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?

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Maybe the Red Sox aren't the only ones cursed

As the days click by towards Oscar night, a very good question was asked recently: is winning an Oscar a career-booster, or a career-ender? You'd think that winning the coveted award would bring valuable recognition to actors and actresses, and in some cases it has! But on the flip side, though, a number of performers have watched their careers tank after winning the gold.

The article above mentions F. Murray Abraham, who won Best Actor for Amadeus in 1984—and who's damn near disappeared from the scene since then. I don't know why, because I think the man's a great actor! Charlize Theron is another one who comes to mind. After winning Best Actress for Monster, she hasn't done too much for herself (and before you mention North Country, let me remind you that it was a seriously flawed movie). But Adrien Brody, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angelina Jolie, Robert Benigni, Juliette Binoche, Cher, Marlee Matlin, Whoopi Goldberg . . . have any of these Oscar winners landed any good roles lately? Kim Basinger's win for L.A. Confidential was probably the only bright spot she had in quite a while!

On the other hand, though, an Oscar win has worked out remarkably well for others. I've lost count of how many Oscars Jack Nicholson has won, and he's still kickin' out the goods. Robin Williams has alternated between good and bad movies, but you can't deny the man's comedic genius, nor his talents as a serious actor. (For the record, Robin Williams' 2002 DVD from Broadway is mandatory viewing for any fan—but be warned, Robin Williams totally unrestrained, while unsurpassed genius in itself, is damn near scary!) Tom Hanks, Da Vinci Code notwithstanding, I think has done pretty well for himself. In fact, I respect him more and more each day as a serious actor. For a man who started out in comedy, he's grown into quite a fine performer who can do far more than just make you laugh. Frances McDormand seems to get better with each performance she gives. Same goes for Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino.

I guess it's truly a two-way street for actors today when it comes to an Oscar. Some see their careers peak with it, others see their careers flourish afterwards. For those I hope win an Oscar this year, I hope it helps their careers flourish. I guess it just depends on the roles that each actor chooses, and what they as professionals can bring to their roles. That's what proves their worth after an Oscar.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Rocky Balboa

When I first learned that Sylvester Stallone was contemplating yet another installment into the Rocky series, I joined wholeheartedly in the collective groaning (the same went for news of a Rambo IV, which is apparently scheduled for a 2008 release). Like so many franchises that have completely sucked their mother's drink dry, my standpoint for a potential Rocky VI was, "Let it go, Sly. Save yourself the embarrassment and just let it go. After Rocky V, your career will only go further into the tank if you even try this."

After seeing the first trailers for Rocky Balboa, though, I was surprised to find my cynicism replaced by intrigue . . . and after seeing Rocky Balboa, I think I can honestly say that the film exceeded my expectations and delivered a final chapter to the Rocky franchise that is fully worthy of praise. For it provides closure in a way that still inspires you, much like the first film did, because while life often teaches us that we may not always come out on top, we can still find meaning and fulfillment if we try hard enough and believe in ourselves enough.

The story of Rocky Balboa opens at Rocky's home in south Philly—only this is a different Rocky than the one we left behind 17 years ago. He's probably in his late 50s or early 60s by now, his son has grown up and left home, he hasn't boxed in years, and Adrian has been dead now for 5 years. (We can barely see it, but the death date on her tombstone looks like January 11, 2002, apparently from cancer.) He lives a rather lonely life, but still finds fulfillment in managing a restaurant that he and Adrian created, suitably named Adrian's. He also spends his days with Paulie, who still works at the meat factory . . . but as the story opens, it would have been Rocky and Adrian's anniversary, and Paulie's job for the night is to drive Rocky around Philly so he can visit their old haunts: like Adrian's old pet store, or the stoop in front of Rocky's old apartment from the first movie where he convinces Adrian to come in, or the ice rink where they had their first date in the first movie (which has since been torn down). Rocky's opening line in the film, spoken as he walks away from Adrian's grave, is right on the money (especially when you consider the Rocky series as a whole): "Time goes by too fast." After so much time together and so many roads travelled, Rocky misses Adrian terribly, and Paulie feels the guilt of an older brother who never loved his sister properly. Rocky feels a slight drifting with his son, too (not played by Sage Stallone in this installment), who's trying to make a name for himself in the wake of his father's shadow . . . and subtly resenting the shadow his father casts because he can't escape from it.

Rocky is still a recognizable figure in the community, though, for he won the hearts and minds of his fans long ago, and apparently never lost them. On the flip side, however, a young fighter by the name of Mason "The Line" Dixon is getting a lot of flack from the boxing community because he keeps winning fights against far lesser opponents, and thus he doesn't have any respect from the crowd. And one night on ESPN, a computer simulation takes place to see how two boxers from different eras (i.e., Rocky and Mason Dixon) would fare against each other in the ring. The computer has Rocky win by a knockout, and that slowly starts to prompt the inevitable question—can this also be true in real life?

I don't know if the boxing press is this vicious in real life, but the sportscasters don't hesitate to show their contempt for such a matchup, or for the respective fighters. In any case, the pressure is now on as to whether or not such a match will happen in real life. If so, it would benefit Mason Dixon far more than it would Rocky, for Mason Dixon is in bad need of a worthy opponent so he can gain some professional relevance. Rocky, though, has nothing left to prove, to himself or anybody. What he does have, though, is the "stuff in the basement"—all the leftover baggage that he never managed to get rid of, possibly stemming from his losing Adrian, possibly stemming from the slow drifting between himself and Robert, possibly from waking up one morning and wondering how his life passed by so fast. But it's emotional baggage that he can feed off of, and in an unexpected scene where he starts to break down in front of Paulie, he confesses that he feels a lot of disappointment, and wants to rid himself of his baggage, of his stuff in the basement.

Baggage notwithstanding, Rocky does slowly find some paths toward redemption irrespective of boxing, particularly when he meets a bartender that he recognizes from when she was much younger, Little Marie. A friendship begins to blossom (though despite one kiss, it never fully progresses into a romance), and Rocky slowly earns the trust of her European Jamaican-born son Steps; he even buys a dog. I don't know if Marie's character is supposed to fill the void left by Adrian (i.e., be the requisite love interest for our hometown hero), but she is there when Rocky needs the support of a friend—especially at ringside. And like Adrian's hellfire beach speech in Rocky III, Marie gives Rocky the inspiration he needs to find heart again in the ring . . . and thus begins Rocky's training.

The training sequence to the strains of "Gonna Fly Now" has become standard fare for all the Rocky movies (save for V), and this is the only spot where I thought Rocky Balboa fell short, because Rocky's training recycled so many of the classic elements from the first movie: drinking the eggs in the morning, punching the slabs of meat, running up the steps of the Philadelphia Library (only more noticeably out of breath this time), Paulie having a sentimental moment where he admits his admiration for Rocky and gives him a peck on the cheek (actually, I think that was from III). While so many of these elements are classic in and of themselves, here they just seemed shameless and cheesy, because by now they're old hat and don't bring the magic they did the first time around. (Plus, even in middle age, there's no way Stallone can regain his buff from Rocky IV.) But the one thing that is apparent from his training is his motivation—not because he feels he has to prove himself anymore, but simply because he wants to fight this one last time.

The fight Rocky has with Mason Dixon isn't a formal title match, but rather an exhibition match in Vegas. And the cameos here were hilarious: Mike Tyson ringside, trash-talking Mason Dixon; and Michael Buffer uttering his famous, "Let's get ready to rumble!" The buildup to the fight was filmed in the style of a pay-per-view, too, which I thought was a clever and imaginative touch! The match itself starts out slow, with Rocky's age showing and so many people wondering if he really is past his prime . . . but then his stuff from the basement begins to surface, and the fight starts to take on steam. Let it be said that Mason Dixon is a different type of opponent than those Rocky faced in previous installments (i.e., the fighter you love to hate). He doesn't have the unbridled arrogance of Apollo Creed, nor the destructive ego of Clubber Lang, nor the vastly superior strength of Ivan Drago. What Mason Dixon is, though, is a figther trying to make a true name for himself—and it just so happens that fighting a legend like Rocky may prove to be the opportunity of a lifetime for him.

I won't give away the ending to the fight, but let's just say that you won't walk away disappointed. With Rocky's sense of fulfillment after the final bell rings, his proclamation that all his stuff in the basement is gone, you can't help but feel his fulfillment, too. And as a Penn Stater who's witnessed his own living legend on the playing field, I was fully able to feel the crowd's love for Rocky at the end—their living legend.

I give this an 8 out of 10, with kudos to Stallone for bringing a satisfying close to his trademark series. He overcame the stigma of Rocky V, which made many of us want to forget the Rocky series. With Rocky Balboa, though, we can remember and admire the characters who inspired us so long ago.


Monday, January 29, 2007

A Guinness taste test

When it comes to beer, my father and I are loyal Guinness fans. He's been to Ireland a few times already, and has assured me that the Guinness I get here in the U.S. is nothing compared to the authentic Irish brew. This weekend I finally got to sample some actual, authentic, pure Irish Guinness—and special thanks to my friend Sam for bringing some back from his trip to Ireland last summer!

I can safely say that the Irish brew is noticeably different than the American brew . . . but the differences are so subtle and so hard to pinpoint that it's actually hard to give preference of one over the other. The Irish brew is just as dark, maybe a tiny bit thicker, with a slightly sweet taste that actually borders on being bitter. It's still just as smooth going down, though! And I think the Irish brew might have had a slightly higher alcoholic content, because I buzzed big time from it (though at the same time, I was also running on an empty stomach).

One day I'm sure I'll make it to Ireland to drink some Guinness in an actual Irish pub, but until that day comes, I can only make due with the wonderful Guinness I get here. I'm just glad for the opportunity to taste the genuine article beforehand, just to whet my appetite for the future.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Remembering the Challenger

This is a day that not too many people remember, but 21 years ago today, the space program came to a screeching halt when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The event was made famous not only because it was a disaster of epic proportions, but because of the civilian schoolteacher who rode along on the shuttle vis-à-vis the Teacher In Space Program.

I was in the second grade at the time, and when the disaster occurred, it was during lunchtime recess. It was indoors that day, probably because of the cold, and in the bathroom I bumped into a first grader who lived practically next-door to me, and he asked me if I'd heard about the shuttle explosion. Gradually word of the event spread throughout the day, and when my father arrived home from school that night, I remember him being very stunned by the news, and I can still see the news recap from MacNeil-Lehrer that night.

The teacher who was on recess duty that day, my old homeroom teacher from first grade, had actually signed up for the Teacher In Space Program. I don't know how far she made it into the program, in terms of being a finalist, but I can only imagine the chills that went up her spine when she learned of the Challenger's explosion. Talk about dodging a major bullet!

After the Challenger disaster, I think it was another two years before another shuttle launch took place, because I was in middle school at the time, and they had TVs set up in the cafeteria for all of us to watch the launch. I was in the lunch line when liftoff occurred, facing away from the TVs, and when the entire cafeteria erupted in applause, the entire lunch line broke away to go watch. I remember watching the liftoff very intently, the images of the Challenger explosion still in the back of my mind. I don't think I let my guard down until after the rocket boosters broke away and fell back to the Earth, as per standard procedure.

It's still heartbreaking to think about the loss that occurred that day, and sadly I think it's an event that's largely been forgotten over the years. But on a more upbeat note, the National Archives had an interesting exhibit about the Challenger the last time I was there. It wasn't a very large one, if I recall—more of an interactive video display than an actual exhibit—but still worth a visit.

Godspeed to those who were lost 21 years ago today.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

I'm feelin' kinda low, Apu. Got any of that beer that has candy floating in it? You know, Skittlebrau?

Last night, just for fun, I bravely made the Simpsons concoction Skittlebrau. Apparently, while mine was just a whim, someone took the Skittlebrau premise seriously enough to try finding the perfect mix between alcohol and Skittles! Though I'm not as brave as that guy was, mixing it with Bicardi or Coors. I tried mine with Yuengling Lager, and it was okay. The Skittles began to dissolve very fast when they hit the brew, and by the time I drained the glass, most of the outer candy coating had dissolved away.

The dissolved sugar gave the beer a slightly funny taste, but it wasn't noticeable until you hit the bottom of the glass. The candies themselves were rather soft afterwards, too, tasting almost bland.

In the end, though, it was a worthy experiment. And it just goes to show that The Simpsons can corrupt and inspire us in many more ways than we imagined.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Inland Empire

When I left the AFI on Tuesday night after finally getting to see Inland Empire, I remember thinking, "I've never seen anything like this!" and "That just blew Lost Highway right out of the water!" It's taken me several days to figure out just how to approach a review of this film, because the more I thought about it, the less I thought I'd be able to write a conventional review—because Inland Empire is by no means a conventional movie! As I said in my earlier write-up, I genuinely think that this film will become David Lynch's magnum opus, because in watching Inland Empire, I think I've witnessed the height of Lynch's genius and vision . . . or instead, I may actually have witnessed a great turning point in his filmography, a new and exciting step forward into cinematic surrealism.

Because Inland Empire is largely that, surreal, and not so much about a traditional narrative story. Instead, this film is an experience, a ride that we must all take when sitting down to view it. And like all good art, we must draw our own conclusions about what we see. We must give our own interpretation to the events on screen . . . or maybe we don't have to interpret at all. Maybe all we need to do is feel.

I can honestly say, I've never seen a film quite like this, and I'm genuinely in awe of what Lynch has created.

The tagline for Inland Empire is, "A woman in trouble." For a 3-hour movie, that's a pretty vague description. I mean, you'd think that the marketers could give us a better teaser than that, right? But in the end, it really is descriptive enough of the film. Just those four words sum up all things in this movie, and the rest is left up to us, the viewers, to decipher.

As I said earlier, instead of a narrative storyline, we have a series of vignettes that switch back and forth, appearing and reappearing at different times, with the same actors taking on new roles in each vignette—yet all vignettes are ever so subtly tied together, with tiny little bits of information carrying over from one to the next. The film starts out in a darkened room where two people are speaking somewhat seductively to each other in what at first sounds like Russian, but we soon learn it's Polish. It's much too dark to make out who each person is, but you can notice that their faces are blurred out (which reminded me of a similar scene from Mulholland Dr.). Then a few moments later, you see a young woman, presumably the same one who spoke seductively in Polish earlier. She's wrapped in a blanket and crying, her tear-streaked face focused intently on the TV—and on the TV, we see a family of rabbits sitting around in their living room. Only these aren't really rabbits . . . they're more like human beings with rabbit heads, only moving about with such deliberation and slowness that you half-wonder if they're on Valium. When the scene of the rabbit family is shown on the full movie screen, though, the only thing you have to remind yourself that this is from TV is the laugh-track of a studio audience.

And from this little vignette, we then move into a daytime scene, with a wobbly-looking old lady meandering through driveways towards what looks like a mansion. When she rings the bell and is given entrance to the house, she introduces herself as the new neighbor to Laura Dern, whom we learn is actress Nikki Grace who's waiting around for the results of her recent audition. This old lady sits down for coffee with Nikki, and begins to talk in very cryptic tones to her, sounding more ominous and unnerving with each breath. At the end of their conversation, she points to a couch at the far end of the room, where she says that Nikki will be sitting tomorrow . . . and that's when we cut to a scene of Nikki doing just that, sitting on the couch at the far end of the room, joined by her friends when the phone rings to tell her that she's landed her role.

Here, the story begins to take on a slight linear progression as Nikki begins the process of learning her new role with her co-star, poontang-chaser Devon Berk, played by Justin Theroux (whom we may remember as Adam Kesher from Mulholland Dr.). Jeremy Irons filled in as their director, and Harry Dean Stanton was downright hilarious as the director's assistant, ever so subtly conning money of off everyone who stopped to talk to him. Things progress linearly while they began rehearsing their roles for Blue Tomorrows (the film they're working on together), right up until the point where the two of them, against their better judgment, finally jump into the sack (laughably so, I might add). That's when Inland Empire starts to branch out in multiple directions. Characters change at will, walk in and out of vignettes, sometimes viewing themselves from previous vignettes, almost as if from another reality. Some of the common vignettes that appear:

  • 1940s Poland, with the girl from the beginning talking to a man about the untimely death of someone they both knew
  • Nikki going up a long flight of stairs and finding a man in an abandoned room at the top, where she approaches him for a "job" she has for him, and ends up spilling a long life story about her background (which rotates between downright hilarious and surprisingly unnerving)
  • What looks like a backyard barbecue of poor people, Nikki and her husband among them—and there's even an appearance of the spooked-out man from the infamous "Room to Dream" clip that's been frequently mistaken for a clip from Inland Empire (the same house and back yard are used in both)
  • A motel room filled with several young women, who we slowly learn are prostitutes and Nikki's friends, though Nikki never says a thing in any of these scenes, almost like she isn't even there
  • People looking at each other through the TV screen of the Polish girl from the beginning
  • A brief reappearance of Devon Berk, only in his Blue Tomorrows role Billy, with Nikki arguing heatedly with his wife, Nikki declaring that she loves Billy, and Billy's wife smacking Nikki around
  • Nikki, on the street, getting stabbed with a screwdriver by Billy's wife, and Nikki collapsing on the sidewalk surrounded by homeless people—who then proceed to have long conversations about bus fares to nearby cities while Nikki's dying beneath them

There's almost nothing that ties these various vignettes together, save for a few very minor details that flow from one vignette to the next . . . but somehow Lynch manages to make them all flow together seamlessly, naturally. If this had been constructed by any other director, it would have been an ungodly mess, but Lynch made it all work beautifully.

Granted, Lynch had plenty of time to work on this film, as he largely improvised the whole thing. The way I understand it, he had the basic idea for the film, started shooting one day with a freshly-written scene, and each day would write a new scene just before shooting it. In essense, Lynch never had a full movie script; it was just a day-to-day creation, so not a single person working on Inland Empire knew how the story would progress—not even Lynch himself! It does have a strong improvisational feel to it, but in a way, it lends to the overarching mystery behind the film. Lynch also filmed Inland Empire entirely in digital video, which has now become his gold standard—though I felt it lent many of the scenes a distinct camcorder look. In this age of high-definition everything, this will surely rub many people the wrong way, but I read that Lynch prefers digital video for the effects that it can lend to a scene. And when I think of his standard effects shots, his rationale makes sense.

I've never been a great fan of Laura Dern, I have to confess. In fact, I found her purity, as it were, in Blue Velvet quite annoying. Here in Inland Empire, though, she was downright phenomenal! Much like Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr., Laura Dern brought enormous life and power to a role that had to have been immeasurably difficult. Too bad an Oscar nomination wasn't in the cards for her.

Even knowing that this was a David Lynch film, it's still an ingrained habit to look for a linear, tangible plot, even though I know one is very unlikely to be there. Inland Empire is like an abstract painting put to film—or in keeping with the vignette-style narrative, a book of poems put to film. Though if your heart is set on giving it an interpretation, one possible way to interpret these vignettes is that they're all random scenes from Nikki's film Blue Tomorrows. Or maybe the Polish scenes were depicting the story of the previous actors who tried to make Blue Tomorrows. Or were the rabbits just something seen on TV by the Polish girl, or like Lost Highway, do they represent a part of Nikki's subconscious? What exactly is Nikki's relation to the Polish girl at the end? All these questions, we'll probably never know the answers to . . . because as with all Lynch films, we're not supposed to know. We're just supposed to enjoy the experience, the thrilling ride that is a David Lynch film.

10 out of 10, with mandatory future viewings—although since Inland Empire has now run its course in DC theaters, I guess future viewings will only happen when it hits DVD. Like I said before, Lynch outdid himself by miles with this film, easily blowing Lost Highway out of the water, and I'm very eager to see where he takes the film medium from here. Utter, utter brilliance.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Shuffleboard on the radio

Well, it finally happened—Bonneville station WGMS (104.1) gave classical music the boot in favor of pop rock, and WETA (90.9) reverted back to classical. I noticed it on Tuesday night during my drive over to Silver Spring, and I found myself facing dual emotions: sadness that WGMS has left us, but gratitude that WETA went back to classical and thus retained a classical station in the Metro area. Understandably, though, WETA has been getting some negative feedback from listeners who preferred their all-news format, but I can assure you, I'm not one of those people. I'm very glad that WETA is classical again.

Since all this was precipitated by Dan Snyder, who entered into negotiations to buy WGMS in order to give his Redskins radio presence a boost, I originally thought a chorus of "Danny Boy" would be in order, but upon reflection, I can't think of anyone in the Washington region who'd sing the line, "We love you so."

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Where's Betamax when you really need it?

In the current DVD format wars, I am officially Switzerland. Will, on the other hand, has been observing the situation closely, and is bravely declaring a winner based on what he's seen so far.

Maybe I'm living in the Stone Ages technologically, but I don't currently own a flat-panel widescreen HDTV that takes up one entire wall of my living room; thus, I don't need a special brand of DVD for a movie to be seen in super-high precision on my set-up. My current 25-inch tube TV with the standard DVD work perfectly well, and that's more than enough to suit me. (Plus, there are better ways to blow $3,000 on myself.)

I guess one thing that really irks me about this format war is the underlying fear that one day soon we're going to have to upgrade all our DVDs to a higher format . . . right after we've finished upgrading all our old movies from VHS to DVD. Seriously, I don't want to have to go through that whole upgrade mess again, which is why I'm hoping the whole high-definition craze burns out on re-entry.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Brilliant! . . . I have absolutely no idea what's going on

Last night I finally made it to the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring to see David Lynch's newest film, Inland Empire. I'd been waiting for this day—the day I got to see a new Lynch film on the big screen—ever since I saw Lost Highway and began calling myself a fan of Lynch's work. Let's just say, as I left the theater last night, I was completely sated—yet completely baffled. I had partially expected this, given Lynch's style for abstractly examining the darkest and strangest corners of the human mind . . . but not to the degree I was feeling! So having said that, before I put together a full review of Inland Empire, I'll need to take a few days to gather my thoughts and figure out just what precisely I did see!

Let me say this much, though: Lynch far outdid himself with this film! At just under 3 hours, Lynch pulled us deep into his world of obscurity and fear, and never let up for a second . . . and if you thought Lost Highway or Mulholland Dr. were baffling and mind-blowing, Inland Empire makes those films look like Peter Pan in comparison. There's no denying the man's brilliance, and I think Inland Empire is probably going to serve as David Lynch's magnum opus.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Oscar list is out!

The fix is in! I mean, stop the presses! I mean, the Oscar list for 2007 is out! This is the day I've been waiting for since at least mid-September, when I finally got around to seeing The Last King of Scotland at the E Street Cinema, for I knew walking out of that theater that I wanted Forest Whitaker to win the Oscar.

Looking back at last year's Oscars, with the exception of Crash taking Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain, the winners last year were shockingly predictable, and I was hoping that this year's Oscar contenders would be exciting and filled with surprises. So far, I'm pleased to say that's the case!

Best Picture: Some of these nominees were expected, though some caught me by surprise. Having seen Babel, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but didn't consider it Best Picture material per se. Mind you, I'm not complaining about its nomination; I just didn't expect it to be a nominee. The Departed, I'm sure by default, got a nomination because it's a blockbuster Scorsese picture. I haven't seen it yet, but am eager to. Colby is the only person I know to have seen it, so for the moment it's gotten one endorsement. The nomination of Little Miss Sunshine reminds me of Sideways in 2004—the lone comedy among serious dramas. Letters from Iwo Jima surprised me, because I thought Flags of our Fathers would get nominated. Having Clint Eastwood get a Best Picture nomination is, as Will so aptly says, as surprising as the sun coming up in the east, but my guess would have been Eastwood's other WWII drama rather than Letters. Prediction notwithstanding, I can't say I have a preference for any of the Best Picture nominees over another.

Prediction: Babel

Best Actor: Give Forest Whitaker the Oscar . . . now!!! Anything less than that is inhuman, because Forest was downright terrifying in The Last King of Scotland, and the performance he gave as the paranoid and overpowering Idi Amin is unforgettable, to say the least. Though I fear that Peter O'Toole will be viewed as the sentimental favorite, and that the Academy will award him the Oscar gold because he hasn't received one before. That would really upset me, because if you're going to honor a man for a lifetime film career, he should be given an Honorary Oscar like the one Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet received in recent years. Because that's what a Best Actor Oscar for O'Toole would be—a lifetime achievement award, whereas Forest Whitaker should be awarded for his powerhouse performance. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Forest. Anyway, now that I'm done with that high-horse, I'm pleased that Will Smith got nominated for The Pursuit of Happiness. I could tell right away from the trailers that he was going to be spectacular, and I'm growing more and more pleased with him as an actor each day. I almost hate to admit this, but I'm feeling the same about Leonardo DiCaprio. I used to despise him for being the pretty-boy from Titanic, but after his turn in The Aviator, I slowly became impressed by his acting abilities.

Prediction/hope: Forest Whitaker (and if Peter O'Toole wins, I'm going to be supremely pissed off)

Best Actress: I'll get this out of my system now—I can't stand Meryl Streep as an actress!!! I think she's a hack who couldn't act her way out of a paper bag. And I refuse to see Devil Wears Prada because the character she plays hits a little too close to home for me. Helen Mirren has received quite a lot of buzz for The Queen, though I myself have yet to see it, or any of the other films with nominated actresses.

Prediction: Helen Mirren (though as long as Meryl Streep doesn't win, I'll be happy)

Best Supporting Actor: Haven't seen any of these films, but I'm very pleased that Edde Murphy got nominated. His body of work started out great in the '80s, but I think he lost focus during the '90s, and his focus on cheesy family movies has been a waste of his superb acting abilities (to all you Shrek fans out there, I'm sorry). But with Dreamgirls, I'm very pleased to see him return to serious roles as an actor. I don't have any immediate plans to see Dreamgirls just yet, but I'd see it for Eddie Murphy. The only other nomination that surprises me here is Mark Wahlberg. When I think of Mark Wahlberg, I usually think of Boogie Nights, The Perfect Storm, or The Truth About Charlie—none of which are anything to write home about (in fact, he annoyed the hell out of me in Boogie Nights). So here's another reason for me to see The Departed: to see for myself how good a performance Mark Wahlberg gives.

Prediction: Eddie Murphy

Best Supporting Actress: I said it in my review of Babel, and I'll say it again—give Rinko Kikuchi the Oscar!!! Her pain was so real that you literally feel it yourself, and the performance she gave was nothing short of extraordinary. Babel's other nominee, Adriana Barraza, I thought she was good but not really Oscar-worthy. The nomination of Abigail Breslin doesn't entirely surprise me, but the fact that a little girl is getting a nomination makes me wonder if she'll become the sentimental favorite—if the voters will see her and go, "Awwwww, isn't she cute! Let's give her the award." This genuinely concerns me. Granted, I may feel differently after seeing her performance in Little Miss Sunshine, but my hope is that when George Clooney opens the envelope, the name he reads is the one predicted below.

Prediction/hope: Rinko Kikuchi

Best Director: Okay, this is where I'm divided, because I really want Martin Scorsese to win an Oscar . . . but I feel the clear winner for this category is Alejandro González Iñárritu. I see that Oscar golden boy Clint Eastwood has been nominated (again), and to this day it still angers me that he stole won the directing and Best Picture Oscars for Million Dollar Baby over Scorsese's epic The Aviator. The nomination of Paul Greengrass for United 93 was unexpected, though.

Prediction: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Hope: Martin Scorsese (though I'll be happy if either one gets the award; as long as it's not Eastwood again)

Best Musical Score: I'm genuinely disappointed that The Fountain didn't receive a nomination here. I felt that its soundtrack was heartbreaking and perfectly fitting to the mood of the film, superbly guiding the viewer through the story.

No prediction

Best Visual Effects: Again, disappointment that The Fountain didn't get nominated. The effects in the nebula Xibalba were extraordinary, so why not award its achievement?

No prediction

Best Documentary Feature: Somehow I knew that Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth would get a nomination. With the former VP energized by the great public disapproval of the current administration, he gains great credibility in telling us about global warming—especially since the U.S. has backed out of the Kyoto Protocol. I haven't seen any trailers for Iraq in Fragments, but for the same reasons as before, I'm not surprised to see this on the nominees list. I did, however, see the trailers for Jesus Camp—and that one scared the hell out of me! (No pun intended.)

Prediction: An Inconvenient Truth

I must say, I'm pretty pleased with this year's Oscar list. In the final analysis, these are the results I'm crossing my fingers for:

  • Forest Whitaker winning Best Actor for The Last King of Scotland
  • Rinko Kichuki winning Best Supporting Actress for Babel
  • Clint Eastwood not winning Best Director
  • Meryl Streep not winning Best Actress
  • If Martin Scorsese finally wins a Best Director statue, I'll be ecstatic; but if he loses to Alejandro González Iñárritu, I won't be too terribly disappointed
So hopefully this will prove an exciting year for the Academy, and now we wait for February 25 with bated breath to know the winners. As I stated before, on Oscar night, I plan to do some live-blogging with the announcement of each winner, so stay tuned!


Monday, January 22, 2007

Pre-emptive Oscar strike?

In anticipation of tomorrow's release of this year's Oscar nominations, I was caught off guard by the release of this year's Razzie nominations this afternoon! I actually thought they came out after the Oscar nominations were released, so it's possible the Razzies made a pre-emptive strike on the Oscars this year. For those who are unfamiliar with the Razzies, they honor the worst in the year's motion picture industry, giving out awards for worst actor, worst director, worst picture, etc. There isn't a formal ceremony per se, though some nominees have actually shown up to receive their awards! (**cough cough** Halle Berry)

So far the list of nominees makes sense, though I must confess, some of this year's nominations surprised me! So here's my take on the main ones, along with my predictions.

Worst Picture: Out of all those listed, the only one I've seen is Lady in the Water, and I have to agree—it was something of a letdown. Even though I thought it showed some of M. Night Shyamalan's best work in terms of style and camera, the story itself I found garbled and confusing. (I guess fairy tales just aren't his forte.) And the moment I saw the trailer for Little Man, I knew that there was no way in hell I would see that movie. The very thought of a miniature Wayans in a baby outfit damn near turned my stomach—for in principle, that's just wrong. And for a while, part of me was afraid that Miami Vice would be razzed, because as a fan of director Michael Mann, I would consider it a great dishonor for one of his films to be razzed.

Prediction: Little Man

Worst Actor: I'm almost ashamed to admit this, but I would have included Tom Hanks on this list, because I thought he was seriously miscast in The Da Vinci Code, and left the role of Robert Langdon very lacking. As for the actors actually nominated, I haven't seen any of these films—though for all I know, that may be a good thing!

Prediction: Wayans brothers

Worst Actress: Okay, I'm getting a huge laugh out of the fact that both the Duff sisters, Jessica Simpson, and Lindsey Lohan are getting razzed. Imagine that—pop culture teen icons getting called out as the bad actresses they really are! It restores my faith in justice. Apparently Sharon Stone's not gettin' any love, either, for reprising her famous role in Basic Instinct 2. I guess the lesson to be learned here is the crotch shot seen 'round the world only works when you're young and sexy?

Prediction: Sharon Stone

Worst Supporting Actor: At the same time, Shyamalan's nomination does and doesn't surprise me. The whole director's cameo thing isn't as groundbreaking as it was when Alfred Hitchcock did it, so I get the feeling that his nomination is more a reaction to his ego than it is to his acting abilities—and when I say ego, I don't mean his labeling himself "the new Spielberg". I mean the presumption that his audiences will swallow a fairy tales that's too complicated.

Prediction: M. Night Shyamalan

Worst Supporting Actress: I would have included Bryce Dallas Howard on this list, for her turn as the mystical girl from Lady in the Water just didn't make sense to me, and I found her acting questionable, at best.

Prediction: Kate Bosworth

Worst Director: Now this genuinely surprised me! I thought The Da Vinci Code was quite a well-done adaptation from the book, so I'm surprised to find Ron Howard being razzed for this. Maybe it's fallen victim to the general displeasure of having Ron Howard adapt this, but whatever the case, I don't agree with the call. As to Shyamalan and the Wayans, those nominations I'll agree with, for both movies we could easily have done without. And again, I'm very greatful that Michael Mann wasn't razzed for directing Miami Vice.

Prediction: Keenan Ivory Wayans

Worst Remake or Rip-Off: It honestly never occurred to me that Little Man came from a Bugs Bunny cartoon! I know exactly the cartoon, too! It's a classic. But more to the point, I see that Steve Martin's remake of The Pink Panther is getting razzed. I should state this up front—I haven't seen the remake, but the very thought of trying to remake the indomitable Inspector Clouseau, so immortally personified by the legendary Peter Sellers . . . the bar is just too high. Haven't seen Posiedon, but I saw the original, and save for the tidal wave that capsized the ship, the original wasn't much to shake a stick at, either.

Prediction: Little Man

Now that I've gotten all that out of my system, I wait with bated breath for tomorrow's announcement of Oscar nominations. I'll undoubtedly have many opinions on those as well, so stay tuned!


True Romance

When I think of Quentin Tarantino, I usually think of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill—gritty crime dramas (kung-fu/western in the latter's case) that pushed the limits of the genre way past the envelope. Suffice it to say, you may not think a romance would be in Tarantino's vocabulary, let alone his filmography. But during the mid to late '80s, Tarantino did in fact write a romance script . . . or at least how he defined a romance! To wit, a kind of Bonnie & Clyde story for the present day, a shoot-'em-up, man-woman-on-the-lam story named True Romance. Suffice it to say, Danielle Steel this ain't, and when I was first shown True Romance, I was sufficiently intrigued to see how Tarantino would deliver.

The story of True Romance revolves around a comic book salesman in Detroit named Clarence Worley, as played by Christian Slater. He's a huge Elvis fan, and while he has his passions to give his life fulfillment (i.e., comic books and Elvis), he's still kinda lonely—as evidenced by his attempts to pick up the prostitute in the film's opening scenes by inviting her to watch a kung-fu triple feature with him. (And his line about their common interests in this scene has to be among the craziest pick-up lines ever.) So he goes to the movies by himself, and in walks a girl named Alabama (Patricia Arquette in her soft, Southern-girl persona), who sits behind him, spills popcorn on him, apologizes profusely, asks him to fill her in on the story . . . Long story short, they hit it off that night in the theaters—and immediately afterwards. And after they're finished having sex, she makes a confession to him—that she's actually a call girl who was paid to go to bed with him on his birthday. The only thing is, she thinks she's developed actual feelings for him after their one night together—and vice versa with Clarence. So to cut another long story short, they decide to get married and live happily ever after.

Only it isn't so happily ever after for Clarence, because he can't shake the fact that she was a call girl, and he wants very badly to take her away from that life. So to give himself peace of mind, he decides to be a renegade and confront her pimp, Drexel (a hilariously dreadlocked Gary Oldman), telling him that she's with him now, that she's out of Drexel’s life and the call-girl business, etc. But that isn't enough for Clarence. His unease is so strong that he feels the only way to save Alabama is to kill Drexel—in keeping with advice given him by the ghost of Elvis, who kind of serves as Clarence's guardian angel. Naturally, Clarence's actual confrontation with Drexel goes off differently than anticipated. He does end up killing Drexel, but when he tries to gather Alabama's things, he accidentally takes a suitcase full of Drexel's cocaine rather than Alabama's belongings. So now energized by Clarence's killing of Drexel and by their newfound freedom, Clarence and Alabama decide to hit the road for California and team up with an old friend of Clarence's, Dick Ritchie (hell of a name, I might add!)—taking Drexel's coke with them and hoping to sell it for a quick million.

There's only one little problem, though. Clarence accidentally left his wallet at Drexel's, thus giving the mob his name for when they come after him to recover their lost drugs. And come after him they do, culminating in a monster shootout that had to do Tarantino proud. And it's one of the best shootouts I've ever seen, too. The "Mexican standoff", as it's called, has become one of Tarantino's trademark denouements. Basically, it's several people in a room all pointing guns at each other. As a reference point, think of the climax in Reservoir Dogs, with Nice Guy Eddie, Joe Cabot, and Mr. White all angrily pointing guns at each other, with the viewer on the edge of their seat wondering who's going to shoot first. In True Romance, you basically have several bodyguards, a whole team of cops, and the mob all busting into one hotel room with heavy artillery, maybe 10 or 12 people in all—and for just a few seconds, each person in that room is stunned silent, looking around at all the guns pointed every which way, and all you can do is stare at the screen and say, "Holy shit!" in pure nail-biting anticipation at the carnage that could potentially unfold.

Yes, folks, this is Quentin Tarantino's idea of a romance. But as corny as that may sound, True Romance is still a fun movie! The characters of Clarence and Alabama are just so smooth that you can't help but love them.

The casting of True Romance is surprisingly star-studded, too, but in all honesty, it basically amounts to several cameos. Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are the real stars, but co-star brevity notwithstanding, these are spectacular cameos we have here! Gary Oldman does a hilarious turn as a pimp wannabe who makes his first appearance by blasting Samuel L. Jackson all to hell (and I swear that was Snoop Dogg who also went down with him). Brad Pitt has an offbeat cameo as the stoner roommate of Dick Ritchie. Val Kilmer is listed in the credits, but when I first watched True Romance, I realized about halfway through that I hadn't yet seen him on screen at all. Then it occurred to me—Val Kilmer was playing the ghost of Elvis, who's only ever seen from a torso shot, with the audience never seeing his face! (You can recognize Val by his voice, though.) James Gandolfini, pre-Sopranos, appears as a mob hitman who has a hell of a showdown with Alabama. Christopher Walken, just before Tarantino cast him gloriously in Pulp Fiction, filled in as the mob boss who's ultimately the man Clarence and Alabama are running from. Dennis Hopper plays Clarence's father, and his shining moment in the film . . . unfortunately, I can't post the YouTube clip of it. If you've seen True Romance, you know which scene I mean—the sit-down with Christopher Walken where they examine Sicilian heritage. God, that's such a marvelous scene! But for obvious reasons, I can't post the video clip. Sorry, folks!

True Romance, while written by Tarantino, is one of the two films he wrote that he didn't direct (the other being Natural Born Killers). Tony Scott directed this film, and as expected, took a few liberties with the story. I read the screenplay online a few years ago, having already familiarized myself with the movie, and the differences between Scott's version and Tarantino's version are pretty basic, yet profound:

  • Scott defies all Tarantino logic by telling the story in chronological order. In Tarantino's original script, the first few scenes are the same as the movie, but Tarantino tells the story of Clarence meeting Alabama, up to the point where Clarence kills Drexel, all in flashback. Scott just inverted the first two acts of the screenplay to progress things in chronological order. And while I enjoy True Romance in chronological order, I must admit, another part of me wants to see it in the order originally envisioned by Quentin.
  • In the script, the scene where Elliott is introduced to Clarence and Alabama takes place at the zoo, not on roller coasters at an amusement park.
  • The original ending that Tarantino envisioned was discarded. Originally, Clarence was to have died during the shootout at the hotel, and in her grief, Alabama was to have gone off to Mexico, where the movie would have ended with her being bitter that he got himself killed. Scott, however, wanted them both to get away, basically because he enjoyed the characters so much that he wanted to give them a happy ending. The DVD actually has both endings, and I have to confess, while I prefer Scott's ending, there is a certain completion brought by Tarantino's original ending, because Clarence would have fulfilled his desire stated at the beginning of the film: to live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. Thus, the story would have been a romance in the classical sense.
I give True Romance a 9 out of 10. And even though directed superbly by Tony Scott, part of me still yearns to see how Quentin himself would have brought this movie to life.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

It's AFI or bust!

It's snowing here in northern Virginia, which means that none of the roads are plowed, and in all likelihood, also means that most (if not all) DC-area schools will be closed tomorrow. Despite all this, I made a very brave attempt to drive up to Silver Spring tonight to see Inland Empire at the AFI Silver Theatre. (I turned around when I discovered that 395 wasn't driveable, even under a mere inch of unplowed dry snow.)

As a blossoming fan of director David Lynch, I've been lusting for his latest theatrical release as strongly as a child craves Christmas morning. And tonight I discovered that the aforementioned latest release, Inland Empire, is in its final week of playing at the AFI in Silver Spring—which means that one night this week I'm going to have to somehow make it from Bethesda to Silver Spring at the height of evening rush hour—and it'll be a late night, too, because Inland Empire pushes the 3-hour marker. I almost can't conceive of it: 3 hours of David Lynch's trademark weirdness and trips through the darkest alleys of the human mind (think Lost Highway and Eraserhead). I recently reviewed his film Mulholland Dr., and if all goes well, later this week I'll be following it up with a review of Inland Empire!

So having said that, it's now AFI or bust!


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Raise the flags to full-mast already!

There, I've gotten it out of my system . . . okay, maybe not.

Does anyone know why the flags are still at half-mast? I can only guess it went to half-mast in the first place because of President Ford's death just after Christmas, but how long are they supposed to stay this way? Two weeks? Three weeks? A month? I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I think by now most people have forgotten about it (i.e., Ford's death), so we may as well raise them back to full-mast.


Friday, January 19, 2007

Office Space

When I hear the name Mike Judge, I usually think of such TV shows as Beavis & Butthead or King of the Hill. It was only in the last few years that I began to associate him with his feature film Office Space, which has since become a classic in its own right, as it speaks to office culture on levels too numerous to count.

Believe it or not, for the longest time, I didn't even know the movie existed! The first time I was even remotely exposed to Office Space was in 2001. A co-worker at the time had a little cutout of someone taped to her computer, and when I asked her who it was, she said it was "Milton, the guy who's always mumbling on Office Space." Then about a year and a half later, my girlfriend at the time showed me the movie—utterly shocked that I'd never seen it before! She rectified that situation by not only showing me the movie, but by buying it for me as a Christmas gift.

Since it's such a well-known movie now, it may be a moot point to cover the plot of Office Space, but I'm going to anyway. The story revolves largely around Peter Gibbons, a kind of cube-world everyman who's burned out at his job and is feeling more and more directionless each day. He described it once as arriving late, doing maybe 15 minutes of actual work, then completely spacing out for the rest of the day. (Sounds familiar.) His work friends Michael Bolton (who absolutely loathes his inevitable association with the singer) and Samir share his burnout, but aren't quite as depressed as Peter is. To help him ease through his misery, Peter's not-so-faithful girlfriend convinces him to see an "occupational hypno-therapist" with her, played by Whose Line Is It, Anyway? alum Mike McShane. Right in the middle of their first session, though, the therapist has a heart attack and dies right when he's putting Peter into a trance. So what does that mean for our gifted hero? It means he's now stuck in his trance, whereby he suddenly doesn't care a fig about his job—he doesn't care about anything, in fact!—and opts to stay at home and do nothing, absolutely nothing, on weekdays and weekends when he's supposed to go into work. This leads to some outright hilarious episodes between himself and his boss, as played by Gary Cole, and affects a trickle-down ripple on some of the other people at Initech (Peter's company).

And I won't lie, either—while a comedy, Office Space still points out many serious foibles faced by your average office worker. The first 10 minutes or so of the film . . . I swear, they're an amalgam of all that can happen in a single day to irritate the living hell out of someone. The stop-and-go rush-hour traffic, how cars move in every lane except yours, the schizing-out behind the wheel (God, I know what that's like!), the annoying voices of co-workers, copiers that do everything except what you want it to, the condescending bosses pointing out your every little mistake multiple times . . . but you just can't help but laugh! Why? Because it's so true, and because we've all been there. Though I've never made a restaurant run at 9:30 in the morning. (A Starbucks run, now that's another story!)

On some level, the scenes of Peter's pre-hypnosis days at Initech have to ring true for all of us. Gary Cole's turn as Bill Lumbergh is very memorable. He takes your average boss and makes him as slimy as can be, with just enough detached condescension to make him the boss you love to hate. And what can I say about Stephen Root's Milton that hasn't already been said—and praised? He completely steals the show as the guy who keeps getting dumped on at Initech! He makes you genuinely wonder how a guy like him was ever hired there in the first place, and when his final breakdown comes after continuously being relocated, being laid off without being told (he instead stopped receiving a paycheck), and having his favorite stapler taken by Lumbergh . . . what's so surprising—and hilarious—is that he actually follows through on his promises! (Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.) Thus, his final appearance at the beach becomes all the more precious.

Jennifer Aniston served as good eye-candy in the role of Peter's new girlfriend Joanna, the girl he finally dared to pick up after he gets locked in his trance—but in the final analysis, she seemed a little flat to me. Her best scene, though, is when she expresses her "flair" to her boss (played by Mike Judge, in a role slightly reminiscent of Mr. Van Driessen from Beavis & Butthead). But by contrast, Diedrich Bader as Peter's blue-collar neighbor is just priceless! In a way, though, they both symbolized differing aspects of working life. Joanna's heart clearly wasn't in her job, waitressing at Chotchkie's, where she's required to "express herself" by wearing all sort of buttons on her work outfit (dubbed as "flair"). She saw the self-righteousness of the flair, and chose to wear only 15 pieces not because it was the bare minimum, but because it was shallow to express herself with so much flair just to allure customers. She hit the nail right on the head, though, when she told Peter to go out and find what he wants, that most people don't like their jobs, but that they shouldn't have to work at jobs they hate. Lawrence, on the other hand (Diedrich Bader), he seemed to get by all right working in construction. It made him happy, so that was enough for him.

Having once worked for a company that downsized, the process of Initech restructuring and downsizing was a familiar one for me. Though at the company I was working for, we didn't bring in any consultants; rather, my company was hit by the telecom downturn in 2001, and went out of business the following year. But Mike Judge still succeeds in making something as nerve-jangling as downsizing funny! For example, the interviews with the two Bobs are priceless. Richard Riehle's paranoid "people skills" meltdown is downright hilarious, and I love the look on John McGinley's face when he hears, in the next interview, "Just call me Mike." From just that look, you can literally hear the tires screeching to a grinding halt!

The printer beatdown scene is almost legendary by now. I still can't believe the authenticity of this scene, with every movement so perfectly choreographed and executed! Honestly, I expect to see a scene like this in Goodfellas or Boyz N the Hood; the fact that it comes in Office Space makes it all the more memorable.

I almost hate to say this, but there are some elements to Office Space that make it look dated. Like outsourcing—I remember when that was the in-thing in the corporate culture . . . yet it was only 5 years ago. And when Peter tells Joanna that he updates software in preparation for Y2K, I still want to laugh. (An old college roommate of mine once rightly labeled it as "the world's most anticipated non-event.") And all the Apple computers??? Enough said. (It's scary how technology can make you feel old, isn't it?)

The only part of the film where I thought the story got weak was when Peter, Michael, and Samir tried their Superman III bit with the fractions-of-a-penny virus. I know it was integral to the plot, but it just seemed trite to me, almost like filler material. In the end, though, it doesn't matter, because Peter finally finds occupational happiness, and Michael and Samir are simply content to be working again. It may not be their dream jobs, but as Samir says, it's work. And whether or not you enjoy your job, and regardless of where you work, you're bound to enjoy Office Space. I give this a 9 out of 10, complete with an O-face!


Thursday, January 18, 2007

In need of a laugh?

Does anyone else remember the old Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers? These movies are priceless gems from my childhood, with the eternally bumbling idiot Inspector Clouseau always outwitting his boss, the insane Chief Inspector Dreyfuss. I was particularly fond of the fight scenes that Clouseau had with his servant Cato every time he returned home. The clip below, from The Pink Panther Strikes Again, is the best fight scene out of all the Pink Panther films.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Superman II (The Richard Donner Cut)

Shortly after Thanksgiving, I made a run to BestBuy one Saturday evening with Will, and while there, he picked up the DVD to the new Richard Donner cut of Superman II. He was very excited about its release, having been a fan of the Superman franchise for some time, and often pondering how Superman II would have fared had it been given the chance to run its course—though as the story goes, Richard Donner, who filmed the first Superman movie, was fired from the production after filming 80% of the sequel, only to be replaced by director Richard Lester in favor of a more campy sequel over the more epic vision held by Donner.

It's been many years since I saw the Richard Lester version of Superman II, so I don't think I could make a good comparison between the two. Will, on the other hand, practically knows it by heart, and did a write-up recently on the two films. While I myself have enjoyed the Superman movies, I can't say I'm a huge fan of them. Oddly enough, superhero movies generally don't excite me (with the exception of the Michael Keaton Batman). But I must confess, I found the Richard Donner version of Superman II quite a fascinating watch, largely because we were afforded a rare glimpse of how an original director would have filmed the story. So often we hear of directors coming and going from a project, and I think this is one of the few times we get to see how someone else (or in this case, the original director) would have conceived and released the film.

Despite my not having seen the Lester version in a while, I was still able to notice a few of the changes—most notably the presence of Marlon Brando reprising his role of Jor-El from the original (I think he was cut entirely from the Lester version). I think that element alone made the Richard Donner cut worth watching! I think there were some updated special effects, too, but you'd have to check with Will on that one.

And you know what? The more I think about the differences between the two cuts, the more I think I need to make a Blockbuster run for the Richard Lester version. But before I go, I'm going to give the Richard Donner cut an 8 out of 10. And getting to see how it was originally conceived by its original director—that in and of itself is a rare treat that I'm glad I didn't pass up.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Will Washington, DC ever love MASN?

So it seems that the sports channel MASN is now trying to warm up to Washington, DC—though I don't see that happening anytime soon. MASN suffers from the fact that it was created to (unnecessarily) compensate Peter Angelos for the arrival of the Nationals, and that alienated so many from the Washington region by default. So it's a bitter pill that Nationals fans have to swallow every time we see a game on MASN . . . because we know our money is going to the man who fought tooth-and-nail to keep a team from coming here.

If MASN really wanted to create goodwill among Washingtonians, then the revenue split between the Orioles and the Nats would be 50/50, not 90/10 as it currently stands. It wouldn't hurt to put better-quality broadcasts out, too. I unfortunately had to watch one Penn State game on MASN in October, and the sound and picture feed was terrible! I actually had to put on closed-captioning just to hear what the broadcasters were saying!

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I missed the Golden Globes

. . . and to be honest, I'm not that broken up about it. I honestly didn't even know they were happening until I went onto IMDb last night and saw some of the results posted.

I've only become interested in a few of the awards ceremonies in the last few years, and so far it only extends unto the Oscars and the Razzies. In a strange way, I find it comical to compare the two extremes against each other, because with the Oscars you have the best of the best, whereas with the Razzies you have the worst of the worst—and I think we've all seen our fair share of both.

I've almost lost track of time, but I think the Oscar listings are coming out in the next week or so, and I decided that on Oscar night, I'm going to make a respectable attempt at live blogging. I want to wait until the nominees list comes out, though, before I say more, because I know I'll have a few strong opinions about who's getting nominated for what.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

The 7th Annual Sin City, Jr. Gala: Recap

This year started off lucky for me, for two reasons: 1) my birthday fell on a Saturday, and 2) I got to spend it taking a roadtrip with friends!

As I said in my previous post, every January my friend Colby organizes a trip to Atlantic City—a tradition he started back in 2000, though I didn't make my first trip there until the following year. Usually it's been me, Colby, and our friend Dennis who serve as the core group of travellers, but this year Dennis couldn't make it, so it was just me, Colby, and his fiancée Mary venturing to Sin City, Jr. And as luck would have it, this trip fell right on my birthday!

We started off earlier than expected, leaving Colby's house in Hershey, PA, around 11:00 on Saturday morning, and pulling up into Absecon, NJ (only 5 miles from Atlantic City) in the early afternoon. The drive from there over to the casinos requires a certain soundtrack: Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia", and Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler". Reason? It's good mood music!

The weather in Atlantic City proved unseasonably warm on Saturday—with a strong invitation to roam the boardwalk not only because it was so nice out, but also because it was still daylight! You see, every year we've gone to Atlantic City, it's been bitchin' cold! Like 20 degrees cold, coupled with a freezing wet wind often blowing off the dark ocean. And by the time we get to the casinos, it's always been well after dark. Suffice it to say, with this combination, we've often been the only ones roaming the boardwalk in previous years. So with it being daylight and about 60 degrees this year, this was an opportunity we knew we couldn't pass up.

As soon as we arrived, we could see that others were following our example—out and about walking the boardwalk, browsing the shops, ambling along the beach, just soaking up this lovely weather. It's rare that I go for a walk on the beach in January, but I did this year. The waves were really high, too!

(Photos by Colby Lark)

After we had our fill of the beach, we decided to finally hit the casinos. We tried getting into The Sands, but found it to be closed. I forget the name of the casino next door, but we weren't too impressed with it (and it was a maze just trying to find the exit, too). Ultimately we ended up at Caesar's Palace, where Colby and Mary opted for the slots while I tried to make my way to the roulette wheel. Though for the third year in a row, the minimum bet was too high by the time I got there, so I made my way to the "Wheel of Fortune", as I call it. Honestly, I don't know the name of this game, but it's basically a wall-mounted spinwheel with various denominations of dollar bills rounding out the wheel. How you bet is you put chips down on whichever bills come up, and the odds are based on that denomination—i.e., a $20 gives you 20-to-1 odds, a $5 gives you 5-to-1 odds. There are two jokers/wild cards on the wheel, too, both running at 45-to-1. Anyway, I dropped a few bucks on this game for a while, but sadly didn't come away on the winning side. Texas Hold 'Em was at one point considered, but ultimately abandoned. Colby did have a good point about that, though—it's much more fun playing Texas Hold 'Em with a group of your friends than it is to play it in the casinos. One of these days, though, I'll get to that elusive roulette wheel!

One thing I learned during my first trip in 2001 was that your money can disappear very fast in these casinos. And once you start to win, it genuinely requires effort to quit while ahead, because gambling fever is very real! I've only twice come away with winnings, in 2001 and 2006, but both times I managed to stop while ahead and keep my winnings. I often shudder to think, though, how much money changes hands on a given night. If I had to guess, I'd say several million dollars a night, easy.

Since it was my birthday, dinner was left up to me (i.e., where to go). Some of the spots we've hit in previous years included Bill's Gyros, Hooters, Denny's (actually, that's more a late-night stop than a dinner stop), and a pizza shop whose name escapes me. After a long walk down the boardwalk, we eventually settled on the Hooters inside the Tropicana—which was packed to the gills with football fans!!! (Because there's no other reason to go to Hooters than to watch football, right?) It was here that we watched much of the Colts-Ravens game, with quite a number of Ravens fans in attendance, while I dined on Hooters' delicious wings. I debated ordering a key lime pie for dessert, to serve as a birthday cake of sorts, but ultimately decided against it since I was full.

By the time 7:00 rolled around, we were beginning to feel tired, so we made our way back to the motel to watch the last of the Colts-Ravens game, plus catch the Saints-Eagles matchup (with a pit stop at the friendly neighborhood ghetto Shop Rite for some game-time snacks). Colby, for the record, is a huge Saints fan, so he was on pins and needles all night long with their on-field performance . . . though he went to bed a much happier man.

During halftime, though, I received a nice surprise from Colby and Mary: a large slice of caramel chocolate cake, my birthday cake! 'Twas quite good, too. Thank you, Colby and Mary! And I met up with my family for lunch on my way back to Arlington yesterday. So overall, it was a very nice birthday, and it was a real pleasure getting to spend it with friends.

A few quick observations before I close:
  • The city of Baltimore received a huge black eye this weekend. Of all the teams to lose to!
  • On the way home from Atlantic City, Philly was shrouded in dense fog when we drove through. Perhaps the fog symbolized the sense of loss felt by so many there?
  • Left turns in New Jersey still make no sense to me.
  • Gas is actually $1.99 along Route 30 in Absecon, NJ! And here I thought I’d never see gas under $2 again in my lifetime.
  • If you ever shop at a store where a sign reading "Park at your own risk" is posted outside the parking lot, shop elsewhere.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Atlantic City-bound!

In celebration of the 29th anniversary of my birth, today I set sail for Atlantic City!

Well actually, this is also a yearly trip I take with several friends from PA. The tradition of a January trip to Atlantic City started in 2001 with my friend Colby, who's a big fan of roadtrips. And when it was discovered that two of his friends shared a birthday (one of them being me!), we all decided to make this a yearly event: piling in the car and heading to Sin City, Jr., for a day of fun and excitement at the casinos.

This will be our seventh annual trip to Atlantic City, and with any luck, today will mark the third time I'll have come away with some winnings.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

World Trade Center

I think it goes without saying that anyone who's alive now will never forget where they were on September 11, 2001. Me, I was working on Connecticut Avenue in DC, just across from the Mayflower Hotel, and I can distinctly remember the first news I heard about the attacks of that day. I was listening to Debussy on my work computer, gazing down at a report I was editing in hard copy, drinking a cup of our nasty office coffee, when Aisha, our IT person, walked into the office next to mine and said, "Did you hear? Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center!" Truth be told, when I first heard this bit of news, I wasn't entirely surprised. I thought, with both buildings a quarter of a mile tall, something odd like that was bound to happen. I didn't think of a jetliner at first, either, but rather something smaller—and at worst, just leaving a scar on the building. But what struck me as odd was that it was two planes, because that didn't make sense to me. I mean, it's not like two piper cups can drag-race over Manhattan, right?

Anyway, to cut a long story short, around 10:30 everyone was told to go home, that the office was closing down for the day, and I ended up walking out of DC via Georgetown and the Key Bridge, walking to my friend Brian's apartment near Courthouse Metro in Arlington. There the two of us spent much of the day glued to the TV, watching CNN replay the videos of the Twin Towers collapsing, and I made a lot of calls to various family members and friends to tell them that I was okay—and all the time I was wondering, "What the hell is happening???"

I don't think I'll ever forget walking down M Street through Georgetown that day, or across the Key Bridge and seeing the sight of black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon, only a half-mile south of me—or the sight of the charred Pentagon from 395 the next morning. Just like those bumper stickers that say, "Never forget 9/11", I won't forget. I'll never be able to; they're images that are forever burned into my subconscious.

I knew it would only be a matter of time before 9/11 became a big-screen topic, and the first of the 9/11 movies came out earlier in 2006, with Paul Greengrass's United 93. And not long after that came Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. I'll confess, when I first learned that movies were being made about that day, I was undecided about how to feel. I honestly didn't think it was too soon, but I was nervous that it wouldn't be handled with the proper delicacy and respect, because even though I didn't think it was too soon, it was still fresh. And to say that Oliver Stone has a controversial reputation would be the understatement of the year. So any misgivings anyone had about Stone directing a 9/11 movie were understandable, and when I finally sat down to watch World Trade Center, I paid very close attention, hoping that America's darkest hour wouldn't be glamorized or politicized in typical Hollywood fashion.

The film doesn't so much open as it does awaken, for the opening shot is of John McLoughlin, a Port Authority Police Officer played by Nicholas Cage, waking up just before his alarm clock goes off at 3:30 a.m., then walking through his house and checking in on his children before going to work. Following that, we have a similar pre-dawn shot of Will Jimeno, played by Michael Peña, also a Port Authority Police Officer who's leaving for work.

Much like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, there's no dialogue for the first 7 or 8 minutes of the film. Instead, we're treated to some very pretty shots of a new day slowly beginning, people making their way into work like they would any other day. Because it was just a normal day, with people going in to work like usual. Riding the subway, riding the bus, riding the ferry, driving their cars . . . it was just a normal day.

Until Will Jimeno looks up and catches the shadow of an airliner silhouetted against a skyscraper.

When the first plane hits in the movie, we're presumably inside the World Trade Center, with two workers conversing over the water cooler—and then suddenly the building begins to shake. And during this scene, I noticed something very clever. On 9/11, the first plane hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. In the movie, the plane hits at exactly 8 minutes and 46 seconds into the movie! Clever editing work here, I must admit! But clever editing aside, Oliver Stone didn't do a thing cinematically to bring tension to the moments before and after the attacks; he didn't need to! For I as the viewer had the benefit of hindsight . . . and I knew exactly what to expect, though I didn't quite know what form it would take on screen. That's where the tension was born for me—anticipating the next moment in the attack. And I have to say, it was damn near unbearable.

The shots of the burning towers were very real, I must say! (And frankly, I'd love to know where Stone got them, because while I get the feeling they were recreated—both inside and outside the Trade Center—they were right on the mark!) But in portraying the attacks as they unfolded, Stone caught one very vital element of 9/11 that didn't even occur to me in hindsight: the confusion. The utter inability to register, or even come close to understanding, what was happening that day. Because as Nick Cage said in the drive over to the towers, "There is no plan." From the perspective of five years after the fact, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that what happened that day was miles beyond our comprehension. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and when everyone is staring up at the burning towers in absolute astonishment . . . it's genuine, and for me it brought back a lot of that same confusion and fear from that day. Kudos to Stone for his authenticity!

One scene that really hit me hard (and twisted my stomach) was when McLoughlin and crew are changing into the fire equipment, and you hear what sounds like doors slamming or guns going off . . . it took me a few minutes to realize that it was the sound of people jumping.

As I said earlier, knowing the precise timeline of 9/11 damn near made it unbearable to watch the attacks unfold . . . because I knew exactly what was going to happen next, I knew when it was going to happen, and I knew it was about to happen to the people on the screen. When another officer joins McLoughlin and his crew on the concourse and says the Pentagon's been hit, I knew we were drawing close to the moment of the first tower's collapse. (And just like in a horror movie, the inclination to shout, "Run!" to the main character on the screen was strong.) And right on cue, when McLoughlin asks on his radio what the problem is with Tower 2, that's when the enormous rumble begins to come at them from all sides . . . and gradually the look of horrified realization lands on each and every face there, and they all run for cover as the concourse starts to implode all around them.

As the first tower collapsed, I was actually surprised to see them cut away to blackness right away, as the slowly waking eyes of Nicholas Cage are brought up close in the darkness as he wakes up beneath the rubble. Oddly enough, when he wakes up, I thought, “Okay, the worst is over now.” Meaning, by this time I had presumed that both towers had collapsed, so the second enormous rumble caught me completely by surprise; apparently they awoke just minutes before the second tower collapsed, and the second collapsing took out another member of their crew who had also survived the first collapse, leaving only McLoughlin and Jimeno there in the rubble, isolated beneath so many tons of shattered concrete.

For once I actually thought Nick Cage did some great acting. The scenes of him and Michael Peña buried underneath the rubble were heartbreaking and gut-wrenching, for both were men who were faced with the very real possibility of their death, and thus were reflecting back on each of their lives and admitting their regrets to one another, somehow trying to stay alive for the sake of each other. As they so often told each other, "Don't fall asleep. You may not wake up. The pain keeps you alive." The camerawork caught such stunning close-ups of their faces, where their fear and panic were so visible that you could damn near taste it yourself.

Watching it from the perspective of two rescue workers buried underneath the rubble was very eye-opening. Having only seen 9/11 from the outermost perspective, i.e., watching the shots of the towers collapsing and not of anyone individually suffering a loss, you gain a new perspective on the event. And seeing how all their families cope as they wrestle with the terrible uncertainty of their fate really brings it home, because as the second half of the film progresses, we see how Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and a very pregnant Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) try to cope with not knowing whether their husbands made it out alive.

Enter into the fold the young character of Sgt. Karnes, a Marine who's determined to go down to Ground Zero and search for survivors. And ultimately it is he who locates McLoughlin and Jimeno. I don't think it's any secret that McLoughlin and Jimeno are rescued from the rubble—though it occurred much earlier in the movie than I expected! Jimeno gets pulled out first (and I almost did a double-take when he said, "Where are the buildings?"), and McLoughlin emerges several hours later (chronologically-speaking, that is). After this, we had about half an hour left in the movie! Thankfully it was a meaningful half hour, as both men are reunited with their families . . . and we even see the grief felt by other families. One scene that struck me as powerful was when Donna McLoughlin is at the hospital awaiting word on her husband, and she meets another woman at the coffee machine who's waiting for word on her son. Her reflection about the last moment she had with her son, when they fought, haunts her . . . because now she doesn't even know if her son is alive or dead, and she begins to break down and cry, because she knows the anger she felt towards him is pointless now, and as she says to Donna, she just wants to hold him again, because he was such a good boy . . .

What struck me about this scene was the second important realization that was born from this day: that human life is fragile and precious, and that we shouldn't take a single moment of it for granted. In the helter-skelter of our daily lives, we so often forget that one fact.

Like the ending of Schindler's List, the final moments of World Trade Center brought it all home for me, and made me remember that this wasn't a movie per se—this had actually happened in real life, to real people. Even though it may have been dramatized, the event and the story herein were still very real. And the Schindler's List moment I speak of is just before the final credits rolled, when the final epilogue lines summarize where John and Will are now, and how many died that day . . . they actually list all the Port Authority officers who died at the World Trade Center, and in the back of my mind I could see the living Schindler Jews walking past his gravestone with their respective actors.

In the final analysis, Oliver Stone delivered what I didn’t think was possible: a heroic survival tale about two people who survived the worst of 9/11, without any of Stone's customary politics, without any of his trademark conspiracy theories. What he gave us was simply an inspiring and moving tale of hope and survival through America's darkest hour. 9 out of 10.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

More and more of Indy 4

So it seems that the road for Indiana Jones 4 hasn't been an easy one to travel. According to an article in Premiere Magazine, it's been nothing short of what they call "development hell" as the script went through numerous drafts and rewrites by multiple scriptwriters. Let's just hope the finished product isn't the spoiled broth of too many cooks.

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RIP Yvonne De Carlo

Man, we've got Hollywood stars dropping left and right here! First Robert Altman, then Peter Boyle, then Gerald Ford (okay, so he wasn't a Hollywood actor, but he still deserves a mention), and now the newest addition to this list is Yvonne De Carlo, who many of us may remember as playing Lily Munster on TV 's horror-movie spoof "The Munsters". She was 84 years old.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Black Dahlia

In your search for answers to the meaning of life, if one of your questions has ever been, "Who would bring a baby to an R-rated movie?", you should have been with me when I went to see The Black Dahlia one Sunday this past summer. I kid you not, some lady had brought her baby with her to the theater. Why, I don't know. Perhaps she couldn't find a babysitter, or perhaps she wanted to expose her child to the noir genre early in life. Either way, I was very happy when she left the theater.

Anyway, when it came out, I was interested in seeing The Black Dahlia because it was adapted from a James Ellroy novel. James Ellroy has published many noir crime novels in the '80s and '90s, most notably L.A. Confidential, and has a series commonly known as "The L.A. Quartet"—four crime novels that take place in L.A., spanning from 1947 to roughly 1958. The Black Dahlia is the first in that series, and L.A. Confidential is the third. L.A. Confidential was spectacularly filmed in 1997, and thus served as the inevitable precedent for The Black Dahlia. That said, I fully expected The Black Dahlia to be a supremely interwoven, complicated plot—and it was. The only problem, though, was that relationships between characters and events were tenuous at best, never fully explained, relying on too many jumps in logic (and faith!) to connect them all together. I can't remember where I heard this, but it was explained to me once that about half an hour's content was cut from the film—content that would have perfectly summed things up more, and leave the plot feeling more solid and less like it was Band-Aided together.

The casting choices were rather questionable, too, but I'll get into that later. The story of The Black Dahlia is basically this. Bucky Bleichert (as played by Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are both L.A. cops who box, and are pitted against each other in an exhibition match called "Fire and Ice" (because one is nicknamed Mr. Fire, the other Mr. Ice—sort of like how Sylvester Stallone was "The Italian Stallion" in Rocky) where proceeds went to the local police department. Bucky and Lee subsequently become partners on the force, and that's when we meet Lee's femme fatale girlfriend, Kay (played by Chesty LaRue Scarlett Johansson). The three become very tight friends, and some sexual tension begins to grow between Bucky and Kay, but it doesn't come to fruition (at least not immediately; though when it does, it's so laughably bad that all I wanted to say was, "Aww, you just ruined a perfectly good dinner!").

Then one day, Bucky and Lee end up in a shootout where they're the only survivors—and just behind the house where the shootout took place, someone finds the body of a young girl. Though it ain't just any body: it's been cut in half and slashed all to hell. The girl gets identified as Elizabeth Short, an aspiring young actress who hasn't had her big break yet, but who does have a reputation with the guys. Somehow the name "Black Dahlia" gets associated with her case (the movie doesn't really explain how), and Bucky goes off to investigate her murder, because Lee and Kay have problems of their own in the meantime. (A shady character from Kay's past is just getting out of jail, and that's given them both much pause.)

But as Bucky begins to investigate Elizabeth Short, he uncovers a lot of scandalous tidbits from her past, most notably her frequenting lesbian bars and performing in lesbian videos (which I'm sure were considered terribly scandalous in the late '40s). Along the way, he meets Madeline, as played by Hilary Swank, who's supposed to bear a remarkable resemblance to Elizabeth Short. She comes from a wealthy yet bizarre family (her mother, played by Fiona Shaw, totally stole the show during their dinner scene), and she and Bucky predictably begin to knock boots. With all this in mind, you'd think we have the recipe for a fine noir thriller . . . but sadly, we don't. The '40s noir feel was very strong, but it wasn't strong enough to keep The Black Dahlia above water. Chinatown this ain't, though the influence is very notable.

A month or so after seeing the movie, I finally broke down and got the book from the Arlington Library (a beat-up copy of a book, I must say; damn thing looked like it would fall apart if the wind changed direction). After seeing the movie, I glanced at the afterword that Ellroy wrote for the paperback reissue, and he made the statement that The Black Dahlia was his signature novel; I can only imagine the disappointment and embarrassment he must have felt at his signature novel being so badly adapted like this. But as is always the case, the book was light years better than the movie. It was actually a good bit darker than the movie, and so much of the material in the movie was lifted straight from the book. So that left me to wonder . . . what exactly got lost in translation? The movie stayed pretty true to the book, though with some noticeable liberties being taken! For example, Lee Blanchard came to a different end in the book—and to be honest, I think I preferred his movie death rather than his book death, because in the book it was more tangential, less to do with the plot. The character of Madeline also had a different end between book and movie (not to mention a different last name). And the shootout right before the discover of Elizabeth Short's body was very different. So again, what went wrong?

I’d have to start with the casting, because Josh Harnett was rather unengaging as Bucky Bleichert. He seemed so wooden, so lifeless on screen that he didn't elicit any sympathy from me as the viewer. I'm not exactly a fan of Aaron Eckhart, but after reading the book, he seemed to stay pretty true to the original character of Lee—always the hothead, always playing an angle, always doped up, never showing what his true intentions are. I could easily condemn Eckhart's acting, but maybe Lee just wasn't supposed to be a likeable character. As to Scarlett Johansson? Best not to get me started on her, for she's had better acting days (like Lost in Translation). Hilary Swank I'm really undecided on. I have to give her credit for Boys Don't Cry, but I didn't see what the big deal was with Million Dollar Baby (her two Oscar wins). Though I did enjoy her in Insomnia, because she played a very well-drawn character there. Here in The Black Dahlia . . . it's hard to say. It seemed to me like she didn't quite understand the character of Madeline, and thus didn't know how to play her.

I'll give the movie 5 out of 10. The noir, period style worked very well, I thought, but the acting, casting, and editing left lots to be desired. The book itself, that I'd give a 9 out of 10.

On a separate but related note, right now I'm reading the second book of the L.A. Quartet, The Big Nowhere, which is about the Communist scare in Hollywood in the earliest days of 1950, and I have to admit, it's hard to get into this book. I'm about two-thirds of the way in, and it still hasn't gripped me like The Black Dahlia did. But I look forward to reading L.A. Confidential, which was a rousing success when translated to the big-screen, and as a novel, appears to be very epic in scope. It's just a shame, though, that a good book like The Black Dahlia couldn't translate as well as its predecessor to the big screen.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007


When I first saw the trailer for Syriana, I was left with an incorrect perspective about what the movie was about. I gathered that it was about oil, but for some reason, I thought Matt Damon was going to be a ruthless oil executive who would serve as the film's bad guy. Suffice it to say, first impressions aren't always correct. But filmed in a style very reminiscent of Traffic (quite possibly because director Stephen Gaghan wrote the screenplay for Traffic), Syriana has simultaneously been praised and damned because of its examination of America's dependence upon foreign oil—praised because it asks some very harsh questions, damned because it's also been viewed as a George Clooney anti-Republican movie (which wasn't at all how I saw it).

One of the more common complaints I've heard about Syriana is that it's too heavy-handed, too hard to follow. I didn't find it hard to follow per se, but it did throw a hell of a lot at the viewer, and required the viewer to pay close attention to every detail of every scene, to every line of dialogue. For example, in one of the earliest scenes, where Christopher Plummer is gardening in his home, he summarizes current oil events for Jeffrey Wright—all of which are integral to the plot that follows. If you miss that scene, you'll be lost, because immediately on the heels of this scene, we go right into the boardroom of a Texas oil company, the recently merged Connex-Killen, all talking about their recent loss of oil-drilling rights in the Middle East. (This was one of the events that Christopher Plummer summarized only seconds beforehand.) But Syriana serves up multiple storylines that all interconnect at various points, some more so than others, and all examining how the oil industry plays a part on their lives.

The film opens up wonderfully—low-key Middle Eastern-sounding music rising with the morning dawn (great soundtrack, too, by the way!), silent scenes of blue-collar Middle Eastern workers boarding a bus to work at the oil refineries, before landing us in Tehran where George Clooney (fully shed of his sexy-man image with a beard and 35 extra pounds to his middle) is negotiating the sale of two missiles to some high-profile black market arms dealers. But in the midst of the sale, one of the missiles is taken away and given to a third party, a blue-eyed Egyptian that Clooney doesn't seem to trust (probably because this Egyptian stuck a gun in Clooney's face when he approached him). After this, Elvis Clooney leaves the building, and briskly walks away while the two arms dealers load the remaining missile into their car—just before the car blows up (a scene made popular by the trailer). Hmm, just another day on the job for this CIA agent? For that's the role that Clooney plays in Syriana—CIA operative Bob Barnes, a specialist on the Middle East, but who's well past his prime and is being considered for a desk job back home, where he can quietly be forgotten. . . . Though he's anything but forgotten when he's chosen for a special mission that reunites him with a former colleague who may or may not have crossed over to the other side.

Jeffrey Wright plays Bennett Holiday, a government lawyer who's looking into the merger of Connex and Killen—i.e., investigating whether it was done legitimately, because Killen, pre-merger, had managed to acquire the drilling rights to one of the most coveted oil fields in the world. The investigation basically asks the question, how could an oil company this small catch the holy grail of oil fields without paying somebody off? This is what Bennett Holiday must find out, and I must confess, I still find his character something of a noodle-scratcher, because when he's introduced, you think he's going to be the one guy who uncovers all the corruption so that the necessary bad guys can go to jail. But by the end, he's realized a valuable lesson—that in order to succeed, you need to get your own hands dirty . . . and dirty he gets them by ultimately selling out his boss so that the merger of Connex and Killen can be approved by the Justice Department. The simplicity of one line he gives to Chris Cooper sends chills up my spine: "We're looking for the illusion of due diligence."

Following on that, I've already heard Tim Blake Nelson's corruption speech labeled as the 21st century's version of the "Greed is good" speech from Wall Street. I'll let the scene speak for itself here.

Matt Damon, though, I felt was miscast. His character, Bryan Woodman, is an energy analyst living in Switzerland with his family. One weekend, he scores tickets to a party thrown by the Emir of an unnamed Arab country—and his son gets accidentally electrocuted in the swimming pool. So Woodman, as a gesture of compensation, is brought under the wing of the young Prince Nasir al-Subai, to serve as his economic advisor. Their relationship is tense at first, and Woodman gives him some serious mouthfuls about the economic future of the prince's country, particularly with respect to commoditizing its oil. His line, "This is a fight to the death!" says it all about the oil industry. And that scene was probably his one shining moment in the film.

I say Matt Damon was miscast, though, because he gives a very wooden, very surface performance, with little depth of character. And I would like to have seen him developed better, because it just felt like Matt Damon was reciting lines and not giving an in-depth, emotional performance that I've come to know from him.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Alexander Siddig in the role of Prince Nasir al-Subai. I'll always remember him as Dr. Bashir from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but it was very refreshing to see him tackle a serious cinematic role. And I must say, he pulled off this role quite brilliantly—locked in a power struggle between himself and his brother over who will inherit the throne of his country. The premise is, the weaker younger brother is friendly with American interests in the region, but Nasir wants to distance himself from the West and rebuild his country his own way—not in a dictatorship sort of way, but in a way where the country can prosper economically and financially, moving from extreme poverty to one of strong economy. In a way, Nasir is supposed to serve as a modern-day Mossadegh, and his determination to rebuild his country on its own terms was evidenced in the beginning by granting the oil-drilling rights in his country to the Chinese instead of the U.S. (i.e., Connex-Killen) . . . which puts him in the limelight, because in that capacity, he's a threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East, and Clooney's Bob Barnes may or may not have him in his sights.

And as the final ingredient to this mixture, we begin to follow two Arab teenagers as they try to find work after being laid off from the Connex-Killen oil refinery (the refinery in question switched hands to the Chinese, remember?). In the midst of their struggles, they stumble across the blue-eyed Egyptian from earlier, who brings them into his circle where they can learn about the teachings of the Koran . . . and later on, he shows the two boys the missile he snuck away from Bob Barnes.

One running theme throughout Syriana (irrespective of the oil industry, that is) is the relationships that exist between father and son. Bennett Holiday is frequently seen at odds with his live-in alcoholic father, and while they two speak very little to each other, their resentment for each other is embodied by the tension that permeates their house, and by what is not said. The one Arab teenager is frequently accompanied by his father, also laid off from the Connex-Killen refinery but often speaking idyllically about the snow-covered mountains from his home in Pakistan. Bryan Woodman's loss of his oldest son served as the catalyst for his meeting with Prince Nasir. Bob Barnes struggles to connect with his college-age son, whose feelings on both his parents were summed up with the proclamation, "Both my parents are professional liars." But most of all, the relationship between the two Arab princes and their Emir father serves as a central keystone for Syriana, for hanging over all their heads is the question of who will inherit their country's throne, and it's no secret that the two brothers don't get along and have different ideas about how to rule.

Much has been said about George Clooney's Oscar win for Syriana, but I was actually very glad that he won! I don't say that because of his politics, but because I genuinely thought his acting was stellar in this movie (on Oscar night, I was actually cheering for either him or Matt Dillon to win). He shed his usual charismatic role and instead went for a serious drama that challenged him to deliver—and deliver he did! He gave us a character who was used up, burned out, trying to scrape it all together to do what he felt was the right thing, and having to endure terrible torture for the knowledge that he held (his torture scene still makes me cringe). I would also have favored an Oscar nomination for Alexander Siddig, for his no-nonsense clarity about where his country was headed naturally made him jaded, and he probably saw himself as the last best hope for his country to be meaningful again.

I can't speak to the authenticity of Syriana, i.e., if this kind of dirty political gaming really represents a day in the life of the oil industry, but it does ask some rather serious questions that need answering. Such as, how much are these oil-rich countries being suppressed because of their resources? Just how depleted are the world's oil supplies? It's been speculated for many years that America is only in the Middle East because of its oil interests, and while I can't speak authoritatively on that, Syriana does little to counter that argument. In fact, when the liquid natural gas facility gets attacked at the end, it makes the argument that a vicious cycle is born from our oil dependence.

In the final analysis, Syriana is a devastating examination of the oil industry, and when all is said and done, you're left (pardon the pun) shocked and awed . . . but if you're a cynic like me, you're not at all surprised. 9 out of 10.


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