Thursday, March 15, 2007

Funny, this lack of memory. I started a post back in October by inserting several pictures from a trip to Colorado the previous April. Here is what I had:

The first picture is of my wife's sister getting married in Manitou Springs. Then there is the older boy sharing a hat with a horse at the ranch across the road from my parents' place. Then there is me and the boy at the wedding. Finally, we have some snow on my parents' driveway.

The point of all that? I don't have the first clue. Perhaps it was part of my planned long post on the summer of love 2006. Never got around to that post, and now the moment is gone. Sorry. If you are desperate, I'll give you the short version: we went to lots of weddings and other events (bachelor parties, reunions)all over the country last summer. Very exciting.

So, a little entertainment commentary. If only because I've been to the theater more times in the last three weeks than in the previous two years, and because we watched this year's Best Picture on Saturday night.

The first was Smokin' Aces. We didn't plan on seeing Smokin' Aces, but Smokin' Aces it was. The wife and I had a date, an honest to God date. We got a babysitter and everything. The plan, as it was a Friday during Lent, was to go to a nice Italian restaurant for some seafoody pasta, and then go see a movie. But not just any movie, we were going to see Amazing Grace. Indeed, Amazing Grace was the whole point of the affair, we had planned it all just to see that movie on the night it opened. Well, perhaps we did not quite plan it all. Rather, we got a babysitter, and that was about all the planning we managed.

As it was a Friday night in a busy area, we deftly made no reservations for the restaurant, and the hour wait would have made us late for the movie. We went to the theater to pick up the tickets and saw that the movie started 20 minutes earlier than the webpage had said two days before, so we were even more strapped for time to eat. We bought the tickets and hustled over to Panera (yep) for dinner, then got back to the theater in time for the movie. There we discovered that they had put the film that was opening that day in one of the smallest theaters out of the 24 in the multiplex. So there were about seven seats left in the place, and 6.5 of them were in the very front row, about six feet from the base of a rather large screen.

To review: Plan: Nice Italian restaurant and Amazing Grace. Reality: Panera and Smokin' Aces.

The movie? We weren't really in the mood, to put it mildly, but it was well-acted, very violent, occasionally funny, and mostly entertaining--like Tarantino before he got weird (a phrase that makes no sense, until you think about it). Plus Ben Affleck doesn't last long, so that was nice.

He does have a Boston accent though, which was a reminder that he was a welcome omission from the ensemble cast of The Departed. A quick detour to a review I wrote but never posted of last year's Best Picture:

On Crash. I know lots of people loved the movie, so you can take or leave this quick review. The dialogue was well-written and well-delivered. Ludacris was good (much to Bill O'Reilly's dismay), like everyone I love Don Cheadle, and I'll join the chorus in declaring that Terrence Howard is well on his way to becoming one of our great actors. Matt Dillon almost made me forget that he is Johnny Drama's brother, and Brendan Fraser has jettisoned the preening self-importance of his younger years. They even found a perfect role for the increasingly shrill and severe-looking Sandra Bullock (if she gets her eyes pulled back any further they are going to touch in the back of her head).

I'm no fan of Los Angeles. I don't speak from personal experience--I haven't spent any real time there--but how nice can a place be when the people who live there make a habit (and their careers) out of explaining how terrible it is? True, entertainment dwells on the fringes, but after so many Training Day's and Boyz in the Hood's and Grand Canyon's and Born in East LA's and LA Confidential's and LA Story's one has to wonder why anyone in their right mind would live there. At least New Yorkers assuage they're own misery from living in that over-populated-and-dangerous-yet-impersonal-and-expensive box with the myth of their collective toughness (see Spiderman and 25th Hour). Heck, New Yorkers even write love stories to their hometown--You've Got Mail is one of many recent examples.

That said, Crash takes the Angelino self-flagellation to levels that even this midwestern rube can't buy. I'm not saying the hatred and stereotyping portrayed in the movie is made up. Indeed, the brilliance of the film is that it tapped into a very real phenonmenon. People do not get along in big cities, especially those cities on those coasts. Traffic is terrible and dangerous, service is unfriendly and indifferent, and everything is crowded. People shiver from the chill of everyday social relations. Everyone sucks. But saying everyone sucks is nowhere near as satisfying a release of frustration as breaking down the aggregate suckitude into smaller groups of allegedly more specific qualities of suckiness.

Race is an obvious and disturbingly satisfying way to break down those groups. In contemporary America there is a naughty but very real release to racial jokes, because now everyone knows they are wrong even if they seem right. That's the genius of Dave Chapelle. He makes us laugh at our own stereotypes and stereotyping because his jokes remind us that they are not true. White people don't hate black people because black people do black things, just like black people don't hate Asian people because they do Asian things, just like, well, you get the idea. Everybody hates (loves) everyone because they do people things. Hating (loving) everyone isn't really racism, is it?

Crash has it exactly backwards—it is a throwback to a time when everyone was outwardly racist because they didn't know it is wrong.

It wasn’t the Best Picture, it was a Chapelle Show skit that didn’t get the joke.
If I had to pick between Best Pictures, The Departed wins by a mile. It gets what it is and doesn't go past that. It is a thriller, a drama, and a bit of mystery, but let's be honest, it's not particularly exceptional as a thriller, drama, or mystery. Even the acting was pretty mediocre, with the exceptions of Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin, who were great. We all know the Oscars were lifetime achievement awards for Scorsese. That's fine, it was the perfect year for it, since 2006 was the single worst year for movies that I can remember. The best movie I saw was Casino Royale, which was also the highest rated on Rotten Tomatoes from last year.

I have not seen everything, not by a mile, but over the last two years there have been very few movies that have stood out as good or great. One was Batman Begins, which was haunting and exciting and finally captured what is gripping about that story. I love that movie, but I do not think it was the best picture of the last two years.

That honor belongs to Star Wars, Episode III, Revenge of the Sith. That's right, I said it, Revenge of the Sith was the best movie of 2005 and a better than anything released in 2006, too. George Lucas burned up so much goodwill with the kiddie themes, overreliance on computer animation, bulky dialogue, and creaky plots of first two movies that it was hard to see the episode III for what it was when it came out. Nor did the terrible acting in episode II help, especially from the hopelessly creepy Hayden Christensen and the bloodless Natalie Portman. But upon further review, and with more than a little detachment from the first two episodes, it is clear that episode III was something very near great. Some of the dialogue is still awful, and Portman is still out of her Garden State element, but those flaws are only evident if you are really watching for them, if the viewer is listening for bad dialogue and intent on finding bad performances.

Revenge of the Sith had all the hallmarks of a great tragedy, careening along to John Williams' masterful score toward the inevitiable conclusion, while all the while we are hoping it doesn't come to that. Watch that movie again as a stand alone prequel to the original trilogy--forget pod races and stupid aliens and creepy romances. Just watch. Then tell me that movie isn't better--more entertaining and more compelling--than Crash or Brokeback Mountain or Little Miss Sunshine or The Departed or anything else that has been released over the last two years. (Not incidentally, it is nearly impossible to find a movie over the last two years that in some way does not try to comment on current politics, which I think lies near the root of the terrible spate of films in that time. Even the few lines of bad dialogue in episode III are bad precisely because of this tendency.)

Which brings us to 300, another movie in my recent theater-going extravaganza. There are plenty of reviews out there, but I think this one and a couple of comments from Victor Davis Hanson are pretty much on target. I wouldn't call it a great movie, but it is very good, in large part because despite all the ridiculous efforts by critics to drag the present into the plot, 300 is clearly not about now. It is an escape, a glorious escape, from the grinding relentlessness of 24 hour opinion and news (in that order). That, it seems to me, is why the movie has proven so popular. It deserves the popularity. Hopefully, the rest of Hollywood will get the message.

(Oh yeah, I said three movies. The third was Bridge to Terebithia. The wife had a woman-gathering at the house on Tuesday, so I made an escape with the boys and Uncle Ren. I mistakenly thought Bridge to Terebitha was a fantasy movie, because that's how they advertised it. It's not. It is a movie about kids in school and bullies and all that stuff, kind of like one of the non-smutty Judy Blume books. It's also set in some kind of 1970s + Today world, which is odd. The best way to describe it is as My Girl with just the tiniest sprinkling of The Chronicles of Narnia. All that said, it's actually pretty good, if a little sad and not right at all for keeping the attention of a one year old.)

Have a nice weekend. Go watch a movie or two.

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