Saturday, July 31, 2010

Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago reunite!

So Sylvester Stallone has this movie coming out called "The Expendables," which includes Mr. Dolph Lundgren among a dream-cast crew of tough guys traveling around the world and kicking ass, basically.

Found this little gem on YouTube:

Not a lot there, but thought it was some way cool footage of those two interacting on a movie set decades after Rocky IV.

Now, chances were pretty good I'd see this movie anyway -- I mean, how could it be bad with the aforementioned premise? But I also read an article recently (Maxim maybe? Probably ... I was on the can at the time...) where Stallone says there's an homage to Rocky, where he finds himself face to face with Lundgren during a scene, looks at him curiously and says something like: "Uh.. we've been here before.."

Sold! My ticket is as good as bought ...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Why we love Bruce

In the spirit of Bruce Springsteen performing "No Surrender" with Gaslight Anthem's Brian Fallon at the London Calling: Live in Hyde Park concert (I have still yet to see this concert in its entirety somehow), Springsteen made a surprise appearance at The Stone Pony, in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

He joined Alejandro Escovedo for a three-song encore, including a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden."

Since his Working on a Dream tour ended, I've seen a lot of articles like this one, and I love 'em. He's gotta be the most down to earth and generous performer there is, because I rarely see instances like this with others. I'm reminded of his impromptu Thunder Road performance for a throng of Italian fans that gathered under his hotel balcony in Rome ... spontaneously performing The River with a street musician in Copenhagen unbeknownst to anyone except a group of passersby ... and what seems to be a myriad of other similar tales.

So keep playin', Bruce, whether it's bringing tens of thousands into delirium, or in front of a handful of shocked spectators ... rockin' with the up and comers or in front of nobody at all! The genuine love of music, performing and connecting with other people is inspiring and most appreciated.

While I'm on the subject, also wanted to share a gem "Backstreets" published recently. Eric Meola, who designed the Born to Run cover, did some extensive photography work with Bruce from 1977-78, and he will have a live gallery of these rare works in London during August.

I was particularly grabbed by the promotional poster and Meola's reflection on a trip West he took with Springsteen, which includes the spine-tingling roots of one of my absolute favorite tunes:


We left the road at Unionville, and grabbed a bite to eat at a nearby roadside cafe. And then we went back. And by then the sky had gone black and the wind had come up. I shot some more, including a shot of Bruce in front of the car, leaning on the hood -- a long, thin dusty dirt road going off in the distance behind him, disappearing over Battle Mountain, as it began to rain and flashes of lightning filled the valley floor. It was one of those days and moments that will stay with you to the grave. There was that strong, fresh ozone smell after lightning has cleared the air, and the feel of the moisture mixed with the dry desert wind was something I had only felt once before.

A few weeks later I would be haunted when I heard the lyrics to "The Promised Land":

There's a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I'm heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain't got the faith to stand its ground


Excellent ...

For more of "Backstreets" splendid reporting, click here.

I'll also throw in a photo gallery of the Springsteen concert I attended in Nashville last year.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review: The Eclipse

For the majority of this movie, I wasn't sure where "The Eclipse" was going. And even after watching it, I'm not sure what it was supposed to be. Was it a ghost story? A love story? A character drama? A thriller?

But as the movie progressed, I found that I didn't really much care, because I began to feel like I was actually reading a novel, getting lost in the characters, their stories and the gorgeous setting where it all took place.

It centers around a widower named Michael Farr (Ciaran Hinds), who lives in the picturesque seaside town of Cobh, Ireland, and is still grieving the loss of his wife and experiencing disturbing supernatural events in the process. He volunteers at a literary festival in town, where his path crosses with two authors: Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), an English woman who writes sensitive books dealing with ghosts, and Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), a famous and pompous American novelist.

There's pretty much something for everyone in this, but if you're looking for a straight-up supernatural thriller, you're going to be disappointed. It's a very tough movie to describe, and sometimes feels unnecessarily confusing, but I enjoyed it for its thoughtfulness and quiet manner.

I loved the stunning, panoramic views of Cobh, and have decided to go there someday. It felt cold, gray, rainy -- there were scenic drives, a looming, magnificent cathedral that consistently makes its presence felt, secluded cabins overlooking the ocean, hotel bars ... there were walks with hot coffee and deep conversations.

Ciaran Hinds and Iben Hjejle (Magnolia Pictures)
I also gradually developed a crush on Lena -- or maybe it was Iben, who I actually didn't recognize from "High Fidelity." She was perfectly cast here, and played it very dignified and cool with an underlying sense of vulnerability. I also loved Quinn, who was seemingly cast against type as an overtly arrogant and selfish boob, and it was very entertaining to watch him in that skin.

What I may have enjoyed most, though, was the soundtrack, which I was surprised to learn was written by director Conor McPherson and his wife. Like the movie, it varies greatly -- from soft and haunting to light and peppy piano, to absolutely beautiful choral pieces.

Featured here are The Mornington Singers, a Dublin Chamber Choir, who perform the Kyrie theme that plays throughout. You can listen to a short interview with McPherson and the piece that is played at their website, or by clicking here (you will need RealPlayer).

As McPherson discusses his thoughts about the music, he makes an awesome reference to "The Deer Hunter," one of my absolute favorite movies, in which he compares the choral piece here to those accompanying Robert De Niro's character while he is hunting in the mountains.

Ciaran Hinds (Magnolia Pictures)
But rest assured, if you're looking for thrills and chills, you will get them. There were scenes in here that literally made me yell out loud, because I was taken completely by surprise. And, frankly, a few of them are scary as hell ... albeit a tad perplexing.

But if you find yourself confused by the story, I'd say not to worry and enjoy the journey. I can't give too much away, but there's an incredibly emotional and cathartic scene near the end that was staged absolutely perfectly. And judging by the fact my face went all numb and my eyes started to water (not crying, I held it together!) the ol' ticker sped up and I had chills going up my spine, it was one of the more evocative and beautifully done scenes I've seen in a while.

So don't worry too much about what genre this movie fits in. For me, it can be boiled down to a simple story about overcoming grief and connecting with people as our paths intertwine. And I think this is a universal sentiment that can be appreciated by anyone, no matter how you want to label this movie.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Past meets present: Chris Sabo returns

Weekend photo gallery

Let me make one thing crystal clear here before we go any further. I am a Cubs fan -- for better or for worse, mostly worse -- lest you get the wrong idea from all the Reds data that has been posted as this blog has started out.

Marty Brennaman prepares to introduce Chris Sabo and Pedro Borbon
THAT BEING SAID, it's been cool to be back in Reds country where I grew up, and I have to admit it's good to see them playing so well -- since the Cubs apparently aren't going to challenge them. And I really got a kick out of this past weekend, during which the organization celebrated the 1990 World Series title.

Starting with Randy Myers and Norm Charlton -- two-thirds of the Nasty Boys -- along with Chris Sabo spending an entertaining few minutes during the series-opening television broadcast, to Sabo's Reds Hall of Fame induction, it's been a nostalgic weekend of reminiscing.

We went to the Reds-Rockies game on a stormy Saturday night to claim our coveted Sabo bobbleheads -- make no mistake, this promotion was marked on our calendar for weeks -- and watch as he, along with Pedro Borbon, were inducted. It was great to see "Spuds" again after all these years (even though he beat out Mark Grace for Rookie of the Year in 1988 -- we don't hold grudges here), his family and the buzz he created throughout the packed Great American Ball Park.

And his Sabo-esque speech certainly did not disappoint. The video I have from the game seems to be a bit large to run here, but encapsulated the ceremony. I'll see about uploading the entire video later. Meantime, you'll have to settle for a brief clip of Sabo's ceremonial first pitch -- an "I don't want to be out here any longer than I absolutely have to" toss:

But capping the night was a brush with fate. Aaron was a huge Sabo fan growing up -- I was a big Paul O'Neill guy, and with the two being pals, we had a good time with it back then. There's an excellent article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, by the way, written by John Erardi this weekend, that sheds a little light on those two -- The Odd Couple -- during their Reds days.

Where's Chris Sabo?
So it felt a little more than coincidental to notice that Sabo made his way over toward where we were sitting and watched part of the game with some folks he knew, just a section away. As fans started to realize he was there, he started to get mobbed with autograph and photo requests while he was watching the game. It was a tantalizing opportunity to be that close and not drop by, and I played the devil on Aaron's shoulder to an extent, prompting him to go over -- "He's right there, man.. your childhood hero ... you can't be this close and not try and meet him..."

In other words, probably being a needling prick.

But Aaron wasn't biting. He didn't want to bother him while he was trying to watch the game, and he was content with the night as it was.

Later, Aaron got up to take a trip to the men's room, and lil' Sierra decided she would go with -- a key development. Because that prompted them to go to a family bathroom nearer to our section. To be honest, it crossed my mind to give Aaron my camera "just in case," but before I could, they were already gone and up the stairs.

And it is here that fate intervened.

Sure enough, whilst standing in line for the family loo, Mr. Sabo happened to be walking by, giving Aaron his golden opportunity after all to shake hands, say a few quick words, and settle for an admittedly grainy cell phone shot as Sabo waved and moved on.

It was a brief, but genuine, moment. He declared his night made, accompanied by the Reds' 8-1 victory, and didn't have to selfishly join the throngs of folks who were clamoring for the guy's attention to make it happen.

In other words: Just be cool and relax in situations like these. Because if it's meant to be ... it'll be.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review: Hombre

Man, I got a big kick out of this one.

"Hombre" centers around John Russell (Paul Newman), a white man raised by Apaches. Through inheritance of a boarding house, he's drawn out of the mountains, where he was living among the Indians -- who are suffering from starvation and mistreatment -- and finds himself among a decidedly different group of people, some directly responsible for the Indians' plight, some not ... but most indirectly so, perhaps according to Russell, who has grown cold and hard because of his disgust at how his people have been forced to live.

They end up on a stagecoach -- but not before Richard Boone's character, the badass and leathery Grimes, makes one hell of an entrance and performs an opening scene that had me laughing out loud throughout -- and Russell quickly finds himself cast aside, when he defends the Indians that raised him against the slights they are given by the others in the stagecoach.

Consider the dialogue between Russell and Audra Favor, the smug wife (Barbara Rush) of equally smug doctor (Fredric March) Alex Favor, who is making light of the desperate situation of the Indians:

Favor: I can't imagine eating a dog and not thinking anything of it.
Russell: You even been hungry, lady? Not just ready for supper. Hungry enough so that your belly swells?
Favor: I wouldn't care how hungry I got. I know I wouldn't eat one of those camp dogs.
Russell: You'd eat it. You'd fight for the bones, too.
Favor: Have you ever eaten a dog, Mr. Russell?
Russell: Eaten one and lived like one.
Favor: Dear me ...

The way she says "Dear me," is spot on. It says everything you need to know about her character, and Newman's icy delivery says everything you need to know about where he stands. This conversation is the impetus for the outcome of the film.

I was not as absorbed by the storyline, which is interesting enough as a morality tale and a classic western, as I was by the character development. I love situations where a group of radically different people are thrust together, and every one of the characters here has his/her own story and delivers it strongly.

But I was most impressed by the unbelievably sparkling and razor-sharp writing this movie contains. In wanting to cite a few examples, I feel like I'd have to quote the whole movie. Newman is blessed with exceptional lines throughout the entire film, and equally blessed with the talent to deliver them perfectly.

Paul Newman and Diane Cilento
But going toe-to-toe with him throughout is Jessie (Diane Cilento), the woman who operates the boarding house and should be worn down by life but hasn't lost a bit of her fire. I was enthralled by everything this woman had to say, from a dialogue she has early in the film with a man who turned down her marriage proposal, to virtually all of her scenes with Russell, including these little gems:

Russell: The dead are dead. You oughta bury 'em.
Jessie: I'm sure that's good advice. Trouble is, Mr. Russell, I think you feel the same way about the living.

And later, as the attraction between the two that we felt from the beginning begins to reveal itself more clearly, there's a scene that gives us a sense of "maybe in another life":

Jessie: I've known a lot of men, but never met one quite like you ... There's always been somethin' that could rattle 'em, or shake 'em up a little.
Russell: You maybe?
Jessie: (Laughs) I've done it to a couple of 'em in my time ...
Russell: Where are they now?
Jessie: (Wistfully) Oh, they're all gone ... I've been wedded and bedded and loved and let down ... It hasn't alway been nice, but at least it's been natural ... And you? You just toss your gun over the back of your horse and ride off into the pinon trees?
Russell: You asking for a demonstration?
Jessie: (Smiles) I think I'm asking for trouble ...

As the film reaches its climax, we wonder if anyone can soothe Russell's bitterness, and we're not surprised when it's Jessie who tries to get through to him one final time in a riveting sequence, as he coldly refuses to help someone whose life hangs in the balance, in what he sees as an eye-for-an-eye situation:

Jessie: I don't know what your gripe is against the world ... maybe you got a real one ...
Russell: Lady, up there in those mountains, there's a whole people who've lost everything. They don't have a place left to spread their blankets. They've been insulted, diseased, made drunk and foolish. Now, you call the men who did that Christians, and you trust 'em. I know 'em as white men, and I don't.
Jessie: Russell, if nobody ever lifted a finger until someone deserved it, then the whole world would go to hell. We better deal with each other out of need and forget merit ... because not many of us have too much of that ... not me, not you, not anybody.


Now, I won't say whether this has any effect on Russell or the situation the group finds itself in. But this scene defines this woman so precisely, you can't help but love her. And it's a scene befitting a movie that is rich with intelligence, sincerity, humor and genuine humanity -- both good and bad.

I will say that, what follows dramatically evolves into a pitch-perfect ending to a very nearly pitch-perfect movie.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review: The White Ribbon

I wanted to tell a story of a group of children who took the ideals practiced by their parents' generation and obeyed them blindly. But once you start to obey an ideal blindly, it becomes inhuman. That is at the root of every form of terrorism. -- Director Michael Haneke

Here is a movie that works on you ...

I'm not sure I can recommend "The White Ribbon", as I watched it yesterday afternoon and felt it to be unsettling. It takes place in a small, rural village in Northern Germany before World War I. A series of disturbing "accidents" takes place, graduating into more sinister acts, including atrocities on children.

We never really see them, because they're hidden under the guise of a simple, picturesque community ... brought out more so by the rich black and white cinematography -- color would have ruined this movie. The winter scenes feel almost purifying, despite the evil that always lurks beneath.

What we do see is a very stern and authoritarian society, where, primarily children receive ritualistic punishments for stepping out of line. Does this kind of treatment lead to the acts that are occurring in the town, a rebellious response maybe?

While the village tries to discover who is committing these acts, we start to feel that it is not really important "who dunnit," but rather that they were done in the first place. And the answer to that is likely more chilling than the acts themselves.

(Films du Losange, Sony Pictures Classics)
There's a common perception about this film that it was the birth of fascism and that some of these kids grew up to be Nazis. Susanne Lothar, who played the midwife in the film, recalled the words a child psychologist once told her.

"Everything a child experiences becomes an integral part of its character. A child's mind is like a freshly plowed field. If you walk in it wearing boots, you leave deep impacts. The older you get, the harder the soil gets. But the child's field is freshly plowed and soft, the boots are stiff and hard, and they leave deep marks. A child never forgets it, and as a grownup, passes on its humiliation."

While it very well could be a stepping stone toward the evil we see in World War II, it feels like it's a revelation of the evil that we are all susceptible to under the right circumstances.

Before I saw this film, I found the hymn that plays during the trailer -- "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" -- to be chilling without knowing what they were singing. I looked it up and found the following translation. As my apartment starts to darken, and rain starts to fall outside the window, I feel that, for as optimistic as some of the lyrics are, they convey a sense of foreboding in what we, demonstrated by this film, must face during our lives, wherever and whenever we may be.

A Mighty Fortress is our God
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Wood you believe it?!

Astonishing game in Philadelphia tonight.

The Cincinnati Reds' Travis Wood, making his third Major League start, carried a perfect game into the ninth inning before it was broken up by a double by the Phillies' Carlos Ruiz -- who was just activated from the disabled list earlier in the day.

The problem for Wood, and the Reds, was that he was dueling Roy Halladay -- who threw a perfecto of his own earlier this season -- and the game was scoreless. It became a battle of the bullpens as the game went into the 11th, where Ruiz hit another double and scored the winning run on Jimmy Rollins' single. It was the third consecutive walk-off loss the Phillies dealt the Reds in the first three games of this four-game series.

The game was spectacular to watch, albeit excruciating for Reds fans, and it prompted a most intriguing National League-style scenario in the eighth inning.

The Reds, believe it or not, are in a pennant race, leading their division by two games -- and every win is monumental. But with the score tied at zero and Wood working on his perfect game, Miguel Cairo led off the eighth with a double and was bunted over to third. Halladay then struck out Ryan Hanigan, giving the Reds two outs -- and whose spot was up next? Wood.

Here is an extremely rare situation, and an agonizing decision for a manager to make. You have to win this game, and yet you just can't pinch-hit for a pitcher who is throwing a perfect game. So what do you do? Well, Dusty Baker did what every manager in baseball would and should do. You let the kid hit, so he can stay in the game.

But by doing that, is that as good as admitting that the opportunity to throw a perfect game is more important than winning the game? Letting your pitcher hit instead of bringing in a pinch-hitter, who has a better chance of getting that run home? I don't know. It's such a razor-thin line you have to run there, and I'd hate to have to be in that position.

And how poetic it would have been had Wood calmly stepped into the box and helped his own cause with a sharp RBI single back up the middle, giving the Reds the lead and clearing his path to history ...

Instead, he struck out to end the threat, and what would prove to be the Reds' hope of winning the game -- whether they'll look back on this game as October nears remains to be seen. But Baker gave solid rationale for the decision he had to make afterward.

"It was a little tough when he has a perfect game," he said. "You have to give the kid an opportunity to get that because how many times in your life are you going to have that opportunity? At the same time, we had to reward his performance. There were two outs in the inning, if there was one out, then you have a decision to make. Plus, he's a pretty good hitter."

Well said, and nobody to blame in this. The Reds' bats were facing a guy who's as stingy as they come and just weren't able to break through for the rookie. And, sadly, Wood will always be left to wonder what may have happened had the Reds faced a different pitcher on this night.

Until, perhaps, his next bid.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Review: Facing Ali

There was a lot to like about this recent documentary I came across. "Facing Ali" weaves the reflections of several boxers who got into the ring against Muhammad Ali, and their stories are accompanied by archived footage of their fights.

I liked how the majority of their stories are introduced by one of Ali's colorful remarks as the fight was promoted. Like this one setting up Ron Lyle's story, and one of my personal favorites: "If you even dream of beating me, you'd better wake up and apologize."

Lyle, spent 7 1/2 years in prison -- solitary confinement, learning how to do 1,000 pushups in an hour and being fed only a so-called daily bowl of spinach w/ meals every other day. He was also critically stabbed. He had a vivid dream of fighting Ali for the heavyweight championship during these days. When he got out,  he sparred with Ali and got that title shot, and as he's fighting, he realizes he's doing things in this fight that he did during his dream back in prison.

He lost on a thrilling TKO, but wasn't bitter. Instead, he was grateful because it gave him a second chance at life, and led him to his work with young boxers today, keeping them -- and him -- on the straight and narrow as a corner man.

Or take Ken Norton's fight. Norton was dirt poor and asked his dad if he could come home. Dad says, "If I help you now, I'll be helping you the rest of your life ... be a man." So Norton didn't go home, he kept at it ... and four fights later, got a bout with Ali. Even before Norton staged a dramatic upset, he said facing Ali gave him a new chance at life, period. He was grateful, honored and called it a life-saver. After he retired, he was in a terrible car crash that left him paralyzed for three years, and Ali came to visit him. Norton hadn't remembered much of anything before the crash at this point, but he remembered Ali.

And there is Earnie Shavers, whose life before boxing admittedly would've led him to a life as a contract killer. He earned a date with Ali and prompted the champ to admit that this was the hardest he'd ever been hit. "Just his name is magic if you do well with him," Shavers said.

Virtually every boxer here has similar tales of gratitude to tell simply by being associated with the man.

Joe Frazier (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)
The documentary is filled with intriguing behind the scenes information, historical context and rich backgrounds of all the boxers, providing excellent insight on the people that they were, and are now. Joe Frazier, whom Ali always jokingly chided for being less sophisticated, had a few memorable gems: like thinking Ali meant "Peeping Tom" when he called him an "Uncle Tom." He also had a telling line about his past on the streets ... not saying he stole cars, per se, but that, "I used to borrow cars that weren't mine, and not bring them back."

George Foreman also makes a poignant observation during his loss in the Rumble in the Jungle, where he says that the greatest punch of the fight was never thrown, because Ali held back on a thunderous right that would have easily finished Foreman off completely as he was on his way down. There is video here that clearly shows this, and it's an extremely compelling moment. "That's what made him the greatest fighter I ever fought," Foreman says.

As in his career, the film ends on a bit of a down note, with his fight with Larry Holmes. Holmes used to be Ali's sparring partner, then went off on his own and became champ. He was busting up Ali pretty good, and remembered feeling that he didn't want to hit him in the body anymore because he remembered during his sparring days that Ali urinated blood from some of the kidney shots he took. A broken-down Ali loses the fight, ending his career for good.

But the fight also provides the feeling of passing the torch to the younger boxers, who, now in the later stages of their own lives, close the film with their reflections on Ali's battle with Parkinson's. They are sympathetic and broken up about it -- even Frazier tears up -- having gone toe to toe with a legend, and seeing him in the humbling condition he's in today. But as they were in their prime, every one of them remains in awe of the man and his legacy with gratitude, respect and a deep sense of honor. As do we.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Review: Invictus

I popped in "Invictus" before work yesterday, and I was surprised to find myself still thinking about parts of it today.

It's a great story. Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) -- in his first term as the South African president after having been imprisoned for 27 years -- tries to reunite the country through the national rugby team. He forms a relationship with the captain of the Springboks, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), helping to motivate him to lead the underachieving team to win the 1995 World Cup -- hosted in South Africa -- in an effort to display a reconciliation between black and white Africans on the world stage.

And they did -- defeating powerhouse New Zealand in the final.

But I didn't start to settle into this thing until the scene where Pienaar has tea with Mandela. I may be in the minority, but I'm almost always more captivated by two people simply talking than I am in virtually any given action scene -- and the work of Freeman and Damon here is very good.

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon (Warner Bros. Pictures)
One aspect particularly grabbed me: The two started their conversation sitting across from each other, and as they got into it, Freeman moved to the couch next to Damon. I don't know if this was direction by Clint Eastwood or a calculated move by Freeman, but watch Damon's eyes. They give a quick reaction to this move that makes me wonder if Freeman mildly surprised him, or if it was a subtle character choice to convey his reaction to "Mandela" moving closer.

Whatever it was, this was one of those "blink and you'll miss it" instances of genuineness that I always look for in movies, and I appreciate them every time. Damon has become one of those actors that makes every movie more interesting just by being in it. It's always clear to me that his focus is helping to tell the story, not showboating, and he played this role with an understated intensity, which could not have been done any other way.

(Warner Bros. Pictures)
It's here where the movie starts to pick up. I liked the scene where the team holds a rugby clinic with a group of kids, and the music that accompanied it. Then they start to gain popularity as they knock off their competitors, interchanged with scenes of Mandela having meetings and essentially "takin' care of business."

The rugby matches looked pretty authentic to me, making me think I'd sure as hell be a fan if we had it here, and I'm always a sucker for the obligatory scenes: fans starting to unite behind the team's success, rabid roars and chanting in the arena, and fans in bars around the country celebrating with libations -- similar to the video of United States soccer fans celebrating Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup.

As all this is going on, you start to realize that it's no longer a political motive for Mandela to bring the country together, but a humanitarian one -- one born out of forgiveness. In one scene, a group of Mandela's bodyguards, both black and white who were brought together under racially charged circumstances, start playing an informal game of rugby and having a grand ol' time -- which I thought was nicely done, portraying what Mandela was trying to do with a country of 42 million.

Morgan Freeman (Warner Bros. Pictures)
As you start to see how remarkable a man Mandela is by his actions throughout, Pienaar encapsulates his dedication with a single line as he reflects the night before the World Cup final: "I was thinking about how you spend 30 years in a tiny cell, and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there."

The final match was fairly standard, but it was done well. One part shocked me, though, and sent me scrambling to the Internet to see if it had actually happened. A pilot of a commercial jet liner notes to his co-captain that he has control of the plane and chillingly states that "whatever happens next is on my hands." And the jet starts to take a direct route toward the stadium, dropping in altitude ... but it turns out to be a flyover, with the words "Good Luck Bokkes" written on the belly of the plane.

Now, I was praying that this was not something added for dramatic effect, using our fear after 9/11 as a ploy to deliver a bit of suspense. But I was astonished to see that it DID really happen, there was only some dramatic license involved. And I was admittedly ashamed for thinking the infallible Mr. Eastwood would ever pull anything like that.

But with all that, there was one scene that singularly made this movie for me. The team takes a trip to visit the prison in which Mandela was held, and Pienaar steps into Mandella's cell, closes the barred door and imagines life there. As this plays out, Freeman's voice reads the stirring poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley that provided inspiration and hope for Mandela in the bleakest of circumstances.

Matt Damon (Warner Bros. Pictures)
It is a piece that tells you everything you need to know about the person Nelson Mandela is -- it is an affirmation of strength, defiance and the power of conviction that I've not seen put into words so well in very many instances ... and as it echoes in my head a day after hearing it for the first time, it's something I'll remember long after the memory of this movie fades.

William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Review: The Road

* May be a spoiler near the end ... read at your own peril.

I read "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy a while ago, knowing that they were going to make a movie out of it, and when I finished the book I couldn't see how that would be possible.

Watching the movie tonight, I have to admit for the first 30 minutes or so, I still felt that way. But as the story unfolded over the hour and 53 minutes it took to tell, it quietly evolved into a surprisingly beautiful piece of work.

The setting is post-apocalyptic, and the plot is simple: A man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) merely trying to survive in a world that is uninhabitable. Complementing the plot nicely is the equally simple soundtrack, a solitary piano eventually accompanied by a cello that I thought sounded both haunting and hopeful as the father and son made their way through the cold and the gray, the ash, the devastation and the savagery that now defines the majority of those that survived whatever it is that has happened.

I found the cinematography to be gorgeous in a way, despite being predominantly dark and depressing, because offsetting this were vibrant colors that washed over you when the film conveyed any kind of positivity.

Expanding on this sense is the scene I remember most from the book, and the movie's interpretation didn't disappoint. The two are slowly starving to death and spending their entire existence searching for food in the most revolting places, withering away and covered in dirt and grime -- which brings out the fire and color in the eyes of the father, who has not and will not give up hope -- and they stumble across a bomb shelter that is stocked full of canned goods, water, toiletries and everything one would need to feel human again.

The bright yellow of the Del Monte canned fruit pops out of the gray as the two indulge in what had to be the best-tasting meal I could imagine ("What do you want for breakfast?!" the father exuberantly asks his son).

Later, we see the bright white of the tub as they take their first hot bath in who knows how long, the water washing coats of grime away in contrast -- giving their faces color. They eat a hot dinner by the warm, amber glow of candlelight as it rains outside above them.

Or consider the flashback scenes, echoes of a happier time, in which the palette is always dramatically changed to bursts of color -- comforting your eyes after having acclimated to the brooding overtones. Watching these, I was reminded of the little girl in the red coat in "Schindler's List," or the flashback scenes in "The Passion of the Christ" -- where you felt that burning need for color and relief -- and it was presented when you -- or the characters -- needed it the most.

My favorite part of this movie, though, came when the two happen across an old man, who is alone. And as they talk to him, that's all I notice ... until the next scene, where they had invited him to dinner around their campfire and I realize that ... it's Robert Duvall!

A funny thing happened when that dawned on me -- I actually felt somewhat comforted by Duvall's presence in this movie. Having seen nearly everything he's done -- multiple times -- he represented a sense of familiarity when I recognized his voice amid the bleak existence that I had felt lost in up to that point.

Not to mention, while he's only on screen for a few minutes, he gives a very evocative performance in a way that only he could deliver.

As the film progressed, one of the most disconcerting feelings I found myself having was wondering how close we may all be to this type of existence. Compounding this feeling was watching the featurette, in which they said that they filmed the majority of this movie at locales that have already suffered similar devastation (Katrina, Mount St. Helens).

But for all its despair, the movie ends with what I believe it was trying to convey all along: a feeling of hope. There's a poignant sense of a story ending and another beginning -- without giving too much away.

And as this feeling grows, we remember a minor scene in the movie where the boy expressed interest in a dog that may have been following them. We also remember that we've been told early on that all animals have been wiped out. Well, for me, seeing a fleeting pan shot of the eternally optimistic face of a worn-down mutt at this point not only drove home that feeling of hope but felt like an incredibly powerful and thought-provoking scene in the movie.

(Dimension Films)
What does the dog represent to you? Clearly this was a strategic choice made, and you'd be amazed at the myriad interpretations that are out there, both optimistic and even foreboding.

I think you can take a lot away from this movie. When everything is stripped away and it's just you and someone else, as Mortensen said, is it simply a matter of survival at that point that defines us, or is it something else? Maybe it's the act of preserving our humanity in the face of hopelessness, sin and despair.

Or maybe it's simply a reminder to not take the things we have for granted in our own lives.

Whatever it is, I did take one thing away from the movie. When I went to the refrigerator later in the evening to scrounge, a burst of yellow popped out at me from the Del Monte can of peaches I had sitting there on the bottom shelf ... and I don't remember them ever tasting so good.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Looking behind the curtain

Well, it certainly appears as if I'm about to publish my first post that's not about baseball. But since I can't sleep -- and considering nobody even reads this blog anyway, so who the hell cares -- I'd like to use this space to discuss movies to some extent, when the inspiration strikes, and it seems like a good opportunity to start.

In the spirit of complete randomness, one topic I've been thinking a bit about recently is DVD extras or deleted scenes and whether or not they, I don't want to say ruin, but perhaps take away from the experience of watching a movie.

I've always been pretty much a purist -- adamantly averse to deleted scenes and all the "making of" documentaries that flash everyone the goods, revealing "How we did this!" "And why!" "And where!" "And when!" ... and I tend to feel that it's gotten to the point where movies are in danger of being completely spoiled by oversaturation of information from the "outside world," which robs the audience of the magic that was intended.

In other words, WORLDS COLLIDE! A movie doesn't really stand alone as a piece of art or exist as a pure and original entity anymore -- where we lose ourselves in this other life that was created -- because we're shown directly how it's being controlled -- and by our own devices no less!

Remember how disappointed you were when you saw the Wizard of Oz -- as he really is? Ugh ... time to go back home ...

I've always felt the same way about deleted scenes and have had a hard time grasping the concept. What's the point of including them? You've made the movie you wanted to make, you told the story, that should be it. Is it arrogance? Or maybe an inability to come to terms with the sacrifices you had to make to tell that story?

However, the whole collaborative aspect of movies fascinates me and I've found that I cannot watch a movie now without checking out the "making of" featurettes. And I've grown to feel that it hasn't really taken away from the movie itself, because I think I've learned to separate the two experiences.

Deleted scenes have been a tougher sell, but I recently watched a movie that actually may have shown me their value. And that movie is "Pirate Radio."

All you need to know about this flick is that it's about 90 minutes of shenanigans on a boat off the coast of Britain in the 1960s that plays outlawed rock and roll. I was thoroughly entertained, and surprisingly so.

But what was interesting, is that director Richard Curtis found it so difficult to leave some of the actors' performances on the scrap heap because they didn't fit into the flow of the story he decided to tell, that he included nearly another 90 minutes of deleted scenes featuring their work.

Now, in a movie like this that is structured around simple scenes, funny scenes, I think it works on a couple of levels. One, watching these was almost like being treated to a second hilarious movie ... and two, some of them gave a richer background on the characters that I did not get from the movie itself.

I found one of these scenes to be uniquely profound, and I've included it here. So, check it out and I'll tell you what I really love about this after you watch it.

Now, maybe you can make the argument that it was simply the Guatemalan woman (who starred in my dreams for weeks after I first saw this) that made this scene for me ... and you'd probably be correct.

But I loved the beach hut bar on the other side of the world being a stop on this character's (flamboyant dee-jay Gavin Cavanagh, played by Rhys Ifans -- I mainly remember him as wiry kicker Nigel in "The Replacements") travels; seeing the love of music bring completely different people together; demonstrating in no uncertain terms what those dee-jays on these rock n' roll boats were fighting for; the blissful outburst the Guatemalan man gives at the end of the clip, completely overcome with the proverbial joie de vivre; and maybe most importantly giving the character of Gavin -- who was somewhat shallowly represented in the movie -- much more depth that you would never have known about otherwise.

Perhaps the main question is, how in God's name could this scene be left out of the movie?? As far as I'm concerned, I have no trouble -- and sometimes prefer -- sitting through a three-hour movie that has complex characters and an enthralling storyline if it contains scenes like this.

But since we are apparently so impatient these days -- or perhaps that's how movie studios see us -- and moviemakers are so adamant to bombard their audiences with what I more often than not deem as overkill, then maybe I have to learn to perceive (some) deleted scenes in the same manner as, say, an appendix serves a book -- applying extra, and sometimes necessary information to the development of the characters.

Because if something I tend to find so arbitrary can be as compelling as this scene proved to be -- after all, it's prompted me to write about it at 4 in the morning -- it apparently has the power to accomplish the task of making a movie memorable, if not more so.

Or then again, maybe we should just keep scenes like this in their movies to begin with!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Say it ain't so, Joe!

View from our seats: Joey Votto follows through on his game-tying three-run homer.
Nobody will ever figure out baseball ... and if I ever, even subtley, allude to the fact that I have, thump me on the ol' skull, will you please?

Not sure where this one is going to go, but let me start by asking a question: When you're watching a baseball game in which a team is facing a seemingly insurmountable deficit yet comes all the way back to tie in dramatic fashion, is it just me, or does it seem to be that the rallying team goes on to lose anyway?

Maybe it's a recent phenomenon, maybe it's always been this way, maybe it's an illusion and completely untrue, maybe it's having watched too many Cubs games, but it feels like more often than not, a team that rallies from behind in thrilling fashion and ties it up -- but is not able to take the lead -- late, still goes on to lose either in the ninth inning or in extras.

I have no stats to confirm or refute this and, probably more accurately, I'm too lazy to do any research involved, but I was front and center for a case in point last night involving the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.

Forget the fact that this year's Reds team had won 24 games in come-from-behind fashion going into last night's game against the Philadelphia Phillies, 13 of which have been in their last at-bat. The Reds were down by five runs early, but chipped away to pull within three runs when the ninth inning rolled around.

After two quick outs, and the next three batters being the top of the lineup in Brandon Phillips, Orlando Cabrera and Joey Votto, this was the basic premise of a conversation Aaron and I had just before Phillips stepped in:

Aaron: Just get on, Phillips.. somehow... get two on for Votto..
Jeremy: Yeah, if Phillips gets on that's huge, b/c no way Cabrera goes 0-for-5
Aaron: And Votto will tie it up with a three-run homer.. I want it to be a no-doubter...
Jeremy: Man, that would be... humongous...
Aaron: This place would be nuts
Jeremy: I can't even imagine.. And then watch them lose in extras... it always seems like that happens when a team comes back to tie.. they just lose anyway..

I don't actually think either of us thought that was how it would go down -- but Phillips drew a walk and Cabrera promptly singled to bring up Votto, who, sure enough, could bring the Reds all the way back yet again from the verge of defeat with one swing.

And after a coaches visit to the mound, Phillies closer Brad Lidge battled Votto to a 1-1 count, before Votto crushed Aaron's "no-doubter" to the Cool Zone in right-center field to tie this baby up.

Aaron rejoices with Reds fans after Joey Votto's homer.
Now, if you could have heard how loud the place was -- the fans, the fireworks, The Brennamans -- feel the electricity, see the curtain call and all the players at the top step of the dugout, and trying to compute the improbability of everything falling into place that perfectly -- with 2 outs -- you'd have to logically think that the Reds would have to go on and win that game... the surge of momentum has to be almost tangible, and blowing that kind of lead on the road would have to be crippling for the Phillies.

Or maybe by assuming that, you drastically underestimate the resiliency and professionalism of a big league team -- this superhuman ability to respond at any time, under any sort of duress, to recapture what was rightfully yours and finish what you started.

Well, the latter was certainly the case again last night, because in the very next inning, the Phillies put up a three-spot to inexplicably waste the theatrics from a half-inning before, lending even more credence to the aforementioned theory.

But before Aaron and I, in our pomposity, had a chance to think we had it all figured out, the baseball gods threw their own curveball at us to turn this theory completely on its ear.

Yes, the Phillies went on to win this game by bouncing back with three runs in the 10th inning, but they scored those three runs off Arthur Rhodes -- the man who entered the game with a Major League single-season-record 33-game scoreless streak, (which he shared with two pitchers, so one more scoreless appearance would have given him sole possession of the record) including 30 consecutive scoreless innings.

In other words, no F-ing way...

And just to make sure we didn't have any more misgivings about our grasp on this sport, consider another conversation Aaron and I had that night. This one involved Jay Bruce and included such words as "frustrating," "disappointing" and "hasn't lived up to expectations for being so highly touted."

The following day, Mr. Bruce hit a go-ahead two-run homer in the eighth inning to give the Reds their Major League-leading 25th come-from-behind win and 14th in their last at-bat ... along with the series win over the Phillies.

Maybe it was the fact that his homer gave them the lead rather than merely drawing them even that ultimately deflated the Phillies ... then again, who knows?

What I do know, is that I know nothing. Nobody ... nobody has figured this game out in over a century, and for that I'm glad. Because every instance like this ensures that this game will remain a mystery for that much longer.