Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Maddening Enigma of Owen Wilson

So I was in the mood for a movie that would cheer me up the other day, and I rented Drillbit Taylor, starring Owen Wilson.

To its credit, it had a few funny lines and a montage sequence set to Eminem's "Ass Like That", but in general it was pretty awful. I actually walked into another room halfway through so I could check my e-mail. (I didn't have any. Would it freakin' kill you to send me an e-mail?)

The whole incident left me sort of disgusted and wondering: How is it that I like Owen Wilson so much, yet hate virtually every film he's ever starred in?

I was so bored by Drillbit Taylor I walked out; I was so bored by The Big Bounce that I turned it off; I was so alarmed by Wedding Crashers' slide from cheerful misbehavior to sappy love that I walked out before one of the characters embarrassed himself by making a public, romantic speech.

Also, he starred in "You, Me & Dupree," which to be fair I have not actually seen but was so universally panned I feel comfortable disliking it by proxy.

All of this is puzzling. Wilson is both a gifted writer who should have an eye for good scripts, and a gifted performer who should breathe life into poor ones. He can take small moments and turn them into gems with barely perceptible half-twists. In Drillbit Taylor, his character goes on about his dream of moving to Canada, then reveals that his mental grasp on the country is less than firm when he says something like: "They have British Columbian women there. Can you imagine that combination?"

So why is is that a lot of the movies Wilson stars in are crummy?

It's because Wilson is a victim of the Leading Man Syndrome, when a gifted actor who in was born to play supporting roles is shoehorned into being a leading man.

Some actors are meant to be the steady fixtures at the center of films, around which everything else in the movie pivots. Some, however, are meant to stay at the margins of films, where the more colorful, funny or memorable roles can be found as the leading man holds everything down.

Take Alec Baldwin. There was a stretch where Hollywood was convinced he was a leading man, and cast him in a bunch of roles few people can remember now. (Rented Prelude to a Kiss Lately? Me neither.) Then he found his supporting player groove, which may have began with a brief but scathing appearance in Glengarry Glen Ross and continues through this day on 30 Rock. In between, he has played a depressed shoe executive, an actor with a taste for less-than-legal girls and a scheming casino executive, the last of which earned him Academy Award nomination. He recognized Leading Man Syndrome and deftly sidestepped it.

Another actor who has grappled, mostly successfully, with the Leading Man enigma is Brad Pitt. Pitt is a gifted actor in both starring and supporting roles, but despite his Angelina Jolie-snagging good looks, he is clearly a wildly expressive comic actor in a leading man's body. He was praised for his somber performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but in later years, he will likely be remembered for loopy turns in 12 Monkeys, Burn After Reading and Snatch. (He also crafted one of the great screen stoners of all time, despite only a few minutes of screen time, in True Romance.) He recognized Leading Man Syndrome and divides his time between well chosen starring and supporting roles.

So, Owen Wilson: It's your turn to choose between forgettable, poorly fitting leading-man roles and sharp, funny supporting turns people will remember for along time.

Please, for the sake of audiences, make the right choice.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Happy Birthday, Prez

A scout once described a pair of up-and-coming basketball players by saying that one had a knack for making everything look hard, and the other had a knack for making everything look easy.

I was thinking of that quote today as I listened to Lester Young, one of the greatest saxophone players in the history of saxophone players, play a buttery clarinet solo on "They Can't Take That Away From Me." He made it listen so easy.

Today is Young's birthday, and even if you're not a jazz fan, I would recommend taking a few minutes to listen to something by Young, who hasn't grown as famous as John Coltrane or Charlie Parker, but whose ability was beautiful and striking.

One of the wonderful things about music is that an instrument's sound can change so dramatically in the hands of different musicians. A hard-edged, mournful guitar performance by Robert Johnson is utterly different than than the smooth, precise playing of B.B. King, even though they supposedly play the same style.

So it is with jazz. Ben Webster's whispery saxophone can summon a lazy, romantic evening; Charlie Parker's sound always makes me think of taxicabs whizzing past; John Coltrane's squeaking, squealing tone sounds like a man digging deeper and deeper into his own soul.

Lester Young's fingerprint is harder to detect. Although his influence was vast, as evidenced by Charles Mingus' beautiful elegy, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," his sound is hard to describe. It's warm as softened butter and seems to float effortlessly from solo to solo, allowing you to sink, entranced, into the song he's playing.

Check him out. And wish him a happy birthday.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Twists and Turns

I just finished reading Shutter Island, a mystery by Dennis Lehane that will be the basis for an upcoming flick with Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Martin Scorsese. It's a fun book. It's lean, tightly plotted and has a twist at the end that is probably tougher to pull off in words than it will be on the screen.

It sparked a conversation with a friend of mine over twist endings in movies. We started talking about the best twists we've seen.

I remember seeing a screening of The Usual Suspects before it was released. Nobody in the audience had heard of the cast members -- Benecio del Toro was unknown, Kevin Spacey was a vaguely recognizable character actor, and Stephen Baldwin was Stephen Baldwin -- and expectations were low, But the film dragged everyone into its net, and when final scene rolled by, the audience lost it. It was one of the most thrilling movie-watching experiences I've had and showed me what a good surpise at the end of a film can do.

So here, in no order, are my top twists of all time, plus an added bonus worst twist of all time. This is just a personal list and I'm sure I'm forgetting a bunch; I encourage you to add your own suggestions. (Oh, and ... you know. Spoilers.)

The Usual Suspects. I saw this again recently, and it's surprising how well it holds up even when you know what's coming. Logically, of course, Spacey is the only one of the thieves who is alive in the present-day portion of the film, so he's the only one who could be Keyser Soze. Halfway through the movie, you realize the director and writer are too smart to have Byrne pop out of a closet or del Toro turn up cackling as the real villain. But it's the timing and wit with which the filmmakers reveal the truth that makes it so fun.

Psycho. This film has seeped so far into popular culture that you don't have to see it to be surrounded by references to it. It's still a masterpiece, from the still-startling shower scene to the unnerving performance by Anthony Perkins. But I think people underrate the revelation at the end. And the swinging bare bulb adds the perfect, stark touch.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. No, really. I'm serious. Here's a big-budget, Hollywood movie that ends, essentially, with the heroes losing and most of the world's population getting wiped out in a nuclear holocaust. Most action movies teach us that we can change events if we try hard enough; you can stop the terrorists, thwart the serial killer, and get the girl to boot. But in T3, very little has changed from the beginning to the end. It's a weirdly subversive and daring way to end a film.

The Empire Strikes Back. I'm still kind of freaked out about this one.

The Sixth Sense. The thing that makes this twist so great is the organic nature of it. It makes sense, it doesn't negate the power of anything that preceded it and it adds poignancy to the end. It's not necessarily the best movie on this list, but it's a perfect example of how a twist ending can enhance a movie without seeming like an overly clever afterthought.

Special Bonus! Worst Twist of All Time: Ocean's 12. For most of the film, Danny Ocean's gang plans an elaborate heist with seemingly everything at stake. Then, with 10 minutes left to go, you find out they had already pulled off the heist (which was ridiculously easy), making the stakes irrelevant. Ha ha! Up yours, audience!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Letter to my Old Friend Hollywood

Dear Hollywood,

We've had some good times, you and I.

You've given me years of entertainment. You've taught me how to survive attacks by zombies, murderous dolls and super-intelligent sharks. When I was young, you showed me ladies' boobs when no one else would.

In return, I have given you untold hours of my time and most of my money that I would have otherwise spent on feeding hungry children or clothing the homeless or buying the medicine my bastard of a psychiatrist said would help me with my anger problem.

It has been a mutually beneficial relationship.

Which is why it's so hard for me to tell you this: Hollywood, you've got to stop making fun of yourself.

The reason I'm writing this letter, Hollywood, is the upcoming release of Tropic Thunder, which is a movie about actors in a war movie who get set loose in a real war zone, resulting in two hours of hilarity. The movie stars Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte and Steve Coogan.

The movie looks very funny, and I'm looking forward to it. But I can't help getting a queasy feeling I read its reviews, which gushingly note how the film "skewers Hollywood" as if that's original or daring, when really it's neither.

First of all, Hollywood, you've been savaging yourself for a long time.

All About Eve was pretty much a venom-filled indictment of the entertainment industry, and that movie was so old it was in black and white because it had to be, not because the director wanted some easily won film-snob cred.

In the last decade or so, you've sprouted a cottage industry telling people how lame you are in order to show people how cool you are.

Actors do it all the time. Bob Saget played himself as a hooker-frequenting druggie in Entourage; Neil Patrick Harris did pretty much the same thing in the Harold and Kumar movies. And it seems like every week, somebody famous is making fun of themselves on The Simpsons. Jim Jarmusch, was on it a while ago. I like Jim Jarmusch, but I don't want him in cartoons. I want him where he belongs, which is making boring movies I don't understand.

There are also entire movies making fun of the movie industry, such as Swimming with Sharks, which had Kevin Spacey as a mean studio executive, or The Player, which had Tim Robbins as a mean studio executive, or State & Main, which had Alec Baldwin as a lecherous actor. All of them are made to convince us, the audience, how craven and shallow and greedy you all are, and how stupid audiences are for buying the pap you churn out on the studio assembly line. That way we both walk away from the film feeling superior to people who aren't in on the joke.

But here's the thing, Hollywood: I'm tired of the joke. And most of all, I don't care. I don't care how vain or egotistical or drug-addled you are. I just want good entertainment I can buy off you, and that's all.

So I'm going to offer you a deal.

I'm going to go to see Tropic Thunder. I'm going to laugh as Ben Stiller makes faces, as Jack Black makes fun of drug addiction and as Robert Downey Jr. mocks method acting.

Then you've got to clean up your act, or I'm going to start tuning out. So please start churning out the entertainment I love without assuming I care how it gets made or who makes it.

You wouldn't want me to turn to books, would you?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Brilliantly absurd action scenes: An ongoing series

Ice-T busts a move in 3,000 Miles to Graceland

3,000 Miles to Graceland is about a group of thieves who, while disguised as Elvis impersonaters, knock over a casino, then turn on each other in a series of violent double crosses. The two antagonists, played by Kurt Russell as the good guy and Kevin Costner as the bad guy, both believe they are illegitamite sons of Elvis Presley, which is why Costner's character wears a pair of suitably ridiculous sideburns.

It's a promising idea for an entertainingly bad movie, and my hopes were raised even more by the strangeness of the cast. (David Arquette and Ice-T, together at last!) Unfortunately, while there are a few moments of inspiration, it's really just an illogical, bloody and charmless mess.

(There is one genuinely great moment: Courtney Cox's character is in her car, trying to escape Costner, who is pursuing her and her son close behind. For a moment it seems like they've lost Costner, but then he comes roaring up behind them in his car. Cox's son exclaims, "It's him!" followed immediately by a shot of Costner who, despite the impossibility of him hearing the boy, says something like, "It's me! Ha ha ha ha ha!" Seriously, it's really great.)

Despite its general lack of quality, 3,000 Miles to Graceland does have one of the more bizarre landmarks in action-scene history: Ice-T's technique for ambushing the good guys, which may be the least effective ambush technique ever.

First of all, here's the setup: Costner is preparing for the final showdown with Russell. One of his henchman, played by Howie Long (!) arrives, accompanied by Ice-T, who had not been seen up to this point. Costner chastises Long, saying, "I said to bring a lot of guys!" To which Long replies, "He is a lot of guys."

Meaning, of course, that Ice-T is this totally bad ass killing machine.

Now at this point, I started to get interested in the movie again. With an introduction like that, I figured Ice-T would be a master of the nunchuks, or have some sort of futuristic pulse rifle, or be well-schooled in gymkata. In an action movie, if other guys talk about a henchman like that, he'd better be pretty spectacular*.

Sadly, that's not the case in 3,000 Miles to Graceland.

As it turns out, Ice-T's sweet move: He lowers himself upside down by a rope above the warehouse floor, firing a machine gun with each hand. Oh, and he's suspended by his ankles.

This raises some questions:

1) When Ice-T loses momentum, won't he just dangle helplessly from the rope, vulnerable to gunfire and unable to pull himself back up?

2) No matter how trained Ice-T is in the deadly arts, is firing two machine guns while upside down and swinging on the end of the rope the most efficient way to kill someone? I know that action movies foster some exaggeration, but ... how do you even aim, man?

3) If this is the killing technique Ice-T chose, what are the techniques he rejected?

Henchman: I have an idea -- before the people we're going to ambush get here, let's invent a time machine using common household items we have on hand, travel back into 18th century, and murder their ancestors!

Ice-T: Don't be ridiculous. (Pause) Why don't we just swing across the warehouse floor while suspended upside-down by ropes, firing machine guns ?

Henchman (stroking his chin): I like the way you think, Ice-T.

I don't remember How Ice-T meets his end in this film, but I remember he doesn't last long. So as it turns out, 3,000 Miles to Graceland does offer a practical lesson: When it comes to ambushes, don't do as Ice-T does.

*There are occasional exceptions to this rule, which I like to call the Michael Madsen Corollary, after the actor's role in Species I and II. Madsen plays a shadowy government hit man, but you never actually see him doing anything cool or even marginally useful.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Brilliantly absurd action scenes: An ongoing series

Bruce Willis improvises in Live Free or Die Hard

In most action movies, the hero seems as if he's born and bred to wreak havoc. He's highly trained. He's well-armed. In fact, you get the impression he's spent most of his life waiting for international arms dealers to kill his family already, so he could have an excuse to break out the machetes and the machine guns.

Not so with John McClane, the protagonist of the Die Hard films.

As played by Bruce Willis, McClane is a rugged-but-harried everyman, a New York City cop who just happens to cross paths repeatedly with highly-armed thieves, suave kidnappers and Internet-savvy terrorists. Sure, he can shoot off some kneecaps if he has to, but he's more worried about finding a parking spot at the airport or saving his frosty marriage. Where other action heroes revel in violence, McClane seems disgusted and panicked by it; you get the impression that no matter what he's doing, he'd rather be home watching the Jets game with a dog curled up at his feet.

One thing I enjoy about the character is that McClane's feats are usually realistic, at least in action-movie world. Sure, in the first film McClane escapes an explosion by dropping down the side of a skyscraper on a fire hose, but that's the exception that proves the rule, and McClane seems properly freaked out by the absurdity of it to buy some credibility from the audience. More telling is the confrontation with the main villain, in which McClane, who knows he will probably have to surrender the machine gun he has been toting, simply tapes a pistol between his shoulder blades. Remarkably for an action film, it's a trick that you could imagine a world-weary cop actually thinking of, and it doesn't involve him suddenly karate-chopping his way through dozens of henchman or jumping from a helicopter onto a moving train while riding a moped.

Which brings us to Live Free or Die Hard.

Live Free or Die Hard was charming and fun enough to win me over, but it was not a typical Die Hard movie.

First of all, the villain was basically a sinister hacker. I mean, yeah, he's played by relatively acne-free Timothy Olyphant, and he's not wearing thick glasses, but you can't fool me, Hollywood --he's a computer geek.

Second of all, the stunts are pretty ridiculous. They look fantastic and they're a lot of fun, but they're ridiculous. In the course of the movie, Bruce Willis survives being in an apartment that has 126,000 bullets shot into it; jumps a car into a helicopter; and jumps from an elevated road onto the tail of a fighter jet as it's in flight.

I half-expected the cockpit of the jet to open to reveal that it's being piloted by a super-intelligent great white shark, which McClane would then have to engage in hand-to-flipper combat.

However, the film redeemed the absurdity of its stunts in the final scene - spoiler alert, y'all -in which McClane finds his blue-collar mojo.

In it, Olyphant's poindexter-turned-terrorist is holding McClane at gunpoint. Olyphant has restrained McClane from behind, and has curled his gun hand around McClane's body, pressing the gun barrel into his shoulder.

So here's the simple, creative solution McClane comes up with: He gets ahold of the trigger and pulls it, shooting through his own shoulder and into Olyphant's chest.

Simple. Direct. McClane.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Brilliantly absurd action scenes: An ongoing series

Jason Statham takes care of a little bomb problem in The Transporter 2

One of the most exciting developments in action movies has been the rise of the cheerfully ridiculous Transporter series, which stars Jason Statham as a tight-lipped loner who transports dangerous cargo. He's kind of like a bicycle messenger, only he doesn't blog or talk your ear off about how great Vampire Weekend is.

Statham's character is always improvising his weapons. He uses fire hoses to trip bad guys; he uses gourds as improvised brass knuckles. If you attack him with a paper clip, he will break it in half, then use the pointy ends to gouge out your eyes.

While The Transporter is a great improviser, he is an even better driver. In one scene early in The Transporter 2, he jumps a car from one high-rise to another. Oh ... what's that you say? That doesn't sound impressive? Maybe that's because I didn't mention that he jumps it to a floor in the middle of the building. That's right, he doesn't jump it from roof to roof, because that's what a total wuss would do. If you were running from the cops and jumped the car from one high-rise roof to another, The Transporter would flame you later on transporting-related message boards.

But I digress.

There's a scene early in the film -- but after the roof-to-floor scene -- where The Transporter discovers there is a bomb attached to the bottom of his car. (He sees its LED numbers reflected in a puddle under the car.)

So here's what The Transporter does: He sees a crane with a hook on it. He races the car toward it, jumps it, then somehow gets the car to rotate so its wheels are facing the sky, allowing the hook to snag off the bomb in mid-air.

Oh yeah: Then he lands the cars on its wheels and drives off as the bomb explodes behind him, still on the crane's hook.

(I will take a break here to allow you to crap your pants over how awesome that is.)

To be honest, it was difficult to chose the most absurd scene from The Transporter series. But flipping a car in a way that will allow a hook to snag a bomb off it -- not only is that spectacular, but it will give you a leg up in the highly competitive field of transporting. And that's gotta be worth something.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Joker

The Dark Knight is on track to become one of the highest-grossing films of all time.


It's a dark, thoughtful and gritty crime story with moments of tremendous power. It's directed by the no-longer-underrated Christopher Nolan. It's got a sparkling cast, from Christian Bale's chilly superhero to Gary Oldman's wise Jim Gordon to Maggie Gyllenhaal's saucy, smart Rachel Dawes.

But the white-hot center of the film is The Joker, played by Heath Ledger.

The Joker has taken on many forms through the years, from Jack Nicholson's more-funny-than-scary take in Tim Burton's Batman to the complex monster of The Killing Joke.

But Ledger's brilliantly imagined Joker doesn't just belong among the greatest versions of the character. He doesn't just belong among the greatest screen villains. He deserves a spot among the great villains from literature and legend, those who terrified us before film was even invented.

The Joker's appearance is frightening, with his smeared clown makeup, scarred mouth and tallow-yellow teeth. And Ledger amplifies that appearance with a gallery of off-putting tics and eccentricities. Listen to how he lovingly draws out the word "commissioner" in the chilling jailhouse scene, or watch how he smooths his green hair back with one thumb when approaching the beautiful Gyllenhaal.

Underneath the considerable showmanship, however, is something even more remarkable: the filmmakers realize that what makes The Joker truly frightening is not his appearance, but his skill at creating chaos, and using that chaos as a tool to measure men with. The Joker constantly putting others up against gruesome tests, and is gleeful when they fail.

In one scene, The Joker gives Batman a choice between saving two characters who mean much to him; in another, he gives two groups of people the opportunity to destroy the other in order to save themselves. The message is clear. With the right nudge, The Joker is saying, anyone is capable of becoming a murderer, or insane -- just like him.

As he says late in the film: "Insanity is like gravity. Sometimes all it takes is a little push."

In that sense, The Joker truly is an heir to some of the greatest villains. Judge Holden of Blood Meridian, who leads a group of men from massacre to massacre in the American West, believes that all men eventually must bow to the spirit of war: "War is god," he states plainly, a sentiment The Joker likely would agree with. Iago, in his glee to topple the great general Othello, does so horribly; The Joker, in his toppling of the seemingly incorruptible Harvey Dent, could have been his pupil.

It is telling, and brilliant, that director Christopher Nolan chose not to give The Joker an origin story. In fact, the film itself points out that The Joker drops fully formed into the story. "Nothing his pocket but knives and lint," a character points out after The Joker is captured. With that decision, The Joker seems less like a man corrupted by some past trauma and more like a malignancy set loose upon the world. A roving symptom causing fear and doubt wherever he goes.

A great villain for our time.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Profound Nature of Buffy

A friend of mine recently turned me onto "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which I had been avoiding for several years because it sounded silly. A teenage girl who fights vampires? C'mon.

(On a related note, one of my favorite movies is Bride of Chucky.)

Anyway, a friend of mine who has a sterling track record with recommending TV shows finally got me to watch it. And it's pretty damn good. Sure, the production values in the first season are a little lackluster. (The high school Buffy goes to appears to have about 17 students.) And some of the actors take a while to grow into their roles. But the acting is good, the writing is sharp and the series is able to summon both genuine warmth and dread at the appropriate times.

The thing that struck me most about the series, however, was how perfect a vehicle it was for articulating the difficulty of being a teenager.

Like all teenagers, Buffy feels the alienation of being an outsider. But where Buffy, as a series, races ahead of the pack is how specific it is about the nature of that alienation.

Buffy isn't an outsider because she hails from another town, or because she wears the wrong clothes, or because she carries sharpened wooden stakes in her bag. (Although these things don't help.) She's an outsider because, like all teenagers, she is burdened by knowledge she feels she can't share with anyone else.

That's perfect.

The thing that's often frightening about being a teenager is how specific an experience each teenager believes it is. When they face problems -- a complex social life, a confusing love life, the pressure of performing in school for stakes they are told are high -- it's possible for a teenager to feel as if he or she is the only one who has ever faced them.

It makes those problems difficult to beat down; more importantly, it makes them almost impossible to talk about. How can you talk about something that nobody else can relate to?

Where Buffy as a series is brilliant is that it dramatizes these feelings. While most teenagers can talk about their problems -- they just don't realize it -- Buffy really is burdened by troublesome knowledge: the existence of vampires and other ghouls. Few adults would believe her; almost all of her peers would mock her mercilessly. Buffy dramatizes the way many teenagers feel about their own world.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Yet More Humor

Here is a short humor piece I wrote about the release of the latest Grand Theft Auto game. I would like to point out that this was written before The Onion wrote a similar list. So there.

New features in the upcoming version of Grand Theft Auto

In game’s most difficult setting, cops will actually come to your house and shoot at you.

Character spends 10 percent of his time committing violent street crimes, 90 percent of his time blogging about committing violent street crimes.

In fun nod to video games past, you can team with up Q*Bert to take chainsaws to rivals in the drug trade.

Setting is a thinly-disguised version of New York so accurate your character spends much of his time bitching about gentrification.

After controversy about previous version’s hidden sex scene, play is limited to more benign pursuits such as shooting prostitutes in the face.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Jeff Bridges and the subtle art of acting

There is a scene in "The Door in the Floor" when Jeff Bridges is called on to perform a monster of a monologue.

Bridges' character is a children's book author who lost both his sons to a horrific accident. In the monologue, the character gives a detailed, lengthy description of the accident and the moments that lead up to it.

What is astonishing about the scene is not what Bridges does, but what he chooses not to do. Another actor may have injected the monologue with emotion -- a wavering voice, a sudden change in tone, or any number of weapons in an actor's arsenal.

But Bridges, true to his closed-off character, delivers the scene with both clinical detachment and a writer's eye for detail. His voice remains even, and the lines sound polished and rehearsed, as if the character had been drafting this scene in his head until the moment came to deliver it.

The moment is not flashy. It's just exactly right.

That scene, that sense of rightness, is what makes Jeff Bridges the most underrated actor in American film.

There are plenty of good actors around, many of whom perform brilliantly in showy roles. But it's Bridges' finely tuned sense of calibration that makes him special -- and it's the same thing that may cause fans to overlook him.

Here are a few of the performances he has turned in that I find especially interesting:

The Big Lebowski. There's not enough room on the Internets for me to detail all the reasons why this movie is awesome. (Although, off-topic here for a moment, notice the way Julianne Moore's character acidly dismisses the plot of the porn film Logrollin' as "ludicrous," as if her character judges porn movies by their stories.) But Bridges' performance has to be mentioned as the central masterpiece inside the masterpiece. In the hands of another actor, the Dude could have been a ridiculous sketch of a character, but Bridges chooses to give him a shambling, laid-back dignity that anchors the film. It's one of the great comic performances of all time.

The Door in the Floor. As a children's-book author who has buried the grief over his sons' death deep inside himself, Bridges is astonishing in this overlooked film, during which his character expresses emotions in tiny, aching ways, from the odd slant with which he views the world to the way he drunkenly weaves down a street on his bicycle.

The Contender. Bridges puts in a nice supporting turn as the President, playing him both sly enough to actually become president but wise enough to be a good one.

Arlington Road. This unsettling thriller gives viewers a snapshot of American paranoia -- and features a sinister Joan Cusack to boot. Bridges gives a grounded, subtle performance as a professor who becomes convinced his neighbors are home-grown terrorists. It's such a well-crafted performance that you feel as if you're in Bridges skin when suspicion and fear starts to creep over him.

The Fisher King. Bridges is so good as a smug, smarmy radio talk-show host at the beginning of this film that I was disappointed when tragedy struck, knocking him off his privileged perch. Then he was so good as a self-loathing video-store clerk that I was disappointed when Robin Williams came bounding along as a figure to change his life. Then he was so good as a man who has found redemption that I was disappointed the movie was over.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Nine Reasons to Root Against the Patriots in the Super Bowl

1) Tom Brady, the Patriots' quarterback, once appeared in a GQ photo spread holding a goat.

2) The Patriots hail from Boston, the spiritual home of every bandwagon-jumping sports fan in the country. The Boston teams get good, and suddenly everyone's wearing a recently purchased Red Sox jersey, cribbing an accent from Good Will Hunting and trying to convince you that the ball that rolled through Buckner's legs broke their heart.

3) If the Patriots win, we will have to endure more stories about how coach Bill Belichick is a genius. Shakespeare was a genius. Einstein was a genius. Bill Belichick is a man who can't grasp the fact that wearing a hoodie makes you look like you spend your evenings trying to bum smokes in the parking lot of a 7-11.

4) This one time, a girl I liked went on and on about how nice Tom Brady's ass was. That's a good enough reason for me to hate the guy.

5) Patriots owner Robert Kraft reportedly lent one of his Super Bowl rings to Vladamir Putin, only to discover that Putin thought it was a gift. Hey, Robert Kraft: I was under the impression we won the Cold War. Go get your ring back.

6) Early in the season, the Patriots were caught cheating against the perennially lousy Jets. What's next, rigging a game of Chutes and Ladders? Kneecapping your competition in the sack race at the Patriots' annual picnic?

7) Massachusetts claims to be part of The United States" yet it isn't even a state at all. What the hell?

8) Sportswriters are getting so desperate to find an original way to cover the Patriots, one recently wrote a story devoted to the person who came up with the team logo.

9) I never thought a cash-rich team from the New York area would be the gritty underdog, but ... a cash-rich team from the New York area is the gritty underdog.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Sideways vs. Sideways

I've always admired the movie Sideways, not necessarily because it's a great movie -- although it features an uncanny performance by Paul Giamatti -- but because it gave me with a unique viewing experience. I saw it with a male friend in a theater full of women, and as the women laughed and hooted at the immature adventures of the male characters, my friend and I cringed. The two characters' flaws were outsized compared to our own experiences, but far too recognizable.

Because I give the film so much credit, I've always found the novel upon which the film was based to be somewhat odd. In many respects it's well-written, and writer Rex Pickett has done a good job crawling inside the mind of Miles, the character played by Giamatti in the film. Still, something has seemed off about it -- and I finally figured out what.

Rex Pickett is heedlessly, hopefully, hilariously addicted to adjectives and adverbs.

Consider, if you will, the following paragraph:

With wine-numbed brains and rubbery legs we trekked as if wading through hip-deep water to Ellen's Pancake House, a popular breakfast spot in the center of Buellton. We were both weighed down with man-sized hangovers and anorexics' appetites as we commandeered a red-checked table near the window. Around us, a grotesque diorama peopled by obese tourists and locals jackknifed over their eight-egg omeletes, pork-chop-and-friend-egg combos, and tall stacks drenched in imitation maple syrup assaulted our bleary, bloodshoot eyes.

For those of you who are interested, there are 11 nouns in the final two sentences and 11 - count 'em, 11 - adjectives to go along with 'em. The only word without an adjective slipped in front of it is 'window.' Our heroes' poor eyes get two: bleary and bloodshot.


After reading that paragraph, I thought maybe it was an exception, rather than the rule. So I looked around. It wasn't. Check out this baby:

The sun felt warm as we climbed out of the car and stretched our limbs and drank in the unspoiled view. We were at the foot of the Santa Ynez Mountains, imposing hills carpeted in native grasses and dotted with gnarled oaks. After L.A., with its incessant automotive noise, putrid air, and constant congestion, the vista was positively invigorating.

The adjectives become so invasive that some of them draw double-takes, such as the occasional when our two protagonists are greeted with friendly smiles. (It's true that there's such a thing as an unfriendly smile, but only from ex-girlfriends and presidential candidates, so the writer probably could have eased off the throttle a bit.)

But wait. There's more. Pickett's also a fan of adverbs. Characters glance excitingly, say restlessly, push roughly, scramble quickly (ever see someone scramble slowly?), follow wolfishly, say warmly and more.

The result of all this cluttered language? A fast-moving story that seems slow and difficult to read.

To be fair to Pickett, the narrator of the novel is an unsuccessful writer, and there are hints throughout that he's unsuccessful for a reason: the occasionally odd turn of phrase, language that goes over his friends' heads. So the writing style may be courtesy of Miles, not Rex.

Still, the differences between reading the book and watching the movie gives a lesson to writers, such as myself, who occasionally can clutter their own writing: Pare it down to let the story breathe.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Literature and America

Let's say you're sitting in your backyard on a warm summer evening, drinking a beer and listening to the bug zapper. And let's say, as you sit there, a metallic flying saucer appears out of nowhere and lands on your lawn, and a space alien scurries out.

Now let's say the alien tells you it wants to learn about the country known as "America," but only through works of literature.

I know what you're on the verge of saying. Either, "Hey man, that's a ridiculously complicated setup for a short essay on literature," or perhaps, "I saw a movie just like that once, only instead of talking about literature, the aliens blew up the White House."

Well, screw you, this is my blog.

So anyway, what would you tell this alien? What works of literature would you point it to to best explain this bizarre, hilarious, tragic country we all live in?

Here's a short list by me:

1) Sometimes a Great Notion. This criminally underrated novel by Ken Kesey, about a logging family fighting the union, the elements and each other in Oregon, probes the American mind and spirit more sharply than hundreds of novels that came before its publication in 1964. While its themes are universal -- masculinity, family, sex -- its tenor is distinctly American, and the Stampers' fighting spirit, whether for good or for ill or for both, lives on in the country today.

2) Invisible Man. Seems a little obvious, doesn't it? But this exploration of race relations in the U.S. by Ralph Ellison, which seemingly is on every high-school and college reading list, is more complex, more surreal, more bizarre and more vibrant than you may remember. This one still blows your mind.

3) Joe DiMaggio: A Hero's Life. This masterful biography of the Yankee star by Richard Ben Cramer slices into the legend with the sharpest of tools to find the real man, and the real tragedy, behind that legend. The resulting story plunges you into World War II-era New York; the Hollywood of the Kennedys and Frank Sinatra; and the lacquered, moneyed corridors DiMaggio walked later in life. It also touches on this country's endless need to worship and destroy its heroes; explores the way sports holds us in its thrall; and, in the end, makes you question if a hero's life is indeed worth living. A fantastic book.

4) In the American Grain. This book of essays on history by poet William Carlos Williams still crackles, both because of its gorgeous, challenging language and because it looks into corners of history that schoolbooks, politicians and pundits somehow forget to examine. Subjects include the destruction of Tenochtitlan, Edgar Allan Poe and Eric the Red (who gets off the memorable line, "Who is this Christ, that he should come to bother me in my own country?"). The essay on Aaron Burr, especially, is a masterpiece.

5) The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. A tale of two Cuban immigrants in post World War II New York, this is an exciting, passionate look at the possibilities that drew so many people to this country. Writer Oscar Hijuelos' most powerful tool is his use of details to make you feel as if you're in that era yourself. The brothers, who are mambo musicians, write music, bicker, drink, eat and chase women with gusto. And you'll feel as if you're following them with every step.