Monday, August 31, 2009

The end of an era?

Greetings, Chicago fans. Welcome to Baseball Armageddon.

It feels pretty hopeless around here, doesn't it? The last few weeks have seemed like months as the Cubs and White Sox both circle the drain. I knew the Sox season was OVAH! on Friday when Joe Cowley told WSCR's Bernstein and Holmes that Jose Contreras would be starting Saturday's game. And tonight, as the deadline for playoff eligibility approached and the Sox lost another game in that goddamn Metrodome, Contreras and classy clubber Jim Thome were given the best gift of all: a new address.

Contreras is going to Colorado, where the Rockies are tied with the San Francisco Giants for the NL Wild Card. Both teams are chasing their division rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who will now have Thome to pinch-hit in late innings -- and to play DH in the World Series, presumably. The Dodgers also acquired former Sox starter Jon Garland from the Diamondbacks.

On the North Side, Lou Piniella looks like his brain is already resting comfortably on a sandy beach somewhere, while his high-priced left-handed slugger is too busy getting his feelings hurt to play a decent game. The Cubs were supposed to be in the World Series hunt this year, but instead have a realistic chance to finish 10-plus games out of first.

This final baseball season of the first decade of the 21st Century is starting to feel like the end of an era in Chicago, an era in which both sides of town had real expectations of glory. (And of course, in 2005, actual glory down south.)

On paper, the Cubs still look like a pretty incredible baseball team, but they just aren't, are they. Next year, they'll still be saddled with Alfonso Soriano's awful play in the outfield, Carlos Zambrano's loose screws, and Aramis Ramirez's disappearing act. One thing they might have is a new manager -- I think we'd all love to see Bob Brenly in the dugout, but why the hell would he want to inherit this mess?

The White Sox are waving the white flag tonight, admitting defeat in a season that depended on just too many flukes and what-ifs. Even if the pitching hadn't imploded in the last month, do you really think the Sox could have beaten anybody in the first round?

2010 leaves us with a lot of questions on the South Side:

Will Scott Podsednik continue to be valuable? Uhh ... no.

Can A.J. Pierzynski be a top-ten hitter again? Maybe, but what does it matter if he can't throw anybody out or drive anybody in?

Will Jake Peavy be the ace we need him to be? I can't say I'm too optimistic, and even if he does, can we count on Mark Buehrle anymore?

Will Gordon Beckham fulfill the prophecy and become Baseball Jesus? Let us pray.

I'm not too excited about next summer. Those Wrigley crowds might get smaller, sooner, if things continue like this. U.S. Cellular Field had already been emptying out this year, and I don't expect that trend to reverse.

It was one hell of a decade for baseball in this town. I'll always remember Mark Buehrle's accomplishments (no-hitter, perfect game, World Series save), Kerry Wood's dominating performance against Atlanta in the '03 playoffs, Thome's exuberant celebration with the crowd in the one-game playoff in '08, and of course the World Series title that no one expected. But I'll also remember Steve Bartman, the Ligue boys, the Cub meltdowns (both personal and organizational), and the parade of bad pitching in U.S. Cellular.

So, when's that first Bears game?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Lost" predictions and ruminations

No spoilers here, just conjecture.

So I've been sitting at this computer all day today, watching "Lost" episodes from seasons 3, 4 and 5 (mostly 5), and I've been thinking a lot about what Season 6 is going to be like. Here are some general predictions/observations inspired by tonight's marathon:

We already know how Widmore "changed the rules." A lot of "Lost" fans are waiting to hear what those rules are that Ben was talking about at the end of "The Shape of Things to Come," in which Mr. Linus pledges to kill Penny Widmore. I think most of us assumed these rules were some kind of edict handed down by Jacob, Richard or Smokey, but I think Ben's merely referring to something Widmore said in "Dead is Dead," the fifth-season episode that depicts Ben's judgment by Smokey. In the flashbacks, Ben spares Danielle and takes Alex, which pisses off Widmore. Widmore seems to think the island wants the child to die, and reminds Ben of this as he is carted off in the submarine in a subsequent flashback: "If the island wants the child to die, she will die," he says. (I'm paraphrasing.) But Widmore "changes the rules," as Ben says, when his goon, Keamy, kills her.

Ben is going to die. There are many parallels between John and Ben, and it's only fitting if the faux-Locke -- Esau, as most fans have taken to calling him -- kills the man who strangled John Locke. Ben and Locke have the most tragic stories of anyone on the island, and that's really saying something; it would seem unfair to John if Ben were allowed to survive.

Hurley and Charlie will be very important in Season 6. In "This Place is Death," the Season 5 ep in which we first see the temple and John turns the frozen wheel, the French scientists who come to the island in 1988 hear a voice reciting the numbers over a radio, and it sure sounds like Hurley's voice. For some reason, Hurley will make the transmission that will later be heard by his roommate at the nuthouse, whose incessant repetition of the numbers leads to Hurley winning the lottery with them. Will we also learn that Charlie -- perhaps speaking through Hurley, because dead is dead after all -- was the musician who programmed the code into the Looking Glass's computer? And what's in that guitar case that Hurley brought aboard Ajira 316?

Jacob is responsible for separating the Ajira survivors. He must have discovered Esau's plan to kill him, and put Jack, Kate and Hurley in 1977 for a reason -- detonating Jughead, I'm guessing. Ben was needed in 2007 to help carry out Esau's plan, which I believe Jacob let happen. But why is Sun in 2007? That I don't know.

Esau and Smokey are one and the same. In "Dead is Dead," Ben summons Smokey but it doesn't show up -- because it's taking the form of John Locke. Faux Locke leads Ben to the temple, saying that the island told him where to find it. This helps Esau convince Ben that he needs to follow John. When Ben falls into Smokey's lair, John says he's going to go find a rope. He runs off, and then Smokey appears and judges Ben. It disappears, and manifests itself as Alex, who tells Ben he must follow John's orders. Alex disappears, and suddenly John is back. John, Alex and Smokey are all the same person -- Esau.

That's all for now. This sprained wrist is killing me!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Credit where credit is due

I realized today that my current taste in pop music has been primarily influenced by one person: Sean Tuohey.

In fact, our friend to the north has been highly influential on my music-listening habits ever since I've known him. It was he who introduced me to Evanescence, which in turn led to my exploration of symphonic metal in general. It was he who convinced me Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato had talent, which led to my current fascination with sugary pop. Heck, it was he who enlightened me to the best beat in the history of hip-hop: Mary J. Blige's "Family Affair," produced by Dr. Dre.

Have I had any sort of influence on my friends? I hope that my opinions on film matter to some of you; I'm pretty sure I single-handedly spread the gospel of "Clerks" to Wheeling High School, and I know I introduced "Donnie Darko" and "Down in the Valley" to more than one person.

In any event, I thought I'd try to make a list of the bands whose CDs I've bought and whose concerts I've seen because of Sean Tuohey, directly or indirectly. I'm sure he'll be able to think of more:

Aly & AJ
Blige, Mary J.
Blind Guardian
Cyrus, Miley
Daft Punk
Dropkick Murphys
Face to Face
Gordon, Nina
Home Grown
Insane Clown Posse
K's Choice
Lacuna Coil
Lavigne, Avril
Lovato, Demi
Mad Season
McKay, Nellie
Meg & Dia
Mighty Blue Kings
Osbourne, Kelly
Quaye, Finley
Reverend Horton Heat
Sonata Arctica
Symphony X
Veronicas, The
Within Temptation

And there are countless other bands who I've been exposed to because of Mr. Tuohey: Abandoned Pools, The Sounds, Four Star Mary, Voodoo Glow Skulls, The Toasters, Nerf Herder, Smoking Popes, and many, many more.

Thanks to you, Mr. Tuohey, for helping expand my musical tastes beyond Metallica, Megadeth and GN'R.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Stay classy, Solheim winners

My interest in televised golf began earlier this year when I spent a lost day on Sean Tuohey's couch, watching Angel Cabrera and Kenny Perry battle for the green jacket on a giant HDTV. I've never been a fan, but this year has presented us with some compelling drama on the links.

Working at the Daily Herald, it has been impossible to avoid the hoopla over the Solheim Cup, the U.S.-vs.-Europe event that ended in American victory this weekend out in Sugar Grove. I watched coverage here and there this weekend, and enjoyed seeing the emergence of Michelle Wie.

What I didn't enjoy, however, was the classless behavior of some of her teammates, specifically Paula Creamer and Christina Kim.

Now, I understand that this is a big event -- maybe the biggest the LPGA has to offer. I further understand that the competitors see it as a matter of national pride, and that they feed off the energy of the jingoistic crowd. (A crowd that, all told, numbered 120,000 for the weekend, according to the Daily Herald's Mike Spellman.) And I further understand that the LPGA is on the fringe of professional sports, and that it needs attention any way it can get it.

But none of that excuses Creamer and Kim.

I cannot find YouTube evidence to back me up tonight, but I can tell you that both Creamer and Kim went way overboard in their celebrations today. I'm not talking about after the event, I'm talking about during -- Creamer hit a putt on I believe the 4th hole today and, with her European opponent walking right in front of her, launched into a crowd-inducing, fist-pumping display that seemed to embarrass Suzanne Pettersen. If, say, Carlos Zambrano had put on such a display, he would have taken a fastball to the face in his next at-bat.

Kim was probably the most classless of all, dancing around like Happy Gilmore after every putt. I get that that's Kim's thing -- she's energetic and enthusiastic. But she's also (allegedly) a professional, and she sure didn't act like one this weekend.

Add in the constant "U! S! A!" chants from the crowd -- that chant always sounds so mean to me, for some reason -- and you had one giant display of Ugly-Americanism out at Rich Harvest Farms.

To the women of the LPGA: If you want your sport to be taken seriously, I suggest that you start taking it seriously.

Friday, August 21, 2009


This week's offering of nerdy music:

Wait until you see how Quentin Tarantino uses this song in "Inglourious Basterds." Brilliant.

Speaking of QT, here's the super-sexy lap dance scene that was cut from the theatrical release of "Death Proof." This song kicks ass.

Still my favorite No Doubt song, and now downloadable on RB2 for the Wii. w00t

Another week, another selection from Michael Giacchino. "Parting Words" is probably the best piece from all five seasons of "Lost," stirring and hopeful -- but those of us who watch know what dangers are waiting for Michael, Walt, Jin and Sawyer.

This is Demi's rocker. It doesn't rock that hard, but it's still super-catchy.

Review: "Inglourious Basterds"

4 stars out of four
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth, Daniel Bruhl & Mike Myers

• • •

The trailer:

The plot: In Nazi-occupied France during World War II, a group of Jewish-American soldiers known as "The Inglourious Basterds" are chosen specifically to spread fear throughout the Third Reich by scalping and brutally killing Nazis. The Basterds soon cross paths with a French-Jewish woman (Laurent) who runs a movie theater in Paris which is targeted by the soldiers.

My review: Quentin Tarantino is, let's face it, his own biggest fan. His admirers are many and devoted, but no one loves Tarantino as much as Tarantino. We've known this for a while, and the man's reputation as a masturbatory filmmaker has turned off many in the post-"Pulp Fiction" era. The only modern director who might love himself more is M. Night Shyamalan, whose ever-growing audacity is working against him. Tarantino's ever-growing audacity, however, has brought us to "Inglourious Basterds."

How can I best put this? "Inglourious Basterds" is insane. It is 153 minutes of fucking insanity.

Using David Bowie's "Cat People" in a WWII movie is insane. Scoring the rest of the film to Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western music is insane. Only having five sequences -- five sequences! -- in your two-and-a-half-hour movie is insane. Asking Brad Pitt to do a whole movie with a terrible Tennessee accent is insane. Casting a heavily made-up Mike Myers as a British general is insane.

And the ending? The ending is as audacious as it gets -- and then the epilogue goes further.

There is one thing Tarantino loves more than himself, and it's cinema. All of QT's movies are about movies in one way or another, but none as explicitly as "Basterds," whose plot revolves around the premiere of a Goebbels propaganda film about a German sniper who took down 300 Allies in three days. The entire high command of the Third Reich will be in attendance, and several factions see this as a great opportunity to end the war. Much of the film's plentiful dialogue -- most of it not in English, I might add -- is about film, and the key players include a theater owner (Laurent), a famous German actress (Kruger) and a film critic-turned-British soldier.

The movie itself invites us to cackle with glee as Pitt's Basterds get down to the bidness of killin' gnat-zees. In return, the Nazis cackle as they watch Frederick Zoller (Bruhl) mow down American soldiers in Goebbels' film. Tarantino uses his own movie to show how easily movies can dehumanize the antagonist, no matter how terrible the protagonist might be. Are we, the audience, justified in cheering on the Basterds' lust for revenge? When they carve swastikas into their captives' foreheads, should we enjoy it? Right or not, we do, and Tarantino preys upon the fragility of our own moral compasses throughout the film. (After you see the film, think about this: It's easy for us to condemn the actions of the French farm owner in the opening sequence, but would we fare any better, given the circumstances?)

As in "Kill Bill," the graphic violence in "Basterds" is so over-the-top that it becomes comical. But much of "Basterds" feels like a horror movie, one that uses space, dialogue and editing to build suspense. Three of the film's five chapters (presented in the same fashion as "Kill Bill's" chapters) are built upon long exchanges between people sitting around a table. The third such sequence is almost unbearably long -- but QT rewards the audience with a furious payoff.

Much of this wouldn't work without great performances. Pitt is the de facto star of the film, and he does get big laughs, but the main attractions are Cristoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent. Waltz plays Col. Hans Landa of the SS, a quietly cunning detective known as "The Jew Hunter." Laurent plays Shoshanna Dreyfus, who escapes Landa's death-squad in the film's opening sequence and hatches the cinematic plot to take down the Third Reich. They share a scene in Chapter Three that, in a just world, will be shown twice at next year's Oscars when both actors find themselves nominated.

There's so much more I want to say about "Inglourious Basterds," but I just can't -- too much of it has already been spoiled, I fear, and not just by me. (I already knew the ending going in.) I will say this is a film that demands to be seen in a theater, and demands to be discussed and debated at great length. Love it or hate it, you can't deny its ambition.

Is it a twisted fairy tale? A sick revenge fantasy? An indictment of war? A celebration of war? An insult to the memories of those lost in the war? A fun piece of revisionist history? A mad work of genius? The insane ramblings of a narcissistic child?

It could be all those things. I know one thing for sure: "Inglourious Basterds" is, so far, the best film of 2009.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why, Bob? Why?!?!

Variety reports Robert Zemeckis' next project will be a motion-capture remake of The Beatles' "Yellow Submarine." This is disappointing on so many levels.

• This will be Zemeckis' fourth 3D mo-cap film in a row after "The Polar Express," "Beowulf," and the forthcoming "A Christmas Carol," in which Jim Carrey plays Scrooge and all three ghosts that visit him. His first two efforts produced mixed results -- the 3D was shockingly good in "Polar," and the character animation followed suit in "Beowulf," but neither film gave John Lasseter and his band of geniuses at Pixar nightmares. The "Christmas Carol" trailer looks like more of the same.

• What does Bob Z. have against live-action? Is he arrogant enough to think he's conquered the medium? Yes, he's always been a visual innovator, breaking new ground in VFX on at least three occasions ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Death Becomes Her" and "Forrest Gump"), but surely he is still capable of taking a camera on location and shooting actors in wardrobe, not green suits covered in ping pong balls! His last live-action effort, "Cast Away," was a tremendous film, maybe his most accomplished, and let's not forget that he co-wrote and directed one of the greatest comedies of all time. (I don't have to tell you the title, do I?) Is there a rift between him and Bob Gale that I don't know about? I'd sure like to see them write another flick together.

• "Yellow Submarine" was, at best, a curiosity. It was probably best enjoyed with a joint or a tab of acid. I wouldn't know. Is there an actual story to tell with this, or does Zemeckis merely aspire to make the world's first mo-cap musical?

• Who the hell is gonna play The Beatles? Hopefully not Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman. And will the actors sing and perform new versions of the songs in the film, or will they just use the master tracks?

Of course, none of these personal hang-ups are going to keep me from seeing the movie; I love The Beatles, and I (at least used to) love Robert Zemeckis. I just wish he'd move on from this phase of his career.

But then again, I'm not the one making millions of dollars and breaking new technological ground, so maybe I should just shut it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In which I steal Quentin Tarantino's idea

... not that he'll mind, since he's been, ah, re-purposing cinematic ideas for his entire career. (And not that I mind. QT remains the single most exciting name in moviemaking. Nothing gives me quite the same burst of adrenaline as going to see a new Quentin Tarantino film.)

So as part of his promotion for "Inglourious Basterds," which will be unleashed on the public this Friday, QT decided to make a video listing the 20 best films of the past 17 years -- i.e., the 20 best films since he released his first feature, "Reservoir Dogs."

The choices make sense, considering who they're coming from. Here's the video:

So naturally, I want to follow suit and do the same. But here's the problem: Can I separate the 20 best movies from my 20 favorite movies? Many of my choices would appear on both lists, but I think I'll try to rationally decide which films from that time period are actually the best, even if I have no desire to ever see them again. (Something like, say, "Requiem for a Dream" comes to mind.)

So here's my attempt at it. Like QT, I'll start with my absolute No. 1, then proceed alphabetically:

"Magnolia," d. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999
• • •
"A.I.," d. Steven Spielberg, 2001
"Dancer in the Dark," d. Lars Von Trier, 2000
"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," d. Michel Gondry, 2004
"Eyes Wide Shut," d. Stanley Kubrick, 1999
"Get Shorty," d. Barry Sonnenfeld, 1995
"The Lord of the Rings," d. Peter Jackson, 2001-2003
"The Matrix," d. Andy & Larry Wachowksi, 1999
"Oldboy," d. Chan-wook Park, 2003
"Pulp Fiction," d. Quentin Tarantino, 1994
"Requiem for a Dream," d. Darren Aronofsky, 2000
"Rushmore," d. Wes Anderson, 1998
"Schindler's List," d. Steven Spielberg, 1993
"Seven," d. David Fincher, 1995
"The Shawshank Redemption," d. Frank Darabont, 1994
"There Will Be Blood," d. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007
"Titanic," d. James Cameron, 1997
"The Truman Show," d. Peter Weir, 1998
"WALL•E,", d. Andrew Stanton, 2008
"Zodiac," d. David Fincher, 2007

I find I'm a bit embarrassed by this list, but at least it's honest. But it does contain two films apiece by Spielberg, Fincher and P.T. Anderson, and the biggest box office success in history. (But like "Titanic" or not, you must admire the massive undertaking it was, and the massive risk it took.)

Many will wonder why the hell "A.I." appears on this list. I plan to write an impassioned defense of Steven Spielberg's woefully misunderstood masterpiece at the end of this year, when I will almost certainly name it the best film of the decade. Yes, I really think so.

Why is "Get Shorty" on the list? Name me a better-scripted comedy from the last 17 years. Oh wait, you can't. Scott Frank's screenplay for that film belongs in some kind of comedy hall of fame, right next to Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale's script for "Back to the Future." It's one of the great underrated films of my lifetime.

OK, time to bash my picks below ...

Friday, August 14, 2009


Another sampling of what's been buzzing in my head lately:

Aly Michalka is definitely the best thing about "Bandslam," which opens today, and this is probably my favorite song by her and her sister's band; I love the piano part.

Heard this for the first time in a long time the other night. This is the pop/punk/ska album that should have conquered the world.

The vocals here are pretty fantastic. Dude sounds passionate about his music.

This is silly, admittedly, but just listen to that woman sing! This is from the "Lord of the Rings" musical that never made it to Broadway after a rocky London debut. The singer is Laura Michelle Kelly, who also played Mary Poppins on the West End, and Sweeney Todd's wife in the Tim Burton film.

Yeah, again with the "Star Trek." What can I say? This is my favorite film score of the year so far. This is the cue that scores the birth of James T. Kirk in the film's fantastic opening sequence.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Review: "Julie & Julia"

2½ stars out of four
Screenplay by Nora Ephron, based on books by Julie Powell and Julia Child
Directed by Ephron
Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina, Mary-Lynn Rajskub & Jane Lynch

• • •

The trailer:

The plot (as described by studio flacks): Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and Julie Powell (Amy Adams) are featured in an adaptation of two bestselling memoirs: Powell's "Julie & Julia," and "My Life in France," by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme. Two women who separated by time and space are both at loose ends ... until they discover that with the right combination of passion, fearlessness and butter, anything is possible.

My review: Amy Adams is perilously close to achieving terminal cuteness. For all of her skill as an actor, her chief asset is how downright adorable she is. It's why Frank Abagnale chose her in "Catch Me If You Can," and why seemingly the entire film world fell in love with her in "Enchanted." There are moments in "Julie & Julia" where she's just so ... precious. It gets to be too much.

In fact, the "Julie" half of "Julie & Julia" is entirely too much, with its heaping helpings of forced laughter and unconvincing melodrama. Julie Powell (Adams) is fed up with her job at a 9/11 relief agency, feels disconnected from her husband (Messina) and hates her gigantic New York City apartment. (After all, it's above a pizza place. Oh, the humanity! How a cubicle-bound bureaucrat and an editor at Archaeology magazine could afford it, though, I'll never know.)

She decides to fill the void in her life by attempting every recipe in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in one year, and blogging about it each night. The main attraction of this half of the movie is ogling the food; the beef bourguignon looked incredible.

The "Julia" half of the movie is fascinating and funny, chronicling the life of the master chef (Streep) from her arrival in France to the publication of her first, famous cookbook. Meryl Streep almost certainly has another Oscar nomination waiting for her in February -- it's a performance that goes beyond imitation and into personification, much like Cate Blanchett's turn as Katherine Hepburn in "The Aviator." Just as good is Tucci as her husband Paul, portrayed here as the kindest, most encouraging man on the face of the Earth.

The movie does not delve deep into Paul and Julia's experiences as agents of the OSS. We get fleeting glimpses of Paul appearing before HUAC, and one dinner conversation where Julia denies the couple were ever spies, but that's it. The "Julia" half of the movie is focused squarely on their love for food and for each other, and since they are brought to life so effortlessly by Ephron's screenplay and the two actors, that's all we in the audience really need.

And it's all we want, for that matter. We don't want endless scenes of Adams reading aloud whatever she's typing on her computer. (Between this and "You've Got Mail" -- everything considered, a more wholly successful movie than this one -- Ephron must be cinema's foremost director of talky-typey scenes.) Thankfully, Rajskub (Chloe from "24") shows up periodically as Julie's best friend, poking holes in whatever crisis, real or imagined, Julie is facing.

As the film drew to a close, I feared it would concoct some sort of fantasy sequence where Julie and Julia would meet, managing to tie the two stories together in some cosmic fashion. This does not happen. But neither does any solid connection between the two women, any sense of kinship. Julie Powell may love Julia Child, but Child never got the chance to love her back.

When it's all over, we are left very hungry, and very eager to try cooking that beef bourguignon. But mostly we're left asking why -- why wasn't the movie just called "Julia"?

John Hughes • 1950-2009

The death of John Hughes is surprising, but it hasn't really gotten to me, even after I realized that my friends, co-workers, family and I quote something from one of his movies every goddamn day.

It seems like John Hughes has already been dead for years. He hasn't directed a movie since "Curly Sue" in 1991, and that's not exactly one you remember him for, is it? In some ways, John Hughes was like the 1980s movie equivalent of The Beatles -- his work was so important to so many, and it was accomplished over so short a time.

Nearly every teen comedy since "Ferris Bueller" owes some kind of debt to John Hughes' body of work, with the possible exception of "Juno." (You might not like Diablo Cody's writing, but you can't deny it is uniquely hers.) Have the generations that followed us been given movies anywhere near the caliber of "The Breakfast Club" or "Sixteen Candles"? No, and it's terrible that John didn't further share his genius with the kids that came after "Ferris."

And he was a genius. I have "Ferris Bueller" on as I'm writing this, and I continue to be awed by its perfection. It's the kind of movie where almost every line of dialogue is funny, and Hughes the director helps Hughes the screenwriter every step of the way; check out the scene where Ben Stein lectures on the Hawley-Smoot tariff, and watch the cuts between the close-ups of his dumbfounded students. It's just perfectly timed, perfectly acted, and just ... right. It's as airtight and well-constructed as "Back to the Future."

One of the happiest memories of my moviegoing life is seeing "Ferris" at a midnight revival screening at the AMC 30 South Barrington. The sold-out crowd laughed hysterically, applauded enthusiastically, and even clapped along to "Twist & Shout." I had a genuine chill-up-the-spine moment in that screening: Ed Rooney tells who he thinks is Ferris Bueller to "pucker up, buttercup." His secretary comes in and says, "FERRIS BUELLER ON LINE TWO!" The camera pushes in on Rooney, horrified, as a musical stinger blasts the audience. The theater went apeshit with cheering and applause. We all knew it was coming, and we all loved it.

I don't know exactly why John Hughes decided to leave the film industry behind -- one might guess it has something to do with fallout from the incredible success of "Home Alone," which he wrote for director Chris Columbus -- but I hope he found happiness out on his Harvard, Ill., farm. He sure didn't sound happy on the DVD commentary he recorded a few years back for "Ferris."

If there's one movie you need to watch again in the wake of the news, it's "Planes, Trains & Automobiles." When you hear "John Hughes," you think first of his teen flicks, and "PT&A" kinda gets lost in the shuffle, which is a shame. Steve Martin and John Candy probably give the best performances of their careers in that film, another that Hughes both wrote and directed. You know "Ferris" and "Weird Science" by heart; reacquaint yourself with Del Griffith and Neal Page.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Are you fucking kidding me?

Pardon my French, but come the fuck on. Dick Morris basically says fuck Euna Lee and Laura Ling, they get what they deserve for having gone to North Korea in the first place.

The Five-Timers Club

Update (9/9): Make that seven times.

Update (8/14): I've now seen "Star Trek" a sixth time, thanks to the $2 show at BG Theatres.

No, this isn't about the famous "Saturday Night Live" sketch, it's about movies I've seen five or more times in a theater.

This comes up because tonight, after going downtown for screenings of "District 9" and "Bandslam" -- reviews coming in the Aug. 14 edition of your Daily Herald! -- Lisa and I went to Randhurst to see "Star Trek" again. It was her second time, my fifth. I know, rationally, that "Star Trek" is not a great film, but boy, does it make me happy.

The list of films I've seen five or more times in a theater contains some embarrassing titles, to be sure; keep in mind that I wanted to love the "Star Wars" prequels so badly that I convinced myself they were good. On DVD, however, the truth won out, especially on the dreadful "Attack of the Clones." So here are the members of my five-timers club:

"Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace"

"Independence Day"

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"
"Star Trek" (2009)


"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
"Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones"

I may have also seen "Moulin Rouge!" five times, but I cannot find the documentation to support it. (I have every ticket stub since "Pulp Fiction" in January of 1995 at the now-defunct Ridge Cinemas in Arlington Heights, but I can't find all of them from the Buffalo Grove Theatres for some reason. But I know they're somewhere.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Wes Anderson and "Sleeping Beauty"

First, a tip of the cap to Jason Sperb, whose blog inspired me to watch "The Life Aquatic" on Sunday.

In the past 36 hours, I watched both "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" and "Sleeping Beauty," two films that appear to have nothing in common, aside from being Disney releases. But as I watched "Sleeping Beauty" this morning -- with commentary by critic Leonard Maltin, Disney/Pixar guru John Lasseter, and animator Andreas Deja -- I couldn't stop thinking about Wes Anderson's colorful confection.

"Sleeping Beauty," released in 1959, was quite a stylistic departure for Walt Disney's animated products. The story was familiar, of course -- it's nearly the same as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," minus the dwarfs -- but the visuals were not. Uncle Walt entrusted artist Eyvind Earle to dictate the film's look, and what he got was a motion picture that looked like a medieval tapestry coming to life. Extensive use of the multiplane camera technique that Disney himself invented lent the film a dimensionality that even masterpieces like "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia" lacked, and all of Earle's meticulously detailed background paintings were kept in focus at all times. The film was presented in a 2.55:1 aspect ratio -- wider than today's widescreen films -- and printed on 70mm film in a process that Walt dubbed "Super Technirama 70." The result was an incredibly gorgeous film that is finally available in its original format on Disney's latest DVD and Blu-ray releases.

"The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," released by Disney's Touchstone Pictures in 2004, was Texas auteur Wes Anderson's most ambitious film in scope, if not in subject matter. Like all of Anderson's films, "Zissou" gives us super-saturated colors and clear-focused widescreen frames packed with detail -- and that's why it kept creeping into my head when I was watching "Sleeping Beauty."

While we can argue over whether Anderson's dark, ironic films connect with us emotionally, there's no arguing that he consistently delivers flat-out beautiful films. (I consider it a great tragedy that I did not see "The Darjeeling Limited" in a theater.) There are frames of "Zissou" that almost demand to be paused, just so you can see everything that's happening. Steve Zissou's tour of his boat is such a sequence; Anderson gives us a cutaway set of the entire vessel, roaming from room to room in one unbroken shot. On the DVD commentary, he says the set was inspired by drawings in World Book encyclopedias and Time-Life books he pored over in his youth.

Techniques and details like that -- along with the eye-popping colors and Anderson's penchant for using titles -- lend Anderson's films a sort of magical quality that seems odd for his subject matter. Of course, that odd combination is a huge part of why Anderson's films work.

And then there's "Sleeping Beauty," which truly is magical. Two scenes in "Sleeping Beauty" deserve to be mentioned among the all-time greatest. One is a stunning forest panorama in which Princess Aurora serenades the animals with "Once Upon a Dream," and the other is Prince Philip's climactic confrontation with the evil fairy Maleficent, whose transformation into a dragon must have been simply astonishing to the moviegoers of 1959. (Man, do I wish I could see a pristine print of "Sleeping Beauty" on the big screen.)

I guess it's highly improbable that the guy who gave us "Rushmore" and "Bottle Rocket" could have been influenced by "Sleeping Beauty," but I find the visual parallels to be fascinating. Anderson's next film, "Fantastic Mr. Fox," employs stop-motion animation and looks like it hasn't abandoned any of the director's techniques. Maybe the parallels will continue to reveal themselves this November.

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These aren't the best quality, but you get the idea.