Thursday, October 30, 2014

#774. Standing on the shoulders of Giants

Anyone who's familiar with my baseball interests knows none of my favorite teams made it to the World Series this year, but I was still more than pleased with the outcome.  I'd been rooting for the post-season sensations Kansas City Royals up until they reached the World Series.  Baseball is a game of momentum, and they blew away all their competition to that point.  But I quickly realized the edge belonged to the San Francisco Giants, who last night won their third championship in five years.

Thanks to a guy named Madison Bumgarner.

This was an ace who powered through three games of the World Series, starting two and finishing out the last four innings in the final game, and he became a whole story unto himself, and that's the sort of thing you relish.  By that point, who but Royals die hards wanted a different outcome?  How was anything less than victory possible?

Watching something like this is a reminder of what makes baseball special.  It's a game of determination, but it's also a game of patience.  These days, what was once celebrated as America's Pastime is more often dismissed as something about as exciting to watch as bowling or golf.  But who will argue that watching Bumgarner making history was anything less than thrilling?

Baseball is what happens when everything goes right.  It's a chance for things that are normally screwed up elsewhere to actually work.  Things like teamwork.  Things like believing in each other.  things like faith in the face of despair.

Watching World Series in the new millennium has been a consistent display of this.  As a member of Red Sox Nation, the so-called "curse" that lasted eighty-six years ended and then we got three championships in ten years, and each of those teams matched the model the Giants exhibited last night, and I think the same is true of just about every team that has won since 2001, starting with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  I think of the "rally monkey" Angels of '02, or the Cinderella Cardinals in Tony La Russa's final season as manager in '11.

It's hard not to be happy for Bumgarner and the Giants, winking Pablo Sandoval and everyone else.  Better luck next time Royals.

And hopefully one of my teams will win next year!

Friday, October 10, 2014

#773. Mock Squid Soup: Unbreakable

Mock Squid Soup is a film appreciation society brought to you by people actually named (on the Internet) Mock and Squid.  They are both deeply disturbed.

No, actually, all the characters in Unbreakable are.  As is director M. Night Shyamalan.  As are the fairweather film fans who quickly thought he was completely untalented the moment he was no longer flavor of the month.

Let's start our discussion with Shyamalan!  His popular career began with the surprise late-summer 1999 blockbuster The Sixth Sense, which famously had a twist ending.  Apparently if you have something like a twist ending with all your films (or, you know, have something like personal style) this is a sign of creative bankruptcy.  If I sound flippant about it, it's because I never understood that.  As far as I'm concerned, the man's a genius, easily easily one of the best filmmakers of the past fifteen years at least.  I think part of the reason people cooled on him so quickly was because of Christopher Nolan's rise at around the same time.  Shyamalan seemed to come out of nowhere (he didn't; actually, his first movie, Wide Awake, is a charming family movie) whereas Nolan's career had a chance to build in increments, from the widely respected but cult-sized Memento (although again, there was an earlier film: Following) to blockbusters like The Dark Knight and Inception.  Both are craftsmen who tend to focus on journeys where the intensity can be about emotion instead of bluster.  But while Nolan's audience had a chance to build up, Shyamalan's only had the expectation of eventual disappointment.

A slight simplification, but that's my view.

His third major release, The Village, may have been the movie where everyone took their later impression of him from, a movie that changes everything you thought you knew about the story without any real clues to prepare you.  Strangely, he rebounded popularly with Signs, but was never able to recover after that.  Lady in the Water is a terrific fable.  The Happening was never even given a chance, dismissed instantly as just more of his nonsense.  I liked The Last Airbender.  I still have yet to see After Earth.

Anyway, it isn't all Shyamalan worth considering about Unbreakable.  There's also Bruce Willis, who was also the star of Sixth Sense.  This was a period of career renaissance for Willis, where he could break away from his action persona for a change and find real success.  His two collaborations with Shyamalan were the peak of this period, and for me personally his career highlights (others still swear by Die Hard, although that's a franchise that has finally died.  hard) aside from the inspired lunacy of The Fifth Element.

There's also Samuel L. Jackson, who like Willis was turning a popular corner, and who unlike Willis has continued to parlay this period to great success, possibly because he figured out how to keep it going.  (Seriously, would anyone mind seeing a solo Nick Fury movie at this point, or does Captain America: The Winter Soldier technically count?)

Both of them were in Pulp Fiction, by the way.  I think people tend to forget Willis was in that, but of course everyone remembers Jackson's scripture-quoting hitman. They should work together more often.  (It didn't work out so well when Jackson reteamed with John Travolta in Basic, although there's at least one scene totally worth watching for having them together again in it.)

Remember the kid from Gladiator?  He's in here, too.  I think it was an odd choice for Shyamalan, because the kid kind of looks like Haley Joel Osment.  Same general hairstyle.  May have been an unconscious thing people held against the director.

Robin Wright!  Who doesn't love Robin Wright?  Her career is probably one of the least needy ones in Hollywood.  It's always a pleasure to find her in a movie you're watching.  You might consider giving The Conspirator a shot if you're looking for something new.

Besides all that, Unbreakable is also a superhero movie, and as a 2000 release (same year as X-Men) just on the cusp of that actually being a very good thing.  It's probably one of the reasons the public started liking them so easily.  It's part of a holy trinity for me, along with Hancock and The Dark Knight, as the best superhero experiences yet featured on the big screen.  Like Hancock, it's a rare modern original effort, rather than an adaptation from comic books.  Like Dark Knight, it's a movie that takes superheroes completely seriously.

It's an absolute favorite of mine, featuring a number of absolute favorites behind and in front of the camera.  For me, there's nothing but plenty to love.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

#772. The Next Generation cast recasts themselves

At the Destination 3 Star Trek con in London, the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation reunited.  (Read about some of that here.)

The bit I'm focusing on centers on some of the cast's ideas about who could step into their roles.  Some of them I like and others are off-kilter.  Here're the results:
via Trek Core
Jean-Luc Picard
originally portrayed by Patrick Stewart, who chose:
via The Guardian
Tom Hardy

Right off the bat we have a compelling situation here.  Hardy, of course, had his breakout role in Star Trek Nemesis as Shinzon, a clone of Picard.  It was the role that made me a fan of Hardy, but fans tend to hate the film and for everyone else it was the start of a long delay in Hardy's popular film career.  In 2014, Hardy's name means something completely different than it did in 2002.  Does that change anyone's mind about this casting?  Or was Stewart merely bucking what was even a trend among his castmates at the con in continuing to knock Nemesis more than a decade later?

via Bardfilm
originally portrayed by John De Lancie, who chose:
via Deadline
Sacha Baron Cohen

Truly inspired.  While better known for provoking audiences than starship captains, Cohen has become a reliable comedic presence in films as a costar, whether in Talladega Nights or Les Miserables.  Chances are Borat would prove a challenge even to Picard, though.

via Trek Core
originally portrayed by Brent Spiner, who chose:
via Daily Inspiration
Tilda Swinton

Leave it to Spiner to go with the most off-beat choice.  Swinton would redefine the role any number of ways (in some ways the Borg Queen's dream come true from First Contact!), and that's not a bad thing.
via the Geek Twins
Deanna Troi,
originally portrayed by Marina Sirtis, who chose:
via Marie Claire UK
Mila Kunis

Another one that would redefine the role, certainly, although Troi has often been targeted for criticism that Next Generation's original approach might be seen as increasingly dated.
via Trek Core
Beverly Crusher,
originally portrayed by Gates McFadden, who chose:
via Breitbart
Michelle Obama

via Technology Tell
Jessica Chastain

These are some interesting choices from McFadden.  The first could be interpreted any number of ways, the second casting about for a famous redheaded actress.  Chastain happens to be one of the finest actors working today.  Either way this would be bound to elevate Crusher's routinely low stature in the cast.
via Star Trek
Tasha Yar,
originally portrayed by Denise Crosby, who chose:
via Huffington Post
Charlize Theron

Another choice that seems to have been made for reasons that aren't necessarily reflected for anything but appearance.  But Theron would undoubtedly, like Obama or Chastain, greatly elevate an anemic character.
via Krypton Radio
Miles O'Brien,
originally portrayed by Colm Meaney, who chose:
via ABC News
Colin Farrell

Good man, Colm.  This would be awesome.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

#771. Goodfellas

Recently, at the prodding of Armchair Squid, I rewatched Martin Scorsese's 1990 mobster opus Goodfellas.  This was going to be my chance to reconsider it.  I'm a fan of Scorsese, whether from his early classics (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) or the string of early-millennium efforts (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed) that seemed to revitalize his career, so watching one of his films isn't exactly a tough proposition, but I hadn't thought as highly of Goodfellas as critics tend to, including Squid, the first time I saw it.  Mostly my impression was of leading man Ray Liotta, and much as Squid had been telling me, his family issues.

Seeing it again was to remember that Scorsese had done something like his most recent film, The Wolf of Wall Street, already.  Wolf, if you'll remember, was criticized for glamorizing the excesses it presumably sought to present as a cautionary tale.  That's what Liotta's narration does in Goodfellas, too.  Even by the end of the movie, he's lamenting life in witness protection as lacking the snap he'd so eagerly embraced as a boy and subsequently lived in for the next few decades of his life.  Supporting players Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci play the characters Liotta's can't be if there's to be any sympathy involved, although curiously De Niro is relatively subdued through the proceedings, as if the character knows as well as everyone else that De Niro used to be Scorsese's muse, the way Leonardo DiCaprio would eventually become.  Liotta?  For his first standout performance it was a tough act to follow, and he never really did.  The closest he ever came was Joe Carnahan's Narc.  In a way, that's all you need to know about Goodfellas, too.

Which is to say, maybe it overplays its hand a little.  Maybe it lacks, say, a certain subtlety.  The later film Donnie Brasco is basically a study of everything Goodfellas chose not to do.  I happened to rewatch Casablanca around the same time, and that's certainly a study of what Goodfellas chose not to do, too. 

Scorsese could have rubbed his gangster's itch the way he did in Mean Streets, the one where De Niro leaves his first real impression, as an obnoxious punk who's a rough edge version of the character Liotta plays.  If Goodfellas is all about family, then Mean Streets is the movie it would have been if, say, the lead had been Pesci.

It's tough watching Goodfellas from the perspective of someone who admires the Scorsese of Taxi Driver, or Raging Bull, or The Departed.  Like any director, like Quentin Tarantino for instance, who's always trying to help his characters make their way through impossible situations, Scorsese has a theme running through his movies, characters who maybe don't realize how much trouble they're in and barrel forward despite the consequences (but sometimes reconsider).  It's harder to like the work when he errs toward the unapologetic, as he does in Goodfellas, which is exactly like The Godfather Part II but without the grandiosity. 

I wish there was a moment like in American Gangster (Ridley Scott is always exploring idealism and nightmare colliding) when Denzel Washington decides to play ball with Russell Crowe, but Liotta is so busy, for the whole of Goodfellas, reveling in the life that seemed to be so carefree (except for things like bullets and dead bodies and nagging wives), even when his crew scores a major heist that in another context would have been a movie itself (Ocean's Scorsese), it's tough to even think about the life these characters (it's important to remember this is all based on real events) are actually leading, even though you never forget for a moment who they are.

What does a movie like Goodfellas say about Scorsese?  Is he warning his audience or gleefully enjoying the mayhem?  But it's also Scorsese and pizzazz working hand-in-hand, a little bit of narrative showmanship, the kind of experience only someone who'd done this sort of thing before and would again could get away with, and I think that's what people love so much about it.  Maybe it's not an experience to be taken solely for what it is, but to be considered in the mob canon, or even the Scorsese library itself.  It'll never come close to being my favorite movie, in general or among Scorsese's, but I can appreciate it for what it is.  It's just one of those experiences that leaves me wishing it had done things differently.  But if it had, it wouldn't be Goodfellas.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

There Are No Secrets On Betazed

Deanna isn't even in Starfleet the first time she meets Will Riker.  He's come to Betazed on assignment, and she's asked by her mother to be his personal liaison, help him become acquainted with the planet, keep him out of trouble.  The trouble, it would seem, would stem from Deanna's mother herself, whether in mind or body far too much for the uninitiated to handle, and even for those who have known her for years.  But it's more so that he won't notice everything else that's wrong with the planet.

Which is to say, everything.

To put it mildly, Betazed's best years are behind it.  By the time it was awarded membership in the Federation, it was a planet in cultural decline, so in fact the only reason it petitioned in the first place was to try and recapture some of the old glory.  Because there are no secrets on Betazed, and this has become a problem.

You see, Betazoids are empaths.  They can read and project thoughts at will, speak through each other's minds, and generally get along with a level of intimacy that would be unsettling on any other world.  Deanna's mother is the prototypical Betazoid.  As the leader of the last of the great houses, Lwaxana Troi took it upon herself long ago to do everything in her power to reverse the decline.  She lives in defiance of the truth, and is happy to do so, by the way.  After all, there are no secrets among Betazoids.

Which is why Deanna's father was human, totally devoid of all Betazed's gifts, the reason Deanna herself can only sense emotions rather than thoughts (although among her own people she remains perfectly telepathic).  The idea, her mother quickly seizes upon, is to build on the initial attraction Deanna can't possible hide from her concerning Riker.  It's obvious to everyone, even the other species Betazed has made a state policy of enticing to visit and if at all possible stay forever.

Yet Deanna hasn't just fallen in love with Riker, she's made a critical decision.  She is going to leave Betazed forever.  This is the opposite, actually, of what her mother hoped to achieve, the idea being to make it better, easier, for people to stay.

Yet, more and more, they aren't.  The younger generations have taken all the wrong lessons from what their elders have tried to accomplish.  They're forgetting Betazed.  On a world like this, memory is everything, and losing anyone is to lose a part of everyone.  Lwaxana Troi especially.

Fortunately, she has a few tricks up her sleeve.  Betazoids are among the cultures that still believe in arranged marriages, and Deanna had hers in order a long time ago.  She's just experimenting, or so her mother believes.  All that's about to happen is harmless, really.  Nothing to worry about at all.

If need be, Lwaxana Troi will rescue her daughter, and if she can't dissuade her from this career in Starfleet that is suddenly more interesting than even Riker, then she will follow Deanna into the stars.  She's been there before.  What could possibly go wrong?

She doesn't attempt to keep any of these thoughts from her daughter, but Deanna is constantly distracted, the kind of girl who concerns herself with ideals more than reality.  What kind of Betazoid is that?

Maybe there ought to be some secrets after all...


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