Sunday, October 19, 2008

David Price

For President.

No, not this David Price.

This One:

Friday, October 17, 2008

Ode to Brolin

My brain is absolutely fried. I can't think of anything to write. I just think 8-7, 8-7, 8-7, over and over again, followed by something along the lines of "never bring your best reliever in when your team is up 7-0, because that way if he gets in trouble and gives up a few runs, you can't replace him with your best reliever, because he's the guy out there who just got in trouble and gave up a few runs, and we're gonna have to look at Youkilis' beard for another decade at least, and the Rays are gonna leave Tampa, and Evan Longoria is gonna end up with a drug problem but somehow get clean just in time to play for the Rangers, and my last hope for having a hometown team win the World Series is gone forever, because although I have a few hometowns, only one has ever had a team, and it's probably moving to Oklahoma city in a few years."

Anyway, I still can't think of anything to write. So I just thought you might like to look at some pictures of Josh Brolin. That guy's fucking awesome.

Zombie Josh Brolin

Oh, sorry. Zombie Josh Brolin, for real.

Intimidate Denzel Josh Brolin.

Brain surgery Josh Brolin.

Cowboy Josh Brolin!

Cowboy Josh Brolin, pt II.

Monkey Face Josh Brolin

Imminent Dog Death Josh Brolin.

Clean Cut Josh Brolin? Uh, is this some sort of photoshop job, maybe?

Oh, here he is: Josh Brolin. Stage Left: Russell Fuckin' Crowe.

I hope you enjoyed that. I did!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Film Ignorance #19: The Killing Fields

Film: The Killing Fields
Rating: A Good Movie
Director: Roland Joffe
Stars: Sam Waterston, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich
Year: 1984
Reason for Ignorance: Dunno...

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

The Killing Fields is a highly disjointed movie, largely plotless, with no clear protagonist. I can't tell you whether or not this was intentional (I can tell you that this was director Joffe's first film and that he never made another film with an allmovie rating above 3). I can also tell you that it doesn't serve the film well. It's divided into roughly three portions: the first is a journalist in wartime tale, ala Joe Sacco's Palestine, the second is a story of hopeful and fearful waiting, and the third is a prisoner-of-war tale that finally introduces us to the titular fields.

But if the film's lack of cohesion doesn't serve it well, its story of friendship is almost overwhelmingly moving. Sam Waterston plays Sydney Schanberg, a New York Times journalist who is reporting on the Cambodia conflict with the aid of a Cambodian journalist, Dith Pran. Schanberg and Pran's collaboration resulted in a number of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, but the film de-emphasizes their success in favor of examining their relationship.

The two men are a study in contrast: Waterston, as Schanberg, is fierce and principled, a lanky figure with a left-wing beard who intimidates US and Cambodian figures with his passport and his prestigious credentials. Dr. Ngor, a Cambodian refugee who was not a trained actor, plays his earnest sidekick, whose life is in danger for most of the film; as a Cambodian citizen, he's never certain of respect from the Cambodian military or of aid from US or European officials.

What drives these men is their desire to share the atrocities committed against the Cambodian populace with the world. When Sydney gets Pran's family out of the country as the US pulls out, the Cambodian is insistent that he's remaning. "I'm a journalist too!" he repeats, over and over. This desire to tell the truth, and by doing so help the people of Cambodia, unites Sydney and Pran. Ultimately, the film turns on the fact that Pran must suffer for doing so, while Sydney receives nothing but accolades. Although others suggest that Syndey didn't act in Pran's best interests, Pran will hear nothing of it. He, unlike the naysayers, knows that they were in it together. The film reflects this - although we see Pran suffer immense physical and psychological torture, it's Sydney, helpless to aid his friend, who seems most emotionally burdened by it.

Ultimately, The Killing Fields is exactly the right kind of historical message movie. I didn't know that much about the Cambodian conflict or the horrors of the Khmer Rouge before I saw the film, and I didn't emerge from it with some sort of didactic understanding of the "issues" at hand. I emerged instead with a ground level of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and those that opposed them. Both Dith Pran and Dr. Ngor (both of whom are no longer with us) devoted their lives to shedding light on and alleviating the suffering of the Cambodian people. The Killing Fields is a document worthy of their lives, and of their service.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Review: Body of Lies

"If only Ridley had cast me instead of Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven, it might have been worth watching."

Body of Lies


I was excited about Body of Lies more than a year ago, when it was an IMDb page with a different title. The combination of one of my favorite directors, Ridley Scott, with his man-muse Russell Crowe, was enough to get excited about. Throw in a newly-excellent Leonardo Dicaprio, a script by William Monahan (writer of The Departed), and hefty doses of violence, and you've basically got the perfect movie.

Well, Body of Lies is far from perfect, but I certainly enjoyed it very much. I thought last year's American Gangster was more Scott's movie than Crowe's or Washington's; the movie was so chopped up and quick-edited (something I loved) that neither of those actors had extensive chances to dig into their roles. But this movie is undeniably DiCaprio's. Leo plays Roger Ferris, a CIA field agent who risks his life in Iraq at the behest of bureaucrat Ed Hoffman (Crowe). Hoffman is moving up, and he takes Ferris with him, making him acting station chief of the bureau in Amman, Jordan. Hoffman is a blowhard asshole, but he knows talent, and thus Ferris is soon barking orders at and reprimanding agency oldtimers with complete immunity.

Although complex camera work and complex CIA machinations are on full display here, the movie really revolves around the ideology conflicts of three men: Ferris, Hoffman, and Hani, the head of Jordanian intelligence. All of them want the terrorist Al-Saleem, but can't agree on how to go about it. Hoffman is a blatant ugly American stereotype, an overweight suburbanite who thinks he can run the world while taking his kids to school. He gives Ferris unprecedented powers in Jordan, then issues orders behind his back. Hani is his aristocratic opposite; he bestows both favors and torture with an urbane sense of entitlement. Ferris, most comfortable on the streets doing the work personally, seems sharper than either of them, but is also constantly caught between them. Every time Hoffman tries to browbeat Hani, or Hani tries to outwit Hoffman, Ferris ends up paying a price.

There's also a surprisingly cliched and surprisingly still effective love story thrown into the whole bargain, as Ferris romances a nurse he met in a Jordan clinic. The film (like The Departed) goes to great lengths to draw parallels between DiCaprio's potential life with a woman on the periphery of a world of violence, and that world itself. This is actually one of the weakest parts of the movie; although we get a strong sense of Ferris' sensitivity and integrity (something both Hoffman and Hani are lacking in), we never quite understand either his connection to the nurse or to the war on terror. This is the crucial ingredient; although we're viscerally connected to Ferris, we never quite understand how he's connected to anyone else.

As everyone who has written about this film has noted, it contains a strong critique of American foreign policy (at times, Crowe seems to be channeling president Bush for his portrait of Hoffman). But it actually has more in common with the Bourne movies or Spy Game or any Clancy thriller than it does with something like Redacted or Syriana or Lions for Lambs. This is a spy movie with a strong anti-War on Terror undercurrent, but first and foremost, it's a spy movie. It's not a bad one, either.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My Favorite Movie is the Same Movie as The Best Movie of All Time

Note to the Internets: If you think this is the best movie ever made, just say so!

This is rather long-delayed response to a post over at He Shot Cyrus, "What's Your Favorite Movie." In that post, Scott (arguing what I think is the majority opinion) lays down the law on people like me, who hold the minority opinion. His first nightmare scenario, when asked about his favorite movie, is: "Scenario#1: This guy can't distinguish between favorite and best. Is The Warriors the best movie or my favorite movie? When I tell him my favorite movie is The Warriors, he tells me I'm wrong and then proceeds to explain to me the artistic mastery of Peter Jackson."

Well, like Scott, I'm frustrated by the "favorite movie" question and I understand all of his frustrations; if you say anything besides the list he mentions (Godfather, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, something in the last 6 months, etc) you get confusion. After trying to explain Bridge on the River Kwai and The Searchers too many times, I've reverted back to my high school answer: Gladiator (which is still one of my favorites). Casual cinema fans always know the movie and almost always like it; Crowe-hating cinephiles have steam come out of their ears, and try to explain the greatness of The Searchers to me.

But unlike Scott, I make no distinction between "best" and "favorite" movie. I've actually discussed this several times with people, and have only found one who agrees with me. But here goes:

I have absolutely no criteria for judging a movie beyond how much I like it. How could I? One person I knew who argued that Citizen Kane was the best movie ever made but not his favorite tried to do so under the banner of technical competence. And yeah, Citizen Kane is probably the best made movie ever made. But why should that make it the best movie ever made? Saving Private Ryan is also one of the most technically impressive movies ever made, but I considered it a hokey piece of patriotic bullshit. Being well-made doesn't make it the best movie I've ever seen; me liking a movie a lot makes it the best movie I've ever seen.

The main point I have here is that I don't believe that there's any sort of universal or external criteria for judging movies. There just aren't. There's absolutely no way to sit in front of a movie screen and watch a movie and then say "That was one of the best movies ever made, but I didn't like it that much." If you can say that, your judging criteria are broken, and you're going to go see a lot more "best" movies that you don't like very much. Even I sometimes offer up the cheesy chestnut "I admired the movie but didn't like it that much," but that qualifies it for neither favorite nor best - just impressive in some manner that didn't really appeal to me.

I personally think that most people who make the favorite/best distinction do so for personal protection. There favorite movie is Dumb and Dumber, but they tell people Pulp Fiction, because they know Dumb and Dumber won't pass muster, so they distinguish between "favorite" and "best" disingenuously. I've just never found a reason to do that. I'm happy to tell people that Breathless, The Third Man, and Citizen Kane share space on my favorite/best film list with Zoolander, Knocked Up, and Sin City. Sure, those last three didn't win any Oscars, but fuck that. They're awesome! The bottom line is: each individual person can only judge a movie based on what they thought of it. There's no reason to hide what you felt about a movie from other people, and there's no reason to think that you're qualified to judge a movie based on any criteria other than how much you liked it.

Scott actually seems to offer up a different way to distinguish between favorite and best movies in a later post: Even back in high school, he says, "I knew the difference between "best" and "favorite." These were my favorite films, the ones you could put on anytime, over and over, and I'd watch them."

This is totally different from the distinction between personal favorite/universal best that I hate so much. Scott doesn't offer up a definition for best here, but he does offer up one for favorite: your favorite movies are the ones you can and do watch most often and always enjoy. Maybe I'm really weird but, again, this distinction wouldn't work for me personally. Sure, there are some films that I consider best/favorite that I've only seen two or three times (Citizen Kane, Third Man, etc). And there are others (Hellboy, for example) that I've watched many times and don't consider among the best I've ever seen, although they might qualify for "favorite" approval. But most of the movies on my favorite/best list are the same ones that I watch over and over again; Zoolander, The Departed, Lost in Translation, Royal Tenenbaums The Philadelphia Story, Sin City, The Searchers, Meet John Doe, Gladiator, pretty much every Coen Brothers movie...all of these films will make any top movies list I make, and I will watch them multiple times. For me, in almost every case, favorite=best=most watched and most rewatchable.

Irony Caveat: There's only one place where I will distinguish between favorite and best, and that's when one of my favorite movies sucks in whole or in part (complete or partial irony). I take things like my favorite movies and top films list much too seriously to ever put this kind of movie in those categories, but I watch at least part of, say, Red Dawn, almost every time it comes on. I don't ever watch all of it, because it's a horrible movie and I get tired of it, but Ifor a while, I enjoy its horribleness. Only when I love a movie for being bad would I be willing to distinguish between favorite and best.

As always, I want to know what you guys think. Do you have a different way to distinguish between favorite and best? Am I weird that Scott's definition of "favorite" movie doesn't eliminate many of the "best" movies I've seen? And of course, tell me what your favorite and/or best movies are - especially if the answer is Blade Runner. I would especially like to hear from Scott, but I don't even know if he reads this blog, so we'll just have to see about that.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Why Don't People Like Russell Crowe?

(If you want to see a picture for this post, please scroll to the top of the screen)

This is a serious question: Why don't people like Russell Crowe? And I actually want answers. Whenever I bring up my (completely rational) love of Russell Crowe, people seem to agree or at least sound noncommital. But when I'm in groups not aware of my Crowe-love, and I mention loving Gladiator or 3:10 to Yuma, or being excited about the upcoming Body of Lies, people often seem a bit surprised. Surprised that I, a person quite informed about film, could like movies with Russell Crowe in them. And everyone wants to immediately point out that Bale was better than Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma, which is frankly not even close to being true (Crowe is better, but he also has the much flashier role - sort of like Jackman in The Prestige. In both cases, I prefer the Aussie to Bale, but he seems to be deliberately playing the second fiddle).

There are only two reasons I can think of for disliking Russell Crowe: first, he seems to be kind of a jerk, with an extreme temper. Well, I've never believed that personal life is a reason to evaluate an artist...otherwise our great artists would include pretty much only Paul Newman. And if you disqualify people from making movies for being jerks with tempers, well, I would advise you not to vote for McCain.

The other reason I can think of for not liking him is just not liking him. He might not be to your personal taste. I personally can't fathom that; his combination of Brando-like raw charisma and ability to underplay make him (like a very small class of actors, ranging from Newman to, yes, Bale) equally able to dominate as a larger than life character (Maximus, Jack Aubrey, Ben Wade) or disappear into a subtler role (Jeffrey Wigand, John Nash, Richie Roberts). But if you don't like him, you don't like him.

So now that I've gotten that out of the way, here's some perfectly objective reasons why you should like Russell Crowe:

1.He only makes good movies. Since he broke out in 1999 in The Insider, he has only made one bad movie, A Good Year. Besides that, he has only made good movies; the average metacritic score for his movies since 1999 is 68. That is damn high for an actor, who should at least be occasionally handicapped by a bad script or director. The universally lauded Bale, by contrast, has, over the same period, a metacritic score of 56 as a leading man. If you don't like Crowe, it shouldn't be because he makes bad movies. He doesn't.

2.He doesn't make too many movies. If there's one thing I get sick of, it's being overexposed to people I don't like. Don't like Christian Bale? Sorry, you're gonna see his face everywhere. Batman Begins, The Terminator, 3:10 to Yuma, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, even I'm Not There; good luck seeing a decent number of movie in any year without having to look at his face. He's even in fashion magazines (and there's totally NOT a Bruce Wayne Armani ad up on my fridge right now). But Crowe makes only about one movie a year; from The Insider through Body of Lies, he's only made 10 movies. For whatever reason, he chooses his movies carefully, and doesn't make too many. As someone who loves him, that can be a bit vexing, but it seems like a great reason not to dislike him.

3.He revived the career of Ridley Scott. Different communities believe different movies are the greatest film ever made. IMDb says it's Shawshank, critics and academics seem to agree on Citizen Kane, your average cine-fan will probably say The Godfather, and any group of college freshman will choose whichever movie made the most money the preceding summer. If, however, I had to pick a movie most beloved in the Blogosphere, I think it would probably be Blade Runner - everyone seems to love it. But its director was hurting in the 90s;in the ten years previous to Gladiator, master filmmaker Sir Scott made Thelma and Louise, 1492, White Squall, and G.I. Jane. Yes, in the ten years prior to Gladiator, Ridley Scott made only four movies, only one of them good.

Since he got Crowe fever in 2000, Scott has made eight movies, and in that time he's made Matchstick Men, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and American Gangster. I don't know why he was in such a rut in the 90s, but the invigoration generated by collaborating with Crowe has gotten one of our greatest living directors back into making great movies. That couldn't make me happier.

So now you've heard three completely objective reasons for loving Russell Crowe; I've spared you my subjective ones. Please, tell me what you think. Do you dislike him, as so many people seem to? Why? How? Let me know.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Film Ignorance #18: Million Dollar Baby

Film: Million Dollar Baby
Rating: But...This Movie Sucks!
Director: Clint Eastwood
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman
Year: 2004
Reason for Ignorance: Hated Mystic River

Ignorance Rating: Pending

You know in Barton Fink, when he's asked to write a terrible, cliched, melodramatic B-movie wrestling picture starring Wallace Beery, and he can't? Well, Paul Haggis, adapting some short stories by F.X. Toole, has managed to write it. It's called Million Dollar Baby.

Million Dollar Baby has that mixture of predictability and preposterousness that only Hollywood movies can muster. Sure, it's utterly preposterous that female boxer Maggie (Swank) would show up in Frankie's (Eastwood) gym and ask him to train her and - even though he doesn't train girls and she's too old - he trains her, she warms his heart and melts his curmudgeonly exterior, and becomes the best boxer in her weight class. Preposterous. And yet, also predictable.

In Barton Fink, the studio exec tries to get Barton started by reminding him that every protagonist of a wrestling picture must protect either a dame or a retarded kid. Barton ponders his options and finally offers: "How about...both?" The executive ain't happy - even a cliche monger like him wouldn't have the audacity to both in one film. Which is why, in Million Dollar baby, Frankie and his sidekick Eddie (Morgan Freeman) don't just train Maggie, they also let "Danger" Barch, a semi-retarded youth who dreams of being a boxer, hang out and train in their gym. And don't even get me started on the scene where the gym's bully is picking on Danger and Eddie puts on one glove to put the bully in his place. No, I can't believe it: the battle-hardened ex-boxer who spoke longingly of one more fight stood up to the bully and protected the simpleton!? Who could have predicted it?

Outside of the hard left turn that the film takes in its final act, it really is just a heaping bunch of maudlin cliches; from boxing cliches, delivered in voiceover by Freeman, to the absolutely vicious portrait of Maggie's families as worthless white trash, the film hasn't met an easy shot it didn't like. And I'll echo the party-line from all non-Eastwood lovers: post-1992's Unforgiven, every Eastwood-directed picture has been as standard as it could be: competent-looking and professionally made hackwork. (Beware The Changeling!)

Were I watching this film in a vacuum, I probably wouldn't have loathed it so much. But as a Best Picture and Best Director winner, as the leading film of the 21st century's most overrated director, and above all as the movie which featured Hilary Swank's corny slice of Americana winning the Best Actress award over Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine, I loathed Million Dollar Baby. It's a mediocre movie, made in a mediocre manner, but with such pretensions and aspirations to greatness that I can't help but hate it. Had it appeared on Lifetime, I could have forgiven it. As an Academy Award winner, I believe this: someone should have euthanized this picture.
Just imagine: In 2004, you could have honored this movie instead. Good job, Academy.