Friday, September 28, 2007

La Dolce Vita

With a trip to Italy approaching fast, I decided to check out some Italian cinema. It is something I desperately need to see more of, since Cinema Paradiso and Suspiria have been the extent of my limited Italian cinema experiences.

Having seen Cinema Paradiso back when I was in high school and loving it, I tried to rent it, but to no avail. So after a friend from work recommended Frederico Fellini's La Dolce Vida, I decided to check it out from the local library since, let's face it, there's no chance it'll be at the local Blockbuster store.

And at the risk of sounding like a brainless movie-goer, I found La Dolce Vita to be extremely boring.

The movie is divided up into 3 or 4 segments, mostly independent from the other, each involving the main character, Marcello, and his quest for "the sweet life", or the "la dolce vita" of the title.

Marcello is a journalist in Rome, circa 1960, where the jet-set crowd has created the need for 24-hour coverage by the exploitive media, thus creating the paparazzi. Interestingly enough, the film actually invented the term "paparazzi", as one of the characters in the film is a cockroachy photojournalist named Paparazzo who is everywhere, flashing his camera into the face of his target.

The problem is, Marcello doesn't know what he wants. He has a girlfriend who is suicidal, thanks in part to Marcello's endless mind games, he has another girlfriend who he likes to hook up with in the bedroom of strangers he meets in the city, and he lusts after an American actress who comes to Rome to shoot a movie.

Marcello also enjoys time with his elitist friends who like to spout poetry, making themselves feel "creative" all while getting hammered or stoned. His good friend, Steiner, seems to have found the sweet life, as he is married with children and gives Marcello good advice on how he too can find la dolce vita. But Marcello's idea of the sweet life is turned on its ear when Steiner kills his children and then himself.

The plot, on paper, sounds interesting, and if it had been handled in a chronological way, it might have been. But Fellini divides the segments of the film into almost independent parts, which feel like unrelated chapters in a book.

Just as Anita Ekberg's American actress Sylvia heats up the screen and starts to create some chemistry with Marcello by dancing in the Trevi fountain, her character is gone for good. Then we're given a disjointed scene where Marcello covers a "miracle" as two children have just seen the Madonna standing beneath a tree in a desolate field outside Rome. Then we meet Marcello's father who on the surface is a happy person but ultimately turns into a sad and distant man. Then there are endless parties. And by the time the final scene on the beach occurs, and Marcello surrenders to the life he leads, we realize that we have come to the end of a fruitless journey ourselves, and have thereby wasted 3 hours of our life.

Fellini may be a genius, but I wouldn't know, since this is the first of his films I've seen. And if his work isn't for every one, I can understand.

Cut down to 2 hours or maybe even a little less, La Dolce Vita would have felt like a more manageable movie. And while the film is dated, it does speak to the modern times of the paparazzi in America and around the rest of the world. But with that said, La Dolce Vita is a meandering film of separate parts that never adds up to anything urgent or timeless. I know I will get blasted for saying this, but it's the way I feel.

Believe me, I wish I could have enjoyed this film. It's a critically acclaimed film (Entertainment Weekly's #6 best film of all time) and I can't help but feel like I am missing something I should have picked up on. But I understood the basic themes and got most of the imagery. I guess the sweet life is just too sour for my tastes.

FILM SCORE: ** (out of ****)
BEST SCENE: Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain
FILM STATUS: Overrated Italian "masterpiece."

The Lovely Bones

When I heard that Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) was going to direct the film version of Alice Sebold's critically acclaimed book, The Lovely Bones, with Ryan Gosling, Rachel Weisz, and Susan Sarandon rounding out the cast, I decided I might as well see what all the fuss was about. After all, The Lovely Bones has been a book-club favorite since it's release in 2002.

The plot centers around Susie Salmon, who is raped and murdered by creepy-but-seemingly-normal-neighbor George Harvey, before the book begins. From Heaven, Susie watches her family and friends cope with her death for the next 10 years in a coming-of-age Wonder Years/Ghost mash-up kind of way. Sebold paints a family portrait with small, delicate strokes, giving us even the smallest details of the Salmons and lets them grow until they become something that resembles a real post-tragedy family:

Mother Abigal deals with her sadness by having an affair with the detective assigned to their case and father Jack is the penultimate family man, holding the family together, even while he seeks revenge. Sister Lindsey finds a boyfriend and doesn't let herself crack under the stress. Meanwhile, friend Ruth and boyfriend Ray become friends when they find a connection with the dead.

It'll be hard for Jackson to translate the book to the silver screen. After all, Susie is a character who watches life on Earth from a gazebo in Heaven and occasionally appears to family and friends as a ghost or a figment of their imagination. I especially can't wait to see how he handles the controversial scene where Susie comes back to Earth, having possessed her friend Ruth to settle some unfinished business. Handled the wrong way, the film could become a corny ghost story instead of the raw human drama that it really is. But Jackson deserves the benefit of the doubt. He flawlessly updated The Lord of the Rings and his remake of King Kong was an ambitious film with as much heart as special effects.

One thing is for sure, bring tissues to the theater. The beauty and the sadness of The Lovely Bones is sure to create some lovely tears.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Tell Me You Love Me

HBO’s new show, Tell Me You Love Me, is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Its graphic depictions of sex are garnering a lot of "can they really do that on TV?" responses, but what the show really succeeds in doing is presenting the awkward parts of relationships.

The show, created by Cynthia Mort (Roseanne), centers around 3 couples, who are experiencing problems in each of their relationships. On the surface, it sounds like your usual drama. But being on HBO, you know there has to be a spin.

And boy is there a spin.

The show is uncensored, very uncensored, and at times comes off as soft-core porn. During sex scenes, you’ll be wondering if the actors involved are really having sex. But rest assured. Even though it looks for real, it’s not. And that’s what makes TMYLM different from any other drama to be on television. It doesn’t hold back at all.

And even when there aren’t any on-screen hand-jobs being given to the point of ejaculation (even though it’s a prosthetic penis), the show remains very raw.

David and Katie are a long married couple with children. They also haven’t had sex in almost a year. David is a loving husband, but he just doesn’t want to have sex with his wife. Instead, he’d rather wait until his wife is in the shower and pleasure himself. Katie, meanwhile, is teetering on the edge of depression because of this lack of sex, even though David is a perfectly capable husband in every other sense of the word.

Palek and Carolyn are married and having lots of sex, but only because Carolyn wants kids. Bad. So much so that she’s turned Palek off to sex. It may have been cute on Friends when Monica badgered Chandler into having sex with her when she was ovulating, but here, it’s downright disturbing to see Palek go from horny 30-ish man to someone who realizes he’s being used and that all the fun has been drained from sex.

And rounding out the trifecta of depressing couples is Josh and Jaime who are having lots of sex too, but they are not married. They’re engaged. But when Josh is brutally honest with Jaime, admitting that he’ll more than likely be attracted to another woman during their marriage, Jaime freaks out and calls off the wedding.

Even more disturbing than some of the graphic sex scenes is the emotional wasteland that most of these characters live in. David and Katie are most uncomfortable couple to watch on screen, their faces showing their feelings, but their mouths unable to speak them. So instead of talking through their problems before they go to bed, they simply turn their backs on one another and fall asleep unsatisfied in more ways than one.

And that is something that we all can relate too. Watching this show I couldn’t help but relate to some of the situations on screen, and feeling guilty that I have allowed my feelings to fester at times, instead of talking through them with my wife. And because of this, I’ve experienced some uncomfortable mornings before work. No marriage is perfect, but there is always room for improvement, whether it’s on-screen or in real life. And if this show gets one couple to address its problems, it's been a success in my opinion.

And that’s what makes TMYLM so good, it doesn’t hold back in any area. It addresses relationships head-on, whether it is a subtle facial expression of hurt that says more than words could ever say, or a no holds barred sex scene.

It may make some people uncomfortable. The sex scenes are shocking, but even more disturbing, is the sadness that these couples constantly wallow through. TMYLM is very relatable, very personal. And like the couples featured on the show, hopefully the couples watching, can survive it.

SHOW RATING: *** (out of ****)
BEST PART: Unflinching look at couples' lives, ie, the sex.
STATUS: Shocking, yet relevant show. It's definitely not porn.

Mad to sad

I’ve run out of energy to hate the Orioles. They are, after all, my hometown team. I grew up listening to most games because I didn’t have HTS. However, as they continue to get their asses handed to them night after night (18-6 last night), I can’t help but feel like the kid who watches the bully beat up the nerd in the schoolyard day after day. After I’ve seen it enough I’m going to start feeling bad for the kid.

Just don’t expect me to jump in and save the nerd just yet.

The Orioles put themselves into this position. They deserve every loss they’re racking up. Whether they did it knowing (cutting back payroll from 1999 – 2003) or unknowingly (trying to revamp the bullpen by throwing $42 million at the problem), they are where they are because of their own actions.

Unlike Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Pittsburgh, Baltimore is a mid-to-large-market city, even with the Nationals 45 miles down the road. There is no excuse to have 10 consecutive losing seasons. They have the fan-base to support a team, as we have seen from 1992 up until a few years ago, despite all the losing. But Peter Angelos ran the team into the ground on purpose in an attempt to keep the Nationals away and that drove fans away. And now he and his people have no clue how to improve things even though they may be trying.

19 teams have a better record than the Orioles, even with a lower payroll. And the Orioles have the worst dollar per win ratio in the major leagues. It currently stands at $1,559,131.10 million per win.

We’ve been over it before, but the Orioles are going to have to spend money a little wiser if they are going to get better.

They spent $32 million on Aubrey Huff when they could have gotten similar production from any number of lesser-known players who would have been paid a minimum salary. As a matter of fact, they passed on Carlos Pena to sign Huff. And Pena is now the second-best player in baseball this season, while Huff is finally earning a paycheck in the last 2 months of the season.

The Orioles fell into the trap of paying a lot for Danys Baez, because he was a former closer with a lot of saves on his resume. They doubled what they needed to pay to get Paul Bako, who shouldn’t have been on the team even if he came for free. And they spent $9 million on Jay Payton, who will be on the books for 2008, whether he is here or not.

There’s a saying around baseball that goes “Most mid-level free agents can be replaced with unknown talent who can put up similar numbers for a fraction of the cost.”

The Orioles need to embrace this theory. All too often they spend money on the name, instead of the actual production, thinking that fans care more about the names on the back of the jersey as opposed to the name on the front.

When the O’s say “We signed Jay Payton!” We know what we’re getting. We can wrap our heads around it immediately. It’s not exciting. But if the Orioles committed to someone like Jon Knott in LF for 2007, it would have been more exciting. There was no built-in ceiling. We didn’t know what to expect. And the potential for reward is much greater.

And even though Knott has been wrongfully DFA’d, he would have been hard-pressed to put up worse numbers than Payton this season. But the Orioles refused to play Knott, instead opting for Payton as the everyday LF, as well as any number of slap-hitting “defensive” players like Brandon Fahey or Luis Hernandez.

It all comes back to Andy MacPhail. He’s either the savior of the O’s or just another name in a long line of GM’s who failed to improve the team’s record.

We know what MacPhail needs to do. But the question is, does he? Will he jump in and save the nerd from the bully?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Perfect 10

You may have missed it, and you probably did since no one seems to care about the Orioles now that football season has begun, but with last night's loss, the Orioles have officially cemented their 10th straight losing season in a row.

I wonder if the Orioles are going to have a night at the Yard to commemorate this great achievement. A decade of losing! What more could you want?

Because let's face it, 10 straight years of losing is hard to do. I feel like Vern from Stand By Me when he couldn't find the jar of pennies he buried beneath his porch... I don't whether to laugh or cry.

I was fresh out of high school the last time the O's were winners, when they were making their wire-to-wire run for the pennant in 1997. I was still playing organized baseball during the summers and I was driving a 1995 Dodge Neon. Bill Clinton was the President but he hadn't put his cigar into Monica's mouth yet. And Titanic, the biggest movie of all time, wouldn't be released for another 6 months.

That feels like a lifetime ago. And that's because, well... it is.

A lot changes in 10 years. I am rapidly approaching 30 and married. I haven't thrown a baseball in years. Clinton has been out of office for 8 years and Bush is about to leave as well. Now Bill's wife, Hillary, may be the next President. The Neon I once drove is now someone's can opener. And the 13 year-old girls who saw Titanic in the movie theaters a million times are now getting married and having children of their own.

A lot changes in 10 years. But not the Orioles.

As you probably guessed, with 10 straight losing seasons, the Orioles are now qualified to rank up there with the teams who have had the longest consecutive losing seasons. Let's take a look at where the Orioles rank with these other perennial losers...

Team                       Years   Start    Finish
Chicago Cubs 16 1947 1962
Philadelphia Phillies 16 1933 1948
Boston Red Sox 15 1919 1933
Philly/KC A's 15 1953 1967
Pittsburgh Pirates 15 1993 present
Milwaukee Brewers 14 1993 2006
Seattle Mariners 14 1977 1990
Philadelphia Phillies 14 1918 1931
Philadelphia A's 13 1934 1946
St. Louis Browns 12 1930 1941
Detroit Tigers 12 1994 2005
Boston Braves 11 1903 1913
Browns/Orioles 11 1946 1956
Chicago Cubs 11 1973 1983
Cincinnati Reds 11 1945 1955
Brooklyn Dodgers 11 1904 1914
Washington Senators 11 1901 1911
Boston Braves 10 1922 1931
Montreal Expos 10 1969 1978
Philadelphia A's 10 1915 1924
Tampa Bay Devil Rays 10 1998 present
Baltimore Orioles 10 1998 present
That's some esteemed company right there. And unfortunately, there is no end in sight.

The Orioles are unable to sign free agents worth a damn, they are still hesitant to make trades (although hopefully that will change this offseason when Tejada, Roberts and perhaps Bedard are dealt) and the minor league system is still too sparse with talent to supplement the Orioles with enough talent to compete.

So how are they going to get better?

That is the $64,000 question.

So next year at this time, it's very likely that we'll be in the same spot, chalking up year number 11 and wondering when it will all end. And if they are going to get to 13, 14... they might as well go for 17. After all they already have the record for consecutive losses (21) and the record for most runs allowed in a modern era game (30).

Why end there?

Hopefully, Andy MacPhail can make some trades, acquire some cast-off talent from other organizations (like Jon Knott and JR House -- but actually play them!) and essentially raise the Titanic that is this organization.

But that is too steep a task to expect one man to do in just one offseason. So the best we can hope for this offseason is a plan -- a real plan -- put in place, which allows the Orioles to actually progress in the standings, instead of regress, as they have done since 2004.

And isn't it sad to see 2004, a year in which the O's finished at 78-84, to be the high-water mark for this on-going stretch of ineptness.

Anyway, I, and many fans like me, can take more losing if there is improvement... if there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But the way the team is run now, the light is only getting smaller.

And just when we thought things would get brighter a few years ago, now we find ourselves shrouded in complete darkness. Just like Leo's character Jack, in Titanic, a movie we used to think was among the best ever a lifetime ago, and now we can't stand.

Yep, things change. But not the Orioles.

Saturday, September 8, 2007


Every so often a movie comes out of nowhere and pleasantly surprises you so much that you just want to grab its head and pull it in for a nice wet kiss.

That's what I wanted to do with Disturbia.

When it came out last April, I knew little about it except that it had the kid that was going to be in Transformers (Shia LaBeouf) in it and it looked kinda lame.

However, the reviews were positive and the movie stayed at the top of the box office list for a few weeks. So I admitted I could have been wrong and made a mental note to check it out when it came out on DVD.

So the wife and I popped it in and watched it tonight, buzzing from the good word of mouth surrounding it, and I must say, it was well deserved.

The film starts with a shocking set-up that realistically explains why LaBeouf's character, Kale, is under house arrest. It also takes time to establish Kale's surroundings, when most movies want to get right to the action. The main plot of the film, for instance, doesn't begin until about 45 minutes in, and I was vibing off the characters so much that I almost wasn't ready for it to begin.

Anyway, the plot centers around Kale getting bored under house arrest and spying on various neighbors and realizing that the creepy guy next door who likes to bring club chicks home with him could possibly be a serial killer. The possible killer is played by veteran actor David Morse who ironically comes off creepier than Michael Myers ever has in any of the Halloween sequels, and probably even the remake.

What is so good about Disturbia is the streamlined professionalism it contains in every aspect of the film. LaBeouf is charismatic as always. Morse is creepy. Sara Roemer is sexy. And Carrie-Ann Moss is the anti-Trinity as Kale's concerned but absent mother. Director D.J. Caruso (Taking Lives) just lets the actors go to work, but drapes a suspenseful curtain over the film, so that anything can happen at any time. Again, it's nothing we haven't seen before, but do cheeseburgers cease to be good even though you've had those before?

In the end, Disturbia won't win any awards that aren't out by MTV, and it will probably be completely forgotten about in a few months. But it is a fun movie to watch with a date, who will no doubt be clutching your arm during the numerous tension-filled scenes toward the end of the movie.

Plus it gives us another look at LaBeouf, who will play Indiana Jones' sidekick in the new Indiana Jones movie coming out next year. LaBeouf will no doubt bring a youthful energy to that film, picking up where Harrison Ford left off.

FILM SCORE: *** (out of ****)
BEST SCENE: Tension filled climax.
STATUS: Professional thriller for teens and adults.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

False bottom

I created this blog to track the ineptness of the Orioles over the course of a season. I thought it would be funny, to laugh at the team as a way to comfort myself from the losing that continues year after year.

Never did I realize that it would be this painful.

I originally tried to post after each game, but before I knew it, days and weeks passed by before I could find the words to express my feelings about this team. Even the most minor things, like doing laundry, became more exciting than watching this team night after night and then writing about them.

And just when you thought that they couldn't sink any worse, the bottom fell out again and the O's invented a new low.

In fact, two more new lows have occurred since my last post, only a week ago.

1. Clay Buchholz, a rookie pitcher for the Red Sox who was making his second major league start, threw a no-hitter against the Orioles last Saturday.

2. After being swept by the Devil Rays at home last week, the Orioles dropped 2 out of 3 to the Rays in Tampa this week, including a 17-2 embarrassment that included an 8-run inning that seems to be becoming a normal thing in Baltimore.

When will the bleeding stop?

Trembley was supposed to be the savior of the team. He knew how to get the most out of his players. But since he was officially announced as the 2008 manager, his Orioles have won a grand total of 2 games, losing 13, all while looking completely lifeless.

Still think the Orioles made the right decision?

I'm not saying that Trembley isn't a good manager, or the right manager for the Orioles. I do, however, believe the Orioles were too aggressive in extending him when they should have waited until the end of the season. After all, we know how the Orioles like to finish their seasons.

And isn't that just like the Orioles, to be aggressive when they should wait and then wait when they should be aggressive.

In the front office, Andy MacPhail has his work cut out for him this offseason. Tejada, Roberts, Bedard and others, including all of the dead weight, need to be traded or released. Tejada, Roberts and Bedard alone can bring back 7-9 prospects who would instantly be among the best in the farm system, and contribute in the major leagues right away.

Other than Markakis, who I would even shop in a trade, I can't think of a player who should or deserves to be back next season.

And so it goes with the Baltimore Orioles.

It's just getting hard to find the words to write about them.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Superman Returns

Superman Returns in HD on HBO...

*does best Superman wielded powerless by Kryptonite voice*

Can't... look... away...

Like Ang Lee's Hulk, Superman Returns received some so-so press that I felt was undeserved at the time. Hulk was definitely a fumbled mess, but it was an ambitious fumbled mess, and that's something that most comic-book movies are not -- ambitious. And being a huge Ang Lee fan, I was willing to give him a benefit of the doubt with his film.

Plus I have a soft-spot for ambitious fumbled messes, which explains why Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula is one of my favorite films.

Superman Returns, however, had some bigger red boots to fill.

I grew up with these movies, as did millions of others like me, and Superman plain and simple, is the penultimate superhero. And after a 17 year hiatus, his return to the screen better be something special.

Unfortunately, Superman Returns is not very special in any way. However, that doesn't mean that I don't appreciate it for what it is. All too often, movie fans get caught up in black or white reviews of films. In their eyes it either sucked ass or was awesome.

Superman Returns was neither, but it was still a solid film.

Brandon Routh will never be able to fill out the tights like Christopher Reeve did, but let's face it. Anyone who filled out those tights was not going to surpass Reeve as Superman. Routh, however, did fill the red boots out nicely. I was worried he'd pull a Hayden Christiansen with the role, but other than a few wooden lines (Routh still doesn't seem too comfortable with "I'm always around), Routh does fine.

And can you imagine the oft-rumored Nicholas Cage or Josh Hartnett as Superman? I can't. Unless it's a comedy.

Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane was a misfire in the casting department. Bosworth is too young and too young-looking to fill in for Margot Kidder who looked old even in the original Superman film. I would have preferred Keri Russel (who was rumored for the part) in the role. Russel would have been better suited to portray the pissed-off-but-I-still-love-you emotions that Lois Lane was going through in the film after her role as the neurotic main character on Felicity.

Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor was an inspired bit of casting, but something still didn't feel right with the performance. Too much humor was missing from Spacey's Lex and he came off too mean. Gene Hackman will always be Lex Luthor in my mind, like Reeve will always be Superman. Spacey didn't do bad though, but he's still looking for that post-American Beauty comeback performance in my opinion.

The special effects are amazing, but even they are nothing we haven't seen a million times before. Plus Supes looks too cartoony at times. A minor qualm, I know, but it's a trend that unfortunately has taken over special-effect laden films -- cartoony-looking action scenes .

The plot was kinda trite as well. I enjoyed most of the Supes/Lois storyline, and I was confused as to why most people weren't understanding how Supes and Lois had a child together when the film first came out. Does anyone remember their romp in the Fortress of Solitude during Part II when Supes became human? That might also explain why the kid only has traces of Superman's strength.

The kryptonite continent was a nice idea, but I don't see how Superman could have lifted the thing out of the ocean. I know it almost killed him but still.... I ain't buying it. A small kryptonite necklace would have drowned him if it weren't for Miss TessMACHER(!) in Part I.

So overall, Superman Returns wasn't quite the return we all had hoped for, but it does give me hope for further sequels. And like sports, there's always next season.

Seems like it applies to popular film now too.

FILM SCORE: *** (out of ****)
BEST PART: Action packed airplane rescue.
STATUS: Superman does indeed return, just not as grand as you may have expected.