Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Winter Olympics

I love the Winter Olympics. God help me, but I love 'em.

I know it's popular right now to disdain them. Jim Rome (who openly hates them (and who (not coincidentally) is a sneering idiot)) says that it's impossible to follow sports we don't care about, played by athletes we've never heard of....and all that compounded by the 10 hour(ish) tape delay from Italy. I see that American Idol (that paeon to all that is selfish and ego-driven and mean about America) is smoking the Olympics in the ratings.

I've heard others say their only interest in the Olympics is in the medal count -- how the U.S.A. is doing in gold and silver -- and since we traditionally don't do that well in the winter sports, there's no reason to watch.

I get their point; I do. But they're wrong, all of 'em.

What the Olympics offer -- far more than any other sporting event -- is the opportunity to witness rare and stunning dedication and courage. I think of Kerry Strug, doing her last vault with a broken leg and sticking the landing to lead her team to the gold medal. She had to be carried off the mat, but she stuck her landing. Kerry's vault may be the most inspirational and amazing sports memory I have. I think of Zhang Dan -- the chinese skater who crashed spectacularly during her pairs event (looked to me, when she went down, like she broke both knees) -- getting back on the ice, nailing her jumps, and earning the silver medal.

Contrary to popular belief, the Olympics is not about jingoistically cheering for Americans above all else; it's not about counting medals. Don't get me wrong -- I always want the American team to do well, and sure, I root for 'em. But that's not why I watch. I watch to see the athletes reaching heights that can only be imagined by most of us. Heck, reaching heights that (in most cases) were only imagined by the athletes themselves.

These are athletes that, most of 'em, won't earn in a lifetime what a mediocre baseball player will earn this year; yet they train and focus with a dedication that would shame most of the finest pro athletes that ever played.

The Olympics matter, current snideness aside. Do you think Tonya Harding would have whacked the Kerrigan chick over any other figure skating event? This is the Olympics, and they matter.

No, I don't get curling. No, I can't discern the difference between the fastest bobsledders and the slowest...but I can see the joyous elation on the face of a bobsledder when he learns that he has vaulted into the lead by one-hundredth of a second.

This is sports. This is what sports is. It's competition for the joy of it; it's competition that drives you to be far more than you ever thought you could be, far more than most humans can ever be. This is drama, and inspiration, and I love it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


I started this blog (and (rather defiantly) named it "Try and Stop Me"), because whenever I see anything, read anything, hear anything, I tend to regale (read: bore) my friends and loved ones with my opinions on said item.

Given that, I can't believe it's been a couple of months since I regaled/bored about anything. It's certainly not been that I've had no opinions in those months...yet I've not felt (quite so) compelled to foist 'em.

Part of me wonders why that is; and yet another part wonders why I (or anyone) would ever think of expounding upon anything, given a world that is subjectively perceived through these eyes only, parsed by my cold-firing brainstem only; recapitulated through these sticky fingers only.

I mean, why would anyone -- anyone! -- care about my thoughts re: "Narnia" or "Forever Odd' or the Winter Olympics? Given that some people actually think that "Married with Children" was something other than drek, it's clear we don't all think or perceive alike. So why bother to read a review, much less write one?

Reading someone else's review can -- sometimes -- help me decide whether to see a particular movie...but unless I completely know and trust that reviewer -- and unless I have previously found their taste and sensibility to be fairly lockstepped with my own -- it's rarely of much use. Reading a review of a movie I've just seen is equally non-edifying, usually. When I agree with the review, the review simply restates what I already believe, which doesn't really help me....and when I disagree, the review itself is simply (in Tedworld) relegated to the (huge) psychic crap pile.

Yet I read 'em anyway....probably because (I suspect) it engenders a feeling of community. It's nice to think that someone else loves "The Princess Bride" or "Charly". It's comforting to know that someone else is completely mystified by professional wrestling. When someone mentions that they think "Bye Bye Birdie" was an evil plot hatched upon Broadway for the express purpose of making audiences stupid, like some theatrical terrorist plot, I want to be their friend for life.

So why do I write 'em? Do I think I'm always right, or that anyone would/should care? Oh, no, no, no. Not at all.

I have learned that -- for me alone -- I like the process of formulating a review. It engages my brain about the movie/book/cd/show/event I've just experienced, which enriches the worthy experiences in my memory, and helps defang the (manifold) drekky ones. So writing a review becomes a sort of personal thing -- an adjunct to my journal, a thing done for me.

And yet. And I want someone to read these reviews? Yeah, I do....and I wonder why.

So. I'm (as best I can) re-committing to produce reviews. They're a part of me....and read or unread, I (mostly) like doin' 'em. Coming soon will be reviews of Dean Koontz's "Odd Thomas", and "Narnia", and "Spellbound", and "Will and Grace" and "My Name is Earl" and the Winter Olympics.

Try and stop me.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Office

Geeze, this show is funny.

I could (and probably should) write a long, impassioned review of "The Office", explaining how unwaveringly perfect is Steve Carrell's interpretation of the king of cluelessness; how spookily creepy is Rainn Wilson's Dwight (when he dressed as the emperor from Star Wars for a Hallowe'en party (and managed to both parody Star Wars and infuse the emperor with Dwight's special brand of cowardly self-importance), I thought I'd spit my coffee laughing); how subversively charismatic is John Krasinski's Jim (who very much plays the everyman observer, the greek chorus, the rational reality dose that the other characters all lack).

I could, and probably should.

But I'm leaving it at this: Geeze, this show is funny!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The very concept of "franchise films" evokes McCrappy food and a "serve 'em up, shove 'em out, 'next!' attitude" that wouldn't seem to mesh with the desire to dine well. It's the rare sequel that provides anything new, much less substantial or tasty. Amazingly for Hollywood, the first three Harry Potter films hadn't taken that tack -- if anything, the producers may have almost been a bit too respectful of the books. They treated the books as biblical, errorless, fundamentalist documentaries on the wizarding life.

Still, probably because of that respect, the first three films were successful, in both tone and character, capturing the sense of magical whimsy that made the books so compelling to such a wide range of readers. The effects were, almost without exception, devices that served the story, rather than ends in and of themselves.

So, when the 4th film was to be directed by a new director, and to star someone other than Richard Harris as Dumbledore, trepidation flew on greasy wings into the abyss of my muggle heart (hey, if one can't mix weird metaphors in one's own blog, where can one mix 'em?).

Fears unfounded. "Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire" is a qualified success. Of course, one doesn't go into this film with the same expectations as, say, a Merchant/Ivory flick, but that shouldn't diminish the (almost) complete fulfilling of said expectations. This film (like it's biblically-rendered sourcebook) is dark (as the whole series gets darker and darker). Semi- major characters die; Voldemort emerges alive and predatory; Harry and his cabal endure rifts and teenage angst and hormonal assault.

This last point teeters on one of the weaknesses of this film (and scary future of the series): Daniel Radcliffe, the titular star, is 16 years old (when Harry is supposed to be 14). He looks a lot older than that. When Harry becomes pubescent, will it look a little weird to have a 6 foot tall, twice-daily-shaving actor playing him?

"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" also feels like a movie that is missing some key scenes. The book explored the fear and pain and heartbreaking emotions of first love. The movie, for the most part, simply glosses over that -- and in the one section of the movie in which it plays a major part (Harry and Ron and Hermione at the ball), dropped scenes reduce the section to filler material.

Voldemort could have been scarier, Dumbledore could have been more imperial, Sirius could have had more than one small scene played in a box of coals. This might be particularly notable, given Sirius's importance to the next book/movie). Still, these are quibbles with a movie I enjoyed very much.

By the way, don't you just love the pornsound of the phrase "titular star"?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Weather Man

I really wanted to like "The Weather Man". I think Nicholas Cage (when he chooses to actually act instead of to walk through some misbegotten action movie travesty) is a terrific actor, with shades and layers and power. I also really like movies that explore people and ideas instead of explosions and unsubtle humor. I really wanted to like this movie.

Nicholas Cage plays Dave Spritz (nee Spritzer), a man whose life is an unrelenting mess. He's divorced from a wife who (pretty much) hates him; he's the father of a son in trouble with drugs and a homosexual pedophilic counselor; he tries and tries to connect with his disaffected and terribly obese daughter; and he's the son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (played rather woodenly by Michael Caine) who is deeply disappointed in him. Dave Spritz is a weather man, although even he is aware that his only talent lies in reading a teleprompter. He's not a meterologist -- he doesn't even understand much of what he cheerfully reads to his Chicago viewers. Ultimately, it's Dave Spritz who is disappointed in himself.

Cage is (mostly) terrific, although in more than one scene he substitutes an utter lack of reaction for a depressed introspection. Hope Davis, as his ex-wife, is similarly powerful -- but the real find in this movie is Nicholas Hoult, who plays the troubled son. Hoult is quintessentially a young man trying to reach adulthood while still carrying the twin baggage of his naivete and his dysfunctional family. He's by turns engaging and maddening, confused and confusing, mature and painfully non-wordly.

So why didn't I like this serious, artfull movie?

First, it should be noted that "The Weather Man" is unrelentingly depressing. It starts with a man and a family in trouble, and ends with a man whose issues remain unresolved, whose life remains lonely. That's not, in and of itself, reason to avoid a movie -- but it's certainly not, in and of itself, reason to rush into a movie, either.

The real problems I had with "The Weather Man" fell into two categories. First, this is a movie that uses voiceover extensively. Unnendingly, ubiquitously. It uses voiceover to introduce scenes; it uses voiceover to conclude scenes; it uses voiceover to remind us of the scene we've just watched. All this talking, all this background blathering has the strange effect of distancing the audience. Movies work viscerally best when they have an emotional immediacy. Dave Spritz's depressed rumination turns "The Weather Man" into someone else's sad and ancient history.

Worse, it hammers its metaphors. For example, in one nicely written scene, Cage eloquently describes the vagaries of weather, its unpredictability and volatility, but then observes (for the disengaged cretins who juuuust might have missed it) that "I am the weather". Nothing ruins a nice analogy quite as effectively as nudging the audience and saying "See? Analogy! This is an art film!" It's the cinematic equivalent of explaining a joke to the doesn't amuse the humorless, and annoys those that got it in the first place.

Also, too many story elements are simply introduced and then dropped -- the story of the son's pedophilic counselor, for example, is examined for a while. Then, when the son gets in trouble for rejecting the counselor's advances, the parents are conflicted as to whether their son is telling the truth. It's a nice representation of the conflict all parents feel when their children are revealed to be less than perfect...but that element (like so many other elements of this film) is then dropped, never to be examined again. Ditto the rare glimpses we get of his daughter's tortured inner life; ditto his novel.

Finally, to my deep annoyance, Hollywood (with its seemingly bottomless talent for mis-representing film) has marketed this as some kind of James Brooksian dramady -- revealing the few comic moments of this movie in the trailers. This is most certainly not a dramady. "The Weather Man" will not send you out smiling -- it's no one's "feel good" movie, and marketing it like one not only utterly lies to the audience as to what kind of movie we're about to see, it also robs those few comedic moments of their power to lighten and humanize the mood.

Still, there is much -- much! -- to like about this movie and the performances. Despite Michael Caine's staidness early, his final scene -- describing how a parent never quits worrying about and parenting his children -- is eloquent and sweet, and (almost) worth the price of admission all by itself. Almost.

I just wish "The Weather Man" had been the movie it could have been, should have been, wanted to be. Instead, when I left the theatre, I wanted (needed!) to go find something to make me happy, to rinse off the pall that clung to me like poison ivy.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


I'm usually leery of Best Pictures. The Academy doesn't have the greatest sense of what actually constitutes a good (much less "best") picture. Ever since I watched "Out Of Africa" and spent 2 1/2 hours wanting to swallow the clorox, I've taken the "best" appellation with the proverbial salt grain.

So. I took it as a good sign that "Sideways" did not win the oscar. It did appear on most critic's "top ten" lists, which may or may not mean anything. Still, the nomination(s) did raise some expectations of quality -- which were ultimately and amply rewarded.

Movies like this are not nearly so much about the plot (such as it is) as they are about the people, and the performances, and the corners and alleys of life. Movies like this are what keep true movie lovers returning to the theatre, even when that means wading through a Vin Diesel glut. In "Sideways", Jack is getting married, and his best friend/best man Miles decides, as a wedding gift, to take Jack on a weeklong road trip. To Miles, this trip will be about treating Jack, about introducing him to the peculiarly satisfying world of wine-tasting, about re-strengthening their pure bond of friendship. To Jack, this trip will be about one last single fling, about embracing his inner caveman, about getting laid.

The performances in "Sideways" are fine and funny and felicitous. Thomas Haden Church exudes macho comfort as Jack. He's quirky and believable, and although his character is not as sharply drawn as Miles, he is nuanced and interesting. Although Jack is pretty much an unrepentant rogue, you can't help but identify with his growing frustration at the way Miles continually turns his back on life, on risk, on anything more social than sticking his nose deeply into a wine glass.

Miles, as brilliantly portrayed, by Paul Giamatti, is layered and deep, full of tics and fears and unsalved pain from his two-year-old divorce. He meets (and falls for) Maya, but can't seem to reconcile his feelings for her with his need to wallow in loneliness.

At one point, Maya asks him why he likes Pinot so much, and in a bravura piece of acting he delivers a brilliantly conceived monologue:

"I don’t know. It’s a hard grape to grow. As you know. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention and in fact can only grow in specific little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it really, can tap into Pinot’s most fragile, delicate qualities. Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression."

Maya, for her part, describes why she likes wine:
"I do like to think about the life of wine, how it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing, how the sun was shining that summer or if it rained... what the weather was like. I think about all those people who tended and picked the grapes, and if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I love how wine continues to evolve, how every time I open a bottle it's going to taste different than if I had opened it on any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive -- it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks -- like your ‘61 -- and begins its steady, inevitable decline."

It's clear that both these characters have just described themselves, in a paroxysm of self-awareness that is both sweet and sad. Unlike "The Weather Man" (to be reviewed shortly), the script doesn't bash us with its Deep Meaning. Instead, like wine itself, this movie is a living thing, that grows within us as we savor it's nuance. It's most definitely not f'ing merlot.

"Sideways" is about self-realization, about loving the person who also makes you crazy, about knowing when to feed the flame and when to let it gutter and die. "Sideways" is subtle and funny and flat-out wonderful.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The West Wing Live Debate

I didn't arrive early to "The West Wing". More's the pity, because once I started watching it (somewhere in season 3, I think) I got hooked on the crispness of the writing. Whip-smart dialogue (assuming that a whip is, in fact, somehow smart) being delivered by characters that are quirky and intelligent and flawed and real will hook me every time.

So. Imagine my disappointment as the seasons went on, and what had been crackling dialogue became polemic; what had been human characters became inexplicably-acting ciphers. "The West Wing" slowly turned from 'must watch' to 'will watch' to 'background noise for boxer-folding'.

The ratings have reflected it, as well, which is why last night they resorted to stunt. The fictional presidential candidates held a debate, and they did it live. Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits are veteran enough (and have enough stage experience) that the plan can't have been too too daunting. Being as susceptible to stunt as the next guy, though, I did watch, for (probably) the first time this season.

Smits and Alda did well -- better than well, probably. They looked and sounded presidential, and they portrayed their quintessential political stances with believability and conviction. Further, the live aspect of it played well, as the occasional stumble over words added a verisimilitude that only added to the overall effect. So, give "The West Wing" an A (or A-, anyway) for execution.

But. But. It still wasn't a success in any artistic (or story/character arc) way. First, the script tried desperately to have it both ways. It tried to present both liberal and conservative points of view in realistic ways. Alda's conservative senator is a good man who embraces conservativism as the proper program for America -- ditto Smits's liberal senator -- yet at the same time, it portrayed Smits as vibrant and thoughtful and youthful while Alda smirked and postured and spouted. It's difficult to imagine any real person watching such a real-world debate siding with Alda's conservative agenda. It's okay for a show to take a stance (and I have no problem with the stance it took), but to pretend to be balanced while so obviously leaning to the left seems presumptuous at least, and pretentious and prevaricatious (which, if it ain't a word, should be) at worst.

Worse that that, however, is this: political debates are inherently dull. One watches in the real world when one is trying to decide between real-life candidates. One rarely (or never) watches them for entertainment. Last night's experiment (stunt) was too realistic (by far) -- it not only captured the ambiance and clutter of a political debate, it captured its boredom.

Is "The West Wing" now done as a viable series? Maybe. Probably. And yes, that makes me sad.