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?

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year's Eve!

To one and all, a very Happy New Year! Wherever/however you celebrate tonight, make sure you drink one for me. (And make sure to keep your fingers crossed for a glorious Penn State victory tomorrow!)


Saturday, December 30, 2006


Se7en came out at a unique time in my life. I was a senior in high school when it hit the theaters, and at the time I was just discovering philosophy. When I heard that Se7en took some of its premise from old philosophical thought, particularly as it applied to ancient religious teachings, I was intrigued more and more. And when I finally got around to seeing it, I wasn't at all disappointed. Let me state right up front, Se7en is not a feel-good film—not by any stretch of the imagination. It is, however, an incredibly brilliant and original conception that was executed just as brilliantly.

The story is pretty basic: a serial killer is roaming this rainy, unnamed city (which could pass as either L.A. or New York), committing murders that are based on the seven deadly sins. The first body found is an incredibly overweight man who was discovered with his face in a plate of spaghetti. The autopsy revealed that he ate and ate and ate until his internal digestive organs started to rip open (he stopped just short of eating until he burst), and written behind the refrigerator was the word "gluttony". Assigned to the case is veteran detective William Somerset, as played by the ever-wonderful Morgan Freeman, in what is essentially a major straight-man role. Complementing his seriousness is young hotshot detective David Mills, played by Brad Pitt.

Pitt and Freeman fill their respective roles remarkably well. Freeman's Somerset is disciplined and wise beyond his years (even though he's only days away from his retirement), and Pitt's Mills is a man who does his job well but feeds off his emotions far more than he should—and, as the film proves, at the worst possible times too. Gwyneth Paltrow makes a cameo as the conflicted yet loving wife of David Mills. R. Lee Ermey fills the shoes of the police captain overseeing the investigation. Even John C. McGinley makes an appearance, though he's hard to spot a lot of times. He plays the SWAT team leader, California, and half the time he's directing the activity of the SWAT team, so he doesn't stand still long enough for anyone to notice, "Hey, that's John McGinley!"

Constant darkness pervades the entire film. Taking place during the course of one week, it rains for damn near the entire time, with the sun shining through only on the last day. And many of the sequences take place in the darker and seedier sections of town. For example, the basement of the nightclub where the "lust" victim was found, or even John Doe's apartment building. At the same time, though, some scenes were filmed with such beauty that you can't take your eyes away from the screen. The nighttime montage of Somerset researching in the library and Mills reviewing the case reports, all to the tune of Bach's beautiful Orchestral Suite No. 3, is simply divine.

But going back to what I said at the start, Se7en is anything but a feel-good film. In fact, it's quite disturbing in many spots. You can literally pinpoint the moment where the movie jumps into its deeply disturbing mode: during the discovery of the "sloth" victim. When he starts to croak and convulse on his bed, I still want to cringe now matter how many times I see it.

The action in Se7en is done very well. Mills's long chase of John Doe from his apartment down into the street was one of the best foot chases I've seen, second only to those in the recently-released Casino Royale. What makes this chase scene so good, though, is the camera work and the editing. The bouncing camera effect was debated by many in The Bourne Supremacy, but here in Se7en, it fully succeeded in transporting you right into the action, making the viewer a part of the chase. And I especially loved how the rain was utilized during this chase—how it was filmed from the downward angle when Mills climbs down the fire stairs, or when Doe has the gun pressed up against Mills's head in the alley.

John Doe's entrance onto the scene is quite remarkable, though at the same time unsettling. He literally walks into the police station, covered in blood, and for all intents and purposes announces, "Here I am!"

Se7en was released in 1995; this was the same year that Kevin Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects. In my opinion, his Oscar should have been for this movie, because even though he was good in The Usual Suspects, his intense performance as John Doe was spectacular, one of his finest performances ever. His portrayal of John Doe, as a man whose beliefs penetrate down to the very core of his being, gives me the chills every time I see it. What really stands out, I think, is his impassioned monologue to Brad Pitt about "innocent people", about how all his victims deserved to die because of how great their sins were, and how sin exists everywhere around us . . . and is tolerated and dismissed by the common man. If this kind of rhetoric had come from anyone else, it would be dismissed as the ravings of a crazy man. But in Kevin Spacey's expert hands, his speech actually makes frightening sense! And when you sit down to actually think about it, what does this say about our society when we tolerate and dismiss every terrible thing (what John Doe would consider sin) that happens around us?

And the ending of the movie, while nevertheless terribly disturbing, is downright brilliant in its conception! Though I would have changed one thing to make the circle more complete: after Mills shoots John Doe and turns him into the "envy" victim, Mills in his grief should have turned the gun onto himself, thus making himself the actual "wrath" victim. By dying, he would have become the seventh victim, thereby completing John Doe's quest to turn each sin against seven individual sinners.

10 out of 10. So many things came together perfectly in this film: writing, direction, casting, acting, cinematography . . . originality! Despite the uneasiness and fright factor at play in Se7en, the thinking element to the film draws me back to it again and again.


Friday, December 29, 2006

Happy birthday, Dad!

Today my father adds another candle to his birthday cake, and in his honor, we have consumed many fine dark beverages that are very thick in nature, eaten many fine steaks, and gone for many walks around town (in the process, walking off all those fine Guinness calories). Happy birthday, Dad! Let us both drink many more fine pints in your honor!


Night at the Museum

Every year we end up taking my father to see a movie for his birthday, and this year, he chose Ben Stiller's newest comedy, Night at the Museum, for his birthday movie. (A nice break from 3 straight years of Lord of the Rings, I might add.) At first, I didn't quite realize that it was being marketed as a kids' movie. I say that largely because of the casting, because when I think of Ben Stiller, I frequently think of such lowbrow comedies as There's Something About Mary, Dodgeball, Starsky and Hutch—not exactly what I'd associate with family fun and/or "for the kids." But if Night at the Museum serves as any kind of benchmark for Ben Stiller's career, then I'd have to say that this comedic actor can work well in the family fun genre, too.

The story of Night at the Museum is pretty straightforward. Ben Stiller gets a job as the night watchman at the Natural History Museum in New York—a job he desperately needs because he's divorced, he can't hold down a job, and he wants very much to maintain a good relationship with his young son. So to make ends meet, he accepts this job thinking it's going to be a breeze (as evidenced not just by his sleeping on the job the first night, but by his hilarious rendition of "Eye of the Tiger" over the PA system). Little does he know that, once the sun goes down, all the exhibits in the museum come to life, courtesy of an ancient Egyptian tablet that's been on display at the museum for over 50 years. Naturally, chaos ensues when he first discovers this, and we're treated to an outrageous and hilarious array scenes: Ben playing fetch with a T-Rex skeleton, frantically trying to outwit a monkey who keeps stealing his keys, getting tied down à la Gulliver’s Travels by pint-sized cowboys who want to run him down with a train (a toy train, naturally), and trying to broker peace between the miniature cowboys and the miniature Roman gladiators. And as we learn, the night watchman's real job isn't so much to patrol the museum as a security guard, but to keep all the live animal and people exhibits inside the museum during the night hours . . . for if any go outside and remain outside come daylight, then that exhibit turns to dust.

Making an (uncredited) guest appearance is fellow Frat Pack buddy Owen Wilson, in the role of the hot-shot yet sensitive cowboy leader, as well as a masterful appearance by Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt. Carla Gugino (we may remember her from a lusciously smokin' cameo in Sin City) filled the requisite love interest role, and I was quite surprised—but at the same time delighted!—to see screen legends Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney appear in memorable supporting roles. I will admit, at first this made me uneasy, because all too often you see big-name actors filling in roles that are so transparent and paper-thin that they become thankless and trite, there only for their stardom and name. Thankfully the roles filled by Mr. Van Dyke and Rooney weren't those; theirs were respectably fleshed out, worth every minute of their screen time. As I said earlier, when I saw their names roll in the opening credits, I was really surprised, because both men have to be well into their 80s! But even from the very first appearance of Dick Van Dyke, when he's crouched down at the door and mocking creaky old-man deafness, you know deep down that the man's still got it, that he can still play his unique comedy.

Naturally, to watch a fanciful movie like this, you have to submit your beliefs to suspension. Because if you can't, you obviously won't like Night at the Museum. But if you can, you're in for a wonderful ride. I mean, how often do you see little miniatures come to life and try to deflate all the air from your van's tires? Though in all seriousness, the way that scene was filmed lent perfectly to the comedy of that scene. Because what you have is Owen Wilson's sensitive cowboy along with Octavius Caesar (I can't recall the actor's name) and several other miniature people sticking a miniature harpoon into the air-pressure valve of a tire, and the special effects present the escaping air as a gale-force wind gust that threatens to blow away each of the miniatures—but then the camera pulls back to about 20 feet away from the van, and all you hear is the tiny hiss of air being released from the tires. Compare, contrast; for just that mere change in dimensions makes this scene hilarious. And how often do you see a comedian like Ben Stiller turn into a psychologist and get right to the root of Genghis Khan's personal anguish?

I think it was Robin Williams who ended up stealing the show, though. His rendition of Teddy Roosevelt, while still embodying the all-encompassing personality of the former prez, was surprisingly sensitive—especially when we discover that he's been pining away for the Sacajawea exhibit for over 50 years. (Though after seeing Arsenic and Old Lace, I think it's safe to say that nobody can utter Teddy's trademark line, "Bully!" quite like John Alexander can.) Williams's Teddy Roosevelt served as a kind of father-figure, though, a leader for Ben Stiller not so much to follow but to learn from, to be guided and inspired by. For in the end, it was he who recognized Ben Stiller as the "great man" he was to become.

In the end, Night at the Museum impressed me more than I had expected it to, and I give it an 8 out of 10. For a lighthearted family comedy, it succeeds quite well, and provides a good stepping stone for Ben Stiller as a comedic actor.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Oooh, they have the internet on computers now!

I'm suddenly remembering why I upgraded to DSL in the first place. While I've been visiting my family in PA for the holidays, blogging hasn't been easy. On top of just generally being busy, my main obstacle is that the only computer I have at my disposal still runs on dial-up! After having DSL in my own home and having high-speed connectivity at work, I've gotten so used to the conveniences of faster speed and constant connectivitiy that I've forgotten just how much of a hassle dial-up can be. I think Comic Book Guy sums it up nicely when he makes his statement about high-speed modems.


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

RIP Gerald Ford

Two years after the death of former President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. has lost another of its former leaders when Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States, the only sitting President to have ascended into office through succession rather than election, has died. He didn't hold office during my lifetime, but I do know him as the President who pardoned Nixon, and who coined the phrase, "Our long national nightmare is over."

I missed the opportunity to see Reagan when he was lying in state at the U.S. Capitol in 2004, but I hope to get the chance to see Ford this time around.

Rest in peace, President Ford.


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Steven Spielberg

I feel like I have a love/hate relationship with the movies of Steven Spielberg. For a man whose movies have left an indelible mark on cinema in the last 30 years, I still can't seem to decide whether or not I like him as a director, or whether or not I like his movies. I guess one of the major problems I have with Spielberg movies, and this may sound trite, but it's how he idealizes things, turns moments into the warm and fuzzy feel-good scenes, which I feel is totally unrealistic. Having said that, though, Spielberg has made some absolutely brutal movies already, so while I say his feel-good moments are sappy and unrealistic, I can't ever accuse him of being completely out of touch with how terrible and how cruel real life can be.

But if I had to list some of the Spielberg movies I like, seated firmly at the top of the list would be Raiders of the Lost Ark, which introduced to the world the unforgettable character of Indiana Jones. I can't tell you how many Sundays I spent as a teenager watching Raiders and Last Crusade. (Temple of Doom I only rediscovered after buying the Indiana Jones DVD set.) Minority Report I absolutely loved! I don't know why, but I still find it hard to believe that it was a Spielberg-directed film. Maybe because sci-fi of this degree isn't what I would associate with Spielberg (E.T. notwithstanding), but I love the thinking element to Minority Report, how it challenges the viewer to not only accept what happens but to think about what it means on a larger scale. And what I can say about Jaws that hasn't been said already? (Hell, I think about it every time I hear Dvorăk's New World Symphony, thank you very much John Williams!) A story that gets circulated a lot in my family is how a distant cousin saw a TV special about the special effects in Jaws—in particular, the severed head that pops out of the bottom of the boat—and when he saw that scene in the theaters, he actually laughed while the audience cringed in terror.

Spielberg really hit his high-water mark in 1993, though, scoring back-to-back mega-hits with Jurassic Park and Schindler's List, the latter going on to win multiple Oscars, including Best Picture. Jurassic Park, while definitely having a dark element to it, was still more reminiscent of the feel-good Spielberg that we got to know in E.T. Schindler's List, however, was altogether a different story! Here Spielberg held nothing back in his depiction of how brutal and horrific the Holocaust was to the Jews during World War II—and I mean he held nothing back! I remember watching this movie very closely when I first saw it (at the tender age of 16), and while I was greatly impressed by it, what struck me the hardest wasn't any of the mass genocide that was depicted. It was the final scene of all the Schindler Jews who were still alive in 1993, all walking past Schindler's grave accompanied by the actors who portrayed them, and laying rocks on his grave . . . and that was the first time I ever felt myself tear up during a movie, because in that moment, Schindler's List went from being a movie to an actual (albeit brief) realization of real life, that these things we saw on screen actually happened in real life, and that these are the real people it happened to.

His brutal realism with Schindler's List was again evidenced 5 years later with his next World War II movie, Saving Private Ryan. The brutality, however, was limited to just the opening of the film, with the Allies storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Well before I'd even seen Saving Private Ryan, the opening D-Day scene had already made itself known to me; hell, by then it had practically become legendary! By the time I finally got around to seeing it, it had been built up so much that I kind of wondered if I'd be let down by what I saw. Thankfully, it lived up to the hype.

But therein lies the tragedy of Saving Private Ryan—for once D-Day passed, everything else felt like a two-and-a-half-hour anti-climax to me, and the story of finding the Private Ryan whose 4 or 5 brothers had all just died in the war became less interesting. More so, Saving Private Ryan felt like it gradually defaulted into your standard Hollywood war movie after D-Day. I will, however, say that Spielberg genuinely deserved his directing Oscar for Saving Private Ryan, but I would largely credit that to his D-Day recreation.

Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me If You Can fall under the neutral umbrella for me—meaning I didn't necessarily care for them, but I didn't dislike them either. Speaking of Catch Me If You Can, when it came out, I was somewhat puzzled by it, mostly because I actually didn't know what to make of it.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was one of my father's favorite movies while I was growing up, and when I last watched it, I felt that it alternated between a psychological alien movie and a feel-good first-contact movie. I had a hard time relating the whole broken home portrayed by Richard Dreyfus and Teri Garr, and their family's breakdown felt rather disjointed, like it somehow didn't make sense and connect right with the larger whole (even though it helped flesh out Richard Dreyfus's ultimate obsessive quest to Devil's Tower). The abduction of Barry, the little boy to Melinda Dillon, was filmed perfectly, with every angle and every lighting scene right on the money. It genuinely imparted the terror of an abduction and of having someone taken away from you. But at the end of Close Encounters, when contact is made with the huge mothership, it felt like we were moving away from the psychological and into the ideal. And the idealized, peace-loving first contact felt kind of unrealistic to me. (One too many X-Files episodes for me, I guess.)

I was 4 years old when E.T. came out in the theaters (boy, did I feel old when it was given a 20th anniversary theatrical release!), and I remember my father being so excited to take me to see it—in fact, he was more excited than I was! Because when I saw the trailers for E.T., I just shrugged and indifferently said, "Eh." My feelings didn't change after seeing the movie, either (even though I managed to acquire several E.T. promotional posters from McDonald's as a child). The Color Purple felt like something of a departure for Spielberg, for here he tackled serious personal drama and the finding of oneself, and actually didn't resort to the fuzzy feel-goodness that was seen in E.T. or Close Encounters. The Color Purple is another movie that I didn't dislike but didn't care for—though I must say, the acting was first-rate! Whoopi Goldberg, in her first acting role, has never been better. And I was even surprised to find myself impressed with Oprah Winfrey's acting!

A.I. Artificial Intelligence, however, was a totally different story . . . because this film I found spectacularly awful! I don't know if it was the overly fanciful story that didn't ring true with me, or if it was the acting and characters that left me at a loss (I mean, seriously, how many of us know robotic gigolos?), but I just couldn't sit through this movie easily, and in the end, seriously wondered why it was made. Munich, for all the praise it received, didn't strike me as anything special either, and I was somewhat puzzled when I saw it earning a lot of Oscar nominations last year.

I guess what it all boils down to is, when Spielberg has a hit, he has a hit. When he misses, he really misses—at least for me (and bear in mind that I haven't seen 1941, The Terminal, or his War of the Worlds remake yet—his most well-known theatrical bombs). I guess, given the precedent I've set for his other movies, I have to progress one Spielberg movie at a time, evaluate on a case-by-case basis. On one final note, I sure hope Indiana Jones 4 doesn't get made! The series ended perfectly at the end of Last Crusade, so I hope that franchise can rest on that film's high note.


Monday, December 25, 2006

Holiday hangover

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas today! Mine was very nice. Santa brought me many good things, even though I only ever ask for one or two items anymore, at most. Gone are the days of me asking for everything including the kitchen sink every Christmas. One of the downsides of not being a little kid anymore, I guess. But the themes of this year's Christmas gifts were DVDs, puzzles, and anything French (e.g., French Christmas carols, including one singer who sounded eerily like a French Bing Crosby; this was a CD my father bought for my mother, for the record).

But now that Christmas is over, I feel like breathing a gigantic sigh of relief. As much as I love Christmas and the holiday season, it feels like each year I get to enjoy it less and less how I want to. When I was growing up, I could just come home from school on any given December day, put on some Christmas music, turn on the Christmas tree lights as well as some of the plastic candles in our windows, and just sit back and let the nice feel of the season wash over me. But lately it feels like I don't get to do that anymore, and instead have to have Christmas shoved down my throat at every turn, rather than me being able to find the joys of the season on my own terms. Does anyone else ever feel that way, or am I an isolated case? (And no, I'm not that jaded and cynical as to label Christmas as only a commercial holiday anymore. The keeper of that opinion is my uncle.)

But luckily I did get to spend plenty of time today relaxing with loved ones and enjoying this lovely Christmas Day. It's certainly a lovely feeling sitting in the living room gazing at the lit Christmas tree fully decorated, with many presents scattered underneath. Those are the markings of a full and fruitful day, and I hope everyone got to do this same this Christmas!

So let me close by saying (definitively this time) . . . Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!


Ho ho ho!!!

Merry Christmas to all! And to all a good . . . morning? Well, whether night or morning, best wishes to all for a wonderful Christmas with their friends and families!


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Where can I get me some of these?

On the drive up to PA today, I noticed some very interesting bumper stickers affixed to passing cars. One said, "Bush made me a Democrat", while another said, "01.20.09—Bush's last day!" I think I need to get myself some of those stickers and slap them onto my bumper! Right next to my DC Baseball 2005 sticker (which is a tad out of date).


Friday, December 22, 2006

Winter solstice is upon us!

Today, December 22, is the winter solstice, the first official day of winter—or as I like to think of it, the shortest day of the year!

You'd think that the last Friday before Christmas would be the longest day of the year, what with everyone cramming in their last-minute shopping, or heading out to the airports or train stations for trips to St. Elsewhere—or worse yet, getting into the car and formally greeting the end-all/be-all of gridlock holiday traffic mixed in with rush hour and rainy weather. So with all this in mind, one would think that today would be the longest day of the year.

But in the geological sense, today is the shortest, because the tilt of the Earth on this solstice affords us the least amount of sunlight during the day. So that means that, after today, we gain 2 additional minutes of sunlight each day! And for as much as I love spring and summer, I relish the later dusks and earlier sunrises with such pleasure. So on this first official day of winter, I say . . . bring on spring!!!


National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

I ask you, what kind of holiday season would it be without Clark Griswold and his family making an appearance? Since its release in the late '80s, I have to believe that Christmas Vacation has become an essential element—if not required viewing—within the vast library of holiday films, standing next to such classics as A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, Holiday Inn, A Christmas Story . . . even A Muppet Family Christmas.

When I first saw Christmas Vacation, I didn't go into it thinking that it was a Christmas movie per se; instead, I saw it as the third installment of the National Lampoon's Vacation movies, following the Griswolds on yet another lunatic adventure. Only this time they didn't go on any (mis)adventures to Wally World or Europe (despite the fact that the film opens with the whole family in the car, obviously going somewhere). The story is pretty well known by now: Clark Griswold wants to have the most perfect family Christmas ever, or as he describes it, "a fun, old-fashioned family Christmas." And he must contend with in-laws who don't get along, uninvited distant cousins, snobby neighbors, oversized Christmas trees, hollowed-out turkeys, and of course, squirrels—all while waiting for his Christmas bonus, so he can afford to put in a swimming pool.

After umpteen viewings, you really can see how unrealistic Clark is in his drive for the ultimate family Christmas. He wants to have the perfect everything for Christmas, and his expectations are so high that he doesn't settle for anything less than outright perfection . . . at all costs. I think Clark's idealistic notions are perfectly exemplified early on, when he and his family finally find their Christmas tree: standing in the middle of a large meadow, shining brightly in a full halo, with a choir of angels singing in the background. This is pretty much what Clark expects every aspect of his family Christmas to be like. And you know that with expectations that high, disaster is not just inevitable but a virtual necessity at that rate. . . starting out with them forgetting to bring a saw to cut the tree down with, and having to dig it out by its roots. And just how much sap is in that tree again, Clark?

Along the way, we have our share of truly outrageous characters coming into the fold. Topping the list is, of course, Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie. When he shows up on the scene, I still want to do a double-take, because the man literally appears out of nowhere. His rusted-out, redneck RV just conveniently appearing in Clark's driveway on the heels of Clark's supreme holiday moment—his house lit up so much that it can be seen from space (I wonder how much electricity is eaten up by 25,000 twinkle lights?)—and every scene with Cousin Eddie in the picture, you just can't help but wonder, "Where the hell did this guy come from?" He's so devoid of class that everything he does is, by definition alone, outrageous and hilarious. Every action he takes superbly undermines Clark's attempts for a perfect family Christmas, and the best part is, it's all unintentional. Let’s do a quick rundown of Eddie's classic moments:

  • His proclamation "Shitter was full!", which has become almost as legendary as "You talkin' to me?" (I probably shouldn't admit to this, but at every Penn State tailgate, I'm always tempted to shout "Shitter was full!" the moment I come out of the Porta-John; either that or Grandpa Simpson's, "This elevator only goes to the basement! And someone made an awwwful mess down there . . .")
  • How he chooses which dishes to eat at Christmas dinner
  • His dog Snots drinking all the water out of the Christmas tree, perfectly setting the stage for Uncle Lewis's later destruction of it
  • His shameless consumption of eggnog and walnuts while knocking all the wings off of Clark's candle decoration (the name escapes me, but it's run on the heat of candles with a rotating interior)
  • That ugly-ass blue leisure suit he wears to Christmas dinner
  • And, of course, his kidnapping acquisition of Clark’s cheap, hard-nosed boss, played by Brian Doyle-Murray (brother of Bill Murray)
Among the other outrageous characters who appear in the movie, we have E.G. Marshall as Clark's crusty father-in-law. Sadly, he doesn't get many lines, but it's worth it just to hear him proclaim, "I'm freezing my baguettes off!" when Clark goes to light the Christmas lights for the first time. We also have Julia Louis-Dreyfus making a pre-Seinfeld appearance as one of the snotty neighbors who has a chance encounter with a squirrel. My favorite outlandish character was Aunt Bethany, the downright batty family member who completes Clark's desperate perfect holiday gathering. She's well-meaning but totally off the reservation, and the prayer she offers up at Christmas dinner is just priceless! (Just as a side note, I learned only recently that Mae Questel, the actress who played Aunt Bethany, did the original voice of Betty Boop!)

The casting of the Griswold family was shaken up a little for this installment, most notably in the roles of Rusty and Audrey. In the first two Vacation movies, Rusty was the older of the two children, while in Christmas Vacation, Audrey was the older sibling. Anthony Michael Hall was replaced by a young Johnny Galecki, and Juliette Lewis (way back before she dedicated herself to playing only white-trash characters) served as the third actress to play Audrey.

I can't even count the number of classic scenes that Christmas Vacation offers. Clark's complete meltdown after he receives his Christmas bonus Jelly-of-the-Month club card is absolutely perfect! I'd still like to know if that rant was scripted or improvised, because it's pure genius!

Let's also not forget the mall scene where Clark starts to completely stumble over the hot counter girl.

And I how can we go without Eddie's trademark line?

All that being said, how can I give Christmas Vacation anything other than a perfect 10 this holiday season? It just wouldn't be human of me to do otherwise. A perfect 10 it is, with eager anticipation of many future viewings! Now if you'll excuse me, I think the SWAT team is about to pay Mr. Griswold a visit.


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Back to School

Last Friday night, I had William and Erica over for a viewing of Back to School, and since it's one of William's favorite movies, he recently did a review for his blog. I must concur with his rating, 8 out of 10, and add that for a man who got no respect, Rodney Dangerfield sure knew how to make a guy laugh! His unique blend of comedy is missed.


Happy birthday, JoePa!!!

Penn State head football coach, Joe Paterno—the man, the myth, the legend!—turns 80 years young this very day! Let us all raise our glasses to this living legend on his birthday, and don our Penn State best in anticipation of his latest trip to a New Year's Day bowl.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006


I've lost count of the number of Batman movies that have come through the cinemas in the last 20 years, but my heart still races back to Tim Burton's 1989 original. I should probably state now that I'm actually not a big fan of comic book adaptations (I hope this doesn't diminish my credibility as a reviewer!), so I can't speak to how faithful this version was to Bob Kane's original conception. But I can speak to how well it works as an action movie with superb casting, and how it left a big mark on American popular culture at the time of its release in the late '80s. (I can still remember my friend Keri, during 5th grade recess, bluntly stating, "Hey, I'm no Picasso!")

With the exception of Batman & Robin, I've seen all the other Batman movies, and so far I'd have to say that Michael Keaton was the best Batman to date. I did enjoy Val Kilmer's solo stint as the Dark Knight in Batman Forever, and was impressed by Christian Bale's turn in Batman Begins, but I can't seem to turn away from Keaton's brooding interpretation of the character. I think it's because he played the character so dark, so mysterious, so detached from the world, so closed, with so many skeletons in the closet that I felt his Batman was the best. (For the record, it's been a long time since I've seen Adam West don the bat suit. Lately, I only seem to know him as the mayor of Quahog in "The Family Guy".)

The casting of the 1989 Batman I felt was spot-on. Let's get right to the meat of the casting—to wit, Jack Nicholson as The Joker. I'll just get this out of my system now: Jack was totally snubbed by the Academy here! With his lunatic interpretation of The Joker, Jack completely stole the show, and didn't just pull but ripped the carpet out from underneath everyone else's feet throughout the film. You almost have to wonder if he had a little too much fun in this role. Some of his standout scenes were when he first introduces himself as The Joker to Carl Grissom (the suave, smooth-talking Jack Palance—I must also add that it sent shivers up my spine to see him and Jack Nicholson, two giants, in the same scene together), the entrance into the art museum before his meeting with Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger, back in her sex-symbol days), when he shakes hands with one of Grissom's goons and literally fries him on the spot with an electrical hand buzzer, not to mention the parade scene at the end. Seriously, only Jack Nicholson could have pulled off a character like this, with such a perfect mix of insanity and comedy.

If I may digress a moment to the art museum scene . . . growing up with an artistic background from having a father who's an art teacher, it's still difficult seeing The Joker and his goons trash the art museum to the strains of Prince (or the artist formally known thereto . . . whatever!)—slapping handprints all over Rembrandt, painting circles around George Washington, or taking a paintbrush and writing, "Joker was here!" on a European wall. At the same time, though, it perfectly highlights the outlandishness of his character, and affords him some of his greatest lines during his meeting with Vicki Vale. I'll let the scene speak for itself here.

Kim Basinger, in retrospect, seemed like the logical choice to play the love interest to the superhero, simply because in the late '80s she was still firmly seated in the sex-symbol canon. I thought she worked well opposite Keaton (and Nicholson). As to the character of Alfred, I personally preferred Michael Gough over Michael Caine. I felt that Gough brought more dignity to the role, so subtly adding humor to the character by always conveniently knowing where Bruce Wayne would be and what he was doing. His chasing on the heels of the reckless Wayne early in the film (during the party scene at Wayne Manor) was priceless, and I always have to stifle a laugh whenever he pours a glass of water mere moments before Bruce Wayne enters the room and requests that very thing. In Batman Begins, Michael Caine just played . . . well, Michael Caine! That's not to say that Michael Caine is a bad actor—not by a long shot!—but in the role of Alfred Pennyworth, I'll take Michael Gough any day. Robert Wuhl was enjoyable as the reporter Knox who can't stop trying to pick up Vale, and Pat Hingle was a treat to see in the role of Commissioner Gordon.

As much as I enjoy the original Batman, I don’t think I ever realized just how much camp there was to it. It may very well have been the comic book element; it may also have been the Tim Burton style, where every building and every set piece looks ridiculously fake. Here, too, everything is dark and empty, much like a dank, deserted Gothic cathedral (hmm, perhaps the origins of the setting—Gotham City?). But that I attribute to the darkness of the Batman story. On that same note, I know that in the spirit of remaining true to the original comic material, all Joker costumes were designed from that hideous flat purple against an equally flat green. (Ugh!) And another little technique that I noticed was the mixing of period elements. In the opening scenes, where the family is running through the streets of Gotham frantically looking for a taxi, they're dressed in 1950s attire. Plus, some of the vehicles driven during the film were 1950s models. (Notice some of the parked cars at Wayne Manor during the party scene.) Keep in mind that Batman takes place in the present day (or at least what was considered the present in 1989), so this mixing of period elements was a bold, if subtle stroke. I don't know if anyone remembers the TV series "The Flash" from the early '90s, but this same mixing of period pieces was duplicated—only it was garishly flouted, and thus didn't work as well as in Batman.

I know various liberties were taken with the history of Bruce Wayne (i.e., it wasn't Jack Napier/The Joker who really killed Bruce Wayne's parents), but these liberties don't really bother me—probably because I'm not a comic book loyalist. But all the same, I give the original Batman an 8 out of 10, and I ask you . . . do you ever dance with the devil by the pale moonlight?


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

December birthdays

During this merry, merry month of May December, I missed a few birthdays here and there, so I wanted to do a quick posting for all the December birthdays I'd like to recognize.

December 5: Kocher's alum Christina takes it up another notch. Careful, Andy—she's catching up to ya!

December 13: Paul turned 28, and despite my best efforts, still remains a Notre Dame fan.

December 18: Long-distance birthday wishes to Bentje, who currently resides in Germany and is immune to hangovers. Please tell me what your secret is!

December 29: Run for the hills now, everyone . . . because this may be what I look like in another 30 years!!! Yes, my father increases another year while another of his few remaining hairs turns gray (I'm afraid I must take the blame for that one, for it was my mother who first made him go bald).

Happy birthdays to one and all! Hope yours were merry days full of fun and celebration!


Monday, December 18, 2006

Casino Royale

I grew up watching the James Bond movies, seeing nearly all of them by the time I was 12 (with the exception of The Living Daylights, which to this day I still haven't seen). When Bond passed the torch to Pierce Brosnan in the mid-90s, I remember being dubious, because by then, the James Bond franchise had exhausted nearly all of Ian Fleming's original stories, and I began to feel that the franchise should be laid to rest before it became irrelevant and/or an outright joke.

When I first heard that Daniel Craig was being tapped as the next James Bond, I had the same feelings I did when Pierce Brosnan came onto the scene—but this time came the twist that Craig would be starring in Casino Royale, and then they had my full attention. Casino Royale was the very first James Bond book that Ian Fleming wrote, which meant that this movie would be the first James Bond film made from an original Ian Fleming story in about 20 years! That alone was a huge selling point for me. Plus, in the late '60s, a James Bond spoof was made out of Casino Royale, starring Peter Sellers and David Niven, so I wanted to see a genuine version of this story and not a comedic spoof.

Let me tell you, this was a very different Bond than I remember from my childhood! This wasn't the light-hearted spy movie that we've come to expect from Connery, Brosnan, or Roger Moore; instead, Casino Royale was a deadly serious movie, with lots of heavy action and intense fight and chase sequences. Being that Casino Royale was the first James Bond book in the series, there were several elements to the movie that suggested a beginning for Bond on various fronts. Such as Bond being assigned double-0 status, his meeting Felix Leiter, Bond's friend at the CIA—who I don’t think has appeared since License to Kill during Timothy Dalton's brief tour of duty (and who appeared with far more frequency in the Connery Bonds). We see Bond discover his trademark drink for the first time, the martini shaken not stirred with slice of lemon peel, etc. Even the "Bond girl" element was different. Eva Green (always a pleasure to look at—especially after The Dreamers) played her role of Vesper far more seriously than any previous Bond girl, and she doesn't fall into the traps of Bond's old womanizing ways. My guess is that, since this was partially a redefinition of the Bond series (what with it being the first-ever Bond story, and possibly staying more true to the original Bond character), it didn't mean that Bond was the womanizer that Connery made him out to be. Instead, he had genuine moments of sensitivity, like when he found a terrified Vesper shivering underneath the shower after a certain stairwell fight.

The format of the opening credits was noticeably different than before. No dark silhouettes of sexy naked girls dancing to the tunes of a suggestive theme song. Instead we have lots and lots of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs dancing across the screen (okay, sounds fitting to the gambling theme). And the standard opening to every Bond movie—the bubble running across the bottom of the screen to the far right, enlarging to resemble a gun barrel, and Bond casually striding along, then turning suddenly and firing off one shot—was altered! Casino Royale opened up with a black and white sequence, showing Bond making his first two killings as a double-0, and when he makes the second, he spins around . . . and that's when we see the trademark shot of him inside the gun barrel, firing a shot straight at the audience.

It's hard to compare Daniel Craig to his Bond predecessors. Sean Connery's days have become legendary in the Bond canon, and he irrevocably established Bond as the quintessential womanizing bad boy. Roger Moore was more light-hearted as Bond, but I still enjoyed him. Craig played Bond far more seriously and far more edgy than any of the previous leading men. Part of me wonders if Craig was actually more true to Fleming's original Bond character, a more cold-hearted yet burned-out spy—but that's purely supposition on my part, because I've never read any of the books, so I can't speak with authority to what kind of character Fleming envisioned Bond as. But having said that, I was quite taken with Craig's interpretation of the character . . . simply because we see Bond, for the first time in a long time, as genuinely human—a man who's vulnerable, capable of being hurt both physically and emotionally, a man who has things in life to lose, and seeing him start to lose those things and how it affects him as a man makes you see Bond in quite a new light.

Despite this being a reawakening, if you will, of the Bond franchise, there were nevertheless quite a lot of references to the previous movie installments of the last 40-odd years. The biggest reference came right away, and it was a major blast from the past with the surprise cameo of the Aston Martin that Connery used way back in Goldfinger. When Eva Green makes her first appearance in the film (at the one-hour mark, I might add; a bit later than customary), her opening lines are, "I am the money." To which Bond replies, "Worth every penny." Money? . . . Penny? Coincidence, or tongue in cheek? Speaking of tongue in cheek, that little tidbit was noticeably absent, too. None of the customary witty remarks like, "Shocking!" from Goldfinger, or "I thought Christmas only comes once a year" from The World Is Not Enough. Judi Dench returned to the scene as M, and I think this was her best turn as M thus far. On the flip side of that, however, Q (or any John Cleese offshoot thereto) didn't make an appearance, nor any of the previously-customary high-tech gadgets (maybe with the exception of the fully-armed glove compartment of Bond's vehicle).

The fight and chase sequences in Casino Royale were quite extraordinary! I don't think I've ever seen a chase (foot chase, rather than car chase) quite as intense as the one that started the film, around the construction site in Madagascar. Or the gigantic chase of the tanker truck towards the experimental plane at Miami Airport. And when was the last time we found a machete fight in a hotel stairwell in a film? I have to say, though, that it helps to have a working knowledge of how Texas Hold 'Em works before seeing Casino Royale, because when Bond and the resident villain were sitting around the table participating in high-stakes Texas Hold 'Em, that was pretty much the focus of the film right there—and I actually found the suspense pretty intense! Far better than any "World Series of Poker" game we'd find on ESPN.

If I had any gripes with Casino Royale, it was the running time. After the torture sequences, it seemed to drag on with Bond and Vesper. Since the movie kept playing and focusing on their romance, I kept thinking of the shocker ending of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. What can I say about the ending to Casino Royale . . . except that it had a sinking feeling to it? 8.5 out of 10. And I must say, I felt very refreshed by this newest installment, since it harkened back to the days of Ian Fleming’s original Bond.


Friday, December 15, 2006

Cal wants to own the O's?

An early report by Fox News says that Cal Ripken has held talks with Orioles owner Peter Angelos about buying the franchise! This was, of course, countered by Angelos who said that no such talks have taken place, that his reign over the Orioles was total, etc.—but that Cal would be a nice candidate to have, should he (Angelos) ever want to sell the O's.

Of course, Cal would have to meet the $450 million minimum sale value that Angelos extorted negotiated with MLB after the arrival of the Nationals, but let me say this much: if Cal Ripken bought the Orioles, I'd be the first in line at Camden Yards to welcome him back!!! I grew up under the heroics of Cal Ripken, and can't think of anyone better suited to own the team. I also believe that he'd be very friendly to the neighboring Nationals, my beloved home team, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that one day—hopefully soon!—Cal Ripken can own the team.



I think by now we've all seen the "Seinfeld" episode that runs in reverse—starting at the end and moving backwards chronologically to the very beginning (10 years before, in the case of said "Seinfeld" episode). This same technique was used in Christopher Nolan’s landmark film Memento, for as the film’s opening credits roll, we see what is technically the final shot of the film—Guy Pearce holding a developed Polaroid that shows the blown-out brains of Joe Pantoliano. And as the credits conclude, the scene begins to flow entirely in reverse: with Guy Pearce reinserting the Polaroid into the ejection slot, the Polaroid rolling back into the camera until it pops the picture, Pearce's gun falling up from the floor and into his hand, Joey Pants's blood flying back into his head, the bullet flying back into the gun, and BOOM!!! The scene starts off with the gun firing.

As I said, this is technically the final chronological scene of the movie. Immediately following this, we have what is technically the first chronological scene, only in black and white. It shows Guy Pearce sitting on a bed in a random motel room, and his voiceover mentions that very fact as both he and the audience take in the surroundings and try to situate themselves into the scene.

Memento tells the story of Leonard Shelby, who is played by Guy Pearce. Leonard suffers from a rare form of brain damage that leaves him unable to make new memories. Essentially, he is without a short-term memory, for a number of years ago, someone broke into his house late at night and raped Leonard's wife in their bathroom. Leonard, when he went to save her, shot the rapist and was then attacked by a second man he didn't know was there. This second man slammed him head-first into the bathroom mirror and back down to the floor—hard. Hard enough that the double blow broke Leonard's skull and caused damage to his brain, thus leaving him without the ability to form new memories. His long-term memory is unaffected, following its natural timeline up until the night of the break-in with crystal clarity. But since that night, he hasn't been able to form a single new memory, and in lieu of an actual memory, Leonard jots down notes and tattoos messages onto his body to serve as a record of his life.

This alternate form of memory becomes the very oasis of his life now, because since the accident, he's dedicated himself to hunting down the second man who raped and murdered his wife that night—a man he knows only as "John G."

And from those two opening shots, of the last and first chronological timepoints, the story begins to unfold, each in its respective chronology: the color sequences moving backward from the end, the black and white sequences moving forward from the beginning. Where they meet will prove to be the high-water mark, where questions are answered with more questions, where secrets are revealed and even more secrets are made . . . and promptly forgotten, given that Leonard can't make new memories.

The story takes place over the course of a few days in a small, unnamed Nevada town. Leonard is staying at a cheap motel and trying to piece together why he's there and how close he is to John G. For some reason, he keeps stumbling onto this mysterious stranger named Teddy, as played by a scene-stealing Joe Pantoliano, who alternately seems to want to help and impede Leonard's investigation, asking him cryptic questions that can either move him in the right direction or steer him off track. Leonard also unexpectedly elicits the help of Natalie, a local bartender played by Carrie-Anne Moss of The Matrix fame. Her own intentions seem helpful but are equally as seedy as Teddy's, and even more so, she sometimes states to him clearly what her manipulative intentions are . . . with the full knowledge that Leonard will forget them in a matter of minutes if he doesn't have the resources to record them.

To help the audience understand Leonard's brain damage—or as he refers to it, his "condition"—Leonard tells us the story of Sammy Jenkis, a man he met many years ago while working as an insurance investigator. Sammy, you see, also suffered from short-term memory loss after he and his wife were in a car accident. Leonard frequently compares his scenario to Sammy's, often as an explanation to his condition but also as a justification for his own actions. But the Sammy Jenkis story introduces yet another form of recordkeeping: conditioning. As Leonard explains, it involves a different part of the brain, so in theory, even with no short-term memory, you can still make yourself believe something if you condition yourself through repetition to believe it.

The backwards storytelling really was a masterful technique in Memento. Because even though we know the outcome of a particular scene, suspense is garnered from the audience wanting to know what led up to that final scene, wanting to know why someone did whatever they did. Things actually become clearer as the film trails backwards. We start to see who Teddy really is, how Leonard gets to know Natalie, and when the backwards color story finally meets the black and white forward story, it coalesces in such a way that you almost don't even notice the transition. And yet employing this narrative device allows the climax of the film to occur at the very center of the story's chronology; it may be the last few minutes of the movie, but the plot reaches its zenith in the very center of the story—and thus we begin to see the backwards story in a totally new and unexpected light!

This had to be one hell of a challenging role for Guy Pearce, and he pulls it off masterfully! To go from scene to scene like he did, essentially starting over every 5 minutes because Leonard's memory is wiped clean, was a wonder to see; it's a shame Pearce didn’t win an award for this role. The casting overall was superb. Joe Pantoliano chewed every scene he was in, always leaving you guessing, and somehow you couldn't help but love his character Teddy. He was so subtly manipulative that you just wanted to know what he was cooking up from moment to moment. And Carrie-Anne Moss delivers Natalie in such a way that we as the audience alternate from despising her for what she does to Leonard, but still sympathizing with her and taking great pity on her for all that she's lost. I found the soundtrack to Memento very captivating, too. It held me in its sadness and loss, its longing for resolution and deliverance as Leonard alternates between grief, guilt, and shame.

Memento asks some very challenging questions to the viewer, such as, how reliable is memory? Are they merely an interpretation, as Leonard suggests, or are they an actual record? Leonard puts such strong stock in his own recordkeeping techniques (notes and tattoos), believing that they can't be distorted and misinterpreted the way memory can. Relying on facts is how Leonard chooses to get by. But as several scenes in Memento show, how can even Leonard's tattoos and notes be taken at face value? Even they can be taken out of context, either accidentally or deliberately. And the final scene so perfectly asks us the ultimate question: when the chips are down, do we actually see things as they really are . . . or do we only see what we want to see? 9.5 out of 10.


Thursday, December 14, 2006

When Fight Club meets South Park

Okay, I don't know if I have too much time on my hands or if my sense of humor has totally gone off the deep end, but I keep hearing Fight Club quotes in my head . . . only spoken by "South Park" characters! For example:
  • Mr. Garrison sitting across from Mr. Hat, and Mr. Hat saying to him, "I look like you wanna look, I talk like you wanna talk, I am free in all the ways you are not!"
  • Shelia Broflowsky shouting to the children in the Christmas pageant, "You are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world!!!"
  • Butters going trick-or-treating wrapped up in paper bags, and when asked what his costume is, he stutters, "Ummm, I am Jack's colon. I get cancer, I kill Jack!"
  • Eric Cartman, forming an army of his own against Stan and Kyle, instructs the new recruits, "If the applicant is young, tell him he's too young. Old, too old. Fat, too fat. If the applicant then waits for three days without food, shelter, or encouragement, he may then enter and begin his training." Followed up by him rallying his troops, "Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression . . . is our lives!"
  • Mr. Mackey angrily lecturing a student, "You are not a unique and beautiful snowflake, um-kay? You are the same decaying, organic matter as the rest of us!"

And last but not least . . .

  • Kyle having a complete spiritual breakdown on "Jesus & Pals", shouting out, "F%$# redemption, f%$# damnation! We are God's unwanted children? So be it!!!"


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

RIP Peter Boyle!

I just saw the news over the wires that actor Peter Boyle has died at the age of 71. In recent years, he's been a main character on the show "Everybody Loves Raymond", and I remember him from a hilarious episode of "The X-Files" many years ago, where he played a man who had the psychic gift (curse?) of specifically seeing how people would die. But I think I remember him most from his role as the monster in Mel Brook's Young Frankenstein.

In his memory, I'll post his two best moments from Young Frankenstein. RIP Peter! We'll miss you!


The Rocky Saga

About a year ago, I started watching the Rocky movies again, and only now am I finishing them up (what can I say, I got distracted). Before I dive into the reviews, let me just say that the sixth installment, Rocky Balboa, at first struck me as a last-ditch effort by Stallone to retain something of his Hollywood career, but when I saw the trailer . . . I actually thought it looked interesting! My hope for Rocky Balboa is that it can end the series on the inspiring note that it started on. So having said that, let's dive into the series.


After watching the original Rocky again (for the first time in years), I was quite surprised, because it was a much better movie than I remember it being! You might say that it did win Best Picture of 1976, but in the shuffle of all the sequels, I think the magic of the first movie managed to slip through the cracks. If anyone else can remember their way back through the sequels to the original, Rocky tells the story of streetwise loser Rocky Balboa, working as a bouncer for a loan shark and hanging out at the local gym in the forgotten back streets of Philadelphia. While at the gym, he spends his time boxing under the direction of Mickey, and old crust-bucket if there ever was one. Rocky also hangs out at the local pet store, subtly flirting with the painfully shy Adrian, and the two slowly build a friendship that grows into a romance. I have to confess, their ice skating scene was quite beautiful.

In the meantime, arrogant professional boxer Apollo Creed (who I guess was supposed to be a cinematic Muhammad Ali) offers the chance for an amateur boxer to go 15 rounds with him, and Rocky of course jumps at the chance, with the support of Adrian, Mickey, and Adrian's lug-nut brother Paulie. Rocky’s gradual uphill climb from streetwise loser to amateur boxer is admiring to see (though I draw the line at drinking 6 raw eggs at 4:00 in the morning before going out to jog), and we're treated to some of the most memorable—and inspiring—scenes of the whole Rocky franchise: his boxing the slabs of meat at the butcher's, his run up the steps of the Philadelphia Library, Rocky’s famous shout-out, "Yo, Adrian!" when being interviewed on TV, the aforementioned ice skating, and of course the bout with Apollo. The original Rocky is essentially an inspiring underdog movie, because even though he loses the fight, he does go the distance with Apollo—something that everyone (including Apollo himself) thought was impossible for a kid from the streets.

Rocky II

Rocky II pretty much picked up where the original left off, with Rocky and Apollo heading to the hospital right after their match. At the hospital, Apollo publicly accosts Rocky, shouting rhetoric to the effect of, "What you just did was a miracle!", referring to Rocky’s going the distance. And in the background, Apollo is sweating the fact that, even though he was awarded the fight against Rocky, Rocky's going the distance means that Apollo technically didn't defeat him, and his ego is given quite a rattling—enough to want a rematch so that he can beat Rocky. In the meantime, Rocky marries Adrian, Rocky starts to do commercials (it's still funny to see him stumble through, "In the morning, I splash it on . . ."), and Adrian almost dies in childbirth. But when she recovers and lends her support to Rocky in his rematch against Apollo, Rocky hits the streets with more willpower than you can shake a stick at. I'd have to say that Rocky II was just as uplifting as the first, because you can't help but feel inspired when Rocky is jogging down the street and hordes of fans are running with him, cheering him on. And of course, Rocky wins the fight against Apollo in the ring—by only a second, though.

Rocky III

I've already heard Rocky III dubbed the ultimate sequel, and I think that's largely credited to Mr. T's guest spot as the angry Clubber Lang. By this time in the series, Rocky is already an established fighter, raking in the millions, making AmEx card commercials, and sporting cameos on "The Muppet Show". Just to get us pumped, we have an early exhibition/charity fight between Rocky and Thunderlips, who's played by Hulk Hogan during his glory days of the mid '80s. I guess that could be construed as the comic relief, because all of a sudden things turn deadly serious when out of nowhere comes a fighter determined to bring Rocky down, and that fighter is Clubber Lang—i.e., Mr. T in all his I-pity-da-fool glory. And let me tell you, Mr. T is really intense here, and he dominates every scene he's in! His interruption during the unveiling of the Rocky statue is genuinely startling, where he publicly challenges Rocky and makes advances towards Adrian as a way to threaten Rocky's manhood. (I ask you, how many men—myself included—can't quote this scene word for word by now?) Clubber Lang is enough to jar Mickey pretty badly, too, because right before Rocky and Clubber Lang fight, Mickey has a heart attack. Rocky goes down after two rounds in the ring, rushes back to the locker room, where Mickey dies by his side. Mickey's death, on top of a humiliating loss to Clubber Lang, brings out all the demons from Rocky's closet, and he gains an unexpected ally in his grief—Apollo, who helps Rocky retrain for a rematch against Clubber Lang . . . though it's Adrian who ultimately gives Rocky the boost that he needs, in scene where her character shines like never before in the previous two movies.

I’ll give the first three Rocky films each an 8 out of 10—and having said that, I think the Rocky saga should have ended with the third movie, because after this is when it starts to go downhill.

Rocky IV

Rocky IV was the first movie in the saga that I saw as a little kid, and of course I had Apollo's death ruined for me. I vividly remember being at my friend Ricky's house watching this for the first time, and he told me just before the fight that Apollo was going to die. And let me tell you, seeing Rocky IV now, in 2006, compared to seeing it when nine years old really opens up a new perspective on it. As a child in the late '80s and in the last days of the Cold War, the political overtones of the movie didn't mean much to me when I first saw it, but when viewing it 20 years later, I kind of felt hammered over the head with the film's anti-Communist let's-all-be-friends rhetoric. (And when you combine Rocky IV with Rambo II and III, one gets the feeling that Stallone really didn't like those Commies.)

The story of Rocky IV is pretty well-known by now. Apollo takes the challenge issued by Soviet fighter Ivan Drago to an exhibition match—something Apollo accepts so he can prove to himself that he's still got it, that he hasn't turned into a has-been fighter. His old-time arrogance returns, though, patronizing the silent Drago at every turn and really putting him on the spot with that whole James Brown intro to their match. Even so, in the ring Drago proves vastly superior to Apollo, and ends up killing him. Rocky, though, decides that he needs to fight Drago himself, to win back the glory for Apollo, and by extension for America—which seems kind of flimsy to me. Even Adrian doesn't understand why Rocky wants to fight him. The stairway scene of them arguing, while well executed, doesn't convince me of Rocky's motivations, because he seems to think that winning against Drago will avenge Apollo. It just seems unnecessary to me. Rocky, meanwhile, goes off to the frozen Soviet Union to train, and we’re treated to a lot of musical reminiscences in the process: Rocky's solitary drive through the streets of Philly, intercut with footage from the previous three movies to the strains of "There's No Easy Way Out"; or Rocky's long and solid training in the frozen landscape of Russia to "Heart's On Fire" (a scene which, I must say, ain't that bad at all); or "Burning Heart" playing over Rocky's jet landing in Russia (and if you listen closely to the lyrics, it's very political); and last but not least, Paulie sitting back by the fire and chilling with the Chipmunk's Christmas music.

When Rocky and Drago finally go head to head, I could never understand why the Soviet crowd turns against Drago and begins to cheer for Rocky, but when he finally beats Drago (in front of a worldwide audience on Christmas Day) and gives his "Everybody can change" speech, I guess we're supposed to think that Rocky's just won the Cold War for us.

Rocky V

When Rocky V came out, I remember there being quite a lot of anticipation for this. Supposedly taking place right after Rocky's return from the Soviet Union—though with a noticeably older Rocky, Jr.—things start to go badly for the Italian Stallion. First he's told that he's suffered brain damage from his years of boxing, and second, Paulie has signed away the family's power of attorney to their accountant, who lost all their money in shady real estate dealings. Forced back onto the streets of Philly, Rocky and Adrian just want to lead a quiet life now (or at least Adrian does), but Rocky meets a boxing newcomer named Tommy Gunn who wants Rocky to train him. It takes convincing, but Rocky finally agrees. In the meantime, Rocky is being mercilessly hounded by George Washington Duke, basically a cinematic version of Don King, to do a comeback fight. When Rocky declines, Duke instead aims for Rocky's young protégé, who gets caught up in all the glamour and ritz of the high life that professional sports can provide. Suffice it to say, Rocky feels snubbed, because he devoted so much time to developing Tommy, even at the risk of alienating his own son.

But Tommy isn't as welcomed by the public as Rocky was. The difference between the two men is that Rocky genuinely won people's hearts, whereas Tommy feels that he's entitled to admiration and respect because he won the title right off the bat, and when people don't take him seriously as a boxer, he becomes resentful—and at Duke's urging, challenges Rocky, the man who trained him, to a match. The match does happen, but not in the ring—it happens on the streets of Philly, and in the midst of it all, Rocky can hear the encouragement from Mickey, his long-dead but sorely-missed trainer, shouting "Get up, you son of a bitch!" like only he could. And of course, Tommy goes down, Duke goes down, and Rocky is still Rocky. The problem is . . . no glory was attained, no manhood was proven (because Rocky doesn't need to prove it anymore), nothing has changed, really, so you're left wondering what the point of all this was. Don't get me wrong, Rocky V isn't a bad movie, but it doesn't really add anything memorable to the franchise. Despite its being an okay movie, I didn't really think it was necessary. 6 out of 10 for both IV and V.

Let me just say that I have enjoyed the Rocky movies, some more than others (as is always the case with a long franchise), but in some ways it's been the victim of its own successes, and while the original was quite magical, the later sequels turned the series into an object of disdain rather than inspiration. I just hope, as I said at the beginning of this review, that Rocky Balboa can find that inspiration again, so the series can end on a high note.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Long live Bert and Ernie!

You'll allow me a moment of great sentimentality, but when I was a little kid, I lived for "Sesame Street"—especially Bert and Ernie, the in-house comedian-straightman duo. I loved Bert and Ernie so much that one year, when I was maybe five or six, my father and I marched in the town's Halloween parade dressed in Bert and Ernie heads that my mother made for us. (I wonder if she still has them somewhere back home.) Anyway, I found this little video clip recently, and boy did it take me back!!!

One lovely Friday night two summers ago, I actually found a little cartoon book with this song in an Annapolis bookstore—and I haven't been able to find it since!

But here are a few other Bert and Ernie clips for your enjoyment—and mine! :)

Let me just go on record by saying that Jim Henson was a genius. His work was groundbreaking, he left this world before his time, and he is sorely missed. But thankfully his legacy still lives on.


Monday, December 11, 2006

The Prestige

Mark this day on your calendar, boys and girls, for I'm about to give my first negative film review since starting this blog.

Over the weekend, I paid a visit to the Drafthouse to see Christopher Nolan's newest film, The Prestige. I went in unsure of how I would like it, because when I saw the trailers, something just didn't strike me as right with it. (It may also have been a matter of timing—having two magician movies based at the turn of the 20th Century come out back to back, much like Stir of Echoes came on the heels of The Sixth Sense several years back.) Having seen much of Nolan's other works and admiring them greatly, I nevertheless wanted to give The Prestige a fair chance.

The story revolves around two young aspiring magicians in the late 1800s. Christian Bale plays Alfred Borden, and Hugh Jackman plays Robert Angier. Both are assistants in a magic show when they're younger, with the main magic trick being an underwater escape by Angier's wife, played by Piper Perabo. Even then, they're sort of in competition with each other, arguing over whose knots are better (their job in the act is to tie up Perabo in easily escapable knots so she can safely exit the underwater tank). But one night, both Perabo and Bale agree to try another knot on her hands—only unbeknownst to them, this knot swells underwater and she can't free her wrists, thus she drowns on-stage in front of the entire magician's audience. (Not an easily watchable scene, I might add.) Jackman of course blames Bale for her death, despite its being accidental, and thus the stage is set (no pun intended) for Jackman’s lifelong quest to destroy Bale's Borden—not only as a magician but also as a man.

A respectable premise for a movie, but somehow I just didn't buy it, and I'm still trying to figure out why. Part of me wants to credit it to the acting, for at times neither Jackman nor Bale felt natural in their roles; rather, it kind of felt forced for both men. Scarlett Johansson was forgettable in her small role as the assistant who's tossed back and forth between the two magicians for infiltration purposes. Her acting wasn't very striking, either. I was hoping that The Prestige would give her an acting boost after The Black Dahlia, but sadly that didn't prove true (at least for me). Plus, I think her party-girl reputation is preceding her right now, so it's kind of hard to take her seriously as an actress.

Michael Caine, though, I would almost say he steals the show. His character is more of an observer and less of a participant, but every scene he's in, your eyes are glued to him and nobody else. I'm not entirely sure if he was supposed to serve as the moral center of the movie, because even he get his fingers dirty by the end, but he's nevertheless a subtle yet powerful presence on the screen. Andy Serkis of Lord of the Rings fame had a small yet interesting role as an electrician's (wizard's?) assistant—and I didn’t even recognize David Bowie when he stepped onto the scene as the electrician/wizard Tesla! (I guess, even 20 years later, I still see David Bowie as the mullet-headed Goblin King from Labyrinth.)

I think my major problem with this film is that, plotwise, it didn’t strike me as too believable. (Sorry, I won’t give any spoilers today.) The plot really did hit the ground running, but it felt too rushed. Since this film was based on a book, part of me accredits that rush to its adaptation from the source material. I know it's never easy translating a novel onto the big screen, let alone doing it effectively and believably, but because a movie is limited in terms of running time, sometimes the pacing is stepped up and the exposition of various plot and character details comes at the audience too fast or too soon. I think that was the case with The Prestige. The only other example of this that I can draw upon is Mystic River. I read that book before seeing the movie, and felt completely captivated by the book. When I went to see the film (almost immediately after finishing the book, I might add), I again felt like things were rushed. Many elements from the book made it into the movie, but it felt like things were thrown at me too early, and thus I felt the pacing of the book was better.

The plot twists of The Prestige, both at the height of the story and at the very end, almost made me want to categorize it into the "thinking movie" category, for it made me wonder just how far is too far. In the end, though, it's hard to tell who the more moral character is—Bale's Borden or Jackman's Angier. Both of them have blood on their hands, both of them go to extremes to outdo and outwit the other, and both of them are relentless in trying to take away that which the other values most. So in the end, you're left to wonder if, in some ways, both are getting what they deserve. (Though Bale's final twist was a little too convenient for me.)

The set and costume designs were spectacular, but it wasn't enough to make up for the Band-Aided plot and acting. For now, I'm going to give this a 5 out of 10, and I reserve the right to revisit this film at a later date. I can't guarantee I'll enjoy The Prestige any better the second time around, but in all fairness, some of Christopher Nolan's movies are an acquired taste for me. Case in point, I had to watch Memento at least four times before I liked it. The first two times, it depressed the hell out of me. Finally on the third and fourth viewings, I started to see the story's uniqueness and magic. (It didn't hurt either that, on the fourth viewing, I was cuddled up with a pretty girl on her couch, both of us wrapped in a blanket.)


Saturday, December 09, 2006

The philosophy behind DVD releases

Something occurred to me while I was revisiting and reviewing Miami Vice. I had mentally noted that Miami Vice released two DVDs simultaneously: an unrated director's cut, and a regular theatrical version. And when I wrote that in my review, I remember thinking, "Now watch yet another DVD hit the shelves in another 6 months or so, a 2- or 3-disc newly-extended edition that'll make the current DVDs obsolete."

I'll be honest, I really don't like how some companies release their DVDs—releasing a single-disc, bare-bones edition first, then waiting a few months or a year to release an extended edition with 10 times as many features. A perfect example of this would be the Lord of the Rings movies. Each installment of the trilogy was first released on DVD with the standard theatrical edition and a handful of special features. Then soon after, the deluxe extended editions would be released, with each movie now crossing the 4-hour marker and holding enough special features to fill the Grand Canyon.

I guess, to me, it feels like I'm being played for a fool, because the studios presume that I'll want to get the new and improved DVD as soon as it hits the shelves. And I hate to disappoint them, but I'm not one of those people who has to immediately upgrade. My rationale is, why do I need to burn money for multiple copies of the same movie? Sometimes I'm honestly, perfectly satisfied with just the minimalist DVD that I originally bought, because I bought it for the movie and not for the special features. Only in select cases will I upgrade the DVD—when I like the movie enough to genuinely want to know more about it, the making of it, and all the back stories associated with its genesis.

Which leads me to another point. I generally admire 2- or 3-disc sets, but I also have to admit, it sometimes becomes very tedious going through all the special features on those discs. When it comes to minimal extras vs. a mountain of extras, I myself prefer somewhere in the middle. If it's enough to satisfy my curiosities about the movie, I'm happy. On the flip side, though, sometimes a lot of extras may actually be warranted, like when the movie was a gigantic achievement either cinematically or with special effects, where you're wondering "How'd they do that?" with each shot. A good example would be Terminator 2 (which just so happened to release not one but two uber-edition DVDs in the last 5 years). But basically what I'm saying is, sometimes a bevy of special features is warranted, and sometimes not. But as a general rule, I don't necessarily feel the need to know absolutely everything about each movie I see or own, up to and including the director’s phone number.

And even with a mountain of extra, sometimes the quality can be a mixed bag, because I’ve already seen DVD extras that are really useless (e.g., some of the recent Star Trek films). And sometimes we have a second disc of extras that could easily have all fit onto the first. For example, The Deer Hunter was given a new DVD release recently, under the Legacy Series banner. It was a 2-disc set, and when looking over the special features on the second disc, it hardly seemed like enough to warrant a second disc. Perhaps some movies are released in a 2-disc format just to make it more marketable, more "sexy" to the consumer?

Extended editions or quote-unquote director's cuts can work either way, because sometimes it vastly improves the film (like Miami Vice) while at other times lessens it (Star Wars people, I'm looking in your direction!).

I guess the purpose of this rant is, I wish studios would make DVDs that won't waste the moviegoer's time or money. No more of this initial-release bare-bones disc followed by the deluxe set 6 months down the road. No more of multiple extras that are there as a selling point but ultimately prove to be uninteresting. If I could point to anything to use as a model, it would be the Criterion Collection, who always makes a spectacular DVD: a perfectly remastered print of the film, and a respectable amount of extras that genuinely engage the viewer while never coming across as arrogant or there for the sake of being there. I have three of their DVDs in my collection (Traffic, Charade, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and they're very worthy editions.


Friday, December 08, 2006


According to this morning's Post, Redskins owner Dan Snyder is buying DC's last classical music station, WGMS, in order to expand his radio presence in the region. That effectively orphans one more radio preset in my car, since WETA left the airwaves of 90.9 FM last year, right around the same time Z104 was absolved when WGMS transferred from 103.5 to 104.1. That just leaves me with WBJC, 91.5 FM, out of Baltimore now for all my classical music needs.

To all at WGMS, godspeed! Your music was a constant companion to me in my morning and evening commutes, and you will be missed.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Miami Vice (revisited)

One of my first posts to this blog was a review of Miami Vice, and since the DVD just hit the stores this week, I had the opportunity to give it another viewing. As is customary these days, two DVDs were released: an unrated director's cut, and a theatrical cut. I gave the unrated director's cut a looksy, and if I may say so, this is the cut that should have been released in the theaters over the summer!

With about 20 additional minutes of footage, many flaws of the theatrical release were corrected, characters and relationships were fleshed out a bit more, and things overall felt much more cohesive. I'd even go so far as to say that more homage was paid to the original TV series, which was a big complaint from the fans—the biggest homage being the recreation of the "In the Air Tonight" scene as Crockett and Tubbs drove to the meeting with Yero and his crew (though with a modern remix, not the Phil Collins original). I think Michael Mann even did a little side homage to himself, when he played music from The Insider over the diner scene between Tubbs and Trudy (itself a newly-inserted scene).

But with all this new footage, I felt much more at ease with the casting and the screen time allotted (one of my original problems with the theatrical cut was that Jamie Foxx wasn't given enough screen time, and as such felt irrelevant as Tubbs). The chemistry between Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx felt more authentic, too. And this time around, I felt like I could see this film from a new perspective. Which is to say, when I saw Miami Vice in the theaters, I tried to keep in mind that I was watching "Crockett and Tubbs", but even though I never watched the series as a kid, my mind still wanted to see Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas in those roles. This time around, though, I focused less on the original series elements and instead saw it from the perspective of a Michael Mann crime movie—and when viewed from that perspective, it succeeds in spades! I won't belabor how brilliant a filmmaker Mann is, because I think I've done that enough already, but he does immerse you so deep within the criminal world that it becomes hard to see your own day-to-day world the same way.

Granted, it was still an intense watch, because dialogue comes at you so fast that it's hard to digest a lot of the information contained therein. But with more time for a proper edit of the movie, Miami Vice now fully delivers. (And I don't know why it's being hailed as unrated, because you don't see anything you didn't see the first time.) After seeing the director's cut, I'll raise my rating of Miami Vice a notch, to an 8 out of 10.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Conversation

In the '70s, Francis Ford Coppola was known for making The Godfather movies, which have since been hailed as the greatest movies ever made. But right in between the first and second Godfather, Coppola made another masterpiece—a small-scale, almost minimalist examination of privacy entitled The Conversation. It's easy to understand why this movie is overlooked and not as well-known, but even though it was made in between two giants, it’s definitely a masterpiece in its own right.

What I'm about to say may spark disagreement from my readers (all three of you), but I'm going to state this nevertheless: this movie features Gene Hackman hands-down in his greatest film role. This is a different Hackman than the one we know as Popeye Doyle from The French Connection, or Lex Luthor from the Christopher Reeve Superman films, or Little Bill from Clint Eastwood’s (overrated) Unforgiven. Because here in The Conversation, Hackman plays Harry Caul, a wallflower who desperately retreats from the spotlight rather than shines outwardly with his personality. Caul is a super-talented surveillance man who makes a business out of recording conversations for other people. Right as the movie opens, we're taken to a common area in San Francisco that's bustling during a weekday lunch hour, where Caul and his surveillance crew are surreptitiously following around a young couple and taping their conversation from multiple angles—a conversation which serves as the central focus of the movie.

The Conversation is a movie that explores the meaning of privacy, both worldly and personal. In the worldly sense, the movie came out right when Watergate was at its peak, so I can't help but wonder if Coppola was commenting on general surveillance and the infamous 18 and a half minutes of Watergate tape. In the person sense, Harry Caul is the embodiment of personal privacy, because he is an intensely private and guarded person. He keeps his interpersonal conversations to a minimum, and when he does talk, it’s only about business. His apartment door is bolted with no less than three locks, and when someone has to enter his apartment for any reason, he panics, feeling that his privacy has been violated. This was evidenced when he enters his apartment after taping the conversation at the start of the film, to hear an alarm going off and a bottle of wine left inside the door by his landlady (as a birthday gift). He then proceeds to call his landlady and ask her many probing questions, such as how she got into the apartment when he has the only key, how did she know it was his birthday, etc. Only subtly does he mask his anxiety of someone having entered his private sanctuary set far apart from the world.

Even when he's asked point-blank to tell someone about himself, as Teri Garr did early in the movie, he becomes visibly uncomfortable and dodges answering. Very clearly, he doesn't want anyone to know a thing about him. It's the same when he and his crew have a party at his office after the surveillance convention, when call-girl Meredith begins to ask him questions and he retreats from them. When he learns that Bernie Moran has taped that conversation with Meredith, intended purely as a prank, Caul reacts almost with rage, again feeling that his privacy has been cruelly violated.

In my time, I've known (and even dated) a few people who could be considered guarded, not letting anyone get too close to them for fear of making themselves vulnerable. I must confess, I have a hard time relating to this mindset, as I'm the kind of person who's willing to share so much about myself. Nevertheless, I use The Conversation as a way to get a peek into the mindset of someone who's guarded and private, because it genuinely makes me curious about them and their motivations. As to Harry Caul, only in his one dream do we as the audience begin to know what kind of man he is. In his dream, when he chases the young girl he taped at the beginning of the movie, he actually begins to tell her about himself in the hopes of gaining her trust, of somehow warning her that she may be in danger. The line that Hackman delivers at the end of this scene is not only written exquisitely but executed exquisitely, when he says, "I'm not afraid of death. . . . I am afraid of murder."

The conversation that Caul and his crew record is no different than any other assignment he receives, but when he goes to turn in the tapes, he starts to have second thoughts, and ends up grappling with a very young Harrison Ford for the tapes. Caul is given even more pause when Ford warns him, "These tapes are dangerous. Someone might get hurt." Thus begins Harry Caul's indecision over what to do with the tapes . . . because once, a conversation that Harry taped many years before resulted in tragedy, and Harry is still haunted by this. So he begins to wonder if he should intervene here, as a way to possibly make amends for before—hoping to prevent the young couple from possibly getting hurt.

Robert Duvall makes an unexpected appearance as the director (to whom Harry Caul was originally supposed to turn in the tapes), and the scene with them all in the boardroom holds me in awe each time I see it, for two reasons: 1) the silent intensity of the scene, the tension that arises from the director hearing the tapes, the fear by Harry of how these tapes will be used by the director against the young couple, and 2) because of the starpower in that scene (Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford, and Robert Duvall, all before they were megastars). Many other scenes in this movie are quietly intense, such as the dream that Harry has when he starts to talk about himself, the final scene of Harry tearing up his apartment, and all the scenes at the Jack Tarr hotel, where Harry gets the adjoining room and listens to all that happens.

In the end, though, Harry Caul learns a terrible lesson: that while taping and listening to a conversation can tell you a lot, the context of what is said can be interpreted in many ways . . . and not all interpretations are correct. This is the lesson that will haunt him for the rest of his days.

The final scene of the movie is pure magic, though, as it features Caul at his most vulnerable, where his privacy is threatened most directly. For after he comes to understand the true nature of the conversation that he and his crew taped, he gets a phone call from Harrison Ford, saying that they’re going to be watching him—and then we hear the recording made just then of Harry Caul playing his saxophone, which means that his apartment is now bugged . . . and Caul begins to tear his apartment to shreds looking for a bug. It’s unnerving to watch this scene, because you can feel his privacy come crashing down around him, leaving his most inner sanctum wide open.

It’s been said that The Conversation is the prequel to Will Smith’s 1998 film Enemy of the State, which also starred Hackman. The comparison is drawn because, in Enemy of the State, Hackman plays a former NSA agent named Brill who’s eerily similar to Harry Caul from The Conversation. Brill’s warehouse office in Baltimore is almost identical to Caul’s San Francisco office from The Conversation, and the only difference between the two characters is the absence in Enemy of the State of Hackman’s intensely-held privacy. But prequel or not, The Conversation is a definitive masterpiece from a master filmmaker. Various filmic elements of The Conversation escalated the tension for the viewer, and also symbolized the privacy and small-scale world sought by Caul. The entire soundtrack is solo piano, with just enough stretching of the notes to impart a sense of smallness and solitude to Harry’s world. The sound mixing is quite good, too! The garbling of the sound when Harry is recording and editing the conversation of the young couple is quite an authentic touch, and further serves to illustrate how the context of words can be misinterpreted by a second party. A perfect 10 for Coppola and Hackman.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Amores Perros

I first heard of Amores Perros from my friend Bentje, after seeing 21 Grams. As Bentje explained it, Amores Perros was director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s feature film debut, and it came highly recommended by her.

Amores Perros (which in English means "love’s a bitch") tells three parallel stories in Mexico City that are largely unrelated, but all of them cross paths when a car accident takes place. When I saw that the film revolved around a car accident, my mind immediately began to wonder if 21 Grams was an American remake of Amores Perros, because 21 Grams used the same dynamic—parallel stories revolving around a car accident. And only after viewing do the circumstances become clear: in 21 Grams, the car accident is what sends all the pertinent characters on their downward spiral; in Amores Perros, it's a intersection point for the various characters and their respective storylines, all meeting up very briefly with this car accident, and then going their separate ways again, though with some affected by the accident more than others.

The first story centers on Octavio, who lives with his mother, his brother Ramiro, and his sister-in-law Susana. Things are very clearly strained in that household, largely because they're a poor family just barely getting by, but also because Octavio is getting more and more desiring of Susana. Their relationship at first seems very close, very friendly, despite the verbally and physically abusing (and cheating) Ramiro, but as the story progresses, Octavio's obsession with her starts to come out. He asks her pointedly, "Come away with me!" Being that she's married to his brother and has already fathered one child to Ramiro, she understandably has reservations. It's really hard to tell where her preferences lie, though, because despite her marriage to Ramiro, she does begin to reciprocate some of Octavio's advances. (I may never look at a washing machine the same way again, I might add.)

While this is going on, Octavio discovers that their dog Cofi is very adept at fighting other dogs, and he takes him to a back-streets dog-fighting outfit, where Cofi starts to win big and Octavio makes lots of money. In the process, though, he incurs the wrath of one of the other fighters (because Cofi killed his dog much earlier, and not within the confines of the dog-fighting outfit). It eventually culminates in a disastrous showdown between their two dogs, with Cofi being shot, Octavio stabbing the other dog's owner to death, Octavio being chased down by the rival owner's crew, and finally leading to the film's focal point—the car accident.

Octavio and his friend are driving one car. When they barrel through an intersection, they crash into the car driven by Valeria, who's a very well-known supermodel. And thus we move into Valeria's story.

She’s just moved into a very luxurious apartment with Daniel, who's just left his wife and children to be with her. Quite by accident, a hole gets ripped into the floor, and Richie, Valeria's little dog, runs down into the hole. Richie was really her only companion after the accident, which has left her wheelchair-bound with a badly broken leg. Her eventual downward spiral, stemming from a combination of her loss of self from the immobility (and a possible belief that she's no longer beautiful but deformed) coupled with Richie's inability to emerge from the hole in the floor, and instead running around between floors with all the rats, begins to take its toll on her relationship with Daniel.

This storyline, I must admit, I found rather dull. Though I was personally captivated by the third storyline, of El Chivo, who now lives as a homeless man and part-time hitman (having once been a guerilla soldier many moons ago). Fragments of the first two storylines weave their way into the El Chivo story, showing the resolution of Octavio vs. Ramiro vs. Susana. But the third act very firmly belongs to El Chivo. At first we don't give him much thought, but then he sees a newspaper obituary, which seems to cut right into him, saying to us that it's someone very close to him who has died. We gradually come to understand that it's his former wife, and he begins to feel the pain of the life and daughter he left behind many years ago to become a guerilla. And his later scene, where he pours out his heart on his daughter's answering machine, is genuinely heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.

I really enjoyed the gritty feel to these stories! Having never been to Mexico, I can't speak on the authenticity of the street-wise sense of life in Mexico City (though as a native, I have no doubts that Iñárritu nailed it). In many ways, I could also feel a Tarantino influence to the movie, what with the opening of the movie (Octavio and his friend frantically driving through the streets with a bleeding dog in the back seat recalled Mr. White from Reservoir Dogs driving around a gutshot Mr. Orange) and the three stories told back to back (recalling the three parallel yet intertwining stories of Pulp Fiction). In the end, though, I think it is only El Chivo who achieves redemption. He gives up the life of a hitman, leaves Mexico City with Cofi, while Octavio seems to go on with his life alone, without Susana. And Valeria, with all that happens to her, is slowly starting to accept her situation as it is. The scene where her perfume billboard is removed seems to give her much release, as it's no longer a reminder of what she was and can no longer be. (Though in that storyline, I would also liked to have seen a bit more resolution between Daniel and his family. We’re sort of left hanging with that one.) I would have to say that, after seeing Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, it becomes very clear that Iñárritu likes the multiple-storyline narrative, and thus, he’s honed it to a T.

As this was Iñárritu’s first film, I’ll give this an 8 out of 10. 21 Grams and Babel greatly illustrated his growth as a filmmaker, but with Amores Perros, we have a very genuine and very bold first movie.


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