Monday, March 28, 2011

More on Movies

     It seems to me we’re in a golden age of cinema today which rivals the studio glory days of the 1930’s. The nominees for best picture this year were largely outstanding, although I thought Inception was just too full of itself and I’m not about to watch the movie where the guy cuts his arm off.

     I attribute this in part to the wealth of independent producers who’ve largely replaced the studio system, and of course to technical innovations which the computer age has brought, but I think the biggest reason is the wealth of acting talent that has lately erupted.

     In the generations of actors immediately preceding the young crop, three, to my mind were preeminent: Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro. The best actors of the current crop are Johnny Depp, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sean Penn.

     Coincidentally or not, these three align in talent with the three older actors, Sean Penn with De Niro, for the kinds of in-your-face realism roles that made them famous, and Depp with Dustin Hoffman. They both have that chameleon ability to assume a wide variety of roles.

     Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom I consider to be the best of the latter three, also shares with his Hoffman namesake the chameleon thing, unlike Jack Nicholson, but in addition to that, as with Nicholson, he has a personality that one can see underlining all his roles with which one feels an affinity.

     Although I appreciate their acting—Penn in Milk and Dead Man Walking is brilliant—in contrast to Nicholson and Philip Seymour, neither De Niro nor Penn strike me as someone to whom I could relate well. You may recall from a recent post that I mention two brilliant films I don’t care to see again and both star Robert De Niro.

     I see six actors as being almost on that top three level: Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, George Clooney, Colin Firth, Casey Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio. Clooney is old school Clark Gable and Carey Grant rolled into one, and DiCaprio has gone miraculously from pretty boy to James Cagney.

     Very Honorable Mentions I give to Tommy Lee Jones, Jeff Bridges, Geoffrey Rush, Alan Rickman, Tom Hanks, Kevin Costner, Terrence Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Matt Dillon, Stanley Tucci, Liam Neeson, Billy Bob Thornton, Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Buscemi and the sublime Kevin Spacey.

     And the women are better than the men. Meryl Streep is the best actor in the history of cinema, period.*

     In the top three tier with her are Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman. There isn’t a generation-before these three women trio who could compare. Who would the outstanding actresses of the 70’s be? Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn and Barbara Streisand? Not in the league with the current three. One has to go back another generation for three of this caliber, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman, I’d say.

     Almost there on the level of Moore and Kidman I’d put Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Joan Allen, Laura Linny, Annette Bening and Kate Winslet. Then there’s Natalie Portman, Jodie Foster, Julie Roberts, Judy Davis, Joan Cusack, Dianne Lane, Naomi Watts, Selma Hayek, Judi Dench, Reese Witherspoon, Halle Berry, Catherine Keener, Amy Ryan, Patricia Clarkston and probably at least a dozen others whose names don’t come to mind presently.

     Finally, note from the list presented the infusion of Australian talent that’s occurred only with this generation. It’s on a smaller scale like the influx of German talent which produced the first golden age.

     *That’s my opinion limited by my lesser knowledge of foreign actors whose work I couldn’t fully appreciate anyway.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Dude Abides

     My favorite movies are not the best movies I’ve ever seen, but they must be my favorites since I watch them over and over. They are The Big Lebowski, That Thing You Do, The Wizard of Oz, Mars Attacks, It’s a Wonderful Life, Bad Santa and Mama Mia. (I didn’t realize I was a closet Abba fan until I saw the movie.)

     Except for possibly Mama Mia, the most recent release, I’ve seen all of these films at least ten times. Unless there’s some serious sports on T.V., I’ll watch any of these films whenever I see they’re on. It doesn’t matter if there’s only 10 minutes left. For three of these—It’s a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz and The Big Lebowski—if you say a line of dialogue I can tell you the next one.

     With the exception of The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life, I’d rate none of these films in the best 100 ever made. I’ve seen Casablanca, Gone With the Wind and North by Northwest, films that would be on that list, probably at least ten times each, but I wouldn’t watch either of them several times in the same week the way I do The Big Lebowski. (And there are other films in that top 100 I don’t care to ever see again, e.g. Raging Bull and The Deer Hunter.)

     So what is it about these films that hooks me so? Except for the Christmas films and Mars Attacks, these films are full of music. Two are out and out musicals.

     But what really links them is that they’re all “feel good” films with happy endings. True, Donny does die, Martians incinerate thousands and perform grotesque medical experiments, and Bad Santa disappoints children, but in the end, George really does have a wonderful life, Dorothy gets back to Kansas, Bad Santa turns out to have a heart of gold and the Dude abides.


     There was a time in my life, not that long ago in geological time, when I would have said I didn’t care for musicals, that I couldn’t watch a movie where someone just up and started singing out of the blue. I’ve changed my attitude about that.

     Part of the reason is that during the heyday of the musical, 1930-1970, there were so many bad ones made. Films with maybe one good song and a bunch of really bad songwriting. But if pressed on the issue, I’d have had to concede that some of my favorite films were musicals: The Wizard of Oz, My Fair Lady, Cabaret and Funny Girl.

     You’ll note that two of those films “cheat” at being musicals. In Cabaret, and for the most part in Funny Girl, people don’t just up and start singing, they’re singers on stage.

     So why are Cabaret and Chicago musicals (they definitely are) and not That Thing You Do or The Buddy Holly Story? I think the answer is that the songs relate to and advance the plot.

    Which, along with the quality of the songwriting, is what separates good musicals from bad ones, The Music Man from those Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald atrocities.

     So while I can’t watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, An American in Paris or West Side Story, all considered to be excellent musicals, because they are just too corny, I think that Mary Poppins and Funny Girl are wonderful entertainment.

     I now wouldn’t say I don’t like musicals generally, because the new generation of musicals is mostly so good. Chicago, All That Jazz, Moulin Rouge and Mama Mia are all excellent.

     (Also you might observe that I think sexy women in garter belts and stockings are a definite plus.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Rhymes with Blinker

                              Football Stinker

     I’ve been thinking about Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. For those of you who might not follow sports, he’s the guy who was suspended at the beginning of last season over allegations that he sexually assaulted a female college student in Milledgeville, GA last winter, after, I believe, previously settling a law suit filed by another young woman.

     What kind of disturbed creep is this guy? The short answer is, “not one that I would call that to his face,” but why is he sexually assaulting college girls in bathroom stalls?

     I mean, he’s rich and famous and he’s won a Super Bowl ring. Haven’t seen his picture lately, but he’s probably handsome. The QB is usually one of the handsomest players on a team, and usually one of the most intelligent, intelligent enough in this case to learn a complicated offense, read defenses and make lightning speed decisions under pressure.

     So why doesn’t he have a girlfriend who’s a Hollywood star or cover-girl model? And if he’s currently between supermodels and somehow finds himself in Milledgeville for the evening, why can’t he secure the hottest woman in Milledgeville?

     He has to be such a demented asshole he can’t conceal that fact long enough to have consensual sex with admiring groupies. The man needs to attend the Keith Richards’ School of Social Grace.

                            Roundball Sinkers

     A few weeks ago my friends T.J. and John played in the Newton County Recreation Department Church League Championship. Of the several hundred or so churches in the county, four fielded teams.

     T.J. and John played for St. Augustine, the county’s only, I think, Catholic Church. I’m not saying St. Augustine recruited non-Catholics for its team, I’m just saying at least there were no overt Klansmen on the roster.

     Their opponents were The Church at Covington, the oh-so-nineties name of which will someday look like a tattoo on some embarrassed child’s grandmother.

     I attended the game and sat with the other three St. Augustine rooters, a turnout which doubled the team’s previous fan base. The Now had called for their fans--I’d estimate around a hundred--to wear all black. Covering my bets, I wore a black velvet sports coat lest a fight break out.

     T.J. sent me a message before the game asking for ideas for an ESPN poster. That’s where fans at an ESPN televised game hold up a poster with a four word slogan exhorting their team, the capitals ESPN written in vertical descending order and their slogan horizontally, i.e., Entering SMU Power Node, hoping for their, in this case, three seconds of fame.

     I sent back slogans exhorting St. A. (Every St. Augustinian Plays Nasty), self denigrating (Entire Squad Perceives Nothing) and provocative (Eradicate Some Pious Nerds), but my favorite was the theologically themed “Eat Sacrament. Pray Nightly.” Ideally (we were too lazy to actually make a placard anyway) it would be wired to subliminally flash “Embrace Superior Papist Notions.”

                               Oddball Thinkers

     I’ve recently seen video clips of Ron Paul and his son Raul (and his name isn’t Raul, but wouldn’t it be cool if it were?) speaking before the Nothing To The Left of Limbaugh Convention. (One speaker, Pawlenty I think, was in fact attacked by Rush for suggesting Republicans might need somebody left of Limbaugh in their camp to win a national election.) Not having to address people centered in reality, they set out their vision of life in a Paul and son America.

     I was immediately struck by the similarity to John Lennon’s “Imagine” in that they’re speaking of a place that never existed and never will, a utopia existing only in the mind.

     Leaving aside that one utopia is based on ultimate giving and the other on ultimate greed, it’s easy for one to advocate either position when you know there’s no way in hell a sensible populace would adopt either form of (non?) government and the anarchic nightmare that would ensue.

     NEW RULE: The Prince Avenue Baptist Church (of Athens, GA) is no longer on Prince Avenue and, as far as I can see, in Athens, GA. It has to change its name to a symbol meaning “The Church Formerly Known As Prince Avenue Baptist.”

     Terrible song lyric: “The first cut is the deepest” (in fact the title and repeated refrain) Oh yeah, why? Who says? Butchers? Sword Swallowers? No, Cat Stevens actually, always my go-to-guy for conventional wisdom.

     The fact that so many have covered this tripe astounds me. I mean no one I much respect (Rod Stewart, brain-dead since 1971, Sheryl Crow, wasn’t she married to a biker on steroids?), but still, lots.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


     Since mid-October I’ve been learning Spanish, mostly while I drive my car. I’m using the Pimsleur Method, of which I highly approve. I can now speak Spanish far better than I could after taking three quarters at Emory.

     I can speak, but not read or write it very well. That’ll come later. They don’t want me doing that yet.

     The Pimsleur Method is based on the recognition that most people on the planet who’ve learned a language, i.e., children, learn to speak it pretty dang well before they can read anything. They learn by speaking and hearing, a little bit at a time, and figure out on their own verb tenses and conjugations.

     I spend about 45 minutes a day speaking and hearing Spanish. What I’ve learned is mostly tourista Spanish. We talk about making reservations, ordering food, make small talk about the weather and people’s families.

     After finishing the first 86 of 120 lessons, I can now order Mexican food and converse with my servers in Spanish about it. I can make small talk with lovely senoritas at the bar. That goes something like this:

     Me: Vienes aqui con frequencia?* (Do you come here often)

     And the senorita generally says something which in context sounds something like, “I think you’re a creepy old man.” (There seems to be intercultural consensus on this point.)

     But I’m also learning basic conversational structure and a reasonably good ability to be understood that I think will serve me well in a variety of situations.

     Let’s say I’m in Mexico and am confronted after dinner by a bandito in a dark alley who says, “Hey gringo, I want your lunch money muthafucka.”

    Now, if the guy looks stoned, I might take this tack: “Lo siento, no hablo ingles. Entiendo “muthafucka,” pero que quere decir “lunch money” in espanol?” (I’m sorry. I don’t speak Spanish. I understand “muthafucka,” but what does “lunch money” mean in Spanish?). And then, while he’s trying to parse that out (“Quere decir su dinero para comprar su almuerzo”), I run away.

     But let’s say he doesn’t appear likely to fall for that one, then I go with the in-your-face assault. I say, “Acabo de terminar comer mi madre,” which I believe to mean, “I just finished eating my mother.”

     To which he might reply, “Lo siento, no es el hombre pense. Quizas prodria comprar le una cervesa.” (I'm sorry, you are not the man I thought. Maybe I could buy you a beer)

     But let’s say he presses the issue, that he’s one of those desperate hombres about whom one hears so much, and he says, “No creo que a comido su madre.” (I don’t believe that you have eaten your mother)

     I then say, “Mide! Mide aqui entre mis dientes. Hay mi madre.” (Look! Look here between my teeth. There’s my mother)

     At this point he’s looking worried, unable to tell your common carne from mama meat, and I press the advantage.

     “Quere que debo comer su madre. No hace me hacer lo. Donde esta su madre? Creo que va a sere muy deliciosa.” (Do you want that I should eat your mother? Don’t make me do it. Where is your mother? I think she’s going to be very tasty)

     But now he’s impressed that I’ve remembered to use “deliciosa” instead of “delicioso” since I’m still referring to his mother, a feminine noun, and he says. “Por favor senor, podria ayudar me con mi ingles?” (Please sir, could you help me with my English)

     “Compra mi muchas cervesas, entonses podemos hablar.” (You buy me many beers, then we can talk)

     *A note on spelling. No lo sais. I’m just making my best guess from the way it sounds.