Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Movie Mini-List #1: Bobby sans Marty

My friend “Dez,” who blogs under that pseudonym at Gonna Need a Bigger Boat, has been the biggest enabler of my list-making side since we met as freshmen in college. We swapped cassette mixes of our favorite 100 songs at some point that year. The rest is history. He kicks off the mini-lists that will accompany my ongoing rundown of favorite 100 movies with a look at his favorite eight De Niro films not directed by Scorsese. Take it away, Dez:
Much like a great coach and player on a sports team, the relationship between director and actor in a film is a complicated but crucial aspect of making great movies. Sometimes, a director finds his muse in a certain actor, and together they can revolutionize the medium. Such is the case with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. The films made by this combo often occupy the higher echelons of Top Movie lists. They are expected to be there. So I thought it would be fun to throw those out of consideration, and then take a fresh look at the remaining De Niro filmography. What are we leaving out? Scorsese and De Niro made eight films together: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, King of Comedy, New York, New York, Goodfellas, Cape Fear and Casino.

8. Heat (1995, dir. Michael Mann): The much ballyhooed pairing of De Niro and Al Pacino made all the headlines. Their one real scene together is electric (I don’t include the chase at the end), but Mann overreaches for scope in this overlong crime drama. Certain scenes are outstanding, though, even with Pacino’s bellowing.

7. Backdraft (1991, dir. Ron Howard): A bit melodramatic at times, and Bobby D. plays a minor role, but overall this firefighter drama holds up and is quite engaging. Excellent job by Kurt Russell, and it also stars one of the minor Baldwin Bros.

6. The Untouchables (1987, dir. Brian De Palma): An old fashioned mob tale (very) loosely based on fact. De Niro has one of his flashiest roles as Al Capone in 1920s Chicago. While the film mostly focuses on Kevin Costner and Sean Connery’s team of Prohibition-era Feds, most viewers find themselves waiting for the next De Niro scene. “Baseball. One man stands at the plate...”

5. The Deer Hunter (1978, dir. Michael Cimino): Much lauded at the time (Best Picture winner in 1978), and with a hell of a cast (De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Cazale). I don’t think this one has aged quite as well as one would hope, but it’s still worth watching.

4. The Mission (1986, dir. Roland Joffe): Well executed historical drama featuring Jeremy Irons as a Jesuit priest and De Niro as a former conquistador who converts and becomes a staunch defender of the South American Indian tribes against the encroaching Spanish and Portuguese invaders.

3. Midnight Run (1988, dir. Martin Brest): While De Niro has been heralded for his more recent forays into comedy (Analyze This, the Meet the Parents franchise), I still find this the most entertaining of his comedies. He has real chemistry with co-star Charles Grodin.

2. A Bronx Tale (1993, dir. Robert De Niro): De Niro’s directorial debut is a gripping coming of age tale set on the mean streets of the Bronx. He plays against type here as the straight-arrow father/bus driver trying to keep his son from being seduced into a life of crime by a competing father figure, the local mob boss played wonderfully by Chazz Palminteri. (Palminteri also wrote the script, loosely based on his own experiences growing up.)

1. The Godfather: Part II (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola): De Niro’s channeling of Marlon Brando’s iconic Don Corleone as a young man is one of the greatest performances of the 1970s. He upstages Pacino by miles.

"Even make a bag of peanuts seem like the choicest meal."

For this Wednesday, a slight deviation from the norm, but maybe the best thing I've ever posted. This is a radio ad for Coke from the mid-1960s, sung by Otis Redding. And I mean sung. He starts, "A man and a woman / what do they need to have?" and then sings "a place to be together" as soulfully as he ever sang anything, and that's saying something. Maybe it's just because I prefer Coke to all other sodas, but I find this really moving. I'll never drink another brand of soft drink again. Many, many thanks to my friend JR for alerting me to this gem. Enjoy:


Monday, January 25, 2010

Free, Again

Last summer, I wrote two posts about online profit models (or the lack thereof). The first of them was pegged to an interview with Chris Anderson, author of Free: The Future of a Radical Price. The second was a briefer follow-up inspired by a post (and the ensuing comments about it) by Levi Asher. OK, bear with me for all this preface—this is what I get for letting something sit around for six months. My latter post elicited a direct response from Asher, and that’s what I address (mostly) below. When there’s a quote from Asher, it comes from that response of his (in July). Asher has just recently posted about the issue again, inspired by the same story that’s inspiring me to revisit the debate, which is the news that the New York Times is planning to institute an online paywall of some type in the not too distant future. I’ll say that this most recent post from Asher seems more specific and tempered, and as such more useful. But I’m returning to July, when things seemed broader to me:

Let me just start by saying that I’m not arguing, nor was I arguing in the summer, against the idea that many things of value in a culture can be offered to consumers free. For instance, I’ve been writing this blog for more than five years now, and I haven’t made a penny. Now, the value of this blog is highly debatable, but let’s at least say that some people find it somewhat valuable. We can then apply that principle to projects with larger audiences than this one, which is almost every other project on Earth.

This was how Asher started his response:
I'll try to offer a substantive response to the idea that we must pay for things of value. However, I find the idea almost too childish to entertain.
I’m perfectly willing to say that the Internet has changed the way we have to have this conversation (of course), but thinking that the very idea of paying for things of value is “too childish to entertain” is hardly a promising start to a rational debate. Basic economics will tell you that you pay for everything one way or another.

Asher continued:
First of all, just as we can name things of value that we pay for, we can also easily name things of value that we don't pay for. The Office. Music on the car radio. Outdoor sculptures and great urban architecture. Oh yeah, and then there's free news and commentary on the Internet which, plain and simple, we are already not paying for.
I wasn’t trying to imply that consumers have to pay money for everything of value. Though I will say that in the case of everything Asher listed, someone gets paid. The architects, the builders, the actors, the DJs, the car-radio manufacturers—even, in the case of the web, the most prominent news bloggers (most of whom are simply aggregating news from more traditional sources, like the New York Times). If, tomorrow, we insisted that urban architects need not be paid, since there are architecture enthusiasts willing to work for free, the quality of urban architecture would not benefit.

If we want to examine this classic “rule of paying for things of value,” let's consider one of the many masterpieces of nature: the orange. This weekend I bought an entire bag of delicious fresh Florida oranges—marvelous, ingenious, healthy and beautiful things, really—for about two bucks. Taken purely for its value, a single orange could easily be worth five dollars. Likewise, taken purely for its value, a bottle of corn-syrup-flavored orange soda shouldn't cost more than ten cents. But these hypothetical prices don't correspond to the real world. We never actually pay for things according to their value. We pay for things according to the law of supply and demand.
Yes. But the law of supply and demand lends itself to an economic view of things. Insisting, like Chris Anderson does, that entire industries can operate on the principle of “free” is an argument against the very idea of economics. As such, the sentence, “Taken purely for its value, a single orange could easily be worth five dollars” makes no sense. I’m not denying the existence of supply and demand or its role in creating value—I’m saying that when the unbending demand is “free,” there will be consequences for the supply.

When John Williams declares that we pay for things according to their value, he is doing no more than expressing a keening wish. Declaring that we pay for things according to their value is like declaring that we will stay young forever, or that there will be no more crime. It's nice to think such things, but they never were true and they're still not.
Again, I don’t (and wouldn’t want to) determine the fixed value of anything. I don’t care whether people pay to watch HBO or not. I also don’t care if people pay for something that I think they are overvaluing (there are fully functional citizens who pay $25 and more for novels written by James Patterson, which blows my mind). I don’t think The Wire or the Empire State Building or a bag of oranges is worth any particular amount, I just think they’re worth something. Asher says I declare “we pay for things according to their value,” but that’s not exactly right—it’s more that how much we value things plays a role in what we will pay for them. Yes, The Office is free on NBC, and NBC has a model that works well enough (for now) to pay the people responsible for The Office. If NBC folded and the show moved to, say, HBO or Showtime, there are fans who might be willing to consider buying those channels in order to keep watching the show.

In his original post, Asher wrote, “If the New York Times puts its web content behind a payment wall, that will be the end of my lifelong relationship with the New York Times.” And in his most recent: “I will certainly be paying less attention to the New York Times once it removes itself from the currency of real-time dialogue on the web, and of course my long-running love story with the New York Times Book Review will end once the publication ceases to be openly available to all readers.” This is a large, complex issue, and I’m not saying I have easy answers—but these sentiments just seem flatly illogical (and self-defeating) to me. The basic idea expressed is “I loved this thing that I used to pay for, then I (unsustainably, according to current economics) got it for free, and now I’d rather be without it than pay for it.” For what reason? To prove a point that everything should now be free? What if, functionally, it can’t be free? What if the only way to read the New York Times Book Review was to pay 50 cents a week for it? Would it be worth financially supporting something you valued, if your support was the only thing keeping it alive? Questions like these seem suddenly irrelevant to people like Asher, which just surprises me more than anything else. It's like the complicated idea of value has been replaced by the simplistic, unyielding demand for free.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Jean Simmons, 1929-2010

Jean Simmons has died at 80. She played one of my all-time favorite characters, Miss Sarah Brown, in Guys and Dolls:

The preceding scene, a great one, here.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Movie List: 95-91

95. “I used to be somebody else, but I traded him in.”

The Passenger (1975)

I had to debate whether to put this on the list without rewatching it. Life is hard. I’m pretty sure this movie sags badly through the middle, but it starts strong and, more importantly, has a seven-minute shot right near the end that has stayed with me even as a lot of the movie has faded. Jack Nicholson plays a reporter in Africa who, frustrated by the obstacles to doing his job -- and much of the rest of his life -- switches identities with a dead man. It’s basically Don Draper meets Italian modernism. (Spoiler immediately ahead.) Unfortunately for Jack, the person whose existence he has assumed is/was an arms dealer. That eventually leads to a scene in which he’s killed by government agents. He’s in a ground-level hotel room when it happens, and we see the scene not from any traditional perspective, but as a very, very slow pan out the window on to a dusty, nearly empty square. Some cars sputter by. A musician plays. A kid throws a rock at an old man. And somewhere in that sequence, two men get out of a car. It’s a haunting, brilliant way to film a violent scene, and famous for good reason. (It obviously has a lot more power if you watch the whole movie, but it’s available standing alone on YouTube.)

94. “It’s OK to do stupid things. It’s not OK to do stupid things when you notice them.”

I Like Killing Flies (2004)

This documentary falls squarely in the category of Find a Great Character and Let the Cameras Roll. In this case, just one camera, and a pretty cheap one at that. Kenny Shopsin ran a restaurant in Greenwich Village (Shopsin’s) for three decades. This lo-fi movie follows him through his typical routine and then chronicles his moving the restaurant to a new location. Full of opinions and profanity (near the end of the movie, he begins a speech about self-knowledge: “The first duty of everybody in life is to realize that they’re a piece of shit”), Shopsin is the kind of person you would want to write for a fictional film about New York, but you’d never get him quite right. Loud-mouthed but essentially soft-hearted, he runs the restaurant by a set of tyrannical rules, including no seating for parties of five or more. In a profile of Shopsin for The New Yorker, Calvin Trillin wrote, “Pretending to be a party of three that happened to have come in with a party of two is a very bad idea.” (Trillin is in the film as one of the restaurant’s regulars.) I wrote about this one at greater length just after seeing it.

93. “Your queen is just a pawn with a lot of fancy moves, nothing more.”

Fresh (1994)

This movie has one of my favorite final scenes. Sean Nelson stars as Michael (“Fresh”), a quiet 12-year-old drug runner in Brooklyn who occasionally plays chess in the park with his estranged dad (Samuel L. Jackson). The rest of his family is also a mess, most notably his drug-ravaged older sister. Learning from his time at the chess board, Fresh devises a plan to change his life. I rewatched a couple of scenes online, because it had been a while, and it holds up well. Nelson nails a tough role, and the movie unfolds at a smart, deliberate pace without becoming glacial. The score, sometimes obtrusive but mostly effective, was written by Stewart Copeland of The Police.

92. “What you think of as your personality is nothing but a collection of Vanity Fair articles.”

Roger Dodger (2002)

Dylan Kidd’s directorial debut stars Campbell Scott as Roger, an advertising writer in New York who one day finds his 16-year-old nephew Nick in his office. Nick’s in town from Ohio and wants to go back home minus his virginity. He came to the right uncle. Scott is terrific as a guy who thinks he’s broken the code of the battle of the sexes and is eager to impart his wisdom to a young pupil. Nick is winningly, stammeringly played by Jesse Eisenberg in his feature-film debut. The performance catapulted him to become Hollywood’s most sought-after boy-man, if Michael Cera is busy. Roger might be a misogynist, but the movie isn’t -- it includes a great supporting turn by Isabella Rosselini as Roger’s boss (and recent ex), and a memorable extended scene with Jennifer Beals and a surprisingly charming Elizabeth Berkley.

91. “Compared to what? The bubonic plague?”

No Country for Old Men (2007)

This is one of the most recent movies on the list, so it’s especially hard to tell where it will eventually end up. For one thing, I haven’t seen it again since I saw it on the big screen. But I can very easily imagine it moving higher. In keeping with an unintentional mini-theme in this batch of five, No Country has a great, understated ending. It’s also brilliantly made from start to finish. As A. O. Scott wrote in his review, “For formalists — those moviegoers sent into raptures by tight editing, nimble camera work and faultless sound design — it's pure heaven.” When the Coens are on top of their game, they just give you perfectly crafted scene after perfectly crafted scene, like the amazing dog chase sequence in No Country. Despite a very uneven last decade or so, the brothers are among my favorite movie makers, and you’ll see them again, more than once.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Programming Note

The next movie post will be up tomorrow -- I'm aiming to have two installments up per week. Also, the recent news about the New York Times implementing an online payment system has prompted me to revisit a long-overdue response to another blogger. That will likely be up at some point tomorrow, too. But for today, I'm slammed. More soon...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"And on the jukebox is your only song."

Folk singer Kate McGarrigle passed away earlier this week at 63. For Wednesday, this is her daughter, Martha Wainwright, singing “When the Day Is Short.” Enjoy:

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Monday, January 18, 2010

The List Begins: 100-96

100. “You won't see me anymore, so I thought I'd have a little session with your machine.”

Dressed to Kill (1980)

What better place than #100 for a deeply imperfect movie that on any given day wouldn’t make the list? Brian De Palma’s explicit (double meaning intended) homage to Hitchcock stars Michael Caine as a psychiatrist. Angie Dickinson is a housewife looking for a hot time who meets a bad end. Nancy Allen is a call girl who witnesses the bad end and might be next in line. All the while, a cross-dressing killer is on the loose. As you may be able to tell, there are plenty of campy elements in this thriller -- and plenty of ammo for those sensitive to portrayals of both women and the transgendered. But what lingers from Dressed to Kill is that it scared the hell out of me. Most chilling, in particular, is a twisted sequence near the very end. It’s a movie that’s not easy to discuss without spoiling surprises. It’s also a movie about which you can say that both its critics and its fans have a point.

99. “Oh, stewardess . . . I speak jive.”; “Milk was a bad choice.”

Airplane! (1980)
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

In just a very few places (two, maybe three) on the list, I’m going to have multiple movies at the same spot. Like a coupled entry in horse racing. This will infuriate one person, but I imagine the rest of you won’t mind. When I was 10, I thought nothing would ever be as funny as Airplane! My generation is famously fond of conversing by quoting its favorite movies and TV shows, and I got my childhood practice by shouting things like “Leon’s getting lllaaaarger!” with some regularity. (For a look at the making of the jive scene quoted at the top, see here.) Anchorman defines a later brand of absurdity. I find most similar movies (and certainly most Will Ferrell movies) puddle-deep and tiresome, but for some reason I love Anchorman. I think it has to do with the choice of setting -- a 1970s local-affiliate news show proves more fertile and surprising ground than, say, competitive men’s figure skating. The vain vapidity of Ron Burgundy is funny in itself, and even more so when the Chauvinist half of his brain (“it’s science”) battles with the Falling in Love half (“it’s terrible, she has beautiful eyes and her hair smells like cinnamon!”) This is to say nothing of the hilarious supporting idiocy of scenes like Sex Panther.

98. “If you take my advice, you'll become one of the great balloon-folding acts of all time.”

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

Opening in the Carnegie Deli with a great scene of old hands sharing anecdotes about a bumbling talent agent, Broadway Danny Rose is as precise a thing as Woody Allen has ever done. Allen is the titular agent, who works mostly with washed-up acts who were working birthday parties when they were successful, but he’s also resuscitating the career of a lounge singer named Lou Canova (winningly played by Nick Apollo Forte, who was never in another film). When Lou asks Danny to pose as the boyfriend of his flame Tina (Mia Farrow), the Mob misunderstands and goes after Danny. Farrow is hysterical as the trashy moll, and Allen stretches (a little) to give Danny a shade more depth than his average alter-ego. There are many patented early-Allen silly moments, including a showdown fueled by helium, but by the end, when Danny hosts a holiday party for his stable of “talent,” the movie has achieved a real poignancy, too.

97. “You don’t walk out on me. I walk out on you.”

Donnie Brasco (1997)

By the late date of 1997, movies about the Mafia must have numbered in the hundreds, and the idea of someone working in that world undercover wasn't much fresher. But two great performances and a smart, measured pace make Donnie Brasco stand out. Modeled after the real-life character of the same name, Johnny Depp plays husband and father Joseph Pistone, known to his associates as lonely orphan Donnie Brasco, who specializes in jewels. Al Pacino is "Lefty" Ruggiero, an aging mobster whose 26 hits and longtime loyalty haven't been enough to move him very high on the Family ladder. Donnie takes to Lefty, and vice versa, and over time the line between being undercover and being a member of the Mob is essentially erased. Though Pacino had already broken the seal on the Self-Parody phase of his career by this point, this is a throwback performance. Lefty is a defeated figure, and Pacino plays him at the right volume, appropriately slumped in the shoulders. As Donnie becomes increasingly fond of Lefty, Depp reminds you what he was capable of before the Freak Show stage (Willy Wonka, Keith Richards-inspired pirates) of his career. Michael Madsen and Bruno Kirby are two of the supporting players. I think Brasco is underrated. In fact, maybe even by me; it's the first entry on the list that I already regret not having higher. (There will be several more, I'm sure.)

96. “All my dreams is in him now.”

Hoop Dreams (1994)

The most popular (and sometimes, coincidentally, the best) documentaries are increasingly slick. Hoop Dreams, a nearly three-hour look at two Chicago teenagers from the projects with aspirations to play professional basketball, is not slick. Its small-screen aesthetic of raw visuals and occasional straightforward narration stem from the fact that it was conceived as a 30-minute short for PBS. But several years and 250 hours of footage later, director Steve James and his collaborators had completed a much deeper project. William Gates and Arthur Agee were both recruited to play basketball at the predominantly white St. Joseph, a suburban high school famous for being the alma mater of NBA great Isiah Thomas. (Like Gates and Agee, Thomas had commuted -- 90 minutes each way -- to attend the school.) Perhaps it’s needless to say, 16 years later, that neither kid became the next Thomas. But the movie’s immersive, subtle portrait of how they didn’t get there -- its view of the inner city, class, race, and the two boys -- is heart-rending and unforgettable.


Prelude to a List

Grab your popcorn now, while you have the chance.

Movies -- certainly past my favorite 20 or so -- are harder to rank than albums. I’ve seen about 1,000 of them, according to the master list I drew up in preparation for this, though I know more than a few slipped through the cracks. And the vast majority of them I’ve seen only once. I’ve replayed plenty of albums that I consider only decent so many times that I’ve moved from Familiarity with them to Stultification. Movies, not so. I found while considering the candidates that several (including The Candidate) were largely lost to me, even though I remember enjoying and respecting them at the time. A small sampling of this category would include: The Accidental Tourist, All That Jazz, Amadeus, Apocalypse Now, Being John Malkovich, Brazil, Breaking Away, Citizen Kane, The Deer Hunter, Dr. Strangelove, The Man Who Would Be King, and The Seventh Seal. There were a very few in this category (not listed in the previous sentence) that I watched again, and they were moved decisively on to (or off of) the final list. But there are only so many hours in the day.

In addition, there are widely considered classics that I’ve yet to see at all: 2001, Lawrence of Arabia, The African Queen, It Happened One Night, etc., etc. Ten years from now, this list will look quite different, I’m sure. But hopefully I won't be a 46-year-old blogger ranking his favorite movies. This is bad enough, thank you.

What will follow over the next few weeks is an (obviously) unscientific ranking of 100 movies. My own biases were my top priority in making the list. There are several entries -- including several ranked quite high -- that I would never argue are among The Greatest 100 Movies Ever Made. At the same time, I tried to avoid guilty pleasures where I could and focus on pleasures I can defend with a straight face. Luckily, the list does have much more credibility than it would have 10 years ago, because -- thanks in equal parts to living in New York and the advent of Netflix -- I’ve deepened my movie education considerably since I was 26.

As I’ve said before, I’m hoping to have some fun, more specialized mini-lists to run concurrently with this feature -- some by me, several from guests. I have many friends who love movies, all of them with smart, distinctive tastes. I look forward to their contributions and -- I hope -- their lively comments on my posts. 100-96 will be up sometime in the coming hours...


Celebrating the Awful

Having celebrated a bit more officially the night before, I spent my birthday night yesterday watching the Golden Globes with close friends. The show was a train wreck, even by awards-show standards. I had forgotten what purely terrible taste the Hollywood Foreign Press has — so much Avatar and the like. Multiple nominations for dreck like It's Complicated. The celebrities, by and large, looked and sounded tranquilized. (Exceptions: Robert Downey, Jr., and Ricky Gervais, though the bar was so low they may have just seemed awake.)

The only real fun was had in discussing appearances and ridiculing the speeches. Kicks were had making fun of poor Harrison Ford, who's ready to be mummified; self-important Meryl Streep and self-important Mo'Nique; dumb-as-rocks James Cameron; Paul McCartney, who's not-so-slowly turning into Mrs. Roper; Julia Roberts, whose mouth has gotten even bigger and may somehow swallow her own head if she lives long enough. Etc.

I argued for why I think Kristen Bell is more attractive than Reese Witherspoon.

Martin Scorsese, one of the few participants showing some twitches of life, actually talked about the past and a few directors who were dead before the cast of Glee was alive. A couple of people nodded. Most eyes glazed over. When Michael Haneke got up to accept his award for Best Foreign Language Film (The White Ribbon), he made his way to the stage from the rafters and George Lucas, sitting at the front of the room, looked at him like he was a janitor who was lost.

The awards were ridiculous enough to not even merit mention: Glee as best comedy over 30 Rock and The Office? What is it about that show that people like? When I hear its High School Musical versions of songs like "Don't Stop Believin'," I just want to shove a fork into my ear.

The five best-looking women of the night, in my humble and unsolicited opinion: Julianna Margulies, January Jones, Rose Byrne, Marion Cotillard, and Bell.

OK, enough about that. Preface to my "top" 100 movies, and then the first installment, coming later today, as promised.


I think a few people took my picking against the Jets in the opening round of the playoffs as an expression of some kind of animosity toward the team. It wasn't. In fact, I've always preferred the Jets to the Giants, though I don't pull for any NFL team these days. This preference dates back to my childhood on Long Island watching the "sack exchange," Richard Todd, and Freeman McNeil. I even went with my dad to the last game the team ever played at Shea Stadium, a 34-7 pounding at the hands of Terry Bradshaw's Steelers. (Dad's not a Jets fan, as far as I know, but his history with the team is even richer; he was at Super Bowl III, when Namath and company upset the Colts.) For most of my lifetime, the team has adopted a strategy that I once described to a friend as "suck and hold on for dear life."

I'm glad the Jets are doing what they're doing. But it is surprising. The team is playing like it did when it started the season 3-0. But since that start, there hadn't been many signs that this was a Super Bowl-caliber team. Yes, the defense is outstanding, but Mark Sanchez had a bad season, and in the current NFL it isn't easy to win without passing the ball. (See: The other three teams remaining in the playoffs.) It's why I'm still rooting for an Indy-New Orleans Super Bowl—because I think the Jets will eventually fall behind to a strong offense, and a game like that could be ugly. (See: The Jets-New Orleans game from Week 4.)

Friday, January 15, 2010

In the Loop and My Karaoke Debut

Last Saturday night, I went to see In the Loop with my friends N. and P. The movie is a farce about the lead-up to a war like the one in Iraq, though the conflict goes unnamed. It is blisteringly funny. Based on a BBC series called The Thick of It (which, sadly, doesn’t appear to be available on DVD), its British and American cast is uniformly excellent. But the movie gets its fiercest kick from Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, a bulldog for the Prime Minister who aims to keep the possible path to war unimpeded. Capaldi is a thin man, but as Tucker he looks like he’s always on the doorstep of a massive coronary event. (“Are you sure you’re working as hard as me, because I’m sweating spinal fluid here.”) He also swears in a way that would make a fleet of drunk sailors sound like Elmo. The character is almost impossible to quote on a family-friendly blog—it might be tough even on a family-unfriendly blog. I would recommend you watch this montage of his more profane moments, but you should see the movie first. An appropriate teaser with less spoilers might be this report from the movie’s premiere.

After the credits rolled, N., P., and I looked for a spot to get some whiskey and maybe some mozzarella sticks. I’m classy like that. Midtown Manhattan is an office-building wasteland, but we managed to find a bar that was mostly empty, quiet, and unfashionable. (“This is like drinking in Cleveland,” P. said.) Soon after we ordered our assorted fried snacks (speaking of massive coronary events), the quiet was broken in a big way.

It was karaoke night.

The good-natured-but-maybe-sick-of-running-a-karaoke-night guy in charge started signing up volunteers. I let it slip to my friends that, though I had been around karaoke several times, of course, I had never myself participated. For the next hour or so, I was pressured by them to perform. I made efforts to resist said pressure and retain my dignity. Others in the bar had obviously left their dignity at home with a sitter. One thoroughly average-looking guy shot from Normal to Possible Serial Killer with a frighteningly intense rendition of “Back Door Man” by The Doors, and later got up to sing—in an equally frightening high-pitched squeal—“Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” I expect his vocal cords to fully recover sometime in 2047.

There were several other atrocities perpetrated against pitch, including a version of Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire” by a guy who will hit the note in that chorus when I ascend to the top of the Chrysler Building strapped to the back of a hummingbird.

Most astonishing was “Drops of Jupiter” by Train. The guy who sang it was one of two participants who could actually sing. But I had always assumed the song was a bland but essentially harmless radio hit. I’d even tapped my feet to it a few times. (You’d know it if you heard it.) Now I know it for what it is: maybe the worst rock lyric ever written. And I say that as someone who also watched several Red Hot Chili Peppers lyrics of recent vintage pollute the screen that night. But “Drops of Jupiter”: Wow. Its central hook (“did you miss me while you were looking for yourself out there?”) is actually not a bad one around which to build a pop song. But the song doesn’t build around it so much as it suffocates it with a pillow. A pillow that's been marinated in a cesspool. It starts with plenty of junk, like this:
Since the return from her stay on the moon
She listens like spring and she talks like June
To quote Ron Burgundy: “That doesn’t make sense.”

But you soon wish they would have stuck to the purely nonsensical:
Now that she's back from that soul vacation
Tracing her way through the constellation, hey, hey
She checks out Mozart while she does tae-bo
Reminds me that there's room to grow, hey, hey
It gets worse. No, really:
Can you imagine no love, pride, deep-fried chicken
Your best friend always sticking up for you even when I know you're wrong
Can you imagine no first dance, freeze dried romance five-hour phone conversation
The best soy latte that you ever had . . . and me
Uhhh. . . .

So, after suffering (but in a fun way) for a long time, I figured, why not me? P. got up first and did a solo rendition of “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues, which, if you know it, is an incredibly brave karaoke choice. She nailed it. Even did a spirited dance. A few songs later, I made my karaoke debut with her on a duet: “Islands in the Stream.” When I got done with the opening verse, I turned to find that the lovely P.’s microphone had been hijacked by a dude with a shaved head who must have weighed 300 pounds and had earlier graced us with Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba,” which consisted of him attempting to scream the song’s opening lines of gibberish and then watching helplessly, voicelessly as the rest of the song’s rapid-fire lyrics crossed the screen. I was now turning to see this man serenading me: “Everything is nothing if you got no one.”

I’m not a singer on my best day, but at this point of the night my voice was hoarse from singing along with others from my table—and from shouting to N. and P. over the din. Perhaps I’ll give it another crack sometime. Maybe I can track down my new duet partner and we can try to tame “Bawitdaba.” Together.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"I'm a man. Can't you see what I am?"

For Wednesday, this is the Bee Gees doing "To Love Somebody" in Australia in 1974. I linked to another version of it more than three years ago. I choose it again partly because it's a great song -- originally written for Otis Redding, according to the band -- and partly because Barry Gibb employs a singing method here I've never seen. If you watched the clip on mute, you might think he was trying to win a heated argument with his collarbone. Enjoy:


Getting Closer

Whew. I'm finally done going through the Time Out Film Guide and listing every movie in it that I've seen, from About a Boy to Zoolander. I'll save extended thoughts for an intro to the countdown that I'll post Monday morning before the first installment. I'll say for now that a couple of omissions in the guide have me a little nervous that I'll miss something. But even if I do, the world will keep spinning. Probably.

Two movies the book doesn't list -- and it was very random that I would have noticed these missing -- are The Anniversary Party (a so-so indie-flavored ensemble piece) and Hands on a Hard Body (an excellent documentary that will likely fall short of the final list). So how many others does it miss?

My initial batch of definite inclusions is 60, so it will be fun fleshing out the rest.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Joe Rollino, 1905-2010

In one of those incidents that seems like irrefutable proof of the randomness of things, a man approaching his 105th birthday died yesterday in Brooklyn. Cause of death? He was hit by a minivan.

His name was Joe Rollino, and he was allegedly one of the world's strongest men:
“Pound for pound, in the feats that he practiced, he was one of the greatest performing strongmen we’ve ever had, if the lifts he’s credited with are accurate,” said Terry Todd, a co-director of the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas, who knew Mr. Rollino for more than four decades. “He certainly wasn’t one of the strongest all-time strongmen, because of his size. To ask a well-trained 130-pound man if he can lift what a well-trained 400-pound man can lift is asking an unreasonable question. But for his size, Joe was apparently one of the strongest men who ever lived.”

Mr. Rollino stayed away from meat. And cigarettes. And alcohol. He said he walked five miles every morning, rain or shine. At the height of his career, he weighed between 125 and 150 pounds and stood about 5-foot-5.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"Sometimes I wish I was a member of AC/DC."

At the Documentary Blog, Jay Cheel lists his favorite 50 documentaries of the past decade. I’ve seen ten of them, and five others are in my Netflix queue. Speaking of documentaries, here are two deleted scenes (available on the DVD) from one of my favorites, American Movie (1999), which is likely to end up on the list that I'll start counting down a week from today (there's some language in the clips below, for those at work):

Where She Belongs

Well, the real career officially begins.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Aughts III

Once again, the world has fallen in line behind A Special Way of Being Afraid. In the third -- and final, I believe -- round-up of the decade written by someone who was at a New Year's Eve party with me in 1999/2000, my friend ANCIANT (his real name is much, much less strange than that) has offered his look back. The second half of the post takes the form of staccato poetry. I particularly liked this, about meeting the woman he went on to marry:
Learned a girl I’d met some years ago was suddenly free. Concocting surreal fantasies of blimp and ficus tree, emailed. Amazed to get reply as funny and bizarre as one I’d sent. Felt stirring, faint yet powerful, deep in the cockles, a there where stirring had not previously been felt. Bought a shirt and had a date. Learned she didn’t eat cheese. Convinced her that a polished rock was actually an after-dinner treat. Had second date. Had tenth. Cockles now a place of swift and steady storm.

Ready for Some Football

My picks for this weekend's NFL playoff games (to win, not against the spread): Cincinnati, Dallas, Green Bay, New England. I have no real confidence about any of them. Should be good games.

For more preparation, read Bill Simmons' column:
I don't know what kind of quarterback Mark Sanchez will be five years from now. But if I had to LOSE a 2009 playoff game and could pick any starting QB, and JaMarcus Russell was trapped under a rock, I'd think long and hard about the Sanchize.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Oh, No. . . . No.



An open letter to NBC:

Maybe you shouldn't have decided what your 2009 late-night lineup would look like sometime during 1967. Maybe that wasn't the brightest idea. Maybe you shouldn't have given us the false hope of Jay Leno's career being left to wither and die in the 10:00 time slot. Or maybe you should have just kicked him off the network entirely, so that affiliates couldn't tempt you to reinstate him.

We've been through so many good times, NBC: Cosby. Cheers. Alex P. Keaton. Bull.

But that was a lifetime ago -- back when Jay Leno's comedy might have seemed remotely fresh. If you double-cross Conan and put The Chin back at 11:30 to placate whatever humorless, geriatric hordes are gathering at your gate, I will burn our memory book! You will be dead to me, NBC!! Do you hear me, NBC??!!


Wednesday, January 06, 2010


My friend Dez writes a funny and moving post about the last ten years, a very eventful decade for him. . . . My friend Kraig starts a new weekly feature (Trailer Tuesday) by showcasing a truly goofy-looking movie about three people stuck on a ski lift. . . . A funny, crazy short animated film by Terry Gilliam from 1968, a year before his animation graced Monty Python’s Flying Circus. . . . David Hepworth offers the most eclectic year-end playlist that I’ve seen. And I’m always happy to hear of a new version of “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Great song. . . . Norm Geras asks how we’ll treat robots when they exhibit all external signs of consciousness. It’s a good question. . . . Roger Ebert interviews Matthew Dessem—whose great site, The Criterion Contraption, has long been on my blogroll. Dessem: “My absolute favorite commentary track on any Criterion title so far is the one with NASA consultant Dr. Joe Allen and asteroid consultant Ivan Bekey (as well as the cinematographer, Joe Schwartzman) talking about Armageddon. It's basically two-and-a-half hours of these guys saying, over and over again, ‘We told Michael Bay that this scene was completely scientifically inaccurate, but he went ahead and did it anyway.’ ”

All Hail the Prince

In 2004, George Harrison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the ceremony, an all-star band played "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." It starts out fine, with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Harrison's lookalike son, Dhani, faithfully recreating the song. Then Prince comes in and scatters them like bowling pins. His guitar solo starts just after the 3:30 mark. Enjoy:

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Reconsidering Hitch

(Illustration by Ryan Tym)

To prepare for the movie mania coming soon to these parts -- a list, in installments, of my favorite 100 movies (there will also be various posts by guests) -- I’ve been rewatching some movies and watching others for the first time. (Because I’ve been rightfully teased about the delay, and because I may never start without a deadline, I’ve set January 18 as the start date for the festivities.) Psycho was one of those classics I had never seen, and I rectified that a couple of weeks ago. It will definitely make my list, for reasons that I’ll get into (and are probably obvious) when the time comes.

It was part of a mini Hitchcock run that also included The Birds, which I’d seen a couple of times as a young kid. I was curious about how it would hold up. The results were mixed. On the one hand, Hitchcock does his usual brilliant job of building suspense. There’s that great scene in which Tippi Hedren sits outside the schoolhouse while crows slowly, quietly gather on playground equipment behind her. But the end of that scene is indicative of the film’s biggest weakness, which is effects: The children run away from the school as birds that were clearly added to the picture afterward chase after them. The attack scenes in general are pretty silly -- with the exception of the final one, in which Hedren is bombarded inside the house. That scene is exhausting and chilling, in part because her attackers are real. Hedren says that handlers with large protective gloves “alternately hurled [the birds] at me for five days.” There are plenty of creepy scenes in the movie, but I think it falls short of Hitchcock's best.

For an interesting look at the film’s originally planned ending, see here.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Thoughts on a Decade

I rang in the decade just ended at a friend’s apartment in Houston. I had driven there from Dallas, where I was living with my dad, his wife, and their daughter, who was about to turn four. I was between jobs and wondering whether I should relocate to Boston or New York. I loved (still do) my friends and family in Texas, but ever since a romance had ended in early 1999, thoughts of moving back north, where I had been born and had roots, were more insistent. In September 2000, I moved into a three-bedroom railroad apartment in Prospect Heights, a few blocks away from the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

I’ve been in the same general area since, though for much of the past decade, as longtime readers of this blog are aware, I’ve had a running internal dialogue about the costs and benefits of living in New York. My chosen city is one of a few factors that keep me from feeling as settled as I might as 2010 begins.

Just about a year after landing in Brooklyn, I spent one night getting soaked in a torrential downpour. I was stuck in Manhattan without an umbrella, and it was the kind of rain where once you’re uncovered for three seconds you don’t have a dry square inch left to protect. So I gleefully stomped around in it, and I remember calling my girlfriend from a pay phone (I was a stubborn cell phone holdout until the fall of 2006), feeling the water as it filled my shoes and then spilled over their edges. I’ve been in the ocean and been less wet. The next morning the rain had not only departed, it had left in its wake the kind of perfect fall day that constituted another reason I wanted to move back north. I got to my office -- on the seventh floor of a building on 53rd Street, just off Fifth Avenue -- and saw Patty (a coworker and now a very dear friend) walking down the hall with an expression of deep concern on her face. It looked like she might have been crying. I turned and saw several other colleagues gathered around a TV in a corner office.

In the week or two that followed, the city was a disturbing dream, everyone grieving and fearful, the famous skyline clipped, a rancid burning smell in the air for miles, soggy faces smiling from a thousand futile Missing posters taped up around rainy Union Square.

At first, the trauma of those days -- especially followed closely by reports of anthrax at Rockefeller Center, just a block or two from my office -- put me in fleeing mode. I fantasized about renting a car, packing up my books, and heading to Texas with some of my favorite highway music, as if driving backwards a year after moving could have possibly restored anything personal or cultural. Not too long after, the grief was galvanizing, and the city rallied, as it tends to do.

It was a busy decade personally as well as geopolitically: I became an uncle, started this blog, had the most fun I’ve ever had at a rock concert, discovered a hero of sorts just when I needed one, created The Second Pass, and made more close new friends than I had any right to at this stage of life.

I also watched as people close to me went through some very hard times, and then went through some hard times myself, partly as a result of that watching. As the decade closes, I wonder how much of its tribulation is due to bad luck and how much of it is simply due to life. At 26, I felt sheltered and untested -- a sensation that was at least part of the reason why I picked up stakes and moved to New York. On the verge of 36, I feel -- among other things -- tired and vulnerable. As my friend Nick and I sometimes say, maybe this is just being an adult.

I’m back where this post started: Between (full-time) jobs, and wondering what to do with myself. The same friend who hosted the New Year’s Eve party in Houston in 1999 now lives a couple of blocks away from me. He moved to Brooklyn midway through 2009, and I’m not sure how long he’ll stay, but it’s great to have him around. We’ll get together soon for a drink, I’m sure, toast the new year and talk about what the next ten years might bring.