Friday, February 26, 2010

Roger Ebert, Louder Than Ever

If you spend anytime at all online, you’ve probably already come across the recent Esquire profile of Roger Ebert. The attention-getter is the photo, which is startling and unnerving. I had read that Ebert, after several surgeries, had lost the ability to eat, drink, and speak. But his facial disfigurement, in addition to its other power, leaves him unrecognizable. I don’t think I would have been able to name him if I didn’t know who it was.

The piece sometimes goes heavy on the kind of breathless sentences that signify Glossy Magazine Profundity (“His last words weren't recorded. There was just his voice, and then there wasn't.”), though in this case the tone is more appropriate than usual.

Roger Ebert has been more visible than ever lately, while remaining invisible. His Twitter page is probably the most active one that I follow. He still reviews several movies a week for the Chicago Sun-Times. And his blog is constantly (and lengthily) updated. (Among other recent activity, he wrote about his reaction to the Esquire piece.) This got me thinking about how the Internet might really be an improvement in some ways, and though I’m sure Ebert would gladly reverse the circumstances that led him to be the example of this, he’s the example nonetheless. He’s a person who I mostly saw on TV when I was young, and he seemed like an averagely smart guy who knew a lot about movies. But a TV show isn’t the best place to express intelligence. His writing is better than I would have thought, and now he gets to do that exclusively, to live on as a vocal part of the culture in a way that would have been impossible before the web. And whereas healthy kids sitting inside online all day, and calling that their "social life" is depressing, for someone like Ebert it is a thriving social life and the only (widely communicative) one he could really have. As Jacob Silverman put it:
Clearly Roger Ebert’s ability to communicate in these diverse modes—though nearly all, notably, rely on the written word—would be far less only a decade ago. The internet has become his oasis and an equalizer, placing him on level ground with the thousands of fans, friends, colleagues, and strangers with whom he communicates. He has leveraged technology to express himself nearly to the point of stream-of-consciousness, assembling a shifting collage of opinion and conversation.
(My friend Miles also wrote movingly about Ebert, mortality, and religion, in a post in which he manages to name-check St. Peter, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and LeBron James.)

What’s great about all this is that Ebert is as cantankerous as ever, willing to get into arguments about politics and movies and the rest. His blog posts often attract several hundred comments. So in that conversational spirit, I’ll address his recent post about the decade’s best movies. His No. 1 is Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, which I couldn’t stand. (That's an awful title, for starters.)

That might be too harsh, but it certainly wouldn’t make a list of my top 10—or 100—movies of the decade. Ebert writes that it, “intends no less than to evoke the strategies we use to live our lives.” That might be true, but that only establishes its intentions, not how well it fulfills them. He goes on to say that “The mind is a concern in all [Kaufman’s] screenplays, but in Synecdoche, his first film as a director, he makes it his subject, and what huge ambition that demonstrates.” He’s right that it shows ambition, but Kaufman always has, and I’m not sure that making his investigations of the mind more explicit is the best way of channeling that ambition. I have a good friend who used to tell me that she thinks all great books are, on some level, about writing. That their concerns can be seen in the light of that act. If that’s true, I think the greater accomplishment is making those themes clear (or at least meaningful) without making them explicit. Likewise, I think it’s true that Kaufman’s movies have all been about the mind—how the mind remembers, how it creates, how it deals with others’ minds—and what I didn’t like about Synecdoche was how obvious those themes were.

Ebert writes: “Very few people live their lives on one stage, in one persona, wearing one costume. We play different characters. We know this and accept it.” That’s true. But it’s also obvious. Kaufman may dress it up, but I don’t see it as profound; at least not in the way it was presented in this case. There were other things I didn’t like about it—the humor seemed strained, a couple of sentimental scenes were too sentimental (even for me), and overall it seemed like the concept was always staring at me as a concept, never adequately making its way as a film. Not to mention that in my opinion—which could be expanded on at some point, I suppose—the more distinct a stylistic vision (and narrow a thematic vision) a filmmaker has (Wes Anderson, Kaufman, et al.), the more danger they have of parodying themselves over time, which I think Kaufman did more than his share of here.

At the end of that post about his favorite movies of the decade, Ebert wrote this, which I like (and can apply, in my humble way, to the music and movie lists that I’ve shared on this blog):
No lists have deep significance, but even less lists composed to satisfy an imaginary jury of fellow critics. My jury resides within. I know how I feel.

Almost the first day I started writing reviews, I found a sentence in a book by Robert Warshow that I pinned on the wall above my desk. I have quoted it so frequently that some readers must be weary of it, but it helps me stay grounded. It says:

A man goes to the movies. A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.

That doesn't make one person right and another wrong. All it means is that you know how they really felt, not how they thought they should feel.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Amusing Losers

My friend JF sent along this funny post by Joe Posnanski, who has an article in the new issue of Sports Illustrated about the hapless New Jersey Nets, who are on pace for the worst record in NBA history. Posnanski says the Nets aren’t lovable or quirky or funny losers, and contrasts them to the Kansas City Royals, whose motto, he says, would be “Amusing Losing.” He offers a quiz about KC’s ineptitude, including this:
12. Name the player who went so long between walks that when he finally did walk they shot off fireworks at the stadium.
I would have loved to have been at that game.

Perhaps more importantly, Posnanski offers some entertaining mascot news: The Royals are being sued because their mascot, a lion named Sluggerrr, threw a hot dog into the crowd and detached a dude’s retina. No joke. Though it obviously leads to jokes.

"I know you've got a little life in you yet."

Prince's "Kiss" came on in a restaurant the other night, and it got me thinking about my favorite falsetto songs. That's definitely one of them. Another is this, Maxwell's version of Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work." Enjoy:


Monday, February 22, 2010

More Trouble at Chuck's

One of my favorite posts in this blog's history was about the epidemic of violence at Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants. If you haven't read it, I recommend going back to get up to speed.

Now, this story from Ohio:
Toledo police are looking into a fight that happened Sunday at the Chuck E. Cheese on Airport Highway in south Toledo.

Police say it started when a man blew an air horn inside the kids' restaurant.

A parent confronted him and it turned into a fist fight which spilled outside.

Police say that's when the man with the air horn pulled out a gun and pistol-whipped the other man.

Investigators are trying to find the man with the gun.
Thanks to Miles for passing it along.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Mascot Reboot

Trinity College in Connecticut recently introduced a new Bantam mascot. Whether it’s an improvement on the old one is up for debate, but in any case, the school made this short film to chronicle the changing of the guard. (Thanks to CB.)


Friday, February 19, 2010

Obama Stares at Stuff

New York magazine has a funny slideshow up called "A History of Obama Feigning Interest in Mundane Things." Please enjoy it while I ready a couple of other posts.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"So this old world must still be spinning around, and I still love you."

For this Wednesday-Thursday, this is James Taylor and Carly Simon in 1977 singing "You Can Close Your Eyes." Enjoy:

Here's Taylor playing it solo.

Labels: ,


Panoramic photographs of nearly every one of Manhattan’s 11,200 street corners. . . . A good friend of mine discovers a fact that sends his opinion of Teddy Roosevelt, “already fairly high . . . through the roof.” . . . Very, very late to this party, but Slate imagines what the Super Bowl would look like filmed by different famous directors. (Wes Anderson and Werner Herzog are my favorites. David Lynch is good, too.) . . . John Holbo at Crooked Timber asks about the U.S., “How is it possible, and what does it mean, to have a center-right nation, ideologically and electorally, that lacks a center-right, ideologically and electorally?” The site’s commenters, who tend to be left-left-left, talk it out. One of the more sensible opinions, to my mind, is here. . . . You should be reading Scott Adams’ blog if you’re not. I’m saying this to myself as much as to you. Adams created Dilbert, you might know. And I think he’s right about the iPad. . . . The Onion's video news network is so much better than I imagined it could be when it launched. Three recent clips: Obama negotiates with a wildfire; Iron Man producers make a bold decision; and a Packers fan decides to keep drinking. . . . I like this.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Movie List: 80-76

80. “Enthrall me with your acumen.”

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

I’ve never been a big fan of gore. I wouldn’t see the Saw movies if you paid me. (Well, let’s talk. I suppose it would depend on how much you offer.) But I love the occasional high-style gore in Lambs, like the guard splayed as an angel in the cage, and the ensuing revelation that Lecter is wearing another guard’s face. Hopkins and Foster are very good in roles that occasionally border on embarrassing. The sequels show how easily this kind of material can head straight over the cliff. Mostly, this one holds up so well because its tone is so carefully maintained. From Buffalo Bill’s dreary suburban home to Lecter’s final, unforgettable phone call, the subtleties are attended to with just as much care as the shock lines, i.e., “His pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue.”

79. “We rob banks.”

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Let’s talk superficiality, shall we? Growing up when I did, I knew that Faye Dunaway had been a big movie star, but I could never figure out how that happened, given that I found her face exceedingly odd. It just seemed like an ironclad rule that marquee movie stars had to be pretty, and I felt like there was an objective case to be made that Dunaway wasn’t pretty. That objective case is blown to smithereens by Bonnie and Clyde, in which Dunaway is not only pretty but napalm hot. She and Warren Beatty are meant to embody the sex appeal of outlaws. They do. But this is relevant more than just superficially, because the movie famously complicates that appeal by staging realistic violence and following the duo’s real-life script, which ends in their rather bloody death. Along with James Caan’s unpleasant stop at the toll booth in The Godfather, it’s one of the more brutal scenes in movie history. Speaking of brutal, there is evidently a film about Bonnie and Clyde now in production that stars Hilary Duff. This is not a joke. Not a lie, I mean to say.

78. “The personal life is dead in Russia.”

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

The fact that David Lean’s adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel was made only two years before Bonnie and Clyde is just strange. This is an exceedingly old-fashioned movie. The historical stage is grand and the love story is soapy. There are several elements that don’t hold up well, particularly the pacing and the incessant playing of “Lara’s Theme.” But visually, the movie is just stunning. And this is only partly because of Julie Christie. The rest of it has to do with the wide-angle shots of the Russian countryside, among other things. Others believe that, “The best one can say of Doctor Zhivago is that it is an honest failure. . . . David Lean's film is a long haul along the road of synthetic lyricism, a clean-limbed exercise totally devoid of any evocation of feeling . . .” The thing is, I can see that point. But what limbs!

77. “I've got to, that's the whole thing.”

High Noon (1952)

In less than an hour and a half, a man who marshal Will Kane put to jail will return to a small Southwestern town. He will likely lead his hooligan minions, who await his return at the train depot, in terrorizing the populace. Will has chosen a bad time to marry a Quaker. Of course, Will is Gary Cooper and the pacifist Quaker is Amy, played by Grace Kelly. Some things are famous for the right reasons, and in the case of High Noon, it’s the real-time unfolding of the story. Not much happens until the very end—Will tries to get the townspeople to stand with him against the outlaws, and they decline—but all the while you know that train is chugging towards town. And that’s plenty of drama. The other thing this movie has going for it is contradictory enemies. The American right originally didn’t like it because it was seen as an allegory about blacklisting. The left liked it for the same reason, though presumably pacifists weren’t thrilled. The Soviets thought it wrongly glorified individualism. With so many ideologies twisting themselves up over such a simple story, it had to be doing something right.

76. “Can't be juggling blood and fire all the time!”

Into the Wild (2007)

It’s true that my reaction to this movie was very emotional, beyond any real clinical analysis, and that’s a large part of why it’s here. In fact, if this were a list of movies based purely on physical reaction—a reading from a machine that simply measured biological results like chills or tears or laughter—this might be in the top ten. I saw it on a very clear, sunny day at a multiplex near Lincoln Center. I walked back out into the sun truly shaken. Shaking. Because I want to post this tonight, please allow me to quote myself yet again:

I suppose that what mystifies me most is the widespread belief that the film “glorifies” McCandless' choices. He becomes emotionally attached to several people, and as he abandons those people one by one, it's impossible not to be frustrated with him. The supporting characters—excellently played by Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Kristen Stewart, and the amazing Hal Holbrook—are people with whom you fully sympathize, so McCandless’ inability to allow himself a lasting connection with them is infuriating. But this is not a fiction. He really did all of this, and his belief, however dangerous it became, that going further into himself would yield more spiritual truth than conventional connections could, places him in an awfully long and fascinating tradition. Tolstoy was in his 40s when he strove for poverty and asceticism. Rigorous seeking is not just for the misguided young. It's for genuine pilgrims. The fact that such people often hurt others and often catch only a glimpse of what they're seeking only makes their quest that much more complicated and compelling. To me, anyway. Maybe I'm too old to be as interested in the transcendental as I am, but without ever worshipping McCandless for a single second, I find his story absorbing and provocative and heartbreaking.

I wrote a full review of the movie here.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lookin' Good

The next movie post will be up tonight. But in the meantime, I just wanted to share this with you. Check this dude out:

Looks like he could use a hangover cure, stat.

(Via Renegade Umbrella)


Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Luge Tragedy

I watched some Olympics coverage yesterday afternoon, and I was struck by an odd tone in the announcers' voices when they discussed the death, less than 24 hours earlier, of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the 21-year-old luge competitor from Georgia. Picabo Street, in particular, was in a studio show and seemed to laugh off the tragedy with a "hey-fast-sports-are-dangerous" comment. So I was glad to see a piece by Jere Longman in the Times actually addressing the situation:
A thorough investigation was supposed to have been conducted. Instead, the luge federation seemed more concerned about getting the track opened again for competition on Saturday than about taking a hard look at the conditions that might have contributed to Kumaritashvili’s death.

There was at least tacit admission Saturday morning that the course was dangerous: the ice had been contoured to direct sleds toward the center of the track. A high wooden wall had been erected just beyond the curve where Kumaritashvili died after crashing into a support post.
And this:
Officials said Kumaritashvili’s death was the first luge fatality since 1975. Several sliders and officials said it could not have been foreseen. But the idea that something terrible might happen here, on the fastest course in the world, was talked about publicly and feared for a year.

Frequent concerns were expressed about excessive speeds. Even Armin Zoeggeler of Italy, a two-time Olympic champion and a favorite here, had crashed on this track. On Thursday, after struggling to maintain control of her sled, Hannah Campbell-Pegg of Australia said, “To what extent are we just little lemmings that they throw down a track and we’re crash-test dummies?”
I enjoyed watching the Games yesterday more than I thought I would (I'm normally more of a Summer guy), so I look forward to more. Let's just hope Vancouver has had its share of tragedy as host.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Repealing DADT

If gays were strictly forbidden from serving in the U.S. military, that might occasion a completely different post from me, one in which I argued for the idea that gays should be allowed to serve in the military. But as we all know, gays are allowed to serve. They’re just not allowed to tell. The general idea is: If you’re gay, please serve your country and possibly die for it; just Shut Up About It. (Of course, under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” there are penalties for telling, but not really for asking.)

The reason “DADT” is more infuriating to me than any other government policy (and that’s saying something, on either side of the aisle) is because it doesn’t even have a patina of coherence. It’s absurd and juvenile on its face, in its very name. It sounds like some lesson imposed in kindergarten, not a plan for adults.

An estimated 65,000 homosexuals already serve in the military. This is one of several things I learned from an essay on the subject by Om Prakash. Another thing I learned there: “Since 1994, the Services have discharged nearly 12,500 Servicemembers under the [DADT] law.”

Prakash is an Air Force Colonel, and his essay won the 2009 Secretary of Defense National Security Essay Competition (OK, maybe they need a catchier name for that thing) while he was a a student at the National War College. It’s a very calm, sensible paper, which isn’t surprising because, although I’m sure not everyone in the military is thrilled about repealing DADT, you don’t hear a lot of highly charged rhetoric coming from within its ranks. Oh, that’s right, because it’s the military, and they might have too much to do to care about what gotcha issue is being used to bait voters this week. Plus, 23 percent of soldiers already say they’re pretty sure they’re serving with a homosexual. Of those, 59 percent say they were told “directly by the individual.”

A Navy submarine officer recently wrote to Thomas Ricks:
The debate may exist in the media, and certainly exists in Congress, but on the ship, if it's talked about at all it’s with a little bit of confusion about what the big deal is. Don't get me wrong, there is homophobia and there are a few loud, mostly uneducated, mostly very junior, and mostly still well-meaning people who would tell you they think it’s wrong—but they're the kind of people who are just saying it because it’s what they were brought up to say, and even they aren't saying it with much fervor. I can tell you with certainty that if the ban were lifted tomorrow—no year of preparation—life would go on exactly as it did before . . . There is no question if the military is ready—the military is waiting. . . . I just want the press to understand that it is the Congress that needs pushing, not the military. . .
Here are just a few of the countries that allow gays to (openly) serve in the military: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom.

Here are just a few that don’t: Cuba, China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela.

See a pattern? I’m sure you do. But just in case: We’re squarely with our enemies on this one. And that seems reason enough to change it.

In his essay, Prakash acknowledges the arguments historically made against openly gay military. He wants to ignore emotional pleas on both sides and “examine the primary premise of [DADT]—that open homosexuality will lead to a disruption of unit cohesion and impact combat effectiveness. . . . If that assumption holds, then the troops lost and money spent could be seen as a necessity in order to maintain combat effectiveness just as other Servicemembers unfit for duty must be discharged.”

Prakash comes to the conclusion that this assumption doesn’t hold. (“[I]ntegration of homosexuals might degrade social cohesion because of the lack of homogeneity; however, the effects can be mitigated with leadership and will further dissipate with familiarity.” Also, those other open militaries I listed above haven’t exactly fallen apart.) But the assumption itself, as posed, isn’t quite right. The idea espoused, even by most of those who support the ban, is not that homosexuals are unfit for duty. It’s that they, by the simple act of being homosexual, make other people unfit for duty. The problem is other people, not the ability of homosexual soldiers to do their jobs. In this case, as in so many others regarding social acceptance of homosexuality, parallels are obvious. There was a time when the military was uncomfortable with blacks or women in its ranks, and in those cases, too, the objections were less about fitness to serve than about, for lack of a better term, cooties.

That’s why, in the end, I see this as a philosophical issue as much as a practical one. (I’m not saying this makes me unique; but I’m sure there are many people who see it as 100% philosophical and some—though probably fewer—who see it as 100% practical.) The military knows this is not a big deal, and of course it does . . . if our military isn’t trained well enough to cope with something that pretty much every other workplace in America knows how to handle, then what chance do we stand? And if Americans can’t stand side by side and fight with Americans who are different from them, what is the point of America again?


Thank God for Duke. Even in a rare year like this one, when North Carolina kind of stinks, I have the familiar comfort of hating Duke. Of hating the pinched face of their coach. Of hating their sniveling, entitled, frat-boy players; the ones who will have to shave by the time they're 40, I'm sure. Of hating the quazi-Nazi rallies that take place in the stands of their little high school gym.

(Wait, I can't stay mad. CBS just alerted me that there's a player on Siena named Just-in'Love Smith. Wow.)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Screen Shots

Warning: Rabbit hole ahead. I just found this site of movie title stills organized mostly by decade. There's also a "film noir" page, which features these four and many more:

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Movie List: 85-81

85. “Why do people have to love people anyway?”

The Apartment (1960)

I’ll be honest, I don’t remember The Apartment as well as I wish I did. It’s time to see it again. Past time. I'm sure you know the plot—a young insurance man makes his way up the company ladder by allowing executives to use his pad for their flings. Things get complicated when he falls for an elevator operator. I remember enough to know it belongs at least this high—a young Jack Lemmon, a young Shirley MacLaine, good chemistry between the two, a great black-and-white look, a grown-up story that’s witty but has undertones of darkness, and one of my favorite opening scenes (after the credits). I read that director Billy Wilder took inspiration for The Apartment from a scene in Brief Encounter (a movie that almost made my list), in which someone lends an apartment to two characters having an affair.

84. “We gonna have a Holy Ghost explosion!”

The Apostle (1997)

This is a movie I hadn’t seen since ‘97, but in researching the list I rewatched a few extended scenes online. In it, Robert Duvall plays Sonny, a Pentecostal preacher in Texas who hits the road after committing a violent act and begins a ministry in Louisiana under the name “The Apostle E.F.” Two things really stood out: One is the natural feel of the cinematography. There are times when the movie feels almost like a documentary, partly because of the understated camera work and partly because of what seem like many amateur actors who make up the congregations. (OK, three things stand out.) The second is that The Apostle deals with religion in a complicated way, which is almost unheard of in movie theaters or anywhere else. Third, Duvall. The project was his baby (he wrote and directed it, too), and in his mid-60s he wasn’t going to waste his time on an ugly baby. His performance is among his best, which is saying something. A. O. Scott said that Sonny is not a fraud or a saint; he’s both. Well, I’d say there’s a lot more fraud than saint in him, but the point is well taken—Sonny is slippery and egomaniacal (and violent), but he also truly feels moved and inspired by something larger than himself. He is possessed. And Duvall’s performance beautifully reflects that. The supporting cast, including Miranda Richardson and Farrah Fawcett, is strong, and this was also that odd, small window in American history when Billy Bob Thornton deserved to be taken seriously. He has a potent turn as a local racist who threatens to destroy the church (literally).

83. “In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain't no world but this one.”

The Thin Red Line (1998)

I know there’s one thing about this movie that would really make me cringe today, even more than when I first saw it, and that’s the voiceover. There’s a lot of it, and it’s pseudo-poetic in a way that’s often cheap (to my ears). That said, Terrence Malick is a straight-up visual genius. And even the voiceover is in the service of a good idea, no matter how cloyingly it might sometimes be expressed. That idea is to essentially decontextualize war (World War II, in this case, a particularly bold war to decontextualize) and focus on universal themes of the natural world, suffering, and mortality. Saving Private Ryan came out the same year, and was the more conventional movie by far—stunning in some of its set pieces, but essentially a Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story. And I’m not arguing that the distinction was meaningless in this case, but it’s a distinction that gets a lot of play. I felt like Malick’s work was the more daring artistic achievement; it risked boredom and occasional eye-rolling to approach a well-worn subject from a radically new (at least on film) place. Plus, the big, big-name cast is terrific.

82. “Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs...”

Die Hard (1988)

In the twisted ways of modern Hollywood, Jaws somehow leads to Avatar and When Harry Met Sally leads to What Happens in Vegas and Die Hard leads to the fetid career of Michael Bay. It’s the Law of Simultaneous Expansion and Degeneration. But it’s hard to blame the classics, and Die Hard is a classic action movie: Bruce Willis at his charismatic best, thrills that don’t rely (too much) on special effects, and the sense of a human scale even as superhuman feats are accomplished. It’s also hard to overstate how refreshing it is that Die Hard is funny, and not a self-serious ball of fire. It knew enough to laugh at the ridiculousness of big-budget action, in a way that winked at the audience and respected its intelligence, more or less. (Read this post at BLDGBLOG to find out why Die Hard is also “one of the best architectural films of the past 25 years.”)

81. “Eat your Coney Island.”
“Spit and say ‘I’ll never die.’”

Paper Moon (1973)
Ponette (1996)

Allow me to quote (or at least extensively paraphrase) myself on both of these:

Set in the American South during the Great Depression, Paper Moon was Tatum O’Neal’s first role. She was nine at the time, and played Addie, a girl whose mother has recently died. Ryan O’Neal plays Moses, a con man who sells high-quality Bibles to freshly made widows who never ordered the things. Hijinks ensue. Tatum is hysterically funny. The senior O’Neal is perfect as Moses, but the movie rests on the junior O’Neal’s shoulders. There are extended scenes of rapid-fire dialogue (clearly uncut) where it’s almost impossible to believe that she was up to this task. The story lags a bit (or maybe more than a bit) around the two-thirds mark, but that's a quibble.

Ponette is strange, an extended meditation (in French) on a single idea, acted out almost entirely by children, and probably wildly subject to personal taste (I liked it a lot). It opens with Ponette (four-year-old Victoire Thivisol) in a hospital bed, arm in a cast, sucking her thumb, watched over by her young father. We quickly learn that she was in a car accident with her mother, who didn’t survive. The rest of the movie follows Ponette as she moves in with an aunt and two young cousins, then into a private home for children, all the while repeatedly praying to her mother and God for a reunion. Not much else happens over the course of the film’s 95 minutes. But the job done by Thivisol is astonishing. What’s most amazing is how she convincingly progresses through the stages of not just grief but religious belief. When a woman at the school consoles a tearful Ponette by saying, “When God was Jesus on Earth, he also cried. But usually He’s as joyful as a child,” Ponette, confused at the sentiment, calmly shoots back, “It’s not joyful being a child.” Ahem.


My Estate

I'm sure that most of you spend your days refreshing this site to see if anyone has left comment on any of the previous week's posts.

What, you don't? Well, that's very disappointing. And I guess it means I should point out this funny comment from my friend Kraig, which he just left on the last installment of the movie list:
My big fear is rapidly becoming that some awful tragedy will befall you before you finish this list...and the awkward task of asking your family for access to your papers and personal affects will fall to me.
First, there will be another movie post up by night's end. Scout's honor. Secondly, Kraig, I don't want this to be awkward or difficult for you. In the event of my untimely demise, or maybe just my untimely starting of a new life in Mexico and abandoning of this blog, here's what you do: Get my laptop, open my antiquated word processing system (no, I don't have Word), go to Documents > Blog > Definite Movies.

There you will find the list. Of course, the list is in roughly accurate bunches, but I haven't numbered it in that file. I'm doing that as I go. When made available to the public, this incomplete -- nay, mystic -- information might cause a Salinger-like stir of public confusion and speculation and debate. Weather it as best you can.

Gallery 34

Queens Boulevard (Sunnyside) by Lewis McVey

(My friend Lewis, whose photo blog Foster Park has been on the blogroll for a while -- and will remain there -- has now started a new photo site called Typical Boring Queens, to document "New York City's fairest borough." I don't know about all that, but I know the photos will be great.)


Monday, February 08, 2010

Axe Cop

If this is not awesome, then please, tell me what is awesome.

Axe Cop is an online comic conceptualized by five-year-old Malachai Nicolle and drawn by his 29-year-old brother, Ethan. Or, as Malachai puts it: "Ethan draws it on his laptop and then puts it online with a very long cord."

One source describes the project this way: "Axe Cop is about a cop -- with an ax, obviously -- who goes around beheading various monsters and bad guys with the help of his partner who is sometimes a dinosaur. Or other times an avocado."

You can read the first "episode" here, and then hop to the rest of them (there are seven to this point) on the Axe Cop home page.

(Via Pop Candy)

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Big Brees-y

Or: Brees-y does it. Those are my two lame attempts at headlines for the morning.

That was a fun Super Bowl. I remember the days when it was the most anticlimactic sports event on the calendar year in and year out. I've made enough bad predictions on this blog over the years that I won't take much credit for picking the Saints earlier today, but I'm glad they won. It was one of those games where I didn't feel ahead of time like I had a strong rooting interest, but then realized once the game started that I was rooting really hard for New Orleans. Maybe it was because I had put my neck on the line -- with my five readers -- and made a prediction. In any case, now I kick back with the one baseball magazine I've already bought, eagerly await the publication of this year's Baseball Prospectus, and decide whether to protect Joe Mauer in the first round of my fantasy draft. (Yes, I have a girlfriend. For now.)

One last note on the Super Bowl. Perhaps it goes without saying that this was my favorite ad of the night:

Super Bowl Thoughts

I've seen point spreads for today's Super Bowl online that have the Colts as much as a six-point favorite. I wouldn't go so far as to call that line crazy, but it does seem strange to me. It means that if this game were being played in New Orleans, the Colts would be three-point favorites.

I'm excited about the game now, with only five hours or so until kickoff, but the last two weeks have been a slog, listening to people on the radio (I know, I could just turn it off) talk about what the game means for Peyton Manning's legacy, or what it means for the "people of New Orleans." Forget all that. It should be a good game, and I think the Saints have a real chance, though weirdly almost no one is giving them one. The Colts are a legitimate favorite, but there seems to be a consensus about them winning, and it just seems right to remind everyone that the Saints started the season 13-0, didn't score less than 24 points in a game until Dec. 19, and often scored a lot more than that -- 45, 48, 48, 46, 38, 38... Yes, they ended the regular season on a down note, but they've scored 76 points in two playoff games. They've got a better rushing game than the Colts. They're healthier than the Colts at the moment. The Colts have looked good in the playoffs, but the Ravens and Jets combined don't have half the offense of New Orleans. And though Manning is phenomenal -- he's going to have a claim on Best Quarterback Ever when he's done, no matter what happens tonight -- Drew Brees is no pushover. Years ago, my friend Brad came up with the label Nolan Ryan Syndrome to describe when someone is really great but still somehow overrated. Brett Favre probably qualifies for it. Drew Brees is the opposite. The underrating of him goes back to when the Chargers drafted Philip Rivers (who's pretty good himself, granted) when they already had Brees. Brees' numbers over his career have been pretty sick, and even though Manning was a deserving MVP this year, Brees' numbers in '09 were, if anything, a little better.

Bottom line, it's impossible to be surprised if the Colts win. And given all the talk of offensive explosions in the lead-up to the game, a 17-10 affair seems likely, karma-wise. But if the Saints win, it won't be a huge upset. These are the two best teams in the league, which is as it should be. If this afternoon the Colts are No. 1 and the Saints No. 2, it's not by a hell of a lot.

My prediction: Saints 35, Colts 31

Enjoy it.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Danger(ously Silly) Zone

My friend Miles recently posted the video clip found below on his blog. It's the fire-up-the-crowd video that plays on the scoreboard prior to University of Alaska-Fairbanks hockey games.

I went to YouTube for the embedding code (because I love all of you so much), and there I fell into a wormhole. First, there are two previous versions of this opening. One of them is pretty similar in theme -- but different enough in specifics to definitely be worth watching. It's labeled as the "director's cut" on YouTube, where I also learn that "Danger Zone" was considered "too '80s" by some of the powers that be, and it was replaced in the final version by . . . "Dr. Feelgood" by Motley Crue. Yes, much more timely.

The other one, from 2006-2007, makes hilarious use of Google Earth (or some facsimile) to slowly -- very slowly -- pan in on the team's arena. Kind of hard to get pumped up by slowly drifting through cartoon clouds. But once we reach Earth, things liven up, including a showdown between the bear and a red hawk. The mascot that the bear fights evidently changed based on the given night's opponent. And "fights" is a strong term. It's more like, the mascot that the bear swipes at and floats past. (One YouTube commenter: "The bird should have at least exploded. Still good though.") Here it is:

The best thing about all this -- better than polar bears dropping bombs into volcanoes? OK, probably not -- is that the team is not the Bears, but the Nanooks. I suppose this clip, from the groundbreaking 1922 documentary Nanook of the North wouldn't have the same effect on the crowd:


Modern TV

Austrian designer Albert Exergian has created a series of modernist posters for TV shows. (Available for sale here.) While he includes current-day shows that I enjoy, like The Wire, 30 Rock, and Mad Men, I feel like the idea works best when its uncluttered look is applied to '80s schlock, as in the case of these three:

(Via Very Short List)

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Free: An Interlude

I'm on the verge of responding to a recent -- and welcome -- post by Levi Asher in our now six-month-old debate about paying for online media. (Six months only because I waited that long to respond once.) Until then, a few interesting links (all free!) about the subject. Harper's has been in the news for -- ahem -- other reasons, but two recent posts by employees of the magazine focus on the idea of a paywall. First, Bill Wasik, an editor at the magazine (and a friend of mine), blogs about the difficulty in assessing what works and what doesn't these days:
So the reality about the “health” of magazines is complicated. As I see it, there’s an increasing disconnect between online models that are working financially for publications and ones that are working for getting attention. The model for getting attention is easy: give it all away. But the attention online isn’t reliably translating into subscribers or newsstand buyers.
Then, at The Awl, Choire Sicha interviews Paul Ford, the online guru at Harper's. ALL CAPS abound throughout:
Choire: Hmm. How do we know or suspect that you wouldn't get more subs, and sell more ads, if you had no paywall? (I have always been largely anti-paywall, which is why I am talking to you actually!)

Paul: We don't! Not really. But publications that count on revenue from advertising and hope that larger traffic equals more conversions to subscriptions are not exactly jumping up and down going "THIS IS GREAT." I honestly, HONESTLY do not say that we are doing it the right way, but I don't believe people know the right way. We are doing it in an INTERESTING way and we are not spending very much to make that happen.
And lastly, not leastly (but tangentially), Caleb Crain writes a long, thoughtful post about another news item: the dustup between Amazon and the publisher Macmillan, which imbroglio Crain helpfully condenses up top for those of you not plugged into the media's navel like I, sadly, am.

“They’re not havin’ trouble, are they?”

Everyone remembers where they were when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Below (from the Louisville Courier-Journal) is a stunning home movie of the disaster. It was filmed by optometrist Jack Moss:
The four-minute film, shot at Moss’ second home in Winter Haven, Fla., might have remained stuffed away in a basement box, lost among the many 8-millimeter tapes he filmed of his family over the years. But shortly before the 88-year-old Moss died in December, he donated the tape to the Space Exploration Archive, a non-profit, educational organization in Louisville.

It’s not slick or polished, which makes it all the more a chilling, poignant snapshot of a tragedy, Marc Wessels, the archive’s executive director, said Thursday on the 24th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. The explosion killed the shuttle’s seven crew members, including science teacher Christa McAuliffe who had been chosen by NASA to become the first civilian in space.

(Via Sarah Weinman)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Our Man at the Track

Several things to post in the next day or two, but I've been busy finishing up a piece for The Second Pass. What piece? Why, thanks for asking. This piece, about horse racing chronicler Joe Palmer. It starts:
Throughout its history from 1924 to 1966, the New York Herald Tribune featured a high-class stable of writers: Walter Lippmann, Joseph Mitchell, John Ashbery, Red Smith, William Safire, Lewis Lapham, and briefly, near the end of the paper’s run, Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe. The newspaper business doesn’t lend itself to lasting memories, and most of those names are familiar for the work they did after leaving the Herald Tribune. Another of the paper’s great talents, Joe H. Palmer, died while employed there and is now largely unknown even among those who share the passion for his subject.

The greatest handicap to Palmer’s standing in posterity was his area of expertise, horse racing, its widespread popularity in the 1940s now only approached on the days of Triple Crown races, if then. But if the nature of a beat should never limit the legacy of a writer’s prose, the slight is particularly unjust in the case of Palmer, who reached an audience far beyond the paddocks.
Please trust me that you don't need to care about horse racing to enjoy the excerpts in the review.

(Pictured above: Man o' War winning the 1920 Belmont Stakes.)

"From the ranks of the freaks who suspect they could never love anyone."

For Wednesday, Aimee Mann singing "Save Me," one of the few things I liked about the movie Magnolia. (Not the scene it was in; just the song.) Enjoy:


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Mostly the Last Two)

After watching the opening number of the Grammys on Sunday night, during which Elton John and Lady Gaga butchered a few songs together, I figured I would compose a rant about Gaga. Get in some work on the light bag. But the big lie is that Lady Gaga is somehow different from Taylor Swift. They just appeal -- unashamedly -- to different sects of 13-year-old girls. (Mostly when I see Gaga, I think of Chris Rock’s line: “Take off that silly-ass hat!”)

Swift took home a ton of awards, which seems odd for someone who can’t sing. Even with a bevy of musicians backing her up, her songs sounded undeniably slight. And someone should have warned her about sharing a stage with Stevie Nicks. I’m sure it didn’t alienate her real fan base, but it couldn’t have helped win over skeptical adults when it looked like Nicks had shown up to babysit. See, Nicks made music for grown-ups. And she can sing.

But really, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift just represent, respectively, the pro-wrestling-ization and infantilization of the culture, and that’s nothing new. What really stood out to me -- and to you, I assume, if you saw it -- was the Michael Jackson tribute. Holy crap. Celine Dion, Carrie Underwood, Usher, Jennifer Hudson, and Smokey Robinson shared the stage, singing in front of a 3-D collection of what looked like C-roll footage from Avatar. The song they tackled was one of Jackson’s we-need-to-ride-the-elephants-and-kiss-the-giraffes-and-hug-the-rainbows-until-the-world-is-safe-and-sound anthems. Horses stampeded toward us in 3-D while Carrie Underwood tried in vain to locate her soulfulness. Cut to Beyonce rocking out with the 3-D glasses on. The ridiculousness of show biz in those moments was almost 100% pure, not to mention ludicrously expensive. Do we really want to save the planet? If we did, we could use the money that Celine Dion spent on leg shiner that night and surely save a few acres of rain forest. (I don’t know if “leg shiner” is an actual thing, but whatever was coating Dion’s gams, it’s not found in nature.)

There was very little to like about the Grammys, or the half or so that I saw. Then I watched the clip of Pink that I linked to yesterday. Was it over-the-top theater? Yes. Was it therefore kind of cheesy? Of course. But it took courage and actual skill. Compare it to Gaga, who, if you take away the parade of tacky fashion designers who use her as a mannequin, has a couple of decently catchy choruses and the vocal and musical ability of the average American Idol finalist. I'm not saying that's nothing. Yet she’s conned everyone into naming her the heir to David Bowie and Madonna. I would never accuse those two of being subtle, but compared to Gaga’s shtick, they’re Amish mimes.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Cirque du Pink

I have a few snarky thoughts about last night's Grammys to share later today, but I didn't see the whole show and one of the things I missed was Pink's performance:


Wow, wow, wow. I can only hope this properly shamed Lady Gaga and the rest of the parade of hacks.

The Movie List: 90-86

I’d say this and the next installment (maybe two more) are the last that include some conflicted feelings. We’re still in territory where certain movies could have easily not made the list, and even though I enjoyed them, my affection for them comes and goes. (And I know the list is going slowly thus far. I'll try to get a couple more entries up by week's end.)

90. “I should like to propose the first toast.”

The Celebration (1998)

This Danish movie was the first to come out of the Dogme 95 movement, not a genre I’m normally excited about. (Given a choice to watch a Lars von Trier movie or a Pauly Shore vehicle, I might flip a coin.) This movie, directed by Thomas Vinterberg, is about a Danish clan gathering at their family-run hotel to celebrate their father’s 60th birthday. At the dinner, one of the patriarch’s sons, Christian, stands to give a toast, during which he accuses his father of having sexually abused him and his twin sister, Linda, who has recently committed suicide. Awkward. The father denies it, of course, and tries to convince everyone that Christian has lost his mind. The Dogme rules -- mostly dealing with the austerity of production values -- can feel like a stunt in certain movies, but here they only enhance the claustrophobic, emotionally tense environment.

89. “Match me, Sidney.”

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

This should maybe be higher, but I saw it for the first time within the last year and a second time around is probably needed to get a more accurate reading. Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, an agent desperate to get a client’s name in an influential gossip column. Burt Lancaster, the real star of the show, is J. J. Hunsecker, the steely columnist who’s drunk on his power. Hunsecker dangles the possibility of helping Sidney only if Sidney will help him. Hunsecker wants to break up his sister’s relationship with a young jazz guitarist. This is because Hunsecker, in one of the creepiest relationships I’ve seen in a movie, harbors a borderline incestuous feeling for that sister, even creepier because that feeling is driven by a desire for control rather than affection. The movie is shot beautifully, the leads and everyone else are great, and the writing is snappy, as in this classic scene.

88. “Charlie, there was no special feeling, I just said there was.”

California Split (1974)

I’m not a big Robert Altman fan, but that’s a subject for another time. The one movie of his to make my list is this flick about two gamblers, Bill (George Segal) and Charlie (Elliott Gould). Charlie is a schemer and chronic gambler, Bill a straighter arrow who, through the influence of his friendship with Charlie, drives up a debt with his bookie. The two go to Reno, where Bill experiences a phenomenal hot streak. The story isn’t really the point, and there’s an oddball subplot involving the women in their lives. I like both Gould and Segal in general, and they’re terrific here. I’m also a very casual, occasional gambler myself, and not many movies depict that world, casually or otherwise. For that reason, the scenes with Gould, say, walking around Santa Anita race track stand out for me. In an issue of Stop Smiling devoted to the subject of gambling, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote abut California Split, and Joseph Walsh, who wrote the script, discussed the original, unfilmed ending.

87. “Ghost, you come back here with that freakin’ hat.”

Grizzly Man (2005)

Werner Herzog’s documentary is about Timothy Treadwell, a man who lived among Alaskan grizzly bears for 13 years before being killed by one of them in 2003, along with his girlfriend. It’s on the list for three reasons. First, it’s a slick ride with a lot of fantastic nature footage that Treadwell left behind. Secondly, it features two wildly crazy, entertaining characters -- the subject and the filmmaker. And third, because of those characters, it’s a very rare combination of tragic and hilarious. Allow me to quote myself:
It doesn’t seem right to laugh at such a tragic story, but there are several moments in this that are riotously funny – not guiltily-chuckle-to-yourself funny, but the-audience-is-collectively-swaying-side-to-side-and-popcorn-is-flying-around-like-
the-theater-scene-in-The-Muppet-Movie funny. Take my word for it. An interview with one woman in particular is something Christopher Guest couldn't dream up with the aid of hallucinogens.

My favorite subplot is Herzog’s disdain for Treadwell’s optimistic worldview. He feels, rightly so, that nature is often vicious, and that Treadwell was a deeply misguided do-gooder whose fate was inevitable. But when Herzog gives full voice to his pitch-black view of nature and life towards the end of the movie, with his alarmingly Schwarzenegger-like accent, you realize that you’ve spent the past hour and a half in the company of not one but two true nut jobs.
86. “I can honestly say I’m a changed man.”

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

This is a weird one. Ten years ago, it would have been a lot higher. And even now, I could see it being higher, though no better than 60 or so. I also toyed with the idea of leaving it off altogether. I guess the truth is somewhere in between all that, so here we are. In its favor are its ambition, some very affecting scenes, and lovely cinematography. Its two biggest demerits are both things I didn’t notice at the time: One is that Morgan Freeman’s voice-over has not aged well, probably because Freeman now does the voice-over for seemingly everything including my dreams. Because of his bodiless ubiquity, his narration here sounds cheesier and more a parody of itself than it did at the time. The second is Tim Robbins, who I once really liked. Now I think he’s often a ham, and it’s a rare role of his that I don’t look back on and devalue at least a bit. When I see certain clips of Shawshank now, like this one, I cringe a little at his delivery. There are also smaller problems I have with it, like the stirring of the soundtrack every time our hearts are supposed to stir.