Previous month:
January 2008
Next month:
March 2008

no-oscar run: three kings

I didn't do this on purpose, but it seems accidentally appropriate, anyway. Looking for a movie to watch this afternoon, I pulled an old favorite off the shelf, Three Kings. Appropriate, because it comes close to meeting the newly-invented "Unheralded" category (I give it 9 on a scale of 10, IMDB users come in at 7.3). But also appropriate for another reason. Three Kings won the Best Film and Best Director awards from the Boston Society of Film Critics. Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars out of 4, calling it "some kind of weird masterpiece" and "one of the best movies of the year." Andrew O'Hehir of Salon said it was "one of the most exciting Hollywood action films in years." Mick LaSalle in the Chronicle had the Little Man falling out of his chair with delight, noting that it was "George Clooney's best showcase to date" and saying "it is -- and is likely to remain -- the definitive film about the Persian Gulf War." Even Pauline Kael, who was retired from criticism by the time Three Kings came out, said in a 2000 interview, "I loved Three Kings, which I thought was probably the best American movie I saw last year."

Best Film awards, Best Director awards, critical acclaim, a triumph for star George Clooney ... and you know how many Oscars Three Kings won? None. In fact, it wasn't even nominated for any Oscars.

The use of sound was impressive enough that the movie was nominated for Best Sound Editing by the Motion Picture Sound Editors, USA ... The Matrix won two Oscars that year for sound, other Oscar nominees in the sound categories included The Mummy and The Insider. No noms for Three Kings, though. The Writer's Guild of America nominated Three Kings for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, but it got no Oscar nods in that category, either (they were too busy giving an Oscar nom in that category to M. Night Shyamalan). Best Director? Sam Mendes for American Beauty. No nomination for Three Kings, although Spike Jonze, who had a major supporting role in Three Kings, did get an Oscar nomination for Best Director for Being John Malkovich. Best Actor? Sorry, no George Clooney ... the winner was Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. American Beauty also won Best Picture ... Three Kings wasn't nominated because Oscar had to honor The Sixth Sense and The Green Mile.

Some of these Oscar films were good, to be sure, but if you think The Green Mile is a better movie than Three Kings, our taste preferences are pretty far apart. And that's fine. But I assure you, I had a better time watching Three Kings again than I would have had watching the latest Pirates of the Caribbean crapfest. And that's why there won't be any more Oscar runs on this blog.


look at my thumb, gee you're dumb

OK, here is how the meme starts:

Step 1: Put your music player on shuffle.
Step 2: Post the first line from the first 25 songs that play, no matter how embarrassing.
Step 3: Strike through the songs when someone guesses both artist and track correctly.
Step 4: For those who are guessing -- looking the lyrics up on a search engine is CHEATING!
Step 5: If you like the game post your own.

I tried to follow it, but come on ... how hard/fun is it to guess what song starts out "Earth angel, earth angel"? By the time I eliminated the obvious ones, I only had 14 songs. Rather than keep shuffling, I just decided to stop there. The comments' section is yours. I'll give you two hints: only one of the songs is from later than 1965, and none of the songs are by women. Don't blame me, blame our old friend shuffle.

1) "Little wallflower on the shelf, standing by herself."

2) "One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock."  ("Rock Around the Clock," Bill Haley)

3) "Well I want somebody, tell me what's wrong with me." ("Fannie Mae," Buster Brown)

4) "Your precious love means more to me than any love could ever be." ("For Your Precious Love," Jerry Butler/Impressions)

5) "Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear." ("Mack the Knife," Bobby Darin)

6) "Here I stand, head in hand."  ("You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," Beatles)

7) "It was back last October, I believe it was."

8) "You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain." ("Great Balls of Fire," Jerry Lee Lewis)

9) "Hear that lonesome whippoorwill." ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," Hank Williams)

10) "If you don't want, you don't have to get in trouble." (Ray Charles, need title)

11) "Why do birds sing so gay?" ("Why Do Fools Fall in Love," Frankie Lymon/Teenagers)

12) "In my dream our love was lost."

13) "My lords and my ladies of the royal court, an incident from the life of the precious Mahatma Gandhi." (Lord Buckley, still need title)

14) "I crashed in the jungle while tryin' to keep a date." ("Stranded in the Jungle," The Cadets)


oscar run: cry uncle

I give up.

Today a DVD arrived in the mail from Netflix: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. I didn't much care for the first one ... liked the second one less than the first. Suffice to say my hopes aren't high for the third installment. Basically, there is no reason for me to watch this movie, which I am not going to like. But it's Oscar time, and this is when I write about the movies of the last year.

Well, it has to stop. Because I don't want to watch At World's End.

Here are some of the movies I've watched the last few years in an attempt to ... well, I don't really know why I've done it:

Star Wars II

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

Ice Age

Pirates of the Caribbean

Big Fish

Spider-Man 2

Shrek 2

The Village

Shark Tale

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Star Wars III

Little Miss Sunshine

United 93

Pirates of the Caribbean II

Cars

Click

Marie Antoinette

Poseidon

The Black Dahlia

The Bourne Ultimatum

Transformers

The only reason I watched most of these is because they were nominated for Oscars. I didn't much like some of them ... some I hated.

It has to stop. I am not watching Pirates of the Caribbean III.


friday random ten, 1964 edition

1. Joan Baez, "There But for Fortune." For my money, the most beautiful-sounding record of her career. Phil Ochs wrote it. Baez' guitar work is enough to make you want to learn how to play the instrument just so you can try it for yourself. The video tosses in "500 Miles" as a bonus.

2. The Drifters, "Under the Boardwalk." Wikipedia has an interesting story about this one: "The song was set to be recorded on May 21, 1964, but the band's lead singer, Rudy Lewis, unexpectedly died of a heroin overdose the night before. Lewis had sung lead on all of their hits since the 1960 departure of Ben E. King, including "Up on the Roof". Rather than reschedule the studio session to find a new frontman, former Drifters backup singer Johnny Moore was brought back to perform lead vocals for the recording."

3. The Simon Sisters, "Wynken, Blynken & Nod." I loved this one about as much as I loved "There But for Fortune" back in 1964 (gimme a break, I was 11). The lyrics are based on an old children's poem. The harmonies by the sisters are delightful. Oh, and the sisters are named Lucy and Carly. The video link proves once again that you can find just about everything on YouTube, although the sound quality on this one is awful.

4. Mose Allison, "I'm Not Talking." When you have a Mose Allison MP3, what tag do you use for "genre"? The video is for "Your Mind Is on Vacation."

5. Brenda Holloway, "Every Little Bit Hurts." It's just nostalgia, but it sure seems like there were thousands of songs like this one, and every one was good. That's how nostalgia works.

6. Herman's Hermits, "I'm Into Something Good." Another embarrassing sign that I was only 11 in 1964: I loved Herman's Hermits. This one was written by Goffin and King.

7. The Rolling Stones, "Time Is on My Side." A great song that means something different 44 years later. The first version of this song was by Danish trombonist Kai Winding. The video at the top of the list is from 1976, the same year I saw the performer sing it: Patti Smith.

8. The Beatles, "I Feel Fine." Ever the innovators. With this song The Beatles became the first artists to put guitar feedback on record. Those of us who prefer early Beatles to mid-period or later Beatles are thinking of songs like this, where the harmonies are to die for. The video is enlightening for other reasons.

9. The Supremes, "Baby Love." As I've probably said too many times, I preferred the Stax/Volt sound to Motown's, and the Supremes were one of my least favorite Motown acts. So it's safe to say I don't quite "get" this song.

10. The Yardbirds, "I Wish You Would." Just so you won't think I was a complete doofus due to my love of Wynken, Blynken, and Herman's Hermits, I'll mention that the Yardbirds were my favorite group of the time.


unheralded

One of my favorite movies was on TV today, and by favorite, I mean I walked in during the middle of the picture and it was pan-and-scan, but I sat down and watched the rest of it anyway. (It may just be that I'm sick of watching Oscar nominees ... I think this is going to be teh last year for that particular tradition.) The movie was Under Fire, which for the 99% of you who never heard of it, takes place during the Nicaraguan civil war and stars Nick Nolte, Joanna Cassidy, and Gene Hackman. It occurred to me that Under Fire falls into a particular category, one that I'm making up as I type this and thus one which is bogus. These are the movies that you really like ... not Godfather Part II like, but more than just a little like ... where others don't share your point of view. If you know someone well, you know which movies rank at the top of their list. But the ones that fall just short of that list, and don't get a lot of attention from others ... well, I don't know what to call them, not exactly underrated, but maybe unheralded. And, of course, everyone has their own list, since we all have different movies that we like a lot but others don't.

As usual, I decided to put numbers to this, so I went to the IMDB, where I have rated 1200+ movies on a scale of 1 to 10. I decided the movies in my new category would be ones where I gave the movie a 9 (not a 10, these are "just short of best"), and the average rating from IMDB users was 7 or lower (conveniently, I gave Under Fire a 9 and the IMDB users give it a 7). Here, absent further comment, is the list of movies meeting that criteria ... call it Steven's List of Unheralded Movies:

The Anniversary Party

The Exonerated

Freeway

My Family/Mi Familia

Sid and Nancy

Under Fire

There isn't really a reverse version of this ... a rating of 2 on a scale of 10 indicates a movie that is worse than a 9 is good. But, since I'm making lists, here are the movies for which I gave a 2 where the IMDB users averaged at least a 7. If you really liked more than one of these, we probably have different taste preferences when it comes to movies:

The Life of David Gale

Nixon

Se7en

Tape


in which steven begins pimping for bill james online

A year ago, I wrote the following about the contributors to a new book, How Bill James Changed Our View of Baseball:

First, they tell how they came across James' work. Then they explain how they fell in love with James' work. Then they allow as to how they became obsessed with James' work. And then … and this is the crucial part, and it happens in almost every essay and sidebar … they explain how the Bill James approach to baseball analysis opened their eyes to the use of the same techniques in non-baseball parts of their lives. Don't take the word of the experts without performing your own analysis. Be skeptical. Apply reason and logic to the problem at hand. Try looking at things with a different eye. Don't walk around pronouncing answers, but instead ask lots of questions, and then look for the answers.

I seriously doubt anyone other than sports fans is going to shell out $3 a month for Bill James Online. But take my word for it, it won't only be about baseball, even when it's only about baseball. Here are a couple of excerpts from a piece James posted earlier in the month. First, on constructing a league:

In baseball in the National League there are 16 teams, and there are four teams that make the playoffs. Sixteen is divisible by four. The obvious thing to have done would have been to set up the league so that there were four four-team divisions, and each division champion would make the playoffs. Instead of that, they set it up with two five-team divisions, a six-team division, and a wild card.

If you ask somebody why it was done this way, they’ll say something like, “Well, I guess they thought with the wild card they would get the four best teams in the championship, whereas with a division setup you might get somebody winning a weak division”, or “I guess they thought that the wild card would give more teams a chance to be in the race in September.”

Well, OK, but. . .shouldn’t somebody have studied that before the decision was made? Does anyone really know whether you get more meaningful contests with more teams having a chance to make the playoffs in September with four four-team divisions, or three and a Wild Card? Or are we just guessing?

The truth is, it was done the way it was done because it simply never occurred to the people who made the decision that one could actually study the issue. You can, of course; you can build a model, determine within the model what is a critical game or an important game, simulate the season a few million times each way and figure out whether you get more meaningful games one way or the other. It is knowledge that could exist; it just doesn’t.

See what I mean? James is talking about the best way to construct a baseball competition, but underlying his argument is something relevant to a lot of things in our daily lives. Why do we make the decisions we do? Or better, why do we let our decisions happen by default because of our unwillingness to engage in the process?

One more, on baseball bats, and then I'll quit, partly because I'm boring everyone and partly because I don't want to get the po-pos on me for posting too much subscription material:

Bats have been evolving in their design since baseball was invented, but there has been more evolution in bat design in the last fifteen years than in the previous hundred years.

Think about it: When was the last time you heard about a corked bat? Nobody uses corked bats anymore, because the legal bats now are much better for the hitter than the corked bats of bygone years....

I do not know how much this revolution in bat design has contributed to the hitting explosion that began in the early 1990s. I don’t think anyone knows. My guess is that the inflated hitting numbers of the last fifteen years are MORE attributable to bat design than they are to steroids. I understand that this is not the common opinion, but. ..experience teaches us to be wary of the common opinion.

Anyway, not assuming that this is a large effect, let us discuss instead: is this a good change? I would argue that it is not a good change.... My essential concern about the new bats is this: this caused a significant change in the way baseball was played at the major league level, without the active consent of major league baseball, its owners or its fans. Is that a good thing, or is that a bad thing?

I certainly don’t mean to assume that it is a bad thing. Baseball needs change; it needs constant change. It always has. Life is change; that’s how it differs from the rocks. If the game doesn’t change, people get bored with it very quickly. We certainly do not want to take over baseball and prevent it from ever changing any more, because that would kill it in one generation.

At the same time, anyone can see that it is dangerous to the health of the sport to allow the sport to be re-invented by bat manufacturers or any other sort of hooligans for their own reasons. It is dangerous to the sport to allow changes over which we have no control. And. . .is that really fair, or sporting? Isn’t allowing some players to gain an edge by bringing in harder bats very much like allowing a field goal kicker to bring out his own football?

He's just talking about sticks of wood that ballplayers use to smack a sphere over the fence. But he's also talking about the ways in which essential elements of our daily lives get changed, not because we consciously set out as a people to make change, but because, while we weren't paying attention, others managed to change things to their benefit, at which point the change becomes "natural" and we all accept it.

I don't suppose I have to take this much further. Let's just say this kind of analysis seems v.useful to me in a lot of areas that have nothing to do with sports. This looks to be $3 well spent.


nature

You know, I don't even have a category for "nature" that I can stick my nature posts into. Of course, I never have any nature posts, so it's not really a problem.

Here is how I enjoyed the eclipse. I went outside. I couldn't see anything because of the fog/clouds/whatever-it-was. I didn't want to go inside in case I missed something. So I pulled out my Treo, cranked up the SlingPlayer, and started channel surfing the bedroom cable box where the SlingBox is connected, to see if any of the channels were showing the eclipse.

Sitting on my front steps watching teevee on my cell phone while something momentous was happening in the sky: my relationship to nature in a nutshell.


oscar run xiv: michael clayton

Robin's brother is visiting us, and earlier tonight he asked if we'd seen a movie and we hadn't. Robin said something like "it must not have been nominated for an Oscar." This got me thinking. These "Oscar Run" posts every year give something of a warped sense of what movies I watch. For a month or so, I watch the movies every one else watched the year before. The other eleven months of the year, I watch lots of stuff from before 2007, often movies that no one else sees. But I watch those movies by myself, as often as not, so I can see why Robin thinks the only movies we watch are Oscar nominees ... those are the ones where I say "hey, you want to watch this with me?" When I watch Sherrybaby or the 1932 Scarface or The Brain That Wouldn't Die, I don't even bother to tell anyone I watched them.

Another consequence of this is that it seems, at least to me, like I don't like any movies, because every January/February, I write about movies that I wouldn't normally seek out if I wasn't trying to catch up on what's popular. Movies like Transformers just aren't my cup of tea.

And ... this is something I've been noticing about myself for 35 years or more ... the more movies I watch in short periods of time, the less able I am to appreciate the good parts. Which is to say, if I saw Michael Clayton when it came out, and I hadn't seen a movie in a few weeks, I would have been excited about the experience, I would have taken pleasure in the film's strongest points, and would have said mostly nice things about it. But when it's the fifth movie I've watched in a week, even if it's the best movie I've seen in a week, I'm a little more tired of anything that feels like the same old thing. And while Michael Clayton is a fine movie, there's not a lot of new things to grab me ... it's pleasures are fairly traditional, i.e. the acting.

So here I am, getting ready to say a few words, and I worry that I'll be unfair, that it will sound like I thought the movie sucked, which isn't true at all. But as I look over my ratings for the films of 2007, I see a preponderance of 7-out-of-10s, which to me means "I liked it" but if I'm using a curve, "7" has become something unremarkable, my way of saying "I liked this movie but it was no Bonnie and Clyde." And the only 2007 movies I rated higher than 7 were either documentaries or, in the case of Persepolis, animated.

So, either I thought Michael Clayton was a solid movie, or I thought it was just another movie, or I think most movies I see are good.

I haven't bothered to actually say anything about the movie. I'm usually confused when a movie jumbles the chronology of the narrative ... not because I don't know what's going on, although that is often the case, but because I don't always know why the filmmaker chose a jumbled chronology. I didn't like Memento as much as some people, but at least I give it credit for doing something different with chronology. And practically my favorite movie of the last X number of years is Run Lola Run, which is quite playful with chronology. But Michael Clayton? I'm just tired of getting 20 minutes into a movie and seeing "4 Days Ago." It's no longer innovative ... I feel like half the movies I see do that. And I don't get the point, in this case at least. The movie would have been the same to me if it had started 20 minutes in.

None of this ruins the film, largely because the thing I liked best about it was George Clooney, and the chronology meant nothing to that enjoyment. Some claim that Clooney doesn't do enough to warrant his status as a fine actor ... this is his first nomination for Best Actor, and he already has a Best Supporting Actor win to his name, so he has the status but somehow remains underrated at the same time. I think George Clooney is a movie star, and I find his acting quite appropriate to that role. He doesn't usually chew the scenery, because he doesn't have to. He doesn't do the things that get people Oscar nominations ... the other nominated actors from this movie, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson, get those parts here, and they are both fine, but Wilkinson channels Peter Finch in Network, which is pretty much what is called for in the movie but which also pretty much guarantees he'll get nominated in the "Not Really Loony But Playing Up the Loony Side Nonetheless" category, and Swinton, again doing what the movie asks, gets nominated in the "I'm Repressed But You Can Tell It Bothers Me Because I'm Trying So Hard to Show You I'm Repressed" category. Clooney, meanwhile, is "merely" ready for his close-up, but he commands the screen, and he makes great use of subtle changes in his face that mean all the more for being understated. He achieves what Clint Eastwood strives for as an actor, and he deserves his Oscar nomination, which falls into the "As With Sean Connery Back in the Day, I Deliver One Great Performance After Another and No One Notices Because I'm Handsome" category.