Movie Review: Welcome to the Rileys (2010)

I saw Welcome to the Rileys as an advance screening in New York on October 21st, 2010. The movie was introduced to the audience as a James Gandolfini vehicle that involves a stripper. Really, that was it. Imagine my shock and horror when the credits rolled some 90 minutes (which felt like 3 hours) later - that this was a Jake Scott film and that Ally Sheedy starred in it (for all but 60 seconds).

I could write a lot about the annoying continuity errors and editing mistakes. I won't. The problem with this movie is the screenplay, the direction, the music, the pacing, and even some of the photography.

James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo deliver excellent, sympathetic performances. But they are misdirected. They play a husband and wife living in Indianapolis. James Gandolfini sometimes has a southern accent, and sometimes reverts to his native Jersey accent. This is not his fault. It's Tony Scott's. Gandolfini plays Doug Riley, a money-wasting, risk-taking, yet also oddly grounded and disciplined plumbing supply salesman.

Melissa Leo's character, Lois, is a traumatized, sad, lonely woman who has been married to Mr. Riley for 29 years. We don't know how long she has refused to go outside, but it is well established (perhaps too established) that she has not left the house since the Riley's teenage daughter died in a fiery car accident. We get a glimpse of the auto accident's aftermath in the film's first shot. However, this being a Gandolfini movie, the audience will be forgiven for wondering if the burning Lincoln Town Car is a flash forward to a movie-ending car bomb. Maybe that's a stretch, but how was I supposed to know that the burning car was a flashback? I blame the director.

But back to Melissa Leo's character. Doug Riley goes on a business trip to New Orleans, but leaves a lot of emotional healing left unfinished at home. Following an emotionally empty phone conversation with Doug, Lois finally builds up her courage to leave her house and drive over 1,000 miles to have a much needed talk with her road warrior husband. But Jake Scott's misdirection appears once again. Being homebound for over 10 years, Lois is understandably clumsy and socially awkward. But is it played for laughs or is it supposed to be depressing and sad? The audience went from chuckles to silence multiple times during her 'escape' sequence. We see her taking many pills before heading out. She tries to get comfortable in her husband's Cadillac, but falls asleep before she can start the engine (did the pills do this? is this some timid suicide attempt?). She finally gets on the road and talks to a creepy man in a diner. The movie almost portrays the conversation as a positive step for her, as if being hit upon by a 50 year old guy who looks like Dennis Miller's brother is a nice thing.

I think the screenwriter was trying to tell us that she is socially inexperienced and vulnerable so it makes us uncomfortable to watch her fail to tell the man to leave her alone. But I also sense that Jake Scott had no clue what he wanted, and so we see a slow conversation that even includes the characters saying 'bye' to each other (clearly a more skilled director and editor would have cut that seconds earlier).

Welcome to the Rileys contains many strange moments like this, in which characters each say "bye" to each other multiple times over the phone, or showing characters hanging up a phone. This movie simply does not follow standard cinema grammar. It would be wonderful if it was done to make us feel uncomfortable and prevent us from picking up the film's beat and pacing. But I think it is simply poor directing and editing.

Doesn't anyone watch the entire film in the editing room anymore? Don't they burn a DVD and watch the rough cut at home? Do they watch it a couple of times, sit on it for a weekend, and then watch it again? In a Criterion interview for his 2008 film Che, Steven Soderbergh expressed his opinion that a declining number of directors watch their movie from beginning to end during the editing process. I agree with him.

Oh where did your character go, Ally Sheedy?

Did the filmmakers really need to cut out Ally Sheedy's character, but include every phone conversation -from first ring to hang up- simply to extend the film to 90 minutes? Did they really have a shortage of exterior establishing shots, so when we cut from one interior scene to another, we would understand that the location has changed? Think I'm kidding? Watch the movie (if you can get past the awful dialogue of the early diner scene 3 minutes in). I know very little about filmmaking, but was there a Second Unit and if so, what was their work to party ratio?

And when Mrs. and Mr. Riley finally have their reunion in New Orleans, there is zero emotional impact. There is a long build-up to the reunion, but then nothing happens when they finally embrace. In fact, their fighting scenes have more passion and truth than any of their embraces. Again, I blame the director.

A poor product like this should not earn Jake Scott a feature director's chair anytime soon. He is a skilled TV commercial and music video director. But this a terrible film. It makes one of his father's least successful films, Matchstick Men (2003), look very good in comparison (and remember that film had a similar parent-daughter theme running through it).

Do you want to see a slow family drama done really well? Watch Mike Leigh's Another Year (2010). It has some of the same themes of compassion and nurturing. And note just how better edited, directed, and paced that film is compared to this terribly mismanaged drama.

West Ham v. NUFC: Back On Track?


That was much better.

Newcastle bounced back from an early one goal deficit and took control of their match against West Ham. While West Ham did score the first goal, they lost their confidence, accuracy, and drive once Kevin Nolan scored the equalizer for Newcastle. West Ham began to miss their shots. And they couldn't clear their lines. That failure led to an awesome game-winning header by Andy Carroll. The goal was set up by a gorgeous, almost slow-motion, bending volley from Joey Barton, who was outstanding in this game. Excellent supporting work was also provided by Shola Ameobi, Jose Enrique, and Jonas Gutierrez, who seemed to be everywhere at times. These guys moved the ball forward and airborne, which created chances and two very crucial goals.

What a great game. What a huge milestone: 11 points in the standings. Newcastle's points target for the season is one third complete.

So what can we expect next? Who will play in Wednesday night's fourth round League Cup match against Arsenal? Will Nile Ranger get the call as a striker, or will manager Chris Hughton play Peter Lovenkrands up front? Will Shola Ameobi start in place of Kevin Nolan?  Will Tiote and Coloccini get to start at all?  It will be interesting to see how Chris Hughton approaches Wednesday's game, given that the enormous Tyne-Wear derby is on Sunday afternoon, where Newcastle will need at least a draw to keep their momentum intact.

But the quest for silverware in the League Cup has led Newcastle to a 1-in-14 chance of winning it all. Eliminating Arsenal would nearly double the odds. Do they go for victory on Wednesday? This should be both interesting and highly entertaining as the Lads try to improve their play and fitness on the increasingly chilly pitches of England.

NUFC v. Wigan: Turning Nothing Into Something

Newcastle suffered a collapse at St. James' Park on Saturday. But they fought back hard in the final 20 minutes to force a 2-2 draw, and earn a much needed point in the standings.

Newcastle will have to wait to finally defeat Wigan. But for the time being, they have a precious point as they prepare to visit London next weekend to take on a deflated West Ham squad.

Consistency is not one of Newcastle's qualities this season. So it should be no surprise that James Perch, a Championship-level player who showed some promise in August and September, completely failed at his defensive assignment on Saturday. I think it is past time to start someone in his place and let Perch come in as a substitute in the second half. 

Tall defender Mike Williamson also let down the lads last Saturday.

Credit must be given to Newcastle for fighting back in the second half. Shola Ameobi is often ridiculed for accidentally scoring goals. But his header in the second half, which helped ignite Newcastle's comeack, was precise and top flight level. Did you know he has said that he wants to complete 20 seasons with NUFC?  He just might. He's in his eleventh season.

Newcastle have internal problems as well. Team chemistry and morale are not percolating. Everyone is still competing for starting positions, as well they should be. But they need to mesh together like gears in a machine, and they are not there yet. Manager Chris Hughton, who has done a splendid job overall, has not yet found an offensive strategy that the team can master. So far this season, Newcastle have alternated between moving the ball down the wings, and triangular passes that don't get them anywhere near the box, and often lead to turnovers.

One could argue that part of the problem is that the whole Premier League has figured out how to play against a 4-4-1-1 formation fresh out of the Championship. But we know Newcastle dominated the Championship last season, and are close to Premiership quality today (minus their veteran goalkeeper and new star midfielder, both out for the season). We also know that despite their injuries, Newcastle have depth on the bench. I think it's time to start a young striker like Xisco or Ranger in place of Andy Carroll.  Peter Lovenkrands, who started in place of Carroll on Saturday can be moved to the midfield. Ranger should be ready to start up front, with Carroll taking his place at the start of the second half. And Shola Ameobi, who has been terrific this season, can continue to serve as a midfielder or striker substitute. Again, we Newcastle fans might laugh at Chris Hughton for trusting Ameobi, but so far that trust has given him bonus job security, hasn't it? 

The formation could also change, but I know how conservative Chris Hughton is. He will never do anything out of frustration or desperation. He and his team are going to London to face a weak West Ham squad, and the current formation should work. They just need to start the players who have more drive and motivation at the moment. Considering Carroll's looming legal troubles, and his inability to dribble the ball forward, he is not going to be starting in a game anytime soon. He is a backup striker, and Newcastle have others who want to start in his place.

MCFC v. NUFC: No Reward For Improved Play

Sunday cost Newcastle United more than a point, it cost them their best midfielder.

A reckless tackle by Manchester City's Nigel de Jong broke Newcastle midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa's left leg in two places, in what is unquestionably the most serious tackle and injury in the English Premier League so far this season. Ben Arfa might return in April, or he might never appear in a Newcastle squad again. It's serious.

A poor penalty call, plus two crucial non-calls sealed Newcastle's fate, despite improved defending and passing over their last few League games.

Newcastle moved the ball very well. And Jonas Guitierrez scored a goal they way they should be scored - by sending the ball back where it came from off of a deflection. Spiderman dribbled the ball into the box and took his shot. It was deflected back to him and he put the ball decisively into the top right corner. It was a very promising sign, and it is Jonas' first ever goal in the English Premiership.

Another defensive collapse involving Joey Barton and Jose Enrique resulted in a second Man City goal. But despite that lapse, Newcastle still should have come away with a draw.  Unfortunately, in his third controversial moment in the match, referee Martin Akinson opted not to reward Newcastle a penalty following the blatant tackle of Shola Ameobi inside the box.

So the task before Newcastle remains: They need a minimum of 35 points to avoid relegation. I went a step further to argue that they need 10 wins (30 points), in addition to whatever draws they earn. Yesterday should have been their third draw of the season.

Now they have just three league games remaining in October against Wigan (at home), West Ham (away), and archrival Sunderland (at home). Newcastle can regain their pace to meet their wins target if they can win two of those games.  In fact, considering how wobbly both Wigan and West Ham are at the moment, Newcastle really must win those two games, and then do their best to earn a draw against Sunderland at home. They don't know where the points will come from in November and December. So they have to take all the points they can this month. Doubling their points total from 7 to 14 before the end of October would do a lot to make them more relaxed and confident entering the more difficult fixtures of November and December.

That's Newcastle For Ya

Away wins at Everton and Chelsea. Home losses against Blackpool and Stoke. That's classic Newcastle United.

The home loss against Stoke City on Sunday is a game Geordies will want to forget. Newcastle dominated possession in the first half, but reverted to their failed attacking style in the Blackpool game. They moved the ball forward on the wings, led by midfielders Jose Enrique on the left and James Perch on the right. But Perch was not able to lob or pass the ball into the box, limiting Newcastle's effectiveness. Jose Enrique was more successful, but he passed the ball to hesitant strikers. I never shouted "shoot!" more times at the big screen projection at Nevada Smiths (and about 10 others were shouting it with me). For Newcastle, the first half was all possession, without any shots on target.

Then the second half was simply a disaster. Stoke began to attack effectively, and won several set plays and offensive throw-ins. It was only a matter of time before they scored a goal on a free kick. Then, complete collapse as James Perch seemed to make an unnecessary defensive header attempt on a Stoke corner, only to head the ball into his own net. The replay was painful to watch. It looked as if Perch was trying to score an own goal. Incredible.

Oh no he di'int!

The correct bench players were put into the game during the second half, but the incorrect players were replaced. Ameobi replaced an effective Tiote, and Spiderman replaced Ben Arfa when it should have been Perch!

Meanwhile, Newcastle's strikers didn't take ownership of anything. They would get all excited if the ball was passed to them, but were invisible men up and down the field during most minutes of play. If Ameobi proved that he really wants to play, and has the ability to dribble the ball down the field and score (as he did just four days prior), why not have him replace a striker? 

I don't understand. The Lads didn't take ownership. There was no killer instinct. They didn't get the crowd behind them. And they woke up too late to score a tying goal and salvage a point. 

This is a classic example that when you are the home side, it is imperative that you get the ball into the penalty area early and often. Yes, Newcastle scored the first goal, but it was a weak penalty. In my opinion, it wasn't earned. Newcastle need to master putting the ball in the back of the net early, just like they did against Aston Villa, and in their stunning comeback at Stamford Bridge.

So in their first seven matches this season, there have been two offensive onslaughts, one lazy second squad victory, one lazy draw, an expected thumping at Old Trafford, and two inexcusable defeats at home. This is how it is going to be this season, then. A lot of pain, and little gain.

European Existentialist Dramas: Never Let Me Go and The American

Finally, two good movies in 2010!  There will be more to follow (Carlos, The Social Network, Armadillo, The Last Train Home).  But these are the first two I have seen in 2010 that pass the 'good' threshold.  Oh, I could also give honorable mention to Robert Rodriguez' Machete, since it delivered what it promised, and that was an explosive, raunchy late 1970s-style exploitation film.

But my focus is on these two very good films. Both are existentialist, in a way. But both are serious, highbrow stories that I think are meant to be consumed in completely different ways. And perhaps not coincidentally, both are from acclaimed music video directors, whose works have been deemed good enough to immortalize on collector DVDs.

I'll tackle the straighter film first - the long-awaited adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go.

Mark Romanek has directed some of the most memorable and technically advanced music videos of the last 20 years. His most memorable works include "Closer" (Nine Inch Nails, 1994), "Rain" (Madonna, 1993), "Are You Gonna Go My Way" (Lenny Kravitz, 1993), "Devil's Haircut" (Beck, 1996), "99 Problems" (Jay-Z, 2004), "Criminal" (Fiona Apple, 1997), and "Scream" (Michael & Janet Jackson, 1995), the most expensive music video of the 1990s.

When Romanek finally made his second feature film, One Hour Photo (2002), it was predictably strong, if a little dated in feel (who still shoots their family photos using 35mm film?). But that Hitchcokian thriller starring Robin Williams in one of his best performances assured that Romanek would remain a feature director for the foreseeable future. And so, Never Let Me Go is his third feature in 25 years.

Aside from three irritating changes from the novel's plot, the movie adaptation of Never Let Me Go is very well done. The performances from Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightley, and Andrew Garfield are pitch perfect. The cinematography is, at times, outstanding. Costume design is strong as well.

Getting back to the plot changes (that's a play on the novel's plot narrative device, by the way), I just wish the Norfolk music tape subplot had remained intact. I had expected the film to tell the story at a brisk pace, and I was correct. So why didn't the movie stay completely faithful to the novel, with the exception of the subplot involving Kathy's music tape? In the novel, she buys the tape herself as a young teenager, loses it, and then with Tommy's help, finds a replacement during the key road trip to Norfolk at age 19.  In the movie, Tommy buys her the original tape, and it is never lost. While I can see how this change can establish the love triangle between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, I think it weakens the whole significance of the Norfolk road trip. That trip represented a turning point for the three main characters, but without the mission to locate and buy a replacement music cassette, Tommy and Kathy are left with nothing to do and nothing to talk about, thus diminishing their character and relationship development.  I was puzzled by that.

Readers of the novel will also know that Kathy's music cassette establishes a relationship between her and the Helsham School art curator, "Madame."  But the movie's love triangle emphasis squashes that touching subplot in the novel.

As I've said before, artists are free to make any choices they wish. But I really expected the movie to follow the novel, given that Ishiguro was an executive producer, and his fellow EP wrote the screenplay.

But despite the changes, it is not as if the movie lacks emotional impact. Kathy H. doesn't have a whole lot to do, and the same goes for Carey Mulligan in the movie. But give her credit for delivering a moving, sad performance, as the only character who sheds tears for herself and her fellow Helsham classmates.

It is also Keira Knightley’s best performance to date (and a brave one, as she is a total bitch and her bad teeth are at last revealed).

Mark Romanek got the tone and look completely correct:  The color palette, the feel, the theme, and the stifling sense of dread. There is no escaping the life set for these young people. There is no escaping England.

Knightley's roles in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise might be forgotten. She’ll be remembered for her great performance and green dress in Atonement and for this performance in Never Let Me Go. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she wins an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Never Let Me Go is slowly going wide after opening in New York and L.A.

George Clooney is...l'americano

Anton Corbijn is a notable fashion photographer and has directed some of the most memorable and artistic music videos of the last 30 years. Known mainly for grainy black & white photography, he has immortalized rock and film stars such as Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, Sting, Cameron Diaz, Joy Division, Lou Reed, Johnny Depp, Tom Waits, REM, Depeche Mode, and perhaps most notably, U2, with his photography providing the cover art for The Joshua Tree (1987), Rattle & Hum (1988), and Achtung Baby (1991).

He was, of course, the near-exclusive photographer of Joy Division, and his Ian Curtis biopic, Control (2007) was magnificent. For Corbijn, it was a labor of love 27 years in the making.

His most memorable music videos include "Behind The Wheel" (Depeche Mode, 1987), "Enjoy The Silence" (Depeche Mode, 1990), "Hero of the Day" (Metallica, 1996), "Heart Shaped Box" (Nirvana, 1993), and "One" (U2, 1992).

He clearly has an affinity for spaghetti westerns, as he likes to produce videos of bands playing the roles of banditos, cowboys, or outlaws in the desert.  He has produced three such videos, actually: "Personal Jesus" (Depeche Mode, 1989), "Mama Said" (Metallica, 1996), and "All These Things That I've Done" (The Killers, 2005).

Which brings us to his sophomore feature, The American.

I really like this movie.  But I wonder if it is too harsh to suggest that it is completely unnecessary. We film connoisseurs don't need The American. We need an existentialist, male oriented, European art film like we need another reality TV star.

That's incredibly snobby, isn't it? I don't see wine connoisseurs complain when another Argentinean Malbec or New Zeland Pinot Noir comes to market. They might ignore it, but they seem to welcome increased quantities of the good stuff.

And that's what The American is - another dose of the good stuff. But there's a catch. By "good stuff" I mean the beautiful avant-garde and new wave dramas from the 1960s. Young audiences are going to steer well clear of that, with the exception of a few film students.

The American is based on a highly successful suspense novel, A Very Private Gentleman, by Martin Booth. Both the novel and the move have the same main character and general plot. Clark, a middle aged Lee Marvin-like character, is known in his business as a 'shadow dweller.' Clark goes by several names, including Jack, and Mr. Butterfly. He is an assassin for hire. But more often, he is hired to procure, construct, and provide weapons for other assassins. Working under cover as a butterfly collector and photographer, he hides in the twisty, maze-like, medieval, northern Italian village of Castel Del Monte, which beautifully serves to keep the suspense and tension fairly high throughout the movie.

The primary inspiration for the movie adaptation seems to be Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967). It's a film that has been borrowed and remade often. Here is a list of films inspired by Le Samouraï:

The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978)

The Killer (John Woo, 1989)

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)

You Shoot, I Shoot (Pang Ho-Cheung, 2001)

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)

The fact that Jarmusch, a highly original and ultra-cool filmmaker in his own right, made two movies that quote Le Samouraï should tell us a lot about Melville's influence. Interestingly enough, Ghost Dog and The Limits of Control are Jarmush's least-liked films among American critics (although there has been an embrcing of Ghost Dog, lately).

Alain Delon is...Le Samouraï

It goes without saying that existing art influences new art. But in cinema, quotation and reference is not only accepted, it is practically encouraged by the filmmakers and educated film audiences, much to the delight of film scholars and critics.

And so The American does not limit itself to Le Samouraï. It is quite rich and sophisticated in its influences and visuals. There are many elements from Corbijn's own Depeche Mode videos. There are gorgeous overhead shots that invoke travel magazines or car commercials. There is also a very blatant homage to the spaghetti western masterpiece, Once Upon A Time in the West (Leone, 1969).

And then there are the women: tall, pretty, continental - who remind me of the leading ladies in about 20 French and Italian films, including Repulsion (Polanski, 1965), The Passenger (Antonioni, 1975), Pickpocket (1959) and Les Biches (Chabrol, 1968).  

Les Biches (Bad Girls) was marketed as a thriller, but really it was a male fantasy, namely Chabrol's. Leading man Jean-Louis Trintignant would naturally have two impossibly beautiful women (one of whom being the director's wife) fight over him in luxurious St. Tropez. And the same is certainly true with George Clooney. He can't help it that women want him. In The American, they might both want to kill him and bed him (just not in that order).

And that's where my slightly subversive read of The American comes into play. As beautiful, artistic, and pretentious as this movie is, I don't think it is meant to be taken seriously at all. It's an extended fashion spread in Esquire or GQ, in which our male model dodges bad guys and woos long haired women while in his car, on a Vespa, or at an outdoor cafe. This is fashion, not just cinema. And my gosh, is it beautiful. 

Oh sure, there's a story. The audience is expected to figure out (and I think most film-conscious viewers will figure out) that as movie assassins get older (if they make it that far), it becomes impossible to peacefully leave the business. Surely all that killing and double crossing produces enemies who hide in the shadows. In every European town and village the elder assassin hides out, he is never safe. It is an impossible situation. But at least there is some time to enjoy fine food, wine, liquor, coffee, and women - hence the reason more than one American critic compared this movie to Eat Pray Love, which I find hilarious. 

George Clooney's Clark is hired by a man we don't know, to construct a rife for a female assassin we don't know, to do a high profile killing we'll never know, all for reasons unexplained, leaving many questions that will never be answered. Sounds like a blast, right?

Clark's handler is played by Belgian actor, Johan Leysen, who resembles an elderly Daniel Craig or Steve McQueen (brilliant!). The female assassin is played by the steel-eyed, sextilingual Finnish actress Irina Björklund. This really is a European art house film that happens to star America's most recognizable leading man. You could argue that hasn't happened since Robert De Niro in 1900 (Bertolucci, 1976).

I think if a viewer puts away his or her expectation of a heart pounding Hollywood thriller aside, and realizes that it's both an homage to 1960s cinema and highbrow eye candy, the film becomes extremely enjoyable. I think the film fully succeeds at what it declares to be - a pretentious avant-garde thriller. I can't knock this movie for doing exactly what it set out to do. And besides, I liked it at lot. Sure, I already own Le Samouraï and Ghost Dog on DVD. I've seen this movie before. But I'm an older, nostalgic  film scholar. I remember when films like this were taken seriously, despite having plots that were equally thin and flawed.

Screenwriter Rowan Joffe (28 Weeks Later, and the son of Oscar-winner Roland Joffe) did a pretty good job modeling Clark on Clint Eastwood's characters in Leone's westerns. The screenplay often dictates the cuts - usually after a character says something crucial or appropriate to end a scene. I think the most predictable cut is the scene in which Clark is talking to the village priest over dinner.  The priest is trying to get Clark to open up and start confessing his sins. The priest says, "A man can be rich, if he has God in his heart."  Clark replies, "I don't think God is very interested in me, Father."  Cut.  It's the school of screenwriting that includes Michael Mann and Tony Gilroy, and it usually works.

Is Clooney 'smizng'?  Has he been listening to Tyra?

Just don't expect the minimalist screenplay to answer any questions or rise up to match the visual beauty of this film. As I said, visuals trump the story in this European production. But despite this gap, Anton Corbijn is able to maintain a key element of both the novel and the film, and that is suspense. If the sudden, violent opening doesn't hook you, then the suspense fails. But I think it succeeds. Once it is quickly established that almost everyone who pays attention to Clarke wants him dead, it is easy to get sucked into the film's suspense and have a somewhat thrilling ride as Clarke has to constantly watch his back and erase his tracks.

And if the ride doesn't deliver the thrills for everyone, perhaps the generous curves of Violante Placido will entertain the remaining viewers enough to forget that they were tricked into seeing a weird foreign film. You have to admit, "baby got back." 

Stop looking at that butt!  Did you know her mom played Apollonia in The Godfather Part II at age 17? 

NUFC: Do You Believe In Miracles? Yes!

On a chilly Wednesday night in London, Newcastle United fielded 2 starters against Chelsea's 4 starters, and won a thriller, 4 goals to 3, to advance to round 4 of the Carling Cup.

It was both shocking and extraordinary, not unlike the Red Sox victory over the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.  It was without question, the greatest reserves game I have ever seen in my 8 years of watching televised English football.

I can only add a few opinions before I do a roundup of what the more seasoned bloggers said.  Namely, I think Ryan Taylor proved that he deserves to start in a premiership game in the midfield over James Perch.  As much as I like Perch and how he has improved game over game, he doesn't provide the offensive spark that Taylor provides. Taylor should be in at the start of every game this season.  Along with a healthier Lovenkrands, Taylor would deliver more quality free kicks, assists, and goals.  Perch, Smith, Jonas, and Barton can be used to fill the other two spots.  Newcastle United now has a deep midfield.  That's right!

And they will soon have five strikers available.  Their names are Carroll, Smith, Xisco, Ranger, and Ameobi. Some would chuckle at the fifth name. But as I have maintained all along, Shola Ameobi is a true Geordie and was the hero yesterday in a game full of heroism. You know how Yankee fans joke about how a player becomes a 'True Yankee?' I think Ameobi became a 'True Geordie' six years ago against Liverpool, and I think the fans who held out on that judgement became believers last night. Shola Ameobi is a True Geordie. Forever.

But I must admit, I would never have thought that the Lads would convert a corner with Jonas kicking and Ameobi heading.  No way.  That would never happen.

That did not just happen, did it? 

I don't know what was sweeter, seeing Shola score two goals, or seeing Chelsea fans leaving Stamford Bridge during the ridiculous six-minute injury time.

Shola's first, jaw-dropping goal. Chelsea's Alex underestimated him. Many have.

Shola on his second, game-winning goal.


OK.  Bring on the bloggers...

Shite Seats: "It was truly an astonishing evening of football"

Black & White & Read All Over:  "the morale boost that this victory brings should hopefully carry through into our next couple of performances."

The Chronicle's Blog on The Tyne: "An incredible night at Stamford Bridge that will surely go down as one of the most memorable matches in the club's history."


Toon Toon!

Cool Your Jets

I think all major market sports teams have a fanatic supporter base.  That's why they're called 'fans' after all. And their moods can be extreme - almost bipolar. Fans can go from ecstatic one week to deflated the next.

Newcastle United supporters know about "Geordie Optimism."  We Americans know about the undying loyalty of Red Sox and Green Bay Packers fans.  We know abut the near-cult followings of the Forty-Niners, Raiders, Bruins, Broncos, and Redskins (Aren't Raiders fans the craziest of them all?).

And then there are the Jets.  Even in a major market that includes the chest-pounding Yankees, the Wall Street-funded Giants, and the ever popular (no matter how awful) Knicks, the Jets have a special place for exuberant, illogical, unfounded optimism.  It is a hyper optimism that defies history (one Super Bowl appearance and victory) and an all too predictable track record.

Interesting how the franchises I think of when I think 'cult followings' comprise of mainly NFL teams.  The American professional sports league with the fewest teams has the most crazy fans.  Part of that is tailgate culture.  Another part of that is the weather.  American Football is a fall sport.  Perhaps being out in the cold makes sports spectators more likely to dress up in costumes and act a little more wild. Just a little theory I have.  Another theory is that when you only have eight home games each year, you make the most of them. Too bad American fans haven't been crazy enough to pen songs for their team and favorite players, like English football supporters.

While other NFL fan bases can be as crazy and as fanatic as Jets supporters, the Jets have this perpetual expectation of returning to the Super Bowl, when no such expectation should exist.  Call it Jets pride, or Jets optimism. But instead of sympathizing with them, they just irritate me. And the New York media, with its bipolar, overhyped coverage, only feeds the delusional dreams of Jets supporters.

I know about curses. I have learned that they are not curses at all, they are simply self-sustaining cycles of disappointing seasons. Call it fate. I can tell when the Sports Gods have doomed a team never to win another championship. The Knicks are one such team. The Jets are another. The Chicago Cubs are another. And the San Francisco Giants, Raiders, Rangers, and Bruins are getting dangerously close to that status as well.

One Super Bowl, New Jersey.  That's all they are going to get.  It's not something to gloat about.  It's just the way it will remain.  What I do gloat about is how the New Jersey Jets created Tom Brady.  That's not a myth. It actually happened one autumn day in 2001.  Mo Lewis of the Jets collapsed Drew Bledsoe's lung and the rest was NFL history.

Yes, I am a Red Sox fan, and I know the same argument could be used against us - that we are perpetual, unrealistic dreamers. But there are differences. The Red Sox still made it to the World Series five times in their 86 years without a championship. The Red Sox still had MVPs, Cy Young winners, dream seasons, and Division banners. Red Sox fans, aside from the college students who are obnoxious and drink too much (does Fenway still allow them to buy four beers at a time?), are a mature, attentive crowd. They know baseball better than the average fan. They stay to watch the whole game, win or lose.  They have been filling Fenway to capacity since 1967. And they don't dress up in costumes (hard hats), pretend to be blue collar, or chant the letters that comprise the team's name. In other words, they are not so much in your face as Jets fans are.

The Red Sox have six League championships.  The Jets have one.  I could be proven incorrect one day, but I think that 1969 Super Bowl is the first and last championship for this franchise based in the swamps of northeast New Jersey. 

Interesting fact about Super Bowl III.  Not only was it at the legendary Orange Bowl in Little Havana, but the NBC announcer for the television broadcast was none other than the legendary Red Sox announcer, Curt Gowdy.  I love funny little coincidences like that.

Everton v. NUFC: Newcastle Got Lucky

I didn't really think Newcastle manager Chris Hughton would make two changes to the lineup to begin the game at Everton.  I thought he would start Cheick Tiote in place of Alan Smith and leave the rest of the lineup alone. After all, he had up to three substitutions to use if his squad broke down.

But this was a day of luck, aside from Steve Harper's injury.  Hughton made two changes before kick-off, and had to use all three substitutions in the end because of Harper's injured shoulder.

So the fans and pundits thought that Hughton would start Tiote in place of Smith.  Easy call.

But Hughton seemed to surprise a lot of folks with his replacement of Jonas Gutierrez with Hatem Ben Arfa. Most thought he would sit Joey Barton, not Spiderman.  The usually more conservative Hughton would have started both Barton and Spiderman and replaced one of them with Ben Arfa in the second half.  

But Hughton made the right call.  Ben Arfa scored his first goal for Newcastle in his first start.  And it was the true definition of a wonder goal. No one saw it coming. He challenged everton defenders from well outside the center-left of the box. After some nifty footwork, he put his head down and hooked the ball into the top right corner of the net from 40 yards away. He didn't even see the ball once it left his foot. It was simply a stunning goal. Shades of Emre against Reading in 2006 (but Emre's shot followed an amazing run).  Ben Arfa strike was the football equivalent of a three point shot while being guarded.  

Ben Arfa's strike completely beat American international goalkeeper Tim Howard, who had an otherwise good game. But all it takes to lose a game is one shot out of your reach. 

One goal.  That was all Newcastle would need, aside from a lot of luck.


 Here are Archie's appraisals of each player's performance over at Shite Seats.  Well done, lads.

It was a tense second half, especially when the tallest Lad, Mike Williamson, was fouling Fellaini (perhaps twice, and certainly one in the box).  But the calls (or lack thereof) went Newcastle's way.  Throw in some wobbly saves by substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul in the final 3 minutes and Newcastle hung on to notch their second win of the season.

Two wins down, eight to go.  They should make it.  Stoke visit St. James' on Sunday September 26th.

Newcastle United: Adjustments Needed Now

I am not a football (soccer) wonk, but my football knowledge has grown thanks to the enormous amount of football that is now shown in North America.  With up to five soccer channels available in the US (counting ESPN2 / ESPN3 as one of them), we Americans can watch more football games than most digital TV subscribers in the UK (which is simply wrong, but I'm not complaining!).

Back in 1993, I almost randomly chose to support Newcastle United.  In 2002, I finally got to see them play live on satellite TV.  And today, I see them once or twice a month with my fellow supporters at Nevada Smiths.

In their last two league games, Newcastle have underperformed.  The last game has left fans particularly nervous, as the Mags were lifeless in the first half, which resulted in a late goal before the break.  And they could never quite get back into the game as Blackpool defeated them 2-nil at St. James' Park.

Newcastle Manager Chris Hughton strikes me as a conservative manager.  He doesn't make substitutions until the 70th minute.  He seldom takes all three substitutions.  And he has used the same formation (4-4-1-1) and almost the same exact starting players in the first four matches of the season.  

Well, something needs to change as Newcastle head to Goodison Park to face an Everton squad fighting hard to get their first win of the season.  And this Everton side is hot.  They scored three goals against Manchester United last week to earn just their second point in the table.

Newcastle fans have quickly lost their patience with Kevin Nolan.  The team captain, in just three weeks, has gone from prolific goal scorer to an old player who seldom touches the ball.  

Football is a game of forwards, midfielders, and defenders, of course, but it is also a crucial game of wing play. And last Saturday against the Tangerines, their wingers were shockingly ineffective.  Both Jose Enrique and Jonas Gutierrez failed to defend well.  Same with the usually impressive defender, Coloccini.   

Jose Enrique misses his block attempt on PJ Campbell's goal in the second half, September 11, 2010.

So what is Chris Hughton to do this Saturday.  Who does he start?  My two cents:

I don't think Kevin Nolan and Allen Smith should start the game.  Nolan could be replaced by either Hatem Ben Arfa or Shola Ameobi.  Allen Smith should sit in favor of Cheick Tioté.  He's eager to contribute.  

The more probable scenario, courtesy of the fine pundits over at Shite Seats, is that Ben Arfa will start in place of Joey Barton.  Both Barton and Nolan scored in Newcastle's rout of Aston Villa, but have since fallen out of form entirely.  So Smith and Barton out; Tioté and Ben Arfa in.

Hughton isn't silly enough to start Ameobi over Nolan (I would, and that's why I'm not a football manager).  So I am sure Nolan will start, with Ameobi replacing him at the 70 minute mark.  We can also expect Hughton to make a defensive substitution at the same time.  Either 35 year old Sol Campbell or Ryan Taylor can add fresh legs to the defense for the final 20 minutes.

Which leaves me with the question I have had since the season started.  What is up with Peter Lovenkrands? Newcastle need nine more wins to ensure survival in the Premiership this season.  They're not getting nine wins without substantial contribution from one of the best Dutch midfielders alive.  We need McLovin.  He has been used a sub all season.  But he is yet to make his presence felt on the pitch.  I suspect he needs to get healthier and fitter as the season goes on.  But he needs to make an impact as soon as possible.

2009 In Film

There's so many ways I could begin this post. First, I meant to write this in January 2010.  But I think with this year being a relatively weak year for film, it is a good time as any to talk about how 2009 went down. 

I suppose the easiest thing to argue is that this decade, with just a few months left, is in many ways a continuation of the trends set in 1990s cinema (aside from the amazing advances in digital photography and effects, of course). Independent movies are still competing well against studio productions.  The number of theatrical releases is still gradually decreasing.  And the movie theater experience, revitalized in the 1990s with stadium seating and THX digital sound, has continued its evolution with the advent of digital projection, the brief digital 3D phase, leather seating, and soon, new movie palaces (similar to those in Thailand) with lounge seating and at-seat food service.  We've also seen wonderful boutique theaters for foreign and independent films, such as the Landmark Cinemas chain, and the IFC Center in downtown New York.

And many of the themes and major directors who matured in the 1990s continue their work in this decade. During the 1990s, there was a 1970s revival.  And while now the 1980s revival is running its course, we still see the influences and talent that made 1990s cinema very interesting. Quentin Tarantino has found his place as a hard-working film historian, who makes watchable yarns with moments of greatness (that muscle car chase scene in Death Proof? Brilliant). The Coen brothers continue their excellent work, with the time and freedom to make small personal films and comedies of mixed quality.  Mike Leigh continues the peak he set in the early 90s.  Steven Soderbergh continues his blazing pace of two films per year, thanks to his advanced skills as a producer and his full control over shooting and editing.  Julie Taymor continued building her strong filmmography.  So did Wong kar-Wai, albeit at a slower pace.

And then we have Katheryn Bigelow, known mainly for making solid, male-oriented action movies.  I think the thing we can take away from The Hurt Locker is that you don't need a stunningly original or complex plot to make a great film, but you absolutely need strong performances and flawless execution.  With The Hurt Locker, all the elements that Bigelow acquired in her 31 year career come together for a full 130 minutes.  We had the exploration of risk taking, the effects of adrenaline and testosterone, glimpses of raw male aggression and nihilism, the mismatch between military and civilian life, the sheer madness of war, and the age old lesson that no good deed goes unpunished.

Just as important, we see a director who knows how to storyboard, plan, shoot, and edit an action scene. When I watched the action sequences in The Dark Knight, I wondered if Christopher Nolan had any idea what the completed product would look like on screen.  But with Bigelow, you never lose your sense of place or speed.  The framing, camera angles, and edits are simply perfect.  When Jeremy Renner's character instructs his comrade to wash blood off a Barrett sniper cartridge ("Spit n' rub!") you are sucked right into the moment, on the edge of your seat.  She showed this ability decades ago in The Loveless (1982) and Near Dark (1987).  She's now a leader in action movie directors.

And it was all done, amazingly for $11 Million.

I should also point out Bigelow's history of both intentional and unintentional success.  Point Break was marketed as one of the best surfing moves ever made, but it is actually one of the best skydiving action movies made.  The Hurt Locker was meant to be one of the best bomb squad movies ever (and I think it is), but it is also one of the best Army Ranger movies ever.  And no one expected The Hurt Locker to be an Oscar contender when it was previewed in the fall of 2008 and released in the summer of 2009.  But in a weak year, it stood out as one of the few greats.

Ever since a 1978 master's thesis film in which two men beat each other to a pulp, Katheryn Bigelow has continuously returned to male violence as one of her primary themes.  It's fantastic to see her mature as a filmmaker.  Whereas Point Break (1991) had its moments (and made for a great poster in a college girl's dorm room), The Hurt Locker really elevates Bigelow's status to highbrow auteur.  I think auteur's know they have 'made it' when stills from their movie end up in Film Comment magazine.  And The Hurt Locker gave us plenty of stills to choose from.


Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie clash throughout this white knuckle actioner. 

My short list of other classics from 2009 include mainly foreign entries.  I should point out that all of these films were shot and edited digitally (with the exception of The Hurt Locker, was shot in Super 16mm).  Digital production and processing fully matured around 2007 (with Zodiac, I would argue) and it is here to stay (unlike digital 3D).

The White Ribbon 

I think The White Ribbon ranks with The Tin Drum, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Das Boot, and The Lives Of Others as one of the finest German films in the last 30 years. It is sublime and beautiful, portraying early 20th century rural German life, and the depth and ability of human cruelty. It's a sweeping examination of human behavior, discipline and punishment, and the overbearing presence of death. Featuring a perfect cast (including on of my favorite German actors, Ulrich Tukur), The White Ribbon never lingers on one of its many themes. While it is obvious that the children in the movie will come of age during the Third Reich, it is never explicitly argued that the story is a prequel or some kind of fictional explanation of the carnage that is to come (and it's not important to the story anyway). Michael Haneke, the elder statesman of central European cinema, takes full control of the storytelling as the writer and director and does a stellar job. Thanks to its stunning black and white digital cinematography, the film immerses you in another time and place. I really do think that digital photography has helped resurrect black and white cinema, since there is no one left in the industry who knows how to light black and white film (not since the great Gordon Willis retired).

El Secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret in their Eyes)

Based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, and written for the screen and directed by Juan Jose Campanella, The Secret in their Eyes is an emotionally powerful film noir and procedural that is probably the best film of its kind since Zodiac. We know the Academy likes stories about oppressive regimes and death camps, but this movie uses Argentina's Dirty War to great effect - by using it as a dark cloud over the small, simple story it focuses on. Told largely in flashbacks, a prosecutor (Ricardo Darin) spends years of his life investigating the rape and murder of a young schoolteacher.  We suspect his quest for justice will be futile, as will his romantic pursuit of a woman who belongs to the ruling class. But the suspense and execution is flawless like an old Hollywood film noir, highlighted by a stadium search sequence reminiscent of Scorsese or DePalma films of the 80s. While I feel that The White Ribbon is the more complex, deeper film, it does not diminish the accomplishment of this film - Argentina's first Oscar win in 25 years, and second overall.

Which Way Home


While The Cove won the Academy Award for best Documentary Feature, as expected, I feel that Which Way Home is the more powerful and impressive film – both logistically and emotionally. The Cove had the assistance of Hollywood FX and camera crews. Which Way Home uses far simpler handheld digital cameras and on-location sound.  It has a minimum of graphics and music, and zero narration. But I’m not a fan of Which Way Home because it’s an underdog. I was riveted by this movie. It will stay with me forever. Rebecca Cammisa’s film doesn’t give us any sentimentality or tug our heart strings. It gives us a never before seen look at illegal immigration between Central and North America, through the eyes and words of children who leave their homes to ride ‘The Beast,’ the freight train network that runs over 1,400 miles through Mexico to the US border.  The film would never have been completed without these kids, who know and lead the way north for Cammisa and her crew. 

There are many amazing moments captured on video here. Many of the children in this movie act and react like adults. They are hard, but break down like people who have had decades of hurt. We see that many children are driven to migrate to the USA out of a naive idea that they can both survive the freight train journey and find a stable job. We meet a traumatized, crying little boy who was rescued from the journey's final leg - the Sonoran Desert. We learn of two cousins who didn't survive the desert. And we meet Memo Ramirez Garduza, manager of the Saint Faustina Migrant's House in southern Mexico. He gives any migrants willing to listen a monologue he has probably delivered thousands of times. He tells them that Mexico is the "way to death" and that the USA is "death itself." He warns them not to go further, but then asks, "Who wants to go to the United States?" Everyone around him raises his or her hand. It might be a somewhat staged moment, but it is raw, devastating, and quite moving.

I will always grapple with what is more shocking – their perilous journey, or their parents back in Guatemala and Honduras? Clearly the journey is incredibly dangerous and is the focus of the film.  But the viewer won’t soon forget the parents, either. Many of the children are orphans or were abandoned by their parents at a young age.  But others have parents or stepparents who encourage their children to leave (or throw them out), hobo to America under the constant threat of death by train or at the hands of an adult, obtain jobs, send cash home, and not complain.  Sounds perfectly fair, no?

District 9

The best way to describe District 9 is that it is a science fiction story that manages to address Apartheid, refugee crises, slum cities, private military contractors all in just over two hours.  And while the battles that conclude the film don’t answer the very good questions the movie asks, District 9 wound up on many critics’ top ten lists, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  Not too shabby for a $30 Million dollar space opera.  Oh, and it also managed to completely offend Nigeria. Director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson are two of the most skilled filmmakers when it comes to digital photography, effects, and editing.  So not only is District 9 an original movie, it really is a small technical marvel as well (small compared to Avatar, of course).


I think it is a fairly easy argument that Tetro is Coppola’s best film since Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). That’s seventeen years – a lifetime. In order to return to his own lofty standards, Coppola relies on themes and styles he has worked with before, namely the family melodrama, mixed with his own family history and a tip of the hat to Italian neorealism. You’ll find it all in Tetro. Of course, neorealism and melodrama cannot coexist in a single film, so Coppola is wise to stick to his own life experience for inspiration and narrative.  The result is a highly polished exercise in melodrama with echoes of Coppola's own family history and a tip of the hat to Rocco and his Brothers (1960).

The film is about two brothers, played by Vincent Gallo (age 46 at the time of production), and Hollywood’s newest leading man, Alden Ehrenreich (age 18). So right from the start, Coppola makes unorthodox casting choices.  The same could be said of the film's location.  It is the story of an ethnic Italian family, but Coppola, having found new inspiration (and new vineyards) in Argentina, sets the film there. I think it works well, given that the country is virtually half Italian itself. The all digital black and white cinematography might remind viewers of one of Coppola’s less successful dramas, Rumble Fish, which was also highly stylized. In fact both films have splashes of color. Through the protagonist of the elder brother, Tetro, we discover a complex, highly creative family, much like Coppola’s. It's operatic, bold, and at times, a beautiful film. Welcome back, Francis.      



Not to be confused with the musical, Nine, or District 9. However, like District 9, this movie was adapted from an academy-nominated short (in this case, the original short won the Oscar). 9 is an animated cautionary tale, and one of the bleakest movies of 2009 (set in a world where mankind is extinct). Unlike the original animated short, the full-length feature contains dialogue, making the film far more complex, and arguably less entertaining that the original short. But the art direction and voice talent in the feature is quite good (thanks in large part to the involvement of Executive Producer Tim Burton). And despite the complex adventure and depressing theme, it remains the most imaginative animated film of 2009. 9 may not be as great as the films above, but I feel I need to include it as a noteworthy animated film for teens and adults.

Thoughts on Never Let Me Go (2005)

3/5 Stars

I love Kazuo Ishiguro. He's an outstanding writer. The Remains of the Day is perhaps the greatest novel about unrequited love ever written in the English language. But even Ishiguro is a master at only a few themes. Simply put, his best works are about characters who are unable to break free from their predestined paths. They can be constricted by Victorian manners (such are the protagonists in Remains of the Day), or they are constricted by an inescapable understanding that they will will live very short lives (as the protagonists in Never Let Me Go). The idea to break free and escape never occurs to any of these charaters in Ishiguro's finest works. England might as well be a maximum security prison - a giant gray Alcatraz. And no matter what, none of his characters dare lose their dignity. 

Never Let Me Go is not science fiction, nor is it a dystopia novel (like 1984). The best way I can put it is that it is a brilliant short story or novella, expanded to novel length if for no other reason than to let the reader soak-in the sterile, gray environments the protagonists inhabit. The novel is written as a free form memoir, with a terribly irritating literary device. The narrator, Kathy H., has a habit of getting ahead of herself, telling us of a crucial turning point or event, but forces herself to backtrack in order to set-up the next major point (usually expressed as "I'll return to that later" or "more on that later"). And when she does divulge the details of this major turning point, it is usually a creepy, awkward conversation between her and one of her two closest friends, Tommy or Ruth. It becomes quite clear that these characters have a radically isolated and skewed worldview. For them (or at least Kathy H.) major events are not graduations, or moving to a new residence, or even death. No, major events are spilling secrets and making the occasional error of saying too much or being too harsh towards one's somewhat distant friend. In other words, they are totally old school British schoolchildren in a bubble. These schoolchildren inhabit an alternate England - one that has advanced science far greater than the real postwar UK. 

Never Let Me Go has scenes from this alternate England that you may never forget. The empty rural roads and service stations where Kathy H. finds peace driving her car. The perpetually gray skies. The refuse and trash collecting in the trees and barbed wire in a field somewhere in the east. The casual, passionless relationship the characters have with sex and death. The stiff upper lip attitude of wanting to make it to one's fourth 'donation'. It really is a brilliant work if you accept the argument that it is a dystopian story that avoids going into any details of the dystopia. 

In other words, this is not Children of Men. The Europe in this novel might be in the midst of a serious public health crisis, but Never Let Me Go neither hints at one nor explains what it might be. Or Europe might be so prosperous, so technologically advanced, that the creation of these children might have seemed as natural as any advancement in a First World society. Ishiguro gives nothing away, expect for a key line about how science advanced so quickly after 1946 that there 'was no time' to consider the morality or logic of those advancements. In other words, England had become a well mannered monster. By 1996, England was consuming living, breathing, beautiful children as easily as stocks were traded on the FTSE. These children will be throughly educated, grow up, experience two years of independent, sexually liberated life, and then work to fulfill their predetermined destinies. And this England, as you might expect, seems quietly proud of that achievement, despite having 'no time' to ponder the consequences. Because, I suspect, more important things in English society must be maintained. There are cricket matches and afternoon tea parties to attend, after all. Carry on, you English. I am certain Ishiguro is attracted to that theme given the similarities to 20th century Japan's adherence to honor, dignity, and constrained mannerisms. 

That alone is highly disturbing and original. And while I suspect Ishiguro was inspired by Dolly the Sheep in 1996, others with more sinister agendas have already looked to this novel for ideological ammunition. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research and abortion see parallels in this novel. They see how a society, with good intentions of advancing health and science, can destroy perfectly good lives. The difference they cannot escape, however, is that the children in this novel are not in a lab or in a uterus. But I am just rubbed the wrong way when I see 'Antis' flocking to a book by a secular British man as a source for their petty arguments. 

But as Kathy H. might say, let me return to what I was saying about the novel itself. 

I feel like such a picky reader when I complain that this could have been a novella or short story. As great and elegant a writer as Ishiguro is, even he has no serious justification for the length of this work. There is much creepiness and some suspense, but no tension. Rather it is a largely atmospheric work. At least the book gives us two amazing sequences: the road trip to Norfolk, and Tommy's moment of rebellion and passion (which may very well reflect the frustration of many readers of this book). Even a quiet, introverted student like Tommy has to let it all out when he (and we) discover that he has been told so much and at the same time, so very little. 

But there is a glimmer of hope - the 2010 movie directed by Mark Romanek. Not only will the story line be tighter, it might play better in the medium of cinema, despite offering no answers as to what happened to this alternate world.  

And of course, that is Ishiguro's point. This novel is intended to make us think about our real world and our lives. For succeeding at that, I give him tons of credit. For reprising his themes of people locked in their manners, bubbles, and fates, I also bestow him much credit. But for stretching it to 287 pages, I feel I must deduct stars.

Blogging Another Meaningless Red Sox Yankees Game


I try to do this once a year, so here goes…

This is probably a meaningless game.  The Red Sox have shown us that they are hungry for wins and want to make it to the playoffs.  But they are going to have to do it as the AL Wild Card team.  For the second straight year the AL East appears to be in the hands of the Yankees.  The Yankees got here thanks in large part to the offensive performances of Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher, and some unlikely starting pitching heroes.  The Sox got this far in spite of devastating injuries that have sidelined star players since May.

This is the fourth game of the penultimate series between the Red Sox and Yankees.  The game is being played less than four miles from my apartment.  It’s a hot sunny day in the Bronx.  It is currently 93 degrees Fahrenheit.  I pick this game up in the top of the second inning.

Top of the Second.  Red Sox 0, Yankees 0

Mike Lowell hits one high and deep to right, but Nick Swisher makes a Tom Brunansky-like catch at the warning track in front of the right foul pole.  Impressive.  Nick is having a great year, contrary to my prediction that he would not be an offensive spark plug for the Yanks.  He has been.  He’s hitting .360 this season.  You couldn’t ask for more from Swisher.

Michael Kay points out that the next batter, Ryan Kalish grew up in Red Bank, New Jersey as a Yankee fan.  “Must be very difficult for him,” Kay quirps.  On a 3-2 count, Kalish lines one to right for a solid single.

Bill Hall up next.  Kalish steals second base and a poor throw by Jorge Posada is ruled an error (E2) allowing Kalish to trot to third.  Suddenly the Sox have a runner in prime scoring position.

Hall hits an infield single.  It ounces to A-Rod, but he can’t make a throw to home.  Sox score the first run.

Jacoby Ellsbury up next.  He hits a single to center, just inches above the open glove of Derek Jeter.  Hall to third.  The Sox have a great opportunity here.  Jacoby snaps his 0-22 hitless streak.

Marco Scutaro is in the batter’s box.  I can’t be upset at Marco.  He was asked to be a backup infielder and because of the injury to Dustin Pedroia, he has had to be a starter all season.  The Sox are still without a home-grown young shortstop.  He will come soon enough, I think.

Scutaro walks.  Did I mention that this is a great opportunity for the Sox?

But J.D. Drew is the next guy into the box.  He has a .600 average against Yankee starter Phil Hughes.  Please, Drew.  Please.

Hughes has thrown over 30 pitches this inning.  The Yankee bullpen is becoming active.  Michael Kay remarks that Hughes has done just enough to keep the Yankee bullpen rested.  Hughes has gone five innings in nearly all of his starts.  Well yes, five innings is the minimum expected of a starter.  But pitchers with a win in hand usually go seven.  Hughes has benefitted from strong run support, however, so he has been able to leave a game in the fifth and get the win.

Drew grounds to Cano.  The Sox send Hall home.  Two out.  It feels like forever since the Swisher catch early in the inning.   Victor Martinez quickly grounds out to end the inning.

Bottom of the Second. Red Sox 2, Yankees 0

A-Rod at the plate.  Finally, I get to see Jon Lester’s stuff, as I missed the first inning.  He’s throwing high, but his velocity looks very good.  But too many high pitches walk Rodriguez.

Robinson Cano grounds to Lester.  He turns and throws to Scutaro.  A nice force out.

Posada grounds to third.  The Sox try a double play but can only get Cano at second.  Two out.

Marcus Thames grounds out to Adrian Beltre at third.  Lester needs to improve his location.  We’ll see how he settles.

Top of the Third

A quick 1-2-3 inning for Huges.  Ortiz pos out to A-Rod.  Adrian Beltre grounds out to A-Rod.  And Mike Lowell flies out to center. 

Bottom of the Third

After issuing a walk to Austin Kearns, Lester gets the next three outs.  He’s settling.

Top of the Fourth

Another 1-2-3 inning for Hughes.  I’m not digging this.

Bottom of the Fourth

Lester gets three outs and issues another walk.  No harm done.

Top of the Fifth

With the exception of a Victor Martinez double, the Red Sox have nothing against Hughes.  He’s looking solid and the longer this game goes on, the more probable a Yankee comeback becomes.  Hughes is up to 96 pitches, but he can go another inning, I’m sure.

Bottom of the Fifth

Austin Kearns gets the first hit for the Yankees.  I was so upset by Hughes’ stellar performance, I didn’t realize that Lester hadn’t given up a hit. 

Jeter hits a single, tying Mel Ott (2,876) for most hits by a Yankee.  Now we have a game.  Two on, two out.  Show me you can get out of a jam, Jon.

Lester strikes out Nick Swisher in three pitches!  Yes!!  The third pitch was a high strike and Swisher couldn’t help but swing.

Top of the Sixth

Another 1-2-3 inning for Hughes.  He can take a bow.  He could have been hit out of the game in the second, but then dominated the Red Sox for the next 90 minutes.  He threw 114 pitches today.  The Yankees will need that kind of performance in the postseason.  I can’t see Pettitte throwing 114 pitches in October.

Bottom of the Sixth

Jon Lester now has the chance to put his foot down and own this game.  He has the lead, and it looks like the Red Sox won’t get any more runs.  Lester will have to dig deep and get six more outs.  It would be great if he can make it through seven innings.

Scutaro fields three straight ground balls and throws them all to Mike Lowell for the outs.  Maybe Lester can go one more inning?  That was his strongest inning yet today.

Top of the Seventh

Kerry Wood replaces Phil Hughes.  Despite giving up a walk, hitting a batter, and allowing a steal, Wood and the Yankee defense are able to get out of trouble.

Bottom of the Seventh

This is the game right here.  Jon Lester is pitching his last inning.  He has the win in hand.  The Red Sox have to hang on.

A quick single by Posada.  Time to get nervous.  Daniel Bard is warming up in the Sox bullpen.

Then Marcus Thames doubles.  A foot higher and that would have been a home hun.  Time to call the pen.  Lester can’t get out of this.  It’s a pity, but he got the Sox this far.  Bard and Paplebon will have to take it from here. 

Michael Kay says the Yankees should “get a run or two here.”  Not so fast.

After a long battle, Lester hits Austin Kearns.  Bases loaded.  I can’t look.

Lester battles back and strikes out Curtis Granderson.  Now Francona brings in Bard.  Here’s the game, right here.  If Bard holds, the Sox should win.

Derek Jeter at the plate.  At least it isn’t Cano.  But this is a batter Bard must retire.  Swisher is next. 

A 98MPH fastball retires Jeter.  One down, one to go.

Now Nick Swisher carries the hope of a Yankee comeback.  Another 98 MPH fastball goes down the middle.  Awesome.  What can Bard do next?

Swisher fouls off the next fastball.  The Sox are so close to a dramatic escape…

A low fastball to the right corner.  Swisher swings.  What a huge out.

Top of the Eighth

Boone Logan takes over the mound for the Yankees.  He gets David Ortiz to fly out to center.  And now Joba Chamerlain trots to the mound.  Hmmm.  Joba Chamberlain being used as a situational righty against Adrian Beltre?  This is asking for trouble.  I can only hope Beltre takes Joba deep.

But no.  Beltre grounds out to end his day 0-4.  His 14 game hit streak comes to an end.  One pitch, one out.  Joba’s next pitch results in a Mike Lowell pop put to Swisher. Open mouth, insert foot.  Maybe Joe Girarldi is a genius and Joba has found his role. 

Bottom of the Eighth

Daniel Bard now carries the Sox.  He’s up against the only batter to get more than one home run against him, Mark Teixeira. 

And just as Michael Kay mentions that, Teixeira smacks a solo home run to right.  Yankees on the board.  It’s Lester’s first home run allowed since June 7th.  It was to Austin Kearns.  He and Hughes have been the story of this game for the Yankees thus far.

Bard gives up a big single to Alex Rodriguez.   

Now Robinson Cano is primed to be the hero.  Brett Gardner replaces A-Rod at first.  Clearly the run is on. 

But Gardner is not running.  He’s seeing pitch after pitch by Bard and he’s not going.  Cano now has two strikes against him.  What’s the hold up? 

Throw over, Bard. 

He does.  Safe.

It dawns on me:  This is the most interesting game in this four-game series.  We're watching playoff quality hardball.

Another foul by Cano.  Bard is not throwing balls.  He’s only throwing strikes.  Fireballs, actually!

With the count stuck at 1-2, Bard throws over to first again.  Safe.

Gardner grounds to Hall.  One out!  Gardner to second.  This is a jam.  

Bard is up to 23 pitches.  And he’s facing Posada, who always seems to kill the Red Sox in situations like this.  Bard starts throwing high, and it is quickly 2-0. 

The third pitch goes wide right and it is now 3-0.  The Sox need a pop out here.

Posada walks on a low changeup.  Four straight balls.  Oh no.

Lance Berman pitch hits for Marcus Thames.  The first strike goes down the middle.  An obvious strike, but it is not called.  The Sox have lost this game.

Berkman pops out to Kalish.  Two out.  But I don’t think it matters.  The disappearance of the strike zone tells me that the Sox are doomed.  How many times have we seen this movie?

Francona goes to Paplebon to be the final pitcher for the Sox in this game, win or lose.

Austin Kearns is up.  This bastard again.

But with just one pitch, Paplebon and the Sox escape!  Kearns grounds out to Hall.  Son of a bitch.  They had to make me watch one more painful inning.

Top of the Ninth.  Red Sox 2, Yankees 1

Joba Chamberlain is still on the mound.  I always thought it a mistake to stretch a situational change into long relief.  But since the Yankees don’t have the lead and have only two pitchers available in the pen, it is probably the best move.

Kalish lines out gently to Jeter.

Joba retires Bill Hall on a 96MPH fastball. 

Michael Kay has been well behaved today.  However, I am turning off the audio.  Only music is going to get me through the next four outs.  I’m listening to songs in preparation of a totally awesome abortion themed playlist.  Yes, I am crazy. 

Joba walks Jacoby.  Insert comment about Native American baseball players here.

Jacoby steals second.  Another off-line throw by Posada.  But Cano gets his glove to it.  But with Marco Scutaro up, I’m not expecting an insurance run.

Joba throws a pitch just wide on a 2-2 count.  Joba shows his frustration at not getting a strike call.  But it was the correct call.  It’s a full count now, and Scutaro has a slim chance of keeping this inning alive.

The air temperature has fallen to 86 Fahrenheit.  We have another four hour game possible between these two sides. 

Scutaro grounds to Ramiro Pena, filling in for A-Rod.  Nice play.  Now to end this game, Paps.

Bottom of the Ninth

It’s going to be Genderson, Jeter, and Swisher against Jonathan Paplebon.  In this game, there has been 1 hit between them in 11 at bats.

Paplebon strikes out Granderson.

With a 2-1 count, Paplebon puts a fastball past Jeter.  It had movement and it dropped.  But that was the ball Jeter should have taken.

But two pitches later, Jeter walks.  The drama.

Jeter then steals second (barely) with Swisher at the plate.  This is not going to end well.

But Swisher strikes out!

First base is empty.  Terry Francona decides not to walk Mark Teixeira, the Yankees’ hottest hitter.  So it has come to this – a battle between Paplebon and Teixeira. 

Two foul balls, and it is quickly 0-2.

A low fastball.  It’s 1-2.

A fastball well inside.  It’s now 2-2.

Dustin looks nervous as he watches.  We all are.

A splitter is barely fouled off.  That was so close to being the final pitch.


A changeup low to the right attracts a Teixeira swing.  Strike three!  The Red Sox win!

Holy crap.

And barring a ‘Francona Miracle,’ this was a meaningless game. 

I'm Only Asking A Question

While it doesn't surprise me that my New York is sending George off with a bit of the Jackie Onassis treatment (flags are half mast at City Hall), I just have to ask this:

If Mark Cuban (or any other NBA owner who yes, was influenced and whose path was cleared by men like Steinbrenner) had been convicted of a Federal crime and attempted to frame a player for betting on basketball, would David Stern allow him to retain ownership of his team?

Just asking.

Film Review: Solitary Man

It is rare for an American film to give us a despicable protagonist from beginning to end, but that is one of the notable achievements of Solitary Man (2009), the latest opus from Brian Koppleman and David Levien, the talented writers who gave us the very entertaining Rounders (1998) and Oceans 13 (2007). They have created a character who speaks his mind and will not hesitate to harm or manipulate others. Better still, they wrote the character for one of Hollywood’s taken-for-granted actors, Michael Douglas. I just wish the film lived up to its quality beginning and ending. I found the middle of the film to be full of clichés and lulls that should have been ironed out. Nevertheless, Solitary Man has some good scenes and is superior to two other films this year about white men going through late life crises, Paper Man and Multiple Sarcasms. 

Solitary Man is being well hyped by men’s magazines like Esquire and GQ. But as those magazines also hyped the overrated In The Air last year, I kept my expectations low for Solitary Man. And I'm glad I did.

The movie starts out strong. Dialogue is crisp. The static, medium-long shots quickly establish the film’s clean aesthetic. We are immediately introduced to Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), a disgraced, unemployed, womanizing 60 year-old man who once ruled a tri-state network of auto dealerships in the 80s and 90s. But now, he carries more pounds and “no net worth” (as Gordon Gekko would say). His dealerships were caught running a leasing scam that victimized both customers and the auto manufacturer. FTC fines and legal fees have washed him out. But he is no less bitter, cantankerous, or cynical. Nor is he willing to grow up, a primary theme of this character study.

Soon after we see him run away from his doctor’s prescribed heart tests, Ben agrees to escort his girlfriend’s 18 year-old daughter Allyson,(played by British starlet Imogen Poots), to his alma mater in Massachusetts to grease her application interview and assure her acceptance. The movie then treats us to two excellent scenes that should raise most viewers’ expectations. First, Ben and Allyson exchange rapid-fire put-downs and subtle flirtations at the airport, while other middle-aged businessmen stare at Ben with a mixture of envy and discomfort. Second, we’re treated to one of the movie’s best lines as Ben gets into a scuffle with a student on the quad. “You call me an asshole,” Douglas belts out in his trademark nasal voice, “I’m gonna earn it.” So far, so good. At times, the film has a beautiful mix of comedy, drama, and male shamelessness that most guys (myself included) should like. 



But the middle of the movie goes soft, it seems. Ben’s life continues to tear at the seams, which is well established and directed. He loses just about everything back in New York. The plot has him going back to his old campus in Massachusetts with his tail between his legs. That would be fine if he were going to work for the university (he was a major donor when his business was at its peak). But the film chooses the less original comedy route of the “dirty old man on campus.” Ben reconnects with a college friend, a wise sage played by a refreshingly calm Danny DeVito, takes a job at a diner, and ends up embarrassing himself at more than one kegger. While I agree that the plot required him to go into exile out of New York, I was a little disappointed to see his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) disappear for a long stretch in the film, while his daughter (Jenna Fischer) became involved in multiple subplots –at least one of which felt contrived and false. Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, Zombieland) makes a few appearances as a sophomore hoping to make Ben his mentor. Of course we know that can’t happen. We witness time and again how Ben is a poor role model and sometimes his own worst enemy. But what could have been a satisfying on campus subplot seemed to be where the movie grinds to a halt and ends up being as awkward and aloof as Eisenberg’s character.

After some thought, I think I know why this film didn’t work for me. I don’t think Ben’s back story was effectively presented. Quite often, he is reminded (and therefore we are lectured) of his past actions by his daughter and ex-wife.  We are introduced to Ben well after his late life crisis has begun. I wonder if the film would have been better served by a prologue scene, or an earlier starting point (with the frat parties cut out towards the end). When Ben speaks to others, the film works. When others describe Ben’s past to him the film seems to suffer. I don’t think an earlier starting point would have made Ben more likable. But it probably would have raised audiences’ expectations of his redemption, and would shrink the subplots in the middle. Perhaps a longer introduction would have given us tighter second and third acts.

Artists are free to make decisions, of course. But I was a little surprised to learn that Levien and Koppleman didn’t split the writing as they usually do. For this screenplay, Koppleman did all of the writing, with Levien serving as his soundboard. They had toyed with this story for years. But they didn’t revise their script all that much –probably by choice. They are clearly talented, experienced writers who know how to speed up stories through the middle act (does anyone remember the blazingly-fast set up in Oceans Thirteen?). But with Solitary Man, they set out to make a small independent film their way, at a slower pace. That, plus the non Hollywood ending deserves a lot of credit. But such a strong performance by Douglas deserved a firmer and less clichéd second act. His character needed time in exile to build a respectable comeback. But instead he spent most of his time with characters and subplots that diminished his presence and the audience’s enjoyment of the film. Having an unlikable character complete a personal journey while keeping the audience’s interest is no easy task (see Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) to appreciate it done beautifully). But I fear that Koppleman and Levien set a high bar that they could not reach half of the time in this film. And the writing is to blame.

Cinematography by Alwin H. Kuchler (Ratcatcher, Sunshine) is first-rate and elevates this film above the standard indie fare. Honorable mentions should also go to costume design and the pristine on set dialogue recording. This film had to be shot quickly, so City Island (Bronx) serves as Massachusetts. But found locations, such as Ben’s girlfriend’s condo, add some style and an authentic uptown Manhattan feel.


Hagler vs. Hearns: "The War" Turns 25

It was 25 years ago Thursday.  

On a Saturday night in Vegas, April 15th 1985, one of the greatest boxing matches in history took place. A brutally violent, 3 round, 8-minute bout that featured devastating blows, a blistering pace, and a stunning knockout that seemed to come out of nowhere.   

I remember the spring of 1985 particularly well. I was 12.  I remember being in sixth grade at Whitman Elementary School in Brockton, Massachusetts. I remember the two most popular businesses between my house and the school - the Dairy Queen, which had just introduced its revolutionary ice cream treat, the Blizzard, and the Lil Peach store, where I would get my Mad magazines, baseball cards, and Nerds.  

I remember how warm that spring was - a lot of days in the 70s well before school was out. And I remember the Hagler - Hearns fight, even though I didn't see it on Pay Per View nor HBO. I actually watched a replay of it in July on Wide World of Sports on ABC.  But I do remember reading about the fight in the Boston Globe. And I remember how my hometown reacted, especially the staff and patrons at George's Cafe, where Hagler and my family frequently dined (albeit not together, but often on the same evening).

Boxing journalists and historians continue to call this match the greatest Middleweight title fight of all time, and arguably the great three rounds in professional boxing history.  

Hagler was a very intelligent boxer, but he did something he had never done before in this fight. He threw out his strategy and simply came out swinging. He was desperate to defend his title and earn respect in front of a large HBO / Pay-Per-View TV audience. Hearns was forced to retaliate with big shots, and his first massive punch to Hagler's head broke Hearns' right hand. Hagler and the analysts knew he had the fight in-hand when he was able to recover from that blow. His constant, vicious attacks nearly prevented Hearns from boxing in his preferred style.  It only took two more rounds to end the fight and secure his place in world boxing history. 

The first round alone lives in infamy. Both boxers stun each other with blows that would knock down lesser boxers.


Three straight right hands from Hagler finish the fight.

And this short HBO documentary from 2006 is a must see. It features the latest interviews with Hagler and Hearns, as well as stock footage of Hagler's legendary training in Provincetown, where he would run on the highway and in the dunes. His training regimen worked and is a model for many athletes to follow.

Stay Home, Then

So Chief Justice John Roberts, after his sixth State of the Union Address appearance, has finally rebelled and has declared his intent never to attend one again.  That's great.  It is a little awkward how the Justices attend, but are prohibited from reacting.  But they are not required to attend.  It's optional.  

Who wants to wager that he will be back in the House chamber for the SOTU in 2013 when it will be a Republican or Wingnut president delivering the address?  Easy bet, right?

Being a crybaby when a non-caucasian Democratic president is speaking is just too obvious.  If Roberts is going to cry in public and threaten never to attend a SOTU ever again, he has the luxury of not having any credibility, combined with the fact that right-wingers are hypocritical and have no long-term memories.  So when he does resume attending SOTU addresses for non-Democratic presidents, no one will call him out for it.

Glenn Greenwald has a most awesome response to Roberts' on hypocritical petulance.  So go read it, pronto!

Echoes Of Twelve Steps

Both Glenn Beck and Tiger Woods three weeks ago made references to twelve-step rehab programs in their speeches.  And it was odd because it seemed that Glenn's references were designed to emphasize his past life failings and humility (of which he has zero now), and Tiger's 'apology' to anyone outside his family was totally unnecessary and insincere.

Furthermore, Glenn Beck's 58-minute speech was long, wandering, and full of red meat for the uneducated masses.  Sort of like my homeboys Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.  Viva La Revolucion, Glenda.