Thursday, September 27, 2007

Movie Writes

"No film whose closing credits list a 'senior inferno artist' is likely to lull us with its tranquil charms, and 'The Kingdom' is a thumper of a movie, full of furious souls."

"It is no mean feat to make a boring film about Jesse James, but Andrew Dominik has pulled it off in style."

The above lines are the opening salvos in movie reviews penned in this week's New Yorker by the film critic Anthony Lane. They are also excellent illustrations of why I enjoy a good movie review as much as any written form. The New Yorkers is a weekly that tends to pile up around my house, and, unlike my neighbor, I don't read every word before disposing of old issues, but I make sure to get to anything by Lane and his colleague David Denby (and I thumb through to make sure I don't miss any of the cartoons, of course).

It doesn't matter that I will likely never see either of the above films. I have read far more reviews than I could ever see movies. I will read reviews of movies I have no intention of seeing, and I will read several different reviews of the same movie if I stumble upon them.

One of my favorite pulp novelists, Stephen Hunter, is a Pulitzer Prize winning film critic for the Washington Post. I also enjoyed his regular radio appearances on the Tony Kornheiser Show, although I generally cannot stand televised movie critics. So it must be about the writing.

And before I go any further, I have to mention Joe Bob Briggs, the king of the the drive-in movie reviews. I certainly can't explain him, I can barely defend him, but I have read way too much of his work to not include him in this post.

I have heard people say that they don't like to read movie reviews because they give away too much information. I long ago gave up trying to avoid reviews that would spoil any secret endings, a strategy that will forever be known as The Crying Game Gambit. Even if you know what's coming, a good movie can still be entertaining. Most movies are pretty predictable anyway, so it's more about the execution than just the suspense (The Usual Suspects would be the first exception that springs to mind). And the studios put out so much press material, it's pretty hard to escape.

So, let's wind this up with a little movie review of my own. The other night, the Doc and I watched Disturbia, an updated retelling of Hitchcock's Rear Window, with a little Silence of the Lambs and some Sex, Lies and Videotape swirled in, an frivolous dash of John Hughes' Pretty in Pink maybe and a tiny taste of Blair Witch Project. Very suspenseful, lots of cameras being jerked around, plenty of claustrophobic and voyeuristic atmosphere. Shia LeBeouf plays a teenager who should hate his parents for naming him Kale, but he can't because they are so cool, and, anyway, his dad dies in a sudden, violent car crash very early on. There are many moments of sudden violence but none of them seem gratuitous and there is very little gore for a plot involving a supposed serial killer. The acting is great, the plot is a little predictable but still satisfactory. With all the shadowy scenes and convulsive camera work, this one would have been fun to see in the theater. It won't change your life, but it has to better than three straight nights of Dancing with the Stars (now there's a show that needs a serial killer).

Oh, and about The Kingdom, which is where we started today ... I saw Jamie Foxx on Letterman and The Daily Show this week, and there is no way the movie can be as good as those 15 minutes of television. Each appearance was full of completely different material, even when they were talking about the movie, and each was equally hilarious. He still uses some of the affectations he tossed out on In Living Color, but you know what, they are still funny. Bill Bob says, "Check him out."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Is it Myanmar or your Burma?

I had a whole different topic in mind for today, and I may get to it later, but first I need to address an issue that has arisen in the media coverage of martial law and government crackdown on protests in a Southeast Asian nation of uncertain name and, for most of us anyway, even more uncertain location. Now, before you read any further, this is a very serious situation involving civil rights, religious persecution, and people willing to die for a cause, so, naturally, I am going to make some jokes about it.

This morning, reported on this story in Burma, said the name Burma in each of the first four paragraphs, and did not once mention Myanmar. said it took place in Myanmar, and the only mention of Burma came in a statement from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who said that the U.N. should send an envoy there. went with Burma, except that a sidebar labeled "About Burma" said that Burma is also known as Myanmar and stuck with that label for the rest of the blurb.

Like most people under the age of, let's say 50, my previous knowledge of this geographic conundrum comes from one J. Peterman on "Seinfeld." "You most likely know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me." Man, this is giving me a bigger headache than the whole Turin/Torino debate at the last Winter Olympics.

I say we settle this thing once and for all, right now. Burma implies a connection to Burma Shave, a product that harkens back to 1950's era American nostalgia and optimism. Myanmar could be a generic brand Mallomar or, more likely, a file-sharing system your kids are using to illegally trade the latest Fergie and Plain White Tees singles. Sure it's popular now, but once the FCC and the corporate overlords catch on, it'll end up sharing a room with Webvan and Against my better judgment as a closet subversive, I think I'll go with Burma.

Okay, so it's Burma, now where is this place? My frame of reference for world geography will forever be the map from Risk ("the game of world domination), so is Burma anywhere near Yakutsk, or is more in the Kamchatka neighborhood? I know, I know, it's in Southeast Asia, which means Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, etc., so at least we have a solid track record of military success should we need to intervene in this crisis.

What did we learn at Fitzfacts today? Personally, I learned that there is no such breed of dog as the Burmese Mountain Dog. It's a Bernese Mountain Dog and is native to Switzerland, which has had the same name, location, and geographic borders for nearly 200 years.

Tomorrow: My Favorite Movie Critics

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Near Occasion of Cardinal Sin

Okay, already a day late on the start to the week, so let's begin with a nice and easy warmup on the home team Baltimore Ravens. Nothing too strenuous, wouldn't want to pull anything.

Trailing Baltimore 20-6 in the third quarter, Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt replaces second-year starter Matt Leinart with former NFL MVP Kurt Warner. Warner responds by leading his team to three scoring drives and a 23-23 tie with 3:43 to play in the game. Leinart uses his sideline time wisely as the cameras catch him fixing his hair just so in front of the cooling fans. Doesn't he know he's supposed to put on a baseball cap and headset and grab a clipboard?

Veteran coach and offensive genius Brian Billick counters Whisenhunt's move by inserting Kyle Boller into the game for the Ravens' first possession of the fourth quarter. Weren't expecting that, were you? Of course not. Only a master of gamesmanship and sports psychology could understand the logic of removing a QB who had completed 20-27 passes for one touchdown and no interceptions. But genius cannot be explained and often cannot be appreciated.

Boller quickly makes two bad throws and the Ravens' offense heads back to the bench after a three and out. His second effort starts out better with a couple long passes to get into field goal range, but consecutive sacks force the Ravens to punt. Finally, on Baltimore's last possession, the home team drives back into field goal range again (thanks in large part to an unnecessary roughness penalty on the Cardinals), and ever-steady Matt Stover boots the gamewinner home.

This might be a good time to point out that, for all his flaws, Steve McNair is supposed to be a great clutch player. He's the guy who led the final scoring drive against San Diego last season, to name one. Over and over, we hear how calm and poised he is. I can almost understand Billick's decision to give Boller a series or two to give McNair a rest and to show some appreciation for the job Boller did last week as the starter. But once the Cardinals rolled through the defense like Kramer at the dojo, you might want to reconsider.

The quarterback shuffles were fun and distracting, but the real story of this game and season is the Ravens' defense. For two straight weeks, we have seen fourth quarter collapses just when this unit should come up with a big sack or turnover to turn out the lights. Rex Ryan's rep as a defensive guru might start to ring as hollow as Billick's offensive field cred. Except that he's not exactly firing the same caliber weapon he was last season.

Some have pointed out the injury to Trevor Pryce, but the simple fact is that Baltimore misses Adalius Thomas more than most people seem willing to admit. Thomas was the best player on the team last year and while Ed Reed can make some great plays and Ray Lewis is the emotional leader, nobody on this defense has the opposing offensive coordinator really worried the way Thomas did last year.

On the bright side, the Ravens are winning the games they are supposed to win. Yamon Figurs jumped right in for BJ Sams with a touchdown return. But what looked like a break in the schedule suddenly seems more stressful than Baltimore fans might have expected. Road games at Cleveland and San Francisco will show whether the Ravens are ready to be contenders or just really good spoilers.

Monday, September 17, 2007

That's So Ravens

For 30 minutes yesterday, the second Kyle Boller era sparkled brighter than the sunshine glinting off the waters of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The halftime score (17-3) and Boller's line (17-24, 125 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 sacks, 0 penalties, 0 interceptions) read as if Brian Billick had written them himself. The Ravens' defense had its foot on the throat of the Jets' offense with two sacks of New York's rookie quarterback and numerous plays in the offensive backfield.

But instead of crushing the visitors' windpipe in the third, Baltimore toyed with its prey, and the emotions of its fans. The conservative passing game sputtered, and the defense went from poundcake to pattycake. Still, a field goal at the start of the fourth built the lead to 20-3, normally more than enough cushion for football fans to rest comfortably. This is the perfect scenario for lining up your power back behind your fullback and your two tight ends and crushing the spirit of your opposition as the clock ticks away. Back in the 1980s, the Redskins called this the Riggo drill although John Riggins said he never liked it much. Probably because he spent a lot of Mondays in traction.

Except that the Ravens let Jamal Lewis go to the Browns in the offseason, and his replacement, Willis McGahee, waits for holes to open rather than lowering his shoulder and knocking the defense back for a few extra yards. Not that I'd rather have Lewis. McGahee rushed for 97 yards and showed his versatility catching a swing pass for Baltimore's second touchdown. But the injury to Jonathan Ogden and the resulting youth of the offensive line showed that this group is not quite ready to close out a game. So instead, the Jets scored 10 points on their first two possessions of the final period and had Ravens' fans holding their breath until Ray Lewis intercepted a Kellen Clemens pass in the end zone with about a minute to play.

I attended a game much like this one last season where the Ravens scored quickly and built a lead against the Bengals. The game should have been over midway through the third but some misplays and clock mismanagement and a sudden resurrection of Cincinnati's offense left fans grumbling as they filed out.

So, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Take the win, enjoy the solid, controlled performance by Boller, the timely defense, and hope that McGahee and the offensive line are more in sync as the season goes on. Forget about the Ravens being in the same class as the Patriots and the Colts for now, though. Fortunately, the schedule breaks nicely for a team that is still getting its act together. With any luck, the Ravens roll into the bye week with only two losses and get rested for a visit to Pittsburgh, a home rematch with Cincy and the San Diego, New England, and Indy troika of terror.

Me, I'm hoping we'll have a bona fide quarterback controversy by then.