Sunday, March 28, 2010

Horses, Steady

I buy so much less new music than I used to, and almost never on an actual CD, but two purchases are guaranteed for May: New records by Band of Horses and The Hold Steady. The latter is called Heaven is Whenever, and you can hear a song called “Hurricane J” over at Pitchfork. It pleasingly stays true to form, I think. Also, the album cover is the best I’ve seen in a while:

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Us & E.T.

Tim Radford reviews two new books about the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence:
Perhaps life is frequent, but intelligence is highly improbable. Or perhaps all competitive, technological civilisations discover thermonuclear weapons, and destroy themselves. Maybe the rest of the galaxy is keeping a vow of silence, leaving us either to obliterate ourselves or grow up enough to join the federation.

Here on Earth, life began within the first billion years, but complex life required another 3.8 billion years to make a primate. In 5 billion years, the sun will flare up and incinerate planet Earth, but life's tenure will have ended long before that, perhaps 500 million years from now, as carbon dioxide levels fall to near zero, plants perish and the seas begin to boil away. To survive, tomorrow's Earthlings must find somewhere else to live. E.T., presumably, faces the same pressure.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Between you and me and the Staten Island Ferry, so do I."

For this particular Wednesday, for reasons that are deeply idiosyncratic and personal, this is Billy Joel doing "Everybody Loves You Now." One commenter says it's from a club on Long Island in 1981. Enjoy:


Monday, March 22, 2010

The Movie List: 65-61

65. "Kid's got alligator blood."

Rounders (1998)

I’m willing to half-apologize for this one. Several movies below this on the list -- and several that were left off altogether -- are better movies. There are distracting flaws here: In a minor role, Gretchen Mol is terrible, and even Matt Damon is a little stiff in the lead. And Damon’s voice-over work (voice-overs are a common complaint of mine) strikes a consistently annoying, explaining-things-to-people-who-have-never-played-cards-or-seen-a-narrative-unfold tone. But I like stories about gambling, and the movie’s huge strength is Ed Norton as “Worm,” Damon’s friend from prep school who’s just been released from jail for fixing high school basketball games. His charismatic performance carries things, and once you accept that the rest of the movie isn’t Citizen Kane (not on my list, by the way), then even its cheesier elements, like John Malkovich’s insane Russian accent (and ridiculously obvious tell), are fun.

64. “This time I really think I have something.”

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Hannah has a few things going for it, including a strong trio of female leads in Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, and Mia Farrow. Woody plays himself, more or less, or at least the “himself” that is his usual character on screen. In fact, he probably nails hypochondria better in this movie than in any of his other works, and that’s saying something. His fear and grappling with mortality in the face of a possible brain tumor is hilarious and then somewhat poignant, a combo at which Allen once excelled. Despite the fact that the movie features relatively sober adult themes compared to movies like Sleeper and Bananas, it also has some great laughs, like when Allen’s character complains to his father that the Holocaust makes him question religious truth, and asks him to explain away the existence of Nazis in a universe overseen by God. “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis?” his father answers. “I don't know how the can opener works.”

63. "I'm gonna nail you for pickin' your feet in Poughkeepsie."

The French Connection (1971)

I caught this one a couple of years ago in New York, which was a good refresher. I don't think I would have remembered it well enough to put it on here otherwise. Its famous car chase gets most of the love when people talk about it now, and that scene is pretty great, though it's really a car-train chase scene as Gene Hackman's character, "Popeye" Doyle, races to catch a subway car that's been hijacked on elevated tracks. Doyle and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) are two Brooklyn narcotics cops, and the movie tracks their efforts to tie the mob to a drug smuggling ring in France. Hackman's performance is the best thing here (he won an Oscar for it, and the movie won a slew of others as well, including Best Picture), but there are plenty of runners-up: vintage '70s American moviemaking, great, gritty shots of New York, and a brilliantly built scene during which a car is taken apart in a search for drugs.

62. “Walter, you're wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way.”

His Girl Friday (1940)

This classic might get a little too screwball in its second half, but the chemistry between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell is A+. Russell is Hildy, an ex-reporter, and Grant is Walter, a newspaper editor; they’re divorced and he’s trying to get her back into both the journalism game and his heart. This exchange, early on, is something the makers of today’s putrid romantic comedies should study more often:
Walter: Been seeing me in your dreams?

Hildy: Oh, no, Mama doesn't dream about you anymore, Walter. You wouldn’t know the old girl now.

Walter: Oh, yes, I would. I'd know you anytime.

Hildy: (mockingly, over his continuing voice) “Anyplace, anywhere.” Ahh, you're repeating yourself, Walter. That’s the speech you made the night you proposed.

Walter: I notice you still remember it.

Hildy: Of course I remember it. If I didn't remember it, I wouldn't have divorced you.

Walter: I sort of wish you hadn't done that, Hildy.

Hildy: Done what?

Walter: Divorced me. Makes a fellow lose all faith in himself. Gives
him a . . . almost gives him a feeling he wasn't wanted.

Hildy: Ah, now look, Junior, that’s what divorces are for.

Walter: Nonsense, you've got an old-fashioned idea [that] divorce is something that lasts forever, till death do us part. Why, divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy. Just a few words mumbled over you by a judge. We've got something between us nothing can change.
Go here, and the exchange above starts (more or less) at the 3:50 mark. Just the way Russell says “Mama doesn’t dream about you anymore” would be enough to get this move on the list.

61. "Anyway, we delivered the bomb."

Jaws (1975)

Kind of like His Girl Friday, but with a shark. Well, no. In fact, if you could go back in time and show the opening night crowd at His Girl Friday a screening of Jaws, their heads might explode. And that’s OK, because it’s what followed Jaws that was a problem. And no, I don’t just mean Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D, Jaws 4: Fool Me Three Times, and Jaws 5: The Fulfillment of Louis Gossett Jr.’s Contract. I mean a solid 98% of everything that has come out of Hollywood since. But looking back, Jaws is quaint. Spielberg famously had to keep the shark largely off-screen, because from most angles it looked like what it was, a giant fake shark. This had the benefit, however unintentional, of building suspense and of keeping the focus on a human-scale story. (My friend Dez made the same point on his movie list, where Jaws occupied the top spot.) Would that all filmmakers had such constraints.


Friday, March 19, 2010

Big Red

As the son of someone who played basketball and baseball at Cornell (and the brother of another alum), I'm excited to see them on the verge of becoming the first Ivy League team to win an NCAA tournament game since 1998. Of course, as the son of someone who played basketball at Cornell, it's particularly inexcusable that I didn't pick them on any of the six brackets that I submitted to my annual pool. Ugh.

Me and Curtis and the Tourney

When I moved to Texas, at 14, I had a thick Long Island accent and probably weighed 37 pounds (give or take a few). Making friends wasn’t going to be easy. Just surviving might not be easy. I remember one day, during basketball practice, I was jogging through a backstage corridor of the gym to get something. I passed a group of football players being spoken to by an assistant coach. He stopped me, and made it clear that I should apologize for interrupting their meeting. “Sorry,” I said. He fixed me with steely eyes. I was not a wise-guy kid to authority figures, especially muscular ones, but I think he believed I was being a wise guy. I just honestly didn’t know what he wanted. This was literally a type of human being I had never encountered in my 14 years on Earth. He kept staring at me. The football players subtly shifted their weight and wished for this scrawny blond to say the right thing so they could get back to business. “Sorry what?” the coach asked. I kept gaping for a few seconds, but my Northeastern animal brain finally put the pieces together. “Sorry, sir,” I croaked.

Abracadabra, he let me go. That coach wasn’t a bad guy. He taught my Algebra I class. I laughed to myself at the way he pronounced oil (“aaaaallll”), but he was a good guy.

Back at basketball practice, I also kept my eyes peeled for possible friend material. There was Jason, a thin blond kid who had moved to Texas from Illinois. Maybe too similar. There was Vic, a hulking, deep-voiced young man, 14 going on 30, whereas I was 14 going on 4. That wouldn’t work. Luckily, there was Curtis. We made each other laugh (partly by doing deep-voiced impressions of Vic) and were both college basketball fanatics. Curtis’ mind was more of a sponge for the sport (still is), but I shared his intensity for it. One of my favorite annual events was the Maui Classic, a preseason November tournament televised live that I would watch into the wee hours. I introduced Curtis to an annual preview magazine -- much more like a book in its dimensions; and a book by Tolstoy -- called Blue Ribbon, which my dad would get from a friend of his. It became a more mainstream publication over the years, but at the time there was a sense that we were getting it from a black-market dealer and had discovered a great underground resource: Full essays on all Division I hoops programs, and a long section on high school players in the back. If there was a 6-5 senior swing man from Detroit trying to decide between attending Michigan or Michigan St., Curtis and I knew about him.

I can’t speak for Curtis, but my grades could have been better.

Many of my favorite sports memories as a fan are from the NCAA tournament. I’ve moved away from the sport over the past 10 years or so (for multiple reasons), and I know much less about it now. Heading into this year’s action, I mostly knew that John Wall of Kentucky is really good. That’s an awfully small amount of knowledge. My 15-year-old self would kick me in the shins for dereliction of duty. But even still, I’m excited for and by the tournament every year. It really is the best sporting event we’ve got. (They’re talking of expanding it to 96 teams -- seriously -- which will ruin it.)

And what a day today. Wow. Two overtime games. A double-overtime game. Seven games decided by three points or less (three of those decided by a single point). A 4-seed loses, a 3-seed gets blown out, and a 2-seed squeaks out a win it probably didn’t deserve. The best opening day I can remember, and I can’t wait for tomorrow.

The rain cloud to all this is that North Carolina had a terrible season and didn’t make the field of 64. In one of my favorite posts here, I explained (or tried to explain) why I’m a Tar Heels fan. The tournament is not nearly the same for me without them, but there’s always the corollary (and almost equally intense) pleasure of rooting against Duke. Patrick Ambrose, who grew up in North Carolina, recently wrote an essay worth reading about his own history of loving the Heels and hating the Blue Devils:
When we lost to Duke in the 1980 A.C.C. semifinals, my brother and I responded by filling an Eagle Claw fishhook box with gunpowder and the contents of an Estes rocket engine. We inserted a fuse, wrapped the bomb in electric tape, and dropped it into a Duke coffee mug a friend had given us as a joke. In an empty lot, we made a lovely explosion.
Of course, hatred is not enough fuel to make it through a tournament. I’ll pick up teams to root for along the way. And there’s the sheer fun of the games, which, in their volume (48 games) and number of twists over this opening four-day weekend, prove better than anything else why the unscripted drama of sports will always keep some of us glued.

Every year, Curtis and I talk on the eve of the first round to fill out a joint bracket for an office pool my dad's been running for many moons. Curtis works in sports radio and TV now, so in addition to his natural ability to absorb information, he has a professional obligation to keep up. He teaches me as much as he can in a very short amount of time, and I use his wisdom to better enjoy the games. His team is Oklahoma, also absent from this year's dance. I would say that our teams' records were the biggest downer for us this basketball season, but no: The other day, we each heard an announcer refer to Glen Rice, Jr., of Georgia Tech. His father, Glen Rice, was starring at Michigan when Curtis and I first met. So hearing that his son is now in college, that was a downer. I was happy to meet Curtis at 14, and I'm happy to still know him at 36. I'm sure I'll be happy to know him at 60, but you'll excuse me if I'm not in a rush to find out.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Tell him what we said 'bout 'Paint It Black.'"

In the wake of the sad news that Alex Chilton has died at 59, this week's song is "Thirteen," one of Big Star's prettiest, here done by Elliott Smith. Enjoy:

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Monday, March 15, 2010

A Massive List

You think I’m a nut job. While I continue ranking my favorite 100 movies on this site, consider Brad Bourland, 58, of Austin, Texas. His list, called “The Best, Most Important and the Most Beloved English Language Films of the 20th Century” ranks 9,331 movies. But these aren't his favorites; it's an attempt at an objective list of collective wisdom. Salon caught up with him to discuss the project, and I found these two questions and answers to be the most illuminating/scariest:
What was your method for ordering such a massive list?

I strived to find a consensus between what fans, critics and the movie industry thought — I attempted to synthesize all those opinions. There are people who will look at my list and see their favorite movie is No. 784. I want people to understand that I haven't judged these films. It's not a personal Brad Bourland list. This is what Brad Bourland believes the number has proven to be, and that includes hundreds and hundreds of hours reading critiques from professional film critics, trying to understand how they saw things the way they did, what they're looking for, what they're hoping not to see, and so on.

Did you agonize over placing, for example, No. 7501, Lord of the Flies, above No. 7502, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit?

Somewhere between 2,500 to 3,500 it becomes somewhat subjective, but I kept applying the same exact rule that helped me put the first 3,000 together, and I think it worked. As long as I stuck to my method, I stayed on track. If it's an important movie, you can bet I listened to what 200 people had to say about it. In the end, I had to make the decision, but it was with lots of input from people who know movies. If a film's in the top 500, I've probably seen it 10 times because I wanted to be sure.

Success as Cinema

Daniel Mendelsohn has a piece about Avatar in the New York Review of Books that you should read, especially if you've seen the movie. He starts by saying that critics have focused on the movie's politics at the expense of the pure experience it offers:
What's striking is that so many critiques of Avatar's political shortcomings often go out of their way to elide or belittle the movie's overwhelming successes as a work of cinema—its enormous visual power, the thrilling imaginative originality, the excitingly effective use of the 3-D technology that seems bound to change permanently the nature of cinematic experience henceforth—as if to acknowledge how dazzling it is would be an admission of critical weakness.
And while it's clear he thinks the movie can be boneheaded, he's smart about Cameron's career-long themes and influences:
As it happens, the movie that haunts Avatar—one that Cameron has often acknowledged as his favorite film—is one that takes the form of a fable about the difference (and sometimes traffic) between fantasy and reality; a movie whose dramatic climax centers on the moment when the protagonist understands that visually overwhelming and indeed politically manipulative illusions can be the product of "highly skilled, highly labor-intensive simulations" (a fact that does not, however, detract from the characters', and our, appreciation of the aesthetic and moral uses and benefits of fantasy, of illusion). That movie is, in fact, the one the Marine colonel quotes: The Wizard of Oz. Consideration of it is, to my mind, crucial to an understanding not only of the aesthetic aims and dramatic structure of Avatar but of a great and disturbing failure that has not been discussed as fervently or as often as its overtly political blind spots have been. This failure is, in certain ways, the culmination of a process that began with the first of Cameron's films, all of which can be seen as avatars of his beloved model, whose themes they continually rework: the scary and often violent confrontation between human and alien civilizations, the dreadful allure of the monstrous, the yearning, by us humans, for transcendence—of the places, the cultures, the very bodies that define us.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Now he's like a child upon my knee."

If I ever win the lottery -- and really, it's just a matter of time, once I start playing it -- one of the first things I'll do is get myself a personal female singer. I mean that I'll pay someone with a gorgeous voice to be on call. Maybe I'm having trouble sleeping. Maybe it's just a nice spring day and I'd like to sit on the front porch and be serenaded. The singer will be compensated very well, and our relationship will be friendly, not creepy. I swear. Anyway, candidates for this position might include Natalie Merchant, Lori Carson, Karen Peris (of the Innocence Mission), and Mimi Sparhawk (of Low). And now Kate Rusby, who I just discovered. She's a folk singer from South Yorkshire, once nominated for the Mercury Prize, etc. She sings a lot of traditional, old-timey songs. And some originals. This is her singing "My Young Man," about her grandmother caring for her miner grandfather when he was in ill health because of, you know, the mines. Enjoy:


Dodging Imaginary Bullets

My friend Jason recently interviewed popular and voluble playwright Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman, etc.) for the New York Times, and the results are great fun:
Sitting in the theater district restaurant Angus McIndoe, Mr. McDonagh appeared boyishly handsome with a can’t-help-myself grin that accompanies the most recklessly candid sense of humor to be found in a Broadway playwright. After a few drinks he mused merrily about what would happen if the elderly woman sitting at a nearby table pulled out a firearm and started shooting. If this reporter was killed, he said, he would volunteer to finish the article. “He was having fun when his face got shot off” is how his tribute would go.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Best Picture Race (to the Bottom)

In his recent piece about the new age of 3D, Anthony Lane wrote that the effects are now a seamless given that audiences don’t really have to think about: “People have plunged into Avatar like vacationers lining up for the high board of a pool, and when they emerge nearly three hours later, removing their glasses and rubbing the bridge of their noses, the question that they want to thrash out is whether the pool was a swamp of liberal eco-mush or a trough of hot-blooded American rampage.”

Oh, but it’s both. It is so both. In fact, Avatar is as good an argument as any for why I value moderation. On the one hand, it’s not enough that the Na’vi have a deep respect for nature; no, they have to mystically communicate with horses (and pterodactyls) through their ponytails and be able to hear the voices of their ancestors in a special forest and be biologically connected to trees. The whole set-up makes the silliest school of ’60s New Age Utopians look like the Heritage Foundation.

On the other side, yes, the military is made out to be evil to a degree that should insult the intelligence of Noam Chomsky, but this is not to say Avatar is a peace-loving movie. This is James Cameron we’re talking about. The U.S. soldier who infiltrates the Na’vi only to embrace their way of life and become one of them teaches them that eventually one has to fight back with machine guns blazing. Preferably, machine guns fired from the backs of flying dinosaurs. The whole thing builds to an orgy of violence on both sides. The movie makes it clear who you should be rooting for, but it doesn’t question the methods of competition. It manages to be both soft-headed and iron-fisted.

So, smug liberals and braying conservatives can both love this movie. That doesn’t matter so much to me, because the story is as dumb as the day is long. What did astonish me was just how immersive the experience was. No, I didn’t feel like one of those people who passed out in early screenings because it all seemed “so real” or one of the people who suffered feelings of depression in the days after seeing the movie because they “missed” the Na’vi world. (Yes, that’s really been reported.) But I was amazed by how coherent the environment was, and by the visual depth of it. When Avatar is spending time in the human environment (military airships, etc.) it’s just stunningly bad. But when it’s in the Na’vi world, it’s bad and stunning. Purely as an Epcot ride, I felt I got my money’s worth. And because the movie was most interested in showing off its effects (its only real strength), it was several times more enjoyable than the awful 85%-insufferable-quiet-period-piece Titanic.

I saw Avatar with one of my funniest friends, so I knew post-viewing discussion would be a great time. It was. He liked it more than I did, but he liked the same things about it that I did. As he put it, “It’s like Harry Potter; it’s written at a 5th-grade level, but it affects people, and that counts for something.” That’s true. And as long as we’re defining “affects” a certain way (we didn’t parse it), I agree. He also said of the unfathomably accelerating world of FX, “Remember Terminator 2, when it was a big deal that the guy was silver and he squirmed around and squelched about?”

I also saw The Hurt Locker a few nights ago. It’s a very well made movie with a pretty big identity crisis at its core. Critics have rightly noted that it doesn’t take an overt political stance. But it still, inevitably, takes a stance toward its characters, and the final scene leaves you wondering if you haven’t just finished watching a particularly artful heavy metal video. The movie consists of high-tension suspense scenes strung together. Each one works pretty well. I’m not sure they add up to all that much, though. And for every impressively crafted scene -- I’m thinking particularly of a long stand-off in the desert that includes a cameo by Ralph Fiennes -- there’s a hackneyed element that feels lifted from much more predictable Hollywood fare.

I’ve said it’s been a weak year for movies, and having now seen six of the Best Picture nominees, I stand by that. The Hurt Locker is a professional movie. I liked watching it. But I don’t think it’s worthy of Best Picture. I thought Up in the Air was pretty unremarkable, even disappointing, and that opinion strengthens the more I consider it. District 9 had plenty of fun conventional popcorn pleasures, but it also deeply annoyed me in some ways. The only two movies nominated that I have anything resembling deep and lasting affection for were Up and A Serious Man, but then I’m a Pixar and Coens softy, and I don’t believe I inhabit a planet on which either one will win this time around.

I suppose I'll be rooting for Hurt Locker to win, if only because that means Kathryn Bigelow will beat out the loathsome Cameron. (Though, how great can she be? She once married Cameron. Unlike being James Cameron, that requires a choice.) The fact is, in a down year, I won’t mind so much if Avatar takes it. Sure, it’s bad, but there have been even worse winners. Forrest Gump and Titanic, to name two.

Enjoy the show, everybody.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Movie List: 70-66

70. “Happiness comes only through effort.”

Late Spring (1949)

In a typically understated work by legendary director Yasujiro Ozu, Setsuko Hara plays Noriko, the 27-year-old only child of widower Shukichi Somiya (played by Chishu Ryu). She feels perfectly content living with and caring for her father, but he wants her to marry, and over the course of the movie contrives to make that happen. The movie was based on a novel by Kazuo Hirotsu, but I wonder how much of it was autobiographical: The always reliable Wikipedia says, “Ozu remained single and childless all of his life, and stayed alone with his mother who died less than two years before his own death.” David Thomson wrote: “Ozu’s most important characteristic is his way of watching the world. While that attitude is modest and unassertive, it is also the source of great tenderness for people. It is as if Ozu’s one personal admission was the faith that the basis of decency and sympathy can only be sustained by the semi-religious effort to observe the world in his style; in other words, contemplation calms anxious activity.” That style does require patience -- especially in the age of nanosecond editing -- but it’s deeply rewarding. Late Spring is slow, but the scene toward the end in which father and daughter discuss her future is among the most touching I’ve ever seen. The love between parent and child (the pure kind; not the headline-grabbing incestuous type) is not a common theme in the movies (or anywhere else), but it’s beautifully handled here.

69. “These aren't the droids you're looking for.”

Star Wars (1977)

I wasn’t going to include this at first, and this is probably much too high. But more than any movie on the list, this is a nod to my childhood, pure and simple. Many young boys see Star Wars -- or read Dune, or whatever -- and it becomes a gateway drug to all things sci-fi and fantasy. That never happened to me. For whatever reason (probably not a healthy one), I started relating to neurotic real-life adults by the time I was 14 or so.

That said, I was a Star Wars goon. There’s a photo of me on a Christmas morning when I’ve just opened the Death Star. Judging from the expression on my face, I will never be that happy again. Not ever. And that leaves room to be very, very happy. I remember walking into Play World, the local toy store, and having to convince my mom that the fact that I “already had” a stormtrooper action figure meant nothing; I needed an army of them. But watching the movie now, I mean, come on. It’s not about the dated effects, or not just about the dated effects, because CGI certainly hasn’t made a better filmmaker of George Lucas (ahem). Look at this original trailer and tell me it doesn’t look like as much like an ad for Mystery Science Theater 3000 as it does for one of the most beloved movies of all time. Mark Hamill was particularly amateurish, and I can only imagine how the great Alec Guinness refrained from punching him in the face during their scenes together.

It’s funny that Pauline Kael could write, “the film is enjoyable in its own terms, but it's exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. There's no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the image of a double sunset.” Boy, for the last two decades or so of Kael’s life, she must have been pissed. So much of what followed Star Wars makes it look glacial. (That image of the double sunset is lovely.)

But my favorite anecdote about Star Wars comes from Tom Shone’s book Blockbuster. I shared it on the blog four years ago. It occurs at an advance screening of the movie that Lucas organized for his peers in 1977:
(Alan) Ladd hated Harrison Ford's performance -- thought it was too camp -- and resolved to ask Lucas to fix it in the editing, but for the moment he said nothing and simply left. Everyone else headed out to a Chinese restaurant; as soon as they sat down Lucas asked them, “All right, whaddya guys really think?" (Brian) De Palma plowed into it: “It's gibberish,” he said. “The first act, where are we? Who are these fuzzy guys? Who are these guys dressed up like the Tin Man from Oz? What kind of movie are you making here? You've left the audience out. You've vaporized the audience.”
68. “We're gonna get a little place.”

Of Mice and Men (1992)

I don’t suppose this one requires any plot description. This adaptation of Steinbeck’s 1937 novella stars Gary Sinise (who also directed) as George and John Malkovich as Lennie. It has several things going for it, including a strong supporting cast and a beautiful, nostalgic palette of colors. But the two leads carry the story’s weight, and they’re both excellent. Sinise and Malkovich had performed the same roles in a stage version at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 1980. Their familiarity with each other combines with their natural talent to make something special. Malkovich is phenomenal. In a role that lends itself to hamming things up, he’s totally believable. Reviewing the movie at the time of its release, Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote: “The movie's most flamboyant effect is Mr. Malkovich's performance as Lennie. I've no idea how it was done, but Mr. Malkovich does look huge. Everything about the performance has been intelligently thought out, from the physical size he somehow has attained to his manner of speaking, which is slow and tortured without being grotesque. The actor's intelligence, however, shows through.” He goes on to say that the performance probably worked better on stage, but I wouldn’t know about that, having never seen it. I think this rendition is plenty good enough.

67. “The time to make up your mind about people is never.”

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

If Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn don’t do it for you, I’m not sure what to tell you. In 1938, after a few flops and p.r. troubles, Hepburn had been one of several actors voted “box office poison” by a group of movie exhibitors. (It would be great to have an annual vote like that today.) The Philadelphia Story was her comeback movie, and the Oscar nomination she got for it was one of 10 more she would receive. She plays Tracy Lord, a Philly socialite recently divorced from C. K. Dexter Haven (Grant). In order to get up-close coverage of her impending second wedding, a tabloid sends a reporter and photographer (Stewart and Ruth Hussey) to go undercover as friends of the family. (Dexter helps them get in the door.) Tracy isn’t fooled, but plays along anyway. The resulting plot, in which she ends up with three possibilities for love, has screwball action and classic witty dialogue. The movie is considered an example of the “comedy of remarriage” genre (Wikipedia, again), popular in the 1930s and ’40s: “At the time, the Production Code (aka Hays Code) banned any explicit references to or attempts to justify adultery and illicit sex. The comedy of remarriage enabled filmmakers to evade this provision of the Code. The protagonists divorced, flirted with strangers without risking the wrath of censorship, and then got back together.”

66. “The less you know about it the better.”

Blood Simple (1985)

Admittedly, this movie scores a bit higher with me than it otherwise might because it’s the debut of the Coen brothers. They’re among my favorite filmmakers, so their maiden voyage and whatever clues it might hold about their later work is of extra interest to me. Some of their now familiar qualities are certainly present here: An interest in off-kilter characters, a careful attention to visual details and framing. But even though there are a few small, sometimes nervous laughs to be had in Blood Simple, the movie lacks the comedy (both superficial and deep) of the brothers’ work since. It’s a noir tale with a few twists, opening with the voice-over of a P.I. played by the terrific, terrifically talented M. Emmet Walsh: “Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else -- that's the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas . . . and down here . . . you're on your own.” A seedy bar owner played by Dan Hedaya (the very picture of seedy; no offense, Dan) suspects his wife (Frances McDormand) of having an affair. So he hires Walsh to get evidence. Walsh ends up telling Hedaya that he killed the lovers, which is a lie. What follows is a whole lot of confusion (on the part of the characters) and not a little bloodshed. There is a bit of slow going throughout, but the Coens were already flashing their chops in a few brilliant, tense scenes, including a roadside burial and a final showdown in a darkened loft.

Now I learn from Wikipedia (good lord) that, “In December 2009, Zhang Yimou released a loose remake of the film as a comedy. A Simple Noodle Story is set in a Chinese noodle shop in a desert, rather than a bar in a Texas town, and revolves around the restaurant owner's plan to murder his adulterous wife and her lover.” That sounds like something I need to rent.



Two more posts coming this weekend: The next installment of the movie list and pre-ceremony thoughts on Avatar/the Oscars.

For now, just a note that this post (not much of a post, really) is #2,500 in this blog's history. That's not a number I probably would have imagined when I first started this thing. But it's been fun, and look where it's gotten me. Well, no, don't do that.

Still: Thanks for reading.

The Occasional, Brilliant Work of Cordell Barker

If you're a fan of zany-but-smart animation, like I am, I think you'll like Cordell Barker. A friend and I recently went to see a collection of this year's Oscar-nominated animated shorts (shown along with a couple of honorable mentions), and Barker's "Runaway" was probably my favorite. It's an eight-minute story about an out-of-control locomotive. The front car is occupied by the train's captain and his assistant; the next car by ridiculously dainty and stiff patrician types; and the last by dentally challenged hillbillies joyously playing hillbilly music. It's very funny, but also very cynical. Unfortunately, the whole thing isn't available online, but Barker's two previous films are. I include them below. The first, The Cat Came Back (1988), is based on a late-19th-century folk song of the same name. The second, Strange Invaders (2002), about a couple who get visited by a child from outer space, is nine kinds of crazy. I enjoyed them both, and I hope you will, too:

Thursday, March 04, 2010

When Pandering Went Wrong

My friend Eric put together a terrific slide show for Slate in anticipation of this Sunday’s Oscars. It details a dozen performances throughout history that “pandered to the academy but didn’t even get a nomination.” For instance, Meg Ryan as an alcoholic mother in When a Man Loves a Woman: “Marketed as a love story between Ryan and a smoldering Andy Garcia, the film couches a grim account of addiction within a jukebox romance, trading on Ryan's easy appeal while feebly pretending to complicate it. The result is one of the least convincing portraits of addiction you'll ever see.”

Or Kevin Spacey: “In Pay it Forward (2000), a notorious car wreck of pandering sanctimony and tone-deaf sociology, Spacey is the Oscar-bait equivalent of a busking one-man band—pounding on the inspirational teacher drum, strumming the abused child strings, and blowing on the burn-victim kazoo. He makes an awful, embarrassing clamor, yet you can't look away.”

Oh, did I mention all 12 are accompanied by video clips of the wreckage? Perhaps most startling (and hilarious) of all is the clip from Mommie Dearest. I share it below, after the whole write-up, which is too good to just excerpt. Anyway, enjoy it, and then go to Slate for the rest.
Mommie Dearest (1981) has become such a beloved artifact of camp that it's easy to forget that on paper Frank Perry's tell-all biopic had all the trappings of an awards-getter, and that lead Faye Dunaway was at the time still one of the most respected actresses of her generation. Alas, not for long. The Academy Award-winner and three-time nominee sank her fangs into the part of a waxworks Joan Crawford with such unguarded, eager-to-impress ferocity that every moment of her performance articulates another aspect of unintentional kitsch. The film derailed her A-list career, relegating her to a series of disposable genre films ironically on par with Crawford's self-parodic late work. She won a Razzie for worst actress of the year for her work on Mommie Dearest and has since been nominated another six times.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

"You find it happens all the time."

Earlier this week, my good friend Dez -- as he's known on the web -- welcomed a beautiful daughter into the world. So this Wednesday's song goes out to Dez. It's by a performer he loves: the man, the myth, the legend, Tom Jones, doing "It's Not Unusual." Stick around to the end, because you don't want to miss the purr. Let me say that again for emphasis. You don't want to miss the purr. Enjoy:


Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Movie List: 75-71

I've said this process will speed up when we get to the top 50 or so, and that's no lie. I have no idea why you would believe me at this point, but it's still no lie. Also, the rankings also mean very little until then (and even after then, to some degree). These five were ranked completely differently (though within this same grouping) about ten minutes ago.

75. “It’s me, Ana . . . It’s me, Ana.”

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

In 1940, a traveling cinema comes to a small town in the Spanish countryside in director Victor Erice’s story of a young girl in the shadow of Franco’s dictatorship. The movie being shown is Frankenstein, and the girl, Ana, goes to see it with her older sister, Isabel. Ana becomes obsessed with the story of the monster, and she attempts to conjure one of her very own. Then one day, in a remote, abandoned house, she finds a wounded soldier. What happens in Beehive is not terribly much, but the cinematography is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The movie subtly addresses themes of war, trust, and innocence, but what stays with you are the images, how carefully they’re framed and colored and paced. It’s a lo-fi cousin of Pan’s Labyrinth, where the imagination is called on in the absence of special effects. I wrote about the movie at greater length here.

74. “Coffee is for closers.”

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

I recently saw Glengarry again, which reminded me of its strengths and weaknesses. I tend to like movies that are based on plays, but the scope here does seem a bit constrained for the screen. David Mamet’s script follows a day in the life of desperate salesmen looking to close real estate deals. When someone steals the company’s best leads, we’re left to wonder who did it while the cast sweats out the investigation. The entire ensemble is so good. Alan Arkin and Ed Harris stand out in small roles, as they often do. I’ve never been a big Kevin Spacey fan, but that works here, because he’s supposed to be unlikeable. Alec Baldwin, Al Pacino, and Jack Lemmon are the movie’s holy trinity. Baldwin famously steals the whole thing with his one scene, a brutal emasculating of everyone in the room. I’ve (re)learned from making this list that Pacino was brilliant for a really long time; longer than we tend to remember now that he’s constantly teased and criticized for indulging the “hoo-ah!” phase of his career. As the office’s best earner, he’s almost perfect. Lemmon is my choice for Best in Show, though, as Shelley “The Machine” Levene, a sad-sack update/continuation of Willy Loman.

73. “War starts at midnight!”

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

A couple of years ago, I found an interview with Anthony Lane in which he expressed love for this movie. It immediately went on my Netflix queue, since in addition to loving Lane’s style, he’s the only movie critic whose taste I trust entirely. (Or very nearly.) In addition to its other charms, the movie has one of the best named characters of all time: Major General Clive Wynne-Candy, played by Roger Livesey. It opens with a scene that only makes sense as the movie unfolds. It’s 1943, and an older Candy is enjoying a Turkish bath when a group of younger soldiers capture him during a training exercise. Candy is incensed, saying that the exercise was supposed to commence at midnight. The younger troops tell him, essentially, that this is an insurgent tactic and that he is behind the times. See any possible parallels to the current day? The film then flashes back to cover Candy’s career, which spans the Boer War, World War I, and World War II. The character of Colonel Blimp originally appeared in a comic strip, but the movie's creators the idea originated elsewhere (and indeed, curiously, the name Colonel Blimp doesn’t appear in the movie):
According to the directors, the idea for the film did not come from the newspaper comic strip by David Low but from a scene cut from their previous film, One of Our Aircraft is Missing, in which an elderly member of the crew tells a younger one, "You don't know what it's like to be old." Powell has stated that the idea was actually suggested by David Lean (then an editor) who when removing the scene from the film, mentioned that the premise of the conversation was worthy of a movie on its own right.
The movie features plenty of drama, but it has a lively, sometimes humorous tone, buoyed along by its pioneering use of Technicolor.

72. "So, to go against what is predestined, one must jump."

The Vanishing (1988)

I mentioned in the last installment that I tend to prefer psychological creepiness to gore. This Dutch/French movie (which was remade into an American bomb by the same director five years later, though I haven’t seen that version) begins with a woman (Saskia) disappearing at a highway rest stop in France in broad daylight. Her partner (Rex) spends the next few years trying to figure out what happened to her. As his futile search continues, we see flashbacks of Raymond, an outwardly normal guy who’s plotting to abduct a woman. We know from early on that he’s the one who takes Saskia, and the amount of time we spend from his perspective is considered one of the movie’s more innovative elements. But we don’t know how he did it, at least not for a while. Eventually, Rex and Raymond cross paths, and the movie reaches what I found to be a fever pitch of psychological weirdness, culminating in a supremely creepy final scene that reveals Saskia’s fate -- and Rex’s.

71. “Demented and sad, but social.”

The Breakfast Club (1985)

I’m not even sure how The Breakfast Club has aged, or how much that matters to my judgment of it. What matters is that, when I was 12, 13 years old, this was the coolest thing going. In naming it the best high school movie ever made, Entertainment Weekly said, “if hell is other people — and high school is hell — then John Hughes is the genre's Sartre, and this is his No Exit.” That might be a little heavy. The movie succeeds on a pretty frothy mix of one-liners, authority-fighting, conveniently pot-aided group therapy, revenge (or at least reconciliation) of the nerds, and “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds, which is a much, much cooler, more inspiring, more nostalgia-inducing theme to a movie than anything any generation has had since. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.


Rocking the Vote

Another movies post will be up later today (believe it or not). In the meantime, even though if you're reading this blog you've probably seen this in an e-mail, on Facebook, on The Second Pass, or via the skywriter I hired yesterday: I direct your attention to 3 Quarks Daily, which is currently taking votes for its first annual Arts & Literature Prizes. One of the nominees is Carlene Bauer's Second Pass review of Flannery by Brad Gooch. If you haven't voted yet (and you can only vote once; so if you have, thanks), you can at this page. (The listing is towards the end, under "The Second Pass: Mary Flannery, Quite Contrary.")

And of course, go back and read the review, which starts like this:
In Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, there is a striking photograph of O’Connor at two or three. She is sitting in a white dress, a white bow perched on her head, staring at an open book in her lap, one hand over her heart. There is a disconcertingly adult frown of concentration on her face — a frown disproportionate to her age and size. Looking at the picture long enough provokes the feeling that in a minute or two the child will turn to you, two fingers pointing skyward, as if it is 1327, not 1927, and solemnly declaim a line from the Gospels. The image is frightening and then suddenly funny — just like her stories. A caption for this picture of strangely serious infancy might be taken from O’Connor’s letters. “I was a very ancient twelve; my views at that age would have done credit to a Civil War veteran,” she told a friend. “I am much younger now than I was at twelve or anyway, less burdened. The weight of centuries lies on children, I’m sure of it.”