Thursday, June 28, 2012

Available on DVD: “Sound of Noise”

The directors of the delightful 2001 short film Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers, which showcases the noncutesy melodic possibilities of squeak toys, toothbrushes and vacuum cleaners, successfully build upon the premise in Sound of Noise.

Spoofing police procedurals while bowing deeply to John Cage, the cheeky Swedish feature pits a music-loathing yet sympathetic detective against a group of anarchist percussionists. In lesser hands the mash-up might be nothing more than an act of cinematic contortion. But filmmakers Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson and their engaging cast pull off the feat with no strain and a surprising amount of heart.

At the center of the simple story (written by Simonsson and Jim Birmant) is tone-deaf anti-terrorist cop Amadeus (Bengt Nilsson), who, in a cruel twist of fate, is the sibling of a famous conductor. The ticking bomb that introduces Amadeus to the case of the guerrilla drummers turns out to be a metronome, much to his profound dismay.

That puts him on the trail of conceptual composer Magnus (Magnus Börjeson), academy reject Sanna (Sanna Persson Halapi) and their band of outsiders. In four locations, the most far-fetched being a hospital, they're staging Music for One City and Six Drummers, the ultimate expression of their manifesto against musical mediocrity.

Without pounding home its avant-garde cred, this fresh ode to found sound and the music of silence casts an amused gaze at careerism, classical-music reverence and notions of artistic purity and ends with a pitch-perfect change of tune.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I would like the college playoff system a lot more if limits are placed on “the committee”

Last December I wrote about a college football playoff system I could endorse, one in which the No. 1 team at the end of the season played the No. 4, and No. 2 played No. 3. The winner of those two games would then play for the national championship.

Yesterday college presidents endorsed an almost identical idea, launching such a playoff beginning with the 2014 season. The only real difference between this system and the one I proposed a half year ago is that for some reason the college football powers-that-be decided the top four teams would be picked by a committee. We don’t know yet and probably won’t for several months how many people will be on this committee or what the qualifications are for serving on it. But anyone who has had a direct involvement in any government body, as I have, or even follows government actions, knows that a committee acting behind closed doors more often than not produces unsatisfactory results.

I heard many "experts" compare this committee to the one that selects the 68 (or whatever the number is now) teams in the NCAA basketball tournament. These same "experts" say there are always complaints about who the committee picks and who it leaves out of the tournament.

That’s a bogus comparison. Another one is more apt: Going into the NCAA basketball tournament, there is usually little debate about who the four No. 1 seeds will be. That’s really all the committee has to do: Basically pretend the playoff consists of 68 teams, pick the four No. 1 seeds and stop right there.

So how do they do that fairly? The committee needs to create a college football equivalent to college basketball’s RPI. The RPI ranks all the Division 1 basketball teams and the selection committee relies on this system in picking its at-large teams. At the end of the last basketball season, the top four teams, according to the RPI, were Syracuse, Kentucky, Michigan State and North Carolina and, if memory serves, those were the four No. 1 seeds in the last tournament. For the football playoff to work correctly, college football must create an RPI system based on the basketball model and then the committee simply plucks the top four teams, according to that RPI, at the end of the regular season.

The only time the committee would need to interject its opinion is when there is a statistical tie in the RPI between or among teams. Then the committee could select which team is seeded third, for example, and which fourth. Or even more importantly, if there is an RPI tie among teams in the No. 4 spot, the committee could use its collective judgment to determine which one makes the playoffs.

What about the Championship Bowl?
Lost in all the celebration over the new playoff system is the fate of the proposed "Championship Bowl" that now becomes "The Runner-Up Bowl." This new bowl was supposed to match the Southeastern Conference Champion against the Big 12 Champion. I can’t conceive of that ever happening.

Look at last year. Everyone with any semblance of college football knowledge realized the top four college football teams at the end of the last regular season were LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State and Stanford and, if the playoff system announced for 2014 had been in place last season, those would have been the four participants. That would have meant the Championship Bowl would have had to be played by the third best team in the SEC and the second place team in the Big 12. Not exactly the marquee matchup envisioned by the bowl’s creators.

I only went back to 2002, but in every single year from 2002 until the present, at least one school from each conference was among the top four teams at the end of the regular season. I’d be willing to be that the Championship Bowl will never be played by the winners of the two conferences, unless that bowl is added to the four other BCS bowls for playoff rotation and, by the luck of the draw, it features a playoff between the two conference champions. However, I have a better chance of winning the lottery than that ever happening.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Available on DVD: “Jeff, Who Lives At Home”

Jeff, Who Lives at Home, with Jason Segel as the 30-year-old title character — a stoner, a slacker, a guy who can hardly get dressed, let alone get a job — begins with a monologue about the genius of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.

Clutching a tape recorder, Segel’s Jeff Thomkins ruminates about the significance of the 2002 Mel Gibson/Joaquin Phoenix movie, its themes of fate and portent, and how every little thing leads to this one significant, synchronicitous moment.

Nothing in this quiet, quirky comedy from the brothers Duplass (writer-directors Jay and Mark) comes close to Jeff’s inspired, bong-fueled deconstruction of Signs, but it gives us a good idea of where this guy is coming from. And why an errant phone call isn’t merely a wrong number, but a clue to something more meaningful, perhaps even life-changing.

So Jeff lives in the basement of his mom’s house, safe from the blinding light of the streets of Baton Rouge. His mother (Susan Sarandon) has a real job, and a real ache of loneliness. It’s her birthday, and all she wants is for her son to put on some clothes and take a bus to the hardware store to buy some wood glue. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently, yes.

And then there’s Jeff’s brother, Pat (Ed Helms), who is clueless in a more proactive way. He goes out and buys a Porsche, even as his wife, Linda (the great Judy Greer), says they can’t afford it. And when Jeff and Pat run into each other later that day, they spy Linda having what looks like a romantic assignation. Jeff is put on the case to find out what’s going on, eavesdropping from an adjacent booth in a restaurant, like some pothead sleuth.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is shambling and talky, in the manner of the Duplasses’ The Puffy Chair and Cyrus. An irritatingly cute marimba-driven score runs throughout, trying to wring poignancy out of the awkwardness, à la Miranda July. And maybe it’s the Louisiana locale and the high loser quotient of its cast of characters, but the film is remindful, too, of a Frederick Barthelme short story. People lead sad lives, do peculiar or self-destructive things, and then a strange happenstance — or, in Jeff’s eyes, a twist of fate — transpires.

Like Jeff’s rap about Signs, the Duplasses’ screenplay builds to a "perfect moment," where all the seemingly random clues Jeff has been discerning coalesce in an a-ha! moment of considerable import.

The plausibility of the finale is open to question, but the filmmaking duo’s determination to take us there makes a nice kind of sense.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Available on DVD: “Keyhole”

The muscle and the molls are in the parlor, hunkered down and waiting for the cops. There are ghosts upstairs, rattling their chains. But Keyhole is not really a gangster picture nor a horror movie, though it traffics in some of the visual and verbal conventions of both genres: tough talk, murky shadows, darkened hallways. The simplest way to describe it is as a Guy Maddin film, which is really just a way of gesturing toward its puzzles and complications.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the cinema of nostalgia, inspired by The Artist and Hugo and Midnight in Paris among others. Maddin’s obsession with the movie past long predates those efforts. His black-and-white, silent films (including the features Dracula, Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, Cowards Bend the Knee and Brand Upon the Brain! and a bouquet of marvelously kinetic shorts) are more radical and more rigorously authentic than The Artist. He uses old styles and technologies not as a cute retro gimmick but rather to explore persistent themes of memory and loss.

In Keyhole a gangster named Ulysses (Jason Patric) returns to a home that is haunted by regret and threatened by the prospect of revenge. His minions, bracing for a police raid, pass the time conspiring, complaining, flirting with the boss’s mistress and dabbling in interior decoration. Ulysses arrives carrying a young woman named Denny (Brooke Palsson), whom he has apparently saved from drowning. He is preoccupied with caring for her and also with a young man, gagged and bound with ropes, who turns out to be his son, Manners (David Wontner).

Manners’s mother, Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), is somewhere on the upper floors, attended by her lover and the specter of her father. Like his Homeric namesake Ulysses is seeking a way back to his wife, though there is not much evidence of love or loyalty between them. Nor is Keyhole, narratively speaking, a re-imagined Odyssey any more than it is a ’30s crime drama. It’s more like a dusty attic full of battered, evocative cultural references. You might detect the shades of Ibsen’s Ghosts and Henry James’s spooky Victorian tales or find other echoes and glimmerings to parse with your friends after the movie.

You will also find, amid the mannered performances, the comically overwrought voice-over ("Remember, Ulysses!") and the smoky, silvery cinematography (by Benjamin Kasulke), a kernel of surprising and scary emotion. In some of Maddin’s other work there is more than just a kernel. Beyond their formal brilliance it is the psychological anguish of Brand Upon the Brain! and the layered melancholy of My Winnipeg, Maddin’s 2008 ode to his hometown, that make those films so lastingly powerful and strange.

Keyhole, which was commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, represents something of a departure, even as its weird, almost-familiar, monochromatic images are stamped with Maddin’s unmistakable sensibility. It is his first digitally shot feature, and it is also less personal and more accessible than some of his other work. To a die-hard Maddinite this may be a little disappointing, but for that reason Keyhole may also be a perfect gateway into the bizarre and fertile world of a unique film artist.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The 25 Best Films of the Silent Era

1. Battleship Potemkin (1925). Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. In 1925, the Soviet government commissioned a young intellectual named Sergei Eisenstein to create a film commemorating the unsuccessful Russian revolution of 1905. The result was Battleship Potemkin, a vibrant, cinematically radical, and extremely accomplished work which went on to become one of the most celebrated movies ever made. It was selected as the greatest film ever made in a 1952 poll commissioned for the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Eisenstein was voted the greatest director of all time in a 1962 survey taken by the British magazine Sight and Sound. It survives today as a superbly made movie, and its extraordinary six-minute "Odessa steps" sequence remains among history’s most brilliant pieces of cinema.

2. Sunrise (1927). Directed by F.W. Murnau. After the success of Murnau’s silent German classics Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926), William Fox, the head of Fox Film Corp., invited Murnau to come to America, offering him carte blanche to create any kind of film he wanted. Murnau accepted, providing he would have no studio interference, and planned Sunrise as a purely artistic production. The result is, quite simply, an undisputed masterpiece, and that rarest of films that achieves absolute perfection in every area; in fact, it won a special Academy Award at the first Oscar ceremony for "Unique and Artistic Production." Sunrise has rarely been equalled, and never surpassed, in its sheer physical beauty, its romantic intensity, its emotional poignancy, and its extraordinarily creative use of the cinematic medium.

3. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. One of the towering achievements of world cinema, Dreyer’s silent classic is a stunningly filmed, harrowing account of the 15th century trial and execution of the French martyr. This is one of the all-time masterpieces of pure cinema, not only for its unparalleled use of camera movement, composition, and editing, but for its transcendent spirituality and intense emotional impact.

4. The General (1926). Directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton. Poorly received on its initial release, this is now widely considered to be Keaton’s greatest film. It survives gloriously today as probably the only film that would qualify for all-time ten-best lists in the categories of both comedy and adventure. Three years before his death in 1966, Keaton said, "I was more proud of that picture than any I ever made."

5. The Gold Rush (1925). Directed by Charlie Chaplin. There’s a reason why this is the most familiar of all Chaplin’s films. Because it was his personal favorite, he deliberately allowed it to lapse out of the haven of copyright and into the public domain so that successive generations of moviegoers would always be able to see it. Complete with a thoroughly happy ending — a Chaplin rarity — this is a delight from beginning to end, boasting several of its maker’s most memorable gags and Chaplinesque interludes.

6.  Intolerance (1916). Directed by D.W. Griffith. This film’s sets, costumes, compositions, and mass deployment of bodies in motion are impressive, especially in the battle of Babylon sequence. The parallel editing in the final two reels is undeniably exciting, Constance Talmadge’s spirited performance as the Babylon mountain girl is extremely winning. And while I have discovered that many film authorities consider Intolerance one of the greatest movies ever made, I have also discovered that pratically no one particularly likes this movie. In cinema’s critical circles, points have always been awarded for high ambition, extraordinary effort, and honorable intentions. Perhaps that is the secret of Intolerance’s reputation.

7. Greed (1924). Directed by Erich von Stroheim. If one can define screen realism as the antithesis of escapism, then Greed fully lives up to its reputation as a classic work of realism. But one should not look to Greed for any form of organic, documentarian realism, beyond the film’s indigenous sets. Von Stroheim might have thought of himself as a pioneer in the objective depiction of undiluted authenticity, but he was actually a moralist, determinist, and social satirist. Despite its unhappy postproduction history (the film was cut from its original nine-hour length to under two hours), Greed remains a powerful and affecting film. To those with no cognizance of that history, the movie will seem complete, if not the masterpiece it is reputed to have once been.

8. Metropolis (1926). Directed by Fritz Lang. Moralistic science fiction at its maddest, Lang’s ambitious silent classic still has the power to impress with its inspired art direction and its expressionistic vision. What ultimately saves the film from both silliness and ponderousness is not its simplistic social message, not its now-stale theme, nor its disappointing characterizations, but rather the dazzling cinematic (and theatrical) bag of tricks which Lang and company employed to keep things moving: dizzying industrial montages, lively editing, interesting camera setups by the car-full, exciting special effects which anticipate the Frankenstein films, and eccentrically beautiful art direction informed by Futurism and other contemporary art movements. All this (plus the robot-Maria’s semi-nude, semi-lewd hotcha dance) keeps Metropolis high on the list of cinema’s most eye-opening entertainments.

9. The Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Directed by Dziga Vertov. A startlingly avant-garde cross-examination of modern life, as well as a lesson in the power of filmmaking and an autopsy of its methods. The technical innovation that went into its filming and the audacious self-reflexivity Marked The Man with a Movie Camera as unique, and conceptually decades ahead of anything else being done at the time.

10. Nosferatu (1922). Directed by F.W. Murnau. A stylish (albeit unauthorized) silent version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, starring the incomparably creepy Max Schreck as the Vampire. It’s a truly horrifying and scary film, but it’s also frequently poetic and beautiful, using real locations and a naturalistic style to create an overpowering atmosphere of evil. In the scores of vampire films that have followed Nosferatu in the subsequent decades, none have been able to match its physical beauty, its intensity of vision, or its grasp of true evil.

11. Napoleon (1927). Directed by Abel Gance. A dazzling display of cinematic virtuosity that tells the story of the French emperor from his boyhood to the French Revolution to his triumphant conquering of Italy. Its stunning power and impact is created through purely cinematic means of incredibly mobile camerawork (often hand-held or strapped to horses), rapid-fire editing employing superimpositions and multiple exposures, and the pioneering use of a widescreen triptych format called ""Polyvision" that was the obvious inspiration for Cinerama and CinemaScope.

12. Broken Blossoms (1919). Directed by D.W. Griffith. The most elemental and uncluttered of Griffith’s major melodramas, this is the tragic story of a Chinese man who falls in love with a Cockney waif. Within its 90 minutes, Griffith does more to atone for the racial intolerance he betrayed in The Birth of a Nation than he managed to do in his three-and-a-half-hour epic Intolerance. In a 1952 survey conducted by the British film magazine Sight and Sound, Broken Blossoms was cited as one of the 20 best films of all time. When the publication repeated the survey a decade later, the movie received not a single vote.

13. The Birth of a Nation (1915). Directed by D.W. Griffith. This undeniably racist melodrama is the first true screen epic and arguably the most important motion picture ever made. Virtually overnight, The Birth of a Nation compelled cultural gatekeepers to reckon with cinema, not as a mere arcade novelty, but as a uniquely vigorous, wholly credible art form. As the film unfolds, with a majestic assurance undiminished by time, the viewer can practically see Griffith inventing the narrative conventions, editing style, and production techniques that have dominated Hollywood cinema ever since.

14. Sherlock Jr. (1924). Directed by Buster Keaton. Keaton’s comic masterpiece is not only one of the funniest movies of all time, filled with staggering stunts, amazing sight gags, and mind-boggling cinematic tricks, but it’s also a brilliant meditation on the nature of the film medium itself, perhaps the best ever made. It is an extraordinary study of film and its intrinsic qualities of illusion and fantasy. When Buster walks into the screen and becomes a participant in the movie, the film transcends its genre and becomes a profound work of art. The actual effect of him walking into the screen is nothing less than astounding, seamlessly accomplished and impossible to detect. Even a frame-by-frame inspection of the scene doesn’t reveal how it was done.

15. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Directed by Robert Wiene. A seminal horror movie, this movie was hailed upon its initial release as the first film to elevate the cinema from the realm of popular entertainment to that of high art. But the film’s most important quality — an element many critics neglect to mention — is its power to scare the viewer. It was and remains a very frightening movie, from the aghast faces in the very first shot to the final chilling irony. Nothing is more horrifying than insanity, and virtually every major character in the film is insane at one time or another, in one way or another. Even those who aren’t certifiable, are downright weird.

16. Un Chien Andalou (1928). Directed by Luis Bunuel. Bunuel’s first film is impossible to describe in a traditional narrative sense. It is a succession of alternately beautiful and shocking images that are seemingly unrelated but have the internal logic of a nightmare.

17. The Last Laugh (1924). Directed by F.W. Murnau. This classic study of a hotel employee’s humiliation, is unusual on two counts: it is a silent movie without explanatory intertitles; and it’s a tragedy that ends on a totally unexpected, outrageously upbeat note of vindication.

18. The Crowd (1928). Directed by King Vidor. Three years after the immense popular success of his overrated The Big Parade, Vidor directed this film, another silent drama about an average man caught up in great social forces that he doesn’t fully understand. One of the few major Hollywood productions to deal realistically with the daily struggles and disappointments of ordinary people, it is even more ambitious than its predecessor.

19. Pandora’s Box (1928). Directed by G.W. Pabst. Some films are richly composed and mounted; others are acted and paced with refreshing energy and naturalistic zest. This is one of the few films to combine these two, usually disparate, virtues. Playing the role that later earned her a large cult of admirers, Louise Brooks is unforgettable. With her short, childlike hairdo, her dark, clear, and widely spaced eyes, her pale and youthful — but insidiously voluptuous — flesh, and her gift for expressing spontaneous emotion without histrionics or apparent effort, Brooks was a Lulu for the ages. More than a great performance, it was an incarnation.

20. Nanook of the North (1922). Directed by Robert J. Flaherty. The first feature-length documentary to achieve international popular success and critical acclaim. By virtue of its timeless setting and straightforward approach to its subject, this portrait of the daily lives of an Eskimo man and his family is probably the least dated of any silent film.

21. The Kid (1921). Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s first feature-length production, is one of his most sentimental and most satisfying films, a simple but very effective blend of pathos and laughs.

22. The Wind (1928). Directed by Victor Sjostrom. The story of a genteel young woman’s harrowing struggles with an alien environment and her own fears, this film was shot in California’s Mojave Desert under almost intolerable conditions. The final silent film of both Lillian Gish, who functioned as the picture’s unofficial producer as well as its leading lady, and the great Swedish director Sjostrom, it is perhaps the most powerful and accomplished silent drama ever to emerge from Hollywood.

23. The Cameraman (1928). Directed by Edward Sedgwick. Buster Keaton’s last great silent film, a hilarious and touching story about the misadventures of a would-be newsreel cameraman in Manhattan. As in Sherlock Jr., Keaton integrated his love of film and movies with his usual incredible sight gags and stunts, playing with double-exposures and other conventions of cinematic technique. In a way, the film can be viewed as a metaphor for his new relationship with the MGM factory, with Keaton symbolically rebelling against his employee status by displaying his creative eccentricity.

24. October (1927). Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Near the end of the silent movie era, the Soviet Central Committee commissioned Eisenstein to make a film celebrating the 10th anniversary of the October 1917 revolution. Although the film baffled the masses, it excited the intelligentsia and quickly became an international critics’ classic.

25. Foolish Wives (1922). Directed by Erich von Stroheim. Stroheim, often called "The Man You Love to Hate," gave 1920s audiences even more reasons to hate him as a lecherous phony count in this film. The original Variety review called the film "Frankly salacious." That, it may be, but it’s also one of the few silent films that is as powerful and entertaining today as when it was first released.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

If Clemens doesn’t get in, it becomes a Hall of Shame

Roger Clemens was the greatest pitcher of his generation. The only person who comes close to Clemens is Randy Johnson, Clemens won seven Cy Young awards, more than any other pitcher in history. He made the all-star team 11 times and was on two world championship teams. He ranks ninth among all pitchers in major league history in wins. Of those with more wins, only Greg Maddux (with one more win than Clemens, 355-354), is not in baseball’s Hall of Fame and you can bet your bottom dollar that will be remedied as soon as Maddux becomes eligible. Only two pitchers in baseball history, Nolan Ryan and the aforementioned Johnson, struck out more batters. Clemens is the poster child for a slam dunk entry into the Hall of Fame.

However, there’s more than a mere handful of pompous baseball beat writers – the bums who have the ultimate say-so on who gets into the Hall and who is blacklisted – that are going to keep Clemens out because they believe from their self-constructed lofty perches they know more than the jury that acquitted Clemens this week of perjury charges stemming from his emphatic denial before Congress that he was injected with steroids.

These writers are two-faced sanctimonious hypocrites. Let’s see. They voted Gaylord Perry into the Hall of Fame, a pitcher who achieved all his success by throwing illegal pitches. Manager Leo Durocher, a close friend of gangster Bugsy Siegel, someone who regularly allowed professional gamblers into his clubhouse, and the person who set up the complex scheme of stealing opposing catcher’s signals that allowed his New York Giants to win the 1951 National League pennant, is also a member of the Hall of Fame.

If these outlaws and cheaters are permitted entry, then Clemens better be voted in as well or the Hall becomes what Groucho Marx once called "a mockery, a sham, a mockery of a sham."

Not only that, the Hall deserves to be boycotted by all true baseball fans if Clemens is denied entry. Simply don’t go to Cooperstown, N.Y. Don’t support an outfit that denies entry to the greatest ballplayers of this or any other era, just because a group of prejudiced sportswriters placed themselves on a pedestal above the law.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Available on DVD: “In Darkness”

What propels some people to intervene when they see a crime, while others opt to look away and pretend nothing is happening? In Darkness uses the Holocaust to explore that question. The film opens in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943. On the streets, Jews are being summarily executed, rounded into ghettos and being shipped off to concentration camps.

But beneath the ground, in the city’s labyrinth sewer system, among the rats and filth and waste and rancid water, a group of Jews have holed up, praying the apocalypse raging above them will somehow abate. To survive, they pay a Polish sewer worker, Leopold (Robert Wieckiewicz), to keep their secret and bring them food and other supplies. At the same time, Leopold’s friend Bortnik (Michal Zurawski), an officer in the Ukrainian army, is counting on his pal to help flush out any stragglers who may be hiding in the sewers.

In Darkness, which was directed by Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) and was one of the five nominees for the 2011 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is far more complex than that scenario implies. Leopold is a hustler and thief: He has no qualms about looting abandoned apartments in order to provide for his family, even when, in the forest nearby, he sees a group of pale, naked women screaming as they run toward the clearing where they will be executed.

Leopold helps the Jews find their hiding place strictly for the money: He has been immersed in Nazi propaganda and doesn’t really see them as people, because it’s easier not to. Ironically, as the months drag on and the possibility grows that they will be discovered, the more precarious his arrangement gets — and the more obsessed Leopold becomes with protecting them.

Adapted from Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lvov by screenwriter David F. Shamoon, In Darkness is a punishing but hopeful drama that argues human nature is, at its core, is good — easily corruptible by greed and power and fear, but noble and pure in its essence.

Some critics have argued that Schindler’s List has rendered all future Holocaust films redundant, and that anyone who makes another one is edging into torture-porn territory, exploiting unspeakable atrocities for cheap shocks and programmed reactions. Besides, the character of Leopold comes to resemble Oskar Schindler, another gentile who was motivated to help Jews at great personal risk. But Holland isn’t trying to make a definitive statement on the Holocaust, nor is she using horrific sights simply to wring gasps from her audience. The movie delves deep into the large cast of characters, all of whom must continue to deal with the everyday situations of life even while under the duress of their unthinkable situation.

Among them: A woman inconsolable that her sister has opted to try her luck at the camps rather than live in the sewers with her; a mother trying to raise her two small children, who have forgotten what the sun looked like; a husband who must decide between his beautiful young mistress or his older wife, condemning one to a certain death; a pregnant woman must decide what to do with her impending baby. If the film doesn’t break any new thematic ground, then it certainly provides fresh and grave perspectives on a well-known subject. More than half of In Darkness takes place underground, shrouded in rank, oppressive shadows. But the movie also glows bright with life and hope, celebrating the innate human instinct to push onward and persevere, even in the face of incomprehensible evil.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Random thoughts on the NBA, DPD, DMN. DART and other acronyms

I really don’t like the Miami Heat. I don’t like the way the team collected it’s Big Three, and don’t try to tell me the Boston Celtics did the same thing, because they didn’t. They acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen through some shrewd trades. And don’t get me started on that whole LeBron James "decision" thing. On the other hand, I really do like the Oklahoma Thunder, partly because its No. 1 star played his college ball at my alma mater, but mainly because I admire the team’s approach to the game. Guess who I’m going to be rooting for in the NBA finals that begin tonight.

I admire Dallas Police Chief David Brown. I have worked with him in the past and always found himself to be a professional, a standup guy. (I wanted to call him a "straight-shooter," but realized that didn’t fit in this context.) Still, this idea of shooting a man in the back in self defense smells, no matter how much Chief Brown tries to spin it.

I rarely find myself in agreement with Dallas Morning News editorials, but I must admit I find the paper’s suggestion for an open primary in Texas to something worth pursuing. California has adopted this system in attempt to reduce partisanship and free the primaries from being captured by extremists, as they have been in Texas. The way an open primary works is this: All candidates would keep their party affiliations but there would no longer be separate primaries for each political party. Instead, all the candidates for each office would appear one ballot and everyone — Republicans, Democrats and, most importantly, independents — would have the opportunity to vote for the candidate of their choice. Then two candidates who received the most votes for each office would face off in the November general election, even if it meant two Republicans running against each other or Veasey vs. Garcia. The theory is that candidates — in order to appeal to the widest number of voters — would gravitate toward the center of the political ideological spectrum. For those who say such a system couldn’t work, that’s exactly the way Dallas elects its mayor.

DART is looking for a way to get more riders. To achieve this goal it must overcome a tremendous obstacle and convince potential customers it’s absolutely safe the use the transit system. I know of one woman who’s son refuses to let her ride DART rail because he fears it’s too dangerous for a woman traveling alone. Until such fears are eradicated, DART will never achieve the ridership levels it should.

This headline in today’s Dallas Morning News caught my attention: "Drownings concern safety experts". Ya think?

Gosselin goosed by his own logic

I have all the respect in the world for Rick Gosselin. How could I not? I began my professional journalism career with UPI and from there went to the Dallas Morning News. Years later, Gosselin followed my example. Well, maybe not followed mine, exactly, but he did go from UPI to the Morning News where he became the world’s foremost authority on the National Football League, and I’m including the gurus in Bristol, Conn., as part of that world.

Rick Gosselin
Gosselin should stick to the NFL, however, because when he ventures outside of it he gets himself in trouble. Take his column in Monday’s News, for example, in which he argues only college football conference champions should be allowed to participate in a four-team playoff to determine the national champion. (Interestingly, there's no reference to this particular column on the paper's Web site. Did it embarrass enough people that the editors had it removed?) He supports his argument by saying a team’s regular season games should count for something, but then argues that, no, they really shouldn’t. What Gosselin is actually arguing is that only a team’s conference season games should count, not realizing that up to a third of a team’s regular season schedule consists of non-conference games.

He’s upset that last year the two best teams in the country were both from the same conference. According to his ludicrous argument, PAC-10 co-champ Oregon, which lost decisively to LSU by 13, deserved to play for the national championship, but Alabama, which only lost to LSU by 3 in the regular season (and it took LSU five quarters to finally win it) didn’t. You gotta be kidding me.

He tries to compare the college football season to the college basketball season, arguing that Kentucky didn’t deserve to play for the national title because it lost its conference tournament to Vanderbilt. His same argument would have also kept Kansas, the team Kentucky played for the national championship, out of the tournament. But, once again, Gosselin’s logic doesn’t hold. Kansas and Kentucky actually won their conference titles, which are altogether different beasts than the conference’s tournament championships.

Using Gosselin’s argument, the NFL should simply do away with its post season playoff and have the team with the best record in the NFC after the regular season play its counterpart in the AFC in the Super Bowl.

Here’s another problem with Gosselin’s argument: If only conference champs could play for the national title, then neither the Mighty Midshipmen from Navy nor the Mighty Mormons from Brigham Young could ever play for that title because they don’t even belong to a conference. They are independents and proud of it.

Oh, yes, then there’s that whats-its-name school from South Bend, Ind. It wouldn’t qualify either which would make for a stew of angry Irishmen and women.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Breast feeding shouldn’t be turned into a spectator sport

This has nothing whatsoever with the pros and cons of breast feeding. Like just about everything else that has to do with a woman’s body, whether to breast feed should be a woman’s choice. Like just about everything else that has to do with a woman’s body, men should not even be allowed to participate in the debate.

But I do have a problem with turning something so personal into a public spectacle and that’s just what something like World Breast Feeding Week does. If the week was just about raising public awareness, I wouldn’t have a problem. But staging "a synchronized breast feeding event" and then inviting media photographers to document it is simply a gross invasion of privacy. It doesn’t help that the Dallas event, according to a news release from the City of Dallas (why our municipal government is involved with this horrendous spectacle defies explanation), will be staged "behind O’Reily Auto Parts." That just adds another layer of insult.

And, according to the city’s release, door prizes will be awarded. I won’t even hazard a guess…

At least the city had the good sense not to put this release on its Web site. It was simply e-mailed to area reporters, editors and bloggers.

There are, I’m guessing, millions of women out there who would prefer to breast feed their newborns but for reasons beyond their control, are unable to do so. How do you think such a display makes them feel?

This is just so wrong on so many different levels.

Available on DVD: “Declaration of War”

Sick children and their struggling parents rarely make for a lively film. But Declaration of War does just that in an unusual French mashup of stylized techniques and stinging blows of emotion.

The mix doesn’t always work; it could have used fewer montages set to spiky electronica, and a duet sung by the leads was unnecessary. But what a treat to find a movie so bright-eyed and true — without a trace of bathos — in its depiction of such a harrowing subject.

The film tips its hand in the first scene, as we meet a school-age boy named Adam and his mother (Valérie Donzelli) in a hospital waiting room. Moments later, Adam is getting wheeled into an MRI, magnets clacking loudly as maman looks on with love and concern. The story then zips back to the moment, years earlier, when she first locked eyes with Adam’s father (Jérémie Elkaïm) at a party. His name is Romeo, he says. Hers is Juliette.

"So we’re doomed to a terrible fate?" he asks, and she replies: "I don’t know," the first admission of blind ignorance in a film absolutely riddled with it.

Their story, Adam’s story, is told with a frankness and empathy that holds us fast through the ordeal — from colicky newborn to wobbling toddler to a child with a tumor requiring nine hours of surgery.

As they move from doctor to doctor and hospital to hospital, kissing their son through thin protective masks, Donzelli and Elkaïm behave with all the flailing uncertainty of parents facing the worst possible fate for their child. This is their film, in more ways than one: Not only did Donzelli direct and co-write the script with Elkaïm, but the couple’s own son battled a life-threatening illness.

"We have to be strong," says Romeo to Juliette, and in any other film, spoken by any other characters, the line would sound banal. In Declaration of War, it’s a declaration of fact — clear, irrefutable, painful.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Available on DVD: “Tomboy”

In Tomboy, a 10-year-old girl moves with her family to a suburb, and on her first day out of the house, another little girl asks her name. "Mikael," she says, and for the next couple of weeks, everyone thinks that she’s a boy. She plays boys’ games, gets into fights and even finds herself attracting, in a proto-sexual sort of way, the admiration of other girls. From there, things get complicated.

Tomboy is the second feature from Celine Sciamma, whose first film, Water Lilies, dealt with the burgeoning sexual feelings of a 15-year-old girl. The movie was so sly and subtle that you could watch the whole thing and not realize until well into the movie that the girl was a lesbian, though everything about her sexuality had been skillfully planted by the director.

You probably don’t need to have seen Water Lilies to catch the lesbian undercurrent in Tomboy. Less subtle than its predecessor, Tomboy is like a pint-size Boys Don’t Cry, and as such, it’s practically unique. When young Laure/Mikael (Zoe Heran) is asked why she lied, she doesn’t answer. She can’t answer, because she knows she can’t say it out loud. But two things are certain: She does not pretend to be a boy just for the sake of climbing trees, and this is not a phase that she is going to be growing out of.

On the contrary, she is growing into this, and so to see Tomboy is to see something that movies have rarely, if ever, depicted: What is it like to be a gay child? This is the true subject of Tomboy. Having depicted lesbianism in the early sexual years, Sciamma has wound back the clock to childhood to show us, with taste and sensitivity, something we have not seen.

Either through felicitous casting or something in Sciamma’s direction, Zoe Heran as the title character brings a wonderful contained quality to the role, the dignity of someone who can keep her own secrets.

The world of the children looks tribal, borderline dangerous; the world of the parents is placid and kindly in comparison. The relationships all feel lived-in and authentic, possibly because Sciamma was smart and decided to film Tomboy in Heran’s own neighborhood and use her own friends in the cast.

Anyway, chalk another one up. Sciamma is two for two.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Available on DVD: “We Need To Talk About Kevin”

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a pretentious, heavy-handed movie. Adapting Lionel Shriver’s novel about the mother of a teenager who goes on a killing spree at his school, director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) uses colors and symbols with the grace and ingenuity of a first-year film student. She foreshadows with the subtlety of a deaf stand-up comic playing to the back row. There are scenes in this film that are ineptly handled, and there are two critical roles that have been miscast. As the father, John C. Reilly seems completely out of place here — he’s too rumpled and oblivious — and as the adolescent Kevin, Ezra Miller arches his eyebrows and angles his face downward and gives the camera a look that’s a cross between the Kubrick stare and Zoolander’s Blue Steel. It’s a cheap, cartoonish performance.

And you know what? None of this matters, because Tilda Swinton is the star of We Need to Talk About Kevin, and her performance is so complex and volcanic and transfixing that all of the film’s flaws melt away. Swinton has always gravitated toward roles that leave a deep imprint — the unraveling aristocrat of I Am Love or the blowsy alcoholic of Julia — but the part of the harried Eva is different, because this is a character you’ve never seen before: A mother who fears — and hates — her own child from the moment he’s born.

Kevin is the ultimate bad seed: He’s evil as a toddler, when he purposely soils his diapers in front of his mom’s face the moment she’s finished changing him. He’s rotten as a boy, when he intentionally trashes the room she’s been decorating so patiently. And he’s even worse as a teenager, openly masturbating in front of her and pitting his father against her in passive-aggressive fashion. Eventually, he commits the worst conceivable crime imaginable, and he seems to be doing it simply to spite her.

We Need to Talk About Kevin has a fractured narrative, alternating between the past, before Kevin finally explodes with violence, and the present, when Eva must deal with the fallout of the crimes her son has committed. The entire film depends on Swinton, who must make us understand Eva’s guilt over Kevin’s acts, her shame at her inability to love him more and her inner disappointment at failing as a mother. The challenge is formidable, but Swinton nails every face, even though she’s stranded in an uneven, unconvincing movie. Meryl Streep and Viola Davis may be getting all the attention these days, but Swinton is the most fearless actress working in movies — and she keeps getting better. Rent We Need to Talk About Kevin, if only for her.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Early (extremely) Oscar betting line

We’re getting close to being halfway through the year, which means it’s time for the first round of Oscar favorites. After all, it’s never too early. (Actually, it could be too early, but why should that stop me).

So here we go:

Likely picture nominees
Anna Karenina
Django Unchained
The Great Gatsby
The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey
Hyde Park on the Hudson
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Lincoln
The Master
Zero Dark Thirty

Likely director nominees
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Tom Hooper, Les Miserables
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

Likely actor nominees
John Hawkes, Six Sessions
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
Bill Murray, Hyde Park on the Hudson

Likely actress nominees
Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
Helen Hunt, Six Sessions
Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina
Laura Linney, Hyde Park on the Hudson
Carey Mulligan, The Great Gatsby

Likely supporting actor nominees
Russell Crowe, Les Miserables
Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Bill Murray, Moonrise Kingdom
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Likely supporting actress nominees
Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Vanessa Redgrave, Song for Marion
Olivia Williams, Hyde Park on the Hudson

Likely winners
Lincoln
Spielberg
Lewis
Linney
Phoenix
Hathaway

Before we get too carried away here, Spielberg has had a habit in the last half dozen or so years of having his big picture jump out to the early frontrunner status, only to see it fade once the picture was released. (Munich, War Horse). As for me, I’m not giving up on Les Miserables.

Available on DVD: “Goon”

The gloves are off in Goon, and not only in the hockey rink, where much of the movie takes place. The gloves are off in terms of the comedy, too. All the little niceties that used to limit the scope of comedy — niceties not only of language but of philosophy — are gone. In Goon, everyone is either a moron, or morally bereft, or some classless combination of both. The movie is harsh, nasty and vulgar like you wouldn’t believe. And often, it’s hilarious.

This is the second comedy I’ve seen recently — the other was The FP — to recognize that the cursing in youth-oriented movies has gone so far off the charts that it’s ripe for satire. Like The FP, Goon satirizes the vulgarity by amping it up. I can only imagine that for Goon screenwriters Jay Baruchel (who appears in the film as the hero's best friend) and Evan Goldberg, the challenge was to figure out just how many f-words they could pack into a single line of dialogue. They do a lot of packing.

The movie is based on a memoir by Doug Smith, who played minor-league hockey and co-wrote a book about his experiences 10 years ago. It was a small-press book and didn’t do much at the time, but the story — about a "goon," a hockey player whose main function is to beat up on the other team — has been adapted and the character transformed. In his new incarnation, Doug Smith has become Doug Glatt, a good-natured idiot with two gifts: He can take a punch, and he can knock out just about anybody.

He’s also Jewish, in this version, from an upper-middle-class family, which means that his mother and physician father (Eugene Levy) look at him like he’s from Jupiter and find his career path mortifying, even if he is the most successful goon in the minor leagues. His father does not think this is the career path of a serious man, and he’s concerned about the head injuries his son might be inflicting.

Though the comedy in Goon is extreme, it’s also quite specific and true to its world. For example, the central character of Doug is drawn with considerable care and acted with specificity by Seann William Scott. Doug is a sweet, humble guy, who is diffident in every other aspect of his life, for the simple reason that he never knows what to say. When he meets a girl he likes, Eva, he tells her that her name is pretty "like your face." Everything he says is a little bit off, and Scott plays every moment like he wonders if he’s doing or saying something wrong. It makes for a funny and a surprisingly endearing character.

Alison Pill — who played Zelda Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris — gets her first extended comic showcase as the object of Doug’s affection, a self-described "slut" who "sleeps around." She strikes just the right note, extreme yet true. A big emotional moment comes when she tells him that he makes her want to stop having sex with lots of different guys. He’s touched by this: "That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me."

Along the way, almost by accident, you get a picture of Canadian hockey in the lower levels, and it’s tough. It’s blood sport, literally — lots of blood on the ice and some teeth, too. Liev Schreiber plays the sport’s reigning goon, with a believable mix of pride and self-disgust. If this were Showgirls, Schreiber would be Gina Gershon and Scott would be Elizabeth Berkley.

Or to put it another way, the form is familiar and holds no surprises, but the particulars are different and lots of fun. And Goon doesn’t overstay its welcome. It quits while it’s ahead.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Leppert’s ulterior motive

Tom Leppert
I have never been an admirer of former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, but I do know the man is smart. I know that when he decided to enter the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchinson, he knew he had absolutely no chance of winning — especially not with a candidate as formidable as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the race.

Besides, Leppert is simply not the senatorial type. He would have chafed at being one small voice among 100, with no seniority, no power to control the outcome of anything. He displayed his lack of legislative skills almost immediately upon being inaugurated mayor in 2007 by isolating council member Angela Hunt. Sure, she opposed some of Leppert’s pet projects (the Trinity River Tollroad, the Convention Center Hotel, the Love Field concession mess), but his handling of her was ruthless and unwarranted and, in the long run, not in the best interests of the city. (Compare it to the way current Mayor Mike Rawlings has treated Hunt.)

Leppert is the CEO type, not a legislator. He’s got to be the head honcho. It began nearly 40 years ago when Leppert was elected student body president at California’s Claremont McKenna College. Not a member of the student senate, but the student body president. Of course, as just about everyone knows, he really made his mark as CEO of Turner Construction Company, the largest commercial builder in the United States. Leppert’s personality requires him to be the man in charge.

So why did he run for the U.S. Senate? Leppert is a consummate politician who, before the Republican primary, was little known outside the Dallas area. The race for the Senate got his name, his face and his platform out there all across the state of Texas, and, although it did not garner him enough support to even come close to a runoff, he did position himself well with his party’s hierarchy.

The position Leppert really covets is that of governor of Texas. This Senate race, in which he introduced himself favorably to the state’s Republican faithful without alienating any of them, places him in an excellent position to challenge incumbent Rick Perry, should the latter be foolish enough to run for another term, and to be the immediate frontrunner should Gov. Hair wisely decide he’s had enough. This same party hierarchy that Leppert cultivated believes Perry has (1) overstayed his welcome and (2) embarrassed the state with his botched presidential bid.

With two years to put together a campaign and devise a winning strategy, don’t be surprised to see the former mayor of Dallas in the governor’s mansion by 2015, which is where he has wanted to be all along, especially now that he is already well known and well liked by Republicans throughout the state because of his Senate run.

Available on DVD: “Coriolanus”

As soon as a thrilling Ralph Fiennes appears on Coriolanus, it’s clear why he chose this lesser-known Shakespeare tragedy for his directing debut. Dressed in camouflage fatigues, Fiennes — as the mythic Roman military hero first known as Caius Martius and later Coriolanus — enters a raucous scene and commands it with just a glare. What power! The city’s hungry, rioting citizens, some carrying protest signs and one holding a camera phone, have descended, demanding food. Martius charges at them and then lets loose the contempt that will aid in his downfall: "What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, that, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourselves scabs?"

The voice is soft but insistent, the rage thunderous and the backdrop — war, famine, civil unrest — as familiar as the news. Like John Osborne’s 1970s version of the play, titled A Place Calling Itself Rome (which Fiennes gestures at early on), this is Shakespeare’s 17th-century tragedy as contemporary military story, if one that invokes Iraq and other modern theaters of war. And it works, partly because while the language remains Shakespeare’s, the rule of the mob, the political hypocrisies and the grinding of war’s engine transcend any age. Then, too, there’s the sheer pleasure of hearing these words spoken by an actor like Fiennes, whose phrasing is so brilliant that you might be tempted to close your eyes if his physical performance weren’t equally mesmerizing.

This adaptation, by John Logan, condenses and dispenses with sections of the original tragedy, one of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, coming in at a tight 122 minutes. At the story’s center are two violent twinned relationships, the first between Martius and the Roman citizens he despises (they "like nor peace nor war"), the second between Martius and his Volscian enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), whom Martius openly admires: "I sin in envying his nobility." Martius protects the citizens who are unlike him and fights the man who is most like him, the dangers of his attitude toward each suggested by the calls for his murder that bookend the play. This is part of his tragedy, as are the pride and disdain that lead him from the hero’s role to the monster’s.

Not long after the citizens storm the streets, Martius heads out to fight the Volscians. The possible scent of her son’s newly spilled blood sends Martius’s patriotic mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), into raptures. Blood, she enthuses to Martius’s stunned wife, Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), "more becomes a man than gilt his trophy."

It certainly becomes Fiennes’s fierce interpretation of Martius, his eyes shining in a face streaked in blood. Having created one brilliant villain with Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, Fiennes, his head shaved, summons up another by visually evoking the iconography of Marlon Brando’s in Apocalypse Now. Later, the character puts on a white shirt and suspenders, suggesting that the great Roman conqueror is nothing more than a common skinhead.

Martius’s destiny turns — brutally, suddenly. After routing the Volscians, though failing to kill Aufidius, Martius returns to Rome, where he is given the title of Coriolanus for his victory at a city he had taken. The honor comes with a price: he’s forced to play the people’s politician, a role for which he’s disastrously equipped. Done in by pride and by two scheming tribunes, Brutus (James Nesbitt) and Sicinius (Paul Jesson), Coriolanus falls from power, despite the advice of his mother and his friend Menenius (Brian Cox). Another she-wolf of Rome, Volumnia has kept count of Coriolanus’s wounds (she’d happily lick them), nurturing his fame. But she’s done her job too well. Her son has become a war machine that, enraged at Rome, now turns against it, joining with the Volscians.

Fiennes has made smart choices here, notably by surrounding himself with a strong secondary cast (the smaller roles are less successfully played), and by hiring the cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. Ackroyd, who shot The Hurt Locker, gives Coriolanus a visual density that complements the bright opulence of Martius’s mansion yet can pick faces out of the fog of war and the darkest shadows. (The sound mixer, Ray Beckett, also worked on The Hurt Locker, in which Fiennes had a small role.) Together they bring this world alive, closing the centuries-long distance between the writing of the play and this interpretation. The language lives, as do the people, who are present enough that it’s almost a surprise that no one brandishes that timely protest sign, "Occupy Rome."