Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Paul Newman

Paul Newman is no longer with us. He was in classic films in 6 consecutive decades – not too shabby.

Cars – (2006) – As the grumpy old Hudson Hornet, Newman provides a steady voice. Bonus points for his casting since auto racing was one of his off-screen pastimes. B+

Road to Perdition – (2002) – Underrated film from director Sam Mendes where Newman is a mob boss with a biological son (Daniel Craig!) who’s responsible for the murder of family members of his surrogate son (Tom Hanks) – who now wants revenge. Newman delivers classic line after classic line terrifically. A-

The Hudsucker Proxy – (1994) – Newman is the boss of the company where Tim Robbins is working his way up. He seems equally at home doing this screwball homage as he does playing pool. Still the Coens lose track of him half way through to the film's detriment. B+

The Color of Money – (1986) – One of Martin Scorsese’s lesser films is still fantastically shot and edited with perfect music choices. It’s officially a sequel to The Hustler, but mostly it’s a remake with Fast Eddie Felson becoming Minnesota Fats and Tom Cruise becoming Fast Eddie. The Best Actor Oscar went to Newman for this, but it was more of a make up kiss for screwing up 4 years earlier. B+

The Verdict – (1982) – This is my favorite Newman performance as the lawyer who finds his conscience. Sidney Lumet moves the camera so gracefully and Mamet’s screenplay hits all the right notes, confronting clich├ęs, then transforming them into something else. Great, great film. A

The Sting – (1973) – Lightning does strike twice when Newman and Redford team up to con some bad guys during the Great Depression. While not quite as well written as their first teaming (what is?), there’s still a lot of fun watching all the great actors – even after you know all the plot twists. B+

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – (1969) – Exhibit A for what onscreen chemistry is. Newman and Robert Redford deliver their lines, facial expressions, and gestures in perfect harmony. Newman went to bat for the relatively unknown Redford at the time – and we’re all better for it. A
Cool Hand Luke – (1967) – It’s a little long and the pace could certainly be tightened, but there’s no denying Newman’s charisma and the interesting, heavy symbolism. B+

The Hustler – (1961) – Great directing, camerawork, and cinematography in this black and white masterpiece from Robert Rossen. George C. Scott is perfect and Jackie Gleason is surprisingly great after seeing The Honeymooners and Smokey and the Bandit. But Newman is the center and they all pivot off of him. A

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – (1958) – Based on a Tennessee Williams play, the dialogue rules the day and both Newman and Elizabeth Taylor exhibit the qualities that made them superstars. B+

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SNL - Host Anna Faris 9/27/08

Better late than never. SNL improved this past week with Anna Faris as the host. Weekend Update was vastly improved with the best 2 bits of the show: Bill Clinton and Judy Grimes. Anna Faris seems at ease with this kind of venue. This upcoming week has Anne Hathaway, who isn’t quite the natural comedienne.

Hopefully the Vice President debate will provide some good material. None of the skits featuring Obama or McCain have been funny, but Tina Fey as Sarah Palin is spot-on of course. Wonder who’ll they’ll get to play Joe Biden. Probably the reliable Hammond.

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Jackson Hole, Wyoming

I've been out of town, which explains my lack of posts. Here's the local theater in Jackson Hole (no, I didn't go see Nights in Rodanthe).

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Heroes, Season 3, Episode 1 and 2 A

The best drama of two years ago is back with a vengeance. While the pacing of the stories in Season One was not always study--leading to some exceptional installments while others were merely good--Season One of Heroes was dang nearly perfect TV. With the addition of too many secondary characters and subplots simultaneously, Season Two, cut mercifully short by the writers’ strike, was not. So it was with some trepidation that Season Three was unveiled this past Monday evening with back-to-back episodes. Fear unfounded. By the end of the opening hour, many of the remaining characters introduced last season were disposed of, and Skylar, perhaps the best villain in television history, was re-established as evil incarnate.

Heroes has never shied away from using Biblical imagery and themes in its story arch, and this season is certainly no exception. With one hero wrestling with the possibility that the heroes were placed on earth by God to do his bidding and another of them wrestling with her humanity in light of her apparent immortality, the show seems intent to wrestle with the big issues that bind our culture together. What’s more, with the apparent immanent seduction of many of the heroes to evil; temptation, the fall, and redemption all seem to be in play this season as well. While not everyone loves the science fiction/fantasy, between this and Battlestar Galactica, this year promises to be one of best for those that do.

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Jenny Lewis/Conor Oberst Concert—9/25/2008

My love for Jenny Lewis took me to the storied Cain’s Ballroom Thursday night to catch her opening set for Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band, where she was bringing her distinctive brand of 70’s-influenced alt-country, gospel, and rock ‘n roll to Tulsa. At thirty bucks, the show was the type of bargain only Cain’s can pull in the Sooner state. My foursome consisted of Brother-of-Priest, his girlfriend, occasional DLP commenter cmh, and myself. Rolling in at 7:30 for an 8:00 start, the ballroom was set without chairs, and we scoped out a good spot ten feet from the stage.

Jenny is touring behind just released Acid Tongue (B), the follow-up to her much-lauded solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat. Dressed in her now ubiquitous trailer park garb, she and her five-person band launched into Oedipal gospel rocker Jack Killed Mom off the new CD promptly at 8:00. They followed that with the country radio-ready (almost) Carpetbaggers, which Lewis prefaced as a warning about all women. The backing band was impressive and tight, led by recording artist and Jenny boyfriend Jonathan Rice on acoustic guitar and vocals. Judging from his occasional attempt to speak with the audience, he’s got other gifts besides intelligence to offer Ms. Lewis. The balance of the band consisted of a lead guitarist, a base guitarist, a steel guitarist, and a drummer. For her part, Jenny provided keys and another guitar in addition to her pitch-perfect voice.

The balance of the ten-song set was as follows: Pretty Bird, The Next Messiah, See Fernando, Acid Tongue, and Godspeed, all off the new CD, while adding Rise Up with Fists and You Are What You Love of her debut and a cover of Love Hurts, sung as a duet with Mr. Rice. While Jenny and the Boys can do more than justice to the rockers in the set, it’s the autobiographical heartbreakers Acid Tongue and You Are What You Love where Lewis’s voice really shines. The former was the best of this night, with Lewis adding an almost uncomfortable, stunning fragility and honesty to the frank confession.

They finished the set with the rocking standout of the new album, See Fernando, before exiting the stage amid thunderous applause and more than a half dozen marriage proposals.

Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band took the stage some twenty-five minutes later to an ecstatic crowd with Sausilito followed by Get Well Cards, both of his new album. After fifteen years of recording as Bright Eyes, Oberst has lately taken to releasing music under his own name. I don’t know Oberst well enough to give a legitimate review of his performance, but I’ve been told by those that know that he didn’t perform any Bright Eyes material here. This, of course, included nothing of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, an album that I love and had been hoping to hear something from. Going until 11:40, he certainly gave ticket-holders their money’s worth even if he chose to ignore the impressive back catalogue of folk, rock, and alt. country that brought most of them out.

Overall, a great show from two of the distinctive voices in Americana.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

The Office: Weight Loss

Season 5, Episode 1. Original airdate: 9/25/08
The hour-long season premiere showed the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton gang trying to lose more weight than any other branch during the summer to get an extra 5 days of vacation. See it here or here.
Click below for the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

GOOD: As Dwight, Rainn Wilson was on fire during the episode, picking on the most overweight employees: Kevin, Phyllis, and Stanley – even forcing Phyllis into miles of walking. He also provided the best line delivery of the night (after Michael describes how handsome Scranton guys are to the newest employee Amy Ryan). “Not that guy who murdered his mother – not so handsome . . . also Kevin.” Loved the heads up he gives the camera when he gets caught shagging Angela.

Phyllis gets the best, most shocking line of the night: “I wonder what people like best about me . . . probably my jugs.”

Jim fared surprisingly well, mocking himself by admitting (after Pam goes to New York for art school) he will secretly admire the new receptionist and then suddenly declare his love. Jim and Pam’s relationship continues to surprise. I know I expected her to find a kindred spirit in New York. Nice work, writers.

Mindy, Kevin, Creed, and Oscar were all excellent with their small contributions. Loved the Toby coda.

BAD: Stanley still annoys – the “Black Power” thing didn’t work. Andy is excruciating to watch when he’s around Angela. And Angela’s bitchiness grew old many episodes ago. Although, her answering the question, “How do you sleep at night?” was done well.

UGLY: The episode was very strong until Michael Klump showed up. Michael acting like an ass is one of the show’s signature events, but that doesn’t make it good – or funny. Michael tearing up the Counting Crows tickets was ridiculous. And that punk Ryan writing Jim’s name down was as prissy as it gets.
Overall: B

Next Office episode: Business Ethics on October 9.
30 Rock’s premiere is on October 30.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Run Fatboy Run - C, Leatherheads - B-

2 of the biggest DVD releases this week are the sports-based Run Fatboy Run and Leatherheads. As the biggest fan of Hot Fuzz around these parts, I decided to give Run Fatboy Run a shot despite the fact that it did not originate from actor Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright was nowhere to be found. The film is directed by David Schwimmer and has no real style (or substance). Schwimmer settles for predictable pratfalls and dick jokes, suitable for a run-of-the-mill Adam Sandler movie . . .

Late in the film, Pegg asks the object of his desire (and mine) Thandie Newton, “What do you see in him?” Him being Hank Azaria, Pegg’s rival in love, life, and a marathon. You’ll be asking yourself what Newton ever saw or sees in Pegg. He’s admittedly lazy, complacent, unreliable, and out of shape. He smokes in public and has no career or future. Pegg is a likable performer but only the most charismatic of superstars could overcome this premise, where he will win her back if he runs a marathon. Azaria’s character acts so uncharacteristic and inconsistent in the interminable third act that it invalidates everything that preceded it. The camera and boom mike love Newton, but she’s given nothing else to do except look stunning (that’s enough). There are some laughs (mostly involving Pegg’s foul-mouthed overweight landlord), but the story is too predictable and thin to really engage.

For the first half of Leatherheads, director and star George Clooney keeps a pretty good pace with snappy dialogue, witty retorts, and solid performances. Then he tries to make it a message movie about how war is confusing and our war heroes are rarely heroic, just lucky. He wants to tell us that it’s not OK to print the legend as it was in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. We are responsible for the truth and damn the American people for “needing” heroes. Clooney is an outspoken opponent of the Iraq War but even I was surprised as he continually crapped all over the American military scene after scene in the second half.

Isn’t this a sports movie about the origins of professional football? Partially, and those are the parts that work best. It's an interesting subject and Clooney’s obvious admiration of 1930s-40s screwball comedies keeps the film afloat for much of the running time. But when expert football player (John Krasinski) and his war hero status is exposed as a fraud by reporter Renee Zellweger, the film loses steam quickly. The lanky Krasinski is not believable as the "best athlete in the country", and his acting abilities range from “Happy Jim in The Office Season 4” to “Sad Jim in The Office Season 2”. Zellweger tries her best Rosalind Russell impression and is mostly successful. But she’s not quite as good as the last time someone tried it: Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy.

Indeed, the Coen imprint can be found on frame after frame. Clooney has now acted in 3 of their films (he calls it the Idiot Trilogy) and the over the top facial expressions and line deliveries certainly recall Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty. (Still haven’t seen Burn After Reading – thanks Hurricane Ike). He creates great visuals and places the camera in interesting places (e.g. the long shot when Krasinski and Clooney fistfight and the verticality of Clooney with Zellweger escaping from a window). His second directorial effort, Good Night, and Good Luck scored him an Oscar nomination for best director. That film ran 93 minutes. This one clocks in at 114 minutes and would have perhaps played better with 20 minutes shaved. Clooney let his great supporting cast (especially David Straitharn) shine in GNaGL, but seems unwilling to let anyone break through here. All of the supporting performances are instantly forgettable and he even lets himself win the game and get the girl. Oh Self-Esteem, Where Art Thou?

Run Fatboy Run: C Leatherheads: B-

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria

Released August 2008. 8.5 hours on CD.

After reading some about the challenge America faces in maintaining its status as the world's cultural, economic and military superpower from larger and more populous states like Russia, India and China in the next century, this book seemed to be the perfect way to deepen my knowledge of the subject. Fareed Zakaria writes a regular column in Newsweek on international affairs, and I find his writing to be clear and comprehensible on these heady subjects. Click below for more on a thoughtful, left of center view (Fareed's, not mine) of the next 100 years for America:

Zakaria came to the US from his native India at the age of 18 for college, and his immigrant experience shapes his views on our country. His major theme is that America is the greatest country in the world and can stay that way if we look to history for examples of how to maintain our hegemony. The book starts with historic discussions of our major challenger, China, and discusses its desire to quietly rise as a power. This is an interesting chapter that deepened my understanding of China's strategy. They are able to move faster than the Western nations because of their Communism, but that is precisely what is hampering their true ascension. If the power of their billions of people were harnessed in a free society, the US would truly be met with a challenge. Zakaria reminds the reader that the Chinese think of everything in the collective sense, not the individual sense, and they raise prodigious test takers, but not necessarily thinkers. The advantages the US has are our free press, open government, entrepreneurism and individuality. He says in his book that the Chinese can score better on the tests, but don't know how to think critically or creatively to solve problems the way Americans do.

He only touches briefly on Russia, but acknowledges their challenge in the coming years. India gets lots of time, and his bias for his native country comes through occasionally. He argues that India is best positioned to move onto the global superpower stage because of their historic familiarity with Western culture and language (thanks British Empire!) and their democratic form of government. Among foreign nations, Indians view the US most favorably. The problem India faces is its staggering poor and terrible infrastructure. Most of India is a third world country and it will take untold trillions to bring its masses up from a life of subsistence.

The fall of the British Empire around the turn of the 20th Century is told as a cautionary tale for the US - although Zakaria finds several distinguishing factors that bode well for the US. On the negative side, he analogizes the Boer Wars (which stretched the empire's military thin and eroded the world's respect for the empire) to the Iraq war. He cites our massive GDP and military spending as reasons for our continued success and tells of many ways we can leverage our position to continue dominance.

The final chapters are basically a long wet kiss for Barack Obama, as he argues for a US foreign policy that does much more pandering to the rest of the world and tries to restore our polling numbers among foreign nations. This does make some sense on one level, but he goes to far in this focus on other nations. While I think a little more nuance and couth than Bush has displayed is certainly called for, I also think that the NY Times, etc, has cast an unfavorable view of Bush that the other countries have been eager to latch onto.

All in all, this was a very interesting and compact book, and is worth your 8.5 hours, and it is much better than Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat. This book foucses more on history and political science whereas Friedman is overly enamored with technology and cute phrases and bits.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Office

Is back Thursday night. Here's a great article about BJ Novak (Ryan).

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DVD and CD Releases - September 23rd

Recent DVD Releases:

Mother of Tears
Run, Fatboy, Run
Sex and the City, The Movie
The Godfather Trilogy - Coppola Edition (article)

Click below for more DVD and CD releases.

DVD Special Editions/Other Releases:

TV Box Sets:

Boston Legal: Season Four
Brothers and Sisters: Season Two
Friday the 13th The Series: Season One
Samantha Who?: Season One
This American Life: Season One
Two and a Half Men: Season Four

Special Editions/Other Releases:

Affair in Trinidad
The Anderson Tapes
High School Musical 2: Dance Edition
L.A. Confidential: Two-Disc Special Edition
The New Centurions
Peanuts: Holiday Collection
Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat
Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection Vol. 4

New CD Releases:

Jackson Browne -Time the Conqueror
CAW! CAW! -Wait Outside EP
Cold War Kids -Loyalty To Loyalty
Dynamite Club -Fusion Era
Elvin Bishop -The Blues Roll On
Everlast -Love, War and The Ghost Of Whitey Ford
French Kicks -Covers EP EP (digital release)
Kings Of Leon -Only by the Night
Labelle [-Title TBA]
Mamiffer Hirror Enniffer
Mogwai -The Hawk is Howling
The Mojomatics -Don't Pretend That You Know Me
Old Crow Medicine -Tennessee Pusher
Plain White T's -Big Bad World
The Pretenders -Break Up The Concrete
Pussycat Dolls -Doll Domination
Tracy Shedd -Cigarettes & Smoke Machines
Thievery Corporation - Radio Retaliation
TV On The Radio -Dear Science,

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Monday, September 22, 2008

New Trailers

1. Four Christmases. Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon visit all of their relatives at Christmas. Looks funny...hopefully will redeem VV after Fred Claus.

2. The Changeling. Serious drama from director Clint Eastwood with Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich. Angelina's son is kidnapped and the LAPD is involved. Looks promising.

3. Revolutionary Road. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunite for director Sam Mendes' (American Beauty, Jarhead) meditation on 1950's suburban life. Looks great and heavy.

4. The Soloist. Director Joe Wright (Atonement) tells the story of a gifted but challenged musician (Jamie Foxx) befriended by a reporter (Robert Downey, Jr.). Maybe.

5. Rachel Getting Married. Director Jonathan Demme tells the story of a wedding weekend. Anne Hathaway is getting Oscar buzz for her role as troublemaker. Cool song in trailer.

6. Synecdoche, NY. Writer/Director Charlie Kaufman directs Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener and Michelle Williams. Kaufman = must see.

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Another new T-Shirt

Drink it up!

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Ghost Town - B

In theaters. Rated PG-13, 101 minutes. Trailer.

Ricky Gervais is the funniest man alive right now, period. Ghost Town is his first lead role in a movie (he has had small turns in For Your Consideration, Night at the Museum and Stardust), and the result is a mixed bag. Ostensibly a comedy, this film is a mash-up of A Christmas Carol, Its a Wonderful Life, Ghost Dad, and The Invisible Man with a little of 'The Office' thrown in for good measure. Ricky is Bertram Pincus, a misanthropic dentist living a solitary, insulated life in Manhattan. Click below for more on a schizophrenic movie:

After he goes in for a routine colonoscopy during which he dies for 7 minutes, he is able to see ghosts around Manhattan, all of whom are stuck in limbo until they can take care of their particular unfinished business. Bertram deals mostly with Greg Kinnear's ghost character, Frank, as he tries to get Bertram to end Frank's widow's (Tea Leoni as Gwen) new engagement. Bertram agrees to help only to keep the other limbo ghosts from bothering him. Of course, he falls in love with Gwen along the way and also learns that being an a-hole is bad and he should care about people.

That's a lot of ground to cover in 101 minutes, and writer/director David Koepp isn't able to keep all of that together. The trailer portends a rioutous comedy; it is funny in spots (it has to be with Gervais), but it isn't as funny as anything Gervais has done to this point. The film takes aim at the curmudgeon, and hits a little close to home. The mushy conclusion where Pincus redeems himself is effectively executed, but I couldn't get over the contrived nature of the story arc. The movie is just weird...is it a comedy, a Capra film, or a romantic comedy? I don't care if a movie defies category, but those genres are hard to mix with success.

Kinnear is fine as Frank, as is Leoni as Gwen. A particular complaint is the multiple stupid scenes with Kristen Wiig as a surgeon. The film is realistic (except for the ghosts, I know) all around, but then they have an over the top ridiculous medical scene and disclosure of surgery problems that isn't really funny and ruins the tone of the film.

Seeing Gervais working with lesser material is odd. Hopefully that will be rectified with the forthcoming This Side of the Truth, which is written and directed by Gervais, and starring Tina Fey, Gervais, Jeffrey Tambor, Stephen Merchant, Jonah Hill and Christopher Guest.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ricky Gervais on the Emmys

Genius. Also, note that Vanessa Williams is in the front row with Krayzee Eyez Killa.

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Jack White/Alicia Keys New Bond Theme Out

While movie theme music isn't my primary concern, the variation-on-an-established-theme that goes into the composition of each new 007 makes every new bond song something of an event. When personal fave Jack White (White Stripes, Raconteurs) is called in to write, produce, sing, and play guitar, and Alicia Keys is singing and on the piano, well, then I'm interested. After hearing it twice, I really like it, from the opening, greasy-blues guitar and rapid-fire snare, to the staccato piano and horns. Only complaint: Alicia's got one of my favorite voices in pop music when she's not going Aguilera on us. White's vocals pretty much cover her up when they're both singing. Less White, more Keys. Go here to hear it.And here is the rest of it.

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Saturday Night Live – James Franco 9/20/08

If you checked out during the “Cougar Den” sketch, I don’t blame you, but you did miss some humorous moments. Click below for the rest.

The opener had Darrell Hammond playing John McCain recording anti-Obama political advertisements. It was based on an idea by former SNL writer and current Minnesota Democrat Senate candidate Al Franken. Is NBC still pretending they’re unbiased?

Franco’s monologue about being a Columbia student was OK, but it doesn’t help that super-bland Jason Sudeikis showed up (in this and in most skits throughout the show). Next up, were the Cougars, which kind of worked with Ashton Kutcher last year since he is a Cougar-victim and Cougar-survivor. It didn’t work here and neither did Cameron Diaz.

Next was Franco as Agent 420, a send up of his Pineapple Express character. The obvious jokes were done well by Franco. Then, there was a skit where lawyers tried to seat a jury for OJ Simpson. The jurors were funny, but am I the only one that feels Andy Samberg should be banned from the sketches? Where would Lorne Michaels go, though? Casey Wilson? Bobby Moynihan? I don’t think so.

The digital short featured Franco in a dramatic role with a small phallic punchline. These jokes rarely work – let alone 4 times. Kristen Wiig’s reaction to him was great, though. Fred Armisen either hits a home run or strikes out. His impression of Penny Marshall was great, but his bits on Weekend Update are always terrible. Update hosts Seth Myers and Amy Poehler sure like the jokes they write, don’t they? Try to keep it dead-pan like Chevy Chase or Dennis Miller, please. You’re not as funny as you think.

What is funny is when the cast uses self-deprecation. It works for almost everyone. It’s also funny when SNL goes after a New York institution like the New York Times. The skit about 50 out-of-touch NY Times reporters being sent to Alaska to dig up dirt on Sarah Palin was the best of the show. Topical and pitch-perfect. The “Lost Ending” of Of Mice and Men came out of nowhere, though. The last film of Steinbeck’s novel was released in 1992. Seriously? Immediately following that was a faux-commercial where Armisen struck gold (again) as Martin Scorsese – and Poehler is a great Rosie Perez.
Last was Franco meeting Willem Dafoe. Bill Hader is a first-rate impressionist but this one felt like it was filling space. And Samberg is lame when the words "SNL Digital Short" don't precede him.
I withhold judgment on Kings of Leon. I certainly don’t “get” it. Probably never will. Don’t mind that I don’t. Overall – B-

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand

Published in 1957.

So, in my 4th decade I finally read Atlas Shrugged and find a worldview I can embrace and characters I feel excessive kinship with. It is hard to overstate the extent to which I enjoyed this book. Rand's main character, Dagney Taggart, is the female scion of a powerful railroad family and the only person in the company with the ability to accomplish things. She has several 'brothers in arms' in other industrialists, but is constantly plagued by the slimy and manipulative 'chattering class' and government 'directives'. Click below for more SHRUGGED:

As Taggart saves her railroad time and again in spite of the meddling of the government and her namby pamby brother, her abilities as someone who can produce and do things (rather than just regulating things or talking about them) become apparent. The story goes through many permutations involving multiple great characters and includes many brilliant speeches about man, capitalism and objectivism. The main speech is by John Galt, the ideal man and Dagney Taggart's love and final interest.

Ayn Rand's gift to philosophy was objectivism, which she explained as "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." She rejects religion and "common good" rationales in favor of a worldview that is grounded in reality and reason. See below for a couple of my favorite speeches:

1. Francisco D'Anconia: "To the glory of mankind, there was, for the first and only time in history, a country of money-and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement. For the first time, man's mind and money were set free, and there were no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work, and instead of swordsmen and slaves, there appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being - the self made man - the American industrialist.

If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose - because it contains all the others - the fact that they were the people who created the phrase 'to make money.' No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity - to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted or obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created. The words 'to make money' hold the essence of human morality."

2. John Galt: "For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors - between those who preached that the goodis self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.

Both sides agreed that morality demand the surrender of your self-interest and of your mind, that the moral and the practical are opposites, that morality is not the province of reason, but the province of faith and force. Both sides agreed that no rational morality is possible, that there is no right or wrong in reason - that in reason there's no reason to be moral.

Whatever else they fought about, it was against man's mind that all your moralists have stood united. It was man's mind that all their schemes and systems were intended to despoil and destroy. Now choose to perish or to learn that the anti-mind is the anti-life.

Man's mind is his basic tool of survival. Life is given to him, survival is not. His body is given to him, its sustenance is not. His mind is given to him, its content is not. To remain alive, he must act, and before he can act he must know the nature and purpose of his action. He cannot obtain his food without a knowledge of food and of the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch - or build a cyclotron - without a knowledge of his aim and of the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think."


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Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo) A

Rated R, On DVD, theatrically released English version, 161 minutes

The third of Clint Eastwood’s three turns as the Man Without a Name, it is with shame that I admit I’d never seen this classic western by Italian master Sergio Leone. And a classic it is. Much has been written of the impact of Eastwood’s character on subsequent writers and directors (for instance, Lucas bases bounty hunter Boba Fett on him), but it is the narrative devices of this film that I see most clearly either stolen or paid homage to in subsequent films. In particular, the introduction of the three primary characters, the Good (Eastwood), the Bad (Tuco, played by Eli Wallach, recently so great in The Holiday), and the Ugly (Sentenza, Lee Van Cleef), each with their own vignette that establishes their character while advancing the plot, is echoed in a variety of ways in Quintin Tarantino’s canon.

Unlike other films that have lost their vitality because they’ve been stolen from or quoted too many times, Ugly remains vibrant and relevant. This energy derives from Eastwood’s quintessential anti-hero. Forty years on, few directors have the guts to create a truly morally ambiguous protagonist, and fewer still have the charisma or skill to make the audience pull for him. While he seems to be guided by his own ethical system, that system is in no way tied to any communal morality, even the axiomatic one rumored to be shared among thieves. Eastwood is “Good” only insofar as he is not “the Bad” or “the Ugly.” The film is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, a war surpassed only by WWII in modern times in terms of having an easily distinguishable “right side” and “wrong side”. Yet none of the characters choose to side with either except insofar as they further their individual pursuits. If Eastwood eventually prevails, it is because, unlike the other two, his intelligence tempers his greed.

Plot and characterization aside, the film is a directing and producing (Alberto Grimaldi) tour de force. The cinematography is breathtaking, the direction is loping and lyrical, and the score, defined by that iconic refrain, sometimes played on instruments, sometimes sang, sometimes whistled, is unlike anything before or since. Technically, a perfect film. A masterpiece. A

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Miami Vice (2006) - A-

Miami Vice has been ubiquitous on the cable movie stations and after watching parts of it 4-5 times during the last month, I decided it was time to analyze just what is going on. I saw this film opening day in July 2006 during the afternoon in a bad theater on a dusty screen. I’ll admit that I yawned and felt the middle dragged (specifically, the Gong Li-Colin Farrell love story). I felt the bad guys were ho-hum and wondered why Mann chose 2 unknown Hispanic bad guys when he used none other than Javier Bardem terrifically in his previous film Collateral. The overall feeling was overly serious with absolutely zero laughs.Click below for more of the underrated Miami Vice.

But I knew that I had seen something special and the film landed near the bottom of my top ten list of 2006. I loved the action scenes and thought the acting was great. I liked the structure of the film, beginning on another case and then suddenly switching to the actual story. There were tangents taken and the ending left some nice loose ends. The high-definition video allowed for interesting angles and lighting. The problem, I think, that most detractors had, was that it wasn’t remotely like the television show. The names were the same, but the tone and style were remarkably different. No pastels, no jokes, no alligator, and no houseboat. After many (many!) recent films based on old TV shows that were over-the-top jokey with predictable cameos and as thin as a runway model, Mann probably went too far the other way. If you called it something other than “Miami Vice”, it probably would not have been as lambasted by a paying public that felt hoodwinked.

Sure it’s a little too violent and the villains have too little charisma (especially compared to Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell). Farrell gives his best performance to date and his relationship with Gong Li grows stronger with every viewing. The casting of Gong Li was very risky, with the end result being mixed. Li doesn’t know English, so her lines were pronounced phonetically, leading to an unfortunate, difficult accent, but with the mute button on (necessary with small kids sometimes), she projects soul and loss and longing better than any actress around. As always, Mann’s choice in music is first-rate, providing strong emotions. This is a realistic, tough film for adults, who have been in one or two tough relationships. A brilliant update of the TV show, Mann’s growth as a director as well as his developed interests aren’t obvious on first glance, but very rewarding once you find them. A-

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Favorite Scenes - No Country for Old Men

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell: How you doing, Ellis?

Ellis: You’re looking at it. I gotta say . . . you’re looking older.

Ed: I am older.

Ellis: Got a letter from your wife. She writes me pretty regular. Keeps me up on the family news.
Ed: Didn’t know there was any.

Ellis: Told me you’re quittin’.
Ed: (walks over to coffee pot) You want a cup?

Ellis: Appreciate it.

Ed: How fresh is that coffee?
Ellis: I generally make a fresh pot every week – even if there’s some left over.

Ed: That man who shot you died in prison.

Ellis: Angola. Yeah.
Ed: What you’d done he’d been released.

Ellis: Oh, I don’t know. Nothing. Wouldn’t be no point in it.

Ed: Kindly surprised to hear you say that.
Ellis: Well all the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, more is going out the door. After a while, you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it. Your granddad never asked me to sign on as a deputy. (pause) Loretta tells me you’re quittin’. How come you’re doing that?
Ed: I don’t know. I feel overmatched. I always figured when I got older, God would sort of come into my life somehow. And He didn’t. I don’t blame Him. If I was Him, I’d have the same opinion of me that He does.
Ellis: You don’t know what He thinks. I sent Uncle Mac’s thumbbuster and badge over to the Rangers, put it in their museum. Your daddy ever tell you how Uncle Mac come to his reward? Gunned down on his own porch over in Hudspeth County. Seven or Eight of ‘em come up there, wanting this, wanting that. Uncle Mac went back in the house to get the shotgun. Well, they was ahead of him. Shot him in his doorway. Aunt Ella come out, try to stop the bleeding. Uncle Mac all the while trying to get that shotgun. They just sat there on their horses, watching him die. After a while, one of ‘em said something in Indian and they turned. Left out. Uncle Mac knew the score even if Aunt Ella didn’t. Shot through the left lung. And that was that – as they say.
Ed: When’d he die?

Ellis: Nineteen – zero and, uh, nine.

Ed: No, I mean was it right away, or in the night or – when was it?
Ellis: I believe it was that night. She buried him the next morning. Digging in that hard old caliche. (pause) What you got ain’t nothin’ new. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s comin’. It ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

DVD and CD Releases - September 16th

Recent DVD Releases:

88 Minutes
The Love Guru
Made of Honor
Snow Angels
Speed Racer

Click below for more DVD and CD releases.

DVD Special Editions/Other Releases:

TV Box Sets:

Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 3
The Best of Cybill
Chuck: Season One
Criminal Minds: Season Three
Dirty Sexy Money: Season One
Private Practice: Season One
Pushing Daisies: Season One
Star Trek: Alternate Realities - Fan Collective
Torchwood: Season Two

Special Editions/Other Releases:

An American in Paris: Two-Disc Special Edition
Another Cinderella Story
Beetlejuice: 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
The Busby Berkeley Collection Volume Two
The Charlie Chan Collection: Volume Five
Class of 1999
Get Thrashed
Gigi: Two-Disc Special Edition
I See You.Com
The Legend of Bloody Mary
Risky Business: 25th Anniversary Edition

New CD Releases:

All that Remains -OvercomeLive CD/DVD
Avenged Sevenfold -Live in the LBC & Diamonds in the Rough Live CD/DVD
Blessid Union of Souls -Close To The Edge
Brass bed -Midnight Matinee
Lindsey Buckingham -Fleetwood Mac guitarist Gift of Screws
George Clinton -George Clinton and Some Gangsters of Love
Faith Hill -Joy to the World X-mas album
James -Hey Ma
Jem -Down to Earth
Nelly -Brass Knuckles
Ne-Yo Year of the Gentleman
Punchline -Just Say Yes
Pussycat Dolls -Doll Domination
Darius Rucker -Learn to Live
Raphael Saadiq -The Way I See It
Tanya Tagaq Auk -Blood
Keller Williams - Live
Unwritten Law - Live & Lawless Live cd/dvd

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Burn After Reading B-

In Theatres, 96 Minutes, Rated R

The new Coen brothers film isn’t bad, it’s just disappointing. Not because they decided to follow up their most somber film to day, Best Picture Oscar-winner No Country for Old Men, with a farce, but because the farce is not that funny. In a farce, the writers/directors/producers make a deal with the audience. The audience gives the writer a great deal of leeway in believability, plot, timing, structure, and even the ending. And, in return, the filmmakers give the audience lots and lots of laughs, a generally smart skewering of society, and no answers. Burn has the skewering and lack of answers, but just doesn’t have enough laughs.
The plot is too convoluted to unravel here, but centers around a couple of fitness center employees (Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt) who come into possession of a disk of information they believe contains state secrets. They attempt to extort the ex-CIA owner of the disk (John Malkovic) for money to finance McDormand’s desired plastic surgery so that she can launch her new life. All the while Malkovic’s marriage to Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) is imploding, partially due to her affair with George Clooney, who is married and shagging multiple women he’s meeting on-line (including McDormand). J.K. Simmons as a C.I.A. man trying to keep track of the entire situation and Richard Jenkins as a fallen priest turned fitness center manager in love with McDormand round out the major players.

Pitt is magnificent in his stupidity with his ubiquitous ipod buds and obsession with hydration, and is the only likable character in the film. Clooney is something of a parody of his reputation while McDormand gives it her best, but can’t breathe humanity into Linda Litzke. It’s good to see Malkovic having a good time, and there’s a nice little nod to Fargo in his attack with a hatchet. Swinton plays a variation on the ice queen role she plays too well in both the Narnia films and Clayton. The rest of the players are solid, but the truth is, the more we get to know these characters, the less we like them.

Yes, there are some belly-laughs here, but not enough for the Coens to have held up their end of the bargain. And, yes, I get the skewering of in-the-beltway thinking, W., and the possible implications for this next election. And, yes, I get the larger critique of humanity in general and the general stupidity we’re all painted with. But here’s the deal: Give me laughs or give me answers. B-

PS. There are two groups of Coen bro. fans out there. I hate them both. One is typified by a gentlemen I spoke to in line for coffee at Borders today, who, upon hearing me tell an acquintance that Burn After Reading was disappointing, said, “It wasn’t disappointing. The first thing you have to realize is that no Coen brothers films are disappointing.” Okay, fine, buddy. I understand that perspective. Yes, this is better than a huge chunk of the drivel getting pumped out of Hollywood, and even their crappiest films are solidly constructed with the occasionally sublime scene. But, when your last film was No Country for Old Men, and your responsible for
Fargo, and a half-dozen other minor classics, you’ve set the bar pretty high. You can disappoint. The second group is made up of individuals who claim every new work by the Coens is, “Okay, I guess, but not nearly as good as their old stuff.” I pray I’m not part of that group, but after this review, the good reader may beg to differ.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Righteous Kill - B-

In theaters. Rated R, 101 minutes. Trailer.

Anytime Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino are together, I am paying attention. Their much ballyhooed joint appearance in Heat is still legendary even though the diner scene isn't all that remarkable. Now, with director Jon Avnet's Righteous Kill, we have an entire movie of scenes together. Trouble is, the material is not worthy of the players. Unfairly maligned and viciously taken down by critics, this film is a decent cop movie with a weak script and actors that are too old to pull of their roles. Click below for more RIGHTEOUS:

The two are partners/detectives in the NYPD, and are assigned to investigate a series of murders of lowlifes and wrongfully acquitted criminals. From the outset of the film, we know DeNiro was involved and the film plays backwards as the other cops (Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo) investigating similar murders start to zero in on a cop as the only likely suspect. The first 30 minutes are rough, with too many cliches to count and a much less than riveting story. As the plot thickens, though, Pacino's character becomes much more interesting as he protects DeNiro and works with the department. There are several suspenseful moments and for a few minutes I was genuinely entertained, but the opening, ending and amateurish script brought it down to a B-.

DeNiro was decent in his role, his voiceovers still all sound like Travis Bickle to me, though. He is old, but not too old for this role and is barely able to pull it off. Pacino, on the other hand, has gone the way of Barry Manilow and Paul McCartney - trying to look 25 instead of just a few years younger than his actual age. He walks like he is an old man, all paunchy and splayed out, and his tight face and perfectly permed bangs are overly distracting for a supposedly gritty NYPD cop. His performance is good, but he just doesn't have the vitality to pull it off. Carla Gugino is decent as the love interest, with pedestrian performances from Leguizamo and Wahlberg. Everyone is brought down by the profound lack of anything interesting to say (which is surprising coming from writer Russell Gerwitz (Inside Man)). As an aside, what is Wahlberg doing with the New Kids on the Block reunion? He had finally gotten some legitimacy as an actor and then he goes on the view to sing "Step by Step"!?

This one might be a C+, but I like a lot of it and love to see these two together.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Saturday Night Live

Tomorrow night is the season premier, with host Michael Phelps (yikes). Rumor is that Tina Fey will guest star as VP nominee Sarah Palin, and Obama is weighing whether he should go forward with his appearance in the wake of Hurricane Ike kicking Doc's ass down in Houston. Should be a great episode in spite of Phelps given the crazy election season.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Transsiberian - B+

In theaters. Rated R, 111 minutes. Trailer.

This has been a tough year for 'indies'. The recent glut of financing for small, quality films has meant that there are too many to fit into the theaters, and even less that can get the proper amount of publicity (click here for article on this issue). Transsiberian is one such film. Five years ago, this film would have gotten a lot of publicity and likely been shown outside of the indie theaters, which is the only place it is playing in Dallas. The film tells the story of an American couple traveling via train from Beijing across Russia in Siberia. Written and directed by Machinist director Brad Anderson, the film features quality performances from Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Kate Mara, and Ben Kingsley. Click below for the most suspenseful movie I've seen this year:

Roy (Harrelson) and Jessie (Mortimer) are finishing up a mission trip in Beijing (with Roy's church) and take the Transsiberian train for a little adventure. After getting settled in, they are joined by their 'bunk mates', Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Mara), a wild and mysterious couple. Carlos immediately gets his eyes on Jessie, who is especilly susceptible to 'the call of the wild'. As the couples get to know each other, director Anderson keeps up a slow, building pace with very subtle hints of coming turmoil. After Roy disappears after a stop in Irktusk, Jessie, Carlos and Abby get off at the next stop to wait for him. The trio encounters mischief and Jessie ends up back on the train, to find that Roy has befriended Grinko (Kingsley), a Russian detective investigating drug smugglers on the Transsiberian. Things go awry, culminating in a very tense final 30 minutes with a satisfying resolution.

I think trains make great subjects on film, and am fascinated with Russia (especially Siberia), so I found the exterior shots beautiful, especially the scenes in and around the decrepit chapel on the frozen lake. The film is smartly written, directed and acted, with the main weak spot being Harrelson's 'hair'. Why Anderson et al felt that having a distracting wig was worse than having a bald Harrelson, I'll never know, but it was distracting. Each character, with the exception of Carlos, was well developed and Mortimer turns in a career best performance as the guilt ridden Jessie. She should be considered for a best actress nomination this year for the wrenching and morally complex performance. Kingsley is his usually quality self as the Russian's Russian, Grinko, encapsulating much of Russia's soul and dilemma in the 21st century. Kate Mara continues to impress after quality turns in Brokeback Mountain and Shooter.

Some have called this a 'horror' film, but I think it is more correctly categorized as a suspense film. As a horror-hater, the few bloody scenes were not offensive at all. A quality movie.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

David Mamet and Redbelt

David Mamet dialogue is instantly recognizable with its tough talk, unnecessary confrontations, and numerous repetitions. Mamet the writer is justly celebrated as one of the best modern American writers, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his play Glengarry Glen Ross. But his stage origins don’t always have cinematic sensibility. Mamet originally wanted to end The Verdict (A-) without a verdict. Director Sydney Lumet convinced him otherwise. Other directors have had great success with Mamet’s screenplays. The Untouchables (A-) is one of Brian de Palma’s best films; he hasn’t equaled it in the last 2 decades. Wag the Dog (B+) is the second best Barry Levinson film (next to Rain Man). Glengarry Glen Ross (B+) is easily James Foley’s best film.
Click below for the rest.

Mamet the director is often too faithful to his own dialogue. The screenplays which he chooses to direct invariably involve con men or some kind of bait-and-switch. He created a great plot with terrific dialogue in his directorial debut House of Games (A-), but the acting is occasionally wooden, particularly from Lindsay Crouse and Ricky Jay. As he is too faithful to his dialogue, Mamet is occasionally too loyal to his family and friends. Crouse was Mamet’s wife at the time and Ricky Jay was a friend with a required expertise in magic and the con game. Other Mamet regulars Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy never make a false step in Mamet’s films. (Paul Thomas Anderson must be a Mamet fan since he used Macy, Jay, and other Mamet-regular Jack Wallace in Boogie Nights). I do like the way Ricky Jay delivers Mamet’s dialogue, but it’ll take you out of the film(s).

In the early 90s, Mamet remarried, this time to Rebecca Pidgeon, who is just as stiff as Crouse in Mamet’s subsequent films, but particularly in The Spanish Prisoner (B+) since she is the female lead and has lots of screen time. This remains Mamet’s most assured bit of direction, with complex plotting of the characters (e.g. Steve Martin coming off the float plane) and steady pacing. Campbell Scott is earnest and honest as a company man whose intellectual property is being stolen. Mamet would go on to make the hilarious State and Main (B+), a send-up of Hollywood, where a film production overtakes a small New England town. While Heist (B-) had several twists too many, the little-seen Spartan (B) hits all the right notes as special agent Val Kilmer tries to track down a kidnapped daughter of a US official.

The problem with The Spanish Prisoner and Spartan is that the endings are underwhelming. This is most certainly not the case with Mamet’s latest gift to filmgoers: Redbelt (just released on DVD). Priest’s theatrical review is here. I’ll agree that Tim Allen is woefully miscast and some early plot contrivances are tough to believe. But the themes of honor, loyalty, and heroism haven’t been portrayed this well on film in a very long time. In an age where our “heroes” have dark shades of gray (Llewellyn Moss, Billy Costigan, Theo Faron, Tom Stall, Batman, etc.), Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mike Terry is bright shining light of purity and goodness. While his actions may hurt those around him, he never loses his way or his principles. His interactions with Emily Mortimer are surprisingly touching and his refusal to sell out is inspiring. (Thankfully, Mamet reduces his wife to just a handful of lines this time out.) Terry’s a great character in a good film. On the DVD supplement material, Mamet compares Ejiofor to Henry Fonda since he can emote so well with his eyes. Big praise, to be sure, but deserved. It’s a great performance, one that I won’t soon forget. Redbelt: B+

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