Sunday, September 30, 2007

TerMET Art: Amazin', but not in the way I'd like

This is the view from my seats at last year's National League Divisional Playoffs. I had tickets to this year's playoffs too, but I'll never know what glorious Shea Stadium would look like from those seats. Because this year, there are no playoffs for the New York Mets, thanks to a historic collapse for the ages. There is no joy in Mudville. Mighty Luis has struck out.

With seventeen games left to play, the Mets had a seven game lead in the National League East and until today, no team had ever had a lead that large with that few games left to play and not made the playoffs. Night after night this wretched September, the Mets let the Philadelphia Phillies inch closer, and when they played head-to-head, the Phils swept on two separate occasions.

The team's problems lately have been pretty fundamental: no one could pitch a lick. Just look at these scores in recent weeks: 13-4, 12-4, 9-8, 8-7, 10-6. Today they lost 8-1 after Tom Glavine, their most dependendable starter all year and team's alleged stopper gave up 7 runs in less than an inning. When your best pitcher gives that kind of performance in the biggest game of the year, what do you expect to happen?

For those who watched closely, the warning signs were there all year — particularly the team's poor play at home (they finished with a winning percentage of just .500 at Shea) coupled with their surprisingly bad record against the N.L. East — but they were easy to overlook with an offense as dominant as the Mets'. That is until the pitching finally got so bad that no lead was safe. In the final week of the season, the Mets lost 6 games out of 7, and they held leads in most of them.

You'd think I'd be mad, and I was for a while. But by Friday I'd decided: I wanted the Mets to lose. Why? Two reasons: first, they were playing so unbelievably poorly they didn't deserve to make the playoffs, and I had no interest in watching the team limp in and then get slaughtered by the Arizona Diamondbacks (a far better team than most people realize). Second: holding a record as ignoble as this one feel so very right for a franchise so very inept.

Granted, the Mets have had more success than other teams. Being a Mets fan has rarely been as painful as being a Red Sox fan before 2004, or as being a Cubs fan at any point in the last century (which is why I'm rooting hard for the Cubbies throughout the postseason). But the Mets have a remarkable knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They blow leads. They can't hit in the clutch. They make dumb trades. Even some of their greatest moments are emblamatic of their eternal failures: utility outfielder Endy Chavez has become a Mets folk hero for his remarkable catch during Game 7 of the NLCS last year against the St. Louis Cardinals. After making a catch like that, most teams would ride the momentum to a decisive victory. Not the Mets; they ultimately lost the game 3-1 to the eventual World Champs.

Last year, when the Mets steamrolled the entire National League (right up until running into the red-hot Cards in the NLCS), I began to forget the agony of rooting for the lovable losers of the New York Mets. With the additions of young stars like Jose Reyes and David Wright and talented veterans like Pedro Martinez and Carlos Delgado, I'd begun to forget the way the Mets have typically played for most of my adult life: tentatively with the expectation that at any moment something could go wrong. I think a true Mets fan expects the Mets to lose and this week showed exactly why.

And so it's time to fire up the hot stove and hope for the best while expecting the worst. It's what Mets fans like me do. And judging from the way this team played out the end of the 2007 season, I'll be doing it for a long time to come.


Friday, September 28, 2007

IFC News: Matt Takes on TO

High art, thy name is IFC News.


Termite Television: Private Screening: Lemmon/Matthau

Just a note of praise for a fine show I watched on my DVR last night. It was an old episode of the infrequent Turner Classic Movies series Private Screening, where Hollywood legends sit down with TCM host Robert Osborne to discuss their career. This installment featured two guests: Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. It was one of the best hours of television I've seen in months.

The show was taped in 1998, as a promotional vehicle for the release of the unwatchable film, The Odd Couple II (this show is, in retrospect, the film's only positive effect). And so while there is far too much back-slapping about how amazing their new movie is (including Lemmon making the absurd statement that other to Some Like it Hot, Odd Couple II is the best comedy script he's ever read...uh, no Jack.) there is still plenty of time for my favorite onscreen duo (you heard me) to kibbitz about their careers. The grumpy old men are even candid enough to share some honest criticism of their work — Lemmon, like most viewers, finds Buddy Buddy a little lacking — as well as some hilarious stories. My favorite involved Lemmon taking Matthau to a sneak preview of his film Alex & The Gypsy. The screening, like the rest of that film's release, was a huge disaster; as the audience angrily filed out they wouldn't even look at Lemmon was sitting there waiting for their approval! After enduring the entire film, Lemmon turned to Matthau and asked, "So Walt, what did you think?" Matthau's response: "Get out of the picture!"

Though I often find Osborne to be a little stiff in his introductions, this nearly ten year old show definitely finds him in finer, more lively form and really showcases his talents as an interviewer; doing a long-form interview like this, with two different subjects who need to be balanced throughout is far more difficult than Osborne makes it look. Now if he'd only show this sort of enthusiam when he's introducing Stagecoach for the thirtieth time.

If you've never seen their great collaborations with Billy Wilder, The Fortune Cookie or their vastly underrated (even by themselves!) take on The Front Page, do yourself a favor and Netflix them. And if this show is ever on again, watch it.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

New Wes Anderson Film Online

...his new short film anyway.

Hotel Chevalier is the 13-minute prologue to Anderson's upcoming feature, The Darjeeling Limited, which opens the New York Film Festival tomorrow night before launching in select theaters.

Chevalier stars Jason Schwarztman (playing the same role he does in Darjeeling) alongside Natalie Portman as a character who is discussed throughout the feature but never seen. It's been screened before Darjeeling on the festival circuit, but it's been removed from the theatrical print. Why, I dunno; I heard rumblings that Fox Searchlight thinks it makes the whole experience a bit too long, but that seems silly because it really doesn't.

In any event, the short provides some crucial background for Schwartzman's character -- frankly, without Chevalier, he probably wouldn't make a whole lot of sense. So -- and this is kind of the cool part -- Anderson & co. have made the short available for free download on iTunes. If you plan on seeing Darjeeling, you're gonna want to check it out first.

Oh and Natalie Portman is naked in it. FYI.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

NYFF: Flight of the Red Balloon

I weasled my way into a press screening of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon last night, and I fell in love with it unabashedly. It's the best film I've seen all year, next to Jia Zhangke's Still Life. The story comes later, the images come first. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin (Three Times, In the Mood For Love) crafts some incredibly beautiful images - most of them inside a cramped apartment in Paris. Arguing with neighbors, making crepes, and Playing PlayStation 2 have never looked so ravishing. Every surface seems to reflect the few streams of light in the room, and all seem to pulse with life. It's fun to just let the eye wander over the space. It's a film where the world and its objects trump the story, and Hou gives plenty of room for the viewer to explore.

Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) and her son Simon (Simon Iteanu) live inside this room. Binoche, with horrid blond-dye job, beat up Chuck Taylors, and thrift-store dresses, is the ever-harried queen of this castle, an aging boho actress in upscale puppet shows with a deadbeat ex-husband. She always seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but manages to keep her family's life moving anyway. It's an idiosyncratic, thoroughly winning performance.

She hires Song (Fang Song) as a nanny for Simon. Song is a film student from China, making her own adaptation of Albert Lamorisse's short film The Red Balloon (1956). A clear stand-in for Hou himself, she quietly eases into Parisian culture, using her camera to remember street directions along with making her movie.

It's main focus,though, is childhood. The opening shot of the film finds Simon imploring a red balloon that's stuck in a tree to come back to him. For the rest of the film, the balloon follows Simon's activities, peeking behind windows, sunroofs and subway doors. It's not particularly symbolic, but acts as more of a silent witness to Simon's home life, a marker for a time that Simon will eventually forget. Perhaps that's why I found the smallest, most everday gestures in the movie so moving - these are moments and gesture that will disappear - and rendered so luminously by Ping-bin, that's a sad thing indeed.

Monday, September 24, 2007

NYT: "Nashville's Band of Outsiders"

Ann Patchett's article for the New York Times Travel Magazine, "Band Of Outsiders", is a lazy piece of writing that irritated my crotchety side enough to write this overlong response. The article profiles the neighborhood of East Nashville, where alt-country/Americana artists like Todd Snider and Gillian Welch have made their homes. A fine subject for a travel magazine, but the danger signs of solipsism appear early. In the first paragraph she claims, "Carrie Underwood's album has sold over six million copies, and yet I don't know a single person who owns it." How is this relevant to anything, aside from her own socio-economic status? Bizarrely, she uses this observation to lead into her disappointment with contemporary country. Perhaps I'm being old-fashioned, but I prefer to actually listen to albums before I make critical judgments, not depend upon my friends' I-Pod playlist.

She continues, "Of course I like the old country music - Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Hank Sr. But I cannot connect the dots, in fact I believe there are no dots, between Patsy and Carrie." This sentence is enraging on many levels, but lets start with the first phrase, "of course". It's indicative of a general attitude toward the genre among my generation - it's expected that you listen to and revere Cash, Hag, and Hank, and expected to revile any popular country coming out today. It's not necessary to listen to any of it, or come to an independent conclusion. There's a pre-sold mythology around the old guys, and that's what's sold - that outlaw aura. So of course she likes them - she's supposed to. The second half of the sentence is equally baffling, a connect-the-dots straw man argument. Sure, you might not be able to connect the dots from Patsy to Carrie, but what about to Miranda Lambert, Chely Wright, Julie Roberts, Lee Ann Womack, Sara Evans, Pam Tillis, Dolly Parton, Sunny Sweeney, et. al. It's like saying you can't see the connection beween Bach and Andrew Lloyd Webber. And even with all that said, I rather like Carrie Underwood. But fine, she's no Patsy.

Here's another nugget, desribing singer/songwriter Todd Snider: "The man is the troubador for our times, an inventive cross of Dylan and Kristofferson with just the right dash of Tom Petty thrown in." I'd like to know what the "right dash" of Tom Petty would be. His hair? And does our time need a troubador? The worst line comes later though, in her description of duo Jeff Burke and Vida Wakeman: "Theirs are the songs you long to hear late at night on the interstate, in pool halls and smoky whiskey bars." This is the worst kind of romanticization, falling in love with the myth surrounding the music rather than the music itself. How many pool halls and smoky whiskey bars have her non-Carrie Underwood listening friends been to? Who do you think truckers are listening to late at night on the interstate, Toby Keith or Todd Snider? What's more authentic? She romanticizes the working class lifestyle without actually engaging with why that class adores mainstream Nashville music (the big reason: it's good).

I feel bad for the artists she profiles, all of whom deserve better. She asks members of the Old Crow Medicine Show where they like to play the most, and they respond with the Grand Ole Opry House. Ann replies: "It surprises me that it would be his kind of place." Surprising, because in her head, the Opry is equivalent with a giant corporate arts-devouring entity, while in reality it's a national treasure, an 82 year old repository of American hillbilly music - one of the greatest gifts the U.S. has given the world.

All of this is not to say that Nashville doesn't have problems, far from it. There are plenty of established veterans who have had to move on to independent labels (Hag, Tillis) because of corporate intransigence, but that doesn't mean there are no great popular country artists anymore. Just listen to some Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert, or Julie Roberts. They can tell stories, and tell them well. It's a rare skill.

This Week's Beyond the Multiplex

This week, Stephanie Zacharek and I take a look at the allure of one Terrence Howard:


Saturday, September 22, 2007

An Assassination of The Assassination

To keep all you fine readers abreast of Termite Artisan production, Matt Singer and I combined for unprecedented insight into The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford on this week's edition of IFC News. The verdict? Not so good. Matt reviews the film, and is unimpressed: " It's beautifully shot and acted, but languidly paced in a way that blunts most of the movie's emotional impact." I, you know, agree. I come through with a history of Jesse James films, from 1908's James Boys in Missouri all the way to Andrew Dominik's indulgence (I also reviewed it at The Reeler). Let's just say this, it's already overrated.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Eastern Promises (2007)

In lieu of reviewing the new David Cronenberg film, Eastern Promises, Alison Willmore and I discussed it at length on a recent episode of The IFC News Podcast. Here, now, some brief (and HEAVILY SPOILER-LADEN) additional thoughts.

-We addressed the Hitchcockian-ness of the film in general on the podcast, but Eastern Promises may just be one giant Psycho homage. Think about it: you have your blonde femme lead who gets drawn into an underworld of murder and graft. And though she doesn't die at the film's midpoint, she is largely shunted to the background, as the film shifts perspectives to focus on the mysterious male lead played by Viggo Mortensen. There is even an we-don't-know-what-we-think-we-know revelation about Mortensen's character late in the game. It's not much of a deep reading to equate the famous shower scene with the destined-to-be-famous bathhouse scene, either. I'm not saying this is another Van Santian recreation, but there are definitely interesting parallels.

-Can you imagine how much it must suck to be Vincent Cassel in those scenes opposite Viggo Mortensen? Viggo's got this incredibly believable accent and Cassel...well, Cassel just doesn't. How rough must it be doing those scenes with him and knowing you're going to sound like an actor doing a bad approximation of an accent? Then again, that may contributed to the weird awkward tension between them in the film, which adds a nice dimension to the characters' relationship.

-Proposed topic for scholarly essay: comparing Cronenberg's London to Woody Allen's in Match Point.

-Red liquids, whether they're blood or borscht, are the dominant visual motif.

-Where A History of Violence was the story of one family, Eastern Promises is the story of two: both missing a parent (Watts' family is short a father; the Russian mob's is missing a mom), both controlled by centuries old traditions.

-Though I really enjoyed the movie I have to say: Naomi Watts' character is titanically stupid.

Monday, September 17, 2007

YouTubeArt: David Caruso: ACTING GOD

A few years ago, back before he was a married man and a crucial piece in an independent film company empire, Rob Sweeney worked a strange job where, as I understand it, he sat around and watched television for money. In his time at this incredible gig, he became aware of a remarkable fact: David Caruso is TOTALLY INSANE.

We've already touched on this issue before, but it's so absurd it bears a closer look. Someone on YouTube went to the trouble of compiling seven full minutes of David Caruso being the best bad actor on television. Watching this is like going to school at Crazy University. Class is in session:

"That is one insane montage."


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Sunday, September 16, 2007

YouTubeArt: Wong Kar-Wai's Latest

Is a commercial for Lancome's new cologne. Better than My Blueberry Nights? Only time will tell.


Saturday, September 15, 2007

Night Unto Night (1949)

The description for Night Unto Night (1949) on Turner Classic Movies : "Epileptic surgeon meets haunted widow." That epileptic surgeon? Ronald Reagan. The director? Don Siegel. Sold! It's a curiosity - a grand gothic melodrama about epilepsy and ghosts, and both are treated as equally frightening. Reagan plays a biochemist (the surgeon bit was false advertising) who relocates to the eastern Florida coast in order to deal with his illness. The house he wants to rent is owned by Ann (Viveca Lindfors), a freaked out widow still obsessed with her late husband Bill. She tends to be framed in extreme close-up, her thousand-yard stare giving her the air of the walking dead. The movie's all atmosphere, with an impressive use of miniatures for the coastal house, while the rest of the film is bathed in darkness, likely to hide the lack of expansive sets, but it creates a dreamlike mood - mostly nightmarish. The other characters on the coast are equally bizarre: Ann's sister Lisa is freewheeling boozehound, forever ragging on the monogamous lifestyle, while the neighbor C.L. paints romance novel covers and is always bemusedly attacking the scientific, rational attitude in favor of the spiritual. Ghosts and scientists battle it out, with the ghosts taking a minor victory.

Friday, September 14, 2007

IFC & Present: Beyond the Multiplex: The Series!

IFC has partnered with to create a new weekly video series -- each piece will be about 2 minutes in length -- called Beyond the Multiplex (named, of course, after Andrew O'Hehir's column on Salon). Each episode features yours truly chatting with either Mr. O'Hehir, or his colleague Stephanie Zacharek about a current topic from the world of film culture. Our debut installment is about astronauts and the new (and "stellar" -- tee hee) documentary In the Shadow of the Moon. And here it is:

Watch for these every week on IFC and on!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Gymkata? How about LIT-KATA

eBay, I love you. No sooner do I learn that Kurt Thomas, the kung fu fighting, uneven bars swinging hero of the second greatest movie of all time, Gymkata, had written a book then I had found it on eBay for a whopping 99 cents.


I haven't read the book yet, which appears to be part-memoir, part-gymnastics history and tutorial, but I've flipped through it enough to discover that Thomas' preoccupation with photographing his package extended to his gymnastics career. I give you GYM-CROTCH-TA.

I was laughing so hard when I saw this one I could barely pose for the picture:

Besides this hilariousness, the book should provide plenty of fodder for the long-discussed but now officially in the offing Gymkata fan commentary track by myself and my good friend and fellow KT aficionado Chris Moreno. Get ready suckas!


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Bourne Trilogy

By necessity, this post will contain certain SPOILERS about the Bourne trilogy of books and films. Read at your own risk.

Having seen The Bourne Ultimatum upon its release earlier this month, and having since rewatched its two predecessors, The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004), I'm struck by an observation. The trilogy is about a man who does not remember who he is, then discovers the awful truth, and wishes he did not know it all over again. Though each of the film concludes with a nominal "happy ending" one could also read the trilogy as a long-form tragedy of self-realization and disgust. Over the course of the films, directed by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass, Bourne discovers his identity at the cost of his humanity.

Consider, for example, how much Bourne (played impressively throughout by Matt Damon) speaks in Identity and how little he speaks in Supremacy and Ultimatum. In the first film, he's downright chatty; a borderline whiner about his condition and his past and his inability to extricate himself and his new friend Marie (Franka Potente) from a deadly situation. By the third film Bourne, back on his own, says less than Clint Eastwood in a Leone movie, and most of what he does say consists of orders he barks to other people in order to keep them alive. In Identity he's passionate and curious. In Ultimatum he's resigned and disgusted by the truth.

Though I've never read any of Robert Ludlum's Bourne novels, it also appears (based on plot descriptions I've read online) that the Bourne films are a rare case where Hollywood has made something significantly darker than its source material. We're used to Hollywood changing the endings of popular novels so the hero gets the girl or wins the day. But Bourne flips that, making things significantly bleaker than its original formation at nearly every turn. For instance, in the original Ludlum Identity, Bourne initially suspects he is a black ops assassin for the CIA, but ultimately learns that's just a cover for his true identity as an undercover government agent. In Doug Liman's Bourne Identity, Jason really is a living weapon. In Ludlum's books, his love interest Marie, survives, and even plays a major role in defeating the main antagonist of The Bourne Supremacy. In Paul Greengrass' Bourne Supremacy, Marie is shot and killed in an absolutely brutal scene. In Ludlum's books, Bourne's handler, Alexander Conklin, is a friend and trusted government agent. In all three films, Conklin and the two men who essentially serve the same role after he's murdered are all revealed as duplicitious, self-serving traitors.

What few honest, noble characters the films have — from Marie to journalist Simon Ross to agent Danny Zorn — are pretty much all killed in awful ways. Most are shot as well, marking the Bourne trilogy as the rare action franchise that actually deplores gun violence instead of celebrating it. There is plenty of pure visceral entertainment in the Bournes, but those scenes tend to fall into two categories: car chases and hand-to-hand fistfights. Though Bourne occasionally brandishes a gun, he rarely uses it; more often than not, his enemies have the weaponry, and he disarms them with his flash karate moves. When his opponent has a knife, he grabs a pen, or a roll of paper. When Bourne does kill, he does so at a great cost to his soul — both Liman and Greengrass let the fight scenes play longer than in traditional action films so we see the aftermath, Bourne catching his breath or washing the blood from his hands or looking at himself mournfully in the mirror. We're not happy that someone like The Professor is dead, just that Bourne is still alive.

My only further point to make amidst all of this is while this series has progressively gotten darker and less traditional, the films have gotten more and more popular. So far The Bourne Ultimatum has earned more than either of its predecessors in the United States, while also earning the best reviews of the series (93% on Rotten Tomatoes). It's funny that Bourne is such a Cold War character since, really, America hasn't latched onto a hero this morosely neurotic since the 1970s.

On a side note: does Bourne ever issue an ultimatum in the third film? And what the hell is a supremacy?!?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

YouTubeArt: Diet Coke + Mentos = Science Fun!

Back when I was a kid, everyone knew that Pop Rocks and Coke were a lethal combination. Word on the street was that Mikey from the Life cereal commercials had flown too close to the sun of sugary goodness, ate both at once, and had his stomach explode out of his torso.

This, of course, was total sleepover ghost story baloney. Mikey is fine. Pop Rocks and Coke will do nothing in concert beyond rot your teeth. But, apparently, Diet Coke and Mentos CAN be combined for explosive results:

No one's been injured by eating this combination of foods that we know of, probably because the physical reaction is so strong and so sudden that it's pretty much impossible to swallow them before they expel themselves from your mouth (watch this video to get a sense of it). But let's this be a warning to all you daredevils: do not try this at home. Unless you plan on putting it on YouTube. Then it's a good idea. A very good idea.


Monday, September 03, 2007

YouTubeArt: Be Kind Rewind Trailer

From description alone I was already pretty sure this would be the greatest movie of all time. But look at the trailer! It could potentially be mankind's greatest achievement since landing on the moon.


Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Death of a Drive-In

The Buffalo Drive-In closes down tonight after 58 years in business. It's been quite a while since I've tooled down Harlem Road to catch the double-feature, but this stings nonetheless. It's always tough when a piece of your childhood is erased to build medical office buildings. It's also tough when the NY Times writer Ken Belson uses the closing to slam the state of the city's economy: "Closings are nothing new around Buffalo, where steel mills were shuttered years ago and the streets are pockmarked with boarded-up churches and shops." He makes it sound like a ghost town, without providing any evidence to back up this impression. Such blanket statements show a reliance upon received wisdom about the state of the city...which admittedly has its share of problems. In a recently disclosed study, Buffalo is the second-poorest big city in the nation, with a median income of $27,800 (behind only Detroit). But he fails to mention the $3.6 billion in projects that are in the pipeline, or anything that might offset his premise that Buffalo is a dead town. That kind of defeatist attitude is exactly what Bills quarterback J.P. Losman is admirably fighting, starting a non-profit group called Buffalo Lives!, which intends to beautify the city one block at a time. Losman may never be a pro-bowler, but he's the only QB to ever praise Olmstead's park systems in Buffalo.

Back to the movies. I remember seeing
¡Three Amigos! at the Drive-In when I was 6 or 7 years old, and I thought it was the finest work of art I'd ever seen. I must have been eating pizza, or a hot dog, and laughing my ass off at at the singing burning bush. Maybe I missed a scene to go to the bathroom and regretted the instability of my tiny bladder. I'm not entirely sure. But I loved the movie, re-enacted it with my brother, and saved my parents from entertaining me for one night. So thanks Buffalo Drive-In.