Monday, October 29, 2012

My Top 25 College Football Teams

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

Available on DVD: “Goodbye First Love”

The French title of Mia Hansen-Love’s new film is Un Amour de Jeunesse. A straightforward (if somewhat generic) translation might have been Young Love, but the English version, Goodbye First Love, is an improvement. The movie, Hansen-Love’s third feature (after All Is Forgiven and The Father of My Children), endows each word of that title with equal weight. It examines, with compassion and clarity, a young woman’s discovery of passion and also of the pain, disappointment and partial wisdom that follow.

"It’s because I’m melancholic," Camille (Lola Créton) says to her mother (Valérie Bonneton), explaining the voluptuous, romantic sadness she wears like a carefully chosen shawl. At 15, Camille is prone to such self-dramatizing statements, especially where her boyfriend, Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), is concerned.

"He’s the man of my life," she tells her mother, and her words to him are even more categorical: "I’ll die without you." This makes Sullivan uncomfortable. Though he is devoted to Camille, there are other aspects of life he wants to embrace with at least equal ardor.

When Sullivan, who is a few years older than Camille, drops out of school to take a journey of self-discovery across South America, it is the tragedy of her life. She traces his itinerary with pins on a map hung on her bedroom wall, and reads his letters through tears. But at the same time, almost unconsciously, she steps toward a more independent future, working hard in school and discovering the ambition to be an architect.

Her story stretches out over eight years, through changes in mood and hairstyle, skipping over some important events that are illuminated retrospectively. To say too much about what happens — between Camille’s parents, between her and her Norwegian mentor (Magne-Havard Brekke) — would not be to spoil the plot so much as to disrespect the film’s wonderfully fresh and surprising rhythm.

There is perhaps nothing more conventional than a coming-of-age story, but it is also true that the experience of moving from youth into relative maturity is always specific and unique. So this is very much Camille’s story. Hansen-Love respects the character too much — even when she is silly, naïve or careless — to make her a representative figure of female adolescence. The sex lives of young women are often turned into prurient fantasies, cautionary tales or both at once. Goodbye First Love, like Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s recent Turn Me On, Dammit (a film from Norway that will be reviewed in an upcoming post), resists the usual urges toward moralism, condescension or exploitation.

It also, like Camille herself, has large ambitions somewhat disguised by an approach that at first looks modest, diffident and careful. Hansen-Love seems to catch life as it happens, sometimes in a rush and sometimes with delicious leisureliness (most notably during a brief vacation Sullivan and Camille spend alone at her parents’ country house in the Ardèche region of France). There is nothing ostentatious in this movie, and also, remarkably, nothing false, except perhaps some of the hopes of the earnest young couple at its heart.

Urzendowsky, with his dark curls, fine cheekbones and sad eyes, is a very credible first love, while Créton uncannily captures Camille’s resolution as well as her almost willful vulnerability. Goodbye First Love follows her eager, headlong motion toward a point in her life when she can look backward and move on. Within the swift current of time, it finds eddies of memory and pools of regret. And when it comes to first love, Hansen-Love suggests, goodbye is always au revoir rather than adieu.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Oscar Forecast: The Technical Awards

Here are my predicted nominees as of this moment in the technical categories (listed alphabetically):

Production Design
Anna Karenina
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Les Miserables
The Master

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
The Master

Costume Design
Anna Karenina
Cloud Atlas
Les Miserables
The Master

Film Editing
Les Miserables
The Master
Zero Dark Thirty

Makeup and Hair Styling
Cloud Atlas
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Sound Editing
The Avengers
The Dark Knight Rises
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty

Sound Mixing
The Avengers
The Dark Knight Rises
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty

Visual Effects
The Avengers
Cloud Atlas
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Available on DVD: “Damsels in Distress”

Most of the characters in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress — the principal damsels, for sure, and also some of the lads identified in the opening titles as "their distress" — speak in complete sentences and express complex, sometimes startlingly original ideas. This, friends, is news: a movie populated by young people who do not mumble, swear, punctuate their utterances with "like" or think that an incredulous "really?" represents the apogee of wit. Even if it did not have other charms, this peculiar, uneven campus comedy would be worth seeing for the delightful felicity of its dialogue.

Stillman, who is 60, might be accused of idealizing some of the student body of Seven Oaks College, a venerable, prestigious and imaginary institution, but he is wholly innocent of the greater sin of condescension. The manners and morals of fledgling members of the privileged class have always interested this director, who made three sweet, astringent comedies in the 1990s before receding into a much remarked-upon, now thankfully concluded, obscurity.

His first film, Metropolitan (1990), was set in the vestigial but still vigorous world of oldish New York money (the "urban haute bourgeoisie," as one earnest preppy memorably puts it). That was followed by Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998), which pursued the same kind of articulate, self-conscious, well-bred people into the strange worlds of Spain and Manhattan nightlife.

You could say that 22 years after his debut and 14 years after Disco, he has come full circle, returning to the romantic travails of ruling-class late adolescence. But the world has changed — perhaps more than some of us have realized — and Damsels in Distress is remarkable for feeling both exquisitely observant and completely untethered to any recognizable social reality.

I think that this is deliberate, that the occasional outlandishness of the film arises not because Stillman is out of touch with the way things are, but rather because he wants them to be different, and avails himself of the artist’s prerogative to make them that way. You can despair of the state of civilization or decide, in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary, that its codes and customs still exist and that you will defend them. "Build, therefore, your own world," Ralph Waldo Emerson instructed the youth of 1837. Stillman does just that, even if his world is grounded in the counter-Emersonian values of tradition and conformity.

Stillman’s heroine, Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig), is a marvelous paradox. She is stubbornly self-invented — her name is not really Violet, and she does not seem to belong by birth to the caste whose behavioral norms she espouses — and at the same time profoundly hostile to individualism. Perhaps, like her creator, she is a deeply idiosyncratic conservative, a believer in propriety and continuity, standing athwart history and saying, "Not so fast." Her staunch defense of the college’s "Roman letter" fraternity system is based on some curious logic. She reasons that the clubs cannot be accused of elitism because their members are "morons," a belief in the alignment of status and intelligence so naïve that it might almost make you weep.

Violet and her crew of horticulturally named friends — Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and an ambivalent latecomer named Lily (Analeigh Tipton) — see themselves as missionaries. They run the campus suicide prevention center, providing doughnuts and dance classes for their gloomy schoolmates, and they date frat boys out of a combination of pity and civilizing zeal. It is better to date losers than cool guys, Violet says, because the love of a superior woman can lift a mediocre man toward better things. This is a very old (not to say retrograde) idea, and also perhaps a succinct explanation of recent trends in American film comedy.

The Roman-lettermen of Seven Oaks are very dumb indeed. One of them has reached college without being able to identify colors, while another — Violet’s erstwhile boyfriend, Frank (Ryan Metcalf) — has the spelling ability of a kindergartner and the attention span of an even younger child.

The only alternative to these "doufi" (in the film’s "nonstandard, but preferred" spelling) are what Rose, in her clipped British accent, calls "playboys and operators." One of these might be a fellow named Charlie (unless his name is Fred; in either case he is played by Adam Brody) who appears to take a romantic interest in both Violet and Lily. Lily, meanwhile, has a complicated relationship with a French graduate student named Xavier (Hugo Becker).

As ever, Stillman’s attitude toward female sexuality treads the border between chivalry and squeamishness. There is some discreet discussion of the erotic habits of the Cathars, a heretical French sect whose favored practice (at least according to Xavier) is more usually associated with the citizens of Sodom in the Old Testament. But reticence rules the universe of Damsels in Distress. It is not that sex is denied or repressed, exactly, but rather that bodily desires are ultimately less consequential than more exalted longings, chief among them the yearning to figure out the world and one’s place within it.

Good luck with that. In pursuit of this knowledge, Lily and Violet, the two contrasting damsels — one bony and brown-haired, the other big-boned and blond; one a questioning skeptic, the other a true believer — wander and ruminate. Neither the film nor its characters seem to be in any particular hurry, and there are times when the plot wobbles and slows like a weakly spun top.

Stillman’s control of the tone also seems wobbly. The far-fetched absurdism of some of the humor — the boy who doesn’t know his colors, for instance — rubs awkwardly against some of the sharper satirical insights. The musical score, by Mark Suozzo and Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), evokes a bad television movie from the 1980s, and its deployment is as haphazard as the pacing and juxtaposition of the scenes. The actors often lack direction, both in the sense that they do not seem to have been instructed in how to play their roles and also in the more literal sense that they do not always appear to know which way to walk, or how fast.

Gerwig, en route from Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg to Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love, has some of the discipline that Stillman lacks. Violet is very much an intellectual construct: an ardent bluestocking who cuts against the grain by opposing the impulse to be different. But Gerwig also makes her a complicated, sympathetic and ridiculous human being, able to speak her mind clearly even when her inner and outer life threaten to become hopelessly muddled.

Monday, October 22, 2012

My Top 25 College Football Teams

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

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Oscar Forecast: The Acting Categories

The major change this month is in the supporting categories where veterans Tommy Lee Jones and Maggie Smith have bumped Russell Crowe and Kerry Washington, respectively. My predicted nominees are (listed in alphabetical order):

Bradley Cooper, The Silver Linings Playbook
John Hawkes, The Sessions
Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight

Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
Kiera Knightley, Anna Karenina
Jennifer Lawrence, The Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert DeNiro, The Silver Linings Playbook
Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Maggie Smith, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Samuel L. Jackson Rules

A campaign ad that will never make it to commericial television, so I'm offering it to you here.

Oscar Forecast: The Features

Not much to update in the best picture race, still the same eight films as last month. The only difference is I'm noticing support sliding for The Master and Lincoln, and gaining for Les Miserables and Life of Pi.

This time around, I've also added my predicted nominees for animated feature and foreign language film. As usual, all films are listed alphabetically. I'm pretty sure about four of the foreign language nominees. In the fifth spot, I'm torn between Beyond the Hills and Lore.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
The Master
The Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Rise of the Guardians
Wreck it Ralph

The country submitting the film is in parenthesis.
Amour (Austria)
The Intouchables (France)
Lore (Australia)
No (Chili)
A Royal Affair (Denmark)

An historic low for the Big Ten? only allowed me to check the BCS standings for 2011 and 2010, but I realized something that happened with the current BCS standings that did not happen those two years and I'm betting has never happened in the history of the troubled BCS: There's not a single Big 10 team ranked in the BCS's Top 25.

I bring it up somewhat gleefully and with some satisfaction because I have always felt the Big 10's football "greatness" was way overrated.

Monday, October 15, 2012

My Top 25 College Football Teams

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

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Available on DVD: “We Have a Pope”

Like the classic runaway bride, the skittish lead character in Nanni Moretti’s emotionally generous and moving tragicomedy We Have a Pope wears a sumptuous gown, has the aspect or at least symbolic air of the unsullied and suffers from severe commitment issues. Soon after the film opens, Moretti’s runaway, Melville (Michel Piccoli), a French cleric elected pope, dons ceremonial white, sits in the Vatican forcing smiles and rapidly sags under the weight of the billion souls he’s charged with leading. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and so too the miter. What haunts Moretti’s character is whether he can embrace his role as pontiff.

We Have a Pope is the story of a specific crisis of conscience with larger reverberations, if not necessarily those you might expect from Moretti. (The film’s English title suggests auctions and game shows, while the Latin original, Habemus Papam, comes wreathed in incense-perfumed mystery.) An Italian leftist best known for films like Caro Diario and The Son’s Room, he has said that he isn’t a director but one who makes movies "when he has something to say." At times what he has to say is overtly political, as in Aprile, when he implores, comically, desperately, a tongue-tied opponent of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is monopolizing a TV show, to "say something, answer, say something left wing, say something even not left wing, something civilized."

Politics initially appears to have gone on hiatus in We Have a Pope, which opens with unidentified news images from the funeral of Pope John Paul II. The ceremony and the sight of thousands of bodies pressing into St. Peter’s Square instantly shifts the movie into a serious register that continues when Moretti cuts to lines of chanting old men in red, presumably the College of Cardinals, entering what looks like the Vatican. It’s all very exotic and solemn, or would be if the cardinals didn’t then pass a scrum of reporters who, separated from the clerics by ropes and stanchions, look as if they were covering the red carpet at the Oscars. "Cardinal," demands one TV journalist, thrusting a microphone at the clerics, "could we have a statement?"

None of the cardinals dignify the question with a response, but with this scene Moretti, with characteristic efficiency, makes his own quiet statement about the connections among religion, spectacle and the media. These associations have already been implied in the opening funeral images, but Moretti’s touch is so light here that it feels as if he’s making an offhand observation about the church instead of building an argument. (He’s doing both.) And so it goes as the cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel (by way of Cinecittà Studios) and, after a few ballot rounds, select Melville. As the faithful wait for him publicly to acknowledge his new role, an openly uneasy, increasingly unsure Melville hesitates and then abruptly runs off, seemingly leaving his flock hanging.

Except that Melville, wearing civilian clothing and still an unknown to the outside world, doesn’t abandon the faithful but walks among their numbers, at first with some confusion and then with mounting confidence and openness. In Rome stores and on buses he discovers people — notably, some of his first encounters are with gently ministering women — whose humanity helps awaken something human in him. Piccoli, a giant of European cinema, brings dignity to the role and an innocence that’s less childlike than unworldly. As he awkwardly navigates through Rome’s streets and stumbles into the chaos of its traffic, his body lurching and stumbling and sometimes almost toppling over, Melville seems as confused as a stranger or perhaps just a man newly awakened from a dream.

Moretti doesn’t turn that dream into his own dogma, and in truth there’s something so unforced about We Have a Pope that its assertion of papal humility and humanity rather than infallibility might be easy to miss. But it’s there, tucked in a story about a pope who describes himself with bittersweet self-knowing as an actor and meets a troupe rehearsing Chekhov’s Seagull. The Chekhov underscores Melville’s disappointment in his life and also works as a melancholic counterpoint to the volleyball matches at the Vatican arranged by a psychiatrist (Moretti) who’s been hired to guide the pope through his crisis. Moretti finds broad comedy in the antics of some clerics, who can seem as sweet as children, but in Melville there is pathos and there is tragedy, and not his alone.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Available on DVD: “Where Do We Go Now?”

The Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s blunt, satirical fable, Where Do We Go Now?, takes place in a rural Middle Eastern village where Christians and Muslims coexist in an uneasy peace. The village is ringed with land mines, and its cemetery is filled with the bodies of young men who have died in sectarian warfare.

Labaki’s decision not to name the country, which is assumed to be Lebanon, suggests that she conceived Where Do We Go Now? as an all-encompassing comic allegory about religious intolerance and male belligerence. But the continually shifting tone of the movie, whose director also did the romantic comedy Caramel, keeps you giddily off balance.

The first indication that Where Do We Go Now? isn’t quite sure what it wants to be is a song-and-dance number in which Amale (Labaki), a beautiful Christian widow who runs a cafe, fantasizes a romantic pas de deux with Rabih (Julien Farhat), the Muslim handyman who is painting the place. Is this a musical comedy, you wonder? Not really. The number, which seems like an outtake from another movie, is a playful diversion in a series of skits.

Where Do We Go Now? soon reveals itself as a flighty modern variation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which the village women, sick and tired of losing their menfolk to senseless warfare, band together to keep the peace by any means necessary. Their solidarity is established in the opening scene, a choreographed march in which a corps of black-clad Christian and Muslim women form a solemn, swaying procession to the cemetery.

The same women gather regularly at the cafe to gossip and devise strategies to keep the men from fighting. Except for an ineffectual priest and an imam, whose houses of worship sit side by side, those men are hotheaded bumpkins who profess brotherhood until the tiniest provocation incites them to blind fury. When a troublemaker sends goats into the mosque, and the holy water in a church is replaced with chicken blood, these dolts go ballistic and reach for their weapons.

One of the women’s first actions is to disable the village’s newly repaired television set, because the news of religious strife in the region immediately stirs up war fever. Amale and the mayor’s wife, Yvonne (Yvonne Maalouf), are the prime movers in this gabby female regiment.

Yvonne, while praying to a statue of the Virgin Mary, fakes a mystical trance from which she relays divine instructions to the men that peace must be kept. In the dead of night some women unearth a cache of buried weapons and hide it.

In their most elaborate scheme, they distract the men by importing a group of Ukrainian strippers who pretend to be stranded after their bus breaks down. As the men gird for war, their wives drug them with hashish-laced baked goods, then give a wild party where the men are pacified by the glamorous, shimmying visitors. If these silly shenanigans are amusing, none are developed into the sidesplitting comic set pieces they had the potential to become.

In the most serious threat to peace, a young man is killed in cross-fire while riding his motorbike outside the village. Rather than tell the men, who would use the incident as an excuse for war, his mother and her friends secretly dispose of his body and spread the word that he has the mumps and is too ill to receive visitors. I won’t describe the women’s final solution to the religious strife, except to say that it is both ingenious and preposterous.

At heart, this jolly, galumphing crowd-pleaser, which won the audience award at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, is a raucous sitcom about scrappy little boys whose canny mamas conspire to keep them out of trouble.

"Hitchcock" trailer

This looks a lot better than I expected. Anthony Hopkins is excellent, albeit almost unrecognizable, as Hitch and Helen Mirren matches him in every scene she appears in here. Trailers, of course, are sales tools, not information pieces, but this one sold me on a project that, before I saw this, I was not that excited about.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Romney vs. Big Bird

Gotta love it.

My Top 25 College Football Teams

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

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Observer's landfill coverage is nothing but garbage

When Robert Wilonsky left the Dallas Observer, I quickly discovered reading the weekly newspaper’s blog, Unfair Park, was a complete waste of my valuable time. Conversely, I have found a lot more value in the blogs Wilonsky contributes to at the Dallas Morning News.

Every once in a while, however, I’ll pick up the printed version of the paper to read Jim Schutze’s column, the pieces on dining and restaurants and to learn what acts are playing at what clubs. But then I’ll read an entry reprinted from Unfair Park and just have to shake my head over how bad the reporting has become at the Observer.

A visual representation of
the Dallas Observer's reporting
For example, in its piece about the landfill audit performed by the Dallas City Auditor, the misinformed writer, Eric Nicholson, just comes and says, without any attribution, "The upshot (of the audit) was that the city had lost a garbage truck full of potential revenue over the past decade, a total of $1.1 million." That’s just flat wrong. The only person in any way connected with the city who has said anything like that is Scott Griggs, the arrogant jerk of a city councilman who thinks he knows-it-all, but never, EVER, does.

What the audit actually reported was, because of systems that were in place, there was the remote possibility that as much as $100,000 a year was lost. There was also the remote possibility that the landfill actually took in more revenue than it earned, but I seriously doubt that happened. However, that possibility also exists.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s accept the very probable false premise that the city did lose $100,000 out of a total revenue of $28 million each year. That comes to a loss of 0.36 percent of the landfill's total income. Look, I work in retail and I will guarantee you Wal-Mart would absolutely love to have a shrinkage rate of 0.36 percent/per store after each inventory. Sam Walton would be turning cartwheels in his grave.

But I guess it’s too much to ask the media to put things in their proper perspect perspective. It shouldn’t be, however.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Available on DVD: “Ballplayer: Pelotero”

Latin American names are common on major league rosters these days, but how those players end up in a Dodgers or Mets or Red Sox uniform may not be something the casual baseball fan has given much thought. Ballplayer: Pelotero is a stark documentary that examines that process in the Dominican Republic, a significant source of players.

Forget feel-good boys-of-summer tales. This film shows a shady business in which scouts and the teams they represent try to manipulate teenage players, and to some extent the players do some manipulating of their own.

The film follows two well-regarded young players, Miguel Sano and Jean Batista, as they approach the date when 16-year-olds are eligible to sign. The trainers who have helped them develop their skills are hoping for fat contracts, of which they would receive a percentage, but the major league teams want to keep the signing bonuses down.

The resulting scheming — is either player lying about his age? are the teams colluding to avoid a bidding war? — is dismaying, to say the least. Commendably, the film, narrated by John Leguizamo, sugarcoats nothing, and the people involved — the players, their trainers, their parents, the scouts — are remarkably forthright. We’re so used to hearing innocuous clichés come out of the mouths of major leaguers in postgame interviews that the accusations and innuendo in this film are startling.

Available on DVD “Headhunters”

The plural in Headhunters is not accidental.

Though it starts with one man and his conventional-seeming job as a corporate headhunter, before this twisty Norwegian thriller is over two individuals are involved in nonstop pursuit of each other for the highest possible stakes. Like life and death.

Taken from the fiendishly plotted novel by Jo Nesbo, one of Scandinavia's top mystery writers, Headhunters is a dark adult entertainment, a wild and bloody adrenaline rush of a movie that deals in gleeful grotesqueness and over-the-top implausibilities.

Headhunters is directed by Morten Tyldum, and given how slick and stylish the proceedings are, it is not a shock to learn that he trained at New York's School of Visual Arts and is "a highly sought-after commercial director" in his native Norway.

Working with cinematographer John Andreas Andersen and editor Vidar Flataukan, the very professional Tyldum certainly knows how to move things along and ratchet up the tension, a talent that is indispensable when you can't afford to give the audience too much time to consider how improbable the proceedings actually are.

It also helps that accomplished actors, Norwegian star Aksel Hennie and Denmark's Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones, are at the core of Headhunters. Once he cast these two, the director confidently felt "we now have the foundation to create a film with fistfuls of nerve."

Hennie plays Roger Brown, a top corporate headhunter whose voice-over narration is the story's spine. When we are introduced to Brown, however, he is engaged not in his business career but rather in a quite profitable sideline: stealing high-quality art.

As we watch Brown operate with maximum efficiency, he explains his burglary rules, advising us, for instance, never to spend more than 10 minutes on a job. If you do this long enough, Brown says, one of two things will happen: You'll steal something so valuable you can retire or you'll get caught.

Brown also lets us know that at 5-foot-6 he's a textbook over-compensator: He married Diana (Synnove Macody Lund), a classic Nordic blond who towers over him, and to keep her happy he needs more money than he can easily make. Giving Diana children would also make her happy, but this is something Brown is unwilling to do.

Cocky, impudent, even a bit arrogant and cold, Brown is not an easy man to like. A self-described risk taker who believes "it's all a game" and "if you don't gamble, you don't win," he is living closer to the edge than he ever has before and is desperate for a big score.

At an opening for his wife's art gallery, Brown meets Clas Greve (Coster-Waldau), a recent arrival from the Netherlands. A cockier, not to mention taller alpha male than Brown, a veteran of an elite Dutch combat unit who just retired from a company that specializes in GPS tracking, Greve is an altogether formidable individual, but Brown sees him as a blessing in disguise.

For one thing, he can recommend Greve for a major CEO job he is trying to fill. For another, Greve turns out to own an invaluable Peter Paul Rubens painting that no one has seen since World War II. This is the big time, Brown tells his partner in crime Ove Kikerud (Eivind Sander), who works for a home security company and dabbles in Russian prostitutes. This is the score we can retire on.

Only, wouldn't you know it, it's not quite that simple. Once Brown finds himself in Greve's orbit, his ordinarily in-control life goes completely kablooey, and he finds himself in outrageous situations, fighting for survival as one diabolical cat and mouse situation succeeds another. Brown is so overmatched that we actually start to root for him to succeed, and that may be Headhunters biggest surprise of all.

Lone Ranger trailer

I don't know about you, but this trailer doesn't do much for me.

Off-the-wall baseball playoff predictions


Wild-card game
Texas over Baltimore

Division Series
Texas over New York
Detroit over Oakland

Championship Series
Detroit over Texas


Wild-card game
St. Louis over Atlanta

Division Series
San Francisco over Cincinnati
St. Louis over Washington

Championship Series
San Francisco over St. Louis

San Francisco over Detroit

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Moneyball wins

It was not so much that the Texas Rangers collapsed at the end of the season. The real story of the Rangers slide from a 12-game lead over Oakland on July 1 to losing the division championship to the A’s today on the last game of the season was simply this: the Rangers were merely mediocre in the last half of the season and the A’s were outstanding.

Here are the telling figures: Since July 1, the Ranger’s won-loss record was only four games above 500, 43-39, a winning percentage of .524. Oakland, on the other hand, was an incredible 56-26 (.683!) over that same period.

How did they do it? It sure wasn’t with any outstanding performances on offense or defense. The team’s leading batter, Yoenis Cespedes (not exactly a household name) ranks 17th in the American League with a .292 average. As a team, Oakland ranks 15th among the 30 MLB teams in batting (Texas was first), 16th in runs scored and 17th in OPS. They were, however, seventh in home runs, hitting 194, only six less than the Rangers. On defense, Oakland committed 110 errors, 8th worst in the majors.

Pitching, still a Ranger’s weak spot, was another story for the A’s. Oakland was sixth in the majors with a team ERA of 3.48. (Texas was 16th with a 3.96), although none of their pitchers finished in the top 10 in ERA in the AL.

But somehow they put it all together for a fabulous second half of the season while Texas was barely above average.

It would not surprise me at all to see a World Series matching Oakland and Washington. Now, what were the odds of that happening at the beginning of the season?

The Oscar Forecast: Directing, Writing

Ben Affleck, Argo
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Tom Hooper, Les Miserables
David O. Russell, The Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

Django Unchained
The Master
Moonrise Kingdom
Zero Dark Thirty

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Les Miserables
The Silver Linings Playbook

Monday, October 1, 2012

My Top 25 College Football Teams

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