Five Easy Pieces

April 26, 2007

Second great reason to return…

Filed under: Movies — danletscher @ 10:30 pm

CASINO ROYALE

Bond, James Bond.  It isn’t said until the last line of the movie.  That’s because he wasn’t “Bond, James Bond” until that point.  “Casino Royale” was big for two reasons when it was released last November: Bond was being portrayed by a new guy – Daniel Craig – and this was the first novel in the series by Ian Fleming that introduced Bond to the world.  This was the chance to re-invent the character by showing his christening as a 007 agent, done very stylishly and brutally in black and white in the signature epilogue, and give him a new face after Pierce Brosnan casually dragged the Bond persona across coarse pavement and left in it a bloody and shredded pulp.  Hmmm, do I sound bitter?  Maybe Brosnan doesn’t deserve the bad blood since the storylines and outrageousness of the last few films all but transcended whoever was cast in them, except Halle Berry, the most outrageous Best Actress winner of my time.  People think Marisa Tomei winning an Oscar was a fluke?  Watch “Slums of Beverly Hills” and you’ll see her act circles around anything Halle Berry has done.

“Casino Royale” does a great job of getting Craig right into the action.  Besides the opening scene (after all, you have to kill to get a license to kill), he is thrown right into a downright daring and deadly footrace through a village in Madagascar.  From there the plot goes a little haywire and then comes back into focus – Bond stopped the biggest bankroller of terrorism in the world from making a killing in a powerplay of stock.  Now, that bad guy must make back over $100 million to keep some assorted terrorists and factions from hunting his ass down and putting the terror on him.  He stages a very high stakes game of poker in the Bahamas – $10 million to get in the game – to make his money back.  Bond goes to play and decimate the guy with the blessing, and bankroll, of the British government.

The rest of the movie plays out in a very satisfying way, much as the older films of Sean Connery’s day did. Go back and take another look at “Dr. No”, “Goldfinger” or “From Russia With Love” – not a lot of over-the-top action or high-tech gadgetry but consistent intensity, intrigue and plot.  This film runs almost two and a half hours but coasts along and never feels sluggish.  Daniel Craig is a great Bond.  He creeped me out in “Road to Perdition” as Paul Newman’s petulant, murderous and bitterly jealous son.  He surprised me in “Layer Cake”  as the “good” drug dealer doing one last deal to get out (he takes a punch more than once and doesn’t fight back, much like Gabriel Byrne in “Miller’s Crossing”).  The ending of “Layer Cake” still pisses me off, by the way.  Here, Craig makes Bond a tough, arrogant son-of-a-bitch that doesn’t let a sliver of doubt show in his execution.

Welcome back Bond.  The new one is supposed to be ready for 2008 and I can’t wait.

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First great reason to return…

Filed under: Movies — danletscher @ 9:18 pm

I’m Back. It may seem silly or just idiotic but I was so let down by the Xavier loss to OSU in the NCAA that I couldn’t write. I planned on making grandiose entries after that game and the rest of the tourney but the whole tourney lost its pull on me. I have rehashed that f**king game over and over in my mind and with my friends. There’s nothing left to say but “just wait til next year”. Besides the XU debacle, I have started a new job. That also contributed to my non-blogging because I was afforded down time on my last job which I could use to write bits and pieces of reviews, etc. Trust me, there is very little that has been written in one shot on this page. I don’t have that luxury anymore.

Four things happened in the last week and a half to get me back here. This is the first:

CHILDREN OF MEN, directed by Alfonso Cuaron

God almighty – what a helluva flick. A+, four stars, whatever you want to call it. Clive Owen is given the daunting task of protecting and transporting the first pregnant woman on Earth in the last eighteen years. The year is 2027 and the youngest person on Earth has just died (18 years old or so). The world is a horrid place. Theo (Owen) is contacted by his former wife Julian (Julianne Moore) , now the leader of a resistance faction. She needs him to help “deliver” a woman, Kee, to a specific destination by getting her fake credentials. The catch turns out to be he can only pass her off with the fake credentials if they travel as a couple. Simple. But not quite.

He soon learns he is accompanying the “Eve” of the new world. The Human Project is the destination, a “we think they exist” group trying to preserve the human race. Theo becomes her only hope and they are soon racing to get their rendezvous. To tell much more plot would leak too much detail. I want to focus on the pure beauty of the film as art.

There are very few films that can make me want to immediately re-watch a scene or the whole film. There are two segments in “Children of Men” that just blew me away – and the expertise with which they were executed will be overlooked by the majority of viewers:

First, there is a scene where Theo, Julian, Kee and two others are riding in a car after Theo has been introduced to the group. The take starts as Julian awakes after napping in the car; there is playful banter, humor, then shock, fear, violence, death and just pure confusion surrounding the whole scene. It lasts for 6 or 7 minutes and is done in one take with one camera. Absolutely amazing. You have to see it but you’ll know it when you see it and you’ll want to watch it again to relish in how incredibly it is staged and captured on film. I believe it is about 25 or 30 minutes into the film. I wish I had the track number and minute mark off the DVD but I don’t.

Second, later in the film Theo and Kee are attempting to escape a literal war zone – the “rebels” are battling with the military in and around an already devastated streetscape. Kee has been snatched from Theo by the resistance faction and he is pursuing the. The camera follows him guerrilla-style through shoot-outs, barricades and a burned-out school bus where someone is shot and the blood spray leaves droplets on the camera lens. The camera never flinches, the blood drops blur the screen and the scene goes on and on. For about 12 minutes. And your heart never stops racing. Invigorating film making!! Stanley Kubrick blew me away with the set of “Full Metal Jacket”, looking like he blew up an entire city to film the climax of that film. Cuaron takes it ten steps further in portraying the Hell that Theo and Kee must endure to try to reach their goal.

Hats off to Clive Owen for getting the shit beat out of him throughout the film; he is a ragged shell of a man desperately trying to do the right thing while depending on his flask and smokes to help him cope. This is the finest film I have seen in a long time. “The Departed” as Best Picture for last year? No way – this one gets my vote as of now.

March 15, 2007

The Holiday

Filed under: Movies — danletscher @ 8:24 pm

I had mixed feelings when “The Holiday” came out in the theaters. Working in its favor were: Kate Winslet, an extremely talented actress with a career I have followed since the haunting “Heavenly Creatures” [Peter Jackson’s breakthrough]; Jack Black, funnier than hell but teetering on overexposure and career self-parody; and Jude Law, a good actor who just needs better roles. Working against it: Cameron Diaz, sentimentality, gimmicky premise, “chick flick” labeling. First thought upon its release was “definite DVD viewing” – but pretty much everything is home entertainment with two young kids; if we’re getting a sitter we’re going OUT, not sitting in a theater. It was a pleasant surprise that it was a pretty good movie.

The film is written and directed by Nancy Meyers, the writer/director of “Something’s Gotta Give”; not a bad movie either, but it suffered from some miscasting and could have been 45 minutes shorter. Nothing will kill a good movie more than a laborious, bloated running time. “The Holiday” was a little long at 130+ minutes but never got tedious to watch. The premise is a little out there – do complete strangers on separate continents really chat online for 3 minutes and then decide to swap houses for two weeks over Christmas break without ever meeting, or at least talking? That’s what Iris (Winslet) and Amanda (Diaz) do. Iris is a meek newspaper writer living alone in a quaint cottage in Surrey, England and she wants to escape the unrequited love she has for an ex-boyfriend (Rufus Sewell) who just got engaged. Amanda is a high-strung movie trailer producer living in a posh mansion in Los Angeles, CA and she just broke up with her cheating cad of a boyfriend (Ed Burns). They both need a break and alone time where they don’t know anyone. Let the swapping begin.

It’s not long before each is meeting new people, i.e. men, and experiencing & enjoying life again. Both story lines play out well and take unexpected turns that allow each of the actors to show some depth. Until those moments though we have to endure the physical comedy schtick Diaz must put in every role she plays (she needs to stop it) and Winslet uncharacteristically acting like a cheesy girl, dancing and lip-syching (she definitely needs to stop that!). The movie gets better after Diaz meets Iris’ brother Graham (Law), they move past the awkward “sex first, conversation and relationship later” phase and we learn more about Graham’s situation and watch him and Amanda evolve over 2 weeks.  Iris meets two men: Miles (Black), a composer who scores Amanda’s trailers & Arthur (Eli Wallach, doing a great job as the lovable old guy), a elderly screenwriter from Hollywood’s golden days that lives next door.  Iris grows close to Arthur, helping out with chores and brightening his days (and hers) with intelligent and platonic conversation and companionship.  Her and Miles pal around a few times and develop a flirty, and initially innocent, friendship.

The parallel structure allows for adequate time with each story arc.  I enjoyed the many references to movies in general.  Amanda’s job producing the movie trailers creeps into her psyche and she periodically envisions her life edited into mini-movies, complete with soundtrack and cheesy voice overs. It’s well done and earns the laughs.  Iris is involved with “industry” guys.  She listens to Arthur compare and contrast the movie “reality” with real reality.  He also gives her a list of 50 classics to watch, prompting a visit to the video store with Miles and a “Jack Black moment” of him reproducing classic movie themes.  As I said earlier, he teeters on annoyance but still makes you laugh.  I personally loved the admiration he has for the soundtrack of “The Mission” by Ennio Morricone, I used to listen to that in college a lot as a study and sleep aid.  There are other “movie moments” and they don’t come across as forced or like stunts, like so many pop culture remarks or visuals in today’s entertainment.

Nancy Meyers does a good job with this one.  Because of the tone throughout the film you get the feeling that she knows when she is being sappy, cheesy, or even too earnest.  Meyers did a good job, in “Something’s Gotta Give” and has done it again here in “The Holiday”, of presenting love and relationships in a way that shouldn’t scare away men.  I was pleasantly surprised and continue to be even as I write this.

The Prestige

Filed under: Movies — danletscher @ 2:13 pm

I thoroughly enjoyed this one. “The Prestige” is Christopher Nolan’s latest achievement, and he is wracking them up in my book. “Memento” and “Batman Begins” were both excellent, while “Insomnia” was decent but a little limp. His next project is the Batman sequel “The Dark Knight” set for release in 2008.

Robert Angier and Alfred Borden are turn-of-the-century London magicians. They start out as “volunteers” from the audience and soon become the main acts themselves.  Their relationship takes a roller coaster ride through death, attempted murders, deceptions, sabotages, obsessions and illusions.  Angier (Hugh Jackman – he looks like a very young Clint Eastwood more and more) embodies the showman side of their trade, making up in spectacle what he lacks in creativity.  Borden (Christian Bale– I can watch this guy in any flick, really good) represents the quiet, darker side of the coin – he has the ingenuity and originality but has no spark in connecting with the audience.  After they part ways, their paths continue to cross as competing entertainment in London. They each do their best to promote themselves while interfering with each other’s momentum.

The story is told by overlapping three timelines. (1) Angiers commandeers Borden’s diary and follows the clues in it to the mountains of Colorado and the electricity experiments of Nikola Tesla (David Bowie).   Angiers is convinced the great secret of Borden’s master trick, The Transported Man, is there and he wants Tesla to provide him the same knowledge and technology to perform it. The voiceover of Borden reciting the diary entries acts as narration for Angiers. (2) Borden sits in a prison cell awaiting a death sentence for murder. He receives a delivery – Angiers’ diary of his experience in Colorado. As he reads it, Angiers narrates his entries describing his Colorado trip and his reading of Borden’s diary. Got that? (3) These two are intertwined around the series of events which led them to their respective journeys mentioned in (1) and (2).

It’s no wonder Nolan tackles this convoluted narrative arc successfully.  In “Memento” he delivered an innovative technique by telling the story backwards, creating a murder mystery where the mystery isn’t who was killed and who did the killing, but why things unfolded as they did.  It was engaging and provided lots of twists.  “The Prestige” accomplishes the same results.  The movie as a whole becomes a clever sleight-of-hand trick.  I’ll stop now so as not to spoil the fun.  The film opens with Michael Caine delivering a voice-over explaining the idea behind a magic trick – it’s the definition of the film as well:

“Every great magic trick consists of three acts. The first act is called “The Pledge”; The magician shows you something ordinary, but of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”; The magician makes his ordinary something do something extraordinary. Now if you’re looking for the secret… you won’t find it, that’s why there’s a third act called, “The Prestige”; this is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, and you see something shocking you’ve never seen before.”

Good documentary to watch

Filed under: Movies — danletscher @ 10:33 am

Tiffany and I watched “This Film is Not Yet Rated” last week.  It takes a close look at the MPAA and the methods they use in arriving at the ratings assigned to movies released in the USA.  It gives goofy animated tidbits on the ratings and what supposedly constitutes and justifies each assigned rating – either G, PG,Pg-13, R or NC-17.  The film divides its time between (1) interviews and analysis with directors & actors discussing their silly adventures with the ratings process and (2) the pursuit of identifying the confidential identities the members of the ratings board by private investigators.  The director of the film, Kirby Dick [wow, the MPAA didn’t make him change his name?], has determined that the MPAA is the second most secretive society in America, behind only the CIA.  After the identities of the board members are revealed in a humorous “America’s Most Wanted” format, the film culminates in an amusing segment documenting Kirby Dick’s submission of this film to the MPAA.  The phone conversations with the MPAA director and the lawyers are priceless.  There is deception, lies and a simmering contempt throughout all the  conversations.

The focus of the outrage over the MPAA’s ratings system is sex; specifically how sex is treated as so taboo and violence is given the “kid gloves” treatment.  It is only fitting that this documentary was given a rating of NC-17 [though released as “unrated”, a little “screw you” to the MPAA] for showing examples of the sexual material filmmakers had to edit out of their films to get the MPAA’s seal of approval for an R rating.  There is also the accusation made that the MPAA panders to the big studio systems of Hollywood, alienating the independent filmmakers and smaller financiers.  Matt Stone, co-creator of “South Park”, tells how the first feature he made with  partner Trey Parker – an ultra-low budget film called “Orgazmo” – was given an NC-17 for sexual material.  Stone details the strict policy of the MPAA to not divulge any specific scenes or instances that cause alarm because that would censorship.  However, when the duo made “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” at Paramount Studios they were treated entirely different, provided detailed instructions of what was offensive and what needed to be cut or altered to gain the R rating.  The preferential treatment assures that big studios get their films cleared quicker and moved along in the process, while independent studios and directors are left to guess what to edit for the appeals process.

I can’t say that these bits of criticism are revelations within the industry or news to fans of the movies.  It is amusing to listen to the directors detail their frustration and bewilderment over pubic hair exposure and scenes of sexual enjoyment.  Apparently, the MPAA has a real problem with orgasmic moaning and satisfied smiles and eye-rolling – regardless that the camera is on the face of the actor and there is no nudity or motion.  It’s absolutely ridiculous.   Be sure to watch the first 8 minute segment of the deleted scenes on the DVD.  It is outtake clips of the interviews of John Waters, Kevin Smith and Matt Stone (all featured prominently in the actual film) and is funnier than hell.

My Bracket (*and where to print the best one)

Filed under: Sports — danletscher @ 8:31 am

My Bracket

I found a great fillable bracket on Kansas University’s site – register your email for free and they send you a confirmation. Click their link, create user id and password and go the men’s basketball page and look on the right hand column for “bracket: generator”. It’s nice because you click on the team, you want and they advance them for you. Keep clicking and your complete bracket is filled in and then downloadable as a pdf (adobe) file. Very clean, until you start scratching off the missed picks!

Apparently blood is not thicker than the bracket

Filed under: Sports — danletscher @ 8:08 am

** Both of my brothers are cursing my name right now.  I have their alma maters losing in the first round of the tourney.  My oldest brother Scott is a Marquette graduate and my older brother Tim is a Notre Dame grad.  I pick MSU to beat MU – I just can’t go against Izzo, the man is magic in March.  I think Marquette has the better talent overall but the coaching mentor will take down the protege.  I have Winthrop beating ND, much to the chagrin of my brother and my father.  My dad is a fan as well but also thinks Winthrop is a creation of the media, doing their best to pick the “George Mason” of this tournament.   The three brothers will get through this turbulent time; I mean, do we look like we don’t stick together?The Letscher Boys

** I really wanted Syracuse to lose in the NIT last night, but they didn’t thanks to South Alabama’s self-destruction. They were on their way to humiliation losing 59-50 with 11+ minutes to go.  Then S.A. went to sleep, didn’t score for 7+ minutes and Syracuse scored 18 unanswered pts.  Damn.

** Granted the Xavier/BYU game isn’t getting as much hype as the other #8/#9 games – except that the winner gets to face OSU – but it’s understandably impossible to take the spotlight from the other three games.  Serious marquee names and major conglomerate, er…I mean conference  representation.  Marquette vs. Michigan State;  Arizona vs. Purdue; Kentucky vs. Villanova.  The 8 teams in the #8/9 match-ups have too many national titles, final fours, elite 8s, sweet 16s, overall NCAA appearances, conference tourney titles and regular season titles to compute.  The numbers are through the roof.  For the record I have XU, Nova, MSU and Arizona advancing.

** I’m really glad that XU plays late tonight (est. 9:40pm tip).  No work, no kids – just me and the game and a few St. Pauli Girls.  Of course, I will have the phone next to me keeping in touch with my fellow XU gurus in Connecticut, Michigan and Ohio.

What a shot!

Filed under: Sports — danletscher @ 7:29 am

Check this one out…Oregon H.S state playoffs…halftime buzzer beater…360, over the shoulder halfcourt shot…????

March 14, 2007

NCAA…finally

Filed under: Sports — danletscher @ 11:04 am

It’s here.  Niagara kicked off the tourney last night in low fashion with the “play-in” victory and now get the privilege of playing Kansas…

** My worst fear for Xavier came true last Friday night as they lost to Rhode Island in the A-10 semis and cost themselves a higher seed in the NCAA bracket.  The silver lining is that GW won the tourney and made the NCAA for the 3rd straight year, getting the conference more exposure and tourney revenue.  I watched the XU game, thanks to my friend Dan’s satellite dish, and was nervous the whole way.  It was a close blow-for-blow game and unfortunately XU fell into the December/January habit of heaving threes and playing desperate in the final three minutes.  They looked lost and Sean Miller was outcoached by A-10 coach of the year Jim Barron.  Once again, Drew Lavender was outstanding.  But URI was nailing a lot of shots and was very aggressive to the boards.

** That set up XU for an 8/9 matchup with BYU.  I am not familiar with them but have read that they have two big guys that may be a matchup problem.  And Danny Ainge’s kid is the point guard – I hate Danny Ainge.  XU will have to play some lockdown D and work it inside to get their guys in foul trouble.  The outside shots of Lavender and Burrell need to fall because Doellman, Cage and Duncan may get roughed up inside and could get into foul trouble themselves.  It’s too bad Brandon Cole has become invisible after his impressive contributions following Duncan’s ankle sprain.  He has been horrible the past few games and could be a liability on Thursday night.  After solid play, he’s back to his “hands of stone” mode and the turnovers are costly.

Of course, I have Xavier beating BYU and then overcoming the Buckeyes in round 2 to advance to the Sweet 16.  OSU is damn good but our guys are very experienced and will not give a shit if they have the phenomenal freshmen.  Regardless of their Big Ten tourney weekend, they are not unstoppable.  Hell, if Penn State and Michigan can play them to the wire, XU can certainly pull this one off.  XU will then beat Virginia, setting up a good grudge match with them when X goes to Cavalier-land next season (UVA comes to Cincy in ’08).  But I see X’s road ending in the Elite 8 again (as in 2004).  Texas A&M and Acie Law is my pick for the Final Four.  The other three are Georgetown, Florida and Pitt.  Florida wins it all over A&M.  I wanted to pick someone else but they have easiest path through the regional and may be unstoppable after that momentum.

** Upsets are usually dictated as lesser teams beating better (i.e. major conference) teams.  That’s B.S. in the tourney thanks to seeding and the intangible of being there in the moment.  As I said in an earlier post, my paper tiger is #3 Washington State.  I have #14 Oral Roberts taking them out in the 1st round.  In the same regional bracket I have #11 George Washington beating #6 Vanderbilt.  GW will run their asses off and may be sloppy but if they can overcome the erratic shooting lapses they fall prey to, they’ll win.  #12 Old Dominion beats #5 Butler.  I wish I could pick Davidson over Maryland but Gary Williams always brings a solid team to the tourney, regardless of their season – much like Izzo at MSU, barring last year’s stunner to George Mason.  Another #12 over #5 is Illinois beating Va. Tech.  *If only one lower seed wins in the 1st round (besides XU, since they are the 9 in the 8/9 equation!), please let it be #11 Virginia Commonwealth beating (unjustified) #6 Duke.

** I  don’t get the backlash against Xavier by ESPN.  They are on ESPN, ESPN2 & ESPNU 10 times this year (going 9-1), getting constant praise by the announcers and studio guys all year, and then get dumped on by Jay Bilas, Andy Katz, et al for getting an at-large over the likes of Syracuse and Florida St.  Smells like Billy Packer in here.  XU received only one of 6 at-large bids granted to teams outside of the Big 6 conferences.  Their resume has been lauded all season long and were anticipated as locks by Joe Lunardi, Jerry Palm and other “bracketologists” well before Sunday night.  And enough about losing to Duquesne!!  We lost to them at Duquesne during their winningest point of the season.  Boston College lost to them in the non-conference schedule AT Boston College!!  No one mentions that one.  There is some love for Xavier out there though.  Thanks to my father for forwarding this one vote of confidence to me.  I’m done, I have to breathe now.

March 8, 2007

Championship Week is rolling along

Filed under: Sports — danletscher @ 10:53 pm

God, I love this! Xavier rolled over Dayton for the third time this season with dominating play from the core of 2 seniors and 3 juniors. They all scored double digits – in fact they were the only players to score for X. Smothering defense forced Dayton into 8+ minutes of scoreless basketball. Xavier PG Drew Lavender continued his hot streak – 13 pts, 3 steals, 9 assists and only 1 turnover. They take on Rhode Island tomorrow night; they beat URI by 26 two weeks ago.

St. Louis beat UMass in OT, so that pretty much crushes their chance at a NCAA bid. Xavier is a lock according to all the gurus, so the only chance for the A-10 to get a second team in is for someone other than XU winning the tournament final on Saturday. I’d like to see the conference get two teams in but don’t want to see XU take it on the chin to accomplish that. I want to be riding an 11 game winning streak going into the Dance.

I just finished watching the endings of the Louisville/West Virginia double OT game and the NC State/Duke OT game. The Cards and the Wolfpack prevailed. I am like so many sports fans; Duke doesn’t have to do anything other than be Duke to inspire scorn for their success and giddiness for the failure. Actually, I do have a damn good reason to piss on them – they stopped Xavier’s miraculous 2004 run in the NCAA, beating X by three to advance to the Final Four.

I’m now watching Marquette/Pitt in another great game. The refs are letting them bang and it’s a tie game with 7 minutes to go in the first half. The first two games for these teams were awesome (I watched both) and this is the same. I say just let them wear boxing gloves and beat the shit out of each other.

It’s going to be another late night. I was up last night watching the ASU/Washington game til after 1:00 am. I’ll be doing the same for Wash/Wash St. I saw Wash St. play once and they did not look like a top 15 team to me, but their success in the PAC-10 is tough to argue with. I want to see them at least one more time so I can be comfortable in picking them to lose in the 1st round of the NCAA tourney. I just can’t help seeing them as a perfect paper tiger to take an early fall.

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