Fritz's World

An exciting and awe-inspiring glimpse into my life: movie reviews (which are replete with spoilers), Penn State football, Washington Nationals, and life here in the nation's capital. Can you handle it?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Evidently NOTHING is sacred anymore

I recently did a review of the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and while I was searching for a good video clip, I stumbled across this. It's essentially the movie trailer recut à la Brokeback Mountain, and I saw it elsewhere on YouTube under the title GAYS, Trains, and Automobiles. Truth be told, I'm not sure whether to laugh or roll my eyes, even though I have to commend the video editors for their creativity on this (though they should have removed the "Based on the novel by Annie Proulx" line).


Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Up to now, I’ve only seen one other movie by director Alejandro González Iñárritu, and that was 21 Grams. Going into Babel, my mind right away jumped to that movie’s template: characters enduring terrible tragedy, falling and falling to rock bottom, until finally a chance for redemption presents itself. In some ways, Babel was very similar, but if I could call Babel one thing, it would be "mood piece", because so much of the movie you have to feel—particularly in the Japan storyline. And after leaving the theater, I honestly couldn’t pinpoint my emotions, because I was still letting all of what I had seen sink in.

As can be seen from the trailers, Babel is a composite piece, where multiple storylines (in this case, four) run parallel to each other, somehow connecting at various points within the film. Basically there were two Moroccan storylines: one with Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt, a husband and wife suffering marital woes, with Cate accidentally getting shot inside her tour bus by two Moroccan boys playing with a rifle from a distance; the other storyline shows the perspective of those two boys, from the moments before the shooting to its aftermath, and how it affects both them and their family. Back in the U.S., Brad and Cate’s children are being looked after by their Hispanic nanny, who has to choose between staying at home with the children while Cate is receiving medical treatment in Morocco, or taking the children into Mexico (because nobody else can look after them) so she can attend her son’s wedding. And off in Japan, we have a deaf-mute teenager trying to cope with her mother’s recent death, while somehow trying to make personal connections in the real world despite her deafness—in ways that quietly yet firmly show the depths of her loneliness and desperate longing for human contact.

And I think it was that storyline that I enjoyed the most. The final scene of the movie really held me and really stayed with me, as well as the character of Chieko. She stayed with me because I could genuinely feel her pain, her sadness, her loss, her confusion, her longing—all crippled by her deafness and her silence. The story of the Moroccan boys who shot Cate Blanchett was quite gripping, especially as they dealt with their guilt at having shot her and thinking they’d killed her. You could honestly feel the brotherly relationship between the two boys, the silent competition between them and the resentment held by the older brother when he discovers he’s a lesser shot than his younger brother. The wedding sequence down in Mexico was very impressive, the festive atmosphere very palpable. To contrast that, the scenes with the nanny running through the desert with the two children were surprisingly frightening, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crossing-the-desert scene quite like this one—filled with that silent, terrified sense of abandonment, the fruitless search for water and shelter in 100-degree heat, the desperation of having to leave someone behind in order to search for help.

The only problem I had was in the acting of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. I don’t know if it’s because their characters were underdeveloped, but I felt that their characterization was paper-thin, that there wasn’t any substance added to make their characters sympathetic beyond the immediate circumstances (i.e., Cate’s being shot). To approach it from another angle, it just felt like Brad and Cate were playing themselves, and that any actor/actress could have played those roles. We were just supposed to assume that their marriage was on the rocks, that it was inevitably coming to a close, without really knowing why. (We are hinted that it may be due to their infant son’s crib death sometime prior, but it felt like more than that, and thus I feel it could have been fleshed out a bit more.)

That aside, the acting all around was very good, with some surprise appearances by various actors. Starting off with Clifton Collins, Jr., who I felt was a little underutilized here. His few moments as the border patrol cop were chilling, and I wish he had been given some additional screen time. He held my attention solidly as the no-nonsense border patrol cop, asking the pointed questions, very easily disarming Amelia (the nanny) and her irresponsible nephew when they try to re-enter the country. Apparently the actor who played said nephew is also very well known, but I wasn’t familiar with him prior to Babel. And smack me upside the head and call me stupid, but I didn’t even recognize Michael Peña (who had a very heart-warming role in Crash) when he appeared on screen!

I’ve already gotten wind of some possible Oscar buzz for Babel, and I can honestly say that I hope it gets some Academy recognition. I’m undecided if it’s Best Picture material, but I seriously hope it gets a Best Director nod for Alejandro González Iñárritu, a Best Cinematography nod (the camerawork and visuals were stunning, especially at the Japanese dance club), and (hope hope!) a Best Supporting Actress nod for Rinko Kikuchi. For a role as tough as hers had to be, where she was silent throughout the entire movie and could only communicate through sign language, body language, and heartfelt emotions, she executed it all brilliantly. Just look at the scene where she broke down in front of the detective, or her final scene with her father. Utterly fantastic. (I’d draw a connection to Holly Hunter’s deaf-mute role in The Piano—which won her an Oscar—but it’s been too long since I saw that movie to genuinely compare the roles.)

In the final analysis, we’re left with the feeling that redemption doesn’t always come to us, and when it does, it comes from unlikely spots (like from within ourselves), and sometimes it comes from extreme circumstances that push us to our breaking points (like Cate’s being shot in the desert and Brad frantically trying to seek help). Yet when all is said and done, Babel does impart one very important idea to us: we’re all human, every last one of us . . . and sadly, we sometimes forget that. A 9.5 out of 10, with my fingers crossed for it at the Oscars.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What's in a name?

It appears that the Nats are close to having a name for their new ballpark in Southeast! According to the Post, the naming rights are up for bid, and I'm willing to bet it'll be AOL Field when all is said and done, since AOL is (relatively) local. Me, I think they should name it "Anthony Williams Field", in honor of the man who brought the team to town—but then again, "Jack Kent Cooke Stadium" didn't last very long as a venue name. Truth be told, I kind of miss the old non-corporate names to baseball stadiums: Veterans Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium, Candlestick Park, Yankee Stadium, Memorial Stadium.

I think Ed Norton summed it up perfectly in Fight Club, when he says, "When deep space exploration ramps up, it'll be the corporations that name everything—the IBM StellarSphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks . . ."


Monday, November 27, 2006


Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I stumbled upon Spike TV's James Bond marathon, and had the opportunity to see Goldfinger for the first time in close to 4 years. I paid special attention to the movie this time around, because I keep hearing how Goldfinger is the best of the James Bond movies—especially the Sean Connery Bonds—and I tend to disagree with that assessment. Of the Connery Bonds, my favorite is You Only Live Twice; and of the Roger Moore Bonds, I'd go with his first installment as Bond, Live and Let Die.

My guess is that Goldfinger is so popular because it showcases some of the most memorable moments of the Bond franchise. In particular, Bond’s Aston Martin (now on display at the Spy Museum in DC), Auric Goldfinger as the most infamous non-SPECTRE villain, Pussy Galore (man, what a handle!) as the most memorable Bond girl, Oddjob as the most notorious henchman, and last but not least, the girl who died from being painted head to toe in gold.

Goldfinger's diabolical plan isn't so much to take over the world, but to make himself a mega-billionaire by overrunning Fort Knox and destroying its gold supply, thus making the monetary value of his own gold supply skyrocket. So of course, James has to step in and save the day, with some help along the way from Pussy Galore, Goldfinger's personal pilot. I can't help but laugh every time I hear Sean Connery say, "I must be dreaming" after he wakes up and is introduced to Pussy Galore—but something even more interesting to note is that her character, in the original Ian Fleming novel, was a lesbian! (Kinda makes you rethink the implications of her name, no?)

If "pimped out" had been a term used in the mid-60s to describe cars, it would have perfectly described the Aston Martin that Q cooked up for Bond. With more fancy gadgets than you can sneeze at (like a radar, an ejector seat, two side-mounted machine guns, an oil slick, and a smokescreen), I'm surprised I haven't found one of these under my Christmas tree already! And I would have to say that the most standout scene of the whole movie is when Goldfinger has Bond strapped down to a metal table, and he asks Goldfinger, "Do you expect me to talk?" Whereupon Goldfinger shouts his legendary reply, "No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!" I single out this scene because, out of all the Bond movies that I’ve seen, this is the one and only time I’ve seen James Bond genuinely afraid (it might have had something to do with the laser aimed right at his nads).

Despite its popularity in the Bond mainstream, Goldfinger is still unbelievably dated! You can feel your mid-60s flashbacks begin right with the rolling of the credits, the Bond theme song, and of course the beautiful girls outfitted along the swimming pools of Miami Beach. That said, there was still some amazing photography on display here! The early scenes in Miami Beach reminded me very much of Miami Vice, where Miami was portrayed as a whole other world apart from the one you and I know, where it’s constant a party and where anything and everything goes. The cinematography was splendid elsewhere in the film as well. For example, the scene where Goldfinger and Bond are playing golf, and Goldfinger finally asks Bond the reason for their meeting. The shot of Goldfinger’s face from the ground, as he’s aiming his shot at the hole (and when Bond drops the bar of gold to the ground, resounding with a solid yet hallow thunk!), shines.

Since this Bond story came early in the franchise, and since it was based on one of Ian Fleming's original stories, it was surprisingly refreshing to see some of the original characters that have since been forgotten. I think the last time we saw Felix Leiter, Bond's CIA friend, was in License to Kill (during the thankfully brief Timothy Dalton years). Plus, we had Bernard Lee filling in as the original M. And I dare say, I almost wanted to laugh when I saw Q with a full head of hair! (Though I must also say, Desmond Llewelyn is sorely missed.) And I hate to say this, but Lois Maxwell, even when she was young, never did anything for me as Moneypenny.

I’ll give this a 7 out of 10. While it’s not my favorite of the Bond franchise, it’s still an invaluable entry into the series, and obviously the most remembered among fans. As an interesting footnote, Penn State sported a running back recently named Aric Heffelfinger. Coincidence, or should we fire up the Goldfinger theme song, all the same?


Saturday, November 25, 2006

Hail to the condoms!

Tonight, #3-ranked USC meets #6-ranked Notre Dame out in Trojanland. I will, of course, be cheering for USC—not because I'm a fan of the Trojans, but because as a lifelong Penn Stater, to cheer for Notre Dame is somewhat akin to treason. And on a day-to-day basis, I have no words to describe my profound, mystical, and unspeakable loathing for Notre Dame (with apologies to my Indiana cousins). So tonight, to show my steadfast support for USC, I will be bringing a pack of Trojan condoms with me to the sports bar! (Though I wonder what kind of reception I'll get from the ladies there.)

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Black Friday

Let us all don black shirts and observe a moment of silence for the poor souls who stood in line late last night and were up at the crack of dawn this morning waiting outside every shopping mall and department store in the country, frothing at the bit for the unbridled savagry of discount Christmas shopping today.

Why people decide to fall victim to this day of shopping lunacy, I will never know. Me, I elect to stay home where it's nice and warm and calm, as I'm perfectly content to either wait another week to visit the mall and shop, or I could take the really easy approach and just log onto Amazon. Point, click, done. :)

Either way, today's a day I'm just going to enjoy from the comfort and peacefulness of my own home.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Am I doing a movie review this Thanksgiving Day? You bet I am! And for this special Thanksgiving Day review, I choose the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—that 1987 vehicle starring Steve Martin and the late great John Candy.

Why do I choose this movie to review, you might ask? Quite simple: out of the plethora of holiday movies out there, this is the one and only movie about Thanksgiving, and because this little-known Thanksgiving movie exhibits John Candy in perhaps his greatest performance ever.

The story is pretty simple: Steve Martin and John Candy are travelers who stumble onto each other as they try to leave New York for Chicago two days before Thanksgiving. Martin plays the ever-uptight Neal Page, while Candy plays the annoyingly lovable Del Griffith, combining into a kind of modern-day odd couple. En route to Chicago, their plane gets diverted to Wichita, Kansas, because Chicago gets snowed under, and Martin and Candy have to rely on each other to make it to Chicago by Thanksgiving Day . . . and sadly for them—but good for us!—it’s disaster after disaster for them on the road.

Here's a quick list of the more classic scenes from the movie:

  • Martin chasing the cab down Park Avenue in New York City
  • Martin and Candy waking up snuggling together in bed, each one forgetting that they’re not at home with their wives but with a total stranger
  • Martin getting picked up off the ground by the taxi driver . . . in a not-so-painless way
  • Their car catching fire on the side of the highway
  • Candy getting both arms stuck in the driver’s seat and having to drive with his knees
  • Candy driving down the wrong side of the highway (video below)

Martin has a very memorable scene where he loses it quite shockingly with a car rental agent, tossing out F-bombs like spit. In the late '80s, this may have been a bit more shocking to comedy (even though by then it had very firmly found its place in mainstream drama and action movies; case in point, Die Hard), but it really showcases Martin at his most funny—because even in his fury, he's still the funny man. I'd have to chalk that one up to his delivery of the lines, his facial mannerisms, his tone of voice. He knows precisely how to make this tirade into a moment of pure hilarity.

As to John Candy, I will proudly call this his greatest film role. He did a small bit of physical transformation by donning a mustache, and I don't know if he wore a wig or had it done specially, but his hair was tinted red and curled up—which somehow managed to look perfectly natural on him! His Del Griffith comes across as the luckiest man alive, either because he knows all the right people and can make all the right moves with them, or because he has the most impressive run of good luck that can frustrate the hell out of anyone else (like how he so easily gets a hotel room after their plane lands in Wichita, while Martin struggles desperately to find one). Yet his Del Griffith comes off as the most sympathetic character. He’s just a man trying to do the right things to get by (as superbly exemplified when he manages to sell shower curtain rings as earrings in a St. Louis bus station), yet you can sense his need for human contact and companionship (as exemplified by his hurt when Martin says to him in the St. Louis diner that they should go their separate ways).

Candy had two shining moments in this film. The first came early; the second came almost at the end. The first scene I refer to is when he and Steve Martin finally have their fight in the hotel room, where Martin lays all his anger and guilt on Candy really heavily. It's almost like he was deliberately trying to hurt him, and after he's spent from his long tirade, there's a terrible pause where the tension in the air is painful. And the beaten-down Candy very slowly, almost tearfully, and I dare say graciously regains enough of his composure to defend himself. He doesn't try to hurt Martin or counterattack his character, he doesn't angrily decry his accusations—instead, Candy admits to many of the faults, knows that he has weak spots that need improvement . . . but despite those weak spots, Candy knows that he's still a good human being. His one stuttered line says it all, "I like me! My wife likes me. My customers like me. Because I’m the real article. What you see is what you get."

The second moment for Candy to shine comes at the end of the film. After he and Steve Martin have parted ways, Martin goes off on the train—and then comes back. That final face-to-face meet, where Del's truth finally comes out, is perfectly executed by Candy, and knowing his truth makes your heart hurt with sorrow.

But knowing his truth is important, because this, coupled with the final reunion of Martin with his family at the end of the film, really shows why it’s important to be thankful for the things you have in life. Here, Steve Martin's Neal is grateful for his wife, his children, his family . . . and John Candy's Del is grateful for his friend Neal.

And John Candy’s smile just before the final credits roll is genuinely heart-warming.

A perfect 10 for this Thanksgiving Day.


Gobble gobble!

Happy Turkey Day to all! And to all a good night!

No sweet potato casserole for me this year. I travel north to PA to visit my grandfather at his retirement community—where the food is always good at their holiday banquets!

But a Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Whenever you hear the word “network”, one invariably thinks of Peter Finch shouting out that well-known call to arms. I just watched Network again recently, and was struck by how ahead of its time it was, and my friend Will (himself a media studies graduate) refers to this as “a very important movie”. Here and now in 2006 and raised in a much more open-minded environment than my parents’ generation was, I’m naturally a lot more open and accepting to various ideas that may have been more taboo in previous generations. That said, when watching Network and seeing so many parallels to modern-day society, it’s very important to remember that this movie was made in 1976—a full 30 years ago. (And if we’re appalled by it now, I shudder to think how it was received in 1976!)

In this era of reality TV (which, for the record, I can’t stand), it’s still shocking to see Faye Dunaway negotiating with a left-wing group leader about a syndicated TV show based on their group’s bank robberies, or about starting a homosexual soap opera or the “Mao Tse-Tung Hour”. It’s like today’s reality TV on crack—and this was made 30 years ago! Long before anyone had ever conceived of “Survivor”.

The idea of TV as propaganda machine was quite a fascinating one, an area touched on somewhat in Good Night and Good Luck. In Network, you had Peter Finch serving as the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves”, raving about how people have become so numb to the world that they believe anything they’re fed via the tube—and he’s exactly right in everything he says. We live our lives according to what we see on TV (only in this day and age, by what pop culture dictates as well). Finch even fed that very notion of TV as propaganda by telling everyone to publicly lobby against the proposed business deal at that network—and when the telegrams started pouring in to Washington to stop the deal, he showed just how powerful a propaganda machine the television could be!

What does it say about the common viewer, though? It says we believe anything and everything we hear, that we don’t think for ourselves, that (without question) we swallow every bit of information we’re fed through the TV and mass media, and each time I see his rant where he tells everyone to turn off the TV, right in the middle of this sentence . . . I’m very inclined to do just that!

I think what amazes me the most about Network is the blatant capitalistic manipulation of the common man. As Faye Dunaway so perfectly exemplifies by putting a post-breakdown Peter Finch on TV as the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves”, human beings are treated as non-thinking robots. When Peter Finch begins to have his breakdown, starting with his announcement of on-the-air suicide, the network execs don’t try to help him—they give him his own show to rant and rave about the downfall of society. Though his character doesn’t call it madness; he calls it a vision, clarity! And if you listen real carefully, everything he says makes terrifying sense. The one line that sums it up perfectly, early on in the movie when he tries to justify why he said he’d commit on-the-air suicide, is when he says, “I just ran out of bullshit!”

The romantic subplot between William Holden and Faye Dunaway could have been left out, I think. I didn’t feel it contributed to the story very much, except for certain degrees of character development—portraying Dunaway’s Diana Christiansen as a hard-core executive who has little ability to feel true emotions for other human beings. Don’t get me wrong—Dunaway was pretty standout, though I think her character could have been developed differently, showing her total corporate side without the romantic subplot. Robert Duvall was spectacular as the ruthless executive who took over the network and fired William Holden. And William Holden served well as the aging executive trying to do the right thing but failing miserably.

There’s still a lot of raised eyebrows regarding the Supporting Actress Oscar win of Beatrice Straight. She played William Holden’s wife, and had only two speaking scenes: one was simply to say, “Time to get up”; the other was an emotional breakdown at the news of William Holden leaving her for Faye Dunaway. Her long rant in that scene won her an Oscar, which has gone down in the annals of Oscar history as one of the biggest W-T-F moments since Marisa Tomei’s win for My Cousin Vinny. Me, personally, I think she did a respectable job in that scene, but hardly enough to warrant an Academy Award. I say that because her vocabulary in that scene was a little too sophisticated (read, a little too scripted) for such an emotional moment, and her rapidly changing emotions just didn’t strike me as believable. First she seems calm but uneasy, then boom! She’s angry and hurt. Then boom! She’s accepting and understanding. All in under five minutes. I just didn’t buy it.

I guess the same argument could be made for Ned Beatty’s boardroom scene, at least with respect to the brevity of screen-time and the sophistication of vocabulary. I mean, do you know anybody who walks about talking about the “holistic system of systems”? The “vast, interwoven, interacting, multivaried, multinational dominion of dollars”? Beatty was also Oscar-nominated for his one scene (didn’t win), but I found his character to be more believable than Straight's.

Being the cynic that I am, Network spoke to me in much the same way Syriana did. That kind of brutal honesty I commend, and at the same time it makes me wonder just how much I myself am falling victim to the numbness that Peter Finch warns us about, even though I hardly watch any syndicated TV anymore—obviously choosing movies instead—and a lot of the news I get through the web and the Washington Post. And if I really want an objective newscast that will tell me what’s honestly happening in the world, I’ll watch the “News Hour with Jim Lehrer”. Like many others, though, I’d love to get a peak into screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s mind to know what inspired him to write Network, what vision he had to see not only into the 1976 world of television but also into today’s world! I give this a 9 out of 10.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

RIP Robert Altman

I was originally going to post about VHS officially being declared dead by, but then stumbled across the news about the death of film director Robert Altman, who is best known for directing Gosford Park, Short Cuts, the film version of M*A*S*H, and recently the film version of A Prairie Home Companion. He was 81 years old.

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M. Night Shyamalan will always be remembered for The Sixth Sense, and I think all his other movies have been unfairly compared to that breakout film. The Sixth Sense certainly wasn’t his first film (I think it might have been his third), but the twist ending made it so damn popular that all of Shyamalan’s movies since then have met with high audience expectations. Unbreakable, his follow-up to The Sixth Sense, was roundly rejected, though I thought it was spectacular—and then he made his small-scale alien movie Signs.

Signs was the second DVD I ever owned (the first being The Bourne Identity), and I have to say, this is a movie that grows on you. At first I felt it was too small-scale, as it deals solely with an individual family’s struggle for survival during an alien invasion, and wasn’t the big epic that War of the Worlds (the original) or Independence Day were. Signs was simply about one family in their tiny community, irrespective of the rest of the world, and when the climactic alien invasion comes, it only shows that one family in their house trying to outrun and outmaneuver the aliens.

For the longest time, I didn’t find Mel Gibson believable as the fallen priest who’s still trying to deal with his wife’s death. I say that because, up to then, Mel Gibson had largely been typecast in my mind—not as Mad Max, but as Martin Riggs from the Lethal Weapon franchise. After 4 movies of that, as well as Bird on a Wire, it’s hard to get the ‘80s Mel out of your mind. I never saw Braveheart, nor Passion of the Christ, though I’d seen enough of Mel to know that he could be a serious, dramatic actor when he needed to be. And most times I thought he did it quite well! But as a priest . . . this role just had to grow on me. I did like Joaquin Phoenix as Mel’s younger brother, even though the age difference between the two actors kinda necessitated a suspension of belief.

If anything was proven by Signs, it’s that Shyamalan is a spectacular psychological story-teller. All of the scariest moments in the film are either when the screen is dark and you only hear the activity inside the blank screen, or when you’re hearing activity off in the distance, like when the family listens to the dog dying from the inside of the house, or when Mel is walking through the corn stalks at night and he hears the clicking of the aliens jarringly close by, or when Joaquin accidentally slaps the basement light with an axe, thrusting the room into darkness, and you hear them frantically rustling to barricade the basement door. When fear is left purely to the imagination, it works 100 times better than seeing the blood and guts and gore in front of you. Shyamalan clearly knows this, and utilizes it to full effect—not just in Signs, but in all of his movies. There’s a moment where Joaquin Phoenix finds a radio in the basement, turns it on and starts tuning through all the stations, finding nothing but white noise, and he says, “What’s happening out there?” Just trying to imagine what is happening out there, each audience member comes up with horrific scenes of their own, filling in their own blanks. And again, it works so much better than actually seeing what happens in the outside world.

Shyamalan also knows how to evoke very powerful emotions from moments that, in real life, would be utterly unbearable. The dinner/“last meal” scene, where everyone begins to break down and cry . . . this scene guts me every time I see it. Everyone’s emotions are so high, because alien crafts are hovering in 300-400 cities around the world, all within a mile of crop circles (such as the ones Mel and his children found in their fields at the start of the movie), everyone faced with the unknown—and the very real possibility of their own death.

How can facts like these be ignored when gathering around the dinner table? They all fear that it’s their last meal, and it’s truly heartbreaking when Mel, unable to control his fear any longer, starts lashing out at his children, then loses all composure and starts to cry himself while trying to eat. You can feel his sense of strength fall away like melting glacial ice, and when his children come to him to hug and forgive him almost immediately afterward . . . if it weren’t for Mel’s reaching out and grabbing Joaquin’s shoulder and pulling him over to the rest of the group hug, I wouldn’t be able to bear watching this scene. It really does pierce right into you with its raw emotion, and that little dose of humor amidst a moment that can only come between brothers serves as the scene’s saving grace (at least for me).

Signs didn’t have the customary Shyamalan twist at the end, which I was grateful for. While it worked perfectly in The Sixth Sense, the twist in Unbreakable really didn’t, even though the story benefited from it. And in Signs, you didn’t even need a twist; the story worked out perfectly on its own.

I have to wonder if Shyamalan was trying to teach a lesson in faith and in the power of belief through this movie—not faith and belief in God, but faith and belief in life, in ourselves, in the power and mystery of life, bringing us the most unexpected surprises, connecting random moments in the most sensible and logical ways. Like the last words of Mel’s wife before she died, or of Rory Culkin’s asthma at the very end. Everything, in the words of the director himself during his cameo, “was meant to be”.

I give this a 7 out of 10, ranking this in my top three favorite Shyamalan films, with Unbreakable being my favorite and The Sixth Sense holding third place. (And as a side note to Shyamalan, you may want to research the Catholic faith a little more next time, because the last I checked, Catholic priests don’t marry and have families.)


Monday, November 20, 2006

In comes Acta, out goes Soriano

The arrival of Manny Acta as the new Nats manager may be old news, but the departure of Alfonso Soriano isn't. While it was speculated for some time that he'd leave the Nats for another organization (despite his many claims to the contrary, that he loves DC so much and wants to stay here for as long as possible), he officialy signed on with the Cubs this weekend.

I must admit being undecided on the Soriano matter. I thought he was a very talented player, but I also can't forget how he alienated everyone in the off-season last year by refusing to play outfield. As to Acta, only time can tell. I'm one of the few people who was sad to see Frank Robinson leave, so I see Acta as having big shoes to fill. My heart still yearns for the inaugural 2005 team (pre-4th of July, that is), with names like Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge and Jose Guillen. And who can forget Frank Robinson's infamous showdown with Mike Scoscia? Can Acta live up to that? We'll see this spring, hopefully!



Right up there with The Godfather duet, Mulholland Drive, and Spaceballs, Heat is hands-down one of my all-time favorite movies, and I would easily rank it up there with one of the greatest movies ever made.

I remember when it first came onto the scene in 1995, and I don’t recall it getting a lot of publicity, save for its pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and the mega firefight that took place about halfway through the film. For many years, that was all I knew about Heat, until I finally got around to seeing it in the spring of 2003. Believe it or not, after my first viewing, I wasn’t all that impressed . . . but then I decided to give it a second viewing, and after I was finished, I was absolutely stunned, because all these characters stayed with me after the final credits were done rolling. I couldn’t shake them. I kept thinking of Val Kilmer exiting the white Camaro and finding Ashley Judd (his on-screen wife) on the balcony across the street, her subtle wave to cue him in that he was being set up by the LAPD, their husband-wife fight earlier in the film, Danny Trejo frantically calling up Robert De Niro telling him that the cops were onto him, and of course the explosive gunfight right after the bank robbery.

At just under 3 hours in length, it’s a task to get through it all, but after umpteen viewings, I find it well worth it. I would call this movie one of the best character dramas ever put to film, as well as one of the best-made movies ever created. And when I say “best-made”, I mean all the details of the movie—the editing, the realism, etc. It’s like director Michael Mann (my favorite director, as I stated in my review of Miami Vice) is clubbing you over the head with perceptive reality and not resorting to cinematic techniques to make a single moment draw out forever. He takes you there as quick as an eye-blink, the event passes just as quickly, and after it's over, you’re standing there in shock, trying to mentally process it all. In real life, I believe that’s really how it is. I have yet to encounter something in real life that has happened in slow-mo, or at least in a timeframe long enough for me to let it all sink in and react appropriately. Mann catches you off-guard, just as life itself catches you off-guard, and I laud that realism.

Furthering that realism is the fact that Mann shot the entire film on location; not a single scene was filmed inside a studio. You can tell it’s a location shoot whenever you hear a gun go off. You want to know why?

Because you hear the echo!

The very first heist in the movie, with De Niro’s crew hitting the armored car underneath the highway overpass, the machine-gun fire literally shatters the air. And when the last shot is fired, the echo is still rattling off into the distance. That’s something you almost never hear in a movie—something as small as an echo, a natural sound in an outdoor setting. And it lends such incredible believability to those scenes.

To this day, I’d still love to know how Mann shot the street fight after the bank robbery. That had to have been some of the most intense, minutely-detailed filming ever executed. The entire gunfight couldn’t have lasted more than 4 minutes, but the carnage is unfathomable, and I think Mann again hits you over the head with realistic perception—that something as monumental and show-stopping as a large-scale machine-gun fight in the street between an entire police division and a crew of bank robbers can be over and done with in a matter of mere minutes. It comes at you fast—and it ends even faster, before you even know what’s happening.

The acting was spectacular all around! This, I feel, was Robert De Niro’s best film role, and I’m still upset that Heat was completely snubbed by the Academy in 1995, because I can think of at least 7 nominations it should have received. You could feel De Niro’s self-imposed isolation for the sake of his work, his discipline and sensibility when pulling each job (like walking off the platinum job when he heard the bang from the truck across the street), even his perfect mannerisms. Pacino, as always, played Pacino, but his dedication to his own job was just as real—giving up his home and family life for the sake of chasing down De Niro. Diane Venora was much better in this movie as the neglected wife than she was in The Insider. I don’t know if it’s because her respective characters were drawn differently, but as wife to Pacino in Heat, her rejection and neglect are palpable, real, and not at all annoying (like they were in The Insider). Even a young Natalie Portman stood out as the neglected, rejected daughter (not by Pacino, but by her biological father).

Now we go back to Michael Mann’s creative vision for this movie, his trademark “cool” style, which is really at its best here (though some would argue that it peaked with The Insider). One of my favorite scenes is when De Niro, the disciplined loner, meets a lady at a coffee shop and they make a connection—awkwardly at first, but gradually the walls came down. The scene of them having drinks on the balcony overlooking Los Angeles at night, the soft music in the background, ever so subtle, is magic. The personal things said, the longings and desires that went unsaid but still understood by the other, it's all pitch-perfect.

During the infamous coffee shop scene, I noticed right away that you didn’t see Pacino and De Niro in the same shot. You only saw the front of one’s face and the back of the other’s head at a time. But in this small scene, I think we have the epicenter of the entire movie: a detective and a professional thief, two men very much alike in their dedication to their work and in their superlative abilities to do their jobs, both feeling the personal loss for the choices they each make, and knowing that this is the only moment they’ll have in non-violent, non-threatening circumstances. Because the job dictates that Pacino (detective) must take down De Niro (professional thief), or that De Niro must put down Pacino for getting in his way.

I give this movie a perfect 10. Perfect direction, perfect acting, perfect execution, perfect everything. My personal favorite. Just for your enjoyment, I've included this video clip of the coffee shop scene, preceded by Pacino tailing De Niro down the highway (I love this highway scene, with the music and lightning-quick editing).


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Are zebras on the endangered species list yet?

In my 28 years on this planet, I've seen quite a lot of Penn State football games. Out of all those games, today's season finale against Michigan State had to be the worst game I've ever seen.

How, I ask you how, can our offense fumble the ball 4 times in the first half? How is it that our quarterback, Anthony Morelli, could barely complete a single pass? Or for that matter, ever seem to find a receiver? I'm seriously of the opinion that his talents were wasted last year, despite whatever good points (literal and figurative) Michael Robinson could bring to the game. Morelli was an unstoppable powerhouse last year whenever we brought him in; this year he's been erratic and inconsistent, at best. His talents would have been better utilized last year, and I don't lay that square on Morelli's shoulders--I think it's also a bad coaching decision.

Which brings me to my next point. This is the second game that JoePa stayed up in the press booth for the game. It was quite different not seeing him pacing up and down the sidelines, or running across the field at the end of the game to greet the other team's coach and shake their hand (a true act of class), or shouting hair-raising obscenities at the refs for making bad calls--another point of contention, which I'll get to later. Getting back to Joe, I have to wonder if this is the last game we'll see him as head coach of the Nittany Lions. After getting accidentally caught up in that tackle at the Wisconsin game, I was hoping he was thinking, "Hey, maybe it's time to bow out gracefully." Time will tell on that point, but as a lifelong Penn State football fan who grew up watching Joe coach this team to glory--including the 4 years I spent as a student at Penn State--it's very painful seeing him become redundant, wearing out his welcome, destroying the wonderful legacy that he brought to the Penn State football program--and to himself as a living legend. I honestly wish he would have hung it up after the Orange Bowl win last year, for then he truly would have gone out on a high note. But again, time will tell.

Now, let's talk about the officiating today, because I think these refs were flown in specially from the state of Michigan (where Penn State has had a rough history with play-calling--cough cough, last year!). Now I counted at least 4 holding penalties that should have been called, along with 2 blocks in the back--all of them happening right in front of the ref's eyes, too! Now I must ask the age-old question here: "Are you guys blind or do you just need glasses?" (And if I really wanted to be a conspiracy theorist, I'd also add, "How much did the Wolverine staff pay you guys off?")

Despite all this, Penn State still won the day, 17-13. I went to this game with my father, and met up with several friends after the game for a post-game tailgate, where we had our customary bourbon toast to victory before diving into the beer dogs, hamburgers, and grilled stickies. I must confess a certain sadness with this football season now concluding, despite whatever bowl game we go to (at this rate, it ought to be the Charmin Toilet Bowl!), but at the same time, I know I'll be looking forward to the annual Blue/White Game come April.

So until then . . . WE ARE!!! PENN STATE!!!


Friday, November 17, 2006

. . . and the suspense is killing us!

In anticipation of tomorrow's season finale, my friend Will did a pre-game write-up for the Penn State-Michigan State matchup. (You can't miss it, in big bold letters.)

In the meantime, I'm now getting a craving for some of Will's delicious beer dogs. That's something he came up with a few years ago for one tailgate, where he marinated several hot dogs in Yuengling and cooked them at the tailgate. If you're thinking that sounds gross, I assure you--it's not! The beer marination adds a lovely zing to the dogs!


Martin Scorsese

I have a very strange dynamic at work when it comes to Martin Scorsese. Which is to say, I have a very great admiration and respect for him as a filmmaker! . . . Though I don’t really care for many of his movies. I respect him as a filmmaker because he pours his heart and soul into his movies, because they exemplify his passion, because they come from the heart. And I’ll go see a movie of his because . . . very simply, it’s a Martin Scorsese picture!

But his landmark films—Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Casino, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Gangs of New York—none of them really did anything for me. I did, however, like The Aviator (I thought that should have won Best Picture at the 2004 Academy Awards over Million Dollar Baby, which is another film that didn’t do anything for me) and really enjoyed Bringing Out the Dead, so I guess it’s kind of a hit-and-miss thing with Scorsese’s films. (For the record, I haven’t seen The Departed yet.)

To this day, I know many people are still outraged that Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas didn’t take home the Best Picture Oscar (losing to Ordinary People, Rocky, and Dances with Wolves, respectively), and I personally am angered that Clint Eastwood beat out Scorsese for the directing Oscar in 2004, because The Aviator was a far more epic and ambitious picture than Million Dollar Baby, which I felt was a bit of a manipulative and overrated film. I’m guessing that Scorsese’s best hopes for an Oscar statuette will be an honorary Oscar, just like Robert Altman received. (Hell, Hitchcock only received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award at the 1968 Oscars. He never took home a Best Director statuette, either.)

As to Scorsese’s movies, I’m firmly in the camp that The Godfather duet (you’ll note I didn’t say “trilogy”) was the quintessential Mafia story, and that Goodfellas will never hold a candle to it. That’s not to say that I felt Goodfellas was a bad movie; it just didn’t really do anything for me. Having said that, though, Joe Pesci seriously deserved his Oscar for this film. When I watched Casino, though, I couldn’t help but wonder if Scorsese was trying to somehow remake Goodfellas, because so many elements seemed to carry over (not the least of which was Joe Pesci essentially reprising his Oscar-winning role, only under a different character name).

Raging Bull, widely felt to the best movie of the 80s, was another movie I was kind of indifferent to. Again, not a bad movie by any means, and Robert De Niro richly deserved his Oscar (at the same time setting the gold standard for physical transformation for a film role; he looked like hell when 50 pounds overweight). Though I would say this was a well-made movie, rather than having a superior story (though I’m sure many many people would disagree with me on that). Filming in black and white was a clever touch, and De Niro and Joe Pesci made an excellent pairing as brothers (they do have good chemistry on screen). Though I also think it was a good choice to give Ordinary People the Best Picture Oscar that year over Raging Bull, because what made that film so powerful was that the story could literally happen to anyone, that the characters were indeed ordinary people going through ordinary life, and how such ordinary people deal with unimaginable tragedy. The only thing I would have changed was, I would have given Scorsese the Best Director Oscar instead of Robert Redford, because as I said, Raging Bull was a well-made movie (it even got an Oscar for film editing).

Taxi Driver kinda depressed me, and I had a hard time relating to De Niro’s Travis Bickle descending into madness. Though his trademark line, “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?” couldn’t have been done by anyone else—just like nobody but Peter Finch could have cried out, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”

I personally would like to see Scorsese do another De Niro-Pesci pairing, but I must admit, I’m a little bothered by Leonardo DiCaprio becoming Scorsese’s golden boy now. I will admit, he was very very good in The Aviator, and it gave me newfound respect for DiCaprio as an actor, but I still can’t seem to shake his pretty-boy image from Titanic.

But all that said, I hope to go into The Departed and feel good about it afterwards, much like I felt good about The Aviator afterwards. I have such respect for this director, and I want to like more of his movies, but only time and further viewings can tell.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

The end?

I went to the PSU happy hour tonight in Dupont Circle, and it really hit me when talking with a few of the other board members--college football season will be over on Saturday!!! Or at least Penn State football season will be over. And I can't help but feel truly sad. Penn State football is something I live and breath for every year. I yearn for September like a child yearns for Christmas morning, savoring the anticipation of my first trip to Happy Valley, my first steps into the open air of Beaver Stadium ready to cheer my Nittany Lions onto victory.

And Saturday's game against Michigan State is going to be the last game of this season.

It just makes me wonder, where did the time go? It feels like football season passed by without me even noticing it. Yes, I did go to games (only 4 this year), but it flew by so fast that I feel myself shellshocked by its upcoming conclusion. Saturdays won't be the same in the coming months--but then again, I usually find something else to do, so I guess I'll make due.

(If nothing else, I can at least look forward to bowl season, yes?)

But deep down, another part of me wonders . . . will this be JoePa's last game? Will the injury he sustained during the Wisconsin game be the straw that breaks the camel's back and sends the living legend into retirement? I wish I had an answer for that, but I know this much: whenever Joe coaches his last game, he will be a hero among his Penn State brethren, and I'll for sure applaud him.


Miami Vice

I never saw the show while growing up. I’d of course heard of it, but I never watched an episode during its run during the mid to late 80s. It was only in the last few years that I learned that my favorite director, Michael Mann, was actually one of the creative geniuses behind the conception of the show, and that he served as the show’s executive producer.

His influence can definitely be felt!

When I first learned that Mann was going to direct a feature film based on the show, I was at the same time ecstatic and dubious—ecstatic because my favorite director was going to release a new film on something that he happened to have worked on in the past, dubious because of the casting (I’m sorry, but he could have done much better than Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx). To prepare for my seeing the movie, I rented a DVD of the show from Netflix. I decided to watch the pilot and a few first-season episodes, just to wet my whistle a little (even though I’d heard that the movie would little resemble the show).

Being a fan of Michael Mann, I right away started looking for his influence, his style, when I first popped in the pilot episode. Though I think I was sidetracked by the laughably dated feel to the opening shot of the pilot—Tubbs sitting on a dark New York street late at night, inside one of those ugly mid-80s Buicks that’s about the size of a U-boat. (The poofy hair didn’t help much, either.) But gradually as the episode went on (it was a 2-hour show, which I should have figured, given that it was the pilot episode), Mann’s cool style ever so slowly became more evident—from Crockett’s classic Ferrari to his sleek white suits to the sexy beach scenes . . . even right down to the background music! The music was, of course, mid-80s, but the pieces fit their respective scenes so perfectly! Like when Martin Ferraro dressed in drag is walking up the beach to kill a very young and almost unrecognizable Mykelti Williamson (I think he’s become a serious Michael Mann regular), I can’t quite recall what music was playing, but it really hit the scene dead on.

One of my favorite scenes from the pilot, which so perfectly reflects Mann’s style, was when Crockett and Tubbs were with colleagues (and love interests, I gathered) Gina and Trudy at the outdoor club, talking about finding the gangster Calderone. And damn, but do you get immersed in 80s culture! The band on stage is playing “All Night Long” (which I hated for years, until I heard it in the context of this show, and thankfully reassociated it for me), Trudy and Gina’s hair couldn’t be any more poofy, and I can’t even describe the clothes except to say . . . “80s”! But then Tubbs turns around and sees Calderone raising his glass to them (because he’s just bought them a bottle of bubbly), and when Tubbs walks through the crowd of dancers against the trademark trumpet fanfare of “All Night Long”, that look of absolute death on his face . . . that’s pure Michael Mann, baby!

And it wouldn’t be right of me not to mention the legendary “In the Air Tonight” scene of Crockett and Tubbs driving to their supposed final showdown with Calderone, and Crockett wanting to say some sort of goodbye to his ex-wife. You know, I should probably let the scene speak for itself here, for I surely couldn’t do it justice in my own words.

Here and now in 2006, after several of Mann’s movies and maybe 2 episodes of Miami Vice, his style is old hat to me, but nevertheless savory filmmaking. In 1984, though . . . Mann was way ahead of his time.

Which now brings me to the 2006 film version of Miami Vice.

As I said earlier, I was very dubious when I heard who would be filling the roles of Crockett and Tubbs. Let me state here and now that I do like Jamie Foxx as an actor, but I think he’s seriously milking his Oscar win for much more than it’s worth, because he’s now turning into a latter-day Samuel L. Jackson by being in damn near everything. In doing so, he’s wearing out his welcome for me. He was awesome in Ray, though I was puzzled by his Oscar nomination for Collateral (I think if anyone deserved an Oscar nomination, it should have been Cruise for playing a stunningly convincing bad guy), though with seeing Foxx in Miami Vice, Jarhead, Ali, Any Given Sunday, and now Dreamgirls, he’s getting a bit old. And his contribution to Miami Vice was minimal, at best, because the character of Tubbs was given very little screen time or relevance, other than just “being there” overall.

Colin Farrell, having already earned a reputation with the ladies in Hollywood and as being a somewhat unconvincing actor (at least for me), didn’t give me hope for him to adequately fill Don Johnson’s shoes as Sonny Crockett. The film very clearly revolved around him as Crockett—and to a lesser extent, his relationship with Isabella—and didn’t give any real focus to his partnership with Tubbs. To date, the only thing I’ve liked Colin Farrell in was Minority Report.

But getting back to the film version of Miami Vice, it did have several good points. The Mann style was very firmly there, with the cool cars, designer suits, ladies in bikinis, and even the speedboats (I think it was noted as being the only holdover from the original series). There was a kick-ass gunfight somewhat reminiscent of the legendary bank heist and subsequent firefight from Heat (Mann’s masterpiece, in my opinion). There was quite a lot of gore (e.g., blood spattering all over the wall when someone’s brains got blown out), as the action came pretty rapid-fire without any lingering or slow-motion camerawork—probably more reflective of real life, actually! But I think the focus here was on style, and not so much on story or character. What made Heat a masterpiece was that it perfectly blended style with a character study, made you care about and really understand the two main characters (who just so happened to be Al Pacino and Robert De Niro). With Miami Vice, it was an overabundance of style and an underabundance of character. For the people (unlike me) who grew to know the original Crockett and Tubbs inside and out, I think they would have benefited from more character development—not to mention better actors. (As a side note, I was a little disappointed that they played a guitar-heavy remake of “In the Air Tonight” during the closing credits rather than the original Phil Collins version. What can I say—I’m a purist.)

For me, I’d have to give the movie 7 out of 10, but that may be partially due to my love of Michael Mann as a filmmaker. Because as was evidenced in this recent addition to his filmography, even at 64 years young, the man (or should I say, the Mann) has still got it!


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The politics of failure have failed!

Given where I live, some might find it amusing to know that I hate politics. But after last Tuesday's election, I couldn't help but get caught up in all the fanfare. So I thought this little clip was in order.


I've done it!

Well, I've finally done it! I've finally joined the whole online community of blogging.

I guess this means I'll be posting semi-regularly about the general happenings of my life, which include Penn State football games, Washington Nationals baseball games, local Washington, DC, happenings . . . and lots and lots and lots of movie reviews!

This would probably be the appropriate time to state that I'm something of a movie buff, that I watch way too many movies for my own good, and have a strong passion for storytelling. So consider yourself warned. Oh, and all movie reviews will come replete with spoilers. I welcome all comments and viewpoints--not just about film or books or football or baseball, but about whatever. So see you all soon!


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