Monday, August 30, 2010

Kayaking ... and memories of ...

Did a little kayaking yesterday -- by way of Trapper John's Canoe Livery in Grove City -- with Nate, Tasha, Mom and Dad. Highly recommended if you're looking for a fun and relaxing way to unwind.

Accurate representation
before the wipeout.
Unfortunately, a member of our party -- we won't say who! -- flipped the kayak on one of the Class V rapids (see photo --->) we were battling on Big Darby Creek and went into the drink, subsequently having to spend the rest of the day soaking wet.

Sadly, bad luck always seems to befall one person in the group, and in the vein of misery loves company, let me just say that ... I know the feeling!

This was my second kayaking day this summer, the other being on the Scioto River, but before that I hadn't been since I visited friends in Seattle 10 years ago (Has it been that long?!). While out there, I had my first kayaking experience on the picturesque Lake Union, and it was a glorious time ... that is, until I got all cocky that I mastered the kayak and started horsing around and getting in splash fights with the paddle.

I promptly got what was coming to me, flipping my kayak in the middle of the lake and, since it was virtually impossible for me to flip the thing back over while treading water, I had to swim with it to one of those sweet houseboats that line the lake, so I could get out, flip it and get back in ... soaking wet for the rest of the day.

So in the interest of self-deprecation -- and informing the unfortunate member of our party yesterday, you are not alone! -- here's a comical look back at yours truly, embarrassing himself, but making what turned out to be a memory that I look back on fondly now.




Keep the snickering to yourself ...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Review: Sweetgrass

When I first heard about "Sweetgrass," -- a family of Montana sheepherders driving their flock into the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains for summer pasture -- I immediately romanticized it.

That feeling was promptly quashed five minutes into this thing.

Not that that's bad, because I think that is the intention of this enthralling documentary, which is filmed without any narration or interviews. The cameras are simply there on the journey, rolling and capturing its authenticity.

This method of filmmaking reminded me of the documentary "Into Great Silence," which is a contemplative look into daily monastic life at a French monastery. These kinds of films take a certain measure of patience and focus to make it through to the end, but if you can muster it up, they provide a unique experience. You feel free, a part of the setting, and can appreciate their sentiment without ever feeling manipulated by typical filmmaking ploys.

"Sweetgrass" starts out as winter begins to break, and the sheep are sheared (to the soft, lilting notes of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell"), and it was funny to see how the sheep's faces display a perpetual state of calm as they patiently bear with being gruffly handled and tossed about. There is also a very graphic birthing scene, and the roughness with which the lambs are treated surprised me. But at the same time, you can feel an underlying tenderness the workers have for the animals.

As they set out on their trek, there's an amazing shot of the 3,000 or so sheep making their way down main street of the small town. Herded by border collies, sheepdogs, workers on horseback and ATV's, the arduous process is astonishing, and as they make their way onto the trail and into the wilds of Montana, it immediately dawns on you that, this ain't gonna be easy.

The scenery is spectacular -- although, I wish this was available on blu-ray because some of the colors feel a little more washed out than they should be in a film that is set in such a beautiful part of the country -- but you find yourself unable to enjoy the surroundings fully because you're so distracted by all the pitfalls and complications and danger the group faces throughout the entire grueling journey.

But what this documentary also provides are the nuances of sound and a very gifted eye by the filmmakers. From the very start there are incredibly detailed sounds of the animals eating, the tinkling bells they wear on their collars, you hear their footsteps all around you as they march along, you hear the sounds of the birds and the surrounding wildlife, the wind, and the murmur of voices, sometimes singing, from the workers in the distance that puts you right there in the middle of all of it.

Combined with this are some incredible camera shots -- thrust right in the middle of a feeding frenzy or in the middle of the flock as it charges through a canyon. There are dazzling wide and long shots of the wilderness and the mountains that are interspersed so that you are consistently aware of the simultaneous beauty and unforgiving power of nature, that makes this whole endeavor feel very small and perhaps ill-fated.

John Ahern (Cinema Guild)
You get to know two workers along the way. One is John Ahern, a weathered veteran who reminds me of a cross between Jack Palance in "City Slickers" and the modern-day Mickey Rourke. This guy doesn't say much. He doesn't need to. "How can a dog like me if people don't," he says at one point. You can tell he's doing the only thing he was put on this earth to do, and he loves it completely, evidenced by his frequent and reflective gazes. There is a lengthy and intimate scene simply between him and his horse that is especially poignant and tells you everything you need to know about this guy.

The other is Pat Connolly, a younger worker, with a more outgoing personality and a more earnest and emotional approach to his job, although he has a tougher time adapting. I liked the conversations between these two. Sometimes they were nothing but awkward one-liners as Connolly talked and Ahern looked off into the distance (What is he looking at?!) Sometimes they were busting balls. Sometimes they were in-depth, as they discussed what to do about a potential bear situation in one particular instance.

All the while, you admire the unbelievable skill of these workers as the terrain and the journey gets rougher and rougher. There is indeed appalling evidence of a bear attack, and their subsequent reaction to it is a truly entertaining part of this film. And it isn't their last run-in with bears.

But while the skill of these workers is remarkable, it's not enough to combat the brutality of nature combined with the complication of driving thousands of sheep right into the middle of it. You can feel the frustration comically during Connolly's diatribe of colorful cursing as the border collies fail to keep the herd together at one point, and they scatter into a ravine.

Pat Connolly (Cinema Guild)
And you can feel the frustration poignantly when Connolly breaks down in a call to his mother on a mountain top, describing the scattering of the flock, the roaring wind, his border collie that can barely walk anymore, his own knee grinding with every step. You can understand his plight, especially if you think about these problems perhaps being compounded by pressing financial problems at home and the need to get this job done -- "I'd rather enjoy the mountains than hate them, but right now I hate them ... I've been saying a lot of prayers ..." But after venting on the phone, he feels rejuvenated it seems, and he shares a nice moment with his poor crippled dog who's been trying so hard.

This film signifies the end of this method of sheepherding. It's mentioned to us at the end of the documentary, the majority of which was shot in 2001, that the last sheepherder to drive a flock of sheep in such a way -- which turns out to be a 150-mile journey over several months -- did so during that year.

And as Ahern gets into the pickup truck after the exhausting drive is over, another job done -- and, of course, gazing wistfully out the window -- we can feel the nostalgic finality of this way of life and the uncertain transition to what lies ahead.

"Can rain all it wants to now," Ahern says, looking at the sky.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Strap on the feedbags, it's Dime-A-Dog Night!

View from our seats: Huntington Park at dusk
Dime-a-Dog Night 2009 photo gallery

Mom, Dad and I got in a second annual Columbus Clippers Dime-A-Dog Night extravaganza last night at Huntington Park. If you're wondering, the answer is yes... 10 cents per hot dog does indeed bring out the comical gluttony in Midwestern folk. We all choked down five of those puppies, until Dad -- thinking only of others, who were trying not to waste their box of hot dogs -- offered his services and made it a cool six on the evening.

Simply stunning ...

It's always a great time, especially on a perfect summer night as last night was. To cap it off, the Clippers belted a pair of dingers and walked off on an infield single, edging the Toledo Mud Hens, 4-3.

Columbus Clippers, ring your bell!

Dime-a-Dog Night: 50 cents doesn't buy what it used to.

Fill up the trough, it's feedin' time!

C'mon, folks... Please eat your first five before ordering more.
A view from the cheap seats
Downtown Columbus upon our exit.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Already missing Lou Piniella

"It's a good day to remember, and also, it's a good day to forget." -- Lou Piniella

I think every Cubs fan has shared that sentiment more than a handful of times on any given day during any given season, so to hear it from an emotional, albeit laughing, Lou Piniella as he gave his final press conference today after Chicago's 16-5 loss to Atlanta, felt sadly appropriate.

What doesn't feel appropriate is the way Piniella is leaving after spending a half-century in baseball, and as abruptly as his spectacular career ended today, I didn't want Lou to pass into history without saying a few words ... OK, more than a few.

It's been a rough year for Piniella. Watching the offseason's high expectations fizzle into a team that hasn't been above .500 all season is tough enough. But his good friend, George Steinbrenner, passed away, he's had to take a leave from the Cubs to attend his uncle's funeral just a few weeks ago, and another to be with his 90-year-old mother, whose health is failing.

It's to be with his mother that Piniella has chosen to step down today, rather than at the end of the season as he announced last month, and to keep from being a distraction to the Cubs.

"Rather than continue to go home and come back, it's not fair to the team and it's not fair to the players," he said. "The best thing is to step down and go home and take care of my mother."

On the surface, today felt good, it felt right. After all, it was a beautiful, high-sky summer day at Wrigley Field, perfect for a swan song -- "I noticed things around the park I hadn't noticed before," said Piniella. "I wasn't daydreaming, but I was very cognizant of the things around here."

And there was Braves manager Bobby Cox in the opposing dugout. He's retiring after this season and a legendary career, too. Cox has 2,485 wins in 29 years as a manager, while Piniella finished with 1,835 wins in 23. So it was a classic scene when both iconic skippers brought out the lineup cards before the game, an event that was already set up to honor Cox's final game at Wrigley, but became twice as nostalgic after Piniella's pregame announcement.

And there were the fans, cheering the scene between Piniella and Cox that caused the Cubs skipper to momentarily break down as he doffed his cap to the crowd. There was the ovation the crowd gave Piniella after he made a pitching change in the seventh inning. And there was Piniella's final press conference -- "This is the final final," he said -- during which he broke down with genuine emotion, but interjected classic Sweet Lou humor along with the passion that had defined his career and now fittingly closed it.

But underneath it all, things felt unsettling. Cox is riding a wave of success and will likely be headed to the postseason in his final year before retirement, all the while enjoying a memorable farewell tour that has been full of tributes, honors and well-wishes at every stop. Even here, at Wrigley, the right-field Miller Lite billboard paid tribute to Cox with a “BRAVO BOBBY! CHEERS TO 29 YEARS!” shout out.

But where is Lou's farewell tour? Where are the tributes and accolades for one of baseball's most memorable characters and a skipper who won three Manager of the Year Awards, a pennant and a World Series title? Most recently, as's Carrie Muskat has noted nicely, he's the first Cubs manager in a century to lead the team to consecutive postseason appearances -- helping to "raise the bar here for the entire organization," as general manager Jim Hendry said -- and has been in uniform since his first season as a player in 1962.

I certainly have nothing against Cox, because he deserves this sendoff, this feeling of closure. But Lou does, too, and it's hard to be stuck with the memory of his final exit from a baseball field being a quick tip of the cap to Cox, and then subtly disappearing into the tunnel to the clubhouse after an ignominious defeat.

I guess I've always had a soft spot for Piniella. After all, we go way back. Mom and Dad like to tell me I sat right behind Lou in right field during the 1976 World Series at Riverfront Stadium -- I was five months from being born, but still. And we loved him here in Ohio, when he led the Reds to their World Series title in 1990.

So when he came to manage the Cubs, I remember thinking how fitting that was, and what a perfect sendoff this could be for the guy -- leading this team to its first World Series title in, we all know how long. That was the way I felt Piniella would and should go out, drenched in champagne and doffing his cap to the crowd as the toast of Chicago and the baseball world with a big Lou grin, not tears.

Instead, it was a more fitting Cubs-like send off ... You see, Piniella's final season also began with a 16-5 loss to the Braves. To bookend his final chapter with this ugly symmetry, not being able to leave on his own terms and going through an emotionally tough time in his personal life is not the way any baseball fan would have liked to see him walk off into the sunset.

So having felt a little gloomy all day, I'm going to feel sad about this for a while. And I think baseball will as well, because the game needs the old-school guys like Piniella, like Cox, who bring us a glimpse and a feel for a different era, keeping us connected to the game's rich past.

I hope he stays involved with baseball in some capacity, I'd like to see him in the broadcast booth again. But soon I'm going to start looking forward to the day when he takes, what I believe to be, his rightful place in Cooperstown.

He'll deliver his induction speech in classic Sweet Lou style. It will be genuine, it will be passionate, it will be funny and, as Terence Mann says, it will remind us of all that once was good, and it could be again.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

2010 Fall Movie Preview

As August winds down, we're closing in on my favorite part of every year. September brings us baseball pennant races and the return of football. We have postseason baseball, Halloween and crisp autumn air in October ... and November and December usher in the holidays, football galore, family, friends, good eats and, of course, seasonal libations (Sam Adams Winter Lager anyone?!).

But what we also have during this time are typically some of the best movies of the year hitting theaters. And thanks to Entertainment Weekly's timely Fall Movie Preview that came out recently, here are some of the films I have marked.

George Clooney (Focus Features)
The American
September 1
George Clooney

Clooney playing a brooding hitman hiding out in the Italian countryside and falling for a gorgeous woman, while trying to come to terms with what he's done and wanting out after one last assignment ... Where's the downside? Director Anton Corbijn says Clooney "plays the darkest character I've ever seen him play." My kind of movie. 

September 3
Danny Trejo, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert DeNiro
, Robert Rodriguez (dir.)

Trejo and DeNiro teamed up as bank robbers in "Heat" and now they're enemies. What's cool about this one is that it was a fake trailer in Rodriguez's "Grindhouse," but it played so well that they made a full-length movie out of it. It's all about revenge and carnage ... and stylized for your enjoyment! Be there, sucka!

The Town
September 17
Ben Affleck (also directs), Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm

Yes, another gritty Boston drama, but I don't care. I've yet to be let down by one. Affleck plays the leader of a gang of bank robbers, who repeatedly terrorize a particular section of Boston ... and he falls for a bank manager they took hostage, who doesn't recognize him ... Nice. Plus, it'll be cool to see Don Draper as the pursuing federal agent.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
September 24
Shia LaBeouf, Michael Douglas, Josh Brolin, Oliver Stone (dir.)


I'm not the world's greatest LaBeouf fan, but I've been waiting for this one for a while ... from the opening scene in the trailer where Gordon Gekko gets his archaic cell phone back on his way out of prison. The original, so quintessentially 80's, is so cringe-worthy (in a good way!) and I'm interested to see Gekko, once the absolute representation of greed and power, as a fallen man and how he adapts to the way things are now. Plus, apparently Bud Fox makes an appearance.

October 8
Edward Norton, Robert DeNiro

Norton and DeNiro squaring off in a prison movie. Why write anything else? But I will, only to add the sleazy plot twist ... Norton's character, a convicted arsonist, uses his girlfriend to manipulate DeNiro's correctional officer to grant him parole. I think this will end well for everyone, don't you? 

(Paramount Pictures)
Paranormal Activity 2
October 22

I still can't get the final scene of the original out of my head. While watching it in the theater, I thought it was just OK ... then I got home and started thinking about it, and it gradually started working on me and really creeping me out. Judging by the chills I have after watching the trailer for the sequel, I'm not sure I can handle it -- A dog sleeping next to a baby in a crib ... you hear footsteps ... the dog starts growling menacingly at the door while the baby stands up and looks at the door ... a shadowy figure appears, and both dog and baby are gone... but you can still see the baby in the mirror... Jeez.. 

The Company Men
October 22

Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner


I wonder if Affleck will start to get on a roll with decent movies. Seems like he's been making good choices lately. And how about this cast? Affleck plays a family man whose life falls apart after he's laid off and, as he says with a great quote in EW, "has to face the fact that the American dream is about accumulating things and titles -- and isn't about developing yourself as a person." Love that. So sad, so true.

October 22
Matt Damon, Bryce Dallas Howard, Clint Eastwood (dir.)

Damon and Eastwood team up again, which is enough to get me there, but the plot itself sounds excellent. It follows three different people who have been affected by death, and touches on near-death experiences and people searching for answers. Eastwood calls it his chick flick movie, "but one that men will like, too. Or at least one that won't make them want to stick a Swiss Army knife into their leg." 

Morning Glory
November 12
Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton

I have high hopes for this one, because the premise cracked me up. McAdams (known at my place as the future Mrs. Smith) recruits Ford, a former "serious national newsman" to co-host one of those cheesy morning TV news shows. Classic! And I also saw Modern Family's Ty Burrell in the trailer as one of the hosts, which has to be gold. 

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
December 10 

From what I remember reading the books, this was my favorite of the series, along with the polarizing "The Last Battle." While the movies haven't quite exactly captured the feeling I had reading the books as a kid, I'm relieved they've done a classy and respectful job with the first two movies, and I'm interested to see how they adapt this one. Plus, I think it'll be in 3D, which could add that little extra element. 

Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld (Paramount Pictures)
True Grit
December 25
Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Joel and Ethan Coen (dir.)

Now, we're talkin'! I knew about this movie months ago, so this has been and will continue to be an excruciating wait, but chances are more than fair I'm going to be in a theater on Christmas Day for this one. All you really need to do is look at the cast and look who's directing ... add in the fact that it's a western and I think you already have a Best Picture nominee, sight unseen. I never saw the original, but apparently this is a completely different retelling. Now, let's get that trailer produced, puh-leese. 

Also piquing my interest: 

Buried: Trailer
9/24 -- Ryan Reynolds spends the majority of the movie buried alive in a coffin and trying to escape. It sounds like a helluva suspense thriller, but I'm wondering how long it will take for claustrophobia to set in and make this one too uncomfortable.

The Social Network: Trailer
10/1 -- I'm just not into Facebook at all, but the story behind how it was created might be interesting ... and it's been generating some major buzz.

Red: Trailer
10/15 -- This one has potential. Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and, yes, Helen Mirren play retired CIA operatives who are forced back into action. The preview cracked me up, and even has an Ernest Borgnine appearance. I might be more enamored with seeing the type of audience this movie will bring to the theater, though.

127 Hours
11/5 -- This one might have a similar feel as "Buried." James Franco plays the hiker back in 2003 who cut his own arm off to free himself from a boulder. Very intriguing, but, again, you wonder how uncomfortable this one will get.

Fair Game: Trailer
11/5 -- Looks like a complicated spy thriller involving Sean Penn and Naomi Watts as a husband and wife drawn into the CIA's dealings in Iraq. The preview confused me, so I'll just say that hijinks ensue. 

The Next Three Days: Trailer
11/19 -- Russell Crowe plays a guy who's trying to break his wife out of prison, and Liam Neeson is involved. I think we've all been there ...

Natalie Portman
Black Swan: Trailer
12/1 -- Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis play rival ballet dancers, and things get dark. It looks like there are great performances throughout, and there's something mesmerizing about Portman's makeup job.

The Fighter
12/10 -- Mark Wahlberg plays boxer Irish Micky Ward and Christian Bale plays his brother/trainer, a drug addict. Love the Ward story and fights, but this one will depend on which Wahlberg will show up. I was not happy after "The Happening."

TRON: Legacy: Trailer
12/17 -- I remember watching "TRON" years and years and years ago and loved Jeff Bridges in it, but I never really was part of that cult following it's garnered over the years. But it may be worth another viewing, because the trailer for this looks incredibly trippy, and the fact that it's going to be in 3D could make it quite a ride.

Little Fockers: Trailer
12/22 -- "Meet the Fockers" didn't really do it for me, but there looks to be some really funny bits in the trailer for this one. It feels like it might get back to the stuff that made the original so funny. Plus, Harvey Keitel is in it.

So here's to these movies, and the ones that I won't see comin'. Enjoy the rest of the summer, but good stuff awaits.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Review: The Good Heart

Wow ... people did not like this movie.

Roger Ebert's review is hilarious, because he plain and simply despised "The Good Heart" so much, it made me laugh out loud reading it. I agree with Mr. Ebert's reviews, I'd have to say, 90 percent of the time, so it's always a surprise when we differ in opinion.

But funny things happen when you see a movie at just the right time or when you are in the right mood. And I have to tell you -- brace yourself -- I actually liked it, despite everyone's apparent loathing.

In short, Brian Cox plays one of the most unlikeable characters you'll meet in Jacques, the owner of a dive bar in New York City -- The House of Oysters (it doesn't serve oysters anymore, just booze and coffee, but he doesn't change the name of the bar because, well, you can't change the name of a bar, according to Jacques). It's so dingy you can almost smell it.

But my fondness for "dive bars" in general probably gave this movie more points than others awarded it, because I thought that place was great. It was so small, it could barely fit 13 people, which Jacques says is the maximum amount you should have in a bar. Yes, he has a lot of head-scratching rules -- No women, no walk-ins, a bartender should be familiar, not friendly, champagne is only for celebrating major sports victories etc ... It has a cool player piano as well, and a worthy mascot, a German Shepherd that goes everywhere with Jacques, and even sits at the bar with the regulars.

Brian Cox (Magnolia Pictures)
Jacques has another problem other than being a curmudgeon. He has a bad ticker and suffers his fifth heart attack. Yes, Jacques' German Shepherd even accompanies him to the hospital, following his master's gurney with hospital slippers on all four paws. At the same time, a homeless kid named Lucas (Paul Dano), who lives under a bridge, tries to commit suicide, winds up in Jacques' hospital room, and the two forge some semblance of a relationship.

Jacques starts to think about his mortality, and decides he'll take Lucas in and teach him the ways of bar ownership with the goal of passing the bar along to him after he dies. It starts to become evident that Jacques will probably learn a bit more from Lucas, and there are some dramatic, quirky and humorous scenes between the two.

At this point, the movie has gotten so gritty and you're wallowing in the depression and angst and coldness of Jacques (What the hell happened in his past that made him so bitter anyway?), and the loneliness and darkness of the bar and the regulars, that you feel the need to open the window and let some fresh air in.

Enter April (Isild Le Besco) -- a most fitting name, no? Finally having a female in this movie was a welcome sight indeed. She is a French stewardess with her own amusing sob story who enters the bar out of the rain and, well, throws a wrench into Jacques' plans.

I do have to say, the ending is completely nutso. Unfortunately, there was a scene earlier that kind of set it up and ruined a bit of the shock for me, but even as the ending develops and the movie wraps itself up, the cynic in me started crying foul about how unbelievably unfair the whole thing is.

Isild Le Besco and Paul Dano (Magnolia Pictures)
But, like the House of Oysters, you have to try and let a little fresh air in, a little optimism, and understand what the ending suggests, as hard as that may be and as far-fetched as it is.

I took it as a cautionary tale, one I was glad to see when I am still relatively young rather than too old and bitter to see any point in making any changes in my life -- not unlike "A Christmas Carol." This life is really nothing unless we open ourselves up and share it with others ... and try to put people ahead of ourselves once in a while.

Some of us are here for just a brief moment, others for a longer spell, and there's no explanation for it, so we should not waste these opportunities we have while we're here to make meaningful connections. Because we can be "pressed into service" at any time, no matter how young or old we are, and no matter whether it's fair or not.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Review: We Believe

It's been a miserable season for the Chicago Cubs, and it was a struggle to put in "We Believe" at this point of the season. But as it played out, I thought what better time to renew the optimism?

Directed by John Scheinfeld, the documentary surrounds the 2008 Cubs as they play in their 100th season without having won a World Series.

I love how the film starts, with the neighborhoods of Chicago waking up, intercut with shots of Wrigley Field in the morning -- newspaper deliverymen, a lone jogger along Lake Michigan, restaurants preparing breakfast and people commuting to work -- and then it all coming together for Opening Day. Metaphors galore!

The film isn't a single-layered story about the Cubs and their overemotional fans. Scheinfeld weaves together a rich history of the city of Chicago, the Cubs' history, the 2008 season, stories of fans and capsules of players, creating the backdrop for the unique setting in which the Cubs play.

In doing so, there are moments where some of the stories about Chicago and the Cubs are rehashed versions that we already know, and sometimes it feels as if the film is all over the place, trying to cram all the story angles in. But, for me, it's the heart of the movie that prevails here.

I hope people who are not fans of the team don't see this film as simply a marketing ploy or a Chamber of Commerce video for the city, because that's not the case. Scheinfeld said he did not set out to do a film about the Cubs, but about the relationship between a city and its team, which I think any fan of baseball can relate to.

There are a handful of Cubs greats that share their insight, but since it isn't a history of the Cubs, not every notable figure is featured, like Harry Caray for instance -- although Ryan Dempster's strong impression of Harry saying, "How can he be Puerto Rican and lose the ball in the sun, I just don't get it!" is hysterical.

But while Scheinfeld utilizes this global notion of a fan base identifying with its team, this film obviously has a distinct Chicago flavor. As celebrities, city officials, members of the team and the average fan discuss the Cubs and their long history, there are scenes and reflections of taking the train to Wrigley, waiting in line on the streets in a cold rain for the gates to open on Opening Day, skipping school/work to go to the game, and feeling 1930's Chicago by walking the neighborhood around the park that fully capture the feeling of living there -- and, for me, provide quite a dose of nostalgia.

There were some pretty big moments in that National League-best 97-win season the Cubs had, and I remember feeling that they had to be destined to do it that year.

Wrigley rejoices after the May 2008 comeback against the Rockies.
The film touches on Carlos Zambrano's no-hitter, the seven players they sent to the All-Star Game and, one I can personally relate to, the incredible late-game comeback the Cubs made against the Rockies in May. Down 9-1 early, they scored six runs in the seventh inning, capped by Mark DeRosa's go-ahead home run that won it. I was at that game with a group of friends, including my pal Burke (check out his film blog here), who was visiting Wrigley for the first time. After the sheer mania died down and people finally started for the exits after lingering to celebrate, I looked at him and said, "Well, that's the best I could do for your first Cubs game ..."

That game, that season was yet another representation of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows that Cubs fans seemingly go through on a yearly basis, and this documentary captures this feeling. One minute they seem destined to finally do it, and the next minute they are systematically swept in the NLDS for a second consecutive year.

But in the face of that, the film closes on that perpetual note of loyalty and optimism -- with the perfection of Bruce Springsteen's "Land of Hope and Dreams" playing in the background -- as Cubs fans (again) renew their hope for the future, mirroring the sense of a new dawn that this film opened with.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Review: Brothers

I'm really only interested in the actors. In a certain regard, performance is a lie. -- Director Jim Sheridan

Nate gave me a good heads up about a movie a while back, and it finally surfaced in the Netflix queue.

The movie is "Brothers," and it centers around Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), who goes off to fight in Afghanistan just after his younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets out of prison for armed robbery. After he leaves, Tommy becomes close to Sam's family, including his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and his two daughters.

An obvious situation develops where we wonder if Tommy will get too close. And when Sam is presumed dead in a helicopter crash, the characters find themselves drawn together all the more, as they grieve the loss of Sam.

What seems like somewhat of a soap-opera like premise -- and nearing melodramatic territory -- is strengthened by the performances of the actors.

With Maguire playing Sam with an intensity I haven't seen from him very much, Tommy offsets him as the guy that always took the wrong path, always "gave up" while his brother succeeded in everything, and while it's somewhat of a cliche character-type, you always end up rooting for that character ... and you root for him here.

The boys' father (Sam Shepard) doesn't hide his preference for Sam over Tommy -- being a former Marine certainly doesn't help Tommy's case -- and where you can overplay this type of role, Shepard is able to convey the love the father still has for Tommy that has been blacked out by his disdain for him all these years, which isn't easy to do.

Natalie Portman and Bailee Madison (Lionsgate)
I liked Portman's performance. She never overdoes the multiple emotional scenes she's involved in, you can tell she's listening and reacting rather than hamming it up and she conveys a high level of maturity, honesty and strength throughout. This is demonstrated in the scene where a soldier and chaplain are standing on her front porch to deliver the news of Sam's death, and her reaction of simply seeing them at her door. To fully appreciate that scene, I recommend watching "The Messenger," which offers an excellent perspective about soldiers who are assigned to deliver these death notices to family.

I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that Sam survives the crash, because his scenes in which he becomes a prisoner of war by the Taliban are intercut with Tommy, Grace and his daughters carrying on with their lives simultaneously. And it sets up his inevitable stormy return home.

Sam is imprisoned by the Taliban along with his friend, and private, Joe Willis, and the scenes appear to me to be frighteningly realistic. My blood ran cold when a sinister Taliban leader is talking callously about Sam's daughters while I thought of them innocently playing at home, blissfully ignorant of such evil in the world.

Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal (Lionsgate)
Sam and Joe are kept in a hole and tortured for months and while Willis gives in, Cahill does not. After Cahill doesn't break, the Taliban forces him to kill Willis, or they will both be killed.

It's one of those "what would you do in this situation" scenes that I like, but also find uncomfortable. It seems easy to say that you would give a big middle finger to the Taliban there and sacrifice your life, rather than killing someone else to save your own skin.

But there was more at play here. What if you're in Sam's shoes and have a wife and children at home? What's more important, refusing to kill someone and sacrificing your life in the process ... or killing your friend, who also has a wife and children, to save your life so you can go back to your family where you are loved and needed?

There is no easy answer here, and it bothers me that I don't know the correct call to make.

I found it interesting that this movie is a remake of the Danish film "Brodre," which won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award in 2005. I saw some clips of this film in the special features, and it would be interesting to compare the two. The Danish film appears more raw, more gritty, while Sheridan's film may have a little bit of a Hollywood sheen on it.

But what I appreciate about Sheridan's version, is that this is a story that is identifiable to so many Americans who have family fighting overseas, and this more than justifies the remake. Those of us who haven't served can't imagine the frustration of a soldier returning home, having experienced such horrific atrocities, and being unable to convey their feelings about what they went through, and worse, our inability to understand and relate to their experience.

Sheridan's track record of dealing with family trying to stay together during tragedy, trials and tribulations is flawless when you think of movies like "In America," "The Boxer," "In the Name of the Father," and "My Left Foot," and he has the ability to draw raw emotion and genuineness from his actors that makes us forget it's an actor giving a performance.

So having a guide like Sheridan to bring such a relatable story to Americans during this time is really something to appreciate.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Review: Inception

Grab a Snickers ... we're gonna be here a while ...

First of all, can we just take a moment and let Christopher Nolan's young filmography sink in a little? Since breaking out with the memorable "Memento," he's directed "Insomnia," "Batman Begins," "The Prestige" and "The Dark Knight." And that's without mentioning "Following," which started it all.

Please feel free to applaud here before continuing ...

Secondly, I don't know how the hell to review this movie, because there is so much you can't give away. While the film's payoff is immensely satisfying -- and hotly debated -- the journey toward that moment is as thoroughly entertaining for the viewer to discover on their own.

I know I need to see this again before being able to write anything remotely intelligent about it -- for that matter, so does the woman in my theatre who left three times during this thing. Seriously, lady? I'd love to hear her interpretation of what she experienced between candy and bathroom breaks. Doubtless she went home whining about how stupid and boring it was because you had no idea what was going on ...

But I digress ...

This movie demands full attention and participation. If you simply focus on the movie and nothing else, it comes to you, there is no reason to feel intimidated about the complex storylines. For me, I had the same giddy feeling I had after watching "The Prestige" for the first time. Having gotten that one on DVD, I watched it -- and immediately watched it again, without taking a break, to catch everything I missed the first time around that led up to that movie's glorious climax.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Leonardo DiCaprio (Warner Bros.)
With "Inception," I fought the urge to immediately purchase another ticket. But perhaps a first impression will be the most genuine review to make -- as long as we all know that there is much more I could write about.

The movie starts with Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as lead members of a team of "extractors," who have the ability to enter people's dreams and steal secrets, which they sell to companies. They are propositioning a Japanese billionaire, Saito (Ken Watanabe), to purchase their services as protection from his competitors, and they will have to enter his mind and learn all his secrets to do so.

It is here we realize that this is a dream ... which is then revealed to be a dream within a dream.

And so we're off -- accompanied by Hans Zimmer's predictably pitch-perfect soundtrack -- into an incredibly intense labyrinthian journey through reality, and dreams upon dreams upon dreams ... upon dreams. It's so intricate, that each member of the team must possess a "totem," something unique to each individual with a weight and shape to it that only they recognize, informing them of whether they are in a dream or reality. It's "an elegant solution for keeping track of reality," one character muses. Cobb uses a top that spins continuously in dreams ... it stops spinning in real life. Hmmmm ...

Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard (Warner Bros.)
Cobb botches his job with Saito because he is unable to control his subconscious mind's defenses, or "projections," which are characters or objects from his own mind that he brings into the dreams of others, sabotaging the work. This is due to the fact that Cobb has a very emotional back story, involving his wife (Marion Cotillard), his children and a tragic incident that caused him to go on the run from U.S. authorities. But in a second dealing with Saito, Cobb may have the chance to return to his family.

Saito wants Cobb and his team to perform an act of "inception" with a business competitor (Cillian Murphy), planting an idea in his dream state that will cause him to destroy his own company. In turn, Saito will see to it that Cobb is granted amnesty.

To pull this off, the team sets up a three-level (which actually becomes a mesmerizing four-level) dream scenario, and it is here that we should recognize some of the members of this team, because their performances turn what could easily have been a movie driven solely by special effects into one of substance and humanity.

Ellen Page (Warner Bros.)
DiCaprio is very good as Cobb, the leader, and he has the knack for playing sketchy protagonists down cold. We can feel his migraine-inducing battles between reality and the dream world, fueled by his intense feelings of grief and inability to let go of the past that puts this mission, and the lives of his team, in jeopardy. His grit and professionalism are overshadowed by the guilt, the pain and the regret that has been choking the life out of him. His love for his family is never in doubt and you never feel as if you're not on his side, despite the fact that what he's doing "isn't exactly legal," as he admits.

And then there's his supporting cast. Ellen Page plays Ariadne, a young student plucked from the university by Cobb to be "The Architect" of these dream worlds because he is unable to trust himself to do so. Since Ariadne is a newcomer to the team, she's a point of contact for the audience (at least she was for me), because she's trying to figure out all of this on the fly, as we are, and asks important questions at important times that helps us to stay on track. She also serves as a fresh, steady voice of reason for Cobb, and she plays it cool and analytical with a bit of charm.

Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Warner Bros.)
I especially loved Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy (Eames), and we should look forward to seeing much more from these two actors in the future. We learn so much about their characters based on their individual eccentricities and their interplay with each other.

Gordon-Levitt plays Arthur as the consummate professional with no shortage of charisma:

Eames: Security's going to come down on you hard ...
Arthur: And I shall lead them on a merry chase!

And he's rewarded with one doozy of a zero-gravity fight scene off the walls and ceiling of a hotel that is alone worth the price of admission -- and it is the centerpiece of some of the most stunning, mind-blowing and gorgeous special effects that I have seen.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Warner Bros. Pictures)
As for Hardy's Eames, I can't at all say that he is the comic relief, because this is not that kind of movie. But he has a very calming and sly wit about him:

Cobb (who's being followed): That bounty on me, was that dead or alive?
Eames: Not sure. See if he starts shooting at you.

He lightens the mood of what could be a very heavy movie and is another character the audience can relate to, especially because of the good-natured jabs he takes at Arthur, which suggests a rivalry combined with affection and mutual respect.

I particularly enjoyed the scene where Arthur is shooting at projections from a distance during a dream sequence and having trouble hitting his mark. Eames joins him, sees his situation and says, "You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling," and promptly pulls out a rocket launcher and cooly demonstrates how it's done. Gordon-Levitt's look after this is priceless and speaks volumes.

Of Interest
As a "kick" or a signal the team uses throughout the movie to wake themselves up at strategic moments from their dream states, they use a piece of music. I noticed that the tune they use is "Non, je ne regrette rien," by Edith Piaf. Marion Cotillard played Piaf and won the Oscar for her portrayal in "La Vie En Rose."
When feeling somewhat adrift and a bit overwhelmed at times, I latched on to the emotional backstory that involved Cobb and his wife.

Cotillard is perfect in this role. While much of the movie can feel a bit cold and technological, she provides a sense of warmth and beauty that is very appealing, and you can feel Cobb's love for her and the bond that they have. This relationship is the heart of this movie, for all its other wonders, because without conveying this, the movie would collapse on itself under the weight of twisted storylines and hollow special effects.

Now, it's difficult to write about this movie without discussing the ending and what I believe it to be. But I'll refrain, because everyone will have their own thoughts and their own opinions. A major appeal of this movie is coming to your own conclusion based on piecing together what you have just seen, and the intriguing clues that are left throughout. I'll just say, the fade to black will make you smile appreciatively and provide a healthy amount of goosebumps.

Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Obviously, none of this would be possible without Nolan. He's admitted he has worked on developing this movie for 10 years, and this dedication translates. He has created worlds of reality and worlds of dreams that mingle so smoothly and flawlessly, that we never question their authenticity. Entire cities invert upon themselves, gravity is deprived in one dream but not another, trains run on city streets, dying wakes you up in early dream states or sends you to an eternity of "limbo" if you go too deep, time runs exponentially different from world to world -- and we don't doubt any of it or become lost in confusion, because it is so masterfully crafted and woven together.

As the movie states, "Dreams feel real while we're in them. It's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange." For me, Nolan certainly achieved this notion, because as this movie progressed, I not once thought about how strange some of these sequences are, because they are so vivid, so captivating, so ... real.

It was only after I left the theatre that I increasingly began to marvel at what I had just seen.

(Warner Bros. Pictures)