 12-1 (18)
16. Virginia Commonwealth 10-3 (19)
17. Wichita State 12-1 (21)
18. North Carolina State 10-2 (20)
19. Missouri 10-2 (15)
20. Illinois 13-1 (16)
21. UNLV 11-2 (14)
22. Wyoming 12-0 (25)
23. Colorado 10-2 (NR)
24. New Mexico 13-1 (24)
25. Butler 10-2 (NR)
Dropped out: Miami, Fla. (22); Michigan State (23)

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Available on DVD: “Klown”

In Klown, Danish TV comedians Casper Christensen and Frank Hvam join the ranks of Sacha Baron Cohen and the Jackass mob by turning their antics into a semi-improvised comedy about the vulgar and sometimes very funny antics of confused men behaving like witless boys.

Married Casper is planning on a weekend at a brothel and wants to bring uptight Frank along. But Frank, to score points with his pregnant sweetheart, drags along her pudgy nephew, which you would think would curtail Casper’s coarsest and most explicit plans — but, then, of course, you’d be thinking, which is something that people in comedy of this stripe don’t often do.

There are real laughs in the film, yes, and enough sex and scatology to make anyone in the Apatow-verse blush. It isn’t art, it’s will-o-the-wisp thin, but it might well make you squirt your soda through your nose and all over your couch. And as there seem to be a number of people willing to pay good money for that sensation, there’s glory for you!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

This season's 10 best bowl games

As additional proof the BCS system is broken, two BCS bowls failed to make the list.

1. (of course) National Championship game: Notre Dame (12-0) vs. Alabama (12-1), Jan. 7, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
2.  Fiesta Bowl: Kansas State (11-1) vs. Oregon (11-1), Jan. 3, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
3.  Cotton Bowl: Texas A&M (10-2) vs Oklahoma (10-2) Jan. 4, 7 p.m., Fox

After the above three games, there's a major dropoff to this next plateau of bowl games.
4.  Alamo Bowl: Texas (8-4) vs. Oregon State (9-3), Dec. 29, 5:45 p.m., ESPN
5.  Outback Bowl: South Carolina (10-2) vs. Michigan (8-4), Jan. 1, noon, ESPN
6.  Chick-Fil-A Bowl: Clemson (10-2) vs. LSU (10-2), Dec. 31,   6:30 p.m., ESPN
7.  Rose Bowl: Stanford (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5), Jan. 1, 4 p.m., ESPN
8.  Holiday Bowl: Baylor (7-5) vs. UCLA (9-4), Dec. 27, 8:45 p.m., ESPN
9.  Capital One Bowl: Georgia (11-2) vs. Nebraska (10-3), Jan. 1, noon, ABC
10. Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl: TCU (7-5) vs. Michigan State (6-6), Dec. 29, 9:15 p.m., ESPN

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Available on DVD: “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”


Few movies can claim to be ripped from the headlines in the fashion of Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry, a portrait of the Chinese artist and activist most famous for his work on the Beijing Olympic stadium (aka the Bird’s Nest) and his cheeky attacks on his government on his massively popular Twitter feed. In 2011, Ai was held for months by Chinese authorities on charges of tax evasion that were widely believed to be a means of stifling his brazen anti-government speech and activities; only this summer was he granted bail and the permission to leave Beijing, with many restrictions on what he may say and do.

The career, private life and personality of the provocateur who brought such unwelcome attention on himself is the subject of an absorbing film by Alison Klayman, a journalist to whom Ai granted extremely close access both in his workplace and in his home.

Klayman’s film chiefly captures Ai in real-time: creating works for exhibits in London, New York and Munich, agitating for governmental accountability in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, fighting off art critics, censors and bureaucrats, balancing a complex family life, eating his favorite meals. But she looks backward as well, to tell the story of his father, Ai Qing, a noted poet who suffered during the Cultural Revolution, and to track Ai’s formative years as a young artist in New York.

You come away with an appreciation of the abstraction, scale and daring of Ai’s art and, even more, a sense of the living man in his courage, humor and restlessness. It’s an invigorating experience.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

That diabolical Soupman

I wish I hadn’t crumpled the advertisement and thrown it in the trash the moment I read it so I could refer to it now. It appeared a week or so ago in the Dallas Morning News in the form of an open letter from some diabolical character calling himself the Soupman, asking for help to make the lives of the homeless even more miserable than they already are.

The Soupman was seeking the help of others to put some homeless people up in the plush downtown Omni Hotel for one night. I think it came complete with room service or a meal of some sort provided by the hotel.

As soon as I saw it my immediate reaction was "What a rotten thing to do."

This was nothing more than an a move by misguided high minded Dallas residents to give some homeless individuals a small, brief taste of a life they will never ever get to know before tossing them back into the gutter just so these high society jokers could feel good about themselves, thinking they really did something worthwhile. How shameful!

Here’s a message to the Soupman, whoever you are: Instead of stunts like this, why not get your friends together to help find these people some form of permanent housing and perhaps even a way to make a decent wage.

Good Night, Charles

I don't know if the films have ever seen a better character actor than Charles Durning. The man melted into his roles, both serious, as Big Daddy (for which he won a Tony) in the 1989 Broadway revival of Cat in a Hot Tin Roof, his breakthrough part as the corrupt policeman in The Sting, and, of course Dog Day Afternoon; and comic, Tootsie and O, Brother, Where Art Thou? among them.

He was nominated for nine Emmys, two Oscars and he won a Golden Globe. In 2008, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild.

Durning died yesterday of natural causes in his New York City home. He was 89. The following is my personal favorite Charles Durning movie moment.

Good Night, Jack

Jack Klugman, an acting everyman, died yesterday at the age of 90 in his Los Angeles home with his wife of four years, Peggy. Most everyone will associate Klugman with (1) his role as the sloppy Oscar Madison in the television series, The Odd Couple that ran from 1970 to 1975; or (2) starring in the title role of Quincy, M.E., which ran on television even longer than The Odd Couple, from 1976 to 1983.

But I will always remember him as Juror No. 5 in 12 Angry Men.

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Duke 11-0 (1)
2.  Kansas 10-1 (7)
3.  Michigan 12-0 (3)
4.  Louisville 11-1 (5)
5.  Arizona 11-0 (9)
6.  Indiana 11-1 (6)
7.  Syracuse 10-1 (2)
8.  Florida 8-2 (4)
9.  Minnesota 12-1 (10)
10. Creighton 11-1 (14)
11. Cincinnati 12-0 (12)
12. Gonzaga 11-1 (11)
13. Ohio State 9-2 (8)
14. UNLV 11-1 (18)
15. Missouri 10-1 (21)
16. Illinois 12-1 (13)
17. Oklahoma State 10-1 (21)
18. Pittsburgh 12-1 (16)
19. Virginia Commonwealth 9-3 (20)
20. North Carolina State 9-2 (23)
21. Wichita State 11-1 (17)
22. Miami, Fla. 8-2 (NR)
23. Michigan State 11-2 (NR)
24. New Mexico 12-1 (15)
25. Wyoming 12-0 (NR)
Dropped out: Butler (19), Notre Dame (23), Oregon (25)

Available on DVD: “Arbitrage”


To look at Robert Miller, the hedge-fund king played with implacable cool by Richard Gere in the slick and suspenseful Arbitrage, is to see a man at the top of his game: rich, powerful, respected, a beautiful wife, a beautiful mansion, beautiful art.

At least, that’s how Miller comes across. But the guy in the bespoke suit with the corporate jet is actually almost $400 million in the hole. Miller has been cooking the books, and unless he sells the firm he’s built from scratch before his accounting scam is found out, he and his empire are over. Kaput.

Such is the premise of Nicholas Jarecki’s impressively packaged first feature, which follows Miller as he heaps one bad decision atop another. There are the casual lies to his wife, Ellen (a sly and quiet Susan Sarandon), about why he can’t come up with a paltry $1 million check for one of her philanthropic causes, and the not so casual lies to his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), who serves as his company’s chief financial officer.

And then there is his mistress, Julie (Victoria’s Secret alum Laetitia Casta), an artist he has been supporting, paying for her gallery show and her downtown loft. It’s when the two of them hie off for a midnight drive to the country that Miller’s life literally spins out of control: a car accident, a death, a panicky cover-up.

Jarecki, younger brother of filmmakers Andrew Jarecki (All Good Things) and Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), has a lot to juggle: the complicated financial wheelings and dealings; the appearance of a dogged NYPD detective — a Columbo-esque Tim Roth — who doesn’t like the idea of entitled Wall Streeters getting away with murder, and a young black man from Harlem (Nate Parker) whose ties to Miller, and loyalty, are sorely tested.

Is it a testament to Jarecki’s writing and directing, and to Gere’s performance, that we find ourselves rooting for Miller to get himself out of this mess? Is he, at heart, a good man? Or are his frauds and lies beyond redemption? Is the elite class allowed to play by a different set of rules?

Arbitrage  is at its best when it prompts us to ask these questions. The scenes between Gere and the strikingly good Marling — when the daughter who has loved her father so dearly finally discovers his elaborate deception — are fraught with tension and anger and hurt. But in the end, Arbitrage disappoints a bit. The writing isn’t as sharp, or sophisticated, as it needs be. And the cynicism exhibited by Miller and the circle of traders and tycoons he moves in seeps into the fabric of the story itself.

Comeuppance anyone?

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Duke 9-0 (1)
2.  Syracuse 9-0 (4)
3.  Michigan 11-0 (5)
4.  Florida 7-1 (2)
5.  Louisville 9-1 (6)
6.  Indiana 9-1 (3)
7.  Kansas 8-1 (7)
8.  Ohio State 8-1 (8)
9.  Arizona 8-0 (13)
10. Minnesota 11-1 (10)
11. Gonzaga 10-1 (9)
12. Cincinnati 10-0 (11)
13. Illinois 12-0 (14)
14. Creighton 10-1 (12)
15. New Mexico 11-0 (16)
16. Pittsburgh 10-1 (17)
17. Wichita State 9-1 (15)
18. UNLV 8-1 (18)
19. Butler 8-2 (NR)
20. Virginia Commonwealth 7-3 (NR)
21. (tie) Missouri 8-1 (24)
      Oklahoma State 8-1 (22)
23. (tie) Notre Dame 9-1 (23)
    North Carolina State 7-2 (20)
25. Oregon 9-1 (NR)
Dropped out: Georgetown (21), Michigan State (25), North Carolina (19)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Do-Deca Pentathlon”


Never underestimate the power of residual sibling rivalry to incite crazy behavior. That is the unsettling subtext of The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, Jay and Mark Duplass’s serious farce. The most gripping scene in this near-perfect little sports comedy is a fraternal arm-wrestling contest that reaches apoplectic intensity.

The combatants are Mark (Steve Zissis) — a chubby, out-of-shape pet-food marketing consultant who is married with an adolescent son — and his brother, Jeremy (Mark Kelly), an unmarried professional poker player. They are determined to settle unfinished personal business: In 1990, while in high school, they competed in a self-devised 25-event miniature Olympics that ended in a tie when a breath-holding contest was interrupted.

Each has since secretly harbored a desire to complete the competition, whose outcome would certify "the better brother." When Jeremy, the more insistent on settling it once and for all, crashes Mark’s birthday party at their mother’s home, their long-simmering power struggle boils up.

Mark, who sees a therapist, claims to have outgrown their shared obsession, but he hasn’t really. The moment Jeremy joins Mark in a friendly, noncompetitive mini-marathon run, the brothers break into a race in which they ferociously elbow each other, and Mark vomits from overexertion.

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon was shot in 2008, then put on the shelf while the Duplass brothers went mainstream with Cyrus. Although very funny, this film taps into a primal male competitiveness whose force outweighs reason and common sense. As Mark and Jeremy grasp hands and begin to push, you have the sense of observing two beasts locking horns in a life-or-death struggle on the African veld. For Mark, whose doctor has advised him to avoid stressful situations, there is some risk. As he turns scarlet, and the veins on his head pop out, you half expect him to explode.

Because their mother, Alice (Julie Vorus), and Mark’s wife, Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur), are dead set against the contest, the brothers try to keep it a secret. Much of the movie’s humor springs from their pathetic attempts to avoid detection by competing late at night or pretending to run errands and rushing out to do battle. Some events, like laser tag, seem more than a little silly. Mark’s inability to let go ultimately threatens his marriage as well as his health.

The film’s casual style works in its favor. It maintains a breezy pace, and much of the dialogue has the spontaneity of expert improvisation. As in the Duplasses’ other movies, the momentum is accelerated by quick zooms, abrupt edits and a restless camera.

If The Do-Deca-Pentathlon refers fleetingly to the brothers’ grown-up discontents, it makes every remark count. When the question "Are you happy?" is posed, it is not as offhand as it sounds, because the questioner is obviously hoping the answer is no.

Each wants something the other has. Mark envies Jeremy’s freewheeling bachelor life. Jeremy looks longingly at Mark’s security and more-or-less stable marriage and makes it a point to bond with his brother’s blasé, longhaired son, Hunter (Reid Williams), who assists the brothers in their deception without becoming emotionally involved.

The movie wouldn’t be as compelling if Zissis and Kelly weren’t also able to suggest an underlying fraternal bond. What passes for love between them is a deep, shared understanding of the importance of the competition.

In the rapidly expanding Duplass output The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is their second-best film, after The Puffy Chair, their mumblecore breakthrough, released in 2006. Aside from its technical crudeness, The Puffy Chair, which was made for about $15,000 and included a few too many "dudes" in the screenplay, was a career-defining film and a scruffy little miracle of truthfulness. So is this, but on a smaller scale.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Available on DVD: “A Cat in Paris”


There’s a cat burglar in Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s A Cat in Paris, a gorgeously rendered animated feature that was one of the five Academy Award nominees at this year’s Oscars.

There is also a cat, Dino, who leads a double life: By day, he curls up, purring, alongside little Zoe, who lives with her mother (the voice of Marcia Gay Harden) in a sun-speckled apartment. But when darkness falls, the frisky feline leaps from the window, dances across a long wall, and heads for the attic garret of Nico (Steve Blum), an acrobatic thief. Together, the cat and the cat burglar make off with cash, jewels, art.

The animators use color and line exquisitely — the humans have sharp, angular features and tiny little feet, the rooftops and street scenes have a wonderful, geometric scope — and the story is engaging and exciting, a caper that appeals to both children and adults. Zoe, quiet and watchful, is still reeling from the loss of her father, a police detective killed by the sinister Costa. Dino returns from his nightly rounds, bringing gifts to cheer her up — freshly caught lizards, or, um, a diamond bracelet. Now where did he get that?

Zoe’s mother, Jeanne, is also on the Paris police force, and she has put one of her men on the case of a spate of recent burglaries. (Jeanne has been plagued by nightmares, in which Costa, her husband’s murderer, is a menacing, many-tentacled beast, painted a devilish red.)

When Zoe follows Dino out of the window one night to see where he goes, the girl gets caught up in a dangerous game of cops and robbers. Inevitably, the paths of Nico, Costa and his crew, and Jeanne and her deputies intersect.

Chases and abductions, a visit to the zoo, and a climactic face-off amid the gargoyles and towering spires of the cathedral of Notre Dame ensue. A Cat in Paris is thrilling, and a thrilling example of traditional ink and paint cartooning.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

December's Oscar Forecast: The Acting Categories

With apologies to today's SAG announcement. Listed from most to least likely to receive a nomination in each category.

Actor
1.  Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
2.  Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
3.  Denzel Washington, Flight
4.  John Hawkes, The Sessions
5.  Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
6.  Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
7.  Jean Louis Trintignant, Amour

Actress
1.  Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
2.  Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
3.  Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
4.  Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
5.  Emanuelle Riva, Amour
6.  Naomi Watts, The Impossible
7.  Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina
8.  Rachel Weisz, Deep Blue Sea
9.  Helen Mirren, Hitchcock

Suppporting Actor
1.  Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
2.  Philllip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
3.  Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook
4.  Alan Arkin, Argo
5.  Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
6.  Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike
7.  Eddie Redmayne, Les Miserables
8.  Ewan McGregor, The Impossible
9.  Russell Crowe, Les Miserables
10. John Goodman, Flight
11. Jason Clark, Zero Dark Thirty

Supporting Actress
1.  Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
2.  Sally Field, Lincoln
3.  Helen Hunt, The Sessions
4.  Amy Adams, The Master
5.  Ann Dowd, Compliance
6.  Maggie Smith, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
7.  Samantha Barks, Les Miserables
8.  Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook
9.  Judi Dench, Skyfall
10. Kelly Reilly, Flight
11. Helena Bonham Carter, Les Miserables

Monday, December 10, 2012

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Duke 9-0 (1)
2.  Florida 7-0 (4)
3.  Indiana 9-0 (2)
4.  Syracuse 8-0 (3)
5.  Michigan 9-0 (5)
6.  Louisville 8-1 (8)
7.  Kansas 7-1 (10)
8.  Ohio State 6-1 (7)
9.  Gonzaga 9-1 (6)
10. Minnesota 10-1 (11)
11. Cincinnati 9-0 (9)
12. Creighton 9-1 (14)
13. Arizona 7-0 (12)
14. Illinois 10-0 (16)
15. Wichita State 9-0 (15)
16. New Mexico 10-0 (13)
17. Pittsburgh 9-1 (21)
18. UNLV 7-1 (19)
19. North Carolina 7-2 (18)
20. North Carolina State 6-2 (NR)
21. Georgetown 7-1 (NR)
22. Oklahoma State 7-1 (20)
23. Notre Dame 8-1 (22)
24. Missouri 8-1 (24)
25. Michigan State 8-2 (23)
Dropped out: Baylor (17), Virginia Commonwealth (25)

December's Oscar Forecast: Best Picture, Director

Listed in order from most likely to least likely to be nominated.

Best Picture
1.  Lincoln
2.  Zero Dark Thirty
3.  Les Miserables
4.  Argo
5.  Silver Linings Playbook
6.  Life of Pi
7.  Beasts of the Southern Wild
8.  The Master
9.  Django Unchained
10. Amour
11. Flight
12. Moonrise Kingdom
13. The Impossible
14. The Dark Knight Rises
15. Anna Karenina
16. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
17. Skyfall
18. Hitchcock
19. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
(I now wouldn't be surprised to see the list cut after No. 6)

Director
1.  Ben Affleck, Argo
2.  Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
3.  Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
4.  Tom Hooper, Les Miserables
5.  David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
6.  Ang Li, Life of Pi
7.  Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
8.  Michael Haneke, Amour

Available on DVD: “The Island President”


The Island President is a mostly compelling documentary about that rarest of breeds, an appealing politician. That would be Mohamed Nasheed, until recently president of the Maldives, and the film focuses on his attempts to agitate for strict global-warming rules at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009.

It's an issue that obsesses Nasheed: The Maldives are a chain of low-lying islands off the southwest coast of India, and even a modest rise in the ocean level could wipe them out.

Young and charismatic, Nasheed came to power after working against the Maldives' longtime president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, under whom he was imprisoned, and, he says, tortured.

After detailing Nasheed's rise to office, the film switches to his preparations for the Copenhagen summit, including visits to eroding Maldives shorelines. Director Jon Shenk is clearly a fan. Nasheed comes across as energetic and committed, and possessed of a sense of humor — to raise awareness about greenhouse gas emissions, he once held a Cabinet meeting underwater.

A good chunk of the film shows Nasheed's work at the summit, and while the maneuverings are important for what they tell us about the lack of political will in some nations to make important changes, they aren't as intriguing as the earlier material.

What the future holds for Nasheed is unclear — the film informs us, at the end, that he left the presidency in February. Nasheed resigned after weeks of protests by political opponents; he describes what happened as a coup d'etat

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Available on DVD: “Polisse”


A huge hit in France, Polisse marks the maturation of writer-director Maiwenn Le Besco (known as just Maiwenn professionally). Having developed her own raw and immediate style over two previous features, the director puts it all together here, in a fascinating multicharacter drama about the police who work in Paris’ child protection unit.

These are cops who see the ugliest, weirdest side of society. A daily inundation of kidnappers, child molesters and abusive and incestuous parents and grandparents is bound to take its toll, and that’s really Maiwenn’s concern here. The individual cases are of interest — they couldn’t not be of interest, given the extreme and fraught nature of these issues. But the film’s focus is mainly on the dynamics of the unit and on the impact the job has on the people who do it.

At center stage are Karin Viard and Marina Fois, who play police partners Nadine and Iris. Nadine is going through the inevitable divorce, and Iris, who has a lot of personal authority, is coaching her to be tough and unbending in dealing with her husband. But beneath her facade of certainty, Iris is unraveling, too, and she has become anorexic.

Most Americans won’t know this (though the effects will be obvious), but Polisse has a high-powered cast. Viard, barely known in the United States, is the French Meryl Streep, a grand-scale actress capable of anything, from broad comedy to tragedy. In Polisse, she gets to use a fair amount of her wide range. And Fois, who started off as a comedian, has become an important actress in just the last couple of years, known for her blunt, plainspoken style.

Even the minor roles here are covered by major talent, with Emmanuelle Bercot (who co-wrote the script) playing one of the cops in the unit and Sandrine Kiberlain (Mademoiselle Chambon) memorable as a wife and mother who shows up at the police station, full of the weight of guilt and misery, to report her husband’s sexual abuse of their daughter.

Polisse is a well-observed study of human behavior in extreme conditions. The police attempt to block their emotions, but they can’t, even when they think they can. They present a surface of imperviousness and long-suffering functionality to the criminals, but then make a mess of their own lives, or flare up and scream at each other. They are normal people doing a job, but they can’t catch their breath long enough to return to normality. They’re suffering from battle fatigue, and the battle never ends.
Maiwenn, who appears in the film as a shy photographer documenting the unit, uses multiple cameras. She likes handheld footage. She likes to show people listening as well as talking, and she likes to have actors improvise, based on a script. The style is documentary-like, in that it feels like life and that anything might happen. There is also a nice sense of being in the midst of the action and right there in the room with the characters.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Queen of Versailles”


"We went to France, and we saw Versailles" is something plenty of people, including yours truly, can claim. But the Siegels of Orlando, subjects of the excellent and unexpectedly nuanced documentary The Queen of Versailles, turned the royal chateau into the prototype for a dream-house project that would make Mr. Blandings blanch: the biggest single-family home in the United States.

When filmmaker Lauren Greenfield began chronicling the Florida couple in 2007, construction was underway on their 90,000-square-foot tribute to living large. Then the economic meltdown hit, and the billionaire family faced foreclosure, reduced their domestic staff from 19 to four people and transferred their eight kids from private to public schools.

It would be easy to mock their version of hard times, but Greenfield, who filmed the Siegels over a three-year period, is an astute and assiduous observer. What might have been mere reality-TV fodder about hissable symbols of overconsumption turns out to be a three-dimensional study of a marriage.

It’s also a timely look at the middle-class American Dream on hyperdrive: aspire, acquire, arrive and then try to keep the "good life" going.

That life is often ridiculous, if not downright revolting. There are the boats, private jets and furs, the statuary, busts and kitschy-heroic family portraits. The Siegels’ story contains all the elements for broad satire, beginning with the 30-year age difference between time-share mogul David and third-wife Jackie.

There’s more than a touch of the subprime to his enterprise, and she’s a former beauty queen whose blond, tanned, Botoxed and flamboyantly implanted looks belie her down-to-earth warmth. She’s a cartoon trophy wife in middle age, but also the even-tempered manager of a bustling household.

The Siegels are up-by-the-bootstraps types, not heirs to fortune, and Versailles doesn’t reduce them to caricatures. David may claim to be a kingmaker (of one president in particular) and conducts some of his interviews in a gilded throne, but his real seat of power is the cluttered den where he watches TV while sorting through paperwork — like many a suburban dad.

In Greenfield’s canny and compassionate view, their post-collapse reality check is an emblem of consumerism as affliction, and surprisingly relatable.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Available on DVD: “I Wish”


The Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda — best known for Nobody Knows, about four young brothers and sisters forced to survive on their own after their mother abandons them — has such an extraordinarily delicate manner with children that his approach can feel like a code of ethics, a declaration of honesty toward these often badly used and exploited performers. The gentleness of his approach, his stylistic unobtrusiveness and the way that children open up in front of his camera are among the subtle pleasures in his latest film, I Wish, a quiet, seemingly rambling story about two exceptionally capable brothers who have been separated by their parents’ bad marriage.

Koichi (Koki Maeda), a boy of 12 with chipmunk cheeks, lives with his mother and grandparents in a cramped apartment in the town of Kagoshima on the island of Kyushu, in southwest Japan. It’s an unremarkable, pedestrian-looking town, or would be if Sakurajima, an active volcano, didn’t steadily dust everything in a blizzard of ash. No one seems terribly bothered by the ash or wears the familiar white surgical masks. Few seem even to notice the volcano, other than Koichi, who reasonably wonders why everyone is so calm. He’s less afraid than puzzled and, as he walks to school, he also questions why the building was built on a hill. "I don’t get it," he says, and not for the first time.

Koichi’s disarming intimacy and Kore-eda’s elliptical storytelling can make it easy to go with the loose narrative flow and skim over even curious details like the volcano. While another director might use the belching crater for its metaphoric resonance, as a symbol, say, of churning emotions, the volcano is of real existential concern for Koichi. He’s a little kid; it’s a big volcano — and an even bigger and more uncertain world. Outwardly Koichi seems so mature, as when he sweeps ash out of his room. But having been separated from his giggly, happy younger brother, Ryunosuke (played by Koki Maeda’s own scene-stealing brother, Ohshiro), who lives in another town with their father, Kenji (Joe Odagiri), Koichi is very much the questioning, learning child.

This is a film, in other words, about growing up. And, like life or at least like life as seen through Kore-eda’s lens, it involves numerous detours, not always with apparent purpose. While Koichi and soon Ryunosuke become the story’s dual cornerstones, with the story toggling back and forth between them, their classmates, parents and assorted others also drift in and out of the picture. At times Kore-eda appears to be losing his focus, as when he lingers over two old men meandering down a street. (There are moments when his winding here and there feels as if he’s doing as much searching as Koichi.) But these characters and their experiences are also pieces in Koichi and Ryunosuke’s fragmented lives.

The nominal story involves Koichi’s belief — he heard it, so it must be right — that wishes come true for those who stand in a certain spot in front of two passing trains. Marshaling some friends and coordinating with Ryunosuke, he heads off to wish for his family to be reunited, a grand adventure that is more persuasive in its emotional reverberations than in its practical details. That scarcely matters and soon becomes beside the point of Kore-eda’s gift for carefully excavating deep emotions that his characters cannot express or may not be conscious of. I Wish tends toward the vaporous and not just because of its volcano; but whenever its children are on screen, lighted up with joy or dimmed by hard adult truths, the film burns bright.

Monday, December 3, 2012

My Top 25 College Football Teams

This will be my final rankings until after the BCS Championship Game. Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Notre Dame 12-0 (1)
2.  Alabama 12-1 (2)
3.  Oregon 11-1 (3)
4.  Florida 11-1 (4)
5.  Kansas State 11-1 (6)
6.  Stanford 11-2 (8)
7.  Texas A&M 10-2 (7)
8.  Georgia 11-2 (5)
9.  LSU 10-2 (9)
10. Oklahoma 10-2 (12)
11. Ohio State 12-0 (10)
12. South Carolina 10-2 (11)
13. Oregon State 9-3 (15)
14. Florida State 11-2 (14)
15. Clemson 10-2 (16)
16. Nebraska 10-3 (13)
17. Michigan 8-4 (19)
18. UCLA 9-4 (18)
19. Texas 8-4 (20)
20. Utah State 10-2 (22)
21. Northern Illinois 12-1 (25)
22. Oklahoma State 7-5 (17)
23. Southern California 7-5 (21)
24. San Jose State 10-2 (24)
25. Northwestern 9-3 (23)

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Duke 8-0 (1)
2.  Indiana 8-0 (3)
3.  Syracuse 5-0 (2)
4.  Florida 6-0 (7)
5.  Michigan 7-0 (6)
6.  Gonzaga 8-0 (8)
7.  Ohio State 5-1 (4)
8.  Louisville 6-1 (5)
9.  Cincinnati 7-0 (13)
10. Kansas 6-1 (10)
11. Minnesota 8-1 (15)
12. Arizona 5-0 (23)
13. New Mexico 8-0 (NR)
14. Creighton 7-1 (11)
15. Wichita State 8-0 (21)
16. Illinois 8-0 (NR)
17. Baylor 5-2 (22)
18. North Carolina 6-2 (12)
19. UNLV (NR)
20. Oklahoma State 5-1 (NR)
21. Pittsburgh 7-1 (16)
22. Notre Dame 7-1 (NR)
23. Michigan State 6-2 (14)
24. Missouri 6-1 (18)
25. Virginia Commonwealth 5-3 (NR)
Dropped out: California (25), Kentucky (9), Marquette (24), North Carolina State (19), San Diego State (20), Wisconsin (17)

Monday, November 26, 2012

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

1.  Duke 6-0
2.  Syracuse 4-0
3.  Indiana 6-0
4.  Ohio State 4-0
5.  Louisville 5-1
6.  Michigan 5-0
7.  Florida 5-0
8.  Gonzaga 6-0
9.  Kentucky 4-1
10. Kansas 4-1
11. Creighton 6-0
12. North Carolina 5-1
13. Cincinnati 6-0
14. Michigan State 5-1
15. Minnesota 6-1
16. Pittsburgh 5-1
17. Wisconsin 4-2
18. Missouri 5-1
19. North Carolina State 4-1
20. San Diego State 4-1
21. Wichita State 6-0
22. Baylor 4-2
23. Arizona 3-0
24. Marquette 4-1
25. California 6-0

Sunday, November 25, 2012

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Notre Dame 12-0 (2)
2.  Alabama 11-1 (1)
3.  Oregon 11-1 (3)
4.  Florida 11-1 (4)
5.  Georgia 11-1 (7)
6.  Kansas State 10-1 (5)
7.  Texas A&M 10-2 (6)
8.  Stanford 10-2 (8)
9.  LSU 10-2 (9)
10. Ohio State 12-0 (10)
11. South Carolina 10-2 (14)
12. Oklahoma 9-2 (11)
13. Nebraska 10-2 (16)
14. Florida State 10-2 (13) (23)
15. Oregon State 8-3 (12)
16. Clemson 10-2 (15)
17. Oklahoma State 7-4 (18)
18. UCLA 9-3 (19)
19. Michigan 8-4 (20)
20. Texas 8-3 (17)
21. Southern California 7-5 (21)
22. Utah State 10-2 (24)
23. Northwestern 9-3 (NR)
24. San Jose State 10-2 (NR)
25. Northern Illinois 11-1 (NR)
Dropped out: Arizona (23), Mississippi State (25) and Rutgers (22)

Available on DVD: “Elena”


Post-Soviet Russia in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s somber, gripping film Elena is a moral vacuum where money rules, the haves are contemptuous of the have-nots, and class resentment simmers. The movie, which shuttles between the center of Moscow and its outskirts, is grim enough to suggest that even if you were rich, you wouldn’t want to live there.

For Zvyagintsev, whose first feature, The Return, won the grand prize at the 2003 Venice Film Festival, it is a brilliant comeback after The Banishment (2007), a disappointing film that was not released in this country. The Return had established him as perhaps the foremost artistic heir to Andrei Tarkovsky.

In Elena the title character (Nadezhda Markina), a stout, copper-haired woman in her late 50s or early 60s, shares an elegant, gadget-filled home near the Kremlin with her wealthy older husband, Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov). You are keenly aware of the distance between Elena, a former nurse from a proletarian background, and the imperious, hard-nosed Vladimir, whom she cared for while he recovered from peritonitis a decade earlier and then married. It’s not that they loathe each other. When he signals that he wants sex, she matter-of-factly obliges him.

Both have children from previous marriages. Vladimir is estranged from his bitter, entitled daughter, Katerina (Yelena Lyadova), who lives solely for pleasure on the money he sends her. Elena’s unemployed son, Sergey (Alexey Rozin), whom she regularly visits in Moscow’s crumbling industrial fringe, is a heavy-drinking lout who shares cramped quarters with his wife and two children.

Elena always brings money. When Sergey tells her that his surly teenage son, Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov), will have to join the army unless Sergey can buy the boy’s way into college, she promises to help, although Sasha has no interest in his studies. Any money she brings has to be wheedled out of Vladimir, who despises her family and its slovenly ways. When Elena returns home and pleads Sasha’s case, he balks.

Elena and Vladimir may live in splendor, but their upscale neighborhood is weirdly devoid of people. An ominous calm hangs over the area, except for the cawing of crows, which can be heard indoors as well as out. And the movie’s acute aural awareness of the animal kingdom within the city underscores its vision of Moscow as a jungle teeming with predatory wildlife.

The only time the camera loses its poised, watchful attitude is during a teenage brawl in the junk-filled field outside Sergey’s house. Filmed with a hand-held camera, the fracas suggests a bunch of wild dogs tearing at one another.

Vladimir’s apartment is a different kind of jungle. The television is tuned to dreary game, cooking and talk shows, and you are uncomfortably aware of the sounds of appliances and of sliding doors and curtains.

Elena and Vladimir’s marriage reaches a crossroads when Vladimir has a heart attack while swimming and is again dependent on her care. Katerina visits him (at Elena’s insistence) while he’s in the hospital, and the father and daughter, after years of mutual hostility, discover a ghoulish rapport in their shared nihilism. Katerina now drinks and takes drugs only on weekends, she announces sardonically, but is "still getting food and sex under control."

"It’s "genes," she explains. "Rotten seeds. We’re all bad seeds, subhuman."

When Vladimir suggests that having children might give Katerina a purpose in life, she sarcastically replies: "What’s pointless is producing offspring you know will be sick and doomed, since the parents are sick and doomed themselves. And the world will end soon, in case you haven’t heard." Vladimir is perversely tickled by her blasé attitude, and these soulless soul mates embrace, their rift mended.

Her words resound through a film that suggests that in this quasi-feudal social environment, avarice and blood ties trump all other values.

Summoning Elena to his bedside, Vladimir stuns her by bluntly announcing that he is about to prepare his will in which he leaves almost everything to Katerina, while providing Elena with a life annuity to be distributed in monthly payments.

"And what about Sasha?" she asks.

"Your son should be taking care of his own son," he replies sternly.

Because Vladimir’s lawyer is to arrive the next day, Elena makes an impulsive, fateful decision that casts her in a different light. But the screenplay, written by the director with Oleg Negin, recognizes her humanity. Even as Elena contemplates the unthinkable, Markina’s grand, subtle performance reinforces the film’s view of her as its most compassionate character.

Of course, that isn’t saying much about these products of rotten seeds, locked in a life-or-death Darwinian struggle.

Monday, November 19, 2012

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Alabama 10-1 (3)
2.  Notre Dame 11-0 (4)
3.  Oregon 10-1 (1)
4.  Florida 10-1 (5)
5.  Kansas State 10-1 (2)
6.  Texas A&M 9-2 (7)
7.  Georgia 10-1 (6)
8.  Stanford 9-2 (12)
9.  LSU 9-2 (8)
10. Ohio State 11-0 (11)
11. Oklahoma 8-2 (9)
12. Oregon State 8-2 (15)
13. Florida State 10-1 (13)
14. South Carolina 9-2 (10)
15. Clemson 10-1 (14)
16. Nebraska 9-2 (16)
17. Texas 8-2 (17)
18. Oklahoma State 7-3 (21)
19. UCLA 9-2 (19)
20. Michigan 8-3 (20)
21. Southern California 7-4 (18)
22. Rutgers 9-1 (NR)
23. Arizona 7-4 (24)
24. Utah State 9-2 (NR)
25. Mississippi State 8-3 (NR)
Dropped out: Texas Tech (22), Washington (25), Wisconsin (23)

Available on DVD: “Sound of My Voice”


Nobody is gutted in Sound of My Voice, a smart, effectively unsettling movie about the need to believe and the hard, cruel arts of persuasion. But over time the men and women who meet in a mysterious house in an anonymous Los Angeles neighborhood — where they shed their clothes and cleanse their bodies in a ritual — are opened up bit by bit, wound by wound, until they’re sobbing and laughing, their insides smeared across the carpet.

The hooky story centers on a young couple, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), who are clandestinely trying to make a documentary about an apparent cult. The movie opens abruptly, ominously, in the dead of night with the couple being driven — they switch vehicles at one point — to a house where a man instructs them to strip, shower and change into new clothes. (Peter has a tiny spy camera in his eyeglasses.) They do, methodically scrubbing their bodies, and then descend into a sparsely furnished basement. There 10 or so similarly dressed people are waiting for what they believe may be salvation in the ethereal form of a willowy young woman, Maggie (Brit Marling), who, in true star style, knows how to make an entrance: veiled and tethered to an oxygen tank.

When Maggie sits down, the party begins in earnest. Without her veil and nasal prongs, dressed in light, loose garments, her long blond hair cascading down her back, she looks like any number of California girls, one of those pretty young women from Kansas or Iowa looking to break into the movies. Maggie is on a different journey, and while the detours and destination of her path are vague, she makes for a mesmerizing traveling companion — or, more rightly, guide. Because Maggie is the reason that Peter, Lorna and the rest are here, and she knows it, feeds on it. Talking in a soft voice she gives them exactly what they need: attention, hope, a break from the past, a bead on the future. Even as Peter and Lorna keep trying to make their film, they’re not immune to her.

Is Maggie a Manson, a Madonna or perhaps something else entirely? That’s the question that the director Zal Batmanglij and Marling, who together wrote the script, keep teasingly open. Peter and Lorna are adamant that they already know the truth, at least before Maggie starts boring into their heads (much as the filmmakers try to do with us). Peter is particularly zealous, confusing belief with knowledge. Whether he can actually see what’s happening, inside the basement and out, plays into the movie’s ideas about the push-pull between reality and the world of appearances. In a nice touch, Peter makes a living as a schoolteacher, which suggests he isn’t exactly an innocent when it comes to indoctrination.

From the start, when the word "one" slams on the screen, beginning a count that divides the story into 10 sections, Batmanglij gives the movie an appreciable air of unease. Like Peter and Lorna, you don’t know whether Maggie’s the real deal — though the better question is what type of deal she is offering. Is she a friend, foe, fool or just another La-La Land guru peddling transcendence? Marling, raising her voice only occasionally and keeping her gestures largely relaxed, makes restraint work for her, which fits the movie’s increasingly claustrophobic vibe. Maggie erupts only periodically, and when she does it’s always other people’s fault: They are withholding, cowardly. One moment she’s a caring therapist, the next an acting coach and then the personification of a superego.

Batmanglij and Marling do better when they’re working through the material, especially in the basement sessions, then tying everything together, and their big finish, while pleasingly surprising, is the kind of tricky deus ex machina that needs better finessing. The movie’s ambitions are modest, but within its narrow parameters — with sets that look as if they cost about two bucks and grayish digital visuals that make you yearn for film — they create a plausible, recognizable world about characters engaged in that most fundamental search: for the meaning of life. Marling, who also starred in and was a writer on the recent independent feature, Another Earth, another low budget movie that intelligently made the most of its limited means, appears to be on her way to figuring out that question.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Available on DVD: “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap”


"You write complicated rhymes," Ice-T says to Eminem in the film Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap. Do they start out that way, he continues, or do you complicate them?

His question and Eminem’s candid attempt at answering it are what’s remarkable about this star-studded rap and hip-hop documentary, directed by Ice-T and Andy Baybutt. Despite the fluffier and repetitive responses elicited by Ice-T — the old-school rapper turned Law & Order: SVU lead — this is a film that does sweat the technique, with at times illuminating and spirited results.

Not that Eminem whips out a sheet of diagramed lyrics, but we do see someone else’s, while another rhyme slinger surprisingly credits his sense of structure to the high school writing formula of introduction-body-conclusion. Loosely organized by geography, Something From Nothing consists of Ice-T’s visiting famous practitioners he knows, and asking how they do it, and what it was like back in the day.

But he also asks them to show off their skills: Almost everyone featured, from KRS-One and Doug E. Fresh to Nas, Q-Tip and most fiercely Kanye West, freestyles — in unbroken takes — or trades favorite lines or anecdotes from some deeply felt influence.

As history, hitting the usual beats with legendary Bronx origins, East-West distinctions and so on, the film’s account can be shallow. Likewise, the bumper shots of city streets and helicopter views grow tiresome. But when the theory and practice come out in equally full force, Something From Nothing gets closer to the heart of the matter than you might expect from its famous roster.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Salt of Life”


Gianni, the gentle mama’s boy and alter ego of Gianni Di Gregorio, the 63-year-old director and star of the wistful Italian comedy The Salt of Life, is every man who reaches a certain age and feels his vitality waning. Gazing into the mirror, he notices the heavy bags under his eyes and his sagging chin and is seized with a longing for his lost youth.

Everywhere he goes Gianni passes beautiful, younger women to whom he is next to invisible. Gogò Bianchi’s cinematography, which observes the women through Gianni’s adoring eyes, portrays them as voluptuous, carefree goddesses tossing their hair and flashing confident smiles as they strut in low-cut dresses. While watching The Salt of Life you may be as intoxicated with them as Gianni and decide that there is no creature on earth more alluring than a Roman woman in her prime. The movie’s sensuous appreciation of ripeness and abundance extends to food, clothing and foliage; the lushness of a city in bloom virtually bursts from the screen.

Di Gregorio wrote the screenplay with Valerio Attanasio, and this movie is a richer variation of his small, exquisite 2010 film, Mid-August Lunch. In that movie he played another alter ego, also named Gianni, who catered to a group of older women. The extraordinary Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni (now 96), who played his mother in Mid-August Lunch, returns here as an even more imposing matriarch.

Elegantly coiffed and attired in flowing, brightly colored silks, she is a sight to behold. A fragile but still commanding diva, whether playing poker with her friends on the lawn of her luxurious home or ordering a meal, she insists on getting her imperious way. Her deeply tanned, weathered face with its thousand little creases is a contour map of a long life.

Gianni, who retired at 50, lives in an apartment with an extended family that includes his wife (Elisabetta Piccolomini), with whom he has a platonic friendship; his daughter (played by Teresa Di Gregorio, the director’s real-life daughter); and her unemployed slacker boyfriend Michelangelo (Michelangelo Ciminale), who happily tools around Rome on his motorbike and doesn’t lift a finger.

Gianni’s mother, a heedless spendthrift, squanders money on designer clothes for her full-time caretaker, Cristina (Kristina Cepraga) — one of the many women Gianni discreetly ogles — and stocks her refrigerator with expensive Champagne. She has nearly bankrupted her dutiful son, who subsists on a small pension supplemented by his wife’s income. His mother pesters him on the telephone at all hours. Twice in the movie she summons him to her elegant house to adjust the picture on her television.

Gianni is too polite and inhibited to put the moves on women, which his coarser best friend, Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata), a lawyer, does without compunction. Alfonso points out a neighborhood acquaintance Gianni’s age who has a younger lover, forces medication on Gianni to treat erectile dysfunction, and even gives him the name and address of a brothel. But when pushed into action Gianni is foiled by comic mishaps, one of which involves drinking an aperitif spiked with a psychedelic drug that sends him reeling. In the most touching scene he visits Valeria (Valeria Cavalli), a long-ago lover who sweetly suggests that his ties to his mother are the reason they never married.

Most of all you are thankful for what The Salt of Life is not: another farce in which a lecherous codger makes a fool of himself over a babe. Only in the final minute does it succumb to sentimentality. Until then the movie sympathetically bears out the observation in Yeats’s poem After Long Silence that "bodily decrepitude is wisdom."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Available on DVD: “First Position”


Yes, it is possible to create a gripping documentary about the ballet world without resorting to Black Swan melodramatics. This crisply edited and uncommonly observant film tracks a handful of gifted young people as they prepare for and compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, which claims to be the most comprehensive contest of its kind in the world.

To the winners go (depending on their age) professional contracts or scholarships to the world’s leading ballet academies. In her first feature, Bess Kargman, who abandoned a dancing career at 14, reveals immense sympathy for her subjects, hailing from Colombia and Israel as well as this country. She doesn’t hesitate to show us the little triumphs as well as the ego-crushing disappointments along the way. Resilience, fortunately, is part of these kids’ DNA.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of First Position is the relationship between aspirant and teacher. One need only compare the methods of the bearish Italian coach Denys Ganio with the tough-love approach of the Bay Area’s Viktor Kabaniaev, who doesn’t mind telling a dancer to ignore a parent’s advice, if that’s what it will take to score at a competition.

Still, this is also a saga of the extent to which parents will sacrifice for their stagestruck children. There’s Aran, whose military-doctor father transfers to Italy so his son can train with Ganio. There’s Joan, whose return visit to his hometown in Colombia resonates deeply. And there’s Michaela, a Sierra Leone war orphan adopted by an older Jewish couple who treat her like a rock star.

Such dedication suggests that even if these kids take no honors in the finals, they are already winners. You and I may question the value of ballet competitions, but for these youngsters, they matter tremendously.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Boss offers special gift to vets and everyone else

In a Veterans Day concert last night in St. Paul, Minn., Bruce Springsteen, for the first time ever in concert, played Devils & Dust with the E-Street Band. Now this video comes across as though it was made from a miniature camera hidden in a wrist wratch (in other words, the sound and video quality isn't all that great), but you can still sense the greatness and the emotion in the delivery of the song. A very special moment.

Monday, November 12, 2012

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Oregon 10-0 (4)
2.  Kansas State 10-0 (3)
3.  Alabama 9-1 (1)
4.  Notre Dame 10-0 (2)
5.  Florida 9-1 (5)
6.  Georgia 9-1 (6)
7.  Texas A&M 8-2 (8)
8.  LSU 8-2 (7)
9.  Oklahoma 7-2 (9)
10. South Carolina 8-2 (12)
11. Ohio State 10-0 (10)
12. Stanford 8-2 (14)
13. Florida State 9-1 (13)
14. Clemson 9-1 (15)
15. Oregon State 7-2 (11)
16. Nebraska 8-2 (16)
17. Texas 8-2 (17)
18. Southern California 7-3 (20)
19. UCLA 8-2 (18)
20. Michigan 7-3 (21)
21. Oklahoma State 6-3 (23)
22. Texas Tech 7-3 (22)
23. Wisconsin 7-3 (NR)
24. Arizona 6-4 (25)
25. Washington 6-4 (NR)
Dropped out: Louisville, Mississippi State

Available on DVD: “Safety Not Guaranteed”


Safety Not Guaranteed, a big hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is exactly what independent films should be yet rarely are. It’s brisk and assured and never begs the audience’s indulgence. No time is wasted. The movie is, at every moment, either funny or pushing the story forward, or both.

At the same time, it’s original and odd in the best of ways. It takes as a jumping-off point a real-life advertisement, spotted by screenwriter Derek Connolly, in which someone was looking for a companion for a time-traveling expedition. From that material an imaginative comedy is spun, about a magazine writer (Jake M. Johnson) and two interns, a depressive young woman (Aubrey Plaza) and a shy young man (Karan Soni), who go in search of the guy who wrote the ad.

Plaza, in her first major big-screen role, creates a warm portrait of a woman whose sullen and sardonic personality just barely conceals a sensitive and questing nature. Posing as someone answering the ad, she gets to know the man who placed it, and he’s a genuinely odd character — a basement inventor, a gun enthusiast and a paranoid.

Indeed, if there is one thing ever-so-slightly off about the movie, it’s that the would-be time traveler is perhaps a bit too crazy. When he starts waving guns around, for example, it’s hard to believe that she’d continue to research the story. Under Colin Trevorrow’s direction, Mark Duplass plays the role straight, as he should — he has little choice — but one does sense an actor and a director feeling their way over imperfections and rough areas in the script.

Yet ultimately this becomes a small concern. Much of the appeal of Safety Not Guaranteed derives from the filmmakers’ sense of proportion. Some of this can be found in Connolly’s writing, some in the attention and detail of Trevorrow’s direction, but there is, throughout, an understanding that every character is of interest, and that each of their journeys is important.

In a sense, everyone in the movie is on a search. The inventor wants to go back in time literally and speaks with lyrical delicacy about hearing a song dating from an earlier, happier time in life. Meanwhile, the journalist wants to go back in time emotionally. He wants to take up with a former girlfriend, and he wants to be the catalyst for other people’s great memories. As the journalist, Johnson’s performance is the film’s most sophisticated, in that it suggests things that the actor knows, but the character doesn’t.

The filmmakers are shrewd enough to leave him in a state of suspension, close to embracing his own magnificence and throwing off his undermining self-hatred, but not there yet. This is a fun and funny little movie, but the level of perception at work here is superior.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Available on DVD: “Take This Waltz”



A young married woman — reasonably happy — becomes tempted to cheat on her husband, and not tempted mildly, but tempted as if her soul is screaming, tempted like only Michelle Williams can be tempted, where just breathing in and out becomes torment and ecstasy. What she chooses, and what it means, form the story of Take This Waltz, written and directed by Sarah Polley (Away from Her).

The screenplay is a mix of strong and embarrassing moments, sometimes embarrassing because the actors seem so emotionally naked, and sometimes because the actors must put over an awkward chunk of script. At its worst, Polley’s style veers toward the cornball. Yet, in the broad outlines of her story, she has clearly created something with a lot of hard truth. And she has given a role to Williams that showcases the actress’ internal qualities, her ability to express inner conflict and passion.

After Wendy and Lucy and My Week With Marilyn, everybody knows that Williams is an extraordinary actress, and yet Take This Waltz still feels like a step forward, not necessarily in her abilities, but in her relationship with her public. This film marks the moment when Williams becomes familiar, not too familiar, but familiar in the way of a movie star, where the audience starts looking at her with understanding and starts looking to her for the expression of certain ideas and emotions.

These ideas and emotions elude precise categorization, but in Williams’ case they seem to have something to do with social reticence and fierce desire; with probity and hunger; with an unblinking capacity to see the harsh truth and a pained inability to deny it — even when she’d like to. Williams illuminates for us the seemingly small person who sees herself as an even smaller person, and yet is walking around with volcanoes, earthquakes and tidal waves going on inside her.

The conflict of Margot (Michelle Williams) in Take This Waltz is that she loves her husband (Seth Rogen), but her relationship with him has calcified at a childhood level. Now they can only join as playmates, through shared games and funny voices. So when she meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), he is offering her something that we think she needs just as much as she thinks she needs it, an adult relationship with adult passion. That she wants it is practically evidence that she deserves it.

Polley takes almost two hours to chart this woman’s emotional course, and Williams is so skilled and so inherently sympathetic that there is not a minute of this journey in which the audience isn’t interested in her and caring about her. The actors trace a long arc as well, Rogen from child to man as the husband, Kirby from wry seducer to someone who isn’t playing games.

Sarah Silverman, in an energetic but amateurish performance, shows up as Williams’ alcoholic sister-in-law. There’s no believing Silverman, and yet nothing about her makes you wish she’d go away. She’s certainly eager enough, too, appearing fully nude with Williams in a women’s shower scene.

Polley’s ultimate point in Take This Waltz is complex and sophisticated and can’t be discussed here, not without revealing the ending. Suffice it to say, the issues here are bigger than one woman’s story.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Oscar Forecast: An Update

Really only one change I’m sensing and that’s Ang Lee will be nominated by the director’s branch for Life of Pi instead of Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master.

Shake that Playbook for me, Alabama


This rocks!

Hooper converts “Les Miserables” from an opera into a musical

Judging from this new heartbreaking and compelling new trailer for Les Miserables, it appears director Tom Hooper has changed the production that was an English language opera on the stage into a musical for the film version. I know that seems like a subtle distinction but it's an important one. And though I thought the theatrical version was the finest stage production I’ve seen since A Chorus Line, judging strictly from what I see in this trailer, I’m not minding the conversion one bit. In fact, I was worried about how an opera would translate into film. Now I’m not worried at all.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Available on DVD: “Turn Me On, Dammit!”


Alma, the 15-year-old heroine of the Nordic import Turn Me On, Dammit!, is introduced pleasuring herself on the floor of her kitchen to the chatter of a phone sex operator. Instead of setting up a single-minded comedy about teenage desire, however, this gently amusing film from writer-director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen delicately renders more than a few shades of a turbulent female adolescence.

Soft-eyed, hangdog Alma (a wonderful Helene Bergsholm) is racked with horny/romantic fantasies and hates the backwater mountain village where she lives. But what’s most damaging to her embittered, hormonal psyche is the social exile she experiences when no one believes her story about what happened with the cute choirboy (Matias Myren) outside the dance one night.

Dotted with winning miniature portraits of Alma’s sullen friend (Malin Bjørhovde), a nascent political activist, and Alma’s mother (Henriette Steenstrup), hopelessly confused about her daughter’s phone proclivities, Turn Me On manages to feel sleepy in tone yet acute about character, and sexually frank but never prurient.

Most importantly, perhaps, the movie treats a girl’s burgeoning sexuality as neither epic nor problematic, or mutually exclusive of feelings of love, but rather simply, refreshingly, as one part of maturing.

The simple reason why Obama won

The President surrounded himself with brilliant campaign strategists who correctly read and clearly understood the changing demographics of America and fashioned messages that were in sync with those demographics.

I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man. To paraphrase, "There’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Romney."

Good night, Coach

Former University of Texas football coach Darrell K. Royal, 88, died this morning after a short but ultimately debilitating fight with Alzheimer’s. The majority of those who knew Royal knew of him as Texas’ coach from 1957 to 1976, who won three national championships, 11 Southwest Conference championships and 167 football games. He was known as the coach who introduced the flip-flop offense in the early 1960s and somewhat later and far more famously the Wishbone Offense which dominated the college game from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.

But I got to know him as a confidant during my years at UT and immediately after at United Press International.

I dropped out of college for five years in the mid-1960s and embarked on a global odyssey that took me to, among other places, South Vietnam where I became a war correspondent for a number of U.S. newspapers. Now this was back before the North Vietnamese had entered the fray and the conflict was strictly between the South Vietnamese government that had been installed by the United States and the Viet Cong rebels. It was easy to see right from the beginning which side would emerge victorious and, as a result, I became an avid opponent of U.S. military involvement in the country.

I brought that opposition with me when I returned to the United States and finally to the University of Texas, where, as a journalism major, I first resumed my position as a sports reporter for The Daily Texan, the university’s newspaper, and finally as the paper’s managing editor.

In that latter position I came under heavy pressure by my colleagues who also opposed American involvement in Vietnam to de-emphasize football coverage in the newspaper. I always had the main story on the University’s Saturday football game on the front page of the Sunday Texan. Their argument was football was trivial during times like these and that football coverage should be eliminated completely or at least reduced to a small story inside the paper.

My stance was simple and straight-forward: Any campus event that attracted 50,000 people (Memorial Stadium was a lot smaller back in those days) was a major news story and the front page was reserved for the day’s major news story.

After I graduated, however, and went to UPI my influence in that area disappeared. The views of the antiwar faction at the Texan obscured their news judgment.

UPI, in those days, had a coaches football poll. Each week, an invited group of college football coaches submitted their choices of the nation’s Top 25 college football teams. Every Sunday night during football season, Coach Royal would call the Dallas UPI office and give me his Top 25. And because he knew of me and my efforts while at UT, we would spend a lot of time talking about the current state of university journalism, which greatly saddened him. The coach only cared about how the team was covered in two publications, The Daily Texan and the Dallas Morning News, and so what was happening at the Texan was literally breaking his heart. Ivan Maisel, a sportswriter who formerly worked for the Morning News, crafted an excellent obituary of The Coach this morning.

Coach Royal was known for his folksy style ("We gonna dance with the one who brung us.") but what I will always remember Royal for was that he earned the respect of everyone he came in contact with.

How Gov. Hair helped engineer Romney’s defeat

I now have something to thank our Texas governor for. He did a lot to help ensure Barach Obama’s re-election as President of the United States.

When Hair, whose views on immigration border on genocide, got into the race for the GOP presidential nomination (and became the immediate favorite to win it), Romney decided he had to outflank the Texan on the right when it comes to immigration. He condemned the Dream Act and endorsed Arizona’s recently passed but clearly unconstitutional immigration laws.

As a result, Obama won 73 percent of the Hispanic vote. He also won a startling 80 percent of the Asian-American vote, a demographic group which also told exit pollers immigration was a major issue.

Now here’s a startling statistic the GOP must come to grips with if it hopes to maintain its relevancy in the American political spectrum: Each month 50,000 Hispanics turn 18 years of age. That’s a possible 600,000 new voters a year, 73 percent of which are likely to vote Democratic unless Republicans change their ways and decide to become a party of inclusion, not exclusion, as they are today.

Of course, it wasn’t only the fact that the GOP is a old folks whites-only political party in a multi-cultural nation that led to Obama’s overwhelming victory. He won because the majority of Americans endorse economic policies that actually create jobs, health care reform and increased taxes on the super rich and want moderate policies on such hot-button issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Obama won the so-called swing states because the auto bailout, which Romney opposed, actually worked.

Obama won because the only thing Romney did was blame the President for all the nation’s ills while failing to convince Americans he had a plan (that he refused to divulge) to cut the deficit without raising taxes. According to exit polls, 60 percent of voters said taxes have to be raised on either the super rich or everyone. And I found this statistic fascinating: Only 10 percent of voters said the deficit was the most important issue facing the country. And only 25 percent said Obama’s entire health care reform law should be repealed, which Romney said he would do Day 1 in office.

I have written about my disappointments with the Obama presidency during the last four years. But I must tip my hat to Obama the campaigner. The campaign he ran during this election was perhaps the most brilliant execution of strategy his country has ever witnessed. My hope is, during the next four years, he will become as great a president as he was a campaigner.

 

 

Monday, November 5, 2012

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Alabama 9-0 (1)
2.  Notre Dame 9-0 (2)
3.  Kansas State 9-0 (3)
4.  Oregon 9-0 (4)
5.  Florida 8-1 (5)
6.  Georgia 8-1 (8)
7.  LSU 7-2 (6)
8.  Texas A&M 7-2 (13)
9.  Oklahoma 6-2 (9)
10. Ohio State 10-0 (7)
11. Oregon State 7-1 (12)
12. South Carolina 7-2 (10)
13. Florida State 8-1 (11)
14. Stanford 7-2 (14)
15. Clemson 8-1 (16)
16. Nebraska 7-2 (18)
17. Texas 7-2 (23)
18. UCLA 7-2 (NR)
19. Louisville 9-0 (24)
20. Southern California 6-3 (17)
21. Michigan 6-3 (25)
22. Texas Tech 6-3 (15)
23. Oklahoma State 5-3 (22)
24. Mississippi State 7-2 (19)
25. Arizona 5-4 (20)
Dropped Out: Boise State

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Forgiveness of Blood”


Imagine you’re a teenage boy. You’re on Facebook, you text your friends around the clock, you dream of opening a gaming arcade. You kick a soccer ball around after school and think of all the things you can’t bring yourself to say to that girl in your classroom.

Now imagine you’re a teenage boy in Albania. You used to have all of the above but now you can’t leave your house, because your family is involved in a blood feud with another family, and you’ll get shot if you walk out the door.

In Joshua Marston’s coolly furious The Forgiveness of Blood, that teenage boy is Nik (Tristan Halilaj), marooned somewhere between the 21st century and the 15th. Tall, lanky, with dark eyes that deepen over the course of the film, Nik has every adolescent’s disdain for the customs of his parents’ world. That this renders him the film’s only functioning adult is the bleak joke at the center of the tale. Or it would be if anyone were laughing.

Marston is the very rare American filmmaker who’s interested in what happens elsewhere on the planet. He doesn’t make foreign films so much as human films: His fine 2004 debut, Maria Full of Grace, was about a pregnant Colombian teenager (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who becomes a drug mule. For his second movie, he hops across the globe to find another kid doing what he can to make his life comprehensible.

The modern and the medieval coexist in The Forgiveness of Blood. Nik’s father, Mark (Refet Abazi), delivers bread to his village in a horse-drawn wagon; every day he moves stones to take a shortcut across a neighbor’s field, and every day the neighbor moves them right back. Push comes to shove, shove leads to stabbing, and the vendetta is on, governed by the traditional Albanian set of laws known as the Kanun, whose roots go back to the Bronze Age. With Mark in hiding, Nik’s sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej) takes over the increasingly risky delivery route, while Nik and his little brother (Luan Jaha) — by tradition, the next targets for revenge — are effectively under open-ended house arrest.

The Kanun is administered by old men, and they take their time. As Nik sees his youth slide through his hands — his best friend brings a new iPhone over, with videos of schoolmates sending their regards — he’s simultaneously powerless and desperate to act. He builds a weight room on the roof, surrounded by cinder-block walls to protect himself from the occasional bullet. He proposes eminently practical mediation ventures. Eventually he slips out after dark, a village ghost stuck between epochs.

The Forgiveness of Blood works as a subtle but insistent metaphor for a modern generation trapped by the shibboleths of their elders. It applies to Albania specifically and civilization in general, and the film would speak as loudly to American teenagers if they knew it was out there. At the same time, Marston and his co-writer Andamion Murataj dramatize unique portraits of coping and crumbling. Rudina is as resourceful as her brother in thinking outside her society’s cramped box, and the movie’s suspense lies in whether their pragmatic idealism will have an effect or turn to cynicism.

At times, the film purposely avoids melodramatics — the murder itself takes place offscreen, its particulars beside the point — and there are moments, too, when the filmmaker seems stuck outside the cultural door looking in. Marston’s a miniaturist even when The Forgiveness of Blood calls out for larger gestures, and you occasionally sense a more bruising, compelling movie lurking behind this one. His heart is really with the wider world his youthful hero already belongs to, and his film simply wonders what it takes for a boy to walk out into it.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Big 12 slightly superior to SEC

There's an assumption among the so-called college football "experts" that the Southeastern Conference is the strongest football conference in the nation. That's because, I think, SEC teams have dominated the BCS championship games with a different SEC team winning it each year. But is it really accurate to say -- from top to bottom -- the SEC is superior to the Big 12? I decided to take a look at my ratings of all the FBS teams, strip away all those except the SEC and Big 12 teams and examine the results. Here is that ranking.

1.  Alabama (SEC)
2.  Kansas State (Big 12)
3.  Florida (SEC)
4.  LSU (SEC)
5.  Oklahoma (Big 12)
6.  Georgia (SEC)
7.  South Carolina (SEC)
8.  Texas A&M (SEC)
9.  Texas Tech (Big 12)
10. Mississippi State (SEC)
11. Oklahoma State (Big 12)
12. Texas (Big 12)
13. West Virginia (Big 12)
14. Iowa State (Big 12)
15. TCU (Big 12)
16. Mississippi (SEC)
17. Missouri (SEC)
18. Tennessee (SEC)
19. Baylor (Big 12)
20. Vanderbilt (SEC)
21. Arkansas (SEC)
22. Auburn (SEC)
23. Kentucky (SEC)
24. Kansas (Big 12)

So while the SEC dominates the top of the rankings with seven of the top 10, it also dominates the bottom of the rankings with seven of the bottom nine, which proves to me that, overall, the Big 12 is the superior conference -- this year, at least.

I can't wait to see this movie

There's nothing I enjoy more in a film than a intelligently written, superbly acted, perfectly paced scene that's nothing more than a conversation between two people. Better than any CGI-packed action scene you can name.