Sunday, December 27, 2009

The king of the world shows us a magnificent new one in Avatar

Perhaps the most breathtaking moment in James Cameron's Avatar – a movie that takes the breath from its awestruck audience with startling regularity – occurs roughly 45 minutes into the film. It introduces us to Neytiri, a blue-skinned warrior with amber-gold eyes and a supple 12-foot frame. Perched gracefully on a tree branch, Neytiri has spotted an intruder (who happens to be Jake Sully, our story's hero), and she moves silently to eliminate the threat. Pulling her bowstring taut, she is poised to strike when, suddenly, something catches her eye: a wispy, jellyfish-like organism, floating delicately in midair. The ethereal life form drifts toward Neytiri, eventually settling on the tip of her arrowhead. Neytiri, for reasons unknown to us at the time, takes this as an admonition of her combative instinct; she lowers her bow, and Jake Sully is allowed to live a little longer.

This is a beautiful scene. It takes place in complete silence (with the exception of James Horner's soft, reverent score), yet it constitutes a moment of both exquisite suspense (what will happen?) and slack-jawed wonder (just what are these creatures?), plus it effectively advances the movie's story. But the scene is particularly noteworthy because it is possible – indeed probable – that none of what we see was ever actually filmed, instead constructed within the confines of a computer. (I use the word "confines" loosely, as Avatar suggests that any alleged boundaries of computer-assisted filmmaking may in fact be illusory.) Yet watching the scene unfold, I never for a moment questioned the authenticity of Neytiri, the tree branch, or the wispy creature. I was simply transfixed on what was happening, wondering who this Amazonian was and why she suddenly refused to kill.













This is the genius of James Cameron. As cinematic technology restlessly evolves, moviemakers are gleefully delving into their new box of high-priced toys, anxious to commit their imagination to celluloid in ways not dreamed possible as recently as a decade ago. Yet this creative zeal frequently results in artistic overreaching. Michael Bay's colossal robots in the Transformers franchise doubtless represent impressive achievement, but they also loudly announce themselves as computer-generated contraptions. Watching them smash each other to bits, we know that they're binary creations, and this knowledge necessarily widens the gap between the viewer and the screen – special effects are a lot less special when they're clearly effects. The magic of the movies is that they can take us to new worlds and places, yet many directors are so excited to show us what they can do that they often forget to bring us along.

Cameron remembers why he's here. Avatar, with its gargantuan budget and heedless ambition, deigns to show us a world – called Pandora – that is in no way real. It has a toxic atmosphere. It is populated by giant blue forest-people, winged beasts called banshees, Triceratops-like herbivores, and countless other wholly fictional creatures. It houses a mineral called unobtanium (worth $20 million per kilo), not to mention millions of trees that are chemically interconnected to form a global network. It is a world that could only exist within someone's imagination. But Cameron's grasp of technology is so masterful, and his understanding of the moviegoing experience so acute, that he somehow makes it all real. When you watch Avatar – when you see Pandora, with its vibrant colorscape, lush vegetation, floating mountains, and oh-so-much more – you aren't a distant observer sitting in a theatre, looking up at a screen. You're there.













But Cameron also remembers why we're there: to behold a story. For all its wondrous modern advancements, cinema's primary purpose remains that of storytelling; filmmaking technique, no matter how spectacular, exists not for its own merit but to serve that purpose. And the story in Avatar is pretty darn good. The plot – in which the human Jake (played sturdily by Sam Worthington), a paraplegic, inhabits an alien body and gradually assimilates into the native population – certainly has plenty of narrative meat on its computer-enhanced bones. Cameron's script (hey, he writes too!) gives us a complex, three-dimensional protagonist; a stirring tale of redemption and self-discovery; a convincing, genuinely moving cross-cultural love story; a larger-than-life villain (a superb, scenery-chewing Stephen Lang); plenty of gripping adventure; and a healthy dosage of proselytizing.

That last element is one of Avatar's clunkier features. Cameron advances twin political themes of anti-imperialism and pro-environmentalism (I don't suppose anyone has ever promoted anti-environmentalism, but never mind), and his lobbying lacks the nuance and texture so characteristic of most of his filmmaking. But while such directness might have lent itself to sermonizing, Avatar's pace is so swift and its action so invigorating that it is utterly incapable of entangling itself in clumsy allegory. As a result, the politics complement the movie rather than stultify it.

It is also hardly the first action film with a political agenda, and in fact this is just one of its facets marking it as an old-fashioned epic. Make no mistake, Avatar is a landmark cinematic achievement – it truly is nothing we've ever seen before – but it is also cheerfully derivative. Jake's saga of absorption into a foreign enemy culture gently echoes that of Kevin Costner's character in Dances with Wolves, while the concept of jacking into an engineered body instantly recalls The Matrix. As the muscle-bound, no-frills colonel, Stephen Lang provides a more lethal incarnation of Robert Duvall's napalm-sniffing jingoist of Apocalypse Now, and the slowly gestating romance between Jake and Neytiri imitates the courtship in Last of the Mohicans, only with the genders reversed. Cameron even pilfers from himself (why not borrow from the best?): Soldiers encase themselves within hulking mechanical monsters and control their movements from within – a touch unmistakably reminiscent of the climactic fight sequence in Aliens – and there's even an homage to True Lies where a character finds himself clinging to a helicopter via a missile.

So we've seen much of this before. But originality is not a prerequisite of art, and just because various strands of Avatar recall those of other pictures should in no way mitigate the seminal, game-changing impact of this film. Significantly, the one movie it evokes more than any other in terms of sheer bravura is Star Wars (the game-changer of yesteryear), and what separates Avatar – what grants it its everpresent aura of astonishment – is its wondrous sense of majesty. We live in an era in which many directors can rightly declare themselves expert craftsmen, but Cameron matches that craftsmanship with a vision so bold that his film ascends to a singular, mythic grandeur. Pandora is a beautifully realized world, impeccably detailed and – more importantly – entirely new.

Cameron's crowning triumph is undoubtedly his creation of the Na'vi, the blue-skinned natives of Pandora's verdant forests, built via motion-capture technology of the how-the-fuck-do-they-do-that? variety. Until now, the multiplex's definitive motion-capture denizen was Gollum, the sinewy, shadowy spectre of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Well, imagine an entire tribe of Gollums, each with their individual physiques and facial expressions, all seamlessly camouflaged into the larger environment. That seamlessness is the key, as it allows us to appreciate the locals' strange beauty rather than distracting us with any obvious signs of architectural manipulation. Cameron's command of technology is so sure-handed that when we see that Na'vi, we aren't looking at digitized designs that were rendered in a lab – we're looking at people.

















Not that this exquisite level of detail is unique to the Na'vi. Cameron shows us dozens of fascinating creatures that inhabit Pandora, and each is magnificent in its own weird way. His terrestrials come in all shapes, sizes, and most of all colors, and Avatar's first major action set piece is an exhilarating, hyper-kinetic mad-dash in which Jake flees from a savage purple-tinged monster that seems to be a hybrid of a tyrannosaur and a walrus. (In yet another analogue, this scene recalls the pièce de résistance of Peter Jackson's King Kong). Not to be outdone is Pandora's winged population – Cameron has a keen reverence for the thrill of flight – spearheaded by a flaming-orange dragon-like beast called Toruk. Compared to him, the aforementioned banshees are lesser in stature but not in snarl, and the scene in which Jake attempts to bend a banshee to his will is yet another coup. Even the forest itself is a breathing, bioluminescent organism, radiating life from every plant, pond, and hollow. Everything coalesces in the movie's final battle sequence, a tour de force of technological filmmaking in which hundreds of winged creatures both animal and mechanical patrol the skies, each with a clear sense of space and dimension.













About that dimension, you may have heard that Avatar features one more than usual – that is, it takes place in 3-D. Now, I've been railing against 3-D in movies for years, my major complaint being that the technique is entirely gimmicky. Up till now, the primary intention of 3-D has been to startle audiences, typically through a pantomime in which objects are catapulted out from the screen and into the auditorium. (Case in point: The trailer for Piranha 3-D that played prior to Avatar concluded with a panicked gentleman swinging a chainsaw, almost as though he were trying to decapitate the unfortunate souls sitting in the theatre's front row.) That's fine for nine-year-olds watching the Muppets in Disney World, but when watching an actual movie, it operates only as a particularly onerous distraction. The best movies make us forget we're sitting in a theatre – they draw us in. Most 3-D films, so intent on bringing us closer to the action, paradoxically rob us of that crucial illusion of proximity; the gotcha-style trickery is so jolting that it actively removes us from the events on-screen.

But Cameron defies expectations yet again. The 3-D in Avatar, like the rest of the devices in Cameron's toolbox, serves to enhance the experience rather than detract from it. He doesn't send any poisoned arrows flying in our direction. Instead, he gently expands his canvas, building the frame outward, gradually pulling us into it. Consider the first time we see Jake: He's lying down, looking out at us, and his eyes focus on two tiny bubbles that suddenly combine to form a larger sphere. It's a seemingly insignificant moment, but the 3-D gives us a stronger sense of Jake's perspective. The technique itself barely registers, and that's a good thing – it quietly but insistently immerses us into this new world.

Later, when Jake first encounters the humans' main base on Pandora, the 3-D provides Cameron with extraordinary depth of field, as a towering bulldozer-like vehicle prowls in front of Jake, while a soldier in one of those mechanized suits of armor stalks past him in the background. Watching, we aren't distracted by any 3-D gimmicks. Instead we notice the feathered arrows jutting out from the wheels of the bulldozer; these signify attacks from the hostile Na'vi, and just like that, Cameron has used technology to better tell his story. Avatar would certainly be a worthwhile experience in standard 2-D, but the immersion that Cameron achieves with 3-D is remarkable.













(Given Avatar's commercial and critical success, the industry's current attitude toward 3-D – already one of tentative embrace – will likely transform into an all-out swoon. Whether this is a good thing is another matter. If every filmmaker can utilize the technology with the restraint and respect that Cameron employs in Avatar, then I'm all for it. But every filmmaker is not James Cameron, and I fear directors will soon be hurling objects out from the screen with abandon, making us all bob and weave and cower in our seats. We shall see.)

Interestingly, while the Star Wars saga serves as the proper point of comparison for Avatar in terms of its staggering cinematic innovation, Cameron's film holds a marked advantage over George Lucas' pictures in one important respect: the acting. I remain an ardent supporter of the Star Wars prequels – Revenge of the Sith in particular is a heroic fusion of technological bombast and space-opera mythology – but even I will concede that the acting at times borders on wooden, largely the fault of Lucas' halting dialogue. Cameron isn't a great dialogue writer either, but his actors nevertheless have a natural feel for this material. Sam Worthington slides comfortably into the role of everyman who accidentally finds himself as messiah (a throwback to Michael Biehn's gritty freedom-fighter in The Terminator). Zoë Saldana appears only via motion-capture, but there's still real acting going on here, with Neytiri emanating equal parts toughness and tenderness – during a late emotional scene, the love behind those amber eyes is palpable.

The supporting cast is no less capable, and a good deal more fun. Sigourney Weaver gives her most relaxed performance in years as Jake's superior (both officially and intellectually), while Michelle Rodriguez lends her natural feistiness to her role as a cocksure fighter pilot (yet another tough-as-nails Cameron femme). On the testosterone side, Giovanni Ribisi is appropriately wry and pragmatic as a semi-soulless bureaucrat, though when he isn't braying laughter, he permits his character a glimmer of self-doubt. But there's no doubt whatsoever in Stephen Lang's ferocious portrayal of the hard-bitten colonel, a behemoth of a man whose gruff charm slowly gives way to ravenous bloodlust. Cameron may be superhuman, but he's hardly working alone.

















But make no mistake: He's the true star. A dozen years ago, after Titanic captured 11 Oscars and the all-time box-office crown (not to mention a heap of undeserved residual scorn), James Cameron declared himself "King of the World"; now he's prophesied that Avatar will change the face of movies forever. He may be an egotistical prick, but that doesn't make him wrong. Watching Avatar – experiencing life on Pandora – I recalled a pivotal exchange in The Matrix, when Carrie-Anne Moss chastises Joe Pantoliano for championing the illusion-based universe of the movie's title, even though it isn't real. He responds coolly, "I think the Matrix can be more real than this world".

Pandora isn't real, I know, yet I feel as though I've visited it anyway. And I can't wait to go back.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A moping moon, but some light still shines through

“It was pretty terrible. I really enjoyed it.”
That was me, one year ago, on the phone with my father, giving him my brief and not entirely rational assessment of a little movie called Twilight, which has now become America’s latest mega-franchise – the second installment, New Moon, raked in a cool $142.8 million this past weekend, good for third all-time behind The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 3. And while I’m impressed (and more than a tad awed) at the remarkable commercial success of the Twilight films, I have to admit that I’m a little confused as well.
Mainstream movie nut that I am, I’m generally a sucker for the studio-manufactured charms of a big-budget, multi-volume, special-effects-laden blockbuster franchise, but I can’t confess to being a devotee of the Twilight saga. Maybe that’s because it isn’t marketed to my demographic (I am not, in fact, a lovesick teenage girl, despite my occasional indulgence in emotionally devastating female-empowerment pop music). More likely it’s that I haven’t read Stephenie Meyer’s books (partly because I hardly read anything these days, partly because even Meyer’s ardent fans seem to concede that the novels are poorly written). But most of all it’s that, in all honesty, I don’t think the Twilight movies are very good.
Am I being hypocritical? After all, how can I sneer at Twilight when I’m an unabashed fanatic of a bevy of superhero/fantasy/science-fiction franchises, including Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, the Lord of the Rings, the Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man, Star Wars, and (most recently) Buffy the Vampire Slayer? But here’s the thing: I actually believe that all of the aforementioned series constitute art, not mere guilty pleasures. I don’t love the Harry Potter movies (and books, of course) because they’re about a boy wizard; I love them because they tell brilliantly plotted adventures involving well-developed characters operating within a fully realized magical universe. The Twilight movies, in contrast, feature goofy dialogue, inane plotting, minimal humor, and a general atmosphere of lunacy. They just aren’t that good.
But just because I didn’t think the first Twilight picture was a good movie didn’t stop me from enjoying the hell out of it. Maybe it’s my weakness for angst-ridden teenagers longing for forbidden love, but the preposterous romance between Bella Swan (played with aplomb by my girl Kristen Stewart) and her vampire beau Edward Cullen (Robert Pattison, who frankly was dreamier when he played Cedric Diggory) was so gleefully over-the-top that it somehow transcended to a ludicrous poetry. For example, I will never forget the pair’s initial meeting, during which Edward eyeballs Bella and is so overcome with desire that he nearly retches. Now that’s love.
















To be sure, Twilight was far from perfect, and it indeed crumbled in its final act; you’d think you couldn’t screw up a scene involving rival vampires dueling in a hall of mirrors, but then you’d be underestimating director Catherine Hardwicke’s haplessness when it comes to action scenes. But the movie featured enough giddily blissful moments (nearly) on par with Bella’s and Edward’s “meet cute” that I couldn’t help approaching the screening of New Moon with a surprising degree of anticipation. Because for all Twilight’s flaws, it nevertheless represented one of my more enjoyable times at the movies all of last year.
And maybe that was part of the problem, because damn if the first hour of New Moon isn’t a dreary viewing experience. After a promising early scene in which one of Edward’s de facto brothers gets a whiff of Bella’s blood and nearly exsanguinates her, Edward decides it’s safest for Bella if he abandons her, leaving her to, well, sit around and mope.
And boy can she mope. Inconsolable from the loss of Edward, Bella turns into something of a walking corpse herself, and it’s here where New Moon starts grating. Look, I have nothing against movies that take themselves too seriously – hell, The Dark Knight, one of my favorite films of 2008, took itself pretty damn seriously given that it’s about a billionaire who dresses up as a bat – but their characters need to feel like real people for that seriousness to gain dramatic traction. And while the Twilight movies have their strengths, character realism is not one of them.
More to the point, the central problem with New Moon – and the Twilight saga as a whole, for that matter – is that the all-important romance between Bella and Edward feels illusory. There’s no weight to it, no heft, no sense of actual love. Sure, there are plenty of longing glances and slow-motion sighs, and the pair certainly profess their feelings for each other often enough (not to mention a voiceover in the first film in which Bella conveniently informs us that she’s “unconditionally and irrevocably in love”), but the dialogue is so stilted that it just comes off as playacting. New Moon assumes that, after experiencing the first film, we’ve accepted the lovers’ undying devotion as a given, but love in movies has to be earned, and Twilight never accrued any romantic currency.


















Perhaps I’m applying too rigorous a standard to a movie that’s so obviously frivolous, but when you overtly compare your story to that of Romeo and Juliet (and not just once), you’re digging your own grave. I can’t help but feel bad for Bella – woe is the woman caught between warring clans of vampires and werewolves – but it’s more abstract pity than actual empathy. New Moon gamely attempts to introduce a new romantic foil in the form of Jake (played by beefcake Taylor Lautner, and you’ll forgive me if I abstain from the debate about which of Bella’s suitors is more of a stud), but the pairing is too convenient a plot device (and the writing too forced) to generate any true chemistry.
Thus New Moon suffers and simpers its way, and things are going oh-so-miserably (the less said about Bella’s increasingly inane risk-taking attempts in an effort to conjure a disapproving Edward in spectral form, the better), and then … well, then the computer-generated werewolves show up.
















Now that’s what I paid to see. Make no mistake, it’s not as if the werewolves are all that visually impressive – no one will suspect Peter Jackson or George Lucas to have been involved in New Moon’s production. Nor do they participate in any particularly suspenseful action sequences. Rather, they signal a certain embrace of absurdity heretofore lacking in the picture, and it’s here that New Moon finally picks up its pace. After the welcome appearance of Alice (an appealing Ashley Greene – keep your eye on her), Bella finds herself flying to Italy in a desperate race to save her beloved (courtesy, it must be said, of an infuriatingly contrived phone call), and for the first time we experience a genuine sense of frisson. Sure, the entire escapade is imbued with a sense of what-the-fuck? style lunacy, but at least it’s interesting.
Besides, that lunacy is partly the point, and it finally recalls the best parts of Twilight. Watching Bella and Alice racing down Italian roads in a gleaming-yellow Porsche toward an ancient cathedral while the hands of a gigantic clock tower move ominously toward noon, I found myself smiling for the first time in the movie.
The freewheeling nature of the film’s second half also allows Chris Weitz (replacing Hardwicke) to liberate himself from the brooding murkiness that dominates the early scenes, and he finally treats us to some memorable images. There’s the red-haired vampire (the sadly underused Victoria) gliding out of the watery shadows like some flaming demonness from Hell. There’s Bella fighting through an army of red-robed acolytes in slow-motion, desperation etched on her face. There’s Bella, in slow-motion yet again, charging through a freaking fountain as that wretched clock keeps moving. None of this is subtle; all of it is fun. (To give credit where it’s due, Weitz also brings some visual pathos to an early moping scene, pulling off a rather lovely circling shot of Bella staring glumly out her window as the months pass by outside.)
More importantly, New Moon’s final set piece – transpiring within an appropriately hallowed cathedral – delights us with the welcome emergence of not one but two terrific actors. The first is Michael Sheen, playing a vampire lord of sorts and having a terrific time doing it. Being a refined British performer hasn’t prevented Sheen from letting loose from time to time (see: the Underworld films), and he seems to be one of the few cast members who recognizes that movies like this exist for the purpose of providing pleasure to the audience (see: Ian McKellen in The Da Vinci Code).


























The other actor is a former child star, but I assure you, she is a child no longer. She is, in fact, an unrecognizable Dakota Fanning, and if you’re thinking of her as the cute little girl from War of the Worlds and Dreamer, think again. With pinned-back hair and remorseless red eyes, oozing malevolence without a hint of mercy, she’s all business. Her character seems to have the curious power to take control of another’s senses by uttering a single command. Fanning certainly commands the screen.























And sure, New Moon ends as it must: with a bumbling romantic denouement involving its unsteady, uninteresting triangle. There’s that teenage demographic to appease, of course. No matter. If the final 45 minutes of the movie are any indication, there remains plenty of inanity to absorb, plenty of sublime silliness to sustain me through Bella’s Shakespearean sulking. Those moments make up the true heart of what makes the Twilight films pleasurable, and that’s what they’re all about, after all – extracting the heart from the heartache.
The third installment of the Twilight saga, Eclipse, arrives in theatres on June 30. Time to find a teenage girl to save me a seat.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A child imagines wild things, shrouded in mystery

"I'm expecting your review of Where the Wild Things Are in my inbox by noon tomorrow."

That was my buddy Brian two days ago, and while he wasn't offering me a salaried position at a major newspaper in exchange for my commentary, I was nevertheless pleased to learn – as I always am – that someone wanted to know my particular opinion of a film. But he wasn't the only one. A number of people I know have expressed enthusiasm about Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved book, including those who are rarely enthused about movies.

Of course, this sense of intrigue isn't unique to my personal sphere of contact; box office estimates pegged Where the Wild Things Are to earn $32.5 million this weekend, which places it eighth all-time among movies opening in October (ignoring inflation). This is, if you'll pardon the pun, a rare beast. Oftentimes, when intrepid directors resolve to transform a classic childhood text into a movie, audiences tend to grumble. (There's a reason Encyclopedia Brown has thus far failed to decipher the map to the multiplex.) Yet for whatever reason – perhaps a savvy marketing campaign (the trailer made excellent use of Arcade Fire's "Wake Up"), perhaps a viewing public starved for an imaginative work – the standard outcry that often accompanies the transfer of a landmark literary work to the screen has in this case been replaced by exuberant anticipation.

(For the record, I don't really remember Sendak's book. I certainly remember reading it several hundred times, but I don't recall the impression it made on me as a boy. Some books latch onto my memory – the Hardy Boys, Where the Red Fern Grows, the 1990 NFL Record and Fact Book – and never relinquish their hold, but "Where the Wild Things Are" just wasn't one of them. Fortunately, I'm discussing the movie, not the book.)

The question, of course, is whether the enigmatic Jonze – making just his third feature in 10 years – can deliver a movie that charms mature audiences the way Sendak's book seduced multiple generations of pre-schoolers and their parents. And the answer, strangely enough, hinges mostly on perspective. Essentially, what you get out of Where the Wild Things Are depends entirely on what you put into it. If you're willing to interpret its formless narrative as a delicate allegory, you'll likely construe it as a graceful, enchanting meditation on the majesty of childhood and the universality of the family. If you're less inclined to burrow into its ethereal, dreamy illogic, you're bound to be frustrated by its flimsy characters and loose, half-baked plot.

For my part, I came away from Where the Wild Things Are more impressed than enchanted. It's a beautifully constructed film that has minimal desire to make any actual sense. I'll refrain from providing a plot summary, not because I want to avoid spoilers, but because there's hardly a plot to summarize. Very little happens, and what does take place transpires according to the movie's own internal, incomprehensible set of rules. Characters cheer and cry and tumble and roar, but we're unable to discern the reasons behind either their actions or their emotions. Perhaps Jonze and fellow screenwriter Dave Eggers understand their characters' underlying motivations, but they seem perfectly content to keep us on the outside looking in.

The counter to this, of course, is that this is a children's story, or more precisely, a story springing from the mind of a child. It isn't supposed to make sense. It's supposed to arise from the depths of a child's imagination, and children imagine half-formed worlds where gigantic furry beasts build huge forts and cut holes in trees and converse with mechanical owls. Imposing the burden of logic would necessarily dampen the magic.

And that's fine. But the recesses of the mind are a murky place, and they can be awfully confusing without a guide. Jonze's stubborn insistence on refusing to shepherd his audience may be in keeping with his artistic vision – that a child's fantasy world can be plagued by the same problems as his real one – but that stubbornness blunts the emotional impact of his themes. His two prior films (the fascinating Being John Malkovich and the irreverent Adaptation.) were fantastical adventures that were nevertheless grounded in reality, giving real-world heft to their characters' bizarre dilemmas. Where the Wild Things Are, in contrast, is so thoroughly immersed in its own self-invented universe that it fails to fully engage.

That universe, however, is quite a place. The movie is a technical marvel; if nothing else, Jonze has proven himself a master craftsman in the mold of Tim Burton. He shows us a world of heavily wooded forests, vast deserts, towering cliffs, and infinite oceans, all of which seem to have been invented on the spot – the effortless bounty of a child's dreams. The dwellings that the characters construct have a zany, ramshackle feel that imbues them with a sense of the mystical, while the soundtrack by Karen O (of Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame) slides gracefully between the sadness of alienation and the free-wheeling joy of youth.













And of course there are the wild things themselves. Their physical appearance defies ordinary description: They seem to possess normal-sized legs and feet, only with enormous, round, fur-covered bodies and heads, like colossal brown snowmen. The bodies are impressive for the limber quality of their movements – kudos to the F/X crew for effortlessly disguising their technique – but it's the faces that truly astonish. With their long, flat mouths and deep-pooled eyes, the creatures can convey thoughts without speaking. We may not understand why they express certain emotions, but they are able to express them. These beasts may be gigantic and furry, but they cry real tears.














If only we had a deeper understanding of the reasons behind those tears, then perhaps the movie's thesis could match the power of its images. Still, despite its steadfast refusal to allow logic to intrude on its reverie, Where the Wild Things Are remains at least legitimately interesting and occasionally compelling. I also have to commend it for encouraging contemplation and for not pandering to audiences with rote action sequences or stock melodrama. And it's difficult to judge too harshly a film that seems so serenely comfortable with itself. I just can't help the feeling that I want more. But then, perhaps I'm acting like a child.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Right when he got it in the door."

(Warning: The following post contains heavy spoilers for the sixth episode of this season of "Mad Men". If you watch the show, ensure you watch the episode before reading.)

Yesterday, my buddy Pat asked me if I'd watched this week's episode of "Mad Men" yet. Due to a confluence of obnoxious circumstances, I ashamedly admitted that I hadn't. He then encouraged me to watch as soon as possible, suggesting it might be the best episode in the show's' history. "Mad Men" being one of the best television programs of the modern era – and Pat being a notoriously harsh critic – this was no small claim.

Now, I believe that when people hear from a reputable source that a certain piece of art (movie, TV show, book, etc.) is "can't-miss" per se, they're subject to a curious combination of heightened anticipation and gnawing anxiousness. Expectations are obviously raised, but there inevitably comes a nagging sensation that those expectations somehow aren't being met – not because the art isn't actually providing a strong level of entertainment or pleasure, but because there's a voice in the back of your mind asking, "Should I be enjoying this even more?".

So upon hearing Pat's news, I got quite excited, and I have to confess that for the first 40 minutes or so of the episode, I kept wondering if I might be missing something. (This is in no way a rebuke toward Pat – I may be spoiler-crazy, but I have no issues with someone who simply expresses his enthusiasm. Really.) It wasn't that I wasn't enjoying the episode (I certainly was); it was just that I was waiting for it to distinguish itself from the rest of the season's exceptional caliber.

And then the secretary ran over the British guy's foot with a lawnmower.

I mean, wow.

Was that not the most spectacular scene in the history of the show's 32 episodes? I have to think so. (In terms of best episode, I'd probably still go with the second-season finale, but this one's close.) The sheer lunacy of it all – the blood-spattered suits, the suave British guy suddenly dropping all vestiges of suavity ("For the love of Christ!"), and, you know, a secretary careening around the office on a freaking lawnmower – was spectacular enough. But the way it was set up – the way it completely and instantaneously quashed the pervading sense of dread that had suffused the first half of the episode – was simply extraordinary. With a lesser show, such a preposterous development might have felt forced. Here it somehow made perfect sense, because that's the kind of random, how-the-fuck-did-that-happen? thing that can utterly eradicate even the most well-planned, bone-crunchingly corporate type of takeover that the Brits were about to implement. (As Roger later puts it, "Believe me, somewhere in this business, this has happened before".)

















But let's not discount the first half of the episode, which was superb enough in itself. First, there's Cooper's violent misreading of the purpose for the Brits' visit, believing they want to snatch Draper and drag him across the pond to London. What was fascinating about that is that it's perhaps the first time we've ever seen Draper become genuinely excited about anything. He's been asserting his authority on cruise control for years, and he knows he's invulnerable, but has he ever really hoped for anything before?

That leads to the heart-wrenching shot of Draper lying awake in bed with a slight smile on his face (beautifully contrasted with Sally staring in fear at the newly installed nightlight, desperate for protection). I'd never seen Draper smile like that before, and as soon as we see it, we know the London idea is a mirage and that things will go badly. I've always believed that the greatest strength of "Mad Men" is its ability, despite a large ensemble, to compel us to sympathize with all of the characters, and watching that smile on Draper's face (one of Jon Hamm's finest moments as an actor), I felt such incredible pity for him. In the prior episode, Peggy pointed out – quite truthfully – that Draper had everything she wanted, and yet I still felt sadness for him here because it was the first time that he really wanted something, and he wasn't going to get it.






















Of course, befitting the show, Draper wasn't the only character I pitied. Joan, poor Joan. It was bad enough when her pretty-boy husband turned out to be an evil rapist, but now he's just a pathetic, incompetent would-be surgeon. That's even more sad, but Joan's painful realization (or confirmation, as hints had already been dropped) – that she won't be able to run off and live the life of luxury with a rich doctor and a white picket fence – just happens to brutally coincide with Sterling-Cooper finally recognizing her for her service. When the British guy toasts her accomplishments and she breaks down in tears, I wanted to join her.




















Hell, I even felt sympathy for Jared Harris' character when he gets shipped off to India. It isn't his fault that he's such a schmuck – he's just been toeing the company line. His disappointment after being appointed the company's "snake-charmer" is entirely understandable, and his superior's response ("Don't pout. One of your greatest qualities is you always do as you're told.") somehow constitutes an act of wanton cruelty.

And how about that young British guy who was all set to take charge before John Deere intervened? What was interesting about him was that he reminded me strongly of Campbell, only in all of the best ways. Sure, he's clearly a slick politician (delivering the same line of greeting to both Campbell and Peggy was a nice touch), but he somehow doesn't seem unctuous or officious. He truly believes that he's a corporate prodigy who will lead Sterling-Cooper to greatness. Hell, he probably is a prodigy – in his initial meeting the head honchos, Draper can't find a bad thing to think about him (and as Roger points out, Draper judges everyone). But in the end, the British higher-ups treat him the same way they treated Jared Harris and callously dismiss his entire future (even Draper raises his eyebrows). Their justification? "He'll never golf again."

Of course, part of the pleasure of the episode was watching the Americans conquer their British masters against all odds, and the personified force of American vengeance – besides the lawnmower, of course – is Roger. Motivated by his exclusion from the new corporate hierarchy chart (or perhaps just because he's always amused to see other people suffer), he reacts to the horror of the accident with sublime indifference. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that the following exchange is the funniest in the history of the show:

Kinsey: "He might lose his foot."
Roger: "Right when he got it in the door."

That's funny, but it also typifies Roger's "Don't fuck with me" attitude that likely led to his rise up the corporate ranks. Roger is a legitimate adversary – his bark has bite – and perhaps that's why Draper actually says "Thank you" during the earlier scene in the barbershop. Draper hardly every thanks anyone, and he probably doesn't mean it this time, but he recognizes it's the safer play to mollify Roger rather than continually antagonize him.



















(By the way, that aforementioned chart provides one of my favorite subtle moments in the episode. The British guy says that he, Draper, and Cooper are three equal department heads, but if you look closely, you can see that Draper's name is positioned slightly below the other two; the line connecting his name to the British guy's name is diagonal, indicating he's a subordinate. Don't think Draper didn't notice.)

So what happens next? In theory, Sterling-Cooper can just go back to normal (I'm praying Joan is still prominently involved), although the accident will obviously have some minor immediate consequences. Regardless, I'm confident the show will continue to explore exciting new avenues of corporate strife while keeping its focus squarely on its characters, which is exactly where it should be.

Consider the lovely final scene in the episode, when Draper comforts Sally about her new baby brother. "We don't know who he is yet, and we don't know who he's going to be," he tells her. "And that is a wonderful thing."

We may know what "Mad Men" is – the best show on television – but we never know where it's going. And that, too, is a wonderful thing.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Looking Toward Toronto (and away from trailers)

Not being the traveling sort (unless Disney World is involved), I confess that I've rarely thought to myself, "You know what? I wish I were in Toronto right now". This week, however, Roy Halladay's town hosts the venerated Toronto International Film Festival, and I wish I were north of the border, because the lineup looks freaking fantastic. Sundance used to be the preeminent film festival in the North America, but the Canadians eclipsed Robert Redford's ski-bonanza some time ago. As such, Toronto is now the definitive destination for late-season film fare.

Why should you care? Because movies that play in Toronto invariably figure into the cinematic landscape during the final three months of the year. For whatever reason, it's now standard practice for studios to backload their schedules and release their higher-quality productions during this time (thus creating "Oscar Season"). Whatever your opinion of the Oscars themselves, it's hard to argue that the strongest movies of the year don't arrive in theatres after September. (At least for the most part. Avid blockbuster supporter that I am, I freely admit that the summer season can house terrific entertainment – more on that in a future post – but I nevertheless acknowledge that from a pure volume standpoint, October through December is the clear winner.) And a significant number of those films appear at Toronto's now-epic festival.


Just to prove I'm not making this up: Of my top six movies in 2007, FIVE of them – Atonement, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Eastern Promises, Michael Clayton, and No Country for Old Men – played in Toronto. And I didn't even mention Juno, which scored four Oscar nominations and racked up $143 million at the box office. For studios in search of a launching pad for their features, Toronto is the ultimate cinematic trampoline.

Given that, I thought I'd highlight the top five movies currently playing at Toronto that I'm most excited to see in the coming months. Obviously, this isn't a comprehensive list – many other movies at the festival are likely to figure into this year's Oscar race, and I plan on seeing most of them. But I'm most energized to see the big five.

(For completists, other films at Toronto that I'll almost certainly see once they're released in theatres: Antichrist, Bad Lieutenant: Port Call of New Orleans, Bright Star, Broken Embraces, Chloe, Creation, Enter the Void, Fish Tank, George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead, Get Low, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Life During Wartime, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Precious, A Prophet, Whip It, White Material, The White Ribbon, and The Young Victoria. Sadly, it's likely that half of these will fail to make it to a multiplex near me, but for those that do arrive, I'm there. And if you think I'm kidding, you really don't know me.)

Before unveiling the top five, I should acknowledge that, quite frankly, I know very little of what the upcoming films are actually about. I know that I very much want to see them, either because I'm an ardent fan of their pedigree (director, cast, etc.) or because industry buzz has been hot (I may not work in the industry, but I follow it so obsessively that I can pick up on the inside word-of-mouth). But as far as knowledge of a specific movie's actual plot, I'm clueless.

Why? Because I haven't seen the trailer.

I've ranted at length in the past about how aggressively I despise trailers. (If you're interested in said rant, go here and scroll down to the discussion of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.) Suffice it to say that even the most innocuous trailers give away crucial dialogue, while the most egregious (Cassandra's Dream, Michael Clayton) reveal virtually the entire plot, sometimes even spoiling a film's final scene. Such revelations might be difficult to grasp if you only watch a preview once, but as someone who sits in a movie theatre 90-plus times per year (I'm hoping to finally crack the century mark in 2009), I'm liable to see the same trailer upwards of 10 times.

As Hubie Brown might ask, O.K., what does that mean? Well, it means that the trailer that has permanently emblazoned its imprint on my mind and mentally stalks me once I'm finally watching the movie. Said imprint haunts me in several ways: It reduces suspense (because it's already revealed key plot twists), minimizes laughs (because I've already heard the movie's funniest lines), and generally increases my anxiety (because I'm constantly anticipating scenes that haven't played yet).

Look, I admit that trailers are a necessary marketing tool, and some of them are very nicely crafted. Hell, I'll still watch them on occasion if I don't know whether or not I want to see the particular film they're advertising. But here's the thing: If you already know that you want to see a movie (which is frequently the case with me), watching the trailer isn't just pointless – it actively diminishes your enjoyment of the movie once you finally watch it. (As a personal anecdote, I remain convinced that my sister failed to appreciate Gran Torino – which she saw in January – because she'd already seen the trailer seven different times; it aired prior to each of the movies we saw together over Christmas. It reached the point that she was mocking certain lines from the movie before she'd even seen it. How is this a good thing?)

So, how have I managed to avoid the trailers for the upcoming films? Simple: I listen to my iPod. No, really. Whenever I'm in sitting in a movie theatre and the previews commence, I queue up The Hold Steady's "Same Kooks" and stare at the floor. To the best of my knowledge, I'm the only person in the history of the world who actually does this, but no one has ever complained or ridiculed me (at least, not to me face). If you think it sounds ridiculous, just think about it the next time you go see a comedy and bitch about how the trailer gave away all the best lines.

(By the way, the peculiar thing is that, while The Hold Steady are one of my favorite bands, "Same Kooks" might be my least favorite of their songs, but it serves its purpose because it's consistently loud with no gaps of silence, meaning random snippets of dialogue can't filter into my ears should the song suddenly go quiet. Yes, I'm serious.)

Now, let me assure you that I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this new approach to moviegoing has completely changed my life. When I go see a movie now, I no longer carry in preconceived notions of its plot. I haven't already memorized portions of its dialogue. I don't have a guess at its ending. It's all new.

Take an example: Last month I saw Moon. Going in, I knew the movie's genre (science-fiction), director (Duncan Jones, David Bowie's son), and lead (Sam Rockwell). That was it. I had absolutely no knowledge of its plot. As a result, I was successfully surprised by a major plot twist halfway through the film. It was like I was watching the movie for the first time (ironic because, you know, I was). When I returned home, out of curiosity I watched the trailer – sure enough, it unveils the movie's key twist. Avoiding Moon's trailer made me a happier person.

So, if you're wondering why the following synopses are a little thin on, well, synopsis, now you know. On the plus side, you don't need to fear spoilers from the upcoming list because there aren't any. Which is sweet.

On to the list. Here are the five movies playing at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival that I'm most looking forward to seeing:


5. An Education. I've never claimed to be much of a reader; as such, I've never read Nick Hornby's novel upon which this film is based. In fact, I've never read anything by Hornby. But ever since Stephen Frears adapted Hornby's novel High Fidelity into one of the most effortlessly entertaining, emotionally precise, supremely quotable movies of this decade, I've kept his name on my radar. An Education is being billed as a coming-of-age story of sorts, and I expect Hornby's screenplay to offer his usual keen insight into post-adolescent youth. As for the cast, Carey Mulligan has been receiving rave notices for her performance (several pundits are already insisting that the 2009 Best Actress race is a duel between Mulligan and Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia) opposite the always dependable Peter Sarsgaard, while the even more dependable Alfred Molina is on hand in support. I don't know much about the movie's director (Lone Scherfig) except that she has a badass name, but the combination of a Hornby screenplay and enthusiastic buzz have me more than intrigued.




















4. The Informant!
I'm not exactly a Steven Soderbergh disciple. He's plenty full of himself (for Christ's sake, his four-hour-plus biopic Che might have been the first movie since 2001: A Space Odyssey to include an intermission), and he seems to make movies like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience just to prove how unique and interesting he is. Still, the fact remains that he's made one of the greatest heist movies ever in Ocean's Eleven, while Traffic and Erin Brockovich, if not flawless, are nevertheless eminently watchable. In fact, despite Soderbergh's artistic pretensions, I'd argue his best movies are straightforward, big-budget studio efforts.

The Informant! – an out-and-out spoof starring Matt Damon – could function as a perfect blend, allowing Soderbergh to utilize both sides of his schizophrenic directorial persona. It's clearly an A-list production (courtesy of Damon), so he'll ensure the masses are entertained, but it looks goofy and original enough to stimulate his intellect and encourage him to take some creative chances. I'm also intrigued to see Damon bite into a broadly comic role; he's always been a talented comedian who never received appropriate credit for his hilarious work in the two Ocean's sequels.




















3. The Road
. Strangely enough, I do have detailed knowledge of the plot of The Road because I actually read Cormac McCarthy's novel (courtesy of my buddy Pat). Not that there's much plot to spoil – it's about a man and his son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. That's it. And that's why I sort of hated the book, which was so was miserably depressing and unrelenting in its horrific vision that it took me six months to finish. (Plus, McCarthy's florid prose is a bit grandiose for someone whose two favorite authors are J.K. Rowling and Nelson DeMille.) Still, I think the skeleton of the novel is highly cinematic, and it could translate beautifully (perhaps grotesquely) to the screen in the right hands.

Those hands belong to John Hillcoat, and he certainly has the right resume. Hillcoat directed the Australian thriller The Proposition, which was beautifully photographed and almost alarmingly bleak – two features that tie perfectly into The Road's raison d'être. The choice of Viggo Mortensen as the lead also seems perfect, as few contemporary actors devote themselves so fully to a role (remember that prior to shooting Eastern Promises, Mortensen spent five days in Russia without a translator because he wanted to absorb the culture). Throw in supporting work from Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, and Michael K. Williams (Omar in "The Wire"), and The Road just might be the most magnificently depressing movie of the year.

















2. A Serious Man
. Coen Brothers. That's all I have to say.




















1. Up in the Air
. Here's what I know: I know the director is Jason Reitman, whose first two features (Thank You for Smoking and Juno) showcased a deft hand for snappy dialogue and an innate ability to subtly balance the comic with the dramatic. I know the star is George Clooney, who's an automatic home run at this point and who's two years removed from delivering one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. And I know the buzz for this movie has been downright phenomenal, possibly surpassing the ecstatic fan-cloud that trailed Slumdog Millionaire around throughout the fall of 2008.

Here's what I don't know: Anything else.

I'm going in cold. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Here's to Oscar Season.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

2009 Fantasy Baseball All-Star Team

Simple rule: If I’m forced to go three consecutive days without watching a baseball game (I’m ignoring the fantastically pointless Midsummer Classic), I’m allowed to post about the preeminent performers in fantasy baseball thus far this year. It’s in the Constitution, look it up.

Anyway, I won’t waste time with a detailed methodological explanation; check out last year’s post if you’re interested in the minutiae. I will, however, highlight a few minor changes from last year’s calculations. First, I’ve applied linear weights to all denominator-based stats (OPS, ERA, and WHIP), since these measures are averages rather than raw totals. Essentially, if two players have the same OPS but one has 200 at-bats while the other only has 100, the first player receives more weight for his OPS (either positive or negative, depending on its position relative to the mean). This is, I believe, an important improvement – kudos to my buddy Pat for the suggestion.

Second, I’ve adjusted the steals multiplier to vary per position, so it’s now higher for speed-prone positions (shortstop, outfield) and lower for catcher and first base, where steals are virtually inconsequential. For the record, I tried eliminating the steals multiplier altogether but didn’t like the resultant data. The problem with steals is that the standard deviation is extremely high relative to the mean, so they wreak havoc with Z-scores; still, I think this accounts for them as appropriately as possible.

Finally, the sample comprises 168 batters, 87 starters, and 44 relievers. For batters and starting pitchers, I used the standard qualifying metrics as provided by FanGraphs and ESPN. For relievers, I got a little creative and selected players who were either primary closers or frequently eligible for save chances, since saves are all anyone cares about from relievers in fantasy leagues (for the same reason, I applied a substantial multiplier to the saves category).

Everybody got that? Good. Here we go with the Manifesto’s 2009 Fantasy Baseball All-Star Team:


CATCHER

Brandon Inge, Tigers. But wait, you’re thinking – where’s Joe Mauer? Surely the selection of Inge is the result of the Manifesto’s anti-Mauer bias rather than any actual mathematical precision, yes? No. Mauer has been an absolute force thus far this year since he returned to the lineup … but he didn’t return to the lineup until the beginning of May. As a result, Inge leads Mauer in all categories other than OPS, and while Mauer holds a significant advantage in that area (1.069 vs. .876), it isn’t enough to prevent Inge from possessing the dominant Z-score. It’s a bit absurd, of course, since Inge isn’t a catcher, but he’s eligible at the position in fantasy leagues, and his 51 runs scored (second among catchers), 21 homers (tops at the position, and 21 more than he hit during Monday’s agonizingly long Home Run Derby), and 58 RBI (one behind Victor Martinez for the position lead) clearly place him at the top.

But just in case you think I’m all about hating Joe Mauer, let me point out the following: Mauer has currently played in 64 games. Just for fun, let’s pretend that he wasn’t hurt earlier this year and was capable of producing at his current level for an entire season. If we prorate his numbers out to 146 games (his career-high games played), we have the following: 112 runs, 34 home runs, 112 RBI, and a 1.069 OPS. Not bad for one of the best defensive catchers in the game.

Apologies to: Mauer, Victor Martinez (position-leading 54 runs and 59 RBI, 14 homers, .859 OPS).













FIRST BASE

Albert Pujols, Cardinals. O.K., so I didn’t exactly need the Z-scores for this one. Albert the Great (don’t call him “El Hombre”, he claims that insults Stan Musial, and you wouldn’t want to make him angry, would you?) leads the majors in runs (73), homers (32), RBI (87), and OPS (an unsettling 1.179, which if it holds would stand as the highest mark since Barry Bonds’ record-breaking 1.422 in 2004). Just for fun, he also leads all first basemen in steals with 10. This guy is the Viktor Krum of baseball.

Apologies to: Nobody. Pujols stands alone.
















SECOND BASE

Chase Utley, Phillies. Ian Kinsler has had an impressive season, but Utley’s position-leading 1.004 OPS (sixth-best in baseball) makes him untouchable. He also leads all second basemen in RBI (61) and homers (20, tied with Kinsler and Aaron freaking Hill) and is tied for third in runs scored (62), plus he’s chipped in with nine stolen bases. All told, he ranks as the third-best hitter in the big leagues, behind only Pujols and Prince Fielder. Not bad for a middle-infielder.

Apologies to: Kinsler (62 runs, 20 homers, 18 steals), Hill (20 homers, 60 RBI), Brandon Phillips (60 RBI, 12 steals).















THIRD BASE

Mark Reynolds, Diamondbacks. Reynolds may swing-and-miss with alarming frequency (he’s already compiled a whopping 123 strikeouts, meaning he’s whiffed in a preposterous 37.8% of his at-bats, behind only the loathsome Chris Davis), but when he makes contact, the ball takes off. His 24 home runs tie him for second in the majors. But lest you perceive him as a pure power hitter, his 15 steals are the third-most among any player manning the hot corner. He’s also second among third basemen in RBI (62) and fifth in runs scored (55) and OPS (.888). His strikeout rate may suggest a regression in the second half, but he’s been a masher thus far.

Apologies to: Kevin Youkilis (56 runs, 53 RBI, position-best .985 OPS), Evan Longoria (66 RBI, .898 OPS), Russell Branyan (22 homers, .956 OPS).












SHORTSTOP

Hanley Ramirez, Marlins. No surprise here, although it is a bit shocking that A) It’s a close battle between Ramirez and another shortstop, and B) That other shortstop is a virtual unknown. That would be Ben Zobrist, and all he’s done this year is smash 17 homers to the tune of a 1.012 OPS – both tops among shortstops. He’s also managed to swipe 11 bases while driving in 52 runs and scoring 50. (He’s eligible at second base as well, but I elected to place him at shortstop since the pool is weaker.) Ramirez, however, has been no slouch; he’s third among shortstops in runs scored (53) and homers (14), fourth in steals (13), second in OPS (.979), and first in RBI (61). The all-around production gives Ramirez the nod – but it’s close.

Apologies to: Zobrist, Derek Jeter (56 runs, 17 steals), Troy Tulowitzki (16 homers).













OUTFIELD

Jason Bay, Red Sox; Torii Hunter, Angels; Raul Ibañez, Phillies. Outfield is always an unpredictable position in fantasy baseball, with many lower-round picks outperforming projected studs. This season’s All-stars aren’t quite as surprising a group as last year’s ragtag bunch, but Ibañez (whom many had pegged as washed-up) lasted until the eighth round in my draft, while Hunter didn’t leave the board until the eleventh – after 31 outfielders had already been selected.

Still, the numbers don’t lie. Bay leads all outfielders in RBI (72) and is one of six with at least 20 homers; he also sports a strong .908 OPS as well as 10 stolen bases. Ibañez spent some time on the disabled list, but he nevertheless ranks second at the position in homers (22, tied with Nelson Cruz and one behind Adam Dunn) and fourth in RBI (60), all while compiling a 1.015 OPS (tops among outfielders and fourth in the majors). Until his recent injury, Hunter was displaying an impressive combination of power (17 homers) and speed (13 steals), while he trails only Bay in RBI (65). More importantly, his .938 OPS far and away surpasses his career best of .858, set with Minnesota in 2002. I’m skeptical he’ll be able to keep up that pace when he returns from the DL, but for now it earns him a spot on the team.

Apologies to: Jayson Werth (60 runs, 20 homers), Ryan Braun (61 runs, .921 OPS), Carl Crawford (44 steals), Nelson Cruz (22 homers, 13 steals), Justin Upton (.918 OPS), Jermaine Dye (20 homers, .942 OPS), Johnny Damon (62 runs, 16 “Yankee Stadium is Coors’ Field East” home runs), Adam Lind (.928 OPS), Dunn (23 homers, 62 RBI, .943 OPS).
















STARTING PITCHER

Dan Haren, Diamondbacks. Zack Greinke stole the headlines early, and Tim Lincecum has been unhittable late, but Haren has been a monster all season long while toiling in Arizona. Though he’s managed just nine wins (five coming in his last six starts), Haren leads all hurlers in both ERA (2.01) and WHIP (0.81) while racking up 129 strikeouts (tied for fifth among starters). If the Diamondbacks had scored some more runs for him earlier in the season (the team combined for a paltry three runs in his first four starts), he’d be having a fantasy season for the ages. As is stands, he’s just been really fucking good.

Apologies to: Lincecum (10 wins, league-leading 149 strikeouts, 2.33 ERA, 1.05 WHIP), Greinke (10 wins, 129 K’s, 2.12 ERA, 1.08 WHIP), Justin Verlander (10 wins, 149 K’s), Felix Hernandez (2.53 ERA, 1.14 WHIP), Roy Halladay (10 wins, 1.10 WHIP), Josh Beckett (11 wins, 1.15 WHIP).












RELIEF PITCHER

Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers. Broxton has stumbled of late, allowing five runs in his last two innings of work, including an ugly three-walk performance in San Diego. As such, his ERA has risen to a less-than-stellar 3.10. But even with those outings he’s been fantasy’s best reliever, primarily on the strength of his incredible 65 strikeouts (only Andrew Bailey and Rafael Soriano are close, with 60 and 58 K’s, respectively). That number translates to a sterling 14.4 K/9IP ratio, easily tops in the class. Broxton also leads all relievers in wins with six while having amassed a solid 20 saves and a nifty 0.93 WHIP. Assuming he can snap out of his current slump, he’s likely to remain a fantasy stud in the second half of the year.

Apologies to: Joe Nathan (23 saves, 1.31 ERA, league-leading 0.73 WHIP), Heath Bell (23 saves, 1.69 ERA, 1.07 WHIP), Huston Street (22 saves, 0.99 WHIP), Mariano Rivera (23 saves, 0.89 WHIP), Ryan Franklin (21 saves, absurd 0.79 ERA, 0.79 WHIP), Francisco Rodriguez (23 saves, 1.90 ERA), David Aardsma (20 saves, 51 K’s, 1.96 ERA).
















And there you have it. Sound off in the Comments if you feel I neglected anyone in particular, though be prepared for a response that is condescending, stat-heavy, and artfully jumbled. Till next summer.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Three Movies from 2009 You Need to See

I was originally planning on publishing a mid-year Top 10 list for movies of 2009 as cousin my Best Songs list, but after thinking about it, I decided such a compilation would be dishonest. To me, a film’s appearance on any type of Top 10 list – even one constructed halfway through the year – implies an earnest recommendation, and if I told you that I earnestly recommend 10 distinct movies that have already been released thus far this year, I’d be lying.

Not that I’m lamenting the state of cinema in 2009; given that Hollywood studios systematically backload their release schedules more than the Yankees back-loaded Derek Jeter’s contract, it’s only fair to assume that the best of the year have yet to come (in my Top 10 list of 2008, eight of the 10 selections were released in the latter half of the year). Nor am I denying that I’ve already watched a fair number of perfectly decent movies this year; in fact, of the 28 films I’ve seen in theatres thus far, I at least enjoyed roughly two-thirds them. But with apologies to entertaining, well-made fare such as The Brothers Bloom, Coraline, The Hangover, I Love You, Man, The Soloist, Star Trek, and State of Play (sadly, I’ve yet to see The Hurt Locker), none of those perfectly respectable films dazzled me enough to warrant a Must-See label.

Unlike these three. When I say that the following three films are Must-See, I mean that literally: You must see these films. Until you do, your life will be incomplete. I am a happier, more fulfilled human being for having experienced these movies. And that’s that.

(Note: The jury is still deliberating on whether Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is a Must-See film. We intend to return a verdict following our second viewing of the picture. Thank you for your patience.)


3. Up. I know what you want to ask, so I’ll just get it out of the way now: No, Pixar’s Up is not as good as Wall-E. Please don’t mistake me, however; my feelings on this matter say far more about my unadulterated love for Wall-E than they do about my heartfelt enthusiasm for Up. A light, fanciful, consistently pleasing, often breathtaking adventure film, Up solidifies Pixar’s position (not that it needed any fortification, but no matter) as the preeminent animation studio in the movie business. As Pixar pictures go, Up is fairly conventional (well, insofar as a movie about a grizzled widower traveling to South America by way of a flying house can be termed conventional), but it is nevertheless a delight. With well-rounded (or in Carl Frederickson’s case, well-squared) characters, a suspenseful plot, dialogue that veers from dependably funny to downright uproarious, and vibrant, beautifully textured animation, Up is a prime example of everything a major Hollywood production can be.

I should also note that the first 15 minutes of Up are, quite simply, transcendent. It’s almost unfair because the majesty of the movie’s first quarter-hour can tempt viewers into the perception that the remainder of the film is inferior, even if that remainder is beautiful, funny, and just damn good. But the introduction simply operates on another plane. The projectionist could have set fire to the reels 15 minutes in, and I still would have received my money’s worth.











2. Adventureland. It’s almost odd that I felt such a personal connection to Adventureland, Greg Mottola’s quiet, sneakily great coming-of-age dramedy. It’s not like my late-adolescent life mirrored that of James Brennan, portrayed perfectly in the film by Jesse Eisenberg (soon to be a household name if there’s any justice in the world). Sure, I get the whole “nerdy Jewish kid is incredibly horny and awkward around girls” thing, but I never smoked pot, never suffered through a degrading summer job, and never had anywhere near the success James manages when working women. But the emotional truths revealed in Adventureland are universal, and Mottola’s screenplay relays them with effortlessness and nimble wit, as do his lead actors. Eisenberg continues to refine the quirky personality he first authored in Roger Dodger into a youth of both vulnerable innocence and world-wise intelligence, while Kristen Stewart has proven to be an actress who can say a great deal while speaking very little – the exquisite hesitancy and self-doubt she displays in Adventureland is heart-wrenching. Here is a movie that appears unassuming only to establish itself as a cornerstone of its amorphous genre. And shame on all of you for not seeing it in theatres when you had the chance.

(Seriously, $16 million at the box office for something this great? Meanwhile, motherfucking Monsters vs. Aliens is making a push for $200 million domestic gross. I give up.)










1. Duplicity. Just pure pleasure. An unapologetically slick exercise of unparalleled elegance, Duplicity is coy, wry, and shamefully self-indulgent. It is also utterly exhilarating. One would think that a playful spy flick – Non-linear storytelling! Double-crosses! MI6 vs. CIA! – with such a self-aware spin would reduce itself to something wispy and ephemeral, but that would discount writer-director Tony Gilroy’s unimpeachable command. Ruthlessly formal yet impossibly breezy, Duplicity keeps viewers engaged (dare I say breathless?) by combining a light, jovial air with calculated, precision filmmaking. Gilroy composes every shot with nuance and care, and his screenplay coils and snaps, but his sense of atmosphere is so enchanting that there is no dogged, film-school air about the proceedings. The chemistry between Julia Roberts (in her sexiest performance since Pretty Woman) and Clive Owen (who is, let’s face it, sexy in everything) positively crackles, and the terrifically complicated plot teases the viewer with gradual revelations only to double back on itself for another surprise. The result is an invigorating motion picture, one that pleases without shame. Here’s a movie that made me happy that movies exist.

One other note: Gilroy, for my money, seems to be the American answer to Britain’s Joe Wright, a man whose first two movies – the captivating Pride & Prejudice and the devastating Atonement – immediately granted him status as an auteur. After 15 years as a screenwriter, Gilroy’s directorial debut was Michael Clayton, one of the most perfect movies I have ever seen. Now we have Duplicity. I, for one, cannot wait to see what he has in store for us next.