' ' Cinema Romantico: December 2009

Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Year End Digression: An Enthusiastical Ode To My Current Heroine

Oh, boy. I'm not sure I should do this but I feel as if I have no choice. It's time to admit it to the whole world. I want everyone to know.

I have got it bad for Lady Gaga. Woah, woah, woah!! Don't misconstrue! I've got it bad for her musically. Okay? Musically. I am so infatuated with Lady Gaga's music that my Christmas Letter this year to friends & family centered entirely around her and her performance of her song "Paparazzi" on Saturday Night Live this fall which was without question the greatest song/performance I have seen in ages. (My Christmas Letters, obviously, do not subscribe to the typical sort of bippity bop yuletide correspondence.) That song saved me in ways I will not delve into on this blog. But it did. Believe me. I cherish it whole heartedly.

I'm reasonably certain a dude is not "supposed" to like Lady Gaga so much. I do not care. I bite my thumb at society's conventions. As I have repeatedly stated, good music is good music. Game over.

And yet...I do not like Lady Gaga's debut album "The Fame". I think "Just Dance" is complete crap. I'm sorry, but I do. I think "LoveGame" and "Poker Face" are a potpourri of nothin' special. (No, I don't care whether or not the lyrics are subversive because music is mainly about, you know, the music and the music on these tracks just doesn't inspire me. It's all too calculated, too constricted. Dance music is like wine. Gotta swirl it around the glass to get out those ethers, man. "The Fame" doesn't swirl, it doesn't even let the bottle breathe.)

Except, of course, for "Paparazzi", which I'm wild about - the chorus in particular. The chorus of "Paparazzi" is so good I would willingly sacrifice a goat to the music gods, if that's what they wanted, to pay tribute to it.

That said, the album version of "Paparazzi" does not hold a grapefruit twist scented candle to the aforementioned version Lady Gaga performed on Saturday Night Live which was when my love for her burgeoned. The SNL version is done with a real backing band which lends it so much more, shall we say, gravitas. It is thicker, fuller, richer. It is effing beautiful. Rock and roll, as I said in my Christmas Letter, in its truest, purest, finest form. It is everything I want in a song. Every....thing. I cannot express it enough.

And now I can see it was the marble paved bridge to her follow up EP, which I only recently purchased, "The Fame Monster". O holy night, what a revelation this EP is. "The Fame" was a mission statement. "The Fame Monster" is a manifesto. It's an artist saying, Okay, I got myself into the limelight with the first one. People know me. I've got "The Fame". Now it's time to make the music I want to make. Get outta my way!!!

This is no play for the charts. This is not the work of someone merely trying to maintain relevance until her next full length album. These are not the sounds of someone who seeks only stardom. "The Fame Monster" is Lady Gaga firing her guns across the water to announce her intentions. This is a eurodancetrash blitz, the work of a potential visionary. This seems to be a classic case of an artist trying to find her footing on album one and then finding the unbelievable hell out of it on album two.

Yeah, yeah, the influences are both plentiful and obvious. Well, duh. What do you think rock and roll is? It's Kurt Cobain trying to rip off The Pixies. It's John Lennon trying to sound like Chuck Berry. It's The Stones copying The Beatles' every move. It's Springsteen borrowing every sound he'd ever heard for four minutes and thirty seconds on "Born to Run". It's A Tribe Called Quest getting crucial assistance from Lou Reed in order to ask if they may or may not be able to kick it. "The Fame Monster" is an amalgamation of the sounds and styles Lady Gaga adores and it all adds up to something that is entirely, distinctly, and beautifully her own.

The heavily-Abba influenced "Alejandro" is the closest Her Gaganess has come thus far to planting her flag in Kylie country, so long as Kylie chose to paint herself up in black mascara ("don't wanna kiss - don't wanna touch - just want my cigarette...hush" - THOSE are lyrics, boys and girls!). "Speechless" is a modern day Benatar power ballad as if it were sung in a grimy piano bar by Beth Hart at her most nicotine ravaged. Being who I am I never considered a song using the words "Dance in the Dark" could be as stupendous as another song by a certain someone with those words in the title but, damn, Lady Gaga did it. Sweet mercy, she did, and she did it while also including a pronounced homage to Madonna's "Vogue" in the middle. It soars in a way just about all American dance music doesn't (i.e. it swirls the bejeezus outta the wine). "Monster" is like getting a Bacardi Mojito IV drip from a nurse in drag.

And "Bad Romance"? O.M.F.G. "Bad Romance" is a gothic, pile driving opera of musical magnificence. It churns, it throbs, it lays waste to the surrounding woodlands. It punches you in the face with the best intentions and leaves you with a gaping wound of ecstasy. Lookie here, hombre, I don't give a two dollar fiddle about voices that are always on pitch or note perfect. If you want that kinda crap go listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I want a voice with some personality. I want shrieks and sneers and agitated warbling tucked right up against the border of a breakdown. I want the way Lady Gaga breathes fire on "Bad Romance".

(Unfortunately, the last three tracks on the EP pale in comparison, a fact which might speak more to the astonishing sustained remarkability of the initial quintet than anything else. Or to the presence of Beyonce. One man's opinion, of course, but Ms. Knowles is not worthy of the same recording studio as Our Lady Of Perpetual Gaga.)

I really could not care less about Lady Gaga's assorted costumes and wigs and personas and novel brassieres and her intellectual and/or pseudo intellectual musings and her Roman Empire-sized videos and the coolest Keytar since Rick Wakeman (or, at the very least, Planet BOOM!!!) or whether certain ridiculous rumors are true. Not that I begrudge her for any of these things. Not in the slightest. God bless her for all of it. She can do whatever she wants and she knows what she's doing. She's got everyone talking. The volume on her savvy speaker clearly goes to eleven. But grandiloquent music is all I crave and it's grandiloquent music which Lady Gaga provides to my lucky, lucky ears. It's why right here, right now, she is my heroine.

Forget Time Magazine and Ben Bernanke. Chairman of the Federal Reserve? Ooooooh...like that's some cool job. Nope. Stuff a sock in it, Bernanke. Cinema Romantico hereby names Lady Gaga as 2009 Person of the Year. Now, everyone, sing it with me!

Rah rah!
ah ah ah ah!
Roma roma ma ma!
Ga ga
ooh la la!


Rah rah!
ah ah ah ah!
Roma roma ma ma!
Ga ga
ooh la la!


(Postscript: It should be noted that through a most fortuitous series of events in just the last 24 hours I have landed a precious ticket at face value to Ms. Gaga's sold out live spectacle next weekend at the Rosemont Theater. Glory, glory hallelujah. I mean, really, scoring a Lady Gaga ticket the exact same day my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers annihilate Arizona in the Holiday Bowl to such a degree I actually had my victory scotch while the game was still in progress? As my friend Dave so eloquently put it, my 2010 didn't start on January 1. It started on December 30, 2009.)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Four Christmases

What is wrong with me? Can anyone answer this question? Do you have a solid theory? Why was I so desperate to see "Four Christmases"? I have wanted to see it for over a year, knowing full well it got absolutely slammed by critics. It didn't matter. In fact, my friend Trish and I had planned on seeing it at the luxurious Yorktown Cinema on the outskirts of Chi-town where you actually sit down to a meal while watching the movie. The high life, baby! Our schedules never meshed and it didn't happen. Tragedy averted. Except the instant "Four Christmases" became available on Netflix last month I moved it to #1 in the queue.

Alas, the last three weeks it has remained there as its expected availability has not wavered from: Very Long Wait. This should have been a sign, right? Don't watch it, Nick. DON'T WATCH IT. Why in the last couple weeks I've had friends tell me explicitly not to watch it because it was so awful. So what did I do? Fed up that it wasn't coming from Netflix I purchased for $5 from cable pay per view.

Like I was saying, what is wrong with me?

Yeah, it's bad. No hiding it. Vince Vaughn is Brad and Reese Witherspoon is Kate. They are in love but not married. They dislike their families - each of their parents is divorced - to such extremes they refuse to spend Christmas with them and are set to jet off to festive Fiji for the holidays. Fog rolls in. Flights are grounded. And, sure enough, Brad and Kate have a whole day to revel in "Four Christmases".

We can assume the families will provide "outlandish" comic entertainment: Brad's brother (Jon Favreau) is a cage fighter and his mom (Sissy Spacek) is dating his ex-best friend and Kate's mom (Mary Steenburgen) has apparently found God via Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakum, what a waste of casting!). We can also assume Brad and Kate will learn over the course of the day that perhaps they do want a committed relationship, though, of course, first Brad will have to decline this proposition, Kate will have to sulk, and Brad will return, triumphantly.

All this is handled with the smallest amount of grace. Babies throwing up and a friendly game gone awry (uh, Vince, you already did that in "The Break Up", remember?) and Vince Vaughn unsusccessfully attempting to install a satellite dish (gee, do you think he'll fall off the roof?! Heaven only knows!) does not precisely spell c-o-m-e-d-y. Even worse is the attempts at seriousness injected into the hijinks. This is what they go through to get to a deeper place in their relationship? Forgive me, but I'm not buying it.

It's sad to watch and it's sad because, well, I've always found Vince Vaughn to be a comedic actor extraordinaire. His verbal assault on the airline stewardess in "Made" is one of the funniest things I've ever seen in a movie. His best moments in "Wedding Crashers" aren't merely monologues, they are Shakespearean soliloquies of hilarity. Even in the worst of his movies he is good for at least a couple of laugh-out-loud lines. ("I'll call some guys from my neck of the woods. And we're not talking about about a couple queens who know a few grapples. We're talking about Polacks that don't have a goddamn future.") Yes, even in "Four Christmases". His spiel about his childhood resembling "The Shawshank Redemption" and his questioning Kate "Are you throwing eighties songs at me?" both made me laugh. So why does resort to this sort of dreck?

I remember reading prior to the release of "The Break Up" that he said he wasn't responding to any of the romantic comedy scripts being sent to him and so he decided to develop one on his own. He was a producer on "The Break Up" and he was also a producer on "Four Christmases", on "Fred Claus", and on "Couples Retreat". These are the sorts of romantic comedies he responds to?

A couple years ago, in the wake of "Knocked Up", David Denby penned an article for The New Yorker regarding the current state of romantic comedies. In it he said the following: "Vince Vaughn, in some of his recent roles, has displayed a dazzling motormouth velocity, but he has never worked with an actress who can keep up with him. Rosalind Russell keeps up with (Cary) Grant (in "His Girl Friday"). These two seize each other’s words and throw them back so quickly that their dialogue seems almost syncopated. Balance between the sexes here becomes a kind of matched virtuosity more intense than sex."

I think I had this desire to see "Four Christmases" because I secretly wanted to believe Reese Witherspoon could keep up with Vince Vaughn. She doesn't but it's mainly because she's never given the chance. The writers (Matt Allen & Caleb Wilson and Jon Lucas & Scott Moore, burgeoning Noah Baumbachs every one) would rather have babies projectile vomit on her. There is no true verbal sparring in the movie. Why is this? Is it because filmmakers presume to know "what the people want" and that it's atrocious sight gags? Can rom com writers just not craft decent dialogue? Or are there really no actresses that can keep up with Vince Vaughn? (If only Jenna Maroney was a real person. I bet she could.)

Pardon me, Vince, if I throw an eighties song at you. (Okay, an October 1979 song. Close enough.) It goes like this: "Sending out an S.O.S." Someone has gotta help you, Vince, or, more importantly, some filmmaker has to challenge you. Get you off cruise control, place you in a movie where you getting pummeled and falling off roofs isn't the main source of laughter, present you a leading lady who can not only keep up with you but help convince the audience you're undergoing some real change.

We need to save you, Vince, we need to save you from yourself.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Julie & Julia

I can't say I know much about Julia Child. She had a distinct voice. She liked to cook, right? I apologize, Julia Child fans, honest to God, I do, it's just that when the best cooking you can do is limited to tossing something in a crockpot and letting it gestate for 7-9 hours on LOW you do not typically find yourself reading up too much on Julia Child.

I knew even less about Julie Powell, a woman who in 2002 determined to blog her way through Julia Child's 524 recipes in 365 days.

I had not planned on seeing this film, I won't lie, even with saintly Meryl Streep as Julia Child getting serious Oscar buzz (shocker!!!). Thankfully, though, my mind glazed off a few Mendocino IPA's, a couple friends wanted to watch it and so I watched along with them, and you know what? I dug it. I did. You know what Julie & Julia were? Two women who found their passion and went with it come hell or high water. That's a quality for which I've got mad respect, loyal readers.

Based on the real life Julie Powell's book of the same name half of the film details Julia Child and her husband Paul Cushing (Stanley Tucci, getting great mileage out of an underwritten role which I will address momentarily), working for the U.S. government, arrive in postwar Paris. Her first meal there will essentially be a life discovery. In fact, reading up on things afterwards I learned Ms. Child described this intial Parisian meal as "an opening up of the soul and spirit for me." Go, Julia, go!

She enrolls in classes at the famed Cordon Bleu Cooking School where the curmudgeonly instructor (is there any other kind?) tells her she will never be able to master the art of French cooking which, of course, will eventually lead to her authoring a book entitled Mastering the Art of French Cooking (in your face!) that will lead to an intrepid battle to get it published.

The other half of the film details Julie Powell (Amy Adams) in 2002 where she lives in an unfashionable apartment in Queens and toils terrible days away at a government call center. Desperate for direction, her husband (Chris Messina), over dinner one evening, suggests she combine her passion for cooking and for writing into creating a blog where she will record her culinary adventures as she attempts to navigate her way through Julia Child's hefty cookbook.

I notice today that many reviewers were not as taken with the present day tale as with the past. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon termed Adams as being "exhaustively perky". Ouch. Have I had one too many gulps of the Amy Adams Kool Aid? Perhaps, but I didn't find her perky. I found her passionate, like the mentor she never meets. Of course, passionate people are always suspect to others. ("Come on, Julie, it's just a cookbook.")

I meandered a bit through the real life Julie Powell's blog and I suspect she and I could be allies. Here's a quote of hers: "I have never looked to religion for comfort - belief is just not in my genes. But reading Mastering the Art of French Cooking - childishly simple and dauntingly complex, incantatory and comforting - I thought this was what prayer must feel like. Sustenance bound up with anticipation and want. Reading MtAoFC was like reading pornographic Bible verses." Hell yeah! Go, Julie, go!

Sure, "Julie & Julia" isn't perfect. Writer/Director Nora Ephron has never been the greatest screenplay artist (and after reading this year about the shenanigans she and Carl Bernstein pulled on "All The President's Men" in William Goldman's "Adventures in the Screen Trade" I dislike her even more) and it shows in this film. Certain questions and points are raised and then forgotten. The male characters are woefully underdeveloped, though the more I contemplate it I think that might be rightful payback. I mean, female characters are often woefully underdeveloped in Hollywood (a fact we discussed yesterday). As they say, what goes around comes around.

In any event, who cares? The film introduced me to two people I may not have ever realized I should have any interest in. I'm grateful for it. However, I must say that I sense Julie & Julia would want me to be utterly forthright in my opinions and so I will. Meryl Streep is great in this but Kelly Macdonald still deserves the Best Acress Oscar more.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Waste: "to be consumed, spent, or employed uselessly or without giving full value or being fully utilized or appreciated."

If you were to enter any screenwriting class across the country (collegiate or otherwise) within 20 minutes you would hear the following words: "Show, don't tell." And yes, for the most part, this ancient rule of thumb is a good one. But rules are not hard and fast. Consider 1934's "The Thin Man", a film which consists almost entirely of showing us nothing while allowing William Powell as detective Nick Charles to tell us just about everything. In fact, the sequence at the end of Powell explaining all in great detail is blatant exposition. It's also rather thrilling. You really want to cut out the verbal stylings of Powell and his co-star Myrna Loy to focus on a bunch of images?

The latest retelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's ace detective has a wonderous, droll lead performance by the versatile Robert Downey Jr. that is begging for director Guy Ritchie's always helter skelter filmmaking style to slow down and pay more attention to it. All throughout "Sherlock Holmes" you get the sense Ritchie's storyboarding came above all else. "It's crucial the movie ends with this setpiece." "But how are we going to get them there?" "I don't care! Just get them there! If you ruin this hella cool shoot I've got planned, so help me God...." Sure, sure, there are some cool shots, like one aboard a rusty ship on the Thames in a sorta eerie nighttime Victorian London. But wait! Who's that guy on the ship talking? Isn't his name the title of the movie? Can't we hear just a few more things he has to say before the movie cuts to....too late.

The story, or, shall we say, the "story", concerns Holmes and his ever trusty accomplice in justice Watson (Jude Law) sending villainous Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) to the gallows except, of course, it turns out Lord Blackwood isn't really dead at all. Or he was dead and has returned from the dead. And this all concerns plans so diabolical there is no way they can be fit into one film and, thus, no attempt is made to hide the fact a sequel will be forthcoming. (Perhaps in the sequel Sherlock Holmes will engage in some "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"-esque action? I can't wait!)

The banter between Holmes and Watson is played with great flair by both actors but, again, the film too often chooses to ignore that banter in place of gunfights and underground fight clubs. And don't even get me started on Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, the obligatory femme fatale, who is completely and really quite pathetically underused, a fact which infuriates me so much I am fighting off the urge to punch my computer screen. They couldn't give her one good line?! Just one?! How hard is that?! Really?! Our society is more friendly to females in this day and age than it was in the 30's, right? So how come Myrna Loy got tons of great lines and Rachel McAdams is hung out to dry?

I know precisely how all this comes across - a reviewer who has a specific image of a famed character in his head and who is now upset that character has been transformed into something else. This is inaccurate. I can't say I know all that much about the history of Sherlock Holmes. I guess my most distinct image of him has always been Basil Rathbone but not getting Basil Rathbone here is of no consequence. What I object to is a film that refuses to play to its obvious strength. Robert Downey Jr. is clearly having fun but we do not get to see near enough of him having fun. Worse yet, we don't get to hear enough of him having fun.

"The Pirates of the Carribean" sequels were terrible because the filmmakers forgot their finest effect had nothing to do with CGI - it was Johnny Depp walking. The finest export "Sherlock Holmes" has to offer isn't slo-mo fisticuffs - it's Robert Downey Jr. talking. Too bad no one noticed.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Great Movies: Titanic

Twelve years ago this past Sunday I had a religious experience. Now many's the time you've probably heard someone employ this particular term. Have you had a religious experience? Do you believe they're even possible? And just what the heck are they exactly?

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy has this to say: "Any experience carrying as its content the presence of something divine or transcendent. Religious believers may report such experiences as those of being in the presence of God.....or as being able to comprehend a timeless and eternal divine order to the universe."

Okay, so by looking at that definition we're not talking about viewing what God has wrought. This is why a thunderstorm rolling in over a midwestern plain or the expanse of the Pacific laid out before you or Sienna Miller do not indicate the presence of God. You're merely seeing His phenomenal handiwork and that's not the same thing.

Perhaps we should turn to Norman Habel who said a religious experience is "the structured way in which a believer enters into a relationship with, or gains an awareness of, the sacred within the context of a particular religious tradition."

So you're feeling the presence of God and maybe comprehending that there is some sort of divine order to the universe and you're finding it through a religious tradition. All right, then what's a religious tradition? Initial reaction would probably be to reply that church, or something of its ilk, would be a religious tradition.

I've been to church. Many, many times. I was raised Lutheran. I've been confirmed. I believe in God (this is why I constantly curse Him out and challenge Him to fist-fights). I know gospels and sermons and liturgy and the doxology and the "sharing of the peace" (ugh) but I've never had a religious experience inside a church. Not once. There's religion, yes, a whole heap of it, but I'll go on the record right now as saying I've never felt the presence of God in any church I've attended. I've never felt there was a divine order to the universe participating in Bible study. That's just the truth. I think we want to feel those things in church, and maybe some people convince themselves they do (or maybe they really do, I don't want to just smack everybody in the face here), but I've never felt them.

Hmmmm....what are some other religious traditions? I guess that would depend on what we consider to be a religion. Is Nebraska Football a religion? It most certainly is and I have no time nor interest in your disagreements on that matter. But I've never felt the aforementioned qualities during a Nebraska Football game. I've felt sheer, unstoppable joy and screamed myself hoarse and so on and so forth but I've never felt God hanging out during a game with me. (But I'd also like to make it crystal clear I'm NOT the sort of person who discounts sports by saying remarkably asinine things like "God has too much going on - do you really think he cares about a game?" Please. I think God has a favorite team and I think He lives and dies on every play with everyone else but he doesn't intervene because He knows He has to let the players and the players only decide their fate. I hope I get to heaven just so I know who His favorite team is. He'll probably throw us all for the loop. It's probably the Toronto Maple Leafs.)

What about attending movies? Are these religious traditions? To me? Most certainly, and that is why I am rock solid positive I came into God's presence at the River Hills Theater (may she rest in peace) in Des Moines, Iowa on December 20, 1997 watching James Cameron's "Titanic", specifically in one scene. This isn't to say had I looked at the seat next to me during the scene that I would have seen God Himself munching on Junior Mints. But I felt His presence. Yes, I did.

Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) puts Rose (Kate Winslet) on the lifeboat and watches it descend toward the Atlantic and she looks up at him as it descends and then she jumps off the lifeboat back onto the Titanic and she runs to him and he runs to her and they embrace. As this sequence unfolded before me I knew that there was, in fact, an eternal divine order to the universe.

I really, really wish I could somehow relive the feeling I had during this minute-and-a-half, approximately, of screen time. I love using gratutiously hyperbolic language more than anyone but I have no words that could sufficiently describe that experience. It was just unbelievable and something I'd never felt before and have never felt since. I really did merge with the movie screen. It's true. Believe it or don't, but something very other-worldly happened, something a little freaky. I'm rambling, I know, but I'm just trying, and failing, of course, to express it. This is what William James terms the "Ineffable" characteristic of the religious experience wherein it "cannot be adequately put into words." (And, yes, upon subsequent viewings of this film I too realized the dialogue between Leo and Billy Zane is just mind bogglingly atrocious. "I always win, Jack." But, as I have stated before, the dialogue in this movie is supposed to be corny and, besides, you have to understand that first time around I wasn't hearing anything they were saying. I was too busy in my mind thinking, "What are you doing, Rose? Get back on the Titanic. You're supposed to be on the Titanic. Get back on the Titanic, Rose!!!" I mean, I'd seen previews and so I knew for a fact she was still on the ship went it was going under but by then I'd completely become detached from the real world. Never in my life as a moviegoer have I so desperately yearned for a character to do something. And so then when she got back on the Titanic I just flew off to Never Never Land, or something.)

Richard Swinburne's Principle of Credulity states in regards to a religious experience that "if it seems to a subject that x is present, then probably x is present. Unless we have some specific reason to question a religious experience, therefore, then we ought to accept that it is....evidence for the existence of God." At that moment in "Titanic", to this subject, x (i.e. God) was definitely present and I assure you there are no specific reasons to question my religious experience. You weren't there. It happened. I don't need any theologians or neurologists or whoever to tell me yay or nay. I felt Him. Case closed.

(I'd like to make it clear at this point that I am not attempting to convince anyone out there to side with my beliefs. You're entitled to your own, plain and simple. I'm simply trying to explain something that's happened to me and why I feel how I feel. That's it. Maybe you think I'm a bonafide nutjob for writing all this and, hey, more power to you.)

Upon seeing "Titanic" that afternoon twelve years ago I can still vividly recall sitting in my tenacious Tempo in the theater parking lot, the engine running, but unable to drive because I was so physically and mentally exhausted. Later that same night I sat on my bed, pillow propped up against the wall, my head propped up on the pillow, staring at the green lava lamp across from me for hours and hours unable to think about anything but the movie. Eventually I climbed into bed where I looked up at the ceiling and proceeded to stare at it for the next couple of hours.

Sitting. Laying. Staring. No movement. No thought, really. Unable to function. Moved to the absolute depth of my whole being. The zenith.

Yeah, I kinda' think if one were to truly feel the presence of the Holy Spirit, that's how he or she might end up.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


I cannot imagine Barack Obama has normal conversations anymore. Undoubtedly he was a master conversationalist at one time in his life but once you become President of the United States the ability to converse on a typical level must get stripped away. I imagine Barack and Michelle ending up in the White House kitchen at 3 in the morning and Michelle saying they should each have a hot fudge sundae and then Barack saying something like, "Until all Americans have hot fudge sundaes made available to them on a whim, I would be remiss in having one myself." Then Michelle rolls her eyes and thinks wistfully back to the days of their courtship when Barack didn't speak strictly in soundbites.

How do you make a movie when Nelson Mandela is your main character? He can't possibly talk like a normal person, can he? He can't chit chat about the weather or wonder where one gets a decent bison burger in Cape Town. The man isn't just noble, he is nobility. We know how the story of "Invictus" will end and we know Mandela's plight and how it defies human comprehension and so we know with a character like this there cannot be a lot of complexity or surprises. When you portray a real-life person of this magnitude all the rules change. Who knows, maybe this is how a President of a nation talks. When you have to be on all the time I suppose normal communication becomes nearly impossible. It's why Morgan Freeman does such a damn good job in the role. He never makes you feel as if you are just watching a movie about a deity.

"Invictus", taken from the title of a poem that kept Mandela company in his unforgiving cell all those years, tells the story of the 1995 World Cup for rugby which the new South African President used as a platform to unite his nation - to encourage whites and blacks alike to cheer for the national rugby team, the Springboks, as they were known. The film makes many references to this delicate line between the two races, most explicitly in the subplot involving Mandela's security team. Everyone seems expectant of the new President carrying out some sort of vendetta but he is insistent this cannot be the case and that forgiveness must be offered to all. I could not help but drift back to my favorite line of Obama's acceptance speech a year ago: "I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too."

The Captain of the rugby squad, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), becomes Mandela's ally in the quest to not only attempt what seems impossible and win the world cup but to also hold up the Springboks as a symbol for all. His family life is sketched only briefly. The circumstances on the field and in the locker room take precedence, as they must in this sort of film. Nor does he address politics. The game rises above all.

Eastwood's famous economical style both helps and hinders the film. Make no mistake, the primary narrative of "Invictus" is the Rugby World Cup and upon entering this terrain sweeping gestures and inflated drama and a soundtrack that provides obvious cues often win the day. Occassionally these devices crop up (particularly in one wretched, though brief, thankfully, montage where a song called "Colorblind" is employed - oh, is that the message?) but not as often as one might expect. Many of the scenes involving Mandela are played matter-of-factly without unecessary adornment and this works to add a layer of believability.

But his style also wreaks havoc with the all important rugby scenes. All sense of drama and timing in the matches seem off. In the first match, for example, the score is never referenced and before you even have time to get excited or even really know what's going on it's ended. How in the world did it get there? What's going on? I myself know little about rugby and it would seem Eastwood doesn't know much more than me. (There is one line of dialogue where Mandela repeats what an aid has already stated: "So it is very important we beat Australia?" Got that, audience? It is very important they beat Australia.) We get little to no insights into the particulars of the game and none of Pienaar's teammates have personalities - not even bland and one dimensional personalities. I didn't feel much of anything during the ultimate championship clash and why would I? In some ways the film makes it seem Mandela conjured up the national rugby team out of thin air.

Even so the film offers a semi-persuasive argument for how nations - as cliched as it sounds - have to work together and, to put it pointedly, stop whining. Your candidate didn't win? I'm sorry, truly, I am, but now maybe it's time to cease pointing fingers, suck it up and get on with it. I hope people take that away from "Invictus". I really do.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


There is a sequence in James Cameron's long awaited "Avatar" I want to tell you about, and don't worry because it will not reveal anything of great significance. We are on the lush planet of Pandora, populated by a people known as the Na'vi, blue skinned, golden eyed, ten or so feet tall, where our hero, a paralyzed marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), has come and taken a Na'vi as an avatar. (The term Avatar is taken from Hinduism, as in the incarnation of a Hindu deity, though in modern technological terms it is a virtual object meant to represent its user. In this case, Jake Sully.) For reasons both scientic and militaristic, Jake forges his way into the suspicious Na'vi community who reluctantly agree to indoctrinate him in their ways, teaching him to become a Na'vi warrior. But to do so he must pass a particular test, find and ride a pterodactyl-like banshee, except to do that they must - as Jake's dry voiceover tells us - "go where the banshees are." That is, up, up, up, and up. Up into the sky, through the planet's spectacular floating mountains, further and further, where they will find a nesting place, or something, of these banshees and Jake will find one, scrap with it, climb aboard it, and soar with it, high above the Pandora forests. And the movie soars, too. It is beautiful, rousing stuff, and it gave me two thoughts.

One, this sequence simply could have not existed without the special effects, which is to say the effects are in service of the story. Wait, can I repeat that? With italics? The effects are in service of the story. My, what a concept.

Two, James Cameron has earned a reputation (not unfair) for bravado, for ego, for tyranny on movie sets, but you know what else he is? A sensualist. Sequences like this prove it. He's also something else, something we've known for a long, long time and that "Avatar" reproves. The sequence I just described ends with Jake saying in voiceover: "I've never liked horses. But I was born for this." James Cameron is a born filmmaker.

"Avatar", in the works for 12 years, and more than that, is a film with 3D effects (I saw the film in 3D and I recommend you do too) that are expected to revolutionize the film industry. This, I will admit, is not my area of expertise. The effects certainly seemed fantastic and, again, so much of what Cameron does here could not have taken place without them but I'm still old school and I will always prefer action movies where all things real win the day. It's how I'm built. Even so, there is so much of "Avatar" that I watched in wonder and in awe.

The story is as old as the hills and I happen to think there is not one damn thing wrong with that. The U.S. Military has come to Pandora in the year 2154 to harbor a priceless entity titled Unobtainium. Of course, the Na'vi and their blissful environmentalist tendencies stand in their way, much to the chagrin of Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who is intent on unleashing a "shock and awe" campaign to drive out the Na'vi from their home to have at the mineral they need. He enlists Jake Sully and his avatar in the cause to gain inside info that can be used in an attack which, of course, makes Doctor Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), a scientist conducting this avatar research with the noblest of intentions, to be skeptical of Sully, a man with no avatar training whatsoever. But the more Jake becomes ingrained in the Na'vi culture, the more he accepts it, and the more disinclined he becomes to assist the military, especially once he falls for the Na'vi warrior who is made his, shall we say, mentor - Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Does she fall for him? Did you really just ask that question?

Star cross'd lovers of Panodra, one might say.

Certainly the three act structure is predictable. The villains, particularly Col. Quaritch, are ridiculous and one dimensional. A cache of complexity in characters will not be found. Some of the dialogue is even worse than what you heard in "Titanic". But then I'm not 100% naive. When you have $300 million on the line (or however much "Avatar" cost) you have to be judicious and give audiences material that is mostly easy on the moviewatching digestive tract and, anyway, Cameron can still tell a story. You betcha he can. He remains as good as anyone at pacing action scenes and, most especially, he is unafraid to linger where so many directors are. For instance, the jellyfish-esque creatures that hover in the Pandoran air and can signal good or bad intentions. (I'd also like to add that Michelle Rodriguez is featured here in a bit part as a good intentioned, tough talking marine and I truly hope she and Cameron work together again in the future. They are kindred spirits. Rodriguez is a bad ass and no one writes female bad asses like Cameron.)

Without question there is a ham-handed green message to the film but I, for one, saw something else. Last week on Salon Matt Zoller Seitz offered a rather compelling argument for Michael Bay being the movie director of the decade. It made me want to throw up because, hey, it was kinda accurate.

Bay's "landscape," he writes, is "dominated by mass-produced products, images and notions -- many of them militaristic and/or materialistic in nature, all consciously or subconsciously reinforcing our bone-deep faith in bigger-newer-shinier-cooler-faster and lead-follow-or-get-out-of-the-way. This mentality -- a distinctively American hybrid of latent fascism and ingrained consumerism -- is the air we breathe, the blood that flows through our veins. It's our true national religion."

He goes on to say that Bay "digs gadgets, thinks guns are awesome and never saw a skyline he didn't want to blow up. And he looooves a man in a uniform: a deep-core driller's jumpsuit, a Marine's dress blues or a SWAT team member's shiny black body armor -- he doesn't care what the uniform's owner is doing as long as there are photogenic flames or sparks behind him as he does it."

Let us consider Col. Quaritch a bit more. A man in uniform hell-bent (follow-or-get-out-of-my-way) on gaining a certain piece of material of great value and nothing else. Damn the consequences! He stands high above the picturesque forest of a peaceful planet in a souped-up spaceship desiring nothing more than to blow that damned forest up. He may as well have a bullhorn, a ballcap and a director's chair in the cockpit as he barks orders. This is the blood that runs through his veins. Hell, there is even an epic showdown between a Na'vi warrior and Col. Quaritch tucked away inside an eerily Transformers-esque robot. Hmmmmmm....

Oh, I'm most likely reading too much into it. I don't care. What filmmaker thinks he can completely control the way audiences interpret his or her work? Seitz also says "Bay never respects the rhythmic integrity of any image." Ya think? Cameron does. I haven't the foggiest notion whether this 3D wizardry will change cinema forever. But if you are going to use it, give us some time to appreciate it, to revel in it. "Avatar" is by no means a masterpiece but it's got something a Michael Bay blockbuster - and so many other blockbusters - don't and never will.

Soul, baby.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Up in the Air

Do you think George Clooney takes stage directions? In his movies, like, say, "Up in the Air", do you think director Jason Reitman provided Clooney pointers on the facial expressions the scene called for or whether he should convey feelings through certain body language? Or do you think Clooney just did all this on his own? The smiles, the shrugs, the tics, the tilts of the head, is it all him? Does he humor insecure directors by nodding at tips they offer before taking the character in the way he sees fit?

I get the distinct sense Clooney sculpts these characters in his own image. Not to say that he just plays himself all the time because I definitely don't think he does (see: "Men Who Stare At Goats") but there is something in the portrayal he offers in "Up in the Air", based on a novel by Walter Kirn and adapted by Reitman himself, that I feel safe in advising would not be present with any other actors we currently have.

Clooney is Ryan Bingham (a nod to the great country rock troubadour who wrote the line "Tell me the secrets of the endless road"? - uh, probably not, since the novel came out in 2002 but it's fun to pretend), a man who travels for a living, to offices all over the country where he pinch hits for those in charge who lack the necessary courage to fire their employees. He is good at his job and he has no trouble living out of hotels because, as the voiceover to open the film tells us, those things most people dislike about travel are the very things that remind him he is home. (Why, you even see him touch down in my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa where an aerial shot proves once and for all that, yes, Des Moines has a skyscraper! Golly gee whillickers!)

Times are on the verge of change. His boss, a suspendered (?) Jason Bateman, calls Ryan back to the home office in Omaha. The company is developing a new approach to all this "career transitioning" - they will be firing people via the web, a tactic that is the brainchild of overzealous, uppity whiz kid Natalie (a perfect Anna Kendrick, I have seen this woman a couple times at offices where I have toiled, believe me) who, at one point in the midst of a hysterical fit, delivers a line that left me gasping for air I laughed so hard. "I was supposed to be driving a Grand Cherokee by now!" Ryan, as one might expect, does not take kindly to this news. Thus he and Natalie team up so he can show her the proverbial ropes and perhaps teach her a thing or two about the etiquette of letting people go. Whether or not roles get flipped and find Natalie teaching Ryan a thing or two I will leave for you to discover.

Of course, the road will dangle another temptation. Ryan meets a fellow chronic traveler, Alex (Vera Farmiga), and they develop a rapport possible only to people who reference O'Hare International Airport as "ORD". They open up their laptops like datebooks to see where their schedules sync so they can get together. Whether or not this relationship expands beyond Holiday Inn Express hookups I will leave for you to discover.

It might be fashionable to pronounce "Up in the Air", when considering our current economic and employment crisis, to be a Movie For Our Times. But this does not seem to be Reitman's intent. The book, from what I have read, was much more cold and cynical. The film focuses more on Ryan's romantic and personal predicaments.

What do I know is the reason "Up in the Air" works at all is because of Clooney. You hear of a movie about a corporate downsizer estranged from his own family and married to the road who meets a beautiful woman in the sterile confines of an airport's Admirals Club and you can pretty much guess what sort of performance you will be seeing. A quiet, impersonable fellow whose smiles mask a much deeper sadness, someone who partakes often in the hotel minibar to deal with the dislike he has for his own job.

But this Ryan Bingham doesn't seem so sad. He takes his job seriously, knowing that laying a person off, whoever it is, wherever they are, is a terrible event and that while he cannot make it easy for the person across from him he can do things with a little bit of dignity. His anger at these new fangled web cams is not reactionary but because the service he provides is necessary. This is what Clooney himself brings across to us.

We expect the beguiling woman he meets to bring into sharp focus the emptiness of his life, the painful fact he has never cultivated any personal relationships and, thus, he realizes his depressing circumstances. We expect the woman to exist solely as a conduit to draw out the protagonist. That's it. Again, Clooney doesn't play it this way. When you meet someone special - and you know when you've met them - what stuns you the most is how he or she affects you. Right? Clooney makes us completely aware of how Alex is affecting him. She isn't just a vehicle meant to kickstart him. This is much more tricky to pull off than it sounds.

All the depth, all the higher meaning to be found from "Up in the Air" is generated by its lead actor. Isn't that what makes a great performance?

In Memoriam

A couple years back I offered a post titled "Great Performances Given By Not That Great Actors". I included a paragraph on Brittany Murphy's turn in "Sin City". I always felt a little bad about it. I didn't mean to harp on Ms. Murphy. Sometimes you have to exaggerate for effect, you know. I wrote: "There is a moment when the Clive Owen character has just gone out an apartment window and she goes to the window and says something and, damn it, I can't recall for the life of me what it is she says but I vividly remember turning to my friend Dan in the theater at the moment and exclaiming, 'Nicole Kidman couldn't have made that line work!' (Why I chose Nicole Kidman I don't know, but that's what I said.) Did Rodriguez know she could be such a perfect femme fatale or was it a simple twist of fate?"

I also wrote that Brittany Murphy was "born in the wrong era" and of this I am still convinced. She was born to be a black & white noirish femme fatale (which is precisely what she was in "Sin City") and studios just don't do black & white noirish films anymore. Why? Most likely because it's not "what the people want", or some such poppycock.

Brittany Murphy passed away yesterday in Los Angeles, apparently from natural causes (let us hope), at the age of 32. Any time a person employed in the industry you devoutly follow who is the same age as you, an age at which people do not typically pass away, passes away, it will provide a bit of pause. And I when heard this news it actually hit me quite a bit harder than I would have ever guessed.

In many ways I felt bad for Brittany Murphy. She got her break in "Clueless" way back when and then really broke out working opposite the rapper Eminem in Curtis Hanson's fine "8 Mile". Eminem had never acted before and I always wondered how much Murphy helped him in that film, how much she drew out of him. I think it's a valid question. She was just the Love Interest but she crackled when she was onscreen and, well, I never thought I could feel the tug of the heartstrings when someone flipped the bird in a film but that is exactly what happened when Brittany Murphy did it at movie's end. But then she began slipping and sliding away, further and further, getting bogged down in crap like "Uptown Girls" and "Just Married" and "Don't Say A Word". And the problem, I thought, always came back to that matter of being born in the wrong era. People didn't know how to use her talent.

Robert Rodriguez did. That's why she was so spectacular in "Sin City". Why didn't more purported "Movie Geniuses" recognize and harness it? We'll never know. It's a tough go for females in Hollywood and one or two wrong moves and you become - as the New York Times put it - "tabloid fodder." Consider me adamant in saying she never got the chance she deserved.

I think I might Netflix "Sin City" because, for the record, I still don't think Nicole Kidman could have made that line work.

(Follow Up: Re-watching the movie I am pleased to report the line to which I was referring but could not remember was this: "You damn fool." And, man, the way she says it. It's melodrama that tastes as good as gelato.)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Finest of the 00's: The Movie of the Decade

Film Critics are supposed to be impartial and offer professional and reasonable analysis while refraining from embellishment and/or trips to the Thesaurus Of The Overwrought.

This critic does not subscribe to such antiquated notions.

My affection for "Million Dollar Baby" is absolute. There are many amazing films I have seen in my 32 years, a few much more than amazing, and two that are much, much more than just much more than amazing. In my life "Million Dollar Baby" and "Last of the Mohicans" are the two peaks that stand above the rest.

Clint Eastwood's twenty-fifth film (as director) is elegant and old-fashioned, never demanding your attention with a showy camera or shrill plotting, but eliciting it anyway through an attribute that often feels as if it might be extinct in modern movies - storytelling.

The protagonists have specific goals and driven by these goals their decisions make one thing happen which makes something else happen which makes something else happen. That's it. The story is driven by the characters making decisions. It never grows flashy even as it explores some awfully hard-hitting themes. The characters seal their respective fates. Neither the fimmakers nor any magical pieces of plot do it for them. (Does anyone agree this screenplay, based on short stories by F.X. Toole, might be to Paul Haggis what "The Deer Hunter" was to Michael Cimino? A one-off piece of insane brilliance never to be re-created? My only complaint with it would be the over-the-top portrayal of Maggie's family but that's the only one and whining about anything in a film this wonderful is just a frickin' waste of precious life.)

I have written a review on this blog in which I remain utterly disappointed because it does not come anywhere close to properly explaining how this film affects me. In the wake of seeing it that first time I wrote and sent out a four page letter to my friends and family in an attempt to explain how it affected me and that didn't come close to getting it right either. I have stared at my computer for weeks in an effort to draw something from of my mind to place in this post to summarize, five years on, how it continues to affect me but I've got nothin'. Yet I feel as if I should have somethin'. So brace yourselves. This could get nuts.

If you are people like us, people with unswerving devotion to cinema, people that spend untold amounts of money each year to go to the movies and to build DVD collections in which we possess immense pride, people who travel halfway across the country just to see where a movie was filmed, then from the very first day you sat down to watch a motion picture you have been waiting for a specific movie. You are waiting for a specific movie that is made just how you want a movie to be made, told just how you want a movie to be told, drawing on themes that you hold dear. You do not know what this movie is or when or where it will happen. But you are waiting for it. You are never disappointed when it doesn't happen because in many ways you don't truly expect that it will happen. And yet....you wait. People like us believe it will come one day. And when it does, you know. It is an inexpressable sensation but it is unconditional. You won't even ponder it. You will just....know. "That was it. That was the movie I waited for my whole life. It actually happened."

Maybe you have seen this movie, maybe not. If you haven't, you will. I promise. And when you do you will understand why five years later "Million Dollar Baby" still leaves me speechless.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Finest of the 00's: Top 10 Movies of the Decade

There are dozens of films that could have made the cut but they did not simply because this list is entirely personal and totally subjective. I deeply love these movies with every last inch of my heart.

10. The Bourne Supremacy (2004). I dare say I don't know what everyone wants when it comes to an action movie but I know exactly what I want and "The Bourne Supremacy" is it.

9. "Quiet City" (2007). A poetic portrait of human connection with no hidden agendas. The Mumblecore masterpiece.

8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Relationships and Love are a painful, ceaseless struggle...a struggle that is always worth going through, even if you already know how it's going to end, because the memories you take away from them will last an eternity.

7. Lost in Translation (2003). Never in a rush and wistfully funny, it's the greatest elegy to the ongoing battle against isolation I have ever seen.

6. Once (2007). It not only details the transformative power of music (a subject near to my heart) but serves up a flawless example of how the briefest encounter with a single person, whom you may never see again, can radically alter the trajection of your life.

5. Kill Bill (2003, 2004). "Pulp Fiction" was the movie of the 90's but "Kill Bill" was the movie Quentin Tarantino was born to make.

4. You Can Count On Me (2000). This indie drama of a brother and sister who often don't like one another but always love one another contains breathtaking characterizations and marvelous, literate dialogue. Few films have made real life feel so authentic.

3. Atonement (2007). I know a lot of people do not share my rapturous views of Joe Wright's 2007 adaptation of the Ian McEwen novel but to quote the lyrical genius that is Phil Collins: "I don't care what you say. I never did believe you much anyway." Epic in scope, intimate in emotion, it examines the awesome power of the imagination, the difficulty of forgiveness, and love that can live in death. This film still astounds me. I'm not worthy.

2. Almost Famous (2000). Based on writer/director Cameron Crowe's tales of his most unusual youth as a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine aboard a tour bus with a famous rock and roll band this is a movie that may be categorized as a coming-of-age story which would not even approach the vacinity of doing this miraculous film justice. It's all about music and just like the best music is universal so too is "Almost Famous". We are all on an eternal quest...we are all searching for something...we are all (as Bruce Springsteen once said) trying to maintain our idealism after we lose our innocence....and we will all come out okay on the other end. Or so I like to believe.

And just because I've never ranted about it on this blog allow me to state this film possess the greatest reinforcement of the power of music in the history of the movies. No, not the "Tiny Dancer" sequence, but when the rock promoter has shown up to talk to the band and we hear, in voice-over, Phillip Seymour Hoffmann's Lester Bangs saying "The war is over. They won. And they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it" and then the movie cuts to Kate Hudson's Penny Lane dancing by herself with a single rose to "The Wind" by Cat Stevens, essentially saying you haven't ruined rock and roll for her and if you haven't ruined it for her then the war ain't over.

Hold it...I need a minute here.

The #1 Movie of the Decade? Check back tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Finest of the 00's: The Movie Performance of the Decade

When? When did you know in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003) that Johnny Depp had left all other actors and actresses behind and gone somewhere entirely else, scaled some cinematic mountain most of his contemporaries only gaze at longingly from far below its summit? Was it when he chuckled in delight at his own hanging in rememberance of the time he "impersonated a clergyman"? Was it on the deserted island with Keira Knightley when he twisted the outer wisps of his moustache upward before indulging in the swigs of rum that knock him out? Was it the way he gingerly stepped forward to shake Norrington's hand when the British Captain tries to offer Depp's pirate "thanks"? Was it when he employed the words "high tone and fancy"?

No, you knew from the very opening moments that you were witnessing the Performance of the Decade. As it is written, his intro is a marvel, standing atop a ship's mast, the sun to his back, all of it awash in music worthy of an old Errol Flynn swashbuckler, and then the reveal! Depp's vessel is actually a little ragtag one, sinking swiftly, except he has timed it so exquisitely that just as the mast descends to the water line he arrives at the dock.

But look at the way he's standing there! It is so regal in its absurdity. Yes, this boat is going under, he seems to be saying, but I'm still the Captain of it, and then he sets foot on the dock and the way he walks is just, well, unlike the way anyone has ever walked in any movie that has ever been made. It's kind of a wobbly mince with a dash of a swagger and his hands dangle, loosely, effeminately, at his side, and then the British guy in the wig says "Hold up" and so Depp does and he turns, theatrically, and now we see him - really see him - for the first time. His garish clothes and lively colors and his eyeshadow that looks like it was applied by someone a lot drunker than he appears to be and all you can think is "Who is this guy?!" And he hasn't even talked yet!

But then he does talk! The British guy says "It's a shilling to tie up your boat at the dock and I'll need to know your name" and Depp says "What do ya say to three shillings and we forget the name?" But, oh dear Lord, the way he says it! He speaks in a way no one has ever spoken in any movie that has ever been made, in some sort of exotic accent that has never existed, never will exist, and all you can think is "WHO IS THIS GUY?!!!"

Oh, I could sit here for hours and recount the rest of his absurd line readings and heightened facial expressions but there are too many. There is mention about some time spent on a deserted island with too much sun causing Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow to act the way he does but consider that it is later revealed he was only on the island for "a grand total of three days". Nothing has caused him to be this way, he is who he is. We bemoan the lack of originality in movies anymore but here it is! Right here! There was nothing - absolutely nothing - more original in the movies this past decade than Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. REJOICE IN IT! No, it didn't win the Oscar but it doesn't matter. It transcends all that. (Though it should be noted he won the SAG Award for Best Actor. His fellow actors knew how good he was.)

And please don't be one of those people who immediately turns his or her attention to the insipid quality of the sequels that followed this movie. They were bad. I understand. I walked out on the third one, for God's sake, but they do not tarnish nor diminish his epochal achievement in the first one in even the slightest way. His work in the first one stands above everything.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl" was a summer tentpole film, released in July, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, with a budget of $125 million and an earner of $635 million worldwide at the box office. It contained a plethora of gargantuan special effects, a smorgasboard of extras and period costumes, and employed a replica of an 18th century wooden merchant ship. It featured an Oscar winner (Geoffrey Rush), a comely young woman in a corset (Keira Knightley), and possessed a plot the size of Alaska. It spawned two enormous, bloated sequels with plots the size of Russia, the first earning over a billion in worldwide box office and the second earning $960 million.

And the only reason the first one worked and the other two happened was because of a single dude with eyeshadow and slurred speech who, if not for George C. Scott in "Dr. Strangelove", would have been giving the greatest comedic performance of all time.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Finest of the 00's: Top 10 Performances of the Decade

These are not just my favorite movie performances of the decade but my favorite movie characters of the decade and, of course, they are my favorite movie characters in no small part because of the performances.

10. Billy Crudup as Russell Hammond, "Almost Famous" (2000). Yes, I'm marginally biased in his favor. Deal with it. But you also saw the same movie I did so you saw him ground fictional guitar (golden) god Russell Hammond completely without losing the edge, cockiness, or cruelty. I love the moment when they walk through the airport after the near-crash and the young journalist who has been on the road with them stops because he is finally leaving them behind and only Russell stops too and then Crudup does about ten different things with his face in six seconds.

9. Amy Adams as Ashley Johnsten, "Junebug" (2005). Just watch this.

8. John Cusack as Rob Gordon, "High Fidelity" (2000). Released in the third month of the first year of the decade this might be the forgotten great performance of the decade. It was given by a man everyone knows, and everyone seems to love, who often does not seem to receive the adulation he deserves for his acting and his music obsessed Rob Gordon, an earnest asshole, is supremely delicate work. That, and he breaks the fourth wall and you never even think about the fact he's breaking the fourth wall. No one's broken the fourth wall better.

7. Kate Winslet as Clementine Kruczynski, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004). She's got the colored hair and the crazy clothes and she drags potential suitors to the frozen river Charles and happily proclaims herself to be a "vindictive little b----" but in the hands of our greatest actress she is not a characture but a living, breathing, complex woman burned into our memories just like she is burned into the memory of Jim Carrey's Joel Barrish. Only Kate Winslet could overshadow a person who just happens to be giving the performance of his career.

6. Amy Ryan as Helene McCready, "Gone Baby Gone" (2007). Seeing this performance as an alcoholic, coke-snorting, drug mule mother whose neglect sets in motion the story is the same as hearing Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome" for the first time. When it's over you're left like someone tied to a tree during a hurricane. In three words? Force Of Nature.

5. Laura Linney as Samantha Prescott, "You Can Count On Me" (2000). Let us consider two moments in particular, both in which Linney, as Samantha Prescott, a single mother of a young child, finds herself riding a car. In the first she is by herself, having just had sex with her married boss. She is remorseful, then happy, then elated, then remorseful again. Later, she is riding with a guy she was seeing but who then asked her to marry him and who then she stopped seeing but is now helping her out in a delicate situation and she looks at him and you realize she thinks that maybe this guy isn't so bad. Maybe she should give him another chance. Maybe they could get married. Or they could at least start down a real path to see if that's a good idea.

And she does everything I just said without ever saying a single word.

4. Mark Ruffalo as Terry Prescott, "You Can Count On Me" (2000). Of this performance Neil Labute, the writer/director of "In the Company of Men" and "The Shape Of Things", amongst others, said this of Ruffalo: "(A) guy who makes you believe Brando wasn't a fluke but a lovely virus that only afflicts a lucky few." And there is something very, very Brando-esque about Ruffalo's work here. I've always liked him, even in the rom com crap he is still winning, but this performance, as the ragtag, drifting brother of Laura Linney, is so vulnerable and so pathetic yet has such presence and such command it really is the closest modern day equivalent you will find to Terry Malloy of "On the Waterfront". (Is it coincidence Ruffalo's character in this is named....Terry? You be the judge.)

3. Kelly Macdonald as Kate Frazier, "The Merry Gentleman" (2009). An immense valuer of privacy, she seems filled with much sadness but counters it with a brightness, a resolve, a passion that is no put-on but entirely sincere. Her greatest weakness may be that she feels everything too much and that, my friends, is a feeling to which I can totally relate. You often see movie characters and think how you would like to go out and meet that person on the street. I have never wanted to go out and meet a movie character on the street more than Macdonald's Kate Frazier.

2. Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald, "Million Dollar Baby" (2004). When it comes to Swank's work as a female boxer following her passion down to the awful end it's best just to leave boilerplate like "she was really believable" or "a wholly credible performance" or "resembling a young Sissy Spacek" out of it. She is Maggie Fitzgerald. Swank inhabits every last fiber of this character's being. She reaches the sort of rarefied air even many of the greats have never achieved - complete transformation.

The #1 Performance of the Decade? Check back tomorrow.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Finest of the 00's: Celebrating The Decade In Cinema

It seems like only yesterday I returned from a showing of "Almost Famous" in the fall of 2000 and declared to my roommate and his fiancé in no uncertain terms that should the film I had just seen not win the Oscar for Best Picture I would throw things out windows while cursing the gods. (It didn't win Best Picture, nor was it even nominated, and I, of course, made good on neither threat.) "Almost Famous" was the first transcendent moviegoing experience I had of the 00's and now this decade is on the verge of saying its farewell and, thus, I find myself pondering oh so many cinematic memories of the last 10 years. Personal memories, that is, rather than wondering, say, what the film of the decade was, a question for minds far more scholarly than mine to contemplate.

Not that I won't still contemplate it. So, let's see here, what was the film of the decade? Choices, choices. "The 40 Year Old Virgin", maybe? Perhaps "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy? (OVER-RATED.) Was it "March of the Penguins"? "Borat"? One of those animated movies I haven't seen?

How about Michael Moore's "Triumph of the Will" remake? Was it "Crash", simply because, in spite of its laughably broad themes and characterizations, it has been the #1 movie on Netflix for (approximately) 3,477 consecutive weeks?

Was the seminal moment of the decade the "Pearl Harbor" preview? The greatest preview I've ever seen since it got me to see the movie even after I swore never to pay to see another Michael Bay movie again. Was it "The Dark Knight"?

Yup. That's what I think. "The Dark Knight". Movie of the 00's. Now I don't mean to claim "The Dark Knight" as the "best" film of the decade, mind you. Not even close. But it did become, I think, a legitimate phenomenon. It shattered box office records. It briefly became the #1 Movie Of All Time (!!!!) on IMDB. It single-handedly caused the Academy Awards to (idiotically) bump its Best Picture nominations up to 10. Heath Ledger's performance became mythic in the terrible wake of his much, much too early passing. It was a film that invoked passion from both sides - whether for or against.

For instance, if "The Dark Knight" does not turn up on a particular critic's Best Of list there is a faction of people that will immediately be up in arms. If "The Dark Knight" does turn up on a particular critic's Best Of list then there is a different faction of people that will immediately be up in arms. How many articles did you see after this movie's release referencing the words "greatest movie of all time", sometimes followed by a question mark, sometimes not. If critics dared to so much as lob one spitball in the direction of "The Dark Knight" it was on. Yet it went the other way, too, with critics using luminaries such as Alfred Hitchcock as a club to bash poor Christopher Nolan and his comic book epic over the head.

No film of the past decade was more divisive or generated more discussion, sometimes with fisticuffs involved. It triggers an awful lot of drawing lines in the sand, a fact I witnessed first-hand last December at a DVD viewing of the film with a large group that erupted into at least a 45 minute argument between varying sides as to its quality.

Thankfully that evening concluded with a showing of the light-hearted rom com "Love Actually" which calmed down everyone involved. Heck, I myself prefer "Love Actually" to "The Dark Knight". That's right. I said it. I'm not ashamed. It's who I am. I thought Bill Nighy as Billy Mack was better than Heath Ledger as The Joker.

You may disagree. I'm willing to wager you do. But therein lies the beauty of the movies! We are all cut of different cinematic cloth. We all have varying favorite performances and favorite movies of the decade. Personal preferences, right? Isn't that what truly matters? The films that moved you, that transported you out of your dreary workaday existence, that made you leave the theater wanting to do cartwheels and shout "Yes! That's how a movie is supposed to be made!" Those are the "important" movies of the decade, are they not? Who gives a flip about what influenced the masses. What influenced you?

So make sure you check back all week as Cinema Romantico answers that very question!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Everybody's Fine

Like an aging, past-his-prime pitcher taking to the mound, Robert DeNiro, relying almost exclusively on guile and moxie, keeps the possibility that "Everybody's Fine" might just turn into something more than its premise suggests afloat for a few innings before the infield and outfield begin breaking down behind him and then, finally, he breaks down too.

DeNiro's Frank Goode is a retired widower. He chats with random folks at the grocery store whether they want conversation or not, spends long hours in the garden, sets up a kiddie pool as if its appearance will magically conjure up his four children in the backyard. Those four kids - two daughters, two sons - are all supposed to visit only to inevitably cancel, one by one. Against his doctor's advice Frank decides that instead he will go visit each of them, one by one. Thus, we find ourselves immersed in a heartwarming family dramedy that doubles as a road movie with endless shots of telephone wire supplied for symbolism's sake.

The kids: David, an artist living in New York who does not appear to be home when Frank visits, or could it be there is more to this missed stopover than meets the eye? Amy (Kate Beckinsale, auroral as always), a high powered ad exec in Chicago with one of those sorts of offices I'm never certain actually exist in real life. Robert (Sam Rockwell), a percussionist in the Denver orchestra who repeatedly has to tell his dad that he is not the orchestra's composer. Rosie (Drew Barrymore), living the high-falutin' life in Vegas as a member of a luxurious stage show. Or is she?

As we expect before the film has even started all Frank's kids harbor secrets of one kind or another and seem intent on shielding their father from the most unpleasant news in their lives. Why? Frank pushed them quite hard in their youth, of course. He did this, of course, because he merely wanted the "best" for them except his children, of course, have varying theories on precisely what the "best" entails. We see all this explicitly in a wretched fantasy scene at a picnic table where Frank talks to his children as if they are their adult selves though he sees them as the pre-teen kids they once were. This is Pound-The-Hammer-Syndrome of the highest order. Anyone confused as to what the film's message may or may not be (and how could anyone be confused?) won't be after taking this spell-it-all-out-for-us pie to the face.

Even so, a dignified, subdued DeNiro does his darndest to make it work. When the camera merely lays back and contemplates him, as it does often in the first act, the film rises above its material. Taking his pills, piecing together a grill late at night in the backyard, dragging his suitcase noisily behind him, blissfully anaware of the irritation it provokes, dining at a McDonald's, all these tiniest of moments capture a once great actor at his unforced finest. This suggests if writer/director Kirk Jones had gone the unconventional route and made this more of a neo-realist film while refraining from such overdone plot mechanics if might have been something different and therefore something much better. A distant father having rubbed off on his now distant children and attempting to reconnect. If only it had desired a little bit of boldness.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


When you watch a movie you hope to become invested in the characters on the screen, so invested that it starts to feel as if real lives are being lived out right there in front of you and that those people up on the screen are making the decisions that send their lives into whatever direction it is they go. You do not hope, when watching a movie, to sense the presence of the screenwriter, to feel as if he or she is hiding just out of sight behind the curtains on either side of the movie screen while manipulating the characters.

The primary problem with "Brothers" is that screenwriter David Benioff's presence looms over everything. Who are these people? I know that Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is married to Grace (Natalie Portman) and has two amiable young daughters. I know Sam's brother is Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), just out of prison, for attempted robbery it seems, and that their father (Sam Shepard) refrains from hiding affection for Sam and contempt for Tommy.

I know that Sam, a Captain in the marines, is deployed to Afghanistan, his helicopter is shot down, and he is reported dead. Except, of course, he is not dead (the movie never attempts to hide this fact from the audience). He is captured, made a prisoner along with a fellow private, they are tortured in ways you might rather not imagine. I know that back home Tommy turns up to help Grace and the kids and that Grace, always cold to Sam's brother, warms to him. Perhaps a bit too much? I know that Sam returns from Afghanistan eventually, a changed man, possibly not in a good way, and things spiral downward. I know all of that but, really, who are these people?

The movie never says. It is far too busy having plot happen to them to give us a real sense of how that plot is affecting them. I'm fairly sure if we checked Grace's social security card we'd see her middle name is Steadfast. Director Jim Sheridan sure can frame and light a shot well and all he has poor Portman do is stand around like a figurine on a chessboard waiting to be moved.

I'm certain Benioff didn't mean it this way - and it must be noted this film is based on a Danish film I have not seen - but the most crucial subplot of the whole movie involves Grace's kitchen. Seriously. After it seems Sam has perished Tommy turns up to renovate the kitchen. So here we have a female whose characteristics are nothing beyond being a mom and having a kitchen. Ouch.

Maguire and Gyllenhaal, luckily, look like brothers and possess realistic sibling rhythms. Maguire in particular makes his transformation from consummate family man to Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" convincing - you believe he is one and then the other - but the screenplay is rather jarring in bringing about this transformation. This guy. Now this guy. Problematic, too, is the supposed chemistry between Tommy and Grace. Sam thinks these two are having an affair? Is he sure? We're a long way from Sgt. Warden and Karen Holmes in "From Here To Eternity". It's the catalyst to make Sam angry simply because Sam has to be angry or otherwise how is the movie going to see through its third act?

It's like Benioff drew up a killer outline, typed up a serviceable first draft but chose against the all important rewrites.

I think "Brothers" has good intentions and it certainly is timely when considering the recent troop surge into the very area where portions of this film are set. The events of the film are difficult and complex. I wish I would have better known these people to whom the events were happening.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Getting Back Into The Swing Of Things

I think I'm just now beginning to emerge from my staggering post Big 12 Championship letdown. I finally took my Nebraska flag down from the wall (which I had hung specifically for the title game). It only took me 4 days! I couldn't take it down. I just couldn't. I couldn't accept it. I kept thinking that maybe if I didn't take it down that the Big 12 would rule there really wasn't one second left and so they were retroactively rewarding the conference title to.....oh, Lord help me.

Anyway, this hasn't been easy in any way, shape or form, so thank you for letting me work it out a little on my blog.

But it's the best month of the year for movies! So many of 'em, popping up left and right! I've seen a bunch and have an even bigger bunch more coming up to see and so the movie posts are about to return, fast & furious. (Question: Who's seen the "Crazy Heart" trailer? If so, who thinks it looks as good as I do?) Check back tomorrow for my take on "Brothers", on Friday for thoughts regarding "Everybody's Fine" and then a week's worth of posts in relation to end-of-the-decade lists before we get back to more movie reviews. Plus, you also can also anticipate an epic, almost-as-earnest-as-my-Big-12-Title-Game post diatribe on the film "Titanic" in honor of James Cameron releasing "Avatar" since I know how much everyone who reads this blog loves "Titanic"! Yaaaaaay!!! The fun hasn't even begun!

(Though if Nadamukong Suh actually wins the Heisman Trophy, all bets are off. I may go into epileptic shock and just have to shut this blog down for three weeks.)

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A Digression: Yes, Virginia, There Are College Football Gods

This Saturday evening Sienna Miller will merely be the second coolest person in Manhattan, which is to say Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh is going to NYC as a Heisman Trophy Finalist. (Note: He won the Nagurski Trophy last night as the best defensive player in college football. I mean, duh. Of course, he did.) All you non-college football geeks who are tiring of my Cornhusker posts may not know how rare and special this is. Defensive players simply do not get invited for the Heisman Trophy Ceremony. It would be like the Academy Awards letting Sacha Baron Cohen host. Sure, Michigan's Charles Woodson won in 1997 but he returned punts and dabbled at wide receiver and interceptions returned for touchdowns are always more glamorous than tackles for a loss. (For the record, though, if Michigan and Nebraska had played that year I would have loved to see Woodson try and tackle Ahman Green. Ha! I don't even think Woodson have tried. He was too delicate. Ahman would have run over him like he was an ant hill on the interstate.) The last lineman to win was Notre Dame's Leon Hart in '48 but that was back when guys played 2 ways.

I'm not sure he'll actually win and I'm also sure he would be the first to tell you he would take the Big 12 Title over any individual awards in a heartbeat (it is important to note that Suh is a very class gentleman who could have easily gone to the NFL last year but returned to get his degree) but, you know, after the college football gods stiffed us for the 7th insufferable time against Texas it was the least they could do. (Here's hoping they sit Suh directly behind Colt McCoy at the ceremony so the entire time McCoy is sweating through his suit and looking over his shoulder wondering if Suh is about fling him to the ground once more for old time's sake.)

Congratulations, Ndamukong. You deserve every accolade you receive. Thanks for an incredible season. It truly has been an honor watching you play. (Oh, and if possible, please unleash hell just once more against Arizona. Thanks!)

Monday, December 07, 2009

A Digression: The Awesome Pride Of The Cornhuskers

(Note: You knew this was coming. And please be wary of my warning that what follows is quite long and extremely personal. As always, my advance apologies.)

"College football can, on certain Saturdays, feel less like a game than a communal experience. For those few hours that impassable distance between the stands and field collapses and, for a second, we’re all down there together." - Josh Levin

One second. One single solitary second. Go ahead and count it off out loud. Don’t be shy. "One." That’s how close my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers were to being Big 12 Champions, for the first time since Y2K was still considered a genuine threat, and earning a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, the first postseason game I ever saw them play back at a time when bands such as Simple Minds and A Ha ruled the airwaves. I am fairly certain it would have been - at least, to me - the most meaningful championship of any kind they have ever earned. Instead Texas, our perpetual, torturous nemesis, kicked a field goal in that final second and, yes, broke our hearts once again. It’s really getting rather ridiculous. That is seven legitimate heartbreaks at the hands of the Longhorns if you are counting at home.

Roll Left. Applewhite-to-McGarrity. The Nunn Fumble. The Buckhalter Fumble. The Lord Interception. Jamaal Charles running for 200+ in the 4th quarter. But the one on Saturday night in the Big 12 Championship Game was worse than all the others combined. It wasn’t just soul crushing. It was Texas ripping our souls out of our chests, pounding them into finite particles of dust and then casting them into the cruel wind while cackling with maniacal glee.

It was also one of the five greatest Nebraska Football games I have ever seen.

This is not simply because earlier this year was the worst Nebraska Football game I have ever seen. Often these things coincide. Two of the other greatest games I have ever seen were countered in the same seasons by two of the worst games I have ever seen. These are the teams that mean the most to you, teams that stand for something, and so their wins and losses take you that much higher and that much lower. Defeats can help us put things into proper perspective as much as victories. Remember in "Jerry Maguire" when Tom Cruise as the title character calls out Cuba Gooding Jr'.s Rod Tidwell and Tidwell thunders, "I’m all heart, motherf---er!" The 2009 Nebraska Football Team was all heart, motherf---er.

Plagued yet again by a bedraggled offense that has spent a whole season resembling a 16th century merchant ship taking on water and trying to rig sails by employing empty sacks of flour, Nebraska’s valiant defense rose to the challenge. Again and again, series after series, play after play. This was heroism worthy of Gregory Peck and Burt Lancaster. Upon reflection I feel safe declaring this to be the finest Nebraska defense of all time when considering many of the other great defensive units in the team’s sizeable history were aided by offensive units that could score points for themselves, provide the defenders imperative rest and often allow them to take off entire quarters. The 2009 defense was never so blessed.

On Saturday night, with Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson (yearly salary: $375,000) again sticking to a script of no more than 10 plays with slight, ineffective variations that he has served up all season (seriously, I want to sit this guy down before the Holiday Bowl and show him a looped tape of how every option play he called in 2009 went for little to no gain only to watch, of course, as he dials it up five more times for little to no gain in the Holiday Bowl, and he will, mark my words), even though we were in a game where we had nothing to lose and Texas had everything to lose, we barely - and I mean barely - eked out 100 yards of total offense. They gained a mere five first downs (though every single one possessed extreme importance), an unfathomable statistic. It was so repugnant ABC color commentator Kirk Herbstreit was audibly laughing at our comedic ineptitude. I couldn’t blame him.

But there they were with a lone tick of the clock left and on the verge of claiming the conference and consigning the college football world to absolute upheaval and it was due to a defense more lionhearted than Richard. (Nebraska’s defense is nicknamed, year-in, year-out, the "Blackshirts" but I think this year’s edition merits its very own moniker. The Aweless Eleven, perhaps?) It was an honor and a privilege to watch these guys play. Chisel a bust of these dudes, please, paint them a mural, something, and pardon me now as I sing their Saturday evening hosannas.

Cornerback Prince "Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam" Amukamara being tested continually and forever answering. Dejon Gomes' hallucinogenic interception that set up the short lived go ahead field goal. Phillip Dillard and Matt O’Hanlon coming up on the edge time after time to make gallant, textbook tackles. Pierre Allen batting the ball to create the interception to grant us the field goal at the game's start. Barry Turner’s breathtaking spin move around an offensive lineman to get pressure at one point. And, oh yes, the man, the myth, the single greatest player to pass through Lincoln in at least a decade, if not more - Ndamukong Suh. In the most enormous game of his career, on the most significant stage, he showed up, brother. 12 tackles and 4.5 sacks amongst numerous other quarterback hurries and hits and after breaking through a double team coming a half inch away from recording a safety. Those who watched the game and still cling to the notion Texas QB Colt McCoy deserves the Heisman Trophy more than Ndamukong Suh are deluding themselves. Deluding themselves. (It’s important to note I’m not a fan who deludes himself. After they showed the replay of what was almost the last play of the game when Colt McCoy lofted that pass out of bounds and time seemed to expire which would have won it for my team I said aloud - well before the officials were done reviewing it, mind you - that there should have been 1 second left. It was true. I'm unsure why this is generating so much controversy. Sure, I wanted the game to be over but I could see it wasn't and what’s right is right.) Texas won, yes, and the winners get the last word, as they should, but the Nebraska defense was better than the Texas offense, that's the truth, just as in the 1994 Orange Bowl, the greatest Nebraska football game I’ve ever seen, they were better than the Florida State offense but still succumbed by the slimmest of margins in the last second.

In fact, the parallels to the 1994 Orange Bowl are so eerie they kinda freak me out. Consider:

-In both games Nebraska was a decided underdog (17 points in 1994, 14 points in 2009).
-In both games Nebraska’s defense stopped a supposedly unstoppable quarterback (Charlie Ward, Colt McCoy).
-In both games the halftime score was 7-6.
-In both games our opponent recorded its only touchdown where the replay appeared inconclusive as to whether or not the ball actually crossed the goal line.
-In both games Nebraska went ahead on a field goal with under 2 minutes left.
-In both games Nebraska's ensuing kickoff went out of bounds causing a penalty and thereby giving the opponent excellent field position.
-In both games a personal foul penalty against Nebraska on the opponent’s last ditch drive moved them into field goal range.
-In both games time seemingly ran out before the officials conferred and correctly placed one tick back on the clock.
(Except in the 1994 Orange Bowl Nebraska missed the field goal to win and in the 2009 Big 12 Championship Texas made the field goal to win. Alas.)

Look, I know this is just one idiot’s blog and I know that anyone out there on the world wide interweb can hop aboard and read my thoughts and feelings and mock me and that’s perfectly fine. What is the world wide interweb but a province for ridicule? After all, sincerity is dying a swift death in this society. I am who I am, I always have been, I always will be. I am an over passionate, melodramatic moron who wears his emotions on his sleeve and I would never ever want it any other way. There is nothing I hate more than fake people and this is a time for frankness. This is a time to say I have had a difficult fall with a particular health issue from the past showing its unwanted face again and this Nebraska Football team gave me sorely needed solace. And it’s why on Saturday, about an hour after the game, after I unsuccessfully tried drowning away my dismay in a scotch (see photo below), after I had ushered my dear friends who were keeping me on suicide watch out of my apartment, after I had locked the door and turned off the TV, I sat down in the middle of my living room and cried. I sobbed for five minutes straight like the kid who doesn’t receive the racing car set on Christmas morning he so coveted. It’s just the truth. Only this game and, yes, the 1994 Orange Bowl have brought on tears. Tears of sadness? Well, sure, but also tears of unrelenting pride. It hurt like hell and it hurt because it meant so much.

I know, I know, "It’s just a game." I hear you saying it and I will respond by rolling my eyes and sighing very, very loudly. In fact, the night before the game, up the street at Martyrs, over several Sierra Nevadas, listening to a band perform a killer version of Springsteen’s "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" that almost furnished me as much joy as Alex Henery’s field goal to make it 12-10, a friend and I had a debate on this very topic. People who say "It’s just a game" have something they take too seriously, too. Music, stamp collections, their lawn, classical architecture, vino, "Star Wars", Manolo Blahnik shoes, whatever, but we all have passions (I hope everyone does, anyway) and I would never slight someone else’s passion by referring to it as being just (insert your respective passion here). College football, though, is quite visible and the stereotype of sports fans as beer swilling blowhards who can only connect to the human race through a game does not help my cause.

Yes, I can name every starting Nebraska QB since 1986 but I can also have an intelligent conversation with you about the Revolutionary War, enjoy a subtitled film, drink in the finer qualities of an imported lager, discuss the larger implications of life away from the gridiron. My friends and family will always be more consequential than a Nebraska game. For instance, I didn’t see most of the Kansas game this year because my friend Nicolle was in town and I never see her anymore and hanging out with her was far more important. My best friend Jacob’s wedding this fall fell on the one Saturday when Nebraska happened to play instead on a Thursday night (phew) but do you really think I would have missed Jacob’s wedding day for a Nebraska game? Are you fucking nuts? I’ve got my priorities straight, okay, but that doesn’t mean Nebraska Football isn’t important and doesn’t mean "It’s just a game" so please, for the love of Christ, people, retire that tired phrase.

Saturday night was so much more than just a game. It was three-and-a-half hours of nerve damaging tension played under extraordinary pressure for the duration of the contest in which everything was earned and nothing came for free. I think the first few times I underwent that feeling with a Nebraska game I didn’t realize it was happening. 24 years into my fandom now I’m much more in tune to it and I can sense it and do my best to appreciate it. It’s why I had a smile on my face in the instant before Texas kicked the winning score. Even if Nebraska lost they wouldn't lose. They wouldn't. Not this night. I was reminded of what then Nebraska Head Coach Tom Osborne said in the wake of that 1994 Orange Bowl defeat: "People play for rings and trophies, but as far as I'm concerned we won." Amen. This had been glorious guts ball - both sides - that did not deserve to have the undignified end of Nebraska winning on a careless pass Colt McCoy heaved out of bounds with apparently no regard of how much time was actually left. I respect the sport of college football enough to accept that fact.

It's 36 hours on and it still hurts. I can't lie. It hurts bad. After 8 or 9 years of numerous Nebraska losses, so many of them insipid and lifeless, I had honestly forgotten one could do this to me. I'm invested in every Nebraska team but all teams are unique and possess their own personality and my favorite teams are always the ones that transcend wins & losses and potential NFL talent and represent something bigger. That is the 2009 team. They were all heart, motherf---er. All heart to the god damn, gut churning, bitter end. People will want to focus on the woeful offense and Adi Kunalic the kickoff touchback machine having a mechanical breakdown at the worst possible moment and, of course, the clock fiasco at the conclusion. That's not what I would like to focus on.

This team was much too special to ever be defined by one final score.