Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On Blu-ray and downloading videos

I had planned to follow my Christmas tradition of buying myself a nice present during the after-Christmas sales, and finally break down and get a Blu-ray video player. Obviously, we're being pretty tight with our money now, so that idea is out the window for the time being.

I've always been an early adopter of video technology. I bought a laser-disc player back in the 1980s, when less than 2 percent of homes had one. The first digital video format was not a bad one, although the discs were expensive ($40-$50 each) and you had to flip them once or more during a typical length movie.

Then I bought a DVD player in 1999, just a few months after they came out, even though they were overpriced -- I think mine was $500.

But I resisted investing in the next generation of video until the format war between Blu-ray and HD DVD was resolved. I didn't want to be stuck with hundreds of dollars worth of obsolete discs. For example, just before moving to Indiana in 2005, I sold all my laserdiscs on Ebay, typically getting just a few pennies on the dollar for what I paid for them.

But even when HD DVD suddenly folded nearly a year ago, I've hesitated to jump on Blu-ray. Part was the expense, with even discounted players going for $300 and up, and discs typically priced at about a 50 percent markup from regular DVDs. But I kept reading (and as a reporter, writing) about how the industry people think that the next big jump is going to be to downloading video.

I still don't buy that argument, for several reasons.

First of all, unless you're content to have a low-res version of the movie that only looks good on a two- or three-inch screen, it takes a honking long time to download a movie -- several hours, in most cases. Yes, it's cool to travel on a plane and watch a movie on your little MP3 player. But I think most serious videophiles feel that if they're going to own a movie permanently, they want to be able to watch it on the biggest screen and with the best sound possible. And the download speeds aren't a function of technology, but a limitation of the nationwide high-speed cable system. You would have to effectively rip the whole thing up and start over. So download times aren't going to decrease significantly any time soon.

Second, virtually everyone has experienced the tragedy of having a computer hard disk fried or dropping their iPhone into a toilet. If all your movies are stored digitially, there's a greater chance of them being lost permanently than with a physical object like a DVD. How would like to have bought a bunch of movies from the iTunes store for $12-$15 each, and then a lightning strike renders them null and void?

Third, most folks just like having the physical object -- they can display it on a bookshelf, admire the cover art, and take them with them wherever they go. "Hey, it's movie night at Bernie's. What are we watching?" "I dunno, just grab a bunch of DVDs and we'll choose." There's more of a psychological sense of ownership with something you can touch.

Fourth, storage space on even huge disk drives can be filled up quickly with digital copies of movies. Even the low-res flicks I've rented from iTunes take up about one gigabyte each. A high-def version is more like seven or eight gigs. I have about 250 DVDs in my collection; how much do you think a two terabyte drive would cost me -- about the size of a typical academic research library?

I believe that Blu-ray will eventually become the new video standard once the price on players and discs drops a bit more. Especially since regular DVDs will play on them, so there's no need to replace your current collection.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The power of pink

Since we got married in April, things have been very smooth between Jean and I. People think we're joking when we say that in three-plus years together, we've never had a real argument. But we do have "discussions" in which we express our differences, which any two people who enter nuptials for the first time in their late thirties are bound to have. Probably the most frequent topic has been vacuum cleaners.

I inherited from the gal I bought my house from a Kirby 2000, which is supposed to be a very high-end vacuum that costs over $1,000 new. Even old used ones on Ebay go for a few hundred bucks. It's a self-propelling vacuum, with a motorized assist for going both forward and backward. I love it, but Jean complains that it smells. That's probably because I don't empty the bag often enough, but my wife's sense of smell approaches near-Superman levels, so stinkiness is high on her list of beefs. So anything that gets hit with the "it smells" tag is likely branded for life.

She also didn't like my old Dirt Devil because it falls over unless you've got a hand on it. A pretty big design flaw, I'll grant you, but to me the solution seemed obvious: don't let go of it.

Our problems were solved on Christmas morning by a gift of one of those fancy Dyson vacuums you see in TV commercials starring the designer, who's a nice British guy but seems to be a bit of a wanker.

The thing is amazing. Its no-suction-loss feature is as good as advertised. After vacuuming one bedroom, it was filled with an astonishing amount of pet hair and crud. And we just steam-cleaned the carpets a few weeks ago.

And the thing rivals Apple for the sleek, ergonomically-friendly design. I love how it empties -- you pull on a hook, and the bottom opens up, dumping everything out.

There's only one drawback -- it's pink.

Yes, I am now the co-owner of a hot pink vacuum cleaner. It apparently was a special Breast Cancer Awareness edition -- although what breast cancer and vacuum cleaners have to do with each other is beyond me. Anyway, no one wanted to own a pink vacuum cleaner, which is why it was discounted heavily enough that our kind benefactor was able to buy one as a gift.

I guess it's not a big deal, since what guests are going to see your vacuum? Still, since vacuuming is on my list of household duties, I'll be the main user of the Pink Wonder.

Also, if anyone's interested in a good deal on a used Kirby 2000...

Monday, December 29, 2008

Top 10 Films of 2008

Here's my list. For now, it's only a list; you'll have to check my published links later this week to see all the whys and wherefores.

One caveat: the only major picture I didn't see was "Frost/Nixon," which for whatever reason the studios declined to screen for the Indianapolis critics (all three of us).

  1. Wall·E
  2. Slumdog Millionaire
  3. The Reader
  4. Traitor
  5. Marley & Me
  6. Iron Man
  7. Frozen River
  8. Defiance
  9. Changeling
  10. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Whatever happened to Whit Stillman?

I was watching "Barcelona" last night and wondering about the fate of writer/director Whit Stillman. He made three literate, urbane films during the 1990s (the other two were "Metropolitan" and "The Last Days of Disco") and then just disappeared.

Some filmmakers can crank out a film a year without any problems (or more if you're Clint Eastwood), while others like Stillman need more time for their creative juices to marinate. But it's been 10 years since his last film.

Stillman's movies were never blockbusters, but then never were Woody Allen's, and he keeps up a frantic pace.

One of the most frequent criticisms I level against films is that the dialogue "sounds written." Some people thought this about Stillman, but I would contend that he wasn't writing stiff dialogue; he was writing dialogue for stiff characters. Stillman's movies were populated by blue-blood types who used big words and complex sentence structures in their speech. The artiface was part of their identity -- they wanted to come across as witty and smart.

There's reports that Stillman is working on an adaptation of Christopher Buckley's novel "Little Green Men." Let's hope Stillman ends his long hiatus.

Three new reviews

Check the list of links to the left for reviews of "Doubt," "The Reader" and "I'ved Loved You So Long."

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Fried chicken and Florida thoughts

I consider myself a Southerner, even though I have virtually no accent and was born and raised in Orlando, which is the Fake South. You can always tell a Southern writer because they insist that the "S" be capitalized.

It's interesting to grow up in a place where you are one of the very few people who spent your whole life there. Orlando is the ultimate transient town, a place where nobody is from but everybody visits. It's a big city, but not a huge one. There's a decent amount of cultural stuff to do and sports, and it certainly has big-city traffic. Floridians hate to pay taxes to build new roads, which is why when a new highway is built, it is invariably a toll road.

We used to laugh at the tourists who showed up with their fresh-bought shorts and 500-watt white legs. Growing up in O'do makes you good at not standing out in a strange place, since to us that is the worst sort of embarrassment.

Today I made fried chicken for the first time ever. People from up north never understand what the big deal is about fried chicken. (See, a Southerner would never capitalize the north. There are no Northerners ... just "Yankees.") The thing is that it's the most universally beloved food there. White people, black people, poor and rich -- everybody loves fried chicken.

Mine turned out OK. It tasted great, although it didn't look quite as pretty as the stuff you get at a chicken place. And I think I'll be wiping up oil splatters for the next week and a half.

But at least I can call myself a bonafide Southerner who makes his own fried chicken -- even if it was only once.

"Pride of the Yankees"

Catching up on an old classic I'd missed, I watched "Pride of the Yankees" yesterday, with Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig.

It was good, though very dated. The acting style is very 1942, with lots of rapid-patter dialogue and what today would be considered stilted delivery. You always expect some character to say, "Oh, a wise guy, see?"

Cooper was better than I expected, playing a character who was depicted as a straitlaced "boob," to use the parlance of the cynical younger reporter. I was surprised by the depiction of Gehrig's friendship with an older sportswriter played by Walter Brennan. The hack pals around with the baseball player, and happily demurs from writing about his personal life when Gehrig asks him to. Can you imagine that sort of relationship between a journalist and a pro athlete today?

I rather liked Teresa Wright as Mrs. Gehrig. She's a real firecracker, to again use the terminology of the time. Although once they get hitched, she immediately becomes less interesting. I think that's the way America, and certainly Hollywood, saw women back then: once they get married, they give up their own life to be a wife and mother.

One of my favorite games to play is to spot character actors in roles in different movies. When I saw the tiny little man playing Gehrig's father with a thick European (German?) accent, I immediately pegged him as the husband half of the couple in "Casablanca" who practice their newfound English on Humphrey Bogart in preparation for moving to America: "What watch?" "10 watch." "Such watch!"

Turns out I was right, and the actor's name is Ludwig Stossel. I thought that Elsa Janssen, the woman playing the mother, was also the same actress who played Stossel's wife in "Casablanca," but it's not.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Open thread -- what's your favorite holiday movie this year?

I'm hoping to generate more comments on this site, so I thought I'd open up a thread for you all to chime in.

So what holiday season movie have you seen that blew you away?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Not quite on the "Button"

Age makeup is one of those travesties of serious movies that never seems to get any better, no matter how much cinematic technology has advanced. Actors and actresses who are supposed to age 30 or 40 years for a role always emerge looking like they'd been attacked by a Silly Putty machine. Sometimes the transformations are so unconvincing, they evoke laughter. I still laugh when I think about Bette Midler in "For the Boys." She looked like Jonah eaten by the whale, and spit out half-digested.

They finally got it right with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," in which Brad Pitt is born an 80-something man and ages in reverse. Using computer-generated effects (in some cases with Pitt's face projected on other actors) as well as makeup, the journey backward in time is never less than convincing. Cate Blanchett, as the love of his life Daisy, also gets excellent treatment, first seen as an elderly woman on her death bed, with flashbacks showing her as a luminous young woman, and then slowly aging forward.

Director David Fincher uses the aging effects without ever getting hung up on them. But on a visceral level, the movie fails to make a huge impact.

Oh, Pitt and Blanchett give competent turns. It's just that Benjamin as a character -- well, doesn't have much character. He's a more or less passive presence, bouncing through life listening to others and not making much of his own statement. During his adventures he travels the ocean blue, meets colorful characters ranging from an Irish tugboat captain to an African pygmy. But he remains mostly a cypher upon which others transmit their experiences.

It's a long movie -- tagging in at just under three hours. I can't say as it ever dragged, but I would be lying if I said I was entirely unconscious of the passage of time -- Benjamin's, and my own.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is like an unexpected guest who drops by, is an amusing but enigmatic presence, and then departs without much trace to mark his passing.

2.5 stars out of four.

The Captain's got the Christmas scoop!

Check out the published links to the left for full reviews of two of the major holiday movies, and watch that space in the coming days for a couple more!

The Captain came down sick on Christmas morning, which is unfortunately a trend for me, but we still plan to make it to Benjamin Button. I'll have a review of that up later today.

Neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor snot nor Yuletide fun will hinder the flow of snark!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Two great performances, but a lot of "Doubt" about where this movie's going

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“Doubt” is one of those movies that is splendidly acted, beautifully shot, emotionally affecting – and yet its internal logic withers in the brutal sunray of reason.

It’s a story about a man who is accused of something, something particularly vile, and yet he’s presented as being so good and virtuous, and his antagonists so petty and spiteful, that we’re directed to place our hopes with him. But because he behaves like someone who’s guilty – refusing to answer even the simplest questions – the audience is left feeling pulled and torn.

Are we supposed to really wonder whether Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is guilty of molesting a boy in his parish? The Pulitzer-winning stage drama is more circumspect, dropping incriminating hints, so the audience is left with … well, doubt about his motives.

But the film eschews shades of gray, setting up the conflict between Father Flynn and the fire-breathing harpy of a chief nun, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, as a battle between good and evil, modernity and hidebound tradition, progressive inclusiveness versus xenophobic mistrust.

It’s McCarthyism played out in black robes and rosaries.

As Sister Aloysius, Meryl Streep dominates the film as she’s never done before, thundering her accusations through the nasal megaphone of a Brooklyn accent. The children at St. Nicholas Church School tremble at the sound of her passing, and the other nuns are not much better off: at dinner, they even stop and start their bites at the ringing of her table bell.

Amy Adams plays the young and impressionable Sister James, who naturally identifies with Father Flynn’s open-hearted ways, but is susceptible to Sister Aloysius’ stern prodding. She wonders why the priest pays such special attention to Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), who in 1964 is the only black student at the school. When the boy returns to Sister James’ class from a conference with Father Flynn in a disturbed state, it sets off a chain reaction that leads to a showdown between priest and nun – without a shred of concrete evidence ever being presented.

Viola Davis plays the boy’s mother, whose go-along-to-get-along attitude is shocking in its seeming indifference to Donald’s long-term psychological health. A few years later, a soldier employing the same sort of logic would defend the need to destroy a village in order to save it.

John Patrick Shanley is the playwright, screenwriter and director, so the strengths and weaknesses of the film rest on his shoulders. The movie is gorgeous to gaze upon (the inestimable Roger Deakins is cinematographer), and the look of everything from the clergy vestments to the spotless but well-worn school breathes with authenticity.

Shanley has a knockout cast, and he certainly doesn’t let them go to waste. The scenes between Hoffman and Streep virtually hum with energy.

But ultimately, “Doubt” is a movie that is pointing its audience off in one direction while it toddles away in another. It raises compelling questions without even attempting cogent answers.

Early on, Father Flynn gives a sermon where he praises the role of doubt, since it's in questioning our faith that we cause it to take root. That may be true in theology, but not movie-making.

2.5 stars out of four

Go, Margot, go ... please, just go

You ever missed a movie at theaters, even though you meant to see it, and then you finally caught up with it on video, and it was so wonderful you kicked yourself for waiting so long to check it out?

"Margot at the Wedding" isn't like that.

This black comedy (I think) stars Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh as estranged sisters who reunite for the latter's wedding, to an unemployed loser played by Jack Black. (Although, given the current situation, it's probably not best for me to imply a correlation between the lack of a job and loserdom.)

It was 88 minutes of unbelievable characters doing unbelievable things. I didn't for a minute buy that any of these people could exist in the real world. They were total literary constructions. Everything they said sounded written.

"Margot" is from writer/director Noah Baumbauch, the guy behind "The Squid and the Whale," another tale of disintegrating families, with the children serving as witnesses to the poor behavior of the ostensible grownups. That movie was actually pretty good, although it had one of those endings that thinks it's all European and arty and ambiguous, when in fact the story just stops arbitrarily. This one, too, although we had checked out long before.

Why Christmas is such a big day for movies

People are continually surprised when they find out that Christmas is one of the busiest times for movies -- not just the holiday season, but Christmas Day specifically.

As someone who spent his high school years and college summers working at a movie theater, I can attest to the truth of this. The early show would be fairly light, but by 2 or 3 p.m., crowds started showing up in droves. Christmas night was always mammoth.

Why? Let me tell you.

First of all, because a lot of movies come out right around Christmas -- during this year, on Christmas Day -- and they're generally the films that Hollywood has ambitions for. They want to win Oscars and receive plaudits. So, as a quick-and-dirty rule, some of the best movies of the year are hitting screens. With a wide menu to choose from, it's more likely that most people will find at least one flick they want to see.

Second: Because, well, there's not a lot to do on Christmas after the presents are opened and the ham is eaten. Kids will grow bored of even new toys after several hours of continuous play. There's usually some sports on TV, but it's not all day.

Third: People often travel to see family for the holiday. And even though families like to spend time together, it's usually preferable in small doses. People can only go so many hours before old arguments or bad feelings rise to the top. Going to the movies is a way to do something "together," but not really interact. Including travel time, it's like a three-hour vacation from your vacation.

We'll be going to see "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" tomorrow. It's the only big movie coming out that I haven't seen. (There was a screening last week for it, but it was at the same time as "Marley & Me," and I was being paid to review that, so...) We're not traveling this year, or hosting anyone, so rule #3 doesn't apply in our case, in case you were wondering.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

There's a hole in my life ... well, just my foot

I've had an amazing amount of doctor appointments over the last few weeks. One of the things you do when your health insurance is about to expire is use it up as much as you can -- stock up on prescriptions, get the teeth cleaned, order new glasses, etc.

One of the things I did was to get a growth on my foot removed. My wife Jean said it's a plantar wart, and the podiatrist agreed, offering to either burn it off with several treatments of acid, or cut it out. I said to cut it, since who knew if my coverage would lapse before the little bugger was completely burned away. The doc also said surgery was the best way to ensure it stays gone.

I thought this would be a minor little thing, but it's turned out to be quite an invasive and painful procedure. I was left with a hole about the size of a dime, and amazingly deep. I knew I was in for more than I'd bargained when the doc prescribed painkillers.

Anyway, the last 12 days have been an ordeal of changing dressings, soaking my foot in salt water, and generally hobbling around like an arthritic troll. Only within the last day or so have I been able to walk somewhat normally.

I've included a nice juicy picture for your enjoyment!

The Captain takes to the airwaves

I'll be appearing on John Strauss' radio show on WIBC Wednesday, Dec. 24, just after 5 p.m. to talk about the new holiday movies. That's 93.1 on your FM dial for the city's top talk station.

I've been on the show once or twice before. John and I are both Indy Star "formers," although he left of his own accord earlier this year to work at Ball State U., while continuing his radio show. It was a great loss to the Star, along with many others as of late.

Tune in!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

One that got away

"Let the Right One In" is the little vampire movie that could, but I missed it. And since it only stuck around in Indianapolis for one week, I'm guessing a lot of other people did, too.

This movie about a little boy who becomes friends with a girl who apparently is a vampire has been getting rave reviews. I first read about it in "Newsweek" from the inestimable critic David Ansen, and have been meaning to see it ever since.

But readers of this blog will remember what a crazy week last week was, with one, two and even three screenings of new movies every day. So I didn't have time to make it to the only theater playing "Right One," thinking it would surely stay around awhile. I was wrong.

Indy gets most of the notable independent films that come out, but is by no means a top-tier market for them. If a movie doesn't make bank immediately, it may not stick around.

Since Ron Keedy closed up shop at Key Cinemas (although he may come back in another venue), there's only one cinema in town that regularly plays independent and foreign fare. And even they have increasingly filled their screens with mainstream films like "The Dark Knight" and such.

The lesson is simple: If we expect a varied menu of films to keep coming to our town, and staying around long enough, audiences have to go when a good one does come. Otherwise, "Let the Right One In" and other diamonds in the rough may never get seen here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Four Christmases" not bad

It may surprise you to learn that I do not see every movie that comes out. Indianapolis gets about five to six new movies every week, and I see about half. Some I see for work, some I see because I want to, and some I skip entirely.

There consists another category: flicks I kinda wanted to see, but not bad, and unless the wife and I make an effort to go, we're probably going to miss it.

"Four Christmases" falls into this latter category. We went to see it last night at the theater about five minutes (if that) from our house, and I was pleasantly surprised. Motormouthed Vince Vaughn stole the show with his hyper-fast spiel.

I wonder how much of what he says is actually in the script, and how much is ad-libbed. There's no way any writer could mimic Vaughn's stream-of-consciousness routine, so I have to believe the script serves as the bones, and he adds layers upon it.

Reese Witherspoon, who's usually such a distinct screen presence, kind of ends up on the vanilla side here. She's the girlfriend, she has issues with her parents too, but compared to Vaughn she's just the sidekick.

And what a cast as the parents: Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek and Jon Voight -- Oscar winners, all. It's interesting how some big-name actors reach a certain age and just disappear, while others slide comfortably into grandparent/wise man roles. It seems like Voight's in every other thriller these days, playing some bureaucratic tool who lays down the law. A good example of an actor currently transitioning from leading to supporting roles is Dustin Hoffman.

Anyway, "Four Christmases" is certainly not a great movie, but it's fairly funny and the gooey parts don't last too long.

2.5 stars out of four

Friday, December 19, 2008

"Seven Pounds" teases it out

It's rare to see a movie with as much patience as "Seven Pounds." It'll be interesting to see if audiences are willing to wait around as long as the filmmakers.

Will Smith, who I think can make a movie where he does nothing but read classified ads and still get a $30 million opening, plays a mystery man named Ben Thomas. He's an IRS agent who goes around auditing people, but he's much more sensitive and emotional than a nondescript fed. For example, when he discovers that the head of a nursing home isn't treating his elderly charges well, Ben becomes upset and berates the manager, and refuses to grant the extension he'd been asking for.

Oh, one other thing: all of the people Ben deals with have some kind of dire medical problem.

It's a strange, though ultimately endearing performance by Smith. With his dorky bureaucrat haircut and nondescript suit, Ben is polite and kind of shy, flashing a mysterious smile when anyone tries to corner him with questions about himself. Flashbacks indicate there's some kind of tragedy that happened in Ben's life, but we're not sure what.

One of the people he meets is Emily, who's waiting on a heart transplant. She's played by Rosario Dawson in a moving breakout performance. She clings to Ben, calling him when she ends up in the hospital, and it's clear she's trying to get him to fall for her. Yet there's never anything sad or pathetic about what she's doing. You get the sense this is how Emily would pursue a guy even if she wasn't on the brink of death. I loved the scene where she tells Ben that before her heart grew weak, she was "un-auditably hot." This is an Oscar-worthy turn.

Director Gabriele Muccino and screenwriter Grant Nieporte take their time teasing out the final mystery, although on-the-ball audience members should probably figure it out beforehand. Even for those who do, the emotional high point is worth the wait, as the movie builds and builds and builds to its fateful ending.

Oh, and if you're wondering about the title, it's never overtly explained in the movie, although you'll probably understand the reference after it's over.

Three stars out of four.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Valkyrie doesn't soar

"Valkyrie" has been one of the most discussed movies over the last couple of years, and not just relating to star Tom Cruise's up-and-down fortunes among the chattering masses. Word has been out that the production has been troubled, with delays in its release and reshoots to fix the problems.

You can never totally count on such talk -- "Jaws" and "Titanic" both had famously troubled shoots, yet resulted in terrific, huge hits. But more often than not, such movies don't turn out so great.

"Valkyrie" will end up in the latter category, although it's certainly not a bad film. There's plenty of tension as Cruise, playing a noble German army officer, leads an attempt to assassinate Hitler.

You'll have to wait until next week for me to link the full review. (In case you were wondering about this practice, studios get very testy when reviews are published prior to a film's release.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Top 10 List growing

I already saw "The Reader" and "The Wrestler" today, and I would say both have a pretty good shot at my list of Top 10 Films of 2008.

Look for full reviews later on. In the interim, I'll just say that "The Reader" is probably the most erotic movie I've seen this year. And Mickey Rourke delivers a powerhouse in "The Wrestler."

Good/bad audiences at promo screenings

Beggars can't be choosers, and the small, motley crew of local film critics often has no choice but to attend promotional screenings in order to get a review published when the movie opens. Screenings exclusively for the press are few and far between normally (although, as per my earlier post, there a lot this week for the Oscar-contending films).

So that means most of the time we have to deal with huge crowds who are seeing the movie for free. They're excited, they're desperate for free T-shirts and other promotional stuff passed out at these things, and they're not always on their best behavior.

At a screening of "The Tale of Despereaux" last week, I had to repeatedly shush the people next to me -- and they were about the only adults there who didn't have a small child with them.

There are hassles large and small. The radio and other media outlets who generally host these things always give away way more tickets than they have seats. So that means on a hot movie, it can be hard to get a spot. There are studio reps who are supposed to set aside a few seats for the critics, but sometimes it just doesn't happen. I try to show up at least 20 minutes early for promos and I've never not gotten a seat, but I've come close a few times.

So to those attending these promos: Yes, I understand you're juiced to be there. Please come and enjoy the movie, along with the critics and everyone else. But don't talk to your friends, make calls on your cell, or shift around like a hyperactive monkey. And for Pete's sake, if you have a baby who starts crying or a small kid who gets fussy and/or talkative, vamoose to the lobby immediately.

Here endeth the lesson.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Milk is good ... not great

"Milk" has been getting over-the-top reviews in some circles, but not here. It's a good, solid, somewhat stolid biopic with a terrific (Oscar-caliber) performance from Sean Penn.

Penn fully inhabits the character of Harvey Milk, who was elected a San Francisco city supervisor in 1978 -- the first openly gay elected official in the U.S., it is believed. Penn's Milk is a charismatic but flawed figure, who gets what he wants through needling and, when necessary, some overtly political maneuvering. When the mayor jokingly tells Harvey he sounds like Boss Tweed or Richard Daley -- not exactly a compliment to be likened to two of democracy's seediest politicians -- Harvey is pleased, noting what a thrill it is to have a homosexual wielding political power.

Milk can be flirtatious and conniving, but ultimately his dreams are, by today's standards, fairly benign: he wants gay people to be accepted, or at least tolerated, and believe that there's nothing sick or wrong about them. It'd be interesting to know what he thinks of today's push for gay marriage rights.

"Milk" the movie arrives at just the right time in the national zeitgeist, debuting a month after a California statewide proposition again outlawed homosexuals from marrying, after the state supreme court briefly declared them valid.

I'll be candid in saying that I think a lot of critics' sentiments for this film are tied up in a larger issue that likely was never a glimmer in Harvey Milk's mind. Gay culture has largely reveled in eschewing traditional straight culture, and it's only within the last decade that a large segment has demanded their right to marital union. Let's not make the mistake of conflating what Harvey Milk might have done had he not been assassinated with what he did achieve during his lifetime.

Director Gus Van Sant has spent most of the last few years making strange little experimental films like "Elephant" and "Gerry" that most people did not care to see. (Here's my 12-word review of "Elephant": A powerful 20-minute short film interrupted by an hour of walking.) He returns to traditional narrative filmmaking with gusto, and adheres to the formulas with too much obedience. The swelling music as Harvey leads a street protest, a touching scene where he connects with a stranger, the use of actual video footage to lend the events veracity -- we've seen it done a million times before, with singers, generals and writers, and now we're seeing it done with a gay politician. It's Hagiography 101.

I can't end this review without a word about Harvey's second boyfriend Jack, a spacey Latino who just sort of shows up one day and is living with him and hanging off him the next. The character (played by Diego Luna) has absolutely no substance or depth. He exists in the story for only one reason, so that we can see him come to a tragic end. Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black make no attempt whatsoever to flesh him out, or even make him plausible.

I give "Milk" three stars out of four.

Insane screening week

One of the few good things about being unemployed -- OK, the only good thing -- is the ability to catch all the movie screenings I normally would miss. And this week has been a doozy.

Starting on Friday, there has been at least one screening a day every day except Sunday, and this will continue through this Friday. On Wednesday alone, I will see "The Reader," "The Wrestler" and "Valkyrie."

Most of these are for the big "prestige" pictures that are hoping to pick up Oscar nominations and appear on critics' Top 10 Lists.

I'll be doing a Top 10 this year, although who knows if anyone will print it. You can definitely read it here; it should be ready in a couple of weeks.

At this point, "Wall-E" is still tops on my list, followed by "Slumdog Millionaire." I've already seen "Defiance," which was quite good and will probably make the list, and "Revolutionary Road," which was disappointing. Two hours of two miserable people trying to make the audience miserable.

Also a near miss was "Doubt," which features some great acting from Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but its internal logic is bent.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Yes, I am the "I am a newspaperman" guy

Since the layoff that hit the Indianapolis Star (along with many other newspapers) cost me my job on Dec. 3, I've gotten lots of inquiries asking if I am the "I am a newspaperman" guy. And yes, yes I am.

They're referring to Jim Hopkins' well-read Gannett Blog, in which he covers the company he (and now I) used to work for. I was a regular reader of Gannett Blog, if for no other reason to learn news about my employer, though I rarely if ever made any comments on the site.

I did make a rather lengthy post the day I got laid off. Jim had asked for people getting the pink slip to report on the circumstances of their layoff. So I put in my two bits. Jim liked it enough that he broke it out as a separate post that got a lot of traffic and comments:

For whatever reason, the first sentence and my name got cut off when it became a separate post, which led to the question about my authorship. A number of people from the Indy Star asked me if I wrote it, since it seemed to be in my writing style. Anyways, I did, and I did put my name on it -- in some ways, I consider it my final byline for the Star.

You can see there's a link early in Jim's breakout post that leads you back to my original, complete comment, including my name. Here it is:

So anyway, you can see that I did not hide my comments behind a veil of anonymity. Yes, I am the "Newspaper Man." Well, I was.

UPDATE: As you can see from the comments section, Jim dropped by to let us know he updated his post, so my name is now on both. Thanks, Jim!

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen...

More than 15 years ago, a professor asked me if I wanted to be a film critic, why didn't I just start writing reviews and look for newspapers and other outlets to publish them?

It sounded great, but I was young and still attached to that whole idea of a weekly paycheck. Better, I thought, to get a job at a newspaper and weasel my way into doing film criticism.

Well, it worked out for a while -- thousands of film reviews and other articles later, I've won awards, gotten some attention, had my stuff quoted in movie ads.

So now that I've gotten (imho) pretty darn good at it, the only slight hitch was my newspaper job going away in early December 2008. Yeah, yeah, cry me a river, I know, thousands of other people are losing newspaper jobs.

So now here I am, doing the critic thing in a different venue. I'll be posting my film reviews, articles and thoughts here, both stuff that's printed in some newspapers -- I've got a few clients, please visit their sites -- and my cybermusings.

So come around and help me live the dream ... minus the paycheck.