Sunday, January 20, 2008

No Country for Old Men -- true dialogue

Most non-natives just don't get it when they try to write with a twang. Cormac McCarthy gets it. In spades.

I never knew how good he was at writing Texas dialogue until I heard Tommy Lee Jones deliver his lines in "No Country for Old Men." His scene with Barry Corbin was like a West Texas version of opera. And that's not much of a stretch. No surprise, they both were born in Texas and live here still.

Some of the bit players had to be locals. They were the chorus, if you will. But this is no horse opera.

This is one helluva movie. Powerful. The Coen brothers were faithful to McCormack's book, for the most part. Here at the home-house, we talked about the movie off and on for the better part of the next day. I was moved to re-read the book. The Mystery Woman called her actor son in Hollywood to swap theories. The movie made us think and ask questions. Likely, we'll see it again soon.

How often does anyone have such a strong reaction to a movie these days?
Not very.


In the movie, Woody Harrelson plays the role of a hitman who tries to help the drug dealers recover their missing millions.

In the book, the Sheriff laments about the changing, dangerous world and observes "Of course here a while back in San Antonio they shot and killed a federal judge."

In real life, Harrelson's father was convicted of killing that Texas judge at the behest of a drug dealer and served years behind bars. He died in prison.

Art, life, imitation, and irony all rolled up as one.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Words -- new and used

Reporters are pack animals. And there was a time when the scribes went overboard in trying to reduce astronomical numbers into something easily visualized.(If all the cars produced in Detroit were placed bumper-to-bumper, they would reach to the moon and back.) I think it was Dorothy Parker who called a halt to the practice when she wrote about the word-weary this way: "if all the girls who attended the Yale senior prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be at all surprised."

File this under "did he really say that?" The U.S. marketing director for Cialis was explaining the difference in the new daily dose of the erectile disfunction drug and the original 36-hour pill: "They're under a lot of pressure to perform and the worst thing we can do is then out a shot clock on them..." He really said it. Now stop it. Stop thinking of all the other basketball metaphors. I'm warning you.

Note: a 2004 USDA report finds that a couple earning a mere $70,200 annually will spend $269,520 raiding one child to age 17. Tack on four years of college and that's half a million per kid. Now, re-read the second paragraph.

On the same topic, a note for slow starters: Bart Conner was 48 and Nadia Comaneci 44 when their son, Dylan Paul Conner, was born to the first couple of gymnastics some 19 months ago. "By the time he's out of diapers, we'll be going into them," Conner, the former U.S. champion, remarked.

Here's another one for the file: Noah Feldman, writing for the Sunday New York Times Magazine, says this about Mormons in business: "if anything, the systematic overrepresentation of Mormons among top businesspeople and lawyers affords LDS affiliation a certain cachet -- rather like being Jewish, but taller."

Book tout for the grammatically inclined: Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss. One of the blurbs on the back cover says "'Correct usage' has been made sexy by Lynne Truss in her delightful Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the most entertaining work of paralinguistics since Shaw's Pygmalion."

Happy trails.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War -- yes!

I've got to believe Charlie Wilson was getting laid in Afghanistan, too.

There had to be a tangible pay off at the other end of those long flights from D.C. Just like there was on the American stretch of tarmac.

It's a good yarn, Charlie Wilson's War, and I enjoyed both the movie and the book. In fact, I know several women in Washington and in Austin who were disappointed they were not Chapter Three. Or Four.

When we went to the movie in mid-afternoon, I was tickled to see a tour bus of retired lobbyists sheepishly enter the theater hoping no one would recognize them.

Disclosure: I sort of remember drinking with Charlie and having dinner in D.C. but that's as far as I'm going. Like many, I loved his staff. Charlie's Angels, one of the more active oxymorons. However, his long-time administrative assistant was a male, Charles Schnabel, another Texas character.

I liked the movie so much that I will likely see it again. A comedy about war. Good laughs. Dead-on insight to the way his congressional office worked. Sharp dialogue, as you would expect from Mike Nichols. Oddly, the movie is old-fashioned in its feel.

But there are troubles. For one thing, Tom Hanks has a tough time smirking. He's more like Jimmy Stewart than Charlie Wilson. On the other side of the bed, Julia Roberts is more Pretty Woman than Baptist Bible-thumper. But Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the right guy for the CIA role. And some.

Those are the cosmetic blemishes. Not deal killers. Hell, the film has already grossed more than $50 million and may reach $100 mil.

I am bothered by the Afghanistan that the U.S. left behind. And the movie only hints at the terror to come. Godless communists or the Taliban? Tough choice. Either way, the American government screwed what could have been, should have been a shining moment in the Cold War. For a bit of balance, you might be interested in what Chalmers Johnson has to say about the movie and the aftermath. But most of the reviews have been great.

I'm glad they made a movie about Charlie Wilson. He has always been larger than life. The things he got away with!!! Tom Hanks said he had to tone down his movie characterization of Charlie because nobody would believe the real thing.

I don't begrudge Charlie getting Pakistan as a fat lobby client after he stepped down. And I hope he gets to spend the money before he croaks. He is recovering from a recent heart transplant.

But I wish to hell we had done the Mid-East better.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Movie directors -- top picks

It's the movie season. Time for the awards if the writer's strike ever gets settled. So let's have some fun.

A buddy of mine has spent more than 20 years in Hollywood acting in films, TV commercials, pitching scripts, producing and directing short subjects. The time served has given him special insights into the art and the industry. From time to time, he'll share thoughts, opinions, etc about the movies.


By Lars Beckerman

Regardless how subjective the subject, we all like to find a list that validates our opinion and pats us on our back for having such damn good taste.

So, here ya go: My list of film directors who always deserve your time and almost always deliver something you can sink your teeth into. Consider it a film enthusiast’s guide to avoiding some of the well-intended, ‘star-studded’ blockbusters that land on your local video shelves. My advice: follow directors, not actors. Actors attach themselves to projects for a wide variety of reasons. Unfortunately, the script is often not one of them.

The Coen Brothers – Fargo, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona, The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country For Old Men. With very few exceptions (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers) the Coen Brothers can be counted on to deliver something highly unique and entertaining every time they put out a film. Their ironic, sometimes folksy dialogue splattered across a deeply rich cinematic canvas, usually the result of the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, engages us on a very personal level. This year they delivered No Country For Old Men and it may be one of their best films yet.

Martin Scorsese – Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York. Total mastery of film as art form. Like the Coen Brothers, Scorsese’s writing shows a deep affection for his actors and subsequently you can always expect high caliber performances in his films. His innovative camera moves and poetic meshing of popular music almost always elevate the material and the result has produced some of the most memorable films of the past 30 years. His films are violent but rarely gratuitous. Although you will probably notice that I did not include his Oscar winning The Departed, a film I found depressingly gratuitous. A cash grab if ever there was one.

Paul Thomas Anderson – Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punchdrunk Love, There Will Be Blood. It is a rare moment at the movie theatre when you have to pinch yourself to make sure you haven’t died and gone to movie heaven. The opening sequence of Magnolia narrated by the magician Ricky Jay supplied me with one such moment. Then, later in the film when all of the central characters begin to sing I realized what a special talent P.T. Anderson is. He is almost in a league of his own in terms of “what will this guy do next?” Anderson may not yet be the complete storyteller he is striving to be, There Will Be Blood has huge problems in that regard, but there is no doubt that this director is worth watching and tracking.

Francis Ford Coppola – The Godfather I & II, Apocalypse Now, Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, The Conversation, The Cotton Club. The word that always comes to mind when I think of Coppola is “operatic.” His films spin out like deeply invested fables where he is willing to sacrifice realism for poetry. Coppola has had a difficult time working within the studio system and he may be running out of creative gas, but if he is attached to a film it means the film has integrity. Although I did just finish watching a film he produced where he conveniently snuck into the background a bottle of his Coppola cabernet. One more thing, his daughter Sofia made Lost in Translation, an excellent film.

Quentin Tarantino – Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill I & II, Death Proof. Tarantino is definitely odd and his films are at times obnoxiously hip, but his dialogue is still incredibly inventive and fresh and his ability to make camp seem cutting edge is totally unique. His casting choices are inspired and his knowledge of film history is significant, but it his writing that may ultimately be his greatest strength (see True Romance) so beware of his name being attached to projects he did not write. Also beware of his acting ability, which is limited at best.

David Lynch – The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Mulholland Drive, The Straight Story. While I’m not a huge fan of his inaugural effort Eraserhead or even the fetish classic Blue Velvet, I admire his innovation and his commitment to what he calls “dream logic,” a concept and rationale that works brilliantly in one of my all-time favorites, Mulholland Drive. Lynch really knows how to get actors to spill their guts (see Sheryl Lee in Fire Walk With Me and Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive). Like Coppola, Lynch is also operatic in style as demonstrated most notably in his continued collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamente. The soundtrack to Lost Highway is haunting as hell.

Michel Gondry – I was curious to see how on earth Gondry could possibly follow his masterpiece, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He did not disappoint with the thought-provoking and touching The Science of Sleep. This director is an artist in the purist sense of the word. With all of the visual technology at his fingertips he still chooses to create ‘special effects’ that are primarily done with perspective change and slight of hand image manipulation. His next film, Be Kind Rewind with Jack Black, can be expected to deliver some cinematic surprises.

Baz Luhrmann – Strictly Ballroom, Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge. Total visionary genius. His films are bold, musical and witty. Actors love to work with him because of his theatrical and melodramatic flare. What he was able to do with Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman, and the awesome Jim Broadbent in the musical numbers of Moulin Rouge was jawdropping.

Doug Liman, Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer - Three names to remember. Liman broke through with the 1996 indie sensation Swingers and is now the creative force behind the Bourne series. Nolan made the brilliant Memento and is now driving the Batman franchise. Singer directed the Oscar winning The Usual Suspects and went on to helm the X-Men films.

Notable directors missing from this list: Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Barry Levinson, Oliver Stone. Obviously, all of these guys have made some great films but they are also very prolific and somewhat uneven. I gravitate to directors who put their personal stamp on a film and have a consistency of thematic quality. And you may have noticed I also gravitate to directors who dare to be bold and aim high for their emotional payoffs while respecting the intelligence of their audience.

Finally, a warning to all who read my rants. Occasionally I am going to tell you that a film you love is garbage and you are going to hate me. I know this because of numerous confrontations and subsequent unreturned phone calls I have endured over the years after dismissing such films as Mystic River and L.A.Confidential as style over substance and bravado over balance. “What?” you say. “Next thing you know you’ll be bashing The Shawshank Redemption! …or…heaven forbid…Braveheart!” Stay tuned.

Intellectual pap

The New York Times is forcing me to come out of the closet: I am an intellectual.

Entry-level, no doubt. But, according to the NYT criteria, I am, nonetheless, an intellectual. There is no known cure. Nature or nurture, who cares?

How do I come to this shocking conclusion? While reading the Monday NYTimes article on YouTube for ideas (clearly an oxymoron), I came across a description of Arts and Letters Daily, as an offshoot of the Chronicle of Higher Education, seeking to serve intellectuals.

Well, hell. I've been reading Arts and Letters for years. I even have a link on this blog site. Ergo, I must be an intellectual.

Question:if I'm already out as an intellectual, must I also read the new venture? It is called Big Think. Every time I tried to go to the new site, my computer crashed. Clearly proving once again that I am an intellectual because I am smarter than this damn computer.

In conclusion, I offer earlier proof of my mental prowess. I attended an evening lecture at the University of Texas recently. The PhD speaker presented the Mexican version of the Alamo. Shocking, I tell you, shocking. John Wayne and Davy Crockett are spinning in their graves. Redundant, you say?

Later, I was describing my outrage to a long-time friend and I pointed out that I must be an intellectual. Why? Because I didn't hit the S.O.B. professor.

Truly an intelligent response, my friend observed.

I rest my case.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Apologies to Verlyn Klinkenborg

Red-faced. That's me. Not once, but several times, I have lifted Verlyn Klinkenborg's material for this blog. Always with credit.

But it was not proper credit. Somehow, I got it in my mind that Klinkenborg was a woman. Not so. Apologies, Mr. K. I should have checked your resume.

This discovery does not diminish my appreciation of your written stuff.

Footnote: You might be interested to know that the previous blog entry on the apostrophe has generated the most comments ever in this short history of this limited circulation blog. My buddies are the punctuation police. We take these little dots seriously.

Although I do get mixed up about the dash. I'm not even sure what a dash looks like. And where do the spaces go?

I may have to change majors.

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