Shots Across the Bow

A Reality Based Blog

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Short version: Excellent movie. I enjoyed it immensely. 5 out of 5

Long version:

Posted by Rich
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Thursday, June 30, 2005

We Interrupt the Rants to Bring you the Following Review:  War of the Worlds

Hey, just because I'm highly pissed off right now doesn't mean I'm always bitching. I still go out and have a good time from time to time, and I'll write about it here as always.

I took my youngest son out last night to see War of the Worlds, Spielberg's latest alien adventure. It's kind of ironic that Spielberg chose this one since the critters in War are not nearly as cuddly as E.T. In fact, they're downright nasty, looking to exterminate humanity in order to take over the planet. Which begs the question, how could critters who evolved under 1/3 the gravity, with little to know atmosphere to speak of, survive on a planet with a thick soupy atmosphere, 3 times the gravity, a lot higher temoeratures, and all that free water standing around?

But this is a science fiction film, so we'll ignore small quibbles like, you know, actual science, and just enjoy the movie.

And it is enjoyable, although bleak. It follows the H.G.Wells novel faithfully for the most part, and since it was a morality tale that reminds us that we are not lords of all creation, that bleakness is appropriate.

While the movie was OK, there were a few jarring elements that keep me from endorsing it whole heartedly. Dakota Fanning was annoying, not endearing. The John Williams score seemed recycled; in fact, the dominant theme comes straight out of The Empire Strikes Back, virtually unchanged. (It's the opening bars from the "Imperial Storm Troopers March.") And finally, for all you conspiracy theorists out there, the aliens look remarkably like the ones from ID4. Is Spielberg paying tribute to his forerunners, or does Hollywood know something they're not telling us?

6 out of 10

Posted by Rich
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Monday, May 23, 2005

Star Wars:Revenge of the Green Screens

I've figured out why Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor, two very talented actors in other projects, can suck so badly in Star Wars, and it is George Lucas's fault, just not in the way most people think.

Look back at American Grafitti. Lucas managed to take a cast of relative newcomers, and despite their lack of experience, pull performances out of them that would later make them stars.

The man has the chops.

So why did these last 3 movies suck so badly, as far as the acting is concerned?

Have you ever listened to Saturday morning cartoons done by actors who just don't get it? Don't think Robin Williams as the Genie, think Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta Jones in Sinbad, AKA "Really Bad." They are two talented screen actors who just don't get voice acting. Everything has to be bigger and broader to blend with the animation, and to counter your natural tendancy to be inhibited when your totally vamping the scene. During voice acting, often you have no clue what your surroundings are, and you have to make them up in your head which takes a ton of concentration and energy, energy that you no longer have to put into your performance.

Getting back to the prequels, most of the scenes, particularly in the last film, were shot against green screens with the entire set being built digitally in post production. Think of the strain that puts on the actors, to have to build an entire set in their minds, make it real, interact with it even though it isn't really there, and then act.

I can see where that would be difficult.

My guess is that the wooden performances were caused by this, combined with Lucas' failure to compensate for it, calling for broader, more energetic performances than he would usually.

Having said all that, the acting in this one was far superior to 2 and 1. At the beginning of the movie, I actually saw Anakin as he was supposed to be. In AOTC, he was nothing but an angry, spoiled punk, with virtually no redeeming qualities; it was like he was already 3/4 of the way down the dark path. In ROTS, I saw him as a Jedi for the first time, still impatient at times, but more mature and more centered. It made the fall that much more affecting.

Portman was given very little to do, except look tired, then frightened, then dead, all of which she accomplished.

The standout performance was Ian McDiarmid, who captured the schizoid Palpatine perfectly. SAs Palpatine, his words twisted sinuously as he lead Anakin to betraying the Jedi for love of Padme. Never raising his voice, speaking always in the quiet, rational tones of reason, he corrupted Anakin without him ever really knowing it. As Sidious, however, he could chew the scenery with the best of them.

The effects were as spectacular as we've come to expect, which is damning with faint praise, since they're no more than what we've come to expect. The movie opens with a long sequence of Anakin and Obi-Wan piloting their ships towards the main Separatist ship. The whole sequence seems to have only one purpose; for ILM to stand up and shout "Hey! Look at the neat stuff we can do now!"

The plot is actually deeper than most folks have given credit; When Palpatine accused the Jedi of becoming corrupt, he was right. In order to fight the Sith, the Jedi Council began to break their own rules, setting Anakin to spy on the Emperor, and when Mace Windu tried to kill Palpatine. It doesn't matter that Palpatine tempted him into it by feigning weakness, Windu still tried to strike down an unarmed and defeated opponent. The contamination injected into the Jedi by the Sith had to be purged and the price was blood.

Another interesting little plot point that hasn't been discussed much is Anakin's father. According to Schmee in TPM, Anakin had no father; she just became pregnant. Qui-Gonn claimed that he was the child of the Force, that the Mitochlorians were his father. During his talk with Anakin, explaining to mhim the powers of the Dark Side, Palpatine claimed that the great Sith master (who very well may have been Sidious's Master) had enough power to create life using Mitochlorians, raising the very real possibility that the Chosen One was in fact a creation of the Dark Side. If true, that would make Anakin and Palpatine, if not brothers, then certainly cousins.

This would also create another interesting parallel, where the apprentice Sidious killed his Master, and the aprrentice Vader killed his Master. It's not easy, being a Sith.

But I'm supposed to be reviewing this thing, not explaining it, so I'll say this. It's certainly better than the last two, and if not quite on a par with ESB, it comes close.

Posted by Rich
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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Slightly Less Amazing Race

Ok, I admit it; I don't really like reality TV. I watched Tina Wesson win her million, but only watched Survivor sporadically after that. American Idol does not interest me any more than the Star Search revival, or America's Top Model, or Super Nanny or Let's Trade Wives or the latest Fox excursion into low class and high ratings.

Now don't get me wrong; I do have a trashy side, and sometimes I enjoy a guilty pleasure, like Blind Date or the occasional episode of Extreme Makeover Home Edition, but most reality TV seems to focus on bringing out the worst in people. Hell, that's all that Survivor is about anymore. It's not how strong or skilled you are at surviving under harsh consitions; it's all about who is the best at back stabbing.

If I wanted to see that, I'd just go to a Hailey Family Reunion.

But there was one show that was above all that, at least for the most part. The Amazing Race was more about people working together as a team under trying circumstances. It was about perserverance, overcoming obstacles, all the things that we talk about in sports. There was an aura of good sportsmanship that went along with the show.

Sure, there was bickering between team members from time to time, but that wasn't the focus of the show. At least, not until recently.

I noticed last season that it seemed like the producers were playing up the friction between team members, and between the teams, working to ratchet up the tension. Then this season, they went a step further, and brought in a couple of Survivor vets to play. Not just any Survivor vets, but Rob and Amber, possibly the most annoying couple in Television history.

They brought a Survivor style approach to the game, following a "win at any cost" approach that really changed the dynamic of the show. Now instead of sportsmanship, it was every man for himself.

It killed the show for me. Unfortunately, ratings went up dramatically, so I'm sure Mark Burnett will continue to make the show more ruthless and mean spirited until it's just as bad as a Jerry Springer episode.

Or Survivor.

The only upside to the season as far as I'm concerned is that they lost out to one of the more decent teams.

Posted by Rich
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Monday, February 28, 2005

The Oscars:  Let’s Review

Well, I didn't do too badly (4-4), but I guess we all know that a future as a professional film critic isn't in my immediate future. I still think Don Cheadle should have won but I can't take anything away from Jaimie Fox; he was Ray Charles.

I kinda feel sorry for Scorsese though. He's made some really good movies, but there's always one he's up against that just a hair better. His Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech will certainly be interesting.

As for the show itself...Boooring.

What was with that camera angle high and from the side? I know they wanted to show off their new ability (borrowed from Monday Night Football) to superimpose graphics onto the stage, but I would much rather have actually seen the winner's face as they gave their speeches.

And isn't it a slap in the face to win an Oscar, and not even be allowed to come to the stage to give your speech? They passed the mic around the crowd so much, I started looking around for Jerry Springer.

Anyway, Oscar season is now over and I can go back to watching the trash I normall watch, Like Man of the House with Tommy Lee Jones, which I saw Saturday night. Not great, but adequate. Nothing original or remarkable, but it's always fun to watch Jones.

Posted by Rich
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Friday, February 25, 2005

The Oscars:  And the Winner Is…

Yeah, I know. I said I was going to see "Finding Neverland" but real life and a nasty cold/flu got in the way. The Oscars will be given out this Sunday and my schedule is such that I won't have a chance to see any more nominated performances so I'll give you my picks now, based on what I've seen.

Best Supporting Actor
  • Alan Alda - THE AVIATOR
  • Thomas Haden Church - SIDEWAYS
  • Jamie Foxx - COLLATERAL
  • Morgan Freeman - MILLION DOLLAR BABY
  • Clive Owen - CLOSER

This one comes down to Clive Owen and Morgan Freeman. The other three were all good, but these two stand out from the pack. I'm giving the edge to Owen here but only because his part required a much greater range.

Best Supporting Actress
  • Cate Blanchett - THE AVIATOR
  • Laura Linney - KINSEY
  • Virginia Madsen - SIDEWAYS
  • Sophie Okonedo - HOTEL RWANDA
  • Natalie Portman - CLOSER

This one is much tougher to call. Natalie Portman, Sophie Okendo, and Cate Blanchett were all remarkable in their roles and really any of the three would be a great choice, but I'm giving the nod to Portman, who really surprised me in Closer. (And yes, if you're keeping track, I've given two Oscars to a movie I didn't like. Sue me.)

Best Lead Actress
  • Annette Bening - BEING JULIA
  • Catalina Sandino Moreno - MARIA FULL OF GRACE
  • Imelda Staunton - VERA DRAKE
  • Hilary Swank - MILLION DOLLAR BABY

This category is much easier since I only saw two of the performances. Hilary Swank wins this one by a KO in the first round.

Best Lead Actor
  • Don Cheadle - HOTEL RWANDA
  • Leonardo DiCaprio - THE AVIATOR
  • Clint Eastwood - MILLION DOLLAR BABY
  • Jamie Foxx - RAY

As I said above, I've seen all of these except for Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland and it's a tough tough choice. Jaime Fox was awesome as Ray Charles, so much so that at times, I forgot he wasn't Ray Charles. But is mimicry enough to win the Oscar? Clint Eastwood is excellent as well, but this is a role he could play in his sleep. Leonardo DiCaprio is good as Howard Hughes, but not great. In the end, I give the Oscar to Don Cheadle. Always excellent in everything he's done, here he reaches a new level.

Best Editing
  • RAY

How do you judge editing? How much of what is seen on the screen is due to the editor and not the director? It's hard for an outsider like me to know for sure, which makes this category very difficult to judge. But I'm going with the dark horse here and picking Collateral, as good editing can add a lot of tension to a suspense movie.

Best Cinematography

I've only seen the Aviator in this group, but I find it hard to imagine that any of the other contenders could top this one. The sequence recreating the filming of Hell's Angels" alone is worthy of the Oscar.

Best Direction
  • RAY

Sorry Mr's. Hackford and Scorsese, you created excellent movies, but you were outgunned by the Man With No Name. Clint Eastwood was able to keep the first two thirds of the movie from being cliche, while subtly setting us up for the final third.

Best Picture
  • RAY

Million Dollar Baby, no question about it. No movie in the past several years has moved me as much as this one. It's simply the best movie of the year without question.

Ok folks, those are my opinions. What do you think?

Posted by Rich
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Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Oscars: Closer

I haven't seen a group of four people this self-absorbed and ethically vacuous since Seinfeld went off the air.

No, I didn't like it. Basically, it's a re-tread of Carnal Knowledge, again telling us that "Love Ain't Nothing but Sex Mispelled." Mike Nichols has deliberately created a movie with 4 reprehensible and manipulative characters and sent them crashing into one another, making us voyeurs to their pain. I kept expecting howls of "Jerry! Jerry!" as this movie resembles nothing so much as a hackneyed Springer rip-off.

I'll give Nichols credit though; at least the caliber of actors playing the roles is higher than the typical Springer production.

Instead of trailer trash stereotypes, this story plays out in London and features four very talented and good looking actors. Natalie Portman stands out as Alice, the stripper from New York, showing that her horrible performances in the two Star Wars prequels are aberrations caused by poor direction and editing. (Not to mention a script loaded with horrendous dialogue.) In Closer, Portman gives a powerfull performance, showing every facet of Alice's character, who is a beautiful as a diamond and just as hard. Julia Roberts is also good as Anna, the photographer who ruins Anna's relationship with Dan, played by Jude Law. Roberts' character here is edgy, fidgity, and very passive agressive in her approach to relationships, a long way from her more usual roles and she carries it off well. Jude Law does a great job with Dan, playing the eternal loser, always a few seconds behind everyone else, and therefore doomed to lose yet again. The only performance to rival Portman's is Clive Owens as the manipulative Dr. Larry, who manages to utterly destroy Dan in the space of about 2 minutes. His performance is excellent.

So, with all these good performances, why did I not like this movie? It presents an artificially warped view of relationships then purports to be telling us something true about ourselves.

That's garbage. Over and over again, the characters make choices in the movie that do not come close to reflecting real life. Would Anna really pick up a pervert in an aquarium? Would Alice suddenly turn on Dan for no real reason? And if these characters would make these kinds of choices, are they really representative af actual human beings?

None that I know.

Far from being a story about love, this is a tale of selfishness, greed, and anger wearing a mask of love. Even though it is well writen, well crafted, equisitely acted, in the end it's as empty of meaning as each of it's character's hearts are of love.

Posted by Rich
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Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Oscars:  Hotel Rwanda

Excellent movie, and well worth seeing. Set during the opening weeks of the Tutsi Massacres of 1994, the movie chooses not to focus on the callous indifference of the Western World, but instead on the resourcefulness of the few who tried to stand in the way of genocide.

Don Cheadle, who I've enjoyed watching since his days on Picket Fences plays Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who, similar to Oskar Schindler during another genocide, , used his position to shelter over a thousand Tutsi's and moderate Hutu's from the carnage.

This movie raised a lot of issues for me, many of which I'll be exploring in posts to come, but primarily, it made me feel ashamed. Over a million people were slaughtered in about 3 months, and during that entire time, we, the United States of America, did nothing.

In April of 1986, I was a young E-4, going through training at Nuclear Prototype Training Unit in Ballston Spa, NY, learning how to run a Naval nuclear propulsion plant. Responding to a bombing of a disc frequented by US Military forces in Berlin, President Reagan ordered an air stike on terrorist targets in Libya. At the time, I was corresponding with a lovely young lady from back home who was teaching and travelling in Europe. She wrote about how everyone in her circles despised the US and our "cowboy ways," and that she was "...ashamed to be an Anerican citizen." She was outraged by the attack on Libya; because in her opinion there was no way we could have known that they were behind the attacks, we must have been just reacting blindly, striking out in fear and hatred.

I couldn't understand her shame; we had been targetted, we found who was responsible, and we reacted to defend ourselves. Where's the shame in that?

Now, let's move back to 1994 and Africa. While hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children were brutally murdered, the UN did nothing. The US did nothing. We let it happen. Now that's something to be ashamed of.

We all would like to think that, had we been in a position to do something, we would have. Hotel Rwanda is the story of a man who was in the position, and did.

Don Cheadle plays the part of Paul as the consummate hotel manager. Always calm and cool, using style to avert every crisis, he handles each problem as it comes his way, never letting himself become overwhelmed. The beauty of Cheadle's performance is that we get to see the tremendous price he pays to maintain that image, in everything from a trapped look in his eyes to a full on breakdown. Without that dimension to the roll, Paul would be a card board shell, with no substance.

Cheadle is joined by Sophie Okonedo who plays Tatiana, his Tutsi wife, and is nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar. As I've mentioned before, when I think of an Oscar worthy performance, the role has to be a meaty one. Marisa Tomei won an Oscar for her work in My Cousin Vinny for what was basically a one note character. To me, that's just not good enough. The role of Tatiana in this movie illustrates exactly what I mean. Okonedo is simply tremendous as she takes us with her through the pain and fear of those days. What really struck me though, was a scene shot on the rooftop of the hotel, one which takes a surprising turn. It catches us by surprise because there is no warning in either actors' performance.

That's impressive.

OK, two more movies to go, Closer, and Finding Neverland. I'll get to 'em as soon as possible, but real life has a way of interrupting every now and again.

Posted by Rich
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Saturday, February 05, 2005

The Oscars:  The Aviator

The quest to see all the major nominations continued last night as I went, reluctantly, to see The Aviator.

Although this marks me as a cinematic philistine, as a rule I don't like Martin Scorsese films. I can appreciate their quality in many instances, but his themes tend to dwell on the corruption of human nature, rarely balancing his vision with the glories that go along with being human. And when he does show our better nature, it's usually cynically, as if our good side were nothing but a charade or a pretense, a convenient fiction we use to hide away our darkness. I strongly disagree with that basic premise and that makes it very difficult for me to enjoy any of his movies, no matter how well done they are.

Making matters worse, I'm not a big fan of Leonardo DiCaprio. I think he peaked with The Basketball Diaries and has done little of consequence since. Again, this puts me in the minority, but that seems to be about normal for me anyway.

So, as I said, I went with a little reluctance to see The Aviator, a movie by a director I don't care for starring an actor I don't care for.

I liked it.

Finally, Scorsese shows that our good side exists not as campflage for our darkness, but that it transcends our dark nature. The key scene of this movie is near the end, when Howard Hughes must conquer his growing madness to face down a Senate hearing to save his company, and his reputation.

The Aviator works well on a number of levels; as a biographic sketch of Howard Hughes, as an examination of Hollywood, as a depiction of government collusion with big business, but most importantly, it humanizes a man whose whose wealth made him a myth, but whose madness made him a caricature rather than a character.

Scorsese does a tremendous job of capturing the scope of Hughes' vision. The recreation of the filming of Hell's Angels is breathtaking and it shows us the lengths to which Hughes was willing to go to achieve his ends. He does whatever it takes to get the cameras he needs, the planes he needs, even the weather he needs to get the shot he wants. This presages the final sequence of the movie, where once again he must do whatever it takes, even holding his growing madness at bay to achieve his vision of flying the Hercules. As always, Scorsese recreates the period with exquisite attention to detail, from the sets to the manner in which his characters talk and communicate. It isn't just the vocabulary, it's the pacing, the rhythym and the tones used.

DiCaprio is excellent as Hughes. We see his charm, his drive, his ability to connect with people and bring them to his side of the table, a gift that makes his isolation later in life doubly tragic. Cate Blanchette is Katherine Hepburn. Her performence, like that of Jaime Fox in Ray is an example of a talented actor completely disappearing into a role. Alan Alda, the other major nominee in this movie, is competent as the corrupt Senator, but I didn't see anything particularly noteworthy in his performance.

So, as for the Oscars, while I was pleasently surprised by how much I liked the movie itself and the performances, it simply doesn't match the more powerful performances of some of the other selections.

Well, there's three more movies for me to see in this Oscar orgy; Finding Neverland, CLoser, and Hotel Rwanda. Once I've seen them, then I'll make my picks and those of you who aren't movie buffs can come back and start reading again, because I'll be talking about something else.


Posted by Rich
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Friday, February 04, 2005

The Oscars: Sideways

Every year there's a nomination that I just don't get. This year, it's Sideways, a romantic comedy without the romance. Or the comedy.

Maybe that's why it got nominated, sort of like Andy Warhol's realistic painting of a Campbell's soup can; the art isn't in the work, but the presentation. I can only guess that the "art" in this depressing collection of nervous ticks, forlorn looks, and endless discussions of wine comes from the labelling. Other than a few brief scenes that bring a chuckle, the movie is overpowered by depression.

Paul Giamatti plays Miles, a failed novelist and wine afficianado slowly sinking into alcoholism as he continues to mourn his divorce from 2 years ago. Thomas Hayden Church plays Jack, an aging has=been actor (type casting?) getting married in a week. They head up into California wine country for one last fling before Jack's wedding. Except Miles doesn't want a fling; he wants to continue to settle in on the long road to liver failure. And Jack may be getting married, but he tries to pick up every woman he sees.

There are some nice scenes, particularly when Miles and Maya (Virginia Madsen) are sitting on the front porch talking about their love of wine, but you know they are actually talking about themselves as a relationship slowly builds. But these isolated tender moments are far outweighed by moments of anger, fear, depression, and drunkeness.

So much for romance. And as for comedy, the one bit of actual comedy is so surprising and out of place that it is jarring, rather than amusing.

Miles' novel is titled "The Day After Yesterday," which is how this movie feels. Yesterday may have been a great day, or a horrible one, but today is just there, and you deal with the aftereffects of what happened yesterday. This movie is like missing the party, but still having a hangover. No way is it worthy of an Oscar.

Thonas Hayden Church and Virginia Madsen also garnerd nominations for Best Actor and Actress in Supporting Roles. Now this brings me back to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In that movie, Kate Winslett is nominated as Lead Actress, when her role in that movie is very much like that of Church in this one. They both provide a foil for the lead to work off of. Here though, Church is nominated as a Supporting Actor, and rightly so. His portrayal of Jack is excellent, particularly in a very emotional scene near the end. Given his behavior throughout the movie, we, along with Miles, doubt the sincerity of his breakdown, but his fear seems real so we give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, if JAck were that good of an actor, he wouldn't be doing voiceover work. Church plays Jack well, but he's not in the same league with his competition, including Morgan Freeman, Alan Alda, and Jaime Fox.

Virginia Madsen is excellent as Maya, the wine savvy waitress who takes an interest in Miles, although we never really understand what it is she sees in him, except maybe that he's not her ex-husband. I haven't seen any of the other nominated performances yet, so I can't really judge her chances, but there really wasn't anything for her to do in this movie. She has one big scene and the rest is just filler.

Even though as a romantic comedy this movie falls flat, it is a nice character study; just enjoy it for what it is and don't expect to be amused.

Posted by Rich
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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Oscars: Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

First, I liked the movie; I've always liked Jim Carrey, and here he plays it remarkably straight, allowing his trademark physical goofiness to take a back seat to his screen presence.

But is Kate Winslet's performance truly Oscar worthy?

I don't think so.

Don't get me wrong; she's very good in the role, and she reminds me of a dancer I know. Impulsive, insecure, irrational at times. But we really don't see her grow. Maybe that's more the script's fault than hers; it doesn't really give her much to work with, but when I'm looking for an Oscar winning performance I'm looking to see a character changed.

Oddly, had she been nominated as a Supporting actress for this role, then I could see her winning the Oscar. As Clementine, she provided a perfect foil for Jim Carrey to work off of, the traditional role of a supporting actor.

Compare Kate's performance here with Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, and you can see what I'm talking about. Hilary creates a character that we can understand and relate to; we know Maggie. We know why she fights, and why she wins. We never got that kind of insight into Clementine. The character is drawn in broad strokes, more caricature than character. Again, that may be the writer's fault and not Winslet's, but this just isn't really a leading role.

Posted by Rich
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Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Oscars: Million Dollar Baby

Since I see a lot of movies, I've seen just about every reaction from a crowd. At the end of a movie, I've seen them applaud, cheer, walk out in disgust, laugh until they cried, or, most often, just walk out without really being affected by what they'd seen. As we shuffle forward towards the exit, I listen to their conversations, and usually they talk about the movie for as long as it takes to leave the theater, then it's all about where to go and what to eat, or who to meet; the movie already forgotten.

Not last night.

When the closing credits started running and the house lights came up, the crowd just sat there, quietly stunned and emotionally exhausted. We filed slowly out of the theater, still silent, still lost in the story of Maggie, Frankie, and Scrap.

I was lucky enough to go into this movie without knowing what was going to happen next, and that is the way it should be seen. Maybe later, I'll write a fuller review and deal with the story, but I want you to see it first, fresh; let Mr. Eastwood work his magic unhindered.

And it is magic.

Here's what I will say. It's not surprising the Eastwood is a composer; he makes his movie like composers make music. Just as not every phrase in an accompaniment is necessary to carry the melody, these small embellishments make a song memorable. In the same way, Eastwood allows the movie to progress slowly, using some scenes like grace notes, to deepen our understanding of his characters. These scenes are not strictly necessary to the story, but the movie would be lessened by their absence.

With a cast and crew this talented, it's obvious that the performances will all be great, and they are; Eastwood has a tremendous gift for direction that allows his actors to move beyond the words of the script and become the characters they portray. Morgan Freeman plays Scrap, a retired fighter who helps Frankie run the gym. He also provides the narration for the movie, but this is no reprise of his role from Shawshank Redemption. While there are similarities, Scrap's telling of this story is much darker. He speaks with almost a complete lack of emotion, yet we can hear some emotion that's being repressed in his voice, some monumental regret, tempered by the resignation of having carried too many other regrets. Clint Eastwood is Frankie, and manager/trainer/cutman who owns the gym and manages a fighter from time to time. His character is a riddle we never get to solve, but he's familiar at the same time. It's a role Eastwood has played many times before, a guilt ridden old man not looking for redemption, but offered it anyway. Finally, Hilary Swank plays Maggie, the girl who wants to be a fighter. Her character could be a cliche, the plucky underdog who wants to win, but her performance rises above convention, bringing Maggie to life. Her story is common, but she isn't.

And that's all I'm going to say about the movie for right now. It's absolutely worth seeing, and is my pick so far for the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director. Of course, there are still movies to see, but it's going to be very difficult to top this one.

Posted by Rich
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The Oscars

First, my apologies for the long, unexplained, and unexpected absence. Between sending my oldest daughter away to college 6 months early, and the rest of my life, something had to give, and unfortunately, it was Shots.

But now I'm back, with a large storehouse of columns for your enjoyment.

Or as a sleeping aid.

Anyway, as you might have guessed from the title, I'm going to be writing about the Oscars, not just today, but up until the presentations. Why, you might ask, is a political writer and sometimes humorist going to write about the movies?

That's simple. I love 'em.

I've been a movie buff ever since I can remember. As a single guy in the Navy, it wasn't unusual for me to see 3-5 movies a week, not counting the Rocky Horror Picture show every month or so. And it didn't start then; I've been a fan even longer than that. I can remember riding my bike from Crestwood Hills to the Cedar Bluff Twin Cinemas to see Star Wars when it first came out. Heck, I can remember seeing King Kong (the 1976 version featuring Jeff Bridges and an unknown Jessica Lange) along with The Three Fantastic Supermen and The Absent Minded Professor of Walnut Grove all on the same glorious afternoon at the old Kingston 4 theater, the one where they made it very easy to move from theater to theater after you payed for a ticket to one movie.

Man, I used to live there. Any other movie nuts in the audience will remember this spiel they played at the beginning of every movie shown in Tennessee over a period of about 3 decades. It featured some guy with a cheesy voice that sounded like a cross between the dj from the muzak channel and a commercial pilot making his in flight announcement:
The management of this theater, in cooperation with the Tennessee State Fire Marshalls office requests that you take a moment to look around the theater and familiarize yourself with the location of all emergancy exits. These exits have been checked and are clear exots from the building in the event of an emergency. Thanks you for your time and attention.

It still gives me shivers!

So, I love movies.

And this year, I thought it would be fun to see as many Oscar nominated movies and performances as I could, just to see what my picks would be. By the way, I use the term movie because usually any movie that is called a "film" is too pretentious and boring. (Or maybe it's just the people who call movies "films" that are pretentious and boring. I'll leave that judgment up to the audience.) I first got the idea when I heard the nominations announced on the radio. AS I listened to the names of the movies, and the folks nominated, I realized I was already ahead of the game since I'd already seen Ray and Collateral. And I planned on seeing several other of the nominated movies.

So, for the next few weeks, I hope you're as much into movies as I am; if not, well, come back in early March when I'll be talking about something else.


Posted by Rich
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Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Friday Night Lights

Short Version: Every football coach, assistant coach, and football parent should see this movie.

Friday Night Lights is a football movie that takes the spotlight off the gridiron action and shines it on a culture that makes heroes out of 17 year old kids playing a game on Friday night. It asks the question "How do you deal with knowing that your life has peaked at 17"

The answer is "Not very well" for most residents of Odessa, Texas, the town that provides the setting for this movie. As one character tells members of the current team "Enjoy this while it lasts, boys, because after it's over, all that's left is babies and memories."

A bleak picture indeed.

The movie, which is based on the book by H.G. Bissinger, follows the Permian High School team through their 1988 season. In the beginning of the movie, Coach Gaines, played brilliantly by Billy Bob Thornton, sets the tone.

"We're in the business of defending this town..."

He's completely serious; there's no sense of hype or exaggeration, because it is the simple truth. As seriously as we take football here in east Tn, we're casual fans in comparison to the folks of Odessa. When UT struggled in the 70's, Bill Battle came home to find a moving van in his yard. After Permian loses a game, Coach Gaines comes home to find "For Sale" signs in his yard from every agency in town, and you get the distinct impression that the signs weren't put there by hooligans.

What really impressed me about this movie is that, even in the midst of all the football hysteria in the town, and the graphic depiction of its effect on the lives of the kids who play the game, I still got caught up in the football. Somehow, directer Peter Berg and writer David Aaron Cohen manage to capture the spirit of the game in a way that movies very rarely do. Despite all the bad things happening off the field, injuries, sick mothers, and abusive fathers, once these boys step onto the field, they become the heroes the town needs them to be.

But there's a price to pay. Lucas Black plays quarterback Mike Winchell, a very quiet kid who rarely looks anyone in the eye, and almost never smiles. He's an intensely private kid, forced into the spotlight by a key injury to another player. Garrett Hedlund plays Don Billingsly, a fullback whose father won a State Championship and demands nothing less from his son. The father, well played by country singer Tim McGraw could easily become a caricature, but McGraw invests him with just enough humanity that we recognize him, possibly a little more closely than we're comfortable admitting. And Derek Luke plays Boobie Miles, star running back, who's so certain he's going to the NFL, he doesn't bother with school work.

It's Billy Bob Thornton, though, who makes this movie work. He plays Gaines as a very intense, controlled man who rarely tells us what he's thinking, instead showing us through his body language and facial expressions. He says almost nothing in a scene where an injured player wants to come back and play, but you can see the hope, doubt, and ultimately, an almost fatalistic resignation in his eyes as he realizes he has to let the kid play. I thought Kurt Russell's portrayal of USA hockey coach Herb Brooks was about as good as you could get, but Thornton really raises the bar here.

One final word: the movie is filmed in a documentary style, lots of quick cuts and shaky camera work. It reminded me of the opening 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. If you're susceptible to motion sickness, you might want to sit in the back of the theater.

Posted by Rich
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Friday, July 09, 2004

King Arthur: A review of reviews

Doesn't anybody read anymore?

I watched King Arthur tonight and while it wasn't the greatest movie I've ever seen, it wasn't bad.

I found it particularly interesting since I'd just finished reading the Camulod Chronicles by Jack Whyte, a retelling of the Arthurian legend based in no small part on the research and theories of Geoffrey Ashe, who combines a skilled reading of history along with the most recent archeological evidence to trace the legend back to a real man who lived in about 460 AD, when the Roman Empire withdrew from Britain. John Matthews, the historical advisor for the film, has come to many of the same conclusions as Ashe, and the screenwriter, David Franzoni used those conclusions when he wrote the script.

In both cases, the series of novels and the movie, we get the story of what very possibly could be the real man behind the legend, a half Roman, half Celt warrior king who united the Britons against a Saxon invasion.

All our favorite characters from the myths are here, albeit not quite as we remember them from earlier, more fanciful films. And this really seems to cause some folks some heartburn.

Take Ty Burr, of the Boston Globe, for example. He pans the movie for trying to depict the truth behind the legend, instead of slavishly following the legend as conceived by Mallory, White, and Walt Disney, for cryin' out loud!

He writes:
"King Arthur" departs so radically from what most of us accept as the basics (i.e., what we've gleaned from Sir Thomas Malory, T. H. White, Walt Disney, and Monty Python) that the movie qualifies as a whole new myth. The opening titles do posit some bunk about "recently discovered archeological evidence," which is the first time I've heard that rationalization used to explain the existence of Keira Knightley.

He goes on:
The last half of the film gallops downhill to an epic climactic battle, with Arthur forging an alliance between his knights and the Woads to claim the mantle of king of Britain and stand tall against the Saxons. By this point, history has been hogtied and left in the trunk of Jerry Bruckheimer's Porsche, but Fuqua delivers the summer-movie goods, so it's possible you'll forgive him until you're at least halfway home...What does any of this have to do with King Arthur?

Glad you asked, Ty, although maybe you should have asked before you wrote the article. Then you wouldn't look so much like a horse's ass.

The final battle scene in the film is a depiction of the Battle of Mount Badon, a real battle (real as in actually happened, despite not making the cut in Monty Python and the Holy Grail)where the Britons turned back the Saxon invasion. According to history, the general leading the Britons into battle was called the Riothamus, or High King, and there is documentary evidence that the name of the Riothamus got it...Arthur.

Any more questions?

The problem I have with this guy is simple; he's writing from complete ignorance. He knows absolutely nothing on the subject of King Arthur, other than what he's learned from the movies, and when one comes along to interject a little history into the mix, he calls it 'bunk'.

But I can't be too hard on the guy; even the usually reliable Roger Ebert screws up on this one. In an unexplainable mistake, he writes:
To the line "Last night was a mistake" in "Troy," we can now add, in our anthology of unlikely statements in history, Arthur's line to Guinevere as his seven warriors prepare to do battle on a frozen lake with hundreds if not thousands of Saxons: "There are a lot of lonely men over there."

Yes, the line is awkward, but there's another problem: It was Lancelot who said it, not Arthur.

And the mistakes continue:
The plot involves Rome's desire to defend its English colony against the invading Saxons, and its decision to back the local Woads in their long struggle against the barbarians.

Wrong again, Roger. Rome was withdrawing from Britain at this time, not defending it. Nor did Rome decide to back the Woads. Rome retreated from the island altogether, leaving the Woads to face the Saxons alone. Arthur, slated to return to Rome, decided to remain, and organize a resistance to fight the Saxon horde.

This sequence is the key to the entire movie; for Ebert to misread it this badly tells me he either didn't watch the movie, or was more concerned with getting the right amount of butter on his popcorn rather than actually listening to the dialogue.

Another Ebert mistake:
They even keep straight faces in the last shot, as the camera audaciously pulls back to reveal Stonehenge.

Stonehenge is not the only circle of standing stones in Britain, Roger. Stonehenge is located on the Salisbury Plains, not on the edge of some rocky coast line. Stonehenge is far larger than the stone ring shown in the movie, consisting of a double ring of stones, rather than a single ring. Any attentive viewer would know at a glance that the ring in the movie wasn't Stonehenge. Additionally, we do know that the stone circles were used ceremonially, so it isn't too farfetched to think that a High King may have been married in one.

What really gets me going is that after making these careless mistakes (misattributing dialogue? Please!, Ebert accuses the audience of being lazy!
I would have liked to see deeper characterizations and more complex dialogue, as in movies like "Braveheart" or "Rob Roy," but today's multiplex audience, once it has digested a word like Sarmatia, feels its day's work is done.

Thanks, Roger. In one day, I've been called Lazy, silly, and clueless.

Heck, I feel like I'm married again.

Posted by Rich
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