Thursday, January 31, 2013

Available on DVD: “Pina”

In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, director Werner Herzog explored the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc caverns of southern France, using a 3-D camera. The movie was quiet but magnificent. Now another director, Wim Wenders, has turned a 3-D camera on a similarly exotic and unlikely subject: the dancers of northwestern Germany’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, colleagues of the late German dance-theater choreographer Pina Bausch.

The results are no less magnificent. This suggests a simple thing: That 3-D’s effectiveness relates directly to its subject’s lack of noise, verbal or visual. The subject merely has to be alive in some way.

Bausch’s work — dense, severe, witty, hypnotic, thick with implication and substance — responds beautifully to 3-D because these are performers whose bodies and faces live in the world. They are not glamorous in the conventional sense.

But in both theatrical environments and open-air ones, with Wenders paying close attention to the geometrics as well as the psychology of the movement, Pina is the best possible tribute to Bausch, and to adventurous image-making.

Bausch died in 2009, two days before filming was to begin. Wenders folded up his plans, but the members of Bausch’s troupe, among others, persuaded him to rethink the project and forge ahead. The outdoor settings of some of the dance pieces take the viewer to strange places, strange, at least, for dance: an ordinary city sidewalk, or a trolley car, or an open field. Outside in the sun or on a traditional stage, Wenders’ camera brings us into arrestingly intimate proximity with each unison hand gesture or robotic adjustment of a torso, or an arm. Bausch’s work was all about mechanized conformity up against idiosyncratic humanity. Wenders responds intuitively to this theme, and we come to appreciate Bausch’s sense of the world.

Some of Bausch’s better-known works are included in Pina, including "Cafe Muller," pulling on strands of Heiner Muller’s dramatic literature. On camera, but offstage, the members of Bausch’s company speak (often dreamily and vaguely, if lovingly) of the late choreographer’s influence on their lives. The dancers run the gamut in terms of body "types" and age and ethnicity. Their words come to us in the languages of German, English, Russian, Italian, French, Slovenian, Korean, Spanish and Portuguese (with English subtitles).

But the movement matters most, and Wenders’ calm, enraptured camera honors that movement without chopping up Bausch’s rhythms unduly. I’m eager to see Pina again, in 3-D (the Criterion DVD is in 2-D), just as I’m eager to revisit Herzog’s cave in 3-D.

Monday, January 28, 2013

My Top Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis

1.  Michigan 19-1 (2)
2.  Kansas 18-1 (4)
3.  Florida 16-2 (3)
4.  Duke 17-2 (1)
5.  Indiana 18-2 (8)
6.  Arizona 17-2 (7)
7.  Syracuse 18-2 (6)
8.  Gonzaga 19-2 (10)
9.  Miami, Fla. 15-3 (14)
10. Louisville 16-4 (5)
11. Ohio State 15-4 (13)
12. Minnesota 15-5 (9)
13. Creighton 18-3 (11)
14. Michigan State 17-4 (17)
15. Oregon 18-2 (18)
16. Wichita State 19-2 (19)
17. Cincinnati 16-4 (15)
18. Butler 17-3 (20)
19. Mississippi 17-2 (22)
20. Pittsburgh 17-4 (23)
21. North Carolina State 16-4 (16)
22. New Mexico 17-3 (21)
23. UNLV 16-4 (NR)
24. San Diego State 16-4 (NR)
25. Marquette 14-4 (NR)
Dropped out: Colorado State (24), Missouri (25), Virginia Commonwealth (12)

1.  Connecticut 18-1 (1)
2.  Baylor 18-1 (2)
3.  Notre Dame 18-1 (3)
4.  Stanford 18-2 (5)
5.  Duke 18-1 (4)
6.  California 17-2 (7)
7.  Maryland 17-3 (8)
8.  Penn State 17-2 (10)
9.  Tennessee 16-3 (9)
10. Kentucky 19-2 (6)
11. Texas A&M 16-5 (11)
12. North Carolina 19-2 (13)
13. South Carolina 18-3 (18)
14. Purdue 17-3 (19)
15. Louisville 17-4 (14)
16. Iowa State 14-4 (17)
17. Colorado 15-4 (15)
18. Oklahoma State 15-3 (12)
19. Dayton 17-1 (20)
20. Florida State 17-3 (21)
21. Georgia 17-3 (23)
22. Delaware 15-3 (NR)
23. Wisconsin-Green Bay 15-2 (25)
24. UCLA 15-4 (24)
25. Syracuse 16-3 (22)
Dropped out: Michigan State (16)

1.  San Antonio 36-11 (3)
2.  Oklahoma City 34-11 (2)
3.  Los  Angeles Clippers 33-13 (1)
4.  Miami 28-13 (5)
5.  Memphis 28-15 (4)
6.  Denver 27-18 (8)
7.  Golden State 26-17 (6)
8.  New York 27-15 (7)
9.  Brooklyn 26-18 (9)
10. Chicago 26-17 (NR)
Dropped out: Indiana (10)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hollywood’s memo to the Academy’s Directors Branch: “Argo F— Yourselves”

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how badly Ben Affleck got screwed when the Directors Branch of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences failed to nominate him for an Oscar.

What we are witnessing now is a movement sweeping across Hollywood to rally around Affleck’s snub and to let the world know it wasn’t fair.

First came the Golden Globes that awarded Affleck’s superb directorial efforts for Argo and then, in a move that definitely surprised me, gave Argo its top prize for a movie drama. But I chalked that up to the idiosyncracies of the Golden Globes which just wanted to see glamor boys Affleck and George Clooney share a stage.

But then last night the Producers Guild, in a major shocker, named Argo best picture of the year, and tonight, in another upset, the Screen Actors Guild effectively named Argo best picture by awarding it the ensemble cast award.

Now Argo has suddenly replaced Lincoln as the favorite to win the best picture Oscar. Although I do think Oscar voters wanted to coalesce around a film other than Lincoln, a movie everyone respected but no one really loved, but (and I have no way to prove this) I would argue that alternative wouldn’t have been Argo if the Academy’s Director Branch had given Affleck the recognition he so justly earned and deserved.

Every once in a while, justice is served.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Available on DVD: “Dark Horse”

Abe (Jordan Gelber) is a tubby underachiever in his 30s who lives with his parents, sleeping in a bedroom full of action figures, movie posters and other emblems of interminable childhood. In other words he is, in the context of recent American cinema, not unusual. But Dark Horse is a Todd Solondz movie, which means, among other things, that Abe is neither a sweet Apatovian schlub nor a stoner saint like the title character in Mark and Jay Duplass’s Jeff, Who Lives at Home. He is, instead, an emblem of loneliness and failure, whose cocoon of self-delusion and misplaced vanity is carefully dismantled by the sharp, remorseless tweezers of Solondz’s sensibility.

Abe is not pleasant company. At home with his parents — a stiff, humorless dad played by Christopher Walken and a simpering, smothering mom played by Mia Farrow — he whines and rages his way through daily storms of entitled petulance. Abe works for his father, a real estate developer, or at least spends time at the office, seething and daydreaming behind his computer screen while Marie, the office manager (Donna Murphy), covers for him and his eager cousin curries favor with the boss. The bright yellow Hummer Abe drives is an obvious symbol of his wounded, bloated ego. His courtship of Miranda (Selma Blair), a mopey young woman who also lives at home in a state of arrested, medicated quasi-adolescence, is frequently excruciating to watch because it exposes just how misplaced and bizarre his self-confidence is. What a jerk, you can’t help but conclude. What a loser. Why doesn’t he know it?

But Solondz brilliantly — triumphantly — turns this impression on its head, transforming what might have been an exercise in easy satirical cruelty into a tremendously moving argument for the necessity of compassion. Again and again — in the ’90s indie touchstones Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, and more recently in Life During Wartime — this director has blurred the boundary between misanthropy and humanism. He surveys the human geography of his native suburbia with what looks like unbridled disgust but is actually an unquenchable and steadfast love. Dark Horse may be his warmest, most generous movie, but it also casts a beam of empathy backward, illuminating the baffled, benighted, icky souls who have populated Solondz’s universe from the start.

Can anyone love Abe? Is he worthy — or capable — of love? These are serious, life-and-death questions, and Solondz refuses to make them easy. He favors lurid, borderline-ugly colors and finds a tone that somehow erases the distinction between deadpan comedy and overwrought melodrama. His eye for social detail is merciless and exact. Miranda and Abe’s families are, by any objective demographic measure, nearly identical, but the tiny differences that separate them, evident in the architecture and décor of their respective houses, imply an unbridgeable chasm of taste. Those differences are further explored in an encounter between Abe and Mahmoud (Aasif Mandvi), Miranda’s supercilious, ostentatiously cosmopolitan ex-boyfriend. This guy thinks he’s so much better than Abe, and the joke is that the feeling is entirely mutual. It has to be, since in this world you are nobody unless you are better than somebody else. And if you aren’t, then you better be able to find someone to blame.

That may be one thing Abe is genuinely good at. His father’s toughness, his mother’s softness, the apparently effortless success of his younger brother, Richard (Justin Bartha), a doctor — all of these are elements in what Abe sees as a global conspiracy to keep him down. The title, Dark Horse, refers to his idea of himself as one of life’s secret winners, preparing a glorious come-from-behind victory that will be his revenge on all the people who have dared to underestimate him.

Solondz puts Abe’s fantasies of glory on screen, increasing their frequency until the end of the movie becomes a Buñuelian cascade of dreams within dreams. (The film culminates in one of the most eloquent, heartbreaking shots I have seen in a very long time.) But the film’s purpose is not to revel in Abe’s disillusionment or ridicule his longings. It aims, instead, to cast a skeptical eye on the brutality and complacency of a society that ruthlessly sorts its members into winners and losers.

I’m going to go out on a limb a bit here. Looking at Abe, I saw the shadow of Willy Loman. Dark Horse and Death of a Salesman are both stories of a family (implicitly Jewish) with a mother, father and two boys in the thrall of — and threatened by — the American dream. The theme of both stories is the ideology of success and its casualties; the ways the expectation of material comfort becomes a spiritual quest and a psychological hazard. Solondz’s film is, on the surface, a comedy, preferring quick, barbed exchanges to thundering speeches. But like Salesman, its departures from realism have the effect of enlarging the narrow, unremarkable lives that are its focus, and by extension the audience’s sense of what those lives might mean. Attention — tentative, half-repulsed, hopelessly ambivalent — must be paid.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Available on DVD: “2 Days in New York”

If Woody Allen were an attractive French woman — I’m sure he’s had fantasies about this — he might come up with something like 2 Days in New York, Julie Delpy’s engagingly loopy comedy about the ways our families drive us nuts. The movie’s a follow-up to the actress-writer-director’s 2 Days in Paris (2007), but you don’t have to have seen the earlier film. Chatty, neurotic, maddeningly messy, often very funny, New York spins in a lunatic orbit of its own.

But it would be a lesser planet entirely if Chris Rock weren’t involved. He plays Mingus, a writer and NPR radio host who is the latest live-in love of Marion (Delpy), an artist now residing in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Mingus is the film’s straight man and Delpy gives him much to be straight about, since Marion’s father and sister have just arrived from Paris for an extended stay. The father’s an old goat played by the star’s own dad, Albert Delpy, and the sister, Rose, is played by Alexia Landeau, who co-wrote the script. The whole movie has the feel of a shaggy-dog story cooked up over a pot of pasta and several bottles of Bordeaux.

Rose brings along her current flame (and a long-ago ex of Marion’s), Manu (Alex Nahon), who is one of the great idiot Frenchmen of recent movies. Calling in a pot delivery during a family dinner with Mingus’s young daughter (Talen Riley), clipping his toenails at the table, indulging in unspeakable sexual practices with his host’s electric toothbrush, Manu is a glorious boor, and proof positive of the old adage about houseguests and fish. With Manu, it’s three minutes rather than three days.

Rose, meanwhile, likes to walk about the apartment in the nude and flirt with Mingus (or "Min-GOOSE," as the interlopers call him). The sisters’ decades-long rivalry reaches a peak in a restaurant scene in which Manu mistakes an acquaintance of Mingus’s who works in the Obama administration for "that guy from the Harold and Kumar movies."

Marion also has an art opening coming up, and there’s a labored subplot about a conceptual piece in which she has offered her soul to the highest bidder. It pays off (sort of) with the appearance of a downtown indie-movie icon playing himself, but by that point, Marion and the movie have both collapsed in a frazzled heap. 2 Days in New York posits its heroine as a hipster Lucy Ricardo, and some of the tangents have a decidedly sitcom twist. When Marion lets a stuffy neighbor couple believe she has an inoperable brain tumor, only the deft underplaying of Dylan Baker and Kate Burton keep the bit from descending into shtick.

What works best is the gleeful, loaded culture clash between French entitlement and American uptightness — that and the knowledge that we rarely get the families we think we deserve (and vice versa). And whenever Delpy’s nervous chatter threatens to overwhelm 2 Days in New York, all Rock has to do is lift one of those cartoon eyebrows to bring her dithering and the movie to a place of blissful comic serenity.

Monday, January 21, 2013

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

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

Sunday, January 20, 2013

First run at Oscar predictions

Picture: Lincoln
Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Actor: Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Supporting Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Director: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Original Screenplay: Amour
Adapted Screenplay: Lincoln
Animated Feature: Wreck-It Ralph
Documentary Feature: The Gatekeepers
Foreign Language Film: Amour
Cinematography: Life of Pi
Costume Design: Anna Karenina
Editing: Zero Dark Thirty
Makeup: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Score: Lincoln
Song: "Skyfall," Skyfall
Production Design: Anna Karenina
Sound Editing: Skyfall
Sound Mixing: Skyfall
Visual Effects: Life of Pi

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Available on DVD: “Last Call at the Oasis”

Jay Famiglietti, one of a handful of expert witnesses in Jessica Yu’s Last Call at the Oasis, is a thoughtful scientist with an engaging manner who specializes in water. In particular, he studies — and tries to raise public awareness about — the rapid depletion of water supplies caused by agricultural overuse, rampant development and global climate change. His analyses are thorough and clear, and he presents them, at public meetings and straight to Yu’s camera, with good-natured patience. For the most part, that is. At one point, contemplating a future of unchecked consumption and political paralysis, he sums it all up in blunt layman’s terms: "We’re screwed."

That might serve as an alternative name for Yu’s film, or even for the genre to which it belongs. The global-catastrophe documentary is a thriving form these days, as the apparent unsustainability of human life has emerged as fertile ground for cinematic journalism. Last Call at the Oasis follows Payback, Surviving Progress and The Island President — to name only some of the most recent releases — in a drumbeat of elemental doom. The food we eat, the stuff we buy, the air we breathe, the fuel we burn, the water we drink: it’s all killing us!

Yu, who has directed scripted television episodes as well as documentaries, wraps a lot of bad news into a slick, informative, fast-moving package. Dwelling mostly on the United States, with forays to Australia and Israel and brief glances at Asia, Africa and South America, she weaves local stories of drought and pollution together with larger-scale explanations of the worldwide water crisis.

Dr. Famiglietti and others (notably Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute) take us to the drying-out regions of the West, where competition for water has a long history (as fans of Chinatown may recall). Fast-growing Las Vegas, as it drains nearby Lake Mead, contemplates a pipeline to pull water from ranch land in northern Nevada. Conservationists in the San Francisco Bay Area who want to restore rivers and protect fish incur the wrath of farmers in the Central Valley of California, and the specter of less snow in the mountains haunts everyone.

In addition to scarcity, there is contamination. Tyrone Hayes, a biologist, shows us mutant frogs, their endocrine systems scrambled by pesticide-borne chemicals. Erin Brockovich visits towns with terrifying rates of cancer, continuing the work that inspired the Oscar-winning film starring Julia Roberts (a few clips of which are shown). Lynn Henning, a Michigan farmer, monitors the toxic runoff from lagoons full of cow manure from huge industrial feedlots.

Meanwhile, we clog the waste stream with empty plastic water bottles and persist in believing that there is a never-ending supply of this essential substance. The calm, knowledgeable voices of the experts — also including the journalist Alex Prud’homme, whose book The Ripple Effect is cited as an inspiration in the opening credits — make Last Call at the Oasis especially scary. Nothing is more unnerving than predictions of an apocalypse delivered by a reasonable person in friendly, conversational tones.

The question is whether anyone is listening, and it is a question that always nips at the heels of documentaries like this one. One way the question is answered — or perhaps finessed — is by the optimistic, encouraging tone that tends to sneak in at the end. Most examples of the "We’re screwed" documentary, in other words (at least in the American version of the genre), end on a note of "Yes, we can."

Some of the optimism in Last Call at the Oasis comes from a gratifyingly unlikely place — the Middle East, where shared water problems have led to cooperation amid otherwise intractable political conflict. There is also a measure of hope to be gleaned from Yu’s interview subjects, though less from what they have to say — which is pretty grim — than from their seriousness and dedication.

However frustrated they may be by political paralysis, corporate trickery or plain human stupidity, none of them seem inclined to give up. When they do, we really will be screwed, and we won’t have or need movies like this to tell us so.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

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

Friday, January 11, 2013

A conspiracy among directors

I smell a rat.

It was a travesty that Ben Affleck wasn’t included among the best director contenders when the Oscar nominations were announced yesterday morning. But I am convinced now why he wasn’t.

Ben Affleck, the victim of a
conspiracy among directors
Affleck wasn’t nominated because enough members of the director’s branch of the Motion Picture Academy formed a conspiracy to block his nomination. They found enough members of the branch to agree not to include him on their ballots.

Why would they do this? Because they knew if Affleck was nominated he would win the Oscar and these directors are simply tired of actors stealing away awards they think rightfully belong to one of their own.

As everyone probably knows, the Oscar nomination process is somewhat restrictive. Only members of the directing branch can vote for directing nominees. Only members of the writing branch can vote for the contenders in the two writing categories. The only category in which every branch can vote is for best picture.

(As a point of information, the voting branches of the academy are in alphabetical order: Actors, Art Directors, Cinematographers, Directors, Documentary, Executives, Film Editors, Makeup Artists & Hairstylists, Music, Producers, Public Relations. Short Films and Feature Animation, Sound, Visual Effects and Writers. The Academy also has 246 at-large voters.)

However, once the nominations are set, all members of the academy are eligible to vote in most of the categories. The largest branch of the Academy, by far, is the Actors Branch which has 1,172 voting members. The second largest, the Producers Branch, has 450.

When an actor is nominated in the directing category, the Actors Branch rally around that nominee and thus some actors have unjustly won the Oscar in the directing category: Robert Redford in 1980, Kevin Costner in 1990, and Clint Eastwood in 2004 quickly come to mind. Eastwood, however, did deserve his Oscar in 1992 and, although I am loathe to admit it, so did Mel Gibson in 1995.

As further proof that a conspiracy among enough directors in the Oscar’s Directors Branch denied Affleck a nomination is the fact that the Directors Guild did nominate him. But only members of the guild get to vote for the winner of that award, so the winner will be decided by other directors, not by actors rallying around one of their own. It should also be noted that Affleck won the prestigious Critics Choice Award this year for best director.

I was also surprised that the Directors Guild nominated Kathryn Bigelow but the sexist Directors Branch of the Academy passed over her. But this is just a bunch of testosterone injected males who are jealous of the fact that a woman is directing better war movies than they are.

That omission was simply petty, not a conspiracy, but there you have it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What, me worry?

Let me see if I got this straight. The worst general manager in all of professional football has fired the best coach on the Dallas Cowboys staff. There's a move that will come back to haunt the team.

Shame on the baseball writers

If an avowed racist like Ty Cobb is in baseball's Hall of Fame, how can baseball writers exlude Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens?

At least this time the Dallas Morning News sportswriters got it right. All three who are eligible to cast ballots for major league baseball’s Hall of Fame — Evan Grant, Tim Cowlishaw and Gerry Fraley — cast votes for Barry Bonds, the all-time home run leader, and Roger Clemens, who won more Cy Youngs than any other pitcher in history, to be inducted. However, too many sanctimonious, self-serving jerks who also cast ballots left them off so they will not be inducted, at least this time around.

Why? Because these idiot writers think they know more than they do. Plus they are two-faced hypocrites.

They previously voted in Ty Cobb, whose avowed racism led him to be charged with attempted murder. Plus he and Tris Speaker (many researchers have written both were members of the Ku Klux Klan) were implicated in a game-fixing scheme. Chicago Cubs first baseman Cap Anson, voted into the hall in 1939, refused to play if the opposing team’s roster included black players. Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, also voted into the hall in 1939, had black Baltimore Orioles infielder Charlie Grant thrown out of the major leagues when Comiskey revealed Grant was black and not a Cherokee Indian as he had claimed.

The hall is full of acknowledged drunks. Manager Casey Stengel said right fielder Paul Waner (1952 inductee) was so graceful "he could slide into second base without breaking the bottle in his hip pocket." Team owner Bill Veeck claimed legendary pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander (1938 inductee) pitched much better drunk than sober. Chicago sportswriter Mike Royko wrote Hack Wilson (inducted 1979) should be moved from the outfield to first base "because he wouldn’t have as far to stagger to the dugout."

Gaylord Perry (inducted 1991) repeatedly broke baseball rules by doctoring baseballs with spit, Vaseline and other stuff.

Orlando Cepeda (inducted 1999) served 10 months in prison in 1975 for smuggling marijuana into Puerto Rico.

Paul Molitor (inducted 2004) admitted using illegal recreational drugs and Wade Boggs (inducted 2005) confessed to Barbara Walters he was a sex addict. Duke Snider (1980) repeatedly failed to pay his income taxes.

Robert W. Cohen said it best in his book Baseball Hall of Fame — or Hall of Shame: "In theory, when it comes to these kind of votes, it’s true character should matter, but once you’ve included Ty Cobb, how can you exclude anyone else?"

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

My Final Top 25 College Football Rankings for the 2012 Season

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

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

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

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Available on DVD: “Your Sister’s Sister”

An improvisational three-act comedy featuring three appealing actors, Your Sister’s Sister is a study in triangulation set in a light-filled cabin in the San Juan Islands north of Seattle.

A slight but satisfying film ingeniously structured by writer/director Lynn Shelton (Humpday) and deftly improvised by Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemary Dewitt, it’s a triangle whose the hypotenuse ever shifts. As Shelton graphs with geometric precision, a triangle is made up of three legs, and each pair of legs has a special relationship.

At a memorial for his brother, Jack (Duplass) offers a roast instead of a toast, much to the discomfort of others present. Iris (Blunt), his brother’s ex-, promptly stages an intervention, commanding Jack to her family cabin so he can clear his head.

After a long bike and ferry ride, he arrives to encounter Iris’ sister, Hannah (Dewitt), who has just decamped from a seven-year relationship. The first night it’s Jack, Hannah, and a bottle of tequila. The following morning, Iris makes a surprise visit.

Awkward Jack implores Hannah to keep their close encounter a secret from Iris. Even more awkwardly, Iris confides a secret to Hannah. For her part, Hannah does not immediately share her secret. But from the expression on her sphinxlike face, we know she has one.

What ensues is surface civility with so many emotional undercurrents and crosscurrents coursing beneath that it’s a wonder the principals remain buoyed, if not always buoyant.

Their secrets, naturally, obstruct the intimacy each of the unmoored Seattleites craves. It is ruefully funny to watch, among the many avoidance conversations, discussions of whether gluten-free pancakes are superior to old-school flapjacks. And even funnier to watch first Jack, than Iris, pull Hannah out for sidebar conversations.

Shelton and her cast are so skillful that before long it seems we are not watching a movie on a TV screen but flies on a wall witnessing real encounters and the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

The infinitely watchable Duplass is a manchild of many gifts. He is a prodigiously talented actor. He is also the microbudget Judd Apatow who, with brother Jay, directed the edgy Cyrus and the quietly transcendent Jeff, Who Lives at Home. How does he do it? He suggests more without appearing to emote than any actor working.

Before its blackout finale the geometry of Your Sister’s Sister recedes and the film assumes the shape of a high-stakes poker game. The bemused players wonder, does the love between sisters trump that between romantic partners? Does love trump friendship?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Available on DVD: “Ruby Sparks”

Imagine a 21st century romantic comedy that flirts with the classic Pygmalion myth — a Greek sculptor’s beautiful statue comes to life — and throws in some Dr. Frankenstein "what have I created?" issues. Then you’ll have a sense of Ruby Sparks, an engagingly off-kilter love story of a writer, the girl of his dreams and the power of his pen.

The film is about as meta as meta gets. Real-life couple Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan star as lovebirds Calvin (the writer) and Ruby (his dreamy dream girl). They are directed by another real-life couple, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, from a screenplay by Kazan, who had Dano in mind when she was writing. Love is definitely in the air, as well as under the microscope

As stories involving novelists so often do, Ruby Sparks begins with a major case of writer’s block. Calvin’s first book at age 19 was a sensation, and he’s been living on the fumes of that success for years. Prodding by his A-type brother Harry (Chris Messina) isn’t helping much, nor is therapy with Dr. Rosenthal (a nice, if slight, turn by Elliott Gould, later followed by equally nice but slight turns by Annette Bening as Calvin’s free-spirited mom and Antonio Banderas as her live-in love). Harder to bear is the praise showered on him by mentor and writing nemesis Langdon Tharp (Steve Coogan, who’s super as a cloying literary vamp).

All that changes when Dr. Rosenthal gives Calvin an assignment: write a page about the imaginary girl who has recently invaded his dreams. A creative surge and 40 pages later, the writer’s block is broken and the girl in his dreams has become the protagonist of his lively new novel. And, she’s cooking breakfast in his kitchen. Really.

What? How? Huh? Like love itself, the film requires a serious leap of faith from the audience as well as from Calvin — to simply accept that a figment of his imagination has come to life. Herein lies the fun, and the folly, of Ruby Sparks.

The film is concerned with what Calvin will do with the power he has to write, and rewrite, Ruby’s life. Will he erase from her his pet peeves, or give her new talents, like the French she breaks into as soon as he puts it on page? Will he make her hopelessly devoted? The underlying question is, to paraphrase Mick Jagger, if you get what you want, does that mean you got what you need? It is answered in fits of brilliance, and a few serious fumbles, capped by a final chapter that is sincerely awesome.

This is the first feature for Dayton and Faris since they made such a splash in 2006 with another quirky comedy, Little Miss Sunshine, which included Dano in its ensemble cast. The indie hit won two Oscars before its broken-down VW bus and beauty-pageant dreams were done.

Except for the quirk factor, the two films couldn’t be more different in design. The mess of an extended middle-class family so perfectly played in Sunshine has been traded for the solitary writer’s life in Ruby. A rambunctious and fractious cross-country journey is replaced by an interior, introspective one. What binds the films — and was better realized in Little Miss Sunshine — is the filmmakers’ light touch with dark themes and their understanding of how to have a little fun with identity crises.

Kazan, a playwright making her screenwriting debut, shows a penchant for risk-taking that is refreshing, if not always spot on. And she’s a whiz at dialogue that is fluent in hipster artiste-speak. In Calvin she’s created a good stretch for Dano, allowing him to expose lighter shades of the vulnerability and angst that have come to characterize his darker roles — the mute, rebellious teen in Sunshine, the fire-and-brimstone preacher in There Will Be Blood.

And as an actress, Kazan’s delicate face and expressively large eyes give her a kind of ethereal sensibility that fits Ruby’s flighty eccentricities. But she has a tougher time with the sudden shifts in moods and emotions required as Calvin tinkers with his heroine.

Much of the action takes place inside Calvin’s house, a study in white modern minimalism — its own blank page beautifully rendered by cinematographer Matthew Libatique and production designer Judy Becker. Ruby arrives on the scene like a sudden splash of color. There is a great deal of playfulness between the couple that will touch the romantic in most. Everything about their relationship is fine, near perfection, until they venture out into the real world where issues like love, hate, envy, regret and ex-girlfriends tend to complicate matters.

But mostly the movie is about how to make reality and romance with Ruby a dream, which happens to be far harder than turning a dream girl into reality in the first place.

The 25 Best Films Reviewed Here in 2012

1. A Separation. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the way A Separation’s exquisitely human situations unfold is that the narration allows for as many points of view as there are characters. Everyone is fallible yet everyone feels justified in their own particular grievances, and the film is at pains not to pick sides.

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

3. The Interrupters. No concept in the critical lexicon has been more devalued and debased than "inspirational." The term has been so misused, it’s just about lost all meaning. A film that makes that word real and vital has to be special. The Interrupters is such a film.

4. Take Shelter. This film, which, it should be said, boasts haunting but seamless visual effects, is a movie for this moment in time, this moment in our lives.

5. Monsieur Lazhar. This film is good. Really good. Philippe Falardeau's gentle, perceptive drama takes viewers by the hand, not the throat, leading them through volatile emotional territory with assurance, compassion and lucid, steady-eyed calm. Deceptively simple and straightforward, Monsieur Lazhar resembles a clear, clean glass of water: transparent, utterly devoid of gratuitous flavorings or frou-frou, and all the more bracing and essential for it.

6. Project Nim. There is no doubt that Nim, the chimpanzee at the center of this documentary, was exploited, and also no doubt that he was loved. Director James Marsh, by allowing those closest to Nim plenty of room to explain themselves, examines the moral complexity of this story without didacticism. He allows the viewer, alternately appalled, touched and fascinated, to be snagged on some of its ethical thorns.

7. Certified Copy. The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s delicious brain tickler is an endless hall of mirrors whose reflections multiply as its story of a middle-aged couple driving through Tuscany carries them into a metaphysical labyrinth.

8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Eerily tragic and chillingly hard to come to terms with.

9.  Footnote. Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar imbues his tale of academic maneuvering, misunderstanding and mystery with the zest of passion and the zing of intrigue, It’s a vivacious film, having its little fun with suspense-flick conventions (including Amit Poznansky’s bouncing score) that build to a climactic finish.

10. Le Havre. Alternately lighthearted and deeply spiritually grounded, director Aki Kaurismaki's distinctive sensibility spins what could have been a grittily realist polemic into a fanciful fable, all the more affecting for being so tethered to the urgencies of the real world.

11. Marley. Though made with the cooperation of the Marley family, the film is far from a hagiography; and while stocked with musical sequences, it is not a concert film. Few if any of his songs are heard all the way through. Marley is a detailed, finely edited character study whose theme — Marley’s bid to reconcile his divided racial legacy — defined his music and his life.

12. Mysteries of Lisbon. A formal marvel carved from, and around, a narrative whopper, Raul Ruiz’s adaptation of the mid-19th century Portuguese novel Mysteries of Lisbon arrives on DVD as a two-disc, four-hour version edited down from a six-hour version produced for European television. It’s a lot. But if you’re at all inclined, it’s just right.

13. The Deep Blue Sea. Rachel Weisz — in what has to be the performance of her career, and there have been lots of good ones — plays an intelligent woman in the grip of a lust that's too big to handle or suppress. She can either ride the tiger or be devoured.

14. Ai Wiewei: Never Sorry. You come away from this documentary with an appreciation of the abstraction, scale and daring of Ai’s art and, even more, a sense of the living man in his courage, humor and restlessness. It’s an invigorating experience.

15. Thunder Soul. You may never have heard of the Kashmere Stage Band, but by the end of Thunder Soul you will wonder why. A big-hearted, back-in-the-day tribute — and a stand-alone argument for public-school music programs — Mark Landsman’s bittersweet documentary has designs on your feet, heart and mind.

16. The Queen of Versailles. What might have been mere reality-TV fodder about hissable symbols of overconsumption turns out to be a three-dimensional study of a marriage. It’s also a timely look at the middle-class American Dream on hyperdrive: aspire, acquire, arrive and then try to keep the "good life" going.

17. I Wish. Tends toward the vaporous and not just because of its volcano; but whenever its children are on screen, lighted up with joy or dimmed by hard adult truths, the film burns bright.

18. Melancholia. Leave it to writer-director Lars von Trier to conceive an intergalactic sci-fi metaphor for a psychological disorder — and then make it work so astonishingly well.

19. Goodbye First Love. This movie endows each word of its 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.

20. Pariah. Benefits from solid performances among its young castand warm, lucid camerawork, but benefits most of all from a careful screenplay, which dances that shifting line between fear and emergent hope. One of heroine’s poems says it best: "Even breaking is opening. And I am broken. I am open."

21. Senna. A documentary with the pace of a thriller, a story of motors and machines that is beyond compelling because of the intensely human story it tells.

22. Coriolanus. Features the sheer pleasure of hearing Shakespeare’s words spoken by an actor like Ralph Fiennes, whose phrasing is so brilliant, you might be tempted to close your eyes if his physical performance weren't equally mesmerizing.

23. The Guard. For the f-word in heavy, conventional rotation, rent the DVD of The Change-Up. Which is another way of saying there's not much reason to watch The Change-Up, unless you're an unusually big fan of Ryan Reynolds or Jason Bateman. But for the same word in heavy, unconventional and often very funny usage, in a disarming black comedy set in County Galway, Ireland, feast your ears on the sweetly profane dialogue of writer-director John Michael McDonagh as heard in The Guard.

24. Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This film is is a foodie’s delight, obviously, and best viewed either on a full stomach or with restaurant reservations immediately following.

25. Martha Marcy May Marlene. This film moves from its protagonist’s dream state to her memories to her waking present in imperceptible shifts — the effect is disorienting, at first, but ingenious. We’re as rattled and wary as Martha is — we’re seeing the world as she does, pulled under in the wake of her trauma.